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Denny Norquest has a plan. Lease a ranch in Hartley Creek and raise cattle. But the baby dropped in his lap changes everything. Soon he's deep in diaper duty—with no end in sight! Bookseller Evangeline Arsenau feels compelled to help the handsome single dad care for his little girl. She's learned the hard way that men can't be trusted, but Denny's unexpected devotion to his daughter has her falling for dad and baby. Is she ...
Denny Norquest has a plan. Lease a ranch in Hartley Creek and raise cattle. But the baby dropped in his lap changes everything. Soon he's deep in diaper duty—with no end in sight! Bookseller Evangeline Arsenau feels compelled to help the handsome single dad care for his little girl. She's learned the hard way that men can't be trusted, but Denny's unexpected devotion to his daughter has her falling for dad and baby. Is she willing to let down the boundaries she's placed around her heart for the chance at happily ever after?
Hearts of Hartley Creek—In this small town, love is just around the corner
"How could you doubt me, Lady Maria?" Lord Cavanaugh's dark gaze held a gleam of mirth, belying his gruff words.
Evangeline leaned her elbow on the bookstore's counter, licked her finger and turned the page of her book, releasing a satisfied smile at the perfect scene with the perfect hero.
"I made myself clear that no sacrifice is too great for you," he said, pulling her close. Maria's fan dropped to the floor. Ignoring the shocked looks of the other patrons of Almacks Assembly, Maria threw her arms around Lord Cavanaugh's neck, sharing a kiss with the only man she knew she could ever love.
Evangeline's long, wavy hair fell across the side of her face as she closed the book with a satisfied sigh and smoothed her hand over the cover, admiring the hero pictured on the front. His hair was artfully tousled; his cutaway coat perfectly emphasized his broad shoulders. He looked cultured and noble and suave and heroic.
Someday my own prince will come, she thought.
The chiming of bells from the door of her store broke into her reverie.
A man, silhouetted by the sun behind him, paused inside the frame. Tall, with broad shoulders, lean hips. Her heart skipped for a moment.
Then she saw the cowboy hat he wore.
Evangeline straightened, ready to take care of her first customer of the day.
"Are you Evangeline Arsenau?" the cowboy asked. His deep voice smooth as dark chocolate and Evange-line couldn't stop a languid sigh and a quickening of her heart.
"That's me," she said, wishing she didn't sound so breathless. She blamed her reaction on the book she was reading and the hero it depicted. The kind of man she'd been looking for all her life.
As she slipped the book under the counter, the man in the doorway stepped farther into the store and came into focus.
His shabby plaid shirt had seen better days years ago as had his once-white T-shirt. His faded and torn blue jeans were ragged at the hem where they met unlaced leather work boots so scuffed and stained she was unsure of the original color. He pulled his hat off his head, revealing mussed, overlong hair, and as he came near, she caught a hint of the too-familiar scent of diesel fumes.
Truck driver, she thought. Cowboy truck driver.
And Evangeline's foolish heart, which had only moments ago fluttered in anticipation at his silhouette, thudded in her chest. Not a chance.
"I'm Denny Norquest," he said, holding a hand out to her, his smile showing even teeth white against the dark stubble shading his firm chin. "Your father told me to stop by Hartley Creek and say hello as I was heading to British Columbia. And here I am."
She frowned as her slender fingers were engulfed in his large hand. As expected, it was callused and rough, but enfolded hers in a firm grip. His dark eyes held hers as his well-shaped mouth lifted in a crooked smile.
For some silly reason her heart gave another flutter. Then his words registered.
"Hi? From my father?"
"Yeah. Andy said for me to tell you he was sorry he couldn't come like he said."
"Not coming?" She stared at Denny as the import of his words settled into her mind. "But he said He promised He was going to-" She clamped her lips on the words of disappointment and dismay that threatened to spill out.
"He said he would call you in a day or so," Denny continued when Evangeline didn't-or rather, couldn't- finish her sentence. "He also asked me to tell you to reschedule the visit to the lawyer to talk about the bookstore."
Every word coming out of Mr. Denny Norquest's mouth scattered Evangeline's carefully laid plans like dead leaves in a fall storm.
"So he's not coming," she repeated, trying to create some intelligent response.
Evangeline could only nod, her disappointment morphing into anger. Anger that her father had so casually decided to change months of plans. Anger that he hadn't had the decency to break the news to her face.
Andy Arsenau was to arrive Monday, the day after tomorrow, to do what he had promised for so many years. Sign the bookstore he had inherited from his wife over to Evangeline.
She had planned the changes she'd wanted to make to the bookstore for months, pouring her time and energy into her ideas. She'd gotten in touch with contractors. More importantly, she had made an appointment with Zach Truscott, a lawyer in Hartley Creek and fiancée of her best friend, Renee, to finalize the deal.
She folded her arms over her chest and looked Mr. Norquest straight in the eye.
"Thank you for passing on the message. Is there anything else I can do for you?" she asked, trying mightily to stifle her anger. It wasn't this cowboy's fault her father had deigned to use him as his spokesperson.
"I didn't come here to only deliver that message." Denny continued, "The main reason I'm here is 'cause your dad said he has a place that you rent out sometimes."
Again Evangeline could only stare at Mr. Norquest, trying to follow where he led.
He stared back as he worked his cowboy hat around in his hands.
"He said something about an apartment in the back of the store I could stay in until then," Denny continued.
"The the apartment here?" She poked her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the living quarters across the hall attached to the back of the store.
The living quarters where her father always stayed when he was between jobs and between schemes. Trouble was, there was always another job. Always another scheme, so he never stayed long.
"Yeah. Your dad said I could stay here until I can move onto the ranch."
"Move.move onto the ranch?"
Her mind whirled as she fought to put his words into a place that made sense, trying to catch up to what he was saying. Now she knew what Alice felt like tumbling down the rabbit hole. "I thought after the renters moved out of the ranch house my dad would be-" She stopped herself from finishing that sentence.
Moving back onto the ranch. Just as he had said he would in the text he had sent her.
Evangeline pressed her hands on the sales counter, as if anchoring herself while she stumbled through this confusing conversation.
"He didn't say anything about moving onto the ranch. He's leasing it to me. For a five-year term." Denny's deep voice held an edge of impatience. "He said that the other renter's lease on the pasture was up and he wasn't renewing it."
The previous lessee wasn't renewing the lease because Evangeline's father had promised when he was finished his current job he would come back to Hartley Creek, sign the store over to her and settle on the ranch.
Make a home here. Be the father he hadn't been since her mother had died when Evangeline was eight.
The close call he'd had with his truck a couple of months ago was a wake-up for him to change his life. To find a meaning and purpose.
When he'd told Evangeline this, she had allowed a faint hope to bloom. The hope that he would finally be the father he hadn't been for most of her life. And that he would complete the unfinished deal on the bookstore she'd been managing for him for the past nine years. The bookstore he kept promising he would sign over to her.
"Did he say when he was coming back?"
Denny shrugged, slapping his hat against his thigh as if impatient to be done with her and her questions about her father.
"Andy said he would call and that in the meantime you have power of attorney over the ranch and that you would take care of things for me."
Evangeline felt the last faint hope die with Denny's decisive words. Her father probably wasn't coming at all. She might never own this bookstore or have a father who wanted to be with her.
"Every time," Evangeline muttered, her hands curling into fists. "He gets me every time."
Then, to her dismay, her voice broke and she felt her eyes prickle. She turned aside, grabbed a tissue and dabbed at her eyes, hoping, praying, she didn't smear her mascara, to boot.
She stared at the door at the back of the store leading to her father's apartment, swallowing a stew of anger and grief at the timing of her father's news. It didn't help that this came on the heels of yet another disappointment.
Two months ago her boyfriend of two years, Tyler, had said he needed a break, promising Evangeline they would get back together again. A few days later Evangeline had seen him driving his bright red sports car with a young blonde cozied up at his side, her arms wrapped around him.
And now it looked as though her father was backing out on his promise, too.
Then, thankfully, the door bells rang, announcing the presence of a customer as Larissa Beck entered the store. Finally an excuse to get away from this situation for a few minutes. Catch her breath. Center herself.
As Evangeline excused herself, she stifled her disappointment to the blow her father had dealt her yet one more time.
When would she learn?
Evangeline had grown up on the ranch Denny was talking about. The best time of her life, spent with her mother and her father and wide-open spaces. Then, when she'd turned eight, her mother had died and her world shifted and changed. She and her father had stayed at the ranch for a month and then he got a job driving a truck. He'd made arrangements to lease out the ranch and taken Evangeline to the bookstore where her mother's sister lived. Auntie Josie had agreed to take care of her for a while, and he had promised to be back once the job was done.
And this became his constant refrain each time he blew back into town with the spring thaw and his pockets full of cash. Each time he came back he made Evangeline think he was staying put. But he'd grow restless and his eyes would glaze over whenever she'd made plans for the store. Two or three or sometimes four months later he'd head out again, looking for another adventure, another challenge. Another business to invest in.
Now this truck driver slash cowboy, a man she didn't even know, had delivered another blow to her future plans with no more emotion than an announcer delivering the weather forecast.
And her father hadn't even had the decency to give her the news face-to-face.
"So who's the rough, tough character by the till?" Larissa asked when Evangeline joined her.
"Friend of my father's. No one important."
When Larissa lifted one eyebrow at her dismissive tone, Evangeline felt a nudge of regret. It wasn't Denny's fault he had come as her absent father's mouthpiece.
Didn't mean she had to like it, though.
No one important.
Well, that was probably true, Denny thought, dropping his hat onto his head, watching Evangeline as she walked-no, swayed-toward the customer. Though Andy had showed him a picture of his daughter, Denny hadn't been prepared for her effect in real life.
Tall, willowy, her long dark hair spilling in curly waves over her shoulders. Her tilted smile and the way her green eyes curved up at the corners combined to make her look as if she held some curious secret that would make you laugh if she told you.
"Cute as a button," her father had described her. His own beautiful little princess tucked away in her own little tower. Andy had told Denny that she lived above the bookstore.
Denny glanced around the building with its old-fashioned high ceilings and heavy-beamed wood trim. The large front windows flanking the door spilled light into a store chockfull of bookshelves weighted with paperbacks, hardcovers, picture books, kids' books .
He was never much of a reader and it made him nervous to see so many books packed into one place. But he could picture Evangeline here. She looked exactly like the princess Andy always talked about with such fondness.
Evangeline laughed at something her customer said as they walked to the cash register, the customer's arms full of books.
"You'll like this book, Larissa," Evangeline said as she rang up her customer's purchases. "I'm thinking of suggesting it for book club. You coming?"
"I heard Captain Jeff Deptuck is coming now," the woman named Larissa said with a teasing tone. "Anything happening there? He is a fireman, after all. Perfect hero material."
"Oh, please. I'm still getting over Tyler."
The woman waved that off. "Tyler is an idiot. You and he were a waste of time."
"Besides, Jeff has his eye on Angie, another new member of the book club," Evangeline returned.
Denny smiled at the interaction. Though he didn't have a clue who they were talking about, the tone and subject of the conversation was familiar. How often had he heard his three younger sisters teasing each other about boys they liked or didn't like? For a moment he missed the three of them, wished they could be back on the home place again. Him, his three goofy sisters, his foster brother and his uncle.
He dismissed that thought as soon as it was formulated. Thanks to his ex-wife and their divorce, that time was behind all of them. He had to look to the future now. Take care of himself.
Find the peace that had eluded him ever since his parents died.
Then the woman left and Evangeline turned back to him, the smile and sparkle in her intriguing eyes disappearing as quickly as storm clouds over the sun.
Again he caught a trace of sorrow deep in her eyes, then the glitter of tears, and he felt as if, somehow, he was partly to blame.
"Hey, I'm sorry," he said.
Evangeline slipped the paper from the sale into the cash register and shoved the drawer shut. "What are you sorry for?" she muttered. "You didn't do anything."
"I dunno," he said with a shrug. "I learned from my sisters that if they're crying, it's because I did something wrong or said something wrong, so it's easier to apologize."
"I wasn't crying," she said.
Denny pushed down a sigh. Of course she wouldn't admit to it. He lifted one hand as if surrendering. "Sorry. I should know that, too."
"What do you mean?"
Denny clamped his mouth shut. When would he learn? Dealing with women was like trying to predict the weather. Just when you thought you had the direction of it, a storm would blow in and everything changed.
"So your dad told me you knew everything about the ranch," Denny said, trying to return to a more practical discussion. "That you could show me around."
Evangeline nodded, blinking quickly. She looked as though she was going to cry again.
He restrained a sigh, his practical nature warring with the big brother in him that hated seeing his sisters sad. The part that always made him feel as though he had to fix things.
"You're not okay, are you?" he asked, resting his hand beside hers on the counter. "You look kinda pale."
Evangeline snatched her hand back, tucking it under her arm as if the casual contact bothered her.
"I'm fine. Just fine," she said through lips that had grown tight and hard. "Did you want to see the apartment now?"
Denny's frown deepened. She didn't seem fine. "You sure? I can come another time if-"
"You're here now," she said. "May as well see where you'll be living for now."
Okay. Obviously he had overstepped the invisible boundary. "Sure. Of course."
She opened the old-fashioned cash register again and pulled out a key. She walked around the long wooden counter and wove her way through the stacks of shelves. Denny followed; still amazed that one place could hold so many books, surprised that people would want to buy them.
At the back of the store she opened a door that led to a hallway separating the bookstore from the apartment behind it. She crossed the hall and unlocked another heavy wooden door.
She stood aside as he walked into the room. A couple of worn leather recliners flanked the fireplace. To his right, shelves, also filled with books, lined one wall. He guessed the doors on either side of the shelves led to bedrooms.