The British Are Coming!
Cowboy-turned-businessman Liam Murphy thought he had it alluntil the teen daughter he never knew existed walks into his life, her mother close behind. Now the Wyoming bachelor must confront his first love, former London exchange student Missy Dobbs, and get answers. To start: How can he still be so attracted to this person who has seemingly betrayed him?
Missy has to ask herself the same question. Long in the dark about her child's paternity, Missy can't help feeling a secret thrill that Liam's back in her life. Maybe staying in Destiny awhile will help her daughter bond with her dad, but is it a trap for Missy's shell-shocked heart?
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Wankers! You cowboys promised to take me to Liam Murphy, not show me the back side of some bloody barn!"
The lilting British accent, rarely heard here in the small town of Destiny, Wyoming, floated on the hot August morning breeze. It came from somewhere behind him and despite the voices bickering on the other end of this endless phone calland the fact she'd said his namethe inflection kicked Liam square in the gut.
He should have been used to it by now.
His family's business, Murphy Mountain Log Homes, was celebrating its twentieth year in business with a growing following in the United Kingdom, thanks to securing a contract to build a log homescratch that, a twenty-thousand-square-foot log mansionfor a popular movie actor based in Scotland.
Meaning as company president, Liam spent a lot of time on the phone and in meetings with people who spoke the Queen's English. Still, whenever he heard that soft and silvery accent spoken by a female voice, it never failed to take him back.
To another place, another time when he'd thought he could have it all.
Aw, hell, that was a lifetime ago.
"Are you daft?" The girlish voice came again, cutting into Liam's thoughts. "Not bloody happening!"
Hmm, not so soft this time.
She sounded young and her words were angry, but there was a hint of fear laced through as well. Liam didn't know what was going on, but he had a pretty good idea.
Ending his call, he pocketed his phone, backtracked a few steps and headed for the far end of a nearby barn.
The first-ever Destiny rodeo was in full swing, and campers and horse trailers filled this area of the fairgrounds. It'd taken a lot of hard work by a lot of people to pull this event together. His family's company was a major sponsor, and while it might only be a one-day event, the prize money was good, ensuring participants and fans alike packed the arena and the town.
The last thing they needed was trouble.
Liam spotted the trio as soon as he rounded the corner. Dressed in jeans, plaid shirts and Stetsons, two cowboys stood with a young girl sandwiched between them. He wasn't sure about the men, but the female definitely looked to be under eighteen. That made the six-pack of beer held by one of the cowboyswho didn't have a valid alcohol wristbandeven more of a concern. And it wasn't even noon yet.
"Come on, darlin'. Let's enjoy a cold brew in our camper." One of the cowboys encircled the girl's waist with his arm. "Then we'll track down that Murphy guy for ya."
"No need to go far." Liam kept his voice light as he strolled toward the group, despite his anger spiking at the scene before him. "I'm right here."
The three jerked around, surprise on the faces of the cowboys, relief in the girl's eyes. And there was something else about their dark navy coloring that hit him as hard as her voice had.
"What can I help you with?" he continued, joining their circle. "Something related to the rodeo, perhaps?"
The first cowboy took a step back, dropping his hold on the young girl, whose gaze darted from the booklet she held to Liam and back again. Twice.
Liam looked down and saw she had the rodeo program folded back to the pages that featured his photo. Great. That's why she was looking for him.
He and his brothers had all grown up on horseback, competing in local rodeos before they were even teenagers. But it'd been Liam who'd made it to the professional circuit as a saddle bronc rider when he'd turned eighteen, finishing in the top five at the National Rodeo Finals his first two years out. His thirdand what would end up being his finalseason had ended early when he destroyed his left shoulder. He never rode professionally again.
That had been thirteen years ago.
When the Destiny rodeo committee had wanted him for the cover of the program based on his past accomplishments, he'd balked but finally given in and agreed to be included inside, never thinking they'd make him a damn centerfold.
"Ah, Mr. Murphy, we were j-just looking for you," the younger of the two cowboys said.
So now he was Mr. Murphy. Well, that could work in his favor. "What's with the beer?" Liam gestured at the kid with the six-pack under his arm. "You're not twenty-one."
"I, urn "
"It's mine. He's carrying it for me," said the taller cowboy, giving his left hand a quick shake before he dropped his hands to his side and planted his feet in a wide stance. "We're on our way back to our camper."
Liam turned, picking up on the wristband and the attitude. At thirty-four, the last thing he needed was a roll in the dirt with a kid more than a decade younger than him. "Then I suggest you carry it. Be less trouble that way."
Their gazes held for a long moment, but the cowboy backed down, making a show of taking the alcohol, and then slapped the younger guy on the shoulder. "Come on, bro. Let's get out of here."
Liam watched them leave, making a mental note to check in with the sheriff. Gage Steele and his deputies were patrolling the fairgrounds, but Liam hadn't seen anyone back this way yet.
He turned his attention back to the girl. Shoulder-length blond hair, streaked with bright patches of blue and pink, fell over her face as she stood studying the program again. "Are you okay?" he asked. "They didn't hurt you?"
She lifted her gaze, her eyes raking from the top of his Stetson to the tips of his boots before she looked him in the eye. "Are you really him?"
A bit uncomfortable at her scrutiny, Liam looked at where she jabbed a finger at the picture of his winning ride that first year. "Yes, but that was a long time ago." He spotted a small duffel bag lying nearby in the grass. Moving past her, he grabbed it. "Is this yours?"
He watched her walk toward him, studying her again and wondering if there might be another reason she'd been looking for him. She was pretty, if one got past the crazy-colored hair, dark eye makeup and was that a diamond chip on the side of her nose?
She had a slew of earrings dangling from both ears, her black T-shirt displayed a bright purple skull surrounded by flowers and she wore skintight jeans tucked into brown leather boots accented with bright turquoise embroidery that looked new.
Brand-new, from the way she hobbled. "You buy those today?"
She nodded, looking at her feet. "Not hard to spot, huh? They hurt bloody awful."
Her accent pulled at him again, making him frown. "The vendor should've given you a pair of boot socks."
"They did." She shrugged. "But I already had socks.
Balancing on one foot, she tried to pull the other from inside the boot but gasped, a wince creasing her features, and she froze.
"I think we should get you to the first-aid tent," Liam said, looking at the row of vendors not too far away. The tent set up by the local clinic was at the end closest to them. "Can you make it there?"
"Do I have a choice?" She yanked the bag from his grip and started to shuffle across the grass, the frightened girl from moments ago long gone. "Last time I listen to an American cowboy. They're all a bunch of nutters."
"Not all of us." Liam joined her, grinning at her quicksilver mood change. She reminded him of his niece, Abby, who had turned sixteen earlier this year. His older brother had his hands full with that one, not to mention his twin sons, who were a few years younger. "You need to be more careful who you make friends with."
"Ya think? Jeez, you sound just like myoh!" She stumbled, one boot catching on a rock, but she caught herself before ending up on her backside. "Bollocks! That hurt!"
"Can I make another suggestion?"
She pushed her hair off her face, swiping hard at one eye before glaring at him. "Sure, why not?"
Liam's chest tightened at the tear she hadn't managed to brush away. "How about I give you a lift? The sooner we get your foot looked at, the better you'll feel."
"A lift?" Her brows scrunched together over the top of her nose in a way that was so familiar, Liam could only stare. Before he could decide why, understanding dawned on her face. Her expression turned disbelieving. "You mean carry me?"
"If that would be all right with you."
She hugged her bag to her chest and studied him again.
Damn, maybe that wasn't such a good idea. More and more people were milling around the vendor tents. He'd already spotted a few giving the two of them some speculative looks. Gossip was a favorite pastime in Destiny, and the Murphy family always seemed to supply plenty of fodder, whether they wanted to or not.
The town was still buzzing over Liam's brother Devlin taking off to London back in June with his newest lady love, a girl he'd only known a few months.
Then three weeks ago, both Liam and Nolan had participated in a bachelor auction to raise money for the town's summer camp. The fact that Liam had gone for one of the highest bids to nearby Laramie's pretty city attorney had actually ended up in the local newspaper. Good thing they hadn't gotten wind of their date last weekwhich had been nice but spark-freeor else that would've made the headlines as well.
"Okay." She shrugged with a feigned carelessness that reminded him again of his niece.
Liam smiled, forgetting about the crowd. There was so much going on at today's events, he doubted anyone would even notice them during the short stroll to the first-aid tent. Seconds later, he had one arm beneath her knees and the other secured just beneath her shoulders.
Cradling her bag in her lap, she wrapped the other hand around his neck as he started walking. "Do I weigh a lot?" she asked.
Liam resisted the urge to roll his eyes. No matter the age, the female species never stopped asking loaded questions. "Of course not. I bet you don't weigh a hundred pounds."
He did the math in his head. "Ninety-seven pounds. See? I was right."
"For a Yank you did that conversion pretty fast."
She smiled and that punch to his gut returned. "Well, I'm a pretty smart guy."
Ducking her head, she whispered, "I hope so."
Having no idea what she meant by that, Liam covered the distance to the tent in a matter of minutes and once inside, placed the girl on an empty chair. It took one of the volunteers a few moments to tend to the blisters on her feet. Liam used that time to study her again, positive now that he knew her from someplace. But where? Could she be a friend of his niece's or a daughter of one of the guys on his construction crew? With that accent?
"You're staring at me."
Liam blinked, realizing she was right. "Ah, sorry. You know, you never did say why you were looking for me."
She tugged her boots back on, over a thick pair of socks this time, her gaze darting around the tent. Other than a few people at the far end, they were alone.
"Do I look familiar to you?" she finally asked. "At all?"
"You " His voice trailed off. He had a feeling she wanted him to say yes. He almost did, but the truth was he had no idea who she was. "No, I'm sorry, you don't."
She heaved a dramatic sigh and then rooted around inside her duffel bag, digging out a cell phone. "Bloody thing is about out ofjuice, but maybe " Her fingers flew over the screen, her thumb flipping through a long string of photos before she turned the phone to him.
"How about her?" she asked. "Does she look familiar?"
His breath disappeared. Every muscle in his body tensed and his knees automatically locked to keep him upright.
Stay back, stiff rein, set feet, squeeze and stay on.
Liam had created his own personal mantra back when he was a teenager, and he silently recited those words every time he climbed on the back of a horse.
A horse determined to buck him off and send him crashing to the dirt.
A lot of people thought saddle bronc riding was only about trying to hang on. It wasn't. There were specific locations a rider's feet needed to be from the moment the chute gate opened if one expected to last the required eight seconds to garner a score.
It was a perfectly choreographed dance of man working to remain synchronized with each twist and turn and jump the horse made. All while keeping his free hand from touching the animal or himself so he wasn't disqualified.
Now, that same chant raced through his head as he stared at a picture of Missy Ellington, his very own heartbreak girl.
Missy had come over as an exchange student from London during his senior year of high school, and from the moment he'd first seen her, he'd fallen hard.
And she'd been just as smitten with him. They'd been inseparable until things ended badly the summer after graduation. A nasty fight over each other's plans for their shared future. Plans they had never bothered to talk about, plans that had turned out to be vastly different. He'd said some stupid things and the next thing he knew, Missy had flown home to London.
He never saw or spoke to her again. He thought about her sometimes though. An old country song would come on the radio, or he'd catch a whiff of a peach-scented perfume or hear a woman speak in a British accent.
And back in the spring, when Devlin had made a crack about Liam's dismal track record at marriage and how a long-ago girlfriend had been the love of his life, Liam had quickly corrected him, stating emphatically that he had no such love.
He'd been lying. She had been the love of his life, at least back then.
In the photograph, Missy looked much as she had the last time he'd seen her. Long blond hair, beautiful porcelain skin. Soft blue eyes. Only instead of smiling at the camera, her eyes were focused on the infant she held in her arms.
"That was taken fifteen years ago this past April." The girl turned the phone back and looked at the image, that same smileMissy's smileon her face. "I was only a couple of weeks old at the time."
Fifteen years ago.
The months and years rushed through his head, the numbers making his brain go into a serious meltdown. The imaginary rein he'd been holding onto slipped from his grip, the wild beast beneath him disappeared and he was flying through the air.
"Missy " he rasped, determined to push the words past the restricted confines of his dry throat. "Missy Ellington is your mother?"
"Abso-bloody-lutely." The girl's gaze was serious as she looked up at him again. "And you're my father."