Rancher's proposition(2)

By: Anne Marie Winston

When they got off the interstate at Kadoka, he asked her again if she needed to stop, and again she shook her head, so he headed down Route 73 south of town, toward his outfit, and finally, finally, he reached the turnoff to his ranch. His ranch. The notion gave him a rush of pleasure every time it occurred to him that he owned the land. He avoided the worst of the ruts in the lane, promising himself that would be one of the next things he'd see to now that he was back for good.

As they came within sight of the house, he couldn't help glancing over at his new employee, wanting to see her reaction to his home place.

Tears were streaming down her face.

He was so shocked he slammed on the brake, jolting them both forward against their seat belts. Lyn shrieked and he immediately cut the engine, saying, "Hey, there, it's all right. It's all right."

She took a trembling breath as he ripped off his hat and raked a hand through his hair. When he could trust his voice to be calm again, he asked, "Have I done something to upset you?"

She shook her head, the red hair flying around her shoulders, but she still, as far as he could tell, hadn't looked directly at him.

"Then why are you crying?" He couldn't keep the trace of exasperation from his voice.

Lyn raised her head. Slowly, she turned to look at him and for the first time, he got to see what she looked like under all that hair. Her eyes were green. No, that was wrong. Her eyes were huge, emerald pools. Unfortunately, around those striking eyes were green and yellow bruises, and a deeper yellow lump stood out on her forehead. Her skin was fair, except for the faint shadows of bruises mottling her face and neck, and she had a faint sprinkling of freckles across her nose and over her cheeks. But it was her mouth that drew his notice.

A long, ugly wound marred the otherwise flawless lower half of a pair of lips that formed a pretty Cupid's bow. The scar came from beneath her jaw on the left side and reached up to claw through her lip. Red marks indicated that stitches had recently been removed, and he suspected that plastic surgery had been done, because the repair looked neat and efficient and already seemed to be fading from what he was sure had been a doozy of a cut.

He was afraid she'd see him staring, so he quickly looked back at her eyes, willing himself to ignore the obvious evidence of damage to her face. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were a rich dark chestnut, the brows arching elegantly above those unforgettable eyes.

Eyes that were still sparkling with tears, he suddenly realized.

Again, he said, "Why are you crying?"

She opened her mouth. Worked it, but no sound came out. Again she tried, and this time a trickle of a husky whisper reached his ears. "I used to live here."

* * *

Chapter 1

« ^ »

Nine weeks later…

Lyn Hamill glanced at the sturdy waterproof watch on her left wrist. It wasn't exciting, as jewelry went, but she treasured it because Cal McCall had given it to her the second week after she'd come to work at his ranch. Almost four o'clock. Good. She used the back of her arm to wipe sweat from her forehead and grabbed the tongs, deftly plucking the canning jars from the boiling water and replacing them with another batch while the first ones cooled. She would have enough time to finish the last half-bushel of tomatoes before her employer came in for dinner.

Carrying a load of completely cooled tomato jars to the basement, she took a moment to survey her handiwork with a feeling of satisfaction. Although she had arrived at the ranch in July, too late for any planting, she had managed to get a good start on stocking up for winter. Now, onions and garlic hung from the wooden rafters in net bags and bushel baskets of potatoes stood on the bare dirt floor. She was steadily filling the wooden shelves that stood against three walls. Already they held canning jars filled with bread-and-butter pickles, green beans, peas, plum butter, buffalo-berry jelly and the tomatoes she was putting up today.

Cal gave her a household allowance from which she was to buy groceries and anything else she thought they needed. She was a frugal shopper and the allowance was generous, so she'd bought vegetables to replace the things she would have planted if she'd been here in the spring. Neighbors had given her the tomatoes and a number of other things. Or more accurately, they'd given Cal gifts to welcome him back to the community and she'd been the logical recipient, since he was out on the range most of the time.

She'd helped Cal's sister dig the potatoes, and Silver had insisted she take some home. And just yesterday she'd harvested some squash that had come up by itself and managed to survive all summer unattended. It was September now and she'd been home—here—nearly nine weeks. It's not your home anymore, she reminded herself sternly. She was merely an employee of the owner. And as such, she'd pick apples tomorrow and make pies with the little red ones. The others would make good applesauce and apple butter.

Upstairs, a door slammed. Her hand flew to her throat and her body jolted. Her breathing stuttered, and for a moment, she could hear her heartbeat roaring in her ears. Fear froze her feet to the floor.

He'd finally found her. If she'd still been holding the tomato jars, they'd be shattered on the sod floor. Wayne. God, what was she going to do? She was trapped down here. What if he—what? What if he what? Just as she had each time she tried to recall the events of the last months, she drew a blank. Oh, if only she could remember!

"Lyn? Where's the peroxide?"

Cal. Relief swept through her and she consciously relaxed all the muscles that had tensed in subconscious dread—of what? She took a deep, calming breath. It was only Cal.

Turning, she hurried up the steps and into the kitchen. Her employer stood before the sink and as she reached his side, she saw blood dripping from a cut along one finger. Quickly, she got the peroxide from the cupboard where she'd organized all the first aid supplies and held it out to him, noticing as she did so that her hands were shaking visibly, a remnant of her fear. Then she realized be wouldn't be able to unscrew the cap easily so she did it for him, moving to his side and tilting the bottle over the injured finger.

Cal hissed in a breath between his teeth as the cleanser washed away the blood and bubbled dirt to the surface of the wound. She hated hurting him but there was no help for it. Gently, she slipped her hand beneath his and angled the finger up, pouring more peroxide over the torn flesh. And as she concentrated on the small task, the stomach-knotting sense of panic inside her faded, to be replaced with another feeling.

Cal's steely arm was pressed against her shoulder and she shivered with pleasure at their proximity. He treated her casually, in a friendly offhand manner, and there were very few times when she'd been this close to him. There were even fewer times when she'd actually touched him.

Her fingers trembled beneath his and Cal made an abrupt motion, taking the bottle from her and stepping a pace away. "Thanks," he said. "I can do it."

She was so disappointed by his dismissal she could have cried. Turning away, she went to the stove and checked the timer, then took the next batch of canning jars from the water.

"Tomatoes." Cal's voice sounded hopeful. "Maybe you could make some spaghetti sauce with a few of those this winter."

She nodded, unable to keep her face from lighting up. Mentally, she made another note in her "Special Things To Do For Cal" file. Forgetting anything that might make Cal McCall's life more comfortable or enjoyable was unacceptable to her. He'd given her back so much that she could never repay him. This was her small way of letting him know she appreciated it.

She extended the same appreciation to Cal's sister, Silver, and her husband, Deck. They'd helped her when she didn't know anyone in the world could help her, and her small gifts of special foodstuffs, recipes and handmade clothing was her way of saying thank-you.

Although it wasn't strictly true that she felt the same way about them as she did about Cal. No, the way she felt about Cal was unique. There might be things she couldn't remember, would never remember, but she knew she'd never felt before the way she felt about the man who owned the ranch where she'd lived once. Certainly she'd never felt about her ex-husband as she did about Cal.

She sneaked a glance sideways at him, still standing at the sink. He hadn't taken off his summer straw hat. He rarely did, until he was ready to take a shower in the evening after working all day, but it didn't matter to her. His hat was such a part of him that he almost looked naked without it.

It was still terribly hot during the day, and he wore a lightweight long-sleeved shirt that clung to his broad shoulders. He'd been riding, she knew, because she could see the horse tethered just outside the yard, and a dark stain of sweat dampened the back center of the shirt from his neck down to where it vanished beneath his jeans.

His jeans. Oh, she loved the way those pants fit him. She could still remember the first time she'd noticed the way the fabric molded his tight, lean buttocks. She'd been at the ranch for three days, three days in which Cal had insisted she take her time getting to know the place and settling in. He wouldn't even let her cook at first, until the morning of that third day when she'd gotten up earlier than he had.

She'd gone into the kitchen and made him a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy. She'd also made him a lunch to take along since he'd mentioned he'd be haying again all day. Cal had come into the kitchen just as she had finished, sniffing the air appreciatively.

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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