Authors: Barbara White Daille
Like it or not—and she didn’t—she had to face Cole.
On her way out of the room, she picked up an order pad from the china cabinet near the kitchen door. She forced herself to walk down the hall and through the reception area.
From the dining room, she heard Cole’s deep voice followed by her cousin’s husky laugh.
At the doorway, she stopped. In the otherwise vacant room, Cole and Jane were seated at a table for four near a sunlit window, and Robbie and Scott knelt on chairs at a large table in one corner of the room.
Delaying the inevitable, she focused on that corner table. To her dismay, the boys had already pushed aside the cutlery and lined up a row of plastic farm animals on the tabletop between them. She would have a hard time tearing Robbie away from his play.
She could understand her son’s interest in Cole’s nephew. Other than an occasional guest at the hotel, Robbie was almost as cut off from companionship his own age here at the ranch as she had been as a child. The ranch manager had a couple of kids, but as far as Robbie was concerned, Pete’s five-year-old daughter was “too bossy” and his two-year-old son was “no fun.”
Reluctantly, she tore her gaze away from the boys and looked at Cole.
Jane spotted her standing in the doorway. “Tina,” she said brightly, “where have you been? You’ve got a hungry man waiting here.”
“Yes. I hope you’re ready to take his order.”
In answer, Tina held up the pad.
“Then I’ll turn him over to you.” After smiling at Cole, Jane rose from the table. As usual, Tina’s older cousin wore black from head to toe and had shoulder-length dark hair. From the chair beside the one she’d been sitting in, she lifted one of the two cameras she had brought to the ranch with her. “Think I’ll go shoot some local color.”
As she left the room, Tina plastered a professional smile on her face and went toward Cole’s table.
In all the years since he had left Cowboy Creek, she had never let herself imagine him here at the ranch again. That would have been too poignant a reminder of the dream that would never come true.
Now that he was sitting in front of her, he was a reminder of all she needed to protect. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, keeping her voice low.
“Layne’s working this morning, so I thought I’d give her a break and bring Scott over for brunch. Since I was headed here, anyway.”
She didn’t miss the unstated warning. He intended to make good on what he had told her the other night. He intended to see Robbie whether she wanted him to or not. She looked from the pot of coffee in front of him to his comfortably sprawled position at the table. Both told her he wouldn’t be in a rush to leave.
He gestured to the empty chair across from his. “Join me?”
“I’ve already eaten.” She clamped her hands around the order pad. She had work to do. A long list of reasons to stay away from him. A longer list of reasons to take Robbie out of this room. She had an even more pressing need to find out what Cole was up to. “Robbie is only a four-year-old,” she said, speaking softly but struggling to keep her tone even. “You can’t just walk in here out of nowhere and turn his life upside down.”
“You really think that’s what I’ve come to do?” He waved as if to brush the question away. “No, don’t answer that. I think I already know.”
“Then, what is it you’ve got in mind?”
“Take a seat and you’ll find out.”
At the end of their conversation at his truck the other day, she’d wanted only to get him off the ranch.
Now that he was here again and pushing her, she wanted to push back. But that could turn the situation into a custody battle, a fight with them on different sides and her son caught in the middle. She couldn’t risk that.
After a glance at the corner table where the boys sat engrossed in noisy play, she took the seat across from Cole. “What is it you want?”
“To spend some time with my son.”
“But I told you, no one here—” She cut herself off, again unwilling to finish the thought ringing inside her head.
No one here on the ranch knows you’re my child’s father.
Saying it aloud would make it more real—and make her feel somehow more vulnerable to any retaliation Cole might have planned.
“Yeah, I remember,” he said drily. “Nobody knows. Well, Jed and Paz are the only ones who count. Once you tell them, we can work around everybody else.”
He glanced toward the boys, then back at her. “There’s no point in arguing,” he said flatly. “I want to be a part of my son’s life. And once he gets used to having me around, I intend to tell him I’m his daddy.”
She flinched, still not able to handle hearing those words.
Somehow, she had half hoped he had changed his mind about Robbie, about working here, about staying in town to help his sister. When he hadn’t shown up this morning, she had hoped he had left Cowboy Creek again forever.
But no, here he was, just as adamant about spending time with Robbie as Robbie would be about having playtime with Scott.
Like father, like son.
Cole finished his brunch platter in the dining room, where the only sound came from the boys playing with their toys.
He stared as Tina’s son...
son knelt in his chair and leaned forward to slide a plastic giraffe across the table. The kid looked so young, and nearly the same size as Scott. Short for his age, like Tina had been, and with hair almost as dark as hers. Those similarities wouldn’t have given him a clue that he’d fathered the child, but there was no missing the boy’s eyes, so unlike Tina’s bottomless dark brown ones. Eyes as blue as his own.
From the direction of the lobby, he heard voices, laughter, the sound of a door closing.
A few minutes later, Jed appeared in the wide doorway of the dining room. Jane, dressed all in black, stood on one side of him. On the other, a slim blonde woman in a brightly colored shirt and pants held a baby in one arm. Pressed next to her stood a boy who looked to be a few months younger than Scott.
Jed wrapped his arms around the women’s shoulders. “Look who I’ve got here. Cole, of course you saw Jane just a bit ago.” He hugged the dark-haired woman with the cameras. “But you might not recall meeting my other granddaughter. This is Andi and her kids.” He beamed at the trio.
Cole nodded and forced a smile but said nothing. Making polite conversation wasn’t high on his list right now. Much as he’d looked forward to some time this morning to reconnect with his old boss, he didn’t care to sit down to a meal with the man’s family. At least, not right this minute.
He hadn’t simmered down yet after that conversation with Tina. Obviously, she didn’t like having him around. But he wasn’t going anywhere.
Jed urged the women forward. “Cole, bring your coffee over to the big table and join us.”
Andi shuffled a few steps with her little boy holding her pants leg in a near-death grip.
Maybe the kid had picked up on the tension Cole could almost feel radiating from him. Not that he had anything against Jane and Andi. He remembered them both, all right, from when he’d worked for Jed. The two girls and their families had spent summer vacations and school holidays at Garland Ranch. It looked like they were continuing the tradition.
Jane had seemed relaxed enough when they’d talked earlier, but the blonde, Andi, seemed ill at ease. Or as if she had something troubling her.
Tina, who had just come back into the room, looked almost as distracted.
surely must have a lot on her mind.
What had she thought of his absence for the past few days, especially after the way he’d insisted on spending time with Robbie? She wouldn’t have missed him, that was for sure. More likely, she probably felt relieved not to have him around.
And she must dread the thought of breaking the news to their son.
For a second, he almost felt sorry for her. But then he thought again of how she’d deceived him.
“Well, come on,” Jed urged, “everyone take a seat. You girls and this little guy must be hungry after your travels. Tina, you get them all settled in while I go tell your gran that Andi and the kids have arrived.”
Jed left the room with more spring in his step than Cole would have expected from a man his age. Obviously, having his granddaughters visit had made his day.
Reluctantly, Cole grabbed his mug and the coffeepot and moved to the center table.
From the corner, Robbie called, “Mama, Scott and me are gonna go play with the ponies, okay?”
She nodded. “All right, but stay in the sitting room with them.”
“I know. That’s the rules.”
He rushed across the room, leaving the plastic animals he’d been playing with scattered all over the tabletop. Cole had trouble holding back a smile. Naturally, any kid of his would choose horses over a handful of other animals.
Scott hotfooted after Robbie as if the pair were best buddies. As they might have been, if things had been different.
No, as they might very well be. How the hell would he know?
He swallowed another wave of resentment at Tina.
Suddenly, he thought of Layne. Had
known and kept quiet about Tina’s pregnancy, too?
He refused to think that of his own sister.
But he wouldn’t put anything past Tina.
* * *
had left the dining room, Tina didn’t know where to look. At her cousin Jane. At her other cousin Andi and her children. Or at Jed, who stood beside the table in the center of the room.
She definitely didn’t want to make eye contact with Cole, who had just taken the chair next to hers.
She glanced down the length of the table, where Jed stood beaming at Andi’s children. Her little boy was now almost three and her baby only a few weeks old. Neither Andi nor Jane had visited for quite a while, and though Jed seldom complained how infrequently he saw them, she knew how much he missed them all.
“Well,” he said, “first, I’ve got to give these great-grandkids of mine a big hug.”
At Jed’s words, the boy hid behind his mother. Smiling, Andi reached up to place her daughter into Jed’s waiting hands. The sight of him cradling his infant great-granddaughter made Tina blink back tears. It seemed like only a few short months ago he’d held Robbie the same way.
Jed took his seat, still holding the baby.
Abuela came from the kitchen with a platter of her sugary sopaipillas. She hugged Andi and exclaimed over Andi’s children. Then, to Tina’s surprise, she gave Cole a warm welcome and a glowing smile.
The unexpected brunch turned into a fiesta, a celebration for everyone except Tina, who struggled to ignore Cole.
“I remember you.” Andi smiled at him. “You used to work for Grandpa, didn’t you?”
“I did, back in high school.” Though he returned the smile, Tina could hear the strain in his voice. “And as of last week, I’m back to working here again. Looks like Jed just can’t get rid of me.”
Neither could she.
For some reason this family gathering seemed to have made him uncomfortable, which made her think of his remark about swearing off family. Maybe he hadn’t been joking about his feelings, after all. How much time had he spent with Layne and Scott, his own family, over the past few years?
He hadn’t come back to town during that time, but she knew from things Sugar had said that Layne occasionally had gone to visit him. Did she miss her brother, the way Jed missed his sons and their families?
In all these years, had Cole missed Layne and Scott?
If he left Cowboy Creek again, would he ever think about Robbie?
Tina didn’t add much to the conversation flowing around her. She usually stayed quiet in crowds. But as the minutes ticked away, she forced herself to follow the comments. Anything to keep from thinking of what would happen when she and Cole left the room.
He had come here today determined to spend time with Robbie, and he would want to go look for her son.
She didn’t need the narrow-eyed glances he shot at her from time to time to remind her of that. She also didn’t need him hovering near her elbow as if to keep her from disappearing.
To tell the truth, she didn’t need him here at all.
She felt grateful her cousins had chosen this week to come for a visit. Their conversation helped cover her silences. And without them here, Jed and Abuela would have made Cole the center of attention.
When Jed had finished his last bite of dessert, he pushed his plate away and clasped hands with Andi and Jane, who sat on either side of him.
“Now that you two have arrived,” he said, “I’m not letting you go very far. And I’ve got some mighty important plans to share with you about this hotel.”
Her breath caught. First, Jed had stunned her by rehiring Cole. And now this. What plans?
“You all have always known the Hitching Post is my pride,” he continued. “The weddings were my Mary’s joy, but I’ve let that side of things go for a long time. Not anymore. My dream is to get this place back to the way it was, with the catering business up and running.”
She stared at him in astonishment. She had lived on this ranch since she’d been born, and Jed had always known how much she loved the hotel. Yet never once had he said a word to her about his dream.
“That’s a wonderful idea, Grandpa,” Andi said. “Weddings are a booming business. I know people who would love to have a private ceremony at a ranch setting like this.”
“The hotel’s got great character,” Jane agreed. “You ought to capitalize on the honeymoon angle, too.” She looked around, eyeing the bright glazed pottery on the table, the half-paneled walls, the ceiling crisscrossed by dark beams. “You’d have to update, make some renovations, but keep the Southwestern style.”
Tina gripped her napkin with both hands. This was too much. Jed’s idea for attracting guests and increasing the hotel’s profits was wonderful. Lord only knew, they could use the revenue.
They couldn’t afford to do anything much except paint and buy new linens. That would be fine with her. But structurally, there wasn’t a single thing about the hotel she would want to see changed.
“A ‘Southwestern destination wedding,’” Jane murmured, making air quotes with one hand. Or maybe she imagined snapping a photo with one of the cameras she’d left on a side chair. Eyes narrowed, she nodded. “I can see it.”
“So can I,” said Jed, slapping his hand on the tabletop. “I want the Hitching Post made into a going concern again. But here’s the thing. With everything that’ll need to be done around this place, I can’t tackle it alone. I want all you girls to turn my dreams into reality.”
Tina started. She couldn’t keep from feeling touched that Jed wanted her help to achieve his dreams.
But the rest of his statement left her wary. If the last thing she wanted for the hotel was to see it changed, the next-to-last thing was having to coordinate those changes with her cousins. She had long ago seen the way they played with others: they didn’t.
“All of us, Grandpa?” Jane asked, as if she had her own doubts about Jed’s idea.
“Yep. You’re a photographer. You can pull together some photos that will put this place on the map. Tina’s got the financial know-how to deal with the upgrades. And we’ll get Andi helping with something, too.”
Both women looked as astonished as she felt.
Between Jed’s announcement and her cousins’ involvement and Cole’s sudden reappearance, her life had spun out of control.
* * *
while listening to the Garlands discuss Jed’s ideas for the hotel, Cole excused himself. “I’ll go join Scott and Robbie.”
“Me go boys!” Andi’s son shouted.
His mama looked at Cole. He hoped his nod of agreement appeared more enthusiastic than it felt. He didn’t begrudge taking the little one along, but he had enough to handle just getting to know the two older boys.
“All right, Trey.” Andi lifted him down from his high chair. “You be good and play nice.”
The kid didn’t look much younger than Scott, yet as he toddled along, he seemed uncertain on his feet. Since his nephew had been just as shaky when they’d met at the diner a few months ago for their Christmas dinner, Cole knew enough now to shorten his stride.
What he didn’t know was what it would have been like to see his own son like a newborn calf trying out his legs. Taking his first steps. And maybe tumbling a time or two until he got the hang of things.
Thanks to Tina, there were a lot of things he’d never know.
The thought made him stop in his tracks.
Beside him, Andi’s son stopped, too, and tugged on Cole’s jeans. “Me go?”
“Yeah,” Cole said. “Don’t you worry, pardner. We’re going.” He wasn’t about to miss this chance to spend some time with Robbie, especially now he could be in a room without the boy’s mama watching like a hawk.
He had seen her face when he’d stood to leave the dining room. It was clear she didn’t want him with his own kid without her there to supervise.
The two boys had lined up the collection of plastic horses on the sitting room floor. Cole walked between the toys, watching where he set his heavy boots and keeping an eye out for anything in the kid’s path.
They took seats on the floor, Trey crawling over to the boys and Cole leaning up against the couch. To his surprise, Jed entered the room holding Andi’s daughter. “I thought you and the girls were busy making plans.”
“They’re talking drapes and comforters, so I left them to it. I’ll be on hand when they get into the more important stuff.” He took a seat in the low-slung chair near the couch. “Thought I’d keep you company for a bit.”
Or had Tina sent his boss to take her hawk-eyed place?
But no need for such a crazy notion. If he could believe what she’d said—that Jed and Paz didn’t know about the boy—she could hardly have asked Jed to observe him with Robbie.
Cole stretched his legs out, crossing his boots at the ankle. From this position, he could see the boys and Jed.
As he sat watching the old man with the baby cradled in his big, gnarled hands, he had to swallow another wave of resentment at Tina.
He had meant it when he’d told her there was no sense wasting any more time. Thinking of all he had missed of his son’s life, he looked at Jed with his great-granddaughter and shook his head.
Obviously unaware of Cole’s train of thought, Jed caught his reaction and grinned. “Nothing like it.”
For a second, he felt like spilling his guts to the man. But that wouldn’t help the situation. He remained silent about his newfound fatherhood and went into the role he hoped he could play. “Holding a newborn? No, thanks, I’ll pass. Keeping an eye on Scott’s more than enough for me.”
“Not just the holding, but the having,” Jed said solemnly. “Knowing a part of Mary and me lives on in this little girl, there’s nothing like that feeling. Nothing like family.”
Cole didn’t respond.
“Got any plans for settling down yet?”
Not yet. Not ever.
He’d learned the hard way marriage wasn’t in the picture for him.