Winning the Widow's Heart
To help his dying sister, Nate Cooper once broke the lawand he's regretted it ever since. Now the ex-con turned saddler hopes for a new beginning in Turnabout, Texas. So when Nate saves a young widow's daughter from imminent harm, he's shocked to be called a hero.
Single mom Verity Leggett leads a safe life, avoiding danger and excitement at all costs. But her daughter's rescuer Mr. Cooper seems like a perfectly responsibleand handsomeman she can rely on. But when his secrets come to light, will Verity be able to get over his past and see Nate for the caring man he's become?
Texas Grooms: In search of their brides
About the Author
You can learn more about Winnie at winniegriggs.com or connect with her at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author
Read an Excerpt
Verity Leggett took firmer hold of her daughter's hand as they approached the street crossing. There wasn't much in the way of carriage or horse traffic this time of morning, but she always preferred to err on the side of caution, especially where Joy was concerned.
Suddenly Joy stopped in her tracks and pointed to her right. "Look, Mama, a dog."
Verity stared suspiciously at the hound slinking out of an alley two blocks away. She was glad they weren't headed in that direction. Joy loved animals with all the indiscriminate abandon her five-year-old heart could summon. She definitely hadn't learned the value of caution yet.
"I see him." Verity hitched the handle of the hatbox she carried a little closer to her elbow. "But Miss Hazel's dress shop is this way. And don't forget, you can play with Buttons when we get there."
Distracted by thoughts of the cat who resided in the dress shop, Joy faced forward again, cradling her doll, Lulu, in the crook of her arm, and gave a little hop-skip. "I brought a piece of yarn for Buttons to play with."
"I'm sure Buttons will be quite pleased." Verity knew her droll tone was lost on her daughter, but that was okay. It was just so good to see how well Joy was thriving since they'd moved to Turnabout a year ago.
As Verity guided her daughter onto Second Street, her gaze slid past the closed doors of the apothecary and the saddle shop to focus on the last building on the block. Goodthe dress shop was already open. She gave the hatbox a little swing and grinned in anticipation of Hazel's reaction to her latest millinery creation. It was just the sort of flamboyant frippery her friend liked.
The new sign Hazel had recently hung over her shop door was an example of just how far her friend would take her love of the dramatic. It was elaborate in shape, brick red in color, and was emblazoned in fancy gold lettering that proclaimed the establishment to be Hazel's Fashion Emporium. Her friend was quite put out that folks in town still referred to her business as simply "the dress shop."
Then, almost as if drawn to it, her gaze moved to the closed door of the shop next to Hazel's. The window bore the name Cooper's Saddle, Tack & Supply in crisp white letters. Mr. Cooper, the owner, had moved to Turnabout just a couple of weeks ago and had opened his shop on Monday. She hadn't officially met him yetonly seen him from a distance in church and around town. Not that she was in any hurry to get to know him better. After all, she was twenty-four years old and a widow. Hardly someone who would be looking to form attachments of that sort.
And even if she had been looking for such a thing, Mr. Cooper was not at all the type of man she'd be attracted to. There was a guarded air about him that, even from a distance, made her think he wasn't all he seemed, that he held something tightly leashed inside himself. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but it was enough to put her guard up. Some women might be attracted to men who seemed just a little bit dangerous or adventurous, but she preferred someone who was dependable and reliable, someone like her late husband, Arthur.
Still, something about the man tugged at her imagination
The door to the saddle shop opened as if on cue, and her pulse kicked up a notch. But to her surprise, instead of Mr. Cooper, a small brown dog padded out. The animal looked around, then sat on its haunches next to the doorway, for all the world as if it were guarding the place.
Surely that animal didn't belong to Mr. Cooper? She would have pictured him with a large hunting dognot this small, cuddly-looking pet that reminded her of a child's stuffed bear.
Joy, who was chattering to her doll, Lulu, about Buttons, hadn't noticed the animal yet. Verity braced herself for the gleeful clamor that would come whenever her daughter did notice.
A heartbeat later Mr. Cooper himself stepped out, broom in hand, and Verity paused the merest fraction between one step and the next. There was no denying that there was a presence about the man, much more impactful up close than from a distance. It wasn't his sizehe couldn't be more than a couple of inches taller than she was, maybe five foot nine. Nor did he seem to be actively trying to command attention. In fact just the opposite. But there was a hardness about him, an air of stoicism and confidenceor was it a kind of self-containment?that was hard to ignore.
Then he bent to scratch the dog behind the ears, and her impression of him shifted. His closed expression softened to something resembling exasperated affection, and the dog responded with tail-wagging exuberance. His brown hair, worn a bit longer than normally seen around here, was nearly as dark as his dog's coat and it had the slightest of waves to it.
Mr. Cooper straightened, obviously ready to sweep the walk in front of his shop, and only then noticed the two of them approaching. His expression closed again and he paused to let them pass.
It seemed she was going to meet the newcomer now, whether she wanted to or notat least enough to exchange greetings. His gaze might be impassive, but still Verity's nerves jangled at being the focus of it. She tamped that feeling down, but before she could offer a greeting, Joy spotted the dog.
"Oh, look at the little doggie, Mama. Isn't he cute?"
Verity nodded, studiously not looking Mr. Cooper's way. "Yes, he is."
Joy, however, seemed to have no qualms about meeting Mr. Cooper's eyes. "Is he your doggie, Mister?" she asked brightly.
The man's expression eased into a slight smile. "He is. His name is Beans."
Verity blinked. What an odd name to give a dog.
Even odder still that such a fanciful name had come from such a decidedly unfanciful-seeming man.
"Can I pet him?" Joy asked.
Verity, worried about allowing her daughter to approach a strange animal, stepped in before Mr. Cooper could respond. "Stop pestering Mr. Cooperit's not polite. We need"
"It's no bother." His voice had a husky, gravelly quality to it. But it wasn't unpleasant. In fact she rather liked the sound of it.
"Beans won't hurt the child," he said. Then he turned back to Joy and gave her another smile. "If your mother allows it, Beans and I don't mind."
Joy looked up at Verity. "Can I, Mama, please?"
"May I," Verity corrected. She glanced at the dog. The animal appeared friendly enough, so she gave a reluctant nod. "Very well, but just a quick, gentle pat. We need to get along to Miss Hazel's shop."
Smiling brightly, Joy rushed over to the dog and knelt down to stroke its head and talk nonsense to it for a minute. The dog accepted the attention with a happy wag of its tail. A moment later it had its two front paws planted on Joy's knees and was trying to bathe her face with his tongue.
Verity made a small involuntary move to intervene, and then the sound of Joy's giggles stopped her. She supposed there was no real harm in letting her daughter have fun with the animal for a few minutes.
Instead, she forced herself to look away from Joy and face the dog's owner. Up close, Mr. Cooper was even more interesting. There was an ever-so-slight dimple in his chin, but it in no way took away from his firm jawline or the chiseled planes of his face. It was those piercing blue-gray eyes, however, that drew her in, made her want to learn more about him. Combine that with his guarded air, and he had a definite presence about him. He wasn't exactly what you'd call handsomehis features were too irregular for that. No, not handsome, but arresting.
Yes, most definitely arresting.
Then she realized he was waiting for her to say something. "I hope you don't mind," she said with what she hoped was a neighborly smile. "Joy has such a love for animals, it's impossible for her to pass one by without stopping to pet it."
"Beans seems to be enjoying the attention," he said noncommittally. Then he glanced toward Joy. "My sister was the same way."
She noticed something momentarily cloud his expression, but it was gone by the time he turned back to her. Then she realized he'd used the word was. She'd passed away then. Was his loss recent?
Verity decided to change the subject. "It's nice to see someone making use of the old boot shop."
He nodded. "It's working out well for what I need."
Definitely not much of a conversationalist. She tried again. "How are you liking Turnabout so far?"
"The folks here are neighborly and it seems like a good place to set down roots."
Is that what he wanted to doset down roots? Stability and responsibility were certainly fine traits to aspire to. But did that mean he'd been a drifter before he came here?
"I'm pleased to hear it." Then, remembering that poignant mention of his sister, her smile warmed. "And if you're looking to leave your past behind you," she said softly, "and find a new place to belong, then you've come to the right place."
At the flash of surprise in his eyes, she realized just how presumptuous that must have sounded. Embarrassed, she quickly turned to Joy and held her hand out. "Come along, pumpkin. Time to tell the dog goodbye. Thank Mr. Cooper and let's be on our way."
Joy obediently turned to Beans's owner. "Thank you, Mr. Cooper. Beans is a nice doggie." She held out her doll. "And Lulu likes him, too."
Risking a glance his way, Verity saw that he was giving her daughter a broad smile, apparently choosing to ignore her own ill-conceived remarks of a moment ago.
"You're welcome," he said, executing a half bow. "Both of you. Anytime."
Verity decided he should smile more oftenit transformed his face, making him appear much more approachable. But perhaps he reserved his smiles for puppies and children.
As if to punctuate that thought, he turned back to her, his expression once more merely polite. Then he nodded and took firmer hold of his broom.
Intrigued by these contradictory glimpses of the man, and still embarrassed by her earlier words, Verity put a hand on Joy's shoulder and gently nudged her toward Hazel's shop.
And tried not to think too hard about the fact that she'd like to see one of those warmer smiles directed her way.
Nate Cooper swept the sidewalk in front of his shop, his thoughts focused on the mother and daughter who'd just walked away.
He glanced down and noticed Beans watching them, as well. The animal's tail was still wagging, but much slower now. "You like that little girl, don't you, boy?"
Beans looked up as if he understood the question, and Nate paused long enough to give him a quick scratch behind the ears. "Well, don't worry," he said as he straightened. "I'm pretty sure she likes you, as well."
The little girlJoy, her mother had called herhad certainly been taken with his four-legged companion. Her giggles had been sweet proof of that.
For just a heartbeat, she'd reminded him of Susanna. Joy's physical resemblance to his younger sister was only superficialhoney-colored hair and a button nosebut it was the way the child had responded to Beans that had tugged at him. Susanna had loved animals with that same wholeheartedness, especially dogs.
It was surprising how, after all these years, little reminders like that could hit him in the gut with such force.
As he pushed the broom, his thoughts shifted from the child to her mother. There were definitely no bittersweet memories to ambush him when thinking of her. Quite the opposite.
This wasn't the first time he'd noticed her since his move to Turnabout. She was a member of the small choir at the local church. Both times he'd attended the service there, he'd taken notice of her. Not at first, though. The drab widow's weeds she wore and her dark hair had made her a shadow that the eye easily skipped past.
But all that changed the moment she began to sing.
Her face took on such a luminously serene yet passionate glow, as if she truly felt every word, every note she sang. And even from where he sat he could see a fire in her large green eyes that drew him. He hadn't been able to take his gaze off of her until the preacher began his sermon.
There'd been none of that fire in her today, though. In fact, the way she'd reacted when her daughter approached his little bit of a dog, she'd seemed nervous and something of a handwringer. Did that enchanting spark come through only when she sang?
Still, knowing it was there, he was intrigued enough to want to unearth it. And just now he'd found he liked her speaking voice too, a difficult-to-describe mix of genteel lady and country girl. There was something else he'd noticed as well, something that hadn't been apparent until he'd seen her up close just now. Right below the left corner of her mouth was the faintest of small scars. It didn't detract from her appearance. In fact, if anything it added an element of interest to her otherwise merely pleasant features. It also made him want to find out how she'd gotten it.
But it was when she'd relaxed enough to show him a genuine smile just now that she'd really caught his attention. The words that had accompanied her smile, however, had startled him. It was almost as if she'd understood his private yearnings.
Had she really meant what she said, or was it just some sort of polite bit of verbiage she would have said to any newcomer? And if she knew what sort of past he was trying to leave behind him, would she still have uttered those words?
She'd obviously known his name, but he had no idea what hers was. And since she hadn't offered, he hadn't felt it appropriate to ask.
But now he wonderedshould he have asked? There'd been a time when he would have known how to carry on a polite conversation, but his social skills had grown rusty with disuse.
If he was ever going to fit in here, though, he'd need to relearn.
"I think the sidewalk is clean enough."
Nate looked up to see Adam Barr standing there, an amused half smile on his face. Adam was the closest thing Nate had to a friend these days, and was the person to whom he owed his current toehold on stability.
Nate returned the smile. "Just enjoying the morning sunshine."
Adam nodded and Nate knew without any exchange of words that his friend understood his meaning.
Nate leaned against the broom. "And what is the town's esteemed banker doing on this side of the street? Checking up on me?" He was only half joking. The bank, where Adam had his office, was a block and a half in the other direction.
"Not at all." Adam nodded toward the apothecary. "Reggie asked me to stop by Flaherty's for her."
Nate frowned. Reggie, Adam's wife, was expecting their third child. "She's not taken ill I hope."
Adam shook his head. "No, nothing like that. It's for Patricia. She's developed a rash and Reggie asked me to pick up some ointment for it." Beans had joined them now and was sniffing at Adam's boots. The man stooped down to absently scratch the animal behind the ears. "So how is business?"
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