Ranch manager Pete Brannigan has no interest in playing tour guide to a city slicker like Jane Garland. But spending a few days with the headstrong photographer is a small price to pay for everything her grandfather has given the single dad. Though Pete's drawn to Jane's sharp wit and striking beauty, he won't hurt his young children by falling for another woman who puts her career before family.
Jane's seen the world through her camera and used it to shield her emotions. With Pete, she can finally let her guard down. If only he could do the same. Despite their powerful bond, Pete still can't trust Jane with his kids or his heart. But if he keeps pushing her away, he may ruin any chance their relationship has to develop.
About the Author
Barbara writes home and family stories filled with quirky characters and determined matchmakers. She loves books, tea, chocolate and, most of all, her DH (Dear Hero).
Visit her at www.barbarawhitedaille.com and look for her on Facebook & Twitter!
Read an Excerpt
Some days started off right, then took a wrong turn. The minute Pete Brannigan walked into his ranch-house kitchen, he discovered this would be one of those days.
"Daddy!" his five-year-old daughter, Rachel, exclaimed. "Can Mama come to my graduation?"
His nanny and housekeeper, Sharon D'Angelo, turned from inspecting the contents of the refrigerator. The brief glance he exchanged with her held an entire conversation. They both knew the question wasn't could his ex-wife fly home for this milestone in her daughter's life, but would she?
"Good morning to you, sweetheart." He ruffled Rachel's wavy blond hairso like her mama'sand reached over to the high chair to chuck his two-year-old son, Eric, under the chin. "And you, too, little man."
Eric gurgled something and handed him a soggy piece of cereal.
"Do you think Mama will come to see my graduation, Daddy?" Rachel asked.
He took his seat at the kitchen table beside her and said carefully, "I'm sure if she's not working the day you graduate, she'll be here." Not an outright fib. He would never lie to his kids or to anyone. Anyway, who knew what his ex-wife would do. Marina might take time from her jet-setting, fashion-model career to think of the kids she'd left behind. Although, as history had already shown, it didn't seem likely.
"Miss Loring said we get our invitations today. I'm inviting you and Mama and Eric and Sharon." She counted off on her fingers. "And Tina and Robbie and Paz." Tina was one of his boss's granddaughters. Robbie and Paz were Tina's son and grandmother. "And Bingo, too."
Smiling, he shook his head. "I don't think they'll let ponies into the school auditorium."
"They won't fit in the chairs."
"Oh. Well, I'll show Bingo the pictures later."
When Sharon held up the coffeepot, he nodded his thanks. He had long ago had a solitary breakfast here in the kitchen while she and his children still slept. As manager of Garland Ranch, he started work at an early hour, but as often as he could, he made it his business to get back to the house to see his daughter before she left for school.
"What about Grandpa Jed?" he asked Rachel.
"Of course Grandpa Jed," she said, rolling her eyes as if Jed Garland's presence at her graduation was a given. And it would be. "He wants to come, too, right?"
"Sweetheart, he wouldn't miss it."
Jed had always treated Rachel and Eric as if they were his own grandkids. Heck, from the time Pete had come to work as a wrangler here on the ranch, fresh out of high school, the old man had treated him like one of the family.
A couple of years ago, when Marina had taken off to seek fame and fortune, she'd left him to raise a three-year-old and a newborn alone. Jed had promptly promoted him into the vacant ranch manager's position, which included the manager's quarters, and increased his salary enough that he could comfortably pay for a live-in nanny to help take care of his kids.
"I have to save one for Grandpa Mark, too," she said.
Jed had always treated him better than his own father ever had. Now, though the man remembered the kids at birthdays and Christmas, his busy schedule kept him from visiting frequently. Rachel was aware of this, which was probably why she had given Jed top billing.
"And can I invite Jane and Andi to come, too?" A couple more of Jed's granddaughters. "And Missy and Trey?" Andi's two kids.
"I think they might all have gone home by the day of your graduation," he said.
She gasped. "They're coming for the wedding, right?"
Jed's youngest granddaughter, Tina, was getting married later in the month. As flower girl, Rachel was even more wrapped up in the wedding than she was in her own special event. Along with her new fascination with floor-length dresses and three-tiered cakes, it looked as though she'd embraced the idea of extensive guest lists.
"Well," she said, "then they have to come to my graduation, too."
Better to try to let her down easy, something he'd had plenty of practice doing, thanks to Marina. "There are other kids in your class, you know, and they have friends and family to invite. I'm not sure your teacher plans to give you that many invitations."
"I'll tell Miss Loring she has to. I can't leave anybody out. Like Tina and the wedding."
"Well, we'll see." Personally, he'd just as soon have Tina and her fiancé, Cole, one of his wranglers, leave his name off their list. Pointless to hope for that, though, when they had already roped him into becoming a member of the wedding party.
After a look at the kitchen clock, he leaned over to kiss Rachel's forehead. "I'll see you after school. It's time for you to go and brush your teeth."
"And get my backpack. To bring all my invitations home." She slid from her seat.
As she left the room, he and his housekeeper exchanged another glance. "The bossiness hasn't let up any, has it?" he asked.
The older woman smiled, adding a few more wrinkles to her lined face. "As I keep saying, she'll outgrow it."
"Yeah? Before or after one of the bigger kids at school thumps her on the nose for pushing him around?"
"She could probably talk herself out of a fight with anybody in that kindergarten class."
"It's the middle-schoolers I'm worried about."
Sharon laughed. "She'd handle them, too." She hesitated. "I'm not condoning her bossiness, Pete. I've tried talking with the child, and she can almost talk rings around me. It's given me a whole new crop of gray hair."
He didn't know what he'd do without Sharon, a widow who had become his nanny and housekeeper shortly after he and the kids had moved into the house. She had given up her small apartment in Cowboy Creek and relocated to the ranch full-time. She was a grandmother herself, with several grandkids of her own, and her experience had saved him many times over the past couple of years. Now she sounded worried, as if her job depended on teaching his daughter social skills.
"Hey, that's not what I hired you for. And trust me, I've tried to talk with her, too. To get her to see she'll win more friends with honey than harassment. But you're rightshe'll outgrow it. Sooner than later, I hope."
It was his turn to hesitate. Before too long, he needed to have another discussion with Rachel, and it would have to cover more than her social skills. He kept his gaze on Eric, who sat playing with the dry cereal on his high-chair tray. "I can't do anything about Jed's family staying around for the graduation."
"You can't do anything about Marina, either," Sharon said softly.
He sighed. "I know. But dammit, Sharon, she's disappointed the kids too many times already." And each time, he'd felt like punching somethingnot the best example to set for his talks with Rachel about her conduct. With every one of Marina's cancellations, he was forced to break the news to his daughter, and he couldn't deal with seeing her turn so quiet, so withdrawn, for days afterward.
Eric pushed a few pieces of his cereal over the side of the tray.
"Now, don't you start, little man. Your sister's enough of a handful right now." Pete caught both his son's wrists and pressed them together between his palms.
Familiar with the game, Eric laughed, slipped his hands free and pounded the tray, making the scattered cereal bounce. Pete reached down to pick up the pieces that landed on the floor.
"Leave that," Sharon said. "I'll sweep up when he's done."
"Thanks. You're the best." He dropped a few pieces of the cereal into the kitchen trash and then planted a kiss on Eric's blond curls. "I'd better head out. Charlie's due to stop in anytime now." Charlie, the local vet, was coming to take a look at one of the mares with a leg injury. "I'll see you all later."
He left the house and strode in the direction of the barn, which sat within easy walking distance, even for Rachel, who spent plenty of time in the adjacent corral and at the Hitching Post.
As he thought again of his daughter, he shook his head.
She had recently begun dramatizing every little incidentvery much like her mother always had and still did on her rare visits to town. At the thought of the public scenes Marina had put him through in the past, he shuddered. He dreaded the idea of Rachel taking on more of her mama's traits. Already, her bossiness seemed like her way of controlling situations. Of getting extra attention.
Or maybe he read too much into his daughter's behavior. It was hard to tell. Sometimes he didn't know for sure how to read either of his kids. The thought made him heave another sigh. Though his position as manager of Garland Ranch routinely included long hours, rough riding, unpleasant tasks and backbreaking chores, none of that came close to the challenge of being a single dad.
True to form, once Rachel's questions about her mama had sent Pete's morning off on its wrong turn, the rest of the day followed suit. Though he would never trade his job on the ranch for anything, by quitting time he felt ready for a few weeks of selling ice in Antarctica.
Looking beyond the mare he was tending to, he eyed his boss, who stood just outside the stable door.
Jed had recently made it his mission to revitalize the Hitching Post, the honeymoon hotel on the property, and had lined up all his granddaughters to help with the transformation. Twice in the space of as many minutes, the boss had brought up the name of one of those granddaughters. A name Pete was all too familiar with, belonging to a granddaughter he wanted to go nowhere near.
Plenty of times over the past few years, he'd seen Jane Garlandfrom a distanceon her visits to the ranch. She didn't much care for riding, but she would walk over with her cousin Andi when she rode, always resulting in more grief for him. Other than that, their paths had no need to cross, which suited him just fine.
But now he had a bad feeling about the direction of Jed's conversation.
"Almost done, girl," he murmured to Starlight. He kept his focus on her sore foreleg as he applied the ointment the vet had dropped off that morning.
"Won't be long," Jed went on, "before we'll have the place on the map."
The boss had gotten all fired up about increasing business for the hotel. Pete couldn't find any fault with the plan. Although managing a spread the size of Jed's already provided him with more than full-time employment, he wouldn't balk at the extra work. He'd always just added the dude-ranch activities onto his list of responsibilities.
"Andi will fly in with her kids by the end of the week. But Jane" third mention "decided to come a couple of days ahead. She'll be taking pictures at the wedding rehearsal, you know."
He nodded, his focus still on Starlight. "Yeah, Cole said." Cole had told him that news and a lot more about all of the boss's granddaughters.
Since his divorce, happy matrimony was the last thing he wanted to think about. But Jed and Cole both made sure to keep him up-to-date on all the wedding plans.
He couldn't blame either of the men. After all, he had agreed to be one of the ushers, which meant attending that danged rehearsal. And the wedding, of course.
"Starlight's leg is looking good," he told Jed.
Finished with the mare's treatment, he went to the sink in one corner. The sound of running water kept Jed quiet for a moment, giving Pete a chance to think.
The boss had also kept him up-to-date on the renovations going on over at the hotel. That made even more sense, as increased business there meant more dudes for his cowhands to work with and entertain on the ranch. For anything connected with the hotel guests, he and Jed always coordinated with Tina.
"Jane," Jed went on, "wants to take some photos around the hotel. The rooms downstairs, some of the guest rooms that are already finished for the new website."
"Sounds good." He grabbed the towel from beside the sink.
"I want you to give her a hand."
He froze with the towel halfway up one wet forearm. Water ran down the other arm and off his elbow. Drip drip drip Like water torture. Like the sound of Jed's request echoing in his brain.
The boss's blue eyes looked guileless enough. But then, he couldn't know how much his manager wanted to avoid this granddaughter, for a whole list of reasons.
He'd had enough of the teenage Jane mouthing off to him during his early days working as a stable hand on the ranch. As a dyed-in-the-wool cowboy, he had no interest in being around a city slicker. And those stories Cole had told him recently only reinforced his determination to avoid her. Her drive for success and single-minded focus on her career gave her too much in common with his fashion-model ex-wife.
Pete finished drying off and hung up the towel again. "What does she need with a cowboy, if she's only taking a bunch of pictures?"
"She'll be setting things up, moving furniture around. I want someone to do the heavy lifting."
"I can spare one of the stable hands for that. They're fine about doing whatever jobs they're given, even ones not in their job description." He forced a laugh. "Since moving furniture's not in mine, either, I'm sure you don't want your foreman"
"I do want my foreman on this job."
"Speaking of jobs, I'd better get going." And get the heck out of here before I say something I shouldn't. "There's a lot of territory to cover this morning." He crossed the barn to take a set of reins from their hook. "It's June, Jed. I don't need to tell you how busy that makes us around here."
"And I'll tell you this, flat-out straight the way I always do. I want someone I can trust to be alone with my granddaughter."
Eyebrows raised, Pete turned back. From the stories Cole had told him about Jane, a New Yorker who traveled all over the world for her job, he couldn't think of any woman more able to handle herself. Which meant
"I'm not saying anything against the boys," Jed continued as if he'd read his manager's mind. "I trust every one of 'em. But there's no one I have more faith in than you."
"I appreciate the vote of confidence, boss." He swallowed hard. "But"
"And as I recall," Jed interrupted heavily, "when it comes to job descriptions, the two of us don't much stick to formalities between us, do we?"
"No, we don't," he agreed, knowing those words had just sealed his fate.
He owed the boss for providing everything he needed to take care of his kids.
And now, all too plainly, the man had called in his debt.