“Diapers are expensive, baby girl. What do you think about giving them up?”
Becky Holmes smiled at her daughter perched carefully on her hip, while dropping the precious diapers in the backseat of her weathered Toyota Corolla. Three months of experience had taught her to handle almost any task one-handed. Sophie babbled her answer while Becky secured her in the car seat. The baby’s intense hazel eyes flecked with gray were full of mischief.
“Is that a no?” Fixing the shimmering lilac bow on her oh-so-kissable bald head, she laughed. “Then we’d better get home so I can work on that pageant dress, now hadn’t we?” Setting a cloth book on Sophie’s tummy, she backed out and closed the door. Once they got home, if the baby slept two hours, then she’d be able to finish the dress. With luck, she could deliver it tonight on her way to her cleaning job and—
Her back hit a warm object. Not a car. A man.
Elemental fear shot down her spine. Becky forced herself to breathe and angled her head enough to catch the reflection in the window of her car. Oh God. Fisting her car keys, she spun around and faced the man who’d put her in the hospital a year ago.
“Dylan, you’re out.” Of prison. This couldn’t be happening. He’d taken a plea deal for a hit-and-run accident and been sentenced to a few years in prison. It’d only been five months since he went away. But there he stood, five feet, ten inches of boyish charm, unchecked arrogance, and a carefully cloaked snake-mean streak.
Becky wasn’t afraid of snakes.
She was terrified of Dylan.
His sky blue eyes flicked past her to the backseat. “You’re such a cliché, a dirt dumb ex-beauty queen. Of course I’m out. I’m a Ridgemont. By this time next year, that conviction will be overturned, and the state of Texas will be paying me for their grave error.”
Culture and education flowed through his voice. But he wasn’t totally wrong—she had been dirt dumb to believe that son and heir of the Ridgemont Empire had fallen in love with the scholarship girl from the trailer park. Even dumber not to see the signs of his vicious side. But she’d wised up and wasn’t letting him hurt her baby.
“Okay.” She needed to keep him calm and get away. What did he want? Becky looked around the grocery store parking lot, but there was no one to help. “I don’t want to keep you if you’re heading into the store. I need to get going.”
Dylan curved the left half of his mouth. “Back to your trailer with the new For Sale sign that your ugly ass dog likes to pee on? Or are you taking my kid to work with you tonight cleaning the Wyatt Medical group offices? You don’t go to work until much later, so maybe you’re going to your mom’s new digs at the cemetery?”
Chills skittered down her spine. Greasy sickness coated her mouth. He knew where she lived, worked, and that her mom had died. “You’ve been following me.” The words spilled out and her fear ratcheted up. And up. Until it pounded in her head with the beat of, run, run, run.
Dylan leaned in, slapping his hand on the roof of her car, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I have people to do whatever I need done. I know exactly where you are at all times in case I want to finish what we started the day you ratted me out to the cops over a useless bum that no one gave two shits about.”
“You’ll go back to prison if you touch me.” Becky leaned against the door to keep baby Sophie safe from her father. That whole terrible night replayed in her brain…but the worst of it had been his cold callousness after he hit the man with his truck. Dylan had left him on the street in a pool of blood, driving away with Becky screaming in the passenger seat.
No, don’t think about that, stay focused.
“Keep telling yourself that.” He leaned so close she smelled coffee on his breath. “Oh, and you’d better start saying your good-byes to the brat. I have a team of lawyers working on getting full custody of the kid. You caused me major problems with my family by having it.”
What? No! “You won’t win.” She wrapped her arms around her stomach, desperation hammering up her spine. The thought of Sophie in his care was too much. Too awful. Losing Sophie would kill her, but her real fear was for her child’s safety.
“You tried to destroy my life by ratting me out and having that kid after I told you to get rid of it. Payback’s a bitch.” He turned and strode off.
Becky ran around her car, jumped in, and locked all the doors. Her hands shook so badly she couldn’t get the key in the ignition. In the backseat, Sophie gurgled and tried to pick up the book in her fat fists.
Oh God, what to do? Run, but where? How? Her best friend, Ava, lived in a tiny place with two other girls. She couldn’t go there. Maybe a shelter? Leave Dallas, or the state of Texas altogether? Finally getting the key in, she started the car and got them on the road. She hurried home, watching her rearview mirror the entire time.
Was Dylan following them? How long had he been watching them? She needed the money from the sale of the trailer to make a new life for her and Sophie. Or pay lawyers if it came to a custody battle.
She’d thought she had more time, but she’d been wrong. She had to find a safe place to stay while selling the trailer. There was only one person Becky could think of who might be able to help—her boss, Lucinda Knight.
As his truck ate up the last miles toward home, Logan Knight refused to think about his deadline in three months. Or the wife he’d need to acquire to keep his acreage on the family ranch.
All he wanted was to get home, strip, and fall into bed. A couple days of peace and solitude would get his nightmares back under control, and then he’d be ready to tackle that contract with his father that he’d foolishly signed before heading off to boot camp almost twelve years ago.
Turning into the Knight Ranch, the headlights of his truck sliced through the inky darkness blanketing Texas’s premier horse ranch. They also had cattle, but their reputation was in their competitive and working Quarter horses. Logan took the road leading north, heading to his land in the most secluded, rustic section. The moonlight poured through the trees, casting long shadows on the finished stables and making the just-framed cabins look like skeleton bones.
In the next three months, Logan was going to turn those bones into a full-fledged retreat for war veterans struggling to cope with PTSD. Camp Warrior Recovery was Logan’s way of doing something that mattered. He supposed it was his way of atoning.
Without warning, the present faded away, replaced by the vivid image of those eight young girls, and the baby—oh God, the baby—all dead. Logan stopped his truck on the side of the road and rubbed his face, willing his one horrifying failure as a Marine to the back of his mind.
In seconds, the memory faded. He breathed a sigh of relief and pulled back onto the road. It was just a brief flash brought on by fatigue. Now that he was home, a few days alone and working on his retreat would level him out.
His three-bedroom house came into view, a dim light glowing in the huge front window. His cousin Lucinda was the only one who knew he was coming home. She must have been by to check on the place and stock his fridge. He owed her a steak dinner.
Once in the house, he toed off his boots, the tension melting from his muscles. Lucinda had left the light on beneath his over-the-range microwave, and judging from the illumination pouring down the hallway, his bedroom lamp. That soft glow drew him like a beacon. Striding across the wood floor, he headed down the hallway so ready to grab a shower and—
A low growl from the bedroom erupted into furious barking.
The hairs on the back of his neck sprang up. Adrenaline powered through him. What the hell was a dog doing in his house?
Quickly securing his weapon from his duffle bag, he swung into the doorway of his bedroom just as a something short and squat came barreling out. A set of determined teeth latched onto his jeans at his ankle, whipping back and forth. Ignoring the dog, he zeroed in on a woman scrambling off his bed. For a second, all he saw was long toned legs, then the tail of a blue shirt sliding around a luscious set of thighs. Dragging his gaze higher, the top buttons of the shirt were undone, gaping open to reveal full, ripe curves.
“Get out! I’m calling 911!”
Her voice snapped him out of his lust fog enough to see that she had a kid, a baby, cradled against her shoulder. Jesus, he had his gun in his hand; he could have shot them both. Fury rippled down his spine. “Do it. Tell the cops you’re squatting in my house with a kid.” He dragged in a breath to get control. “You’re damned lucky I didn’t shoot you.”
The woman fumbled the phone, her eyes locked on the gun and color drained from her face. “Oh God. We have permission to be here. Don’t shoot.”
He hardened himself against the shades of terror building in her eyes. There was no legal explanation for the woman to be in his home. “That pretty little liar routine doesn’t work on me.” The dog tugged on his leg, his toenails scrabbling on the wood floor as he tried to yank Logan from the room. He shook off the animal.
The squat creature snorted with indignation and growled.
“Don’t hurt him! Jiggy, come.”
“Enough. You,” he glared at the woman, determinedly keeping his eyes off the baby. “Don’t move.” He had to be sure no one else was in the house, waiting for the chance to jump him. Quickly he searched the bathroom and closet. He glanced at the woman; she looked too scared to run. Slipping into the hall, he checked the last two bedrooms and bathroom.
Returning the gun to the duffle, Logan stepped over the dog growling in the doorway of the bedroom. Steeling himself to keep his gaze off that kid, he focused on the woman. Should he have her arrested? Probably, but she had a baby, damn it.
The dog plopped his fat butt down between him and his uninvited guests. Logan mentally noted the dog’s position out of habit, but he kept his focus on his target.
“I’m not a liar.” She bit down on her bottom lip while rubbing the whimpering kid’s back. “Lucinda said the owner, Logan, is traveling on business and wouldn’t mind if we stayed a few days.”
Logan jerked at his cousin’s name. Either the woman had done a lot of research or she wasn’t lying after all. “You know Lucinda?”
A glimmer of hope seemed to ease her shoulders as she soothed her baby. “I work for her. I ran into a bit of trouble and needed a place to stay in a hurry.” Her voice cracked and she put one bare foot over the other, drawing in on herself. “Obviously, you’re Logan. We don’t have anywhere else to go. Not tonight.”
Damn it. This had to be one of Luce’s schemes. “What’s your name?”
“Becky Holmes. This is Sophie, my daughter, and this is our dog, Jiggy.”
“Jiggy? Never mind.” What did he care if the oversize rat with pop-up ears had a dumbass name?
“He’s a French bulldog.”
“Honey, that’s not a dog.” Logan jerked his cell from his bag, scrolled his contacts, and hit call.
“I can explain.” Luce fired the words in her I’m so busted tone.
“You’ve got ten seconds.”
“Becky needs a place to stay for a few days. Her trailer isn’t safe, and she has a baby. Her mother just died, and there’s no one else.”
Refusing to let sympathy color his thinking, he remained firm. “We’ll be at your place in twenty.” He’d drop the troublesome trio off and be done.
“I don’t have an extra bedroom. I live in a small condo. It has to be you.”
“Logan, I need you to do this until I find something else for her.”
He glanced at Becky’s worried brown eyes; the way she bit her lip and curved her body around her kid…he was toast. No way could he throw them out. “Damn it, Luce.” The snarl broke from his throat.
The baby jerked and started to cry in earnest. In mere seconds, she arched her back, balled her fists, and wailed.
“She’s hungry,” Becky said.
“Feed her.” He didn’t see the problem. Just make the kid stop crying. The sound brought out every protective instinct he had. He so didn’t need this.
Becky sank down on the bed, turning away from him and settled the baby to her breast.
The baby latched on, filling the room with sucking sounds.
He clamped his jaw at Luce’s voice, having forgotten his cousin on the phone. Worse, he was staring at Becky like a pervert. He was a total and complete ass. He’d been thinking she’d give the kid a bottle or…hell he hadn’t thought it out. Turning away to give her privacy like he should have done the second he realized what she meant by feeding the baby, he answered, “What?”
“I think the two of you can help each other. Becky needs a safe place to stay for a while and you need a wife.”
That last word exploded in his brain. Wife? Marry a woman he didn’t even know? Worse, one with a kid? “You’ve been sniffing too much household cleaner and fried your brain.” He didn’t need to turn around to picture the woman sitting on his bed, cradling her daughter to her breast. “I can’t, Luce.”
“Really? Has Uncle Brian accepted your alternative offers? Or is he holding you to the contract, insisting you be married by your birthday in three months?”
Hot rage at his father had him gripping the phone tighter. “You know the answer.”
“Then Becky might be your only chance to secure your land.” She took a breath. “Talk to her, Logan. Find out her story. She needs a temporary hero and you need a short term wife.” Luce hung up.
He was no one’s hero. Frustration clawed at him as he shoved the phone in his bag. Unable to stop himself, he turned.
“I’m sorry.” Becky’s eyes were too big in her pale face. “We’ll leave in the morning, but don’t blame Lucinda. She was only trying to help me.”
Logan was too damned tired for this and it was taking all his concentration to pull his gaze from her. “How are you going to leave? I didn’t see a car.” He scooped up his duffle bag. Since she already had all her stuff in his room, including a bed for the baby, he’d bunk in the guest room.
“I have one. I parked it in the shadows of the stables and walked here. I didn’t want to be found.”
She hid her car. The hairs on his neck went up. Every instinct screamed that this woman was in serious trouble. “What are you running from?”
“My own stupidity, but Sophie isn’t paying for that. I won’t let her.”
And just like that, the lasso wrapped around him and pulled tight. He couldn’t walk away from a woman in trouble. That’s what made him so good at his job at Once a Marine Security Agency.
But this woman? She was breaking his one hard and fast rule—the one that kept him as close to sane as he was going to get—no kids. He didn’t take jobs with kids. But one look into those pleading brown eyes…and his rule vanished.
“You’ll be safe here. I’ll sleep in the other room.”