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Almost Home

Almost Home

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"Beautifully written, exceptional characters and a charming storyline." Kim - Goodreads

Katherine Whitfield hadn't left her seamless life in California to get mixed-up with a rough around the edges man like Zach Tyler. With his well-worn jeans and slow, seductive smile, he was nothing but a cowboy on the wrong side of the Mississippi—a diversion in her heartfelt quest to discover the father she never knew.

Zach has a gentle hand with horses and a seductive touch with women. When he takes Katherine in his arms, he unleashes the passion simmering just below her cool exterior. Yes, her probing questions and tantalizing ways could cause nothing but trouble­—but sometimes a man needs a little trouble....

Don't miss this emotional and compelling contemporary romance set in the lush horse country of Kentucky filled with small town charm, romance, love, family and friends from #1 NY Times bestselling author Barbara Freethy.

What the readers are saying:

"This book kept me up last night! Katherine wants to find her father, so she heads to Kentucky to follow some clues. An accident sets off a chain of events. Zach, coincidences, the Derby, and SO MANY secrets lead Katherine to the truth – and what a twist! Barbara Freethy has done it again." Cindy – Goodreads

"Barbara Freethy weaves the reader under her spell in a most unlikely set of mysteries once again. And what a delicious spell it was!" Caryn – Goodreads

"A wonderful story by Barbara Freethy. Barbara writes stories about characters and situations that capture your interest from beginning til the end. I would recommend her books to everyone who enjoys romance, friends and family." June – Goodreads


Dear J.,

We're going to have a baby. I know I'm a coward to write, but I'm afraid of what I'll see in your eyes when you hear the news. I know this isn't what you want, and I don't see how we can ever be together. But I believe in my heart that you must know the truth -- you're going to be a father. Now, if only I have the courage to send this letter.

Katherine Whitfield sat in the front seat of her rental car, tears filling her eyes as she traced the handwritten words with a shaky finger.

She'd read the letter a hundred times since she'd discovered it a week ago, hidden away in an old cedar chest in her stepfather's attic. She'd memorized every word, every curve of every line, wondering if it could possibly have been written by her mother to her father.

There was no signature, but the writing looked familiar -- or did she simply want it to be true? She'd spent years wishing for the tiniest bit of information about her father, but her mother had always said they'd discuss it later. Unfortunately, later had never come. Her mother had died two days before Katherine's twelfth birthday, and she'd been left alone with a stepfather of only nine months and no other blood relatives anywhere in the world.

Was it possible her real father had never known about her? Obviously the letter hadn't been sent. And she'd found other things in the chest as well, matchbooks, cocktail napkins, and a hand-stitched quilt with dates and words of memory. But whose words? Whose memories? Whose life belonged to the chest?

It was a question that had sent her halfway across the country from the urban streets of Los Angeles, California, to the rolling hills of Kentucky. Now she was sitting in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, where she'd stopped to grab a Diet Coke and rethink her plan.

Suddenly, a child burst through the doors of the restaurant, holding a large milk shake in her hand. The little girl's small face was covered with chocolate but there was no disguising the ear-to-ear smile.

A tall man stepped out of a car. "Over here, sweetheart," he called.

"Daddy, Daddy. Look what I got," she said.

The man held out his arms with a wide, beaming grin, and the child ran into his embrace. He kissed the top of the little girl's head, and the small affectionate gesture tore at Katherine's heart. There were no words of reprimand for the messy face, only loving acceptance.

A deep ache of longing swept through her. She'd wanted a relationship like that. Her stepfather, Mitchell Whitfield, had always treated her more like a responsibility than a daughter. If there was a chance, even a small one, that her real father could be alive, that he could want to know her as much as she wanted to know him, she had to take it.

Setting the envelope aside, she started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. She barely paused at the entrance to the road. Since she'd left the main highway, traffic had been almost nonexistent.

As she headed down the two-lane road, past the rolling green hills, endless white fences, thoroughbred horse farms, and elegant dogwood trees still clinging to a few spring blossoms, she knew she was a long way from home and the only life she knew. But the cocktail napkins, the match covers, all had one thing in common: the name Paradise, Kentucky.

She'd never acted so impulsively in her life, but with her step-parents out of town, she'd had no one to answer her questions. So she'd decided to make the trip to Kentucky and chase after a dream that probably should have died a long time ago, but she still couldn't quite give up on it. She flipped on the radio for a distraction and was just in time to hear a female singer ask, "Where have all the cowboys gone?"

A good question, she thought with a wistful sigh. She didn't know if it had to do with wanting a father or wanting a boyfriend or a husband or just wanting someone who really cared about her, but there was a hole inside of her that she couldn't seem to fill. She'd tried to keep busy with work and friends and chocolate -- lots and lots of chocolate. Nothing had worked.

Jeez, she was a head case, wanting, wanting, wanting, when most everyone would look at her life and say it was good. And it was good. It was just a little lonely.

Katherine switched off the radio with a decisive click, knowing it was foolish to yearn for some impossible romance of the century. At twenty-seven, she'd been around enough to know there weren't any more cowboys, no more men who roamed the open plains, who were strong and invincible and protective of their women. Those guys didn't exist anymore.

The men she knew were soft in the middle from too many business lunches and too much time spent firing the remote control. They didn't carry guns but rather cell phones. And a cowboy hat would have messed up the style of their hair.

Smiling to herself, Katherine knew she was generalizing, but for the life of her, she couldn't think of one man she'd gone out with in the last year who had made her heart race.

Where was the deep, passionate love, the desperate need to be with someone, the feeling of intense and utter connection? She wanted to believe she would feel it all someday, but maybe such a love didn't exist. Maybe her father didn't exist. Maybe she should just turn around and go home and settle for the life she had, the family she had.

As her gaze drifted across the highway, a shiver ran down her spine, and she knew she couldn't turn around and go home. The long, empty road beckoned to her in a way she'd never imagined. She'd spent her entire life in big cities, surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic and people. But here, outside of Louisville, Kentucky, there was a quiet that was oddly appealing. She couldn't shake the feeling that she was meant to come here. Call it destiny, call it crazy, but she had to at least see what was at the end of this road.

She reached for the map sticking out of her purse, then cursed when her bag tumbled to the floor. Keeping one eye on the highway, she grabbed for the map and had barely straightened when the road suddenly curved. A silver horse trailer was stopped on the side of the road, and she was heading right for it. She hit the brakes in panic, but she was going too fast, and she was too close, far too close...

Twisting the wheel to the right as hard and as fast as it would go, she prayed for a miss. The car spun, kicking up gravel and dust. She hung on, urging the car to go to the side, to miss the trailer. She was almost there. She could see the shoulder of the road in front of her, and the deep drainage ditch. Damn! It was her last thought before the car slid headfirst into the gully off the side of the road.

Her head bounced off the steering wheel and she saw a kaleidoscope of colors in front of her eyes. Her ears rang with the sound of bells and horses and swearing.

Katherine shook her head, trying to figure out where she was and who was yelling at her. There was a man -- a tall, dark-haired man with burning black eyes -- standing next to her window. He was pulling on the door handle and yelling all sorts of absurdities that seemed to have less to do with her and more to do with a horse.

She roused herself enough to unlock the door. She pushed on it as the man pulled on it, sending her stumbling into his arms. He caught her with a sureness, a strength, that made her want to sink into his embrace and rest for a moment. She needed to catch her breath.

"You could have killed my horse," he ground out angrily, his rough-edged voice right next to her ear. "Driving like a maniac. What the hell were you thinking about?"

She could barely keep up with his surge of angry words. "Let me go."

His grip eased slightly, but he didn't let go.

They stared at each other, their breaths coming in matching frightened gasps. Dressed in faded blue jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the forearms, the man towered over Katherine. His eyes were fierce, and his thick dark hair looked like he'd run his fingers through it all day long. His face was too rugged to be handsome, but it was compelling, strong, stubborn, determined...

Good heavens -- she had the distinct feeling she'd just found herself a cowboy.

"Rogue's okay," a man called from the road.

She turned in confusion, unaware there was someone else on the earth, much less on the road. The man in front of her seemed to take up so much space.

"I'll be there in a second. Keep talking to him," the man called back, his gaze still resting on Katherine's face, his hands still holding her arms. "Are you all right?"

It seemed a little late to be asking, and a burst of anger tried to push past her lips, but before she could speak, she realized something wet was dripping down her face. She touched her forehead, drawing away drops of blood. "Oh, my God! I'm bleeding."

"It's just a scratch," he replied. "The windshield shattered, but most of the glass stayed intact." He let go of her long enough to reach into the car and pull out the napkins she'd picked up at the Dairy Queen. Instead of handing them to her, he dabbed at the blood on her face with a surprisingly gentle hand. "I don't see any glass. It's really just a small cut. Anything else hurt?"

Aside from a dull ache in her forehead, the rest of her body seemed to be all right. "I'm okay. But what were you thinking -- parking in the middle of the road like that?" she demanded.

"We're well off to the side. My horse was getting restless. I needed to quiet him down. And it was working, until you bore down on us like a bat out of hell. You could have killed us!"

"And you could have stopped at a better place." She raised her voice to match his. "Coming around that curve, I couldn't possibly see you until the last minute."

"Not when you're doing sixty."

"More like forty. And this is a highway, you know, not -- not a rest stop for horses."

"This is horse country, and around here the horses come first."

"Yeah, well, why don't you go back to your horse then?"

"I think I'll do that." He strode away, his gait as brisk as his voice, and while she'd wanted him to go, now that he'd gone, she felt strangely lost.

Focusing on him had been far easier than looking at the rental car tilted awkwardly into a ditch. She had no idea if it would run, even if she could get it out. Suddenly it was all too much, and she sank down to the ground right where she was.

* * *

"She don't look so good, Zach." Sam Jordan pushed back the brim of his Wildcats baseball hat and squinted at the woman sitting on the ground.

"She's fine," Zach snapped.

Sam didn't look convinced. There was a frown across his normally cheerful square face, and the laugh lines that ran like a map across his weathered brown skin were pulled taut against his cheekbones.

"You sure?" Sam asked doubtfully. "She looks shaken up to me."

Zach respected Sam's instincts where horses were concerned. Sam could tell when a filly was yanking his chain or a colt was testing his patience, but he was a soft touch where people were concerned, especially women.

"She has a tiny nick on her forehead. That's it. I'm more concerned about Rogue."

"He's okay. See for yourself."

He slid into the trailer and searched the big black horse for any bruises or scratches. Midnight Rogue tossed his head and stomped his feet, complaining once again about his confinement in the trailer, but otherwise he looked fine. They were less than three weeks away from the biggest race of Rogue's life, the Kentucky Derby, and they simply couldn't afford an injury or a setback now.

"Okay, you big ugly baby. No more knocking around back here, all right? We need to get you home in one piece."

Rogue nuzzled Zach's hand with his nose. Zach reached into a burlap bag and pulled out a carrot, feeding it to Rogue with a gentle hand.

"I know you're tired. We all are. It's been a hell of a year. You did good at Keeneland. If you hadn't slipped coming out of the gate, you would have had first. We're going to work on that this week, because you can't afford another stumble. We are so close to making all our dreams come true." He scratched Rogue's nose and saw the horse's ears perk up to listen to his quiet words. "We're going to show this town. Hell, we're going to show the whole damn world that we don't take shit from anyone. We won't be left behind, not ever again," he whispered, knowing he was talking about more than a race.

Rogue whinnied, as if to reassure his owner that he understood. Zach smiled to himself. They'd been on the same wavelength since he'd picked Rogue up at a yearling sale. Mixed bloodlines, not to mention Rogue's off-beat appearance and high spirits, had brought Rogue's price into Zach's range. And Zach had known as soon as he laid eyes on the rangy, long-legged colt that this was the horse he wanted.

This horse, which everyone else had overlooked, was already drawing attention with its unexpected successes. The racing world, especially that of the Kentucky horse breeders, didn't want to accept that a horse like Rogue or a trainer like Zach could do so well. But their arguments were losing ground with each victory.

In a few weeks, Rogue would quiet even the harshest critics with a win in the Derby, and Zach would get the recognition, the respect, he deserved. No more doors slammed in his face, no more scornful looks from the folks in town. No more being on the outside. He was going to the inner circle -- the winner's circle. And no one was going to stop him.

Rogue nudged Zach in the chest. "We'll be home in a few minutes, boy," he said, giving him one last pat. "As soon as I get this city girl on her way."

"That city girl looks like she's about to faint," Sam said from the van's doorway. "You better get on out here."

Zach stepped out of the trailer and pulled the door shut behind him. He looked at the woman sitting on the ground, her head resting in her hands. She was a tiny thing; she'd barely come up to his chin. Not that she'd let him intimidate her. She'd given as good as she got. Maybe he shouldn't have yelled at her, but dammit, she'd almost destroyed the dream of a lifetime. When he'd seen her car come around that corner... The thought of it sent his pulse racing again.

And all because she wasn't paying attention. Zach tried to harden his heart against the sight of the slender figure slumped on the ground. But he could still remember the shock in her big blue eyes when she'd discovered she was bleeding. He cleared his throat, struggling to rein in his wayward thoughts.

He'd always been a sucker for beautiful blondes, and this one was as soft and sexy as they came in a silky purple blouse that hugged her breasts, form-fitting black slacks, and ridiculously impractical high-heeled black sandals. She was all woman and all wrong, he reminded himself. He'd been down this road before -- and he wouldn't go down it again.

"Maybe we ought to take her to the hospital," Sam said, rubbing his jaw with one hand.

"I don't think she needs a doctor -- maybe a driving instructor."

"She's a sweet thing, isn't she? Reminds me of someone -- but I can't think who."

"That sweet thing almost killed Rogue."

"But she didn't. It's all about inches, my boy. You can win by an inch, lose by an inch, and survive by an inch. Figured you'd know that by now." Sam sent him a knowing smile. "You can't leave her here. Wouldn't be the right thing to do."

"Since when do I worry about doing the right thing?"

"Since now. She won't be driving that car any time soon, that's for sure. I don't expect she'll get off this road in anything but a tow truck."

"Oh, hell, like I need this right now." He ran his hand through his hair and stared at the latest problem to erupt in his life. He was so close to getting everything he wanted, he could almost taste it. Thirty-four years of struggling, of climbing out of the darkness of his childhood, to finally have something, to be somebody, and he wouldn't let anyone get in the way.

"No harm's done," Sam reminded him. "How about I get Rogue on home, and you stay with the woman? Unless you're afraid of a little thing like her."

"Yeah, right."

"I already called for help. Tow truck should be here in a few minutes. Now, be nice to her, you hear?"

Be nice? Zach still felt like wringing the woman's pretty neck. He walked over to where she was sitting and squatted down next to her. "You okay?" he asked gruffly.

She lifted her head. Her eyes were watery, but she wasn't crying, and he saw a gleam of bravado in those baby blues. "I'm fine, thank you. I thought you'd be gone by now."

"I thought someone better stay with you in case you pass out or something."

"What about your precious horse?"

"Sam will take him home. The tow truck is on its way.”

"I guess that's good," she said, staring at her car in bemusement. "Do you think they'll be able to get it out?"

"Yeah, but I wouldn't plan on driving it."

She frowned, then scrambled to her feet. She strode over to her car and yanked open the door to the backseat. "Oh, thank goodness."

Zach got up and walked over to the car, expecting to see her reaching for her makeup case, but the large cedar chest in the backseat was obviously not filled with cosmetics. "What's that?"

She patted the top of the chest with a loving hand. "This is my past and maybe -- just maybe my future."

"What does that mean?"

"It's a long story."

He didn't like her evasive answer. "Where are you headed?"

"Paradise Valley."

His gut tightened. "Why?"

She seemed taken aback by his question. "Why not?"

"It's not exactly a hub of nightlife."

"I'm not looking for nightlife. I'm looking for a place called Golden's Grill. Do you know it?"

Zach felt a chill run through his body. He didn't like the look in her eyes. She certainly hadn't come from wherever she'd come from to go to Golden's Grill.

"I know Golden's," he said reluctantly.

Her mouth blossomed into a sparkling, hopeful smile that stole his breath away. "Then it really exists. I hoped it would still be there."

"Why do you want to go to Golden's?"

"I'm looking for someone."


She didn't answer right away, and his uneasiness deepened. She was here to cause trouble. He could feel it in his bones.

"My father," she said finally.

"Who is your father?"

"I don't know."

"If you don't know, then how are you going to find him?"

She hesitated. "Maybe you could help me.”

"Me? No way." He uttered a short harsh laugh. "I don't look for fathers, mine or anyone else's. In my experience, the best family is no family." He stared down the empty highway. "Where the hell is that tow truck?"