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Authors: PATRICIA THAYER,

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BOOK: THE COWBOY SHE COULDN'T FORGET
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She smiled and glanced around to see the rows of white cabinets, which had been painted many times over the years to keep their high sheen. The countertops were also white, and the same with the appliances. The room was clean and generic. Long gone were any Spanish influences.

Kathleen walked in from the laundry room. The housekeeper was fifty-five and had a ready smile and kind hazel eyes. Her hair had been dark brown, but over the years had turned gray. She had never married, so Ana and her sisters were like the children she’d never had.

“Oh, Ana, I’m glad you’re here. I’m hoping you’ll be staying long enough for me to fatten you up. Child, you’re too thin.”

“I weigh the same as I always did, no more, no less.”

Ana wasn’t sure staying at the house was a good idea. There were so many memories she wanted to forget. But she’d be closer to the hospital. And since school was out for the summer, she was off work.

“Well, you still need to put on ten pounds.”

Before Ana could protest, there was a knock on the back door. Kathleen went and answered it. “Oh, hello, Mr. Dickson.”

Ana watched as the older man stepped into the kitchen. The distinguished-looking Wade Dickson was dressed in his usual business suit. He was not only Colt’s lawyer, but his longtime friend. They’d gone to school together. And Uncle Wade had given the Slater girls more affection than their own father had.

He smiled when he saw her. “Hello, Ana.”

She was still raw from today, and exhausted. “Hi, Uncle Wade.”

He came closer and hugged her. “I’m sorry about your daddy. I was out of town when I got the news. But don’t worry, old Colt is made of strong stuff.”

She was touched. “I appreciate you saying that.”

He released a long breath and guided her into the dining room, where they sat down at the table.

“I hate to do this, Ana girl, but we need to discuss what to do while your daddy is recovering.”

She hated that term. “Vance is foreman. Can’t he handle the ranch?”

There was another long pause. She could tell Wade was holding something back. “That’s a temporary fix. I’ve been by the hospital, and right now your father isn’t in any shape to make decisions. You girls will have to decide what to do for now.”

“Dad will be okay,” Ana insisted. “The doctor said... Well, he’s going to need some rehab.”

“I know, and I hope that will happen, too, but as his lawyer, I have to carry out his wishes. To protect his property and his family. And as of right now, Colton Slater is incompetent to run his business.”

Ana felt her heart skip a beat. “So what do I need to do? Sign some payroll checks?”

“Well, first of all,” Wade began, “Colt has a will, so he didn’t put this all on your shoulders. You have a co-executor to help.”

“Who?”

She heard someone talking with Kathleen, then a few heartbeats later, Vance walked into the room. He nodded to Wade. “Have you told her?”

The lawyer turned back to her. He didn’t have to speak; she already knew that her father had picked Vance over his own flesh and blood.

“So you’ve finally got what you wanted,” she said. “Now all you have to do is change your name to Slater.”

CHAPTER TWO

V
ANCE
WORKED
HARD
not to react. He’d had plenty of practice over the years masking his feelings, especially around Ana.

“I’ll let that pass, since I know you’re upset. Colt named me because I’ve been foreman of the ranch for the past five years. This has nothing to do with me taking over.”

Wade Dickson jumped in. “He’s right, Ana. It wouldn’t be any different if your father had appointed me to oversee things. And believe me, I’m grateful he didn’t. Running a large operation like the Lazy S is a big undertaking, and I don’t think you want to handle that. Do you?”

She didn’t back down. “I’ve never gotten the chance to.” Her angry gaze danced back and forth between the two men. “Dad didn’t have any problem putting his daughters to work. Of course, he made sure we were limited to mucking out stalls or currying horses. And if we were really good at our jobs, we got to help with some of the roundups and branding. Yet once he thought we became a nuisance, he sent us off to the house.”

Vance glanced away. He’d seen over the years how Colt ignored his daughters. The man had never been demonstrative, but he’d given Vance a chance at a life. Hell, the girls had been lucky. When their father noticed his daughters were getting tired, he’d made them stop.

Colt had never been that generous with him. The man was never abusive, but had sometimes worked Vance twelve- to fourteen-hour days when it came to roundup time.

“Colt didn’t want you to get hurt,” Dickson stated. “Ranching isn’t an easy life.”

Ana shook her head. “We both know the truth. Colton Slater just wanted sons. And he sure didn’t want his daughters involved with his precious ranch.” She shot a hard look at Vance. “What about you? Do you have a problem working with a woman?”

He frowned. “What exactly do you mean by
working?

She moved around the table. “I’ve waited twenty-plus years to be able to feel a part of this place. I have the chance and the time, since I’m not going back to work at the school until the fall, and I plan to use it. You can either help me or get out of my way.”

Vance wasn’t sure he liked Ana’s idea. “What are you talking about?”

“You aren’t going to have all the say-so around here. Dad gave me at least half control of this place.”

Why was she acting as if this was war? “Up till now, the only person who had any control was Colt,” Vance argued, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “He’s the boss. I still plan to carry out his wishes, because his situation is temporary. But if you want to work fourteen-hour days and smell like sweat and manure, feel free.” He started for the door, but stopped. “Just don’t plan for me to babysit you or your sisters, because the Lazy S is depending on this roundup.” He turned and walked out.

Ana realized she might have overreacted a little. But Vance Rivers had always been the thorn in her side. There was no doubt that Colt had favored him over his own daughters. Well, not anymore.

She stood a little straighter. “It seems I’m going to be working this summer.”

Wade Dickson shook his head. “I think you’d better get on that cowboy’s good side, or it’s going to make life difficult for the both of you.”

That was the last thing she wanted. She hadn’t forgotten the teenage Vance, with his bad attitude and swagger. He was good-looking and knew it. That day in the barn when he’d got her alone in the stall and kissed her until she couldn’t remember her own name wasn’t going to happen again. Nor was she going to run away like a scared rabbit.

Ana blinked, bringing her back to the present. “Dad’s stroke is more than making things difficult. But I don’t plan on ignoring my responsibilities to him or the ranch.”

Wade shook his head. “I hope Colt appreciates your loyalty, but don’t be too stubborn to think you can do this on your own. So you might want to find a way to get along with Vance. That’s the only way this is going to work.” The older man sighed. “Also, it might be a good idea to stop by my office tomorrow. There are some more details to go over.”

“What details?” she asked.

“It can wait until tomorrow, but not much longer. Bring Vance with you.”

Ana didn’t like the sound of that.

“What about your sisters?” Wade asked. “When are they coming home?”

Ana had no idea. “Not right away. So this is on me for now.” She tried to sound confident, but in reality she didn’t know even where to start.

* * *

An hour later in the barn, Vance worked the brush along the flank of his chestnut stallion, Rusty. He was angry, more at himself than with anyone else. He’d let her get to him...again. How many times had he told himself to forget about Ana? The woman wanted nothing to do with him. He couldn’t say he blamed her, not when their dad had ignored his girls all those years, while giving Vance the attention they should have gotten.

Many times he’d wanted to let Colt know how he felt about that, but the man had taken Vance in when he had nowhere else to go but into foster care.

Vance already had the stigma of having a father who’d been labeled no good for years. Calvin Rivers was well known as a man who couldn’t hold down a job, and drank away his paycheck when he found someone willing to hire him. Vance’s mother had gotten fed up and took off.

The strokes of his brush got more intense and Rusty expressed his irritation by dancing sideways in the stall. “Sorry, fella.” Vance smoothed a hand over his withers and put the brush away. “I didn’t mean to take out it out on you.”

He walked out of the stall and headed down the center aisle of the large barn, passing the dozen horses stabled here. He stopped and talked to two of the ranch hands, Jake and Hank, giving them instructions for tomorrow’s workday.

He said good-night and went through the wide door into the cool May evening. This had always been his favorite time of day. Work was done. The sun had gone down and the animals were all settled in for the night.

He knew his days on the Lazy S could be numbered. It was past time he left here, especially now that he had his own section of land. He’d already planned to leave in the fall after the alfalfa harvest. Now with Colt’s stroke...

He headed along the path toward his place. A hundred yards away was the foreman’s cottage. About four years ago, Colt had given him the three-bedroom house when he made Vance ranch foreman, after Chet Anders retired. Vance had been twenty-six and had just finished his college courses for his degree. That had been important to Colt. He was grateful, too.

Vance slowed his pace as he reached the house, seeing a shadow on the porch. He paused, then realized it was Ana sitting on the glider swing. Funny, for years he’d dreamed of her coming to visit him. He doubted this time was for the same reason he’d had in mind.

“You want another strip of my hide?” he asked, then kept walking into the house and flipped on the wall switch to light the compact living room.

He was surprised to see that Ana had jumped up and followed him, but stopped at the threshold. “No, I just want to talk to you about something. If you’ll give me a few minutes.”

Vance turned around to see the worried look on her face. He’d caught a glimpse of her vulnerability at the hospital today, but she also could have a cutting tongue. But he couldn’t seem to take heed to the warning his brain sent as he glanced over her slender body, her rounded hips and long legs incased in worn jeans. He bit back a groan. She had just enough curves to twist a man’s gut, making him want what he had no business wanting. Somehow Vance had to stop it if he planned to work with her.

Why couldn’t he have these feelings for any other woman but her? Why hadn’t he been able to move on? Forget the girl who hadn’t cared about him years ago. By the looks of it, her feelings hadn’t changed. Ana Slater didn’t want him.

He was frustrated as he said, “Whatever I do or say, you attack my character. Even I have limits.”

Ana knew her anger had gone too far. It wasn’t Vance who caused the problem between her and her father. “I apologize. I let old feelings get in the way of what we need to do. And that’s run this ranch.”

When he stepped aside, she released a breath and made her way past the overstuffed sofa to look out the window that faced the barn and corral. It was easier than looking at Vance. He made her feel things whenever she got near him. It was strange because it had been years since the man had come close to her. Of course, she hadn’t given him a chance.

“So you want to call a truce?” he asked.

She looked over her shoulder and nodded. “Wade pointed out we need to work together.” She rushed on. “For the good of the ranch, and to help ease Colt’s mind so he can concentrate on his recovery.”

“We can’t expect miracles.”

Ana couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll settle for getting him to do what he needs to do to get back here.” She released a long sigh. “I know you think that I don’t care about my father, but I do.”

“I never said that. In fact, I know how many times you’ve come out here and checked on him.” Vance raised a hand when she started to deny it. “And no, Kathleen didn’t rat you out. I’ve seen your car up at the house, and when you come by to go horseback riding. Why didn’t you ever stay and talk with Colt?”

Tears formed behind her eyes. “That’s a little difficult when Dad hasn’t exactly welcomed me with open arms.”

“Okay, his disposition has always been a little gruff, but maybe you can change that now.”

Ana thought back to when life here on the Lazy S, with her mom and dad and younger sisters, had seemed about perfect. That had all changed overnight when Luisa Slater just walked out of their lives. It had been as if all the love was sucked away. The twins, Tori and Josie, were only three years old then. Marissa was barely a toddler.

If they hadn’t found the note, they might have believed Luisa had been kidnapped. But no, there was no doubt that the woman wanted out of her marriage and to have no part of her children. That same day, Colt had changed, too. He’d closed up and shut his family out.

“He had four daughters who begged for his love. It’s as if he blamed us for our mother’s disappearance.” Ana glared at Vance. “Were we responsible?”

He shook his head. “I can’t answer that, Ana. I never met your mother. I’ve only dealt with mine. And April Rivers had no trouble packing up and leaving, too.”

Ana gasped, realizing how closely their lives paralleled. “I’m sorry, Vance. I forgot.”

“That’s what I want people to do. Forget about my past.” His dark gaze met hers. “It’s the only way to move on.”

Vance didn’t want to rehash his past, because Ana and her sisters had the life of fairy princesses compared to his childhood. “Look, running the Lazy S isn’t an easy job.” He was aware of the toll it had been taking on Colt the past year. “We have the roundup soon. If you and your sisters want to help out, I’m not going to stop you.”

“Like I said, I doubt my sisters will come home, but I plan to be around. In fact, I decided to move back to the house, at least over the summer or until Dad gets better.”

Lord help him, Vance wanted Ana to stay around. The downside was she’d be here every day, reminding him of what he could never have.

“Okay, the day starts at 5:00 a.m.”

She looked surprised. “I want to go see Dad by ten o’clock. And Wade Dickson wants us to meet him tomorrow afternoon in his office.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure. He said there are things we need to go over.”

Vance nodded. “Then I guess you’d better get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.”

She nodded. “I’ll see you in the morning.” She headed to the door.

Vance fisted his hands, wanting to call her back. And for what? To tell her he’d always care about her. That he’d wished those visits to the ranch had been to see him. No. To her, he was only the poor kid Colt had given a place to sleep. Even now, with his success, would she see him any differently?

Maybe over the summer she’d notice he was more than just another ranch hand.

* * *

The next morning, Colt felt the warmth of the sunlight on his face. Damn. Had he overslept? He blinked, opened his eyes and tried to focus. That wasn’t the worst of his problems. He couldn’t move. He groaned as he tried to lift his arm, and felt the touch of a hand, then a voice as someone said his name.

He turned his gaze and stared into her pretty face. He nearly gasped. Then he blinked and realized it was Analeigh. Oh, God, she looked so much like...her mother. No. He didn’t want to think about Luisa now. But he knew that wishing wouldn’t make it so. He’d given up on ever completely forgetting his wife. Correction, ex-wife.

Colt tried to pull away, but he didn’t have the strength. What the hell was happening to him? He tried to speak, but all he managed was another groan.

“It’s okay, Dad. We’re here with you. You need to be still.”

He groaned again.

“Please, Dad. You’re in the hospital. You had a stroke, but you’re going to be all right.”

Colt could only look at her, then he relaxed when someone appeared next to her. Vance.

“Hey, Colt. Glad to see you’re awake. The doctors have a handle on this. You’ll be home before you know it. Trust me, everything will be all right at the ranch. I’ll make sure of it. You just rest for now and get your strength back.”

Strength. He was weak as a kitten. He closed his eyes as all the fight left him.

* * *

Just before noon, Ana sat in Vance’s truck as they headed back to town to see the lawyer. She still couldn’t get the picture of her father lying in the hospital bed out of her mind. Her chest was tight with emotion. This had to be hard for a man like Colt. He had always been physical, hardworking. Now, that had all changed. Would he be stuck in a wheelchair the rest of his life?

She thought about when she’d sat by the bed, praying he would open his eyes. Even his angry scowl was better than that blank look. No. She had to think positively. Her dad survived the stroke and he was going to recover.

He still hadn’t spoken to anyone, except to say Luisa’s name. At least he’d said something.

Ana felt Vance’s presence, turned sideways and saw him sipping the coffee he’d gotten from the hospital.

BOOK: THE COWBOY SHE COULDN'T FORGET
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