Ever since Mitch Broader set foot in Texas, he dreamed of owning his own ranch. Now that he’s bought a share in the Double T Ranch, he’s one step closer to the dream. Then his past greets him in the form of a baby basket, complete with infant and birth certificate naming him as the father. He can’t change diapers and work toward his dream at the same time.
When Sara Lightfoot, “Miss Hollywood” in Mitch’s eyes, rescues him with her particular knack for handling his precocious son, he hires her on the spot as a temporary nanny. No matter how much Sara’s dark eyes and warm heart make this bachelor think of settling down and making their arrangement permanent, she’s made it perfectly clear she has other plans that don’t include him or his dreams.
Sara Lightfoot never thought she’d return to her home on the reservation. Now she plans to reclaim the life she left by going back to the reservation as a Native American storyteller, teaching the Apache children stories of their culture. She didn’t expect Mitch Broader’s sexy smile or job offer as a live-in nanny to derail those plans. After all she’s been through to come home, can she open up her heart once again to love?
What a homecoming, Sara. First day back in Texas in years and you crash the town social.
Sara Lightfoot chuckled at the nervous energy racing through her veins. She never thought coming home would be easy, but she certainly hadn't expected this much anxiety.
When she had first received Mandy's letter telling her she'd come back to Texas, she'd gotten the bug to come home. Safety in numbers, Mandy had said. No one will expect it.
Yeah, right! She hadn't always done the unexpected, but this time she was sure her arrival would cause enough of a stir that heads were going to turn and a flurry of whispers were going to race across the lawn like a brush fire on a dry Texas day.
It wasn't that big a deal and she didn't relish the kind of attention that was sure to come her way. She was coming home to a place she should have never left in the first place. But when all was said and done, it had taken the leaving to appreciate the home she had fled on the Apache reservation she'd grown up on.
As she drove down the endless highway toward Steerage Rock, Sara smiled to herself. She hadn't fled this time. This time she chose to leave LA and shed a little piece of herself in the process. She'd given up her old life and taken back her family name. That was the first of many steps she hoped would bring her closer to home.
Her divorce to Dave was now final. Another huge step. Going home to reclaim a life she threw away years before like a worn out dress was the next step. She only hoped that old life would want her back as much as she wanted to be back.
Mandy had insisted it would and Sara clung to that hope.
Main Street looked exactly as it had the day she and Dave had walked into the Justice of the Peace's office downtown and married. As she drove passed City Hall, she took in the cold and lonely feeling that swept through her and pushed it aside. She hadn't thought it lonely the day of her marriage. After all, she had Dave. What more could she need? He was going to make all her childhood dreams come true. Funny how dreams turn...
She heaved a heavy sigh as she reached the intersection that led to the main road leading to The Double T Ranch. Anticipation raced through her. Her hands started to tremble. Thank goodness, Mandy had gone against her wishes and come to LA for a spontaneous visit. If she hadn't, Lord knows she’d still be caught in the same prison Dave had neatly built for her.
Sara hit her directional and took a left hand turn, anticipation of seeing family for the first time in almost nine years and fear of their reaction filling her at the same time.
As she sped past the red brick elementary school, she pulled over, parked the car on the grass near a chain-link fence, and then felt the whoosh of a speeding car drive past her on the opposite side of the road. Someone was in a hurry to get out of town, she thought. She'd had enough of that in LA, where it seemed everyone was in a hurry. Out here, she'd have time. Time to heal her wounds and build back a life she'd thrown away.
A cluster of children played in the park and she had to smile. She'd always loved the children. And they had always loved her stories. After volunteering at a daycare in LA sharing her Native American heritage with the children through stories, she decided it was time to reconnect with a piece of her that had been missing. Sure, there were elementary schools and parks in LA and all over the world. She could have gone anywhere. But this...this was home.
* * *
A patch of open Texas sky stretched long and wide above the Double T Ranch. Mitch Broader adjusted his straw hat and took a moment to enjoy the view from where he was sitting, straddling a long beam of wood. Void of a single cloud, the deep cerulean space above him felt like a warm cozy blanket.
His face split into a grin that he couldn't hold back. It was a perfect day. They'd get all their work done and the next with time to spare before any bad weather could say different. This kind of luck had been following Mitch Broader ever since he'd bought his share in the Double T's new rodeo school nearly a year ago. That one small step would bring him closer to fulfilling a dream he'd had ever since the day he'd first driven those long roads from the Amarillo Airport with his grandfather.
Leaning forward on the sturdy beam, he waited for the crew of cowboys down on the ground to pass him and Beau Gentry, his longtime friend and now partner in the Double T's rodeo school, another beam to slip in place. This barn they were raising would give them plenty of room to house the horses they needed to run the school and bring him one step closer to the day when he'd own his own ranch, a dream he'd had since he'd come to Texas.
Of course, back then, when Mitch was still a gangly green boy from Baltimore, Mitch hadn't understood the hard work and dedication it would take to own a spread. After years of working alongside some well-seasoned Texas cowboys, he knew. He'd listened and learned his lessons well. Having a piece of the Double T's new rodeo training school might not be the same as owning his own ranch, but it was a step in the right direction. And for now, that suited Mitch just fine. He wasn't in a hurry.
When this crew--mostly volunteers from surrounding ranches and neighbors who'd come out for the event like it was a square dance social--was done putting all the pieces of this post and beam barn together, when the last spike was hammered deep and secure into the fine wood, they would all celebrate. A party the size of Texas with all the food and fixins' he'd come to enjoy.
Dancing and women. Yeah, there would be plenty of that, too. And that was the fun part of being a cowboy.
He peered down from the beam he was holding on to, toward the sound of a familiar female voice calling for him. A drop of sweat from his brow followed gravity and imbedded itself in his eye causing it to sting. He had to blink twice before he could focus.
“I'm kind of hung up, Mandy. Want to wait a sec?” he called back to the blonde haired woman staring up at him through squinted eyes. Mandy held her arched back with both hands, clearly uncomfortable in the heat being that she was nearly seven months pregnant with her first baby. There'd been a time, early on when he'd first arrived at The Double T Ranch that he'd thought Mandy Morgan was the cutest little creature he'd ever laid eyes on. Still sporting one heck of an adolescent broken heart, he'd set himself for more heartache when she up and fell in love with Beau, only to leave and never return to the ranch until last summer. Within the last year she'd become Mandy Morgan Gentry, his bride.
Mitch reached for one end of the beam being eased his way by the ground crew and slipped it cleanly into the pre-notched hole.
“Ah, Mitch?” Mandy called again. “If it was just me, I'd have no problem waiting on you. But I don't think this is something that can wait.”
“You ain't in labor or anythin', Mandy, are you? “ Beau said, ready to jump down from the beam he was straddling to aid his wife, his face panic-stricken. “The doctor said you were supposed to take it easy to keep from having any more contractions.”
“Cool your jets, Beau. I'm doing just fine,” she said with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eye that made instant relief register on Beau's sun tanned face. Pointing a finger at Mitch, she urged, “You're wanted in the house. Pronto.”
Mitch couldn't help but stare as Mandy spun on her heels, with as much grace as a woman in her condition could, and waddled back to the main farmhouse.
Beau chuckled from the other end of the beam. “What'd you do, Mitch? Forget to scrape the muck off your boots before walking into the house again?”
“It wouldn't be the first time. Corrine made it more than clear she'd have my head on a spit if I ruined that new carpet in the dining room.”
“Never known Corrine to tell a lie.”
Mitch couldn't help but laugh. Corrine Promise was a small woman, but the last two years had tested her strength--had tested them all--and she'd come out of it victoriously. The matriarch of the ranch, even though she'd rather hole up in her art studio with her hands in clay or paints to being ten feet near a cow, she was the epitome of the old time pioneer woman in spirit. While her husband might be in charge of running the daily business as owner of The Double T Ranch, there was no doubt it was Corrine who was in charge of the Promise home.
Mitch adjusted his straw cowboy hat on his head, feeling another trickle of sweat make a journey down the side of his face before dropping off and hitting his already sweat soaked white T-shirt. He finished toe nailing the steel spike into the beam to keep it in its place.
He glanced at his handiwork with appreciation. If done right, this barn would be standing long after he was nothing more than dust on this earth.
“Wish me luck,” he muttered in somewhat of a groan as he climbed down from the skeleton of the barn.
Beau's laughter faded as Mitch hiked through the crowd of neighbors and friends gathered to help with the festivities. A bundle of women stood gabbing under a shady tree about something intense as they poured pink lemonade to pass out to the chain of people working on the barn. They paid no attention to him as he grabbed one of the filled paper cups lined on the table and drank it down before shooting it into a garbage can at the end of the table.
Mitch drew in a pensive breath before he reached the screen door. Pausing, he scraped his boots extra hard on the doormat with a little more care than usual before walking into the house.
“Would it help if I said sorry for whatever I did, Corrine?”
He heard her lighthearted chuckle and let out a breath of relief. How much trouble could he really be in if she still held her humor?
“Do what you like,” Corrine called back to him from inside. “But I'm afraid it'll do no good.”
He made a face and groaned audibly. What on earth had he done this time?
* * *
“You've got to be kidding,” Mitch said just moments later, still not believing the bombshell that had just exploded in his face. He swayed for a second, and then slumped against the wall. It was a joke. It had to be!
Corrine held the tiny infant in her arms and eyed him. Not a trace of humor on her face. “Do I look like I'm kidding?”
“You've got to be--”
“Hard to believe, isn't it? Mitch is a daddy. Hearts will be breaking wide open now that Mitchell Broader is no longer footloose and fancy free,” Mandy chimed in. “You're gonna be changing diapers instead of picking up women after bringing the cows home.”
“This is a sick joke, right?”
Corrine shrugged as she blew a fallen tendril of hair from her forehead. “Maybe, but we're not the one playing it on you.”
“We're not into cruel and unusual punishment. Even for you.”
“Thanks a lot, Mandy,” he said, his mouth skewing into a wry grin.
She chuckled softly as she peered over the baby Corrine held in her arms and crooned softly. “No problem.”
“She actually said...Lillian said that I'm this kid's daddy? I mean...and then she just...left? She left the kid here for me to raise?” His throat constricted and he was finding it hard to draw breath. Right now, the only thing keeping him upright was the solid wall behind him and that was only as long as his knees didn’t give way.
Corrine motioned to the window. “Didn’t you see the dust cloud running down the driveway? The woman was in quite a hurry to escape.”
“I'll just bet.”
That would be typical Lillian. If it involved money, Lillian was in a hurry.
“Did anyone else talk with her? Did she say when she was coming back?”
“Nope, and with all the commotion today, no one would have noticed her, anyway. I came into the house to check on the lemon pies and she was just there sitting at the kitchen table like the rest of the chairs. I have no idea how long she'd been sitting there. All she said was this was your baby and your responsibility now. She didn't say anything about coming back for him.”
Corrine stood up from the worn couch she'd been sitting on, rocking the sleeping baby in her arms. She padded softly over to Mitch and held the child out to him. Her arms hung in the air. What did she expect him to do?
“He's truly an adorable child. Don't you want to hold your son?” she asked with the kind of warmth and compassion he'd come to love about her. Except this time, he didn't want to see it.
His son? Had she really called this warm little bundle his son? He looked at the baby boy dressed in a Baltimore Orioles baseball outfit and little sock booties, back at Corrine , and then at the baby again.
Corrine chuckled softly so as not to rouse the baby. “He's not going to do anything. I promise you that. It's a lot easier to hold him for the first time while he's asleep. Pretty soon he'll probably be crying for something.”
“I don't know anything about holding a baby.”
He was vaguely aware of Mandy coming into the living room, holding a freshly laundered white tee shirt. He'd somehow missed the fact that she'd left the room for a moment.
“You are not touching this precious baby wearing that sweaty shirt,” Mandy insisted. “Put this one on.”
He did as he was told, handing the shirt he'd been wearing to Mandy, who took it between her fingertips and walked back to the laundry room.
He shook his head. “I can't do this. There's got to be a mistake.”
“He's a baby, Mitch, not a bomb. Although he'll probably deposit something explosive in his diaper real soon,” Mandy said.
Corrine placed the baby in the crook of Mitch’s arm and closed his hand around the baby to keep him snug. “Don't worry. You've encountered worse messes in the barn. You can handle a little diaper.”
“Now this I've got to see,” Mandy said, crossing her arms across her chest and resting them on her ample belly.
He didn't know what irked him more. The fact that Lillian had pulled another fast one on him by dropping off some kid at the ranch, and claiming it to be his son, or the fact that Mandy and Corrine seemed to be taking such pleasure in something that was obviously meant to make him squirm.
“I know it's a shock,” Mandy started to say, but Mitch cut her off.
“That's quite the understatement.”
“But you do know who this Lillian person is, right?” Mandy asked. “I mean, she's not some stranger who happened to drive on by?”
No, Lillian was definitely not a stranger. “I know her.”
“Then is it possible she's telling the truth about this is your son?” Corrine asked.
He stared down at the baby and mentally counted the months since he'd last been in Baltimore. The last time he'd seen Lillian.
“It's a possibility.”
Corrine shrugged and smiled. “Well, then there you have it. Looks like we have a baby on the ranch sooner than we thought.”
Mitch stared down at the baby. No, it couldn't be. A baby? How was a baby going to fit into things on the ranch?
Corrine's sympathetic voice carved its way into his shock. “I really hate to do this to you, but I've got food in the oven that needs my attention.” Corrine left the room.
“I wish I could help you right now, too,” Mandy said. “But we're already stretched with all this cooking, especially now that Alice has gone home with a migraine.”
Those few little words sucked all the air out of the room for Mitch. “Wait...wait...you can't leave me alone with...with--”
Corrine pointed to the yard. “Do you see that crowd out there? They're here for us. They didn't have to leave their ranches to do this, but they did. I've got a lot of mouths to feed. Come sundown, after all the work they've done, they are going to be mighty hungry for some food. I wish it were different, but we can't help you baby-sit right now.”
Mandy moved past him, eyeing the baby with dreamy eyes. “A little later when things slow down some, I can give you a break.”
Mitch started gently bouncing the baby as he stirred. The kid looked so tiny in his big arms. “What do I...what's his name?”
Corrine poked her head in for just a second and said, “Jonathan.”
Then they were gone. And he was alone. With a baby.
* * *
Sara brought her sedan to a full stop at the gate announcing The Double T Ranch. It had been a long time since she'd visited Hank and Corrine Promise. Their spread was bigger than she'd remembered. But then a lot of changing happens in nine years. Mandy had mentioned hard times last year when she'd visited, something to do with Hank's health. But by the look of things, it seemed the hard times had past. She was glad for that.
She hit the gas pedal and pushed past the gate. A long string of cars and pickups trucks lined the side of the drive. As she approached, she saw a large green and white striped tent set up in the back yard with tables and chairs arranged beneath it. It wasn't until she got closer that she saw a team of people engrossed in erecting a post and beam barn.
It was a real honest to goodness old-fashioned barn raising. Now that was something you didn't see every day in Los Angeles.
There were people crawling all over the yard like ants picking up crumbs at a picnic. Sara parked her rental at the end of the line and walked along the row of cars leading to the festivities. The smell of manure and freshly mown hay drying in the sun filled her nose as she walk by grazing cows in the pasture.
A trickle of sweat made its way down her chest as she felt the heat of the sun. She should have changed into a pair of shorts and her sneakers before she'd left the airport, she thought. Her coral silk sleeveless blouse and pants were clinging to her skin after the long ride from the airport.
Clutched by anxiety and the overwhelming desire to run, she made a beeline for the house before anyone recognized her. With any luck, she'd spot Mandy first and have a private meeting before barging in on her parents. Odds were her mother was here already, having been the housekeeper at the Double T for more than fifteen years.
The screen door slammed, drawing her attention to the house. There'd be less people inside on such a hot day. Maybe she'd be able to find Mandy there before anyone spotted her.
Slipping past a group of blue-haired women tearing at a pitcher of iced tea under a low hanging cottonwood tree, Sara rushed up the brick path to the front door that faced the driveway. As she approached, she heard the plaintive sound of a baby crying, and the deep, almost groan, of a male voice. An extremely exasperated male voice.
The urgency of that voice had her bolting into the house without knocking.
The tall, dark-haired man pacing the living room, bouncing the baby was much too pre-occupied with trying to stop the baby from crying to notice her. He had his broad back to her, but it couldn't possibly be Beau, Sara quickly decided. She'd seen pictures of the wedding when Mandy had visited. Even with his back turned, she knew he looked different. And Mandy's baby wasn't due for at least another two or more months according to her last letter.
Dropping her purse on the oak end table, Sara advanced across the carpeted floor, worrying more about the poor infant than startling the man with her silent entry.
“Keep that up and you'll be smelling baby vomit on your boots for the next month,” she said.
The man swung around with the sound of her voice. It wasn't Beau, but she did know the face. She'd seen him before. But she couldn't quite place where.
“Oh, thank God someone is here,” he said, relief bursting to life in his sun-tanned face.
His bright eyes were a deep sapphire blue with flecks of gold and gray that reminded Sara of sunset and sunrise all in one. Although his skin was indeed a bronze color from the long days he no doubt spent in the Texas sun, his nose was slightly red and peeling. A testament to his fair skin. Sweat lined his dark brows as they creased.
“They all left me alone. He's been crying, and I have no idea what to do.”
“Poor baby,” she said, standing near enough to now stroke her finger across the baby's smooth cheek.
“No, I meant the baby. His mother should be brought up on charges for leaving this child with the likes of you.”
The man heaved a sigh. “At the moment, I couldn't agree with you more. Do you know anything about babies?”
“I know it's not good to bounce him around so much. It'll give him an upset stomach.”
“He's been crying forever.”
Sara rolled her eyes and couldn't help but smile. A cowboy had the stomach for castrating a bull, but some were so helpless when it came to babies. She actually felt sorry for him. “I'm sure it only seems that way.”
“No, I swear. And I don't know what he wants.”
“If he's been crying a long time, he may have colic.”
“Colic? You mean like a horse?” he croaked.
Sara chuckled quietly at the horrified look her gave her, thinking how good it felt to do that after so long. “Yeah, something like that.”
The man gulped. “Sometimes we have to put down horses with colic.”
“Trust me, you're not going to have to do that for the baby. When was the last time he had a bottle?”
He looked at her blankly. “A bottle?”
“Yeah, has he been fed? You know, formula you put in a bottle to feed the baby? You're not going to give him a slab of steak fresh off the grill at his age. Or maybe his mother is nursing?”
The man's broad shoulders sagged. “Look, I know how to raise cows and horses. I'm an imbecile when it comes to a baby.”
Sara quirked an eyebrow. “So it seems.”
She reached out, rescued the baby from the man’s arms, and stretched the baby belly-side down over the length of her arm, cooing to help soothe the baby. With a practiced hand, she checked his diaper to find that it was still dry.
“I take it this is not your baby.”
His blue eyes grazed the baby. For a moment, he looked a little lost himself. With a sigh, he said, “Can you help me?”
Sara glanced around the living room, on the sofa and the floor in search of a diaper bag. She found one snug between the sofa and end table. “See if there is a bottle in that diaper bag. If there is, bring it into the kitchen.”
She walked into the kitchen, holding the baby with one arm, and searched the pan wrack above the stove. She took a stainless steel pan from the wrack and filled it with hot tap water. The kitchen was filled with delicious smells of food that suddenly made her remember she hadn't eaten anything since that morning.
The man came into the kitchen rifling through the diaper bag until he pulled out a bottle filled with baby formula. Taking it from his hands, she placed it in the pan to warm, suddenly glad that her time volunteering at the daycare center back in LA made her feel useful here. At least it took her mind off her anxiety for a moment.
“Aren't you going to give the bottle to the baby?”
“How would you like to eat a cold steak for dinner?” she said softly, not wanting to jar the baby. Although he was still crying, the sobs weren't as extreme. After a few minutes she pulled the bottle from the water, tested it on her arm as she walked back into the living room. She perched herself on the edge of the sofa and placed the nipple into the baby's mouth. Immediately the infant took hold and started suckling.
“Oh, thank God,” the man said, running both hands over his head as silence filled the air. “I thought he was never going to stop.”
“He was just hungry. That's all. Babies can't skip meals like grownups can.”
“You must have had a lot of practice doing this. You're a natural.”
“I know a thing or two about children.”
“What did you do, raise all your brothers and sisters?”
“I volunteered at a daycare for a while.”
The man sat on the opposite end of the sofa and appeared to finally relax a little. “Daycare, huh? I'll have to remember that. I'm eternally in your debt.”
Sara tossed him a wry grin. “That's a bit extreme, don't you think? All I did was give him a bottle.”
“You wouldn't say that if you'd been here the last half hour.”
The man was really staring at her for the first time now that he wasn't preoccupied with a crying baby. She shifted uncomfortably as his blue eyes pierced her and then seemed to brighten just a notch.
“I know you. We've met before.” His smile was of the high wattage variety, complete with perfect white teeth and dimple marking his cheek.
Sara had thought she'd recognized him and now that he seemed familiar with her, she realized she must have at some point before she’d gone to Los Angeles.
“I'd offer to shake your hand, but they're a little busy. I'm Sara Gre…uh, Sara Lightfoot,” she said, catching herself when she almost gave him her former married name.
His face lit up. “We have met. A long time ago here at the ranch. Alice's daughter, right?”
She nodded. “How do you know?”
“Mitch Broader. I started working here at the ranch on weekends my last year of high school.”
“Mitch.” She thought back to the years before she'd run away, before she'd met Dave and her world shifted so rapidly. “I remember a tall lanky kid with a colossal crush on Mandy who always poked around the barn whenever we were around.”
He shot her a lopsided grin that made her insides flutter just a bit. “And all this time I thought I was being charming.”
“Your mother didn't mention anything about you coming home.”
Anxiety hit her square in the stomach. “She didn't know.” Trying to turn the attention off her, she asked, “What's the baby's name?”
“Well, hello there, Jonathan,” she crooned as she stared down at the baby in her arms. He’d taken the bottle quickly and was now on his way to falling back to sleep.
“Is his mom outside helping with the barn raising?”
Mitch groaned. “If I know Lillian, she's probably out raising Cain.”
She felt a frown crease her forehead. “Then, this is your baby?”
“I...I'm not sure.”
“You don't know?”
Mitch's face grew tight. “He's my responsibility right now. Beyond that I know about as much as you do.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry.”
“Forget it. At least you got him to stop crying. I never knew how good silence sounded.”
She looked down at the tiny infant, who seemed drugged by the formula he'd just consumed. “He looks just like you, you know.”
“He's a baby. All babies look alike,” Mitch said, the tension back in his face.
But it instantly vanished as the screen door slammed shut and the two of them looked up at the doorway leading to the kitchen.
Sara's stomach wound into a tight knot and she quickly handed the sleeping baby back to Mitch.
“Sara. Sara, is that you?”
# # #