Hey Everybody – Donna Alward here.  Barb’s on deadline, so I’ve taken over her blog.  I’m happy to share the first chapter of A Cowboy to Come Home To.  It’s one of my favorite stories.  I hope you like it too.

Friendship

Melissa Stone has done a fine job of avoiding her former best friend Cooper Ford. She was devastated when she discovered her husband was cheating on her, and felt doubly betrayed that Cooper had known all along.…

Forgiveness…

But she can’t ignore him forever—especially now that they’re working together on a charity project! And as she and Cooper get closer again, she confides in him her plans to start a family—alone.

Fatherhood!

Cooper wants to be there for her this time—but would he really consider being the father of her baby…?

Chapter 1

Cooper Ford was six foot two of faded denim and plaid cotton, accessorized by an insufferable ego.

The smile slid off of Melissa Stone’s face as Coop pulled the door to the flower shop closed behind him, the little brass bell dinging annoyingly as he reached up and took off his hat. Oh, wasn’t he all charm and politeness. Melissa’s replacement smile was plastic and somewhat forced. Just what she needed at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon. To be face-to-face with the one man left in Cadence Creek who she wished would simply dry up and blow away.

“Afternoon, Melissa.”

She gritted her teeth at the sound of his deep voice, somehow musical even when saying the most mundane things. “Cooper.”

She refused to call him Coop like everyone else in town. Like she had years ago when they’d all hung out together, having a few beers around a campfire after a Sunday-night softball game. When he’d been the sort of guy she’d been proud to call friend. Now he was Cooper. If she thought he’d let her get away with it, she’d call him Mr. Ford. He deserved it.

But that would be a little too obvious. A very stiff “Cooper” sent the same message with a touch more subtlety—even if he did remain Coop in her head. The old days were gone. They weren’t friends any longer. To her recollection, this was the first time he’d ever deigned to darken the flower shop door.

He smiled at her. “Nice day out there. Cool, but sunny.”

Oh, this was positively painful. The weather? Seriously? She blinked, trying to ignore Coop’s big frame, which fit perfectly into his dusty jeans and the worn denim jacket that looked as if he’d had it for at least a decade. The edges of the collar and cuffs were white and slightly frayed. The jacket gaped open, revealing an old plaid shirt with a streak of dirt smeared across his chest.

One positive thing she could say about Coop: he wasn’t lazy. From the look of him he was straight off the ranch. From the smell of him, too—the pungent but not unpleasant scent of horses clung to his clothing.

“Forecast says frost maybe tonight.” She resisted the urge to tap her nails on the counter. The weather, she realized, was a safe topic. “What can I do for you, Cooper?”

He bumped his hat on the side of his leg. “I need some flowers.”

His gaze dropped to the green apron she wore when she was in her shop. The words Foothills Floral Design were embroidered on the left breast. Pockets lined the bottom, where she could keep her scissors and pocket knife and anything else she needed as she worked around the store.

Her cheeks heated. No big surprise that Cooper was staring at her breasts. He liked women, did Cooper Ford. When she’d been married, Coop had a new girl hanging off his arm every other month, it seemed. A real love-’em-and-leave-’em kind of guy. She took a deep breath.

“What kind of flowers?”

His gaze lifted to meet hers and she found herself drawn to the golden flecks in the hazel depths. He had lashes that were too long to be decent for any self-respecting man, which made his eyes quite pretty.

Pretty enough for him to get away with just about anything in this town, she reminded herself with disgust. Except with her. She knew exactly what kind of guy Cooper was. He’d definitely shown his true colors the day he’d betrayed their friendship.

“I don’t know,” he confessed with a sheepish grin. “Something big. Something that says I’m really, really sorry.”

Acid soured her stomach. Ugh. Apology flowers. And she could just imagine what the combo of Coop and a big bouquet would do to some silly doe-eyed girl who didn’t know any better. “Who’d you do wrong now, Coop?”

The words were out before she could think better of them and she couldn’t take them back.

His gaze sharpened, but he merely raised one eyebrow. It made her feel small, as she always did when she was reminded of what a fool she’d been three years ago.

Walking in on her husband, Scott, and his girlfriend had been the most humiliating moment of her life. It had made her one big cliche.

She’d thought it couldn’t get any worse, but then she’d discovered that Coop had known all along. He’d been aware that her husband—his best buddy—was having an affair. And he hadn’t said a single, blessed word to her about it. No heads-up. No…nothing.

The joke had totally been on her, and she’d never forgotten it. Even now, as she took the steps to truly move on—alone—his betrayal stung. There was sticking by your friend and there was doing what was right. Cooper didn’t choose right.

“I missed my mother’s birthday,” he replied, putting his weight on one hip and hooking a thumb in his jeans pocket. “I was out of town all week. But it was her sixtieth and so now I’m trying to make it up to her.”

Once more Melissa felt foolish. She didn’t like Cooper. Actually, the truth was more that she didn’t trust him. She didn’t respect him. She should just let it go, like water off a duck’s back, as the old saying went. She definitely should not let him get to her, especially after all this time.

“Oh,” she answered. “Then I’m sure I can help. Do you want it in a vase or paper?”

“Paper,” he answered. “She’s got a million vases around the house. And no roses. They’re too formal and old-ladyish. Something mixed.”

Melissa tended to agree. Not that roses weren’t great, and they were definitely a classic—elegant and timeless. But she secretly preferred something simpler, more wildflowerish and whimsical. “Colors?”

“Yellows. Maybe with some red and blue in it? Colorful and, well, large. It’s a big apology.”

He smiled down at Melissa and she nearly smiled back before catching herself. “Give me fifteen minutes or so,” she replied, jotting the order on her notepad. “You can come back and pick it up, yeah?”

He nodded. “It’ll give me time to go to the pharmacy and get a nice card.”

“Gee, nothing says ‘Happy Birthday, Mom’ like a last-minute card,” she replied drily.

He didn’t answer.

“Okay,” she said, putting down her pen. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks, Mel,” he said, putting his hat back on his head.

Mel.

No one had called her that in ages. Certainly not Cooper, who she avoided as often as possible, which took some creativity in a town the size of Cadence Creek. Thankfully, he felt the same way, and even if they ended up at the same functions, they steered well clear of each other. Opposite ends of the room sort of thing. Definitely no eye contact or chitchat.

But hearing the shortened version of her name—Mel—took her back to the old days. The days when she’d thought she was happy, and she’d really been living in a fantasy world.

The bell chimed as he left, a cheerful sound that was out of key with her current dismal mood, a good portion of which had nothing to do with Cooper at all. She was getting tired of taking her temperature every darn day. Of getting her hopes up, only to be faced with disappointment. Of spending her savings on trying to get pregnant the non-traditional way. She was going to give it one more try, but she wasn’t holding out a lot of hope. Maybe she’d be better off filling out the paperwork for the adoption registry.

But deep down, she wasn’t ready to give up. The end of her marriage had also marked the end of her plans for a brilliant life. Plans that had included starting a family. Why should she give that up just because circumstances had changed? She’d done so many things on her own since the divorce, like start her own successful business. She was absolutely certain she could manage this, too.

She would be a good mom if given the chance.

But first she had to look after Cooper’s order. She was just getting out the red gerbera daisies when Penny arrived for her Friday-night shift. Penny was in eleventh grade at the high school and was the best worker Melissa had on staff. Most of the time she wished she could have her for more shifts, but Penny and her parents were firm on the eight-hours-a-week rule. Melissa got her Friday from five to nine and Saturday morning from nine to one and that was it.

Melissa hoped that if the planets aligned and things finally went right, she could offer Penny a lot more hours next summer—especially if Melissa was spending more time at home with a baby. Between Penny and Amy Wilkins, who covered a lot of the day shifts, Melissa had some breathing room in the schedule.

Penny’s arrival meant Melissa wouldn’t have to wait on Cooper when he returned. All she had to do was finish making up the arrangement before he came back.

Her fingers plucked bright yellow yarrow a little quicker at the prospect. Cooper Ford had nothing to do with her current life.

She made her own way now, and that was exactly how it was going to stay.

Cooper let out a breath when he was out on the sidewalk again. He’d finally gathered up the courage to go into her shop. This nonsense of avoiding each other had gone on long enough. Surely after three years she might have mellowed where he was concerned.

But nothing had changed, had it? Melissa still looked at him as if he were dirt beneath her heel. It had been a long time since she and Scott had split. But the truth was she still hated Scott, and she still hated Cooper’s guts because he’d known about the affair and hadn’t said a word.

He walked away from the flower shop, his long legs eating up the concrete as he made his way to the drugstore. The problem with Melissa was that she didn’t know the whole story. She thought Cooper had kept his mouth shut because he’d been looking out for his best buddy. “Their little club,” she’d called it. And she’d called him a lot more than that, too, words he would never have imagined coming out of that sweet little mouth. He’d taken all the verbal slings because she’d been right. Not in her interpretation of how it all went down, and definitely not right about his motives. But she’d been right that he should have had the guts to say something. God knows he wanted to. He’d come close so many times…

But all his life he’d been a coward where Melissa was concerned, and the day she’d walked in on Scott with another woman hadn’t changed anything. Cooper had had no right to her friendship after that. He’d failed her, and she would never know how badly he felt about it.

At the drugstore, he headed for the greeting card aisle. Without too much trouble he picked out a birthday card for his mother, but he paused as he passed by a smaller section of cards. Close to the thank-you notes were half a dozen with I’m Sorry messages on the fronts. They sported sappy pictures of flowers and cute puppies and kittens. He gave a dry chuckle as he picked one up and opened the flap. There were no words on the inside, just a blank space to write in a personal message.

He imagined what he’d write to Melissa. “I’m sorry for keeping the truth from you all those years ago,” maybe? It was true. But it wouldn’t be enough. Not for her. And there was no way in hell he was going to write “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about your husband’s infidelity, but I was in love with you and didn’t want to hurt you.”

Even if he were stupid enough to confess such a thing, it didn’t even scrape the surface of what had really happened.

He’d been between a rock and a hard place and it had marked the end of his lifelong friendship with Scott. Not that that mattered one bit to Melissa, he thought bitterly. Not once had she considered how he might be caught in the middle, between his two best friends.

He put the card back in the slot and went to the cash register. Once outside, he headed back to the flower shop, gearing himself up for another few minutes of pretending they didn’t have any past history at all.

But when he went back inside Foothills Floral, there was no sign of Melissa. Instead, a teenager with braces smiled at him and rang up his purchase.

He left and got into his truck, a crease forming between his brows. It appeared he wasn’t the only coward.

***

The early September sky was the clear, deep blue that Melissa particularly loved, and it seemed to go on forever. As she got out of her car and shut the door, she took a deep, restorative breath. How she loved this time of year. Everything was warm and mellow after the brash heat of summer. The prairie was green and golden, the air crisp and the leaves on the poplars and birches were turning a stunning golden yellow. It reminded her of back-to-school days and how she’d loved filling up her new backpack and lunch bag and getting on the school bus as a girl. It reminded her of sitting on the bleachers during football season, cheering on the Cadence Creek Cougars and, in particular, Scott.

Well, that memory was a little tainted now, but she still remembered what it had been like to be nearly seventeen and in love with the handsome star of the team.

These days the fall weather made her want to do all sorts of nesting things, like baking and freezing and canning and knitting. It was silly, because why would she bother freezing and canning for herself? Maybe if she had a family, a few kids running around…

She shook her head and focused on the house in front of her. She had a good life. Maybe it hadn’t turned out exactly as she’d planned, but she had a thriving business and a nice, if small, home. She had good friends and a lot to be thankful for.

She looked up at the unfinished structure before her. Things could definitely be worse. Take, for instance, Stu Dickinson and his family. They were going to own this house when it was finished. The Dickinsons had been living in a cheap duplex rental in town when it had burned and they’d lost everything. With his wife suffering from multiple sclerosis and unable to work, Stu was the sole breadwinner for them and their two kids. Tenant’s insurance had made it possible for them to replace necessities, but they were struggling to make ends meet.

Which was where a local charity organization came in.

Melissa wasn’t that great with power tools, but she’d signed up to volunteer now that the house was framed. She had no idea what she’d be doing today, but the coordinator had assured her that she’d be fine and that someone would show her exactly what to do.

When she stepped inside the house, the racket was unbelievable. The shrill whine of a saw rang in her ears, followed by a bang and the sound of male voices.

“Hello?” she called out in a brief moment of silence, putting her purse by the door. The room on her left had been finished with Sheetrock and had had its cracks filled, but not painted. The one on the right was still only framed and the wiring was visible, including electrical outlets and dangling wires for an overhead light fixture.

Boots sounded at the back of the house and she wiped her hands on her jeans. “Hello?” a voice returned.     A strange feeling slithered through her stomach in the instant before the man appeared.     “You!” she exclaimed. Oh, wasn’t this just her luck! Twice in one week, no less.

Cooper halted in the doorway to the hall. “Oh,” he answered, his face going completely blank for the space of a second. “You’re volunteering today?”

She nodded. He sounded as pleased about it as she was. “And I take it you are, too?”

He nodded in turn.

She couldn’t back out now. For one, she’d committed to volunteering. And two, if she did withdraw, Cooper would know it was all because of him. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

At some point it might be good if they could be in the same room together without her wanting to spit in his eye.

He took off his gloves. “Stu works for me. Least I can do is help out, you know?”

Melissa blinked. “I would have thought things were too busy out at your place.” Cooper’s ranch was profitable and his reputation for breeding great stock horses was growing. Ranchers from all over the prairies and northern states came to the Double C for their cutting and working horses.

“Sure it’s busy. But I don’t run it alone. I have good men working for me. They know what they’re doing and I trust them. You know what it’s like. You must have someone working the shop this morning.”

She did. Against her better judgment she’d hired Amy Wilkins on a part-time basis. Amy’s reputation around town wasn’t always the greatest, but Melissa had taken a chance and given the vivacious blonde a try. So far she’d worked out well. She was a fast learner and was good with the customers. The only thing she couldn’t do was arrange flowers, so Melissa had gone in early to do up the day’s orders and make sure the cooler was filled with prearranged bouquets for walk-in sales.

“So, is there someone here to tell me what I need to do?”

Cooper grinned. “Yep. Me, for now. The bedrooms are all painted, and we’ve just finished laying the floor in the master. How are you with a brad nailer? We’ve got the baseboard and crown molding ready to go.”

Melissa hesitated. Couldn’t he install the trim while she worked with someone else? The last thing she wanted was to spend the next four hours in the same room with Coop.

“Melissa.” His rough voice pulled her back.

“What?”

“Is it so bad? Really?”

She met his gaze. He wasn’t smiling, wasn’t making fun or trying to be charming—for once. He was dead serious. He shifted his gloves from one hand to the other—was he nervous? He hadn’t aged, other than a few lines in the corners of his eyes that were more likely from the sun and wind than time passing. He still looked so much like the boy she’d laughed with over the years. Though she wouldn’t admit it out loud in a thousand years, she missed that guy. Once upon a time she’d called him her best friend.

“You remind me,” she said coolly. “You remind me, okay? Of how stupid and naive I once was.”

“I’m sorry about that.” He took a step forward. “But I can’t change it. We’re grown-ups. Surely we can manage to work together for a few hours without killing each other.”

He was right. “Yeah, well, this place isn’t about you or me, so we just have to suck it up, right? Besides, I don’t know much about construction, so it appears I get to swallow my pride and let you boss me around.”

He smiled then, a crooked upturn of his lips that reached his eyes. “Like I could ever tell you what to do.”

The air hummed between them for a few minutes. Briefly, Melissa missed the way things used to be, the easy rapport they had shared. Cooper had been a tease, though she’d always known that his flirting meant nothing. It had been safe to banter back and forth because he was Scott’s best friend as well as hers. He’d given the toast at their wedding, for Pete’s sake.

She ignored his last statement and checked her watch. “Shouldn’t we get started? I only have until one o’clock, when I have to be back at the shop.”

He led the way to the master bedroom, pausing briefly to introduce her to the other people working there, installing oak hardwood in the other bedrooms. To her surprise she saw Callum Shepard, a local dairy farmer and newcomer to town, and Rhys Bullock, Martha Bullock’s son and one of the hands over at Diamondback Ranch. The big surprise was that they were being bossed around by Chelsea Smith, whose father owned the hardware store.

After the hellos, Melissa followed Cooper to the back bedroom, pausing in the doorway to admire what had already been done. The walls were the shade of her favorite vanilla latte, and the rich color of the hardwood looked lovely against it. There were windows in two walls, providing a view of the distant Rockies in one direction and a view of the creek valley that ran to the north in the other.     “This is nice,” she said, stepping in and hearing her boots echo on the wood floor.

“Stu deserves it. They were already struggling to make ends meet, and then to lose all their belongings… Sometimes life just isn’t fair. I’m glad they were able to get this going and I’m happy to help. He’s a good man and a good worker. He deserved a break.”

It was easier to dismiss Coop when he was being deliberately charming. When he was sincere it was hard to remember why she resented him so much.

Lengths of baseboard were stretched across the floor, and a saw was set up on a heavy drop cloth. A loud drone filled the room as the air compressor fired up.

Cooper saw to filling the air nailer and then reached for his measuring tape. “Hold this here,” he commanded, leaving her with one end. Together they measured the wall, then measured the baseboard—twice—and Cooper marked it with a carpenter’s pencil.

She held the end while he made the first cut, then angled the other side with the miter saw so the next piece would match up in the corner.

Together they moved the piece to the wall, putting it flush against the end cap of the woodwork in the doorway. “Okay, now you’re on. I’ll hold it in place and you nail it.”

“Me?”

“Sure, you. Take the nailer and press it against that hollow part there.” He pointed to the curve in the baseboard design. “Is it pressed all the way in? Okay, now squeeze the trigger.”

With a loud snap, the nailer jerked in her hand. “Is that right?”

“Looks good to me. Keep going.”

The tool felt odd in her hand, and the noise was loud, especially when the compressor kicked in again. But it was kind of fun, nailing the molding into place. They had to adjust a cut when working their way around the doorway for the walk-in closet, but for the moment Melissa forgot about how much she disliked Cooper, and simply focused on the job.

They worked in relative silence as they finished the baseboard, and then moved on to the crown molding. This was harder, getting the angle just right. It took a few tries with each piece, and nailing it in place was awkward when Melissa had to hold the nailer above her head.

It was after twelve when they finished. She stood back as Cooper took a tube of wood filler and touched up the corner seams where there were inevitable tiny gaps. He took his time and she watched him on the stepladder, the way his jeans fit and how his customary cotton plaid shirt spread across broad, muscled shoulders. Scott hadn’t been the only one on the football and hockey teams. Cooper had been a bit of a jock, too. But unlike Scott, he’d never had a girl watching from the stands.

Nope, he’d had about ten girls, all gazing at him with love-struck expressions, sighing blissfully if he ever turned his attention to them. Which he did. Just never for too long. And never at Melissa.

“Once this is dry, it’ll just need to be touched up with a bit of paint. What do you think?”

Melissa looked away so he wouldn’t know she’d been staring at him, and made a point of sweeping her gaze around the room. “It looks finished,” she said, realizing it truly did. “The crown molding was a nice touch.”

“We didn’t do that in the kids’ rooms,” Cooper said, screwing the cap back on the tube. “It’s expensive. It’s a nice addition in here, though.”

Melissa checked her watch. “My time’s just about up. Are you done here, too?”

Cooper nodded. “For today. I come out most mornings for a couple of hours and lend a hand. Bring the guys coffee. It won’t be long now until it’s ready. The drywall guy is coming back tomorrow to finish the den, and then it’s just painting the front rooms, putting down the flooring and installing the kitchen cupboards. You coming back another day?”

He rolled up the hose from the compressor as he spoke. Melissa paused. It hadn’t been so bad, being with Cooper. Awkward and at times uncomfortable, but they’d been civil, which was more than they’d accomplished in years.

Now that she’d seen the house and helped it take shape, even just a little, she wanted to come back and help out again. “I’ll have to check the work schedule at the shop and call the coordinator. Amy’s fine with running the store, but I’m the only floral designer.”

“Well, there’s always stuff to be done. I’m sure your help would be welcomed.”

On the way out of the house Melissa stopped and picked up her purse. Cooper had put the compressor in the hall by the other bedrooms and she heard his voice as he spoke to some workers. She was walking to her car when he called out her name.

She turned and saw him jogging her way. “Hey,” he said, slowing as he approached. “I’m going to pick up the lunch order from the Wagon Wheel and bring it back. You want to grab a sandwich or something?”

With him? There was letting bygones be bygones and then there was…what? Lunch for two at the busiest spot in town? They’d been civil this week, but the idea of sitting down and making pleasant conversation was unfathomable. They weren’t friends. Adults, maybe, but the time for friendship and hanging out together was long gone. It was far too late to rewrite the past.

“I have to get back to the shop, sorry,” she stated, reaching into her purse for her keys.

Cooper stood back. “Sure. Maybe another time,” he suggested, though they both knew it wasn’t really an invitation.

“Maybe,” she agreed, but it was an empty agreement.

“See you around, Mel.”

“Yeah. Bye, Coop.”

She reached for the door handle and scooted behind the wheel before he could see the color rise in her cheeks.

She’d called him Coop. After staring at his behind and being asked out to lunch.

This was exactly why she had said no. The last thing she needed in her life was a complication like Cooper Ford. They’d done a good job of avoiding each other in the past, and she could take care to do it again.

Like what you read? Keep Reading:

A COWBOY TO COME HOME TO
Cadence Creek Cowboys #4
Harlequin Romance, July 2013

Amazon / Barnes and Noble / iTunes / Kobo / Indiebound

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