Authors: Rebecca Winters
“Your dad seems to be so happy.”
“He was until I came home and hurt him all over again.”
“Not deliberately, Trace.”
“You're very sweet, Cassie.” He lounged against the back of the couch. “How's the job hunting coming?”
“I've made applications at several places. Now it's a waiting game. All I can do is hope to be contacted for a first interview. You know how that goes. Except that
never went through that process. The Air Force wanted you immediately.”
“Where did you get an idea like that?”
He shook his head. “What did you study at the university?”
When she told him about her college degree in wildlife conversation and experience with the American Prairie Reserve, he said, “I should think any of those places where you applied would be eager to hire you. With all those credentials, you blow me away.”
“Thanks. I'm hoping someone will give me a call back.”
“If Jarod knew about your application for the job on the reservation, he'd do whatever he could to help you.”
“I know, but I need to do this on my own merits.”
He smiled. “If I didn't know anything else about you, I know that.”
“So is anyone interested in buying the ranch yet?”
Trace had hesitated talking about it, but since she brought it up, he might as well tell her the truth. “I heard back from my Realtor this afternoon. He's going to put out some feelers, but not on the multiple listing. I've decided to keep this as quiet as possible. Naturally I'll let you know when he's found someone who wants to come out to the ranch to look around.”
“It's a choice piece of property and this house is darling.” Her voice throbbed.
“That's because you and Logan made this place your own and it shows. I feel worse than ever over the new situation facing you.”
“Please don't. With that eye injury you have your own cross to bear. For your sake, let's hope the ranch is taken off the market in no time.”
“We'll see. Now I've kept you up too long. Get a good sleep.”
“You, too. Good night.”
Tuesday morning Trace had just come in after a ride on Masala when his cell rang. Hoping it was Nicci phoning him, he jumped down from the horse and let him run in the paddock. But when he looked at the caller ID, it was the Realtor. He clicked On.
“All right. I didn't expect a call from you this soon.”
“Are you kidding? A ranch like yours will be a piece of cake to sell. I've got some great news already.”
Trace braced himself. “Go ahead.”
“I keep a list of preferred clients who want to be notified if something they've been looking for suddenly comes on the market. One in particular is a potential buyer with money from the East Coast whose family is into the manufacturing business. His name is Lamont Walker. When I called him about your property, he said it was exactly what he was looking for and can meet your ballpark price. In a word, he was
The unexpected news twisted unpleasantly in Trace's gut. This was all happening too fast. “Tell me about him.”
“He's a big game hunter who would use the ranch for hunting parties with his friends throughout the year when he's not off to Africa.”
Already Trace didn't like the sound of him. The man had no plan to do any ranching. No interest in raising crops or running cattle. He'd have to hire someone to look after the place when he was gone on safari.
“Mr. Walker has his own company jet and is already on his way to Billings after being in Chicago on business. He'll come to my office tomorrow before we drive to your ranch.”
Tomorrow? “Does he have family?”
“He's forty-seven and divorced. That's all I know. I have to tell you that this is absolutely the right kind of buyer who knows what he wants and is ready to strike while the iron's hot. I'll let you know what time you can expect us at the ranch.”
Trace wasn't ready for this, but it was too late to put him off now. Bud Hawksworth was a go-getter. Probably the best in the business.
“I'll look out for your call, Bud. Thank you.”
* * *
and Liz. No one had a more loving extended family than she did, but she didn't expect them to solve her problems.
“Thank you for dinner, Liz, and everything you're trying to do, but I could no more impose on Mac and Millie than I could any of the rest of you. You're all newly married with plans and dreams of your own.”
Cassie got to her feet, having been at their new ranch house too long already. Liz still had veterinarian work waiting for her. “I'll be moved into an apartment in town within two weeks. I want to get ready for the baby in a place of my own.” She smiled at her. “No amount of generosity on your part will get me to change my mind.”
“But you're going to let us give you a baby shower, right?”
“I'd love that!”
“Good. Then it's settled. I'll talk with the others to plan a date and call you.”
Thankful she had her own transportation, Cassie was able to leave so Liz and Connor could enjoy the rest of the evening. After leaving the Bannock ranch, she drove to White Lodge and bought a pot of white mums at the supermarket. From there she went to the cemetery at the northeast end of town.
Logan's grave was in the newer section. It would be several years before the planted trees grew to a significant size. She pulled up near his flat marker and got out of the truck with the flowers. One day when she had enough money, she would have a granite stone erected.
She walked over and knelt down to put the pot at the bottom of the marker. “I haven't been here for two weeks, Logan. Forgive me. So much has happened since my last visit. We're going to have a little girl, but I bet you already know that. Sam's son, Trace, is home from Italy to sell the property, so I'll be moving to town within the next two weeks.
“The family wants me to live with Liz's parents. Can you believe how wonderful they all are to me? But I could never do that to them. I've got to make my own way. It was always you and I against the world. Now it's our daughter and I facing it without you. In four months I'll be a mother.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “I promise to tell her all about her wonderful daddy and keep your pictures around her forever. I'm praying that by the time she's born, Zane will have found out who shot you and can rule it an accident.” She shuddered. “For so many reasons I don't want to hear it was Ned.” She started crying and buried her face in her hands.
“I've asked Connor to take care of the sale of the horses. Trace said you did a beautiful job on the house. He's planning to move to Colorado to be a flight instructor for the Air Force. I love the house so much IâI just know it will sell fast. We were so happy there.”
Tears dripped everywhere. “While our dream lasted, you were such a marvelous husband to me. I loved every second we were together. I'm having a hard time leaving our little house in the forest. I've taken dozens of pictures inside and out so our little girl will know how happy we were there.
“Trace asked me what you and I had decided to name her. I told him neither of us knew I was pregnant before you died. Since we don't know who your parents were, I can't name her after someone from your family's side. I'll just have to keep thinking about it. One day the right name will come to me.” She wiped the tears off her face and got to her feet. “Goodbye for now, Logan.”
She turned and started for the truck. Evening had fallen. But this time as she left the cemetery, everything was different from all the other times because Cassie felt as if she'd reached the end of an era. All the way back to the ranch she thought of the new troubling era looming before her.
Trace owned the home she'd been living in. When she arrived at the house, he would be there instead of Logan. He'd been the first person to see the ultrasound picture of the baby and ask the baby's name. Besides her cousins, he'd been the one and only man to take her to a movie or anywhere since the funeral.
Cassie had been preparing Trace's meals, doing his wash. He'd walked and ridden the horses with her while they'd talked about the intimate, private issues of their lives. They'd been thrown together so hard and fast, it felt as if they'd skipped the normal period of getting acquainted. Last night during a heated conversation she'd actually accused him of sounding like a husband. To think she would even entertain the thought seemed like a betrayal of Logan's memory.
When she pulled to a stop in front of the ranch house and saw that Trace's car was gone, Cassie resented the fact that she even noticed. What was worseâfor that infinitesimal moment, she experienced disappointment. What did that mean?
It means you need to move out of there pronto, Cassie Dorney.
Two weeks couldn't come soon enough.
The second she'd showered, she got into bed and went to sleep. When she awakened late Wednesday morning, she had no idea when Trace had returned or if or when he'd gone to bed. Once she'd dressed in fresh maternity jeans and a blouson-type blouse, Cassie went to the kitchen for a glass of juice and some toast. She found a note from Trace sitting on the kitchen table.
Good morning, Cassie. Just wanted you to know that I've gone to town for some supplies. I'll be back by eleven. The Realtor Bud Hawksworth and a potential buyer will be coming to the ranch around noon.
A buyer already?
At the mention of the ranch being sold, there went that pain again. Not only her pain, but pain for Sam Rafferty, too. He had to be broken up over his son's intention to live in Colorado. It wasn't just because the property was going to pass into other hands, but because he'd wanted this for Trace's legacy.
Cassie appreciated Trace giving her warning and hurried through the house to be sure everything was clean and in order. After she'd fixed her breakfast and had eaten, she went out to the barn and led the horses to the paddock. While they enjoyed the morning sun, she mucked out their stalls, put fresh hay in the nets and made certain there was fresh water.
Once that chore was done, she went back to the house for the basket and spent the rest of her time picking any ripened strawberries. She didn't want anything left undone.
Her watch said it was close to eleven when she heard a car pull up to the house. Her heart raced to realize Trace was home even sooner than she'd expected. While she was coming to the end of the last row, she heard men's voices behind her and turned around.
“Sorry to startle you, Mrs. Dorney. I'm Bud Hawksworth and this is Mr. Walker. Did Trace tell you we were coming?”
The Realtor wore a summer suit and glasses. “Yes, but he's not here yet.”
“Mr. Walker's plane landed early so we've come ahead of time. I told him you've been looking after the place since your husband passed away. I'm very sorry to hear about your loss.”
Mr. Hawksworth had taken a liberty coming early, one Cassie thought inappropriate. She took a steadying breath. “Thank you.”
“The exterior of the house is charming and so unexpected. Mind if we walk around until Trace gets here?”
“I guess that's all right.”
“We'll take a look at the barn. Maybe the horses he mentioned are for sale, too?”
“They're my horses,” she murmured, disliking the way Mr. Walker was eyeing her.
To her chagrin the other man said, “You go on, Bud. I'll catch up with you in a minute.” The potential buyer was probably in his late forties and somewhat attractive with blond hair and burnished skin. In khaki shorts and a T-shirt, his lean build reminded her of a golfer. “Your garden is thriving. Looks like you're going to have raspberries soon.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Then you know all its secrets.”
She didn't care for the way his brown gaze seemed to leer at her. “Like all hundred-year-old properties, it needs constant upkeep, as Mr. Rafferty will tell you.”
“If I buy this place, I'll need someone to take care of it when I'm not here.”
Cassie knew what the offensive man was getting at. He could see she was pregnant, but her condition didn't make a difference to him. “That's something for you to take up with Mr. Hawksworth. If you'll excuse me.”
She headed for the house with the basket, aware of his roving eyes on her retreating back. There was nothing she detested more than a man who looked at her as if he was undressing her. It sickened her. He obviously had money or he wouldn't be wasting the Realtor's time. But already she was hoping Trace wouldn't sell to him.
As for the horses, Cassie wouldn't let such a disgusting man get near them. She marched into the house in a mood and ran right into Trace, who must have been on his way out the back door. As the basket dropped, a small cry escaped her lips. He grasped her upper arms.
“I'm sorry, Cassie.”
“I'm the one who needs to apologize.” She tilted her head back to look at him. Their faces were so close, she felt his warm breath on her lips and had to stifle a moan. “I wasn't watching where I was going.”
“You're upset. I can feel you trembling. What's happened? I saw another car out there.”
“Mr. Hawksworth came early with Mr. Walker.”
“So I see. And?”
“The hell it isn't,” he muttered in a deep voice.
Reeling from his touch, she eased out of his arms and reached for the basket. Luckily it hadn't tipped over. She put it on the counter. “They're waiting for you. Trace. While you show them around, I've got some errands to run.”
It was the best excuse she could come up with at the spur of the moment. She knew he wanted an explanation, but she couldn't tell him the whole truth. Otherwise he'd find out she didn't want him to sell the ranch, never mind that it was none of her business. And what would he think if she said Mr. Walker reminded her of a predator? Trace would decide she was as unstable as her brother.
She dashed out of the kitchen and down the hall to her room for her purse. Once again as she started to leave, Trace blocked the doorway, but this time they didn't collide. He looked good in his Western shirt and jeans. Better than good. All of him looked so-o good.
“I'm not going outside until you tell me what happened.”
She let out a sigh, resigned that she needed to say something to appease him. “I have an idea he'd like me to work for him if you sell him the ranch.”
“What else?” he demanded. Emotion had turned his eyes a darker blue.
“There's nothing else.”
“Oh, all right. It was just the way he looked at me. It made me shudder.” Cassie could tell when a man found her attractive, but not in an offensive way. This man's probing gaze was something else. “Maybe I could be wrong, so please don't let that color your judgment.”
His body tightened. “Say no more.”
But he'd bolted down the hall and out the back door. She'd done it now. Part of her thrilled to his protective instincts. The other part felt terrible if it meant the sale he needed wouldn't go through because of something she'd said. She should have left the ranch after seeing to the horses. But there was nothing holding her back now!
Grabbing her purse, she rushed through the house and flew out the door to her truck. She was so shaken, she knew her blood pressure had to have spiked. What she needed was something to calm her down.
When she reached town and drove by the Clip and Curl beauty salon, she decided a visit there would be therapeutic. After turning around she parked in front. You could walk in and wait for someone to wait on you. The place was bursting with customers of course. The redheaded owner, Mildred Paxton, sat behind her counter.