Excerpt: Whirlwind Bride

Whirlwind Bride by Debra Cowan

Book 1, The Whirlwind, Texas Series

West Texas, 1883

For the third time, Riley unwadded the crumpled telegram and stared at it, his shocked numbness edging into a quick flare of temper.

She was in the family way, dammit. A baby!

All last night he’d wondered why she would marry a man she didn’t know and he’d never once considered that.

Miss Susannah Phelps had some explaining to do. Riley told himself it should be enough that he’d escaped her marriage trap. It wasn’t. Aware now of the real reason she’d come to Whirlwind –to him!–he had to know what would’ve happened if he’d agreed to marry her. Would she have told him she was expecting?

Trying to calm the angry disbelief perking inside him, he saddled Whip. He made it to town in record time, going straight to The Whirlwind Hotel. She wasn’t there. He asked the desk clerk, Penn Wavers, if he knew where Susannah had gone, but the near-deaf old man just smiled and told Riley to sign the register.

Jaw clenched, he walked out and looked up and down the dusty main street. Just like yesterday, cool sunshine glittered off the plate glass of Whirlwind’s businesses. There were only so many places she could be; if he had to go in every one of them to find her, so be it.

Turning, he moved quickly down the planked walk, going into the bank, The Pearl restaurant, peering into Davis Lee’s office, but there was no glint of silvery-blond hair. Just as he turned away from the sheriff’s window, he saw Susannah coming out of Haskell’s General Store across the street.

“Miz Phelps!”

She turned and he saw apprehension flicker across her pretty features.

As he neared, she backed up against one of the rough wood columns which supported the awning. Shoulders taut, she looked poised to bolt. He figured if the lady thought she had a prayer of outrunning him, she would’ve chanced it.

She held a soft, lumpy package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. She clutched it closer as he stopped inches away from her.

Her delicate scent teased him. She wore a white, soft wool dress with thin red stripes, too pretty and frothy to be practical for this part of the country. Thick, gleaming hair was piled atop her head like silky sunshine. Just the sight of her made Riley’s mouth water and it wasn’t because she reminded him of his favorite candy.

She looked cool and sweet; he just bet she would taste that way, too. Damn.

Sky-blue eyes regarded him warily. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. The fabric of her dress pulled taut across her breasts with each breath. She was one fine-looking woman. He might not want to marry her, but that didn’t mean he was blind. He forced his gaze to her eyes.

“Mr. Holt.”

He doubted she’d be so formal once he told her what he knew. “I need to talk to you.”

“I’m on my way to–“

“Now.” He gripped her elbow, not hard enough to bruise that creamy flesh, but firmly enough that she knew he meant business.

He tugged her over so that they stood away from the street and against the wall of the store. The wall without a window.

She pulled away from him, paper crackling as she hugged the package to her. “What do you want? I don’t like to be manhandled.”

“There are a few things I don’t like either, such as being lied to.”

She went as still as a spooked rabbit. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about your little secret.”

She started to turn away. “I don’t have time for–“

“Your baby.”

The words were enough to stop her. She faced him, eyes wide with horror. “Adam told you?”

“Damn straight.”

Tension vibrated from her body and he knew if he touched her, she’d be as rigid as a wagon axle.

“I asked him not to say anything,” she whispered harshly, her gaze darting around.

“He didn’t say it plain. Still protective as all get-out.” She was so pale that Riley thought she might faint. Wouldn’t surprise him a bit. “He reminded me of a situation with a girl we knew at university. The same thing happened to her.”

“So, he didn’t–“

“No. Your secret’s safe, though you can’t keep it quiet forever.”

She let out a slow breath, a hint of color returning to her face. “I don’t know why you’re concerned. It’s not your problem.”

“I have to wonder if you would’ve told me the truth, had I agreed to marry you.”

“Of course!”

“Now, how do I know that?” His gaze skimmed over her full breasts, her still-defined waist.

Before he could ask when the baby was due, Tony Santos rushed up. Doffing his hat, he gave Riley a quick hello before turning to Susannah. “Miz Phelps, did you get the telegram all right?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Santos.”

“I sent my nephew as soon as it came in, just like you asked.”

“I appreciate that.” She smiled, not showing any signs of the impatience clawing through Riley.

He cleared his throat, giving the older man an expectant look.

Tony shifted from one foot to the other, then smiled at Susannah. “I hope you’re having a nice day, ma’am.”

“Thank you.”

Riley stared hard at him until the older man stammered a goodbye.

As Tony walked away, she glared at Riley. “There’s no need to be rude.”

“How far along are you, anyway?”

“Just at five months,” she said tightly, flushing a dark rose. “I hardly think this conversation is appropriate.”

“Honey, you tried to hitch up with me. It doesn’t get more appropriate than that.”

“Must you keep bringing that up? We were both there. It’s not as if I don’t know what an idiot I made of myself.”

“I wouldn’t say you were an–what is that?”

“What?” Still sounding vexed, she looked over her shoulder.

“On your hand.” He’d caught a glint of something shiny, something gold. On her third finger. Lifting her left hand, his jaw dropped. “What is this?”

“A ring.”

“A wedding ring,” he clarified, his gaze shooting to hers. Her hand was stiff and hot. And tiny. Surely she hadn’t already married? He’d dropped her off at the hotel less than twenty-four hours ago!

“Yes, a wedding ring.” She snatched her hand away.

“You move fast.”

“It’s none of your concern.”

“I may not be marrying you, but I am still a friend of your family. I can’t just let you–“

“You have no say, Mr. Holt. None.” Color flagged her high cheekbones, turned her eyes the color of heated sapphires.

In spite of the irritation spiking inside him, Riley’s body hardened. She scrambled his thoughts quicker than a kick to the head.

Riley gestured to the ring. “What about this poor clod? Did you tell him? Who is it? One of the Baldwins?” For some reason, the possibility made him sick.

“I’m not married. I’m . . . a widow.”

For a full two seconds, he stared at her. “You’re what?”

“A widow. Without a husband.”

“I know what a widow is!”

“Keep your voice down,” she whispered, looking around nervously.

“You’ve never been married.” What did he really know about her? “Have you?”

“No.” She stepped closer and he felt anger and desperation pouring off her. “But I refuse to let people know my baby as a bast–as illegitimate. The child is the innocent party here.”

Riley agreed. Susannah’s delicate scent tugged at something inside him. How long had it been since he’d smelled anything besides himself and horse sweat? He cleared his throat.

“Your condition will be obvious soon–“

“And by then people will have seen the ring.” She touched the band onher finger. “Hopefully, they’ll draw the conclusion that I’m a widow.”

“Who’s gonna believe that? You didn’t have the ring on yesterday.”

“I wore gloves,” she said defiantly. “Except at your ranch. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? We’re starting to draw attention. Surely you can’t like that.”

He glanced around and noticed several people who walked past also flashed curious stares. Others stopped in the street, watching openly.

Jake Ross, a widower whose ranch adjoined the Rocking H, ambled up. Tipping his hat to Susannah, he said, “Mighty nice day, Miz Susannah.”

“Yes, it is.” Her eyes lit with hope, as if she thought Jake might rescue her.

Riley exchanged greetings with the typically shy man, waited until he’d moved on before saying to Susannah, “I want you to tell me why you cooked up this scheme.”

“I don’t owe you any explanations.”

“Lady, you came here for me.”

“Only because Adam assured me you wanted to marry me.”

“And you would’ve gone through with it, too. For that reason alone, I deserve an explanation.”

© 2004 by Debra Cowan

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.

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