A Marriage of Convenience in the Show Me State

Chapter 1

“Daddy, I have to pee.”

The little-girl voice came from the middle of the back seat of Zane Hudson’s pickup as he drove south on Interstate 66 toward his hometown of Cowboy Crossing, Missouri.

He’d driven this road a million times, and even as he calculated in his head where the closest rest area or truck stop was, he looked in the rearview mirror at his sweet little daughter, Ophelia, tucked in a booster seat.

Her innocent blue eyes were scrunched, and her nose wrinkled. Zane was still on his first week of being a single dad to all four of his daughters, but already he knew that look wasn’t one that would stand the test of the nickname of his state.

He didn’t need his daughter to “show me” that she really had to go.

“Just wait five minutes,” he said. His foot pressed harder on the accelerator. He typically tried to follow the speed limit—a law was a law—but this, quite frankly, seemed to constitute an emergency. “There’s a truck stop right up ahead.”

It was the worst truck stop in the state. The worst that he knew of, anyway, and he’d been all over, picking up cattle and equipment and delivering the same.

Still, it only took one more glance in the rearview to give him the impression that his daughter’s back teeth were floating. He needed to stop, and fast.

If he hadn’t already come to that conclusion, his oldest daughter, Cordelia, who was sitting in the front seat beside him, turned her head and looked at him with worried eyes and pursed lips.

“Daddy? I think she really has to go. She can’t ever wait.”

“Well, she’s just gonna have to until we get to the truck stop. I can’t hardly stop along the road.” His words were a little rough, but he tried to modulate his tone. He wasn’t used to hanging around girls. After five years of constant struggling and court appearances and lawyers’ fees and mediation meetings, he’d finally gotten custody of his girls.

Now he just had to learn how to be a dad.

He hadn’t done a very good job of making his tone or his words female-approved, because Cordelia bit her lip, and her face fell before she turned and stared back out the windshield.

“I’m sorry.” What should he have said? He didn’t know. How did one talk to a little girl? Although Cordelia, at twelve, wasn’t exactly a little girl. Not anymore. And he’d missed so much of her life.

She lifted a shoulder, not looking at him. “It’s okay.”

She spoke in a tone that communicated clearly that it was anything but okay, and he didn’t know what to do about that, either.

He spoke in the sweetest, gentlest voice he could muster as he looked in the mirror at his youngest daughter. “Ophelia, can you please wait?”

His eyes shot back to the road, not wanting to wreck. He just caught the sign—two miles to the exit. His truck was already doing as much as it could, which was more than it should with the trailer hooked to the back.

Glad he’d only brought two of his four daughters, he gripped the wheel tightly as his heart thumped fast and hard in his chest. Who would’ve thought a little girl in the backseat could make his palms sweat and his neck throb?

But they were.

What was the worst thing that could happen?

A family mediator, one of several that his wife and he had dealt with in the early days before their divorce, had often asked that question.

At the time, Zane had pretty much rolled his eyes. He never understood the point of the question in his situation. The worst thing that could happen was that he could lose his girls.

But in other situations of life, it was good question.

Take now. The worst thing that could happen was that she would pee in his truck, and it would smell like pee for the next twenty years. He certainly wasn’t going to be able to afford a new truck before then at least.

Not with four daughters to raise.

His mother had already informed him when he dropped off his two middle children, Juliet and Beatrice, at her house this afternoon, unsure he could handle four kids and the bull he’d sold to a ranch just south of Jefferson City, that their clothes were too tight, too short, and generally too small. A shopping trip was in his future. He did not look forward to that.

His mother had offered to take them. Half-heartedly, because she didn’t enjoy shopping, either.

But he was the dad. He’d fought long and hard for this privilege. He wasn’t going to drop them off on his mother. So he would be going shopping. For clothes. Girls’ clothes.

Where did a person buy girls’ clothes?

He tried to remember if there’d been anything girl-like in the feed store where he usually bought his own stuff. Probably.

Maybe everything was unisex. He’d never even really paid attention. He just got stuff that fit and would wear well all day, boots being the most important part of his outfit.

Except in the winter, where a coat and gloves could make or break his day.

He highly suspected his knowledge of the apparel of the female species was going to be greatly multiplied in the coming weeks.

He welcomed it, even as he dreaded it.

“I want to be a good dad, Cordelia. I just need a little bit more practice.” He said that low while looking out the windshield. It made him uncomfortable to admit weakness. As the oldest of six brothers, he’d been the leader. The one in charge. The one shouting orders and kicking the stragglers in the seat of their pants as they all followed their dad over the farm during his growing-up years.

His mother had been the sole spot of softness in their family.

It had been rough-and-tumble fun.

But it hadn’t really prepared him for this.

Another shoulder shrug, and her arms crossed over her chest. “Whatever.”

He suspected his ex, Vicki, had probably filled her head with horror stories of him from before their divorce.

There wasn’t much he could do about it now.

She’d ended up with sole custody, and he had to fight for every visit he’d gotten while she complained about everything he did, constantly going to her lawyer and taking him to court to try to keep him from seeing their girls.

She said he worked too much. Once, he’d walked out of the house and gone to the barn to feed the animals and left the girls sleeping in their beds. That one had kept him from seeing his girls for almost eighteen months. She’d convinced a judge he’d been neglectful. Supervised visits only. At her place which was an apartment in the suburbs of Cincinnati. He’d gone twice, and both times, he had felt like a criminal.

It’d been worth it to see his daughters, but he wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone.

“Daddy, hurry.” His daughter’s voice sounded pinched and painful.

Thankfully, he had reached the lane for the exit and put his right turn signal on.

“We’re stopping right now, sweetie. Just a couple more minutes.”

He almost looked over at Cordelia, just to see if he’d done better that time, but he didn’t. He couldn’t live for her approval. He wasn’t going to be a woman. As much as she might want him to be just like her mom, he wasn’t ever going to be a mom. He wasn’t even going to try. He did, however, want to be the best dad he could.

Maybe he was shortchanging his children by taking their mom out of their lives, but after she had dropped them off in an abandoned field outside of town and left them because she’d gone off her meds, it was definitely the best thing for them all.

Even the judge had come around to that conclusion.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to be able to handle all four girls and still farm. He needed a housekeeper or a nanny or someone.

Someone good—excellent—but also cheap. His farm had been profitable for several years now, but he’d just dumped most of his available cash into buying his neighbor’s spread—five hundred acres with road frontage and a store that had been used to sell fruit and produce.

If he’d known he was so close to getting his daughters…he probably would have still bought the land. It bordered his own property, and he couldn’t pass it up.

It did leave him cash poor, though.

Stopping at the light, he took the right, then a quick left into the truck stop.

He’d stopped here twice before, which was two times too many in his opinion. It was the seediest, dirtiest, worst truck stop he’d ever been in in all of his travels.

It had been years since he’d stopped though, so maybe things had gotten cleaned out. Maybe it was under new management. Maybe there wasn’t garbage all over the place and rough-looking guys hanging out near the weeds in the back lot, talking with just as rough-looking women.

Talking probably wasn’t all they were doing. Not that he ever went back and checked. The first time he’d stopped, it had been because he had his youngest brother along and he’d had to use the restroom. The second time, he’d had to change a tire.

He certainly wouldn’t have stopped for any other reason after the first time. He’d never expected to go back.

But this was an emergency. In the back, Ophelia was whimpering.

“Just a couple more minutes, baby. Hang on.”

“She’s not a baby. She’s five.” Cordelia lifted her brows and pursed her lips at him from the seat beside him.

If she had been raised with him, she would never have been allowed to get away with that attitude. But this was their first week in his home, and he didn’t want to have that fight.

He probably would never get her to respect him the way he wanted her to, not with her background and the things she’d probably been told about him. The majority of which would be untrue, although Vicki could tell some stories that would make him look really bad, and they would be mostly true.

He hadn’t been a perfect angel all his life.

He’d never cheated on her.

That was more than she could say.

She had flaunted it.

Cordelia probably didn’t know, but Vicki had been pregnant with Cordelia when they’d gotten married.

She wasn’t his, though he’d always accepted her like she was, and his name was on her birth certificate.

He highly doubted Vicki had told her that.

Perhaps she’d figured it out herself. Since Vicki had blue eyes, and so did he, it was physically impossible for them to have a brown-eyed baby.

Cordelia’s eyes were brown.

Her hair was also tightly curled and almost black versus the golden-brown color of the rest of the girls’ straight hair.

Maybe she’d noticed a difference, and that was part of her attitude.

He didn’t know. He wasn’t a psychologist. Although, he’d been to so many counselors over the years, just trying to do whatever it took to be able to at least see his girls, he could speak the language a little. Not that he wanted to. All he ever wanted to do was farm and raise a family.

Because he was pulling a trailer, he pulled into the big truck section of the lot and came to a stop. They always put the trucks further away from the building, which made sense, since they were bigger and took more space.

It stunk now though, because he had to get his daughter across the big lot and into the building and then find the right bathroom.

Thankfully, this truck stop didn’t have all the steps that some of them did, the ones where they were sitting kind of up on a hill. This one was flat to the ground, so no one hundred steps to navigate before he got his daughter to the bathroom.

He froze in the act of opening his car door.

How was he going to get her into the bathroom?

His eyes slid over to Cordelia. “Do you have to go too?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t look at him as she jerked her door open.

His relationship with her wasn’t exactly one where he could ask her to take her little sister and go to the bathroom. Commanding her to do it would be more like him anyway.

But he’d just gotten custody. Did he want Cordelia going to the judge and saying he abandoned them at this dirty truck stop? Broken glass crackled as his boot came out of the truck and landed on the ground.

He slammed the door shut and opened the back door to let Ophelia out.

Glancing around the parking lot, he calculated that it was only about half full. What were the odds that the men’s restroom would be empty?

Could he somehow scope it out and then stand guard at the door while his daughters went in there?

Maybe if this were a normal stop, he could do that. But he could hardly think that Ophelia could wait while the restroom emptied out.

He absolutely couldn’t let them go anywhere by themselves out of his eyesight. Not in this dump. What was he going to do?