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This month we are pleased to share an excerpt from Surprised by a Baby , book two in the Texas Sweethearts series by Mindy Neff.
Donetta Presley’s nerves were flat-out wrecked. And no wonder! She’d had another run-in with the town’s new fire marshal; the contractor who’d renovated her trendy hair salon and her upstairs apartment wasn’t returning her phone calls; and, despite feeling like road kill and hugging the porcelain throne more times than she cared to remember, she’d actually given a haircut to a toy poodle named Debbie!
On top of that, she’d had to drive clear over to Austin just to buy a home pregnancy test. Hope Valley had the fastest gossip mill in Texas and she did not want the whole town discussing the nature of her purchase before she could even get home and remove the cellophane from the box.
She could have saved herself the trouble. Pretty soon everyone would know anyway.
She wiped her clammy forehead with the back of her wrist, tempted to lower the thermostat on the salon’s air conditioner another notch. That probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Her clients were shivering as it was.
Trying to take shallow breaths, praying the nausea would pass, she removed the last few bobby pins and rollers from Millicent Lloyd’s blue hair and tossed them into an open drawer. The pink-and-gray perm rods she’d used on a client who’d left more than an hour ago were still scattered in the shampoo bowl. Too bad the scent hadn’t gone with the woman, because the acrid smell of ammonia that wafted from the shiny black sink bowl made Donetta’s stomach revolt anew.
Wasn’t that a hoot? The owner and operator of Donetta’s Secret, the only hair salon in Hope Valley, Texas, couldn’t bear the smell of permanent wave lotion.
Lordy, she didn’t need this grief. Her schedule was so messed up she was now juggling three clients at once. And Miz Lloyd expected to leave here at two-forty-five on the dot—same as every Friday.
She patted the woman on the shoulder. “Be patient with me, okay, Miz Lloyd? I’m tryin’ my best to get you out of here on time.”
She reached for a bottle of finishing spray and gave Millicent’s short barrel curls a squirt, then pumped a couple of aromatic spurts into the air.
Millicent’s blue-tinted eyebrows shot up. “Did you just blast me with air freshener?”
Donetta forced a smile and retrieved her small teasing brush from the top drawer of the laminate workstation. “No, silly. It’s finishing spray. It sets the curl and gives your hair more body. Don’t you just love the way it smells?”
“You’ve never used it on me before,” Millicent said, her light-blue eyes narrowing. Donetta looked down at the sectioned curls. “It’s a new product. Just came in this week.”
“Expensive, I bet. Ought to have a care about wasting it.” She sniffed, still clutching her taupe gloves in her age-spotted fist. Millicent Lloyd never went to town without matching gloves, shoes and pocketbook. “Squirting it all over the place like it was toilet water perfume from the dime store. Why, if I wasn’t trussed up in this cape, I’d be needing a bath.”
“You’re fine,” Donetta soothed. “It’s not sticky.”
As she backcombed Millicent’s thin hair, she glanced at the chrome clock above the front door and checked the minute hands, shaped as neon-red scissors. Barring any more interruptions, she could probably finish these last three clients within the hour and close up early.
Then again, maybe not.
Her hand tightened around the red plastic handle of the brush when she saw the sheriff’s car wheel into a diagonal parking space in front of her salon.
He was her best friend’s brother—an ex-Texas Ranger who was now the sheriff of Hope Valley.
And he was the last person Donetta wanted to see today.
“I declare, Donetta. You’re about to snatch me bald-headed.”
She jolted and quickly smoothed out the two-inch-long section of hair she’d just teased into a ball of frizz.
“Sorry, Miz Lloyd. My mind wandered.”
“Good thing you didn’t have a pair of scissors in your hand. No telling what I’d look like.” She cut her eyes toward the front window, then back to Donetta’s reflection in the mirror. “That Carmichael boy is heading this way. Is that what’s got you in such a tizzy?”
Storm Carmichael wasn’t anybody’s idea of a boy, Donetta thought, which was partly the reason her knees were shaking. Thank God she hadn’t worn her miniskirt today. The man was more observant than a hawk, and Donetta had learned a hard lesson about showing vulnerability.
“Just running behind schedule is all that’s wrong with me,” Donetta said.
The door swished open, sucking out precious degrees of the salon’s cool air. And there he stood, Sheriff Storm Carmichael, six feet five inches of sinfully delicious masculinity in boots, jeans, a khaki uniform shirt with a sheriff’s star pinned above his breast pocket, and a Stetson sporting a cattleman’s crease.
The very man responsible for this god-awful, debilitating morning sickness.
His gaze locked onto hers and never wavered, yet she knew he could probably give a detailed description of every customer in the salon, as well as the hairstyle models in the photos on the walls. Despite her outward control, her heart galloped like a thoroughbred on an open range.
She’d had a major crush on him when she was a dreamy ten-year-old and he was sixteen. But that was twenty years ago—and at this particular moment, puppy love was not the emotion she was feeling.
“Excuse me just a minute, Miz Lloyd.” She set the brush on her station, then strolled toward the reception desk to head him off in case he had any ideas of coming in and getting comfortable. Not that he’d ever hung out in the salon, but he looked like a man with something on his mind, a man willing to wait until she was finished with her clients.
That was all she needed, she thought with a mental sigh. To have Storm’s eyes trained on her backside while she worked. She’d likely give Darla Pam Kirkwell a Mohawk.
She stopped at the reception desk, realizing she’d almost walked right up to Storm to automatically give him a hug.
That was what happened when a person had sex with a friend. Normal, lifelong habits became awkward. She’d always greeted him with a hug—even if she was miffed at him. Now she was afraid the simple gesture would give away more than she wanted him to know.
Wishing she could sit down for about five hours, she leaned against the red laminate counter and put on her polite, welcome-the-customer face. It took a Herculean effort. She felt about as sociable as a she-bear in satin.
“Afternoon, Sheriff. What can I do for you?”
His eyes blatantly lowered to her V-neck tank top that sported a large, dramatic face of a cat, then to her slim khaki pants and open-toed platform shoes. Although it was October, a warm front had moved in from the Gulf, making it feel like the middle of summer. Storm Carmichael’s visual caress cranked up her internal thermostat to triple digits.
“I guess you didn’t see that red tag on the door,” he said in his perfectly charming Texas drawl. He was one of those men whose smooth baritone voice had an innately sensual, teasing tone. His thumbs were hooked in the front pockets of his jeans, a purely masculine gesture that drew the eye and put a woman in danger of losing her good sense.
“Now, don’t you start in on me, too, Storm. As soon as I get ahold of my contractor, he’ll take care of everything. And park those eyeballs back in your head, why don’t you. I’m not in the mood to deal with one more condescending male today.” She’d couched her annoyance in her trademark sultry tone, but for once, she wasn’t quite certain she’d pulled it off. She knew just how to flirt with a guy, to let him down easy without making him feel as though he’d struck out. It was her means of holding men at bay. The trait was pretty much the only useful lesson she’d learned from a mother she hadn’t seen in eight years.
“Can’t blame a man for admiring. All these bold colors in here, and you still stand out like a million-dollar supermodel.”
She arched a brow. “Flattery, Sheriff? My goodness, you must want something.”
“Oh, I want a lot of things,” he said softly, making her shiver even though she was burning up. “Right now, though, I’ll stick to business. That citation on your door isn’t part of a beautification project. It doesn’t say ‘Pretty please’ and it doesn’t mention a thing about phoning your contractor. It’s an official injunction mandating you to vacate these premises until the issues that have been itemized for you—more than once, I’m told—are corrected and in compliance with county and state building codes.”
At the formality of his words, Donetta’s heart pounded with a mounting sense of dread. This was Storm Carmichael the cop. Not Storm Carmichael the friend she’d slept with, the man who held her heart and didn’t even know it.
“Now, I don’t know how these infractions slipped through the cracks for two years, but the improvements on this unit have been declared unsafe by the fire marshal—”
“Would you just hush?” she whispered fiercely. “I know what the damn thing says.” She looked around to see if any of the customers were listening. Of course they were. The three elderly women were practically leaning forward in their chairs, not even trying to disguise that they were exercising what they clearly viewed as their God-given right to eavesdrop.
“Listen, Storm, this will just have to wait.” He wasn’t wearing a gun belt and she didn’t see any handcuffs, so it was a safe bet that he wouldn’t actually arrest her for violating a court order. Hope Valley was a relaxed small town. The judicial system was naturally a bit more laid- back. And she wasn’t ignoring the stupid paper—even though she’d flipped it the bird as she’d unlocked the front door this morning to open for business.
“I intend to take care of everything,” she said, “but first I need to finish styling Miz Lloyd and rinse Darla Pam before the bleach fries her hair. And I promised Cora I’d have her out of here before three o’clock. She has errands to run and has to be home before dark—you know she can’t drive at night.”
Glancing down, she skimmed a fingertip over her appointment book, noticed that her acrylic nail was chipped at the very tip. Swell. One more thing she could add to her to -do list. She swallowed back the queasiness again working its way up her esophagus. She really, really didn’t feel good.
“Why don’t you give me a call around five,” she said, fully aware she wouldn’t be here. Millicent, Darla Pam and Cora were her last three clients for the day. “I should have a break by then. Meanwhile…” She stepped back and fixed a phony smile on her face. “You have yourself a real nice afternoon, Sheriff, ya hear?”