Rancher's proposition(8)

By: Anne Marie Winston

She didn't smile back. "I wish I were as sure of that as you are." One slim hand came up and knocked roughly against her temple. "If only I could remember—"

"Don't," he said in a deep, harsh tone. Cal reached up and snagged her hand, then pulled her against him again, threading a hand through her hair and pushing her face into its previous position in the crook of his neck. "Nobody puts marks on you ever again." The moment the words were uttered, he knew they sounded too intense for the working relationship they'd had. But the adrenaline rush that had swept through him at the sheriff's words was still coursing through his veins and he didn't give a flying damn at the moment how she interpreted it.

There was another silence. Lyn's face was pressed into his neck, and after a long moment, he felt a stream of warm air course over him as she exhaled another deep sigh. Her body relaxed then and she melted bonelessly against him in complete and utter trust.

He wanted to tell her he wasn't trustworthy, that with little provocation he could strip her, lift her and turn her so she was straddling his thighs, that her warm, soft curves were giving his body ideas neither one of them was ready for. But she was so vulnerable that he couldn't bring himself to do anything but sit and hold her, praying she wouldn't snuggle any closer and brush her bottom against the hungry flesh stirring at his groin.

They stayed like that for a few minutes longer, but when Tor began to restlessly stamp his feet, Cal used the excuse to lift her from his lap and stood. "I've got to take care of this horse," he told her.

"And I'd better go check on dinner." Lyn didn't look him in the eye as she swiftly walked out of the barn, but in the doorway she paused and looked back. "Thank you."

Her slim body was silhouetted in the light streaming in the open door and he wondered if she had any idea how appealing she was, with her quirky curls cascading over her shoulders and the rise of her breasts defined clearly. He felt his pulse double and his mouth grew dry. Before he could answer, she turned away and he was treated to the sway of her hips as she made her way to the house.

Damn if she wasn't going to drive him crazy.

* * *

A dark, purpling mountain of thunderheads piled up over the Black Hills several days later. They could see smoke from several major fires on the Montana prairie, and he watched the news with a grim expression as the newscasters detailed the destruction.

They'd butchered a crippled heifer two days earlier and Lyn had started canning. He wandered into the kitchen and watched her methodically cutting meat into small cubes and filling canning jars, then setting them on one side of the sink to wait for their turn to cook.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked, feeling guilty. She'd worked all day and she was still going strong while he'd been lounging in front of the television.

She shrugged her shoulders, never breaking her rhythm. "Not really. In a few minutes you could get those jars off the stove and set new ones in the water."

He nodded, watching the way the muscles in her slender arms flexed as she wielded the knife. "I never knew how to do this before. Did you learn this from your mother?"

Her hands stilled on the knife. Slowly, she raised her head and looked at him, and there was an unreadable expression on her face. "My mother died when I was five. I learned to cook and can and clean from my aunt and the neighbors who were kind enough to let me hang around their kitchens."

"I'm sorry," he said. "My mother isn't dead but I was raised by my father, too."

"I know. Silver mentioned it." She resumed her methodical cubing. "You could take those jars out now."

Cal rose and did as she asked. The clock on the wall caught his eye, and a memory made him grin. "Guess what we were doing this time last Friday night?" he asked her.

She thought for a moment and then the light dawned. A slow smile spread across her face, lighting up her small features until she glowed. "Watching Marty's marriage candidate get pie-eyed." She started to laugh, shaking her head ruefully, then added tactfully, "She was beautiful, wasn't she?"

"I don't remember."

When she glanced at him with startled eyes, he chuckled. "That's the diplomatic response any man who values his life would make."

She shook the knife at him. "You can't fool me, Cal McCall. If you don't remember what she looked like, it's because you were too busy staring at her other main attributes."

"What attributes?" he asked innocently. "The woman was utterly forgettable. I don't remember a thing."

"Don't you mean 'udderly'?"

He laughed aloud. Then he sobered as he remembered the phone call that had come just before dinner. "The lawyer called today while you were out watering those bushes you planted."

Her head shot up again. "What did he say?"

Cal sighed. "The sheriff's department wants to talk to you. He believes it would be in your best interest to go in and talk with them before they issue a subpoena."

"But I can't tell them anything!" Her voice rose in agitation; she set down the knife and wiped her hands on a nearby towel. "They won't believe me when I say I don't remember."

"Yes, they will." He couldn't stand the frightened look that froze her features; he came around the kitchen island to her side and put an arm around her shoulders. "If necessary, we'll get a psychologist to say that you have a memory loss regarding those last weeks in Rapid City. And the medical report of your injuries the day Silver found you will support that." He hesitated, then led her to a chair at the table and pulled her down beside him. "I know you can't remember much, but tell me what you do remember."

She shrugged helplessly. "My old boss, a veterinarian in Rapid City, offered me my job back after my divorce. I was living over in Sioux Falls but I didn't like it and I wanted to come home, so I took him up on it." Her hands clenched on the towel. "After I came back to town, my ex-husband came around again and wanted money. I called the police and got a restraining order … and that's all I remember until I woke up in the hospital."

Damn. He could see how this could be a real ugly mess. She very well could have killed the guy, although he knew if she had it had been self-defense, and he wasn't going to stand by and watch her be prosecuted for it. He put a hand over her fingers where they twisted the dish towel repeatedly. "Stop worrying. I told you I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

She stopped twisting the towel and slowly looked up at him. "Why are you being so nice to me?" she whispered.

He tried to ignore the full, pink lips that begged him to lower his head and kiss her. "Because I've gotten used to having a great housekeeper and I don't intend to deprive myself," he said, squeezing her hand lightly before forcing himself to rise and walk away. "I'm going on up to bed now. See you in the morning."

* * *

Chapter 3

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"Cal? Are you in here?" At the sound of Lyn's voice, Cal looked up from the worn bridle he was repairing three days later. Another thing to put on the list of equipment to be replaced. He'd known the ranch would require a hefty cash infusion to restore it to what it had been during his father's lifetime, but it was looking more and more like a bottomless money pit. Good thing his pockets were deep, thanks to his skill at working the market to advantage.


"Yeah, I'm here."

"The phone's for you."

Setting the bridle aside, Cal rose and walked toward the extension phone on the wall of the barn. "Who is it?" he asked Lyn.

She shook her head. "Sorry. I didn't ask."

"Thanks." He reached for the handset, his gaze on Lyn's smooth gait as she turned and walked toward the barn door. "McCall."

"Mr. McCall. It's Pat Haney."

Damn. The lawyer he'd engaged calling again so soon probably didn't mean anything good. "What's up, Pat?"

"The Pennington Sheriff's Department definitely wants to talk to Ms. Hamill. She needs to come to the office today at two o'clock. I'll be going with her."

"So will I," said Cal in a grim tone. "I gather this is her only opportunity to come in on her own?"

"Yeah." The attorney sighed. "Apparently they don't have a hope of another lead. Has she remembered anything?"

"No." In the days since they'd discussed the murder, he hadn't brought the subject up because he'd seen how it upset Lyn. "I doubt she ever will," he said somberly. "She had some pretty ugly injuries when Silver found her. The doctors say she may never regain any memories from the time immediately preceding her beating."

Haney sighed again. "Damn. I'm not sure they have enough to charge her on, but I have to be frank with you, they're surely looking hard at her. This could be tricky."

"What do they have?"

"Next to nothing, other than the coroner's estimated time of death, which places it fairly close to Ms. Hamill's hospitalization. And that's the problem. There's no indication that anyone else was involved. This looks like a domestic dispute that turned nasty."

"Lyn wouldn't kill anyone. If she did it, it was accidental. Did you get the copies of the hospital records? You can see what was done to her. Maybe she struck back in self-defense and got lucky."

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