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She was the world's oldest virgin…
But that didn't mean Kathleen Miles had no feelings. Or desires. Especially when this pureblood city woman came face-to-face with the most captivating cowboy this side of Hopkins Gulch. When warm, hard Evan Atkins looked at Kathleen, she felt like someone else. Someone who was daring. Passionate. Experienced. Yes, she was sure this dangerous man with the deep voice could convince her of anything…even becoming his wife and the mother of his baby son. But how could the bride convince the groom she wanted to be his—body and soul?
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Evan Atkins had the book hidden behind a copy of Sports Illustrated. He drank his coffee and frowned at the words, trying to concentrate, but finding it difficult with all the commotion at the Hopkins Gulch Café this morning.
The café had six tables, two booths and a lunch counter. There were coffee cups half filled, and bacon and eggs half eaten at nearly all those tables, but the seats, save for the one Evan inhabited at a booth, were empty, abandoned.
The guys were three deep at the window, trying to get a look at the Outpost, the town's general store, across the street. A strange car was parked out front, a U-haul trailer behind it. The car had caused this great stirring of interest when a pair of strangers had emerged from it. Both of them had looked around briefly, and then disappeared into the Outpost.
"If they were just askin' for directions," Sookie Peters said wisely, "they would have left the engine running."
"Did you see her?" Jack Marty asked for about the sixtieth annoying time. "She looked just like Julia Roberts. I swear. Well, maybe a little older. And not scrawny like Julia." He said this with easy familiarity, as if Julia were his second cousin.
"Nah, she dint," Sookie said. "More like the other one. The one from the movie about the bus. That's who she looked like."
"Sandra Bullock?" Cal, Sookie's brother, hooted. "She did not!"
"Oh, what do you know?"
The banter went back and forth, Evan furrowing his brow and trying to ignore the nonsense as best he could. All those guys at the window should take a lesson from him. Good things did not necessarily come in pretty packages.
Millie came and refilled his coffee cup. He didn't quite get the Sports Illustrated up fast enough or high enough, and she caught sight of the book hidden behind it, crooked her head, read the title, and smiled.
If she told the guys he was never going to live it down.
Potty-Training for the Hopelessly Confused.
But she just smiled, in that way he was never going to get used to, as if being a single dad made him adorable to the female populace, like a teddy bear.
"Where is Jesse this morning?" she asked.
"I dropped him off at Beth's Day Care for a while."
"That's good. He needs to be with other kids sometimes."
"So I've been told." Evan scowled at the book. Step Five: Pray.
He thought that was a mighty strange step to include in a book on potty-training, not scientific at all. On the other hand, when his son had gone missing and he had done everything he knew how to do, applied all his intellect and strength and devotion, everything, to getting Jesse back, and nothing had worked, isn't that what his days had become?
Please God, please God, please God. If You can't bring my baby home, look after him. It would shock those guys at the window to know he had done that, prayed every day, but he'd been shocked himself the first time those words had gone through his head. Shocked, and then surprised, the words bringing him the only measure of peace he'd had in those desperate years.
Jesse was home now. Okay, it had taken two years, but then Evan would admit to being somewhat rusty in the prayer department, since he'd spent most of his youth moving in the other direction, hell bound.
Still, a two-year wait was a might scary thought in terms of potty-training.
It was very hard to formulate a proper potty-training prayer with all the commotion at the window.
"What do you suppose she's doing over there?"
Millie, known for her foghorn voice, called out, "You know Pa hasn't been feeling so hot. They tried to sell the place, but now they're just hoping to get someone to run it for them."
"That would mean she'd have to live here," Mike Best pointed out sagely.
The crowd at the window contemplated that for a few minutes of blessed silence that allowed Evan to review his prayer. He decided to keep it simple. God, help. Satisfied, he looked back at the book.
And realized he had read it incorrectly.
It didn't say pray. Step Five said play.
He read carefully: Be sure and make potty-training fun. A game.
The guys at the window started up again, sounding like a gaggle of old hens excited about an unexpected windfall of worms.
"Hey, there's the kid. He's coming out by hisself, though."
"Don't he look like trouble?"
"Aw, you don't suppose she's married, do you? She must be. That kid is hers. Is the spitting image of her."
This observation seemed to put a momentary damper on the ardent bachelors at the window.
"He does have the look of her."
"Guys," Evan finally called, beyond impatience, "would you give it a rest?"
A few of them turned and acknowledged him with grins that were not in the least contrite, but basically they ignored him.
He did his best to shut them out.
But it penetrated his gloom about potty-training when one of them said, "I guess Mr. High and Mighty over there wouldn't care that the kid is looking at his truck."
Evan rattled the magazine. So what if someone was looking at his truck? It was a damned attractive truck, far worthier of a fuss than a strange woman passing through town.
"Guess old Mr. Lonesome over there wouldn't care, either, that the boy's looking over his shoulder right now. I don't like the look on his face, either, not one little bit."
Evan pretended he wasn't listening, but the truth was they had his attention now. He was pretty protective of that truck. A fact they all knew. They were probably ribbing him a bit, trying to get him over there at the window to moan and groan over a complete stranger, just like them.
"It looks like he's writing something on it."
Well, okay, he hadn't been through the car wash for a while. Maybe the kid was writing a message in the dust. Big deal. Hardly headlines. Not even for Hopkins Gulch.
"Is that a nail he's using?" Sookie asked, amazed.
"I do believe it might be. Oh, that's an S for sure," Jack said.
Evan was up out of his booth now.
"Yup. And that's an H."
Evan crossed the café in one long stride and shoved his way through the guys to the front of the window. Just in time to see the little creep putting the finishing touches on an I. On his brand-new midnight-blue Dodge Ram Diesel extended cab pickup truck.
The guys were all staring at him, silent, horrified, knowing that that unsuspecting child's life as he knew it was about to end.
He pushed back through them and went out the door and across the dusty street in about one-tenth of a second.
The kid didn't even have time to put a dot on that I. Evan spun him around, and shoved him hard against his truck.
He was only about twelve. A good-looking boy, even though his features were contorted with fear and anger.
"What the hell do you think you're doing to my truck?" Evan demanded.
The boy sputtered and squirmed and began to turn red, but he didn't give anything that could qualify as an answer, so Evan twisted his shirt just a little tighter.
"Unhand that boy at once."
The voice was soft, sultry as silk, and with just a hint of pure steel in it.
Evan kept his grip on the boy's shoulder but spun on the heel of his cowboy boot to find himself staring into the most gorgeous set of brown eyes he had ever seen.
His first thought, foolishly, was they'd been wrong. All the guys had been wrong. There wasn't anything he'd ever seen in a Saturday night movie that even came close to this.
She was beautiful, her hair long and dark brown like melted chocolate, pulled back into a stern ponytail that ended between her shoulder blades. Her skin was the color of a peach, and had blushes in all the right places. Her eyes were so dark they were almost black, some flicker of anger in them hinting at a nature more hot and passionate than the primly buttoned lace-collared blouse was saying. Her cheekbones were high and proud, but her nose was a dainty, tiny thing, with a funny little smattering of freckles across it, and her lips were full and luscious and practically begged for kisses.
But he was a man who had paid an enormous price for not saying no the last time lips had begged for kisses, and so his voice was frosty when he answered her.
"Ma'am?" he said.
"I said take your hands off my boy. What do you think you're doing?"
He shook his head, trying to think what he was doing, trying to shake the vision of her away so he could think clearly.
Vandalizing his truck. That was it.
"Yeah, take your hands off of me," the boy said, sneering.
Reluctantly he did.
The boy smirked, brushed at his sleeves deliberately, and then, like something unfolding in slow motion, reached over and wrapped his fist around the truck antenna. Before Evan could even think, he'd snapped it off.
Fury, hot and red, rose in Evan, not just because of the boy's flagrant lack of respect for his property but because of the soft gasp of shock and horror he heard from the woman. He shot her a quick glance and was dismayed by the transformation in her.
Cold, angry beauty he could handle with one hand tied behind his back. But now she was fundamentally altered as she stared at her child as if he had turned into a monster before her eyes. There was the faintest glitter of tears, of embarrassment and dismay, in eyes that he suddenly saw were not all brown, but partly gold. Her full bottom lip was trembling. And then she caught a glimpse of the nice letters scratched out with a nail in his brand-new paint, and he watched the color drain from her face.
"How could you?" she whispered to her boy.
"It wasn't hard at all, Auntie Kathy," the boy snapped at her, with disrespect that made Evan angrier, if that was even possible, than the damage that had been done to his truck. Even so he registered the "Auntie." She was not the young hellion's mother.
By now most of the guys from the café had gathered around and were watching with unabashed interest, nudging each other with satisfaction now that the kid had pushed Evan a little further.
Evan knew he had a well-deserved name as Hopkins Gulch's bad boy. He was a man with a reputation. Tough as nails. Cold as steel. Wild as the winter wind. A man who wasn't pushed. Quick to anger. Quick to take a dare. Quick to settle things with his fists. Quick to just about anything, if it came to that.
And he knew he looked the same as he always had, so these men he had grown up with assumed he was the same.
But he was not.
The wildest boy in town had wound up with the wildest girl in the world. Nothing less than he deserved. But the child had deserved something else. The change in Evan had begun the day his son had been born.
And deepened with every day that his boy had been missing.
Evan moved toward the kid. He had no intention of hurting him, would be satisfied to throw a scare into him good enough that he'd be an old man in a rocking chair before he ever messed with another man's truck.
But for a moment, his eyes locked on the boy's and he saw something. Something he didn't want to see. He skidded to a halt, and stared at those large gray eyes.
There was defiance in them, for sure. And a little deeper than that, fear.
And a little deeper than that…there was need. Need so raw and naked it killed the anger dead within Evan.
He ran a hand through his hair, and looked at the woman, a mistake, since it only confused him more.
"You just passing through?" he asked her, hopefully. She couldn't possibly be planning to stay here— a tiny spec on the map, an equally long distance from either Medicine Hat, Alberta, or Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
She dragged her gaze away from the boy who was sullenly inspecting the toe of his sneakers. "Actually, no. I've been hired at the Outpost. Of course, I'll pay for the damage to your truck. Right now. I'll—" She started fumbling with her pocketbook. "I'll write you a check. If you'll accept one from an out-of-town bank, for now. I—"
"No." Evan almost had to look over his shoulder, so dumbfounded was he that the emphatic no had issued forth from his mouth.
Because he knew, absolutely, that the thing to do was take her check.
Or let the cops handle it.
He needed to be in his nice new truck, driving away from her. Fast.
"No?" she repeated, the pocketbook hanging open, her hand frozen in its desperate search for a checkbook.
"No," he repeated, knowing he was going to do it. The good thing, the decent thing. Damn, sometimes it was hard. The easiest thing in the world was to be a self-centered SOB. He knew; he'd had lots of practice.
But if Dee had run forever with Jesse, if she hadn't died in an accident, this could be his boy standing here, nine or ten years in the future. If Evan was going to be the father his son deserved, he had to learn to do the right thing. Every time.
He suddenly felt calm and detached and like a voice deep within him, a voice he had learned to respect long ago, when the bull charged, when the brakes failed, when the thermometer registered thirty below and the cows still had to eat, when his son was gone and he just needed to get through one more day without losing his mind, that voice was telling him what to do.
He addressed the boy, low and firm, like he talked to a green colt, who was rebellious and scared, but wanted, in his heart, to know nothing more than he could trust you and you would never hurt him. "That five seconds of fun you just had is going to cost you about two weeks of moving manure. School's out for the year, right?"
"What?" the boy sputtered. "Why would I move manure for you?"
"Because you owe me, and that particular subject apparently holds some fascination for you since you feel inclined to write about it on the sides of people's trucks."
There was a murmur of surprise from the assembled crowd. Evan knew he was considered a man of few words, and most of those unprintable. But he heard the approval there, too, in the way he'd handled it.
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