Authors: Myrna Mackenzie
She gave him the evil eye. “You know what I mean. You said that you'd sell the house at any price, because you couldn't stay, but that seems such a shame. While
Marcia and I were cleaning, I scrubbed down to golden woodwork. There are some nice light fixtures underneath the grease that's built up. The place could look a lot better and it would sell faster if it justâ¦looked a little nicer.”
He was staring at her intently. “You're not getting too wrapped into this, are you?”
She started to say no. It was what he wanted to hear and what she wanted to say. “Maybe a little. I have a bad habit of jumping in with both feet. It goesâ¦way back. It's gotten me in trouble on more than one occasion. I won't bore you with the details, but you're right. I'll try to slow down. But will you mind if I at least do a little with the place?”
“I don't mind. If you enjoy doing it, I have no objection at all. I just don't want things to get too complicated. I'm trying to keep my repairs to the minimum. This is more of a âthink of the possibilities' sale. I don't want to câ I don't want to spend too much time on it.”
For a second there she'd thought he had been going to say that he didn't want to care. Maybe he had. That implied that he had feelings about this place, that there was a history here he wasn't ready to give up. There was, Rachel admitted, a lot she didn't know about Shane. He was a man with shadows in his life, a man with a patchy history. It was better not to know too much about him, she was sure. As he had started to say, it was better not to care.
“I'll be very blasÃ© as I improve the ranch,” she promised him, tilting up her chin and tossing her hair back.
“Somehow I don't think the word blasÃ© has ever been used where you're concerned,” he said. “I bow to your decorating expertise, Rachel. I'm sure there'll be
a few people who will be just as interested in the house as the ranch itself.”
“Maybe more than a few,” she said, looking off to the side.
He stepped to the side so that he was looking into her eyes. “Care to clarify?”
“I might have mentioned the open house to Ruby and Angie. They might have told a few people. I think there may be a large contingent of Moraine women showing up on that day. You know. Just to look.”
He swore beneath his breath.
“I know. I know. You don't like Moraine.”
“It's more complicated than that.” But he didn't elaborate.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “But if the women comeâ¦they have friends and family and associates elsewhere. Even if they don't buy, they may know someone who might. And they'll have cameras and phones. Word will spread.”
His face looked stony andâ¦something else. There was that look in his eyes she could never quite decipher. As if ghosts lived in his eyes. And because she was standing so close, watching so carefully, she noted the moment when he closed off those ghost thoughts and gave in to the inevitable.
“I suppose you're right. And it's just one day. I can manage one day if in the end I achieve my goal.”
she wanted to say. She had told her secret and he hadn't fired her. She had given him news she knew he would hate and he apparently didn't hate her yet. But she said nothing, because even though he had conceded her point, it was still obvious that he didn't like it. Gloating was not allowed.
“I'll give you a free hand with the house,” he said,
“but for today can you spare me an hour or two? I need you to come with me, to document a few things with your camera.”
“Not a problem,” she said casually, although excitement was already bubbling up inside her. She hadn't taken a single photo in days. That was the only reason she was so eager. Wasn't it? It had nothing to do with the fact that she would be spending time with Shane.
she warned herself.
Try not to act like some teenage nerd who just snagged a date with the prom king.
She hated, hated, hated that kind of thing. Still, her feet tripped along faster as she picked up her camera and returned to where Shane was standing.
“Today we ride,” he told her.
Okay, so maybe there
need boots for riding,” Shane mused as he walked with Rachel over to the corral, where Hank was seeing to the horses that had arrived a bit later than expected. “Those shoes are too slippery.”
“No, I'm okay. I'm notâ¦I'm not riding,” Rachel said, her voice sounding slightly strained. Shane couldn't help glancing down at her. Was she looking a little pale?
“Rachel? Everything all right?”
“Everything's fine. Just great. Shane, your horses are so amazing. They're beautiful,” she said, just as if everything was, indeed, all right. But something was slightly off here. Shane blinked at that. He'd only known the woman a few days. Why was he having thoughts like that? How would he know when something was right or wrong with Rachel? Why would he care?
In some ways, everything seemed perfectly normal. She had opened the case on her camera and was lining up a shot already, but when she'd finished taking the picture she didn't move closer to the horses.
He approached the fence, whickered softly, and a pretty chestnut mare tossed her head lightly and moved
up to him. “Rachel, this is Lizzie. She's very gentle.” He held his hand out and Lizzie nudged up against him.
“She knows you,” Rachel said.
“Well, I don't know if she still does. We haven't seen each other in a long while. But Lizzie was always a friendly horse. You can touch her if you like. She'll stand still for you.”
When he looked at Rachel, her brown eyes were glowing. “I've never touched a horse before.” But she looked eager enough. And even though she approached Lizzie tentatively, she did manage to make contact.
Lizzie pressed up against Rachel's palm.
“Oh, you are a sweetheart,” Rachel said.
By now Hank and Tom, another new hand, had brought a couple of the other horses over. “This one's a stranger to me,” Shane said. “And this is Rambler.” Rambler was a big, spirited bay.
“If you've been gone ten years, your horses must have been very young when you left,” Rachel said, her voice soft and tentative.
“Some of them like Lizzie, yes. Some died during that time and others were born. The horses are my one regret about leaving the ranch, but my lifestyle doesn't allow for pets. I should have sold them already.”
“Leavingâ¦things behind is difficult.”
He glanced at her. Her voice had dropped. She looked pensive, a little sad, but then she shook her head and looked up at him.
“Are you going to sell them with Oak Valley?”
“I'm not sure. They're more window dressing right now. Setting the stage.”
“Actors?” she suggested. “Lizzie looks like she'd like to be a star.”
He chuckled. “She's a show off and yes, she's a star. Nowâ” he hesitated “âare you ready to ride?”
Rachel took a full step back. As if he'd just suggested that she wear a python for a necklace. “Iâno. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to do that.”
She was fidgeting in a way he'd never seen before, her fingers twisting up against each other.
As if she'd just realized what she'd said, her eyes opened wide. She looked horrified. “Maybe I should rephrase that,” she began.
He shook his head. “Shh, it's okay. Just take your photos and then I'll drive you to the other sites.”
“I'm sorry,” she said.
“No need to be.”
“You said that it was difficult to get to those other places with a car.”
“I'll dig out the ATVs. Ever ride one?”
“Are you okay with trying it?”
“Totally fine with it.”
Which sounded much more Rachel-like. She had already volunteered to learn how to drive a stick shift and change the oil and spark plugs in a car without a second glance. She'd been uncomfortable with cooking and cleaning, but in spite of that she'd tackled those tasks without flinching. And clearly she was enchanted with Lizzie and the horses, just not with riding one. Shane couldn't help wondering what had happened to her.
He scowled. From the beginning he'd known it wasn't wise to get too close to Rachel. That hadn't changed. In fact it had been more than obvious when he had been on the verge of giving her a full-on kiss the other day. He should just drop the horse issue.
Yeah, he really should do that. What difference did it make that Rachel would go through life without experiencing the joy of riding a horse? Not everyone in the world had to know that kind of pleasure.
“Why are you frowning at me?” she asked.
Shane blinked. “I wasn't frowning at you. Just thinking ahead to something I need to do, a problem I need to work out. Let's go find that ATV. I've got one with a rack for your equipment.”
A short time later they were racing across the fields on ATVs, Rachel's dark mane flowing out behind her.
Shane stopped to show her the field where they were making hay. As the mower cut through the field, Rachel breathed in deeply of the cut grasses.
“It smells wonderful,” she said. “What happens to it next? You just scoop it up into one of those hay baler things?”
“Eventually we bundle it up with the baler. But first we have to make sure that the moisture content is right, so once it's cut we leave it in windrows to dry. Then it's raked to help with the drying, and finally it's baled and stored until it's needed for the animals in winter.”
He looked at her.
“No. I mean it. There must be something very satisfying about growing the feed for your animals all by yourself.”
He tilted his head. “I grew up like this. Hadn't given it much thought. I never was much of a rancher.”
“But you know how to do that?” She pointed toward the mower.
Shane shrugged. “I started this morning at first light and then turned things over to Tom when I went up to the house.”
“Because you had to meet me?”
“Because you and I had things to do.” But he couldn't deny that he'd felt a sense of anticipation waiting for Rachel to arrive. “Come on. Do you have some shots we might use?”
“I think so. Where to next?”
She was like a kid at a five-star amusement park. He led her around the ranch to a cabin meant as a winter shelter, and she entered the place as if it was some sort of treasure cave.
“I can imagine some pioneer woman cooking soup over a fire here, making candles, fighting the elements.”
He couldn't help smiling. “I don't think it's quite that old, but, yes, the basic original idea was to protect a rider from the elements if he should get caught on the far side of the ranch. Not sure this one was ever used for anything more than a getaway.”
She stopped to marvel at a field of yellow balsam-root and blue lupines. “I've never seen so many flowers in one place. There must be thousands of them.” There were, but although he'd appreciated their beauty in the past, he'd never thought of them as anything special. They bloomed every year. On the ranch, they became just some pretty flowers he passed as he went about his chores.
“Let's move on,” he said, not wanting to analyze his reaction too closely. It didn't matter, anyway. Soon the ranch would belong to someone else.
They made their way past grazing land, over hills and into valleys, until he stopped beside a clear, cold creek tumbling over rocks.
Rachel knelt and picked up a flat stone. “What a pretty pink! May I? Ranch souvenir?” she asked.
He laughed. “Be my guest. But it won't look nearly as nice once it dries.”
“You sound soâ¦adult,” she said with a laugh. “But I'll bet you andâ¦I'll bet you collected your share in your day.” A guilty look came over Rachel's face at her stumble.
She was right. He and his brother had filled their pockets with stones, Eric always sure that the next stone would still be bright once it dried.
The familiar and still fresh pain flowed through Shane, but he wasn't going to have Rachel feeling guilty just for making a casual comment. Guilt was a cruel master, as he well knew.
“I ripped the pockets of plenty of jeans with the weight of those rocks. I used to camp by this stream in summer,” he said. No need to mention that on one or two of those occasions it was because he'd run away from home.
“That sounds very romantic. The cowboy, his horse and a campfire beside a stream. The stuff that entices people to read Westerns and dream of coming to places like this.”
It had never been that way for him. He'd been on the runâ¦until duty had called him home. “Hey, I thought you were a Maine girl.”
She smiled. “I am. I will be. But even a Maine girl isn't immune to the lure of a campfire under the western stars.”
“I could see you here,” he said suddenly. Because it was true. In a world gone dark, under a sky full of stars stretching from horizon to horizon, he could imagine Rachel looking up with those brown eyes that filled with wonder whenever she witnessed something new or exciting.
“Am I wearing a cowgirl hat and boots in your imagination?” she teased. “You told me today that I needed boots.”
“I hadn't gotten that far,” he admitted. “I wasn't imagining clothing.” Although now that she'd brought it up and now that he'd said it in that ill-conceived way, he was definitely imagining her without clothes, wrapped up in a blanket with him. He wanted to groan.
“What were you imagining?” she asked, stepping closer.
“It's probably better not to say,” he told her.
And there it was. The blush.
“I've never met a woman who blushes the way you do,” he said. And then, as if he didn't have an ounce of sense in his head, he slid one hand beneath her hair and kissed her cheek, where the rose-pink blush had taken up residence. He tracked it down, kissing the delicate line of her jaw, her neck, where he could feel her pulse fluttering.
She was clutching his shoulders, trembling beneath his hands, and for a moment he forgot all reason. He touched his lips to hers, and his senses exploded. She was honey and cinnamon, woman and sunlight. He wanted more of her. Much more. Now. This second.
Rachel leaned into him when the kiss ended. She returned the kiss and the heat climbed. But soon he felt her hands against his chest. “I shouldn't be doing this,” she said. “I shouldn't, becauseâ¦becauseâ¦”
She didn't have to explain. And she was right. So very right. He released her immediately. “Because you're a girl from Maine and I'm a man on his way out of Montana.”
“And you're my boss and I'm your housekeeper.
And because I promised myself that this wouldn't happen,” she said.
And so had he. He was a man who never made promises. This was just another reason why. “I apologize for stepping over the line.”
Rachel shook her head. “I knew what I was doing. I'd been warned. Numerous times. I'd told myself not to do something like this. More than once. You might have kissed first, but I kissed last.”
What could he say to that? She'd been warned about him, and with good reason. And now he had broken her trust. He wanted to tell her that it wouldn't happen again, but he no longer trusted himself. “I'd better get you back to the house” was the best that he could do.
She sighed. “I'm sorry this messed up the workday. I don't think you meant to finish this soon.”
Finally he found a reason to smile. “Rachel, if you think this messed up the workdayâ¦there are millions of men who wish their workdays could end like this.” But he
sorry. She'd been enjoying the day and now she wasn't. There was no way to fix that. The only good thing was that now he knew just how risky being close to Rachel was. He needed to be more careful. He needed to work faster. It was more important than ever that he finish with Oak Valley quickly. Maybe he should try to speed up the process.
Rachel felt as if twin storms were having a battle inside her chest the next morning. Shane had kissed herâ¦and she had kissed him back.
What was I thinking?
The question ran through her mind in a continuous loop. But why even ask that question, anyway? Because she hadn't been thinking. She'd just been feeling, reacting in that whole mindless man-
woman way that had never worked out in her family. She'd sworn she would never let go that way. And she never had.
But, darn it, the man could kiss.
“Grr,” she said beneath her breath.
“Rachel? Everything okay? You need help?” Shane's voice came from outside and Rachel jumped, banging her knee into the corner of a cabinet and biting back the pain to keep from yelling.
“No, I'm fine,” she said quickly. “What are you doing out there?”
She got her answer when he came inside carrying a ladder. “I was just on my way to repair the molding around the window in the dining room andâ¦why is your knee bleeding?”
Rachel looked down, and sure enough there was a thin trickle of blood seeping from a small cut, tracing a path down toward her sandal. The edge of the cabinet had been sharp, but she hadn't noticed the cut. She'd been so intent on avoiding contact with Shane. Now that they'd been intimateâor as close to intimate as they were ever going to getâshe felt awkward in his presence.
“It's nothing,” she said as casually as possible. “Go fix your molding. I'll just wash it off.”
He frowned. “It's not nothing. It could get infected. Infection is dangerous. Sit down. We're taking care of this right now.”
He was going to touch her? Touch her knee? With those big hands that had been touching her in her dreams last night? When both of them had been naked? She cursed her decision to wear shorts today. If she'd been wearing jeans, none of this would be happening.
“No, really, I can do it,” she began.
“Rachel, stop it. I'm not going to do anything intimate.” There was that word again. “I'm just going to make sure you're okay. You're on my watch right now. I can't have you getting injured. I've seenâ¦I know what can happen if a person doesn't take care of something small and it becomes major. All right?”