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Authors: Myrna Mackenzie

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BOOK: To Wed a Rancher
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Cynthia blinked. “For real? He's settling down? Here? With you?” Her tone made it clear that she would
be less surprised to see aliens from some distant planet walking around town.

And yet, when a smile of pure pleasure slipped over the woman's face, all the spunk and nasty slipped right out of Rachel. What was wrong with her? Why would she say something like that to this total stranger? “No. I'm very sorry. I was just…I lied. I'm only Shane's house keeper, and I'm just here to buy curtains for his house because the ones there look as if someone put them through a cheese-shredder.”

To her surprise, Cynthia reached out and patted her on the shoulder. “I know why you lied. He's a real hard man to love, isn't he, hon?”

Rachel blinked. “I—I don't love Shane.”

But it was obvious that Cynthia didn't believe her by the pitying look in her eyes. “I've done more than my share of comforting the girls Shane has left behind in my time. He never stays.”

Wasn't that almost exactly what Ruby had told her? What was wrong with the women of Moraine? Rachel wondered. The ones who fell for Shane and those who comforted them when things fell through? If
she
was in love with Shane and he left her, she certainly wouldn't go crying to every other woman in town.

No, you would just quietly cry into your pillow every night. You'd deal with your broken heart by yourself.
And right there, in Cynthia Corvellis's Handy House store, Rachel realized just how much danger she was sliding into. Already she was beginning to care about the man, barging into his business, looking forward to when he came in for lunch. She could almost feel the pain of losing Shane this very minute. Which was wrong. It couldn't be happening. She was not going to allow herself to care. No.

“Shane's not a bad man,” Cynthia was telling her. “He's just not the marrying kind. The world needs all kinds, including men who don't settle down and who raise a little hell now and then. And…what can I say? He's ours. It's been years since I've really seen him. I'd like to say hello. Any chance you could talk him into coming into the store?”

Rachel opened her mouth to say no. “I'm not sure,” she said instead.
Idiot!

“He used to come here with his mother when she shopped for dry goods,” Cynthia went on, a smile lighting her face. “I always had licorice whips on the counter and I always gave him one when they left the store. He was the cutest little boy and he loved those things. His eyes would positively light up. But…I guess he's too old for licorice whips now.”

She sounded so wistful that Rachel found herself saying, “I'll bet he still loves them.” And then she asked Cynthia to help her pick out some curtains. It was the least she could do, since she had made up that awful lie and since her attempts to bring Shane to Moraine had failed.

When she was through, Cynthia turned to her and said, “I'm sorry I implied that something was going on between you and Shane. That was wrong of me. I just…Shane was always in trouble, but I don't know…I just liked him. And he made things exciting, you know?”

“I know,” Rachel agreed. There was an energy about Shane that turned a beige world flame-red. Oh, no, there were those dangerous thoughts again. “When I get back to the ranch,” she said, “I'm going to tell Shane that Cynthia Corvellis helped me pick out his
curtains. They really are lovely, Cynthia. Just what the room needs.”

The older woman positively glowed at the compliment. “You enjoy them, sweetie,” Cynthia said. But of course that wasn't going to happen. At least not for more than a few days. Then the curtains would be someone else's to enjoy.

Rachel said goodbye and exited the store, heading toward the car. Across the street she noticed two men watching her, one elderly and the other one not so elderly. There was no malevolence in their perusal of her, and she had a hunch they knew who she was.

Her first instinct was to ignore them and just hurry to her car. Nice as Cynthia had eventually turned out to be, Rachel didn't need any more people asking her if she was Shane's newest conquest. How many women had the man had when he was living here?

She turned to go. But then it occurred to her that maybe all of this whispering and gossiping was part of the reason Shane didn't want to come to town. And years of girls' school training kicked in. If there was going to be talk, she preferred to have the chance to be a part of the dialogue instead of the powerless recipient.

Crossing the street, she held out her hand. “Excuse me, I'm Rachel Everly. I'm working for Shane Merritt at Oak Valley Ranch.”

“We know. We weren't trying to be rude by staring. We were just wondering how to approach you without seeming too forward,” one of the men said, looking a bit sheepish. “I'm Len Hoskins. I own the drugstore. And this is Jarrod Ollis.”

Rachel said hello to both of them. “What…is there something I can do for you?”

“We just wanted to ask how Shane is doing.” Len took the lead again. “I hear he stopped in town one day when we'd already rolled up most of the streets, that he bought some supplies and hasn't been seen here since. I missed seeing him that time and I wonder, if he plans to make another trip to town, could you ask him to let us know? Or could you let us know? It's been ten years since he left Moraine.”

“I'd hate to miss having the chance to trade stories with him,” Jarrod agreed. “I mean, he
was
in town for his brother Eric's funeral a year ago, but the arrangements were made in advance and he barely made an appearance. Not that I blame him. Some people need to be private in their grief. Still, Shane and Eric made this town rock, and it's been pretty boring without them.”

“They were something,” Len said with a laugh. “Eric was captain of the football team and Shane was always tinkering with machines and breaking hearts. But then, you know all that.”

No, she knew almost nothing. Still, Rachel made a small sound of assent.

“And fighting,” Jarrod said with a smile, grabbing his jaw in a gesture that indicated Shane must have punched him there once. “Shane had a mean right hook, and he wasn't averse to getting down in the dirt to wrestle you if it came to that.” Obviously it had come to that more than once. “Wouldn't mind sharing old stories with him.”

“Why don't you?” Rachel asked, and immediately wondered if she should have said that. Darn her impulsive mouth. But it was said. She wasn't backing down now. “Why don't you talk to him?”

“We just told you, Rachel. He hasn't come to town.”

“But you could go see him. You could drop by the ranch.”

Wasn't that what people did in small towns? They dropped by when they wanted to say hello? Ruby seemed to imply that people were always welcome at her place even if they weren't staying or paying.

Jarrod rubbed his jaw again, looking vaguely worried. “I don't know about coming to the ranch. Might make him mad.”

“If it does, I'll protect you from him,” Rachel said, drawing a big laugh from Len.

“I think I like you, Rachel,” he said. “But I'm not so sure about stopping by the ranch, either. If Shane wanted to see us, he'd come here. That's just the truth. If he's staying on the ranch, then he doesn't want to have anything to do with his neighbors. But tell him hey from Len.”

“And from Jarrod,” Jarrod said. “Tell him if he comes to town there'll be payback.”

Rachel blinked.

“I'm lyin', of course,” Jarrod said with a wink.

“Of course,” she agreed. But she had a feeling that Jarrod rather enjoyed fighting.

She also had a feeling that she had dodged a bullet. Maybe. Clearly she had been wrong about ranch and small town etiquette. At least in this small town and in terms of this ranch.

Len and Jarrod were probably right that it was a bad idea. Shane didn't want to come to town. And the people
were
the town. No matter her feelings about leaving places and people on good terms, those were her beliefs, not his.

“Good thing no one's coming,” she muttered on her way back. “Saved from my own impulsiveness by the
good people of Moraine.” She smiled. It occurred to her that she liked Shane's hometown better than he did.

It might not be a good idea to tell him that she'd messed up again and invited people to the ranch.

But, good idea or not, she would have to do it.

CHAPTER SEVEN

T
HE
next day Shane came back to the house at lunch-time to find that Rachel had transformed his dining room into something…

“Livable,” he said as he stared down at the table dressed in his mother's cream-colored tablecloth and topped with an old bottle green vase he hadn't seen in years. The vase was full of golden blossoms and there were cream and merlot candles scattered about.

“Livable?” she asked. “Is that good or bad? Is it praise? Maybe?”

“Sorry. Yes, it's praise,” he said with a trace of a smile. “And don't pretend you don't know what I mean by livable. This place has only been inhabited by men since I was eight years old. Lately it's mostly been the home of mice. It had gone beyond functional to funky. And I don't mean that in a good way. So, yes, the fact that someone might actually eat or entertain in here by choice rather than necessity is a good thing.”

She held out her hand. “Note the curtains.”

They were nice—plain cream-colored curtains with bottle-green scalloped edging and tiebacks—but nothing to write ballads about.

“Cynthia Corvellis helped me pick them out,” she said.

The name opened up a wound in his soul. Cynthia
had been Eric's piano teacher. She had adored Shane's brother. No question why. Eric had been the most lovable person on earth. According to everyone. According to me, Shane thought.
Don't think about it,
he thought.

“Cynthia always had good taste,” he said.

“She's a nice woman,” Rachel agreed. “She told me that you used to love licorice whips and she kept a container of them on the counter for you.”

A tiny smile flickered over his lips, then died. “I know what you're doing, Rachel. Cynthia is a very nice woman. I'm happy that she helped you find what you needed. But I'm still not going to town.”

“I know. What if town came to you, though?”

He froze. “Rachel, what do you mean?”

There was a pause. A long pause. “I might have done something you won't like.”

He stared at her. He could tell that she was waiting for the whip to come down on her back. “What is it that you might have done?”

“I—I'm not sure. Maybe nothing.” She told him about her conversations yesterday.

He studied the ceiling, fought for composure. The thought of trading stories with people who had known him when…

“Rachel, why would you do that after I'd specifically stated that I didn't want to go to town to meet my neighbors?”

She bit her lip and glanced to the side. “You didn't exactly say that you didn't want to meet them. You just said you didn't want to go to town.”

Before he could say anything she rushed on. “No, that's not right or fair. I knew you weren't just avoiding the location. It's just that…friendship is such a valuable
thing. I-it's not good to waste it, even if it lasts for only a very short time.”

“More words of wisdom?” He blew out a breath.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I—I'm really sorry. I had no right to try to foist my ideas on you. And while I don't think that any of those people will actually show up—they seemed reluctant to invade your privacy—just in case, I'll get in touch with each one of them and explain that I was wrong to issue the invitation.”

It was an eloquent little speech, a perfectly pretty speech. And Shane had no doubt that Rachel would follow through. She was naive and almost innocent in some ways, but tough when toughness was required. Tougher than he was, he thought. And what was the source of all that moral toughness? Of all her pretty and, yes, naive, little rules? He didn't know, but he knew that there was a sadness in her. He remembered that she had chosen to move to a state where she apparently knew no one.

“No. Leave it. Don't make the calls,” he said. Because somehow he didn't like the idea of making Rachel humble herself to retract her invitation. “But Rachel?”

She waited.

“I'm sure the rules you live by are very nice and all, but don't try to turn me into something I'm not. Don't expect me to live by
your
rules.”

“I won't,” she said, her voice coming out soft and strained. “I promise.”

That word. That word. The one word that meant so many awful things to him.

“Don't.” He practically bit off the word. “Please, don't promise me anything.”

He might as well have slapped her, he thought later.
Her eyes went puppy dog wounded, but to her credit she pulled herself together almost instantaneously.

“It was only an expression,” she said. “I said it out of habit. It meant nothing.”

But he knew that she was lying. Those little rules she used…he had no idea where they had come from, or when she had picked up the habit, but he knew that they meant something important to her. And he knew he'd been a total jerk.

His words had stolen Rachel's smile, her sunshine. And when it disappeared… When had he started looking forward to her smile? How long had he been waking up and anticipating her arrival at the house just because he coveted that smile?

He didn't know. He couldn't allow himself to think about that. Because in the end it couldn't matter. He and Rachel would be parting ways soon.

But he knew one thing. He needed to fix things and bring back Rachel's smile. If he could. He planned to concentrate on that this afternoon.

But then Rachel went missing.

 

Rachel needed advice, and she didn't want to go to Ruby. Ruby had known Shane for too long. She was a little biased. Plus there was the fact that she was a bit of a romantic. She would read something into Rachel's questions that wasn't there.

The perfect person would be someone who didn't know Shane very well. That was how Rachel ended up on Marcia's doorstep and how she ended up spilling her guts about what she had done.

“I just had to confess my sins to someone, and any woman who can decipher the ins and outs of Shane's
antique appliances ranks as a practical sort of person who might give me practical advice,” she said.

Marcia laughed at that. “Hank would probably disagree about the practical part. He thinks I'm a dreamer. But I see what you mean. It's always easier to be objective about other people's relationships than about your own.”

Rachel froze in the act of lifting the cup of tea Marcia had just given her. “Shane and I don't have a relation ship.”

“Hmm, not sure I buy into that. That day at his house, the wattage on your smile turned up twice as high when he walked in. And I saw you looking at his biceps.”

“I didn't.”

Marcia drummed her fingers on the table. “I thought you wanted truth, objectivity.”

“Okay. I do feel a little breathless when he's around. But it's probably just due to all the exercise I'm getting lately. And, anyway, I don't like it.”

“Don't have to.”

“This isn't solving my problem. I was hoping you could tell me what to do.”

“About your infatuation with Shane?”

“About the possibility that I may have opened the door to unwanted visitors,” she said, explaining what had happened. But when Marcia opened her mouth to speak, Rachel shook her head. “No, don't say anything. I was wrong. I thought I wanted advice, but then I've never been good at taking advice. I think what I really wanted was just someone to listen. I've been feeling a little tense lately.”

“Because you're afraid you might fall in love with a man who can't offer you a future?”

“Not really.”

Yes,
Rachel thought. She'd had her heart scraped raw by people and she'd spent the past few years trying to learn to be smarter, less susceptible. Shane threatened that plan; he made her feel weak and wanton and afraid of what getting too close to him could do to her. But she was also afraid of more.

“I'm afraid of failing him. Somehow.”

“Cooking? Cleaning?”

Rachel smiled a little. “Well, I fail on those counts every day, but that's not it. He seems like such a hard man, especially the way he's so set on dismantling and selling his childhood home, but he's not. And me with my blundering, acting without thinking ways… Just look at how I invited the world into his life when he's been trying to close it out. What damage I might have done. Maybe even now someone is driving toward Oak Valley and something terrible will happen. What kind of a woman would do something like that?”

“A loving one, Rachel. You had good intentions.”

But good intentions didn't always count for much, she knew. “I'd better get back,” she said. “I only meant to stay a few minutes.”

“Okay, but can you at least stop and say hello to Ella and Henry? They've been dying to show you their goat.”

Rachel's heart lifted immensely. “Lead me to the cherubs and Tunia. I wouldn't miss it. Mind if I snap some pictures of them?”

“They love smiling for the camera. And don't you dare forget to send me copies.”

That was how Rachel ended up on her back, trying to get an upward shot of Ella and Henry, when another subject moved into her viewfinder.

“Hello, darlin',” Shane said. “Have I mentioned how much trouble you are?”

No, but lots of people had over the years. Rachel stared up at Shane and noted that his eyes seemed to be fiercer than usual. His frown was out in full force. Her immediate instinct was to scramble to her feet, because she was most definitely at a disadvantage lying on the ground. But that wasn't her way.

“Hello, Shane,” she said. “I was just here collecting recipes in the hopes of saving your life.” Which wasn't a lie. She had asked Marcia for some new “recipes for the hopeless” and she had them stashed in her camera bag.

“Were you, now?” He reached out and held a hand out. And even though Rachel knew how dangerous it was, touching Shane in any way, she placed her hand in his.

The kick was immediate. The tension traveled through her body quickly, clicking on every nerve ending, turning on that lust thing that she could never quite seem to control whenever Shane was around. But that was for her to know and no one to find out. “Thank you,” she said as she regained her footing and Shane released her. Was that disappointment she was feeling when he let go of her?

“Sorry, munchkins,” she told Ella and Henry. “Gotta get back to work.”

Ella looked as if she was going to cry. She blinked hard and her lower lip trembled.

“Tunia?” Henry asked. “No Tunia?”

Shane dropped down beside them. “Was Rachel going to take a picture of Petunia?”

Henry nodded slowly. Shane picked him and Ella up and held one of them in each arm. “Well then, I
apologize for interrupting. Rachel's yours for a few more minutes. Some things are way more important than lunch. Right?”

He got his answer when little Ella wrapped her arms around Shane's neck and hugged him while Henry patted him gently on the arm.

For no reason Rachel could think of, her chest suddenly felt tight. She tried to say “thank you” and had to clear her throat.

“Work your magic, Rachel,” Shane said quietly. “I'll be waiting at the house when you get done.”

Within minutes Rachel was struggling to capture the essence of the little lively goat and get Ella and Henry in the picture at the same time as all three of them jumped around with excitement.

“Did you get what you wanted?” Shane asked when she finally walked in the door.

“Yes,” she said, thinking of the photos and the recipes and the companionship with Marcia. And,
no,
she thought, staring up into Shane's eyes and thinking of how messed up her heart was becoming and how there were no easy answers on how to protect herself or how to fix what she had messed up with him.

“Good,” he said as he crossed the room. “I'm glad. But…please don't leave without at least telling someone where you've gone, Rachel. This is a ranch. There's water and rock, barbed wire and rough terrain. And heavy machinery that can hurt you. I didn't know where you were. I didn't know where to look.”

His always deep voice was deeper, thicker. She looked up at him and her heart lurched at that dark, smoky and anguished expression. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I didn't think.”

“I know,” he said. “But Rachel?”

She looked up.

“Next time…think. Tell someone. Tell me. Don't make me worry about you again. I've lost people on this ranch before.” And then he placed one hand on the door frame she was standing next to. He kissed her. Hard. Fast. Done. The kiss was over almost as soon as it had begun.

“I'm not apologizing for that. I had to touch you.”

Which made her heart hurt. He had lost people and she had gone missing on a ranch the size of Texas. The kiss had been a reassurance kiss. Nothing more.

“I won't wander off without notifying you again.”

He nodded, and turned as if he was going to leave to go back to work. Instead, he stopped mid-stride and looked at her. “I'm glad that Marcia is close. You get lonely out here, don't you? That's what my mother used to say, that the ranch was a lonely place.”

Rachel shook her head. “No, actually, I don't. That is, I love that Marcia is nearby, too, but…I like the ranch. I haven't felt lonely once.” And she knew what loneliness was. She was on intimate terms with it.

“Still, you haven't seen much of the fun side of ranching. Come on.” He took her by the hand and led her outside. It didn't take a cartographer to realize that he was leading her toward the corral. “Let's go see the horses. Lizzie misses you.”

Rachel laughed at that. “I've gone to see the horses more than once since I've been here. I didn't notice that any of them had any special interest in me.”

“That's because you haven't gotten close enough to talk to them.”

BOOK: To Wed a Rancher
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