Authors: Myrna Mackenzie
She nodded slowly. Because while his words were asking permission, those stormy eyes of his told her that she didn't have a choice.
Rachel sat. Shane disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a first aid kit. He washed his hands, then pulled up a stool in front of Rachel. He took a cloth he had dampened, leaned forward and gently dabbed away the blood.
She tried to keep breathing normally. So far there was cloth between his skin and hers. “Um, how is your work going?” she asked, trying to appear nonchalant.
A trace of a smile appeared on his lips as he continued to work. Had he noticed the tremor in her voice?
“Got a lot done. The barn is finished, I have a small crew on fences. There's still a lot to do. Repair work on at least one of the tractors, some major windmill issues, other outbuildings that need work and some dead trees that need to be removed. But we might finish up sooner than later.”
“Sooner?” So she had less time than she had thought. For some reason a sense of sadness pulsed through her. Probably just because she wasn't nearly as far along as he was, she told herself. It had nothing to do with the fact that she and Shane would be finishing their time together sooner. After all, her whole life had been about leaving places. She was good at it.
“I'd better pick up the pace, too. I've done at least the surface cleaning of all of the rooms. That is, I mean,
most of the rooms.” She faltered and took a breath. Why had she said that? It was justâ¦Shane was touching her and she wasn't thinking clearly. And, okay, yes, she couldn't help worrying about the fact that Shane was clearly still in pain if he couldn't face his brother's belongings yet, and sheâdarn it, she'd always been a fixer type of person. Or at least she'd tried to fix the unfixable.
“I can work faster.” She ended in a whoosh.
Shane paused. “Rachel.”
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have even mentioned it. Not the working faster. The other.”
“I know what you meant,” he said, his blue eyes dark, masking his thoughts. “I don't want you to worry about it. When the time comes I'll handle it, butâ¦not yet.”
She nodded tightly.
“I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”
“I won't be. I'm not.” Which was such a total lie. With Shane's hands still on her they were kissing close, even if no kissing was going on. And she was worried about him.
“Don't worry about the room.”
“No. I won't.”
He looked unconvinced. She didn't want to give him anything else to worry about. “I've got plenty to keep me busy. All that decorating to do,” she said. “And if we're finishing sooner than expected, I'd better start thinking about where I go from here.” She did her best to inject some cheer into her voice. “Maine's a big place.”
Shane was looking down. He had resumed cleaning her cut, but now his hand stalled in his task. He had moved from the cloth to a much smaller disinfectant
pad. His fourth and fifth fingers rested on her knee. He pinned her with his gaze. Rachel tried to keep breathing.
“You're telling me that when you leave here you have no specific place to go?”
“Well, I have a general area. But not one place, no. I should start looking.”
“And how are you going to do that?” he asked, a bit too carefully, as he took a bandage out of a box and began to ready it.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe,
Rachel ordered herself. “I'll just do a general internet search. There are places where people list their apartments and you just contact them.”
“Might not be safe.” He gently smoothed the bandage into place, turning every nerve in her body to the
position. “You should only contact people you know you can trust.”
What should she say to that? Not that there was no one she trusted that much, or that there was no one she would allow to help her with this important a decision. “Well, it's been a while since I was there last.”
His hands were both resting on her leg now. He was staring into her eyes. “I know people in the business. They're very good at what they do. Let me put you in touch with them.”
And now, with his hands against her, his voice rumbled through her body. She slugged in a deep breath, nodded fiercely. “All right. Yes. Thank you.” Anything to end this before she leaned forward, grabbed his lapels, yanked him to her and repeated yesterday's kiss.
As if he knew what she was thinking, he released her. He stood. “Tonight,” he promised. “If you don't mind staying a little later than usual?”
Oh, no. Ruby was going to have a field day with this, she thought, followed immediately by her own admonitions.
Stop worrying about Ruby. You just behave yourself. No more thinking about kissing Shane. Not unless you actually want your heart broken so badly that you'll never recover.
Not a chance. Ever.
“Tonight will be fine,” she agreed.
No problem at all. She could handle anything.
Rachel tiptoed into the inn. Ruby always left the kitchen light on in case a guest needed a glass of water in the middle of the night. Pale light filtered out of the kitchen into the neighboring rooms, so Rachel had no trouble seeing her way through the house.
She breathed a sigh of relief that Ruby had already gone to bed. There would be no questions about what she'd been doing hanging around with Shane after dark.
And if Ruby was asleep she wouldn't be up until the next morning. Rachel's landlady slept the sleep of the contented. Nothing disturbed her once she was down for the night.
Slipping her shoes off and padding toward the staircase, Rachel was nearly to the first step when Ruby's voice stopped her. “Good, you're home. You were out pretty late tonight, weren't you, hon?”
Rachel turned. She was surprised to hear genuine worry in her landlady's voice. She wasn't used to anyone caring when she came home and guilt slipped through her. Dropping to the steps, she sat down. “I'm sorry I didn't let you know I wasn't coming back to
the inn at my usual time. But it's only nine-thirty. I thought you were asleep.”
“Ruby, you just implied that it was late,” Rachel pointed out with an exasperated smile.
“For young women cavorting with men who radiate testosterone. Not for old ladies waiting to hear what happened.”
Uh-oh. There was too much interest in Ruby's voice. Rachel reminded herself that in Moraine nothing much happened. Little incidents made bigger splashes than they would in a larger town. Even when those little splashes didn't mean a thing.
happened,” she told her friend. “Shane was just helping me look for a place to stay when I get to Maine.” And in truth, that was all that had happened. They had circled each other carefully at first, but eventually Shane had pulled up two chairs in front of the computer, brought out two glasses of wine, and they had discussed the pros and cons of different areas of Maine. He'd been there often in the past, even though his business hadn't taken him to that part of the country in recent years.
“So you like the tang of the salt air, the rocky coasts and picturesque little Cape Cod houses? Lobster traps and lighthouses?” he'd asked.
She'd laughed. “You say that as if it's a bad thing.”
“Not at all. It's a beautiful part of the country. Any reason why Maine is your choice?”
Rachel had run her thumb over the stem of the wine glass. “I spent several years there growing up. It was the best time of my life.”
He'd tilted his head in acquiescence. “Then Maine it is.”
After that, they'd moved on to specific areas and he'd pulled out some ideas a former colleague had emailed him earlier in the day. By the time she'd gone home, Rachel had had a much better idea of where she might like to move and put down roots. That should have been one of the brightest moments in the past few weeks, but for nowâ¦
Something very close to sadness rippled through her. She felt as if she'd crossed something off on a list of things to do, but there was no satisfaction in the accomplishment. It was probably just because she was tired. Tomorrow the anticipation would finally kick in.
“Hello? Rachel?” Ruby snapped her fingers and Rachel opened her eyes wide.
“Sorry. I was just thinking about a house.”
“You spent the night sitting knee to knee with Shane and all you can think about is a house? Rachel, I'm twenty years too old for the man, but if I'd been closed up with him after dark my mind wouldn't have been on houses.”
“It's not like that with us,” Rachel protested. Except when it was.
“Okay, I'll stop pestering you. When are we going to get to see him again?”
“You want me to bring him here?”
Ruby grinned. “Hon, I'd like nothing better, but I was talking about convincing him to come back to town. The man has been here for a week but he's barely touched foot in Moraine and he'll be leaving soon. People would like to see him. He grew up here. He's Moraine family to us.”
Uh-oh. If there was one thing Rachel knew, it was
that Shane didn't want to go to Moraine. She didn't know why, but she knew it was so.
“He's really busy andâ¦I'm not a miracle worker, Ruby.”
“You're a woman. Use your wiles.”
Rachel should have laughed at that, but the truth was that it occurred to her at that moment that the only reason Shane was kissing her was because there were no other single women around. But there had to be single women in Moraineâ¦which he was avoiding.
“Ruby, why do you think a man like Shane wouldn't want to go back to his hometown? What happened here? What did people do to him?”
Ruby shook her head. “I don't know. I know that Shane lost his mother at a young age, that he and Frank didn't get along and that Eric died in a ranch accident. But there's nothing anyone in town did or said to him that I can think of. Not a thing. But, believe it or not, I don't know everything. Maybe you should ask Shane. And if you can't get him there by using your wiles, maybe remind him that those are his potential customers.”
That was a hoot. Wiles again? Rachel had none. Never had, never would. And she didn't want them. Wiles never got you anything goodâ¦or lasting.
But she did think that Ruby had a point about Shane going to town to meet his customers. If he really wanted to sell Oak Valley quicklyâand he had made it clear that he didâand if he was a good businessmanâand he apparently wasâthen why wasn't he using his networking skills with the people who might help him spread the word and sell the ranch?
Rachel didn't have a clue. Maybe Shane wasn't thinking clearly because he was still mourning Eric.
Maybe she should just mind her own business, stay out of things, keep quiet.
But she'd never been especially good at any of those things. Besides, Shane had stepped over a personal line when he'd opted to help her find a place in Maine. He was helping her. What kind of a person would she be if she didn't try her best to help him, too?
woke up the next morning the way he always did. Early. He headed for the bathroom to take a shower and shave the way he always did. He ignored the closed door of Eric's room, trying to pretend he wasn't going to have to open it soon and let the past beat him up for a failure he should have foreseen and a loss he could never get over. The truth was that he'd been running all his life, but now he had to run faster to stay ahead of his demons. The other truth was that he couldn't put off opening that room forever. Rachel was starting to worry.
He told himself he didn't care. His problems were his and only his, as they had always been.
That seemed to help. For about two seconds. Before he remembered just how difficult it was to look into her brown eyes and feel as if he was failing her.
He hated failing people. For some reason it was worse with her. Maybe because she was sunny most of the time.
he told himself. It couldn't matter. It
matter. Because he knew what would happen once he started sifting through Eric's possessions.
Shane closed his eyes. He took a few deep breaths. Finally he convinced himself that it was all right to put
the inevitable off for one more day, and he stepped into the shower and let the hot water melt the kinks he'd accumulated from the hard physical labor of the day before.
All right, he was in control of himself now. The day would be just fine. He had it all planned out. He was ready to get dressed, have coffee and hit the ground running, maybe do some repairs on the calving shed, pound some boards to take the edge off.
Then, when he was good and worn out, he would have lunch with Rachel, eat some of that stuff she was trying so hard to make edible.
He smiled at the thought. They'd talk, he'd sneak a few questions in about her plans for the futureâwhy had he thought she had it all planned out? How had he not known she didn't even have a place to go?
But now he knew and he intended to help. Then he'd maybe sneak in a little time with her and the horses, get Lizzie to love her up a little more. Stupid idea. What difference did it make if she was afraid of getting on a horse? And why was it bothering him so much?
he told himself. Stillâ¦they'd have a go at Lizzie again. Yeah, that was the plan. Easy. Nothing too stressful. No tension.
He climbed from the shower, wrapped a towel around himself and stepped out into the hallway.
Right into Rachel's path.
She froze in her tracks. Her gaze took in the rivulets of water tracking down his chest.
“I-it's early, I know,” she said hastily. “But Iâthe house. I wanted to talk to you about something. I wanted to catch you before you got busy.”
He wasn't busy now. He wasâ¦fascinated by the way her eyes slid away from him, then returned, never
rising to meet his gaze. But he was also aware that he was making her uncomfortable.
“Just let me get dressed and I'll be right with you.”
Rachel gave a quick nod. “Okay, I'llâ¦make some coffee, start some breakfast.”
He wanted to smile at that. She hadn't cooked break fast for him before. He either had her really discombobulated or she wanted to ask him something she thought he might not like. Maybe some froufrou thing for the house. Heck, he didn't care what she put in the house. He had the money to pay for it and he wouldn't be looking at it much longer, anyway.
“That'd be nice, but you know, I don't require you to make my breakfast.”
She lifted one delicious dark eyebrow. “Are you afraid of my breakfast, Shane?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Do I look like I'm afraid?” He raised an eyebrow, too. Two could play at that game.
And now she surprised him. She stared directly at him, her eyes resting on his muscles, playing chicken. Where had she learned that kind of fortitude when he knew that intimacy made her nervous?
“Well, I can at least make toast,” she said. “And coffee.”
But in the end it turned out that she couldn't. When he came into the kitchen she shoved a bowl, a box of cereal and some milk and orange juice in front of him. The scent of burnt toast hung in the air.
“I would have eaten it,” he said. “It tastes better that way.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “No fair going easy on me just because you know I don't know what I'm doing.”
“I'm not. Really. You're learning and you haven't complained about the challenges, even though ranching and housekeeping are outside your familiar comfort zone.”
Shane meant every word; he'd meant them to be encouraging, but Rachel was looking as if he'd just shown her a video of a sad puppy.
He tried again. “Everyone should be given a chance to learn. No one should be criticized for not being an expert at everything. We all have our strong suits.” He couldn't begin to explain how strongly he felt about that. It was his mantra.
“Thank you,” she said. “But I'm still not feeding you burnt toast.”
He smiled and she returned the smile. Thank goodness. “Now, what can I do for you?” he asked.
She ran one hand down the leg of her jeans, looking as if she was about to ask for the moon. “I want you to come to Moraine with me.”
he thought. “Why would you want me to do that?” he asked, his voice careful and emotionless.
“I told you that I want to do some redecorating. I thinkâas the ownerâyou should have some say in what colors I put on your walls and what kinds of curtains I hang.”
He shook his head slowly. “I'm not really that involved in that kind of thing. Whatever you do will be fine.”
To his surprise, Rachel took a step closer. She held out a hand as if she was going to touch him. “What if I painted the walls purple and put curtains with big red butterflies in your bedroom?”
He tilted his head. “Have a thing for red butterflies, do you?”
She frowned, and he could practically see the wheels turning in her head. “You can see that I don't have much practice with domestic affairs. My taste might not match yours.”
But he glanced down at her blue jeans, her pale blue blouse and the delicate gold chain on her wrist. He reached out, took her hand and rubbed his thumb gently over the delicate skin near the bracelet. “I like this,” he said. “It's not gaudy and you haven't shown any signs of extremism in anything you've worn. Soâ¦what's this about, Rachel?”
“Iâ” She gazed up into his eyes, her lips parted slightly, and he realized what a mistake he had made. He'd been trying to overpower her, to get her to open up and confess what her motivations were, because they clearly had nothing to do with purple paint. But now, with his thumb resting on the soft skin of her wrist and with that pretty mouth urging him to kiss it closed, he was the one who was discombobulated. “Iâ Ruby and some of the other people in Moraine want to have some time to spend with you before you leave. They're all hoping that you'll come to town soon.”
Just like that, he dropped her hand, stood up and took a big step back. “That's not happening.”
“I don't understand.”
“I don't expect you to, Rachel. You weren't here with me when I lived here.”
“Did people mistreat you?”
He blinked at that. “Rachel, you've met Ruby.”
“Well, Ruby, yes. But she's special.”
“She is. She's very special. And she never mistreated me. Neither did anyone else. Rachel, I can't ex
plain it, but going to town brings back memories I have to forget. I don't like to talk about my past. The most I can say is that no one goes through life without leaving tracks wherever they go. I'm not retracing mine.”
Rachel frowned. “If you're talking about what Ruby told me that first day, or the episode when you stole the carâ¦I haven't heard anyone saying anything negative about you. Well, other than Ruby's comments about you beingâ¦you know. But Ruby didn't say that out of malice.”
“I know. She said it because she was concerned for you. Butâ¦I don't intend to hurt you, Rachel. Neither do I intend to set foot in town.”
Rachel opened her mouth to speak. Shane stepped forward and gently laid two fingers over her lips.
“No,” he said. “Just no. Go to town, Rachel. Buy what ever you like for the house and charge it to me. But I won't be going. That's final.”
Or so he thought. He started to step away and she placed her handâvery lightlyâon his bare arm. Sensation sizzled through him. What was that about? They were having a discussion, a painful discussion, and even then the woman's touch affected him. He did his best to ignore it, because if there was one thing these past few moments had brought home to him it was how close he was coming to leaving yet another person damaged. It could happen so easily if he didn't watch himself. Rachel acted tough at times, but she was held together with visibly fragile threads and she was here alone. There was no one to watch out for her.
Except for him. Someone needed to watch her back. He intended to make sure she was protected, even if it was from himself. So he looked down at where her fingers lay against his skin, trying to reestablish the
employer/employee relationship. She was usually so conscientious about that stuff. He was sure she would back off, and then he could erect some walls around himselfâ¦which would be the best thing for her.
To his surprise, she didn't let go, although she did look very self-conscious about touching him. “Shane, I think this is a mistake. Whatever you said or didâ¦you should never leave a place without settling your debts and doing whatever you can to make sure that everyone is happy.”
“Is that another of your teacher's âone size fits all' lessons?”
Her color rose high, but she didn't back down. “No, it's all Rachel Everly. Just something I learned at a very early age.”
He had no clue what she was saying, but he knew for certain that somehow someone had hurt Rachel. And it wasn't just that jerk Dennis. The look in her eyes told him that this was a very personal lesson.
So, despite his best intentions, he slid one hand beneath her hair and gently rubbed his thumb across her lips. “Rachel, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to make sure that I leave everyone here as happy as is possible.”
“But they want to see you. They want your company. That'sâ¦such a gift. It's so special. I wouldâ”
The intensity in her voice and the fact that she couldn't continueâ¦what was
about? Shane realized once again that Rachel hadn't shared any real information about her past, andâamazinglyâhe realized that he wanted to know, even though knowing more of Rachel probably wasn't wise.
Still, he wouldn't pry. He more than most under
stood the need for emotional walls. “What would you do?” he coaxed, releasing her.
She shook her head. “What I would do doesn't really matter, does it? I'm the impulsive one, the one who ended up stranded here with no money.”
“Don't,” he warned with a scowl. “Don't demean yourself. You have a âforge ahead' attitude and a gift for finding joy in the small moments in life that most people lack. If we could bottle thatâ¦people would pay buckets of money for it. We could all use a little Rachel in our lives.”
And there it was, that beautiful blush that revealed the innocence beneath her “I can be anything” exterior.
But as the blush faded she crossed her arms. “I see what you're doing. You're trying to turn all businessman, all salesman on me, so that I'll leap for the compliment and forget that we were talking about you.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Was that what I was doing?”
“You know it was.”
She was wrong. He hadn't been trying to trick her. He'd meant every word. But he knew why she would think that. Trust was a fragile element and her trust had been broken. Maybe more than once, judging from the things she was leaving unsaid.
“You're wrong. Believe me.” But he knew that she wouldn't. And why should she? Everything she'd been told about him urged her not to trust. And everything she'd been told was absolutely true.
“It doesn't matter,” she said. “What matters is thatâ¦ Shane, you have neighbors who want to see you. They like you. Do you really want to turn away from that?”
And they were back to him, back to doors he had
locked and didn't want to open. “I'm doing what I need to do, Rachel.”
This time he managed to walk away. And this time she didn't try to get him to stay.
“What's going on out there at the ranch? Looks like you and Shane are setting up house,” the woman at the register said to Rachel. Her name tag said that she was Cynthia Corvellis. To Rachel she was
if she was going to start spreading rumors about Shane.
Rachel forced a stiff smile. The part of her that was smart and sensible knew that she should just leave the store now, but the other part of her that had never been able to back down from ugly situations was out in full force today. She knew why, too. It was because Shane had complimented her during their argument andâJupiter and Junoâwarmth had slipped through her. She'd wanted to believe him. Worse, she'd wanted to touch him.
All of that was wrong. Believing compliments had gotten her in trouble before. Forgetting that Shane was her boss and only her boss was going to end up in big, big, heart-killing trouble. And here was this woman implying that she and Shane wereâ¦were
when that was just never going to happen in this lifetime. Nothing was going to happen between her and Shane, ever, unless you counted her nearly killing him with her meals twice a day. Having this Cynthia person fishing for spicy gossip todayâ¦it just crossed a line.
Rachel leaned over the counter slightly. She lowered her voice. “What would you think if I told you yes? Shane and I are getting married.”