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A Baby On The Ranch
By Stella Bagwell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe'd been searching for the woman for three months. To a dedicated lawman like Lonnie Corteen, that wasn't a long time, but in this case, he wasn't working in the capacity of sheriff of Deaf Smith County, Texas. He was working for a friend. And that fact had made it impossible to turn back from this trail he'd been following.
Drawing in a deep, bracing breath, he lifted a black cowboy hat from his head and ran a big hand through dark-auburn hair. There wasn't any use in putting it off any longer, he argued with himself. He needed to get this job done and over with. It had interrupted his life, and his work, for too long. Not to mention his peace of mind.
Climbing the steps to the modest, second-floor apartment, he walked down the covered landing until he found a door with the number 36. There was no doorbell to push, so he gave the door a quick rap with his knuckles. As he waited for a response, he glanced over his left shoulder to the stark parking lot below.
Fort Worth was cold. A strong wind from the north was picking up, making him and the few pedestrians on the streets hunch down in their coats. He'd be glad to get this all over with and get back to Hereford, he thought. Not that it was any warmer there. But West Texas weather in late fallcould be extreme. He didn't want to get stranded in this city while a blue norther iced it over. But the uncomfortable weather was only part of the reason why he was eager to get back home. His chief deputy was taking care of things there, but Lonnie wasn't one to leave the security of his county in someone else's hands for any longer than necessary. And this mission he was on here in Fort Worth didn't sit well in his craw. Not at all.
The sound of the rattling doorknob caused him to pull his head back around. He watched as the door opened as far as the security chain would allow and a feminine eye peeped out at him.
There was a wary note in her one-word question, and since Lonnie wasn't dressed in a uniform or wearing a badge, he pulled out his identification and held it close enough to the opening for her to examine.
"I'm Lonnie Corteen, ma'am. I'm the sheriff of Deaf Smith County, Texas."
Several long moments passed before she finally reached up and pulled back the security chain. When she did, Lonnie found himself looking at a woman in her midtwenties, dressed in a red sweater and a pair of black jeans. Her feet were bare, and her toenails were painted the same bright red as her sweater. But none of those things really caught his complete attention. It was the rounded mound of her midsection that whammed him with surprise.
The woman was pregnant! He'd not counted on this development. Not by a long shot. From all the information he'd gathered, he'd believed she was a single woman, living alone.
"Hello," she said. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Her voice was low, husky and guarded. The last part didn't surprise him. Most people didn't react joyfully when a lawman showed up at their door.
"I'm not sure," Lonnie said and flashed her a brief, reassuring smile. "Are you Miss Mary Katherine McBride?"
She silently nodded and Lonnie could only think how much she looked like Victoria Ketchum. This woman had the same long, dark wavy hair, the same green eyes and elegantly shaped features as his friend back in Aztec.
"That's good. That's real good." Shifting his weight from one boot to the other, he pulled off his hat and held it against his broad chest. "Uh, if I could come in for a few minutes, I need to talk to you."
Shock shot her brows straight up to form slender black arcs above her eyes. Her hand fluttered near her breasts. "Me? You want to talk to me?"
It wasn't good for a pregnant woman to receive a shock, Lonnie suddenly realized. But what the heck was he supposed to do now? He was already here at the door. He couldn't just say oops, he'd made a mistake and leave her hanging with all kinds of questions and worries.
"Yes. If you have a moment."
A moment! Hell, Lonnie, what you need to relay to this woman can't be done in a few minutes. You've got to do this gently, kindly. The girl deserved that much.
Confusion clouded her eyes and furrowed her forehead. As Lonnie studied her perplexed expression, he couldn't help but notice her skin was milky-white and as smooth as the petal of a rose. Not that he went around noticing such things about women. He rarely allowed himself a second look at the opposite sex. But something about this one was causing him to stare.
"I ... I suppose I do," she said haltingly. "But -"
Sensing her reluctance, he added, "I'll try to make it as short as possible, Miss McBride."
She pressed several fingertips to her brow. "But I don't understand. Has something happened to someone I know?"
He smiled briefly. "Now, that would be hard to say, seeing as I don't know your acquaintances, ma'am. But I can tell you that this visit is ... personal."
"Personal?" she repeated, as though she'd never heard the word before.
Lonnie couldn't blame her for being confused or suspicious. But frankly, he didn't know how to put her at ease without jumping into this thing with both feet.
"That's right." He motioned past her shoulder to the interior of the apartment. "It's as cold as heck standing here on this concrete. May I come in and tell you about it?"
Her eyes traveled up and down the length of him, and Lonnie felt himself blushing under her direct scrutiny. He'd had women look at him up close before. After all, he was thirty years old and he wasn't exactly homely. But there was something about the way this woman was looking that gave him a mighty uncomfortable urge to squirm in his boots. Especially when he had the strongest urge to keep looking back.
"I suppose," she said in a voice that clearly conveyed she wasn't happy about any of this.
"Thank you, Miss McBride. I'll try not to take up too much of your time."
Excerpted from A Baby On The Ranch by Stella Bagwell Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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