This wasn’t the time or the place to confess he’d just finished having a standoff with Old Man Nelson. “Gut feeling.” Austin shrugged.
Rumor chuffed as she rolled to her side and stood. After pacing the enclosure several times, she heaved a heavy sigh and settled back down on the hay again. It tore him up to see her so anxious. He needed to get inside that stall and comfort her.
As if sensing his frustration, his dad clapped him on the back. “Relax. She’ll be fine.”
“I know.” Austin exhaled, releasing a tiny bit of tension.
“If she’s still laboring come suppertime, I’ll bring dinner out to you.”
“If she gets into trouble, call me. I’ll help you pull the foal out.”
“Will do.” He nodded, watching his dad stride away.
The minute Duke was out of sight, he flipped the latch on Rumor’s stall and stepped inside. Easing onto the thick hay beside her, Austin gently rubbed his hand over her distended stomach. She let out a low, breathy whinny as the muscles bunched beneath his palm. Then she turned her head and nudged his other hand with her nose, seeking more comfort.
“Easy, girl. You’re doing fine. Just relax and let nature take its course. I’ll be right here with you,” he promised, stroking the velvety down between her nostrils as the muscles of her stomach tightened beneath his other hand again.
Austin breathed against the current of anticipation humming through him. Rumor was stressed enough without adding his expectant-father angst to the mix.
But he couldn’t help it. He was worried.
Seven years ago, he’d stood in this same barn, helplessly watching Dancer take her last breath minutes after giving birth to Rumor. Determined to keep the newborn alive, Austin had cleaned her off and moved her to another stall, then had begun bottle-feeding her every four hours. He’d stayed in the barn for weeks, caring for the orphaned filly. In a weird way, Rumor was like his child. Though he’d never admit that to anyone…ever.
Long minutes passed. He continued stroking her nose as her labor moved along nicely. Austin repositioned himself, settling in for the duration, and leaned against the slats of her stall. As minutes crawled to hours, he closed his eyes. Visions of Paige, standing on the porch with the wind blowing her hair and the gauzy dress outlining her lush body, filled his brain. He jerked his eyes open with a groan.
“Dammit, girl. Get the fuck out of my head,” he muttered.
Rumor suddenly stood and paced again. Austin remained seated, giving her the space she needed, watching her carefully. A split second later, her water broke, pooling onto the hay.
“You’re doing good, darlin’,” he whispered in a reassuring tone as she lowered onto her side again. “It won’t be much longer.”
And it wasn’t.
Less than an hour later, Rumor gave birth to a strapping ebony colt with a pretty white stripe down his nose, just like his momma. Biting back the lump of pride in his throat, Austin praised her as she softly nickered and cleaned her newborn. An hour or so later, she prodded her baby to stand and continued licking and nuzzling his face and neck while he wobbled on unsteady legs.
“You got a fine young man there, Momma,” Austin preened, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m going to step out and let you two get acquainted, but I’ll be back soon.”
As if understanding his words, Rumor nodded and softly neighed, then focused on her baby once more.
Bursting with pride, Austin pulled out his cell phone and dialed his dad.
“Everything all right?” Duke asked.
“Perfect.” He grinned. “Momma and her new colt are doing just fine. He’s gonna make a good addition to the ranch.”
“I’m on my way,” his dad blurted excitedly before ending the call.
Before Austin could finish gathering food for Rumor, his dad was in the barn and at the new mother’s stall.
“Well, well. You were right. That is a fine-looking colt.” He beamed with the same pride coursing through Austin’s veins. “Did she have any trouble?”
“Not one bit. Her water broke, and a short time later, this little beauty came sliding out.” Austin grinned, easing into the stall and filling the feeding rack.
“Good to hear. I guess you’ll be joining us for supper after all.”
“I sure will.”
“You named him yet?”
Austin shook his head. “I want to get a feel for his personality first.”
As Rumor started chomping on her food, the colt eagerly latched on to her teat.
“By the way he’s nursing, you should call him Ravenous.” His dad chuckled as he clapped Austin on the back. “I’ll see ya at supper.”
Watching his dad stroll from the barn once more, Austin’s heart warmed. He was glad the new colt had given his old man a sliver of happiness. Joy had been hard to come by since his mom died.
He’d have more than a sliver if you gave him a grandchild.
He was suddenly blindsided by a vision of Paige, standing in a windswept field, face tilted toward the sun and smiling as she strummed a hand over her round belly, ripe with his child.
Austin muttered a curse and quickly shoved the ominous image away. It was one thing to fantasize about getting her naked and defiling her in every kinky way imaginable. But impregnating her with his child…never going to happen. Paige was too young, too innocent…too fucking alluring. Hell, Austin wasn’t even sure she could legally drink yet.
Oh, she had the body of a woman, but Austin had a sneaking suspicion Paige was still a virgin. And while he couldn’t stop fantasizing about teaching her the joys of sex—every dirty, depraved, and passionate way possible—Paige still needed to experience life and things he couldn’t give her, like love.
Besides, he’d sworn off relationships over a decade ago.