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"Well, hi there, Colt Holden, bull rider extraordinaire. My goodness you're breathtaking to watch on a bull . Oh, and by the way, I'm here to tell you that you're a daddy!"
Annie Ridgeway recited the words in her head. Nope, that was certainly not the way to break the news. Though humor did lighten up a hard situation most times, in this case not so much.
Annie and her sister, Jennifer, had always had very different ideas about life. Following rodeos around and being too friendly with the cowboys who rode bulls and broncs had been, in Annie's view, a terrible thing. Then again, she and her sister had always been opposites. Jennifer thought Annie was a stick-in-the-mud, and she thought Jennifer was a well, to put it bluntly, a lot too loose with her affections.
The two sisters had basically disagreed about almost everything right up until the day Jennifer died a year ago.
They had disagreed about everything, that is, but their love for Leo. On loving Leo they had agreed completely.
What was best for Leoon that they'd remained consistentdisagreeing till the very end.
Annie started over. "Mr. Holden, you don't know this, but you are the daddy of my six-year-old nephew, Leo. Surprise!"
Groaning, she bit her lip and nibbled on that straightforward approach. It was blunt. But it was the truth.
Six years. That was a long time to keep something as important as this hidden. Whether the rowdy cowboy had wanted to know or not, he should have been told.
That ended today.
Annie had decided today was the last day she was going to be responsible for such a significant piece of her nephew's life. Having made this monumental decision hadn't made it easy for her. Oh, no. She'd be lying if she claimed that. It had been down-right hard; in fact, God had actually gotten a little rough with her to get her attention!
She tried again to squelch the need to turn and run. Dread so heavy she could barely breathe settled over her as she pulled her old clunker onto the gravel drive of the Holden Ranch. Squinting against the bright July sunshine, she battled with where to gothe house or the office. The small metal office sat closer to the road and had three trucks sitting in front of it, making it the logical choice.
Continuing to nibble at her lip she studied the simple office building of the Holden Ranch, and then the white ranch house in the distance. The sense of dread wrapped tighter around her, suffocating her.
You have nowhere else to go.
Ha! She could find a way to make it
This is for Leo. She closed her eyes. Everything was for her little Leo. "Is this where he lives?"
Leo's question interrupted her thoughts. Pulling herself together, Annie turned to look at her six-year-old nephew. He was sitting in his safety chair in the backseat of the car, beaming with expectations that terrified her.
What if this guy was a jerk?
Even though Leo thought they were going to meet Colt Holden, the man he most admired in all the world, Leo had no idea what this meeting meant to his future.
Forcing a smile and ignoring the rolling of her stomach, she answered, "Yes, I believe it is. This is a great day, isn't it?" Sick as she felt she couldn't help being excited for Leoafter all, he was meeting his hero today.
He idolized pro-bull rider Colt Holden. Up until her death a year ago, her sister had told Leo all kinds of bedtime stories about the bull rider. They watched him when he was on television competing in pro-bull-riding events. And Jennifer had posted pictures of Colt Holden all over Leo's room.
Annie's mind filled with images of the bull rider's dazzling smile in many poses and his gritty concentration when he was riding the fierce bulls.
There was no denying that the cowboy was awe-inspiring in that regard. And no wonder that Leo, clueless about who his father was, had grown up adoring the cowboy his mother had painted as the most wonderful man in the world. This should have given Annie a little heads-up on the matter. But it hadn't.
Whether the man was wonderful, she wasn't so sure. Even if he was a good man, he'd have a lot to live up to.
"Annie Aunt, is this where he lives?" Leo asked, using the backward term of affection that he'd called her all his life.
"Yes. At least I think so. He's going to be surprised when he meets you and finds out how much you know about him."
He beamed proudly at her. "He's the greatest bull rider in the whole wide world. He ain't won the championship 'cause he always gets a bad draw on his bulls out there at the big national rodeo."
She wasn't sure about all of that, and really had no idea why the cowboy had never won the championship the five times he'd made the nationals.
The man was elite in his field whether he had or hadn't. "You amaze me, Leo. I can tell you thisthat's one lucky cowboy to have you so crazy about him."
Leo's face twisted into a huge smile. "I'm so excited I could whoop!" he exclaimed, and proceeded to do exactly that by exploding with a loud whoop. "Gosh, Annie Aunt, it's gonna be great!" Rocking his safety seat in his enthusiasm, he said, "He's gonna like me. And since we're gonna live in the same town, I bet he'll teach me to ride bulls and ropemaybe even how to fish."
Annie's mouth went dry and the slow burn of indigestion spread across her chest. Leo's expectations as a fan were huge. How would Colt Holden react to a little-boy fan, so infatuated with him?
Most importanthow would he react when he knew he had a son?
Colt Holden stared at his brothers. They meant well, but right now the last thing he needed was their sympathy. Or their mothering.
"You aren't sleeping at night." Luke, his oldest brother, challenged him. The words echoed off the thick wooden paneling of the office and also Colt's equally thick bad disposition. He scowled.
"I never said that. If this is some sort of intervention, you fellas need to back up."
"Come on, Colt." Jess, two years older than him, rammed a hand through his dark hair, worry in his blue eyes. "Have you looked in a mirror lately? You haven't slept since the wreck. You've lost at least ten pounds, too. You've holed up out there and haven't come away from the cabin since you got home."
"You look bad on the outside and we're afraid you look worse on the inside," Luke finished. His brown eyes, so much like Colt's, were solemn.
Colt rubbed the stubble on his chin with his good hand. He didn't need to look in a mirror to know what he looked like. These days the less he looked in a mirror the better off he was. The contempt he felt for himself was almost too much to bear. And this sympathyinterventionwhatever you called it, wasn't helping.
"You've got to rein this in," Luke continued. "You've got to move forward."
"Move forward!" Black emotion swept through Colt. "If this is what y'all called me about this morning, then I'll be cuttin' you loose. I just want to be left alone."
"We get that," Luke offered, his voice gentling. "But you have to pull yourself out of this hole you're in. This isn't going to bring anyone back or change what happened in that car wreck."
"It wasn't your fault," Jess finished.
"That doesn't help me sleep at night," Colt growled. He was six years younger than Luke and two years younger than Jess. Since he was eight, when his mother left them and their home fell apart, his older brothers had been his heroes. They'd been the ones who'd provided for him and looked out for him when their parents hadn't. They'd protected him as much as they could and offered as much love as two boys their age could offer. But he was all grown up now, and they couldn't help him. No one could.
He wasn't so sure God could help him at this point.
"You have to figure out a way past it," Luke said. "Give it to God."
Colt bolted straight out of the chair; every muscle in his strained back protested while his broken collarbone shot fire through him. It was pain he welcomedpain he deserved.
Memories, like firebrands, seared into his soul. "Fellas, I can't do this. Not now." He headed for the door, escape all he could think about. Hell on earth had nothing on what he felt. Jess slid into his path as Luke came around the edge of the desk and flanked him.
"We talked with a specialist," Luke said. "And he suggested some counseling"
"I'm not" Colt stared at his brothers. "I don't need some guy with a Ph.D telling me I need to get over it." He gritted the words out. They blew up like fireworks. "Do you think the family I wiped out cares whether I 'get over it.' No. They wish I'd had my head on straight that night. They wish I'd have pulled over ten minutes earlier when I realized I was drifting in and out of sleep while my boot remained hard and heavy on the gas pedal!"
"Colt" Luke tried to break in but Colt cut him off.
"And how about their loved ones? They wish I'd have been off the road where I belonged when the family they loved" He couldn't voice it again. Couldn't look it in the face againwhy couldn't his brothers get that? Some things just cut too deep.
His head pounding, he started for the door. Jess didn't move. "Colt, we're worried about you."
He looked from one brother to the other. "Don't y'all get it? Y'all can't fix this. Nothing can."
Luke laid his hand on Colt's arm. "God can."
Like a jagged blade, the words cut deep and ragged. Colt yanked his arm free. "I'd say it's a little too late for that." Two weeks ago he'd been racking up the points to compete in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. He'd been hauling hard across the country from rodeo to rodeo, maintaining his position as a top contender in the finals rodeo. He'd been road weary the night the drunk had swerved into him, sending him into the oncoming traffic, where his truck had hit a vehicle head-on . Even thinking about it drove him crazy. And plunged him deeper into the murky pit he was in.
Stepping around Luke, he pushed violently on the door. It slammed open, banging against the building as it hit full force. Colt stormed outside onto the porch, fully intent on getting back to his isolated cabin, tucked into the woods at the back of their ranch.
Barreling down the steps, running as much from his thoughts as his brothers, he almost ran into the woman standing at the bottom of the steps. If she hadn't stepped back, he would have taken her out.
"I'm sorry," he blurted, coming up short. "I didn't see you."
"It's okay," she assured him, studying him intently with wide eyes that looked pale lavender in the glaring sunlight. She moved her warm blond hair behind her ear and caught her breath. He'd obviously scared her. She was rail thin, and her clothes hung on her as if they were someone else's.
Luke and Jess stepped up behind him on the porch, and her gaze flitted from him to each of them before landing back on him.
Colt stiffened, going on alert as wariness curled into a ball in the pit of his stomach. He'd learned over the last three weeks that when someone studied him like this, it wasn't a good thing.
"Hi," Luke said, taking control of the situation. "I'm Luke Holden. These are my brothersJess, and the guy who almost ran you over is Colt. What can we do for you?"
"Well, I'm looking for " She paused, her gaze probing his. "You're Colt Holden. The bull rider?" she asked, as if she wasn't sure from the way he looked.
Colt rubbed his three-day-old beard. Did he look that bad? He glanced down at himself. His own jeans hung loosely on his hips, showing that Jess was righthe had lost weight. And it didn't take a look in the mirror for him to know he looked older and drawn. He felt every bit of it.
He needed to get out of here, but for the life of him, Colt couldn't tear his eyes from the woman's pale eyes.
Something stirred inside his chest at the way they searched his face, as if she were trying to look inside his headwhich was not a good place for anyone to be searching right now.
"Do I know you?" Something pricked in the back of his memory. He'd feared at first that she might be a reporter. He'd learned the hard way that reporters could look innocent, too, and be as deadly as sharks.
"Um, no," she replied quickly. "We've never met. I " She swallowed hard, then took a halting breath as her gaze hit the ground before bouncing back to his.
Was she lying? Her body language wasn't giving him any confidence in her words.
"I've actually brought my nephew to meet you. He's your number one fan. I'm sorry to intrude, but I was wondering if you would take a moment to meet him."
A child. Colt's heart jerked at the thought and he shook his head. "I can't I mean, I'm not"
Behind her, the creak of the battered blue car's door opening drew his attention. His heart sank as a little boy, about five or six years old, peeked out. Colt steeled himself against the slash of guilt that ripped straight through him.
"Colt!" The kid's big eyes, wide and dancing with excitement, stared at Colt as if he was some kind of superstar. "It is you!" the kid yelled and charged.
Stepping back, Colt wanted to turn and run the other way, but he held his position, glaring at the lady. Her mouth was hanging open as the kid skidded to a halt in front of him, gravel crunching as he came.
"I been waitin' my whole long life to meet you," he exclaimed, then joyfully threw his arms around Colt's knees.
Images of another child flashed through Colt's thoughts, breaking his heart once again into shattered pieces. Sweat popped across his brow and his heart thundered. It was all he could do to hold his ground as his gaze flew from the boy's ecstatic, upturned face, then back to the woman. To his disbelief, she looked more terrified than he felt.