Born prematurely during a devastating tornado, baby Grace is the littlest miracle in Royal, Texas. Now, with Grace's mother in a coma and her father missing, rancher Keaton Holt and nurse Lark Taylor must come together to care for their niece, putting aside a century-old family feud for the child's sake.
For these two, the road to forgiveness is paved with passion. Even as the family feud continues around them, Lark and Keaton forge a feverish bond. But what the tornado brought together it can tear apart as new revelations surface in the aftermath of the storm…
Be sure to read other scandalous stories from the Texas Cattleman's Club: After the Storm series, only from Harlequin® Desire!
STRANDED WITH THE RANCHER by USA TODAY bestseller Janice Maynard
SHELTERED BY THE MILLIONAIRE by USA TODAY bestseller Catherine Mann
PREGNANT BY THE TEXAN by USA TODAY bestseller Sara Orwig
HIS LOST AND FOUND FAMILY by Sarah M. Anderson
MORE THAN A CONVENIENT BRIDE by USA TODAY bestseller Michelle Celmer
FOR HIS BROTHER'S WIFE by USA TODAY bestseller Kathie DeNosky
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Lark Taylor gathered a deep breath as the elevator doors opened. Plastering a pleasant expression on her face, she straightened her spine. Time to go to work. With a cake box balanced carefully in her hands, she strode down the short hallway to the nurses' station in front of the ICU. The three women behind the desk didn't notice her approach, or if they did, they ignored her.
"So I told him if he thinks he's going hunting two weekends in a row, he can find a new girlfriend." Marsha Todd, a forty-year-old divorced woman with no kids, was holding court as usual. With her bleached teeth, flawless makeup and manicured nails, she was the same sort of shallow individual who had tormented Lark in high school. "So naturally he's staying home. He might not be the brightest guy I've dated, but he's smart enough not to mess with all this."
Jessa and Chelsea, the two other nurses working the ICU today, laughed in appreciation. Taken separately, either woman was tolerable to work with. Jessa was a quiet single mom with a three-year-old son and Chelsea had an alcoholic husband who worked construction. With Marsha as their ringleader, however, they took on a pack mentality. Which meant, if they didn't want to be on the bottom of the pecking order, they'd better make sure someone else was. That person was Lark.
"You're early," Marsha remarked, her tone pitched in criticism as Lark set the cake box on the counter.
"I'm going to spend some time with Grace. I just wanted to drop this off first."
"What is it?" Jessa asked. The nicest of the trio, she had borne the brunt of Marsha's bullying until Lark transferred to the ICU three months ago.
"A cake for Marsha's birthday tomorrow."
"You bought me a cake?"
"Actually I made it."
Chelsea opened the cake box and peered in. "You made this? Really? Looks store bought."
"It's a hobby of mine."
"It's beautiful." Jessa's brown eyes were wide with appreciation. "How long did this take?"
"A couple hours," Lark said, her anxiety easing beneath her coworkers' admiration.
"How did you do the flowers?" Jessa asked. "The roses look real."
"I use a frosting tip and something called a rose nail."
Marsha barely glanced at the three-layer white cake painstakingly decorated in a basket weave pattern with but-tercream frosting and royal icing daisies, roses and forget-me-nots. "If it's not gluten free, I can't eat it."
"Sorry, I didn't know that."
"I don't know how. I talk about it all the time." But never to Lark.
"I guess I'm so focused on the patients." Lark realized even as she uttered the excuse that it was the wrong thing to say. "I haven't heard you mention it."
"And speaking of patients," Marsha said, shooting looks at both Jessa and Chelsea. "We'd better get in and check on them."
All three of her coworkers walked away, abandoning Lark at the desk with her cake and her disappointment. Her efforts to make friends with the other nurses these last few months had all been a bust. Marsha was top of the social order in the ICU and she didn't like Lark.
Not knowing what to do with the birthday cake that Marsha couldn't eat, Lark took it down to the surgical floor. She knew her former coworkers would appreciate the treat. Leaving the cake box on the desk of her friend Julie with a brief note explaining what had happened, Lark headed to the stairs.
One floor down from the surgery floor was the maternity ward. Lark had worked at the hospital for three years without ever setting foot on the floor where children were born until a fateful night three months ago when her niece was born. Estranged from her sister these last four years Lark hadn't been able to tell the medical staff when Skye was due, but they'd been able to surmise she was about twenty-eight or twenty-nine weeks along.
Reaching the third-floor landing, Lark headed to the door that would take her into the maternity ward. She put her hand on the door and pushed it open an inch, finding her way blocked by a broad shoulder clad in a navy blue cotton shirt. Dark brown hair in desperate need of a cut curled upward against the shirt's collar.
The tall, ruggedly built man on the other side of the door was Keaton Holt, brother of the man Lark's sister had run off. She seldom encountered him around Royal. He spent most of his time at the family ranch and only made occasional visits into town. She usually heard about those from her father, who complained every time Keaton showed up at the Texas Cattleman's Club.
All that had changed after the tornado ripped through town and a pregnant Skye had been discovered in her overturned rental car.
Keaton was talking on his cell, fully engaged in conversation, and hadn't noticed her presence. Lark would have to interrupt in order to get past. It would mean she'd catch Keaton's attention and have to brave the intensity of his sharp blue gaze that seemed to see straight through her.
As Lark debated retreating back down the stairs and avoiding Keaton altogether, his words floated through the narrow crack between the door and frame.
"That's why I demanded we get the DNA test run. You're Grace's grandmother. You shouldn't be limited to staring at her through the NICU window."
"Of course Grace is his daughter. He and Skye were madly in love when they left Royal." Keaton's voice rang with arrogant confidence that chafed Lark's already frayed nerves. "He chose her over his family. And yeah, he's a stubborn jerk, but if things had ended between them, we'd know."
Lark leaned as far forward as she dared, her curiosity getting the better of her. Day after day she'd sat beside her sister's unconscious body, desperate to know what Skye had been doing in the years since she left town. Did Keaton have the answers?
"I don't know where Jake is." And Keaton sounded far from happy about that. For the last few months, Lark had rebelled against the possibility that Jake was Grace's father. He'd made no attempt to get in contact with Skye in the three months since she was hurt by the tornado that had devastated Royal. That was why Lark had resisted the DNA test as long as she had. What sort of man abandons his child and the woman he loves? A no-good Holt, that's who.
"I haven't been able to get a hold of him. I've called his company several times, but his assistant has given me the runaround. From some of his other staff I was able to find out that he's out of the country, but they refused to give me any more information, so I have no idea where he's gone."
Until this moment Lark hadn't realized that Jake didn't know about Skye. She'd just assumed that he hadn't rushed to Skye's side because their relationship was over. Skye wore neither an engagement nor a wedding ring, and her fingers hadn't borne any telltale band of paleness that indicated a ring had recently been removed. Given how passionate their love had been when they first left Royal, Lark couldn't believe Jake and Skye had been together four years without making some legal commitment to each other. Especially after Skye became pregnant.
"Of course I explained that Skye was hurt. His assistant " Keaton's frustration was audible, but there was pain in his voice, as well. After a long moment, he continued. "The last time I called for Jake, she told me that she'd been informed he didn't have a brother."
Despite the animosity that existed between their families, Lark winced in sympathy. She and Skye hadn't had any contact these last four years either. She'd been shocked upon moving back to Royal to discover Skye and Jake were still involved and actively hiding their relationship from their parents. Several times in the few months between Lark's return to Royal and Skye's departure with Jake, Lark had warned her sister that she was making a huge mistake trusting a Holt. When Skye chose Jake over her family, Lark had said some harsh things.
She'd accused Skye of being selfish and inconsiderate. At the time Lark had believed her indignation was righteous, but as the years passed, she realized that what she'd perceived as concern for her parents was really resentment born of envy that her sister had chosen to be happy.
"It's okay, Mom. I get that Jake hasn't been able to forgive me for putting them in a position where they felt they had no choice but to leave town," Keaton said, his tone dark. "I can live with being disowned by him. But that doesn't mean I stopped caring about him or his family. He and Skye might not be married, but she is still family. That's why I wanted proof that Grace is his daughter."
"Excuse me." Someone had asked Keaton to step aside.
He nodded and moved out of the way before continuing. "The DNA test should be back today or tomorrow. In the meantime I hired an investigator to find out where Jake has gone."
Before Lark could move, the door she'd been leaning against was pulled away. Off balance, she stumbled into the hallway that led to the NICU. After she made a couple ungainly sidesteps, someone caught her by the arm, steadying her.
She glanced up at her savior. Softened by a thick fringe of black lashes, Keaton Holt's denim-blue eyes captured her full attention. At five feet ten inches, Lark rarely encountered a man she could look up at. Keaton towered over her, making her feel normal. Maybe even a little dainty.
The heat at her center had worked its way into her cheeks by the time she realized she wasn't standing on her own two feet, but still relying on his support. She should have regained her balance and gotten the heck out of there. Keaton and Gloria had to be wondering if she'd been listening in on their conversation. But the leashed strength of the man slammed into her like a runaway calf.
Gripped by what could only be described as a rush of lust, Lark floundered in confusion. Starting when she was a baby, her father's bedtime stories had revolved around the wrongs inflicted on her family by the Holts. She couldn't possibly want Keaton Holt.
"Thank you." She disengaged her arm and took an awkward step back. With effort she ripped her attention away from his sculpted lips. Twenty feet away the room that housed the smallest and sickest babies offered refuge. "Excuse me."
"Lark." Keaton's deep voice rumbled through her as she fled. "Lark, we need to talk."
His voice didn't recede the way it should if she was escaping him. Bracing herself, Lark stopped beside the door that led into the NICU unit.
"The DNA results are due shortly."
"I know," she mumbled, miserable at the idea that she'd have to share Grace with any of the Holts. Unfortunately and against her better judgment, she was also sympathetic to their plight. If she'd been denied access to her niece, she would be beyond miserable.
"We need to talk about what's going to happen next."
"Nothing is going to happen."
"That's not really the case, is it? Once the test determines that Grace is Jake's daughter then I have the same obligation to her as you do."
"Obligation?" Did he seriously think what she felt for Skye and Grace was born of responsibility? She loved her sister and would do everything in her power to take care of Grace. "You think it's your duty to step up because your brother is nowhere to be found." Lark's earlier compassion was trampled beneath an onslaught of annoyance. "You needn't bother. I have matters well in hand."
"I don't think of it as a duty, but I do feel responsible because Jake isn't here."
"And why isn't he?"
"I'm pretty sure he doesn't know what's going on." Keaton set his hand on his hip and gazed beyond her shoulder. "If he did, he'd be at her side."
Lark wasn't at all convinced. "What makes you think they're even still together?"
"My brother loves Skye. Grace is his daughter." Keaton's thick brows drew together. "That's all the proof I need."
Having had no way to reach her sister these last four years, Lark understood his frustration, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of admitting it. "Did you let him know Skye was hurt?"
Keaton's expression shifted into stoic lines. "I've spoken with his assistant, but she's refusing to forward any messages."
"That's quite an excuse." Lark blew out a breath. "If he and Skye were still together I believe he'd have moved heaven and earth to be here for her and Grace. I don't think he's her father."
But she wasn't as convinced as she pretended to be. Grace had Holt eyes and bone structure. That was why Lark had resisted the DNA test for so long. Her instincts told her Grace was Jake's daughter, but the feud that existed between the Taylors and Holts made it so hard for Lark to do the right thing. In the end Keaton's determination and threats of legal action had worn her down.
"Then who is Grace's father and where is he?" Keaton demanded.
Lark had no more idea what had been going on between Skye and Jake than Keaton did, and she wasn't going to pretend any different. "I don't have a clue. We haven't spoken since she left Royal." Seeing Keaton's surprise, Lark continued. "I didn't think running away with your brother was a good idea and told her so."
"Because you didn't think a Holt was good enough for her?" Keaton's neutral tone kept his comment from sounding bitter.
Lark didn't want to fight with Keaton. She was sick of their families being at war. "I knew my father would disown her if she left."
Skye had always been her parents' favorite. They understood her. Unlike Lark, she'd been pretty and popular in school. She didn't lock herself away in books. Their parents didn't care that Skye's grades were good enough to keep her in the top twenty-five percent of her class; they loved the fact that she was a cheerleader and voted prom queen her senior year.
"I guess we have more in common than either of us knew."
"Seems we do." Tightness eased in Lark's chest. Regret had been her constant companion for four years. It had been a lonely time. Her parents refused to talk about Skye, and Lark had been too ashamed at how she'd treated her sister to confide in any of her friends.
"Thank you for letting me do the test." Keaton's voice softened. "My mother desperately wants to visit her granddaughter."
Regret swamped her at his words. Lark wished her parents had similar desires. "My parents haven't seen Grace."
The words spilled out of her with more bitterness than she'd intended.
"But once she leaves the hospital, they can see her as much as they want." Keaton had misinterpreted Lark's meaning.
"The problem is they don't want to see her."
Despite the harm that had befallen their daughter, Tyrone and Vera Taylor hadn't set aside their resentment over Skye's choosing to run off with a hated Holt. Oh, they'd visited her in the beginning when she was first brought in and they acted genuinely concerned, but as the months passed and Skye didn't wake after the medical treatment that induced her coma ceased, they'd retreated into bitterness.
"I don't understand."
"They still can't forgive Skye for running off with your brother."
"Don't you think this thing between our families has gone on too long?"
"Maybe." Everything she'd ever been told by her parents made her want to keep Keaton and his family as far from Grace and Skye as possible, but deep in her heart she knew that if Keaton was right and Jake was Grace's father, the Holts deserved equal time with her. "But you can't expect decades of mistrust to evaporate overnight."
"Jake and Skye got the ball rolling. The rest of us have had four years to adjust."