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Russ Hall scanned his mail as he removed his suit coat. When the postmark from Wyoming caught his eye, he paused. He didn't correspond with many friends in his home state. And if he did, they sent their correspondence to his high-rise apartment, not the office.
He opened the envelope and pulled out a sheet of paper. After scanning it, he sat in his desk chair and reread it carefully.
Damn. The lady was calling in her chips. That auction he'd participated in last June was finally coming home to roost. The bachelor weekends were supposed to be redeemed within one year, and the lady with the sad eyes was slipping just under the wire.
He'd thought about her the past year more than he'd expected. He remembered Lindsay saying something about him modeling for the woman's company. He'd forgotten what kind of company it was. Suddenly he wondered if he was going to be asked to do something erotic. No, he instantly dismissed that idea. Lindsay had described the woman as sweet. Sweet and erotic didn't match up. Sweet and pregnant definitely didn't point in that direction.
Another thought occurred to him. When he'd returned to Wyoming for the auction, he'd been surprised by the sense of satisfaction that had filled him. While there, he'd even considered relocating permanently. Then, when he'd flown back to Chicago, he'd gotten caught up in the demands of his job and forgotten all about it.
But there'd been an edge of restlessness since his trip last summer. He'd shoved it aside, tried to pretend everything was all right.
Maybe he'd been waiting until he had to return to Wyoming once again. Maybe while he was there, fulfilling the terms of the auction, he'd think about moving back once more. Going home
"Oh, Mandy, no!" Melissa protested just before her box of dusting powder hit the bathroom floor. Mandy, seven months old, blinked in surprise. Then her face contorted into the saddest look in creation and big tears rolled down her baby cheeks.
"Don't cry, sweetie. It's Mommy's fault for leaving it on the side of the tub." Melissa gathered her daughter in her arms, dusting off the powder that had splashed on Mandy. "Besides," she added with a laugh, "it makes you smell good."
With determination, she walked away from the mess. She didn't have time to clean it up. Her guest's plane was due at the Casper airport in half an hour and she didn't want to be late. After all, this was Mandy's Mother's Day gift to her.
Last June, when she'd bid on the bachelor, she'd only been thinking in terms of using him for her greeting card company, Wyoming Bright. But after seven months as a single mom, Melissa had decided she could use a break.
And what better time than Mother's Day?
She was going to turn the sexy bachelor into a glorified baby-sitter for just one morning so she could sleep past sunrise. That was going to be her baby's gift to her.
One glorious morning of uninterrupted sleep.
Not that she would leave her precious child to the care of someone she didn't know. She was staying put the entire weekend. She wasn't foolish enough to think a single architect from Chicago would know anything about baby care. But she would teach him. Even just one morning of sleeping in would be worth it.
Oh, the heaven of that thought stopped her in her tracks.
She wasn't a morning person, but Mandy was. She and the sun got up every morning at six o'clock. Melissa hoped that by Sunday her sexy bachelor would have convinced her he could care for Mandy long enough to let her mommy sleep in.
"What a waste of testosterone!" Melissa said out loud, giggling at the thought.
Mandy patted her cheek and cooed.
Smiling at her baby, Melissa sent up a silent prayer of gratitude. Yes, they were happy. She'd recovered from the death of Mandy's father. The pain was still there, but it was bearable, and she'd learned to laugh again for the sake of her child.
She only had one thing left to deal with from that desolate period of her life: Mr. Bachelor. She had a lot of ideas for him, though the main one was relief from twenty-four-hour parenting duties. It probably wasn't exactly what he'd expected when he'd volunteered for the auction, but she sure hoped he had a sympathetic natureand a sense of humor.
If he was agreeable, she also wanted to take some photos of him in his cowboy garb. Some of her greeting cards were drawn, but more and more, the public seemed to like photographs. She envisioned a hunky cowboy in an old bathtub, his chest naked above the water. Maybe that idea had been inspired by the cowboy's open shirt at the auction.
She shrugged aside the erotic appeal. She wasn't interested in the man's physical attributes, but if they sold more cards, she wouldn't object. But would he?
Somehow, she wasn't even sure she'd have the nerve to ask him to pose. She'd thought about offering to pay him for his services. But he was a successful architect. Probably, he would refuse.
Raising her chin, she stared sightlessly at the wall. She'd faced challenges before. Her parents had died within a week of each other of a rare viral infection her senior year in college. For months, she'd spun out of control, unable to make a decision, unsure where to turn.
Then she'd found Greg. He'd been her anchor. He might not have been the hunk those bachelors were, but he'd been the center of her universe. He'd made her whole.
Then he'd died, too.
But she hadn't let go of his guidance. It had been Greg's suggestion to purchase a bachelor. He had been the one who had convinced her the card company would eventually be a success. And Greg had believed she could be a good parent.
She was trying.
Somehow, she'd find a way to use this weekend to her advantage.
"Let's go collect our cowboy, okay, Mandy? And then we'll turn him into a houseboy. What fun!"
Russ frowned as he entered the airport. The flight had seemed interminable. His seatmate had been a young woman with a baby who cried most of the trip. He'd asked the flight attendant if he could move, but the flight was fully booked.
Now he had a raging headache.
Disgruntled, he looked around for the woman who had clung to his memories for almost a year. His gaze passed over a brunette holding a baby, then flashed back as he realized she also held a sign. With his name on it.
How stupid of him. Somehow he'd expected her to still be pregnant, frozen in time, but that was ridiculous. It had been ten months since the auction and she'd been showing then.
"Mr. Hall?" she said, her beautiful voice rising in expectation.
The mysterious Ms. Bright. The bachelors had been asked to provide a luxurious weekend for their purchaser. Although it was ladies' choice, Russ had been prepared to offer a weekend in Chicago, tickets to see the Bulls, museum tours, whatever Ms. Bright desired.
Instead, he'd been informed that his buyer had already decided on the particulars for the weekend. He supposed that included the modeling Lindsay had referred to, though it wasn't mentioned in the letter he'd received. Ms. Bright's only request had been that he bring a swimsuit. He'd packed both formal and informal clothing and hoped for the best. But now, as he stared at the baby smiling at him, he got an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
At least this baby wasn't crying.
"You must be Melissa Bright," he said.
"Yes. Welcome to Wyoming."
He nodded, then stood there, waiting for her to direct him. After all, she was supposed to be in charge.
"Do you have more luggage?" she asked, indicating his garment bag and grip.
He raised his eyebrows. She expected a clothes-horse? "No, ma'am. I travel light."
She led the way out of the airport building to her car, a compact that didn't have much leg room. He stowed his bags in the trunk, then moved to the passenger seat while Melissa settled the baby in a car seat in back.
With a grimace, he drew his knees up close and fastened the seat belt.
"Sorry you're crowded," she apologized as she slid behind the wheel. "I'd forgotten that you're so tall."
It rankled a bit that she hadn't remembered him when he'd been haunted by those sad eyes. With a frown, he realized they weren't sad anymore. Her dark-brown gaze seemed to have dancing lights in it.
"I remembered you as sad," he said abruptly, then regretted his words.
She shot him a startled look, then turned away, starting the car. "You won't be uncomfortable long. It's not far to the house."
She'd completely ignored his remark. Okay. Hoping for a little more room, he eased back against the seat. As a boy, he'd been tall for his age. He was used to being crowded. He'd used his height to his advantage, though, and still did. Women were attracted to tall men.
The gurgling sound of the baby distracted him, and he asked, "Where's your husband, and how does he feel about you buying a bachelor?"
Again she seemed taken aback, but at least she answered this time. "He's dead. And we were never married."
Now it was his turn to be shocked. "I'm sorry." What else could he say?
"Thanks." Then she shot him a smile. "How was your flight?"
She was obviously making an effort to be cheerful, but she'd chosen the wrong question. "Miserable. A young woman with a baby sat next to me. The baby cried the entire flight."
She skipped all the obvious comments. "You don't like babies?"
"I didn't say that."
"It was in your voice."
He released a weary sigh. "Look, Melissa, how I feel about babies doesn't make a hill-of-beans difference to our agreement. But if you'd been closed up in a plane with a screaming kid beside you, you might feel the same way."
"Mandy had colic the first three months. Well, actually almost four months. Do you know what that's like, Mr. Hall? It's like your airplane flight times one hundred."
He moaned, just the thought making his headache worse.
"Are you ill?"
"I'm fine," he snapped. "As soon as we reach our destination, I'll take something for this headache. In the morning, I'll be perfectly recovered and ready for whatever you've planned for the next three days."
Another quick glance before she looked away.
"Exactly what have you planned?"
"Um, nothing elaborate."
Had she changed her mind about the modeling? There went the tux he'd packed. At a little over six three, he couldn't count on finding a rental that fit. "Could you be a little more specific?"
"I could, but you might want to wait until after you've taken something for your headache."
He stared in fascination as the corner of her mouth turned up slightly.
About to ask her what was so amusing, he stopped when she spoke first.
"Are you familiar with Casper?"
"Yeah. Growing up on the ranch, we boys competed for the privilege to come to the big city. We thought Casper was the most sophisticated place in the world."
She smiled. "I guess Chicago's a little bigger and a lot more sophisticated, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. Ever been there?"
"No. I grew up in Casper. I've been to Denver a few times, and, of course, Cheyenne, but that's about the extent of my travels."
"You could've spent a long weekend in Chicago if you wanted," he reminded her. Then he would have been in control of the situation, something he preferred when it came to women.
Mandy's squeal reminded him of why that might've been a problem.
"Just a minute, sweetie," Melissa called over her shoulder. "Would you look for her pacifier? I think she may have thrown it down."
Russ gingerly turned in his seat as far as the seat belt allowed and looked at the baby. The pacifier was caught between her round tummy and the guardrail of the baby seat. Reaching back, he plucked it up, then stared at the baby as she gurgled and clapped her hands.
"What do I do now?" he asked.
"You found it? Just put it back in her mouth."
With a frown, he stretched a little more and offered the pacifier to the baby. Expecting to have to urge her to take the thing, he was surprised when she leaned forward, took the pacifier in her mouth and held it there with both hands.
"She took it!"
One eyebrow shot up over those warm brown eyes. "Of course she did."
Russ settled back into his seat, annoyed by her superior tones.
"I haven't been around babies much."
"Yes, I guessed that," she said with a sigh. As if it mattered to her.
Tough. If she'd wanted a man experienced with children, she shouldn't have sought out a bachelor.
She turned into a side street, a quiet, residential area with small, neatly kept homes. When she pulled into the third driveway and stopped the car, he didn't move.
"What are we doing?"
"This is where Mandy and I live, Russ."
"I'm spending the weekend here?"
"Yes. Sorry if you were hoping for something more exotic."
"Look, I'm happy to cover the expenses of the weekend. I'll be glad to pay for a hotel if you"
"No, thank you," she said before he could finish, her tone crisp. "If you can't handle staying here, you're welcome to go to a hotel, but it will be inconvenient for what I have in mind."
"I didn't mean to offend you butthat's what I need to know. What do you have in mind?"
She looked away. "Let's get you comfortable first, then we'll talk about the weekend."
This stalling was making him uneasy. Which didn't help his headache. But her request wasn't unreasonable. Hell, some people might even say it was kind. The way his head was throbbing, he shouldn't complain.
He gathered his luggage from the trunk as she released the baby from her car seat. Then he followed the two of them to the front door. She juggled the baby and the keys with practiced ease and swung open the door.
Following her in, he discovered a casual living room that shouted the word home. Two comfortable flowered couches made an L-shape in front of the fireplace. Over to the side was a large green leather chair with an ottoman in front of it, picking up the green on the couches.
He almost made a beeline for the chair, then caught himself. He couldn't settle in for a rest, as his head pleaded. He wasn't at home. Instead, he was a guest and had to behave politely.
She must have been a mind reader.
"Why don't you put your luggage down and sit over there," she said, waving to the green chair. "I'll find some Tylenol and put dinner on the table. You'll feel better after you've eaten."
He didn't hesitate this time. Throwing his bags on the end of the nearest sofa, he sank down into the soft leather, closing his eyes and sighing in pleasure.