Wade Dalton is having a bad day: his five-year-old has accidentally set the kitchen on fire. His daughter is surly, as usual. The baby hasn't been fed yet. And his mother—aka "the childminder"—has eloped with a scam artist. Could it get any worse?
Turns out it can, when the annoyingly beautiful daughter of said scam artist shows up at the door, batting her doe eyes at Wade and offering to be his temporary nanny until the newlyweds' return. Could he trust her to be under his roof? Could he trust himself with her under his roof?
Originally published in 2006
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On his thirty-sixth birthday, Wade Dalton's mother ran away.
She left him a German chocolate cake on the kitchen counter, two new paperback mysteries by a couple of his favorite authors and a short but succinct note in her loopy handwriting.
Honey, Happy birthday. I'm sorry I couldn't be there to celebrate with you but by the time you read this we'll be in Reno and I'll be the new Mrs. Quinn Montgomery. I know you'll think I should have told you but my huggy bear thought it would be better this way. More romantic. Isn't that sweet? You'll love him, I promise! He's handsome, funny, and makes me feel like I can touch my dreams again. Tell the children I love them and I'll see them soon.
P.S. Nat's book report is due today. Don't let her forget it!
P.P.S. Sorry to leave you in the lurch like this but I figured you, Seth and Nat could handle things without me for a week. Especially you. You can handle anything.
Don't take this wrong, son, but it doesn't hurt for you to remember your children are more important than your blasted cattle.
Be back after the honeymoon.
Wade stared at the note for a full five minutes, the only sound in the Cold Creek Ranch kitchen the ticking of the pig-shaped clock Andi had loved above the stove and the refrigerator compressor kicking to life.
What the hell was he supposed to do now?
His mother and this huggy bear creature couldn't have chosen a worse time to pull their little disappearing act. Marjorie knew it, too, blast her hide. He needed her help! He had six hundred head of cattle to get to market before the snow flew, a horse show and auction in Cheyenne in a few weeks, and a national TV news crew coming in less than a week to film a feature on the future of the American cattle ranch.
He was supposed to be showing off the groundbreaking innovations he'd made to the ranch in the last few years, showing the Cold Creek in the best possible light.
How was he supposed to make sure everything was ready and running smoothly while he changed Cody's diapers and chased after Tanner and packed Nat's lunch?
He read the note again, anger beginning to filter through the dismayed shock. Something about what she had written seemed to thrum through his consciousness like a distant, familiar guitar chord. He was trying to figure out what when he heard the back-porch door creak and a moment later his youngest brother stumbled into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and in need of a shave.
"Coffee. I need it hot and black and I just realized I'm out down at my place."
Wade glared at him, seizing on the most readily available target for his frustration and anger. "You look like hell."
Seth shrugged. "Got in late. It was ladies' night down at the Bandito and I couldn't leave all those sweet girls shooting pool by themselves. Where's the coffee?"
"There isn't any coffee. Or breakfast, either. I don't suppose you happened to see Mom sneaking out at two in the morning when you were dragging yourself and, no doubt, one or two of those sweet girls back to the guesthouse?"
His brother blinked a couple of times to clear the remaining cobwebs from his brain.
Wade tossed the note at him and Seth scrubbed his bleary eyes before picking it up. A range of emotions flickered across his entirely too charming featuresshock and confusion, then an odd pensiveness that raised Wade's hackles.
"Did you know about this?" he asked.
Seth slumped into a kitchen chair, avoiding his gaze. "Not this, precisely."
"What precisely did you know about what our dear mother's been up to?" Wade bit out.
"I knew she was emailing some guy she met through that life coach she's been talking to. I didn't realize it was serious. At least not runoff-to-Reno serious."
Suddenly this whole fiasco made a grim kind of sense and Wade realized what about Marjorie's note had struck that odd, familiar chord. By the time you read this I'll be the new Mrs. Quinn Montgomery, she had written.
Montgomery was the surname of the crackpot his mother had shelled out a small fortune to in the last six months, all in some crazy effort to better her life.
He knew the name well since he'd chewed Marjorie out plenty the last time he'd balanced her checkbook for her and had found the name written on several hefty checks.
This was all this Caroline Montgomery's fault. It had to be. She must have planted ideas in Marjorie's head about how she wasn't happy, about how she needed more out of life. Fun, excitement. Romance. Then she introduced some slick older mana brother? An uncle?to bring a little spice into a lonely widow's world.
What had been so wrong with Marjorie's life, anyway, that she'd needed to find some stranger to fix it?
Okay, his mother had a few odd quirks. Today was not only his birthday, it was exactly the eighteen-year anniversary of his father's death and in those years, his mother had pursued one wacky thing after another. She did yoga, she balanced her chakras instead of her checkbook, she sponsored inflammatory little book-club meetings at the Pine Gulch library where she and her cronies read every controversial feminist, male-bashing self-help book they could find.
He had tried to be understanding about it all. Marjorie's marriage to Hank Dalton hadn't exactly been a happy one. His father had treated his mother with the same cold condescension he'd wielded like a club against his children. Once his father's death had freed Marjorie from that oppressive influence, Wade couldn't blame her for taking things a little too far in the opposite direction.
Besides, when he'd needed her in those terrible, wrenching days after Andrea's death, Marjorie had come through. Without him even having to ask, she'd packed up her crystals and her yoga mat and had moved back to the ranch to help him with the kids. He would have been lost without her, a single dad with three kids under the age of six, one of them only a week old.
He knew she wasn't completely happy with her life but he'd never thought she would go this far. She wouldn't have, he thought, if it hadn't been for this scheming Caroline Montgomery and whatever male relative she was in cahoots with.
He heard a belligerent yell coming from upstairs and wanted to pound his head on the table a few times. Six-thirty in the morning and it was already starting. How the hell was he going to do this?
"Want me to get Cody?" Seth asked as the cries rose in volume. Gramma, Gramma, Gramma.
Wade had to admit, the offer was a tempting one, but he forced himself to refuse. They were his children and he was the one who would have to deal with them.
He took off his denim jacket and hung his Stetson on the hook by the door.
"I'm on it. Just go take care of the stock and then we've all got to bring in the last hay crop we cut yesterday. The weather report says rain by afternoon so we've got to get it in fast. I'll figure something out with the kids and get out there to help as soon as I can."
Seth opened his mouth to say something then must have thought better of it. He nodded. "Right. Good luck."
You're going to need it. His brother left the words unspoken but Wade heard them anyway.
He couldn't agree more.
Two hours later, Wade was rapidly coming to the grim realization that he was going to need a hell of a lot more than luck.
"Hold still," he ordered a squirmy, giggling Cody as he tried to stick on a diaper. Through the open doorway into the kitchen, he could hear Tanner and Natalie bickering.
"Daaaad," his eight-year-old daughter called out, "Tanner's flicking Cheerios at me. Make him stop! He's getting the new shirt Grandma bought me all wet and blotchy!"
"Tanner, cut it out," he hollered. "Nat, if you don't quit stalling over your breakfast, you're going to miss the bus and I don't have time to drive you today."
"You never have time for anything," he thought he heard her mutter but just then he felt an ominous warmth hit his chest. He looked down to the changing table to find Cody grinning up at him. "Cody pee pee."
Wade ground his back teeth, looking down at the wet stain spreading across his shirt. "Yeah, kid, I kind of figured that out."
He quickly fastened the diaper and threw on the overalls and Spider-Man shirt Cody insisted on wearing, all the while aware of a gnawing sense of inadequacy in his gut.
He wasn't any good at this. He loved his kids but it had been a whole lot easier being their father when Andrea was alive.
She'd been the one keeping their family together. The one who'd scheduled immunizations and fixed Nat's hair into cute little ponytails and played Chutes and Ladders for hours at a time. His role had been the benevolent dad who showed up at bedtime and sometimes broke away from ranch chores for Sunday brunch.
The two years since her death had only reinforced how inept he was at the whole parenting gig. If it hadn't been for Marjorie coming to his rescue, he didn't know what he would have done.
Probably flounder around cluelessly, just like he was doing now, he thought.
He started to carry Cody back to the kitchen to finish his breakfast but the toddler was having none of it. "Down, Daddy. Down," he ordered, bucking and wriggling worse than a calf on his way to an appointment with the castra-tor.
Wade set his feet on the ground and Cody raced toward the kitchen. "Nat, can you watch Cody for a minute?" he called. "I've got to go change my shirt."
"Can't," she hollered back. "The bus is here."
"Don't forget your book report," he remembered at the last minute, but the door slammed on his last word and he was pretty sure she hadn't heard him.
With a quick order to Tanner to please behave himself for five minutes, he carried Cody upstairs with him and grabbed his last clean shirt out of the closet. The least his mother could have done was wait until after laundry day to pull her disappearing act, he thought wryly. Now he was going to have to do that, too.
He grabbed Cody and headed back down the stairs. They had nearly reached the bottom when the doorbell pealed.
"I'll get it," Tanner yelled and headed for the front door, still in his pajamas.
"No, me! Me!" Not to be outdone, Cody squirmed out of Wade's arms and slid down the last few steps. Wade wasn't sure how they did it, but both boys beat him to the door, even though he'd been closer.
Tanner opened it, then turned shy at the strange woman standing before him. Wade couldn't blame him. Their visitor was lovely, he observed as he reached the door behind his sons, with warm, streaky brown hair pulled back into a smooth twisty thing, eyes the color of hot chocolate on a cold winter day and graceful, delicate features.
She wore a tailored russet jacket, tan slacks and a crisp white shirt, with a chunky bronze necklace and matching earrings, a charm bracelet on one arm and a slim gold watch on the other.
Wade had no idea who she was and she didn't seem in any hurry to introduce herself. Probably some tourist who'd taken the wrong road out of Jackson, he thought, and needed help finding her way.
Finally he spoke.
"Can I help you?"
"Oh. Yes." Color flared on those high cheekbones and she blinked a few times as if trying to compose herself. "The sign out front said the Cold Creek Ranch. Is this the right place?"
No. Not a lost tourist. As Tanner peeked around Wade's legs and Cody held his chubby little arms out to be lifted again, Wade's gaze traveled from the woman's pretty, streaky hair to her expensive leather shoes, looking for some clue as to what she might be doing on his front porch.
If she was some kind of ranch supply salesperson, she was definitely a step above the usual. He had a lowering suspicion he'd buy whatever she was selling.
"You found us."
Relief flickered across her expressive features. "Oh, I'm so glad. The directions weren't exactly clear and I stopped at two other ranches before this one. I'd like to see Marjorie Dal-ton, please."
Yeah, wouldn't they all like to see her right about now? "There I'm afraid you're out of luck. She's not here."
Right before his eyes, the lovely, self-assured woman on his porch seemed to fold into herself. Her shoulders sagged, her mouth drooped and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, he saw for the first time the weariness there and was uncomfortably aware of an odd urge to comfort her, to tuck her close and assure her everything would be all right.
"Can you tell me that is, do you know where I might find her?"
He didn't want to spill his mother's whereabouts to some strange woman, no matter how she mysteriously plucked all his protective strings. "Why don't you tell me your business with her and I'll get her a message?"
"It's complicated. And personal."
"Then you'll have to come back in a week or so."
He had to hope by then Marjorie would come to her senses and be back where she belonged.
"A week?" His visitor blanched. "Oh no! I'm too late. She's not here, is she?"
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
"No, I mean she's really not here. She's not just in town shopping or something. They've run off, haven't they?"
He stared at her, wariness blooming in his gut. "Who are you and what do you want with my mother?"
The woman gave a weary sigh. "You must be Wade. I've heard a lot about you. My name is Caroline Montgomery. I've been in correspondence with Marjorie for the last six months. I don't know how to tell you this, Mr. Dalton, but I think Marjorie has run off with my father."
The big, gorgeous man standing in front of her with one cute little boy hanging off his belt loop and another in his arms didn't look at all shocked by her bombshell. No, shock definitely wasn't the emotion that hardened his mouth and tightened those stunning blue eyes into dime slots.
He brimmed with furytoe-curling, hair-scorching anger. Caroline took an instinctive step back, until the weave of her jacket bumped against the peeled log of his porch.
"Your father!" he bit out. "I should have known. What is it they say about apples not falling far from the tree?"
Maybe if she wasn't so blasted tired from traveling all night, she might have known what he was talking about. "I'm sorry?"
"What's the matter, lady? You weren't bilking Marjorie out of enough with your hefty life-coaching fees so you decided to go for the whole enchilada?"
She barely had time to draw a breath before he went on.
"Quite a racket you and your old man have. How many wealthy widows have you pulled this on? You drag them in, worm out all the details about their financial life, then your old man moves in for the kill."
Caroline wanted to sway from the force of the blow that hit entirely too close to home. She felt sick, hideously sick, and bitterly angry that Quinn would once more put her in this position. How else was all this supposed to look, especially given her father's shady past?
She wouldn't give this arrogant man the satisfaction of knowing he'd drawn blood, though. Instead she forced her spine to straighten, vertebra by vertebra.
"Yes! I was completely shocked by this sudden romance. My father said nothing about it to meI didn't know he and Marjorie had even met until he sent me an email last night telling me he was flying out to meet her and they were heading straight from here to Reno."
"Why should I believe you?"
"I don't care if you believe me or not! It's the truth."
How much of her life had been spent defending herself because of something Quinn had done? She had vowed she was done with it but now she wondered grimly if she ever would be.
What was Quinn up to? Just once, she wished she knew. With all her heart, she wanted to believe his sudden romance was the love match he had intimated in his email.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
RaeAnne continues at her best in the plot and characterization in this story. She seems to have a special skill in showcasing the children in her stories. This was a beautiful and well written story. LA-TXN
Wade's mother has eloped. Caroline has come looking for her father to stop him. Since Wade has no one to take care of his children until his Mother returns she offers to help. This is a well written story with strong and believable charracters. I couldn't put the book done. I love all of RaeAnne's books. Looking forward to the next one. joy943
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