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The woman was pregnant!
Liam Donovan stopped in his tracks and stared down the long shed row. Between him and Kitty Cartwright a hot walker led a sweaty black thoroughbred toward an open doorway, a jockey's valet carrying a saddle and tack hurried past, while a nearby horse hung his head over a gate and nickered loudly. Shafts of sunlight illuminated dust particles and bits of hay dancing through the air, and behind him a worker sang along to a nearby radio. Yet none of those things distracted Liam's focus away from Kitty. Even at a distance, the silhouette of her rounded tummy was very evident and the sight stunned him.
When had this happened? Like a tornado sweeping over the plains, the question roared through his head. Three months ago, when he'd attended her father's funeral in El Paso, she'd appeared as slim as ever. And though they'd only exchanged a few words as he'd offered his condolences, she'd said nothing to even hint at her condition.
But then why would she? The fact that Kitty was having a baby was none of his business. Or was it? He'd only been in her bed that one time. And that had been at least five or six months ago. The bump of her belly didn't look that far along, did it? Besides, if he was the father she would've surely contacted him before now.
As Kitty stood near a stall door, talking with a young man he knew to be an assistant trainer for Desert End, Liam continued to stare. Since he'd only landed in Los Angeles yesterday, Liam hadn't yet learned whether Kitty or the Cartwrights' entourage of horses would be stabled at Hollywood Park Racetrack for the spring/summer meet. He'd heard talk through the racing grapevine that she would be coming, filling the position of head trainer for Desert End Stables; a position that had been held by her father, the late, great Willard Cartwright for forty years. But Liam had tried to ignore the information and tell himself that it didn't matter if or when he might be seeing Kitty again. Now the rapid beat of his heart proved just how much he'd been lying to himself.
Inside the pockets of his jean jacket, his hands curled into loose fists as his gaze took in the lovely tanned oval of her face, the long blond hair spilling down her black sweater, the faded denim hugging her hips and thighs. When he'd first met her seven years ago, she'd been an awkward teenager with a fanatic love for horses. But sometime between then and now, she'd turned into a woman. And now she was carrying a baby. But whose? Could it possibly be his? The question whammed him between the eyes like a sledgehammer driving a steel spike, leaving him feeling dazed and queasy.
"Liam, I'm feeling uneasy about this ankle. I'd like for you to take a look."
The request came from Clint, one of the Diamond D grooms who'd accompanied the Donovan horses to California. Even though the young man was at least ten years younger than Liam's thirty-five, he'd been working for the Donovans since he was twelve years old and since then he'd grown into a competent horseman that Liam could trust implicitly. If he was concerned about a horse's condition, then Liam was concerned, too.
Forcing his eyes away from Kitty, Liam opened the half gate and stepped inside the cinderblock stall, where Clint was standing next to a big red thoroughbred named Reckless Rendezvous.
Normally, nothing distracted Liam from his job. But seeing Kitty againand pregnant at thatwas wrecking his ability to focus. As he knelt next to the right front foot of the horse, Liam tried to clear his mind while he carefully ran his hands over the ankle, fetlock and up the cannon bone. "Nothing feels warm," Liam announced. "And I don't feel anything amiss. Have you noticed any change in his gait?"
Clint said, "Yesterday, when we unloaded him from the plane, I thought he was a bit gimpy. But he could have just been stiff from the long ride. Or it could have just been my imagination. But I'd rather be safe than sorry, so I wanted you to have a look."
Rising to his full height, Liam slapped a comforting hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I don't think there's anything wrong. But we'll get it x-rayed anyway."
"His workout is scheduled for tomorrow morning at seven," Clint reminded him.
"I'll go over to the equine hospital in a few minutes and see about getting the X-ray," Liam promised. "Right now I want to know if you and Andy have settled in and have everything you need."
Clint and Andy, the other groom who had accompanied them on this three-and-half-month stay in California, would be living in small quarters located next to the horses' stalls. The beds were merely adequate and space for more than the bare necessities limited. Liam understood how much the men and his two female hot walkers, who would be housed in another area of the barn, sacrificed in order to do their jobs. That's why the Diamond D paid them handsomely and Liam made sure they had every possible convenience he could give them.
"Sure, Liam. Don't worry about any of us. We're all just excited to be here."
Down through the years, Liam had made a habit of shipping five or six of his better runners to Hollywood Park Racetrack for the spring/summer racing meet. During the three month period, he would fly in and out as each respective race date grew near, while allowing his assistant to remain in California to handle the daily training chores. But Clete, his longtime and very trusted assistant, had passed away a little more than three years ago and Liam still couldn't find it in his heart to even attempt to replace him. The loss had forced Liam to take on more of a workload and change the routine of his plans and schedules.
This year he'd decided to bring his best to the West Coast and personally stay for the entire duration of the meet; unless some unforeseen emergency called him back to the Diamond D. Now, after seeing Kitty in this condition, he wondered if he'd made a huge mistake. Not that he'd come here to have some sort of steady relationship with her. No. They were friends, not lovers. They'd only been together that one time because he'd unexpectedly run into Kitty and her father while visiting Lone Star Park Racetrack in north Texas. The three of them had eaten dinner together, but before the meal was over Will had been called away on business. Liam had remained with Kitty and the two of them had lingered over a bottle of wine. Maybe a little too much wine. Eventually, Liam had offered to walk her back to her Dallas hotel room and once they'd gotten there, one thing had led to another.
Later that night, before he'd left her hotel room, she'd explained that she wasn't ready for any sort of serious relationship with him and that she hoped they could simply go on being friends instead of lovers. Even though Liam hadn't been looking for anything permanent with the woman, his ego had been a bit stung by her attitude. And the idea that she hadn't enjoyed their passionate union enough to want a repeat had been enough to jerk his feet back to solid earth. That same night he'd assured her that nothing had really changed and as far as he was concerned they'd remain friends and nothing more.
The next day he'd flown to Remington Park at Oklahoma City to deal with a runner he'd entered in a Derby and then he'd headed home to New Mexico and done his best to push the woman from his mind. Two months passed without seeing or talking with her. And then the news of Willard's death had stunned the racing world and he'd traveled to El Paso to attend the man's funeral and offer Kitty his condolences.
Since then, he'd continued to fight with the memory of that night they'd recklessly fallen into each other's arms. He'd been telling himself to put it all behind him and move on. She had her life and he had his. And his didn't include having a hot affair with a fellow horse trainer. He wasn't the affair type. Nor was he the marrying type.
And she'd made it clear to him that she wasn't interested in those things, either.
But the memory of making love to Kitty had somehow been burned into his brain and returned to haunt him at moments when he least expected it. And he'd wondered if she ever thought of him and that night, ever longed for him. But now, seeing her belly filled with child, he could only wonder who'd taken his place in her bed. Had she fallen in love? Was she planning to marry?
How do you know some other man has moved into her life? Do you know for certain that the baby isn't yours, Liam? You made love to the woman. And, yeah, she told you she was using birth control, but you're a smart enough guy to know that nothing is one hundred percent effective.
Shutting his ears to the voice going off in his head, Liam dropped his hand from Clint's shoulder and turned his attention back to Reckless. He didn't want to consider that there was a reasonable chance the baby might be his. The idea was too terrifying. He repressed the memories and spoke to Clint.
"If everything checks out okay," he said to the groom, "I want you to have Liv hand walk him in the barn area for about thirty minutes."
"Right. I'll make sure," Clint assured him.
Liam gave him a few more instructions concerning the remaining horses then left the stall in a purposeful stride.
A quick glance to his right revealed that Kitty was still standing in the same area he'd spotted her in a few moments ago. This time she was speaking to a woman who appeared to be a barn worker. Were Kitty's horses also stalled in barn 59? Hell, any other time he would have been happy to share a training barn with the woman. And he'd promised her that they would remain friends. But seeing her pregnant had done something to him. His feelings were being yanked in all different directions.
He was trying to decide whether to go greet her or beat a hasty retreat to his office, when she happened to glance his way. Recognition instantly hit her face and she stared for a few brief seconds before turning her attention back to the barn worker.
If she'd given him a smile, a tiny wave, signaled him with some sort of acknowledgment, he would have gone on to his office and waited for a quieter moment to say hello to her. But her blatant dismissal caught him by surprise and sent him striding down the shed row until he reached her.
"I'll get right on it, Miss Cartwright," the barn worker was saying as Liam walked up to Kitty's left shoulder. "Just let me know if you need anything."
"Thanks, Gina. I appreciate you. Please remember that."
As the tall, huskily built woman turned and hurried away, she nodded a passing greeting to Liam. Once she was out of earshot, Kitty turned and looked up at him.
Even though there was a faint smile on her soft lips, he could see shadows in her blue eyes and he wondered if grief over losing her father had put them there or something else. Either way, the faint sadness in her gaze didn't diminish her beauty. It struck him hard and jerked him right back to that night when their lips had met and he'd driven himself deep inside her.
"Kitty," he greeted as he tried to stem the erotic memories. "How are you?"
Her smile wavered, but only for a brief moment. "I'm good. Very excited to be back at Hollywood Park. What about yourself?"
She was making an attempt to be cordial, but he couldn't miss the impersonal tone in her voice. He'd not really known what to expect when they met again, away from the crowd of mourners at her father's funeral. In all of his imaginings, it hadn't been like this. Kitty had always been a soft, caring person, a woman who never said a cross word to anything or anyone. With him, she'd always been warm, open and straightforward. He wasn't feeling that now. She was holding back a part of herself and that troubled him. Even hurt him.
"I got here yesterday with the rest of my crew," he told her. "We're just now getting the horses and ourselves settled."
She nodded stiffly. "I wasn't aware until this morning that we'd be sharing the same barn. Did you bring many horses this time?"
"Twenty," he answered. There were eighteen training barns and enough stalls to house nearly two thousand horses on the track, he thought, and somehow he and Kitty had managed to wind up in the same facility. At this moment, Liam couldn't decide whether that was a stroke of misfortune or a piece of good luck.