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By Kristin Gabriel
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGARRET LORD needed to find a place to hide. Fast. Caught between the corral and the old red barn, he could see the shiny blue Ford pickup truck rattling down the long gravel drive that led to his ranch house. The dual tires kicked up a plume of thick Texas dust that hovered in the fading twilight.
He only had a few precious seconds to take cover before he was spotted. He considered diving into the water trough by the corral, but he didn't think he could hold his breath for that long.
That left the barn.
He spun on the heel of his cowboy boot and bolted for the barn door, whipping it shut behind him just as he heard the sound of gravel crunching under the truck's tires. Hubert, his aspiring cow dog, began barking, alerting his master to the new arrival. But Garrett didn't have to worry about the little black schnauzer disclosing his hiding place. That dog was loyal through and through.
Too bad Garrett couldn't say the same about some of the people in his life.
He'd learned that lesson early. At two and a half years old, to be exact. When his mother had abandoned him and his younger sisters and brother. He couldn't even remember her. Not the color of her eyes, or her hair, or the sound of her laughter. When he was a young boy, he used to look for her on the streets and in department stores, certain he'd recognize his own mother when he saw her.
But it had never happened.
Now he was both older and wiser. He didn't indulge in childish fantasies anymore. It had taken him a while, long enough for another woman to rip away a little piece of his heart when she'd left him stranded at the altar seven years ago. She'd made a fool of him. But when the embarrassment had lasted longer than the heartache, he knew he'd gotten lucky. And he was smart enough not to make the same mistake twice.
Garrett always went with the odds, and love was definitely a long shot. Especially with his track record. Not to mention the astronomical divorce rate these days. Besides, he was more than content living alone. Working alone. Although he did treasure the time he spent with his sisters and brother. Time that was increasingly scarce now that Shelby, Lana and Michael had families of their own. As their older brother, he'd watched over the triplets for as long as he could remember. But they didn't need his protection anymore.
Now, if he could just find someone to protect him from man-hungry cowgirls.
He leaned toward the door, pressing one eye against a tiny crack in the wood. He could see the front porch and the young woman from the neighboring ranch who stood at the door. Venna held a large covered basket in one hand. No doubt another food offering to entice him into matrimony. Only food wasn't the way to Garrett's heart. Neither was her eclectic artwork. Last week she'd given him a painting of a clown to hang in his living room. He hated clowns.
As he slanted his head for a better view, Garrett suddenly realized that he'd been reduced to hiding from a woman. But it was that or endure Venna's incessant chatter until the wee hours of the morning again. She could talk almost as well as she could cook. And she was forever finding excuses to touch him.
She reminded him of a cat that had wandered onto his ranch a few years ago. Garrett was allergic to cats, so he'd avoided it as much as possible, leaving food and water in the barn, but keeping his distance. But the more he tried to keep away from it, the more the cat sought him out. Rubbing against his boots. Sleeping in his saddle. Leaving cat dander everywhere. When his sneezing and itchy, watery eyes had finally proven too much to bear, he'd foisted the overly affectionate feline on Megan Maitland. She'd always been good at taking in strays.
If only he could get rid of Venna as easily.
"Damn," he breathed as he watched her try the doorknob, then enter the house. He'd left the door unlocked and a light on in the living room, as well as a slow cooker full of beef stew simmering in the kitchen. All signs that might encourage her to wait for his return. Which meant he could be stuck in the barn for most of the evening.
He turned away from the door and strode down the center aisle of the barn. None of the six horses even gave him a glance, recognizing his familiar step. They stood in their wooden stalls, three on either side of the aisle, chewing contentedly on their evening ration of oats.
"At least the animals on this ranch get to eat," he muttered, his stomach rumbling. He climbed the plank ladder that led to the hayloft, figuring he might as well catch a few winks on a soft bed of straw while he waited. It beat staying awake and listening to his stomach growl.
The flutter of birds' wings and admonishing squawks greeted him. No doubt his presence disturbed some of the nesting barn swallows, who didn't like anyone invading their home.
He knew just how they felt.
"Hope you don't mind if I join you," he called to the birds as he reached the top of the ladder.
"Not at all."
Startled, Garrett lost his grip on the ladder and almost toppled off. When he regained his balance, he stared slack-jawed at the vision in front of him. Sitting atop a stack of golden straw was a bride.
He blinked and looked again. It was a bride, all right. He recognized all the warning signs - the white wedding dress, the gauzy fingertip veil, the white satin spiked heels on her dainty feet. Not to mention the lacy blue garter belt, revealed by the voluminous taffeta skirt bunched up around her thighs.
Before he could get a good look, she hastily pushed her skirt down, concealing the garter belt as well as a pair of long, slender legs.
For one brief moment, Garrett had an irrational impulse to shinny down the ladder and make a run for it. But run where? The house wasn't safe, and he'd be spotted out in the open. Besides, this was his ranch.
His barn. His hayloft. If anyone was leaving, it was the bride.
He climbed the last two rungs, then stepped onto the loft floor. Without giving the woman another glance, he sidled over to the dusty window and looked down at the driveway. The pickup was still there. Hubert was there, too, dutifully marking all the tires.
"You're probably wondering what I'm doing here," she said, breaking the long silence between them. Her voice was smooth and soft, like a warm, gentle breeze.
"I can guess." He clenched his jaw as he turned to face her. No doubt Shelby and Lana were to blame. His sisters had been hinting that his place needed a woman's touch ever since his housekeeper had retired. They'd brought up the subject again during Christmas dinner last week, even offering to play matchmaker for him.
Excerpted from Fugitive Fiancée by Kristin Gabriel Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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