Rancher's proposition(10)

By: Anne Marie Winston

And if she was a woman who wanted him so badly her knees shook when he waked into the kitchen at the end of the day, he'd never have to know. But she wasn't just a woman who wanted him. It wasn't hard to admit it to herself. She loved Cal McCall like she had never loved anyone in her entire life.

She sat upright on the side of the double bed in the room Cal had given her and reached for the water on the table beside the bed. Taking a deep swallow, she considered her courage. Could she do it?

Sex with Wayne had been uninspiring, occasionally painful and always mercifully short. She'd taken steps early in the marriage to prevent a pregnancy when she'd realized what Wayne was like, but she'd stayed with him, like a stupid cow, for three years. Years during which the sex had gotten worse and worse, degenerating into nothing more than another way for Wayne to break her spirit and force her submission. She'd come to loathe it, and with the loathing had come a slow but growing need to fight for herself, both physically and mentally. Her efforts had been futile until she'd woken up one morning with two black eyes and a broken rib and realized she might not live to see thirty if she didn't get away from him.

There had been no sex in her life since her divorce. Not only because she feared it, but because the mere idea repelled her. But it didn't repel her when she thought about making love with Cal. He was the first man who'd gotten underneath her guard and he didn't even know he'd done it.

The fear was another matter. She hadn't been afraid of him since her very first days at the ranch, when the mere shadow of a large man had unnerved her. Cal had simply ignored the way she jumped when he came into a room, the way she'd put a piece of furniture or the counter between them, and eventually she'd forgotten why she'd ever thought she needed to be afraid of Cal. But what would happen if he ever … if she succeeded…

She didn't fear his touch anymore. She'd been held against him and the feeling had been comforting rather than frightening. Well, maybe comforting wasn't quite the right word. Her pulse had sped up and her body had felt hot and jittery beneath his big, hard hands. No, comforting wasn't how it felt to be touched by Cal.

A grumble of thunder distracted her from the turmoil in her mind and she drifted over to the window. She wouldn't sleep until the storm passed. Every rancher around dreaded the lightning as much as they welcomed the rain that came with a good storm.

The window was closed since the air-conditioning was working, but she opened it anyway. A hot breath of air fanned over her and she could hear the rustle of leaves in the trees close to the house. Maybe they'd get some rain out of this storm.

A flash of lightning sizzled down from the heavens and she held her breath, counting slowly. Fifteen miles away. The storm was coming from the west and as she stood silently waiting, she could see repeated bolts of white light streak toward the dry ground. Flash … six miles away … flash … three miles away … flash…

And then she saw it.

One terrific bolt of blinding light zigzagged viciously out of the thunderclouds. It struck a hillock maybe two miles away, on land that was either Cal's or Wilson's, and almost immediately she saw the telltale leap of red-gold flame.

"Cal!" she screamed. "Fire!" Her mind cleared of everything but the need to get to work. She grabbed her socks and jeans and stomped into her boots, forgetting a belt. She'd slept in an oversize T-shirt that had belonged to Cal when he was a younger, smaller man and she didn't take the time to grab undergarments but simply stuffed the shirt into her jeans as she bolted into the hallway.

She tore down the stairs and grabbed the phone, called in the fire while Cal charged down the stairs behind her. He was yanking a T-shirt over his head as he grabbed his hat and the truck keys off the hook beside the door. Seconds after the door banged shut behind him she heard the rev of the pickup's engine. He had a tank full of water by the time she got out the door, and she took a moment to race into the barn and grab a big, dusty bundle of feed sacks before flinging herself into the passenger seat. He blasted the horn as he drove to wake up anyone within earshot.

Cal didn't waste time taking the roads. They bumped across the pastures, with Cal stopping long enough for her to jump out and open the gates and swing them wide for the others who would follow. She braided her hair into a single long plait with frantic fingers and wound it on top of her head, jamming her hat over it. Long, loose hair would be a distinct liability in a fire zone. It was their neighbor Wilson's land, she saw, that had taken the first strike. But she knew that wouldn't matter if the fire got a good start. It would burn everything in its path.

Wilson and his hired men were already beating at the edges of the flames with wet gunnysacks when Cal slammed the truck to a stop near the fire. As they soaked their own bags and began the tiresome, dangerous ordeal, she could see lines of lights coming toward them from both the main road and from the Stryker outfit on Cal's other side. Sirens in the distance heralded the imminent arrival of fire trucks with more volunteers. Cal's hands roared in moments later with more feed bags and water.

Lyn grabbed a sack and soaked it with water, then ran to the nearest point where tongues of fire licked along the ground. More and more trucks roared in and more and more ranch folks joined them. The fire trucks came screaming to a halt and the hoses were unrolled and put to good use, soaking areas of ground far faster than could men on foot. Cal was right on her heels and for a while she was aware of him working off to her left side but eventually her concentration narrowed to a tiny point of focus as she forced back the hungry flames. She beat at the fiery opponent for what seemed like hours, returning to the tank to wet her sack again and again until her muscles burned, until her mind switched off and she worked on automatic pilot, steadily encroaching on the wall of flames that roared and shot into the air. When her feet began to feel hot she looked down to see smoke curling from the soles of her boots, and she quickly soaked them to put out any dangerous embers. A young girl behind her chased down and soaked out flaming cow chips, light enough to be gusted into dry territory by the wind the flames generated, where they lit new fires every place they touched.

It seemed like forever that they fought the flames. Lyn glanced around once, but Cal was gone. As dawn pearled the eastern sky, exhausted firefighters slowed their pace as they won the battle. She walked along the edges of the line, kicking smoldering cow chips back into the burned zone and beating out missed sparks. She was so tired she could barely put one foot in front of the other.

A woman's voice calling her name finally penetrated her daze and she turned, then walked toward a person beckoning with an upflung hand from a truck where people had gathered to scarf down sandwiches sent out from town. The people straggling in were an odd-looking bunch. One rancher still wore striped pajama bottoms, another had forgotten a shirt, though Lyn noted with distant, exhausted amusement that neither man had forgotten his hat. Everywhere she looked, faces were black with smoke and soot.

Silver Stryker greeted her warmly when she drew close, handing her a sandwich and a steaming cup of cowboy coffee strong enough to put hair on her chest.

"Take a break," Silver told her. "It's under control."

Lyn nodded dully. "Just a short one."

As Silver turned to hand another man something to eat, Lyn wandered off. She glanced at the sandwich and decided she was too tired to eat, so she handed both food and drink to a passing cowboy. Leaning against someone's pickup, she closed her eyes … just for a moment, she promised herself, and then she had to find Cal.

* * *

Cal strode wearily toward the food trucks, urgency lengthening his steps. He'd gotten separated from Lyn hours ago and worry nagged at his mind. Sure, she was an experienced ranch woman, but fire was unpredictable and she was still recuperating from her ordeal a few months ago. She worked like a Trojan around the ranch, but he knew she still tired easily; he spent half his time and energy trying to keep her from working too hard and the other half trying to keep her from figuring out that he was protecting her from herself.

He was doing his best to stifle such thoughts when a small form crumpled on the ground beside a pickup caught his eye. He recognized the hair immediately, and fear clutched at his throat as he sprinted to Lyn with a speed he didn't know he still had.

Her hat lay on the ground beside her and her hair had come loose from the braid. Curled up in a little ball right there on the ground, she had both hands beneath her cheek and she was sound asleep.

He squatted beside her. "Lyn." He tried again. "Lynnie. Come on, baby, time to wake up." Reaching out with a blackened hand, he traced the curve of her cheek with one finger.

Her eyes opened. She stared blankly up at him for a moment and he figured if his face was as covered with black as hers was she probably didn't recognize him. "It's me. Cal," he added.

Her eyes lit instantly and before he could react, she'd launched herself off the ground and thrown her arms around his neck. "You're safe!"

Off balance, he fell backward with her sprawled over him. She was as filthy with smoke and soot as he was, but her body was warm and soft and her legs tangled with his felt so damn good that he simply lay there for a moment, enjoying. But when distinct, pleasant stirrings of arousal woke within him despite his exhaustion he fell back on flippancy to cover the moment. "Well, hey. How come you don't greet me like this at home?"

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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