Tim Caldwell doesn’t do relationships…
Not after his wife walked out on him and their daughter ten years before. He’s got a well-earned reputation as a Casanova Cowboy who’s never met a woman he couldn’t talk into bed…until Toni duBois. Disinterest isn’t something he’s used to. Neither is playing by someone else’s rules.
Toni duBois doesn’t do forever…
After fifteen years away, Toni’s headed home to Louisiana in search of the answers she needs and the redemption she craves. Then her car breaks down in Bluebonnet, Texas. She doesn’t plan on hanging around Bluebonnet any longer that she has to, and she isn’t interested in a steamy, sexy entanglement. Regardless of how good-looking said entanglement might be.
Rene Caldwell doesn’t do step-moms…
Unfortunately for both of them, Tim’s teenage daughter, Rene has opinions. Lots of them. And she’s feeling a certain kind of way about Toni—mostly pissed. So when she pulls out all the stops to keep Toni from getting her hooks into Tim, and Toni’s dark past is revealed, no one is safe from the fallout.
The two-way radio at Tim’s belt squawked, startling him and the yearling he’d been working with. The rope slipped from his grip and Sonny, a two-year-old bay who was short on manners, danced away, a grin on his horsy face.
Before he could unhook it from his belt, the radio squawked again.
“Tim Caldwell, answer me!”
“I’m here, Momma.” He licked his lips, then wished he hadn’t. They were coated with dust. Only June and already the temperatures in South Central Texas were nudging the century mark.
“The school just called and said you need to come pick up Rene.”
Sonny nudged his elbow as a low groan slipped past his lips. “What now?”
Sixth grade just hadn’t been good for Rene—or vice versa—right up to the last day of school, when she’d beaten up a girl in gym class.
His mom’s voice crackled with static. “She started her period and, apparently, raised quite a ruckus. Tim, didn’t you tell her about…you know?”
Oh shit. “I forgot.” He released the ‘talk’ button and sighed, waiting for the explosion, glad she couldn’t see him shiver from the suddenly clammy sweat.
“Timothy Patrick! That child is probably scared out of her wits!”
Tim winced, knowing full well he deserved the scolding and a whole hell of a lot more. Telling Rene about the facts of life was something he’d put off. Like a checkup or doing his taxes. Determined to do the right thing, he’d read the book his aunt had given him, then chickened out, scared he’d flub it and too proud to ask for help. Now, ask him about horse breeding and he could talk a body’s ear off. Much more to-the-point than his daughter’s “journey to womanhood”.
Not for the first time he cursed his ex-wife for taking off on them, the mean angry side of him glad she was in prison. He hadn’t asked to take this on by himself.
“They thought,” his mom continued, “that under the circumstances, she could just take the rest of the day off.”
“How bad was it?” He unsnapped Sonny’s lead and opened the gate separating the small arena from Sonny’s pasture. Sonny took off to play with his friends, kicking up his heels and a cloud of dust. Tim smothered a twinge of envy and a cough while listening to his mom’s reply.
“They didn’t say, but Principal Skinner specifically asked for you.”
Janie Skinner had it out for him, firmly convinced he had no business raising a little girl by himself and more than willing to “help” if he’d let her.
But at twelve, Rene was no longer a little girl. Obviously.
“Alright. Lemme get cleaned up. Would you call Skinner back and tell her I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes?”
* * *
Forty minutes and one stop at the grocery store later, he pulled up in front of Bluebonnet Elementary and slid out from behind the wheel of his dusty pickup. As he made his way up the shallow steps, he noticed Skinner lying in wait for him just inside the double doors and slowed his pace.
Rene’d started her period, for Christ sake, not tried to burn the school down.
“Morning, Tim.” Despite her conservative attire of khakis, an oxford shirt and the snug bun, her smile was almost flirtatious as she held the door open for him.
There was no doubt in his mind if he’d gone out with her, she would have eased up on Rene–but even he had his principles. No puns intended. Besides, summer school ended in one more week. Then came junior high where the principal was a man–and one of his dad’s poker buddies. Relief was in sight.
“Janie,” he replied, forcing an easy grin. No way in hell would he let her know just how much she irked him.
Her own smile faded.
As the heavy steel door clanked shut behind him, the familiar scents of overcooked green beans, chalk dust and age assaulted his nostrils.
“Where is she?” He removed his hat and spun on his heels to face Rene’s nemesis.
“In the nurse’s office.”
He nodded, but before he could make a move, she held up a finger. “I’d like to speak with you in my office…first.”
In her office he’d folded his six-foot-five frame into a spindly wooden chair and silently endured a lecture that had included everyone’s favorite mantra, ‘Rene needs a mother’. He had no defense, and he knew it, so he chose to keep his mouth shut. Words would have sounded half-assed anyway. He’d failed his daughter–and not for the first time. But there was a reason they called marriage an institution, and not even for Rene would he go through that again.
Lucky for him the uncomfortable chair held up better than his temper, especially after Skinner’s parting shot about talking to Rene before she ended up pregnant.
One more week.
Two doors down the short hall, he found Rene lying on a cot in the nurse’s office. “Nurse Handy, I’m here to take Rene home.”
“Hi, Dad.” Rene sat up, pushed her wavy hair off her face and looked at him, her expression unreadable. Tim was discovering that at twelve, that was pretty standard. She had his pale blue eyes and dark hair but her mother’s freckles and erratic temperament. God help him.
“Rene, get to feeling better, honey,” the kindly old nurse said with a smile.
“Yes, ma’am.” Rene silently slipped past him and out the door, leaving her backpack on the bed for him to get. With a sigh, he watched her go. Always solemn, over the last year she’d turned downright sullen on him.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said with a nod, trying to juggle the overstuffed backpack and his ballcap and free his tangled keys. It looked like they’d included a week’s worth of homework instead of two days. “And tell Bob I said ‘hey’.”
“Will do. Bye, Tim.” She smiled, her soft wrinkled face creasing with the effort.
Tim hurried after Rene, who stood waiting for him at the school’s double doors. He held each door for her as they exited the building, the warm summer day a direct contrast to both their moods. Except for the windbreaker tied around her slim hips, she didn’t seem any the worse for wear. “I stopped at the store and got you some…stuff.”
“Pads.” He nearly choked on the word. “And Midol.” He hit a button on his key chain and the truck’s alarm beeped.
She came to a halt and turned to face him, her cheeks pink. “You bought me pads?” From the horrified look on her face and tone of her voice you would have though he’d bought her a dress or canned spinach—neither of which she liked.
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