Preacher Aberdeen Donovan is just fine tending her flock and getting ready to adopt her three nieces. Her job description does not include saving some incorrigible cowboy from himself. But there's something about a little competition that makes the devil-may-care bachelor change his mind about needing a wife. And marriage would help Aberdeen provide a home for the little girls. Not to mention, for the little secret that's on the way .
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"Creed is my wild child. He wants everything he can't have"Molly Callahan, with fondness, about her busy toddler.
Creed Callahan was running scared. Running wasn't his usual way of doing things, but Aunt Fiona's plot to get him and his five brothers married had him spooked. Marriage was a serious business, not to be undertaken lightly, especially by a commitment-phobe. Aunt Fiona had just scored a direct hit with Creed's brother Pete, who'd married Jackie Samuels and had triplets right off the baby-daddy bat. Creed was potently aware his days as a happy, freewheeling bachelor might come to an end if he didn't get the hell away from Rancho Diablo.
So he'd fled like a shy girl at her first dance. Creed didn't relish being called chicken, but Aunt Fiona was a force to be reckoned with. Creed stared into his sixth beer, which the bartender in Lance, Wyoming, a generous man who could see that Creed's soul was in torment, had courteously poured.
Anyone in Diablo, New Mexico, would attest to the powers of Aunt Fiona. Especially when she had a goal then no one was safe. His small, spare aunt had raised him and his five brothers upon the deaths of their parents without so much as a break in her stride. She and her butler, Burke, had flown in from Ireland one day, clucked over and coddled the five confused boys (young Sam had not yet been part of the family, an occurrence which still perplexed the brothers), and gave them an upbringing which was loving, firm and heaped with enthusiastic advice.
Creed barely remembered their parents, Jeremiah and Molly. He was the lucky one in the family, in his opinion, because he had a twin, Rafe. It had helped to have a mirror image at his back over the years. Creed was prone to mischief, Rafe was more of a thinker. Once, when the boys had wondered where babies came from upon Sam's surprising arrival after Fiona had come to be their guardianCreed had uprooted all of Fiona's precious garden looking for "baby" seeds. Rafe had told Aunt Fiona that he'd seen bunnies in her garden, which was true, but bunnies weren't the reason Aunt Fiona's kitchen crop had to be restarted.
Creed certainly knew where babies came from now. Watching Pete and Jackie go from a casual romance once a week to parents of triplets had underscored for him the amazing fertility of the Callahan men. They were like stallionsgifted with the goods.
With Fiona prodding about his unmarried state, Creed had hit the road. He did not want his own virility tested. He didn't want a wife or children. Pete was solidly positioned to win Rancho Diablo, for that was the deal Fiona had struck: whoever of the six brothers married and produced the most heirs inherited all five thousand acres.
But he and his brothers had worked an agreement out unbeknownst to their wily aunt: Only one of them would be the sacrifice (which had turned out to be the lucky or unlucky, depending upon how one viewed itbrother Pete), and he would divide the ranch between the six of them. It was a fair-and-square way to keep any animosity from arising between them for the high-value prize of hearth and home. Competition wasn't a good thing among brothers, they'd agreed, though they competed against each other all the time, naturally. But this was different.
This competition wasn't rodeo, or lassoing, or tree climbing. This was a race to the altar, and they vowed that Fiona's planning wouldn't entrap them.
"And I'm safe," Creed muttered into his beer.
"Did you say something?" a chocolate-haired beauty said to him, and Creed realized that the old saying was true: Women started looking better with every beer. Creed blinked. The male bartender who'd been listening to his woes with a sympathetic ear had morphed into a sexy female, which meant Creed wasn't as safe as he thought he was. He was, in fact, six sheets to the wind and blowing south. "Six beers is not that big a deal," he told the woman who was looking at him with some approbation. "Where's Johnny?"
"Johnny?" She raised elfin brows at him and ran a hand through springy chin-length curls. "My name is Aberdeen."
He wasn't that drunk. In fact, he wasn't drunk at all. He knew the difference between moobs and boobs, and while Johnny had been the soul of generosity, he'd had girth appropriate for bouncing troublemakers out of his bar. This delightful lady eyeing him had a figure, pert and enticing, and Creed's chauvinistic brain was registering very little else except she looked like something a man who'd had six beers (okay, maybe twelve, but they were small ones so he'd halved his count), might want to drag into the sack. She had bow-shaped lips and dark blue eyes, but, most of all, she smelled like something other than beer and salami and pretzels. Spring flowers, he thought with a sigh. Yes, the smells of spring, after a long cold winter in Diablo. "You're beautiful," he heard someone tell her, and glanced around for the dope that would say something so unmanly.
"Thank you," she said to Creed.
"Oh, I didn't" He stopped. He was the dope. I sound like Pete. I need to leave now. The beer had loosened his tongue and thrown his cool to the wind. "I'd best be going, Amber Jean." He slid off the barstool, thinking how sad it was that he'd never see Johnny/Amber Jean again, and how wonderfully fresh and romantic springtime smelled in Wyoming.
"Oh, now, that's a shame," Johnny Donovan said, looking down at the sleeping cowboy on his bar floor. "Clearly this is a man who doesn't know much about brew."
Aberdeen gave her brother a disparaging glance. "You're the one who gave him too much."
"I swear I did not. The man wanted to talk more than drink, truthfully." Johnny gave Aberdeen his most innocent gaze. "He went on and on and on, Aberdeen, and so I could tell he wasn't really looking for the hops but for a good listener. On his fifth beer, I began giving him near-beer, as God is my witness, Aberdeen. You know I disapprove of sloppiness. And it's against the law to let someone drink and drive." He squinted outside, searching the darkness. It was three o'clock in the morning. "Mind you, I have no idea what he's driving, but he won't be driving a vehicle from my bar in this sloppy condition."
Her brother ran a conscientious establishment. "I'm sorry," Aberdeen said, knowing Johnny treated his patrons like family. Even strangers were given Johnny's big smile, and if anyone so much as mentioned they needed help, Johnny would give them the shirt off his back and the socks off his feet. Aberdeen looked at the cowboy sprawled on the floor, his face turned to the ceiling as he snored with luxuriant abandon. He was sinfully gorgeous: a pile, at the moment, of amazing masculinity. Lean and tall, with long dark hair, a chiseled face, a hint of being once broken about the nose. She restrained the urge to brush an errant swath of midnight hair away from his closed eyes. "What do we do with him?"
Johnny shrugged. "Leave him on the floor to sleep. The man is tired, Aberdeen. Would you have us kick a heartbroken soul out when he just needs a bit of time to gather his wits?"
"Heartbroken?" Aberdeen frowned. The cowboy was too good-looking by half. Men like him demanded caution; she knew this from her congregation. Ladies loved the cowboys; they loved the character and the drive. They loved the romance, the idea of the real working man. And heaven only knew, a lot of those men loved the ladies in return. This one, with his soft voice, good manners and flashing blue eyes Well, Aberdeen had no doubt that this cowboy had left his fair share of broken hearts trampled in the dirt. "If you sit him outside, he'll gather his wits fast enough."
"Ah, now, Aberdeen. I can't treat paying customers that way, darling. You know that. He's causing no harm, is he?" Johnny looked at her with his widest smile and most apologetic expression, which should have looked silly on her bear of a brother, but which melted her heart every time.
"You're too soft, Johnny."
"And you're too hard, my girl. I often ask myself if all cowboy preachers are as tough on cowboys as you are. This is one of your flock, Aberdeen. He's only drunk on confusion and sadness." Johnny stared at Creed's long-forgotten beer mug. "I feel sorry for him."
Aberdeen sighed. "It's your bar. You do as you like. I'm going to my room."
Johnny went on sweeping up. "I'll keep an eye on him. You go on to bed. You have preaching to do in the morning."
"And I haven't finished writing my sermon. Goodnight, Johnny." She cast a last glance at the slumbering, too-sexy man on the dark hardwood floor, and headed upstairs. She was glad to leave Johnny with the stranger. No man should look that good sleeping on the floor.
A roar from downstairs, guffaws and loud thumping woke Aberdeen from deep sleep. Jumping to her feet, she glanced at her bedside clock. Seven o'clockpast time for her to be getting ready for church. She grabbed her robe, and more roars sent her running down the stairs.
Her brother and the stranger sat playing cards on a barrel table in the empty bar. One of them was winningthat much was clear from the grinsand the other didn't mind that he was losing. There were mugs of milk and steaming coffee on a table beside them. Both men were so engrossed in their game that neither of them looked up as she stood there with her hands on her hips. She was of half a mind to march back upstairs and forget she'd ever seen her brother being led astray by the hunky stranger.
"Johnny," Aberdeen said, "did you know it's Sunday morning?"
"I do, darlin'," Johnny said, "but I can't leave him. He's got a fever." He gestured to his playing partner.
"A fever?" Aberdeen's eyes widened. "If he's sick, why isn't he in bed?"
"He won't go. I think he's delirious."
She came closer to inspect the cowboy. "What do you mean, he won't go?"
"He thinks he's home." Johnny grinned at her. "It's the craziest thing."
"It's a lie, Johnny. He's setting us up." She slapped her hand on the table in front of the cowboy. He looked up at her with wide, too-bright eyes. "Have you considered he's on drugs? Maybe that's why he passed out last night."
"Nah," Johnny said. "He's just a little crazy."
She pulled up a chair, eyeing the cowboy cautiously, as he eyed her right back. "Johnny, we don't need 'a little crazy' right now."
"I know you're worried, Aberdeen."
"Aberdeen," the cowboy said, trying out her name. "Not Amber Jean. Aberdeen."
She looked at Johnny. "Maybe he's slow."
Johnny shrugged. "Said he got a small concussion at his last stop. Got thrown from a bull and didn't ride again that night. He says he just had to come home."
She shook her head. "Sounds like it might be serious. He could have a fever. We can't try to nurse him, Johnny."
"We can take him to the hospital, I suppose." Johnny looked at the stranger. "Do you want to go to a hospital, friend?"
The cowboy shook his head. "I think I'll go to bed now."
Aberdeen wrinkled her nose as the cowboy went over to a long bench in the corner, laid himself out and promptly went to sleep. "You were giving milk to a man with fever?"
Johnny looked at her, his dark eyes curious. "Is that a bad thing? He asked for it."
She sighed. "We'll know soon enough." After a moment, she walked over and put her hand against his forehead. "He's burning up!"
"Well," Johnny said, "the bar's closed today. He can sleep on that bench if he likes, I guess. If he's not better tomorrow, I'll take him to a doctor, though he doesn't seem especially inclined to go."
Aberdeen stared at the sleeping cowboy's handsome face. Trouble with a capital T. "Did he tell you his name? Maybe he's got family around here who could come get him."
"No." Johnny put the cards away and tossed out the milk. "He babbles a lot about horses. Talks a great deal about spirit horses and other nonsense. Native American lore. Throws in an occasional Irish tale. Told a pretty funny joke, too. The man has a sense of humor, even if he is out of his mind."
"Great." Aberdeen had a funny feeling about the cowboy who had come to Johnny's Bar and Grill. "I'm going to see who he is," she said, reaching into his front pocket for his wallet.
A hand shot out, grabbing her wrist. Aberdeen gasped and tried to draw away, but the cowboy held on, staring up at her with those navy eyes. She couldn't look away.
"Stealing's wrong," he said.
She slapped his hand and he released her. "I know that, you ape. What's your name?"
He crossed his arms and gave her a roguish grin. "What's your name?"
"I already told you my name is Aberdeen." He'd said it not five minutes ago, so possibly he did have a concussion. With a fever, that could mean complications. "Johnny, this man is going to need a run to the"
The cowboy watched her with unblinking eyes. Aberdeen decided to play it safe. "Johnny, could you pull the truck around? Our guest wants to go for a ride to see our good friend, Dr. Mayberry."
Johnny glanced at the man on the bench. "Does he now?"
"He does," Aberdeen said firmly.
Johnny nodded and left to get his truck. Aberdeen looked at the ill man, who watched her like a hawk. "Cowboy, I'm going to look at your license, and if you grab me again like you did a second ago, you'll wish you hadn't. I may be a minister, but when you live above a bar, you learn to take care of yourself. So either you give me your wallet, or I take it. Those are your choices."
He stared at her, unmoving.
She reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, keeping her gaze on him, trying to ignore the expanse of wide chest and other parts of him she definitely shouldn't notice. Flipping it open, she took out his driver's license. "Creed Callahan. New Mexico."