Sexy-as-sin rodeo star Brett McCullen is Willow James Howard's past. But when her estranged husband is killed and her son kidnapped, she's forced to accept help from the man who broke her heart. Little does Brett know that the very child he's trying to rescue is his own flesh and bloodthe result of a fling years earlier. He can't deny his rising desire at Willow's reappearance even as he struggles to forgive her secret. But with the ransom deadline looming, Brett must go to extremes to save the family he never knew he wanted
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The last place Brett McCullen wanted to be was back in Pistol Whip, especially on the McCullen ranch.
He pulled down the long drive to his family's ranch, Horseshoe Creek, his leg throbbing from his most recent fall. Damn, he loved rodeo and riding.
But maybe at thirty, he was getting too old to bust his butt on the circuit. And last week when he'd woken up in bed with one of the groupies, some hot, busty blonde named Brandy or Fifihell, after a while, they all sounded and looked the samehe'd realized that not a soul in the damn world really cared about him.
Or knew the Brett underneath.
Maybe because he was good at the show. Play the part of the bad boy. The fearless rider. The charmer who smiled at the camera and got laid every night.
Easier than getting real and chancing getting hurt.
He cut the lights and stared at the farmhouse for a minute, memories suffusing him. He could see him and his brothers, playing horseshoes, practicing roping on the fence posts, riding horses in the pasture, tagging along with their daddy on a cattle drive.
His oldest brother, Maddox, was always the responsible oneand his father's favorite. Ray, two years younger than Brett, was the hellion, the one who landed in trouble, the one who butted heads with their father.
Brett could never live up to his old man's expectations, so he figured why try? Life should be fun. Women, horseback riding, rodeosit was the stuff dreams were made of.
So he'd left home ten years ago to pursue those dreams and hadn't questioned his decision since.
But Maddox's phone call had thrown him for a loop. How could he deny his father's last request?
Hell, it wasn't like he hadn't loved his old man. He was probably more like him than Maddox or Ray. He'd always thought his father had a wild streak in him, that maybe he'd regretted settling down.
Brett hadn't wanted to make the same mistake.
He walked up the porch steps and reached for the doorknob, then stepped inside, back into a well of family memories that reminded him of all the holidays he'd missed.
Last year, he'd seen daddies shopping with their kids for Christmas trees, and mothers and kids at the park, and couples strolling in the moonlight, and he'd felt alone.
Mama Mary, his dad's housekeeper and cook and the woman who'd taken care of him and his brothers after their mother passed, waddled in and wrapped him into a hug.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," Mama Mary said with a hearty laugh.
Brett buried his head in her big arms, emotions churning through him. He'd forgotten how much he loved Mama Mary, how she could make anything feel all right with a hug and her homemade cooking.
She leaned back to examine him, and patted his flat belly.
"Boy, you've gotten skinny. My biscuits and gravy will fix that."
He laughed. Mama Mary thought she could fix any problem with a big meal. "I've missed you," he said, his voice gruff.
She blinked away tears and ushered him into the kitchen. The room hadn't changed at allstill the checkered curtains and pine table, the plate of sausage and bacon left from breakfast. And as far back as he could remember, she'd always had a cake or pie waiting.
"Sit down now and eat. Then you can see your daddy." She waved him to a chair, and he sank into it. Dread over the upcoming reunion with his father tightened his stomach. Grateful to have a few minutes before he had to confront him, he accepted the peach cobbler and coffee with a smile.
Without warning, the back door opened and his little brother, Ray, stood in the threshold of the door. Ray, with that sullen scowl and cutting eyes. Ray, who always seemed to be mad about something.
Ray gave a clipped nod to acknowledge him, then Mama Mary swept him into a hug, as well. "Oh, my goodness, I can't tell you how much it warms my heart to have you boys back in my kitchen."
Brett gritted his teeth. It wouldn't be for long, though. As soon as he heard what his father had to say, he was back on the road.
A tense silence stretched between them as Mama Mary pushed Ray into a chair and handed him some pie and coffee. Just like they did when they were little, Brett and Ray both obeyed and ate.
"Maddox is on his way home now," Mama Mary said as she refilled their coffee.
Brett and Ray exchanged a furtive look. While the two of them hadn't always seen eye to eye, Ray and Maddox had clashed big-time.
Brett had always felt the sting of his big brother's disapproval. According to Maddox, Brett didn't just leave but ran at the least hint of trouble.
Footsteps echoed from the front, and Brett braced himself as Maddox stepped into the kitchen, his big shoulders squared, that take-charge attitude wafting off him.
"Now, boys," Mama Mary said before any of them could start tangling. "Your daddy had a rough night. He's anxious to see you, so you'd best get upstairs."
An awkwardness filled the air, but Brett and Ray both stood. His brothers were here for one reason, and none of them liked it.
"I'll go first." Brett mustered up a smile. Pathetic that he'd rather face his father on his deathbed than his brothers.
Ray and Maddox followed, but they waited in the hall as he entered his father's bedroom.
The moment he spotted his father lying in the bed, pale, the veins in his forehead bulging, an oxygen tube in his nose, he nearly fell to his knees with sorrow and regret. He should have at least checked in every now and then.
Although he had come back once five years ago. And he'd hooked up with Willow James. But that night with her had confused the hell out of him, and then he'd fought with Maddox the next day and left again.
"Brett, God, boy, it's good to see you."
Emotions welled in Brett's chest, but he forced himself to walk over to his father's bed.
"Sit down a spell," his father said. "We need to talk."
Brett claimed the wooden chair by the bed, and braced himself for a good dressing-down.
"I want you to know that I'm proud of you, son."
Proud was the last thing he'd expected his father to say.
"But I should have come back more," he blurted.
His father shook his head, what was left of his hair sticking up in white patches. "No, I should have come to some of your rodeos. I kept up with you, though. You're just as talented as I always thought you'd be."
Brett looked in his father's eyes. Joe McCullen looked weak, like he might fade into death any second. But there was no judgment or anger there.
"I'm glad you followed your dreams," his father said in a hoarse voice. "If you'd stayed here and worked the ranch, you'd have felt smothered and hated me for holding you back."
Brett's lungs squeezed for air. His father actually understood him. That was a surprising revelation.
"But there is something you need to take care of while you're here. You remember Willow?"
Brett went very still. How could he have forgotten her? She was his first love, the only woman he'd ever loved. But his father had discouraged him from getting too involved with her when he was younger.
So he'd left Pistol Whip, chasing a more exciting lifestyle.
Willow had wasted no time in moving on and getting married.
She even had a child.
Her last name was what, now? Howard?
"Yes, I remember her," he said through clenched teeth. "I heard she's married and has a family." That was the real reason he hadn't returned to Pistol Whip more often.
It hurt too damn much to see her with another man.
"That girl's got troubles."
Brett stiffened. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I was wrong to encourage you to break up with her," his father murmured. "I've made my mistakes, son. I don't want you to do the same."
His father reached out a shaky hand, and Brett took it, chilled by his cold skin.
"Promise me you'll check on her and her boy," his father murmured.
"That's the reason you wanted to see me?"
"Yes." His father coughed. "Now send Ray in here. I need to talk to him."
Brett squeezed his father's hand, then headed to the door. If his father wanted him to check on Willow, something bad must have happened to her.
His heart hammered at the thought of seeing her again. But he couldn't refuse his father's wishes.
He'd pay her a visit and make sure she was okay. Then he'd get the hell out of Pistol Whip again.
When his father was gone, there was no reason for him to stick around.
Three days later
Brett McCullen was back in town.
Willow James, Willow Howard technically, although she was no longer using her married name, rubbed her chest as if the gesture could actually soothe the ache in her heart. Brett was the only man she'd ever loved. Ever would love.
But he'd walked away from her years ago and never looked back.
She sat in her car at the edge of the graveyard like a voyeur to the family as they said their final goodbyes to their father, Joe. Part of her wanted to go to Brett and comfort him for his loss.
But a seed of bitterness still niggled at her for the way he'd deserted her. And for the life he'd led since.
He'd always been footloose and fancy-free, a bad-boy charmer who could sweet-talk any girl into doing whatever he wanted.
He'd taken her virginity and her heart with him when he'd left Pistol Whip to chase his dreams of becoming a famous rodeo star.
He'd also chased plenty of other women.
Her heart squeezed with pain again. She'd seen the news footage, the magazine articles and pictures of his awards and conquests.
She'd told herself it didn't matter. She had the best part of him anywayhis son.
A little boy Brett knew nothing about.
If Brett saw Sam in town, would he realize the truth? After all, Sam had Brett's deep brown eyes. That cleft in his chin.
The same streak of stubbornness and the love of riding.
A shadow fell across the graveyard, storm clouds gathering, and the crowd began to disperse. She spotted Brett shaking hands with several locals, his brothers doing the same. Then he lifted his head and looked across the graveyard, and for a moment, she thought he was looking straight at her. That he saw her car.
But a second later, Mama Mary loped over and put her arm around him, and Brett turned back to the people gathered at the service.
Chastising herself for being foolish enough to still care for him after the way he'd hurt her, she started the engine and drove toward her house. She didn't have to worry about Brett. He'd bounce back in the saddle in a day or two and be just fine.
But she had problems of her own.
Not just financial worries, but a no-good husband who she was scared to death of.
Dread filled her as she drove through town and ventured down the side street to the tiny house she'd rented. Her biggest mistake in life was marrying Leo Howard, but she'd been pregnant and on the rebound and had wanted a father for her son.
Leo was no father, though.
Well, at first he'd claimed he was. He'd promised her security and love and a home for her and her little boy.
But as time wore on, she realized Leo had secrets and an agenda of his own.
They hadn't lived together in over three years, but last night he'd come back to town.
Hopefully he had the divorce papers with him, so she could get him out of her life once and for all.
Mentally ticking off her to-do list, she delivered three quilts she'd custom made from orders taken at the antiques store, Vintage Treasures, where she displayed some of her work. When she'd had Sam, she'd known she had to do something to make a living, and sewing was the only skill she had. She'd learned to make clothes, window treatments and quilts from her grandmother, and now she'd turned it into a business.
She did some grocery shopping, then dropped off the rent check. Earlier, she'd left Sam at her neighbor's house, hoping to meet with Leo alone.
She pulled in the drive, noting that Leo had parked his beat-up pickup halfway on the lawn, and that he'd run over Sam's bicycle. Poor Sam. He deserved so much better.
Furious at his carelessness, she threw her Jeep into Park, climbed out and let herself in the house, calling Leo's name as she walked through the kitchen/living room combination, then down the hall to the bedrooms.
When Leo didn't answer, dread filled. He was probably passed out drunk.
Fortified by her resolve to tell him to leave the signed divorce papers so she'd be rid of him for good, she strode to the bedroom. The room was dark, the air reeking of the scent of booze.
Just as she'd feared, Leo was in bed, the covers rumpled, a bottle of bourbon on the bedside table.
Anger churned through her, and she crossed the room, disgusted that he'd passed out in her house. She leaned over to shake him and wake him up, but she felt something sticky and wet on her hand.
She jerked the covers off his face, a scream lodging in her throat. Leo's eyes stared up at her, wide and vacant.
And there was blood.
It was everywhere, soaking his shirt and the sheets Leo was dead.
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