Hopeful Cowboy

Book 1 - Hope Eternal Ranch Romance

AVAILABLE NOW IN KINDLE UNLIMITED.

Fall in love with cowboys in a whole new way! Always clean romance. Always amazing characters and settings. This time, it's an honorable cowboy looking for his second chance at life, love, and happiness...

HOPEFUL COWBOY - available in Kindle Unlimited. READ NOW!

CHAPTER ONE:

Nathaniel Mulbury could smell something in the air. Something that indicated a change was coming.

A big change.

He stepped up to the window of the door of his dormitory and looked both ways down the hall. He’d been stationed in the wing on the far end of the hall, with only a few feet between his door and the one that led to the yard. And beyond that, the baseball fields. The track. The fresh Texas air.

He liked this dorm, because he didn’t hear any of the scuffles from the indoor area, which sat to his left and down the hall about a hundred yards.

No one roamed the halls right now, as it wasn’t the appropriate time. A count had just been called, and it wasn’t even one of the normal times. The men at River Bay endured five daily counts, three of them between midnight and five a.m.

A count meant all prisoners had to be in their dormitory, and when one was called at an off-time, it was a standing count. So Nate stepped back and held very still at attention. He’d never been disciplined in the fifty-two months he’d been at the River Bay FCI. He was within six months of his release date, and that remained fluid due to his exemplary behavior in prison.

“You hear anything?” Ted asked.

Nate didn’t even flick his eyes toward his friend. “Not a word.”

“Because you’re in that office a whole lot,” he drawled.

Nate’s teeth ground together, and he knew Ted would see the way his jaw jutted out. But he said nothing.

True, he worked in the office with the Unit leaders. Didn’t make him privy to what they knew, and it certainly didn’t give him insight as to why they’d called a stand up count at two-fifteen in the afternoon.

He’d been up most of the night, as usual. He assisted with the suicide watch, and one of their newboots had struggled mightily last night.

Nate could remember the day he’d come to River Bay as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. His brother, Ward, had dropped him off at the facility, after he’d gotten permission to self-surrender at the low security prison camp only two hundred and forty miles from White Lake, where his parents and both of his siblings lived.

Ward was the oldest of the three Mulbury children, and Nate had appreciated him more than anything the day he’d driven him to the FCI. He hadn’t had to box up his clothes and mail them back to his mother. Ward had taken them.

I’ll keep them for you, okay? he’d said.

Nate had just nodded, because he didn’t want to do anything to upset Ward. Anything more than what he’d already done, that was. Nate was the only Mulbury to be convicted of a federal crime, and his heartbeat skipped when he thought about getting out of River Bay. What would be waiting for him out there?

The hair on the back of his neck stood at attention too, and Nate looked to his left. A pair of Unit Officers came down the hall, and Nate hoped this standing count would end in a moment. His unit was usually one of the last to be counted, and he focused back on his brother’s words from the day he’d dropped Nate off.

We’ll see if these clothes fit when you get out. Ward had smiled then, but all Nate could think about was the many things he’d missed while he’d been in prison. Ward’s wife had been pregnant when they’d come to River Bay.

He’d missed the birth of his first nephew. He’d missed Ward and Jane’s divorce. He’d missed his sister’s wedding, and the birth of her two children. He’d missed birthday parties and Christmases and picnics and days out on the boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

The PA crackled. “Count complete. We’re clear.”

Nate sighed as his muscles relaxed. He climbed back onto his bunk, exhaustion pulling though him. He stared at the bottom of the bunk above his, the towheaded boy Connor had grown into forming in his mind’s eyes.

Ward’s son.

Ward came to visit Nate every week, even after all these months. These years. Every week. Most holidays, he brought several people with him. One of their brothers, and at least once a month, their parents.

His parents had gotten old while Nate had been in prison, and he’d missed that too.

“You’re up to shower,” someone said, tapping his foot against the frame of Nate’s bed. He heaved himself off the mattress that wasn’t comfortable anyway and headed out the now-open door.

He’d learned to be vigilant when simply walking down the hall. He was housed in a low security prison camp, which meant he could come and go almost anywhere anytime he wanted. There were rules and limitations, which he’d learned quickly, and he didn’t want to be caught going one direction while the other twelve hundred men at the camp were going the other.

He’d gotten a seven-year sentence for his role in investment fraud, but there were guys in here who’d used weapons during robbery, broken into homes, committed sexually based crimes, and more. Anything could happen if he didn’t watch what was going on around him, all the time.

The only time he didn’t need to do that was during the ten-minute shower he got each day. Which was why he’d heaved himself off the bed and down the hall to the bathroom he shared with the other forty-seven men in his wing of Unit NF.

He soaped and shaved, then dressed in his standard prison clothes and reported to the unit office. He had a special pass to work there, and he’d been helping with files and doing simple data entry for a couple of months now. The work wasn’t stimulating, but it was work.

Everyone in prison had to work, and most of the men needed the money. Nate hadn’t told a single soul that he did not. Ward deposited money in his prison bank account every month, though he couldn’t spend more than three hundred and ten dollars a month.

Nate, in all the months he’d been in River Bay, had not spent that much. He saw no need to call attention to himself. In fact, everything Nate had done over the last fifty-two months was to keep the spotlight off of him.

Head down. Mouth closed. That was how he’d avoided the fights, the disagreements, and the overload of tickets that seemed to fly from the Unit Officer’s fingertips.

No one spoke to him, which suited Nate just fine. He knew all the men and women in the unit office, and he felt very lucky to have been assigned to this unit.

“How’s Charles?” he finally asked when he and the unit secretary seemed to be the only ones still working.

She looked up from her computer, her eyes slightly glazed over. Nate wondered what that would be like, to feel so comfortable that he wasn’t constantly scanning the windows just beyond the office for any sign of a threat.

“Oh, uh, he’s okay,” she said, her mind clearly somewhere else. Ellen had thin, wispy hair the shade of rich soil. She tucked it away, but it just spilled out again, because it was so fine.

“Think I’ll get a full night’s sleep tonight?” Nate asked, looking back to his own computer. His was at least five years older than the one Ellen pecked on, and it didn’t connect to the Internet. Nate got thirty minutes each day to download and upload his emails, and with as many brothers as he had, it wasn’t enough time to stay caught up on everything.

“Probably,” Ellen said. “We’ve got two more on call. You took your turn last night.”

Nate thought of the three a.m. count, and though he didn’t have to stand at attention for that one, he woke up every night when the unit officers came through the rooms, their flashlights as bright as spotlights.

He nodded anyway, thinking he’d made it through another day. Another day toward his release. Toward freedom.

#

Nate did get awakened in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t because of heavy boots on the floor and those sweeping lights crisscrossing the dormitory.

No, someone was talking.

The men in his wing didn’t cause trouble, for the most part. Sometimes Ted could get a bee in his bonnet, but he had a louder bark than a bite. Though, Nate supposed he probably could have a mighty loud bark too. He’d been incarcerated for aggravated assault. He’d beat up a bouncer at a bar, and he’d had a pocketknife concealed in his sock, thus the aggravated part.

He hadn’t used the knife, but he was in possession of it.

Nate thought sometimes the law could be downright comical.

“Nate,” a man whispered, bending down to shine his light right into Ntae’s eyes.

He knew the voice, even if he was blinded to Percy’s face. “What?” he asked, trying not to sound irritated. Some Unit Officers handed out tickets for much more innocent questions than Nate had just asked. He held up one hand to shiled his retinas from all that blasted light.

“Come with me.” Percy straightened and walked away, leaving Nate confused as he tried to sit up and reason through why he’d need to go with Percy.

Rule number one in prison: Don’t go off with a guard alone.

Nate flicked a glance at Ted, who slept on the bottom bunk only ten feet from Nate. They shared the desk sitting between the two sets of bunk beds, but Nate got his own locker for his personal belongings.

“Come on,” Percy said from the doorway, and Nate stood up.

“I need shoes,” he said.

“Not for this.”

“For what?” Nate asked, his pulse starting to beat a little too fast through his body. The weight of every eye in his wing was on him, but Nate had literally never caused a scene before.

Percy turned back to him, and anguish rolled across the man’s face. “You better get dressed and put on your boots.”

Nate nodded and got changed, not caring that everyone watched him. He had to get strip searched to go into the suicide unit, so switching out his sweat pants and T-shirt for the official prison uniform was no big deal.

Ready, he walked toward Percy, who still looked like he was one breath away from crying. Ellen appeared in the hallway, a panicked look on her face. Nate frowned at her and followed Percy out of the room.

The other guard said, “Go back to sleep.”

“What’s going on?” Ted asked. “You can’t just take him. He’s done nothing.”

The door closed, sealing all the other inmates in while Nate was out. He looked through the glass, his eyes meeting Ted’s. He’d been in for longer than Nate, and he’d just reached nickel status.

Five years.

“The Commander and the Warden want to see you,” Percy said.

“Why?” Nate asked, feeling courageous that evening.

“I’ll let them explain.”

Ellen marched at the head of their group as they left the building and started down the sidewalk under the watchful eye of the moon. Nate normally loved being outside, and he had all the paths of this place memorized.

He’d only met the Warden a handful of times, and the experiences had all been good. A tension rode on the air as the four of them walked, Ellen’s heels making the most noise against the concrete.

She led the way into the Warden’s office too, where five men stood around the man’s massive desk. They all turned toward Ellen and the others as they entered.

Nate stopped in the doorway, everything in his body telling him not to enter this room. He scanned the men quickly, making a dozen observations. Prison could teach a man to notice the slightest of things, that was for sure.

The Warden looked as he normally did. Properly put together, with a tie knotted around his neck. Today’s was blue with black stripes.

Two other police officers stood in the office, and they looked like they’d just stepped out of a coffee shop on their nightly beat.

Nate’s fingers clenched into a fist when he met his lawyer’s eye, and he raised his chin. “What’s going on?” he asked. Lawyers didn’t make house calls at one-thirty in the morning, that was for dang sure. Especially not Lawrence Matthews.

No one spoke. The people in the room all looked around at one another, their gazes ultimately coming back to his.

The last man in the room was Nate’s Unit Manager, Gregory Fellows. He wore a grim look and nodded to Ellen.

“Nate, come sit down,” she said.

Nate couldn’t get his legs to work. “Ellen,” he said as evenly as he could, but his nerves made everything inside him vibrate. “Just say it.”

She sat down on a black leather couch just inside the door. Clearing her throat, she adjusted her legs and set a folder on her lap before she looked up at him with tears in her eyes.

Actual tears.

Nate wanted to run as far and as fast as he could. Whatever she was about to say wasn’t good.

“Nate,” she said again. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but your brother has passed away.”

A pit opened in his stomach, but he still managed to ask, “Which one?”

“Ward,” she said.

The name echoed in Nate’s mind. A shriek started in his soul. “But he’s coming on Friday,” he said stupidly. “He’s bringing Connor.” Ward didn’t bring his son every time, but usually a couple of times a month. He’d emailed to say Connor had made something for Nate at preschool, so they’d both be coming that weekend.

“No, honey,” Ellen said, standing. She put her hand on his arm, and Nate just stared at it. “There was an accident on the ranch, and they did everything they could.” She swiped at her face with her free hand.

“But he just audits ranches,” Nate said, not comprehending. “What kind of accident?” How did someone die when they carried around a clipboard and a ballpoint pen?

Lawrence stepped forward. “Nate, I got here as quickly as I could. Once the will was read, we moved swiftly to—”

“When did he die?” Nate asked, the words belonging to someone else. He looked from Lawrence to Ellen.

“Monday morning,” Ellen whispered.

“But it’s Wednesday,” Nate said, confusion riddling his thoughts. They were so knotted, and Nate didn’t know how to unravel them.

“You didn’t miss the funeral,” Ellen said. Her dark eyes reminded Nate of his father’s. Why he was thinking of that, he didn’t know.

“Were you aware your brother named you the legal guardian of his son?” Lawrence asked, reaching into his fancy-pants briefcase. He removed a sheaf of papers and handed them to Nate.

He’d spent plenty of time on his bed, reading complicated legal documents. But not in the middle of the night, and not minutes after he’d been told his oldest brother had died. Ward took care of everything—he took care of Nate—and Nate didn’t know how to keep breathing.

“No,” he said, staring at the black letters on white paper.

“Well, he did,” Gregory said kindly. He guided Nate to a chair in front of the Warden’s desk. “And Nate, your lawyer has petitioned for your release date to be Saturday, the day of the funeral. Then you can be there with your family and with Connor, and the two of you will be able to…start a life.”

Nate gripped the edges of the paper, his eyes unseeing. Start a life. What a joke. He couldn’t start life again.

“Since you’re still six months out from your parole hearing, we’ve made arrangements for you and Connor.” Greg placed another folder in Nate’s hands. “It’s not precedent, but this is an extenuating circumstance.”

“The judge signed the order, Mister Fellows,” Lawrence said.

“I’m aware,” Greg bit out. He sat in the chair next to Nate’s, and their eyes met. “You’ll be released on Saturday, Nate. But not to just wander in the world. You’re being assigned to Hope Eternal Ranch, one of our Residential Reentry Centers. You’ll finish your sentence there for the next six months.”

“I haven’t finished my release programming,” Nate said.

“Hope Eternal will finish it with you,” Greg said, his eyes actually softening as he spoke. “You’ll live there, with Connor, and work on the ranch. They’re a trusted partner, and they’ve taken several of our men over the years. You’ll be in very good hands there.”

Nate felt as if someone had encased his body in tight cloth, mummifying him. He didn’t know what to say or do.

No one had asked him if he wanted to be released and live at this Hope Eternal Ranch. No one had asked him—not even Ward—if he wanted to, or was even capable of, taking care of a four-year-old boy.

“Okay,” Lawrence said from behind him. “She’s here.”

The people in the room moved, and Nate twisted toward the door as they welcomed someone new. He couldn’t see them through the press of bodies, which only made his heart rate accelerate.

Finally, the crowd parted, and the most beautiful woman Nate had ever set eyes on stood there. She wore a pair of jeans that seemed to go on and on—and on—as she easily stood close to his height and had legs that went for miles. She sported shiny, almost-copper-colored hair that fell to just below her shoulders. Her eyes could’ve been any color, because Nate couldn’t quite see them in the shadows of her cowgirl hat.

She frowned at him, and then looked back at Lawrence. “Well? Does he speak? It’s been a long drive, and I’m already tired.”

“Nate,” Greg said, helping Nate stand up. “This is Ginger Talbot. She runs Hope Eternal Ranch, and we’re releasing you to her care on Saturday.”

Nate wasn’t sure if he’d hit the lottery or been condemned to death. By the growl in Ginger’s eyes and the way she folded her arms instead of extending her hand to shake his, Nate had enough mental capacity to think, I guess I did get the death penalty.

He also had no idea how to be a father.

And the pain over Ward’s death continued to radiate from deep within him, spiraling up and out until he was left bent over and gasping for air.

CHAPTER TWO:

Ginger Talbot knew her stance and her cold question made her seem like the Ice Queen. Perhaps she was. When it came to men like Nathaniel Mulbury, she had to be. She’d worked with several of them over the years.

Because Hope Eternal Ranch was a completely female-run operation, she would only take prisoners in the RRC program that hadn’t been convicted of sex offenses.

The man currently bent over in front of her, gasping for air, was a white collar criminal. She read every case and every conviction before agreeing to house the prisoner on her ranch. Nathaniel had been caught up in investment fraud in the firm where he’d worked for three years before the ceiling had fallen on everyone, from the CEO on the top floor to the secretary just inside the door, at Isotope Investments.

Her heart pounded in her chest at the sight of him still struggling to breathe. She’d been told not to touch him, but her kind, compassionate side urged Ginger to take the few steps toward him. She let her hands drop to her side, then she lifted one and placed it on Nathaniel’s shoulder at the same time the only other woman in the room said, “Nate, we’ve got a drink for you.”

She took the plastic bottle of water from the man who’d gone to retrieve it, and she too joined Ginger at Nate’s side. She put her hand on his other bicep, the two women flanking him.

“Come on now,” she said quietly. “You’re okay. You’ve been in here for fifteen hundred and eighty-one days.”

Nate started to straighten, turning toward the other woman and not Ginger. She could see him in a cowboy hat, a pair of dark jeans, with cowboy boots on his feet. And he’d be even more handsome than he was now.

Ginger strengthened the walls around her heart and mind. She let her hand drop from his shoulder, the absence of heat from his body instant and causing some sort of regret to pull through her. She frowned at herself and fell back a couple of steps.

“Thank you, Ellen,” Nate said, his voice soft and quiet, yet possessing a power Ginger couldn’t name. “But it’s eighty-two days,” Nate said, taking the bottle. “Fifteen-eighty-two.”

A ghost of a smile crossed the other woman’s face, and she too moved back.

“Ginger,” Lawrence said, and she retreated all the way to his side. She knew him, because she’d been working with him for the past two days following the death of Ward Mulbury. She knew the Warden too, but he hadn’t moved from behind his desk yet.

James Dickerson wasn’t a small man, nor one to keep silent. But he still hadn’t spoken. Ginger watched him, and it was clear the man was struggling with his own emotions. She looked at Nate again as he drank, and the picture before her cleared. These men and women here at the River Bay Federal Correctional Institution liked Nathaniel Mulbury.

Nate’s gaze moved to hers, and the air in her lungs froze instantly. Several long seconds passed before the man who’d helped Nate stand stepped between them. “We’ll make sure he’s ready on Saturday, Miss Talbot.” He gestured for her to leave the room, because she still had plenty to talk about with his Unit Manager.

Ginger held Nate’s gaze for another moment, a flash of a heartbeat, and then she stepped out the door Lawrence held for her. Down the hall in another room, she paced to the window and turned to face the two of them as they came inside behind her.

“Ginger, this is Gregory Fellows. He’s Nate’s Unit Manager.” Lawrence indicated the other man, who wore a uniform suggesting his status inside the correctional facility.

“Greg,” the man said, reaching to shake her hand. She gave one pump and looked back at Lawrence.

“So?” the lawyer asked. “He’s acceptable for your program?”

“Yes.” Ginger lifted her chin, wondering if anyone else that partnered with the BOP had such strict rules for who they’d take in. She told herself not to back down. She had to protect her friends and colleagues, as well as all the visitors that came to Hope Eternal.

And yourself, she thought, hating that door that opened in her memory bank so easily. Ginger wasn’t the type of woman to make the same mistake twice, and just because Nate was good-looking and grateful for a bottle of water didn’t mean she’d allow herself to be anything but his parole officer for the next six months.

She wouldn’t even have to do that. The Bureau of Prisons would send someone out every couple of weeks, and she could call at any time and have them come and get Nate if things simply didn’t work out.

The image of the blond-haired boy paraded through her mind. Nate’s situation certainly was complex, and he’d been hit with three very large items in the space of five minutes. All at once, Ginger was glad she’d let her compassionate side step over to him and offer him a brief touch of comfort.

She couldn’t even imagine how she’d react to one of her siblings passing away, and her heart leapt into the back of her throat.

“I believe you wanted some insight to Nate,” Greg said, adjusting one of the chairs by the door. He sank into the hardbacked seat, a long sigh coming from his mouth. “He’s the best one in the wing—in the whole Unit. Probably out of any Unit here.”

“Why isn’t he in the satellite camp then?” Lawrence asked. “That has even looser security than here.”

Greg glanced at Lawrence and then Ginger. He swiped one hand through his nearly black hair, and all the exhaustion he felt showed plainly on his face. “He was in the satellite camp for a while. Nine months, maybe? Ten. But it’s crowded there, just like it is here, and we needed him to teach our business and finance classes.” He issued a long sigh. “So we asked him if he’d come back over to River Bay Low, and he agreed. He’s done two jobs here—he’s my office assistant, and he works part-time with our suicide watch team as well.”

Surprise moved through Ginger. This Nathaniel Mulbury really was the best of the best. She’d never heard of an inmate working in the Unit office with the team.

“With his good behavior,” Lawrence said, tapping on his phone. “We have him getting released in five months and twenty-two days.”

“Probably earlier even,” Greg said. “He gets more days for every month of good behavior. He’s never been in trouble in all the time he’s been here. He has the least number of tickets out of any inmate currently in River Bay, through all security levels, and the ones he does have are for little things like not being in line on time, or dropping his shower shoes on the floor too loudly.” He looked back and forth between Lawrence and Ginger.

“If he’s so great,” Ginger started. “Why couldn’t you get him out, Lawrence? Why does he have to finish the five months and twenty-two days at all?”

His brother had died. Nate now had a child to raise.

“The judge said other family members could take the boy,” Lawrence said. “She wouldn’t uphold the will to the point where Nate could just be released to his own care, the way he would’ve been in a few months. So our next best step was the Residential Reentry Center. This way, he’s out, but under supervision. He can take the child with him. And he can have a decent transitional period to work through…everything.”

Ginger nodded, a strangely fierce determination moving through her that Nate would get exactly that. She’d help him get exactly that.

“And the family is okay with that?” she asked.

“His parents are getting up there in years,” Lawrence said. “The father has just been diagnosed with colon cancer, and no, Nate doesn’t know yet.” He sighed, and Ginger supposed even lawyers had a human side from time to time. “His sister is married with two kids under age four, neither of whom Nate has met.” He read from his phone, though surely he had these familial facts about his client memorized.

“Her husband got in a motorcycle accident only six months after they got married, and he’s disabled and in a wheelchair. She cried and cried when she told me she couldn’t take Connor on too.” He looked up and shrugged. “It’s Nate or the foster care system.”

“Nate will never let that happen,” Greg said. “Ward and Connor came to visit him all the time. He loves that boy.”

Lawrence nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard. Which is why I petitioned the judge for RRC, and specifically at your ranch, Miss Talbot. It’s only a ten-minute drive from his parents and sister. Bethany—the sister—said she could make that drive to see her brother and her nephew. All agreeable with you, of course.”

“Of course,” Ginger murmured. So many things ran through her head that she couldn’t grab onto any one thought and examine it. She drew in a deep breath. “Okay, so I’ll get the clothes on the request sheet, and I’ll be back here on Saturday morning to get him.” She looked between Greg and Lawrence. “Right?”

“Yes,” Greg said, standing. “He’ll be in the Special Housing Unit, Administrative Detention.”

“Why?” Ginger asked.

“Because he’s in crisis right now,” Greg said. “And to lessen the questions and noise from the other prisoners. We put all inmates in Admin Detention during transfers or before hearings. That kind of thing. It’s not like detention at the principal’s office. He’s not in trouble. It’s to spare him trouble.” He reached for her hand again, and they shook hands. “I’ll be there to say good-bye to him as well. He’s been a good inmate here.” With that, he nodded and turned to leave the office.

Ginger waited until the door closed and then she took his seat, combing her fingers through her own hair. “Is that all then?” she asked Lawrence.

“That should do it,” he said. “Everything will be ready for you between now and then. You get the clothes. I’ll meet you here with the boy. And…that’s that.”

That’s that.

The words didn’t seem like enough for a man who’d lost his brother and was about to become a father, all within a few minutes. So much was changing, and not for her. She’d have another cowboy on the ranch, which she desperately needed.

She seized onto the gratitude as it slipped through her veins and said, “Okay, then. I’ll be ready, and I’ll be here.” She stood and followed Greg out the door, her focus only on making it back to her truck safely.

Once there, she allowed her mind to wander. Yes, she needed Nate’s help on the ranch. She’d just had a cowboy quit last week, and his appointment through the Residential Reentry Program was a huge blessing for her.

“He’s sure handsome,” she muttered, her mood darkening. “And you’re not going to let him use that against you.”

No, she was not.

She could not.

The last time she had, she’d nearly lost everything, and it was only by God’s grace that she’d managed to hold onto the ranch and her last shred of dignity.

That’s that.

Decision made that Ginger would only speak to Nate if she absolutely had to, she made the drive back to Hope Eternal Ranch, the pure blackness that existed to her left threatening to claw at her very soul.

The absence of light over the water of the Gulf sometimes brought her peace. Tonight, though, it only served to remind her of how far she’d come since she’d fallen in love with Hyrum Charles—an inmate from River Bay, just like Nate—and how far she could fall if she allowed something like that to happen again.

#

Saturday morning, Ginger arrived back at River Bay with a small backpack. She’d gotten the requested clothes for Nate, as well as a couple of soft drinks, snacks, and a chocolate bar for both him and Connor.

She’d taken prisoners back to Hope Eternal before, and she knew how much they liked chocolate. Apparently, it was very expensive inside prison, and while she knew Nate had worked in investment banking before his time at River Bay, she suspected he didn’t have a whole lot of money to be buying chocolate every week.

Someone met her in the lobby and took her outside to a nearby building, this one much closer than the one she’d trekked to on Wednesday night. It was early still, with the sun barely lighting the sky. She’d left the ranch last night and made the three-hour drive to the town of River Bay, where she’d slept in a lumpy bed and gotten up before dawn.

She smoothed down her hair, wishing it wasn’t quite so bright. Over the years, she’d tried to tame the coppery color with hair dye, but she’d given up and embraced the auburn locks she had. Thankfully, she wasn’t walking down the center aisle of a prison, with rows of inmates on both sides, leering at her through the bars.

In fact, this building felt like an office building and nothing more. The guard who’d met her took her into a nondescript room, where Lawrence waited with Connor.

Joy filled Ginger as the little boy spun in one of the chairs around the long, oval table. He had hair the color of cornsilk, and she wondered where that had come from. Nate had medium-to-dark brown hair, with blue eyes. So maybe there was some blond-haired, blue-eyed genes in his ancestral line.

“You must be Connor,” she said, putting a wide smile on her face easily. Ginger had always loved children, even if she didn’t have any of her own.

Connor looked at Lawrence, who nodded. He got down out of the chair and came toward her as he approached him. She crouched down several feet away and set the backpack on the ground. “Guess what I brought for you?”

The little boy peered at the backpack, but he didn’t guess. She unzipped the top of it and reached inside slowly. “Did your daddy ever let you have…chocolate?” Ginger pulled the candy out of the bag and showed it to Connor.

His face split into a smile, and he said, “Yes, ma’am. Daddy bought me chocolate.” His tiny, high-pitched voice tugged against her heartstrings, and he came all the way over to her and the pack.

“I brought two now,” she said. “One for you.” She handed him one of the chocolate bars. “And one for your uncle Nate.”

“Uncle Nate loves chocolate,” Connor said.

Ginger grinned at him. “I’ll bet he does.” She handed the child the second bar. “So you hold it for him, and when he comes out, you can give it to him. Okay?”

Connor took the candy but handed his back. He didn’t have to ask for Ginger to know what he wanted. She got to work on ripping open the top of the package, and she gave it back to him. “It’s got squares, so you can just break off what you want.”

“It’s the cookie kind.” The child looked at her with wonder in his clear, bright blue eyes. “I love these.” He broke off the top square and stuck it in his mouth.

Ginger wondered where his mother was, but she hadn’t asked Lawrence. She straightened to do just that when the door in the back of the room opened.

Nate walked inside, wearing his prison uniform and carrying a medium-sized bag. It was clear, and Ginger could see everything he owned right there in his hand. Her heart beat out a song of remorse for him too, because she had no idea what it was like to have her entire existence reduced to what she could carry in a single, see-through bag.

“Uncle Nate!” Connor ran toward him, and Nate bent down to scoop the boy into his arms. He pressed his eyes closed as he hugged the little boy, and Ginger actually found herself getting emotional.

Ridiculous, she told herself, bending to pick up the backpack and zip it closed. She shouldered it and then squared her body toward Nate so she’d look tall and imposing. She was tall for a woman, she knew that. But she’d have to gain at least fifty pounds to even start to appear on the cusp of imposing.

Nate didn’t look her way anyway. He set Connor on his feet and stayed down at the boy’s level while they talked. Only when Connor gave him the chocolate and then turned to point at Ginger did Nate lift his eyes to hers.

That same magnetic power that had clenched their gazes together a few days ago roared to life. Nate straightened and opened his chocolate, biting off the first square while he simply stared at her.

“You have his clothes?” Lawrence asked, approaching her.

She blinked and ducked her head, glad for the distraction. “Yes.” She handed him the backpack, and he took it over to Nate.

“Five minutes,” Lawrence said after Nate had taken the pack and Connor back through the door. “And then he’s all yours.” He turned back to the table and picked up a folder. “Here’s all the paperwork you need for him, as well as the first month’s check. The address for the funeral is in there, as well as all of his family contacts.” He looked at the other man who’d come in, and he too wore the uniform of a high-ranking officer at the facility. “Anything else?”

“I don’t think so,” the man said. “We’ll say our good-byes out here. When he comes back in, he’ll be ready to go.”

“Great.” Lawrence collected his bag and walked toward the door Ginger had come through at the same time the officer left through the one where Nate had disappeared.

She turned in a full circle, one door closing right after the other and sealing her inside the room alone. Alone, to wait for Nate and Connor to come back.

Then, they’d all leave together.

Every time she did this, Ginger felt so surreal. After all, who in their right mind would let her take a prisoner back to the ranch? Didn’t they know she had no idea what to do for him, what to say, or how to help him?

Her legs urged her to flee. She could drop off the folder at the front desk and say she’d made a mistake.

Before she could move, the door opened and Nate walked through it, now wearing the dark suit, the black shiny shoes, and the blue and cranberry tie he’d requested for the funeral.

And Ginger couldn’t move at all.

HOPEFUL COWBOY is available now - read in Kindle Unlimited.

Read Open for Love for free right now.   This novella is always free for new subscribers!