THE RANCHER'S EXPECTANT CHRISTMAS
An unexpected homecoming
Deanna Blake is stunned at the loss of her estranged father—and inheriting half his ranch. In a strange twist, the other half goes to Josh Talbot…her former crush and one of the many sources of trouble between Dee and her dad. Not to worry. The single mom-to-be hates this place, steeped in reminders of the past she's still trying to leave behind. She'll sell her share now and ensure a comfortable future for her unborn child.
Except Josh can't afford to buy her out. Reluctantly, the handsome cowboy agrees to sell the entire operation and split the proceeds. Josh—and his young son—will have to start over. But as Dee warms to their friendship, something sparks. And Josh begins to wonder if maybe they should keep it all in the family.
The baby walloped her full bladder, jerking Deanna Blake out of a mercifully sound sleep and scattering wisps of agitated dreams into the predawn gloom. Her heart hammering, she skootched farther underneath the soft Pendleton blanket, cradling her belly…
Gasping, Deanna heaved herself around just as the small child fled the room, awkwardly yanking shut the bedroom door behind him.
For what felt like the first time in weeks, she smiled, then clumsily shoved herself upright. Spearing a hand through her short, undoubtedly startled-looking hair, she frowned at her old room, coming more into focus as the weak November sun gradually elbowed aside the remnants of a dark country night. She’d been so wiped out from her cross-country flight, as well as the three-hour drive up from Albuquerque after, she hadn’t even turned on the light before crawling into bed. Now, taking in the old Gilmore Girls poster, its curled edges grasping at the troweled plaster walls, she wasn’t sure which was weirder – how long it’d been since she’d last slept here, or that the room was exactly as she’d left it more than ten years ago. Then again, why would Dad have changed it—?
Deanna squeezed shut her eyes as a double-whammy of grief and guilt slammed into her, even stronger than the next kick that finally forced her out of bed and into the adjoining bathroom where she studiously avoided glancing at the mirror over the chipped marble sink. Between the pregnancy puffies and an unending series of sleepless nights, it was simply best not to look.
Teeth brushed and comb dragged through hair, she wrestled into a pair of very stretchy leggings and a tent-sized sweater before, on a deep breath, opening her door. A child’s laughter, the comforting scent of coffee she couldn’t drink, tumbled inside.
As if everything was perfectly normal.
Through a fog of sadness and apprehension, Deanna crept down the Saltillo-tiled hallway toward the kitchen, hoping against hope that Gus, her father’s old housekeeper, was only looking after the little boy while his daddy tended to some ranch duty or other. Just as Gus had watched Deanna from time to time, as well as Sam Talbot’s boys whenever the need arose. In some ways it’d been like having four older brothers, both a blessing and a curse for an only child living out in the New Mexico boonies.
She hesitated, gazing through a French door leading into the courtyard centering the traditional hacienda-style house. A light snow sugared the uneven flagstone, sparkling in the early morning sun. Save for the spurts of laughter, the house was as eerily quiet as she remembered. Especially after the constant thrum of traffic, of life, in D.C. A pang of something she couldn’t quite identify shuddered through her. Not homesickness, she didn’t think. She palmed her belly, where the baby stirred.
The cavernous kitchen was empty, save for a huge gray cat sitting on a window sill, calmly ascertaining Deanna’s worthiness to share its breathing space. The room hadn’t been vacant long, though, judging from the softly crackling fire in the pot-bellied stove at the far end of the enormous eat-in area, anchored by a rustic wood table that easily sat twelve. Even though the Vista Encantada’s century-old main house had long since been converted to natural gas, Gus had always lit the old stove, every morning from early October through mid-May. The dark cabinets and handpainted Mexican tiles were the same, as well, even though the vintage six-burner range’s lapis finish seemed a little more pitted than she remembered. And for a moment she was a kid again, scarfing down one of Gus’s breakfast burritos before catching the school bus in the dark—
She turned, immediately trapped in a pair of moss-colored eyes that had at one time been very dear to her. Dear enough to prompt her father to send her clear across the country when she was fifteen, to live with her mother’s sister. And oh, how she’d initially chafed at Dad’s assumption that something was going on between her and Josh Talbot that wasn’t. And wouldn’t. Because Josh had never been like that, even if Deanna hadn’t fully understood at the time what “that” might have been.
Somehow, she doubted he’d appreciate the irony of her current situation.
“Hey,” she said, crossing her arms as Josh dumped an armful of firewood into the bucket beside the stove, his mini-me peeking at her from behind his legs. It’d been over a decade since she’d caught more than a glimpse of him on her occasional visits home. And the tall, solid cowboy whose sharp gaze now latched onto her belly, then her hair, was nothing like the skinny, spindly teenager she used to sneak off to see, prompting her father’s conclusion-jumping. Although the shy, lonely girl she’d been, still reeling after her mother’s death, had only been seeking solace. A refuge. Neither of which, looking back, Josh had been under any obligation to give her—
“I didn’t expect…” Deanna shoved out a breath. “Where’s Gus?”
“Went into town with my mother for groceries. For…tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, but with a decided, And where the hell have you been? edge to it.
So much for thinking her heart couldn’t be more shredded than it already was. Irony, again, to find herself facing exactly what she’d avoided by not coming home, that look of disappointment. Confusion. Not from her father, no, but still.
“Same goes,” she said into the awkward silence. Because she could hardly explain things with a child in the room, could she?
His mouth set, Josh nodded, and pain knifed through her. Josh’d been the only one of the former manager’s sons to show any real interest in ranching. Or, later, the horse breeding operation. Even so, when medical issues forced Sam’s early retirement a few years back, her father’s asking Josh to take his dad’s place had surprised her. At least until she realized how close Josh and her father had become, despite that business when they’d been teenagers. That Dad clearly thought of Josh like a favorite nephew. If not the son he never had.
A feeling she’d gleaned had been mutual.
Blinking away tears, Deanna cleared her throat and smiled for the little boy, who kept peering at her from behind his daddy. Her father had told her about the child, that his mama wasn’t in the picture. Her hand went to her belly again, as if to reassure the little one inside.
“Hey, guy,” she said softly. “I’m Deanna. Mr. Blake’s daughter. Although you can call me Dee if you want. What’s your name?”
The child ducked back behind Josh and muttered something unintelligible. Sighing, Josh twisted to haul the boy into his arms. “How about trying that again? Only so she can actually hear you this time.”
“Austin,” the kid got out, giving her a sweet, heart-squeezing smile. Dark hair, like his daddy. Same eyes, too.
“Pleased to meet you, Austin—”
“How come your tummy’s so big?” he said, pointing to her belly, and Josh’s face blazed.
Deanna laughed, even as she thought, At least one person in the room is being honest. “It’s okay, I’m used to it.” Returning her gaze to Austin, she bent over as much as she could and whispered, “There’s a baby growing inside me.”
The kid frowned. “Like the horses?”
“Exactly. Except this baby doesn’t have hooves.”
“Oh. Is it a boy or a girl?”
Austin frowned at her belly again. “What’s her name?”
“Haven’t decided yet.”
The kid gave her a maybe-you-should-get-on-that look that made Deanna’s chest tickle as she bit down on a smile. Then, heaving a breathy “Okay,” he wriggled out of his father’s arms and took off to mess with the cat, who’d thudded to the tiled floor then flopped in the morning’s first sunbeam, belly bared to the world. Or in this case, little boys. Brave cat.
“Sorry about the interrogation,” Josh said, and Deanna turned to see his mouth pushed into something reasonably close to a smile.
“Hey. At least he didn’t ask how the baby got in there.”
“Give him a minute,” Josh muttered, and for a second she saw the boy who’d kept her from losing it, all those years ago.
The boy she might have loved, if she’d been inclined to such foolishness.
“Austin’s adorable. He looks like you.”
“So everyone says.” He frowned. “Your…the baby’s father let you come alone?”
There was no denying the judgment in that steady gaze. And not only about her pregnancy, she guessed. The baby kicked; stifling a wince, Deanna glanced over at Austin before meeting that penetrating gaze again. “I had no idea Dad was even sick. I swear. Because he’d made Gus swear not to tell me. Because if I’d known, nothing would’ve kept me from being here. And the worst thing is…” Her eyes stung. Tough. “I can’t even tell Dad how angry I am. How…hurt.”
The staring continued for several seconds before Josh said, “I know he didn’t tell you. But if you’d bothered to pay a visit in the last six months—”
“And why would I do that when Dad made it more than clear he didn’t particularly want me to?”
And why was she was even trying to explain something she didn’t entirely understand herself?
A long, tense moment passed before Josh said, “For what it’s worth, it happened pretty fast.”
“So Gus said.” Deanna glanced over at Austin, now lying beside the cat and apparently telling it a story, before facing Josh again. “Although I gather the only reason he did was because he figured I’d see the death certificate, discover the truth whether Dad wanted me to or not.”
Another breath left Josh’s lungs. “I suppose he didn’t want you to worry—”
“What he did,” Deanna said, not even trying to hide the bitterness in her voice, “was unfair and selfish. Kind of a major thing to keep from me.”
Josh’s eyes once more dropped to her swollen middle, and Deanna’s face warmed. Especially when he looked back up.
“Just like I’m guessing Granville had no idea about his granddaughter.”
“I didn’t intend to keep her a secret forever, for cripe’s sake! But I did know…” Her lips pressed tightly together. “That the circumstances surrounding my condition wouldn’t exactly make Dad happy. At least not…not before he had a chance to meet her. I had a plan,” she said over the stab to her heart. “Unfortunately it didn’t jibe with the Universe’s.”
That got a hard stare before Josh walked away to open the fridge.
“What would you like for breakfast?”
Deanna frowned, confused. “You don’t have to—”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Um…lunch yesterday? But cereal’s fine, don’t go to any trouble—”
“Not planning on it. But Gus left pancake batter, and even I can scramble eggs. The squirt already ate, an hour ago.”
“Eggs, then. If you’re sure—”
He shot her another look that shut her up…a look that said they only had to get through the next few days. Then everyone could get back to their regular lives.
Another wave of grief shunted through her, as she thought about the ramifications of her father’s passing, not only for her but for the entire community. Weird, how she’d never thought much about what would happen to the ranch after his death, mainly because that’d always seemed so far in the future. Even though he’d been significantly older than her mother, somehow Deanna had always thought of Dad as immortal, like some Greek god. Especially since he’d never discussed the disposition of the property with her—
A sudden burst of voices from the mudroom shattered her thoughts. “Gramma!” Austin yelled as he abandoned the probably very relieved cat and sprinted across the room, where the woman who’d so often filled the gap in Deanna’s life, and heart, after her mother died dumped several recyclable grocery totes on the counter, then swept her grandson into her arms. Gus followed a moment later, hauling several more bags which landed unceremoniously on the floor. Her long ponytail a mass of delicate, staticky silver wires against her back, Billie Talbot turned, her expression softening when she spotted Deanna.
“Oh, sweetheart…” she crooned, and fresh tears sprang to Deanna’s eyes. A moment later she was wrapped in the older woman’s arms. “I’m so sorry...so, so sorry…”
Unable to speak, Deanna nodded against Billie’s shoulder, the coarse fabric of the older woman’s poncho scratching her cheek. “Such a good man, your daddy,” Billie whispered into her hair. “Whole town’s gonna miss him like crazy…and oh, my goodness!” Holding Deanna apart, Billie grinned. “Seven months?”
“More or less.”
“And they let you fly?”
Scrubbing a tear off her cheek, Deanna smiled, remembering that Josh’s mother was a midwife. “Believe me, the flight attendants all breathed a huge sigh of relief when we landed,” she said, and Billie chuckled.
“I’ll bet they did.” Then she sighed. “It’s so good to see you, honey. I just wish it weren’t under these circumstances.”
Another gentle smile curving her lips, Josh’s mom tucked her hands underneath the poncho, seeming to see the rest of her for the first time. “Your hair…adorable. The darker color suits you.”
Deanna flushed. “Thanks.”
“And on you, the nose stud totally works.” A low laugh rumbled from her chest. “Although I can only imagine your daddy’s reaction. But listen, you need anything while you’re here, anything at all, you let me know. I mean it.”
“I know you do. And I’m grateful.”
A wordless nod preceded another hug before Billie turned to Josh. “Why don’t you let me take Austin back to the house for a while? Y’all don’t need a four-year-old underfoot right now.”
Josh seemed to hesitate for a moment, then smiled for his son. “Wanna go with Gramma?”
“Yeah!” the kid yelled, wriggling like somebody’d put bugs down his pants, and Deanna smiled, too, over the sadness cramping her heart. For the most part, and despite the events of the past little while, she loved her life back east, a life filled with art and dance and music with more instruments than a couple of guitars and a dude on drums. And no matter what, she had her father to thank for that, for giving her opportunities she would’ve never had if she’d stayed here. Even so, as she watched Josh softly talking to his mother and little boy, as the love and goodwill she’d always associate with this kitchen, this house, this godforsaken little town, washed over her, she had to admit it didn’t exactly feel terrible to be back.
For a little while, anyway.
* * *
Although there was no real reason to walk Mom and Austin out to her car, seeing Deanna again – especially an extremely pregnant Deanna with pointy black hair and a diamond in her nose, for godssake – had rattled Josh far more than he wanted to admit. He could only imagine what was going through his mother’s head.
“I think we’ve got everything for tomorrow,” Mom said after buckling Austin into one of the three car seats that were permanent fixtures in the back of her SUV. At the rate they were adding kids to the family, though, one of those wonker vans was looking good for the near future. Straightening, Mom swung her gaze to Josh’s. “Although Gus said there’s already a dozen casseroles and such in the freezer?”
A chilly breeze tangled his mother’s ponytail, pulled off her high-cheekboned face. “What do you know?” she asked, and Josh smiled drily.
“Meaning about Deanna?”
“Not a whole lot. Since she’s only been back for five minutes. Also, it’s none of my business. Or anyone’s.”
“True. Although I did notice there’s no wedding ring.”
“So maybe her hand’s too swollen. Or she’s doing this on her own—”
“Deliberately, I mean. And again…none of our business.”
“Hm.” Mom squinted out toward the Sangre de Christo mountains, their snowy tops aglow in the early morning sun, a harbinger of the winter breathing down their necks. Then she looked back at him, a little smile tilting her lips. “I know how much it annoyed you boys, the way your father and I were always up in your business.” The smile turned into a grimace. “Especially for Levi and Colin.” Both of whom had flown as far from the family nest as they could, even though Josh’s twin Levi had returned several months ago. “Still,” Mom said, “seeing the obvious pain in that little girl’s eyes, that she never got to say good-bye to her father…maybe your father and I didn’t do such a bad job, after all.”
“Like I’m gonna give you that much ammunition,” Josh said, and she swatted his shoulder. Then she frowned. “I’m guessing Granville didn’t know about the baby?”
“It would appear not.”
Looking away, Mom slowly wagged her head. “I don’t get it, I really don’t. What would make one of the most generous human beings on the face of the planet disconnect from his only child?”
Crossing his arms, Josh sneaked a peek at his son, happily banging two little cars together. A question he’d asked himself many times, even though even as a child Dee’s discontent with small town living had been obvious. As though Whispering Pines wasn’t big enough to contain all that Deanna Talbot was, or wanted to be…a malaise that only increased as she got older, if her periodic bitching to him had been any indication.
And certainly Josh would’ve never been enough for her, a truth he’d thankfully realized before he’d said or done anything he would’ve most certainly regretted. So her excitedly telling him on her fifteenth birthday she was moving to D.C. hadn’t come as all that much of a surprise, even if he hadn’t let on how much it’d killed him. Especially since he’d known in his gut she’d never come back. Not to live, anyway.
Even so, her father’s basically giving her up…it made no sense. Then again Austin’s mother hadn’t seemed to have an issue with leaving her son behind, had she? So maybe this was simply one of those “there’s no accounting for people” things.
Josh realized his mother was giving him her What are you thinking, boy? look. A smile flicked over his mouth. “I guess we’ll never find out.”
“Guess not.” Mom glanced back at the beautiful old house, which, along with the vast acreage surrounding it, the barns and pastures and guest houses scattered along the river farther out, had been in the Blake family since before New Mexico was a state. “I suppose this will all go to her.”
Josh’d be lying if he said her words didn’t slice through him. Yeah, by rights the Vista was Dee’s now, she could do whatever she wanted with it. But Josh had never lived anywhere else. Or wanted to. So by rights the place was his home far more than it ever really been Dee’s.
“I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow,” he said, trying to sound neutral. “After the memorial, the lawyer said.”
“Apparently so.” Just as his boss had been adamant he didn’t want a funeral, or a burial, or “any of that crap.” So he was probably looking down from wherever he was, pissed as all get-out about the memorial service. No way, though, was the town gonna let his passing go without any acknowledgement. As much as the old man had done for everybody, it’d be downright disrespectful to pretend as though nothing had happened. Meaning for once Granville Blake wasn’t getting his way.
“Well,” Mom said, opening her car door, “I’d best be getting back. I’ve got a couple of mothers to check up on later, but no babies due in the next little while, thank goodness. I told Gus I’d be there early tomorrow to get started on the food for the reception. I’ll bring Austin back then.”
“You don’t have to keep him—”
“I know I don’t. But something tells me Deanna’s gonna need a friend over the next couple of days.” She paused. Squinting. “And I don’t mean Gus.”
Josh sighed. “That was a long time ago, Mom.”
“So? It won’t kill you to be nice to the girl.”
Thinking, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Josh stood in the graveled driveway, waving to Austin as his mother backed out, taking his buffer between him and Dee with her. But when he got back inside, where she was sitting at the table inhaling the breakfast that Gus had whipped up for her in the nanosecond Josh had been gone, it wasn’t his mother’s pushy words ringing in his ears, but Granville’s.
Because two days before he’d died, his boss – the boss who’d guarded his privacy so fiercely he’d refused to discuss his illness – happened to mention his suspicion that Dee was in some kind of trouble but wouldn’t tell him what. Mutterings Josh had chalked up to the illness, frankly. Or, more likely, Granville’s own guilt and regret that he’d kept his daughter in the dark about his condition. Talk about apples not rolling far from the tree.
Except obviously the old man’s intuition had been dead to rights, resurrecting all manner of protective feelings Josh had no wish to resurrect. Especially when she lifted those huge, deep brown eyes to his, and he was sixteen again, sharing one of those soul-baring conversations they used to have when they’d tell each other their dreams and hopes and fears, knowing there’d be no teasing, no judgment…
“If anybody needs me,” he said to the room at large, “I’ll be out working that new cutter I bought.”
Then he got his butt out of there before those wayward thoughts derailed what little common sense he had left.
Copyright 2016, Karen Templeton-Berger. Reprinted with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.