Read The Cowboy's Little Surprise Online

Authors: Barbara White Daille

The Cowboy's Little Surprise (2 page)

“Then I assume you’ve seen him already and, as I said, you can be on your way.”

“You and I need to have something out first.”

Please, no.
Had he caught a glimpse of Robbie, after all?

He shifted his stance and crossed his arms over his chest. “I didn’t expect to run into you this soon, but since we’ve met up, it’s as good a time as any to talk.”

“I don’t really have anything to say to you.”

“But I’ve got something to say to you.”

He ducked his head, looking suddenly like the kindergartner made to give back the lollipop he’d just sweet-talked out of her hand. Even in those days, she’d have given him anything.

One night in high school, she’d proven that.

She turned to the truck and grabbed another sack. “I’m busy, sorry.”

“I’ll give you a hand, and then we can talk.”

“No.”
He had stepped up beside her and stood only a few inches away. His nearness unsettled her. The thought of him going back into the hotel upset her even more.

While she and Abuela had been in town, her son had stayed over at the ranch manager’s house on the property. But Pete’s housekeeper might be bringing Robbie back home any minute.

“All right,” she conceded. “Say whatever you want to say right here.”

“I’m sorry.”

She blinked. “What?”

He ducked his head again, then tugged the brim of his hat down, shading his eyes. “Look, I know I acted like a real jerk to you back in high school.”

“High school? You mean that lunchtime you turned me down when I asked you to the dance?”
The time you humiliated me in front of everyone in the school cafeteria?
“I’m over that.”

“You are?”

“Of course.”

“Well. That’s good. But I still feel I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, please. Don’t even think twice about it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She forced a smile and hoped he couldn’t see her grinding her teeth in frustration. She just wanted him gone. Off the ranch. Anywhere but right here, right now.

“Well, that’s good,” he said again. “I’m glad you’re not holding any bad feelings against me, since we’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other.”

“I doubt it. The hotel keeps me busy and close to home. I don’t go into town much.”

“You won’t have to.” His smile didn’t look the least bit forced. “You’ll see me here. I’m back to working for Jed.”

Chapter Two

“Men are more trouble than they’re worth.”

Tina’s best friend couldn’t possibly know how much Tina agreed with the familiar refrain right at that moment.

She looked down the length of Canyon Road, Cowboy Creek’s business section, then back at Ally. They had just met in the parking lot of the hardware store, where Ally worked as a clerk. As often as Tina could manage, they would get together at the end of Ally’s workday to walk, pacing the length of the business section of Canyon Road and back again, for as long as their time allowed.

Right now, just a few hours after her meeting with Cole, she needed a good, long walk to work off her sky-high stress. And listening to Ally’s complaints about the latest man in her life would be a good distraction. “What now, Al?”

“Oh, that new wrangler in town, the one I told you about—you know, the cute one.”

“They’re all cute to you. Can you be more specific?”

“Details. Always, you want details.” Ally rolled her eyes. “The tall blond one who just showed up in town a week ago. He’s been coming into the store a lot. But I can’t get him to look my way. And you know I can be pretty hard to miss.”

That was an understatement. Ally was nothing if not flamboyant. Today after work she had changed into a magenta exercise leotard paired with electric-blue biker shorts and her favorite purple running shoes.

Tina wore her navy sweatpants and her faded New Mexico State University T-shirt.

Ally looked her up and down and shook her head. “When are you going to listen to me,
chica
?” she demanded.

“Don’t start.”

“Too late for that. I started on you years ago. I don’t know why I love you when you’re so darned stubborn.”

“For my
abuela
’s Sopapilla cheesecake.”

Ally laughed. “You’ve got a point.”

“And as usual, my point right now would be that—as sorry as I am about your cute wrangler—you can’t throw yourself at every good-looking cowhand who walks in. Please tell me you didn’t do that with this one.”

“I can’t help my impetuous nature.” Ally grinned. “You could learn something from me,
chica
. How to have your heart broken on a weekly basis. It would sure make your life more exciting.”

“Once was enough for that, thanks,” she said grimly.

Ally frowned. “You’re not looking too happy yourself. What’s wrong?”

She hesitated. But Ally was the only friend who could understand what Cole’s return meant to her. “Your blond isn’t the only man who’s shown up in town. Cole’s back.”

“You’re kidding me!”

Her best friend was also the only woman Tina knew who could manage to screech in a whisper.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

Ally shook her head, sending her dark curls tumbling around her shoulders. “No. You look like you’re in shock. C’mon, let’s get going.”

Tina moved through the parking lot and out onto the sidewalk on autopilot, in the same manner she had gotten herself to the store. Somehow, she had made it all the way here without thinking again of Cole. Blurting out the news of his return to Ally had brought him back to her again.

A ridiculous choice of words, since he’d never been
hers
to begin with.

All through the years, despite his reputation, she saw glimpses of a Cole no one else knew. Or so she’d thought. Those glimpses gave her just enough hope for him. For her. Just enough reason to keep her crush alive.

But years of love from afar didn’t equal a real relationship.

“How long is he going to be in town?” Ally demanded.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, we need to find out. And then you need to stay away from him. Hang out at the ranch, that’s all, like you usually do. And keep Robbie with you.”

“I can’t hide from the man, Ally.”

“Who’s saying hide? But Cole doesn’t deserve to know the truth. Not when he hasn’t even bothered to send you a postcard in all this time.”

All this time.

Five long years.

Ally shook her head. “After what he did, I can’t believe you’ll tell him anything.”

What Cole had done to her that lunchtime had been bad, but what she had done to herself leading up to that day was much, much worse.

In high school, they shared a few classes, and in their senior year, her dream of getting closer to him had come true. She was ecstatic when they became lab partners in biology and then study buddies in English.

Once Jed hired him to work at the ranch, she was thrilled for the chance to see more of him—whether he knew she was watching or not.

Evidently, he did know. One Friday night after he had collected his paycheck from Jed, he asked her to go for a ride in his truck. She said yes, proud to have the world—or, at least, the folks in
their
world—finally see them as a couple, too.

Only no one had seen them together at all.

They had gone for a long ride before parking near the school baseball field, where they sat and talked for hours. She was puzzled when he took her straight back to the ranch afterward. But on Saturday, she was pleased again when he finished up work and asked her out for another ride. This time, they trusted each other with glimpses into their pasts. She shared stories with him she had never told anyone else.

Yet, again, he took her directly home. Alone in her bedroom, she struggled to push away the rising doubts that kept her from falling asleep.

On Sunday night when they had driven away from the ranch in his pickup truck again, she ignored the replays of childhood memories, pushed away the nagging thoughts of the boy he had been because she saw the boy he was now. The boy who seemed proud to have her with him, too, who treated her as if she were the only girl in his world.

The boy who was giving her this magical weekend.

On Sunday, they had done very little talking...

“You can’t forget what he did,” Ally said.

“No, I’ll never forget. And luckily, you’re the only one who ever knew.” Cole’s attentions hadn’t lasted long enough for anyone else to realize they had so briefly become partners of another kind outside English class and the biology lab.

“Why is he here, anyhow?” Ally asked.

“He didn’t say.”

“I’m guessing he’s come back to help Layne,” Ally said thoughtfully. “I heard things haven’t been going too well for her. So, everything’s okay—Cole will be busy with her and Scott, and you’ll stay on the ranch. You’ll never have to see him again.”

“No, everything’s not okay.” She repeated what Cole had told her, which brought Ally to a halt. “Keep moving,” Tina said over her shoulder. “You know I’m tracking our time.” From behind her, she heard a huge sigh. Despite her tension, she couldn’t hold back a smile.

Once Ally caught up to her again, she said, “He’ll be working
on the ranch
?”

“Yes.”

“Then, we need to find out what’s going on.” Ally took her by the elbow again and marched her down the street. “Let’s stop in at SugarPie’s and talk to Layne.”

Tina kept walking but pulled her arm free. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’ll just tell Cole.”

“Not if we handle this right.”

They were within a hundred yards of the bakery and sandwich shop when Ally came to a stop again. “That day in the cafeteria...”

“Yes,” Tina said with a sigh. “That day...”

At lunch in the school cafeteria that Monday, she had invited him to the upcoming Sadie Hawkins dance. He had turned her down, then walked away—with his arm around another girl.

The rejection, coming after what he had done to her—done
with
her—the night before had left her stunned.

Yet, as much as it had hurt at the time, she had later thanked heaven for Cole’s brutal response. It had made her face the reality she hadn’t been able to admit during the weekend. The reality that all the magic she had seen in him was nothing but a much-practiced act full of smoke and mirrors.

Ally shook her head. “It took you forever to work up the courage to ask Cole out, didn’t it?”

She nodded.

“But,” Ally said softly, “if I were in your place now, I know what you’d say to me. You’re not that scared high-school girl anymore, are you?”

“No, I’m certainly not.” Over the past few years, she’d grown up and developed a backbone. She’d learned to stand up for herself, to be a good role model for Robbie.

Something his father could never be.

“All right, then,” Ally said, “let’s go inside. We can take care of two birds with one sticky bun—find out from Layne what’s going on with her and get her to tell us how long Cole’s staying in town.” She raised her eyebrows in question.

Tina nodded firmly.

Though she had spent five years dreading the thought of seeing Cole again, she had never actually prepared for the reality.

He would be starting work on the ranch in just a few days and that didn’t give her much time. Before then, she needed to find out whatever she could about his plans.

* * *

T
INA
AND
A
LLY
walked through the unoccupied bakery and entered the adjoining room. The homey, country-kitchen atmosphere of the sandwich shop encouraged lingering over a cup of tea. People said the owner had planned it that way because, as a result, she heard all the gossip that traveled around Cowboy Creek.

As teens, Tina and Ally had felt sure the many small round tables in the shop were bugged.

At this time of the evening, they had their pick of the room and seated themselves at a table for two.

Tina took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma of cinnamon and cloves that always seemed to hang over the bakery and the shop. The smells here were almost as good as those in Abuela’s domain at the Hitching Post.

“I don’t see Layne,” Ally said over the top of her menu.

“Maybe she’s in the kitchen getting an order.”

“I don’t know... Wait—Sugar’s headed this way. You know what that probably means.”

Tina nodded. “She’s filling in.”

The owner began her day in the bakery long before the sun came up, yet could often be found in the shop at closing time. Normally, she let the waitresses handle the customers.

The wooden floorboards creaked as Sugar approached their table.

A hefty Georgia peach in her midsixties, Sugar had the softest drawl Tina had ever heard. She also had the most solid arms Tina had ever seen on anyone, including any wrangler who had ever worked on Garland Ranch. Sugar claimed she’d earned those muscles from years of kneading bread dough and hauling restaurant-sized sacks of flour.

“Hey, girls, you’re in late.”

“And you’re working overtime,” Tina said.

“Yep. Layne took the day off, so here I am.”

“Darn.” Ally set down her menu, giving Tina a look that said she would handle the questioning—which was fine with Tina. The less interest she showed, the less suspicion Sugar would direct her way. “We wanted to talk with her.”

“Well, she’ll be in tomorrow. Or you can catch her at home tonight.”

“Is she spending the day with Cole? I heard he’s in town.”

“He is.” Sugar’s gray eyebrows rose as her eyes widened. “And you could have knocked me over with a sheet of parchment paper when I heard about him coming home. Layne was pretty closemouthed about it till last week.” She sounded upset that she hadn’t known sooner about Cole’s return.

“But why is he back?” Ally asked. “I mean, he hasn’t come home since he graduated high school.”

“Because the ink’s barely dried on Layne’s divorce papers, and that rat Terry’s kicking her out of the house.”

Ally gasped. “But she’s got Scott—and she’s pregnant!”

Tina winced, thinking of the loving support she had received from Abuela and Jed all through her life, even during her pregnancy. Even though she had never told them who had fathered her child.

“Layne’s situation doesn’t seem to be bothering Terry,” Sugar continued. “So, she called Cole.”

“That’s a first,” Ally said, exchanging a glance with Tina. “How long is he staying?”

Ally had spoken too quickly. Sugar frowned. Resting her hands on the edge of the table, she stared from Ally to Tina and back again. “Why? What’s happening?”

She didn’t ask only out of curiosity. Everyone knew how well Sugar looked out for all the residents of Cowboy Creek, especially her employees.

Just the way Jed looks out for us,
as Abuela would often say.

“There’s nothing’s happening,” Tina said. But there soon would be, unfortunately.

“Yeah.” Ally nodded. “I was just wondering whether I’d get to say hi or not.”

“You should. Layne tells me he’ll be around for a while.” Sugar chuckled. “I think coming back home again might give that boy a lot more than he bargained for.”

This time, neither Tina nor Ally had anything to say.

* * *

I
N
HIS
SISTER

S
new apartment, Cole picked up one of the packing boxes he’d piled in the corner of the room. She had given the larger of the two bedrooms to her son—and his toys—and left this closet-sized one for herself.

“Scott’s probably getting hungry,” Layne said. “I need to start thinking about supper.”

“Supper? You just gave him a three-course snack.”

She laughed. “That was hours ago, Cole. And little boys have big appetites. Don’t you remember from when you were a kid?”

“Not really.” What he recalled was being four years old and stockpiling his own snacks, holding them aside until Layne started whining about being hungry. The sooner he could get his little sister quieted, the less chance there was of their dad yelling and sending her into tears.

As if she had read his mind, she abruptly grabbed a pile of clothes from the carton he’d set next to the closet door. “Once I have this box emptied, I’ll start supper.”

“We could go out,” he suggested. “Or pick up some takeout. My treat, either way.”

“No. The sooner I get used to cooking in that tiny kitchen, the better.”

She turned to the closet. Shaking his head, he took a seat on the edge of the twin bed. He should have known she’d refuse the offer. It had been enough of a struggle getting her to agree to let him pay for some of the groceries.

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