Rancher's proposition(6)

By: Anne Marie Winston

They walked into the city bar a quarter-hour later to find Marty already seated in one of the red vinyl booths with a woman. It took a few minutes to get to the table because people at each of the three booths before Marty's and at the bar had to come over and welcome Lyn back. Finally, sensing she was a bit overwhelmed, Cal put a hand beneath her elbow. "Come on over here," he said. "We have to check out Marty's newest applicant."

"Applicant?" Her eyebrows rose.

"For the job he advertised. He put an ad in the personals for a wife," he explained, enjoying the look of incredulity that flashed across her mobile features.

"You're teasing me."

"Nope." He solemnly placed his hand over his heart. "Swear to God it's the truth."

By that time they were at the table. Marty had been seated across from his date and when he saw them coming, he stood and waved.

"Hi, Lynnie," he said. "Hey, Cal. I'd like you to meet Iris."

Iris was a stunning brunette with enormous brown eyes and jugs the size of watermelons straining at the front of a bright yellow sweater. Though the sweater wasn't exceptionally tight or low-cut, Cal had a hard time meeting her eyes.

"Hello," Iris said, smiling at them.

Lyn slid into the booth and Cal tipped his hat to the woman before lowering himself onto the seat beside Lyn. Marty had a smug smile on his face. "Iris is a jewelry designer," he told them. "She does pieces in Black Hills gold."

"That's interesting." Lyn surprised him when she spoke up. "I've always loved that look. Did you design your earrings?"

"Yes." Iris and Marty both had beers in front of them and she took a pull at her bottle before answering Lyn's questions about her work. The conversation was steady as Iris, in turn, asked questions about ranching, and Cal could almost see Marty sizing up her ring finger. Among other things.

This one seemed cultured, intelligent, sexy … he couldn't believe a woman like this resorted to answering personal ads. There had to be some catch.

After three hours, he knew what it was. Iris drank like a fish.

Lyn, to her credit, made a valiant effort to prevent a disaster. She carried on a conversation about jewelry design with the woman until the subject was wrung dry. When it became apparent that Iris could talk and drink at the speed of light, Lyn asked for a pizza and some chips for their table. Cal flashed her a grin, knowing she was hoping the food would soak up some of the alcohol.

The evening wore on. Marty's smug smile had long since glazed over into stupefied horror as his dream woman deteriorated into a giddy, slurring nightmare. She shrieked with laughter at things that weren't funny. She excused herself at least ten times to go to the bathroom and each time, she got into a cozy conversation with the cowboys parked at the bar.

By eleven, Marty was slumped in his seat, shaking his head in embarrassment. "What am I going to do now?" he moaned. "I can't let her drive back to Rapid in that condition. And I'm sure as hell not taking her back to the ranch!"

Cal was doubled over with laughter and even Lyn was giggling helplessly as they watched Iris climb into the lap of a cowboy barely old enough to be in the bar in the first place.

Marty regarded them with a sour expression. "Oh, sure, go ahead and laugh. Just don't ever come to me for help when you guys have trouble with romance."

"It really isn't funny," Lyn said, her tone sobering. "That girl's got problems."

"And so do I," said Marty.

Cal sighed, wiping his eyes on a napkin. He felt magnanimous, particularly since he couldn't recall ever having a date that was such a disaster. "You two go ahead and leave." He picked up Iris's car keys from the table where they'd lain the whole evening. "Take her car over to the Dakota Inn and then go on home. I'll tell her you had an emergency and had to leave, Marty, and I'll take her over there and get her a room."

The grateful look on Marty's face was nearly enough to set him off again. He didn't dare look at Lyn as she said, "Sounds like a plan." He slid out of the booth and let her out, then held her jacket for her and watched her walk out of the bar with Marty. As the pair exited through the glass door, he forced down the envy that tried to rear its head. He'd assumed he'd be the one taking Lyn home tonight.

It was a good ten minutes before he decided that Iris wasn't going to notice Marty's absence, so he strode over and broke up her little party. He was suddenly impatient to get out of the smoky bar.

"Sorry, you're stuck with me," he told the staggering woman. "Marty had to go home." He took her over to the motel and paid for a night's lodging, then showed her to her room and got the heck out of there. Marty and Lyn had driven her car over and parked it outside. Marty's truck was nowhere in sight, and as Cal drove home alone, he told himself it was ridiculous to feel annoyed that Lyn had ridden home with Marty. He'd specifically told her to, hadn't he?

He was a little more than halfway home when the thunderheads that had been threatening for hours unleashed their fury on the Badlands. Instead of the rain everyone had been praying for, hail pelted down from the clouds. Some of the chunks weren't a bad size, but as the wind howled and the storm increased its ferocity, lumps the size of Ping-Pong balls slammed onto the truck and he had to pull off along the side of the road and wait it out. As soon as it abated, he returned to the road and drove home as fast as he dared. He was pretty sure Marty would have dropped Lyn off already and he wondered what she'd do, all alone in the night in a storm like this.

When he pulled the truck to a stop beneath the big pole light in the yard, he could see the dents in the hood from inside the truck. Lyn came out the door before the truck stopped and came down the walk to meet him, and he forced himself to act as unconcerned as she seemed to be. Then she said quietly, "I'm glad you're back. I was worried."

"You okay?"

She nodded.

He walked forward and examined the pits the hail had left on the finish of his pickup, fighting the relief that rushed through his system and feigning a casual attitude. "Oh, well. It looked too new anyway."

Lyn smiled, although he noticed her small face was pale and strained. "Now that's what I call a stretch to find the silver lining." She pointed to the lavender gladiolus that had been in full bloom against the side of the porch, and he could see the strong stalks battered to the ground like fragile grasses. "Darn that hail. In the morning I'll see if any of the glads can be saved as cut flowers. Might as well enjoy them if we can."

He shook his head in admiration as he followed her up the walk and onto the porch. Why had he been worried about her? A lot of women would be upset to tears by the senseless destruction the hail had wrought. But Lyn had grown up here. She knew what to expect and how to handle it when tough things came along.

As he opened the door and motioned for her to precede him into the house, she cast a worried look outside.

"It's so dry," she said. "I was hoping this would be a good rain."

"No such luck." But he was as worried as she. "I'd better spend tomorrow plowing fireguards between the high grass and the east side of the house." With things this hot and dry, fires could spring up from any number of things: stupid tourists flicking cigarettes out the window along the highway, a spark from a train or a piece of machinery or even a lightning strike. Some of the worst fires he'd ever fought growing up out here had been started by lightning.

The next day was as hot as the one before. The daytime temperatures hadn't dropped below eight-five degrees for three weeks and the dry heat was getting to him.

Cal rode toward the house from the west pasture, bringing back four cows and calves he'd sorted out to sell. As he rode, he eyed the brittle grass and the dust that billowed from beneath the cattle's hooves. The horizon rippled and blurred under the baking sun. He'd noticed the waterholes over west were lower than usual.

As he came around the southern end of the ridge, the house came into view. The thrill of being back hadn't worn off yet, and he—

The sheriff's car was bumping along the lane. The sheriff's car? Mild puzzlement replaced his pleasure. Now why would the sheriff be at his house?

The answer sprang into his head even as the question passed through and he hurried Tor, pushing the cattle past the house and into the big corral, and tied him within reach of the water trough with an apology for making him wait to get rid of the hot saddle.

He strode toward the house. The car was parked in the yard. Had they finally found Lyn's ex-husband? He hoped so. And he sincerely hoped there'd come a day when he could have five minutes alone in a locked room with the bastard.

Five minutes was all it would take to pound him to a pulp and castrate him.

He took off his hat and slapped it against his leg to rid himself of some of the dust, absently noting the wear it was showing. Heck, he'd only had it for a few months. Time to buy a new one and keep this one for some of the nastiest work, like branding.

Opening the door, he stepped inside, enjoying the feel of the cooled air. Lyn wouldn't let him turn the air-conditioning on often, but since mid-August, he'd noticed she hadn't turned it off every time he left the house.

The lawman stood just inside the kitchen door with a second man in civilian clothes beside him. He turned when he heard the door open. "Hey, there, Cal."

Also By Anne Marie Winston

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