|Hi, Lovelies!Feisty Red is only 7 DAYS away! This story is the first time I’ve ever written a book about a secret baby. Oh, my romantic heart bled through writing this story. Gah! I’m such a sucker for two people who love each other like crazy but can’t seem to get it right! Add in a cute kid…and I’m a goner! I really hope you all get wrapped up in Clara and Sullivan’s story as much as I did.
If you just can’t wait to see what Clara and Sullivan’s story is all about, keep on scrolling to read Chapter 1.
Hope life is treating you all well. Happy Reading!
From USA Today bestselling author Stacey Kennedy comes a second-chance romance featuring a cowboy hero who needs some serious redeeming, a serious heroine who needs some cowboy lovin’, and a mischievous little boy who needs his parents to find their happily-ever-after.
She’s prepared for anything… except for the second chance with her cowboy ex she never saw coming.
Clara Carter is the brains behind Three Chicks Brewery. The oldest and most responsible of the Carter sisters, she doesn’t have time for anything but taking care of her son and making sure her family’s top beer, Foxy Diva, gets into bars across North America. Which means getting the brew in front of Colorado’s biggest beer distributor. Unfortunately, that becomes tricky when the man in charge of distribution is none other than Sullivan Keene, the cowboy who ran out on her seven years ago.
Sullivan’s life has been one wrong move after another. First, he tried to prove himself to his bastard father by signing a contract to play professional baseball, a choice Sullivan still regrets. Then he bailed on Clara, the only woman he’s ever loved. Seeing her again makes Sullivan determined to right his wrongs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t counting on one of those wrongs being a six-year-old son he never knew about.
Reuniting with Clara and meeting his son is a shocking—and amazing—experience. But as much as Sullivan tries to return to his roots and be the stand-up cowboy of Clara’s dreams, the reality is, she’s having trouble trusting him. Luckily, Sullivan knows the way to Clara’s heart, and he’ll prove to her that a second chance with a cowboy is worth the risk.
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“Mama, I don’t want to go.”
Clara Carter didn’t think six words could rip her heart out, but she felt the pain in her chest as she hid behind the curtain of her reddish-brown hair. Every little bit of her soul wanted to reach out and grab her six-year-old son, Mason, and keep him safe in her arms, but today wasn’t about her. Today was about Mason and the fact that his safe, sheltered life wasn’t so safe or sheltered anymore. Sullivan Keene, Mason’s birth father and the man who vanished from Clara’s life nearly seven years ago had come back to town.
Standing in her childhood home, where her grandparents had raised her, she thought nothing could ever touch Mason or her. Not in this house, where so much loved lived. Mason had only asked once about his birth father, and Clara had given the vaguest honest answer she could: Sometimes, people can’t be in our lives. We miss them. We wonder what they’re doing and where they are, but sometimes, it’s better for us if they stay away. Since then, Mason had never asked again. Clara amounted that to the love from her family, who’d filled that void for Mason. Instead of Father’s Day, they had Auntie’s Day. Mason had never missed his father, because Sullivan simply didn’t exist in Mason’s young world. Even now, all around her were reminders of the love in this house. Its hardwood floors creaked, worn from a wonderful life. The distressed furniture, cozy and soft from many nights spent around the fire. But that comfortable bubble Clara had been living in shook with trepidation as she faced Mason again. Her son’s sandy-brown eyebrows furrowed over stormy, light green eyes. She cupped his chubby face. “Don’t be silly. You’re going to stay with Penelope tonight.” Penelope, Clara’s cousin who’d moved to River Rock last Christmas, was now Mason’s favorite person.
He stomped his foot, little hands fisted at his sides. “I don’t wanna sleep over. I never do that.”
Clara restrained her cringe. She didn’t need the reminder that today was different from any other day. She felt unsteady, all the unknowns piling up on her shoulders. Determined to not drag this out, she moved to the staircase and grabbed his red backpack for school, along with another bag filled with his pajamas, toiletries, and clothes for tomorrow. “You’ll have so much fun, and you don’t want to hurt Penelope’s feelings. She’s very excited to have you overnight.”
The crunching of gravel caught Clara’s attention, and before Mason could object further, she opened the front door. He dug his heels in a little as she gently guided him outside.
When the car rolled to a stop next to the porch steps, the passenger-side window slid down. Penelope’s warm green eyes landed on the very grumpy Mason. Her long, chocolate-brown hair was pulled into a side braid today, her light makeup was spot on, and Penelope’s smile instantly brightened their morning. “I hear we’re getting pizza tonight, going for ice cream, and watching a Spiderman movie.” When Mason didn’t move an inch and his frown deepened, Penelope slowly lifted a bag. “Oh, and eating candy too.”
Clara didn’t know her kid could move that fast. Mason beelined for the car.
“Bye, Mama,” he called, fastening his seat belt.
The tightness strangling Clara’s chest eased slightly as Penelope winked. “We’ll be good for tonight.”
Clara folded her arms in a terrible attempt to warm her bones. “Thanks for watching him overnight. I really appreciate it.” Depending on people was hard. Sometimes impossible. Penelope made it easy. “He needs to be dropped off at school for eight o’clock, both today and tomorrow. Pick up today is at three.”
“No problem,” Penelope replied then tickled Mason, sending him into a fit of laughter. “You know I love any time I can get with this cutie.”
They said quick goodbyes before Mason could change his mind, and soon, his sweet laughter faded as Penelope drove down the long driveway. The world felt like it began falling down on Clara’s head. She wanted to run and hide so nothing could fracture the happy life she had created for him. But that was not rational, and she wouldn’t let her emotions run wild today.
“I’ve got exactly what you need,” a voice broke through the silence.
Clara glanced behind her, finding the youngest Carter sister standing in the doorway. Maisie was everything Clara wasn’t. A free spirit. Wild. Adventurous. Her dark blue eyes always held a mischievous glint, her dirty-blond hair was unruly, and most days, she had paint somewhere on her body. She was the creative brains of Three Chicks Brewery, the company she and her two sisters had built from the ground up after Pops, their grandfather, passed away and left them the Colonial house, along with the barn that now housed the brewery. Even Penelope had a stake in the company now, handling the beer tours that came through. Which allowed Maisie’s position to become a part-time job as she was planning on opening an art studio in town. “What do you have for me?” Clara asked for clarification.
Maisie raised her arm, revealing a shot glass. “Necessary fuel for today.”
Only Maisie would think it appropriate to down what looked like whiskey at a quarter to eight in the morning. Clara envied Maisie’s life, full of passion with her new fiancé, Hayes, and how every one of her dreams had come true. Maisie deserved that, but Clara didn’t have the luxury of chasing her happily ever after. She had Mason. And while the day ahead felt unbearable, this was the day they’d been waiting for since they opened the brewery.
After hard months of grueling work, beer tours, and brewery awards, they finally got a shot at a distributor. With the distributor’s help, they could put their top beer, Foxy Diva, into every bar and restaurant in North America. Reminded of all the responsibilities weighing heavily on her, Clara figured a little help to ease her nerves wouldn’t hurt. She took the shot glass and downed the whiskey, shutting her eyes as the warmth of the liquid burned down her throat.
“It’s understandable if you’re feeling out of sorts right now.”
Clara handed Maisie the empty shot glass. “I’m not feeling out of sorts. I know exactly what I’m doing.” Maybe if she said that a hundred more times, she’d believe it too.
Obviously not believing her sister, Maisie gave a little shrug. “Okay, then, what’s the plan besides looking about ready to crawl out of your skin?”
Clara rolled her eyes. “I’m fine, Maisie. The plan is simple: impress the distributor.” Only problem? The distributor was Sullivan’s uncle, Ronnie. Clara hadn’t known Sullivan was coming back to town. And she’d nearly had the wind knocked out of her when she arrived for a meeting with Ronnie and saw Sullivan sitting at the table too.
“Yes, of course, we’re going to impress the hell out of Ronnie,” Maisie said, quirking up her lips. “But let’s not forget you’re also going to see the man you thought you’d marry and who cruelly left you behind and broke your heart.”
Clara gave the empty shot glass another look. Maybe she needed more than one to get through today. “What are you getting at, Maisie? Do you want me to cry or something?”
Maisie scanned Clara’s face a little too closely. “No, I don’t want you to cry. But I think you need to talk about this. Mason’s birth father is back in town. And you have hardly said anything about it. What’s the plan? Hiding Mason away until Sullivan leaves town again?”
Sounded good to Clara. Her stomach nearly heaved her breakfast out onto the old wooden porch. It all seemed like a bad dream she had to wake up from. When Sullivan left River Rock to play Major League Baseball, she never expected to see him again. Ever. “There is no plan,” she finally admitted. “I only know that, right now, Mason not being here is safer for him. I can’t take a wrong step here. I need to see where Sullivan is at emotionally before I even think about telling him about Mason.” She’d tried once to tell Sullivan about Mason when she first found out she was pregnant. He didn’t answer the phone. An unknown woman did, with the sound of a laughing Sullivan in the background. Clara never called back, and he never returned her call.
That was nearly seven years ago.
Maisie’s look turned measured. Her voice softened. “One day, Mason is going to want to know who his father is. What are you going to say?”
“I’ve always been honest with Mason, and I will always be honest with him. When he asks for the truth, I’ll tell him. But for as long as I can, I will protect him. He needs stability and love, not chaos and heartbreak.” And that’s all Sullivan knew how to do. She understood, to an extent. He had his own dark past. His own pain. But considering the only reason Sullivan was back in town was because he was suspended for causing a bar fight, Clara didn’t expect much had changed. She felt more protective of Mason than ever. Wanting to run from this conversation, she turned to head down the porch steps, when a sudden bang echoed across the air. She whirled back to Maisie. “You heard that, right?”
“I heard that,” Maisie said, eyes wide.
Hoping to hell the brewery wasn’t about to explode, Clara took off, running toward the barn and what she assumed was a broken keg. On the weekends, the parking lot was full of cars from the brewery tours. Today, the only person in the barn was the middle Carter sister, Amelia, the Brewmaster, who’d spent the night brewing a new batch of their top beer, Foxy Diva.
“Amelia,” Clara called, running through the double doors of the barn.
She skidded to a halt as she spotted her sister standing on the ladder next to a metal keg. Amelia’s blue eyes looked as concerned as Clara felt. She had her long ginger-colored hair pulled up into a messy bun. Her freckle-covered nose was scrunched. “Clara,” she yelled, hands extended in front of her.
Another loud crash followed by a whooshing sound had Clara instantly regretting entering the barn. A keg was tipping over, and the contents of spent barley were heading straight for her.
The gunk hit her like a brick wall. She felt the goop begin to slide down her face and land on the ground with a splat.
“Oh, my God, Clara…” Amelia slapped a hand over her mouth.
“I’m going to…” Clara spit the disgusting stuff out of her mouth. She looked down and surveyed the damage. Head to toe, sludge that smelled slightly sour covered her. She glanced back to Amelia and promised, “Kill you.”
Amelia’s hand slowly lowered, and her mouth quivered.
“Don’t you even think about it,” Clara warned.
Behind her shoulder, Maisie snickered.
“Don’t,” Clara snapped to her too.
A beat. Then both of her traitorous sisters burst into a fit of laughter.
Until a smooth voice said, “I see some things haven’t changed at all.”
Clara cursed her life. Even if she didn’t want to, she glanced behind her and faced the very reason her lungs could barely get air today. Six foot two and a wall of hard muscle greeted her. A dark-haired hottie, professional baseball player, and baby daddy who didn’t know about said baby, Sullivan Keene watched her with devastating, warm green eyes.
For all of her stress and worry about this moment, the panic and anger didn’t come. No, something worse happened. Something unthinkable. Her heart fluttered.