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Bill Smith shifted in his seat and, from force of habit, flicked on his turn signal. Ahead of him a thirty-foot iron gate rose out of the undulating range grass, towering like a monument above the red Texas soil. Detailed scrollwork and the nearly life-sized metal image of an Angus bull above the gate told him he had finally reached his destination.
He made the turn into the driveway and then came to a stop, waiting for the dust to settle. For his pulse to settle. Far in the distance, at the end of the gravel road, he could just make out a grouping of ranch buildings nestled against a ridge of rock studded with scrubby pine. His heart gave an odd lurch and then settled back into regular rhythm; his belly had been knotted up like a greenhorn’s lasso since he’d pulled out of El Paso early that morning.
The day had finally come, the one he’d been thinking about and planning for, for five long months.
What would happen when he knocked on Annie’s door?
Taking his foot off the brake, he let the truck roll forward a bit, then gradually eased on the gas. What if Annie refused to see him? What if she slammed the door in his face? He should have done a better job of keeping in touch with her since he’d left Texas. He had to admit that two lousy emails in five months could hardly be considered regular correspondence. He couldn’t blame her if she was upset about that.
What if her brother, Cash, answered the door? Would he give Bill a hard time? The two men had never really hit it off last summer, though everyone in the Burleson family had seemed more than grateful to him for what he’d done.
And then there was his worst fear of all: what if AJ blew him off? His heart took that awful lurch again. The little guy had seemed to like him just fine in the few days they’d had to get acquainted before the kidney transplant. But they’d all agreed it would be best not to tell AJ who Bill really was until he’d made a full recovery. As it turned out, Bill was discharged well ahead of AJ and went back to Seattle without the boy learning the truth. Unless something had changed, AJ still thought he was “Doctor” Smith, the friendly physician who had brought him a new cowboy hat and a set of toy pistols in the hospital.
Realizing his boot was once again resting on the brake pedal, Bill blew out a long sigh and eased forward. Gradually, the details of a sprawling ranch house, a massive barn and shop, and a maze of cattle pens became more distinct. He sat up straighter and squared his shoulders.
“Screw anybody who tries to stop me from seeing my boy,” he muttered. He was AJ’s biological father, damn it, and he had legal rights. If Annie wouldn’t agree to sign the Acknowledgement of Paternity form he had in his pocket and work out some kind of joint custody arrangement with him, he was prepared to go to court. Winning in court was a foregone conclusion; they’d all seen the DNA test results proving he was AJ’s dad. Hopefully, the Burlesons would agree before it came to that.
Annie pulled back the drapes and scowled at the white pickup truck coming down the driveway. Now who in the world could that be? There were lots of pickups in and around Last Stand, Texas, but it wasn’t a vehicle she recognized, and the erratic way it was moving made her think about the .22 propped behind the front door. She could see the silhouette of the driver—a man—who appeared to be alone. With Cash away for the afternoon and the hired hands, Vince and Lucky, up on the ridge rounding up the last of the pregnant heifers, even a strong and capable woman had to be wary. It was probably good that AJ wouldn’t be home from school on the bus for another half hour.
Wiping her palms on her jeans, she went to the front door, pulled it open and stepped out onto the porch. She gave a short whistle, glad to see their border collie, Ranger, come bounding around the side of the house. He must have heard the truck too; he was already showing off his “big tough dog” persona, hackles raised as he stood in the middle of the yard and growled at the interloping vehicle. Ranger was great at keeping the coyotes out of the chicken pen, and he created a very aggressive first impression to strangers, but he liked people too much to be an effective guard dog. At any moment now, his tail was sure to start wagging.
Then the truck nosed up to the porch rail, and Annie could see the driver wasn’t a stranger after all. It was Bill Smith! AJ’s biological father was just about the last person she would have expected to show up at her door. Her belly tightened and her heart began to pound. What nerve he had, arriving here unannounced after so many months of complete silence. He’d said last summer he intended to keep in touch with AJ, but he had a funny way of showing it.
Annie came to the edge of the porch and stood with her arms crossed over her chest.
Meanwhile, he had stepped down out of the cab, his hand still holding the door open, as if he weren’t sure he’d be staying. “Hello, Annie.” The November sun glinted off the lenses of his dark glasses, hiding much of his expression.
“Hello, Bill.” From where she stood, three steps above him, his chest and shoulders were broader than they’d seemed in June, straining a little at the seams of his gray-plaid western shirt. His dark-blond hair was a bit longer, curling slightly over his collar. Compact and muscular, he looked good.
Why was that such a surprise? Had she been that distracted in June by AJ’s health problems? Or was it because the man had always worn that baggy white lab coat as part of his doctor’s disguise?
He’d been a stock breeder’s rep eight years ago, a handsome stranger who’d stopped at the house to meet with Cash and her father about hybridizing the Burleson herd. She’d been drawn to Bill immediately, but now she couldn’t recall what had made him seem so irresistible. Probably the element of forbidden attraction had played a role. Remembering now those three hours they’d spent upstairs in her bed, she blushed. That passionate, irresponsible tryst had been completely uncharacteristic of her, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But she had never regretted it. After all, they’d made AJ that day.
She’d told herself she didn’t expect anything more from the soft-spoken stranger. Still, it had hurt that he’d so easily moved on. By the time she’d realized she was pregnant, Bill had long since disappeared, leaving no forwarding address with his employer. With a common name like Smith, he’d been impossible to track down, though the investigator her brother hired had certainly tried.
Then last June it had become clear that AJ needed a kidney transplant, and Cash’s fiancée, Jade, had used her psychic gift to locate Bill in Seattle. Thank God for Jade’s ability. And thank God Bill had been willing to step up and do the responsible thing for his son. Sometimes it still seemed to Annie that the whole long episode was some kind of fantasy.
In the end Bill had gone back to his life in Seattle, whatever that was, without he and Annie making much of a connection. And that had been perfectly fine with her. She had plenty of other things on her mind.
She shook off the shadow of those old memories and cleared her throat. “What can I do for you, Bill?”
His gaze rested on Ranger, who was now sniffing around his boots. He held out his hand so the dog could smell his palm. Ranger wagged his tail. “Good boy,” Bill murmured, letting his hand pass briefly over the dog’s head. An ear scratch later and they’d be friends for life.
“Well?” she asked, more irritated than curious.
He tilted his head toward the pair of rocking chairs on the porch. “Would it be all right if we sat down? I’ve been on the road the better part of four days. My tail end is still vibrating.”
Ignoring his grin, she glanced again toward his truck, where a tied-down tarp covered a mound of boxes in the back. He wasn’t traveling light. What were his plans? Did the man think he could just show up here unannounced and be welcomed with open arms?
After they were settled, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and pushed his dark glasses back on his head. To her surprise, his eyes were a soft-gray color. Like wood smoke. Another detail she’d missed last summer.
“The thing is, Annie, I’ve done a lot of thinking over these past few months. When your brother first showed up in Seattle last June, out of the blue, and told me I had a seven-year-old son, it knocked the wind right out of me. I didn’t know what to think. Then we were in such a rush to get those blood tests done to see if I’d be a suitable donor, that’s all I was focusing on. That and my chickenshit fears about my own surgery.” He gave her a rueful smile and rose again, leaning out over the porch rail, his eyes on the open rangeland to the south.
Annie waited. She hadn’t known he’d been afraid. He’d never let on. But then they’d barely spoken before or after the surgery. She’d been totally focused on AJ.
“Something you’d have no way of knowing about me is I never planned to have a family,” he went on. “And without boring you with the details, I’ll just say my dad had no business being anybody’s parent. My experience with him, and my brother’s experience, had pretty much put me off the whole idea of ever trying the dad thing. So I was fine with not telling AJ who I was when I was here before. It was easier just being Dr. Smith, keeping my distance, then disappearing again.”
He turned and faced her.
“And now?” she asked. Her pulse jumped. Unsettling news was coming.
“Like I said, I’ve been thinking it over. And I’ve decided I want to give it a shot.”
She bit back a laugh. “What, fatherhood? You mean like a trial subscription to National Geographic?”
His neck reddened above his collar. “I guess I should rephrase that. I’ve decided to claim my paternity rights and responsibilities under Texas state law. I plan to file for joint custody.”
“Joint custody?” Her belly plummeted. Could he possibly mean that?
He crossed his arms, mirroring her body language. “I figure I can see him on the weekends. We can get to know each other gradually, and I can pick up the parenting skills over time. Maybe there are some helpful classes I could take at a community college or something.”
She stared. The man was serious! He had the audacity to think he could magically transform himself into a suitable father by hanging out with AJ a few hours a week. Probably he had idyllic visions of trips to the fishing hole and teaching the boy to whittle. She shook her head. “Sorry, that’s not how it works.”
“Oh? How does it work then? Enlighten me.”
“If you were really committed to being his father like you say you are, you’d be here for all of it. You’d be up early in the morning getting him ready for school and making sure he took his shower and brushed his teeth at night. You’d check that he took every last one of his anti-rejection medications. You’d help with arithmetic homework even when he turns on the waterworks to get out of doing it. You’d bandage his skinned knees, and you’d comfort him when one of his beloved barn cats disappears. You’d take him target shooting up on the ridge, and you’d never miss a John Wayne film festival at the theater. And that’s just for now, when he’s seven. What about when he needs to learn to drive, when he tries his first whiskey or, God forbid, dabbles in drugs like so many kids do? Who’s going to be here for all that, Bill? Because those are the things a father does. Day in and day out, that’s who a real father is.”
Out of breath, she paused.
His steady gaze had never wavered. After a second, he grinned and gave her a slow shrug. “Sounds good to me.”
Sudden heat prickled under her arms and breasts. God, he’s infuriating! She rose from her chair and took a step toward him, her hands fisted at her waist. “You think so, huh? Well, to make joint custody work, you’d need to start by improving your communication skills. Do you care to explain why we got all of two emails from you and then nothing for the last four months? I don’t know how many times AJ asked me if there was an email from Dr. Smith.”
He grimaced. “You’re right, Annie, and I apologize. There was a lot of time when I didn’t have regular internet access, but I should have made more of an effort.”
“And have you found a place to live out here and dependable means to contribute financially?”
“I’ve got some feelers out for a job in Johnson City.”
“Johnson City? That’s forty-five minutes away. That’s a mighty long commute for a family man, don’t you think? And almost an hour to AJ’s school.”
“I believe it’s manageable. I plan to get an apartment there.” His tone was more clipped now. She could sense his temper beginning to rise. Maybe some women would have backed off about now, but Annie was determined to make her point. The most important thing was protecting AJ from any further hurt.
She took another step toward him, bringing herself within arm’s reach. “You know what? I’ll give you credit for meaning well, but I don’t think you have any idea what it will take to actually follow through with this. If the last five months are any indication, I bet you’d be dust in the wind at the first hint of trouble. And then what does AJ do when his newfound dad decides to abandon him? That would break his little heart. I can’t let that happen.” She poked him in the chest with her finger. “I’m sorry, Bill, but I just don’t think you have it in you.”
They were standing eye to eye, and in a split second, he had captured the offending finger, imprisoning her hand against his body. She could feel his heart absolutely thundering through the soft fabric of his shirt. “You’re mistaken, Annie,” he growled softly. “I’m ready to make a long-term commitment to this, to you and to AJ.”
“Oh, are you? Are you really?” She jerked her hand free. Cocking her head, she narrowed her gaze at him. “Then prove it. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ as they say. Let’s make this commitment of yours official.” Once again crossing her arms, she gave him her most self-assured smile and called his bluff. “Marry me, Bill.”
End of Excerpt