Excerpt from THEIR UNEXPECTED FAMILY, April 2005

CHAPTER ONE

Juliet Rivera had always favored the aroma of grilled onions and green peppers, but tonight, the kitchen smells of the busy bar and grill triggered a wave of nausea.

“Are those fries up yet?” she asked, arching her back and trailing her fingers along the contour of her distended womb.

God, she hoped everything was all right. The baby had been unusually quiet today, which increased her concern about working after Dr. Hart had recommended she take it easy. She didn’t want to risk triggering premature labor, but she needed to support herself and the daughter she was going to bear.

Buck Crowley, the burly cook who’d once practiced his culinary skills on Navy seamen, slid the plate toward her and grumbled. “You tell that fortune hunter that I’m not making them any crisper than this. French fries aren’t supposed to be as hard as matchsticks.”

“Thanks, Buck.” Juliet made her way through the dining room of The Hitching Post and placed the well-done fries in front of the lanky customer who’d asked her to take them back to the kitchen.

She watched him poke a finger at the heaping platter of extra-crispy potato strips, apparently checking to see if they were made the way he’d requested.

He wasn’t going to send them back again, was he?

If he did, she could imagine Buck storming out of the kitchen and into the dining room. The retired military man wasn’t prone to confrontations with the customers, but he, along with some of the other Thunder Canyon locals, didn’t appreciate all the strangers who’d flocked to the charming Montana town with hopes of striking it rich.

Years ago, several other gold rushes had lured their share of prospectors into Thunder Canyon. But the Queen of Hearts mine had played out, and Buck believed the contemporary gold-seekers would end up disappointed.

Juliet crossed her arms over the shelf her belly made and shifted her weight to one foot, waiting for the customer’s approval.

Dios mio, señor. Cual es su problema? With just under six weeks to go until her due date, she’d probably give birth before he decided whether the fries were good enough.

Juliet was dead on her feet and ready to clock out, especially after her visit to the emergency room two days ago. But she couldn’t leave yet. The Hitching Post was hopping like a Saturday night, and it was only the middle of the week.

The persnickety customer finally shrugged his shoulders, then reached for a fry. When he popped a second one into his mouth, she turned to go, pausing as her boss approached.

Martha Tasker, a matronly woman who wore her silver-streaked hair pulled into a topknot, placed a hand on Juliet’s shoulder. “I’m worried about you. How’s it going?”

Other than sore feet and a twinge of nausea whenever she neared the kitchen? Juliet forced a smile. “I’m fine. Thanks.”

“No more fainting spells?”

“Not since Sunday afternoon.”

Mrs. Tasker studied her, as though trying to make her own assessment. “This is your just first night back on the job. We can try to handle the load without you. Why don’t you call it quits until tomorrow?”

Because Juliet’s small nest egg was only enough to see her through delivery and a few weeks after that. What would she do when it was gone? She’d been told there would be a workman’s compensation settlement that would go to her brother’s estate, but that could take years, and she wasn’t counting on it.

She flashed her employer another smile, one she hoped boasted more confidence than she felt. “As soon as the dinner crowd thins out, I’ll go home.”

“Good,” Mrs. Tasker said, as she began to wind her way back to the cash register she manned. “We don’t want that baby comin’ into the world too early. That fainting spell nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“What fainting spell?” a husky baritone voice asked.

Juliet glanced over her shoulder and spotted Mark Anderson, a reporter for a major news service who’d been sent to Thunder Canyon to cover the gold rush. Apparently, he’d just entered the dining room and had overheard her conversation with Mrs. Tasker.

She guessed him to be just shy of six feet, although he looked monstrously tall with his hands on his hips and glaring at her like a highway patrolman who’d just snagged a reckless driver. His dark hair, a bit long and unruly, bore a tinge of gray at the temples, so she judged him to be in his late thirties.

“It was nothing,” she told him, although the fainting spell and ambulance ride to the hospital had been pretty scary.

The reporter eyed her carefully. “Have you seen a doctor?”

Juliet wasn’t sure why he asked, why he cared. But she couldn’t see any reason not to answer honestly. There were too many people in this world who didn’t tell the truth, people who kept secrets. And she’d be darned if she’d be one of them. “I have a doctor. And I saw a resident obstetrician in the emergency room at Thunder Canyon General. Everything is fine, although I’m supposed to take it easy.”

“Then what are you doing here?” His husky voice, with the hint of a soft southern drawl, settled over her like a drizzle of melted chocolate. But his probing eyes weren’t nearly as sweet and comforting.

A strand of hair that had come loose from the gold clip she wore while at work tickled her cheek, and she swiped it away with the back of her hand. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“You’re certainly not taking it easy.” His whiskey-brown eyes swept over her again, no doubt spotting the exhaustion in her expression that a dab of lipstick and mascara couldn’t hide.

She wasn’t sure whether she should be angry with him for butting in or pleased that he gave a darn about her health and the baby’s welfare. But for a woman who’d grown up in a small, close-knit family, she’d been alone and on her own for too darn long to completely shrug off his concern.

He pulled out a chair and sat at the nearest table--on the dining room side, rather than closer to the bar where he usually parked himself for the evening. His gaze lingered on her, and he continued to study her with more interest than any of the other male customers.

At one time, she might have wondered if the reporter found her attractive. But how loco was that? With a belly that seemed to grow bigger every day, there wasn’t much for a man to find appealing--not that she cared anyway. Her baby was the one and only priority in her life.

Wanting to break the intimacy of his gaze, to distance herself from his interest, she asked, “Can I get you something to eat?”

“Not yet. But I’ll have a drink.”

Since coming into town last week on assignment, he’d had several stiff shots of bourbon every night--at least, that’s what he’d ordered when she’d been working. Then he ate dinner before heading across the street to the inn, where the news service had put him up.

She doubted he had a drinking problem, since his cynical yet flirtatious personality remained constant, and he appeared unaffected by his alcohol consumption.

“Bourbon and a splash of water?” she asked.

“Good memory.”

“Predictable customer.”

He grinned, and she headed for the bar, which sat on the far side of the room, near the dance floor that saw a lot of action on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Hitching Post had once been the town saloon, and although renovated many years ago into a respectable eatery, its history lingered in the old photographs that dotted the walls, the refurbished bar that still boasted scars and scratches from yesteryear and a painting of a nude woman, who was rumored to have been the original owner--the Shady Lady, as the locals called her.

Juliet always found it difficult not to stare at the image of the voluptuous blonde who sported a teasing grin. More straight laced folks might disagree, but she thought the nineteenth-century piece of art added to the charm of The Hitching Post.

When the bartender handed her Mark’s drink, she returned to his table, placed a cocktail napkin in front of him, then served the glass of nearly straight bourbon.

He lifted his drink in a mock salute. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

His eyes continued to study her, but she couldn’t seem to make herself move, get back to work.

“Can you take a break?” he asked.

If she were inclined to think like a single woman on the prowl rather than an expectant mother wanting to nest, she’d consider it. “No, I’d better not. I’m still on the clock.”

“There are laws about companies giving their employees a break during the workday.” He glanced at her tummy, then caught her eyes in a mesmerizing gaze.

Juliet’s grandmother, Abuelita, had taught her to search a person’s expression--especially the eyes--to try and spot the secrets one kept. Of course, with Juliet’s history, she wasn’t very good at character assessment. And for some reason, she suspected she’d be just as lousy at guessing what drove Mark Anderson, what caused him to mellow out at night with alcohol instead of a cup of decaf and a slice of pie.

“Excuse me. I’d better get back to work.” She turned to go, but he caught her by the hand.

Mark wasn’t sure what had compelled him to touch the pretty Latina with sparkling caramel-colored eyes and long black hair she’d swept into a twist. It wasn’t like him to be forward, but he’d been drawn to her since the first day he’d stepped into The Hitching Post hoping to while away the hours until his story developed.

Sure, there was a little attraction involved, he supposed. She was a beautiful woman, in spite of her condition. And her spunky personality made him sit up and take notice. But it was more than a case of Latin blood and genetics that caught his eye and held his interest.

He loosened his grip on her wrist, letting her go. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to sit down for a while.”

“I shouldn’t,” she said, but slowly took a seat anyway. “It’s almost time for me to go home.”

Mark couldn’t remember any Hispanic families in the area when he’d lived in Thunder Canyon. But that had been twenty years ago.

“Where’s home?” he asked.

She nodded at the ceiling. “I live here. In the apartment upstairs.”

He hadn’t expected her to reveal more than an “I live northeast of town,” or “In that new housing development off White Water Drive.” The women he knew liked to play cat-and-mouse games, never saying what was really on their minds, holding back and not revealing too much.

Was Juliet that young and inexperienced? Or were there a few women in this world who were still honest and open?

Either way, he found her innocence refreshing, to say the least.

He glanced at the ceiling, as she had done, and a grin tugged at his lips. “Did you know that the second floor of The Hitching Post used to be a whorehouse?”

She smiled, a flush coloring her cheeks. “Mrs. Tasker, my boss and landlady, told me that, although she referred to it as a ‘house of ill repute.’ But you’d never know it now. One of the previous owners converted the upstairs into a living area for his family back in the 1950s.”

Mark had heard the second floor was now an apartment. But when he’d lived in Thunder Canyon as a teenager, legends of the saloon and whorehouse held more interest for him and his friends than the renovations had.

“I lucked out,” she told him. “I got a job and a place to live all in one day.”

Lucky for her, maybe. Mark was glad he’d left Thunder Canyon. And just being within city limits made him uneasy and gave him reason to throw back a couple of bourbons before turning in. The booze helped pass the time and keep the memories at bay.

She shot him an unabashed grin. “I love it here.”

“Here?” He scanned the dining room.

“Yes, working at The Hitching Post and living in Thunder Canyon, especially the old part of town. I love the Wild West charm.”

Mark chuckled. “What are you, a history buff?”

“In a way.” She fiddled with the unused napkin in front of her. “My dad and brother used to love those old shoot-‘em-up westerns. You know, Bonanza reruns, Gunsmoke. John Wayne movies. And before long, I was hooked, too.”

“Really?”

She leaned forward, her eyes flashing impishly, and grinned. “And when the TV is on the blink, I’m a big fan of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.”

“No kidding?”

She lifted up her right hand in a Boy Scout fashion. “Honest. But don’t tell.” She smiled again, suggesting that she didn’t really care what people thought of her choice of reading material. Caramel-colored flecks sparked in her brown eyes. “On my days off, I walk along the wooden sidewalk here in Old Town and study the false-front buildings.” She slid him an enchanting smile. “Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can see a cowboy in a spun woolen shirt, leather vest and dungarees, walking along the dusty western streets.”

“You don’t say. That’s a pretty vivid imagination you’ve got. Do you hear his spurs go jingle jangle jingle?”

“Of course,” the mirth in her voice taunted his cynical nature. “You mean you haven’t ever envisioned a prim lady dressed in calico and wearing a splash of lemon verbena?”

“No. Never.” He leaned back in his chair, extending his legs, as his gaze swept her pretty face. “Not even a pretty señorita with flashing dark eyes.”

Her lips, with only the hint of rose-colored lipstick, quirked as she made a tsk-tsk sound. “That’s too bad. Life must be boring for a man mired in reality.”

Back to book page

This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to www.eHarlequin.com.
Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.