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“No way.” Peta Dixon’s breathless voice filled the darkened pickup truck cabin as she frowned at the single light, shining from within the Bluebell Falls ranch house. “He wouldn’t dare.”
She eased her foot off the gas pedal and gravel crunched under the slowing truck tires. A dog barked but her attention didn’t waver from the glow of pale light spilling from a second story window.
There was only one man brazen enough to move into her home while she was away overseas. Her temporary ranch foreman. Garrett Ross.
She stopped, pulled on the handbrake, and studied the lifeless foreman’s house that loomed beyond the bunkhouse to her left. The owner of the arrogant voice that had drawled along the international phone line had done more than ignore her ranch instructions. He’d disregarded where he was supposed to live.
Chin lifted, she pushed open the truck door. She hadn’t been named after the son her father had always wanted for nothing. She’d spent her life proving she was equal, if not better, than any man. The cowboy Hal had organized to take over until he was well again had just spent his last night in the main ranch house.
She took a calming breath, savoring the scent of pine trees and wood smoke. She’d enjoyed seeing what was beyond the Montana mountains but it was good to be home. The chill of late fall brushed over her skin and she shivered as she drew the thin, white bolero over her bare shoulders. It had seemed a good idea at the time to wear a pretty dress home on the airplane. The shock on her father and brother’s faces when they saw her wearing something other than Wranglers, worn boots, and a western shirt had made her smile.
But her lips didn’t curve at the memory. Instead she turned and strode towards the ranch house, the wind tangling her dress around her legs. She stopped to bunch the silken material in her hand. She might have discovered her feminine side while in Europe with her younger sister, Kendall, but Peta hadn’t yet mastered the art of walking like a lady.
She reached the house and paused on the bottom step to catch her breath. It wasn’t only her appearance that had changed over the past month, her fitness had, too. And not in a good way. The lack of physical work and a fondness for sugary, French pastries had added an unfamiliar fullness to her usually lean curves. She didn’t envy poor Scout when Peta next rode her.
She released the skirt of her dress and the soft material brushed against her ankles. With her breathing now even, she pushed open the heavy door of the historic ranch house. Precious childhood memories greeted her. The warmth of her mother’s smile, the tight hug of Kendall’s small arms and the cheeky flash of Rhett’s grin. The disapproval of her father’s hard stare.
But while time had stolen her mother it had also softened her irascible father. There were days now when he even laughed. Time had also brought Rhett happiness with Ivy and, if all was going well with Kendall tonight, time would have brought Brent back to her.
Peta lifted a hand to rub at her tight temple as she headed toward the dimly lit kitchen at the back of the house. Time might not have gifted her with a similar happiness but she could no longer let the loneliness that tainted her dreams distract her. She’d shared stolen kisses on an Italian beach and flirted with suave-talking Frenchmen, and still her heart remained untouched.
Now she was home, it was business as usual. There’d be no time to listen to her yearnings. She had a ranch to run and a fall roundup to complete. Her pace quickened toward the kitchen doorway. And right now she had a too-big-for-his-boots cowboy to transplant back into the foreman’s house.
She stepped into the kitchen, lit only by the range hood light, and stopped. The empty room smelled different. The strong scent of coffee overlaid the faint and unfamiliar smell of masculine aftershave. Whoever this Garrett was he liked to smell good. She ignored the appreciative sigh of her senses and shook her head.
Hal had been with the ranch since she’d started high school and she trusted the wise and savvy old foreman with her life. But what had he been thinking when he called in a favor and asked Garrett to fill in for him?
Five minutes into her first phone call with Garrett, he’d cut her off, not giving her a chance to run through her to-do list. He’d made it clear he had everything under control. She was the first to admit she was a bossy and willful firstborn but she’d never had a problem working with any cowboy. She also liked to think she was reasonable and fair, a team player. She didn’t ask anyone to do what she wasn’t prepared to do herself.
She opened the fridge door to gauge how long Garrett had been living in the main house. Her lips pressed together. The shelves were full.
Stairs creaked beyond the kitchen doorway. She swung around. The showdown that had been brewing since their tense phone conversations was about to take place. It was time to put a face to the deep voice that had prickled the hairs on her nape until the man’s supreme arrogance had erased all sense of attraction.
But as bare, broad shoulders filled the doorway, it proved impossible to get a good look at Garrett’s face. Dressed in low-slung faded jeans and with water beading over his smooth skin, he walked into the kitchen drying his hair with a large white fluffy towel. The range hood threw light over corded ridges and hollows honed by hard work and tanned by the summer sun. She quashed the responsive leap of her hormones. Her temporary foreman’s impressive muscles were only matched by the depth of his audacity.
He stilled, then slowly the biceps of his left arm uncurled as he lowered the towel from where he rubbed at his dark hair. For a beat he stared at her. Shock flared in his grey eyes before his gaze swept over her from the top of her over-long, blonde hair to the tips of her crimson toe nails. When his eyes met hers, they were narrowed and dark.
The smell of fresh soap overlaid the aroma of coffee as she held his gaze. She wasn’t initiating polite small talk. Even if she’d now seen his face and discovered her temporary foreman not only had muscles in all the right places, he also was jaw-dropping gorgeous. Garrett Ross had some explaining to do.
He nodded and broke the silence. “Welcome home, Peta. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow.”
A ripple of awareness feathered over her skin. If possible, his deep-timbered tone was even more attractive in person.
She matched his curt nod. “Thanks, Garrett. Kendall and I managed to catch an earlier flight.”
Garrett’s only answer was to lift his towel and rub at his wet hair. She didn’t know if it was the casualness of his action, the fact he showed no embarrassment at being caught in her house or the water droplet that meandered its slow way over his sculptured right collarbone, but her temper kicked up a notch.
“Of course,” she said, eyes never leaving his, “now I’m home I’ll be needing my house back.”
“Sure. You can have your house back as soon as the hot water pump has been replaced at the foreman’s house.”
Peta counted to three as her fingers curled into her palms. Her overriding instruction had been that she wanted to know everything that happened on the ranch as soon as it happened, even if it was just a branch falling off the old pine tree.
“How long has it been broken?” She managed to speak through stiff lips.
“And yet you never mentioned it when we spoke a week ago.”
His gaze shifted to the collection of delicate bangles on her wrists that jangled as she forced her hands to relax. “It wasn’t important. I didn’t want to bother you on your… vacation.
Unmistakable disapproval raced across his eyes. For an irrational reason it somehow mattered that this man should judge her and find her lacking.
“Well, you’ve had a hot shower so will be all right to sleep in Hal’s house tonight. Thank you for filling in for him, I appreciate it. But now I’m home I’ll cover the foreman’s role. Hal mentioned you’d been working on a Wyoming ranch and I’m sure they’d be pleased to have you back as fall is always a busy time.”
It was only a subtle reaction but Garrett’s mouth hardened. She made a mental note. The tall and imposing man before her kept his emotions close to his chest. Old Henry Watson might have met his match if they ever were to sit across from each other at a poker game.
“I gave Hal my word I’d stay until he returned to work, even if that isn’t until after Christmas. Considering he isn’t yet out of hospital, I’m not going anywhere.” Garrett’s slow words were underpinned by a granite-tough strength. “As for where I sleep tonight, unless you can think of a way to remove Patience from Hal’s attic then I’ll happily sleep there.”
Peta withheld a sigh. So much for her plan to banish Garrett from the ranch house, let alone to send him back to wherever he came from. A cowboy’s word was his bond and going off the carved line of his jaw his would be unbreakable. Garrett wouldn’t leave until the hip Hal had broken in his fall from Scout had healed. She’d be a fool to waste time and energy convincing him otherwise.
Between no hot water and Patience, the noisy possum, her conscience also wouldn’t allow her to ask Garrett to sleep at the foreman’s house. If he hadn’t responded to Hal’s SOS, Peta would have had to cut short the trip that had been far more than a vacation. Their time away seeing the world had been to prove to Brent that a life in Marietta with a rancher was what small town girl Kendall really wanted.
Peta rubbed at her now aching temple. “When did Patience move back in?”
“My first night here. Hal mentioned she’d been removed once before?”
“She was and she’ll again have to be relocated by professionals. It’s illegal to trap wildlife in Montana without a license. I’ll call Simon at the animal control company tomorrow. And if you’re sure you’re all right to stay on, it will be handy to have another set of hands for the roundup.”
Tiredness merged with resignation. She swung away to flick on the electric kettle. She didn’t drink coffee but had acquired a taste for hot tea in England. Instinct told her she’d need caffeine if she was to survive the next few hours, let alone weeks, dealing with her now not-so-temporary foreman.
He should learn to read the fine print.
Garrett Ross rubbed the back of his neck as the beautiful woman before him reached into the cupboard for a mug. Not once had Hal indicated Garrett had signed on for a whole lot of trouble when he’d agreed to run Bluebell Falls possibly until after Christmas.
The loose lines of his boss’s floral dress caressed curves that would make any cowboy’s lariat throw wide. Her thick, glossy blonde hair fell half way down her back and as for her mouth… he’d forced himself to focus on the brilliant blue of her eyes and not on how full and soft her lips were.
He’d seen the family photos of a fresh-faced and pretty Peta Dixon on the mantelpiece. He’d listened to Hal’s impassioned descriptions of her dedication to her ranch. But nothing had prepared him for the reality of seeing the Bluebell Falls ranch owner in the flesh. He’d stared into her thick-lashed eyes and had forgotten to draw breath. Then he’d registered her glamour and her polish, her long, crimson nails and her salon-styled hair and disappointment had bitten deep.
Peta Dixon was no different to the other women who had shaped his life.
He should have known better than to have high expectations. Even if Hal told him he only ever attracted a certain type of woman and that he needed to work less and relax more if he was to ever meet someone who didn’t value money and social connections above home and family.
All his life women had let him down. First, his mother had abandoned him at fourteen to run away to Vegas to marry her fourth husband. Then Jeanie, and every other woman since his ex-fiancé, all confirmed that when the going got tough they didn’t hang around. There’d always been someone who drove a flashier car, someone who showered them with more materialistic appreciation, someone who was prepared to drop everything for them.
Decent and honorable women were out there. He’d recently met Ivy Bishop and Payton Hollis and both gave him hope that one day he’d meet someone he’d lower his guard for. The whistle of the kettle masked his sigh and his frustration. But it wouldn’t be for the stunning woman across from him, no matter how much she made his testosterone thrum.
He should have read the signs earlier. She’d extended her trip at a time when it was crucial to get her cattle down from their summer pastures. Neighboring ranches had already completed their fall roundup. And now she’d turned up unannounced, with an attitude, smelling of French perfume and looking like she’d stepped off the pages of a high-end fashion magazine.
Peta briefly glanced his way, her smooth brow creased and her lips unsmiling. “Coffee?”
“Thanks. I’ll throw on a shirt and we can run through the rest of the things that have happened on the ranch.”
The sooner he got her up to speed the sooner he could get back to running the ranch without interference. He was confident he wouldn’t see much of her in the short term. After being away, even to her mother’s, Jeanie had always needed a week to recover and to unpack.
Peta flicked a quick look over his bare chest and reached for a second cup. “Good idea.”
When he returned, the range hood no longer lit the room with a dim and intimate glow. Instead the strong overhead light flooded the kitchen with brilliance.
Peta sat at the table, her crimson-tipped hands curled around a steaming mug of tea and her phone beside her. Across the table, sat his coffee. He slid into his seat, ignoring the way the better light revealed her flawless skin and the curve of her high cheekbones. It didn’t matter that without layers of makeup Peta would still be a beauty. Her soft and manicured hands wouldn’t cope with an honest day’s work.
He took a sip of coffee and fought to keep his attention from off the shadow of cleavage revealed by the dip in the front of her dress. “We’ll start with the cattle numbers.”
She shook her blonde head. “I’d prefer to start with the horses.”
He reined in his impatience. Bluebell Falls was a cattle ranch. Horses were important in the day-to-day running of the ranch but they weren’t part of the overall business. “What do you want to know?”
“Has Scout been ridden?”
But before she could reply her phone rang. A picture of a smiling blonde and the name, Kendall, flashed onto her screen.
Peta came to her feet even as she scooped up her phone. “I need to take this.”
Low words sounded in snatches of conversation before the sitting room door shut.
Silence surrounded him. He took another sip of coffee and rolled his shoulders. The sense of disappointment that Peta wasn’t how he’d envisioned, lingered. It was his own fault he’d had his hopes dashed. He knew better than to indulge and listen to his emotions but something had happened to him here at Bluebell Falls. He’d allowed the magic of the historic ranch to seep into his soul and to relax the tight grip he held on himself.
Life was about hard work and achievement not about feelings or relationships. It was about making plans for the future and creating security and predictability. But of all of the ranches he’d bought and sold none had felt like… home. He didn’t know what it was about Bluebell Falls that anchored and centered him. Maybe it was the hulking mountains that towered over the buildings reminding him of the struggle Peta’s pioneering ancestors faced and warned him to not become complacent. He’d always enjoyed a challenge.
Maybe it was the light in Hal’s faded eyes when he spoke of his idyllic life at the ranch and watching the Dixon children grow up. Maybe it was simply the sheer, wild beauty of the place. A man could spend a lifetime riding the rolling meadows and mountain passes and still every day he’d see something new.
He looked over his shoulder at the still closed sitting room door. He’d give Peta another ten minutes and if she hadn’t ended her call he’d head upstairs. He had a laptop full of business emails to answer.
After nine minutes he scraped back his chair ready to leave. The sitting room door opened. Peta emerged, a half-smile shaping her lips and her blue eyes bright. He recognized such an animated and contented expression. She’d enjoyed her phone call. Peta was yet another woman whose social life would take precedence over her real life.
He’d never forget coming in from putting an injured horse down to sit across from Jeanie as she talked on her cell, uninterested in how his day had gone. The socialite had never stepped into his world, but had expected him to be a part of hers. He’d learned to recognize a paparazzo even before their camera appeared.
Peta smothered a yawn with her hand. As she crossed to the table her phone chimed as texts flooded in. Her social network had just discovered she was home. Shoulders tight, he came to his feet. There was no point starting a ranch update, they’d only be interrupted again.
“It’s getting late. We’ll talk about the ranch tomorrow morning.”
“Okay. But it will have to be later as I need to go to town first thing for a dress fitting.”
Garrett ground his teeth. The ranch already couldn’t compete with her social calendar. “No problem.”
Then as her cell phone rung he turned away, rinsed his mug out and placed it on the sink. Her low, musical laughter, as she recounted her travel adventures to someone called Trinity, followed him the entire way upstairs.
But even with his door shut and a host of pressing emails, Garrett found his attention focused on any sound that drifted from downstairs. The front door opened and closed as Peta exited and reentered as she collected her bags. But when it opened and then didn’t reopen, he gave in to the restlessness writhing inside and stood. What could she be doing? She’d gone outside into the cold and hadn’t returned.
He passed a hand over his face. Hal was the closest thing he’d had to a father. The rancher had seen through the anger of a belligerent teenager who hung around the feed and supply store helping to load hay and had given him his first job. Hal had clothed and fed Garrett even when his mother had been around. And when she’d left, Hal had simply squeezed Garrett’s shoulder and made up a bed in the bunk house.
Hal’s love and guidance had been unconditional even when he had lost his wife in a car accident and then his ranch when the bank had foreclosed. The first thing Garrett had done when he’d had enough money was to ensure Hal would be financially secure again. But instead of buying another ranch, Hal remained happy running Bluebell Falls.
He sighed and headed downstairs. He wasn’t the only one Hal had opened his big heart to. Affection warmed Hal’s voice whenever he spoke about Peta. Garrett owed it to Hal to not only take care of Bluebell Falls but also its owner. And he’d start by checking on why she hadn’t returned inside.
The scent of French perfume lingered as he entered the hallway. Two oversize purple bags now sat stationed at the front door. He turned left and from the mudroom grabbed his boots and denim jacket. A sheepskin coat that had hung beside his jacket was missing. He left the house. When the night’s chill hit him he turned up the collar. He wouldn’t be surprised if in the morning a dusting of snow covered the high-country peaks. Winter would soon be here and he could only hope Hal would be back on the ranch he loved by Christmas.
He strode to the front of the house and examined the stables, shed, and workshop as he passed but no lights signaled Peta may have gone inside. The ranch dogs were snug and silent in their kennels and gave no indication Peta had been near. He reached her truck but there remained no sign of her. He blew out a cloud of frosty breath. A flash of white caught his eye from over near the corrals and he peered into the moonlit gloom.
The only horse in that direction was skittish and unpredictable Scout. The chestnut rescue horse had struck up an unlikely friendship with Whiskers the stable cat. It would have been Whisker’s white patches on his black and white body he’d seen. But then a larger patch of white appeared and he recognized the missing sheepskin coat. His nerves tightened. Peta had entered Scout’s yard. Only two days ago Garrett had patched up the bruises of a young cowboy when a frightened Scout’s front hooves had glanced off his shoulder.
He strode forward. His first instinct was to call out for Peta to be careful but he clamped his mouth shut. Any loud noise would only spook the jittery mare whose agitated snorts already disturbed the silence. On soundless feet, he covered the distance to the corral and slipped through the fence. Then he stopped.
Instead of greeting Peta with pinned back ears, Scout nickered softly and made a beeline for her visitor. Peta offered the mare an apple and the sound of crunching carried on the night air. Whiskers walked along the fence, jumped to the ground and wrapped herself around Scout’s front leg. The chestnut lowered her head and rubbed her cheek against the cat. When the mare lifted her head, Peta stroked her nose.
He didn’t realize Peta knew he was behind her until she turned slightly and spoke over her shoulder. “I thought you said no one has ridden Scout after Hal’s fall.”
He kept his voice low. “They haven’t.”
Scout’s head lifted and she snorted as she examined him and then lowered her head for Peta to continue to rub her nose.
“You might not have ridden her but you’ve been working her haven’t you?”
“Yes. I have.”
“I thought so. The only other man she’d let get so close is Hal.” In the darkness he couldn’t pinpoint Peta’s exact expression but there was no mistaking her stern tone. “I also thought I made it clear she was to be left alone until I got home.”
“You did.” He walked over to the fence and Scout broke away from Peta to amble toward him. He rubbed her favorite spot high on her neck beneath her heavy mane. “She looked lonely and I wanted to prove that not all men are capable of cruelty.”
Peta didn’t immediately reply and when she did, her voice had softened. “Thank you. I was just trying to protect Scout but whatever you’ve been doing has made her less scared.” Peta drew near, her eyes dark pools in her face. “You should have seen her when she arrived. You could have counted every rib and the bullwhip welts would have broken your heart.”
“Well, she’s as fat as mud now and has come to a good home. The connection between you is already strong.” He hadn’t meant to reveal his thoughts but with the moonlight blurring Peta’s makeup and her ranch coat covering her designer clothes she resembled the unspoiled woman in the family pictures on the mantelpiece.
“Thanks. I hope so. But we’ve a long road to go and we will get there. It’ll just take time.”
He nodded as Scout nuzzled Peta’s hair. “It will. She has a gentle heart.”
“I think so, too. She just needs to learn to trust again, especially men.”
“She does and one day she will.”
“I hope so.”
A brisk breeze eddied by and Peta turned up the collar of her coat. The crimson polish on her long nails gleamed and reality returned. He was bonding with a woman who tomorrow would be in town at a dress fitting instead of reacquainting herself with the running of her ranch.
He swung away. “Night. I’ll leave you two to catch-up.”
Chest tight, he strode away. What had he been thinking not keeping his wits about him? The moonlight and shared concern for Scout had lulled him into forgetting Peta appeared no different to the other women who’d scarred his life. He’d lowered his guard and risked exposing his emotions.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
End of Excerpt