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One day soon, he'd get rid of this wedding ring.
Gabe Miller tossed the gold circle into the air and snatched it back again, trying not to think of the woman who'd slipped it onto his left hand, third finger. Trying not to think of what she'd had inscribed inside.
What a crock. Forever hadn't lasted but three short weeks.
Scowling, he shoved the band into the velvet-lined jeweler's box and slid it back in place beneath the stack of flannel shirts in the dresser drawer. Call him a dumb cowboy, but it'd taken his own wife's desertion to finally get the familiar message rammed into his thick skull:
Never trust a woman.
He turned. Warren stood in the bedroom doorway, his whiskered face scrunched into a frown.
"Shake a leg. The boys'll be raring to eat any minute now."
"Right." As Gabe headed down the hall in the wake of his elderly ranch hand, he cursed, then felt immediate guilt. Warren hadn't caused his ugly mood.
Their two pairs of boots sounded loud on the bare wooden stairs that led them to the first floor, where they entered the kitchen.
"We gotta get us a cook, boss. It's been nearly a month since Joe and Mary went back East." Warren flipped a switch, powering up the coffeemaker Gabe had gotten ready the night before. "Lord knows, a rancher's got enough to keep him moving sunup to sundown. And you're kept busier than most, managing this big spread yourself 'n all."
"We're doing just fine, Warren." He was careful to keep his tone neutral, knowing how much it grated on the older man that he couldn't pull his weight with the younger hands anymore.
"Yeah, long as you don't try gettin' too fancy."
"Okay, so the pancakes didn't work out so well."
That earned him a chuckle.
Gabe grabbed the egg carton and a pack of pork links from the refrigerator. Sure, having to undertake kitchen duties once his ranch cook and her husband had moved on had been the last thing he'd needed. Gabe did have more to handle than most of the local ranchers. Something Marissa hadn't understood.
He rubbed the back of his neck and swallowed a growl. He had to stop thinking of Marissa.
Lost cause, that idea. He brooded on it anyway. Why the heck had he woken up this morningalone in his big bedwith the feeling today would turn out worse than the usual? He couldn't manage to push the gloom from his mind the way he'd shoved the wedding ring back under his flannel shirts. The ring he should have tossed out, just as she'd tossed him aside months ago.
That, right there, was the problem.
She'd walked out three months ago today.
Jared and Hank and the rest of the cowhands trooped into the kitchen. Their usual banter drowned out the sizzle of eggs and sausages.
"Hey, boys, hold it down a bit," Warren grumbled. "Don't know where you get your energy this early in the morning."
Gabe grimaced, knowing his own bad mood had caused the complaints. He was used to rowdy cowboys before the sun was even uphe'd breakfasted with ranch hands all his life. But he remembered best those daysthose way too few dayswhen he'd skipped the chow-downs out at the bunk-house to spend every last early-morning moment he could bedded down with his wife.
Hank, best known as the ranch's clown, looked over Gabe's shoulder. "No pancakes today, boss?"
The rest of the men guffawed.
"All right, so I'm not much of a cook." Ma-rissa was. He shook the thought away. "Better knock it off, or y'all will be taking turns at the stove."
Silence fell heavier than a bale dropped from the hayloft. His back still turned to his men, he reached for the egg carton again and grinned. Shut them up, all right.
In the calm, he heard the noise of a car's engine. Awfully early for visitors.
Warren pushed up the blind over the kitchen sink and squinted through the window. "Seems like you got company, boss." The old cowboy's voice had gone rusty.
Gabe stepped to his side. "Must be Doc.
What he saw, though, shut him up, too. The light over the back porch stabbing through predawn darkness. The white Mustang purring in the drive. And the woman sitting behind the wheel.
He must still be sleeping after all, must be dreaming. But blinking didn't help. The image remained. He closed his eyes for a long moment and opened them again. Nope, she was still there.
Looking right at the lighted kitchen window. Right at him.
He stumbled back a pace.
"Easy, now." Warren might have been talking to a skittish colt. He pulled the forgotten carton of eggs from Gabe's hands. "Got it under control here, boss. I guess you got some business needs taking care of."
"Yeah, right." He glanced through the window again, gritted his teeth and set his jaw.
He had something to take care of, all right.
Throwing his ex-wife off his land.
Flexing his suddenly unsteady fingers, he crossed the kitchen to yank open the wooden back door. His heavy breath hit the cold morning air, spewing white mist in front of him like some smoke-and-fire-breathing dragon.
Feeling afire himself, he strode along the porch, down the steps and across the wide expanse of dirt between the house and the driveway, powered by three months of misery andworsethe poorly disguised pity of his men, his neighbors, his friends.
Seduced by a pretty face. Shamed by one, too, going from like to love in thirty-five seconds, with a quick detour for lust in between.
He should've stopped at that bend.
Then again, he should've known better than to hook up with her at all. He wasn't the kind of man who was good at loving a woman. Or having a woman love him. He'd lived with that knowledge for most of his life.
Marissa had made him forget it. For a very short time.
He moved down the driveway toward the Mustang, an easy target in the light streaming from the porch.
His anger raged but sanity ruled.
As he neared the car, he began to slow, struggling to calm himself, to uncurl his fingers, to take a deep breath. Memories of Marissa, their brief marriage, and her curt rejection had him riled.
But tough Texas cowboys didn't let emotions overtake them.
By the time he reached the Mustang, he managed to set his hands lightly on the frame above the open driver's window and crook his mouth up on one side.
"You needing directions somewhere?" Good. Lazy smile. Laid-back tone. Peaceable question. He'd done himself proud.
She couldn't seem to say a word. His body blocked the light from her face, making those huge hazel eyes he remembered so well look blue-black in the shadows.
Her lips parted a bit. Before he could stop himself, his gaze shot to her full, rosy mouth. It had been a long time since he'd had it under his.
That wasn't something he should be thinking.
In the dead silence, a horse neighed, maybe in warning.
Seeing her reach for the door handle, he backed up a few feet and crossed his arms over his chest.
She climbed from the car and stood in front of him, a petite bundle of woman barely reaching his chin. Her body looked shapeless beneath her bulky jacket. Didn't matter. His traitorous memory called to mind every feminine curve and hollow.
His mouth felt filled with prairie dust.
The harsh porch lighting washed out her delicate features and peachy complexion, but it couldn't hide her high cheekbones and firm chin. Couldn't fade the fawn-colored hair tumbling in waves around her shoulders. Those heavy strands had spilled around his shoulders, too, when she'd rested against his chest after they'd made love .
The thought toughened his resolve. She'd staked a claim on him once, then abandoned it. "What do you want, Marissa?"
"We need to talk."
"Nothing to talk about." Three months of misery. The thought drove him forward. "You're nothing to me anymore."
"I'm your wife."
"The hell you are. You left a note saying you'd have the marriage ended. Get it annulled. I sent you the papers, registered."
"I know you did. But I didn't."
"You're not making sense."
"And you're making me nervous." Worry lines creased her forehead. She clenched her hands in front of her, her fingers twisting like old rope.
Not thinking, he uncrossed his arms to reach out to her, then caught himself. What the hell was he doing? More important, what the hell was she trying to pull? He shouldn't have trusted her back then; he sure wouldn't trust her now. Clinging to what he knew, instead of reaching for what he had loved and lost, he nearly spit, "We're divorced."
"We're not. I'm sorry, Gabe. This isn't the way I'd planned to tell you. But the truth is, I never filed the paperwork. We're still married."
He shook his head to clear it. This conversation had doubled back faster than his best cow dog at roundup. "So I'll take care of the paperwork myself. No problem. You can just hop on back in your car and head out."
"It's not that easy."
"What do you mean?" His gut churned.
She looked toward the house. "Do you think we could go inside, where we could have a little privacy?"
"You want to be alone with me?"
Her gaze shot to his, then darted away.
"We're fine right here." He didn't want her setting foot in his house again. Didn't want her this close to him, even. He crossed his arms over his chest once more, readying himself for the next blow.
After a while, her eyes crept back to meet his. "This isn't the way I'd planned to tell you this, either, but."
His mind raced with scenarios, trying to figure out what more she could have done.
"What are you afraid of, Marissa? Nothing beats running out on me." He laughed, low and without humor, and added in a mocking tone, "What happened? You maxed out the credit card I gave you? Defaulted on a loan? Got arrested and used my name to make bail? It's all right. Whatever it is, I'll deal with it."
What was it?
The skin between his shoulder blades prickled, reminding him of the nearness of the kitchen window. He should have kept setting breakfast up in the bunkhouse kitchen, instead of bringing the boys to the main house. Then again, they'd provided him with a built-in excuse for not taking Marissa inside.
"I've got a ranch to run," he reminded her, "so why don't you say your piece and be on your way?"
Her deep breath sent a plume of white toward him. Her gaze skittered somewhere out past the barn. And her voice broke as she whispered words he had to bend closer to catch.
"We're having a baby."
What a mess she had gotten herself into.
Marissa eased into the kitchen. Gabe followed at her heels, closing the heavy door with a bang.
The men who sat around the long wooden trestle table jumped to their feet, chair legs screeching against linoleum, nearly drowning out their mumbled "Mornings" and "Ma'ams." They bobbed their heads and stared at her.
After giving them a brittle smile, she sank into the nearest vacant seat. The cowboys backed away as if she had some dreaded disease.
She glanced down at the table, then shuddered. The breakfast dishes, wiped clean, did her chef's heart good. But the plate at the other end of the table nearly did her in. The remains of sunny-side up eggs, runny yolk now congealing around a slice of cold toast, set off the queasiness she'd fought every morning for weeks.
Swallowing hard, she looked away.
The men had shifted their attention to Gabe. Reluctantly, she let hers wander there, as well.
She hadn't wanted to come here today. But her conscience had told her she must. She had to tell Gabe, face-to-face, about the baby. She wanted him aware, involved from the start. But she hadn't expected the sight of him to hit her so hard.
Her hands shook as she drank in the sight of the man she had never stopped wanting in all the months she'd been gone. The man she had conceived a child withas far as she could determinethe very first time they'd made love.
She had loved him then, or so she'd thought.
For the first time in her life, she had been with someone who listened to her and made her feel important. He had made her feel loved and cherished and wanted.
She'd never been loved by anyone before.
And, yet, she'd never been more wrong.
He had carried her over the threshold, bringing her into this house that had never been her home. Then he'd left her to her own devices, while he spent seemingly his every waking moment at work on the ranch. The abruptness of the change had stunned her. Worse, it had turned Gabe into someone she didn't know at all.
Now, he stood in the middle of the kitchen, focused on his men. Bands of early-morning light filtered through the slatted wooden blinds, streaking his brown hair and making his light-brown eyes shine.
His voice rumbled through the crowded room as he told the cowboys to get started on the day's chores without him. The men nodded farewell to her, plucked their hats from the rack by the door and left the room at a near run.
Only Gabe remained.
He turned to her, and her throat tightened.
He grabbed a kitchen chair, flipped it around and straddled it, resting his arms on its back only inches from her.
She shifted, forcing a laugh. "Well, that was a first. At least, in my experience. In the two weeks I lived here, you never let the cowboys go off without you."
"I own the ranch. I work it."
"Work " she repeated. "My point exactly. Work was your top priority." Her heart ached at the thought.
"Had to be. I've got bills owing, men who need paying. And, back then, I had a wife I needed to support." He shoved a breakfast plate aside, as if pushing his last comment away. Pushing her away. "Did you drive all night?"
"I stopped at a motel just a couple of hours away. I knew I would have to arrive before dawn to see you before you left the house for the day." She put a hand to her stomach, still taut and flat, showing no evidence at all of the life that grew within her.
"You're how far along?" he asked.
"About three and a half months."
He nodded and kept eyeing her. "And you're just getting around to telling me?"
"I didn't know myself until a couple of weeks ago."
His snort of derision radiated his disbelief. A chill ran through her. This wasn't going at all the way she had planned.
"It's true. I've always been irregular, so for the first couple of months I didn't even notice. But a few weeks ago, I started to wonder. A home-test kit confirmed what I suspected." She took a deep breath. "Gabe, you know there had to be a possibility of this happening." He raised a brow.
"No," she whispered, barely able to breathe. "You don't believe me."
"Never said so."
"You didn't have to." Fighting a wave of nausea, she planted her arms on the table.
He shook his head. "Guess I'll just have to take your word for it."
"Which is exactly what you're not doing now. How could you, Gabe? How could you think I would ever" She gave up. No sense wasting her breath. She gathered up her coat and stood. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
She'd almost made it to the back door when his voice stopped her.
"Running away again, Marissa?"