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That March morning, Mary Hofstetter dragged herself out of bed at dawn. It was going to be a beautiful, sunny day and Mary felt lousy. Her back ached. All night, the baby had played football with her rib cage. She'd gotten maybe two hours' sleep.
Mary trudged outside to feed the two aging horses, the chickens and the goats. Inside again, she prepared breakfast; she brewed herb tea, made toast and whipped up a protein shake.
The plan was to go straight to the computer once she'd eaten. Instead, she started cleaning. Nesting instinct, she told herself. After all, she was due in three weeks. She whipped the kitchen into shape, made her bed, dusted her bedroom and the living room. After that, she cleaned the shower and mopped the kitchen floor.
By then, it was a little after ten and the work that really needed doing could no longer be put off. Strangely, in the past month or two, as her stomach had gotten bigger, her mind had gotten dreamier. This was normal, she knew from her reading on pregnancy and childbirth, and would pass eventually after the baby came. Too bad that knowing she would someday have her focus back didn't help her meet her deadline now.
With a sigh of resignation, Mary sat down at the computer in the corner of the living room. Her two thousand-word article on canning summer fruit was due at Ranch Life magazine the next day. She'd have the article finished and e-mailed in by five if it killed her. Which, considering how tired and unfocused she was, it just might.
She booted up the PCand stalled some more, fiddling with stuff on the desktop, straightening the tape dispenser and the stapler, moving the coffee mug full of pens from the left corner tothe right. Another sigh and she made herself bring up the document she'd started yesterday.
Enjoy Summer's Bounty All Winter Long.
"Blah." Mary made a face at the title. And then she yawned. From the rug near the fireplace, her dog, Brownie, lifted her head and yawned, too. "I know, I know," she told the dog. "Bo-ring."
Then she scowled at the screen again. And shook her head. Later, if she finished with time to spare, she could stew over the title. Right now she needed to get some serious words on the page. She started typing.
Four sentences later, she heard the crunch of tires on gravel out in front. Brownie lifted her head again, gave a halfhearted "Woof," and then dropped her head back to her paws.
Mary wasn't expecting company, but hey, any excuse to get up from that desk sounded wonderful to her.
Groaning softly at the effort, she put her hands on the desktop and pushed herself to her feet. She arched her back to get the kinks out and then waddled over to the front window to see who'd dropped by.
Her visitor was still inside the car. It was a Cadillac SUV, that car. Black as a polished patent-leather shoe, with pricey gold rims that gleamed proudly in the Texas sun. It looked more than a little out of place in her dusty front yard.
Mary rubbed the base of her spine with one hand and supported her heavy belly with the other as she watched a tall man emerge from the fancy vehicle. Dark glasses covered his eyes. Though the vehicle blocked most of his body, she could see he wore a western shirt.
But the guy was no cowboy. If he were, he wouldn't be driving an Escalade with shining gold rims. And he certainly wouldn't be hauling out a briefcase and laying it on the roof of the car. Plus, something about the arrogant set of those broad shoulders spoke, loud and proud, of money and privilege. He stood for a moment without closing the door, his dark-gold head turned toward the house. Bright morning sun sparkled like stars on the lenses of his sunglasses.
Mary knew by then why he'd come. The Bravos must have sent him. Her tired shoulders slumped. So much for a nice diversion. She would rather be back at her desk, racking her fuzzy brain for a fascinating way to describe sterilizing canning jars, than dealing with the man who'd just taken off his sunglasses and tossed them casually to the seat of his pricey SUV.
He shut the driver's door, grabbed the briefcase and came around the front of the vehicle. Mary dug her fingers into the aching muscles at the base of her spine and wished he would just turn around, open that door again, get back in that beautiful car and drive off. How many times does a woman have to say "no" before the big-money types take the hint and go away?
As he mounted the steps to her front porch, she actually considered not answering his knock. After all, she was feeling like a beached whale, she'd already told the Bravos "no" three times and meant itand she had work that truly did need doing.
But then, with a certain bittersweet sadness, she thought of Rowdy. Rowdy had always been the soul of politeness. Though he was fourteen years older than she was, he'd called her "ma'am" for weeks after they metuntil their first date, as a matter of fact. A gentle, soft-spoken, old-fashioned man, he would always take off his hat in the presence of a woman.
Rowdy would never have given those Bravos what they were after. But he would do them the courtesy of answering the door and telling them "no" straight to their faces. Again.
So when the rich man knocked, Mary answered.
She pulled the door open and there he was, so handsome and fit-looking, he might have been a model. Or even a movie star. He had a sexy smile readya smile that only wavered slightly when he got a look at her ginormous stomach. Apparently, if someone back at the BravoCorp highrise in San Antonio had told him that the Hofstetter widow was pregnant, they'd failed to mention how pregnant.
He gestured for her to open the glass storm door that still stood between them. With a sigh, she flipped the lock and pushed it open a crack. He took the handle and pulled it the rest of the way until it caught and held wide.
"Mary Hofstetter?" He had a voice to match his looks. Deep and manly. Smooth as melted butterscotch.
She drew her shoulders back and forced a smile. "Yes?" "I'mGabe. Gabe Bravo." Well. Darned if they hadn't sent a real Bravo this time. He took out a card and handed it over. Without giving it so much as a glance, she stuck the card in the back pocket of her jeans and got right down to the business of getting rid of him. "I'd invite you in, but I've got work that won't wait. And there's really no point in us talking, anyway. I'll only be telling you what I've told the others you sent. I don't care what the offer is, I'm not selling. So you have a nice day." She granted him a nod, parsed out a tight smile and started to shut the door.
"Mary." He spoke softly, but with clear command. His tone made her hesitate with the door half-closed. Sky-blue eyes reproached herand somehow managed to gleam with wry humor at the same time. "You haven't even heard what I've come to say."
"I've heard enough from those other men you sent." "But since then, we've rethought the offer. There's more now."
"Doesn't make a bit of difference." He put on a hurt look. "How can you say that?" Mary looked at him straight on. "Easily." "You're making a big mistake. You don't know yet what we're willing to do to come to a satisfying solution to this problem."
"But, Gabe, I don't need to know. For me, there is no problem. I'm already satisfied."
"Come on." He wrapped his hand around the door frame, a supremely casual move. "Let me surprise you." His eyes were alight with humor, as if he daredher to shut the door nowand crush his tanned fingers with their buffed-smooth nails. "Please."
She stared into those gorgeous eyes and found herself thinking that maybe a surprise wouldn't be half-badand then she blinked and shook her head. "Seriously. I've already decided. I don't want to sell. Now, I really do have to"
"You'll never be sure unless you hear me out." He slanted her a sideways look, mouth curved in a hint of a smile, as if they shared a secret, just the two of them.
She knew the guy was working her, knew she should simply say "no thank you," ask him to move his hand and shut the door the rest of the way. But she didn't. Nervously, she guided a few stray strands of hair away from her eyes, tucking them behind her ear. "No, really. I'm sorry you drove out here for nothing. But I just don't have time right now."
He refused to give up. "I promise you," he coaxed. "It won't take long. Don't make me go back to my board of directors without being sure I've done all I can to change your mind." Another smile, a hopeful one.
Mary couldn't stop herself from smiling in return. What was it about him? She'd allowed the first guy they'd sent into the house. It had seemed only right to hear the offer before giving her answer. Once was enough, though. She hadn't let the other two past her front door.
But this guy well, he did have a way about him. All smooth and sociable. Too good-looking to be real, much too slickand yet somehow, he still managed to come across as down-to-earth. As if the two of them were longtime friends and he was just stopping by to see how she was getting along.
"I could make a pot of coffee, I guess " The words came out almost of their own accord at the same time as she found herself stepping backward, opening the door wide.
"Mary." He granted her another of those I'm-your-best-friend smiles. "I think you must have read my mind."
Gabe followed the Hofstetter widow through her living room, taking it all inthe worn, mismatched furniture, the scuffed hardwood floor, the scraggly-looking mutt sleeping in the corner, the cluttered desk and ancient PC. And the widow herself, in baggy jeans, red Keds and a white shirt shaped like a tent that billowed out over the giant bulge of her belly.
The floor plan was a simple one. An alcove near the front door held a narrow stairway and a half bath. The living room opened onto the single dining area, with a small U-shaped kitchen to the right of a square table. As he reached the table, he saw that a door opposite the kitchen led into a shadowed bedroom. He could see a rocking chair with a red bag hooked over the backrest, a pine night table and a section of a bed with a pine headboard.
"Have a seat." She gestured at the table as she turned to the kitchen nook.
Gabe took the straight-back chair she offered and watched her as she loaded up a coffee filter with grounds from a can and filled the reservoir with tap water. Her giant stomach pressed the tiled counter as she worked. And her brown hair needed a cut. She had it tied back in a sloppy ponytail from which limp strands escaped along her nape and around her face.
Once she had the coffeemaker going, she lumbered on over and took the chair opposite him, lowering herself into it with a soft grunt of effort. "All right," she told him once she was seated. "Coffee'll be ready in a minute."
"Thanks, Mary." He made his voice sincere and respectful, with just the right easy touch of warmth. Gabe was a master at reading people, at gauging how they saw themselves and how they wanted to be treated. It was part of his job as the family lawyer and so-called "fixer," the one they sent in when things weren't going as planned. Most women, whatever their age or marital status, liked a little harmless flirting from a man. They liked to be noticed and appreciated.
Not this woman. She preferred her interactions simple and direct and she didn't flirt with strangers. Gabe had known that at the door, the moment he gazed into those big brown eyes with the weary dark circles beneath them.
"You might as well go ahead and " She stopped in mid-sentence. Wincing, she laid her hand on the side of her giant stomach.
Alarm had him sitting up straighter. "What is it, Mary?" Was she going to drop the kid right there at the table? "Is something wrong?"
She let out a long breath and patted the air between them with her palm. "No. It's fine. It's nothing. A cramp. Please. Can we get on with this?"
"Absolutely." He preferred to start out with at least a few minutes of conversation, to establish a better toneless dry and rushed, more casual. And friendly. Most people found it hard to say no to a friend. But she wanted him to move it along. So he pretended to do that. He got out his laptop. "This'll just take a minute " He aimed the back of the screen her way and punched a few keys, to make it look like he was setting things up.
She said, sounding really tired, "You know, you can stall all you want to, trying to figure out the most effective way to come at me, but it won't do you any good." She had leaned back in the chair and rested her hand on the swell of her stomach. Her eyes were closed and she spoke with the drowsy voice of someone seriously in need of a long nap. "I meant what I said to you at the door. And what I said to those three other guys you sent before. It makes no difference how much you offer me, I will never sell the Lazy H."
Never say never, Mary. "Why not?"
She opened her eyes and frowned at him. "It doesn't matter why notexcept to me."
He studied her face for a moment, thinking that his job here would be easier if she were a little needier and not quite so smart. "Here's what matters," he told her. "Sell that overgrown hundred and twenty acres out there to Bravo-Corp at the price I'm going to offer you this morning and you'll be a wealthy woman. Youand your babywill never want for anything for the rest of your lives. You can go to bed and get some rest when I leave because you won't have to work. Not today. Not ever again."