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The Pregnant Ms. Potter Millie Criswell Place this quilt upon your bed and in one month you shall be wed…Pregnant and alone, Maddy Potter knew marriage wasn't in her near future–certainly not to Pete Taggart. The rude, arrogant–and she'd admit, protectively sexy–rancher would never ask her! Just because the handsome widower rescued her from a blizzard and she'd slept under his heirloom quilt for two nights did not mean anything would happen between them. Surely the quilt's legend wasn't real…?Pete had reasons for maintaining his status as one of Sweetheart, Colorado's most eligible bachelors. But seeing Maddy blossom with pregnancy shook him to the soul. A woman shouldn't be alone at a time like that. And he didn't have to love her to give her his name…did he? The legend at work… A kiss on the lips the bargain will seal, and undying love will the couple soon feel. This can’t be true, Maddy thought. She forced a nervous laugh. “You’re right. It was something your grandma made up.” She and Pete hadn’t kissed. They had nothing to worry about. “What is it? What does it say?” He tried to grab the paper, but she held it back and out of his reach. She tried to scoot away, but Pete lunged for her, grabbing her gently and pinning her down with his body. Pete no longer seemed interested in the paper. His lips were just inches away from hers. His intention reflected clearly in his eyes, and Maddy panicked. “Pete, wait! Don’t do it! You don’t under—” “Sorry, Maddy, but I’ve got to.” He covered her mouth with his own. Dear Reader, It’s February—the month of love. And what better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a Harlequin American Romance novel. This month’s selection begins with the latest installment in the RETURN TO TYLER series. Prescription for Seduction is what Darlene Scalera offers when sparks fly between a lovely virgin and a steadfast bachelor doctor. The Bride Said, “Surprise!” is another of Cathy Gillen Thacker’s THE LOCKHARTS OF TEXAS, and is a tender tale about a secret child who brings together two long-ago lovers. (Watch for Cathy’s single title, Texas Vows: A McCabe Family Saga, next month from Harlequin Books.) In Millie Criswell’s charming new romance, The Pregnant Ms. Potter is rescued from a blizzard by a protective rancher who takes her into his home—and into his heart. And in Longwalker’s Child by Debra Webb, a proud Native American hero is determined to claim the child he never knew existed, but first he has to turn the little girl’s beautiful guardian from his sworn enemy into his loving ally. So this February, treat yourself to all four of our wonderful Harlequin American Romance titles. And in March, look for Judy Christenberry’s Rent a Millionaire Groom, the first book in Harlequin American Romance’s new promotion, 2001 WAYS TO WED. Wishing you happy reading, Melissa Jeglinski Associate Senior Editor Harlequin American Romance The Pregnant Ms. Potter Millie Criswell www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ABOUT THE AUTHOR Millie Criswell didn’t start out to be a writer. Her greatest aspiration in life was to tap dance with the Rockettes. However, when that failed to work out, she put pen to paper and has authored eighteen bestselling, award-winning historical, category and contemporary romances. She has won numerous awards, including the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award, Reviewer’s Choice Award and the Maggie Award from Georgia Romance Writers. Millie has two grown children and resides with her husband in Virginia. Books by Millie Criswell HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE 810—THE WEDDING PLANNER 863—THE PREGNANT MS. POTTER HARLEQUIN HISTORICALS 508—THE MARRYING MAN The Taggart Wedding Ring Quilt Legend Place this quilt upon your bed and in one month you shall be wed. But if you think you’d rather not, Then a spinster’s life shall be your lot. A man and a woman who meet if by chance, Will soon be doing the marital dance. A kiss on the lips the bargain will seal, And undying love will the couple soon feel. —Grandma Maggie Taggart Contents Chapter One (#u8e869ed9-eb0a-54cf-8dff-b8f3fd0e5cec) Chapter Two (#uc224f394-b423-55c3-acbd-3089f9757ee5) Chapter Three (#u62c0666d-61ca-526b-a1e8-c03085a71421) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One Maddy Potter didn’t think her life could get any worse. Ha! What did she know? It wasn’t bad enough that she was eight weeks pregnant without a husband in sight—“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Now she was stranded in the middle of Nowhere, Colorado, in the clutches of a snowstorm—a whiteout, the radio had called it—and her chances of reaching her sister’s house in Leadville seemed non-existent. “Don’t even think about driving in this storm, little lady,” the car rental agent had told her two hours before. “Get yourself a nice warm hotel room somewhere near the airport and ride it out. It’s the sensible thing to do.” “Of course, when have I ever been sensible?” Maddy asked herself. Surely not when she had allowed passion to override good judgment and had given in to David Lassiter’s persistent pursuit, engaging in unprotected sex for the first time in her life. Well, not exactly unprotected. They had used a condom, but the damn thing broke right in the middle of everything. Just her luck. Stupid wasn’t really a strong enough sentiment to sum up how she felt about her behavior. Asinine was probably a better word. Or how about insane? That fit nicely, too. Heaving a sigh, Maddy’s hand moved to her belly, and she felt the tiny life growing inside her—David’s child. But David Lassiter was her boss at Lassiter, Owens and Cumberland, the third largest advertising firm in New York City, not her boyfriend, and certainly not her fiancé. He’d made it clear that he wasn’t looking for any entanglements, including, and most especially, a wife. Not that she was anxious to get married, either. She’d been doing fine on her own. Wonderful, in fact! She didn’t need a man to complicate things, to view her as competition, or worse, the little woman. But she thought it only fair that the father of her child be informed of his impending fatherhood. When she’d confided to David that she was pregnant, he hadn’t wasted any time in pulling out his checkbook and offering her a substantial amount of money for an abortion. “Unfeeling bastard!” she muttered, thinking back to the smug look on his face. If he hadn’t been such a jerk, threatening her with her job and making it clear that there was no room in his life for a child, she wouldn’t have run off like a frightened teenager two weeks before Christmas to seek comfort in the arms of the one person she knew she could count on: her older sister, Mary Beth. And it sure as heck hadn’t been sensible to drive through a snowstorm knowing how little experience she had operating a car in such conditions. She lived in New York City, for heaven’s sake! What did she know about driving? She took taxis and the subway when she needed to get somewhere; she didn’t even own a car. “Well, Maddy, you dolt! You’ve really gone and done it this time.” The snow was piled so thickly on the windshield that she couldn’t see a foot in front of her, let alone the surrounding countryside. She knew only that she’d taken Highway 24 from the airport in Colorado Springs—Denver’s Stapleton had been closed due to the storm—and an hour later had taken a wrong turn onto a secondary road, hit a patch of icy pavement and careened into a ditch when she’d foolishly applied the brakes too hard. One of the front wheels had come off and the car was listing to one side. It was not driveable and the rental people were not going to be pleased—if, in fact, she ever saw them or anyone again. At this point she had her doubts. “Okay, God, I need a little help here. It’s true, I screwed up, but now I need your help. This precious baby growing inside me shouldn’t be punished for my stupidity. I admit what I did was wrong, so give me a break.” Maddy glanced down at the red leather purse on the seat next to her—a Coach bag, the symbol of her success. She remembered how happy she’d been when she had finally earned enough money to buy it. Not that such things mattered now. Nothing mattered now except surviving. Reaching into her purse, she extracted her cellular phone, wondering if it still worked, praying it did. If she could reach her sister, Mary Beth’s husband, Lyle, could come fetch her. Lyle was smart and sensible—the salt-of-the-earth type. He’d know what to do. Grateful the phone’s battery appeared to be working, she punched in the Randolph’s number and hit send. It started ringing at once, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Her spurt of excitement was short-lived, however, for when the call was answered, it wasn’t Mary Beth or Lyle, but a female operator. “I’m sorry but your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and dial again.” She did, twelve different times. And twelve different times she got the same message. Then the phone conked out completely. Maddy wasn’t the type of woman who usually gave in to tears. She was the take-charge type, always in control of a situation, and a damn good advertising executive. Of course, she’d never been stranded in the middle of a blizzard with nothing to eat—her stomach grumbled, making it abundantly clear that it wanted to be fed; a useless cell phone—she tossed the offending object into the back seat; and a bladder that was full to bursting—she crossed her ankles and gritted her teeth. Then she started singing at the top of her lungs. Maddy always sang when she was nervous. She began with Silent Night, then moved on to Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and ended with a screeching chorus of O Holy Night that would have made a dog howl had there been one in the vicinity. But the festive songs hadn’t made her predicament any more bearable. If anything, they made it worse, for she realized she just might not make it until Christmas. And that made her mad. “Okay, God, you’ve had your laugh. Now, how about helping me out? I said I was sorry. I admitted to being stupid. What more do you want?” It was at that low point when she thought she would surely die of exposure—you couldn’t keep your engine idling or you’d die of carbon monoxide poisoning, she knew that much—when a light suddenly flashed through her windshield. The beam was muted because of the snow, but it appeared to be from headlights, truck headlights, if she wasn’t mistaken. The roar of the diesel engine was distinctive. She knew about diesel engines because she’d once designed an ad campaign for Ford Motor Company. “Hello!” a male voice called out, becoming clearer as her rescuer approached the vehicle. “Is anyone there?” Heart pounding, she banged on the driver’s side window. “Yes! I’m here! Please help me!” She tried to open the door, but the snow piled against it made that impossible. He banged twice on the roof, she thought to reassure her, for which she was grateful. “Hang on. I’m coming around the other side of the car. I’ll try to get the door open. Looks like you’ve busted an axel.” few moments later, and not without a great deal of cursing, he pried open the door. Maddy breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, God!” she mouthed, blinking back tears and scooting toward the man standing there. He was tall, blue eyed and covered with snow, and she’d never seen anything or anyone look so wonderful. PETE TAGGART SHOOK HIS HEAD as he helped the woman out of her vehicle. She had on high heels—high heels, for Pete’s sake!—a navy-blue suit with little gold buttons, and a raincoat that may have had a woolen liner in it, but he couldn’t be certain. Based on what he’d seen so far, he doubted it. City girl, he thought, curling his lip disdainfully. “You’ll never be able to walk in those shoes, ma’am. Put your arms around my neck, and I’ll carry you to the truck.” She shook her head. “That’s n-not ne-neces…cessary.” The woman’s teeth were chattering. “I c-can man-manage.” “Dammit! Of course, it’s necessary, or I wouldn’t have said so. Now quit being stubborn and do as I say, or we’re both going to freeze to death.” Since the snow was nearly up to her knees, she finally nodded and held out her arms. With ease, he lifted her, but it took a lot more concentration and muscle to maneuver his way back to the pickup. The snow had drifted several feet in some places, making the going slow and arduous. When they finally reached the three-quarter-ton truck, he lifted her onto the front bench seat, slammed the door shut and seated himself behind the wheel. “You’re lucky I came down this road this afternoon, or you’d probably have frozen to death. The road’s private and doesn’t get much in the way of traffic. And the way your car looks you won’t be driving it for awhile.” “Th-thank you,” she managed, holding her hands out to the heater vent. The hot air pricked her skin like needles as it thawed her hands. “I didn’t mean to trespass. I was on my way to my sister’s in Leadville, and I guess I took a wrong turn.” He whistled. “Leadville? You’re hell and gone from Leadville. You’re on Taggart land, ma’am. I’m Pete Taggart, owner of this cattle ranch.” The pride in his voice was unmistakable. She’d heard pride like that voiced by her own father many times before. She wasn’t impressed then, and she wasn’t now. “I don’t really know how I ended up here.” “It’s easy to lose your bearings during a whiteout. I’m just glad I was checking on my ornery bull, Henry, and had reason to come this far from the house.” She found it endearing that he named his animals. Maybe he wasn’t such a hard-ass after all. Maddy forced a smile, though her frozen face felt as if it would crack from the effort. “I’m Madeline Potter, but most people call me Maddy.” He kept his eyes riveted on the road in front of him as he talked. “Whatever possessed you to drive in weather like this? A person should have more sense than that. Of course, women don’t.” Maddy stiffened, unable to believe what she was hearing. “I beg your pardon?” “You heard me right. Most women don’t have a lick of sense when it comes to practical things, like the elements. Like wearing proper clothing and shoes.” He gazed at her high heels once again and shook his head, not bothering to hide his disdain. “Looks like you’re one of those women.” The heat flaming her cheeks and body had Maddy thawing out quickly. “I’m an advertising executive from New York City, I’ll have you know. And I’m extremely intelligent. I graduated with honors from Vassar.” She wouldn’t waste her breath telling him about having to work three jobs simultaneously on top of the heavy class load she carried, or the numerous loans she’d taken out to achieve her goal. She doubted Cowboy Pete would give a hoot or a holler. “Is that so? And did they teach you at Vassar to drive through blizzards and risk your fool neck?” Pete knew he was being unreasonably hard—he didn’t know the woman, after all—but he had good reasons. The best of reasons. “What they taught me was to be independent, which I am. And to compete in a man’s world, which I’ve done, quite successfully, thank you very much. They also taught me about male chauvinists who don’t like women. Men such as yourself, Mr. Taggart.” “Oh, I like women just fine, Miz Potter, ma’am,” he replied, exaggerating the feminist moniker. “I like ’em hot, naked and under me.” Maddy swallowed her gasp, her lips thinning. “You, Mr. Taggart, are…are…never mind. You just are.” She didn’t want to anger the Neanderthal and find herself dumped back out in the snow, so she kept her unflattering opinion to herself. She doubted a man with a head as thick as a tree trunk would listen anyway. Pete grinned, noting the heightened color to her cheeks. “I suspect so, ma’am. But I know when to come out of the rain, or, in this case, snow.” “I admit it was foolish of me to attempt driving to Mary Beth’s house during the storm, but I was anxious to see my sister. And I wasn’t planning on getting lost or having my car skid off the road.” “Hit the brakes, did you? Didn’t your daddy ever teach you never to hit the brakes during a skid?” Maddy counted silently to ten, unclenched her teeth and said, “My daddy, as you refer to my father, Mr. Taggart, was more enamored with raising his prized Duroc pigs than with raising me or my sister, or teaching us how to drive. That task fell to my mother.” Most things having to do with Maddy or Mary Beth had fallen to their mother, and it had come as no surprise when Sarah Potter’s heart had finally given out, from a defective valve, the doctors had said. But Maddy felt her mother’s death had really been caused by Andrew Potter’s indifference and self-absorption, his total lack of awareness where others were concerned. Another grievance in a long list of grievances to heap upon her father’s head. The hurt in Maddy Potter’s voice was unmistakable, so Pete backed off. The woman obviously had some unresolved issues with her old man, and he wasn’t interested in hearing them. “It’s not much farther to the house. Once you’ve had a hot bath and hearty meal, you’re going to feel a whole lot better.” A hot bath! Was the man insane? She had no intention of taking off her clothes in a stranger’s house. Not that she could, even if she wanted to. Her suitcase was still in the trunk of the rental car—something she neglected to mention. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Taggart, but I’ll just use your phone, if that’s all right, and be on my way. I wouldn’t want to cause you any more trouble.” “Afraid that’s not going to be possible, ma’am,” he said, and Maddy knew a moment of fear. After all, she didn’t know this man from Adam. He could be a rapist or sadistic killer, although, he certainly didn’t seem to be. What he seemed to be was rude, arrogant, the Marlboro man come to life. Nervous, she started humming Jingle Bells, and he looked at her strangely. “Phone lines are down and the electricity’s out. I suspect we won’t have phone service again for weeks. Fir and pine trees have been snapping like twigs all morning and afternoon. And the forecast is for at least six to eight more inches of snow before morning. I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere for a while.” The dismay she felt reflected in her voice. “But—but my clothes are back in the car. And my sister is expecting me.” That wasn’t quite the truth. She’d never gotten around to calling Mary Beth. She didn’t want to get into any explanations about why she was coming until she could speak to her sister in person. It was a conversation she dreaded having. Mary Beth had always been so proud of Maddy’s accomplishments, of her working her way through college and making something of herself in the business world. And Mary Beth, who desperately wanted a child, couldn’t conceive one, while Maddy had had no such problem. The conversation wouldn’t be easy on several levels. “It would have been helpful, ma’am, if you’d mentioned about the clothes while we were back at the car.” He didn’t bother to hide his exasperation. “It’s going to be a while before we can get her towed.” Perhaps weeks, Pete thought. Willis Helmsley’s tow truck was about as reliable as Willis, who wasn’t very. She turned her attention back to him. “I wasn’t thinking beyond surviving, Mr. Taggart. I’m sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you.” “I’m not the one without any clothes, Miz Potter. But I’m sure we can find something for you to wear.” He still had all of Bethany’s clothing stored up in the attic, but he wouldn’t offer her any of those garments. Even after four years, memories of Bethany were painful. And the anger still festered like an open wound that would never heal. Pete wasn’t sure he wanted it to. The anger at least made him feel alive. And it served as a constant reminder of how stubborn, self-centered and foolish women could be. THE MULTICOLORED, four-story Victorian house stood out amidst the pristine white snow. It had been painted a buttery yellow with dark green shutters, its gingerbread trim accented in a deep cinnamon color. And it was hardly the house Maddy expected rugged rancher Pete Taggart to own. A log cabin would have suited the man much better. Or better yet—a cave! “It looks like something out of a fairy tale,” she remarked, instantly enamored of the wide wraparound front porch, which probably sported a swing in the warmer months. She secretly dreamed of owning such a house but knew her modern, efficient cubicle of a Manhattan apartment would have to do. “Thanks. It’s been in the family for generations. My great-grandmother Maggie Taggart had it built with the intention that a Taggart would always live in it.” “Then she was lucky her offspring produced males.” Pete laughed, and his face took on an entirely different appearance. With his dark hair, light blue eyes and chiseled features, he was already ridiculously handsome. But now those features were relaxed, his eyes smiling, and he looked almost appealing. “Luck had nothing to do with it, or so I’ve been told. Great-grandma Maggie was a determined woman. She wouldn’t have accepted anything less than a grandson from either one of her boys.” “Hard to believe you dislike women so much when you’ve got such a sterling example of womanhood as your ancestor. I doubt your great-grandmother would have approved of your attitude.” He said nothing, but his mouth set in a grim line, indicating his displeasure. Great! Maddy thought, wondering why she just didn’t learn to keep her mouth shut and her opinions to herself. Of course, there were some people—CEOs of large corporations, for example—who paid a lot of money to hear those very opinions. She’d been on the fast track with Lassiter, Owens and Cumberland until her pregnancy had caused a derailment and brought her career to a screeching halt. But she refused to think about that now. It was too depressing! Better to pull a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it later, tomorrow, never! Hauling Maddy into the house like a sack of feed, Pete deposited her in the center of the front hallway, where they were immediately assaulted by a barking, tail-wagging mutt. Smiling at the dog, he bent over to scratch him behind the ear and was rewarded with several enthusiastic swipes of his tongue. “This is Rufus. He’s harmless. And he likes women.” The homely creature wasn’t a true Taggart then, Maddy thought uncharitably. “Make yourself at home. Guest room’s on the left at the top of the stairs. There’s a bath attached and a clean robe hanging on the back of the door, if you want to take a hot soak. I’ll be back in a bit. I’ve got to check on my animals. Make sure they’re okay. Come on, Rufus.” He whistled for the dog, who followed him loyally to the door, though Maddy sensed he’d rather be anywhere but outside in the cold snow. She nodded, too startled to say much else. And what she was tempted to say could only get her into a great deal of trouble, of which she had plenty already. “Thank you,” she finally managed, watching all six feet two inches of him disappear out into the frigid snowstorm. Removing her shoes, Maddy wiggled her frozen toes, then padded across hardwood floors, inspecting first one room then another. The front parlor was filled with antique furnishings; knickknacks and framed photographs hung on rose-and-green-floral-papered walls. The Taggart family, she assumed, studying an old daguerreotype of two handsome men who looked enough alike to be brothers. Goodness, but the Taggart men had great genes! After making use of the bathroom, she entered the kitchen, where she found the makings for tea. Deciding to take Pete Taggart at his word, Maddy proceeded to make herself at home. She was still cold, despite the fact the house was warmed by a very efficient woodstove. As she waited for the kettle of water to boil, she plopped down on one of the pine ladder-backed chairs at the long trestle table, which had seen some use over the years, judging from the deep scars and nicks, and surveyed the large room. It had all the modern conveniences one would expect of a kitchen, but still retained an old-fashioned charm with the heart-of-pine cabinets and wide-planked pine flooring, covered in part by a round multicolored braided rug. Shiny copper pots hung over the center island, and cheery apple-patterned curtains framed the window over the double cast-iron sink. The teapot whistled, and finding tea bags in one of the copper canisters on the counter, she fixed herself a cup of the steaming liquid. “Heavenly,” she murmured after taking a sip, allowing the warmth to penetrate and consume her. The back door slammed shut, and Maddy turned to find her host entering the kitchen, Rufus following close on his heels. The dog flopped down on the braided rug and promptly went to sleep. Pete had removed his jacket and boots, but his denims were soaked from the snow; they hugged his muscular thighs in a very intriguing fashion. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, not liking where her thoughts had traveled. If there was one thing she didn’t need right now, it was another complication. “I made myself some tea.” His face was chapped red, and he looked chilled to the bone. “Don’t mind at all, if you’re sharing.” He blew into his hands to warm them. She filled a ceramic mug with hot water and a tea bag, then set it down before him. “It’s a good thing you’ve got gas appliances, or we’d really be in a fix with the power out.” “Only the stove’s gas, the rest are electric, so we’re still in a fix. But I’ve got plenty of kerosene lanterns, and the woodstove and fireplaces will keep the house warm.” “Guess you’re used to this kind of storm.” Pete shrugged, trying not to notice the way her soft brown hair, shot with streaks of gold, framed a very lovely face, or the way her eyes, the color of green clover, sparkled prettily. “I should be. I’ve had to live with them for thirty-six years.” “Is there a town close by? I couldn’t see much of the surrounding area, with the way the snow was blowing. I need to get my car repaired.” “Sweetheart’s about twelve miles to the west of us. It’s small, so there aren’t many amenities. If you want things like malls and movie theaters, you’ve got to drive to Colorado Springs or Canyon City, and I wouldn’t hold your breath about the car. If Willis can tow it out, and that’s a big if, it’s doubtful he’ll have the parts to make the repairs right away. He’ll have to order them from Denver, and that could take a while. Plus, Willis has a real aversion to working in cold weather.” Maddy was genuinely concerned. “But I need my car. I need to—” “No sense trying to buck the weather, and no use worrying over things you can’t control.” “But I don’t want to be an imposition, Mr. Taggart. Is there a motel or an inn nearby where I can stay?” Pete nodded. “There’s the Sweetheart Inn and Flannery’s Motel.” At her sigh of relief he added, “But they’re both full, because of the Christmas holidays. Looks like you’re stuck with me—for now.” “Oh, I couldn’t…” “Sweetheart’s not New York City, and that’s a fact, Miz Potter. I guess you’ll find that out soon enough.” Sweetheart. There was a story behind that name, she’d bet money on it. Maddy thought about all the advertising possibilities it proffered and smiled to herself. “Sounds familiar. I grew up in a small farming community in Iowa.” And hated every minute of it. She’d left as soon as she turned eighteen, not that her father would’ve noticed. Her mother had died by then, and Mary Beth had married her high school sweetheart, Lyle Randolph, so there’d been nothing to keep her there, certainly not Andrew Potter, whose only passion in life had been pigs. She’d read once that an actress had been jealous of her famous ventriloquist father’s dummy while she was growing up, which was exactly how Maddy had felt about her dad’s stupid swine. He’d treated those pigs with far more affection than he’d ever shown her. Her father was still living alone on the farm, still tending his pigs. Mary Beth kept in contact with him, but he and Maddy hadn’t spoken in years. They’d never had all that much to say to each other. Nothing good, anyway. “New York must have been quite a culture shock after Iowa,” Pete remarked, drawing her attention back. “At first, but I’ve grown to love it. It’s got a heartbeat all its own. And you never feel alone there.” Lonely, but never alone. “I went there once with my—” He almost said wife, but caught himself just in time. Pete didn’t like discussing Bethany with strangers, with anyone really. If Maddy noticed, she didn’t let on. “Didn’t much like it,” he said finally. Maddy continued sipping her tea. “Guess it’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not tranquil like this. How do you stand it? I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep without horns honking outside my bedroom window all night.” He studied her thoughtfully for several moments, seemed disturbed about something, then pushed back his chair and said, “If you’re done, I’ll show you to your room. It’s got a fireplace, so you should be warm enough. Tomorrow I’ll try to hook up the generator.” “I’m truly sorry to be such an imposition, Mr. Taggart. It’s kind of you to put me up.” “We don’t turn away stranded folks out here in the country, ma’am, so you needn’t apologize. And you may as well call me Pete, seeing as how we’ll be living together for an indefinite period of time.” The very idea of their “living together” was disconcerting, if not downright alarming, but she nodded anyway, following him up the stairs, thinking that it would be glorious to take off her wet stockings and soak her feet in a tub of hot water. “Where is your room located, if you don’t mind my asking?” His smile grew teasing. “Why, right next door to yours. But you needn’t worry about locking your door. I think I’ll be able to control myself.” Her face flamed. “I wasn’t trying to imply—” “If you need anything, just give a holler. And if you’re hungry, there’re sandwich makings in the cooler out on the back porch.” He walked away then, leaving Maddy to stare at the audacious man’s broad back and wonder how she was going to survive in his company for even one more day, let alone an indeterminate length of time. Chapter Two Garbed in a green-and-white Sweetheart High School football jersey and thick woolen socks that Pete had provided for her the night before, and which were undoubtedly his, judging by the reluctant expression on his face when he’d handed them to her, Maddy made her way across the cold bedroom floor toward the bathroom. The fire in the hearth had gone out hours before, and the ice smothering the windowpanes promised another day of snow and below-freezing temperatures. How long was she going to have to remain stranded here? Maddy wondered. Not that she wasn’t grateful for Pete Taggart’s hospitality, because she was, but she needed to get to her sister’s, needed to fix the mess she’d made of her life. If she could. And that was a very big if. Pushing open the bathroom door, she let loose a scream. Pete Taggart was standing half-naked on the other side of it, looking like a Greek Adonis come to life. Her hand went to her throat, and her eyes widened. “Wha—what are you doing here?” “Ouch! Dammit!” he cursed, razor in hand, turning away from the mirror over the sink to look at her startled expression. “What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m shaving, that’s what I’m doing.” He looked quite annoyed as he blotted the bloody nick on his face with a tissue. “You might try knocking next time, instead of just barging in.” Her jaw dropped as she took in his thickly muscled chest lightly sprinkled with hair, corded biceps, and the towel that hung precariously low on his hips, which barely covered his— “Deck the halls with boughs of holly…” She didn’t want to think about what it barely covered. Not this early in the morning. “I—I thought this was my bathroom.” “Guess I should have made myself clearer. It’s our bathroom. It adjoins the two bedrooms. But you’re welcome to use it. When I’m not in it.” She tried to avert her gaze, but that meant she had to look into his mesmerizing blue eyes. “You might have told me that we’d be sharing this bathroom. That would have been the gentlemanly, civilized thing to do.” The sexy grin flashing across his face told her more than words that there wasn’t a civilized bone in Pete Taggart’s muscular, oh-so-very-fine body. “Never been accused of being civilized, Miz Potter, ma’am.” “You infuriate me, Mr. Taggart,” she admitted, reaching up to secure the scrunchie that had come loose during the night, and hearing him suck in his breath. Pete’s gaze zeroed in on her long, shapely legs, and his eyes filled with heat. “I wouldn’t be raising your arms up like that, if I were you, ma’am, or you might be revealing more than you were intending.” Not that he minded the view. It had been a long time since he’d entertained a pretty woman in his bedroom, or bathroom, for that matter. Maddy slammed the door shut in his face, but she could still hear Pete’s laughter coming through, and it filled her with outrage. Sucking in huge gulps of air, she ran to the brass cheval mirror standing in the corner and lifted her arms, observing the effect. Then she gasped. “Good Lord!” The jersey barely covered her thighs! Why hadn’t she noticed that before? Oh no! What the man must be thinking! WHAT THE MAN WAS THINKING was something Maddy was better off not knowing. His thoughts were X-rated, to say the least. Pete had already cursed himself many times over for finding the woman attractive. Attractive, headstrong and intelligent, despite what he’d told her. A deadly combination. He’d sworn off women four years ago, and he didn’t need this temptation, this complication in his life right now. His self-imposed celibacy—the butt of many a joke by his two younger brothers—was taking its toll. And having a half-naked woman flaunting herself at him was not helping matters in the least. Just because she hadn’t intended to flaunt didn’t matter. Flaunting was flaunting, no matter how you looked at it. And he sure as heck liked looking at it—her—which resulted in some pretty predictable results. Just thinking about how she’d looked all warm and tousled from bed and dressed in his old football jersey was enough to weaken his resolve and harden his member. “Damn!” Pete fiddled with the gauges on the generator as he tried to figure out why it didn’t work and cursed again. “Why?” he asked himself. Why now when he was just getting his head back together? His heart would never mend, but he figured he could live with that. Four years. Four years since Bethany’s death, since the death of their unborn child, and the pain still festered, as if it had only been yesterday. “I’m sorry, Pete,” Dr. Reynolds had told him when he’d entered the ER that rainy afternoon four years ago. “Bethany didn’t survive the crash.” “And the baby?” The old man had shaken his head, and there was pity in his eyes. “Both dead. I’m sorry, son.” Pete blamed himself for their deaths. If he hadn’t been arguing with Bethany over her new job at the radio station, if she hadn’t run off half-cocked during the middle of a severe thunderstorm… If, if, if. Too many ifs and not enough answers. None that would suffice anyway. His wife and child were gone. Though he took his fair share of responsibility for what had happened, he blamed Bethany more. She’d always been headstrong, bent on having her own way about working after they were married. She hadn’t been content to be “just a rancher’s wife” and had told him as much after they were married. She wanted to contribute, to make her mark in the world, to have it all. The futility of what had happened angered Pete. Waste always sickened him. And Bethany’s death had been a waste, and so totally unnecessary. He didn’t want to think about the loss his unborn child’s death had created. His son. His child who would never see his first sunrise, kiss a girl, play baseball, go fishing with his old man. His throat clogged, his chest ached, and he shook the painful thoughts away, though he knew they would return. They always did. “Give it up, Taggart. It’s over. Learn to live with it.” But it would never be over. Not for him. PETE WAS NOWHERE to be found when Maddy finally mustered the courage to descend from her upstairs hideaway to the kitchen. After her humiliating encounter with him, she wanted to hide forever. But she was starving. She wasn’t sure if Pete had had anything to eat, either, and so decided to take matters into her own hands and cook breakfast. She found eggs, cheese and bacon in the cooler on the back porch, as well as a carton of orange juice. “We’re saved, Rufus,” she told the shaggy dog asleep on the rug. He cocked an eye open at the sound of his name, then promptly resumed his snoring. Well, what could she expect? The dog had been living with Taggart and had no doubt picked up all his worst habits and lack of social skills. There was hot coffee in the pot on the stove, and she poured herself a cup before scrambling the eggs. Tossing a few slices of bacon into the cast-iron skillet she found in the drawer beneath the oven, she proceeded to make culinary magic. Maddy might not be good at reading a map or driving a car in a snowstorm, but she was an excellent cook. And she intended to prove that to the snotty, opinionated, woman-hating rancher. “Something sure smells good,” Pete said upon entering the kitchen fifteen minutes later, taking in the apron that had once belonged to his mother wrapped around Maddy Potter’s waist and smiling inwardly. It wasn’t quite as charming as the football jersey, but it was pretty darn cute. She’d changed back into her suit, minus the heels, and plus the woolen socks he’d loaned her. “I wasn’t sure if you’d eaten, so I decided to make us some breakfast,” she explained. “I hope you don’t mind.” “Don’t mind at all, as long as it’s edible.” Being a woman didn’t necessarily guarantee competency in the kitchen. Pete had learned that painful lesson shortly after he’d married. Bethany hadn’t been able to boil water without burning it. She’d learned eventually, but hadn’t enjoyed cooking, which resulted in her not being very good at it. “I assure you that I cook much better than I drive, Mr. Taggart.” He snorted. “Pete.” “Only if you call me Maddy.” Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he took a sip. “Guess I can do that.” “Were you out feeding the animals?” He shook his head. “Fed ’em at six. I was down in the basement trying to get the generator started. I’ve just about got it licked.” “Then we’ll have electricity, right?” Most people, herself included, took modern conveniences for granted, until they went without. At the moment she would have given a great deal to be able to use her hair dryer. Mr. Kenneth, her stylist back in New York, would have had a conniption if he’d seen Maddy’s hair fashioned in something as unchic as a ponytail. Once, when she had visited his salon with her hair pulled back, he’d rudely informed her that she looked like a horse’s behind. New York City stylists rarely minced words. “As long as the gas holds out. Don’t know how much is in there, and I can’t afford to siphon any out of the truck. We may need it for an emergency.” While she continued to cook, Pete set the table and poured the juice. “Haven’t done this for a while.” “Me, neither,” she admitted. “I usually just grab a bagel and cream cheese on my way to work. I rarely have time to cook anymore. And it seems silly to cook for one person anyway.” He tilted back on the chair’s hind legs. “So, you’re not married?” She shook her head. “No. Are you?” “Was.” And that was all he said, making her wonder what had happened to Mrs. Pete Taggart. Setting the bowl of scrambled eggs and platter of sizzling hickory-smoked bacon on the table, Maddy seated herself across from him. The domesticity of the situation didn’t escape her. “I’m grateful for your hospitality, Pete. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t happened along.” “Probably frozen to death would be my guess.” But he softened the words with a grin. “Always happy to help a lady in distress.” A pretty lady, he should have said, but knew he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. “I’m happy to do my fair share around here. I don’t want to be a burden. I can help with the chores, cook and clean. And I’ve got some money to help pay for the groceries, if you don’t mind taking a check. I didn’t bring much cash with me.” “Don’t need your money or your help with the animals, though I appreciate the offer. But if you want to cook, that’s fine with me. That’s one chore I hate doing.” Pete’s brother was fond of saying that his beef stew tasted worse than fresh horse droppings. And John ought to know since he was Sweetheart’s one and only vet. “I—” Suddenly Maddy placed her hand over her mouth, and all color drained from her face. “What’s wrong?” Pete’s eyes widened, then filled with concern at her pasty appearance. “Are you going to be sick or something?” He looked horrified at the prospect. Not daring to answer, she nodded, then raced for the bathroom, where she promptly gave up what she’d just eaten. While she was still retching into the toilet, Pete came up behind her and handed her a damp wash cloth. “You got the flu?” Wiping her mouth, she faced him, feeling mortified and afraid. The concern on his face made her eyes fill with tears. “I wish it were that simple.” “Food allergies, huh? I hear they’re pretty common. My mom used to be allergic to eggs.” There was no sense in lying or trying to hide the truth. Not when they had to live in the same house together. She took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant.” “Pregnant!” Paling visibly, fear entered his eyes, which he masked with anger. “You’re pregnant and you were out driving in a snowstorm! How smart is that?” He turned away from her then, stalked back into the kitchen and began cursing under his breath. Not knowing what else to do, she followed. “I’m sorry to have blurted it out like that. This is my first bout of morning sickness. I’ve been fine up till now.” His fingers gripped the countertop as he stared unseeing out the window at the falling snow. When he finally got his emotions back under control he turned to face her. “I thought you said you weren’t married.” Her ashen cheeks filled with color. “I’m not. It’s not a prerequisite these days.” “Does your boyfriend know?” “David’s not my boyfriend. He’s my boss. And he knows. He told me to have an abortion and not to come back to work until I had ‘solved my little problem,’ I believe was how he put it.” “You must a either been drunk-on-your-ass or crazy-in-love to have gone to bed with an ass like that.” “I was neither. And you forgot stupid. Stupid seems to be the operative word.” He glanced down at her abdomen, which was still flat as a board. He knew it wouldn’t remain like that for much longer. Soon she’d be softly rounded, her breasts would enlarge, her skin would turn rosy and radiant. He remembered, all too well. “You’re not very far along.” “Eight weeks. Look, Pete, I’m sorry to have dumped this on you, on top of everything else. It’s my problem and I’ll deal with it.” “And that’s why you were going to Leadville to see your sister? To tell her about ‘your problem’?” She heaved a sigh. “Mary Beth’s the only family I’ve got. I haven’t seen my dad in years. I—I need to talk to her, get some perspective on what I should do.” She needed a hug and consolation, and knew she’d get both from Mary Beth. Along with a large dose of levelheadedness. “Sounds like you’ve already decided not to have an abortion.” “I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to the baby. He or she can’t help who their father is, or that their mother is an irresponsible lunatic.” She looked so distraught that he wrapped a comforting arm about her shoulder and helped her back to the chair. Pete didn’t believe in kicking a body when it was already down, and Maggie looked about as low as a person could get at the moment. Besides, who was he to moralize? He’d certainly made his fair share of mistakes. “Sit here. I’ll get you a glass of milk. That’ll probably go down a lot better than the orange juice. And you should eat some dry toast. I’ll fix it.” “You can’t use the toaster.” “I’m an Eagle Scout. I’ll improvise.” And he did, using the open flame of the gas jet to toast the bread golden brown. “Tha…thank you.” His being nice made her want to cry, but she forced back the tears threatening to spill. She didn’t think Pete Taggart was the kind of man who did well with tears and weepy women. Placing the milk and toast in front of her, he sat down beside her. “Eat. You’ll feel better.” “I really think I should go. I—” “No! I’ll not have another—” The wounded look in his eyes gave her pause. He continued, “Have you looked outside? It’s still snowing like crazy. You won’t be going anywhere for a good long while, Maddy, so you may as well just get used to the idea that you’re stuck here with me.” “But my clothes, the car…” She’d never felt so helpless. But at least she wasn’t alone, and for that she was grateful. “I’ll saddle one of the draft horses and see if I can fetch your clothes. The car’ll have to remain where it is, until Willis can tow it into town. Trust me. No one’s going to bother it. Even a snowplow would have difficulty getting back in here now.” “Quit trying to cheer me up.” She forced a strained smile. He flicked the end of her nose and returned the smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Miz Potter, ma’am.” This was just getting better and better, Maddy thought after he’d departed. Not only was she pregnant and unmarried, sick to her stomach and stuck out in the middle of nowhere with an arrogant rancher two weeks before Christmas, but she was starting to like Pete Taggart. And that would never do. “I DON’T THINK YERK is a word. Are you sure you’re not trying to cheat by making that up?” Dressed in the jeans and blue cashmere sweater Pete had fetched from the rental car, Maddy was lying flat on her stomach in front of the parlor fireplace facing him, the Scrabble board situated between them. “Of course, it’s a word. I admit, not many people use it, but it’s definitely a word.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Guess I’m gonna have to challenge, then.” She smiled confidently. “Go ahead. But if you’re wrong, I’m going to get the extra points, which means I’ll win the game.” While Pete studied the dictionary, Maddy turned toward the fire, resting her head on her palm and staring into the blue and orange flames. Playing Scrabble had been Pete’s idea, and she was having a wonderful time beating him. Of course, she’d never before played Scrabble or any other board game by firelight and lantern light—the generator still wasn’t fixed—which made the experience all that more fun and challenging. “You win,” he conceded. “Still can’t believe yerk is a word. But it says right here—‘to beat vigorously, thrash.’” He slammed the dictionary closed. “So, how about a game of cards, say strip poker? I’m better at that.” There was a twinkle in his eye, making Maddy laugh, something she hadn’t done in quite a while. “Maybe some other time. I’m too full from dinner right now to strip.” “Those roast beef sandwiches you made were pretty good.” “And don’t forget the chicken noodle soup. I’m dynamite with a can opener and water.” “What shall we do now? It’s too early to go to bed.” Though going to bed with Maddy Potter would be a helluva lot more stimulating than playing board games. Stimulating but not smart. She glanced up at the tall grandfather clock ticking away in the far corner. “Eight’s a bit early for me, too.” She thought a moment. “Got any marshmallows? I love roasting marshmallows. And we could have some hot chocolate, if you’ve got any.” “Wait here,” he said, launching himself to his feet, grateful to have something to take his mind off the tightening in his groin. “I can do better than that.” He returned a few minutes later, carrying a large wooden tray containing a box of graham crackers, a few chocolate bars and a bag of marshmallows. “No hot chocolate, but I’ve got the fixings for s’mores.” “Ooh!” she said, clapping her hands. “I haven’t fixed those since I was a kid.” He removed the fireplace screen and handed her a long metal skewer. My mom loved doing this, so she had my dad make her some ‘marshmallow sticks,’ as she called them.” The memory brought a sad smile to his face. His mother had died three years ago from breast cancer. First Bethany, then his mom. All the women in his life were gone. It had been a hard burden to bear. They sat shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence, Rufus nestled right up against Maddy’s back. When Maddy bit into her first s’more she made a moan of satisfaction that went straight to Pete’s lap. “These are yummy! I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.” With her hair in a ponytail and an exuberant smile on her face, Maddy looked like a teenager, not a twenty-nine-year-old woman who was going to have a child. He cleared his throat. “Uh, have you been having any weird cravings lately?” he asked, trying to get his mind back on track. She shook her head. “Not really. I eat just about everything anyway, so there’s not much I crave.” “How do you feel about having this baby? Are you happy now that you’ve gotten used to the idea?” She looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Who says I’m used to the idea? My body’s still the same as it was. I’ll probably feel a whole lot different when my belly grows to the size of a watermelon and my breasts—” She caught herself just in time. What on earth was she doing discussing breasts with a virtual stranger? He grinned at her embarrassment. “You can say ‘breasts,’ Maddy. I’m quite familiar with those particular body parts. We ranchers have loads of experience.” And she certainly had a fine pair, he couldn’t help notice. “Well, I’m not used to discussing things like this with anyone. I was so busy working that I didn’t develop many close female friends. And most of the men I worked with on Madison Avenue didn’t discuss female body parts as a topic of dinner conversation.” Chocolate dribbled down her chin, and he reached over and scooped it up with his finger, then lifted it. “Stuffed shirts.” The erotic gesture made Maddy’s stomach tighten, though she tried her best to ignore it. “Have you been ranching long?” “All my life. I love it, though my two brothers don’t feel the same as me. John became a vet, and Mark, who’s a chef, owns a bed-and-breakfast in town called The Sweetheart Inn. The place I mentioned was full.” “A chef. Now there’s a handy man to have around.” “He’s divorced if you want to meet him.” Her eyes widened at the offer. “No thanks! I’ve pretty much sworn off men for the time being. Besides, I doubt many men would jump at the chance at meeting a pregnant woman.” “You’d be surprised. There aren’t that many eligible women in town, unless you count our librarian and resident spinster Ella Grady, but she’s sixty-four.” Maddy smiled before asking, “You said you’d been married. Are you divorced, too?” He paused a moment before answering, as if considering whether he would. “Widowed. Four years now.” At the pain she saw reflected in his eyes, she reached out to touch his hand. It was obvious he was still mourning the loss of his wife. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.” He shrugged. “Time heals all wounds. Isn’t that what they say?” Too bad it wasn’t true. She smiled ruefully. “Time’s not going to heal what ails me. It’s only going to ripen things, I fear.” “A pregnant woman’s a beautiful sight to behold,” he said, remembering. “And you’ve only got seven more months to go, then you’ll have a son or daughter.” “The thought terrifies me. I don’t know a thing about being a mother, raising a child. Or how I’m going to work to support it yet still be at home to care for my son or daughter. Single motherhood wasn’t something they taught in college.” “Not even at Vassar?” He couldn’t help his teasing smile. “They were more into teaching prevention. Guess I was out sick that day.” “Quit being so tough on yourself, Maddy. People make mistakes. That’s just part of life.” “True. But my mistake is going to be a living, breathing human being. And I’m the one who’s going to be responsible for every facet of its life. It’s an awesome responsibility, and one I’m not sure I can handle.” “You’ve got your sister. I’m sure she’ll help out. That’s what family’s for.” He wouldn’t have been able to cope after Bethany’s death, if it hadn’t been for his brothers. John and Mark had been there for him in all the ways that counted. “Mary Beth’s always wanted a child, but she and Lyle can’t conceive. I’m not sure how she’s going to react to the news that I’m pregnant. It could cause problems between us.” “Have you thought about giving up the baby and allowing your sister to raise it? That would solve both her problem and yours.” Her hand moved to her abdomen, and her eyes softened. “I have, but I don’t think I can give up my child, even to Mary Beth. Oh, I know she’d be a fabulous mother, and Lyle’s a wonderful man. The baby would have a good home. But—” She shook her head. “It’s my baby. I…I don’t expect you to understand.” “But I do. Bethany was six months pregnant when she died. I lost my wife and my son in one fell swoop, so don’t think I don’t know what loss is, because I do. I know very well.” He rose to his feet and walked out, leaving Maddy alone to sort through the mess of her life. And his. Chapter Three Leaning back against the goose-down pillows, Maddy shut the book she’d just finished reading and heaved a contented sigh. Pete’s mother had been fond of romance novels, and there was a wicker basket full of them next to the bed. Maddy had never considered herself the romance novel type—she’d always been fond of mysteries and science fiction. But once she’d started reading she hadn’t been able to stop and had already devoured two books in less than three hours. Too bad real life wasn’t as romantic as in the novels, she thought. In romance fiction the hero loved the heroine more than life itself and married her. Happily ever after was a fait accompli. He didn’t tell her to get lost and have an abortion. Of course, David Lassiter was not a hero in any way, shape or form. Now Pete Taggart, rescuer of stranded women, was another story altogether. Maddy smiled at the thought, feeling a wee bit guilty that Pete had spent most of the day down in the cold basement trying to fix the generator, while she had been upstairs lazing around reading books. Still, it had been heavenly to just sit back, relax and do nothing. She hadn’t done something so purposely selfish in years. The fireplace flickered softly, and Maddy ran her hand over the lovely heirloom quilt covering the bed. It had been fashioned in various colors and patterns of fabric in the wedding ring design and was exquisite. The material looked very old, and she made a mental note to ask Pete where he’d gotten it. Maybe she could have one made for her bedroom back in New York, though it would never look as nice as it did on the antique four-poster she’d been sleeping on. There was something to be said for antiques, like real wood instead of pressboard, and brass fixtures instead of brass-plated tin. The room where she slept was quaint and cozy compared to her white-walled bedroom back home, which now seemed stark and sterile. White had appeared so cosmopolitan when she’d first purchased her comforter and pillows. She’d painted her walls and appliances white to match the apartment’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Now she wished she’d been a bit more imaginative. For a woman who made a living at being creative, her decorating skills sucked. Gazing at the tiny yellow daffodils splayed across the walls, she smiled. You couldn’t help smiling in such a room. It spoke of sunshine and happiness. The bed had been painted buttercup-yellow, as well as the dresser and nightstand, which had been stenciled in an ivy motif. Even someone with as many problems as she had at the moment couldn’t help but be cheered. “You did a good job, Mrs. Taggart,” she said, caressing the quilt, unsure if she was complimenting the rancher’s deceased wife or mother. “I’m not sure that praise extends to Pete—I haven’t made up my mind about him yet—but your taste in decorating is just wonderful.” Suddenly the little milk-glass lamp on the bedside table flickered then lit, and Maddy’s eyes widened. At first she’d thought Mrs. Taggart might be trying to reach her from the great beyond, but then realized that the clever rancher had finally fixed the generator. They had electricity! Laughing excitedly, she hurried downstairs. “You did it!” she said to Pete when she entered the kitchen a few moments later. He was leaning against the counter, holding a cup of coffee and looking inordinately pleased with himself. And sexy as all get-out! She stopped short of throwing herself into his arms. He caught her huge smile and nodded. “Yep. The generator’s going on a wing and a prayer, but it’s going. Let’s not breathe too deeply or we might jinx it.” “Oh, I can’t believe it. I can finally style my hair, bake Christmas cookies—you do like cookies, don’t you?” “I—” A funny look crossed his face. Pete hadn’t celebrated the holidays since Bethany’s death. There didn’t seem much point in giving thanks, in praising God for all he had done. God might work in mysterious ways, but Pete hadn’t been able to figure out his plan in taking his wife and unborn child away from him. He’d been disappointed, angry at God’s handiwork. But now reflecting back on that anger, Pete realized it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. It hadn’t brought Bethany or the baby back. It had only served to make him miserable, lonely and embittered. Maybe it was time to rethink things, like his brother John had urged him to do. “You’re wallowing, big brother. And miserable to be around. Get on with your life or shoot yourself in the head. I’m sick and tired of watching you go on like this.” John had never been one to mince words. Christmas was only two weeks away. Pete knew his family, especially John, would like it if he reentered the world of the living and made an effort to attend Mark’s annual Christmas party at the inn, which would be held next week. There was a glow in Maddy’s cheeks, a sparkle in her eyes, that softened Pete’s heart. The woman had a lot on her plate at the moment. It wouldn’t hurt to be nice, make her happy, he thought. She’d be gone soon enough, and then he’d be alone again. The idea of her leaving didn’t sit very well. He’d been alone too long, and he liked having her around. “How do you feel about Christmas trees?” he asked before he could change his mind. “Christmas trees?” Her eyes widened at the strange question. “Why, I love them. They smell so wonderful. Of course, I haven’t had a real one in years. Last year I didn’t even put one up, I was so busy working on a huge ad campaign.” It suddenly occurred to Maddy that she hadn’t really enjoyed Christmas in years, not since joining the prestigious advertising firm. To David Lassiter, Frank Owens and Larry Cumberland, Christmas was just another day to earn money. Sadly, she had fallen into that same trap. “We always had a live tree when I was growing up,” she added, the memory making her smile. “My mom used to make tons of popcorn and Mary Beth and I would decorate the branches with popcorn and cranberry garlands. Why do you ask?” He shrugged, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. “Just thought it would give us something to do tomorrow, if I was to hitch the horse to the sleigh—” “Sleigh! You have a sleigh?” She squealed with delight, making him laugh aloud. “Yep. It’s very old and probably wouldn’t make it all the way to town, but I figure if we don’t go too far, we can take it and see about cutting down a tree. “I—I haven’t put one up in years myself, but since this year’s kinda special…” He felt almost light-hearted at the idea, which was very odd in itself. Special because of her? Maddy wanted to ask, unable to keep her pulse from skittering, though she knew she was being foolish. But right now, at this very moment, she just didn’t care. “I’ll make sandwiches and we can have a picnic of sorts.” He arched a disbelieving brow. “In the snow?” “You’re an Eagle Scout, remember? We’ll improvise.” AS IF THE HEAVENS approved of their plan, the snow had finally stopped falling; the sun was making a valiant effort to peek through the cloud cover. Everywhere Maddy looked she saw white. From the thick frosting on the trees, to the marshmallow-covered landscape, to the frigid breath escaping her mouth. “It’s beautiful here. I can see why you wanted to keep the ranch when no one else did.” Pete turned to gaze at her, surprised by her remark. “I didn’t think you liked country living.” He clucked a few times and hitched the reins, urging the horse through the thick accumulation. The old sleigh’s rudders glided along, slicing through the snow like a hot knife through butter. “I don’t, but I like the country. Besides, this is different country from where I grew up. We didn’t have all these pretty trees and mountains. Iowa’s pretty flat.” Her mother used to say that if you stood at one end of the state you could see clear over to the other side. Maddy started humming Jingle Bells. It seemed appropriate, considering this was her very first time to go “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh.” Her enthusiasm was catching and Pete soon found himself humming the same tune, then singing out loud in a deep baritone voice. They were laughing like giddy teenagers as they finished the second verse. “What kind of tree do you want to cut?” he asked, realizing he hadn’t felt so carefree in years. It felt good. Damn good! “A fir, natch. Is there any other kind?” “Not to me, but I thought I’d be polite and ask anyway.” She was tempted to remark that they had a lot in common, but knew that wasn’t really true. Pete was content to raise his animals and live a quiet kind of life. Maddy’d had that kind of life once before. She hadn’t liked it then, and it was doubtful she’d like it now, though admittedly she found her surroundings breathtakingly beautiful. And breathing in the pure mountain air was a welcome relief from the pollution of New York City. They spotted a stand of fir trees a short distance ahead, and Maddy pointed enthusiastically. “There’s the one we should get. Do you see it? That big one over there, next to the decaying tree stump.” Pete’s gaze rose up and up, and his eyes widened as he pulled the sleigh to a halt. “Are you crazy? That tree’s too tall. It’ll never fit in the family room. The ceilings are only twelve feet high.” “But you could trim just a bit off the top and bottom, couldn’t you? I could help.” He rubbed his chin, considering. “I doubt if I have enough lights and ornaments for such a huge tree, Maddy.” And there was also the problem of dragging it home. He doubted the old sleigh could take the strain. She gazed imploringly at him. “But we could—” “Improvise,” he finished with a wry grin. “Got it.” “Oh, look—mistletoe! We’ll need some to hang in the doorway.” Then noting his odd look, she blushed, embarrassed by what he must be thinking. “I’m sorry. I guess we don’t—” “We should have mistletoe,” he agreed. “It’s traditional, right?” And one never knew when it would come in handy. Watch it, Taggart! You’re heading down a dangerous path. But Pete couldn’t seem to help himself. It was like some strange spell had been cast on him and he was powerless to resist. Maddy, the Madison Avenue witch, was proving downright intoxicating. “I TOLD YOU IT WOULDN’T fit.” Gazing at the huge tree, which took up half of the family room, Maddy’s eyes lit with appreciation. They’d had to move most of the furniture to the other side to accommodate it, but the effort had been worth it. “It’s beautiful.” She smiled happily. “Just perfect. And once it’s decorated it’s going to look even better.” Pete looked skeptical. As he’d suspected, the Douglas Fir was much too big for the room. And it was a big room! “I can see you’re not the kind of woman to give up on an idea once you put your mind to it.” She crossed her arms over her chest and arched a brow. “How do you think I became successful in a male-dominated profession?” “I’ll need to trim a bit more off the top, if we’re going to put the angel up there. Then I can start hanging the lights.” “While you’re doing that, I’ll go and bake us some cookies. If it’s okay to use the oven, that is. I hope so, because you can’t have a tree-trimming party without cookies.” “Might as well go ahead. And having cookies to eat will make the chore of decorating the tree somewhat palatable.” And he knew John would most likely bring extra gas when he came over to check up on him. His younger brother was worse than a mother hen. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see.” He shook his head. “I thought pregnant women were supposed to be tired all the time. You seem to be bursting with energy.” “I refuse to let this pregnancy slow me down. Having a baby’s as natural as breathing, right?” She’d mentally challenged herself not to have any more bouts of morning sickness. So far she’d been successful. “I bet your great-grandma Maggie was out plowing fields right after she birthed those big strapping sons of hers.” “Maybe branding cows. But Maggie would never have pushed a plow. The woman was a rancher, not a farmer.” “Whatever,” Maddy said, not caring much about the distinction as she sailed out of the room. City girl, he reminded himself. And would keep reminding himself whenever he started getting stupid ideas. He’d been having a lot of stupid ideas lately where Maddy was concerned. He and Maddy Potter were about as different as any two people could be. He’d be wise to remember that fact. Pete was up to his ears in lights and tree branches when Maddy floated back into the room an hour later, carrying a large tray laden with coffee and cookies. “Time for a break, Santa. I’ve brought treats.” He descended the tall ladder, looking disheveled and twice as frustrated. “We’ve only got enough lights for the top half of the tree. It’s gonna look ugly. I tried to—” She held a cookie out to him. The sweet smell of vanilla wafted up, and he inhaled deeply before taking it. “It’s going to be perfectly lovely. Once we get on the decorations you’re not going to notice how many lights there are. Besides, we’re not entering a contest. We’re merely doing this for our own enjoyment. Are you this much of a perfectionist about everything?” He bit into his cookie and plopped down onto the sofa next to her. “Mmm. These are good.” A fire was blazing in the large stone fireplace. His parents had added the large family room three years before his dad’s death, and it was his favorite room in the old house. The bank of windows at the rear allowed in plenty of light, affording a magnificent view of the gently rolling landscape and mountains beyond. “Yep. Can’t stand not being the best at everything. Just ask my brothers. It drives them nuts.” He seemed pleased by that notion and reached for a handful of cookies. “I’d be happy to ask your brothers. When do you think I’ll get to meet them?” She hoped soon, because she doubted she’d be around too much longer. The thought saddened her. Get real, Maddy! You’ve already made one huge mistake. Don’t compound it by making another. Pete Taggart’s got more baggage than Grand Central Station. And so do you, for that matter! “I suspect now that the snow’s let up John’ll be making his way over to check up on me. He’s the worrywart of the family, too conscientious for his own good. He has a snowmobile, so he can get around better than most.” “And is this adventurous, worrywart-of-a-brother of yours married?” “Nope. John’s still a bachelor. Don’t think he dates that much. All of his passion’s been poured into his animals and veterinary clinic. He’s a fine vet. Sweetheart’s lucky to have him.” “So all three of the Taggart men are single? And the only eligible woman for miles around is the spinster librarian? Does that about sum it up?” He grinned sheepishly. “Something like that, though there might be a single woman or two in town. Just no one that appeals to any of us.” That wasn’t quite true. John was still hung up on Allison Montgomery, though the woman didn’t seem to feel the same way about him. “I guess I’m not surprised, then, that you’re all still unmarried, as picky as you seem to be.” “Well, you’re pretty choosy yourself. I don’t see you married and settled down yet, either.” Her face flushed. “Apparently I wasn’t choosy enough. I didn’t date all that much, and I guess I was flattered by the amount of attention an older, successful man paid to me. I guess he was only after one thing, but I was too stupid and naive to realize it.” He’d meant to tease, not hurt her. “Someday you’ll meet someone. You seem the type of woman to be married.” Pete’s comment annoyed the heck out of Maddy, and she stiffened. “Why, because I bake cookies and decorate Christmas trees? That’s a rather old-fashioned assumption, Pete Taggart, if you don’t mind my saying so. A modern woman can do a lot of—” He held up his hand. “Please, spare me the ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ speech. I’ve heard it before.” There was pain in his eyes, and she was sure he was thinking about his dead wife, but Maddy didn’t press. It was none of her business anyway. “Since it’s obvious we don’t see eye to eye on women in the workplace, why don’t we continue on with decorating the tree? Where are the ornaments? I’ll fetch them.” He felt stupid and small for picking a fight with her. Maddy was a successful career woman with a life back in New York. What did it matter if her goals were different from his? He barely knew the woman. And yet, he felt as if they’d known each other all their lives. It was strange how quickly they’d connected. Strange and worrisome. “The ornaments and such are kept in the storage closet in the guest room. I’ll carry them down for you. You shouldn’t be lifting things in your condition.” She brushed off his concern with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be silly. You’ve got enough to contend with at the moment. I might look like a weakling, but I’m strong as an ox. Being pregnant doesn’t change that.” She lifted her arm. “Feel my muscle. I work out with weights.” Smiling inwardly, he wrapped his hand around the puny biceps and squeezed gently. “You sure you’ve been working out?” She made a face, then said, “By the way—you know that lovely wedding ring quilt that’s covering the bed in the guest room? Do you have any idea where it came from? I’d like to have one made just like it for my apartment in New York.” “It was my mother’s. She left it to me, as the oldest Taggart, in her will when she died. Mom inherited it from her mother. The quilt originally belonged to Great-Grandma Maggie and has been passed down from generation to generation. “The old trunk it originally came in sits in the far corner of the guest room, next to the rocker. You can look and see if there’s a pattern or something in there you can use to make one.” Maddy laughed, as if the idea was totally absurd. “I’m not that clever. Cooking and thinking up brilliant ad campaigns are about as creative as I get. Sewing is not one of my talents. Now Mary Beth, she can sew just about anything. I intend to talk her into making me a replica of the quilt.” Pete didn’t doubt for a moment that she could. Maddy Potter could sweet-talk anyone into doing just about anything. He gazed at the too-tall tree and sighed. A sweet-talking woman was trouble. A sweet-talking, pretty woman—well, a smart man would run for cover and hide. Pete had always credited himself with being smart. Until now. MADDY WAS WAVING an old wrinkled piece of parchment when she reentered the family room a short time later. She looked so enthralled with whatever she held that Pete’s curiosity sparked immediately, and he set aside the sports magazine he was reading. “All right, I’ll bite. What did you find, a pattern for the quilt?” Her eyes were wide with wonder when she said, “You’re not going to believe this, Pete.” She plopped down on the sofa and leaned toward him. “This paper was in the trunk, hidden beneath tissue-wrapped baby clothes. I hope you don’t mind. I just couldn’t resist looking at those tiny garments.” Seeing those clothes had made her pregnancy seem all too real. Maddy smelled like vanilla and cinnamon, and Pete’s heart started pounding. He was hungry, but not for cookies, and took a deep breath. “I don’t mind. Now, are you going to tell me what that paper says?” He couldn’t recall ever seeing it before, but then he hadn’t felt much like going through his mother’s possessions after she died. It would have been too painful. Sorting through Beth’s things had been difficult enough. “It’s a legend about the wedding ring quilt, and it looks to be quite old. Listen to this—‘Place this quilt upon your bed and in one month you shall be wed, but if you think you’d rather not, then a spinster’s life shall be your lot.’ Isn’t that something?” Pete paled somewhat. A legend about the quilt that foretold of a wedding? It couldn’t be true, could it? “It’s probably just something my great-grandmother made up.” “Maybe. But I also found a letter written to one of her sons. Apparently Maggie wanted him to marry, settle down and have children, so the ranch would pass on to a Taggart. And she didn’t mince words. From the stern tone of the letter, I think her son, Jared, was pretty resistant to the idea.” “Taggart men don’t like being told what to do.” “Well, since you’re here as living proof, I guess your great-grandmother got her way, because it’s obvious both her sons eventually married and had children—your ancestors.” Pete digested what she’d said then flashed a teasing grin. “Well, Maddy, if you truly believe in the legend then you might just find yourself in the same predicament as my great-uncles.” Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “What do you mean?” “You’ve been sleeping under the wedding ring quilt for a couple of nights now. If the legend’s true, and you seem to think it is, you’ll be married before a month is up.” She reread the legend and gasped. Then realizing that there were actually two pages of paper not just one, she ran her thumbnail between the sheets and unstuck them, reading to herself. “A man and a woman who meet if by chance, will soon be doing the marital dance. A kiss on the lips, the bargain will seal, and undying love will the couple soon feel.” “Good heavens! This can’t be true.” She forced a nervous laugh. “You’re right. It was just something your great-grandma Maggie made up.” She and Pete hadn’t kissed. They had nothing to worry about. “What is it? What’s it say?” He tried to grab the paper from her hand, but she held it behind her back and out of his reach. “Nothing.” She shook her head. “It’s nothing. Really. Just fanciful musings of an elderly woman, I’m sure.” “I don’t believe you. You turned as pale as that snow outside the window when you read it. Now let me see what it says.” Maddy tried to scoot away, but Pete grabbed her gently about the waist and pinned her down with his body, being careful not to crush her with his weight. Pete was no longer interested in wrestling for the paper, not when Maddy’s lips were mere inches away and he had a burning desire to kiss her. Licking his lips in anticipation, his intention reflected quite clearly in his eyes, Maddy panicked. “Pete, wait! Don’t do it! You don’t under—” “I’m sorry, Maddy, but I’ve got to.” He covered her mouth with his own, cutting off her protest, and plundered the honey within, savoring the sweet, irresistible taste of her. Like a starving man he feasted, unable to get his fill. Losing herself in the passion of the moment, Maddy allowed him to taste, tease and nibble. Until she remembered the words written on the paper, and then she panicked. Pushing hard against the granite wall of his chest, she was finally able to break free of his hold. “Stop, Pete! You’ve done a terrible thing!” He was breathing hard, his eyes heavy lidded with passion, but he didn’t look at all contrite. “Oh, come on now, Maddy,” he finally said. “It was only a kiss. I’m sorry if you’re offended, but I just couldn’t help myself.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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