Authors: Joan Johnston
“Joan Johnston does short contemporary Westerns to perfection.
“Johnston warms your heart and tickles your fancy.”
âNew York Daily News
“Bless that Joan Johnston and her scheming ways!”
“Joan Johnston continually gives us everything we wantâ¦fabulous details and atmosphere, memorable characters, a story that you wish would never end, and lots of tension and sensuality.”
“A master storytellerâ¦Joan Johnston knows how to spin a story that will get to the readers every time.”
âNight Owl Reviews
“Johnston has a keen eye for quirky circumstances that put her characters, and the reader, through a wringer. Laughing one moment and crying the next, you'll always have such a great time getting to the happy-ever-after.”
âRomance Junkies Reviews
“Johnston is a writer who can combine romance side by side with tragedy, proving that there is magic in relationships and that love is worth the risk.”
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.
by Joan Johnston copyright Â© 2015 by Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Dell, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming novel
by Joan Johnston. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Lynn Andreozzi
Cover illustration: Alan Ayers
the best horse whisperer in Australia. She'd spent most of her nineteen years taming brumbiesâwild horsesâon her father's remote cattle station in the Northern Territory. She was so good with animals that the wildest stallion was soon gentled and eating from her hand. But when it came to menâor rather, one particular manâher instincts had utterly failed her.
Pippa whimpered as she pressed a frigid bag of ice against the painful bruise high on her cheek. She'd made a terrible mistake, but one she would never make again. A flush of shame heated her face. How gullible she'd been! How naive! She gritted her teeth to still the quiver in her chin. From now on, she would know better than to trust. She would know better than to give her heart so freely. No man was ever going to hurt her again.
Pippa's heartbeat ratcheted up a notch when she heard a knock on the door. No one knew where she was. Two days ago, she'd run away from home with one of her father's wranglers, Tim Brandon. They'd checked into a hotel room in Darwin, which was when Tim had shown his true colors.
Pippa stared at the door, wondering if it was Tim, returning to apologize. He'd walked out in a huff an hour agoâafter slapping her hard enough to cause the bruise on her cheek.
“How the hell did you get pregnant?” he'd ranted. “You told me you were taking precautions.”
“I did,” she'd protested. “I was sick in the middle of the month, remember? I couldn't't keep anything down. The pills must have come back up with everything else. What does it matter?” she'd said. “We're going to be married anyway.”
“No, we're not.”
Pippa's heart had nearly stopped at Tim's announcement. Before she'd given herself to him the first time, he'd told her he loved her. He'd told her he couldn't wait to marry her so they could start a family together. Was he really taking it all back? “What do you mean?”
Tim stuck his balled fists on his hips and shot her an irritated look. “I can't marry you, Pippa.”
“But you promised!” she cried, fearful and frantic at his about-face. All the promises he'd madeâthat he loved her, that he planned to take care of her for the rest of her life, that he would be a wonderful husband, that they would have a wonderful life togetherâhad persuaded her to give him her virginity. She'd waited to part with that precious gift until she'd met the man she planned to marry. She was having trouble wrapping her head around the fact that she'd offered something priceless to someone who'd trampled on it.
And she had no one to blame but herself.
Her father had warned her to stay away from his hired hands. But Tim had been so friendlyâand so good-lookingâthat she'd spent more and more time seeing him behind her father's back. Being held in a man's arms for the first time had made her tremble. Kissing him had left her breathless. She'd honestly believed that Tim cherished her.
How could she have been so wrong?
She reached out her hands in supplication to the inexplicably angry man standing across from her and said, “I love you. You said you love me.”
Tim sneered. “You stupid little ninny. I told you what you wanted to hear to get into your pants. There's no way I'm marrying you!”
“Why not?” she asked, confused and hurt and still unwilling to believe that the man she loved could be so cruel.
“Because I'm already married!”
Pippa's heart had physically hurt, as though someone had punched her in the chest. She thought she literally might die from the humiliation of having been so completely duped. “What about the baby?” she asked past the excruciating lump in her throat.
“Give it away or throw it away. I don't care.”
Enraged at how easily Tim had dismissed the child they'd created, she lashed out at him with her palm. He easily ducked so she missed his face, but his hand shot out and caught her cheekbone, causing her to see stars.
Tears of pain sprang to her eyes, joining the tears of distress that had already filled them to the brim. Pippa sobbed as a tear spilled down her stinging cheek.
“Stop your whining! This was supposed to be a holiday. We were supposed to have some good sex and some good grub and that would be the end of it. Now I'm going to have to quit my job and head home to my wife in Sydney, all because you couldn't take care of business.”
He'd stomped out, leaving her alone without a single pence in her pocket. Likely he'd returned because he'd realized that she had no money to pay for the hotel, or even her next meal, let alone the trip home. She never wanted to see Tim again, but better that than having to call her father to ask for help.
Daddy is going to be so mad at me for running away. And so disappointed when he finds out what a fool I've been. How can I tell him I'm pregnant? It's a good thing Tim is running for the hills. Daddy would kill him.
Pippa had watched her father punish a wrangler when the man brutalized one of the brumbies. The most terrifying part was that, through it all, her father had never shown any emotion. He'd just done what needed to be done to make sure that that sort of behavior was never repeated.
Tim's attack had caught her off guard because her father had never lifted a hand to her or her six-year-old brother, Nathan. He'd found other ways to discipline them that were especially effectiveâlike the silent treatment her father employed when she failed to live up to his very high standards of behavior.
Pippa set down the bag of ice and rose from the bed to answer the persistent knock at the door. “I'm coming, Tim!”
She opened the door and gasped in shock. She tried to slam the door, but a large, booted foot caught the door at the bottom and prevented it from closing.
“Go away!” she cried.
“Open the door, Pippa,” her father said. “We need to talk.”
Pippa could see half of her father's face through the open door: one piercing blue eye, a hank of black hair falling onto his forehead, an angry, flared nostril, and half of a mouth flattened to a harsh, judgmental line. She didn't want to let him in, but there was no way to keep him out. She took a step back, crossing her arms defensively over her chest.
Just as half of his face had been hidden, half of hers had been concealed. When her father stepped into the room, she heard him draw a sharp breath and watched his eyes narrow as he surveyed the bruise on her cheek. She lowered her gaze to the floor, unable to look at him, unable to bear the condemnation she was sure she would see on his face.
A moment later he was standing in front of her, his voice hoarse with emotion as he asked, “Are you all right?”
Pippa couldn't get words past the thickness in her throat, so she just nodded.
His fingertips hovered over the bruise, as though he wished to soothe the hurt, but never touched her face. He dropped his hand and said, “Let's sit down.”
It was a good thing he'd suggested it, because Pippa's knees felt so weak she was afraid they would crumple, and she'd land on the dingy carpet. She dropped onto the cheap bedspread, her eyes on her white-knuckled hands, which rested on her jean-clad knees. She felt the bed sink as her father sat down beside her.
“Where's Tim?” he asked.
“Is he coming back?”
Pippa was ashamed to admit the truth, but she forced herself to say, “He's gone back to his wife in Sydney.”
Pippa frowned, because her father didn't sound the least bit surprised. “You knew he was married?”
“Why didn't you say something to me?”
“I told you to stay away from himâfrom all of my wranglers, in fact. That should have been enough.”
Pippa wanted to argue that a heads-up would have been nice. But she remembered all the times she'd snuck out behind her father's back to see Tim. If she hadn't been so secretive, she might have saved herself a lot of heartbreak.
“What happened is my fault,” her father said.
Pippa turned to stare at him.
“I should have sent you away to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane for school, instead of keeping you with me. Then you wouldn't have fallen for whatever line of bullshit Tim fed you. Butâ¦”
Pippa knew why he hadn't. He would have been lonely without her. She and Nathan were the only family he had. Her mother had remained a mystery all her life, someone her father refused to discuss.
She had only vague memories of her father's first wife and no idea why their marriage hadn't stuck. His second wife, Nathan's mother, had left her father while Nathan was still a baby, shrieking in a voice Pippa had heard through the bedroom door, “I can't stand to live in this deserted backwater. There are no neighbors. There is no culture. There is
here except those awful green frogs and a thousand poisonous snakes and a million flies.”
She hadn't heard what her father replied. But she'd heard the screamed response. “Keep the boy. I don't care! Just let me go. Please. If you ever loved me. Let me go!”
She'd left, and she hadn't come back.
Her father had been sad for a long time afterward, but he'd never said a word against Nathan's mother. One night, after Pippa had gone to bed but before she'd fallen asleep, she'd heard a glass break in the kitchen. She'd gotten up to make sure everything was all right. When she reached the kitchen door, she saw that her father was staggering, apparently drunk. And he had tears on his cheeks.
She'd quickly stepped back so he wouldn't see her, putting a hand to her heart to keep it from pounding right out of her chest. She'd never seen her father cry. He was her rock. Always steady. Always dependable. He rarely drank, and even then, rarely had more than a single drink. It was terrifying to see him in such a state.
Pippa had hesitated, unsure whether she should try to comfort him or go away and let him grieveâif that was what he was doing. While she stood there, he began to mutter something, and she leaned closer, hoping to hear some explanation for whatever disaster had befallen them to cause such behavior.
Pippa would never forget the malevolence in her father's voice as she listened behind the kitchen door. She had never imagined he could hate someone as much as he seemed to hate his own father. She heard the agony in his voice as he expressed his fear that he might be just like him. She was amazed to learn that he'd run away from home. And that he was never, ever, ever going back.
The fading sunlight hit the bruised side of her face through the hotel window, and Pippa heard her father make an angry sound in his throat. She turned her head away. Matthew Grayhawk didn't need any more villains to hate. He had enough demons from his past to haunt him.
“Are you ready to go home?” her father asked.
“How can I go home? How can I ever hold my head up before our friends and neighbors again?”
“You might think this is the end of the world, Pippa, but it's not. You'll be fine.” His hand tenderly brushed through her long blond hair, tucking a bit of it behind her ear. “In a few weeks, or months, you'll move past this incident in your life. Someday, you'll find a nice young man in town who'll love you for the extraordinary person you are.”
His gentle voice brought tears to her eyes. He had no way of knowing that in seven months she would have a lifelong reminder of Tim. She had to tell him. There wasn't going to be any “nice young man.” Not when the small town of Underhill got wind of the fact that she was unwed and pregnant. Not to mention pregnant with a married man's child. She was going to have to leave her father's cattle station and goâ¦where?
Pippa had been homeschooled, but the sole focus of her life had been working with horses. She had no skills that would serve her if she moved to the city. And she couldn't imagine any other cattle station accepting a wrangler with a baby, even if she were the best at what she did.
“No one has to know about this,” her father said. “We canâ”
“I'm pregnant,” she blurted.
Her father let out a long, soughing sigh. “Have you decided what you're going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean whether you're going to keep the baby?”
Pippa jumped up and turned to confront her father. “Of course I'm going to keep my baby! What else would I do?”
“You could give it up for adoption.”
“And have it be raised by strangers?”
“There are a lot of couples out there who would love your child as though it were their own. And you wouldn't spend the rest of your life paying for one mistake.”
Pippa couldn't seem to catch her breath. She'd known her father would be upset when she told him she was pregnant, but she'd never imagined he would ask her to give up her child. “I'm keeping my baby. And that's that.”
“Underhill is a conservative town with strict morals. Are you ready to face the scandal of being an unwed mother? Forget the scandal. That will pass. Are you ready to be a teenage mother? That responsibility will never end.”
“I'll be twenty when the baby is born,” Pippa shot back.
He made a
ing sound of disgust. “You know what I mean. This is the rest of your life, Pippa. Just be sure you know what you're doing. How are you going to feel about raising Tim Brandon's child?”
Pippa's heart skipped a beat. She already felt an abhorrence for her former lover that knew no bounds. What if the baby was a boy and looked like Tim? Would she be able to separate the child from its lying, cheating, deceitful parent? Would she be able to love her baby when she loathed its father?
Pippa shuddered. She would have to deal with that problem ifâor whenâit arose. She only knew that she couldn't abandon her own flesh and blood.
She looked her father in the eye and said, “I'm keeping this baby.”