His Shotgun Proposal Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Karen Whittenburg Toller Texas Sheikhs: Though their veins course with royal blood, their pride lies in the Texas land they call home!THE SECOND SONA hurricane of hot remembrance crashed against Mac Coleman. The one-night seductress who'd vanished, then commandeered his dreams, was suddenly at his ranch house door, pregnant, penniless and prettier than ever. Ironclad honor demanded that the wealthy horseman take Abbie Jones into his protection. And her family was not far behind, insisting Mac give Abbie his noble name. No one could force this wild Texas prince to do anything, least of all marry. But Mac would take Abbie as his bride–his heart and soul decreed it. Yet would Abbie see his marriage offer as a mandate…or a loving promise of forever? “Holy Maloney, this is awkward.” “And here I am, thinking that seeing you after five months is such a pleasure,” Mac responded. “Yes, well, you haven’t seen that much of me yet,” Abbie said. “How have you been since…December?” Abbie’s blue eyes shifted doubtfully to him, she opened her mouth, closed it again, then sucked in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and said in a rush, “Pregnant. How have you been?” Mac’s smile faded, along with the excitement and possibility that seeing her again had evoked. Pregnant? Had she said…? “Pregnant?” he said, his gut clenching in protest as his gaze dropped helplessly to her midsection. “Pregnant,” she confirmed, thrusting the suitcase at him and revealing the unmistakably rounded contours of her belly beneath the oversize white shirt. “Congratulations, it’s yours.” Dear Reader, This month, Harlequin American Romance delivers your favorite authors and irresistible stories of heart, home and happiness that will surely leave you smiling. TEXAS SHEIKHS, Harlequin American Romance’s scintillating continuity series about a Texas family with royal Arabian blood, continues with His Shotgun Proposal by Karen Toller Whittenburg. When Abbie Jones surprised Mac Coleman with the news of her pregnancy, honor demanded he give her his name. But could he give his shotgun bride his heart? Another wonderful TOTS FOR TEXANS romance from bestselling author Judy Christenberry is in store for you this month with Struck by the Texas Matchmakers, in which two children in need of a home and several meddling ladies play matchmakers for a handsome doctor and a beautiful lawyer. Harlequin American Romance’s theme promotion, THE WAY WE MET…AND MARRIED, about marriage-of-convenience romances, begins this month with Bachelor-Auction Bridegroom by Mollie Molay. And old passions heat up in Leandra Logan’s Family: The Secret Ingredient when Grace North’s first crush, now a single father, returns to town with his precocious little girl and ends up staying under the heroine’s roof. Enjoy this month’s offerings and come back next month for more stories guaranteed to touch your heart! Wishing you happy reading, Melissa Jeglinski Associate Senior Editor Harlequin American Romance Texas Sheikhs: His Shotgun Proposal Karen Toller Whittenburg www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR Karen Toller Whittenburg is a native Oklahoman who fell in love with books the moment she learned to read and has been addicted to the written word ever since. She wrote stories as a child, but it wasn’t until she discovered romance fiction that she felt compelled to write, fascinated by the chance to explore the positive power of love in people’s lives. She grew up in Sand Springs (a historic town on the Arkansas River), attended Oklahoma State University and now lives in Tulsa with her husband, a professional photographer. Books by Karen Toller Whittenburg HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE 197—SUMMER CHARADE 249—MATCHED SET 294—PEPPERMINT KISSES 356—HAPPY MEDIUM 375—DAY DREAMER 400—A PERFECT PAIR 424—FOR THE FUN OF IT 475—BACHELOR FATHER 528—WEDDING OF HER DREAMS 552—THE PAUPER AND THE PRINCESS 572—NANNY ANGEL 621—MILLION-DOLLAR BRIDE* (#litres_trial_promo) 630—THE FIFTY-CENT GROOM* (#litres_trial_promo) 648—TWO-PENNY WEDDING* (#litres_trial_promo) 698—PLEASE SAY “I DO” 708—THE SANTA SUIT 727—A BACHELOR FALLS 745—IF WISHES WERE…WEDDINGS 772—HOW TO CATCH A COWBOY 794—BABY BY MIDNIGHT? 822—LAST-MINUTE MARRIAGE 877—HIS SHOTGUN PROPOSAL Contents Chapter One (#udf619a49-5683-5e9b-903f-840071e9fcc3) Chapter Two (#u50b3309c-5350-574f-ba5f-a9746d317ea0) Chapter Three (#u530401f4-6e77-584f-9333-d4ba7a868031) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One A steady stream of travelers lugged baggage of every shape, size and color out of the air-cooled Austin airport and into the muggy Texas heat. Mac Coleman tugged the brim of his cowboy hat down low on his forehead, shielding his face from the blazing haze of afternoon sun as he leaned against his Silverado and watched for his passenger. Not that he had even a faint hope of recognizing her. He’d been volunteered to pick up Abigail Jones because he had business in the city on the day she was scheduled to arrive and because his cousin, Jessica, had an annoying way of getting around arguments. His last-ditch effort to avoid chauffeur duty had met with a confident “Don’t worry, Mac, Abbie will find you. I told her to look for a scowling cowboy next to a black truck.” His wasn’t the only black truck parked outside the baggage claim area and he certainly wasn’t the only man wearing a Stetson, but if she showed, he was here. And if not? Well, he’d wait a reasonable while, then head back to the ranch. Visitors to the Desert Rose weren’t his responsibility and he planned to keep it that way. A sassy blonde passed him, displaying enough leg and flirty tosses of her tresses to attract his attention. He watched her sashay by, caught the full effect of the smile she flashed not quite accidentally in his direction and touched the brim of his hat in the half hope she might be his pickup. She changed direction and came back toward him, tugging her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose and giving him a thorough looking over from above the tortoiseshell frames. He could all but hear her internal calculator chi-ching as her glance moved past him to note the Desert Rose crest on the side of the truck and then quickly returned to take in what his older brother, Alex, laughingly called the Coleman ask-me-the-size-of-my-ranch look. “Do you know where I might find the Four Seasons shuttle?” she asked in a sultry voice, lightly stressing the name of the hotel. Okay, so she wasn’t Abigail Jones, who wouldn’t be asking for a ride to an Austin hotel. But that was just as well. He had enough four-legged fillies to take up his time and attention this summer, as it was, and he didn’t need any other distractions. Especially not of this variety. “No, ma’am,” he said without regret. “Can’t say that I do.” “I suppose I could take a cab to the hotel,” she said with another toothy blaze of a smile. “Unless I get a…better offer.” She tossed her hair again…a fine, sun-streaked mane of it, too. Her legs were long and lean, her body slender and supple. No two ways about it, she was candy for the eyes, and had exactly the sort of California looks he most admired. He wished he was interested—he really did—but in truth, he wasn’t even tempted to raise the brim of his hat for a better view. “I sure hope you get that offer, ma’am,” he drawled, not giving an inch of encouragement…or discouragement, either, for that matter. “’Cause it’s a fair piece of walking to get from here to downtown Austin.” She pouted, as he’d expected she would, unconvinced as yet that with a bit more encouragement he wouldn’t be hers for the asking. Women, he’d discovered over the course of his thirty years, could be as predictable as a hill country armadillo and just about as faithless. “Married?” she asked point-blank. That made him smile. “No, and never going to be.” That made her smile. “Really? Well, it just so happens, I prefer men who have strong opinions about matrimony…one way or the other.” Another time, another place, he might have taken her up on her thinly disguised offer, escorted this sun-bleached beauty to her hotel and stayed over for breakfast. But for the past several months, he’d been hung up on a mysterious lady who had seduced and deserted him all within the span of one incredible night. A short, sandy-haired, blue-eyed elf of a woman who continued to intrude on opportunities such as this with annoying regularity. A slip of a gal, whose name he hadn’t been able to discover, whose vanishing act was still as inexplicable to him as her appearance in his hotel room that night last winter, and whose throaty laughter had echoed in all his dreams since. He was damned tired of thinking about her, too, but somehow this just didn’t seem the right moment to prove it. The blonde took off her sunglasses and sucked lightly on one plastic-and-wire earpiece. “Is everything in Texas this hot?” she asked, eyeing him suggestively. Mac offered her a lazy smile, appreciating her efforts, futile as he’d decided they ultimately would be. “Oh, no, ma’am. Some things in Texas are a whole lot hotter.” ABBIE WRESTLED her red plaid suitcase off the steel-jawed baggage carousel and let it fall with a thud on top of the two other bags she’d already rescued—one medium-sized black faux leather and one large faded sea-green paisley. Turning back, she scanned the conveyance for the remaining suitcase, a brown tweed with gray stripes. Well, in truth, the stripes were duct tape, fashioned by Tyler, the youngest of her four older brothers, as a gag gift for her graduation from grad school last December. She had a matched set of brothers and luggage at home, a four-piece, stair-step assortment of each. But for this trip, she’d had to make do with suitcases borrowed helter-skelter, because she didn’t want anyone in her family to know this time away from them was going to last considerably longer than she’d led them all to believe. The truth of the matter was she’d told some major whoppers just to get here without them finding out where she was going or why. It was embarrassing to think she’d gone from magna cum laude in December to magna cum baby in May, losing the perfect job along the way. She’d had the world on a string, a prestigious teaching position, a future bright with promise, and independence within her grasp. But her fall from grace had been swift and humiliating, even if only a few people knew about it at this point. Everyone would know soon enough. She supposed she should have gone straight home after she’d been fired from Miss Amelia’s Academy for Young Ladies, but she just couldn’t bring herself to face her parents with the truth. Not yet, anyway. And if her brothers knew…well, that didn’t bear thinking about. If they had even a faint suspicion of the mess she was in, the four of them would descend like warrior angels to fight for her honor and protect her from all harm, even if they suffocated her in the process. They meant well, Tyler, Jaz, Brad and Quinn, in their big-brotherly ways, but if it were up to them, she’d never make a single decision for herself. They’d do it all, they’d do it their way, and they’d do it for her own good. Oh, she loved her rowdy brothers with all her heart, and she hadn’t liked having to scheme and plan and plot her way into having a life of her own, but it had been the only way to escape their overly protective and bullheaded-times-four, brothers-know-best attitude. Of course, practically the very second she’d managed to claim her independence and get out on her own, she’d gotten herself into quite a pickle. But the longer she could keep the family ignorant of her dilemma, the more choices she could keep open for evaluation. There were some decisions a woman had to make for herself, and it was not selfish to want a little bit of peace and quiet while she made them, either. So if that meant traveling with borrowed and battered suitcases, and throwing herself on the kind and generous aegis of her college friend, Jessica Coleman, so be it. Sooner or later, a person had to cut those apron strings and Abbie’s time to snip, snip, snip had come. Her plans were a little loose at the moment, but a week or two at the Desert Rose would give her time to figure out what to do next and how, exactly, she was going to tell her father, mother and four burly brothers about this unexpected and completely embarrassing dilemma. They wouldn’t kill the guy who’d gotten her pregnant, because she would never tell them who he was. Not because he deserved her protection, but because she didn’t know who he was, either. Just the thought of that night, of hot kisses and wild passion made her skin tingle with a thousand memories, made her shiver with remembered desire, made her wince with humiliation. She had never, ever, done anything so stupidly impulsive before. Would never, ever, do anything so stupidly irresponsible again. But, as it turned out, once had been plenty. One chance in a million, and she’d gotten pregnant. If Jessica hadn’t offered her a job at the ranch… But Jess was a good friend, and true. “Come and stay with me,” she’d said the minute Abbie had blurted out her troubles. “I could really use your help in the office. I mean it. You’ll be doing me a big favor.” Of course, Abbie knew who was getting the most benefit out of this impromptu visit, and she loved her friend all the more for pretending otherwise. After all, how much office work could there be at a ranch? Especially anything Abbie might know how to do. She was an excellent teacher—well, had been, at any rate. She was also a whiz with math and could fill out a tax form while flipping it like a pancake, but what did she know about hay? Or horses? She wouldn’t know one end of a ranch from the other. She knew the Colemans raised Arabians on the Desert Rose, and she knew that particular breed of horse had originated in—duh—Arabia. But if she was asked to pick the Arabian out of a horse lineup, she’d be playing the odds and they wouldn’t be in her favor. On top of being a real greenhorn, she couldn’t fit into her blue jeans anymore, either, and she’d never in her life worn a pair of cowboy boots. But, bottom line, she had nowhere else to go except her parents’ home outside of Little Rock, and since that was out of the question, she’d lug these mismatched suitcases outside and look for a cowboy with a big black truck, who was probably scowling in earnest because she was taking so long to get out there. When all the misfit suitcases were stacked together on a woefully inadequate foldout rolling wire rack, which had been salvaged from the trash at Miss Amelia’s, she dragged them past the attendant, who barely even glanced at her baggage check. Probably figured no self-respecting thief would claim such a motley assortment. Abbie bumped her rickety pile of bags toward the exit, balancing the stack carefully and hoping a kind soul would offer some assistance in getting the bulky bundle through the automatic doors. If she’d been a month further along in her pregnancy, someone probably would have. Or if she’d been a month back, when some of that early pregnancy glow had burnished her cheeks with healthy color and given her sandy-brown hair a saucy bounce, she probably could have gotten a helping hand with nothing more than a smile and a please, would you mind? But she was five months along, past the glowing phase of impending motherhood and just rounded enough all over to look chubby. At least, she wasn’t waddling yet. Well, she didn’t think she was, anyway. Although, for all she knew, her rear end might be swaying like a duck’s tail. She bullied the suitcases through the doorway, all on her own, only to have them tumble into an uncooperative pile just on the other side of the electronic eye, which stopped the doors from closing, which subsequently caused a backup of departing passengers and an unsettling beep, beep, beep sound. “Sorry,” she apologized to the frowning faces in the doorway behind her. “Sorry.” No one offered to help her gather the luggage. One man stepped over the jumble of suitcases, another edged around, but Abbie finally managed to scoot the cases out of the way and off to the side until she could get them straight again. No small task that, as the paisley suitcase seemed to have lost an essential bit of hardware in the tumble and was no longer completely closed. So where was a man when she needed one? Ah, but she didn’t need one. Wasn’t that what this entire flight to Texas was about? Wasn’t that why she’d told her parents she was spending the summer at a math and science camp in the Pocono Mountains? Wasn’t she here to escape from the men in her life? All of them. The only one she would honestly like to see at this moment was the stranger who’d gotten her into this predicament with his dark good looks and a smile that buckled her knees. And the only reason she’d like to see him was to thumb her nose and tell him she didn’t need anything from him. Well, except, maybe, some duct tape. A glance over her left shoulder didn’t reveal any black pickup trucks or scowling ranch hands, and a glance over her right showed nothing more than a cluster of people blocking her view. She knew from past arrivals in Austin on her way to the University of Texas grad school that the airport was always crowded and that trying to find a familiar vehicle among the slow tide of cars, buses, trucks and taxis moving past the building could be a formidable task. In the past, she’d been mainly looking for the bus, but hopefully a black truck would be easy to spot. Especially one accompanied by a cowboy. Regrouping, she shifted the paisley suitcase to the top of the luggage stack so she could keep its contents safely intact with the weight of her hand. Slinging the shoulder strap of her purse high up on her shoulder, she prepared to tilt the baggage onto the wheels of the wire rack and head out to find Jessica’s cousin, Mac. But just as she braced the rack with her foot, tipped it back on the rollers and pushed it like a baby buggy toward the curb, the crowd thinned and her heart pulled taut in a little clutch of recognition as she saw him. Him. He’d been wearing a hat that night, too, and even though she couldn’t see his face in full now, the hammering, yammering beat of her heart would allow for no mistakes. It was him. The mysterious stranger. The man of her dreams. The father of her baby. Oh, great. Of all the times to run into him again, this seemed the worst of all possible moments. Maybe she could duck back inside the building, get a drink, visit the ladies’ room and give him time to move along. She didn’t want a confrontation here, now. Not when her hair was limp and lackluster and tethered by a rubber band in a holding pattern at the back of her neck. Not when she was wearing stretch pants and a comfortably oversize, albeit somewhat sloppy, shirt of her brother’s. Not when she’d put on an old pair of black-framed glasses instead of her contacts. Not when she looked and felt about as sexy as leftover oatmeal. On the other hand, if she didn’t march right up to him right now and demand whatever a pregnant, practically penniless woman demanded from a man whose name she didn’t know but whose baby she was carrying, the opportunity might never come again. Then again, back to the other hand, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to be humiliated and he looked pretty engrossed in conversation with a tanned, long-legged, skinny and obviously not pregnant blonde. Perfect, Abbie thought. She’d just waddle right over there and let him get a good side-by-side comparison of her at her dumpy, lumpy, travel-weary worst with the disgustingly slender sun goddess whose smile seemed to have him mesmerized. On second thought, laying claim to his arm and his virility would put a definite crimp in his flirting and that would serve him right. Hi, she could say brightly. Remember me? Graduation party last December? So nice to see you again. What do you think we should name our baby? Oh, yeah, that would cool the ardor in those dark Arabic eyes but good. Arabic. Arabian. Oh, now that was just plain silly. Just because Jessica’s family raised Arabian horses and December’s mystery man had a slight Arabic ethnicity was hardly a reason to link him to the Colemans. That was like setting out to step over a ditch and then taking a running jump at the Grand Canyon instead. There was no basis, no reason at all to jump to such irrational conclusions. She’d just steer her luggage back into the airport, where the air was cool and conducive to logic. Why, five minutes inside and she’d probably realize he didn’t even resemble the man she’d met that night. Not even close. And Jessica’s cousin would turn out to be a leathery redhead and all would be well. The cowboy glanced up. His gaze moved past her and returned with a jerk of recognition. Abbie hadn’t known she could move so fast. Her foot shoved the base of the wire rack, a move calculated to get the wheels angled and rolling. Worked beautifully, except for that initial wrench of the castors, which caused the luggage to shift and tumble like an avalanche of untimely disaster. The paisley suitcase flew open on impact and a good deal of Abbie’s private life sprawled out across the concrete. She knelt to scoop it out of the public domain, tossing panicked looks at the stranger who was already pushing away from the big black truck he’d been leaning against, moving away from the startled blonde, coming straight toward Abbie. Black truck. Oh, jeez… “You?” he demanded without preamble. Abbie shoved her belongings into the suitcase, uncaring of order or wrinkles or that her hands shook so hard she had to pick up some items twice. “You who?” she said in a strangled voice. “You, uh, must have me mixed up with somebody else.” She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t solidify the supposition with the fact that he was who she thought he was and that she was…gulp…who he thought she was. “You don’t have to help me.” Scooping up scattered items with new fervor, she kept her head bent and her face averted. “My, uh, boyfriend is here somewhere, he’ll be here to help me any minute now. I can’t imagine what held him up in there. He was right behind me. Back there. At the baggage claim. Inside.” “Boyfriend?” His voice cracked the word like a whip. There was probably some special corner of hell reserved for liars, but Abbie clung to the hope she would be pardoned simply because she was so very bad at lying. Boyfriend? Now, that was a stroke of insanity. “Look, whoever you are,” she said in a rush of desperation, “I’m not who you think I am, so go away.” He stooped and stared, pushing up the brim of his hat until his familiar dark eyes were peering at her with all the warmth of polished onyx, trying to catch her in a stray glance. And just the feel of his gaze on her created a hurricane of hot remembrance inside her. She couldn’t look at him and she couldn’t not look at him. The most magical night of her entire life had been spent with this man, wrapped in his arms, clothed in his smile, naked in his bed…on the floor, the chair, the vanity…Abbie wrestled the memory into submission. She didn’t want to deny the experience, but she was scared to death to claim it, too. What if the blonde was his wife? What if he had mistaken Abbie for someone else? What if he thought she’d stolen his wallet or something? What if he believed they’d met at a bar mitzvah instead of at the street dance? What if he kissed her? Right here, right now? He was still staring at her and she struggled to locate a tone of offence. “You have mistaken me for someone else,” she pronounced defiantly. “No,” he said coldly. “It’s you, all right.” Abbie swallowed hard, willed him to move on, get along, disappear, as she lifted her chin with completely false bravado. “Well, I don’t know you, even if you are standing on my underwear.” He was, too. And of course, it had to be a pair of her serviceable, sedate and completely unattractive maternity underpants. They were new, but that was about the most complimentary thing anyone could say about them. He seemed stuck for words as he stared at the scrap of unimaginative white peeking out from beneath his boot. So Abbie gave another verbal nudge to shoo him on his way. “Would you mind moving your big foot?” With an economy of movements he scooped up the panties without even looking at them and let them dangle, without dignity, on the end of his index finger. “With my compliments,” he said. Abbie snatched the lingerie and stuffed it into the mangled suitcase. “Yes, well, thanks. Hope you find whoever it is you’re looking for.” He shrugged, straightened and turned to walk away. Abbie knew she was a fool to let him go without a word. She owed him an explanation. Well, at least, she owed him the knowledge of his impending fatherhood. If she’d never seen him again, she could have lived with knowing she’d had no chance to tell him. She could have found a way of explaining to their child that one parent would always remain a mystery. But now he was here and he deserved to know, whether or not she wanted to tell him. Gathering the rest of her scattered belongings, she closed the suitcase as best she could and stood straight, holding it tightly in her arms. She’d just stack the luggage on the rack, get it out of the way, then she’d walk over and admit she was indeed the you he’d thought she was. With a glance, she noted the well-formed shape of his backside and remembered vividly the way that same backside had looked without tight-fitting jeans. She jerked her gaze from the hip pockets of his Levi’s and checked to see if the blonde was still there. She was. As was the truck. The big, black truck with the emblem of a horse’s head stamped on the side. A horse head with full Arabian show gear—horse savvy or not, Abbie recognized the regalia—and, in case she hadn’t, the words Desert Rose circled across the top and Arabians looped up from the bottom. Oh, no! This couldn’t be happening. Couldn’t be true. Fate wouldn’t play this kind of joke on her. The mystery man couldn’t be Jessica Coleman’s cousin. That would be too—she couldn’t even think of a word to describe how perfectly awful that would be. It didn’t help to think the sequence of events made an odd sort of sense now, either. The party after the graduation she’d shared with Jessica, about three hundred other grad students and whoever else had shown up to help celebrate, the fact that both their families were there, but somehow, in all the fanfare and folderol, none of the Colemans had gotten introduced to any of the Joneses. The way she’d met the mystery man at the outdoor, portable bar moments after Jessica had mentioned her cousin had gone to get a drink. It was all so impossible, and yet suddenly so completely plausible that Abbie forced her gaze up from the Desert Rose crest to the face of the man she now knew without a doubt was here to pick her up. Could this situation be any more embarrassing? “Mac,” she whispered aloud, because she had to feel the shape of his name in her mouth, had to affirm that he was both mystery man and Jessica’s cousin, had to do something to keep from melting into a puddle of humiliation right there on the hot Austin airport pavement. He couldn’t have heard her whisper. Yet he turned, nevertheless, still questioning her presence, her identity, her denials. But one look at her ashen face must have told the story. His gaze tracked hers to the Desert Rose insignia on the door of the truck and then returned with a flare of comprehension. His chin came up as he tugged the brim of his hat down to shade his eyes, and she noted, as if from a great distance, that his shoulders were moving up and down, up and down, in coordination with the rapid expansion of his chest as he inhaled, exhaled, inhaled. It was a loud moment, unique in that while she was incapable of hearing anything except the frantic flutter of her own breath rasping like a bellows from her lungs, she absorbed the noise of traffic, of planes taking off overhead, of voices all around, of arrivals and welcomes, and car engines starting, revving, receding. She listened, though, only to the echoes of his voice in her mind and knew he was grappling with the same set of impossible, improbable, implacable chain of events she’d just worked her way through. She knew, too, the instant he reached the same inevitable conclusion. “Abbie?” His voice was incredulous, hesitant with dismay, rough with amazement. “Are you Abbie?” Chapter Two Mac’s boots might as well have fused with the hot pavement for all his ability to move them. He couldn’t seem to do anything except stare at Abigail Jones, his mystery date, his cousin’s friend, the woman he’d come to the airport to meet. How was it that fate had turned aside every attempt he’d made in the past five months to discover who she was only to unaccountably drop her back into his life at this precise instant? Why had she denied knowing him when he remembered her so vividly? How could she have forgotten him when his whole body held the memory of hers? She looked the same, but different, too. She’d worn a short, slender, sensational dress the night they’d met—except for later, when she’d worn nothing at all—and now she was dressed in a baggy shirt that was too big for her by half, but which made her look small and absurdly sexy. She might be a little more filled out than before, but that could just be the clothes and the way her hair was pulled back at her nape instead of curling loosely about her shoulders as it had that night. The glasses were definitely new, though. She must have been wearing contacts when they’d met. Or maybe she hadn’t needed glasses then. Or maybe she had but hadn’t gotten them yet. What if she hadn’t seen him clearly at all that night, and that was why she claimed she didn’t recognize him now? Except she had recognized him. Her bowed head, the way she wouldn’t meet his gaze, the breathy, scattered tones of her voice all belied her spoken doubt. He’d have known her anywhere, anytime…the eyes as blue as Texas bluebonnets, hair not quite blond, not quite brown, but a soft, honeyed shade in between; the slight upward tilt at the end of her nose; the deceptively demure lift of her chin; the set of her shoulders; the warm tones of her skin. In that one glimpse, memory had flooded his mind’s eye with images of her. His body, too, remembered, and he’d known her as much by the physical response as by sight. Jessica must have set this up somehow. But how could she have known he and Abbie had ever met? He hadn’t even made the connection until just now. And Abbie looked equally astonished. Appalled, even, as she stood there, clasping a dilapidated suitcase in her arms and staring at him as if he were the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He was surprised to see her, but not shaken, as she appeared to be. She’d said there was a boyfriend with her, which had made Mac unaccountably angry. But there was still no sign of another man, and Jess certainly was expecting only one guest. Mac figured any significant other of Abbie’s was a long way from here, or invented on the spot to save embarrassment. But whether or not there was a boyfriend, Abbie had been traveling and she obviously needed help with her luggage. Mac couldn’t just keep standing there, stuck in the moment, awash in unaccustomed emotion, wondering how he could keep from scaring her away again, wondering if it was all right to admit he was glad—so glad—to see her again. “Hey, remember me?” said a voice near his ear. The leggy blonde, who’d been in the process of inviting him to spend some quality time with her at the Four Seasons. Betsy or Bambi or whatever the hell she’d said her name was had been completely forgotten the moment his gaze had fallen on Abbie. Abbie. Abigail Jones. What a plain and glorious name. How well it suited her, too. He wanted to say it over and over. He wanted to welcome her back into his life with a kiss. Oh, yeah, he especially wanted to kiss her. But his knees were stupidly weak and his heart was beating ridiculously fast and she was just standing there staring at him as someone tugged at his elbow, demanded his attention. “What’s the matter?” the blonde asked. “Is the heat getting to you? You were about to offer me a ride, remember?” “I was?” He couldn’t take his eyes off Abbie, who continued to clutch the one suitcase with its wispy flags of underwear peeking out around the edges, as she trundled the whole rickety stack of luggage toward him. He stepped out, offering in a gesture to take the suitcase from her arms, but she stopped like a skittish filly at his first advance and eyed him nervously. “You’re Mac?” Her voice was a shaky whisper, and he edged closer to hear her. “Mac Coleman,” he said, as if they needed an introduction. “I’m Jessica’s cousin.” “I was afraid you were going to say that.” Abbie wrinkled her nose, then tried to adjust her glasses via facial contortions because her hands were wrapped around the broken suitcase, and, for some reason, she didn’t seem to want to let go. “Holy Maloney, this is awkward.” “Doesn’t need to be.” He put his hands on the suitcase, wanting to be gallant and charming and helpful, but when he gave the bag a tug, she clasped it all the tighter. “I can show you Jess’s picture in my wallet,” he offered, “if it’ll reassure you and make you feel more at ease. She really wanted to come in to meet you today, but there’s a lot of work at the ranch, what with my brothers getting married recently and not spending as much time helping as usual, and I had business in town today anyway, so here we are.” He was talking too much, trying too hard, wanting quite desperately to see her smile. She sighed instead. “This is really awkward.” “And here I am, thinking that seeing you again is such a pleasant surprise.” “Yes, well, you haven’t seen that much of me yet.” She glanced at the other woman, licked her lips, pressed them together, and Mac, interpreting the glance as anxiety, hurried to reassure her. “She was just asking me where she could catch the hotel shuttle,” he said, gesturing dismissively at the blonde, never transferring his full—and hopefully charming—attention from Abbie. “How have you been since…December?” Her blue eyes shifted doubtfully to him. She opened her mouth, closed it again, then sucked in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and said in a rush, “Pregnant. How have you been?” His smile faded, along with the excitement and possibility that seeing her again had evoked. Pregnant? What had she said? “Pregnant?” he repeated, his gut clenching in protest as his gaze dropped helplessly to her midsection. “Pregnant,” she confirmed, thrusting the suitcase at him and revealing the unmistakably rounded contours of her belly beneath the oversize white shirt. “Congratulations, it’s yours.” ABBIE COULDN’T BELIEVE she’d just blurted it out that way. But then, there probably wasn’t a good way to tell a complete stranger you were having his baby. Miss Manners ought to put together a pamphlet of suggestions. Mac’s expression was turning grimmer by the second, but oddly enough, Abbie felt a certain amount of relief. It had been a strain to keep the secret and now, whether for better or worse, it was out of the bag. She turned her attention to the other woman, who was eyeing her with a curious hostility. “Hi,” she said, offering a handshake with her now unencumbered hand. “I’m Abbie Jones. I’m sorry to have interrupted. I know this must seem a little strange.” “This is Bambi.” Mac’s voice had all the warmth of a refrigerator as he butted in to make the introduction. “We’re giving her a ride to her hotel before we head out to the ranch.” “Brandi,” the blonde corrected amiably. “But maybe I should go look for that shuttle and let you two work out your…problem.” But Mac—pale beneath his dark skin—stayed her with a glance. “No. Please,” he requested in a voice no one in their right mind would argue with. “I want to give you a ride to the hotel. It will be my pleasure. Once her—” he jerked his head toward Abbie “—boyfriend gets out here, we’ll be ready to roll and as friendly as four coyotes on a foggy day.” “There’s no boyfriend,” Abbie admitted in a rush, determined to be truthful from here on in. “You startled me and I…well, I just made him up for protection. Before I knew we were going to have to get better acquainted.” Mac looked at her, clearly unimpressed with the truth. “Get in,” he said. Abbie didn’t know how this could work out, but she wasn’t getting into that truck, and she didn’t really think Brandi should do so, either. “I’m not going to the ranch,” she announced with more gusto than guts. “Not now.” Mac tossed her suitcase into the back of the truck and reached for another, his gaze dropping to her rounded waistline and skittering quickly away. “You’re going to the ranch. Jess is expecting you. She’s expecting me to get you there safe and sound. You’re going.” Abbie raised her chin. “I’m not.” The red plaid suitcase landed in the pickup bed, and was quickly followed by the duct-taped brown tweed. “Yes,” he said, “you are.” “I can get a cab.” Brandi edged toward the curb, but Mac touched her arm and his voice warmed. “I want to take you to the hotel. So, please. Get in the truck.” Brandi looked at Abbie, assessing perhaps the odds of getting caught in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel against the odds of getting a cab against the odds that this awkward situation might be resolved in her favor. Her glance skipped to the Desert Rose insignia on the truck, flickered over Abbie’s tousled appearance and then returned to Mac, accompanied by a beatific smile. “Well, if you’re sure it’s no trouble.” “No trouble at all.” Although anyone listening might have thought otherwise. “Happy to do it.” He wasn’t happy about anything, Abbie thought, as she watched him toss in the last suitcase, uncaring as to where—or even if—it landed. Okay, so she’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Anger was a perfectly understandable first reaction. Impending parenthood wasn’t always welcome news, even under far better circumstances than this. He hadn’t, obviously, been expecting to see her ever again, had been as surprised by her as she had been by him. Even without the pregnancy, he might be forgiven a lack of excitement at seeing her. He had, after all, been flirting rather successfully with beautiful Brandi before Abbie appeared and put his agenda on the skids. Well, thinking she had done anything more than delay the outcome of his flirtation was probably stretching it, considering that Brandi was sitting pretty in the middle of the truck’s bench seat at this very moment. Still, Abbie didn’t see how any good could come from letting a darkly handsome Texan tell her what to do. He’d been her accomplice in getting into this sorry situation in the first place and that was quite enough help, thank you very much. “I’m not going with you,” she said firmly. “Take my bags out of the back of the truck right now so I can put them on the first plane out of here.” He looked at her across the expanse of pickup bed and luggage. “Too late for second thoughts, Abigail. If you hadn’t wanted to stake your claim on me, you wouldn’t have come here in the first place. Now, get in and let’s go.” “Stake a claim?” Abbie repeated, not certain she’d heard him correctly. “What does that mean? You think I knew you and Jessie were cousins? Is that what you’re saying?” He shrugged. “If the shoe fits…” “Well, that’s insane. If I’d known you were Jessica’s cousin, you’d better believe I’d be anywhere but here.” “Easy enough to say now that you are here. But regardless of what I believe to be true and not true, I’m taking you to the ranch. Jessica wants you there and I’m not going to be the one to explain to her why you’ve suddenly changed your mind. Now, get in and let’s go as planned.” He stressed the word, making it sound ominous and threatening. “You can’t force me to go with you.” “The hell I can’t. You’ve just accused me of being the father of your baby. I think that gives me a little say in where you go from here. Cut to the chase, Abigail Jones. The Desert Rose has been your destination for months. There’s no good reason to balk now, when you’re so close to your goal.” Oh, he was arrogant. And maddening. And sure of himself. And wrong, wrong, wrong. He was also so handsome it made her chest hurt. “Fine,” she said, mainly because her choices at the moment were extremely limited and because she was weary all the way to the roots of her hair. “But I’m not staying.” He just looked at her, coolly disbelieving. “Your display of reluctance is duly noted. Now, get in.” Then he got in on the driver’s side and started the engine. Abbie debated her options and decided that kicking truck tires would be about as pointless as any other show of defiance. She thought about climbing into the back of the pickup and tossing out her luggage as haphazardly as he’d tossed it in. She could be in Dallas in an hour, in Little Rock an hour after that. But now that she knew who he was, now that she’d told him the truth, sooner or later, in one place or another, she’d have to face him again. And now was as good a time as any. He was a jerk, but he might as well learn straight away that she was no coward. She scooted in beside Brandi and slammed the door. “…AND WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT? Right in the middle of the presentation, the thing breaks and all my careful planning vanishes as quickly as the available balance on my credit card!” Mac changed gears and merged into the lane of traffic while bubbly Brandi filled the stilted atmosphere inside the truck with chatter. He wished he hadn’t insisted she come with them, wished he’d never pretended an interest in her at all, wished he could yell mightily at Abbie, who was all but hugging the passenger side door in a wretched silence. Not that she deserved even the slightest hint of his compassion. She’d set him up, dammit. Laid her trap so cleverly he’d practically begged to walk into it. A baby. Well, it wasn’t his baby, that was for sure. No way in hell was she going to pin this on him. No, sir. Uh-uh. No two ways about it. She’d already admitted she was a liar. Claiming there was a boyfriend with her at the airport. Ha! That had been her first mistake. No, choosing him as her target had been her first mistake. He was no gullible Gus, ready to accept her claim as truth, her accusations for fact. She was grasping at straws if she believed he was so easily duped. He knew what she was after—the Coleman name, the Desert Rose ranch, the royal heritage of a lost prince of Arabia. Most likely Jessica had been manipulated into filling in all the blank spaces of his life that Abbie hadn’t been able to ferret out on her own. No doubt, Abbie knew the story of his past as well as he did, himself. He wouldn’t be surprised to discover she had a scrapbook containing all the newspaper clippings that made up his history—Rose Coleman’s storybook wedding to Ibrahim El Jeved, the crown prince of Sorajhee. The birth of a son, Alim, now called Alex. The birth of twins, Makin and Kadar, whose names were later changed to Mac and Cade. Ibrahim’s murder. Rose’s banishment and reported death. The rescue of three young princes by their uncle. The success of the Coleman-Grayson business partnership. The prime Arabian stock bred and trained on the Desert Rose. The secrecy, the speculation, the scandals of the royal family of El Jeved. Mac figured Abbie knew it all, right down to the last decimal point in his personal bank account. Oh, yeah. She’d snowed Jessica, somehow, and gotten close enough to find out all she needed to know to seduce him. Sweet, innocent little Abbie had a calculating heart and a devious agenda. Well, he’d be damned if he’d give her even a penny for her trouble, much less his name and heritage. It wasn’t his baby. It couldn’t be his. One night? A million-to-one chance? No. No. She didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. He knew her type, had been badly burned before, and it was not a lesson he had any intention of repeating. He should have made her find her own way out to the ranch. But some masochistic impulse had made him order her to get into his truck, had urged him to punish himself at the same time he let her know, in no uncertain terms, that he was nobody’s fool. Chances are, though, even had he tried to send her on her way, she’d have beaten him home. Women like her always had a backup plan. “Even the best-laid plans can’t guarantee success,” he said pointedly, for Abbie’s benefit. “Sometimes a scheme is doomed from the inception.” “My, my, don’t you have a cynical attitude,” Brandi observed in cheery tones as she rubbed her shoulder against his arm. “But, as it turned out, I still managed to snag the account. There’s more than one way to get a man to say yes. Isn’t that right, Abbie?” Abbie raised her head and for a second, her eyes locked with Mac’s before she turned away. “Frankly, I’ve never thought a man was worth that much effort.” Brandi laughed and blithely continued on with her chatter while Abbie returned to staring out the window and Mac fumed over her haughty tone of voice. She had no business taking the offensive like that, sounding wounded, somehow, in spite of the sting in her words. He heartily wished he’d left both women on the curb at the airport. “Four Seasons hotel,” he said, relieved to see the hotel come into view. “So soon?” Brandi lurched forward to see, jostling Abbie in the process. Mac wanted to grab her arm and tell her to be more careful. Abbie was pregnant, for Pete’s sake. But then he had no right or reason to think Abbie needed his protection. Or to give it, if she did. Truth be told, he should be thanking Brandi for providing him the protection of her chatter this far. “I’ll walk you in,” he said, as he parked in a No Parking space in front of the hotel, opened the door and stepped out. Brandi slid out of the seat after him, not offering so much as a glance at Abbie, much less a word of goodbye, chattering instead to Mac like some silly magpie. Abbie was the one who said a warm “nice to have met you,” even though she’d been mainly ignored throughout the trip. Mac felt irritated by one woman’s lack of manners and by the other one’s innate courtesy. And on top of it, he recognized a strong thrust of concern at the weary note that echoed in Abbie’s voice. Probably part of her act, a link in the plan to claim his future for herself and her baby. Well, she’d find it rough going. He had experience with women like her and their end-justifies-the-means attitude. It’d be a cold day in the Sahara before he set himself up to play the fool again. When he got back into the truck cab, a full twenty minutes had elapsed. Most of it while he stood inside the lobby listening to Brandi as she did her best to persuade him to return later for cocktails, dinner and a late-night dessert in her room, but mainly while he watched the truck, making sure Abbie didn’t get out and signal for a cab. He didn’t know why he should care if she did. The sooner she figured out her little plan had run smack into the proverbial mountain, the better off both of them would be. “I didn’t much figure you’d have the good sense to slip away when I gave you the chance,” he said, turning the key in the ignition. “Your kind never does.” “My kind, as you put it, does better at escaping when your kind leaves the keys in the truck.” Anger flashed in her eyes and he met it with cool deliberation. “Besides, if you were so anxious for me to leave, why didn’t you let me go at the airport instead of dragging me all the way into town?” “I was only trying to be accommodating.” “You were demonstrating to me that responsibility isn’t your forte. Fine, I got the message. Now, take me back to the airport and I’ll be out of your life for good.” “If it wasn’t for Jessica, I’d do just that and call your bluff, but good.” She looked down at her stomach. “You think this is a bluff?” Easing the pickup into the flow of traffic that was always heavy in downtown Austin, he felt the sting of her righteous—now, there was a misnomer—anger and smiled lazily. “You’ll find I’m not one to mince words,” he said. “And I don’t take kindly to being accused of something I didn’t do.” “What are you saying?” Abbie asked tightly. “That perhaps you have an identical twin who was in that hotel room with us last December and at the moment of conception it was him instead of you?” Mac shot her an irritated glance. “As it happens, I do have a twin brother. Cade. But as we both know, he’s no more the father of that baby you’re carrying than I am.” She blinked, then adjusted her glasses with a jab of her finger. “You mean you really do have a twin? For real?” “Don’t play games. You probably know more about me and my family than I do.” “I don’t see how you can say that. Until I saw you outside the airport, I didn’t even know your name.” He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “The more lies you tell, the more apt you are to get caught in them,” he admonished. “You and Jessica became friends during grad school. Don’t try to tell me you never talked about your families.” “I suppose someone of your kind would find it impossible to believe you weren’t the main topic of conversation every day of the week, every hour of the day, but believe me, stranger things have happened.” “Yes, like you showing up here.” “I’m here because Jessica was kind enough to invite me. As I said before, if I’d known you were one of her cousins, this is the last place I’d have chosen as a refuge.” “Refuge? Now, that’s an interesting turn of phrase.” She pressed her lips together and stared stonily out the windshield. “Look, Mac—it is all right if I call you Mac, isn’t it?” “I usually require women to call me Sheikh Makin Bin Habib El Jeved, or Prince, but since you asked so nicely, I’ll make an exception for you and allow you to call me Your Royal Highness.” He slowed in response to the traffic and looked over at her. “I’m guessing my connection to the royal family of Sorajhee doesn’t come as a surprise to you.” Her blue eyes took on something of a glaze at that. “Oh, no. I’m not surprised at all. I was sort of hoping for Prince William—he’s young, but so handsome, you know—but what kind of commoner am I to complain? I mean, any royal blood is better than none, right?” She was making fun of him, the little witch. There was a hint of a dimple winking at him from her cheek, the dance of devilment in her eyes. She was laughing, and his stupid heart urged him to laugh with her! But he would not give her the satisfaction. He would never humble himself in that way. “I’m glad you find it so amusing,” he said stiffly. “You may not find it so in the days to come.” “Day,” she corrected quickly. “I’m not staying any longer than it takes to convince Jessica I’ll be okay somewhere else.” “Some other place of refuge?” “I didn’t mean to say that. Refuge sounds…well, not the way it really is.” “So how is it, Abigail Jones? Did you get into trouble and this looked like an easy way out? Or was this your plan all along?” The laughter went out of her expression as quickly as a room goes from light to dark with the flick of a switch. “My plan was to take my graduate degree and teach. My plan was to be on my own and independent. My plan was to stay out of trouble altogether. I didn’t plan to get pregnant, I didn’t plan on ever seeing you again, and I sure as shootin’ didn’t plan to answer stupid questions about looking for the easy way out!” Mac thought she sounded genuinely upset. Angry, too. He had to admit she was a consummate little actress. “Let’s be honest, Abbie. We had one night together. One. We weren’t careless. We used protection. You’ll forgive me if I refuse to believe I’m the father of your child.” She was furious. It showed in every nuance, in every movement, in the white-hot gaze that scorched him in its outrage. “And you’ll forgive me if I believe you’re a jackass.” “There’s no need to resort to name-calling.” “No, much better to stick to your civilized way of calling me not only a liar, but a wh—” “I did not say that.” “But you did imply it.” She twisted irritably on the seat. “Well, I don’t care what you believe, Mr. Sheikh El Highness, but for your information, I don’t sleep around, using protection is no guarantee against pregnancy, and this is your baby. Much to my regret. Now, please, don’t talk to me anymore. No,” she snapped when he opened his mouth. “Don’t say another word. I’m dangerously hormonal and I might start screaming. I might dial 911 on my cell phone and accuse you of kidnapping. Or worse. I might take out a pair of needles and start knitting little booties. Believe me, you’ll be doing us both a favor if you keep quiet from here on in and just concentrate on driving.” Mac thought maybe—this time, anyway—she had a valid point. Chapter Three “I’ve been so excited all day, I barely got anything done.” Jessica led the way up the broad, curving staircase to the second floor, chattering away as she tossed speculative glances over her shoulder at Abbie, who trailed after her like a shadow with flushed cheeks and black-framed glasses. Something was wrong with this picture, Jessica had decided within two minutes of her friend’s arrival. Something more than the awkwardness of her circumstances had put those high points of color into Abbie’s cheeks and given her chin its stubborn tilt. She’d practically fallen out of the truck in her haste to meet Jess’s enthusiastic welcome, an action that could have been an indication of tremendous gratitude or an eagerness to get out of range of Mac’s formidable frown. Jess had caught a glimpse of it, purely by chance, and her curiosity had spiked with the possibility that one thing had something to do with the other. Of course, it could be sheer happenstance that Mac’s brow was furrowed with thunderclouds and Abbie’s blue eyes seemed unnecessarily dark and stormy. There were probably any number of logical explanations, Jessica thought, although none occurred readily to her. Abbie looked like someone had popped her balloon, taken away her candy, made her drop her ice cream and left her plenty mad in the process. Jessica pondered the possibilities on the trek up the stairs and maintained a bright stream of conversation to disguise it. “You’ll be in here,” she said, opening the door of the guest bedroom. “Mom and Dad have the master suite down the hall and my bedroom adjoins yours on the other side. It’ll be almost like being back at the grad house.” “Except for sharing the bathroom with six other women,” Abbie said, her smile never quite reaching her eyes. “And the raucous fraternity parties across the street,” Jessica added. “Mac is still living across the hall.” She indicated the suite of rooms on the other side of the stairs. “But he’s normally pretty quiet. He’s gone a lot, too, to horse shows and auctions and stuff. I accuse him of being lonely now that Cade is married and living in one of the guest houses with Serena. You did know Mac has an identical twin, didn’t you?” “He mentioned it on the trip out,” Abby said in a voice just shy of snippy. “There was quite a stir last month when Cade went off to Balahar pretending to be Mac and accidentally married King Zakariyya Al Farid’s adopted daughter and then wound up falling hard for her. Cade and Serena got remarried because they weren’t sure the first ceremony was legal in the States, since they’d used Mac’s name instead of Cade’s during the ceremony in Balahar. It was a big mess for a while there, but all’s well that ends well, you know.” Jessica stood aside and motioned Abbie into the bedroom. “Did I ever tell you that my cousins are really from a country called Sorajhee on the edge of Saudi Arabia?” Abbie stopped abruptly, only a step inside the room. “I thought he was making that up. You mean, he’s not really American? Not really a Texan?” “Don’t let any one of them hear you say that. They’re Texans through and through,” Jessica said with a laugh. “They’ve always had dual citizenship because their mother, my aunt Rose, didn’t give up her citizenship when she married the crown prince of Sorajhee. It was a big scandal in their country at the time, but she became a beloved queen in spite of it. Then when King Ibrahim was murdered, Aunt Rose believed her sons were in danger and got my dad to help smuggle the three boys out of the country and that’s how they ended up as Colemans in Bridle, Texas. It’s quite a story, but I won’t drown you in the family history—as interesting as it is—until you’ve been here at least long enough to unpack your bags.” Abbie sank onto the edge of the bed as if her legs weren’t strong enough to support her. “You mean, he’s really a…a prince?” “Mac?” Aha, Jessica thought, pretending to take no notice that of the three male cousins, Abbie had twice now referred only to one. Of course, she had yet to meet Alex and Cade, and she had just spent the long ride from the airport to the ranch alone with Mac, but still…“Prince of aggravation, if you want my true opinion,” Jess said with an affectionate laugh. “They came to live with Mom and Dad before I was even born, so they’re more like brothers than cousins and Mac is the worst when it comes to teasing me. When he really wants to get me riled, he calls me ‘Husky’ because that breed of dog often has eyes that are different colored and he knows how much I hate having one blue eye and one green one. When he just wants to agitate me a little, he calls me Blondie.” She touched her carroty red hair, wishing it was blond or black, or even a nice sandy-brown like Abbie’s. Abbie offered a small smile, but it was obvious her thoughts were elsewhere. “Well, listen to me, nattering at you about my cousins, when it’s clear you need a chance to catch your breath and get your bearings. I don’t know what’s keeping Mac.” She glanced over her shoulder in time to see him clear the landing and stalk down the hall towards the guest room, a bag under each arm and one in each hand. His whole expression was as dark as a Texas tornado and Jessica couldn’t keep her eyebrows from arching in sharpening suspicion. As curious as it seemed, something unpleasant must have happened between her cousin and her friend on the trip out from Austin. “You want to be in or out?” he asked, his tone of voice as tight and short as the check rein on a green colt. “I can’t get all these bags through the doorway with you standing in it.” Jessica stepped farther into the room, clearing the doorway for him and his temper. He took two long strides into the room and dumped all four suitcases onto the bed. “Miss Jones. Jessica,” he said, acknowledging and dismissing their presence in three cool-as-icicles words. Then, without a glance at Abbie, who was now surrounded by a motley assortment of luggage, he strode out of the room as if somebody had insulted every single one of his prize Arabians. The thud of his boot heels on the stairs echoed with military precision and then, in final salute to his dark mood, the front door slammed behind him. Jessie blinked. She’d never seen Mac act that way before. He could be as charming as a patch of bluebells in the spring, or as haughty as Jabbar, the Desert Rose foundation sire, a black Arabian stallion who, on occasion, took his status as champion entirely too seriously. But she’d never seen Mac be rude to anyone and especially not to a female. And one of her good friends, at that. Her gaze swung back to Abbie as suspicion crystallized and ran rampant in her thoughts. What could have caused the two of them to take such an instant dislike to the other? Could Abbie have inadvertently said something to set off an exchange of words? Maybe Mac had uttered some ill-advised statement. But they’d only just met. What could possibly have caused a rift of this magnitude in a drive of barely an hour? Filing away her questions, Jessie indicated the adjoining bath with a gesture. “There’s the bath. It opens into my room on the other side, so just lock that door when you go in, and don’t forget to unlock it when you leave. I’ll get out of here and let you rest a little while before dinner. Unpack or take a nap or a shower, or whatever you feel like doing. I’ll be downstairs in the office, if you need anything or when you’re ready for the grand tour. Dinner’s at six. We’re pretty casual, although Mom has been known to check for dirt on the knuckles or behind the ears, so be forewarned.” “I’ll be sure and wash my ears, then,” Abbie said, trying for a smile but looking mainly mad and scared and like the smallest gust of wind would send her tumbling backward into the pile of suitcases. “Hands, too.” “Mom will be pleased. She’s looking forward to meeting you, as is everyone. I’ve talked about you so much and they’re all excited that you’re going to help out in the office. I’m so happy you’re here, Abbie. And so glad you felt you could call me when you lost your job. I hope you’ll feel right at home here at the Desert Rose and I want you to stay as long as you want.” Abbie’s smile quavered even more at that. “I don’t know, Jessie.” “Don’t feel you have to give us any time frame at all. I mean it. You’re doing me such a favor by helping out. I’ve been buried in paperwork the last couple of months and still it keeps pouring in! You may run away screaming when you see my desk. It’s just awful.” Jess knew she was blathering on and on, but the atmosphere was charged somehow with an element she couldn’t put her finger on or identify. “I haven’t told anyone except Mom and Aunt Rose about your being pregnant and losing your job and needing a place to get your thoughts together, so don’t feel as if you need to explain anything to anyone. Not even me.” “Not much to tell.” Abbie stood and smoothed the shirt over her belly to reveal the firm roundness of it. “I haven’t even told my parents yet, and look at me. Already as ripe as a June melon.” She sighed. “I’m in such a mess, Jessie, and I’m grateful beyond words that you invited me here, but I just don’t think I can stay. Not now.” “You’re staying,” Jessica said firmly. “And if Mac said anything to upset you, I’ll wring his neck in three places.” Abbie’s eyes went wide with panic. “No, please, don’t. I mean, why would you think he upset me?” Bingo, Jess thought, although she still couldn’t quite tally the clues into a clear and likely conclusion. “Well, no more talk about not staying, then. Get unpacked and don’t worry about a thing. I mean it! You need a couple of weeks to get your thoughts together and decide what you want to do. This is the perfect place. No one will bother you, I promise. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ll probably pester you to death with office work, but other than that, you’ll have plenty of time to rest and make a few decisions. Then, when the moment comes to tell your folks, you’ll know what you want to say.” She smiled broadly. “Now, telling your brothers may be a different story, if they’re as zealously overprotective as you’ve said they are.” “Whatever I told you about them was an understatement,” Abbie said with a rueful sigh. “They’re going to drive me crazy with their ideas on what I need to do and when, where, how, and why I need to do it. I’m really, really, really dreading the moment they have to know.” “Well, for now, at least, you’ll have some peace and quiet so you can make your own decisions before you have to face them.” “I just hope they don’t find me in the meantime.” Abbie opened her purse and pulled out a compact cell phone. “I’m going to use this phone whenever I call home and even then, I’m going to be very careful about what I say. On the off chance they call you, just tell them that as far as you know, I’m spending the summer at a math and science camp in the Catskills.” “If that’s your story, I’ll stick to it until you tell me otherwise.” Jess couldn’t help it. She gave Abbie a hug. “This is going to work out great for both of us, Abbie. Everything will turn out for the best, I just know it. Now I’m really getting out of here and giving you some time to settle in.” Bouncing on her heels, she grinned at Abbie and walked to the door, looking back to see if her friend’s expression was in any degree lighter. It was. In fact, Abbie was looking around the room as if she couldn’t imagine a nicer place to call her temporary home. “And on the off chance Mac did say something stupid on the drive out, don’t take it personally,” Jessie cautioned. “He’s just been in a very black mood for the past few months.” Abbie looked up, startled into a revealing expression. “Mac didn’t say anything,” she declared, too quickly to be believable. “Please don’t mention to him that you thought he had.” “Sure thing. There’s soap and extra towels in the armoire by the bathroom door. Anything else you need, just ask. And thanks, Abbie, for coming. It means a lot to me to have you here.” She stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her before Abbie felt obligated to reply. Jessie couldn’t imagine what had happened between her cousin and her friend, but she was determined to get to the bottom of it by noon tomorrow—or give Mac a major headache in the attempt. MAC SLAMMED THE DOOR of his pickup, unable to vent the depth of his frustration no matter how many doors he slammed. He’d avoided Abigail Jones and her crass accusations by avoiding everyone. He’d dumped her bags in the guest room, slammed the front door behind him and hightailed it off the ranch. He wanted nothing to do with her and didn’t trust himself to stay away from her, so he climbed right back into his pickup—slamming the door so hard, he was surprised the window didn’t break—and drove off without a word to anyone. He’d driven with a scowl all the way into Fredericksburg, where he’d ordered a dinner he didn’t eat and a beer he didn’t drink, and stared out the restaurant window until the waiter asked for the umpteenth time if everything was satisfactory, to which Mac had replied finally “No. No, it isn’t.” Then he’d thrown who knows how much money onto the table to make up for not touching the food and drink and walked out, every bit as miserable as when he’d walked in. Driving west to San Marcos, he’d stopped to skip rocks into the muddy Blanco River, then slammed the pickup door once again and driven a succession of winding roads back to Bridle and the ranch, a round trip of close to two hundred miles. And all he’d accomplished was to shift his mood from black to gloomy gray. He figured Abbie had told her lies to the whole family by now, and his absence had only given them validity. But what did he care? His family would stand shoulder to shoulder with him when they knew the truth. He could count on them. If there was anything in life he was certain of, it was that family mattered. Right now, they might all be wondering why he’d allowed Abbie to lure him into the same trap Gillian had set for him only a couple of years before. On the other hand, they might have greeted Abbie’s tale of woe with a sympathetic ear. But once he revealed her for the fraud she was, his family would stand with him against her. He knew they would. Of course, it probably would have made things easier for them if he’d stood his ground tonight instead of running like a coward who had something to hide. But he just couldn’t bear the thought of sitting across the dinner table from the woman who’d haunted his dreams for months now, knowing her for the schemer she obviously had been all along. So he ran. Running from the memory of Gillian’s betrayal two years ago. Running from the memory of how sweet Abbie’s kiss had seemed five months earlier. Running from his own traitorous heart, which couldn’t seem to distinguish between lust and love. It was nearly midnight now and for all the miles he’d gone, he hadn’t outrun even one of the voices in his head. Gillian had lied to him. Abbie had lied to him. Women could not be trusted. There wasn’t an ounce of honor among them. Okay, so there were a few good ones out there. His two new sisters-in-law, Hannah and Serena, for example. Neither of them would have considered resorting to trickery and treachery to gain the name of Coleman. He couldn’t imagine them staking the life of a child against the possibility of an advantageous marriage, as Gillian had done. As Abbie was doing. His cousin, too, was as moral and honest as any old-fashioned girl, but then Jessie was born a Coleman and had been raised with the proper respect for the truth. Olivia Smith, the young ranch hand he’d taken on as an assistant trainer, was as wholesome as fresh butter and far too good with horses to harbor any deceit. Horses, especially Arabians, had a keen sense of just who could be trusted and who couldn’t. Then, on the list of honorable women, there was Aunt Vi, who couldn’t even tell a fib without blushing a vivid, culpable red. And although Mac had only recently begun to know his mother, Rose, he refused to believe she had ever stooped to duplicity when it came to dealing with his father, or any other man. But for every female who deserved a man’s trust and respect, there was another like Abigail Jones. A schemer. A manipulator. A liar. She was lying. She had to be lying, because… There was no because. She was as bad as he believed her to be. Worse even than Gillian, who had had, at least at one time, some genuine feeling for him. Gillian’s mistake had been in thinking Mac was so much in love with her he would never believe she could do what she had, in fact, done. Abbie’s mistake was in coming to the Desert Rose, thinking she could manipulate him, and his family, into aiding and abetting her schemes. It was just too bad she wasn’t outside with him right now so he could tell her exactly what she could do with her malicious and misbegotten plans. Kicking at a bit of gravel, Mac headed for the darkened house, paying no attention to the sleepy sounds of a hot and humid night. A glimpse of movement, of something white where there should be only dark, caught his eye and he looked toward the lake and the section of dock that extended out into the water. Someone stood there and he told himself it might be his mother, out for a late-night walk around the ranch. Or maybe his aunt Vi, fretting about the fiftieth birthday that seemed to loom large and ponderously on her horizon. But even before the heels of his boots struck the redwood docking, he knew the figure bathed in moon glow was Abbie. Abbie, the schemer. Abbie, the liar. Abbie, with her hair curling loose and dusty gold about her shoulders. Abbie, with her face tilted to the night sky. Abbie, so beautiful his heart actually ached at the sight of her. Which was crazy. He had fallen in love with an illusion. The mystery woman he had been dreaming of for five long months had never existed except in his imagination. And here was Abbie to prove it. She turned at his approach, her hand grabbing the dock railing, her expression tightening, her eyes narrowing, her shoulders stiffening as if she expected trouble. Well, she was right on that count. She could look like an angel all she wanted, with her hair streaked silver by the moonlight and the shape of her body outlined softly beneath the loose white shirt she wore. He was trouble. And she hadn’t seen the half of it yet. “Can’t sleep?” he stopped, directly across from her, and leaned a hip against the railing. Fed by the boisterous Colorado River as it loped lazily through Texas, the lake lapped gently below the dock, lit by the light of a million stars and the shimmer of a moon reflected twice over in the dark water. “Conscience keeping you awake?” “Heartburn,” she said succinctly, turning in profile but clearly determined to stand her ground against him. “Really? I’ve never been bothered by heartburn.” “Yet another example of how Mother Nature allows men to escape responsibility for their actions.” “Ah, now. I expected better from you than that old life-is-unfair-to-the-female line. A woman of your imaginative talents can surely do better than that worn-out excuse.” Her gaze settled on him, narrowed and cool. “Look, Prince Not Charming, I came out here to be alone with my thoughts, and while I know it’s probably a lot to ask, I’d appreciate it if you left me the hell alone.” She was scrappy, he’d say that much for her. “Nicely put, but still just another lie.” “Another lie? You think I want you to stay out here and insult me?” “I think if you’d wanted me to leave you the hell alone, you’d have stayed the hell away from me in the first place.” Her eyes narrowed to slits and he realized she wasn’t wearing the black glasses, which was why, probably, he couldn’t stop looking at her. That or the rather obvious fact that she didn’t appear to be wearing anything but the oversize white shirt, which was certainly modest enough, although unsettling in its brevity. “I don’t know how you ever managed to seduce me,” she said tightly. “Probably because it was the other way around. You seduced me.” “That’s not the way I remember it.” “No, that’s not the way you want me to remember it.” She sighed. “Okay, let me see if I’ve got your version of events down correctly. I planned the whole seduction. Bumped into you at the bar on purpose. Insisted on secrecy—no names, no phone numbers, no personal information. Had my wicked way with you all night, intentionally getting pregnant in the process. Slipped away the next morning, already plotting to run into you, by accident, five months later so I could make nefarious demands on your pristine name and fabulous fortune, which of course, I have researched to the last penny. Oh, yes, and then there’s your oh-so-precious royal blue blood, which I traced all the way back to Lawrence of Arabia. Did I miss anything, Your Highness?” He’d spent hours now going over just that scenario and, although it sounded ridiculous the way she said it, he thought there was as much evidence to support his theory as her claim that it was all sheer coincidence. Plus, he had the advantage of firsthand experience on just how duplicitous a woman could be and the lengths she would go to in order to get a wedding ring. “Only one small detail,” he said, attempting to pierce her facade of innocent outrage with a hard stare. “I don’t believe for a second I’m the father of that baby.” Her breathing grew instantly agitated at the implication and it seemed to take her several seconds to find the raspy sounds that passed for her voice. “All I can say is that if you’re really a prince, the world is hard up for royalty.” “I don’t believe my character is the one in question here.” “Well, you’ll have to debate that with someone else.” She turned and started to walk away. Barefoot. She was barefoot. Mac pushed away from the dock rail and fell into step beside her, wondering if he should offer to carry her across the gravel driveway so she wouldn’t hurt her bare feet. But she stopped short and faced him with a contemptuous glare. “What part of leave me alone do you not understand?” Her chest rose and fell with each angry breath and he had a sudden, compelling impulse to rip off her concealing white shirt and bare her breasts so that he could see them full and ripe with her pregnancy. He found the idea of the changes in her body not just sexually titillating but exciting. Very exciting. And that realization unsettled him even further and made his voice scratchy and sharp. “You made a big mistake in coming to the Desert Rose. I don’t know what you thought would happen here, but I can personally guarantee that you won’t be happy with the outcome.” “That’s already quite apparent,” she said with an irritated sigh. “Because the only request I’ve made of you so far is to leave me alone.” He ought to do just that. He should take her lack of denial as validation and walk away from her right now. But this was his ranch, his home, his dock, and she’d contaminated them, along with the memories of the one night they’d spent together. He didn’t know why the latter charge seemed the most offensive, but he’d be damned if he’d let it bother him. “I want you to leave tomorrow,” he stated firmly, and hated the way his gut twisted in protest. “I know Jessica will try to persuade you to stay, but—” “But it would be so much more comfortable for you if I go. You don’t have to draw me a map. I understand I’m to make no claims on you for myself or for the baby.” Her lips curved with a wry contempt. “But you know what? I can do that right here.” Mac frowned, waiting for fury at her defiant manner to sweep over him. “Do what?” “Leave you alone, of course.” Her chin was up, her eyes shining, as she gave an arrogant, decisive little toss of her head. “I’ll stay here and work with Jessie as I planned and you’ll stay out of my way and I’ll stay out of yours. Voil?, we both get what we want.” “You can’t stay here,” he said, not only not furious, but a little panicked. “That would be very unwise.” “Why? Are you going to run around behind my back, assuring everyone you’re not the father of my baby?” She smiled, obviously of the opinion she had the upper hand. “That’s only going to make them think it’s a possibility.” “I have every right to defend myself.” “Against what? This?” She patted the slope of her belly. “Sorry, but you’re a little late for that.” “You’re not staying,” he said, determined she would not best him in this argument. “Tomorrow, you’ll tell Jessica that you’ve changed your mind and you must leave. Tomorrow, I’ll drive you to the airport and pay for your ticket, if need be. But one way or another, tomorrow, you are leaving this ranch.” She turned her gaze back to the lake, looking both determined and satisfied with herself. “No, I don’t think so.” “This isn’t your decision.” Her eyes returned to him with the fire of her resolve. “Yes, Mac, it is. For five months now, I’ve rocked along, pretending this wasn’t happening, putting off decisions, believing that if I ever met you again, you’d help me make the right choices for our baby. But I realize now, I am the responsible party here. And I will make the decisions without benefit of your advice. So, as far as I’m concerned, you and your arrogant, self-important opinions can take a flying leap into this lake and swim all the way to the Gulf of Mexico before I’ll give half-a-second’s consideration to what you want.” “My family will never permit you to claim any portion of the Desert Rose for your child.” “Your family will never know this child has every right to make such a claim unless you tell them.” “You expect me to believe you haven’t already told them?” “I’ve told no one. Except you. And believe me, if I could think of a way to take it back, you wouldn’t know, either.” What could she hope to gain with this tack? Time? Opportunity? Support? “So you intend to hold me hostage here on my own property, while you wait for the right moment to drop your little bombshell?” “I intend to stay as far away from you as you and the boundaries of this ranch will permit. But even if we step on each other every time we turn around, I am not going to be forced into leaving simply because my presence here makes you uncomfortable.” “You’re making a mistake, Abigail Jones.” She stared silently into his eyes for a moment, then spun around and walked back to the end of the dock, reaching up with both hands to push the bulky weight of her hair off her nape. “Well, I made a mistake in not bringing a swimsuit, that’s for sure.” Did she think she could simply announce her intention to make his life a living hell and then change the subject? Well, he could turn the tables as well as she. “What a pity,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “A midnight swim would undoubtedly clear your head and enable you to think more clearly. It might even soothe your heartburn. But then again, probably not.” “If you were a gentleman, you’d go away and the swimsuit would be a non-issue.” His eyebrows went up. “And leave you to swim alone? Now, that would be very ungentlemanly.” “So it’s okay to swim without a swimsuit as long as I don’t do it alone?” “Got it in one, Abigail Jones.” He shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it over the rail, then his hands dropped to the buckle on his belt. “The question is, are you going in with me or are you going to run away like a frightened little chicken?” She turned around just as he unsnapped the top of his jeans. Her gaze flickered down the shadowy vee of hair on his chest to his abdomen, then rose in a guilty rush. “Are you daring me to take my clothes off in full view of the house?” “This is a working ranch. Anyone who’s not asleep by this hour won’t be worth a damn tomorrow. Besides, it would take a pair of high-powered binoculars to see this section of the dock from any of the ranch buildings in broad daylight, much less now.” His gaze lingered on the exposed white skin of her inner arm as she continued to hold the weight of hair off her neck. Unbidden, he recalled the soft, sweet taste of her flesh in his mouth and knew the memory was as treacherous as her look of innocence, as tantalizing as the thought of her swimming naked beside him. He wanted to touch her, kiss her, bend her to his will. He wanted her to be who he’d believed she was, and that was impossible. Leaning against the dock rail, he balanced on one foot and pulled off first one boot, then the other. “So, little liar, are you brave enough to skinny-dip with me?” “Brave, enough, yes. But not stupid. You’d probably try to drown me.” “Ah, good. You are afraid.” He hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his jeans and she abruptly turned her back. “Although, I’d never resort to violence. As you’re well aware, I have nothing to gain by harming you.” He smiled at the stiff set of her shoulders and thought, with another nudge or two, she’d be eager to leave tomorrow. “So you see, Abbie, there’s no reason for you to stand here in the heat and humidity, blaming me for depriving you of your swim. I already know you have no modesty.” Her chin came up as she whirled to face him, barely blinking at his state of undress. “You know nothing about me.” “I know you aren’t going to risk letting me get a good look at a body heavy with the weight of another man’s child. That could be detrimental to your plans.” If he’d been wearing any, his underwear would have gone down in flames. “You are the only man I’ve slept with in over a year,” she said, her voice shaking with desperate anger. “And you are the father of this baby.” Mac considered her claim for a long moment, wondering, calculating the possibility, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe her. He just couldn’t. “Then, I guess you’ll have to come up with another excuse to stay out of the water, won’t you, little chick?” He walked to the edge of the pier and stretched lazily, glancing at her over his shoulder. “Oh, and don’t bother pulling some juvenile stunt like stealing my clothes as you leave. I promise it would turn out to be far more embarrassing for you in the long run, if I have to walk back to the house in my birthday suit.” Feeling that he’d successfully called her bluff, he made a clean, leisurely dive into the cool, cleansing water. Abbie was reaching for the buttons of her shirt even before Mac completely disappeared beneath the surface. She’d show him she wasn’t afraid of him or his stupid threats. She didn’t care if he saw her body, rounding with the shape of the pregnancy. It was his fault she was in this shape, anyway. Another man’s child. She should drown him for saying such a thing. For being such a jerk. How could she have been so stupid as to fantasize about him for the past five months, turning him into some kind of movie-idol hero in her mind, never imagining he’d reject her and the baby out of hand. It had never once occurred to her that he wouldn’t believe her, that he’d accuse her of the blackest of lies and an attempt to trap him into marriage, as well. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons. Going skinny-dipping to prove her point was only stooping to his level. It would do nothing more than make an awkward situation worse. But she couldn’t just walk away, either. Retreat felt too much like surrender. She watched him, swimming in long, powerful strokes against the dark water, his muscular arms, legs, shoulders and buttocks visible in intermittent flashes of moonlit gold. Okay, so if she wasn’t going to strip naked and follow him in and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of her retreat, what other option did she have? Jumping in, fully clothed? Well, she was only wearing a white cotton shirt and a pair of maternity underpants, which would both be disgustingly revealing when dripping wet. If she’d had any idea she’d see anyone on this late night quest for a few moments of peace, she’d have put on something more suitable, although perhaps not as comfortable in this heat. On the other hand, if she’d known Mac was still out roaming the countryside like an alley cat, she’d never have ventured from her room in the first place, much less worried about what to wear. Her gaze shifted to the clothes he’d flung carelessly across the dock railing. A paid of boots, socks, a belt, a pair of jeans, a denim…shirt. The first smile of the evening lifted her spirits. It wasn’t the comeuppance she’d like to deliver him, by a long shot. On a scale of annoyance, it would barely rate a one and a half or a two, but it looked like her only option and therefore, it would have to do. In a matter of minutes, she was wrapped in his shirt, while hers hung, dry and waiting for her return, on the railing. As she rolled up the sleeves and turned down the collar, the scent of him surrounded her in a tide of memories that would be best forgotten. But for just a second…one little flashback of a moment…she remembered him as he’d been—as she’d thought he was—and wished things might have turned out differently. Then, arcing her hands high over her head, she dove straight and true into the water. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926290&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.