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."
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.
"It was all real. I'm really from Silverton, Texas. I really was a basketball coach. I really did grow up on a ranch, and my name is really Natalie Clark. I really had this baby nine weeks ago and his name is Joshua and I'm really for damn sure leaving as soon as I get up from this table. You are a jackass, Lucas Allen, for acting like this over a baby."
"You should have told me. Why didn't you?"
She shrugged. "Because I was in denial."
He still looked like he could chew up full-grown cedar trees and spit out Tinkertoys.
She went on, "So what are you most pissed about? That I didn't tell you or that your homecoming wasn't perfect?"
He shot a dirty look across the table. "I'm pissed because I thought we were close enough you could tell me anything."
"I don't suppose you've got any secrets that you didn't tell me, do you?" she asked.
"I don't have any kids, if that's what you are asking. Why'd you arrive here early anyway? I had things planned out a helluva lot different."
"So did I! I'm part of the surprise. Hazel called me last week and we've talked every day since. She wanted me to be here when you got home and together we were going to cook up all your favorite foods and fix a banner across the front porch posts welcoming you home."
"I don't believe you. I talked about you to Hazel, but I never gave her your phone number or email address or anything like that."
"FYI, honey, there is only one Natalie Clark in Silverton, Texas, and my home phone number is in the telephone directory." Her phone rang and she jerked it out of her pocket. She didn't even check the ID before she put it to her ear and said, "Hello."
"Natalie, you sound like shit," Hazel said.
"Is your hip broken?"
"Hell, no! I'm too mean to break a hip. My daughter says I'm going home with her for a month to get well. You've got to promise me that..."
"He's home, Hazel. He came early to surprise everyone," she said.
"Well, shit! Guess it can't be helped. Is he pissed about the baby or happy?"
"Pissed as hell," Natalie said.
"You are staying or I'm not going, and if I fall again, this old hip will break. So he can damn sure get over it. If you don't stay, they'll burn down the house trying to cook and the bathroom will go to mildew and ruin, and I don't even want to think about the laundry. Promise me right now, damn it!" Hazel said.
Natalie looked across the table, her blue eyes locking with Lucas's brown ones. It would serve him right for being such a self-righteous son of a bitch.
"Promise!" Hazel yelled.
"I'll think about it until tomorrow morning," she said.
"Fair enough. I'm supposed to go home with Willa Ruth tomorrow morning. If you go, I'm comin' home and he ain't seen pissed if I have to come home," she said. "Now give him the phone."
Natalie put it on the table and gave it a shove. "Hazel wants to talk to you."
"Well, shit, Hazel, what was I supposed to think?" he said after a full minute of listening.
"Okay, okay! I will, but I don't have to like it." He shoved the phone back toward her. "She says that you are staying until she comes home in a month."
"What do you say?"
"Doesn't look like my opinion on anything means much around here anymore."
She raised a shoulder. "That'll teach you not to leave."
"Hazel-was she surprised when you showed up with a baby?"
"I told her about Joshua before I came. She said that you had always loved babies and that you wouldn't have a problem with him. Guess she didn't know you as well as she thought," Natalie said.
"How'd she fall, anyway? I told her not to get up on that step stool. She gets light-headed."
Natalie set the bottle to one side and repositioned Joshua to burp him. She gently patted his back. "She wasn't climbing on a step stool. We were talking, and she remembered a cake she had in the oven for supper. She hurried out to the kitchen, tripped over a chair, and fell. We called the hospital and they sent an ambulance. It took twenty minutes for them to get here and the whole time she begged me to stay."
Grady pushed his way in the back door. "There's a dead coyote out by the dog pens and them pesky pups are carryin' on like they killed it."
"I shot it," Natalie said.
"Good for you." Grady noticed Lucas and his blue eyes widened.
Lucas stood up and they met in the middle of the kitchen like two big grizzly bears in a fierce hug. Finally, Grady pushed back but kept his hands on Lucas's shoulders and looked at him from toe to forehead.
"Don't look too worse for the wear. You're early. We had a big welcome home all planned out. Did you sign the papers sayin' you are finished with all that soldier shit?"
A big grin covered Lucas's face.
That was her Lucas.
Not the brooding one who'd scared the bejesus out of her in the backyard.
"Yes, they are signed, sealed, and delivered. My guard time is officially over. I won't be reenlisting this time," Lucas said.
"Well hot damn! I'm too old to run this ranch for a whole year by myself." Grady was near six feet tall, slim as a rail fence, and gray-haired. His face was a study in wrinkles of every length and depth with bright blue eyes set deep in a bed of crow's-feet.
"You didn't run it by yourself. Dad and Gramps helped. But you could run it standing on your head and cross-eyed."
Grady looked over at Natalie. "Surprised you, did he?"
Natalie nodded. "Yes, he certainly did."
Grady went to the cabinet and poured a mug of coffee. "What'd Josh think of him? Lucas has always been good with babies and animals."
"He's being pissy," Natalie said.
Grady's smile got bigger. "Lucas or Josh?"
"Stop tattling," Lucas said.
"I'm not tattling. I'm stating facts. You are pissy."
Lucas threw up both palms. "Well, Jesus, I've got a right to be, don't I? Come home and no one is here and you got a baby you didn't tell me about."
"Trouble in paradise." Grady chuckled.
"Trouble in hell. She's a she-devil," Lucas said.
"Well, darlin' you are definitely not an angel," Natalie said. "So stop pouting."
"I do not pout." He accentuated each word with a poke of his forefinger toward her.
She slapped his hand and heat radiated from her fingers all the way to the core of her being. Shit fire! It was a damn good thing he hadn't kissed her or the whole ranch would have gone up in instant blazes.
"Don't you slap me," Lucas said.
"Quit acting like a child," she said.
Grady clapped his hands. "My turn if you two can stop carryin' on like teenagers. Jack called a few minutes ago. Hazel is bossing everyone in the hospital, so he's coming on home before the snowstorm hits big-time. You hungry, Lucas? He gets real touchy when he's hungry, Natalie. All us Allen men are like that. We ain't fit to live with if you don't keep us fed. That's probably why he's so irritable."
"I'm starving because I didn't eat supper. I wanted home-cooked Hazel-type food," he said.
"Well, it ain't Hazel food but it's damn sure good. This little lady made lasagna for supper and let me tell you, cowboy, it's better than that stuff you buy in a restaurant," Grady told him. "Come on over here and take a look."
Lucas followed him.
Grady reached up into the cabinet and handed him a plate. "We're lucky she was here when Hazel fell. Reach over there under that towel and get a chunk of that Italian bread she stirred up from scratch. Did she tell you that she's been cookin' since she was a little girl?"
"She mentioned it." He dug a slab of lasagna out from the dish sitting on the back of the stove.
Of course she'd mentioned it! They'd shared all kinds of information about each other in the past months. She knew what kind of food he liked, that he woke up grouchy every morning, that he liked strawberries but hated blueberries, and that he loved basketball but wasn't a big football fan.
Grady carried his coffee to the table and sat down. "So y'all have met each other now. You going to work through this first shock or what?"
Lucas couldn't tell Grady how disappointed he was.
"Well?" Grady asked.
"We're still in shock." Natalie bent to pick up the baby and there was a perfectly rounded bottom staring right at Lucas. The way she filled out those jeans created a stirring both physically and emotionally. He could have worked past the surprise if it hadn't been for that baby. "I'm going to take Joshua back to the bedroom and settle him down for the night."
Grady set his coffee cup on the table and hurried over to her side. "I'll take the crib back there for you. Lucas needs to eat before that lasagna gets cold. Got to admit though, it's good enough that I'd eat it right out of the fridge."
Lucas had only taken two bites when Grady was back at the other side of the table. "What in the hell is the matter with you? I've never seen you so rude or seen you pout before in your whole life."
"I am not pouting, Grady. Eleven months that woman and I have been talking almost every day and she didn't say a word about that baby. Now she says she was in denial, whatever the hell that means. Maybe she doesn't even know who the kid belongs to and that's why she didn't tell me." The words spewed out like hot lava.
One of Grady's shoulders hiked up a few inches. "You'll have to ask her that for yourself. I figured you two told each other everything the way you talked about her all the time."
"I thought we had. Now I wonder if it was all just a bunch of lies."
"She don't strike me as the type to tell a pack of lies, and there might be a reason she didn't tell you about Joshua. Ask her and stop your brooding," Grady said.
"I don't pout and I can't think of a single reason that she'd keep something as big as a baby secret."
He looked up to see her standing in the doorway. A good strong machete couldn't have sliced through the tension between them. Her cobalt blue eyes flashed and her jaw worked like she was chewing gum. He checked to see if she had that pistol still stuck in her waistband, but it was gone, thank God.
"I've got something to say," she said through clenched teeth.
He pushed back his plate and followed her into the dark den just beyond the big country kitchen. She stopped in the middle of the floor and turned around so quick that he plowed right into her. Her hands went instinctively to his chest and electricity lit up the room as sparks sizzled around them like lightning streaks. His hands wrapped around her waist, but as soon as they were both steady he took two steps back.
"So?" he asked.
She shut him up when she shoved one finger under his nose and said, "I'm not a liar. Everything we shared was the gospel, honest truth. The only sin of omission I have to repent for is Joshua. And I couldn't tell you because I didn't believe it myself. Then I didn't know how to tell you. There I was six months pregnant and you damn sure wouldn't believe me when I told you that I'd been in denial about it. You'd have thought I was one of those cyber bimbos that lie about everything."
"And you're not?" he asked.
Natalie really did not like him right then. He'd been such a sweetheart the past eleven months. Lord, she'd have curled up and died without him to talk her through the tough times. How in the devil could a man as sensitive and kind as Lucas change because of a little baby?
"I am not, and I do know who Joshua belongs to. Believe me, I know very well," she said in a high voice. "It takes a big man to accept a single mother and a baby. I'd hoped you'd be that big. I was wrong. I'm going to call Hazel and tell her to come home instead of going with her daughter. I won't live under the same roof with you for a whole month."
Her finger annoyed him worse than all the sand in Kuwait. He pushed it away. "Grow up. We don't have to like each other for you to take on the job of cook and housekeeper. And who is the father?"
She whispered, "After the comment you made, you don't deserve to know. You really are a jackass, but I couldn't have made it through this past eleven months without you. You were my stability. Even when times got tough, I could depend on you to be there just before I went to bed at night. Without that I don't know that I could have ever lived through Drew's death or losing my job. He'd been my best friend since we were toddlers and I still miss him so much. Good night." She brushed the flowing tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand and headed out of the room in long strides.
He watched her go and knew exactly how she felt. Drew had been his best friend from the time that the man settled into the bunk right above his. The camaraderie over there was something that civilians could never understand. Drew talked about Silverton, Texas, a little town up on the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon and being able to see nothing but cotton fields and sky in that part of the country. But mostly he'd talked about his best friend, Natalie Clark, those next two weeks. He'd told them stories about her that sounded outrageous, but after the pistol, the coyote, and the way that she didn't back down an inch from him, Lucas believed every one of them now.
Lucas eased down into his favorite recliner and for the first time he felt like he'd come home. What in the hell was he going to do? The attraction was there just like he'd thought it would be, but he could fight that until Hazel came back home.
He shut his eyes. Damn, that woman was a spitfire!
"Overwhelmed?" Grady asked from the doorway.
"Yes," he said softly.
Natalie curled up in a ball on the bed and wept into a pillow. She needed Drew to tell her what to do and he wasn't there. He was buried at Arlington and his oldest sister had gotten the medal they gave him posthumously.
Lucas had filled the boots Drew left behind. Lucas had been the one whom she told about her basketball team winning the regional tournament. He'd been the one that she whined to that spring after the first track meet, and he'd laughed at her sunburn around Hollywood-type sunglasses. Lucas had been there for her when the school did not renew her contract late in the summer. He'd listened to her talk about weariness after long hours of supervising the cotton crew that fall. He'd been out on a weeklong mission when she had Joshua and she meant to tell him about the baby, but down deep she must've known that he would react just the way he did. She'd wanted to see him in person so badly, then Hazel called and swore that he'd be fine with the baby.
Now it was all gone.
Her contract to coach and teach science at the high school in Silverton had not been renewed. They'd said it was because they were combining the girls and boys coaching duties and hiring a full-time science teacher for the junior high and high school. That was just to cover their asses. They weren't hiring her because she was pregnant with Drew Camp's baby, but they damn sure didn't want a lawsuit brought against them if they admitted it. Drew Camp had gotten the title of resident bad boy after they'd gotten to high school. That was the year that her parents did everything including telling her that she couldn't hang out with him anymore, but the bond between them was so strong that it hadn't worked. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone. But at least she had Lucas to keep her from going crazy and now he was gone, too.
For the first time in her life, she was totally alone and it hurt so bad that she thought she'd die.
"What would Drew tell me to do?" she whispered.
He would tell you that you'd whined enough. Get up and wash your face and quit that carrying on. He'd tell you that come light of day, things just might look a helluva lot different, the inner voice reminded her softly.
She threw the pillow against the far wall and wiped her eyes dry with the tail of her shirt. She was a strong woman. She'd lived through the vicious gossip in Silverton when folks figured out she was pregnant. She'd held her head up when she told her folks and her three younger brothers that the baby belonged to Drew and she was keeping it. She'd settled down on the back of the cotton farm in her single-wide trailer house and worked for her father, taking only minimum wage like the rest of the hired hands. Two weeks after Joshua was born she helped bring in the cotton crop with him settled into a sling like a little Indian papoose.
She could endure Lucas's rejection even if it did hurt like hell. But it would take a miracle to change things come daybreak. Some things couldn't be changed and Lucas would never accept Joshua, which meant that she wouldn't accept Lucas.
Joshua made sucking noises in his sleep. She gently touched his chubby cheeks with her fingertips. There was no denying that those dark brown eyes and thick lashes had come from the Camp side of the family. She wanted to pick him up and hug him close to her chest, but if he woke up, it would take a band of angels to get him back to sleep.