The luggage cart groaned in protest as Gray Halloran slung another box onto the rickety platform. The cart would have to put up with the abuse. Lunch at the soon-to-be rebranded Moosehorn River Lodge started in fifteen minutes, and Gray had promised his sister he’d get his truckload of stuff up the elevator and into his room before any of her paying guests sat down to eat.
Having to move to her property was embarrassing enough without also inconveniencing her business.
His cell buzzed with a text.
Emma: You’re just unloading now?
The anxious knot in his stomach tightened. Spying on me? he typed.
I can see the parking lot from my office. You should have been here an hour ago.
He sighed. She wasn’t wrong. Sorry. Mom conscripted me when I dropped off the stuff I’m storing at the ranch. Had to fix a busted barn gate. I’ll hurry.
Please do. Get in by 11.
He eyed the neatly stacked cart, searching for any extra space. Three years of working for Sutter Creek Fire and Rescue in his small Montana hometown had made him an expert at rolling hose and packing first-aid equipment with precision. Organizing clothes and books was a cinch, along with the minimal number of personal items he’d brought with him. He’d bring over anything else he needed another day, after he figured out what was necessary and what he could leave at the ranch until he found an ideal living arrangement.
Essentially, anything he could afford on his firefighter’s salary that didn’t require him to mooch off family. But given the impossible state of the rental market in Sutter Creek mid–ski season, he couldn’t be picky. Working on Emma’s maintenance crew on his days off would make up the difference between what he could swing in rent and the rack rate on a lodge suite. Would mean he could live with himself, too.
I’ll put you up, Gray. Everyone needs a hand when they’re starting out.
Kind words. Had he not been attuned to it, he might have missed his sister’s couched pity. His family loved to see him as a kid instead of a twenty-five-year-old man who got paid to save lives and property.
Damn it, the cart was bursting. He’d have to come back for a second load. He locked up his truck then pushed the cart along the path, glad for whichever employee had scraped last night’s snowfall from the concrete.
Tomorrow, that employee would probably be him.
Despite kicking himself for being late, he couldn’t help but enjoy the morning sun warming the winding path. It was the first blue sky in a few days, and he loved not having wind biting at his face for a change. Also, to be wearing jeans, work boots and a jacket rather than turnout gear.
The fresh snowfall draped like a quilt over native-plant gardens and pathways. Marshmallow-fluff accumulations covered the tin roof’s hodgepodge of peaks. His great-grandfather built this place back before power tools were a thing, which always blew his mind. The lodge, with its log sides and green roof marrying with the trees on all sides, had a way of making even Gray feel small. Tough to do—he was on the tall side of six-three.
He was almost to the rustic entrance when a streak of beige canvas darted across his path and behind one of the thick pillars.
He halted, jerking the load. Something on the cart snapped and the base tilted. His boxes shifted, tilting precariously. He lurched toward them, destabilizing the cart even more.
A box tumbled to the ground. Then another.
He caught a fourth, but missed a fifth, which landed with a crash. Crud. Probably his plates. Neck hot with annoyance, he gripped the heavy box and used his hip to brace the rest of the stack.
“Oh, no!” A feminine voice came from over his shoulder.
He glanced back as a familiar face peeked around the wide post serving as a hiding spot.
Alejandra Brooks Flores’s doe-brown eyes widened, her plush lips forming a horrified O. Her light brown complexion was washed out. Almost green around the edges.
“Are you okay?” he said.
She was still the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen. So much for being over his crush on his childhood neighbor—the one who happened to be over a decade older than him and was joined at the hip with his oldest sister, Nora.
She shifted around the post, tilting her head at the lopsided cart. Taking the front support bar in her hands, she pushed the cart back to straight. “I’m so sorry, Gray. I didn’t mean to get in your way. I think you’ve lost the front wheel.”
No doubt that was the problem.
Of more concern? He’d lost his heart to this woman when he was a teenager and had never managed to get over her.
Carpenter’s overalls hugged the curves he’d been mapping in his head since he was old enough to know that gazing at a woman was one of the better pleasures life had to offer. A tool belt hugged her lush hips. She’d tucked a pencil behind her ear, amongst the little curls escaping from a thick, dark brown braid. Clear eye protection perched on the top of her head.
Alejandra Brooks Flores and her safety attire. Irresistible.
But not only did their eleven-year age difference prevent her from seeing him as anything but her best friend’s little brother, pursuing her would mean endless grief from his three sisters and older cousin Jack. No thanks.
So, as always, he’d hide his feelings and hope she never noticed the emoji-worthy hearts in his eyes.
Clearing his throat and attempting to clear what he knew was a lovesick look off his face, he put down his box and righted the fallen carton. He stacked them to the side of the portico in case a guest came by. Emma would no doubt tsk and fuss that he’d cluttered the otherwise pristine entryway. “I told Emma this cart was on its last legs, but she insisted it was in working order.”
Aleja winced. “And then I had to run in front of it and test its limits.”
“You couldn’t have known.” With the somewhat smushed boxes in a tidy pile by a barrel filled with winter kale, he started to unload the remainder.
“What’s in the boxes?”
“All my earthly belongings. My apartment building got sold and is getting torn down,” he said. “What am I saying—you’d know that. Did your dad bid on the contract for the rebuild?”
She shook her head. “Timing wasn’t right. But I do know the project.”
“Yeah, they gave us two months’ notice, but nothing showed up in my price range, not with it being high season. I promised everything but my first-born child to Emma in exchange for a lodge room.”
“You didn’t want to move to Bozeman?”
“Too far a commute.”
Aleja’s throat bobbed, as if she was trying not to gag.
“You still dealing with the flu you had back before Christmas?”
“No, I’m all better.”
It didn’t look like it, but she didn’t offer up more of an explanation, so he went back for another box. “Emma and I are swapping labor for one of the loft rooms. Means I feel like less of a freeloader.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Huh. Wouldn’t have thought you’d want to tie up your time.”
“I’ll make it work.” Did she underestimate him like his family did? Then again, she was probably the recipient of Nora’s complaints whenever Gray had to skip out on ranch work because of his rotations and training. Nora assumed that because she loved their ranch more than anything, her younger siblings should, too. He had other priorities—like saving lives.
He studied the pile he’d made. “I’ll have to find a dolly to get these upstairs. Or maybe there’s another luggage cart.”
“I have a dolly,” Aleja offered, hands still braced to keep the cart level.
“Thanks. Might need to take you up on that. I take it the reno is in full swing?” He hadn’t realized Aleja was working the lodge overhaul. Last he’d heard, she’d been contracted to build a mansion on the other side of Moosehorn Lake for some Silicon Valley billionaire.
“We’re on track so far.” She turned a shade greener than before.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“A hundred percent.”
If she said so. But his EMT training didn’t like the sheen of sweat dotting her forehead. “I saw the plans in my sister’s office. Your dad did a wicked job. Artsier than some of his usual stuff. I love the romance-in-the-woods vibe.”
Her cheek flinched. “My dad didn’t design this project. I did. I’m in charge.”
His throat dried up. “Of the whole thing?”
She drew up to her full five feet eight inches. Barely above his chin but sporting a glare that in no uncertain terms guaranteed she could take him to the ground if she put her mind to it.
That possibility was far too intriguing.
“Problem with that?” she asked.
Yes. Only because I want to kiss you.
“Of course not,” he said. “I’m sorry I made assumptions. I thought you were working on a new mansion for some out-of-towner.”
“It fell through.” She pressed her lips together. “I can handle the management of this project, Graydon.”
“I know, I—”
“Some guys give me attitude, but I didn’t expect it from you. You grew up with your mom and Nora running your family’s spread. They’d ream you out for days if they heard you questioning a woman’s capacity to lead in a trades profession.”
His cheeks flamed hot. She was right. “You must know I think you do good work.”
“Then why’d you ask me if I was running ‘the whole thing’?”
He jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. “I—uh—I meant I was surprised to see you. Not because I don’t think you can do the job. I didn’t know that you were doing the job—”
“You said it like it was a problem,” she said.
“Aleja…” He forced a blank expression.
“Is it a problem?”
“Of course not.” This clearly wasn’t the first time she’d had this argument. He wished he hadn’t misspoken and come across as one more prick determined to undervalue her.
“Your sister trusts me. And I don’t want you in her ear, trying to change her mind.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I’m glad you got the contract.”
He swallowed, trying to get the moisture back in his mouth. Aleja, here. Daily. Damn.
There was no chance of an apartment he could afford turning up in town until May at the earliest. Until the seasonal mountain workers left town, he’d be living in the lodge.
Running into Aleja all the time.
Four months of having to ignore how beautiful she was in overalls and a tool belt.
Back in ninth grade, his friends had worshipped Katy Perry and Rihanna. He’d had Alejandra Brooks Flores coming in on careers day to talk about women in trades, all competence and kindness, with an extra smile for him and a chat about how she’d heard he’d played well in his last hockey game.
His feelings had gotten easier to hide when he went to college and then came home to join the department. His siblings hadn’t teased him about being infatuated with Aleja since before he was with his college girlfriend, and he intended to keep it that way.
Not by making himself scarce, though. He’d committed to putting in hours for his sister. Flaking out on Emma wasn’t an option, not if he wanted to shed the spoiled-youngest-child albatross he’d hung around his own neck as a teenager. Years of being responsible hadn’t freed him from that reputation, but he had to believe he’d eventually succeed.
He took the last box off the cart and added it to his pile.
Relief shot across Aleja’s face, and she dropped the edge of the cart.
“Oh, crap—” She slapped a hand across her mouth and took off, darting out from under the portico, down the gravel path to the river, until she was out of sight.
Gray stared at the corner of the building where she disappeared. His gut nagged him. The boxes would have to wait.
He pushed the broken cart to the side, pulled out his phone and found his text thread with Emma.
He winced at her last message—get in by 11—and checked his watch: 10:55.
He typed his reply.
2 probs. (1) Your cart is garbage. (2) Aleja is sick & might need 1st aid. Sorry re: pile @ front. Will move ASAP.
Knowing he’d get an earful regardless, he took off down the same path as Aleja.
Alejandra rested her forehead against the log side of the lodge. The winter-chilled wood cooled her clammy skin. So much for finding a garbage can—she’d settled for the ground next to an unsuspecting rhododendron.
She took a deep breath. All right, stomach. I get it. Toast is the most offensive food known to humanity.
Maybe now she’d feel less queasy for the rest of the day.
Unlikely. The morning sickness she’d been lucky enough to be dealing with since week freaking four of her pregnancy was more like all-day nausea. It had been going on for five weeks and was not abating.
And to have Gray Halloran witness her sprint for privacy? Embarrassment flooded in, twisting her empty stomach. The man wasn’t known for being a vault—her best friend Nora had complained about Gray’s loose lips a million times when he was younger. What if he figured out the reason for her nausea and told his sister? She wanted to get established on the project before Emma or her work crew found out she was expecting.
At least her overalls hid her bloated belly. Most of her pants were way too tight despite her meagre diet of crackers, toast and her abuela’s corn tortillas.
Pregnancy was a hundred percent awful so far.
And she could not be more excited to be miserable.
Life was nothing if not full of chaos energy, and right after spending Christmas hiding how sick she was, Aleja had got a call from Emma saying she needed a contractor. On the heels of the lake mansion getting scrapped and used to grappling for contracts in the small Montana ski town where she’d grown up, she wasn’t going to let being pregnant get in the way of a career-changing opportunity.
Emma had big dreams of turning Moosehorn River Lodge into a five-star wedding destination. Aleja intended to facilitate them.
She was starting the overhaul downstairs, transforming the honeycomb of storage rooms and old staff housing into a larger multipurpose area. When construction shifted to the grand dining hall in a couple of months, Emma would have an alternate place to serve meals to her guests. Aleja couldn’t wait to get started on turning the lodge basement into a cozy nook for dining and lounging.
Frustratingly, until she could trust her stomach, she was better off in the fresh air.
She leaned back against the log wall. End game, Aleja—a baby. And all that joy.
She’d been desperate to be a mom ever since her first nephew was born when she was barely twenty. Her Tía Aleja role—Ti-leja, in toddler-speak—had only satisfied for so long, though. She had no problem being a “come from a big family, want a big family” cliché. It should have happened with her ex. Thank God she’d found out he was a liar before they’d gotten married. After breaking things off with Trace, she’d worried she was never going to find the right partner. But then her youngest sister and her wife went the donor route and ended up with Aleja’s beautiful niece, and she’d been inspired to rely on science instead of an unreliable man. Two rounds of IUI later, and she got two blue lines.
She splayed a hand on her belly and took a breath of cold mountain air. Yup. She and the sprout were going to be fine as a duo, especially surrounded by Aleja’s parents, abuela, siblings and their own families.
“You’re going to be loved, kiddo. More than you can handle. I promise.”
Of course, she’d been throwing promises around like snowballs in a schoolyard these past few weeks. She was going to have to work faster than she ever had in her life if she wanted to get this project done before her baby arrived.
That meant efficiency, every day.
Not needing twenty-minute breaks to retch in the bushes.
“Aleja?” Gray’s low voice drifted from around the corner.
Oh, crud, he’d followed her. Maybe if she stayed quiet…
His footsteps slowed and his big frame came into view. “There you are.”
He’d been taller than her since he was in elementary school but looking up at him was always a bit of a trip. A baseball cap covered his messy blond hair. Gold stubble glinted on his usually clean-shaven face, and his chest was broad enough to sub in for one of the weight-bearing walls they’d need to replace as they tore out the existing studs.
The universe had not skipped any steps when forming the firefighter’s square jaw and tilted smile.
Objectively, she could accept he was attractive.
Subjectively, not so much.
He was her best friend’s little brother.
Since when had she started noticing he was muscular and tall and saved lives for a living and in no way could be described as “little” anymore? Was it pregnancy hormones? Argh.
Her cheeks heated, prickling from the January nip in the air. She put on her best nothing-to-see-here expression. “Did you need something else?”
He cocked a brow and handed her a bottle of water. “Yeah, to figure out if you need medical help.”
“You were sick, though.”
“It happens.” She took a few small sips and rinsed her mouth before straightening away from the wall. Time to get to work.
Sliding the plastic bottle into her jacket pocket, she unclipped her respirator from her tool belt and shifted past him.
His gaze caught on the protective equipment. “Those are heavy duty filters.”
She turned to face him. “And?”
“Thought my sister said everything was tested for lead and asbestos.”
Her stomach jittered. He was too observant. He was also treading close to questioning her expertise, which wasn’t going to fly. As a woman in the trades, Latinx to boot, she’d been second-guessed her whole career. She sure as hell wasn’t going to take it from the kid who’d pretended to be a poltergeist on the nights she and Nora had slept in the hayloft of the Hallorans’ barn.
“Correct—the site is lead-free, and we know where any asbestos is and have a removal crew lined up,” she said.
“But the filters—”
“I just need to be careful,” she said. “Long story.”
His eyebrows furrowed.
Acid burned her throat. She covered her mouth with a fist and looked away.
Come on, stomach. Hold off the revolt.
At least until she got rid of Gray and made sure the sledgehammers were swinging.
He studied her with an EMT’s eye. “Do you need to sit down?”
“No, I need to get to—” Nope. The miniscule amount of water she’d consumed was losing its fight for internal supremacy. Whirling back to the rhodo, she tried to hide as much as she could.
Gray swore and came closer, resting a palm on her back and rubbing a soothing circle.
She hunched over, trying to regain control over her body.
“What’s going on, Aleja?”
Son of a mother, for all she felt like garbage baking in the sun, Gray’s hand, steady and comforting, was exactly what she needed.
No way was she going to try swallowing anything, but she couldn’t handle the taste in her mouth. She rinsed her mouth out. “Nothing you need to be concerned about.”
“I disagree,” he said. “If you’ve got food poisoning or a virus, you shouldn’t be here.”
“You’re not. You should be snuggled on your couch with tea and Netflix.”
“I don’t have time to rest. This job needs to be done by July.” She straightened. The too-quick motion set her head spinning. She wobbled.
He steadied her shoulders with both hands. “One day won’t—”
“You have a pile of boxes jamming up your sister’s main entrance. You should go deal with them.”
“I can’t leave you if you’re shaky. If it’s not flu, what is it? Prolonged nausea—” His eyes widened, flicking down to her stomach. He swiped a palm over his mouth. “Oh. Oh. Are you preg—Uh, never mind. Not my business.”
Oh, crap. Gray had outstanding heavy respirator plus puking plus dizziness math.
“Y-you know,” she stammered, “the only time it’s appropriate to assume a person is pregnant is when a baby is literally emerging from their body.”
He laughed awkwardly. “Had that happen to me on my second week on the job. I showed up at what I thought was a fender bender and discovered Missy Flanagan—crowning—instead. Turned out she wasn’t able to teach a full day’s kindergarten while in labor and still get to the hospital in time.”
“I’ll make sure to call the firehouse if I can’t make it to the hospital,” she said.
“Call 911, but yeah, that’s what we get paid for.”
“Gray…” This was delicate—if news got out, would her team trust her ability to lead and do the work? “I have a couple of old-school workers and subcontractors, and if any of them have an outdated picture in their heads of what a pregnant woman can and can’t do, I’ll be screwed. I’m going to tell them soon, but until I find the right time, please don’t say anything to anyone, including Emma. Only my family and Nora know.”
He palmed the top of his ball cap. “You think I’d talk behind your back?”
“I can’t take the risk of not being clear.” Her first ultrasound appointment on Thursday, delayed by a week due to a scheduling error, would bring some relief. But she’d still only be nine weeks along and vulnerable to miscarriage. Twelve weeks seemed safer. “Can’t you see why I need to be cautious?”
A shadow crossed his face. Disappointment?
“Your secret’s safe,” he said after a long pause. “You take care of yourself.”
He strode off, shoulders stiff and frown firmly in place.
She groaned. He’d connected the dots. What a slippery slope.
And an even slipperier slope? Watching him walk away and seeing nothing but a whole lot of man under all that denim and flannel.
What to Expect When She’s Expecting arrives June 28!
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This is one fire he never wants to extinguish
Since childhood, firefighter Graydon Halloran has been secretly in love with Alejandra Brooks Flores. Now, with Aleja working as the building contractor near to where he’s staying, it’s becoming impossible for Gray to hide his feelings. But Aleja’s situation is complicated. She’s pregnant with IUI twins and she isn’t looking for love. Can Gray convince his lifelong crush that he can make her dreams come true?
From Harlequin Special Edition: Believe in love. Overcome obstacles. Find happiness.
Book 1: From Exes to Expecting
Book 2: A Father for Her Child
Book 3: Holiday by Candlelight
Book 4: Their Nine-Month Surprise
Book 5: In Service of Love
Book 6: Snowbound with the Sheriff
Book 7: Twelve Dates of Christmas
Book 8: What to Expect When She’s Expecting