by Joan Johnston


by Joan Johnston

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A single mother’s life turns upside down when she meets an outlaw from her past in the New York Times–bestselling author’s contemporary Western romance.

Hoping to give her twin boys a better life, Kate Greyhawk Pendelton is planning a future with Texas Ranger Jack McKinley—even if Jack’s wife Holly is determined to keep him. But everything changes when she encounters Wyatt Shaw, a man from her past who never forgot their single night of passion.

As the presumed heir to a ruthless crime syndicate, Wyatt has a reputation for getting what he wants. Now he wants Kate and her twin sons. Close on his trail, Jack is determined to stop Wyatt’s schemes. But an explosive secret is about to change the fates of these ruthlessly star-crossed lovers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781488058400
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 08/16/2023
Series: Bitter Creek , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 428
Sales rank: 78,237
File size: 576 KB

About the Author

Joan Johnston is the top ten New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than 50 novels and novellas with more than 15 million copies of her books in print. She has been a director of theatre, drama critic, newspaper editor, college professor and attorney on her way to becoming a full-time writer. You can find out more about Joan at her Website, or on Facebook at

Read an Excerpt

"Why are you here?"

Private Investigator Harry Dickenson felt a shiver roll down his spine at the sound of Wyatt Shaw's quiet, raspy voice. Shaw stared at him from ruthless gray eyes, his lean, powerful body coiled behind a stone-and-glass desk, like a silent predator stalking unsuspecting prey.

Harry wondered if the rumors he'd heard were true. Was he alone with a brutal killer? Someone who'd, literally, gotten away with murder?

Harry's blood felt like ice in his veins, despite the heat of the April sun streaming through a wall of windows. He was standing on the top floor of the newest, and by far grandest, Shaw Tower, a combination hotel, condominium and office building in downtown Houston, Texas. From his vertigo-inducing perch, Harry could see the far-reaching geographic boundaries of the city, nearly forty miles away.

It was hard to believe how much of that real estate was controlled by the indecently wealthy man sitting before him. Was it so wrong to want a little piece of that pie for himself? This was Harry's first venture into extortion, and he was a little nervous. But he was certain Shaw would pay—and pay well—to learn the tantalizing secret he'd come here to sell.

Harry tried to meet Shaw's piercing gaze as he made his demand for cash, but he couldn't quite raise his eyes that last six inches. He focused instead on the crisp collar of Shaw's white shirt, the smooth knot of his patterned blue silk tie and the lapels of his dark blue blended wool suit, as he said, "I have information of vital interest to you."

"I'm listening," Shaw said.

Harry saw a flicker of movement over his shoulder and realized they were no longer alone in Shaw's office on the Tower's 80th floor. He started as a man two or three inches taller than Wyatt's reputed 6'4", and maybe fifty pounds heavier, stepped into his line of sight.

"You wanted me, Boss?" the man said, speaking to Shaw as though Harry wasn't there.

Harry wondered how the gargantuan man in a cheap brown suit—who reminded him of the enforcers he'd seen in Mafia movies—had been summoned and realized Shaw must have hit some button on his desk. He thought back to the female secretary in the outer office. The older, benign-looking lady in a skirt that fell two inches below her knees and sensible pumps had made him feel perfectly safe coming into what he could now see was a cage of steel and glass from which there was no escape.

Harry licked at the sweat above his lip, recognized it for the anxious gesture it was and stiffened his spine. He was the best at what he did precisely because he didn't allow himself to be intimidated.

Nevertheless, he felt his bowels shift in an instinctive animal response to mortal danger.

"I'll be with you in a minute," Shaw said to the big man he'd summoned. Then he fixed his steely gaze on Harry. "You were saying?"

Harry watched as the big man guarding the door, who had an ugly scar on his cheek and a crooked, many-times-broken nose, took a pose that reminded him of a military man "at ease," his meaty hands behind his back, his tree-trunk legs spread wide. The enforcer's dark eyes, under heavy black brows, stayed focused on Harry as though he were some lower form of life, a bug this big man would like to squash.

Harry mentally shook his head. He was anticipating trouble where there might be none. Shaw had done nothing overtly threatening. It was the information Harry had dug up on the man sitting across from him that was scaring him shitless.

Harry fought the urge to turn tail and run. He chided himself again for letting his imagination run wild. Surely Shaw would be grateful to hear what Harry had discovered, even if he was also shocked by the revelation.

"I want your agreement to pay before I tell you what I know."

Harry waited for Shaw to ask what it was or how much he wanted or refuse to pay or say something that would give him an idea where to go from there. He'd never suspected, when Governor Pendleton had hired him to hunt down the biological father of her daughter-in-law's twin sons, that his search would lead him to this enigmatic man.

He'd brought a picture of Lucky and Chance, in case Shaw asked to see them. The boys had blue eyes and black hair like their mother, Kate Pendleton. And were long and lanky, with square chins, strong noses and high cheekbones like their father, Wyatt Shaw.

Harry hadn't believed his luck when he'd finally stumbled on the truth. The governor had mentioned a reunion her son and Kate had attended in Austin at the Four Seasons. The trip would have been around the time of the twins' conception, nine years ago. Shaw hadn't been as well-known then, but the brand-new receptionist at the hotel, who'd taken his American Express card at the Austin, Texas, Four Seasons that fateful night, had become the current manager of the hotel.

The incident had remained fixed in her mind because it was the first of the new Centurion Cards—a black AMEX card with supposedly unlimited credit— she'd ever seen, and it had been handed to her by an extraordinarily good-looking young man with silver wings in his black hair.

The manager told him that when she'd recognized Wyatt Shaw with his infamous father on TV less than a year later, she'd marveled at how close she'd come to flirting with a dangerous criminal. She'd admitted to being jealous, that long-ago evening, of the strikingly beautiful woman holding the handsome man's hand.

And yes, she'd confirmed, the lady in the photo Harry had shown her was the same woman Wyatt Shaw had taken with him on the elevator to the penthouse suite he'd booked.

Harry had quickly realized he'd stumbled onto a gold mine. He could get paid again and again to keep his mouth shut about the information he'd discovered: Mob Boss Dante D'Amato's bastard son, Wyatt Shaw, was the father of Texas Governor Ann Wade Pendleton's grandsons.

Governor Pendleton, who'd hired him, would pay, of course. He could also sell his willing silence to the twins' very wealthy great-grandfathers, who'd probably fork over a hunk of money to keep the world from knowing who their granddaughter had screwed while she'd been married to another man.

Jackson Blackthorne, Kate Pendleton's paternal grandfather, owned a ranch the size of Vermont in South Texas called Bitter Creek. Kate's maternal grandfather, King Grayhawk, owned an equally impressive ranch called Kingdom Come in Wyoming, where he served as that state's governor. The two men were lifelong enemies, a fact Harry was sure he could use to his advantage.

The mind boggled at what the tabloids might pay for such juicy gossip.

In the end, Harry had decided that the man who stood to gain the most—the knowledge that he had eight-year-old twin sons—was the man who'd be willing to pay the most. So even before he told Governor Pendleton what he knew, or approached either of Kate's influential grandfathers, or phoned the first tabloid magazine, he'd come here to confront Shaw.

Considering the menacing man standing just inside the door, and the even more dangerous one sitting behind the desk, Harry knew he was walking a tightrope over an abyss.

Greed gave him the courage to take the next step.

Harry glanced at the hulking figure by the door, and said, "I want half a million."

The demand was met by silence.

Harry struggled not to fidget while he waited for Shaw to speak. He'd thought long and hard about how much he could ask Shaw to pay. He'd dreamed of a million, but realized if he got half of that, with what he'd already saved, he could buy a small fishing boat and a condo on the gulf near Corpus Christi and be set for the rest of his life. With a net worth over half a billion, half a million was a drop in the bucket for Shaw.

"I'm sure whatever it is you think you know isn't worth that kind of money," Shaw replied at last.

"This information has nothing to do with your… uh… business activities." Harry had nearly said illegal business activities. The U.S. Justice Department had been unable to prove Shaw had ill-gotten gains under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, although they'd taken him to court at least once to try. And the Houston cops hadn't yet found enough evidence—despite the woman found strangled in Shaw's bed six weeks ago—to charge him with murder.

Wyatt Shaw seemed to walk between raindrops.

But Harry knew the rich man's life hadn't always been so blessed.

His mother had been Dante D'Amato's mistress until her death, under suspicious circumstances, when Shaw was twelve. The child born on the wrong side of the blanket, so to speak, had succeeded so spectacularly that the government—read FBI—refused to believe he'd done it without help from the mob.

Harry was pretty sure the Feds monitored every dollar in and out of Shaw's many business activities, looking for enough evidence to bring down his empire. Which only convinced Harry that Shaw would know how to pay him the half mil without raising any red flags for the IRS.

"Has to be a woman," Shaw said in disgust. "What is she claiming?"

Harry had expected the dismissive look on Shaw's face. The man had never been married and didn't have a steady girlfriend, though there was no shortage of women in his life. Harry had discovered from a lady lawyer Shaw briefly dated that he always took precautions to ensure there was no unwanted child.

Which made Harry wonder if the dead woman found in Shaw's penthouse suite might have been pregnant. And trying to extort money from Shaw. As he was.

Harry shuddered. The medical examiner's report on the murder victim hadn't been released to the public yet, and Harry's usual connection in the M.E.'s office had been too spooked to leak it to him. Which meant anything was possible.

Harry's investigation also revealed that Shaw usually bedded his dates in his—now infamous—penthouse at the Shaw Tower, or an equivalent locale. Not one of them had been to his personal retreat, a ranch compound north of Houston.

Ancient live oaks, which never completely shed their leaves, kept the structures within Shaw's compound hidden from Google Earth. But from county records, Harry knew Shaw had built a modest, four-bedroom home, stables large enough to hold a dozen sleek quarter horses and on-site housing, a sort of bunkhouse, for his security team. To guarantee his privacy, Shaw had surrounded the compound with eight-foot-high river-rock walls.

His isolated compound—and his isolated lifestyle— made a powerful statement: Shaw lived a life without strings, a life without human connections. So Harry expected him to resist the idea that he had twin sons, maybe even to dismiss Harry's suggestion as ridiculous.

Luckily, Harry had proof. DNA results made it 99.9 percent certain that Shaw was the twins' father.

"Who sent you here?" Shaw asked.

"I want your promise to pay before I say anything more."

"You'd take my word?" Shaw said cynically, lifting a brow.

Harry shrugged. "You have a reputation for sticking by it in business deals." Which this was. Sort of.

"Bruce, escort this man from the premises."

"Wait!" Harry reached into his jacket and found his wrist handcuffed by Bruce's gigantic hand. How had the big man moved so fast? "I don't have a weapon," Harry babbled, afraid the monster was going to crush his bones. "There are papers in my jacket. And a photo."

"Let him go," Shaw said.

With a shaking hand, Harry pulled out the papers he'd been reaching for, which had been folded in his suit coat pocket. They rustled as he unfolded them and took the few steps forward to lay them on Shaw's desk.

Shaw spread the papers apart and stared at them, his brow furrowed. "This looks like—"

"It's the results of a DNA test," Harry interrupted. "You can see that the first chart matches the second two almost exactly."

"The second two?"

"You have twin eight-year-old sons," Harry blurted.

Shaw's brows arrowed down and his lips pressed flat.

Harry was afraid to breathe, waiting for Shaw to deny paternity despite the DNA results. He expected the businessman to ask how Harry had gotten his DNA. It had been easy, since the man ate most of his meals in restaurants. A fork he'd eaten from, a glass he'd drunk from, was all Harry had needed.

Instead, Shaw said, "Who's the mother?"

Harry licked his lips. "Half a million."

Shaw nodded curtly.

"Her name is Kate Grayhawk Pendleton. She's the governor's daughter-in-law. She lives in San Antonio." He laid a 4"x6" photograph beside the DNA results on the table. It showed the smiling mother standing between her identical grinning sons, one slender arm resting on each boy's narrow shoulder.

Harry watched several emotions flicker in Wyatt Shaw's narrowed gaze, none of which were pleasant. The expected shock. Anger. Disgust. And then, a great deal more anger.

"Her husband?" Shaw asked.

"She was widowed eighteen months ago. Her husband died serving in Afghanistan."

Harry was glad for the husband's sake that he was dead. And he wouldn't have wanted to be in the woman's shoes when Shaw caught up to her. For half a million, he figured he owed Shaw a heads-up on the woman's current situation. After all, the businessman had been back and forth to China a dozen times over the past six months and might not have kept up with the local news.

"Mrs. Pendleton was shot last October by that assassin trying to kill the governor. She was in a coma for four months and spent about six weeks in a rehab facility. She seems to have come out of it just fine. She went home ten days ago."

"Tell my secretary where you want the money wired," Shaw said through tight jaws.

Harry couldn't believe it had been that easy. Couldn't believe Shaw was actually going to pay.

Then he saw Shaw's glance slide to Bruce, watched his chin drop the littlest bit, sending some kind of message to the big man. Harry felt the sudden urge to run. For a moment he was frozen, like a frightened rabbit, panting for breath.

Then he made his move.

His eyes darted from Shaw to the big man as he hurriedly backed his way out of the office, leaving the test results and the photograph on the glass in front of Shaw, letting the heavy wooden door slide silently closed behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, alarmed to see Bruce pass through the same door a few seconds later.

Harry paused at the secretary's desk long enough to say, "I'll give you a call and let you know where to wire the money."

She didn't ask "What money?" She must be used to business deals made on a handshake. Or in this case, a chin nod.

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