Authors: Roxanne Rustand
The Cowboy’s Second Chance
With the town’s busiest sales weekend on the horizon, store owner Keeley North is desperate to find help. So when Connor Rafferty walks through her door, he’s an unlikely answer to her prayers. The former rodeo star may be a fish out of water in her shop, but he can rise to any challenge. And right now he’s set his sights on finding the son he hasn’t seen in five years. Keeley can’t risk her heart on a scarred cowboy who’s searching for something more. But if she can convince him to look beyond the mistakes of his past, Connor may get a second chance to have it all.
“My time is all yours, until my truck is fixed,” Connor said.
“Better be careful,” she said. “I’ll have you so busy that you’ll forget about leaving.” She grinned, then handed him the cabin key.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
The gratitude in his eyes took her aback, so Keeley gave him a breezy smile to lighten the moment. “No problem at all.”
“No—I really mean it.”
He rested a hand on her shoulder as he spoke, and she stilled, unable to take another step as a gentle warmth seemed to travel straight to her heart.
“It seems like a lifetime ago when I was around anyone as thoughtful and caring as you are, and I don’t think anyone around here even realizes how special you are.”
Flustered, she didn’t know what to say. He was so tall and utterly handsome, though it was the man inside who drew her.
“Thank you. For everything you’ve done for me.” Their gazes locked. “I’ve spent a lot of years being angry that my prayers went unanswered. But now I realize they have been all along… They’ve brought me to you.”
bestselling and award-winning author of over thirty-five novels,
lives in the country with her husband and a menagerie of pets, including three horses, rescue dogs and cats. She has a master’s in nutrition and is a clinical dietitian.
RT Book Reviews
nominated her for a Career Achievement Award, two of her books won their annual Reviewers’ Choice Award and two others were nominees.
Books by Roxanne Rustand
Aspen Creek Crossroads
The Single Dad’s Redemption
Rocky Mountain Heirs
The Loner’s Thanksgiving Wish
Love Inspired Suspense
Big Sky Secrets
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THE SINGLE DAD’S
Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
With many thanks to author Lyn Cote,
my “sister of the heart,” who has been
such a wonderful friend from the day
I began my writing journey many years ago.
And many thanks to editor Melissa Endlich,
for her astute and invaluable guidance.
I appreciate you more than words can say!
ooking up at the roiling black clouds, Connor Rafferty turned up the collar of his denim jacket and lengthened his stride.
Aspen Creek was definitely a tourist town. The far southern edge held a scattering of truck stops, bars and shabby houses, but the original part of town was more upscale with six blocks of stately old Victorian homes and brick mansions. At least ten of them had been converted to elegant B and Bs with small, discreet signs on the sidewalk offering off-season rates.
Rates that would be far beyond his very limited means.
He strode on, over an arched stone bridge spanning a wide creek and through the six-block-long downtown area, feeling as if he’d stepped back in time.
The town was all about historical flavor. High on their fancy elevated facades, the quaint stone-and-brick, two-story buildings all proclaimed dates in the mid-1800s; the street signs were lettered in antique script.
What had probably once been a main street filled with empty storefronts and other evidence of a dying town was now brimming with stores geared toward the yuppie tourist trade. Gift shops, pretty little tea shops, restaurants, fancy women’s clothing boutiques and a bookstore. For the outdoor sports enthusiasts, a variety of stores offered gear from fishing, kayaking and canoeing to skiing, backpacking and biking.
A single, massive bank on Main, with a plaque embossed with the year 1864 on the cornerstone facing the sidewalk, looked as if it could withstand World War III.
Somewhere on the north edge of town he’d find a cheap strip motel and, a mile farther, a campground with modern facilities, according to the tow-truck driver who had dropped Connor’s pickup at Red’s Mechanic Shop & Wrecker Service south of town.
Connor hadn’t intended to make this stop in eastern Wisconsin on his way from Montana to Detroit, but major engine problems had certainly changed his plans in a hurry.
This was exactly the kind of thing he didn’t need, with just a few hundred bucks in his pocket, nearly seven hundred miles to go and a burning need to reach the son he hadn’t seen in five long years.
years in the life of a young boy. And five years of worry about how well his ex-wife was taking care of him...or not. A familiar surge of anger burned through his chest at the thought of what he and Josh had both lost, and the God who had ignored his prayers.
Josh had been only four when Connor went to prison. Would the child even recognize him now?
A blinding bolt of lightning struck the steeple of a white-clapboard church a few blocks down and a deafening
shook the sidewalk beneath his feet. The tentative patter of rain turned to a deluge in earnest, pouring off the brim of his Resistol Western hat and soaking through his denim jacket.
Just as quickly the rain turned to an onslaught of marble-size hail.
He ducked into the first entryway on his right and stepped into a dimly lit store. Soft classical music drifted through the cinnamon-and-coffee-scented air.
It took a moment for his vision to adjust to the warm golden and amber lighting of flickering candles, plus a dozen or more stained-glass lamps and chandeliers displayed around the store. An avalanche of what his grandma had always called “pretties” seemed to fill every millimeter of space. China. Glass doodads. Frothy lace.
Fancy stuff at odds with the steady plink of water hitting a galvanized bucket sitting on the floor by the end of the front counter.
He couldn’t have felt more out of place if he’d suddenly found himself on Mars.
A slender young woman behind the cash register stared at him in shock.
He belatedly jerked off his hat and ran a hand over the two-day stubble on his face. “Sorry, ma’am. I...I just stepped in to get out of the hail,” he murmured. He reached behind himself for the door handle, acutely aware of the puddle forming beneath his battered Western boots. “Sorry ’bout the mess.”
“No—don’t go.” She slipped around the corner of the front counter, deftly avoiding the bucket on the floor. Her shoulder-length, shiny blond hair swung forward against her cheek as she motioned to the white wrought-iron table and matching chairs displayed by the front window. “Just listen to that storm out there. Have a seat. Coffee? Hot tea? I’ve even got fresh shortbread cookies.”
“Really, ma’am, I—”
“Sit.” She smiled, her green eyes sparkling. “At least for a while. If you go back out and get yourself struck by lightning, I’ll forever feel it was my fault.”
He awkwardly took the chair closest to the door and glanced around for a place to hang his hat, then settled it on his knees.
He nodded. “Uh...thanks.”
She bustled to the coffeemaker at the end of the front counter and soon returned with two steaming mugs of coffee and a tray of cookies, each with a little purple-frosting flower on top.
“You can be my taste tester. This is the first time I’ve made lavender shortbread, and the coffee is a new brand of Irish cream.”
The aroma of the coffee was pure bliss. The first bite of cookie was like an explosion of rich butter and a delicate flowery flavor on his tongue. Nothing in his memory had ever tasted as good.
She grinned at his reaction as she took the chair opposite his and offered her hand across the table. “Keeley North.”
“Connor. Connor Rafferty.” He hadn’t seen—much less talked to—such a pretty woman in more than five years, and the brief contact of her delicate hand in his sent his mind reeling back to a different time and place. Back to when he’d been a carefree man who worked hard and found pleasure in simple things.
Privileges he’d never appreciated until he was behind bars. Privileges and opportunities he would never fully regain.
In his former life, he might have asked this charming woman to meet him for coffee...or maybe even dinner, in the hope of getting to know her better.
Now he knew there was no point.
Once he revealed his past, a woman like this one would run the other way.
Shaking off his dark thoughts, he looked up and found she was watching him with an expression of concern. Had she asked him something?
“Are you all right?” she asked, her voice gentle and warm.
Today’s stress and exhaustion after fourteen hours behind the wheel of his pickup, plus several more on the side of the road with engine trouble, had turned his bones to lead.
“Just...a long day.”
“You aren’t from around here,” she said as she leaned back in her chair and studied him over the rim of her coffee cup.
“Nope.” Clearly, she already knew that from the way she was looking at him. Maybe she’d already figured out he wasn’t just some average guy, either. He shifted uneasily, feeling as if his prison number was stenciled on his denim jacket.
Outside, hail battered at the windows in heavy sheets and continuous lightning lit up the sky like the Fourth of July. He took a swallow of coffee, savoring the heat as it slid down his throat.
“Texas, right?” She cocked her head. “Or maybe Oklahoma? I love the accent.”
was what she’d noticed? He jerked his gaze up to meet hers. “Texas, ma’am. Though it’s been a long while.”
“Just passing through?”
“On my way to Detroit.”
“But then you fell in love with our pretty little town and decided to stay,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Not exactly. My truck broke down five miles from here.”
Her eyes widened a little at that. “Sorry. At least you got into town before this weather hit, right?”
“Yeah.” Though the weather was the least of his problems.
“Were you towed to Red’s garage—south side of town?”
“He does good work, but he usually has quite a backlog. When will he get it done?”
“A couple weeks...maybe three.”
“Ouch. Sounds about right for Red’s, but that can’t be very convenient.” She drummed her fingers on the glass surface of the table. “So I suppose you’ll be renting a car to continue on?”
If only he could. This trip to Detroit meant everything to him. He had to find his ex-wife, Marsha, and son before she made good on her threat and disappeared again.
But he’d planned on smooth sailing, not a massive mechanic’s bill coupled with extra weeks of motel and food expenses.
After buying a fourteen-year-old Dodge Ram diesel in Montana, the cash in his wallet had already run low and running up debts with no employment in sight would be risky. Renting a vehicle to reach Detroit and then returning for his truck later wasn’t even a dim possibility.
“No. I...guess I’ll have to wait for the repairs.” He dredged up a wry smile, knowing the customers who patronized a fancy store like this one could probably replace a vehicle like his without a second thought.
Not that they’d ever own such an old beater in the first place.
He rose, reached for the thin wallet in the back pocket of his jeans. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Everyone who walks in is welcome to the coffee.” She studied him, her gaze boring into his until he felt as if she could see clear into his deepest thoughts. “I don’t mean to pry...but will you just be doing the usual tourist things around here while you wait, or might you be looking for some work?”
Who would even hire him, given his past?
“I...” Heat crawled up the back of his neck as he faltered then swallowed his pride. “I could use something temporarily, since I have to stay in town awhile. But I don’t expect I’d find anything like that around here.”
Biting her lower lip, she hesitated. “Maybe. Our busiest days of the year are next weekend, and I’m short of help. If you’re interested, I might have a temporary job for you here. Even a week or two could help us both.”
Startled, he glanced around at the antiques, the china, the delicate bits and pieces displayed in every nook and cranny. He managed a short laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m afraid you won’t find much of anything else in a town this small. Our population is less than four thousand and there’s no manufacturing here. Without the agriculture throughout the county and our tourism, the town would die.”
“What about construction?”
“There aren’t any big companies based here—I think the closest are maybe thirty miles away or so.”
“We’ve got a few small, independent contractors in town—father-and-son teams who only do remodeling, though every time I try to schedule a reno project they’re all booked for months ahead.” She sighed. “I don’t know if they’re looking for extra help, but I sure wish they would so they could work faster.”
He nodded, the weight of his situation growing heavier by the minute.
“Jobs around here are mostly at the resorts, restaurants and shops,” she continued. “But we’re on the verge of tourist season, and the high-school kids have probably nabbed every seasonal job they can find.”
He felt his heart sink to the pit of his stomach. He’d once earned six figures a year on the rodeo circuit, but he’d liquidated all of his assets for legal fees while fighting to keep his freedom and he’d still ended up in prison.
Now it sounded as though he’d be lucky to find even a minimum-wage job slinging hamburgers or sweeping floors. “So there’s not much hope, then.”
“You never know.” She went behind the counter and pulled a newspaper from a shelf underneath. “You’re welcome to take this. The classifieds are on the back pages.”
She rummaged through a file drawer along the wall behind the counter, withdrew a sheet of paper and handed it to him with the newspaper. “Here’s an application, just in case you decide to apply here.”
Words failed him as he glanced at the fancy doodads in the store. Just looking at it all made him feel big and awkward and claustrophobic, and made him want to step outside to take a deep breath. “I don’t think this would be a good fit, ma’am. But I appreciate the offer.”
She shrugged. “Keep me in mind, just in case. The job wouldn’t be that hard. I stock gifts, antiques and work by local artisans, with some gourmet foods and such thrown in. Running the register is easy.”
He felt his jaw drop at her willingness to take a chance on someone she’d just met, and a warm ember of something long forgotten flickered to life in his chest. He hadn’t remembered that people in the outside world could offer trust so easily. Then again, she didn’t know where he’d been for the past five years.
“You could be making a big mistake, offering a job to a complete stranger.”
“I won’t be, if you fill out the application,” she said with a tentative smile. “Believe me, I
follow up on references and do background checks. Anyway, I’ve been saying some prayers, so maybe this was meant to happen. You could use some short-term work and, at the very least, that’s what I need. How much better could it be?”
If she only knew.
He hesitated then shook his head. “I appreciate your offer. But I think I’d better look around town a little more, if it’s all the same to you.”
* * *
Long after Connor disappeared down the sidewalk, Keeley stood at the front bay window of the store and stared after him. What had just happened?
There were a number of big-name horse breeders and trainers in the county, but an honest-to-goodness Texas cowboy had never, ever, walked into her store—boots and all.
Much less one who looked like
Tall and muscular with broad shoulders and raven-black hair, he’d made her heart stumble the moment he’d walked into her store. His dark five o’clock shadow had drawn her attention to his strong jaw and the flash of white, even teeth when he’d briefly smiled.
He looked like someone who could take on any challenge with the laconic, easy grace of a man straight out of the Old West. But it was his long, dark lashes and those silver-blue eyes that had made her heartbeat stumble. The emotions lurking in those stunning eyes spoke of pain, and loss, and suffering, and had called to her at the deepest level.
She was still standing at the window, frozen in place, when her friend Beth Stone, owner of the bookstore down the street, waved at her from the sidewalk and came inside.