How can that be? Well, Carly Rayburn knows howbut she'd been told she could never have children. Even more shocking is returning to her family ranch to tell the daddy-to-be, sexy cowboy Ian McAllister. Carly has dreams to reach country music stardom; he has his boots planted firmly in the Texas soil. But they share two things: undeniable heat and, soon, a baby.
Ian never forgot Carly, nor his plans to buy her ranch. There he envisions raising a family with the right woman and at the right time. Till Carly drops her bombshell. When his head clears, he may be thrilled to be a daddy, but can he lasso the starry-eyed singer and become a husband?
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Carly Rayburn was back in town. Not that there'd been any big announcements, but news traveled fast in Brighton Valley. And even if it didn't, not much got past Ian McAllister.
She'd had a singing gig in San Antonio, but apparently that hadn't panned out for her, which was too bad. She had a dream to make it big in country music someday, a dream Ian no longer had. But he couldn't fault her for that.
Jason, her oldest brother, said she'd be staying on the Leaning R for a while, which wasn't a surprise. It seemed to Ian that she came home to the ranch whenever her life hit a snag. So that's what she would do, right after attending Jason's wedding in town.
As the foreman of the Leaning R, Ian had been invited to the ceremony and reception, but he'd graciously declined and sent a gift instead. The only people attending were family and a few close friends, so Ian would have felt out of placefor more reasons than one. So he'd remained on the ranch.
Now, as darkness settled over Brighton Valley, he did what he often did in the evenings after dinner. He sat on the front porch of his small cabin and enjoyed the peaceful evening sounds, the scent of night-blooming jasmine and the vast expanse of stars in the Texas sky.
The Leaning R had been in Carly's family for years. It was run-down now, but it had great potential. It was also the perfect place for Ian to hide out, where people only knew him as a quiet cowboy who felt more comfortable around livestock than the bright lights of the big cities. And thanks to his granddaddy, who'd once owned a respectable spread near Dallas, that was true.
He glanced at the Australian shepherd puppy nestled in his lap. The sleepy pooch yawned, then stretched and squirmed.
"What's the matter, Cheyenne?" He stroked her black-and-white furry head. "Is your snooze over?"
When the pup gave a little yip, Ian set her down and watched as she padded around the wooden flooring, taking time to sniff at the potted geranium on the porch, her stub of a tail wagging. Then she waddled down the steps.
"Don't wander off too far," he told her. "It's dark out there, and you're still getting the lay of the land."
The pup glanced at him, as if she understood what he was saying, then trotted off.
Ian loved dogs. He'd grown up with several of them on his granddad's ranch, but after he'd moved out on his own, he hadn't been able to have one until now. Fortunately, his life was finally lining up the way he'd always hoped it would. Once the Leaning R went on the market, as Carly's brother said it would, Ian was prepared to buy it. As the trustee and executor of the Rayburn family estate, Jason was in charge now. The only thing holding him back from listing the property was getting Carly and their brother Braden to agree to the sale.
But Braden had his own spread about ten miles down the road, and Carly had no intention of being a rancher. When she'd left Brighton Valley the last time, she'd been hell-bent on making a name for herself. With her talent, there was no reason she wouldn't. There was always a price for fame, though, and Ian just hoped she was willing to pay it.
He reached for his guitar, which rested beside him near the cabin window, and settled it into his lap. As he strummed the new song he'd written, the chords filled the peaceful night. He might love ranching, but that didn't mean he'd given up music altogether. He just played for pleasure these days, in the evenings after a long workday. He'd learned the hard way that it beat the hell out of opening a bottle of whiskey to relax.
Now, as he sat outside singing the words to the tune he'd written about love gone wrong, he waited for Carly to return from the wedding she'd come home to attend, waited to see if anything had changed. To see if, by some strange twist of fate, she'd decided that she wanted something different out of life.
He'd only played a few bars when his cell phone rang. He set the guitar aside and answered on the third ring.
"Hey, Mac," the graveled smoker's voice said. "How's it going?"
It was Uncle Roy, one of the few people who called him Mac and who knew how to contact him. "Not bad. How's everything in Sarasota? How are Grandma and Granddad?"
"They're doing just fine. Mama's cholesterol is a bit high, but the doctor put her on some medication to lower it. Other than that, they're settling into retired life out here in Florida and making friends."
Ian was glad to hear it, although he'd been sorry when his grandparents had sold the family ranch. But his granddad had put in a long, successful life, first as a rodeo cowboy, then as a rancher. And Grandma had always wanted to live near the water. So Ian couldn't blame him for selling the place and moving closer to his sole remaining soneven if Ian felt more like his uncle's sibling than a nephew.
"Say," Roy said, "I called to let you know that it'll be their fiftieth wedding anniversary next monthon the fifteenth. So me and your aunt Helen are planning a party for them. We're going to try to keep it a surprise, although I'm not sure if we can pull it off. But it'd be great if you could come."
"I'll be there." Ian wasn't sure what he'd do about finding someone to look after the Leaning R for him, but there was no way he'd miss celebrating with the couple who'd raised him.
"Dad said you're thinking about buying that place where you've been working," Roy added.
"That's my plan."
"You made an offer yet?"
"Not yet." But Ian was ready to jump the minute the place was officially on the market.
"What's the holdup?"
"The ranch is held by a trust, and the trustees are three half siblings. They're not quite in agreement about selling. At least, they didn't used to be. I think it's finally coming together now."
"What was the holdup?"
"A couple of them wanted it to stay in the family, but no one was willing to move in and take over."
Uncle Roy seemed to chew on that for a while, then asked, "You sure it's a good deal?"
"Damned straight. The widow of the man who originally owned it took good care of it, but her grandson, the previous trustee, was some sort of big-shot, corporate-exec type who let it go to the dogs. It's a shame, too. You should have seen what it once wasand what it could become again with a little love and cash. I'm looking forward to having the right to invest in it the way Mrs. Rayburn would have if she were still alive."
"Well, Helen and I'll be praying for you. I hope it all works out. I know having your own place and running a spread has been a dream of yours for a long time."
And that dream had grown stronger these past three years. "Thanks, Uncle Roy."
"Never did understand why you wanted to give up the good life, though. Dad says you were always a rancher at heart and not a performer. And he knows you best. But damn, boy. You sure could play and sing."
Ian still could. It was the fame he'd never liked. He'd always been an introvert, and even though he hadn't been the lead singer in the group, the gigs had gotten harder and harder to handle without a couple of shots of tequila to get him through the night.
So when the lights had grown too bright, the crowds too big and his fear of following in his alcoholic father's stumbling boot steps too real, he'd left the groupies and Nashville behind for the quiet life of a cowboy.
"Listen, I gotta go," Roy said.
"Give everyone my love. I know it's an hour later there and Granddad turns in early, so I'll call them in the morning."
"Don't forgetthat party's a secret," Roy added.
When the line disconnected, Ian scanned the yard for Cheyenne, only to find her sniffing around near the faucet in the middle of the yard. Then he began strumming his guitar again.
Not everyone understood why he'd given up the life he'd once led, but Ian was happy here on the Leaning R. Only trouble was, Carly had swept into his life and turned it upside down for a while.
And now she was back.
Carly Rayburn gripped the wheel of her red Toyota Tacoma, the radio filling the cab with the latest country-western hit. She was still dressed in the pale green dress she'd worn as the maid of honor at her half brother's wedding, although she'd slipped on a denim jacket to ward off the evening chill and traded her high heels for her favorite pair of cowboy boots.
Under normal circumstances, she usually came up with an excuse for why she couldn't attend weddings. For one reason, she found it difficult to feign happiness for the bride and groom because she was skeptical of the whole "until death do us part" philosophy.
But then, why wouldn't she be? Her father had a daughter and two sons by three different women. Then, after her parents' divorce, her mom had gone on to date a series of men, all celebrities who'd moved in and out of Carly's life as if it were a revolving door. So was it any wonder she thought "true love" was a myth and only something to sing about?
Today, however, when she stood at the altar and watched her oldest brother, Jason, vow to love, honor and cherish Juliana Bailey for the rest of their lives, she had to admit to not only being surprised by the rush of sentiment, but also feeling hopeful for the newlyweds, too. And that was a first.
Now, as she steered her pickup toward the Leaning R Ranch, she found herself happy for Jason and Juliana yet pondering her own future, which was now up in the air. Five weeks ago, she'd thought she'd finally gotten her start with a singing gig at a nightclub in San Antonio, but a stomach bug had ended that, leaving her between jobs again.
For the most part, she felt a lot better now. But every time she thought the virus was a thing of the past, it flared up again. Like today, at her brother's reception. She was going to have a glass of champagne, but before she could even take a sip, a whiff of the popping bubbles set off her nausea. Yet now she was fine again.
When she'd first caught the flu or whatever it was, she'd gotten sick right before showtime in San Antonio. Her friend, Heather, had suggested that it might be stage fright, but there was no way that was the case. Carly had been performing ever since she could stand in front of her bedroom mirror and grip the mic on her child's karaoke machine.
She figured she was just tired and run-down. So, with a little R & R on her family's ranch, she'd kick this thing in no time at all and line up another gig before you could sing "Back in the Saddle Again."
When she got within a few miles of the ranch, her thoughts drifted to Ian, the handsome cowboy who was content living on the Leaning R and who had no intention of picking up stakes. The two of them had become intimately involved the last time she came home, and as nice as it had been, as heated, as magical, Carly didn't dare let it start up again.
So for that reason, she'd dragged her feet at the wedding reception, which was held at Maestro's, the new Italian restaurant on Main Street. It was a nice venue for a small but elegant celebrationprobably too nice and upscale for Brighton Valley, though. Still, while everyone had raved about the food, she thought the chef had been way too heavy-handed with the garlic and basil. Just one sniff had caused her to push her plate aside. But then, she'd had a late lunch and hadn't been all that hungry anyway.
Once the newlyweds had taken off in a limousine bound for Houston, Carly had climbed into her pickup and left town. According to her plan, she would arrive at the Leaning R after dark, when it would be less likely for anyonenamely Ianto see her. She just hoped she could slip unnoticed into the house and remain there until she figured out a plan B.
Yet, as luck would have it, when she pulled into the graveled drive at the Leaning R, Ian's lights blazed bright. And to make matters worse, he was sitting on the front porch of his cabin.
That meant she would have to face the one man in Brighton Valley who unwittingly had the power to thwart most any plan she might come up withif she let him. But there was no chance of that. Maybe if she'd been like the other girls who grew up around here, content to settle for the country life on a homestead with some cowboy and their two-point-four kids, she'd be champing at the bit to let the sexy foreman make an honest woman of her. But Carly had never been like the other girlsher family life had been too dysfunctionaland she was even less like them now. She had big dreams to go on world tours, while Ian was content to stay in Brighton Valley.
Well, there was no avoiding him now. She got out of the truck and made her way toward his small cabin.
"Hey," she said. "How's it going?"
"All right." He set his guitar aside. "How was the wedding?"
"Small, but nice. That is, if you're into that sort of thing."
"And you're not." It was a statement, not a question. Ian was well aware of how Carly felt about love and forever-after, so she let it go with a half shrug. His easygoing and nonjudgmental attitude was the main reason she'd even allowed herself to have a brief fling with him four or five months back. Well, that and the way he looked in those faded jeans.
He'd taken off his hat, revealing thick, brown hair in need of a comb. Or a woman's touch.