The first thing Nick Tyler saw when he entered the building of the trucking company he ran with his nephew was a small, but perfect feminine rear end encased in khaki trousers. It was stuck straight up in the air while the woman attached to it bent under the old metal desk one of his nieces had sourced for them to use in the main office.
The woman was muttering something dire as she reached for whatever she just couldn’t grab.
“I could help you with that, if you’d like,” Nick said. He mostly just wanted to figure out who it was under his desk. It was a very nice rear end, after all.
The woman yelped, bumped her head, and stood quickly. She stared at him.
He stared back.
She had hair that warred between red and brown that she’d pulled up in a twist. Big light-blue eyes stared at him and a soft pink mouth parted slightly. An absolutely perfect-looking mouth.
She was damned gorgeous. It was rather hard to miss.
“Nick? Wow. I think we both got old.” She gave a rueful grin that told him exactly who she was. She had sweet dimples and a smile that was crooked enough to say she liked to break the rules just a little bit.
Just like before.
Robin. It really was her. Staring right back at him.
He had always liked how little Robin Patton looked.
She hadn’t changed much. Just gotten older. A little curvier, but that was a good thing. A very good thing from where he was standing.
She had to be thirty-eight or -nine now.
“Robin, it’s good to see you.”
“You, too, Nick.” She eyed him warily. Like she was afraid of him? Robin hadn’t been afraid of anything. She knew what she wanted and she went after it.
She’d been pure hell on wheels once.
Until that damned Sheriff Gunderson had started harassing her. She’d been just a kid. Gunderson had been old enough to be her father. Nick had never forgotten the terror in her eyes that night he and Phil had found her and Gunderson alongside the highway.
That had been the deciding factor. She’d left town then—and hadn’t come back.
The last place he’d expected to see her was in his own office, acting as if she belonged there.
His nephew Chandler had let him know he’d hired a new secretary last week. Nick had been so busy with booking a large run that he hadn’t paid much attention.
Nick suspected he was looking at his new secretary right now.
“Settling in ok?” He wasn’t sure he wanted Robin Patton working with him every single day. She was going to be highly distracting.
Just like before.
She remembered. Just like he did.
Robin had been taunting him, tempting him on purpose.
He could see the memories of those two stolen kisses in the blue eyes staring at him now. She’d been so sweet—and it had been Robin who had kissed him. Had put those hands of hers places she had no business putting them—back then.
Nick had done the right thing both times. Probably a bit more harshly than he should have. He’d just…wanted her to understand. She had to stay away from him back then. Or he would do something totally stupid. She hadn’t been ready. He’d known that. He was nine years older—when she’d been almost nineteen, that had mattered.
This woman had been enough to tempt a saint into doing something totally stupid. Nick had never missed that.
The heat in her cheeks intensified.
“It is good to see you. I mean that,” Nick said softly.
Seeing her, yes. He wouldn’t mind seeing a lot more of her. She was buttoned up to the neck in a prissy little purple blouse that hid far more than it revealed. Far cry from what she’d been wearing the last time she’d practically accosted him.
He’d always remembered her in that little blue tank top and the cut off shorts that had revealed far, far too much of Robin.
This schoolmarm getup was the exact opposite of that.
Did she realize how that tempted a man, too? His fingers itched to hit those tiny buttons and just yank them off forever. See what that silky smooth skin looked like beneath. To touch that skin…
Having her in his office, thirty feet away from his own desk? That was going to prove problematic. Unless… “So what have you been up to over the last twenty years? Married, sixteen kids?”
Please let her say she had a six-foot-seven former linebacker husband just waiting for her to get home. Someone who’d kick Nick’s ass for the thoughts he was having right now. Someone who’d bring her lunch every day just so he could glower at Nick and Chandler and make certain they were behaving around the temptress that was Robin Patton.
That might be enough to have Nick behaving. Maybe.
She gave a soft smile. She looked so…shy. Robin had never been shy with him before. “I was married, but he passed away. I have three kids, though. Nine-year-old twin boys, and a little girl. She’s two and a half—but going on thirty-five. She looks just like my sister.”
He had never imagined her having kids. In his head, she was still the almost girl she’d been back then. The one who had tempted and tormented him and had him breaking out in a sweat.
He’d always wondered what happened to the girl she had been. “What are their names?”
“Philip and Wesley and Rebecca. We call her Becky.”
He saw the pain there, and he reacted to the familiar names—her sister, her brother-in-law, and Wesley had been her grandfather’s name. The grandfather she and her sister had adored. Before he could stop himself, he cupped her cheek in one hand.
Her skin was just as smooth as it had been twenty years ago.
Traces of the girl remained, but…Robin was all grown up now. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Right in front of him. Widowed.
Every male cell of him was standing on alert, shouting Robin! It’s Robin! Grab hold now!
Like they’d been waiting for her all along.
“I’m sorry about your sister, honey.” Losing her sister Becky in a car accident five years ago had been devastating for all of them. Nick had feared his brother would never recover.
“Yeah, me, too.”
He was half afraid she’d start crying. That had sheer panic going through him. “But you are home for good now?”
She nodded, a tentative smile on her lips. “I think so. Thank you for the job. I really needed it.”
“Thank you. We needed someone we can trust in here. I’m trying to get things up and running so I can kick Chandler to the curb.” Then it would just be him and Robin in the office every day. Together.
Working side by side. Almost touching.
Well, his office was down the hall, but it was close enough.
He was never going to survive this.
Startled blue eyes met his now. “Why would you do that?”
“It’s no secret around the family. He wants a restaurant of his own, but was already committed to taking over here before I convinced him to let me buy in. I’m going to take over here and shove him off the ledge. The whole family is scheming to get him moving on his restaurant. He’s a bit risk averse, that nephew of mine.”
“Aren’t we all?” She stepped back firmly.
Nick really didn’t want to let her get too far away.
The exact opposite.
It had been a long time, years, since he’d felt instant attraction to a beautiful—available—woman.
It figured that it would be her.
She smelled nice. She looked nice. And the idea that she was going to be right there in his office—and there wasn’t a big burly husband to keep him in check.
Robin Patton always had tempted the hell out of him. From the time she’d been almost nineteen to the day she’d run from town and Clive Gunderson, with four hundred dollar bills his brother had given her in her pocket.
Nick’s four hundred dollars. He’d given it to his brother for her.
He hadn’t known any other way to help her, except by taking her with him when he’d left Masterson for the army when his leave was up.
He’d seriously considered it that night. Just taking her with him and leaving Masterson forever. Marrying her, signing up for base housing. Building a life with a not-quite-nineteen-year-old girl who had never seen more than little Masterson County.
She wouldn’t have been ready for the life of a military wife, on her own so much, away from their families, friends. Home.
Far from it.
And he wouldn’t have wanted her with him just to escape a man who had no business stalking her.
She’d just been too damned young back then.
But he wasn’t too old for her now.
There was no husband in the picture for her. No wife in the picture for him. No Clive Gunderson terrifying her.
Robin wasn’t too young now.
Nick wasn’t going to survive.
What had Phil been thinking, talking Chandler into hiring her?
He had only one real answer.
His brother had done it on purpose.
Phil was out to get him. Out to put pure temptation right in front of Nick, just to mess with Nick’s head.
Because Phil could—and was evil that way.
Phil was getting back at Nick now for something. That was the only rational explanation.
Probably for Nick’s continual flirting with Phil’s new ‘housekeeper’ whenever he saw her.
Nick couldn’t help himself—one, it annoyed his widowed older brother, and two, Glenna was an extremely attractive woman.
Phil had noticed that himself.
That’s why Glenna now wore an engagement ring on her left hand—and had a beautiful glow whenever she looked at Nick’s older brother.
Well played, big brother. Well played, indeed.
Nick just stood there and stared at her like a total idiot.
Nicholas Tyler. In the flesh.
Some flesh just got better with time. It totally wasn’t fair. She’d thought of him through the years. More than she’d wanted to admit. Imagined him getting a paunch and a receding hair line.
Yeah, that hadn’t happened.
Nick looked even better than he had before.
Every Tyler had red in their hair; Nick was no exception. His eyes were still that dark blue that she had never forgotten. His shoulders still broad and muscled.
He was three or four inches over six feet, tall and strong. He had almost fourteen inches on her.
Nick had always seemed larger than life.
Maybe he had been. Hotly intense, determined to get out of Masterson for a while, to build a life for himself that wasn’t ranch related. Wild and rugged and just a little bit too dangerous for the tame life that was Masterson.
A woman would burn up in flames if Nick Tyler even looked at her.
Robin had been no exception. None at all.
Her first crush at fifteen had been on Nick Tyler. Her first kiss had been Nick, when she’d been all of eighteen and a half.
It had taken all the courage she possessed to kiss him that day.
He’d shot her down, fast. Saying he was too old for a child like her.
The last thing she was going to do was allow herself to get distracted from her plans by her still too-hot new boss.
It wasn’t fair that he looked like that. Broad shouldered, hard chested, strong—it was obvious Nick had taken care of himself in the last two decades.
Either that or time had been really, really good to him.
She suspected it was that—every Tyler man she’d ever met was far too good looking for a woman’s own good.
He didn’t deserve it. She just knew he didn’t. There had to be an inner troll inside him somewhere. Something that would make a man like him still be unmarried and free to the first woman to snap him up.
Not that Robin was the type to snap anyone up. Even if she’d wanted to.
Marriage had cured her of romance forever, after all.
As he settled into the office behind her desk, with the door partially opened in case she had questions, Robin sat at her desk and remembered.
Tried to come up with a game plan where her new, far-too-hot-to-be-real boss was concerned.
His nephew Chandler was, as her best friend Rory would say, too delicious to be real—but he was just a younger, less-seasoned version of Nick. She’d thought that the first time she’d met Chandler.
When he’d told her that the uncle he worked so closely with was Nick, her heart had dropped straight to her gut, as she’d remembered.
Phil hadn’t told her Nick was back.
Nick was going to be dangerous. There was no denying that.
She needed a real plan. Number one—she wasn’t going to be as foolish as she’d been twenty years ago.
That meant absolutely no kissing Nick.
No remembering kissing Nick. No thinking about kissing Nick. And no wanting to be kissing Nick. It was as simple as that.
Just because she was back in Masterson didn’t mean she and Nick were going to pick right back up where she had left off.
Twenty years was a long time to be away from home. She had only been back in Masterson for a little over a week. She was bound to feel disconcerted and disoriented coming back. Especially considering the traumatic way she’d left town back then. Half of her nightmares had started in Masterson—the other half had ended in Finley Creek.
Robin was still recovering.
Never had she been more terrified than she had been that night.
She’d had to get out of Masterson back then; she wouldn’t have survived there. Not with the way Clive Gunderson had been terrorizing her. Stalking her.
It would have just kept escalating until he’d hurt her.
Robin would never forget that.
Her best friend Glenna had told her that Phil still felt guilty for not stopping Clive sooner. Said Phil had believed he could have done more for Robin than what he had. But that just wasn’t true.
Clive had had all the power then. No one could miss that.
Phil was working past it—with Glenna’s help. Glenna had needed help weeks ago, had needed to get out of Finley Creek. She’d found her way to Masterson, instead.
To Phil. Glenna moving to Masterson had given Robin the courage to come back home. To bring her children back to their family, too.
She just couldn’t be distracted by a man like Nick.
Her kids—they came first. No matter what. And they deserved to know her family, too.
That meant she was going to learn everything she could about the trucking business and what she was supposed to be doing exactly. Make this job work for her. So that she could make Masterson work for them. Even if that meant her new best friend was the last Tyler man in Masterson she would ever want to work with. Every day. Seeing Nick every weekday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 in the afternoon.
Nick. Right there. Looking like that.
Darn it. It wasn’t fair that the man still looked hot enough to melt a woman’s insides.
She was so going to have to get ahold of herself. She had a future to focus on, after all.
His sexy-as-sin secretary was deliberately avoiding him.
Nick would bet a million, if he had it, that that was exactly what she had been doing—all week long. He bit back a laugh at what he knew it meant.
Robin was going out of her way to never be alone with him.
When Nick would look at her directly, a faint red would hit her cheeks. It took him two days to figure out that she felt safer with Chandler. And most certainly not safe with Nick.
Nick had spent four days—and nights—trying to decide what he wanted to do about that.
He’d dreamed about doing something about that, actually.
In hot detail.
Last night hadn’t helped. And the only thing he’d done was eat dinner at his brother Phil’s.
Phil had had people everywhere. The chaos had driven Nick nuts, but in a good way. Everyone had looked like they were happy and right where they belonged. Together.
But when he had seen how Glenna had looked at his brother in the rare moment they’d almost been alone…
A shot of envy so strong he’d never felt anything like it before had torn right through Nick in that moment.
He wanted a woman like Glenna to look at him in the same way.
Then, Glenna had turned to Nick and asked him how her best friend Robin was working out.
Oh, what he’d wanted to say in that moment would have shocked the sweet little blonde his brother had a real thing for. Right down to her then-bare little toes.
They were getting married in a matter of weeks. Phil hadn’t wasted any time, that was for sure. Phil had eight kids—three still under the age of eighteen—and Glenna had three, all under the age of seven. His brother was going to get a chance to do the dad thing all over again with three more daughters.
Phil’s house had been full of people, of family, of laughter. Of love.
Nick hadn’t missed that. Nor had he missed the contrast between that and his own current existence.
Nick was still bunking on the office fold-out in the back until he made a plan to get his nephews together and fix the house he’d bought from his uncle ten years back. For when he eventually retired from the army.
The house was in reasonable shape. It needed new floors, new plumbing, and updated wiring. Then cosmetics. He had the money for all of it. He just figured he’d get to it in his own good time. He was in no hurry.
Paint chips and countertop choices weren’t exactly his forte.
Nick would get his house finished eventually. All three thousand square feet of it. When he’d bought the place—once his own paternal uncle’s—he’d thought he’d find a woman and settle down there in Masterson someday. He’d have three or four kids and a loving wife of his own that he’d adore as much as Phil had adored his Becky. His and Phil’s and the rest of his brothers’ kids would all grow up together. Until he and his brothers were doddering old idiots, flirting with their still way-too-hot wives—while great-grandkids ran around like wild demons. That had been what Nick had wanted. Imagined.
Life apparently hadn’t had that in mind for Nick. Or for three of his older brothers, who they’d already lost. Lost long before those brothers had even the first grandchild among them. That would always sting.
It had been time he came home, to enjoy the time left with his family.
Even if he’d done so alone.
At forty-seven, he was good with that. Mostly.
It still got lonely sometimes. Phil’s house of chaos just illustrated that even more.
Nick had spent four nights on that office couch imagining he could smell the lotion Robin used on her hands. Blueberry. Blueberry and vanilla; he’d wondered far too often if she used that lotion everywhere.
Nick wanted to find out, up close and personal.
He’d even devised a plan involving sending her three kids—who he had yet to meet—to Phil’s, and just absconding with their mother for the weekend.
There was a cabin up behind Phil’s place. It would do perfectly. He and Robin could get to know each other again.
If she was willing. In his fantasies over the last week, Robin had been very, very willing.
Nick wanted that woman, bad.
Wanting her now was giving him more gray hair. And sleepless nights.
And she was aware of him, too.
Now he had to figure out what it was he was going to do about her.
There was quite a bit he wanted to do to her, after all.
He was contemplating that list while he listened to her moving around in the reception area when someone walked through the front door, the first Friday morning Robin had worked for them.
Nick coughed, both to clear his throat and to clear his head from lustful thoughts about his secretary, and stood.
If it was a potential client, it was him they’d want to see.
Chandler had left for the afternoon on other business. If Nick got rid of whoever was out there, he’d be able to steal a few minutes with Robin before she darted away for the weekend.
Maybe, if he was lucky, he could get her to smile at him one more time. He’d always loved it when that woman smiled.
And this time, Nick was going to chase her. Like he wished he could have before. He wasn’t much of a planner—but a woman like Robin demanded a man be a master strategist to make what he wanted happen.
He was going to catch that woman. As fast as he possibly could.
Robin was organizing her new filing system when a dark-haired woman stepped inside the front door of the small modular home that served as the headquarters for Tyler Trucking, a little redheaded girl of around six or seven at her side.
“Hello, can I help you?” Robin stood and rounded the metal desk. The woman had a backpack over one shoulder, clutched two duffel bags in one hand, and held the girl by the other.
“Actually, I’m Jude. Jude Tyler.” She turned slightly, and Robin saw the small rounding of the woman’s stomach.
Robin took the heaviest bag from her quickly.
“Are you looking for Chandler or Nick?” The woman was around a decade younger than Robin, she thought. Big green eyes dominated her face. Very pretty, in an understated way.
“Nick. I’m also Chandler’s sister-in-law. I…this is a bit awkward. I’m the head of child and family services for this region. But I’m actually here on official business today. Normally, I’d have had one of my people handle this particular case, but they aren’t in the office right now, and Nova has been waiting long enough. Years too long for this, in my opinion.”
She glanced down at the little girl, a compassionate look in her eyes. Robin studied the child quickly. She was a few years older than Robin’s own daughter, but a few years younger than Robin’s sons. So, between four and seven or so. Tiny, dainty. Big dark-blue eyes looked up at Robin warily. Fire-engine-red curly hair was everywhere, and very long. Tangled, and it looked like it could use a good washing. Maybe even two.
Her clothes weren’t exactly the cleanest, either. And they weren’t in the greatest condition. She was ragged and unkempt in a way that Robin’s heart broke to see.
The social worker was kind and gentle when she spoke to the little girl. “You can have a seat right here. Here’s Snuggly, too. You hold him while I talk for a few minutes, ok?” She handed the little girl a battered yellow bear.
The little girl nodded solemnly. She looked at Robin suspiciously out of tired, world-weary eyes that no little girl her age should ever possess. Robin wanted to scoop her up and hold her tight, tell her everything would be ok. Just like she would her baby Becky if the world turned scary.
“I have some juice in the fridge. Would you like one? I have some fish crackers. My little girl says they are the best ever. My boys like them, too.”
Robin looked at the social worker, who nodded. “Thank you. Nova has had a very, very long morning. A snack probably wouldn’t hurt. I just got her two hours ago myself. And we had to do paperwork to transfer her to our region. She’s had to sit around waiting. She’s colored me a bunch of beautiful pictures already.”
“Then it sounds like goldfish are exactly what’s needed. I’m Robin. My sister was Phil Tyler’s wife.”
“Oh, of course. Welcome back to Masterson. Are you settling in ok?”
“Starting to. The kids are adjusting. It helps having their cousins around, and Glenna’s girls.” Robin grabbed one of the juice boxes and one of the snack bags of goldfish crackers, grateful she had grabbed what she could find that morning for her own lunch today—a run to the grocery store was in order. Someone—she had three suspects—had eaten the food she’d bought to put in her own lunch this week. She took care of the little girl as Nick came into the small waiting area. “This has been their first week at the school.”
And fingers crossed, it had gone ok. Thankfully. So far. Her boys could be handfuls.
Another handful came out of his office and stared.
Nick looked at the younger woman and concern hit his far-too-handsome face.
“Jude, honey? What’s going on? Are you ok? Chandler’s not here right now.”
Jude pulled in a deep breath and faced him. “Well, it’s not Chandler we’re here to see, Nick. I have something to tell you. Something very important.”
“Oh? What is it?”
Robin studied the little girl again. Social services didn’t just show up at a man’s work with a kid in tow. Not without good reason. “Can we talk in private? There are things Nova doesn’t need to hear right now.”
Nick just nodded. Stepped aside so she could go ahead of him into his office at the end of the hall. Robin listened as his door closed.
An inkling of things to come tickled her gut.
“I can’t get my fishies open,” the little girl whispered as soon as Nick and the social worker were gone. “Can you help me?”
Robin knelt down. And looked into those dark blue eyes behind little glasses. Those eyes looked so familiar. Eyes just that color and shape had watched her while she’d worked this week.
Tyler blue. The kid had Tyler-blue eyes. And red hair. Just like every Tyler Robin had ever seen.
A social worker on official business had just showed up on Nick Tyler’s doorstep. Robin wasn’t stupid. She strongly suspected what was about to happen. She just hoped the man was ready.
Nick stared at the social worker like she was insane. Since she was his nephew Michael’s wife, he knew that wasn’t quite the case. But this? He never would have imagined this. “You’re serious? Selena Brown. She’s dead. She had a kid. My kid. My kid.”
Jude nodded. She was such a pretty girl. Sweet. One hand covered the bump where Nick’s great-niece or -nephew was growing. “Yes. I have the paperwork. Normally I handle this in my office, but…I thought the quicker the better. It should never have taken a week for them to find you. All I can say is that our system is royally screwed up at times.”
Nick shot a look through the glass window in his office door at the tiny girl sitting so forlornly, kicking her feet, a scared look on her pretty little face.
A face so like his niece Nikki’s there was no denying the little girl was a Tyler. And since he had been involved with her mother—in Cheyenne seven years ago—Nick wasn’t stupid. “She looks just like Nikki did.”
“With the red hair like Juniper’s. I noticed. Similar eye conditions as Nikki, too, according to what information we have. It’s a recessive condition. Though Nova’s is not as severe. She’ll need a more thorough evaluation soon.”
Nova was his. He…was a father.
Nick’s throat closed, and his gut seized so tightly he’d thought he’d vomit. As what Jude was saying sank in.
He’d missed six and a half years. He bit back the anger.
How had Selena justified doing this to him? To that little girl?
Nick fought the nausea, fought running for the hills. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do next. He had a kid. A daughter. Who had just lost her mother and was completely alone in the world.
She needed him now.
“I don’t know how to be a father to a little girl.” But he was. He was a father. All those times he’d had runs that took him through Cheyenne or Laramie, his daughter had been there the whole time. And he hadn’t known. How could Selena have done that?
Nick’s heart pounded against his chest so hard he thought his heart was going to just stop right where he stood. “Her mother is dead? What happened?”
“Drug overdose, Nick. She was addicted to opioids. She took too many while the kids were at school last week. Her son found her after he came home. Nova was at the after-school program.”
“Noah? Where is he?” Nick had never forgotten that kid. He had dated Selena for two years. He had known Noah and loved him. Would have taken care of him, too. Would have raised him like he was his own. He’d been planning on it, had wanted it.
If Selena hadn’t suddenly told Nick to get lost. That she had found someone else. Someone better, someone more exciting who wanted adventure.
She had hurt him a great deal. Losing her and Noah had hurt like hell. “Is he ok? Where is he?”
Noah had to be twelve now.
He and Selena hadn’t ever lived together, but he had helped her with her bills when she asked him to. Had bought her and her little boy groceries more times than he could count. Bought Noah clothes and shoes and even his first little ball mitt when he’d been four.
Only to be told to get lost. He wasn’t needed any longer.
Hard not to feel used after that.
A shadow passed in front of the door.
Robin. Looking beautiful and sweet, with her copper brown hair hanging loose down her back. She knelt down in front of Nova and offered her what looked like a juice box. And a smile. Nova smiled in return.
She was beautiful—his daughter. Absolutely beautiful.
Robin had kids.Robin knew how to be a mother to a little girl…