The Cowboy’s Baby Surprise


Kaz Delaney

What if he really is ‘The One’?

When up-and-coming lawyer Evie Davis travels halfway across the country to deliver her old friend’s baby girl to the oblivious father, the last thing she expects is an encounter with a rugged Montana cowboy. One who convincingly insists he’s not the father.  The second last thing she expects is to have her heart flutter in gratitude at that proclamation. A loner by nature and nurture, Evie isn’t looking for a relationship or even a fling, but as she waits for word on the potential father’s whereabouts, she’s tempted.

As oldest of the Halligan brood, JD Halligan has his hands full running the sprawling family ranch. So, when a beautiful Californian lawyer turns up on his doorstep with a baby she claims is his, it flips his world. He’s definitely not this baby’s father, but can’t ignore the cuteness overload, especially baby Mia’s carer, Evie Davis. Trouble is, he fell for a career-minded city girl once before and that ended in disaster, so he’s not prepared to go there again. But as he opens his home to the new arrivals, sweet baby Mia isn’t the only one winning her way into his heart.

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Chapter One

“Evelyn? Miss Davis? We seem to have lost you. Warwick was asking about the status of the D’Alessio account. Do you have an update?”

“Update?” Of course they wanted an update. Five stern faces stared out through her computer screen—waiting. Watching her flap and flounder; watching her attempt to slow her breathing, to steady her shaking hands, to control the heat rushing to her face. Saw her fail—on all counts.

Where was that folder?

Was it bad to pray for a sudden power outage? A minor earthquake? A cup of coffee accidentally spilled across the keyboard? Tempting.

As it was, Evie had barely made it to the Zoom meeting on time, and yes, she’d noted the polite, yet surprised, looks she’d received when she’d first connected. Evie had been ready for it. Told herself she could pull it off, but it was true that strawberry-shaped and styled woolen beanies probably didn’t quite go with the somber black business suit jacket and discreetly stylish white shirt she wore under it. What they didn’t realize was that the unwashed, unbrushed hair the beanie concealed was way worse. Way worse.

Or that the strawberry hat—a joke gift from her assistant—was in the top three of respectable garments she wore, which said a lot about everything on her lower half, and thankfully hidden from view.

Silence broken only by the shuffle of the odd page loomed loud in her ears; silence that was sounding even more silent as she fumbled through the accumulated paraphernalia littering the table she was working from. How can one small person be the cause of all this?

Relief swept in on a wave when she spied the orange folder buried beneath a pile of baby cloths and bibs; relief that was snatched away as quickly as it had arrived when, in her haste, she knocked an open jar of apple sauce onto the hardwood floor.

It wasn’t a big noise by noise standards, but in the awkward silence preceding it, it echoed around the room and she stilled. Held her breath. Prayed.

All in vain.

Closing her eyes, she again focused on breathing when the sudden piteous cry of a baby completely filled any blanks in the air around her. Head bowed, she dared not look up at those faces watching; dared not search each one for signs of judgment; or worse, satisfaction they’d proved she wasn’t up to this task.

Instead, she made her way to the squirming bundle and clutched it to her chest in a desperate attempt to restore calm.

Theodore Bannister, senior partner of Bannister, Bannister and Trot, lawyers to the rich and powerful, cleared his throat, a not-so-subtle hint that she was still delaying the meeting. Surely, they had something else to do? To chat about? The weather? Cool for this time of the year in San Fran. Or so she’d heard. She hadn’t actually seen the outside world for three days!

“Miss Davis?”

“Yes, I… um…”

The cries increased in volume. This child had magnificent projection, perhaps she’d become an opera singer—she’d already perfected C-sharp.

Nonetheless, calm definitely wasn’t being restored—for either of them—not by jiggling, or patting, or sitting, or threat-veiled suggestions, or whispered begging. Pulling in a deep breath—and keeping the baby out of sight—Evie leaned left, angling her head sideways which was exactly how she appeared on the screen. Sideways. The green woolen stem that sat atop the strawberry hat, drooped toward the desk. One ear flap dangled low, the other landing to cover her right eye. She brushed it aside, allowing her a clear view of five immaculately groomed heads all suddenly angling sideways as well, each one frowning. Oh dear…

She missed the exact wording of Mr. Bannister’s muttered curse as he straightened his head, but she guessed some of it was self-directed. She knew, however, that in one of his rare gestures of sharing, the rest was all for her. Not good.

Following Bannister’s lead, the other members of the meeting also readjusted their positions, straightening, blinking—looking slightly dazed as once more their heads were where they should be.

Contrarily, her boss was suddenly looking very decisive. “Ahem… Evelyn …Evie, we understand you have found yourself in an unusual, and undoubtedly difficult, situation but there is also no doubt that this is affecting your work. We suggest you take some time to sort this mess and then resume your duties. Take the next two days. That will run you to the weekend. Hopefully four days will be long enough? Have you located the child’s father yet?”

Her neck ached and she wanted to straighten, but for some reason, this position had somehow managed to settle the baby, so she held her ridiculous sideways pose. “Yes, I have. He’s apparently a rancher in Montana. I haven’t yet made direct contact bu—”

Bannister held up a manicured hand. “Yes, well… Good. We’ll expect you on Monday. And by then we also expect you’ll have made some progress on the D’Alessio account. I hope I don’t need to remind you of its importance.”

“No, no… Of course. And yes, four days should do it. Should give me time … to get there and back.” The last five words had been muttered into the ether; to herself. This time it hadn’t been a hand that halted her words, it had been the blank screen. She’d been excused.

It was what she’d wanted, yet, perversely, it burned—and she tried to rationalize the contradiction by blaming exhaustion. She hadn’t slept for a month. Okay maybe it had only been three days but it felt like a month. Three days since she’d been summoned out of the blue to attend a hospital bed. Three days since she’d laid eyes on a friend she hadn’t seen since she was ten years old.

Now, thinking about the baby in her arms she conceded that whole situation still felt totally surreal. But what choice had she had? The lawyer in her chimed in to recite a whole litany of them, but none of them stood up against the fear in Hope Reynold’s eyes.

On a sigh Evie adjusted her load, the change in weight and movement signaling Mia had fallen asleep again.

Now? You sleep now? Not ten minutes ago?

The sofa called and Evie responded, shuffled toward the decadent cloud of the finest, pure white, kid leather. She’d imagined the care instruction leaflet probably had a sketch of a child on it with a big cross through it. A warning that combining the two would only end in tears.

Lowering herself heavily onto a corner of the sectional, she propped her feet up on the extension, wondering as she did so if she’d ever bothered to do this before the last four days. The sofa was two years old and barely used, forcing her to concede she’d possibly slept on the sofa in her office more often than she had in this apartment. Not quite the luxurious apartment of her dreams, but one she’d filled with beautiful things, at least.

She’d get there. Hard work was the price of success. She knew that, and she was determined to meet that goal. And at only thirty-one, it was paying off. Well, it had been, until three days ago.

As she gently moved Mia, to cradle her properly, the disastrous meeting suddenly replayed in her mind, and her heart kicked up a gear; again her face warmed with… Frustration? Embarrassment? Anger? All of which she felt entitled to. Never, ever, in the ten years of her employ had she not been fastidiously prepared. Never, ever, had she let down the team or the firm. She was 100 percent dedicated; they knew that.

And yet, surely… No. She refused to feel sorry for herself. The firm—Mr. Bannister—was being fair. They’d given her leave to take care of this business. And she’d already made progress with that. She’d made all the necessary calls, ordered everything to ensure the father would have all he needed.

All she had left to do, was arrange a flight to Bozeman, and in a few days, all would be back to normal. She’d be back to being the rising star of Bannister, Bannister and Trot. Back to her own life.

Mia’s rosebud mouth curled into a smile—angels whispering sweet nothings?—and she snuggled in closer, one fat little fist landing on Evie’s chest, right at the discreet, lace-trimmed cutout. Against Evie’s skin. So incredibly soft, so sweet… Before her brain had registered the intention, she’d lifted that warm little fist, felt it curl around her finger and hold firm; brought it to her lips.

What was she doing? But even as she pulled her lips away, she somehow couldn’t make herself unwind those tiny fingers from her own. She stared down at that dimpled fist, noting its perfection. Noting all of little Mia’s perfection. Strawberry-blonde wisps of hair played against alabaster skin that would enhance her beauty as she grew older. Exactly like her mother. Hope’s hair was reddish gold, so pretty. Just as she had been all those years ago.

Images from that long-ago childhood rushed back at her, of her friend Hope, of the two of them in fifth grade, such tight friends. Of Hope’s cute face, and the scattering of freckles across that little upturned nose. Would Mia eventually develop those little freckles?

Their parting back then had been heartbreaking. Evie’s mother had managed one of her clean dry spells and regained custody, so Evie was pulled from that foster home and mother and daughter reunited. Of course, it hadn’t lasted, and Evie remembered her wretchedness when just a few months later she was placed with yet another family, and no Hope.

She shuddered as other memories tried to fight their way forward. People spoke of something leaving a metaphorical bitter taste, but in Evie’s case it was a real thing. There it was now, burning her throat, and did every time she thought of the woman who had given birth to her. Reluctantly untangling her fingers, she reached for the bottle of water sitting on the hand-crafted, crystal-flaked side table, another for the do not mix with children list, intent on drowning out those childhood memories. To push them right down deep, into that internal vault she could mostly keep locked.

Distraction had always been her best defense against the memories, and so she deliberately focused on her current problem. Fulfilling her old friend’s request and delivering Mia to her father in Montana.

Replacing the water bottle on that elegant table suddenly sent her thoughts swirling down a side avenue. Funny how a mere side table could be that catalyst. Yet, there was nothing mere about that piece of furniture, so was it a catalyst or a metaphor? A metaphor for the life she’d chosen? Had she chosen these things simply for their aesthetic beauty, a tangible example of how far she’d come—or because they were another excuse, or reason, not to have children of her own?

Idly she stroked Mia’s whisper-soft curls shutting that thought down before answers could slip forth, forcing her head back to her present dilemma. One finger dipped down to ever so lightly stroke that perfectly rounded cheek, thinking instead about this baby’s future.

The call from the hospital had been a huge shock, even more so when she’d heard Hope’s name. Apparently, Hope had seen Evie’s name mentioned in a news report, so knew where to contact her. Of course, Evie hadn’t hesitated to go to her, fully prepared to help her childhood friend in any way she could.

However, none of the ways she expected to help out had included the cute bundle in Hope’s arms. A baby? A child…

Shock number two, the one that still burned an acid trail each time she thought of it, was that Evie hadn’t been the only one called. Child Protective Services had been there waiting.

The image of Hope’s face, that day, was one that had stayed with her every waking moment, and plenty of those during her snatched sleep. Every time, especially, she looked at this baby. Hope had begged her to take Mia, to ensure she had a home, that she was loved. That she wasn’t subjected to what they’d had to endure as kids—placed with mostly overworked, or uncaring, guardians.

That Evie find Mia’s father.

Hope claimed he was a good man, that it wasn’t his fault she was alone; that he’d care for his daughter.

And if he didn’t? If he refused to accept responsibility? Or worse, if she got a bad vibe?

Evie refused to think that way. Had to trust Hope’s instincts. And right there was obstacle number one. Who was adult Hope? Evie had no idea—basing her decisions on a child she’d spent less than one year with more than twenty years ago. Sure, they’d been like sisters, but they’d been ten years old! Who was Hope now? Had she grown into a woman whose instincts could be relied upon? And if that answer was negative, where did that leave Evie? Or more specifically, where did that leave Mia? Evie’s heart clutched.

She’d vowed from a very young age that she’d never have children, not because she didn’t like them, but because she understood what it was like to be a vulnerable child desperately seeking the love and security of someone who truly cared. Children, she’d decided, were precious commodities and should only be with those who could devote their lives to them. And she wasn’t prepared to take that risk.

No, finding Mia’s father was the best course in the short term. Maybe even long term. Hope was very unwell; her treatment would be lengthy—and even then…

Swallowing back an annoying lump that had landed in her throat, she tucked the baby in a little tighter before reaching for the letter and paperwork Hope had given her—along with detailed instructions about Mia’s routine.

The movement stirred Mia, and Evie watched, worried when her own heart melted as the tiny person stretched, and blinked open those incredible brown eyes. Eyes the color of rich dark chocolate, so startling, even with that unusual marking.

Surprisingly happy now, Mia gurgled and wriggled on Evie’s lap. At least the little toweling onesie now allowed easier movement. There’d been many lessons learned these past three days. Not the least of which had been that unlike the smart zippered dresses in Evie’s wardrobe, Mia’s zippered suit didn’t fasten down the back. Which also meant the simple little collar wasn’t, in fact, a fashionable cowl neckline but a cute little hood. Who knew? Not Evie. She suspected Mia may have known though. Especially when the back-to-front outfit left her looking like she was in a straitjacket!

Evie sighed. This enforced crash course on caring for a baby was still a work in progress. Hence the lack of sleep. Teething meant everything in reach would be chewed, including Evie’s one-of-a-kind paper sculpture—a Christmas gift from the firm. It would no longer be increasing in value, but she also couldn’t question Mia’s taste. It had been ugly, making her wonder if Mia would one day be an art critic?

Teething wasn’t the only reason for sleepless state. Evie’s own nerves hadn’t helped. What if something happened to the baby while she slept? What if she threw up? Or choked? Fell out of her crib? Scratched by the cat? These things happened! The fact that Evie didn’t even own a cat didn’t play into easing her fears. She’d read about this. It was a thing! And she was taking no chances.

Even so, in spite of her exhaustion, she’d found it impossible not to respond to that little face; to that determined little expression, to those big innocent eyes staring up at her.

Like now.

On that first day Evie had accidentally unleashed Mia’s giggle when she’d absently pulled a funny face while trying to perfect diaper changing. The baby’s response was a giggle that should be bottled and sold as an instant pick-me-up. In these past few days Evie had experimented with many other facial contortions and every one elicited the same wonderful response. Pushing all her other concerns aside for a moment, Evie lost herself in those giggles once more, and as before, completely unable to control her own instant smile in response.

When Mia ended the game in favor of chewing the ear of a soft plastic bear, Evie reached again for Hope’s paperwork. She’d read the letter several times. It outlined her brief relationship with a guy from the rodeo circuit, only realizing she was pregnant after he’d left. One thing that stood out was Hope’s contention that she’d tried to do everything right throughout Mia’s gestation, that she was determined Mia would have the best possible chance.

Given that the first thing Evie did was call in a favor and had Mia checked by a leading pediatrician, that fact appeared to be true. The doctor had declared that not only was Mia perfectly healthy, even if very slightly underweight, but otherwise even advanced for her age.

The weight thing had sat heavy on Evie’s shoulders. Mia certainly didn’t look underweight. But, then again, like herself, Hope was slight, so perhaps Mia would follow suit? It wasn’t as if she was scrawny. Her little arms and legs were actually quite chubby—her little fists adorably dimpled.

She shuffled the letter to the back and glanced once more at both the birth certificate and the report from the private investigation agency she’d employed to find the father. It hadn’t been difficult. It wasn’t like he was hiding. He also didn’t seem to have a police record or any other issues that might raise a red flag. Single also, apparently—which should make things less awkward, at least. Parents alive and residing close by. All good things.

Scooping up the baby, Evie kissed her nose. “We’re going to find your daddy, little one, and I know he’ll just fall in love the moment he sees you. Yep, JD Halligan of Marietta, Montana won’t know what hit him.”

And surely that little hitch Evie felt in her chest was only indigestion from the left-over baby cereal that ended up being her dinner last night. Had to be it. She hadn’t always had a great relationship with carbs, so there was the proof.

Having parked his truck in one of the attached garages, JD Halligan made his way to the sprawling family farmhouse he’d called home for all his thirty-four years. After mopping the sweat off his face with his shirt sleeve, he pushed his hat higher up his forehead and tilted his head to check out the sky. The weather had held for the past couple of days, letting them mend most of that fence damage, and he was crossing everything that it held for a few more days so they could finish up and get the herd down from the high country.

A lightning-fast spear of worry lodged in his chest, instantly halting his progress when he thought he sensed a bit of moisture in the late September afternoon breeze. Frowning, he searched the sky again, seeing nothing but a brilliant expanse of blue—not a cloud in sight. Maybe it would be okay. And maybe he was also astutely ignoring the fact that Montana weather could turn on the flip of a fifty-cent piece.

He was already late getting the herd down and a change now would be costly. It was impossible to think about this extra stress without thinking about the reason, and his fists clenched. While the action threatened to cut off circulation to his hands, it didn’t stem the white-hot heat that roared through him like a brushfire.

Sure, the lost time would be costly but not near as costly as losing his prize bulls and the seed that ensured his herds were considered some of the most highly valued in the state. And that’s what would have happened if he hadn’t stumbled across the plan to steal them by four seasonal ranch hands, all of whom turned out to be nothing more than low-down rustlers.

Blame sat heavily on his shoulders. The whole area had been hit with a run of big storms, and he’d been distracted, working around the clock to plug boundary holes; expecting others were doing their share, trusted where he shouldn’t have trusted.

He was damned lucky it had ultimately been a good outcome, but also now meant he was four men down at a time when he not only needed every man on deck, but he also expected they’d all—himself included—be putting in long hours.

They had. He and his remaining crew—and his concern that they were as tired as him was the reason he called a stop to this day much earlier. They all needed sleep, and once he’d washed off all this sweat and dirt, and got something in his belly, that’s where he was headed. To bed.

Weariness slowed his long-legged stride and for a moment he thought it was also responsible for the swirl of dust billowing along the lengthy tree-lined drive to the house. A mirage? It took a moment for him to realize it was a truck traveling fast. A big delivery truck—not a farm vehicle—and curiosity propelled his final steps to the house, arriving at the base of the front stairs leading to the porch at the same time as the truck pulled to a stop.

The driver jumped down. Young, animated. “Sorry man! I couldn’t find the place. Never been to this part of Montana before. But don’t worry, all your gear is here now, all safe and accounted for. Not too late, right?” For the first time since he’d begun to speak there was doubt in his voice.

“Kinda depends on what you’ve got there. Are you certain this is the right place? I’m pretty sure we weren’t expecting a delivery.”

The guy glanced at his clipboard. “JD Halligan? Lazy H Ranch?”

JD nodded.

There was amusement in the guy’s dark eyes as he rounded to the back of the truck and rolled up the metal door. “You didn’t know you were getting this? Ha! Must be a surprise. Helluva way to find out, though.” His laughter continued as he boosted himself up on the tailgate lift and climbed into the back. “Wait till I tell the guys this one!”

More intrigued than surprised, JD followed the guy’s lead and wandered to the back door, just in time to be handed a large carton bearing an image of something that looked like… Nah, couldn’t be. “A baby’s high chair?”

Laughing guy was still smirking.

JD’s head whirled as a whole array of baby paraphernalia got emptied out of the truck to land at his feet; his wild thoughts frantically trying to find sense. Was this Joanna’s? Was his sister pregnant? After a bad breakup Joey was off licking her wounds. Was she in trouble? And had not called him?

Another idea struck, not as worrying, but just as unpalatable. Was this some ridiculous practical joke? His brother, Jack, had been ribbing him about finding someone and settling down. All because some of the anxious mothers in Marietta were beginning to circle, earmarking him as good son-in-law material.

The more he thought about it, the more sense this latter explanation made. This had Jack written all over it. Maybe even Leo as well. Just because he hadn’t heard from his youngest brother for way too long didn’t mean Jack hadn’t been in touch with him.

Another carton, this one the approximate size of New Jersey, landed in his arms. Diapers. Diapers?

A wide flat box was next. Laughing guy slid it toward him. “The crib, hopefully with instructions. And hey! Congratulations!”

JD worked his jaw muscle, feeling the tension as his whole lower face tightened. “For the record, I am not about to become a father.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

JD’s head spun to the left. What, this guy was a ventriloquist? But that voice—soft, most definitely feminine, controlled, every word clearly enunciated. His search to find the source continued, turning him a complete one-eighty until he came face-to-face with its owner. And stalled there.

“Pardon me?” He hadn’t even heard a vehicle.

The sight was almost too much for his weary brain to contend with. Was this part of the joke? If his brothers had chosen someone they thought he would probably—definitely—get turned on by, they’d done well. If they thought he might think of her as marriage material, they’d got it so wrong.

His past experience flashed through his head on a wave of bitterness. Not for the woman before him, but for what she had fleetingly represented. Like the other woman, the one here in front of him would last about three minutes on a ranch like this.

She was eyeing him carefully, studying him with eyes so blue he could clearly identify the shade even from this six- or seven-feet distance. She, whose perfume closed that distance, something soft and sultry, reaching out to wind itself around him.

She, with the golden hair and golden skin, standing before him in slim pale pink pants, and matching blazer that kind of outlined her figure. And those heels… The jacket was fastened with only one button down low and there was some kind of lacy thing underneath.

Wavy tendrils of hair had slipped from their top knot, and even almost more remarkable than the sleeping baby she held in her arms was the weariness etched into that gorgeous face.

Her eyes never wavered and he wondered what was turning over in her mind. Until she spoke. “JD Halligan?”

What was this? National identification day? He nodded. It was a measured, reluctant nod, as though identifying himself was going to end up being a very bad decision.

He watched her swallow deeply. “There’s um, no way to say this other than simply blurt it out. I’ve ah, come to deliver your daughter.”

The frown on his face carried through his tone. “What? Say again? Deliver my daughter? Like a stork or something?” This had gone too far.

“Pardon?” Her obvious confusion prompted an echo of his own frown of moments before. “A stork? What are you? Three years old?”

“Which is about the appropriate age for this joke.” He raised both hands. “This has gone far enough. I’m done, okay?”

“Ohhh, this is good…”

The woman and JD both turned to laughing guy who was now sitting on the edge of the truck’s tailgate, legs swinging, grinning from ear to ear. JD was the first to respond, but only by a second and there was a weird, momentary, sense of connection when they’d both told the guy to butt out. A connection that died the moment JD looked back at her. She was showing no signs of moving.

His gaze narrowed, his sigh long and weary. “Look, I don’t know where you came from, but honestly, lady, you look beat and I know I’m beat. So, you can go collect from my brother, or both, tell them the joke backfired—or was a raging success—whatever works best for you, and we can both go get some rest.” Turning to laughing guy, he said, “And you can do the same. Pack up this gear and move on. Show time is over.”

Laughing guy responded first. “No can do, man. From here I gotta head up north and pick up another load to take back to Bozeman.” With a grin and raised eyebrows, he nodded across to the baby. “Looks just like her daddy, I reckon.”

Frustration roared through him with the force of a freight train but golden lady’s words arrived first. “Mr. Halligan, I assure you this is no prank.” Her foot was tapping against the paving stones, the one’s he’d laid with his father. It somehow, ridiculously made the joke more inappropriate. “So, I’m sorry, but I can’t leave right now. Trust me, though, I’m counting the minutes.”

Patience was something he usually had in truckloads. Right now, he’d barely fill a kids’ sand pail. “What, you gotta pick up a load up north as well? Twins?”

Laughing Guy laughed. Again. “Hey! That’s good!”

This was getting old. “This is not my baby! And I’d appreciate it if you both left my property.”

Golden lady shrugged. “I’ve got a piece of paper here that says otherwise.”

“I doubt that very much.” He blew out a long, tired sigh. “Okay, so maybe this isn’t a joke. Maybe it’s a scam. Is that what’s going on here? Because I can tell you that unless you had a very long gestation—like two years—that baby is not mine.”

Laughing Guy clucked his tongue. “Two years? Man, that’s rough. You know, maybe I could fix you up…”

Enough was enough! All he wanted was a shower, a cold beer, a steak, and bed. And nothing else. Except maybe to reclaim his dignity. Turning on laughing guy, he roared, “Get outta here! Now!”

And of course, he woke the baby.

Of course he did.

Rooted to the spot, Evie tried to make sense of that scene as she watched JD Halligan stride up into the house. Did the man not have any manners? Decency? Had he not realized she was coming? But the messages she’d left…

And why was he so sure he wasn’t Mia’s father? Something wasn’t making sense, but despite her exhaustion, she hadn’t come this far to be stonewalled.

Her eyes were still glued to that front door, the one he’d passed through, hoping—expecting—he might return. He didn’t and for the first time, while soothing Mia, Evie turned to take in the surroundings. The house personified the all-American dream. White siding, solid, three floors, wrap around porch, pretty curtains, and flower boxes. Her seven-year-old-self wanted to cry—this was what she had dreamed of on all those cold, hungry nights. Her thirty-one-year-old self, approved. As did Mia, who clapped her chubby little hands.

The house was impressive, like its owner. However, broad shoulders, powerful thighs, and a face that would stop traffic—and rugged enough to hint that maybe he had done that a time or two—did not, necessarily make a good father.

Although, much as she didn’t want to admit it, she could see why Hope had fallen for him. She shrugged. Thankfully she wasn’t Hope, and it would take a heck of a lot more than a cute face and hot body to crack through her defenses.

Moving up the steps, each one bearing pots of colorful flowers at each side, flipped her thoughts in another direction; gave her pause… Could the investigative report have been wrong? Could there be a Mrs. JD Halligan? There was a definite female vibe going on here, which might pose a problem she hadn’t considered. Sighing, she continued her perusal. Several groups of cane seating were placed at various intervals along the wide deck, along with two swing seats. While in good condition, they looked like they’d been there forever, every one boasted brightly colored cushions, some with contrasting bobble edging. Whoever had designed this had a good eye.

But perhaps not a good ear, not if her repeated unsuccessful attempts to have someone answer the door were any example. He’d slammed the screened door but, spurred on by building frustration and worry about standing outside in the cooling air with the baby, she eventually discovered he hadn’t locked it. Opening it just wide enough to poke her head in, she called into the wide foyer, her gaze stretching along the lengthy passageway. “Mr. Halligan? JD? Please, we need to talk.”

More silence.

Evie glanced down at Mia, meeting the child’s now solemn-eyed stare, the one that seemed to see so much. Perhaps she’d be a philosopher? “I know, baby,” she said, pausing to feather a light kiss on Mia’s forehead. “But, hey, maybe the scary man isn’t as bad as he seems.”

Or maybe he is, an inner voice countered.

She couldn’t stand there all night. The cooling air, desperation and weariness won out over manners, and she boldly stepped into the house. Mia had cried for the entire flight from San Francisco to Bozeman, only settling once they were in the rental car. Added to her own recent lack of sleep, Evie had been exhausted, and the drive had almost finished her off. Yet, now she had to contend with a rude, bullheaded cowboy. Well, she was in the right mood to take him on…

The thick carpet runner swallowed her footsteps as she tentatively moved deeper into the house, passing by the staircase, calling out at every other step.

Several rooms led off the long, generous corridor. Darted glances revealed each space furnished for comfort and family living. Soft plump sofas, wing chairs pulled up to fireplaces that sat ready for the changing weather, overfilled bookcases, ottomans slightly bent out of shape from frequent use, a table that accommodated at least twelve diners…

The care instruction leaflets for this furniture probably didn’t show a child’s image crossed through. They possibly even featured that image in a heart-shape. Dogs too.

Those half-forgotten childhood dreams resurfaced again. So, this is what a real home looked like. A home… Was this the life Mia would have if JD Halligan accepted his responsibility?

Mia started to fuss. “Shh, hang on baby. Not yet.” Evie wasn’t taking chances in case that hypothetical dog really existed.

The hallway opened up to a massive kitchen and family room, which like the rest of the house, was ominously quiet. Obviously, a more recent addition, it also boasted a staircase leading to the upper floors. Evie wasn’t much of a cook—not a cook at all—but even she could tell the kitchen was a homemaker’s delight. Yet no delicious aromas wafted in the air, no pots bubbled on the stovetop.

The open-plan family room area beyond housed more of that same comfortable furniture, with framed photographs lining the walls and settled on flat surfaces. A true family room and she imagined a rowdy family gathered there, teasing and laughing… Children running around.

But there was no family gathered, rowdy or otherwise. And it seemed—wrong, somehow. Only the combined hum of the refrigerator and a heating unit saved it from being morgue-quiet.

She glanced up the stairs. Should she? If he wasn’t down here then surely that’s where he’d be? Mia began fussing again, this time waving her arms, her little face scrunched and red. Flicking her wrist Evie checked the time. “You’re hungry? Of course, you are. Well,” she said, sparing one more glance up the stairs, “I guess whatever goes up, has to come down. How about we wait it out? And in the meantime, you can have some milk and a snack. Sound good?”

Nineteen minutes later there had still been no sign of JD Halligan, and Evie’s temper was stretched about as fine as it could without completely snapping. Obviously, he hadn’t believed her story—not that he’d given her the opportunity to explain—but still, surely manners decreed he at least hear her out. One thing was certain, even if she had to camp out here all night, she wasn’t leaving until they’d talked.

And the sooner that happened the better.

One option presented itself immediately and before she stopped to rationalize her decision, she walked straight to the staircase.

A matching runner to the carpet in the corridor protected the stairs and with Mia settled on her hip she made her way to the next floor. Once more, several doors opened off the passage that ran both right and left. Most doors were closed, however one down on the far right was ajar. Calling his name once more, she strode to that door, knocking lightly, and then pushing it gently as she again called out her intention to enter.

Bare feet dangling over the edge of the bed should have been her warning but her head was so full of other things that it missed the memo. Thankfully, despite her determination, her steps were tentative, cautious… Just one step into that gloom, one step over the threshold.

But that was enough. Way, way enough.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping September 3, 2024

The Cowboy’s Baby Surprise is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-34-3

September 3, 2024

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