Rancher's proposition(5)

By: Anne Marie Winston

"You don't have to. I promised Silver I'd hire you but I also told her I couldn't keep you on if you didn't work out. I need someone I can depend on to be in charge of the house." He gazed across the kitchen at her. "I can depend on you. The job is yours as long as you want it."

She stared at him, and to his dismay her eyes filled with tears. "Thank you," she whispered.

He shrugged, uncomfortable with her gratitude. "No big deal." And before she could really get the water-works flowing, he beat a hasty retreat to the living room to catch the evening news. But as he sat, trying to focus on what was happening in the rest of the world, he was far too conscious of the woman moving around in the kitchen. When she finally turned out the kitchen light, his body relaxed in relief as she started for the stairs.

"Good night," she said.

"Good night." Now he wished he could get her to sit down and talk some more. He was fascinated by her husky, musical voice. That voice smacked of long afternoons making love in dim bedrooms and every time she spoke, his body reacted to the promise in those sexy tones. Just yesterday, when she'd been helping him bandage his finger, that voice had distracted him into an erotic dream. Then her whole face had lit up when he'd told her she seemed like she was getting better, and he hadn't been able to resist hugging her. The feel of her warm, firm frame against his—

And this was ridiculous! Here he was again, in a hot sweat having totally inappropriate dreams about his housekeeper. He practically leaped out of the chair and grabbed the phone off the kitchen wall, rapidly punching the buttons.

Deck answered on the third ring. "What?" The single word was a snarl.

"Well, that's a heck of a way to greet your brother-in-law."

"You're interrupting us. What do you want?" Deck sounded distinctly disgruntled and Cal realized exactly what he'd interrupted. He grimaced. Was everybody in the world getting next to a warm body except for him?

"A woman."

"Then go find one." The receiver clicked off decisively on the other end.

Cal sighed. Lifting the phone again, he punched in Deck's brother Marty's telephone number. He hit the speakerphone as he ambled across the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator door, surveying its contents. As his best buddy's voice came on the other end of the line, he selected a soda.

"Lucky Stryke."

"Hey, neighbor. Is your kid in bed?"

"Yeah. Thank God." Marty's answer sounded heartfelt and Cal grinned. He'd been around Marty's daughter, Cheyenne, a number of times since his move back out here, and she was … unforgettable. A stunning little beauty who looked like her dead mother and acted—unfortunately—a lot like her deceased aunt Genie, who'd been a hell-raiser from the day she was born until the day she died young in the accident that was reason he'd left South Dakota all those years ago.

"What are you up to?" Marty's voice called him back from the past.

He popped the top on his soda and leaned against the counter. "Where the heck do you go when you want to meet women out here?"

A low rumble of laughter vibrated through the connection. "A bar."

"That's not the kind of woman I want to meet," Cal said.

"Oh, hell."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're starting to sound like me. You got marriage on your mind?"

"No, I do not have marriage on my mind." He conveniently ignored the fact that he'd been thinking that very thing only hours ago. "I just need to get laid. And I'd prefer to do it with somebody I like and enjoy spending time with."

Something moving in the corner of his vision made him whip his head around. Though he saw nothing, he'd have sworn he saw a shadow in the kitchen doorway just for an instant. He moved toward the door, but realized he couldn't leave the room without picking up the handset of the phone. Shrugging, he turned his attention to what Marty was saying.

"…know what you mean. I'm meeting a girl at the city bar tomorrow night. She, uh, answered my ad."

Cal laughed aloud. He'd heard about Marty's other disastrous encounters that were a result of advertising in the personals for a wife. To his way of thinking, the guy was insane. "I might have to check this out. What time?"

"Eight. I figure if she's willing to meet me in a bar, she can't be a teetotaler who thinks I'll go to hell if I drink a beer."

"That's logical. Eight, huh? You might see me."

"Sounds good. You can rescue me if this date turns out to be a bust." His oldest friend's voice sounded hopeful.

Cal stifled a comment about the odds of that being pretty good. "It's a deal."

* * *

Chapter 2

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He raked the mown hay with two of his men the next day and came in grumpy and sweaty with broken blisters on the hand where he'd held the dump rope. He'd bought the machinery along with the ranch and it didn't look like one damn thing had been added since his father's time. He promised himself the next time he got a chance to look around, he'd buy a swather that would mow and rake at the same time. Then he'd have a ceremonial burning of the old hay rake.

The house smelled of something wonderful again—a roast in the oven—and by the time he'd showered and changed, he felt marginally more human. When he came back down, Lyn was flitting around the kitchen getting the roast, potatoes and carrots out of the pan, and he picked up a pot holder and pulled the rolls from the second oven. As he did, he watched her from the corner of his eye.

She wore a simple blue T-shirt the same color as her jeans with the boots he'd bought her at the end of her first week on the ranch. They were scuffed and marked already, since she insisted on helping around the barn and pastures when she wasn't working in the house, though he noticed she was careful to keep them clean and waterproofed.

As she stretched for a meat fork in a far drawer, the T-shirt drew taut against her slender body, profiling the gentle rise of plump, rounded breasts. She'd gained some weight in the time she'd been at the ranch and oh, mama, it had all gone to the right places. His pulse changed to a faster rhythm and his body began to react, and he hastily grabbed a basket for the rolls and took a seat at the table before she noticed he had a hard-on the size of Mount Rushmore. Damn, but he was tired of feeling like this. It was a good thing he was going to town tonight.

Maybe he'd just drive right on to Rapid after he met Marty. He'd met a widowed gal there a month ago when he'd gone to the airport to pick up Deck and Silver. She'd been waiting for her mother on the same flight and they'd struck up a conversation. She'd made it plain she'd have welcomed his call after that and he wondered if she'd go out with him on short notice.

But at the table a few minutes later, thoughts of the Rapid City widow vanished. An idea occurred to him as he watched Lyn slip into her seat across from his with the unassuming air of someone who didn't expect to be noticed. "Go to town with me tonight."

The notion clearly startled her. "Me? Oh, no thank y—"

"It wasn't a request," he informed her. "It was an order from the boss"

Her green eyes widened. "But why? I don't want to go to town. There's nothing open on Friday night but the bars—"

"Which is where we're going. I have to meet Marty there at eight. You need to start getting out of the house. This will be a good way to begin."

She wore a sulky pout that thrust out her lower lip in an adorable expression that made him want to lean across the table and put his mouth on hers. "I don't like bars," she muttered, though he noticed she didn't tell him no.

He supposed she had good reason for not liking bars. Her father had been a drunk, and his poor ranching probably had been a direct result of his fondness for the bottle. And judging from what he'd heard of her marital history from his sister's snooping into police files and hospital records, he suspected the husband who'd hammered on her also had an alcohol problem.

"I'll drink soda," he told her. "You won't have to worry about pouring me into the truck for the drive home."

The pout eased from her face and he didn't know whether to be glad or sorry. He was an idiot, asking her to go to town with him when she was what he wanted to get away from. But he'd realized she hadn't been off the ranch a single time since she'd arrived except to venture down to Silver's house or to buy groceries. And it was past time she stopped hiding herself away. Women out here needed companionship, other women, to talk to—he was convinced that had been half the reason his mother had packed up and left when he was a baby. She'd refused to make friends with the "locals," as she'd called them, according to his father, and the loneliness had gotten to her.

Lyn met him in the kitchen half an hour later. She had exchanged the blue T-shirt for a pretty blouse with long, full sleeves and she'd taken her hair out of the thick braid she usually wore it in when she was working. Wild curls quirked around her face and cascaded over her shoulders and as she came into the room she shoved it behind one ear with an impatient gesture. "I'm ready."

His stomach muscles clenched. It was an effort to pull himself together. "All right. Let's go." His fingers itched to plunge into those curls, to drag her against him and unbutton each and every one of the pretty little pearl buttons that marched down the front of the blouse. He wiped a drop of sweat from his temple. He had to get over this.

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