The Antonio Banderas look-alike standing on the porch in Western gear wasn't at all what actress Catherine Loza had expected. But when the tall, dark and totally irresistible rancher asked her to play the role of his fiancee to get the local matchmakers off his back, well...it was an offer the actress couldn't refuse.Brighton Valley mayor Ray Mendez thought he'd come up with the perfect plan. But as his fake engagement awakened stirrings of real romance--and real passion--he soon found himself wondering if he could persuade his costar to make their arrangement of convenience permanent. A proposal from the heart--and a baby on the way!--might just convince her that he was for real....
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Fifteen years ago, USA Today bestselling author, Judy Duarte, couldn’t shake the dream of creating a story of her own. That dream became a reality in 2002, when Harlequin released the first of more than thirty-five books. Judy's stories have touched the hearts of readers around the world. A two-time Rita finalist, Judy's books won two Maggies and a National Reader’s Choice Award. You can contact her at: www.judyduarte.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Catherine Loza napped in a child's bedroom at the Walker family's ranch in Texas, dreaming of sold-out nights on Broadway, the heady sound of applause and the pounding of her heart after a well-executed performance.
She took a bow, then straightened and glanced out into the audience, only to see an empty stall and a bale of straw in an illuminated old barn, where a group of children clapped their hands in delight.
Their faces were a blur until two of them glided toward the stage, greeting her with red rosebuds, their long stems free of thorns.
Recognizing Sofia and Stephen, Dan and Eva Walker's youngest twins, Catherine knelt and received the flowers. Then the darling two-year-olds wrapped their pudgy arms around her and placed soft, moist kisses on her cheeks, on her forehead, on her chin.
How strange, she thought, but so sweet.
She'd no more than thanked them and sent them on their way when she heard a light tapping noise in the distance.
Thoughts and visions tumbled together in her sleepy mind—until another knock sounded, this time on the bedroom door.
"Yes?" she said, realizing she'd dozed off after reading a storybook to the children. Now, as she scanned the empty room, she saw that they'd both slipped off, leaving her to nap alone.
Eva opened the door and peered into the darkened bedroom. "I'm sorry to bother you, but we're having company for dinner tonight, and I thought you might want to know."
Catherine glanced out the window, which was shuttered tight, only a faint light creeping through the slats. She tried to guess the time of day but didn't have a clue—other than it was obviously nearing the dinner hour.
"A lot of help I am," Catherine said. "I wasn't the one who was supposed to fall asleep."
Eva chuckled softly. "Sofia and Stephen woke up a few minutes ago. Now they're in the kitchen, coloring and playing with their sticker books."
Catherine never had been one to nap during the day. Apparently the fresh air, sunshine and the rural Texas setting had a calming effect on her.
"If you'd like to rest a little longer," Eva said, "it's not a problem. You've been burning the candle at both ends for so long. Your body probably needs the sleep."
"Who's coming for dinner tonight?" Catherine asked.
"Ray Mendez. He's a local rancher and a neighbor. In fact, he'll be here any minute."
"Thanks for the heads-up." As Eva closed the bedroom door, Catherine raked her fingers through her hair, her nails catching on a couple of snags in her long curls. She probably looked a fright, with eyes puffy from sleep, but she wouldn't stress about it. This was supposed to be a vacation of sorts.
Ever since her arrival on the ranch, she'd decided to go au natural—no makeup, no fancy hairstyles. She was also kicking back for a change—no schedules, no grueling workouts, no rehearsals. And quite frankly, she was looking forward to having a break from the hectic life she'd once known in Manhattan.
Catherine rolled to the side of the bed and got to her feet. Then she straightened the pillows, as well as the coverlet, before opening the door and stepping into the hall.
She'd taken only two steps when the doorbell rang. The rancher had just arrived. Wanting to make herself useful, she detoured to answer the door. What had Eva said his name was? Ray something.
Catherine had never met any of the Walkers' neighbors, but she assumed Ray must be one of Hank's friends. Hank, Dan's elderly uncle, who'd once owned the ranch and now lived in a guesthouse Dan had built for him, always ate dinner with them in the main dining room.
Not seeing anyone else in the room, Catherine opened the front door.
She expected to see a weathered rancher who resembled Dan's uncle, a sweet but crotchety old cowboy who reminded her of Robert Duvall when he'd played in Lonesome Dove or Open Range. But nothing had prepared her for the tall, dark-haired visitor who stood on the porch.
The man, whose expression revealed that he was just as surprised to see her as she was to see him, didn't look anything like the grizzled Texan she'd envisioned just moments before. At first glance, he bore enough resemblance to Antonio Banderas to be his younger brother—all decked out in Western wear, of course.
A sense of awkwardness rose up inside, and she tried to tamp it down the best she could. She might be dressed like a barefoot street urchin in a pair of gray sweatpants, an old NYU T-shirt and no makeup to speak of, but she was actually an accomplished woman who'd performed on Broadway several times in the past—and would do so again.
"I'm Catherine Loza," she said. "You must be Ray...?"
"Mendez." His voice held the slightest bit of a Spanish accent, which made him all the more intriguing.
She reached up to flick a wild strand of her sleep-tousled curls from her eyes, only to feel something papery stuck to her face. She peeled it off, and when she looked at her fingers to see what it was, she spotted a child's butterfly sticker.
Oh, for Pete's sake. How had that gotten there?
It must have been on the bedspread or pillow, and she'd probably rolled over on it.
Determined to shake the flush from her face and to pretend that her ankles weren't bound together with duct tape, that her brain hadn't been abducted by aliens, Catherine forced herself to step forward and reach out to shake the neighboring rancher's hand. "It's nice to meet you, Ray. Eva said you'd be coming to dinner tonight. Please come in."
The handsome rancher's smile deepened, lighting his eyes, which were a vibrant shade of green.
As he released his grip on her hand, leaving her skin warm and tingling, he lifted a lazy index finger and peeled another sticker from her face.
Her lips parted as he showed her a little pink heart.
"You missed a couple of them," he said.
Huh? A couple of...what?
He removed a gold star from over her brow and a unicorn from her chin.
Catherine blinked back her surprise, as well as her embarrassment. Then she swiped her hand first over one cheek and then the other, discovering that either Sofia or Stephen had decorated her face while she'd slept.
Goodness. What else had the twins done to her while she'd been asleep? Surely they hadn't used their Magic Markers on her, too?
She hadn't felt the least bit self-conscious in years, but it all came rushing back at her now. She must look like a clown. What must the man be thinking?
Calling on her acting skills and her ability to ad-lib on stage, she gave a little shrug, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. "Well, what do you know? The sticker fairies stopped by while I napped."
Ray tossed her a crooked grin, humor sparking in his eyes. "You've got to watch out for those fairies, especially on the Walker Ranch. There's no telling what they'll do next."
"I'm afraid he's right about that," Dan said as he entered the living room. "Our younger twins can be little rascals at times."
Before Catherine could respond, Dan greeted his friend with a handshake, then invited him to take a seat, suggesting that she do the same.
But there was no way Catherine wanted to remain in the living room looking like a ragamuffin, so she said, "I'd better help Eva in the kitchen."
"I was just in there," Dan said. "And she has everything under control."
Catherine didn't care where she went—to the kitchen, her bedroom or the barn. All she wanted to do was to disappear from the handsome rancher's sight until she could find a mirror before dinner.
"Well, since Eva doesn't need my help, I'll just go freshen up." She lobbed Ray Mendez her best, unaffected smile. "It was nice meeting you."
"The pleasure was mine."
The sound of the word pleasure on the lips of a man who not only resembled a Latin lover but sounded like one, too, was enough to knock her little Texas world off its axis.
And until she flew back to Manhattan, she'd do whatever it took to keep her feet on solid ground in Brighton Valley.
One screwed-up world was more than she cared to handle.
Ray Mendez had no idea who Catherine Loza was, why she'd been napping this late in the afternoon or why she'd been included to have dinner at the Walkers' ranch. He watched her leave the room, turn down the hall and walk toward the bedrooms.
The minute she was out of hearing range, he turned to his neighbor and friend. "You're not starting in on me, too, are you?"
"Starting in on you? What do you mean?"
Ray crossed his arms and tensed. "Is this dinner supposed to be a setup?"
Dan looked a little confused by the question—or rather the accusation. "A setup? You mean, with you and Catherine? No, I wouldn't do that." Then he glanced toward the kitchen, as if realizing his pretty wife might have had a plan of her own.
But why wouldn't she? Every time Ray turned around, one of the women in town was trying to play matchmaker.
"Eva called and asked you to dinner because we hadn't seen you in a while," Dan said. "Why would you think we had anything else in mind?"
"Because ever since word got out that my divorce was final, the local matchmakers have come out of the woodwork, determined to find the perfect second wife for me. And the last thing I'm looking for right now is romance. I've got my hands full trying to run my ranch from a distance and finish out the term of the previous mayor."
"Has it been that bad?" Dan asked.
"You have no idea."
"For the record," Dan said, "Catherine is a great woman. She's beautiful, talented and has a heart of gold. But she's just visiting us. Her life is in New York, and yours is here. So...
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