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Authors: Victoria James

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BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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She dropped her phone into her purse, aware that Gage was studying her. “Everything okay?”

Meredith swung her purse over her shoulder. “Yup, just Bridezillas texting at all hours of the night.”

He gave her a long look, almost like he didn’t really believe her, so she scooted out of the car before he could question her.

Gage met her at the trunk. Of course she had to lean her head back as he towered over her looking all delectably disheveled, and she told herself when she licked her lips it was only because of the salty chip remains and not the impossibly sexy Gage Mackenzie.

As soon as she opened the trunk, before she even had a chance to hide the bags of chips, he’d already picked them up with that corner of his sexy mouth turned up. Meredith snatched the bag from his hand and tilted up her chin. “There was a sale. Buy two, get two free. I’ve come to learn this last year that stocking up on things when they’re on sale is a great way to stretch one’s budget.” She folded her arms and wondered if he was going to laugh at her.

His phone beeping interrupted the moment as he pulled it out of his jacket pocket and glanced down. “It’s Cole. He said to hurry the hell back.”

“All right, I guess we’d better get back and see what this announcement is all about.”

Chapter Eight

Gage walked up the front steps to the ranch house, Meredith beside him. He had no clue what this major announcement was that Cole and Melanie had to make, since his friend hated drama. He swung open the door and waited for Meredith to walk through.

“I hope you didn’t call us back here to watch you maul your wife,” he said, enjoying the fact that he’d just startled Cole. Melanie was tucked onto his lap, and his friend didn’t look the least bit contrite.

Meredith was hanging up her jacket and he tried not to laugh as some chips fell out of her sleeve and she carefully kicked them into the baseboard and then looked up. Of course, Cole and Melanie weren’t paying any attention, but he gave her a grin and a wink, to which she replied with a stern frown accompanied by hands on her hips. So he took the opportunity to let his eyes wander up and down appreciatively. She was still dressed from the wedding, and he knew she’d borrowed the pink dress from her sister. A year ago that thing would have hung on her, but now she filled it out in a way that only made him think back to their night together, when he found out she looked even better with her clothes off than on. Not that she didn’t look damn good right now. He lifted his eyes to hers and his gut clenched when he read the heat in her gaze.

He had no idea how the hell he’d been able to resist her the last two weeks. Well, he did. He made sure he wasn’t around when she was. He knew her schedule down pat. In the morning, she’d be on her horse by 5:00 a.m. How many mornings had he seen her from his kitchen window? He usually had his first cup of coffee before he got to the ranch house. The first time he’d seen her ride, he’d been impressed, and then not long after he began to recognize the freedom on her face. Some mornings it looked as though she wanted to ride off and never come back, and some mornings it looked as though she were completely at peace with the world.

“Did I miss the announcement?” Mrs. H thundered into the room, somehow managing to keep a bottle of champagne and flutes upright on her tray.

“Of course we’d wait for you,” Melanie said, extracting herself from Cole.

Now that he got a better look at the both of them it dawned on him that this was big. Dopey grin on Cole’s face, Melanie’s flushed face, and champagne. This was huge. He glanced over at Meredith, who had walked over to stand beside Mrs. H, who looked as ready to pop as that chilled champagne bottle.

“All right, out with it,” Gage said, sitting down on the armchair opposite Cole.

Melanie took a deep breath and then Cole got up to wrap his arms around her from behind.

“I think Melanie can stand up on her own.”

Mrs. H swatted him with the tea towel she kept perched on her shoulder that she used for crowd control.

“Cole and I are thrilled to announce, only to you guys, because there’s no way I could keep news like this from any of you…” Melanie took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant!”

Squeals and cheers and clapping filled up the room even though it was only the five of them. Gage was caught off guard at the emotion that pumped through his veins as he hugged and kissed Melanie. And then when he turned to his best friend, looking so damn happy, he couldn’t even come up with a smart-ass comment to ease the sappiness of the moment. The truth was, when Cole moved forward to hug/punch him, he had never felt such happiness for another human being. Cole had been to hell and back when his first wife died, and he deserved this. He deserved Melanie and the family they were now going to create.

He glanced over at Meredith, who was still hugging her sister, her chin perched on Melanie’s shoulder. Meredith was facing him and he caught a glimmer of something in her eyes. Something that made his gut clench. But before he had time to wonder, Cole was popping open the champagne and Mrs. H was handing out the glasses.

Meredith wasted no time once they’d toasted to down her glass.

“This is by far the best news we’ve had all year. I’m so happy for you both. So happy,” Mrs. H said, blowing her nose on the dish towel. He made a mental note not to do anything to elicit being swatted by it tonight.

“We weren’t really trying…it was a bit of a shock,” Melanie said with a laugh. Cole was looking proud and happy.

“Well, you’ll make a great mother, Mel. As for Cole, I hear there are parenting courses.” He laughed as Cole punched him in the arm.

He kept his eyes on Meredith as they all laughed and talked, and as their conversation got louder and funnier, Meredith became quieter and sadder. He knew her enough, despite the secrets she was carrying, to know that something was bothering her.

An hour later, after the celebration finally broke up, Gage stepped outside. Meredith had excused herself a while ago and gone upstairs with what she claimed was a headache. Bull. He’d seen that look in her eyes before. Last year.

Gage took in a deep breath of cold, damp air. Rain was imminent. Nothing beat the nighttime air on the Tall Pines ranch, with the wind coming from the mountains and the unspoiled terrain around them; he loved the smell of horses and earth, and the freedom.

He rolled his shoulders, trying to erase some of the tension from his sore muscles. These last few weeks had been filled with complications. His own fault, really. He never should have gone to bed with Meredith, because at least before that, he’d think about her half of the day. Now it was all day. He knew there was a hell of a lot more she was hiding from all of them. It was in all the little things, and the big things, like her reaction tonight to her sister’s announcement. Or the way she’d snatched her phone away from him in the car.

He stopped as a figure atop a horse took off into the distance. Shit. His stomach dropped as he made a run for the stables. He knew that form anywhere; there was only one woman who could ride like an expert around here. But what the hell was she doing, tearing out of here like that at this time of night? He didn’t bother with a saddle and was mounted in record time, taking off in Meredith’s direction. She was being reckless, riding way faster than she should be in the dark. Thunder boomed and lightning illuminated the mountains around them.

“Meredith!” he yelled when he spotted her on the trail ahead. As soon as he caught up with her he was going to tell her how stupid this was. He exhaled raggedly, filled with relief when he spotted Meredith slow in the distance, when the ascent became steeper and rain started falling. She must have heard him coming because she whipped her head around and quickly sped up.

“Meredith, it’s me,” he yelled. “Stop.”

As good a rider as she was, his horse was faster and he was gutsier, and in a few minutes he caught up to her. “Stop running away from your problems. I don’t think running is in line with the new Meredith thing you have going on.”

Thankfully, she slowed down. “You aren’t eligible to give advice.”

“Maybe not, but I can save you from breaking your neck.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“You don’t even know where you’re going, and you’re drenched and already shivering. What? Your plan is to ride into the mountains at night, by yourself, during a thunderstorm. Why don’t you just calm down and let me help you.”

“Don’t patronize me and tell me to calm down like I’m some—”

“Hey. I’ve never once patronized you. I’m not one of the bad guys. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Finally, after sneezing three times, she slowed down enough that he was able to make out the fact that she was shaking.

“Let me go, Gage,” she hissed and his stomach turned when he heard the tears in her voice. It was so dark he could barely see her face. And for the first time in his life, tears on a woman weren’t making him want to run the other way. It made him want to get closer. Hell if he was going to stand here and not help her.

“I’m not going anywhere, darlin’.”

“Don’t do that charming cowboy thing, either.”

He almost smiled, but he wasn’t capable with her feeling so badly. “I’m just naturally charming, I can’t help it. Look, I’m not going to stand here letting you cry.”

“I don’t cry in front of people.”

He paused and then filed that bit of info away for when he had more time to put together the Meredith puzzle in his head. “We gotta go or we’re going to freeze”

“I want to be by myself. Thank you for your concern, but I need to be alone right now. Go back to the house,” she said in a huffy, not-so-teary voice.

“No.”

“I want to be alone.”

Thunder boomed and lightning illuminated the trees Meredith jumped and then glared at him as the sky opened up and the rain picked up into a torrential downpour. “Good-bye, Gage.”

“Seriously, it’s pouring and you’re still arguing with me?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll be freezing your cute ass off in less than a minute, I can guarantee it.”

“So?”

“I swear to God you better come with me. If you don’t, I’ll follow you and then haul your sweet ass onto my horse,” he said in his least charming voice.

After trying to brush her sopping wet hair off her face, she lifted her chin and turned to him. “Where are we going?”

“Follow me.”

Twenty minutes later, and it could’ve been faster if he didn’t have to check on her every minute because of the rain and cold, and the sneaking suspicion he had that she’d try to tear off in the opposite direction, they dismounted in front of Cole’s cabin. Luckily, he knew where Cole hid the spare key.

He shoved a key into her hand, ignoring the mutinous expression on her face. It looked as though the rain and cold were finally getting to her and she wasn’t going to argue. “Take this. Go inside while I deal with the horses.”

He didn’t wait for a response, just gave her a gentle nudge in the direction of the door.


Meredith sank to the ground after the door shut. She wrapped her arms around her legs and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want Gage to come inside. She didn’t want him to follow her and trap her. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts, her memories. She wanted to be able to cry and be miserable. She couldn’t do that in front of Gage.

The door moved at her back and she slid across the floor as Gage shoved his way in, muttering, “You know it’s not the best idea to sit in front of a door.”

A table lamp came on and she sat without saying a word as he strode through the room and flung open a kitchen cupboard. She looked around dispassionately. This was Cole’s notorious hideaway. It was small, with a giant stone fireplace centered in the small room, flanked by enormous windows that were now rattling because of the wind and being pelted by rain.

“This place looks a hell of a lot different since the last time I saw it,” Gage said, standing in the middle of the room holding a bottle of some kind of liquor. His clothes were plastered to his lean, muscled body, and if she didn’t currently feel like hell, she might appreciate the view a little more. He strode over to her and crouched down, poured a shot of whiskey, and then handed it to her.

“Cole keeps a stash of whiskey up here, and now, thanks to your sister, a few bottles of wine.”

She knew Gage wasn’t the chatty type, which meant the chatter was for her benefit. He nudged the glass in front of her. She was allowed to wallow in one night of her own personal hell without putting on a smile or faking a laugh. Maybe she’d scare him away. Maybe she’d make him angry enough that he’d leave her here or let her go off alone.

She avoided eye contact with him and accepted the whiskey, downing it in one smooth swoop. She coughed. Closing her eyes with a sigh as the liquid burned its way down her throat, she leaned her head back against the door. She could feel Gage still looking at her. She refused to open her eyes.

“I’m going to light a fire,” he said after a minute.

“I don’t suppose Cole keeps a hidden supply of junk food? You know, for emotional eating purposes?”

“Cole wouldn’t need that. Cowboys don’t emotionally eat.”

She opened one of her eyes. “Then why do you inhale chocolate cake like air?”

He shrugged. “It tastes good.”

“Gage…”

“I don’t even know what emotional eating means. No emotions are needed to shove homemade chocolate cake into my mouth.”

Meredith gave up and plunked her forehead back on her knees, listening as Gage went about lighting a fire. He was competent, able to take charge of any situation with ease and even humor. How nice would it be to lean on a man like that? He was the kind of man who wouldn’t abuse that power. He’d keep her safe. A few minutes later he wrapped a big blanket around her shoulders and then stared at her. She mumbled a thank-you.

“Here. Maybe a refill will help.”

Meredith held up her empty glass with her head still on her knees.

“You have to look at me as I fill up your glass.”

“What? That’s stupid.”

She thought she heard a muffled laugh. “Bartender’s rules. I have to make sure you’re not too drunk for more alcohol.”

“Pfft. It’ll take a lot more than one shot of this pansy drink to help. So please. Fill. Me. Up.”

“Don’t ask me that unless we’re in bed together.”

Meredith shook her head. He didn’t miss a beat, and her body never missed a reaction when he spoke to her that way. It triggered thoughts of her night with him. All the words he’d whispered in her ear, powerful, sweet, hot words that she would never, ever forget.

She refused to look at him until he knelt down in front of her and placed his hand on the nape of her neck and waited calmly. She knew he wasn’t a patient man, yet he’d shown her nothing but tolerance and kindness. And passion.

“Meredith, look at me,” he whispered in that deep, gravelly voice that always made her stomach quiver.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re going to want to talk and I don’t want to.”

“Perfect. We don’t have to talk. I hate talking. I have easier and far more enjoyable ways of making you feel better. Talking is highly overrated.”

“Gage, not in the mood, and that would make our one-night stand a not-one-night stand.”

“First of all, I’m not sure what ‘not in the mood’ means.”

BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
9.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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