The Cowboy’s Convenient Bride
FOR HER DAUGHTER
Laura Jessup is used to the rumors—everyone in tiny Gibson, Montana, thinks she’s a home-wrecker. And Laura can handle that if it means protecting her daughter from her sweet girl’s father. Only hunky EMT Tanner Hudson seems immune to the gossipmongers. The solution he proposes—a marriage in name only!—might just be crazy enough to work…if only Laura can keep her heart out of it.
Tanner wasn’t sure Laura would accept a platonic marriage, even though it would stop the rumor mills and get his own family off his back. But as the wedding draws closer, Tanner worries that his plan is working a little too well. He’s falling for Laura, hard. They thought they were ready for marriage, but are Tanner and Laura prepared for real love?
“The story made me sigh and smile, connect at the emotional level with the characters, feel the discomfort of the judgmental attitudes, and the luscious feelings of falling in love, just lovely.” –Books and Spoons
“Donna Alward is a hopeless romantic, but her stories and characters are anything but hopeless. In fact, it’s that stalwart can do attitude that is the core of most of her writings and THE COWBOY’S CONVENIENT BRIDE is a shining example of Alward’s innate optimism.” — Fresh Fiction
Tanner Hudson was getting sick of the bar scene.
Unfortunately, the other option was to hanging out at home, which was nearly as bad. Particularly when his older brother, Cole, and his girlfriend, Maddy, always sat around making googly eyes at each other.
Tanner lifted his glass and took a sip of his Coke, listening to an old George Jones song on the jukebox. He scanned the room for a friendly face. The last thing he wanted this evening was a woman. His lips curved in a wry smile. He was sure that no one would believe that for a second. He knew his reputation. Cole was the steady, reliable one. Tanner was the younger brother who worked hard and played hard and liked the ladies. He set down the Coke and scowled at it. On the surface, people were right. But deep down, well, that was another story. He was pretty darn good at keeping up appearances.
Rylan Duggan walked into the Silver Dollar, dusting a few flakes of spring snow off his hat. Tanner perked up. Rylan was a friendly face, and they had a lot in common. When Ry scanned the room, Tanner lifted his chin in a quick greeting, and Rylan grinned.
Tanner got up and met his friend at the bar. Rylan ordered a beer, and as he was waiting, Tanner put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, buddy. Am I glad to see you.”
Rylan chuckled. “Why? You want to try to win back the money you lost last time?”
When they happened to be in the same place at the same time, Tanner and Rylan would often shoot a game or two of pool. Last time, Tanner had lost a twenty.
“Sounds fine to me. Slow in here tonight.”
Rylan took his beer and looked at Tanner, as if trying to puzzle him out. “Kailey’s off to some potluck supper and candle party or jewelry or…well, I wasn’t really paying attention. I thought I’d drop by for a burger. What brings you here? The Dollar isn’t usually your speed.”
Tanner shrugged, the dissatisfaction nagging at him again. “Bored, I guess. Hell, Ry, I live in a house with my parents and big brother.” He shook his head. “I should get my own place or something.” His own life, perhaps.
“Why don’t you?”
They made their way over to the pool tables. Tanner was kind of embarrassed to answer the question, actually. It came down to two things: money and convenience. The convenience thing was understandable, so he went with that. “I’m working the place with Cole and Dad. It just makes sense to, you know, be close.”
Rylan nodded. “I get it. And it can get claustrophobic, too.” He started setting up the balls. “I lived in my RV until Kailey and I moved into Quinn’s old place. The last thing I wanted was to be under the same roof with Quinn and Lacey, especially when they were newlyweds.”
Tanner selected a stick and chalked the end. “Tell me about it. I love Maddy, I really do, but she and Cole are all in love and everything, and they’re around a lot.”
“I get it, bro.” Rylan removed the triangle and reached for a stick, testing the feel of it in his hand. “Maybe you should settle down. Could be that’s your problem. Restless feet.”
Tanner laughed. “Right.” Rylan’s statement hit a little too close to home, though. Truth was, Tanner was pretty sure there was more to life than this.
He lined up and broke, balls scattering over the table.
“Naw, I’m telling you,” Rylan said. “Married life is pretty good. I never wanted to settle down, either, until Kailey. Now I know what I was missin’.” He grinned, a little sideways smile that made Tanner roll his eyes.
Tanner missed his next shot, so it was Ry’s turn. As Tanner watched, he let out a dissatisfied sigh. Everywhere around him, people were in love and telling him how wonderful it was. And it wasn’t that Tanner wasn’t happy for his brother. He was. Maddy was a great woman, with adorable kids, and he was pretty sure wedding bells would be ringing for his brother really soon.
Tanner just wasn’t sure he was built that way. Or that he was the marrying kind. He was, as his ex put it, built for fun, but not for a lifetime.
Fun he could do. Because he sure as hell wasn’t interested in having his heart stomped on again. So he worked hard and blew off some steam now and again. As far as the living-at-home thing, he’d been young and stupid and had spent his money as fast as he’d made it. But not in the last few years. He’d saved what he would have paid on rent or a mortgage until he’d built up a nice little savings. His truck wasn’t new, and other than what little he spent on going out, his expenses were few.
Maybe he wasn’t a keeper in the love department, but no one would ever accuse him of being broke and worthless again. Maybe he should bite the bullet and put a down payment on a place of his own.
Trouble was, it wasn’t just living at home that was making him itch. It was the ranch, too, and feeling as if his whole life was laid out in front of him. No deviation. No curve balls. It was so…predictable. He didn’t hate the ranch; it wasn’t that at all. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be something more out there waiting for him.
“Dude. It’s your shot. You off in la-la land or what?”
Tanner frowned. “Sorry. I’m probably not very good company tonight.”
“No kidding. At this rate, you’re going to be down another twenty.”
Mad at himself for being bad company, Tanner let out a breath and focused on sinking the next ball. He did, and two more, which made him feel as if he was a little more with the program.
They finished the game and Rylan asked if he wanted to play another, but Tanner just wasn’t in the zone. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I’m out. But I’ll take that twenty.”
“Come on. Double or nothing. I’m here for another two hours until Kailey’s done.”
Tanner thought about it, but then he shook his head. “I’m bad company anyway. You should get yourself some suicide wings and a few more beers and find another willing victim.”
Rylan laughed and dug in his wallet for the twenty. It seemed like each time they met, the bill just exchanged hands, back and forth. Tanner pocketed it and shrugged back into his denim jacket. “Thanks for the game, Ry.”
“Anytime. And, Tanner? I wasn’t kidding. Maybe you need to find yourself a woman. You know, to relieve all that pent-up tension.” Rylan winked at him and Tanner laughed dutifully, but he was far too grouchy to be amused. Women were complicated creatures. They caused any number of troubles, had the ability to stomp on your heart and strip away your confidence. And yet they remained so damned desirable. They could make a man feel like a million dollars and as if he could conquer the world. Even if it was only for one night.
“I’ll see you around, Ry. Thanks for the game.”
More on edge than when he’d entered the Silver Dollar, Tanner crossed the parking lot to his truck and hopped in. He started the engine and turned on the wipers, letting them brush the light dusting of snow off the windshield. Flurries in April weren’t that uncommon, though he was more than ready to leave winter behind for good. Longer days and warm temperatures should improve his mood, right?
He’d driven a little ways down the street when he spotted a car with its hood up in the bank parking lot. The bank was closed this time of night; whoever it was must have stopped to use the ATM. and it was the only car in the lot. As he slowed, he saw someone bent under the hood. By the shape of the snug jeans, it was a woman. And as much as Tanner considered women trouble, he wouldn’t drive away from someone with car trouble. He put on his signal and pulled into the lot.
She stood up as he drove into the spot next to her, and he recognized her immediately. Laura Jessup. Well, if that didn’t complicate matters… Laura had a new baby—and the rumor was that the father was none other than Maddy’s late husband. He’d seen her a handful of times since Christmas. It had been a bit awkward, considering how the families were now connected. More for her than for him, really. He liked Laura. Admired her, too. Maybe she’d made mistakes, but she was handling them.
Tanner had been the volunteer EMT on duty the day she went into labor and called for an ambulance. He knew he wasn’t supposed to let things get personal while on a call, but helping the single mom deliver her baby had been a different circumstance. It was a day he wouldn’t ever forget.
“Laura, hi.” He called out to her as he hopped out of the truck. “Having car trouble?”
She looked relieved to see him. “Hey, Tanner. I went into the bank and when I came out, my car wouldn’t start.”
“Let me try. I can always give you a boost.”
“You’re welcome to try and I appreciate it.” She ran a hand over her hair, which was in a perky ponytail with little orangey-red strands sticking out. “My phone’s out of juice and the baby’s in the back. Sleeping, for now, thank God.”
The baby. Tanner had ridden in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital and had been there for everything, including the final ten minutes in the emergency room when she’d delivered. He normally would have turned everything over to the doctors and nurses in the department, but Laura had grabbed his hand and asked him to stay. Begged him, so she wouldn’t be alone.
He’d stayed. Right through to the moment the first cries echoed through the room and Laura had started crying herself. Then he’d stepped back and left the room, more affected than he should have been in his professional capacity.
That had been almost four months ago. As he passed by her to get to the driver’s side of her car, he noticed that she definitely had her pre-pregnancy figure back. Well, maybe a few more curves, but they looked good on her. Real good. She looked more rested than she had the last time their paths had crossed, too. She must be adjusting to mom life. From what he heard, there wasn’t a lot of sleeping going on for the first few months with a new baby.
Giving his head a shake, he slid behind the wheel and turned the key. There was a whirring noise, but it got slower and slower and nothing caught. He glanced into the back seat. The car seat was rear facing, so he couldn’t see the baby’s face—just the edges of a white frilly hat and a pink blanket.
As quietly as he could, he got out of the car. “Looks like we’ll have to try giving you a boost,” he said. “And looking at your car, I’d say you’re probably due for a new battery.”
“Damn it.” Laura let out a big sigh. “Oh well. I guess when you drive an older vehicle you have to expect some maintenance costs.”
Tanner nodded. “I know. I go through the same thing with my truck. Hang on, I’ll pull up closer and get my cables.”
“Thanks, Tanner.” She smiled at him. “Looks like you’re coming to my rescue again.”
His gaze met hers, and heat crept up his neck and into his face. He was blushing, for God’s sake. And all because he’d covered for another paramedic that December day when her baby was born. It didn’t get much more personal than that.
Well, that wasn’t the only reason. Laura Jessup was extraordinarily beautiful. Tall, with a stunning figure, thick coppery hair, arresting blue eyes and a smile that went straight to a man’s gut. The rumor was that Gavin Wallace had fathered her baby while he was still married to Maddy. Looking at Laura now, with her sweet smile and gratitude shining in her eyes, Tanner figured he could understand how Gavin had been attracted to her. Particularly since she and Gavin had been high school sweethearts. She’d be a hard woman to forget.
Of course, Maddy was now in love with Tanner’s brother. Which made Tanner feel as if he was somehow betraying both Maddy and Cole just by thinking about Laura this way.
He jumped into the truck and maneuvered it so it was nearly bumper to bumper with hers, and then grabbed the cables from the back and hooked up the two batteries. “Okay,” he said, “hop in and try it.”
It whirred for a few moments, then sputtered and caught, roaring to life. Relieved, Tanner disconnected the cables and threw them in the back of the truck. Laura got out as he closed her hood.
“Tanner, thank you so much.”
“It’s no big deal. Glad the boost worked. You’re probably going to need a new battery, though.”
“Do you have a charger at home? In case it doesn’t start again?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’ll get a new battery tomorrow. Promise.”
He didn’t argue. The garage would be closed now anyway. Unless she drove all the way into the city, there wasn’t anywhere she could get a battery today anyway.
“I’ll follow you home,” he said. “In case it’s not your battery, but your alternator or something. You’ll know because you’ll see your charge dropping.”
“You don’t have to…”
“If your phone’s dead and you’ve got your daughter in the back…” He frowned. “I’d like to make sure you get home all right. It’s just flurrying now, but what if it starts snowing harder?”
He snorted. “Come on, it wouldn’t be a Montana spring without a few random storms.”
“Fine,” she replied. “And I appreciate it, Tanner. A lot.” She hesitated, then met his gaze again. “Not everyone would stop and give me a hand.”
It would have been less awkward had she not alluded to her persona non grata status in town. He’d often wondered why she stayed here, but figured it had to do with her grandparents. Or maybe it had been because of Gavin and now it was logistically too hard to move.
Still, she was a tough cookie for facing the community censure day in and day out. Whatever she had or hadn’t done, she’d always been friendly and polite to him—before the baby and every time they’d run into each other since. Tanner tended to judge people on what he saw, rather than what he heard.
He smiled at her. “I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t help a neighbor in need,” he said. “Besides, I’m sure you want to get the baby home.”
“Her name’s Rowan,” she said quietly.
Rowan. There was something restful about the name that he liked. “That’s pretty,” he said, feeling inept at this sort of thing. How did a proclaimed bachelor make small talk about babies? He had a flash of inspiration. “She’s healthy and everything?” Considering her fast entrance into the world, and that he was one of the EMTs that day, it seemed a logical question.
Laura smiled again as the car idled beside them. “Yes, perfectly. She likes to keep me up at night sometimes, but we just work around it.”
“That’s good,” he replied. “And you look good, Laura. Rested. Whatever you’re doing is working.”
“Thanks.” She smiled shyly. And then the silence became awkward again.
“Well, you head out and I’ll follow you just in case.”
“Sure thing. Thanks again, Tanner.”
She got in her car and he backed away, letting her out so she could lead. The snow was coming down a little harder now, and would be slick before the night was out if the temperature kept dropping. She lived in a little house just west of town limits, and when she turned into her driveway and gave a wave in her rearview mirror, he thought, as he had that day in December, how lonely it must be out here all by herself, with the neighbors spread out. Her name wasn’t even on the mailbox.
Tanner turned around and headed back toward town and home. It wasn’t until he passed the Silver Dollar again that he thought of Rylan and his comment that Tanner should go out looking for a woman.
If he did, the last one he should set his eyes on was Laura Jessup. She might be sweet as apple pie and gorgeous to boot, but she came with way more complication than he was interested in pursuing.
“Laura, is that you?”
Laura hadn’t even shut the door when her grandfather called out to her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then put Rowan’s car seat on the floor. “Yes, Gramps, it’s me. Sorry I’m late.” She took off her coat and hung it in the closet, then put her boots on the mat. For a few moments, she allowed herself to bask in the lovely warmth that came from knowing Tanner had helped her. He’d smiled as if he meant it—as if the rumors about her didn’t matter. Just as he had the day Rowan was born, when he’d held her hand and assured her he wouldn’t leave.
She couldn’t indulge in the sentimental feeling for long, however. Rowan was just starting to wake and she’d want to be fed soon. Laura had been stuck at the bank longer than she’d anticipated thanks to her dead battery, and she didn’t have any supper made. She checked her watch. Gramps liked to eat at six sharp. It was just after seven.
Before Rowan tuned up and started crying, Laura hustled to the fridge and took out leftovers from last night’s roast beef dinner. Gramps loved meat and potatoes, and it was a good thing because Laura wasn’t the world’s greatest cook. She’d bought one of those ready-to-bake roasts, microwaved frozen vegetables and managed to boil potatoes, all without burning the house down. She checked a small plastic dish and saw there was only a little gravy left from the packet mix she’d made. Maybe she could add a bit of water to it and it would be enough for Gramps.
She was happy to have him. But trying to be Martha Stewart while he was here was proving to be a bigger challenge than she’d expected. She was sure he’d get that pinched look on his face when she presented him with a warmed-up version of last night’s meal.
Rowan was awake and grumbling, so Laura took her out of the seat and held her with one arm while using the other one to take off her little pink coat and hat. Laura ventured into the living room, where she found her grandfather in his favorite chair, watching the end of the six o’clock news.
“Sorry about dinner. I’m getting it now. I had some car trouble.”
Gramps was seventy-five and still sharp, but he’d never had to cook or do for himself. With Gram in the hospital for a few weeks with a lung infection, Laura had suggested he stay with her. And she wasn’t sorry. She didn’t have a lot of family around, and they’d been so good to her since she’d come home. But living with Gramps had its challenges all the same.
“Your car all right?”
“I need a new battery. I got a boost in town that got me home. McNulty’s is closed until tomorrow.”
“I was hoping to go see your grandmother tomorrow. Since we missed today.”
Yes, they’d missed driving into Great Falls. Truth be told, Laura was exhausted. Between being up with Rowan, caring for Gramps, and trying to make ends meet, she was stretched to the limit. Today she’d asked to stay home because she was trying to work on a freelance project she’d taken on. The only reason she’d gone into town was because she’d realized she’d run out of diapers.
In the kitchen, the microwave beeped, indicating the first plate of food was ready. “I’ll see what I can do,” she promised. “Come on out to the kitchen, Gramps. Supper’s on.”
She went to the kitchen and swapped the heated meal for the cold one and set the timer again. “Could you put some water on for tea, please?” she asked. “I’d like to change Ro before we eat.”
Gramps grunted a response, but he grabbed the kettle and started to fill it. Laura tried to be patient. Gramps had been the one to work and Gram had stayed home, raised kids and looked after her husband. Laura wasn’t against that kind of existence, even though these days it was rarely practical. That had been their choice. The downside was that Charlie Jessup had never really had to do anything remotely domestic in his life, and at seventy-five he was unlikely to change. He simply didn’t understand why Laura was so incompetent in the kitchen.
Once Rowan was changed, she started to fuss. Laura made sure Gramps had his meal, but it was increasingly clear that she would not have time to eat before feeding Ro. God, she was tired. She poured water into the mugs to let the tea steep. “Sorry, Gramps,” she said, trying to inject some brightness into her voice. “I’ve got to feed Ro. The tea’s steeping, if you don’t mind taking out the bag when the timer goes.”
“Yeah, fine,” he said. “The beef’s good, by the way.”
She didn’t realize how badly she’d needed the compliment until it was given, and her eyes stung with unshed tears. “Thanks,” she answered, scooting out of the kitchen so he wouldn’t see. She went to Rowan’s room. Laura slept in here, too, on one of those blow-up beds with the fold-up frame, since she’d given Gramps her bedroom for the duration of his stay. She sank into the padded rocker and settled Rowan at her breast, exhaling several times to help her relax.
She loved being a mom. And these were precious, precious moments. Laura wished she could stop being so resentful. She resented having to breast-feed in here because her grandfather found it so embarrassing. She resented having to work when she was so exhausted because her maternity benefits were long gone. And while she tried to be grateful for her blessings, it was hard when she went into town and received knowing stares from so many people. They also gave Rowan curious looks, as if expecting her to resemble Gavin.
As far as anyone knew, Laura was a home wrecker. General consensus was she’d been having an affair with Gavin Wallace and Rowan was his child. They’d been high school sweethearts, said the whispers. And the moment she’d come back to town, they’d started up again. And then the worst rumor of all: that he’d been leaving her place the night he had the accident and was killed.
One of these days, she was going to have to leave Gibson behind. Even if she could live with the rumors and whispers, it wouldn’t be fair to do that to Rowan, especially as she got older. She wished she could tell everyone the truth, but she couldn’t. The only person who knew was her lawyer and Maddy Wallace—Gavin’s widow, who’d promised to keep Laura’s secret. She had to let it go for her own safety. For Rowan’s.
Gavin Wallace was not Rowan’s father. And if Spence ever found out that he had a child…
It would be nothing short of a nightmare.