Authors: Vicki Lewis Thompson
“Maybe so, but Clay’s had so many obstacles to overcome…”
“We all have obstacles.”
“I suppose, but you told me he spent his childhood going from one foster home to the next. That’s major trauma.”
“You haven’t had a bed of roses, either, what with no father around.”
“That wasn’t your fault, Dad.” She hated that he still felt guilty about the divorce, nearly twenty-five years after the fact. Before she’d been old enough to think for herself, she’d accepted her mother’s assessment that Emmett was to blame for the divorce. Gradually she’d come to see that it had been a bad match that was doomed from the start.
“It was partly my fault,” Emmett said. “First off I let your mother take you to California, and then I only came over to visit two or three times.”
“Yes, but Santa Barbara isn’t your kind of place.” They’d reached the steps going up to the porch and her dad’s boots hit the wood with a solid sound she’d missed hearing. She’d missed other things, too, like the way his gray hair curled a little at the nape of his neck, and how his face creased in a smile and his blue eyes grew warm and crinkly with love when he looked at her.
She hadn’t always appreciated how handsome he was because she’d been so influenced by her mother’s assessment of cowboys as unsophisticated hicks who went around with a piece of straw clenched in their teeth. Her dad did that sometimes, but he also moved with fluid grace, and he was as lean and muscled as a man half his age.
He blew out a breath, which made his mustache flutter a bit. “Doesn’t matter if it’s my kind of place or not. I should’ve visited more often.” He paused with one hand on the brass doorknob. “I’m sorry for that, Emily. More sorry than I can say.”
“It’s okay.” Bracing her hands on his warm shoulder, she rose on tiptoe and leaned in under the brim of his hat to give him a kiss on the cheek. “I’ve always known you love me.”
“More than anything.” His voice was rough with emotion. “Which is why we both need to get some coffee in us before we turn into blubbering fools and embarrass ourselves.”
“And a Sterling never turns into a blubbering fool.”
“That’s exactly right.” Clearing his throat, Emmett opened the door and ushered her inside.
Although the main house didn’t have air conditioning, the thick log walls kept the rooms cool even in the heat of summer. The second story helped, too. Emily adored the winding staircase that, according to her dad, had been expertly crafted more than thirty years ago by the Chance boys’ grandpa Archie.
Emmett had told her that Archie had been a master carpenter who’d designed every aspect of this massive home for both beauty and practicality. Even Emily’s mother, who pretty much despised anything to do with ranching, had once confessed that she found the house to be spectacular.
A huge rock fireplace dominated the living room, and although no fire burned there, the scent of cedar smoke had worked its way into the brown leather armchairs and sofa gathered in front of the hearth. No doubt the large Navajo rugs hanging on the walls had absorbed the smell of the fire, too. Its woodsy fragrance combined with that of lemon oil furniture polish would always be connected in Emily’s mind to the Last Chance.
She’d assumed salt air and ocean waves were her favorite backdrop; but walking into this living room late last night had felt a bit like coming home. Because her dad’s little cabin was small, Emily stayed upstairs in the main house when she visited. She hadn’t thought she was particularly attached to the place, but last night she’d realized that wasn’t true. She loved it here.
Her dad caught her looking around the living room. “Maybe if I’d provided your mother with a house like this,” he began, “then she—”
“She still wouldn’t have been happy. Face it, Dad. She isn’t content unless she’s living by the ocean near some really good shopping.”
“I discovered that too late.”
“So did she.” And Jeri had never remarried, which told Emily that her mother had loved her dad and probably still did. Although Emma might be the feminine version of the name Emmett, Emily was darned close. “She married you without stopping to think that she finds horses and dogs exceedingly smelly.”
Emmett laughed. “And she’s right, they are. But I happen to love that about them.”
“Believe it or not, I kind of do, too.”
He thumbed back his hat to look at her. “I had a feeling you did.”
“All along I’ve pretended that taking barn tours and riding was a drag, but the truth is, I’ve always looked forward to being around the animals.”
“You’d better not let your mother hear you say that.”
“I know. I suppose I thought it would be disloyal to her if I said I liked them.” She gazed at him for several seconds. All her life she’d been told that ranching was nothing but dust, horse poop and endless drudgery. Because of that she’d told herself her visits were only an obligation to maintain a connection with her father.
She’d let three years go by since the last time, and she might not have made the trip this summer except that her father was turning sixty. To her surprise, she was really glad to be here. And she’d finally admitted to her dad that barns and horses appealed to her.
In fact, she had the urge to spend more time hanging out at the barn and getting to know the horses. Of course, that could have something to do with Clay Whitaker. Clearly if she wanted to see more of Clay she’d need to become involved with the animals he tended.
She turned toward her father. “Do you think we could take a ride this afternoon?”
“I might be able to work that out. I need to pick up some supplies today, and maybe we could stretch that into a little shopping trip in Jackson.” He brightened. “I could ask Pam to come along so you could meet her. You two could shop while I warm a bench outside.”
“That sounds great, Dad.” Actually, it didn’t. He’d told her last night about Pam Mulholland, who owned the Bunk & Grub, a bed-and-breakfast inn down the road. It seemed her father had a girlfriend, and Emily wasn’t sure how she felt about that. “But I meant a horseback ride.”
“Oh. I’m afraid that’s not in the cards for today, sweetheart. I really do have to run several errands and I’m not sure how long they’ll take. Sure you don’t want to come along?”
She couldn’t blame him for thinking she’d love to go shopping. Three years ago she’d been all about buying stuff, partly because she’d known it would please her mother if she came back with clothes. “It’s funny, but now that I’m here, I feel like staying put,” she said. “Maybe I’ll just take a walk around the ranch this afternoon.”
And see what Clay’s up to.
She smiled at his puzzled expression. “I know. Cowboys don’t walk, but I do.”
Emmett looked down at her feet. “Then you’ll need to put something on besides those sandals.”
“I packed the boots and jeans I bought when we went shopping in Jackson last time I visited.”
“You still have those?”
“They’re like new. I felt like a fake wearing them in Santa Barbara. I’ll probably feel like a fake wearing them here, but I want to give it a shot.”
“Okay.” He gave her a look that was pure protective dad. “Promise me you won’t try to go riding by yourself.”
“I promise.” Years ago she would have resented the implication that she couldn’t handle riding alone. But she hadn’t been on a horse in three years, and she was old enough now to appreciate his warning as a gesture of love. “I know my limits. I can ride a surfboard like nobody’s business, but I don’t have much practice on a horse.” She paused. “Maybe one of the hands could go with me.”
“That’s an idea. I could send Watkins.”
She remembered Watkins as a shortish, older guy with a handlebar mustache. Nice enough, but not the person she had in mind.
“No, not Watkins,” her dad said. “He has a toothache and would spend the whole ride talking about it.”
“Then how about—”
“I could send Jeb, but…I don’t know. That boy gets distracted by a pretty face. I’d ask one of the Chances, but Nick’s scheduled to worm our little herd of cattle, Gabe’s off at a cutting horse event, and Jack’s taking Josie to the obstetrician today.” He glanced at Emily. “I did tell you that Josie’s pregnant?”
“Yes. You gave me the rundown last night, and I think I have it all straight. Josie and Jack are expecting their first. Gabe and Morgan have little Sarah Bianca, who’s one month old. Nick and Dominique are waiting a bit before having kids.”
“Right. Okay, let me think. There must be somebody I would trust to take you.”
She did her level best to sound indifferent. “I don’t suppose Clay could go.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. I’ll ask him.”
OR THE FIRST TIME SINCE
he’d come to live at the Last Chance, Clay dreaded lunch hour. Years ago, before Clay had come to the ranch, Archie had begun a tradition of gathering everyone in the main house at midday so that news could be exchanged and plans made. In fact, when the east wing had been added, Sarah had suggested creating a large lunchroom because the family dining room had become too crowded.
The new space held four round tables that each sat eight, and windows on the north and east provided light and spectacular mountain views. Hands ate in the bunkhouse for breakfast and dinner, rotating the cooking chores among themselves, but they considered lunch a treat, both for the setting and the food. Sarah insisted on tablecloths and cloth napkins because she believed in adding a little class. The guys tolerated that because Mary Lou Simms, the family’s cook, always put on a mouthwatering spread.
Mary Lou’s cooking was one of the many things Clay had missed while he was in Cheyenne going to school. Today’s menu featured fried chicken, potato salad, corn on the cob and biscuits, all served family style. The heaping platters and bowls coming out of the kitchen smelled as good as they looked, and normally Clay would have been licking his chops.
Instead, he was on Emily Alert. She’d be here, sure as the world, and he wanted to stay as far away from her as possible. He hesitated just inside the doorway and scanned the room, which was already filling up.
“Just the man I want to talk to.”
He recognized Emmett’s deep voice as the foreman gripped his shoulder from behind. Clay turned, knowing that Emmett wouldn’t be walking into the lunchroom alone. As expected, Emily stood beside him, and to Clay’s surprise, she seemed unsure of herself.
Even more surprising was her outfit. She still wore the scoop-necked T-shirt with BEBÉ splashed across the front, but she’d traded the shorts for a pair of jeans that looked as if they’d never seen the light of day, and tooled boots with nary a scuff mark on them. Clay found it hard to believe that she’d decided to dress like the locals so she could fit in better, but that’s exactly what her change of clothes appeared to suggest.
“Let’s find us a place to sit,” Emmett said.
Clay stifled a groan. Trapped. He’d considered skipping lunch completely, but he was starving and he hadn’t come up with a decent excuse for staying away. Traditions had taken on new significance since Jonathan’s death, and the hands made every effort to be there at noon each weekday.
Nick and his wife, Dominique, a tall woman with her glossy brown hair cut short, sat at a table with Sarah. Emmett ushered Emily in that direction, and Clay had no choice but to follow.
Nick stood as Emily approached. The Chance boys, thanks to a firm hand from Sarah, had the manners of diplomats. Sarah’s mother, Lucy, had been an NYC runway model, and Sarah had inherited her mother’s classic beauty and carriage. Although she was in her mid-sixties and her sleek bob was silver, she could pass for a woman fifteen years younger.
Sarah had taken over Clay’s education in the social graces, too, and he was grateful. She gave a slight nod of approval as Clay helped Emily into a chair and introduced her to Dominique, who hadn’t been part of the ranch the last time Emily visited.
Finally he sat down, and there was Emily, right beside him, giving off a fragrance that reminded him of sun and salty air. He’d only seen the ocean once, during a brief vacation taken by one of his foster families. On that trip he’d noticed lots of girls who looked like Emily, blond and wearing skimpy clothes to show off their tans. She was exotic, and he was unfortunately, drawn to that.
He’d hoped to escape sitting at the same table with her, and now here they were knee-to-knee and thigh-to-thigh. If Clay had thought he could get away with it, he would have scooted his chair closer to Sarah, on his other side. But that would look too obvious, so he worked on not making body contact.
No one else sat at their table for eight. Once the food had been passed and everyone had started to eat, Sarah glanced over at Emily with a friendly smile. “You look like you’re getting serious about this ranch visit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in jeans and boots.”
“Nope, you haven’t.” Emily put down her drumstick. “I bought these a while ago, but this is their first outing. I’m hoping I’ll be able to go riding this afternoon.”
“The problem is, I have errands to run,” Emmett said, “so I thought maybe Clay could take Emily out for an hour or so.” He bit into a fried chicken breast.
Yikes. This was getting worse by the minute. Fortunately, Clay had an excuse. He quickly chewed and swallowed a forkful of potato salad. “I’d be glad to, but I have plans for this afternoon.”
“Collecting more semen?” As Emily picked up her drumstick again and looked at him, she had a definite gleam in her eye. “I find that fascinating. I’d love to watch.”
Damn it, she
flirting. Well, it wouldn’t get her anywhere. “Sorry, but that’s not on the schedule. I have another job I need to do.” He buttered his ear of corn and sent a pointed glance in Sarah’s direction. She’d deliberately created some errands for Emmett to run today because they needed him gone for a few hours so they could start setting up for tomorrow night’s party.
Emmett expected a party, of course. But Sarah had decided to surprise him by switching the venue from the Spirits and Spurs—Josie’s bar in the nearby small town of Shoshone—to an old-fashioned cowboy cookout where they’d all ride in on horseback. Clay thought Emmett would love that, so he’d volunteered to truck the tables, benches and firewood out there and build a fire pit.
“That’s true, you do have chores this afternoon,” Sarah said. “But you might be able to work in a ride after they’re done.”
“Maybe I could help with the chores,” Emily said.
That’s all he needed, to be stuck alone with her on party detail.
“That’s a great idea,” Sarah said. “Then he’ll be done that much faster. I would take you out riding myself, Emily, but I’ve got a list a mile long.”
Emmett split open a steaming biscuit and piled butter on it. “And it’s all to do with my sixtieth, I’ll bet. I keep telling you folks not to make a fuss over this.”
“We’re not making a fuss,” Nick said. “We’ll all head to the Spirits and Spurs tomorrow night like we usually do for special occasions. We’ll have some drinks and a meal. Somebody’s liable to drag out a birthday cake, but that’s about the extent of the fuss.”
“It better be. And no presents. Is that understood?”
“Too late, Dad,” Emily said. “I hauled presents all the way from Santa Barbara, and you’re gonna open them or else.”
His expression softened. “Sure, sweetheart. I’ll make an exception for you, but nobody else had better be showing up with packages.”
“I can’t guarantee that won’t happen.” Nick put down a corn cob and reached for another. “But I can guarantee that some of them will be gag gifts, so you might as well resign yourself to the process, Emmett. The hands deserve to have their fun at your expense.”
The foreman sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Good thing these decade birthdays don’t come more often.” Then he turned his attention to Dominique. “And I suppose you’ll be taking pictures.”
She paused, her fork in midair, to give him a sweet smile. “Don’t I always?”
“Yes, and they’re fine pictures, mostly because I’m not in them. So take pictures of everybody else if you want, but the world doesn’t need a record of me opening up a box with a whoopee cushion inside or blowing out a bunch of candles. And I sure as heck don’t want to see my mug hanging with your other work in that gallery in Jackson.”
Emily laid a hand on his arm. “The world might not need a record of you holding a whoopee cushion and blowing out candles, but I do.” She glanced over at Dominique. “Please take a gazillion pictures of my dad during his party, okay?”
Dominique gave Emily a thumbs-up. “You’ve got it.”
Clay listened with interest. Emily didn’t sound like a spoiled brat who was only interested in the money she could squeeze out of her dad. Instead she sounded like a daughter who dearly loved her father and looked forward to celebrating his birthday.
She might be putting on an act for the benefit of those sitting at the table, though. As far as he knew, she was still accepting monthly checks from this man even though she was certainly old enough to earn her own living. Still, Emmett obviously basked in Emily’s affection. Clay hadn’t realized until now how much the guy adored his only child.
That kind of parental devotion used to set off a wave of longing in Clay, but these days he was more philosophical about being an orphan. After all, he’d been taken in by the Chance family. He might have started off life at a disadvantage, but he’d wound up pretty good.
And although Emmett wasn’t technically his father, the guy filled that role in everything that mattered. He’d latched on to Clay from the get-go and always had his back. Emmett seemed to recognize that Clay needed an advocate. But maybe Emmett had needed Clay, too, as a stand-in for his absent daughter.
So now Emmett was asking Clay to take Emily riding. That was a gesture of trust, no doubt about it. Sarah’s suggestion that Emily help him with party chores was a decent idea, too.
He could be gracious and take her with him out to the meadow. She could carry the benches and find rocks for the fire pit. It wasn’t so much to ask that he include her after all the support Emmett had given him over the years.
He turned to Emily. “I’d appreciate it if you’d help me with the chores I have, and then we should be able to take a short ride later this afternoon.”
Her answering smile dazzled him more than it should. “I would love that. Thank you, Clay.”
“You’re welcome.” He looked away before she could see the effect she had on him. Heat shot through his body and settled in his groin. The rush of sexual awareness left him so shaky that he dared not pick up his fork or his water glass in case somebody noticed how he was trembling.
Good God, he wasn’t some inexperienced teenager anymore. In the time since he and Emily had first met he’d had two serious girlfriends and several who would’ve liked to become serious. These days he knew his way around a bedroom and understood a thing or two about pleasing a woman once he got her in there.
And yet, one brilliant smile from this California girl had reduced him to the hormonal kid he’d been ten years ago. She hadn’t wanted him then, but he had a strong suspicion she wanted him now. He wasn’t sure why, because she sure as hell wasn’t interested in sticking around Jackson Hole, and he was here for the duration.
Curiosity, maybe. She’d never indulged herself with somebody like him and had decided now was as good a time as any.
But none of that mattered, because no matter what she had in mind, nothing would happen between them. Emmett’s trust guaranteed that. Clay would sooner cut off his right arm than betray the man who’d encouraged him to be the person he was today.
MILY WASN’T SURE HOW
she managed to eat anything at all as the meal progressed, and several times she almost dumped food on herself. Sitting next to Clay was like surfing in a storm—exhilarating but dangerous. He’d showered and changed before coming to lunch, and she almost wished he hadn’t. His pine-scented cologne was nice, but she preferred the raw energy of his sweat-soaked body.
She wasn’t sure who was generating the most sexual heat as they sat side by side eating lunch, but she sensed that he was as turned on by her as she was by him. He was nervous about that, though, and she didn’t blame him. He clearly idolized her father, and anyone with half a brain would be able to tell that Clay was a principled guy. He wouldn’t want to do anything that would upset Emmett.
She didn’t want to upset Emmett, either, so her fascination with Clay was a tricky business. As much as her dad wouldn’t want Clay seducing her, conversely he wouldn’t want her seducing Clay, especially if she didn’t have any intention of sticking around. And she didn’t.
Maybe on this visit she liked the ranch better than she had before, but that only meant she considered it a good vacation spot. There was really nothing for her to do here. She didn’t possess the particular skill set that would make her a…what had her dad called Clay? A top hand.
No, she was a far cry from being a top hand. She still hadn’t figured out what she was good at. She loved to surf, but not enough to make a pro career out of it. Fashion design was out, and retail sales bored her to tears.
But she wouldn’t solve her career dilemma hanging around the Last Chance. Once her visit was over, she’d return to her receptionist position at a medical complex in Santa Barbara. Maybe she’d go out with the cute doctor who kept asking her for a date. She hadn’t been seriously involved with anyone since last year, when a surfing buddy had proposed.
She’d realized he was far more emotionally invested than she was and had gently turned him down. Besides, she had no business marrying someone when she didn’t know where her life was headed. She wished she could be more focused, like Clay. Spending time with him this afternoon might give her some insights. At the very least, she’d be able to enjoy the sexual buzz they had going on.
As the meal ended and everybody stood to leave, Clay helped her from her chair—a gallant gesture she wasn’t used to from the men she knew. “Thanks.” She turned to him. “Do you have a cell phone?”
“I thought you could call me when you’re ready for me to help you.”
He grinned. “How about if I just come up to the house and get you?”
Oooh. Great smile. She curled her toes into the leather soles of her boots. “That works.”
Emmett put an arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. “If you go riding later on, see if somebody will loan you a hat.”
She glanced up at him. “Why do I need one?”
“For the most part, to keep you from being sunburned.”
“Dad, I surf every weekend, and nobody wears a hat while they’re on a surfboard. I have a good base tan and I have sunglasses. That’s enough.”