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WHEN THE COWBOY SAID "I DO"WHEN THE COWBOY SAID "I DO"

Silhouette Special Edition #2072
Montana Mavericks: Thunder Canyon Cowboys
October 2010
ISBN: 0-373-65554-1

Thunder Canyon golden-girl Holly Pritchett had come home—abandoned, alone…and pregnant! The last thing the mother-to-be wanted was for her condition to be broadcast all over town. That's when sexy rancher Beauregard Clifton made her an offer she should have refused….

Now that he was running for mayor, Bo needed a wife. And Holly needed a husband and daddy for her baby. But from the moment he said "I do," Bo was finding Holly—and her impending motherhood—absolutely irresistible! Stay tuned, loyal readers, and find out whether Thunder Canyon's former playboy will turn a temporary arrangement into a permanent union—and an instant family!

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Excerpt from WHEN THE COWBOY SAID "I DO"

“I’m really in it deep, Erika, and I have no idea what to do.”

Holly Pritchett sat in a booth at DJ’s Rib Shack, subtly cradling an arm over her tiny swell of a belly. Yet another massive knit sweater was hiding the little secret she’d been keeping for the past seven months.

“What couldn’t you tell me on the phone?” Erika Rodriguez asked while tossing her purse into the booth and taking a seat, all while fixing a sympathetic brown gaze on her friend. She’d come straight over from where she worked here, at the Thunder Canyon Resort, so her dark hair was pulled back and she was dressed in a conservative skirt suit. She looked just like the put-together big sister figure Holly needed right now.

Around them, the dinner crowd murmured from the long family-style tables in the main area. Sepia-tinged pictures of cowboys and ranches hung on the walls, along with a painted mural showcasing the town’s history. The heavy sweet/tangy aroma of the restaurant’s original barbecue sauce permeated the air, but that wasn’t exactly what was tightening Holly’s stomach.

She took a deep breath and stopped touching her belly, just in case anyone might be looking. Her baby—Hopper, she liked to call him or her because of the tiny jumps Holly would feel every so often—didn’t need anyone knowing what straits good old Mommy was in.

“It’s my father,” Holly said, anxiety chasing her even now, although she tried to quell it for Hopper’s sake. “I think he knows.”

Erika closed her eyes, clearly guessing where this was going. “How could he tell? You’ve been hiding it really well under those clothes.”

“I know. I’ve been carrying small and haven’t ‘popped’ yet.” Besides, she’d always been on the skinny side and she’d liked to wear snugger clothing, so it had to have been the big skirts and sweaters that had made her dad extra suspicious. “You should’ve heard him before I left the ranch. ‘Seems you’ve been eating better than usual since you graduated, Hol.’ And he had this expression on his face, like he meant something else entirely. I must’ve gotten some kind of telling look, too, because he read everything on me, Erika. Then he said, ‘You didn’t just put on a few pounds, did you?’”

Erika frowned just as the waitress arrived at an adjacent table, seating another customer.

Holly had enough presence of mind to glance over before she dared to continue. But the new diner’s back was to them as he set up a laptop computer. A Stetson rode low over his face, further obscuring any features.

When he took off his sheepskin jacket and put it on the bench, Holly couldn’t help but notice his broad back.

She saw him putting in some earbuds that were connected to his computer as the waitress left. Holly went on, feeling secure that he wouldn’t be able to hear them.

“Then Dad asked me straight out if I was pregnant.”

Erika hadn’t spared much more than a glance at the new arrival, either. “And you told him all about Alan.”

Holly pursed her lips.

“You didn’t tell him about Alan dumping you so he could accept that law clerk position overseas?”

“I know I should have, but I heard myself saying something entirely different instead.”

Erika’s big-sis eyebrow shot up.

Not good. The two of them had struck up a friendship during the days when Holly’s father had been buying up more land for the family ranch, and he’d brought her to the real estate office where Erika had been working as a receptionist. While Holly had waited in the lounge, she and Erika had gotten to talking, finding that the two of them had a lot in common. From that point on, Holly had looked forward to each visit as their camaraderie had grown.

Basically, a raised eyebrow from Holly’s surrogate big sis was just as bad as any disappointment Holly’s father could wield.

She scrambled to explain herself. “It was the look on Dad’s face… And when he said, ‘I thought I raised you to be smarter than this’… Well, I just heard myself saying something to him that I never dreamed would come out of my mouth.”

It had been a comment that goody-two-shoes, straightforward Holly would’ve never dared.

“And…?” Erika asked.

She exhaled, then said, “I told my dad that he shouldn’t fret about me and the baby because I’ve got a fiancé, and he’ll be coming into town in a few weeks after he finishes up a job.”

Erika didn’t react for a moment. She only stared at Holly.

Of course, that meant Holly needed to explain herself even more.

“Then I said to him that I’d been keeping quiet about everything because I wanted to make the engagement and baby announcement with my fiancé, together, after he arrived.”

It looked as if Erika wanted to say a million finger-wagging things, but she limited herself. “So what are you going to do if Alan doesn’t come back to you? How are you going to explain that to your family? Because I know your brothers. The three of them will hunt that guy down and drag him back to the States by his hair.”

“I didn’t exactly mention Alan’s name.” Holly traced the edge of the menu in front of her. “I’ve already accepted that he’s not going to come back. But I had to tell Dad something. You know how he is.”

“Yes—Daddy Pritchett thinks the world of his golden girl. But, Holly, why didn’t you just tell him the truth about Alan? It’s going to break your father’s heart even more when he finds out you lied to him.”

Holly was feeling sicker by the moment.

Erika continued. “And I know how you are, too. You’re just as disappointed in yourself, and it’s tearing you apart to have this dilemma.”

Their waitress strolled up to take their orders, and for a minute or two, Holly was able to put on one of those “everything’s okay faces” that she was so good at.

Another lie.

Good heavens, before now, Holly hadn’t told very many of them, and they sure did weigh.

After the waitress picked up the menus, both Holly and Erika sipped from their waters, the moment just as awkward and disappointment-laden as Holly had feared. Her gaze wandered to the nearby table, where the lone occupant sat, still facing away from them.

Dressed in shined-up boots and Wranglers. Thick blond hair ruffled from taking off his Stetson, which he’d set next to him on the bench by his coat. His computer opened on the table as he used those earbuds to listen to whatever news report he was clearly monitoring on his screen.

In spite of herself, Holly lingered on his wide back, the muscles delineated under his Western shirt. Her skin tingled, just as if someone had brought summer to October and the sun was dancing from the inside of her to the outside.

Then, realizing what she was doing, she looked away.

Worst time ever to be looking at some cowboy.

Erika had taken another glance at him, too, before returning her attention to Holly, then placing her water on the table.

“No matter what went on with your dad, I’m glad you called. We’re going to find a way to get you out of this.”

Holly smiled, relief coming out in the gesture. “I knew I could count on you.” Erika had gone through her own single-mother problems before her fiancé, Dillon Traub, had come along. Her two-year old daughter, Emilia, adored him. Life was good for their new family.

And it could be the same for Holly if she could just dig herself out of this.

Still, she sighed. “Who would’ve thought a girl like me would end up in this situation? I had so many different plans…”

“Sometimes our passions get the better of us.” Erika smiled sadly, obviously remembering how her boyfriend had ditched her once upon a time, too. “Even a smart, best-laid-plans law-student like you can find yourself veering from what you thought life was going to be like.”

“I was an almost law-student,” Holly said, a tinge of longing in her voice. “Never quite got to grad school.”

But then she discretely rested her arm over her baby bump, and she smiled. No regrets. Not even for meeting Alan.

“Knowing the determined Holly Pritchett,” Erika said, “I don’t doubt that you’ll come out of even a moment like this shining.”

“It’ll take some work.” She laughed slightly. “It’s hard to believe that I ever thought I’d get through all my schooling, then return to my hometown a complete success. A lawyer who champions the downtrodden, right? Then, I met him.”

“Alan the Rat.”

“Yes—a huge, scurrying rat. I never in a thousand years thought that he wasn’t just as crazy about me as I was about him. And after this surprise pregnancy, I was too busy picturing ways for me to march into Thunder Canyon as the best wife and mother in creation to notice that he wasn’t as excited as I was.”

“I know exactly how you feel. But I know this, too—you’re better off without him.”

Spoken by someone who’d lived it and learned it.

“You’re right,” Holly said. “His heart was never really with me, just his work. But I tried not to let that get me down. I thought I could talk him into being a family man. I truly believed there was even a way to keep my family from knowing that the pregnancy wasn’t planned. I was still going to come off as Miss In-Control.”

It’d been absolutely inconceivable to Holly that her plans wouldn’t come to fruition.

Then Alan’s job offer had changed everything.

Holly could still hear him the night he’d come home to their apartment near campus with the news of his clerking offer in a high-powered London firm.

I’ve been thinking, Hol… This is an amazing opportunity for me… I’ll pay for our child’s upbringing, don’t you worry about it, but I can’t commit any more than that right now…

Then, the final blow after she’d told him to get out.

I never told you I wanted children with you. It just happened. I got trapped…

The last thing Holly wanted was a husband who felt like that rat in a cage, so she’d let him gnaw his way out of it.

Erika reached across the table to hold her friend’s hand. “You’ll still stand proud and strong, just like any Pritchett.”

Holly’s shoulders slumped a little at that. “Yeah—standing on a lie that just whizzed right out of my mouth before I could stop it.”

“Holly…” Erika looked as if she was going to ask something hard. She didn’t disappoint. “If Alan somehow experienced a change of heart and decided to send for you, what would you do?”

The question clawed into Holly. It had already found a painful place in her these past months, while she’d lived at her father’s house, working at a temporary, homebound, online data input job to save money, not only to pay off her college loans, but because she’d told Alan to keep his paychecks to himself and go to hell in the meantime.

She hugged her arms over her belly, not caring now if anyone saw.

A child needed a father.

So if Alan ever wanted to come back, would she say yes?

God, she just didn’t know. It wasn’t that she wanted him in her life again. It was about what her baby needed.

Holly just didn’t have any answers, and that went double when it came to realizing who she even was these days: the girl who’d grown up under such high expectations from everyone? The one who’d planned her life out to a T?

Or this flailing single mom?

“I have no idea what I’d do, Erika,” Holly said softly. “It’d be nice to have the support. Dad can’t give it to me because he’s got his hands full enough with the ranch. My brothers can’t spare anything, either. I wouldn’t even dare ask. But Alan doesn’t even call me to check on how the baby’s doing. Why would I want someone like that involved with us?”

The waitress arrived with their salads, so Holly and Erika paused. Then, their server went to the cowboy at the next table, who took out his earbuds and glanced up at her, revealing his profile.

And when he did, he had a smile to beat all smiles.

Just seeing it almost knocked Holly out of the booth.

That blond hair… That profile, with its cut jaw, firm chin, full lips and straight nose…

She narrowed her gaze at him. He looked familiar.

Her heart scampered around in her chest, as if chasing around his identity.

When the waitress left, she was wearing a won-over grin.

The cowboy put his earbuds back in, turning back to his computer.

“I swear,” Erika said, a note of amusement in her voice.

“What?”

“Bo Clifton. He’s got enough charm to talk the wings off of a butterfly.”

Now Holly’s pulse jerked.

Bo Clifton?

Erika had her big sis eyebrow going again. “I know you were visiting your cousin during the summer when his mayoral campaign got started, but you didn’t recognize him the second he walked in?”

“Sure.” Duh. Beauregard Clifton’s image was only plastered all over Thunder Canyon, smiling out from those “Golden Days Ahead with Bo!” posters.

But Holly was also recalling another Bo Clifton.

She faced Erika again, acting as if she hadn’t been gaping at him. “It’s just that I haven’t seen him in ages.”

“He’s back in town in a big way now. He moved out of Thunder Canyon years ago to buy a second spread near Bozeman.”

“Besides the one his parents left him here before they moved?”

“Yes.”

“Bozeman.” Holly entertained a flash of fantasy: what would’ve happened if she had run into Bo in the city near her college? If she had remembered him and he had remembered her as he gave her one of those hot smiles she’d seen the waitress enjoying…?

She shook it off. “So he wants to be mayor of Thunder Canyon. That’s quite a job.”

Governing a town that had grown by leaps and bounds after a gold rush, then the exploding popularity of the Thunder Canyon Resort. But the economy had started sinking during the last couple of years, and it had hit this small town especially hard.

“Bo’s up to it,” Erika said, “He saw what was going on here and decided he could do something about it.”

“All I have to say is that I’m glad someone besides Arthur Swinton threw his hat into the ring.” Holly shook her head. “Him and his old way of thinking are enough to drive this town deeper into the ground.”

“A lot of the younger crowd would agree with you. Sounds like Bo’s got your vote, too.”

“We’ll see.” Holly picked at her salad, trying to control her heartbeat, which was still bopping around. “Way back when, our families would have the occasional barbecue, and he was even pressed into babysitting me and my brothers a few times, too.”

Bo was thirteen years older, a sun-kissed teenaged cowboy who liked to buck the system—or so she’d heard in town every so often. And she’d crushed on him hard until other more accessible boys had come along.

She remembered Bo, all right.

The waitress stopped by to refill their water glasses. “Anything else for you gals before your ribs get here?”

Holly and Erika said no, and as their server disappeared, they started to talk again.

Until they realized that someone had gotten out of his seat and was standing near their table.

Holly jumped at the sight of Bo Clifton with that charming smile on his face.

She couldn’t catch a breath, what, with him and his broad shoulders. His skin was tanned, and it made his forget-me-not blue eyes stand out like memories that had never quite left her.

“Ladies,” he said.

“Bo.” Erika nodded cordially. She’d worked with him recently on a rally event, so she was obviously comfortable with him moseying on over here. “Do you remember Holly Pritchett?”

“Indeed I do.”

He extended his hand to Holly, who stared at it a moment, as if debating whether or not it’d be a good idea to touch him.

Temptation. A large hand like Bo’s enveloping her in warm skin.

Pregnancy hormones flitted around in her like little red sparks.

And that’s all it was, too—her body. A bunch of hormones that constantly wanted to get into mischief.

It had nothing to do with this broad-shouldered cowboy in particular.

When Holly shook his hand, it was warm, all right. Roughened, just like the skin of a man who was used to a good day of work.

When Holly let go of him—maybe too soon, because Erika was watching her with a curious slant—she tucked her hand under her leg, trying to get rid of the delicious shivers that were tingling from her fingers and up the length of her arm.

“Good to see you,” she said to Bo.

Now please go.

But he was doing no such thing.

Actually, what he said next shocked her with its straight-to-the-point boldness.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, Holly, I couldn’t help but hear a few scraps of your conversation. And Erika is right—you’re going to find a way out of your situation. In fact, it seems I’ve got all the troubleshooting you’re ever going to need right here.”

 

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From the book: When the Cowboy Said “I Do”
By: Crystal Green
Imprint and Series: Silhouette Special Edition
Publication Date: 10/10
ISBN 13-978-0-373-65554-0
Copyright C: 2010
By: Harlequin Books S.A.
R and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com