Authors: Barbara White Daille
As Tina turned another page in the book she hadn’t been able to focus on, she heard boot steps on the stairs leading up to her attic room. They weren’t Jed’s slow, measured steps but another lighter tread that had become just as familiar to her.
As she rested the book in her lap and focused on the open door, her heart suddenly felt a bit lighter, too.
Cole came to a stop in the doorway.
“Well, hello,” she said in a hushed voice. She rose from the couch. “Are you lost?”
“Almost. You sure didn’t bother to leave any bread crumbs.” His voice, lowered, too, sounded deeper and even sexier than usual.
When he lifted her tea mug, she smiled and crossed the room to take it from him. “Jed?”
“Yeah. He said this has become part of his nightly ritual when he knows you’re up here.”
“He’s too good to me.”
“From what I’ve seen, you’re good to him, too.”
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He began to turn away.
She held the mug in both hands, cradling its slight warmth against her, as if it could banish the chill she felt at the thought of his leaving. “Cole.”
He stopped and looked back at her.
At the campsite, the boys had run up to them just as he had been close to confiding why he had left town. “You never told me your story earlier. Now would be a good time.”
“Well...yes. If you don’t have anything else planned.”
He didn’t move, and she could see the indecision in his face. His gaze went to the doorway, and for an agonizing moment she thought he would go without answering.
Then he looked past her into the room.
She hadn’t cared a bit what Andi and Jane saw when they looked at her accumulated jumble of furniture and books and knickknacks and school mementos. She had wanted only to get her cousins out of her private room.
Now, though, she felt intensely interested in knowing what Cole thought of everything. And she wanted him in her sanctuary, becoming a part of it, sharing her space.
Hadn’t she always wanted that?
He stepped into the room, and she suddenly had the irrational feeling she couldn’t breathe because he had taken up
the extra space. And maybe the oxygen, too.
He gestured toward the door. “If we’re going to talk, we should close this.”
She led the way back to the couch, where she curled her feet beneath her and took a bracing sip of hot tea.
Cole wandered around the room, looking from the upholstered couch on one wall to the floor-to-ceiling bookcases on the other and the glass-topped coffee table in between. He stopped here and there to inspect her accounting textbooks and the curio cabinet with her collection of porcelain butterflies.
When he came to take a seat beside her, he looked her over from head to toe. “You’re an interesting mix,” he said. “Brains and beauty.”
“Are you going for the playboy role again?” she asked, fighting the pang of disappointment shooting through her. “If so, please don’t bother. But I thought you had a story to tell.”
He picked up the novel she had left on the couch and riffled through the pages. “I do, but it may not be as interesting as your book.”
She listened, not moving a muscle except to take a sip of tea from time to time, as he told her about what had happened five years ago. About his father dying and then his mom following not long after, and about his struggle—while he was still a teen himself—to provide for his younger sister.
To her, the simply told story was more heart-wrenching than any book she had in this room.
Then he told her about needing money for Layne’s birthday gift and, more important, to buy groceries for them both.
Her breath caught as she thought about how hard it must have been for him. And for Layne.
“That first day I came back to the hotel, when Jed and I went to talk in his den, I reminded him how he had advanced my pay. Twice. And he wanted to know why I hadn’t asked again.” After a long pause, he said, “I couldn’t ask him for more money. I already felt I’d let him and Layne down, that I should have done a better job managing what I had.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “I never was the math whiz you are.”
“And I never had parents or brothers and sisters, but I always had Abuela and Jed. Living here in the hotel, I’ve never in my life gone hungry. You did what you thought you had to do, the best way you could.”
His eyes gleamed. He reached up to touch her cheek. “Sweet Tina. I should have known you wouldn’t judge. I didn’t like borrowing, but yeah, at the time I couldn’t think of an alternative.”
“I’m sure Jed’s forgiven you. He doesn’t hold a grudge. But...you still haven’t told me why you left.”
He shrugged. “I’d always planned to get out of Cowboy Creek. Soon after our mama died, Layne wanted to marry her boyfriend. She wasn’t old enough yet, but since I was her legal guardian, I had the right to approve or refuse to sign the papers.” Not meeting her eyes, he riffled through the pages of her book again. “She begged and begged, and I didn’t know what the hell to do. I wanted to see her happy. So even though she intended to marry the guy who had just broken her heart, I gave the okay. I thought it was the right decision. And it opened the jail cell door and set me free. But just a few months later, she was pregnant and divorced.”
He sounded so devastated, her own heart broke for him. She put her hand on his arm. “It was the right thing for her, at the time.”
“Not the way things turned out.”
“You couldn’t know that.”
He gave her another lopsided smile, then covered her hand with his. Surprise and pleasure made her tighten her fingers on his arm.
“I’ve never told anyone that story before.”
“I’m glad I’m the first.”
“I didn’t mean to go on for so long.”
“I’m glad for that, too. I wasn’t doing anything up here except reading.”
“And how’s the book?”
She laughed lightly. “Not as interesting as talking to you.”
Or other things we could be doing.
She felt her cheeks flame.
She knew he saw the color in her face and had more than likely read her mind. Smiling, he lifted her hand and kissed the backs of her fingers, his mouth warm against her skin. When he looked up, his face was close to hers, his eyes shining from the reflected glow of her reading lamp.
She held her breath, waiting.
“Being shy, quiet Tina again?” he asked.
“Thinking to heck with shy and quiet.” It had never gotten her what she wanted before. She leaned forward to kiss him chastely.
He slipped his arms around her and held her close. “That was a surprise.”
“You handled it well.”
“Let’s see how
But his kiss was nothing like hers. In seconds, it went from chaste to enticing and his hands went from her waist to her hips.
She pressed her mouth more firmly against his and threaded her fingers through his hair.
“My turn?” he asked, running his hand down the length of her braid.
She nodded, suddenly nervous but not willing to back down. Ready to say to heck with everything.
For a moment, he fumbled with the elastic tie. She watched his eyes gleam and his lips curve into a smile as he unraveled the braid until her hair hung loose and flowing around her. He ran his fingers down the wavy lengths, letting his fingertips skim her body, making her shiver.
She had always wondered how she would feel if she let him touch her like this.
And now she knew.
made her feel pleasured and possessed and more excited than she had ever imagined.
reinforced what she had always known.
She loved him.
And they belonged together.
* * *
in his room, Cole ran his comb through his wet hair.
Suddenly, he envisioned himself sliding his palms down Tina’s never-ending waves. Shaking his head, he yanked the towel from around his waist and tossed it onto the bed.
So much for the cold shower, his second since last night.
Just thinking about her had him hard all over again...and he hadn’t gone beyond anything besides hot kisses, soft curves and touching that unbelievably sexy curtain of hair.
He swore under his breath and thanked his lucky stars he’d found the restraint to get up from her couch. But he hadn’t rushed away.
Remembering how he had treated her in high school, he took his time saying his farewells. He had stood with her at the door for a while as they talked, their voices hushed. Had left her smiling as he walked away.
He hadn’t had any other option.
He wasn’t a high-school kid pushed to the breaking point and desperate enough to make unwise choices.
No matter how much he wanted Tina, giving in to lust for a temporary fling would only lead to regrets for them both. He would be doing her a favor by keeping his distance.
A knock sounded on his door. He looked at the clock near the bed. Five a.m. on a Sunday. If he hadn’t needed the cold shower, he wouldn’t have been up yet, since he didn’t have to go to work. So who would come to his room at this hour?
It could be Andi having trouble with Scott. Or Jed needing help with an emergency on the ranch.
“Be right there,” he called.
He retrieved the towel and knotted it around his hips. As he strode to the door, he slid his arms into last night’s shirt. He would be presentable enough while he found out who had knocked and what they needed from him.
To his surprise, Tina stood in the dimly lit hallway. “You’re awake early,” he said warily.
“Not really. I’m usually helping in the kitchen around this time.” Her gaze drifted downward, then bounced back up to his face again. “Mind if I chat with you for a minute?”
He hesitated, then stepped back. “If you don’t think you’ll be compromising yourself, come on in.”
“Maybe I’d like to be compromised,” she said with a laugh.
“I meant if someone found you here.” Frowning, he closed the door behind her. “You’ve changed.”
“So have you. Five years ago, I don’t think you’d have thought twice about what would compromise a woman.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
She perched on the foot of his rumpled bed. It wouldn’t take much for him to cross the room and tumble her back against the covers.
Instantly, his body reacted to the image. He clutched his fresh shirt in front of him firmly enough to create permanent wrinkles in the fabric. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “Everything okay? Something going on with the kids? Or Jed?”
“No, everybody’s fine.”
Then why are you in my room at five in the morning?
And did he want to know?
Reminding himself he had made up his mind to keep his distance, he turned to the dresser. He stripped off the old shirt and replaced it with the fresh one. As he stood adjusting the collar, her eyes met his in the dresser mirror.
She smiled. “I thought it would be nice if we offered to take Andi and Jane to the airport.”
She nodded. “We could borrow Pete’s van. It’s big enough to fit everyone and handle the car seats. And then on the way back, we could stop for breakfast.”
“Thanks, but I need to get over to Layne’s.”
“Oh. Then...dinner out tonight? Just the two of us—finally.” She smiled again.
“I don’t think that will work, either. Too much to do at the apartment.” He grabbed a comb to run through his hair. In the mirror, he saw her reflection. Her eyes were cast down, her expression thoughtful.
“So...” she said. “Last night, you
just taking on the playboy role again.”
He turned to face her. “No,” he said, measuring his words, “I was not.”
Eyes narrowed, she tilted her head to look at him.
“What?” he asked.
“I’m just trying to figure things out, since I don’t think you and I are on the same page as we were last night. Or even in the same book.”
“We’re not in a story at all. This is real life, and I’m trying to do the right thing and act like a responsible adult.” He shoved his hand through his hair. “Look, I meant what I said at the campsite. I was a real jackass to treat you the way I did in school, and I’m sorry about that.”
“And...what happened last night... Was I supposed to take that as the rest of your apology?”
He swallowed a groan.
Granted, she had started it, but he’d taken over from there. He hadn’t expected the kiss to turn so hot so quickly. Or for their brief time together to have as much impact as it had—on them both.
“Not an apology,” he said. “I didn’t intend for any of that to happen. Things got out of hand. It was just a few kisses. Damned fine kisses, but that’s all. I didn’t mean for you to take it as anything more.”
He should have known she would, though. He should have been prepared for her to react exactly the way she had this morning.
Hell, he’d have done best to recall the warning he’d given himself about getting too close.
“Tina.” He shook his head and tossed the comb onto the dresser. “As nice as last night was, there’s no sense in either of us looking for a repeat. I told you, I’m a rolling stone. And you’ve always been a stay-in-one place, forever kinda girl.”
“A forever I always envisioned with you.”
He froze. She said nothing else. After a while, he shook his head. “There’s nothing I can say to that. I’m not the kind of man to make empty promises. Or any promises at all.”
Tina handed Robbie a paper place mat and a small box of crayons, courtesy of SugarPie’s.
Instead of Cole’s company on the ride to the airport, she’d had her son along. And Jed, who had decided at the last minute that he wanted to see his family off.
Though she loved having both of them with her, she regretted the trip hadn’t gone the way she had originally hoped it would. Neither had her conversation with Cole this morning. The thought of it made her cheeks flush with heat. From between the salt-and-pepper shakers and the sugar dispenser, she plucked a small hand-printed menu she already knew by heart.
“I can have muffins?” Robbie asked. “Grandpa, you promised.”
At her son’s words, Tina raised the menu higher and blinked hard a couple of times.
I’m not the kind of man to make empty promises. Or any promises at all.
She had to give Cole credit for owning up to that.
And he was right about her. She
a forever kind of girl. A happy, stay-at-home accountant. Not the woman she had tried to be last night.
“Of course, you can have muffins,” Jed said. “That’s why we came to SugarPie’s.”
Tina nodded, glad to hear the lightness in his tone.
He had sat quietly in the van on the way back to town, his expression glum. Now perched in a pink-cushioned chair in the sandwich shop, he looked much more energetic. That made sense. It had been his idea to stop here on the way back from the airport—a request enthusiastically seconded by Robbie, who loved Sugar’s mini-chocolate-chip muffins.
A waitress in a pink uniform and white apron approached their table. Cole’s sister. They resembled each other, though his blue eyes didn’t have dark circles under them the way hers did.
The thought made her recall what Jane had said about the likeness between Cole and Robbie. Layne could never have seen the similarities, or she would have said something.
“Good morning.” Layne looked at Jed. “You’re here early.”
Tina glanced at her watch and frowned. It was nearly ten thirty, a late brunch by Cowboy Creek standards. Even on the weekends, when folks didn’t have to accommodate those with day jobs, all new gossip was shared by eight forty-five.
Across from her at the table, Robbie looked up. Grinning widely, he grabbed his place mat and waved it in the air. “Hey, we’re over here!”
She turned to see Scott rushing toward them. Cole stood in the bakery doorway. His too-carefully-blank expression as he stared at their table said he hadn’t expected to see them.
Robbie handed Scott a couple of his crayons. “I keep secrets good, right, Grandpa?”
“You sure do, fella.”
Jed shot her a look so quick she almost missed it under her pretense of studying the menu. He turned to Layne. “I wasn’t sure how bad traffic would be on the way back to town. We made good time with Tina driving.”
“We went fast,” Robbie said. “Like my car.
Both boys scooted their crayons across the tabletop.
Layne laughed. “You’re some driver, Robbie.”
She watched him for only a moment, but long enough for Tina to wonder what Cole might have said to her. At some point, she and Layne would have to talk, too.
“Well,” Layne added. “I’ll give you all a few minutes to decide on breakfast.” She walked over to Cole.
Recalling what Robbie had said, Tina leaned across the table and hissed, “‘Secrets,’ Grandpa?”
“Breakfast at SugarPie’s,” he said with a grin as wide as her son’s had been.
Sugar carried over an extra chair and set it beside Tina. “Here you are, folks. Jed, good seeing you this morning.” The grins must have been contagious, because the two of them smiled widely at each other.
As they chatted, Tina watched the boys and held back a sigh.
This morning, the thought of a ride to the airport with Cole had sounded wonderful—but that was
their conversation in his room. Now all she wanted was to keep her distance from him.
Unfortunately, he had just taken the chair beside hers.
“Morning,” he said, as if it were the first time they had seen each other that day.
He wore a pair of form-fitting jeans and the same shirt she had watched him change into while she had sat on his bed. The fabric looked crisp, smelled fresh and didn’t do a thing to take her mind off what lay beneath it.
When he had opened his door, her first sight of him had left her tongue-tied.
She’d had enough trouble trying to focus on their conversation as he walked around the room. His shirt hung open, giving her tantalizing peeks at the same broad chest and taut abs she had braced her hands against last night.
Then, there had been that towel wrapped around his hips. Granted, it was a nice, big, thick hotel towel... But she hadn’t needed the added worry of wondering if it would fall free. Or the concern over what she would do if it did.
“See anything you like?” he asked.
Startled at being caught ogling him again—right in the middle of SugarPie’s—she looked up at him. Was that a glimmer of amusement in his eyes?
But he simply pointed to the menu in her hands. He was helping her save face. Doing the right thing. Being a responsible adult.
And giving her a subtle reminder of his warning. There would be no repeat of last night.
* * *
breakfast or brunch or whatever Jed would call it. Later on, he’d have a bone to pick with the old man over this. When Jed had mentioned meeting up at SugarPie’s, he hadn’t said a word about inviting Tina along.
Pushing aside the last bite of his strawberry pancake, he reached for his coffee mug and tried not to think of Tina, seated beside him. That was an almost impossible challenge. She’d tied her hair up again in her prim and proper braid, but all he could envision was the long strands hanging loose around her shoulders.
He tried not to look at her, either, but found that completely impossible. His eyes went to the soft mouth he’d had beneath his last night. A drop of maple syrup dotted her lower lip. He’d give next month’s pay for the chance to lick it off.
As if she knew what he’d been thinking, she grabbed a napkin and dabbed at her mouth.
He shifted in his seat, searching for a distraction, and saw the bill Layne had propped against the napkin holder. He reached for it, but Jed snagged it first. For an old man, he had danged good reflexes.
“My treat,” Jed told him, tucking the bill beside his plate.
He didn’t like the idea but knew he couldn’t argue with the man in public. He nodded his thanks and picked up his coffee mug instead. Soon, he might be able to pay his debt back to Jed in full.
At Layne’s this morning, he had spent most of his time with his eyes on Scott and one ear glued to the phone. He’d had takers for his idea of investing in the Hitching Post. In a conference call, they had firmed up enough details for him to present their offer to Jed.
The old man rose and pulled his wallet from his hip pocket. “Are you heading back to the ranch, Cole? With the girls gone and our guests checked out, we’re gonna need some extra voices to break up the quiet.”
Beside him, Tina seemed to sit frozen in place, as if she didn’t want to miss his response. Or didn’t want to hear it.
“Not right away,” he said. “I’m hanging around town for a while. Layne’s working till noon, then we’ve got some things to take care of over at the apartment.”
Jed nodded. “Well, you know your room will be waiting.”
He thought about what it would be like to have a permanent place at the Hitching Post. A room he shared with Tina.
Jed headed toward the cash register.
Tina took her purse from where she’d left it hanging from her chair. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll be fine with the kids.”
Not sure he could trust his voice, he nodded, avoided looking at her and tried to chase away the visions Jed’s words had triggered in his mind.
She rose from her seat.
Across from him, both boys sat working with their crayons. He leaned forward to inspect the place mats. Scott had drawn a picture of what looked like a cat with green fur and orange eyes. “Nice job,” he said. He looked at Robbie’s picture. “That one’s good, too.”
“You know what I drawed?”
Tina paused beside him.
Robbie might have been a year older than Scott, but he didn’t have much more skill at artwork. Cole couldn’t make heads or tails of the bright blotches Robbie had run into each other on the page. But from the way the kid looked at him with his eyes squinted and his forehead wrinkled, Cole could tell a lot was riding on this answer.
“Well,” he said, buying time, “I know I’ve seen one of these before. Maybe even a couple.”
Robbie continued to frown.
Silence stretched on.
He imagined a future of searching for and never finding the right answers for his son. Or worse, of saying things he never should say, the way his father had done.
Beside him, Tina moved, breaking him free from his trance.
She leaned forward to look down at the picture. “Oh, good eye, Cole.” Smiling, she stared steadily at him. “You remembered these, and you’d only seen them for a minute last night.”
“Yeah,” he said, almost sighing in relief. She was going to help him out.
Then she walked away.
Robbie’s stare remained as unwavering as Tina’s had been.
Cole racked his brain, trying to recall what he had seen when he was with her that had been as colorful as the boy’s scrawled picture.
Not her dark hair or her dark eyes or the plain blue shirt she had worn. Not any of the food they’d eaten at the campfire or even the fire itself. Definitely not the white afghan tossed on the arm of the couch in the attic. Not the covers of her books, spine-out on the shelves.
Then he had it.
He tilted his head and nodded, copying the movement Tina had made that morning when she claimed she was figuring things out. “Of course I know what this is. It’s a butterfly.”
Robbie grinned. “Yeah!” He held up his hand for a high five. “I knowed you would guess it. Daddies are smart.”
Cole’s heart skipped too many beats.
A new silence settled around them. This one went on forever. Or maybe it just seemed that way because he’d felt everything close in.
“‘Daddies?’” he asked finally, his voice a croak.
Evidently feeling he had given a sufficient answer, Robbie reached for a crayon. Beside him, Scott had moved on to a drawing of a purple turtle—maybe—with yellow stripes.
Cole set his mug very gently on the table. “Did your mama...?” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Why did you say ‘daddies?’ Did your mama tell you to call me that?”
“Huh-uh.” Robbie shook his head.
“How about your grandpa?”
“Nope. I just make it pretend.”
“Oh.” He paused, then asked, “Why did you do that?”
Robbie shrugged. “Rachel has a daddy and Scott has
daddies...sometimes.” He paused and looked up at Cole. “I don’t have a daddy. So I
to make it pretend.”
Cole nodded. Amazing logic, especially coming from a four-year-old.
But then, Robbie was Tina’s child, too.
* * *
almost slipped away by the time Tina returned from her ride and dismounted at the barn.
She thought again of the invitation she had extended to Cole earlier that morning. If he had accepted, the two of them could have been relaxing at a restaurant tonight. Instead, things had turned out much differently from what she had hoped. And she would have to face him in the dining room of the Hitching Post without Jane and Andi there to run interference.
When Pete came from the barn, she reluctantly turned the reins over to him. “I could take care of grooming Starlight.”
He shook his head. “You’d better get over to the main house. With your cousins gone, Jed’s been dragging his heels between here and there all afternoon, carving a rut in the ground. Looking for you, I expect.”
Or for Cole.
But he had said he was spending most of the day in town.
“Jed misses Andi and Jane and the kids already,” she said, knowing how he must feel. A few days ago, he had missed them when they hadn’t even left yet. The way she would now miss Cole, whether he was here on the ranch or not. Whatever bond they might have forged between them last night was broken. “I think my
might need a little extra attention.”
“He’s not the only one,” Pete said. “Rachel’s not herself today, either.”
“She misses Trey?”
“I don’t know.” He frowned. “Usually, I can’t get her to quiet down, but right now, she’s not saying a word.”
“I’ll make sure she and Robbie have some playtime tomorrow.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
Turning away, she looked at her watch. It was early for dinner, but she would go home and freshen up in case Abuela and Maria needed help.
She hadn’t made it halfway to the hotel before she saw Cole’s pickup truck coast around the corner. It was early for him to be back, too.
He must have seen her, because the instant he climbed from the truck, he headed her way. “Got a minute?” he called.
She nodded and went over to the benches outside the corral to wait for him.
When he walked up to her, she said, “You’re back early.”
“Then you’re here for dinner?” It would be an intimate group at their table. At least Cole could focus his attention on Robbie again.
This morning at SugarPie’s, she had deliberately left him at the table with the boys to give him more time to spend directly with their son. That’s what he had wanted all along.
But he shook his head. “We grabbed something to eat at the apartment. I’m glad I caught you out here. I wanted to talk. Alone.”
She waited. His unemotional tone didn’t necessarily mean this would be an awkward conversation. And what if it did? According to Ally, she was the queen of seriousness. She
discussing weighty topics...when they didn’t involve her heart.