About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The early afternoon sun shone brightly, but a chill swept across the expansive porch of the rambling house at the Shadow Range Ranch and had her holding the folds of her coat tightly together for protection. To get herself pumped, she rose up onto her toes and lowered and did it again. Time to be brave.
Do something. Don't just stand there time.
Securing the strap of her shoulder bag in place with one hand, she put her other palm on her belly. "Here we go, kiddo."
"Talkin' to yourself?"
KayLee spun to see a man standing several feet away from the base of the stepsnot just a man, a rancher, a real live Montana rancher. He had his cowboy hat pushed back on his forehead and gloriously blond curls spilled from under the brim. His well-worn leather jacket gaped opendidn't he know it was cold in Montana?and showed off a cream-colored shirt, open at the neck. His jeans clung to his muscular thighs, cowboy boots gave him an inch he didn't need and on his face he wore an expression that could only be described as neutral, though he was only a millimeter away from a frown.
But man, he waswell, by the standards she had left two days agobeautiful.
"I guess I was talkin' to myself." She used his own vernacular and then spread a quick so-pleased-to-meet-you smile across her face. She knew how to look confident. She had, after all, recently come from the land of people versed in becoming the part, any part. "would you be one of the Doyle family?"
"Baylor Doyle, ma'am." He doffed his hat and the curls jumped loose. And then, oh, my God, he actually ran his hand through his hair.
A new kind of shiver passed through her. Yeah, yeah, she said to her pregnancy-crazy libido. All she wanted from this guy was for his family to hire her for the job. She did not need another pretty face in her life, but she'd deal.
She started to descend the steps with her hand outstretched. "KayLee Morgan of K. L. Morgan and Associates."
Diamond-blue eyes narrowed a bit and a frown came on full bore. Baylor Doyle met her halfway up, engulfed her hand with his big rough one and squeezed with a polite amount of firmness. He studied her without blinking.
"You're K. L. Morgan."
It wasn't a question. It was a disappointment. K.L. was supposed to be some fortyish man with a touch of confidence-building gray at the temples. Most of the people she'd met during this desperate work search kept expecting her to tell them she'd go get the boss and to throw off a curtsy or something. Not her fault she looked a lot younger than twenty-eight or that her "nads" were ovaries.
Oh, shoot. She had forgotten to wear her glasses. She didn't really need them, but they helped her look her age.
"I am K.L." She pulled her spine straighter. She absolutely could not afford to blink even once, as she was positive ranchers were no-nonsense peopleand she was working for two, or she would be when somebody gave her a job. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me in person, I'm excited to show you and your family my ideas for the Shadow Range Eco Ranch project. I think you will all be very pleased."
"I expect everyone else is already in the house." He held his hand out for her to proceed back up the steps.
His soft Western drawl clipped a few of his words as he spoke and she found the sound attractive in an exotic, alien-to-the-Eureka-state kind of way.
Wait a minute, she thought as she crossed the porch. Everyone else? She knew there was a son or two involved in the deal. How many more players were there? were they all going to frown like this one?
He held open the door of the house for her and she stepped into a previous century. Antlers hung from the walls of the foyer and the huge stone fireplace in the adjoining pine-paneled room had discoloration from the heat and smoke of a hundred years of use, maybe more.
He led her into the large room dominated by heavy leather furniture and filled with western objects from varying cultures and time periods.
"About time you got home, Baylor. She'll be here anytime," a man's voice called from down the hallway.
He grimaced. "Wait here, please. I'll see if they are ready for you."
"Am I early? Do you want me to wait outside?" KayLee regretted the questions as soon as the words were out. They made her seem tentative. Not good in a place where life was serious and flippancy was most likely confined to the children.
He shook his head and strode off down a hallway from where the voice had come. His broad shoulders, it seemed, spread from wall to wall, and could probably hold the weight of the world.
Frown or no frown, if she weren't careful, she'd be in love Hollywood-style with this manfast, hot and gone as soon as sanity returned.
She took in her surroundings as she waited: pottery on high shelves, stark black-and-white photos of Old West life in groupings on one wall, family type photos hung in a large collection on the far wall. If these were all family photos, there were a lot of Doyles. One photo, if she wasn't mistaken, was Baylor Doyle, with his parents, his two brothers and a sister from at least ten years ago. She walked over to the photo.
She wondered if she'd have to face all of them today.
"They don't bite." Baylor's deep voice came from behind her.
Funny, she thought, coming from a man who looked as if he might, but when she faced him, he wore a deliberate smirk. It made him skew bad boy even more than the frown. Attraction stirred in her and she gathered her full coat around her. A pox on bad boys. That had been why her husband had been so attractive, a rogue producer on the fringes of Hollywood.
"Most of them don't, anyway," he continued, sans drawl, and it was her turn to narrow her eyes in suspicion. "My mother will be here in just a couple of minutes."
"Thank you." Bring 'em on, all of them, KayLee decided as she stepped away from the wall of photos and over to a carefully lit painting of a solitary horse, saddled, riderless, standing on a rocky hilltop, proud. If he hadn't been wearing a saddle, she would have thought him a wild stallion.
"This horse must be special to your family," she said as she examined the delicate brush strokes and the colors suffused with light and energy.
"Not the horse so much as the artist."
KayLee glanced at the man again. His playfulness was gone, replaced by something that might be hurt, but also might be "none of your business, so don't ask."
She leaned closer. In the lower left corner in pale blue paint was the name Crystal.
"It's beautiful." She wanted to ask about it, but if she didn't get the job
He let her wander the room, getting to know the Doyle family a bit more. She tried to affect casually interested and empathetic, not needy or like the fish out of water she was.
If the objects in the room were an indication of the family history, KayLee couldn't help but feel awe at the depth. She moved from the gleaming silver cup sealed in a glass box to a handmade baby gown pinned out on a frame and also protected behind glass. "Some of these artifacts appear to be really old."
"Many of them have been in the family for a long time."
"Those?" She pointed at the pair of rifles hanging above the fireplace.
"They were used on the ranch well over a hundred years ago."
The stocks of the rifles were worn and the barrels dinged but they had been polished with care. She wondered how many lives they had taken and how many they had saved.
"It's all so far-removed from the chrome accessories and plastic fingernails in my life."
He checked her hands and she held them up. "A little clear polish is all."
"Good, I'd have hated to have to throw you out over plastic fingernails." His expression gave nothing away, but he sounded as if he were kidding.
At least she hoped to God he was. Baylor Doyle was a swarming mass of confusing signals. She'd have to steer clear of him as much as she could.
An older woman entered the room from the hallway. She glared pointedly at Baylor, then smiled welcom-ingly as a tray of chocolate chip cookies just off the cooling rack in grandmother's kitchen.
"Hello, Ms. Morgan. Don't pay any attention to him. He's lookin' to be booted out of the state," she said, giving the man a "be good" look that could only come from a mother.
"You must be Evelyn Doyle." KayLee stepped toward the older version of the woman in the family photo and put her hand out. "This is a lovely home, so full of history."
"The Shadow Range Ranch has been in the family for over five generations. Though it's much larger than the original homestead." Evelyn Doyle's smile broadened and she adjusted the thick gray ponytail that hung down the front of her Western-style plaid shirt.
"And we'd like to keep it that way." Baylor leaned down, placed a kiss on his mother's cheek and then stepped away.
Evelyn took KayLee's hand in one of hers and put her other hand on Kaylee's shoulder, giving her a couple of pats. "I am Evelyn Doyle, but Evvy will do," she said. Then, without taking her hand away, she looked up at Baylor. "Welcome back, Bay, dear. Your buying trip must have gone well."
"They'll be delivering the new stock as soon as it can be arranged."
Evvy let her hand drop and smiled at KayLee again. "I...