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Oklahoma rain drummed the rental car's roof, drowning out Hank Williams on the radio. For mid-September, the air was unbearably muggy. Feet swollen and the bagel she'd downed at Baltimore-Washington International threatening to make a break for it, Wren Barnes peered out her side window, praying she'd turned onto Cash Buckhorn's driveway and not merely another country road.
Thankfully, the drive stopped.
The downpour didn't.
Barely able to make out Cash's home through the rain, Wren prayed for the umpteenth time she'd made the right decision. Although regardless, there was no turning back now.
Since this would be a hasty mission, she'd leave her overnight bag on the passenger-side floorboard, but in case she needed tissues or antacid, she snatched her purse. Forcing a deep breath, she charged from her vehicle, running through the rain. Seconds later she stood on Cash's covered front porch, dripping.
Even in the midst of a storm, the home was lovely. A modern mix of stone walls and sheets of glass for windows. The place reeked of money, meaning as usual, she didn't fit inwould never fit in until she'd finished her training. But that was okay. She and her baby wouldn't be in Weed Gulch long. And then, back in Baltimore, the two of them would create the family she'd always craved.
Wren had just raised her hand to knock on a weathered copper-plated door when from around the corner stepped a cowboy and all that that implied. Through the steady downpour Wren couldn't get a complete image. Even squinting netted her the same sort of mouthwatering, wholly masculine, leather-chaps-wearing silhouette that had first gotten her into this mess. Mouth dry, pulse erratic, she managed to stammer, "C-Cash?"
"In the flesh, darlin'. What can I" Having rounded the edge of an immaculate wildflower garden, he stepped onto the porch, not in the least concerned about the water dripping from his hat. "Oh. It's you."
The fact that her baby's father didn't even remember her name brought on a fresh wave of nausea. Bolting toward the rail, with as much grace as she could manage she upchucked the meal she'd tried so valiantly to keep down.
"Hey, whoa!" He stepped up behind her, taking firm hold of her heaving shoulders. "The gardener's gonna have my hide."
"S-sorry." Wren tried standing, but having had hardly any sleep for as long as she could remember, exhaustion clung like lead weights to her body.
"That's it," he soothed, tempting her to lean against the muscular chest forever seared into her memory. "Take it easy."
Never had she wished more that she was a delicate Southern belle prone to fainting. Alas, she'd been born in Philly to deadbeat parents. Forced from the tender age of two to survive in a church-run orphanage. The experience had delivered steady lessons in self-reliance. Because of which, she drew a deep breath, tugged her sweater over her nearly-six-month baby bump and refrained from any further leaning.
"You're Dr. Wren, right? We, ah, played your profession and then went on to dabble in mine?"
She cringed. Did he have to speak of such things in broad daylight? "Yes, um, unfortunately, that would be me."
"Well, hell, there wasn't anything unfortunate about that night. Unless you happened to catch a glance at our bar bill."
She'd forgotten his laugh. A slow, drawn-out chuckle of sorts during which he flashed strong white teeth and dimples in both of his whisker-stubbled cheeks. Cash wasn't merely handsomewith short, dirty-blond curls and eyes as green as daffodil stems, he was take-a-girl's-breath-away gorgeous. And he knew it. Confidence oozed from his every pore. Along with the knowledge that most every woman on the planet from age nine to ninety-two was helpless in the battle against his charm.
Except her. She'd already fallen once, and just as soon as she did the right thing in telling him he was going to be a father, she'd forever be on a mostly Cash-free diet.
"What's the matter?" he asked, removing his cowboy hat to whisk water droplets from leather chaps. Before seeing him ride bulls in that Vegas rodeo, she'd thought they'd been worn only in movies. "Missed me and thought you'd come round for more?"
"N-not exactly," she muttered. "I'm afraid it's more complicated. Would you mind going inside? I'm a little chilled."
"Sure." He opened the door and gestured for her to lead. He hadn't noticed her enormous belly, which, at the moment, suited her. The home was as spectacular on the inside as it was outside. With Native American motifs, buttery-soft leather sofas and lounge chairs placed around a soaring stone fireplace, she could only imagine how inviting it would be during a snow. Warm and cozy with a floor-to-ceiling view of rolling prairie and tumbling flakes. "Have a seat. Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"No, thank you." Where to start? As wet as she was, she chose a wooden rocker.
He sat on the polished stone hearth. "Gotta say you're the last person I expected to see today."
"Yes, well, Iwehave had a problem arise." Not unlike her queasy stomach. "You might recall that when we, um, found pleasure on the balcony that the condom broke?"
"Oh, hell " The tan slid from his face. "You're not tellin' me "
"Cash, I'm pregnant with your baby." Before he got a grip on her last statement, she hit him with another. "But I'm not here to make demandsfinancial or otherwise." Curving her hands to her belly, she added, "If you'll recall, in Vegas I was celebrating my med-school graduationthe trip was a gift from a good friend and was due to start residency in Baltimore mid-July. Well, as you can guess, this"
"Ma'am, with all due respect, could you please stop yakking long enough to give a man time to think?"
"I'm chronically on the run. I don't have time to yakmore like hastily convey as-needed information."
Snorting, he said, "Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but honey, we've got a lot more to worry about than semantics."
"You think?" Standing, she paced, struggling to ignore the way the room had begun to spin.
"Being in your condition, shouldn't you sit? Better yet, get in bed?"
"Exercise is healthy." That said, her current degree of dizziness was not.
"Are you sure?" Though his expression seemed to hold genuine concern, it also held a fair amount of panic.
"Damn, I didn't see this coming." He'd taken a red bandanna from his back pocket and now wiped it across his forehead. "Yes, indeed, this does present some problems."
"But it doesn't have to. That's the beauty of my plan."
"Your plan?" He chuckled. "From where I'm sitting, looks like the bun in your oven is pulling our strings."
"Like I said, your life doesn't in any way need to change. I'm here on a fall break from my residency. I felt it best you hear this news in person. Now that you have, I'll be on my way and our baby no longer needs to be your concern."
He half laughed. "That's where you're wrong."
"The baby growing inside you is a Buckhorn, and lady, I don't know diddly-squat about your family, but one thing you should know about mine is that our offspring don't go anywhere until they're old enough to decide they want to."
Though she'd thankfully returned to her rocker, now he was the one pacing. "Yes, sirree, this does present a problem."
"Only if you let it." Her nausea and dizziness returned with a vengeance. Couldn't he be a gentleman and make this easy for her?
Slapping on his hat, he ambled with a slight limp toward the door.
"Where are you going?" she called, jumping to her feet. "We still have a lot to"
Cash glanced back just in time to watch the very beautiful, very pregnant Wren Barnes crumple to the floor.
"You'll be fine," Doc Haven said to Wren thirty minutes later. She'd hardly budged since Cash had hefted her onto the sofa.
Cash thanked his lucky stars that the white-haired country doctor who'd been wearing the same wire-framed glasses since Cash was a little boy had been on a neighboring ranch when he'd called.
Checking her watch, Wren asked, "Does that mean I'm free to leave? It's a long drive back to Tulsa, and I've got a 5:00 a.m. flight."
"If that's the case," Doc said, rocking back on his heels, "we might have a situation."
"How so?" Wren wrinkled her pert nose. "I've got studying to do back home and am operating on a very narrow timeline."
"Sorry to hear that." After jotting a few notes in a black journal, Doc said, "Your fainting spell and skyrocketing blood pressure tell me you need to be off your feet for no less than a week before I'm clearing you to travel as far as the local feed store, let alone halfway across the country."
"I am leaving," Wren assured him, "and I would never faint."
Cash snorted. "Mind explaining why I had to scoop you up from the floor? "
Not meeting his gaze, she said, "I was tired. It's been a long day."
"Um-hmm." Doc wrote on a scratch pad, then tore off the top sheet and handed it to Cash. "I'll run tests on the blood and urine samples, and you head down to the pharmacy and pick her up some iron tabs. Call if anything changes. In the meantime, you two kids behave."
With the doctor gone, Wren struggled for the right thing to say. Not only had she planned to be headed home already, but she was stuck staying with a man she hardly knew? No. Easing upright on the sofa she said, "Now that we're on our own, if you'd be so kind as to help me to the door, I'll " Hand to her forehead, she used every ounce of her strength to hold her spinning nausea at bay.
"Can it," Cash said, sliding his hands under her before lifting her into his arms.
She squeaked, automatically circling her arms around his neck. "Put me down."
"Why? So you can get yourself all riled up only to faint again? Not happening on my watch. You gave me a hell of a scare. For the next week, you just plan on keeping that luscious booty of yours in bed."
Reddening at the memory of his hands on her bare booty, she said, "But I have to get "
With a long stride, he'd already headed down a shadowy hall, grunting as he veered to his right to enter a sumptuous bedroom. Featuring another wall of windows, this one overlooked a free-form pool and hot tub surrounded by low rock walls and more wildflow-ers that looked as if they'd always been there. Wheat-colored carpet cushioned his footfalls. A rough-hewn log bed had been made in down linens.
Cash set her on the bed as carefully as if she were a porcelain doll. At the moment, as wretched as she felt, she appreciated his help. Though admitting any sort of weakness had never been her strong suit, this was one case in which she felt as if her own body was betraying her. "Bathroom's in here," he said, laying a throw blanket over her before ducking through another door to flip on lights to bathroom luxury fit for a five-star spa. "After you've rested for a while, help yourself to whatever you need. There should be towels and spare toiletries. Food's in the fridge. I " He sharply exhaled. "Sorry, this has all caught me off guard. I need to get out of here for a while. I've gotta have time to think."
"Sure," she said, casting him a faint smile. "I understand. Take all the time you need."
In the barn, surrounded by his favorite smells of oats, straw and horses, Cash dropped to sit hard on a hay bale, in the process jamming his screwed-up knee. He grimaced at the pain. If it hadn't been for a nasty spill he'd taken in Oklahoma City just three weeks prior and in the process tearing the medial collateral ligament, he wouldn't even be here. Pending further MRI readings, National Bull Rider tour docs had put him on a minimum six-week leave.
Taking out his phone, he hit speed dial for his big brother, Dallas. Though Cash was a respectable twenty-seven years old, on this particular afternoon he felt all of six, facing his father after having accidentally blown his math book to bits with a superstrength firecracker.
"What's up?" Dallas answered on the second ring. "Finish exercising the mares?"
"And you got them in the barn before the storm?"
"Not yet, but"
"Dammit, Cash, you're killing me. I know you've got a full plate, but we're trying to run a business here, and"
Cash had never been what one might call an expert communicator, so before heartburn churned up his gut, he blurted out, "I'm pregnant."
"Yeah. You know how Ruby dumped me right before that last ride I had in Vegas?"
"Uh-huh." Even Dallas's grunts didn't sound happy.
"To celebrate, I hooked up with this uptight brunette from out East, only turns out she was actually pretty wild, and"
"Holy hell," Dallas roared, "would you get to the damn point!"
"Condom broke. She's pregnant."
His big brother, the rock of their family since their father had died three years earlier, had apparently fallen speechless.
"Oh, I'm here, all right. When's the wedding? Mama didn't raise us to not do right by a woman. If she catches wind of this before you put a ring on that gal's finger, you'll never hear the end of it."
"I know, which is why I'm calling. I realize everyone will expect me to do the so-called right thing, but what if I can't?"
"So help me, if this is one of your practical jokes."
"Honestly, would I joke about something like this? Vegas was hot, but God's honest truth, right now I'd swear off women forever. Had my eye on a smoking-hot redhead that night in OK City when I took my fall. Should've had my mind on business. Females are nothing but trouble, and"
"Would you hush? Your voice is bringing on a migraine. In the meantime, you need to reassess your marriage views before Mom gets wind of this."
"Thanks, bro. You've been a lot of help." Especially considering Cash hadn't even gotten around to telling his brother he was now stuck with the woman living in his home for an indefinite length of time.
Dallas grunted. "And my whole damned life you've been a walkingor in this case, limpingpain in my ass."
Wren rested on her side, staring out the bedroom window, trying to regroup. She was drowning in fear. In hindsight, hopping a plane and showing up on Cash's doorstep hadn't been one of her brightest ideas. Should she have stayed in Baltimore? Told Cash he was going to be a father via internet or phone?
Eyes stinging, the ever-present knot in her throat hurting more than usual, she indulged in a brief crying jag before forcing a deep breath.