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Staring at some long-gone hoochie's phone number etched into the stall door six inches from her nose, Thea Benedict tried, for the third time, to snap her jeans closed.
Her "fat" jeans.
"Thea!" Evangelista bellowed through the locked ladies' room door. "You comin' out sometime this year or what?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Thea yelled to her boss, yanking down the idiotic babydoll top over her squished boobs. "Keep your shirt on!" She banged back the dented metal and tromped to the sink, where Corpse Bride glared back at her from the depths of the mottled mirror.
Can't put this off any longer, babycakes
"I hope to hell you're not sick on account of somethin' you ate from here!"
Right. Like the smell alone of Mexican food didn't make her gag these days. Her hands washed and dried, Thea fluffed up her pale, chin-length hair, then dug a little pot of lip gloss out of her pocket, smeared some on. Corpse Bride as beauty queen, whoo-hoo.
Palms pressed into the cool porcelain, she released a shaky sigh. Johnny was gonna have kittens that she'd waited this long. But when was the right time to tell somebody you broke up with four months beforesomebody who routinely thanked God he only had one kid because that one was about to kill himthat your diaphragm hadn't fit as snugly as it should've?
She hoped to heaven he had enough sense not to think she'd gotten pregnant on purpose, but you never knew with men. Maybe she had come this close to loving the bozo, but string her up for the buzzards the day she stooped to trapping a man into marriage.
Thea squeezed shut her eyes, as if that were somehow gonna settle her stomach. She supposed she could say she hadn't known for sure, because of her irregular periods and all, but that hadn't been true for a few weeks. She'd known, all right, even if this time had felt different than the others. She just hadn't trusted, hadn't even wanted to take a pregnancy test because because she just couldn't. Not even when it hurt to wear a bra and she nearly lost her cookies all over a customer's huevos rancheros and the smell of her own shampoo made her woozy
"Thea! For God's sake"
She smacked open the ladies' room door, sending Evangelista jumping back and the woman's mammoth bazooms into a jiggling frenzy. Behind fleshy eyelids, dark eyes went all slitty.
"Dios mio, you're gonna scare the customers!"
"And aren't you just the poster child for sympathy?" Thea muttered without heat, because Ev was just that way.
"An' I don't want you spreading germs all over the place!"
"Trust me, it's not contagious," Thea said with a pointed look, and Ev sucked in a breath and said, "No," and Thea said, "Yep," then sailed back out into the dining room, order pad at the ready, determined to remain cheerful despite the restaurant's boldly painted murals and lively mariachi music, and the brilliant New Mexican spring day outside the tall windows.
So she smiled, she joked, she held her breath as she set steaming platters of enchiladas and tamales and stuffed sopa-pillas in front of people she'd pretty much known her entire life, never mind that she felt like she was careening down a steep hill with no brakes. As the afternoon wore on, however, a sort of numb determination took over, that she wasn't about to let a little thing like an unplanned pregnancy with a man she should never have messed around with in the first place derail her, no sirree.
That is until, some hours later, when she pulled her middle-aged, mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee up in front of the sprawling ranch house Johnny Griego called home, and she caught sight of him astride an unfamiliar horse in the training paddock set between two horse barns, and her resolve balked like a stubborn colt not interested in being broke.
Nearly choking on the earthy, hay-and-horse-scented mountain breeze, she looked instead at the house, old and big and solid beneath the fireflies of sunlight darting through glittering piñons and shimmering, white-barked aspens. Many's the night Thea and Johnny and his teenage daughter, Rachel, had sat on the wraparound porch, watching lightning dance across the mesa or the sky burst into flame moments before the sun dropped behind a dozen layers of mountain ranges, and Thea'd catch the look of wonder on Johnny's face, even after twenty-five years, that it was all his.
Andy Morales, the ranch's previous owner, had been more than Johnny's first employer; he'd also given him an example of manhood that had been sorely lacking, Johnny's father having done a runner on him and his mother when Johnny was still a little kid. How Andy became Johnny's adoptive father, Thea wasn't sure, but she did know that Andy's leaving Johnny the ranch had been a dream come true for a young man who'd once called home a run-down, two-room adobe on the edge of town.
Her gaze reluctantly swerved back to horse and trainer, silhouetted against the vast blue sky
Oh, for God's sake, girlget on with it!
Slowly, shakily, Thea got out of the Jeep, her eyes fixed on Johnny's solid, compact body, easily commanding the sleek, powerfully built chestnut gelding, their perfectly synchronized tango smothered in a blur of fine red dust. A tan-colored cowboy hat shadowed a weathered face with the devilish, deep brown eyes of a much younger man, a mouth that could say more with a tiny quirk of the lips than most men could say in a hundred words, an image almost impossible to reconcile with the insecure boy she'd only known in passing growing up.
Johnny was too far away, and too intent on his task, to see her, but awareness crackled through her all the same, prickling her skin and wreaking all sorts of havoc with her breathing. Knowing how far he'd come, what he'd overcome she had to admit, all that hard-won confidence was pretty darn sexy. But get too close to that still-raw coreof the little boy whose father had abandoned him, the young man whose marriage had failedand a lot of that confidence turned out to be nothing more than sheer determination to stay in control. Johnny had no trouble making decisions, following through on a promise, keeping his word. But risking his heart?
No damn way.
Sound familiar? said the voice, making Thea's forehead knot. What lay ahead wasn't gonna be pretty. For either of them. How other people pulled off the "friends with benefits" thing, she had no idea. Then again, maybe this was just another urban legend about modern relationships that nobody wanted to admit was a crock. In any case, it'd sure been a mistake for them, thinking that sex would be a good way to exerciseif not exorciseall those pesky hormones without wading through a lot of sloppy emotions. At least Thea'd called a halt to their shenanigans while she still had a couple grains of common sense left, when she'd realized that she wanted more than Johnny'd ever be able to give her.
And hadn't that surprised the holy heck out of her, after all these years of being just fine on her own?
After all those years of refusing to cry over a man?
Hauling in a breath, she started toward the paddock
She spun around to see Johnny's daughter torpedoing toward her, the long-legged beauty's eyes bright with a mix of excitement and abject terror, and Thea's heart twanged, that while she may have broken up with Johnny, it hadn't been nearly so easy to sever ties with this bright, funny girl she'd grown to love with all her heart.
Who now threw herself into Thea's arms, nearly knocking her over.
"Omigosh, honey what is it?" she asked, thinking, Nope, still not used to the hair, because what had once been dark and shiny and gorgeous now boasted ragged stripes of Bimbo Blonde and Kool-Aid Fruit Punch. Poor Johnny.
Rachel straightened, shoving a blond stripe behind one multipierced ear. "Didn't you get my voice mail?"
"What? Oh, no I turned off my phone while I was at work and forgot to turn it back on again"
The girl grabbed her hand and pulled her around to the side of the house, where Thea nearly gagged from the cloying scent of profusely blooming lilacs.
"What?" Thea finally got out when she could hear over the ringing in her ears.
The fool child actually giggled. "Jesse and I are gonna have a baby!" Then, sobered, she clutched Thea's hand more tightly. "But how on earth am I gonna tell Dad? He'll kill me."
Yeah, but it'll knock the hair right off the radar, Thea thought, along with, And isn't this seriously bad timing? as the ramifications of this little announcement began to sink in. Then an image of the aforementioned boyfriendof whom her father had never exactly been a big fan beforepopped into her head, a big, bulky, bald dude whose favorite pastime was letting people poke needles loaded with colored ink into his body
"You gotta help us tell Dad!"
"Uh, no, don't think so"
"Pleeease, Thea? Jess'll be there, but"
"And I haven't even seen your father in months!"
Thea took a deep breath, trying to stay strong in the face of those pleading brown eyes. "So Jesse knows?" she said, stalling.
"Of course he knows, I told him, like, the second I knew. And he's totally cool with it." Right. All that tattoo ink must've leaked into the boy's brain, because that was the only way a nineteen-year-old boy was going to be "cool" with becoming a dad. "He's on his way over, in fact. So this is good, that you're here Wait a minute." Brows dipped. "If you didn't get my message, why are you here?"
"I, um, had something to discuss with your dad."
Which at this rate wasn't gonna happen until the baby was Rachel's age, she mused as an engine roar announced Jesse's arrival on The Motorcycle with Hummer Delusions. As Jesse dismounted, like a slightly clumsy bull, Rachel glanced at her boyfriend, then back at Thea, finally looking like maybe there was a reason her news might turn her father homicidal. "Could it wait?"
Thea plastered a big old fake smile on her face. "Sure," she said, but only because it would be cruel to drop two bombshells on the poor man in one day. Not that she had a lot of days left especially since she was so skinny she could hardly swallow an olive without it showingbut if she had to choose between keeping the truth from Johnny a little longer or giving him a heart attack, she'd go with Option #1, thank you.
Then Jesse came up behind Rachel, blocking out the sun, and Thea thought maybe the kid wasn't quite as okay about all of this as Rach might want to believe. Something about that terrified look in his eyes. Except then they got all icky-poo cuddly-wuddlyor at least Rachel did; Jesse looked a little stunnedand the stab of jealousy took Thea by complete surprise. Until reason returned and she thought, Hell, at least I'm not seventeen.
Which, oddly, wasn't nearly as much of a consolation as she might have hoped.
Especially when Johnny suddenly appeared around the corner of the house, all rampant suspicion and glowering pro-tectiveness, mostly directed at Jesse, but with just enough what-the-hell? for Thea to make her feel part of things.
"What's going on?" he rumbled, and Thea nearly upchucked in the lilacs.
"Pregnant," Rachel repeated, and Johnny thought he couldn't be seeing more stars if a horse had kicked him in the head. Standing in his office with her high-topped feet apart, her hands crammed into the front pocket of her lightweight hoodie and her curves far too visible underneath those skintight exercise pants or whatever the hell they were, she was the image of defiance. Of her mother.
She was also a seventeen-year-old girlhis seventeen-year-old girlwho shouldn't even be thinking about babies, unless it was to sit for somebody else's.
"You p-promised you wouldn't have a cow."
"You're lucky I'm not having a whole damn herd!" Johnny yelled, even as he could hear Andy's Now, son, ain't no sense blowin'a gasket over every little thing. Only there was nothing little about this; this was far, far worse than the hair. This was an out-and-out disaster. "And how long have you been lying to me about not havin' sex?"
"Johnny," Thea said quietly, warningly, behind him, and he thought, Yeah, like I need to be dealing with you on top of everything else. Because he hadn't seen her in months and she looked like hell and at this rate he wasn't gonna find out why anytime soon
"Like I was really gonna tell you about that?" Rachel said, tears slipping, and Johnny thought, Right. Daughter. Pregnant. Crap, as the other half of this idiocylooking like he wished he was deadhad the good sense to turn beet red. "Geez, Dadget real. Jess and me, we've been together for two years. Did you think we were going to wait forever?"
"You," Johnny said, his jabbed finger in Jesse's direction provoking a highly satisfactory flinch, "I'll deal with later. Right now this is between my daughter and me."
"Sir," Jesse said again, pale, his beefy hand landing possessively on Rachel's shoulder. "N-not to argue with you or anything, but it's my k-kid Rach's carrying. So I think that g-gives me some say in the matter."
"Fine." Johnny crossed his arms, considering handing the kid a trash can to barf into. "Then tell me how you plan on taking care of my daughter and your kid. You didn't even go to college, for God's sake!"
"Dad!" Rachel cried as terror flashed in the boy's dark eyes. "That's so unfair!"
"Haven't gotten that far in my thinking yet," Jess said, his Adam's apple working overtime. "Since, y'know, I just found out. But " Sweat glowed on the kid's bald head. "But but I know I " His gaze dropped to Rachel's, who was looking at him with such trust and adoration Johnny felt sick. Jesse's eyes cut back to Johnny. "I'll figure something out, sir," he repeated. Limply.
Still, it took guts, standing up to somebody mad enough to rip apart the side of a barn with his bare hands, especially when you felt like you'd just gotten caught in a trash compactor and didn't that bring back a slew of bitter memories? God knew Johnny'd been holding his breath for the past two years, praying for this thing between Jesse and his daughter to "blow over"what his brainy daughter saw in this punk, Johnny had no ideabut he'd give him props for this much.
"Daddy." At the single, defiant word, Johnny's gaze swung back to Rachel, suspicion flaring. Her chin lifted. "I'm not unhappy about this."