Rancher's proposition(3)

By: Anne Marie Winston



She'd handed him a mug of coffee. He'd sampled it and said, "You're hired!" Then he'd walked over to the door to get his boots, which she'd cleaned up the night before. As he bent, the denim pulled taut across the back of his strong thighs, drawing her eyes and drying her mouth in a manner that surprised and shocked her so much she'd turned away and shoveled his breakfast onto a plate.

She could almost giggle at the memory now.

She had to walk to the sink, where he was still standing, with a pitcher she filled from the sink, and as she did so, she took a moment to peer at the cut. It wasn't such a bad one that it would need stitches, but a bandage and some antibiotic ointment certainly were in order. Quickly, she added the water to the pot that was boiling on the stove, filling the room with clouds of steam and the smell of hot tomato.

Then she went to the cupboard again as Cal dried the cut with a paper towel. Taking down the things she needed, she approached him, holding them out before her and looking at him in question.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I guess I'd better put something on it. The wire snapped and I ducked, but it caught me there on the way by."

She shuddered. He'd been repairing fence and she winced at the thought of what a piece of barbed wire could do when it suddenly was severed from the tension between the posts.

She set down the box of bandages and tore one open, then added some of the antibiotic cream to the center before taking his hand in hers again. He extended the finger and she carefully positioned the gauze, wrapping it securely with tape and neatly trimming the ends. Her hands were trembling at the feel of his hard, callused flesh against hers. At night, her dreams were filled with those hands and the magic she imagined they could work on her body.

But those were only dreams. Standing here, holding his hand in the kitchen, was real and being close to him was sweet torture. His broad chest loomed before her, making her feel small and feminine, though she'd never been short in her entire life. Beanpole, the boys at school had called her.

She looked at him and smiled. "There," she said. "I think you'll live."

Cal gazed down at her from his superior height, warmth in his gray eyes. "That's the first joke I've ever heard you make," he said. This close, she could see the black rim around the irises, the tiny flecks of black that fractured the silver throughout, the dark fringe of his lashes and the strong slash of his black brows that nearly met in the center. He smiled, holding her gaze with his. "You've come a long way since the day I brought you here," he said.

She cleared her throat, embarrassed by the praise implied in the comment. "I'm starting to feel … useful again."

He nodded, and she knew he understood what she hadn't expressed very well. "Oh, you're definitely useful," he said in a teasing tone. "I don't know how this place got by until you came along." Before she knew it, his hands slid firmly around her shoulders and he pulled her into a close embrace.

She knew an instant of blind, black fear that threatened to engulf her, but as quickly as it enveloped her it vanished. These were Cal's arms and this was Cal's body, and nothing could make her fear him. As the hard length of his big frame registered, she closed her eyes and inhaled his scent—not difficult since her nose was buried in his chest. He smelled of saddle leather and horse, of hay and healthy man sweat and some other, less definable scent that was uniquely his own.

Of all the things she'd expected him to do, this wasn't at the top of the list … she didn't really care as long as he held her like this.

But as fast as the moment had begun, it ended. Releasing her, Cal stepped back. "Sorry if I scared you," he said. "I appreciate the help."

She ducked her head and nodded without looking at him, embarrassed again. Had he sensed how badly she longed for him? She would be utterly humiliated if he ever found out how she felt. To cover her awkwardness, she rushed into speech. "You didn't scare me. You caught me by surprise for a moment, that's all."

Cal's eyebrows rose. He grinned then, and her heart skipped a beat at the devilish gleam in his dark gray eyes. "I was beginning to wonder if you spoke more than one sentence at a time."

"I can talk," she said defensively. "I just haven't had much to say." Her voice sounded loud to her own ears, and huskier than she remembered. The doctor had said there might be permanent damage to her vocal cords from the attempt to strangle her. She didn't guess it mattered—she'd never been much of a singer and as long as she could communicate, it didn't really matter how she sounded.

Cal stood perfectly still, staring at her with a strange expression on his face. When the silence stretched on, she finally said, "What?"

He shrugged and smiled at her, breaking the odd tension of the moment. "Your voice is really husky. Has it always been like that?"

"It's different," she said. "I don't sound like me anymore."

He nodded. "Give it a few more months. It hasn't been used in a while. Maybe you just need to get used to talking on a regular basis again."

She nodded.

Silence.

"Well, I've got to get back out there and finish that fence," he said. "Wilson's new bull's been in the pasture over by the dam three times this week. If he tears the fence down again, I swear I'm going to butcher him and deliver the meat to Wilson."

She smiled as he headed out the door. Containing your cattle and keeping your neighbor's out was an unending chore on a ranch, and for all his fierce talk she had learned that Cal was a good neighbor.

He mounted Tor, his big bay gelding, and she watched from the window as he and the horse disappeared over the ridge that led to the dam pasture. When the top of his hat had completely vanished behind the ridge, she turned back to her tomatoes. Yes, she'd have to make a couple big batches of spaghetti sauce this winter. She knew Silver had recipes for things like lasagna and stuffed shells. Maybe she'd share them.

Lyn always was conscious of the fact that Cal was a cosmopolitan man. He'd eaten fancy foods in New York that she'd never even heard of and though he praised her cooking and told her he'd missed ranch life and plain, hearty ranch fare, she worried that she wouldn't do a good job for him.

* * *

Man, did he ever hate haying.

Cal itched all over. The seeds from the alfalfa had gotten into every crevice, every orifice, every pore. For the last two hours of the day, he fantasized about jumping in the stock pond, imagining the cool water sluicing over him, cleansing his skin of the prickly, dry hay.

The thought reminded him of a time in New York when he'd still been pretending he enjoyed wearing a suit and tie, a time he'd taken his girl of the moment out to a deserted reservoir and the two of them had gone skinny-dipping. And that thought brought to mind another, entirely inappropriate fantasy, one too close to home.

In his daydreaming, Lyn was riding with him. When they reached the stock pond, they dismounted and disrobed. He watched, pulse pounding and body stirring, as she pulled off her boots and stepped out of her jeans, then slowly, teasingly, unbuttoned her shirt one button at a time until the garment hung loosely around her, an open strip down the center showing him that beneath the practical work clothes she'd worn no undergarments of any kind.

He walked toward her and pushed the shirt off her shoulders, then turned her toward the pond, and together they took the few steps to the edge of the cool water. They waded in and as the water reached his waist, then his chest, he drew her into his arms, feeling her slippery curves against him…

He groaned as he dismounted and put away the horse. He must be nuts, torturing himself like this. Lyn was his employee. In no way had she given him any reason to believe she'd welcome a bout of wild sex, in or out of the stock pond. She was a woman who'd been physically abused by someone, probably her ex-husband if the hospital records of her previous injuries were any guide. He'd bet she'd run screaming if she knew of the thoughts slipping into his head with increasing regularity. Hell, she'd gone stiff as a board when he'd given in to that stupid impulse in the kitchen yesterday and grabbed her. His only excuse was that she made him forget good sense when she was around. He snorted. Some excuse. He'd even noticed her hands shaking with fear when she'd been close to his side doctoring his cut and still he'd hugged her to him without a thought as to how it might affect her.

He stomped to the house, thoroughly annoyed with himself. Why in hell couldn't he stop thinking about her?

It must be the proximity thing, he decided. She'd been living in his home for over two months now, sleeping in a bedroom just steps away, making his meals, washing his clothes, helping with anything he asked. She never complained, no matter what he asked of her.

Of course, until yesterday she hadn't spoken to him except for the barest, briefest possible responses, so he didn't really know for sure that she wasn't the whiny type.

But deep inside, he did know.

According to his sister's husband, who had lived here in Jackson County all his life, Lyn was raised around Belvedere, the next little town to the east. Cal had spent his childhood in the county, but he didn't recall ever knowing who she was. Of course, she'd have been five or six years younger than he was, anyway. Her mother had died when she was small and her daddy had never married again. Lyn was a quiet little thing who had worked with her father and took care of his house. People remembered she was a good cook, something he'd already learned.

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