His Unexpected Valentines
Clint Daniels knows he is nobody's sweetheart. The rugged mountain guide has lived most of his life alone, and with his heartbreaking past, he can't imagine a domestic future with anyone. Especially not a warm and graceful widow like Olivia Barlow. But when her three towheaded little boys approach him at the Lone Star Cowboy League's annual Valentine's dance, he finds it impossible to turn them away. Clint isn't prepared to be a father, but these boys draw out his paternal side. And somehow, vulnerable Olivia and her children begin to make the cowboy suspect their wary hearts might actually be a perfect match
About the Author
Award-winning author Deb Kastner writes stories of faith, family and community in a small-town western setting. Deb’s books contain sigh-worthy heroes and strong heroines facing obstacles that draw them closer to each other and the Lord. She lives in Colorado with her husband. She is blessed with three grown daughters and two grandchildren. She enjoys spoiling her grandkids, movies, music, reading, musical theater and exploring Colorado on horseback.
Read an Excerpt
Olivia Barlow, as I live and breathe. Finally! There you are. I've been looking all over for you. I was beginning to think you weren't going to show up tonight at all. Then what would I have done?" Elderly Miss Betty Leland had clearly been watching for Olivia, because the sprightly old woman made a beeline for her the moment she herded her triplet six-year-old boys into the league's brightly decorated red-and-pink-crepe-papered banquet hall.
A cold finger of premonition skittered up Olivia's spine. Miss Betty was clearly up to something. Olivia could see it in the pale blue sparkle of the aged woman's eyes. Nothing good could possibly come out of that kind of mischief, however friendly and well-intentioned.
Olivia forced a laugh she didn't feel and returned the elderly woman's smile. It wasn't Miss Betty's fault Olivia wasn't in the mood for a party, especially Little Horn's Lone Star Cowboy League's Valentine Roundup.
Valentine's Day anything was more than widowed Olivia wanted to deal with. She felt out of place here among seeking singles, newly engaged couples and newlyweds. It seemed as if everyone was in love except hernot that she wanted to be. She had her plate full to overflowing already.
The local band was warming up its fiddles, playing a lively Texas two-step for eager dancers. Various couples and hopeful single men and women were flooding into the Grange hall. There were also quite a few teenagers. The boys were roughhousing and trying to look cool for the groups of giggling girls watching them, but Olivia knew they hoped to pair up before the night was over.
She spotted Carson Thorn and Ruby Donovan, a newly engaged couple who were laughing together as they helped serve the punch. Engaged couple Finn Brannigan and Amelia Klondike were already testing out the dance floor. In a far corner away from the noisy speakers, Grady Stillwater stood with his grandma Mamie and his fiancée, Chloe Miner. Chloe was bouncing Grady's seven-month-old nephew, Cody, on her shoulder in time to the music.
Tyler Grainger, the local pediatrician, had recently married pretty Eva Brooks, and Olivia had heard they'd already started the process to adopt a baby.
Yep. Pretty much everyone but hernot that she minded. Much. Of course she didn't begrudge anyone their romantic happily-ever-after. She just didn't want to have to watch it. Not right now when her heart was still so tender after the loss of her own husband, Luke.
At least the planning committee had nixed the usual romantic mixing and matchmaking this year, what with all the problems the locals were having with recent thefts in the area. People were looking over their shoulders at every turn, afraid that what had happened to other ranches would happen to them.
It didn't make for a festive atmosphere, but the Lone Star Cowboy League had decided to go through with the dance nonetheless, perhaps to take folks' minds off their worries for a bit.
"If I'm being honest, I almost didn't come tonight," Olivia admitted, bending her head to speak into Miss Betty's ear. The woman was mostly deaf even without the loud din of music around her, although she'd never admit as much if you asked her. She just pretended she knew what a person was saying and then continued speaking to state her own fill of words.
Olivia brushed her dark brown curls behind her ear and gestured to her identical, towheaded sons, Noah, Levi and Caleb. "I probably would have passed on it, except the boys wouldn't let me off the hook. Apparently at school today they put a lot of effort into making Valentine's Day cards. They insisted they had to come to the dance in order to post them up on the Sweetheart Wall where their friends can see them. I just couldn't find it in my heart to say no to them."
The wall in question was already papered with hearts of all shapes, colors and sizes. In addition to hanging the schoolchildren's artwork, it was a town tradition for the adults in the crowd to publicly post their romantic notions and even the occasional marriage proposal. Over the years more than one engagement had come out of it.
Olivia was not in a place in her life where she was searching for romance, and she doubted she ever would be, between single-handedly raising her triplets and struggling to keep her small quarter horse farm afloat. Three boys and Barlow Acres was more than enough to fill her days. She fell into a dead sleep most nights, although occasionally rest would elude her and a spot of loneliness would creep in.
"I think it's some kind of competition between them and their classmates as to who made the most elaborate valentine," she continued. "Or at least a competition between the three of them. You know boys. The triplets like to make a contest out of everything."
Honestly, she found the whole thing to be more than a little ridiculous. What six-year-old boy wanted anything to do with a holiday steeped in romance and kissing? Her sons didn't even like girls yet, and wouldn't for a good long while. Several years at least.
"Well, good for them," Miss Betty replied, nodding so vigorously that her short gray curls bobbed in response. "I'm glad they pushed you off your farm and into the community for the dance. It's good for you to get out from time to time and mingle a little bit. It will do you a wealth of good. Mark my words."
She started to deny Miss Betty's statement but then realized that what the older woman was saying was spot-on. Olivia hadn't meant for that to happen, nor had she even been aware of her actionsor lack thereof. But she had to admit she'd been somewhat of a recluse lately. She hadn't been in the mood to participate in town activities nearly as much as she had before, but since her husband passed two years earlier, social activities just didn't seem the same.
Frankly, despite Miss Betty's kind words, Olivia wasn't sure it would do her any good to be at the party tonight. As stressed as she was about the farm, she was bound to be a downer in even the most mundane of conversations. It wouldn't lift her spirits, and in her current mood she wouldn't be much good to her friends.
There was a time in her past when she used to be social and upbeat, but at the moment it was all she could do not to break down in tears. The mortgage was due on the house, several of her mares were due to foal in the spring and she had no idea how she was going to come up with enough money to keep her dwindling herd in hay and oats until the horse market opened in early summer.
"Which reminds me," Miss Betty continued, either not recognizing Olivia's hesitation or refusing to acknowledge it. She reached into the oversize, glossy red purse dangling from the crook of her elbow and withdrew a small stack of folded pink and red heart-shaped notes. "Pink for the ladies, red for the gentlemen," she explained as she shuffled through them. As if that would mean something to Oliviawhich it didn't. "Oh, here we go. Olivia Barlow."
Olivia automatically accepted the missive Miss Betty thrust at her. "Thank you. I"
She stared down at the garish, fluorescent-pink, heart-shaped paper and her sentence abruptly stalled. Her name had been carefully stenciled onto the heart, but that wasn't what caught her eye. It was the name written beneath her own that kicked her adrenaline into overdrive.
Olivia Barlow Clint Daniels
The floor fell out from underneath her and she gasped for breath against the sudden shock. Suddenly it was as if she were in junior high again, being paired up with a boy for square dancing by the physical education teacher. Philip Whitmore had been the boy's name, as she recalled, and he hadn't been able to dance his way out of a paper bag. Her toes had hurt for weeks afterward. Not her favorite memory.
But this was worse. Much worse. Even though she hadn't yet determined exactly what the this part of the plan was that Miss Betty had concocted, if it involved Clint Daniels, it couldn't be good.
"I don't understand," she muttered, trying without success to hand the note back to its owner.
"All in good fun, sweetie," Miss Betty assured her. "All in good fun. Just trust me on this. Your Miss Betty is looking out for your best interests. Find Clint. Talk to him. You may surprise yourself." She winked. "And him."
Oh, she would surprise him, all right, if she barreled up to him and tried to start a conversation right out of the blue, especially given the subject. Valentine cards. Matchmaking. Little old ladies with too much time on their hands.
Talk to Clint, huh? And say what, exactly? It wasn't as if they had anything in common. She wouldn't be able to come up with much more than saying hello to the man, and even that would be awkward in the extreme.
Clint was a surly, intimidating loner, a rough-edged man who preferred mountain living to spending time in town. He wasn't a people person. He didn't care for community events. In fact, she would be surprised if he even
She hadn't even finished the thought when she glanced at the door and caught a glimpse of golden-haired Clint walking into the banquet hall, his foster mother, Libby Everhart, on his arm.
It figured. It just figured.
The one time Clint Daniels decided to show up for a town function and it had to be this one.
What a night Olivia was having. And the dance had barely started. If it was just her, she'd grab her coat and be out the door and into the cool air in a second. But with her boys here
She was well and truly stuck.
She watched as Clint smiled casually and bent his head toward Libby to better hear what she was saying over the combined din of music and conversation. While Olivia didn't have any inclination to follow Miss Betty's suggestion, she had to admit he was handsomein a rough kind of way. He wore his thick hair long enough to brush his collar and his hazel eyes were an intriguing blend of green and gold. He hadn't shaved in a couple days, and scruff shadowed the sharp planes of his cheeks and chin. Tall with broad shoulders, he looked every inch the mountain man he was.
She imagined his rugged good looks appealed to some women, but she didn't count herself among them. Her late husband, Luke, had been clean-cut, with a gentle gaze and winsome smile. Those were the kinds of features that attracted Olivia.
Clint's expression wasn't unkind, but it certainly couldn't be described as gentle. His smile was extremely confident, possibly even tipping the scale into arrogant territory.
She couldn't help the grin that crept up the corners of her lips as she watched him with his foster mother. Clint wouldn't be smiling in a moment. Miss Betty was headed straight toward him with his valentine missive in her hand.
A woman on a mission. A matchmaking mission.
Olivia chuckled. At the very least it would be an amusing exchange, and her gaze lingered. Could she help it if she wanted to watch the show?
A show that directly involved her.
Heat rushed to her face and she quickly turned away, her stomach churning. What was she thinking? As humorous as Clint's reaction would be, it was hardly something she'd want to see. How embarrassing. He probably wouldn't be rude to an old lady, but she suspected he'd toss the paper heart with her name on it into the trash can the moment Miss Betty turned her back. What a humiliating notion.
Leaving the dance altogether was sounding better and better by the moment. Now would be good.
Olivia searched for her sons and found them still lingering by the Sweetheart Wall, but they were no longer interested in the notes pinned there. Instead, they were rolling around on the floor and wrestling with each other, their hard work on their valentines long forgotten.
"Where are the cards you made?" she prompted, affectionately ruffling Noah's hair as he got to his feet, and separating Levi and Caleb.
Noah proudly pointed to the wall where a jaggedly cut heart was written on in pencil with large, uneven print. Several of the letters held telltale smudges indicating they had been erased and rewritten. But it was the words themselves that caused Olivia's heart to drop into her stomach and her throat to clog with emotion.
For: My New Daddy Love, Noah
She didn't have to ask where Levi and Caleb's valentines were located. She found them easily. Close to the bottom of the board where little ones' hands could reach, they were the only two on the wall with the same request as Noah's.
For a father.
The one thing she could not give them. She would do anything for her boys. Anything. But some things were beyond her control.
Her heart ached for her boys, partly because they'd known grief at such a young age, having lost their father to an accident, and also because she was painfully aware that she could not fulfill their wishes. She had no clue how she was supposed to explain to them that she wasn't looking to get remarried. They wouldn't equate their idea of getting a new daddy with the fact that, in the process, she'd have to find a new husband. They were only six years old. How could they possibly understand?
She didn't want them to know anything about the strain she was under. She wanted them to grow up innocent and happy. With the death of their father, they'd had to mature far too much already. She worried about their not having a good male role model in their lives, but there was little she could do to change that, at least not at present and possibly never. Male friends and neighbors would have to do.
"What's that, Mama?" Levi asked, pointing to the crumpled heart in her fist. She'd forgotten she was still holding it. "Did you get a valentine? Who's it from?"
"Ino" she stammered, but Caleb had already loosened her grip enough to pry the paper away.
"It says Mama and Mr. Clint!" Caleb exclaimed. He was the best reader of the three and had no problem sounding out the words. This one time she wished that he wasn't quite so good at it.
The triplets simultaneously broke into excited chatter about Mama's valentine.
"Boys, please." She felt as if she was watching a spark skittering down a long fuse toward a barn full of explosives. "This isn't " She frowned and lowered her brows. "Wait. How do you guys know ClinterMr. Clint?"
"He came to our class," Levi explained.
"Yeah," Caleb added. "He talked about camping and rock climbing and horseback riding and search and rescue. He is so cool, Mama. He works in the Deep Gulch Mountains. I want to work in the mountains."
"And he even brought his dog, Pav," Noah exclaimed, talking over his brothers. "Pav is a golden 'triever. He likes to catch balls in his mouth."
"Pav?" Olivia was barely keeping up with the babbling triplets, but it didn't take a genius to add the boys' thoughts together and come up with a frightening sum.
One man plus one woman plus three young boys and a dog named Pav.
"Boys," she said, hoping the tone of her voice alone would corral their high spirits. But it was too late. With a whoop and a holler they took off, sprinting across the room as fast as their legs could carry them.
Straight toward Clint without a single detour.
From bad to worse to a total disaster in a matter of seconds.
Olivia groaned and absently combed her fingers through her hair, then realized what she was doing and immediately dropped her hands to her side. She was not going to worry about how her hair looked, or if her makeup had smeared, because it didn't matter how Clint saw her. His perceptions wouldn't make a bit of difference to her.
That was her story and she was going to stick to it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoy the suspense story with the single man and the widow and her family. The three boys were fun to read about. The older lady knew what she was doing, putting Clint and the widow together.