Excerpt: The Cowboy’s Christmas Miracle

Excerpt: The Cowboy’s Christmas Miracle

Code of the West

Chapter One

“Da,” the little boy in the car seat said. He bounced himself against the restraining belt that anchored him, clapped his hands together and grinned. “Da,” he said again, testing the word, frowning as if it didn’t sound quite right. “Daaaaa. . . “ he tried again. “Da-da . . .” Then at last, “Da . . .d.” 

And he beamed his triumph at the man driving the pickup – his father 

Me, Deke Malone thought, his gaze flicking to the boy in the rearview mirror, his fingers strangling the steering wheel. 

Even after three months time, the notion still occasionally had the effect of poleaxing him. 

He was a father. Two and a half years ago he had contributed unknowingly to the conception of a child. This child. 

This beautiful, wonderful nearly twenty month old boy whose existence he had never imagined — especially not that August afternoon three months ago when a stranger had appeared on his doorstep. 

She had looked proper and official in her dark skirt and pale blue blouse, not at all like the usual photographer’s groupies or wannabes who occasionally turned up to knock on Deke’s door now that his work was well-known. 

She was, she’d said, Mrs. Trammell from some department of social services or child welfare or something he’d never heard of before. He’d said she must have the wrong house. 

But she had consulted the sheaf of papers in her hand, then looked up and asked if he was Mr. Malone? “Mr. Daniel Kevin Malone?’ 

“That’s right,” Deke said, still mystified. 

And she had smiled at him. “I’ve brought your son.” 

Deke took a quick step back, holding up his palms in denial “Son? My son? Ho no! No, ma’am. No way. You’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t have a son.” 

But Mrs. Trammell assured him that he had. 

“Who’s the mother?” he’d demanded. Not that it was impossible, just extremely unlikely. He’d slept with women in his lifetime, but there hadn’t been many and he’d always been careful. Very careful. Deke wasn’t a fool and he didn’t sleep around. The women he slept with were no more interested in having a family than he was. 

Mrs. Trammell consulted her paperwork again. “Her name was Violet Ashton.” 

“Violet?” 

That was almost more stunning. 

Violet Ashton had had his child? The Violet who’d climbed Everest? Who’d ridden camels in Marrakesh? Who’d spent a season at the South Pole? 

For three years running Violet Ashton had been named Adventure Photographer of the Year. The same Violet had once confided to him that her primary goal in life was to go as many places and do — and shoot — as many things as she possibly could. Not exactly Mom of the Year material. In fact, in the dozen or so times Violet had breezed through his life in the past ten years, Deke had never heard her express any interest in having a child. 

He’d always liked Violet. And one of the things he’d liked best about her — besides the fact that she approached sex with the same enthusiasm she approached kayaking down the MacKenzie or climbing Kilimanjaro — was that she’d never been any more interested in home and family than he had. 

“What are you talking about? Where the hell is Violet?” 

Mrs Trammell took a slow, calm breath and answered his first question. She was, she told him, talking about a seventeen month old boy named Isaac Daniel Ashton. 

“You’re listed as his father on his birth certificate.” She shuffled through more papers and finally pulled out an official looking document. She handed it to him. 

He stared at it. 

In the meantime Mrs Trammell went on to answer his second question. Another slow calm breath, followed by a sad smile this time. She was very sorry to have to tell him that Violet was dead. 

Deke’s gaze jerked up to meet hers. “Dead?” 

“She drowned two weeks ago in Chile. She’d gone there on assignment. We just got Zack back.” 

“Who’s Zack?” 

“Isaac,” Mrs Trammell explained patiently. “Your son. Isaac Daniel. She called him Zack.” 

But eventually, of course, he had — because Mrs. Trammell hadn’t gone away. She’d come in and sat down and laid all of her papers out on the table for him. The baby’s birth certificate. Violet’s death certificate. A sworn affidavit from a friend of hers declaring that, indeed, Violet had told her that Daniel “Deke” Malone was the father of her child. 

“Dad!” Zack affirmed happily now, tossing a block at his father’s ear. “Dad! Dad! Dad!” 

Deke glanced back once more to see Zack grin at him, then arch his back, as if he could push his way out of the car seat. 

They’d have to stop soon. Deke had found that out yesterday two hours after they’d left Santa Fe. Zack didn’t suffer long car trips gladly. It didn’t matter to Deke. He was in no hurry. 

They were in Wyoming now, near the Montana border. They’d passed the turn off to the town near his sister Dori and brother-in-law Riley’s ranch a couple of hours back. He hadn’t stopped because Dori and Riley and their kids were on their way to Livingston, too. 

Everybody was coming to the first — and undoubtedly last — Malone family Thanksgiving dinner. The very thought made Deke’s stomach clench. 

“Dad! Cookie, Da!” Zack demanded. 

“You want to stop and eat lunch?” Deke asked.. To Zack everything edible was a cookie. “Guess we can do that.” 

It would put off the inevitable a while longer. 

Of course he hadn’t had to come. No one was holding a gun to his head. His parents weren’t even expecting him. Why should they be? He hadn’t been home in fifteen years. 

But Milly, his youngest sister, the family peacemaker, had called him last month and invited him. 

“Dori and Riley are coming,” she’d said, “and the kids. You could meet Carrie.” Their daughter, she meant. “And CJ.” Her own son whom he hadn’t ever seen either. ”And, for that matter, you could meet Cash and Riley,” Milly went on relentlessly. His two brothers-in-law. 

Deke had missed both his sisters’ weddings, claiming to have photo assignments that prevented him from making it. He hadn’t wanted to make things even more tense than weddings already were by turning up on a festive occasion and creating family tension instead. He’d figured maybe Dori and Milly would bring their husbands and come see him, but so far they hadn’t. 

“And we,” Milly went on determinedly, “could finally meet Zack. We want to meet Zack, Deke.” 

Milly knew about Zack. Dori knew about Zack. His mother knew about Zack. Probably most of Montana – even his father — knew about Zack by now. 

He’d taken a blood test because the state had required it even though his name was on the birth certificate. But one look at man and boy together had told them both it wasn’t necessary. Zack was the spitting image of his father. He had Deke’s straight dark brown hair, his stubborn jaw, his deep blue eyes. 

“Oh, my,” Mrs Trammell had said when she’d handed him the boy and took at look at the two faces staring at each other. 

‘Oh my’ was mild compared to what Deke had been thinking. He’d experienced a wild desperate helplessness at the feel of the wriggling little body in his arms. And at the same time he’d felt a surge of equally desperate love. 

That surprised him almost as much as Zack had — that he who had rejected fatherhood for as long as he could remember felt an almost instant bond with the boy in his arms. 

He hadn’t had the faintest idea how to be a father. He’d never changed a diaper or spooned oatmeal into a waiting mouth. He’d never paced the floor with a crying child or felt parental panic at a spiking fever or ill at the sight of blood. 

Not then. But he’d learned. Fast. 

He was on a first name basis with a pediatrician now. He had been to the hospital emergency room with a teething child, been patted on the head and reassured by a trio of long-suffering nurses. He’d felt like an idiot — but had been so vastly relieved that teething was all that had been making Zack scream that he hadn’t cared about appearing idiotic at all. 

He loved being a father. He loved the little boy who wrapped his neck in a tight hug, who laughed at his animal noises, who wept tears on his shirt front, who peed on his bare feet. 

And he’d found himself wondering at odd moments if his own father had ever felt any those things. 

Two of a kind — stubborn hard-nosed men — John and Deke Malone had fought many a battle while Deke was growing up. If Deke had been the apple of his father’s eye when he’d been young, all that had begun to change when he’d got a mind — and goals — of his own. 

Deke had loved the outdoors, the wide open spaces, horses and cattle, and the simple little camera his mother’s father had given him. It had given him a new way of seeing the world — and he’d seen that he didn’t want to spend it working in the family grocery store. 

His father had disagreed. 

The disagreements had escalated through Deke’s high school years. They’d worsened during his time at Montana State. The last one had taken place fifteen years ago, not long after Deke graduated. He’d told his father he was thinking about going to Paris to pursue his study of photography. He could remember it now. It was as if he’d said he was going to be an astronaut or President of the United States. 

John had stared at him over the side of beef he was carving, then he’d shaken his head and told Deke to stop talking nonsense and sort the Brussels sprouts. 

Deke had ripped off his butcher’s apron and stalked out. 

He’d left home that night. He and his father hadn’t spoken since. Deke had rarely thought of him until he’d held Zack in his arms. When he did, he couldn’t imagine that his father had ever felt for him anything close to the intense love he felt for Zack. Or maybe he just hadn’t wanted to imagine. 

Over the past three months, he’d begun to wonder. 

What had it been like for his father? John Malone had been barely twenty-one when Deke was born. He’d already been working in the store alongside his own father. When he’d held his son in his arms, what had he hoped for? Deke didn’t know. Couldn’t even guess. 

Memories came back. Not just those of the later fights and arguments, but earlier ones, happier ones. Ones he had forgotten, that pricked at him and made him wonder. What was the old man like now? 

Would they understand each other any better than they ever had? Could they ever make peace? Did he want to? 

Surprising himself, Deke took Milly’s invitation. For better or worse, he was going home to Montana to find out.