A Conard County Baby (Conard County: The Next Generation)

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9780373658725: A Conard County Baby (Conard County: The Next Generation)
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MOTHER...NANNY...BRIDE? 

On the run from her overbearing family and a fiancé with more menace than love in his eyes, Hope Conroy finally took refuge in Conard County, Wyoming. A place of safety, maybe even possibility. But what could a former—and pregnant!—socialite do to keep a roof over her head?  

Divorced rancher Cash Cashford never expected to be raising an angry tween all by himself. Something about Hope told him immediately that she was what his daughter needed. And since the new nanny had secrets, he vowed to keep his distance—for all their sakes, especially his own! But Hope called to him in a way he never imagined, making him yearn to heal their fractured hearts...and form the family they all longed for.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Rachel Lee was hooked on writing by the age of twelve, and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This New York Times bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Hope Conroy sat in the City Diner in Conard City, Wyoming, waiting for a man named Jim Cashford. She had rarely in her life been as nervous as she felt just then.

She needed the job. Her family had cut off her credit cards, she had the last hundred dollars from her bank account in her wallet and she didn't know what in the world she would do if this guy didn't hire her.

Clearly she had not planned her escape well, but her need to get away from Dallas had been urgent. She couldn't take the pressure one more minute.

Instinctively, she lowered her hand to the gentle swell of her belly, a swelling so slight most wouldn't notice it. But she did, just as she felt the little movements that seemed almost like bubbles popping. She would do anything for this baby, except marry the man who had raped her.

She wondered how much she would have to explain to this Cashford guy. His ad had said he wanted a nanny for a thirteen-year-old daughter. What if he thought a pregnant unwed mother would be a bad example? He'd surely notice soon. It wouldn't be long before the whole world would be able to tell she carried a child.

So somehow she was going to have to explain this. Having a low-paying job for a month or two wasn't going to help her much. A hundred dollars wouldn't buy much gas. She doubted many people would be willing to hire a woman in her state.

When she'd first come in here to get a little something to eat, a newspaper had been sitting on the table. She had snatched it up before the rude woman had demanded to know what she wanted. Skipping immediately to the want ads, the words about the nanny had seemed to leap out at her, and for a few glorious minutes she thought life had delivered her an answer.

But brief as her conversation with Cashford had been, doubts had started to grow immediately. She'd hardly been able to swallow the roll she had ordered and most of it still sat on the plate in front of her. She wondered why he was so quick to come into town to meet with her. Did he have trouble keeping nannies? She feared she might be wasting nearly an hour waiting for him, and that tonight there would be no answer to her problem, merely another cold night sleeping in her car. Then what?

She'd been a fool in so many ways, but even reaching that conclusion didn't show her any other way she could have handled it. She needed care for her child, for one thing, and while she could have gone on assistance in Texas, getting as far as she could from her family's reach had seemed imperative. God, they were like hound dogs with a bone. They wouldn't give up, they wouldn't believe her and they wouldn't let her shame the family. A triad she couldn't escape except with distance.

A dusty pickup pulled up right out front. It must be Cashford. Her mouth turned immediately dry as sand, and her palms moistened. She wondered if her tongue would stick to the roof of her mouth until she sounded like an idiot who couldn't even talk.

A tall, lean, but powerful man climbed out. Despite what Hope considered a chilly day, he didn't wear a jacket. Instead, he had on the basic local uniform of old jeans, cowboy boots, a chambray shirt and a cowboy hat that looked as if it had been a lot of places besides on his head. A working cowboy. She'd seen them sometimes in Texas when she got away from the city. Very different from the dudes in Dallas who only wanted to look the part.

Sun and wind had weathered his face some, but she didn't judge him to be terribly old. Maybe forty? A far cry from her twenty-four, but not that huge a leap. Under any other circumstances, she'd have considered him a hunk. Even in the midst of her overwhelming anxiety she felt a prickle of attraction, but quickly quashed it. Never again.

Attractive or not, right now, this guy might be a threat or a savior. She had no idea which.

He walked to the front door with that loose stride shared by people who spent a lot of time in a saddle. He opened it, waving to the grumpy woman who had served her. "Howdy, Maude. How's it going?"

Maude frowned. "Barely getting by, as usual."

"Well, that's good I guess."

Then he turned to scan the small diner with eyes so blue they almost seemed to cast their own light.

"Coffee?" Maude asked him.

"And a slice of your pie." His gaze settled on Hope. "And bring one for the lady here."

Taking off his hat to reveal dark hair that silvered a bit at the temples, he crossed the short distance and thrust his hand out to Hope. She reached up to shake it, finding it warm and work-hardened. "Jim Cashford," he said. "Most folks call me Cash. You're Hope Conroy?"

"Yes."

He smiled. It was a dazzling smile that nearly took her breath away. "Good. I'd hate to be scaring off strange young ladies who weren't looking for me."

He slid into the booth across from her and didn't say anything more until Maude had brought them both huge slices of apple pie with a side of vanilla ice cream. Those plates hit the table with a sharp clatter, but Jim Cashford didn't seem disturbed by it. A mug of coffee followed.

"Want some coffee?" Cashford asked Hope. "Maude makes the best."

"No, thank you. Water is fine."

He forked some pie into his mouth, his blue eyes scanning her. "I'll be up-front," he said when he had swallowed. "I'm not experienced at interviewing for a nanny. I usually interview ranch hands. But my ex died, I've got one unhappy thirteen-year-old, I can't seem to connect with her and I'm working too much. So I want someone closer to her age to be a friend to her as much as anything, but someone old enough to have some sense. You said you studied psychology?"

"Yes, I have. It was my minor."

"You got a driver's license? A reference?"

She felt everything inside her start to crumble. A reference? She hadn't counted on that. With shaking hands, she opened her purse and took out her license.

He studied it. "Dallas?" At that he looked up. "Suppose you tell me what you're doing in the middle of nowhere this far from home?"

There it was. The impossible question. Part of her thought it was time to get up and walk out. But a more desperate part of her took charge. At least she managed to hold back the tears that were trying to make her eyes burn.

Cash waited, studying the young woman in front of him. Pretty enough to knock the wind from a guy. He might not get around much, but there was no mistaking that she was expensively dressed in a well-fitted green slacks suit, perfectly made up, and that her highlighted hair had been maintained by a better hairdresser than any around here. She smelled like money. Was this some kind of game for her?

But there was a pinching around her eyes that told a very different story. This woman had troubles. Aw hell. He was a sucker for a sad story. Maybe he should just finish his pie and head on home.

But then he remembered what would be coming home from school around four o'clock: Angie. His daughter from hell. A teen full of attitude and anger who refused to talk to him unless it was to say something nasty. A hellion. He was sure that somewhere inside he loved his daughter, but that was getting increasingly hard to remember.

So he waited on high alert for whatever tale of woe this woman was selling. What the hey, anyway. She was certainly eye candy, worth a few more minutes of his time with her ash-blond hair and moss-green eyes. Didn't see many like her around here. They tended to get snatched up fast, turned old faster by hard work...or they left on the first bus out.

"You look desperate," he finally said when she seemed unable to speak. Were those tears moistening her eyes? "Look, as long as you're not wanted by the law, I probably won't give a damn."

"I'm not running from the police," she said quietly.

He kind of liked the soft Texas twang in her voice. Just the hint of it, not overpowering. "So tell me what's going on."

She cast her eyes down. "It's very personal."

"Easiest person to tell something personal is a stranger."

"Really?"

"Yeah, you don't have to keep me around like a reminder if you don't want. Get up, walk out, pretend we never talked."

She lifted her gaze, and the faintest smile curved her lips. A little of her anxiety eased. "Are you really that easygoing?"

"I was. I got a daughter who's making me less so. So let me start the truth or dare game. My daughter, Angie, is thirteen. Her mother died four months ago unexpectedly, so now she's living with me. Thing is, she hates me. She can barely stand the sight of me."

"But why?"

"Hell if I know. It's always been that way. But now she's living with me. I'm at wit's end. I spend every minute of my working day worrying that when I get back to the house she'll have run away. She's always spoiling for a fight, too. I need someone to watch her. I hope this someone might get past her granite wall. At this point I don't much care if she ever stops hating me, but I'd be a whole helluva lot happier if I knew someone was keeping her safe. So this isn't going to be an easy job."

She nodded, clearly listening and absorbing. At least she didn't look quite so close to tears.

"So there you have it. An impossible job, an incorrigible kid and a desperate father. You get room and board and lousy pay for the package. Wanna run away now?"

She lifted her hands from her lap, pushed the pie with melting ice cream to the side and folded them together tightly. Slender, delicate fingers, well-manicured. Oh, yeah, he could smell the money. Whatever the outcome, his curiosity became overwhelming.

"Your turn," he said.

She nodded. He tried to wait patiently and filled his mouth with more pie and ice cream to ensure he didn't speak and push her into flight. Even if this came to naught, he wanted to hear the story. It wasn't often anymore that he got to hear a new one. All the stories in these parts had been coming his way for years. An awful lot were reruns just to make conversation.

"I ran away from home," she said finally.

He stiffened. This woman embodied the thing he most feared about Angie. Maybe he should stop right now. But no, she was twenty-four, she'd said, and running away from home at that age raised all kinds of questions.

"What happened?"

"Ugly story." She kept her voice low, and every so often it would crack a little. He leaned in to hear better.

Another long pause, so he ate some more pie.

"Okay," she said. "Short version. My family is prominent in Dallas. The kind of prominence where social connections are important and scandal isn't welcome. I became a scandal."

"You? How's that?"

"Well, they wouldn't believe me. You probably won't, either. But I was engaged to be married. I thought I loved him. Everybody was thrilled. I'd picked a guy from the right family, if you get me. Everyone's sure he's going to be a senator one day. Except for one little problem."

"You."

"Me."

"But what's wrong with you?"

"Oh, I was raised right, taught all the correct things. You could say I was groomed like a show filly specifically to get to this place."

"But?"

"He raped me."

The words barely emerged from her throat. They sounded so tight that he was sure she almost choked on them.

"To hell with him, then."

"You'd think." She closed her eyes and her hands knotted into fists. "Nobody believed me, of course. Then I found out I was pregnant. I guess that rules me out as a nanny."

For an instant it almost did, but then Cash had another thought. Here was a young woman, pregnant and alone, and a prime example of the dangers in life. She might be a good object lesson. So instead of shutting it all down, he decided to ask more.

"Why'd you have to run away?"

"Because they insisted we push the marriage up and make things all right for Scott. When I swore I'd never marry him, they told me I had to get an abortion. Because if there was one thing that must not happen, it was the kind of scandal that would ruin Scott's future and hurt my family as a result."

"That's medieval!"

"So was the part where they kept me locked up. I didn't get to go anywhere by myself, and then only rarely. It took me months to find a way to escape."

"So you had to either marry your rapist or lose your child?"

"That was it. Oh, and I had to vow never to tell anyone Scott had raped me. Not that anyone believed Scott would do such a thing."

He swore quietly. "Why didn't they just send you to Europe for a year or two? Out of sight and all that?"

"Evidence. There'd always be evidence if I kept this baby. I could threaten him by demanding a paternity test."

"They thought you'd do that?"

"I'd accused him of rape, hadn't I? They were sure I was lying about that. Scott would never do such a thing."

It sounded like a story from another age, or from one of those soap operas his mother had loved so much. Yet looking at Hope across the table, he could see very real pain. She'd have to be a pathological liar to make this up. In fact, a pathological liar probably could have come up with something more believable and inventive.

He sighed. He was going to do this. In his heart of hearts, he knew he couldn't send this woman on her way at least until he knew the truth. He'd have the weekend to see how she interacted with Angie, and he'd make a point of being close by for a while after Angie got home from school.

"I guess," he said, "that there's no one I can call to ask about you?"

"Not even my best friend knows what happened. I'm sorry. I'm wasting your time." Her lower lip quivered.

"I've got an idea. But before we go over to the sheriff's office to check out your license, why don't you eat some of that pie? Looks to me like you need the energy."

He hated treating her suspiciously, but he had a daughter to consider, hellion though she was. The sheriff could find out if she had any warrants or past crimes. Then he was going to hit his computer and see what he could learn about Hope Conroy. If she came from the kind of family she claimed, he'd bet the Dallas newspapers would mention her more than once. And certainly they'd announced this engagement.

Satisfied he wasn't being a total fool, he worked on finishing his pie.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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