Awakening from a months-long coma, Ben Stillwater is met with a big surprise: the footloose bachelor cowboy is a father! Ben tries to adjust to life with baby Cody and decides what the child really needs is a mom. Sheriff Lucy Benson does not seem a likely candidate—she already has her hands full closing in on the thieves who have been targeting the ranches of Little Horn, Texas. But the closer Ben gets to Lucy—and the closer they get to solving the mystery—the more it seems the free-spirited rancher and the determined officer could be the perfect match.
Sheriff Lucy Benson carefully replaced the receiver in its cradle, in spite of her urge to slam it down. Frustration churned her stomach into a huge knot. Where is Betsy McKay? None of her lawenforcement contacts in Texas had panned out. She’d been sure that Betsy was in Austin or San Antonio, the two largest cities closest to Little Horn in the Texas Hill Country.
Lucy rose from behind her desk at the sheriff’s office. She grabbed her cowboy hat from the peg on the wall, set it on her head and decided to go for a walk. She needed to work off some of this aggravation plaguing her ever since the series of robberies had started months ago in her county. She still hadn’t been able to bring in the Robin Hoods, as the robbers had been dubbed since many gifts given to the poor in the area had mysteriously started not long after the cattle rustling and stealing of equipment began.
Stepping outside to a beautiful March afternoon, she paused on the sidewalk and relished the clear blue sky, the air with only a hint of a chill. They needed rain, but for the moment she savored the bright sunshine as a sign of good things to come.
She was closer to figuring out who the Robin Hoods were. They were most likely teenagers who were familiar with the area and ranch life. Of course, that described all the teenagers surrounding Little Horn. But there also seemed to be a connection to Betsy McKay. The ranches like Byron McKay’s were the main targets. The owners of each place hit by the Robin Hoods hadn’t helped Mac McKay when he needed it. Could this be mere coincidence? Mac’s death, caused by his heavy drinking, had sent Betsy, his daughter, fleeing Little Horn her senior year in high school.
The Lone Star Cowboy League, a service organization formed to help its ranchers, could have stepped up and helped more, although Mac hadn’t been a member. But even more, Byron McKay, the richest rancher in the area and Mac’s cousin, should have helped Mac when he went to Byron for assistance.
Lucy headed toward Maggie’s Coffee Shop to grab a cup of coffee, and then she had to come up with another way to find Betsy. As she neared the drugstore, the door swung open and Ben Stillwater emerged with a sack. His Stetson sat low on his forehead, and he wore sunglasses, hiding his dark brown eyes that in the past had always held a teasing twinkle in them.
But that was before he had been in a coma for weeks and struggled to recover from his riding accident. The few times she’d seen him lately, his somber gaze had held none of his carefree, usual humor. He had a lot to deal with.
Ben stopped and looked at her, a smile slowly tilting his mouth up as he tipped the brim of his black hat toward her. “It’s nice to see you, Lucy. How’s it going?”
“I’m surprised to see you in town.”
“Why?” The dimples in his cheeks appeared as his grin deepened.
“You just got out of the hospital.”
“Days ago. I’m not letting my accident stop me any more than necessary. I’m resuming my duties at the ranch. Well, at least part of them. I know that my foreman and my brother have done a nice job in my—absence. But I’m home now, and you know me—I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs all day.”
For a few seconds, Lucy glimpsed the man Ben had once been, the guy who played hard and wouldn’t stay long with any woman. He’d never been able to make a long-term commitment. How long would it take before he reverted to his old ways? Yes, he had been a good rancher and put in a lot of work at his large spread, but still, he had never been serious about much of anything except his ranch. And helping teens. “How’s the Future Ranchers Program at your place going with your absence?”
“Zed and Grady have kept it going. I’d been working a lot with Maddy Coles, Lynne James and Christie Markham before the accident, so they knew what to do.”
Maddy had been Betsy McKay’s best friend while she’d lived here. Did she know where Betsy was and wouldn’t say? “What are you doing in town?”
“Picking up my prescriptions. I had to get out of the house. I hate inactivity even if I have to work through some pain. I’m going stir-crazy, and I promised Grandma that I wouldn’t go back to work until I’m home a week.”
Again those dimples appeared in his cheeks. “What was I thinking? Only thirty-six hours, then I’m a free man.”
“How’s Cody doing?” She still couldn’t believe that Ben was a father, although the DNA test that had come back could only state Cody was a Stillwater, a son either of Grady or Ben, identical twins. The eight-month-old was staying at the Stillwater Ranch, and Ben seemed to accept the fact he was the boy’s dad since Grady had said the child couldn’t be his. She’d always thought of Ben as a playboy, happiest with no ties to hold him down, but a baby could certainly do that.
Ben removed his sunglasses, his dark brown eyes serious. “A little man on the go. I think he knows the house better than I do.”
She’d wanted to ask him about the letter, addressed to Ben, that she’d given Grady to give him. She’d found it in the wreck outside town where a young woman had died. Was she Cody’s mother? What did it say? The words were on the tip of her tongue to ask him when she spied Byron heading for her.
Ben glanced at the tall man with a large stomach and wavy strawberry blond hair coming toward them. “He looks like he’s on a mission.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he is.”
“Do you want me to stay?” Ben put his sunglasses on.
“No, he’s my problem. You don’t need the stress.” The less others heard Byron’s tirade the better she would feel. If she could escape, she would.
“I mean it. Listening to him is, sadly, part of my job. Take care.”
Ben tipped his hat and strode toward his truck, pausing a moment to speak with Byron, who frowned and continued his trek toward her.
“Sheriff.” Byron planted himself in Lucy’s path. “What kind of progress have you made on the thefts occurring?”
“I have a few leads I’m following.”
“Like what?” he demanded in a deep, loud voice.
Lucy glanced around, wishing this conversation could take place in her office, not on the main street of Little Horn. “I have a possible lead on where the cattle are being sold. Without brands, it’s harder to track the stolen cows.” The rustlers had stolen new cattle that hadn’t been branded yet.
“Yeah, we all know the thieves know what’s going on here. Maybe when you find them, we should elect one of them sheriff next year when you’re up for reelection.”
Heat singed her cheeks as a couple slowed their step on the sidewalk to listen to the conversation. “That would be a brilliant idea. Put the crooks in charge.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you. I help pay your salary, and I want to see this settled. Now.”
The drugstore door opened, and Lucy looked to see who else would witness Byron’s dressing-down. His twins, Gareth and Winston, came to a stop a few feet from their father. Winston’s eyebrows slashed down while Gareth’s expression hardened.
Holding up a sack, Winston moved forward. “Dad, we’ve got what we need for the school project. Ready to go?”
A tic twitched in Gareth’s cheek, his gaze drilling into his father.
The twins weren’t happy with Byron. Lucy couldn’t blame them. He’d been going around town, ready to launch into a spiel with anyone who would listen about what should be done to the rustlers and why she wasn’t doing her job. His ranch had been hit the hardest.
Her gaze swept from one twin to the other. Maybe the boys knew where Betsy was. She needed to talk to them without their father. Anytime the conversation turned to Mac or Betsy, Byron went off on one of his heated outbursts.
Byron nodded at his sons, then turned to her and said, “Think about when you run for sheriff next year. Do you want me as a supporter or an enemy?”
“Dad, we’ve got a lot of work to do tonight,” Gareth said in an angry tone, then marched toward Byron’s vehicle across the street.
Lucy watched Winston and Byron follow a few yards behind Gareth; the middle-aged man was still ranting about the situation to Winston, whose shoulders slumped more with each step he took. Did those twins have a chance with Byron as their father? They were popular, but stories of them bullying had circulated; unfortunately, nothing she could pursue. It wouldn’t surprise her because Byron was the biggest bully in the county.
With long strides Lucy headed again for Maggie’s Coffee Shop. She needed a double shot of caffeine because she would be spending hours tonight going over all the evidence to see if she’d missed anything.
Ben Stillwater sank into the chair on the back porch of his house at his ranch near Little Horn. He cupped his mug and brought it to his lips. The warm coffee chased away a chill in his body caused by the wind. To the east the sun had risen enough that its brightness erased the streaks of orange and pink from half an hour ago.
Ben released a long breath—his first day back to work after his riding accident that had led to a stroke caused by a head injury at the end of October. He had gone into a coma, then when he had woken up, he’d faced a long road with rehabilitation. The accident seemed an eternity ago. He’d just discovered a baby on his doorstep, and he’d been on his way to Carson Thorn’s house to figure out what to do when his world had changed. He couldn’t believe months had been taken from him. An emptiness settled in his gut. He wasn’t the same man.
So much has changed.
I have a son. Cody.
But who is Cody’s mother?
He was ashamed he didn’t know for sure. His life before the injury had been reckless, with him always looking for fun. Was the Lord giving him a second chance?
When he had come out of the coma, he didn’t remember what had prompted him to go see his neighbor that day of the accident, a trip he’d never completed because his horse had thrown him and he’d hit his head on a rock. But lately he’d begun to recall the details. Finding the baby on his front doorstep. Holding the crying child. Reading the note pinned to the blue blanket with Cody’s name on it. Your baby, your turn.
Grandma Mamie had told him in the hospital the DNA test had come back saying Cody was a Stillwater, which meant either he was the father or his twin brother, Grady, was, and Grady knew the baby wasn’t his. The news had stunned him.
That leaves me. I’m a father.
He’d known it when Grady and Grandma had brought Cody to the hospital to meet him. In his gut he’d felt a connection to the baby.
Grady had gone into town, but the second he was back they needed to talk finally. One last time he had to make sure his twin brother wasn’t Cody’s father before Ben became so emotionally attached to the baby he couldn’t let him go. And if Grady wasn’t Cody’s father, then that brought Ben back to the question: Who was Cody’s mother? He should know that.
He sipped his coffee and thought back to seventeen months ago. He’d been wild before his riding accident. He’d worked hard, and he’d played hard. Not anymore. He had a little baby to think of. Lying in that hospital, piecing his life back together, he’d come to the conclusion he couldn’t continue as he had before, especially because of Cody.
The back door creaked open, and Ben glanced toward it. Grady emerged onto the porch with a mug in his hand. Although they were identical twins, when Ben had stared at himself in the mirror before he’d shaved this morning, he’d seen a pasty-white complexion that had lost all its tan since he was in the hospital. His features were leaner, almost gaunt. A shadow of the man moving toward him with a serious expression, his dark brown eyes full of concern.
“I’m not sure I want to ask what’s wrong,” Ben said as Grady folded his long body into the chair across from him.
“Grandma said you were talking to her about Cody and his parentage. Are you having doubts you’re Cody’s father?”
“No,” Grady said in a forceful tone. “I didn’t really think it was your child.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re the serious twin. You’re the one who does the right thing. I’m the rogue of the family. Everyone knows that. I was wondering more about who is Cody’s mother. Sadly I don’t know for sure. There’s more than one woman it could be.” Ben shrugged, then set his mug on the wicker end table near him. “Grandma said you had a letter for me.”
Grady frowned. “She wasn’t supposed to say anything. I was.”
“I think y’all have waited long enough. I’ve been awake for weeks.”
“Trying to recuperate from a stroke and head trauma. I didn’t want to add to the problems you were facing with rehabilitation.”
“I’m not fragile. I won’t break, and I don’t need protecting.”
His twin started laughing. “You must be getting better. You’re getting feisty and difficult.” Grady reached into his back pocket and pulled out an envelope with Ben’s name on it. “This is for you.”
“Where did you get it?”
“The sheriff gave it to me for you.”
“Lucy Benson? Where did she find it?” Why didn’t she say anything to him the other day when they met in town? He intended to ask her that when he saw her.
“She found it on the front seat of a car involved in a wreck. The driver, Alana Peterson, died. There were also several bags with baby items in them on the floor.”
Cody’s mother was Alana? Ben had liked her and had had a lot of fun with her, but there had never been anything serious enough to lead to a marriage. He had a lot of mistakes to answer for. “When did this happen?”
“A week ago.”
“You’re just now getting around to it?”
“Yes.” Handing the letter to Ben, Grady pinned his dark eyes on him and didn’t look away.
Ben snatched it from his grasp but didn’t open the envelope. If this was from Cody’s mother, he would read it in private.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Later,” Ben said while gritting his teeth.
“I know this is a lot to take in after all that has happened—is happening—but Chloe won’t always be able to watch Cody.”
“I figured when you two married she wouldn’t be Cody’s nanny for long. Y’all have your own life.”
“She can for now, but she’ll be having her own baby soon, and she wants to open a clinic. I want to see that dream come true for her,” Grady said in reference to his fiancée, who was pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby.
“She should have that clinic. She’s been a great physical therapist to work with. I can’t avoid doing my exercises each day here at home since she lives here. And I know you’ll be a good father to her child.”