JACKSON REID KNEW what he liked. He liked riding the perimeter of his family ranch, liked working from sunup to sundown until his muscles ached and his body was worn out. He liked drinking. And he liked women.
Women were the reward for all that work he did.
Work hard, drink hard, fuck hard.
He had no intention of settling down, no intention of changing. If he could die on the back of a horse, or with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, or in the bed of a beautiful woman? Any of those things would be a fitting end for him. So why in hell would he change his life? He was on the path to any one of those ends, which meant he was on the right path for him.
His stepmother didn’t approve, but she’d moved away from Gold Valley six months ago, and his father was dead. So there wasn’t anyone around to mourn the fact that he wasn’t after marriage or babies.
He’d worked damn hard that day, like he did every day. It was pouring down rain and he’d been soaked to the bone by the time he’d come in. He’d had a hot shower, and now he was about to get down to the drinking. But that was when he heard a knock on his door.
He stood up, ambled over to the door and opened it. For a moment, he thought the sex had been delivered right to him. There was a blonde on his doorstep, bundled up against the cold and the wet.
Then he realized a few things. The first being that he recognized her. The second that she was tearstained and miserable. The third...that she wasn’t as bundled as she had initially appeared.
She was holding a blanket. And in the blanket was a baby.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “I thought I could, but I can’t.”
“Sasha?” That was her name. He vaguely remembered her from a liquor-soaked night quite a few months ago.
More than nine months ago, as a matter of fact.
While that realization was rolling over him, she reached forward and thrust the baby at him, into his arms.
The bundle felt fragile, and at the same time...heavy. He looked down at the tiny thing in his arms and felt... He couldn’t explain it. Couldn’t reason or rationalize the expanding sensation in his chest, or the ever-increasing sensation of weight. In his arms. On his shoulders.
“I can’t,” she said again. “I know you can take babies to a hospital or a police station, but she’s yours. You can take her there if you want.”
“Mine?” he asked.
His. His baby. He’d never even held a baby before, and now it turned out the one he had now was...his.
“I have to go. I need to go get... I need to get out of here.”
And then Sasha turned and ran. Ran away from the front door and down the steps, through the rain and back to her car.
He should do something. Go after her. Stop her. But he was frozen in place, staring down at the bundle in his arms. He moved the blanket away from the baby’s face and something in him shifted. Changed. As he looked at that tiny, vulnerable bundle in his arms, Jackson Reid felt like he no longer knew a damn thing.
Three months later...
I have a degree in early childhood development. The daycare that I worked at recently had to close, so I’m out of a job right now. I’m also out of an apartment, but that’s a long dramatic story.
Lily is four months old. She doesn’t sleep through the night and I think I’m about to die of exhaustion. Cows don’t delay their care, even if babies don’t sleep, it turns out. She doesn’t take after me. If I hadn’t had a paternity test done I almost wouldn’t have believed she was mine. Too sweet, for one thing. And she’s the prettiest little thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know a damn thing about babies.
She sounds perfect.
She would be, if I weren’t drowning. I need help. Room and board, plus the pay we discussed previously.
I can get there in a week.
I’ve got all your flight info. I’ll be at the airport to get you.
You can’t miss me. I’ll be the one with the bright, flowered suitcase. I’m plain and tall.
A week after that...
SAVANNAH STURM STOOD in the tiny airport and looked around. She’d come into gate number three, and it turned out it was... Well, it was gate three out of three. In the only terminal the airport had.
She had been worried that her new employer, Jackson, might need a sign to help her find him. Now she imagined she’d just look for the man with the baby, assuming he was a man with a baby and not an ax murderer. The possibility was there that all of this was a scam of some kind. She was counting on him ringing alarm bells while they were here in public if she needed to be scared of him.
She adjusted the strap on her carry-on bag and stuffed her hands in her sweatshirt pockets, walking in line with the people who had just gotten off the very small plane and through a revolving door that led to...
What looked like the lone baggage carousel.
She stopped and looked around. The waiting area had a smattering of people in it. Not many, but that wasn’t terribly surprising since her plane couldn’t have had more than fifty people on it.
She didn’t see a man with a baby.
The main doors to the outside slid open. The man who walked in was head and shoulders above everyone else in the room, a black cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. He was wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves pushed up, revealing muscular forearms that had lumberjack-caliber definition.
And he was holding a little pink bucket seat with a lacy blanket draped over the top.
Fathers of infants should not look like that. They should not look like every bad boy fantasy she’d never allowed herself to have. Fathers of infants shouldn’t look like fantasies at all. They should look softer. Less angular. And he certainly shouldn’t make her stomach tighten, and her body remember that it had been a very, very long time since she had been touched by a man.
And even longer since she had particularly wanted to be.
She blinked, grabbing hold of herself and retrieving her consciousness from that strange space it had just been in. She wasn’t here to check out a hot man. She was here to do a job. To reclaim the broken pieces of a life that hadn’t even been hers anymore after a particularly traumatic divorce.
She had herself firmly back together. Breathing normally.
Until she realized with absolute certainty that this wasn’t just any hot dad wandering through the airport terminal.
It was the hot dad she was waiting for.
He was nothing like what she’d expected. She felt silly, suddenly, that she’d had an expectation at all. But a single dad with a tiny baby made her think of someone soft, and the man she’d corresponded with online had seemed...maybe even sweet.
Checking out her boss in the first ten seconds of meeting him was kind of a bad start. But then, she supposed she could forgive herself that. She’d been with Darren for five years, and during that time, it had never even occurred to her to check another man out. Finding herself unattached again was presenting some interesting side effects.
That was all this was. That part of herself naturally inclined toward seeking attachment reminding her that she currently didn’t have one. And all she had to do was remind that part that she didn’t want one. She squared her shoulders and crossed the space, standing closer to the baggage carousel, but also a little bit nearer to Jackson.
Who was apparently a hard-bodied cowboy.
She waited for him to see her. Waited for him to close that remaining distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he continued to scan the crowd, such as it was, his eyes skipping over her easily. She didn’t know how to feel about that. Particularly since her eyes had gone immediately to him, and had had a nearly impossible time leaving.
She cleared her throat and looked back at the baggage carousel. Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe she was still waiting for Jackson Reid. Maybe it was some other man all by himself with a little baby. Maybe this man was waiting for his wife.
A wife who would no doubt be pretty and petite, and as striking as he was.
A wife who was probably sexually confident and not frigid and buried under years and years of issues.
She took a deep breath, and the conveyor belt on the carousel began to turn. People crowded in, collecting their bags. She wasn’t expecting hers to show up anytime soon. It was her own little Murphy’s Law that her bag was always last off the plane. She wasn’t quite sure how.
Not that she had traveled very much. She’d gone on a few little trips before her marriage. A post-graduation excursion to Disney World with some friends, a couple of spring breaks where she had been fully out of her element and had spent most of the time in the hotel room sober and trying to pretend she didn’t know her friends were hooking up with strangers a floor above her.
Then she had met Darren and they’d taken that first trip to Colorado to meet his parents, and then had moved to his hometown to be surrounded by his family. A family that had, at first, seemed like a dream to her, given her own parents. She’d settled into a life that had slowly grown more and more confining in ways that Savannah hadn’t totally realized until she had been free of it.
Lost in her thoughts, she hadn’t realized the baggage carousel had emptied out, and her flowery, purple bag was going by. She grabbed hold of it, happy that the cheerful color and pattern made it easy to spot. Always being the last bag helped, too.
She hefted it off the carousel and turned around, and her eyes collided with his.
Oh, it was definitely him.
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked.
“I think I’m waiting for you,” she said, looking down meaningfully at the little pink bundle.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
His eyes landed on her suitcase. “I suppose your description of the bag was true enough.”
She blinked, looking up at him, and wondered if he had been thrown off because she had characterized herself as tall. Well, at nearly six feet, she was. But then, Jackson had to be nearing six-five, so it was entirely possible he didn’t see tall the same way that she did.
“Sorry. I guess tall is subjective.”
His scorching brown gaze moved over her, and for an instant she thought she was going to be singed alive. She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. Instead, he simply turned. She moved to follow him, and he stopped to take the bag from her hand without asking if she wanted him to.
“You’re holding the baby,” she pointed out.
“Yeah, well, Lily doesn’t weigh fifty pounds, and I assume the suitcase does. Either way, I can handle both just fine.”
She had no trouble believing that. Still shamefully taking a visual tour of his muscles, she watched the way he maneuvered both baby and bag easily outside, to where his truck was parked against the curb. There was an old security guard standing right next to it, looking officious, like he was about to make a proclamation. Jackson zeroed that gaze onto the guard. “I’m leaving.”
“It’s for loading and unloading only,” the guard pointed out, tapping the sign with his forefinger to illustrate the point.
“And I’m loading,” Jackson returned, his voice and glare as hard as steel.
Well. He was a whole thing.
Savannah gave an apologetic wave and got into the passenger side of the truck. Jackson hefted her suitcase into the bed, and then opened up his door, gently installing Lily’s car seat in the small bench seat behind the driver side. Then, he got in and started the engine, pulling them both away from the airport.
“How was the flight?” he asked.
“Quick,” she responded. “It’s only a couple hours from Colorado.”
“It’s going to take half that time to Gold Valley,” he said. “Near enough.”
“So there’s no airport in Gold Valley.”
“Nothing beyond a tiny municipal airfield. Not for commercial flights.”
“I figured as much when you told me to fly into Tolowa.”
“Our ranch is a bit out of town. Hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“Who’s... I thought you were... I didn’t think Lily’s mother was in the picture.”
“She isn’t,” Jackson said. “But I live on a family spread with my brothers and my stepsister. Lily and I live in our own cabin, and you’ll stay there with us.”
The idea of living in a cabin, which sounded cozy to the point of being tiny, seemed almost impossible now that she had actually laid eyes on the man. He was so large. He would fill up so much...space. It was impossible that he wouldn’t.
She didn’t say that out loud, though, and hid any discomfort. She’d been looking for a change. Looking for a new job in child care, because that was what she did, and when she had run across the ad from Jackson it had seemed like a godsend. Because wherever she ultimately landed, this job would provide her with the means to get away. And she desperately needed to get away.
Living in a small community where her ex-husband was a hometown legend, where his family owned half of everything, was impossible. She’d been choking on the mile-high air in her old life. A clawing desperation to be anywhere else taking over her every thought, as her options in her little town had been eliminated little by little. But moving was expensive, and it required a hell of a lot more credit than she had at this point in her life. Everything being linked to Darren had been fine when she had assumed that it would be forever. But when her marriage collapsed, she’d been left with nothing.
Jackson’s ad seeking a live-in nanny had seemed perfect, and their back-and-forth conversation online had been effortless, making the decision to take the job even easier. But she hadn’t considered the stark reality of being in such close quarters with a stranger.
“What do you do on the ranch?” she asked. She was desperate to fill the silence. If she didn’t, she would be left with her thoughts, and her thoughts were perplexing her at this point.
“Cattle ranch,” he said. “We supply USDA-approved beef to a large distributor.”
“It keeps you pretty busy?”
He chuckled. “You could say that. In fact, I’d say my life was packed full before I found out I had a kid.”
He hadn’t given her the full story of why he was a single dad, but his choice of words just now was odd. She didn’t know if he was divorced, but it had been pretty clear based on the tone of his messages that there was no one else involved. Maybe his wife had died. But then, he hadn’t mentioned that. He hadn’t mentioned a woman at all. It was like...
Like he had just found a baby on his doorstep.
“I see,” she said, not really seeing all that clearly.
Neither of them said anything else for a while, and Savannah turned her focus to the scenery. It wasn’t completely unlike Colorado. Mountainous and full of pine trees. She liked that. She loved the mountains. Compared to the exceedingly tame neighborhood she’d grown up in on the East Coast, she really liked the way that things were out West. She hadn’t wanted to leave Colorado, per se. She had just needed to escape a town dominated by her ex, where he was still making choices about her life even when he wasn’t directly in it. The way he manipulated things in town...
She’d had to get out.
She had thought that Oregon might be a natural place to get to. It had either been that or Montana, maybe Wyoming. But Oregon was where the opportunity had arisen, and she was also attracted to the idea that she would be able to drive out to the beach. Something she hadn’t been able to do living in Colorado.
They drove through the small town of Gold Valley, all redbrick buildings and Wild West aesthetic, which burned a bright spot inside of her soul. Made her feel like—in spite of the initial awkwardness—she had made the right choice.
They continued on out of town, down a winding two-lane highway lined with thick trees, ferns and thickly carpeting the floor of the forest encroaching over the side, nearly to the road.
He was right, the ranch was quite a ways outside of the town itself, and if not for the two wooden posts holding up a sign over a narrow driveway that said Box R, she wouldn’t have known there was even a ranch there at all.
They turned onto that dirt road. The trees cleared and revealed pastures, several empty, and one with a herd of cattle, before the road narrowed and the pines thickened again. It was just remote enough, just isolated enough that a jolt of adrenaline shot through her. Maybe she’d been stupid to come out here. Maybe there was no cabin and she was just on a dirt highway to murder.
But then they came to the end of the drive and she saw a little cabin. It was rustic, and rough, but then, it was what she’d expected a cabin to be, she supposed. She sat there while he got out, watched as he tended to his daughter. As strange as it all was, the way that those large, battered hands cradled the tiny infant when he took her out of her car seat made her feel...
A whole jumble of things. Most of them centered down deep in the pit of her stomach.
“I’ll just get Lily laid down in her crib, and then I’ll show you to your room and get your things,” he said.
She nodded and watched as he walked up the steps to the front porch and disappeared inside the cabin.
She climbed out of the car. She supposed she could follow him in, but he hadn’t said to, so she just stood there out in the gravel drive, turning a half circle and looking around the isolated place. What in hell had she gotten herself into? She realized it didn’t much matter. She didn’t have anywhere to go back to. She had no real friends left to speak of, no family that wanted anything to do with her.
For better or for worse, this was the place from which she was starting over.
So she had to make it work.
At least for a while.