Cowboy Up: Getting mentally ready.
“It takes a village.”
Rhett Lockhart opened one eye and studied the shapely blonde in the bed next to him. Pouty red lips, that last night had tasted like strawberry gloss, glistened in the bright sunshine pushing against the edges of the light-blocking curtains.
Big smoky brown eyes, circled by smeared mascara, blinked at him. Full perky breasts, that tasted just as delicious in real life as they’d looked in last year’s Rodeo Queens of New Mexico pin-up calendar, thrust against his arm.
On the calendar she’d worn spangles, bangles, a pink cowgirl hat, and little else. Much like she was dressed now, minus the hat. She was cute and perky and just the right kind of wrong.
Too bad his head throbbed like a sonofagun.
The culprit, an empty bottle of cinnamon whiskey, lay wedged between his pillow and the headboard. The celebratory hooch she’d brought with her, because, as she’d said, he was red-hot.
“To get you up, Cowboy.” She glanced down at his crotch with a knowing smile. “Some bozo’s been hammering on your door for a solid five minutes, and I’ve been calling your name....”
Nausea jiggled his stomach. It took him a second to remember where they were. Oh yeah, inside his Featherlite, gooseneck, fifth-wheel. A horse-trailer with living quarters, currently parked on the rodeo fairground’s back lot in Albuquerque.
Last night, he’d come in first place, blistering his biggest rival, Brazilian hotshot Claudio Limon. Claiming a solid 92-point ride on Smooth Operator, one of the orneriest bulls bucking. Life didn’t get much sweeter than that.
It was only May, but he was jockeying a hot streak. Burning through the circuit, racking up points left and right. This was his year. He was on the cusp of earning his lifetime goal and landing the dream he’d been dreaming since he was old enough to strap on chaps.
This year, he was finally going to shove Claudio off his lofty perch as a two-time winner of the PBR World Finals Championship and collect the title for himself come November in Las Vegas.
“Rhett?” The blonde snapped her fingers in front of his face. “You with me, hon?”
Quick, what was her name? Carrie…Corrie…Chrissy…no…Cassie? Yes, Cassie. That was it. Right? Did he risk calling her Cassie, or just use his old standby?
He flashed her a big smile, winced against the added pressure in his aching temples, and drawled, “Mornin’, Sweet Cheeks.”
“It’s Carla,” she said, her voice flat, and her smile fragile as iced lace.
Oops, not Cassie after all. But hey, her name started with a C. He was in the ballpark. Although, the look in her eyes told him she wouldn’t find that a plus.
Carla was on her side facing him, hands stacked underneath her cheek, watching him like he was a bug doing the backstroke in her soup.
“I know that,” he lied through his teeth. “But those sweet cheeks of yours are drivin’ me crazy.” He reached to palm her butt.
“You’ve got a bit of the devil running through your veins, Rhett Lockhart.” She breathed out on a wistful sigh. “You ooze temptation with that sexy walk, and charmin’ talk. How’s an honest girl supposed to resist?”
She was right. He couldn’t deny it, much as he might want to, he was Duke Lockhart’s son. That ornery sonofabitch.
Bam, bam, bam. A firm and urgent knock on his trailer door.
“Shh.” Rhett brought a finger to his lips. “Let’s pretend we’re not here. Maybe they’ll leave.”
She scooted away, nodded at his mobile phone on the bedside table beside a half-empty box of condoms. “Your cell’s been pinging too.”
“Ignore it.” Rhett walked his fingers up her bare thigh that was poking out from underneath the covers.
“What if it’s an emergency?”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t you want to spend the day in bed with me?” he wheedled.
“It’s not me. It’s the rude dude at the door.”
“Maybe it’s TMZ wanting an interview.” He gave her another wink and a tickle. “I was pretty spectacular last night.”
Carla laughed. “Yeah, right.”
“Pardon me? Are you making fun of my bedroom prowess?”
“Oh, I have no complaints in that department.” She purred.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
“It might not be an emergency, but whoever is out there isn’t going away. For once in your life, face the music, Lockhart.” Carla got out of bed.
Face the music? Not his strong suit.
“Rhett!” His lawyer, Lamar Johnston called out. “Open the damn door. I know you’re in there.”
“Want me to get that?” Carla found his black PBR T-shirt draped over the footboard. Pulled the tee down over her head, covering those beautiful boobs.
“It’s just Lamar.” He reached for her arm and hauled her back onto the mattress beside him. “Ignore him, and he’ll leave.”
“Why is your Texas lawyer in New Mexico?”
“I might have been avoiding his calls.”
“What have you gotten yourself messed up in?”
“It’s nothing.” Rhett waved a hand. “People like to sue you when you’re in the public eye.”
“It doesn’t sound like nothing.”
Bam, bam, bam.
“Rhett, I’m not going anywhere,” Lamar confirmed. His attorney had crap timing. “You might as well let me the hell in.”
Carla rolled out of his arms. Grabbed for the tiny scrap of pink silk that passed for panties lying on the floor and wriggled into them.
Rhett sat up. Shook his head. Wished he had another hour with her. But maybe this was better. Short and sweet.
“This wasn’t how I anticipated the day going,” she muttered. “I had plans for you.”
Yikes, both intriguing and a little frightening.
“Me either,” Rhett said as way of an apology. “I’d intended on taking you out to IHOP for breakfast.”
“You mean lunch.” She nodded at the digital clock on the faux panel walls. One P.M. Was it really that late?
“Raincheck?” he asked to be polite.
“If I knew you meant it, I’d say yes.” Carla stepped into faded skinny jeans that fit like a second skin. Wriggled and jiggled to get the zipper up.
Rhett licked his lips. He remembered why he’d brought her back to his trailer last night. Besides the pretty face, and hot bod, she was an easygoing, no-strings attached woman.
Just his type.
“But we both know this isn’t headed anywhere.” She came around to his side of the bed. Kissed him. A light brush of her lips. “I knew you were a Good Time Charlie when I crawled into the sack with you. I had no foolish dreams that I was the one girl who could tie you down.”
“No?” He gave her his best morning-after grin, relief breaking out all over him. “Giving up that easily? I wouldn’t mind if you tried a little harder to lasso me.”
She laughed, a soft, shame-on-you sound. “Do I look stupid? You’re a fun guy, Rhett. But let’s face it, you’re not cut out for the long haul.”
“That’s it?” he asked, disappointed, and surprised at his disappointment. He liked Carla for sure, but the last thing he wanted was a relationship.
Not now. Not ever.
He wasn’t like most people, hell bent on finding The One, tying the knot, having a passel of kids, growing old, dying…
Just the thought if it made him twitchy.
And that spurred another thought. What would his life have been like if he hadn’t been born to one of the wealthiest men in the Trans-Pecos, who’d swung through women like square dance partners, leaving a trail of broken hearts, and resentful sons in his wake?
He recalled a time when he was seven years old and out to dinner with the family. His mother, that gentle soul, his brothers—two-half, one full—and his father. They were at the Barbecue King in Alpine. He recalled the smoky smell of mesquite and the taste of mustard potato salad. One of the waitresses had taken one look at his father, let out a cry of shock and dropped her tray with a clatter. She’d rushed over to slap Duke hard across the face. Rhett’s mother, Lucy, had burst into tears. Duke laughed and rubbed his cheek that had turned bright red in the shape of a handprint. The restaurant diners gaped. The owner rushed over, fired the waitress and comped their meal. Ridge punched the old man in the gut. Ranger picked up a book and started reading. Remington threw his arm around their mother and glared at Duke. Rhett crawled underneath the table, stuck his fingers in his ears and started humming, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy.”
Ah family memories. Good times.
“Some people are born to roam the earth alone. That’s you to a T…” Carla’s eyes gentled. She was a kind woman. “Not everyone is meant to find true love and have a family…and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
He agreed. So how come he felt oddly put down?
And a tiny bit sad?
She plunked onto the end of the mattress, tugging on pink rhinestone ankle boots. Stood. Headed for the door. “By the way,” she said, her voice as cheerful as Saturday night. “I’m keeping the T-shirt.”
“You’re welcome to it.”
She brought the neckline of the tee up to her nose, inhaled. Sighed. “God, you do smell good.” Her voice was wistful, but not in a fatalistic way. More like she’d missed out on a sweet deal on a used car.
She picked her cell phone up off the tiny shelf on her side of the bed. Glanced at her messages. “Ah,” she said. “It’s just as well that we didn’t get to spend the day together.”
“What is?” Rhett scratched his chest, yawned.
“My ex just texted. He got called into work and I have to go pick up my daughter.”
“I didn’t know you had a daughter.”
“Ivy. She’s four.” Carla’s face ringed with suddenly happiness. “Light of my life. Wanna see a picture?”
He held up a palm. “That’s okay. You have to get on the road.”
A new look crossed her face, as if she’d dodged a bullet on that used car that turned out to be a clunker.
Carla was the fourth woman he’d dated this past year that had a child. When did everyone start having kids? Goose bumps sprang up his arms and his throat tightened. Kids gave him the heebie-jeebies. He had no idea how to relate to them.
She wriggled her fingers and squeezed out of the cramped bedroom loft. He watched her step down to the next level of the trailer, could only see her top half now. She opened the door. “Morning.”
“Um…hello.” Lamar’s booming voice filled the trailer.
“Bye,” she said.
Rhett heard them pass on the steps, Carla going out, Lamar coming in. The door closed, and he got the oddest feeling. As if something irrevocable had just happened.
Lamar’s thick head of curly black hair poked into his doorway. “You’re a scoundrel, you know that, right?”
Yawning again, Rhett interlaced his fingers, stretched his arms over his head. “What can I say? I love the ladies, and the ladies love me.”
“Have you no shame?”
“Shame? What for? I have rules.”
“No one under twenty-one, and no married women, ever.”
Maybe he should start adding “no mothers” to that list too. Kids complicated things. A lot. Last week, he’d spent the night at a woman’s house and woke up to find a little boy in Superman Underoos staring at him. Acting as if it were no big deal to find a strange man in mom’s bed, the boy took Rhett by the hand, led him to the kitchen and asked him to make “boo-berry” Pop Tarts. Rhett threw Pop Tarts in the toaster, poured the kid some chocolate milk, and got the hell out of there ASAP. That was the extent of his brush with anything remotely like fatherhood. He barely even saw his brother Ridge’s two kids or his eighteen-month old twin brothers his sixty-year-old father sired with his third wife, Vivi.
“Oh, what a code of honor.” Sarcasm was Lamar’s touchstone.
“Hey, I don’t make them any promises. The women know right up front where they stand with me.”
“And you go through them like Kleenex.”
“Why are you here?” Rhett lowered his arms. His mouth was as dry as the Chihuahuan desert he called home. He needed a gallon of water, and a fistful of aspirins for his hangover. But the bed was soft, and he was feeling lazy, so he lazed.
“Get dressed.” Lamar turned and moved to the compact kitchenette at the back of the living quarters. Pots and pans clanked. The coffee maker gurgled to life.
There was something about his lawyer’s tone of voice that grabbed Rhett by the shorthairs. He threw back the covers.
“Are you fixin’ my breakfast?” Rhett called, whisking his Wranglers from the floor and pulling them on. An uneasy tingling tugged his belly. Something strange was afoot.
Bare-chested, he dropped down off the bedroom platform, landed on the laminate wood flooring with a flat-footed plop and strolled the short space to the kitchen area.
Lamar stood at the gas stove whisking eggs in a bowl. He pointed at a chair with his elbow. “Sit.”
Bumfuzzled, Rhett slouched down at the table.
Lamar plunked a mug down in front of him. Coffee pot in hand, he leaned over to fill Rhett’s mug. “Drink.”
“You can cook?”
Fifteen years ago, Lamar had been the star of the Cupid basketball team, now he was one of the top civil law attorneys in the Trans-Pecos. Lamar, as always, was impeccably dressed, wearing a tailor-made navy-blue pinstripe suit, gold cuff links a red pocket square and a big diamond stud in his left ear. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
“Yeah, like why you’re here cooking me breakfast at one o’clock in the afternoon?”
“Someone has to make sure you’re taken care of since you seem incapable of doing it yourself.” Lamar tsked, and tossed pepper, salt and onion powder into the eggs. Scrambled them with a spatula.
“Don’t act offended. You’re the superstar who leaves the grunt work to us mere mortals.” The microwave dinged. Lamar removed a paper plate with two breakfast sausages on it. He added the eggs to the plate, sprinkled cheddar cheese on top and passed the food to Rhett. “Eat.”
“What’s your problem?”
“You got bigger issues than me, buddy.”
“Yeah, I don’t have a fork.”
Lamar rummaged around in a drawer, found a fork, and shoved it at him, tines first. Nimbly, he sank into the chair across from Rhett. He looked like a sleek panther that could easily snap Rhett’s neck if he wanted. “We have to talk.”
Lamar reached over for his brown leather briefcase, and took out some legal papers stapled together, and dropped them in the middle of the table.
“What’s this?” Rhett asked.
“Got the test results back.”
Rhett stared at the papers in front of him. It was an incomprehensible list of letters and numbers. Oh shit. From the look on Lamar’s face, he knew he was in big trouble. The eggs he’d swallowed hung in his throat. He couldn’t get them to go either up or down. There they sat, making a giant knot. Choking him.
“At last.” Lamar chuckled. “You’ve got nothing to say.”
Rhett spat the eggs out into a napkin. “Oh, I got plenty to say. One of these days, you’re gonna walk in here and deliver some happy news. General Mills wants to feature me on a box of Wheaties. Claudio is quitting the PBR for good and returning to Brazil. Hollywood is paying big bucks for my life stor—”
“Surprise!” Lamar interrupted “This time you won the paternity lottery.” Lamar thumped the paperwork with a thumb. “Congratulations! You’re a father.”
The words didn’t sink in. Father? Him? No way. He’d been sued for paternity three other times, which is why he had Lamar on retainer, and had always come up in the clear.
“I can’t be the father,” Rhett hopped up and paced the tiny trailer, hand on his forehead. “There has to be some kind of mistake.”
“DNA is 99% accurate.”
“But I never ride bareback.” Rhett whacked his hip into the counter, barely even noticed. “Nev-ver.”
“Accidents happen.” Lamar shrugged as if he’d been expecting such news for a long time. “The only perfect birth control is abstinence, and the whole world knows you’re incapable of that.” He pointed to Carla’s pink bra hanging from the doorknob. “Case in point.”
“I was only with her once.”
“Who? The owner of the pink bra or Rhona White?”
“Once is enough.”
Rhett muttered a curse. “Rhona set me up. She got pregnant on purpose. She just wants money.”
“Takes two to tango. Besides, it’s not Rhona who’s after you, rather it’s the state of Texas.”
No. No. This could not be happening. Not at this point in his career. Not when everything was on the line. He shoved his fingers through his hair.
A sharp pinprick of memory pieced the base of his skull. The summer he was seventeen. Brittany Fant, the girl who’d shattered his heart, had ended any stupid beliefs he’d ever had about romantic love. He flashbacked to a positive pregnancy test, a rush of intense joy at the thought of being a dad…and then the calm announcement, by Brittany’s mother, that she was taking her daughter to a clinic and putting an end to this nonsense. “Is this what you really want?” Rhett had asked, pleading. A pale-faced Brittany nodded in silent agreement. And that had been that.
“I don’t know why you’re so shocked.” Lamar propped his Gucci loafers on the Yeti cooler parked underneath the table. “It’s been six weeks since CPS showed up with the swab. You think you’d have braced yourself for the possibility of this outcome.”
“I was one of four potential dads. What were the odds it’d be me?”
“Um, twenty-five percent or better.”
“How did this happen? It shouldn’t have happened.”
“You think you’re special?” Lamar shot him a look of disdain. “That the laws of nature don’t apply to you? You keep having sex with random women, even protected sex, and eventually it’s going to catch up with you. Stay away from the casinos when you’re in Vegas. Your luck has run out.”
“Har, har.” Rhett kneaded his brow, felt his stomach flip over. He picked up the papers, reread the part confirming that he was indeed the father of Rhona White’s baby.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s time to accept responsibility for your actions, buckaroo.”
Panic was a noose around his neck, growing tighter with each breath he took. Rhona had vowed she was on birth control. Assured him that he didn’t need to use a condom. He’d insisted anyway. He wasn’t dumb. She wouldn’t have been the first buckle bunny to get pregnant in order to lasso herself a rodeo hero.
The thing was, he’d liked Rhona. She was cute and had a bubbly personality and she looked at him as if he’d hung the moon. That was always a nice combo. Although she’d been younger than he liked, just turned twenty-one.
Still, he wished like hell he’d shut the door that night she’d shown up at his trailer, after they’d spent the evening playing darts together at a nearby bar. She’d been holding a bottle of champagne, wearing those hot pink short-shorts, and an I-wanna-share-your-bed-smile. They’d both gotten drunk and one thing had led to another…
God, he should have known better. Rhett whacked his forehead with the heel of his hand—stupid, stupid, stupid.
“There’s one major thing you’re forgetting in your selfish wallow,” Lamar said.
Rhett blinked. “Who? Rhona?”
“The baby, you jackass.”
Rhett stopped moving, stopping thinking, stopped breathing.
The word rolled through him, a freight train of energy. Blasting hot and indigo up his spine. He clenched his teeth and his fist, but his heart loosened, floppy and soft inside his chest.
There was a real baby.
He was a dad. He slumped back down into the chair. His jaw dropped, his mouth falling right open of its own accord. “I have a son?”
“No, you have a daughter.”
Lamar tapped the paper with his index finger. “It’s a girl.”
“I have a da…da…daughter,” Rhett tripped over the word. Daughter was so big, carried so many implications. It was too much to absorb. Feelings shot through him like lasers from a ray gun—fear, awe, inadequacy, helplessness, bravery, sheer terror, and oddly enough, the most prominent feeling of all—joy. Followed by one prevailing thought, I am not worthy.
“You do indeed have a daughter.”
“Where is she? Do you know?” Rhett gripped the table with his fingers, fear tearing at the seams of his heart. Good God, he was a father. How was he supposed to act? Certainly not like his own father. Oh shit, oh damn, oh hell.
“There were…complications,” Lamar said.
“Complications?” His heart squeezed down to the size of a pecan. “What do you mean?”
“Your daughter was born four months premature.”
“What?” He felt all the blood drain from his face. Cold, sick fear slapped him. He didn’t even know the kid and here he was feeling sorry for her. “How is that possible? Can you be born four months early and still live?”
“She was very sick.”
Was? His heart popped like a slipping clutch. “What? What? Did she die?” An ugly part of him was secretly relieved that maybe she hadn’t made it, but the noble part of him was horrified that he could even think such a thing.
“Relax, she is alive, and finally out of the hospital.”
“Oh, thank God.” Rhett clasped a hand to his chest, dizzy and disoriented. “Is she okay now? How’s Rhona?”
Lamar shook his head as if Rhett was a hopeless case. “No one knows where Rhona is. She abandoned the baby at birth. That’s why CPS came looking for the father. To find out if you want the baby. I explained all this when CPS first showed up.”
Yeah, he hadn’t really been listening. Certain that the baby couldn’t have been him.
A feeling unlike anything he’d ever experienced crushed Rhett in a powerful grip, flooded his entire system. Big and bad and scary feelings, especially for man who avoided entanglements.
He had a daughter. A piece of him was out there in the world. Alone.
Thirty minutes ago, he was a cowboy without a worry in the world except winning the PBR championship. Now he was a father, and in one sharp moment, everything changed.
“Where is my little girl? If Rhona took off, who’s looking after her?”
“Relax. She’s in good hands. Your daughter is living in El Paso with her foster mother, who by the way, was also her neonatal nurse.”
Whew, well that was good. Someone competent was looking after her. For a second there, he’d had a crazy image of a little baby tucked in a wicker basket, swaddled in pink, left on a doorstep, coyotes howling in the distance. In much the same way that his older brother, Ridge, ended up dumped by his mother on their father’s doorstep when he was three.
The Lockhart men had complicated histories with women and abandoned babies.
It was going to be okay, he told himself. He could have a kid. Lots of the guys on the circuit did. Yes, many of them were married, but having kids didn’t seem to cramp their style. He’d provide for his daughter financially. Of course, that was a given, but it didn’t mean he would have to give up his life. It’s not like he had to change diapers or anything.
“What’s the next step?” he asked his lawyer.
Lamar lifted his shoulders. “That’s up to you.”
“You can file for custody, or…” Lamar took a form from his briefcase, spread it on the kitchen table. “Sign over all parental rights so the foster mother can adopt her, and you can walk away with a clear conscience.”
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