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Never in her twenty-five years had Arden Cade done anything so rash. What was I thinking? Although she usually woke in gradual, disoriented stages, this morning she was instantly alert, hoping to discover the previous night had been a dreama vivid, thoroughly sensual dream.
But there was no disputing the muscular arm across her midsection or the lingering satisfaction in her body.
Physically, she was more relaxed than she'd been in nearly a year, her loose limbs at odds with her racing thoughts. Her first impulse was to bolt from the bed, putting distance between herself and the still-sleeping cowboy. She hesitated, not wanting to wake Garrett before she'd had a chance to gather her composure. Besides, his body heat and the steady rumble of his breathing were soothing. Beckoning. It was so tempting to snuggle closer beneath the sheets and
Don't you learn?
Cuddling into his heat was what had landed her in this situation. But she'd been cold for so long. She'd needed to feel something other than suffocating grief. If only yesterday hadn't been the ninth of March . What the hell had made her think scheduling a photography job would keep her too busy to mourn?
Memories of the night before flooded herthe despair that had gaped like a chasm, the encounter with a charming stranger, the reckless bliss she'd found in his arms.
"If you don't mind my saying so, ma'am, people usually look happier at wedding receptions." The man's teasing tone was deep and rich, unexpectedly warming her.
She had to tilt her head to meet his clear gray eyes. Knowing her clients deserved better than a photographer who depressed the guests, she struggled for a light tone as she gestured toward the crowded dance floor. "I was feeling sorry for myself because I'm not out there," she lied. "I love to dance."
A slow grin stole over his face, making him even more attractive. As the younger sister of two ridiculously good-looking brothers, Arden didn't impress easily, but this man made her pulse quicken.
"I'd be happy to oblige," he offered. "I realize you're working, but I have some pull with the groom. Hugh was my best friend in high school."
His casual words pierced her. Arden had kept the same best friend from preschool into adulthood, rejoicing three and a half years ago when the sister of her heart married Arden's oldest brother and became her sister-in-law. This was the first March 9Natalie's birthdaysince the car accident that had killed Natalie and her toddler son, the first March 9 in over two decades Arden hadn't spent with her friend.
"Rain check," she 'd managed to respond, abandoning the stranger to snap shots of the twirling flower girl.
After the reception ended, Arden should have gone home, but facing her dark, empty apartment seemed unbearable. She packed her equipment, then sat in the hotel bar while ice melted in her untouched whiskey. Time passed with excruciating slowness.
Then Garrett Frost walked in, his earlier suit replaced with a casual button-down shirt and a pair of dark jeans that somehow made him even more devas-tatingly handsome.
"I'd offer to buy you a drink, but " He raised one jet-black eyebrow at the liquor she was clearly ignoring.
"Guess I wasn't thirsty, after all."
Their gazes locked, and she wished she had a camera in hand to capture his mesmerizing eyes. He's beautiful. Sculpted cheekbones, full mouth
"If you 're gonna look at me like that," he 'd drawled softly, " it's only fair you tell me your name."
"Arden. Arden Cade."
He extended his hand. "You still want that dance, Arden Cade?"
She'd accepted. Sometimes what a woman needed most in the world was to be held..
"Mornin'." Tinged with sleep, Garrett's voice now was every bit as compelling as it had been last nightwhen he'd breathed her name as he slid into her.
Arden! Focus! Last night's impulsiveness was one thing. She'd been emotionally raw, had needed to feel alive in some primal way. But she couldn't rationalize a repeat performance. She'd had only two sexual partners before, and they'd both been serious boyfriends.
She scrambled for the edge of the bed, trying to secure the sheet around her as she moved. "Yes, it is. Morning, I mean. Time for me to go."
"Don't hurry on my account." He lay back on his pillow, grinning at her in utter contentment. His appeal was more than physical good looks. She was drawn to his easy confidence, how comfortable he seemed in his own skin.
"Checkout's not 'til noon," he continued. "Thought I might order us an obscenely large breakfast from room service. I'm starvin'."
So was she, Arden realized. After months of being numb, of having no appetite whatsoever, the hunger felt both foreign and exhilarating. "I could eat," she blurted.
"Good. I'm gonna hop in the shower, then we can look at the menu. I'll only be a minute. Unless you want to join me?" He gave her another of those lazy smiles that left her dizzy. Garrett made love the way he smiled. Completely and thoroughly, in seemingly no rush.
"N-no." She ducked her head so that her long dark hair curtained her face. It was probably bad manners to look appalled at the thought of being naked with a man who had rocked your world mere hours ago. "I'll, uh, wait."
He sauntered across the room nude, and Arden resisted the urge to sneak a final glance. Not that her resistance held for long. He was male perfection.
And he'd been exactly what she'd needed last night. As unplanned and perhaps unwise as her actions had been, she had to admit she felt. .lighter. She could almost hear Natalie's mischievous voice in her head. Damn, girl, you really know how to celebrate a birthday.
Arden squeezed her eyes shut. I miss you, Nat. That ache might never go away, but it was time Arden stopped letting it drag her down like a malevolent anchor. Natalie would have hated how listless she'd become.
The sound of the shower in the adjoining bathroom pulled Arden from her reverie. Garrett had claimed he'd be back in a minute. What was she going to say to him? All she really knew about him was that his family owned a cattle ranch several hours south of Cielo Peak and that he'd come to town for the Connors' wedding. She didn't know how to be glib about what they'd shared, and she didn't want to burden him with a heavy emotional explanation about the losses she and her brothers had endured. Wouldn't the simplest solution be to leave now, without an awkward goodbye?
She zipped her wrinkled dress, trying not to think about how she'd look to anyone she passed in the lobby. Cielo Peak attracted plenty of tourists, especially during the Colorado ski season, but there were fewer than fifteen hundred year-round citizens. The Cades were well known in the community; gossip about Arden hooking up with a guest at an event she covered would not enhance her professional reputation.
Her hand was already on the door when she stopped abruptly, recalling how Garrett had touched her the night before, his maddening tenderness. He'd made her nearly mindless with desire, and it had been the first time in months the pain had receded. Among her many conflicted feelings this morning was gratitude. He would never truly understand how much he'd given her, but she didn't want him to think she regretted being with him.
She grabbed the pen and notepad that bore the hotel logo and scribbled a quick note. It wasn't much, but it helped ease her conscience.
Garrett, thank you for last night. It was.
A barrage of words filled her mind, none of them adequate. Suddenly, the water stopped in the bathroom. Adrenaline coursed through her. She crossed out the last two words and wrote simply I'll never forget you.
Six months later
Justin Cade shuddered at the brochures on the kitchen table. "I will paint nursery walls, I will assemble the crib, I might be wheedled into a few hours of babysitting once the peanut is born, but no way in hell am I attending birth classes with you." Then he flashed his trademark grin, a mischievous gleam in his blue-green eyes. "Unless you think there will be a lot of single women attending?"
Arden ignored the question. He'd already proven he wasn't comfortable dating a single mom. Justin, the middle Cade sibling, had raised casual dating to an art form and steered clear of women with complicated lives. The ski patrolman didn't like being stuck in a relationship any more than he liked being stuck indoors.
Thank God he's a more dependable brother than he is a boyfriend. "I didn't pull out the brochures to show you, dummy. I'm going to ask Layla to be my labor coach. She's coming over for dinner in a couple of hours."
Back in June, when the "first trimester" nausea Arden had thought would disappear actually intensified, she'd hired a temporary assistant to keep up with the administrative side of the studio. High school Spanish teacher Layla Green had been happy to make some extra money over the summer. The women's friendship continued to grow even though Layla had quit to prepare for the new school year.
"Layla, huh?" Justin crossed the small kitchen to pour another glass of iced tea. He frequently joked that the desert theme of her red-and-yellow kitchen made him extra thirsty. "She's good people. Cute, too."
"Hey! We've talked about this. You are not allowed to date my friends. Your one-hit-wonder approach to relationships would make things awkward for everyone. I was even a bit nervous when Natalie.. " She trailed off, the memories bittersweet.
The sharp sting of missing her best friend had lessened over time. As Arden progressed through the trimesters, she found herself thinking of Natalie as a kind of guardian angel for her and the unborn baby. After losing so many loved ones in her life, it seemed cosmi-cally fitting that Arden had conceived on Nat's birthday.
"You wondered if it would hurt your friendship when Natalie and Colin first started dating?" Justin asked. "To be honest, I thought the age difference would be a problem, that they wouldn't have enough in common for it to be long-lasting. But she made him damn happy."
While Arden was finally healing after the deaths of her sister-in-law and young nephew, Colin had withdrawn further. Not only had he taken a sabbatical from his job as a large-animal vet, but he'd also recently announced that he was putting his house up for sale.
She leaned an elbow on the table, propping her chin on her fist. "I'm really worried about him."
"Colin will be okay." But the way Justin avoided her gaze proved he was equally concerned. "He's always okay. He's the one who holds us together."
Their mother had died the winter Arden was in kindergarten, their father a few years later. Although a maiden aunt had come to live with them, it had been Colin who had essentially raised his younger brother and sister. He'd been so strong. But this most recent shattering lossburying his wife and child? It seemed as if something inside him had broken beyond repair.
Justin dropped down next to Arden's chair, squeezing her shoulder. "He will be okay. Maybe selling the house will help him let go, give him a chance to move forward with his life."
Arden placed her hands over her distended abdomen. "Do you think this makes it harder, my having a baby? I'm sure it reminds him of Danny." Her voice caught on her nephew's name. He'd been a wide-eyed, soft-spoken toddler with an unexpectedly raucous belly laugh. His deep laugh had caused double takes in public, usually eliciting chuckles in response.
"If you're happy about Peanut, then we are happy for you," Justin said firmly. "But if you want to offer Colin some kind of distraction, I'm sure he'd be eager to track down the jerk who knocked you"
"The jerk responsible for your being in a blessed family way."
"He wasn't a jerk. He was " A gift. Even after six months, she vividly recalled Garrett's ability to make her temporarily forget everything else in the world, the power of his touch.
Justin recoiled with a grimace. "Seeing that look on my little sister's face is disturbing as hell. You sure you won't tell us who he is so we can punch his lights out?"
"He doesn't live anywhere near here." Thank God. Most of the locals hadn't been brazen enough to ask outright who the father was, but the mystery had caused whispers behind her back. Some of the teachers in the district had begged Layla for information, but Ardenwho'd shared only the vaguest detailshad sworn her to secrecy. The first time Arden had encountered Hugh Connor in town after her pregnancy began to show, she'd held her breath, wondering if Garrett had ever mentioned their night together to his friend. But Hugh had merely asked for a business card because he planned to recommend her to a business colleague looking for a good photographer.
Meanwhile, Garrett lived in a different region of the state, on a ranch he'd told her had been in his family for generations. He had deep roots there. Maybe even a girlfriend by now. Arden didn't plan to repay the kindness he'd done her by upending his existence. They'd used birth control during their night together, and the news that it had failed would most likely be an unwelcome shock.
It had taken her weeks to process the news that she was expecting, but she knew firsthand that life was precious. She chose to see conceiving this baby as a miracle. Her miracle.