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Pregnant and Protected
By Lilian Darcy
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter OneIt only took a few seconds for Lauren Van Shuyler's whole world to change.
She heard a man's voice yelling, "Watch the crane. Watch the damned crane!"
Too late. Above her, the nineteenth century brick façade she was here to inspect swayed forward, blocking out the light from a cool and drizzly late afternoon May sky. There was a clatter of falling bricks like gunfire, sporadic at first, then as dense as rain. The three-story façade toppled with the appearance of slow motion against the fretwork of scaffolding that outlined the structure of the new building going up behind it.
Several pieces of platform from the scaffolding spun through the air like playing cards.
"Back! Back! Back!" yelled the same man's voice.
Something heavy and warm rammed into Lauren, sending her to the ground. It - no, he, because it was a man's body - rolled on top of her, then pulled her with him, rolling once more. The movement dropped both of them onto their sides in a cold, narrow channel in the building's unfinished concrete floor, just a quarter second before several of the scaffolding platforms landed on top of them, followed by a thunderous dumping of bricks.
For at least a minute longer, Lauren expected death. The noise was like a bomb blast. The dust was choking, as dry and hard as chalk in her mouth and nose. The impact of the rain of bricks crushed and splintered the scaffolding platforms, whichwere acting as a bridge over the cramped space, shielding their two bodies. She felt a sharp stab of agony in her shin, followed by an oddly soothing spread of warmth, and then the gradual onset of numbness.
She couldn't move. The darkness was total, as thick and tactile as paint. She knew she was crying only because she could feel the way her chest was jerking, and knew the man lying beside her still lived only because the tight, fast shaking wasn't coming from her body, so it had to be coming from his. She'd never known such heart-hammering, gut-churning fear.
There was a roaring in her ears that deafened her to other sounds, and so many points of pain that she didn't know where to start counting. The roaring began to fade, and she could hear him - the man who was half crushed against her body - talking.
"Are you okay? Are you alive?"
"Yes. I'm alive." She gave several dry sobs like hiccups. "I'm alive."
"Good. That's good. That's one thing. That's one good thing." His body made one last jerky shudder, then was still.
"Is it finished?" Lauren asked. "The ... the collapse?"
All she could feel now was his breathing, hard and slow and heavy against her body. She felt sick to her stomach, and wanted to cradle herself there with her arms, but she couldn't move them. One was stretched along the concrete channel, cold against its roughness. The other was pressed behind her, stretching the muscles tightly.
"I can't hear anything more falling. Can you move?" the man said.
"No. I guess not." His voice was deep and strong in his chest.
They both lay there for another minute, waiting and listening. Lauren's senses were in survival mode, alert and sizzling. She could feel cold air on her face, a thin breeze lazily winding its way along the channel. This suggested that it wasn't completely blocked at either end, and took away one of the most potent sources of panic. They weren't going to suffocate.
The air had the musty, limey smell of new cement, but there was plenty of it, and even the tiniest filtering of light, too, now that her eyes had adjusted. It must come from the same distant source as the chilly stream of air, because it was weak and diffuse. The blackness had only shadings in it: midnight, charcoal, steel, and storm. And she could see the faintest suggestions of shape. There was a smooth curve which had to be the man's shoulder, and a more blurred curve that must be the outline of his head.
Movement was almost impossible, however. Lauren was lying on her side, pressed length to length against the stranger. A piece of rough gravel beneath her hipbone made it throb with pain. The designer leather backpack she'd been wearing was squeezed between her lower back and the side of the concrete channel, forcing her spine to arch.
Splintered wood from the partially crushed sheets of scaffolding platform rasped her shoulder. She could feel one of the man's hands flattened beneath her rib cage. His knuckles must be grinding painfully into the gritty concrete. She had the impression, without much data to go on, that he was big. Her breasts were tender against the crush of his strong chest, and one of his thighs was lying across hers, heavy and solid and warm.
"Did - did you save my life?" Lauren asked him finally. She felt an instinctive need to get a fix on this new universe.
"That's a little too close to call, at this stage." His humor was edgy.
"Yeah ... don't be, okay? Please, honey?" No one ever called her honey. No one would ever dare. But today, she liked it. It made her feel safe. "We'll do a lot better with this if we stay calm."
"I'm calm." But her teeth were chattering and she could feel the panic rising in her like the tide rising in an ocean rock pool.
"I'm not dressed for this."
He laughed softly. "Atta girl! I didn't know there was a dress code for lying under a heap of bricks."
"I mean it, I'm not - I'm wearing a thin blouse." Silk. Expensive. Ruined. "I'm cold."
"Shh ... bits of you are, yeah, but we're warm. Our core temperatures are warm. We're keepin' each other that way. We're okay."
His tone cajoled and soothed her, as if she were a nervous animal. If she stretched her neck back, she could see the faint outline of his face, rainy gray against a night gray background, and she could just make out his eyes. All of this was so close that it was only a blur. When she stopped trying to look at him and relaxed her neck muscles, her mouth or her forehead pressed against the soft cotton front of his shirt.
"My arm is going numb." Like her injured leg, but her leg was too far away to worry about.
"Let's try to move."
"Planning and communication. The keys to any joint operation."
She tried to laugh, but the sounds were more like sobs. "How about some goal setting, too, while we're at it?" she managed to say.
"Good idea. Mine is mainly to get my fingers out from under your ribs. You have hard ribs, lady!"
"I ... I've lost a little weight lately. And my name's Lauren."
"Ah, yeah, okay ... don't apologize, Lauren. We wouldn't have fit in here at all if you were packing ten extra pounds."
"What's yours? Your name?"
Excerpted from Pregnant and Protected by Lilian Darcy
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.