Authors: Barbara White Daille
Including his claim he would never settle down.
Yet, no matter what he said about not caring he’d been left at the altar, his attempt proved he hadn’t always been against the idea of marriage.
That one thought gave her the strength to hang onto her dreams.
He leaned in, hovering close enough to send warmth from the whole long length of his body to cover her like an afghan. All her logic and reasoning and warnings failed her. Her thoughts disappeared under a rush of pure passion. And her schoolgirl crush gave way to very adult desires.
He ran his fingers up her arms. This time, goose bumps blended with ripples of pleasure until she couldn’t tell one from the next. All she knew for certain was that she had waited five years for this.
He cupped her face with his hands, brushed her cheekbones with his thumbs, and finally—
—touched his mouth to hers. More sensations mingled and swept through her. The taste of peppermint candy... The warmth and weight of his mouth... The secret thrill of finding his here-and-now kiss even better than those from her memories.
Much, much better.
“And, so? How did your evening go?”
At the kitchen table, Tina sat watching Abuela prepare her potato casserole for tomorrow’s breakfast. The question made her quickly raise her mug to cover her smile. Hot tea stung her lips, still tender from Cole’s kisses.
Who knew where the evening would have
to go, if Robbie hadn’t run out to remind them Jed had made popcorn. Somehow, she hadn’t minded the interruption. Not when Cole had smiled and tousled Robbie’s hair. Not when Cole had laughed as her son—
son—took them both by the hand to lead them into the house.
“Everything went just fine,” she said. “The kids had a great time.”
the kids.” The rasp of the potato against the ricer picked up speed. “And...?”
“I enjoyed myself, too.”
“I’m sure of that. And Cole?”
“He had a good time, too, I think.”
After watching her
work in this kitchen for so many years, she could follow every movement with her eyes closed.
White shreds flew into the stone bowl Abuela liked because it was large enough to hold all the shredded potatoes, covered with water to keep them overnight. In the morning, she would use her old wooden tortilla press to squeeze the potatoes dry.
Between her need to guard herself against Cole and her desire to be with him, she felt a bit pressed herself.
Abuela smiled. “He would visit me here in this kitchen sometimes, and sit right where you sit now.”
“He did?” Her voice rose in astonishment. What else had Abuela never told her? “When was this?”
“When you would do your homework upstairs in your attic room. On Fridays especially. After he came for his pay and sat talking with Jed, he would come and stay in the kitchen for a while. He liked my desserts.”
“He still does,” she confirmed with a laugh. “You saw him the other night. He almost wrestled Jane over the last serving of your flan. But you never told me about Cole coming into the kitchen.”
“Many times, I would make flan on Friday because I knew he would enjoy it.” Abuela smiled again. “Something about that boy I always liked.”
Her jolt of surprise almost made her spill the tea. “Really? You never told me that, either.”
“You didn’t need my encouragement, did you? I know why you would run to the barn after school every day.”
“Oh.” She took another, more cautious sip from her mug. “And you didn’t mind?”
Abuela laughed. “Only when you didn’t complete your chores.”
Tina debated her next question for so long, yet another large potato joined the shreds in the bowl. “Why didn’t you say something once you knew how I felt about Cole?”
froze. “I had my secrets,” she said at last. “I didn’t want to pry into yours.”
“And when I got pregnant...did you realize the baby was his?”
“I couldn’t know. Not for sure.”
“But you suspected?”
“And again, you didn’t say anything.”
Abuela set the potato and the ricer aside and turned to face her. The lines around her eyes seemed deeper, more pronounced.
Tina held her breath and waited.
After a moment, Abuela crossed the room and took a seat at the table. “From time to time, Cole talked about what he would do with his life and where he would go.
“Thom—your father—always talked about leaving the ranch, too. About leaving Cowboy Creek. And at last, he did. Your mother came to tell me she wanted to follow him. But my Emilia was already pregnant, and I pleaded with her to stay. For her sake and for yours. She listened...for a while.” She sighed. “Once you were born, she placed you into my arms, and then she was gone.”
Tina’s fingers trembled as she reached across the table.
Abuela took her hand and held it tightly. “They were good children, Emilia and Thom, with good hearts, but they were wild. And young. Too young to want to stay here, where they saw no future but a life working on the ranch or at the hotel. A life that Jed and I love. That you now love.” Her voice broke.
Tina wanted to go to her, to hold her close, but Abuela reached out to cover their joined hands. “You were never like them,
,” she said, “but when you told us you were having a baby, I was afraid you would leave Cowboy Creek, too, to search for Cole. And that, like your mother and father, you would never return.”
Tina swallowed hard. “I’m not planning to go anywhere. Ever.”
“I’ll be glad if that stays true. I will be even more glad if you and Cole find happiness.”
“It was only one date, Abuela. Please don’t get your hopes up.” A good reminder for them both.
“I always have high hopes. For you and for Robbie.” She sighed. “You know, if I found a way to change the past, I would go back to when you were born and tell Jed the truth.”
“If we could change the past, I would tell you and Abuelo, too.”
She looked down at Abuela’s hands, still wrapped firmly around hers. “I had my reasons for not telling him.”
“As I had with Jed. But, though Jed didn’t know you were his granddaughter, he did know you. He saw you every day. He helped me to raise you. Cole didn’t know about Robbie.”
Tina said nothing.
“Look at me,
She glanced up.
Abuela stared steadily at her. “When I look in your eyes, I see the same hurt I see in Cole’s.”
* * *
her office and shook her head. Her plan to distract herself by overhauling her filing system hadn’t worked at all, and now her office was a mess.
With a sigh, she began picking up folders and putting them back into the same file drawers she had taken them from.
Abuela’s words kept ringing in her head.
Cole’s face kept flashing in front of her eyes.
Her hands stayed busy with the files, but her mind traveled where it wanted. Unfortunately that wasn’t very far, just to the parking area outside the Hitching Post.
Cole’s good-night kiss had been only a tease, a taste, but it had made her think of the relationship they
have had...the relationship she had always longed for.
Yet now she felt more confused than ever. All she knew was she wanted to keep Cole from hurting her son.
When I look in your eyes, I see the same hurt I see in Cole’s.
She closed the file drawer. As she turned to pick up another batch of files, she saw Andi standing in the doorway. She and Jane would be leaving after the weekend, and they had gone into town for one last lunch together at SugarPie’s.
“Hi. Okay if I come in?”
“Sure. Let me clean off a chair for you.” Grateful for the company, she moved a stack of file folders. Talking with Andi would give her something to think about besides her conversation with Abuela.
And besides Cole and his kisses.
Her cousin took a seat and looked around her. “You didn’t say anything about renovating your office.”
“I’m not renovating. Just doing some filing.”
“Oh. Well, Jane and I only got back a few minutes ago.” Andi laughed. “I thought I’d never get her away from the dessert tray.”
“My best friend gives me the same trouble,” she admitted.
“Then you know the feeling. By the way, Sugar and Layne say hello.”
“Thanks.” She moved more file folders and sat in her desk chair. “Did you and Jane enjoy lunch?”
“Other than dessert, you mean?” Andi smiled. “We did. Layne waited on us. She’s putting in extra hours, she said.”
“Yes...Cole told me.”
“With the new guests in the dining room this morning, we didn’t get to chat much at breakfast. Speaking of Cole, how was your date last night?”
“It was fine.” She repeated what she had told Abuela. “The kids had a great time.”
Andi smiled. “I guess I don’t have to ask if you enjoyed yourself. Your face at breakfast this morning said it all.”
Tina stared at her.
“You were...glowing, is how I’d put it.”
“That had nothing to do with Cole.”
Now Andi laughed. “How do you know I didn’t mean bowling with the kids?”
Her cheeks burning, she glanced down at her desk and shifted another pile of folders.
“I hope things work out for you two.”
“There’s nothing to work out.”
“I don’t know... Jane and I always saw how you looked whenever you were around Cole. It’s the same way you looked this morning. I shouldn’t have teased you about him just now, and she shouldn’t have teased you the other day. I know you really cared about him.” She smiled. “And you never forget your first love.”
* * *
from his forehead and took a long hard swig of lemonade from his insulated mug.
Paz had provided the lemonade early that morning before he left to meet Pete outside the barn.
“The sun’s getting low,” Pete said. “Guess we’d better head back.”
He nodded. They had started at the farthest point of the fence line they’d scheduled for today and worked their way in the direction of home. But they still had a ride ahead of them.
When he saw the manager was on his cell phone, he climbed into the truck and hoped it wouldn’t be a long wait. It could be Jed or one of the ranch hands who had called, or even Pete’s daughter, who had gotten in touch with her daddy a couple of times this afternoon.
He shook his head. Pete had told him she was a talker, and she’d proved that at the bowling alley.
He sat back in his seat, adjusted his Stetson to block the sun from his eyes and tried not to think about that night.
Pete climbed into the truck. “Rachel again,” he said, confirming his hunch. “It’s been two days, and she hasn’t stopped talking about the bowling alley.”
“We all had fun,” Cole said.
Too much fun, some of us, outside the hotel at the end of that night.
“Well,” Pete said, “you’ve got Rachel’s seal of approval, and that’s saying something. She doesn’t take to folks easily.”
“She’s a cute kid.”
“Your nephew’s not bad, either. I saw he looked a little more relaxed yesterday when Tina had him up on Bingo.”
“He did, didn’t he?”
“You and he seem to be comfortable with each other, too.”
He nodded. “We’re getting along.” Scott had grown more used to him, or maybe it was the other way around.
Robbie seemed just as comfortable.
He couldn’t help the feeling of pride that shot through him at the thought.
In the next instant, he glanced away, squinting as he looked out over the horizon. The other day, he hadn’t lied when he said he’d felt good about his progress with the kids. But a week or two wouldn’t be nearly enough to turn him into the perfect daddy.
A lifetime couldn’t help him achieve that.
“Seems to me you’re doing fine,” Pete said.
The manager sure had more experience than he did. He could learn a lot from him. But he hesitated to ask.
He and Tina hadn’t gotten very far with figuring out their plans. His idea of talking things out with her over supper had fallen through the minute she’d walked into the sitting room with the kids.
Since then, several new arrivals had checked into the hotel, including a family with a couple of teenagers. She had spent some time showing them around the hotel and ranch and introducing them to Pete and the wranglers. She’d barely had time for a word with him. Which was probably a good thing.
But even when she was out of sight, he could see her wide, dark eyes beneath arched brown eyebrows, high cheekbones and firm, shapely lips. In the five years since high school, cute, quiet little Tina had blossomed into a real beauty.
Even when he was busy working, he found his mind wandering to her again and again.
a good thing, in any way, shape or form.
And a bad choice of expression, because it only made him think of her in other ways.
They had fit together as though she’d been made for him, with her height putting her at exactly the right place to hold her against his chest, her full curves just the right size and softness for his big hands, her mouth a perfect match to his. And though he hadn’t said a word to her about any of this, the way she settled into his arms said she agreed.
If Robbie hadn’t come running out to the back porch last night to call them in, who knew what might have happened.
Not getting the chance to find out was probably a good thing, too.
He had a bad feeling he was falling hard for a woman he still didn’t trust.
* * *
the gear from the ranch truck in the barn, then went outside to try clapping the surface dirt from his clothes.
Jed stood near the corral, his thumbs hooked into his belt loops, watching one of the wranglers leading a teenaged girl around the corral on horseback.
Cole ambled over and reported in on their progress for the day.
Jed nodded. “Sounds good. Everything going along well for you here?”
Cole didn’t hesitate with his response. “Fine. It’s good to work with Pete again. My nephew’s happy to visit. And the food over at the hotel is great.”
“Tell Paz that. It’ll keep her happy, too.”
“And the company?” Jed persisted.
“That’s fine, too.”
The old man had made numerous attempts to increase his interest in the three females at the Hitching Post. Or, that’s what he’d thought at first. Over the past few days, he’d begun to suspect it was Tina’s name the old man had at the top of his list.
While he didn’t intend to get hitched to any of the women—despite that kiss a couple of nights ago—Jed’s encouragement came as a relief. If he was pushing his own granddaughters on him, he truly must have forgiven him for walking out years ago.
That knowledge eased some of the burden from his shoulders. The rest, he still had to deal with.
And recently, he seemed to have taken on a whole new load.
That kiss with Tina had turned out a lot more pleasurable than he intended. Thankfully, he’d come to his senses and chalked it up to a nice night out that had helped calm his restless energy. But he hadn’t missed the danger signs.