The author of over seventy-five titles for Harlequin, Stella Bagwell writes about familes, the West, strong, silent men of honor and the women who love them. She credits her loyal readers and hopes her stories have brightened their lives in some small way. A cowgirl through and through, she recently learned how to rope a steer. Her days begin and end helping her husband on their south Texas ranch. In between she works on her next tale of love. Contact her at email@example.com
Should Have Been Her Childby Stella Bagwell
FIVE YEARS TOO LATE .
She should have been mine, Victoria Ketchum thought as she cradled Jess Hasting's daughter. Instead, Victoria had turned from Jess, and he'd married another. Now a widowed single father, the lean, rugged deputy sheriff could still make her passion risebut the bitterness of their breakup kept/em>/p>/strong>/em>… See more details below
FIVE YEARS TOO LATE .
She should have been mine, Victoria Ketchum thought as she cradled Jess Hasting's daughter. Instead, Victoria had turned from Jess, and he'd married another. Now a widowed single father, the lean, rugged deputy sheriff could still make her passion risebut the bitterness of their breakup kept them apart.
Now Jess saw Victoria strictly as his daughter's doctor. And Victoria needed Jess's lawman skills when a body was found on her family's ranch. Yet, working together to care for his sick little girl, and to investigate the murder, made them remember just how good it had been between them.
And how good it could still be
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Should Have Been Her Child
By Stella Bagwell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Victoria, something has happened out at the T Bar K!"
The woman with dark hair sitting behind the large desk didn't bother lifting her head from the notes she was studying. "Something is always happening at the ranch. If he's bleeding, put him in exam room one. If he thinks something might be broken, take him on down to X ray and I'll be there in just a moment."
"No, Victoria. There's not an injured cowboy in the waiting room. It's something else."
Dr. Victoria Ketchum glanced up from the file on her desk to see her nurse's face peering around the edge of the office door.
Nevada Ortiz was usually unflappable. Even when patients were bleeding all over the floor or passing out in the waiting room. But right now the young woman's creamed-coffee complexion was downright pasty.
"What do you mean? Has some of my family called the clinic?"
Nevada quickly stepped inside the small office and approached Victoria's desk. "No. One of the patients was listening to his scanner and overheard the sheriff's department dispatching some men out there."
Like Nevada, Victoria had never been one to panic. Doctors simply couldn't allow themselves the luxury of losing their cool under fire. Now years of training and self-discipline surfaced to keep her pulse at an even pace and her thoughts focused toward a logical explanation.
"It isn't like you to listen to patients' gossip, Nevada."
The young nurse gave her boss a rueful smile. "You're right. If I stopped to listen to all the gossip that goes through this clinic I'd never get any work done. But I think this time there's something to it. You ... haven't heard from the ranch in the past hour or so?"
Victoria shook her dark head. "No. And I'd be the first one my brother Ross would call if there'd been a severe accident or an injury. So that tells me no one has been injured." She closed the manila folder and rose from her chair. "Is Mr. Valdez still in exam room two?"
Nevada stepped back as her boss quickly moved from behind the massive oak desk. "Yes. But, Victoria, aren't you going to at least make a quick call to the ranch?" she asked with amazement. "If the law is headed out there ... something must be happening."
Victoria's soft lips tilted into an indulgent smile for her nurse and friend. "They probably found the stud that's been missing for the past couple of weeks. And if that's the case, everyone on the ranch will have reason to celebrate tonight." She motioned for Nevada to join her as she headed out of the room. "Quit worrying and follow me. If I'm not mistaken, I still have three more patients to see before quitting time. We have work to do."
For the next hour, Victoria put any thoughts of the T Bar K out of her mind as she listened to aches and complaints and wrote down orders and prescriptions. Even though she was a Ketchum and still lived on the ranch, she was a doctor first and foremost and her patients' welfare was something she always put before herself.
But later that evening, after she'd left the clinic and headed her vehicle north out of Aztec, a strange sense of dread gnawed at the pit of her stomach. In all likelihood, the law had gone to the T Bar K to talk to her brother about the missing stallion. She couldn't imagine them going to the ranch for any other reason. Yet something like that wouldn't be considered an emergency requiring radio dispatch, she silently reasoned.
Don't borrow trouble, she scolded herself as she forced her fingers to relax on the steering wheel. For all she knew her nosy patient might have gotten his information mixed up. And anyway, even if men from the sheriff's department had visited the ranch, that didn't mean Jess had been one of them.
No, Jess Hastings, the undersheriff of San Juan County, probably had much more important things on his docket than to travel out to the home of an old flame.
Old flame. Dear Lord, how could she think of herself in those terms, she wondered. Jess has been out of her life for four years or more now. She was nothing to him. And obviously never had been.
After traveling several miles, she turned off the highway and onto a graveled road leading east into the high desert mountains.
May had brought much warmer weather to northern New Mexico. The snows in the higher elevations had started to melt, flooding the streams and rivers below. The Animas River, which cut through a section of the T Bar K, lay to the left of the winding dirt road. Now and then Victoria caught sight of the rushing rapids as her vehicle began the climb that would eventually take her to the ranch house.
When she finally entered the main gate leading up to the rambling log structure, the spring sun had already slid behind the mountains. Dusky purple shadows shrouded the house, which was perched on a ledge high enough to give a partial view of the valley floor below. Ketchum land. Farther than the eye could see.
But at the moment, Victoria wasn't seeing anything except the two utility vehicles with official markings of the San Juan County sheriff's department parked a few feet from the rail fence running in front of the house.
So Nevada's warning had been right, she thought, as she deliberately drove around to the back entrance of the house. Something had happened. She could only pray it wasn't something bad. The Ketchum family had already had their share of bad this past year. What with Tucker dying, a drought putting a heavy financial strain on the ranch and then the stud's disappearance, she could hardly imagine getting more wretched news.
As always, the long kitchen was warm and filled with the spicy scents of waiting supper. At the huge gas range, the cook, Marina, glanced over her shoulder as Victoria's footsteps tapped across the tiled floor.
"Better not go to living room, chica. There's a powwow goin' on," the older woman warned.
Biting back a sigh, Victoria reached up and slipped the clasp from her hair to allow the thick black chocolate waves to tumble down around her shoulders. As she massaged her scalp, she reached for a glass in the cupboard.
Excerpted from Should Have Been Her Child by Stella Bagwell Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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