Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (10 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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The only thing worse than keeping a secret from Neal was sharing one with him. What if he blabbed? What if he insisted she tell everyone the truth?

She hid out in the bedroom with Chance until her mother poked her head in the door to tell them supper was almost ready. Chance was playing with a farm set on the rug beside the bed.

“Are you okay?” Martha asked.

Robyn nodded. “Yes, but I aged ten years in two seconds flat.”

Martha stepped into the room and laid a hand on Robyn's shoulder. “It was a close call.”

“Too close.” Robyn looked up at her. “How am I going to live through the next twenty years?”

“Do you think it gets easier when they're grown?”

“Please, Mom, tell me it gets better.”

“I'm sorry, honey. I can't lie to you. You will worry about him your whole life. I still worry about you. Maybe more than when you were little.”

“I wish I could change him back into a baby. It was so much easier then.”

“But you can't. You have to let him grow up.”

“I know.” She sighed. “Has Neal gone?”

“I insisted he stay for supper.”

Robyn frowned at her mother. “I wish you hadn't done that.”

Martha raised both eyebrows. “I should think you would be grateful, more than grateful, for what he did.”

“I am.”

“Well, you've got a funny way of showing it.”

Robyn looked away. “I just wish you hadn't asked him to stay, that's all.”

“This is still my house, young lady. I can invite anyone to supper that I want to. What is it between you two anyway?”

“I told you.”

Martha sat on the bed beside her. “You told me you both drifted apart. After watching you moon over him from the time you were six years old, I have to admit I was surprised to hear it. But your father was ill then. Maybe I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have. When your father was moved to a nursing home, I was glad to have you nearby. But when you married Colin so quickly, I thought you were making a big mistake. I thought you were on the rebound from Neal and that you'd regret your decision.”

“It wasn't a mistake.” Robyn looked into her mother's eyes. “Colin needed me and I...” She glanced at her son playing quietly on the rug near their feet. “I needed Colin.”

“But you didn't love him.”

Robyn's brows snapped into a scowl. “What makes you say that?”

Martha tilted her head. “A mother's intuition. Did you?”

Robyn dropped her gaze to her hands clenched in her lap. “Maybe not as much as I should have, but I know I would have grown to love him if he had lived.”

“I never asked you this before, but—did you know he was ill when you married him?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Robyn.”

“It wasn't pity, if that's what you're thinking. Colin loved me, and I truly cared for him. We were friends, and there were never any secrets between us. He was so brave and selfless. He was always thinking of others.” She grew pensive for a long moment until her mother touched her hands.

Tears stung the back of her eyes, but Robyn blinked them away. “He only asked me for one thing.”

“And what was that?” her mother inquired gently.

“He wanted a child. He knew how ill his mother was. He wanted to give her something to hold on to after he was gone. Even in the end, he was thinking of someone else. He was thrilled when he learned we were having a baby.”

Martha patted her grandson's head as he galloped a toy horse over her shoe. “So was your father. I wish he could have lived to meet Chance.”

“I wish so, too.” Her father passed away from a second massive stroke when she was eight months pregnant. She'd buried her father less than three weeks after she'd buried Colin. It had been a terrible time for everyone. Oddly, it was Neal that she'd missed the most at her father's funeral.

“Was it wrong of me to bring Chance into the world and let him grow up never knowing his father?” She was thinking of Neal, not of Colin, but her mother didn't know that.

“I can't tell you what's right and what's wrong, honey, but I can tell you that I am mighty glad to have a grandson. I know Colin's parents feel the same. No matter what circumstances prompted his arrival, I am very, very glad to have Chance in my life.”

“Thanks, Mom.” She threw her arms around her mother and gave her a quick hug.

“Come down to supper now, and be civil to Neal. It's good to have him home, isn't it? I've missed that boy. Things just haven't felt right since the two of you split up.”

“He's not back to stay.”

Her mother gave her a sly grin. “You never know. He might find he likes it back on the ranch and give up that foolish bull riding.”

“I doubt it.”

“You could give him a little encouragement. Would that kill you?”

Robyn couldn't believe what she was hearing. “It's not going to happen.”

“Oh, whatever. You were always too stubborn for your own good.” She tapped Chance's shoulder and signed that supper was ready.

Chance jumped up, grabbed his grandmother's hand and tried with all his might to pull her off the bed.

Robyn couldn't help but smile. “I think that means he's hungry, Mom. What do you think?”

“I think maybe I didn't make a big enough roast,” Martha answered.

“You two go on. I'll be down in a minute. I have to make a phone call.”

Robyn picked up the phone. If Neal was going to spend the evening with them, she needed some way to show him, and her mother, that he couldn't come waltzing back into her life. She knew someone who might help her with that.

CHAPTER NINE

N
EAL
SAT
IN
the O'Connor living room feeling ill at ease in what had been a second home for him in his youth. So much had changed, not with the furniture or the walls but with the people inside.

Robyn hadn't come down yet. He wasn't sure what to say when he did face her. He had so many questions about Chance and about his needs. Was there anything that could be done for his deafness? What had caused it?

Edward came into the room pushing a frail, white-haired woman in a wheelchair. Neal rose to his feet.

“This is my wife. Clara, dear, this is Neal Bryant.”

“How do you do, ma'am.” Neal nodded in her direction.

“How do you do.” She glanced up at her husband. “Edward, do I know him?”

“No, dear.”

“Have you come to tune the piano?” she inquired.

“Ah, no,” Neal answered slowly.

“It's very out of tune.”

“We sold the piano a long time ago, Clara,” Edward said gently.

She flushed with embarrassment. “That's right. I forgot.”

“Mr. Bryant is a rodeo cowboy,” Edward explained.

“How nice.” She began to smooth the front of the pale yellow-and-white patchwork quilt that covered her legs.

Neal felt a pat on his side and looked down to see Chance standing beside him. The boy began to sign. Neal shook his head. “I'm sorry. I don't understand.”

“He says thank you for saving his life today. I want to thank you, too,” Robyn said from the doorway. She looked composed now and somehow more remote than ever.

What chance did he have at repairing their relationship if she could barely look at him? “It was nothing. Tell him he's welcome.”

She made a quick gesture to the boy, and he nodded.

“Supper is on the table,” she said.

“I know I'm ready to eat.” Edward wheeled his wife past Neal. “Martha makes a man work for his food around here.”

“Do you want a ride, Chance?” Clara held out her arms, and the boy climbed into her lap. “I think it will snow, don't you?” Clara asked Neal as she rolled past him.

He stood in the center of the room for a moment as the others left and gave a small shake of his head. “Wouldn't surprise me a bit.”

The kitchen was the same one he'd sat in a thousand times as a boy, but he couldn't remember a more uncomfortable meal. Everyone signed as they spoke. Sometimes they forgot to speak. Edward and Martha were kind enough to interpret the things he said for Chance and vice versa, but Robyn was cool and ignored all but his direct questions.

“It was nice of you to stop in for a visit,” Martha said, passing him a heaping dish of golden-brown cornbread muffins.

He glanced at Robyn, but she was helping her son cut up his meat. “I didn't just come to visit. Mom said you were looking for a temporary hand. She insisted I apply for the job. I think she's tired of having me underfoot.”

“We have all the help we need,” Robyn said quickly.

Martha glanced from her daughter's set face back to Neal. “Actually, I was hoping to take on one more man. Are you fit enough to work?”

“Yes, ma'am. I don't think my ribs could take bucking bales yet, but I can ride fence, doctor calves, fix machinery, whatever you need.”

“I need all that and more.” Martha rubbed her chin, considering his offer.

“Doesn't your family need you to help out on their ranch?” Robyn asked.

Neal shook his head. “With the drought as bad as it's been, Mom has sold off a lot of the cattle. She had to let one ranch hand go already. I'm not needed there.”

He glanced at Robyn and back to Martha. “She was pretty insistent that I come and help you, but if you don't need me—”

Martha reached out and gripped his arm. “Bless your mother's heart. I unloaded on her this morning about how much work there was to do around here. Of course I can use you for a few weeks. I'll need someone to check all the fences, make sure all the windmills are in working order and move some of the cattle.”

“Mom, I was planning to do that,” Robyn said.

“Good, now I won't have to worry about you out on the range all by yourself. You and Neal can do the work together.” She sat back with a self-satisfied grin.

Neal tried to hide the smile that sprang to his lips as he watched Robyn bite back whatever reply she wanted to make. He sensed more to Martha's request than needing an extra ranch hand. She and his mother weren't very subtle, but he was glad to have someone on his side.

It got him where he wanted to be. Close to Robyn. Close to his son. Now it was up to him to make the most of it.

When the meal was finished, Martha stood and announced, “You kids can do the dishes. Come on, Chance,” she signed. “Grandma will give you your bath tonight.”

Edward pulled his wife's chair away from the table. “I'll be back to help once I get Clara into bed.”

Neal stood and began to roll up his sleeves. “Don't bother—we can manage.”

Robyn shot him a frosty look, but she nodded.

“Well, if you're sure. I think I'll turn in myself. I am tired. I haven't worked this hard in years.”

“Good night, Edward.” Robyn kissed his cheek and leaned down to drop a kiss on Clara's, as well. “Good night, Clara.”

Clara smiled vaguely. “Have your young man look at that piano,” she called back as Edward pushed her out of the room.

Neal held back a chuckle. He finally had Robyn alone.

* * *

R
OBYN
WATCHED
EVERYONE
leave as she chewed her lower lip. Her mother was meddling again. They did need another ranch hand, but she never expected Neal to apply for the job. Somehow her mother had set this up. Robyn didn't dare create a scene about it. That might lead to unwanted speculation.

She began to clear the table. The last thing she wanted to do was spend time alone with Neal. He made her too aware of what her life had been missing, too aware that she was a woman with needs and desires, feelings that she had thrust aside as she'd concentrated on raising her son.

“Wash or dry?”

“What?” She turned to face him, and he tossed a dish towel at her.

“I asked if you want to wash or dry.”

She threw the towel back, and he snatched it out of the air. “I'll wash,” she answered sharply.

They cleared the table together. Robyn began to wash the stacked plates. Neal patiently waited for her to rinse and hand him each wet plate.

“I like your father-in-law,” he said at last.

She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Yes, Edward is a very kind and likable man. He's a lot like his son was in that respect.”

They continued in silence as she tried to ignore his unsettling presence, but it was like trying to ignore a wasp in the kitchen. Not possible. She handed him plate after plate, trying not to touch him and feeling jumpier by the minute. As she handed him her mother's favorite antique china gravy boat, it slipped from her wet fingers. They both made a grab for it, catching it together as his hand closed over hers.

Their eyes met and held for a long moment. He gently pulled the dish from her fingers and began to dry it. Robyn willed her wildly beating heart to slow down and plunged her tingling hand back into the soapy water.

“I'm sorry about that crack I made out in the yard,” he said softly, glancing in her direction. “I didn't know about Chance's disability.”

“I gathered that. Thanks again for what you did today. My son means everything to me. I can't imagine what I would do if anything happened to him.” She looked at Neal then. His eye patch made it hard to read his expression.

He shrugged off her thanks. “I was in the right place at the right time, that's all. Do you mind if I ask what caused his deafness?”

She pushed a lock of hair off her face with the back of her hand. “We don't know why Chance was born that way. All newborn babies have their hearing tested before they leave the hospital in the state of Kansas. That's how we discovered it.”

“It must have been rough for you.”

“Yes. It was a blow. Especially for Colin's parents so soon after his death, but they were great. They insisted on learning to sign with me and paying for all the extra testing Chance needed. When Chance was eighteen months old, he underwent surgery for cochlear implants. They didn't work for him, and they had to be removed. He'll be deaf all his life.”

She stopped washing and turned to face him. “What are you doing here, Neal?”

“I'm waiting for you to hand me another dish.”

“I'm serious.”

“Okay, I'm sorry. It's been a weird day for me. I'm here because I needed to meet him. I know you don't want me here, but you dropped a bomb on me when you told me about Chance. I'm still finding my way out of the rubble. I have a right to meet my son.”

She scowled and shot a quick glance at the doorway to the living room. She lowered her voice. “Not as far as I'm concerned.”

“Fair enough. Then let's just say I'm here because my mother made me come. If I can help you and your mother get a better price for this place, then I'm doing something for Chance, too. Why didn't you tell me he was deaf?”

“Because it doesn't matter. He's just Chance.”

“He's cute. Is he ornery?”

She relaxed a little and started on the pots and pans. “You have no idea. Oh, the things that kid can get into.”

He nodded, and she watched as a small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “If he takes after you, I can believe it. How long has your mother-in-law been, ah, wanting to get the piano tuned?”

She smothered a laugh and tried to glare at him, but the smirk on his face did her in. A grin tugged at her lips. She stared at the mounds of white foam in the sink. Dear Lord, how she had missed his smile. She chuckled, and his grin widened.

“It's not funny,” she insisted, but she didn't know if she was scolding herself or him.

“You're right, and I'm sorry.” He tried to maintain a straight face but couldn't. He leaned forward and pulled aside the curtain as he looked out the window. “I wonder how deep the snow will get?” he choked out.

They burst into laughter and tried to smother it like a pair of guilty schoolkids.

“And what are you two guffawing about?” Martha's voice came from behind them. Robyn straightened.

“Nothing, Mom,” she said, trying not to look at Neal, knowing if she did she would start laughing all over again.

“Nothing, Martha,” he added innocently.

“Oh, and how many times have I heard that fib from the two of you?”

“Now, Martha, love,” Neal coaxed. “When did we ever tell you a fib?”

“A hundred times. You were thick as thieves and just as much trouble.”

“For instance?” He crossed his arms and leaned against the counter.

Martha walked up to him and poked a finger at his shirt. “I'll give you for instance. How about the time you made that diving bell?”

Robyn clapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, heavens! I'd forgotten all about that bit of lunacy.”

“Lunacy?” Neal straightened. “It was a perfectly good diving helmet.”

Robyn snorted. “It was a plastic bucket, a garden hose and a bicycle pump.”

“It worked. Until you tried to drown me.”

She planted her hands on her hips. “My arms got tired. I couldn't pump the blasted thing anymore. Besides, you were only going to stay underwater for a minute. I must have pumped on that dang thing for almost twenty. How was I supposed to know you had decided to walk across the bottom of the pond?”

Martha interrupted them. “You both should have known better. You scared the wits out of my best milk cow. She didn't give milk for a week after that.”

Neal chuckled as he apologized. “I didn't know she was there getting a drink, Martha. I only wanted to get some air.”

Giggling helplessly, Robyn collapsed onto a kitchen chair. “You should have seen her when you shot up out of the water. You still had that stupid bucket on your head, and it was covered with pondweed, like an alien, a slimy green wig. I thought that old cow's eyes were going to pop out of her head.”

Her giggling became infectious. In a minute, they were all holding their sides as they rocked with laugher.

A knock sounded at the door. Robyn wiped the tears from her eyes. “I'll get it,” she said between chuckles.

She opened the door, and her laughter faded away. Her knight in shining armor had arrived to rescue her. Did she really want to be saved?

“Adam, how nice to see you.”

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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