Excerpt from HER BEST CHRISTMAS EVER, December 2008
Hoping to beat the storm that darkened the vast Texas sky, Greg Clayton stepped harder on the gas pedal, accelerating the rental SUV.
He'd just wrapped up another grueling tour, and the members of his country-western band had scattered, each one going his or her own way for the upcoming holiday season. Greg had boarded a flight, too, and was now heading for the only place he'd ever really called home—the Rocking C.
Fourteen years ago, Granny Clayton had found him hiding in her barn, alone and afraid. Within a month, she'd started adoption proceedings to make him a part of her family.
And now, at twenty-seven, he'd been a Clayton half his life— the best half by far.
A jagged streak of lightning ripped through the clouds, which were growing more ominous by the minute, and it didn't take long for a groan and rumble of thunder to follow.
Greg swore under his breath. This storm—the first of two, if the weatherman had called it right—was going to be a real gully-washer.
Fortunately, he wasn't far from the ranch. But there was one particular dip in the county road that was prone to flooding with any significant precipitation, so he needed to get past that low spot before the rain began to fall. Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to get through at all.
When his cell phone rang, he grabbed it off the clip on his belt and answered.
"Greg?" his elderly mother asked over the crackling line. "Is that you?"
"Yes. Is everything okay, Granny?"
"Well, yes and no. I'm doing fine, but I'm afraid Lester had a stroke. He was visiting his sister in Houston when it happened."
"That's too bad." Lester was Granny's foreman, a position he'd stepped in tofill after Clem Bixby died. As far as the ranch went, Lester did a great job. But no one would ever replace Clem when it came to having a positive, paternal influence on three adolescent boys.
"Where are you?" Greg asked, scanning the ominous, charcoal-gray horizon and hoping she was close to her destination. He didn't like the idea of her being out on the road, especially at her age.
"I'm with Hilda," she said. "So you don't need to worry about me."
Greg rolled his eyes in a silent scoff. That was supposed to make him feel better? While Hilda was only a couple of years younger than Granny, she seemed to be the designated driver these days. And more often than not, the two tended to get into trouble when they were together.
Not that the women drank; they were both churchgoing teetotalers. But together they seemed to get involved in one adventure after another, which gave Greg and his brothers more cause for worry than peace of mind.
"But where are you?" he asked.
"Somewhere within Houston city limits," his mother said. "I'm not exactly sure, but we'll be staying in a hotel tonight. It's starting to sprinkle now, so we don't want to be on the streets any more than we have to."
That was a relief.
"How far are you from the ranch?" she asked.
Another flash of lightning struck, followed by a thunderous boom and a celestial shudder. "I'm almost to the county road now, so I'm only a couple of miles from the house."
"Good. The only one left on the ranch is Connie, my cook. Do you remember meeting her?"
Greg had met Connie briefly at Granny's eightieth birthday party in June. The attractive young woman had short brown hair with blond highlights. And she'd baked one heck of a chocolate cake.
If he was lucky, he'd arrive home and find a pot of something tasty simmering on the stove. He hadn't eaten a bite since he'd boarded the plane in Las Vegas. Not that they hadn't served him anything in first class. But he'd been exhausted after the last performance and had slept all the way to Houston's Hobby Airport.
He wouldn't complain, though. He loved being onstage. But sometimes he needed to replenish his creative well, and the best place to do that was at the Rocking C.
So he was looking forward to some downtime and to spending the holidays with the Clayton clan, which was growing. His older brother, Jared, had married Sabrina in a quiet little ceremony a couple of months ago. And Matt was now engaged to Tori.
Yep. Greg would enjoy catching up with his brothers and the new ladies in their lives.
Of course, by the time New Year's Eve rolled around, he'd be ready to meet up with the band and begin the winter tour.
"I gave all of the ranch employees time off for Thanksgiving," Granny said, drawing Greg back to the conversation they'd been having. "But Connie didn't want to travel. So when I got the call about Lester's stroke, I had to leave her all by herself, which I really didn't want to do. So I'm sure glad to know you'll be with her, especially since there's a storm brewing."
"No problem. I'll keep her company." Greg found himself smiling. To be honest, he was looking forward to seeing Connie again. She'd been pretty quiet when they'd been introduced five months ago, and her shyness or disinterest or whatever it had been had intrigued him.
Most women, whether they were young or old, single or attached, seemed to fawn over Greg, so he was looking forward to doing some of the chasing for a change.
After disconnecting the line, he continued to the ranch, arriving about five minutes after the first sprinkle of rain hit his windshield. He parked close to the house and entered through the back door, where he removed his hat and boots and left them in the mudroom.
Just inside the kitchen, he caught the aroma of warm cinnamon and spice, and his stomach growled in response.
Since he figured his mother had told Connie he was coming, he didn't announce his arrival. Instead, he walked into the living room, where he found her snoozing on the sofa. In her arms, she cuddled a pillow. She'd draped an autumn-colored afghan over her and had it pulled up to her chin.
Her hair was longer now; the blond highlights were gone. He couldn't decide whether he liked it that way or not. Still, she was just as pretty as he remembered. Her face, with its light olive-colored complexion, practically glowed.
If his memory hadn't failed him, her eyes were a greenish shade of hazel. Of course, he'd have to wait until they opened to know for sure.
A grin stretched across his face. Something told him he was going to really enjoy this particular visit home. And he almost looked forward to a fire in the hearth and the sound of rain on the roof.
Realizing he couldn't continue to stand there and stare at her, he decided to let her sleep and to carry his luggage into his room. But as he took a step, one of the slats of hardwood flooring squeaked in protest.
Connie gasped and shot up on the sofa, her eyes—yep, definitely green—growing wide.
"Oops," Greg said, placing his bag on the floor. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Her mouth opened, yet she didn't attempt to speak, so he added, "I'm Greg. Granny's son. We met at her birthday party a few months back."
"I know who you are," she said, running her hand through her brown locks of hair. She didn't seem to be impressed.
"I thought I'd put my bags away," Greg said, "then fix myself something to eat."
"I can do it." She threw off the pillow, as well as the afghan, revealing a belly the size of a basketball. No, make that a beach ball.
Damn. She was pregnant.
The absolute shock must have shown on his face, because she rubbed her distended womb, furrowed her brow, and asked, "What's the matter?"
" He shrugged. "You're going to have a baby."
"Didn't you know?"
"Nope." And no one had told him. Not his mother, his brothers
. How could they neglect to mention something like that? He didn't think that he'd kept his attraction to her a secret.
Lightning cracked across the sky, briefly illuminating the room.
No wonder Granny had worried about leaving Connie home alone. She looked ready to
"When are you due?" he asked, hoping it was a month or two from now. Hell, even next week would give him some peace of mind.
"On Friday," she said.
And this was Tuesday. He hoped that the kid would stay on schedule.
Connie rubbed the small of her back and grimaced.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
She arched, all the while continuing her massage. "I've had a backache all afternoon."
He glanced at the antique clock on the mantel. Five-fifteen.
For a man who'd been looking forward to having some time alone with a woman and turning on the charm, he'd sure changed his tune. Now all he could think about was making it through the night and hoping Granny wouldn't decide to spend any extra time in Houston.
"I'll get you something to eat while you put away your things," she said.
"No, I can't let you do that, especially since you're hurting. Go ahead and lie down again. I'll just make a sandwich. In fact, I'll make two—one for each of us."
"Well," she said, "as long as it's no trouble
"It's not." And that was the absolute truth. Hell, he needed to keep his hands busy and his thoughts on something else.
Otherwise, he was going to spend the next umpteen hours stressed out of his ever-lovin' mind.
Connie's back had been aching like crazy, but it had seemed to ease some over the last hour. Her heart was still skipping and jumping all over the place, though.
She'd been sound asleep when Greg had entered the house. And while she'd known he was coming, she hadn't been expecting him until later this evening.
I'm Greg, he'd said. Granny's son. We met at her birthday party a few months back.
Connie hadn't needed the introduction. She'd known exactly who the tall, dark-haired man was. His handsome face had adorned the covers of several of her favorite CDs, and his voice had been a regular on KCOW, the radio station she'd always listened to when she'd lived near Galveston.
In fact, Greg might never understand why, but when she realized that her employer's son was the Greg Clayton whose hits were tearing up the charts, Connie had nearly given two weeks notice and begun looking for a new job.
Not that Greg would have any idea who she was. Her singing career, as short-lived as it was, had been limited to gigs at seedy, two-bit bars. It had also been a surreal time in her life she wanted to forget.
After Ross's last drunken rage, Connie had made up her mind that she wouldn't ever let him hit her again. That she was going to make some changes in her life. Some big ones.
"Do you want to press charges?" the first officer on the scene that night had asked, as his partner called for an ambulance.
She'd nodded. "Yes, I do."
The violence had started as a push here and a shove there. Over time, it had escalated to a twist of her arm, which had been so hard that she'd thought he might have broken something. At that point, she'd told herself she wouldn't tolerate any more rough stuff.
The first time he actually struck her and split open her lip, he'd cried like a baby and been so remorseful that she'd softened and gone against her best judgement.
"I'm sorry, baby," he'd said. "I just love you so much." Then he'd apologized and promised it would never happen again.
It was a promise he hadn't been able to keep.
Connie hadn't grown up in a violent home, so the next time he'd blown up had been the last. She'd refused to live with a bully any longer.
As the officer read him his rights, Ross had grown even angrier. While being helped into the back of the patrol car, he'd yelled to Connie, "You're going to be sorry for this."
She'd been sorry already. Sorry for getting involved with him in the first place, sorry she hadn't left him the very first time he'd raised his voice and had given her a shove.
A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, drawing her from the dark memories, and she padded to the window to peer out into the rain.
Her mother always said that this kind of day called for a pot of soup and homemade bread.
Connie agreed, even if she wasn't all that good at whipping anything up in the kitchen that wasn't a dessert. She was getting better at fixing meals, though, thanks to Granny's insistence that she do the bulk of the cooking in spite of her limited experience.
"You've got to learn sometime," the older woman had said, "especially since you're going to be a mother in a few short months."
Connie blew out a sigh and rubbed the small of her back, which had begun to ache all over again.
Had she done too much or pulled something? Or was this just one of the many discomforts associated with the last weeks of pregnancy?
For a moment, she wondered if she might be going into labor. After all, the books she'd read mentioned something about a backache. But it seemed as though she'd been plagued with a similar pain off and on for the past few days or so.
She had a doctor's appointment tomorrow, so she'd have to ask about it. Especially since it seemed to be hurting worse today than before.
Maybe sleeping on the soft sofa hadn't been good for her.
Thinking that it might be better if she moved around a bit, she headed to the kitchen where Greg was fixing sandwiches for them.
Earlier, she'd baked a cake, but she'd put off preparing anything else to eat until after she'd taken a nap, which made her feel somewhat remiss now. She'd been hired to cook the meals, so she didn't want anyone to think she was slacking off. Neither did she want anyone to think that her pregnancy—or the baby— would hamper her ability to work and pull her own weight. She needed this job and a safe, out-of-the-way place to live.
As she stepped into the doorway, she found Greg standing at the counter, his long, dark hair pulled back with a strip of leather and hanging past his broad shoulders.
He was loading up slices of bread in Dagwood style, with ham, turkey, cheese, sliced tomatoes and whatever else he'd been able to find by rummaging in the fridge.
It was strange to see someone of his caliber standing so close, to see a talented, sexy man engaged in a run-of-the-mill task. He appeared to be one part cowboy, one part warrior, and she found herself in awe.
But she was determined not to fawn over him like a starstruck groupie.
"How about a piece of apple-spice cake?" she asked, shrugging off any misplaced attraction as she entered the kitchen.
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