The Cowboy's Baby Surprise. Linda Conrad
“Oh, Wi—” no sense confusing him by calling him a name he would likely not recognize “—cowboy,” she choked. “I imagine you can handle me just fine.”
If I can manage to control myself around you.
By the time Witt ushered her into the kitchen of the main house, Carley had regained, at least, partial control of her emotions. First things first. She needed to address him by a name that wouldn’t be disorienting.
When he handed her a glass of water, she noticed her hands were shaking, but decided to ignore them.
“The name’s Carley,” she said, with more emphasis than necessary. “Carley Mills. What’s yours?”
“Carley?” He took her free hand in both of his. “Nice name for such a dainty lady.”
He grinned at her and she smiled back, not feeling the least bit happy.
“I’m known as Houston…Houston Smith, ma’am. I kinda run the ranch operation around here. You know…the horses and cattle?”
He’d suddenly spoken with cool politeness. She sensed it was as if he’d just remembered that strangers could mean trouble…even “dainty” strangers. His wary distance shattered her heart.
Would she be able to keep herself from pouring pent up desires and dreams all over him?
“And just what brings such a delicate flower to our little corner of Texas, Carley?” He released her hand and motioned for her to take one of the twelve chairs at the wooden kitchen table.
“I’m hardly what one might call delicate… Houston.” She continued to stand but swallowed a big gulp of water to soothe her raspy throat. It didn’t help. She was feeling dizzy, shaky and…delicate. Darn it.
At well over five-eight and a former world-class swimmer, delicate and dainty had never before been words used to describe her. But just now she felt weak-kneed and small.
“I’ve come to Casa de Valle to take over the psychologist’s job while he’s on temporary leave,” she managed past the huge lump in her throat.
“You’re a head doctor?”
“I have a doctorate in child psychology, yes.”
“Should I call you Dr. Carley?”
“Some people address me as Doctor, but I’d prefer you call me Carley.”
“I see. But what were you doing out in the—”
Houston was interrupted by a young girl’s voice coming from the hallway. “Miz Mills?” The teenager appeared in the kitchen doorway carrying the one-year-old, currently whiny, Cami. “Oh, there you are, ma’am.”
When Cami recognized her mother, she started to shriek. “Ma…Ma…Yeee!”
Carley pulled her daughter from the teenager’s arms. “Hush, baby. Mama’s right here.”
“I’m sorry, Miz Mills. I tried to put her down for a nap, but she wouldn’t have any part of it. Then she started to cry and I couldn’t find anything to make her happy.” In Carley’s professional opinion, the round-faced girl appeared to be feeling guilty.
“Don’t worry about it, Rosie. It’s just the new place and strange people. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Carley wiped a few crocodile tears from Cami’s cheeks, but nothing she did consoled her daughter. “I’m sure she’ll adjust just fine after a few days. Until then, don’t hesitate to bring her to me if she seems distraught.”
“Yes’um. I gotta get back now. You want me to take her again?” The earnest young girl looked panicked at the thought but was brave enough to ask.
“No, thanks.” Carley found herself nearly shouting over Cami’s cries. “Tomorrow is soon enough for a repeat performance. I’ll keep her with me for now.”
Rosie beamed with relief and beat a hasty retreat.
Carley inspected Cami until the toddler became uncomfortable with the perusal and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, still sobbing and heaving heavy sighs. Carley patted her daughter’s back and stroked Cami’s hair as she turned to the man who’d been so silent through the whole scene. He looked rather shell-shocked.
“Anything wrong, Houston?” Carley tensed in anticipation. Witt had never seen his daughter before—hadn’t even known of her existence before his disappearance, but Cami’s resemblance to him was unmistakable. Had he suddenly noticed? Had the sight of his daughter triggered some inner memory?
The man who used to be Witt Davidson drawled a question in his languid, Texas accent. “That your daughter?”
“Yes. Her name is Camille. I named her after your—her grandmother. Her father’s mother.” Carley always wondered what Witt would say the first time he saw their daughter.
“Another pretty name for another pretty little thing.”
That wasn’t the way her dreams had gone. “Thank you. We call her Cami.” Carley did her best to hold back the burning tears suddenly welling at the corners of her eyes.
With the first sound of Witt’s voice, Cami had quieted. Now, at the mention of her name, Cami raised her head to stare at the new person making the baritone sounds. When she spotted him, her whole face lit up. She pointed a finger in his direction. “Da!”
Carley grabbed Cami’s hand and held it to her chest. “Don’t point, sweetie. It’s not polite.”
Houston Smith narrowed his eyes and studied the baby who was inspecting him with matching intensity. Something about this woman’s child seemed familiar.
During the long months he’d lived in the Rio Grande Valley he’d learned to cope with the distressing feeling that everything, and everyone, seemed somehow familiar. But the sensation was particularly strong with Carley Mills and her baby.
As Gabe and Doc Luisa had kindly pointed out, a man without a past might easily mistake an enemy for a friend. He couldn’t imagine Carley being an enemy, but everything was not as it appeared with her, either.
After all, what was a refined and citified-looking woman doing at a children’s home in rural South Texas? The suit she wore probably cost more than she’d make working here in six months. And then there was the matter of her being out in the yard in the middle of the day, dressed to kill and without an obvious purpose.
Still…Houston was strangely drawn to her. When he’d put his arm around her shoulders to steady her, he’d felt a searing heat. Her nearness caused his flesh to jump, and he had a nearly uncontrollable urge to drag her against his chest and smother her with kisses.
He’d controlled his urges with a powerful effort. He’d been so careful up to now. So watchful all this time. His condition, when Dr. Luisa found him close to death and dumped along the side of a farm road, led both of them to believe someone had meant to finish the job and kill him. If that were true, somewhere in the world someone might still be after him. Was it possible this woman was a threat to him?
The baby raised her arms toward him. “Up. Pick me…me…now.”
Carley tried to grab her daughter’s attention. “No, honey. The man can’t hold you right now. You mustn’t beg strangers to pick you up, Cami. It could be dangerous.”
Houston smiled at the baby, but there was no way he was touching that kid. She made him uncomfortable without his really knowing why.
Carley turned to him, an embarrassed smile on her face. “Sorry. She’s usually timid around people she’s never seen before. I do thank you for quieting her down, though. I’d hate having to wait for her to be still on her own.” She scrutinized him with an unsettling gaze. “You must be good with kids.”
“No.” He backed up a step and changed