The Cowboy's Little Surprise

The Long Way Home

A guy like Cole Slater is hard to forget. Tina Sanchez should know—for years since high school she’s tried to bury the pain of Cole’s cruel betrayal. But it’s impossible to ignore the man she sees reflected in her young son’s eyes now that Cole is back in her life—and about to meet the child he never knew he had.

Returning home to New Mexico, Cole is determined to put his playboy reputation to rest. Especially now that he knows there’s a little boy looking up to him. And seeing Tina again reignites all the feelings Cole ran from as a teen. Despite his fear that he can’t be the man Tina deserves, he’s determined to try. For his son’s sake—and his own.

Footsteps on gravel made her pause.

It wasn't Jed's familiar tread, and they had no one staying at the hotel at the moment. Maybe this was someone who wanted to book a room. Tina turned with a welcoming smile.

That smile died on her lips when she saw the cowboy standing in front of her.

Cole Slater.

In one startled, reflexive sweep, she took in almost everything about him. The light brown hair showing beneath the brim of his battered hat. The firm mouth and jaw. Broad shoulders. Narrow hips. The well-worn jeans, silver belt buckle and scuffed boots. In the next reluctant second, she turned her gaze to the one feature she had deliberately skipped over the first time.

A pair of blue eyes that made her think instantly of her son.

She clutched the grocery sack and demanded, “What are you doing here?”

His face looked flushed. But he didn't look angry, the way he would have if he'd seen Robbie and put two and two together. She breathed a sigh of relief at the reprieve, no matter how brief, giving her a chance to come to grips with his reappearance.

If she ever could.

Dear Reader,

Cowboy Creek is typical of my small towns, where everyone knows everyone else—and their business. Though you’ll find lots of matchmakers and nosy neighbors around, you can be sure they’re all wonderful folks at heart.

No one in Cowboy Creek has a bigger heart than Jed Garland, the local hotel owner and meddling grandpa who wants to see his granddaughters happy and settled down. Oh...and providing him with a few more great-grandchildren!

In
The Cowboy’s Little Surprise
, I hope you enjoy discovering how a marriage-shy cowboy handles secrets, betrayal, unexpected fatherhood and a matchmaker who is certain he knows what’s best for him.

As always, I would love to hear what you think about this story. You can reach me at PO Box 504, Gilbert, AZ 85299, or through my website,
barbarawhitedaille.com
. You can also find me on Facebook (
barbarawhitedaille
) and Twitter,
@BarbaraWDaille
.

All my best to you.

Until we meet again,

Barbara White Daille

THE COWBOY'S LITTLE SURPRISE

Barbara White Daille

Barbara White Daille
lives with her husband in the sunny Southwest, where they don’t mind the lizards in their front yard but could do without the scorpions in the bathroom.

A writer from the age of nine and a novelist since eighth grade, Barbara is now an award-winning author with a number of novels to her credit.

When she was very young, Barbara learned from her mom about the storytelling magic in books—and she’s been hooked ever since. She hopes you will enjoy reading her books and will find your own magic in them!

She’d also love to have you drop by and visit with her at her website,
barbarawhitedaille.com
.

Books by Barbara White Daille

HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE

The Sheriff’s Son
Court Me, Cowboy
Family Matters
A Rancher’s Pride
The Rodeo Man’s Daughter
Honorable Rancher
Rancher at Risk

Texas Rodeo Barons

The Texan’s Little Secret

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles

This book is dedicated only, and as always, to Rich.

I'm so glad we got hitched!

Prologue

Seventy-some-odd years on this earth had taught Jedediah Garland what made life most worth living—and it was the one thing he wanted more of to call his own. Not property. He owned plenty of that, between the Hitching Post Hotel and the ranch it sat on. Not friends. He had a sufficient number of those, too, and wouldn't give up a single one of them. But the most important thing...
family
.

That's where his life fell far short.

Paz came into the dining room toting his breakfast. The hotel business had quieted down some lately—heck, it had up and gone to Tahiti—and he and his cook had the room to themselves. She set the platter on the table in front of him.

“Chile relleno okay with you for tonight, boss?”

He shrugged.

She put her hands on her hips. “What? All of a sudden you don't like what I make for you?”

“It's not that.” He shifted the cutlery on his napkin. “I'm off my feed today. It's Thom's birthday.”

“Yes.”

He thought of his eldest son, now long gone, and the rest of his small family, mostly scattered across the country. “I never thought things would come to pass the way they have. And I don't know what I would do without you and Tina here.”

His youngest granddaughter was also Paz's only grandchild. Tina and her four-year-old son were the only members of his family to live under his roof. “You know, Mary and I always thought we'd have our kids around us, if not on the ranch, then at least settled somewhere within hailing distance of Cowboy Creek. And we'd expected to see all the grandkids growing up in the area.”

“Yes, I know. But the girls plan to visit. You can spend time with them soon.”

“A week? Two weeks? That's not enough.” He slapped his palm on the table. “And if the granddaughters I've got are all I'm going to have—well, I'll learn to live with that. But they need to get busy and give us more great-grandkids. Heck, they all need to get married. Besides...” Frowning, he resettled the napkin beneath the cutlery at his place. After a long moment, he muttered, “I don't like seeing my girls unhappy.”

“You think they're not happy?”

“Of course they're not. How can they be? One's traipsing all over the world with not a chance of settling down. Another's trying to raise two kids by herself. And then there's Tina, on her own with Robbie. You want her married, too, don't you?”

“Yes. But Tina's very proud...”

“And we're proud of her.” His youngest granddaughter had studied hard in school, then gone on to get her degrees. Now she kept the books for him and helped manage the hotel. Yes, they were both so proud of her.

Paz stared down at the tabletop.

He frowned. “I know what you're thinking, and
you
know it makes no difference to me that our kids never got married. Tina's just as much my granddaughter as Jane and Andi are.”

“Yes, I do know that.”

“Then tell me, flat-out straight, what's bugging you?”

“Tina. She's so independent.”

“Yeah. Too independent for her own good. Something's got to be done about her, Paz. About her and my granddaughters, too.”

She said nothing.

He sighed and rubbed his chin. The rasp of a few whiskers he'd missed shaving that morning sounded loud in the silence. “I stopped in at SugarPie's the other day.” Sugar Conway ran a combination bakery / sandwich shop / gossip parlor in the center of Cowboy Creek. “Sugar didn't have any details yet, but the word is, Cole Slater may be headed back to town.”

Paz dropped the serving tray, which knocked against the saltshaker, spewing salt across the bare wooden tabletop. “Oh, I'm sorry, boss.” With hurried, jerky movements, she brushed the loose salt into her palm.

He frowned. “Something wrong?”

“No. Why should there be anything wrong?”

But she didn't meet his gaze. He frowned at her bent head and eyed the silver strands threaded through her once-dark hair. Paz had worked for him for twenty years and more, and he could spot something odd about her with his eyes closed. “It's not like you to drop things in the dining room. Or the kitchen or anywhere else for that matter.”

“I'm just rushing because I'm running late.”

He eyed her. “No later than normal. So I'll ask you again, what's up?”

“I was speaking with Sugar this morning,” she said with obvious reluctance.

“Must be some good scandal flying around to warrant a call this early.” He sat back in his chair without asking for details, knowing full well Paz would fill him in. And why not? As one of the town's business owners, he had a right to know what happened in Cowboy Creek.

“Sugar said Layne just confirmed it this morning,” Paz said in a low tone. “Her brother will be here next week.”

“Will he? Well, it's about time. It's—what?—five years now he's been gone.” He'd thrown that last comment out offhandedly, but to tell the truth, he knew down to the hour when Cole Slater had left town. “It seems to me Tina mentioned his name quite a bit in their school days.”

“Because their teachers had them work together.”

“Right. Now you say that, I do recall. And now he's coming back, I've had another idea. There's no reason those two shouldn't work together again.”

“Oh, boss, I don't think...”

“There's nothing you
need
to think about. This idea's got some strong possibilities, too, and I'm just the man to put it in place.” He smiled. “Don't you worry, Paz. None of these kids will have a clue as to what's going on.”

Chapter One

Two weeks later

To Cole Slater, walking into the Hitching Post Hotel felt like coming home...which probably didn’t mean much, considering he’d hated the home he had grown up in and hadn’t stayed in any one place since leaving it.

He stared around him in awe. Everything looked the same as it had the day he’d shown up here as a high-school senior, as raw as any wrangler could have been, to start a job on Garland Ranch. In those early days, he’d ridden the line between a determination to prove himself and the stomach-clenching certainty he was in way over his head.

Exactly the way he’d felt since his return to Cowboy Creek.

Pushing the thought aside, he turned to Jed, who hadn’t changed much, either. His white hair was combed neatly into place, as always, and he wore the same string tie and belt buckle Cole had never seen him without.

“Glad you could drop by,” his former boss said.

“I appreciate the invitation. As the saying goes, you’re not looking a day older, Jed. And things around here don’t seem to have changed a bit.”

Jed beamed. “We try to keep the place up.”

“You’ve done a good job of it.”

Years of polishing had buffed the hotel’s registration desk to a high sheen. The brass foot rail encircling it gleamed. Even the knotty-pine walls and flooring of the reception area gave off a soft glow, as if the candles in the wrought-iron holders on the wall had been set to flame.

In the sitting room off to one side of the entry, the same heavy, low-slung couches and chairs sported the same handmade afghans, and the chime clock on the wall still ticked the seconds away like a slow, steady heartbeat.

Or maybe that was his own heart, thumping so hard he could hear it.

No, the Hitching Post hadn’t changed. Neither had the old man in front of him. But he himself sure had, and the time had come for him to prove it.

“Paz and Tina will be sorry they missed you.”

At the statement, he froze. Jed couldn’t know just how wrong he’d been. Paz, yeah, maybe she would be happy to see him again, and he felt the same. But Tina...

He’d practically grown up with Jed’s granddaughter. They’d had the same teachers all through the lower grades and even shared some of the same classes in high school. But after what had happened between them senior year, Tina would never want to see him again.

“C’mon back.” Jed waved at him to follow and walked away.

Cole knew where they were headed. From his days of working here, he knew the ranch and the hotel well. Halfway along the hall, he stopped in the doorway of the small, overcrowded den where Jed would sit every Friday when his men came to collect their pay. On a good many of those Friday nights, Cole would hang around to talk to the boss long after the rest of the wranglers had left.

The old man probably still handled his payroll from here. He had always claimed the den was the only danged room in the hotel he could call his own.

Now his former boss took a seat in the leather chair behind the massive handmade desk. He rested his gnarled fists on its surface, looked at Cole and said not a word.

Cole stepped into the den and swung the door closed behind him.

Jed waved toward one of the guest chairs. “Never thought I’d see you sitting in front of me at this desk again.”

“Me, either. I owe you an apology, Jed.”

“Do you, now?”

“You know I do. For leaving here without letting you know I planned to quit.”

“That
was
a surprise, I’ll admit. Walking off without notice happens with cowhands who move around. I see that go on all the time. It’s not what I’d expect from a man I keep on the payroll. And then, never to hear a word...”

“Yeah.” He ran his thumb along the arm of the chair. “I’ve been on the move.”

“On the run.”

He froze.

“And, I take it,” Jed continued, “by nobody’s choice but your own.”

“It didn’t exactly happen like that.” He sighed. “I just wanted to get out of Cowboy Creek. You know once I was left as Layne’s legal guardian, our lives got a little crazy.”

“All the more reason to reach out to a friend.”

“I couldn’t do that. Not again.” He shrugged, as if he could dislodge the burden he’d carried since that time. He was just turned eighteen and caring for his younger sister on his own. Their mama had recently died and their dad had passed on a couple of years before that. His boss had known all this back then.

“I never wanted to ask you for those advances to my pay. But Layne was still trying to deal with losing Mama when her boyfriend dumped her—on her sixteenth birthday. She was a mess.” He shook his head. “I wanted to get her something special. Heck, I wanted to buy food to put in our fridge. But all my pay had already gone to the rent.”

Sitting back in his chair, Jed laced his fingers across his belly and squinted again. “At least you had your head on straight about your sister. I’ll give you that. Family’s important.” He sounded more sad than angry now. But he frowned. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me back then you still needed help, boy?”

Cole took a deep breath and gestured uselessly. What could he have said? That he wanted to keep Jed’s respect for stepping up and taking care of his own? That he hated the thought of admitting his helplessness to the man he looked up to more than he ever had to his own dad?

Instead, unable to say either of those things and worried nearly to death about Layne, he’d turned around and betrayed the one person who’d believed in him.

“Anyhow,” he said, “once she and her boyfriend made up, she wanted to get married. She was underage, and as her guardian, she needed me to sign the paperwork to give my okay. And I did.” He sighed. “I didn’t stop to think about much else. I was still just a kid myself, too dumb to know that walking away from a job without notice wasn’t the right thing to do. But all I could see was that getting Layne settled gave me my ticket out. So I grabbed it and never looked back. Now, she’s on her own again, only this time she’s got both a kid
and
one on the way. So here I am.” He took a deep breath. “I always intended to apologize to you. And to pay back the advances.”

The old man’s white eyebrows shot up. “It’s sure taken you a while to get around to it.”

“I know that, too. This is the first time I’ve come back to town since then.” For one reason or a dozen, none of which he wanted to think about. “It didn’t sit right for me to just mail you a check. When I paid my obligation, I wanted to make sure I was looking you in the eye.”

“Folks say a handshake between friends is worth its weight in gold.” Jed stood and reached across the desk. When they clasped hands, the old man’s grip was as strong and sure as it had ever been.

“And I need to take care of those advances.” He pulled out his wallet. “No haggling over this, Jed. I owe you.”

“Well, we can let that part go.”

Cole frowned. He didn’t want their conversation to end this way. After all this time, he wanted to pay his debt in full. To finally get rid of the burden. But Jed, jaw set stubbornly, had returned to his seat.

Instead of the redemption he’d hoped for, he would have to settle temporarily for that handshake and the knowledge he hadn’t lost a friend.

“I
have
got a proposition for you, though,” Jed said. “Now you’re back in town, you’ll need a job.”

“Yeah. I figure I’ll get picked up at one of the ranches around here, even if it’s just through the summer.”

“I want you on this ranch.”

“Here?”

Jed laughed. “Don’t sound so surprised. You worked out fine the first time, didn’t you?”

He had to take another long breath before he would trust his voice again. “We just went through this. I walked away. And you went five years without hearing from me, without me paying my debt. Yet you want to hire me on again?”

“Are you listening to what you’re saying, boy? That’s three loads of guilt in one sentence. Sounds like you’d darned well better take this offer if you’re ever gonna get over yourself.”

Cole shook his head. His old boss always had read him better than anyone could.

“I’ll wager Pete will be happy to see you again.”

Surprised, Cole said, “Pete Brannigan?” The man had broken him in during his early days on the ranch. He’d felt sure Pete, a few years older, would have moved on by this time. “He’s still wrangling for you?”

“That and more. He’s managing the place for me now. Lives right here on the ranch with his family. And he’s been saying we could use an extra hand. So, what do you say?”

He hesitated, though he knew full well he’d have to take the offer. He needed a steady job. This one would give him a chance to prove to Jed he’d changed. At the same time, it might give him an idea of how to pay the man back.

But it would also put him in danger of running into Tina. Tina...who, with one short conversation with her granddaddy, could get him thrown off Garland Ranch.

* * *

T
INA
PULLED
THE
ranch’s truck into the empty parking lot behind the Hitching Post. As she and her grandmother climbed out of the cab, she said, “Abuela, you go ahead in with the frozen food, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“You can handle all that?”

“Sure,” she said. “This is nothing.”

And that was a problem.

The small size of their order from the Local-General Store reflected the lack of guests at the hotel. As the hotel’s bookkeeper, she found that lack giving her plenty to worry about lately. Sure, it was only early March, never one of their busiest seasons, but it was quieter than usual for this time of year. Their bookings for the summer hadn’t begun to pick up yet, either.

“We’ll need to go back to the store again soon, before Jane and Andi arrive.”

“No problem, Abuela. I know you need to buy everything fresh. John Barrett must love seeing us walk into the L-G so often.”

“I think you’re right.”

John had established the market forty years ago, naming it the Local-General Store. He claimed building it smack in the middle of Cowboy Creek made it local to everybody, and stocking everything under the sun made it general. The store’s popularity—despite the attempt of a couple of national chains to take over—seemed to have proven him right.

She looked over at Abuela, who was still gathering the couple of insulated carrier bags she used for frozen food.

“Is everything okay? You’ve been looking tired lately.” More than tired. Her shoulders seemed slightly stooped, the lines under her eyes more pronounced. With her grandparents always so active, Tina sometimes had to remind herself they’d both reached their seventies. “Has Robbie been wearing you out? He’s got so much energy.”

“Don’t be silly. And a four-year-old must have lots of energy.”

It wasn’t till Abuela was halfway up the steps of the hotel that Tina realized she hadn’t answered the first question.
Was
everything okay with her? Was she concerned about Jed, the way Tina had been for a while now?

Though she hadn’t learned she was Jed’s granddaughter until shortly before she had started school, he had always been her
abuelo
. She loved him just as much as she loved Robbie and Abuela.

His behavior lately had her very concerned. He’d been acting odd, distracted, as if he were worried about something. But of course, there was one perfectly logical reason for that. He had the same worries she did.

Ever since high school, she had helped keep the hotel’s books for Jed. Very early on, she had learned that when people were forced to budget, vacation funds often went in the first cut. And the Hitching Post felt the pain. That meant she felt the pain, as well. She glanced up at the hotel, all three stories of it, all the way up to the windows of her attic hideaway. She loved the hotel, the only home she and Robbie had ever known. Jed, who had also lived here all of his life, couldn’t like the idea of all those empty rooms, either.

Sighing, she reached for one of the grocery sacks in the back of the truck. Footsteps on gravel made her pause. It wasn’t Jed’s familiar tread, and they had no one staying at the hotel at the moment. Maybe this was someone who wanted to book a room. She turned with a welcoming smile.

That smile died on her lips when she saw the cowboy standing in front of her.

Cole Slater.

In one startled, reflexive sweep, she took in almost everything about him. The light brown hair showing beneath the brim of his battered hat. The firm mouth and jaw. Broad shoulders. Narrow hips. The well-worn jeans, silver belt buckle, and scuffed boots. In the next reluctant second, she turned her gaze to the one feature she had deliberately skipped over the first time.

A pair of blue eyes that made her think instantly of her son.

Clutching the grocery sack, she demanded, “What are you doing here?”

His face looked flushed. But he didn’t appear angry, the way he would have if he’d seen Robbie and put two and two together. She breathed a sigh of relief at the reprieve, no matter how brief, giving her a chance to come to grips with his return to town. If she ever could.

Seeing him again had brought back years of memories she didn’t want to think about.

She should have known better than to fall for Cole Slater. At the tender age of seven, she had already heard about his reputation as a sweet-talker. By junior high, he had progressed to a real player. And by senior high, he had turned love-’em-and-leave-’em into an art form, changing girlfriends as often as she replaced guest towels here at the Hitching Post.

Too bad she hadn’t remembered all that when he had finally turned his attention her way.

He shoved his hands into his back pockets, which pulled his shirt taut against his chest. Now, she felt herself flushing as she recalled the one and only time—

No, she wasn’t going there. And he wasn’t staying here. “You must have made a wrong turn somewhere. I suggest you find your vehicle, wherever you might have left it—”

“I parked near the barn—”

“—and be on your way.”

“—and to answer your question, I came to see Jed.”

“What for?”

“He invited me.”

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