Authors: PATRICIA THAYER,
“Thank you, ma’am.” He tapped the brim of his hat with a gloved finger. “You want to play cowgirl?”
She nodded. “Show me what to do.”
“Watch Gary and Todd,” he told her.
She leaned over her saddle horn and spotted two young cowboys with lariats in their hands, using the ropes to keep the cows in a tight group. Before she could ask, Vance handed her a bandanna from his pocket.
“Tie this around your mouth. It keeps out the dust.”
She did as he told her, then he handed her a rope and rode with her to the back of the herd. “We’re going to ride drag, but the dust shouldn’t be too bad, since it rained last night.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Where are we taking them?”
“A good mile to the branding pens.” He looked concerned. “Will you be okay?”
She nodded, though she wasn’t sure. “I can do this.”
He winked at her. “I don’t doubt you can.” He stayed with her, sending Gary and Todd to flank the herd, and they continued the slow process of moving the cows.
Nearly two hours later, they finally reached the large pens. They got the herd through the gate, where Gary had feed waiting for the hungry cows. Once the last one was inside and the gate shut, Ana climbed down from her horse.
“Oh,” she cried, as her legs started to give way, but she felt someone grip her by the waist and hold her upright.
“Whoa, there,” Vance said against her ear.
“I’m okay.” She held on to the saddle horn, hoping he’d release her.
“Let go and find out.”
He did. And by a miracle, she managed to stay on her tired legs. “I guess I’ll need to toughen up.”
“Not too much.” He tossed her a wide grin. “I kind of like your soft places.”
Before she could say anything, he walked off to help the men. She decided that she would stay and rest a minute or two, or a hundred. Oh, boy. She moved very gingerly to the shade of a tree and leaned against the trunk. How would she pull this off tomorrow?
She smiled. She didn’t care. All the aches and pains were so worth it. For once she felt she was a part of this ranch, and decided she was going to find a way to stay and be a part of this operation. She looked at Vance walking to his horse. He wore leather chaps over his jeans and a cowboy hat low on his head.
The man took charge as if he were born to the job. Well, so was she. She just needed a little practice at being a cowgirl, and couldn’t let one good-looking cowboy distract her.
* * *
By the time they got back from the cattle pens, they were both exhausted and dirty. After taking care of the horses, Vance went into the bunkhouse for a shower, leaving Ana a chance for some privacy. Not that he wanted to be apart from her. He’d enjoyed spending the day with her, and wouldn’t mind more.
He stripped down and walked into the large shower stall. He closed his eyes as the warm spray hit his tired body, but he wasn’t too tired to think about Ana. The picture of her standing naked in the big tub at the house flashed into his head. Water would be slicing over her slender frame from the overhead spray, her soapy hands moving over those sweet curves. His mouth went dry as he remembered the taste of her mouth, and he ached to sample the rest of her.
With a frustrated groan, he reached out and turned the faucet to cold, and quickly finished washing. He got out, dried off and wrapped himself in a towel. He cursed, knowing Colt would have a fit if he knew Vance had been thinking this way about his oldest daughter.
He walked out of the shower area, stood at the mirror over the row of sinks and ran his hand over his two-day growth of beard. He’d no sooner reached inside his shaving kit for his razor when he heard a gasp.
He glanced in the mirror and saw Ana standing in the doorway.
What the hell... “Ana. Is something wrong?”
Looking embarrassed, she shook her head. “Jake told me... He said that there was some liniment...in here.” She shuddered. “He said it would help with my soreness.”
Vance glanced over her long legs encased in a clean pair of jeans. By the looks of her still-damp hair she’d already showered.
“Your legs hurt?”
“Along with other body parts,” she murmured.
He tried not to think about the parts she didn’t mention. It didn’t work.
“I want to be able to help with the branding tomorrow, so I need to do something to help my aches and pain.”
She was staring at him as if she’d never seen a man in a towel before. He liked the interest he saw in her eyes. As much as he wanted to see where this would go between them, this wasn’t the time.
“Maybe you should just take a day or two off,” he suggested.
She frowned. “But I want to help.”
“You don’t need to prove anything, Ana.” He opened the counter drawer, searched around and found a tube of ointment. He held it up. “You’re already sore from today’s ride.”
She straightened, then crossed the room and took the tube from him. “Then let me prove it to myself. I can handle tomorrow.”
He gripped her by the wrist. “I just don’t want you to get hurt in the process.”
She looked both sad and angry. “So you expect me to just stand around?”
“I want you safe. Those calves can be downright ornery when they’re riled.” He stepped closer, reached out and touched her cheek. “I don’t want this pretty skin bruised.”
He saw the pulse pounding in her neck, and her breathing changed, too. “Vance...”
He looked into her deep blue eyes and a sudden jolt rocked his gut. He wanted this woman. “Damn, Ana, what you do to me.”
She started to glance away, but his touch drew her back as he lowered his head and brushed his mouth across hers. She drew in a sharp breath, but he didn’t stop, just went back again. He teased her lower lip, then moved to kiss the corners of her mouth. But before he could get seriously into her, the sound of voices drew them apart.
He cursed and she jumped back. “I’ve got to go.”
She hurried out of the bathroom, leaving him aching for what he wanted but might never have. Yet he couldn’t give up on this chance. He only needed to convince Ana.
was quiet. Ana attributed it to being tired from the long day. And the kiss. What did she say to the man when he acted as if it had never happened?
She thought of her invasion of his privacy in the bunkhouse shower. He’d been practically naked. Okay, he had on a towel, but his muscular chest and wide shoulders were exposed for the world to see. So she’d stood there ogling him like a silly teenager. Not that it had bothered him at all. The big mistake was when she let him kiss her. Again. What was it about this man that drew her? That made her so aware that she was a woman?
She glanced at Vance. He was sitting in the same seat he’d been assigned when he first came here to live. Right next to Colt. She also remembered how right after the meal was finished Vance would carry his plate to the kitchen, then go back to his room...in the barn. He had never been allowed to join in anything with her and her sisters.
And from the minute the young, moody Vance set foot on the ranch, Ana had been aware of him. As a preteen girl she’d thought it was just an annoyance and would go away when he left. But Vance never left the ranch, and for a long time she’d blamed him for taking Colt from his family.
Once in college, she’d met and gotten engaged to Seth. Things should have been perfect, but then he’d wanted to move to a larger city. Despite Colt’s rejection, she wanted to live close to home, to her sisters, even her dad...and Vance?
He glanced up. “I can hear you thinking.”
“What?” she said too loudly, then lowered her voice even though they were alone. Kathleen had gone to play her weekly bingo game. “I’m just tired.” Ana pushed her plate away.
He tossed her a grin. “Or maybe you’re thinking about earlier. It’s nice to know that you were affected by the kiss.”
She worked at slowing her breathing and heart rate. “It was barely a kiss.”
“Give me more time and you won’t have any doubts.”
She raised her hand. “No. Not a good idea.”
He hesitated, not looking happy. “You’re right. We’ve been denying this between us for years, so why not continue?”
Was she ready to face this? No. “Just because there’s an attraction between us doesn’t mean we should act on it.”
“Right again.” He slid his chair back and stood. “I’m needed in the barn.”
“Vance,” she called.
He stopped and turned around. “If I don’t leave now, Ana, I’m going to do my damnedest to prove you wrong.” His dark eyes bored into hers. “You ready for that?”
She hesitated, feeling the heat from his gaze. Was she ready for this? She did the safe thing and shook her head.
He turned and walked out.
* * *
The next day, Colt listened as Dr. Mason went over his progress with Ana. He liked what he heard, except for the part that said he needed to go to a rehab facility to finish his therapy.
Great. He was headed for the nursing home to be left to rot. He glanced at Ana and saw the concern etched on her face.
“Why can’t Dad come home?” she asked.
She’d always called him Colt. He felt his chest tighten and his eyes water.
Ana looked at him and smiled. “Why couldn’t we just have an occupational therapist come to the ranch?”
The neurologist shook his head. “He’ll need a full-time nurse along with a therapist. And unless you’re independently wealthy, that’s expensive. The insurance companies don’t pay for full-time in-home care.”
“I didn’t know.” Ana was silent a moment, then said, “So going into the rehab center is the best option?”
Madison nodded. “And Jay McNeal will still be working with him.”
Ana turned back to Colt and touched his arm. “Would you like that, Dad? For Jay to keep working with you?”
Hell, the guy was tough as nails, but Colt didn’t want him to back down. With a groan, he nodded, and was rewarded with another smile. Her pretty face lit up. Suddenly, Luisa came to mind. No. He wouldn’t let that woman get to him ever again. She’d already helped destroy his relationship with his daughters. No, that was the one thing he couldn’t blame on his ex-wife. He had done that all by himself.
The doctor and Ana walked across the room to where Vance stood. Colt noticed that Vance couldn’t take his eyes off her. There was no doubt about the desire burning in the kid’s eyes. This time it looked as if Colt was going to lose Analeigh to another man.
* * *
Two mornings later Vance was up before dawn. He had a date with about a hundred calves that needed to be branded and castrated before they were hauled off to the feedlot. He climbed out of bed and slipped on his jeans and shirt.
He’d had a lousy night’s sleep.
Thank you, Ana.
But he knew he’d created his own problem and had to deal with it. He needed to stay away from the temptation. Not a problem. They had the roundup the next two days, and with the anglers arriving this morning to stay at his house, that should be plenty to keep him distracted.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he grabbed a pair of socks and worked them on, then stuck his foot into the boot shaft and tugged his jeans down over the decorative stitching. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair, then made a quick stop in the bathroom.
He’d just stepped into the hall when Ana’s bedroom door opened and she appeared in a skimpy pair of boxer shorts and a tank top.
His body immediately reacted, making it difficult to speak.
“Vance.” She said his name in a low, sleep-laced voice.
That didn’t help the situation.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked.
He swallowed, knowing that would have made matters worse. “I was going to, but thought you could use a little more sleep and head out later.”
She nodded. “Just give me two minutes and I’ll be ready.”
He was hoping for a different answer. “The anglers are coming today,” he called. “Wouldn’t you like to stay around and greet them?” Truth was, he didn’t want her getting hurt, or worse, distracting him.
“Hank’s taking them fishing first thing this morning. I’ll welcome them tonight.” She disappeared back into the bedroom, leaving the door partly open, so he saw her shirt go flying, along with her boxers. Great. He was supposed to sit in a saddle all day with the picture of a naked Ana in his head?
A minute later the door swung open and she came out dressed in jeans and socks, buttoning her blouse over a tank top. She ran across the hall into the bathroom and shut the door. Vance leaned against the wall, wondering if he should go on ahead, but seconds later she walked out, grabbed her jean jacket and began to tie her hair back. “I’m ready.”
He liked her fresh look—no makeup, not fussing with her hair. “We’ll grab some breakfast at the bunkhouse.”
She smiled and reached for her boots at the back door. Sitting down, she worked the scuffed buckskins on, then grabbed an old cowboy hat off the hook and headed with him toward the barn. Suddenly, he was looking forward to spending the day with her.
When they arrived, they found Jake loading up the truck. “Is there any food left?” Vance asked.
“Sure.” The kid nodded. “Morning, Ana.”
“Good morning, Jake.”
They kept on walking to the bunkhouse. They heard the men talking, and some were joking around, but when Ana stepped through the door, silence blanketed the room.
“Hey, don’t stop on my account,” she said.
Todd got up and motioned to her to take the spot. “We were just sayin’ how this roundup won’t be the same without Colt.”
Vance caught Ana’s sadness. “You know he wishes he could be here,” she told them. “With the way the rehab is going, I’m sure he’ll make the next one. So you guys will just have to put up with me today.”
Pete Cochran stood. “I’ll say you’re a lot better looking than old Colt. Your daddy would be proud of you, Ana.”
She blushed as he handed her a plate. “You’d better eat. You’ve got to show these guys you’re a Slater.”
* * *
By noon, Ana was tired and smelled of sweat, dirt and cows, but had never felt better. She couldn’t work as hard as the men, but she’d done her share.
She stood at the pen gate and watched as the roper, Todd, lassoed another calf and dragged him over to the branding area, where Vance wrestled him to the ground. Next the heeler held down the hind legs as Pete did the quick job of castrating the calf.
“Okay, let’s brand this guy,” Vance called.
Ana went into motion, hurrying out with the iron and pressing it against the calf’s hind quarter. The smell of burning cowhide filled the air as the Slater brand was engraved onto the animal. She pulled the iron away and saw the sign for the lazy S.
“Next,” she called, as they released the animal and he ran off to his mama.
She looked at Vance, feeling a sense of pride for what she was accomplishing and for the generations of Slaters who’d come before her. “Thanks.”
She stood back and watched the men work together. She knew she got the honor of branding only because of Vance, but she’d take it.
Suddenly, the sound of the dinner bell rang out. “Lunch break,” Kathleen called.
They turned around and found that the housekeeper and some of the men had set up tables under a group of huge oak trees.
The ranch hands started walking over, eager for some of Kathleen’s famous fried chicken and rice and beans. There were several salads to choose from, so something had to be to their liking.
Ana smiled when she arrived to wash up. Once her hands were clean she got in the food line.
“Land’s sake, child,” Kathleen called to her. “Have you been playing in the dirt?”
Grinning, Ana looked down at her mud-spattered jeans and boots. “You could say that,” she agreed as she moved on with her heaping plate. She walked toward the shady area and spotted two high school students, Billy Kramer and Justin Patchett. She stopped and talked with them, then moved on past another table. She recognized a few of their neighbors and thanked them for helping out. One in particular, who was seated at the end, she hadn’t seen in years—Garrett Temple. The tall, dark-haired man had been their closest neighbor, and according to Colt, their biggest enemy.
He raised his head and his smile died as he slowly rose to his feet. “Hello, Ana. It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, it has. Are you helping with the roundup?”
He nodded. “If this isn’t a good idea, I’ll leave.”
She recalled that Colt and Garrett’s father, Nolan, had had a feud going for years. So had Garrett and Josie, but theirs was a more personal one. Ana hadn’t been happy about the way Garrett treated her sister, but that had been years ago, back in their first years of college.
“Why would I want that?”
With that, Garrett smiled. “Considering our families’ history, I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
She didn’t want to rehash anything from the past. “Colt isn’t here.”
“I know. I’m sorry to hear about his stroke. Vance said he’s doing well.”
It was nice that Garrett asked. “He’s going through rehab now. We’re hoping to have him home soon.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Ana smiled, then said, “Maybe for you, but Colt isn’t the easiest man to deal with, and trying to keep him down during his recovery will be nearly impossible.”
Garrett laughed at that. “I know. My dad is just as stubborn.”
Vance heard Ana’s laugh and turned around to see her with Garrett. A funny feeling came over him when he saw how she was looking up at his friend. Her eyes sparkled, as if she was hanging on his every word.
“Hey, boss.” Todd walked over and asked him a question about the afternoon crew.
By the time Vance looked back at the couple, he found that Ana had sat down at the table with Garrett. No, he didn’t like this one bit.
He grabbed a plate, filled it and made his way over to the table just as the pair looked up.
“Hey, Vance, sit down,” Garrett said. “Ana and I were just catching up about the kids we knew.”
Well, that was one conversation he couldn’t join in. “That’s good.”
Garrett grinned. “Can you believe that she’s working at the high school?” He turned back to Ana. “Do the students give you as hard a time as we gave the teachers?”
“Some of them do, but for the most part, they’re pretty good kids.”
Vance concentrated on eating, but his food was suddenly tasteless. He had nothing in common with Ana or Garrett. He’d been ahead of them in school, and they hadn’t run in the same social circles.
The reminiscing continued between the two until Vance couldn’t take any more. He stood, and Garrett looked at him. “You’re leaving?”
“Some of us have to work.” He walked off, knowing he was acting like a jerk. But that didn’t seem to stop him.
* * *
Okay, so this place might not be so bad.
Colt looked around the rehab facility’s community room with its large, flat-screen television and several card tables set up for socializing. His bedroom wasn’t so bad, either. He’d been here only a few days, so he’d reserve judgment on how he felt about the place.
He did like having familiar faces around. And Jay made sure he was working hard on his exercises, even had him up and walking with the help of the parallel bar today. Colt also had a speech therapist now. It was a little crazy to start making sounds as if he were a baby, but it seemed to help him.
He just wished someone could help ease his frustration. No one would tell him how much this was costing, or how long he’d be staying here. All he knew was he couldn’t afford it if he had to pay. He might as well sign over the Lazy S, because there wasn’t much money left in the bank.
He sighed. Even if he got better what good would it do him? Would he ever be able to climb on a horse again? Ride across the land he loved so much? How could he check his herd?
He closed his eyes and thought back to the financial mess he’d left before he had the stroke. He’d planned to try and fix it, but hadn’t gotten the chance. Now it was too late.
With the Lazy S gone, he would have nothing....