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Hudson Granger was a soldier. He’d fought in war. At twenty-nine he’d already served in the military eleven years. He’d seen shit and been part of things that kept him up at night. He wasn’t complacent about his work. He had a healthy respect for the job, and he knew what he risked every single day he was deployed. Fear wasn’t a stranger to him.
Yet there he was, parked in front of a simple four-story walk-up in San Antonio, Texas, sweating as though he were back in Iraq, despite the AC blowing through the vents. At least in the Middle East, he’d known what to expect: anything and everything, and he always braced for the worst. This was completely different. He’d never been so far out of his element. Never felt as ill-prepared as he did in that moment.
But then he supposed it was reasonable to feel unsettled. It wasn’t every day a man met his nine-month-old daughter for the first time. A daughter he’d just learned about three days ago. A daughter his dad had not only known about three months ago, but had paid her mother to keep her existence a secret from him. The thought made him want to hit something, namely his dad.
But the bribe was only part of the reason. He’d wanted to hit his dad for years. Or at least give him a piece of his mind for how he’d abandoned his sons when they’d needed him most. But the man had recently come out of a coma after suffering a heart attack almost eight weeks ago, and the doctors didn’t want anyone upsetting him. No, God forbid he became upset.
Hudson’s deep breath filled the cab of the ranch truck he’d borrowed. Even though he had a right to be mad at both his dad and Avery, who’d had every opportunity to find him prior to their daughter getting sick and her going to his dad for money for the surgery, he needed to keep a handle on it. He was there to meet his daughter and figure out a plan of action moving forward.
Of all the things he’d imagined facing coming home after two back-to-back tours, an infant had never crossed his mind. But then neither had he expected to return and find his father in a coma. Yeah, add that to his shocks. Hell, if anything, the fact that nothing ever changed at the Diamond G was something he’d counted on. Maybe it wasn’t great, with the stilted conversations and estrangement between him and his brothers, but at least he thought he knew what he was coming home to.
He’d never been more wrong.
He’d never anticipated his dad would have had a heart attack while he’d been overseas. That Joe had been in a coma ever since and had only recently woken from it. That his brothers would have kept their dad’s condition, and the fact he’d been brought in by some mystery woman, from him. Last time Hudson checked, he was still one of Joe Granger’s sons and he should have been told, same as the others. Would it have distracted him? Only on his downtime. A solider learned to set aside issues and focus on the job.
Hudson was damn good at his job. But being a parent? He didn’t exactly have the best example. He hadn’t been raised in a house where they shared feelings and emotions and there hadn’t been a soft touch around after their mother died. He had no idea what an infant daughter would need from him.
But he was a soldier. Soldiers don’t run when the going gets tough. So at least he knew he’d never abandon Jenna. He ran his palms down the length of his jeans-clad thighs before reaching across the console for the Stetson sitting on the passenger seat.
Donning the hat as soon as he exited the vehicle, Hudson locked the truck and proceeded up the sidewalk to the front door.
I’m here, he texted once he stood between the outside door and the locked interior one. Avery had asked him ahead of time to text rather than ring the buzzer. They’d scheduled his arrival to be while the baby slept, giving them time to talk a bit before Jenna woke from her nap. Given that they hadn’t spoken since he’d learned everything he’d missed while he was overseas, Hudson hadn’t argued.
Hearing the lock click, he opened the door and climbed up to the second floor. Avery stepped into the hall just as he came around the corner. Her attire was very casual, a tank top and shorts, but her expression wasn’t near as relaxed. He wouldn’t say she looked any more anxious than she had three days ago at the ranch, but she wasn’t the smiling, warm woman who’d caught his attention eighteen months ago on South Padre Island either. But then, he was beginning to think that woman had been nothing but a fantasy. He’d thought she was sweet and caring, not the kind who’d keep a man’s child from him.
Though his cowboy boots were lighter than his military-issued footwear, they still sounded loud in the quiet hallway as he approached. He removed his hat, held it in his hand.
“Hi.” As a rule he was more articulate than one-word greetings, but anything else seemed beyond him at the moment.
“Hi,” she answered, her expression giving nothing further away. Gesturing toward the open door, she said, “Come in.”
It was a narrow entryway. Between him and the shoes lined up against the wall, there wasn’t room to spare.
“You can go on into the living room,” Avery said from behind him.
Hudson toed off his boots, set his hat on top of them, and moved forward. In two strides he stepped into the open living room/dining area. He was vaguely aware of the basic furnishings that filled the room and the basket of toys in the corner, but his gaze fell first to the framed eight-by-ten photographs on the wall. They’d been arranged to look like a large flower. His breath backlogged in his lungs as he zeroed in on the one in the middle.
She couldn’t have been more than a day or two old when the picture was taken. Lying in the hospital bassinet, swaddled in a pink blanket, with her tiny eyes closed, she was the picture of innocence. And perfection. And he hadn’t even known she was born. Hadn’t been told that within months of her birth, she’d been sick with fevers. Was clueless to the fact she’d then needed and undergone surgery to remove one of her kidneys that was causing the problem.
It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t been aware of any of that, but staring at the photo of his daughter, he felt an enormous surge of guilt. What if there’d been complications in the surgery? What if the unthinkable would have happened? She’d have been alive and gone before he’d even have had a chance to know she existed. To lay eyes on her. To hold her. Fury, the same hot rush of it he’d felt three days ago when he’d found out he had a daughter, raged like a wildfire through his blood. He hadn’t done a thing, not a damn thing, to deserve being shut out of her life like that.
But he was here now. She’d get the opportunity to know him. He took a long breath, let it out. Instead of thinking about what didn’t happen, which served no purpose, he focused on the present. He shifted his gaze over the other photos, noticing how she grew more to resemble him and the Grangers as she’d progressed from a tiny newborn to a chubbier baby. Jenna might have inherited her mother’s brown eyes, but there was no mistaking his daughter looked a lot like him. Even though he’d never doubted Avery and the fact Jenna was his, seeing the truth in the photos detonated an explosion of feelings in his chest.
“She looks a lot like you,” Avery said.
Hudson peeled his gaze from the photos and turned to the woman beside him. “Why didn’t you try to find me as soon as you knew you were pregnant?” he asked.
It was only one of the questions he hadn’t had a chance to ask the other day when she’d come to the ranch with her sister. The day, only at her sister’s insistence, that she’d finally come to tell the truth; that Hudson was a father and she was the mystery woman who’d been with their dad the day of Joe Granger’s heart attack.
He could all but see her walls going up.
“Because we agreed before hooking up that our time together was no-strings. In fact, you were the first to suggest it.”
Yeah, he had. He’d gone to South Padre Island before his last deployment, hoping for an island fling. Hell, he’d been desperate for one. He’d been going crazy at the ranch and his youngest brother, Gage, had been looking at him as though he knew that, despite Hudson’s best efforts to appear fine, he was anything but. Before his little brother had a chance to poke at a wound that was too fresh and raw, Hudson had taken off.
“You don’t think a child is extenuating circumstances? That maybe it changes the rules?”
“What we had was supposed to be temporary and no-strings. A child is nothing but strings. And, if you recall, I agreed to a short-term relationship because I didn’t want more than that, either. So, no, I didn’t think it changed anything. Besides, I knew I could manage on my own.”
“And to hell with what I might want?”
Despite the fact he towered over her, she held her ground. “I thought it would be easier this way.”
“For you, you mean.”
“For Jenna,” she snapped. “I know how it feels to have my dad walk out of my life. I won’t have that happening to her.”
“Just because your dad left, doesn’t mean I’d do the same.”
Her mouth flattened. “It doesn’t mean you won’t either.”
“So all men are painted with the same brush, is that it?”
Hurt filled her eyes. “If a man can walk out of a marriage of twenty years and leave his two daughters behind before they even graduate high school, why would I assume a man I’d known less than a week would have more reason to stick around?”
“Because I’m not your dad. And I’m not mine. I’m not a man who walks away from his responsibilities.” His stare never wavered. “You can bank on that.”
Though he’d only had days to digest the truth, it was clear by her expression and the fact she’d withheld the information for so long that she was going to have a harder time accepting him as part of Jenna’s life than he would.
Too damn bad.
Since tensions were already high, he kept that to himself. Instead, knowing things would be easier all around if they remained civil, he gestured toward the couch. “Why don’t we sit down?”
Though she didn’t argue, she didn’t look excited about the prospect either. “I can use some water. Can I get you anything?”
He shook his head. “I’m good, thanks. I had a coffee on the drive down.”
He waited until she’d returned and settled onto one end of the couch before he took his seat on the chair directly across the coffee table from her. He planned on staying in her face until he’d made himself clear. He was through being ignored.
“Hudson, you don’t have to do this. I’m not asking you for anything and Jenna won’t miss what she never had.”
He’d been sucker punched before. The sudden, unexpected hit that stole your breath and almost doubled you over. They hurt like a son of a bitch. Avery’s blow, though she hadn’t moved from her spot on the couch, hurt more. Because she didn’t know enough about him to have come to that kind of conclusion. He’d been open and up-front with her on South Padre Island. He’d treated her with respect and kindness. And yet she thought their daughter wouldn’t care if he were never part of her life?
He’d lied to himself. It hurt worse than being sucker punched. It felt as though he’d been stabbed in the chest.
“You honestly believe that, don’t you?”
Her gaze didn’t waver. “Yes.”
He leaned forward. “I don’t—”
The happy babble of an infant carried through the monitor, interrupting him. For a moment, he froze. This wasn’t just a fact he’d been told, or a picture on a wall, any longer. This was a living and breathing baby. His baby.
While he felt as though someone were suddenly trying to turn him inside out, love filled Avery’s eyes and softened her mouth. She was smiling before she unfolded herself from the couch. It was clear in those seconds she’d heard her daughter’s voice, she’d forgotten he was even there. But when her eyes refocused, connected again with his, the light on her face dimmed.
“I’ll go get her.” She stood and smoothed down her tank top. “I’ll be right back.”
He suddenly wished he’d have asked for that glass of water. His mouth couldn’t have been any dryer if he’d eaten a handful of chokecherries. He had to wedge his tongue under his top lip to pry it off his teeth. Through the monitor, he heard Avery coo to Jenna. It was followed by noisy kissing sounds and his daughter’s adorable giggle. A giggle that both managed to wrap around his heart and steal his breath at the same time.
“I’m just changing her diaper. It won’t take long,” Avery spoke through the speaker.
Hudson ran his palms up and down his thighs again. When his skin warmed from the friction, he stopped and jiggled his leg instead. The longer she took, the more his nerves jumped. He reached over and snatched Avery’s water, emptying it in three long gulps. He’d just set down the glass when she strode back in, his bright-eyed daughter balanced on her hip.
His heart banged against his ribs and his blood drummed in his ears as the baby stared at him. Even though she had a handful of her mother’s top clutched in her little fist, she peered at him with nothing but curiosity.
He imagined he wore a similar expression. Eyes wide, staring at this new person before him, wondering what came next. Feeling as though he needed to do something, Hudson stood. He cleared his throat.
“Hi,” he said.
She blinked, then tucked her head into her mother’s neck, seeking comfort and reassurance. He was no threat, though of course she didn’t know that.
“You’re a stranger. She’s not going to take to you immediately.”
Whose fault is that? The words sparked on the edge of his tongue, but he held them back, saying instead, “I’ve got time.”
Avery frowned as she took her seat on the couch, the baby snuggled against her. Hudson, unable to take his eyes off Jenna, opted to take the other end of the couch this time.
“Did my dad ever ask to see her?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Well, that helped explain why she had no faith in men. Between her dad and his, was it any wonder she expected so little from him? It didn’t douse his anger, but it definitely brought the rage down from a raging fire to a simmer.
Hudson didn’t understand why Joe wouldn’t want to see his only grandchild. If he’d doubted she was Hudson’s, he’d only have to look at her to be convinced of it. But then, he couldn’t have had much uncertainty to hand over forty-five thousand dollars in bribe money. Well, technically only the twenty-five she’d needed for the surgery. Avery had never deposited the second check or taken the cash Joe had brought to their second meeting.
He pulled his thoughts from his dad to his daughter. Her owlish eyes were fixed on him. She was definitely interested in him. Hudson reached out his hand and tickled her bare toes.
Jenna gave him a toothless grin. It was something so simple, and yet the fact he could bring a smile to her face was a heady revelation. He reached forward to do it again. But she retracted her leg and instead, grabbed his finger. The sight of her little hand against his larger, tanned one was humbling. She was so little and, despite her strong grip, defenseless.
He imagined the boys she’d date one day. The bosses and coworkers and strangers she’d meet that had the potential to hurt her. The dangers and struggles in the world she’d have to face as she got older. He didn’t know her. Hell, he’d just met her, but he knew, with a certainty he’d only felt when he’d made the decision to join the military, that his little girl needed her father. As well as her uncles and, eventually, aunts. Jenna deserved all the love, all the family support, they could possibly give her.
“Your face says it all.” Avery’s dejected sigh broke into his thoughts. “You want to be part of her life, don’t you?”
He dragged his gaze from his daughter to her mother. Avery looked defeated. But he wasn’t there to take anything from her. He was there to give what he could. And that included himself. She’d just have to get used to it.
“Yes,” he stated with absolute fact. “I do.”
End of Excerpt