Rancher's proposition

By: Anne Marie Winston

Prologue

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He couldn't believe his sister had done this to him.

Cal McCall gritted his teeth and fumed silently as he regarded the woman standing before him. She was on the tall side for a woman, but even the oversize shirt and too-large jeans she wore couldn't disguise the stick-thin look of her. Her head was down, and a thick curly mane of dark red hair hid most of her face and half her upper body as she stood passive, unmoving, waiting for … for what?

Questions, he assumed. Instructions. He'd asked his sister to hire a housekeeper for him, so this was his own damned fault. Silver had the softest heart in South Dakota. She'd told him that Lyn Hamill needed a job and a place to stay when she was released from protective services; he, as far as his sister was concerned, was the perfect answer.

Again, his gaze ran over his new employee. Hell, she didn't look well enough to be out of the hospital much less capable of taking care of the big old ranch house he'd recently purchased. He knew she'd been a victim of domestic abuse and he surely was sympathetic to her troubles, but he needed someone who could paint and wallpaper, someone who could scrub bathtubs and haul loads of laundry, keep a vegetable garden, herd cantankerous bulls and groom horses if need be. This woman looked like she'd need help even to groom herself.

"So," he heard himself say. "I, ah, I understand you want to work for me."

The head nodded, a slight movement that set the red curtain of her hair rippling, and copper sparks shot from it where the sun touched it. He had to restrain the urge to reach out and hook a finger through one of the curls that hung freely to well below her shoulders. One thing he'd say for her, she had pretty hair.

He sighed heavily. Silver had him between a rock and a hard place and she knew it. One of his dreams had been to buy back the ranch his daddy had owned. When the opportunity had arisen, he'd lunged at it, and Silver had pitched in to help him clean and redecorate the outdated old house. Unfortunately, she'd fallen for a neighboring rancher and gotten married before the job was done.

Still, he owed her for her help. And the only wedding gift she wanted from him was his promise to give this gal a chance.

"Well, I guess we can give it a shot," he said. "I'm finishing some remodeling, so there's going to be some mess and upheaval from time to time. And I'll need your help with a few outside chores as well." He paused, expecting a response, but she remained perfectly still. After the silence got awkward, he said, "Where are your things? I'll go ahead and load them while you say your goodbyes."

The woman nodded again. Without raising her head, she pointed to a large paper bag with two handles and a familiar department store logo. It leaned drunkenly against one of the porch posts of the women's shelter where he'd come to pick up his new employee.

He looked at the bag, then at her. "This is it?" He'd never met a woman who could travel with less than six pair of shoes, ten pounds of cosmetics and major quantities of female junk. This single bag couldn't possibly be the only thing she was bringing.

"Are you ready to leave, dear?" A big, plump woman wearing a pair of jeans that would fit a much smaller person clumped across the porch of the shelter for women in crisis situations. She wore an eye-popping electric pink blouse with a hefty belt of beaten silver cinched tightly around her, and when she folded his silent companion against her ample bosom, Lyn's hair splayed across the pink shirt in a truly appalling color combination that made him wince involuntarily.

Still holding the young woman in her arms, the director looked over Lyn's shoulder at Cal. "So you're Mr. McCall. I'm Rilla. Your sister is a lovely person." She uttered the words in a tone that clearly doubted he shared his sibling's attributes.

He smiled, giving the director, or housemother or whatever the heck she was, his warmest, most sincere smile. It was a smile that had convinced dozens of wary investors to trust him with their hard-earned money, and it didn't fail him this time, either. "I promise you Miss Hamill will be treated with the utmost respect in my home, ma'am. Is there anything special I can do to make her more comfortable?"

The matron laughed, a full, hearty belly laugh that matched the warm twinkle in her heavily mascaraed eyes. "Other than having a sex-change operation, I doubt there's much you can do to make her more comfortable."

"Sorry. That's not in my plans." Cal grinned as Rilla gave her charge a final squeeze and pushed her toward his waiting truck.

"You go ahead, honey. I want to have a little word with Mr. McCall."

The young woman murmured something in a low voice that he didn't catch, the first sound he'd heard her utter, and returned the woman's hug with a stranglehold that would have been lethal if she'd been any bigger than a twig. Then the two women parted, and Lyn reached for the pathetic paper bag.

"I'll get that." Cal moved toward her. It couldn't be too heavy but he'd bet his last dime she'd struggle to drag it to the truck. He reached out for the bag she was about to pick up, and the girl gave a panicked squeak. Cal stepped back involuntarily, and Lyn backed away from him so fast she fetched up hard against the lady still standing behind her.

"Honey, honey," the woman soothed. "It's all right. Mr. McCall's a gentleman. He's only going to carry the bag for you." She patted Lyn's shoulder and gave her a gentle push. "You go get in the truck now."

There was a brief silence while Lyn took a deep, shaky breath that he could hear clear over where he waited, then walked off. Cal shook his head, pushing his hat back and hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, rocking back on his heels in thought. This was looking worse and worse. How was he going to deal with a housekeeper who was terrified of him? "I'm not so sure this is going to work out," he said to Rilla.

"Well, I'm not sure it's going to work, either," the big woman informed him, hands on hips. "Your sister thinks you're a saint. But frankly, I'm not so sure you're up to the task of dealing with a little wounded critter like that." She pointed to his truck where Lyn was sitting obediently.

That stung. It was one thing for him to say it wouldn't work, but he'd be damned if he'd let somebody else judge him and find him lacking.

"I can deal with her," he said, injecting confidence into his tone. "I just don't want to scare her any more than she already is."

Rilla sighed. "She's got to get used to being around men again. Your sister gave me some references on you and everybody I talked to says you're a good man."

He was astounded, then outraged. "You called people for character references on me?"

The woman shrugged, but her eyes were filled with glee. "You bet. I have to be sure my clients are going to be safe when they leave here." Then the laughter faded from her eyes and a profound sorrow replaced it. "Mr. McCall, you can't imagine the things I've seen. The things some of the women who come through here have endured. For some of them, simply surviving is a victory. Little Lynnie there, she's got good reason to fear men. I saw her right after your sister brought her to the hospital and I know the doctors weren't real sure she'd ever be the same again. Physically or in her head." She paused, then raised her eyebrows. "She says she doesn't remember anything about what happened. She might never. The important thing is that she have a good, quiet place to recover."

"Is there anything special I should do for her?" He didn't have time for this, he told himself even as the words came out of his mouth. He had a ranch to get back on its feet, stock to buy, men to hire. He didn't have time to babysit.

Rilla shook her head. "She doesn't need medical treatment, just time to heal in her heart. You be gentle, give her lots of space, and time'll do the rest. She's got a support group that meets here if she needs it. I'll call her once in a while and see how she's doing. Your sister said she'd check on Lynnie occasionally."

Cal nodded, trying to suppress the smile that threatened at the mention of his sister. He knew that to Silver "occasionally" probably meant two or three times a day. "She's due back from her honeymoon in a few days and I imagine she'll be over to make sure everything's going okay." He took a deep breath. "Well, Miss Rilla, you come visit anytime you like. We'll feed you and there are plenty of empty bedrooms for a guest."

"Thank you." The woman put out her hand, and when he took it, she gave his hand a heftier shake than many of the ranchers he knew were capable of. "You take care of Lynnie and call if you have any questions." She reached out and tucked a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. "There's my number. Any time of the night or day. Emergencies don't keep business hours."

That sobered him. He knew all about emergencies. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "We'll hope that little gal has had all the emergencies she's going to for one lifetime."

The hour-and-a-half drive home from Rapid City never had seemed so long. His new housekeeper sat silently in her seat, apparently unaware that common courtesy might direct her to make some small effort at conversation.

His thoughts were a jumbled mess and because he was preoccupied with sorting them into order, he didn't bother to try to draw her out. When they reached the town of Wall, he asked her if she needed to stop for anything, but she shook her head. He hoped that meant she wasn't going to need a bathroom for a while because Kadoka, their destination and the next outpost of civilization along this strip of I-90, was another hour away.

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