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The call came in the middle of the night, jolting Erika Baylor awake and then sending her dressing and grabbing her keys and purse to dash to her car.
She drove through the night to reach the Las Vegas police station, and during that long silent drive, her mind had raced, trying to grapple with everything that had happened. Her cousin April had been killed in a car accident. She’d left behind a baby. A baby Erika hadn’t even known about.
Where was the baby’s father?
Who was the baby’s father?
Erika had never thought of herself as maternal. She wasn’t one of those women that had grown up playing house, tucking in her dolls, and dreaming of being a mommy, not when her own mother had been sorely lacking in maternal love herself. But after arriving in Las Vegas and having social services place the soft bundle of a boy in her arms, explaining that April’s mother wanted no part of the baby and had already suggested Beck Wyatt Estes be placed in foster care, Erika vowed to do right by Beck, which in her mind meant finding the infant’s father, because maybe, just maybe, the father—whoever he was—would want his son.
She didn’t think further than that. She wouldn’t let herself think further than that as she was a full-time student, working on her dissertation for her doctorate in psychology, and she was stretched thin as it was, with little free time and next to no income. But an emergency was an emergency, and she took the baby, and April’s personal effects, and promised to remain in town for the next few days while arrangements were made for her cousin’s body and so forth.
Social services sent Erika off with a car seat and a diaper bag, along with April’s purse, which contained her wallet, some pill bottles, and a set of keys. Erika had helped buckling the car seat into the back seat of her car, and tucked the crying baby into the car seat, and then using April’s driver’s license, set off for April’s apartment, several miles off the Las Vegas Strip.
The baby was still wailing when Erika arrived at the complex and wailed as she lifted the car seat out and carried the baby, diaper bag, and purses upstairs. It took a number of tries before Erika got the right key in the right lock, but once she did, the door opened and she was in. Lights on, Erika’s gaze swept the small unit. The apartment was a mess, the sink filled with dishes, the bedroom floor heaped with dirty laundry, the small dining table was heaped with clean laundry not yet folded.
She jiggled the crying baby as she opened the blinds and then opened the windows to air out the stale air, and then, while Beck continued fussing, she went through the cupboards looking for his normal formula and bottles. Social services had sent her home with a few cans in a makeshift diaper bag, but surely April had something here for him. But there wasn’t much in the cupboards or the refrigerator. The tin of formula on the counter was empty and April, a dancer, seemed to have survived on fat-free yogurts, vodka, and cigarettes.
Troubled, Erika opened one of the cans of formula sent home with them, made a bottle, and sat down on the couch with Beck and let him drink his fill as she gazed around the apartment that clearly wasn’t much of a home. From the bottles of Xanax and Ativan in April’s purse, it was clear that she hadn’t been doing well. Erika wondered how she’d coped alone for the past several months.
Suddenly Beck’s hand reached up and his tiny fingers brushed hers. Erika glanced down and discovered he was staring straight up into her face, his dark blue eyes locking with hers. For the first time since she’d gotten the call about April’s accident, Erika’s eyes burned, and her throat swelled closed. For a moment, she couldn’t do anything but blink to clear her eyes, not wanting to cry on the baby. But it was heartbreaking. April—young, beautiful, talented, reckless, rudderless April—was gone. Killed in a horrendous accident that had somehow left her baby unscathed. But now Beck was alone, having lost his mom, the only person he’d ever known.
Erika’s gut cramped as she imagined April’s mental and emotional state these past few months. Why hadn’t April reached out to her? Erika would have been there for her. She would have moved April to Riverside, she would have gotten her help—she broke off, shook her head, the sharp pain in her stomach echoing the ache in her chest. It was too late for all of that, too late for April, but not for April’s son.
As the infant’s tiny fingers slipped around her fingertip and held on tightly, Erika vowed to do right by April’s baby. We’ll find your dad, she silently promised him, gazing down into his wide blue eyes. How could he not want you?
The need to discover the identity of Beck’s father drove her as Erika cleaned and organized April’s apartment, packing up clothes and making plans to donate all the furniture. Erika had been in Las Vegas for two days when she unearthed a box of photo books, the kind you made by uploading your pics and then getting a little bound book sent to you. One of the books was filled with photos from the weekend Erika had spent with April two years ago, pages filled with smiles and laughter as well as lots of food shots. They’d eaten out every meal and had snapped endless pics of food and drink. And then there was another photo book, this one filled with April and a handsome cowboy. Pictures of a rodeo with the handsome cowboy in chaps, pictures in a bar, pictures in bed, where a sheet barely covered his hips and all he wore was a sexy half-smile with a wicked glint in his eyes.
Dark blue eyes, like Beck.
Dark blond hair, like the sole wisp of hair on Beck’s round head.
Could this rugged—naked—cowboy be Beck’s dad?
She glanced down into the bassinette where Beck was sleeping and an ache formed in her chest, an ache that filled her every time she thought of the baby’s future. She wanted what was best for the baby, and she wasn’t sure she was the best, but was a cowboy better?
But it wasn’t her right to make that decision. She needed to find Beck’s dad and see what he wanted for his son. First, she needed the cowboy’s name, and then second, she needed to locate him.
Discovering both didn’t take long, not after finding out there was a whole association of professional cowboys, and scrolling through the membership profiles online, she saw a photo of April’s cowboy. His name was Billy Wyatt.
Googling his name pulled up pages of rodeo wins, as well as articles and interviews. Within hours, she knew far more about him than she ever wanted to know. He was one of four brothers, three who were world champions on the professional rodeo circuit, often competing together, especially in the team events. He’d been raised by his mother and grandfather on the Wyatt family ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana, after his father, an emerging rodeo star, had died in an accident with his younger brother, Samuel, also a fixture on the rodeo scene.
The Wyatt brothers were talented, successful cowboys, and as it turned out, Billy was competing at the Tucson rodeo this very weekend.
Her heart sped up, adrenaline flooding her veins, making her push away from the laptop keyboard.
Did she dare? Could she just go, show up, introduce herself? But then why not? She’d been trying to locate Beck’s father for days. This was her chance.
But two days later, while she and Beck sat in her car in the Tucson rodeo and fairgrounds parking lot, waiting for the late-February rain to let up, she wasn’t so sure this was the best plan. Not because of the rain—it wasn’t a hard rain, and outside the temperature was relatively mild, and no one else seemed to mind the rain. Even though the rodeo wouldn’t start for hours, the vast parking lot was nearly full and folks streamed toward the gates in boots and hats and some kind of waterproof layer. But rather, she was a little worried at her audacity. Just showing up unannounced could be a problem. Her announcement could backfire. Billy Wyatt could be unpleasant.
Erika glanced over her shoulder into the backseat where Beck was securely strapped into his car seat. She’d hung a small mirror on the headrest of the seat so she could see his face, and he was wide awake, his dark blue eyes gazing intently at the bold black-and-white pattern beneath the mirror, his little feet moving restlessly. How could anyone be unpleasant to Beck though? He was the sweetest, most gorgeous baby boy, and he deserved all the love in the world. But the world wasn’t a just place. Goodness wasn’t always rewarded, and bad guys often prospered.
“We’re going to meet your dad today,” she said, her voice breaking the silence. “Not sure how this will go.”
Obviously, Beck didn’t answer, but her stomach did a nervous flip and she felt queasy all the way through. It had seemed so logical to come here and find Billy Wyatt, but now that she was here, she felt overwhelmed by doubt. No, make that anxiety, as well as fear.
How did you just spring it on someone that he had a son?
But it had to be done, so that Beck could be settled and secure with his forever family, as Erika knew her side of the family wasn’t it. She herself had spent the past ten years trying to distance herself from her family, wanting more from her future than what she’d known in her past.
Finally, the rain eased and sun peeked through the clouds, creating a hopeful golden glow above. Erika drew a breath and exhaled hard. If she was going to do this, she needed to do it now, before the rodeo began.
With a knit cap on his head for warmth and Beck secure in a baby carrier on her chest, she allowed her yellow rain slicker with the bright blue flowers to drape over the baby carrier, covering enough of Beck so that he’d be protected from the worst of the odd splatter, while still being able to breathe. Head down, watching the watery potholes, she reviewed her plan for tracking down Beck’s father. She’d buy the cheapest ticket she could, most likely a seat in the bleachers, but she had no intention of actually sitting anywhere. The best place to find a cowboy was near the chutes, or the horses, or somewhere in that vicinity. Her biggest question was, would she be allowed in that area?
So intent on avoiding mud, Erika walked into a couple in front of her. She lifted her head to apologize but froze as the man’s head turned and looked down at her.
It was him. Him. April’s cowboy, Beck’s dad, Billy Wyatt, but he wasn’t alone, his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a very slim, very pretty brunette.
Erika had studied her cousin’s photo book so many times, trying to memorize the cowboy’s face, trying to imagine who he was, and how he could get April pregnant and then just disappear, that it was shocking—overwhelming—to see him in person. Anything she’d hoped to say to him died, her heart racing too hard, her entire body cold. Frozen.
She’d been determined to find him, and she had. But it had never crossed her mind that he would be with someone when she found him. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking an unsteady step back, mud squelching beneath her shoes.
He gave her an easy smile, creases fanning at his eyes. Blue eyes, bright blue eyes, so like Beck’s. “You okay?” he asked.
“My fault. I wasn’t looking.” Her gaze searched his face, all those carefully rehearsed words having deserted her. He was good-looking, very good-looking, even better looking in person than in photos. Erika didn’t quite know what to do with that knowledge, nor did she know what to think of the brunette tucked close to his side, slender, young, and very happy to be at Billy’s hip.
This wasn’t the scenario she’d imagined. Billy Wyatt wasn’t just a photo from an album, but a tall, ruggedly handsome, seriously handsome man—strong cheekbones, square clean-shaven jaw, piercing blue eyes, sensual lips—and he was not single. At least, not at the moment.
She glanced down at Beck, his head covered in a knit cap, his small body shrouded in her bright yellow rain jacket. Her heart fell, her stomach ached.
This wasn’t the time.
This wasn’t the place. Eyes burning, throat constricting, Erika turned around, and slowly returned to her car, trying to figure out her next move.
End of Excerpt