The Maverick's Surprise Son
After a deathbed promise, a cowboy makes a life-changing decision.
Overnight, rancher Jace Abernathy has gone from carefree bachelor to single dad. Frankie isn’t really his, but nothing will prevent him from protecting the orphaned newborn he saved from a fire, not even nurse Tamara Hanson. Tamara, who lives her life by the book, is convinced Jace is unprepared for fatherhood. Jace believes rules sometimes need to be broken. What neither of them realizes is that what they need most of all…is each other.
Montana Mavericks: Lassoing Love
“Don’t even think about it, Jace,” muttered Billy, oldest of Jace Abernathy’s four siblings. Divorced with three half-grown kids at home, Billy was the solid one, the both-feet-on-the-ground one. “Not every crying woman is your problem.”
Jace gave Billy a nod. “Relax, big brother. I’m not budging from this stool.”
Yes, the sobs of the blonde crying alone at the table in the corner did compel him to rush to her side, dry her tears and promise that whatever she needed, he would do what he could to help her get it.
But in the end, running to the rescue of downhearted women had never ended well for Jace—or for the women he’d tried to save. Uh-uh. Today, he was keeping his butt firmly planted on the barstool and enjoying his beer.
Up long before dawn, Jace, Billy and their second-born brother, Theo, had spent the morning and early afternoon feeding livestock, burning ditches and baling alfalfa on the family spread, the Bonnie B. Once the day’s work was done, they’d caravanned into town for a beer at everybody’s favorite watering hole, Doug’s.
Right now, Jace only needed to tune out the sad sound of the poor woman crying and to focus on the good things—his brothers beside him and a cold brew in front of him. They were having a fine time, too, bellied up to the bar, swapping stories with the bar’s owner.
At eighty-eight, Doug Moore was sharp, fun and energetic as ever. He led the wide-ranging discussion, which covered a number of goings-on in town recently. They all agreed that Bronco, Montana’s upcoming Fourth of July festivities were bound to be bigger than ever, and that the rodeo-riding Hawkins family’s arrival in town last year had really livened things up.
Then Theo gestured at the roped-off stool next to the window at the end of the bar. “When are you going to get rid of that stool, Doug?”
Doug gave Theo his easy smile. “Never.” The stool was not only roped off but marked with yellow caution tape and labeled with a sign that read Death Seat. “The haunted stool is famous,” the old man declared proudly. “Folks drop in just to get a look at it.”
Billy scoffed. “It’s famous because it brings bad luck to everyone who sits on it.”
Doug shook his gray head. “Not everyone. Let me remind you that Bobby Stone, arguably the unluckiest man ever to sit on that stool—I mean, given that he died shortly afterward—has recently returned from the grave.”
They all laughed at that. Bobby had reappeared in Bronco last winter very much alive.
“Yep.” Doug flipped his bar towel onto his shoulder. “Life can surprise a man. You never know what might happen next.”
From over in the corner came another soft, hopeless-sounding sob followed by a pitiful little sniffle. Jace took a slow breath and remained on his stool. No, he was not running to the rescue. But that didn’t keep him from feeling concern for someone who was suffering. It bothered him a lot, to know someone was hurting and yet to do nothing about it.
Theo elbowed Billy and snickered. “Uh-oh. Looks like Jace is about to find true love. Again.”
Jace shrugged off Theo’s remark. Hard truth? He had been involved with more than one fragile, needy woman. But he wasn’t doing that anymore. Next time he fell, it would be the real thing with someone strong and self-reliant.
And, anyway, Theo didn’t know what he was talking about. Jace’s concern for the woman across the room was not about romance. It was about someone in pain, which Jace couldn’t bear—and Doug was watching him.
His resolve wavering, Jace met the bartender’s wise dark eyes. “I think I’ll go over there and check on her. Make sure she’s all right.”
As Theo grinned knowingly, Billy leaned across him to whisper, “Don’t, Jace. Just don’t.”
Doug spoke up then. “She’s okay, son—or she will be in time. Right now, she’s just in love with a man who doesn’t love her. She’s leaving tomorrow, heading back to her hometown in Virginia, where she’ll have her family around her to ease her broken heart.”
“You’re looking out for her till then?” Jace asked the older man.
Jace believed him. Doug was a good man—and that urgent feeling Jace got in his chest when someone was in trouble? It eased.
He had a few errands to run before heading back to the Bonnie B, so he put some bills on the bar, thanked Doug and tipped his hat at his brothers.
Outside, the sky was a gorgeous expanse of endless blue, the temperature warm, but with a nice, cool breeze blowing down off the mountains. He jumped in his crew cab, rolled down all four windows, turned up the radio and headed for the feed store on Commercial Street.
He’d just rounded the corner onto Franklin Street and was feeling good, easy, not a care in the world—when that urgent feeling came on him again.
He sniffed the air blowing in the windows.
But coming from where?
Silencing the music, he slowed the pickup to a crawl. The residential street lined with small one-story houses seemed peaceful. A skinny kid on a bike rode past going the other way, waving, giving Jace a big, gap-toothed smile.
Nothing to be concerned about, he thought. No sirens. No alarms. He almost turned the music back on.
But then he spotted the smoke. It billowed out a ground-floor window of a two-story, outside-access apartment building on the far side of the next corner.
A strange sort of calm settled over him. His heartrate accelerated, but his mind was absolutely clear. Smoke meant fire, and he’d started training to be a firefighter when he was fourteen years old.
He heard the shriek of a smoke alarm as he swung around the corner and entered the parking lot behind the building. Waking his phone, he used the special app to contact the station where he volunteered weekly and was pretty much always on call.
As he rattled off information to the dispatcher, he swiped off his hat and dropped it on the passenger seat. He also took his pager off his belt and stuck it in the glove box. When it started beeping, it would only distract him from the job at hand. He had a fire extinguisher mounted under his seat. But judging by the volume of smoke boiling out that window, his extinguisher wasn’t big enough to put out this fire.
Jumping from the cab, he ran for the building. The crew would be there ASAP. But too often, ASAP was not soon enough. He stayed on the phone with the dispatcher, reporting what he saw as he knocked loudly on the apartment door.
No answer. He could hear the smoke alarms going off in a couple of the other units now, too.
And the smell of smoke was stronger. People in other parts of the six-unit building were running out, shouting warnings to each other, slamming doors, yelling, “Fire! Call 911!” Feet pounded down the outside stairs.
But from beyond the door where the fire burned? Crickets.
The door was cool to the touch. Jace put his phone on speaker, told the dispatcher he was going in and shoved his phone in his pocket. On a call, the absolute rule was two in, two out—you went in with your partner and came back out as a team.
But now it was just him, with no time to waste. He tried the doorknob. Miraculously, it swung open. An orange tabby cat darted between his legs and raced off, disappearing around the corner of the building. He stepped into a sparsely furnished, smoky living room.
To his left, an arch led to a square of hallway and what looked like maybe a bedroom and bath. No smoke back there. Instead, it rolled toward him through the archway on the opposite wall that led into what he assumed was the kitchen.
“Bronco Fire and Rescue!” he shouted over the blare of the smoke alarms. “Anybody here?”
He heard coughing from somewhere in all that smoke followed by a strangled cry. “Help!” The voice sounded female. “In here!”
“On my way!” Dropping to his knees to get under the smoke, he crawled toward the arch and into the room, where the smoke was so thick he couldn’t spot the woman who’d called out to him.
But then, to the continued blare of the fire alarm, convulsive coughing erupted to his left. Between coughs, the woman cried, “My baby! My baby’s coming now!”
“Stay down, ma’am. I’m right here.” He scuttled toward her. She was still coughing—hell, so was he. Right now, he’d give just about anything for his turnout gear.
“My baby!” she cried again. “My baby! Oh, no!”
He found her shoulders. She was on her back, clutching her belly. “It’s okay,” he lied. “I’m getting you out of here.”
“Oh, dear God,” was her only answer.
He said slowly, “Okay, we’re staying low. Just—” his throat locked up and he coughed some more. “—relax. Go limp. I’m going to drag you out by taking you under the arms…”
“He’s coming!” the woman screamed. “I can’t stop him. I’m having him right now.” She said something else through another fit of coughing.
He slid one hand under each of her arms and then scrambled backward toward the arch. She struggled in his hold at first, groaning and coughing, crying out, “Oh, no! Oh, dear God…”
“Easy now,” he said, trying to sound soothing even over the constant scream of the smoke alarms.
Finally, she seemed to get the message. She stopped fighting him and let him do the work.
At least the place was small. He dragged her across the living room and out the front door quickly. Rising, he reached over her to pull the door shut behind them.
The woman, in only a soot-streaked tank top and panties, was so young—in her teens, he’d bet. She rolled to her side. Clutching her big belly, she vomited right there on the welcome mat.
He should check the other units, make sure everyone had gotten out. But he couldn’t leave this poor girl lying here. From what the dispatcher had told him, he judged arrival of the crew to be maybe ten minutes out. As a rule, when they sent a unit, they sent an ambulance. But he had to be sure.
As the girl cried and clutched her belly, he whipped his phone from his pocket again. “Now!” the girl shouted. “He’s coming right now!”
Jace asked for an ambulance. The dispatcher promised that one was on the way, his voice almost drowned out by the woman’s screaming.
“Stay on the line,” the dispatcher instructed.
“Roger that.” He shoved the phone in his pocket again. Then he bent, scooped the poor girl up into his arms, surged to his feet and headed for his truck. She clutched him in a death grip and howled all the way.
Turned out, the situation was every bit as urgent as she’d repeatedly insisted. When he managed to fling the rear passenger door open and lay her down across the back seat, he could see that things had progressed a lot farther than he ever would have guessed.
As gently as possible, he eased off her panties.
The baby’s head had already crowned.
The girl screamed as he informed her that he had EMT training—he did—and knew what he was doing—he hoped. He sent a silent prayer heavenward that his reassurances might prove true. He’d never delivered a baby alone before, but he’d helped out at the emergency birth of more than one. He’d also delivered a number of foals and several calves, as well.
As the girl cried and begged him to save her baby, he got out his first aid kit. He cleaned his hands and the cut on her head as best he could with wipes, then pulled on nitrile gloves. He spoke to her soothingly as the width of the baby’s shoulders slowed the process momentarily and the young mother screamed bloody murder.
“Breathe,” he begged her. “You’re doing great.”
And she was. Really, it seemed to be going well enough—and so damn fast.
Meanwhile, to the accompaniment of the never-ending warnings from the smoke alarms inside the burning building, the girl alternately shrieked, moaned, panted and talked. She babbled out a rambling story about going into labor hours before. When she’d called her doctor, he’d said it was too early to go to the hospital yet, so she’d been timing her contractions. She’d texted a girlfriend who was supposed to drive her to the hospital when the time came but got no answer, and when she’d called, it went to voice mail. And then she’d gotten hungry and decided to fry up some ground beef.
Somehow, she’d tripped—over her cat, she thought—and knocked herself out. “And when I came to, the room was on fire and the contractions were—” She started screaming again as the baby’s shoulders popped free at last.
A moment later, as sirens wailed, coming closer, the rest of the baby’s body slid right out. The baby—a boy—looked fine and strong, with ten fingers and ten toes. He opened his little mouth and let out an angry cry. Clearly, the newborn was furious to be suddenly shoved out into the big, bright world.
Jace heard whispering. Holding the infant, careful of the still-connected umbilical cord, he glanced over his shoulder and saw that there were people standing nearby. They all looked kind of lost, their faces dazed and bewildered.
A tired-looking middle-aged woman stepped forward and handed him a large white bath towel. “For the baby,” she said softly. “Or the mom.” She offered a small bottle of water, too. Holding the newborn in one arm, he managed to take the water and the towel with his free hand.
“The fire truck and the ambulance are on the way,” he promised them all—as if they couldn’t hear that for themselves. “Did everyone get out of the building?”
The tired-looking woman nodded, and a couple of others confirmed, “Yes.”
Behind him in the crew cab, the new mother moaned. “My baby…”
He turned back to her, and she reached out her arms.
Dropping the bottle of water to the floormat, he draped the big towel over the girl’s bare lower body. Then, carefully, he bent and laid the little boy on her chest. She wrapped her arms around him, kissed his gooey head and began whispering to him softly.
Jace picked up the water bottle again and unscrewed the cap. Gently, he cradled the woman’s head with his free hand and offered her a drink. Looking up at Jace through anxious eyes, she managed a couple of careful sips.
“Please, mister.” She shook her head when he tried to coax her to drink a little more. He gently eased her head down to the seat again. As he screwed the cap back on the bottle, she stroked her baby’s head and said to Jace, “I can see you’re a good guy.” Her voice was weak, breathless. “If something happens to me, you… You have to take him. You have to…take my baby.”
He blinked and fell a step back. That wild, desperate look in her eye reminded him too sharply of the promise he’d made last year in a situation scarily similar to this—and that promise?
It was one he hadn’t been able to keep.
“No!” he practically shouted. Gulping in a calming breath, he lowered his voice. “Really. Nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re going to be—”
“Please. I’m all he has. Don’t let them put him in the system. You take him. Take him, please. Give him…a real home. Please.”
“Listen, I really can’t—”
“And my cat…” She talked right over him. “He’s an orange tabby. His name is Morris. I need you to, um… make sure he’s okay.”
Jace felt sick to his stomach, but he sucked it up and reassured her yet again that she would be fine and she’d be a wonderful mom, that everything would work out right, that he’d seen the cat run out and Morris wasn’t hurt.
But come on. What good did his promises and reassurances do? Bad stuff happened, and all the well-meaning promises in the world couldn’t change that. He couldn’t swear he would be able to find her cat.
And as for the baby…
Uh-uh. No. Even if he were willing to take on a newborn baby, he was in no position to guarantee that he could make that happen.
Which was why his answer to this poor girl had to be no. No more promises he wasn’t sure he could keep. No way. Never again.
“You’re going to be fine. Your little boy is fine. There’s no need to worry about—”
“Oh!” The woman moaned. “Something is not right…” She let out a cry and shut her eyes as her arms went limp.
He dropped the water bottle and caught the baby before the little guy rolled off her chest to the floor.
The white towel? All of a sudden it was soaked with blood, like a dam had broken inside that poor girl.
Dear God in heaven, this was beyond bad.
He always tried to be prepared for anything. He always kept his first aid kit handy in his truck, along with extra rope, a seat belt cutter and a window punch—and that fire extinguisher under the front seat.
But postpartum hemorrhage? He recognized it, yeah, but that didn’t mean he was prepared to deal with it.
Where was the damn Pitocin when a man needed it?
She opened her eyes. “Please. Please, mister… Take my baby… And my cat. You have to…” Her weak voice trailed off.
Now she’d gone really pale, a gray sort of pale. She was clammy with sweat. Carefully, he lifted the towel. There was a lot of blood with no sign of the placenta. He should at least try abdominal massage, to see if that might help.
He turned to look for someone to hold the baby—and the pumper pulled into the driveway, the ambulance right behind it.
The woman kept begging and the blood kept flowing. And then the sirens went silent. But the smoke alarms never stopped.
“Please,” the woman chanted. “Take my baby, please. Find my cat…”
The situation broke him. He heard himself agree—to take the little boy he now held in his arms. To find the damn cat.
“He’s an orange tabby,” she whispered raggedly. “His name is Morris. Find him, please.”
The baby shrieked in his ear. Jace cradled him close and rocked him side to side. He said, “I saw your cat run out. Honestly, I’m sure he’s fine.”
And then Livia Court, a paramedic from the ambulance crew, came rushing toward them. She asked for a quick update from Jace and he gave it. Then, speaking softly to the new mother, she clamped the cord and cut it.
“How’s the baby?” asked Livia.
Jace replied, “Doing well.” Still holding the crying newborn, Jace moved out of the way as RayAlvarez, the other paramedic, ran up with a stretcher. They swiftly loaded the new mother onto it and wheeled her toward the waiting ambulance.
The stunned and staring people from the building had stepped back. The pumper crew was already rolling out lines to deal with the fire.
Jace cradled the naked, screaming baby closer. At least the day was warm. The little guy wasn’t shivering—just in desperate need of his mother in this big, scary new world he’d fallen into.
Continuing to rock him, Jace whispered, “Okay, now. It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay. They are going to fix your mama up just fine.” As if words helped. As if saying them could make them true.
Miraculously, the baby quieted. Jace cradled his blood-streaked head and held him away a bit to look at him. The little one stared up at him almost in wonder, his tiny mouth working, as though he was trying to figure out what that hole was doing in his own face.
Jace felt a laugh bubbling up. He swallowed it down. There was nothing to laugh about here.
And then Sharon Cox, one of other firefighters whom they all called ZipIt because she never did, came running from the ambulance. “They’re ready for him now,” she said. “I’ll take him.”
He passed the little guy over. His arms suddenly way too empty, he asked, “The mother?”
“We’re doing everything we can.” Sharon’s grim expression was not reassuring. For once, even ZipIt seemed to have very little to say. They shared a glance of bleak understanding.
And then she was turning, striding for the ambulance, cradling the baby who had started wailing again.
Jace was left standing there alone. He watched the ambulance race away, siren screaming. Shoving the back seat door shut on the bloody mess and that crumpled, red-stained towel, he went to do what he could to help put out the fire.
A half hour later, the blaze was extinguished, and the smoke alarms silenced. The young mother’s apartment had been gutted, and the one above it was almost as bad.
“The center units have smoke damage,” said the chief, Dan Foster, aka DantheMan. “Only the front two apartments got away clean—but the baby is safe and the mother is at the hospital by now.” The older man clapped him on the shoulder. “Good work, Junior.”
Every firefighter Jace knew had a nickname. Jace got his back when he was fourteen—and not because he was named after his dad. He wasn’t. But when he was eight years old, a bad barn fire out at the ranch had killed his dog, Ginger. That day, Jace had vowed to become a firefighter when he grew up. And as soon as he was old enough, he’d started volunteering at the station as a junior firefighter.
The older guys had called him Junior from the first day and never stopped. He would carry that nickname to his grave.
Jace said, “The woman’s cat is missing. Anybody happen to see an orange tabby? A good-sized cat. His name is Morris.”
DantheMan shook his head. “Not that I know of, but I’ll ask around.”
Jace knew he should follow the pumper back to the station and help out. They were a limited crew, most of them volunteers. There was always way too much work to do after a fire.
But first, he had to know for certain that the mother and the baby were okay. “I have to check on something,” he told the chief. “But I’ll stop by the station after.”
With another firm clap on his shoulder, the chief let him go.
Jace marched to his crew cab and got up behind the wheel. He yanked off his bloody nitrile gloves and threw them over his shoulder into the carnage of the back seat.
For a minute, he just sat there, staring blindly out the windshield, thinking about that promise he’d made, telling himself he would not have to keep it. The young mother would be fine. She would recover and raise her son.
And once things settled down, the orange cat named Morris would show up, none the worse for wear.
At Bronco Valley Hospital, the fiftyish woman behind the glass partition in reception eyed Jace warily.
He couldn’t really blame her. He’d spent a few minutes in the restroom just now, cleaning up as best he could. But his T-shirt and jeans remained covered in soot, ashes and streaks of dried blood. Plus, he smelled like a doused house fire, like burned wood and soggy, half-incinerated upholstery with acrid hints of melted plastic.
He tried his best to look harmless as he gave the woman his name. “I’m Jace Abernathy, ma’am.” In Bronco, people respected the Abernathy name as a rule, though this woman did not seem particularly impressed. He put on a regretful expression. “Sorry I’m such a mess, but I volunteer at Bronco Fire and Rescue. I just came from that fire over on Franklin Street. And I’m here because I delivered the baby the ambulance brought in not too long ago. I just wanted to check on them—the baby and the mother. I wanted to make sure they’re both all right.”
The woman gave him a careful smile. “Hold on just a minute, will you?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure. Thank you.”
She rose from her swivel chair and went through a door behind her. When she came back out she said, “Please have a seat, Mr. Abernathy. A nurse will be with you shortly.”
“All right, but I just want to know—”
“Please,” she cut him off. And she wasn’t quite meeting his eyes. What was she not saying? “The nurse will tell you whatever you need to know. Just sit over there. It won’t be long, I promise you.”
He gave up and went to the waiting area a few feet away, where all the chairs were upholstered in fresh-looking nubby fabric. Not wanting to dirty up the furniture, he stayed on his feet.
Time crawled. He had a bad feeling and that made him antsy. He kept glancing at the round clock on the wall over the reception desk. Three minutes went by—minutes that felt like half a century.
And then, from down a long hallway, a short, very pretty brunette in light blue scrubs bustled toward him. She had her shoulders back and her head high. When she spotted him, she smiled—a forced smile.
His heartrate accelerated.
The news was not good. He was certain of that now.
The nurse’s big brown eyes locked with his as she rounded the shoulder-high wooden partition that screened off the waiting area. “Mr. Abernathy?”
“Jace. Hi. I’m Tamara Hanson.” She gestured at the nearest chair. “Have a seat.”
He glanced down at his filthy T-shirt and sooty jeans. “I’d better not.”
“Please don’t worry about that.” She indicated the empty chair again.
He didn’t budge except to stick his hands in his pockets. Quietly, he explained, “I just want to know about the woman and the baby from the Franklin Street apartment fire. I got them out and delivered the baby in the back of my truck, and now I just need to know how they’re doing.”
“Mr…” Before he could correct her, she caught herself. “Jace.” Another forced smile. “The baby is fine. He’s been fed special formula, and now he’s napping in our neonatal intensive care unit.”
“NICU?” Jace’s gut clenched. “But you just said—”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t clear. Most babies stay in the room with their mothers. When that’s not possible, we have a well-baby area in our small NICU.”
He drew a slow, calming breath. “Well baby, you said.” He savored the words. “Then he really is okay?”
“Yes. He is. He’s just fine.”
“And the mother?”
She pressed her full lips together. “I really think you ought to sit down.”
His heart knocked hard in his chest, like a big fist trying to beat its way free of containment. He stood taller. “Talk to me, Tamara. Please just tell me the truth.”
With a sad little sigh, she gave in. “I’m so sorry, Jace. The mother didn’t make it.”