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Hired by the Cowboy

Hired by the Cowboy by Donna Alward
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"Miss? Wake up. Can you hear me?"

The deep voice came first, then Alex's vision gradually started to clear.

"Oh, thank God. Are you all right?"

Alex's eyes followed the sound of the voice as she looked up, dazed. Trying hard to focus, she found herself staring into the most beautiful set of brown eyes she'd ever seen. They were stunning, dark brown with golden flecks throughout, large and thickly lashed.

Men shouldn't have eyes that pretty, she thought irration- ally, realizing with a jolt that she was captured in the arms of the eyes' owner.

"Oh, goodness!"

The eyes crinkled at the corners at her exclamation, and she felt his hands on her arm and behind her back, helping her to rise.

"Slowly, now. You fainted ."

Really? I hadn't noticed. I was too busy being unconscious. She bit back the sarcastic retort when she saw the genuine concern in his eyes. He even made sure she was standing firmly on her feet before releasing her—and then stayed close, as if he didn't quite trust her to remain steady.

He would have fainted too, in her condition and with this heat—and the lack of air-conditioning in the convenience store hadn't helped much either.

"I'm so sorry," she blustered, brushing off her pants and avoiding his eyes. It had only taken a moment, but she could even now see him completely in her mind. Not just the eyes, but thick, luscious black hair, just long enough to sink your fingers into and slightly ragged at the edges. Crisply etched lips and a large frame in a grey suit.

Someone who looked like him was so far removed from her world it was laughable, and she avoided his eyes from simple embarrassment. She stared instead at his shoes— shiny, brown leather ones, without a smudge of dirt or a blemish. A businessman's shoes.

"No need to be sorry. Are you sure you're all right?" She bent to retrieve her bag and purse. The first time she'd bent to pick up her dropped crackers everything had spun and then turned black. This time she gripped the bench for support, just in case. To her dismay she realized that she'd spilled her apple juice, and it was running down a crack in the sidewalk. She folded the top over on the paper bag, picked up the juice bottle and looked around for a recycling receptacle.

"I'm fine," she said, finally looking him in the face. Her heart skipped a beat at the worry she saw there. It had been a long time since anyone had been concerned over her. He was a complete stranger, yet his worry was clear in the wrinkle between his brows. Gratitude washed over her for his gal- lantry. "I haven't even thanked you for catching me ."

"You turned white as a sheet ." She chanced a quick look around. Any passers-by who had seen her little episode were gone, and now people went about their business, not paying any attention to them what- soever. Another face in the crowd. That was all she was. Yet this man—Mr. GQ—had seen her distress and come to her assistance. "I'm fine. Thanks for your help. I'm just going to sit a moment." She coolly dismissed him; his duty was discharged.

Solicitously he stepped back to let her by, but once she'd sat, surprised her by seating himself as well. "Do you need a doctor?"

Alex laughed. Oh, she did. But a doctor couldn't cure what was wrong with her. "No ."

The answer was definitive. By the way his shoulders straightened she knew he'd got the message loud and clear. Briefly she felt guilty for being blunt, so she offered a paltry, "But thanks again, Mr—?"

"Madsen. Connor Madsen." He held out his hand, unde- terred, inviting her to introduce herself.

She took his hand in hers. It was warm and solid and a little rough. Not a banker's hands, as she'd thought. Working hands. Solid hands.

"Alex ."

"Just Alex?"

His eyes were boring into her, and she stared straight ahead at the office building across the street.

"Yes. Just Alex ."

It wouldn't do to encourage him. In the early June heat her T-shirt clung to her, the hem on the sleeves heavy on her arms and the fabric pulling uncomfortably across her breasts. And what had possessed her to wear jeans today, of all things? Apparently such a heatwave this early in summer wasn't that uncommon, but for her the temperature only compounded the light-headedness and nausea.

Necessity had forced her wardrobe choice, plain and simple. Her shorts weren't comfortable any more, and at least in her jeans she could breathe. As silence fell, thick and awkward between them, the world threatened to tilt again. The feeling slowly passed as she took slow, deep breaths. "For the love of Mike—" she mumbled.

He laughed, a full-throated masculine sound that sent strange waves through her stomach. "So, just Alex? Intriguing name. Your parents want a boy or something?"

"Probably." She couldn't believe he was still here. After all, beyond the first fuzzy moment that she'd succumbed to his arms, she hadn't encouraged him at all. His attempt at polite conversation had done nothing but awaken an all- too familiar sadness, the heavy weight of regret every time she thought of her parents. "My full name is Alexis MacKenzie Grayson ."

"That's quite a name for a small thing like you." His eyes were warm on her and he twisted, angling himself toward her and bending a knee.

"Alex for Graham Bell and MacKenzie for the prime minister, you know? You planning on using it for the para- medics later? In case I faint again?"

He chuckled and shook his head. "You look much better, thank goodness. But you spilled your juice. Can I get you something else cool to drink?" His eyes wandered to the con- venience store behind them.

Her stomach rolled at the thought of a sugary sweet, slushy drink. Every teenager in a ten-block radius had been buying them today. The very idea of them hadAlex's tummy perform- ing a slow, sickening lurch. She pressed her lips together.

"Or are you hungry? There's a hot dog cart down the street ." She stood, desperately trying to get some fresh air while exorcising the thought of greasy hot dogs from her mind. But she rose too quickly, her blood pressure dipped, and she saw grey and black shapes behind her eyes once again.

His arms were there to steady her, but she dropped her paper bag to the ground, the contents falling out as they hit the concrete.

His fingers were firm on her wrist as he helped her sit back down. "Put your head between your legs," he demanded quietly, and for some reason she obeyed.

Alex avoided his eyes as she sat up moments later. "Sorry about that," she mumbled, completely mortified at the awkward silence that fell between them like a ton weight. This had to be an all-time low. Blacking out not once, but twice, in front of her own personal Knight in Shining Armor. And wasn't he annoying, this Mr. Perfect Chivalry, sitting there calm as you please?

She expected him to mumble his apologies and hurry away. Instead he knelt and began picking up what she'd dumped on the ground in her haste.

Oh, God. Her humiliation was complete as he paused, his hand on the plastic bottle of pre-natal vitamins. His eyes darted up, caught hers. In them she saw sudden understand- ing. Now, of course, it all made sense. At least it made sense to him. She was still trying to assimilate everything.

"Congratulations ."

Her smile was weak. He couldn't know. Couldn't know how her life had been turned completely upside down with a three-minute test only a few short weeks ago.

"Thank you ."

He watched her carefully as he sat again on the bench.

"You don't sound happy. Unplanned?"

She should end this conversation right here and now. He was, after all, a complete stranger.

"That's none of your business ."

He had no cause to know her personal troubles. It was her problem. And she'd solve it. Somehow.

"I beg your pardon. I was only trying to help ."

She grabbed the vitamins and shoved them into her purse.

"I didn't ask for your help ."

The pause was so long her scalp tingled under his scrutiny. "No, you didn't. But I offer it anyway ."

And who else was going to step up and give her a hand? She was alone, nearly destitute, and pregnant. She had no one waiting for her at home. Home, she thought sardonically. Now, there was an idea. She hadn't had a real home in a long time—too long. Five years, to be exact. Five years was a long time to be at loose ends.

At present she was sleeping on the floor of a friend of a friend. Her back protested every morning, but it was the best she could do for now. She'd find a way, though, she thought with a small smile. She always did, and had done since being left alone and without a penny to her name at eighteen.

Connor was a friendly face, and also the first person who actually seemed to care. Perhaps that was why she made the conscious choice to answer his question.

"Yes, this baby is unplanned. Very ."

"And the father?"
She looked out over the bustling street. "Not in the picture ." He studied her for a few moments before replying, "So you're alone?"

"Utterly and completely." Despair trickled through in her voice and she shored herself up. No sense dwelling on what couldn't be changed. Her voice was again strong and sure as she continued, "But I'll manage. I always do ."

Connor leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Surely your family will help you?"

"I have no family," she replied flatly, discouraging any further discussion of that topic. She had no one. Loneliness crept in, cold and heavy. Not one soul. Anyone she'd truly cared about in the world was gone. Sometimes she almost forgot, but now, faced with a pregnancy and no prospects, she'd never felt more isolated.

After a long silence, he spoke again. "Are you feeling better? Would you like some tea or something?" He smiled at her, friendly, and her heart gave a little foreign twist at this complete stranger's obvious caring and generosity.

"You needn't feel obligated. I'm fine now ."

"Humor me. you're still a bit pale, and it would make me feel better ."

It was a lifeline to hold on to. It wasn't like her life was a re- volving door of social invitations. "Tea might be nice, I guess ."

She looped her purse over her shoulder. "So where are we off to, Connor Madsen?"

"There's a little place around the next corner ."

She chuckled a little. "You use that line often?"

"I don't believe I've ever used it before, as a matter of fact ." He adjusted his long stride to her much shorter one.

"I wouldn't recommend using it again," she remarked dryly.

"you're coming with me, aren't you?" Connor shrugged out of his suit coat and draped it over an arm. "To be truthful, I don't spend much time in the city, picking up women. Or for any other reason, for that matter ."

He was wearing a white dress shirt that fit snugly over wide shoulders, then tapered, tucked into slim-waisted trousers. Alex hadn't believed men that good-looking actually existed, and here she was going for tea with one. One who had already seen her faint. She shook her head with amazement.

"So, if you're not from the city, where are you from?" Small talk. Small talk was safe and not too revealing. She could handle niceties.

"I run a ranch about two hours northwest of here ."

"Ah." Well, she certainly wouldn't have to worry about seeing him again after today. She'd be able to look back on it as a bizarre, fantastical dream. A Knight in Shining Chaps, it would seem.

She giggled, then clamped her mouth shut at his raised eyebrow. "Is this the place?" she asked, changing the subject.

"It is." He held the door—more good manners, it seemed— seated her at a table and went to get drinks.

The coffee shop was trendy, and didn't seem to suit either of them. She pictured him more as a local diner type, drinking black coffee from a thick white mug while some middle-aged waitress named Sheila read the specials of the day. Despite his formal appearance today, she got the impression that he wasn't totally comfortable in a suit.

In moments he returned with two steaming mugs—one of peppermint tea and one with straight black coffee. The café didn't suit her much either. She usually bought coffee from a vending machine, or drank it thick and black from behind the bar—not that she'd been drinking much lately. Still, she was touched and surprised that he'd thought to get her something herbal in deference to her pregnancy.

"Thanks for the peppermint. It was thoughtful of you ."

"I'll admit I asked the girl behind the counter for something uncaffeinated. And the peppermint might be, um, soothing ."

He handed her something wrapped in waxed paper. "I got you a cookie, just in case your blood sugar was low ."

Alex wondered how he knew so much about the biology of pregnancy as she unwrapped the long, dry biscotti and tried a nibble. It seemed safe. A sip of the peppermint tea con- firmed it. "Thanks. I think we're good ."

His shoulders relaxed. "I'm glad. I'd hate to have a repeat of earlier ."

She laughed a bit. "you'll have to find another method for your next damsel in distress ."

Connor sipped his coffee, sucking in his lips as the hot liquid burned. "You seemed to need it. Plus, my grandmother would flay me alive if I didn't help a lady in need ."

"I thought chivalry was dead?"

"Not quite." His smile was thin. "And this way I can pro- crastinate ."

"I beg your pardon?" She put down her mug and stared at him.

"I have a meeting this afternoon. I'd rather spend the af- ternoon shovelling— Well, you get the idea. I'm simply not looking forward to it ."

"Why?"

He avoided her prying eyes and stared out the window. "It's a long story." He turned back. "What about you? What are your plans for you and the baby?"

Harlequin; April 2013
192 pages; ISBN 9781459245822
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Hired by the Cowboy
Author: Donna Alward
 
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ISBNs
1426801319
9780373039548
9781426801310
9781459245822