Chapter One of Love Comes for the Cowboy
Grant Hembree knocked on the glittered “KEEP OUT” sign taped to his daughter’s bedroom door.
He knocked again, harder this time. “Sweet Pea? You ready?” he asked as he rubbed his knuckles.
“Taylor,” he said in a stern voice. “You need to open up. It’s almost five-thirty. We’ll be late for dinner.”
“I don’t want to go,” a high-pitched voice replied from behind the door.
He took off his Stetson and ran his fingers through his hair. Never in a million years did Grant think raising a child would be so difficult. He used to think the cows were stubborn, but they didn’t hold a candle to his own flesh and blood.
“Taylor, whether or not you want to go is not up for discussion. I’ll give you five minutes and then you better be ready. We don’t want to keep Mr. Rick and Ms. Macy waiting.”
Taylor called out, her whiny voice muffled by the door. “Why can’t I just stay here?”
“We’ve been over that a million times. I’m not leaving a ten-year-old out here on the ranch alone. So kick that idea right out of your head and meet me in the kitchen in five minutes.”
He put his hat back on and walked through the hall, pausing a moment to look at the baby portraits of Taylor that hung on the long walls. She had such a sweet temperament back then. What happened?
When he got to the kitchen, he opened the fridge and took out a Cheerwine. He leaned against the counter and took a long swig. It wasn’t until the sweet, fizzy drink hit the back of his throat did he realize how thirsty he was. It rarely got so hot in May; he’d have to remember to do a better job staying hydrated when he was out working in the pastures.
He gulped down the rest of the drink, then let a loud, deep burp escape as he crushed the can.
“You’re gross,” Taylor said as she moped into the kitchen.
“Belching is a normal bodily function. You should try it sometime.”
Taylor rolled her eyes. The older she got, the more she looked like her mother with sparkling blue eyes and long black hair. Acted like her, too, always so full of drama. Grant tossed the can in the recycling bin. The last thing he wanted to think about was his ex-wife.
“I still don’t want to go,” Taylor said as she crossed her small arms.
“I thought you liked Mr. Rick and Ms. Macy. And it’s buy-one-get-one night at Frankie’s. You can get your very own mushroom pizza if you want.”
Taylor’s cherry-red lips pouted. “I don’t like pizza.”
“Since when? Hey, what did I tell you about wearing lipstick?” He tore off a paper towel and handed it to her.
She rolled her eyes again as she wiped her mouth. “All the girls at school wear lipstick. Why can’t I?”
Grant snatched the red-streaked paper towel from her. “Because you’re only ten years old.”
He tossed the paper towel in the trash. “Look, Taylor, I’m not going to discuss this with you again. You can play dress-up here at home, but I don’t want you lookin’ like a hussy out in public.”
“What’s a hussy?”
Grant’s hands tightened into fists; he’d walked right into that one.
“Never mind. Come on. We’re late.”
“Hey, Frankie!” Grant called to the plump man in the kitchen behind the counter as he followed Taylor into the pizzeria. Frankie’s was an anchor on Main Street, run by a jovial second-generation Italian and his daughter, Jenna.
“Hope you’re hungry, Grant!” Frankie replied with a laugh.
Grant deeply inhaled the distinct aroma of garlic and pepperoni. “I could eat a cow,” he called back.
Grant’s friend, Rick, jumped up from a table near the back of the dining area and waved. “Over here!”
Taylor shuffled her feet in front of him, and Grant finally had to prod her to walk faster. When had she gotten so mopey?
When they got to the table, Grant and Rick shook hands. “Good to see you, buddy,” Grant said before he leaned over and kissed Rick’s wife, Macy, on the cheek.
“Ciao, Grant,” Macy said as she wrestled a frizzy piece of hair back into her bun. “Ciao, Taylor.”
Taylor half-smiled then dropped her gaze to her feet.
Grant and Rick had been childhood friends before Rick became a famous rock-n-roller. But that was before Rick met and fell in love with Macy, Magnolia Grove’s high school chorus teacher. Rick retired from his band before he and Macy got married the previous year. A heaviness hung over Grant’s heart as he watched Rick reach for Macy’s hand. The couple was over the moon for each other. Too bad not all marriages were like that.
“Sorry we’re late,” Grant said as he pulled out a seat for Taylor.
She plopped down and stared at her lap.
“Taylor, say hello to Mr. Rick and Ms. Macy,” Grant nudged as he sat beside her.
“Hello,” Taylor said as she gazed at the red and white checkered tablecloth.
Grant’s jaw tightened. Why couldn’t she be a little more outgoing?
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of quarters. “Here,” he said as he handed them to Taylor. “Why don’t you go play some Pacman?”
Frankie had recently acquired several vintage video games and had set up a little game room in the back.
Taylor huffed, but took the change and slid out of her chair.
“Have fun, Sweet Pea,” he called after her. She didn’t acknowledge him.
Grant readjusted his hat. “Sorry about that. I don’t know what’s gotten into her lately.”
A thin woman sporting a small gold nose ring came up to the table. “Y’all ready?”
“You know what you want, Grant?” Macy asked.
Grant handed the menu to Jenna. “Taylor only likes one kind of pizza, so I’m ready. I’ll have a large Carnivore’s Delight for me and a medium mushroom pizza with extra cheese for Taylor.”
Jenna wrote the order down on her pad. “And to drink?”
“A large Cheerwine and a small Mellow Yellow. Thanks.”
“And you two?” Jenna asked Rick and Macy.
Macy scrunched up her freckled nose when Rick ordered Hawaiian pizza, then ordered a veggie pizza for herself.
Jenna updated the order and took their menus. “Y’all comin’ to karaoke night this week?” she asked Rick and Macy.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Macy replied. Not only was Macy a fantastic choral director, she also had an impressive set of pipes and never failed to wow the karaoke audience at Frankie’s on Friday nights. Grant used to take Taylor, but recently she’d lost interest.
After Jenna left, Grant said, “Again, I’m sorry for Taylor’s behavior. She’s been a handful.”
“Well, it’s the last week of school before summer break,” Macy said. “My students have been pazzo for a couple of weeks now. Maybe she’s just ready for a break.”
After Rick and Macy got married, Grant finally got used to Macy throwing miscellaneous Italian words into her speech. When he asked Rick why she did it, Rick shrugged and said, “It’s just her thing.”
Grant glanced to the back room. There Taylor was standing beside the Pacman game. Why wasn’t she playing?
Jenna brought their drinks and put four straws on the table. Grant and Rick tore off the ends of the paper wrappers on their straws and blew on the exposed end of the straws, causing the wrappers to shoot across the table toward each other’s faces.
Macy shook her head. “You guys still act like bambinos.”
Rick pulled her close and snuggled his nose into her ear. “Admit it. You love it.”
Macy giggled then pushed him away. “Back to Grant’s problem. Has Taylor’s teacher at school mentioned anything?”
“No,” Grant said. “But I have my end-of-school meeting with her in a few days.”
Macy put her straw in her drink and swizzled it around. “I wouldn’t worry too much, Grant. She’s at an awkward age for girls.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with her this summer.” Grant scratched his chin. “The girl who babysat occasionally for me just graduated and is going on a trip before she goes to college, so she’s not an option. I don’t like leaving Taylor by herself, but we’ve got calves coming soon and fences to mend so I’ll be tied up with work.”
It was at times like this Grant felt most alone. His parents had passed on years before; his mother lost her battle with cancer the year after his father died of a massive heart attack. He didn’t have any siblings. And then Kimilee left. How was he supposed to raise his daughter all alone?
“Hey, you know my friend, Brianna, right?” Macy asked.
“Yeah. I knew her brother Chase in school.”
“Well, she decided to go back to work after a long maternity leave and called a nanny service over in Kent. She hired a young woman to take care of little Tyler while she’s at work. She’s been thrilled with the arrangement and the baby adores the young woman. I’ll ask her for the number to the service if you’d like.”
“A nanny? Isn’t Taylor a little old for a nanny?”
“I don’t think so. Besides, it’s really the same thing as a babysitter. And you just said you’re going to be working a lot this summer. Brianna’s nanny comes over every morning and leaves when she gets home from work, but you can also get a live-in nanny. It just depends on what you think would be best for Taylor.”
Grant took a sip of his drink. A live-in nanny? Maybe a female influence would do Taylor some good.
“I don’t know,” he hedged.
“Tell you what. I’ll get the information from Brianna and pass it along to you. Then you’ll have it if you want to explore the option.”
Jenna came back and put four plates on the table. “Pizza’s on its way out.”
Grant stood. “I better go get Taylor. She hates cold pizza.”
He walked up to Taylor just as the ghost “Blinky” caught up to her Pacman. She handed him most of his quarters back.
“This game is stupid.”
He jingled the change in his hand. “Looks like you didn’t play many rounds. You have to play to get better.”
She rolled her eyes for the hundredth time since she’d been home from school that afternoon.
“Come on, Sweet Pea. Pizza’s on the table.”
As he followed her back to the dining area, he decided to give the nanny business some serious thought.
Carla Crespo placed her hand on the edge of the kitchen counter, and from first position slowly lowered herself into a graceful demi-plié. Money was scarce, and dance classes were out of the question. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t stay in shape. Her apartment was tiny, but she had just enough room in her shotgun kitchen to do a barre workout, and she needed to stay in shape if she ever hoped to open her own studio one day.
Dance was the only thing that soothed her, the only thing that made her problems vanish. And today she needed them to vanish.
Another demi-plié and poof! The dread of having ramen noodles for the hundredth time in a row disappeared. A plié in second position and poof! The eviction notice on her coffee table faded away. A coup de pied from fifth and poof! The worry of how to pay her final semester tuition evaporated.
The news wasn’t all bad. She’d received all A’s in her penultimate semester at Kent Tech. Little good it would do her, though, if she couldn’t find the money to pay for her last semester. She was so close to getting her business degree she could taste it.
She turned around and began her routine again on the other side. An arabesque and poof! The rusty hot plate at the end of the counter became invisible.
After her workout, she used the stained kitchen towel to wipe the dampness from her neck. It was just the end of May, but the air was already hot and heavy.
Carla fanned herself with the towel; she had no hope of getting the landlord to fix the window unit, especially now that she was being evicted. But a hot apartment was better than no apartment. How long did she have before she got kicked to the curb?
Her stomach roiled as she pulled a package of ramen noodles out of the cabinet. If someone had told her little girl self that someday she’d be living in South Carolina barely holding things together at twenty-six years old and eating ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she’d have laughed. But barely getting by in Kent, South Carolina was better than barely getting by in New Jersey. Much better.
As Carla filled a pot with water, her phone chimed out the melody from The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the ballet The Nutcracker Suite.
“Hey, Jayla,” she answered while placing the pot on the hot plate.
“Hey, girl. You get your grades today?”
Carla turned the dial on the hot plate to high. “Yeah, I’m good. You?”
“This girl has done got herself in trou-ble. Can you believe I gotta retake marketing?”
Carla imagined her younger friend popping her head back and forth while she talked. She was super animated, which was one reason Carla liked her. Jayla was fun but genuine, and Carla hadn’t come across many genuine people in her life.
“Yikes. Can you take the class this summer?”
“Maybe. If I can fit it around my work schedule.”
Carla pulled one of the two plastic bowls that came with the apartment out of the cabinet. “Work schedule? You got a job?”
In the college town of Kent, jobs were hard to come by. Carla had applied to every restaurant in town, but no one was hiring. She would have applied in the surrounding towns like Magnolia Grove or Rockhart, but she didn’t have a car and relied on public transportation to get around.
“Ooh, girl. I got a sweet gig. I applied to Kiddo’s Nanny Service and got hired on the spot I tell ya, on the spot! I’m babysitting two kids this summer.”
“Babysitting?” Hmm…she’d never thought about babysitting. But Carla had plenty of experience taking care of kids. Her aunt and uncle in New Jersey had plenty of them.
“You think I could apply there?” Carla dumped the contents of the ramen noodle pack into the boiling water.
“Don’t see why not. Mrs. Archer, the lady who runs the place, said they always need extra help in the summer. School lets out, then the parents panic ‘cause they don’t know what to do with the little rug rats. Some jobs even provide room and board.”
Room and board? If that were true, Carla wouldn’t have to worry about where she was going after she got booted out of her apartment. And if she were frugal, by the end of the summer she might have enough money to pay for her last few classes at tech.
“Can you send me the address of the service?”
“I’ll text you now.”
“Thanks, Jayla. You’re a lifesaver.” Carla checked the time on the phone. It was after seven; she’d have to wait until the next day to go apply at Kiddo’s Nanny Service.
“And tell Mrs. Archer I sent you,” Jayla said. “Who knows, this girl might get herself a little bonus.”
After she hung up with Jayla, Carla fanned out the ramen noodles and poured the salty concoction into the bowl. For the first time in a long time, dinner didn’t taste too bad.