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The Millionaire's Secret BabyTHE MILLIONAIRE'S SECRET BABY

Silhouette Special Edition #1668
The Wycliffe, Texas books
February 2005
ISBN: 0373246684

FROM RAGS TO ROMANCE

When a case of mistaken identity lands ranch cook Emmylou Brown in the arms of her childhood crush Deston Rhodes - heir to a fortune and her boss at Oakvale - their mutual desire unravels into a torrid night of lust. The evening takes a sharp turn though: A sudden mishap could mean motherhood for Emmylou!

Stuggling with unwelcome emotion, Deston whisks beautiful Emmylou into a whirlwind of Cinderella romance while the truth remains hidden. But reality awaits.If Deston discovers the real name behind the face he's fallen for, the fairy tale ends-or will it? After all, Emmylou opened his guarded heart. Would be let arrogance and lies tear them apart?

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Excerpt from THE MILLIONAIRE'S SECRET BABY

"You're going to get burned, darlin'."

At first, Emmylou Brown thought the voice--a rough drawl scratching along the low, smooth edges of Texas Hill Country--was just part of the blank sleep she'd drifted into.

Disoriented, she opened her eyes and stared at the endless blue sky. The limestone ridge overlooking the swimming hole abraded her bare back, and her head swam from the heat of the sun's reflection.

The voice continued, tinged with wry amusement. "You might want to turn over. The weather's got some scorch to it."

Okay, this was no figment of her imagination.

She settled herself up on her elbows, glanced in the direction of the voice. Caught her breath.

The man sat on top of a chestnut Quarter Horse, forearm propped on his saddle horn as he inspected her with the laziness of a July day. Scuffed boots with the heels hinged in stirrups, faded jeans stretching the length of his legs, a denim shirt covering wide shoulders and a powerful chest, a Stetson tipped over his cocked brow. Pure cowboy.

Except Emmy knew better.

She gulped, unable to say a word, a ridiculous attraction from years past freezing her in place.

Deston Rhodes.

Did he know who she was, even though they hadn't been on the ranch at the same time in twelve years?

Her stomach somersaulted, scrambling itself into a mishmash of jubilation. His recognition warmed her through and through. She'd fantasized about him since childhood: Deston, sweeping her into his arms like she was a blessed princess, him murmuring, "I always did have my eye on you, Emmylou."

But as he grinned at her, she realized what he must really be seeing.

A pint-sized twenty-four-year-old waif in frayed jeans shorts, the ones she'd torn the legs off of when they'd become too holey to wear in public. A near girl wearing a too-tight, worn hankie top purchased from a last-chance sale in a San Antonio mall seven years ago--before she'd left Wycliffe, Texas, to expand her culinary horizons.

She sat up, crossing her arms over her clothes. But she couldn't hold back a vulnerably hopeful smile. The boss's son had finally taken note of her, had finally seen past her dull sheen of poverty. Hallelujah!

It was almost too much to wish for.

His horse shifted, and Deston moved with the disruption, his thigh muscles flexing as he controlled the animal without much effort.

"They told me you were somewhere on the property, and it'd be polite to reintroduce myself," he said. "I'm Deston. The grown-up version, that is."

He waited, obviously expecting her to return the greeting.

Was she still dreaming? The Deston Rhodes was talking to Emmy as if they'd been pals, as if she wasn't the daughter of the late Nigel Brown, Mr. Rhodes's personal butler, or as if she wasn't the girl who'd take over over for her mother, Francesca, in the kitchens someday.

Odd. Life on Oakvale Ranch usually didn't work this way. The upstairs people didn't consort with the ones downstairs. That's how it'd always been. So why.?

Oh, my.

His gaze was coasting over her body, and the hairs on Emmy's limbs tingled with the thrill of it.

Was he checking her out?

She needed to act as if this were an everyday occurrence.

Coolly tilting her head toward the sun, she said, "It's good to see you again, Deston."

"Likewise." He paused, burning her with his direct stare, his topsy-turvy charm. "You know, I'm trying to think of why I ever called you Lemon Face."

Emmy's wishful thinking burst. He'd had a secret nickname for her and it was. "Lemon Face?"

"Don't look so thunderstruck. Don't you remember? I used to tease you about, well, everything, and you'd make this awful expression. Like you were sucking on lemons."

Wait. Deston had never teased Emmylou Brown. Ever. They'd never even exchanged a word. She'd been just one of many servants' children, and he'd been a future billionaire in the making. Heck, she'd never even made eye contact with him, afraid of what she'd find embedded in his gaze: derision, distance, emptiness.

All the hope, all the happiness of finally being acknowledged by her childhood crush abandoned her in one big sigh.

He thought she was someone else, did he? Some lucky socially-equal playmate from days gone by?

Of course, that's it. You're nothing but a convenience to all the Rhodes family. They don't even know you exist except for your cooking.

But she knew better. She could be so much more than that. Someday.

Emmy closed her eyes, blocking him out. For a second there she'd preened under his girl-you-grew-up-good gaze. She'd been someone who mattered to him.

Well, it was time to set him straight, to go back to reality. She prepared to tell him who she was, to watch as disinterest stiffened his spine to a more Rhodes-like posture of entitlement. Wasn't it unfortunate that she couldn't be his old friend, the woman who'd caught his eye? A person who'd probably never had to hide hole-gouged sneakers under a school desk in utter shame. A girl who'd probably never had a teacher try to slip her lunch money because she'd "forgotten" it three days in a row--when, actually, Emmy had stuffed the dollars her mama had given her back into her parents' stash, knowing it'd do more help there than in her stomach.

Even now she appreciated the irony. A cook's daughter, going without a meal.

When she opened her eyes again, he was still watching her, and Emmy almost melted all over the rock.

"Damn," he said. "You went and got prettier on me. You're sure not the Lemon Face I recall."

She sure wasn't.

With a this-could-have-been-so-beautiful grin, she turned over on the rock, away from him, resting her chin on her fist. "I'm not the girl you think I am."

She heard him chuckle, slide off his mount, rustle around as he secured Mouse to a tree.

"All right. So maybe you've grown out of the nickname. Hell, a lot of things have changed since we were kids."

Well, that hadn't worked. She was talking literally, and he wasn't.

His boots crunched over the fallen oak leaves, the birds cutting off their warbling as he passed them. "My parents said you're leaving the ranch today. I'm sorry I haven't been to many dinners in the big house or barbecues on the back lawn. Business swallowed me right up. But you understand, I'm sure, being a Stanhope."

Stanhope? The name sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it denoted one of a thousand guests who'd stayed at the ranch. Girls who'd laughed and pointed. Emmy spared him a glance from her prone position, her heart clenching.

The man of her youthful dreams, framed by a thicket of juniper and a passel of butterflies dancing around a tuft of hackberry. A knotted rope that the servant kids had used long ago to swing into the spring-fed pond dangled in front of him, and he reached out for it, clenching the hemp. The tendons in his forearm strained, leading up to the bunched muscles disappearing beneath his rolled-up sleeves. With the other hand, he whipped off his Stetson, revealing brown hair, green eyes. A football-hero grin.

"At least you recognized the old swimming hole," he said.

Would he be standing here, shooting the breeze, flirting, by gosh, if he knew she was below him?

No. The senior Mr. Rhodes would never stand for it. And neither would her self-confidence, actually.

But this was a moment she'd always fantasized about. Could she get away with just talking with him, living a dream for a harmless few minutes?

She swallowed. What the heck. She'd never get this chance again.

"I thought this place might offer some peace and quiet." Was that her with the siren voice? It was so easy to be someone other than Emmy. "But then you appeared."

Deston pretended to stumble back, hand over his heart. "Hey, if I'm infringing on your good time, I'll get going. But at least I got you to turn over before your front was fried to a crisp."

"I'm much obliged." See, this was no big deal, having a normal conversation with a demigod.

"Don't mention it." He stepped out of the shade, into the sunlight, nearer to her. "Anything else I can do?"

"You can fetch my water." What fun turnabout. A Rhodes serving her. This had to be the first sign of the world's demise.

He shrugged, came closer, grabbed the bottle and held it out.

Emmy hitched in a breath. She'd never seen him this close before. Sure, she and her friends--other kids whose parents served on the ranch--had peeked through bushes at the Rhodes boys: Harry, with his untamable cowlick. Deston, with his shirttail always trailing out of his pants until Mrs. Rhodes would tuck it back in and shake her head at his carelessness. The girls would giggle to each other, every one taking a turn at imagining ways that Harry or Deston would propose to them.

In a jet on the way to Monte Carlo ? On a ballroom floor? On a yacht?

They'd played their hide-and-sigh games until Harry and Deston had each gone off to prep school. Then college.

Mama had told Emmy that Deston had come to San Antonio a few years ago to become a businessman just like Mr. Rhodes.

But, by then, Emmy had gone off to complete her own destiny, reluctantly using the gift of her parents' life savings in order to train for the job she'd always been expected to assume.

But now, Deston was right here, so close she could lift her hand and touch the long spiky strands of his hair. So close she could smell a hint of sage on his tanned skin, see it in the green of his eyes. There was a slight dimple in his strong chin, too, and a touch of stubble slinking along his jaw line.

"Thanks," she ribbeted, doing her best impression of a toad. Grabbing the water, she fiddled with the top, hating that he made her feel like she was always craning her neck to catch sight of him. A boy on a pedestal.

Now a man.

Oh, yeah. All man.

He crouched next to her, setting his Stetson on the limestone, waiting.

What should she do? Emmy wasn't exactly a world-class flirt, especially after what had happened in Italy .. Not that it mattered now. Nope. It's just that she'd heard about all Deston's brief romances from the servants, who'd caught her up on every detail the minute she'd walked through the downstairs door.

Talk to him, she thought.

"So," she said. How did his friend act? Did he even know, not having seen her for years, either?

He grinned, gaze brushing over Emmy's short, layered hair, over the curve of her back. Goose pimples winged over her skin.

"I've kept up on your life," she said. Good, that much was true. She'd stick to basic gossip, keeping the situation as innocuous as possible. "You were such a football star in school. Quarterback, right?"

He lifted up a hand in resignation, glanced away. "That's over and done with."

"Why didn't you stick to it? You were supposed to be pretty good." He'd been the best. She knew because she and her friends, Carlota and Felicia, had faithfully followed the papers, the gossip.

"I always knew I was made to run Rhodes Industries one day," Deston said. He grabbed a twig from the ground, bent it, straightened it. "But my family gets a lot of mileage out of the whole Longhorn quarterback mystique."

"It does add prestige to your business image, doesn't it?"

He snapped the twig, tossed it away. Stood to his full height. His body cast a shadow over Emmy, all harnessed strength and dark memory.

"Isn't that why your father wanted to spend time here on the ranch?" he asked. "Because he wanted to talk statistics and relive a few glorified touchdowns?"

Her Papa? Nigel Brown, bless him, was eight years gone. And he'd be miffed by his daughter wanting to be anyone other than what she was born for.

She opened her mouth to correct Deston's assumptions, but he was talking again.

"That's how Edward Rhodes the Third draws them in, with promises of pigskin glamour and riches beyond imagination."

A threat of bitterness laced his words. She knew about Mr. Rhodes, how strict he was about running the ranch, the staff, the polished reputation of a billionaire family.

She couldn't see his face thanks to the sun's angle. Good thing, because once she revealed she wasn't from the Stanhope family, she didn't want to see his reaction.

There was a loud thrashing from across the swimming hole, and they both glanced over to see what had caused the racquet.

A white-tailed deer had emerged from the foliage, gracefully walking along the water's edge.

"Look," Emmy said, momentarily lost in the sight. It'd been a long time since she'd been in Hill Country, and she'd missed it terribly.

The animal sensed them, stiffened, then burst away in a flash of legs and brown hide.

Deston leaned down, casually plucked at the knot that held together the back of Emmy's hankie top, then stood again. "Come on, let's make the most of your last day here, Lila."

He started to unbutton his shirt.

Lila. "Hey, I--" Her mouth clamped shut.

He'd whipped off the material, revealing tanned skin, work-honed muscles, abs that you could grate cheese on. When he undid the fly of his jeans, Emmy averted her eyes.

"I need to tell you something."

"What?" Heavy denim thumped in front of her, bodiless.

Oh, Good Lord. He was--as her Mama might say--nudo, wasn't he?

Unable to help herself, Emmy peeked out of the corner of her gaze. She caught a glimpse of white boxers. Phew. Or maybe not. No, definitely phew. The last thing she needed was to be out in the middle of the boonies with a buck-naked boss's son. She'd get Mama fired in a second flat with what had happened a few years ago between Harry Rhodes and the maid, and, Lord knew, Mama needed every penny..

"You just gonna sit there?" Deston asked.

Emmy nodded, staring straight ahead. Should she concentrate on her book now? Like Water for Chocolate, something she'd read and used for recipes a million times before.

"Suit yourself." He whisked by her, body arching into the pond like a switchblade cocked open.

Deston obviously knew the depths of the swimming hole from his youth. When the servant kids had played here, they'd vacated the hole at the first sign of a Rhodes . Their upbringing had forced them to. It wasn't proper, they'd been told time and again, to fraternize with the higher ups.

Emmy had never seen him swim, never seen him knife upward in a spray of droplets. The water sprinkled onto her arms, and she leaned backward.

"Hey!"

He laughed, clearly having the time of his life, slinging the hair out of his eyes with one whip of his head, pushing into a back stroke as he aimed another burst of water at her.

"Come in," he yelled, turning over and swimming away.

Moisture sluiced off the sinew of his back, trickling over the smooth taper of muscle flowing into waist. His boxers were plastered to the rounds of his backside,

hugging the indentation right below his hips. She could imagine fitting her palm there, tracing the ridges of him.

Emmy watched him move effortlessly, athletically, parting the water before him. Diving beneath the surface, he disappeared.

She inhaled, spellbound, while fingering a fringe from her old, ugly shorts.

He'd asked her to come in. With him. Her. Emmylou Brown, a girl who was no more important than a piece of furniture in the Rhodes sitting room.

But what if she could be more than that?

Years ago, with Paolo, she'd asked the same question, and the answer had cut the heart right out of her.

This time though, what if she really could pretend she wasn't poor-girl Emmy? What if she could convince Deston she was an equal before he could guess who she really was?

Emmy bit her lip. And what if she could do it by being Lila Stanhope, even for an hour?

She crept closer to the edge of the stone slab, wondering if she'd be brave enough to dive in.

 

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