Authors: Rebecca Winters
Most of the females who saw her with Trace couldn't take their eyes off him. Even before he'd arrived at the ranch, Avery and Liz had commented that he was one of the most attractive men they'd ever seen in their lives, but they'd said it out of earshot of their husbands.
Cassie agreed with them. Endowed with dark hair and those blazing blue eyes, Trace turned heads, especially in his black cowboy hat. He looked the part, but she'd seen the pictures of him in uniform. He looked the part of a pilot, too. With his intelligence and charisma, he could be anything he wanted.
His Italian girlfriend was lucky to be loved by a man like him. Nicci was so blessed that Trace was still alive, but until tragedy happened, you couldn't appreciate what you had. Tears smarted Cassie's eyes. She blinked them away, disturbed by a tumult of emotions attacking her.
It hadn't been a good idea to come out with Trace tonight after all. She'd been giving way too much thought to his life and situation. Worse, she felt guilty that she was enjoying herself. Logan had only been gone half a year. To her chagrin she sensed an attraction to Trace deep down she couldn't explain. It was starting to disturb her.
She could blame it on hormones or the fact that she was a widow. Cassie could blame it on whatever she wanted, but the fact still remained she found Trace appealing. On the walk to the theater she'd become aware of his touch. Sitting next to him in the dark, she could hear him breathe and discovered herself listening for his deep laugh. She smelled the soap he'd used in the shower. It was all too much.
How could this be happening to her? She was pregnant with her husband's child, and Trace was planning to marry another woman in the near future. Why was she so susceptible to him? Maybe she would feel this way around any attractive man now that Logan was gone. All Cassie knew was that at this point she needed to stay away from him whenever possible until he left for Colorado.
“Hey, Cassie?” A married friend who worked at the saddlery shop called to her as they left the theater.
The other woman, always cheerful, headed toward them. She was yet another female who'd seen Trace and couldn't resist. Cassie was forced to introduce him to her.
“You're Doc Rafferty's famous ace son!”
“Is that what I am?” His eyes danced, but he'd directed his question to Cassie, not Mandy. This shouldn't be happening either. Cassie was sure he didn't mean to, but he was behaving as if they were a couple. It gave the wrong impression. No, no, no.
Mandy smiled. “Modest, too.” She whispered to Cassie. “I didn't know you were pregnant.”
“I only found out after Logan died.”
“Oh, wow. You've really been through it, but I'm so happy about your baby.”
“So am I. It's a great blessing.”
“Of course. You look terrific.” She turned to Trace. “See you around, hotshot.”
His male laughter followed behind Cassie as she hurried over to the Explorer. She would have climbed in without his help, but he'd locked it so she had to wait until he'd activated the remote. Though she didn't want his assistance, he helped her in anyway, then walked around and got in behind the wheel.
“At least she didn't call you Maverick,” Cassie quipped to ease the effect his nearness had on her. “You know, the pilot in the film
. I'm afraid you're in for it because everyone knows your dad. You're all he ever talks about.”
“I'm a legend before my time. Is that what you're saying?”
“Something like that.”
“My father's the legend. Unfortunately I'm his greatest disappointment, but he's done his best not to let it show in public.” Since Cassie knew how her dad felt about her, who was she to tell Trace how wrong he was if that was his perception. “Would you like to stop at the drive-thru for something?”
“Sure. A lemonade sounds good to me. Thanks.”
They stopped long enough for drinks, then headed back to the ranch.
“Tell me something, Cassie. If Logan hadn't died, what were your plans for the future?”
She let out a deep sigh. “To make enough money to buy ourselves a modest little ranch somewhere in the Pryors where the horseback riding and fishing is good. Maybe run a head of cattle. And of course raise a family. It was a lovely dream while it lasted.”
Once they reached the house, she got out before he could help her and hurried to unlock the front door. He was right behind her. “Thanks for the fun evening,” she said without looking at him. “I really enjoyed it.”
“So did I.”
“See you in the morning.”
She paused in her tracks and looked back at him. “Yes?”
He acted as if he was on the verge of saying something important, then apparently changed his mind. She discovered his eyes playing over her with disturbing intensity. “Please don't worry about getting my breakfast or dinner tomorrow. After I exercise the horses, I'll be out all day.”
“All right. See you later, then.”
Since Cassie knew he'd lock up and turn out the lights, she went straight to her bedroom. After being with him tonight, she realized how difficult it would be to live in the same house with Trace. It was a good thing he would be leaving for Colorado soon. She was conscious of his presence whenever he came near her. Mandy had already seen her with Trace and would be speculating on their relationship. It didn't look right and didn't feel right.
No more jaunts out in public with him. When she'd made the decision to go to the movie, she'd been trying to cheer him up. And honestly she was glad to get out and away from her loneliness for a little while. But her good intentions had backfired. Bumping into Mandy had been a wake-up call for her. Sam had hired her to keep up the house, not to entertain his son.
* * *
took Buttercup for a ride. After leaving her in the paddock, he put a bridle on Masala, whose ears pricked when he heard Trace coming. “Good news, big fella. We're going for a ride.” He gentled him before putting on the bridle.
“It'll be your turn again tomorrow, Buttercup.” Cassie's horse nickered, causing him to smile as he mounted Masala and they took off for the Bannock ranch. It had been a year at least since he'd been over there. Not only was he eager to see the Bannock brothers again, Trace was anxious to talk to them about the sale of the ranch. Following that conversation he needed to express his concerns about Cassie and what would happen to her when he sold the property.
Maybe Connor, his friend who'd become a legend as the world's greatest steer wrestling champion, knew someone in the region who'd like to buy the ranch. But when he reached the big corral on their property, it was Jarod he saw ride up in his truck.
The second he laid eyes on Trace, he got out of the cab and started toward him with a smile. Trace, in turn, jumped off Masala and tied him to the fencing before they gave each other a bear hug.
“Welcome home, Trace. We heard from your father that you were coming. You've been missed around here. Those visits home over the years weren't long or often enough.”
“I agree. It's good to see you.” He eyed Connor's older brother, whose long black hair tied back with a thong emphasized his half ApsÃ¡alooke heritage. “You look like fatherhood agrees with you.”
“Sadie and I have never been happier.” Those black eyes studied Trace for a moment. “You'd never know you suffered an eye injury as serious as yours. I'm sorry about what happened to you.”
“It's life. When you go in the military, you take a risk.”
They stared at each other before Jarod said, “Life's a risk under any circumstances as we've all found out.”
“No question about it. How's Ralph?”
“Would you believe our grandfather is stronger and happier than I've seen him in years? He'll want to see you.”
“I promise to stop by and visit him soon.”
“Good. In the meantime come on over to our new house and meet our son Cole. Between him and Sadie's half brother Ryan, they've put fresh life into him.”
“I'd love to, but I need to talk to you and Connor about a couple of things in private first.” He was worried about Cassie for several reasons and wanted their input. Three heads were better than one.
“Connor will hate missing you, but he's up at the wild horse refuge office and probably won't be back till dinner.”
“I knew it would be too much to hope for that you'd both be around at the same time, but I'll catch up with him later.”
“What's on your mind, Trace?”
“Sure you have time?”
“For you, I'll always make time.”
Trace looked around to be certain they were out of earshot of the ranch hands. “You and Connor have known my situation from the beginning. Dad has sacrificed his whole life for me. Now I have a chance to pay him back. I'm only going to be home long enough to sell the ranch. He deserves to buy himself and Ellen a house they'd both love. With the money from the sale, they can have whatever they want. Their condo is too small and confining.”
Jarod stood there with his arms folded. “I hear you. Where are
“Colorado Springs. I've accepted a position as a flight instructor at the academy.”
His friend nodded without saying anything. Because of the partly stoic side of Jarod's nature, at times it was hard to read what was going on inside him.
“I'm afraid Dad didn't take the news well.”
“He wouldn't. You're the bright spot in his life.”
“Unfortunately I don't have a choice since I have to work at something I know. I'm expecting my Italian girlfriend Nicoletta to be flying over shortly. Before my eye injury, we were planning to be married and live in Italy. Now she's got to find out if she can adapt to living in Colorado before we make plans. As you can see, everything's up in the air.”
Jarod had that faraway look in his eyes. “There was a time when I came to a crossroads after my accident and had to face difficult decisions. Sadie had fled to California to be with her mother. It felt like my life was over. My uncle Charlo knew my thoughts and warned me to think outward to seven generations before making any new plans.”
You couldn't resent Jarod's words. There was wisdom in everything he said. Raffertys had only been here for four generations. According to Jarod's counsel, there were three more to go, taking him beyond his life span. Trace knew what his friend was saying, but he couldn't see another way out.
“Your uncle gives excellent advice.”
“But hard to swallow. I know all about it.” By the thick tone in Jarod's voice, Trace knew Jarod had been through years of torture before Sadie came back to him. “Have you forgotten you were a cowboy long before you became a pilot?”
Trace took a deep breath. “Life is different now. Dad will be doing vet work until he keels over, but with his arthritis he shouldn't have to worry about the ranch anymore. The problem is, I can't take care of things long distance when my future isn't here. Before I contact a Realtor, I'm wondering if you know anyone around here who might be interested in buying it.”
Jarod took his time answering. “Your great-great-grandfather Rafferty picked out that prime piece of land to settle down for a reason.” Guilt swamped Trace at the reminder, but circumstances were forcing him to sell. “Once the news is out, you'll be besieged with offers.”
“That's what I'm hoping, but since our land borders yours, I want the right person living next door to you. I'd like to use you and Connor for a filter.”
After a long silence Jarod said, “The right person is already living there.”
Trace knew what he meant. “I appreciate those words, Jarod, but if Nicci can be happy with us living in Colorado, then that's what I need to do for both our sakes. Which brings me to my next concern. I didn't realize until I got home that Cassie was still living on the ranch taking care of the house since Logan's death. Somehow I'd taken it for granted she'd gone back to her parents' house. Since she didn't, this will mean a move for her which I hate to do to her considering the fact that she can't go home.”
Lines darkened his face. “She wouldn't want to even if she were allowed.”
“I know,” Trace muttered. “She confided a lot to me yesterday.”
His black eyes narrowed. “Does she know about your plans to sell the property?”
“No. I told her I'll be going to work in Colorado, but I've said nothing to her about finding a buyer for the ranch. As far as she knows, she's doing the job Dad hired her to do, which she's doing admirably well I might add.”
“I'm glad you haven't told her yet. Cassie has always been a hard worker and I know she thrives on keeping the place up for Sam. But
not happy to learn you're selling the ranch. Connor won't be either.” Jarod had always had a stubborn streak when he felt strongly about something. In ten years that hadn't changed.
“I don't see another way to handle this, and I'm worried about something else. I guess you know she's pregnant.”
“I've had my suspicions, but you've just verified them.”
“Then you understand my concern. Cassie intimated that Ned will be coming back to live with her parents one of these days. I saw fear in her eyes. She told me about the problems with her parents and the suspicious circumstances of the shooting during Ned's last visit home. I've been horrified by the things she told me.”
His friend grimaced. “We're all worried about Ned, but I don't imagine he'll be allowed home for quite a while yet.”
“Then you need to hear the news I got from the horse's mouth last night.”
Jarod looked surprised. “About Ned?”