Ex-rodeo rider JD Gonzalez may be a poor Texas rancher, but he's not dumb. He knows that money can't buy love. So when Josephine Delaney arrives in Brandt's Corner and announces that her motherless nephew would be better off with her rich family in Chicago than on his father's run-down spread, no way will he relinquish custody of his son.

Josephine has seriously underestimated the opposition. JD isn't a daddy because he has to be. He's a daddy ...

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Daddy by Choice

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Ex-rodeo rider JD Gonzalez may be a poor Texas rancher, but he's not dumb. He knows that money can't buy love. So when Josephine Delaney arrives in Brandt's Corner and announces that her motherless nephew would be better off with her rich family in Chicago than on his father's run-down spread, no way will he relinquish custody of his son.

Josephine has seriously underestimated the opposition. JD isn't a daddy because he has to be. He's a daddy because he wants to be—a daddy by choice. He'll never surrender his little boy.

Soon there's something else JD won't surrender—Josephine Delaney herself!

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781460317686
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 12/15/2013
  • Sold by: HARLEQUIN
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 501,021
  • File size: 726 KB

Meet the Author

Bestselling author Marin Thomas writes series romance for Harlequin and women's fiction for Penguin/NAL Trade. Marin graduated from the University of Arizona, where she earned a B.A. in Radio-TV and played basketball for the Lady Wildcats. Marin and her husband are recent empty-nesters and live in Houston, Texas. Marin invites you to learn more about her books at her website, www.marinthomas.com and to sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/MarinThomasNews.

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Read an Excerpt

JD started the engine, not bothering to wait until the air conditioner cooled the interior. After backing out of the parking space, he shifted into Drive and sped out of town, as if a rifle-toting father were taking potshots at his Goodyear radials.

Who did Josephine Delaney think she was? And who the heck named their daughter Josephine these days? Sounded like a spinster's name.

When JD had driven five miles, the knots in his gut loosened. He fumbled with the radio dial and let up on the gas. He couldn't afford a speeding ticket any more than he could afford a good lawyer. Slamming his fist against the steering wheel, he let fly a mouthful of four-letter words. One frickin' night with a woman and his whole damn life had flipped head over heels.

Bobby had arrived at the ranch last December, and after the shock of finding out he'd had a son had worn off some, JD had started to wonder if maybe life threw curve-balls for a reason. Bobby had got inside him, to a place he hadn't realized existed. For the first time in his thirty years, JD's life had taken on meaning.

He eased the truck over to the shoulder and took the gravel road leading to the ranch. No way in hell would he let Josephine Delaney bulldoze her way into his life and turn it upside down. Not now. Not when he finally had something worth living for.

The truck bumped along the rutted, dusty path leading to the Rocking R Ranch house. He passed a cluster of grazing longhorns, then veered left at the fork in the road. The pastures were dry. Too dry. The yellow, strawlike grass could use a month's worth of steady rain. But rain in July was considered a luxury in West Texas. Most ranchers hoped for a brief thunderstorm once a week, yet even those were few and far between.

After a quarter mile the road crested a small rise. Off in the distance sat the main house, along with a faded red barn and two large corrals. As of last January, JD and the bank had become half owner of the Rocking R. Blake Sloan, an aging third-generation cattleman, owned the other half.

JD remembered sitting down with Blake that cold January morning and asking if he could buy into the ranch, intending to put down permanent roots, have something meaningful to pass on to Bobby one day. Although Blake had argued the ranch had always been JD's home, JD hadn't felt right about calling the ranch his home until he owned half the assets and property. He'd given the bank every cent he'd saved from rodeoing. He'd always believed money in the bank meant security—until he owned a chunk of land, part of a home and a piece of the future.

He stopped the truck and stared out the windshield. From a distance, the place appeared the same as the day a ten-year-old JD had arrived with a group of Mexican migrant workers to help with the fall roundup. Little had he known he wouldn't be going back with the men but staying on with Blake. His eyes didn't see the barn's peeling paint or rotting corral wood or listing front porch—they saw the only real home he'd ever had.

Memories of the year he'd turned seventeen flooded his mind. During the summer, he'd helped Blake build an office off the living room. Pounding nails, sawing boards and keeping up with the ranch chores had almost done JD in. But for the first time in his life he'd felt he'd belonged somewhere, and he'd finally let go of the fear Blake might send him packing one day.

He lifted his foot from the brake and drove into the ranch yard and parked in the shade of the oak trees. Blake materialized between the barn doors. The old man clutched a dirty rag in one hand—a signal he'd been tinkering with the old '55 Ford stored inside the barn. The rust bucket held sentimental value for the rancher. Blake had told JD he'd proposed to his wife in the old Ford. Sadly, Mrs. Sloan had passed on before JD had come to live at the ranch.

As JD approached, Blake remained quiet. The man never wasted his breath grilling a person with questions. JD appreciated that. Now more than ever. "Working on the truck?"

"Checking the plugs." Blake shoved the rag into the front pocket of his overalls.

The temptation to spill his guts about the Delaney woman nagged JD, but he held back. A few times over the years he'd shared some personal concerns with the old man. But he wanted to keep Josephine to himself. At least until he figured out what kind of trouble she intended to stir up. "Where's Bobby?"

"Back with the kittens."

The confrontation with Bobby's aunt had shaken JD more than he cared to admit. Being alone with his son would ease some of the tension tangling his insides. "I noticed a sagging section of fence on the way in. Thought I'd see if Bobby wanted to ride along while I go out and tighten the wires."

"Bobby can stay with me. I plan on tinkering till supper."

The invitation was sincere. The boy's arrival at the ranch eight months ago had lifted Blake's spirits. Right away, Bobby had latched on to the old man. And that made JD jealous as hell. Something he wasn't proud to admit.

He and Bobby hadn't gotten off to the best of starts last Christmas when a New York social services worker had flown to Texas with the boy and brought him out to the ranch. A nasty norther had swept through the area days earlier, leaving behind the frozen and bloated carcasses of seventy cattle. He and Blake had been exhausted and hadn't planned on celebrating the holidays.

There hadn't been time to drive into town to buy presents, but Blake had whittled Bobby a miniature bear and two cubs. From Christmas Day on, his son had followed the old rancher around like a lost puppy. The day after Christmas, JD had driven all the way over to Williamsburg, to the big mall, and had purchased a shopping-cartful of toys for the boy. Hadn't made a difference. Bobby had continued to steer clear of JD. "I haven't spent much time with Bobby lately."

Blake nodded, then disappeared inside the barn. JD followed, walking slowly until his eyes adjusted to the dim light. "Bobby?" he called out, heading for the back room, where a mama calico had delivered a litter of kittens two weeks ago.

A warm feeling filled JD when he found his son cuddling a lapful of orange fur balls in the corner of the tack room. "Have you named them all yet?"

Keeping his attention on the kittens, Bobby shook his head.

JD wished his son felt more comfortable around him. After all this time together, things still weren't easy between them. He didn't blame the boy. In truth, JD didn't know one damn thing about being a father, let alone a good one. "How about you give those kittens back to their mama, and we'll go play cowboy."

The little blond head snapped up and Bobby stared at him with eager blue eyes—eyes exactly the same color as Josephine De-laney's.

"What do you say?"

Instead of answering, the boy nodded, and a pang sliced through JD. The social worker had insisted that children who suffered the loss of a parent often stopped talking. She'd assured JD that Bobby would speak when he felt secure. The fact that his son talked mostly to Blake and not his own father bothered JD deeply. He'd tried every way he could think of to make his son feel safe and accepted—not an easy task for a man who'd never experienced those feelings as a child.

He'd hoped buying Bobby a bike to ride around the ranch, one of those handheld electronic games kids played with these days and several boxes of plastic snap-together building sets would show the boy he cared. But Bobby hadn't been interested in toys. Not until Blake had strung up an old tractor tire to the mesquite tree shading the front porch. While Blake puttered around the yard, Bobby would swing for hours.

"We'll take Warrior and ride double."

His son's face brightened. Bobby loved Warrior. At first, JD had been nervous putting a small child up on the back of a cow horse, but after a few hours of instruction the boy had learned to hold his seat. Warrior was gentle and patient with Bobby, as if he sensed the boy's heartache. Even though the stallion and boy had formed a bond, Warrior was big and powerful and Bobby wouldn't stand a chance of keeping his seat if the animal charged after a renegade cow.

JD hefted the stallion's saddle to his shoulder and shortened his stride so the miniature cowboy could keep up. As they neared the corral, he let out a sharp whistle and the big red roan lifted his head. Another whistle and the stallion trotted toward the gate. His tail swished and his sides quivered; he was ready for action.

"Hold on, pardner, while I saddle up." JD sat Bobby on the corral rail, then watched his son stroke Warrior's nose. Once in a while, JD would catch a glimpse of loneliness in Bobby's gaze…the same loneliness he saw in the mirror every morning. Somehow he had to find a way to chase the shadows from his son's sad eyes. "Ready?"

Bobby's mouth curved upward. The boy's smiles were rare. But if JD was lucky enough to catch one, like now, he stowed the grin inside him, close to his heart.

He deposited Bobby in the saddle, then led Warrior out of the corral, latched the gate and mounted. "I'll let you hold the reins until the end of the driveway."

The boy flicked the rawhide and the horse broke into a trot.

As if he didn't have a care in the world, JD lifted his face to the sun and wrapped an arm around Bobby. At that exact moment everything was right and good and meant to be.

When they neared the edge of the driveway, JD tugged on the reins. They left the road, using a shortcut to the north pasture through several hundred feet of scrub brush. Warrior's slow, easy walk lulled JD's mind, and his thoughts drifted back to the night he'd spent with Bobby's mother.

One night. A few hours of uncomplicated, hot, sweaty sex. That part had been a miracle, considering only an hour earlier he'd brawled with a badass bronc named Elvis, who'd tossed him headfirst into the dirt, then stomped him good.

After he'd taken the spill in the Abilene rodeo, he'd run into Cassandra, or Cassy as she'd been called among the rodeo groupies. She'd caught every cowboy's fancy with her sexy body, flashy snakeskin boots and little red sports car. He'd pegged her as a spoiled rich girl, trying to get out from under daddy's thumb. Guess he 'd been right all along.

She'd been way out of his league. Girls like Cassy didn't waste time on guys like him. Then she'd walked into the first-aid tent, all five foot nine inches of blond bombshell. He'd remembered glancing over his shoulder to see who the lucky cowboy was she'd come to check on. When he'd discovered he'd been alone in the tent, he'd damn near swallowed his tongue.

There hadn't been a need for conversation. The invitation in her eyes had been unmistakable. He'd followed her out of the arena, hoping he hadn't been the butt of some cowboy prank. Then she'd grasped his hand and led him to the cherry-red Corvette parked in a reserved spot by the main entrance.

Due to his national ranking a couple of years in a row, most of the rodeo groupies knew his name. But Cassandra had never spoken it as she'd driven to the edge of town and paid for a room at an interstate motel. He'd stood aside while she'd unlocked the door, feeling uneasy that all she'd wanted from him was sex. But only a fool would have walked away from a chance to be with the siren.

She'd started taking off her clothes before he'd even shut the door and turned the lock. He'd helped her out of the skimpy watermelon-print sundress and matching bra-and-panty set, then he'd grabbed her hand and had tugged her toward the bathroom.

For whatever reason the Fates had smiled on him, he hadn't been about to jump into bed with a perfect ten while smelling like a horse and wearing BVDs filled with arena dirt. They'd made love up against the shower wall as the hot, pulsing water had beaten down on their heads.

Next, they'd landed on the bed, a wet tangle of arms and legs. The second time and his earlier spill from the bronc had taken a toll on him and he'd fallen into an exhausted sleep. He hadn't known how long he'd been conked out when he'd woken and found her watching him from across the room…curled up naked in a chair, smoking a cigarette.

He'd taken the cigarette from her fingers, stubbed it out, then lifted her from the chair and seated himself with her on his lap, and they'd lost themselves in another bout of wild sex.

JD couldn't recall, but didn't think either one of them had spoken a word throughout the night. And there hadn't been too many moans or groans of pleasure, either. He couldn't say for sure he'd even satisfied her.

The next morning she'd driven him back to the arena to get his truck. After hopping out of the Corvette, he'd bent down to ask for her number, but she'd shifted into Drive and sped away without a howdy-do. He'd been nothing more than a good lay to Bobby's mother.

During the following weeks on the circuit, he'd seen Cassy from time to time, but she never acknowledged him in any way. And he sure as hell hadn't gone out of his way to say hello. After a couple of months she'd disappeared. After a year he'd quit thinking about her.

The woman hadn't crossed his mind until eight months ago when Bobby had landed on his doorstep. Now, thanks to Cassandra's little sister, Josephine, JD was dredging up memories best left buried.

He tightened his hold around Bobby. He refused to consider he might lose his son before he even had the chance to get close to him.

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