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Expecting Brand's Baby
By Emilie Rose
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe'd save the ranch tonight - even if she had to do it flat on her back.
Toni Swenson chewed her lip and studied the stream of people wearing jeans and cowboy hats flowing toward the National Finals Rodeo. Somewhere inside the arena there had to be a man with the kind of genes she needed. Genes, which would contribute the love of horses, cattle, and open spaces to her son.
And it had better be a son, she thought, wiping her brow. Toni herded along with the rest of the crowd. She swallowed to ease her dry mouth and wiped her damp palms on her jeans. Her heartbeat thundered like a stampede, nearly deafening her. Glancing wistfully back toward the exit, she took a shuddery breath, trying to pull oxygen past the invisible lariat tightening around her neck. Familiar scents and sounds surrounded her: barbecue and nachos, dirt and livestock. A combination unique to the rodeo.
Memories of happier times with her grandfather rushed at her and pulled her forward when her feet wanted to drag. Why had he died? The ache in her heart increased. And why had he felt the need to put this metaphorical gun to her head and force her to do something totally against her moral beliefs? He, more than anyone, knew why she didn't trust men.
Sliding into herhard-backed aisle seat, Toni wiped her eyes and wondered how she could have stayed away from the sport of rodeo so long. Vet school had been difficult, but surely if she'd tried harder she could have found the time to attend a rodeo or two with her grandfather. Year after year her grandfather had brought her here, put her in her seat and ordered her not to move. A bitter smile twisted her lips. She'd rarely obeyed that directive. Once he'd disappeared toward the chutes, Toni had followed, staying out of his line of vision.
Cowboys and livestock fascinated her. Always had. Tonight, a rootless cowboy who carelessly used and discarded women was exactly what she had to find. It wasn't as if she had a choice.
A whiskey-rough voice drew her gaze to a pair of cowboys coming down the aisle. "Remember the basics. Shoulders square. Free hand in front of you. Run like hell when you hit the ground. You'll do fine."
The dark-haired one with the bedroom voice slapped the younger man on the back. Thick muscles shifted in his forearm. Toni shivered. Arms like that could do serious damage in a fit of rage. He paused in the aisle beside her, waiting while his companion spoke to someone in the stands.
Black leather chaps framed the best backside Toni'd ever laid eyes on. She could scarcely miss the firm glutes and lean thighs parked just inches from the tip of her nose. All those tight muscles were wrapped in denim so snug he might burst a seam riding tonight. And he would ride. The number between his broad shoulders marked him as a competitor. The intensity of his voice labeled him as the winner even before the contest began.
He turned, allowing someone to pass. Toni sat back and shifted her gaze upward. It was either that or look at ... something a lady shouldn't stare at. Of course, a lady wouldn't be planning the kind of encounter she had in mind for tonight, either. But if she wanted to hold on to the ranch she'd forget her principles.
The cowboy's gaze brushed over the crowd, landing on her with the force of a hoof in the stomach. She couldn't breathe and wondered if she'd pass out before he looked away. Those dark eyes beneath the brim of his black hat made her heart misbehave and her midsection flutter. His lean face could've jumped straight out of her fantasies. Sharp angles, square jaw, and high cheekbones. This was a devil of a good-looking cowboy. A man in control. Definitely not what she'd come for tonight.
She broke eye contact and looked past him toward his young, blue-eyed companion. Now, that was the kind of guy she needed. Someone carefree and careless, whose happy-go-lucky manner was as apparent as the dark cowboy's take-charge attitude.
The blonde glanced her way. Toni forced her lips into what she hoped was a come-hither smile and fought the nervous urge to puke into her popcorn box. Blushing furiously, the young man turned away. Toni frowned and peeked at the dark cowboy. He'd witnessed her strikeout and was scowling at her. Heat flooded her cheeks. She'd bet Tall, Dark and Gorgeous had never struck out. Charisma oozed from his pores. No doubt he knew it.
Toni studied the scuffed toes of her boots and pulled in a deep breath. Remember what's at stake. Remember the mission. The ranch meant too much to her to back down now. She set her jaw, thrust her shoulders back. She stood, intent on introducing herself to the younger man, but the black-haired devil had already hustled her quarry down the aisle toward the stairs.
With an admiring look at his retreating derriere, she shook her head. No man should look that good. It wasn't fair to the female population - especially the ones like her, who wanted someone easier to handle. Toni gritted her teeth and followed. She couldn't - wouldn't - chicken out tonight. Looks weren't the only things passed along on the DNA. She needed cowboy genes.
A rueful smile twisted Brand's lips. He adjusted the brim of his hat. Brandon Lander, you're getting too old for this business. That li'l buckle bunny had barely spared him one glance from her baby blues. She'd been too busy flirting with Bobby Lee. Hell, Bobby was barely nineteen, still a virgin, and planning to stay that way until he married his high-school sweetheart after Christmas. He wouldn't know what to do with a woman like her.
Glancing over his shoulder as he turned toward the chutes, he spotted the blonde tailing 'em. Looked like she had designs on the kid's virtue. Least he could do was help the kid resist temptation. He gave Bobby Lee a shove. "Hustle up. You'll be late. I'll be along directly. I don't ride for a while yet."
Wiping the smile from his face, he turned to confront the woman who seemed determined to lead a young man down the road to hell. With all those curves, it'd be a scenic trip. She was a tiny one, probably weighed little more than a good saddle. She looked fragile, the type some men would want to coddle and protect. But not him.
Fat, buttery curls floated over her shoulders to the tips of her breasts, framing an angelic face. Skin as smooth as the magnolia blossoms growing beside the front porch back home made his fingers itch to touch. No doubt her mouth would've looked like a rosebud if she hadn't mashed it into such a determined line. It irked Brand more than a little that her huge blue eyes looked straight past him and locked on Bobby Lee's back.
The fierce concentration on her features surprised him. She looked like a woman on a quest. He'd seen the same intense expression on many a bull rider just before they left the chute to face a ride that could mean life or death. But what kind of quest would lead a pixie like her behind the chutes? Determined to find out he stepped into her path and tipped his hat.
"Hello, li'l lady. Where you headed?" If her scowl was any gauge, Brand figured she didn't like being called little.
"Excuse me." She tried to step around him, but he widened his stance and looped his thumbs in his belt. She glanced briefly at his World Championship belt buckle. It didn't seem to impress her. She stepped right and Brand sidled left, blocking her. She moved again, and he countered like a good cutting horse.
"I need to pass." Those rosy lips pinched tighter and her face flushed. She gave her curls a toss. "Move, cowboy."
"Can't let you back there, darlin'. Bull riders only." Damn, she was pretty. He took a minute to savor her sweetly curved form, working his way from her tapping toes to the sparks shooting from her eyes. There'd been a time when he'd let himself be distracted by a morsel like her, but not anymore. Her kind spelled trouble. In capital letters.
"Then there are a few riders not listed in my program."
"Aw, darlin', those are just wives and girlfriends. You with one of the fellas?" She wasn't. Bull riders were a close-knit group, and if she'd belonged to any one of his buddies, they'd have been braying like a jackass, wanting everybody to know.
Excerpted from Expecting Brand's Baby by Emilie Rose Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.