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The woman was definitely pregnant, Jonas Redman decided, and from the looks of her she could go into labor any day! Quint had told him that his sister, Alexa, was a young, single woman and that she was expecting. But the man hadn't mentioned that the baby would be arriving so soon.
Jonas's initial reaction was to turn tail and head straight back to Texas. Unfortunately, he wasn't in a position to leave the Chaparral. The desert mountain ranch was going to be his home for as long as it took to complete the job. A job that had nothing to do with raising cattle and horses.
In a steady gait, he walked across the lawn to intercept her. "Ms. Cantrell?" he called out as she neared the front steps of the huge hacienda-style house. "Could I speak with you for a minute?"
Pausing on the neatly clipped grass, Alexa Cantrell turned toward the voice and watched with faint surprise as a tall man, wearing faded denim and a black cowboy hat, approached her. Normally, the working hands on the Chaparral Ranch didn't need to come by the house. But then, she'd not been living here for the past five years, so maybe things had changed.
Or maybe this wasn't an ordinary ranch hand, Alexa thought, as he came to a stop a few steps away. He certainly didn't look ordinary. He was tall and lean, with sun-browned skin, wide, strong shoulders and authority stamped all over his rugged features. The brim of his hat shaded his eyes, but she could see a pair of thick brown brows and sun lines fanning from the corners. Sandy-brown hair lay in unruly waves about his ears and the back of his neck.
"Yes. May I help you with something?" she asked politely.
Moving forward, he extended his hand to her. "I'm Jonas Redman, the ranch's new general manager. I happened to see you waving your mother off a moment ago and thought I'd take the opportunity to introduce myself."
So this was the man taking her brother's place, Alexa thought. She clasped her hand around his and was instantly aware of rough, callused skin and warmth that radiated right through her palm.
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Redman. Quint has spoken of you. He warned me that you'd be coming around if you ran into trouble."
His eyes, which she could now see were a hazel green, narrowed a fraction more.
"Warned you? Sounds like he's already expecting me to fall short."
Alexa laughed softly. "I'm sorry. I guess I chose the wrong word. He only told me that you'd be coming to me if there was a decision you weren't comfortable making on your own. Does that sound better?"
A corner of his chiseled mouth turned slightly upward, and Alexa was shocked to find herself mesmerized by his features. Somewhere between thirty-five and forty, he was not a pretty boy. In fact, his appearance couldn't have been more opposite to that of the father of the baby growing inside her. Jonas Redman was the epitome of toughness. A man with muscles honed from working with his back and hands, a man who often lifted his face to the sun and wiped sweat from his brow.
Her comment eased the tense lines on his face. "Yes. That'll do fine, ma'am."
His voice was low and raspy, with a twang that told Alexa he wasn't a New Mexican native. Interest about the man sparked within, shocking her with its appearance. She hadn't looked twice at a man sincewell, since Barry had charmed his way into her life.
Gesturing toward the porch, she said, "Would you like to have a cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade? Mother and I just had something before she left."
He glanced over his shoulder, toward a portion of the working ranch yard. Even though the nearest barn was more than a hundred yards away, the few trees scattered between didn't block the view.
"I suppose I could take five minutes," he said. "It doesn't appear the men have arrived back from the west pasture yet."
Nodding, she started toward the house, and he fell into step beside her.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she questioned as they climbed the two wide steps to the porch.
"Texas, ma'am. I used to live near San Antonio. But I decided to migrate west."
"Oh? You didn't like it there?"
"I must have liked it," he answered. "Up until three weeks ago I'd always lived in Texas. But I guess I got the itch to see something new."
By now they were on the long, concrete porch connected to a huge, cream-colored stucco house trimmed with dark wooden shutters and doors. Above their heads, a balcony served as a roof for the porch and a sunning spot for the rooms on the second floor of the structure.
Three weeks ago, when Jonas had first arrived, Quint had given him a brief tour of the house. The structure was big enough for a simple man like him to get lost in. Which was probably good, since it looked as though he was going to have to spend time in it with this woman.
"Well, I hope you like it here," the young woman said. "Our grandfather has Quint so tied up developing land near Capitan that he hardly has time to telephone. I know my brother is very relieved to have you taking care of things now that he's working on other projects."
"Your brother is an easy man to please."
She gestured for him to take a seat on one of the willow chairs grouped together at the east end of the porch. Jonas waited for her to ease onto one of the padded cushions before he seated himself. In front of her was a low table with a tray holding glasses, cups and two insulated thermoses.
Leaning forward, she asked, "Coffee or lemonade?"
"The coffee would be nice."
He watched as she poured the hot brown liquid into a bright yellow mug. Her hands were long and slender, as were her arms and legs. Even with her very pregnant belly, Quint could see that normally she was a shapely woman. As for her facial features, she looked nothing like her brother. In fact, she didn't resemble any woman he'd seen before. Her face was square shaped, her mouth wide. Eyes the color of a robin's egg were set beneath a pair of winged black brows. Prominent cheekbones slanted upward toward her temples, giving her a regal, almost exotic appearance. In spite of himself, he felt his gaze drawn to her comely face.
"Cream or sugar?"
Jonas released a breath of air that had backed up in his throat. "No. Black is good."
She handed him the mug and he murmured his thanks.
"So how are you settling in?" she asked. "Having any problems with the men?"
Jonas swallowed a sip of coffee before he answered. "No problems. I've had a bit of time to get to know all the hands, and they all seem to be well acquainted with their jobs. Quint tells me that most of them have worked here for years."
"That's right," she agreed. "We don't have much of a turnover. We try to keep the men's salaries and benefits comparable to others in the area, and thankfully, most of them are content to stay."
When Jonas had first approached Alexa Cantrell, he'd not intended for the meeting to turn into a friendly visit. He was on a mission, and normally it was his style to keep things on a business track. But this was a time when he couldn't behave in his normal fashion. If he did, it would only raise this woman's eyebrows, and the less he did that, the better off they'd all be.
Resting his mug on his knee, he darted a glance at her. She was a young and lovely woman. Why wasn't there a wedding band on her finger? A man at her side, eager and waiting to become a father?
Maybe there is, Jonas. Maybe Alexa Cantrell is one of those progressive women who doesn't necessarily want a traditional family. Maybe the baby's father is still hanging close. Still her lover.
Clearing his throat, he said, "I hear Mrs. Cantrell is going to be gone for nearly a month."
"That's right. She just left to catch her plane. She's visiting my half brothers in South Texas."
Jonas forced himself to take another sip of coffee, as though he was enjoying the break, as though every nerve in his body wasn't wound as tight as a cornered mustang.
"So that leaves you alone in the house."
Her brow puckered with confusion and Jonas felt like kicking himself. He was going at this all wrong. But then, he'd never been known for finesse. When there was a job to be done he jumped in with both feet. With a fight to be fought, he leaped in with two fists.
"I don't mean to sound rude, Mr. Redman, but what are you asking?"
"Uhseems your brother has asked me to look out for you while your mother is away. He wants me to move into the house with you."
She didn't try to hide her shock as she stared at him. "What? Is this some sort of joke?"
Jonas wished it were. He had too much on his mind, too much to do in a short time without having to deal with a pregnant woman. But Quint had been understanding enough to permit him to take over the position of general manager of the Chaparral. And being on this huge ranch allowed him access to information he would otherwise have to spend days digging for.
"I'm sorry. This is not anything to joke about. Your brother was concerned about your safety. I promised him I would remain in the house at nightjust to alleviate his fears."
She drew her shoulders back and at the same time rested a hand on the upper part of her belly. Jonas couldn't help but wonder if she'd already been told the sex of the baby.
And when was it due? He didn't know much at all about expecting women, but this one didn't look that far away from giving birth, and that left him a little more than uneasy.
"I'm sorry, too. Because my brother doesn't run my life. I do. And I hardly need a night nurse."
Jonas couldn't stop a wry smile from twisting his lips. "Maybe you'd better take another look at me, Ms. Cantrell. I'm about as far away from a nurse as you can get."
Her square jaw tightened further, and Jonas got the impression that if pushed, she could be more than stubborn.
"All right," she said curtly. "Let me phrase it this way. I don't need a bodyguard."
"I wouldn't label me one of those either. I'm just a cowboy. And your brother is simply concerned."
She breathed deeply, and Jonas watched her nostrils flare like those of a mare getting ready to kick with both hind feet.
"Overly so, it seems. And for your information, Sassy, our maid lives in the house. I won't be alone."
She'd not bothered to serve herself a drink, and Jonas decided this meeting had moved far beyond sharing refreshments. "From what Quint says, Sassy is young and always on the go. Especially at night. He wants a man in the house just in case there's a problem."
"I think the problem is him," she muttered under her breath.
Jonas bit back his frustration. "I'm sorry the idea of me staying with you is so upsetting. Tell you what. You talk it over with your brother. As far as I'm concerned, I'm very comfortable in the bunkhouse. And maybe you have a male friend or relative that you'd rather have stay with you." Rising to his feet, he placed the remainder of his coffee on the low table. "I'd better get back to work, Ms. Cantrell. It was nice meeting you. And thanks for the coffee."
He was starting to walk off the porch when she suddenly called out to him. "Wait a minute, Mr. Redman. Please."
Slowly she rose to her feet, and he paused near the steps as she walked over to him. As she did, a faint breeze ruffled her black hair and teased it around her shoulders. Earlier he'd caught the scent of honeysuckle emanating from her, and as she drew near, the sweet perfume intensified, reminding him of home.
He remained silent and simply waited for her to explain.
She shook her head slightly. "Look, I hope you won't take this personally, but I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself."
"You're going to have a baby soon."
"That doesn't make me an invalid."
He lifted the hat from his head and ran a hand through the flattened waves. "No. It makes you vulnerable," he said as he settled the Stetson back into place.
She momentarily closed her eyes, and in that moment Jonas realized just how much her blue eyes dominated her features. They were as fresh and cool as the New Mexico sky and just as enchanting.
"I have a phone with me at all times," she reasoned. "If I go into early labor, all I have to do is make a call."
"That's good. I'm glad you think I'm not needed. Because frankly, Ms. Cantrell, my hands are full with other duties right now. I've only been here three weeks, and your brother has big plans for this placeplans that I'm only starting to put into motion."
In other words, he didn't want to stay in the ranch house any more than she wanted him to, Alexa thought. That fact should have reassured her. Yet for some ridiculous reason she felt insulted. Men had never dismissed her. Even her failed relationship with Barry had ended because she'd chosen to end it. Not the other way around. The idea that Jonas Redman was simply going to walk away without a backward glance irked her in a way that took her by surprise.
Propping a hand on one hip, she cocked her head to one side. "So you're not going to be moving into the house?"
He smiled a cool little smile, which prickled Alexa's skin. The man was sexy and tough all rolled together. He was also just a tad too independent for her taste. What in the world had Quint been thinking when he'd hired this man; when he'd suggested this long, tall Texan move into the house with her? Had her brother gone crazy?
"No. Not unless you invite me to. Good day, Ms. Cantrell."
Tipping his hat to her, he walked off the porch and toward the barn.
Feeling rather dazed, Alexa leaned against a wooden beam and watched as the man made his way across the ranch yard. The lack of rain had left the ground like powder, and dust rose in little puffs around his black boots. His strides were long and authoritative, their aim directed straight at the cattle barn.