Six months pregnant, abandoned and without a penny to her name, Lily Hansen has only one place to go. The ranching communityand her traditional fatherwon't take kindly to her situation. But when a handsome forest ranger saves Lily from a flash flood, all she sees is concern in his warm brown eyes. She soon discovers that Nate Coates's own harrowing family history is behind his need to take care of her. Though she dreams of marriage, she'll have to open her heart to love before she can become Nate's wife.
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He wouldn't want her now. Not after what she'd done.
Lillian Hansen rested her left hand over her rounded stomach. Tears throbbed at the backs of her eyes. Her unborn child deserved a better mother than she could ever be. And yet, Lily couldn't help believing that out of all the mistakes she'd made in the past, fighting for this baby's life wasn't one of them.
She rolled down the windows of her red compact car. Taking a deep breath, she brushed a hand across the back of her damp neck, wishing the air conditioner worked. Drafts of hot, dusty air filtered through the vents as she drove through Jasper, Nevada, the small ranching town where she'd been raised.
The town hadn't changed much in the past seven years since she'd left home without saying goodbye. The two shabby grocery stores still faced each other across Main Street, Mallard's gas station stood at the end of the block with the one-room post office around the corner and the red brick church house near the city park. She knew them well.
The wheels of her car thumped over the railroad tracks as she headed outside of town. Within two miles, the asphalt gave way to gravel and then dirt road. With a quick twist of her wrist, she flipped off the radio. Nothing but scratchy static in this part of Nevada.
The April weather seemed unseasonably warm. Either that or her physical condition was making changes in her body she didn't understand. The warm breeze whipped at her long brown hair as she slowed her car and looked out at Emerald Valley. A hurtful pang of nostalgia caused her to suck back a breath. Memories swamped her as she gazed at the familiar view. Even though she'd turned her back on Dad and everything he'd tried to teach her, she still felt like she belonged here. She always had. She just hadn't known it back then.
She should have called the ranch first to make sure Dad was home. Getting into the house wouldn't be a problem. He never locked the front door. But it'd been three years since they'd spoken by phone. Three years since he'd begged her to come home and change her life. She'd hung up on him in anger. What would she do if he tossed her out the moment he saw her again? She had no other place to go. No job, no money, no friends and no husband.
Driving the road on autopilot, her gaze skimmed the fertile green fields filled with alfalfa and tall sedge grasses. Thin fingers of streams crisscrossed the valley, feeding off the numerous lakes higher up in the Ruby Mountains. Herds of black Angus cattle grazed lazily on the rich pasturelands. At the end of each creek bed, a ranch house and barn nestled at the base of the protective mountains.
Nothing much had changed. Except her.
The baby had been the catalyst that brought Lily to her senses. That and several blows from Tommy's fist. When she thought of all Tommy's empty promises, she could blame no one but herself. She'd stayed too long, making one poor choice after another. Clinging to the hope that he'd finally marry her. That he'd change and get control over his brutal temper.
And then came the final blow. He was already married.
It'd taken an unexpected pregnancy and a call from Tommy's wife to shock Lily into reality, and she promised never to look back. She had a child to think about now. A child to protect the way Dad had tried to protect her.
She shook her head, refusing to cry. Her tears had dried up long ago. Other than Dad, she wanted no other man in her life. Ever again.
Wow! Usually Jasper River was nothing more than a dry creek bed. Now, a stream of water ran through it. The winter must have been harsh, with deep snows still showing on the mountains. The unseasonably warm weather must be causing melt-off in the higher elevations.
Lily couldn't help being jarred from her thoughts as she turned the bend. The car backfired when she slowed it to a crawl. The narrow dirt road demanded attention as she neared the muddy streambed. Normally she should be able to drive right through on dry ground. She hoped her car wouldn't bottom out as she crossed. If she got a running start and gunned it, she should be able to rush her car right through and up to the opposite side of the road.
She pressed the accelerator and the motor revved. The car entered the riverbed at a good speed, but then the tires dragged, spinning in mud.
No, no! She couldn't get stuck here. Emerald Ranch was still a good five-mile walk and she didn't want to lug her suitcase all that way.
A dull roar filled her ears. What on earth
Looking to her left, she widened her eyes. A rolling mound of sludge, clumps of sagebrush, rocks, tree limbs and debris filled the streambed. Headed straight toward her.
Lily gasped, terror flushing her heated skin.
She floored the accelerator, gripping the steering wheel like a lifeline. "Come on! Get across!"
The tires spun in the mire. Panic climbed her throat. She'd heard stories about flash floods but had never seen one. Not like this.
The car wouldn't move. The tires whirred, making a shrill zipping sound.
Lily reached for the window controls, rolling up the glass pane on her side just as the muddy water slammed against the car. The force of the blow caved in the door and almost flipped the vehicle over on its side.
She screamed with fear and pain, crossing her arms over her round abdomen to protect her unborn child the only way she could. Her head jerked to the right like a raggedy doll. Thank goodness she still wore her seat belt, but no one would hear her cries. No one but her Heavenly Father.
The flood tossed the car around and Lily held on for dear life. Murky water poured through the open passenger window. The cold muck quickly soaked her clothes and she shivered. She turned her face away from the force of the icy water, gasping for breath.
A broken tree limb caught her eye. It whooshed past, carried by the swift current. She watched it in fascination, feeling broken and alone, just like that limb. How she wished the river could carry her heartache and guilt away as easily as it carried that tree branch.
For one fleeting moment, Lily considered letting the flood sweep her away. If she didn't fight it, she'd be carried downstream and buried beneath debris. Some rancher would find her days, perhaps weeks, later. She wouldn't have to face her shame anymore. No more worries or grinding fear. No baby. She wouldn't have to confront her father and his big, broken heart. A bit of pain and she could give up her life.
And then she'd have to face the Lord.
No! She shook her head, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel. Something hardened inside of her. She wanted to live. Mom had told her God loved His children. All of them. It was never too late to seek forgiveness. Not if you really meant it and changed your life.
Her fingers clawed at the lever to free her seat belt, but it held firm. "Please, God, have mercy on us. I'll make things right. I'll become the woman You want me to be. I'll do what's right for this child. I promise."
Maybe it was too late for forgiveness. Maybe
The car wheeled around, carried along by the swift strength of the current. The roar filled Lily's ears and she tried to steer the car, but it did no good. She found herself under control of the flood, just as she'd been under the control of evil forces. Finally, she'd found the strength to break free. To beg God's forgiveness and start anew.
Not this time. She couldn't break free of the flood. It held her in its grasp.
She sat waist-deep in muddy water. Several times, the force of the tide threatened to roll the car. She screamed again out of sheer terror. And then she forced herself to think. Think!
Should she climb out or stay put? Common sense told her she'd drown if she stayed inside. But if she got out of the car, she might not make it to shore. She was five and a half months pregnant. The powerful current might carry her along, beating her to death with churning rocks, trees and rubble.
What should she do?
"Please, God, give me one more chance."
As she let go of the steering wheel, a feeling of peace enveloped her. She pressed on the lever one more time hard, and her seat belt released its hold across her body. Crouching beside the open passenger window, she pressed her hands protectively over her stomach. Waves of love washed over her as she thought of the precious life she shielded. She owed everything to this child, who had set Lily back on the road toward the Lord.
Lily watched for the best opportunity, looking for a safe place to go. She'd have to swim hard and strong to make it to shore. To fight the churning tide.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed through the open window and felt the strong, cold current sweep her away. She was in God's hands now.
"You don't see something like this every day." Nathan Coates spoke to himself before whistling low beneath his breath. Sitting in his green Forest Service truck, he stared out the windshield at the flash flood, amazed by the melee of swirling, muddy water. It rolled past, expanding across the banks of the creek bed, slamming through everything in its path.
Opening the truck door, he picked up his camera and stepped outside. As he walked closer to the banks, he snapped pictures, wondering if the photos could do justice to the powerful, roaring waters. It must be raining hard up in the mountains. He'd never seen anything like this and stood in awe at Mother Nature's wrath.
Another sound made him pause and he turned his head downstream. Two tires and headlights peeked out above the curve of the riverbank, the rest of the red vehicle buried beneath a layer of mud and tattered bushes. He snapped a few pictures, then took several more steps and paused. Did he hear
The sound came again. A scream for help!
Nate ran toward the grass edging the creek. His booted feet sank in mud as he hurried through tall sedges and willows.
The growl of the flood swallowed the sound and he doubted his senses. He paused at the edge of the swollen river, paying attention in case a second wave of water exceeded the banks and pulled him into the flood. He scanned the melee, thinking he'd imagined the cry.
There! A woman, buried to her chin in water as she clung to a boulder in the middle of the stream. Her long brown hair lay plastered to her pale face, her eyes closed as she cried hoarsely. "Help me. Please!"
"I see you!" He waved.
She opened her eyes, but fear or fatigue kept her from moving. If she let go, the flood would sweep her away.
He cupped one hand around his mouth like a megaphone and yelled louder. "Hang on! I'll be right back."
She didn't even lift a hand as he turned and sprinted to his truck. Mentally, he took stock of the supplies he had in the back tool chest. His fire pack, ready at a moment's notice in case he was called out on a wildfire. It included fresh water and food. A first-aid kit, which he might need soon. A toolbox, coils of rope and rappelling clips. He'd definitely need those now.
A sense of urgency pushed him to hurry. He had no idea how long she'd be able to hold on.
Inside his truck, he tossed the camera onto the seat and started the engine. Putting the vehicle into four-wheel drive, he steered it off the dirt road and through the brush, getting as close to the flood as possible without burying the tires in the bog so that he wouldn't be able to break free.
She was still there, her right cheek resting against the hard boulder. Water rushed over her, slapping her in the face. Now and then she coughed and he breathed with relief. Obviously she had a good hold on the rock, but how long would her strength hold out against the cold, swift current?
After jerking on a pair of leather gloves, Nate secured two lengths of rope to the front fender of the truck. Then he tied one rope around his middle. As an Eagle Scout, he'd learned to tie knots that wouldn't come loose, thanks to his mother's persistence to keep him involved in good activities.
Binding the other rope to his belt, he trudged through the mud toward the flood. He gasped as he entered the frigid water. The powerful stream knocked him down, soaking his green forest ranger uniform to the skin. The rope gave him security and he pulled it taut to regain his feet. Without the lifeline, he would have been swept away by the stream and possibly drowned.
With powerful strokes, he fought to swim his way across to the woman. Adrenaline pumped through his body, giving him strength. An entire tree trunk brushed past, its sharp branches scraping his side. In the freezing water, he grunted but barely felt the pain.
Thankfully the majority of rocks and debris had already passed, pushed forward by the flood. Every muscle in Nate's body tensed as he fought to keep from being whisked away. He barely dodged a boulder aimed at his head. Cold water washed over him again and again and he coughed.
His cold fingers clasped the rock the woman was clinging to, his wet gloves stiff and unyielding. Panting for breath, he looped the rope around the boulder to hold him steady until he was ready to return to shore. He leaned next to the woman, speaking loud over the roar of water. "You okay?"
Her eyes slit open, then closed, followed by a subtle nod. She was alive, but a trail of blood rolled down her forehead where a lump had formed beneath a nasty gash. Without examining her, he had no idea of the seriousness of her injuries.
"Help us. Please," she whispered in a hoarse voice.
"Us? Is someone with you?" He looked around, his gaze searching for another person he must have missed, but he saw no one else.