Nothing shocks horse trainer Finn Calhoun more than learning he's the father of a four-month-old boy! And when the tall, dark, spur-jangling cowboy arrives in Stallion Canyon to meet his baby, Mariah Montgomery has her doubts about his motives. Until a DNA test is done, she insists Finn stay at her ranchwhere she can keep an eye on him.
Contrary to his image, Finn is only too happy to oblige Mariahand help to revitalize her own failing ranch and work with her wild mustangs. As his love for her nephew grows, their mutual passions reach new heights, too. But when Finn finally proposes, is he just looking to secure the ranchfor himself? Or can Mariah trust that he truly wants to build a family with her and baby Harry?
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Was this baby his son?
Finn Calhoun stared in wonder at the four-month-old boy cradled in the woman's arms. The child's hair was curly, but it wasn't bright copper like his own. Still, it was a light shade of auburn. Finn's eyes were the color of the sky, while the baby's eyes were a much darker blue. There were also the dimples creasing his fat little cheeks. Finn possessed those same dimples, too. But that was hardly proof the little guy belonged to him.
A man was supposed to have nine months to adjust to the idea of becoming a dad, Finn thought. He'd had all of two days to ponder the notion of having a child. And though he liked to consider himself a man with his boots firmly planted on the ground, the idea that he might be a father had left him feeling as if he'd been shot out of a cannon and hadn't yet landed.
"Would you like to hold him?"
The gently spoken question broke through Finn's dazed thoughts, and he lifted his gaze to Mariah Montgomery, the baby's aunt.
Gauging her to be in her midtwenties, he noted that her slender frame was concealed beneath a pair of worn blue jeans and a sleeveless red checked blouse. Crow-black hair waved back from a wide forehead and was fastened at the nape of her neck with a white silk scarf. Cool gray eyes regarded him with cautious regard, while a set of pale pink lips pressed into a straight line.
Since meeting him at the door five minutes ago and inviting him into the house, Finn hadn't seen any sort of pleasurable expression or welcoming smile cross her face. But Finn could overlook her somber attitude. She'd surely gone through hell these past few weeks.
A month ago, her sister Aimee had died in a skiing accident. Since then she'd had to deal with grief and instant motherhood. Now she was meeting Finn for the first time. And she had no idea if he was a worthless bum who'd taken advantage of her late sister, or a nice guy who'd been caught up in a long-distance love affair. She only knew that Finn's name was listed on the baby's birth certificate as the father.
His head whirling with questions and reservations, Finn stepped forward. "Do you think holding him would be all right?"
She shot him an odd, almost suspicious look. "Why wouldn't it be all right? Fathers do hold their sons. And Aimee named you as the father."
Her voice held a thread of skepticism. As though she was far from convinced he was the boy's father. Well, Finn could've told her that for the past two days, he'd also been swamped with doubts. No matter that the timing of the child's birth calculated perfectly back to the weekend he'd spent with Aimee, a two-day affair hadn't necessarily created a baby. Even so, he wasn't about to dismiss the possibility that he was the father.
Keeping these thoughts to himself, he said, "Some babies don't appreciate being handed over to a stranger. And I don't want to make him cry."
Mild surprise pushed the suspicion from her face. "Oh. So you're familiar with babies?"
"I've never had one of my own," he admitted. "But I spent quite a bit of time with my nieces and nephews when they were small."
That hardly seemed to impress her, but she did move a step closer.
"I see. Well, Harry is a friendly little guy. He likes most everyone."
The breath suddenly rushed from Finn's lungs. "Harry? Is that short for Harrison?" he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.
"That's right. I always call him Harry, though."
The yellow and blue furnishings of the nursery faded to a dazed blur, prompting Finn to wipe a hand over his face. He'd never felt so humbled, so shaken in his life.
"Harrison is my first name," he told her. "But II guess you already knew that. You saw it on the birth certificate."
Her cool gray gaze connected with his and for one brief moment, Finn thought he spotted a flash of compassion in her eyes. Could she possibly understand that his emotions were riding a violent wave? Maybe she understood he wasn't the sort of man who could casually make a baby, then walk away without a backward glance.
She said, "I'm sorry. When I spoke to you on the telephone, I was so focused on how to give you the news about Aimee that I didn't think to tell you Harry's name."
Hearing that Aimee had died from a tragic accident had been enough to knock Finn sideways. Then before he could recover, she'd hit him with the news of the baby and that supposedly he was the father. After that he'd been too stunned to ask for details. He'd managed to scribble down the child's location and a phone number, and the rest of the conversation had passed in a blur.
"To be honest I don't recall much of our conversation. I was pretty shaken up. All I could think about was getting up here," Finn admitted, then shook his head. "I can't believe Aimee even remembered my first name. Everyone calls me Finnthat's my middle name."
He held his arms out and Mariah carefully handed the boy to him. Once he had the baby's weight cradled safely in the crook of his arm, the realization that he could be touching his son for the very first time swelled his chest with overwhelming emotions.
Bending his head, Finn placed a kiss on the baby's forehead, while unabashed tears burned the back of his eyes. Father or not, he couldn't ignore the deep and sudden connection he felt to the child in his arms.
"This isn't the way a man is supposed to be introduced to his son," he murmured thickly. "The child should be newly born from his mother's womb with his eyes squinched and his skin all red and wrinkled. He should be there to hear him crying and sucking in the first few breaths of his life."
Lifting his head, he looked to Mariah for answers. "If Harry is truly mine, then I've lost so muchmemories and moments that I'll never have. Why didn't Aimee tell me she was pregnant?"
With a frustrated shake of her head, she turned and walked to the far side of the nursery. As Finn watched her go, his gaze was instinctively drawn to the sway of her curvy hips encased in faded denim and the long black tail of hair swishing against her back. He hadn't expected Aimee's sister to look so young or pretty. In fact, during the brief time he'd known Aimee, she hadn't said much about her sister. Only that she had one and that the both of them lived on the ranch.
As Finn had made the drive up here to Stallion Canyon in Northern California, he'd held the notion he'd be meeting an older woman with a family of her own, who'd kindly taken in her little nephew until the father could be located. He couldn't have been more wrong. Mariah was an attractive single woman. Not only that, there was a fierce maternal gleam in her eye. One that said she wasn't about to hand Harry over to him without definitive proof.
"Several weeks passed after Harry was born before Aimee finally told me you were the father. After that, I tried to persuade her to contact you, but she always stalled without giving me a reason. I don't know why. Unless it was because some other man actually fathered Harry. Maybe she got tangled up with a married man. Or she didn't want you involved. I'm just as confused as you are about the whole thing."
It was becoming clear to Finn that Aimee hadn't revealed much, if anything, to her sister about their weekend romance in Reno. But he didn't consider that odd. He hadn't said anything about that weekend to his brothers, either. Not until two days ago when he'd learned about the baby. Before then, his time with Aimee had been a private, personal thing.
"I've never been married. I made that clear to Aimee." He shook his head with confusion. "We met and after having a whirlwind weekend together, I thought she'd taken our time together seriously. Before we parted I gave her my number and she promised to keep in touch. But I never heard from her again."
Her expression rueful, she said, "We were sisters, but we had our differences. She didn't talk much to me about her personal life. But after Harry was bornwell, we eventually got into a heated argument."
Her wavering voice had broken in spots and as Finn watched her struggle to hold back tears, it suddenly struck him that this whole ordeal was far more difficult for her than it was for him. Mariah had lost a member of her family. Finn's connection to Aimee had been little more than a brief, star-crossed encounter.
Finn was wondering if he should offer some comforting words when she suddenly went on, "I warned her that if something happened to her, Harry would need his father. I didn't I never thought something actually would happen. I was only trying to push her into contacting you. But then she really died. Now I have to live with those words I said to her. Even though I said them with good intentions."
Finn was suddenly struck with the urge to go to her and place a reassuring arm around her shoulders. But he held back. They'd met only a few minutes ago. She might not appreciate him getting that close. Especially when the two of them appeared to be the only two adults in the house.
"We all say things we wish we could change or take back," Finn told her. "But in this case I hardly see where you crossed the line. Harry's father should've been contacted long before his birth. I don't understand why she was keeping it a secret."
She made a helpless palms-up gesture. "Frankly, Aimee had been giving me the impression that the father was someone else. A guy she'd been involved with off and on for a long time. When she told me about you and showed me the birth certificate, I was shocked."
Finn's mind was so jammed with questions, he didn't know where to begin or what to think. "What else did she tell you about me?"
Shrugging, she said, "Not much. Just that you lived in Nevada and liked horses. Later, after the accident, I found your number in her address book."
With the baby cuddled safely to his chest, Finn moved across the room to where Mariah was sitting stiffly on the edge of the rocking chair. The two sisters couldn't have been more different, he thought. Where Mariah was dark and petite, Aimee had been tall, with caramel-brown hair and hazel eyes. Their personalities appeared to be equally opposite, too. Aimee had been full of smiles and laughter, whereas this young woman seemed to be all serious business.
"I don't know what to think about all that, Ms. Montgomery. But if she said I'm the father, then I surely must be." He looked down at the precious baby snuggled in the crook of his arm. Three days ago Finn had been a thirty-two-year-old man with nothing on his mind but his job of managing the Silver Horn's horse division. The possibility of having a child never entered his thoughts. Now here he was holding a baby who could very well be his son. The whole thing seemed surreal. "I met Aimee at the mustang training competition in Reno. After the first round was over I made a point of searching her out. To offer a price for her horse. She refused to sell him."
"But she didn't refuse to go to bed with you," Mariah said pointedly.
Her blunt way of putting it spread a wave of heat over his face. More than a year ago, when he'd said goodbye to Aimee, he'd never imagined that anything so lifealtering as a baby had occurred between them. And he certainly hadn't expected Aimee to lose her life on a ski slope less than seventy miles from the Silver Horn.
"We spent the weekend together in Reno. It wasn't like either one of us set out to make a baby."
"I'm not so sure about that, Mr. Calhoun."
The suggestive remark caused his jaw to drop. "You think I"
"Not you," she interrupted. "I'm talking about Aimee. I've always believed she deliberately set out to get pregnant. If not by youthen someone else."
The idea of Aimee using him to get pregnant was incredible. She'd hardly seemed the conniving type. And why would she have done such a thing?
He said, "I'll admit that two days wasn't long enough for me to know everything about Aimee. But I find it hard to believe she was luring me into a pregnancy trap, or shotgun wedding, or anything close to it. She didn't try to attach any strings to me. My mistake was trusting her when she said she was on the pill. But as you can see I'm here and more than ready to take responsibility for Harry."
Bending her head, she said in a low voice, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said any of that. When my sister met you in Renowell, her plans might not have included a baby at all. It's just that she had"
"Look, if you were going to tell me about Bryce, I already know. She told me how he'd been a longtime boyfriend. But she'd broken things off with him."
Her head popped up. "Aimee mentioned Bryce to you? That's surprising. She wasn't one to share personal things."
"Sometimes it's easier to talk about yourself to someone you just met. Especially if your plans are to never see them again," he added wryly.
Her expression turned curious. "You think she'd never intended to see you again?"
"I didn't then, obviously. But I do now."
The baby began to squirm and Finn looked down to see that the infant was chewing on his tiny fist. Drool was dripping off his chin and Finn carefully wiped it away with his forefinger. Just touching the baby's face and looking into his dark blue eyes filled Finn's heart with a fierce protectiveness. If Harry was his son, he wouldn't let anyone or anything keep him from taking the baby home to the Silver Horn. And that included the black-haired beauty who was eyeing him as though he were the devil himself.
Across the small nursery, Mariah was having all sorts of trouble dragging her gaze away from the rugged Nevada cowboy. A few minutes ago, when she'd opened the door and found herself standing face-to-face with Finn Calhoun, she'd felt as though the ground had shifted beneath her feet.
She'd expected Finn's appearance to be a bit more than average, otherwise Aimee would've never taken a second glance at him. But this guy was leaps and bounds beyond average.
At least two or three inches over six feet, he towered over her. Broad shoulders sat over a long torso that narrowed down to a lean waist and tall, muscular legs. Yet his hard, wiry body was only a part of his striking appearance, she realized. His face was a composite of tough angles and slopes. A jutting chin, hollow cheekbones and rough-hewn lips were softened by a pair of dazzling blue eyes partially hidden by a thick fringe of copper-colored lashes. Slightly darker hair of the same color curled wildly around his ears and against the back of his neck, while a set of white teeth made a startling contrast against his tanned skin.
Oh, he was a looker all right, Mariah decided. But that didn't necessarily make him daddy material. Especially if he used those looks to go around seducing women. Still, in all honesty, she didn't know if this man had done the seducing or if Aimee had been the initiator of their romance. And it hardly mattered now. The only question that should be on her mind was whether he'd actually fathered little Harry.
Reining in her wandering thoughts, Mariah said, "Aimee dated Bryce for over three years and wanted to marry him, but he kept putting her off. He was divorced and wasn't ready to try marriage again. That's whywell, Aimee once told me she was tempted to get pregnant so that Bryce would feel obligated to marry her. But she said he was always too careful about such things and she wasn't sure how she could manage it. I told her she was crazy to even consider such a scheme. Being pregnant wouldn't necessarily force Bryce into marrying her, anyway."