A Cowboy to Keep

by

Barbara Ankrum

On the run from her past, photographer Ali Thibeaux arrives undercover in Marietta to find her biological half-sister. Plan A: Meet Olivia, photograph her wedding, and disappear before endangering anyone. Plan B: All hell breaks loose.

Reclusive rancher Adam Wolfe’s only plan when he hires Ali to manage his dysfunctional household is to go on hiding from the world. But his scars don’t seem to matter to the beauty who unexpectedly turns his house into a home and heals the rift between him and the teenaged niece he’s taken in. Still, he suspects there’s more to Ali than meets the eye and he’s determined to uncover what she’s hiding from him before it’s too late.

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“Please. Look again. It has to be here.” Ali Thibeaux braced her hands on the glass countertop of the pawnshop’s display case, panic closing her throat. “I’m…I’m only a day late. You can’t have sold it already.” She flattened out the pawn ticket against the glass and pointed to the number. “Six-seven-nine-three-zero. Check again.”

Eeben Baxter, the paunchy, middle-aged owner of Marietta’s only pawnshop, scratched his chin. “I’m afraid it’s gone, Miss. I sold it myself just yesterday, end of day. I’m real sorry. You should’ve come then, I guess.”

“I didn’t have the money yesterday. But now I do.” She tightened her arm around her purse, where the thousand dollars in cash she’d managed to scrape together to pay off the loan lay tucked in her wallet. Suddenly, the smell of the place, the odor of discarded pulled-out-of-the-attic stuff made her feel dizzy and nauseous. “You don’t understand. I need that camera. There’s a job. I have to have it.” But that camera meant more to her than that. Much more. She closed her eyes. Panic would not serve her. She had to stay calm.

“If it’s just a camera you need, we got a few decent ones here,” Baxter said, pointing to the case full of used digital cameras, none of which could hold a candle to the one she’d pawned. “Not as nice as that Hasselblad, but maybe one of these will suit you.”

Was he joking? “No. I need that one. It belonged to my—” She caught herself and began again. “Who bought it? At least tell me that.”

Baxter tucked in his chin. “We never betray a customer’s confidence here, ma’am. If we did, we’d be out of business right quick. I will tell you that the individual who bought your camera had their eye on it for a couple of weeks and knew just when it would come up for sale. So, I’m sorry but they had every right to buy it. Fair and square.”

In her panic, Ali caught the gaze of the woman standing at the other end of the counter cleaning the glass countertop, who looked away quickly. Oddly, she reminded Ali vaguely of Eugenia Parland, a woman who’d been her foster mother for the better part of her freshman year in high school. This sparrow of a woman had deep grooves around her mouth. She was brown-haired and dowdy, kicked a few times, Ali guessed, but probably stronger than she looked. Ali was familiar with the haunted look owned by so many women she’d known. Perhaps she’d only imagined her sympathetic look. Or maybe it was simple judgment.

Pathetic was probably what she was thinking. The anthem of her youth, Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, began pulsing behind her eyes, along with the sinking feeling that she’d just torpedoed her future and tossed away the best of her past in one fell swoop. She’d honestly never imagined someone in this small town would even appreciate that camera, much less buy it for whatever Baxter must have charged. It wasn’t a hobbyist’s camera. It wasn’t even one most people would understand how to use.

“Eeben, I’m takin’ my break,” the woman said to her boss. She mimed smoking a cigarette and Baxter nodded to her. Gathering up her rags and half-empty bottle of glass cleaner, she disappeared through a pair of red velvet curtains hanging in the back room doorway.

“How much did you sell it for?” Ali pressed, turning back to him.

“Again,” Baxter said, “that’s information that’s privileged, Miss Thibeaux.” But his expression couldn’t quite hide how proud he was of the deal he’d struck with the new owner. “Now, if you aren’t interested in another camera, I got me some paperwork to catch up on.”

He’d made a small fortune on it, she was sure. The thousand dollars he’d given her as a collateral loan was only a fraction of the camera’s real worth. And if anyone knew who had once owned it, that value would be even higher.

The backs of her eyes burned. Don’t cry. Do not cry. You did this to yourself.

She spun and blindly collided with a rack holding a hundred or more vintage shooter marbles, which fell in what seemed like slow motion and bounced in all directions.

Her every attempt to catch them—to stop the disaster—failed, ending in her backing into another display of musical instruments behind her. Tambourines, clarinets and harmonicas all collapsed musically sideways like dominoes.

Eeben Baxter, who’d managed to round the counter amidst the bouncing marbles, caught the instruments before they hit the floor—except for the last, precarious piccolo that pinged to the linoleum and rolled to a stop at his feet beside the milky cat’s eyes. As the last of the marbles rolled to a stop, he gave a long-suffering sigh. He glared down at her, crouched beside his counter. “You finished yet? I got a whole store.”

“I’m sorry. I’m really very…very sorry.” Straightening, she proffered a handful of marbles to him, which he took without a word of thanks. “Believe me, that was entirely an accident. I would never have—”

Eeben pinched his fingers together at her in a universally understood male gesture demanding silence—which rubbed her exactly the wrong way.

She tipped her chin up. “Okay. Fine. But just so you know,” she said, “whatever you asked for that camera, it wasn’t nearly enough. It was once owned by Lilah—” she stopped short “—by a famous photographer.” The man’s face paled. “And you could have made a lot more money than you did.” She tsked at him and shook her head. “A lot.” Opening the door, she turned back one last time. “A whole lot.”

“Go!” he bellowed.

She turned and walked outside on legs that were shaking. Several deep breaths later, dizziness had her grabbing for the side of a building as she moved down the street. She’d been both clumsy and reckless, mentioning her famous mother, even if she hadn’t named her. But men like Eeben Baxter just made her mad. He reminded her of her second foster father who’d made that little gesture if she ever dared offer an opinion that challenged his. It was a button she very much disliked having pushed.

But what was done was done.

She glanced down at her watch. Ten a.m. She’d forgotten to eat this morning. Scratch that, she hadn’t had the money to eat this morning. Except for the money in her bag—the money she’d saved here to buy the camera back—she was officially broke. After two years, three months and seventeen days of running, this was what she’d come to at last.

Well, at least now she could afford breakfast. And enough gas to get her out of this town. No point in staying now. Where she’d go, she had no idea. How ironic she’d have to turn down the job she’d been praying for now that she’d lost the camera. But the job itself didn’t matter. It was the subject of the job—Olivia Canaday and her wedding—that mattered.

And the camera…mattered.

This whole idea that had brought her here to Marietta…had been ill conceived at best. And even that she had screwed up.

Numbly, she headed up Main Street, passing people and cars without really seeing them. In the little over three months she’d been here, she had kept to herself, kept her head down and blessed every morning she woke up alone.

Safe.

She’d used the money she’d gotten for the camera to rent a room in a small highway motel outside of town, called the Dew Drop Inn, where they’d also given her a job cleaning rooms. Before that, she’d waited for weeks, hoping to hear from Eve Canaday about the résumé she’d left with her at Christmas time, about the photographer job she’d advertised in the Marietta paper. But nothing, until finally last week when she’d contacted her about an upcoming party she was organizing, which Ali assumed was a test run for bigger events. Events like the one she’d come here to attend.

But no camera, no job. Those other cameras back there would never give her the quality shots she’d been able to take with the Hasselblad. Eve and her sister would certainly be disappointed in the result. Not to mention losing the last precious connection she had to her mother. But time was running out. She couldn’t stay so visible here in Marietta and expect he wouldn’t find her.

No, she’d gambled and lost. Her time here was finished. She would put Marietta in her rear-view mirror now as fast as she could and never look back.

Dodging traffic on Main Street, she crossed to the other side and walked two long blocks to the Main Street Diner and found a booth in the corner. It was all she could do not to drop her head down on her arms and bawl.

“You look like you could use some coffee, darlin’.”

The kindness in the woman’s voice made her look up. Ali brushed a hand quickly down her cheek and straightened. The woman’s nametag read, ‘Sally’. She, too, was middle-aged and looked like she’d circled the block a few times, but this woman had a smile on her face that seemed genuine. Ali needed one right now.

“You all right, dearie?”

She felt about as far from ‘all right’ as she ever had. “I’m fine. And yes, coffee would be nice.”

Sally turned over the mug on the table and poured her a cup. “Take cream with that?”

“No. Just black. Thank you. And some eggs, please. Three, actually. Scrambled. With toast. And jam, if you have it.”

“Only the best homemade jam in the state of Montana. What kind of toast, dearie?”

“Sourdough.”

“Independent thinker. I like that,” Sally teased with a smile. “Most folks just say white or wheat.”

A half-sob, half-laugh escaped her and Sally hesitated before she patted the table, stuck her pencil behind her ear and headed back to the kitchen.

Sipping her coffee, Ali welcomed its warmth on her emotion-clogged throat. The diner was half-full despite being smack in between breakfast and lunch. She let her gaze roam over the heads of the customers—families, some of them. A few singles. Businessmen and cowboys. Each of them had a place to be when they left here. Home. Work.

A life.

They were not looking over their shoulders or sitting with their backs to the wall. They seemed caught up in their lives and living, unafraid. But it had been so long since her life could be described that way, she could hardly remember it now.

She’d often heard people talk about luck, about whether or not such a thing existed. Or whether good fortune was as simple as preparation meeting opportunity. She’d quit believing in luck years ago. Whoever had bought her camera couldn’t have paid what that camera was worth and she’d never find its equal, even if she had all the luck in the world.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to look, expecting Sally with her food. But it was that woman from the pawnshop. Ali’s lips parted in surprise.

“I hope you don’t mind me followin’ you here,” the woman said, sliding, uninvited, into the booth opposite her. “But I felt for you back there. Even before the…well, you know—the marbles.”

Without a clue as to what to say to the woman, she just stared at her.

“You don’t know my name,” the woman went on, “and I don’t know yours. Which is just as well. But you remind me of a good friend I had once who did something real nice for me. In fact, you’re a dead ringer for her. And I just thought to myself, ‘I should help her.’ So here I am.”

“Y-you want to help me?” Maybe it was the hunger, but she couldn’t grasp what this woman was up to.

“Maybe I’ve just had enough of men like Eeben. See, he has a set policy of waitin’ an extra twenty-four hours after a contract expires, to sell with an item as expensive as that one—honestly anything over five hundred dollars—just to give our better patrons the benefit of the doubt. It’s not the law, but it’s a courtesy, you understand. Something the people of Marietta have long appreciated. But not this time. I think he figured you wouldn’t be back for it, not bein’ a local and bein’ a woman, at that. And that just burned me, if you want to know the truth. I’m sick to death of that way of thinking. Men like Eeben feelin’ superior to us women, not even knowin’ a girl’s story. So, I’m going to break the rules. I’m going to tell you who bought your camera, because I think that’s only fair.”

Ali inhaled sharply. “Who?”

“You got to promise you’ll never tell who told you. It can’t have come from me or I’ll lose my job.”

She leaned forward. “I swear. I won’t say a word.”

The woman pulled out a piece of paper and pen from the deep pocket of her sweater and scribbled down a name, then pushed the scrap of paper toward Ali. “There. Now you can honestly say that name never came out of my mouth.”

Ali’s eyes gathered with moisture as she reached for the woman’s hand and clasped it. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

The woman squeezed her fingers tightly. “But to be honest, if I were you, I’d steer clear and go find me another camera.”

“But you just said—”

“I know. I leveled the playing field. That’s only right and fair. But the man who bought your camera, well, folks around here talk. He’s a bit of a hermit…for reasons that are his own. You’ll see. Doesn’t like people, mostly. Some folks are even scared of him. Keeps to himself. I don’t think you have a chance in hell of changing his mind.”

Ali pulled her hand back. “All the same…”

Sally returned just then with Ali’s breakfast and set it down in front of her. “Here you go. Three eggs scrambled with toast and jam. Anything else I can get you ladies? Coffee for you, Ruth Ann?” she asked the woman sitting across the booth from Ali.

So, that was her name. Ruth Ann blushed at the mention of her name and just shook her head.

“Thank you,” Ali said to Sally, but when she left, Ali pushed the plate across the table to her new friend. “Please, I’d like you to have it. It’s the least I can do.”

“No, hon, but thanks just the same. I got to run. I’m already at least one cigarette past my break time.” She got to her feet. “Truth is, I don’t really smoke anymore. I just want him to think I do so I can duck outside couple times a day, fill up my lungs with this pretty Montana air. Now that spring’s around the corner, isn’t it just glorious? So, you eat that food. Looks like you could use a good meal. And good luck with that camera. And forget my name, would you?”

“Name? I didn’t hear a name,” Ali said with a small grin, still stunned by both the woman’s generosity and her words.

Ruth Ann winked. “Atta girl,” she said, and turned to go.

Ali watched her hurry out the front door and head back in the direction of Baxter’s Pawnshop.

She sat studying the piece of paper in her hand and wondering about the woman’s warning. A bit of a hermit. She could hardly hold that against him—whoever he was—when that word could easily describe what her life had become. Ruth Ann was right about one thing though. Ali would need a lot of luck to get her camera back. Or a miracle.

Possibly both.

“I brook no nonsense when it comes to clutter,” said Irina Koscov, her slight Russian accent jumbling her consonants. She lifted the hand-thrown coffee mug Adam Wolfe had set down before her a moment earlier and took a brief, testing sniff of the coffee he’d made. Raising an eyebrow, she set it back down. She pressed a hanky to her nose and sniffed, her gaze flicking up once more to his cheek before she looked quickly away.

It was an impulse he’d long ago grown used to, but it made his jaw clench just the same.

“I like my house neat and tidy,” she went on. “I am allergic to smoke, dogs and kyets, so I do not allow any of them in the house.”

He was still puzzling out the word kyets when Boomer, his Chocolate Labrador Retriever mix, lifted his head from his paws and tilted a quizzical look at him, seeming to understand he was the topic of conversation. Adam squinted back a warning look of his own.

“And,” she said, flicking a gaze at the doorway to the back rooms, “you haf a daughter, I understand? I haf three sons, all in the military now.”

From across the room, he caught sight of his fourteen-year-old niece spying on them through the crack in the door. As soon as Adam made eye contact, she disappeared. Something that was becoming a habit with her. But Adam nodded at Irina’s question, suddenly sure he didn’t want to elaborate.

Irina tilted her head, having caught sight of the girl, too. She sent Adam a look that said she disapproved. “She should come out to meet me.”

Adam narrowed a look at her. “She’s not involved in this process. Not yet.”

“I see.” She sniffed. “We will work on manners later. As I say, I don’t allow interference in my kitchen,” Irina went on. “I organize it to my tastes and I expect it to remain that way. And,” she added, “not to boast, but my coffee and vatrushka are second to none.” A small, proud twitch of a smile curved the straight line of her mouth and she folded her hands on the table. “Even your girl will like the vatrushkas.”

The woman had a knife-blade demeanor and hands that reminded him of his grandfather’s. She’d come highly recommended from the domestic agency Adam had gone through. Since two of his other possibilities had canceled their appointments for reasons he could only guess and another had been rude enough to balk at his door, his candidates had narrowed down to this one and one more on her way. And while Irina Koscov apparently seemed to know her way around the kitchen—and whatever a vatrushka was, the idea of it made his mouth water—her implications about his fourteen-year-old niece Carrie’s shortcomings and the ‘no dogs in the house’ were deal breakers for him. Boomer had had his share of outdoors and Adam did not intend to give him another dose of it.

“I serve breakfast promptly at six a.m.,” she went on. “Dinner is at noon or, if you wish, I can pack a meal for you to take. Supper is promptly at five p.m. I don’t wash windows or do ironing, but I am certain you will find my other skills more than adequately compensate.”

Adam sighed and got to his feet. “Thank you, Ms. Koscov, for coming all the way out here.” He extended a hand to her. “But I’m afraid it’s not going to work out.”

Irina’s face flattened with affront and she refused his hand. “But…why not?” she demanded. “I am the best you’ll find here in Marietta. And believe me, nobody else will—” She cut off that thought. “Ask anyone. I haf references.”

He stood, half turning away from her. “To be honest, I set my own schedule and…I like a little clutter. So, I don’t think it’s gonna work out with you and me. But I will miss trying your vattera-truskaya—”

“Vatrushkas,” she corrected sharply.

“Ah. Right. Vatrushkas. And your coffee, too, no doubt, ’cause mine could pave a road.”

Irina sniffed, got to her feet and gathered up her oversized handbag. “Whatever you say,” she replied with a singsong lilt to her anger. “I will inform the agency that you require someone with lower standards than I have.” She scowled. “No doubt they can find someone like that for you, sir.”

Boomer unfurled and gave a rumbling growl from his spot near Adam’s feet. Irina flinched and backed up.

Stepping back, Adam allowed her to move past him in the direction of the front door.

He glanced at his watch as Irina Koscov made her way outside and down the steps. “Thanks again for stopping by.” Irina did not acknowledge him, but started up her car and peeled down his driveway, her tires spitting up muddy ground.

Shutting the door behind her, Adam turned to the dog, whose tail thumped against the wooden floor.

“No vatrushkas for you,” he said, pointing at the Lab. Boomer’s furry eyebrows lifted. “Or me and Carrie either, apparently. Maybe we’re just gonna have to settle for my awful cooking after all.” The dog whined and licked his hand. Adam smiled down at him. Boomer was the only one who saw past what others couldn’t help but see. All that mattered not at all to a dog like him.

Adam scratched him behind the ears. A couple of months ago, he’d found him, lost or—more likely—abandoned, on a back road in the national forest. The pup had been wandering for God knew how long, half-starved and nearly frozen. But Adam had brought him back from the brink and now, the young dog refused to leave his side—except for an occasional side play with Carrie. Boomer seemed to have an uncanny affinity for people who needed him and, several times, Adam had gone searching for him only to find him curled up with his intractable niece somewhere.

Which suited Adam fine. Until Carrie had arrived two months ago, Boomer had been his only companion. A born cattle dog, foot warmer, bed dog. And no housekeeper was about to tell Adam otherwise.

He pulled the list of interviewees from his pocket and scratched a line through Irina’s name. “One more and then we’ll call it a day,” he told Boomer. “This whole thing was a bad idea.”

After emptying Irina’s cup in the sink, he stacked it in the dishwasher. He’d scheduled the interviews intentionally close together so as not to take up his entire afternoon. There were cattle to sort and he couldn’t think of a more excruciating way to spend his one free morning than interviewing candidates who either wanted to reorganize his life or judge it.

If he’d had his druthers, none of this…this housekeeper/cook thing would even be necessary. When there had been just him and Boomer, life had seemed simpler. Predictable. Workable. Now, all his plans—his dreams—were hovering somewhere above him, poised to come crashing down around both him and the girl down the hallway if he couldn’t make things work.

In fact, he’d resisted hiring anyone full time in the house for as long as he could. While he didn’t mind his own pathetic cooking, Adam realized he should no longer be left to his own devices in the kitchen when he’d discovered Carrie sneaking food in the middle of the night. He had the girl to think about now. But feeding her was only part of it. Doing what was best for her was something else.

The next woman was late. Ten minutes late to be exact. Even as he had that thought, he heard a car pull up the gravel drive. He looked through the blinds to see an older Subaru SUV pull in across from his pickup. Boomer started to bark.

The woman who got out of that car and stood hesitating at the far end of his driveway was no Irina Koscov. A decade or two younger, her shoulder-length, dark blonde hair ruffled around her face in the chilly April breeze and she pulled a loose strand back, tucking it behind her ear. For a moment, she stood half-turned in his direction, gazing back along the road she’d just come down. She seemed to be talking to herself.

Perfect. Another crazy. That would be just his luck.

Automatically, he reached for his Carhartt jacket and beat-up Stetson, and tugged it down low over his eyes before grabbing for the dog’s collar as he opened the door. The sound seemed to startle the woman, but she turned, took a deep breath and headed toward him.

Beside him, Boomer went curiously quiet, ears up, his rear end going like a wind-up toy. Adam stepped out onto his porch.

“Adam Wolfe?” she called from a good distance.

He nodded, fighting the impulse to pull his hat down farther. He forced himself to face her directly. No point putting it off.

She strode toward him across the driveway. “I’m sorry to show up here unannounced.”

Unannounced? He glanced down at the list still in his hand. “I expected you ten minutes ago.”

Now she was within twenty feet of him and Boomer was whining to get out of his grip, his tail wagging. Adam waited, scowling down at her as she tugged off her oversized sunglasses.

And just like that, his rational brain shut down. She might as well have sucker punched him the way the sight of her up close stole every bit of his focus and slammed his pulse up against the wall of his chest. Despite her exotic beauty from a distance, he could see now she was even prettier up close. And she wore hardly a stitch of makeup. Just a touch of shine on her lips that only emphasized the long, dark lashes that shadowed her cheeks. With eyes the transient color of Copper Mountain at summer’s end—a hypnotic mixture of blues, greens, browns and gold.

She stopped now, staring up at him. A myriad of expressions crossed that pretty face of hers. But the usual suspects—surprise and disgust, the two most common—were not among them. Curiosity maybe. Or pity. Yeah. Probably that.

“Y-you were…expecting me?”

He swallowed thickly, untangling his damned tongue. “You…you’re the last one on my list.” He held it out even though he knew she couldn’t read it from there.

She frowned, glancing back at her car.

By now, the dog was whining, wagging his tail furiously at her and tugging against Adam’s grip. “It doesn’t matter. We can talk in the kitchen. You’re not scared of dogs are you? Or…allergic?” he asked, still hanging on to Boomer’s collar. The woman, stopped at the bottom of his steps, stared up at him like he was speaking a foreign language. Maybe she was just balking like that other one. “You know,” he clarified, “do they make you cough or sneeze?”

“Um…no,” she said, still looking confused. “I-I like dogs.”

“Good. Then, come on in.”

“I’d really rather do this here,” she said firmly, stopping at the foot of the stairs. “Outside.”

His jaw clenched. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re not really dressed for Montana in April.”

Her long legs were sheathed in worn jeans and impractical ankle-high boots, and her hip-length, wool city coat was on the thin side. And, despite the sun making an appearance today for the first time in days, she was already shivering at the bottom of his stairs.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “But…I’m confused. Who told you I was coming?”

He blew out a breath. “I don’t have time for games, Miss Hathaway, so—”

“Hathaway?” She shook her head.

Taken aback by her seeming confusion, he glanced back at his list. “That is your name, isn’t it? Marion Hathaway?”

Those Copper Mountain eyes of hers dropped all pretense of fearlessness. “No.”

“Wait. You are here for the job, right?”

“What job?”

“The housekeeping position.”

“No.” She looked almost relieved he had her all wrong. “No. My name is Alessandra Thibeaux and you—” she straightened her shoulders “—you have my

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping September 12, 2017

A Cowboy to Keep is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

September 12, 2017