Authors: Myrna Mackenzie
Good advice. Especially because this man, this Shane person, lookedâ¦kind of angry. She could tell that he wasn't totally enthused about hiring her. Maybe he'd had no choice. Finding temporary employees in a town this small might be a challenge. Strangely, his lack of enthusiasm made her feel slightly safer. At least
she would have no false expectations, unlike her experience with Dennis.
“Soâ¦you're going to give me a ride to Ruby's?”
“Yes.” Obviously, he was a man of few words. That might be a good thing. Less interaction. If only he didn't look soâ¦soâ¦
Rachel frowned at the word, her tension and discomfort rising again.
“What if I decide not to work for you?” she asked suddenly, and immediately wanted to smack herself. After all, had any other jobs dropped out of the sky? No, but this manâ¦this overwhelming man who stared at her as if could read the secrets and fears she kept locked away inside herâ¦
Rachel swallowed hard.
Try to look nonchalant,
she ordered herself.
Try to look as if you don't even see him as a man.
“You'll get a ride no matter what,” he said.
“Because you don't want me on your conscience.” Why was she pushing this, trying to peg the man's motives? No doubt because she was tired and frustrated and just plain mad as heck. Mostly at herself for being naive and impulsive and ending up stranded and broke. She hated feeling that all of her choices and power had been taken from her. And she needed to see things clearly and not miss things this time.
“I don't.” And there was something in his eyes, some pained look, that told her that those words had meaning, too. He frowned. “So, does that mean that you're not taking the job? You didn't exactly say no, but you also haven't said yes.”
She looked him directly in the eye. “Yes.” A frisson of awareness slid through her. Saying yes to this manâthis bad man, she corrected, remembering Ruby's
warningsâmight not be the smartest thing she'd ever done, and she needed to be smart.
“Despite Ruby's warnings?”
She lifted her chin defiantly. “I don't care how bad you are, because this is just going to be about work.”
“Not a chance of anything more,” he agreed.
Another woman might have been offended, but not Rachel. When a man said no, he was most likely being honest.
“And just so we're clear,” he said, “I mentioned that I had a limited time frame. The truth is that this job won't last more than three weeks. I can't stay longer than that.”
“I don't need more time than that. I just need enough money to get me out of here.”
“All right.” He held out his hand. “We have a deal then?”
Rachel stared for just a second. His hand was large, very male, with long, strong fingers. She slipped her palm against his and heâvery brieflyâclosed his hand over hers. Warmth moved from his skin to hers in a most disturbing way that made her too aware that she was a woman and this was an overwhelming male she had just committed her time to. “A deal.”
And then he released her just as quickly as he'd touched her.
ricocheted through her mind, but she didn't have to be reminded. Not after today.
Hours later, on a narrow bed, staring at the moon, Rachel shivered, remembering all that had happened today. Her relationship with Dennis had been a horrible mistake, and she hadn't seen it coming. She knew it was because he'd made her feel that her skill with a camera made her stand out from the crowd in a good
way, something she wasn't used to. She'd been naive. Now her eyes were clearer. She duly noted that there was a good chance that agreeing to work for someone like Shane would prove to be a mistake.
If she let it. “But I won't. I'll be on my guard,” Rachel promised herself. Besides, it wasn't as if doing a little cleaning and taking a few pictures for some rancher was going to change her life.
that I'll pay you for letting me stay here as soon as I can,” Rachel said, drying a cup and putting it in the cabinet Ruby directed her to. She tried not to listen for the sound of Shane's car coming down the road. For some reason the prospect of riding in a car again with a man that potent had her spooked. Still, it was probably just a delayed reaction to her situation and the stress of yesterday. Nothing at all to do with the man.
Unfortunately, Ruby had noticed her nervousness. And misinterpreted it.
“Don't worry,” she told Rachel. “He'll probably be here on time. When he was young, he was bull-headed and full of âI dare you to make me try to do that.' If you put your foot down and demanded that he do something, he was almost sure to do the exact opposite. And he was a fighter. That landed him in jail a time or two. But I'm sure he's different now. He's a successful businessman, and since he was always a mathematical genius I'm sure he must spend some time on work and not so much on raising hell or loving up women.”
The image of a half-naked Shane on a bed immediately sprang into Rachel's mind. She frowned. What was wrong with her?
Stop that right now,
she ordered herself. She didn't even like the man. She didn't
to like the man. Hadn't she just yesterday shed one bad example of the male species?
Rachel shuddered. For two years, ever since Jason had broken her heart by leaving her for “a womanly woman,” the woman he'd been waiting for all his life, as he put it, she'd sworn off associations with men entirely. Now she seemed to be making up for lost time, hooking up with one untrustworthy male after another. The thought that she might be turning into her mother, going gooey and giddy over any man who wandered near her, made Rachel feel suddenly sick.
She grabbed another cup and forced herself not to attack it. She needed to keep her mind on the work she'd been lucky enough to find, even if it was work she wasn't really qualified to do. She'd already nearly burned Ruby's boarding house down by trying to help her cook. That couldn't happen with Shane. Nothing bad could happen with Shane or he would fire her rear end.
Don't let that happen,
she ordered herself.
Be professional. Just professional.
“So, he's good with numbers?” Rachel said. “Kind of an accountant type?” That sounded safe. Good.
Ruby laughed. “If you're thinking you can take the edge off of a man like Shane by slapping a label on him, good luck with that. He'll still be just as much of a heartbreaker. Besides, he's got those smoldering eyes.”
“I hadn't noticed.”
Her comment was followed immediately by the sound of a car door slamming, and Rachel nearly dropped a cup. In less than a minute those smoldering
eyes were staring at her and Ruby. He hadn't knocked, but then, this
“Ready?” Shane asked in that deep voice of his.
But that was the wrong answer. “Yes, just as soon as I finish up here. I owe Ruby big-time.”
“That's okay. You run along,” Ruby said.
At the same time Shane said, “All right. I'll wait.”
“Thank you,” Rachel said in her best prim employee voice.
“Well, then, did you eat already, Shane?” Ruby asked.
“Could you eat again? If you had to make your own breakfast, you probably ate something disgusting.”
A brief but wide smile flitted across Shane's face, revealing those devastating dimples before it disappeared. Rachel tried not to stare, sure that Ruby was watching her to see her reaction. No man should be allowed to look that good.
“I wouldn't want to trouble you.”
“If your memory hasn't failed you, you'll know that there's always something on the stove here. Sit down and eat.”
Shane moved toward the table. “Thank you.”
Rachel thought. Shane was a big eater and Ruby was a really good cook. What would he think when he had to eat Rachel's cooking? How soon would he fire her? She hoped she could at least make a few dollars before that happened. Maybe enough to get her a few miles closer to her destination.
Behind her, she could hear the clatter of dishes and the sound of a chair scraping against the floor as Shane sat down behind her. Rachel rubbed the dishes dry. When she was finished, she turned around to find
Shane already waiting for her. This time when he asked if she was ready she couldn't put off the inevitable.
Rachel Everly wasn't thrilled about this job. That much was clear to Shane as they got in his truck and drove toward the ranch. He'd never seen anyone take so much time drying a dish.
Not that he blamed her. If he'd been caught flat broke and forced to earn his way home he wouldn't be thrilled, either. Plus, Ruby was a colorful storyteller. There was no telling what she had told Rachel. There were plenty of stories circulating about him, and he didn't exactly shine in any of them. Some of them dealt with things he didn't want to think about. Most, if not all of them, were true.
Not that Rachel's enthusiasm for the task mattered. It was just a job that needed to be done, and the sooner they waded in, the sooner both of them could be free of the ranch, Moraine and each other. They might as well hit the ground running.
“You might want to pay attention to which direction we're headed,” he said after a few minutes. “Some of these country roads aren't marked all that well, and it's easy to get turned around. You'll need to know how to get back to Ruby's.”
He felt rather than saw her turn to him. “Is it close enough to get there on foot?”
“Only if you're a horse and you have a lot of time.” Shane might not want to get to know this woman, but the fact that she had a habit of saying things that forced him to hold back his smile wasn't a good thing. He'd meant it when he'd said he didn't want there to be anything personal about this situation. He was here to cut the final cords that bound him to this place, and when
he left he never wanted to look back again. So, there was no way he'd allow himself to do anything he might regret. Not this time.
“I don't understand,” she said.
“You need to know the area, because there may be times when I'll be out on the far reaches of the ranch and won't be able to drive you back to Ruby's when it's time for you to go home. Or you might need to pick up supplies. At any rate, there are a lot of vehicles at the ranch. Hopefully, we'll find one that'll run and you can borrow it. Do you drive stick?”
There was a slight hesitation. “I do now.”
“That'll do. I'll show you the basics.”
He felt rather than saw her nod. “And you'll be very specific about what my job entails, won't you?”
“It pretty much just entails basic cleanup work and a few photos.”
“And cooking, Mr. Merritt.” She was clutching the handle of the door.
He frowned. “Shane. Just Shane. I'm not sure what Ruby told you, but I know she's a good storyteller and a romantic. Just so you know, you've got nothing to fear from me. I really meant it when I said that there would be nothing personal involved in this job.”
Now he had her attention. She sat up straighter. “I never thought otherwise.”
“You're practically ripping the handle off the door.”
Immediately she released it as if it were on fire. “Sorry. I guess it's just being in unfamiliar territory. I'm a city girl and I've never been on a ranch.”
“I see.” But, remembering her rather magnificent tirade in the street yesterday and her long walk down the empty road, she didn't strike him as the type who was afraid of grass, fences and trees. Still, given the
fact that she was stuck in Moraine and broke, she had other reasons to want to hold on tight to something, he supposed. Not that it was any of his concern.
“And in case it wasn't clear yesterday,” she said, interrupting his thoughts, “you don't have to worry about me, either. I'll be totally professional. I'm not the type who has romantic notions. I'm not pining for a cowboy. I don't date people I work with. For the foreseeable future, I'm not dating anyone. If I'm slightly tense, it has nothing to do with anything Ruby may have said. I'm just getting my bearings.”
“Point taken. I apologize for thinking that Ruby might have told you something that made you apprehensive.”
She turned toward him then, her dark hair brushing across her cheek. He had a feeling she wanted to tell him that she wasn't afraid of anything.
“Excuse me, but Ruby saidâ¦ Have you really been in jail?” she asked, surprising him.
As if a door had been opened, old bad memories rushed in. “Yes.” No point in denying it, but he knew his tone said
“Sorry. That was pretty rude of me, but I needed to know,” she said. “I have a bad habit of being slightly impulsive and too direct.
is the way one person put it.”
He'd wanted an uncomplicated quick fix and he'd ended up with a woman who was going to pry into parts of his life that were open to no one, including himself.
“I'll work on curbing that. Just tell me if I get out of line,” she said.
“Don't worry. I will.” That was a promise.
For some reason, despite his grating tone, she seemed
to relax a bit, studying the landscape. They passed the timbered entrance gates to the Bella Bryce Ranch. A few miles down the road were the modest iron gates of the Regal R. Shane could sense Rachel's curiosity, though she kept silent. But when he turned in at Oak Valley, with its huge timbers with carved oak leaves climbing up and curling around the letters, she turned to him. “This looks big. It's all yours?”
Somehow that made it sound too personal. “Yes, I'm the sole owner of Oak Valley Ranch.” Which was all wrong. He'd never wanted it, it should never have been his, and there were plenty of people who would agree with him on that.
“And yet you're selling it?”
Her voice was incredulous. He tried not to frown, but it was difficult. He didn't want to have to explain the whys and wherefores, what his life had been like growing up here, what had happened later and why he could never stay.
“I guess,” she said, “if you lived in a place all your life, this would seem like no big deal?” Clearly she was trying to deal with his frown. “And even though this is your homeâ”
“It's not my home.” His voice came out a bit too harsh.
His comment was met by silence.
Why had he cut her off and said something that made this seem even more personal? She was just here to do a job. He wasn't going to expose her to his history.
“I lived here most of my life, ever since I was three, but I've been gone for ten years and these days I run a business that keeps me on the move. I live in a lot of different places.” He hoped that explanation was enough to satisfy her.
“That works for you? Living in so many different places?”
Yes. Hell, yes.
“It suits me perfectly. I was made to be on the move.”
“Not me,” she said, shaking her head, her long dark curls sliding against her shoulders. “Not at all. The one thing I want is my very own home in my favorite place. Maine. Same place all the time.”
He chanced a closer look at her and found that she had turned toward him. Those pretty brown eyes were intense, more than he would have expected given her casual lead-in questions. What must have happened to her to cause that kind of raw longing for a roots-buried-deep home of her own?
His curiosity must have been written on his face, because an enticing trace of pink painted her cheeks and dipped deep into the collar of her white shirt. Immediately a smoky trail of heat slipped through his body.
That wasn't good. He was her boss. She was his employee. He needed to start acting more like an employer and help her get her bearings.
“You said you were a city girl. So, if you have any questions, feel free to ask.”
“About whatever you need to know.”
“You might be sorry you said that.”
He had no doubt she was right. He'd seen Rachel in action, stranding herself in Moraine when a man had wronged her. She'd been magnificent, but perhaps a bit impulsive. He'd already been treated to one or two of her more impulsive questions. And he had fences. High fences with padlocks.
“There's a good chance I might not answer every question in the way you'd like,” he warned.
She nodded. “That's okay. You're my boss. You're allowed to tell me to slow down, to stop. You can tell me no.”
There was that dreaded heat again. Shane wanted to groan.
wasn't the word he thought of when he looked at her. Certainly not
It occurred to him that he probably hadn't been dating enough of late if he was having these kinds of erotic thoughts about a woman who made him cringe with half of what came out of her mouth. It also occurred to him that he was going to have to watch himself. She was in his care now. That made him responsible for her well-being, and having the wrong kinds of thoughts about her wasn't allowed. The good thing was that their relationship wouldn't last long.
He only hoped she was going to get the house in order quickly, had some skills with that camera, and knew her way around a stove.
Rachel wished she could relax a bit. Discovering that she and her boss had different goals had been freeing, but she was still far too aware of him. Maybe it had something to do with the emptiness of the land they were traversing. She and Shane appeared to be the only two people within miles.
The thing was, she'd meant it when she'd told him that she wasn't a romantic. She'd been very young when she'd first learned that relationships weren't made to last forever and that a promise given wasn't necessarily a promise kept. Her grown up relationships had only served as more proof.