A Rancher's Pride - By Barbara White Daille

Chapter One

The minute Sam Robertson saw his mother’s frozen expression, he knew something terrible had happened. He hadn’t seen that look on Sharleen’s face since the night his daddy died.

He tossed his Stetson onto the hook by the kitchen door and crossed the room to where she sat at the table. The mouthwatering smell of beef and vegetables came from a bubbling pot of stew on the stove. He was home later than normal, but the table wasn’t yet set for their supper. “Mom? What is it? What’s wrong?”

She shook her head for a second, as if she couldn’t speak. Lines crinkled the skin around her blue eyes. She looked about ten years older than when he’d left for the north pasture early that morning.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Sam…” She cleared her throat and started again. “Ronnie was here.”

“Ronnie?” He frowned. He hadn’t seen his ex-wife in five years. If things had worked the way he wanted, he’d have never heard her name again. “What did she want after all this time? Just stopping by to say hello?”

“She said she’s settling down again. With another man.”

“That’s what has you upset? You should know better.” Sam laughed shortly. “And we should both pity the poor guy. So, what did she do, come all the way from Chicago to drop off an invitation to the wedding?”

“No.” Sharleen brushed her fingertips across the hair near her temple.

A nervous gesture he hadn’t seen, either, since the months right after his daddy’s death. Whatever the news, she didn’t know how to cope with telling him. How bad could it be? He’d written his ex out of his life a long time ago. She couldn’t do anything to affect him.

He sank into the chair beside hers. “Come on. Just let me have it. What did she want?”

Sharleen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, she said, “She dropped something off, but not an invitation. She brought a little girl with her. Four years old. Ronnie left her here. She said she’s your daughter.”

“What?” The news rocked him back in the chair. “That’s impossible.”

“I’m not sure that it is.”

He stared at her.

“The child is blonde,” she continued. “Like Ronnie. But she’s got your eyes. Your daddy’s eyes. She looks like a Robertson, through and through.” She waved toward the arched doorway. “See for yourself.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he rose and moved to the door. He had to brace himself before he could step into the living room.

Everything looked familiar. The pair of plaid couches facing each other. The long pine coffee table between them. The clock ticking away on the mantel. Everything looked familiar, except the child sitting on one of the couches.

A beautiful little girl.

The daughter he’d always hoped for, the start of the family he’d never had.

He shook his head. Pipe dreams, for sure. Ronnie had never told a true story in her life. This child couldn’t be his.

She wore a blue T-shirt, white shorts and denim sneakers. In her arms, she cradled a stuffed tiger. A couple of dolls rested on the couch alongside her.

As he moved another step into the room, she looked up.

Small and blonde, just as Sharleen had said. And more.

The girl’s eyes shone in the light from the table lamp beside the couch. Silver-gray eyes surrounded by dark lashes, a perfect match to his own.

His throat tightened. He felt frozen in place.

She gave him a shy smile.

He’d seen that half-twisted grin in plenty of his own childhood pictures. Not impossible after all. The child was his.

Somehow, after what seemed like hours, he managed to raise one hand to wave at her. “Hello.” The word came out in a croak. He hadn’t the first idea of what to say and went for the standard opening line. “What’s your name?”

Sharleen moved up to stand behind him and rested her hand on his arm. “Her name’s Becky,” she told him. “But she can’t hear you, Sam. She’s deaf.”

FROM THE SHADOWS OF THE BARN doorway the next afternoon, Sam stole a glance across the yard to where his little girl played by the back porch steps, unmindful of anything near her.

If he had reason to yell Becky’s name, she wouldn’t hear him. If Porter’s uncontrollable mutt appeared from the ranch next door and made a beeline for her, she wouldn’t know. If the house collapsed behind her, she’d never have a clue—unless she saw the dust cloud kicked up from the falling debris.

And, worst of all, Sam couldn’t explain any of this