Becoming a father was not something Reid Hardell had ever imagined for himself, especially twelve years after the fact.
The social worker’s voice echoed in his ear. Mr. Hardell, I realize this situation caught you by surprise, but you’re the only family Jessie has left.
Family. His stomach churned as the word reverberated inside his head.
At half past midnight, he flipped on the blinker and took the exit for Stampede. He could only imagine the looks on the faces of his grandfather and brothers when Reid introduced them to his daughter. He should have warned the family that he was returning home to Texas and why, but he’d barely kept in touch with them since entering the military after high school.
Reid had always felt like an outsider in his family and had never figured out why his father had come down harder on him than his two brothers. His jaw tightened at the memory of the old man shoving him to the ground then kicking dirt in his face, after Reid had asked for the keys to his truck so he could take a girl to the movies. Later that night his older brother, Logan, had driven off in the pickup with his friends.
When Reid’s enlistment in the marines was up, he hadn’t returned to Paradise Ranch. Instead, he’d chosen to settle in Albuquerque. It hadn’t made sense to go back to a place which held few good memories.
He glanced across the seat at his daughter—the reason Reid was making this trip. Six months had passed since he’d met Jessie in September, but her name still rolled off his tongue like a boulder. He was floundering in his role as her dad and he was looking to his siblings to help him navigate fatherhood.
Any day now Reid’s younger brother, Gunner, was going to become a first-time father and Logan had recently married a single mother with twin boys. Surely they could give him a few pointers on parenting.
Reid’s gaze shifted to the urn propped on the seat next to Jessie. Her mother was making the eight-hour drive with them from El Paso to Stampede, an hour south of San Antonio. He’d suggested spreading the ashes before they’d left Jessie’s foster home, but she hadn’t been ready to say goodbye to her mother. He understood. Sort of.
His father’s sudden death had cheated him out having the last word. A few weeks after Reid left for boot camp, a hit-and-run driver had killed Donny Hardell while he changed a flat tire on the side of the road. Reid remembered the phone call from his grandfather as if it had happened yesterday. First, Reid had been numb with shock, then he’d felt weightless—as if the heavy sensation resting on his chest most of his life had broken apart and vanished. His grandfather hadn’t revealed the funeral arrangements and Reid hadn’t asked. They both knew he wouldn’t be paying his respects to a man who’d treated him with contempt.
His gaze flicked to the rearview mirror, where the corner of the glass displayed the outside temperature—fifty-nine degrees. Typical mid-March weather in the Lone Star State. He set the cruise control and lifted his aching foot from the gas pedal. He should have removed his cowboy boots and put on his athletic shoes earlier in the day, but each time they’d stopped for a break, Reid had been distracted. Twice the dog had bolted from the truck when Jessie opened the door and they’d had to capture him. Then Jessie had asked for a snack from a vending machine that ate her money. And the bathrooms at two of the rest stops had been out of order, requiring a detour.
Soft snoring sounds drifted into his ear and he glanced into the backseat. Fang slept soundly in the dog bed on top of the luggage. The five-year-old shorthaired golden Chihuahua with half its teeth missing had belonged to the Valentines—the elderly foster parents who’d taken Jessie in after Stacy died. According to the couple, Fang and Jessie had a special bond, which Reid had witnessed when the mutt escaped the yard and chased his pickup down the street after they’d driven off earlier in the day. When they’d returned the dog to its owners, Jessie had begun crying and then so did Mrs. Valentine. Finally, Mr. Valentine shoved the mutt into Reid’s arms and said, “He’s Jessie’s now.”
The three of them were an unlikely family, but… Reid lost his thought when the word family reverberated inside his head again. The Hardells had been no more or no less dysfunctional than most families but Reid had decided in the military that he’d never marry or have kids. He didn’t want to be a dad. After the way his father had treated him, he had no idea how to nurture a kid’s mental or emotional well-being.
So much for the promise you made yourself.
Reid gripped the wheel tighter as he drove past his family’s rural property. He had tried to earn his father’s approval by showing an interest in his dad’s hobby—working on car engines. All he’d gotten for his efforts had been a dressing-down. Reid had developed a real aptitude for mechanics and by the age of seventeen he’d fixed engines his father hadn’t been able to get running—still his old man had always found fault with Reid’s work.
After he left the military, he’d landed a job as a mechanic for a trucking company in Duke City and had made a life for himself away from his family. A life that had been turned around when a social worker in El Paso informed him that he might be the biological father of a twelve-year-old girl.
A beacon of light appeared up ahead—the Moonlight Motel. A full moon spun in a slow circle atop a forty-foot pole and the word Vacancy glowed blue against the white backdrop. Last summer Gunner had texted Reid the link to the Moonlight’s website and Reid had viewed before-and-after pictures of the newly renovated motel.
He turned into the lot, surprised to see vehicles in front of the rooms. Years ago, the motel had sat empty most days. He parked by the office and shut off the engine. He didn’t notice anyone behind the check-in desk. Maybe Gunner was in the back playing video games or watching TV. He reached for his cowboy hat only to discover Fang had flipped it over and crawled inside the crown to sleep.
Great. His head would smell like dog the next time he wore the hat. He left the pickup, closing the door quietly. After hello, he had no idea what he’d say to his brother. His heart pounding like a jackhammer, he stared at his boots as he walked across the pavement.
The surge of adrenaline racing through his bloodstream caused him to pull the handle harder than he intended. The door flew open and a body slammed into his chest. His quick reflexes kicked in and he wrapped his arms around his assailant. When a pair of soft breasts pressed against him, he stumbled backward, his shoulder hitting the doorjamb.
“Oh, my, gosh.” The woman extricated herself from his hold and backed up. She brushed a lock of blond hair from her brown eyes. “I’m so sorry.” She flashed a smile. He’d seen a photo of Gunner’s wife and Lydia had long hair. This woman had really short hair. He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Fang started yipping and barking and a moment later his daughter got out of the vehicle.
Jessie rubbed her eyes. “What’s going on?”
“We’re in Stampede.” Reid looked at the blonde. “My daughter and I need a room for the night if there’s one available.”
When Jessie fetched Fang from the backseat and attached his leash, the woman pointed to a pathway between the motel rooms and the office. “Follow the sidewalk. There’s a patch of grass back there.”
Left alone with the petite woman whose sultry eyes were way too big for her face, Reid apologized. “I’m sorry. You weren’t hurt, were you?”
He preferred long hair on women but the shorter style with wispy bangs drew his attention to her pretty eyes and high cheekbones. When his gaze dropped to her mouth, her lips spread into a smile and Reid felt his body sway toward her.
A horn honked, startling him, and he jumped. He blamed the long day behind the wheel for his preoccupation with the pretty lady. He tore his gaze from her brown eyes and watched his grandfather’s jalopy pull into a parking space. The ancient pickup should have found its way to the junkyard a decade ago. This wasn’t how Reid imagined greeting his grandfather—in the wee-morning hours—after returning to town all these years.
The driver-side door opened and Emmett Hardell climbed out. A moment later Amelia Rinehart stepped from the passenger side. What was his grandfather doing at this late hour with the matriarch of Stampede? He studied the pair—they’d both aged.
That’s what happens when you don’t see people for over a decade.
“Good grief, Emmett.” Amelia shut her door. “Riding in your truck is like lying on a magic fingers vibrating bed.”
“What would you know about those kinds of beds?” the old man grumbled.
“You’d be surprised by how many I’ve slept in,” she said.
The couple faced off unaware of their audience. Amelia propped her fists on her hips and glared. “With the income Paradise Ranch made during the holidays you can afford to buy a new vehicle.”
“Be a waste of good money—” he lifted his leg and shook his foot “—when I got one boot in the grave already.”
“You’re too ornery to die.” Amelia narrowed her eyes. “Speaking of ornery…when are you going to approve my idea to reinstate the Stampede Rodeo and Spring Festival?”
“Because every one of your bright ideas has cost me my privacy and peace of mind.”
“What little mind you have left doesn’t need any peace.”
Ouch. Reid listened to the couple spar, wondering why they were awake let alone out together past their bedtimes.
“Don’t worry,” the blonde whispered. “Those two banter back and forth all the time. Gunner says they’re in love and arguing is their version of foreplay.”
His grandfather loved the old woman? Reid’s grandmother had grown up with Amelia. The two women had been best friends most of their lives, but Emmett had never cared for the wealthy lady—at least not that Reid could remember. When Amelia had stopped by the ranch to check on the family after his grandma passed away, she’d always argued with Emmett.
“I should have introduced myself,” she said to Reid. “I’m Scarlett Johnson and that lady is my great-aunt.”
Scarlett Johnson. He hadn’t recognized her. Reid had bumped into Scarlett at her great-uncle’s funeral back when he’d been in high school. His looks must have changed, too, because she acted as if they’d never met.
“You’re an old fuddy-duddy,” Amelia said to Emmett. “I don’t know why I ever thought you were a catch back in the day.”
“You’ve messed with this town plenty,” Emmett said. “Can’t you leave it and me alone?”
“You enjoy me fussing over you,” she said.
Emmett shook his head. “You should know better than to tie yourself to a corpse.”
Amelia stamped her foot. “If you’re so determined to die, hand over your shotgun and I’ll put you out of your misery.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he said. “With me out of the way you’d turn Stampede into a three-ring circus.”
“I better intervene before one of them gives the other a heart attack.” Scarlett approached the couple. “Isn’t it past your bedtimes?”
“We’re too excited about the baby to sleep,” Amelia said.
Emmett handed Scarlett a cell phone. “Gunner called and said he emailed photos of the baby, but I can’t get into my phone.”
Reid pulled his iPhone from his pocket and checked his text messages. Nothing—not that he’d expected his brother to share the happy news with him. He put the phone away and waited for the right moment to step out of the shadows.
“Emmett’s phone is password protected and he forgot the password,” Amelia said. “He thinks Gunner wrote it down on a sticky note and put in the office desk.”
“He did,” Scarlett said. “I saw the note. It said ‘password.’”
Emmett nodded. “Good. Tell me what the password is.”
“Password,” Scarlett said.
“That’s what I’m asking you.” Emmett looked at Amelia. “Is your niece hard of hearing?”
Amelia shoved her elbow into Emmett’s side. “The password is ‘password,’ you old fool.”
“‘Password’?” His grandfather harrumphed. “That’s a stupid word for a password.”
“Gunner assumed it would be easy for you to remember.” Amelia spoke to her niece. “Lowercase?”
“Capital P and the rest is lowercase,” Scarlett said.
Amelia’s gaze landed on Reid. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were helping a guest.”
Like a man walking across wet cement, Reid dragged his feet forward. “Hey, Gramps.”
The old man’s eyes widened. “Reid?”
He smiled. “In the flesh.”
“Reid Hardell?” Amelia narrowed her eyes. “Young man, it’s about time you came home to visit your family.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His grandfather didn’t crack a smile or offer a hug. Reid should have called before showing up out of the blue.
A shrill bark startled the group. Fang raced across the parking lot, his leash trailing behind him as Jessie tried to catch up. As soon as the dog saw Reid, he switched directions and ran over to him. Reid scooped the mutt into his arms.
“I wanted to try out the swings.” Jessie stopped next to Reid and gasped for air. “But Fang took off.” Her gaze zeroed in on Emmett’s grumpy face. “Don’t you like dogs?” When Emmett didn’t answer her question, she said, “What’s going on?”
“Jessie.” Reid cleared his throat. “I’d like you to meet your great-grandfather.”
Emmett’s mouth sagged open. “This young’un is your daughter?”
Amelia smiled. “Emmett, you never told me that Reid had gotten married.”
Reid handed Fang over to Jessie then said, “I’m not married, Ms. Amelia.”
“Jessie, come inside. Your dog looks like he needs a drink of water.” Scarlett and his daughter entered the office, leaving Reid alone to face his grandfather.
“I should have warned you that I was coming,” he said.
“You should have done a lot of things, young man.” Emmett walked back to his truck and climbed behind the wheel then stuck his head out the window. “Get in, Amelia. We’re leaving.”
The older woman clutched Reid’s arm. “Don’t mind his grumpiness. You just caught him by surprise. Come by my house tomorrow and talk to him.”
“He’s not living at the ranch?”
“Scarlett is staying in Emmett’s room at the ranch and helping Sadie look after the twins until she finds an apartment.” Amelia hopped into the pickup and waved out the window as his grandfather drove off.
Reid tore his gaze from the clunker and stared longingly at his own pickup. The temptation to leave Stampede was strong, but he’d stay and deal with the consequences of leaving the family fold.
He’d do it for Jessie.
And because he had nobody else to turn to.
FROM PLAYBOY COWBOY TO…DADDY?
Bronc rider Gunner Hardell never plans past the next stop on the rodeo. When he's home in Stampede, Texas, he's part-time manager of the run-down Moonlight Motel, to get his crotchety grandpa off his back. Then he meets interior designer Lydia Canter—hired to renovate the motel—and suddenly the gig gets a whole lot more appealing…
Lydia is looking for love, but there's nothing wrong with some Mr. Right Now while she waits for Mr. Right. But one steamy night with Gunner has unexpected consequences. And she would rather raise their baby alone than give the good-time cowboy a chance to break her heart. When Gunner learns he's going to be a daddy, he's determined to prove to Lydia he really is her Mr. Right!
Sadie McHenry and her twin sons are heading home to Stampede, Texas. Sadie wants a chance to start over after being laid off—and she might have found it with rancher Logan Hardell. Logan instantly bonds with her boys, especially with Tommy, whose ADD makes him a handful. But Logan seems to understand the four-year-old's needs and seeing them together melts Sadie's heart.
Logan's ranch is at risk, so Sadie agrees to help with their books—putting Logan on twin patrol! With his fun-loving approach to the kids and his rugged appeal, Sadie can't understand why he's ruled out a family of his own. But she's not giving up on him just yet. Because Sadie's convinced Logan is exactly what she and her boys need!