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Damn pregnancy hormones!
It was becoming a familiar curse to Antonia Wright, because as thrilled as she was that she was going to be a mother, she was completely unprepared to deal with the increasingly frequent surges of hormones through her system. Surges that had been nonexistent through the first six months of her pregnancy, but had become more regular and insistent over the past few weeks. Since Clayton Traub had taken up residence at Wright's Way, in fact.
But Antonia refused to believe that the link between his presence and her hormones was anything more than a coincidence. Most of the books she'd read had warned that sexual desire was likely to decrease in the last trimester, but Antonia was finding just the opposite to be true. Of course, nothing that she'd experienced since learning that she was going to have a baby had been what she expected. At least not since the initial excitement of having her pregnancy confirmed was usurped by the panic of realizing she was going to be a single mother.
Maybe having a baby without a father anywhere in the vicinity wasn't an ideal situation, but she was making the best of it. And she was genuinely excited about the opportunities and challenges that motherhood would entail, but she hadn't expected the hormones.
Because that was the only explanation she could come up with for the way her pulse raced every time she saw Clay in the dining room. And the way her knees got all weak and wobbly if he passed close to her. And the way her skin felt all hot and tingly whenever he even looked at her.
But she'd learned her lesson after Gene hightailed it out of town. She had no intention of ever following her heart again, and she definitely would never get involved with a boarder again.
Which only proved that her physiological reaction to Clayton Traub had less to do with her heart than her hormones. She didn't even know the guy, really, so it was ridiculous to think that she might have any kind of emotional attachment to him. But she was definitely attracted. The warm and achy feeling deep inside all of her womanly places confirmed that fact. Or maybe she was just severely sexually deprived.
It had been exactly seven months, one week and four days since she'd had sex. In the first six and a half of those months, she hadn't missed the physical intimacy. She hadn't even thought about it really, because she'd been too busy trying to come to terms with her pregnancy and anticipate the demands of impending motherhood.
But ever since Clay Traub had shown up at the Wright Ranch, she'd found herself thinking about how very long it had been since she'd been held or kissed or touched. How very long it had been since she'd been wanted.
Not that any man in his right mind would want her now, with a belly that was rounder than her breasts. And so big that it was sometimes hard for Antonia to believe that she still had another seven weeks to go before she delivered her baby. As eagerly as she was counting down to the day that she would hold her child in her arms, her trepidation was growing along with her excitement.
What did she know about taking care of a baby? Not very much. And she was terrified that she was going to screw up. If only she could talk to her own motherbut that option had been taken away from her more than two years earlier when Lucinda had succumbed to a massive stroke. Nothing had been the same since her deathnot Antonia's father, not her brothers, not even the ranch.
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say especially not the ranch. Devastated by the loss of his beloved wife, John Wright had started to neglect his responsibilities, which had resulted in the loss of some business and, consequently, trouble paying the bills. Antonia's brothers had taken over most of the day-to-day operations, and she had convinced them to turn the former bunkhouse into a boarding house to generate additional revenue. Most of the rental units had sat vacant for a whilecertainly long enough to give her cause for concernbut once they'd taken in their first boarders and those boarders started chatting in town about the comfort of the accommodations and the quality of the meals, the rooms had begun to fill.
Now it was rare for any room to sit empty for more than a week or two, allowing Antonia to breathe a sigh of relief that she hadn't made a mistake with this venture. Especially considering that she'd given Peggy, the Wright's longtime housekeeper and cook, a raise to compensate for the additional meal prep that was required, and had recently hired Nora, a high school student who lived up the road, to help serve dinner.
Because now that she was in her third trimester, Anto-nia had finally acknowledged that she no longer had the energy to be on her feet sixteen hours a day. And when those days started at 5:00 a.m., as hers had this morning, she was usually feeling the first signs of fatigue before the breakfast crowd had gone.
"Good morning, Toni."
She recognized his voice immediately, and adrenaline rushed through her veins as her cheeks filled with color. There was just something about the way he said her name that actually made her knees weak.
"Good morning," she replied, deliberately focusing on the baby in his arms rather than looking into the warmth of Clayton Traub's dark brown eyes. "And how are you doing this morning, handsome?"
Bennett gave her a gummy smile and reached his arms out to her, and Antonia wanted nothing more than to scoop him up. Unfortunately, she had a full coffeepot in one hand and a trio of mugs in the other.
"Typical male," she mused. "Wanting yet one more thing from a woman who already has her hands full." But since she couldn't give Bennett a cuddle, she gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, then finally chanced a glance at his father. "I'll bring his breakfast as soon as you get him settled."
"No hurry," he assured her. "He had some oatmeal about an hour ago."
"We start serving breakfast here at six," she reminded him. She'd given him a dining schedule along with the rest of the paperwork when he'd checked in, and for the first several days, he had brought the baby to the dining room early. But then the time of their arrival had started getting later and later, until they were showing up near the end of the breakfast shift rather than the beginning.
"And at six, you usually have a pretty full house," Clay noted.
"A lot of the men need to get an early start because they have jobs in town or elsewhere that they have to get to." Which made her wonder how her handsome boarder was occupying his time in Thunder Canyon. Of course, as long as his checks didn't bounce, his employmentor lack thereofwasn't any of her concern.
Not that she was completely in the dark about Clay. He might have been "one of the Rust Creek Falls' Traubs" but he was related to the Thunder Canyon Traubs, which meant that a fair amount of information about him was circulating around town. Including that he was one of six sons and had previously worked on the family ranch in Rust Creek Falls with four of his brothers. Only Forrest had opted for a different career, choosing to enlist in the military and fight for his country. He'd returned from the war in Iraq with an injured leg that was being treated by Dr. North at Thunder Canyon General Hospital. And PTSD, according to some whispers.
Since moving into the boarding house, both Clay and Forrest had been the subjects of as much admiration as speculation. The female population, in particular, seemed curious about these "real" cowboys who had come to town and were eager to get to know them better. Antonia didn't think either of the brothers had encouraged the attention, but she couldn't blame the women for their interest. Clayton and Forrest were both sinfully good-looking but, from day one, her heart had been firmly ensnared by Bennett.
"That's why we like to come later," Clay said, drawing her attention back to their conversation. "So Bennett can flirt with his favorite girl."
"You need to raise your standards," she told the little boy. Then, to his father, "And I really need to get this coffee into the dining roomwhere Forrest is already seated at your usual table."
"Of course." He stepped back so that she could move past him into the dining room.
As she did, she was conscious of his gaze following her. Or maybe she was just imagining it. Because why would Clay be watching her? Why would any man look twice at a woman whose belly entered a room ten seconds before the rest of her body did?
Okay, she knew she wasn't really as enormous as she felt, but having to sneak into her father's closet to find a shirt that would button over her baby bump made her feel huge and unattractive. Having a man pay any amount of attention to her was a boost to her battered egoand when that man was as incredibly good-looking as Clayton Traub, well, she could probably be forgiven for letting her imagination run away.
Because even if he didn't have any kind of romantic interestand again, she'd be more shocked if he didshe enjoyed the brief conversations they occasionally shared over breakfast or dinner. Even after five weeks, she wouldn't say she knew him well, but she did know him well enough to appreciate his straightforward manner and easygoing personality.
Mostly she appreciated that he didn't ask too many questions. Having been the subject of so many whispers and rumors since her pregnancy became public knowledge, she was happy to talk to someone who didn't want to know or seem to care about the father of her baby. And it warmed her heart immeasurably to witness the obvious affection between Clay and his son.
Obviously some men were able to embrace the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. Unfortunately for Antonia, the father of her baby wasn't one of them.
There had been more than a hint of fall in the air when Clay made his way to the main house for breakfast, reminding him that he'd already been in Thunder Canyon for longer than the few weeks he'd originally planned to stay. As he settled Bennett into the high chair that Toni had set at one end of the long table, it occurred to him that maybe it was time to go back to Rust Creek Falls and the family ranch. But he wasn't ready to leave Thunder Canyon, not just yet.
He felt more than a little guilty that he'd bailed on his father and his responsibilities at the rancheven if he'd done so with his mother's blessing. Of course, Bob Traub was more than capable of handling things on his own. Hell, he'd been managing the whole spread since long before any of his sons had even been born, and he'd be the first to take issue with anyone who suggested that he wasn't still capable of doing so.
He certainly hadn't tried to prevent Clay from leaving. In fact, he'd agreed that it was a good idea for him to get away from Rust Creek Falls for a while. But when he'd encouraged his son to head west, Clay suspected that he meant a little farther west than Thunder Canyonno doubt hoping that he would track down Delia in California and convince her to marry him so that their son would have a proper family.
Bob and Ellie Traub had raised their sons with traditional values and a strict moral code of behavior, and Clay believed in accepting responsibility for his actions.
But he did not believe that marrying Delia was the answer, and he wanted something better for his son than a woman who clearly wasn't interested in being a mother.
But until he figured out what that was, he was enjoying his time in Thunder Canyon. He liked the town and he had no complaints at all about the accommodations at Wright's Way. The only real problem, from his perspective, was the inexplicable attraction he felt whenever he was around his landlady.
His very pregnant landlady, as he continually had to remind himself. Because any man could be forgiven for thinking lustful thoughts about an attractive womanand Toni was no doubt an extremely attractive womanbut she was also an expectant mother, and contemplating any such ideas about a mother-to-be just seemed wrong.
Of course, that knowledge and even his own internal reprimands didn't stop the thoughts from forming in his mind. And seeing Toni at the family-style breakfast she prepared for the boarders every morning somehow only further fanned the flames of his desire. A realization that, as he settled into the chair beside his son and across from his brother, continued to baffle him.
He'd always appreciated the company of women and, in the past, he'd enjoyed countless casual dates and numerous carefree liaisons. But he wasn't that man anymore. He had a child to consider nowas would Toni in the very near future.
Clay had never imagined himself as a father. Not that he'd precluded the possibility from his future, he simply hadn't thought he was ready for the responsibility at this point in his life. Delia showing up on his doorstep with a baby had taken that choice out of his hands. And while he would fight tooth and nail to protect his child, the little boy was all the responsibility Clay couldor wanted tohandle at this point in his life. He certainly didn't want or need the complication of a personal relationship right now, and hooking up with a woman who had a baby of her own on the way would just be crazy.
No one had ever had cause to question Clay's sanity in the past, so why was he so drawn to this particular woman? Why now?
Toni set a plastic bowl on the tray of Bennett's high chair, and the little boy immediately reached into it, wrapping his fist around a handful of scrambled egg and then shoving his fist into his mouth.
She ruffled his hair and smiled. "You're a hungry little guy today, are you?"
Bennett's only response was to reach into the bowl with his other fist.
"He's got a healthy appetite," Clay told her.
"Growing boys need to eat," Antonia noted.
"So do grown men," Forrest pointed out.
Toni shifted her attention to the man seated on the other side of the table, her cheeks flushing as she took the empty platter from his hands.
"Coming right up," she promised.
Clay scowled at his brother. "Don't you think that was a little rude?"
"What was rude? Interrupting your flirting?" Forrest asked.
"I wasn't flirting."
His brother snorted.
"I wasn't," Clay insisted, though he wondered why he bothered. Because even if he had been flirtingwhich he wasn'the didn't care what his brother thought. But he also didn't want Toni overhearing their conversation and thinking that he had a thing for her. Because he didn't.
"Wasn't it Shakespeare who said something about men who protested too much?" Forrest challenged.
Bennett banged his hands on his tray, giving Clay an excuse to turn his attention to the little boy and ignore his brother's comment.
"How's your breakfast?" he asked.
The baby responded by offering a fistful of scrambled egg.
Clay nudged the little boy's hand toward his mouth. "Bennett, eat."
And he did, happily.