Authors: Carla Cassidy
Danger and desire collide when
New York Times
bestselling author Carla Cassidy takes us back to Holiday Ranch…
When a baby is abandoned on his doorstep, cowboy Tony Nakni is blindsided. He never wanted to be a father, but his ex-girlfriend is on the run and tells Tony he’s the only person she trusts to keep little Joey safe. Struggling with the infant, Tony turns to caring Mary Redwing for help.
Lovely Mary agrees to help care for the child, but a shared desire simmering between her and Tony soon intensifies the arrangement. As the search for Joey’s mom brings grave danger to their doorstep, Tony’s protective instincts emerge, unearthing the depth of his feelings. But can the rugged rancher save the family he’s falling for…before it’s too late?
Fire danced through his veins.
Mary’s lips were soft and warm, and they only increased Tony’s appetite for more. Her breasts pushed against his chest and the heady scent of her surrounded him. The kiss went on for several long moments, and then she broke it and stepped back from him.
The flames of his own desire shot out of her eyes, letting him know that she’d been as moved by the kiss as he had. “That wasn’t really a good idea,” she said, her voice slightly husky.
He grinned at her. “It wasn’t really a bad idea.” He reached out and tucked a strand of her long hair behind her ear, his fingers noting the silky softness.
“Tony, it wouldn’t be wise for us to indulge in any kind of a relationship other than what we have right now.” She took a step back from him.
“Do we always have to be wise?” he countered.
“I try to be,” she replied. Joey cried out from behind them. “Good night, Tony.”
Be sure to check out the next books
in this exciting miniseries:
Cowboys of Holiday Ranch—Where sun, earth
and hard work turn men into rugged cowboys…
and irresistible heroes!
* * *
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Like my hero, Tony Nakni, I love autumn. I enjoy the cool evening breezes, the changing colors of the tree leaves and that crisp, clean scent that lingers in the air.
However, for Tony autumn brings big changes when his ex-girlfriend drops off a baby and tells him the child is his. Before he can ask any questions she’s gone, and the cowboy is left with the three-month-old baby. In desperation he seeks the help of Mary Redwing, a woman who has secrets of her own.
Tony and Mary not only face an unexpected danger but also a surprising passion. In order to protect the child, they will not only have to put their lives on the line, but also their hearts.
Oh, yes, I love autumn, especially when it brings a shout of danger and a whisper of desire.
I hope you enjoy reading
Operation Cowboy Daddy
, the newest book in the Cowboys of Holiday Ranch series.
is an award-winning,
New York Times
bestselling author who has written more than one hundred and twenty novels for Harlequin. In 1995, she won Best Silhouette Romance from
RT Book Reviews
Anything for Danny
. In 1998, she won a Career Achievement Award for Best Innovative Series from
RT Book Reviews
. Carla believes the only thing better than curling up with a good book to read is sitting down at the computer with a good story to write.
Books by Carla Cassidy
Harlequin Romantic Suspense
Cowboys of Holiday Ranch
The Coltons of Texas
Colton Cowboy Hideout
The Coltons of Oklahoma
The Colton Bodyguard
Men of Wolf Creek
Cold Case, Hot Accomplice
Lone Wolf Standing
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his was Tony Nakni’s favorite time, when the day slowly faded and took on the slightly purple shades of dusk as the sun sank behind the horizon.
He sat outside, in front of his bunk-room door, and drew in a deep breath of the early September evening air. Cicadas clicked and whirred their songs from nearby trees and a cow lowed from the pasture in the distance.
The twelve-unit bunkhouse was quiet for now, but Tony knew it was the calm before a brief storm. In the next half hour or so most of the other cowboys would explode out of their rooms, all of them cleaned up and ready for a Saturday night out on the town.
They’d all head to the Watering Hole. The bar was the place to go for drinking, playing pool or dancing in the small town of Bitterroot, Oklahoma.
Tony only rarely joined the other men on their weekly foray of cutting loose after a long week of work on the ranch. He preferred to unwind by watching the sunset, having a beer and, until recently, talking to Dusty Crawford, who had lived in the bunk room next to Tony’s.
But two weeks ago, Dusty had moved from the Holiday ranch into a house in town with Trisha Cahill and her three-year-old son, Cooper. Dusty had chosen a life path that Tony had no interest in following. Tony had been alone for as long as he could remember and he was most comfortable that way.
He reached down and grabbed a beer from the small cooler at his feet. He twisted off the top, tossed the lid into the cooler, took a sip and leaned back in his chair.
In the distance, lights began to glow from the windows of the big house where Cassie Peterson lived. It was hard to believe that it had been almost five months since owner Cass Holiday had been killed in a spring tornado that had ripped through the area. Everyone had been surprised to learn that she’d left the ranch to her niece, Cassie. Cassie was New York City born and raised and since she’d taken over the ranch there had been many adjustments.
The sixty-eight-year-old Cass had been the only person Tony had completely trusted on the face of the earth. All of the cowboys on the ranch had been a bit lost since her death.
He shoved thoughts of Cass out of his head and instead focused his attention on the colorful sunset currently taking place in the western sky. As far as he was concerned, Bitterroot, Oklahoma, was a little piece of heaven on earth.
He turned his attention to the right as he heard a door open and then smelled the scent of minty soap and heavy spicy cologne.
“Hey, brother.” Sawyer Quincy greeted Tony with a grin. “Why don’t you splash on some good-smelling stuff and come with us into town. Maybe you can find yourself a sexy female to warm your cold, lonely bed.”
Tony grinned back at the tall, russet-haired cowboy. “You have enough smelly stuff on for the both of us. Besides, you never come home with a female. You’re usually carried back from town by the other men.”
Sawyer’s inability to hold his liquor was legendary. It took only a couple of beers for him to be half-comatose. “Don’t remind me,” he said ruefully. “It’s embarrassing that I can ride a wild bronco and wrestle a steer to the ground in record time, but I can’t drink more than three or four beers without getting totally plastered.”
“Have you ever considered not drinking beer at all?”
Sawyer looked at him in mock horror. “What kind of a cowboy doesn’t drink beer?”
Before Tony could reply, several other ranch hands made an appearance from around the corner of the building. Adam Benson, the ranch foreman, was followed by Mac McBride, Brody Booth and Clay Madison.
“You keeping the home fires burning again tonight, Tony?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to nothing more exciting than a good night’s sleep,” he replied.
“I’ll kiss a beautiful lady for you,” Clay said with his usual bravado. “Heck, maybe I’ll kiss two.”
Tony laughed. “Clay, if you actually did as much as you talked, you’d be a real legend. As it is, you’re only a legend in your own mind,” Tony teased.
The others hooted with laughter. There was a bit more ribbing of each other and then they all headed to the outbuilding, where the vehicles were parked. Minutes later headlights wove through the semidarkness in the direction toward town.
Tony finished his beer and grabbed a second one. Tomorrow was Sunday and in the rotation of the ranch work, it was a day he was off duty.
He had no real plans for the next day. He might go into town and see about getting a new pair of boots, or he might not. He tried to live in the moment, never looking to the future or dwelling on the past.
By the time he finished his second beer the dark of night had settled in. He grabbed his cooler and folding chair and carried them into his room.
All of the living quarters for the cowboys who worked the Holiday ranch were the same. A twin bed was on one side of the room and a chest of drawers was on the other. There was also a small closet and a bathroom with a shower.
Most of the men who lived here had added personal touches to make the rooms their own over the years. But other than the brown cowboy hat and gun and holster on top of the dresser, and the clothes in the closet, Tony’s room was exactly the same as it had been when he’d been a fifteen-year-old runaway and Cass Holiday had taken a chance on him.
If she hadn’t hired him on here, there was no question in his mind that he would have more than likely died on the streets of Oklahoma City. He probably would have been beaten to death—not for who he was or any action he’d taken, but rather for what he was.
He pulled out the strip of rawhide that he used to tie back his black hair during the day and then stripped down to his boxers and got into bed.
The only time any ghosts from the past ever threatened him was in the quiet minutes just before he fell asleep, in the darkened privacy of his room.
Half-breed. Your mother didn’t want you and your father was a drunk who was gone long before you were born. You don’t belong anywhere. You have no place in this world. You’re just lucky we took you in.
He consciously shoved the hurtful words away. He wasn’t a little boy anymore, wondering why his foster parents treated him so differently from their own children.
He fell asleep with the ghosts from his youth silenced. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when rapid knocking sounded at his door.
A glance at the clock let him know it was almost one. He muttered a small curse and got out of bed, fully expecting one of his fellow cowboys who wanted to share the drunken escapades of the evening with him.
He pulled open the door and stared in stunned surprise at the blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who stood before him. “Amy...what are you doing here?”
It had been a little over a year ago since Tony had last seen Amy Kincaid. He’d been just a bit crazy over her, until he realized she was more than just a little bit crazy herself. She was achingly thin and sported a yellowing bruise on the side of her face.
“Tony, I’m in trouble.” She cast a glance over her skinny shoulder and then looked at him again, her eyes huge and simmering with what appeared to be barely suppressed terror.
She’d pulled her car up just outside the bunkhouse, had driven across the lawn from where the driveway ended in the distance. The engine was still running.
“Amy, what’s going on? Come inside and talk to me,” he replied.
She shook her head. “I’ve got to go, but I need you to step up.”
Tony frowned. “Step up?”
She turned and ran to her car and opened the back door. She pulled out a medium-sized suitcase and then a car seat with a sleeping baby inside.
When she returned to his door, Tony stared at her in bewilderment. “Would you tell me what’s going on?”
“This is your son. His name is Joey.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I can’t take care of him right now.” Once again she shot a frantic look over her shoulder. “I’ve got to go. Tony.” She grabbed his forearm, her fingers feverish and her sharp nails biting into his skin. “Please...protect him from evil.” She turned and ran for her car.
“Amy, wait!” Tony shouted after her, but she didn’t stop, didn’t even hesitate. She jumped into the driver seat and then tore off toward the ranch exit.
Two other doors flew open. Clay came out of one and Sawyer stumbled out of the other one. “Whaz goin’ on?” Sawyer mumbled with a slight slur. “Hey, what’s that doing here?” he asked as he stared down at the sleeping little boy.
“It’s not a ‘that,’ it’s a boy,” Tony replied absently. He was still trying to process what had just happened.
This is your son. Protect him from evil.
“Amy just dropped him off. She said he’s my son and it was time for me to step up.”
“Congrats, man,” Sawyer said. “I’ll get you a cigar with a bright blue band around it tomorrow.” He turned and went back into his room.
“Amy? Wow, did you know she was pregnant when the two of you stopped seeing each other?” Clay asked.
“No, I didn’t have a clue. I haven’t seen or heard from her in a year. She moved to Oklahoma City while we were dating...” Tony broke off and continued to stare down at the little boy with his shock of black hair and chubby cheeks.
“Are you sure he’s really yours?” Clay asked.
Tony gazed at his blond-haired fellow cowboy. “At this moment I’m not sure of anything.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Right now I guess I’m going to get him out of the chilly night air and then I’ll see what tomorrow brings.” Tony bent down and picked up the car seat while Clay grabbed the suitcase and together they went into Tony’s room.
Tony set the baby seat on the bed and Clay placed the suitcase on the floor. “Are you going to be all right with this for now?” Clay asked.
“I suppose I have to be,” Tony replied, his heart beating an unsteady rhythm. Heck, he had no idea if he was going to be all right. He didn’t know anything about babies.
“Let me know if you need anything.” Clay left the room and closed the door behind him.
Tony remained standing next to his bed and stared at the sleeping child. Tony had never wanted to be a husband and he’d certainly never wanted to be a father and Amy had known that when they’d dated. He’d made that very clear to her.
She’d looked so terrified. What was going on in her life that had prompted her to drop off her child with a man she hadn’t seen in over a year? Was he really Tony’s son? And why had she said to protect him from evil?
At that moment the little boy’s eyes fluttered open. His features screwed up and he began to cry.
* * *
He had to find the bitch.
Ash Moreland tightened his grip on his steering wheel as he turned down another Oklahoma City street, seeking Amy’s car. He had to find her and make sure she didn’t talk, that she didn’t tell anyone what she had seen.
If she’d just stayed in the bedroom like he’d told her to, then she wouldn’t have seen him slit Barker’s throat. After that, she’d gone to the bedroom and throughout the rest of the evening she’d acted like everything was okay. But Ash had known she was shaken up and sure enough at just after midnight she’d crept out of bed.
He’d stayed in bed and listened to her as she’d gone into the baby’s room, and minutes later he’d heard the closing of the front door. He could have stopped her at any moment, but he was curious. In all honesty he’d been amused by her pathetic move to leave him.
He’d followed her the almost sixty miles to Bitterroot and had watched her hand his baby over to another man. That, in and of itself, was an unforgivable betrayal.
She’d left Bitterroot and then driven back to Oklahoma City. He’d been tracking her for the past couple of hours, wondering what she was going to do, where she might go. If she’d gone anywhere near a police station, she would have never made it inside alive.
She had no friends and she had no money. Ash had seen to that during the last year that the two of them had been together. She belonged to him, just like the lucrative drug business he ran and just like the house where they lived, which was filled with fine and expensive items. Amy was his possession and Ash would decide when it was time to get rid of a possession.
He’d had her car taillights in his sights until about fifteen minutes ago, when she’d managed to give him the slip. He drove the dark streets slowly, his initial amusement long gone and rage rising with each moment that passed.
If he didn’t find her tonight, then he’d assign half a dozen of his men to hunt her down. Sooner or later she was going to run out of gas and out of options.
Sooner or later she’d probably come crawling back to him, begging him to forgive her for running away, sniveling to him for a fix that would make her well.
He’d hunt her down tonight and then tomorrow he’d go get his baby, the son who was his flesh, his blood, and who would one day take over Ash’s kingdom.
* * *
It was the longest night Tony had ever known and in his past he’d had many long nights. It wasn’t the company of Joey in his room that kept him from sleep, although certainly the tiny boy made his presence known several times.
The suitcase was filled with bottles and formula, disposable diapers and clothes. Twice in the night Tony had given Joey bottles and changed diapers, thankful that the baby had then seemed perfectly satisfied and had fallen back asleep.
Unfortunately sleep hadn’t come to Tony. He’d lain in bed with Joey between him and the wall and listened to the little boy breathe as thoughts had whirled in his head.
Was the boy really his? He supposed it was possible. He and Amy had certainly enjoyed an intense physical relationship, but she had assured him she was on birth control and he’d taken extra protection.
He didn’t even know how old the baby was, or if Amy had been seeing Tony exclusively at the time they’d been dating each other. When he’d broken things off with her, he’d certainly suspected there was somebody else in her life.
Why hadn’t she told him she was pregnant? If the little boy was his, then why hadn’t she come to him and told him? She knew where he lived. She knew where he worked. Where had she been for the last year and what had she been doing?