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Operation: Married By Christmas
By Debra Clopton
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Debra Clopton
All right reserved.
She was so close—only five miles from a warm bed and sweet dreams.
She needed oblivion…. She did not need this! Bleary-eyed and road-weary, Haley Bell Thornton peered through the window of her BMW Roadster and frowned at the cowboy blocking her path. With the stiff-armed motion of a traffic cop he signaled for her to halt.
Behind him stood a group of men hunched over the open hood of a truck that was connected to a cattle trailer. A cattle trailer that was completely blocking the road to Mule Hollow.
Haley was not a happy camper as the tall, lean cowboy strode toward her. Collar flipped up around his chin, he’d pulled his hat low over his eyes to hamper the frigid November wind. Haley groaned wearily when halfway to her car the man halted and responded to something one of the cowboys called out on the sidewalk, hopped in her car and sped away with her veil flapping in the wind, Haley couldn’t exactly say she had a plan.
Lost her marbles—now that she could say.
As could everyone else who’d watched her walk out on the groom who had more money than Bill Gates… Okay, so that was stretching things a bit, but in the realm of the ultra-wealthy, Lincoln Billings could hold his own.
She’d warned him, though. Been up-front with him. He’d knownfull well she didn’t love him. Known she’d attempted to walk the aisle two times prior and had yet to make it to the altar.
But that had only fueled Linc’s competitive spirit, and Haley had gotten caught up in his game. She’d let him talk her into attempting the notorious wedding walk once more.
Attempt being the key word. Poor Linc, he’d so believed his charm and his millions would be the antidote to her problem…. At least it was only his ego she’d damaged and not his heart.
A knuckle rapping on her window brought Haley out of her daze. She blinked and straightened in her seat. Oh, how she needed to get to Grandpa Apple-gate’s place. She needed to crawl into a warm bed and pull her grandma’s quilt over her head. She just needed to block out the world for a few days and rest.
But she was in Texas cattle country, and she had forgotten that it unfortunately came with unique problems. Like broken-down cattle trailers and shoulderless roads that rendered low-to-the-road sports cars, like hers, useless. Grumpier by the moment, she pressed the button and lowered the window just a crack. Instantly, her car interior chilled and her eyes stung from the bite of the near-freezing wind that whisked through the slight opening.
“I need to get by here. Would you move that thing?” she snapped, giving the cowboy only a quick glance before returning her glare to the no-good trailer.
“Well, ma’am,” he drawled. “I thought that might be your plan. I mean, you are heading north. But as you can see the truck has stalled. And as you can also see, I’m just a mere man.”
The instant she heard his voice, Haley’s gaze whipped from the trailer to his face…or at least she tried to see his face. He was standing too close, and she had to scoot down and angle her head to the side so her car roof didn’t cut him off from sight. Even at this odd angle his features were shadowed beneath his black Stetson. But Haley knew him. She would have recognized Will Sutton’s voice anywhere.
Will’s slow drawl always had done funny things to her heart. Rich and silky, it had never failed to connect with her.
Will Sutton! She snapped out of her stunned surprise and bolted upward so fast she banged her head on the roof. What was he doing back in Mule Hollow?
Her gaze dropped to her gown and she wanted to shrink into the floorboard of her car. Oh, why hadn’t she taken the time to change? Only a crazy woman walked out of her wedding and drove eighteen hours in her wedding dress.
“Haley?” Her name whooshed from his lips as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Haley cringed and ducked her chin; a loose curl slapped her in the forehead and she closed her eyes. She looked like roadkill. A woman wasn’t supposed to look this way when she met—
“Haley, is that you?”
Okay, so she couldn’t very well remain hidden behind a single golden curl and a clear sheet of glass. She opened her eyes and took a deep breath. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t realize she was wearing a wedding dress. After all, it was a simple, elegant Vera Wang sheath. A guy would just look at it and think: white silk dress.
Her mouth was as dry as dirt and her insides wobbly as she reluctantly let the window down farther. He had bent forward so that he could see her better. Warily, she met his disbelieving gaze. The man had the most gorgeous brown eyes. Soulful and bottomless, with gold flecks that sparkled when the sun hit them just right.
Get over it, Haley! The man hates you. And you’re not too peachy about him, either, remember? “Will, hello,” she gasped. As a real-estate agent for one of the most prestigious agencies in West Hollywood, she was known for her lightning-quick response in any situation. But with the way her throat closed off now, the only lightning she could hope for was a bolt to strike and put her out of her misery.
Will blinked twice, straightened to his full six foot three inches and let the awkward moment stretch. Endlessly.
Haley swallowed again. Will Sutton was still the best-looking man she’d ever seen.
He was also the first man she’d ever left at the altar. The first man to break her heart. And the last.
“Well, what do you know?” he drawled finally.
“Haley Bell Thornton has come home at last.”
His patronizing tone stung and riled her at the same time. “It’s a free country,” she snapped. She had a thing about condescension.
The laugh that escaped his perfect lips was about as disdainful and condescending as it could get. “If it were that free, I’d think you’d come see Applegate every once in a while.”
She bristled against words that cut to the quick. She had neglected her grandpa. “I hardly think what I do is any of your business.” Tension sparked between them sharper than the cutting wind.
“On that count you’d be right, Haley.” His eyes narrowed.
“Look. Are you going to move that thing?” She lifted her chin for good measure while her traitorous heart did a lunge-and-dive maneuver against her ribs.
Without warning, her eyes betrayed her and dropped to his hand. But the hand, along with the telltale ring finger, was buried in the pocket of his coat. Astounded at herself, she immediately looked away, hoping he hadn’t seen.
No such luck. “I’m not married, Haley. Never have been.” Again her tongue failed her. What was she supposed to say to that?
“You, on the other hand,” he drawled, cocking his head to the side to get a better look at her. “You look as though you’ve been playing dress-up again.” His condemning gaze took in her dress then met her eyes straight on. “What is this, the fourth time?”
“Third,” she gritted from between flattened lips. Had she actually liked this man at one time?
He pulled his hands from his pockets, holding them up in a “no foul” gesture. “Don’t look at me. I moved back here three months ago, and the rumor mill started churning out Haley Bell reports without me so much as opening my mouth.”
Ohhhh! “You,” he continued, despite her warning glare, “have really done yourself proud.”
That did it! What did he know? Who did he think he was? “Look, I’d just love to sit here and reminisce, but it is cold and I’m tired and I need to get to my grandpa Applegate’s.”
“Well, let me put a fire under the boys, then. We certainly wouldn’t want you to be the one left standing out in the cold.”
Before she could say anything, he spun on his boot heel and strode back to the truck. He spoke to the guys, who immediately looked her way as he left them and stalked around to the far side of the trailer. Through its bars she could see another truck, and to her dismay Will climbed into it and drove off toward town—leaving her trapped with nothing to do but sit and wait!
Haley fumed as she watched him disappear into the distance.
Payback was the pits.
Afew miles down the road, Will yanked his truck to a stop and stared out across the expanse of ranch land on the edge of town.
Haley Bell Thornton was back.
And he had to pretend it didn’t matter to him. Had to act as if he’d never loved her. As if watching her walk out of that church, leaving him standing alone at the altar ten years ago, hadn’t torn his heart out.
Will had always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of man. Pretending didn’t work for him, which accounted for his behavior just now. He’d let his guard down—what guard? He’d been so shocked when he’d realized Haley was sitting right there in front of him that he’d had no guard. Just pure reaction. And he’d reacted badly.
He was not normally a rude man. His faith in God’s plan for his life had been rocked to its very core after Haley had left him, but he’d learned to accept it and not blame God for it.
Haley was here, and he would simply deal with it. He wouldn’t allow himself to act like a child again. He’d make certain that the next encounter with Haley would be different. It had to be if he was going to come out of this with his self-esteem—not to mention his heart—intact. After all, Will was only a man.
Not that he would have to see her again while she was here. With Christmas coming he had plenty to do to keep busy. He had enough work lined up to keep him burning the midnight oil for the next six weeks, designing the custom gates and steel signs he was known for. Business was brisk. It never failed to strike him how blessed he was to be making a living doing something he loved. The demand for a custom Sutton gate was high. His western views decorated ranch entryways all over the world, a source of pure satisfaction for Will.
Through hard work and endless hours, he’d built a name for himself. All he had to do now was bury himself in his work the way he’d been doing for years and make it through the week. Only a week. Haley had proven she hated Mule Hollow, Texas. There was no way she would last here longer than one week.
If she lasted that long.
Excerpted from Operation: Married By Christmas by Debra Clopton Copyright © 2007 by Debra Clopton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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