Authors: Rebecca Winters
First thing in the morning he would contact Bud Hawksworth, the Realtor in Billings, and ask him to keep his sights out for someone who wanted to buy a ranch like Rafferty's. No putting it on the multiple listings. With the fall hunting season coming up, this time of year would be the best time to make the most of a profitable sale.
Cassie had turned him down flat when he'd suggested the Realtor would be able to help her find a place. It could kill two birds with one stone, but she wasn't having any of it. He shouldn't have said it. Cassie was fiercely in charge of her own life. His respect for her continued to grow.
So did his attraction
. That alarmed him.
When he'd pulled her against him at the lake, it had taken every bit of willpower not to turn her around and kiss her whether he had her permission or not. To do that would end any trust and she'd be out the door and gone in a shot.
He needed to put the desire to make love to her behind him. They'd start fresh at breakfast. But when he got up the next morning and eventually went to the kitchen after a shower and shave, he discovered a note she'd left on the counter.
I didn't want to wake you, so I left your breakfast in the oven. If you feel like strawberries, they're in a bowl in the fridge. There's some ham and rolls for lunch if you get hungry before my return. I made a fresh pot of coffee before I walked out the door. I'll be back by afternoon to do your wash and anything else you might want done. You already have my cell phone in case you need to get in touch with me.
He shook his head. Trace had never had service like this in his life. She took the role of housekeeper to a new level.
When he opened the oven door he discovered bacon and scrambled eggs just the way he liked them. Her husband had been a lucky man. After pouring himself a cup of coffee, he took everything to the table and phoned the Realty company while he ate. The secretary said Bud would return the call once he was free.
* * *
gotten up early on Monday, she'd been relieved to discover Trace's Explorer was still out in front, which meant he was in bed. After making breakfast for both of them, she got on the computer to see what rentals were listed. Instead of printing out the ones she wanted, she could pull them up on her smartphone and leave for White Lodge now. She was determined to find a place to live ASAP so she could start planning a nursery.
By midafternoon she'd found an eight-plex apartment house near the center of town with floor plans she liked, but the ground-floor apartment she wanted wouldn't be vacant until two weeks from now. But before she paid money, she needed to see it empty. The landlord agreed to hold it for her if she left a refundable deposit in case she didn't want it. They made an appointment for her to come back then. If all went well she'd sign a year lease.
Tomorrow being Tuesday, she'd spend part of the day putting up more jam. When she'd finished she would drive over to Connor's ranch house. Since she was moving, she couldn't keep her horses. If he didn't know someone who would like to buy them, he would know how she should advertise to get the best results.
Trace was home when she returned. She found him in the living room eating potato chips while he watched a rerun of an NFL football game on TV. The second he saw her, he turned it off and got to his feet. He looked amazing in a black crewneck shirt and jeans. “You've been gone a long time.”
She bit her lip. “I had a lot to do. How was your day?”
“Good. I spent most of it with my Dad.”
“How is he?”
“I'm glad.” She turned to leave.
“The horses are happy.”
“How are you?”
“Tired. I'm going to bed. Have a nice evening.”
“Cassie? Waitâ” he said as she started for the hallway.
Her heart pounded. She glanced at him. “What is it?”
“Have I offended you in some way?”
“Of course not!”
His hands went to his hips in a male stance. “Something's bothering you. Can we talk about it in more than monosyllabic words?”
That was her fault. She was being rude. “Sorry if I came across uncommunicative. Let's agree we both have a lot on our minds.”
“Do you want to talk?”
She shook her head. “No.”
do. Today I happened to see your truck in front of an apartment complex with a for-rent sign in the manager's apartment window. Has my presence made you so uncomfortable, you're considering moving out right now?”
Oh, boy. She should have known. White Lodge was such a small town, you couldn't get away with much.
Cassie lifted her head and stared straight at him. “After Mandy saw me out with you the night we went to the film, I realized how it must have looked to her. Your dad is a prominent man in town and people are finding out you're back home. Friends like the people I volunteer with know I'm still living here on your ranch. But all it takes is one troublemaker to spread rumors about you and me living under the same roof together. They don't know you're moving to Colorado.”
She watched him rub the back of his neck. It meant he was listening.
“You know what I mean, Traceâthe grieving widow and the hotshot bachelor pilot. Soon it will be all over town that I'm pregnant. I can just imagine the spin some people will put on it, saying that the last time you came to visit your father, you must have hooked up with the housekeeper when her husband wasn't around.”
“No one would think that!”
“Yes they would and you know it.”
His silence said it all.
“There's a base element of society that exists everywhere, Trace. We can solve the problem by not being seen together. The damage may already have been done when Ned hears about it from his friends. They visit him and have regular contact. Once he finds out you're back and were seen with his pregnant sister, it could start a wildfire of gossip. I've told you he hates me. You'd be surprised just how ugly it could get.”
Trace stood. “I know you're frightened of him, but since he's still living in the mental health facility, you don't need to be in a rush. I had a long talk about him with Zane and Jarod. When and if Ned is released, you have a home with your cousins who plan to protect you.”
Her face went hot, something it had been doing a lot since Trace had shown up in the fruit garden. “I know my cousins would do anything for me, but I would never impose on their lives that way because of Ned. They're all newlyweds for heaven's sake!”
“But you're forgetting one thing. If Ned is released soon, they're not going to let you live in town by yourself.”
“Then I'll move to another part of the state!” she fired back.
Trace shifted his weight. “We're getting ahead of ourselves. For now I'm here to keep an eye on you until I leave for Colorado Springs. Until then, this is your home.”
my home!” Cassie exclaimed. “Your father left the ranch to you. Hopefully I'll be able to move to the apartment in two weeks when it will be vacant.”
“Have you put money down yet?”
“A deposit. I want to see it without any furnishings. If I like it, then I'll sign a year's lease.”
furnishings? None of your things are here.”
“They're in storage,” she lied.
Trace's eyes looked pained. “I can't let you leave because of what a few people might say, Cassie.”
“Please stop feeling guilty. I can handle anything but that.”
“If I'd known what was going to happen, I would never have suggested we drive into town to see a film.”
“Please don't say that. Don't you know I'm glad Mandy saw us together? It got me going sooner on finding my own place to live. I need to get ready for the baby. This is all for the best. In four or five weeks when this place is sold, I'll be another month along. I'd rather move now while I'm in good shape. That apartment is perfect for me.”
His dark brows furrowed. “But you don't have a job yet.”
“I'll get one. I know almost every store owner in White Lodge. If I can't work in my chosen field for a while, I can always get a job at one of their businesses. Today I saw a dozen help-wanted signs in the shop windows.”
“That kind of work isn't for you, especially not at this stage in your pregnancy.”
“Don't be ridiculous. I'm perfectly healthy.”
“And I want you to stay that way.”
over twenty-one and in charge of myself. You're sounding like a husbandâ” she blurted before she realized her mistake. Heat washed over her in waves. “IâI'm sorry,” she stammered. “I didn't mean to say that.”
The faint glimmer of a smile hovered on his lips. “I'm sorry I provoked you. Chalk it up to the picture of your sonogram. Since looking at it, your pregnancy is very real to me. I don't like being the person who is causing these sudden drastic changes in your life. I want to fix everything. Since learning more about Ned's instability, I intend to keep you safe.”
Cassie knew he meant it, and it touched her heart. “That's not your job. When I move, everything's fixed. It's that simple. Tomorrow I'm going to ask Connor if he knows anyone who would like to buy the horses.”
“When the time comes, I can help with that. While I have time on my hands waiting for a potential buyer, I'll move everything from your storage unit into your apartment.”
“You mean you've decided I'm allowed to make my own decisions and move out of here?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It appears there's no stopping you.”
“Good. I'm glad we understand each other.” She took a deep breath. “Just so we're clear, I won't need your help during the move.”
He walked closer to her. “Naturally your cousins will be there for you, but I'm the one creating all the disturbance, so I intend to repair the damage.”
“There's no damage, Trace, and I'd rather you didn't.”
“Why?” he demanded in a quiet, yet compelling, tone. She knew he'd keep it up until he got the answer he wanted.
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I didn't want you to know. Logan and I moved into this house without any possessions of our own except our clothes and a few personal items. My father forbade me to take one thing from my home.”
“I don't believe a parent could be that cruel.”
She clenched her hands. “He thought that if I left destitute, I'd cave and decide not to marry Logan. Luckily my husband owned his own truck. We lived at a motel for a week before moving into your father's completely furnished house. All of the furniture and pictures must be heartbreakingly familiar to you.”
Fists formed at his sides. “He literally threw you out?” Trace had ignored her comments about the house.
“Yes,” she whispered, blinking hard to keep her eyes from tearing.
“Didn't your brothers want to help you?”
“Afraid not. We have a dysfunctional family with a capital
“So when you rent the apartment, you have nothing to put in it?”
“Nothing, except for personal possessions. But that's not a problem. I'm planning to make the rounds of the yard sales and find what I need.”
“Then we'll do it together.”
“What? And cause even more gossip?” Her questions bounced against the walls of the house. “I have friends to help me. It's not your concern. I'll buy a new bed and crib from the furniture store and have them delivered. It will all work out.”
“The hell it will.”
“Careful, Captain. You're not in the military now.” The second the words left her mouth, Cassie wished she could call them back. “I'm sorry, Trace. That was another terrible, thoughtless thing to say to you. I keep doing it. Forgive me.”
“It's my fault,” he said in a quiet voice. “I've done a terrible thing by badgering you.”
“Neither of us is at our best. I'm missing Logan who's never going to come back. You're missing Nicoletta, but you're fortunate because she'll be flying over soon.”
“Don't interrupt me. Please,” she begged. “Can't you see how much better it will be when I'm gone so she can stay here with you alone? The two of you will be able to make plans for your future.”
“I'm afraid it won't be that simple.”
“Give her some time to get acquainted with your world, Trace. Take her to Colorado Springs, then come back here. Who knows? Maybe she'll love it here more and want to be a rancher's wife. I guarantee that seeing you again, she'll want to marry you on the spot.”
His head lifted. “That's because you grew up a Montana girl and love of the Pryors is burned deep inside you, but it's not for everyone. My mother never took to this life.”
“I always wondered about her. How did your parents get together?”
“They met in Yellowstone Park while she was on vacation with some friends from Denver. Dad had just finished attending a veterinarian conference in Salt Lake and stopped there on his way back to Montana. He urged her to come and see him in White Lodge. One thing led to another and they got married, but she missed living in a big city and complained a lot.”
“That would have been incredibly painful for you.”
“It was. When she asked for the divorce, Dad begged her not to move so far away he couldn't see me when he wanted. So she moved to Billings and eventually met a man from there. They married, and now he works for a company in Portland.”
“Your father never met anyone else?”
“There were women, but his hurt went deep. It made me glad when he met Ellen and wanted to marry her.”