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The Cowboy's Little Surprise (The Hitching Post Hotel) Mass Market Paperback – April 7, 2015
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About the Author
Barbara White Daille lives with her husband in the wild Southwest, where they deal with lizards in the yard and scorpions in the bathroom.
A writer since before she knew how to spell, Barbara loves creating home and family stories--with cowboys!--for Harlequin American Romance. When not writing, she can be found near books and chocolate. Please visit her at: www.BarbaraWhiteDaille.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
To Cole Slater, walking into the Hitching Post Hotel felt like coming home
which probably didn't mean much, considering he'd hated the home he had grown up in and hadn't stayed in any one place since leaving it.
He stared around him in awe. Everything looked the same as it had the day he'd shown up here as a high-school senior, as raw as any wrangler could have been, to start a job on Garland Ranch. In those early days, he'd ridden the line between a determination to prove himself and the stomach-clenching certainty he was in way over his head.
Exactly the way he'd felt since his return to Cowboy Creek.
Pushing the thought aside, he turned to Jed, who hadn't changed much, either. His white hair was combed neatly into place, as always, and he wore the same string tie and belt buckle Cole had never seen him without.
"Glad you could drop by," his former boss said.
"I appreciate the invitation. As the saying goes, you're not looking a day older, Jed. And things around here don't seem to have changed a bit."
Jed beamed. "We try to keep the place up."
"You've done a good job of it."
Years of polishing had buffed the hotel's registration desk to a high sheen. The brass foot rail encircling it gleamed. Even the knotty-pine walls and flooring of the reception area gave off a soft glow, as if the candles in the wrought-iron holders on the wall had been set to flame.
In the sitting room off to one side of the entry, the same heavy, low-slung couches and chairs sported the same handmade afghans, and the chime clock on the wall still ticked the seconds away like a slow, steady heartbeat.
Or maybe that was his own heart, thumping so hard he could hear it.
No, the Hitching Post hadn't changed. Neither had the old man in front of him. But he himself sure had, and the time had come for him to prove it.
"Paz and Tina will be sorry they missed you."
At the statement, he froze. Jed couldn't know just how wrong he'd been. Paz, yeah, maybe she would be happy to see him again, and he felt the same. But Tina
He'd practically grown up with Jed's granddaughter. They'd had the same teachers all through the lower grades and even shared some of the same classes in high school. But after what had happened between them senior year, Tina would never want to see him again.
"C'mon back." Jed waved at him to follow and walked away.
Cole knew where they were headed. From his days of working here, he knew the ranch and the hotel well. Halfway along the hall, he stopped in the doorway of the small, overcrowded den where Jed would sit every Friday when his men came to collect their pay. On a good many of those Friday nights, Cole would hang around to talk to the boss long after the rest of the wranglers had left.
The old man probably still handled his payroll from here. He had always claimed the den was the only danged room in the hotel he could call his own.
Now his former boss took a seat in the leather chair behind the massive handmade desk. He rested his gnarled fists on its surface, looked at Cole and said not a word.
Cole stepped into the den and swung the door closed behind him.
Jed waved toward one of the guest chairs. "Never thought I'd see you sitting in front of me at this desk again."
"Me, either. I owe you an apology, Jed."
"Do you, now?"
"You know I do. For leaving here without letting you know I planned to quit."
"That was a surprise, I'll admit. Walking off without notice happens with cowhands who move around. I see that go on all the time. It's not what I'd expect from a man I keep on the payroll. And then, never to hear a word "
"Yeah." He ran his thumb along the arm of the chair. "I've been on the move."
"On the run."
"And, I take it," Jed continued, "by nobody's choice but your own."
"It didn't exactly happen like that." He sighed. "I just wanted to get out of Cowboy Creek. You know once I was left as Layne's legal guardian, our lives got a little crazy."
"All the more reason to reach out to a friend."
"I couldn't do that. Not again." He shrugged, as if he could dislodge the burden he'd carried since that time. He was just turned eighteen and caring for his younger sister on his own. Their mama had recently died and their dad had passed on a couple of years before that. His boss had known all this back then.
"I never wanted to ask you for those advances to my pay. But Layne was still trying to deal with losing Mama when her boyfriend dumped heron her sixteenth birthday. She was a mess." He shook his head. "I wanted to get her something special. Heck, I wanted to buy food to put in our fridge. But all my pay had already gone to the rent."
Sitting back in his chair, Jed laced his fingers across his belly and squinted again. "At least you had your head on straight about your sister. I'll give you that. Family's important." He sounded more sad than angry now. But he frowned. "Why the hell didn't you tell me back then you still needed help, boy?"
Cole took a deep breath and gestured uselessly. What could he have said? That he wanted to keep Jed's respect for stepping up and taking care of his own? That he hated the thought of admitting his helplessness to the man he looked up to more than he ever had to his own dad?
Instead, unable to say either of those things and worried nearly to death about Layne, he'd turned around and betrayed the one person who'd believed in him.
"Anyhow," he said, "once she and her boyfriend made up, she wanted to get married. She was underage, and as her guardian, she needed me to sign the paperwork to give my okay. And I did." He sighed. "I didn't stop to think about much else. I was still just a kid myself, too dumb to know that walking away from a job without notice wasn't the right thing to do. But all I could see was that getting Layne settled gave me my ticket out. So I grabbed it and never looked back. Now, she's on her own again, only this time she's got both a kid and one on the way. So here I am." He took a deep breath. "I always intended to apologize to you. And to pay back the advances."
The old man's white eyebrows shot up. "It's sure taken you a while to get around to it."
"I know that, too. This is the first time I've come back to town since then." For one reason or a dozen, none of which he wanted to think about. "It didn't sit right for me to just mail you a check. When I paid my obligation, I wanted to make sure I was looking you in the eye."
"Folks say a handshake between friends is worth its weight in gold." Jed stood and reached across the desk. When they clasped hands, the old man's grip was as strong and sure as it had ever been.
"And I need to take care of those advances." He pulled out his wallet. "No haggling over this, Jed. I owe you."
"Well, we can let that part go."
Cole frowned. He didn't want their conversation to end this way. After all this time, he wanted to pay his debt in full. To finally get rid of the burden. But Jed, jaw set stubbornly, had returned to his seat.
Instead of the redemption he'd hoped for, he would have to settle temporarily for that handshake and the knowledge he hadn't lost a friend.
"I have got a proposition for you, though," Jed said. "Now you're back in town, you'll need a job."
"Yeah. I figure I'll get picked up at one of the ranches around here, even if it's just through the summer."
"I want you on this ranch."
Jed laughed. "Don't sound so surprised. You worked out fine the first time, didn't you?"
He had to take another long breath before he would trust his voice again. "We just went through this. I walked away. And you went five years without hearing from me, without me paying my debt. Yet you want to hire me on again?"
"Are you listening to what you're saying, boy? That's three loads of guilt in one sentence. Sounds like you'd darned well better take this offer if you're ever gonna get over yourself."
Cole shook his head. His old boss always had read him better than anyone could.
"I'll wager Pete will be happy to see you again."
Surprised, Cole said, "Pete Brannigan?" The man had broken him in during his early days on the ranch. He'd felt sure Pete, a few years older, would have moved on by this time. "He's still wrangling for you?"
"That and more. He's managing the place for me now. Lives right here on the ranch with his family. And he's been saying we could use an extra hand. So, what do you say?"
He hesitated, though he knew full well he'd have to take the offer. He needed a steady job. This one would give him a chance to prove to Jed he'd changed. At the same time, it might give him an idea of how to pay the man back.
But it would also put him in danger of running into Tina. Tina who, with one short conversation with her granddaddy, could get him thrown off Garland Ranch.
Tina pulled the ranch's truck into the empty parking lot behind the Hitching Post. As she and her grandmother climbed out of the cab, she said, "Abuela, you go ahead in with the frozen food, and I'll take care of the rest."
"You can handle all that?"
"Sure," she said. "This is nothing." And that was a problem.
The small size of their order from the Local-General Store reflected the lack of guests at the hotel. As the hotel's bookkeeper, she found that lack giving her plenty to worry about lately. Sure, it was only early March, never one of their busiest seasons, but it was quieter than usual for this time of year. Their bookings for the summer hadn't begun to pick up yet, either.
"We'll need to go back to the store again soon, before Jane and Andi arrive."
"No problem, Abuela. I know you need to buy everything fresh. John Barrett must love seeing us walk into the L-G so often."
"I think you're right."
John had established the market forty years ago, naming it the Local-General Store. He claimed building it smack in the middle of Cowboy Creek made it local to everybody, and stocking everything under the sun made it general. The store's popularitydespite the attempt of a couple of national chains to take overseemed to have proven him right.
She looked over at Abuela, who was still gathering the couple of insulated carrier bags she used for frozen food.
"Is everything okay? You've been looking tired lately." More than tired. Her shoulders seemed slightly stooped, the lines under her eyes more pronounced. With her grandparents always so active, Tina sometimes had to remind herself they'd both reached their seventies. "Has Robbie been wearing you out? He's got so much energy."
"Don't be silly. And a four-year-old must have lots of energy."
It wasn't till Abuela was halfway up the steps of the hotel that Tina realized she hadn't answered the first question. Was everything okay with her? Was she concerned about Jed, the way Tina had been for a while now?
Though she hadn't learned she was Jed's granddaughter until shortly before she had started school, he had always been her abuelo. She loved him just as much as she loved Robbie and Abuela.
His behavior lately had her very concerned. He'd been acting odd, distracted, as if he were worried about something. But of course, there was one perfectly logical reason for that. He had the same worries she did.
Ever since high school, she had helped keep the hotel's books for Jed. Very early on, she had learned that when people were forced to budget, vacation funds often went in the first cut. And the Hitching Post felt the pain. That meant she felt the pain, as well. She glanced up at the hotel, all three stories of it, all the way up to the windows of her attic hideaway. She loved the hotel, the only home she and Robbie had ever known. Jed, who had also lived here all of his life, couldn't like the idea of all those empty rooms, either.
Sighing, she reached for one of the grocery sacks in the back of the truck. Footsteps on gravel made her pause. It wasn't Jed's familiar tread, and they had no one staying at the hotel at the moment. Maybe this was someone who wanted to book a room. She turned with a welcoming smile.
That smile died on her lips when she saw the cowboy standing in front of her. Cole Slater.
In one startled, reflexive sweep, she took in almost everything about him. The light brown hair showing beneath the brim of his battered hat. The firm mouth and jaw. Broad shoulders. Narrow hips. The well-worn jeans, silver belt buckle, and scuffed boots. In the next reluctant second, she turned her gaze to the one feature she had deliberately skipped over the first time.
A pair of blue eyes that made her think instantly of her son.
Clutching the grocery sack, she demanded, "What are you doing here?"
His face looked flushed. But he didn't appear angry, the way he would have if he'd seen Robbie and put two and two together. She breathed a sigh of relief at the reprieve, no matter how brief, giving her a chance to come to grips with his return to town. If she ever could.
Seeing him again had brought back years of memories she didn't want to think about.
She should have known better than to fall for Cole Slater. At the tender age of seven, she had already heard about his reputation as a sweet-talker. By junior high, he had progressed to a real player. And by senior high, he had turned love-'em-and-leave-'em into an art form, changing girlfriends as often as she replaced guest towels here at the Hitching Post.
Too bad she hadn't remembered all that when he had finally turned his attention her way.
He shoved his hands into his back pockets, which pulled his shirt taut against his chest. Now, she felt herself flushing as she recalled the one and only time
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While in high school, Tina had had a huge crush on Cole. During their senior year she tutored him in a couple classes and they got closer. Then that closeness was destroyed by Cole's betrayal and his departure, leaving her to face heartbreak and an unexpected pregnancy. She never tracked him down to tell him about the baby, and his reappearance has her worried about his reaction.
Cole came to the ranch to apologize to the man he worked for and left without a word. He's surprised by Jed's easy acceptance of his apology and offer of a job. Tina's reaction isn't as pleasant. She's not as happy to see him and doesn't mind telling him so. When Cole finds out about Robbie, he's furious with her for not telling him, and determined to be a father to the little boy.
Tina and Cole had a lot to overcome in the rekindling of their relationship. Both have realized that their actions in the past have led to where they are now. Cole had been forced into the role of father, brother and caretaker of his sister when their father died, leaving Cole as the only one to care for her. He had dreams of leaving Cowboy Creek, and felt trapped. He was a bit of a playboy in school, never making any kind of commitment. When he started to have feelings for Tina, a girl who was the forever kind, he panicked and ran. Now he wants to put all that behind him. Finding out about Robbie brings his old fears back to the surface. With the kind of example his own father was, how can he possibly be any kind of a father for Robbie?
Based on her experience with him, Tina's not so sure either. But as Cole spends more time with her and with Robbie, she sees that he is already showing himself to be just what Robbie needs. Tina feels more and more guilty about keeping them apart as she sees them get closer. Her own feelings of rejection, both by Cole's actions and, further back, by her parents' behavior, had left her feeling wary of trusting her heart to him again.
I liked how both Cole and Tina owned up to the mistakes of the past and wanted to move beyond them. Their cautious cooperation as Cole got to know Robbie also gave them a chance to get to know each other again. The attraction is still there though they try to resist its influence. I loved seeing Cole with his nephew Scott and with Robbie. He was so wonderful with them, yet couldn't see that it was contrary to his beliefs about himself. It took both his sister and Tina to show him that he wasn't his father and open his eyes to what he can have.
The secondary characters are all well done. Tina's cousins give some more insight into why Tina is the person she is. Their presence gives her a chance to see some things from the past in a different light, and indicates some changes for all of them in the future. Cole's sister Layne, the reason for his return to Cowboy Creek, shows him that the past, while influencing the present, doesn't have to dictate it. I really liked her positive outlook, and hope that she gets a happy ending of her own.
Harlequin was the first type of romance I ever read and I still love them to this day. The Cowboy’s Little Surprise is a wonderful example why! Barbara White Daille deftly handles the how the past affects the decisions we make while building a future for Cole and Tina. Pick this one up for a quick read that will leave you with that feel good feeling!
This book was reviewed by Melissa for Joyfully Reviewed (JR), and was provided by the publisher/author at no cost to JR for the purpose of being reviewed.
When the last person she thought she would ever see again walks through her door, Tina is running scared. Not only does Cole have apologies to make, Tina must come clean about why she kept the child she had out of wedlock a secret from not only his father, but her entire family as well.
As soon as Cole sees Robbie, he knows that the boy is his son and Tina has a lot to answer for. At first Tina believes that Cole can't ever live up to being the father that Robbie deserves, but the more time he spends with his son, the more Tina knows the opposite is true. The only thing she needs to do is convince Cole of that, but the troubled past won't allow him to move on until he takes a look deep into himself. Combine that with the rekindling of the attraction they once felt for one another and we have quite a tale. Even the conspiracy going on around them perpetrated by Tina's grandfather, Jed might not be enough to make the young couple see they are meant to be together, but maybe a feisty four year old can.
The Cowboy's Little Surprise by Barbara White Daille is a story of two people who strive to overcome the mistakes they made when they were too immature to really understand the ramifications of those mistakes. The budding desire they once felt for one another blossoms into a passion only maturity can give them, and watching both Tina and Cole come to that understanding is a pleasure. All of the characters in this story have their own distinct qualities that make The Cowboy's Little Surprise a heart-warming read that can't be missed.