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The minute Sam Robertson saw his mother's frozen expression, he knew something terrible had happened. He hadn't seen that look on Sharleen's face since the night his daddy died.
He tossed his Stetson onto the hook by the kitchen door and crossed the room to where she sat at the table. The mouthwatering smell of beef and vegetables came from a bubbling pot of stew on the stove. He was home later than normal, but the table wasn't yet set for their supper. "Mom? What is it? What's wrong?"
She shook her head for a second, as if she couldn't speak. Lines crinkled the skin around her blue eyes. She looked about ten years older than when he'd left for the north pasture early that morning.
"What's going on?" he asked.
" She cleared her throat and started again. "Ronnie was here."
"Ronnie?" He frowned. He hadn't seen his ex-wife in five years. If things had worked the way he wanted, he'd have never heard her name again. "What did she want after all this time? Just stopping by to say hello?"
"She said she's settling down again. With another man."
"That's what has you upset? You should know better."
Sam laughed shortly. "And we should both pity the poor guy. So, what did she do, come all the way from Chicago to drop off an invitation to the wedding?"
"No." Sharleen brushed her fingertips across the hair near her temple.
A nervous gesture he hadn't seen, either, since the months right after his daddy's death. Whatever the news, she didn't know how to cope with telling him. How bad could it be? He'd written his ex out of his life a long time ago. She couldn't do anything to affect him.
He sank into the chair beside hers. "Come on. Just let me have it. What did she want?"
Sharleen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, she said, "She dropped something off, but not an invitation. She brought a little girl with her. Four years old. Ronnie left her here. She said she's your daughter."
"What?" The news rocked him back in the chair. "That's impossible."
"I'm not sure that it is." He stared at her.
"The child is blonde," she continued. "Like Ronnie. But she's got your eyes. Your daddy's eyes. She looks like a Robertson, through and through." She waved toward the arched doorway. "See for yourself."
After a moment's hesitation, he rose and moved to the door. He had to brace himself before he could step into the living room.
Everything looked familiar. The pair of plaid couches facing each other. The long pine coffee table between them. The clock ticking away on the mantel. Everything looked familiar, except the child sitting on one of the couches.
A beautiful little girl.
The daughter he'd always hoped for, the start of the family he'd never had.
He shook his head. Pipe dreams, for sure. Ronnie had never told a true story in her life. This child couldn't be his.
She wore a blue T-shirt, white shorts and denim sneakers. In her arms, she cradled a stuffed tiger. A couple of dolls rested on the couch alongside her.
As he moved another step into the room, she looked up.
Small and blonde, just as Sharleen had said. And more.
The girl's eyes shone in the light from the table lamp beside the couch. Silver-gray eyes surrounded by dark lashes, a perfect match to his own.
His throat tightened. He felt frozen in place.
She gave him a shy smile.
He'd seen that half-twisted grin in plenty of his own childhood pictures. Not impossible after all. The child was his.
Somehow, after what seemed like hours, he managed to raise one hand to wave at her. "Hello." The word came out in a croak. He hadn't the first idea of what to say and went for the standard opening line. "What's your name?"
Sharleen moved up to stand behind him and rested her hand on his arm. "Her name's Becky," she told him. "But she can't hear you, Sam. She's deaf."
From the shadows of the barn doorway the next afternoon, Sam stole a glance across the yard to where his little girl played by the back porch steps, unmindful of anything near her.
If he had reason to yell Becky's name, she wouldn't hear him. If Porter's uncontrollable mutt appeared from the ranch next door and made a beeline for her, she wouldn't know. If the house collapsed behind her, she'd never have a clueunless she saw the dust cloud kicked up from the falling debris.
And, worst of all, Sam couldn't explain any of this to her.
He couldn't communicate with his daughter at all. Jack, his ranch foreman, nodded in Becky's direction. "Look at her, boss. The girl's taking things in stride."
"Better than I am."
Jack shrugged. "Not every day a man's ex saddles him with a kid he's not expecting."
"Well, I have her now." His gut tightened every time he recalled Sharleen's story of how Ronnie had breezed in and hustled out of the ranch house, waving an over-the-shoulder goodbye as if she'd done no more than deliver a mail-order package. What made her do it, after all this time
? He couldn't hazard a guess. Maybe her soon-to-be husband had a say in the matter.
"Sharleen's handling things, too," Jack said.
"Yeah. But neither of us is going to be able to cope with a child who can't talk. Besides, my mother's getting up there, and a four-year-old's more than she can handle." Especially this one.
Late-afternoon sunbeams slanted through the cedar trees edging the yard. Becky ran from a patch of darkness into light and back again, playing her private, silent game. As they watched, she stumbled. Sam slapped his hand flat against the wooden barn door. If she hurt herself, how would he comfort her?
Geez. Talk about overreacting.
Or was it?
Could he ever keep Becky safe?
His breath caught in a half-strangled hitch. "Damn," he muttered. "What in hell am I going to do?"
"Take care of the kid," Jack said. Like it was that easy.
Becky settled on the grass and began tugging on a few of the yellow dandelions Sam never had time to weed. Safe enough for her there. For the moment.
Take care of her.
Looking out across the yard, he said, "Laying in fence, breaking a horse, rounding up cattle. Jack, those jobs, you know I can handle with my eyes closed."
The foreman nodded.
" How could he take care of a deaf four-year-old daughter he hadn't, till yesterday, even known existed?
Raising his gaze, he looked as far as he could see, focusing on the higher pastures and, above them, the ranks of pinon and pine. Viewing the extent of his ranch usually gave him pleasure, but right now, even that sight couldn't take him from his troubles.
"Sam." Jack pointed.
From down the road a ways, a shiny blue four-door sedan neared the house. The driver pulled in at the front of the property and climbed out, then slammed the door closed behind her.
Jack whistled, long and low.
Sam nodded, unsmiling. His ex had soured him on women years ago. Though he'd finally started thinking about the sweeter side of them again, Ronnie's visit had sure put paid to any good thoughts about the so-called fairer sex.
What she'd done hadn't been fair at all.
To him and Sharleen. Or to Becky.
The woman in the driveway wore a bright pink T-shirt. A skimpy cotton jacket and a brand-new pair of jeans called attention to curves that even stiff denim couldn't hide.
Sam gave himself a mental shake. You'd think he hadn't seen a woman since his divorce. Heck, he had plenty of female friendseven if a good number of them had reached the age to collect their retirement pay.
"Man," Jack said, "if that's new hired help, she can help me out anytime."
Sam frowned. "I don't know who she is."
He took one last look at Becky. She had climbed onto the wooden swing at the far side of the back porch, well out of sight of anyone out at the road. Sharleen stood nearby taking windblown sheets off the line.
He crossed the yard and headed toward the front of the house at a lope, taking in the woman as he neared her. She looked even better close up. Long, golden-brown hair the color of honey pine. Eyes the blue of a lake in winter. And those curves. Whoa.
He'd never seen a vision like this one before, and he knew every soul in Flagman's Folly.
"I'm Sam Robertson. What can I do for you?"
As she looked at him, those blue eyes froze over.
A warning bell rang somewhere deep in his memory. "Don't I know you?"
"You should. I'm Kayla Ward."
"As in Ronnie Ward?"
She nodded. "I'm her sister. You don't recognize me?"
He looked closer. His insides tightened and his pulse picked up. Yeah, he remembered her now, no matter how briefly he'd seen her the first time they'd crossed paths.
He should have known her instantly. The one and only time he'd seen her had been branded into his mind. But back then, her face hadn't mattered to him. It was her actions that had rocked him. That had stuck with him through the years. She had helped Ronnie pack up and head out. Had walked off with his wife andif only he'd known ithis daughter.
It would be just like his ex to send her here again, claiming she'd changed her mind about Becky.
Well, if this woman thought she'd waltz in here and take his daughter away, she had another think coming.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
She glanced past him toward Jack and the barn. "Can we talk inside?"
He opened his mouth to snap a negative reply, then shut it again. Aware that Becky played just around the corner, he nodded. Better not to let this woman get anywhere near her.
He gestured for Kayla to go ahead of him.
Inside the house, he had to clear their path of a couple of pillows left on the living room floor. He tossed them onto the couch. With Becky around, already he'd noticed the changes in the orderliness of this place. And of his life.
As for the woman in front of him.
Well, he'd take care of this situation the same way he dealt with trouble on the ranchone crisis at a time. Only, lately, it seemed the catastrophes had a way of piling up.
"What do you want?" he repeated.
"I want Becky."
He nodded. "That figures. Ronnie sent you, right? She changed her mind already?" He laughed scornfully. "She dumped Becky off on me, in case you didn't know."
"I do know." She reached up, slicked a hank of hair behind her ear, then clasped her hands together. Every move made it obvious she was gearing up for something. "I'm here to bring Becky home again."
"You" In spite of knowing what she had to be up to, the words hit him hard. He glared down at her, his jaw clenched tight. It took effort to speak, and he didn't bother to keep his tone civil. "Not gonna happen."
No one would ever take his daughter from him again.
"You can't keep her here"
His harsh laugh cut her off midsentence. "The hell I can't. Did Ronnie forget to tell you? Or just feed you another one of her lies? She gave me sole custody of Becky."
A strangled sound came from her, as if someone had gut-punched every ounce of air from her lungs.
"You didn't know about that, did you?"
For a second, he might've felt sorry for her, the way she believed in her scheming sister. But the thought of what Kayla had come here planning to doand the reminder of what she had done to him five years agodrove all pity from him. "Ronnie will never walk out of here with Becky again. Neither will you."
"I don't believe you. Ronnie told me"
"Ronnie told you wrong. I've got an appointment with the judge in town tomorrow morning. You could come and find outexcept you're not going to be here that long."
Kayla Ward stared at him without saying a word, which came as a surprise. Somehow, she didn't seem the type to give in that easily.
Another look at her faceeyes cold and homed in on himproved him right. She hadn't given in at all.
She moved closer. Near enough that he could smell whatever she used in her hair, some kind of shampoo that made him think of wildflowers and sweet grass.
"Becky hasn't even been here twenty-four hours yet," she said.
"Long enough for you to have gotten here five times over, if you were all that concerned."
"I was out of town at a conference," she protested. "I didn't know what had happened until I got home this morning. Then I took the next flight out." She stopped, shook her head. "What does that matter? The point is, I want to take Becky back home. Why would you want her here?" She glared at him. "You don't even know each other."
"She's my daughter."
"Does she know that?"
He frowned, taken aback. "What do you mean?"
"Have you told her you're her daddy? Did she understand you?" She took a deep breath and blinked rapidly, probably to hide the moisture he'd seen suddenly brightening her eyes. "I'm sure you weren't ever expecting to have the responsibility for your daughter. Since Ronnie 'dumped Becky off' here, as you called it, I assume you're saying she didn't give you any notice. She's left Becky unannounced at my mom and dad's house plenty of times over the years, too."
"Well, you can tell your folks they don't need to worry about that anymore."
"I don't have to tell them anything. I'm bringing their granddaughter home with me."
"Like hell" The sounds of sneakers slap-slapping on the pine floor made him break off and stare over her shoulder.
From the archway connecting the kitchen and living room, Becky burst into the room. She gave a high-pitched shriek and broke into a grin.
Kayla whirled away from him. As Becky flung herself forward, Kayla opened her arms wide. The force of their meeting nearly rocked the woman back on her heels. Sam put his hands out to steady her, but she caught her balance on her own. As he watched, she hugged Becky, let go, and started gesturing in the air in front of her.
Becky's little arms waved in response.
While the exchange went on, Sam stood motionless.
Becky gave another high-pitched yelp and moved away to run into the kitchen again.
Kayla turned to him. "Becky went to get her dolls," she said in an expressionless tone. "Like any four-year-old, she wants to show off her toys." She folded her arms across her chest. "But you don't know that, do you? You couldn't understand a word we were saying."
Before he could blurt out the heated response that shot into his mind, Becky reappeared in the doorway. Behind her, she pulled along her doll-filled wagon. At least Ronnie had heart enough to leave the kid with some toys.
His heart lurched at the sight of the cart. A feeling of warmth spread through him. He'd kept that wagon upstairs in an extra bedroom, never knowing whether a child of his would ever play with it. She sure seemed attached to the thing.