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Dillon Farraday was coming. "This morning," Colleen Applegate whispered, staring out the window at the long drive leading from her ranch to the rest of the world. And the reason he was coming was going to tear her heart apart, she thought, glancing down at the baby monitor, her lifeline to the child she'd grown to love as her own.
She'd never actually met the man, but what she knew worried her. He was drop-dead handsome, rich and, therefore, probably used to getting his way. He was from Chicago and might frown on Montana ranch life. Moreover, he was a soldier, used to harsh ways, and Colleen knew all about harsh men. This one had been injured in battle six months ago, so he might not be in the best of humor. All of that information was public, readily available on the Internet.
Beyond that, however, things got murkier. Dillon was recently divorced from Lisa, a former local who had gone to school with Colleen, and three months ago Lisa had shown up at Colleen's door with her new baby. "I can't do this," she'd told Colleen, "but you're perfect with babies, and you've always wanted one. Take care of him, please, for now."
Colleen had wanted to say no, but a baby had been involved. She'd reluctantly agreed to keep Toby safe.
"By the way," Lisa had said, before she left, "I sent a note to Dillon at the hospital where he's laid up, so he knows about the baby's existence. He might or might not want to see Toby someday, but… the baby might not be his. Biologically, that is."
Then Lisa had run, so that small cryptic bit of information was almost all that Colleen knew. Except for one more thing. That question about whether or not Dillon might want to see the baby? It was no longer a question.
In a brief, terse telephone conversation yesterday he had introduced himself, said that he'd been released from the hospital and indicated one thing more: he was coming to Montana and he expected Colleen to docilely hand sweet little Toby over.
There was only one problem there. Dillon Farraday might have a legal claim, but Colleen had never been a docile woman.
Moreover, she had questions, and she intended to get good solid answers before she simply handed over an innocent baby, one she loved, to anyone, especially to a man she didn't know or trust.
Dillon parked his black Ferrari in front of the long, low log house. The beauty of the mountains was behind him, but other than this lopsided house and the outbuildings, there were no signs of civilization for miles around. Why on earth had Lisa left the baby here? And why had she waited so long to let him know of the child's existence?
The same questions—and possible answers—had been swirling through his head for weeks, but he had spent a lifetime learning to bide his time, to think things through to their logical conclusion and then to act when the time was right. His marriage to Lisa had seemed to follow the same pattern, but in reality it had been the one glaring exception and an obvious mistake. But now that he was capable of walking a reasonable distance, driving a reasonable distance, the time was definitely right for lots of things he hadn't been able to take care of before.
He would have his answers… and his son. Colleen Apple-gate couldn't legally deny him, and she probably knew that. She hadn't sounded happy to hear from him when he'd called yesterday.
Too bad. She could have touched base with him anytime during the past three months and she hadn't bothered to do that, so her opinions didn't matter. All that mattered about Colleen Applegate was that she had his child.
Dillon pulled himself from the car, took the darned cane he was still forced to use and approached the house that appeared to have been put together haphazardly, like a child using two different sets of blocks that didn't fit together. There were two front steps. Sloping steps. Those would be a problem. He didn't like anyone seeing him struggle, so when the door opened and a woman stepped out onto the slanted porch, he stayed where he was.
"Ms. Applegate?" he asked.
"You're half an hour early," she said with a nod.
Somehow Dillon managed to conceal his surprise at her appearance. Lisa had always been friends with women who were a lot like herself: model-thin and petite with skillfully made-up faces and expensive clothing that accentuated their willowy figures. Colleen Applegate was tall and curvy with messy, riotous blond curls and little if any makeup. She was dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and boots. There were no signs of vanity about her. No smile, either, and her comment clearly indicated irritation.
For some reason that made him want to smile. Maybe because of the interest factor. He'd been raised to command, and people had been tiptoeing around him all his adult life.
His employees, his soldiers, apparently even his ex-wife. But this woman wasn't tiptoeing. Not even slightly.
"Traffic was light," he said with a smile and a shrug.
She looked instantly wary. He supposed he could understand why. This situation had to be uncomfortable for her at best. If she'd grown attached to the baby, it would be worse than that. He noted that she had brown eyes… expressive eyes that signaled a woman who had trouble hiding her thoughts. "You know why I'm here," he said.
"You made that clear yesterday."
Dillon studied those pretty brown eyes. He had seen a lot of pain in the past year, his own physical pain the least of it. This woman was in pain.
He closed his eyes and tried to pretend she was the enemy. No use. Damn Lisa for bringing another person into this. If she'd wanted to punish him for neglecting her when he traveled for work and went to war, that was fine, but a child? This woman who was clearly emotionally affected by all this?
He looked at Colleen. "I want my child." His voice was low, quiet, a bit raspy. "Can you blame me?"
She bit her lip and shook her head. Those eyes looked even sadder. "No." The word was barely a whisper. "Come in. He's sleeping."
"Just like that? Don't you want proof that I am who I am? Identification?"
Something close to a smile lifted her lips. "You're a millionaire and a war hero, Mr. Farraday. That makes you easy to find on the Internet. I don't actually need proof that you're who you say you are."
"But I'll look at your identification. To verify your address and any other particulars I might not have thought of. I want all of this done right. Every i dotted and every t crossed. I have questions. Lots of them, but none of them have to do with a photo ID."
"What kinds of questions are they, then?"
"Whether you'll be a good father, whether Toby will get everything he needs."
The obvious, automatic answer would have been to say that Toby would be given all that money could buy, but Dillon knew all too well that money was never enough. His upbringing and his failed marriage were proof of that. Colleen Applegate was right on the money with her qualms. He couldn't even argue with her.
And despite her invitation to come inside, she was still standing in front of the door as if to guard his son from him.
"I intend to be a good father," he said, and prayed that he could live up to his intentions. Children were fragile in so many ways.
Colleen still didn't budge.
"I meant that," he said.
"I'm not doubting your word, but—"
"But you don't know me," he suggested. "You know my public history, but you don't know what kind of man I really am. Is that it?"
She hesitated. "Something like that. I don't mean to be rude, but I've gotten used to worrying about Toby. I have to live with myself after I turn him over to you, and he's still so little."
"Understood," Dillon said, even as a small streak of admiration for Colleen Applegate's determination to guard his child crept in.
She needed reassurance. He needed his child. The fact that so much time had already passed, that he'd missed so much…
Anger at these circumstances shot straight through Dillon. Disregarding his appearance and his own embarrassment at his weakness, he struggled up onto the porch and moved to within a foot of Colleen, towering over her despite her height.
"I understand your reticence," he assured her. "I see your point. Here's mine. Toby is my son. And while I have no experience whatsoever at being a father, I intend to do everything in my power to make sure Toby is happy."
Dillon held her gaze. He noted the small flutter of her pulse at her throat. He knew that his height and stoic demeanor often intimidated people, but while Colleen was noticeably nervous, she was still standing tall and proud. However reluctant he was to give ground to this woman, he had to admire her for not wilting before his anger. Still, the worried look in her eyes eased. Just a bit.
"He's sleeping," she reminded him, as if she had to get the last word in.
He fought not to smile. "I won't wake him."
Colleen sighed. "He's a light sleeper, but his naptime is almost over, anyway. Come inside." She finally turned and opened the door, leading him into the house.
There was something about the way she moved that immediately attracted his attention. It wasn't a sway, the kind of thing that other men reacted to. It was both less and more. Tall and long-legged, she moved with confidence, sleekly and quietly making her way through the house.
Instantly, his male antennae went on alert. The attraction was surprisingly intense. Also wrong, given the situation. Obviously his months in a military hospital out of the mainstream were having an effect.
That was unacceptable. He was here for one reason only, to find his child. And even if he weren't, he'd been betrayed by women too many times to jump in blindly again. A man who had been betrayed by his mother, his first love and his wife should have learned his lesson by now.
I have, he thought. Women were out, at least in any meaningful way.
So he concentrated on being as silent as Colleen, trying not to knock his cane against anything. The baby was asleep in the depths of this rambling house. This very old, and in need of repairs and paint, rambling house, Dillon noted, as Colleen came to a stop outside a door.
"Here," she whispered, touching her finger to her lips.
Dillon came up close behind her. The light soap scent of her filled his nostrils. He ignored his own body's reaction and stared into a room unlike the others he'd passed through. The walls were a robin's egg blue. Clouds and stars and moons were stenciled on a border that circled the room just below the ceiling. A sturdy white crib with a mobile of dancing horses hanging above it sat in the corner, and in the crib lay a chubby little child in a pale yellow shirt and diaper, his skin rosy and pink, his fingers and toes unbelievably tiny.
Toby Farraday, Dillon thought. His child. His heir. He had had many people in his life, but none, not even his parents, certainly not his wife, who had truly been his.
He glanced down at Colleen, who, despite the fact that she had been living with Toby for months, seemed totally entranced by the sight, too. She glanced up at Dillon. "He's beautiful, isn't he?" she whispered.
Her voice was soft and feminine and the way she had looked at the baby, the fact that they all seemed to be closed up in this cozy, warm, safe cocoon…
Was an illusion, Dillon knew. Safety and security of that type weren't real. He couldn't afford to fall into that kind of thinking, not now when he had someone other than himself he was responsible for. Reality was key to avoiding disillusionment for his son… and for himself.
"Is that one of your questions?" he asked.
She blinked. "Pardon me?"
"You told me you had many questions. Is asking me if my son is beautiful a test? If I should say no…"
Anger flashed in her eyes. "Then you'd be a liar."
"Ah, so it was a test," he said, his tone teasing. "Yes, he's beautiful, Ms. Applegate."
She grimaced. "No one calls me that."
He had the distinct impression that the last time someone had called her that, it hadn't been a pleasant experience.
"Then yes, he's beautiful, Colleen. And I'm not lying."
"Good. I'm glad you feel that way because…" Those deep brown eyes filled with concern again.
"I hate to even bring this up… but before I completely turn him over to you, there's something that has to be asked. There's a potential problem."
Still she hesitated. He was pretty sure he knew why. Given the fact that there was nothing in the public history she had read that could have caused her to worry, there could be only one thing remaining that was making her this uncomfortable.
"Ask," he demanded, the single word clipped and cold.
Colleen took a deep, visible breath and looked right into his eyes.
"What if Lisa… there might be a chance… I wouldn't ordinarily even bring up something so painful and so…not my business, but as I mentioned, I have to make sure Toby's okay, and… what if he isn't your biological son?"
Anger pulsed through Dillon even as he told himself that her question was a valid one for a woman who saw herself as the sole protector of an innocent baby.
"If you think I haven't heard that my wife had… intimate friends even before we divorced, then you're wrong. If you're suggesting that I would take out my displeasure on a baby, then you haven't really done your research on me after all and you haven't been listening to me. And if you think for one second that this changes things, then let me tell you that it doesn't. Whether Toby is my biological son or not, he's legally mine. I was married to Lisa when he was conceived, and the law is clear on my claim to him."
His words and tone would have cowed most people. But Colleen didn't drop her gaze even one bit. She was, he conceded, acting like the proverbial mother bear, even if Toby wasn't hers.
"I'm not the type of guy who would let that make a difference. I no longer have a wife, so what Lisa did or didn't do doesn't matter to me. What I have is a son. He's not responsible for his parentage. No one ever is." Thank goodness.