Justus scuffed his boots on the hardwood floor of his aunt and uncle’s big, empty ranch house.
“Figures,” he muttered, doffing his cowboy hat, still waiting for the answer to his call of arrival.
Silence was the only response he got. Dang, he knew he should have called ahead and let them know he was coming to the Dalton Ranch. But he just figured, since he was a Dalton and close family, he didn’t need to partake in such formalities.
Well, no matter. They’d be back soon. When you had cattle, you didn’t leave for long. A trip to town was about the farthest you could go. Besides, two of his brothers and his six cousins and their families would still be somewhere on the vast land.
He dropped his duffel and set his hat back on his head, tugging the brim down over his eyes. The ride here had been long and hot in his old truck with the broken air conditioning. And no air in Texas meant you arrived at your destination with a damp shirt and a big thirst.
Justus drifted through the living room, noting the expansive wall of family photos there. His oldest cousin Hank with his little girl on horseback. Cousin Cash’s wedding day, the bride and groom stuffing cake in each other’s faces, and so many more. A whole world of happiness here on the ranch, which was exactly why Justus had come here to lick his wounds.
Thinking about his reason for having time off to come in the first place had him seething all over again. Damn bigwigs buying up ranches and making them into enterprises, dumping the workers who’d been with the outfit for years…
He strode into the kitchen and called out again. “Auntie?”
No answer. On his way to the fridge looking for some sweet tea, he glanced out the kitchen window over the sink. Aunt Maggie wasn’t in the garden tending her veggies either.
He poured a tall glass of tea and leaned against the counter, sipping. The cool silence of the house lent some comfort but didn’t do a thing to smooth his anger at being let go from the ranch.
He’d loved that job above any others, which didn’t surprise anyone. He’d grown up taking care of animals and working hard on both his own family’s small farm with a handful of horses and here at the Dalton Ranch. Living on the Double J had brought him as close to freedom as he’d felt in years. His boss relied on him, he did his job well. Nobody got in his way.
Till the rancher sold out to a big production from San Antonio and he was replaced by a manager with a grin that was too big, boots that cost too much and a degree in agriculture management.
Something Justus didn’t have and never thought he’d want.
Hell, he still didn’t want a degree. He just wanted his job back.
That wasn’t happening.
He brooded as he finished his last drops of tea and set the glass in the sink. Now what?
He could drive out on the ranch to his cousins’ and even his brothers’ homes, looking for someone to talk to. Then again, the house was so peaceful and he rarely got a chance to sit a spell, alone.
During his trip here, he’d called and spoken to his dad. His level-headed, country-raised father had told him to follow his heart and come home when he wanted. The decision to come here had practically made itself.
And with good reason—the Dalton Ranch had signified a lifetime of fun and love, hard work and good food. What better place for a single guy? His aunt would stuff him with homecooked meals while he did what he could to help out around the place.
Bracing his hands on the counter, he looked out the window again at the back garden. He’d never done much with the land besides make it a better place for grazing cattle. But a couple of friends of his up in Washington had started growing organic and were making a go of it.
Maybe he could too. Find a small chunk of dirt and sow some seeds…
A car door slammed and he was just moving to the front door when someone banged on it—hard.
That’s odd. None of the family would knock.
He opened the door, prepared to see someone holding a Bible or selling insurance.
His jaw dropped at the pretty little vision in front of him. Pale brown hair with eyes the same deep green as the forest. Her oval face was flushed pink and her lips looked like she’d bitten them for the past five miles she’d driven.
He lowered his gaze further and stopped dead.
She held a sleeping baby in her arms.
“You’re a Dalton,” she said abruptly.
“Uh, yes’m. Are you looking for one of my cousins’ wives?”
“Yes. No. Nobody’s home—anywhere! And I need to leave right now. I’m late as it is and by the time I drive there, the bride will already be married—with ugly hair too, because of me!”
He blinked at her tirade, which he only understood half of.
He opened his mouth to ask more questions, when she stepped through the open door and thrust the baby into his arms. It gave an annoyed squawk at the treatment or maybe because Justus had never held a baby, even refusing to touch his latest squirming cousin when she was born. She was just too small and there was a good chance he’d break her.
The woman turned on her boot heel and started racing across the wide front porch.
Justus rushed after her, cradling the child. “Hey, wait!”
What the hell was happening? Was this the modern, country girl version of leaving a baby on a doorstep? He didn’t want the thing either.
She paused to twist and spread her arms wide. “It’s just for a little while, until Shelby or someone comes home. I’ve got a bride’s and three bridesmaids’ hair to do in two hours, and if I mess this up, I won’t have rent.”
Jaw hanging slack, he watched her supple curves as she jogged to her car and jumped behind the wheel. She backed out in a flurry of dust and was gone.
He stared after her for a long minute, stunned.
Well, this was just dandy.
He looked down at the baby in the crook of his arm. From the folds of a blue blanket, eyes just as blue stared up at him. Not green like the mother’s.
“Hell.” Now what? He realized she’d also dropped a bulky baby blue bag inside the door. Apparently it went with the kid.
The blue eyes blinked up at him.
A Texas heat wave rolled through the door and he stepped back to close it, moving the bag aside with his foot.
He’d been on the ranch less than ten minutes and had already landed himself in some shit, just like old times when Uncle Ted would line up him, his brothers and cousins and give them a talkin’ to, usually for throwing cow pies at each other.
He dragged in a deep breath and caught a whiff of not only baby shampoo but perfume. The woman smelled like a bowl of apples and cinnamon.
A soft gurgle came from the baby he held. It couldn’t be very old. Hell, it didn’t weigh as much as a sack of feed.
It continued to blink up at him.
“Now what?” he asked it.
The baby fought a fist out of the blanket—why the hell was it even wrapped in a blanket in the first place? It was hot as hell.
First thing he did was walk over to the couch and gently lay the baby down. As soon as he did, the child kicked free of its wrappings. It was dressed in a summer thing, blue, and it went up between its legs like a woman’s bathing suit. But it couldn’t be a girl, not dressed in that much blue.
There’s one way to find out.
No, he’d find out soon enough if he was stuck watching the thing. It would eventually soil itself.
Hell, he didn’t even know how to change a diaper.
He stood and started to move to a window, hoping to look out and see his aunt had come home.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the baby start to roll.
“Jeezus!” He leaped back just in time to catch it from falling off the couch. The mother wouldn’t appreciate him letting her baby smash its button nose off the floor. Kinda served her right, though, leaving a baby with a man she didn’t know from a hole in the ground. Why the hell had she left the kid in his care?
For all she knew, he was a criminal.
You’re a Dalton, she’d said. Well, his dark hair, blue eyes and height gave him away as one, but was this a common practice around here, that Dalton boys would get babies dumped on them by unknown women?
He moved the baby away from the couch edge and sank to the cushion again. Its chubby arms and legs were moving like a beetle pinned down.
Suddenly, he realized something. He didn’t even know the kid’s name.
Or hell, hers for that matter. He was back to believing she’d abandoned her child on his doorstep.
But no, she’d spoken in scrambled sentences he still didn’t understand, something about hair and brides and Shelby when she got home.
“Your momma’s insane, isn’t she, little guy?” he drawled to the kid.
He stuck a round fist in his mouth and sucked.
Lord help him if the baby was hungry. What the hell did he even feed the thing? Might be too young for mashed potatoes, and he couldn’t whip up a batch anyway.
He eyed the bag. If she’d left him with a bag, she must care enough to bring bottles, surely?
When he scooped a hand under the child, he squirmed, alive and warm as a newborn calf. And he’d touched plenty of them.
Maybe he had control, after all.
He drew the baby into his hold like he was running with a football and carried it over to retrieve the bag.
He took both back to the couch and sat down again. The baby tried to roll off, and he planted a hand on its rounded belly to hold it in place as he unzipped the bag with the other hand.
He swirled his fingers inside. “More blankets. Does the woman want to give you heat stroke?” He pulled out two and tossed them aside. The dreaded diapers were next, about ten of them. God, how many would he need? He didn’t want to even think about it.
In the bottom of the bag was a hard, cold object he could only guess was ice keeping the milk cool.
But wait—didn’t human babies drink warm milk? He’d seen enough cartoons to know animated characters warmed bottles on the stovetop.
He looked into the bag. Two bottles. Was that all it’d need? Surely it ate more than that.
He eyed the baby. It eyed him back.
With his hand still in the bag, he nudged something that rattled. When he drew out the set of colorful keys, the baby’s gaze latched onto the toy, following it. Then something big happened—its face split into a huge toothless grin.
Justus shook his head. “Damn, you are kinda cute.” He just wished he wasn’t the one responsible for him.
* * * * *
Tuesday Johnson took a deep breath and let it out. And once more. It didn’t help the panic she felt at being late for this gig. It wasn’t the first time and judging her own situation and lack of a reliable babysitting, wouldn’t be her last.
The breaking point would be getting a reputation as the hairstylist who was always late. Especially when she was just climbing the ranks in the county as doing beautiful hair for events.
Being new in town, that was huge. Her first week here, she’d landed a job at a big salon. Her job history and big city beauty school degree had helped on that front. But she’d never expected to gain a clientele so quickly, let alone become sought after for more of the beautiful twists and intricate updos for weddings, parties, pageants and dances.
She was grateful for the work she loved, as well as the cheaper rent in the small town that was far enough away from the hustle and bustle, even if it meant a commute.
She glanced at the clock as she hit the highway leading from the Dalton Ranch. Damn, that poor cowboy she’d dumped Joshua James on had looked shocked. His blue eyes had been wide as she’d run to her car and driven away.
Tuesday lifted a hand to her hair and sliced her fingers through the long strands. It wasn’t ideal, leaving a baby with a man she didn’t recognize, but then again all the Dalton boys looked the same. She’d met only a handful but seen them all around town, and Shelby was the wife of one of them—she was so bad with names—and she’d babysat for her before.
Only Shelby wasn’t home this time, and neither were any of the other Dalton wives. Tuesday had driven to five houses before realizing she was growing later and later trying to hunt someone down to watch her neph—
She stopped and corrected herself.
Joshua James was hers now. The papers were signed and the baby had been in her care four months.
Her sister Jessica had planned to give him up for adoption anyway, but the instant Tuesday had looked into his big blue eyes, a maternal instinct she’d never known existed inside her kicked up a fuss and she’d melted. She’d begged her irresponsible, seventeen-year-old sister to allow her to adopt him.
Of course, their momma had jumped right on that bandwagon. No gramma took a look at her grandbaby and relished the thought of never seeing him again once he went to a new loving family.
Momma had been Tuesday’s number one champion, and the private adoption had gone extremely smoothly. Some days Tuesday still expected to look in her mailbox and find something else she needed to sign or some decree from a judge that would take Joshua James back.
Over the past month or two, she’d finally calmed down a bit and quit worrying Jessica would come asking for her son. Her sister was back to partying with her friends and going to the pool to strut in her bikini body, which she’d somehow gained back almost immediately.
Only thing was, relations were strained between her and Jessica at the moment. She could imagine the weird feelings Jessica had knowing her son was being raised by her sister. And she’d actually asked Tuesday to move away so she didn’t have to be reminded of it.
Which had landed her here in Texas struggling to make a life for herself while figuring out motherhood.
Sure, she didn’t have the stretchmarks to go with the baby, but she had the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep and it was damn hard to find a shirt that didn’t have spit-up on it.
She glanced down at her top. Clean, thank God. Then at the clock on her dash, which showed she was running later than she thought.
She stomped on the gas pedal, her mind turning to wedding hair. The test run had gone smoothly—she wouldn’t have any trouble doing four heads of hair in two hours. Half hour each. She was fast—it would be easy.
With that off her mind, she was able to allow her thoughts to return to the Dalton boy she’d tossed Joshua James at.
She giggled. Poor man. Thank goodness Joshua James was a good-natured baby. With her many failed attempts at motherhood, along with being a single working mom, she figured the baby had gained patience early on.
This couldn’t continue, though. She just had to find a way to balance work and home and organize her life. The state of her apartment was deplorable, but who wanted to clean when she worked so much and would rather take the time to catch all of the baby’s first smiles?
She rubbed her fingers through her hair again, raising the scents of her apple shampoo. Reliable babysitting was a must. The daycare charged too much—she’d never make her rent if she enrolled Joshua James there. And the teen girls in town often called off on her, leaving her hanging, like this afternoon.
She took the country roads to the bigger city outside of Paradise Valley as fast as she could, her mind barely registering the miles as she took the chance to think on her problem.
Fact number one—she needed childcare.
Fact two—she had none.
She had to get a permanent sitter, someone who wouldn’t mind the weekends and evenings she worked. While Shelby Dalton was as sweet as pie and had offered to watch Joshua James without Tuesday needing to ask, she had a family of her own. A handsome husband and children, on top of being a business owner. Her candy shoppe did a solid business in town, and she worked extended hours as well.
Tuesday couldn’t saddle her with more responsibilities by asking her to be Joshua James’ caregiver.
By the time she rolled up to the wedding venue, a beautiful old hotel with Victorian details, she felt mentally exhausted from her heavy thinking. Good thing her fingers were still nimble, because she had less than two hours now.
After parking in a hurry, she reached into the back seat for her bag of hair tools, half afraid she’d switched it out with the baby’s diaper bag and left her curling irons and bobby pins at the Daltons’.
Whew—she had it in hand, and good thing. She took off running to the building, but one last thought trundled through her mind.
What was the Dalton man’s name?
Well, two thoughts.
She’d believed all the Dalton men were married. So why wasn’t he wearing a wedding band?