One minute down-on-his-luck rancher Austin Hubbard slept soundly, the next, a sassy spitfire dumped a pitcher of water on his head and woke him up—in more ways than one. Hired to help him rebuild his ranch, Sonya Tucker ends up helping him put the tattered pieces of his life back together. The capable, all-business accountant is on a mission to get the ranch up and running, but can he convince the temptingly beautiful woman to take a chance on him?
Sonya was dismayed that Austin had lost it all: money, family, respectability. Things she—who’d been raised by her mother at Nevada’s notorious brothel Wild Rose Ranch—only dreamed about. But working with the long, lean cowboy shows her that Austin is honorable to his core. Together they slowly grow to see what the love between them might bring.
But then Austin’s powder keg of a family feud explodes, exposing long-buried secrets, and threatening their new-found love…
Austin stood in front of the small mirror he’d hung on the stable wall and drew the razor down his jaw, scraping away shaving cream and two days’ worth of whiskers. He rinsed the blade in a bowl of lukewarm water, ran it down the last section, then wiped his face clean with a damp towel. His hair could use a trim. A comb would do it a hell of a lot of good. Eyedrops would erase the red from his eyes. But not even the four ibuprofen he’d taken an hour ago could eradicate the headache raging through his skull.
Until two weeks ago, his sleepless nights occurred courtesy of a bottle of whiskey. But he’d put the bottle down and was on the cusp of piecing his shattered life back together.
One of those broken pieces from his past walked in through the barn door that hung off-kilter on one hinge like a drunk propped against a bar.
He’d been that guy. But not anymore.
“Lookin’ good, Austin honey.” Kelly’s voice evoked a lot of memories. Not all of them good.
Her gaze swept over his chest, down his abs, and landed on the button on his jeans. “You are a sight to behold.” Her tongue swept over her red painted lips. For a split second he remembered how those lips used to wrap around his cock.
But not anymore.
Lust turned to resentment and set his back teeth to grinding.
Wearing a pair of worn jeans barely hanging on his skinny hips and nothing else, he felt naked under her lascivious gaze. He’d lost some weight these last many months drinking and living hand to mouth, hoping he came up with enough money to pay for groceries.
Yes, he’d been humbled, going from living large with money overflowing his bank account to scraping by. He’d taken any odd job he could find without his father finding out and retaliating against the person who’d graciously hired him. Most everyone in these parts wouldn’t dare cross Walter Hubbard. Not when most of them did business with Hubbard Ranch or worked for Blue Mining. Those few brave souls who hired him did so because they wanted to take Austin down a peg or two.
After his grandfather died and left Austin this ranch, his father fired him from the family business and kicked him out of his home. His father wanted the ranch with a passion and vengeance Austin never saw coming.
But he held on. The ranch was the one thing that was still his, though the money ran out and so did Kelly. This dump wasn’t the home Kelly imagined they’d live in after getting married. She expected the same kind of life he’d lived at his father’s place, Hubbard Ranch, where the good life and their future seemed so easy to imagine.
Here at his grandfather’s dilapidated place, you needed a fantastical imagination to see its potential.
He also needed an investor willing to take a chance on someone who’d hit rock bottom but dreamed big.
He still had a few people who believed in him, like his best friend Noah’s girlfriend, Roxy, who thought he could make this place great again. She was an amazing woman with a huge heart and an even bigger bank account. He didn’t know what he’d done to deserve it, but Roxy wanted to partner with him and turn this pile of dirt and rotten wood back into a modern working ranch.
Kelly had walked away because she didn’t believe in the dream or him.
She never gave him a chance to turn this place into what she wanted. What he’d promised her. Abandoned by his girlfriend and disowned by his father in a matter of weeks, beaten down by his father sabotaging his chances for work, yeah, he’d given up and slowly drowned in a bottle and his going-nowhere life.
“What are you doing here? Last time we spoke, you said you’d never step foot on this shit pile again.”
Kelly pasted on a pretty pout, not an ounce of regret in her eyes about what she’d said to him. “I wanted to see how you’re doing. Can’t I come by to check on a friend?”
“You think we’re friends?” When he lost everything, he found out just how many friends he truly had, and she wasn’t one of the few who stuck by him.
“Don’t be like that. How can you still be angry at me? I wanted you. I wanted a ranch and family of our own. You refused to see that this place wasn’t going to be our place. All I wanted you to do was sell it and give your father what he wanted. Put a stop to your feud. We could have bought a new home, got married, and had the life we wanted. It was stupid to hold on to this place out of spite and nostalgia. It’s just a piece of land.”
That last part struck him like a gut punch. “To you. Not to me.” They’d had this same argument dozens upon dozens of times. “My father took away everything from me because he wanted to take the one thing that actually belongs to me. This land belonged to my mother’s father, and his father before him. I won’t sell it.”
“Everyone knows you don’t have the money to save it.” The pity look pissed him off.
“He’s made sure of that.” Bitterness filled his words and every fiber of his being.
“So you lose it to him anyway. It’s useless and stubborn to keep holding on to something when it’s already lost.”
He didn’t want her or his father to know about his new partnership with Roxy. Let them find out when the work finally began and he had his operation up and running. He’d show Kelly, his father, everyone that he could rise from the ashes and rebuild this place. He had the skill, the drive, and the money if Roxy came through the way she’d promised.
“Did you get dressed up and come all the way out here just to call me names and tell me how stupid I am again?”
He appreciated her sexy legs sticking out the bottom of that flouncy white skirt and the way her breasts rose above the low-cut dark blue top. He’d bought her the brown boots with the embossed roses on the sides when he’d had money to burn. Her blond hair was curled into thick rings and was tousled to look like she’d just been tumbled good in bed.
He’d messed up her perfectly styled hair and wrinkled her clothes in all sorts of ways when they were together. He wondered if she’d come here to rekindle the old fire. Before his brain had time to process what a bad idea that was, she stepped up close, wrapped her arms around his neck, pressed her soft breasts against his bare chest, and kissed him with a slow sexy sweep of her tongue along his bottom lip.
She knew how to tempt him. He’d been living in a sexual drought for a good long while now. So he didn’t move and enjoyed the brief moment of feeling desirable and wanted.
She’d burned him in the past, so had many others, and a subtle alert went off in his mind.
She kept her body plastered to his and leaned back to look at him. “What’s wrong, honey? You never used to hesitate to take what you wanted.” She nudged her belly against his neglected, but eagerly growing dick.
He was always ready to bed a beautiful woman, but something didn’t feel right.
Kelly had never been this . . . calculated.
Why come back now?
Nothing had changed in his life or with his circumstances.
Unless she’d found out about Roxy partnering with him. But he hadn’t told anyone, and Roxy wanted to keep things quiet. She didn’t need everyone else in town gossiping about how she used the money she earned from the notorious Wild Rose Ranch brothel she owned outside of Vegas.
“Why are you here now? I’m still broke and you still don’t want to live here.”
She leaned in and kissed him again. He tried not to get sucked in by her familiar scent and lush curves pressed against him.
“This hasn’t changed. I want you. You want me.”
His body wanted the release and relief, but the passion and need he once felt for her didn’t rise up and drive him to fill his hands with her soft breasts and thrust his aching cock into her welcoming heat.
Her hand slid over his hard stomach, dipped into his jeans, and ran down the length of him. She gripped him in her hand and stroked up and down, her mouth planting hot, wet, openmouthed kisses down his neck and over his chest. “You know you want more.”
She hooked her leg around his hip and used her free hand to take his and slide it up her thigh and under her skirt to her bare bottom. All that silky skin at his fingertips made him grab a handful of ass and press her closer.
She undid his jeans and freed him. “That’s it. Give it to me.”
His body wanted to give her a good hard fucking right here, standing up in the dusty barn. But his mind started adding things up. One and one still equaled two, but her and him doing this right here, right now didn’t add up to anything good happening after the deed was done.
She never showed up to any of their dates with no panties and I-can-paint-your-dick-red lips. She flirted but never took an aggressive lead with him for sex. He’d had to talk her into making love on a picnic blanket under a tree on a secluded spot on the ranch. She’d been afraid someone would see them.
All this shot through his mind and his hands went to her hips as one final thought blared in his brain. She always, always insisted on a condom because she didn’t want to have children until they were good and married. So a split second before she encased him in her slick core, he set her away and zipped his jeans.
“What the hell is going on here?” His mind identified the clues, but he didn’t see the whole picture.
“Why did you stop?” Her cheeks flushed pink. She took a step toward him, her hand reaching for his neck.
He sidestepped before she backed him into the wall and faced her, standing just out of her reach.
Her gaze dropped to his thick erection, then back up to his face. “You still want me.”
“My dick’s not broke the way I am. I don’t have a dime to my name. Seems to me, you cared more about that than fucking me anymore, so why don’t you tell me why you’re all of a sudden all hot and bothered over me to the point you haven’t insisted I wear a condom.”
“I’m on the pill.”
“Bullshit. We had this talk a long time ago. You can’t use the pill because it messes up your system so bad. Try again.”
She huffed out a breath and flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder with a careless flick of her hand. “I can’t believe you remember that.”
“Important talks like that kind of stick with you, especially when you made it clear no kids before marriage.”
She pressed her lips together and eyed him before the stiffness left her shoulders and they slumped. “I want to get pregnant.” Her lips tilted into a lopsided frown. “We want a baby.”
“We.” For the first time, he saw the diamond ring on her finger. How he’d missed the dime-sized rock, he didn’t know. He’d been too stunned to see her and distracted by her attempted seduction to take in the details that had helped set off that alarm in his mind.
“I’ve been seeing someone. He’s good to me. He loves me and wants to give me everything I ever wanted.” Her eyes pleaded with him to understand. Like it wasn’t personal she loved someone else now.
Despite what happened between them, he wanted her to be happy. “If that’s the case, why the hell are you here cheating on your fiancé?” His stomach soured with the thought of touching someone else’s woman. He didn’t do those kinds of things. He believed in being faithful and telling the truth, even when it hurt and meant the end if you wanted out.
“He wants another child but he had a vasectomy years ago. He had it reversed but the doctors told him his low sperm count would make it difficult to conceive a baby. We talked about alternative ways to get pregnant and he encouraged me to see you.”
IVF. Surrogacy. Sperm donor. Adoption. Take your pick of available options. But send your fiancée to another man?
No man who truly loved his woman would share her with another man.
That alert he got earlier turned into a full-on alarm in his head. His chest tightened with a weight he didn’t want to carry because he suspected where this was going and he didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true.
“We have a history. I always thought we’d make beautiful babies. We’re not together, and things for you haven’t exactly worked out the way you wanted. I’m ovulating. I thought we’d have one last good time.”
“And what? You’d never tell me about the baby?” Every breath made him ache more.
“With the way your life is now, you can’t take on that responsibility or financial burden.”
He didn’t know this callous, calculating woman.
“My fiancé and I would love and care for the baby. He’d want for nothing.” She moved closer and put her hand on his chest. “Please, Austin. You know how much I want this.”
He slapped her hand away. His heart thrashed in his chest and his mind screamed, No. This could not be happening. It couldn’t be as bad as it appeared. But he had to know the full truth and what she’d planned to keep from him as long as she could before it all came out. Because secrets like this always came out.
“Who put that ring on your finger?” His mind screamed, You don’t want to know.
Her gaze dropped to his boots. “We’ve kept our relationship quiet.”
He pointed to her hand. “Astronauts can see that ring from space. You really think you’re being discreet?”
“Austin, who I’m with doesn’t change the fact this is what I want. You don’t have to take responsibility for the child. Ten minutes and your work is done.” A plea filled her eyes. “I know that sounds insensitive, but men get women pregnant all the time and don’t have anything to do with the child.”
She sounded like a lunatic.
“And you think I’m that kind of man.” It hurt that someone would believe that about him.
“I want a baby, Austin. This is the most expedient way to get one. You and I care about each other, which makes this easier. You’re a good guy. You want me to be happy. So please, help me have a baby.”
Despite what she thought of him and the hurtful words, though she really had no idea how much they stung, he did want her to have everything. Maybe some guys would see the upside of having sex with a beautiful woman and walking away. But he would never turn his back on a child the way his father had turned his back on him. That she didn’t see that hurt more.
Surprise filled her eyes, but his rejection didn’t squash her determination. “I’ll pay you.”
The desperate words slammed into him with the force of a knife plunging into his chest. “Not only no, but fuck you. I’m not some stud for hire.” The thought sickened him.
For the first time, he understood how Roxy felt when people accused her of being a prostitute.
“Ten thousand dollars.” She clasped her hands in front of her like she prayed he’d accept. But her desperation spoke of more than her desire to have a child.
She needed him to say yes.
He wouldn’t play Kelly’s whore for any amount of money. And he wondered, like the ring, where she got that kind of cash. “Who is your fiancé?”
She shook her head and backed up a step, too afraid to tell him.
And that’s when the rage exploded inside him as fast as the truth lit up his mind.
He shot forward, tilted her chin up with the tip of his finger, and made her look at him. “Who is it? Say it,” he dared her.
Tears filled her eyes. Her gaze strayed over his shoulder and she whispered, “Your father.” Those two words blasted through his mind and constricted his chest. He couldn’t breathe for trying to contain the fury burning inside him.
Before he lost his head, he released Kelly and turned his back on her.
His own father had taken up with his ex-girlfriend and wanted Austin to sire a child that he’d raise. The thought turned his stomach and sent bile to the back of his throat.
Over my dead body.
“He wants my child.” He spit out the vile words.
“You two are so stubborn. You won’t sell. He refuses to leave his estate or the companies to anyone but family.”
“So long as that family isn’t me.”
“Do you blame him?”
Austin spun around to face her. “Yes! Why do I have to bend and give up what’s mine? Why do I have to do what he says because he demands it? Why can’t I have what’s mine and make something of it? I busted my ass working for him. I did everything he wanted from the time I was a child to running the operations. But this one thing he can’t let go of. Why?”
Kelly held her hands out and let them drop to the sides of her thighs. “I don’t know. I tried to change his mind, but he won’t let it go.”
“Instead, he doubles down on humiliating me by seducing my ex-girlfriend, then sends her here to fuck me for my baby. He hasn’t taken enough, he wants my child, too!” Anger stung his throat as those ridiculous words burst out his mouth.
“The child would be his grandson. He’d get everything.”
“And that’s all that matters. You get what you want. He gets what he wants. What about what I fucking want?” He yelled so loudly he was sure the rickety rafters overhead vibrated with his rage the way his whole body shook with it. “I would never—EVER!—give up my child. Anyone who thinks that of me doesn’t know the real me. And that includes you.” He took a menacing step toward her, his body rigid and begging for a fight it wouldn’t get. “How could you come here with his ring on your finger and think I’d ever want to touch you, let alone have a baby with you? I don’t even want to look at you. Get out.”
She reached for him again, but he stepped back. The thought of her ever touching him again sent a shiver of revulsion through him.
This time he was sure his fury would bring down the roof.
She spun on the heels of the boots he’d bought her, her skirt flaring out, showing off a lot of thigh. She’d come here hoping he’d knock her up without a second thought and she’d walk out with his child and raise it with his father.
He didn’t think Kelly or his father could hurt him more than they had when they abandoned him, but this twisted deception they’d tried to pull over on him hit hard and cut deep.
He waited for the sound of her car to fade before he walked out of the barn and headed for his pathetic bed on the porch of the hoarder house he couldn’t stand to go in and the bottle he’d left under the cot and hadn’t touched in two weeks.
He needed a drink.
There might not be enough whiskey in Montana to make him forget what just happened.
His life couldn’t get any worse than this. Right?