Mr. Maybe Right for Her
What happened between Cormac and Ellie on the truck ride back to the ranch to fetch her son's inhaler...
COWBOY CONFESSIONS #2
Ellie Roberts moved down the steps of the gray metal stadium bleachers as fast as she could, while holding her six-year-old son’s hands high above his head. She was mortified that they were creating a scene, but it couldn’t be helped. Jackson’s gasping and wheezing was getting worse. If she couldn’t calm him down and get his breathing regulated soon, he was heading toward a full-blown asthma attack.
Omigosh! Omigosh! Omigosh! She felt like the worst parent in the world for forgetting to bring his inhaler along. Between the toasty Texas heat and all the dust being kicked up by the bronc riders in the arena, she was having a little trouble breathing herself.
She glanced around wildly once they reached the base of the steps, trying to remember which way the exit was. Every second that Jackson struggled to breathe, her panic escalated.
This is all my fault. She should’ve known better than to leave the house on a day like this. When her alarm had gone off this morning, she’d immediately realized she was in no condition to face the world. The only reason she’d pushed herself to get out of bed, get dressed, and go through the motions of pretending like everything was okay was because she wasn’t, in fact, at home.
She’d allowed her brother to coax her into joining him on a trip to northern Texas, where he was ironing out the final details of the new school superintendent job he’d recently accepted. They were staying with friends of his, so she hadn’t felt right refusing their invitation to attend a rodeo in lieu of holing up all day in a house that wasn’t hers.
She should have, though. So help me! I should have stayed in. A more responsible mother would’ve never dragged her son out on a day she was barely keeping it together.
Single mother, she reminded herself harshly. I’m a single mother now. Today was the anniversary of Mark’s death. He was never coming home again. It was time for her to finally accept it and figure out a way to keep living for Jackson’s sake. It was also time for her to start remembering things on her own — like bringing Jacksons’ inhaler everywhere she went — because Mark was no longer around to do it for her…or to send her those sweet little reminder texts he was always so good at sending when he was out of town.
She blinked past the mist in her eyes to scan her surroundings again for the exit.
“Ellie!” a woman called.
Though the voice sounded vaguely familiar, Ellie had no time for chitchat. As her gaze landed on an exit sign in the distance, she doggedly turned Jackson toward it.
“Ellie!” The woman caught up to her, falling in step beside her. It was no wonder she’d sounded familiar. It was Claire Cassidy, the same person who’d interviewed Ellie’s brother for the superintendent position. “Is everything okay?”
“Not exactly,” Ellie choked. Not even close, lady! She didn’t want to appear rude, but she didn’t have time for a visit with the petite, middle-aged woman in designer jeans and cowgirl boots. As usual, her dyed blonde hair was impeccably styled and her makeup was perfect.
“What can I do to help?” Claire inquired briskly.
“Probably nothing, but thanks.” Ellie shook her head helplessly. “My son’s asthma is acting up today.” Again, my fault. After catching her in bed this morning, staring teary-eyed at an old photo of Mark on her phone, Jackson had crawled into her lap and cried himself senseless. She was the one who’d put him on edge, and his poor lungs were paying the price for her carelessness.
“I can take you up to the clubhouse on the second level,” Claire offered brightly. “It’s cooler up there.”
Ellie shook her head. “Thanks, but what my son really needs right now is his inhaler.”
Jackson’s wheezing became louder.
A fresh spurt of panic shot through her midsection. “I left it at the Arlettas’ house. If you can just help me find my brother.” Todd would drop everything and drive her there. However, she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him for the past half hour.
Claire Cassidy’s features pinched with worry. “I think I saw Mr. Harrington drag him into a closed-door meeting a while back. No telling where they are now, but I know someone who can help you.”
“Who?” Ellie rasped. She was aghast at the woman’s reluctance to call Todd. She didn’t care if this Mr. Harrington was the Prince of Egypt. His blasted meeting with her brother could wait. Jackson’s condition was spiraling toward a medical emergency.
“Give me just a sec. I’ll be right back.”
Ellie’s mouth fell open as Claire hurried ahead of her toward the exit. We don’t have a second, lady!
Returning her attention to Jackson, she promised through numb lips, “Baby, I’m going to get you home.” If I have to carry you there myself! She gave his hands a reassuring squeeze as she continued towing him toward the tall exit gates. A roly-poly grandmother was standing there, checking tickets and handbags as people entered.
Claire Cassidy cut through the line to waylay one of the cowboys on his way into the arena. The way she rested her hand on his arm as she tipped her head beseechingly up at him suggested that they knew each other intimately. However, the man was way too young to be her husband.
He abruptly glanced in Ellie’s direction, looking so irritated that her steps slowed in alarm. Then his expression changed. The next thing she knew, he was snatching up the ticket lady’s chair and jogging with it in her and Jackson’s direction.
“Hey!” He parked the chair right down in front of her son, halting their progress toward the exit gate. “My name is Cormac, and I’m going to help you, okay?” Though he spoke quietly, there was a note of command in his voice she’d not been expecting from a dusty cowboy in a plain maroon t-shirt beneath a wrinkled plaid shirt that was hanging open.
Since his expression was mostly hidden beneath the brim of his Stetson, it took an extra second for Ellie to realize he was speaking to her son instead of her. Though Jackson was still wheezing uncontrollably, he nodded — no doubt responding to the note of authority in the man’s voice.
Ellie wavered between demanding that he move out of their way and waiting to see what he would do next.
As if sensing her resistance, Cormac pushed back his hat to shoot a swift glance at her. His dark gaze raked over her and seemed to take in everything from her damp eyes to her sweaty palms. “Unbutton his jeans for me, will ya?”
It was a simple request, but it assured her that he understood two very important things. Number one, that her son was having an asthma attack. And number two, that he truly was qualified to help him.
Relief flooded her mouth as she hurried to loosen her son’s clothing and get him seated. No sooner had Jackson’s bottom touched the chair than Cormac started speaking again.
“Okay. We’re going to breathe in through our noses at the same time, kiddo, and push the air out of our mouths. Can you do that with me?”
Jackson coughed and nodded.
“All right, champ. Let’s do this. Breathe in.” Cormac waved his hands in an exaggerated upward movement, as if he was forcing air into his own lungs. When he was finished, his cheeks bulged out comically. “Now breathe out.” He slowly let out his breath. Toward the end, he made a suspicious whistling noise that sounded a bit like a snore.
It soon became obvious to Ellie that the cowboy was doing more than regulating her son’s breathing. He was purposefully being silly to distract him from his fears, and it was working.
She watched in amazement as Jackson’s shoulders relaxed and his breathing smoothed to a normal cadence. Then a giggle escaped him. “Are you a clown?” he canted his head curiously.
“Actually, I’m a Little League coach.” Cormac reached over to tap the brim of her son’s red and blue baseball cap. “Do you play ball?”
Jackson nodded, brightening like a lightbulb. “I’m the first baseman on my team.”
“Wow! That’s an important position.” As they exchanged a boyish high-five, Cormac finally glanced up at Ellie again.
Eyes brimming with gratitude, she struggled to find her voice so she could properly thank him.
“Hi. You’re probably wondering who I am.” Before she could think of anything to say, he pushed to his feet and thrust out a hand. “Cormac Cassidy. Farmer by day and Little League coach by night.”
“Ellie Roberts.” She placed her hand in his, giving him a tremulous smile. “Kindergarten schoolteacher and mother of this rascal.” It seemed appropriate to give him the short version of her resume in return for the one he’d given her.
His larger hand enveloped hers in such a self-assured, macho way that the dark scruff on his jawline temporarily wavered out of view and was replaced with the jaw of a different man.
No, please! I can’t do this right now. She pushed away the thoughts of Mark, promising herself she’d get back to wallowing in them later. Then she forced her mind back to the present — to the super nice cowboy standing in front of her who’d probably saved her son from a trip to the ER. To his callused, capable fingers gripping hers and the concerned way he was perusing her face.
Embarrassed by how long she’d been clinging like a ninny to his hand, she dropped it and shifted her backpack higher on her shoulder.
His eyes followed her movement, zeroing in on her bare left hand. That is, unless she was imagining things…which she probably was.
Yep! I’m completely losing it. I really, really, really should have stayed in bed this morning.
While she inwardly debated her sanity, Jackson bounced out of his chair, buttoning his britches with an extra little hop before announcing, “And I’m Jackson!”
Cormac reached over to rub his knuckles on the top of her son’s ball cap, a gesture so reminiscent of Jackson’s late father that her heart clenched all over again.
“I hear we need to head back to the ranch to lasso us an inhaler.”
Jackson gave another excited bounce in his sneakers. “Yes, sir!”
Cormac squatted down in front of him. “You’re gonna have to help your mama remember it in the future, you hear?”
Ellie watched her son open-mouthed as he blossomed like a little wildflower toward the male attention he was receiving. It broke her heart to realize he missed his dad so much that he was happily lapping up a mild scolding from a complete stranger, albeit one who’d single-handedly just finished heading off a medical crisis.
Claire Cassidy reappeared with a set of keys and insisted they take her truck back to the Arlettas’ place.
“Thanks, Mom.” Cormac’s hand closed around the keys.
Ellie blinked. So that was his connection to Mrs. Cassidy. She would’ve never guessed they were mother and son. They looked nothing alike. She was blonde and blue, while he sported dark hair and honey-brown eyes.
Admittedly, he felt less and less like a stranger with each step they took toward the parking lot. They ended up beside a full-sized red pickup truck, where she quickly discovered that Cormac was a hands-on kind of guy.
He flew Jackson through the air like an airplane before depositing him in the middle of the seat. Then he reached out to assist Ellie next, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
She could’ve easily climbed into the truck cab by herself, but she didn’t want to make things awkward by refusing his assistance. Using his hand to swing herself aboard, she tried not to think about how strong and capable his fingers felt against hers.
His curious gaze roved her person again as she reached for the seatbelt, making her cringe a little on the inside. She knew she looked her worst today — a flushed, windblown emotional train wreck in blue jeans and a ponytail. Fortunately, he wasn’t someone she had to impress. Their paths might not even cross again after today.
The thought made every one of her mama bear instincts kick into gear. Knowing it was probably best not to let Jackson get too attached to his newfound savior, she quickly helped him buckle in. Then she whipped out her cell phone. While Cormac jogged around to the driver’s side of the truck, she opened the sports app she’d recently subscribed to and pulled up the most recent Rangers’ game.
“Here you go, sugar. It’s last night’s game.” She pressed the phone into his hands, willing him to pay attention to the game instead of the cowboy climbing behind the wheel of the truck.
“Woohoo!” Jackson crowed, settling down in the seat with the cell phone cradled between his hands.
Nothing but the muted sounds of a baseball game filled the cab as Cormac started the motor and backed up the truck.
Knowing she at least owed the man a thank you, she glanced apologetically over at him. “I’m sorry to be this much trouble.”
His dark eyebrows rose. “You mean you planned your son’s asthma attack?” He feigned astonishment. “What kind of mother does that?”
She stared at him for a moment before realizing he was teasing. “Oh, wow! You totally lied to my kid. You are a clown.”
“Nah!” He smirked. “I just happen to have five brothers. Hard not to turn into a smart aleck when you’re surrounded by that much testosterone.”
A chuckle escaped her. “Ha! Those are nearly the exact words my husband used when he was referring to his buddies in the SEALS. They were like brothers, too.” She’d not intended to bring up Mark in the conversation, but it was too late to call the words back. She supposed it was inevitable, since she’d spent the entire day drowning in grief.
Cormac was silent for a moment. “Yeah, I’ve heard the Navy SEALS are a tight group. Not surprised, though. In that kind of job, you gotta have each other’s backs.”
“They do.” Try as she might to hold back the flood of pain his words inadvertently evoked, she found herself spilling her guts instead. “They risked everything to rescue him from behind enemy lines.” Her voice shook as she recalled the fateful knock on her front door, and the uniformed visitors who’d come to inform her of his passing. “They didn’t make it in time, but they brought him back, anyway.” There was no holding back the tears filling her eyes at the memory.
“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.”
“Thanks.” The quiet sympathy in Cormac’s voice went a long way towards soothing her ragged emotions. She shot a furtive glance at her son. “The asthma attacks have gotten a lot worse since the funeral. I’m a horrible mother for leaving his inhaler behind.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Cormac sounded oddly defensive. “You have a lot on your plate right now.”
Her eyes widened as she studied his strong profile. How do you know what’s on my plate?
As if overhearing her thoughts, he shot her a rueful look. “Not trying to be nosy, but it’s a small town where everyone knows everything about each other. Naturally, I heard you’re helping your brother house shop.”
It was a much safer topic than the last one, at least. She waved both hands rapidly at her face, trying to dry her eyes. “Not just him. Jackson and I are hunting for a house, too.”
Cormac looked taken aback. “You mean you’re moving to Chipper?”
She wondered why he sounded so surprised. “We’re thinking about it, yes.” She smiled curiously at him. “Since you know we’re house shopping, then I’m sure you’ve also heard that my brother has accepted the superintendent position here. Long story short, he can be persuasive when it comes to recruiting teachers.”
“Yeah, he comes across as a pretty charismatic kind of guy.”
Ellie’s heart warmed at the compliment. Not everyone appreciated Todd’s ambitions. He was a former Navy SEAL from her husband’s unit and one of the hardest working people she’d ever known — all too often putting the demands of his professional life ahead of his personal life. She and Jackson were the only two exceptions to that rule. It was probably why he was still single.
“If I’m being honest,” she added with another anxious look at her son, “it wasn’t a hard sell on Todd’s part. We could all use a fresh start.” Dallas was full of too many sad memories for her and Jackson right now. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that the wide-open fields and country air of Chipper were exactly what her son needed right now — for both his heart and his lungs.
It was what she needed, too. Just watching the horses and cattle graze on both sides of the road brought her a sense of peace she hadn’t felt in a long time. She didn’t miss the traffic-crammed streets of the city or the constant wail of police sirens in the distance.
“So, you’re moving into town soon,” Cormac mused, shooting her a sideways glance full of mischief that made little sense.
“That’s the plan,” she returned cautiously, not understanding what it was about the guy that had motivated her to spill her guts so thoroughly to him.
“Okay, then. I’m gonna apologize in advance if my country boy ways come across as too forward for a city gal like you, but if I wait to ask you what about I’m about to ask you, someone else will snap you up first.” Cormac winked at her as he steered the truck onto the long gravel driveway leading to the Arlettas’ ranch.
Fearing he was going to ask her on a date, she bit her lower lip. Hard. Hurry up and stop the truck, please, so I can get out and run!
“I assume you plan on signing up your kid for a baseball team?”
She blinked at the question. It wasn’t the one she’d been expecting. “What?”
“Is Jackson going to play baseball next season?”
Ah. Relief flooded her at the realization that she’d entirely misread the guy’s intentions. Chalk it up to my current insanity. Her emotions were all over the place today. “I honestly haven’t had the chance to think that far ahead, but he probably will.” She nibbled on her lower lip some more. “Assuming his asthma doesn’t get any worse, of course.”
“Good, because I could really use a first baseman. My current one is about to move up to the next age group.”
“It’s very kind of you to think of him.” She was pretty grateful, actually, knowing not every coach would be anxious to have an asthmatic on their team.
“I’m also going to need a new Team Mom, since my current one is moving up to the next team with her kid. Can’t believe she’s more loyal to him than me, but there you have it.”
Ellie burst out laughing. Yeah, that was totally how it worked with six and seven-year-olds. “You really are a clown, Cormac Cassidy!”
“Is that a yes, Ms. Roberts?” He braked in front of the Arlettas’ veranda steps. The three-story ranch rose like a rustic fortress beside them.
“It’s an I’ll think about it.” She had a lot of other things to worry about first, like finding a house and getting Jackson enrolled in school.
“I’m not sure you’re gonna have much time to think about it, darlin’. Sorry about the high-pressure sales tactics here, but it’s a limited time offer.”
“Really?” The endearment slipped so smoothly off his tongue that she couldn’t tell if he was flirting with her or if that was just the way guys talked here in Chipper.
“’Fraid so, Ms. Roberts. Without going into too much detail, there’s a woman in town who’s been trying to lasso one of the Cassidy brothers into a date for months, and she just happens to be best friends with the Team Mom I mentioned. I wouldn’t put it past them to finagle something between the two of them…” He paused, turning red.
And you think a single mom like me would be a safer choice, huh? Ellie’s heart sank at the thought that Cormac Cassidy must not view her as dating material. Not that I want you to, but… Yep, there was her craziness rearing its ugly head again — afraid one minute that he was going to ask her on a date, and afraid the next minute that he wasn’t.
“How long do I have to decide?” she asked quietly.
The answering burst of hope in his gaze made her heart do a silly little backwards flip. “I could probably buy you a solid ten minutes, but that might be pushing it.”
“Are you for real?” She was unable to hold back another snicker. The guy was seriously hilarious. She couldn’t believe how many times he’d made her laugh already, today of all days.
He pretended to feel his arms and shoulders. “Looks like. That’s my current theory, at any rate.”
They shared a chuckle. Then he grew serious. “Ellie, I wouldn’t be turning up the pressure on you like this if I wasn’t desperate.” He shook his head. “Shoot! I’ll even foot the bill for your kid’s sign-up fees and uniform. Whatever it takes to get you to say yes.”
Her mouth fell open. Though she was far from destitute, she and Jackson weren’t exactly rolling in dough on her kindergarten teacher’s salary. “Wow! You’re relentless!” She rolled her eyes at him. “I would do just about anything to save that kind of money,” she admitted wryly, “but I don’t have an address yet to put on the application.
“Then use mine. You can change it later.”
“Cormac!” She gaped at him.
He held up his arm and pointed at his watch. “We’re down to eight minutes.”
“Oh, my lands! I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.” The best part about it, though, was that she no longer felt like weeping. Another glance at Jackson to ensure he was still breathing normally was enough to make the last of her resistance melt. She knew without asking that he would be ecstatic to have Cormac Cassidy as his coach. Besides, they kind of owed the guy after what he’d done for them earlier.
“Okay, you win.” She threw her hands into the air. “What do you need from us to make this happen?”
Cormac flashed her a triumphant smile that made her heart do another little silly flip-flop beneath her ribs. “Can I see your phone for a sec?”
She waved at her son. “If you can wrestle it from a six-year-old without any bloodshed, have at it.”
Cormac promptly reached over to press the pause button on Jackson’s game.
“Hey!” The boy glanced up with a scowl of protest.
Cormac winked conspiratorially at him and dipped his head closer. “You want in on a big secret?”
Jackson’s frown instantly faded. “Yeppers!” he chortled.
“My baseball team is about to have an opening for a first baseman, and your mama just agreed to sign you up.”
Jackson’s shriek of excitement was so piercing that Ellie plugged her ears with her fingers.
Cormac angled his head at the cell phone her son was still clutching. “I just need to borrow your phone for a sec to make it happen. Then you can get back to your game.”
Jackson wordlessly handed it over, though he continued bouncing like a jumping bean in his seat. He watched in fascination as Cormac pulled up an online application and started tapping through the fields. “What’s your birth date, kiddo?”
“Um…” Jackson looked expectantly over at his mother.
“May the fifth,” she supplied.
“Cinco de Mayo. That’s cool,” Cormac mused and continued typing. “Contact number?”
She glanced sharply at him, but his expression didn’t change. She hurriedly gave him her phone number, trying not to blush at the knowledge that he was about to be privy to a lot of her personal information.
She was so busy obsessing over the fact that he had her phone number that she jumped when he thrust the phone in her direction. “Okay. Your application is complete, Jackson.” His gaze lifted to meet hers. “I checked the Team Mom box for you, Ellie, and I’ll have a check in the hands of the league coordinator before the end of the day. The only thing left is for one of you,” his voice rose on a gleeful note as he glanced between her and her son, “to push the submit button.”
“Oh, can I? Can I? Please, Mom!” Jackson begged, clasping his hands beneath his chin like a little cherubim angel.
“See? No bloodshed,” Cormac pointed out in a stage whisper.
Ellie shook her head in bemusement at both of them. “How can I say no to that?”
Jackson gave another happy shriek and mashed the button, while Cormac pushed the driver’s door open to stride around to their side of the truck.
He reached up to assist her down. “Welcome to the team, Roberts family!”
She wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the sunlight or the blast of warmth in his gaze, but something made her foot miss the running board as she stepped from the truck. With a squeal of alarm, she pitched forward and ended up plastered across the front of him. Her hands clung to his surprisingly corded shoulders, while his hands clamped around her waist. For one heart-stopping moment, her face was tipped over his, while his mouth was so close to hers that she caught a whiff of his minty breath.
“I’m so sorry!” she gushed for the second time that afternoon, reaching up to straighten his hat that she’d knocked askew.
His expression grew heavy-lidded as he lowered her slowly to the ground, not even breathing heavy from the effort of catching her curvy figure in mid-air. In the past, she’d mistakenly assumed that soldiers and body builders had the most ripped arms and shoulders in the universe. Looked like she was going to have to add cowboy farmers to that lineup.
Cormac Cassidy was seriously built. Not to mention, he was kindhearted, a perfect gentleman, and great at both entertaining and out-maneuvering little boys. It was such a swoony combination that she had to firmly remind herself that he was her son’s new baseball coach.
Even if her heart was available — which it wasn’t — he wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend. He’d made that clear enough.
The second her feet touched the ground, she leaned back into the truck for her backpack and her son, trying not to think about how much she was looking forward to seeing Cormac again. “I…ah…think it’s best if Jackson and I don’t return to the rodeo,” she mumbled without turning around.
“Figured that.” Cormac’s voice was husky with understanding. “Get some rest if you can and drink plenty of fluids. It was pretty hot out there today at the arena.”
His concern was so sweet that she could’ve hugged him. Instead, she hugged her backpack tighter. “Thanks again. For everything.” She risked another glance up at him, and a jolt of something passed between them.
“Hey, I got a new first baseman and Team Mom out of the deal. I think we’re even.” He tipped his Stetson at her. Then he waited until she mounted the porch steps and unlocked the front door before getting back into the truck and starting the motor.
As Jackson raced into the house ahead of her, she glanced over her shoulder to flutter a wave at Cormac. She was touched beyond words that he’d lingered until they made it safely into the house. It was something Mark would’ve done. Or her brother. Or, in this case, her son’s new baseball coach.
He gave her a two-fingered salute and hit the gas pedal, but his crooked smile lingered on the driveway between them long after he drove away.