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Authors: PATRICIA THAYER,

Tags: #ROMANCE

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BOOK: THE COWBOY SHE COULDN'T FORGET
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He nodded to the one he’d brought for her. “Have some coffee. You look like you need it.”

“Thanks.” She reached for the cup in the console and took a sip. “This is good.”

He smiled as he concentrated on the road. “Got it from the nurses’ station. It’s their own private brew.”

She could just see Vance Rivers flirting with the nurses to get what he wanted. “Thank you.”

“Let’s talk,” he stated, then went on to say, “It’s only been forty-eight hours since Colt’s stroke and he’s still heavily medicated. You need to trust that he’s going to get better.”

She glanced out the windshield, watching the open ranch land, mountains for a backdrop. “He looks so helpless.”

“Give it time, Ana. You need to be patient and not get your dad riled up.”

“Riled up?” That hurt. “I don’t plan to upset my father. How can you say that?”

Vance raised a hand from the steering wheel. “I only meant that you’re too easy to read. Your emotions show on your face.”

“I can’t help that.”

Vance nodded, knowing Ana had always had trouble hiding her feelings. She had a big heart and that was why it was breaking right now. She wanted so much to help. She’d tried so hard to keep the family together, but in the end her sisters all left anyway.

“You have to try, because Colt needs our help with his recovery.”

Vance slowed the truck as they approached the small town of Royerton. Population was about five thousand in the ranching and farming community. He drove along Main Street, passing the small grocery, Quick Mart and the U.S. Post Office.

“And I plan to do exactly that.”

“Good. Maybe we should keep the topic on the ranch. But not include that you’ll be working with the other ranch hands.”

“Like he’d care.”

Vance pulled into a parking space outside the brick, two-story professional building. “Are you kidding?” He threw the gearshift into Park. “There were two rules that Colt enforced. One, work hard, and the other, stay away from his daughters.”

Seeing Ana’s surprised look, Vance retrieved his keys and got out of the vehicle. He wasn’t about to tell her how difficult it had been to keep that promise, but he had because of the respect he felt for her dad. He’d been crazy about this woman for years. Could there be a second chance for him?

“I didn’t know,” she said when he opened the passenger-side door.

“There’s a lot about Colt you don’t know.”

She took Vance’s offered hand and stepped down onto the sidewalk. “That’s not my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was.” He opened the door to the lawyer’s office and let her walk inside first. “I just wanted you to be aware of it.”

“What about you? Did that rule apply to you?”

He nodded, wondering if she remembered that one time in the barn.

“Since you’re still around, I guess you never told him that you accosted one of his daughters in the barn.” She turned her back on him and walked into the reception area.

“Whoa. I wasn’t alone that day, or the only one responsible for what happened. If I remember right, there was a certain young girl who’d been sniffing around a young teenage boy. Not a good idea. You know, raging hormones and all.”

“I didn’t have raging hormones,” she retorted.

“Not yours. Mine.” He studied the blush on her cheeks. He, too, was remembering the day she’d let him lead her into a stall and kiss her. If one of the other ranch hands hadn’t come back early, he wondered how far he could have gone. He started to speak when Wade Dickson came out of his office and greeted them.

“Hello, Ana and Vance.” He smiled. “Please come inside.”

They went ahead of the lawyer into the adjoining room. Nothing too fancy, but there were nice comfortable chairs and a large desk. Wade had his law degree from the University of Montana hanging on the wall.

“Have a seat.” He walked around the desk and sat across from them. He opened a folder and glanced over the contents, then looked at Ana. “Are you sure your sisters can’t come home?”

“Not right away. Why?”

“I didn’t tell you everything last night. There’s a slight problem with the ranch.”

Ana slid to the edge of her chair. “What is it?”

“As you know, the Lazy S is a sizable spread.” He quoted the section amount. “Your father owns that land outright. But there’s a lot of grazing acreage that is leased from the state. And the payment is past due.”

“How is that possible?”

“Only Colt knows the answer to that.” Wade paused. “I managed to get an extension from the state, but it’s only bought us a few months to come up with the money. And if you don’t pay it, someone else gets a chance to bid on the property.”

Ana glanced at Vance. “Then we need to pay it.”

Wade looked worried. “There aren’t enough funds available.”

CHAPTER THREE

A
NA

S
EYES
WIDENED
. “What do you mean, there aren’t enough funds?”

Wade leaned back in his chair. “It means the Lazy S has had a rough few years. I just recently learned this because I’ve been notified by the State Land Leasing Board.”

Ana turned to Vance. “Why didn’t you say something?”

He was as shocked as she was. “First of all, I didn’t know anything about the lease coming due. I knew beef prices were down and that we lost several head in that big storm last winter, but...” He’d never dreamed it had been this bad.

“What do you mean, you didn’t know? You’re Dad’s foreman.”

“I may physically run the operation, but Colt funds the business account. I use that money for payroll and for the feed and supplies. Colt kept the ranch finances.”

He thought about the land that Colt had given to him a few years back. He’d planted an alfalfa crop on the acreage. It should be ready to harvest in about six weeks. That gave them the time, but would the profit be enough?

Wade broke into his thoughts. “Ana, I’ve been trying for years to get your father to diversify. He lost a lot of his savings when the market tanked a few years ago. In the past, that money had always been his cushion through the bad years.”

Ana looked pale. “What do we do now?”

Vance wished he could offer a miracle, but he wasn’t sure there was one. “Like Mr. Dickson said, we have nearly six months.” His gaze met hers. “You can’t do this on your own. I think you need to get your sisters together.”

* * *

Thirty minutes later, Vance escorted Ana out of the Dickson law office.

“You look ready to drop,” he told her.

“Gee, thanks. What every woman wants to hear.”

He ignored her comment. “When was the last time you ate?”

“I had some toast this morning. I’m just not hungry.”

“It’s after one o’clock. You have a lot to deal with, so you need to eat.” He placed his hand on the small of her back and immediately felt the warmth of her skin, but resisted the urge to draw her any closer.

She sighed. “You’re right, but I should go home and figure out what to do about this mess.”

Nixing her request, he guided her a short distance down the sidewalk to a small family-owned restaurant, the Big Sky Grill.

“First, you’re going to eat.” He held open the door. When she didn’t move, he said, “I can keep this up all day.”

She glared at him with those big blue eyes, then finally relented. “Okay. A
quick
lunch.”

Once inside, they were greeted by the owners, Burt and Cindy Logan. Burt escorted them across the tile floor to a booth next to the picture window that looked out onto Main Street. Several patrons stopped Ana en route and wished her father well. When she finally got away, she slid into one of the bench seats while Vance sat down across from her and placed his hat on the space beside him. He pulled out a menu from between the salt-and-pepper shakers and went over the choices.

Cindy showed up with two glasses of water. “How’s your daddy doin’?” she asked.

“A lot better. He’s stable for now, but they’re still running more tests.”

The middle-aged woman placed her hand on Ana’s. “Tell Colt that we’re all praying for him.”

“He’ll appreciate that, Cindy. Thank you.”

They gave her their order and she left them alone.

Ana shook her head. “I can’t believe how many people care. Funny, isn’t it? He seems to have gotten along with everyone except his own daughters.”

Vance shrugged. “Why does that surprise you? The Slater family helped settle Royerton. Colt is well respected around here.”

Vance knew how Colt had treated his girls. It wasn’t that he was mean, he just pretty much ignored them. Over the years, Kathleen had always been the surrogate parent. “Okay, the man wasn’t the perfect father.” Vance leaned back in the seat. “So why did you stay, and not take off like your sisters?”

Ana stared at him with eyes that were the mirror image of Colt’s. “I stayed for my sisters, then I got the job at the high school.” She shrugged. “I’m not even sure it matters anymore.”

Vance leaned forward. “Look, Ana, I don’t know why Colt did a lot of things. There’s no doubt he isn’t a happy man. I’ve heard stories about how he was when he was younger, before your mother left.”

He watched Ana stiffen.

He wasn’t going to be put off. “Do you remember her?”

With a nod, she glanced away. “I was pretty young. But, yes, I can remember how beautiful she was. Her voice, her touch.” She turned back and he saw the tears in her eyes. “I wanted to hate her, but for years I just kept praying she’d come back and be our mom again.”

He reached across the table and touched her hand. “That’s understandable.”

She looked down at his hand and slowly pulled hers away. “Is it? Do you wish your mother would come back?”

“Sure. Every kid does, especially when your dad isn’t around to feed you and you’re hungry.” Vance blew out a breath. “And you can’t go to school because you don’t have shoes. Kids make fun of you for things like that. But sometimes you’re just too hungry to care, when you know you’ll get that free meal at lunch.”

He caught the look on her face and realized how much he’d disclosed.

This time Ana took his hand. “Oh, Vance. I had...had no idea.”

He shrugged it off. “No one did. At fourteen, I finally had enough and was trying to get away. I was big for my age and hoped I could go somewhere and get a job.

“I hid out in the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot so I could get out of town. I didn’t know it belonged to Colt until I found myself at the Lazy S. I decided to sleep in the barn before starting my journey in the morning. Of course he found me.”

Ana didn’t want to feel sympathy for the kid who had a rotten life. “And you became the son Dad always wanted.”

“As I told you before, I only wanted to survive,” Vance stressed. “Colt was my only way out of a bad childhood. I’m sorry if you thought you had to compete against me for your father’s attention.”

She shrugged. It all seemed so juvenile now. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Colt made his choices a long time ago and that’s why I can’t get my sisters to come back here.”

“Maybe if they know about the state of the ranch... I mean, it’s part of their heritage, too. Their inheritance. Wouldn’t they want to preserve it?”

Ana shrugged. “So far they haven’t seemed too interested in anything to do with Colt or the ranch.” She raised her gaze to meet his. “The trick is, how do I convince Josie, Tori and Marissa to come home?”

“Tell them the truth. Colt needs them and you can’t do it all. At the least, you need help with his care.” He paused, then asked, “Aren’t they all living in California? You could go see them.”

“Go there?”

He nodded. “If you show up on their doorstep they have to listen to you. They should help you with medical decisions about your father.”

She frowned. “You don’t know my sisters.” This could backfire in her face. “So I think you should go with me.”

* * *

The nurse raised Colt’s bed so he could finally sit up. What he really wanted was to get the hell out of this place. Not an easy task, since he was still weak as a newborn calf and he couldn’t move his right arm.

“Is that better, Mr. Slater?” the nurse, whose name was Erin, asked.

He grunted.

She smiled again as she put the call button next to his good hand. “Press this if you need me. Your daughter will be here, too. Plus, they should be coming to talk to you about your therapy soon.”

He grunted again. What good was that going to do?

“It’s going to take some work to get back in shape, Mr. Slater, but you’ve got a good chance for a full recovery. But you’ll need to work hard.”

As if he hadn’t worked hard all his life.

The nurse turned on the television to a game show, then walked out of the room, leaving him alone.

Most of the time he liked being alone. What choice did he have? Ranch work had filled in a lot of lonely hours. He released a breath and closed his eyes. What was he going to do when he didn’t have the Lazy S anymore? Sit in a nursing home somewhere until he died?

Sadness overtook him as he closed his eyes and thought back over his life. His chest tightened when he thought of Luisa.

He could still picture her as vividly as if it were yesterday. Small and delicate, Luisa Delgado was beautiful with all that thick, black hair and large eyes. Her olive skin was flawless. When he first saw her, at a rodeo, he’d thought she was an angel. When she walked up and talked to him, he figured he’d died and gone to heaven.

After they’d married, weeks later, he’d thanked God every day, and especially when they were blessed with the babies, every one of them a beauty like their mother.

The tightness in Colt’s chest worsened as he recalled the evening he’d come in from the range, so anxious to see his girls. Luisa had been moody and distant of late, with caring for the children. He’d offered to get her someone to help, but she said she wanted to be their mother full-time. Later that night he’d found her crying, and had asked her what was wrong.

She’d only said, “Just make love to me so all the bad things will go away.”

Colt released another sigh, recalling how intense their loving had been that night. When he’d walked into the house the next afternoon, there was a babysitter and his wife was gone. All that he had was a short note, telling him she no longer wanted a life with him and their daughters.

He’d searched for her, wanting to beg her to come home, but he never found her. Then he got the divorce papers. That day his life as he knew it had ended.

* * *

Two days later, Vance sat next to Ana as the plane landed at LAX. He had no idea how he’d gotten roped into going to California.

For one thing, he hated large cities and the crowds. Secondly, if there had been any animosity between him and Ana, it had been worse with the younger sisters. He had to just keep remembering he was doing this for Colt, and for Ana.

The plane taxied to the terminal. “I’m not sure this visit will change anything,” Ana said, feeling a little nervous. Maybe it had something to do with the close quarters. Vance was a big man, and that didn’t leave her much room. “What if Tori and Josie refuse to help?”

“Then we go back to Montana and figure it out on our own.” His hand rested against his jean-covered thigh. She was suddenly intrigued by his long, tapered fingers.

He went on to say, “And we will figure out something. I promise.”

She glanced at his face and saw his sexy smile. Her heart went
zing
and she had to look away. No! She wasn’t going to even think about this man like that. Okay, so maybe it was normal, since she hadn’t been in a romantic relationship in a while. That was still no excuse to think about Vance Rivers that way. She was no longer that dreamy-eyed teenage girl who wanted his attention. No way was she getting involved with him.

When the plane stopped at the gate, she unfastened her seat belt as Vance stood and reached up into the overhead compartment. He took down her carry-on and his duffel, along with his cowboy hat. He stepped back to let her out into the aisle. The small space made it impossible not to brush up against him. She inhaled his scent and could feel his hard body. Again the zings. Okay, so that hadn’t changed over the years; he still appealed to her, a lot.

Since they had their only luggage with them, they went straight to the car rental booth. Vance got a midsize sedan and started to climb into the driver’s seat.

Ana looked at him. “Can you drive the L.A. freeways?”

He took off his hat and tossed it in back. “We’ll soon find out.”

“Here’s the address for Josie’s business.”

Vance took the paper and entered the address in the GPS, then headed for the 5 Freeway. They ended up in the older section of Los Angeles not far from Griffith Park. It was a two-story stucco building with a Spanish design.

They got out of the car and walked up to the directory on the wall. It didn’t take long to find the right office. The sign on the glass door read Slater Style.

“Catchy name,” Vance said.

“That’s what Josie’s all about.” Ana released a breath. “Okay, let’s get this over with.”

Vance nodded, opened the door and allowed her to step in ahead of him. The small reception area consisted of a desk and chairs that lined the opposite walls. But there wasn’t a soul in sight.

Vance checked his watch. “I guess everyone’s at lunch. Did you tell Josie you were coming?”

“No. I didn’t want her to find an excuse to keep me away.”

Suddenly the door opened and a familiar woman, carrying a take-out food sack, walked in. However, it wasn’t the twin they expected to see here.

Vittoria Slater had dark hair, the same pretty smile as her older sister. “Ana? What are you doing here?”

“Tori?” Ana rushed to her and they hugged tightly. “I think you know my reason for coming to L.A. But what are you doing at Josie’s office?”

“Well, as of a few months ago, it’s my office, too. I quit my job and decided it was time I went out on my own.” She nodded. “Josie offered me office space here. I decided to give my own web-design company a chance.”

Tori had their mother’s coloring, the olive skin, midnight-dark eyes and ebony hair. Her hair was shorter now, cut just below her chin.

Ana was excited for her sister, knowing how unhappy she’d been with her previous company. But Ana was a little sad that she hadn’t shared this with her.

“That’s great. So how is business?”

“Good. Several of my old clients came with me, and I like being my own boss.” Tori finally noticed Vance across the room and she blinked in surprise. “Vance, good to see you.” Her smile faded. “Wait a minute, has something more happened to Colt?”

“No, your dad is still the same,” Vance told her. “I’ll let your sister explain the rest.”

“We need to talk about what to do,” Ana stated. “Dad isn’t going to get better right away, so we’ve got to discuss...some things. The ranch, mainly.”

BOOK: THE COWBOY SHE COULDN'T FORGET
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