Excerpt from A BABY UNDER THE TREE, December 2011

CHAPTER ONE

As Jillian Wilkes entered El Jardin, an upscale bar in downtown Houston, she couldn't decide whether this was the most therapeutic move she'd ever made—or the craziest.

After all, how many thirty-year-old women celebrated the day their divorce was final when they'd gone from princess to pauper in a matter of months?

Not many, she supposed, unless they, too, had been humiliated by their wealthy husband's serial infidelity.

Eight years ago, marrying Thomas Wilkes had been a fairy-tale dream come true, but the split, which had created quite a stir in the highest social circles, had been a nightmare.

Now that the worst was behind her, she planned to treat herself to one last bit of fine dining and some much-needed pampering at a good spa before retreating to the real world in which she'd been born and raised.

So after leaving her lawyer's office, she'd checked in for the weekend at a nice but affordable hotel, then took a short walk to one of the newest and classiest bars in town. There she intended to raise a glass to salute her new life. No more grieving the past for her. Instead, she would embrace whatever changes the future would bring.

Now, as Jillian scanned the interior, with its white plaster walls adorned with lush, colorful hanging plants and an old-world-style fountain in the center of the room, she was glad she'd come.

She spotted an empty table at the back of the room, near a stone fireplace that had a gas flame roasting artificial logs. After crossing the Spanish-tiled floor, she pulled out a chair, took a seat and placed her black Coach purse at her feet.

For a moment, she considered her decision to make a good-riddance toast to Thomas Wilkes. Another woman might have just gone home to lick her wounds, but Jillian couldn't do that. Thanks to an ironclad pre-nuptial agreement—and the fact that all of the properties in which they'd ever lived during their marriage had been owned by the Wilkes family trust—Jillian didn't have a home to go to. But she'd remedy that on Monday, when she would find a modest, one-bedroom apartment near the university where she would start graduate school in the summer.

It was a good game plan, she decided, and one deserving a proper kickoff. She was a free woman. So out with the old, and in with the new.

As if on cue, a waiter stopped by the table and set a sterling silver bowl of mixed nuts in front of her. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"Yes, I'd like a split of the best champagne you have."

He nodded, then left to get her order. Minutes later, he returned with a crystal flute, a silver bucket of ice and a small bottle of Cristal.

The sound of the popping cork gave Jillian an unexpected lift.

"Shall I?" the waiter asked.

"Yes, please."

When he'd poured the proper amount, Jillian lifted her flute, taking a moment to watch the bubbles rise to the surface. Then she tapped the crystal glass against the bottle, setting off an elegant sound that promised better days ahead.

As she leaned back in her chair and took a sip of champagne, she surveyed the rest of the happy-hour crowd.

A forty-something man sat to her right, drinking something that appeared to be Scotch. She surmised he was a businessman because of the gray suit he was wearing—or rather, make that had been wearing. The jacket, which he'd probably hung on the back of his chair, had slipped to the floor.

When he glanced up, his eyes red and glassy, his tie loosened to the point of being sloppy, she realized he'd had a few drinks too many.

As their gazes met, he smiled and lifted his glass. "Hey, there, pretty lady. How 'bout I buy you a drink?"

She looked away, letting her body language tell him that she wasn't the least bit interested in having a barroom buddy.

Maybe coming here hadn't been such a great idea, after all. She probably ought to pay her tab and head back to the hotel, where she could kick back, order room service and watch a pay-per-view movie.

That sounded a lot better than avoiding glances from an amorous drunk.

But before she could motion for the waiter, she spotted a dark-haired cowboy seated at a table near a potted palm tree, a worn Stetson resting on the chair beside him, his long denim-clad legs stretched out, revealing scuffed boots. His hair, which was in need of a trim, was a bit mussed, as though he'd run his hands through it a time or two.

Funny, but she hadn't noticed him before, which was odd. She wasn't sure how she could have missed seeing someone so intriguing, so out of place.

Who was he? And why had he chosen to stop off at El Jardin for a drink? Maybe it was the relaxed pose of his lean body and the way he gripped the longneck bottle, but it seemed to her that he'd be more comfortable in a sports bar or honky-tonk.

She had no idea how long she'd been studying him—longer than was polite, to be sure. So when he glanced up and noticed her interest in him, her cheeks flushed. She should have turned away, embarrassed to have been caught gawking at him, but the intensity of his gaze—the heat of it—nearly knocked the breath and the good sense right out of her.

Unprepared for the visual connection or for her reaction to it, she finally broke eye contact by reaching into the silver bowl of nuts.

Three almonds and several sips of champagne later, she found herself turning her head once again—and catching him looking at her as though he'd never stopped.

A surge of sexual awareness shot through her, which didn't make a bit of sense.

How in the world could her first post-divorce interest in another man be directed at a cowboy? Goodness, Jillian had to be the only woman in Houston who didn't even like country music.

She tried to chalk it up to curiosity. Or to the fact that he couldn't be any less like her ex than if she'd joined an online dating service and specifically ordered someone brand-new.

When she turned her head and saw him still studying her intently, she realized that the interest was mutual. She might have been married for the past eight years, but she still remembered the kind of eye contact that went on between a man and woman who were attracted to each other.

Not that the cowboy was flirting with her. Or that she'd even flirt back.

If she were a free spirit, she might have asked him to join her. But that was even crazier than sitting here drinking expensive champagne by herself and ogling a handsome, dark-haired stranger—and a cowboy to boot.

Okay, this was so not like her. She was going to have to motion for the waiter, ask for her bill and then head back to the hotel.

Yet she couldn't seem to move. Instead she continued to wonder who the cowboy was and what brought him to El Jardin.

Maybe he was waiting for someone—a woman, most likely.

He lifted his longneck bottle and took a swig, then glanced toward the doorway as though he really was expecting someone to join him.

Jillian certainly hoped so. Because if he wasn't, if he was unattached, if he came over to her table…

She wasn't sure what she'd do.

Shane Hollister couldn't take his eyes off the classy blonde who sat all alone, practically begging for a guy to mosey on up and ask if she'd like some company.

She'd caught him looking at her on several occasions, too. And each time, he'd been tempted to toss her a smile. But he'd kept a straight face, since the last thing he needed today was for her to get the wrong idea and send a drink his way.

Or worse yet, invite him to join her.

Not that he wouldn't be sorely tempted. After all, she was attractive—the kind of woman some men—especially the insecure and weak type—might put on a pedestal.

Shane usually avoided women like her. Those classy beauties were high maintenance and a lot more trouble than a common man wanted to deal with, especially today.

He glanced again at the entrance, a habit he'd acquired during his years as a detective with the Houston Police Department.

His waitress, a dark-haired woman in her early thirties, offered him a smile and nodded toward his nearly empty bottle. "Can I get you another beer?"

"Sure."

Again, his gaze was drawn to the blonde drinking champagne.

Maybe she was waiting for someone. Cristal, even a split, was a pricey order for someone to consume alone.

Of course, by the looks of that fancy handbag she carried and the clothes she was wearing, he had a feeling that price was the last thing she considered when making a purchase. Even her hair and makeup appeared to have been styled and applied by professionals.

In fact, everything about her implied grace and class, from a sizable pair of diamond earrings, to the trendy, rainbow-colored jacket she wore over a black top and slacks, all of which had to be designer wear.

But even with the bling or the extra effort she'd put into her wardrobe, hair and makeup, he had a feeling she'd look just as stunning in worn cotton and faded denim.

The cocktail waitress was more his type, though—more down-to-earth and approachable. That is, if he wanted to hook up with a woman instead of heading over to his brother's house for his nephew's birthday party late this afternoon.

If truth be told, though, he wasn't all that eager to face the squealing kids, with sticky hands and chocolate on their faces. Not that he didn't love them, but ever since he'd lost his son, it had torn him up to be around children.

And that was why he'd decided to have a beer before facing the Hollister clan today.

Of course, he didn't usually frequent fancy places like El Jardin, but he'd had some papers to sign at the escrow office down the street and decided to stop here, since it wasn't likely he'd be offered anything stronger than a soda when he arrived at Jack's house.

Ever since Joey's death, Shane's big, extended family—none of whom had been teetotalers—had cut way back on alcohol consumption, at least whenever Shane was around.

Okay, so he'd gone over the deep end for a while and they'd thought his drinking had become problematic. He doubted any of his siblings would have handled the grief any differently than he had back then. Besides, he'd taken control of his life again.

He glanced at his wristwatch. He probably ought to call back the cocktail waitress and cancel his order. Yet for some reason, he turned back to the sophisticated blonde who was spending a lot more time studying the elegant flute in her hand than drinking from it—when she wasn't looking his way.

There was something going on between the two of them, and whatever it was held a bit of a promise, at least for the here and now.

If Shane hadn't already agreed, albeit reluctantly, that he'd make a showing at little Billy's birthday party, he might flash her a smile and come up with some clever way to strike up a conversation—something that didn't sound like a worn-out pickup line.

As it was, he'd better leave well enough alone. He was more cowboy than cop these days, and she didn't seem to be the kind of woman who would find either very appealing.

Still, he continued to glance across the room for what he swore would be the very last time.

She wore a lonely expression on that pretty, heart-shaped face. Her frown and the crease in her brow suggested she carried a few burdens herself.

Was she running from her own demons, too?

Or was she just thinking about another lonely Friday night?

 

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