Authors: Barbara White Daille
He shoved his Stetson back from his forehead and crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s no point in wandering a trail to get to where I’m headed, so I’ll just say it. I want to tell Robbie I’m his daddy.”
Her heart skipped. She linked her unsteady fingers together in front of her. If ever she needed a time to rely on logic and forget emotion, this was it. “You mean,” she said carefully, “you want to be Robbie’s daddy.”
“Yeah. It’s time to tell him the truth.”
“And that’s it? You’re deciding it’s time, after all these years? Well, maybe if you hadn’t walked away from me—”
He sliced the air between them with his hand. “Don’t try that line again, and don’t blame it all on me. We’ve had this out before. You could have told me before I left, once you found out you were pregnant. And speaking of years, you’ve had the same number of them to reach me through Layne—if you’d really wanted me to know.”
making the decision, all on your own? Despite the fact I’m his mother and less than a month ago, he had never met you?” She tightened her fingers, hoping to hold on to her rising anger. And failing. “All along, you’ve said you were willing to wait. So, why is it time now? What changed?”
“He’ll have questions,” he shot back. “Lots of questions. And they’re going to start soon. What will you tell him when that happens? Do you want him to think his daddy didn’t care about him at all?”
At his final words, the blood drained from her face, leaving her dizzy. She had said something similar once, one night in a pickup truck near the high-school baseball field, when she told him how she felt about her parents abandoning her.
And now he’d taken those words, her confidences, her trust, and thrown them all in her face.
The verbal slap reminded her there was nothing between them any more. She needed to look out for her son. She jumped to her feet. “I’ll answer Robbie’s questions, the way I have since he was born. And just for the record, rushing to tell him you’re his father makes it plain you
care about him. Not enough. Why try to pretend you do?”
She moved aside, needing to get away from him, wanting to be alone.
He put his hand on her arm.
“‘Pretend?’” he said hoarsely. “I’ll tell you about pretend. Do you know Robbie’s making up stories that I’m his daddy?”
Her breath caught. “He couldn’t be. He doesn’t know.”
“He knows he doesn’t have a daddy, like Scott and Rachel do. He told me that’s why he pretends. Don’t you think having a make-believe family could hurt him worse than knowing the truth?”
Cole begged off joining everyone in the dining room for supper. He couldn’t have managed downing a cup of coffee, anyway, or sitting there and making small talk. Not when he knew what lay ahead.
He hadn’t known how Tina would react when he insisted on talking to Robbie. He had never thought her feelings about the issue would affect him one way or the other. But to his surprise, he had cared about how she would feel.
He cared about Robbie, too, more than he ever would have thought possible. He wanted the boy to know the truth.
And he sure didn’t want the next man in Tina’s life to be his son’s pretend daddy.
Out at the corral, he and Tina had managed to step back and take a breather. They had looked at things from another perspective. The most important perspective.
He had pushed home the fact that an imaginary daddy could only hurt their son. Tina had looked stricken at that statement. But for Robbie’s sake, she had agreed to let him talk to the boy.
While Jed and the others were still at the supper table, Cole went upstairs to her attic room. They had acknowledged this was the one place in the hotel where they could likely have their conversation without interruption.
He sat on the couch they had shared the night before and looked around the room. He thought about what could have happened in here if they hadn’t stopped at those few little kisses. If he had taken her right here.
But he’d let the thought of having sex with her drive him once before, and look where it had gotten them.
His focus now had to be on what he would have to say in the very near future. He scrubbed his face with his hand as if the action could clear his head.
Dang. He hadn’t been this nervous since he’d stood waiting in that Vegas wedding chapel.
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, he dropped his hand to his knee and sat frozen.
A moment later, Robbie padded into the room barefoot and wearing a pair of pajamas imprinted with pictures of robots and planets. “Hi,” he said, his voice squeaking in surprise.
Tina carried a tray with a carafe and a few mugs on it. She set it on the coffee table.
Robbie knelt at the table and dropped a coloring book and a box of crayons beside the tray. “Mama didn’t tell me you was coming, too.”
“She didn’t, huh?” He shot a glance at Tina. They hadn’t said much of anything once they had returned to the hotel. And they sure hadn’t touched base on how the heck he would handle this.
“Would you like some hot chocolate?” she asked him, holding up the carafe.
marshmallers,” Robbie added. “Just like the s’mores, only small.”
“That sounds good.” He started to gesture toward the coloring book, then stopped, recalling the conversation at SugarPie’s that morning. Then, Tina had given him a hint about Robbie’s drawing. He wouldn’t bet on her doing that now.
He took the mug she handed him and sat back on the couch. “You liked the s’mores last night, huh? And the muffins this morning?”
“Yeah. Chocolate is the best.” Robbie dumped the crayons from the box onto the table.
“You remember after you had the muffins and we were talking about your picture? Do you remember what you said?”
He nodded. “I knowed you would guess. I made a butterfly like Mama’s—there.” He pointed to Tina’s collection on the corner shelf, then began scribbling on a page in his coloring book.
“Do you remember what else you said?”
His hand stilled. “Maybe.” He looked warily from Cole to Tina.
“You do remember?” Tina prompted.
“I said...I said...” He bit his lip.
Cole reached out and ruffled his hair. “Hey, that’s okay. I remember. You said daddies are smart.”
“I know.” He looked at Tina. “Mamas are smart, too!”
Her laugh seemed to hitch in the middle. “Of course they are. Smart enough to know when a boy wants hot chocolate.”
Cole sipped from his mug. She
smart. Shrewd. And so danged proud.
He couldn’t help but wonder how she was going to take the news he had to tell Jed. Presenting the offer to the old man would have to wait till the morning. He’d need the rest of tonight to recover from the conversation he was about to have right now.
This time, when he lifted his mug, his hand wasn’t quite as steady.
Tina poured some chocolate into a small mug with a lid.
Robbie took it and held it out toward Cole. “Like the pop.”
To celebrate winning at horseshoes, he and Robbie had shared a drink and tapped their bottles together—Robbie’s pop and his beer. Now Cole touched his mug against the smaller one.
He hesitated, not sure how to lead into this. But the kid was four years old. Long explanations weren’t required. “Since you said daddies are smart, I wanted to tell you something.”
“About the surprise?”
Cole looked at Tina.
“I told Robbie he might have a surprise waiting up here.”
He took a deep breath and let it out again. “Yeah, it is about the surprise. I wanted to tell you, you have a daddy, too.”
“Like Rachel and Scott?”
“That’s good. Now I won’t make it pretend, right?”
“Right. And I won’t, either. Because I’m your daddy.”
Robbie grinned. “That’s good,” he said again and reached up to give him a high five. Then he picked up his mug. “Mama, when I drink up all my chocolate, can I have the surprise?”
* * *
tucked Robbie into bed, Tina made her way up the stairs to her attic sanctuary for the second time that evening. And again, as arranged, Cole would be there waiting for her.
Robbie had taken the news about Cole so calmly, they had agreed to let things stand for now.
They had come to that decision simply enough. She had raised her eyebrows in question, and he had shrugged, then given a nonchalant nod—as if they had long ago developed a mode of nonverbal parenting.
No, the conversation hadn’t fazed Robbie much.
She couldn’t say the same for herself. Or for Cole.
He sat in the same position on the couch as when she had left to take Robbie downstairs.
“Did he buy the story about your cookies being the surprise?”
“Yes.” Thank goodness she had left the package up here a couple of nights ago.
She poured herself some hot chocolate and went to sit on a chair out of tempting reach of him but close enough to see his expression. “Cole...” She gripped the mug in her lap. “Before you talked with Robbie, when you were drinking your chocolate, your hand was shaking.”
Her sigh verged on a sob, just as her laugh had done when Robbie had so carefully assured her mamas were smart, too.
“I was wrong earlier, and I’m sorry. You certainly cared about how Robbie was going to react when you told him you were his daddy.”
He shrugged. “It’s not a conversation I’ve had before.”
“The point is, you wanted the conversation. You wanted your relationship with Robbie out in the open.” Her voice cracked. She pushed on. “That has to mean something, no matter what you tell me about not wanting a family.”
He looked down at his mug and said nothing.
She rose and walked across the room, standing with her back to him. Then she squared her shoulders. He was going to walk away from her again. But this time, she wouldn’t let him leave on his terms. “I was also wrong for saying I could handle all his questions. Because I don’t know all the answers.”
She turned to face him again and said quietly, “There’s one answer I’d like to know now. Not for Robbie. For me. How can you care so much about our son and still say you don’t want a family?”
Cole wanted to laugh at the irony in the situation.
Tina, normally so calm and quiet, became a spitfire whenever Robbie was at risk. And he, who always liked to keep on the move, suddenly couldn’t move at all.
The accusation in her eyes might have pinned him against his seat.
Finally, he said, “I’m not cut out to raise a child.”
“Your actions lately seem to contradict that.”
“That’s in the short term. Not the same as living with kids day-to-day.”
“The more you’re around them, the better you get at being a parent.”
“The longer the time,” he countered, “the shorter the fuse.”
“What?” She frowned in confusion. “I don’t think that’s the issue here.”
“You didn’t have a dad like mine.”
Her face paled.
At the corral a few hours ago, and again just now, he’d said exactly the things guaranteed to hurt her. Sure, their circumstances growing up had been different. She hadn’t had a dad at all. But the point was, he hadn’t taken her feelings into account. He’d been a jackass, twice over. He had to make up for that.
And, bottom line, as the mother of his child, she deserved to hear his whole history.
No matter how reluctant he was to share it.
“My dad was never meant to have kids,” he said flatly. “He had no interest, no patience and zero attention span at home except for watching TV. My mother wasn’t a whole lot better. Layne and I pretty much raised ourselves.”
“That doesn’t mean you’d behave the same way,” she protested.
was heaven in a handbasket, compared to the rest.” He tapped the mug on his knee. “When we bothered my dad too much—like asking him for more milk—he’d get loud. Nasty. I’d always give him backtalk. Until I learned if I didn’t shut up, he would turn on Layne. She couldn’t argue as well as I could. Hell, how could she? When he started in on her, she could barely talk at all. I was four years old. She was only two.”
Tina’s eyes glittered.
He blinked and looked down at his mug.
“After that, I let him say whatever he wanted to me, to keep him away from her. I stuck it out at home, too, long after I’d have gone out on my own. Fourteen years of hearing I was a rotten brother and son...well, that’s something I could leave behind. But taking the chance of being like the dad he was...”
He stood and placed his mug of now-cold chocolate on the tray she’d left on the coffee table.
“I’d have been better off never having a dad.”
Until now, Cole’s bed at the Hitching Post had suited him fine. But all his admissions in last night’s conversation with Tina had made it impossible for him to sleep.
Good thing Jed was an early riser.
Downstairs, he found the man with his feet propped up on the desk in his den and a newspaper in his hands.
When he saw him in the doorway, Jed tossed the newspaper aside. “Well, what are you doing up before Paz even has breakfast on the griddle?”
He took a seat in the cracked leather chair in front of the desk and set his Stetson on his knee. “I’m here to offer you a proposition.”
Jed gave him a huge grin. “Are you, now? I think you might be presenting it to the wrong person.”
“No, I’m not.” The man meant Tina.
Tina, the woman who wanted everything from him. She always had, ever since their school days. Love, marriage, a family. After last night, maybe she understood why some of that was impossible.
As she was the person handling the financial end of the renovations, he could have laid out the offer to her. But considering the situation between them, it was probably better that Jed pass along the news.
The old man sat back and put his hands behind his head. “Fire away.”
He presented the uncomplicated details. “I’m not going into this to rake in cash, and my partners are in full agreement with the low interest rate. I’ll be pleased to be helping you out, if you accept the offer.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” Jed said, nodding.
“Then I’ll follow up with you in a few days.” He ran his thumb over the crown of his Stetson. “I’ve got another reason for stopping in. I wanted to let you know I’m planning on leaving—but this time I’m giving notice.”
“Leaving?” Jed dropped his feet to the floor and sat forward. “What about Tina?”
“What about her?”
“Don’t play the fool with me, boy. I know there’s something happening between the two of you. And so you’re up and running off again because of it?”
“I’m not running or even leaving town. Layne still needs me here. I just won’t be working on the ranch. As for Tina...” He tried for a smile but failed. “Whatever was happening between the two of us is history.”
“And what’s going to happen from here on is called the future. One that affects me and Paz and your son.”
Feeling the need to pace, he rose from the chair. “Then maybe you can understand what it was like not to learn about my son until he was four years old.”
“I understand more than you know. You’ve heard about Tina’s parents?”
“I heard they gave her away to Paz and left town. She told me that...a long time ago.”
“Yeah,” Jed said. “Well, it took Paz a while to get around to giving me the news years ago, too. She didn’t tell me Tina was my granddaughter until the girl was older than Robbie is now. Tina didn’t know for a while after that, either.”
That stopped him in his tracks. “Are you saying that’s a reason to forgive her for not telling me?”
“I’m saying all folks run into situations they have to handle the best they can at the time. The way you tried to provide for your sister.”
Tina had said the same thing about his choice to let Layne get married so young.
“And,” Jed went on, “I’m saying folks who don’t do their best with what life brings them can find themselves having some very big regrets.” Jed rose from his chair. “I think I’ll go check and see if Paz has my breakfast ready. Since I’ll be taking a few days to give your offer some thought, why don’t you do the same about giving notice?”
* * *
Pete she would give Rachel some playtime with Robbie. The kids had had such a good afternoon, she decided to bring them along with her when she met with Ally. She didn’t mind having their company on the ride into town. Their chatter in the car helped to keep her from thinking of Cole.
When they reached Canyon Road Tina made a detour and parked outside SugarPie’s.
Robbie looked through the car window. “Not muffins, Mama. Ice cream!”
“I know, sweetie. We’re just going to stop and have something to drink before we meet Aunt Ally.”
Ally had had a disappointing weekend with her wrangler. Tina hadn’t heard the details yet but knew things couldn’t be good when Ally insisted they skip their walk and go straight to the Big Dipper.
Before they met, Tina hoped for a chat with Cole’s sister.
Inside SugarPie’s, she chose a small table for two as far from the rest of the diners as possible and settled Rachel and Robbie there with place mats and crayons. Then she took a seat at the next table.
From across the room, Layne gave her a wave, acknowledging she’d seen her.
Tina didn’t know what reason Cole had given her about his stay at the Hitching Post. But after brunch here the other day, she was certain he had now told his sister about Robbie.
When Layne had delivered their order for one cup of tea and two apple juices, Tina said, “Could you sit for a minute?”
“I’m glad Cole has been able to bring Scott out to the Hitching Post.”
“I am, too. Scott talks constantly about his new friends, especially Robbie.”
“And Robbie has been having a great time playing with him. That’s why I wanted to chat. My cousins went home again, and I don’t come in to town all that often. I...don’t like to ask Cole to play chauffeur all the time, but I’d like to make sure the boys still have the chance to get together. I thought maybe we could set up a few play dates and I’d schedule them on my hotel calendar.”
“That would be great. I’d like to have Robbie come over and visit us, too. I need to get to know him better. And you.” She smoothed the sheets of her order pad. “We didn’t see very much of each other in school.”
“That’s not surprising. There were two years between us.” The comment reminded her of the conversation she’d had with Andi, though in her own case, she hadn’t avoided Layne deliberately. “And once I graduated, I was busy between college and working at the hotel.”
“And I was busy making a mess of a couple of marriages.” Layne grimaced. “I don’t know if Cole mentioned this,” she said in a lower voice, “but he told me about Robbie. I’m glad he did. And I hope you don’t mind. Cole’s a wonderful brother, Tina. He’ll be a wonderful daddy.” She fiddled with the order pad. “He wouldn’t like me saying this, but you should know. He and I come with a lot of baggage. You’re shy, I know—or at least, you always were. When it comes to marriage and family, he’s gun-shy, and that’s a whole different story.”
“That doesn’t matter as far as Scott and Robbie are concerned.” She meant the words, yet her smile felt brittle. “There’s no reason we can’t set up those play dates.”
“And no reason we can’t be friends.”
After Layne had gone to take care of her customers, Tina sat sipping her tea and thinking of Cole.
She wished he could believe in himself as much as Layne believed in him.
The story he had told her about their home life had broken her heart. After listening to that story, after seeing the look on his face and hearing the finality in his tone, she knew there was no point in holding on to her dreams. She would never have her big family with Cole.
And she feared he could never truly love the son they already shared.
* * *
Canyon Road took longer than it would have normally. Scott walked along beside him and stopped every few feet to investigate a store window, sort of like a puppy sniffing every clump of grass.
At this rate, they wouldn’t get where they were going and back to the apartment before Layne got home from SugarPie’s.
Knowing he needed some distance from Tina, he had decided to have supper with Scott. Layne was working the evening shift tonight, and he had assured her he could manage to heat up a can of spaghetti.
The unappetizing meal had turned him off, but Scott enjoyed chasing mini-meatballs around on his plate. Sure he knew what else his nephew would like, he’d stowed the dishes in the dishwasher and said, “Ice cream?”
And here they were.
He pulled open the heavy glass door and let Scott scurry in ahead of him.
At a corner table, he saw Robbie and Rachel. And Tina.
Robbie spotted them instantly. His huge grin made Cole’s heart thump in a good way.
Tina’s unsmiling gaze just made his heart thump.
There was no way for him to avoid her, since Scott had already climbed up into an empty chair at their table.
“Hey,” he said. “Is this a party?”
“Just dessert. Ally’s supposed to meet us here at any minute.”
“We’re out for some ice cream.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.”
She kept a straight face, but he caught the gleam in her eye. He hadn’t had a conversation this stilted with a female since first grade.
Come to think of it, that might have been with Tina, too.
The door opened again, stirring the refrigerated air in the room. He looked in that direction and saw her friend Ally entering the shop. He also saw the man who held the door for her, waiting to make his exit.
“Excuse me,” he said to Tina and the kids.
He strode across the room, nodded hello to Ally, then grabbed the door just before it shut.
Outside, he picked up his pace a notch to grab the shoulder of the man walking in front of him. When he swung him around, the guy almost dropped the white paper sack he was carrying.
“Out for some ice cream, Terry?” he asked. This time, his words weren’t stilted. The one he muttered under his breath wouldn’t have been fit for the ice cream shop. “It would have been nice of you to think of Scott, considering you’ve stood him up a few times.”
“I didn’t know if he was home or not. Or if Layne was working.”
“You ever hear of something called the telephone?”
“Very funny. Back off, Cole.” Terry narrowed his watery blue eyes and raised his poor excuse for a jaw.
Cole wondered what Layne had ever seen in him. He took a step forward, herding Terry toward the curb. “You want my cell number? No problem. Then you won’t have to worry about Layne’s schedule, and we can make sure you and Scott have some time together. You want time with Scott, don’t you?”
Terry said nothing, just sent his gaze toward the ice cream shop.
Cole sidestepped into his line of vision again. “What kind of man makes promises to a kid and then won’t deliver? What kind of creep invites a three-year-old for ice cream and then doesn’t show?”
“Hey. I was trying to do Layne a favor and something came up—”
“That’s not even my kid—”
is Layne’s son. All right, he’s not yours. What does that matter? You’ve raised him, you piece—”
“—of crap. What’s your attitude gonna be once the baby comes along?” He moved closer, until Terry backed off onto the street. “You’re divorced—”
“—so you can hand over the responsibility? If I didn’t know the baby was yours, I’d tell Layne to—”
He felt a tug on the back of his shirt and spun around. Tina stood on the sidewalk just a foot from him. Her golden-tan skin had faded to a shade almost as pale as his nephew’s.
“The kids are watching,” she said in a low voice.
He shot a glance toward the shop. Inside, all three kids and Ally sat looking through the front window. Luckily, the couple of other customers and the girl scooping ice cream seemed too busy at the counter to notice. He forced a smile and gave the kids a wave.
They waved back.
He shot another glance over his shoulder and saw Terry climbing into a pickup truck. He turned back to Tina, resettled his hat and made himself meet her gaze. “Guess I just gave you the perfect example of how much I take after my dad.”
“Your dad wouldn’t have picked on someone his own size. And you
defending Scott. But as for the way you made your point—”
“Yeah, well, I suppose I could’ve kept it more civil. I got a little carried away talking to that creep.”
“So I heard.”
“How much? Did you hear the part about him promising to take Scott for ice cream and then reneging?”
She nodded. “That’s about where I came in. Or out, I should say. And that’s what I meant about making your point. You had good intentions, but this wasn’t the time or place—”
“No? Wouldn’t you have done the same if he’d let down our son?”
He heard her breath catch. To his dismay, her eyes began to tear.
“‘Our son?’” She blinked hard and shook her head. “I know this isn’t the time or the place, either, Cole...but I have to tell you this before I say what else I need to say. I love you. I have always loved you. And I won’t believe you don’t already know that.” She crossed her arms.
He felt his chest tighten.
“Robbie’s only ‘our son’ to you when it’s convenient,” she said sadly. “I don’t mind at all that you’re spending time with Scott, so please don’t think that’s what this is about. But I want to know—I
to know—what the future’s going to be like for Robbie...with you.
“Yesterday you told him you were his daddy, and today you weren’t even around to say hello. Is that what he has to look forward to? Like Scott with Terry?” Her voice broke.
She glanced away from him and took a deep breath.
He swallowed hard and tried to keep his gaze from the shop window. By the time she looked back at him, he had managed to regain some composure.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, “
sorry—for what you went through growing up. It sounds like you’re right. It would have been better for you and Layne not to have a father at all.
“And maybe Robbie would be better off without you, too.”
The pain in her eyes made him want to reach for her, but he couldn’t seem to move.
“Layne believes in you,” she said. “I believe in you. But I don’t think you’ll ever be a real daddy to Robbie unless
truly believe in you.”