His Little Cowgirl

She's Your Daughter.The adorable girl in pink cowboy boots is his child? Six years ago, rodeo star Cody Jacobs left the woman he loved without looking back. Now, with newfound faith, he's come to make amends–only to discover the daughter he didn't know about. Struggling single mother Bailey Cross is rightfully wary to trust him with their child's heart–and her own.But Cody's not running away again. Hearing his little cowgirl call him «Daddy» has changed him. Suddenly, something else is more important than riding bulls and winning titles: a first chance at fatherhood. And a second chance at love.
Содержание:

His Little Cowgirl


Cody stared at the little girl standing on the porch.

   He couldn’t catch his breath. He stared into a tiny heart-shaped face he’d never seen before, and yet seemed so familiar. The little girl had Bailey’s straight blond hair and rosebud mouth. His gaze stopped at her eyes. It was there that he discovered the truth.

   Six years traveling, riding bulls, and it came down to this. To a child with stormy blue eyes wearing jean shorts, a T-shirt and pink cowboy boots.

   He had a daughter.

   “I tried to tell you.” Bailey looked away, the breeze blowing her hair around her face.

   “You didn’t try very hard.”

   “The day you left I told you that I loved you and that we needed to talk. You laughed and walked away because ‘cowgirls always think they’re in love.’”

   Cody remembered that day. He remembered thinking if he didn’t get away, he would drown in her. At twenty-five, he’d been too afraid of love to take a chance. He’d been too afraid of failure.

   Now he had a daughter.

BRENDA MINTON

   started creating stories to entertain herself during hour-long rides on the school bus. In high school she wrote romance novels to entertain her friends. The dream grew and so did her aspirations to become an author. She started with notebooks, handwritten manuscripts and characters that refused to go away until their stories were told. Eventually she put away the pen and paper and got down to business with the computer. The journey took a few years, with some encouragement and rejection along the way—as well as a lot of stubbornness on her part. In 2006, her dream to write for Steeple Hill Love Inspired came true.

   Brenda lives in the rural Ozarks with her husband, three kids, and an abundance of cats and dogs. She enjoys a chaotic life that she wouldn’t trade for anything—except, on occasion, a beach house in Texas. You can stop by and visit her (not at the beach house) at her Web site, www.brendaminton.net.

His Little Cowgirl Brenda Minton


   Published by Steeple Hill Books™

   And ye be kind one to another, tenderhearted,

    forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

   —Ephesians 4:32

   This book is dedicated to:

   Doug, for always supporting me in my dreams,

    and to my kids for allowing me to be the “crazy mom.” Dream big and never give up.

   To all of my family and friends who have kept me

    going forward when I wanted to quit.

   To Janet Benrey and Melissa Endlich, for

    everything they do and have done for me.

   To Janet McCoy of McCoy Ranches, for taking the

    time to answer my questions about bull riders and bull riding. (Mistakes I’ve made are of course my own.) To bull riders like Cord McCoy, who are an inspiration and a role model to young people, and who leave their own footprints of faith.

   To the readers for reading.

   To God for all of the blessings.

Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

   Chapter Fifteen

   Questions for Discussion

Chapter One

   Bailey stuck her hands into the hot, soapy water and began to scrub the dishes she’d put off washing until after lunch, wishing for the umpteenth time that the dishwasher still worked. Her father had helped for a few minutes, until his legs had grown weak and he’d taken himself to the living room and his favorite recliner to watch Oprah.

   The throaty snore she heard through the doorway told her that he’d fallen asleep. She didn’t mind; it was sleep that he needed these days. At least when he was sleeping, he wasn’t worrying.

   Oprah’s voice drifted into the kitchen, borne on the gentle breeze that blew through the house. “So tell me, Suzanne, how much did you pay for your home in Malibu?”

   Bailey strained to listen. “Three million, a bargain.” Audience laughter.

   Bailey shook her head and scrubbed harder. Three million for a house. What couldn’t she do with three million dollars? She looked out her window above the sink, at the farm shimmering in the late-afternoon sun. It looked as tired as her dad. A good eye could see that things were falling apart. The fences were sagging and the last windstorm had done a number on the barn roof. Not to mention her truck, which was on its last leg, and tires…. Three million dollars. That would help pay the mortgage. Well, of course, with three million dollars in the bank, there wouldn’t be a mortgage.

   She was doing well if she made the mortgage payment each month. The tips she earned as a waitress put shoes on her daughter’s feet—one pair at a time—and cutting a few more cows from the herd would pay the property taxes. Life in the Ozarks was far removed from Hollywood.

   A little cutting back, a lot of prayer and making it through another day with her dad still in her life. That was how it went in the real world. At least in her world.

   Bailey squeezed her eyes shut. She opened them when she heard a distant rattle and the rapid-fire bark of her blue heeler. Her mind turned, wondering who it could be. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and it sounded like whoever it was, they were pulling a trailer.

   She squeezed the water out of the dishrag, tossed it on the counter and walked out the back door. If she didn’t catch the dog now, the person paying them a surprise visit would have a hole in his pant’s leg and a bad attitude to go with it. Bailey was holding on to faith by a string; she didn’t need someone’s bad day to rub off on her.

   A shiny, red extended-cab truck pulling an RV rumbled to a stop. Blue, her five-year-old blue heeler, stood in the middle of the yard. The yard that really needed to be mowed before it became a hayfield.

   But Bailey stopped herself there and reached for the dog’s collar. She had a list of things that needed to be done. All of those things dimmed in comparison with the bigger problem she saw stepping out of the truck and into her life.

   The hair on the back of Blue’s neck was standing on end. Teeth bared, the dog strained against her hold on his collar. For a brief, really brief, moment, she considered letting go.

   Six years had passed since she’d seen Cody Jacobs face-to-face. Six years since she’d spent a summer working on a ranch in Wyoming. Six years since she’d tried so hard to tell him she was pregnant. Six years since she’d given up because he wouldn’t answer her phone calls.

   Now he was here. Now, when there were so many other worries to work through. She looked up to see if God would send her a sign, a parting of the clouds or some other gigantic miracle. Instead she felt a soft whisper of peace. If only it hadn’t gotten tangled with dread and a good dose of anger as her day went suddenly south.

   Cody walked across the lawn, looking for all the world like he belonged on her farm. He was suntanned, wore faded Wranglers, and a soft, cotton T-shirt stretched across his broad shoulders. He was smiling like he hadn’t a care in the world.

   Every time she had imagined this moment, she’d thought what she’d say. She’d be strong, send him packing, show him she was in control and that he couldn’t hurt her again.

   Not once had she been breathless or speechless. Not once in her imagination had she thought that she’d remember how his laughter sounded on a quiet summer night in Wyoming, or how his hand had felt on hers. She had told herself that she’d only remember him saying goodbye and how he laughed when she told him she loved him.

   All of her imaginings melted like a snowman in July when faced with the genuine article—Cody Jacobs walking toward her. Now what in the world was she going to do about that? What was she going to do about the little girl inside the house, and the truth that she’d kept from him? All of her good intentions—wanting to protect her daughter from someone whose lifestyle had seemed unfit for a child—seemed irrelevant at the moment.

   Cody Jacobs was about to learn he had a daughter. She hadn’t wanted it to happen like this. Meg knew who her daddy was. Bailey had wanted to confront Cody in her own way, when the time seemed right.

   Not today.

   Blue yanked at the collar and jerked her forward a few feet, a warning that her visitor had entered the imaginary danger zone of the dog. Bailey flexed her fingers and wished she wasn’t leaning forward the way she was.

   “Bailey, you’re looking good.”

   Her foot she was looking good. She was wearing the same faded jeans and stained T-shirt she’d worn while working in the garden.

   “Thanks, Cody.”

   Still smiling, he held his hand out to Blue. The dog suddenly forgot that the man was the enemy. Pulling free from her grasp, the animal belly crawled to Cody. Bailey stood, stretching the kink from her back. Her gaze connected with Cody’s, really connected for the first time since he’d gotten out of the truck.

   Up close and in person he was still about the prettiest man she’d ever seen. Like the average bull rider, he wasn’t tall, just a few inches taller than her five feet five inches. He still had lean, boyish looks and long eyelashes that could make a girl swoon—if she were the swooning type. Bailey wasn’t, not anymore.

   “How’ve you been?” He closed the gap between them, his hand still being licked by Blue.

   “I’m fine.” Most days she really was. “What are you doing in Missouri?”

   She knew the answer. She was a convenient stop on the highway to Springfield, just thirty miles north. The town was hosting a pro bull-riding event, and Cody was in line for the world title this year.

   “I wanted to talk to you.”

   “Okay, talk.”

   Looking suddenly unsure, he took off his bent-out-of-shape, straw cowboy hat and shoved his fingers through black hair, which was straight and a little too long. When he looked at her, with his stormy blue-gray eyes, she thought of Meg and how she didn’t want Cody to learn the truth without any warning.

   Her heart shuddered at the thought. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she breathed a sigh of relief. Meg was taking a nap on the couch. That gave Bailey a few minutes to decide the best course of action.

   “Bailey, I’m here to say I’m sorry.” Cody shrugged and said, “I guess this is part of a man turned thirty and realizing he’s wasted a lot of years and hurt a lot of people.”

   “I’m not sure what to say.” The words of his apology were much as she had imagined them to be, but in her dreams they made more sense. In real life his words didn’t bring instant healing.

   “You don’t really have to say anything. This is something I have to do. I…” He cleared his throat and brought his gaze up to meet hers. “I joined AA and part of the process is making amends for the things I’ve done. I know that when I drove away from Bar A Ranch, I hurt you.”

   “So is this about wanting forgiveness, or are you truly sorry?”

   She needed more than words because words were easy enough to say. Words promised forever and something special on a summer night.

   Words said I’m sorry and even I forgive.

   Cody worried the hat in his hands, keeping his head down and his gaze on his dusty boots. When he looked up, his eyes were clear, his jaw set and determined. She had seen that look on his face before, normally with a camera focused in tightly as he gave the nod and the bull he was set to ride busted from the gate for an eight-second ride that always seemed to last eight minutes.

   “This is about me needing forgiveness, and it is also about being truly sorry.”

   It was her turn to look up, to search for something in his gaze, in those eyes that reminded her of a summer storm on the horizon. He meant it, or at least she thought he did. She nodded and took a step back.

   “Okay, you’re forgiven.”

   “You mean it?”

   Did she mean it? She closed her eyes, wanting him to be gone, wanting to walk back into the house to a sink full of dishes and chores waiting to be done. Those were the things that made sense to her these days.

   What also made sense was Meg, and the life they had here, the life they had built for themselves in spite of everything. Bailey had paced the floor alone when her daughter had been colicky. Bailey, alone, had held Meg tightly when a bad dream woke her in the middle of the night.

   Cody hadn’t been there, not even for that stormy night when Bailey’s dad had driven her to the hospital.

   Her conscience poked at her, telling her that he couldn’t apologize for the things he didn’t know. Cody couldn’t apologize for leaving her to raise a child alone, not when he’d never known about that child. They’d both made mistakes. He didn’t know it, but they both had apologies to make.

   “I forgave you a long time ago.” She smiled, feeling the heat of the August sun on her head and back.

   “That means a lot to me, Bailey. I want a fresh start, and I didn’t want to make that start thinking about you and what happened.”

   What happened—the way he said it made it sound simple and easy to forget. It wasn’t easy to forget a decision that made a person feel like she’d let down not only herself, but everyone who counted on her. Even God.

   Maybe Cody was finally starting to understand.

   “That’s good, Cody. I hope that this is the change you need.” She paused, unsure of how to proceed. She should tell him about Meg. Before he left she should let him know what she had tried to tell him the last time she saw him.

   The screen door thudded softly behind her. Bailey lifted her gaze to his, fearing the truth and the look on Cody’s face. He stared past her, his eyes narrowing against the bright sunshine. As his gaze lingered, Bailey knew that the time for truth had arrived.

   It had never happened this way in her dreams.

   “Mommy.”

   

   Cody stared at the little girl standing on the porch. He tried to catch his breath, but the weight on his chest pushed down, forcing air from his lungs as his heart hammered against his ribs. He stared into a tiny heart-shaped face he’d never seen before, and yet, and yet, the face seemed so familiar.

   The little girl had Bailey’s straight blond hair. She had a rosebud mouth, just like her mom’s. His gaze stopped at her eyes. It was there that he discovered the truth and he knew that Bailey had apologies of her own to give.

   Six years of traveling, riding bulls and putting money in the bank for a place of his own, a place he wouldn’t let his own dad buy for him, and it came down to this. It came down to a child with stormy-blue eyes wearing jean shorts, a T-shirt and pink cowboy boots.

   Cody felt a huge dose of regret because while he’d been having the time of his life, Bailey had been here raising his daughter alone.

   With a million questions and plenty of accusations racing through his mind, he switched his attention back to Bailey. She twisted away from him but not quickly enough for him to miss the streak of red creeping up her neck.

   Cowgirls couldn’t lie.

   “Go inside, Meg,” Bailey said.

   “But I need a drink.”

   “Get a juice box out of the fridge. I’ll be in soon.”

   “Who is he?” The little girl crossed her tanned arms and gave him the look that said she was the only law in town and he was trespassing. He wanted to smile but he couldn’t. Not yet.

   “He’s someone I used to know.”

   The little girl nodded and walked back into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. Bailey waited until her daughter, his daughter, too, was out of sight before facing him.

   “It looks like I’m not the only one who needs to apologize,” he whispered, not really sure if he could say the words aloud.

   He had a daughter. He was six months sober, living in an RV, and he had a daughter.

   He was on step 9, and it seemed that Bailey had a Step 9 of her own. Making amends.

   “I tried to tell you.” She looked away, the breeze blowing her hair around her face. He remembered the feel of her hair, like soft silk and feathers.

   He remembered that being with her had made him believe in himself. For a few short months he had believed he could be something better than his own father had been. Now he couldn’t find that feeling, not with anger boiling to the surface.

   “You didn’t try very hard.”

   “The day you left the ranch, I told you that I loved you and that we needed to talk. You laughed and walked away because, and I quote, ‘Cowgirls always think they’re in love.’”

   As she faced him with his own stupid actions, it was his turn to look away. He focused on the same tree-covered hill her gaze had shot to moments ago. Without really trying, he remembered that day. He remembered getting in his truck and driving away, with her running out of the barn trying to stop him.

   He remembered thinking that if he didn’t get away, he would drown in her. More memories returned, along with the knowledge that he had wanted to lose himself in that feeling. That had scared him more than anything. At twenty-five he’d been too afraid of love to take a chance. He’d been afraid of failure.

   Now he had a daughter. He was in the middle of a program that included not starting new relationships, and this one had to be taken care of. He had a little girl. He needed to wrap his mind around that fact and what it meant, not just for the moment but for the rest of his life.

   “I should have listened to you.” He ran his hand through his hair and shoved his hat back in place. “But you could have told me. You’ve had six years of opportunities to tell me.”

   “I left messages for you to call me. After a while I gave up. Wouldn’t you?” She crossed her arms, staring him down with brown eyes that at one time were warmer than cocoa on a winter day. “You were running so fast, Cody. You didn’t want to hear what I had to tell you because you were afraid it would be about love and forever.”

   “You should have told me.”

   “And have you believing that I was trying to trap you? The day you left Wyoming you made it pretty clear to me that you weren’t looking for ‘forever’ with anyone.”

   He needed to sit down. He didn’t want to think about how much he needed a drink. Six months sober, and he wasn’t going to end his sobriety like this.

   “Bailey, don’t throw my words back in my face. That was six years ago. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been through a lot.” He shook his head and took a step back from her.

   “Keep your voice down.”

   “And on top of that you want me to be calm about this?”

   “I’m sorry.”

   He remembered her at twenty-two. She had dreamed of being a famous horse trainer with a ranch and a few kids. He’d been running from those kinds of women, the kind who dreamed of forever.

   “I won’t keep you from seeing her.” She made it sound like the offer of the century.

   “Of course.”

   “In case you’re wondering, she knows that you’re her dad. I haven’t kept that from her. But you’re not on her birth certificate.”

   “Did you ever stop to think that maybe she needed to see me?”

   “When would she have seen you? Maybe once or twice a year as you drove on through? Or on TV with a pretty girl on your arm.”

   “Is that how you portrayed me to her?”

   She sighed and shook her head.

   Of course she wouldn’t do that. He knew that much about her. Bailey was kind. She had faith, and he’d taken advantage of her innocence. That had haunted him for years. Her tears had haunted him, too, and her regret.

   “I told her that someday she could meet you.”

   “That’s great, Bailey.” He took a step back. “I have a daughter and you were going to let me meet her someday?”

   “What did you expect from me, Cody?”

   “Bailey, I don’t know the right answer to that. I just know that I have a daughter and she’s five years old. Don’t ask me to make sense of this or tell you how I would have reacted a few years ago. I’m a different person today.”

   “Older and wiser?”

   “Something like that.”

   He couldn’t adjust with Bailey staring at him with soft brown eyes and a guilty flush staining her cheeks. He had to get away from her because he didn’t know if he should hug her or throttle her.

   “I need to think.”

   She shrugged as if it didn’t matter. But he could tell that it did. It mattered to him, too.

   And he had honestly thought he’d be able to stop by, say his apologies and leave. He’d been surprised on more counts than one. He’d been surprised with a daughter, and surprised that Bailey Cross still had the ability to undo him.

   “I have to ride in Springfield tonight.” He walked to his truck, followed by the tongue-wagging blue heeler. He turned when he realized that Bailey was right behind him. “I’m leaving my RV here so that you’ll know I’m coming back. I’m not a twenty-five-year-old kid now, Bailey. I don’t run.”

   “I’m sure you don’t.”

   “Maybe I shouldn’t even go to Springfield.”

   “I think you should go, Cody. You can call and we’ll talk this out.” She took a few steps toward him, and he hadn’t counted on the rush of feelings and memories that returned. “I know you can’t miss this ride. I know you’re at the top of the point standings.”

   “Bailey, some things are more important than eight seconds on a bull. Family is more important.”

   “I know that. But I also know what this world title means to you.”

   “I’m coming back,” Cody said. “Tonight.”

   He leaned to unhitch the RV from the back of his truck, aware that she stood next to him, her hands shoved into the front pockets of her jeans.

   “Fine, you can come back and we’ll talk.” Bailey backed up a step, as if wanting that distance between them. “We’ll work something out.”

   “Work something out?” He shoved the tongue of the trailer off the hitch and turned to face her. “You make it sound like we’re disputing over a property line and not a little girl with eyes like mine.”

   “Cody, I am sorry.”

   He shook his head and raised his hand to wave off her words. Instead of staying to argue, he got into his truck and pulled away. When he glanced into his rearview mirror she was walking across the lawn to the farmhouse where she’d grown up.

   And inside that house was a little girl he should have known about, a little girl who needed to know her daddy. He wasn’t going to walk away this time. Bailey Cross would have to find a way to deal with that.

   

   Bailey stopped on the back porch, lingering for a long moment in the breeze created by the overhead ceiling fan. Inside the house her dad and daughter were waiting.

   Driving down the road was the man who had given her that child and broken her heart. Her head was spinning like the blades on the ceiling fan.

   She’d forgiven him. She had really thought she’d forgotten. Instead it all returned in a heady flash of memory, including remnants of the pain she’d felt when he’d left her in Wyoming.

   After Meg’s birth she had done what she’d been taught—she’d pulled herself up by her bootstraps and moved on. As a single mother coping with lonely nights and an uncertain future, she hadn’t had time for wallowing in her mistakes.

   How was she going to deal with Cody Jacobs? Worse, how was she going to deal with the fact that having him back in her life had turned her emotions inside out?

   And then came fear. Would he take Meg away from her? Would his knowing about their daughter mean that holidays and summer vacations would be spent apart? How would she cope with sharing Meg?

   Bailey stopped the downward spiral of thoughts. She wouldn’t be sharing Meg with a stranger. Cody was Meg’s dad. He had rights.

   That assurance didn’t make her feel any better.

   She leaned against the side of the house, waiting for the world to right itself before crossing the threshold to face her dad. The dog lumbered up the steps and belly crawled across the porch. Bailey reached down and Blue nuzzled her hand as if the dog knew she needed to be comforted.

   “Thanks, girl.”

   When she walked into the kitchen, her dad was there, waiting for her. Bailey pulled a pitcher of tea out of the fridge and pretended that nothing had happened. Not that she’d get away with pretending. Her dad had probably heard the entire conversation through the open window.

   “Who were you talking to?” Jerry Cross was leaning on the counter, his afternoon meds in his hand. His skin had lost the healthy farmer’s tan he’d always worn. Now he just looked old and gray. And he wasn’t old.

   Every time Bailey looked at him and saw him wasting away in front of her, she wanted to cry. She wanted to explain to God that it wasn’t fair. She had lost her mom when she was ten. Now she was losing her dad.

   And Cody Jacobs’s RV was parked in her driveway.

   “It was…” She turned to see if her daughter was in the room.

   “She’s watching that goofy cartoon she likes.”

   “That was Cody Jacobs.”

   “Humph.”

   “He came to apologize.”

   “I guess he got more than he bargained for.” He coughed, the moment of breathlessness lasting longer than a week ago and leaving him weak enough that he had to sit at the kitchen table. “His RV is still here.”

   “He says he’s coming back.”

   Her dad looked almost pleased. “Good for him.”

   “Good for him? Dad, this isn’t good for me. It isn’t good for Meg.”

   “Maybe it’s good for me.” He wiped a large, work-worn hand across his face. “Maybe I need this, Bailey. Maybe I need to know that he’s here for you.”

   “He showed up to apologize. That doesn’t put him in my life. I don’t want him in my life. I don’t want to be his girl of the week. Isn’t that what the announcers on the sports channel call the women who hang on to his arm?”

   “We’ve both noticed a change in him since that bull trampled him last winter.” Once broad shoulders shrugged. “People change.”

   Bailey couldn’t agree more. She had changed. At twenty-two she had gone to Wyoming for a summer work program, starry-eyed and thinking that all cowboys were heroes. She had come home four months later, pregnant and brokenhearted.

   It had taken her more than a year to forgive herself and move on. She had struggled with the truth, that God’s grace was sufficient. She had grown and learned how to stand on her own two feet without dreams of a man rescuing her.

   Now she had a dad and a little girl who needed her. She had a farm with a second mortgage, back taxes seriously in arrears and medical bills piling up in a basket on the coffee table. She had horses that needed to be fed.

   “Dad, I have to get to work. You have to let me be an adult and take care of this myself.”

   Moisture shimmered in her dad’s brown eyes. “I know you can take care of things, Bailey. I only wish I could help you more.”

   She hugged him tightly, her heart breaking because of his continued weight loss.

   “Don’t worry, Dad. We have peace, remember?”

   “Peace.” He nodded as he whispered the word.

   Bailey walked to the back door. “I need to walk to the back pasture to check on that cow that didn’t come up this afternoon. Can you keep an eye on Meg?”

   “I’ll watch her.” He swallowed his pills before continuing. “He has a right to know his daughter.”

   “I know.”

   She knew, but she didn’t quite know how to deal with it, not yet. Cody now knew about Meg. It had to happen sooner or later. She wouldn’t have been able to remain out of the rodeo circuit forever. Avoiding Cody had meant avoiding people who could send horses her way for training.

   Maybe God had meant for it to happen this way, with Cody driving into her life when she had the least amount of energy to fight? And maybe, just maybe, he would meet Meg and then leave town.

Chapter Two

   Bulls bellowed and snorted, the sound combining with the steady hum of the crowd and the banter of cowboys, medical staff and stock contractors. Cody leaned against the wall in a corner of the area that was almost quiet.

   “What’s up with you?”

   “Bradshaw, I didn’t know you were here.” Cody smiled at the guy who had been a friend for years. Rivalry had come between them a few times. And for a while Jason Bradshaw’s faith had driven a huge wedge between them.

   Cody hadn’t known what to do when his friend “found religion” two years earlier. They had gone from being drinking buddies to strangers, both wanting different things out of life.

   The rift had grown until the day seven months earlier when Cody had woken up in a hospital, unsure of who he was or where he was. Later he had watched tapes of the fall. The wreck of the season, they called it. He had been twisted in the bull rope, dangling from the side of a fifteen-hundred-pound animal. When Cody came loose, the bull twisted and the two butted heads with a force that had given him a huge concussion and some loss of memory.

   Jason said it must have knocked some sense into him, because the Sunday after his release from the hospital Cody gave in to the urge to attend the church service the bull riders held each week. He had stood next to his friend, hearing a message his grandfather had tried to tell him when he had been too young to understand. Later on in life he had thought he didn’t need it.

   That Sunday he knew he needed it. He knew that he needed to be forgiven. He needed the promise contained in those words, and he needed a fresh start.

   He had never dreamed his second chance would lead him to Gibson, Missouri, and a little girl named Meg.

   “You look like you got hit by a semitruck.” Jason nudged Cody’s side, gaining his attention.

   “Something like that.”

   “Did you see Bailey?”

   Cody moved to the side to see why the crowd was roaring. He watched a young rider make it to eight seconds and then some. The kids on tour were going great guns with enthusiasm and bodies that weren’t being kept mobile with cortisone injections, Ace bandages and a diet of ibuprofen.

   “Remember what that felt like?” Jason laughed and watched as the kid on the bull jumped off, landing on his feet and running out of the arena without a limp.

   “Vaguely.” He remembered what yesterday felt like, when he knew who he was and that his life was all about winning the bull-riding championship and walking away with a seven-figure check. Now his goals were as scrambled as his insides.

   “I found out today that I’m a dad. I have a five-year-old daughter named Meg.”

   Jason took off his hat and ran a hand through short red hair, his eyes widening as he leaned back against the wall. His being speechless didn’t happen often. Cody was sort of glad his friend reacted with stunned silence. His surprise validated Cody’s own feelings of disbelief.

   “Wow.”

   “Is that all you have to say?”

   Jason laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Congratulations?”

   “Thanks. I think.”

   “What are you going to do?”

   “Well, if Bailey was seventeen and madly in love with me, I’d do the right thing and marry her. Right now she’s about twenty-eight, and I’m pretty sure she hates me. So that leaves the little girl. I might have a chance with her, but I’m not sure.”

   His daughter, a sprite with her mother’s perky nose, heart-shaped face and flaxen hair. Cowgirls were hard to beat. They were tough as nails and soft as down. Until you made them mad. Bailey was definitely mad. She had a right to be, but that didn’t help Cody.

   He had a daughter. It was still sinking in. Thinking back, he remembered the luminous look in Bailey’s eyes when she said she loved him, and then the tears when he teased her about cowgirls always thinking they were in love. Finally there were the frantic phone calls that lasted five or six months after she left Wyoming. It all made sense now.

   He looked down, shaking his head at the tumble of thoughts rolling through his mind. He had missed out on five years. Without knowing it, he had become his own dad.

   “Cody, don’t beat yourself up for something you didn’t know about.”

   “If I had called her back, I would have known. Instead I went on my merry way, thinking she just wanted to cry and try to drag me back into her life.” He fastened the Kevlar vest that bull riders wore for protection and tried to concentrate on the ride about to take place. “I should have known Bailey better than to think that about her.”

   “You know, I think you only ran because you were so stinking in love with her.” Jason laughed as he said the words, his loud outburst drawing the quick glances of a dozen men in the area.

   “Do you think you could announce it to the whole world?”

   “Sorry, but I think they’re going to find out sooner or later.”

   Cody pulled off his hat and ran shaking fingers through his hair. “I could use a…”

   “Friend to pray with?” Jason smiled as he replaced the word with something that wouldn’t undo six months of sobriety.

   “Yes, prayer.” His new way of dealing with stress. “I have a daughter, Jason. What in the world am I going to do with her?”

   “Buy her a pony?”

   “My dad bought me a pony.”

   Jason slapped him on the back. “Go back to Gibson, Missouri, and get to know your daughter. You’ve got enough money in the bank to last more than a few years, and a good herd of cattle down in Oklahoma. Maybe it’s time to start using your nest egg to build a nest? You could even use that business degree of yours for something other than balancing a feed bill and tallying your earnings.”

   “What if I can’t be a dad?” He didn’t know how to be something he’d never had. That’s why he’d run from girls looking for “forever.”

   “No one really knows how. I think you just learn as you go. It’s probably a lot like bull riding, the more you work at it, the better you get.”

   Someone shouted Cody’s name. He was up soon. He tipped his hat to Jason and told him he probably would lay off the tour after this event, at least for a few weeks, at least until he settled things with Bailey.

   And he would give up ever being a world champion. His goal and his dream for more years than he could remember had been within his grasp, but one afternoon in Gibson, Missouri, had changed everything.

   Five minutes later he was slipping onto the back of a bull named Outta Control. He hated that bull. It was part Mexican fighting bull and part insane. As he pulled his bull rope tight, wrapping it around his gloved hand, the bull jerked and snorted. The crazy animal obviously thought the eight seconds started before the gate opened.

   Cody squeezed his knees against the animal’s heaving sides and hunched forward, preparing for the moment that the gate would open. Foam and slobber slung around his face as the bull bellowed and shook his mammoth head.

   “This is crazy.” He muttered the words to no one in particular as he nodded his head and the gate flew open.

   If he survived this ride, he was going back to Gibson, to his daughter and to Bailey. He would find a way to be a dad.

   

   The fact that Cody’s RV was still in the drive the next morning meant nothing to Bailey. The problem was, his truck was there to. That meant he’d survived his ride and returned.

   She didn’t know how to feel about Cody Jacobs keeping promises. Six years ago they’d been sitting around a campfire when he leaned over and whispered that he loved her. She had believed him. She had really thought they might have forever.

   She wouldn’t be so quick to believe, not this time. This time she would protect her heart, and she would protect her daughter. Changed or not, Cody was a bull rider, and the lure of the world title would drag him back to the circuit, probably sooner than later.

   “He got in at around midnight. He was walking straight but a little stooped.” Her dad had followed her to the porch. He pressed a cup of coffee into her hand.

   “What were you doing up?”

   “Praying, thinking and waiting to see if he’d come back.” Jerry Cross smiled.

   “Nice, Dad. It sort of makes me feel like you’re plotting against me.”

   “Not at all, cupcake.” He scooted past her and back to the kitchen. “Want me to feed this morning?”

   “Nope, I’ll do it. I have to face him sooner or later.” She glanced over the rim of her cup and watched the dark RV. “You mind listening for Meg?”

   “Honey, you know I don’t. And you know I don’t mind feeding.”

   “It’s too hot. The humidity would…” Her heart ached with a word that used to be so easy.

   “Don’t cry on me, pumpkin. And the humidity isn’t going to kill me.” He winked before he walked away.

   Bailey prayed again, the silent prayer that had become constant. Please God, don’t take my dad. She knew what the doctors said, and she knew with her own eyes that he was failing fast. She didn’t know what she’d do without him in her life.

   She drained her cup of coffee and walked out the back door. The RV in the drive was still dark and silent. The barn wasn’t. As she walked through the door, she heard music on the office radio and noises from the corral.

   Cody turned and smiled when she walked out the open double doors on the far side of the barn. Her favorite mare was standing next to him, and he was running his hand over the animal’s bulging side.

   That mare and the foal growing inside of her were the future hope of Bailey’s training and breeding program. If that little baby had half the class and durability of his daddy, the Rocking C would have a chance of surviving.

   “Any day now.” Cody spoke softly, either to her or to the mare. She and the mare both knew that it would be any day.

   “What are you doing here?”

   He glanced up, his hat shading his eyes. “I told you I’d be back. I’m in it for the long haul, Bailey.”

   “In what for the long haul?”

   He shot her a disgusted look and sighed. “I’m a father. I might be coming into this a little late, but I want to be a part of Meg’s life.”

   “So, you’ve gone from the guy who didn’t want to be tied down to the guy who is in fatherhood for the long haul?”

   “When confronted with his mistakes, a guy can make a lot of changes.” He slid his hand down the mare’s misty-gray neck, but his gaze connected with Bailey’s. “I’m alive, and God gave me a second chance. I don’t take that lightly.”

   “I see.” But she didn’t, not really.

   Bailey walked back into the barn, knowing he followed. When she turned, she noticed that he wasn’t following at a very fast pace. The limp and slightly stooped posture said a lot.

   “Take a fall last night?”

   He grinned and shrugged muscular shoulders. “Not so much of a fall as a brush-off. This is what one might call ‘cowboy, meet gate—gate, meet cowboy.’ The bull did the introductions.”

   “Anything broken?” Not that she cared.

   “Just bruised.”

   “Good, then you should be able to hitch that RV back to your truck and leave today.”

   “Actually, no, I can’t. Funny, I’ve never really had a reason to stick before, but I like Missouri and so this isn’t such a bad thing. And the folks at the Hash-It-Out Diner all think you’re real pretty and a good catch.”

   Bailey searched for something to throw at him, just about anything would work. She wanted to wipe that smug smile off his face. Especially when smug was accompanied by a wink and a dimpled smile.

   “Cody, I don’t need this. You don’t understand what it’s like here and how long it took me to rebuild my reputation after that summer in Wyoming.”

   He didn’t understand about going to church six months pregnant, knowing God forgave, but people weren’t as likely to let go of her mistake.

   “I didn’t tell them who I am, or that I’m Meg’s dad.” He turned on the water hose as he spoke. “I think most of them have gotten over it, Bailey. Except maybe Hazel. Hazel has a daughter in Springfield who is a schoolteacher and a real good girl.”

   Bailey groaned as she scooped out feed and emptied it into a bucket. Cody dragged the hose to the water trough just outside the back door. He left it and walked back inside.

   “Yes, Maria is a good girl. I’ll introduce the two of you.” She managed a smile.

   “Bailey, I was teasing.” Smelling like soap and coffee, he walked next to her. “This isn’t about us, or a relationship. This is about a child I didn’t know that I had. I’m not proposing marriage, and I’m not trying to move in. I want the chance to know my daughter.”

   Bailey glanced in his direction before walking off with the bucket of grain and the scoop. She remembered that he had shown up for a purpose other than his daughter.

   “Why did you come to apologize?”

   “It’s a long story.”

   “I have thirty minutes before I need to leave for work.”

   Cody took the bucket from her hand and started the job of dumping feed into the stalls. “You water, I’ll feed. And they told me you work three days a week at the Hash-It-Out.”

   “Since Dad can’t work, we do what we can to make ends meet.” She didn’t tell him that the ends rarely met. “So, about you and this big apology.”

   “Why can’t your dad work?”

   “He has cancer.”

   She couldn’t tell him that her dad had only months to live. Saying it made it too real. And she couldn’t make eye contact with Cody, not when she knew that his eyes would be soft with compassion.

   “I’m sorry, Bailey.”

   “We’re surviving.”

   “It can’t be easy.”

   Cody poured the last scoop of grain into the feed bucket of a horse she’d been working with for a few weeks.

   “It isn’t easy.” She turned the water off and then finally looked at him. “But we’re doing our best.”

   “Of course you are.” He sat down on an upturned bucket, absently rubbing his knee as he stared up at the wood plank ceiling overhead.

   “Let’s talk about you, Cody. What happened?”

   “Bailey, I’m an alcoholic. I started AA about seven months ago. I’ve been sober for six months.” He shrugged. “About five months ago I wrote out a list of people I had hurt, people that I needed to apologize to. You were at the top of the list.”

   “I see. And how did this all start?”

   “Apologizing, or realizing that I needed to grow up and make changes in my life?”

   He smiled a crooked, one-sided smile that exposed a dimple in his left cheek. Bailey hadn’t forgotten that grin. She saw it every time Meg smiled at her. It reminded her of how it had felt to be special to someone like him. He had picked her wildflowers and taken her swimming in mountain lakes.

   That moment in the sun had happened when her dad had been healthy and the farm had been prosperous. Their horses had been selling all across the country, and they’d had a good herd of Angus. Now she had five cows, two mares, no stallion and a few horses to train.

   “What made you go to AA?”

   “I turned thirty and realized I didn’t have a home and that I had a lot of blank spots in my memory. I was getting on bulls drunk.” He shrugged and half laughed. “I realized when I got trampled into the dirt back in Houston last winter.”

   “I saw you on TV the night it happened.” She closed her eyes as the admission slipped out and then quickly covered her tracks. “I’ve always watched bull riding. Dad and I watch it together.”

   “Gotcha.” He leaned back against the wall. “I guess one of the big reasons for changing was that I didn’t want to waste the rest of my life.”

   “I’m glad you’re doing better.” It was all she could give him. She was glad he was sober and glad he was safe. “We’ll work something out so that you can get to know Meg.”

   “Get to know her? Bailey, she’s my daughter and I want more than moments to ‘get to know her.’ I want to be a part of her life.”

   “You can, when you’re in the area.”

   “I made a decision last night.” He didn’t smile as he said the words. “I’m not leaving.”

   “What does that mean?”

   “It means I’m staying in Gibson, Missouri.”

   Bailey’s heart pounded hard and she shoved her trembling hands into the front pockets of her jeans. Dust danced on beams of sun that shot through the open doors of the barn, and country music filtered from the office. She had been here so many times and yet never like this, never as unsure as she was at that moment.

   “What about the tour? You’re closer than ever to winning a world title.”

   She knew what that meant to him. She knew how hard it was for bull riders to walk away from the pursuit of that title.

   “Some things are more important. And if I choose to go back, bull riding will always be there.”

   “You can’t stay here.”

   “I’m going to park my RV under that big oak tree by your garage, and I am most certainly going to stay.”

   “This is my home, my property, and I beg to differ.”

   “And that’s my little girl you’ve got in that house, so I think you’ll get over it.”

   Bailey sat down on the bucket he’d vacated, her legs weak and trembling. She looked up, making eye contact with a man she didn’t really know. He wasn’t the guy she’d met in Wyoming, the one who’d said he didn’t plan on ever having a family or being tied down to anyone. Back then she had thought finding the right woman to love would change him. Now she didn’t want him changed and living on her farm.

   She had to get control. “Fine you can stay for a week, and then we’ll work something out.”

   “I’m not leaving, not until I decide to go.”

   “Cody, I don’t have time to argue with you.”

   He shrugged, casually, but obviously determined. His mouth remained in a straight line, not smiling and not revealing that good-natured dimple.

   “I’ve lost five years of my daughter’s life, Bailey. I’m not losing another day. Don’t take this personally, because I’m not trying to make it personal, but I’m not letting you call the shots. You’re not going to keep my daughter from me.”

   Did it look that way to him? She hadn’t meant for that to happen. She had really thought he didn’t care, or wouldn’t care. He was in this life for a good time. Those had been his words the day he walked away from her.

   People did change. He wasn’t the only one who needed to apologize.

   “I’m sorry. I never meant to keep her from you.” She glanced down at her watch and groaned. “I have to go to work.”

   “I’ll be here when you get home.”

   Would he? She didn’t know how to deal with that thought. Of him in her life, and in her daughter’s life.

   She had learned to rely on God and the knowledge that He would get her through whatever came her way. If she closed her eyes, she could think of a long list of whatevers. At the top of the list was losing her dad; then came being a single mom, and then the pile of bills that were growing as large as Mount Rushmore. God could get her through those things.

   Now she had to worry about Cody and what his staying would mean. Would he try to gain custody of Meg, or visitation? Would he stay only long enough to prove that he had rights?

   How would it feel if he walked away? She tried to tell herself that she wouldn’t be hurt. This time it would be different because now the person who would be hurt was Meg.

   Bailey wouldn’t let that happen.

Chapter Three

   Cody stood outside the barn and watched Bailey drive away, the old truck stirring up a cloud of dust as it sped down the rutted gravel drive. When he turned toward his RV, Jerry Cross was there. It had to happen sooner or later, that the father of the woman he’d gotten pregnant would want to take a piece out of his hide.

   If someone ever hurt Meg that way, Cody would like to think he’d be there to do the same thing. It would help to start off on the right foot. “Hello, sir. I’m Cody Jacobs.” Father of your grandchild.

   “Are you staying?” Jerry sat down in the lawn chair that Cody had unfolded and stuck under the awning of the RV.

   “Planning on it.” Cody grabbed another chair out of the back of his truck and plopped it down next to Jerry’s.

   “Think she’ll let you stay?”

   “The way I see it, she doesn’t really have a choice.”

   Jerry laughed at that, the sound low and rasping. Cody glanced sideways, noticing the tinge of gray in Jerry’s complexion. It couldn’t be easy for Bailey, having her dad this sick and handling things on her own. The condition of the farm pretty much said it all. The barn needed repairs, the fence was sagging and the feed room was running on empty.

   “I like you, Cody, and I hope you’ll stick around. Let me give you some advice, though. Bailey isn’t a kid anymore. She isn’t going to be fooled. She’s strong and she’s independent. She takes care of this farm and she juggles the bills like a circus clown.” Jerry’s eyes misted over. “I worry that life is passing her by and she isn’t squeezing any joy out of it for herself.”

   “I didn’t mean to do that to her.”

   The older man shrugged shoulders that had once been broad. Cody couldn’t imagine being in his shoes, knowing that life wouldn’t last and that people he loved would be left behind.

   “It wasn’t all you, son. I have more than a little to do with the weight on her shoulders.”

   “Is there a way I can help?”

   Jerry shook his head. “Nope. Others have offered. She’s determined to paddle this sinking ship to shore. She thinks she can plug the holes and make it sail again.”

   “I’ve got money…”

   Jerry’s gnarled hand went up. “Save your breath and save your money. She won’t take charity.”

   “It isn’t charity. I’m the father of the little girl in that house.”

   “Then I guess you’d really better tread lightly.”

   Jerry stood, swaying lightly and balancing himself with the arm of the chair. Cody reached but withdrew his hand short of making contact. If it were him, would he want others reaching to hold him up, or would he want to be strong on his own? He thought that Jerry Cross wouldn’t want a hand unless it was asked for.

   That made him a lot like his daughter.

   “I’m going in to check on the young’un. Holler if you need anything,” Jerry said as he walked away.

   The young’un. Cody sat in the chair and thought about the little girl. His daughter. For a long time he waited, thinking she might come out of the house. When she didn’t, he went to the barn.

   Thirty minutes and two clean stalls later, a tiny voice called his name. Cody swiped his arm across his brow and peered over the top of the stall he had been cleaning. Meg stood on tiptoes peeking up at him. He hid a grin because she was still wearing her nightgown and yet she’d pulled on those pink cowboy boots she’d been wearing the previous day.

   “I have kittens.” She chewed on gum and smiled.

   “How many?”

   “Four. Wanna see ’em?”

   He wanted to see those kittens more than anything in the world. A myriad of emotions washed over him with that realization. He had never hugged his child. He hadn’t held her or comforted her. He hadn’t wiped away her tears when she cried. Five years he had missed out on loving this little girl with Bailey’s sweet face and his blue eyes.

   “I do wanna see ’em.”

   He opened the stall door and joined the little girl that barely reached his waist. Her hand came up, the gesture obvious. Cody’s heart leaped into his throat as his fingers closed around hers.

   In that instant he knew he’d follow her anywhere. He’d give his life for her. And if anyone ever did to her what he’d done to her mother…

   Regret twisted his stomach into knots. He couldn’t undo what he’d done to Bailey, but he could do something now. He could be a father. Or at least make his best attempt.

   Doubt swirled with regret, making him wonder if he could. What if he couldn’t? What if he turned out to be his own father?

   “The kittens are in there.” Meg pointed to a small corner of the barn where buckets and tools were stored. The area was dark and dusty, but a corner had been cleared out and straw put down for the new mother.

   “How old are they?”

   “One week. They don’t even have their eyes yet.”

   Cody smiled and refrained from correcting her about the eyes. “I bet they love you.”

   She shook her head. “Not yet, ’cause I can’t touch them or the momma kitten will hide them. She’s afraid they’ll get hurt.”

   “Momma cats are like that.” He peeked into the corner and saw the mother cat and the four little ones.

   “There’s a yellow tabby, a gray, one black cat and a calico. I like calico cats best.”

   “I think I do, too.” Little fingers held tightly to his, and at the same time it felt like they were wrapping around his heart.

   Meg led him from the area. “We can’t stay long or she’ll be mad.”

   “We wouldn’t want to make the momma mad.”

   “My mom is mad at you.”

   Cody had never been fond of amusement-park rides. He could handle eight seconds on the back of a bull, but that up-and-down roller-coaster feeling was one he couldn’t hack. And this felt like a roller coaster.

   “I’m sorry that she’s mad at me, Meg. Sometimes adults need time to work things out.”

   He kneeled in front of his daughter. Her mouth worked her gum as she stared into his eyes. When she rested her hand on his cheek and nodded, his eyes burned and he had to blink away the film of moisture.

   “I know you’re my daddy.” She nodded at that information. “My mom told me about your eyes when I was just a little kid.”

   “Meg Cross, you’re about the sweetest girl in the world.” And he hoped he wouldn’t let her down.

   As he was thinking of all the mistakes he could make, his daughter stepped close and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her head rested on his shoulder and he hugged her back.

   He wouldn’t let her down. He wouldn’t let her grow up thinking that a dad was just the guy who sent the check each month. Whether he stayed in Gibson, or settled somewhere else, he would be a part of his daughter’s life.

   The alarmed bark of Blue ripped into the moment. Cody hurried from the barn with Meg holding tightly to his hand. He scanned the yard, past his RV to the house. He saw the dog near the back porch and next to him on the ground was the still form of Jerry Cross.

   

   Bailey didn’t feel like working. She felt like going home and being by herself. Not that she could be alone at home. And today would be worse because Cody would be there, wanting to talk.

   Why in the world did he suddenly think they needed to talk things out? Had he been watching afternoon talk shows and learning about sharing feelings?

   Or was it just a step in a program?

   She sighed, knowing she wasn’t being fair and that God wanted her to give Cody a chance because grace was about being forgiven. She knew all about grace.

   “Why do you look like someone messed with your oatmeal?” asked Lacey Gould, her black hair streaked with red, as she walked up behind Bailey, who was starting a fresh pot of coffee. The two of them had been unlikely friends for four years. They didn’t have secrets.

   Lacey didn’t know who Meg’s dad was. That was something only God and Bailey’s dad knew. That was Bailey’s only secret from her friend.

   “I don’t even like oatmeal.” Bailey poured herself a cup of coffee and reached for the salt shakers that needed to be refilled.

   The Hash-It-Out had been busy nonstop for over an hour. Now the crowds had waned down to the regular group of farmers who gathered for mid-morning coffee and good-natured gossip.

   Lacey grabbed the pepper shakers and started filling them.

   “Rumor has it someone showed up yesterday driving a new truck and pulling an RV. And another rumor states that the truck and RV are still in town.”

   “Rumor has it that the rumor mill in this town could grind enough wheat to feed a small country.”

   “Cute. That doesn’t really make sense, but it is a little bit funny.” Lacey pulled ten dollars from her pocket and slid it across the counter top. “You had a four-top leave this the day before yesterday.”

   Bailey knew better. She didn’t reach for the money. Lacey had a bad habit of trying to help by lying. She was a new Christian and her heart was as big as Texas, even if she didn’t always go about helping the right way.

   “You keep it.”

   “It’s yours.”

   Bailey shook her head. “Good try, sweetie, but I didn’t have a four-top the other day.”

   Lacey shoved the money into the front pocket of Bailey’s jeans. “Stop being a hero and let a friend help.”

   The phone rang. Bailey glanced toward the hostess station and watched Jill answer. The older woman nodded and then shot a worried glance in Bailey’s direction, with her hand motioning for Bailey to join her.

   “I’ll be right back.” Bailey touched Lacey’s arm as she walked toward the hostess.

   “Honey, that was someone named Cody, and he said he’s taking your daddy to the hospital in Springfield.”

   The floor fell out from under her. Lacey was suddenly there, her hand on Bailey’s. “Let me get someone to drive you.”

   “I can drive myself.”

   “No, you can’t.”

   Bailey was already reaching for her purse. She managed a smile for the two women. “I can drive myself. Could you let Jolynn know that I had to leave?”

   “Sure thing, sweetie, but are you sure you’re okay to drive yourself?”

   Bailey nodded as she walked away from Jill’s question. At that moment she wasn’t sure about much of anything.

   In a daze she walked out the door and across the parking lot, barely noticing the heat and just registering that someone shouted hello. Numb, she felt so numb, and so cold.

   It took her a few tries to get the truck started. She pumped the gas, praying hard that the stupid thing wouldn’t let her down, not now. As the engine roared to life she whispered a quiet thank-you.

   Springfield was a good thirty-minute drive, and of course she got behind every slow car on the road and always in a no-passing zone. Her heart raced and her hands were shaking. What if she didn’t make it on time? What if this was the end? She couldn’t think about losing her dad, not yet, not now when she needed him so much.

   “What if he’s gone and I don’t get to say goodbye?” She whispered into the silent cab of the truck, blinking away the sting of tears.

   She couldn’t think of her dad not being in her life. He had always been there for her. He had been the one holding her hand when her mother died, and the one who drove her to the hospital when Meg was born.

   Her dad had been the one who hadn’t condemned her for her mistake. He had loved her and shown mercy. He had insisted that everyone makes mistakes. Without those mistakes, why would a person need grace?

   Those who are healthy aren’t in need of a physician. In those months after she had returned from Wyoming, she had really come to understand the words Jesus had spoken and the wonderful healing of forgiveness.

   Her dad had taught her to bait a hook, and to train a horse. He had taught her how to have faith, and to smile even when smiling wasn’t easy.

   “Please, God, don’t take him from me now.”

   

   Roots, this all felt very much like putting down roots. Cody’s mind swirled as he waited for Bailey to arrive.

   In the last few years he hadn’t stayed in one place longer than a month. He usually spent time between events parked at the farm of a friend where he kept his livestock.

   With Bailey’s dad sick and Meg in his arms, thoughts of leaving fled. He had never known how to stick. Now he didn’t know how he could ever think of leaving.

   He knew himself well enough to know that before long the lure of bull riding would tug on him. Between now and then he would pray, hoping that when the time came he would make the right choices.

   He knew enough to know that there wouldn’t be any easy answers.

   The door of the ER swished open, bringing a gust of warm air from the outside. Cody shifted the sleeping child in his lap and turned. Bailey stood on the threshold of the door, keeping it from closing. She watched him with a look of careful calculation, her gaze drifting from his face to her daughter.

   Their daughter.

   He couldn’t stand up to greet her, not with Meg curled like one of her kittens, snuggling against his chest. She felt good there, and he didn’t want to let go.

   Cody didn’t want to hurt Bailey. It seemed a little too late for that. Her brown eyes shimmered with unshed tears, and if he could have held them both, he would have.

   Bailey crossed to where he was sitting. She looked young, and alone. She looked more vulnerable than the twenty-two-year-old young woman he’d known in Wyoming.

   “Is he…”

   “He’s alive.” He answered the question she didn’t have the heart to ask. “He had an episode with his breathing. They’re running tests. That’s all they’ll tell me because I’m not family.”

   Bailey sat down next to him. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”

   “He isn’t gone, Bailey.”

   She only nodded. Shifting, he pulled a hand free and reached to cover her arm. With a sigh she looked up, nodding as if she knew that he wanted to comfort her. Her lips were drawn in and her eyes melting with tears. The weight of the world was on her shoulders.

   He wanted to take that weight from her. He wanted to ease the burden. He wanted to hold her. He moved his arm, circling her shoulders and drawing her close, ignoring the way she resisted, and then feeling when she chose to accept. Her shoulder moved and she leaned against him, crumbling into his side.

   “I won’t leave you alone.” He whispered the words, unsure if she heard but feeling good about the promise.

   Time to cowboy up, Cody. He could almost hear his grandfather say the words to a little boy who had fallen off his pony.

   The door across from them opened. A doctor walked into the room, made a quick scan of the area and headed in their direction. He didn’t look like a man about to give the worst news a family could hear. Cody breathed a sigh of relief.

   “Ms. Cross, I’m Dr. Ashford. Your dad is resting now. We’ve given him something to help him sleep and moved him to the second floor. You should be able to take him home in a day or two.” He reached for a chair and pulled it close to them. “I’m not going to lie—this isn’t going to be an easy time, and it might be better if you let us send him to a skilled-care facility.”

   “I want him at home. He belongs at home.” Her stubborn chin went up and Cody shot the doctor a warning look.

   “The family always wants that, but you have to consider yourself. How are you going to take care of him? You work, you go to town, and he’s there alone.”

   Bailey’s eyes closed and she nodded. Her face paled and Cody knew what she was thinking. She was blaming herself for not being there when her dad collapsed. She was thinking of all the ways she’d let him down.

   “Bailey, you aren’t to blame for today. I was there. I shouldn’t have left him alone.”

   “He isn’t your responsibility—he’s mine.” She moved out of the circle of his arm. “I should have been there for him.”

   The doctor cleared his throat. “Neither of you are to blame. Ms. Cross, your father has cancer. He isn’t going to get better. He’s going to get worse. You have to accept that you aren’t going to be able to give him the twenty-four-hour-a-day care that he needs.”

   “But I want him home now, while he can be at home.”

   “You have to think about…”

   “He’s my responsibility,” Bailey insisted, cutting off the doctor’s objections. This time her tone was firm enough to stir Meg.

   “Bailey, you have two choices.” Cody got her attention with that, and she glanced up at him. “You can either let me help or you can put your dad in a facility where he can be watched over while you’re at work.”

   She shifted her gaze away, focusing on the windows that framed a hot August day and afternoon traffic. “I know. I just didn’t want it to be this way. I wanted him to get better.”

   “He can’t, Bailey, not on this earth. I know that isn’t what you want to hear, but sometimes the way God heals is by bringing a person home to Him, to a new body and a new life.”

   Shock and then relief flooded her expression as tears pooled in her eyes and then started to flow. Cody shifted Meg and reached to pull Bailey back into his arms.

   Her head tucked under his chin and her body racked with grief, he held her close and let her cry. He wondered if she had cried at all before then, or if she had been so busy taking care of everyone else that she hadn’t allowed herself to grieve.

   He glanced up, making eye contact with the doctor, who was looking at his watch and starting to move. Bailey’s sobs quieted and she leaned against his side. Meg had awoken and was touching her mother’s face, her sweet little hands stroking Bailey’s cheek.

   How had he gotten himself into this? Last week he had been a guy with a new faith in God and in himself, trying to make changes and making amends. And now he was here, holding Bailey and knowing he couldn’t leave.

   Adjusting to the wild buck of a bull was easy compared with this. A bull went one direction, and a countermove on his part put him back in control, back in center. No such luck with this situation.

   On a bull they would have called the situation, “getting pulled down in the well.”

   “Bailey, I won’t let you go through this alone.”

   She moved from his embrace, as if his words were the catalyst she had needed to regain her strength. The strong Bailey was back, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand.

   “I appreciate your offer to help, Cody. I really do, but I know that you have a life and places you have to be.”

   He shook his head at what she probably considered was a very logical statement. To him it meant that she still didn’t expect him to stay. And it probably meant that she didn’t want him in her life.

   “Bailey, we’ll talk about the future, but for now I’m staying and I’m going to help you with your dad and with the farm.”

   He meant it, and she would have to learn that his word was good.

Chapter Four

   Bailey looked out of the kitchen window and breathed in the cool morning breeze. She used to love lazy summer mornings, the kind that promised a warm day and not too much humidity. Two years ago she would have spent the morning doing chores and then packed a picnic to take to the lake.

   This was a new day. Her dad was home from the hospital, but the doctor was certain they wouldn’t have him for long. How did a person process that information?

   By going on with life, as if nothing was wrong? Bailey was trying. She was making breakfast, thinking about work on her to-do list and planning for Meg’s first day of school in two weeks.

   School—that meant letting go of her little girl, and it meant school supplies and new clothes. In the middle of all of the normal life thoughts was the reality. Her dad was in bed, and Cody was living in an RV outside her back door.

   How could she pretend life was normal?

   Eggs sizzled in the pan on the stove, and the aroma of fresh coffee drifted through the room, mixing with the sweet smell of a freshly mown lawn. Bailey glanced out the window again, eyeing the mower still sitting next to the shed, and then her gaze shifted to the man who had done the mowing. He walked out of the barn, his hat pushed back to expose a suntanned face.

   It should have felt good, seeing the work he’d done in the two days since her dad had come home from the hospital. Eggs frying and coffee brewing should have been normal things, signaling a normal morning on a working farm. Instead these were signs of her weakening attempts at keeping things under control. Make breakfast, do the laundry, dust the furniture, which would only get dusty again, the little things that signified life was still moving forward.

   She reached into the cabinet for a plate and slid the eggs out of the skillet. A light rap on the back door and her back instinctively stiffened.

   “It’s open.”

   The screen door creaked and booted footsteps clicked on the linoleum. And then he was there, next to her, pouring himself a cup of coffee. Had she actually dreamed of this, wanted this to be her life—Cody in her kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee, sitting across from her eating breakfast?

   If so, the dream had faded. Now she dreamed of other things, of making it, and of a stable full of other people’s horses to be trained, and money in the bank. Romance was the last thing on her mind, especially when she hadn’t even brushed her teeth this morning and her hair was in a scraggly ponytail.

   It didn’t help that he smelled good, like soap and leather. Maybe romance wasn’t the last thing on her mind. This opened the door for other thoughts, the kind she quickly brushed away, reminders of his hand on her cheek and the way it had felt to be in his arms.

   “Are you going to work today?” He turned and leaned against the counter, his legs crossed at the ankles and the cup of coffee lifted to his lips.

   “I can’t work.” She answered his question as she flipped a couple of eggs and a few slices of bacon on the plate with already buttered toast.

   “Can’t work? Why?”

   “Because my dad needs me here. I can’t leave him alone with Meg.” She handed him the plate.

   Cody set his plate down on the counter. He turned to face her, his jaw muscle working. Bailey shifted her gaze from the storm brewing in his blue eyes. She picked up the dishrag and wiped crumbs from the toaster off the counter. A strong, tanned hand covered hers, stopping her efforts to distract herself. She slid her hand out from under his and looked up.

   “I’m here, Bailey. I’m trying to help you.”

   “Why, why are you here now?”

   “I want to be here.” He sipped his coffee and then set the cup on the counter. “I know I can’t stay forever, but I’m here and I want to help.”

   How many people had tried to help and had accepted her refusal, and her insistence that she could do it herself? How long had she been holding on to the reins, telling herself she could do it all, while everyone called her stubborn? It wasn’t stubbornness; it was determination, and maybe a survival instinct she hadn’t recognized until recently.

   It was a mantra of sorts. Keep going, keep moving forward, don’t slow down or you might not make it. She had become a horse with blinders, able to only focus on the job at hand. She didn’t want to lose focus.

   “I ordered supplies to fix that north fence.” His carelessly tossed-out words jerked her back to the present.

   “I didn’t ask you to do that. I can’t afford it right now.”

   “I’m paying for the materials.”

   “Cody, you have a career. You can’t let go of your place standing.” She let her gaze drift away from his. “And really, I don’t expect you to foot the bill around here.”

   He mumbled under his breath and walked away from her.

   “What about your breakfast?” she called out after his retreating back, noticing the dark perspiration triangle between his shoulders. He’d been up for a while, working.

   “I don’t think that cooking my breakfast is your problem.” He turned at the door. “Bailey, you push me further than any woman ever has. On so many levels. Get in there and get ready for work. If you don’t, I’ll load you up and drive you myself.”

   And then he was gone. The sound of his retreating footsteps sent a shudder up her spine. When she glanced out the window, she saw him walk into his camper, the door banging shut behind him.

   “Sis, you’re going to have to let someone help—it might as well be Cody.”

   Bailey turned, fixing her gaze on her dad. He had hold of the back of a kitchen chair, his knuckles white with the effort. She turned back to the normal thing, fixing breakfast and pretending her dad would be around for another twenty years.

   “I know, Dad. I know that I need help, we need help, but I don’t know…”

   “How to accept help.” The chair scraped on the linoleum as he sat at the kitchen table, pushing aside yesterday’s paper and a pile of mail. “You learned that stubbornness from me. Now let me teach you something new: Let someone help you out. It’ll make the burden that much lighter.”

   He paused for a long time. Bailey turned with his plate and a cup of coffee. His head was buried in his hands, and his shoulders were slumped forward. Bailey put the plate down on the table and touched his arm. His hand, no longer steady, came up to rest on hers.

   “Sis, it would make my burden lighter if you’d let him help.”

   And that was the way he shifted it, from her to him, no longer her problem. She knew he had planned it that way. He knew that she’d do it for him when she couldn’t do it for herself. She leaned and kissed the top of his head.

   “For you, Dad.” But it wouldn’t be easy, not when the long-forgotten memories of a Wyoming summer were starting to resurface, reminding her of what dreams of forever had felt like.

   

   The light rap on the thin metal door of the RV announced her arrival. He had seen Bailey crossing the yard, her mouth moving as she talked to herself, more than likely about him and the unpleasant things she’d like to do or say.

   He opened the door and motioned her in. She stood firm on the first step and didn’t accept his offer. The hair that had been held in a ponytail was now free, blowing around her face, and the slightest hint of pink gloss shimmered on her lips.

   “I’m going to work.”

   “Okay.” He knew it couldn’t be easy for her, letting go of pride and having him be the one who stepped in to help.

   She shoved her hands into the front pockets of her jeans. “I need to show you his medication and how to give him the injections. Can you handle that?”

   “Bailey, you know that I can.” He’d given more shots than a lot of veterinarians. Growing up on a ranch, he’d doctored his own livestock. There hadn’t always been a vet on duty, or one that could get to them fast enough.

   “You’ll have to make lunch. I won’t be home until after two.”

   “I know that.”

   “Meg will need a nap.”

   “I can handle it.”

   She chewed on her bottom lip, her brown eyes luminous as she stared up at him. He reminded himself that he was here because he had a daughter, not because he meant to become a part of Bailey’s life.

   Other than that summer in Wyoming, he’d never really been a part of any woman’s life. He hadn’t allowed himself those forever kinds of entanglements. He wasn’t about to find out he really was his father’s son. But then, hadn’t he already found that out? He had walked out on Bailey, and he hadn’t been there for Meg.

   Neither of his parents had really taught him about being there for a person, or about sticking in someone’s life.

   “Let me turn off my coffee pot and I’ll be right over.”

   Bailey nodded and then she walked away. He watched her cross the lawn to the house, her shoulders too stiff and her head too high. He wondered if she was really that strong or if she was trying to convince herself. He thought the latter was probably the case.

   Switching off the coffee pot and then the lights over the small kitchen, he walked out the door of the RV, ignoring the jangle of his cell phone. The ring tone was personalized and he knew that the caller was one of his corporate sponsors. They wanted to know when he’d be back on tour. He didn’t have an answer.

   Unfortunately he had their money and he had signed a contract. That meant he had certain obligations to fulfill. He needed to be seen, on tour, on television and wearing the logos of the corporations on his clothing.

   There weren’t any easy answers, and there was a whole lot of temptation trying to drag him back into a lifestyle he’d given up months ago. He wasn’t about to go there. He was going on seven months of sobriety, and with God’s help, he planned on making his sobriety last a lifetime.

   When he walked into the house a few minutes later, Bailey was sitting at the kitchen table with a plastic container full of pills and individually wrapped needles.

   “You don’t have to worry, Bailey, I can do this.”

   She nodded, but she didn’t have words. When was the last time she had really smiled, or even laughed? He sat down across from her, pushing aside those thoughts.

   “Show me what to do.”

   She did. Her hands trembled as she explained about the pain meds and the pills. She explained that Meg wasn’t allowed to drink soda, and that she should have milk with her lunch.

   He felt as if he should be taking notes. Shots, cattle and fixing fences were easy; being this involved in someone’s life was a whole new rodeo. He wasn’t about to ask what five-year-old girls ate for lunch.

   “I have to go. What I just showed you, I also wrote on that tablet.” She nodded toward the legal pad on the table and stood, immediately shoving her hands into her front pockets. “If you have any problems…”

   “We won’t.”

   “If you do, call me. I can be home in ten minutes.” She headed for the door. “Oh, if you get any calls about horses, I put an ad in the Springfield paper for training. My rates are in the ad, and no, I can’t come down in price.”

   He followed her to the door. “I’ll take messages.”

   “Cody, I appreciate this.”

   He shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. “I’m here as long as you need me.”

   He waved as she got into the truck, and he tried to tell himself this would be easy. Staying would be easy. Helping would be easy. Rolling through his mind with the thoughts of staying were the other things he didn’t want to think about, such as his place at the top of the bull-riding standings, his obligation to his sponsors and the herd of cattle he was building in Oklahoma.

   

   Bailey parked behind the Hash-It-Out Diner, the only diner, café or restaurant in Gibson, Missouri. No one seemed to mind that the tiny town nestled in the Ozarks had a shortage of businesses. They had a grocery store and a restaurant; of course they had a feed store.

   And they had churches. In a town with fewer than three hundred people, they had four churches—and every one of them was full on Sunday. So the town obviously had an abundance of faith.

   If the people in Gibson needed more than their small town had to offer, they drove to Springfield. Simple as that. And on the upside, since Gibson didn’t have a lot to offer, it didn’t draw a lot of newcomers.

   What Bailey loved was the sense of community and the love the people had for one another. Gossip might come easily to a small town, where people didn’t have a lot to do, but so did generous hearts.

   Not only that, how many people could say that on their way to work they passed by a grocery store with two horses hitched to the post out front? Bailey had waved at the two men out for a morning ride. She wished she could have gone along. She hadn’t ridden for pleasure in more than a year. These days riding was training, and training helped pay a few bills.

   As Bailey got out of the truck, she didn’t lock the doors or even take the keys out. She did grab her purse. From across the street a friend she had gone to school with waved and called out her name, asking how Bailey’s dad was doing.

   Bailey smiled and nodded. She didn’t have an answer about her dad, not today. She hurried down the sidewalk to the front door of the diner, opening it and shuddering at the clanging cowbell that had been hung to alert the waitresses to the arrival of new customers.

   “We’re expecting the ladies’ group from the Community Church.” Lacey tossed a work shirt in Bailey’s direction as soon as she walked into the waitress station.

   “Wonderful, quarter tips and plenty of refills on coffee.”

   Bailey loved the darlings of the Community Church, but she would have liked a few tables that left real tips, especially today. Real tips would have helped her to forget the call from the mortgage company, letting her know that she was behind—again.

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