Big John Paladin thought it was easier to wrestle an angry bull than diaper one tiny infant. But since his wife left, the rancher had turned his talents to "baby wrangling." John knew his son needed more than a gruff cowboy's care. He needed a mother––and he deserved the best.
Dana Dixon was shocked. How dare John Paladin ask her for help when almost a year ago he'd run from her––into the arms of another woman! But how could she turn away a child with eyes so like the man she had once loved? And probably loved still...
About the Author
As arrivals go, Helen's was premature and dramatic. Born six weeks early, on November 13 in Irvington, New Jersey, she was feet first and a "blue baby." She's been wearing layered clothing to warm up and fighting for her "voice" ever since.
Although a Yankee by birth, she's lived in Texas for over half of her life, having moved there in 1972. She initially settled in the Dallas area when she married Robert on December 14, 1974; but they knew they wanted to escape the Yuppie lifestyle and become landowners rather than slab concrete custodians for a mortgage company. Sadly, their first acreage was snatched up by Dow Chemical, who began strip-mining parts of southeast Texas.
However, this proved true to the theory that things often occur for the best. They were led to northeast Texas, to the Piney Woods, where they ended up with 80 acres they now call Crooked Pine Ranch.
Helen discovered the power of the word as early as the second grade when a class assignment to write a poem triggered her imagination. To her chagrin, her poem was not displayed for the all-important parent-teacher night; nevertheless, it triggered a "fire in the belly" that has kept her writing, eventually gaining her an honorable mention in Writer's Digest's 1981 national poetry contest.
Then, on Halloween five years later, while elbow deep in paint, she received that all-important phone call from Isabel Swift, then Silhouette's editorial coordinator, who said that Silhouette wanted Partners for Life for its Desire line. Partners would go on to earn Helen her first Golden Medallion (now known as the RITA) nomination. She would receive two more RITA Awardnominations, winning in 1993 for another Silhouette Desire novel, Navarrone.
Today, Helen credits her training in Silhouette's various series for honing her skills and teaching her discipline. "There's nothing quite like having to finish a book at 4 a.m. Christmas Day before heading out of town, and keeping the momentum of your writing career going while you adjust to eight different editors to teach you flexibility and perseverance."
And her track record is impressive. "My interests are varied," she acknowledges, "and writing for the different lines allowed me to get some things out of my system and to discover what suited me best, even though it could have cost me readers." On the contrary, Helen, whose books can be found in over 25 countries, has been regularly on the Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and USA Today bestseller lists.
Helen is also unique in that she is more retiring than the average romance writer. She acknowledges that her love of privacy gives her more in common with writers of other genres, which is not to suggest that she isn't visible. A featured author at the increasingly renowned Texas Book Festival in 1999, where she met soon-to-be First Lady Laura Bush, Helen continues to make appearances to promote her books.
She explains, "I prefer to make myself accessible for as many one-on-one encounters with readers as possible." Her readers tend to like to discuss story and issues, and are often put off by large events. "And that's enormously draining," she adds. "On the other hand, it creates a word-of-mouth momentum that's proving quite powerful." Like most increasingly successful writers, she notes, "I'll just have to line up for one of those clones scientists are working on."
Read an Excerpt
He wasn't ready for this. He wasn't ready for any of it. Even so, John Paladin carried his ten-day-old son out of Dusty Flats Community Hospital with the same brisk step that he'd entered, and tugged his Stetson and blue denim jacket farther over and around the baby to protect him from the driving wind and rain.
"Hang tough, pardner," he muttered, squinting against the sharp needles that still managed to angle under the wide brim and prick at his face. "It'll get worse before it gets better." After hearing what he had inside, and considering the prospects for their future, it seemed about the only thing he could promise.
The wind lashed harder at them. Damn, but it was cold, he thought, and it wasn't even November yet. By the look of things, he and every other west Texas cattle rancher had a heckuva winter ahead of them. If they didn't float away first. "Dusty Flats" his soggy boots. The community had already surpassed its yearly rainfall average back in August; no telling what the rest of fall would bring.
But at the moment he had more important things to worry about, and he no longer had the stamina to take on more than one calamity at a time. It was just as well that there was nothing he could do about the weather; right now he faced the challenge of a lifetime—getting his boy back to the ranch, then changing and feeding him.
All right, so he figured he could handle the first task, regardless of the gusting wind that kept trying to knock him off his feet. But the rest… the rest turned his insides into quivering jelly.
It was all those instructions the nurses had spewed at him like that last adding machine he'd had that would churn out a half mile of paper whenever it got stuck in some crazy mode. Sure, he understood that they'd needed their bit of fun. Even as he'd been walking through the front door they'd determinedly escorted him like some military color guard, calling out advice and loading him down with enough booklets and junk to keep him reading until Thanksgiving. But he wasn't in any shape to retain any of that book—learned nonsense. His mind was already so cluttered, he'd forgotten half of what he'd been told. Besides, even a grown man could starve to death if he had to read through the pamphlets jammed in his pockets before he was allowed to cook himself something to eat. A tiny scrap of stuff like his boy would be plumb out of luck.
Worst of all, though, were the directions about changing the kid's diaper and giving him a bath.
"Don't you worry about a thing, Big John. You'll get the hang of it."
"Now, Big John, it's not as though you'll have to worry about him kicking or biting like one of those beef critters of yours."
"There's just something about them being your own that makes it easier, Big John."
Bull. Not one of those women had listened, really listened to what he'd been trying to tell them. What did any of them know about how it was going to be for him? The way he figured it, caring for babies was as natural to women as stringing a barbed-wire fence was to him. But he knew nothing about fueling up anything this small, let alone dealing with cleaning out the rascal's oil pan or anything.
From inside the wool cocoon and the down vest he'd wrapped the boy in, he heard a tiny protest. Jeez, he thought, could the kid be suffocating? Maybe everyone had been wrong about covering his face. Or maybe he was holding him too tight and smushing his toothpick-fine bones. Maybe the wind was getting at him and sucking the very breath out of the little guy. Blast it all, the head nurse had been right—he should never have taken the boy out in such conditions in the first place.
His heart beat a frantic tattoo as he accelerated his pace—but he didn't quite break into a run. Better not risk it, he thought. The rain had turned everything slick, and the soles of his leather boots didn't have good traction on asphalt. If he fell, he could make mush out of the chick-pea in his arms.
How the devil could those women have told him that the child was going to grow up every bit as big as him? What did they see that he couldn't?
He finally reached his mud-splattered pickup truck. "Now, comes the next easy part," he grumbled to himself as he opened the driver's door.
Once again he had to secure the infant in a vehicle that wasn't prepared for a virtual newborn. He respected and approved of the recent law that made seat belts mandatory. However, when he'd first carried his boy out to the truck, he'd realized accommodating that regulation was going to be a challenge, considering the danged buckle was nearly as big as his baby's head. Too late he'd remembered the proper infant carrier that should have been purchased ages ago. But between problems with Celene, and his unusually heavy work load at the Long J, the last thing on his mind had been shopping excursions, let alone buying a bunch of baby things.
If only Celene had shown a little initiative, an ounce of concern sometime during her pregnancy and gone out to get a few things on her own. Heck, that's why he'd bought her a car in the first place! But, no. After putting him through seven different kinds of hell insisting only a certain sports model and color would do, regardless of how impractical both were in their area, she'd left the iridescent pink thing virtually untouched.
Until this morning.
Just thinking of the times he'd suggested she make an excursion into town or to the mall in Abilene, made his blood steam all over again. He'd even gone so far as to offer her his credit card, for pity's sake! But she'd merely glared at him over the top of her latest soap opera magazine, then settled deeper under her bed covers.
"So sue me," he muttered to the bundle of blue he set on the front seat. "I tried."
That earned him another, louder wail.
He snorted. Wail, nothing. He'd heard the rodents snared in the barn squeak louder. But the fragile sound still managed to fill him with a dread no mouse ever did.
"Okay… okay, squirt. I'm working on it."
He scrunched his bulk into the cab, and drew the door closed behind him. At least that got them out of the weather. Maneuvering in the cramped space proved awkward, though someone of his proportions would find just about any vehicle smaller than a C-130 or an aircraft carrier a tight fit. Swearing as he struck his already throbbing elbow against the steering wheel, he jerked the brochures from his pockets.
"I feel like a wilting peacock," he muttered, throwing them onto the floorboard. Then he leaned over to pick up the makeshift car seat he'd inadvertently knocked down there when they'd first arrived.
He'd come up with the invention while eyeing the contents in the back of the cab. Experience had taught him to carry everything back there, things no self-respecting rancher would find himself without: rope, chains, wrenches, hammers, nails, jumper cables… and a case of oil. It had been that box that had grabbed his attention. Not the most attractive or sterile thing known to man, but damned if it didn't represent the best brand of motor lubricant money could buy. Most importantly, all he'd had to do was cut one end—a foot flap, he'd dubbed it with some amusement—and the fit had been perfect.
He'd dumped the twelve plastic bottles onto his tools, and then on impulse he'd also snatched up the blanket that he kept back there. Using the wool cover as an external buffer, and the vest as a mattress, he'd stuffed John, Jr. inside, until he'd been as snug as a tick on a dog.
"It worked well enough for the drive down here, so it'll do for the trip back," he told his son, repeating the process. "No way I can shop with you under wing and the weather plotting against me."
It took him almost five minutes—ten less than the first time. Even so, by the time he'd finished he was sweating more than a hog in an auction pen. But worry and caution aside, he eventually had the boy strapped in, grateful that no one was around to point out how the whole contraption looked about as sturdy as a bag of marshmallows.
"Don't worry about it," he assured the calmer bundle inside. "I've already got strict orders from all of your self-appointed godmothers to drive as though I was carrying a load of nitro."
As if he'd needed the reminding, he thought, somewhat disgruntled. He maneuvered his large frame back behind the steering wheel, only to have to twist again to dig his keys from his hind pocket. It was just the two of them now. His son was the most important thing in his life. If he'd had any doubts before, Celene's latest stunt made that fact abundantly clear.
He did, however, wish that he could have gotten John, Jr. admitted here at the hospital for a day or two, until he'd tracked down the exasperating woman and gotten things between them settled once and for all. But all the nurses had certified him as crazy.
"This ain't no hotel, Big John."
"You can't desert your son in his hour of need, Mr. Paladin."
Oh, yes. They'd laid it on thick and heavy.
Not even his longtime friend, Bud—Sheriff Bud Hackman today since he'd been summoned by Juanita, the head nurse in pediatrics, who on behalf of all her new mothers seemed to hate men in general—could resist pointing out that he should have known better than to even consider doing such a thing. "You abandon this boy and go after that woman, Big John, I ain't gonna have no choice but to recommend he be made a ward of the court."
Let the big oaf try to set foot on the Long J again. "The only welcome he'll get is a butt full of buckshot," John growled, taking a grim pleasure in visualizing the scene.
Maybe it had been unusual to suggest the hospital care for his son in his absence. But where was their understanding, their sensitivity, their compassion? He'd been driven to these straits. He was riding a long trail of bad luck—had been ever since he'd behaved irresponsibly during his trip to Abilene and had gotten himself saddled with a pregnant bride some eight months ago. All he was trying to do was buy himself some time to straighten out the mess.
"Who cares what they think," he muttered aside to his wide-eyed passenger. "We don't need them, do we? We'll work things out for ourselves. For now, though, you might as well kick back and catch up on some shut-eye. It's a thirty-mile trip back home. No need for both of us to end up stressed out and ornery."
He started the truck, shifted into Drive and, because the lot was almost empty as usual, drove forward to cut a wide U-turn toward the nearest exit. Because the weather was having a decided effect on visibility, when he reached the stop sign and saw that his windows were fogging up, he quickly switched on the defroster. After the mist cleared away, he looked up and down the empty road once, twice, then added a third glance for good measure.
That's when it struck him that this behavior was totally out of character for him, and it told him just how deeply he'd been rattled. Dusty Flats might be the county seat, he reminded himself as he gripped the wheel and turned onto the street, but in a town with a population under fifteen hundred, bad weather had a tendency to keep folks at home. There wasn't exactly a need to act as though he were driving on a sixteen-year-old's hardship permit. Thirty and responsible—regardless of what those uniformed viragoes had accused him—he'd never had a wreck in his life. He could do this, he told himself.
You can't do this, and you know it.
He did, however, manage to make the turn. He even drove a few miles without breaking into a cold sweat. But by the time he got to the farm-to-market road that angled off toward his ranch, he found himself setting his right hand on the seat in front of the baby and driving twenty miles an hour under the legal limit. Completely logical, he told himself. He was still calm. This was merely in case someone came barreling out of nowhere and aimed straight into them.
Before he reached the next intersection, however, he had to pull over to the shoulder. Reduced to a shaking mass, he actually felt as though he might have to get out of the car and lose the coffee and biscuit that was all he'd ingested since rising before dawn. Him. Big John Paladin. The rancher who'd outraced tornadoes and had outlasted droughts since taking over the Long J Ranch at the unheard of age of twenty-six.
How he wished he could blame his condition on the shock over what Celene had done. But he would be lying if he tried. He was angry—angry, disgusted, but most of all scared sick. He had a feeling that it was just as well that Bud had threatened to keep him here. If he found the exasperating… female, he might strangle her with his bare hands.
Funny thing was, from the minute he'd set eyes on her, he'd known they were wrong for each other. Celene had been flashy, daring and restless. She'd been the kind of woman who would find it difficult to stick with one man, let alone work at a marriage. But on the night he'd sat in that Abilene honky-tonk, all that had mattered was that she hadn't looked anything like Dana Dixon. When they'd danced, she hadn't felt the way Dana had in his arms. Her perfume hadn't crept under his defenses and spawned a fierce hunger in him like Dana's. And she sure as hell couldn't tie him in a big agonizing knot with one of her smiles.
What Celene had managed to do that fateful night was to provide him with a drinking companion—and a few hours later, some long-denied companionship of another form. It had been the kind of experience that a brooding, recently rejected man should have been able to walk away from. With a hangover, to be sure, but also with just enough guilt to promise himself never to do it again. Maybe even with enough humbleness to go home and try to mend some fences.
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