Rancher's proposition(4)

By: Anne Marie Winston

But other than that, nobody remembered much. Her daddy had leased ranch land from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and after Cal's father had died the same year that Cal had started college back East, apparently Hamill had bought his property. Lyn would have been a young teenager, he figured, if her daddy had bought it then.

He should remember her, but he didn't. Cal honestly couldn't remember much about that time. After an accident at the end of his senior year of high school in which his friend Genie had died, he hadn't been able to get out of town fast enough. And he'd been gone less than six months when his father had suffered a fatal heart attack and died and the ranch had been sold to Lyn's father.

With an effort, he shook off the past. Though he'd always regret those lost last months with his father, he'd come to terms with Genie's death, as had her family. Her brother Deck and he had repaired the hard feelings between them. He was home again, in more ways than one.

But his home needed work. A lot of work. Hamill hadn't been much of a rancher, according to Deck. He'd only worked the outfit for three years before he died and the ranch was bought by a guy from up near Philip who hadn't done much with it, either. He'd had it until he retired and moved up to Sturgis.

And that's when Cal had bought the land that had once been his father's. When he'd heard the asking price, he'd been shocked. When had dusty-dry sod in the Badlands gotten so expensive? He'd decided it was a good thing he'd worked on the New York Stock Exchange and made a small killing in the process. He'd need it to start up a ranch from scratch.

His thoughts circled back to Lyn … nobody remembered anything much after her daddy passed away and the ranch changed hands. They thought she'd married. The couple had drifted over to Rapid, someone thought. But nobody had seen her in a while, which was unusual enough in western South Dakota to raise eyebrows. Wonder where that Hamill girl went off to? The area was so sparsely populated that the locals joked that they knew everyone in the whole damned state.

He stopped in the mudroom that he'd added on recently and peeled off his boots. He carried both his shirt and his undershirt in his hand; he'd taken them off outside the door, shaken them out and used them to dust himself down. Tossing them into the washing machine, he moved into the adjacent bathroom to shower off the rest of the day's grime. When he was finished, he grabbed one of the big bath sheets his sister Silver had bought when she redecorated his home, wrapping it around his waist. He'd seen Lyn outside firing up the barbecue grill when he'd come in, so he strode through the house in nothing but his towel. God, it felt good to get that scratchy seed off him.

Padding up the stairs, he walked down the hall to his bedroom. Every time he walked through the house, he felt more and more satisfied at the changes that had been made. And still were being made. He'd hired carpenters to repair some of the woodwork and sagging doors right after he'd bought the place. Then Silver had hired painters and wallpaperers and she'd gone through and spruced the place up with her own little touches, adding stenciling, rugs and window treatments. He'd been called out of town while she was still working on it and when he'd gotten home, she'd practically finished redecorating. Good thing, too, since she'd decided to marry Deck only weeks later. Now she was busy designing their own home while she got ready for the baby that would arrive near Valentine's Day.

His bedroom door was ajar and he pushed it wide as he walked into the room.

Lyn whirled at his entrance, one hand going to her throat where she stood in front of his dresser putting away stacks of clothing. She didn't make a sound, but her face went so completely white she scared him.

"Whoa, sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to scare you. I thought you were outside."

"I—I wasn't."

He nearly smiled but she still looked too rattled. "I can see that." He waited, but she didn't move a muscle. Finally, he cleared his throat. "Um, how about you finding some other chore to do while I get dressed?"

"Oh!" The color flooded back into her cheeks and she flushed a deep scarlet in keeping with her vibrant hair. "I'm sorry. I'll just— I'll just get out now." She scurried past him, head down, edging sideways so as not to touch him, and vanished down the hallway before he could say another word.

Cal shook his head ruefully as he closed the bedroom door. Dropping the towel, he stood naked, hands on his hips while the cool air circulated by the ceiling fan he'd had installed washed over him. Poor thing. He'd seen some of the evidence of what had been done to her, and he'd heard more. Her ex-husband must have been a pathetic excuse for a man. No real man would hit a female much less beat her the way Lyn had been beaten. He felt a flicker of bone-deep rage at the thought of the bruises that she'd still borne when he'd first brought her to the ranch. That beautiful skin should never have known a bruise.

Her skin was so fair and milky-white that it was practically translucent, and he'd found himself fascinated by the parade of tiny freckles that marched across her nose. Every time he was near her, he had to hold in check the urge to reach out and trace them with a fingertip. She had a light scattering of freckles over her arms, as well, and he wondered if there were any other parts of her that were freckled.

Then he grimly shook his head, looking down the length of his body, which had responded instantly to thoughts of Lyn. He was a first-class jerk, lusting after a skinny little female who'd been manhandled like she had been. This was getting ridiculous. He needed a woman. He'd been too busy in New York those last few months to bother dating much, and he'd been celibate since he'd moved home. No wonder he was fantasizing about his housekeeper.

Maybe it was time to start thinking about looking for a wife. Even before the last couple hectic months, when he'd been busy transferring all his hard-won clients to other brokers he trusted and hammering out the buying arrangements for the ranch, he hadn't minded his single state. Most of the time he'd been too tired by the end of a wild day on Wall Street and when he had wanted feminine companionship, he'd availed himself of the multitudes of liberated single career women who didn't want attachments any more than he had. But now … now things were different. Now he could devote time to a family if he started one. As he dressed and started down the stairs, the word stuck in his head, replaying over and over. Family … family … family… He was determined to have a family of his own some day, a real family, with both parents in the household and a bunch of kids running around—nothing like the rather lonely existence he'd known growing up. Though his father had loved him, he'd keenly felt the difference between what he'd always thought of as "real" families and his own.

His annual summer visits with his mother in Virginia only reinforced the loneliness. He was the outsider. His mother, her second husband and Silver, his half sister, were a happy, tight-knit trio. He'd always wondered if his own life would have been like that if his mother hadn't abandoned his father and him.

Lyn had supper ready when he walked into the kitchen, and he sniffed the air with interest. "What do I smell?"

She turned from the stove, where she was transferring a pot of steaming broccoli to a serving dish. "Marinated pork chops. It's not fancy." Was it his imagination or did she sound faintly defensive?

"I don't care how un-fancy it is," he assured her. "It smells fantastic."

And it was, as were the homemade muffins, the stewed apples and the devils' food cake she set before him when the table had been cleared. It was just the two of them, since the men who worked for him had families of their own and went home at the end of the day. He'd gotten into the habit early on of telling her all about his day, mostly as a way of filling the silence at the table. Tonight was no different except that she asked questions a few times instead of nodding and raising an eyebrow to get him to continue.

She grimaced when he told her about the young rabbit that had gotten caught in the sickle. "I know it's impossible to miss them, but it always made me cry," she said.

Cal nodded. "Well, I did manage to avoid hitting a fawn today. You should have seen him run."

Her eyes glowed, a striking emerald in the evening light coming through the big window by the nook where the kitchen table was set, and he was reminded of cats' eyes in the dark. "They're so sweet when they're little," she said. Then she chuckled. "Of course, I even think calves are sweet, so I guess my judgment is suspect."

Cal smiled at that. "God, I missed this life. I didn't even realize how much until I got back again. I can't wait for calving season."

Her eyebrows rose in that silent way of hers. "You have to get through winter first," she reminded him.

"Don't I know it," he grumbled. "It's going to be a long one." He rose from the table then, picking up his plate to take it to the dishwasher.

"Oh, don't. I'll do that." Lyn rushed over and whisked the plate from his hand, along with the water glass and fork he'd lifted.

"I don't mind. You work hard enough during the day," he said.

"But I mind," she said. "You work hard, too, and this is what you're paying me for." She crossed to the dishwasher and rinsed the plate before setting it in the rack. "I haven't told you how much I appreciate you giving me this chance," she said slowly.

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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