Authors: Judy Christenberry
Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Romance, #Cowboy
She was desperate, Rick realized. So desperate she was on the verge of tears. Walking away from Megan Ford would be hard to do. He’d be haunted forever by those big blue eyes.
“What kind of coffee do you make?”
She blinked several times. “What kind? I—I usually grind my own beans. I like—”
“Grind your own beans? Tell me you can cook, too.”
Megan gave him a befuddled stare. “Well, yes. Of course.”
He grinned at her, hoping to chase away those tears that still lingered. “Honey, looks like we got a deal.”
Come back to Cactus, Texas, in Judy Christenberry’s bestselling series TOTS FOR TEXANS! You’re guaranteed to have a grand ole time!
Judy Christenberry has been writing romances for fifteen years because she loves happy endings as much as her readers. Judy quit teaching French recently to devote her time to writing. She hopes readers have as much fun reading her stories as she does writing them. She spends her spare time reading, watching her favorite sports teams and keeping track of her two daughters. Judy’s a native Texan, living in Plano, a suburb of Dallas.
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
579—WHO’S THE DADDY?
612—WANTED: CHRISTMAS MOMMY
626—DADDY ON DEMAND
701—IN PAPA BEAR’S BED
726—A COWBOY AT HEART
735—MY DADDY THE DUKE
744—COWBOY COME HOME
773—ONE HOT DADDY-TO-BE?
777—SURPRISE—YOU’RE A DADDY!
785—THE LAST STUBBORN COWBOY
817—THE GREAT TEXAS WEDDING BARGAIN
He was the one.
Megan Ford nibbled on her bottom lip as she stared at the dusty cowboy leaning against the feed-store counter. She’d heard Mr. James, the store owner, call him by name, confirming his identity.
Her mother’s friends had recommended him.
If she weren’t so desperate… But she was. Time was of the essence.
“Well, hello, there, Megan. What can I do for you?” Mr. James called out, having finally seen her in the dim shadows of the store.
“Good afternoon, Mr. James.” She remembered he’d gone to school with her mother and treated her as if she were a favorite niece even though she’d only met him a month ago.
The cowboy turned around to glance at her, and she sucked in a deep breath. He might appear tired, dirty and down-at-the-heels, but he was good-looking. Maybe he wasn’t as perfect for her plans as she’d thought. But she didn’t have any other candidates.
She stepped forward and extended her hand to the stranger. “I don’t think I’ve met you. I’m Megan Ford.”
“Sorry, I should’ve introduced you,” Mr. James said. “This here is Richard Astin. We call him Rick. He’s got a smart little spread outside of town.”
She smiled politely. “How nice.”
His eyebrows raised over his warm brown eyes. “Yeah. Are you ranching in the area?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m a nurse. I work for the doctors.” She didn’t need to give their names. Dr. Greenfield had been the only doctor in the west Texas town of Cactus for a number of years. He’d recently taken in a partner, Samantha Gibbons. She’d married one of the local men last summer.
The cowboy didn’t look terribly interested in her history. Even better.
Turning back to Mr. James, the cowboy finished his business and started to go, tipping his hat at her as he strode past.
She wanted to grab his sleeve, to stop his departure, but she certainly didn’t want to conduct a conversation in front of Mr. James. That would never do.
With a quick nod in the older man’s direction, she followed Richard Astin outside.
“Mr. Astin?” she called out. He’d covered a lot of territory in the two minutes he’d been out of her sight and was now standing at the door of an old pickup.
In the sunlight, though his gaze was shaded by his cowboy hat, the strong planes of his face were visible, making Megan hesitate. He wouldn’t be easy to manipulate.
She drew a deep breath. It was now or never. “Could I have a word with you?”
stared at the pretty woman on the porch of the feed store.
Not another one.
He’d thought he was safe here in Cactus. The eight months since he’d moved here had been the happiest of his life. The good people of Cactus took a man at face value…and left him to live in peace.
Well, most of them. The Matchmakers weren’t quite as good about staying out of a man’s life. But he’d found them amusing. The four women had gotten their sons married, with children on the way. Then they had started looking for fresh bait. But lately they’d left him alone.
“Yes, ma’am? Talk to me about what?” He didn’t budge. She could come to him. Maybe there was another dance and the ladies had sent her over to lure him to it.
His left eyebrow was raised as he recognized distress on her face. Those blue eyes of hers appeared wary and she was nibbling on her full bottom lip.
She took one step toward him, and stopped. “It’s…it’s personal.”
He dipped his head down so she wouldn’t see his grin. He wondered which matchmaker had put her up to approaching him. He’d have to tell them that she didn’t know much about flirting.
Looking up, he said, “Can’t be too personal. We just met.”
“Could I buy you a cup of coffee?”
Now she was tempting him. He’d never learned to make good coffee. The instant kind he made each morning was only a mockery of the fragrant coffee he loved. “Where?”
His question seemed to throw her. She should’ve planned better. He could give her pointers, from his past experiences, but why help the enemy?
“At the drugstore?”
He deliberately looked at his watch. No point in letting her think she’d roped him in. “I’ve got five minutes to spare.”
Her chin rose. “Then we’d better walk fast,” she retorted and turned on her heel to head down the sidewalk in the direction of Brockmeier’s Drugstore.
Rick chuckled under his breath. At least she had some spirit. She’d been so hesitant at first, he’d thought she was timid.
He strolled after her, not hurrying, but his long legs caught up with her a few storefronts away. Not that she had short legs. Her denim skirt ended above her knees, catching his eye.
No doubt she was good-looking. Half the single men in town should be after her. He didn’t understand why she was chasing him. Unless she knew his secret.
She stopped outside the drugstore and turned to make sure he’d followed. He’d admired her restraint in not looking before. He reached around her and held open the door.
Sweeping past him with her chin raised, in the fashion of a grand duchess, she headed for the side of the drugstore where several empty booths awaited customers.
“Howdy, Rick,” Lucy, the waitress, called out. Then she noticed the young woman standing beside him. “Megan, right? You’re Faith’s daughter. Welcome to town.”
“Thank you. May we sit anywhere?”
Lucy waved them toward the booths. “You bet, hon. Take your pick. It’s not like we’re busy.”
Rick followed Megan’s determined march and slid into the booth she chose, opposite her.
“What can I get you folks?” Lucy asked.
“A cup of coffee for the gentleman and iced tea for me. Would you care for anything else, Mr. Astin? I believe the pie is supposed to be good.”
“Best in town,” Lucy declared, staring at Rick, waiting for his decision.
He deliberately took his time, watching Megan’s antsy movements across from him. “What kind do you have?”
“Apple, coconut cream and chocolate.”
“I’ll have apple, with a scoop of ice cream,” he said, smiling at Lucy.
“Coming right up.”
“For someone who only has five minutes, you’re certainly taking your time,” Megan muttered as Lucy hurried away from their table.
“Pie’s worth the extra time,” he assured her, adding a wink. He thought she seemed a little tense, but it was silly to get her tail in such a twist over a dance.
She glared at him.
“Look, honey, don’t act so uptight. If going to a dance is that important, I’ll take you.” This time he might even enjoy himself.
Her blue eyes widened and she blinked several times. “I beg your pardon?”
“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To ask me to take you to a dance? I’ll have to admit, buying me pie and coffee is a new approach. I like it.”
Her mouth dropped open. A tasty little mouth, too. Full lips, slightly pink, no lipstick. In fact, she didn’t have on hardly any makeup at all. Most of the women who’d come after him usually loaded up on the war paint.
Smart lady. Her dark lashes framed her blue eyes and her cheeks were soft pink over ivory. She didn’t need any fake enhancements.
“Why, you conceited…conceited oaf!” she exclaimed.
He gave her a lopsided grin. “Did I get it wrong? Okay, what
you want? We don’t know each other. I doubt you’d want to buy cows. I can’t think of any other business we’d have.”
She suddenly retreated, her gaze becoming secretive, her openness disappearing. Looking away, she said nothing.
Lucy arrived at their table with their drinks and the pie and ice cream. “How’s your mother, Megan? Tell her to come in and visit. I haven’t talked to her since y’all came back.”
“Thank you, I will.”
After Lucy left the table, Rick leaned forward. “You just recently came to town?”
“A month ago.”
Her clipped tones didn’t invite conversation.
He frowned. The lady was presenting a puzzle. He assumed she’d been told to approach him by one of the matchmakers. Maybe he was wrong. “Look, I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions. I figured Mabel or Florence or—” He stopped as her cheeks flooded with color. Guilt if he ever saw it.
“How did you know?” she asked with gasp.
He didn’t answer at once. The pie and ice cream, already melting, demanded his attention. After he’d digested a tasty bite, he grinned. “Everyone in town knows those ladies are determined to marry off every single man in the county.” He shook his head, still grinning. “Not that I’m accusing you of trying to marry me. They usually start off with a date to one of the barn dances they have around here.”
He thought she’d be even more embarrassed, maybe even back out of asking him. Too bad. He might have enjoyed dancing with Miss Megan Ford.
Taking another bite, he was enjoying the combination of warm fruit pie and cold ice cream, when she spoke.
“You’re wrong, Mr. Astin. We’re skipping the date part and going straight to the wedding vows. I’m asking you to marry me.”
He sputtered pie and ice cream across the table.
OT HER MOST
shining moment, Megan decided.
She shouldn’t have lost her temper, but the man was so sure she was eager to fall at his feet in adoration.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” she added sharply as he stared at her. “I’m not in admiration of your masculine charms. But I need a husband.”
He gave a low chuckle that shivered down her nerves as he wiped off the table. “That’s sure a unique approach, Miss Ford.”
“I’m serious!” she snapped.
That fascinating left brow slipped up toward his dark hair, but he was still grinning. “Yeah, and I’m the Easter bunny.”
Okay, so she hadn’t handled it right, but the man didn’t have to be sarcastic. She gritted her teeth and waited for him to stop laughing.
“I can offer you five thousand dollars,” she said grimly.
The mention of money seemed to sober him up. She’d thought it would. He didn’t have the look of a wealthy man. Mabel Baxter had told her he was trying to operate his ranch on a shoestring, doing most of the work himself.
He put down his fork and leaned forward. “Let me get this straight. You’re offering me five thousand dollars to marry you?”
She twisted her hands together. The explanation wasn’t as simple as the request. And a lot depended on her convincing the stranger across from her to agree to her proposal. “It’s complicated.”
“Getting married always is.”
His drawl carried a note of bitterness.
“You’ve been married before?”
He gave a brief nod.
“Do you have children?” That would really make things complicated.
“Nope. I’m not cut out to be a father.” He put more pie on his fork. “You’re not going to surprise me again, are you?”
The twinkle of humor in his brown eyes was reassuring. When she shook her head no, he even smiled, which made him more handsome.
“Um, the reason I need to marry is to get custody of my niece and nephew.” If the man didn’t like kids, he probably wouldn’t agree. Why hadn’t Mabel said anything? She knew why Megan was looking for a husband.
His chewing slowed, as if he was considering her explanation. After swallowing, he leaned forward. “Where are their parents?”
Her eyes filled with tears. After all, it had only been a few months since she’d lost her sister. “My…my sister’s dead.”
“And her husband?”
That word had once meant good things to her. Until Drake Moody had come into her sister’s life. “He’s in prison.”
She could tell her abrupt answer had surprised him, but at least he didn’t lose any food. He put his fork down and stared at her. Finally, he said, “Looks to me like you won’t have much competition for guardianship.”
She pressed her lips tightly together before drawing a deep breath. Then she forced herself to relax. “He’ll get out soon. And he’ll come after them. Mr. Gibbons said I’d stand a better chance if I’m married.”
“Mac? You talked to Mac?”
“Yes, Dr. Gibbons’s husband.”
“Yes.” She knew the man was a good attorney. He’d been honest with her, not offering false promises. That’s why she’d made the desperate move of asking this man to marry her.
“Well? What’s your answer?” she prodded, staring at him.
ICK BLEW OUT
his breath, leaning back against the booth. She wanted an answer now? Automatically, a no rose in his throat. After all, he’d tried marriage once. Who would consider a second marriage? Not him.
“I might be able to come up with another twenty-five hundred,” she said, pleading with her blue eyes.
He shook his head, frowning. The money didn’t matter. Not that he could tell her that. Someone might discover his secret. Which made his answer hard to explain.
“I’ve been married once. I don’t want to do that again.”
“We’re not talking about a real marriage. It would be a marriage on paper. We’d stay married until I get the children. Then…then we’ll get a divorce.”
“Won’t the courts be suspicious?” What was he doing, arguing with her?
“We…we might have to wait six months. I could ask Mr. Gibbons.”
Damn, he didn’t want to tell her no. Those blue eyes tugged at his heart. “Look, we’d have to live together. You don’t want to do that.”
“We…we can give you your own room. I’ll take the children in with me and—”
“Lady, I have to live on the ranch. I have a lot of work to do. I can’t live in town.” Okay, here was his out. He’d given himself a year to prove himself. He had four months to go.
“Do you have a house?”
“Yeah.” He had a big old house, made for families. Too much house for him. He didn’t have the time to clean it. He barely kept the kitchen decent. Maybe decent was too nice a word. But he couldn’t afford a housekeeper. Not on his present budget. Things had cost more than he’d thought.
“We could move into your house. We’d be quiet. We wouldn’t cause you any trouble.”
She was desperate, he realized. So desperate she was on the verge of tears. Walking away from Megan Ford would be hard to do. He’d be haunted forever by those big blue eyes.