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by Jan Irving

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Wandering cowboy Luke Walker is at the end of his rope after his girlfriend abandons their newborn daughter. A terrified new father, he's grateful to meet Dr. Morgan Gallagher. Morgan recognizes that he and Luke could help each other: Luke can rebuild Morgan's property and land so Morgan can have the horses he wants, and Morgan can provide the younger man with a safe place to raise his daughter. In theory, it should work out perfectly, except that Morgan is instantly attracted to Luke--a straight man--and sharing the same cabin and caring for the baby is a more intimate arrangement than he'd imagined. A Spin-off of Sylvan
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: July 2010


128 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [101 KB]
Words: 21291
Reading time: 60-85 min.

Chapter One

Morgan Gallagher was waiting on a patient, Tom Hershey. Tom's wife Ellen had passed away a week ago and Morgan was worried about the elderly man, who had a bad heart. It was late and Morgan rolled his shoulders, feeling the stiffness of his three a.m. morning. He'd had to go over to the Bronson Ranch and stitch up one of the cowhands who'd been in a brawl Saturday night.

Yawning, Morgan let his gaze move with familiar disinterest through Sylvan's old mission church. He liked the new windows that folks had chipped in for, especially the one dedicated to Luke the Healer; the man's face looked appropriately tired to Morgan's eyes, for someone who took care of others. As he waited for Tom to finish chatting with Reverend Doyle, his gaze passed on and collided--bam!--with hazel eyes brimming with unshed tears.

Morgan's breath hitched and his heartbeat picked up, even as the stranger looked away, his fawn-colored hair flattened from wearing the cowboy hat that rested on the pale wooden pew. But what Morgan also noticed along with the eyes were the man's tanned hands, clenching the wooden seat in front of him.

He was tall and thin--maybe a bit too thin to Morgan's critical eye. He possessed the muscular upper body of a man who worked hard out of doors, typical in their Western town. In his bleached jeans' pocket, Morgan saw leather work gloves sticking out.

Throat tight as he remembered the look in those beautiful eyes, the blues and greens reminding Morgan of labradorite, he moved forward, feeling compelled to offer his help to the stranger.

But just then Reverend Doyle took his arm, startling Morgan. He didn't catch what the man said, but then Tom was there and Morgan shoved aside the unsettling connection he'd experienced with the man sitting in the pew. He wanted to make sure Tom was taking his medicine, getting plenty of rest, and maybe he'd suggest he join the local senior's bridge club, so the older man wouldn't feel so alone.

By the time Morgan had satisfied himself he'd done right by Tom; his gaze went automatically to the blond pew where he'd spotted the cowhand.

It was empty. The man was gone.

* * * *

Luke Walker shoved his hair off his forehead and replaced his hat as he exited the small mission by the lakeside of Sylvan. He didn't know why he'd gone in there, since God knew how long it had been since he'd been in a church, but he was so tired, and he'd hoped maybe he might find... something. Inspiration. Hope.

Instead, he'd sat there, fighting tears, and met the compassionate blue eyes of a lean stranger wearing a blue work shirt and jeans, but not quite looking like a man who worked out of doors. He'd had the feeling the man had read everything in his face, so he'd ducked away as soon as his attention was elsewhere.

He shook his head as he retraced his steps back to his truck and horse trailer. He'd found nothing in the church to help him in practical terms. His meager savings were almost gone, and he couldn't find work because of Jessica. His last job had involved leaving civilization far behind, taking people on trail rides deep into a national park, and he'd loved it, but it wasn't something he could do now.

The dark voice inside him whispered that maybe it was time to give her up. That he'd never counted on this. That this was not what he'd wanted.

But as he got closer to his old truck, he caught her thin cry, and the sound seemed to wrap around his guts. He unlocked the passenger door, feeling immediately guilty for leaving her, even for the few minutes he'd snatched thinking she was safely asleep.

She wasn't asleep now. Her blue eyes were open as he raised his newborn baby girl high into his arms, rocking her gently. He thought she liked that, but hell, what did he know?

"Jessie," he whispered. "Jessie girl."

She made a fretful sound and on instinct, since he'd lived in fear the two weeks since he'd had her, Luke touched her forehead. She felt much warmer than she had when he'd gone in the church. Did she have a fever?

* * * *

Morgan exited the church, still musing on the mysterious stranger he'd glimpsed. His eyes had been so tormented. Maybe he should ask Reverend Doyle if he knew him?

He grimaced, because he was aware that his attention had also been caught by basic attraction. He couldn't help it; cowboys with sandy hair and rangy, muscular builds had always been his thing, ever since he read Shane. Maybe that was what had propelled him to come out West once he'd finished his residency in a Boston hospital: the hot, romantic dream of a cowboy of his own.

It hadn't happened, of course, so instead, what had compelled him to stay was that people in the outlying farms and ranches around the Sylvan area really needed a doctor. He knew he'd saved lives and helped people in this town, so it did make up a little for having little life outside his work.

A baby's cry made him look toward a tree-shadowed part of the cracked asphalt parking lot, and there he was, the tall, sandy-haired man of mystery wearing his cowboy hat... and holding a baby.

The man's face was tight as he looked over at Morgan, who had hesitated by his SUV. "Is everything all right?" Morgan called gently.

"I don't... shit, I don't know!" the stranger rasped. His beautiful eyes were frightened. He was holding the baby all wrong.

Morgan unlocked his vehicle and pulled out his bag before striding over to the stranger. He held those hazel eyes calmly, trying to impart silent reassurance.

"You a doctor, Mister?" the man asked him.

"Yes," Morgan said. "I'm Dr. Morgan Gallagher. I have a clinic at a homestead I own about a mile from here."

"Luke Walker." Luke watched anxiously as Morgan studied the baby's face.

"What seems to be the problem?" Morgan asked gently.

"I think she's running a fever," Luke said. He flushed. "I'm not sure I can pay you. I was going to try the emergency clinic in Glenda Falls, since they take charity patients."

"That's a long way from here. I'm sure we can work something out," Morgan offered. No way could he send off a possibly sick child when he might be able to help. "We'd probably be better to head to my clinic, however, so I can examine her."

Luke's jaw bunched. "I'd be obliged, only if there is some way to pay you back, I'd rather work for it."

Morgan nodded, understanding pride. "I'm sure I can find something. Follow me back to my clinic," he said briskly.

* * * *

Luke followed Morgan's SUV down an unpaved track with birch trees bending over the road, some in danger of falling over and blocking it; didn't the doctor know to remove them if they were too weighed down by winter snows? Otherwise, they could be a real pain in the ass.

They passed some outbuildings made of logs, some with saplings spurting up from the roofs, the fall meadows surrounding them dotted with late purple coneflowers, blue asters, and wild roses already swollen with reddish hips. A few early fallen leaves rolled from under the passage of the vehicle ahead of him like scattered gold coins.

Luke pulled up outside a log farmhouse with a green roof opposite a dilapidated barn and a corral that had been left to rot and fall down in sections. He couldn't help but shake his head at the decay. Maybe the doctor didn't care, but this was good land and it was a shame.

For a moment, looking at his daughter, who was sleeping again from the movement of the truck, he wondered why it was he'd instantly felt trust in a stranger. But something about Dr. Morgan Gallagher had touched him. His blue eyes had been full of genuine concern, and there had been a strange... feeling that Luke had experienced from the first moment he'd seen Morgan in the church.

* * * *

"Well, it's not a fever," Morgan said finally after he'd carefully examined Jessica, pulling the stethoscope from his ears.

Luke's shoulders slumped and he let out a deep breath. "Shit," he whispered.

"How long have you been taking care of your daughter?" Morgan probed, seeing familiar new-parent exhaustion in Luke's eyes... and something more--a trace of the despair that he'd glimpsed in the mission.

"Two weeks," Luke said. "You sure she's okay? She was so hot."

"She was warm from sleeping and the stuff she was wearing. See? She's cooler to the touch now. Newborns can't regulate their temperature as efficiently as older children. So she's three months?"

"Yes sir, just a day over." Luke scrubbed his face, his fingers rasping against his growing beard.

"And her mother?" Morgan continued to probe gently. He knew there was a story here, and probably not a very happy one.

"Zelda Mancuso. She, uh, was a waitress in a road house I met in a town about a hundred miles from here."

"She didn't want the baby?" Morgan guessed.

"No," Luke said with a sigh. "She told me she just wasn't cut out to be a parent. Then she took off and left Jessie with me."

"That's rough," Morgan said. He watched Luke caress Jessie's cheek, seeing love and pain in the hazel eyes. The man had to be overwhelmed by the sudden crushing responsibility of a new baby. "I imagine you've felt that way too."

Luke swallowed but didn't speak. Instead, he shrugged before reaching into the heavy baby's bag he'd brought into Morgan's clinic for a fresh diaper.

"When was the last time you had a good night's sleep?" Morgan asked gently.

Luke had the baby covered now, obviously having a lot of experience changing diapers. He gave a rusty laugh. "You know, I can't remember. It seems like a blur of terror, the past two weeks. I don't think I'm cut out to be a father."

"I don't think anyone feels that way at first," Morgan said. "But if you can eat right and get some rest it would be better for both you and Jessie." He hesitated to take Luke to task for leaving the baby alone in his truck earlier... maybe he'd get a chance to bring it up another time. Luke was out of his depth, and making him feel worse wouldn't be constructive for him or Jessie.

Luke's lips tightened, and Morgan could bet he'd been living on caffeine and fast food. "I can't seem to find a job right now, but I've worked all my life, Doc--"

"Call me Morgan," Morgan found himself offering. "Jessie is my patient, not you." For some reason, Morgan wanted to hear his name on Luke's lips. He shoved some of his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes and went to wash his hands in the small sink.

"I'm good for it, though," Luke continued.

"I'm not worried about that, Luke," Morgan reassured him. As he dried his hands with a paper towel, Morgan was struck by a sudden, slightly insane inspiration. He knew he was tired and he should think on it, but he had a feeling Luke and Jessie might head back on the road soon if he didn't act. "Luke, you have the look of a working man."

Having finished with Jessie, Luke looked over at Morgan. "Yes, Doc," he said. "I never had any trouble finding a job before."

"Before you had a newborn, you mean." Morgan's lips twitched in sympathy.

Luke nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. "It does complicate things."

"I have a housekeeper, Luke," Morgan said. "Gena Gardenia Anderson." His lips pulled into a smile at the way Luke's eyes widened at the unusual name. "Her mother was kind of a hippy, but Gena is very responsible, the oldest daughter from a family of six kids. She could probably watch over Jessie if you would consent to stay on and do some work for me."

Luke's beautiful hazel eyes widened. "You're offering me a job?"

"Well, yes," Morgan said. "I'm still a bit of a greenhorn, I admit, and this place is falling down, which seems a shame. Sometimes I think it might be nice to keep some horses and improve my riding. I occasionally rent one for an afternoon from a stable on the other side of town when I can catch the time."

Luke shook his head. "You couldn't keep them now, unless you wanted them to wander off."

Morgan nodded in rueful agreement. "Plus, I admit I wouldn't know how to take care of them, nor would I have the time, with my unpredictable doctor's hours. I figured you would, since you have a horse trailer."

"Yeah, it's for my gelding, Sable, a Rocky Mountain Horse." Luke cleared his throat. "He's first class on trail rides. I, uh, was going to put him up for sale."

"I don't know if the barn is fit for him, but you're welcome to stable him here tonight if you want to think on this," Morgan said. "I really do need you. If I'd had time, I would have hired someone months ago, so it looks like it might have been my lucky night."

Luke held Morgan's eyes, and again Morgan experienced that flash of connection he'd felt in the church. He tried to shove it aside. He merely wanted to help Luke. It was obvious he was straight. Somehow, Morgan was going to have to keep his liking of the tall, rangy body and Luke's steady hazel eyes to himself.

"You'd be doing me a favor," Luke rasped, looking down at his daughter.

Morgan wanted to ask if Luke had been tempted to give up his child, but some subjects were too painful to share with a stranger.

"Why don't you see if you can make use of one of the stalls in the barn for your horse. I can watch Jessie while you do that." Luke, let me help you

"The barn might do for my horse, but where would Jessie and I stay?" Luke shook his head. "Your out buildings look like they need some work."

Morgan blinked, not having thought it out yet. "There is a guest room in the loft if you don't mind your bedroom being open to the great room from below."

"No, I don't care, as long as you don't mind that Jessie has yet to sleep through the night." Luke gave a rueful laugh. "And here I thought going in that mission was a waste of time." He looked at Morgan. "I asked for help."

Morgan suppressed the urge to reach out and touch the back of Luke's hand. "I want to help you," he said.

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