There are certain words that have always described Cam Brantley: Town bad boy. Soldier. Protector. But never, ever dad. Until he returns home from his latest military tour to discover the girl he had one smoking-hot night with is now mom to the adorable two-year-old Zoey. Who has his eyes.
Plenty of words could describe Emma Walker these days. Mom, dutiful granddaughter, budding designer, the town's golden child. But when her longtime crush Cam Brantley comes back to town—and starts working on the very same property she's in charge of—she knows the perfect word to describe herself: screwed.
Cam's doing his best to learn all that daddy duty entails, but with every family outing, each day on the job together, and all the stolen kisses, he falls harder for Emma. He's determined to get over his past and be the man both girls need…now if only he can get Emma to believe it, too.
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Read an Excerpt
The Bad Boy's Baby
A Hope Springs Novel
By Cindi Madsen, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Cindi Madsen
All rights reserved.
Ever notice that the world-changing days usually start like every other day, never letting on that they're about to grab onto the edge of your life, tip it totally upside down, and change every single thing?
This Monday had started much like any other, with bartering over the acceptable amount of time to wear a pink tutu, especially over pajamas, and trying to convince a two-year-old that the boring brown bits of Lucky Charms were just as delicious as the multicolored marshmallow shapes. Add in an outfit thrown together that might or might not match but definitely had a few drops of spilled coffee and a rainbow marshmallow smear and a mad dash out the door, and it was a typical Monday.
At least it was the usual for Emma Walker, and besides constantly feeling like she was forgetting something — and she most likely was — she'd been happier than she'd been in years, if sometimes a tad overwhelmed and more than a little desperate for adult conversation.
That was what happened when you were a single mother of the cutest, most energetic two-year-old this side of the Mississippi, which was the bigger side of the country, for the record.
So when she pulled up to the transforming Mountain Ridge property, she downed the last of her now-cold coffee, took a deep breath, and then opened the door of the giant work truck that announced her exit with a loud, metal-on-metal screech. The door weighed about a hundred pounds and hated to be closed, so she shoved it hard and slammed her hip into it, telling it to stay.
Still, the beast of a truck was nicer than her car, which was classic in the uncool way that meant out-of-date, rusted, and often temperamental. It didn't handle the road to Mountain Ridge very well — she'd learned that the hard way, on day one of trying to prove she could take point on a job, only to end up high centered and stuck. It'd been mortifying, as well as a test in humility.
Nothing like telling your boss to go ahead and have his back surgery because you could definitely handle the job yourself, only to call and tell him you hadn't quite made it to the work site on account of being stuck. Luckily he'd taken pity, sent the crew to free her car, and then lent her the work truck for trips to and from the property. On top of taking on the bumpy road better than her car, the beast hauled more supplies.
Emma pulled out her trusty clipboard, the to-do list for the day already printed and color coded by priority, then stopped for a moment to bask in the fresh air and beautiful mountain backdrop, her thoughts on a sparkling lake a few hours' hike from here. She missed the days when she could so easily escape the world for a while, when all camping required was a small tent and a backpack full of food and essentials.
Days when she could go anywhere without three bags packed to the brim were gone, but she was planning on taking a camping trip once the weather grew a bit warmer. It was about time to introduce her daughter to one of her favorite activities. Although, for the first trip, she'd probably need to choose a different spot than Hope Springs Reservoir, because Zoey would definitely make a beeline toward the water, and two arms weren't nearly enough to hold that girl back.
As much as Emma wanted to head into the mountains for a day or two, the thought also exhausted her. The Mountain Ridge job involved a lot of planning and problem solving, as well as the construction of the cabins, and lately she'd been so busy — not to mention completely mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the day — that other things were falling through the cracks. She hadn't been to visit Grandma Bev in way too long, and she hoped that her grandmother was still taking her medications and eating healthy in Emma's absence, although she knew that was a long shot.
I've just got to get through this job, and then life will slow down a bit. Plus, I'll be able to use it for my portfolio, hopefully get a stellar reference or two, and land bigger jobs — the kind that'll help me better take care of Zoey, me, and Grandma Bev.
Moving to Laramie or Cheyenne for career opportunities was a double-edged sword. Jobs paid more, and there were definitely better opportunities to land positions where she'd get to focus more on the architecture part she'd gone to college for, but cost of living was higher.
Emma's blood pressure rose, the way it always did when she started trying to figure out how she was going to do it all, so she pushed her worries away to focus on the job here and now. God willing, it'd be the door the opportunities came knocking on, and then she'd decide which one to answer.
She walked up to what used to be the Mountain Ridge Bed and Breakfast but was becoming the Mountain Ridge Lodge, tucked her clipboard under her arm, and knocked on the bright yellow door. Every time she stood on this porch, she admired the new entryway and fresh lumber. Heath Brantley and his fiancée, Quinn Sakata, had been working hard to transform the once run-down property, and they were quickly becoming her favorite clients, even though she still experienced a pang of guilt every time she looked at Heath.
Quinn was even becoming a friend, too, along with her best friend, Sadie. They'd been inviting Emma along for their girls' nights. Dressing up in clothes that didn't have coffee, marshmallow smears, or paint on them, and getting away from her parental duties for a few hours every Friday had been helping her life feel more well-rounded and a little less lonely. The girls were also trying to set her up, but they hadn't found the right candidate yet, and in this tiny town where she'd known most everyone since forever, Emma doubted they ever would. She'd accepted that a relationship might not be in the cards for her — for at least a few more years, anyway.
That was okay. She had Zoey. That little girl gave the kind of unconditional love Emma had always wanted, and the love she had for her ... well, it filled her up and was the reason she got out of bed every morning.
Just as Emma lifted her arm to knock again, the door swung open. She stepped back to avoid being in the way and opened her mouth to say hello, but then she noticed it wasn't Heath that'd come to the door.
Emma took another large step back, every cell in her body screaming at once as she stared up at the familiar face, hoping and praying her eyes were playing tricks on her.
She'd misjudged the edge of the porch, though, and her foot slipped, her center of gravity thrown. She flung out her arms, searching in vain for the rail, but before she could recover, Cam was right there, grabbing onto her wrist and tugging her closer to him.
Way, way too close. The rugged features that she'd admired so many times were still in full force, defined by a scruffy beard. His body had filled out even more since that night all those years ago, though, and back then the sight of him shirtless had been enough for her to completely lose her mind.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to ..." He tipped his head to the side, his eyes narrowing as they roamed over her face. Her throat went dry as her flight response kicked in. Only his gaze and his grip on her wrist held her in place.
Maybe he won't remember me.
Wait. That'd be worse. I think. Oh, jeez, I don't know anymore.
Logically she'd known that she might see the father of her child again someday. But logic and seeing him were two different things, and the latter made her completely lose hold of the former.
One night. One night ever that she'd thrown caution to the wind and enjoyed a reckless night with a guy she'd crushed on from afar for years, and she'd managed to make the worst mess. Mostly because she'd been dumped the month before, her ex-boyfriend citing she was too boring — both in life and in the bedroom — and she'd been trying to prove she could be sexy and fun and the opposite of herself.
So she'd flirted with Cameron freaking Brantley, had way too much to drink, and ended up having a one-night stand with the town's bad boy hours before he'd deployed.
But she'd gotten an angelic little girl in return, and she'd never regret that.
"Hey," Cam said, his voice warmer now. "Emma, right?"
Her heart took off, beat after beat, although the fast pace made it hard to tell one from the other. It'd been torturous enough having to see Cam's brother on a regular basis now that he was back in Hope Springs for good, but it wasn't like she knew Heath, not really. Honestly, it wasn't like she knew Cameron Brantley, either, although thanks to their one-night stand three years ago, she knew all about the amazing things he could do with his tongue, and the memory threatened to make her overheat, despite the cool spring breeze.
Pull it together, Emma. She spotted her dropped clipboard on the edge of the porch and scooped it up, clinging to it like a lifeline.
"I didn't know you were ..." She swallowed, waiting for him to fill in the blank. Was he back, back? Or just on leave? Why hadn't she heard about it?
"Just got back day before yesterday," he said.
"The army, right?"
He nodded. "I'm officially out, though, actually. Honorably discharged, so I could run the lodge with Heath and Quinn."
While she was happy for him, her stomach still clenched at the news. That meant she couldn't avoid him. It meant so much more, too, things she'd pushed so far to the background that she'd pretended she'd never have to deal with them. Heck, it'd been so long that she was pretty sure even the town had stopped making bets on who Zoey's father was. No one had guessed Cam, because none of them would ever think a girl like her could land a guy like him, even for a night.
The only reason she had involved him leaving on a long deployment, a lot of alcohol, and trying to prove she wasn't as boring as her ex claimed.
Cam's eyes lit on hers again, and she couldn't help but notice the irises that were somewhere between green and blue, to the point that she never knew which color to call them. Zoey had those same eyes, and they changed color depending on everything from what she wore to how tired she was. In fact, she saw so much of Cam in Zoey now that she stood face-to-face with him again, it surprised her no one had ever made the connection, especially his own family. With him back in town, people probably would notice.
Fear crawled through her at that thought, robbing her of oxygen. So many complications. Such a big chance of future hurt — she could take it, she was a grown-up, and it was her failed attempts to contact Cam that'd landed her in her current messy situation. But her daughter ... all the reasons she'd freaked out when she'd first found out she was going to have a baby with someone who'd made it clear he didn't want one came rushing back to her.
Before she could even think of what to say — or how much to say — Quinn and Heath came to the door. "Hey, Emma," Quinn said, bounding out and hugging her. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Things have been crazy around here. Cam came home a few days early." She slung her arm around him, and with the height difference, it might've been comical if Emma were in a laughing mood. Which she most certainly wouldn't be for a very, very long time.
Employing the shoving-away-to-be-worried-over-later skills she'd already used once today, she pushed everything else to the background. Later she'd analyze for hours and weigh pros and cons, but right now she needed to focus on the matter at hand so she wouldn't ruin all of the hard work she'd put into this job. "The guys should be here any minute, and then we'll get right to it."
Emma swept her gaze toward the road, hoping the guys would make a timely appearance, although her crew, while hard workers, was hardly ever what she'd call timely. They didn't take her as seriously as they should, either, despite the fact that she'd learned to state things instead of present them like an option, and she was working on raising her voice and becoming the kind of person who could stand in front of a room and take charge.
She glanced down and discreetly scratched at the dried multicolored marshmallow smear on her shirt, which probably didn't help the serious boss–type image she was going for. Boring and serious, yet not stern enough to be a boss — what a combo.
The cabins taking shape along the right side of the property proved that despite the bumpy start to calling the shots, she and the crew certainly got stuff done. They're slowly getting used to my being in charge of a project after being the pushover administrative assistant/bookkeeper who answered the phone and gave them extra time to turn in their paperwork. I just have to keep proving myself.
Those were her designs out there, too, even if her boss insisted on adding Pete, an architect from Salt Lake City, to the crew to approve her blueprints and check in on the progress from time to time.
Often it struck her as funny that she'd ended up working at a construction company. "Site manager" was such a broad term, though, and in her case, it meant she was good at dealing with vendors and keeping a tight budget and schedule, and that she was picky about how her blueprints were carried out. She didn't do a whole lot of constructing — not that she couldn't when needed — and this job was a good stepping-stone for her future architecture career.
And hopefully once she proved herself here, her boss would let her run more projects alone. The main problem she worried about after this job ended was demand. There weren't a whole lot of new buildings, industrial or residential, that went up in Hope Springs, and she had a family to take care of.
"Why don't we grab coffee while we wait," Quinn said, taking Emma's hand and tugging her inside instead of waiting for her to agree. Probably because she rarely said no to a cup of coffee. Lack of sleep combined with long days on the site required large amounts of caffeine.
Their footsteps echoed across the hardwood floor of the main room they'd put in to keep the bed-and-breakfast feel. They'd added a few rustic decorations, going for more of a country rustic than backwoods look. Emma was especially proud of the blend of styles, as Quinn and Heath had pretty much the opposite taste on every single thing. Architect and interior decorator were hardly the same thing, but in a town this small, you multitasked and faked it until you made it. When Quinn had asked if she could help decorate, she'd said she'd figure it out. Together, with a lot of help from magazines and online shopping, they had.
Quinn wound her dark hair into a bun and secured it on the top of her head. Her Japanese heritage and rock star style gave her a unique look that made her stand out from the crowd, especially in their town, and the girl definitely knew how to kick back and have fun. She was still learning how to deal with mountain critters and the inevitable renovation hiccups, but she'd kept her optimism high, which made her an easy client to work for.
She poured four mugs of coffee, her steady stream of conversation filling the air. When she bragged up Emma and all she'd done for the property, Cam looked her way again. Heat crept across Emma's cheeks, the attention making her squirm, and she ducked her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"I've got a great crew, which makes it easy," she said, waving off the skills she'd just been feeling proud of. She knew she needed to stop downplaying what she did in order to give off the air of confidence it took for people to take her more seriously, but it was hard to change old habits.
The rumble of truck engines started low but grew, and Emma set down her mug. "Thanks for the coffee. I'd better go get to work so we can keep to our schedule."
With a quick nod, she rushed outside.
At least once she had her long to-do list and a crew to focus on, she could stop wondering what in the world she was going to do about the fact that everything in her life just got a hundred times more complicated.
Excerpted from The Bad Boy's Baby by Cindi Madsen, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Cindi Madsen. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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