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Luke O'Malley didn't like the look of New York City one little bit. And he didn't like the look of his son any better.
The young street tough lounged in the judge's chambers, chewing gum and wearing an insolent expression. His contempt for everyone in the room extended to his unlaced sneakers braced against the judge's desk as he leaned back on the legs of his chair.
Last night, after receiving the call from the judge summoning him to New York to meet the son he'd fathered by Megan Montgomery, Luke couldn't help wondering: Is this some sort of scam?
Now a successful rancher, Luke employed innovative techniques at Two Elk, his ranch in the Colorado Rockies, which had ensured that his herds were among the best in the state, if not the West. And the horses he bred were of superior quality and in demand by ranchers and riders alike.
Had Megan seen the article about him in Cowboys and Indians a couple of months ago? He'd been swamped with letters from women looking for a rich husband, and he'd tossed them all in the trash. He wasn't interested in marrying a gold digger. He'd already been there, done that. Had no desire to repeat the experience.
For fifteen years, Luke had wondered about Megan, where she was, who she was with. Was she married? When he'd gotten the call from Judge Benson summoning him to New York, he'd gone. Even if the kid proved not to be his, he'd wanted to see Megan again with a need he couldn't explain. Ask her why she'd left so suddenly. Why she'd never answered the letter he'd sent to Wellesley.
Now she was back, and he wanted to touch her, kiss her, hold her. Make up for fifteen years without her. Fifteen years of trying not to long for her.
If there was any doubt in Luke's mind as to whether he had a son before he and his brother Matt walked into the judge's chambers this morning, they'd been dispelled the moment he laid eyes on Cody Montgomery. The kid was the spitting image of him and his brothers at the same age. Only the O'Malley boys hadn't dared wear their hair so long on one side that it covered their eyes. And on the other side
what the heck was with that buzz cut and the lightning strike shaved into it?
The O'Malley boys sure wouldn't have sported a thing like that miniature dumbbell stuck through their lip, chewed gum or peppered their conversation liberally with four-letter words, either. Their pop, Mac, had seen to that.
Nope. He didn't much like the look of Cody Montgomery, fourteen-year-old runaway and criminal-in-the-making. How had Megan let it come to this?
This is my so-called father? Cody thought. The guy acted like he had a pole stuck up his butt and Cody resented like the way he stared at him
especially his hair. And his lip piercing. Like he was some sort of freak. Okay, Cody wasn't so crazy about the lip piercing, either, but you needed it to look tough. To be part of the gang. Well, they weren't technically a gangnot yet, anyway. But the guys were checking around for one to join.
He hated the way the guy was looking at his mom, too. Like he didn't believe her. Like he didn't believe he was his son.
That just irritated Cody even more. How could he know who his father was? Whenever he'd tried to talk about it with his mom, she'd clammed up. Once, she'd said, "It was a mistake," but that only made it sound like she thought Cody was a mistake. Worthless. Like trash.
What else could he think? For all he knew, his real dad could be doing time. Or maybe what he'd done was even worse, though he couldn't think of anything much worse than having a criminal for a dad.
All the guys had fathers who were doing time, so Cody had pretended his was, too. He'd muttered something about armed robbery at a gas station when they asked about it.
Secretly, he hoped that if his father was doing time, it'd be for some minor crime, maybe some white-collar offense. That didn't hurt anyonenot physically, anyway. He wondered how many years you got for a white-collar crime. Probably less than fourteen
He supposed it was okay if his father turned out to be some rancher from Colorado, like this guy claimed to beas long as the guys didn't find out.
Cody had always liked the idea of Colorado. He wondered if the guy lived anywhere near the Rockies. He'd enjoyed reading National Geographic magazines in the school librarywhen he was a kid. The pictures of the Rocky Mountains were spectacular and somewhere he'd always wanted to go. Not that he'd ever admit it. Now he didn't have time for that. Now he hung out with the guys
And now the judge was talkin' again! Sheesh! Couldn't she just mind her own business for a change? He was doing fine. He was surviving.
I therefore believe, Mr. O'Malley," she said, "that it would be in Cody's best interests if he could be removed from the environment he's living in at present"
The front legs of Cody's chair hit the floor with a thud as his feet came off the desk, and he spewed forth a stream of invective that turned the air blue and had Megan cringing in her seat. What must Luke think of his son? What must he think of her for letting things get this bad?
Judge Gloria Benson, as usual, was unperturbed. She'd assured Megan at an earlier meeting that she'd dealt with her share of juvenile offenders, plenty of them a lot more hardened than Cody. A bit of bad language didn't faze her. She'd told Megan that most of those childrendue to having families who didn't give a damnwere beyond rescue, but she felt Cody had the option of leading a better life.
The judge believed that with his father's intervention, Cody had a good chance of making it to his next birthdayunlike so many kids who came through her court and didn't live past their teens.
That bald admission had been sobering for Megan.
The thought that her precious son might die before he reached adulthood
She'd wanted to pack them both up and catch a train or bus to anywhere that wasn't the Bronx or even New York City. Judge Benson had said, "I hope Mr. O'Malley has the courage to accept the challenge and follow through. Because right now, Cody's future is very precarious."
Considering the expression on Luke's face, he'd rather be anywhere than here with his son.
"Your honor," Megan said. "If you'd just give me another chance, I know I can put his life together and get him back into school."
" Gloria sighed. Then she seemed to gather herself and said, "I can't tell you how many mothers have begged me for just one more chance before I send their child to juvenile detention. How many I've yielded to, and then weeks later heard their child had died in a gang fight, or from an overdose of whatever drug was on the streets that day. I'm determined that's not going to happen to Cody. You're a good mom and I know you love your son. But unless you can afford to move out of your neighborhood to a better part of town, where Cody stands a chance of living a healthierand longerlife, or we can find a solution here today, then I have no alternative but to send him to juvenile detention."
She turned her attention to Luke. "Cody's been in my court three times in as many weeks. His behavior is worsening. He's no longer attending school regularly. He's run away from home more than once, been caught joyriding in a stolen vehicle and I'm concerned he's on the brink of becoming part of the street gang culture of this city. Once that happens, he'll be lost to us."
Megan felt she had to explain, so Luke wouldn't see her as a complete deadbeat. "I'm working two jobs and in my final year of studying to be an accountant. I can't be there to watch him all the time," she said. But even as the words left Megan's mouth, she guessed the judge had heard that excuse far too often. In Megan's case, it was true.
"I understand all of that and your intentions are honorable," Judge Benson said. "But I'm afraid continuing the way things are will result in losing your son to crime and I know you don't want that."
Megan's tiny shake of her head was her only concession to her bald statement. She fought the tears that threatened and then lost the battle as they spilled down her cheeks and dropped onto her blouse.
The judge was right; she needed help with Cody, needed someone to take part in his care and discipline. "That's the reason I wanted to meet Cody's father and see if we could find a solution," Gloria explained. Obviously noticing Megan's distress, she opened a drawer, removed a box of tissues and offered them to Megan.
Megan's hands shook as she pulled several tissues from the box. Feeling thoroughly humiliated in front of Luke and his brother, she blew her nose and wiped her eyes and cheeks.
She wanted to turn her back on everyone. Protect herself from all the bad things in her life. Megan had never stopped loving Luke, in spite of his betrayal. She'd spent too many nights dreaming of seeing him again, being held, being kissed by him. Hearing him declare his love. Never once in those dreams had she imagined they'd meet under such humiliating circumstances.
Megan bit her lip, unable to meet the eyes of the rest of the room's occupants, knowing everyone was staring at her. This would have to be about the lowest point in her life.
And then a warm hand covered hers.
How Megan had changed in fifteen years! Luke thought as he covered her hand, needing to reassure her she wasn't alone anymore.
He'd been a twenty-four-year-old ski-instructor attracted to the college junior with the twinkling blue eyes. She was on spring break in his hometown of Spruce Lake and, within days, they were dating. And then they'd made love. Several times. He'd guessed she was a virgin, but she'd been every bit as enthusiastic as he was. He'd fallen for Megan from the moment they met. It was only later that he wondered if she'd done it as a dare. A city-girl college betlosing her virginity to the first cowpoke who came along.
She'd left Spruce Lake abruptly without even saying goodbye. He'd tried to contact her, but failed. Back then, cell phones weren't that common, not for college students, anyway.
Weeks later, he'd married his ex-girlfriend, Tory, because she'd claimed to be pregnant by him. He'd tried not to think about Megan for the past fifteen years.
Yesterday, when he'd received a phone call from the New York City judge informing him he had a son, he'd been shockeddisbelieving. To learn not only that he'd fathered Megan's child, but that his son was in trouble with the law, had left him numb and confused. Judge Benson had requested a meeting in her office. Her tone had brooked no argument.
He'd assured the judge that if the child was his, he'd take responsibility and agreed to a meeting at noon the following day, anxious to resolve the matter, anxious to meet his sonif indeed this was his child. Anxious to see Megan again.
Paralyzed with shock, he'd turned to his brother, Matt, sheriff of Peaks County, for support. Matt had immediately agreed when Luke asked him to come to New York. They'd spent a sleepless night on the plane, discussing why Megan had never told him about the kid. How ironic that Tory had claimed to be pregnant with his child but wasn't, while Megan apparently was. How deeply he regretted allowing himself to be tricked by Tory, but at the time what was he to believe? They'd split up a few weeks before he'd met Megan. He had no reason not to believe her. If only he'd had the sense to demand a pregnancy test. But Tory had seemed so fragile, so lost
. She'd taken their breakup so badly he hadn't wanted to upset her any further.
He half wished Matt had worn his sheriff's uniform; maybe the kid would watch his language in the presence of an officer of the law.
And in spite of Matt's even-tempered counseling, Luke was still pretty steamed up by the time he'd arrived in the judge's chambers today. He wanted to know why Megan had kept something so important a secret. And how had things gotten to the point that his son was such a delinquent he was on a one-way trip to juvenile detention?
Most young women wouldn't hesitate to contact the father of their child, either to get money out of himor pressure him to marry themjust as Tory had done. Yet Megan hadn't said a word.
He'd fallen so hard and so fast that, within a week
of meeting Megan, he'd wanted to make her his wife. She'd left him waiting at a restaurant with a diamond ring burning a hole in his pocket, feeling like every kind of fool when she hadn't shown up for their date that evening. Instead, Tory had. The woman was obsessed with him. Could find him anywhere in their small town. At first Luke was flattered, but he'd soon found it suffocating. That was why he'd broken up with Tory. However, the news she'd delivered that night guaranteed he'd be tied to her for a very long time. Bile rose in his throat at the memory and he made an effort to push all thought of his ex-wife firmly aside.
Megan had kept his son's existence a secret for more than fourteen years. Why? Luke had so many questions he needed answers to. He studied Megan, trying to gauge how she felt about being here. It was hard to tell, since she wouldn't meet his eyes. She sure seemed worn down by life. Her light brown hair had lost its shine and there were dark smudges beneath her once-vibrant blue eyes. She'd lost a lot of weight, too; her clothes almost hung off her thin frame.
"Luke?" Matt nudged him. "Judge Benson was speaking to you."
Luke turned back to the judge. "I'm sorry, Your Honor. I have to confess, this situation
Well, it's taking me a while to come to grips with it."
"Redneck!" Cody sneered.
"Cody, please?" his mother pleaded. "Don't speak to your faMr. O'Malley like that."
That about sums it up, Luke thought. She's scared of the kid. Begging with him, for Pete's sake. So the kid figured his father was a bumpkin because he lived on a ranch, did he?