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Despite her name, there was nothing the least bit angelic about Heather Reed's toddler, not when she was tired, anyway. And on this unseasonably warm early May afternoon she was exhausted and hot and hungry. Heather should have known that disaster loomed before she even considered taking Angel with her to the store. Not that she had any choice in the matter. She just should have anticipated something like this. It was the way her day had gone.
Screaming as if she was being tortured, Angel threw herself onto the floor in the cereal aisle. Why? Because she was in pain? No. Because she was close to starvation? No. Simply to express her displeasure over her mother's refusal to buy her some sickly sweet product that was not only overpriced but would probably induce cavities after the first bite.
Heather debated what to do. She could snatch her up and run out of the crowded grocery store on New York's Upper West Side before anyone recognized her as an actress who'd spent a year as a hated villain on a popular soap opera. Or she could wait out her daughter's full-blown tantrum and endure the stares.
Embarrassment won. She'd taken enough abuse from enraged fans over that soap role. If anyone recognized her, they'd likely assume she was being deliberately cruel to her daughter. Who knew where that could lead? Some soap fans had a hard time distinguishing between reality and fiction. By the time the truth could be sorted out, Heather's reputation would be in tatters.
Abandoning her half-filled shopping cart, she grabbed Angel and raced past startled shoppers and checkout clerks, not pausing until she was almost home. Setting her suddenly silent daughter on her feet on the sidewalk a block from their apartment building, she gazed down into tear-filled eyes and tried to feel some remorse over having been the cause of such apparent misery.
Angel was the joy of her life
most of the time. But there were daysand today was definitely one of themwhen Heather would have given anything for another adult to share the responsibility of raising her little girl, she thought as they walked the rest of the way home at a slower pace.
They had been in the stupid store in the first place because Heather had forgotten to pick up cereal the day before, and Angel had started the day with a breakfast of scrambled eggs, most of which had ended up smeared on her clothes and in her hair. That had necessitated another bath and a change of clothes before Angel went off to day-care and Heather headed for her waitressing job in a neighborhood deli, where the customers were only slightly less demanding and messy than her daughter. Her boss had docked her an hour's pay because she was five minutes late and warned her that the next time would be her last. Since her finances were already stretched to the limit, the threat carried a lot of weight.
To make matters worse, she'd gotten off early to go to a callback for a bit part in a new Broadway production, only to discover that the producer's girlfriend had been given the role overnight. Her acting career was in the middle of a frustrating lull of monumental proportions. Her self-esteem was slip-sliding away at an astonishing rate.
Angel's tantrumnothing unusual in and of itselfhad merely capped off a truly lousy day, but it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Plain and simple, Heather didn't see how she could do this single-mother routine much longer, not without losing her shaky grip on sanity.
She'd thought the worst of it had been the sleepless nights, when feedings had seemed to come every few minutes and colic kept Angel awake and cranky. Then the torments of potty training had replaced that. That accomplished, she'd been absolutely certain the rest would be smooth sailing.
Instead, she was discovering that the problems never went away. They merely changed. Her admiration for single moms had increased by leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. In the past ten minutes she'd concluded she was simply one of those who couldn't hack it. At this rate she'd have high blood pressure and nervous tics by the time she turned thirty.
"That cuts it," Heather announced to no one in particular as she stood on the sidewalk in front of her apartment. "I cannot do this alone for one more day."
Once the admission had been uttered, an astonishing sense of relief spread through her. Independence was one thing. Foolhardy stubbornness was something else entirely.
She gazed at Angel, who stared back solemnly.
"We're going to find your daddy," she informed Angel as she brushed a stray wisp of silky hair from her child's forehead. "Let him figure out how to cope with you. Coping is what he does best," she said, fondly recalling all that cool competence. She figured he might be taken aback by the discovery that he was a daddy, but he would rally. He always did.
Angel's expression promptly brightened. "Daddy?"
It was a word that already fascinated her, even though she couldn't possibly understand its meaning. Angel automatically gravitated toward any male in a room, as if she sensed that heor someone like himwas what was missing from her life.
"Yes, Daddy," Heather said firmly.
She knew for a fact that Todd was in Wyoming, working for media mogul Megan O'Rourke, who was giving Martha Stewart a run for her money in the world of TV, books and magazines. His promotion to executive producer of Megan's television show had been announced in all the trade papers a few months earlier. Heather hadn't been particularly surprised by the news. Todd always succeeded at whatever he set his mind to.
Of course, there had been a time when, like her, he'd wanted to be an actor. He'd claimed to want it with the same passion she did. He'd been good, too. Better than she'd been, she was forced to admit.
As much as Heather had believed in her own abilities, as much as she'd wanted desperately to be a star, she'd known she was likely to be relegated to bit parts in off-off-Broadway productions. Her skills ran to light comedic parts, not leading-lady roles. And while she could sing on key, she didn't have the showstopping voice for starring in musicals. She'd been willing to make do with that, because she couldn't imagine any other career, any other place to live. She loved the energy of New York, no matter how small a role she might have to take to stay there.
Todd, however, had been destined for stardom. He'd just gotten sidetracked along the way by the lures of a weekly paycheck.
That had been one of the biggest hurdles they'd faced in their relationship. Four years ago she had been a free-spirited dreamer, willing to live on peanut butter and macaroni-and-cheese for her art. Todd had been steady and reliable and practical. He actually worried about having enough money for rent, decent food and vitamins. Over her objections, he'd let a temporary job with Megan O'Rourke turn into a full-time career. Heather had been disillusioned and saddened by his choice, by the sacrifice of their shared dream. Unable to accept his argument that he had done it for their future, she had split up with him soon afterward. On some level she had hoped that without his sense of obligation to her and their relationship, he might rediscover his old dream. He hadn't.
The breakup had come before she'd discovered she was pregnant. It was just as well, too. Todd would have wanted to do the right thing, even if it derailed both of their lives.
At the time she had been absolutely certain that she and her baby would both be better off on their own. She'd been taking care of herselfsurvivingfor a very long time. Struggling to be a working actress was second nature to her. Struggling to be a working actress with a baby would simply complicate things a little. It wouldn't actually worsen the struggle.
Or so she'd thought at the time.
Then, despite her optimism, practicality had set in. She'd had more troublemore than she wanted to admitputting food on the table. She might be able to survive on one meal a day at whatever restaurant she was working in part-time, but the baby couldn't. She'd taken jobs she'd hatedacting and otherwiseto make ends meet. Day-care costs were prohibitive and ate away at her paltry earnings. At night reliable baby-sitters were all but impossible to find at a price she could afford. Angel had spent more than her share of time in dingy backstage dressing rooms being tended by willing stagehands, who'd passed her around like a football as they went about their duties.
As a result, Angel was amazingly adaptable, but the constant demands were beginning to take a toll on Heather. She didn't need a man in her life, especially not a man as rigidly organized as Todd, but Angel could certainly use a father's influence. And much as she hated to admit it, they both could use additional financial support. She didn't want her baby suffering because she was trying unsuccessfully to live out a dream.
After a day like today, the prospect of sharing responsibility with Angel's daddy, something she'd vowed never to do, held an overwhelming appeal. She would have given almost anything just to have a single uninterrupted hour to soak in a bubble bath.
Not for the first time, she wondered what Todd would think of his daughter. They'd never talked about kids, so she had no idea where he stood on the subject. But how could he resist his own child? Angel had her daddy's stubborn chin, his brown hair and soft-green eyes the color of sage. Three now, she was healthy and strong, and her crooked little smile could brighten the darkest day.
But, oh, was she willful! She was definitely developing her own personality. Heather gazed at that precious, tear-streaked face and fought a smile. Angel had gotten that stubborn streak from her mama, no doubt about it. If Angel's temperament stayed true to form, Heather would never have to worry about her daughter turning into anybody's doormat. Just like her mother, Angel never hesitated to express her opinion about anything and everything. What she lacked in vocabulary, she more than made up for in volume.
Envisioning how Angel would undoubtedly disrupt her daddy's tidy, organized life gave Heather the most enjoyment she'd had in weeks. Todd might not be thrilled to see her again, but as rock-solid and dependable as he was, he wouldn't be able to turn his own daughter away. Heather was absolutely, one-hundred-percent confident of that.
Her decision made, Heather didn't stop to consider her plan beyond that. She figured if she gave up her apartment, which was no big loss, she'd have just enough money in the bank for a couple of plane tickets to Wyoming and a motel room. Maybe she'd even find a job and hang around for the summer, avoid the New York heat and humidity. After that, well, she'd play it by ear, the way she usually did.
But deep inside, something told her it was going to be the smartest investment of time and money she'd ever made.
The corner office at the new national headquarters of Megan's World Productions in Wyoming looked as if it had been plucked right out of midtown Manhattan. Todd Winston had worked incredibly hard to see that it did. He wanted every aspect of the decor to remind him of the city he loved, the city he'd reluctantly left behind when Megan O'Rourke had moved her media empire west and made him an offer too good to pass up.
It wasn't the money she'd offered him that had overcome his resistance. Oh, no. It was the way she'd turned those big blue eyes of hers on him and pleaded. She'd said she needed him, that she couldn't live without him, that he was the best, the only person she could trust. He was such a sucker. A vulnerable woman got to him every time, but Megan was about as vulnerable as General Patton. He'd remembered that belatedly.
Of course, there was no question that he was the best and that she did need him. So he'd stayed and done his level best to pretend he was still back East.
Modern art graced his office walls, along with framed posters of New York. In moments of real nostalgia, he could almost convince himself that those were the views outside the office. He'd actually framed one skyline scene behind an old window he'd found at a flea market. As illusions went, it wasn't half-bad.
Only rarely did he look outside and risk the sight of a stray cow peering back at him. That and the wide-open spaces reminded him all too vividly that he was a very long way from home and way, way out of his element. The sound of rain splattering on the refurbished warehouse's tin roof could shatter the illusion in a heartbeat. Fortunately it had been a dry few months.
In general, though, he thought he'd adapted pretty well. He owned a Stetson, cowboy boots and a pair of jeans. Much as he hated to admit it, he'd discovered the outfit was actually comfortable.
Recently he'd nearly decided to stop bugging Megan for hazardous-duty pay, but then he'd recalled the driving he had to do to get anywhere in this godforsaken, spread-out land. The thought of getting behind the wheel of a car had almost been enough to make him quit and head back to a city where it was possible to get everywhere on public transportation.
Over the years, though, he had prided himself on never giving in to panic, on doing what had to be done in any and all circumstances. He'd told himself that this was just another role he had to learn to play. Only by distancing himself in that way had he been able to get his license.
Then he'd reluctantly gone car shopping. Megan had recommended an outrageously expensive but sturdy sport utility vehicle. He'd found himself gravitating toward something slightly less ostentatious, something a true Westerner would drive.
He'd walked out of the showroom with a great big, fancy pickup truck. That sucker could haul a lot of hay, maybe even a dead moose. Not that he had any intention of loading it up with either. As he'd driven off the lot, he'd been convinced he was doing a darn fine job of turning himself into the image of a rancher. Who would ever have thought it possible? Certainly not him, not in his wildest dreams. And while he would never in a million years admit it to his boss, he loved that truck. He just hated getting behind the wheel.