Excerpt from HIS VALENTINE BRIDE

Elizabeth "Betsy" McGregor had been out of work for six weeks, three days and twelve hours. With Thanksgiving closing in, Betsy knew if she didn't get a job before the holiday season began, she might as well forget about finding one until after the first of the year. Her desperate straits had smacked her in the face last weekend when she'd put pen to paper and determined she only had enough money for one more rent payment. That was the only reason she'd agreed to interview for a position with Ryan Harcourt's law firm.

Okay, perhaps the medallion she'd dropped into the pocket of her suit jacket this morning had something to do with her decision. She'd been trying to decide if she should keep the interview or cancel when she found the octagon-shaped copper coin while cleaning out her Great Aunt's home. After reading the accompanying note her recently deceased aunt had addressed to her, Betsy had been seized with a certainty that her luck was about to change.

No matter that the percentage of unemployed in Jackson Hole was on the rise or that the holidays were just around the corner. According to Aunt Agatha, the medallion would bring her not only good luck, but love.

She snorted. It would take a lot for a tarnished metal coin engraved with ivy, a few hearts and some funny French words to send love her way. Luck, she could believe. But love?

Betsy had never been one to lie to herself. Not only was she rapidly approaching thirty, she was the epitome of the word average. Average height. Average weight. Average looks. Even her hair was average. Instead of being a rich chestnut brown like her best friend, Adrianna Lee, the strands hanging down her back were a mousy shade of tan. It figured that her eyes couldn't be a vivid emerald green—like Adrianna's—but instead were a dusty blue. Not light enough to be interesting nor dark enough to be striking.

Her features were arranged nicely enough, although if she could wave a magic wand, the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose would be banished forever. The only good thing Betsy could say about her appearance was that she was so ordinary she could blend in anywhere.

She pulled the key from the ignition, accepting the truth but irritated by it nonetheless. She didn't want to be ordinary. Or to blend in. Just once she'd like to be the type of woman who turned heads when she walked down the street. The type of woman a man would see and immediately want by his side. The type of woman a man like Ryan Harcourt could love.

Heat flooded her face at the realization that she was still as foolish as she'd been at age ten when she'd secretly vowed to marry the slender dark-haired boy with the slate grey eyes.

It hadn't mattered that he was five years older or that all the middle school girls drooled over him. Unlike most of her brother's friends, Ryan had always been nice to her. She vividly remembered the day he'd come across some boys taunting her, saying horrible things and making her cry. Ryan had not only run them off, he'd walked her home. That was the day she'd fallen in love with him.

That's why working for him made absolutely no sense. Seeing him every day would be a dream come true and her worst nightmare. He'd be nice to her. She didn't doubt that in the least. But to have someone see you as only an employee when you yearned for him to see you as a desirable woman, well, it was bound to be difficult.

Still, she'd had a lot of experience handling challenging situations. Hadn't she survived a childhood with an alcoholic mother and an absent father? The bottom line was she needed a job. She had to have money to pay her bills and to replace the red-tagged furnace at the house she'd inherited from her aunt.

While she hoped the medallion in her pocket would bring good fortune, she wasn't counting on it. That would be foolhardy. Betsy had always been a firm believer that God helped those who helped themselves. And that's just what she was doing by interviewing for this job; tossing a Hail Mary and hoping for a touchdown.

Squaring her shoulders Betsy stepped from her parked car then paused at the curb to straighten the cuffs of her best camel-colored suit. Since the temperature was a balmy forty-two degrees, she'd slipped on a tan all-weather coat instead of her thick fur-lined parka, the one her brother said made her look like an Eskimo.

The snow from the small storm two days ago had already begun to melt, turning the streets into a slushy mess. Yet the sky was a vivid blue and Betsy reveled in the feel of the sun on her face.

She let her coat hang open and started down the sidewalk toward Ryan's office. Though she tried to walk slowly, all too soon the frontage for his office came into view. She glanced at her watch and grimaced. Arriving ten minutes prior to an interview was appropriate. Twenty minutes early smacked of desperation.

While she might indeed be desperate, Betsy certainly didn't want to give that impression. Perhaps it'd be best if she relaxed in her car a little while longer.

She abruptly turned back in the direction of her vehicle, her mind consumed with the upcoming interview until her heel caught in a crack, plunging her forward.

A tiny cry sprang from her throat as the sidewalk rushed up to greet her. At the last second, a man behind her reached out and grabbed her.

His hands were strong, pulling her to him, steadying her. The chest he held her against was broad. She lifted her head, the words of sincere thanks already formed on her lips. Then she saw his face. Suddenly Betsy found it difficult to think, much less speak. Finally she found her voice. "Ryan?"

He smiled. That boyish, slightly crooked grin guaranteed to make a woman's heart skip a beat. It was hard to imagine she'd been in Jackson Hole all these months without their paths crossing. Actually that wasn't quite true. She'd seen him at a local sports bar a week or so ago but he'd been too busy flirting with a couple of ski bunny types to notice her.

Even from a distance, it had been apparent the years had been good to him. Despite being a regular on the rodeo circuit during his college days, Ryan was one of those guys who only got better with age. He was slender, just as she remembered, but now with a man's broad shoulders and lean hips. His dark hair brushed his collar and tiny laugh lines edged his eyes.

She let her gaze linger a second longer on the crush-of-her-youth packaged in grey dress pants, a charcoal-colored shirt and dark topcoat. After a moment all she could see were those beautiful silver eyes that a girl, er woman, could get lost in…

"Betsy?" Her name sounded like a husky caress on his lips.

She shivered but not from the cold. In fact, she felt positively warm. Okay, hot. His arms remained around her. Betsy couldn't remember the last time she'd been this close to him. It felt…nice.

"Are you okay?" His beautiful eyes were filled with concern.

She managed a nod and the lines of worry between his brows eased.

"I was on my way to the office," he said. "I saw your name on the interview list and didn't want to keep you waiting."

Though prior to running into him she'd barely walked ten feet, her breath now came in short puffs. Every inch of her body sizzled.

"Until I received your application I didn't know you'd moved back." As if realizing he still held her in his arms he stepped back and let his arms drop to his side.

Betsy resisted the urge to pull him back close. Instead she forced a smile. "I've been here almost three months. I was working at Dunlop and Sons but they cut back on employees."

She saw no reason to mention that Chad Dunlop had wanted to fire her. Only some quick thinking and determination on her part had kept her work reputation intact.

Ryan tilted his head, confusion furrowing his brow. "Hearing that firm is downsizing surprises me. I thought they'd be adding personnel, not cutting back."

Betsy let a slight shrug be her response.

"Tell me about your work in Kansas City." He took her arm and they continued down the street in the direction of his office.

Despite the layers of clothing between them, Betsy's arm tingled beneath his touch. She found herself slowing her steps, wishing his office wasn't so close. She'd like to prolong this time for a few minutes more. But it seemed like they'd barely started walking when they reached the glass storefront of his law practice.

To her surprise, Ryan kept walking.

She glanced back over her shoulder. "Wasn't that your office?"

"I thought I'd do the interview at Hill of Beans." He opened the wooden door, stepping aside and waving her inside. "After your altercation with the sidewalk, I'm sure you need a hot chocolate or a latte to steady your nerves."

Betsy fought back a rush of pleasure. Going to Jackson's newest coffee shop with Ryan made this feel more like a date than an interview.

For a Tuesday, the coffee shop--known for its fabulous selection of beverages and bakery items--was surprisingly busy. Although Betsy insisted she wasn't hungry, Ryan got a large piece of coffee cake for them to share as well as two cups of hot cocoa.

Once they were settled in a booth by the window, Betsy expected him to start rattling off questions. She'd been through so many interviews in the past couple of months she doubted there was anything he could ask that would catch her off-guard.

"I was sorry to hear about your mom."

Okay, he'd surprised her. Betsy couldn't remember the last time anyone had mentioned her mother. When she was small, everyone was always commenting on the resemblance. Back then Betsy had been proud to be compared to her beautiful mother.

It wasn't until she got a little older that she realized her mother wasn't pretty. Not on the outside and certainly not on the inside.

"She was drunk when she hit the telephone pole," Betsy said in the unemotional tone she'd cultivated over the years. "The police said she was going seventy. She barely missed a kid on a bike."

"She was your mother," he said softly. "Her death had to hurt."

Betsy didn't say anything.

"Is that why you moved back to Jackson?" His large hands encircled the tan coffee mug. "To settle her estate?"

"What estate?" Betsy gave a little laugh. "All she left was a bunch of bills."

She wondered what Ryan would think if she told him the reason she'd stayed in KC until now was because she'd refused to move back to Jackson Hole as long as her mother was here? He should understand. After all, as Keenan's friend he'd witnessed Gloria's out-of-control drunken rages.

"I'd wanted to move back for some time," Betsy said in a matter-of-fact tone. "And Adrianna Lee has been encouraging me to ‘return to my roots' for years."

Ryan's eyes took on a gleam she couldn't quite decipher. "That's right. I'd forgotten you and Adrianna were good friends."

"Since kindergarten." A smile lifted Betsy's lips, the way it always did when she thought of her oldest and dearest friend.

"It surprises me that some guy hasn't snatched her up by now."

"I guess she just hasn't found Mr. Right." Betsy kept her tone light. While Adrianna was beautiful and bright with a great job as an OB-GYN nurse midwife, her friend had her own demons that made it difficult to trust men.

"I've seen her at Wally's Place," he said, referring to the popular sports bar that was at the top of everyone's list.

"Rarely with the same guy twice."

"I wouldn't know." Of course she knew, but Betsy was beginning to get a little irritated. She had the feeling Ryan was more interested in talking about everything but his open position.

A sudden thought struck her. Could this be a pity interview? She sat down her cup of cocoa, finding it difficult to breathe. She needed this job. And she'd thought she had a real shot at it. But—

"Enough about her." Ryan waved a dismissive hand. "Let's talk about you. How did you like Kansas City?"

His gaze settled on Betsy, as if she was the only woman in the world. Or, at least, the only one who mattered. Though it was a heady feeling to be the object of such focus, she knew this was simply Ryan's way. The guy was a natural born charmer and she'd do well to keep that fact front and center in her head.

"I liked Kansas," she said. "But Wyoming has always been home."

"Your resume said you graduated from KU with a degree in Political Science." He smiled and a teasing glint filled his eyes. "Looks like you were planning to go to law school. Am I right?"

"I considered it," Betsy admitted. "But I really love being a paralegal."

Betsy went on to tell Ryan that after high school, she'd moved to Lawrence to live with a cousin. She'd worked for a year as a waitress then decided to give higher education a shot. "After graduating from KU I moved to Kansas City and completed a paralegal program in Overland Park."

"I bet you're a dynamite legal assistant," he said with such sincerity that tears stung the back of her eyes.

"My past employers all seemed to think so." With the exception of Chad Dunlop, of course.

"Now you're back in Jackson Hole to stay."

Betsy nodded. "Shortly after my mother died, my great-aunt passed away and left me her house. Once the furnace is repaired and the city says it's safe for me to occupy, I'll move in."

"The place sounds like a real gem."

Another woman might have taken offense, but Betsy simply laughed. "It's definitely a fixer-upper, that's for sure."

Having a place to stay rent-free—at least once she could move in—was a big plus. But to survive in Jackson Hole, Betsy needed a job. Lately she'd considered practicing saying ‘do you want fries with that?' but she enjoyed being a legal assistant and was darn good at her job. Before she gave up on the hope of getting a position in her field, she had to know she'd left no stone unturned.

"You got a great recommendation from the Kansas firm." Ryan offered an encouraging smile. "Tell me about your duties there."

"They were a large, diverse practice. Initially I worked for one of the older partners who primarily practiced family law. He had a stroke and was out of the office for an extended period. During that time I helped several of the other partners, which gave me a wide range of experiences."

Betsy went on to describe her duties in greater depths. There were so many interesting stories that she continued to talk. She was halfway through the third example when she realized he was smiling at her.

She stopped and raised a hand to her face, praying she didn't have a hot cocoa mustache or something equally horrifying. "Do I have something on my face? In my teeth?"

"No. Why?"

"You were looking at me so strangely."

He cocked his head. "Was I?"

"You know you were." If this was a regular interview, she'd never have challenged him. But this was Ryan.

"I'm just impressed by the breadth of your experience."

Was that honest-to-goodness admiration she saw reflected in those gorgeous eyes? Before she could respond, a gruff voice filled the air.

"Who let you in the front door?"

Betsy looked up into the grinning face of Cole Lassiter. The owner of the Hill of Beans coffee empire and another of Ryan's many friends from high school, had a devilish gleam in his eyes.

"Don't think I didn't notice the timing, Lassister," Ryan shot back. "You wait until I pay and then you show up."

Cole chuckled, grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat down at the edge of the booth. He gave Betsy a curious glance.

Since moving back, she'd seen Cole, his wife Margaret and son Charlie in church, but only from a distance.

He was a handsome man with thick dark hair and vivid blue eyes. He and Ryan look a lot alike, so much so that back in high school, those who didn't know them well would often mistake one for the other.

"Aren't you going to introduce me?" Cole's gaze lingered on Betsy.

"Are you blind?" The look on Ryan's face would have been laughable at any other time. "It's Betsy McGregor, Keenan's little sister."

Cole shook his head and gave a low whistle. "You were a girl the last time I saw you. Now look at you, all grown up and beautiful."

Was that a scowl on Ryan's face? Betsy simply laughed. All her brother's friends had been blessed with an abundance of charm.

"Congratulations on marrying Margaret Fisher," Betsy said. "I knew her younger sister better than I did her, but Margaret was always nice to me when I stopped over."

"I'm a lucky man." The look on Cole's face told her he meant every word.

"She might not remember me but be sure and tell her I said hello."

"Oh, she'll remember," Cole said gallantly. His gaze shifted from Ryan to her then back to Ryan again. "Are you…dating?"

"Goodness, no." Betsy spoke quickly before Ryan had a chance to respond. Or heaven forbid, laugh. "I'm interviewing to be his legal assistant."

Cole shifted his gaze to Ryan. "What happened to Caroline?"

"Her husband got a promotion. They're leaving for Texas tomorrow."

"Good for them," Cole said pointedly. "Bad for you."

"I was bummed." Ryan shifted his gaze to her and smiled. "Until I received Betsy's application."

Was he saying…? Betsy's fingers stole to the medallion in her pocket.

Ryan saw the look of bald hope on her face. "The position is yours. If you want it."

"Just like that?" Betsy's voice shook with emotion. And were those tears in her eyes? "Aren't you even going to check my references?"

She was a funny sort, all wide-eyed and serious. Ryan had never realized what pretty eyes she had, large and a curious shade of blue with specks of gold. Until she'd stumbled earlier and he'd pulled her close he'd never realized she had such delectable curves either.

Of course, to him she'd always be Keenan's little sister. The one who'd toddled after them and messed up their toy soldiers. The one who'd bravely stood up to those bullies who'd taunted her, asking if she was a whore and a drunk like her mother.

He leaned forward resting his arms on the table. "Just tell me you don't have any deep dark secrets and we're good."

"Nope." She shot him a blinding smile. "What you see is what you get."

Beside him Cole started to chuckle. Ryan kicked him before Betsy noticed.

What you see is what you get?

Ryan knew Cole's mind had gone totally in the wrong direction. Betsy was his new legal assistant, not a potential lover. And perhaps, a friend. A guy couldn't have too many friends.

He smiled and nodded. Yep, from what he'd seen so far, Betsy was the type of woman who'd make a great buddy.

 

Back

Serving up a Slice of Small Town Life