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THE COWBOY'S PREGNANT BRIDETHE COWBOY'S PREGNANT BRIDE

Harlequin Special Edition #2241
January 2013
ISBN: 978-0373657230

Minutes before saying "I do," Annette Olsen realized her mistake and bolted—a wedding gown in her trunk and a baby in her belly! In St. Valentine, she found the perfect place to start over…until a handsome drifter blew into her diner, setting the town abuzz with gossip and her heart aflutter with impossible dreams.

Jared Colton wanted only to find his ties to the town's legendary founder and move on through. But something about Annette got to him. Maybe it was the secrets she kept, or her tender touch, or how much she needed him. Or maybe it was the spark of longing her kiss awakened in his soul. Either way, Jared found himself wishing for what had eluded him—a family, with Annette and a baby he'd claim as his own….

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Excerpt from THE COWBOY'S PREGNANT BRIDE

When Annette Olsen saw the dark cowboy walk into the Orbit Diner, her heart rate nearly spiked through the roof. 

And it wasn’t only because he was a tall drink of water, dressed in black from head to foot from his worn boots to his jeans, to the belt with the shiny rodeo championship buckle to his Western shirt and then the hat that tilted over his brow.

No, even though the enigmatic Jared Colton was enough to put steam into any woman’s steps, Annette had been waiting for the man to stop by for his frequent early lunch because, oddly enough, she had come across something she was sure he was going to want.

She smiled at her only customers as she finished checking on them.  “Just let me know when you’re ready to pay up.”  Then she headed for the counter and ultimately the back room before Jared could sit in his usual stool by the glass-domed pies.

“Fancy seeing you here,” she said lightly, passing right by him.

When his dark-eyed gaze lit on her, her pulse gave a brutal jerk.  But she stilled it, as she always did.

It wasn’t like she had much of a choice, if she wanted to keep a sense of privacy and stay as far under the radar as she’d been doing these past months.

He gave her one of those lopsided grins of his, a boon that not many others in St. Valentine ever saw, probably because Annette never got in to the quiet cowboy’s business or asked him too many questions about why he had stayed around St. Valentine for so long.

She could appreciate a person with secrets, she thought.  After all, she had more than enough, herself.

“I thought I’d surprise everyone by varying my lunch routine,” he said.  “I’m impulsive that way.”

She laughed at his facetiousness, and he did, too.  His hat still rode low, giving a slight shadow to the rest of his face, but she could tell that he was running a look over her—the slow brush of tingles down her body didn’t lie.

Before she could stop herself, she rested a hand over her belly, which she’d been trying to hide with a baggier waitressing uniform.

Seven months along, her belly just now popping, and she was trying so hard to keep anyone from knowing.  Not yet, at least, because that was when people would start asking about the father...

Had Jared been looking hard enough at her to notice a weight gain?  Was he about to ask a million questions that she’d been avoiding ever since she’d come to this town months ago, dirt flying out from under her tires, her wedding dress crumpled in a heap in the trunk of her Pontiac?

If her pulse had been jogging before, it was definitely racing now as she kept waiting for Jared to say something.

Anything.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Annette heard the fifties-flavored Valentine’s-inspired music playing low over the ceiling speakers, heard her only other customers telling her that they’d left cash for their bill and her tip on the table, then the dinging bell as they exited the diner.

Absently, she lifted a hand in goodbye to them, then turned her attention back to Jared.

But all he did was reach for the nearby heart-decorated tin bucket that held all the napkin-wrapped silverware.

If there was anyone else in St. Valentine who understood how precious privacy could be, it was Jared Colton.  He’d proved it time and again while keeping to himself after wandering into town shortly before she had, just as much of a cipher as she tried to be, then turning his back on anyone who tried to poke into his reasons for being here.

Even though everyone did have a good idea just why Jared had stuck around.

Her gaze wandered to the hand-drawn pictures hanging above the service window: renderings playfully showing the town’s past in the late 1920s, stoic faces...including one who was a dead ringer for the cowboy sitting in front of her.

Was Jared related to Tony Amati, St. Valentine’s upstanding town founder?  If so, then why hadn’t he admitted it to anyone?

She brushed off the questions, then went behind the Formica-topped counter.  It would provide cover for her tummy, even if it was getting too late to hide.

He was unwrapping his silverware, and when he merely said, “It’ll be the usual for me today,” she almost sank against the counter in pure relief.   So he hadn’t seen her finally swelling belly—or, at least, he wasn’t about to comment on it.

But how long would that last?

After she signaled to the ponytailed, hippy-goateed cook behind the service window for “the usual,” she fetched a glass, filled it with ice and cola, then gave it to Jared.  She propped her foot on a stepstool that she’d recently put under the counter to take some of the weight off her feet. 

“I’ve got your usual,” she said.  “And I suppose you expect service to be extra special because you were such a big shot in the rodeo.”

A shadow seemed to pass over him, yet it disappeared quickly enough. 

He glanced around the diner, which was painted in turquoise and looked as if it’d been decorated by the Jetsons when they were in a hearts-and-flowers mood, then changed the subject whip-quick.  “Apparently, I came during a lull today.”

All right.  So she’d already found out that he was a champion subject-changer months ago.  But she had also done her fair share of avoiding a lot of topics ever since she’d left behind what’s-his-name.

Okay, his name was Brett.  She might as well take some power back from him and just say his damned name.

Brett the Turd.  Turdy Brett.  Brett Turdwell.  She had a thousand of them.

“This lull is a nice rest,” she said.  “We’ve been on fire around here lately.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s amazing how many tourists can be attracted by a good mystery like Tony Amati’s unsolved death.”  Violet and Davis Jackson, the owners of the town’s small paper, had uncovered Tony’s odd, unresolved demise months ago, after Jared had appeared in St. Valentine and excited everybody’s interest with his doppleganger looks.  The reporters had been after him for interviews, but he never gave any to them.

He took a drink, then said, “You know, every time I turn on the TV I see St. Valentine and Tony Amati.  It’s all over the place.”

“And that’s exactly what Violet and Davis want.  So does the Chamber of Commerce, especially shortly before the St. Valentine’s Day Festival.”  Annette only hoped that the town wouldn’t get too much of a profile.

She couldn’t afford it.

Subtly, she skimmed a hand over her stomach.  I’m going to make sure no one knows where we went.

“One would think,” she said, “that you don’t like watching those profiles about Tony and St. Valentine.”

He didn’t say anything, just took another drink of soda, as secretive as ever.

“Okay, Mr. Strong but Silent,” she said, grinning a little.  “I guess you wouldn’t be interested in something I dug up about Tony Amati this morning, then, would you?”

Now he put the cola down. 

Gotcha, she thought.

With a tiny shrug, she went to the back room, dipped her hand in the patchwork purse she’d bought at some dime store back when she’d stocked up on cheap clothing and necessities with the only cash she’d had on hand before lucking into this job, and came out with a rectangular metal box wrapped in bulky oilcloth.

By the time she got back to Jared, he’d tipped his hat back, so that she could see all of his face, which might not be considered handsome as much strong and manly, with a square chin set off with a slight cleft, with an eternal five o’clock shadow covering his lantern jaw and his cheeks.  He had the type of nose that you’d see on Roman statues, and the same type of body, as well—hard with muscle under the dark of his shirt, bunched with a strength that made her adrenaline fly.

But that’s how she’d felt when she’d first met Brett, too—the All-American college quarterback and youngest son of the oil-rich Tulsa Cresswell family.

The man who’d raised a hand to her on their wedding day before she’d left him to eat her dust.

She put the package on the counter, but Jared merely stared at it.

“Go ahead,” she said.  “It won’t bite.”

Still, he glanced at her as if it might do just that.  “What is it?”

“A brand new car.  I was in a giving mood when I bought it.”

That got a chuckle out of him.

Out of patience, Annette unwound the material from around the box, then opened it.  She unwrapped more oilcloth from the contents and presented him with the final product.

He looked at the journal, with its hard-crusted covers sandwiching the yellowed, swollen pages.

Annette put it on the counter again.  “I like to do some gardening.  It's a calming thing, but... Well, that’s not what you want to hear, is it?  What matters is that I was digging deep to loosen the soil of a part of the yard I hadn’t been using when I hit something in the dirt.”

“This,” he said.

“A journal.  And I peeked inside, just to see what it was, but when I saw Tony Amati’s name written on the front page...”

“It’s...Tony’s?” 

The question was infused with a quality she’d never heard from this man before—almost a hopeful vulnerability.

Had she and the rest of the townsfolk been wrong about him?  Did he have more than a passing interest in Tony Amati?

She lowered her voice, even though Declan the cook was busy in the kitchen, judging from the faint noise of pots and pans. “I rent one of the condominiums they built over Tony’s old ranch property, and I suppose he buried this journal at some point.  Who knows why?  It could give a reason in that journal, but I didn’t have time to read it before work to find out.  I’m curious like you wouldn’t believe, but I thought maybe you should have the honor of looking at it first--”

Jared finally grasped the book in his big hands and opened it, just as if he’d been waiting for this moment his entire life.

 

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From the book: The Cowboy’s Pregnant Bride
By: Crystal Green
Harlequin Special Edition
Publication Date: 02/13
ISBN: 978-0373657230
Copyright: 2013
By: Harlequin Books S.A.
R and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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