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White Christmas: Woman Hater / The Humbug Man Diana Palmer Praise for the novels of New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author (#ulink_6a763c23-181f-58f8-93df-d60bc9f1c46d) DIANA PALMER ‘Palmer demonstrates, yet again, why she’s the queen of … quests for justice and true love.’ —Publishers Weekly on Dangerous ‘Nobody does it better.’ —New York Times bestselling author Linda Howard ‘The popular Palmer has penned another winning novel, a perfect blend of romance and suspense.’ —Booklist on Lawman ‘Palmer knows how to make the sparks fly … heartwarming.’ —Publishers Weekly on Renegade ‘Diana Palmer is a mesmerising storyteller who captures the essence of what a romance should be.’ —Affaire de Coeur ‘Sensual and suspenseful’ —Booklist on Lawless White Christmas Woman Hater The Humbug Man Diana Palmer www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u02fcf2fa-60cb-5a5a-8100-42c614f4de73) Praise (#u59e22631-9ff4-57df-a58c-64946c6357af) Title Page (#u2c9c2076-ace1-5b3d-bf36-17e452269cf4) Woman Hater (#uab5095bc-c130-5597-a4d9-0b80d2c82618) One (#ufb2a2659-1dd9-5c02-b301-a61d86557839) Two (#u74d0b945-ffdb-5e91-9e60-bb7ca806e2f3) Three (#u428e345e-10af-5e6f-a9e1-c9ef7396d99f) Four (#u4bd846f3-260d-56d7-aeba-5efbc56e0f3b) Five (#litres_trial_promo) Six (#litres_trial_promo) Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) The Humbug Man (#litres_trial_promo) One (#litres_trial_promo) Two (#litres_trial_promo) Three (#litres_trial_promo) Four (#litres_trial_promo) Five (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Woman Hater (#ulink_bdd733c6-94bc-5ee8-9119-12736c711788) One (#ulink_32650432-a931-5182-81fd-f0d688848d47) When Gerald Christopher first suggested going to his family ranch in Montana to rest his recently diagnosed ulcer for a few weeks, Nicole had instant reservations. He was the boss, of course, and if he wanted to go to Montana, there was no reason he shouldn’t. But Nicole liked the pleasant routine of life in Chicago, where she’d spent the last two years working for the Christopher Corporation. At twenty-two, Nicole White had found a nice, pleasant rut for herself and she didn’t particularly like change. The problem was that if Mr. Christopher went to Montana for a month, as he was threatening, and closed down his personal office while he was gone, Nicole would be out of a job until his return. Despite her adequate wages, trying to live for a month without any salary was a frightening thought. That was almost laughable considering her background, because Nicole’s family had been one of the old moneyed ones of Kentucky. Her father, in fact, was still one of the jet set, a noted sportsman as well as a horse-racing magnate, and lived the part. Nicole had long since renounced her share of the family fortune and gone to work for a living. Her mother’s death had been the last straw. Her father had been with his latest mistress at the time, not that he’d ever been home a lot. That hadn’t mattered at the time, because Nicole had been sure that her new fiancé, Chase James, would set up their marriage and that his job as a real estate agent would make it possible for him to support the two of them. She’d figured wrong. Once Chase found out that Nicole had been foolish enough to give up her family fortune—and when he realized that she couldn’t possibly be talked out of it—he asked for his ring back. His immediate defection to one of Nicole’s moneyed and eligible girlfriends had shattered her young life. At the age of twenty, she’d left the elegant brick mansion of her childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and a racehorse farm worth millions, to live the frugal life as a secretary in Chicago, where she had a friend with whom she could room. She smiled, remembering her lack of skills at the time, and how patient Mr. Christopher had been until she’d crammed in some courses at the local secretarial school. Lucky for her that he’d liked her personality and had decided to take a chance on her secretarial skills improving. They had. She’d graduated from the course at the top of her class. It all seemed a long time ago now, a part of her life that was like some slowly fading photograph of a reality she no longer belonged to…. “You’ll like it there, Nicky,” Gerald Christopher said dreamily, staring out the window. “The ranch is in the southern part of the state, nestled in the Rocky Mountains. It’s rich with forests, lakes, rivers, peace and quiet. Just the thing to help me get over this ulcer they’ve diagnosed. We can work in peace and you can have plenty of free time to yourself.” “But your brother and his family—won’t they mind having your secretary to house and feed?” she asked, her pale green eyes hesitant in a plain but interesting oval face, surrounded by naturally curling short dark hair. Despite the fact that she’d worked for him for two years, she knew very little about his private life. He’d never made a habit of talking casually about anything personal, as some employers did. She knew he had a brother, and he’d mentioned a woman named Mary, whom she’d assumed was his sister-in-law. But that was really all she knew about him in any personal way. “Winthrop doesn’t have a family,” he said, smiling as he turned toward her. He was tall with brown hair and dark brown eyes. Not a bad-looking man and he seemed pleasant enough, but he wasn’t a woman chaser or a ladies’ man. He was very businesslike and a terrific boss, and Nicky adored him. In a purely businesslike way, of course. Her heart was pretty impregnable these days, hardened by Chase’s cruel defection. That had ended her dreams of marriage. The hated wealth that had blinded her to men’s greed was gone now, too. And without her designer clothing and her diamonds, men didn’t seem to notice her at all. Of course, her manner was stiff and off-putting with most men, but she didn’t even realize it. “Your brother came to the office once, didn’t he?” she ventured, recalling vaguely a tall, very cold sort of man she’d barely glimpsed on an unusually hectic day and had learned later that it was Mr. Christopher’s mysterious older brother. “Yes, he did,” he said. “Winthrop owns a small share in the corporation, you see, but he’s the silent partner. He doesn’t care for desks and boardrooms. Dad left him the ranch, which is worth a mint, and I have an equally small share in that. He’s primarily a cattleman, and I’m a businessman, so we each have what we like most. He’s something of a loner. But as long as we keep out of his way, we won’t have any trouble.” That sounded ominous. She looked at the green-lined white steno pad in her lap. “A month is a long time,” she said slowly. “Come on, Nicky, what have you got going that you can’t walk away from?” he chided gently. “No boyfriends, no evening classes. A month in the country would do you good. If that wealth of potted plants you surround your desk with is any indication, you must be a country girl at heart. Or at the very least, a frustrated gardener.” She laughed. “I do love plants. And, yes, I’m a country girl. I was born and bred in Kentucky,” she confessed, “and I guess I do miss it sometimes. My people were farmers,” she added, tossing off the white lie as easily as she twirled the pen in her slender hand. That was the story she told people, anyway, and it prevented a lot of embarrassing questions about why she’d given up all that money. “And farming isn’t the best profession to be in these days,” he agreed with a fond smile. “I can see why you came to the big city. But since you do like the country, I presume, where’s the problem?” She sighed. “It’s not quite orthodox.” “No, little puritan, it isn’t,” he agreed. “But for the next month, you’re my private secretary and I’ll even increase your salary to make it more acceptable.” “Oh, but that’s not nec—” she began. “Certainly it is,” he countered, waving a lean hand at her. “I’m tired of the rat race, Nicky. I need rest or this ulcer is going to put me in the hospital. We’ll both benefit from some mountain air.” “It’s October,” she reminded him. “Late October. Doesn’t it snow in Montana in late October?” “Oh, frequently,” he agreed. “And the ranch is way up in the Rockies, near the Todd place—” he paused, glancing at her with an odd expression “—you remember Sadie, don’t you?” “Yes. She was very nice.” A nurse, in fact, and Nicole’s taciturn young boss had dated her and had been devastated when she left several months ago to take care of her invalid mother. Hmm, Nicole thought, that was about the time his health problems reared their ugly head. “Anyway, the ranch is near the Todd place,” he continued, “and we used to get snowed in a good bit. But we always get a chinook when we need one, and we can dig our way out. Stop worrying.” “What’s a chinook?” “A warm wind that comes unexpectedly to melt the snow,” he said, smiling. “You’ll love it there, Nicky. I promise.” I hope so, she thought. All at once she wondered if he had more than just health reasons for wanting to work at home. Sadie had managed to drag him out of his shell, and there had been a tangible something between them before her abrupt departure. It might turn out to be an interesting trip. “All right, I’ll go,” she agreed. “But you’re sure your brother won’t mind?” He looked vaguely disturbed for a second. Then he smiled. “Of course I’m sure.” Nicky wondered later about that hesitation. Mr. Christopher had hardly ever mentioned his brother in all the time she’d worked for him. But through the office grapevine there had been some small bit of gossip about the Montana rancher, something someone had whispered just after his brief visit. If only she could remember it. Becky, a blonde and vivacious woman who worked for one of the vice presidents, breezed into the office after Mr. Christopher had left for the day. “What’s this I hear about some exotic vacation you’re taking with the big boss?” she teased. Nicky laughed. “If you call the backwoods of Montana exotic, then I guess it’s true.” She sighed as she covered the computer. “I do hope you’ll come to my funeral. I have visions of being eaten by a puma or carried off by a moose.” “You might be carried off by Winthrop.” Becky grinned. “Or haven’t you heard the grizzly tales about him?” Nicole turned, her eyes wide and curious. “Is he terrible?” “A wild man, from what we hear. They said some society girl threw him over a few years back, and he actually went to her engagement party with a Hollywood movie star—a girl who turned out to have been a school friend of his and owed him a favor. He called up the friend and paid her expenses all the way from Hollywood, just for the occasion. Ruined the event, of course, since the movie star got all the attention. He used to be a ladies’ man and he’s always been well-to-do, and he traveled in those very ritzy circles. But since then, he’s pretty much given up his playboy status and turned to the great outdoors. They say his experience with the blonde heiress has soured him against rich women in a big way. Can’t blame him too much, can you?” “He sounds … interesting.” Nicky chose her words carefully; it wouldn’t do to show her fear. “Looks that way, too, except for the scars and the limp. Although the scars had faded nicely the day he was in here.” She grinned at Nicky. “He sure gave you a look, but you were so busy you didn’t even notice him.” “I remember him, but I didn’t look long enough to see the limp.” She frowned. “How did he get it?” “From the wreck. Deanne Sharp—of the Aspen Sharps, you know, ski-resort wear and accessories, and Winthrop’s fiancée at the time—was driving. They crashed. He almost lost his leg, and during his recovery, she walked out on him. I guess she only liked him for his athletic ability. He was an Olympic-quality skier and they met on the ski slopes. He missed the Olympic team by a few points when he was younger.” “That was what I was trying to remember. Someone said he’d been in a wreck, but I forgot what happened.” “The lovely Deanne happened. I hear she’s on husband number three now, and has millions. But all that happened three years ago, the year before you came to work,” Becky said. “We all heard about it. What he did at that woman’s engagement party might have sounded cruel, if you didn’t know it all. We were in Winthrop’s corner, all of us. He got a bad break. As it is, he gets around pretty good, but he isn’t the pinup he used to be. An experience like that could make a man bitter, you know.” Nicky drew in a slow breath. “A real woman hater.” “Now that’s the truth,” Becky laughed. “No, he doesn’t like women. So if you go to the ranch with the big boss, make sure you take lots of warm clothing. That way you won’t get frozen—by the weather or Winthrop.” “We may get snowed in,” Nicky moaned. “The snows come big in Montana,” she was told. “Six feet deep and more, sometimes. My best friend worked at the hospital here until she had to go back to Montana to take care of her invalid mother a few months ago. You might remember her—Sadie Todd? The boss used to take her out.” “Yes, I remember,” Nicky said with a smile, and kept her mouth shut about what Mr. Christopher had told her. “They grew up together,” Becky added. “I visited her once. Montana is lovely country, but brutal. It’s frozen a lot of people, but if you want to get away from the world, there’s no better place.” “I don’t think I want to go.” “Don’t be silly,” Becky chided. “The big boss is a doll. Winthrop can’t be too horrible.” But Nicky still wasn’t sure. She went home and got her small apartment in order, still with misgivings. It didn’t take long to pack, because there wasn’t a lot to pack. She had jeans and sweaters, some blouses and a single jersey dress, because she had the feeling that she would be roughing it. She took a thick winter coat as well, and some leather boots left over from the past. Her lips twisted in a thin smile when she surveyed the contents of her suitcase and she thought about the clothes and lifestyle she’d once taken for granted. She missed that easy luxury once in a great while, and when she had to pinch pennies to meet the rent, her principles didn’t help much. But she was a different girl from the arrogant little miss her parents’ financial indulgence and emotional indifference had created. And that meant a lot. She’d learned about reality in the past two years, and about real people, who didn’t put a dollar sign on their friendship. Even though her friend Dana, with whom she’d roomed, had married a year ago, Nicole still had friends like Becky, and they often went to movies or the theater together. She pulled on a pair of cotton pajamas, washed her face and went to bed. It wouldn’t do any good to worry about the past or the future. It was enough to cope with the present. A week later, Nicole and Mr. Christopher flew out to Montana in the corporation jet. She wore the gray jersey dress for the flight, along with a minimum of makeup. She looked sweet and young and totally unlike a glamorous socialite. She didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot by deliberately antagonizing the elder Mr. Christopher, who had plenty of reason to dislike that type of woman. “You don’t mind if I work?” Gerald Christopher asked with a smile, looking up from the papers in front of him. “Not at all,” she assured him. “I’m not nervous of flying.” The flight seemed to take a long time, but perhaps that was because Nicole wasn’t reading. She stared out at passing clouds, a little anxious about the welcome she was going to get when they got off the plane. “Mr. Christopher, your brother does know I’m coming?” she asked him when they were over Butte and about to land. His dark eyebrows arched. “Of course. Don’t worry, Nicky, everything’s going to be fine.” Sure it was. She knew that the instant they got off the plane and she got a good look at the expression on Winthrop Christopher’s face. She recognized him at once. He was a big man. Taller than his brother, broad shouldered and lean hipped. He was wearing work clothing—jeans and dusty boots, with a checked shirt under a massive sheepskin jacket. On his head was a battered black Stetson twisted into an arrogant slant over one dark eye. He looked like a desperado. He hadn’t shaved, and the white line of a scar curved from one cheek into the stubble on his square chin with its faint dimple. His face was rather square, too, and his features severe. He had a straight, rather imposing nose, and his black eyes gleamed with a cold light. In one lean, dark-skinned hand he held a burning cigarette. And the look he was giving Nicky would have curdled fresh milk. “Hello, Winthrop,” Gerald said, shaking his brother’s hand. He glanced at Nicky with a smile. “In our childhood days, I used to call him Winnie, but I gave it up when he blacked one of my eyes. Despite all that, I know he’d die for me,” he added with a grin, which the older brother didn’t return. He was too busy glaring at Nicole, his dark eyes cutting into her oval face, looking for imperfections, making an unpleasant inventory of what he saw. “Winthrop,” Gerald continued quickly, “this is my private secretary, Nicole White.” “How do you do, Mr. Christopher,” Nicky said politely and she actually managed to smile, but her knees felt unsteady. This was no welcome at all. Dislike was too mild a word for what she read in those eyes. Wounded man, she thought, even while she wished she could run. She understood the meaning of betrayal, because she knew it intimately. For the first few months of her exile, Chase’s handsome face had imposed itself over every letter she typed, every book she read, every television program she watched. Winthrop’s dark eyes narrowed. His thin, chiseled lips pursed thoughtfully, but there was no smile to ease the hardness of that rugged, unshaven face. “Yes, I remember you,” he said curtly. His voice was deep and curt. “You’re young.” “I’m twenty-two,” she said. “Young.” He turned abruptly, with a care that no physically fit man would have had to take. “I’ve got the pickup. Does your pilot want to come out to the ranch and have something to eat?” “No, he’s due back to fly one of the other executives over to New York,” Gerald replied, clapping an affectionate hand on Winthrop’s shoulder. Brave man, to touch that walking inferno, Nicky thought as she fell into step behind them. “I’ll get the luggage.” Winthrop started toward the plane, favoring one leg, and Nicky hesitated, her eyes speaking her thoughts. He gave her a look that stopped her from moving or speaking. He could have stopped a brawl with that glance. Her half-formed offer to help was frozen solid on her lips. With a violent flush, she turned away and followed Gerald. “Don’t ever offer to help him,” her boss cautioned in a soft, quiet tone. “He’s a little less sensitive about it these days, but soon after it happened, he threw a punch at one of the cowboys just for offering.” “I’ll remember.” She felt stung. The older brother was going to be hard going, and her first impulse was to ask if she could go back to Chicago. Gerald Christopher seemed to sense her feelings, because he put an affectionately careless arm around her shoulder. “Don’t panic,” he teased. “He doesn’t bite.” “Thank God I’ve had all my inoculations.” She sighed, but she smiled back. Behind them, the older man was watching that exchange of smiles and the arm around Nicky and putting his own connotation on what was going on between his younger brother and his secretary. The look in his eyes was both threatening and disapproving as he picked up the cases and followed them to the cream-colored pickup truck. It was a long ride to the ranch, down a highway dwarfed by the towering, autumn-hued peaks of the Rockies. Soon Winthrop turned off onto some mountainous dirt roads that didn’t actually seem like roads at all. To Nicky, squashed between the two men, it was a cold and unnerving experience. She could feel Winthrop Christopher’s long, powerful leg come in contact with hers every time he pressed on the accelerator, and her body was reacting to the feel of his shoulder against hers in ways she hadn’t expected. He made her tremble with awakening sensation, made her feel alive as she hadn’t felt since her late teens. She didn’t like that, or him, and her face took on the hardness of stone as the road wound on and on, through fir trees so tall and thick that Nicky stared in fascination at their girth. The forested areas were becoming thick now that they were off the rolling plain that had led to them, down country roads where houses were miles apart and traffic was practically nonexistent. Nicky, who’d read about Montana, hadn’t been prepared for its vastness, or for the glory of orange-tipped aspens with their thin silvery trunks, and cottonwoods fluffy and yellow-hued, and those incredibly big pines. Or for the sheer splendor of the mountains and the crisp, clean coldness of mountain air. She watched, rapt, as the mountains shot up in front of them. Winthrop turned onto a tiny dirt road and they started to go up. “Not what you expected, Miss White?” Winthrop chided as she stiffened on a sudden hair-raising curve as he gunned the truck up what seemed like a mountainside. “Montana isn’t all pretty little photographs in coffee-table books.” “It’s very mountainous,” she began. “That it is.” He wheeled around another curve, and she got a sickening view of the valley below. It was just like the Great Smoky Mountains, only worse. The Smokies were high and rounded with age, but the Rockies were sharp and young and much higher. Nicky, who had no head at all for heights, began to feel sick. “Are you all right, Nicky?” Gerald asked with concern. “You’ve gone white.” “I’m fine.” She swallowed. Not for the world would she let Winthrop see what his careless wheeling was accomplishing. She held on to her purse for dear life and stared straight ahead, her jaw set, her green eyes unblinking. Winthrop, who saw her stubborn resolve, smiled faintly to himself. Nicky might have been surprised to know how much it took to make him smile these days. Another few miles, and they began to descend. The valley that opened before them took Nicky’s breath away. She forgot her nausea in the sheer joy of appreciation. She leaned forward, with her slender hand on the dash, her eyes wide, her breath whispering out softly. “Heaven,” she breathed, smiling at maples gone scarlet and gold, at huge fir trees, delicate aspens and fluffy cottonwoods and the wide swath of a river cutting through it all, leading far into the distance like a silver ribbon. “Oh, it’s heaven!” Winthrop’s eyebrows levered up another fraction as he slowed the truck to give her a better view. At the end of the road was a house, a huge sprawling two-story house that seemed part of its environs. It was made of redwood, with decks on all sides and an enormous porch that seemed to go all the way around it. It had to have fireplaces, because smoke was coming from two chimneys. Maples were all around it, too ordered not to have been planted deliberately years before, and with the mountains all around, it had a majesty that a castle would have envied. “Lovely, isn’t it?” Gerald sighed. “Every time I leave it, I get homesick. Winthrop hasn’t changed a single thing about it, either. It’s been this way for forty years or more, since our mother planted those maples around the house when our father built it.” “I thought they looked as if someone had planted them.” Nicky laughed. “They’re in a perfect semicircle around the back of the house.” “Some city people might think that trees grow in perfect order,” Winthrop mused, glancing coldly at Nicky. “Amazing, that you were able to pick it out so easily.” “Oh, Nicky grew up on a farm, didn’t you, country girl?” Gerald grinned, tweaking her hair. “Way over in Kentucky.” “Good thing they plant trees in perfect order in Kentucky, and teach native sons and daughters to recognize the difference between a planted tree and a naturally seeded tree,” Winthrop said without looking at her. “I guess there are people who assume God planted them in rows.” That was a dig, and Nicky wondered what the big man would do if she leaned over and bit him. That amused her and she had to fight to keep from grinning. He was watching her again, his eyes darkly piercing. He disturbed her so much that she dragged her gaze away and felt her cheeks go hot. It was incredible how easily this man got through her defenses. She was going to have to be careful to keep out of his way. “Did I write you about the Eastern sportsmen I’m expecting week after next?” Winthrop asked Gerald unexpectedly. “I’ve organized a moose hunt for them, but I’ll warn you in plenty of time to keep out of the section I’m planning to hunt.” “I remember.” Gerald nodded. “I hope they have some savvy about weapons. Remember the solitary hunter who came one winter and shot your prize bull?” Winthrop glared at him. “That wasn’t funny,” he said and glared at his two passengers, who were fighting smiles. “Damned fool couldn’t tell a stud bull from a deer….” Winthrop wheeled the truck up the dirt drive. “These are my Herefords,” he added, nodding toward the red-and white-coated herds grazing across the flat plain toward the river. “They’re in winter pasture now. I rent some government land for grazing, but I own most of it. It’s been a bumper crop of hay this year. There’s enough to spare for a change.” Nicole, who knew about farming and winter feed, nodded. “The southern states aren’t having such luck,” she remarked. “Drought has very nearly ruined a lot of cattlemen and farmers.” She didn’t question the way he spoke with possession about the family ranch, since Gerald had already told her that Winthrop had complete control of it. Winthrop frowned as he glanced at her, but he didn’t say anything. Her name, her last name, rang a bell, but he couldn’t remember why. No matter, he thought; he’d remember eventually where he’d heard it before. He parked the truck at the door of the huge house and got out, leaving Gerald to help Nicky to the ground. A big, elderly woman came ambling out onto the front porch to meet them. She had high cheekbones and a straight nose, and she was very dark. “That’s Mary,” Winthrop said, introducing her. “She’s been here since I was a boy. She keeps house and cooks. Her husband, Mack, is my horse wrangler.” “Nice girl,” Mary muttered, watching Nicole closely as the three newcomers came up onto the porch. “Long legs, good lines. Plain face but honest. Which one of you is going to marry her?” she demanded, looking from Gerald to Winthrop with a mischievous smile. “I wouldn’t have a woman, fried, with catsup,” Winthrop replied without blinking, “but Gerald may have hopes.” Before Gerald could say anything, Nicky got herself together enough to reply. She did it without looking at Winthrop, because her cheeks were flushed with temper and embarrassment. “I’m Mr. Christopher’s secretary, Nicole White,” Nicky said quickly, and forced a smile as she extended her hand. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m only here to work.” “And that is a disappointment,” the woman sighed. “Two bachelors, all the time. It weighs heavy on my heart. Come. I will settle you.” “Mary is Sioux,” Winthrop told Nicole. “And plainspoken. Too plainspoken, at times,” he added, glaring at Mary’s broad back. Mary whirled with amazing speed for such a big woman and made some strange gestures with her hand. Winthrop’s eyes gleamed. He made some back. Mary huffed and went up the long, smooth staircase. “What did you do?” Nicole asked, amazed. Winthrop looked down at her from his great height, his eyes faintly hostile but temporarily indulgent. “The Plains Indians spoke different languages. They had to have some way to communicate, in the old days, so they did it with signs. This,” he added, drawing his hand, palm down, across his forehead, “for instance, means white man or paleface. The sign refers to this part of a man’s forehead that was usually covered by a hat and so didn’t get tanned like the rest of him. It was pale. This,” he continued, rubbing two fingers in a long oval on the back of his left hand, “means Indian.” “Winthrop and Mary used to talk about the rest of us at the table—” Gerald chuckled, tugging affectionately at a short curl beside Nicky’s ear “—using sign language. None of us could understand a word.” “It’s fascinating,” Nicky said, and meant it. “If you ask Mary, she might teach you a little,” Winthrop told Nicky, smiling with cool arrogance. In other words, that look said, don’t expect any such favors from me. She wondered how she was going to survive a month around him, but she did come from a long line of Irishmen, so maybe her spirit was tough enough to cope. She turned back to Gerald. “Do you want to work today?” “No,” Gerald said with certainty. “Today we both rest. Get on some jeans and I’ll show you around.” “Great!” She ran upstairs, careful not to look at Winthrop Christopher. It was going to be imperative that she keep out of his way while she was here. He wasn’t going to pull his punches, apparently, or accord her any more courtesy than he would have given to any other woman. Remembering what Becky had told her, it was even understandable. But it was going to make her stay here more uncomfortable than she’d expected. The fact that he disturbed her only added to her discomfort. Becky had said that Winthrop had been watching her the day he came to the office. And it was vaguely unnerving to think of those black eyes watching her in an unguarded moment. And why had he? Did she remind him of the woman who’d crippled him? She wasn’t blonde, of course, but perhaps her facial features were similar. She’d have to ask Gerald. She was only sorry that she couldn’t dislike Winthrop as forcefully as he seemed to dislike her. Quite the contrary; he disturbed her as no man ever had, scarred face, limp and all. Two (#ulink_18e9959a-173e-57ac-9025-fb17ac91fa99) The room Mary led Nicole into was delightful. It had pink accents against a background of creamy white, complete with a canopied bed and ornate mirror and even a small sitting area with pink, satin-covered chairs. “This was their mother’s room,” Mary said. “Pretty, yes?” “Are you sure I was meant to go in here?” Nicole asked hesitantly. “Oh, yes, very sure. Mr. Winthrop said so.” She winked at Nicole without smiling. “With his hands, you see.” Nicole shook her head. “He seems very …” She turned, shrugging as she tried to find words. “His path has not been an easy one,” Mary told her. Those dark eyes were sizing her up while she spoke. “Gerald was the favorite. He was a gentle, easy child. Winthrop was forever in trouble, always fighting, always in turmoil. He was the eldest, but not the most loved. And then came her. She with the blond hair and city ways, who was like a clear morning to me, and I saw through her. But Winthrop could not see through to the greed that motivated her. She crippled him and left him.” Nicole searched the smooth old face quietly. “He hides,” she said perceptively. Mary smiled. “You see deep.” “I know a survival instinct for what it is,” came the quiet reply. “We all hide inside ourselves when we’ve been hurt.” She met the dark eyes levelly. “I won’t hurt him.” “I see deep, too,” Mary mused. “He won’t let you close enough to do harm. But watch yourself. He has no love for women. He might take out old wounds on you.” “I’m a survivor,” Nicole said, laughing. “I’ll manage. But thank you for the warning.” Mary only nodded. “Come down when you are ready. Are you hungry?” “I could eat a moose,” the younger woman sighed. “Lovely idea. I have moose in the freezer. How would you like it? Baked, fried or in a stew?” Nicole burst out laughing. “I love stew.” “Me, too.” Mary grinned and left her. Nicole put on a pair of faded jeans with a long-sleeved, gray knit shirt, because the air was chilly, and her pink sneakers and went downstairs without bothering to fix her makeup or comb her hair. She wasn’t trying to catch any eyes, after all, so why irritate Winthrop by making it look as if she were making a play for him? There was no one around, so she went outside and found a comfortable seat on the porch swing. It was peaceful. Birds twittered and somewhere a dog barked. Farther away, cattle were lowing. Nicole closed her eyes as the breeze washed around her. Heaven. “I see you’ve found the swing.” She jerked upright as Winthrop came out onto the porch. He was bareheaded, still in the jeans and blue-checked shirt he’d worn to the airport. He’d taken time to shave, because his face was dark and smooth now, with the hairline white scar more visible without the stubble of a beard to hide it. “I like swings,” she said. Her pale green eyes wandered over him. He was terribly attractive without his jacket. Muscles rippled in his long legs when he walked, in his arms when he lifted them to light a cigarette. Despite his size, there wasn’t a spare ounce of fat on him. He looked lean and fit and a little dangerous, despite the faint limp when he moved toward her. “Deer come up into the yard sometimes,” he observed. He dropped into a big rocking chair and crossed his long legs. “Moose, elk … it’s still pretty wild here in the valley. That’s why we attract so many bored Eastern sportsmen. They come here to hunt and pretend to ‘rough it’ but they’ve lost something that mountain people have all their lives. They’ve lost hope.” He glanced down at her. “I hate rich people.” She felt as if he knew something, but she was afraid to bring the subject out into the open. “I’m not rich,” she said, and it was the truth. “But I thought you were.” It was the wrong thing to say. His dark eyes kindled and his face took on the sheen of stone. “Did you?” he asked deliberately, and the mockery in his face was daunting. “Was that why you came with Gerald, or is it his money you’re after?” “You don’t understand—” she began. “I understand women all too well,” he returned coldly. He moved away from her without another word, almost colliding with Gerald, who was coming out of the house as he was entering it. “Sorry, Winthrop,” Gerald murmured, curious about the expression on his brother’s face. “I was looking for Nicky.” “I’m out here, Mr. Christopher!” she called. “Oh, for God’s sake, I’m Gerald here,” he said shortly, joining her with a resigned glance over his shoulder as the door slammed behind Winthrop. He looked even younger in jeans and a pullover shirt. Nicky moved over to make room for him on the swing, and struggled to regain her lost poise. Winthrop was going to make her life miserable, she just knew it, and her stupid careless remark had provoked him. “Mr. Christopher was my father,” Gerald continued, “and he was Mister Christopher, too,” he added with a faint smile. “Our mother was on a camping trip up here. She wandered off and he found her. He nursed her back to health and she left, thinking that was the end of it.” “Was it?” Nicole asked. Gerald laughed. “No. As a matter of fact, Dad followed her all the way to New York, found her at some social gathering, picked her up and carried her to the train station and brought her here. Eventually, to save her reputation, she agreed to marry him.” “I guess he was used to getting his own way,” Nicky mused, and in her mind’s eye she could see Winthrop doing exactly the same thing. Her fine skin flushed just a little at the unexpected thought. “They were happy together,” Gerald said. “She died one spring of pneumonia. He died six months later. They said it was a heart attack, but I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t loneliness that did it.” He paused for a moment, then said suddenly, “I’m sorry Winthrop’s so inhospitable.” He glanced at Nicole’s quiet face. “You aren’t afraid of him, are you? If you are, don’t ever let him see it. He’s a good man, but he’s pretty hard on women.” “I’m not afraid of him,” she said. And she meant it. She wondered if there was any chance that he found her as disturbing as she found him. That didn’t bear thinking about. “You must miss all this in Chicago,” Nicole said, looking up at her boss. “I miss this, and other things,” he replied. He stared at a house far on a hill in the distance, his eyes narrowed and unexpectedly sad. “Sadie Todd lives over there,” he said absently, “with her invalid mother. We’ll have to go and visit her while we’re here.” “She was nursing at the general hospital, wasn’t she?” “Yes. She had to give up her job and come home when her mother had a stroke. Mrs. Todd is completely paralyzed on one side and doesn’t seem to want to get any better. Sadie said she couldn’t leave her at the mercy of strangers. Her father is dead.” She knew almost to the day when Sadie had left, because Gerald Christopher had withdrawn into a tight little shell afterward and seemed to walk around in a fog. He’d put enough pressure on himself thereafter to give him that ulcer. But it had surprised her that he wanted to come home, because he worked like a Trojan all the time lately. She was almost sure that Sadie was the reason he felt the need of a month’s vacation in Montana. She smiled to herself. “I’d like very much to go and see her,” she said. He smiled down at her. “You’re a nice person, Nicole.” He got up. “I’m going to make a few phone calls. Just sit and enjoy the view, if you like.” “Yes, sir,” she promised. He went inside, and she lounged in the swing until Mary called her to have a sandwich. She sat in the spacious kitchen, enjoying a huge ham sandwich and a glass of iced tea while Mary prepared what promised to be the world’s largest moose stew. They talked about the ranch and the country and the weather, and then Nicole went out the back door and wandered down to the river, just to look around. She could imagine this country in the years of the Lewis and Clark expedition. She’d read a copy of their actual journal, enjoying its rather anecdotal style, seeing the country through their eyes in the days before supersonic jets and superhighways. Trappers would have come through here, she mused, kneeling beside the river with her eyes on the distant peaks. They’d have trapped beaver and fox and they’d have hunted. Kentucky had its own mountain country, and Nicole had been in it a few times in her life. It had been a different setting then. Elegance. Parties. Sophisticated people. Wealth. She sat down on a huge rock beside the river and tore at a twig, listening to the watery bubble of the river working its way downstream. She much preferred this kind of wealth. Trees and cattle and land. Yes. “Daydreaming?” She turned to find Winthrop Christopher sitting astride a big black stallion, watching her. “I like the river,” she explained. “We have one in Chicago, of course, but it’s not the same. We have concrete and steel instead of trees.” “I know. I’ve been to Chicago. Even to the office, in fact.” His eyes narrowed. “You don’t remember me, do you?” She did. Even that brief glance had stamped him onto her memory, but it wouldn’t do to let him know that. She avoided a direct answer. “It’s always hectic. I don’t pay a lot of attention to visitors, I’m afraid.” “The morning I came, you were sitting at that computer with a stack of steno pads at your elbow and a telephone in your hand. You barely looked up when I went into Gerald’s office.” He smiled mockingly. “I was wearing a suit. Maybe I looked different.” “I can’t quite imagine you in a suit, Mr. Christopher,” she said, thinking, top that, cattle king. “Winthrop,” he corrected. “I’m not that much older than you. Eleven years or so. I’m thirty-four.” “How old is your brother?” she asked, curious. He lifted his chin. “Thirty.” “Sometimes he seems older,” she mused. “When they call the stockholders’ meetings, for instance.” He glanced into the distance. “No doubt. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those damned things. That’s Gerald’s sole province now. I just run my ranch, and the only stockholder I have to please is myself. Gerald doesn’t own enough shares to squabble over the decisions I make.” “You inherited the ranch, didn’t you?” He stared at her for a minute, and she swallowed hard, sure that he was going to give her some sarcastic financial rundown and chide her for asking. But, surprisingly, he didn’t. He just nodded. “That was the way my father wanted it. He knew I’d hold it as long as I lived, no matter what. You’ll find that Gerald isn’t terribly sentimental. He’d just as soon have a photograph as the object itself.” She pursed her full lips and studied him. “I’ll bet you saved bobby pins and bits of ribbon when you were a teenager,” she said daringly, just to see what he’d say. He blinked, then laughed, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “I had my weak moments when I was younger,” he agreed. His eyes darkened. “Not anymore, though, Kentucky girl. I’m steel right through.” She wouldn’t have touched that line. She turned, glancing at the distant ribbon the river made running into those towering, majestic peaks. “I was thinking about Lewis and Clark,” she murmured, glancing toward the horizon, so that she didn’t catch the look on his face. “A man died during the expedition. What they described sounded just like food poisoning. They wouldn’t have known, of course. How much we’ve learned in over a hundred years. How far we’ve come. And yet,” she said softly, “how much we’ve lost in the process.” “The expedition went down the Missouri and Jefferson rivers,” he said slowly. “We’re on a tributary of the Jefferson, so they may have camped in this valley.” He looked away. “They used to call it Buffalo Flats. The buffalo are gone, though. Like the way of life that existed here long ago.” He shifted restlessly. “Where’s Gerald?” “Back at the house, I suppose,” she said, bothered by the curtness of his tone. “He said he had some important phone calls to make. I would have stayed, but he said we wouldn’t work today.” “Want a ride back?” he offered, and then seemed to withdraw, as if he regretted the words even as he was speaking them. Some devilish imp made her smile at him. “Suppose I say yes?” she asked, driven to taunt him. “You look as if you’d rather sacrifice the horse than let me on him.” And she grinned, daring him to mock her. He felt a burst of light, but he wouldn’t give in to it. “Damn you.” She grinned even more. “I won’t accept, if you’d rather not let me aboard. Anyway—” she shuddered with deliberate mockery and more sarcasm than he could know, because she’d practically grown up on horses “—I’d probably fall off. It looks very high.” “It is. But I won’t let you fall off. Come on.” He kicked his foot out of the stirrup and held down a long arm, giving in to an impulse he didn’t even understand. He wanted her closer. He wanted to hold her. That should have warned him, but it didn’t. He had enormous feet, she noticed, as she put a foot in the stirrup and let him pull her up in front of him. He was amazingly strong, too. She hadn’t realized how intimate it was going to be. His hard arm went around her middle and pulled her back against a body that was warm and strong and smelled of leather and spice. She felt her heart run away, and that arm under her breast would feel it, she knew. “Nervous?” he asked at her ear, and laughed softly, without any real humor. “I’m not dangerous. I don’t like women, or haven’t they filled you in yet?” She’s a woman, he was reminding himself. Watch it, watch yourself—she’ll sucker you in and kick you down, just like the other one did. “Yes, I’m nervous,” she said. “Yes, you’re dangerous, and you may not like women, but I’ll bet they chase you like a walking mink.” His eyebrows arched. “You’re plainspoken, aren’t you?” he asked, gathering her even closer as he urged the restless stallion into motion, controlling him carefully with lean, powerful hands and legs. “I try to be,” she said, still uneasy about the double life she’d led since leaving Kentucky. To a man who’d been betrayed once, it might seem as if she were misleading him deliberately. But the past was still painful, and she’d forsaken it. She wanted it to stay in the past, like the bad memories of her own betrayal. Besides, there was no danger of Winthrop becoming involved with her. He was too invulnerable. She held on to the pommel, her eyes on his long fingers. “You have beautiful hands, for a man,” she remarked. “I don’t like flattery.” “Suit yourself, you ugly old artifact,” she shot right back. It had been a long time since anything had made him laugh. But this plain-faced, mysterious woman struck a chord in him that had never sounded. She brought color and light into his own private darkness. He felt the sound bubbling up in his chest, like thunder, and then overflowing. He couldn’t hold it back this time, and the rush of it was incomprehensible to him. She felt his chest shaking, heard the deep rumble of sound from inside it. She would have bet that he didn’t laugh genuinely very often at anything. But she seemed to have a knack for dragging it out of him, and that pleased her beyond rational thought. The lean arm contracted, and for an instant she felt him in an embrace that made her go hot all over. What would it be like, she wondered wildly, if he turned her and wrapped her up in his embrace and put that hard, cruel mouth over hers…. She tingled from head to toe, her breath catching in her throat. It shouldn’t have been like this, she shouldn’t still be vulnerable. She had to stop this, or it was going to be an unendurable month. “Watch out, Miss White,” he said at her ear, his voice deep and soft and dangerous. “Save the heavy flirting for Gerald. You’ll be safer that way.” He let her down at the porch, holding her so that she slid down to the ground. For an instant his dark face was very close, so close that she saw his dark eyes at point-blank range and something shot through her like lightning. She pulled back slowly, her eyes still linked to his. What had he said? Something about flirting with Gerald. But why should she want to flirt with her boss? “See you.” He wheeled his stallion and rode off, and she watched him with mingled emotions. Supper was an unexpectedly quiet affair. Winthrop was out when she and Gerald sat down to eat, along with the ranch foreman, Michael Slade, a burly man of thirty who seemed perfectly capable of handling anything. “Boss said he wouldn’t get back in time for chow,” Michael told Gerald with a grin. “Had to go into Butte for some supplies he needed. I offered, but he said he had some other things to do as well.” “Odd that he didn’t do it before he met us at the airport.” Gerald sighed as he took his medicine and glared at his plate. The doctor had told him that they didn’t treat ulcers with bland diets anymore, but Mary hadn’t believed him. Amazing, how disgusting green pea soup looked in a bowl, and he did hate applesauce. He glanced at Mary, sighed and then gave in to her, as he had done even as a child. He picked up his spoon and began to sip the soup. “Oh, well, that’s Winthrop. Unpredictable. How’s it going, Mike?” The foreman launched into grand detail about seeing to the winter pasture, fixing fences, storing hay, culling cows, doing embryo transplants for the spring calving and organizing other facets of ranch life that he’d expected would go right over Nicole’s head. “One of my family was into embryo transplants when it was barely theory,” Nicole interrupted. “They had some great successes. Now there’s a new system underway, implanting computer chips just under the skin to keep track of herds….” “Say, I’ve read about that,” Mike agreed, and Gerald sat and stared while the two of them discussed cattle. “Mr. Christopher must be feeling pretty proud of himself to have someone like you on the payroll,” Nicole told the foreman when they reached a stopping point. “You know your business.” “Forgive me, ma’am, but so do you.” Mike grinned, his ruddy face almost handsome with his blue eyes flashing. “I never knew a woman who could talk cattle before.” “I never knew a man who talked it as well.” She grinned back. “I thought you were from Chicago,” Gerald sighed, shaking his head, when Mike had gone and they were sipping coffee in the living room. “Until you admitted that you were a Kentuckian, at least,” he added. His gaze was warm and faintly questioning. “Amazing, that we worked together for two years and knew nothing about each other.” She smiled at him. “I guess most bosses and secretaries are like that, really,” she agreed. “You’re very nice to work for, though. You don’t yell, like some of your vice presidents do.” He laughed. “I try not to. Winthrop, now,” he said, watching her face as he spoke, “never yells. But it’s worse that way, somehow. He has a voice like an icy wind when he loses his temper, which isn’t often. I’ve seen him look at men who were about to start fights and back them down. One of our ancestors was a French fur trader up in Canada. Our grandmother used to say Winthrop takes after him.” “He has expressive eyes,” she agreed, glancing at Gerald warily. “He doesn’t want me here, you know.” His shoulders rose and fell. “He’s buried himself up here for three solid years,” he said irritably, staring into his coffee. “No company, except these hunting parties that he tolerates because it gives some variety to his life. No women. No dating. He’s avoided women like the plague since Deanne left him. He uses that limp like a stick, have you noticed?” he asked, lifting troubled eyes to hers. “It isn’t all that bad, and he could walk well enough if he cared to try, but it’s as if he needs it to remind him that women are treacherous.” “I’d heard that he was something of a playboy in his younger days,” she probed, curious about Winthrop in new and exciting ways. “He was,” Gerald agreed with a faint, musing smile. “He broke hearts right and left. But Deanne liked him because he was a new experience. I don’t think she really meant to hurt him. She was young and he spoiled her, and she liked it. But when he got hurt, she had visions of being tied to a cripple for life, and she ran. Winthrop was shattered by the experience. His black pride couldn’t deal with the humiliation of being lamed and deserted, all at once.” “Poor man,” she said gently, and meant it. “Don’t make that mistake, either,” he cautioned quietly. “Don’t ever pity him. He’s steel clean through, and if you give him half an opening, he’ll make a scapegoat of you. Don’t let him hurt you, Nicky.” She colored delicately. “You think he might?” “I think you attract him,” he said bluntly. “And I have a feeling that you aren’t immune to him, either. He doesn’t like being vulnerable, so look out.” Hours later, when she went up to bed, she was still turning that threat over in her mind. She could picture Winthrop behind her closed eyes, and the image made her sigh with mingled emotions. She’d never felt so empty before, so alone. She wanted him in ways that she’d never dreamed she could want a man. She wanted to be with him, to share with him, to ease his hurt and make him whole again. She didn’t quite know how to cope with the new and frightening sensations. Nicky had her own scars and she didn’t want involvement any more than Winthrop did. But there was something between them. Something that was new and a little frightening, and like an avalanche, she couldn’t stop it. She was almost asleep when she heard slow steps coming past her door. She knew from the sound that it was Winthrop, and her heart beat faster as he passed her room. Odd, how deeply she could be touched just by his step. She wondered if he was as curious about her as she was about him, despite his understandably deep distrust of women. He was like her, in so many ways, hiding from a world that had been cruel to him. They had more in common than he seemed to realize. Or perhaps he did realize it, and was drawing back because he didn’t trust her. She closed her eyes as she heard a door close down the hall. In no time at all, she was asleep, secure because the master of the house was back, and she was safe. Three (#ulink_65651ef0-6c4d-523f-b7f7-e99748778eed) Winthrop’s horses attracted Nicole immediately, even though he’d given her a terse warning at breakfast about going too close to them. One of the happiest memories of her childhood was watching old Ernie at her home in Kentucky as he worked the thoroughbreds when they were ready to be trained. Besides his saddle horses, mostly quarter horses, Winthrop had at least two thoroughbreds with unmistakably Arabian ancestry, judging by their small heads. All American thoroughbreds, she remembered, were able to trace their ancestry to one of three Arabian horses imported into England in the late 1600s and early 1700s: Byerley Turk, Godolphin Barb and Queen Anne. Winthrop’s horses had the exquisite conformation and sleek lines that denoted thoroughbreds, too. She’d watched them during her brief stroll around the stables and corral. One was a mare about to foal, the other a full stallion, both with sleek chestnut coats and exquisite conformation. She’d wanted to ask Winthrop about them over scrambled eggs and steak that morning, but he’d been unapproachable. Frozen over, in fact, and she knew why without even being told. He didn’t want her too close, so he was freezing her out. She’d finished her two hours in the study, taking dictation from Gerald, and now cozy and warm in tailored gray slacks and a white pullover sweater, she was lazing around the corral looking for the horses. The stallion was there, but she didn’t see the mare anywhere. A noise from inside the big barn caught her attention. She couldn’t see inside, but it sounded like a horse’s whinny of pain. It was followed by a particularly virulent curse from a voice she recognized immediately. She darted into the dim warmth of the big barn, down the neat corridor between the stalls that was covered with pine shavings. “Winthrop?” she called quickly. “In here.” She followed his voice to the end stall. The mare was down on her side, making snuffling sounds, and Winthrop was bending over her, his sleeves rolled up, bareheaded, scowling. “Something’s wrong,” she said, glancing at him. “Brilliant observation,” he muttered, probing at the mare’s distended belly with tender, sure hands. “This is her first foal and it’s a breech, damn the luck! Go get Johnny Blake and tell him I said to come here, I can’t do this alone. He’ll be—” “The mare will be dead by the time I find him,” she said matter-of-factly. She eased into the stall, ignoring Winthrop as she gently approached the mare, talking softly to her with every step. While Winthrop watched, scowling, she slid down to her knees beside the beautiful, intelligent creature, watching the silky brown eyes all the while. She sat down then, reaching out to stroke the mare. And slowly, she eased under the proud head and slowly coaxed it onto her knees. She drew her fingers gently over the velvety muzzle, talking softly to the mare, gentling her. “She’ll let you help her now,” she told Winthrop softly, never taking her eyes from the mare’s. “Yes,” he said, watching her curiously for a few seconds before he bent to his task. “I believe she might. You’ll ruin that fancy sweater,” he murmured as he went to work. “Better it than lose the foal,” she said, and smiled at the mare, talking gently to her all along, smoothing the long mane, cuddling the shuddering head, as Winthrop slowly worked to help the colt in its dark cradle. She knew instinctively that the mare would realize that she was trying to help, and not hurt her. Minutes later, guided by patient, expert lean hands, hind fetlocks appeared suddenly, followed rapidly by the rest of the newborn animal. Winthrop laughed softly, triumphantly, as the tiny new life slid into the hay and he cleared its nostrils. “A colt,” he announced. Nicole smiled at him over the mare, amazed to find genuine warmth in his dark eyes. “And a very healthy one, too,” she agreed. Her eyes searched his softly, and then she felt herself beginning to tremble at the intensity of his level gaze. She drew her gaze away and stroked the mare again before she got slowly to her feet so that the new mother could lick her colt and nuzzle it. “A thoroughbred, isn’t he?” she replied absently, her eyes on the slick colt being lovingly washed by his mother. “The stallion has a superior conformation. So does the mare. He might be a champion.” “The stallion is by Calhammond, out of Dame Savoy,” he said, frowning as he moved away to wash his hands and arms in a bucket of water with a bar of soap, drying them on a towel that hung over it. “How did you know?” “Kentucky is racehorse country,” she laughed, sidestepping the question. She didn’t want to tell him how much she knew about thoroughbreds, although she’d certainly given herself away just now, and she’d have to soft-pedal over it. “I cut my teeth on thoroughbreds. I used to beg for work around them, and one of the trainers took pity on me. He taught me a lot about them. You see, one of the biggest racing farms in Lexington was near where I lived—Rockhampton Farms.” Actually Rockhampton was her grandfather’s name; her mother’s people had owned the stables there for three generations. But it wouldn’t do to admit that to Winthrop, because he’d connect it with Dominic White, who was her father and the current owner. He might even know Dominic, because he entertained sportsmen, and her father was one of the best. “I’ve heard of it,” Winthrop told her after a minute. He turned, staring hard at her with dark, curious eyes as he rolled down the sleeves of his brown Western shirt and buttoned the cuffs with lazy elegance. White. Her name was White. Wasn’t that the name of that jet-setting sportsman from Kentucky who was coming with the Eastern hunting party? Yes, by God it was, and Dominic White owned Rockhampton Farms. He lifted his head. “The owner of Rockhampton is a White,” he said in a direct attack, watching closely for reaction. “Any kin of yours?” She held on to her wits with a steely hand. She even smiled. “White is a pretty common name, I’m afraid,” she said. “Do I look like an heiress?” “You don’t dress like one,” he commented, with narrowed eyes. “And I guess you wouldn’t be working for Gerald if you had that kind of money,” he said finally, relaxing a little. He didn’t want her, but it was a relief all the same to know that she wasn’t some bored little rich girl looking for a good time. He couldn’t have borne going through that again. “I’ve been to Kentucky, but I’ve never been on the White place. My stallion and mare came from the O’Hara place.” “Yes, Meadowbrook Farms,” she murmured. She could have fainted with relief. She didn’t want him to know about her background. Of course, there was always the danger that he might someday find out that she was one of those Whites, but with any luck she’d be back in Chicago before he did, and it wouldn’t matter anymore. Right now, the important thing was to get her boss well and not upset him with any confrontations between herself and Winthrop. Winthrop had every reason to hate rich society girls, and he might be tempted to make her life hell if he knew the truth. And probably it would be worse because she hadn’t told him about it in the beginning. Her character would be even blacker in his eyes for the subterfuge. For one wild instant, she considered telling him. But she knew she couldn’t. He disliked her enough already. And it was suddenly important, somehow, to keep him from finding new reasons to dislike her. It did occur to her that someday he might hate her for not being truthful with him. But she’d discovered a tender streak in his turbulent nature while he was working with the mare, and she wanted to learn more about that shadowy side of him. That might not be possible if he knew the truth about her. “I couldn’t have managed that alone,” he said quietly, watching her. “I’m obliged for the help.” “I like horses,” she said simply. “And he’s a grand colt.” “His father has been a consistent winner, but he was hurt in a race last year. I bought him to stand at stud rather than see him put down. I had a lot of money that was lying spare, so I developed an interest in racehorses. I’ve spent a good deal of time at racetracks in the past year.” Another chink in the armor, she thought, thinking about his compassion for the stallion as she looked up at him. He saw that speculative gleam and it irritated him. She wasn’t working out the way he’d expected. She had too many interesting qualities, and he didn’t like the feelings she aroused in him. He’d buried his emotions, and she was digging down to them with irritating ease. “You don’t like me, do you?” she asked bluntly. “Why? Is it because I’m plain, or because I’m only a secretary …” “You aren’t plain,” he said unexpectedly, his dark eyes tracing the soft oval of her face. Big green eyes. Pretty mouth. High cheekbones. Skin like satin, creamy and young. She was young. He sighed wistfully. “And I’m no snob. I just don’t want women around.” “That’s straightforward,” she said softly. “And I hope it won’t offend you if I speak as bluntly. I know a little about what happened to you and why. I’m very sorry. But hating me and making my life miserable for the next few weeks isn’t going to erase your scars. It will only create new ones for both of us. So can’t we be sporting enemies?” she asked, her green eyes twinkling. “And I’ll promise not to seduce you in the hay.” His eyebrows shot straight up. Unexpected wasn’t the word for this little firecracker. He’d have to think up a new one. “What do you know about seduction, Red Riding Hood?” he asked with blithe humor, and she got a tiny glimpse of the man he’d been before the accident. “Not much, actually,” she said pleasantly, “but that’s probably in your favor, because it will save you a lot of embarrassing moments. Just imagine if I were experienced and sophisticated and out to sink my claws into you!” Her earnestly teasing expression made him feel as if he were sipping potent wine. He had a hard time drawing his eyes away from her soft mouth and back up to her laughing eyes. Incredibly long lashes, on those eyes. Sexy. Like the rest of her. She was tall, but she wasn’t overly thin. He liked the way she looked in tailored slacks and that white sweater. Both were thick with horsehair about now, and she’d smell of horse…. “She’ll want some water now,” she reminded him, unnerved by that slow, bold scrutiny and hoping that it didn’t show. It did. His chin lifted just a little, in a purely male way, and his chiseled mouth twitched. “Nervous of me?” “If all the gossip I’ve heard about you is true, I have good reason to be, and that isn’t conceit on my part,” she added proudly. “Playboys don’t usually mind who they charm, because it’s all a game to them.” The light in his eyes went out, like a cavern succumbing to darkness. “I don’t play games with virgins, honey,” he said unexpectedly, catching her chin with a lean, steely hand. “And you’d better remember it. I’ve forgotten more about lovemaking in my time than you’ve ever learned, but I’m not low enough to take out my hurt on you.” He was so close that she could feel the strong warmth of him. Her heart ran wild. She’d never had such a powerful, immediate reaction to a man before. Not even to Chase. This was new and wildly exciting, and she wanted more. “How do you know that … about me?” she whispered, shocked that he could so easily discuss the most intimate subjects. “I don’t know,” he replied quietly, searching her soft eyes. His blood warmed in his veins, and he felt his heartbeat slowly increase. Her scent was overpowering, drowning him, seducing his senses. He knew a lot about her, knowledge that only instinct could have supplied. Her lips parted on a rush of breath. The dimness of the barn was warm and cozy, shutting them away from the world. Winthrop was closer than ever, towering over her, drowning her in a narcotic kind of hunger. She took an involuntary step toward him. “I … don’t understand,” she whispered, her voice shaking. One slender hand went hesitantly to his chest and pressed against it, feeling the shock of warm muscle and a spongy wiriness that might have been hair underneath. She felt him tense, even before his hand came up to remove hers with abrupt impatience. “Don’t do that,” he ground out, glaring at her. “I don’t want your hands on me.” Her own forwardness shocked her more than his irritable statement. She turned away, feeling a rush of tears that she couldn’t let him see. “I’d better get back to the house,” she said quickly. “Your brother was going to make a phone call and then finish his dictation. I’m glad the mare’s okay.” She said it all in a mad rush and threw a vague smile in his direction before she went out of the barn as if her shoes were on fire. He watched her go with mingled emotions. Anger. Irritation. Hunger. Frustration. He couldn’t sort them out, so he didn’t bother. He went back to feed and water the mare and see about the colt. Damn women everywhere, he thought, and limped more than usual as he went about his business. Nicole made a point of avoiding her boss’s unpredictable brother for the rest of the day. But there was no getting away from him at the supper table, and she had to fight not to look at him. Cleaned up and freshly shaved, wearing a white shirt that suited his darkness, he would have drawn any woman’s eyes. It was easy to see how he’d appealed to women when he was younger. He was still a striking man, and it wasn’t just his looks. There was an indefinable something about him, a vibrant masculinity that was almost tangible and certainly overpowering at close range. Her hands trembled just sitting next to him at the long table. Gerald was quoting figures on some real estate he’d acquired, and Winthrop was listening with barely half his mind. He was watching Nicky while he pared his steak and chewed it deliberately, trying not to let her know that he was watching her. She was wearing that gray jersey dress that clung so lovingly to her curves, and the memory of the effect she’d had on him in the barn wasn’t doing his appetite any good. He finally grew impatient with her downbent head and stopped eating and just stared at her intently while Gerald went on talking without realizing that he was talking to himself. Nicole felt that intent stare and looked up into Winthrop’s dark eyes. And her heart stopped beating. Electricity danced between them. She couldn’t drag her eyes from his, any more than his were willing to be tugged away. The look they exchanged was long and piercing and shattering in its intensity. It was as personal as a kiss, so steady and unblinking that she felt her body tremble in intimate response to his blatant interest. His gaze held hers for a shuddering moment, and then it dropped to her mouth, and she felt her lips part helplessly for him. “Winthrop, are you listening?” Gerald asked suddenly, breaking the silence when he discovered that his brother was apparently staring into space. “What?” Winthrop turned back to him. “Something about real estate values?” he asked absently. He didn’t like the way his body responded to that look in Nicole’s eyes. He was going to have to do something. But what? Nicole was having as difficult a time with her own body. She shifted restlessly and drank coffee that was, by now, hopelessly oversugared. While Winthrop’s dark eyes had been openly making love to hers, she’d put six spoons of sugar in the black liquid. She took a sip and shuddered and left it in favor of the glass of water Mary had provided for each of them. So much for common sense. It was time to retreat. For the next few days, she and Winthrop avoided each other—ignored each other—to the extent that everybody noticed, and Mary began asking gentle questions that Nicole smiled at and avoided answering. And that might have gone on for another week if she hadn’t tripped on the steps coming in from a walk late one afternoon, to be caught by Winthrop in the gathering darkness. He’d apparently just come in from the corral himself. He smelled of cattle and he needed a shave, but his arms in the sheepskin jacket felt strong and warm, and instead of pulling away like a sensible girl, Nicole had sighed and relaxed against his tall, strong body. Winthrop muttered something, but he didn’t push her away. His hard arms contracted, drawing her against him under the unbuttoned jacket, and he stood holding her in the dusky light, savoring her softness, his cheek against her dark hair. It seemed so natural, somehow. So right. His eyes closed and all the reasons why he shouldn’t allow her this close vanished. He didn’t make a sound, and neither did she. The wind sang through the tall lodgepole pines, whispered through the aspen and maples, whipped her hair against her flushed cheek. She pressed closer with a tiny, inarticulate sound, too hungry for the contact to listen to the warning bells going off in her head. He was warm and strong, and it was sheer delight to be held by him. She felt her body tremble with exquisite pleasure. “We could hurt each other badly,” he whispered in her ear, his voice deep and soft and slow. “You don’t have the experience to understand the risk, and I can’t be sure that I wouldn’t take out old hurts on you, even though I wouldn’t do it consciously. This is crazy.” “Yes.” He nuzzled his cheek against her hair. “I mean it, Nicky.” She sighed, reluctantly drawing away from him. She looked up, curious, excited. “Afraid of me, cattle baron?” she asked softly. “In a way,” he agreed unexpectedly, but he wasn’t smiling. He touched her cheek with the back of his fingers in a soft caress. “I don’t like to start things I can’t finish.” “Meaning?” she persisted. If it was digging her own emotional grave, she couldn’t help it. She had to know. He stared into her eyes for just a second, and then drew back, physically and emotionally. “You’ll figure it out. Don’t wander out of the yard when you go walking. One of the men thinks he spotted a wolf today. I don’t want anything to happen to you, little Eastern girl. I may never be your lover, but I’ll take care of you, all the same, while you’re here.” And with that surprising statement, he turned and walked off. Nicole stared after him with eyes that brimmed with unshed tears. He was very protective of her, and she wondered if he realized it. He wasn’t saying what he felt, but she knew instinctively that he shared some of the warm feeling that was growing inside her. But whether he’d ever give in to it was anyone’s guess. As for Nicole, it had shocked her to realize that she had none of her usual defenses when he was near her. And that realization kept her quiet all through supper and beyond bedtime. What an unexpectedly complicated thing this vacation of her boss’s had become. She hoped that she was going to be able to cope with the new and disturbing feelings that Winthrop had unearthed in her. Life sailed into a pleasant routine after that. She and Gerald settled down to work, and Nicole spent her free time exploring outdoors or watching Mary in the kitchen. Winthrop was pleasant enough, but he kept things cool, although from time to time she found those dark, quiet eyes watching her in a way that excited her beyond bearing. Two days later, she heard cattle bawling and excited male voices, and she succumbed to the need to see Winthrop. The cattle were massed at a makeshift corral just away from the barn and the stables, and Winthrop was on his horse, helping to drive cattle into a holding pen where they were apparently being vetted and vaccinated and examined and treated for diseases or infestation by grubs. That weak leg didn’t seem to bother the big man one bit on horseback. He could cut and rope with the best of them, and the wilder the horse, the better he seemed to enjoy himself. He laughed deeply and with obvious pleasure the whole time. She imagined that when he was in the saddle he could forget how ungraceful he was on the ground. Not that a limp made him any less a man. He bristled with masculine sensuality. She could see quite easily how he’d gained a reputation in his youth as a playboy. He was devastating physically, and he had a voice that even in memory could make her flush with pleasure. Her heart hadn’t been the same since that unexpected embrace on the porch. She could close her eyes and hear his voice all over again, as it had been that evening, and she could almost imagine it in a dark room, coaxing, deliberately seductive…. Warmth coursed through her and she forced herself to watch the men and the cattle. Winthrop had climbed off the horse to help catch a calf, apparently one that needed doctoring. He looped his rope and undid it, lazily coiling it while one of the other cowboys threw the calf and began to do something to it. Winthrop was rubbing his leg, and the limp was even more pronounced when he turned, leading his horse by the reins. He saw Nicole at the fence, and he stood very still for an instant. She could feel his anger even at the distance, and made a discreet and quick withdrawal. He was headed in her direction, so she changed it and walked quickly into the forest that encircled the house. Why she should have been embarrassed, she didn’t know. But she knew he was angry, even before he caught up with her minutes later. She stopped, catching her breath. He was right behind her, still leading the horse. As he walked, he favored that right leg. “Running away?” he taunted. “Why?” She stared at him. It was silly to be so ill at ease with him, but his expression wasn’t at all welcoming. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. She was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved yellow sweater. He had on a shirt the same shade of yellow and brown as his jeans, and she thought illogically how well they matched. He lifted his dark head. “Don’t you? What are you doing—spying? Did you want to see if the cripple could still throw a calf?” She went forward without thinking and put her soft hand over his mouth. “Don’t,” she said softly. “Don’t do that to yourself. You’re not a cripple. You’re a man with a limp.” The feel of her fingers shocked him. The gesture was unexpected and it threw him off balance. He caught her smooth hand, holding it near his cheek as if he couldn’t quite decide what to do with it. He stood over her, breathing roughly, his eyes dark with pain and anger as they searched hers. His fingers contracted absently around hers, bruising a little, but she didn’t protest. “I don’t want you here,” he said quietly, his eyes narrow, piercing. “Yes, I know.” She moved her fingers experimentally, and he let them go. She touched his cheek, tracing the long scar down his jaw, into the dimple in his chin. It was incredible how secure she felt with him, and not the least bit afraid. She sensed something in him, something vulnerable and tender, and she wanted to reach it. She needed to reach it, although she didn’t understand why. “You don’t talk about it, do you? Not ever.” His broad chest rose and fell. He was very close. Too close. She could feel the muscles ripple when he moved, feel him breathing, feel the warmth of him in the chill air. His fingers slid into her hair, hesitantly, feeling the curls as he moved his hands to her nape and turned her head up with firm gentleness. “It’s been one hell of a long time since I kissed a woman,” he said half under his breath, looking down at her coldly. “Don’t you realize that you’ve been inviting that for days? I’m not a boy, and I’ve gone hungry in recent years. I can’t play games, I even told you so. You could start something that would ruin both our lives.” She let him pull her head back. She looked up at him unafraid, her eyes soft with understanding and compassion. “I’m not afraid of you,” she said softly. “I could make you afraid, Nicole.” His voice was velvety soft and deep. Her lips parted, because it was as sensuous as she’d imagined it would be. She liked being close to him. She wanted his mouth and her lips parted in subtle invitation. She might have imagined herself in love with Chase James, but never in her life had she felt anything as sweet as this. He looked down at her soft mouth, seeing it open, and something in him snapped. He bent quickly, covering it with his hard lips. He wanted to hurt her. She was a child, playing at sensuality, and he wanted to make it so rough that she’d stop tormenting him with emotions he never wanted to feel again…. She yielded completely, no thought of fighting him. His mouth was hard, warm and tasted of tobacco and it was only then that she realized how expert he really was. He made no allowances for her youth, and despite her small experience with Chase, this was her first real taste of passion. It was devastating, this helpless feeling he caused in her. She sighed hungrily, letting him draw her completely against the powerful hard length of his body, letting him crush her against it. Her mouth yielded eagerly to his insistent lips, tasting the tobacco tartness of his tongue as it pushed into her mouth, penetrating her in a silence that blazed with kindling sensations. Her hands grasped his shirtsleeves, holding on, because her knees were getting weak. His arm at her back arched her, the hand at her nape tangled in her curly hair. He made a sound deep in his throat and lifted his head, his eyes black and blazing as they probed her dazed ones. “Aren’t you going to fight me?” he taunted with a faint, mocking smile as his mouth poised over hers. “No.” She reached up, sliding her arms around his neck. Her mouth was soft, parted and waiting, tempting his. “Oh, no, I want it, too!” “Nicky …” It was a groan, her name on his lips. He bent, half lifting her up to him. But this time, he didn’t try to hurt her. This time, he was achingly gentle. His hard mouth slowed and softened on hers, and he kissed her with a subdued passion that aroused all her protective instincts. Poor, tormented man, she thought. So much love in him, all wasted on the wrong woman. And now he was driven to hurt back, out of fear that it was going to happen again. But it wasn’t, she thought, her heart blazing with compassion. It wasn’t, because she’d never hurt him. She closed her arms tight around his neck and opened her mouth for him, drawing it over his as she was learning he liked it. Her tongue teased at his full lower lip and he made a sound that corresponded with the tautening of his body. “I’m sorry,” she whispered against his lips. “I don’t … know much about this. I’m sorry if I did it wrong.” He lifted his head again. He was breathing roughly, and his eyes had a haunted look. The hand in her hair caressed gently. “You really are a virgin, aren’t you?” he murmured with a tenderness he wasn’t aware of. “I guess it shows,” she whispered dryly. She looked down at his shirt, missing the sudden shocked delight in his eyes. “I haven’t had a lot to do with men in the past few years.” He brushed the curly hair away from her face, touching her with pure wonder. Yes, this was what he’d been uneasy about, this vulnerable side of her that attracted him. He’d tried so hard to avoid this confrontation. Ridiculous, really, when it was inevitable that he was going to feel her warmth in his arms, savor the soft nectar of her mouth. He’d known she was nearby, back at the corral. He’d sensed her somehow. “Why were you watching me?” he asked. “I don’t know. I needed to.” She shifted, burying her face against his broad shoulder. “You disturb me,” she whispered shakily. “It frightens me.” “It shouldn’t.” He held her, rocked her. His mouth touched her forehead in a kiss as gentle as the arms that held her. “I won’t hurt you again.” She nuzzled her face against him. “It’s very exciting, being kissed like that,” she whispered shyly. He smiled. “Is it?” He tilted her chin up and searched her eyes. “Then let’s do it again,” he whispered into her open mouth. It was wilder this time, hotter, more unbearably sweet. She gave him her mouth and melted into the hard contours of his body with a soft moan. It wasn’t until she felt the tautening, felt the sudden urgency in the mouth devouring hers, that she realized things were getting out of control. She put her hands against his wildly thudding chest and pulled her lips away from his. “No,” she said shakily. He bit at her lower lip, his head spinning. “No?” “You’re a man … and experienced,” she whispered. “I’ve never … and I can’t. I’m sorry.” He was breathing roughly, but he didn’t seem to be angry. He brushed his mouth over her eyes, closing her eyelids. “Do you want to?” he whispered, smiling. “What a ridiculous question. I expect you know the answer,” she said dazedly. “I suppose I do, at that.” He sighed, wrapping her up against him. “Hold tight. They say it passes, eventually. I can’t vouch for it, of course. I’m not in the habit of drawing back at this point.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I won’t die.” He nuzzled his cheek against hers, rocking her. His arms had a faint tremor, but his breathing was calmer now and his heartbeat had stopped shaking them both. “What a potent little package you are. I didn’t plan this. I meant to … hell, I don’t know what I meant to do. Scare you, maybe.” “You did.” He laughed. “Like hell I did, you were with me every step of the way. I could have laid you down in the grass and—” “Hush!” He drew back then and looked down at her, frowning, his eyes wary and searching. She was flushed, and her eyes had an unnatural brightness, as if she were holding back tears. “What are you so afraid of?” he asked quietly, touching her eyelid gently to release a long, silver tear. “It was passionate, but still just a kiss. I didn’t even try to touch you in any way that would have offended you.” “It isn’t fear,” she whispered. She lowered her eyes. How could she explain to him the intensity of her feelings, the aching tenderness she was beginning to feel for him? “Are you afraid of intimacy?” he asked very quietly. She lowered her eyes to his chest and closed them. “I’m afraid of getting involved. Just as afraid as you are,” she added. And it was true. She’d given her heart to Chase—she’d almost given her body to him. And he’d betrayed her trust. How could she risk it again? “Why?” She looked up at him. “Why are you?” she countered, searching his quiet eyes. He bent and touched her forehead with lips that were breathlessly gentle. “I loved her,” he whispered, “in my way. It was the first time I’d ever felt more than a physical hunger for a woman. When she walked away from me, I wanted to die. I swore I’d get over it, but I don’t know that I really have. The scars go deep.” She touched his face gently, running her fingers slowly along his hard cheek. Amazing, how exquisite it was to be near him. “I got thrown over by my fiancé,” she confessed. “He decided he wanted a rich girl, and I wasn’t …” She almost added “anymore” but she caught the word in time. He searched her soft green eyes. “You didn’t sleep with him,” he said, gazing at her intently. “That’s hard to explain.” She stared at his top shirt button. It was undone, and thick dark hair peeked out against his tanned skin. “I wanted the first time to mean something. What hurts the most is that I never felt that way about him. I thought I loved him, but I never thought about sleeping with him.” That was the truth. Seeing how fast living had ruled her parents’ lives had soured her on that part of life. Intimacy had become to them as careless as handshakes, and Nicole had determined that it would be treated more reverently in her own life. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was one of the reasons Chase had left her. He’d pushed her toward intimacy more and more after their engagement, but she’d resisted stubbornly. And now, standing close in Winthrop’s arms, she was savagely glad she’d resisted. There was more to it than that, he knew, but she wasn’t volunteering any more information. He studied her quietly, thinking how much like him she was. He ran his finger down her cheek. Secretive, too, but he’d get more of an explanation eventually. It was insane to be so pleased that she was still innocent. It excited him, as sophisticated women never had. “I could eat a moose,” he said conversationally. “Why don’t we rush back to the house and raid the freezer? Can you cook, in case Mary decides to try out for the Rockettes one day?” She laughed at him. His humor had surprised her. Was this the real man? Had that cold veneer finally melted away? “Yes, of course I can cook. Why would Mary want to try out for the Rockettes?” He shrugged. “She threatens it once or twice a winter. She saw them on television once and was sure she was just the right height, even though her legs were a bit large. I haven’t taken her seriously in past years, but as I get older, my stomach worries.” “Don’t you worry, Mr. Christopher, I’ll take care of you,” she murmured and turned toward the house. “Are you walking or riding?” He sighed and grimaced. “I guess I’m riding,” he muttered. “Damned leg hurts like hell.” She had a feeling he wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone but her. It was the best kind of compliment. She smiled and shook her head when he offered to let her ride with him after he’d painstakingly mounted the horse and was sitting regally on its back. “It wouldn’t do your leg much good,” she reminded him. “I’ll just walk alongside and look up at you adoringly, if you don’t mind.” “That’ll be the day,” he mused. She looked up. “What happened to your leg?” she asked softly. “Bone damage and torn ligaments. I was pinned in the car when she wrecked it,” he said simply. “The surgeons repaired it as best they could, but there were complications. I’ll always limp. And when I overdo, I’ll always hurt.” He glanced at her. “I had a choice between limping or giving up the leg. I came in with a matched set and I intend to go out the same way.” She pursed her lips, feeling mischievous, and almost asked an outrageous question. Then she blushed wildly and turned away. He guessed the question and burst out laughing. “No,” he murmured. “It doesn’t cramp my style in bed.” She gasped, glaring at him. “I never—” “You might as well have written it in twelve-inch letters on canvas,” he retorted. Her mouth opened and then closed while she thought up searing retorts, none of which came to mind. Later, she’d think up hundreds, she was sure. But the thought of him in bed with another woman made her feel jealous and angry. And it showed. He stopped, fingering the reins in one lean hand and waited for her to look up at him. His dark eyes, shadowy under the wide brim of his hat, watched her. “I’ll qualify that,” he said after a long exchange of eyes. “I don’t think it will cramp my style. I haven’t been with a woman since it happened.” Her breath caught, but she didn’t look away. It was such an intimate thing to know about him, and she struggled to think of a suitable reply. “That wasn’t fair, was it?” he asked with a slow smile. “And I can’t tell you for the life of me why I wanted you to know that. But I did. We’d better get home. It’s getting dark.” She lowered her eyes to the trail that led back to the house. His revelation shouldn’t have mattered to her, but it did. She smiled softly to herself, unaware that he saw the smile, and understood it. He lit a cigarette and rode along beside her with a carefully hidden smug expression while he smoked it. “How about dinner tomorrow night? I’ll drive you into Butte.” She felt chills to the tips of her toes and a wild excitement that was new, like the sudden tenderness between herself and Winthrop. “If Gerald doesn’t need me, I’d love to,” she said. He hesitated. He looked down at her curiously, but he didn’t speak. “Okay.” She wondered about the reason for his withdrawn expression and the odd silence the rest of the way to the house. That was good, because it kept her from thinking about the way he’d kissed her. She’d never felt more threatened in her life, and the worst of it was that she wasn’t even afraid of what might happen between them. He glanced at her just once, shocked by the surge of jealousy he felt at her remark about Gerald. It was that, too. Jealousy. He was afraid that there was something between this woman and his brother, and his own sense of honor and family wouldn’t allow him to trespass on Gerald’s territory. He wanted her to be heart-whole. He wanted that desperately. Could she have kissed him that way and still belong to Gerald? Surely not! He pulled his emotions up short. It wouldn’t do to give in to this unexpected yen for her. He was playing with fire, and God forbid he should get burned a second time. Nicole, unaware of his thoughts, was having some difficulties of her own trying to figure out his taciturn somberness after the new and delicate camaraderie between them. She guessed, rightly, that he was holding back out of apprehension, and she even understood. But she didn’t want him to leave her alone. She was beginning to love him, and it was only when she admitted it that she realized how desperately she wanted him. Four (#ulink_9d161f5a-dfb9-5014-8a5f-9064128812dd) Winthrop wasn’t at the supper table. Nicole didn’t really expect him to be, because it was early November now, and according to Gerald, the boss was getting his management program in gear for winter. That included culling cattle; weaning, preconditioning and delivering calves; making the initial selection of replacement cattle and starting them on feed; and all the veterinarian-related chores that that entailed. With the sheer immensity of the cow-calf operation, it was a full-time job for the boss to keep up with what was going on. Mike, the foreman, relieved Winthrop of a lot of headaches, but even with a firm of accountants to do the paperwork, Winthrop still had to make the big decisions. No wonder he was putting in so many late hours, Nicole thought after Gerald had explained his absence. Later that evening, Gerald had some correspondence for her. They went into the study to work. The room had Winthrop’s personality stamped all over it. There was a bear’s head on the wall, and burgundy leather furniture. The rugs were Indian, and the huge stone fireplace was made of native rock in comparable colors. The desk was oak, the chairs man-size and comfortable. There was a copper kettle on the hearth, and it reminded Nicole of the huge copper mining operation she’d seen as they came through Butte on the day they’d arrived. On the wall was a portrait of a man in buckskin, and she wondered if that was the French trader who was an ancestor of the Christophers. “By the way, Sadie’s invited us for dinner Friday night,” Gerald said as he sorted out his mail, which had been forwarded from Chicago that afternoon. “Is that convenient for you?” “That’s fine,” she said. “I look forward to meeting her again.” She sat poised with her steno pad on her lap. “Uh, Winthrop asked if I’d go into Butte with him tomorrow night. To a restaurant.” Gerald pursed his lips and smiled mischievously. “I see,” he mused. “So Winthrop’s out to take my girl away from me, is he? I’m not sure if I like that.” It was an old joke between them, dating from her first six months as his secretary when two of the vice presidents had tried to steal her out from under his nose. She laughed and he was smiling. But the man out in the hall, overhearing him, didn’t see that. Winthrop was within reach of the doorknob, but his lean hand faltered. “He’s not likely to try to take me away from you, so you can stop worrying,” she said, tongue in cheek. “Anyway, he couldn’t do it, you’re quite unmatchable. Are you reassured?” “I am.” Gerald sighed theatrically, his brown eyes playful. He wasn’t at all bad-looking. He just seemed very young beside his brother. “What a frightening thought!” he added with a mock shudder. “That I could lose you to my own brother. But Winthrop is too much a gentleman to steal from people, so I can relax. Now, suppose we get down to work?” Winthrop turned and walked out the front door. His footsteps were so soft, and the closing of the door so quiet, that the occupants of the study didn’t hear him. He hadn’t expected Nicole to be like that. He’d been sure that her ardor was real, that she’d felt the same tenderness he had. And here she was telling Gerald that there was no chance Winthrop could turn her head. He felt sick to his stomach and furiously angry. He couldn’t bear the thought of being near her anymore, not after hearing her conversation with Gerald. What a close call, but at least he’d been spared. His face hardened as he began to work out what he was going to do. Thank God, she’d never know just how close she’d come to getting under his skin. There was no sign of Winthrop for the rest of the evening, and the next morning, Gerald found a note waiting for him when they sat down to breakfast. He read over it, obviously puzzled. “Winthrop,” he said, waving the slip of paper. “He’s gone to Omaha, God knows why. Something about a cattle deal. He said he’s sorry about this evening, but he’ll have to take a rain check on your dinner date.” “That’s all right,” she said, hiding her disappointment. “I’m sure he couldn’t help it.” Gerald, who knew his older brother a little better than Nicole did, was uneasy. Winthrop hadn’t offered to take a woman out to dinner since that blonde barracuda did him in. Nicky had touched something in him, something cold and dormant, and now Winthrop seemed determined to fight it to the last breath. Gerald studied Nicky, wondering if she had any idea how disturbing Winthrop must find her. Probably not. She was a sweet person, a little reserved most of the time. Gerald was fond of her, in a brotherly way, and he felt responsible for Winthrop’s unexpected coolness toward her. Knowing how his brother felt, Gerald should have been more wary of bringing a woman to the ranch. But it had been Winthrop who’d mentioned bringing Nicky. Come to think of it, Winthrop had asked a lot of questions about her after he’d seen her that day at the Chicago office. He pursed his lips. Well, well. Big brother had an Achilles’ heel, it seemed. He smiled as the thought warmed his mind. And now that Winthrop had the quarry near the hook, he was going to play her for a while, was that it? Or had he gotten cold feet and was now running? “You’re very quiet,” Nicole said hesitantly. “I’m just thinking. By the way, with Winthrop gone, would you rather spend tonight at Sadie’s?” he asked with old-world politeness. She smiled. “You’re a nice man. Would you mind?” “Heavens, no,” he murmured. Besides, it would give him an excuse to see Sadie again the next day, when he went to fetch Nicky. And it would kill any potential gossip stone dead. Winthrop might appreciate that one day. They went that night to have dinner with Sadie. She was a tall woman with blond hair and soft brown eyes. Nicky had always liked her, and the two of them found plenty to talk about when Sadie had come by the office to wait for Gerald. “I’ll be delighted to have you stay the night,” Sadie told her enthusiastically. “It gets lonely with just me for company. Mother likes people.” “How is she?” Gerald asked gently. Sadie sighed and shook her head. “No better. No worse. She just lies and looks at the wall and begs to die.” She bit back tears. “Here, Nicky, help me get the food on the table, will you? Gerald, would you like to go in and ask Mother if she needs anything?” “Certainly,” he agreed, and paused to exchange a look with Sadie that was long and bittersweet. Sadie watched him leave the room, her eyes wandering over his tall figure in the becoming tan suit. “I’m hopeless,” Sadie sighed, smiling shyly. “I love him to death, but there’s not a thing I can do about it. I love Mother, too. I can’t leave her.” Nicky studied the wan face. “He hasn’t been well, either,” she said. Sadie glanced up. “Oh, dear.” “An ulcer,” Nicole said. “Just an ulcer. But he pushes so hard.” “He always has. Competing, you know,” she added with a loving smile. “He feels he has to come up to par with Winthrop.” “That would be a tall order,” Nicky said without thinking as she laid the table. Sadie glanced at her as she filled cups with steaming black coffee. “He’s a cold man.” “Not really,” Nicole replied softly. “He’s just hurt, that’s all.” The older woman pursed her lips. “How did you wind up on the ranch?” “Mr. Christopher wanted to come home for a month to rest and work. I have car payments, furniture payments, payment payments …” She grinned. “I couldn’t afford to lose a month’s pay, so I came, too.” “And now Winthrop’s done a vanishing act. Why?” “I don’t know,” Nicky said honestly. “He asked me out to dinner tonight, and then this morning he left.” She shrugged. “He’s very difficult to understand.” “He always was. I’ve known the two brothers for years. I went to school with Gerald.” She filled the coffee cups and then placed them in their lovely china saucers on the linen tablecloth. “Winthrop was always a loner, although he was something of a rounder in his younger days. He broke hearts …” “I’ll bet he did,” Nicky murmured. She looked up. “Did you know about the blonde?” “Everybody around here knew about the blonde,” Sadie replied. “It was a nine-day wonder. The gossip went on forever, as it does in small communities. Winthrop got back on his feet and lived it down, but I imagine he hasn’t really gotten over it. She was a first-class barracuda. She’d have cut him up like fish bait if they hadn’t been in that wreck. She’d have taken him for everything he had, and left him bleeding without a backward glance. She married an oil millionaire, you know. They say she’s got a closet full of mink coats.” “How sad,” Nicky said genuinely, her green eyes full of bitterness. “So many people marry for money. Or try to.” “I’ll bet you never would,” Sadie said unexpectedly. “Gerald always did like you. I’m a bit jealous of you.” “Me?” Nicky grinned. “Thanks, but he’s too nice a man to make a play for his secretary. I’d do anything for him, but only in the line of duty. I’m shy that way. Most men don’t appeal to me physically.” “Does Winthrop?” Nicole flushed and flapped around while Sadie burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, but your guilty secret is safe with me,” Sadie said with a laugh. “Oh, Nicky, what a man to get hot and bothered by. The iceman!” “It could be worse. I could develop a case for some married man with twenty kids.” “True, true.” She put the finishing touches on the table arrangement. “Come and meet Mother, and then I’ll show you where to put your overnight case.” “You’re nice to let me stay,” Nicky said. “You and I know that nothing would go on, but people talk. I don’t want any gossip about my nice boss.” “Neither do I, and I’m glad you’re old-fashioned.” The nurse narrowed her eyes. “You really are old-fashioned, aren’t you?” she asked with startling perception. Nicky cleared her throat. “I always thought … well, marriage is nice. They say white only means it’s your first marriage, but it means a lot more than that to me. I had old-fashioned grandparents.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/diana-palmer/white-christmas-woman-hater-the-humbug-man/?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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