When a cowboy rescues a single mom, he promises to do things the right wayhis way!in this story from USA TODAY bestselling author Kathie DeNosky
Rancher T. J. Malloy doesn't think twice before saving a woman and her baby from raging floodwaters and taking them to his ranch. So what if it's Heather Wilson, the neighbor he's feuded with for months. Heather also happens to be heart-stoppingly beautiful and in desperate need of the kind of help only he can give.
As the floodwaters rise, so does their passionand T.J. will do whatever it takes to get Heather to stay on his terms!
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As he sat at Sam and Bria Rafferty's dining room table after a delicious Christmas dinner prepared by his sisters-in-law, T. J. Malloy couldn't help but smile. He listened to his foster brothers and their wives talk about what they had planned for the week leading up to the family's annual New Year's Eve party, which T.J. hosted at his ranch. And, as always, there was the usual good-natured ribbing and the laughter that always followed, as well as everyone making faces and funny noises to get a smile or a giggle out of the babies. Life was good and he was one grateful son-of-a-gun for the way everything had turned out.
Thanks to their foster father, Hank Calvert, T.J. and the other five men who had been placed in the man's care when they were teenagers had straightened out their lives. In the process, they had bonded and become a family T.J. loved with all his heart. Now, he owned his own ranch, where he raised champion reining horsesa dream he'd had for most of his thirty-two years. And because he'd made several wise investments, he had more money in the bank than he could spend in three or four lifetimes.
Yup, he truly was a blessed man and he had the good sense to know it.
"Your turn, T.J.," Bria said, smiling as she dished up slices of homemade red velvet cake. "What are your plans for the week?"
"Same as every year," he said, smiling back at his sister-in-law. "I'll spend the week training my horses and waiting for you all to show up on New Year's Eve afternoon."
Four years ago when he bought the Dusty Diamond Ranch and built his seven-bedroom house, everyone had decided that he would host the family's New Year's Eve gatherings. He had enough bedrooms to accommodate the entire family, and they could all bring in the New Year together without having to be out on the roads after celebrating with a few drinks. His brothers brought their wives or a date and once the kids had been tucked in for the night, they sat around and talked or watched a movie. It had become a tradition and one that T.J. looked forward to every year.
"Do you have a lady in your life who will be joining us this year?" Nate Rafferty asked, grinning from ear to ear.
Nate and Sam were the only biological brothers of the bunch, but they couldn't have been more different if they had tried. While Sam was a happily married family man, Nate was wilder than a range-raised colt. He loved the ladies and seemed to have made it his mission in life to date every single woman in the entire southwest. But as rowdy as he was, Nate had the same sense of loyalty that had been instilled in all of Hank's foster sons. Come hell or high water, Nate would be there for any one of themthe same as they would be there for him.
"T.J. does have a woman in his life, Nate," Lane Donaldson said, laughing as he put his arm around his wife, Taylor. "But for some reason he won't break down and ask his neighbor to join us."
"You just had to go there, didn't you, Freud?" T.J. replied, shaking his head in disgust. He should have known Lane would feel the need to comment. Having earned a master's degree in psychology, the man knew exactly which buttons to push to get a rise out of any one of them. "She and her stallion are on one side of the fence and I'm on the other. And that's the way it's going to stay."
That Wilson woman had been T.J.'s neighbor for close to two years, and he'd seen her only a handful of times. But his brothers constantly teased him about his "interest" in his ornery neighbor, even though all he knew about her was how careless she was with her horse. Hell, he didn't even know her first name. And furthermore, he didn't want to know it.
"You haven't seen her since we put up that six-foot fence between your ranch and hers this past spring?"
Sam asked, trying to dodge the glob of mashed potatoes his ten-month-old son had scooped off the high-chair tray and tried to throw at him.
"Nope. I haven't seen her or her stallion and that suits me just fine." T.J. couldn't help but laugh when little Hank landed the mashed potatoes right square on the end of Sam's nose.
"Now that you have solved the problem of her stallion jumping the fence, what are you going to complain about?" Ryder McClain asked, laughing. His laughter immediately turned to a groan when his baby daughter, Katie, missed the burp cloth on his shoulder and "christened" the back of his clean shirt.
"Thank you, Katie," T.J. said, grinning as he reached over to take the baby from his brother while Ryder's wife, Summer, wiped off the back of his shoulder. "That shut your daddy up real quick."
"You'd better watch out, T.J.," Ryder said, grinning back at him. "You could be next. The smell of a clean shirt always seems to make my daughter nauseous."
The most easygoing of the band of brothers, Ryder was also the most courageous. A rodeo bullfighter, he used to save bull riders from serious injury, or worse, on a regular basis. But since he'd married Summer and they had little Katie, Ryder had cut way back on his schedule and only worked the rodeos Nate and their brother Jaron Lambert competed in. T.J. suspected it was because Ryder wanted to make sure his brothers were well protected from the dangerous bulls they rode in their quest to become national champions. T.J. also knew Ryder would never admit that was the reason he hadn't completely quit being a bullfighter.
"Will you be at the party, Mariah?" Lane's wife, Taylor, asked Bria's younger sister.
"Probably not," Mariah said slowly. She paused as she glanced across the table at Jaron. "I've met someone and he's asked me to go to a New Year's Eve party with him at one of the clubs up in Dallas."
Everyone looked at Jaron to see how he would react to Mariah's news. The entire family knew the two had been attracted to each other practically from the moment they'd met. But Mariah had only been eighteen at the time and at twenty-six, Jaron had decidedand rightly sothat he was too old for her. Unfortunately, in the seven years since, Jaron hadn't changed his stance and Mariah had apparently become tired of waiting on him and decided to move on.
"Congratulations on the new guy," Jaron said tightly, breaking the awkward silence. "Have a good time."
To the outward eye, his brother looked sincere, but T.J. knew better. By nature, Jaron was more reserved and quieter than the rest of the men, making it hard to figure out what he was thinking. But when he was pissed off, his voice took on an edge that was rock-hard, ice-cold and impossible to ignore. That edge was present now and T.J. knew Jaron was warning the rest of the men that he wasn't in the mood for their affectionate teasing about Mariah, now or later. T.J. also knew every one of his brothers would respect Jaron's need for silence on the matter.
"What about you, Nate?" T.J. asked, counting on the man to ease some of the sudden tension in the room. "Are you bringing someone this year?"
Nate shook his head. "I bought the Twin Oaks Ranch over by Beaver Dam a few weeks ago," Nate stated proudly. "I've been too busy lately to think about anything but what I'm going to do with the place."
"When did this happen?" T.J. asked, astounded. "I don't recall you mentioning it when we were together at Thanksgiving."
"I didn't want to jinx it in case the deal fell through," Nate said as he shoveled a big bite of red velvet cake into his mouth.
Nate's superstition didn't surprise T.J. one bit. Every rodeo rider he knew was superstitious about something. Even he'd had certain rituals he went through before he climbed on the back of a rank bucking horse when he competed.
"You're finally putting down roots?" Sam asked, looking like he couldn't quite believe Nate was serious.
"Don't take this the wrong way, bro, but I never thought I'd see the day you settled down," Ryder said, shaking his head.
"I just bought a ranch," Nate said, grinning. "I never said I was settling down."
"When do you move into your new den of iniquity?" T.J. asked, handing baby Katie to Summer for the rest of her bottle.
"I won't be moving in for a while," Nate said, taking another bite of the red velvet cake in front of him. He shrugged. "I've got some work I need to do on it first. I'm going to knock down a couple of walls to make a great room and the plumbing and wiring need to be upgraded. I also need to make a few repairs to the fences and maybe build a couple of new barns before I bring in livestock."
"Just let us know when and how we can help and we'll be there," Lane said, speaking for all of them.
"I'll do that." Nate smiled at the women seated around the table. "And I'm counting on these lovely ladies to help out when it comes to decorating the house."
T.J. raised an eyebrow. "Even the master suite?"
Nate shook his head as his grin turned suggestive. "I've got my own ideas for that."
"I'll bet you do," Ryder said, voicing what the rest of the men were thinking.
"We can skip the details on your choice of decor for your bedroom," Bria said, handing T.J. a slice of cake.
Everyone nodded their agreement and the rest of the evening was filled with talk about renovating Nate's ranch house, causing T.J. to breathe a sigh of relief. If they were talking about something else, they weren't teasing him about his neighbor. And that was just fine with him. The less he was reminded of the woman, the better.
Several hours later, after finalizing plans for when everyone would arrive for the New Year's Eve party, T.J. left Sam and Bria's for the hour's drive back to his ranch. It had been raining all day, and by the time he reached the turn-off leading up to the Dusty Diamond's ranch house, it had become an outright downpour.
He started to turn his truck onto the lane, but then stopped when he noticed a faint glow of red about a hundred yards up ahead. The best he could tell, it was the taillights of a car and he knew without a shadow of doubt that the creek had flooded out again, blocking the road. It only happened three or four times a year, but whenever there was a significant amount of rain, the slow-moving stream that bordered his ranch to the east turned into a raging river. With as much water as had fallen over the course of the day, the creek was probably a good twenty feet or so out of its banks on either side of the ravine.
Unable to ignore the fact that whoever was in the vehicle might need help, T.J. drove on until he reached the compact gray sedan sitting in the middle of the road. He could tell someone was still inside, and from what he could see of the slim form, that someone was female. Cursing the nasty weather, T.J. got out of his truck and jogged up to the driver's side door.
"Is there anything I can do to help, ma'am?" T.J. asked as the woman inside lowered the window. She stopped halfway, and he wasn't certain if it was to keep out the rain, or because he was the one offering her assistance. But he almost groaned aloud when he realized the driver was his archenemy, that Wilson woman from the neighboring ranch.
He hadn't seen her since the last time her horse jumped the fence, back in the spring, when he'd had to take the stallion back over to the Circle W. It had been about the tenth time the horse had trespassed on Dusty Diamond land, and T.J.'s patience with the situation had come to a swift end. That's when he'd had his brothers help him put up the six-foot fence between the two properties. The fence had eliminated the problem of her horse romancing T.J.'s mares and he had thought he wouldn't have to deal with her again. Apparently, he'd been wrong.
"I was afraid of this," she said, not looking any happier to see him than he was to see her.
T.J. wasn't sure if she meant she had been afraid of not being able to get across the creek or she'd been afraid that he would be her only source of help. Either way, she wasn't in the position of being choosy, and he wouldn't walk away and leave her to solve the problem on her own. His foster father would probably come back from the dead to haunt him if Hank knew one of the boys he had raised had left a lady in distress to fend for herself.
"Even if it stops raining now, you won't be able to get back to your ranch until morning," T.J. pointed out. As he stood in the downpour, chilling water dripped off the back of his wide brimmed hat and ran down his neck. It was damned uncomfortable and he wasn't inclined to mince words. "You'll have to follow me to the Dusty Diamond. You can stay there tonight."
She stubbornly shook her head. "We may be neighbors, but I don't really know you and from our past run-ins, I'm not interested in getting acquainted."
"Believe me, lady, I'm not, either," T.J. stated flatly. "But there's no way you'll make it across forty feet of rushing water without stalling out or being swept down into the ravine. Then I'd be obligated to jump in and try to fish you out before you drowned. I'd really like to avoid that if possible." He took a deep breath and tried to hold on to his temper. "Do you have anywhere else you can go?"
As she stared at him, she caught her lower lip between her teeth as if she was trying to think of somewhereanywhereshe could spend the night other than at his place. She finally shook her head. "No."
"Well, I'm not going to let you stay here in your car all night," he said impatiently.
"You're not going to let me stay in my car?"
From the tone of her voice, he could tell he had ruffled more than a couple of feathers.
"Look, I'm just trying to keep you from having to spend a damp, uncomfortable night in your car," he stated. "But it's your choice. If you want to sit out here instead of sleeping in a warm, dry bed, that's your choice."
When it dawned on him that she might be frightened of him, he felt a little guilty for being so blunt. He could even understand her reluctance to take him up on his offer. The few times they had come face-to-face, he had been angry. She probably thought he was an ill-tempered bastard. Unfortunately, he wasn't doing anything now to correct that impression.
"Hey, I'm sorry," he said, making a conscious effort to remove the impatience from his tone. "It's dark, cold and I'm getting soaked to the bone out here." He hoped the friendly smile he gave her helped to alleviate some of her fears. "It's warm and dry at my place and I've got plenty of room." As an afterthought, he added, "And all of the bedrooms have locks on the doors."
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