If you missed the first installment, click here.
Saige lit a fire like a pro, a skill Colt didn’t possess but decided to add to his list of things to learn with all his free time. He watched as she stood by the flames in what appeared to be deep thought.
A blueish tone shone outside the back doors with a flurry of snow drifting to the ground. Silence filled the room except for a pop of a log in the fire. After a few moments, she looked up at him with such pain in her eyes he longed to pull her into his arms and chase the gloom away. The way he had with his little sister Abbey whenever she’d skin her knee. He missed that little munchkin, but he wasn’t ready to head home.
Saige wasn’t his sister, though. She was a beautiful, strong, but wounded type. Comforting her would be a bad idea because he only knew one way of soothing a woman, and she wasn’t the type. And he wasn’t capable of anything else. The one trait he couldn’t deny he inherited from his father.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked, trying to make polite conversation to help her relax. The woman was wound so tight, he thought she might explode at any moment.
She blinked at him then studied the fire as if it held a secret meaning. Her hair shifted, covering her face, and he wanted to brush it out of the way to see her expression but kept his distance.
“Memories.” She sat down in the other chair facing the fire. “My mother. She passed away here a decade ago. I was thinking about the charm she gave me the day before she died. A family heirloom.”
“Where is it?” Colt asked, but her lips pressed together and she turned to the outside world instead of to him.
He shifted in the recliner. “I didn’t mean to pry. Just making small talk, getting to know you.” Something he was trying on since he’d never talked much to the ladies he dated.
The heater kicked on, the clatter drawing her attention to the vent, but only long enough for her to inhale a deep breath then look at him with a stern expression. “No need. You won’t be here long enough, and I don’t need to get to know someone like you.”
Great, she’d seen the papers. All day, he’d thought he’d escaped the drama and gossip but he hadn’t. Fine, let her judge him.
She fled the room without another word. Footsteps pounded the ceiling overhead, and then the creak of the bed told him she’d settled into a bedroom upstairs.
Nervous energy polluted with anger set him off. Unable to sit still, he attacked the mess in the kitchen and didn’t stop until the stove and countertops were spotless, the inside of the oven scraped free of food debris and scrubbed, floors swept and mopped, main room windows streak free, and the wood paneling in the dining room wiped down.
He moved to the main room to dust, but fatigue overruled his cleaning OCD and an ache between his shoulder blades caused him to take a break. At the sight of some old photo albums, he paused and set his rag aside. After a quick glance at the hallway, he snagged a few of the old-fashioned photo books and collapsed into the rocker.
Inside he discovered pictures of a little Saige with people he assumed were her parents and grandparents riding horses, roasting marshmallows by the fire, mending fences, and shooting.
Something inside him snapped with realization. He wanted that. A real family with real memories, not the expensive ones his father bought with big trips where they all went their separate ways. But he’d never have that because he wasn’t the monogamous family type. Too much of his father ran through his veins.
That woman upstairs with the corporate look, expensive snow boots, perfect hair and eyes appeared so different than the little girl in the photos. But the way she’d wielded that shotgun with hip out and chin up showed she still had the same determination and sass today she’d had in childhood.
He rocked, eyeing the moon and stars in the night sky through the window. He’d always wanted to camp under the night sky somewhere fresh and open, but there were no tents—only offices—in his childhood.
The clock on the mantel ticked away, soothing him with its rhythm. When was the last time he’d crawled into an actual bed and fallen asleep? He’d been like Abbey as a toddler when she’d crawl until she passed out.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
If Abbey were here, she’d call Saige a unicorn. And he’d have to agree. He snickered at the memory of his little sister sitting at the tea set with him, explaining that a unicorn was a magical creature that only the truly blessed would ever get a chance to see. Saige McKinnie would fit that discerption in his book. The woman upstairs possessed beauty, power, and intelligence. Nothing like the flings of his past or the arrangement with the perfect wife on paper. One that would stay at his side and raise his father’s company to a new level. A woman who shopped, played tennis, trained in the art of polite conversation and how to spend money to be part of the elite crowd, all the time having flings on the side. None of that appealed to him. He had no desire for that life, even if it meant not seeing his baby sister.
He’d never meant to embarrass anyone, but he never could find the drive to focus during business meetings and luncheons and banquets. He tried to be the good employee—the good son—but his heart wasn’t in it, if he had a heart at all. God knew he had tried.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
His arms relaxed and he sank into the chair, hoping for some shut eye, but he knew sleep would never come because insomnia took hold the night his father told him he was no better than an embarrassment to the family.
Yet, his body relaxed in the old, faded cloth recliner, in the old living room, with the old wood mantel fireplace, in the old house with old, good memories. The kind Colt wished he had.
Before he could finish that thought, he swore he smelled coffee. A good, strong brew.
“Good morning. Told you to sleep in the bedroom off the kitchen. Didn’t have to sleep here.”
He opened his eyes to a beautiful redhaired, green-eyed creature and thought if this was a dream, he didn’t want to wake up. But when his memory caught up with his vision, the reality made him smile.
“Whatcha grinning at?” She shoved a coffee at him. “Drink up. We have work to finish.”
He took the warm mug and eyed it for a moment, sniffing the brown liquid.
“It’s safe. I learned to make coffee when I could reach the pot. Workers on a ranch need coffee. I grew up drinking it.” Saige turned and headed for the kitchen. Her swaying hips made him want to follow her, but the coffee would have to do for now.
“Guess I conked out here. Didn’t realize I was that tired. Last thing I remember—”
“You were digging through my private photo albums without asking?”
He took a sip. To his relief, he didn’t have to choke down a bitter brew to be kind. Was that a hint of cinnamon? “Sorry about that. I was dusting and ran across them.”
“Dusting?” She leaned against the edge of the counter and faced him. “The agreement was for you to clean up the trash that you and your buddies made here. I don’t think you made the dust.”
“Did you just make a joke?” Colt realized someone had put a blanket over him. He studied it for a second.
“I do have a sense of humor when I’m not worried about having some mass murderer or house wrecker in my place.” She sipped her own drink, eyeing him over the rim.
“And now?” He stood, folded the blanket, and placed it on the back of the chair before stretching the kinks from his low back.
“Now I think you’re still a Neanderthal ex-bull rider with some OCD tendencies.”
He chuckled. “Cleaning is my coping mechanism.”
“Thanks, by the way.”
“For what?” He crossed the room and leaned over the counter.
She played with her earlobe. Apparently he’d discovered her coping mechanism. “For not trying to…”
“To what?” He knew what she meant but decided to make her say it.
“You know.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and studied her cup like it housed all the answers to world issues, or at least the ones in this room.
“Have you ever thought that men like me might not all be the same?”
She stiffened. “All bull riders are the same.”
Relief flooded him. She didn’t know his truth. But based on her furrowed brow and stiff shoulders, he guessed she’d encountered a bull rider in her past who broke her heart. And in that moment, he had a desire to mend it. But then he realized he’d been no better than the bull rider she mentioned. How many hearts had he broken?
“Listen. I didn’t mean to be so rude,” she said in a softer tone.
He choked down his words and decided it best to keep his mouth shut and his attention on the task in front of him. He wanted to stay here for a while, so he needed to keep his mind and thoughts to himself because things never ended well when he was attracted to a woman.
All night Saige had tossed and turned and tortured herself with one simple fact. A fact she hoped she’d proven wrong when she had agreed to marry Thomas. How could a good person, a person like her mother, be consumed with thoughts and dreams of a sexy stranger on the night that her fiancé walked out of her life?
Saige eyed the old photo albums Colt had resurrected, the photos full of memories. She abandoned her half-empty mug on the counter and rubbed her temples to ease her mounting headache. The origin was probably the man standing across the counter from her. Maybe her father was right and she didn’t need real love in her life, that she wasn’t capable of such emotions. The thought put a dark spot on her heart. Like a wound had reopened. She averted her gaze from the photo albums, unable to face her mother’s image.
What would she think of her sweet daughter now?
Colt’s finger grazed her knuckle. A simple touch with a complicated response. “Hey, you okay?”
“Fine.” She downed the last of her coffee and moved away from him to the other side of the room. “You should call for one of your buddies to come get you. Best to get out of here earlier than later.”
She went to her bedroom and searched her nightstand, wanting to find the cowboy Christmas charm her mother had left her, but she couldn’t remember where she’d left it. She’d yanked the bracelet from her wrist and tossed it somewhere before fleeing the house with her father.
With a stuttered intake of air, she reenacted that motion and, a flash of memory told her it was in her top drawer. She opened the drawer to find the bracelet with the MH printed on the cowboy hat. The charm that had been passed down for generations lying next to the ghost of relationship past. She retrieved the bracelet with the charm and shoved the door shut then raced downstairs as if putting distance between her and the memories would keep them far away. She slipped the bracelet on, and it felt right, like it had never been meant to be anywhere but her wrist. This was what she’d come for, to reconnect with her mother and the long history of strong women in her family.
She picked up a throw pillow to punch the dust that had already been beaten out of it by her stranger. Colt had done all the cleaning in the area. She clutched the pillow to her chest and thought for a moment about hiring him to manage the place if he was looking for work, but the more she hugged the pillow to her chest and longed for the warmth of his body, the more she thought better of it.
“Hello? Sorry. I can’t hear you. I need a car to get me. Yes, from that group.”
Saige dropped the pillow and dared to move closer. Was one of his so-called party buddies too busy to come get him? The man should’ve realized when they’d left him behind that they were worthless people he couldn’t rely on. Like most men in that industry. “What’s going on?”
He put a finger to his ear and shouted louder. “Bad connection. I need a car.” He moved the receiver from his ear and glanced at it as if to see what the person at the other end was saying then placed it back to his ear. “What’s that? Yes. Colt Whitmore.”
That name sounded familiar. Maybe they’d crossed paths growing up. She guessed he wasn’t a born and bred local based on his choice of boots and the way he spoke.
Wind gusted outside, whistling the announcement of more cold heading their way. No problem. Heater and blankets and fire would be toasty enough. No need for anything else to keep her warm.
“Thank you.” He hung up the phone. “They’re either going to be here at two or said Tuesday at two. Is the line always that crackly?”
“When it works.” She shrugged. “The lines are old. I think my grandfather had them installed when he went off to war. He didn’t want my grandmother alone out here. Apparently it was a party line, and other people would be on when she was. Not sure much has been updated since the 1940s.”
“The stories this house must be able to tell, family secrets kept inside these walls…”
His words made her hold the cowboy charm in her hand tight. “Legends, more or less.”
“Legend of a charm?” he asked with a tone that made her think he was genuinely interested. “I saw in the photo album that your mother used to wear that charm. She obviously passed it down to you.”
“Yes, she did.” Saige let it go and eyed the room as if she could find the answers. “My mother told me to read the story because only her great-great-great-grandmother’s words could truly share the tale.”
“What did it say?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.” How could she tell him that she’d left the night of her own mother’s funeral and never returned to find the book that told the tale of her McKinnie heritage and the legend of the cowboy Christmas charm? Instead of answering she waltzed to the refrigerator and opened it. “Good thing the cabinet and refrigerator are fully stocked. Guess my cousin did something right. Even if he has let this place go.” She sighed and eyed the split kitchen cabinet, the faded wood floors that needed sanding and restraining, and the stain in the corner of the ceiling.
“Sorry to disappoint, but your man had nothing to do with that. The guys I came with stocked the place. Booze and all.” He rubbed his head as if still suffering the aftereffects of his hangover.
Great. Her cousin had been collecting wages without working. Time to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty. “I’m going to be busy getting this place back into shape. But I can take some time this afternoon to give you a ride into town if your car doesn’t show. There’s a much more comfortable hotel there for you.”
He shrugged. “If that’s what you want. Before I leave, I’d like to take a look at the attic for you. Hate to leave without checking for a leak. The ceiling might cave in with the next big snowstorm.”
“You don’t have to do that.” That was the biggest protest she could manage, knowing the truth of his words. She followed him up the stairs to the attic pulldown, where he climbed to the top and then looked down at her. “There a light up here?”
“Burned out, probably. I’ll get a flashlight.” She raced downstairs and grabbed one of the emergency flashlights and then made her own way up the ladder into the cold, dark space full of junk. A space barely able to fit two bodies in, especially a big man like Colt. A man who apparently knew how to fix roofs. A handy skill to have on a ranch.
“Here.” She held out the flashlight, barely able to see his shadow.
“Thanks.” He flicked it on and shined the light at the far wall. A wall that looked like a crypt with a rotted coffin.
“That doesn’t look good.”
“Afraid not.” He eyed her. “Not sure there’s much I can do about that, but you best hire some roofers and quick.”
“I don’t know when I can get any out here. But I’ll call around when I take you back to town.” If she left her job behind, her savings would be eaten up quick if she needed a new roof and other major repairs. What would she do when she was done restoring the place, anyway?
He crawled farther into the darkness and picked at the wood. “Yep, rotted.” The light shone on the beam. With the flashlight between his teeth, he pushed on the wood support with both hands and then retrieved the light from his mouth. “Good news, though.”
“I could use some of that, especially if it saves me money.”
“It will, because the support post is solid.”
She crawled up next to him to see and learn about roofing. He had a hint of some cologne that smelled like an invitation to a wild mountaintop on a summer day. A welcomed aroma compared to the musty damp odor of the attic.
The post did appear to be dry. “How do you know about roofs and posts and stuff? Did you grow up around here? On a ranch?”
“No, not around here. But I enjoy restoring old homes. At least I used to.”
She sensed he had more to say but he held back. “I was a cowgirl and loved every minute of it while it lasted, but that life doesn’t exist anymore. Not really.”
The wind whistled loud through other small holes above their heads. She shifted to get a better look at where the noise had come from, but the board under her cracked. Colt wrapped his arm around her and pulled her against him. “Careful. Need to stay on the planks. That part’ll cave in.”
She forced one, two, three breaths, unsure if the sudden movement or the fact that he held her tight with his strong arms made her pulse trot at a steady pace. “Thanks. Guess you do know your way around construction.”
To her disappointment and relief, he released her, and she settled on her knees by his side. Heat surged to her cheeks, so she was thankful for the muted light. “Guess we should get out of here if there’s nothing we can do. I’ll add this to my list of things to have fixed. Hope I can find some cheap labor.” She climbed down into her past, eyeing the hallway with the wallpaper seam giving way like her armor against this place cracked. It had been easy to ignore her neglect on her mother’s family legacy while she didn’t stand in the middle of it.
“What’s wrong?” Colt pushed the steps back up into the ceiling.
“Funny thing about coming home. You have to face things you hadn’t thought about in years. I’m feeling conflicted at the way this place looks. My mother would be so upset to see her home like this.”
He chuckled that nervous kind of laugh he did when she had a shotgun pointed at him. “At least you have a home.”
“Spend too many years on the road with those buckle bunnies to set down roots, and now you’re facing a life without your glorious and famous career?”
“You don’t think much of me, do you?” The way Colt’s voice dipped with disappointment tugged at her resolve to dislike this man. A man who offered to look at her roof and stayed up all night cleaning her house.
“I don’t know you well enough to judge you.”
They meandered down the stairs side by side with a back-and-forth glance or two. “Do you think people can change? I’m talking about figuring out who we are, not who everyone else wanted us to be?” he asked.
Her chest tightened. Wasn’t that why she was here? To figure out how to be the person that would make her mother proud? “I hope so.”
“It’s hard in the real world to figure out who you should be because everyone judges you based on who you were before.” He stood at the bottom of the stairs and gestured for her to go ahead like a real gentleman.
She grabbed the mop but realized he’d already taken care of the downstairs. “You should try to call again. This time of year, weather turns on you quick.”
She headed upstairs to work on one of the other rooms to allow for some alone time to think, away from the delicious downstairs distraction.
With a deep, cleansing breath, she removed her phone from her pocket and collapsed onto the edge of the mattress. She scrolled through her photos. Picture after picture, she eyed herself and Thomas. By the fourth photo, she noticed something. She appeared lifeless, dead inside, and he had a fake smile. Were they ever happy together or just partners in life?
Why hadn’t she seen it? Hate didn’t begin to describe how she felt about herself. Not when her heart didn’t ache to see him again. Her father was right. She was just like him. A woman who’d almost married a man because he was good on paper, not good to her heart.
What kind of woman does that?
A bitter air seeped through the window, causing a chill to shoot up her spine. She’d run out of town so fast, she didn’t have anything but her tropical wear for her honeymoon. There had to be some sweaters and warmer shirts around here to wear, so she tossed her phone onto the bed and wrenched open a drawer to find her mother’s favorite green sweater.
Colt cleared his throat behind her. She turned to find him leaning into the room with his hands clutching the overhead doorframe in that oh-so-sexy cowboy pose minus the hat. “Line’s dead.”
Her heart skipped and skittered at the sight of him. If someone looked up in her personal dictionary the perfect specimen to rock her world, they’d find a picture of Colt Whitmore, not Thomas Mauldin. Disgusted and refusing to allow herself to be that naive, stupid, young girl who fell for the bad boy instead of the stable and dependable man she almost married, she shot to the window. A window with a view to the outside world. The view of an incoming storm.
“You know, I was thinking. There’s some major work that needs to get done around here, more than one person can handle,” he said.
A pinch of worry made her decide to drive him out of town herself. She shoved her phone in her pocket and pushed the drawer to close, but it wouldn’t budge. Great, something else to fix. This she could handle on her own, though. She squatted down and tugged it out a little farther and then pushed it in, but something blocked it.
With fingers splayed, she reached deep into the space behind the drawer and felt something. She couldn’t reach it, so she jimmied the drawer all the way out and then reached in and pulled out a book.
“What is it?” Colt joined her. “That’s old. Look at the gold leaf writing.”
“Why would it be hidden back there?” she asked but opened it to discover the words
Her pulse tapped with joy. “It’s my great-great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. The one who passed down this cowboy Christmas charm.”
“Now that’s some family history.”
She swallowed hard and opened the small, weathered book. “I thought I would never find it. She’s one of the seven McKinnie Sisters who took mail-order bride proposals to survive after the Civil War. My grandmother told me those ladies faced such horrors in their youth but lived beautiful and blessed lives later. They were fearless and had huge hearts, were giving and kind.”
He sat by her side and placed his hand on her back. “I don’t know about you, but I think it would be fascinating to read it.”
Her breath caught at his unexpected touch. “I’m sure you have someplace you need to be. I’ll give you a ride into town.”
“Nope, no place to be.”
He’d slept in her barn. She’d found him asleep on her front porch with a hangover. No friends to call to pick him up. Homeless, maybe? Alone? She eyed her great-great-great-great grandmother Francine’s journal and realized she wanted to be like the original McKinnie sisters. Brave, giving, charitable, and always ready to do the right thing. “Can I ask you something without offending you?”
The pages in her hand were delicate, so she closed the book gently to face Colt.
“Are you homeless?”
His mouth twitched and he looked at the book in her hands, then the floor, and then back to her. “Yeah, I guess I am. Let’s just say I’m out of work at the moment.”
“Don’t take it as a judgement. Better to be an out-of-work ranch hand than a rich, ruthless businessman or playboy bull-rider Besides, this time of year, there’s not much work for ranch hands.” With a deep breath, she clutched the book in her hands. Was this her way of redeeming herself, of capturing the McKinnie way by helping a stranger in need? She pushed from the floor. “I’ll hire you here for a couple weeks to help with some of the major repairs. You can sleep in the downstairs room, and I’ll provide free food. I’ll pay you two thousand dollars cash. This’ll give you some money to tide you over until something else comes around.” She offered her hand, but he hesitated. “It’s not charity. It’s a job. You’ll help me at a discount, and I’ll give you a chance to figure out what you want to do next.”
He took her hand and shook it gently. “I’d be honored to help restore this place. Maybe we’ll both find what we’ve been looking for.”
Her heart bu-bumped, pushing blood to her brain along with ideas. Bad ideas. Ideas that ended with a flash of memory that reminded her of why she’d run from this place before. But he wasn’t Trevor, and they weren’t involved. Not today, not ever. This wasn’t about finding a man. This was about restoring her once beloved home and reconnecting with her past, nicer self. The home she’d once found joy and love and purpose. And she hoped here, now, she could find that again.
After a long day of work, Colt showered and headed to the kitchen. He wanted to make a nice meal for the woman who thought she gave him a roof over his head. Technically, she had. Technically he was homeless. Technically he wasn’t lying. Why should he tell her the truth? They didn’t even know each other. She wouldn’t know who he was until he was long gone.
Not that he felt good about lying, but there would be nothing between them. He wouldn’t take Saige to bed. For once in his life, he’d remain platonic and work on himself instead of getting what he wanted from a woman.
He found some sirloin and vegetables that he could whip up really quick into an Asian dish. By the time he heard the shower cut off overhead, he plated the meal and set it at the table. There were two candles there, so he lit them for ambiance but didn’t pour any wine. His stomach couldn’t handle that yet.
When she entered the room, he pulled out her chair.
She stopped and eyed the food and candles. “What’s all this?”
“A thank-you,” he said in his most sincere tone. He was thankful because he didn’t have to return to the real world yet.
“I’d say you didn’t have to, but if we want to eat, you should probably do the cooking.”
Was that humor? Her hair was down around her porcelain skin, and the green sweater she wore made her eyes pop, not to mention accentuate her curves.
She looked straight into his eyes and waltzed over to the proffered chair then bent over and blew out the candles and turned up the lights. “Food is good, but the lights stay on. This is a job, not a date.”
Ouch. He hadn’t even realized what he’d done. Maybe he was only a worthless Whitmore whose only talent was womanizing. The law was set, and he had no choice but to obey the rules for now, so he moved his plate across from her and enjoyed his meal in silence with an occasional glance to see her enjoy his cooking. It felt good to make a woman smile sweetly.
Once the last bite had been scooped up, she took a sip of water and set her fork down. “That was delicious. You’re really a good chef. If this place functioned as a ranch, I’d hire you to be the cook.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He reached for the dish, but she covered his hand in the most delicious touch.
“I’ll clean up since you cooked.”
“I work here. You don’t. I’m an employee, and this is business,” he said in a more bitter tone than he’d intended.
The water faucet sputtered before it gave way to a steady stream, and he dumped the dishes in the soapy water.
“Sorry. Guess I was a little harsh. I don’t want this arrangement to be like that, but I just don’t need any romantic entanglements right now. I need to focus on this place, not on my next failed relationship.”
He washed a plate, and she took it with towel in hand. “I’ll dry. We’ll work together. It can be business without coldness.”
“That’s an interesting way to put it.” He handed her another dish.
The clink of a plate told him she’d put it away on the shelf behind him. “Something I’m trying out. Business with a little heart. Not sure they go together, but that’s what I read in my great-great-great-great-grandmother’s book.” She took another plate from him. “I think I’m going to refer to her as my great-grandma Francine. It’s kind of a mouthful with all those greats.”[JR1]
“I agree.” He sponged off the forks and knives then went to work on the water glasses.
“What else have you learned from the book?” he asked.
“Not much. I’ve been working on clearing out that upstairs closet because I think I found another leak.” She sighed. “I’m starting to think this house is turning into a hopeless cause.”
“Nothing with this much history is worth giving up on. Tell you what. We’re both tired. Up for a cup of tea or coffee? We can sit by the fire and read some of that book if you don’t mind sharing.”
“Sounds good. But how about some hot cocoa, ranch style?”
“Not sure what that means, but I’m game.”
She pulled out a saucepan, and he grimaced. “You sure you know how to use that thing?”
“Hush and go sit down. Consider this your break time.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He saluted and walked out of the room to stir the fire back to life and to watch the moonlight glisten over the freshly fallen snow. The scenery was like a painting, with its flawless beauty.
“Don’t you love the peace this place offers? The quiet calmness?” Saige entered and handed him a mug with Dare to be a Cowboy written on the side. He silently answered yes, he’d love that life. A dream at best, because that kind of life didn’t really exist.
“Yes, and the way the flakes of snow appear to dance their way down from heaven.” She tapped the edge of her cup with perfectly manicured nails. This woman looked comfortable here, but her appearance screamed city girl.
He took a sip. The rich cinnamon brew with a hint of Irish cream gave him a kick and coated his tongue in festive cheer. “I bet this place is amazing at Christmas.” The image came to him of family around a tree, singing carols, opening presents. “This must’ve been a magical place to grow up.”
“It was until it wasn’t.” Her eyes went dark and he didn’t like it, so he stayed on topic.
“It’s like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol came to life in this place.”
“You don’t sound like a typical rough and tumble and drunken rancher type.” She eyed him like a schoolteacher at a naughty pupil, waiting for him to confess his crime.
“A man like me can’t read?”
“Can’t? No. Choose to? Not often.” She took a sip of her own drink, and to his relief, it appeared to take her back to a memory, one he decided to grab hold of to distract her.
“This is a special drink, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “One passed down through generations. It was said that this drink brought my great-grandma Francine’s husband, Walt, back to life after a severe storm trapped him in the barn. A whiteout where he couldn’t find his way back to the house.”
“I love this.”
She dropped her cup to chest level. “What?”
He backed up before she ran him out of the house based on that sassy, pursed-lipped look of hers. “The stories of your ancestors. Nothing that interesting in my past. I’d love to know more about this place and the story of that cowboy Christmas charm.”
She lit up like the North Star that guided men to their destination in the dead of night. With her drink in one hand, she picked up some throw pillows, tossed them down by the fire, and settled on one of them, so he assumed the other was for him and took his seat by her side, eyeing the fire as he leaned against the side of the couch.
The cozy comfort and companionship lightened his mood to a level he didn’t think possible when he’d boarded that plane to escape his father and the media coverage. Never did he ever think he’d find this kind of peace in his life’s storm.
She set her cup down at her side, opened the old, worn book with gentle care, and began reading.
“The world I once fell in love with has become disloyal and dangerous. Walt and I are in search of new lives far from the lawlessness and greed. We have sold our home and belongings in Seattle to head east. Strange… When I boarded that ship to sail out here, losing so many during the journey, I never thought I’d gone too far. But now, with children in our laps and one in my belly, we move to a new place. A place of possibilities to grow and cultivate new lands and new life. Walt vows to build a home big enough to have all my sisters and their families come for Christmas this year. My heart swells at the idea of reuniting with my dear sisters after so many years. However, I must pause. Not because I doubt my husband. He’s proven himself capable and a man to conquer any obstacles. It’s the unknown of life that frightens me now that we have wee ones to protect. But when politics and threats knock at our door, civilization no longer seems safer than the lands of possibilities.”
Saige paused and took a sip, but he couldn’t hold his tongue when she flipped a few pages without speaking. “Did they do it? The house, I mean. Did they all get together by Christmas?”
A distant howl punctuated this land’s wildness and his respect for anyone willing to take this on in a time before cars and neighbors.
She squinted, moved her face closer to the writing, and flipped pages several times back and forth. “I’m afraid the wrinkled pages are worn and writing smeared as if it’s been wet at some point.”
“Can I see?”
She passed the book to him, her fingers grazing his for a pulse-strumming moment, but she withdrew and took the adrenaline with her. He eyed the script but only made out words like worst snowstorm, trapped, and hopeless.
“Maybe this is the story you heard about where he was trapped in the barn.”
She shrugged and retrieved the book from him as if she didn’t trust him with such a precious family heirloom. “It could be.” After another sip of her drink, she turned a few more pages.
“I don’t think that Christmas turned out the way she’d hoped, though.” Saige’s voice dipped to sorrow. “A group of men including her husband set out one night after a murderer.” She gasped.
“What is it? Was he killed?” He found himself more invested in this story than any business proposal he’d created from scratch, delivered, and sealed the deal.
“No.” She crossed her legs and leaned forward, pressing her fingers to the antiqued pages that looked like someone had spilled tea on them. “Here it is. The cowboy Christmas charm.” She sucked in a breath and her teeth toyed with her bottom lip in a distracting, alluring way.
“Go on,” he nudged her.
She cleared her throat as if to deliver a speech to a large crowd.
“I begged him not to go, with the baby due anytime, the children and me alone. I couldn’t face a loss so great, and too many men had fallen to this band of bandits already. I came here to flee the dangers of the city, only to fall into a wild, merciless people in a beautiful, merciless land.”
Colt clutched his cup between his hands as if waiting for the pivotal moment in an epic Western film. Would the hero get the girl like in a romance or die trying like a Nicolas Sparks book his stepmother shared with him once when he’d found her crying in her room. He thought his dear old dad had stepped out on her, but it was a book that had brought her to tears. That was the moment he realized his father loved his stepmother more than he’d ever loved Colt’s mother. That didn’t mean he’d remain faithful to her, though.
A twinge of hatred pinched him, but he swatted it away and refocused on the story in front of him. “What happened?”
“Walt knelt before me in front of the fire and pressed something into my hand. He said that it was a Christmas gift he’d had handcrafted in town but that he wanted to give it to me now. I opened my hand to find a cowboy Christmas charm on a small string. He took the string, tied it to my wrist, and said, ‘Keep this close for it’s my promise that I’ll return and make our world a brighter, safer place. A place where generations will live and grow and find great happiness. A ring represents a commitment to live our lives together. This represents my promise to always be your cowboy and to always be with you on Christmas.’”
Tears rolled down Saige’s cheek. To his surprise, the sight tightened his own throat and misted his eyes. He took her hand in his and held it tight. “You okay?”
“Yes, more than okay. That love they shared. Pure, passionate, promising. Promising of something beyond what I’ve known in the last decade.” Her chin dropped to her chest. “Then, men were real and honorable and women had open hearts. Not like today. Those kinds of relationships are extinct.”
She turned the page, and her heart sank. unreadable. Not one word legible. “If only my mother was here, I’d know the truth of what happened.”
Colt shifted closer to see the book, too close. His arms pressed to hers, his face inches away. She bucked away and slammed the book shut. Her emotions swirled faster than a winter wind. “Nothing else legible. We need sleep. Tomorrow morning, we’ll gather a list of supplies and go to town to get what we need. I don’t know how long the weather will hold out, and with no service, we won’t know until we can check the report when we get there.”
He blinked up at her as if to read her inner most thoughts, but her thoughts were as vague and confusing as the swirly letters in the diary she held tight in her hands. “We should go over some ground rules if you’ll be working for me.”
His brow hitched, but he didn’t say anything. He stood and took her mug with him to the kitchen as if his daily duties included washing dishes.
“Is two thousand dollars in two weeks agreeable to you?”
“Too much.” He turned on the kitchen water and washed the mugs then dried and put them away. The man was clean, she had to give him that.
“Not when you realize how much I’ll be working you. You’ll be working ranch hours, sunup to sundown with only meal breaks. Evenings are your own, but I don’t plan on cleaning up your drunken mess or dealing with it, so no alcohol unless I say. You’ll remain on the ground floor unless personally invited upstairs for work purposes.”
His mouth quirked into a sexy grin.
“And the invitation will only be for work purposes,” she added with a stern voice.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I am not a man who would ever need or want to force a woman into any kind of unwanted or uninvited pleasure.”
The way his voice dipped deeper on the word pleasure stirred her own fire, but she doused it with the realization that the man who stood before her was like the one she once knew years ago. Before the thought took root, she ripped it from her mind and tossed it far away. No reason to entertain such drama when she was looking for a new life, not reliving bad memories.
“Anything else?” he asked with a lean into the wall like nothing she said sounded unreasonable, but she wanted him to know how much he’d have to work or she wouldn’t pay him. “Listen, and I do mean listen. This work will be long and not as thrilling as you’re used to. I don’t need you to start something you’re not going to finish, so if you have any doubts, speak up now. I’ll hire a hand in town to come out to help.”
“This time of year? I don’t think that’ll happen.” His playful smile flattened, and he moved in like a wolf to attack. She took a step back, and he paused his advance.
“Listen, and I do mean listen. If I give my word, I keep it. Yes, I’m a passionate man, but an honorable one, too. That cowboy charm wasn’t a legend, a man like that still exists in this world. Sometimes you just have to open your eyes to see him.”
“Stop. None of that.”
“What?” he asked in an innocent tone.
She drew circles with her pointer finger in front of his smug expression. “That.”
“I’m not sure what you mean…” That grin made a reappearance and bowed.
“I mean, there’s not and never will be anything between us. I came here to figure some things out. The last thing I need is a man like you stirring things up around me.”
“Stirring things up?” he asked, pressing her for more information.
Information she wasn’t about to unpack from her memory trunk. “Are you agreeable to the terms or not?”
“Agreed.” He held out his hand.
She thought about not shaking it to avoid his touch, but that would only give him reason to think something that wasn’t there. With one firm grip and dip, she yanked her hand away. “Glad we’ve reached terms.”
She paused her exit and crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I have one more job while I’m here.” He ran a hand through his short hair and pressed his palm to the wall above her head, leaning into her, too close.
Her breath caught between shoving him away and pulling him closer.
“I’d like to teach you to cook.” He eased away in a casual smooth move. Boy, he was good.
“I’ll stick to what I’m good at, and you can do what you’re good at. What else can you do besides fix roofs and cook?” she asked, her breath coming a little quicker than normal.
“Anything. I’m good with my hands.”
His words sent tingles down her skin.
“I’ll begin work on the attic tomorrow after breakfast before the next storm arrives. We should hit the sheets.”
She snapped her attention to him.
“To sleep.” He put his hands on his waist and leaned back, appearing pleased with himself, but then his mouth dropped along with his hands. “You know, not all men are bad. You need to find one worthy of you.”
“Really? Who’s good enough for me, then? You?”
He let out a short breath. “No one. And I know that no matter how hard I try, I’d never be deserving of your affection.”
She faced him. “Or maybe I’m not deserving of you?”
He winked, turned on his heels, went to his room, and shut the door, leaving her heart pounding. No time for wayward thoughts, though, so she took a quick, cold shower and climbed into bed, where she opened the book and tried to make out more words. At some point, her lids grew too heavy and she drifted off to sleep. Sleep full of dreams about a cowboy, a Christmas charm, and a promise of forever.
He didn’t look back at her in fear he wouldn’t close the door. He collapsed on the bed, exhausted after being up most of the night before. Despite the heaviness of his muscles and the fatigue he felt in his arms and legs, sleep escaped him.
His thoughts drifted to the beauty upstairs. Original in every way, from her shotgun pointing, fire red hair, determined strong personality, to her tender touch and soft voice. Most women were one or the other—overly stern and angry all the time or too sensitive and crying all the time. Saige was both and neither. A conundrum he wanted to solve.
Distant howls echoed outside, and he thought about Francine and Walter living here all these years ago. A man brave enough to face this wilderness with a wagon full of babies and a wife. He couldn’t even face a real relationship.
He shoved off the covers and paced the floor. Could he make that long walk down the aisle, or was his father right and he’d never commit to a woman? Saige drifted into his mind. A woman he barely knew at the end of the aisle sounded better than any of the ones he’d dated and mated as his stepmother would put it. The mail-order bride thing always sounded so ridiculous, but if Francine and Walt shared love, maybe strangers could fall in love. If he had to make a choice now, he’d marry that firecracker upstairs before the fortune seekers in Los Angeles.
The insanity of his thoughts drove him back to bed, where he managed to drift away at some point, only to be haunted by nightmares of reporters and disappointment and judgement, but it turned at some point into something different. When the sunshine flooded in, it woke him from a delicious dream about riding horses through the mountains with Saige.
Smoke seeped through the bottom of the door. A fire alarm blared. He raced from his room to discover Saige in the kitchen waving a towel around. Smoke plumed from the stovetop, where he discovered charcoal he assumed had once been food, although he wasn’t sure what kind. He grabbed the oven mitt, dumped the pan into the sink, and poured water over it. Then je removed the battery from the alarm and opened a window an inch.
“I thought we agreed I’d do the cooking,” he teased, but when he faced her open-mouth, wide-eyed expression, he took a step back. “What is it? Did you get burned?”
His heart skipped with fear, so he took both her hands and studied her arms but didn’t see anything, allowing his pulse to slow.
“I’m fine.” She sounded winded. Her gaze drifted from his eyes to his chin to his stomach to his groin to his feet. “Um…I think you’re already fit to be a cowboy.”
He glanced down and realized he ran out so fast, he was standing there in his boxers. “Isn’t that a song?”
A winter chill beat against his bare chest, but when she reached up and brushed her fingertips across his stomach, his body turned hot. Her chest rose and fell with deep, quick breaths.
The aroma of a spring day overpowered the charred odor in the room. He leaned in, swiping his nose up the side of her neck to investigate. Sure enough, it was her.
She moaned, and he thought he’d lose his mind from want, but she stepped back one step, her back pressed to the wall, so he didn’t crowd her. To his relief, she continued her exploration of his body to his chest, neck, cheeks. He turned his head and pressed a kiss to her palm, wishing it was her lips.
“I’ve never met a man who was smart, could cook, with a rancher’s body.”
“See, a man can be kind, sophisticated, and powerful.”
“But no one’s perfect.” Her fingernails grazed his chin and continued down to his collarbone. “I keep searching, but I don’t see the bad boy full of horrific flaws.”
“Everyone has flaws.” His heart double-timed, and he was sure she’d feel it.
She blinked up at him and asked, “Then what’s yours? What will you do to hurt me if given the chance?” She cleared her throat and fled the room. “We should get to work.”
Her retreat and belief he was some monster irked him. It was one thing to be labeled the playboy with no family loyalty, but he’d never crossed a line. “I’m the bad boy employee who wants to take advantage of you and then walk away.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either. All he wanted was to hold her, kiss her, pull her into bed with him, but then what? Nothing. He wasn’t capable of more than a one-night stand, and Saige McKinnie wasn’t that type of woman. And something told him she deserved better. Better than him.
The temperature inside this morning matched the outside world each time Colt entered the room. “I’ll need you to instruct me on how you like your coffee.” He placed a large plate full of way too much food and then stood at the kitchen counter to eat his.
He’d remained a few steps from her since he’d dressed. Had she crossed the line admiring his body? What red-blooded woman wouldn’t admire a work of art?
He remained straight, shoulders back, arms tight against his thin T-shirt she wished he’d cover with a baggy flannel. He caught her eyeing his broad, impressive chest. “I’ll put a shirt on. It was warm in here while I was cooking.”
“No.” The word shot out of her mouth like a disobedient toddler without a coat in the first fallen snow. “I mean, you can sit at the table to eat.”
“I wasn’t sure about proper etiquette for a boss and worker on this ranch. I wouldn’t want to make you feel threatened.” He chugged some orange juice then lifted his plate and sat across from her.
To her dismay, she missed the ease of the charismatic man he was only an hour ago. She retrieved two mugs from the cabinet and went to work on the coffees, figuring to make him a special one as a peace offering. After all, they’d have to work together for the next two weeks. It would be better if they got along. “Listen, I apologize for being direct earlier.”
The sound of a fork scraping his plate told her he wasn’t going to wait for her to sit down before he ate. So much for his gentlemanly and honorable side.
“Direct is one thing, and establishing boundaries isn’t bad either. But for the record, I’d never force myself or take liberties with any woman. I have a baby sister, and if any man ever harmed her…” His voice sounded distant and dangerous.
She finished up the coffees and took them to the table in the dining room, where she found Colt gripping his fork so tight she thought he’d bend it. “I never meant to insinuate that. It’s just that I don’t know you and you’re in my house. Would you want your baby sister to do any less with a stranger?”
He loosened his grip. “I’d want her to deadbolt her room, put a dresser in front of it, and sleep with that shotgun of yours.”
She chuckled. “Now I don’t feel so bad for a few harsh words.”
After a bite and a sip of coffee in which he rewarded her with a big grin, he placed his cup down, dabbed at his mouth, folded his hands, and looked at her. “What do you want to know?”
She cut a piece of sausage and shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“You said I’m a stranger so you have to protect yourself. I can respect that, so tell me what you want to know.”
The heater cut on with a clu-clunk, and she worried it might need to be fixed, too. That list would be two columns on five sheets of paper at this rate. Would two weeks be enough time to Band-Aid this place for a winter?
She popped the piece of sausage into her mouth and savored the rich peppery flavor before she thought about his question. “Your sister. Tell me about her.”
His eyes lit up and shone with such love, it chipped away the ice covering her stone-cold heart. “A handful of beauty, grace, and attitude.” He scooted around his eggs and sighed. “She has me wrapped around her pinky and tied up in an ornate bow. I’d do anything for her. Anything that I can.” His voice dipped to disappointment.
“Best I stay away. I need to be my own man, not my father’s son. I’ll never be good enough for him.” The way his gaze drifted to his coffee and his fork moved mindlessly around the plate made her want to change the subject. No reason to make him drum up bad memories when she didn’t want to herself.
“I’m sure you’re a great big brother. Maybe you can call her when we go to town this afternoon.”
He smiled, a sweet, innocent kind of joy. “I’d like that.”
They ate half their meal before Colt downed some coffee and set his fork down. “Tell me, did you make out anymore of the book?”
Images of a cowboy down on one knee in front of her promising to always love her and cherish her churned up her breakfast. “No, none.” She needed to move on from personal to work before he twisted her up inside even more. “We should get to work. I’ll start making a list of things down here. Can you check out the roof and exterior of the house—oh, and the heater.”
He pointed his fork at her plate. “You didn’t finish your meal.”
“That’s enough to feed four of me.” She stood, rubbing her belly. His eyes watched her hand as if he had a thought he wanted to share but didn’t.
“What is it?” she asked before she thought better of it.
“I was just thinking about your great-grandmother Francine. Can you imagine being alone here with an unfinished house, children at your feet and one in your belly, and watching your man leave in a time where women had no real rights?”
His observation took her by surprise. A man like him considering women’s rights? Of course, if he loved his baby sister that much, he must’ve thought about such things. “Tell me, how old is your baby sister and what kinds of things do you do with her?”
They both moved their plates to the kitchen, but she took his and shooed him away. “You cook, I clean.”
“But I’m the hired help,” he reminded her, making her regret her words, but they had to be said or she might not remember her position and cross a line she didn’t want to at this time in her life.
“On a ranch, everyone is hired help, even the owners. Just tell me about your sister while you finish your coffee.”
He retrieved his coffee from the dining table and returned to the kitchen, leaning against the counter. “Tea parties. That’s her favorite.”
“Seriously? I can’t picture you at a tea party.” The hot water scalded her hands, so she jerked away.
He grabbed ice from the freezer and held it to her fingers while checking the redness.
“I’ll look at the hot water heater settings while I’m at it too.”
His touch did more to distract her than the ice did soothing the burn. She swallowed so loud she thought that howling wolf from last night could hear it. “Tea party, huh?” She tried to keep the conversation moving so she wouldn’t think about the way his touch made her body wake up from a long hibernation. A ten-year-long sleep. Her skin hadn’t tingled or her breath caught like this since…since Trevor.
No, she wouldn’t give that jerk a second of her attention. But what if she ran into him in town? Reasonably, he could’ve moved back here if his rodeo career hadn’t continued. Which it probably hadn’t this long.
“What is it? Does it sting too badly?” He blew warm breath over her hand, and she thought she’d melt from his attention.
“No, I’m fine.” She tried to tug her hand from his grip, but he set the ice aside and checked her skin, running his finger over her knuckles. Her body responded as if he’d hit a happy button no man had ever discovered.
“You’d be surprised what a good female’s love can do for a man.”
She snatched her hand away. “What?”
He grinned, a dimple-distracting type. “My sister. She changed me from the moment she told me she loved me. That I was her hero.”
“Oh, right. Your sister.”
He returned to his coffee, allowing her to take in a full breath and hold her hands under cold water before washing the next dish. “We should get started on that list.”
With one last gulp, he handed the mug to her and left the room. The sound of the attic steps being taken down squeaked from above, and she knew she had a safe enough distance to relax without having to keep up her guard. At this rate, she’d be exhausted by the end of the day, let alone the end of the week.
She finished the dishes and headed to the dining room to check out the outlet she’d noticed had a burn mark on it. The last thing she wanted to deal with was a fire, but when she spotted the worn photo of herself at seventeen, an inferno erupted inside her.
A photo of her bull-riding jerk of an ex. She tossed the photo to the floor as if it was dangerous. It was dangerous.
She held tight to her cowboy charm and realized the truth. It wasn’t her fiancé running off that had broken her, because her heart had been crushed years before. And in that moment, she realized why she’d become the backstabbing, heartless businesswoman to make her father proud. Because she had no functioning heart since that day ten years ago. Since the day of her mother’s funeral.
The morning sun came and went, and he’d only had time to look at the roof and the water heater. He stopped long enough to make some sandwiches, but to his disappointment, Saige didn’t sit to eat, only took a bite and then wrote something down then walked to another area and repeated.
After another few hours of checking the outside, clearing out some of the gutters, and climbing up on the roof outside, the sun dipped below the mountain. It wasn’t until light began to fade that he realized there’d be no trip into town today. Not that it mattered. Even if he tried to call his sister, he’d probably never reach beyond some polite servant in the house making an excuse.
He climbed down the ladder and went inside to start dinner, where he found Saige on the floor pulling things out of a box and tossing them into a large trash bag. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She tied the end of the bag then tried to drag it across the floor.
“Here, I’ll get that.” He took the bag from her with little argument and hauled it to the garage with the rest of the stuff she’d purged.
He returned to find her rubbing her neck.
“Why don’t you take a break? It’s obvious we’re not going to make it to town today. I’ll get dinner started, and then I’ll shower.”
“You sure? I’ve never seen a man work so hard. You deserve a break.”
Funny… He’d never been accused of been a hard worker before. The day had flown by, and it hadn’t felt like work. He’d liked the hands-on labor instead of sitting at a desk or table for hours and hours.
“I’ll rest after dinner.” He pulled the stuff from the fridge and began chopping some fresh vegetables. He wrote down a few things on his list, like fresh herbs and heavy cream and some Hoisin sauce to make a great Asian dish. Cooking kept his attention on what was in front of him, which gave him a break from all the regrets he faced in his past.
His attention wavered, though, when he heard the pipes clank and clammer, announcing Saige slipping into a hot shower. He was a gentleman, but that didn’t mean his thoughts didn’t go to the naked beautiful woman only one floor up from him. He’d never change. He’d always be the playboy with no real commitments in life. What was the point, if all you did was sign a piece of paper then break that promise a year or two later?
Wind picked up outside the window, so he peered out and saw dark clouds crawling over the peaks. He sautéed the vegetables, whipped up a quick sauce, and had thrown some chicken in the oven by the time Saige came down in a form-fitting top and hip-hugging jeans that made him do a double take. Her red hair flowed around her thin shoulders. At that sight, he knew he needed some fresh air and some cold therapy. This behaving like a gentleman was harder than he’d thought it would be. Yep, idle hands led to roaming minds. “Hey, I’m going to cut some more wood. Looks like a storm’s coming. Can you stir the sauce while I’m gone?”
“You sure you trust me with that?” She smiled, her bright-white teeth, and sweet berry-colored lips lighting up the darkening room.
“I think I can trust you to stir.” He stepped away, giving her space—or giving himself some. He wasn’t sure which at this point as he headed out for more firewood. He welcomed the exercise so he’d be worn out enough to sleep, because last night he’d tossed and turned thinking about Saige only a few dozen steps away from his bed. He was a man. He couldn’t deny he wanted to rush up there and take her in his arms and enjoy her all night. It’s how he behaved that mattered.
By the time he finished chopping wood and hauling it inside, his arms were too tired to worry about lifting Saige and carrying her off to bed. Snow dotted the horizon, and the wind picked up, infiltrating his open coat. The sweat from chopping wood cooled and chilled him.
Snow came down in bucketfuls by the time he carried the last load in and dropped them on the floor. “Sorry about the mess. I’ll clean it up.” His voice shook more than his body.
“You’ll do no such thing.” She grabbed his coat and tugged it off then rubbed his arms. “You’ve done enough for one day. Go get in the hot shower and warm up. I’ll get dinner set on the table by the time you finish.”
“It’s fine. I’ll—”
“Do as you’re told. I’m the boss, remember?” She winked, a playful smile appeared, and she swatted him on his butt. If she only knew what her words and touch did to him, she wouldn’t be so quick to let her guard down. Still, that wasn’t an invitation.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be back.” He hopped into the shower and savored the warmth but made quick work, because as much as the hot water soothed his chill, the thought of having dinner with Saige drove him to dress and return to the dining room.
Lights flickered before he could get his shirt on. They stuttered and went out for a few seconds but came back on before he could pull his jeans up to his waist. But then they cut out completely, leaving him in darkness with one sock on. He managed to feel around until he found the other wool sock, pulled it on, and then found the wall that led him to the door that led him to the kitchen, where he spotted the flickering lights of two candles at the dinner table.
“I thought candlelight dinners were against the rules,” he teased.
She pulled out a chair and gestured for him to sit down. “No rules when it comes to winter storms. I made that much out from the book while you were in the shower.”
He adjusted his collar that felt a little tighter than usual and sat down. “Um, okay. What else did you learn from the diary?”
“Not much. I figured I’d try to read some more tonight, but looks like there won’t be a lot of light for that.”
Armed with a fork in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, he decided he’d be safe, despite the romantic setting with a beautiful woman in front of him. If only the feelings were more than physical, if only he was capable of committing to one woman, he could be home with his baby sister and behaving in public like the man his father wanted him to be. Apparently, being a scoundrel behind closed doors wasn’t a problem. His father had perfected that while married to his mother.
“A firefly for your thoughts?”
She cut her chicken and took a bite. Her eyes closed, and she moaned. Maybe he could suggest a rule not to moan while sitting alone together by candlelight, yet the joy on her face made him feel good about providing a meal for her she enjoyed.
“It’s something my grandmother used to ask me whenever I looked like I was thinking about something.” She took a sip of her wine and cut another piece of chicken. “I asked her once what that meant, and she said she never understood why people thought money was so important.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that sitting on that front porch on a spring night and seeing the fireflies dancing under the moonlight was worth more than any old penny.”
He envisioned the scene and wished he’d have the opportunity to see that someday. “I can agree with that. Especially with inflation.”
She laughed, a delicate, sweet sound that he wanted to hear again. The serious woman with the stone attitude he’d met two days ago softened.
He eyed his wineglass but kept his hands busy cutting his chicken.
“I assume you drink, based on the condition I met you in.” She poured some wine into his glass.
He took a sip of his wine, enjoying the oak and currant. “Not such a great first impression. I hope I’ve earned your respect since that incident.”
“You’ve done more than that. I’d say you earned the title of friend.”
“Oh, no. I’ve been friend zoned.” He laughed heartily and held his glass up as if to toast. “The kiss that will never be.”
“It could’ve been a great kiss,” Saige mumbled.
“Still could be.” He quirked a brow but then directed his attention to his food, not wanting to push too hard when he knew it wouldn’t last beyond a moment.
The storm roared to life outside, warning that it could be a long and cold night. The heater didn’t clank to life, and he realized despite it being gas, there had to be an electric starter. “Is there a generator somewhere besides the one I found in the basement?”
“No. That was on my list of things to purchase in town. One more thing my cousin didn’t buy that I sent him money for.” She huffed, and that air of bitterness made an appearance.
He didn’t want that attitude to get between them getting to know each other again, so he poured her some more wine. “Why don’t you take the book and relax by the fire. I’ll make quick work of the dishes and join you. Best we stay close to the heat.”
“I’ll go gather some blankets and pillows from upstairs.” She took a few hearty sips of her wine and smiled. “Nice Cabernet.”
“Thanks. I like a good Cab or Merlot.”
As she left to gather the bedding, he cleared the dishes, washed, dried, and put them away and then grabbed the bottle of wine and joined Saige by the fire.
“Good thing you chopped all that wood. Based on the look of that storm, this could last all night, maybe even days.”
He didn’t mind being snowed in, wrapped up by a fire with Saige. The idea warmed his insides. He topped off her glass and poured some for himself then snuggled down in front of the fire with her. “Find anything else in the book?”
“Not really. I discovered a section about how a storm blew in and she thought all hope was lost. She clung to the charm, but the last few pages of her entries are unreadable.” She sighed and set the book carefully on the side table. “A mystery we may never be able to unravel. If my mom was here, I could ask her more.”
“I’m so sorry. You must miss her a lot. You left here after her passing, right?”
She stiffened, and he backpedaled, trying to keep her easy like a new horse edging into training. Not that he knew anything about training horses, but he thought he’d like to learn. “I know that you’re hoping to fix this place up. What are your plans for it when you do?”
The fire cast a glow over her snowy-white cheeks. Those emerald eyes glistened in the dim light. “I’d love to turn it back into something functional. A working ranch or bed and breakfast.” She shrugged and drank her wine then rested the glass on her knee. “Don’t really know yet.”
“Dude ranch? I hear people pay a ton of money to go work on a ranch. Never understood why people wanted to pay to work, but it’s a thing.” His shoulders ached from chopping wood, so he set his glass at his side and rubbed the base of his neck.
“I told you that you work too hard.”
How could he tell her it was to curb his desire for the beautiful woman at his side? “Hard work never hurt anyone.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Sometimes we use work to avoid things.” She lifted her glass. “Here’s to less work and more living.” The word living came out as siving. Apparently she didn’t drink much.
Not that he could judge after the other night.
“You know Thomas? He’s my ex-fiancé. Well, Thomas did me a favor obliterating my life by dropping a prenup on me five minutes before we were due at the altar.”
He shifted, feeling uncomfortable. For some reason, he didn’t like hearing about her with another man. A man she was set to marry. If he could change the subject, he would, but it was obvious she wanted to share. And since she hadn’t wanted to share much with him so far, he had to let her talk. “Really? How’s that?”
“Forced me to see that I’m a heartless witch who only cares about business. That’s all either of us cared about. What kind of marriage would that have been?”
“Maybe he did you a favor. Marriage is only a contract, and if you don’t want to sign, then you shouldn’t.”
Her hair fell over her face, and he couldn’t see her expression to read her emotions, so he brushed it back behind her ear. To his shock and delight, she leaned into his touch.
“You sound like him now.” The way she moved her cheek against his hand drew him closer. “But you’re nothing like that heartless businessman. I never want to be with another man who is my partner. I want passion and romance but with a man who is true and honest. Maybe this place is softening my defenses.”
Conviction knocked and whispered he should consider telling who he was. “Do you think you’ll ever forgive Thomas for what he did?”
She downed the last of her wine then picked up his glass and took another sip. “How can I be mad at him when he was right? We were no more than partners. No passion or desire or real love.” Another gulp of wine, and then she continued with his glass swaying back and forth in front of her. “Men are either all business and no desire or all desire and no honor.”
He coiled into himself. Was he both but neither of those things? Contracts, passion, but dishonorable.
She downed the last of his wine and set the glass on the stone hearth. He moved it to the table in fear it might shatter too close to the heat. The way she’d shatter if he told her the truth. She was sitting next to a businessman who had no honor or ability to commit to anything.
“You know. I’m thinking my stone heart might be cracking thanks to you.” She pressed her pointer finger to his chest, and her head rolled to one side, hair falling over her cheek. “Not just my heart. Other parts of me are defrosting.”
He swallowed hard. When she leaned into him, he sat on his hands, trying to remember she’d been drinking and he didn’t want to do something he knew he’d pay for tomorrow. “It’s good to let go of things when they don’t work out.”
“Shoot. He’s the easy one to let go of. I know I’m a horrible person for not caring more, but he was right. I couldn’t admit it to myself, but I didn’t love him. Not like…” Her voice trailed off.
“Not what. Who.” She tossed her hair back and looked at him with hungry eyes. “I want a man who makes me feel alive. The kind like Francine and Walt had. The kind that takes my breath away and I can barely keep my hands to myself in public and never in private. Someone I can’t wait until the end of the day at work to make it home to him and I never want to get out of bed and leave him.” She chuckled. “Fantasy, or young, blind love. Heat and passion don’t mix with tenderness and true love. Even if it did, I don’t deserve it.”
He dared to free one hand and tilted her chin to face him, longing to see those forest-green eyes. “I believe love can be hard to find. I’ve never found it myself. But I’ve never gone looking.”
She scooted closer, dangerously closer. “Why not? Why don’t you want to find love?”
“Spent too much time focusing on things that I thought mattered, but here, in this place, I’m not sure they ever did.” He dropped his hand to his side.
“Maybe I don’t need loyalty and love. Maybe fire and passion will fill the void if only for a night.” She sat up on her knees, tossed off the blanket, and took both his cheeks in her hands with hungry eyes.
His breath caught between lust and want. Want for something more than one night with this woman. She deserved better than that. “No.” He forced the one word out, though his voice dripped with need.
She shot up from the fireplace and headed out of the room.
“Wait. Where are you going? It’s too cold upstairs.”
“It’s too cold here.” She swiped a tear from her cheek, and he realized she’d misread him.
The thought of him hurting her in any way drove him mad, but if he scooped her up and showed her how much he wanted her, he had no doubt they’d have a passionate night, but then what? He’d had plenty of one-night stands over the years. They always left him empty inside. He wanted more, but he had no clue how to get it. A chance. A real chance at real love.
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