To fulfill a sick boy's wish, rodeo star Tucker Granger surprises little Owen in the hospital. But no one is more surprised than single mother Sierra Baker. She figures the carefree champion for a different kind of man. One who doesn't spend hours talking "cowboy code" with a hospital-bound child. One who can't have her dreaming of a second chance at love. Somehow, Tucker ropes her heart and fills it with hope. Hope that this country girl and her son can lasso the roaming bronc rider into their family forever.
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January 01, 2011
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Excerpt from His Country Girl by Jillian Hart
Denver's January cold had crept into her bones. Sierra Baker shivered, rescued her hand-knit cardigan from the back of the uncomfortable black chair in the hospital's waiting area and watched a nurse pad down the hall to the busy nurse's station. No sign of Tucker Granger yet. She wrapped her arms around her middle for comfort and thought of her six-year-old son in his room. He was waiting for a visit from the rodeo rider he'd specifically requested of the children's wishing charity.
And the man was late. Her stomach had twisted into such a tight knot she could hardly breathe. Minutes had ticked by, minutes which had felt like hours, and anxiety was about to gobble her up.
Remember, God is in charge. That thought comforted her enough that she could settle back into her chair and gather up her knitting. The needles felt cool against her fingertips as she wrapped a strand of soft blue wool around the needle and began a row. It gave her something to focus on other than the fact her son was facing surgery bright and early in the morning.
He's going to be all right. She had to believe that. Her town pastor had encouraged her to be positive. Owen was in God's hands. She had to trust that this surgery to cure his heart problem would go flawlessly and he would be well.
"Sierra Baker. Is that you?" A man's amused baritone boomed across the waiting room, at odds with the somber, hushed tones around her.
Why did it have to be Tucker Granger? Of all the rodeo champions in the West, why did Owen want him? She and Tucker were from the same hometown. They'd gone through school together. She did not like him or the way he bounded into sight with his signature megawatt grin. That grin could make every eligible woman in a five-mile radius dream, but not her. He might be one of the most well-known bronc riders in three states, but her heart rate remained unaffected.
She folded up her knitting and rose from the chair. "You're late."
"Fifteen minutes, tops." Tardiness didn't concern him, obviously. He simply flashed his double dimples, the ones that could make him outshine a movie star, and the cane he walked with became hardly noticeable. "It was a battle getting from the airport. The planes are grounded. God was watching out for us because my flight was the last to land."
"I'm grateful, for Owen's sake." She didn't want Tucker to think she was one of the poor, perhaps misguided women who thought a man chasing notoriety and a carefree lifestyle was attractive. Not just a carefree lifestyle, she corrected, glancing at the cane he leaned on, but a dangerous one. The whole town back home had been buzzing with concern when he'd been injured months ago at a competition.
Why did his eyes flash amusement, as if he were laughing at her? That was another thing she didn't want to like about the man--his perpetual good humor.
"How is the little tyke doing?" He turned serious and jammed his free fist into his leather jacket. Snow dusted the brim of his hat and the wide expanse of his linebacker shoulders. His deep, lapis-blue eyes radiated a genuine concern, reminding her of the boy she used to know when they'd been in the same third grade class. The boy who had given her his lunch when bullies on the playground had taken hers. She'd almost forgotten that boy.
"Owen is doing as well as can be expected." She took a step toward the nurse's station. "That's why I was waiting out here. I want to talk to you before you see him."
"Sure. What's up?" He shifted the strap of a backpack on his shoulder.
A child's backpack, she realized. One with the rodeo association's logo and a bucking horse and rider printed on it. Thoughtful of him to bring a gift. She slowed her pace, so they wouldn't arrive at Owen's room too quickly.
"His surgery is in the morning. I don't know if Janelle told you."
"Sure she did. She said Owen's a pretty sick little boy right now."
"Yes, but he's going to get better." He had to. She set her chin, determined to stay strong. "He's fragile and we're trying not to upset him."
"That's the last thing I want to do."
"Please don't mention his father."
"You mean Ricky isn't here?"
"He couldn't be bothered." A long, painful story, one she so did not want to get into. "Owen is very sensitive about his dad's absence."
"I understand. Anything else I should know?"
"Just that he is really excited about you coming to see him."
"Hey, it's the least I can do. You've served my family how many meals at the town diner?" Kindness softened the rugged planes of his granite face. How the man could possibly get any more handsome was a complete mystery.
"More meals than I can count." She had been a waitress in the town's only diner since high school. "Your family is always so great to me. Your dad is a shamelessly big tipper."
"He's generous to a fault." Affection edged into his voice when he spoke of his father. Everyone knew Frank Granger was one of the good guys. Tucker, who looked nearly identical to his dad, had his mother's restlessness, as many in the town had said, but he didn't look restless as he fastened his honest gaze on Sierra. "Everyone in Wild Horse wants me to let you know that they are all praying for Owen. That's a lot of prayer coming this way."
"I know. I can feel it." She didn't seem as alone. Somehow it was as if all those loving prayers and well wishes wrapped around her like an invisible hug. "There's nothing like the community of a small town. I would be lost without everyone there."
"We're all anxious for you and Owen to come back home safe and sound and well again." For a happy-go-lucky man, Tucker could be steady and solid. Dark hair tumbled from beneath his hat, which he swept off as he raked the strands out of his eyes. "I'm praying for Owen, too. I was touched that he asked for me. He could have wanted a visit from an ex-president or a celebrity."
"There's no accounting for taste." The quip surprised her. She hadn't been in a light mood in many months. Tucker's chuckle rumbled through the sterile hallway like sunshine, causing a nurse and a patient in a wheelchair to turn his way and share a smile.
Owen's door was open, and the little boy was on his hands and knees on his bed watching for the first glimpse of his hero. Sierra stayed behind and let Tucker go in first, love overwhelming her at the happiness chasing across her son's pale face.
"Tucker!" Owen beamed up at his hero. His hand swiped at his dark hair falling into his big blue eyes. "You came. You're really here and everything."
"Sure I am, buddy. If I remember right, you and I have met before." The big man swept off his hat, his tone warm and friendly as he stuck out his hand. "Once at church when I was back home for Christmas and a long time ago at the diner."
"Yep. I was almost done with my chocolate milkshake when you came in. You had a big shiny belt buckle then, too." Owen slipped his small pale, bluish hand into Tucker's sun-browned one and shook like a little man. "Is that cuz you were the champion?"
"You know it. Of course, I haven't won anything lately."
"You got thrown off a horse. That's why you've got that cane, right?" If his eyes got any bigger, they would roll right out of his head.
"Goodness, lie back, Owen." Sierra moved into the room, using her mother's tone because she was comfortable in that role. It created distance between her and Tucker as she circled entirely too close to him to reach her son's side. She plumped his pillows and patted the top one. "Come on, you need to take it easy."
"But, Mom, it's Tucker Granger! We saw him on TV when he showed that bull who was boss and set the new record. I saw. He's the best."
Tucker's warm chuckle rang with good humor and not self-importance as she'd been expecting. "Hold on there, little cowboy, I just had a good day. You didn't see me a month later get thrown off a bronc and break a bunch of bones."
"Wow!" Owen flopped against his stack of pillows, his entire attention focused on his hero. "Did it hurt "