THE COWBOY'S PRIDE
Even a year of separation hasn't slaked rancher Clayton Worth's desire for his soon-to-be ex-wife. Trish's mysterious reluctance to have kids is what drove them apart. Now she's back in Red Ridge—and mother to a baby girl! Clayton thought it was all over between them…but it seems their hearts have other ideas.
THE PATERNITY PROPOSITION
Billionaire Alex Dalton has been with many women. Now he needs just one—Julie Bartlett, the fiery redhead he spent one hot night with. Might she be the mother of a baby left on the Dalton doorstep? It's either his child or his brother's, but the paternity test is inconclusive. He needs Julie's DNA. And Alex vows to tempt her into giving him everything he wants.
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About the Author
As an Air Force officer, Merline Lovelace served at bases all over the world. When she hung up her uniform for the last time, she combined her love of adventure with a flare for storytelling. She's now produced more than 95 action-packed novels. Over twelve million copies of her works are in print in 30 countries. Named Oklahoma’s Writer of the Year and Female Veteran of the Year, Merline is also a recipient of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Rita Award.
Read an Excerpt
The Arizona sky over Worth Ranch was cloudless blue, the air clear enough to view a distant yellow cab ambling up the road that led to the main house. A small cloud of crimson dust billowed up in the taxi's wake, before scattering to earth again.
"Looks like your wife's finally here," Wes said.
Clayton Worth followed the direction of his ranch foreman's gaze and gave a curt nod. He didn't have to tell him that Trisha Fontaine wasn't going to be his wife much longer. Everyone in Red Ridge knew their marriage was over.
"Cover your ears, Wes." Clay pulled off his leather work gloves and drew oxygen into his lungs. He shouldn't care so damn much that Trish was late getting hereby three dayshe hadn't seen her for almost a year. "The fireworks are about to begin."
Wes Malloy sent him a halfhearted smile. "Breaking things off ain't ever easy, Clay."
His foreman had worked the ranch with Clay's father way back when, helping Rory Worth build his massive cattle empire. Nothing had mattered more to Rory than the family and the ranch. The two went hand in hand. Rory's dying plea had been for Clay to take over the reins at Worth Ranch and provide heirs to keep the family legacy strong.
But Clay hadn't been able to keep that vow to his father.
Not only had Trish refused him children, but she'd suspected him of betraying his marriage vows. Her accusation cut deep and when she'd walked out on him, it had been the last straw. If he'd had any doubts about the divorce, it vanished when he'd gotten Trish's voice mail message three days ago that something important had come up and she couldn't make the Penny's Song opening.
Something important was always coming up.
She should have been here. Despite their yearlong separation, the charity she helped him develop on Worth land for children recovering from illness should have meant more to her than that. He never thought she'd blow it off.
He'd been wrong.
Clay jammed his gloves into the back pockets of his Wranglers and took slow deliberate steps as he made his approach to the idling cab. He watched Trish get out of the backseat, stretching out her legs as she rose to her full height. Chest tight, Clay's breath caught and he recalled the first time he'd met her, the first time he'd seen those beautiful mile-high legs, backstage at a black-tie function in Nashville. Clay's country music superstardom had always brought big donors to charity events.
He'd bumped into her by accidenthis big frame no match for her slender body. She toppled and he lunged for her just before she collided with the ground. He'd heard a rip from her too-tight dress and witnessed the gown split along the seam clear up to her thigh. Under the dim lights, her exposed skin glowed soft and creamy and something powerful happened to Clay then. Before he'd gotten her to a standing position, he asked her out to dinner. She'd refused him flat, but with a smile, and handed him her business card so he could make arrangements to pay for her ruined dress.
Hell, he never could resist a challenge and a beautiful woman.
But that was then.
"Trish." He stood a few feet from her.
"Hello, Clay," she said softly.
Unnerved by the breathy sound of her voice, he braced himself. It surprised him that she still could affect him that way. Trish's sighs and little gasps poured fire into his veins. That much hadn't changed. With a practiced eye, he skimmed over her body.
Half of her white blouse was out of the waistband of her pinstriped skirt. It hung along the side of her hip, haphazardly bunched. The tailored button-down blouse itself was travel-wrinkled, as she would say, stained by some mystery food and looking like it had seen better days. Long strands of her honey-blond hair stuck out of a cockeyed velvet bow in a bad attempt at a ponytail. Smudges of deep cherry-red lipstick colored the lower part of her chin.
In short, Trisha Fontaine Worth, his soon to be ex-wife, was a beautiful mess.
She caught his look of confusion. No one could ever say she was slow. "I know. Don't say it. I look like something the cat dragged in."
He was wise enough not to comment. "Bad trip?"
Trish shrugged. "Bad everything lately." She darted a quick glance inside the backseat of the cab and then spoke to the taxi driver, "Give me one minute, please."
When she faced him again, the weary tone of her voice bordered on apology. "I missed the opening of Penny's Song. I tried reaching you a few times and well, I didn't want to explain it to your answering machine."
Clay had been piss angry with her for half a dozen reasons, but at the moment, he wasn't so much mad as he was curious. What the heck was up with her? He'd never seen Trish look so scattered. What happened to the ever capable, wellorganized and fashion-conscious woman who'd stolen his heart three years ago?
"I never thought you'd miss it, Trish." They'd caused each other injury and frustration, but the one thing they'd always agreed upon, the one thing that rose above their personal trials, had been the founding of Penny's Song.
"Neither did I, and believe me, I tried to"
He heard little whimpers coming from inside the cab. The sound brought him up short. "What's that? Don't tell me you got a dog."
Her eyes widened. She whirled around so fast that he nearly missed it when he blinked. "Oh! It's the baby. She's waking up."
But by that time, Trish had already reached inside the backseat of the cab.
When she reemerged, she was gently shushing a baby wrapped in a delicate pink blanket. Hips swaying, she took careful steps, rocking the bundle in her arms with a soft smile. Clay noted her entire demeanor changed the minute she'd lifted the baby. "It's okay, sweet baby. It's okay." She spared Clay a glance and offered, "She fell asleep in the car seat."
Clay stepped forward. He'd been focused solely on Trish. He hadn't noticed a car seat in the cab or anything else for that matter. He peeked over the blanket, taking in the baby's honey-wheat blond hair and crystal blue eyes. The same shade as Trish's. A tick worked at his jaw. He didn't know much about babies, but he sure as hell knew that the child was at least four months old. Trish had left him one year ago. Doing the math wasn't rocket science.
His heart pounded against his chest. "Whose baby is that?"
Trish snapped her eyes to his and began shaking her head. "Oh no, Clay it's not what you think. The baby's not yours."
Clay blinked and rocked back on his heels. The implication was there, out in the open, and his gut clenched with the knowledge. He tried a deep breath to steady his rising temper.
For the sixteen years Clay had been in country music, women had flung themselves at him nearly every day. He'd fended off groupies by the dozens. There were always rumors hard to live down, but once he'd met Trish, he'd made it publicly known he was attached and planned on staying that way. He'd never betrayed her. Not during those days when he traveled on the country circuit and not now as he ran the Worth empire. Even throughout their separation, he'd been faithful to his vows.
And damn it, he'd expected the same from her. "But she's yours?"
She nodded, sending him a look of deep regret. "Yes, she's mine."
Clay let out a string of curses that would shock his poker buddies. He didn't know which news troubled him the worst. That the child was his and she'd kept it from him, or that the baby wasn't his, which meant she'd cheated on him during their time apart.
"You got pregnant?"
Color drained from her face and her eyes filled with pain.
What was with her anyway? Did she think that showing up here with a baby that wasn't his wouldn't rile him? Did she think that he would welcome her and accept them both without question? The divorce she came for today couldn't happen soon enough for him now.
"No, Clay. I didn't get pregnant." She acted like the idea was absurd and that he was a jerk to even think it. Her voice trembled with indignation. "There there hasn't been anyone else."
Her earnest admission split his anger in half. He narrowed his eyes staring at her expression, remembering one thing about his wife. She wasn't a liar. He believed her. Relief raced through his body. He wasn't sure why his heart tripped hearing her declaration. Or why he'd felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He shouldn't feel like doing a tap dance because his estranged wife hadn't cheated on him.
He tipped his hat farther back on his forehead, trying to make sense of it all. Determined to get to the truth, he folded his arms across his chest and eyed her carefully. "I'm still waiting for that explanation."
Trish inhaled deeply. Her eyes softened when she glanced at the child in her arms. "I'm adopting her." Adopting her?
Clay blinked and shook the cobwebs out of his head. Wasn't this the woman who'd told him over and over that she wasn't ready for motherhood? The woman who'd told him she needed more time, until the waiting seemed like it would never end. Wasn't this the woman who'd caused him to break his vow to his dying father?
She turned sideways to shield the baby from the afternoon sun and looked at him over her shoulder. "Clay, can we talk inside the house? Meggie's squinting. And I'm pretty sure she shouldn't be out in this heat."
That was the first thing she'd said during their conversation that made any sense. Clay gestured with a nod toward the house. "The door's unlocked. Take the baby and go on inside. I'll deal with the cabdriver and your things and I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Thank you. Oh, and Clay, there's a lot of things" Trish nibbled on her lower lip. "Babies, I'm learning, come with their own set of gear."
Trish heard Clay speaking with the cabdriver as she held Meggie tight to her chest and walked along the path where flower beds of white and yellow lilies and purple hyacinth thrived. Everything looked the same as she remembered. With its wraparound veranda supported by polished wood railings and centered by a wide double door, the spacious two-story ranch house embodied old Southwest charm. The first time Clay had brought her here, she'd been awestruck by the expanse and splendor of Worth land and the surrounding Red Ridge Mountains, but she'd been even more enamored of Clay, the man she'd eventually wed.
She'd planned on having his children, one day. She'd discussed it with Clay in obscure terms for the most part before they'd married. But then Clay's father passed and suddenly her husband was hell bent on having a baby.
His sudden change in plans had floored her. She hadn't been ready for motherhood back then. Heck, she wasn't ready for it now. The thought of screwing up something as important as raising a child struck fear in her heart. She didn't want to make the same mistakes her mother had made. But Meggie had come into her life and Trish wouldn't let her down.
On a deep breath, she turned the doorknob and opened the front door. A wave of nostalgia hit her as she stepped inside the house. "Oh, Meggie," she whispered.
She'd lived in this house with Clay and they'd been happy once. Tears welled in her eyes. She'd missed living on the ranch, but she didn't know just how much until she stepped over the threshold. She stood there a minute, as sensations flooded her. She and Clay had started a life here, a good life, but obstacles had gotten in the way and as much as he would lay the blame on her, her stubborn soon-to-be ex had played a hand in their breakup.
Clay's part-time housekeeper approached the foyer and greeted her with a cautious smile. "Mrs. Worth, it's good to see you. Welcome home." Her gaze went straight to the baby.
"Hello, Helen. I'm glad to see you, too." But she wasn't really home. After her brief stay, she'd have no place here anymore. "I'll be living at the guesthouse while I'm here, but I"
"Yes, Clayton has told me. I've got everything set for you in there. But, oh my, I wasn't expecting"
"I know. Neither was I. This is Meggie," Trish said, turning slightly to show her the baby's face. "Isn't she sweet?"
Helen's eyes softened and she touched the baby blanket gently just under Meggie's chin. "She's a beautiful baby."
"I think so, too." Trish brushed a kiss to Meggie's forehead. The poor child. She had no idea what was happening. They'd traveled across the country to get here, a trip that had taken its toll on both of them.
Helen waited a split second for more explanation, but Trish held her tongue. Clay's housekeeper had a momma bear protective streak when it came to the Worth men, and Trish already suspected she wasn't in her good graces for walking out on Clay and moving back to Nashville. Of course, she doubted Helen knew all the details and she wouldn't hear them from her.
"Would you like something to drink?" Helen asked. "I've got a pot of coffee still on."
"No, thank you. I think we're just going to sit down in the parlor and wait for Clay."
Helen nodded and then looked Trish over as if just noticing her state of dishevelment. "If I can do anything for you, let me know."
How about a course in Motherhood 101? Trish could write a book about what she didn't know about raising a baby. Every spare moment she'd managed this month had been spent poring over parenting books.
"I will. And Helen, it's really good to see you."
The woman smiled. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."
Trish entered the parlor and stopped short. Her breath caught in her throat, her shoulders sagged. Hurtful memories entered her mind and threatened to exhaust the last shred of her energy. She hadn't expected this, to feel such overwhelming sadness. She'd put the divorce on hold for nearly a year, unable to face the failure, but now, being here and stepping into this room again after all this time, brought everything back.
She and Clay had arguedit had become nearly impossible not to during those daysright before she left for an overnight business trip. Trish had come home later that evening when the trip was unexpectedly canceled. With makeup sex on her mind, she strode into the parlor eager to see her husband and put a happy ending on the evening.
She found Clay with Suzy Johnson. On the sofa. Together. Intimately sipping wine and quietly laughing about God only knows, some private joke they'd probably shared. Everything about that scene screamed "wrong" in a marriage already precariously holding on by a thread. And the last thing she'd needed was the hometown girl, a Worth family friend, hovering, waiting in the wings for a chance at Clay.
Trish ground her teeth, reminding herself that she couldn't dwell on that now. She couldn't look back. She took a seat, spreading out the baby's blanket and then laid the baby down. Meggie stared up at her with sparkling eyes, kicking her legs like an exercise guru, happy to be stretching out. That's when Trish saw moisture leaking from the baby's bloomers.