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Two minutes and thirty-three seconds to go.
Lizzie Baron stared at her watch with dismay. It had only been twenty-seven seconds since she started the timer on her watch. She refused to look until the full three minutes was up. Instead she checked her reflection in the mirror of the executive bathroom of the Baron Energies offices. She brushed a flake of mascara off the crest of her cheek and tucked a strand of rebellious hair behind her ear. She smoothed her skirta straight, businesslike skirt in boring charcoal-gray that ended just a shade above her knee, and checked the buttons of her matching fitted jacket for stray threads.
One minute, seventeen seconds.
Three minutes had never, ever in the history of the world, been this long. She was sure of it.
Her stomach churned uneasily but she told herself it was just nerves. Stress. She worked long hours at her job and didn't get much downtime. Everyone at Baron was on edge since they had recently lost a major contract in the Gulf. The tension level in the downtown Dallas office could be cut with a knife most days. Stress could definitely have caused her period to be late, right?
Except, a little voice inside her head reminded her,
your period was due before that particular piece of bad news, remember? Twenty-six seconds.
She breathed in and out. She was not pregnant. It wasn't possible. Well, it was. Technically. But highly improbable. She didn't have time for this. And a one-night stand with a rodeo bum
well, how often did people get pregnant from one night?
She smiled grimly at the reflection of her face, her skin oddly pale under the unflattering fluorescent lighting. The answer to that was simple. It always only took one time for someone to get pregnant. Granted, the chances went up with frequency of
She swallowed. They hadn't exactly slept a lot that night.
Lizzie took a deep breath. Putting off looking wouldn't change the result. She reached for the stick and stared at the little window.
A plus sign.
She was pregnant.
Just flipping wonderful.
Lizzie got out of her car, blinking in the brightness of the San Antonio sun. She'd used the almost four-hour drive to prepare, to work out what she was going to say. The first thing she'd done after taking the home test was visit the doctor, where her pregnancy had been confirmed. Lizzie hadn't wanted to say anything to anyone until she was 100 percent sure the first test hadn't been a false positive. Her mind was still reeling with the news, and she was trying to sort out how she was going to tell her family
They were going to seriously freak. And be disappointed. Who, in this day and age, went around having sex with strangers? She bit down on her lip. She was a joke. A statistic. A casualty of the 1 percent of condoms that failed at a crucial moment.
She'd always felt like the responsible one. When Delia Baron left her kids, Brock had been on his own, and Lizzie had stepped in and mothered her younger siblings. Then her dad had married Peggy and adopted her boys, Jacob and Daniel. Those years had been pretty good. They'd all lived together out at Roughneck Ranchthe name a deliberate hat-tip to the oil industry that had put the Baron name on the map. Lizzie had cared for Peggy a lot, which meant Peggy's death had been especially hard to take.
Now her father was married again, this time to a much younger wife. Lizzie might have resented Julieta, who was only ten years older than herself, except Lizzie had found an unexpected friend and support in her stepmother.
Telling her would probably be the easiest of the family. Julieta never judged. She was always after Lizzie to get out and enjoy life more. Lizzie was fairly sure, though, that this wasn't what Julieta meant.
For one night only she'd allowed herself to cut loose. What a fool she'd been for thinking she could work out her frustrations by being so self-indulgent, that she could be irresponsible without repercussions and consequences. It was totally out of character.
But sometimes she felt as though she was the one who took on all the heavy lifting in the family, was the rock for all her brothers and sisters when they went through stuff. She was tired of being Lizzie who never made mistakes, Lizzie who did everything right. Lizzie, Brock Baron's firstborn.
Yeah, Jacob was pretty much the same age as she was, but he was her stepbrother. Lizzie was the oldest and her brother Jet was the baby. Sometimes she wished they were reversed in the birth order, because Brock wouldn't give up the idea that Jet would take over Baron Energies one day. Problem was Jet wasn't remotely interested.
Lizzie, on the other hand, had missed out on her fun years because she had been too busy getting her education and stepping into a role at the family company. She was supposed to set an example.
It was a lot of pressure.
Lizzie sighed and shut the car door, feeling the heat of the sun soak through her tailored jacket. What she really needed was a coffee. A nice, big, strong coffee with two sugars and real cream. Sadly, since the moment the test was positive, she'd given up the caffeine and cut back on the sugar. The result had been three days of caffeine withdrawal headache and irritability.
And through it all one thought had stuck in her brain. Lizzie needed to talk to him. The baby's father.
There was no question about that. Christopher Miller deserved to know the truth and deserved to hear it from hernot from anyone else. What if the media got a hold of the story? They'd been quick to report the lost contract in the biz pages, and she already felt extra scrutiny from all sides as she sat at the boardroom table. Only thirty and vice president of a major energy corporationnot to mention being the boss's daughter. The old boys' club was just waiting for her to screw up.
Besides, it wasn't like she was going to be able to hide her condition forever. She was already almost eight weeks along. Another couple months and she'd be showing. It would be far better to do damage control right now and get on with things.
She looked up at the attractive stucco condos and wished there was a way to make this look like less of a disaster. But no matter how she spun it, the bald truth remained. She'd been stupid. Impulsive. She'd let the family downespecially her dad. She knew how it would look to the shareholders and the press.
Mark Baker, Baron's CFO, would practically be crowing about it. He was dying to get his chance to be in the driver's seat at Baron, urging Brock to retire. It burned her biscuits that he might have any leverage on her, the pompous jerk.
Her headache was starting to come back, so she made her way over to one of the low stone walls by the building where there was some shade under a sycamore tree. All she had to do was remember her plan. Plans were good. Plans were soothing. Plans gave the illusion of control in the midst of chaos.
She gathered herself together and walked purposefully to the front door of the building, stepping into a blessedly cool air-conditioned foyer. The second set of doors was locked for security, so she scanned the panel of residents for his name. There it wasC. Miller, unit 406. She pressed the buzzer and waited.
As the seconds ticked past, she looked around. The complex was quite nice. The buildings were well kept, the grass cut neatly and urns of flowering plants flanked the entrance. It was definitely not what she'd expected from the dusty bronc rider she'd met two months ago. He wasn't that high up in the standings, either, so how on earth did he afford this place? Momentarily she wondered if she'd gotten the wrong Christopher Miller. What if she'd come all this way for nothing?
There was a click and then a voice. "Hello?"
Something stirred inside her at the sound of his voice. It was just one word but it was familiarthe low grit of it skimming over her nerve endings. She swallowed. "Uh
hi. I'm looking for Christopher Miller?"
" She scrambled to think of what she'd said to him that night. How much she'd revealed. Plans, she reminded herself. Just stick to the script. "It's Elizabeth."
There was a pause.
"From the bar in Fort Worth."
The words came out strained.
"Come on up. Elevator's through the doors and to the left."
There was a clickand a buzzing sound as he let her in.
She pulled open the door and stepped inside. The tiled floor of the lobby gleamed as if freshly waxed and potted trees were spaced throughout the small area. There was a small table flanked by two chairs to the right, adding a homey yet classy touch. An elevator waited and she pushed the up arrow button. Seconds later the door opened and she stepped inside the car.
She could do this. She could see him and speak to him in a businesslike way and explain what she intended to do. She didn't need anything from him. Didn't want anything from him. He was completely and utterly off the hook.
The doors slid open at the fourth floor and she ran her hands down her skirt and then over her hair, making sure the knot at the back was smooth and neat. Stepping out, she started down the hallway. Number 401 was on the left, 402 on the right. Two more doors to go. She would knock. Smile. Begin with "you must be surprised to see me."
A door opened and Christopher stepped into the hall. Her feet halted and she stared at him awkwardly, her practiced words flying out of her head. She'd definitely gotten the right guy. Around six feet, with dark hair that curled around his collar and gorgeous chocolaty eyes that crinkled in the corners. He wore jeans and a T-shirt but was in his bare feet, and his hair was glistening, as though he'd recently got out of the shower. Oh boy.
He was staring at her, too, like she was a stranger. "It really is you," he said, shaking his head a little. A wrinkle formed between his eyebrows. "What the hell are you doing here?"
For weeks, Chris had been wondering if he should try to find out who she was. She'd only said her name was Elizabeth. They'd met at a honky-tonk in Fort Worth after a less-than-stellar rodeo performance on his part. She'd been sitting at the bar, sipping a beer right from the bottle. His first impression had been surprise. Despite wearing jeans and boots and a T-shirt, there was a look of class about her. She looked more the wine-and-cheese type rather than beer and chips.
He'd had a good first round that weekend, but then he'd drawn Devil's Spawn. The horse was aptly named, it turned out, because Chris had been launched into the stratosphere in the second round after 4.6 seconds. He'd missed out on the money. No buckle bunnies had followed him to the bar and that had been just fine with him. He'd figured he'd nurse his wounds with a beer and head back to the motel where he was staying. Take a hot bath to soothe his sore muscles.
And then he'd seen her. He'd ordered another beer, looked over at her and she'd smiled, a soft little smile, and all his brain cells turned to mush.
When he'd woken the next morning, the bed had been empty. The only evidence that she'd been there was the earring she'd left behind. How very cliché.
That had been nearly two months ago. Since then he'd done better, hitting the finals in a few rodeos, bringing in a little cash to help cover his expenses. It wasn't like this was his livelihood or anything. He was only on a leave of absence from his regular job. A job which had suddenly felt very claustrophobic after years of long hours. He missed the outdoors, missed the horses and the thrill. Missed having fun.
This leave of absence was his one last chance. Not that he expected to earn any titles. He'd been out too long and he was getting older. Another few years and he wouldn't be quite so resilient. If he were going to relive his youth one last time, it had to be now
before he lost his nerve. So he'd have no regrets. One last chance to live the life he wanted rather than the one that was expected of him.
Now she was here, standing not ten feet away. Forget the jeans and boots, too. She was the picture of elegance and power, moderately tall and slim, and wore her dark hair up in a conservative knot rather than the long, sexy ponytail he remembered. A great pair of legs was shown to excellent advantage in a slim skirt and sexy black heels. Buckle bunny? Not in a million years. The woman before him now was used to being in charge. If it weren't for the stunning blue eyes, she'd barely resemble the woman he remembered from the motel that night.
Something curled through him and his pulse took a strange hop as an image flashed through his mind. Her hair had been down, spread over the pillow and her smile had been sexy and more than a little naughty as she reached up and grabbed the collar of his shirt, pulling him down on top of her. What the hell was she doing in San Antonio now, looking like she did?
"Elizabeth," he said quietly, stepping aside so she could enter his apartment. He didn't have a good feeling about her showing up unannounced.
"Call me Lizzie." She gave him a faint smile and slid into the apartment ahead of him, taking care not to touch him in any way, he noticed. "Everybody does."
"You didn't say your name was Lizzie the night we met." He followed her inside and shut the door. She looked at him nervously, pulling her hands together.
"I was trying to be mysterious."
"It worked." He put his hands in his pockets. "How did you find me?"
Was that a bit of color in her pale cheeks? Her gaze skittered away slightly and her fingers twisted tighter together. "I tried 411 first, but there are over one hundred Christopher Millers in the state of Texas."
He waited for her to go on.
She frowned. "So then I tried Google. I entered your name and added '+ saddle bronc' to the search. San Antonio popped up. But there's more than one Christopher Miller here, too. So I called a friend of mine, called in a favor, and they gave me your address."
"Yeah." She tried a small smile. "Rodeo's a small world. Which was why I was surprised that I'd never heard of you before."
His hands came out of his pockets. "You're saying that you got my address from rodeo records?"
The blush was back. "Yes."
He wasn't sure if that information was guaranteed to be confidential or not; he'd never considered it either way. But ElizabethLizziehad gone to some trouble to find him. He was pretty sure the reason wasn't going to be a good thing. She didn't look like she was the type to come out with "I couldn't forget our night together."
That sounded snide in his mind and more than a little hypocritical, since he hadn't been able to forget that night one bit. And if he'd had more to go on than a first name, he might have gone looking for her, too.
"Why would you do that?"
She straightened her shoulders and unclenched her hands. "Because I need to talk to you."