“You want to have my baby,” Nick Monroe repeated slowly, leading the two horses out of the stables.
Sage Lockhart slid a booted foot into the stirrup and swung herself up into the saddle. She’d figured the Monroe Ranch was the perfect place to have this discussion. Not only was it Nick’s ancestral home, but with Nick the only one living there now, it was completely private.
She drew her flat-brimmed hat straight across her brow. “An unexpected request, I know.”
Yet, she realized as she studied him, noting that the color of his eyes was the same deep blue as the big Texas sky above, he didn’t look all that shocked.
For he better than anyone knew how much she wanted a child. They’d grown quite close ever since she returned to Texas, to claim her inheritance from her late father, and help her mother weather a scandal that had rocked the Lockhart family to the core.
So close, in fact, the two of them had been “friends with benefits” for several months now.
Nick’s gaze drifted over her, creating small wildfires in its wake.
With a click of his reins, he turned his horse in the direction of the wide open pastures behind the Triple Canyon ranch house. He slowed his mount slightly, while waiting for Sage to catch up. “You’re still having second thoughts about using an anonymous donor from the fertility clinic?”
She nodded, enjoying the warm autumn breeze blowing over them. It was a perfect Indian summer afternoon.
Swallowing around the knot of emotion in her throat, Sage admitted, “On the one hand, picking out a potential daddy for my baby via a set of statistics and characteristics seems easy enough.”
Squinting at her, he settled his hat on his head. “Kind of like reading a menu of options.”
“Right.” If only it were that simple, she thought wistfully. Because her mom had been right. Having a baby was an emotional—not a scientific—proposition.
“But?” He kept the pace slow and steady as they threaded their way along a path that took them down a steep ravine, across a wildflower-strewn canyon, and up the other side.
“It’s a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.” Mostly, because the only person she could see fathering her baby was the ruggedly handsome rancher-businessman beside her.
She drew a deep, bolstering breath. “The idea of a complete stranger fathering my child is becoming increasingly unappealing.” When they reached their favorite picnic spot, she swung herself out of the saddle, watching as Nick tied their horses to a tree.
Together, they moved into the warm October sunshine. Spread a blanket out on the ground. “What if the donor profiles aren’t exactly accurate?”
Nick set the rucksack containing their meal down.“I thought the clinic had everyone go through extensive background checks.”
Sage settled cross-legged on the blanket. watching as he did the same. “They do.”
He opened up the bag, brought out the containers from her café-bistro. Two individual thermoses of chicken tortilla soup. Luscious squares of jalapeño-cheese cornbread. And for dessert, triple-berry tarts that she’d gotten up at the crack of dawn to make especially for him. “Then…?”
Sage shrugged. Aware Nick was carefully weighing his options—the way he always did when the talk turned to anything personal—Sage forced herself to abandon the hopelessly idyllist notions that had dictated her actions for years, and speak what was on her mind, rather than what was in her heart.
“The more I think about it, the more I have to wonder. Do I really want some stranger’s DNA swimming around inside me?”
Nick grinned, as if pleased to hear she was a one-man woman, at least in this respect.
He looked at her from beneath the brim of his hat. “Which is why you’re asking me?” he countered in the rough sexy tone she’d fallen in love with the first second she had heard it. “Because you know me?”
Sage locked eyes with him, not sure whether he was teasing her or not. One thing she knew for sure: there hadn’t been a time since they’d first met that she hadn’t wanted him.
And that too was unusual. Prior to meeting Nick, she hadn’t considered herself a particularly sexual person.
He’d changed all that. Fast. Thanks to the times they’d spent in bed, she now knew how much she loved the physical side of affection.
Even without the heretofore requisite falling in love.
“Or because,” he continued flirtatiously, as he unscrewed the lid on his thermos, “you have a hankering for my DNA?”
Aware the only appetite she had now was not for food, she quipped, “How about both?”
He paused, spoon halfway to his lips, undecipherable emotion in his eyes. “You’re serious.”
More than she wanted to admit. She’d been trying to work up the nerve to approach him since the first time they’d hit the sheets. And it was no wonder she felt he was the perfect man for the job. It wasn’t just his mesmerizing sky-blue eyes, thick, dark hair, or masculine good looks. Or the way he made her feel in bed, all woman to his man. At six foot four inches tall, with broad shoulders and a fit, muscular body, he was the quintessential Texas cowboy. A man who was as much at ease running his family’s business as he was this ranch. He radiated not just boundless energy and good health, but intelligence and kindness, practicality and innovation, compassion and heart…
But she couldn’t tell him any of that. Not without sounding like she’d really gone round the bend. “Well…” With a wistful sigh, she flashed him a teasing look. “You are everything I’d ever want in a baby daddy.”
His sexy grin encouraged her to go on.
“Big. Strong. Handsome.”
He tilted his head, edges of his lips curving seductively. “And here I thought you liked me for my brain.”
“I do.” She batted her lashes flirtatiously. “Your sense of humor, too.”
He grinned. “We do know how to make each other laugh.”
Which was the way they both liked it. Nice. Easy. Uncomplicated. This could be, too. If only she could make him see so…
She covered his big hand with her own. Gave it a squeeze. “And since we’re already friends, with benefits, conceiving wouldn’t require us to do anything we’re not already doing. Except,” she added, unable to prevent a self-conscious flush, “forgetting to use protection.”
Clearing his throat, he looked her in the eye. “Nice as that sounds…”
Her heart took on a rapid, uneven beat.
Fearing rejection, she persuaded swiftly, “You want kids, too.” She removed her hand from his, sat back. “You’ve said so, at least half a dozen times.”
He nodded, his beautiful mouth set in a sober line. “When the time is right. Yeah, Sage, I do.”
Restless, she leaped to her feet. Hands knotted at her sides, she began to pace. “What if it’s never right?” She whirled back to face him then watched as he rose, too. “What if, like me—” her tone grew as strangled as the hopes inside her “—you don’t find someone and fall madly in love? What if we wait too long and then something happens and we find we’re no longer as fertile as we once were and we suddenly can’t have children? I don’t want to live with that kind of regret, Nick. Especially since I’ve already wasted so much time.”
“Chasing after Timothy Wellington”
“Terrence Whittier,” she corrected, aware that was the one thing he could never get right, her ex’s name. “And you’re right, I don’t want to do that again. Live so far in the future that I don’t appreciate the here and now. I don’t want that for you, either, Nick.” She trod closer, hands raised beseechingly. “And since…”
She stopped, aware in her eagerness to convince him, she may have spoken a bit too bluntly.
“I’ve already had two broken engagements?”
Knowing she had no room to talk, given her own relationship failure, she wrapped her hand around his bicep. Felt it swell beneath her touch.
“My point is,” she continued, her fingers curving intimately around the hard-packed muscle, through the soft chambray of his shirt, “you’ve been no more successful at finding the perfect match than I have.” She stepped back, jerked in a breath, gave it one last shot. “So why not accept that the odds are against us? And simply make it happen, on our own terms."
Sage had a point, Nick knew.
Waiting might bring them everything they wanted. The kind of fantastic, enduring love he knew Sage still dreamed about—even if she wouldn’t admit it. And it might bring them nothing. Hadn’t he put off pursuing his long-held dreams for too long? An orphan since age ten, he knew better than anyone how short life could be. Still, there were problems with her proposition. The least of which were his growing feelings for her. Compared with the way she still felt—might always feel—about him. As a friend. A bed buddy. Nothing more.
And although their casual arrangement was fine for now—more than fine actually, since he had so much else going on, work-wise—he wasn’t sure that would always be the case.
Because like most deeply ambitious souls, he knew this about himself. He always wanted more.
And that was never more true than when it came to Sage Lockhart. She was five feet nine inches of nonstop energy and enthusiasm, her slender body as feminine as it was curvaceous. With a breathtakingly beautiful face, mesmerizing golden brown eyes, soft pink bow-shaped lips, and a thick mane of wheat-colored hair that fell in soft waves to her shoulders, she drove him wild with lust. It didn’t matter if she were dressed in fancy cowgirl attire, like she sported now, or the white chef’s coat she wore to work, he was constantly wanting to pull her into his arms and make love to her.
Unfortunately, making her physically his wouldn’t solve this dilemma.
Sobering, Nick put on the brakes. “As much as I want a family of my own, too, you know I’m married to the Monroe family business right now.”
As always, at the first hint of conflict, a wall went up. “That’s just it, Nick. I’m not asking that marriage be part of this equation. Not now. Not ever.”
“Even when you become pregnant and or the baby is born.”
She said that, but did she actually mean it? Nick studied Sage skeptically. “Yet, to hear your family talk, you’re one of the most hopelessly romantic women ever born.”
“I used to be. Before I met you.”
She waved an airy hand. “You made me realize that reality is better than romance any day,” she confided in a sweet, matter-of-fact voice.
He tamped down his disappointment. Faced her with his legs braced apart, arms folded in front of him. “How so?”
“You and I started out as just friends.”
Only, he thought, because she would have refused to date him in the tumult of the family scandal that had brought her back to Texas in early June. Then, she had wanted to concentrate on helping her shell-shocked mother clear the Lockhart name of any wrongdoing, while also figuring out what to do with her own inheritance from her late father—a commercial building, complete with personal residence, on Laramie, Texas’s historic Main Street.
Over the course of the summer, Sage had accomplished both, while her “friendship” with him had morphed into a no-strings-attached affair.
She had opened a thriving café-bistro, The Cowgirl Chef, which was just down the street from his own family venue, Monroe’s Western Wear. She’d also moved off her mother’s Circle H Ranch and into the apartment above her coffee shop.
“And because we got to know each other platonically first before we fell into bed, we never viewed each other through rose-colored glasses.” She stepped close enough he caught the intoxicating scent of her perfume. “The point is, Nick, we were honest with each other. About everything from Day One.”
Except for one thing, he thought.
How much I wanted to be with you.
Sage might have fallen into a sexual relationship with him, but he had known all along that he wanted to make her his woman. Luckily, she had felt the chemistry between them, too. Sighing, she looked up at him from beneath her lashes, and went on, “I’ve never had to pretend to want things I didn’t want, just to be with you. The way I did with Terrence.”
Instead, he realized ironically, it was him, pretending he didn’t want the things he did. Not that this current roadblock was going to stop him. He would win her heart, no matter how long it took.
“Like marriage,” he guessed, keeping his attitude as ultracasual as hers.
The soft swell of her breasts rose and fell. “It’s not for me.” She gripped his forearms beseechingly. “And since you’re as wedded to your family business as I am to my new café-bistro, we make a perfect pair.”
That much he could agree on. He’d never met a woman who fascinated him the way Sage did.
That being the case, maybe he should be a gentleman, try it her way. “So how would this work?” he asked curiously. If there was anything his own joke-of-a–love-life had taught him, it was never to crowd a woman. Never jump the gun. It was slow and steady patience that would win out in the end. A tact that had moved them from friends, to lovers, and possibly parents, thus far. He took her all the way into his arms. “Us having a baby together?”
Sage splayed her hands across his chest. “As you might imagine…”
Oh, he could imagine, all right, he thought, body already hardening.
“…first, we get me pregnant,” she teased, her golden brown eyes gleaming with excitement.
Nick savored the feel of her soft body pressed up against his. “Can’t say I mind working on that part…” he admitted huskily, kissing her temple. It would give him ample opportunity to make love with her again and again.
And every time he made love to her, he felt her stubborn resistance to real, enduring commitment slip, just a little bit.
Sage shrugged. “Then we have the baby and parent him or her together.”
“Under one roof?”
She stepped back, clamping her arms in front of her. “Well, I don’t think we have to go that far...”
What if I want to go that far?
She lifted her hand before he could interject. “I think it would be smart to maintain separate residences. You can live at your family ranch, I’ll keep my apartment in town. And we can care for the baby at both places. Be together as much or as little as we want.”
That sounded okay, since he knew better than anyone how one thing could easily lead to another, with Sage.
Soberly, he warned, “You know, if my quest for venture capital comes through, and I can expand into half a dozen new stores in different locations the way I’d like, I’ll be traveling some.”
Sage smiled, unperturbed. “That’s the beauty of my being here in Laramie. I have my whole family, you have yours. Between the Monroes and the Lockharts, we’ll have more backup with this baby than we know what to do with whether you’re in town or not.”
That was true.
Was it possible they could both have everything they wanted?
Especially since marriage per se didn’t mean all that much to him, either. What he really wanted was to be with Sage. Having a baby with her, well…that was the stuff of dreams, too.
“Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out,” he drawled.
“We can have it all, Nick. Friendship. Sex. Family. Plus, the freedom to live our lives exactly as we want and pursue our careers without constraint.” She toyed with the top button of his shirt. “So what do you say?”
The only thing he could if he wanted to make Sage his. He lowered his head and took possession of her lips. “Darlin’?” He kissed her again, more tenderly and persuasively now. “Consider me ‘all in’…”