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BILLS. Bills. And more bills.
Abby Stafford sighed as she flipped through the mail. In the kitchen, dinner waited to be cooked, and in the living room Robbie watched TV impatiently. She could hear his favorite show blaring as he sang along in a high-pitched, slightly off-key voice.
If it weren't for the snack she'd given him, he'd be trailing her around the apartment like a puppy dog looking for his dinner. Robbie was only four and a half, but she affectionately referred to him as "the bottomless pit." Just like his daddy, she thought. Still, he was the center of her world.
A knock on the door interrupted her as she flipped through the phone bill. It had to be Gail again. No matter how many times Abby had told her neighbor she wasn't interested in a double blind date, the woman didn't seem to get it.
She swung open the door, not bothering to lift her eyes from the printout. "I've told you before, Gail, I'm not going."
"And I'm not Gail."
The timbre of the voice was unmistakable, the slight drawl too familiar. Before she could even look up, the mail slipped from her hands, floating softly to the wood floor. Abby thought she was going to follow it, albeit with a much harder landing.
The past had caught up with her. The man she'd loved since she was sixteen had finally turned up on her doorstep.
"Wh-what are you doing here?" She hadn't seen Nick Logan in five years, since his father's funeral. Since the death of Robert Logan had destroyed their marriage plans. Destroyed their dreams of moving to Cheyenne and leaving behind Sydney Creek, the small farming town where they'd both been raised.
She let her eyes light on him. They feasted on Nick like a hungry cowboy at a campfire. From his dark hair to his booted feet, the man had only gotten better with age. His tall frame was filled out with muscles now, thanks no doubt to the ranch work, and his brown eyes had crinkles at the corners, probably from working out in the sun all day.
Nick, too, took his time assessing her as held his Stetson in his callused hand. "I'm visiting you," he told her. But his voice wasn't pleasant. It was harsh, hard like him. He was exhibiting none of the gentleness with which he'd treated her years ago.
"I—I didn't know you were in town." It was all she could get out.
"Yeah. When Julie wrote me a letter about all the help you'd given her, I thought I should come say thanks."
It had been her pleasure to help Nick's sister; they'd been friends years ago. "That's very kind of you, but—"
"Don't get me wrong, Abby. I don't feel kind." He took a small step toward her. "I'm damn mad!"
"As if you don't know."
She knew, but she wasn't going to admit anything unless she had to. So she lied. "No, I don't. And if you're going to be so rude, you can just go away for another five years!" She stepped back and grasped the edge of the door, ready to slam it in his face, when Robbie's voice startled her.
"Mommy, is dinner ready yet?" he asked as he came into the hallway.
Abby saw Nick's hard, dark eyes transfer from her to the boy. Instantly they softened. "Hi, there. I don't think I've met you. What's your name?" Nick asked, squatting down on his haunches as she'd seen him do a hundred times around a campfire.
"My name's Robbie. Who are you?" Abby felt the world shrink to the three-by-six the words past the lump in her throat. "Nick, don't. Please."
His gaze flickered over her, and though she saw no emotion or empathy there, he replied, "I'm a friend of your mommy's. My name's Nick." He stepped forward and stuck his big hand out to the little boy. "Glad to meet you."
Robbie shook his hand. "Are you a cowboy?" he asked, his eyes big.
Abby didn't think her son knew much about cowboys. She'd avoided the subject, but just the other day his preschool teacher had read them a story about a dog that helped a cowboy round up a herd. Robbie hadn't talked about anything else since.
"Yeah," Nick replied, "I'm a cowboy. Do you like cowboys?"
He nodded. "Do you ride a horse?" "Sure do. Want to come ride with me?"
Robbie looked up at his mother. "Can I, Mommy?" Despite the eager look on her son's face, Abby quickly said, "No! You have to go to school tomorrow, honey." She tempered her tone and urged him to go wash up for dinner.
Nick obviously didn't take rejection well. He called the boy back. "Before you go, Robbie, I wanted to ask you something. You look mighty big. How old are you?"
That was the one question Abby didn't want the boy to answer.
"I'll be five in—How many months, Mommy?" Abby didn't respond. Instead she ushered him down the hall. When she turned back, alone, she prayed Nick was gone, gone back to the oblivion he'd lived in for almost five years. But the man was still there, his broad shoulders filling the corridor.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
There was no use denying it. Besides, she owed him an answer. "You told me to go have a life in the big city, remember?" She tried but failed to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
"I didn't know you were pregnant!" "I didn't, either," she yelled back.
Nick drew a deep breath and ran his hand through his thick, dark hair. "You could've called me, Abby. This is the twenty-first century. There's all kinds of ways to contact a person."
She stood up to him, pulling herself up to her full five-seven frame. "Why? So you could be overwhelmed even more? You already had your mom hanging on to your shirttail and five other Logan kids depending on you. Did you need another?"
"Dammit, Abby, he's my son! Could I ever turn him away?"
"No, just his mother." She averted her gaze, unable to look at him. Things had been so bad back then after Nick's father had died. Responsibility and duty sat firmly on his shoulders, weighing him down, leaving him nothing to offer Abby, the woman he'd supposedly loved.
"Abby, I was trying to do what I thought was best for you."
She turned back to him. "Oh, really? And who put you in charge of me?"
He looked perturbed. No one challenged Nick Logan. His word was usually followed to the letter of the law. But Abby didn't back down. She held her ground and stared him down.
"You wanted to stay in Sydney Creek and clean house and cook for the whole brood, after you'd just graduated college?"
"I wanted to be given a choice."
Nick shook his head. "I couldn't let you do that, Abby. You'd worked too hard to get your degree and you had a job waiting for you in Cheyenne."
"So did you."
"But I had responsibilities. Don't you understand that I had to do what I did?"
She nodded. "Just like I did." "By keeping my son from me for almost five years?" The anger in his voice was barely in check, in deference to the boy just down the hall. But his eyes beaded and the lines at the corners became more pronounced.
Abby didn't want this to turn into a screaming match. She stepped back from him and drew a deep breath. "I think you should leave, Nick."
"Like hell I will!" he ground out in a hushed voice.
"You've had Robbie for the last five years, now I get him for the next five." He looked around him. "The city is no place to raise a child."
Abby felt as if he'd reached inside and ripped out her heart. Breathing became difficult and the room started to spin. "No! No, you can't take him! He's my child. He doesn't even know you."
"And whose fault is that?" Nick's tone was menacing now.
Abby wouldn't cede him that point. She continued to shake her head. "I've taken care of him every day of his life. You can't just walk in here and wrench him away from me! You've got to give me time to—"
Nick gave her nothing. He leaned toward her, his face mere inches away. "I'm going back to Sydney Creek in the morning and I'm taking my son with me. Whether you come with us is up to you."
With that, he turned on his boot heels and stomped out her apartment as abruptly as he'd entered, leaving devastation in his wake.
Sitting in a fast food place, Nick hefted a half-pound juicy burger up to his mouth and weighed his options.
He could get a motel room and get a good night's sleep before the ride home tomorrow. But how could he be sure Abby wouldn't pack the essentials and slip away with his son in the middle of the night?
If it were him and someone was going to take his child away, he'd run. Still, he was too angry at Abby to consider her feelings.
No, on second thought, he really had no choices. He knew what he had to do.
He wrapped up his burger, grabbed his coffee and headed for his truck. He didn't stop till he was parked in front ofAbby's apartment building. This was where he'd spend the night—right in front of the only exit. He wasn't giving Abby any chances to escape with his only child.
He'd never expected to be a part-time dad. Growing up, he'd remembered there'd been kids in school who had to deal with that situation and it tore them up inside. He wouldn't accept that for his son.
He'd expected to share his life with Abby, and their children. Back in Sydney Creek, they'd grown up as neighbors and the best of friends—until he'd kissed her on a dare when she was sixteen.
After that, they were a couple. Inseparable.
He'd followed her around faithfully and they'd even gone to the same college. He'd loved her more each day.
Holding off on making love to Abby was the most difficult thing he'd had to do then, but he'd promised his father he'd be responsible.
And he was—until the night they'd graduated, their diplomas in hand and a great life in front of them.
Two days later his father had died. With him, Nick and Abby's dreams.
His mother needed help with the Logan ranch and Nick's five younger siblings. Nick had no choice but to stay. But Abby did. As much as she'd imagined a life beyond Sydney Creek, Nick had to let her go. He remembered the day she left as if it was yesterday, not five years ago. It had tied for the worst day of his life.
Despite her attempt to make him feel guilty, he still felt it had been the right thing to do.
Except he hadn't known she was pregnant. Through the window of the truck he stared up at the window of Abby's apartment. He could only imagine now the fears she must be facing. Was she sleeping? Holding Robbie in her arms? Crying her eyes out?
He had to stop feeling sorry for her. She should've told him he was a father. She should've come back to the ranch and lived with him. They could've raised their child together. That thought stopped him cold. The last five years would've been so much better if he'd shared them with Abby.
In his mind's eye he saw her when she'd opened the door to him earlier, looking as beautiful as he'd remembered. Her light brown hair had grown longer, falling in waves down to her shoulders. Still slender, she had the curves of a woman now. The urge to touch her, to feel her against him, assailed him, taking all his willpower to withstand. He'd had to tuck his hands into the back pockets of his jeans so she wouldn't notice the shaking. But he had to resist her. He'd come for his son. Truth be told, he wanted Abby, too…but she'd kept his son from him.
It suddenly struck him that she called the boy Robbie. His father's name had been Robert Logan. His eyes teared up at the thought. Years ago they'd talked about their future children and toyed with names. He hadn't really thought of naming a boy after his father until after his sudden death. He'd never had a chance to voice that to Abby.
But she'd done it for him.
Okay, so he owed her.
But that didn't mean she could keep his kid from him.
Nothing could keep his son away.