Coming April 1, 2021

Book 3 of The Wyatt Brothers of Montana Series

Classic Romance

read an excerpt →

Professional rodeo cowboy Billy Wyatt is in the prime of his career. He’s having a fantastic year on the circuit, earning big money and leading the standings. Too immersed in his success and enjoying bachelorhood, he’s not interested in getting serious. But when a woman he’s never seen before shows up with a baby she claims is his, Billy’s world is turned inside out.

Erika Baylor, a PhD grad student, never planned to be a single mom, but when her cousin dies in a car accident, orphaning her infant son, Erika steps forward. She’ll help to care for her 4-month-old nephew until the baby can be reunited with his dad. She doesn’t expect the dad to be cocky, infuriating, and utterly irresistible.

Billy never thought he wanted to be a father, but looking into the eyes of the baby who is supposedly his—and whose blue eyes mirror his own—he’s hooked. But he’s hooked on the woman who’s holding the baby too…

Classic Romance

Coming April 1, 2021

Montana Cowboy Daddy

read an excerpt →

Professional rodeo cowboy Billy Wyatt is in the prime of his career. He’s having a fantastic year on the circuit, earning big money and leading the standings. Too immersed in his success and enjoying bachelorhood, he’s not interested in getting serious. But when a woman he’s never seen before shows up with a baby she claims is his, Billy’s world is turned inside out.

Erika Baylor, a PhD grad student, never planned to be a single mom, but when her cousin dies in a car accident, orphaning her infant son, Erika steps forward. She’ll help to care for her 4-month-old nephew until the baby can be reunited with his dad. She doesn’t expect the dad to be cocky, infuriating, and utterly irresistible.

Billy never thought he wanted to be a father, but looking into the eyes of the baby who is supposedly his—and whose blue eyes mirror his own—he’s hooked. But he’s hooked on the woman who’s holding the baby too…

Montana Cowboy Daddy

Book 3 of The Wyatt Brothers of Montana Series

Classic Romance

Themes & Archetypes

Cowboy

Tule Publishing

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Montana Cowboy Daddy

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Prologue

 

The call came in the middle of the night, jolting Erika Bay awake and then sending her dressing and grabbing her keys and purse to dash to her car.

She drove through the night to reach the Las Vegas police station, and during that long silent drive, her mind had raced, trying to grapple with everything that had happened.  Her cousin April had been killed in a car accident. She’d left behind a baby.  A baby Erika hadn’t even known about.

Where was the baby’s father?

Who was the baby’s father?

Erika had never thought of herself as maternal.  She wasn’t one of those women that had grown up playing house, tucking in her dolls, and dreaming of being a mommy, not when her own mother had been sorely lacking in maternal love herself.  But after arriving in Las Vegas and having social services place the soft bundle of a boy in her arms, explaining that April’s mother wanted no part of the baby and had already suggested Beck Wyatt Estes be placed in foster care, Erika vowed to do right by Beck, which in her mind meant finding the infant’s father, because maybe, just maybe, the father—whoever he was—would want his son.

She didn’t think further than that.  She wouldn’t let herself think further than that as she was a full-time student, working on her dissertation for her doctorate in psychology, and she was stretched thin as it was, with little free time and next to no income.  But an emergency was an emergency, and she took the baby and April’s personal effects and promised to remain in town for the next few days while arrangements were made for her cousin’s body and so forth.

Social services sent Erika off with a car seat and a diaper bag, along with April’s purse, which contained her wallet, some pill bottles and a set of keys.  Erika had helped buckling the car seat into the back seat of her car, and tucked the crying baby into the car seat, and then using April’s driver’s license, set off for April’s apartment, several miles off the Las Vegas Strip.

The baby was still wailing when Erika arrived at the complex and wailed as she lifted the car seat out and carried the baby, diaper bag, and purses upstairs.  It took a number of tries before Erika got the right key in the right lock, but once she did, the door opened and she was in.  Lights on, Erika’s gaze swept the small unit.  The apartment was a mess, the sink filled with dishes, the bedroom floor heaped with dirty laundry, the small dining table was heaped with clean laundry not yet folded.

She jiggled the crying baby as she opened the blinds and then opened the windows to air out the stale air, and then while Beck continued fussing, she went through the cupboards looking for his normal formula and bottles.  Social services had sent her home with a few cans in a makeshift diaper bag, but surely April had something here for him.  But there wasn’t much in the cupboards or the refrigerator.  The tin of formula on the counter was empty and April, a dancer, seemed to have survived on fat-free yogurts, vodka, and cigarettes.

Troubled, Erika opened one of the cans of formula sent home with them, made a bottle, and sat down on the couch with Beck and let him drink his fill as she gazed around the apartment that clearly wasn’t much of a home.  From the bottles of Xanax and Ativan in April’s purse, it was clear that she hadn’t been doing well.  Erika wondered how she’d coped alone for the past several months.

Suddenly Beck’s hand reached up and his tiny fingers brushed hers.  Erika glanced down and discovered he was staring straight up into her face, his dark blue eyes locking with hers.  For the first time since she’d gotten the call about April’s accident, Erika’s eyes burned, and her throat swelled closed.  For a moment she couldn’t do anything but blink to clear her eyes, not wanting to cry on the baby.  But it was heartbreaking.  April—young, beautiful, talented, reckless, rudderless April—was gone.  Killed in a horrendous accident that had somehow left her baby unscathed.  But now Beck was alone, having lost his mom, the only person he’d ever known.

Erika’s gut cramped as she imagined April’s mental and emotional state these past few months.  Why hadn’t April reached out to her?  Erika would have been there for her.  She would have moved April to Riverside, she would have gotten her help—she broke off, shook her head, the sharp pain in her stomach echoing the ache in her chest.  It was too late for all of that, too late for April, but not for April’s son.

As the infant’s tiny fingers slipped around her fingertip and held on tightly, Erika vowed to do right by April’s baby. We’ll find your dad, she silently promised him, gazing down into his wide blue eyes. How could he not want you?  How could he not love you?

And if he doesn’t?

She lifted her head, looked across the room, jaw firming, resolve hardening.  Then she’d take whatever next steps were necessary to make sure Beck had the best life possible.  But she wasn’t there yet, and that was a future bridge to cross.  For now, she had to do her best to reunite father and son.

 

That first day was exhausting and overwhelming.  It was one thing to promise to care for an infant, but another thing to actually do it, particularly when you’d had no experience with babies.

It was uncomfortable sleeping in April’s apartment, too, especially without April there.  Erika had been to the apartment once before, three years before, back when April was a lead dancer in one of the big revues in one of the big casinos. April’s family wouldn’t come see her perform—they were very religious and were horrified by her choices, much less being in a burlesque type number—but Erika came and she and her cousin had spent a weekend living it up in Vegas even though Erika wasn’t a fan of Las Vegas, and didn’t gamble, drink, smoke, or party in any way. It’s not that she thought of drinking or partying as a sin, but it wasn’t for her.  She liked her books and studies and had been working forever to earn her degree so she could be a psychologist, a field that appealed because she loved helping people.

And now she was helping a person, a very young person, but not the way she’d ever imagined.  She wasn’t April’s sister, wasn’t an aunt or grandmother.  She was a cousin, and while that was a close association, it wasn’t as close as well…a parent.  Children needed parents.  They needed stability, security, love.

This need to discover the identity of Beck’s father drove her as Erika cleaned and organized April’s apartment, packing up clothes and making plans to donate all the furniture.  Erika had been in Las Vegas for two days when she unearthed a box of photo books, the kind you made by uploading your pics and then getting a little bound book sent to you.  One of the books was filled with photos from the weekend Erika had spent with April two years ago, pages filled with smiles and laughter as well as lots of food shots. They’d eaten out every meal and had snapped endless pics of food and drink.  And then there was another photo book, this one filled with April and a handsome cowboy.  Pictures of a rodeo with the handsome cowboy in chaps, pictures in a bar, pictures in bed, where a sheet barely covered his hips and all he wore was a sexy half-smile with a wicked glint in his eyes.

Dark blue eyes, like Beck.

Dark blonde hair, like the sole wisp of hair on Beck’s round head.

Could this rugged—naked—cowboy be Beck’s dad?

She glanced down into the bassinette where Beck was sleeping and felt an ache form in her chest, an ache that filled her every time she thought of the baby’s future.  She wanted what was best for the baby, and she wasn’t sure she was the best, but was a cowboy better?

But it wasn’t her right to make that decision.  She needed to find Beck’s dad and see what he wanted for his son.  First, she needed the cowboy’s name, and then second, she needed to locate him.

Discovering both didn’t take long, not after discovering there was a whole association of professional cowboys, and scrolling through the membership, she found a photo of April’s cowboy.  His name was Billy Wyatt, and he was one of three Wyatt cowboys in the PRCA.

Googling his name pulled up pages of rodeo wins, as well as articles and interviews.  Within hours she knew far more about him than she ever wanted to know.  He was one of four brothers, three who were world champions on the professional rodeo circuit, often competing together, especially in the team events. He’d been raised by his mother and grandfather on the Wyatt family ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana after his father, an emerging rodeo star, had died in an accident with his younger brother.

The Wyatt brothers were talented, successful cowboys, and as it turned out, Billy was competing at the Tucson Rodeo this very weekend.

Her heart sped up, adrenaline flooding her veins, making her push away from the laptop keyboard.

Did she dare?

Could she just go…show up…introduce herself?

Erika rose from her stool at the counter and walked to the doorway of the darkened bedroom, looking at the bassinette where Beck napped.

When she’d picked him up from social services, she’d vowed to unite Beck with his father, and she didn’t know if Billy Wyatt even knew he had a son, but he would soon because she and Beck were going to Tucson tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

It struck her that tracking Billy Wyatt down at a rodeo might not be the best idea she ever had, but it seemed a better move than driving up to Montana and appearing on the doorstep of the Wyatt Ranch in Paradise Valley, and she’d considered that, too.

The Montana ranch was a thirteen-and-a-half-hour drive from Las Vegas, while Tucson was six.  So here she was, in the Tucson rodeo and fairgrounds parking lot, waiting for the late February rain to let up.  To be fair, it wasn’t a hard rain, and outside the temperature was relatively mild, but Erika didn’t feel like getting Beck wet, not if they could remain in her car for another twenty minutes or so and wait for the drizzle to stop.

No one else seemed to mind the rain.  Even though the rodeo wouldn’t start for hours, the vast parking lot was nearly full and folks streamed toward the gates in boots and hats and some kind of water proof layer.  Erika glanced over her shoulder into the backseat where Beck was securely strapped into his car seat. She’d hung a small mirror on the headrest of the seat so she could see his face, and he was wide awake, his dark blue eyes gazing intently at the bold black and white pattern beneath the mirror, his little feet moving restlessly.

“We’re going to meet your dad today,” she said, her voice breaking the silence. “Not sure how this will go.”

Obviously, Beck didn’t answer, but her stomach did a nervous flip and she felt queasy all the way through.  It had seemed so logical to come here and find Billy Wyatt, but now that she was here, she felt overwhelmed by doubt.  No, make that anxiety, as well as fear.

How did you just spring it on someone that he had a son?

But it had to be done, so that Beck could be settled and secure with his forever family, as Erika knew her side of the family wasn’t it.  She herself had spent the past ten years trying to distance herself from her family, wanting more from her future than what she’d known in her past.

Finally the rain eased and sun peeked through the clouds, creating a hopeful golden glow above.  Erika drew a breath and exhaled hard.  If she was going to do this, she needed to do it now, before the rodeo began.

With a knit cap on his head for warmth and Beck secure in a baby carrier on her chest, she allowed her yellow rain slicker with the bright blue flowers to drape over the baby carrier, covering enough of Beck so that he’d be protected from the worst of the odd splatter, while still being able to breathe.  Head down, watching the watery potholes, she reviewed her plan for tracking down Beck’s father. She’d buy cheapest ticket she could, most likely a seat in the bleachers, but she had no intention of actually sitting anywhere.  The best place to find a cowboy was near the chutes, or the horses, or somewhere in that vicinity.  Her biggest question was, would she be allowed in that area?

So intent on avoiding mud, Erika walked into a couple in front of her.  She lifted her head to apologize but froze as the man’s head turned and looked down at her.

It was him.  Him, April’s cowboy, Beck’s dad, Billy Wyatt, but he wasn’t alone, his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a very slim, very pretty brunette.

Erika had studied her cousin’s photo book so many times, trying to memorize the cowboy’s face, trying to imagine who he was, and how he could get April pregnant and then just disappear, that it was shocking—overwhelming–to see him in person.  Anything she’d hoped to say to him died, her heart racing too hard, her entire body cold.  Frozen.

She’d been determined to find him, and she had.  But it had never crossed her mind that he would be with someone when she found him. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking an unsteady step back, mud squelching beneath her shoes.

He gave her an easy smile, creases fanning at his eyes.  Blue eyes, bright blue eyes, so like Beck’s.  “You okay?” he asked.

“My fault.  I wasn’t looking.”  Her gaze searched his face, all those carefully rehearsed words having deserted her.  He was good looking, very good looking, even better looking in person than in photos.  Erika didn’t quite know what to do with that knowledge, nor did she know what to think of the brunette tucked close to his side, slender, young, and very happy to be at Billy’s hip.

This wasn’t the scenario she’d imagined.   Billy Wyatt wasn’t just a photo from an album, but a tall, ruggedly handsome, seriously handsome man– strong cheekbones, square clean-shaven jaw, piercing blue eyes, sensual lips—and he was not single.  At least, not at the moment.

She glanced down at Beck, his head covered in a knit cap, his small body shrouded in her bright yellow rain jacket.  Her heart fell, her stomach ached.

This wasn’t the time.

This wasn’t the place.  Eyes burning, throat constricting, Erika turned around, and slowly returned to her car, trying to figure out her next move.

 

Billy’s mom’s voice came over the walkie-talkie they used when out on the property, radioing that she needed Billy to return to the house.  She needed Billy, and only Billy, and she wanted him now.

They were all together when the static filled message came through, having taken a coffee break during their morning ride up into the back pasture where they’d gone to check for broken fences during the last big snowstorm.  The Wyatt men all together because everyone had come home for the weekend to celebrate grandad, Melvin Wyatt’s 89th birthday today, and there was nothing Melvin Wyatt liked more than a good ride up the mountain that he knew like the back of his hand.  He’d been born here and raised here.  He’d raised his sons here, and now his grandsons.  Melvin Wyatt was like the state of Montana—tough, weathered, enduring.

“What do you think Mom wanted?” Tommy asked, feet planted, thumbs hooked over his belt, beneath his open sheepskin coat.

Billy shook his head even as he pushed up his sleeve to check his watch.  Eleven fifteen.  He shook the sleeve down again.  “No idea, but I better head down.  I always worry when we all leave her.  She could fall. Something could happen.”

Oldest brother, Joe, screwed the cap back on his coffee thermos. “Sophia is down there, just a stone’s throw from the house. Mom would call her if it was serious.”

“Unless she didn’t want to scare her, because of the baby and all,” Sam said.

Billy nodded, agreeing with Sam, and he slid his thermos back into a saddlebag, and then untied the reins from the quaking aspen, its bright green foliage heralding spring in the Absorka mountains.  A moment later he swung up into the saddle and gave a nod to his brothers.  “See you back at the house.”  And then he nudged his horse into a canter.

It’d take him a good thirty minutes, to get home from this point, plenty of time to consider all his sins. But nothing significant came to mind. He was financially solvent, currently single, competing well, very well, earning very good money.  He should have been competing this weekend, there were a number of big rodeos this weekend, rodeos with significant money, but just as they never missed Mom’s birthday, he and his brothers never missed Grandad’s, even if Grandad wanted them to.  Grandad was essentially their dad, having taken them all in after their own father died in a car accident.

Billy stopped thinking about what ifs, clearing his mind to focus on the ride down the mountain.  It had started out as a beautiful day with a pale blue sky, wispy clouds and spring sunshine but in the past hour clouds had moved overhead and the wind had picked up.  Nothing alarming, just typical Montana weather.

Nearing the two-story log cabin house, Billy spotted a small navy car in the circular gravel driveway.  He didn’t recognize the car, nor could think of anyone he knew with California plates.  Billy frowned as he settled his horse into his stall, quickly unsaddling the gelding and giving him a rub down.  Leaving the barn, he glanced at the car once more, this time noting the words UC Riverside on the license plate frame.   Still no help.  He was completely clueless, and somehow he didn’t think publishers clearinghouse announced its sweepstakes winners with a little car from San Bernardino, California.

Billy entered the house through the kitchen door, walking in on his mom seated at the big table with a strange woman.  His mom was holding a baby. Billy’s stomach did a sharp nosedive, plummeting straight to the tips of his boots. He glanced at the lady, didn’t know her, glanced back to his mom who was gently patting the baby on his back.  His forehead furrowed even as icy adrenaline flooded his veins.

What was going on?

His mom glanced up, met his gaze, her expression devoid of all emotion. “There you are,” she said evenly. “I was telling Erika it would take you about a half an hour, and it did.”

He looked at this Erika, wondering what she was doing here, wondering why his mother was holding the baby, wondering what any of this had to do with him. But he revealed none of it in his expression.  Instead, he washed his hands at the kitchen sink, and then turned.  “Anyone want coffee?  Tea?  I could put the kettle on.”

“No, thank you,” Erika said.  “Your mom already offered.”

His mother shook her head.  “Now that you’re here, I’m going to leave you two to talk.”

Erika left her seat to take the baby, and then his mom slowly, carefully rose, reaching for her walker.  “It was nice to meet you, Erika,” she said, before making her way from the room, her walker making little clicking sounds of the hardwood floor.

It was quiet after his mother left. Billy retrieved a mug from the cupboard, and then filled it with coffee from the coffee pot, giving Erika time to speak.  She didn’t.

His gaze swept her, and the baby.  He didn’t know her.  Thank God.  Baby wasn’t his.

And then his attention was caught by a yellow coat hanging on a hook near the back door.  Bright yellow coat with blue flowers.

He’d seen that coat before.  And now that he was thinking about it, her face looked vaguely familiar, but why?  Where?  His brow creased, trying to remember.

He walked to the table, pulled a chair out and sat down across from her.  “Have we met?”

She shifted the baby, setting him down on her lap, facing outward.  “Not officially, no.”

He circled the mug with his palm.   It warmed his hand.  “You look familiar.”

“I bumped into you, a few weeks ago.  At the Tucson rodeo.”

And then it came to him.  The parking lot.  The rain.  And the vivid yellow jacket with French blue flowers.  But the memory shifted to a sense of mistrust.  First Tucson, now here.  Why?

“I remember you,” he said flatly.  “What can I do for you?”

“I–,” her lips parted, and she touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip before looking up into his face, her eyes meeting his.  “I’m sorry.  This isn’t easy.”

“Maybe just say it.”

“This is your son, Beck.  Beck Wyatt.”

Billy’s gaze locked with hers, his expression hard, unsmiling.  stiffened, and gave her a long unsmiling look.  “Not following.”

“He’s yours.  Your son.  Paternity will be legally stablished as soon as you take a DNA test—“

“Since we’ve never slept together, how is he mine?”

“You did sleep with someone.  It just wasn’t me.” Glancing down, she gently, lightly ran her hand across the baby’s bald head.  “His mom is gone, which is why I’ve been trying to find you.”  She looked back up at him.  “And yes, I found you in Tucson, but you were with someone and it didn’t seem right to…do this…there.”

Tucson…who was he with?  And then he remembered.  Jenna.  “Appreciate that.”

“I went to the San Antonio Stock Show the next weekend, but you were with a redhead then.  I quickly realized that I would probably not ever find you…alone.”  Her chin lifted.  “So here I am.”

“Persistent, aren’t you?”

“I have to be. We have a child without a mom, in need of a dad—“

His eyes narrowed.  “You don’t look like social services.”

“I’m not.  I’m April’s cousin.”

April.

He immediately conjured a tall slim dancer from Las Vegas.  A sexy wild thing.  They’d dated for a bit.  Had some good times together.  “April Estes?” he asked.

Erika nodded.  “She was a professional dancer—“

“From Vegas,” he finished.  “You said, she’s gone.  What do you mean by that?  She’s taken off, or…?”

“Or. April was killed in a car crash early February.” Erika’s voice cracked.  “They say she died instantly.  At least I hope so.  Beck was in the car, but he wasn’t hurt. April made mistakes, but at least she’d secured him properly in the car seat so he survived the crash.  Only now he’s alone.”

Billy’s attention shifted to the baby in her arms.  The infant was ridiculously small, with a ridiculously big bald head and a round, pale moon face. “Why do you think he’s mine?”

“Besides his name being Wyatt?”

“That’s not his legal name—“

“It’s on his birth certificate.”

“Then it’s a middle name, not his surname, can’t be.  Not without me signing a birth certificate.”

She said nothing for a moment, surprised.  “You know how this works then?”

“I’ve always been careful.  I always use protection.”

“Something failed this time, because you’re his dad.”

He got up, walked to the sink, arms folded across his chest. “April told you this?”

“No.  I’ve been digging through her things, trying to piece it together.”

“Then you’ve pieced it wrong.  There’s no way the baby is mine.”

“You weren’t together in Tucson last year, for the rodeo?” Before he could answer, Erika added.  “In case it’s hard to remember that far back, I’ve got a photo album she made.  If you’ll just hold him—” she rose and thrust the infant against his chest, leaving him there.  “I’ll show you.”

Billy had instinctively wrapped an arm around the baby when she’d pushed the child towards him, and now he watched as she went to the table and dug a small photo book from her oversized purse.  She marched back towards him and opened the little book, flipping through pages filled with phots and captions.  He couldn’t read the captions but the photos were clearly of him, and April.  April looking sensational in snug jeans, boots, and a tight shirt.  April in his cowboy hat.  April with him, here at the fairgrounds.  At a bar.  At a restaurant.  Kissing.  Wrestling.  Cuddling naked in bed.  April wearing nothing but his hat.

He swallowed, glanced at the top of moon face’s bald head and asked, “When was he born?”

“November 30th.”  The woman’s gaze met his.  “He would have been conceived during last year’s Tucson rodeo.”

“She could have been already pregnant or gotten pregnant right after.”

“There was no one else in her life at the time.  Just you.”

Billy considered his words, not wanting to offend.  “We weren’t in a relationship.  We were just having fun.”

“And fun created that little bundle of joy.” Erika smiled, but it was a tight smile, and it didn’t reach her eyes.  Her voice hardened, each word short, sharp.  “And he needs his dad.  He has no one else.”

“What about you?”

“I’ve temporarily been appointed a guardian, and I’d like to remain in his life, play the doting aunt, or whatever one would call me, but I’m not his mom, nor am I prepared to be, not when I’m single, a full-time grad student, unable to financially provide.”

“I’m sorry.  What is your name again?”

“Erika.”

“Listen, Erika, I don’t think he’s mine, but, if he was, I would of course financially provide for him, but I live on the road.  I live out of a trailer.  My life is spent in parking lots of fairgrounds across the country—“

“Then you might need to make some changes to your life.  Your son needs you.”

“I just found out five minutes ago I might have a kid, and now you’re telling me to drop everything?”

“I had to when they called and said April was gone, and the baby isn’t even mine.  Beck is yours—“

“I think you assume too much.”

“Then let’s just get the test done, and we’ll have the answer you need.”

She nodded at the baby beginning to squirm against his chest.  “And the answer he needs, too.”

“Erika, it’s my granddad’s birthday today and I’m only home for a few days.  We can’t do this here, and now.  Not in front of my family.  It’s not fair to them—“

“What about Beck?”

“He has no idea what we’re discussing.”

“So you’re not going to introduce him to your family?”

“No.  Not until we know, and there’s no way to know definitely now.  Tomorrow I’m back on the road, heading to Idaho and then Oregon and I’ll find a place to take a paternity test this week.  I’m sure there’s somewhere I could hit on the way, but until we have paternity squared away, I’m not going to turn myself inside out, or put my family through unnecessary drama, not without proof that that baby is mine.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t believe April.” He returned the baby to her, carefully, but firmly.  “I can promise you I wasn’t the only one she was seeing.  April told me about some of the others.”

Her jaw dropped.  She adjusted Beck in her arms.  “Why would she do that?”

He shrugged.  “Make me jealous.”

“Did it work?”

“I feel like we’re going down the wrong path with this conversation, so I’m going to walk you to your car, see you off, and we can talk more tomorrow.”

“Once you’re on the road.”

“Yes.”

“You’re running away.”

“No, not running away.  But I can promise you one thing, we’re not going to continue this here, now—“  Billy broke off as the kitchen door opened and laughter filled the kitchen as his brothers trooped in.  He shot Erika a hard look, his expression fierce.  “Not a word, not to any of them.”

 

One minute it was just Billy and her, and the next, the kitchen was full of Wyatt men—one cowboy after another, the vintage kitchen alive with deep, masculine voices, broad shoulders, and intense testosterone.  The brothers, clearly they were all brothers except for the grandfather, had a remarkable family resemblance, with thick hair ranging from dark gold to a sun kissed brown.  Their eyes were all light, and they each had the same features, strong jaws, straight noses, high cheekbones.  Looking at the older man, she could see they’d inherited their rugged good looks from him, as he was the same, only more weathered with silver and hair and piercing blue eyes.

The boisterous Wyatts drew up short when they spotted her.  She knew the moment each noticed the baby, as their expressions changed, one by one, from open to surprised to guarded.  She felt much the same facing them and her heart raced, making her feel anxious all over.

“Don’t mind me,” she said brightly, trying to hide her nerves, and just how much Billy had rattled her.  “I’m on my way out.”

One of the brothers looked to Billy, but Billy said nothing.

She lifted her purse, which also served as a diaper bag, and headed for the door, stepping between the cluster of men.  As she lifted her cheerful yellow flower strewn coat, the older man spoke, his voice deep, almost gruff.  “No need to rush away.  Nice to have visitors up here.”

“She’s got to get back to town,” Billy said flatly, again giving her that same don’t-try-me look.   “The baby needs to eat and nap.”  His gaze locked with hers, the blue in his eyes almost icy.  “It’s what you’d said, right?”

She stared into his eyes, anxiety fading, anger growing.  Who did he think he was?  She held his gaze another moment, letting him know she wasn’t intimidated, or impressed.  He didn’t care about his son, or April.  He didn’t seem to care for anyone but himself.  “Not exactly,” she answered, not bothering to smile or soften her tone.  “But I will go, as you’ve asked, and since you’ve promised to call me in the morning, I look forward to speaking to you then.”

Erika then looked to the others, nodding stiffly at the circle of men, hating the lump filling her throat.  “Goodbye,” she said, before glancing at the senior Wyatt, the Billy said was celebrating his birthday today.  “Happy birthday, Mr. Wyatt.  I hope it’s a happy one.”  Then she opened the door, stepped out, and closed it firmly behind her.

It had grown cold and windy while she’d been in the house, steely clouds blanketing the sky, hiding the sun.  Jaw tight, Erika buckled Beck into his car seat, hating the hot emotions rushing through her, making her feel too many things.  She was angry, and appalled.  She’d known Billy was a playboy, a man who had a woman in every town at every rodeo, but she’d expected him to be a little more interested in his son.

How could April have fallen for him?  What had she seen in him?  Other than a handsome face and lean, muscular body?

The mudroom door opened and Billy appeared on the back porch.  Erika shot him a look of pure disdain as she closed the walked around the car to the driver’s side.

“Hold up,” he said.

She arched an eyebrow.  “Excuse me?”

“Could you please wait?” he replied, closing the distance between them.

She tugged her coat closer.  “Why?”

“My grandfather would like you to join us for dinner.”

She stood even straighter.  “Why?”

“It’s his birthday.”

“No, I know that.  But why would he want me to join you for dinner?  Did you say something to him?”

“No.  What would you want me to say?”

“That there is a very good chance that Beck is your baby, and your grandfather’s great grandson.”

“Not going to do that until we know for sure.”

“Because it’d get his hopes up?”

“Because my brother Joe and his wife Sophie are expecting a baby late spring, the first Wyatt grandbaby for my mother, and I’m not going to steal Joe and Sophie’s thunder, not unless it’s absolutely essential.”

“Seems like everybody’s feelings are more important than a five-month-old baby’s needs.”

His jaw tightened.  “You’re a stranger, and you show up on our doorstep with a baby and a photobook, claiming I’m it’s dad—“

“He’s not an it.  Beck is a person, a boy—“

“–and you don’t expect me to be suspicious?  I’m supposed to believe whatever you say without any proof?”

“What do I gain by making false claims?”

He shrugged.  “Money.”

Stunned, revolted, she stepped back, bumping hard into the mirror on the side of her car.  “Wow.  Did you really just say that?”

He shrugged.  “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Maybe you should keep your junk in your pants then—“

“I wasn’t talking about me.”

Her face burned hot but she held his icy blue gaze, unable to remember when she was last so angry.  “Please apologize to your grandfather, but I can’t stay.  I have a room booked in town, at the Bramble House, and maybe after your dinner you can spare me five minutes of your incredibly valuable time.”

“You make it very difficult to have a conversation with you.”

“Whereas you’re just not ever available for a conversation.”

“Can I just say that your hostility—” he broke off as two women came into view, walking up the road, one with dark brown hair and visibly pregnant carrying packages, while the other, a slim brunette in tight jeans and boots, held a cake stand with an extravagantly frosted birthday cake.

Erika felt the scrutiny of the women as they approached.  Her chin notched up a fraction, even as her stomach did a flip flop.  She felt anxious and defensive and hated it.  “That’s a beautiful cake,” she said, forcing a smile.

The woman carrying the cake nodded to the pregnant woman.  “Sophie made it.  She’s our resident baker.”

“Hope you’re staying to have some,” Sophie said.  “We have plenty.”  She gave the packages to Billy and extended her hand.  “I’m Sophie Wyatt, Joe’s wife.  Welcome to the Diamond W Ranch.”

“Erika Bay,” Erika answered, grateful for Sophie’s friendliness.  “I met your husband inside.”  She  looked at the cowgirl with the cake.  “And probably yours?”

“Sam,” the cowgirl answered, one of her long braids slipping over her shoulder.  “I’m Ivy Wyatt.  We don’t live here, just visiting for the day.  I’m going to get the cake inside, but please don’t rush away.  Sophie and I love when we can add more girls to the mix.  Balances out some of the intense male energy.”  She started for the cabin and then paused.  “Billy, bring Grandad’s presents in.  Let Sophie have a moment with Erika while you and I set the table.”

Billy’s mouth open, closed.  He glowered at Ivy, who simply arched an eyebrow, not at all intimidated.  Erika was impressed.  And not just with Ivy, but Sophie, too.  Clearly these women knew how to handle their men.

Billy shot her an indecipherable look, before following Ivy up the porch and into the house.

As the door shut behind Billy, Sophie gave Erika a bright smile.  “He can be charming.”

Erika couldn’t find it in her to smile back.  “What have you heard, if anything?”

“That there was a possible Wyatt baby sighting.”  Sophie patted her round stomach.  “Other than this one.”

Heat rushed through Erika.  “I didn’t say anything to the others—“

“You didn’t have to.  According to Joe, he looks like a Wyatt baby.”

“What does a Wyatt baby look like?”

“Take a peek in the hall. There are framed photos of every Wyatt baby going back three generations.”  Sophie gave her a curious look.  “Unless Joe has it wrong?”

“I don’t think so.”  Erika saw’s Sophie’s expression and added, “He’s my cousin’s baby, not mine, and she’s gone.  I’m trying to find Beck’s dad.”

“And you think Beck’s dad is Billy?”

Erika nodded.  “But then, I might have put two and two together and gotten five, which is why I’m here to ask Billy to take a DNA test.”

“Sounds fair.”

“Only my timing is terrible.  I didn’t mean to crash Mr. Wyatt’s party, or to….” She swallowed hard, finding the words uncomfortable.  “Or, take away from your baby—“

“You’re not taking away from my baby.  He—or she—is snug as a bug here.”  Sophie gave her tummy a little rub.  “But it does seem like a long way to go to find Bill.  He’s not here often.”

“I know, but one of the girls dating Tommy heard that Billy and Tommy would be at the family ranch this weekend, so I piled us in the car and headed north.”  Erika glanced into the backseat of the car.  “Billy’s hard to get alone.  He almost always has…company.”

Sophie’s brown gaze glinted with humor, as well as something else.  “He’s popular.”

She crossed to the open door of the car and peeked in at the sleeping baby.  “You said his name is Beck?”

“Beck Wyatt Estes.  He was born late last November, right before Thanksgiving.”

“And his mom?  She’s passed?”

“She died in a car accident a month ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

Sophie sounded sincere and Erika appreciated it.  It had bothered Erika that the world didn’t seem to care that April was gone.  Erika knew the world could be a hard and brutal place, but this absence of grief for her cousin wounded her.   “April had kept the arrival of the baby to herself.  No one in our family knew.  I only knew when the police called me, notifying me that she’d been killed and I was her emergency contact.”

“How awful, and how tragic for Beck to lose his mom that way.”

Emotion thickened Erika’s chest, making it hard to swallow, and impossible to speak.  She blinked hard, clearing the burning sensation from her eyes.  She’d felt together, strong, until now.  Sophie’s sympathy was proving to be her undoing.  “He hasn’t had the easiest start in life,” she agreed hoarsely.

“You two both need to come inside and relax.  We have a big dinner planned for Grandad.  Brisket, ribs, and pulled pork.  There’s a lot of food, and always room at the Wyatt table.”

Erika looked to the old two-story cabin, thinking of Billy’s expression as he walked away.  “I don’t think everyone wants us here.”

“This is Melvin’s house, not Billy’s, and it’s Melvin’s birthday, not Billy’s.  And Melvin and Summer want you here.  And so do I.  Please stay, at least for dinner?  There’s no need for you to hustle down the mountain if you have nowhere specific to be.”

Again Erika blinked back the sting of hot salty tears.  She was tired, no, make that exhausted, and the idea of being with people, kind people, even just for a bit, was certainly appealing.  “If you’re sure no one would mind—“ she broke off, made a face.  “—Other than Billy.”

“No one minds, and I bet Billy doesn’t, either.  He’s just…surprised.  And let’s face it, the news that he could be a daddy to that baby boy is huge.  It’s news that could change his life forever.”

 

An hour later, Erika was fast asleep in a big, winged chair in the Wyatt living room, while Ivy, Sophie, and Sam took turns carrying the baby around.  Erika had protested that she wasn’t tired, but when she sat down to give Beck a bottle, she fell asleep, and Beck didn’t.  Sam eased the baby out of Erika’s arms, Ivy covered her with a blanket, and they all let her be to catch up on some much needed sleep.

Grandad peeked in at one point and then left, remarking to Billy that, “she reminds me a little of Goldilocks.”

Billy had no reply to that, not at all comfortable with how protective his family was being of Erika and the baby.  There was a very good chance that the baby wasn’t his and it worried him that they were all getting a little too attached.

While dinner cooked, Summer pulled Billy aside, speaking to him in the den.  “So what are you going to do?” she asked her son, sinking in to her recliner.

Billy chose not to sit, and he shrugged, fighting back his irritation. “Take a paternity test, figure it out.”

“I think it’s smart to get a paternity test, but I can tell you right now, that is your baby. That, or one of your brothers.”

Billy’s head swiveled, his narrowed gaze meeting his mom’s. “You’re reaching, Mom.”

Her lips pursed, her gaze sharp. “That’s a Wyatt baby, Bill.  I’ve had four of them, and that’s what you all looked like. Round bald heads, peaches and cream skin, big blue eyes, happy smiles. You came out looking like cherubs. Not sure why, because once you grew up, you weren’t angelic creatures.”

“Thanks, Mom.” He paced the room, his shoulders hunching as he approached the window, his gaze going to the view of the barn and stables beyond. “If it’s mine, it will change everything.”

“Babies generally do.” His mom leaned back in her chair, hands folding on her lap. “That baby needs a home.  It’s your responsibility now to give him that home. It might be time to retire –”

“Lots of guys compete with families. Sometimes the families go on the road, sometimes they waited home –”

“You have a baby without a mama. Who’s going to take care of your baby wall you travel? Certainly not my job, not your granddad’s job, not any of your brothers’ job –”

“We don’t even know if that baby is mine.”

“Then go to Marietta tomorrow and take a test.  I’m sure there’s a lab at the hospital that does paternity tests.”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday.”

“Then go, Monday.”

“I need to get on the road Monday.”

“Yes, you do.  Right after you take the test.”

Billy closed his eyes and pressed two fingers to his brow, pressing back against the dull thudding pain that had been there all evening.  “I know you’re angry, and disappointed—“

“Mistakes happen, Bill.  It’s what you do after the mistake, that’s what I’m concerned about.”

He gave her a fierce look.  “I know my responsibilities.  If Beck is mine, I’m taking him with me.  I won’t be leaving him behind or pawning him off on someone else.  If he’s my son, I’ll be the one raising him.”

“Good.  That’s all I wanted to hear.”

 

 

end of excerpt

Montana Cowboy Daddy is currently available in digital format only:

Tule Publishing

ISBN: 9781953647207

April 1, 2021

Montana Cowboy Daddy

Extras

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