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Keeping the Cowboy - Signed Paperback

Keeping the Cowboy - Signed Paperback

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When her dreams become a reality, will she be able to leave the family she’s come to love?

Blackwater Ranch series book 5.

Main Tropes

  • Single Dad
  • Nanny
  • Found Family

Synopsis

When her dreams become a reality, will she be able to leave the family she’s come to love?

Jade Smith has always dreamed of teaching abroad. While she waits for her chance, she takes a nannying position at Blackwater Ranch. It’s supposed to be temporary, but she soon learns that this devoted single dad and his boisterous five-year-old won’t be easy to leave when the time comes.

Aaron Harding was wrecked when his ex bailed on him and their son, leaving him to raise Levi alone. He’s in no hurry for either of them to fall in love again. It just isn’t worth the risk. But as he watches the way Jade cares for his son, he starts to wonder if a happy, two-parent family is finally within their reach.

When the opportunity of a lifetime leaves Jade with an impossible decision to make, will she choose to follow the dreams of her past or to make this man and his son her future?

Keeping the Cowboy is the fifth book in the Blackwater Ranch series, but the books can be listened to in any order.

Read Chapter One

Jade stood outside her car at the Quik Stop and looked down the straight road that would lead her to Blackwater Ranch. She needed a fill-up, but she also needed a breather. Her nerves hummed and her heart beat faster with every mile she drove toward her new home.

Sitting in the car for hours did nothing to expel the energy. Fortunately, the anxiety was temporary. Jade loved packing up, moving to a new place, and starting over. There was a thrill behind the stress that made the sweaty palms worth it.

The pump clicked when the tank was full, and she set the nozzle back into the holder. It felt good to stretch her legs, but the jittery nervousness coursing through her veins told her she needed to run a few laps around the parking lot. She’d probably get a few sideways looks if she started jogging in circles.

Settling into the driver’s seat of her minivan, she closed her eyes and filled her lungs with the sweet air that smelled like her favorite air freshener—heather and bergamot. The scent reminded her of her grandparents and the Scottish Highlands.

Jade pushed the breath out slowly, counting to five before opening her eyes. She picked up her phone from the console and checked her email. Still no word from the job notification site.

Some days, she felt as if she might have a shot at landing the job she wanted on the other side of the world. Other days felt a lot like grasping at smoke. Jade had spent almost every summer with her parents in Fort Augustus, Scotland visiting her aunt and grandparents, and a huge part of her heart still ached to mingle her passions—teaching young kids and living in the Highlands.

Closing out the email app, she called her mother, who had asked for a check-in when she made it to Blackwater.

Her mom answered on the second ring. “Hey, sweetie. You there?”

“Almost. I just stopped for gas, but I’m only about ten miles out.” Jade started the car and made sure the Bluetooth had connected the call to the speakers in her minivan. She wiped her clammy hands on her jeans before gripping the steering wheel at ten and two.

Yes, she was a single woman with a minivan. Jade had planted herself firmly on team minivan when she started homeschooling her four nieces and nephews. It just seemed wrong to sell the Honda Odyssey that the kids had appropriately named the magic school bus.

“Call me tonight. I can’t wait to hear about it.” Her mother’s excitement was genuine, but there was an unspoken sadness hidden beneath the words.

Jade had lived in half a dozen different cities and towns in her life, but she’d been living within an hour’s drive from her parents for the last two years. Her relationship with them had only grown stronger lately. Now, she was starting a new job two hundred miles from home, and the change was bittersweet.

“Any news?” her mother asked.

It was her daily check-in. “Any news?” meant, “Have your prayers of becoming a primary school teacher in a quaint Scottish town come true?”

Jade looked right, left, and right again before pulling out onto the straight road. “Not yet.”

“Don’t worry. God has a plan.”

“I know.” Jade smiled. She heard those words so often from her family. Why was it sometimes hard to believe them?

She did know God had a plan. She just sometimes wondered if God’s plan was for her to be a tumbleweed for the rest of her life, blowing where the wind took her.

“You’ve got this. This job sounds perfect for you. Who knows, maybe you’ll love it in Blackwater.”

Jade could hear the unspoken ending of that sentence. “And you’ll forget all about the Scottish Highlands.”

“It’s like you don’t know me at all.” Jade’s mother did know her better than anyone in the world. Her mom was also worried that Jade wouldn’t find her place in the world.

When her American mother fell in love with her Scottish father in Edinburgh back in the 80s, they’d thought long and hard before ultimately deciding to live in the States. But even after Jade and her sister were born, they made a point to visit her dad’s family in Scotland at least once a year.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and Jade still didn’t know which country to call home. Dual citizenship only made the distinction less clear.

“I do know you,” her mother sweetly said. “And I know you’re great with kids. This is where your heart calls, and I hope you love it. There. I said it. I hope you’re happy enough with this job to put down roots there.”

Jade tried not to read too much into the words, but her mom had summed up every doubt that hung around in the back of her mind. She did love kids, and she did want to be happy here.

“Maybe I should just forget about Scotland. It’s a long shot anyway.”

“I didn’t say forget about it,” her mother said in her no-nonsense voice she reserved for gentle lectures. “I just hope you can stop thinking about it long enough to enjoy the present. You’re always waiting for the next thing.”

Jade’s navigation system dinged, letting her know she needed to turn soon. “I need to go. Looks like I’m almost there. By the way, this town is gorgeous.”

“Isn’t it? Your father and I visited Jackson Hole when we were newlyweds. It was beautiful.”

The green summer fields that rushed up to the distant mountains looked similar to the Scottish Highlands. “Gorgeous. I’ll have to send Gran some photos. She won’t believe how much it looks like home.”

There it was again—confusing home with a country where she didn’t have an address.

“I have to run. Don’t forget to call me. Love you.”

“Love you too, and I won’t forget,” Jade promised before disconnecting the call.

She turned onto the dirt road where a hanging metal sign with a backward B rested flush against an R. Both letters sat boldly within a horizontal oval with Blackwater Ranch lining the top curve.

The landscape was breathtaking. Jade had seen a lot of beautiful places in her life, and this view had her easing off the accelerator to take it all in. The drive split off to the right and left just before a large, wooden house that sat atop a slight rise.

Jade parked the minivan next to an older truck just in front of the porch that ran along the entire front side of the house. Before getting out, she lifted her phone and snapped a few shots to send to her mom and gran.

After sending the photos, Jade grabbed her messenger bag and stuffed the phone into the side pocket. The adrenaline coursing through her body had morphed from heavy anxiety to hopeful excitement. She’d looked up the ranch on the internet, and though the photos on the website were stunning, they couldn’t possibly capture the awe she felt as she stepped out of the minivan.

Jade looked back at the path she’d just driven and let her gaze travel slowly over the reaching acres of the ranch, turning in a complete circle before stepping up onto the porch. The sign on the door read, “Come on in (but wipe your boots first).”

Jade grinned down at her black flats. She wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or Missouri where she’d lived for the last few years.

She pushed open the solid wooden door and hefted the strap of her bag more securely on her shoulder. The room was huge with high ceilings and a rustic aesthetic that reminded her of the comfort of The Four Winds, the restaurant her grandparents owned in Fort Augustus. The mantle above the fireplace even resembled one she’d seen at a lodge in Glencoe once.

A door on the other side of the room opened, and a smiling woman wiped her hands on her apron. “Hello. Welcome to Blackwater. Are you checking in?” the woman asked kindly.

Jade rubbed her thumb against the underside of her bag strap. “Actually, I’m Jade Smith. I’m supposed to be meeting Aaron Harding. He hired me to teach his son.”

“Oh!” The woman’s eyes widened, and her mouth formed the perfect O. “It’s wonderful to meet you. I’m Anita Harding. I’m Aaron’s mother. Levi’s grandmother.”

Jade relaxed as Anita’s warm welcome settled around her like a fuzzy blanket. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Jade held out a hand to shake, but the sweet lady cradled it between both of her hands and squeezed before going all in for a hug. “We’re so glad you’re here. We love our Levi so much, and I’m glad he’ll get to start school here with you.”

The gesture was so casual and familiar. Did Anita greet all strangers this way? If so, Jade was on board. It was clear Anita radiated joy as the faint lines on her face fell perfectly along a pattern that mimicked a smile.

Anita pulled back to look at her watch. “Aaron should be here any minute. I’ll send for Levi too.”

“Thank you. I don’t mean to rush anyone. I can hang out here until they arrive.” Jade gestured to the round wooden tables scattered throughout the room that surrounded a long rectangular table with bench seats on both sides.

Another woman stepped from the kitchen carrying a wicker basket of cleaning supplies with rags stacked on top.

“Laney,” Anita called. “Do you have a minute to come meet Levi’s new teacher?”

The woman set the basket down and eagerly rushed over. “Hi, I’m Laney. It’s great to meet you.” She extended a hand to Jade.

After Anita’s friendly greeting, Jade hadn’t known what to expect going forward. She grasped Laney’s hand and gave it a good shake. “I’m Jade.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” Laney said. “We’re a pretty close-knit bunch around here, and Aaron told us all about you after your phone interview.”

Taken aback, Jade wasn’t sure how to take the comment. Were they good things? Mr. Harding had seemed straight-forward and a little unsure on their phone call. Was he second-guessing his decision to homeschool? Had his wife insisted on the homeschool path?

Suddenly, doubt seeped into the cracks she’d begun sealing with the ladies’ friendly welcome.

Laney rested her hand on Jade’s shoulder. “Only good things! We were all impressed with your resume, and he said you were very nice on the phone.”

With Laney’s reassuring gesture, the tension eased from her shoulders. Kids were so much easier to connect with than adults, but Jade felt a comfort born of normalcy here.

“I can’t wait to meet Levi. What’s he like?” Jade asked.

“You’ll love him,” Anita said. “He keeps us on our toes around here.”

Laney grinned. “He does.”

“Is he the only child here?” Jade questioned.

“He is,” Anita confirmed.

“For now,” Laney said before quickly snapping her mouth shut.

Anita turned to Laney with a stare that could melt metal. “Spill it.”

Laney’s eyes grew wide, and she held up her hands. “Nothing. I-I was just assuming.”

Jade heard the door open behind her, and she turned to see a broad man wearing a blue flannel shirt hang his hat on the hook by the door.

Her mind felt blank. She couldn’t register anything beyond the handsome man walking toward her. She wasn’t some meek kid in high school, but apparently this man was capable of making her forget her birth date and phone number. Wait, she really needed to remember her phone number. It might come in handy.

Anita stepped up beside Jade and held out a hand toward the man. “Jade, this is Aaron, Levi’s dad.”

“Oh, wow.” The words were out before she even registered the sound of her voice betraying her muddled thoughts, and embarrassment sucked the breath from her lungs for a heart-pounding second. “I mean, hi. I’m Jade.” She cleared her throat and tried to regain some shred of dignity after swooning over the man.

“Aaron Harding. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”

Even his voice sent a comforting lick of warmth up her spine. She accepted his outstretched hand and every sensory receptor on her skin zinged when they touched. Oh, she was in trouble. She enjoyed the feel of his strong, calloused hand wrapping around hers way too much.

Of course, this seemingly awesome job wouldn’t work out for her. That would be too easy. There was no way she could work for this man without fumbling around like a baby deer all day. How unprofessional. She should probably just nod, smile, and wave good-bye as she left the way she came in.

Aaron ran his fingers through his dark hair, doing little to tame it.

It didn’t matter. The man could be bald, and she’d probably still melt when he looked her way.

Speaking of looks, those grass-green eyes were strikingly beautiful.

Oh no, he was looking at her, and there was too much silence. Had he asked her a question?

“Hmm?” Maybe she needed to just leave now before things got worse.

Aaron rubbed a hand over the back of his head. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was nervous too.

“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” he repeated.

“Oh, no. My GPS brought me straight here.”

“Good. I have a few papers for you to sign, and then I can show you around.”

Jade nodded, unable to look away and incapable of saving face. “Okay.”

Rapid, low beats on the hardwood floor drew Jade’s attention from her ridiculously handsome new boss, and her puppy-love session took a direct hit. A little boy who could only be Levi barged in with a gorgeous brunette close behind.

“Shoes!” Anita shouted, stopping the boy in his tracks.

The boy turned on a dime and disappeared out the door, but the woman approached with a kind smile.

Probably Aaron’s wife. That would be the icing on the cake. She’d just drooled over a married man. Good thing she hadn’t unpacked. Maybe she could excuse herself to the restroom and sneak out the back door.

Why was she so nervous? She’d had plenty of jobs, attended three different colleges, and visited fifteen foreign countries. She should be a pro at adapting by now.

The little boy was back, running full speed in his socked feet past the woman. He didn’t slow his run as he barreled into Laney’s arms.

“Hey, kid.” She squeezed the boy tight.

The woman who arrived with the boy reached out a hand to Jade. “Hey, I’m Camille, Levi’s aunt.”

Oh, good. The roller coaster of emotions was plummeting again. Up, down, up, down. Jade wanted off this crazy train.

She took Camille’s hand and tried to catch her breath. “I’m Jade.”

Aaron cleared his throat. “Levi, this is Mrs. Smith.”

Jade spoke quickly without thinking. “It’s Miss Smith.”

Well, her embarrassment wasn’t complete unless she made it abundantly clear she was single. “I mean, I don’t mind if he calls me Jade.”

Levi smiled up at her, looking so much like his dad. They had the same eye color, which meant she’d be spending a whole lot of time with a little reminder of her new and inappropriate crush.

“You’re pretty,” Levi said.

And every doubt fell away. Every thought of skipping out and forgetting about this job disappeared as she was reminded of her purpose here—to teach a young child with love and kindness.

Everyone chuckled at Levi’s sweet honesty.

Camille offered Levi her fist to bump. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Nothing tells the truth like kids, drunk people, and yoga pants.”

Even Jade laughed. Levi sure knew how to break the ice.

“I think we’re going to get along just fine,” Jade said.

She couldn’t leave now. Not after meeting Levi. How irresponsible would it be to lead him to believe she’d be teaching him only to run off minutes later?

Jade looked from Levi to Aaron who grinned at his son. This man was trusting her to be a good example for his kid, and she couldn’t let him down.

Everything might work out. She could give herself a pep talk tonight and push a silly crush and her lingering insecurities aside. She might like working here. Possibly a little too much.

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