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His daughter hated him.
Benjamin Garner carefully opened the front door to his sprawling two-story house and paused. Even though he was six foot four and had been described as two hundred pounds of muscle due to the hard work he put in on his cattle ranch of over ten thousand acres, he'd become a stranger in his own home.
Why? Because his five-month-old daughter couldn't stand him.
Every time he came toward her, she gave a shriek that would wake the entire country of New Zealand, and New Zealand was a good fifteen-hour flight away from the town of Silver City, Texas.
He stepped as lightly as he could in his boots. Coco Jordan, the young nanny who had seemed to work magic with baby Emma from the first time the two had met, had assured him that Emma could sleep through regular environmental noises, but he didn't quite believe her.
Sometimes Benjamin wondered if his daughter had special powers and could smell him or hear him breathe even from the front door when she was upstairs in the nursery. Benjamin scowled at himself. This just showed what a nutcase he was becoming.
His dog, Boomer, limped out to greet him. Boomer had been one of his best herding dogs, but after he'd gotten his leg twisted in some barbed wire, he couldn't run fast enough. Benjamin figured the dog had earned his retirement, so Boomer spent his days trying to catch scraps from his housekeeper's cooking and dozing on the sofa. Benjamin reached down to give the mixed-breed dog a rub on his head, but was quiet about it. At least his dog liked him.
Heading for his office at the back of the house, he strode past the kitchen.
His stomach knotted. He knew that sound. He knew that voice. He kept on moving.
"Benjamin." The low, sweet voice of the nanny called to him. "You can't avoid her forever."
"Ah!" Emma said.
Taking a deep breath, he turned and faced the two of them, standing in the kitchen doorway. His daughter stared at him with big blue suspicious eyes, while Coco was all soft, pretty encouragement. Emma wasn't screamingyet. Maybe she was just gearing up for it.
"She just finished eating, so she should be in a good mood. Don't you want to hold her?"
Hell, no, he thought. A rattlesnake was easier to handle. He shifted his hat back and shrugged. "I haven't washed up."
"That's okay. A little dirt won't kill her."
"Okay," he said, opening his arms, preparing himself for his daughter's rejection of him. "I'll hold her."
Coco moved closer and Benjamin noticed that Emma's eyes seemed to grow larger with each step she took. "Here you go," she murmured to Emma. "This is your big strong daddy and he will always take care of you. There's no need to be afraid of him. He's on your side."
Coco gently placed Emma in his arms and he drew her close to his chest, holding his breath. Emma stared up at him, her eyes wide. He counted silently. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
She pressed her lips together and glanced toward Coco. As soon as her lower lip jutted out in a perfectly defined pout, he knew what was coming. His daughter let out a high-pitched sound of distress that quickly grew in volume. He met Coco's discouraged gaze and shook his head.
"Here," he said, handing Emma back to the nanny. "There's no need to torture the poor thing. That's why I hired you."
Coco patted Emma on the back in a soothing motion. "But we have to get her used to you. We have to find a way"
"Maybe by the time she hits her first birthday, she'll like me better," he said and turned away, tamping down his own sense of discouragement.
"Wait," Coco said, and he felt her hand on his arm.
He glanced over his shoulder.
"Maybe she doesn't like your hat," she said. "Maybe if you take it off, she'll"
"I'll give it a try next time," he said. "Right now, I need to enter some stock updates on the computer. Later," he said and strode the rest of the way to his office.
His muscles twitched. He could manage this ranch with one hand tied behind his back, but he couldn't hold his daughter for even one minute without scaring her so much she shrieked in fear. Somehow, someday, he needed to change that, but he didn't know how to do it.
He scrubbed his forehead with his hand. What had Brooke done? He wondered if his ex-lover had told Emma he was a horrid man. He wondered if, before Brooke had died riding on the back of her most recent lover's motorcycle, she had corrupted Emma's brain. Was that even possible?
He and Brooke had shared a sexual affair that had lasted a weekend. He'd come to his senses, as had she. Until weeks later, when Brooke had learned she was pregnant. Benjamin had immediately proposed, even though he and Brooke had both known they didn't belong together. She'd refused his proposal but accepted his support. He'd reluctantly realized that he would be a twice-a-month father. He only saw Emma three times before her mother's death.
Suddenly he'd become a full-time single father. Who made his daughter cry at the very sight of him.
His gut clenched again. Sometimes he wondered if he would ever hold her without her screaming in fear.
Sucking in a mind-clearing breath, he focused on the computer screen. He wasn't going to fix his problem with Emma today. Thank goodness he had Coco. Emma felt safe with her. That was why he had hired Coco. She was magic for Emma. She had been the first time she'd held her. Somehow, Coco was an ordinary woman with superpowers when it came to babies, which was exactly what Benjamin needed. Lately, he'd wondered if she could be more
Benjamin shook his head. Crazy thoughts. His computer cursor was blinking at him. He should enter the appropriate numbers in his Excel spreadsheet.
There was plenty of trouble in his day before he even thought of Coco.
Coco stared after her tall, broad-shouldered boss as he disappeared into his office. She jiggled Emma to help her settle down. The baby clung to her like a tick, bless her heart. Coco was certain Emma still missed her mama even though her mama had been the type to come and go as she pleased.
Coco was pretty certain Benjamin had tried to hire Emma's previous nanny, but not everyone wanted to live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, Texas. Nowhere, Texas, suited Coco just fine after all the days she'd spent with her mother in hospice care. It was nice not to have to live by herself in a tiny apartment, always aware that she wasn't just alone for the night. Now that her mother had passed away, Coco was truly alone in this world.
Caring for a baby was therapeutic for Coco. Even though Emma was terribly insecure and frightened, she represented light and hope to Coco. After the strange visit Coco had received yesterday from the even stranger two men who had shown up on the front porch of Benjamin's home, though she'd shooed them away, she was afraid. What did they want from her? Was there some other debt her mother had owed that Coco would need to pay?
She panicked at that prospect. By the time her mother had passed, there'd been nearly nothing left. Coco had taken out a loan so that her mother could have a proper burial and she would be paying college loans for a long time. Coco had quit just shy of getting her degree and was determined to finish it. But that was for later. Now, she just needed to get some of her equilibrium back. From the first moment she'd stepped onto this ranch, something had clicked and she'd known this was the place for her. It didn't hurt that Emma needed her.
Benjamin's long-time housekeeper, Sarah Stevens, made a clucking sound as she entered the hallway. "How long is it going to take that man to just sweat it out and hold that baby until she stops crying?"
"I can't totally blame him," Coco said. "Emma hasn't been at all cooperative."
Sarah's generously lined face softened. "Well, it's true the baby has been through a lot of changes. Who knows what kind of environment she was living in with that Brooke Hastings." Sarah gave a snort. "Party girl. Don't know how he ever got involved with her."
Coco had kept her curiosity to herself about the odd pairing of one of Dallas's most notorious party girls and solid rancher Benjamin Garner. "They must have seen something in each other."
Sarah snorted again. "Enough for a fling. Of course, as soon as Benjamin found out little Miss Brooke was pregnant, he tried to do the right thing and offered to marry her, but the woman refused. She didn't want to be tied down. Too much life to be lived."
"Did she keep partying throughout her pregnancy? That could have been terrible for Emma."
"I think Brooke dialed it down during the pregnancy, but as soon as Emma was delivered, she was hitting the circuit again. Thank goodness you showed up when you did. The little peanut was usually okay with me as long as I held her every minute, but I couldn't get anything done around the house. I'm still catching up," she grumbled.
"It was good timing for me, too," Coco said. "But I may need to take a couple hours off soon for personal business."
Sarah sighed. "It's only fair. You've been working two weeks straight with her. I just know that I'll be the fill-in." The older woman lifted her finger to Emma's cheek and cracked a smile. "She's adorable when she's not screaming."
"I'll try to schedule my break when she's taking a nap," Coco said.
"You're overdue," Sarah said. "We'll just have to adjust. Maybe I'll finagle a way to get Benjamin together with her. Never would have believed a little baby could scare the devil out of a man like him," she said and laughed. "You let me know when you need your break. I'll be here for the little one."
"Thank you, Sarah," Coco said and wondered if perhaps she should just take Emma with her. She was reluctant to cause any more trauma for Emma or Benjamin.
Later that night, Coco slept in the room next to the nursery. The baby could still be a bit unpredictable. Coco was still bothered by the men who had come to visit her and wondered what she should do. Were they bill collectors? Should she consult a lawyer? It took her hours to go to sleep.
A shriek jerked her awake. Coco sat upright, adrenaline pumping through her as she tried to pull herself together.
Another shriek pierced the air and she realized it was Emma. Another bad dream, she thought. Who would have guessed that a baby could have bad dreams? Coco jumped out of bed and darted out of her room toward the nursery next door. She didn't bother with a light because she knew the way by heart.
Except this time she plowed into a human wall.
She felt her breath leave her body in a rush. Automatically bracing herself, she put her hands on his shoulders. Hot flesh over sinewy muscles. Her heart slammed against her ribs. She felt his arms slide around her to stabilize her.
Coco's eyes finally began to adjust to the darkness. "Sorry," she managed, a strange sensual panic racing through her.
"I heard Emma and she wasn't stopping," Benjamin said in a rough voice that made goose bumps rise on her arms.
Coco took a step back. "Sorry," she said again. "I was fast asleep."
"You need a break," he said, raking his hand through his hair.
"We'll figure it out," she said and pushed through Emma's partially opened door. The volume of Emma's screams increased exponentially without a pause. Coco rushed to the crib and picked up the baby, cooing at her.
"There you are," she said. "You're fine. You're okay, sweetie. You don't need to be upset. You're safe."
Emma alternately whined and made hiccupping sounds.
Coco hated that the baby was so upset. She bobbed up and down. "There you go. See. You're okay."
Emma gave a heavy sigh. Then another. She felt the tot fasten her mouth against her shoulder and make buzzing noises and couldn't help laughing under her breath.
"I take it she's okay," Benjamin said from a few feet behind her.
Emma continued her happy buzzing noise and Coco turned around to face Benjamin. He was dressed in a pair of pajama pants and nothing else. "Sure sounds like it to me."
Emma paused a half beat then continued.
"Why does she keep waking up screaming?" he asked, resting his hands on his hips, clearly perplexed.
Jiggling Emma, she stroked the baby's back. "It's not every night. She's just still adjusting. I think she'll calm down soon."
"She has an appointment with the pediatrician soon. Maybe he can tell us something. I'll want you to go to that appointment," he said. "If I take her, she'll just scream the whole time."
"That's fine. I'd like a few hours off tomorrow or the next day, though. I have some personal business to take care of."
"No problem. Sarah will cover for you. I may need to hire someone part-time so you'll have backup," he said with a sigh.
"We can give her a little more time. With little ones, they can turn a corner before you know it." Coco could feel Emma's rigid frame start to relax against her. "Maybe she wouldn't be so afraid of you in the dark. Come closer and see."
"I did that earlier," he said in a dry tone.
"But this is different. It's dark and you're not wearing your hat. Maybe"
"Maybe not tonight," he said firmly. "I don't want to get her riled up again tonight. See you tomorrow," he said and left the room.
Coco slid into the rocking chair with a sigh. She hated that Emma and Benjamin were so tense around each other. When she'd first accepted the position to take care of Emma, she'd thought Emma's screaming when her daddy came close was just a phase. True, it had only been a few weeks, but it seemed as if the two of them were growing more tense with each other, instead of less. Benjamin wanted to avoid upsetting Emma, which gave them fewer opportunities to interact.