Authors: RaeAnne Thayne
He couldn't imagine the alternative.
Zach had made mistakesâhe would be the first to admit them. But he had paid dearly for them. Could he make it right with her? What were the chances that Cassidy would ever be able to find it in her heart to forgive him?
Well, he would just have to do his best. He had to do everything to make this work. To take this chance.
To see if somewhere inside this hurt, self-protective woman still remained any shred of the one person in the world who had seen something in him worth loving.
Silhouette Intimate Moments
The Wrangler and the Runaway Mom
The Valentine Two-Step
Taming Jesse James
Cassidy Harte and the Comeback Kid
lives in a graceful old Victorian nestled in the rugged mountains of northern Utah, along with her husband and two young children. Her books have won numerous honors, including several
Readers' Choice Awards and a RITA
nomination from the Romance Writers of America. RaeAnne loves to hear from readers. She can be reached through her Web site at www.raeannethayne.com or at P.O. Box 6682, North Logan, UT 84341.
To Angela Stone and her band of angels, especially Merrilyn Lynch, Dorothy Griffiths, Terri Crossley and Leslie Buchanan, for nurturing my family when I couldn't.
orget bad hair days. Cassidy Harte was having a bad
The ancient commercial-grade oven had been giving her fits since lunch; the owner of the small grocery in town had messed up her order, as usual; and her best assistant had decided to run off to Jackson Hole with a hunky, sweet-talking cowboy.
And now this.
With a resigned sigh, she set the spoon down from her world-famous, scorching-hot chili bubbling on the stove and prepared to head off yet another crisis.
“Calm down, Greta, and tell me what's happened.”
One of the high school students Jean Martineau had hired for the summer to clean rooms and wait tables at the Lost Creek Guest Ranch looked as if she was going to hyperventilate any second now. Her hair was even spikier than normal, her eyes were huge with panic
behind their hornrimmed glasses, and she was breathing harder than a bull rider at the buzzer.
“He's here. The new owner. A whole week early!” she wailed. “What are we gonna do? Jean and Kip took the guests on a trail ride before dinner, and there's no one else here but me and I don't know what to do with him,” she finished on a whimper.
Is that all? From the way the girl was carrying on, Cassie would have guessed a grizzly had ambled into the office and ordered a cabin for the night. “It's okay. Calm down. We can handle this.”
“But a whole week early! We're not ready.”
pretty thoughtless of the Maverick Enterprises CEO to just drop in unexpectedly like this. But the man hadn't done anything in the usual way, from the moment his representative had made Jean Martineau an offer she couldn't refuse for her small guest ranch in Star Valley, Wyoming.
All of the negotiations had been handled by a third partyâthe few negotiations there had been, since the company hadn't so much as raised an eyebrow at Jean's seven-figure asking price.
She turned her attention back to Greta. “We'll just have to do our best. Don't worry about it. Maverick has made it clear it wants the ranch pretty badly. The company has already invested buckets of time and money into the sale. As far as I know, it's basically a done deal. Even if we tried, I don't think we can possibly blow it at this late date.”
The girl still had the wide-eyed, panicky look of a calf facing a branding iron. “You know how much I need this job. If he doesn't like the service here, he could still fire every single one of us after Maverick
takes over. I don't want to go back to making ice-cream cones at the drive-up.”
True. And Cassie would really hate to lose her job cooking meals for the guest and staff at the ranch. Finding a well-paying job she was qualified for in rural Wyoming wasn't exactly easy. Especially one that included room and board.
She knew she could always move to a bigger town but she didn't want to leave Star Valley. This was her home.
If she had to, she knew she could
go home, to her family, but the idea of crawling back to the Diamond Harte appealed to her about as much as sticking one of those branding irons in her eye.
Besides that, she loved working at the Lost Creek. These last few months on her own had been so rich with experiences that she couldn't bear the idea of losing it all, just because some spoiled, inconsiderate executive decided to drop in on a whim.
She sighed. What a pain in the neck. He'd ruined her plans. With a twinge of regret she remembered the great menu she had planned for the new boss's first night at the ranchârack of lamb, caramelized pearl onions and creamed potatoes, with raspberry tartlets for dessert.
Tonight's dinner was good, hearty fareâchili, corn bread, salad and Dutch-oven peach cobblerâbut it was nothing spectacular. It would have to do, though. She didn't have time to whip up anything else.
“You have to help me,” Greta pleaded. “I don't know what to do with him and I'm afraid I'll ruin everything. You know how I get.”
Cassie winced at the reminder. Two weeks before, the president of a fast-food chain from back east had
rented the entire ranch for a family reunion. In the midst of a severe case of nerves, Greta had ended up accidentally short-sheeting his bed, leaving out towels altogether and overcharging his credit card by a couple of extra zeros. Then at breakfast she'd topped it off by spilling hot cocoa all over his wife.
“Where is the new guy now?”
“I left him in the gathering room. I didn't even know which cabin to put him in, since that doctor and his family have the Grand Teton for another two nights.”
Their best cabin. Rats. “What's left?”
“Just the Huckleberry.”
One of the very smallest cabins. And the one next to hers. She blew out a breath. “That will have to do. He can't expect to drop in like this and have the whole world stop just for him. Check to make sure the cabin sparkles and then send one of the other wranglers up the trail after Jean. I'll go out and try to keep him busy until she gets back.”
With a last quick stir of the chiliâand a heartfelt wish that she were wearing something a little more presentable than jeans and a T-shirt with her favorite female country band on the frontâshe headed for the gathering room.
It didn't matter what she was wearing, she assured herself. He was probably a rich old man who only wants to play cowboy, who wouldn't notice anything but the ranch unless a stampede knocked him over. He had to be. Why else would his company go to so much effort to buy the Lost Creek Guest Ranch?
The ranch consisted of a dozen small guest cabins and the main ranch house that served as lodge and dining hall. The centerpiece of the split-log house was the huge two-story gathering room, with several Western
leather couches set up in conversational groups, a huge river-rock fireplace and a wide wall of windows overlooking the beautiful Salt River Mountain Range.
At the doorway Cassie found the new owner standing with his back to her, gazing out at the mountains.
Okay, she was wrong.
This was no pudgy old cowboy-wannabe, at least judging by the rear view.
And what a view it was.
She gulped. Instead of the brand-spankin'-new Western duds she might have expected, the new owner wore faded jeans and a short-sleeved cotton shirt the same silvery green as the sagebrush covering the mountains. Dark blond hair touched with gold brushed the collar of his shirt and broad shoulders tapered down to lean hips that filled out a pair of worn jeans like nobody's business. The long length of faded denim ended in a pair of sturdy, battered boots built more for hard work than fashion.
By sheer force of will she managed to rein in her wandering thoughts and douse the little fire of awareness sparking to life in her stomach. What in the world was the matter with her? She wasn't the kind of woman to go weak-kneed at a pretty, er, face. She just
Standing in a hot kitchen all day must have addled her brain. Yeah, that must be it. What other excuse could there be? She couldn't remember the last time she had experienced this mouthwatering, breathless, heart-pumping reaction.
On some weird level, she supposed it was kind of comforting to know she still could. For a long time she'd been afraid that part of her had died forever.
Still, it was highly inappropriate to entertain lasciv
ious thoughts about her new employer, tight rear end notwithstanding.
She pasted on what she hoped was a friendly, polite smile and walked toward the man. “Hello. You must be from Maverick Enterprises,” she said. “I'm Cassidy Harte, the ranch cook. I'm afraid you caught us by surprise. I apologize for the delay and any inconvenience. Welcome to the Lost Creek Ranch.”
Oddly enough, as soon as she started to speak, the man completely froze, and she saw the taut bunching of muscles under the expensive cotton of his shirt.
For one horrified moment, she wondered if he was going to ignore her. When she was within a half-dozen feet of him, though, he finally began to slowly turn toward her.
The world tilted abruptly, and she would have slid right off the edge if she hadn't reached blindly for the nearest piece of furniture, a Stickley end table that, lucky for her, was sturdy enough to sustain her weight.
She couldn't breathe suddenly. This must be what a heart attack felt like, this grinding pain in her chest, this roaring in her ears, this light-headedness that made the whole room spin.
Even with the sudden vertigo making her feel dazed and disoriented, she couldn't take her eyes off him. In a million years she never would have expected him to show up at the Lost Creek Guest Ranch after all this time.
“Aren't you going to say anything?” her former fiancÃ© and the man who had destroyed her youth and her innocence asked her with that same damn lopsided smile she'd fallen in love with ten years before.
She gulped air into her lungs, ordered oxygen to sat
urate her brain cells once more. Still gripping the edge of the oak table, she finally forced herself to meet his gaze.
“What are you doing here, Zack?”
Zack Slaterâten years older and worlds harder than he'd been a decade agoâangled his tawny head. “Is that any way to greet me after all these years?”
What did he want from her? Did he honestly think she would embrace him with open arms, would fall on him as if he were a long-lost friend?
The prodigal fiancÃ©?
“You're not welcome here,” she said, her voice as cold as a glacial cirque. She had ten years of rage broiling up inside her, ten years of rejection and betrayal and shame. “I don't know why you've come back but you can leave now.”
Get out before I throw you out.
For just an instant she thought she saw the barest hint of a shadow creep across his hazel eyes, then it slid away and he gave her a familiar, mocking smile. “Funny thing about that, Cass. Welcome or not, I'm afraid I won't be leaving anytime soon. I own the place.”
Her heart stumbled in her chest as instant denial sprang out. “No. No, you don't.”
“Not yet, technically. But it's only a matter of time.”
Owned the place? He couldn't. It was impossible. Fate couldn't be that cruel. She wouldn't believe it.
“I don't know what kind of game you're playing this time,” she snapped, “but you're lying, something we both know you're so very good at. How stupid do you think I am? Maverick Enterprises is buying the Lost Creek.”
Again he offered nothing but that hard smile. “And I'm Maverick Enterprises.”
She wouldn't have been more shocked if he'd suddenly picked up the end table still supporting her weight and tossed it through the eighteen-foot window.
Zack Slater and Maverick Enterprises? It wasn't possible. Jean had done her research before she agreed to sell the ranch. She might be in her seventies but she wasn't some kind of doddering old fool. According to the papers provided by the lawyer who had brokered the deal, Maverick had more investments than Cassie's oldest brother had cattleâeverything from coffee-houses to bookstores to Internet start-ups.
The one common thread among them was that each business had a reputation for fairness and integrity, things the man standing in front of her would know nothing about.
“Nice try, but that's impossible,” she snapped. “Maverick is a huge operation, with its fingers in pies all over the West.”
“What's the matter, Cass? You don't think a money-grubbing drifter who could barely pay for his own wedding might be the one licking the apple filling off his fingers?”
She scowled. “Not you. You never had any interest in business whatsoever.”
“Sorry to shatter your illusions, sweetheart, but it's true. Do you want the number to my office so you can check it out?”
In the face of his cocky attitude, her assurance wavered. This couldn't be happening. He had to be lying, didn't he?
“Why should I believe anything you say?” she finally snapped. “You don't exactly have the best track
record around here. I made the mistake of trusting you once, and look where it got me.”
He shifted his gaze away, looking out at the mountains once more. After a moment he turned back, his expression shuttered and those long, dark lashes shielding his vivid eyes.
“Would it help if I said I was sorry for that?” he asked quietly.
For what? For leaving her practically at the altarâ¦or for asking her to marry him in the first place?
She gazed at him, words choking her throat like Western virgin's bower around a cottonwood trunk. Did he honestly have the gall to stand in front of her and apologize so casually, as if he'd simply bumped shopping carts or pulled in front of her in traffic?
She thought of her oldest brother and those first days
when Matt had walked around in a state of dazed disbelief. Of a tiny, frail Lucy, just a few months old, wailing shrilly for the mother who would never come back.
Of her own shock and the agonizing pain of complete betrayal, those days and months and years when she knew the whole town looked at her with pity, when the whispers behind her back threatened to deafen her.
Sorry? Zack Slater could never be sorry enough to make right everything he and Melanie had destroyed.
“You're about ten years too late.”
Zack winced inwardly at the bitterness in her voice, though it was nothing more than he expected. Or than he deserved.
He wanted to kick himself for blurting that out so bluntly. He should have slowly worked up to his apology, waited until she had time to get to know him again
before he tried to explain away the decisions he'd made that summer.
But since the moment she had walked into the vast room with its cozy furniture and spectacular view, his brain seemed about as useful as a one-legged chicken and he had to fight with everything inside him not to reach for her.