Kate Pearce

Three Cowboys and a Baby
Book 1
Heat Level: 3
Three Cowboys and a Baby

A sweet and sexy new trilogy of feel-good contemporary westerns

In this fun and sexy new series debut from New York Times bestselling author Kate Pearce, a real cowboy doesn’t back down from a challenge—even when an unexpected arrival shakes up his world . . .

When an old military buddy turns up at the ranch he shares with two friends, Noah Harding never imagines the friend will skip out overnight and leave his baby boy behind. Noah will have some choice parenting advice to offer when the baby’s mother turns up, but until then, he’ll do his best to take care of the little one. Yet when a relieved Jen finally tracks down her son, Noah realizes the story is more complicated than he thought. And soon, so are his feelings for Jen . . .

Jen Rossi doesn’t expect much from her unreliable ex, but she’s shocked to return from an extended mission and discover he’s abandoned their son with three men she doesn’t know. Not that Noah isn’t doing a good job as fill-in daddy. In fact, there seems to be very little the straight-talking cowboy can’t do. And with a winter storm settling in, and close quarters making it impossible to deny their chemistry, this temporary solution might just become the key to forever . . .

Inspired by the 1980’s classic hit, Three Men and a BabyNew York Times bestselling author Kate Pearce introduces a trio of former Marines-turned cowboys working and living the ranch life. Everybody knows a real cowboy doesn’t back down from a challenge—even when that means midnight tears and diaper changes for an unexpected arrival…

Length: 9 hrs and 59 mins
Narrator: Caroline Price
Released on December 27, 2022
paperback: 978-1-4201549-4-8
Chapter One
Nilsen Ranch.
Near Quincy, California
Noah Harding walked toward the unknown car that had just pulled up in front of the barn and waited for whoever was inside to reveal themselves. Even though he’d left the military three years previously, his fingers curled around the grip of an imaginary weapon as he automatically tried to work out how many people were in the vehicle. He was surprised anyone was out in the appalling weather, especially in a car that wasn’t four-wheel drive. But tourists did occasionally get lost in the vast redwood forests. He was more than happy to set them on the right road if it meant he was left in peace.
He tensed as the driver door opened and a guy with long, fair hair in some kind of bun on top of his head got out and grinned at him.
“Arkie. Long time no see, big guy. How’s tricks?”
It took a second for Noah’s memory to click into place. “Riley. Dave Riley.”
“Yup. Top gate wasn’t locked so I just drove right in!” Dave looked around, his blue-eyed gaze encompassing the two barns and the old ranch house. He looked like the kind of guy who surfed and lived on the coast rather than a retired Marine. “Nice place.” He sniffed loudly. “Pine and cedar. Smells like my grandma’s closet.”
Noah still hadn’t moved closer. “Who’s in the car with you?”
“Just my little buddy.” Dave grinned again. “Are you going to invite me in or is this how you treat your old comrades in arms these days?” As he was talking, Dave walked around to the passenger side and opened the second door. He half disappeared inside the vehicle and then emerged, shaking his head.
“Still asleep. Maybe I should leave him be.”
Noah glanced up at the leaden sky as a gust of freezing air coming straight off the mountain peaks swirled around the buildings and buffeted his face.
“It’s going to get cold real soon. You’d better come in.”
He didn’t wait to see if Dave was taking his advice and turned toward the side door of the ranch house. There were three steps up to the covered porch and a screen door that led into what had once been the kitchen but was now a decent-sized mudroom. Even though he’d only been outside for a few minutes, the heat of the house enfolded him like a warm blanket.
There was no sign of Luke or Max, who were still out working. The only reason Noah was home was because he’d been waiting on the farrier. What would Dave have done if no one had been around? Knowing the guy, he’d probably have gone in, made himself comfortable, and waited for someone to come and find him.
After taking off his boots and sheepskin-lined jacket, Noah walked through into the new kitchen and set some coffee on to brew. He had no idea what had brought Dave to the middle of nowhere, but he guessed he would soon find out. He didn’t know the guy well; he had more of a connection to Luke, who put up with everyone with a calm good humor Noah sometimes envied. But his boss had told them a million stories about Dave and his propensity to get into trouble, so Noah was expecting the worst.
“Thank God it’s so warm in here.” Dave arrived and dumped a large, bulky backpack and a series of bags on the kitchen table. “I thought I was about to freeze my nuts off on the drive up to this place. Whatever possessed you to come out here?”
Noah shrugged. “It’s Luke’s family home. The Nilsens have been here since the gold rush.”
“I see you’re as chatty as ever, Noah,” Dave said. “To be honest, I was expecting to see Luke. I didn’t realize you were staying here, too.”
“I live here. Luke didn’t mention you were visiting when I saw him this morning.” Noah poured two mugs of coffee.
“Weird.” Dave frowned. “Maybe the internet sucks up here as well as the weather.”
“Nothing wrong with the cold.”
“Can’t argue with that. Ever since Afghanistan, I hate the heat.” Dave shuddered and held out his hand for the mug of coffee. “When are you expecting Luke back?”
Noah glanced at the kitchen clock that sat on the high mantelpiece. “Any time now. We’ve been moving the cattle closer to the house because we’re expecting a snowstorm to come through.”
“Glad I made it then,” Dave said. “What’s for dinner?”
Noah gave Dave a sidelong glance as he went to check the list on the refrigerator, which divvied up the household chores between the three of them. Since Luke’s Mom, Sally, had left for Texas to help her daughter Brina with her two young kids, the freezer and microwave were getting a workout. Luckily for them, Sally had left explicit instructions on how to cook everything.


Slow cooked beef in freezer. Heat in electric pressure cooker for forty-five minutes.


He could manage that okay. He got the cooker out; plugged it in; dumped the bag of prepared beef, veg, and stock into the pot; and set the timer.
“Should be ready in about an hour.”
“Awesome!” Dave said. “Okay if I use the bathroom?”
“Sure.” Noah pointed the way and then went to check the cooker was doing its thing before pulling out his cell phone. Time to give his friends a heads-up about what awaited them when they finally got home. Dave was right about reception being spotty up in the middle of the Plumas National Forest, and the inclement weather made it worse. Noah’s cell beeped immediately as Luke replied.
WTH. 5 minutes away.
Noah refilled his coffee mug and contemplated setting the table before realizing he’d need to get Dave to move his stuff off it first. It didn’t sound like Luke had been expecting Dave either, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. From everything he’d heard about the guy, thinking ahead hadn’t exactly been his strength. He was an excellent shot, though, and had once saved Luke’s life, which meant he had to be tolerated.
Noah was just about to check how much beer was in the fridge when a small cooing sound came from behind him. He tensed as he slowly turned to stare at the table where something was waving at him. He blinked hard and advanced toward the starfish-shaped little hand. What he’d thought was Dave’s kit bag was actually some kind of carrier.
Big blue eyes stared into his as he blinked like a fool.
Hell, no,” Noah said rather more forcefully than the baby probably appreciated because its lip started to tremble.
“Hey! You met junior!”
Noah jumped as Dave came up behind him and reached around to unbuckle the kid, who smelled really bad.
Dave made a face. “Man, you stink little dude. I’ll need to change you right now.” He handed the baby to Noah. “Hold on to him while I find the stuff, okay?”
Even as Noah went to protest, the kitchen door opened, and Luke and Max came in and stopped dead.
“Something you want to tell us, big guy?” Luke asked. “He doesn’t look much like you, and I never saw Dave standing in for the stork.”
Dave laughed. “This is my kid, Sky. He’s almost a year old, aren’t you buddy?”
“Someone had a kid with you?” Max asked. He was always happy to be the plain speaker of the group. “Like, for real?”
“Yeah. Amazing, isn’t it?” Dave grinned. “But it’s kind of why I’m here.” He took the baby out of a relieved Noah’s arms. “Let me change his diaper, and then I’ll come back and tell you all about it.”
* * *
“It’s like this.” Dave sat at the table with Sky on his lap and a beer in his hand. “I’m off on an assignment in Africa—like a consulting thing—and I’ve brought the kid here for Jen.”
Luke pretended to look around. “No Jen here, although I think I went to school with about a dozen of them.”
“Her aunt lives in Quincy. You must know her.”
“What’s her name?”
“Betty, Brenda, something beginning with B?” Dave grimaced. “Jen did tell me, but I kind of forgot to bring the intel with me.”
“What’s Jen’s last name?”
“Rossi.” Dave looked expectantly at Luke. “Does that ring any bells?”
“It might not be the same as her aunt’s. I think I would’ve remembered that. When I realized I’d forgotten the name and Jen wasn’t replying to my texts, I decided to make my way up here and get some help.”
“Quincy is small, but unless you go door-to-door you’re not going to find this woman if all you know is that she’s Jen Rossi’s aunt,” Luke pointed out.
“Yeah. I wish Jen had been more specific. I mean it’s her kid, too. And we did agree to share custody, and she’s been gone for way more than the four months we agreed.”
“Where exactly has she gone?” Noah inquired as he gently removed Dave’s fork from Sky’s waving hand. Trust Dave to blame his girlfriend when he’d been the one to turn up without the information he needed.
“How the hell should I know? We’re not exactly friends or anything.”
“You have a kid,” Noah pointed out. “You should at least be on the same page about that.”
He had no idea why he was bothering to lecture Dave when he knew firsthand that thousands of parents only thought about themselves rather than the impact they had on their kids.
“I guess.” Dave gave the baby a stick of carrot from his plate. The beef stew had been excellent. “I could try again in the morning and see if I can find this aunt of hers. Jen’s supposed to be there tomorrow.”
“But she hasn’t contacted you?”
Dave shrugged. “She says it’s hard for her to do that when she’s traveling.”
Noah’s opinion of the absent Jen went down another few notches. But anyone who took up with an airhead like Dave was probably just like him.
Luke pushed back his chair. “I’ll call my mom and ask if she knows which Jennifer we’re talking about and who her aunt might be.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Dave picked up the baby and groaned. “Damn. I need to change him again. It never stops.”
Luke waited until Dave closed the door behind him and then turned to Max and Noah.
“I don’t like this.”
“I agree. It’s just all too vague for my liking. You’d think having a kid would’ve settled him down,” Noah said as Max nodded. “Something’s off. I think we should escort him to town tomorrow, make sure he finds the right women, and let him get on with it.”
“And what if we can’t find her?” Luke asked. “I’ll check with my mom, but it’s not guaranteed she’ll know who the hell I’m supposed to be looking for.”
“If your mom doesn’t know, no one will,” Noah agreed. “But let’s just remember this isn’t our problem. It’s all on Dave and the kid’s mother for not getting their shit together.”
“I was about to say I can’t believe he’d mess up something so important, but we are talking about Dave here,” Luke mused. “He’s the biggest screw-up I’ve ever met.”
“Who agrees to hand over their kid in the middle of nowhere?” Noah asked. “What is this? A hostage situation?”
“Maybe,” Max said. “Not all relationships end well.”
“Is this Jen planning on living with her aunt for a while?” Luke asked.
“None of our business,” Noah said firmly. “We just escort Dave down to town, help him find her, wave, and walk away.”
“You’re right.” Luke nodded as Dave came back into the kitchen with a sleepy-looking Sky on his hip.
“You’d better stay the night,” Luke said to Dave. “There’s a crib in the spare room my sister uses for her kids when she visits, which should be fine for Sky.”
“Thanks,” Dave said. “He’s getting tired now. It’s been a long day for both of us.”
“What do you plan to do if you can’t find Jen or her aunt?” Noah asked.
“Well, I can’t take the kid to Africa. I think that’s against the custody agreement.” Dave looked around the table. “But don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll find Jen. It’s not like this is a big town or anything. She’ll probably call in the next hour or so.”
“I admire your optimism.” Luke stood up. “I’ll check in with my mom right now.”
“Thanks, dude,” Dave said cheerfully.
By the time Luke came back, they’d cleared the table and moved on to coffee. Sky was now fast asleep in his father’s arms.
“Mom says there are at least twenty Jennifers who have a connection with the town, and she doesn’t remember any Rossis. She’s given me all the possible addresses, so I guess you’ll at least have somewhere to start.”
“Yeah, because even if Jen hasn’t made it yet, I can dump—I mean leave—Sky with her aunt.”
“Does the aunt know Jen’s coming?” Noah asked.
“How would I know? That part is on her.”
Dave and his ex seemed remarkably unconcerned about the fate of their own kid, which was starting to grate on Noah.
“Does Jen usually turn up on time?”
“Not really. But it’s never been an issue before.” Dave glanced down at his sleeping son. “This is the first time I’ve been offered a real job in a long while, and I don’t want to screw it up. I’m just praying she keeps her word and comes through for me.”
“Aren’t we all,” Noah said with a glance at Max and Luke. “I’ll show you where you can sleep, and let’s hope we can reunite you with your family tomorrow.”
* * *
Noah held the door open as he, Luke, Dave, and Sky filed into the small coffee shop in town. They’d left Max behind to manage the ranch. It was almost midday, but there was no sign of the sun breaking through the ominous snow-filled clouds. He found a table near the back where it was warmest and took the drink orders.
When he returned to the table, Sky was struggling to get off Dave’s lap.
“He wants to stand all the time,” Dave groused. “It’s like, really annoying.”
“You wait until he starts walking and you have to chase after him,” Noah said as he put the tray in the center of the table and sat down. They’d each taken part of the list to speed up the process. “I guess none of you found the right Jen either?”
“Nope.” Dave sighed. “And no one seems to know who her aunt is. I’ve got to get on that plane soon or I’ll lose my job.”
“We’ve only covered half the names my mom gave me,” Luke said and looked out the window. “But we have to get back to the ranch.”
Noah cleared his throat. “Lucy at the B and B across the street has space to put you up while you continue your search, Dave.”
“Sure.” Dave was looking at Sky, who was standing on his knees and bouncing up and down. “I’ll come up to your place, get my stuff and my car, and we’ll move out.”
“It should be easier for you to operate down here,” Luke said tactfully. “You’re closer to the highway and the concentration of houses.”
“You’ve been great. Thanks.” Dave set Sky on the floor and waited for him to get his balance before reaching for his coffee. “I guess if the worst comes to worst, I can take him to my mom.”
“Good idea.” Noah drank his coffee and wondered why Dave hadn’t done that in the first place.
“She’s not happy with me right now, but I know she’d do anything for Sky.”
“Problem solved, then.” Luke checked his cell. “I hate to rush you, but we need to get back before the snow starts coming down and the roads become impassable.”
Noah gathered up the drinks. “I’ll get these to go.”
Dave was uncharacteristically silent on the way back to the ranch, but that might have been because Sky had nodded off and he didn’t want to wake him. It wasn’t long before the first wisps of snow appeared on the windscreen, melting as they made contact with the warm glass.
“This is going to be a bad one,” Luke commented as he slowed down to take another blind corner. “Glad we got all the cattle close to home.”
“You have to wonder why your family built their place out in the middle of nowhere, Luke,” Dave said from the back seat.
“I guess they just weren’t into crowds,” Luke replied as he made the final turn and activated the electric gate. “I told Max to stay near the house today.”
“Like he’d take any notice,” Noah murmured. “He’s a free spirit, that one.”
Even though it was still afternoon, the lights were already on in the main house, which was situated in the shadow of a large redwood grove. From what Luke had said, the original Nilsens had been loggers and after claiming the land had felled the trees to build and fence their own place.
There were still remnants of the original hand-sawn wood in the barn, and the wide-planked flooring in the house had been there forever. Noah liked the idea that the house and the grove of trees were made from the same materials. You couldn’t get more organic or natural than that. If he ever built his own place, he’d likely do the same.
“Come on, kid.” Dave unstrapped the car seat and brought Sky inside still sitting in it. “Time for a nap while I call Grandma.”
The weather grew steadily worse throughout the afternoon. Luckily the snow was still too skittish to settle, which at least meant they weren’t cut off from the town—yet. Dave spent a while using the washer and dryer because Sky went through a lot of clothes. He repacked his stuff into a separate backpack.
Noah put his head around the door where Dave was folding his laundry.
“Did you get hold of your mom?”
“She’s super salty with me, but she’ll take him if she has to.”
Noah left it at that and went back to the kitchen to cook up some steak and baked potatoes for dinner. If Dave was traveling halfway around the world, he’d need to keep his strength up.
* * *
Luke peered out into the darkness and turned back to the dinner table, where they’d all just finished eating.
“It’s not too bad out there.”
Dave finished his beer. “I guess that’s my cue to leave.”
“It can wait until morning.” Luke closed the drapes against the draft. He’d always been the nicest of the three of them. If it had been up to Noah, he’d be helping take Dave’s bags out to the car and waving him off. “I wouldn’t want your kid catching a chill out there.”
“Will the roads be okay for my rental in the morning?” Dave asked.
“Should be, if the snow doesn’t settle too deep. If it gets icy, I’ll take you down in my mom’s old truck, which has four-wheel drive and a set of chains.”
“Awesome.” Dave looked over his shoulder at the refrigerator. “Maybe I’ve got time for another beer after all.”
* * *
When Noah’s alarm went off at five, he opened his eyes into a deathly stillness that didn’t bode well. He reached out an arm, snagged his jeans, knitted socks, and thermal Henley and put everything on before he even considered getting out of his warm bed. Despite being almost fully dressed, he was still dreading it, but horses wouldn’t wait, and the dogs needed feeding, so he’d have to make the effort.
He went to the bathroom and then padded down the stairs into the kitchen, where someone had left the light on over the stove. There was a faint hint of coffee hanging in the air, and the pot was tepid to the touch. Either Max had had one of his sleepless nights or someone had been up early. Noah refilled the jug with water and set it to brew while he nuked some oatmeal in the microwave.
While he waited for the oats to turn to mush, he wandered over to look out of the window, which faced the larger of the two barns. There was about a foot of snow deadening the sound, and ice glinted off the metal roofs of the trucks and the barn. It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared, but if it didn’t thaw out, Dave might have some problems getting down to town without a four-wheel drive.
The microwave beeped. He added a lake of maple syrup to his bowl, made some fresh coffee, and sat down to eat with one eye on the clock. As soon as he was done, he’d go over to the barn, feed the dogs, and start in on the horses, leaving the cattle to Luke and Max. He’d always liked to be up early, and the other two were more than happy to let him start the day.
By the time he’d made it across to the barn, his bearded face was stinging from the snap of the cold. He fed the outdoor dogs, let them out, and then turned his attention to mucking out the stalls of the half-dozen horses they used to get around the ranch. All-terrain vehicles were great, but there were still places where wheels couldn’t go and horses could.
It wasn’t until his return journey to the house that he noticed something was missing. He stomped his booted feet hard on the outdoor mat and went in through the mud room, slipping his boots and jacket off before he walked into the kitchen. No one else was up yet, so he went along the hallway and paused outside Dave’s room. All was quiet. He was just about to move on when he heard Sky.
The words were accompanied by a loud banging on the side of the crib that should have woken the dead.
Noah eased the door open, stared at the unmade bed and then at the crib where Sky grinned at him and held out his arms. His first thought was to run like hell, but he couldn’t do that to such a hopeful little face. He picked Sky up and walked back through the silent house until he was at Luke’s door.
He went in without knocking. “Hey, we might have a problem.”
Luke sat up like he’d been shot. “What?”
“Dave’s disappeared, and he’s left the baby behind.”
Chapter Two
Jennifer Rossi rang the bell of Martha’s condo for the third time and glanced anxiously up at the second-floor windows. Where the hell was Dave’s mom? It was two in the afternoon, which usually meant afternoon soaps, coffee, and a discreet nap in front of the TV.
“She’s not there, dear.”
Jen lowered her gaze to Mrs. Friedman, who lived in the apartment below.
“She’s out shopping?”
“No, she’s gone.”
Jen tried to gather her scattered thoughts. Two nights without sleeping while traveling on a Greyhound bus weren’t helping.
“But she’s expecting me.”
“I guess she got fed up waiting.” Mrs. Friedman shrugged. “Well, that’s what she told me, anyway.” Her gaze softened. “Would you like to come in? You look like you need a drink.”
With one last worried glance upstairs, Jen stepped into the wonderful coolness of Mrs. Friedman’s front room. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in the apartment because Mrs. Friedman was Martha’s best friend as well as her neighbor.
“When you say she’s not here, what exactly do you mean?” Jen accepted the lemonade with thanks and immediately drank half the glass.
“She’s gone to her place in Florida.”
Jen just blinked at her. “With Sky?”
“I guess.”
“Then . . . where exactly is Dave?” Jen croaked. “He’s supposed to be with Sky.” She glanced wildly up at the ceiling. “She didn’t leave him here by himself, did she?”
“Of course not, dear. She’s very fond of Sky, but everyone needs a break sometimes, and she has been dealing with the baby all by herself for months.”
The usual guilt swamped Jen. “But wasn’t Dave here, too?”
Mrs. Friedman made a dismissive noise. “Not that anyone would notice. I think that’s why Martha eventually decided she was going to Florida.”
“To force Dave to pay attention to his own son?” Jen sank down onto the peach velvet couch and groaned. “Sounds right on brand.”
Mrs. Friedman sat beside Jen and patted her knee. “Martha said Dave expected her to become a full-time care giver while he gadded around like he was single again.”
“That wasn’t how we arranged things at all. Martha agreed to help Dave get started and to keep an eye on Sky for me, but I didn’t expect her to have to do everything.” Jen sighed. “I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t believed everything would be okay.”
“She’s not getting any younger, and she wants her life back.”
“I’ll kill him,” Jen muttered. “He promised me he’d take on the majority of Sky’s care. To be honest, I didn’t really believe him, but Martha reassured me that she’d always be there to keep him on the straight and narrow. . . .” She took a deep, steadying breath and looked at Mrs. Friedman. “Maybe I was expecting too much. So, Dave doesn’t have Sky now?”
“I don’t really know, dear. He drove Martha and Sky to Florida, and she called the other day to let me know they’d all arrived safely.”
“Then I’ll have to go to Florida.”
Jen mentally reviewed the perilous state of her finances and realized flying or renting a car was out of the question. She’d have to go cross country by bus, which would take some time. She’d only just arrived in San Diego. The last thing she wanted was to start traveling again, but she had no choice.
She found her cell and tried to call Martha, but it went straight through to voicemail. Jen left a message, but as Martha detested using her phone, she didn’t expect a call back.
“I’d better get to the bus station.” Jen smothered a yawn.
“Not until you’ve had something to eat and a nap,” Mrs. Friedman said firmly. “Martha would never forgive me if I let you go in such a state.”
Jen quickly checked the time again. She hadn’t realized how late it was. “Are you sure? That would be awesome.”
“Absolutely. I’m glad to have some company.” Mrs. Friedman beamed at her. “I’ll go and set the table. I made lasagna yesterday and was worried I would have to eat it all week. I keep forgetting I don’t have a big family to feed anymore.”
“I’ll definitely help out with that.” Jen rose to her feet.
“Why don’t you go and freshen up, first?” Mrs. Friedman suggested tactfully. “It’ll take at least ten minutes to heat the lasagna and make a salad.”
“Do I look that bad?” Jen grimaced and smoothed a hand over the coffee stain on her pants. “Maybe I’ll take a quick shower.”
“You do that.” Her hostess ushered her out into the hallway and pointed at the bathroom. “And take your time.”
When Jen saw her reflection in the mirror, she almost shrieked. Her naturally curly brown hair was standing on end, deep purple shadows highlighted her eyes, and her skin was the color of spoiled milk. She didn’t look like a professional person, let alone a mother. No wonder everyone on the bus had given her wide berth.
With a sigh, Jen turned on the shower, stripped off her clothes, and stepped under the free-flowing warm water.
“Thank God for American plumbing,” she murmured as she borrowed Mrs. Friedman’s orchid shower gel and all-in-one shampoo and completed the fastest shower ever. She’d have liked to stay in there for days, but she might fall asleep. The thought of the diminutive Mrs. Friedman trying to drag her naked body out of the shower—or even worse, calling the fire department to help—was a great incentive not to lose consciousness.
“Unless the firefighters were hunks,” Jen said aloud. “And one of them—the really tall, hot, one with a degree in microbiology, and a trust fund—fell instantly in love with me.” She got out of the shower and wrapped her wayward hair in a towel, adding, “I’ve been reading too many romance novels on my days off.”
She found some clean clothes in her backpack and hurriedly put them on before heading downstairs where the heavenly smell of lasagna now perfumed the air.
“What can I do to help?” Jen asked as she poked her head around the kitchen door.
“Nothing.” Mrs. Friedman smiled at her. “Just go on through and sit down.”
Jen did as she was told and waited expectantly for her hostess to join her. She almost moaned with greed when the lasagna hit her plate in all its cheesy, meaty, stuffed-pasta goodness.
“Please, eat as much as you’d like.” Mrs. Friedman plied her with salad. “You know Martha was expecting you about a month ago.”
“Yes.” Jen grimaced. “But I couldn’t exactly up and leave when I was stuck in the middle of a natural disaster.”
“To be fair, I think Martha’s frustration was directed more at Dave and his reluctance to parent his own child than at you.”
“That’s Dave for you.”
“I assume the two of you aren’t getting back together any time soon, then?”
“We were barely together in the first place. I stupidly thought he was ‘the one,’ only to find out he was dating two other women and had no intention of settling down with any of us.”
Mrs. Friedman tutted and poured Jen some lemonade. “He’s a charming rascal, I’ll give him that.”
Jen yawned around a mouthful of salad. “Sorry. The change of time zones is getting to me.”
“Then finish up and go and take a nap in my spare room.”
“That’s so kind of you,” Jen said. “I checked the bus times, and the last one goes at eleven tonight. If I leave here at eight, I should be fine to get on it.”
“What time is the next one?”
“Eleven in the morning, why?”
“Because that’s the one you’re getting on. You can stay the night, and I’ll drive you to the bus station tomorrow.” Mrs. Friedman held up her hand. “Rushing off when you’re tired isn’t going to change anything. Sky’s perfectly safe with his grandma and father until you get there.”
Jen contemplated that and sat back. “As long as Martha’s in charge, I’m sure you’re right.”
If it was just Dave . . . then she’d definitely be in trouble.
* * *
“Where the hell is he?” Luke stared at the empty bed as if willing Dave to appear again. “He can’t just have gone—can he?”
“You tell me.” Noah balanced Sky on one hip. “He’s your friend.”
“He said his mom would take Sky if he couldn’t find his girlfriend.”
“I know, but he’s obviously decided not to stick around and make that happen.”
Luke disappeared in the direction of the kitchen at some speed and stared out of the window, Noah following behind him.
“He must have gone out for a walk. His car’s still here.”
“Sure, his rental’s here, but what’s missing?”
Luke’s gaze traveled around the circular drive. “Mom’s truck. The absolute dickhead!”
“That’s what made me go check on him. I was coming back from the barn, and I noticed the truck was missing.” Noah settled Sky into the high chair. “What the hell do you think he’s doing?”
Luke gazed at the baby. “Did he leave a note anywhere?”
“No, he left his kid!” Noah wasn’t in the mood to be nice. “Because, as you mentioned earlier, he’s an inconsiderate, lying jerk!”
“What’s going on?” Max came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. “You’re scaring the baby with all that shouting.”
Aware that he could sometimes be classed as loud, Noah warmed some milk in a sippy cup and handed it over to Sky, who was looking a tad apprehensive. Noah patted him on the head.
“It’s okay, little buddy. We’re not mad at you, just your dad.”
“Da,” Sky said as he drank his milk.
“I was just trying to work out if Dave left us a note,” Luke explained to Max.
“Like that one stuck behind the clock?” Max pointed. “With your name on it?”
Luke went over to pick up the note, opened it up, and began to read.
“Please share,” Max said, sarcasm dripping from every word. “We’re all dying to know what Dave’s thinking was on this.”
Luke looked up. “He says, ‘I couldn’t change my ticket so had to leave the kid with you overnight. My mom or Jen will pick him up tomorrow afternoon for sure. I’ve given them your address and cell number so keep an eye out for a call. Thanks for everything, buddy. I owe you one.’”
“Like anyone’s going to make it up here in the next twelve hours.” Noah looked out the window as the snow started to fall again. “He’s run off and left his kid.”
“Sure looks like it.” Max helped himself to coffee.
“But it’s not our job to look after his kid!” Luke said as he furiously texted with his thumbs.
“Really Captain Obvious?”
Luke frowned. “You’re not helping, Max.” He contemplated Sky, who was banging his empty cup against the tray. “We have a ranch to run.”
“Maybe he can help?” Max suggested. “I mean, my dad put me to work the second I could sit on a horse.”
“He’s too young,” Luke said. “He wouldn’t be able to keep his balance.”
Despite the current emergency, Noah still wanted to smile at Luke’s carefully considered opinion.
“He would if we tied him on.” Max was obviously intent on winding Luke up. “Or we could use him as bait.”
“Max . . . ,” Noah said. “You’re not helping.”
“I’m not trying to.” Max met his stare head on. “I just like watching how Luke’s mind works and how he tries to find a solution for everything.”
“There is no solution right now,” Luke said. “We’re not going anywhere. If the storm keeps up, no one will be able to get to us, either.”
“Dave did say he gave his mom and Jen your number,” Noah reminded him.
“Shame he didn’t give me theirs.” Luke grimaced. “What’s the chance they get here today, anyway?”
“Knowing Dave, approximately zero percent?” Max suggested.
Luke stared at his phone. “He doesn’t want me to contact them, does he.”
“Damn straight.” Noah looked back at Sky. “Does the little dude eat oatmeal?”
“Eat would be a strong word. From what I saw yesterday at feeding time, he prefers to wear his food,” Max said. “It got in his hair and everything.”
Noah set his jaw. “I’ll cook him some breakfast and make sure he eats it.”
“Good luck.” Max winked at him. “I’m going back to bed.”
He set down his mug and sauntered toward the door.
“Hold up,” Luke said. “I need you to help me check the cattle are okay.”
Max looked pained. “Why can’t Noah do it?”
“Because he’s feeding the baby.” Luke paused. “You can do that if you prefer.”
“No thanks.” Max shuddered. “At least I understand cows. I’ll go and get dressed.”
“Thanks.” Luke poured himself some coffee while Noah fussed around with the microwave to make sure the oats were cooked through but were also cool enough for the baby.
“I’m going to call Mom and tell her what’s happened,” Luke said. “I think she still has a list of charitable organizations and government agencies that might be able to help us out.”
“By shooting Dave?” Noah asked. “I’m all for that.”
“No, by taking care of Sky until someone can locate one of his parents.” Luke paused to check his cell. “Did Dave say how long he planned to be in Africa?”
“At least three months.”
“Did he happen to mention which country he’s going to?”
“He said that was restricted information.” Noah rolled his eyes.
“Which probably means he’s up to no good and not affiliated with any official military sources or suppliers.” Luke sighed. “The thing is, if I don’t know where he’s gone, I can’t attempt to track him down.”
“Which is probably exactly how he wants it.”
Noah took the cooked oatmeal, added a ton of milk, and tested the temperature. Sky was at an age when he wanted to do everything for himself but didn’t quite have the skill set, so Noah would have to be firm.
“Good luck.” Luke handed Noah the kitchen towel, a wet dishcloth, and a plastic bib. “From what I saw yesterday, you’re going to need all of these.”
“Thanks. Where are you going?” Noah asked.
“To call Mom and then out to check the cattle. It’s a good thing we have all that baby stuff my sister left behind to use for Sky. You can cope for an hour, can’t you?” Luke kept walking, his phone jammed to his ear. “Hey, Mom. We have a situation here . . .”
“Looks like I don’t have a choice,” Noah muttered as he stared at Sky. “Okay little buddy, listen up. It’s chow time, and no, you can’t feed yourself.”
* * *
“I made you some sandwiches and there’s some of that lemonade you like in there, too.” Mrs. Friedman handed Jen a plastic lunch box with a cartoon princess on the lid that probably belonged to one of her grandkids. “You should be fine until you reach the next stop.”
“Thank you.” Jen took the box.
They were parked outside the bus station. She’d already bought her ticket online and just had to find the right departure bay. The California sky was turning blue, and the sun was just waiting to burn off the lingering fog creeping in from the bay. She’d slept like the dead in Mrs. Friedman’s spare bed and felt about as ready as she could to embark on yet another journey.
“If Martha calls, I’ll tell her you’re on your way.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep leaving her messages, but I never know if she picks them up.” Jen got out of the car and took her backpack out of the trunk.
When she turned around, Mrs. Friedman was waiting to say goodbye, her expression concerned.
“Now remember to stay safe and don’t talk to strangers.”
“Will do.” Jen accepted the kiss on her cheek. “I’ll let you know how things turn out.”
“Good girl.” Mrs. Friedman patted her arm. “Now off you go. I don’t want you to miss your bus.”
“Thanks again for everything.”
Mrs. Friedman waved and got back in the car. She was already driving away as Jen made sure she had all her possessions and turned toward the entrance of the bus station. It was surprisingly busy, but she guessed that most people who had somewhere to go wanted to get an early start. She certainly did.
She consulted the information board and walked over to the bay where the bus was already waiting. She showed her ticket on her phone, stowed her bag, and boarded. To her secret relief, no one sat beside her, meaning she might get some sleep on the first leg of her journey across country. She was used to cramped quarters, but it was always nice to stretch out a little.
It wasn’t going to be easy to get to Miami. She’d be traveling through at least eight states, transferring buses three times, and making around forty-three stops. If she was lucky and all went to plan, she’d arrive at Martha’s in just over three days.
Eventually the bus pulled out into the heavy morning traffic, and Jen settled in. She had reports to finalize and notes to turn in, so she wouldn’t be at a loss for things to keep her busy. She gazed out at the congested streets and pictured the calmness of the ocean, which always centered her. Mrs. Friedman was right. Martha would never let anything bad happen to Sky. All she had to do was get to Florida, apologize profusely to Dave’s mom, and reclaim her son.
After that, things got more complicated, but she’d learned at a young age not to look too far into the future. She tried to picture how big Sky was now. She’d managed the occasional Skype and Face Time with them both, but the fuzziness of the images hadn’t been great. It only occurred to her now that Dave had rarely been around to talk, and that Martha, who had taken most of her calls, probably hadn’t wanted to worry her when there was nothing Jen could do to change anything.
She’d just been so glad Martha and Dave had her back…. Had Sky stayed blond like his father, or had his hair darkened like hers? The thought of seeing him again was both frightening and exhilarating. She only hoped he’d remember who she was….
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