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A Husband For Christmas: Snow Kisses / Lionhearted

A Husband For Christmas: Snow Kisses / Lionhearted
A Husband For Christmas: Snow Kisses / Lionhearted Diana Palmer Two classic Diana Palmer Christmas stories Who will find passion, redemption and happily-ever-after in their stocking this year…?SNOW KISSESWhen model Abby Shane returns home from New York, she can’t let any man touch her. But Cade McLaren isn’t just any man and in his powerful arms Abby slowly begins to heal.Soon Abby hungers for the blaze she’d sparked in him one summer night a lifetime ago…LIONHEARTED As Christmas approaches, starry-eyed debutante Janie Brewster is determined to prove to rancher Leo Hart that she’s perfect for him. However, attempting to dazzle the confirmed bachelor isn’t working. But wait…is it hot-blooded hunger in his eyes during those smouldering kisses beneath the mistletoe? Also available fromDIANAPALMER WHITE CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS WITH A RANCHER NIGHT FEVER ONE NIGHT IN NEW YORK BEFORE SUNRISE OUTSIDER LAWMAN HARD TO HANDLE FEARLESS DIAMOND SPUR TRUE COLOURS HEARTLESS MERCILESS TRUE BLUE COURAGEOUS WYOMING FIERCE WYOMING BOLD INVINCIBLE Coming soon WYOMING STRONG UNTAMED The prolific author of more than a hundred books, DIANA PALMER got her start as a newspaper reporter. A multi–New York Times bestselling author and one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humour. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia. Visit her website at www.DianaPalmer.com (http://www.DianaPalmer.com) A Husband for Christmas Snow Kisses Lionhearted Diana Palmer www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u0f80e1a2-871c-5096-8678-8b3ae690adc0) About the Author (#u415a0d36-0ca4-57fb-9252-72b3ee9ca9f1) Title Page (#u754145f8-4efb-53c3-938a-f40721159528) Snow Kisses (#u172249bc-006a-5baa-a9ca-c3dc1f80146b) Dedication (#ud55e6b1a-613a-5160-aa81-ebcf58258829) 1 (#u3e219f64-7c3f-5a90-af37-ec4d8248f9f9) 2 (#u815b5812-ddd2-5beb-9b7e-8e463d1ac050) 3 (#u8e1a010f-2a4b-5ad8-8388-6a331891277d) 4 (#u93322c71-46aa-5086-844a-13a5d1321a49) 5 (#u83a83f1d-4f16-5183-ad8d-a99293de83a1) 6 (#uf663939e-f1a1-5700-a500-6749b46628a5) 7 (#u1affee79-4d05-53de-bd63-344938261e83) 8 (#u4006d03c-f0ad-58b5-bb90-786533faa7c4) 9 (#litres_trial_promo) 10 (#litres_trial_promo) 11 (#litres_trial_promo) 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Lionhearted (#litres_trial_promo) Dedication (#litres_trial_promo) Prologue (#litres_trial_promo) 1 (#litres_trial_promo) 2 (#litres_trial_promo) 3 (#litres_trial_promo) 4 (#litres_trial_promo) 5 (#litres_trial_promo) 6 (#litres_trial_promo) 7 (#litres_trial_promo) 8 (#litres_trial_promo) 9 (#litres_trial_promo) 10 (#litres_trial_promo) 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Endpage (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Snow Kisses (#ulink_67e0433f-73eb-5963-8bf2-b8288af2fec6) Diana Palmer To the state of Montana, whose greatest natural resource is her people 1 (#ulink_c63e28d9-4a2d-5472-92a8-e6cbd5319ab4) The road was little more than a pair of ruts making lazy brown paths through the lush spring grass of southern Montana, and Hank was handling the truck like a tank on maneuvers. But Abby gritted her teeth and didn’t say a word. Hank, in his fifty-plus years, had forgotten more about ranch work than she’d ever learn. And she wasn’t about to put him in a bad temper by asking him to slow down. She stared out over the smooth rolling hills where Cade’s white-faced Herefords grazed on new spring grass. Montana. Big Sky country. Rolling grasslands that seemed to go on forever under a canopy of blue sky. And amid the grass, delicate yellow-and-blue wildflowers that Abby had gathered as a girl. Here, she could forget New York and the nightmare of the past two weeks. She could heal her wounds and hide away from the world. She smiled faintly, a smile that didn’t quite reach her pale brown eyes, and she clenched her hands around the beige purse in the lap of her shapeless dress. She didn’t feel like a successful fashion model when she was on the McLaren ranch. She felt like the young girl who’d grown up in this part of rural southern Montana, on the ranch that had been absorbed by Cade’s growing empire after her father’s death three years earlier. At least Melly was still there. Abby’s younger sister had an enviable job as Cade’s private secretary. It meant that she could be near her fiancé, Cade’s ranch foreman, while she supported herself. Cade had never approved of Jesse Shane’s decision to allow his eldest daughter to go to New York, and he had made no secret of it. Now Abby couldn’t help wishing she’d listened. Her brief taste of fame hadn’t been worth the cost. She felt bitter. It was impossible to go back, to relive those innocent days of her youth when Cade McLaren had been the sun and moon. But she mourned for the teenager she’d been that long-ago night when he’d carried her to bed. It was a memory she’d treasured, but now it was a part of the nightmare she’d brought home from New York. She wondered with a mind numbed by pain if she’d ever be able to let any man touch her again. She sighed, gripping the purse tighter as Hank took one rise a little fast and caused the pickup to lurch to one side. She clutched the edge of the seat as the vehicle all but rocked onto its side. “Sorry about that,” Hank muttered, bending over the steering wheel with his thin face set into rigid lines. “Damned trucks—give me a horse any day.” She laughed softly—once she would have thrown back her head and given out a roar of hearty laughter. She might have been a willowy ghost of the girl who left Painted Ridge at eighteen, come back to haunt old familiar surroundings. This poised, sophisticated woman of twenty-two was as out of place in the battered pickup as Cade would be in a tuxedo at the Met. “I guess you’ve all got your hands full,” Abby remarked as they approached the sprawling ranch house. “Damned straight,” Hank said without preamble as he slowed at a gate. “Storm warnings out and calving in full swing.” “Snow?” she gasped, looking around at the lush greenery. But it was April, after all, and snow was still very possible in Montana. Worse—probable. But Hank was already out of the truck, leaving the engine idling while he opened the gate. “Drive the truck through!” he called for what seemed the tenth time in as many minutes, and Abby obediently climbed behind the wheel and put the truck in gear. She couldn’t help smiling when she remembered her childhood. Ranch children learned to drive early, out of necessity. She’d been driving a truck since her eleventh birthday, and many was the time she’d done it for Cade while he opened the endless gates that enclosed the thousands of acres he ranched. She drove through the gate and slid back into her seat while Hank secured it and ambled back to the truck. He’d been part of Cade’s outfit as long as she could remember, and there was no more experienced cowboy on the place. “New York,” Hank scoffed, giving her a disapproving glance. He chewed on the wad of tobacco in his cheek and gave a gruff snort. “Should have stayed home where you belonged. Been married by now, with a passel of younguns.” She shuddered at the thought, and her eyes clouded. “Is Cade at the ranch?” she asked, searching for something to say. “Up in the Piper, hunting strays,” he told her. “Figured he’d better find those damned cows before the snow hits. As it is, we’ll have to fan out and bring them into the barn. We lost over a hundred calves in the snow last spring.” Her pale eyes clouded at the thought of those tiny calves freezing to death. Cade had come home one winter night, carrying a little white-faced Hereford across his saddle, and Abby had helped him get it into the barn to warm it. He’d been tired and snappy and badly in need of a shave. Abby had fetched him a cup of coffee, and they’d stayed hours in the barn until the calf was thawed and on the mend. Cade was so much a part of her life, despite their quarrels. He was the only person she’d ever felt truly at home with. “Are you listening?” Hank grumbled. “Honest to God, Abby!” “Sorry, Hank,” she apologized quickly as the elderly man glared at her. “What did you say?” “I asked you if you wanted to stow your gear at the house or go on down to the homestead.” The “house” was Cade’s—the main ranch house. The “homestead” had been her father’s and was now Melly’s. Soon, it would belong to Melly and her new husband. “Where’s Melly?” “At the house.” “Then just drop me off there, please, Hank,” she said with a pacifying smile. He grunted and gunned the engine. A minute later, she was outside under the spreading branches of the budding trees and Hank was roaring away in a cloud of dust. Just like old times, she thought with a laugh. Hank impatient, dumping her at the nearest opportunity, while he rushed on to his chores. Of course, it was nearing roundup, and that always made him irritable. It was late April now—by June, the ranch would be alive and teeming with activity as new calves were branded and separated and the men worked twenty-four-hour days and wondered why they had ever wanted to be cowboys. She turned toward the house with a sigh. It was just as well that Cade wasn’t home, she told herself. Seeing him now was going to be an ordeal. All she wanted was her sister. She knocked at the door hesitantly, and seconds later, it was thrown open by a smaller girl with short golden hair and sea-green eyes. “Abby!” the younger girl burst out, tears appearing in her eyes. She threw open the door and held out her arms. Abby ran straight into them and held on for dear life, oblivious to the suitcase falling onto the cleanly swept front porch. She clutched her sister and cried like a lost child. She was home. She was safe. 2 (#ulink_cb274f5f-8fa8-57d4-b752-8b4af5130074) “I was so glad when you decided to come.” Melly sighed over coffee while she and Abby sat in the sprawling living room. It had changed quite a bit since Cade’s mother died. The delicate antiques and pastel curtains had given way to leather-covered couches and chairs, handsome coffee tables and a luxurious, thick-piled gray rug. Now it looked like Cade—big and untamed and unchangeable. “Sorry,” Abby murmured when she realized she hadn’t responded. “I had my mind on this room. It’s changed.” Melly looked concerned. “A lot of things have. Cade included.” “Cade never changes,” came the quiet reply. The taller girl got to her feet with her coffee cup in hand and wandered to the mantel to stare at a portrait of Donavan McLaren that overwhelmed the room. Cade was a younger version of the tall, imposing man in the painting, except that Donavan had white hair and a mustache and a permanent scowl. Cade’s hair was still black and thick over a broad forehead and deep-set dark eyes. He was taller than his late father, all muscle. He was darkly tanned and he rarely smiled, but he could be funny in a dry sort of way. He was thirty-six now, fourteen years Abby’s senior, although he seemed twice that judging by the way he treated her. Cade was always the patronizing adult to Abby’s wayward child. Except for that one magic night when he’d been every woman’s dream—when he’d shown her a taste of intimacy that had colored her life ever since, and had rejected her with such tenderness that she’d never been ashamed of offering herself to him. Offering herself... She shuddered delicately, lifting the coffee to her lips. As if that would ever be possible again, now. “How is Cade?” Abby asked. “How is Cade usually in the spring?” came the amused reply. “Oh, I can think of several adjectives. Would horrible be too mild?” Abby asked as she turned. “Yes.” Melly sighed. “We’ve been shorthanded. Randy broke his leg and won’t be any use at all for five more weeks, and Hob quit.” “Hob?” Abby’s pale brown eyes widened. “But he’s been here forever!” “He said that was just how he felt after Cade threw the saddle at him.” The younger woman shook her head. “Cade’s been restless. Even more so than usual.” “Woman trouble?” Abby asked, and then hated herself for the question. She had no right to pry into Cade’s love life, no real desire to know if he were seeing someone. Melly blinked. “Cade? My God, I’d faint if he brought a woman here.” That did come as a surprise. Although Abby had visited Melly several times since she’d moved to New York, she had seen Cade only on rare occasions. She’d always assumed that he was going out on dates while she was on Painted Ridge. “I thought he kept them on computer, just so that he could keep track of them.” Abby laughed. “Are we talking about the same man?” “Well, he’s always out every time I come to visit,” Abby remarked. “It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen him.” She sat back down on the sofa next to her sister and drained her coffee cup. Melly shot her a keen glance, but she didn’t reply. “How long are you going to stay?” she asked. “I never could pin you down on the phone.” “A couple of weeks, if you can put up with me....” “Don’t be silly,” Melly chided. She frowned, reaching out to touch her sister’s thin hand. “Abby, make it a month. At least a month. Don’t go back until you feel ready. Promise me!” Abby’s eyes closed under a tormented frown. She caught her breath. “I wonder if I’ll ever be ready,” she whispered roughly. The smaller hand that was clasping hers tightened. “That’s defeatist talk. And not like you at all. You’re a Shane. We wrote the book on persevering!” “Well, I’m writing the last chapter,” Abby ground out. She stood up, moving to the window. “It’s been two weeks since it happened,” Melly reminded her. “Yes,” Abby said, sighing wearily. “And I’m not quite as raw as I was, but it’s hard trying to cope....” She glanced at her sister. “I’m just glad I had the excuse of helping you plan the wedding to come for a visit. What did Cade say when you asked if it was all right?” Melly looked thoughtful. “He brightened like a copper penny,” she said with a faint smile. “Especially when I mentioned that you might be here for a couple of weeks or more. It struck me at the time, because he’s been just the very devil to get along with lately.” Abby pursed her lips thoughtfully. “He probably has the idea that I’ve lost my job and came back in disgrace. Is that it?” “Shame on you,” her sister replied. “He’d never gloat over something like that.” “That’s what you think. He’s always hated the idea of my modeling.” Melly’s thin brows rose. “Well, no matter what his opinion of your career, he was glad to hear you’d be around for a while. In fact, he was in such a good mood, all the men got nervous. I told you that Hob had just quit. Too bad he didn’t wait an extra day. Cade’s bucking for sainthood since I announced your arrival.” If only it were true, Abby thought wistfully. But she knew better, even if Melly didn’t. She was almost certain that Cade avoided her on purpose. Maybe it was just her sister’s way of smoothing things over, to prevent a wild argument between Cade and Abby. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d played peacemaker. She glanced sharply into her sister’s green eyes. “Melly, you didn’t tell Cade the truth?” she asked anxiously. Melly looked uncomfortable. “Not exactly,” she confided. “I just said there was a man...that you’d had a bad experience.” Abby sighed. “Well, that’s true enough. At least I’ll be down at the homestead with you. He shouldn’t even get suspicious about why I’m here. God knows, it’s always been an uphill fight to keep peace when Cade and I are in the same room together, hasn’t it?” Melly shifted suddenly and Abby stared at her curiously. “I’m afraid you won’t be staying at the homestead,” Melly said apologetically. “You see, my house is being painted. Cade’s having the old place renovated as a wedding present.” Abby felt a wave of pure tension stretch her slender body. “We’ll be staying...here?” “Yes.” “Then why didn’t you tell me when I asked to come?” Abby burst out. “Because I knew you wouldn’t come,” Melly replied. “Will Cade be away?” she asked. “Are you kidding? In the spring, with roundup barely a month away?” “Then I’ll go somewhere else!” Abby burst out. “No.” Melly held her fast. “Abby, the longer you run away the harder it’s going to be for you. Here, on the ranch, you can adjust again. You’re going to have to adjust—or bury yourself. You do realize that? You can’t possibly go on like this. Look at you!” she exclaimed, indicating the shapeless dress. “You don’t even look like a model, Abby, you look like a housekeeper!” “And that’s a fine thing to say about me,” came a deep but feminine voice from the doorway. Both girls turned at once. Calla Livingston had her hands on her ample hips, and she was wearing a scowl sour enough to curdle milk. She was somewhere near sixty, but she could still outrun most of the cowboys, and few of them crossed her. She took her irritation out on the food, which was a shame because she was the best cook in the territory. “And what do I look like, pray tell—the barn?” Calla continued, ruffled. Melly bit her lip to keep from smiling. Dressed in a homemade shift of pink and green, her straggly gray hair pulled into a half bun, her garter-supported hose hanging precariously just above her knees, Calla was nobody’s idea of haute couture. But only an idiot would have told her that, and Melly had good sense. “You look just fine, Calla,” Melly soothed. “I meant—” she searched for the right words “—that this isn’t Abby’s usual look.” Calla burst out laughing, her merry eyes going from one girl to the other. “Never could tell when I was serious and when I wasn’t, could you, darlin’?” she asked Melly. “I was only teasing. Come here, Abby, and give us a hug. It’s been months since I’ve seen you, remember!” Abby ran into her widespread arms and breathed in the scent of flour and vanilla that always clung to Calla. “Stay home this time, you hear?” Calla chided, brushing away a tear as she let go of the young woman. “Tearing off and coming back with city ways—this is the best you’ve looked to me since you were eighteen and hell-bent on modeling!” “But, Calla...” Melly interrupted. “Never you mind.” Calla threw her a sharp glance. “Call her dowdy again, and it’ll be no berry cobbler for you tonight!” Melly opened her mouth and quickly closed it again with a wicked grin. “I think she looks...mature,” Melly agreed. “Very...unique. Unusual. Rustically charming.” Calla threw up her hands. “What I put up with, Lord knows! As if that hard-eyed cowboy I work for isn’t enough on my plate.... Well, if I don’t rush, there’ll be no peace when he comes in and doesn’t find his meal waiting. Even if he doesn’t come in until ten o’clock.” She went away muttering irritably to herself. Melly sat down heavily on the couch with an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, saved! If I’d realized that she was out there, I’d have sung the praises of your new wardrobe.” “Still hooked on her berry cobbler, I notice?” Abby smiled, and for just an instant, a little of her old, vibrantly happy personality peeked out. “Please tell him,” Melly pleaded. “And give him a stick to beat me with?” Abby asked with a dry laugh. “He’s been down on me ever since I coaxed Dad into letting me go to New York. Every time I see him, all I hear is how stupid I was. Now he’s got the best reason in the world to say it all again, and add an ‘I told you so.’ But he’s not getting the chance, Melly. Not from me!” “You’re wrong about Cade,” Melly argued. “You always have been. He doesn’t hate you, Abby. He never did.” “Would you mind telling him that?” came the cool reply. “I don’t think he knows.” “Then why was he so anxious for you to come home?” Melly demanded. She folded her arms across her knees and leaned forward. “He even had Hank bring up your own furniture from the homestead, just so you’d feel more at home. Does that sound like a man who’s hating you?” “Then why does he avoid me like the plague?” Abby asked curtly. She searched momentarily for a way to change the subject. “I sure would like to freshen up before we eat,” she hinted. “Then come on up. You’ve got the room next to mine, so we can talk until all hours.” “I’ll like that,” Abby murmured with a smile. Impulsively, she put her arm around Melly’s shoulders as they went up the staircase. “Maybe we can have a pillow fight, for old time’s sake.” “Calla’s room is across the hall,” Melly informed her. Abby sighed. “Oh, well, we can always reminisce about the pillow fights we used to have,” she amended, and Melly grinned. It was just after dark, and Melly was helping Calla set the table in the dining room when the front door slammed open and hard, angry footsteps sounded on the bare wood floor of the hall. Abby, standing at the fireplace where Calla had built a small fire, turned just as Cade froze in the doorway. It didn’t seem like a year since she’d seen him. The hard, deeply tanned face under that wide-brimmed hat was as familiar as her own. But he’d aged, even she could see that. His firm, chiseled mouth was compressed, his brow marked with deep lines as if he’d made a habit of scowling. His cheeks were leaner, his square jaw firmer and his dark, fiery eyes were as uncompromising as she remembered them. He was dusted with snow, his shepherd’s coat flecked with it, his worn boots wet with it as were the batwing chaps strapped around his broad, heavy-muscled thighs. He was holding a cigarette in one lean, dark hand, and the look he was giving Abby would have backed down a puma. “What the hell happened to you?” he asked curtly, indicating the shapeless brown suede dress she was wearing. “Look who’s talking,” she returned. “Weren’t you wearing that same pair of chaps when I left for New York?” “Cattlemen are going bust all over, honey,” he returned, and a hint of amusement kindled in his eyes. “Sure,” she scoffed. “But most of them don’t run eight thousand head of cattle on three ranches in two states, now do they? And have oil leases and mining contracts....” “I didn’t say I was going bust,” he corrected. He leaned insolently against the doorjamb and tilted his head back. “Steal that dress off a fat lady?” She felt uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to the other. “It’s the latest style,” she lied, hoping he wouldn’t know the difference. “I don’t see how you women keep up with the latest styles,” he said. “It all looks like odds and ends to me.” “Is it snowing already?” she asked, changing the subject. He took his hat off and shook it. “Looks like. I hope Calla’s loading a table for the men, too. The nighthawks are going to have their hands full with those two-year-old heifers.” Abby couldn’t help smiling. Those were the first-time mothers, and they took a lot of looking after. One old cowhand—Hob, the one who’d resigned—always said he’d rather mend fence than babysit new mamas. “Who got stuck this year?” she asked. “Hank and Jeb,” he replied. “No wonder Hank was so ruffled,” she murmured. A corner of Cade’s disciplined mouth turned up as he studied her. “You don’t know the half of it. He begged me to let him nurse the older cows.” “I can guess how far he got,” she said. He didn’t laugh. “How long are you here for?” “I haven’t decided yet,” she said, feeling nervous. “It depends.” “I thought spring was your busiest time, miss model,” he said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “When Melly told me you were coming, it surprised me.” “I’m, uh, taking a break,” she supplied. “Are you?” He shouldered away from the doorjamb. “Stay through roundup and I’ll fly you back to New York myself.” He turned, and her eyes followed his broad-shouldered form as he walked into the hall and yelled for Calla. “I hope you’ve got enough to feed the hands, too!” he called, his deep voice carrying through the house. “Jeb’s nighthawking with Hank!” Jeb was the bunkhouse cook—some of the cowboys had homes on the ranch where they lived with their families, but there was a modern bunkhouse with a separate kitchen for the rest. “Well, I’ll bet the boys are on their knees giving thanks for that!” Calla called back. “It’ll be a change for them, having decent food for one night!” Cade chuckled deep in his throat as he climbed the stairs. Abby couldn’t help but watch him, remembering old times when she’d worshipped that broad back, that powerful body, with a schoolgirl’s innocent heart. How different her life might have been if Cade hadn’t refused her impulsive offer that long-ago night. Tears formed in her eyes and she turned away. Wishing wouldn’t make it so. But it was good to be back on Painted Ridge, all the same. She’d manage to keep out of Cade’s way, and perhaps Melly was right. Perhaps being home again would help her scars to heal. 3 (#ulink_629792fb-8451-5857-8b4a-bae75045f57e) Abby might have planned to avoid him, but Cade seemed to have other ideas. She noticed his quiet, steady gaze over the dinner table and almost jumped when he spoke. “How would you like to see the new calves?” he asked suddenly. She lifted her eyes from her plate and stared at him, lost for an answer. “Isn’t it still snowing?” she asked helplessly. “Sure,” he agreed. “But the trucks have chains. And the calving sheds are just south of here,” he reminded her. Being alone with him was going to unnerve her—she knew it already—but she loved the sight of those woolly little creatures, so new to the world. And she liked being with Cade. She felt safe with him, protected. Despite the lingering apprehension, she wanted to go with him. “Well?” he persisted. She shrugged. “I would kind of like to see the calves,” she admitted with a tiny smile. She dropped her eyes back to her plate, blissfully unaware of the look Cade exchanged with Melly. “We’ll have dessert when we get back,” Cade informed Calla, pushing back his chair. Minutes later, riding along in the pickup and being bounced wildly in its warm interior, snow fluttering against the windshield, it was almost like old times. “Warm enough, honey?” Cade asked. “Like toast.” She wrapped the leather jacket he had loaned her even closer, loving its warmth. Cade was still wearing his shepherd’s coat, looking so masculine he’d have wowed them even at a convention of male models. “Not much farther now,” he murmured, turning the truck off onto the farm road that led to the calving pens, where two cowboys in yellow slickers could be seen riding around the enclosures, heads bent against the wind. “Poor devils,” she remarked, watching. “The men or the heifers?” he asked. “Both. All. It’s rough out there.” She balanced her hand against the cold dashboard as he stopped the truck and cut the engine at the side of the long shed. Cade was the perfect rancher, but his driving left a lot to be desired. “Now I know how it feels to ride inside a concrete mixer,” she moaned. “Don’t start that again,” Cade grumbled as he threw open the door. “You can always walk back,” he added with a dark glance. “Did you ever race in the Grand Prix when you were younger, Cade?” she asked with a bright, if somewhat false, smile. “And sarcasm won’t do the trick, either,” he warned. He led the way through the snow, and she followed in his huge footprints, liking the bite of the cold wind and the crunch of the snow, the freshness of the air. It was so deliciously different from the city. Her eyes looked out over the acres toward the distant mountains, searching for the familiar snow-covered peaks that she could have seen clearly in sunny daylight. God’s country, she thought reverently. How had she ever been able to exist away from it? “Stop daydreaming and catch up,” Cade was growling. “I could lose you out here.” “In a little old spring snowstorm like this?” She laughed. “I could fight my way through blizzards, snowshoe myself to Canada, ski over to the Rockies...” “...lie like hell, too,” he said, amusement gleaming in the dark eyes that caught hers as they entered the lighted interior. “Come on.” She followed him into the airy enclosure, wrapping her arms tight. “Still no heat, I see.” She sighed. “Can’t afford the luxury, honey,” he remarked, waving at a cowboy farther down the aisle. “Is that why it’s so drafty in here? You poor thing, you,” she chided. “I would be, if I didn’t keep the air circulating in here,” he agreed. “Don’t you remember how many calves we used to lose to respiratory ailments before the veterinarians advised us to put in that exhaust fan to keep stale air out of these sheds? Those airborne diseases were bankrupting the operation. Now we disinfect the stalls and maintain a rigid vaccination program, and we’ve cut our losses in half.” “Excuse me,” she apologized. “I’m only an ignorant city dweller.” He turned in the aisle and looked down at her quietly. “Come home,” he said curtly. “Where you belong.” Her heart pounded at the intensity of the brief gaze he gave her before turning back to his cow boss. Charlie Smith stood up, grinning at Cade. “Hi, boss, get tired of television and hungry for some real relaxation? Jed sure would love to have somebody take his place—” “Just visiting, Charlie,” Cade interrupted. “I brought Abby down to see the newcomers.” “Good to see you again, Miss Abby,” Charlie said respectfully, tipping his hat. “We’ve got a good crop in here, all right. Have a look.” Abby peeked into the nearest stall, her face lighting up as she stared down at one of the “black baldies,” a cross between a Hereford and a Black Angus, black all over with a little white face. “Jed brought that one in an hour ago. Damn...uh, doggone mama just dropped it and walked away from it.” Charlie sneered. “That’s not his mama, huh?” Abby murmured, noticing the tender licking it was getting from the cow in the stall with it. “No, ma’am,” Charlie agreed. “We sprayed him with a deodorizing compound to keep her from getting suspicious. Poor thing lost her own calf.” Abby felt a surge of pity for the cow and calf. It was just a normal episode in ranch life, but she had a hard time trying to separate business from emotion. Cade moved close behind her, apparently oblivious to the sudden, instinctive stiffening of her slender body, the catch of her breath. Please, she thought silently, please don’t let him touch me! But he didn’t attempt to. He leaned against the stall and rammed his hands in his pockets, watching the cow and calf over her shoulder. “How many have we lost so far?” Cade asked the cow boss. “Ten. And it looks like a long night.” “They’re all long.” Cade sighed. He pushed his hat back over his forehead, and Abby, glancing up, noticed how weary he looked. “I’d better check on my own charge down the aisle here,” Charlie said, and went off with a wave of his hand as the ominous bleating of the heifer filled the shed. “Prime beef,” Cade murmured, chuckling at Abby’s indignant expression. She moved away from him with studied carelessness and smiled. “Heartless wretch,” she teased. “Could you really eat him?” “Couldn’t you, smothered in onions...?” “Oh, stop!” she wailed. “You cannibal...!” “How does it feel to be back?” he asked, walking back the way they came in. “Nice,” she admitted. She tucked her cold hands into the pockets of her jacket. “I’d forgotten how big this country is, how unspoiled and underpopulated. It’s a wonderful change from a crowded, polluted city, although I do love New York,” she added, trying to convince him she meant it. “New York,” he reminded her, “is a dangerous place.” She stiffened again, turning to study his face, but she couldn’t read anything in that bland expression. Cade let nothing show—unless he wanted it to. He’d had years of practice at camouflaging his emotions. “Most cities are,” she agreed. “The country can be dangerous, too.” “It depends on your definition of danger,” he returned. He looked down at her with glittering eyes. “You’re safe as long as I’m alive. Nothing and no one will hurt you on this ranch.” Tears suddenly misted her eyes, burning like fire. She swallowed and looked away. “Do I look as if I need protection?” She tried to laugh. “Not especially,” he said coolly. “But you seemed threatened for an instant. I just wanted to make the point. I’ll protect you from mountain lions and falling buildings, Abby,” he added with a hint of a smile. “But who’ll protect me from you, you cannibal?” she asked with a pointed stare, her old sense of humor returning to save her from the embarrassment of tears. “You’re just as safe with me as you want to be,” he replied. She looked into his eyes, and for an instant they were four years in the past, when a young girl stood poised at the edge of a swimming pool and offered her heart and her body to a man she worshipped. Without another word, she turned around and started back out into the snow. 4 (#ulink_8a25a0dc-d9d0-5992-9404-5566ea02d527) As she walked toward the truck, huddled against the wind, her mind suddenly went backward in time. And for an instant, it was summer, and she was swimming alone in the pool at Cade’s house one night when her father was in the hospital. She’d been eighteen, a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. Her father, far too ill during that period of her life to give her much counsel, hadn’t noticed that she was beginning to dress in a way that caught a lot of male attention. But Cade had, and he’d had a talk with her. She’d marched off in a huff, hating his big-brother attitude, and had defiantly gone for a swim that night in his own pool. There was no one around, so she had quickly stripped off her clothes and dived in. That was against the rules, but Abby was good at breaking them. Especially when they were made by Cade McLaren. She wanted him to look at her the way other men did. She wanted more than a condescending lecture from him, but she was too young and far too naive to put her growing infatuation into words. She’d been in the pool barely five minutes when she’d heard the truck pull up at the back of the house. Before she had time to do any more than scramble out of the pool and pull on her jeans, she heard Cade come around the corner. She was totally unprepared for what happened next. She turned and Cade’s dark eyes dropped to her high, bare breasts with a wild, reckless look in them that made her breath catch in her throat. He just stood there, frozen, staring at her, and she didn’t make a move to cover herself or turn away. She let him look his fill, feeling her heart trying to tear out of her chest when he finally began to move toward her. His shirt was open that night, because he’d just come in from the corral, and the mat of thick black hair over the bronzed muscles of his chest was damp with sweat. He stopped a foot in front of her and looked down, and she knew that all the unspoken hunger she’d begun to feel for him was plain in her wide, pale brown eyes. Without a word, he bent and lifted her. Very, very gently, he brought her body to his and drew her taut breasts against his chest, letting her feel the rough hair against her soft, sensitive skin in a caress that made her moan and cling to him, while her eyes looked straight into his and saw the flash of triumph in them. He turned and carried her into the house, up the stairs and into his own bedroom, and laid her down on the bed. And then he sat there, with one hand on the bed beside her to support his weight, and looked at her again, letting his dark eyes feast on the soft, pink bareness of her body. She wasn’t even aware of being wet, of her body soaking the coverlet. All she saw, all she knew, was Cade’s hard, dark face and his eyes. Finally, he moved and his fingers traced a pattern from her shoulder down over her collarbone. She held her breath as they kept going down, and she felt the slow, sweet tracing of them on the curve of her breasts—exploring, tantalizing with the light pressure—until they reached the burgeoning peak and caught it lightly between them. She gasped, arching at the unexpected surge of pleasure, and his eyes looked straight down into hers. “Hush,” he whispered then. “You know I won’t hurt you.” “Yes,” she whispered back, as if the walls could hear them, her eyes wide with unexpected pleasure. “I...I want you...to touch me.” “I know.” He bent, one hand still cupping her, and she lifted her arms hesitantly until they were around his neck. He looked into her eyes as his warm, hard mouth brushed hers, so that he could see the reaction in them. “Open your mouth for me, Abby,” he breathed, moving his hand to tip up her chin, “just a little more....” She obeyed him mindlessly and felt the delicious probing of his tongue between her lips, working its way slowly, sensuously, into her mouth. She gasped, moaning, and he eased down so that she could feel his bare chest against her breasts. She lifted herself, clinging, and for one long, unbearably sweet moment she felt his warmth and weight and the fierce adult passion of a man’s kiss. She thought she imagined a tremor in his hard arms before he suddenly released her, but when he sat up again he was as calm outwardly as if he’d been for a quiet walk. His eyes went down to her breasts and drank in the sight of them one last time before his big hand caught the coverlet and tossed it carelessly over her bareness. “You wanted to know,” he said gently, holding her hand tightly in his as if to soften the rejection, “and I’ve shown you. But this is as far as it goes. I care too much to seduce you just for an hour of pleasure.” She swallowed, studying his hard face, her body still tingling from the touch of his fingers, her mouth warm from the long, hungry kiss they’d shared. “Should I be ashamed, Cade?” she asked. He brushed the damp hair away from her face. “Of what?” he asked tenderly. “Of wanting to know how it felt to be touched and kissed by a man?” She drew in a deep, slow breath. “Not...by a man,” she corrected. “By you.” The impact of that nervous confession was evident on his face. He hesitated, as if he wanted desperately to say something but thought better of it. His jaw tautened. “Abby,” he said, choosing the words carefully, “you’re eighteen years old. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, a lot of the world to see, before you tie yourself to one man. To any man.” He toyed with the coverlet at her throat. “It’s natural, at your age, to be curious about sex. But despite the modern viewpoint, there are still men left who’ll want a virgin when they marry.” His eyes met hers levelly. “Be one. Save that precious gift for the man you marry. Don’t give it away to satisfy your curiosity.” “Will you?” she asked involuntarily. “Will I what, honey?” he asked. “Want a virgin?” He looked strange at that moment. Thoughtful. Hungry. Irritated. “The biggest problem in my life,” he said after a minute, with a flash of humor, “is that I want one right now.” He bent then and kissed her briefly, roughly, before he stood up. “Cade...?” she began, her hand going to the coverlet, the offer in her young eyes. “No,” he said firmly, loosening her fingers from the material. “Not yet.” “Yet?” she whispered. He traced her mouth with a lazy, absent finger. “Make me the same offer again in about three or four years,” he murmured with a faint smile, “and I’ll drag you into a bed and make love to you until you pass out. Now get dressed. And don’t try this again, Abby,” he warned firmly. “It’s the wrong time for us. Don’t force me to be cruel to you. It’s something I’d have hell living with.” Her head whirling with unbridled hope, she watched him walk to the door with her whole heart in her misty eyes. “Cade?” she called softly. He’d turned with one hand on the doorknob, an eyebrow raised. “I’ll hold you to that...in three or four years,” she promised. He smiled back at her, so tenderly that she almost climbed out of the bed and threw herself at his feet. “Good night, honey,” he chuckled, walking out the door. * * * Neither of them had ever mentioned it, or referred to it, in all the time since then. Shortly afterward she had left the ranch; she’d seen Cade only a few times in the intervening years. It was odd that she should remember the incident now, when her promise was impossible to keep. She’d never be able to offer herself to Cade now. She opened the door of the truck and got in. Cade was quiet on the way back to the house, but that wasn’t unusual. He never had liked to talk and drive at the same time. He seemed to mull over problems in the silence, ranch problems that were never far away. In winter it was snow and getting enough feed to the livestock. In spring it was roundup and planting. In summer it was haying and fixing fence and water. Water was an eternal problem—there was either not enough or too much. In May and June, when the snow melted on the mountains and ran into streams and rivers, there would be enough water for agriculture—but there would also be flooding to contend with. After roundup, the cattle had to be moved to high summer pastures. In fall they had to be brought back down. The breeding program was an ongoing project, and there were always the problems of sick cattle and equipment breakdowns and the logistics of feeding, culling, selling and buying cattle. Cade had ranch managers, like Melly’s husband-to-be, but he owned three ranches, and ultimately he was the one responsible to the board of directors and to the stockholders, as well. Because it was a corporation now, not just one man’s holdings, and Cade was at the helm. Her eyes sought his face, loving it as she’d loved it for four, long, empty years. Cade, the eternal bachelor. She wondered if he’d ever marry, or want children of his own to inherit Painted Ridge and the other properties he had stock in. She’d thought once, at eighteen, that he might marry her one day. But he’d made a point of avoiding her after that devastating encounter. And in desperation, she had settled for the adventure and challenge of modeling. It had been the ultimate adventure at eighteen. Glamour, wealth, society—and for the first year or so it had almost satisfied her. She remembered coming home that first Christmas, bubbling with enthusiasm for her work. Cade had listened politely and then had left. And he’d been conspicuously absent for the rest of the time she was at Painted Ridge. She’d often wondered why he’d deliberately avoided her. But she’d been ecstatic over the glitter of New York and her increasing successes. Or she had been at first... Cade seemed to sense her intense appraisal. His head suddenly turned and he caught her eyes as he pulled up to the house and parked at the back steps. Abby felt a shock of pure sensation go through her like fire. It had been a long time since she’d looked into those dark, glittering eyes at point-blank range. It did the most wonderful things to her pulse, her senses. “You’ve been away longer this time,” he said without preamble. He leaned back against his door and lit a cigarette. “A year.” “Not from the ranch,” she countered. “You weren’t here last summer or at Christmas when I was.” He laughed shortly, the cigarette sending up curls of smoke. “What was the use?” he asked coolly. “I got sick of hearing about New York and all the beautiful people.” She sat erect, her chin thrusting forward. “Are we going to have that argument all over again?” “No, I’m through arguing,” he said curtly. “You made up your mind four years ago that you couldn’t find what you wanted from life anyplace except New York. I left you to it, Abby. I know a lost cause when I see one.” “What was there for me here?” she demanded, thinking back to a time when he wouldn’t come near her. But his face went cold at the words. It seemed actually to pale, and he turned his eyes out the window to look at the falling snow. “Nothing, I guess,” he said. “Open country, clean air, basic values and only few people. Amazing, isn’t it, that we have the fourth largest state in the country, but it’s forty-sixth in population. And I like it that way,” he added, pinning her with his eyes. “I couldn’t live in a place where I didn’t have enough room to walk without being bumped into.” She knew that already. Cade, with his long, elegant stride and love of open country, might as well die as be transplanted to New York. This was Big Sky country, and he was a Big Sky man. He’d never feel at home in the Big Apple. A hundred years ago, however, he would have fit right in with the old frontier ways. She remembered going to the old Custer battlefield with him, where the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, and watching his eyes sweep the rolling hills. He sat a horse the same way, his eyes always on the horizon. One of his ancestors had been a full-blooded Sioux, and had died at Little Bighorn. He belonged to this country, as surely as the early settlers and miners and cattlemen had belonged to it. Abby had wanted to belong to it, too—to Cade. But he’d let her get on that bus to New York when she was eighteen, although he’d had one hell of a fight with her father about it the night before she left. Jesse Shane had never shared the discussion with her. She only knew about it because she’d heard their angry voices in the living room and her name on Cade’s lips. “You never wanted me to go to New York,” she murmured as she withdrew from the pain of memory. “You expected me to fall flat on my face, didn’t you?” “I hoped like hell that you would,” he said bluntly, and his eyes blazed. “But you made it, didn’t you? Although, looking at you now, I could almost believe you hadn’t. My God, Calla has better taste in clothes.” She avoided his eyes, puzzled by the earlier statement. “I’m very tastefully dressed for a woman on a ranch,” she threw back, nervous that he might guess why she was wearing loose clothing, why she couldn’t bear anything revealing right now. “Is that a dig at me?” he asked. “I know ranch life isn’t glamorous, honey. It’s damned hard work, and not many women would choose it over a glittering career. You don’t have to tell me that.” How little he knew, she thought miserably. She’d chuck modeling and New York and the thought of being internationally famous if he asked her to marry him. She would have given up anything to live with him and love him. But he didn’t know, and he never would. Her pride wouldn’t let her tell him. He’d rejected her once, that magic night years before, even though he’d done it tenderly. She couldn’t risk having him do it again. It would be too devastating. Her eyes dropped to her suede boots. The boots would be ruined. She’d forgotten to spray them with protective coating, and she’d need to buy a new pair. Odd that she should think about that when she was alone with Cade. It was so precious to be alone with him, even for a few minutes. If only she could tell him what had happened, tell him the truth. But how could she admit that she’d come back to be healed? “Hey.” She looked up and found him watching her closely. He reached out and caught a lock of her long hair and tugged it gently. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly. She felt the prick of tears and blinked to dispel them. It was so much harder when he was tender. It reminded her forcibly of the last time she’d heard his voice so velvety and deep. And suddenly she found herself wondering how she would react if he tried to hold her, touch her, now. “Nothing’s wrong,” she said shortly. “I was just thinking.” His face hardened and he let go of her hair. “Thinking about New York?” he demanded. “What the hell are you doing here in April, anyway? I thought summer was your only slack time.” “I came to see Melly, of course,” she shot back, her face hot and red. “To help her get ready for the wedding!” “Then you’ll be staying for a month,” he said matter-of-factly, daring her to protest. How could she when she’d stated the lie so convincingly? She swallowed. “Well...” “I understood you were designing her a dress?” he continued. “Yes,” she agreed, remembering the sketches she’d already done. Over the past few years she had discovered that she enjoyed designing clothes much more than modeling them. “My God, you’re quiet,” he observed, his eyes narrowing against the smoke of his cigarette. “You used to come home gushing like a volcano, full of life and happiness. Now you seem...sedate. Very, very different. What’s the matter, honey, is the glitter wearing off, or are you just tired of going around half-naked for men to look at?” She gasped at the unexpectedness of the attack and drew in a sharp breath. “Cade Alexander McLaren, I do not go around half-naked!” “Don’t you?” he demanded. He had that old familiar look on his face, the one that meant he was set for a fight. “I was up in New York one day last month on business and I went to one of your fashion shows. You were wearing a see-through blouse with nothing under it. Nothing!” His face hardened. “My God, I almost went up there and dragged you off that runway. It was all I could do to turn around and walk out of the building. Your father would have rolled over in his grave!” “My father was proud of me,” she returned, hurting from the remark. “And unless you missed it, most of the people who go to those shows are women!” “There were men there,” he came back. He crushed out the cigarette. “Do you take off your clothes for men in private, too, Abby?” She lifted her hand to hit him, but he caught the wrist and jerked. She found herself looking straight into his narrowed eyes at an alarming distance. But worse, she felt the full force of his strength in that steely grip, and she felt panic rise in her throat. “Let me go, Cade,” she said suddenly, her voice ghostly, her eyes widening with fear. “Oh, please, let me go!” He scowled, freeing her all at once. She drew back against her door like a cornered cat, actually trembling with reaction. Well, now she knew, didn’t she? she thought miserably. She’d wondered how she’d react to Cade’s strength, and now she truly knew. “Remember me?” he asked angrily. “We’ve known each other most of our lives. I was defending myself, Abby. I wasn’t going to hit you. What the hell’s the matter with you? Has some man been knocking you around?” His face became frankly dangerous. “Answer me,” he said harshly. “Has one of your boyfriends been rough with you? By God, if he has...!” “No, it’s not that,” she said quickly, drawing in a steadying breath. Her eyes closed on a wave of remorse. “I’m just tired, Cade. Tired. Burned out. Too many long hours and too many go-sees that didn’t work out, too many demanding photographers, too many retakes of commercials, too many fittings, too many temperamental designers....” She slumped back against the door and opened her eyes, weary eyes, to look at him. “I’m tired.” It was a lie, but then, how could she possibly tell him the truth? “You came home to rest, is that what you’re telling me?” he asked softly. “Is it all right?” she asked, her eyes searching his. “A whole month, and I don’t want to interfere with your life....” “That’s a joke,” he scoffed. His eyes went over the shapeless dress. “You don’t know what a joke it is.” He turned abruptly to open the door. “Let’s go in. It’s freezing out here. We can sit around inside for the rest of the night and watch your sister and Jerry climb all over each other.” He sounded utterly disgusted, and she laughed involuntarily. “They’re engaged,” she reminded him. “Then why don’t they get married and make out in their own house?” he growled. “They’re trying,” she said. He gave her a hard glare before he opened his door and went around to open hers. “The wedding can’t be soon enough to suit me,” he said. “The only place I haven’t caught them at it is in a closet.” “They’re in love.” She stepped down from the running board, landing in the soft, cold snow. “My gosh, you’re old-fashioned, Cade.” “Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed that before?” he asked as they walked toward the house through the driving snow. It tickled Abby’s face, melting cold and wet over her delicate features. “It’s hard to miss,” she agreed. She glanced up at him, walking so tall and straight beside her. He moved with easy grace, long strides that marked him an outdoorsman. It would take wide-open country like Montana to hold him. “But people in love are notoriously hard to separate.” “What would you know about love?” he asked, shooting a glance down at her. “Have you ever felt it?” She laughed with brittle humor. “Most people have a crush or two in a lifetime.” “You had one on me once, as I remember,” he said quietly. He was staring straight ahead, or he’d have seen the shock that widened Abby’s pale brown eyes. “I’m surprised you even noticed,” she muttered. “In between raising cattle and fighting off girls at square dances.” “I noticed.” The words didn’t mean a lot, but the way he said them did. There was a world of meaning in the curt, harsh sound of them. She drew in a slow breath and wrapped her arms around her chest, averting her gaze from him. Would she ever forget that night? Despite the recent experience that had soured physical relationships for her, she felt an explosion of pleasure at the memory of Cade’s warm, rough mouth on her own, his hands touching her so gently.... They were at the back door. He opened it and let her into the warm, dry kitchen ahead of him. Calla had apparently stepped out for a minute, because it was deserted. “Abby,” he called. She turned at the entrance to the dining room and looked back at him. He’d pulled off his hat, and his dark hair glittered damply black in the light. His eyes slid down her body, taking in the ill-fitting clothing, and went back up to her flushed face and wide, soft eyes. The tension was suddenly between them, the old tension that she’d felt that night at the swimming pool when he’d seen her as no other man ever had. She could feel the shock of his gaze, the wild beat of her own heart in the silence that throbbed with unexpected promise. “Are you happy in New York?” he asked. She faltered, trying to get words past her tight throat. She had been—or she’d convinced herself that she had been—until the incident that had made her run home for shelter, for comfort. But always she’d missed Painted Ridge...and Cade. “Of course I am,” she lied. “Why?” His tall frame shifted impatiently, as if he’d wanted an answer she hadn’t given him. He made a strange gesture with one hand. “I just wondered, that’s all. I saw your face on a magazine cover the other day,” he added, studying her. “One of the better ones. That means something, I gather?” “Yes,” she agreed with a wan smile. “It’s quite a coup to have a cover on that kind of magazine. My agency was thrilled about it.” His eyes wandered over her face, searching eyes that grew dark with some emotion she couldn’t name. “You’re beautiful, all right,” he said quietly. “You always were. Not just physically, either. You reminded me of sunlight on a morning meadow. All silky and bright and sweet to look at. Whatever happened to that little girl?” She felt an ache deep inside, a hunger that nothing had ever filled. Her eyes touched every hard line of his face, lines she would have loved to smooth away. She withered away from you, she wanted to tell him. Part of her died when she left Painted Ridge. But of course she couldn’t say that. “She grew up, Cade,” she said instead. He shook his head and smiled—a strange, soft smile that puzzled her. “No, not quite. I carry her around in my memory and every once in a while, I take her out and look at her.” “She was dreadfully naive,” she murmured, trying not to let him see how his statement had touched her. He moved slowly toward her, stopping just in front of her. He towered over her, powerful and big and faintly threatening, and she fought down the fear of his strength that had already surfaced once that night. She looked up, intrigued by the smell of leather and wind that clung to him. “I’d forgotten how tall you are,” she said involuntarily. “I’ve forgotten nothing about you, Abby,” he said curtly. “Including the fact that once you couldn’t get close enough to me. But now you back away the minute I come near you.” So he had noticed. She dropped her eyes to the front of his shepherd’s coat. “Do I?” “You shied away from me in the calving shed tonight. Do you think I didn’t notice? Then in the truck...” He drew in a deep breath. “My God, I’d never hurt you. Don’t you know that?” Her eyes traced the stitching on the coat and she noticed a tiny smudge near one of the buttons, as if ashes from his cigarette had fallen on it. Silly things to be aware of when she could feel the heat of his big body, and she remembered as if it were yesterday how sweet it was to be held against him. “I know,” she said after a minute. She forced her eyes up to his. “I...have some problems I’m trying to work out.” “A man?” he asked curtly. She nodded. “In a way.” His face hardened, and his hands came up as if he would have liked to grip her with them. But he abruptly jammed them into his pockets. “Want to tell me about it?” Her head went slowly from side to side. “Not yet. I have to find myself, Cade. I have to work it out in my own way.” “Does it have something to do with your career?” he asked. “Yes, it does. I have to decide whether or not I want to go on with it,” she confessed. He seemed to brighten. His face changed, relaxed, making him look strangely young. “Thinking of quitting?” “Why not?” she asked, grinning. “Need an extra cowhand? I close gates good—you ask Hank if I don’t.” He smiled back, his dark eyes sparkling with humor. “I’ll do that.” She sighed. “You’ll be ready to run me off by the time that month’s up,” she said with a short laugh. “Anyway, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.” He searched her quiet face. “Maybe I can help you make up your mind,” he murmured. One hand caught her chin and turned it up, while his eyes searched hers curiously. “Melly said there was a man. A bad experience. What happened, honey, a love affair gone sour?” She flinched, moving backward to release herself from the disturbing pressure of his fingers. She hadn’t fled New York only to wind up back in Cade McLaren’s hip pocket again; letting him get too close would be suicide in more ways than one. His strength unnerved her, but there was more to it than that. She reacted to him in ways that she’d never reacted to any other man. Every man she’d dated or been with socially had been for her a poor imitation of this one, and she was only now realizing how large he loomed in her memory. For years she’d pushed that night at the swimming pool to the back of her mind, afraid to take it out and look at it. And tonight, going back in time had stirred something deep inside her, had momentarily banished the bad memories to make way for remembered sensations and longings. She stared up into Cade’s dark eyes and saw her whole world. He was as big as this country, and nothing she ever found in New York was going to replace him. But there was no way she was going to let him know it. He’d pushed her away ever since that long-ago night. It was as if he couldn’t bear having her close to him, in any way. Even now, when she backed away, he wasn’t following. He could still let her go without flinching, without regret, even in this small way. “A man,” she agreed, and let it go at that, not looking at him. “What do you think I did in New York, stare out windows longing to be back here?” That was the truth, little did he know it. The glitter had long ago worn off her life there, leaving it barren and lonely. “Not me, honey,” he said. “I know all too well how dull this place is to you. You’ve done everything but shout it from the roof.” He glared at her. “Did the man come too close, Abby? Did he want to settle down, and you couldn’t face the thought of that?” She stared at him blankly. “Is that shocking?” she asked, adding fuel to the fire. “I told you, Cade, I like my life the way it is. I like having money to spend and things to see and places to go. I went to Jamaica to do a layout last month, and in September I’m going to Greece for another one. That’s exciting. It’s great fun.” He stared at her with cold eyes, believing the lie. “Yes, I can see that,” he growled. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it while his eyes ran quietly over every line of her face. “Then where does your boyfriend come in?” She swallowed and turned away. “He wasn’t...a boyfriend, and it’s a long story.” “I’ll find time to listen.” She shifted restlessly and turned. “Not tonight, if you don’t mind. I’d like to say hello to Jerry.” He drew in an angry breath, and for just an instant she thought he was going to insist. But he reached past her and opened the door. She went ahead of him, relieved that he’d swallowed her explanation. Boyfriend! Oh, God, what a horrible joke that was, but she’d rather have died than tell him the truth. Anyway, what would it matter? Let him think she was just getting over a love affair. What did it matter? 5 (#ulink_d58dd13e-f93d-5179-a1ef-a7db5d382a1d) Melly was curled up on the sofa next to the tall, blond man who was going to be her husband. They both jumped when Cade deliberately slammed the door behind Abby and himself. “Oh, hi, boss.” Jerry Ridgely grinned, looking over the sofa back with dancing blue eyes. “Hi, Abby, welcome home!” “Thanks, Jerry,” she said, grinning back. She’d known him almost as long as Melly had. One of the advantages of growing up in country like this was that you knew most everybody from childhood onward. It gave people a sense of security to know that some things stayed constant. “Staying for the wedding?” he asked, and Melly smiled at her sister. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she promised. “Which reminds me, Melly,” she added, sticking her hands in her pockets, “I’ve roughed out some sketches for your wedding dress. They’re in my suitcase.” “I’d love to see them,” Melly said, enthusiastic. “You’re sure you don’t mind making it for me?” “Don’t be silly, of course I don’t mind. Sometimes I wonder why I got into modeling when I love designing so much.” Abby sighed. Modeling. The word reminded her of New York, which brought back other memories, and she turned away, her eyes clouding. Melly got to her feet quickly. “Let’s go see if Calla has the berry cobbler dished out,” she said, catching Abby’s arm. “Can you men live without us?” “Cade can.” Jerry laughed, glancing toward the taciturn rancher. “But I’ll have trouble, sweetheart, so hurry, will you?” “Sure,” Melly agreed, in a tone that was meant for the foreman alone. She winked and tugged Abby along with her, closing the door behind them. “Have you and Cade been at it again?” she asked Abby as soon as the door was closed behind them. “He looks like a thundercloud, and you’re flushed.” “He’s persistent as all get-out,” Abby groaned. “He nearly backed me into a corner in the kitchen just now. He’s not going to worm it out of me, Melly. I can’t talk to him about it, I can’t!” Melly sighed and hugged her sister. “Oh, Abby, I hoped you might be able to, once the two of you were alone.” “Talk to Cade?” She laughed. “My God, all I have time to do is defend myself. He’s even worse than I remembered. Why does he hate my career so much?” “You really don’t know, do you?” Melly murmured. Abby ignored that, wrapping her arms tight around herself. “We got into it in the truck, and I tried to hit him, and when he grabbed my wrist...” She shivered. “He’s so strong....” “He’s also Cade,” Melly reminded her. “He’d never hurt you, not the longest day he lived.” Abby tried to smile. “I want a miracle, I guess. I want Cade to touch me and make the fear all go away.” “That could still happen,” Melly said softly. “But you have to give it time. And telling Cade the truth would be a heck of a start. For God’s sake, Abby, it wasn’t your fault...!” “So everyone tells me.” She sighed. “Let’s go help Calla. I just want to get my mind on something else right now. It will all work out somehow, I suppose. Someday.” She carried that thought all through the long evening, watching Cade sit in his big chair and smoke cigarette after cigarette while he went over paperwork with Jerry and drank two neat whiskeys after the delicious dessert Calla put before them. Cade was so good to look at. He always had been, and the four years since he’d kissed her for the first time hadn’t changed him very much on the surface. He was still overpoweringly masculine. Strong and capable and as tough as well-worn leather. She watched the way his hands held the sheets of paper in their firm grip. They were tanned and sprinkled with dark hair. He didn’t wear jewelry of any kind; the watch strapped around his wrist had a thick leather band and a dial that did everything except predict the future. He went in for utility, not style. But he managed to look like a fashion plate for all that, even in worn jeans and a faded shirt. He had a big, powerful body, and it was all steely muscle. Cade was just plain man, and he stood out anywhere. He looked up once and caught her gaze, and she felt just a touch of the old magic. But she looked away and only the fear was left. Later, Melly went into the bedroom with Abby. They sat on the old bed that had been Abby’s from girlhood and went over the wedding dress pattern. “It’s just magnificent,” Melly breathed. “But it will take forever for you to make it....” “A week, in my spare time.” Abby grinned. “Do you really like it?” “I love it!” She traced the design with a caressing finger. “It’s the best design I’ve ever seen. You ought to sell it.” “Sell your wedding gown?” Abby exclaimed. “Do I look like I have a cash register for a heart?” “Don’t be silly. You know very well what I mean. It’s good, Abby. It’s really good. You’re wasted showing other people’s designs.” “Thank you for thinking so,” Abby said with a smile. “I’m not the only one, either. Did Jessica Dane ever get in touch with you?” Melly asked. “She absolutely raved over that dress you made me last summer.” “The boutique owner?” Abby asked. “No. Actually, I was kind of hoping she might. I do love designing, Melly. I feel as if modeling is burning me up. I stay tired all the time, and I have no social life at all. The money’s nice,” she added quietly. “But money isn’t worth much in the long run if you aren’t happy. And I’m not.” “Will you mind if I tell you that I never thought you would be?” her sister asked softly. She smiled. “You pretended it was what you wanted, but I saw right through you.” Abby stared at her ringless hands. “I hope nobody else did,” she said. “He’s thirty-six now,” Melly reminded her. “Inevitably, he’ll marry sooner or later.” Abby laughed bitterly. “Will he? He hasn’t exactly been in a flaming hurry to commit himself to anybody. You know what he used to say about marriage? That it was a noose only a fool stuck his head into.” “He’s a lonely man, Abby,” came the surprising reply. “I know better than anybody—I work for him. I see him every day. He works himself into the ground, but there are still evenings when he sits on the porch by himself and just stares off into the horizon.” That hurt. Abby turned her face away to keep Melly from seeing how much. “He could have any woman he wanted,” she said, forcing herself not to let her voice show the emotion she was feeling. “He used to stay out with some woman or other every day I was here.” “So he let you think,” Melly murmured. “He runs three ranches—a corporation the size of a small city—and in his spare time he sleeps. When does he have the time to be a playboy? I’ll grant you, he’s got the money to be one, even if he weren’t so good-looking. But he’s a puritan in his outlook. It even makes him uncomfortable when Jerry kisses me in front of him.” “Just like Donavan,” she agreed, remembering Cade’s father. “Remember the night you were kissing Danny Johnson on our front porch and Donavan rode by with Cade? Whew! I didn’t think Danny would ever come back again after that lecture.” “Neither did I. Donavan had an overdeveloped sense of propriety. No wonder Cade’s got so many inhibitions. Of course, being brought up in a small place like Cheyenne Lodge...” “Only you could call Montana a small place,” Abby teased. “This little teeny corner of it, I meant,” came the irrepressible reply. “I’ll bet you get culture shock every time you come here from New York,” she added. “No,” Abby denied. Her eyes began to glow softly. “It’s like homecoming every time. I never realize how much I miss it until I come back.” “And stand at the window, hoping for a glimpse of Cade,” Melly said quietly, nodding when Abby flushed. “Oh, yes, I’ve caught you at it. You watch him with such love in your eyes, Abby. As if the sight of him would sustain you through any nightmare.” Abby turned away. “Stop that. I’ll wear my heart out on him, and you know it. No,” she said firmly when Melly started to speak. “No more. Melly, you do love Jerry, don’t you?” she added, concern replacing the brief flare-up of irritation. “Unbearably,” Melly confessed. “We fought like animals the first few weeks I worked here, when I came home from business college. But then, one day he threw me down in the hay and fell on me,” she added with a grin. “And we kissed like two starving lovers. He asked me to marry him on the spot and I said yes without even thinking. We’ve had our disagreements, but there’s no one I’ll ever love as much.” Abby thought about being pushed down and fallen on, and she trembled with reaction. She felt herself stiffen, and Melly noticed. “Sorry,” she said quickly, touching Abby’s arm. “I didn’t think about how it might sound to you.” “It’s just the thought of being helpless,” she said in a suppressed tone. Her eyes came up. “Melly, men are so strong...you don’t realize how strong until you try to get away and can’t!” “Don’t think about it,” Melly said softly. “Come on, we’ve got to decide on the trimmings for this dress. Calla has a bag full of material samples she got from the fabric shop. We’ll look through them, and she’ll go into town and get what you need tomorrow, okay?” “Okay.” Abby hugged her warmly. “I love you,” she said in a rare outburst of emotion. “I love you, too,” Melly returned, smiling as she drew away. “Now, here, this is what I liked especially...” She pulled out a swatch of material and the girls drifted into a discussion of fabrics that lasted until bedtime. Abby spent the next few days reacquainting herself with the ranch. She was careful to keep out of the way of the men—and Cade—but she trudged through the barns looking at calves and sat on the bales of hay in the loft and remembered back to her childhood on her family’s ranch. It was part of Painted Ridge now, having been bought by Cade at Jesse Shane’s death. It would have gone on the auction block otherwise, because neither Melly nor Abby had any desire to try to run it. Ranching was a full-time headache, best left to experts. When the snow melted and the weather turned springlike again, Abby wandered through the gates up to a grassy hill where a small stand of pines stood guard, and settled herself under one of the towering giants. It was good to breathe clean air, to sit and soak in the cool, green peace and untouched beauty of this land. Where else were there still places like this, where you could look and see nothing but rolling grassy hills that stretched to the horizon—with tall, ragged mountains on the other side and the river that cut like a wide ribbon through it all? Cade had liked to fish in that river in the old days, when Donavan was still alive to assume some of the burden of their business. Abby went with him occasionally, watching him land big bass and crappie, rainbow trout and channel catfish. The nice thing about Cade, she thought dreamily, was that he had such a love for the land and its protection. He was constantly investigating new ways of improving his own range, working closely with the Soil Conservation Service to protect the natural resources of his state. Her eyes turned toward the gate as she heard a horse’s hooves, and she found Cade riding up the ridge toward her on his big black gelding. He sat a horse so beautifully, reminding her of a Western movie hero. He was all muscle and grace, and she respected him more than any man she’d ever known. He reined in when he reached her and swung one long leg around the pommel, a smoking cigarette in his lean, dark hands as he watched her from under the wide brim of his gray Stetson. “Slumming, miss model?” he teased with a faint smile. “This is the place for it,” she said, leaning back against the tree to smile up at him. Her long, pale hair caught the breeze and curved around her flushed cheeks. “Isn’t it peaceful here?” she asked. “No wonder the Indians fought so very hard to keep it.” His eyes darkened, narrowed. “A man does fight to keep the things he wants most,” he said enigmatically, studying her. “Why do you wear those damned baggy things?” he demanded, nodding toward her bulky shirt and loose jeans. She shrugged, avoiding that piercing gaze. “They’re comfortable,” she said inadequately. “They look like hell. I’d rather see you in transparent blouses,” he added coldly. Her eyebrows arched. “You lecherous old thing,” she accused. He chuckled softly, deeply, a sound she hadn’t heard in a long time. It made him seem younger. “Only with you, honey,” he said softly. “I’m the soul of chivalry around most women.” Her eyes searched his. “You could have any woman you want these days,” she murmured absently. “Then isn’t it a hell of a shame that I have such a fussy appetite?” he asked. He took a draw from the cigarette and studied her quietly. “I’m a busy man.” “You look it,” she agreed, studying the dusty jeans that encased his hard, powerful legs, and his scuffed brown boots and sweat-stained denim shirt. There was a black mat of hair under that shirt, and a muscular chest that she remembered desperately wanting to touch. “It’s spring,” he reminded her. “Cattle to doctor, calves to separate and brand and herds to move up to summer pasture as soon as we finish roundup. Hay to plant, machinery to repair and replace, temporary hands to hire for roundup, supplies to get in... If it isn’t one damned thing, it’s another.” “And you love every minute of it,” she accused. “You’d die anywhere else.” “Amen.” He finished the cigarette and tossed it down. “Crush that out for me, will you, honey?” “It’s not dry enough for it to cause a grass fire,” she reminded him, but she got up and did it all the same. “Back in the old days, Indians and white men would stop fighting to battle grass fires together,” he told her with a grin. “They’re still hard to stop, even today.” She looked up at him, tracing his shadowed face with eyes that ached for what might have been. “You look so at home in the saddle,” she remarked. “I grew up in it.” He reached down an arm. “Step on my boot and come up here. I’ll give you a ride home.” “It’s a good thing you don’t ride a horse the way you drive,” she observed. “That’s not a good way to get reacquainted,” he said shortly. “It’s only the truth. Donavan wouldn’t even get in a truck with you,” she reminded him. “Although I have to admit that you’re a pretty good driver on the highway.” “Thanks for nothing. Are you coming or not?” She wanted and dreaded the closeness. He was so very strong. What if she panicked again, what if he demanded an answer to her sudden nervousness? “Abby,” he said suddenly, his voice as full of authority as if he were tossing orders at his cowboys. “Come on.” She reacted to that automatically and took his hand, tingling as it slid up her arm to hold her. She stepped deftly onto the toe of his boot in the stirrup and swung up in front of him. He drew her back against him with a steely arm, and she felt the powerful muscles of his chest at her shoulder blades. “Comfortable?” he asked shortly. “I’m fine,” she replied in a voice that was unusually high-pitched. He eased the horse into a canter. “You’ll be more comfortable if you’ll relax, little one,” he murmured. “I’m no threat.” That was what he thought, she told herself, reacting wildly to the feel of his body against her back. He smelled of leather and cow and tobacco, and his breath sighed over her head, into her loosened hair. If only she could relax instead of sitting like a fire poker in his light embrace. But he made her nervous, just as he always had; he made her feel vulnerable and soft and hungry. Despite the bad experience in New York, he appealed to her senses in ways that unnerved her. He chuckled softly and she stiffened more. “What’s so funny?” she muttered above the sound of the horse’s hooves striking hard ground. “You are. Should I be flattered that you’re afraid to let me hold you on a horse? My God, I didn’t realize I was so devastating at close range. Or,” he added musingly, “is it that I smell like a man who’s been working with cattle?” Laughter bubbled up inside her. It had been years since she and Cade had spent any time alone, and she’d forgotten his dry sense of humor. “Sorry.” She sighed. “I’ve been away longer than I realized.” His big arm tightened for an instant and relaxed, and she let him hold her without a struggle. His strength was less intimidating now than it had been the last time, as if the nightmare experience were truly fading away in the scope and bigness of this country where she had grown up. She felt safe. Safer than she’d felt in years. “Four years,” he murmured behind her head. “Except for a few days here and there, when you could tear yourself away from New York.” She went taut with indignation. “Are you going to start that again?” “I never stopped it. You just stopped listening.” His arm contracted impatiently for an instant, and his warm breath was on her ear. “When are you going to grow up, Abby? Glitter isn’t enough for a lifetime. In the end, it’s not going to satisfy you as a woman!” “What is?” she asked curtly. “Living with some man and raising children?” He seemed to freeze, as if she’d thrown cold water in his face, and she was sorry she’d said that. She hadn’t meant it—she was just getting back at him. “It’s more than enough for women out here,” he said shortly. She stared across at the horizon, loving the familiar contours of the land, the shape of the tall trees, the blueness of the sky. “Your grandmother had ten children, didn’t she, Cade?” she asked, remembering the photos in the McLaren family album. “Yes.” He laughed shortly. “There wasn’t much choice in those days, honey. Women didn’t have a lot of control over their bodies, like they do now.” “And it took big families to run ranches and farms,” she agreed. She leaned back against him, feeling his muscles ripple with the motion of the horse. Her eyes closed as she drank in the sensation of being close. “It was more than that,” he remarked as they approached the house. “People in love want children.” She laughed aloud at that. “I can’t imagine you in love,” she said. “It’s completely out of character. What was it you always said about never letting a woman put a ring through your nose?” He didn’t laugh. If anything, he seemed to grow cold. “You don’t know me at all, Abby. You never have.” “Who could get close enough?” she asked coolly. “You’ve got a wall ten feet thick around yourself, just like Donavan had. It must be a McLaren trait.” “When people come close, they can hurt,” he said shortly. “I’ve had my fill of being cut to the quick.” “I can’t imagine anyone brave enough to try that,” she told him. “Can’t you?” He sounded goaded, and the arm that was holding her tautened. She got a glimpse of his face as he leaned down to open the gate between them and the house, and its hardness unsettled her. He looked hurt somehow, and she couldn’t understand why. “Cade?” she murmured before he straightened again. His eyes looked straight into hers, and she trembled at the intensity of the glare, its suppressed violence. “One day, you’ll push too hard,” he said quietly. “I’m not made of stone, despite the fact that you seem to believe I am. I let you get away with murder when you were younger. But you’re not a child anymore, Abby, and the kid gloves are off. Do you understand me?” How could she help it? Her heart shuddered with mingled fear and excitement. Involuntarily, her eyes went to his hard mouth and she remembered vividly the touch and taste and expertness of it. “Don’t worry, Cade, I won’t seduce you,” she promised, trying to sound as if she were teasing him in a sophisticated way. He caught her chin and forced her eyes back up to his, and she jumped at the ferocity in his dark gaze. “I could have had you that night at the swimming pool, Abigail Jennifer Shane,” he reminded her with merciless bluntness. “We’re both four years older, but don’t think you’re immune to me. If you start playing games, you could goad me into doing something we’d both regret.” She tried to breathe normally and failed miserably. She forced her eyes down to the harsh rise and fall of his chest, and then closed them. “Just because I had a huge crush on you once, don’t get conceited and think I’m still stupid enough to moon over you, Cade,” she bit off. As if the words set him off, his eyes flashed and all at once he had her across the saddle, over his knees, with her head imprisoned in the crook of his arm. She struggled, frightened by his strength as she’d been afraid from the beginning that she would be. “No,” she whispered, pushing frantically at his chest. “Let’s see how conceited I am, Abby,” he ground out, bending his head to hers. One glance into those blazing eyes was enough to tell her that he wasn’t teasing. She groaned helplessly as his hard mouth crushed down onto hers in cold, angry possession. It might have been so different if he’d been careful, if he hadn’t given in to his temper. But she was too frightened to think rationally. It was New York all over again, and a man’s strength was holding her helpless while a merciless mouth ground against her own. Through the fear, she thought she felt Cade tremble, but she couldn’t be sure. Her mind was focused only on the hard pressure of his mouth, the painful tightening of his arms. Suddenly she began to fight. She hit him with her fists, anywhere she could, and when the shock of it made him lift his head, she screamed. An indescribable expression washed over his features, and he seemed to go pale. Abby hung back against his arm, her pale brown eyes full of terror, her lips bloodless as she stared up at him, her breasts rising and falling with her strangled breaths. “My God, what’s happened to you?” he asked in a shocked undertone. She swallowed nervously, her lips trembling with reaction, her body frozen in its arch. “Please...don’t handle me...roughly,” she pleaded, her voice strange and high. His eyes narrowed, glittering. His face went rock-hard as he searched her features. “What made you come here, Abby?” he demanded. “What drove you out of the city?” Her eyes closed and she shuddered. “I told you, I was tired,” she choked out. “Tired!” He said something terrible under his breath and straightened, moving her away from him with a smooth motion. “It’s all right,” he said when her eyes flew open at the movement. “I’m only going to let you sit up.” She avoided his piercing scrutiny, sitting quickly erect with her back to him. He spurred the horse toward the house. “If you can’t bear to be touched, there has to be a reason,” he said shortly. “You’ve been hurt some way, or frightened. I asked you if you’d been knocked around by a man, and you denied it. But you lied to me, didn’t you, Abby?” Her jaw set firmly. “All this fuss because you kissed me against my will and I fought you!” she burst out. “Are you so conceited that you think I can’t wait to fall into your arms, Cade?” He didn’t say a word. He rode right up to the front steps and abruptly set her down on the ground. She stood by the horse for a long moment before she looked up. “Thanks for the ride,” she ventured. He’d lit a cigarette and was smoking it quietly, his face grim as he looked down at her. “You’re going to tell me what happened sooner or later.” “Nothing happened,” she lied, raising her voice. “I didn’t wind up with three ranches and a corporation because I was an idiot,” he informed her. “You didn’t come rushing down here a month early just to help Melly get ready for her wedding. And it damned sure wasn’t because you were dying for the sight of me.” He was hitting too close to the truth. She turned away. “Believe what you like, Great White Rancher.” “Abby!” She whirled, eyes blazing, as gloriously beautiful in anger as a sunburst, with her pale hair making a frame for her delicate face and wide brown eyes. “What?” His eyes went over her reverently, from toes to head, while the cigarette smoked away in his tanned fingers. “Don’t fight me.” It was like having the breath knocked out of her. She looked up at him and felt the anger drain away. He was so gorgeously masculine, so handsome. Her eyes softened helplessly. “Then don’t hurt me,” she said quietly. He laughed mirthlessly. “That works both ways.” “Pull the other one,” she muttered. “I’d have to use dynamite. You’re hard, Cade.” “This is hard country. I don’t have time for the limp-wristed courtesies you city women swear by in men.” “Sophistication doesn’t make a man peculiar,” she returned. “I like a polished man.” His dark eyes glittered. “Not always,” he replied. “There was a time when I could look at you and make you blush.” “That old crush?” she said. “I thought the sun rose and set on you, all right. But you made a career of pushing me away, didn’t you?” “You were eighteen, damn it!” he shot at her. “Eighteen, to my thirty-two! I felt like a damned fool when I left you that night. I should never have touched you!” The one beautiful memory in her life, and he was sorry it had happened. If she’d ever wondered how he really felt inside his shell, she knew now. She lowered her eyes and turned away. She walked to the house without another word, without a backward glance. As she went up the steps, she imagined she heard him swear, but when she looked back, he was riding away. * * * Abby brooded about the confrontation for the rest of the day, and at the supper table it was patently obvious to Melly and Jerry that something was wrong. Even Calla, walking back and forth to serve up the delicious beef the ranch was famous for, with the accompanying dishes, commented that the weather sure had gotten cold quick. Cade finished his meal before the rest of them and lit a cigarette over his second cup of coffee. “I’ve got those reports printed out whenever you want them, Cade,” Melly ventured. He nodded. “I’ll look them over now. Jerry, come on in when you finish,” he added, rising. “We’ll have to make a decision pretty quick about those cows we’re going to sell off. Jake White wants a few dozen head for embryo transplants.” “Wants them cheap, too.” Jerry laughed. “I reckon he thinks our culls will be the very thing to carry his purebred Angus.” Melly grinned at them, aware of Abby sitting rigidly at her side. “Oh, the advances in cattle breeding. Herefords throwing Angus calves, without even the joys of natural conception.” Cade gave her a hard glare and walked out of the room. “Shame on you,” Jerry muttered as he started to join the boss. “Embarrassing him that way.” “I’m just helping him lose some of his inhibitions, darling,” Melly whispered back, blowing him a kiss before he winked and left the room. “He’ll get even,” Abby said solemnly, picking at her food. “He always does.” “You could help him with those inhibitions, too,” her sister said, tongue in cheek. “Not me, sis,” came the instant reply. She glared toward the doorway. “He can keep his hang-ups for all I care.” Melly stared at her hard. “Why don’t you and Cade start kissing and stop fighting?” “Ask him,” she grumbled, getting up. “It’s one and the same thing with Cade, if you want to know. I’ve got a frightful headache, Melly. Say good-night to the others for me, will you?” And she rushed upstairs without another word before Melly could ask the questions that were forming on her lips. Abby hadn’t had a nightmare since she arrived at the ranch, but after the confrontation with Cade, it was almost inevitable that it would recur. And sure enough, it did. She woke up in the early hours of the morning, screaming. Even as the sounds were dying away, her door burst open and Cade came storming into her room, flashing on the overhead light, with Melly at his heels. 6 (#ulink_d1cf673a-0a80-503e-a4bc-591afce056a9) Abby sat there in the plain cotton gown that concealed every inch of her body, her hair wild, her eyes raining tears down her pale cheeks, and gaped at them on the tail of terror. Cade was in his pajama trousers and nothing else. They rode low on his lean hips, and the sheer masculinity of his big body with its generous black curling hair and bronzed muscle was enough to frighten her even more. “How about making some coffee?” Cade asked Melly, although his tone made it an order, not a request. “But...” Melly began, nervously looking from her sister to her employer. “You heard me.” Melly hesitated for just an instant before she left them alone, her footsteps dying away down the hall. Cade put his hands on his hips and stared down at Abby. With his hair tousled and his face hard, he looked as threatening as any storm. “Get up and put on a robe,” he said after a minute, turning away, “while I get dressed.” “You don’t have to,” she managed weakly. He half turned, his eyes glittering. “Don’t I?” he growled. “You’re looking at me as if I were a rapist.” Her face blanched and he nodded. “That’s how you feel, too, isn’t it, baby? Put on a robe and come into the living room. And stop looking at me like that. I’m not going to touch you. But you’re going to tell me the truth, one way or the other.” He left her sitting there, his back as stiff as a poker. Melly brought the coffee in just as Abby came out of her room, wrapped to the throat in a heavy navy terry-cloth robe. Cade was dressed, barely, in jeans and an open-throated blue shirt that he hadn’t tucked in. He was barefoot, sitting forward in an armchair, worrying his hair with his hands. He looked up as Abby came in. “Sit down,” he said quietly. “Melly, thank you for the coffee. Good night.” “Cade...” Melly began. “Good night,” he repeated. The younger woman sighed as she looked over at Abby, her whole expression one of regret and apology. “It’s all right,” Abby said gently. “You and I both know that Cade would never hurt me.” Cade looked faintly shocked by the words, but he busied himself with lighting a cigarette while Melly said good-night and left them alone. “Fix me a cup, will you, honey?” he asked. Abby automatically poured cream in it and handed it to him. He took it, cup and saucer balanced on his big palm, and smiled at her. “You remembered, didn’t you?” She flushed. Yes, she had, just the way he liked it. She remembered almost everything she’d learned over the years—that he didn’t take sugar, that he hated rhubarb, that he loved a thick steak and cottage potatoes to go with it, that he could go for forty-eight hours without sleep but not one hour without a cigarette.... “Tit for tat?” he murmured, and reached out to put two sugars and cream in the second cup and hand it to her, smiling when she raised astonished eyes to his. She took it, sitting back on the sofa to study the creamy liquid, turning the cup nervously back and forth in its saucer. “Little things,” she murmured, finally lifting her eyes to his. “Isn’t it amazing how we remember them after so many years?” “I remember a lot about you,” he said quietly, studying her. “Especially,” he added on a rueful sigh, “how you look without clothes.” She flushed, dropping her eyes. “It was a long time ago.” “Four years,” he agreed. “But it doesn’t seem that long to me.” He took a gulp of his coffee, ignoring the fact that it was hot enough to blister a normal throat, stubbed out his cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “Tell me what happened, Abby.” She felt the cup tremble in her hand and only just righted it in time. “I can’t, Cade.” He took another sip of coffee and leaned forward suddenly, resting his hands on his knees. “Look up. That’s right, look at me. Do you remember when you ran over your father’s dog with my old jeep?” She swallowed and nodded. “You couldn’t face him, but you came running to me bawling your heart out, and I held you while you cried.” He shifted his hands, studying her drawn face. “When Vennie Walden called you a tomboy and said you looked like a stick with bumps, you came crying to me then.” She nodded again, managing a smile for him. “I always cried on you, didn’t I?” “Always. Why not now?” He reached out a big hand and waited, patiently, until she could put her own, hesitantly, into it and feel its warmth and strength. “From now on, it’s going to be just like this. I won’t touch you unless you want me to. Now tell me what happened. Did you find out he was married?” “He?” she asked, studying him blankly. “The man you had an affair with,” he said quietly. “The one you wake up screaming over in the middle of the night.” She swallowed down the urge to get up and run. How in the world was she going to be able to tell him the truth. How? “Come on, Abby, tell me,” he coaxed with a faint smile. “I’m not going to sit in judgment on you.” “You’ve got it wrong, Cade,” she said after a minute. “It...wasn’t an affair.” His heavy brows came together. He searched her face. “No? I understood Melly to say there was a man....” “There was.” Her eyes opened and closed, and the pain of admission was in them suddenly. She tried to speak, and her mouth trembled on the words. He was beginning to sense something. His face seemed to darken, his eyes glittered. His hand, on hers, tightened promptingly. “Abby, tell me!” he ground out, his patience exhausted. Her eyes closed, because she couldn’t bear to see what would be in his when she told him. “I was assaulted, Cade.” The silence seemed to go on forever. Forever! The hand around her own stilled, and withdrew. Somewhere a clock was ticking with comical loudness; she could hear it above the tortured pounding of her own heart.... At first, she wondered if he’d heard her. Until she looked up and saw his lean hands, tough from years of ranch work, contract slowly around the cup until it shattered and coffee went in a half-dozen directions onto the deep gray pile carpet. Her eyes shot up to his face, reading the aching compassion and murderous rage that passed across it in wild succession. “Who?” he asked, the word dangerously soft. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “Surely to God there was a suspect!” he burst out, oblivious to the shards of pottery and the coffee that was staining his jeans, the carpet. “Not yet,” she told him. “Cade, the carpet...look, you’ve cut your hand!” she exclaimed, seeing blood. “Oh, to hell with that,” he growled. He glanced at his hand and tugged a handkerchief from his jeans pocket to wind haphazardly around it. “What do you mean, not yet?” “Just what I said. It’s a big city.” She got up, kneeling beside him. “Let me see. Come on, let me see!” she grumbled, forcing him to give her the big warm hand. She unwrapped the handkerchief gently; there was a shallow cut on the ball of his thumb. “We’d better put something on it.” “Is that why you backed away from me earlier?” he asked, his eyes on her bent head. “Why you were afraid when I was rough with you earlier, outside?” Her eyes clouded. “Yes.” He started to touch her hair and froze, withdrawing his hand before it could make contact. He laid it back on the arm of the chair with a wistful sigh. “What can I say, Abby?” he asked gently. “What in hell can I say?” Her fingers let go of his hand and she got to her feet. “There’s some antiseptic in the guest bathroom, isn’t there?” she asked. “I suppose so.” He got up and followed her down the hall, sitting uncomfortably on the little vanity bench, which swayed precariously while she rifled through the medicine cabinet for antiseptic and a bandage. He sat quietly while she dressed the cut, but his eyes watched her intently. “Please don’t watch me like that,” she asked tightly. His eyes fell to his hand. “It’s an old habit.” His chiseled mouth made a half smile when she looked down at him, startled. “You didn’t know that, I suppose.” The smile faded. “Can you talk about it?” She studied him quietly and lowered her eyes. “I was coming home from an assignment, at night. It was a nice night, just a little nippy, and I had a coat on over my dress. I only lived a few blocks away, so I walked.” She laughed bitterly. “The streets were deserted, and before I realized it, a man started following me. I ran, and he caught up with me and dragged me into an alley.” She shuddered at the memory. “I tried so hard to get away, but he was big and terribly strong....” Her eyes closed. “He pushed me down and started kissing me, touching me... I screamed then, just as loud as I could, and there were three men coming out of a nearby bar who heard me. They came running and he took off.” She drew in a steadying breath, oblivious to Cade’s white, strained face. “Thank God they heard me. People talk about cities being cold and heartless places, but it didn’t happen that way for me. The people at the emergency room told me I’d been damned lucky.” “Was there someone to take care of you?” he asked as if it mattered, really mattered. “Yes. There was a Rape Crisis Center. All women,” she said with a faint smile, recalling the gentle treatment, the care she’d received. “They sent me over there, despite the fact that I hadn’t been raped. It’s still a mentally scarring thing, to be handled that way, mauled. Thinking about the way it might have been... But I felt dirty, you know. Soiled. I still think about it constantly....” His face hardened as he watched her quietly. “If I’d made love to you that night, kept you here with me, none of this would ever have happened.” “Did you want to, really?” she wondered softly. He drew in a long, steady breath. “I wanted to,” he admitted after a minute, and his eyes darkened. He got to his feet, towering over her. “But it would have been a slap in the face to your father. He trusted me to look after you. And God knows, it would have been a mistake, a bad one.” He studied her intently. “I’d never touched a virgin until that night.” She felt a surge of pride at that confession, and it showed in her eyes. “I’ve never touched one since, either,” he added with a quiet smile. “Learned your lesson, huh?” she murmured with a feeble attempt at humor. He nodded. “Can you sleep now?” The thought of the dark room was disquieting, but she erased the nervousness from her eyes. “Yes. I think so.” “You can sleep with me if you want to,” he said quietly, and she knew exactly what he meant—that he’d die before he’d touch her, unless she wanted it. Hesitantly, her hand went out to touch his arm, a light touch that was quickly removed. “Thank you,” she said softly. “But I’ll be all right now.” His eyes searched hers for a long moment. “You trust me, don’t you?” he asked gently. “Yes,” she said simply. “More than anyone else in the world, Cade, if it means anything.” “Yes,” he bit off, “it means something.” “The carpet!” she exclaimed suddenly. “Oh, Cade, I’ll bet the carpet’s ruined....” “I’ll buy a new one. Go to bed.” “Thank you,” she said as he turned to go out into the hall. “I...I... Melly said I should have told you about it, but I didn’t...I wasn’t sure....” “You didn’t think that I’d blame you?” he asked softly. She stared down at the carpeted floor, embarrassed now that he knew. “Stop it, for God’s sake,” he said bluntly. “So you got mauled. You’ve had a terrible experience, and I’m sorry as hell, but it doesn’t change who you are!” Her lips trembled. “I feel unclean,” she whispered, shaken. “As if I’d been robbed of something I had the right to give to a man I chose. He touched me in ways no man ever did, not even you...” He drew in a ragged breath. “Yes, you were robbed, but not of your chastity. Even if he’d raped you, you’d still have that.” She stared up at him numbly. “What?” He lit a cigarette with unsteady fingers. “Oh, hell, I’m putting this badly.” He blew out a cloud of smoke and stared down at her with narrowed eyes. “Abby, how long ago did it happen?” “Week before last,” she confessed. “Okay, and you’re still raw, that makes sense. But you’ll get over it. And it will be different, with a man you care about.” Her lips pouted. “It wasn’t any different this afternoon. You scared me to death.” His face paled, but he didn’t look away. “My fault. I’ve been without a woman for a while, and the feel of you went to my head. I was rougher than I ever meant to be. But you’ve got to help yourself a little by not dwelling on what happened to you.” “How can I help it? It makes me sick just remembering...!” she burst out. “Put it in perspective, honey,” he said curtly, jamming his bandaged hand in his pocket as if he were afraid he might try to touch her with it. “Has it occurred to you that by letting the experience warp your mind, you’re giving that piece of scum who attacked you more rights over you than you’d give a husband?” She stared at him, stunned. He took another long draw from the cigarette. “You’re giving him the right to dominate your life, by dwelling on what happened, by blowing up what he did to you and letting it lock you up emotionally and physically.” “I...hadn’t thought of it like that.” “Suppose you start.” She wrapped her arms around her trembling body. “You can’t know how it is for a woman,” she murmured. “Against a man’s strength...” “I can remember a time in your life when you very much liked being helpless against mine,” he said under his breath. “That was different. I knew you’d never hurt me.” “You knew that this afternoon, but you fought me like a wildcat.” She flushed. “You hurt me!” His jaw tightened. “Do you think because I have to be hard with my men that I’m that hard inside? You get under my skin like no other woman ever has. You deliberately needle me and then take offense when I defend myself. It’s always been that way.” “I never thought you could be hurt,” she murmured, avoiding his piercing gaze. “Least of all by me.” “Why talk about it?” he asked wearily. “It’s all water under the bridge now.” “Thanks for the therapy session,” she said softly and smiled, because she meant it. He smiled back. “Did it help?” She nodded. Her eyes searched his. “Cade, I’m sorry I screamed this afternoon.” He reached down and smoothed a lock of hair from her face. “I didn’t know. Now I do. Give it time—you’ll be fine. I’ll help.” “Thanks for letting me come.” He looked strange for a minute. “When Melly said you wanted to get here early for the wedding, so you could spend some time on the ranch, I didn’t know the real reason. I thought...” He dropped his hand with a gruff laugh. “You can still sleep with me, if you want. I wouldn’t touch you.” Her soft eyes searched his, and he looked back as if it were beyond his power to remove his eyes from hers. “Calla and Melly would be shocked to the back teeth,” she whispered, trying to joke about it and failing. It would have been heaven to lie in his arms all night. “But thank you for the offer.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t for purely selfless reasons,” he said, winking at her. “Bed’s damned cold in early spring,” he chuckled. She hit him softly. “Beast!” “Think you can sleep now?” She nodded. “I feel a little different about it. Maybe I just need time to put things into perspective, after all.” “If you’d like something to occupy your mind, I’ll take you out to see the rest of the calves in the morning.” “Oh, boy,” she said enthusiastically. “But what if it snows again?” she asked. “It was awfully cloudy this afternoon and cold as blazes and the radio says—” “When has snow ever stopped me?” he asked, chuckling. “Night, honey.” He turned and strode off toward the stairs. When has anything ever stopped you? she asked herself silently. Except once...she’d never realized until now that he’d really wanted her that night. He’d been so cool and calm on the surface that she’d halfway convinced herself he had only been satisfying her curiosity to keep her from experimenting with younger, more hot-blooded males. But now she began to wonder. She was still wondering when she fell into a deep, satisfying sleep. 7 (#ulink_a795cdd0-91f3-53cd-a23b-bf1dc57ba4e6) Cade had offered to take Abby back to see the calves, but by morning the snow had covered Painted Ridge and he was out with his men trying to bring in the half-frozen calves and their new mothers. According to Hank, Cade was cursing a blue streak from one end of the ranch to the other. “Wants his other gloves,” Hank growled at Calla when he paused in the hall, the familiar wad of tobacco tucked into his cheek. “Ruined a pair trying to unhook one of them damned cows from the barbed wire.” “He goes through gloves like some men go through food,” Calla grumbled, shooting an irritated glance at Hank for interrupting her in the middle of lunch preparation. “Only got one pair left as it is. You best remember to tell him that!” “Can’t tell him a damned thing,” Hank muttered, waiting uncomfortably in the hall. His wide-brimmed hat was spotted with melted snow, and his heavy cloth coat was equally damp. “He hit the ground cussing this morning and he ain’t stopped yet. I just follow orders, I don’t give ’em!” he shouted after Calla. “Is it bad out there?” Melly called from the den, where she was busily operating Cade’s computer. “Bad enough,” Hank replied. “Hope your fingers are rested, Miss Melly, ’cause you’re sure going to do some typing when we get a tally on these new calves!” “As usual.” Melly laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Hank, I get paid good.” “If we got paid what we was worth, Cade would go in the hole, I guess,” the thin cowboy said to no one in particular. He glanced at Abby, who was standing there quietly in her jeans and a blue turtleneck sweater. “I hear you’re going to stay with us till Miss Melly’s wedding. How’re you settling in?” She smiled. “Just fine. It feels like old times.” “Far cry from the city,” he observed. She nodded. “Less traffic,” she said with a hint of her old humor. Hank looked disgusted. “Give me a horse any day,” he muttered, “and open country to ride him in. If God wanted the world covered in concrete, he’d have made human beings with tires!” It was the cowboy’s favorite theme, and Abby was looking for a way to escape before he had time to get started when Calla came thumping back down the hall with a worn pair of gloves in her hand. “Here,” she said shortly, slapping them into Hank’s outstretched hand. “And make sure he doesn’t get holes in them. That’s all there is.” “What am I, a nursemaid?” he spat out. “My gosh, Calla, all I do is babysit cows these days. If Cade gave a hang about my feelings, he’d give me some decent work.” “Maybe he’ll set you to digging post holes,” the older woman suggested with malicious glee. “I’ll tell him what you said.” “You do,” he threatened, “and I’ll tell him what you did with that cherry cake he had his heart set on the other night.” She sucked in a furious breath. “You wouldn’t dare!” He grinned, something rare for Hank. “You tell him I like digging post holes, and I’ll do it or bust. Bye, Abby, Melly,” he called over his shoulder as he stomped out the door. “What did you do with Cade’s cherry cake?” Abby asked with a sideways stare. Calla cleared her throat and walked back toward the kitchen. “I gave it to Jeb. Cade’s not the only one who’s partial to my cherry cake.” Abby smothered a chuckle as she wandered into the den. With its bare wood floors, Indian rugs and wood furniture, it was a far cry from the luxury of the living room. Melly looked up as Abby came toward the desk where the computer and printer were set up. “I didn’t want to desert you last night,” she said apologetically. “Did you tell him?” “I had to,” Abby admitted, perching herself on the edge of the chair beside Melly’s. “You know Cade when he sets his mind on something. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. He didn’t even say ‘I told you so.’” “I didn’t expect him to. You underestimate him sometimes, I think.” Melly looked smug. “There’s a brown spot on the carpet in the living room.” Abby looked guilty. “I was afraid of that, but he wouldn’t hear of my cleaning it up.” She sighed. “He was holding the coffee cup when I told him. He...crushed it.” Melly closed her eyes for an instant. “I noticed his hand was bandaged this morning,” she murmured. “I wondered why...” “He said some things that made me think,” Abby recalled, smiling faintly. “He may not be a psychologist, but he’s got a lot of common sense about things. He said I was giving the man who attacked me a hold over me, by dwelling on it. I’d never considered it in that light, but I think he has a point.” Melly smiled at her gently. “Maybe he ought to open an office,” she said impishly. Abby grinned back. “Maybe he ought.” She studied her sister closely for a minute as her head bent over the computer keyboard while she typed in a code and glanced up at the screen. The abbreviations were Greek to Abby, but they seemed to make sense to Melly. “What are you doing?” “Herd records. We’re getting ready to cull cattle, you know. Any cows that don’t come up to par are going to be sold off, especially if they aren’t producing enough calves or if the ones they’re producing aren’t good enough or if they’re old....” “Slavery,” Abby burst out. “Horrible!” Melly laughed merrily. “Yes, Cade was telling me what you thought about veal smothered in onions.” “That’s really horrible,” she muttered. “Poor little thing, all cold and half-frozen and its mama turned her back on it, and Cade talks about eating it....” “Life goes on, darling,” Melly reminded her, “and a cattle ranch is no place for sentiment. I can’t just see you owning one—you’d make pets of all the cattle and become a vegetarian.” “Hmm,” Abby said, frowning thoughtfully, “I wonder if Cade’s ever thought of that?” “I don’t know,” came the amused reply, “but if I were you, I’d wait until way after roundup to ask him!” Abby laughed. “You may have a point.” Melly murmured something, but her mind went quickly back to the computer and her work. Abby, curious, asked questions and Melly told her about the computer network between Cade’s ranches, and the capacity of the computer for storing information about the cattle. There was even a videocassette setup so that Cade could sell cattle to people who had never been to the ranch to see them—they could buy from the tape. He could buy the same way, by watching film of a bull he was interested in, for example. It was a far cry from the old days of ranching when ranchers kept written records and went crazy trying to keep up with thousands of head of cattle. Abby was fascinated by the computer and the rapidity of its operation. But after a few minutes the phone started ringing and didn’t stop, and Abby wandered off to watch the snow. “Isn’t Cade going to come in and eat?” Melly asked as Calla set a platter of ham and bread and condiments on the table, along with a plate of homemade French fries. “Nope.” The older woman sighed. “Said to pack him a sandwich and a thermos of coffee and he’d run up to the house to get it.” She nodded toward a sack and a thermos on the buffet. “Is he coming right up?” Abby asked. “Any minute.” “I’ll carry it out,” Abby volunteered, and grabbed it up, hurrying toward the front door. She only paused long enough to tug on galoshes and her thick cloth coat, and rushed out onto the porch as she heard a pickup skid up to the house and stop. Cade was sitting in the cab when she crunched her way through the blowing snow to the truck. He threw open the passenger door. “Thanks, honey,” he said, taking the sack and thermos from her and placing them on the seat beside him. “Get in out of the snow.” She started to close the truck door, but he shook his head. “In here,” he corrected. “With me.” Something about the way he said it made her pulse pound, and she shook herself mentally. She was reading things into his deep voice, that was all. “Hank said you were turning the air blue. Is this new snow your fault?” Abby asked him with humor in her pale brown eyes. He returned the smile and there was a light in his eyes she hadn’t noticed before. “I reckon,” he murmured, watching the color come and go in her flushed face. “Feel better this morning?” “Yes, thank you,” she said softly. He reached out a big hand and held it, palm up. She hesitated for an instant before she reached out her own cold, slender hand and put it gingerly into his. The hard fingers closed softly around it and squeezed. “This is how it’s going to be from now on,” he said, his voice deep and quiet, the two of them isolated in the cold cab while feathery snow fell onto the windshield, the hood, the landscape. “I’ll ask, I won’t take.” She looked into his eyes and felt, for a second, the old magic of electricity between them. “That goes against the grain, I’ll bet,” she said. “I’m used to taking,” he replied. “But I can get used to asking, I suppose. How about you?” She looked down at his big hand swallowing hers, liking the warmth and strength of it even while something in the back of her mind rebelled at that strength. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “What frightens you most?” he asked. “Your strength,” she said, without taking time to think, and her eyes came up to his. He nodded, and not by a flicker of an eyelash did he betray any emotion beyond curiosity. “And if I let you make all the moves?” he asked quietly. “If I let you come close or touch or hold, instead of moving in on you?” The thought fascinated her. That showed in her unblinking gaze, in the slight tilt of her head. “Therapy, Cade?” she asked in a soft, steady tone. “Whatever name you want to call it.” He opened his hand so that she could leave hers there or remove it, as she wished. It was more than a gesture—it was a statement. She smiled slowly. “Such power might go to my head,” she said with a tentative laugh. “Suppose I decided to have my way with you?” she added, finding that she could treat the matter lightly for the moment. He cocked an eyebrow and looked stern. “Don’t start getting any ideas about me. I’m not easy. None of you wild city girls are going to come out here and lure me into any haystacks.” She let her fingers curl into his and hold them. “It’s a long shot,” she said after a minute. “My grandfather won this ranch in a poker game in Cheyenne,” he remarked. “I guess it’s in my blood to take long shots.” “Won’t it interfere with your private life?” she added, hoping her question wouldn’t sound as if she were fishing. He studied her closely for a minute before he replied. “I thought you knew that I don’t have affairs.” She almost jumped at the quiet intensity of his eyes. “I...never really thought about it,” she lied. “I’ve had women,” he said, “but nothing permanent, nothing lasting. There’s no private life for you to interfere with.” She was suddenly fiercely glad of that, although she didn’t know how to tell him. “It’s not going to be very easy,” she confessed shyly. “I’ve never been forward, even before this happened.” “I know,” he murmured, smiling down at her. “I could sit here and look at you all day,” he said after a minute, “but it wouldn’t get the work done,” he added ruefully. “I could come and help you,” she volunteered, wondering at her sudden reluctance to leave him. “It’s too cold, honey,” he said. His eyes wandered over her soft, flushed face. “Feel like kissing me?” Her heart jumped. She felt a new kind of excitement at the thought of it. “I thought you weren’t easy,” she challenged as she slid hesitantly toward him. Surprise registered in his eyes, but only for a second. “Well, only with some girls,” he corrected, smiling wickedly. “Come on, hurry up, I’ve got calves to deliver.” “Young Dr. McLaren,” she murmured, looking up at him from close range, seeing new lines in his face, fatigue in his dark eyes. There were a few silver hairs over his temples and she touched them with unsteady fingers. “You’re going gray, Cade.” “I got those because of you, when you were in your early teens,” he reminded her. “Hanging off saddles trying to do trick riding, falling into the rapids out of a rickety canoe, flying over fences trying to ride Donavan’s broncs...my God, you were a handful!” “Well, Melly and I didn’t have a mama,” she reminded him, “and Dad was in poor health from the time we got in grammar school on. If it hadn’t been for you and Calla and the cowboys, I guess Melly and I wouldn’t have made it.” “Stop that,” he growled. “And don’t make me out to be an old man. I’m just fourteen years older than you, and I never did feel like a relative.” She put her fingers against his warm lips and felt their involuntary pursing with a tingle of satisfaction. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She looked into his dark eyes with a thrill of pure pleasure. “Can I really kiss you?” His chest seemed to rise and fall with unusual rapidity; his nostrils flared under heavy breaths. “Do you want to?” “I...I want to.” She reached around his neck to pull his dark head down to hers, letting her fingers savor the thick coolness of his hair. Her eyes fell to his hard lips and she noticed that they didn’t part when hers touched them, as if he were keeping himself on a tight rein to prevent the kiss from becoming intimate. She liked the warmth of his mouth under hers, and she liked the faint rasp of his cheek where her nose rubbed against it as she pressed harder against his lips. His breath was even harder now but he wasn’t moving a muscle. With a quiet, trusting sigh she eased away from him and looked up. His face was rigid, his eyes blazing back at her. “Okay?” she asked uncertainly, needing reassurance. A faint smile softened his expression. “Okay.” She frowned slightly, studying his set lips. “You kept your mouth closed, though,” she said absently. “I don’t think we need to go that far that fast, baby,” he said quietly. He moved away from her, his hand going to the ignition to start the truck and let it idle. “It’s like learning to walk. You have to do it one step at a time.” “That was a nice step,” she told him with a smile. “I thought so myself.” He raised his chin and his eyes were all arrogance. “Are you going to need an engraved invitation every time from now on?” “I guess I could sneak up on your blind side,” she confessed with a grin. “Or drag you off into dark corners. Maybe if I watch Melly and Jerry I’ll get some new ideas. She said he pushed her into a hay stall and fell on her.” He burst out laughing, and she found that she could laugh, too—a far cry from her first reaction when Melly had confessed it. “That sounds like Jerry,” he said after a minute. His eyes searched hers. “It’s what I’d have done, once.” The smile faded, and she felt a deep sadness for what might have been if she hadn’t been so crazy to go to New York and break into modeling. “In a hay stall?” she teased halfheartedly. “Anywhere. As long as it was with you, and I could feel you...all of you...under my body.” She turned away from the hunger in his eyes with a tiny little sound, and he hit the steering wheel with his hand and stared blindly out the windshield, cursing under his breath. “I’m sorry,” he ground out. “That was a damned stupid thing to say...!” “Don’t handle me with kid gloves,” she said, looking back at him. “Melly was right, and so were you. I can’t run away from the memory of the attack, and I can’t run away from life. I’m going to have to learn to deal with...relationships, physical relationships.” Her eyes met his bravely. “Help me.” “I’ve already told you that I will.” She studied the worn mat on the floorboard. “And don’t get angry when I react...predictably.” “Like just now?” he asked, and managed a smile. She nodded, smiling back. “Like just now.” Her eyes searched his, looking for reassurance. “It frightens me, still, the...the weight of a man’s body,” she whispered shakily, and only realized much later that she’d confessed that to no one else. “In that case,” he said gently, “I’ll have to let you push me down in the hay, won’t I?” Tears misted in her eyes. “Oh, Cade...” “Will you get out of my truck?” he asked pleasantly, preventing her, probably intentionally, from showing any gratitude. “I think I did mention about a half hour ago that I was in a flaming hurry.” “Some hurry,” she scoffed. “If you were really in a hurry,” she added, nodding toward the snow, “you’d walk.” “That’s an idea. But I left my snowshoes in the attic. Out! Go let Melly show you how to work the computer. You do realize that somebody’s going to have to do her job while she’s on her honeymoon?” “Me? But, Cade, I don’t know anything about computers....” “What a great time for you to learn,” he advised. He searched her flushed face, seeing a new purpose in it, a slackening of the fear, and he nodded. “Don’t rush off to New York after the wedding. Stay with me.” “I’d like to stay with you,” she said in a soft, gentle tone as she looked into his dark eyes. He held her gaze for a long, warm moment before he averted his eyes to the gearshift. “Now I’m going,” he said firmly. “Either you skedaddle or you come with me.” “I’d like to come with you,” she said with a sigh, “but I’d just get in the way, wouldn’t I?” “Sure,” he said with a flash of white teeth. Then his eyes narrowed. “Do you want to come, really? Because I’m going to let you, and to hell with getting in the way, if you say yes.” She took a deep, slow breath, and shrugged. “Better not, I suppose,” she said regretfully. “Melly’s wedding dress...I have to get started.” “Okay. How about fabric?” “Calla bought it for me. It’s just a matter of deciding what to use,” she told him. “Don’t get sick, okay?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Why? Afraid you’d have to nurse me?” “I’d stay up all night for weeks if you needed me. Don’t be silly,” she chided, reaching for the door handle. “Tell Calla not to keep supper, honey, it’s going to be another long night.” She nodded as she held the door ajar. “Want me to bring your supper down to you?” He smiled. “On your snowshoes? Better not, it’s damned cold out here. I’ll have a bite later. See you.” “See you.” She closed the door and watched him drive away with wistful eyes. She already regretted not going with him, but she didn’t wait around to wonder why. That night, she and Melly chose the fabric from the yards and yards of it that Calla had tucked away in the cedar chest. “Isn’t it strange that I’m getting married first?” Melly asked as they studied the pattern. “I always thought it would be you.” “Me and who?” Abby laughed. “Cade, of course.” Abby caught her breath. “He never felt that way.” “Oh, you poor blind thing,” Melly said softly. “He used to watch you like a man watching a rainbow. Sometimes his hands would tremble when he was helping you onto a horse or opening a door for you, and you never even noticed, did you?” Abby’s pale brown eyes widened helplessly. “Cade?” “Cade.” Melly sat back in her chair and sighed. “He was head over heels about you when you left here. He roared around for two weeks after you were gone, making the men nervous, driving the rest of us up walls. He’d sit by the fire at night and just stare straight ahead. I’ve never seen a man grieve like that over a woman. And you didn’t even know.” Abby’s eyes closed in pain. If she’d known that, career or no career, she would have come running back to Montana on her bare feet if she’d had to. “I didn’t have any idea. If I’d known that, I never would have left here. Never!” she burst out. Melly caught her breath at the passion that flared up in her sister’s eyes. “You loved him?” “Deathlessly.” Her eyes closed, then opened again, misty with tears. “I’ll die loving him.” “Abby!” She took a steadying breath and slumped. “Four years. Four long years, and a nightmare at the end of it. And if I’d stayed here... Why didn’t he tell me?” “I suppose he thought he was doing the best thing for you,” Melly said gently. “You were so excited about a career in modeling.” “I thought at the time that it would be better to moon over Cade at a distance instead of going to seed while I waited in vain for him to notice me again,” Abby said miserably. “Again?” Darn Melly’s quick mind. “Just never you mind. Let’s go over this pattern.” “He still cares about you,” Melly murmured. “In a different way, though.” “That could change,” came the soft reply, “if you want it to.” “If only Cade didn’t have such a soft spot for stray things,” Abby said, her eyes wistful. “I never know what he really feels—I never have. He was sorry for me when I was a kid and, in a way, he still is. I don’t want a man who pities me, Melly.” “How do you know that Cade does? You’re a lovely woman.” “A woman with a very big problem,” Abby reminded her, “and Cade goes out of his way to help people, you know that. We go back a long way and he’s fond of me. How can I be sure that what he feels isn’t just compassion, Melly?” “Give it time and find out.” “That,” she said with a sigh, “is sage advice. By the way, you’re going to have to teach me how to do your job, because he’s already maneuvered me into replacing you while you’re on your honeymoon.” “Oh, he has, has he?” Melly pursed her lips and her eyes laughed. “That isn’t something he’d do if he really felt sorry for you!” she assured her sister. “Now cut that out! Here, tell me if you like the dress better with a long train or a short one....” And for the rest of the night, they concentrated on the wedding gown. 8 (#ulink_8b165489-74b9-5c07-a77c-1722949ace39) In the days that followed, Abby learned more about the logistics of roundup on Painted Ridge than she wanted to. The whole ranch suddenly revolved around preparations for it. There were supplies to get in, men to hire and add to the weekly payroll. And at the head of it all was Cade, mapping out strategy, tossing out orders as he organized everything from the butane for the torches they used to heat the branding irons to ear tags. At the same time, he was involved with roundup on the other two ranches he had interests in, and in between were cattle auctions, board meetings and a rushed trip to New York to discuss his corporation’s plans to buy a feedlot in Oklahoma. Abby couldn’t help thinking how sexy Cade looked in his pale gray suit with matching boots and Stetson when he came downstairs with his suitcase in his hand. “Well, I guess I’m ready,” he grumbled, heading toward the front door. Hank was waiting impatiently outside in the truck. “You really need something snazzier than a pickup truck to ride to the airport in,” Abby remarked with a smile. “You look very sophisticated.” He glanced at her, his eyes clearly approving her jeans and pale T-shirt. “I’d rather be wearing what you’ve got on.” “You’d sure look funny in it,” she murmured wickedly. He chuckled softly. “I guess I would. Oh, damn, I hate these dress-up things, and I hate to ride around the country on airplanes with other people at the controls.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/diana-palmer/a-husband-for-christmas-snow-kisses-lionhearted-39861552/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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