Rodeo Sheriff

By: Mary Sullivan

CHAPTER ONE

Honey Armstrong wouldn’t have thought Rodeo’s sheriff, being the predictable sort, could do much to surprise her.

Except show up with children.

Cole Payette, in civilian clothes instead of his uniform, stood just inside the open doorway of Honey’s empty bar with two kids.

The cloudless June day cast Cole and the children into silhouette.

Sunlight limned Cole’s muscular frame and lightened his thatch of dirty-blond hair.

His broad shoulders dwarfed the silent, delicate girl about three or four years old sitting on his forearm. A boy of about six held Cole’s other hand, but not quietly. His slim body percolated in motion.

Honey’s spirits lifted, and she laughed. “I was just thinking I need a distraction this afternoon.”

For Honey, a child was a luminous slice of life, the perfect soft golden yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.

Cole wasn’t a father, nor did he babysit that she knew of, even though the children of town liked him.

So whose kids were they?

“Who do you have with you today, Cole?”

He sighed and Honey cocked her head, alerted by a strange intensity emanating from him.

While Cole might have lived in town for more than a dozen years, his presence on his favorite bar stool at Honey’s Place every Friday and Saturday night accounted for most of Honey’s exposure to him. He poured drinks while she took her breaks or relieved her waiters. Cole didn’t visit any other time unless on official business.

So why was he here with children on Sunday when he knew the bar was closed? Had something happened to someone in town?

“Come in,” she urged again. “Close the door.” Eager to recognize the children, she gestured for them to step closer. “Who did you bring to visit?”

“They’re mine,” Cole said, his voice a hollowed-out shell of its normal deep timbre.

Honey frowned.

Mine?

As owner of the only bar in town, Honey knew all that went on in Rodeo. Cole had no children and no significant other. Unless maybe he lived a double life he kept secret… Ha. In Rodeo? Where everyone knew everything about everyone? Laughable.

“Shut the door,” she said, quietly this time. She knew trouble when it walked into her bar.

He did so, blocking out the sunshine. He stepped closer to the lamps, a ravaged man who looked as though he’d been on a bender last night. If so, it hadn’t been here. He’d been missing from town all week, his bar stool empty last night and Friday night.

Deep brackets framed his well-defined mouth, harsher than usual.

Honey was certain he wasn’t yet thirty-five, but permanent frown lines had already started to develop on his forehead, and today every faint line that marred his attractive face was deeper than usual.

He watched her with a dim, weary gaze, as did the boy and girl, all three seeming past their power to endure.

The boy shifted from foot to foot.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Honey asked the child.

“Nope,” he said loudly.

Cole stared down at him. “He moves a lot.”

Okay. But— They’re mine?

“What do you mean, they’re yours?” Honey asked.

“They were my sister’s kids.”

Honey gasped. Were.

Grief rolled from Cole in dark waves.

After staring at Honey with wide eyes for unrelieved moments, the girl closed her eyes, rested her head on Cole’s shoulder and stuck her tiny thumb into her mouth.

Honey’s heart went out to her.

Help, Cole mouthed. One word. So much said.

She started to rush forward, but he stiffened, resisting her sympathy.

Okay. As always with Cole, she got mixed messages. He would help her out at the bar on the weekends, but outside of that, hands off.

You got it, Cole. Message received.

And yet here he was in her empty bar with a pair of children.

Okay. Today he needed her, but no physical displays of sympathy. Maybe he was too close to the edge. Given her experience with her mother’s and Daniel’s deaths, she understood.

“What can I do?” she asked briskly.

“The kids will need someone to take care of them. I have to get organized. I—Maybe I have to get them… I don’t know. What? A nanny?”

Ordinarily, Cole would know that kind of thing, but shock had a firm hold on him. “A nanny, yes,” she confirmed. “What do you need from me?”

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