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Kelly Reid could always tell a bull rider by his walk—part swagger, part stagger, as if everything hurt but his pride.
This particular bull rider strode into the diner as dawn was breaking over the mountains behind Reno. He was tall and solid with muscle from staying the course atop two tons of bucking brahma. His black hair was shorn on the sides and flopped over his forehead. Tattoos decorated tanned biceps. His dark brown eyes were bleary and she figured he hadn’t slept in twenty-four. Kelly knew the look well. She saw it every day in the mirror after she finished night shift.
He made for the counter and slid onto a stool, flashing her a smile that was charming despite his obvious fatigue. A bulging manila envelope was stuffed inside his jeans waistband, not quite obscured by the big silver buckle that confirmed he was a rodeo rider. He drew out the envelope, placed it on the counter and laid his forearm over it protectively. “Coffee, please.”
She poured steaming java into a thick ceramic mug. “Going to be another hot one.”
He shrugged. “Late June.”
Kelly glanced into the storeroom where her six-year-old son was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor, out of sight behind the ajar door. Ricky stirred, sighed. She held her breath, waiting for the raspy cough. His heart condition was getting worse and she was scared to death something would happen to him before she could get him the help he needed.
Cesar, the cook, didn’t mind Ricky staying over when he was having a bad night but her boss, Mr. Wilson, didn’t like it. She’d received two warnings already. Only when Ricky settled again did she relax.
Replacing the coffeepot on the burner, she made conversation with the cowboy. “Rough night?”
“Great night,” he said absently as he scrolled through his phone. Strong hands, long fingers—two of them taped together on his right hand. He frowned, as if he hadn’t found what he was looking for.
“Something to eat?” Kelly wiped the already spotless counter, her glance sweeping the diner. The truckers tucking into breakfasts over in the booths were okay for now.
The cowboy put away his phone and looked at her. His dark eyes lit with a curious spark, as if seeing her for the first time. “What have you got?”
There was a hint of a flirtation in his tone, deliberately subtle so she could take the question any way she wanted. A small flutter lifted her heart. He was cute. More than cute—he was hot. Normally she only had to think of Ricky for any flicker of interest in a man to quickly fade. As the mom of a sick kid she didn’t have a life of her own. That was okay. Ricky was her life.
This time, though…the flicker flared a little brighter. Hand on hip, she looked him up and down with a mischievous smile, as if deciding if he was man enough for her.
“I know exactly what you want.” She called over her shoulder to Cesar in the kitchen. “Bull rider’s breakfast.”
“Is that a thing?” the cowboy asked, humor in his voice.
“It is.” She found she was still smiling at him.
“How did you know I ride bulls?”
“You have that look about you.” She shrugged. “We get a lot of rodeo riders in here, usually on their way out of town.”
“Exactly where I’m going.” He extended a callused hand. “The name’s Cody.”
“Kelly.” Shaking hands with customers wasn’t something she normally did but his gaze was magnetic. The warmth and strength of his grip flustered her and she eased away. “Excuse me. I’ve got work to do.”
She got a tray of clean, steaming mugs from the dishwasher and unloaded them at the other end of the counter. Amid the clatter of heavy ceramic, she gave herself a good talking-to.
Rodeo dudes are all the same. They think every woman wants into their pants.
Cody had bad boy written all over him from his burning black gaze to the braided rawhide around his wrist to his muscular thighs encased in faded jeans.
Sure rodeo riders were exciting and the danger made it extra thrilling but she’d dated a few cowboys in her younger days and she knew the way these guys whooped it up on the circuit. Booze, women, parties. Round and round they went until they burned out or broke their fool necks.
She grabbed the coffeepot and refilled the truckers’ mugs then cleared the table some customers had just left. Back behind the counter she surreptitiously pulled out the handful of small bills and coins from her apron pocket and counted her tips. Her mouth tightened. It hadn’t been a very good night. The electricity bill would have to wait. Ricky’s medications took precedence but she owed on them, too.
Midway down the counter, the cowboy was frowning at his phone again. He sighed, a sound of frustration.
Kelly tucked her tips back in her pocket. “Everything okay?”
“Buddy of mine took a bad tumble yesterday and left in an ambulance,” the cowboy said. “I’m trying to find out if he’s okay but he’s not answering his phone. I can’t get ahold of a doctor.”
“Ask for the nurses’ station,” Kelly said. “The nurse on duty can read his chart and tell you his status, if your friend gave his permission, that is. Nurses take care of patients. They’ll know exactly how he’s doing.”
“I was there when he was admitted. He did give permission.” His thumbs tapped at the number pad with renewed vigor. “You sound as if you know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, well…” She trailed away, not wanting to dwell on how many times she’d rushed Ricky to Emergency.
“Mom?” Ricky whispered, standing in his PJs in the doorway to the storeroom, rubbing his eyes. He always remembered to whisper because he didn’t want to get her in trouble. “Can I get up?”
“Sure, honey,” she said in a low voice, grateful that Cody was occupied in speaking to someone on his phone. She steered her son back into the storeroom and started to roll up his sleeping bag. “Get dressed. You can play with your toys at the counter till it’s time to go home.”
She closed the door on the storeroom and turned to find Cody watching her curiously. Damn. Bringing Ricky to work broke all kinds of rules and she never knew who would take exception. “How is your friend?”
“He had surgery. The long-term prognosis is uncertain but he’s going to be out of action for a while.” Cody tucked his phone away. “Cute kid you’ve got there. Is he…okay?”
Her chin rose. “He’s fine. He’s a terrific kid. The best.”
“I only meant, he looks pale. Does he have the flu or something?”
“It’s nothing contagious.” Cody seemed like an okay guy but strangers didn’t want to hear that her six-year-old had a congenital heart condition and needed an operation she couldn’t afford. That kind of talk made people uncomfortable and she was weary of consoling others over Ricky’s condition. Plus she hated that her child was continuously surrounded by talk of his health. More than anything she wanted him to have a normal childhood.
To her relief Cesar rang the bell to let her know Cody’s breakfast was up. Kelly set the plate heaped with scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns in front of the cowboy. “More coffee?”
Ricky slipped out of the storeroom, ducked under the counter and climbed onto the stool next to Cody. “Are you a rodeo rider?”
“How did you guess?” Cody asked digging into his eggs.
“You’ve got a silver buckle.” Ricky laid his backpack on the counter and pulled out a collection of toy horses and cowboys. “I’m going to be a rodeo rider when I grow up.”
Kelly’s heart clenched. Oh, Ricky. He couldn’t even play a game of T-ball without getting out of breath. She turned to the pass. “Hey, Cesar. A stack and a side of pig.” Then she lifted the hinged counter and crossed the black and white tiled floor to a senior couple who’d arrived a few minutes ago and were perusing menus.
When she’d taken their order, a plate of steaming pancakes and a side order of sausages were waiting at the pass. She set it in front of Ricky and poured him a glass of milk.
“I’m not hungry.” Ricky hunched his thin shoulders, ignoring the food.
“Eat up, honey,” she coaxed.
“If you don’t eat that sausage, I’ll feed it to my horse.” Cody winked at Kelly and hovered his fork over Ricky’s plate, pretending he was going to snatch it away.
Ricky laughed, startled. “Horses don’t eat sausages.”
“Then maybe my horse will want those yummy pancakes.” The fork shifted over the pat of melting butter sliding down the golden cakes.
“No way!” Ricky giggled. “It’s people food.”
“Really?” Cody looked astonished. “Then why aren’t you eating it?”
“I am.” Ricky jabbed a fork into the sausage and taking a bite, chewed vigorously. “See?”
“Well, I’ll be darned. You are eating.” Cody went back to his own breakfast. Nodding at the figurines, he asked, “What are your horses’ names?”
Kelly smiled, for once not admonishing Ricky for talking with his mouth full as the boy chatted happily. He ate steadily, consuming half his breakfast without seeming to realize he was doing so.
“Were you in the National?” Ricky asked, referring to the National Rodeo that had just been held in Reno.
“That’s right,” Cody said. “I’m a bull rider. Bareback broncs, too, but I like bulls the best.”
“Can I come and watch?” Ricky turned to Kelly. “Can I, Mom?”
“It’s over, son,” Cody said. “I’m on my way home to Sweetheart. Maybe next year.”
“Okay.” Ricky pointed to the thick manila envelope beneath Cody’s arm. “What’s that?”
“My prize money.”
Ricky’s eyes rounded. “Were you the champion?”
“Yep. Plus I won at the casino.” Cody’s glance darted around the dining room, his fingers plucking at the edge of the envelope.
Ricky, losing interest, slid down off his stool. “Mom, I need the bathroom.”
“Off you go, quickly now.” She glanced at her watch. She hoped the morning shift would come on soon so she could get out before Mr. Wilson arrived.
When Ricky had left she said in a low voice to Cody, “It’s not safe to carry a lot of cash around.”
“Didn’t want to leave it in the truck,” he said.
“I guess not.” She cleared away Ricky’s plate and glass. “Do you and your sweetheart have a family?”
“You must have misheard. Sweetheart, Montana, is the town where I live. I’m too busy rodeoing to settle down.” Cody gave her a sly, sexy smile. “But I’ve got a soft spot for single moms.”
Yeah, right. What kind of rodeo rider wanted a kid around when he was trying to make time? But the glint in his dark eyes made the temptation to banter irresistible. Why not have a few minutes of harmless fun? Once he’d paid his bill and left, she’d never see him again.
She leaned against the counter and returned his smile. “What makes you think I’m single?”
“I might have a boyfriend.”
One black eyebrow arched. “Do you?”
The answer was no but she wasn’t going to tell him that.
“You should have come around before you got beat up in the rodeo ring,” she said, grinning. “Your performance might be…wanting.”
“Ouch.” Cody pressed a fist to his chest as if in pain. “That hurts even more than getting tossed by a bull.”
“Oh, poor baby,” Kelly said.
“You could kiss it better,” Cody suggested hopefully. He pointed to his lean jaw. “Right here.”
She shook her head with a laugh.
Ricky appeared around the corner and crouched to retie his laces. Kelly straightened up, cleared her throat, smoothed down her dress. “More coffee?”
Cody was too busy looking at Ricky to reply. “His lips look a little blue.” There was compassion in his lowered voice. “Are you sure he’s okay?”
Frowning, Kelly felt Ricky’s forehead. It was clammy and his breathing was shallow. “He gets like this sometimes.” Sighing, she added, “He has a partial atrial septal defect.” At Cody’s puzzled expression, she explained. “What’s known as a hole in the heart.”
“You can’t get it fixed?” Cody asked.
“I’m a single mom and a waitress. You do the math.”
“That sucks.” He scrubbed at the back of his head. “I wish there was something—”
“It’s okay. We’re fine.” She put on her brightest voice. “I’m saving up for the operation.”
If she hadn’t had to drop out of college, if Ricky’s father hadn’t disappeared as soon as he’d found out she was pregnant, if she had family who were in a position to help financially… If, if, if. Bottom line was, she couldn’t take care of her child. That hurt so much.
“Anything else I can get you?” She whipped out her order pad and totaled his bill. Flirtation was over. As soon as her situation was made clear most guys lost interest.
“No, I’m good, thanks.” He turned to Ricky and held out a hand. Ricky put his small paw inside and Cody shook gently. “You eat all your food and someday you’ll be riding bulls.”
“I will.” Ricky beamed up at him. “See you next year.”
“Kelly!” an angry male voice barked.
She froze. Her boss was early. Turning to face his accusing glare, she swallowed. “Good morning, Mr. Wilson.”
Ricky ducked behind Cody’s stool.
Horace Wilson came behind the counter, got right in Kelly’s face. “Your son stayed over again. I can see his sleeping bag there on the floor,” he said, low but furious. “This is the third time—that I know about.”
“He’s sick. I didn’t have anyone to leave him with.” Buck and Shawna, the older couple who lived next door and babysat sometimes, hadn’t been available.
“Not my problem,” Horace growled. His shirt buttons strained over his wide belly. “It’s against Occupational Health and Safety rules for someone to sleep in an area of food storage.”
“I checked that. There’s no such regulation,” Kelly objected in a tone somewhere between defiant and pleading. “Ricky’s no trouble. He doesn’t touch anything.”
“He distracts you from doing your job. I warned you.” Horace wagged a finger in her face. “Three strikes, you’re out.”
“Wha—what do you mean?” Kelly felt a trickle of cold fear down her spine and all she could think of was her unpaid medical bills.
“Hey, now, that’s not fair,” Cody protested. “You can see the boy isn’t well. She’s been doing her job just fine.”
“Mind your own business,” Horace said, scowling. He banged through the swing doors to harass Cesar over the state of the prep area.
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I tried to hide.” Tears spilled down Ricky’s thin cheeks and he was shaking.
Kelly gathered her son close and held him tightly. “Don’t cry. Everything’s going to be okay.” Over the top of his head she looked at Cody. “I appreciate you standing up for me.”
“That man is a bully,” Cody said angrily. “You should get legal aid and fight him for unfair dismissal.”
“It’s no use. He’s been riding me since the day I started because I can’t work all the shifts he wants me to.” She released Ricky. “Go get your things. Let’s get out of here.” Removing her apron, she turned for the storage room where she’d stashed her purse.
“Wait.” Cody called her back. “Don’t forget your tip.” He tucked the thick envelope between his empty plate and the coffee cup.
She laughed in disbelief. “You’re crazy. There must be thousands of dollars in there.”
“If I hadn’t distracted you, you might have noticed your boss coming and gotten Ricky out of the way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She picked up the envelope and thrust it at him. “I’m not taking it.”
“It’s for the boy.” Cody put on his sheepskin jacket. “Better grab it before your jerk-face boss sees it and claims his share. Good luck.” Clapping his Stetson on his head, he strode toward the exit.
Kelly snatched up the envelope and hurried after him. “You’re not thinking clearly. I know how addled a brain can get after staying up all night. If you don’t take it back, you’ll regret it later.”
“What I would regret is not doing something to help your little boy when I had it in my power.” A wistful, almost yearning look flickered across his weary face, then vanished in a cynical hardening of his jaw. “Better Ricky benefits than I blow my winnings on Jack, women and poker.”
“It’s too much,” Kelly insisted. “He’s not your responsibility.”
He glanced past her and his face softened again. “Ricky needs you, darlin’. Take care of your son.”
She spun around to see Mr. Wilson heading toward Ricky with a black scowl on his face. “Ricky, come here,” she almost shrieked, desperate to put herself between her child and her boss.
Ricky ran to her, dragging his unrolled sleeping bag, his backpack bouncing. The exertion left him breathless and doubled over. Stuffing the envelope into her pocket she picked him up—he was so light, underweight for his age—and carried him out of the diner just in time to see Cody drive off in a red pickup truck. He was moving too fast for her to catch the license number but she recognized the distinctive map outline of Montana.
Frustrated, she stopped short. Damn and bless him.
She got Ricky into the car and made sure he was comfortable, her mind already formulating a plan. Cody had given her the money on a whim but she knew his first name and the town where he lived. She could find out more online. She would track him down and insist he take it back.
In the driver’s seat, she glanced at Ricky’s face in the rearview mirror, pale and wan, and her resolve wavered. Her little boy needed help so badly. Remembering the odd look that had crossed Cody’s face, she suspected he had his own reasons for giving it to her, reasons that had nothing to do with her or Ricky. She doubted anything she could say or do would make him take the money back.
Locking all the doors, she looked around to make sure no one was near. Then she pulled out the envelope and started counting. By the time she got to the last hundred-dollar bill she was as breathless as Ricky. Sixty-five thousand dollars. It was a fortune. Ricky could have his operation, she could pay her medical bills and have enough left to tide her over till she got another job. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Ricky said, hiding his own anxiety. “You’ll get another job.”
Kelly wiped her eyes. She’d forgotten he could see her in the rearview mirror, too. “Everything is fine, honey. I hated this diner anyway.”
“Cody sure was nice, wasn’t he, Mom?” Ricky held up his hand and showed her a smooth green stone, a perfect oval. “Look, he gave me his lucky rock.”
Take care of your son.
Cody, a complete stranger, had not only tapped into her deepest need, he’d also given her the means to fulfill it. The future opened up like sun breaking through dark clouds. “He’s an angel.”
End of Excerpt