The Rancher's Surprise Son (Harlequin Special Edition Series #2430)

The Rancher's Surprise Son (Harlequin Special Edition Series #2430)

by Christine Wenger

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Original)

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The Little Boy Had His Eyes

Cody Masters always believed that nothing could keep him and his high school sweetheart, Laura Duke, apart. Not her parents, not town gossip—not even a jail sentence! But when the cowboy returns home, he finds a new man in Laura's life. Johnny is three-and-a-half-feet tall, adores his pony and stares back at Cody with all-too-familiar blue eyes…

The Mother Had His Heart

Even though Laura insists a quickie marriage produced Johnny, Cody isn't giving up on his dream of their family. The only problem is getting her—and the rest of the town—to trust him again. Besides, Laura is harboring a secret that is keeping them apart, but could also bond them, and little Johnny, forever!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780373659128
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Series: Harlequin Special Edition Series , #2430
Edition description: Original
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christine Wenger has worked in the criminal justice field for many years. She has a master's degree in probation & parole administration & sociology from Fordham University, but the knowledge gained from such studies certainly has not prepared her for what she loves to do--write romance!

A native central New Yorker, she enjoys watching bull riding & rodeo with her favorite cowboy, her husband Jim.

Read an Excerpt

As far as Laura Duke knew, no Duke vehicle had ever left a tread on the Masters family's Double M Ranch…until now.

It started out to be a perfectly normal day, whatever "normal" meant. Since nothing had been normal for the past several years, Laura was enjoying the quiet respite of visiting with her son Johnny's babysitter, Cindy Masters, at the nearby Double M.

In a cloud of Arizona desert dust, one of the Duke Ranch's white pickups came lumbering down the road.

"That looks like one of your trucks," Cindy said. "I've always loved the crown on the side. I told my mom that the Double M needs a cool logo like yours."

"A crown for a duke," Laura answered. More like a king, she thought. Since my father rules the entire county.

Laura loved Cindy and so did Laura's son, Johnny.

Cindy was a wonderful babysitter, but Laura asked her to sit only when she was in a jam, like this Friday. She had to speak at an awards luncheon, and her parents would be out of town. Clarissa, Johnny's nanny, had that day off.

"Sure. I'd love to watch Johnny again," thirteen-year-old Cindy said. "He's the cutest."

Laura was relieved, but if her parents knew she was at the Double M and Cindy was babysitting Johnny, there'd be hell to pay.

Laura's heart raced thinking that if her parents even suspected that she was good friends with Georgianna Masters, Cindy's mom, and enjoyed her company, they'd really flip. Well, her mother would definitely flip, but her father seemed to have a well-hidden soft spot for Georgianna.

Still, Laura had her reasons for risking the wrath of her parents—good reasons—reasons that she'd been keeping to herself for a long time.

The screen door of the porch squeaked open, and Georgianna walked out onto the porch.

"Cody? Is that Cody coming in the Duke truck?" Georgianna asked, wiping her hands on a terry towel. "Oh, thank goodness. He's finally here!"

The pickup was still making its way toward the front of the ranch house, and Laura found herself holding her breath.

Why on earth would Cody Masters be riding in a Duke truck?

More important, how did he get out of prison? "Is it really him?" Cindy asked, straining her neck. "Three years. I haven't seen my brother in three years." Three years and four days, to be exact.

Georgianna took Cindy's hand. "It sure is Cody, sweetie. He's home."

Laura's heart beat wildly in her chest. She felt warm, then chilled, then as if she was frying under the desert sun in spite of the shady roof overhead.

She knew that this day would come sooner or later and dreaded it—yet she couldn't wait to see Cody again.

So many secrets. So many lies. So much heartbreak.

Georgianna and Cindy took off at a run to meet the truck.

Laura stayed in the shade, holding back. The scenario that she had planned when she first talked to Cody—really talked to Cody—seemed ridiculous now. She needed to think!

The pickup slowed, and then stopped. Laura willed herself to run, to hide, but she was rooted in that spot. She needed to delay seeing Cody until she had a better plan—and it sure as hell had better be a great one.

Procrastination might as well be her middle name.

Holding back, she mentally called herself a supreme coward, and watched as Cody swung his long legs from the passenger side of the pickup, stood, then swept his mother into his arms. He swung her in circles as she shrieked in happiness.

"Yee-haw!" Cody's deep voice echoed across his mother's little pie-slice of property that was smack-dab in the middle of the Duke holdings.

Cody finally put his mother down, walked over to Cindy and hugged her close. "How's my little sis?"

"Oh, Cody! I've missed you. Have you been okay in jail? I mean, really okay? I can't believe you wouldn't let us visit you."

"It wasn't a place for ladies, but I loved your letters.

I looked forward to them every day. You're quite the writer."

"I know," Cindy said, grinning. "I want to be an author when I'm older."

Cody kissed her on the forehead. "You can do whatever you want, sis. Don't you ever think you can't."

Tears sprang to Laura's eyes. She wished her family could be this close, but it never seemed that her father, the rich and powerful J. W. Duke, had time for her or her mother. The only one who he dropped everything for was her son.

She couldn't stop staring at Cody. He looked older and pale. The slump in his shoulders made him seem. defeated, maybe. Or sad. Or maybe he was just tired.

The foreman of the Duke Ranch emerged from the driver's side of the pickup. She'd always liked Slim Gonzalez. He was one of the few who could handle her father.

"I'm supposed to take Cody straight to the Duke Ranch," he said with a slight accent. "But I thought he should stop here quickly to see his family and get a change of clothes."

Cody clamped Slim's shoulder. "Let me take a shower. I promise I'll hurry. I need to get this jail stink off me. Por favor, mi amigo."

"Okay," Slim nodded. "But hurry up. Remember that you and I have an appointment with J.W. and your parole officer in J.W.'s office."

Georgianna suddenly turned toward her. "Oh! I forgot. Laura is here." She waved at her, and Laura lifted her hand in return.

"Hi, Cody. Welcome home," Laura said, trying to keep her voice calm and even, but she could hear her anxiety in those four short words.

Cody turned toward her, and she knew the second his turquoise-blue eyes found her on the porch. Those eyes could turn as cold as the sky on a frosty day or as warm as a hot day in summer.

Today they were warm.

"Laura." He smiled. "It's really good to see you."

She knew she was staring at him, but he was staring at her, too. He didn't move, and didn't say another word.

Laura remembered the shirt and suit that he was wearing now. He'd worn it on one of their last dates at the fancy restaurant in town and again on that horrible day in county court when he was sentenced and two burly deputies took him away in it.

It was way too big on him now.

Laura had never thought he was guilty, never. Her Cody wouldn't hurt a fly. He was gentle with both animals and children, and he was sweet to Cindy and protective of Cindy and his mother.

But the criminal justice system proved her wrong and had found him guilty. Maybe it was because he wouldn't defend himself, even when his public defender pointed out that he couldn't provide him with adequate representation. Cody remained mute throughout the proceedings, insisting that he just wanted to plead guilty and do his time.

He'd gotten his wish. Now Cody was a felon. He'd been convicted of some kind of manslaughter for killing Georgianna's second husband, Hank Lindy.

The same smarmy Hank Lindy who hit on her during a shopping trip to his store while he was married to Georgianna.

The slime. Of course, she never told Georgianna, but she had avoided Lindy like the Ebola virus.

In her heart of hearts, she still believed her Cody would never kill anyone, but she wanted to hear it from him—and soon. He just had to be protecting someone, but whom?

Just like before, Cody might not talk about what had happened that awful night when Hal Lindy had been fatally shot, even though Laura had begged him constantly to defend himself. All her pleas fell on deaf ears.

But now that he was released, maybe she could talk him into giving up his secrets.

Slim cleared his throat and broke the silence, along with their eye contact. "You'd better get a move on, Cody."

Cody nodded and slipped one arm around his mother and the other around Cindy. Everyone would have to go past Laura to enter the ranch house. She couldn't escape now.

Cody reached out and was about to touch her hair, but he stopped. "Laura, can you stay for a while? Can we talk?"

It'd been years since the prison officials took Cody away. No matter how much she begged, he wouldn't put her on his visitors' list. She wasn't much of a letter writer, but she'd sent him one a week at first, telling him about how Georgianna and Cindy were doing, hoping to ease his mind about them.

But after a while, there was nothing she'd wanted to say, so she wrote less frequently.

God help her. She wanted to run to Cody and feel herself in his arms again. She'd always felt safe with him and always loved.

Safe? With a killer?

Instead, she shook her head and prayed that Slim wouldn't tell her father that she'd been at the Double M. "Sorry, I have to get going."

"Will I see you soon?" Cody asked quietly. "Our place?"

She nodded. He did the same. That was all she was going to get for now, and that simple gesture was all she could give in return.

Georgianna gave Laura a quick peck on the cheek. "Come and visit again," she said, following Cody inside.

Cindy turned back and waved to her as she walked on the squeaky, splintered boards of the porch. "Bye, Laura. See you on Friday when you drop Johnny off."

Laura's breath caught in her throat at the mention of her son. She hoped Cody hadn't heard what Cindy had said, not until she had a chance to think things through.

She'd thought she'd had another two years before she had to worry about telling Cody about Johnny.

But her time was up. Cody wasn't stupid.

She was hard-pressed to make something positive out of this situation that had suddenly been thrust upon her. It was easier to procrastinate and believe that Cody's felony conviction and incarceration hadn't happened.

Laura waved goodbye to Cindy and noticed that Slim took a seat on the rocking chair on the porch to wait for him.

"Slim, what's going on?" Laura asked when the Masters family was inside the ranch house. "I didn't know that Cody was being released today."

"I just found out, too. Your father apparently arranged for his early release. This morning he told me that Cody was going to get out early and to go pick him up at the correctional facility."

"Wait a second." Laura raised a hand like a traffic cop. "My father helped to get Cody out on parole?"


"I don't understand. My father was never a Cody Masters fan."

Slim removed his straw hat and hung it on a knee. "That's putting it mildly. All I know is that Georgianna Masters—er… I mean, Georgianna Lindy—paid the boss a visit, and soon the parole people were talking to J.W. So this morning, J.W. told me that after I pick Cody up, he's going to be working at the Duke Ranch as part of his parole."

Interesting, Laura thought. I wonder what Daddy is up to.

"But Cody's own ranch needs a lot of work," Laura said. "It's been going downhill since he went to prison. He should be able to work his own property, not my father's! Georgianna is struggling to keep it up herself, and Cindy has to go to school."

"Cody's worked both ranches before." Slim shrugged. "And from what I understand, the wages that he earned at J.W.'s back then went toward fixing up the Double M. As long as prison didn't break Cody's back, he can do the same again."

The Dukes had always had so much, and the Masters family barely scraped by. As far back as Laura could remember, it had been like that. To make things worse, her father enjoyed constantly riding Cody, telling him that he, Georgianna and Cindy would be better off if they sold their ranch back to J.W.

Maybe for once her father was right.

It'd be difficult avoiding Cody because, as exes, he knew they had things to discuss, but she'd have to avoid him as much as possible until she figured out a plan.

"Slim, what will his duties be?"

"According to J.W., I'm to treat him like a typical greenhorn. He can start by mucking out the stalls."

Laura sighed. It wasn't just Cody that her father disliked. It always stuck in his craw that Mike Masters, Cody's father, had won his little pie-slice of land, along with a decaying farmhouse from J.W., in an all-night drunken poker game.

Subsequently, J.W. had devoted his life to getting the land back.

To that end, he was probably going to use Cody somehow. Maybe use him to influence Georgianna Masters to sell out. That was the kind of man J.W. was. It was his way or the highway.

Secrets. She'd have to keep hers as long as she could.

Cody shook off his rumpled suit and hurried into the shower, letting the water sluice over him. It couldn't be hot enough, as far as he was concerned.

A private shower—what a luxury! He fingered the vinyl curtain with a school of tropical fish swimming over a coral reef. He laughed at the design on a curtain in the middle of the damn Arizona desert.

As the bathroom filled up with steam, he took a deep breath and poured shower gel all over himself. Then he found a pink loofah and scraped his skin with it until it tingled.

As soon as he had a block of time, he'd head up into the mountains—to Saguaro Canyon—and soak in the cold rushing water. He knew just the spot, too. It was a favorite of his and Laura's.

They used to sit in the creek for hours at a time, his arm around her shoulders and her head on his chest. They'd relax in comfortable silence, just enjoying each other's company. Sometimes they'd talk about the future. It had always been their dream that somehow he'd make his mark in the world and then he'd ask J.W. for her hand in marriage.

But now he was a jailbird, a convicted felon. No one in their right mind would hire him, much less let him marry their daughter, but he knew he'd made the right decision, and he'd have to live with the consequences.

He supposed he should be grateful that he had a paying job at J.W.'s ranch and that he got out of that hellhole earlier than he'd thought he would, even though he'd planned on serving his whole sentence. There were just some things that a man had to do to protect those he loved.

He soaped up again and kept scrubbing with the loofah. Then he washed his hair with mango-coconut shampoo that must have been his mother's or sister's, digging his fingernails into his scalp.

For the next several minutes, he just stood under the spray, letting the hot water cleanse his body, cleanse his soul.

With a sigh of regret, he turned it off.

He couldn't stall any longer. He was burning daylight.

He'd just spent three years out of five for involuntary manslaughter, and he owed the parole system two more years. That meant two years working as an indentured servant for J. W. Duke.

In his wildest dreams, he could never imagine that he'd be working for J.W., and that he'd even pull some strings and get Cody out of jail early.

He sighed. The fact that his stepfather, Hank Lindy, would never hurt another woman again was one of the things that had made Cody's incarceration tolerable. If there truly was a heaven and hell, Lindy's soul was in the special kind of hell reserved for those who hit women, nearly killing them, and who preyed on young girls.

From all appearances, Hank Lindy, the owner of a feed and farm equipment store, was the epitome of a model citizen. That was the Lindy that his mother decided to marry. Cody never asked her if she'd really loved him, or just thought that he'd be generous and help get the Double M back into the black.

Georgianna had been very wrong.

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