Excerpt from ROCK-A-BYE RANCHER, October 2006

PROLOGUE

Rio Seco, Mexico

Pobrecita.”  Padre Luis Fernando clucked his tongue and shook his head, as he looked at the solemn-faced baby girl lying in a rustic, hand-woven basket.  “Three months old and no name.  But don’t worry, little one.  I’ll find someone to take you home, someone to love you.”

The old priest reached out a gnarled hand to the child, waiting for her to latch on to his finger, to grasp the hope he offered.  But the little girl merely lay there, lost, alone.

An hour ago, one of the altar boys had come to him and spoke in confidence, mentioning the orphaned baby and the bitter, old woman who’d been caring for her. 

“Padre,” the boy had said, “the church must do something.  That baby isn’t safe.”

Manuela Vargas, a craggy-faced widow who donned dark clothing and lived alone, was considered to be loca by some of the other parishioners.  And the children who lived in the community often called her la bruja, the witch.

Luis believed they were referring to her appearance and demeanor more than anything.  Yet he had to admit that when he’d learned of the mother’s death he’d been a little uneasy knowing the baby would be living with a woman who rarely smiled or interacted with the community.  He’d hoped the baby would be good for her, but maybe he’d been wrong.

In a hushed tone, the boy had told him, “Manuela said that God punished Catalina for her sins and let her die giving birth.  And she said the baby should have died, too.”

The padre hadn’t needed to hear any more.  He’d immediately gone to visit Manuela.  And when he’d seen the condition of the baby, he’d convinced the old woman to give the child to him. 

There had been no argument.  Manuela had placed the baby girl, as well as the personal effects of the girl’s mother, into the basket and gratefully passed her burden to the priest.    

Luis wished he’d stepped in sooner.  If he had, perhaps the young mother might still be alive.

Catalina Villa, a college student from a village nearly one hundred kilometers to the south, had shamed her family by getting pregnant.  Embarrassed by her condition because she was unmarried, they had wanted her to bear her child in secret.  So she was sent to live with her grandmother’s sister, Manuela.

But considering Manuela’s attitude about sin and punishment, Luis wondered whether a midwife or doctor had even been called when Catalina’s labor started.  Of course, there were some things only God knew.

The funeral had been solemn and private, with only Manuela and the baby in attendance.  And the only one who had cried had been the infant.   

The padre reached inside the basket that served as a crib and withdrew the prayer book that had been tucked inside.  He opened to the page where the young mother had written the birth date and parentage of her child.

Catalina, he suspected, had died before entering the child’s name.  And if she’d uttered it to anyone, Manuela had not said.

He unfolded a sheet of paper, the start of a letter.

Dear Mr. Callaghan, he read.  You do not know me, but I loved your son Trevor very much.  When he died, I did not think I could live without him.  And when I learned I was carrying his baby, I was both pleased and saddened.

My parents are very strict and believe that I have failed them.  They have sent me away in shame.  So I write to ask if my baby and I can come to Texas and live on the ranch with you.   

I know you and Trevor were not very close, but if you can find it in your heart to accept us into your family...

The letter was unfinished, unsigned.

The priest whispered a prayer for the mother who’d died, leaving the child at the mercy of a woman with a cold and bitter heart.  Then he let out a pent-up sigh and studied the fair-skinned baby girl with a head of dark, downy hair.

Her cheeks lacked that rosy, healthy hue one expected to see.  And her eyes, a golden brown, showed no spark of life.  No hint of love.

He surmised she’d been provided with an occasional bottle of goat’s milk, but nothing else.  No warm embrace.  No whispered words of love.  Perhaps her father’s relatives would be more welcoming than her mother’s. 

He picked up the telephone.

Twenty minutes and several calls later, he located Clay Callaghan at a ranch outside of Houston.

A woman answered.  Her clipped, professional tone suggested she was a servant of some kind.  Luis introduced himself as a priest from a small village near Guadalajara, then asked to speak to Mr. Callaghan.

While he waited for the woman to summon the rancher, Luis again glanced at the basket and was glad to see the baby girl had fallen asleep.  The sadness in her eyes haunted him in a way no other child’s had.

Por favor, Dios,” the padre prayed.  “Touch Senor Callaghan’s heart.  This baby needs someone to love her, to bond with her.  She needs a home.”

A deep, baritone voice sounded over a crackling telephone line.  “This is Clay Callaghan.”

Senor...Sir, I am Father Luis Fernando, a priest from Rio Seco, a small village outside of Guadalajara.  One of my parishioners gave me an orphaned baby girl.  I have reason to believe her father was Trevor Callaghan.”

The line seemed to have gone dead.

“Sir?  Senor Callaghan?  Did you hear me?”

“Trevor died in a car accident nearly a year ago,” the man responded.

Si.  I am aware of that.  In Mexico, while attending the university in Guadalajara, no?  But before his death, he and a young woman named Catalina Villa Montez conceived a baby.  From what I understand, they planned to marry.  But your son died before they could say the vows.”

“What about the child’s mother?” the American asked, his curiosity validating his interest.

The padre quietly released the breath he’d been holding.  “Catalina was a bright young woman from a poor village.  The townspeople and her parents pooled their money to send her to the university, in hope that she would return with an education and help the community.  But when her family learned she was pregnant, they were angry and embarrassed.  They sent her secretly to Rio Seco, where she bore her baby in the home of a distant relative.  With your son dead, senor, I believe she feared there were no other options.”

“You said the baby was orphaned.”

Si.  Catalina died after childbirth and left the newborn in the care of an elderly aunt who can not keep the baby any longer.  And if you will not take the baby girl to live with you in Texas, I will be forced to deliver her to an orphanage.”

Silence filled the line, then the deep, graveled voice asked, “How do you know my son is the father?”

“There are blood tests that can prove it, but I was given the mother’s personal effects, including a photograph of the baby’s father, a handsome, blond-haired young man standing next to an airplane.  I also have an engraved, black onyx ring.”

Again silence.  And a graveled clearing of the throat.  “Where can I find the baby?”

The padre gave him directions from the airport in Guadalajara to the church.

Surely, the American grandfather would be more loving than the old Mexican caretaker had been. 

The padre prayed that he would. 

CHAPTER 1

Daniella De La Cruz sat in her seventh floor office, gripping the telephone until her knuckles ached.

“It’s not fair,” her fourteen-year-old sister complained.  “I hate being cooped up in the house, babysitting when all my friends have the whole summer to do whatever they want and have fun.”

Life isn’t fair, Dani wanted to snap back.  Deal with it, Sara.  I’ve had to.

At twenty-five, Dani was the youngest and newest associate of Phillips, Crowley and Norman, a Houston law firm, and she was working her tail off to build a career and make a name for herself.  On the outside, it appeared as though the sky was the limit in terms of her upward mobility.  But that wasn’t the case.  Most attorneys in her position didn’t have to balance home and career the way she did.

“Marcos!” Sara shrieked at her brother, obviously not covering the mouthpiece.  “Put that down.  You’re going to break the lamp.”

Dani pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping to ward off the headache that began the moment Sara called. 

“What’s your brother doing?”

“He’s swinging a baseball bat in the house,” Sara said.  “And he better take it outside right now, or I’m going to scream.”

“Sara’s mean,” the ten-year-old boy shouted in the background.  “I hate being stuck with a couple of dumb girls.”

“I’m not dumb,” little Delia said loud enough to be heard through the receiver.

If Dani wasn’t at work and trying desperately to keep her turbulent home situation a secret, she’d pitch a fit that would rival any of Sara’s. 

Couldn’t the teenager understand that Dani was trying her best to keep the kids fed, clothed and safe?

Didn’t she understand that they all had to pull together?

Dani’s frustration level was at an all-time high, and she was beginning to feel inept when it came to solving the domestic disputes that were popping up regularly, now that it was summer and the kids were out of school. 

Before she could respond to her squabbling brood, the intercom buzzed.

“Hang on,” she told her sister.

As the teenager continued to object to the unfairness in life, Dani silenced her with the punch of the hold button.  Then she tried to morph into the career-minded attorney she’d professed to be during the job interview process and connected with the senior partner who wanted to talk to her.

“Yes, Martin.”

“Daniela, can you please come into my office?”

“Certainly.  I’ll just be a moment.”  She switched lines, reconnecting with her teenage sister, who was still in mid-rant and hadn’t realized she’d been on hold.

“...and all my friends are going to the mall.  But oh, no.  Not me.  I’m stuck here at the house babysitting a bunch of juvenile ingrates.”

Dani slowly shook her head and blew out an exasperated sigh.  If anyone could relate to Sara’s complaints, it was Dani, who’d been looking after her younger brother and sisters after her stepmother died.  And when her father passed away nearly two years ago, she’d really had to step up to the plate, accepting the role of single parent.  There’d never been a question about what to do with the children. 

She’d taken custody and tried her best to make a home for them.  Her only problem had been in learning how to balance it all.

Dani had been in her third year of law school and had almost dropped out to put the family back together again, but a professor had talked her out of it. 

Somehow she’d pulled it off and had passed the bar.

She loved the kids, but now that she was on a partnership track, parenting them was proving to be more difficult each day.

“Listen,” she told her sister.  “I’ll see what I can do about lining up someone to help with child care this summer.  But right now, I need you to hang in there with me.  I can’t come home and settle things in person, but I’ll try and leave work early today.  Maybe I can take Marcos and Delia to dinner and a movie.

Then you can have some time with your friends, okay?  It’s the best that I can do.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do about Marcos right now?” Sara asked.  “He’s driving me crazy with that baseball bat.”

“Let me talk to him.” 

When her ten-year-old brother answered the telephone, his aggravation came out loud and clear in the tone of his voice.

“Listen up,” Dani said, proceeding to make a deal with him to take him out this evening if he behaved himself.

Enthusiasm chased away his frustration.  “Okay, I’ll go outside and play.  But can we see Revenge of the Zombies?”

“That’s not a movie I want Delia to see,” Dani said.  Actually, she didn’t want Marcos to see it, either.  And

God knew she didn’t want to sit through it.

“But the deal is off if we have to see one of those dumb princess cartoons,” he said.

Dani hated negotiating with a ten-year-old, but time and her options were running out.  “I’ll find something we’ll all enjoy.  Now take that bat outside and stop harassing the girls.”

“All right.”

When the line disconnected, Dani blew out an exaggerated sigh.  She may have settled the dispute, at least temporarily, but she had a feeling there would be another crisis on the home front before the day was done. 

She stood, tugged at her skirt, checked to see that her blouse was tucked in, then adjusted her jacket. 

One of these days she feared the transformation from frenzied guardian to competent professional would fail and she’d be exposed as the phony she was--at least when it came to running a household.

For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted to be an attorney.  And now that she’d made it, she wanted to excel in her new career.  But something always interfered.

Something at home. 

Get your mind back on work, she told herself as she entered Martin’s office.

Her boss wasn’t alone.  Seated in front of his desk was a rugged, dark-haired man who looked to be in his forties, although it was hard to say for sure. 

He was a big man, with broad shoulders and an imposing air.  Instead of the typical garb of another attorney or most of their clients, he sported western wear--expensive black boots, denim jeans, a hand-tooled leather belt, a crisply pressed white shirt.  Even seated, there was something commanding about him, something that drew her attention in a way that was more than professional curiosity.
He stood when she entered, and his presence seemed to take up the entire room.   

“Clay,” Martin said to the client, “this is Daniela De La Cruz, our newest attorney.  But don’t let her youth fool you.  She’s a real go-getter.”  Then he looked at Dani and grinned.  “Daniela, this is Clay Callaghan.

The firm handles all his legal affairs.”

Dani had never met Mr. Callaghan before, but from the first day she was handed a key to the front door, she made it a point of learning all she could about the firm’s major clients.  Clay Callaghan was one of them.

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