©2016 Sara F. (Walter) Ellwood, all rights reserved
“I’m sorry, but I can’t ride you right now.” Emily kissed the horse above her nose, and Tink nuzzled her cheek. “We’ll go out tomorrow. How about that?”
“I remember when you rode that horse everywhere you went.”
Startled by the deep voice, she turned. EJ Cowley leaned on the top rail of the fence, and from the look of it, he’d been there for a while. He’d changed out of the brown uniform of the McAllister County sheriff’s department. She couldn’t help looking him over. Dressed in worn boots, faded jeans, a blue western shirt, and a brown Stetson, he epitomized every sexy cliché existing about how a cowboy should look.
Her heart sped up at the way those clothes fit him. Which irritated the hell out of her. She turned back to her horse and stroked her long face. “What are you doing here?”
“My sister-in-law watches my son while I’m at work.”
She stilled. Had she been quasi-lusting after a married man? Hadn’t he married Raquel Marshall? She glanced over her shoulder at his left hand. No ring. But then a lot of cowboys didn’t wear their wedding bands when they were working. The risk of getting it caught on something was too great.
Despite his clothes, he must have come off duty as the county’s ticket-happy sheriff not too long ago. She patted Tink’s shoulder. “See you in the morning, girl.” As she headed toward the man, who was not hiding the fact he appreciated what he saw, she guessed he wasn’t still married, but she’d been around the world a few times and knew not to take a man’s blatant interest as proof of anything. “You have a son. How is Raquel these days?”
She was close enough to notice his gray eyes had turned as haunted as a gravestone when she asked about his wife. He looked to the left, toward his brother’s house, and from the way a muscle twitched in his jaw, he must have gritted his teeth.
“She committed suicide two years ago today.”
“Oh… I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” She stammered. What else had happened to the people she’d once considered friends she was unaware of? “How old is your little boy?”
He took a deep breath and met her gaze again. She studied his eyes as they moved over her face. God, he had the most fascinating eyes. They weren’t truly blue, but the gray was an odd shade. Too light to be slate, but too dark to be silver. They reminded her of her great-grandmother’s pewter candleholders.
As silence engulfed them, she turned to head for the gate. She had no idea what was up with the sheriff, and she didn’t like her desire to ask. EJ Cowley may have filled her schoolgirl fantasies, but she wasn’t the wide-eyed kid who crushed after the local cowboy-turned-soldier.
At the sound of her name, she glanced past EJ to the porch. Johnny stood there with his toy lightsaber and x-wing. She promised to play a video game with her brother. “Well, it was good seeing you again, EJ.”
She was halfway across the drive when his voice stopped her. “By the way”–He cleared his throat–“I lost your ticket…”
Stopping in the middle of the driveway, she looked over her shoulder at him. His face puckered as if he’d eaten a lemon soaked in vinegar. He took his hat off and ran a hand through his short hair. The setting sun turned the tresses a gleaming gold.
“You lost it?” Damned if she’d make it easy on him. “After going through all the trouble of stopping me a mile away from home?”
Setting his hat back on his head, he cleared his throat again and stood with his feet apart. He gave a quick jerk with his head in the affirmative. “Can’t find it anywhere. No ticket. No proof. You’re off the hook.”
Holy crap, he was gorgeous, and heat flooded her to pool in her belly. She turned, not wanting him to see the way he affected her, and headed for the porch, then lied through her teeth. “Good, because I’ve already tossed it.” She had every intention of paying the fine, but she was glad he lost the ticket. No decent cop would lose a ticket. Maybe he did it out of remembrance of their childhood friendship. Or was he as attracted to her as she was to him?
With an inward shake of herself, she didn’t let a possible answer formulate in her muddled brain. She couldn’t be anything to him. You’re pregnant with another man’s child and don’t need the added stress! At the door into the kitchen, she ruffled Johnny’s hair and turned, ignoring her self-admonishment. “See you around, EJ.”
“Yeah… See you around.” He tipped his hat and turned on his heel to amble toward his extended cab Silverado.
From inside the screen door, she watched the way he filled out the backside of his Wrangler’s and muttered, “Hell yeah, I hope so.”
Emily refolded the two pairs and headed out to the display of jeans. As she put the pants back into their slots, she glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to see her. Her heart pounded in time with the fast beat of the song playing over the sound system as she reached the cubbyholes marked maternity. With another discreet look around, she picked out three pairs in her size and headed back to the tiny dressing room.
The jeans fit perfectly, but how the hell was she going to buy them? She refolded the pants, tucked them under her arm, and went to the shoe section. While she looked for a pair of boots, she devised a plan. If she was lucky, maybe no one would notice she’d bought maternity jeans.
“I personally like Justin boots, but I work in mine.”
She sucked in a breath at the low timbre of EJ’s voice behind her. Was he everywhere in this town? Turning with a box of boots, she smiled. “It would seem that we have something in common then. I’ve always like them, too.”
He raised a brow and a side of his mouth quirked up when he noticed the boots she’d chosen. A basic pair used mostly for riding and work. “You taking up cowboying now?”
She set the clothes she’d chosen on the bench beside her and sat to try on the boots. As she slipped off her flip-flops, she dug a pair of socks out of her purse. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I need a pair of boots to ride in.” She looked up at him with a smug smile. “Now that you know why I’m here.” She looked over his uniform. Tan polyester blend shouldn’t fit a man that sinfully well. “You’re obviously working. I want to know why you’re following me.”
He rubbed a hand over his chin and averted his gaze. “I…eh… Saw you come into the store and wanted to ask if you’d join me for coffee.”
Was he asking her out on a date? Trying hard and failing to stop her heart from speeding up at the possibility, she pulled on her socks. “I don’t drink coffee.”
“Well, then I guess you’ll have to join me for lunch.”
As she tugged on one of the boots, she looked up at him. His pewter eyes held a challenge in them. She pulled on the other one and stood. Damn, they were too tight. Ignoring the pinching of the boots, she put her hands on her hips. “Tell you what. You can drink coffee and I’ll drink tea, how does that sound? I had breakfast not too long ago.”
He glanced at her feet, then knelt down in front of her.
“What are you doing?” She took a step back, but he caught her foot.
“You look like you’re trying to stuff your feet into a shoe three sizes too small.” He squeezed around her booted foot, then glanced up at her. “Boots are supposed to fit like a glove not a vise.”
Holy hell, he looked hot down there. She couldn’t get enough air in her lungs.
EJ stood and pulled the next size off the self. “Try these.”
He was close enough that every breath she took filled her senses with his clean outdoorsy scent. How could a man smell this good?
“Are you a boot salesman as well as the sheriff?” Did that husky voice belong to her?
“I know something about boots.” He grinned, showing off straight white teeth and full kissable lips.
Stepping back, she bumped into her pile of clothes on the bench, knocking them to the floor in front of him. Before she could bend to pick them up, he knelt and gathered up a pair of the jeans. When he shifted his surprised gaze to hers, she trembled as icy fear replaced the heat of attraction in her gut.
She knelt next to him and took a deep breath. In a low tone, she said, “Yes, I’m pregnant, but I’m not ready to let it be common knowledge.”
He refolded the jeans and set them on the bench. “Then your secret is safe with me. How were you planning to buy these? The clerk would see what they are.”
She set a folded pair on top of the one he’d placed on the bench and shifted to sit beside them. “I know. I was hoping I could distract her enough that she wouldn’t notice what she was ringing through.”
He leaned against the shelf of boots behind him. “Not a half-bad plan.”
Needing to do something besides stare at him, she lifted one of the boots out of the box he’d given her and pulled it on. A much better fit. She slipped into the other boot.
“You could let me buy them.”
Excerpt 3 (Beginning of Chapter 1)
Emily Kendall was tired of life-changing events. She’d had enough. But God or whatever fate controlled the universe wasn’t done fucking with her life. “Are you sure? Hell, it’s been weeks since I’ve even seen my husband, let alone had sex. Maybe the test was wrong.”
She’d heard many life-changing words in her twenty-two years. The first had come when she was fourteen and discovered superstar country singer Seth Kendall was her biological father. A few weeks after that revelation, the man she’d grown up loving as her father had shot her real dad and planned to kidnap her to sell into sex slavery. She shuddered and rubbed her hands over the pricking of goose bumps on her bare arms.
Since then, a lot had happened. She’d become a famous country music star. Most people would even argue that she was more famous than her dad, who helped her get her first record deal when she was barely fifteen. She broke sales records set by some of the best singers in the business, won countless awards, and sponsored everything from acne creams to jeans.
When she was three months shy of turning twenty, she’d met the British pop star Fabian McPhee. They’d collaborated on a TV special for the CMT network. He was fifteen years older than her, mega famous, and super sexy. A month later while she was on tour in Australia, he’d asked her out to a nightclub.
That night had been full of firsts. Fabian introduced her to what would become her drugs of choice—cocaine and gin. Then, she’d lost her virginity to him. She’d thought she was in love. He was like no one she’d ever known. Despite her parents’ outrage over their tabloid-crazed, whirlwind relationship, two months after their first date they were married by Fabian’s drummer, who happened to be an ordained minister from some online course he’d taken.
The medical director of the facility sitting across the wide, gleaming oak desk leaned forward and clasped his hands. “Your blood test isn’t wrong. You are pregnant.”
“Fuck.” She was on a birth control shot, but she’d forgotten to get it. The last time she’d seen Fabian had been about six weeks ago. They’d had sex, but she thought he’d used a condom. She couldn’t remember much of the event, like most of their two years of married life together. They’d split up ten months ago, but neither of them had gotten around to filing for divorce or could resist an occasional tumble in the sack or getting high together.
Not able to sit still any longer, she stood to pace the length of the posh office and folded her arms tightly around herself to stave off the shivering. At the same time sweat ran along her hairline and down the side of her face. She’d been here for three days and already wanted to get the hell out of the medical facility. “How far along am I?”
Dr. Barton slid his finger over the screen of the computer tablet on his desk. “According to the history you gave the nurse who checked you in and your hCG level…” When she furrowed her brows trying to remember what the letters stood for, he clarified, “Pregnancy hormone. You would have to be six weeks.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her skin was too tight and hot. A coating of sweat caused her fingers to stick together, and she wiped her shaky hands on her jeans. Turning toward the window, she stared out at the woodland park surrounding the Fernwood Rehabilitation Center. In the past three years, she’d checked into the facility’s drug and alcohol program to sober up three times, and each admission had been against her will. She didn’t belong here because she wasn’t an addict. Whose business was it if she went a little too far this last time and was booed off stage? The venue, if a college auditorium could justify that name, sucked anyway.
This news was the last thing she needed to hear. She turned and vigorously rubbed her arms, needing a hit right now. The desire for a line of coke brought to mind another issue. She remembered when her mother had been pregnant with her brother five years ago she wouldn’t even take Tylenol for her headaches. Did she honestly want to know the answer to what all the coke she’d snorted could have done to her baby if her mother had been afraid to take something as harmless as over-the-counter pain pills? But she had to know if she’d harmed her child. “Do you know if the baby is okay?”
Dr. Barton stood to come around his desk. He leaned his backside on the heavy oak edge and folded his hands before him. “I don’t know. Emily, there is a chance your baby will be born with problems. You are an addict.” He held up his hand when she started to protest. “No, I’m not listening to your rationalizations. You’ve got to stop the drugs.”
“I can quit. I have before.”
He took a deep breath that made his shoulders rise, then fall. “And yet here you are again. Why were you admitted this time?”
She needed to get the hell away. “My manager has gotten a little too big for her pants.” Maybe she should fire Trish Russell for talking her into even thinking about this place again. Trish had been her manager for three years, ever since she was promoted by her father-in-law and took Emily on as one of her first clients. She considered Trish one of her few true friends, but, sometimes, the older woman was a pain in the ass.
With a huff of derision, she spun on her heels, which made her lose her balance as dizziness whipped her world out of control. Grabbing the back of the chair to keep from falling over, she tossed over her shoulder, “I think we’re done here.”
“Emily, I’ll let you go as soon as you tell me why you are here.”
She stopped halfway to the door. If she didn’t answer him, he’d only follow her. Letting out a long breath, she stared at the white-painted ceiling. “I’m here because I was too high to sing.”
The past five shows were a blur. Nothing fun or amazing about any of them. No fans waiting for her to autograph their T-shirts. But then again, when had she last taken the time to talk to her fans after a show? How long had it been since she did anything special for them? Once upon a time, she’d put on massive productions in front of stadiums full to bursting with screaming, adoring fans.
Her last tour hadn’t even sold out to rundown opera houses and college auditoriums. In the early days, she’d arrange spontaneous private showings for more fans than had showed up for her current tour. She’d simply leave a date, time, and place on Twitter and a hundred or more of her fans would come for a show. When had she last sent one of her own Tweets? She knew Kelly, her assistant, did all of her social media crap for her these days.
“I’m here because my record label said if I don’t sober up, they’re cutting me.”
“They aren’t happy with you?”
She shrugged and started pacing again. The temperature of the room seemed to increase with each pass across the shrinking floor space. “No. My last album is six months past due its production deadline. But I can’t help that all the songs suck.”
“Why do they suck?”
Turning, she met the doctor’s steady gaze. She wanted to tell Dr. Barton her label and her manager had sabotaged her by giving her shit songs, but she couldn’t. Were the songs bad? Her father’s old friend, pop superstar Amanda Lang, had written four of them and had given them to Emily as a gift, despite three other singers wanting them. The other two songs she’d recorded were from an award-winning songwriter, and they, too, had been sought after by the best in the business.
She blinked when the realization hit her. The songs weren’t the problem nor were the studio musicians playing on the record. She was. “I don’t want to talk about my career. I want to talk about my baby. Is there any way we can determine if it’s okay?” As she laid her trembling hand on her belly, she silently prayed to a God she doubted would listen to anything she asked of Him. Please let my baby be okay.
Dr. Barton looked down at his hands, then went back to his big leather chair and sat. “I’d like you to meet with a colleague of mine. Doctor Marcella Summers is an OB/Gynecologist who specializes in babies born to addicted mothers. She’d be the person who might know the answer to your question.”
She faced the wide windows again, but the early summer day and the forested mountains surrounding the center weren’t what she saw. “Okay.”
How was she going to handle a baby? Hell, she could barely take care of herself. What if it had a major problem from all the crap she’d put into her body?
She closed her eyes and fisted her hand over her belly. Dear God, what would Fabian say about the baby? He’d warned her when they got married he didn’t want any kids. Would he blame the pregnancy on her as he had many other things over the past two years?
“Emily, I don’t know an addict who easily admits they are one.” Dr. Barton broke into a tirade of questions bombarding her. “By your own admission, you use cocaine at least four times a week, but most weeks you use it every day.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him. He swiped his finger over his tablet, then paused to read more of her medical record. “In August twenty-eighteen, your father admitted you to Fernwood when he found you passed out on your tour bus. According to your blood toxin levels, you were only a snort of coke away from overdosing; then in June of last year, you were admitted after falling off stage and breaking your arm. Again, your blood work showed dangerous amounts of cocaine and alcohol.”
Although she snickered at the memory, the humor choked in her throat, and she sobered. That had been her last stadium show. Tabloid and entertainment reporters hounded her after her release from Fernwood. Fabian’s own career also took a nosedive when he was arrested for drunk driving and resisting arrest. The two of them and their antics had been a favorite topic in even mainstream news since then.
He cleared his throat and folded his hands in front of him. “Your blood results weren’t as toxic this time, but if you don’t make an honest attempt to get clean and stay clean, not only will you jeopardize your child, you’re going to end up dead.”
The truth smacked her hard in the gut. She was an addict. Up until now, she never believed she was one. She used coke and drank gin because she liked them, not because she couldn’t live without them. At the reality, she curled her hand into a fist over the sour pain in her belly and admitted to herself she used drugs to deal with life and all of its shit.
Would she have become screwed up if she’d never met Fabian McPhee? Or had she been destined to a life of drug use due to her messed up childhood and sudden superstardom? Who knew? She hated the man who first introduced her to drugs and destroyed much of her life. Her country music career was dead, and the fans she’d garnered when she put out a total pop album a year and half ago at Fabian’s insistence had abandoned her. She hadn’t spoken to or seen her parents, except from a distance at award shows, since her marriage. Since severing her ties with her mom and dad, she hadn’t seen her four-year-old brother. Now, she was responsible for developing a tiny baby who may end up paying for her lousy judgment.
She turned and met the doctor’s patient brown eyes. The man had to be a saint to manage the care of spoiled brat idiots like her. “Okay, Dr. Barton. I’m an addict. I use coke because I can’t deal with life.” She squared her shoulders and let out a breath. “There, I owned it. Set up the appointment with the OB. But there’s something else I’d like you to do.” One of the conditions of admission into Fernwood was no contact with the outside world except for approved visitors on an extremely short list. “I want to file for divorce before I tell Fabian about the baby.”
The doctor’s surprise registered in the slightest widening of his eyes. “If that is want you want.”
Emily couldn’t help the snort as she sat in the chair in front of the desk again. “Oh, don’t be coy, Dr. Barton. I know you’ve been hoping I’d ditch Fabian McPhee since the first time my father dragged my sorry ass into this place a year and a half ago.” She looked at her hands as a rare moment of clarity blasted away the rosy sheen she’d painted over her life with her husband. “My counselor is right. Fabian and I do have a crazy love type of relationship. He might not beat me, but he has made me dependent on him by making me an addict.”
For the first time in years, she felt relief flood over her. She smiled and met the doctor’s eyes again. “For my baby and for me, I have to get away from him.”
Excerpt 4 (HOT)
She gave him a skeptical smile and rested her hands on either side of his face. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
Her fuck-me smoky voice broke his control to hell. As their lips collided in a hot, demanding kiss, he wrapped his arms around her and shifted to lay her on the bed. She threaded her fingers into his hair and held on as their tongues slid together in an erotic mimic of sex. Needing to touch her, he grabbed the bottom of her t-shirt and pulled it up. They broke the kiss long enough for him to pull it over her head. While she made short work of the buttons of his shirt, he hovered above her and drank in the beauty of her full breasts encased in a black lace bra that left little to the imagination.
“God, you’re beautiful.” He shrugged out of his shirt. “I have condoms if you want me to use them. I haven’t been with a woman since Raquel and–”
She placed a finger over his lips to stop his words and shook her head. “I trust you and I’m okay. I was tested for everything under the sun while in rehab”–a smile tugged at the corner of her lips as she rested her hand on the swell of her belly–“and obviously we don’t need them for any other reason.”
“Good. I hate those things.”
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