The Cowboy’s Christmas Baby

Copyright © 2013 by Carolyn Brown

Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Danielle Fiorella

Cover design by Brittany Vibbert

Photography by Jon Zychowski

Model: Donovan Klein

Cover Images © GQ/Shutterstock © Mila Atkovska/Shutterstock

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in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission
in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended
by the author.

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To Danielle Jackson,
in appreciation for all you do!

Chapter 1

There she stood with a dead coyote at her feet, a pink pistol in her right hand, three
bluetick hound pups cowering behind her, and cradling a baby in her left arm.

“Natalie?” He raised an eyebrow and blinked sleet from his eyelashes. Yesterday he
had awakened to overbearing heat in Kuwait, and today Texas was colder than a mother-in-law’s
kiss on the North Pole. Maybe he was seeing things due to the abrupt change in weather.
She looked like the woman he’d been talking to via the Internet for the past eleven
months, but he hadn’t expected her to be so tall, and he damn sure had not expected
her to be holding a baby or a pistol.

She whipped around and raised the gun until it was aimed straight at his chest. “Who
the hell… oh, my God… you are early, Lucas. Surprise!” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” he drawled. “I guess I am, but you aren’t supposed to be here for two
more days.”

“We were working on a big surprise for your homecoming. Hazel was going to make your
favorite foods and we had a banner made and I heard a noise and the coyote had the
puppies cornered and…” She stopped and stared at him as if she expected him to disappear.

She caught her breath and went on. “Why in the hell didn’t you tell us you were coming
home early? You’ve ruined everything.”

“It’s my ranch. It’s my house and I can come home when I damn well please,” he said.

Lucas looked from the baby to the dead coyote, to the puppies, finally meeting Natalie’s
big blue eyes staring at him across the six feet separating them. There’d been more
warmth in her face when there were oceans and deserts separating them than he felt
with only six feet between them.

The whole scenario he’d played out in his mind was shot to hell and back. She wouldn’t
take two steps forward, hug him, and then share an intimate, passionate kiss that
said that yes, they had become more than Internet friends.

A whimper came from the blue bundle and she looked down at it. “I know you are hungry,
son. We’ll go inside in just a second.”

Dammit!

He’d thought he’d found the right woman. Hell, he’d even entertained notions that
she was
the
one
. He’d been right all along: people were crazy to believe what they saw on the Net
or to trust anyone they met on there, either.

“Joshua is hungry. Can you put these pups back in the pen? Sorry little critters dug
out from under the fence and the coyote cornered them up by the porch,” she said.

She damn sure looked different in real life with curves and legs that went from earth
all the way to heaven. She was stunning in those snug-fitting jeans, red flannel shirt,
and thick brown hair floating in gentle waves down past her shoulders. How could he
have not known she was pregnant?

Because
you
only
saw
her
from
the
waist
up
and
in
pictures
that
she
posted. Man, you got duped real good this time. Sucker!

“Well?” She shoved the pistol into the waistband of her jeans, shifted the baby to
a more comfortable position, and headed toward the porch.

He dropped his canvas duffel on the icy ground. “I’ll take care of the coyote and
the pups. Then we’ve got some serious talking to do. Where are Grady and Gramps and
Dad?”

“Grady took Henry home after supper. You hungry?”

Yes, he was hungry. He’d foregone supper until he got home because he couldn’t wait
to have Hazel’s home-cooked food. But the way his stomach was churning around he wouldn’t
be able to swallow. A baby boy, for God’s sake! And she never mentioned him one time.

“Hazel in the house?” he asked stiffly.

She stopped and turned. “No, she is not. I’ve got to get Joshua inside, though. He’s
cold. Just take care of those pups.”

“Don’t boss me, Natalie,” he barked.

“I’m going inside. You can stay out here and freeze to death if you want, Lucas. The
way you are acting, I don’t reckon it’ll be much warmer in the house when you get
there anyway,” she said.

He folded his arms across his chest. “And that is supposed to mean what?”

“Figure it out for yourself.”

“Shit!” he mumbled under his breath.

He gathered up three wiggling bluetick hound pups and stomped toward the dog pens.
What in the hell did she expect—a big old passionate kiss with a pistol and a baby
between them?

He opened the gate and set the puppies down inside the chain-link fence, where they
made a beeline toward the hole they’d dug. One by one they scampered out of the pen
and into the yard and ran helter-skelter back to the dead coyote. One grabbed its
tail and the other went to work on its ears, all the while growling like vicious,
mean hunting dogs.

Lucas grabbed a piece of two-by-four and chinked up the hole, fought them away from
the coyote, and put them back in the pen.

“Whole bunch of you haven’t got the brains that one of you should have. That coyote
could have killed all three of you if it hadn’t been for Natalie.” He could hear their
whining all the way across the backyard.

He thought about carrying his duffel bag to the bunkhouse, hooking up his laptop,
and telling her via Internet to get the hell off his ranch. It would serve her right
for not telling him that she was pregnant most of the eleven months they’d been cyber-friends
or even mentioning that she’d had a baby. Hell, they’d shared everything over the
Internet, so why shouldn’t they break up over it too?

He was supposed to be waiting anxiously on the porch for her to arrive in a couple
of days and they’d fall right into a wonderful relationship that ended in a trip down
the aisle to the altar. Well that damn sure wasn’t going to happen now.

He’d been right all along. He’d never believed in all the Internet shit the guys talked
about. Not until Drew Camp pulled out his laptop on the first night and there was
Natalie on the computer screen with her big smile and twinkling eyes. He’d always
been a sucker for blue eyes, and if it had blue eyes, it had brought him nothing but
heartache in the past. So why did he expect anything different with Natalie?

He threw his duffel bag over his shoulder and started toward the bunkhouse. He’d almost
made it to the backyard fence when that damned niggling voice in the back of his head
told him he was a coward. Lucas kicked the trunk of a pecan tree so hard that it jarred
his leg all the way to the hip as he murmured cuss words under his breath. He wasn’t
afraid to face Natalie or to have it out with her. But he damn sure didn’t want to
do it in front of Hazel.

Still, it had to be done, and Hazel could just sit there and be quiet.

“Yeah right,” he said.

Hazel was never quiet. She spoke her mind and didn’t spare the cussing when she did.
He whipped around and the north wind blew little sleet pellets in his face that stung
every bit as bad as a sandstorm in Kuwait, maybe even more so because his jaws were
set so tightly.

“Might as well get it over with,” he grumbled as he stormed back across the yard.

Two puppies had figured out how to get out of the pen already and beat him back to
the yard. They were fighting over the dead coyote when he reached the porch.

“Babies! Pups or kids, ain’t nothin’ but trouble!” Lucas tossed his duffel bag back
on the ground and picked up the coyote by the tail. “You want to show him that you
are big mean huntin’ dogs, you can do it closer to your pen.”

They followed behind him, growling and nipping at the carcass while he dragged it
back to their pen and dropped it right in front of the new hole where they’d dug out
again. “If another coyote comes sniffing around, you’d best have enough sense to use
your get-out hole as a get-back door to protect your sorry little asses.”

He left big boot prints in the snow-and-sleet mixture and started to open the door
into the utility room, but he wasn’t ready for the fight just yet. He sat down on
the back steps and stared at the duffel bag so long that his muscles tensed up from
the cold and his jaws ached from clenching them. Maybe he should just get in his truck
and go to a motel until morning, then hit the recruiting office and enlist in the
regular army. They’d send him back to Kuwait tomorrow morning if he asked, and God
only knew that he’d damn sure rather be over there than on his ranch in Texas right
at that minute.

The back door opened and Natalie poked her head out. “You intendin’ on sitting out
there all night?”

“I might,” he said.

“Suit yourself. I’ll tell Grady to bury your stubborn old carcass with the coyote
in the morning.” She slammed the door shut.

“What a homecoming,” he mumbled.

***

Natalie Clark’s hands shook, more in anger and frustration than in nervousness, as
she made her way across the utility room and into the kitchen. Why hadn’t Lucas told
her the night before when they talked via cyberspace that he was coming home early?
It was his rotten fault that they met in such a crazy, mixed-up way, and he could
sit out there and fume until he grew a damn Santa Claus beard.

Well, you didn’t tell him that you were already at the ranch.
Her conscience pricked at her soul.

“Hush,” she snapped.

She paced the floor, checked on Joshua in his port-a-crib beside the table at one
end of the loop, and peeked out the kitchen window at Lucas still sitting on the porch
on the other end.

“Lucas, you are as stubborn as a cross-eyed Texas mule,” she mumbled. “It’s just a
baby, for God’s sake, and he’s a good baby at that.”

She’d promised Hazel that she’d stay to keep the old girl from having a heart attack
in addition to hurting her hip. Now that Lucas was home, he could hire another cook
and housekeeper. Surely the guys could fend for themselves until they could rustle
up someone to take on the job. It was evident that he’d changed his mind about wanting
to meet her in person and get to know her better. Forget the long, hot kisses he’d
promised or the real bedroom scenes he’d hinted at during cybersex.

She made Joshua a bottle and tried to remember the nearest motel that she’d passed
on her way to Savoy, Texas. It had to be back in Sherman, so that’s where she’d land
for the night. She’d be on the road early the next morning and reach her Aunt Leah’s
by suppertime. But she was not leaving until Lucas came in the house and they had
it out. That would be closure in more ways than one.

You
always
did
have
a
healthy
dose
of
impulsiveness, didn’t you?
She’d already told her inner voice to hush. Evidently, it didn’t realize she had
a pistol.

“I’m not in the mood to fight with you. I’ve got to feed this baby and then put my
stuff in my truck,” she said.

She sat down at the kitchen table with Joshua in her lap. The only noise in the whole
room was the slurping sucking noises of the baby having his six o’clock bottle, but
her thoughts pounded so loud in her ears that she couldn’t hear anything else. That
cleft in his chin, his dark brown eyes, and all that gorgeous black hair came from
his father and her best friend, Drew Camp.

The first time Drew went to Kuwait she’d cried for days after he left, just sure that
they’d ship him home in a flag-covered casket. At the end of a year he came home and
it wasn’t so hard the next time he was deployed. By the third time, she wasn’t a bit
anxious; maybe a little awkward after that night of tequila shots and waking up in
bed with him, but not nervous. He’d come home twice and he would again. When he got
home, they would have both forgotten about that one crazy night when they were both
drunk out of their minds—the night that they broke the vow to never let romance interfere
with their friendship.

In Kuwait the sun was just coming up when she talked to Drew, and he always woke up
chipper and full of bullshit. Her day was just ending and that evening when Lucas
told her that he hated to be the one to inform her that Drew was dead, she’d thought
he was playing a horrible prank.

Just like that. Her best friend was gone from her life. Her heart had shattered right
there in front of Lucas, who was packing up Drew’s belongings to send home to his
oldest sister.

After that evening, they’d become friends and then it developed into something more.

“Shit! Shit! Shit! Cover your little ears, Joshua! Your momma deserves to cuss,” she
whispered to the baby.

She clamped her mouth shut when she heard Lucas coming into the house. He tossed his
duffel bag into the kitchen ahead of him and kicked it out of the way after he slammed
the door shut. Inside the house, in good light and in uniform, he looked ten feet
tall instead of six feet four inches. His blue-black hair was cut military short,
and his brown eyes darted from her to the mesh-sided crib.

She inhaled deeply and got ready for the questions.

“Where is Hazel?” he asked.

She’d expected something other than that. Something about what, where, and why there
was a baby in his house.

“Hazel is in the hospital. She fell and hurt her hip last night. Jack is at the hospital
in Denison with her,” she answered. “Go ahead and spit it out. We might as well get
it over with before I point my truck west and get the hell out of Dodge and out of
your life.”

He slumped down in a kitchen chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. He looked absolutely
miserable, and that part of her heart that wanted to fix every broken thing yearned
to reach out and comfort him. When she looked at him a second time he looked more
pissed than uncomfortable and the anger boiled up inside her even hotter.

“How much of what we shared was real and how much were lies?” he growled.

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