K. L. (Karen Lea) McKee earned her B.A. in English from Regis University, worked in the Reference Center of the Mesa County Library for 29 years before retiring in 2014 to pursue writing full time. She is a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She and her husband reside in Western Colorado. Her roots in the North Fork Valley run deep, and so the valley seemed a fitting setting for her North Fork series. “Stolen Heart” is the second book of the series.
The following is an excerpt from “Stolen Heart.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Romance
Set-up: As her mother is dying, Abby (Abigail) Stewart reluctantly agrees to finish paying off her deceased father’s debts. Her current boss, Kevin, has unexpectedly given her the opportunity to do that by asking her to pose as his fiancée for a few weeks in place of his real fiancée, Gail, who has recently dumped him. He is going to his hometown to receive an award and will be staying with his family. Thinking that Kevin’s family is as “shady” as he is, she agrees. When they arrive in his hometown, Abby meets Kevin’s family—his mother Pat, father Leonard, and older brother Jake—and discovers they aren’t like Kevin at all. She begins to regret her arrangement with Kevin. Abby finds herself attracted to Jake, and unknown to her, Jake is struggling with his own attraction to Abby. Jake has spent the evening with his family and Abby; Kevin has thrown a temper tantrum over Abby’s teasing about photos from his youth.
North Fork, Colorado 2000
“Oh look, Kev,” Abby exclaimed. “You look so cute in this one. That fish you’re holding is almost big enough to see.”
After supper Pat had produced a stack of photo albums, just as Abby predicted, and settled on the couch with Abby and Kevin, to browse through them.
Kevin groaned. “Gee, Mom, do you have to drag out all my old pictures? I think I’ve been tortured enough for one evening.”
“Oh relax,” Pat admonished. “Abby’s getting a kick out of seeing what you were like when you were little. That was his very first fish,” Pat said to Abby. “He was really proud of it.”
“Until I caught a bigger one,” Jake said. “Then he cried.”
“Oh, poor baby,” Abby said in mock sympathy and grinned at Kevin.
“Oh, thanks a lot. First you guys embarrass me by showing my baby pictures, then you call me a crybaby. And you’re no help.” He glared at Abby, and she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t have to take this anymore. I’m going to bed.” He stalked from the room and took the stairs two at a time.
Abby waited until she heard Kevin slam the door to his room before she spoke. “I suppose I should go up and try to appease him a little. If I’d known teasing would upset him so much—”
“Let him sulk for a while by himself,” Jake said. “He never could take teasing. He always got his hackles up, and the more upset he became, the more I teased him. He never did catch on.”
“Just the same, I shouldn’t add to his temper by taking part,” Abby said. “I’ll let him cool down for a while, then go up and talk to him.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t have drug out all his old pictures, but I thought you’d enjoy seeing them,” Pat said to Abby.
Abby shrugged. “He’ll get over it, and I am enjoying them.”
“If you want to go on up, go ahead. We can look at the rest another time.”
“No, I’d like to see more. It’ll give Kevin time to simmer down.”
Jake stood and stretched. “You two enjoy yourselves. Four-thirty comes real early in the morning.” He crossed to where Pat and Abby sat on the couch and kissed his mother on the cheek. “‘Night, Ma.”
Jake smiled at Abby. “Nice meeting you, Abby.”
“Nice meeting you, too, Jake. Maybe tomorrow I can get Kevin to give me a tour of the dairy.”
“Maybe.” Jake’s eyebrows lifted slightly, then he turned and walked away.
As Abby watched Jake’s back, she had the distinct feeling that Jake doubted Kevin would give Abby that tour.
Jake stared at his computer screen, trying to concentrate on the columns of numbers, but all he could think about was Abby. In frustration, he hit save and exited the accounting program. The books would have to wait until he could give them his full attention.
He climbed into bed, but sleep hovered out of reach. Twenty minutes passed. He rose, slipped on a T-shirt and sweats, and stepped onto the second-story deck outside his bedroom. Leaning on the rail, he stared across the field at the house he had grown up in. The light in his old bedroom filtered through the closed curtains. He caught a glimpse of a shadow, then the light flicked off.
Crickets chirped in stereo, while the stars blinked, beautiful but indifferent. A cool breeze ruffled his hair. He gripped the rail and shoved away from it.
What was it Humphrey Bogart said in Casa Blanca? “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” That’s not quite right, he thought, but close enough. He hadn’t expected to like Abby, but he did the minute he saw her. When Kevin had talked to him about Gail, he’d pictured someone more sophisticated, less teasing. Gail—Abby—whoever she was, didn’t seem like Kevin’s type, or for that matter, the girl Kevin had described to him. She wasn’t snobbish enough.
Jake shook his head and returned to the bedroom. That wasn’t very nice, he thought. But Abby is the kind of girl I might fall for, not Kevin. Not that I would fall for her. After all, she’s engaged to Kevin.
Jake liked his women a bit playful. Not so serious. Kevin always dated serious, sophisticated women.
Maybe he’s changed.
Jake hoped so. Abby certainly was an indication of that possibility. Still, something about their relationship bothered him. Kevin and Abby didn’t act like they were madly in love. They hardly touched. There was no spark between them. No love in their eyes. Tolerance better described the looks between them.
“Maybe that’s what sophisticated love is all about,” he mumbled, “but if that’s the case, it’s too boring for me.” He shed the T-shirt and sweats and climbed into bed.
Abby set her book on the dresser and rose from the rocker. She turned out the light and slipped into bed. Images of the day replayed in her mind like a B movie. Her innocent charade was quickly becoming a nightmare. What should she do? Kevin acted like a spoiled child, although she didn’t know why that surprised her.
She could understand his discomfort over the pictures, but his tantrum came out of nowhere. Fifteen minutes after he stomped from the room, she had followed him upstairs. When she knocked at his door, he nearly bit her head off.
“It’s Abby. May I come in?”
Kevin flung open the door and glared. “What?!” He jerked his head, giving Abby permission to enter. She stopped in the middle of the room and faced him.
“I’m sorry if looking at your childhood pictures made you uncomfortable. You were cute when you were little. I’ll bet you had lots of little girls interested even then.” She grinned and received a scowl in return.
Kevin closed the gap between them, grabbed Abby’s shoulders and kissed her, hard and quick. When he finished, he held her at arm’s length, the scowl still firmly in place.
Abby scowled back. “What was that all about?”
“A reminder that you’re my fiancée, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
Abby stared at him, then shook her head. “Believe me, Kevin, I haven’t forgotten. But I wish I could. This is not going to work. You have a wonderful family, and I hate lying to them.”
“To them, or just Jake?”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“You and Jake seem to be hitting it off pretty good.”
Abby was dumbfounded. She hadn’t visited with Jake any more than she had Pat or Leonard. She tried to think what she had done to make him think…and then it hit her.
“You’re jealous of Jake. That’s it, isn’t it? You think you have to be better, smarter, more successful than your big brother, and you’ll do anything you think bests him.”
Kevin turned around and stuffed his hands in his designer jeans’ pockets. “Seriously? He’s a dairy farmer, and I’m president of a nationally successful PR and advertising firm.” His comment was laced with sarcasm and anger. He turned to face Abby. “It’s Jake that’s jealous. Always has wanted what I had, or had to do it bigger and better. But I’ve finally gotten the best of him. The point is, I don’t like looking bad to my family, and I don’t like being made fun of, especially by my fiancée.”
“Nobody was making fun of you, Kevin. Teasing a little, but all in good fun. And for the record, I’m technically not your fiancée.” Abby seethed inside. She struggled to keep her voice calm. Kevin sounded just like her father. Everyone was against him, or trying to put him down, or cause him to fail. They were both worse than a spoiled child.
“For the record, Abby, I paid you $50,000, after taxes, to pose as my fiancée, so I suggest you start acting like one.”
“For the record, Kevin, I will when you start treating me like your fiancée. Then you’ll get your money’s worth.” Abby stalked past Kevin to the door. “You don’t act like I’m even around. You spent most of dinner bragging about how successful you are. After a while, I found your bragging boring, but your family was genuinely interested and happy for you. Not once did Jake brag about anything. He just listened politely while you went on and on, and then said how proud he was of what you’ve accomplished. You never once asked him about the dairy and how it’s doing.”
“Why should I? It’s a dairy. You milk cows morning and night. It’s no big deal. I did it for more years than I care to remember while I was growing up. It doesn’t take any brains to milk cows.”
Abby shook her head at Kevin. “I feel sorry for you. You can’t see beyond yourself and what you want. Good night, Kevin.”
Abby left Kevin’s room disgusted with his attitude and self-centeredness. Retreating to her own room, she read for a while, trying to forget the way the evening ended. She finally gave up and hoped for sleep, which came in the early morning.
Morning didn’t bring any relief for Jake. The minute he woke up he found himself thinking of Abby and looking forward to seeing her again. Her riotous gold-red curls, tentative smile, and emerald green eyes that snapped with impishness, drew him to her. But he saw something else in her eyes, if only for a moment. Something troubling. He would love to be able to read her mind; find out what thoughts swirled around inside that pretty head of hers. What are you hiding Abby? What secret resides behind those captivating eyes?