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When Keeton West entered Convenience Counts store at seven in the morning, Sophie Cooper was the last person he expected to see. But there she was, running down the sidewalk, brushing a hand through her shoulder-length auburn hair. Not really auburn, though. Her hair had always been dark brown. The hint of red probably came from a bottle, but he liked it.
He even kind of liked her in a slim-fitting business suit, her high heels clicking on the floor as she walked through the door. She looked like an executive from some Tulsa high-rise office building, not the daughter of a wealthy rancher. She was a sleek and shiny European car in a world of pickup trucks.
He grinned at that comparison and watched as she hurried through the glass door at the front of the store. He thought about approaching her, and then reconsidered. Exhaustion must be getting to him or it wouldn't have crossed his mind.
For the past two nights he'd gotten almost no sleep. And then this morning he'd gotten up early to head into Dawson for a few necessities. The baby in his arms had insisted on the supplies.
The problem was, he didn't know what things a baby required. She cried, that's about all he knew. And he knew in baby talk, crying meant something. Either she was hungry, needed changing or something else was wrong. At about two in the morning he started to think the last choice might be the correct one. After he gave her the last bottle he had, he was at a loss. A few hours later he found himself here, hiding from Sophie Cooper before he could ask the store's proprietor for baby advice.
"Hey, Sophie, what has you out so early in the morning?" Trish Cramer leaned over the counter at the front of the store. She and her husband, Jimmy, had owned Convenience Counts for as long as Keeton could remember. And they'd always liked to keep tabs on what was happening in Dawson, Oklahoma.
There wasn't a local paper, but the folks in Dawson had Jimmy and Trish.
"I'm just here to grab some breakfast." Sophie grinned at them. She had a smile that could knock a guy to the ground.
She'd always been beautiful. The woman was even better than the girl she'd been years ago. If things had been different, she would have married his brother, been his sister-in-law. If everything hadn't changed on a June night sixteen years ago, that is. But it had changed. Nothing could undo that night.
Keeton sighed and moved around the corner of the shelves he'd been standing in front of, out of the line of sight so that he wouldn't be the first thing Sophie saw when she turned his way.
He peeked, though. Like a thirteen-year-old kid spying on cheerleaders when they'd stopped for a diet cola after practice. Yeah, he'd been that kid. And Trish had given him the eye then, the way she was now.
"You're working on a Saturday?" Trish looked over the tops of her glasses.
"Do you need gas pumped?" Jimmy came around the corner of the counter, wiping his hands on a rag.
"No, I filled up last night. I just need to grab breakfast and go." She stopped in front of the warming tray and eyed food that had been sitting under a heat lamp probably since the place opened an hour ago.
Breakfast pizza and a few egg sandwiches. He'd grab something for himself, once he figured out what a three-month-old baby ate for breakfast. He looked down at the mysterious creature cuddled up against him. For once the baby wasn't crying.
He had to stop thinking of her as "the baby." She was his baby. Lucy. She cuddled into him, trusting, even after just a couple of days of knowing him. His baby. He shook his head, the way he'd been doing since his ex-wife had dropped Lucy with him. A baby hadn't been on his list of things to get.
But he had her, and he couldn't imagine not having her. Although he could imagine getting a little more rest. He hoped sleep didn't turn out to be a thing of the past.
"Honey, you're always in a hurry." Trish had moved closer to Sophie. "When are you going to settle down?"
"No time for settling down, Trish. Work keeps me busy."
Trish laughed at that. "Well, that isn't going to keep you warm when the winters are long. You need a husband."
Keeton nearly groaned because when Trish said "husband" she shot him a look over Sophie's right shoulder. He shushed the baby and repositioned her. Babies were heavy. He hadn't realized how heavy a twelve-pound bit of fluff and spit-up could be until he'd spent a full day hauling one around.
"I think I'll be fine. I've got a good furnace." Sophie answered Trish on the husband issue. "I'll just grab something off the shelf."
"All of this hurrying isn't good for your digestion," Trish called out, the all-knowing voice of reason and common sense.
"Then I'll take a pack of those antacids you have behind the counter to go with whatever I buy."
Keeton pulled his hat down low and grinned at the comeback. One thing about Sophie Cooper, she wasn't a wallflower. She'd slapped him once, years ago. He shook his head and reached for a jar of baby food because maybe Lucy needed more than bottles. When he got to the register, he'd ask Trish.
Click click of heels. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Sophie hurried in his direction. With a single step he moved back to the end of the aisle. She stopped in front of the few breakfast items on the shelves, frowning as she surveyed the options.
The baby in his arms whimpered. He bounced her a little, hoping to quiet her down. It had worked last night. He'd spent about an hour swaying back and forth in his living room, wishing he had real furniture and maybe the smarts to tackle his situation a little differently.
Smart would have been not marrying Becka Janson because he felt sorry for her. She'd played him good. She'd found out his winnings, his earnings and how much he'd invested in Jeremy Hightree's custom motorcycle business and she'd latched on quick. At least he'd been smart enough for a prenup.
The baby in his arms wiggled, squirmed and let out a real cry. Sophie Cooper turned, her hazel eyes widened as she zeroed in on him and the baby. A smile trembled on her lips and her gaze shifted from the baby to him.
He tipped his hat and grinned, knowing charm and good looks weren't going to mean a thing to the woman standing in front of him. Her attention wasn't on him anyway. She looked at the baby, the coolness in her eyes softening, warming.
Man, she hadn't changed much at all. She could still stop a guy in his tracks and make him forget what he wanted to say.
"Keeton West." Her voice shook a little. "And a baby."
He held the baby with one arm and cupped the two jars of food in his free hand. He knew his shirt had spit-up smeared on the shoulder and he hadn't shaved in three days. He couldn't think of a thing to say that wouldn't sound ridiculous.
"Me and a baby." Stupid. Pre-Lucy he would have winked and said something like "It's been a long time." Or, "Sophie, you're as beautiful as ever."
Instead he jabbered like the infant in his arms and echoed her like a fifteen-year-old with his first crush. Actually, he knew fifteen-year-old boys who would have done better.
If he'd had any sense at all he would have stayed in Broken Arrow. He had a nice little place on the edge of the city. But wanting his family land backthat had been his driving force for as long as he could remember. He needed to remember that was his reason for being here.
One thing stood between him and the biggest portion of that land. Sophie Cooper. She'd bought one hundred acres of land that used to be his family farm.
She smiled at the baby, not at him. "She's beautiful."
Next time Sophie would listen to that little voice that told her to run in and get a breakfast sandwich from the Mad Cow. But no, she'd been in a hurry and thought the local convenience store would be quicker.
Surprise, nothing was ever quick in Dawson. Or easy. People always managed to get in her business. If it wasn't her family it was one of the locals trying to find out what she'd been up to, or trying to find a way to marry her off.
Today the problem happened to be Keeton West.
She had one hour to get to a meeting in Grove and then she had her other project to work on. And Keeton West had something dripping down the front of his shirt, very close to where it was unbuttoned at the throat. Very close to the silver cross and chain that he wore around his very tan neck.
She cleared her throat and stumbled back to the present. The main thing she didn't want to discuss with him was land she'd recently bought.
The baby in his arms forced her to act, though. Maybe it had to do with being a Cooper. Or maybe she couldn't run from biology. Even if she didn't have children of her own. Was it her imagination or did she hear a very loud clock ticktocking in her ear?
The baby spit up again.
"Keeton, she's sick." Sophie grabbed a role of paper towels off the shelf and ripped them open. "Here, sweetie. Oh, that's awful stuff."
Keeton West and a baby. She tried to connect dots and couldn't. She couldn't imagine him with a child. And yet.. She wiped the baby's chin. The infant had his nose. She had his brother Kade's nose. The thought ached deep down inside Sophie, in a place that had been broken and empty for a long time. It was the part of her heart that still missed Kade. Or what they might have had.
Pudgy baby arms reached for her and big eyes overflowed with tears that trickled down the little girl's pink cheeks. Keeton held tight and Sophie put on a smile that said none of this hurt, none of it mattered. She had survived. She'd gotten past the pain of losing Kade. She was whole.
"Thank you." Keeton's voice was low and husky, his eyes sought hers. And she couldn't look at him, not without seeing Kade. The resemblance shook her. The dark hair. The lean, suntanned features. The dark eyes that danced with laughter or smoldered with emotion. Ugh, she was so not able to deal with this.
When she looked at Keeton she remembered the night he pulled the bull rope for Kade. It was just one of the memories they shared. Common ground that she didn't want to be on today.
"You're welcome." She stood there with a handful of smelly paper towels and nowhere to run to. "What are you doing back in town?"
"I'm here to get our land back."
Oh. Well, she didn't quite know what to say to that. "I didn't know you had a baby."
He grinned, and the ornery leaked back into his brown eyes.
"Yeah, neither did I until a few days ago. Long story but I divorced her mother about a year ago. Or her mother divorced me. And we didn't see each other again until she showed up on my doorstep with what she called a 'surprise.'"
"And where's her mother?"
"On her way to South America with a bull rider she met a few months ago."
"I'm sorry." What else could she say? "What's her name?"
"Lucy Monroe West." He smiled down at the little girl. "And I don't have a clue what I'm supposed to do with her."
"You do what you're doing. Hold her. Feed her. Love her."
"And what do I feed her?" He shrugged a little and looked from Sophie to the baby. "I mean, food? Milk?"
"Formula." Sophie reached for a box. "She's little, Keeton. No food. Not yet."
"Right, formula in a bottle." He juggled the baby and the stuff he'd picked up, putting baby food back on the shelf.
Sophie wanted to take the baby. And she didn't want to take her. She couldn't get involved, not with Keeton. That would be a mistake. It would be stepping back into the past. She was thirty-five. She didn't have time for the past.
She had a present to worry about. Her life today filled with too many matchmakers, not enough single men, work and her own projects. Life.
"I should go."
"Right, and maybe we can catch up later."
He smiled when he said it, because he didn't mean it. Neither of them wanted to get together, to relive, to catch up.
"Well, it was good seeing you again." She smiled and moved to slide past him.
"Yeah, it was." He stepped back, the baby in one arm, a teddy bear diaper bag slung over the other and a loaf of bread balancing on top of the package of diapers he had managed to pick up.
The baby watched her, tears in watery blue eyes. For years Sophie had lied to herself. She tried to convince herself that growing up a Cooper, with a dozen siblings and an array of foster children in the home, she could live without babies. She'd had enough.
And it wasn't true. She wanted a baby of her own. She wanted to hold the baby in Keeton West's arms.
She grabbed a cola from the cooler section. Next to her, Keeton jostled the baby in his arms and nearly lost his hold on her.
Instinct took over. Sophie reached, the baby grabbed. Suddenly Sophie had the spit-up-covered baby in her arms and Keeton moved the diapers to his free hand.
"Don't get too comfortable. You have to take her back," Sophie warned. But the baby held tight to her shirt and whimpered. Sophie kissed the little forehead.
Keeton grinned. "But she looks perfect in your arms. Look at the red in her hair. You're a match."
"This isn't "
He winked then. "Yeah, I know it isn't."
She looked down at the tiny creature in her arms. Lucy smelled positively awful. And she was wet clean through. "You could have warned me."
She held the baby out to him and he looked perplexed. And he looked as if he'd just rode in off the range with his faded Levis, washed-out blue, button-up shirt and dusty boots. Surprise, surprise, he didn't have on chaps, or a gun in a holster on his belt. That would have been a little too Old West, even for Keeton.
"Sorry." He didn't look it. "Do me a favor, hold her for a second. Just give me a chance to get this to the counter."
"You know I will."