Grady hadn’t expected Karen Hanson to be as stubborn or as foolish as her husband. After the funeral he’d made a few calls to test the waters, but he had deliberately waited six months before going to see her. He’d wanted to give her time to see just how difficult her life was going to be. He’d guessed that by now she would be eager to get rid of a ranch that was clearly draining whatever reserves of cash she had. Obviously he’d misjudged her. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
More disconcerting than the discovery that she wasn’t going to be a pushover was the realization that she got to him. Those big blue eyes of hers had been swimming with tears when she’d opened the door. Her flushed cheeks had been streaked with them. Her lips had looked soft…and disturbingly kissable. He’d had an almost irresistible urge to gather her in his arms and offer comfort. For a hard man with little sympathy for anyone, it had been an uncharacteristic reaction that made him uneasy.
He grinned as he imagined her reaction to that. If he’d even tried to touch her, no matter how innocently, she probably would have grabbed an umbrella from the stand by the door and clobbered him with it.
Even so, he hadn’t been able to shake that image of lost vulnerability. A lot of women who worked ranches side by side with their husbands grew hard, their muscles well formed, their skin burnished bronze by the sun. By contrast, Karen Hanson’s body was soft and feminine, her skin as pale as milk. The thought of that changing because she had to struggle to keep her ranch afloat bothered him for reasons that went beyond her refusal to give in and sell out to him.
He couldn’t help wondering what drove a woman like Karen Hanson. Well…loyalty to her husband, for one thing. There was no question about that. Pride. Stubbornness. He sighed. He was back to that again. It was hard to fight with someone who’d dug in her heels in defiance of logic.
But what did she long for beyond the travel that those brochures implied? In his experience most women wanted love, a family, the things he hadn’t had time for in his own life. Some wanted a meal ticket. Some had a mile-wide independent streak, needing little more than the occasional companionship of a man to make them content. Those were the ones who appealed to Grady. He had so many family obligations to the past, he didn’t have time to think about the future.
He tried to fit Karen Hanson into a tidy little niche, but she wouldn’t stay put. She was independent, no doubt about it, but her determination to fight her husband’s old battles said a lot about how she felt about family. Ironically, that very loyalty, every bit as strong as his own commitment to his ancestors, was likely to stand in his way.
He had derided himself on the trip home for trying to analyze the woman based on a half-hour meeting that had been rife with tension. He knew better. His grandfather-the single greatest influence in his life-believed in the necessity for walking a mile in another man’s moccasins before reaching conclusions about the choices they made. Thomas Blackhawk had tried to instill that same wisdom in Grady.
Unfortunately, Grady wasn’t usually capable of the patience required. He tended to make snap judgments. He asked straight questions, liked straight answers.
“And look where that got you today,” he muttered wryly. His grandfather would have been appalled, especially by the unveiled threat he had uttered on his way out the door.
He spent the evening taking stock, both of his own behavior and Karen Hanson’s responses to it. Unfortunately, there was little definitive information to go on. She was beautiful, stubborn, hardworking and loyal. He’d gotten that, but not much more, certainly nothing about the best way to handle her.
There was only one way to remedy that. He needed to spend more time with her. He had to discover what made the woman tick, what her hopes and dreams were now that her husband was gone.
And how he could use it to his own advantage, he reminded himself sharply, when the image of her in his bed stole over him. He was going to have to keep that image at bay, he warned himself.
He’d spent his whole life working toward a single goal-getting that land back for his family. His great-grandfather had instilled a desire for retribution in his son, Grady’s grandfather. The mission had been passed down to the next generation, and finally to Grady himself.
That land, part of his Native American heritage, part of a time when his ancestors had had no rights at all, was Blackhawk land. He couldn’t let anything-not even a woman as desirable as Karen Hanson-distract him from getting it back while his grandfather was still alive to savor the triumph.
He chuckled dryly as he imagined how she was going to react to any attempt on his part to get to know her. She’d probably shoot him on sight if he showed up at the ranch again, especially if she guessed that his mission was to find her weaknesses and exploit them.
For once he was going to have to follow his grandfather’s advice and rely on patience and maybe a little subterfuge to get what he wanted. There were a lot of chores around that ranch that needed doing. Karen struck him as a pragmatic woman. If he simply appeared one day and went to work, steering clear of her for the most part, would she run him off or accept the help because she knew she needed it? He was counting on the latter. Maybe over time, she would get used to his presence, come to accept it and allow him a little insight into her soul.
Grady lifted his beer in a silent toast to the ingenuity of his plan. By this time tomorrow he intended to have taken his first steps in Karen Hanson’s shoes.
Of course, he admitted ruefully, it remained to be seen if he’d live to tell about it.
“Why not sell to him?” Gina asked as the Calamity Janes sat in the ranch kitchen eating pasta that she had prepared. The room was filled with the rich scent of garlic and tomato and basil. A plate of garlic bread had been all but demolished and there were only a few strands of spaghetti left in the huge bowl she had prepared for the five old friends.
Karen had put out an urgent call for their help within minutes of Grady Blackhawk’s departure. She was counting on the Calamity Janes to give her advice and to keep her mind off the disconcerting effect his visit had had on her. Selling to Grady was not the advice she’d been expecting. She’d been hoping for some clever way to sidestep his determination permanently. That warning of his was still ringing in her ears.
“How can I sell to Grady?” Karen asked. “Caleb hated him. It would be the worst kind of a betrayal. And it would break his parents’ hearts. Even though they’ve moved, they still think of this ranch as home.”
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life struggling to keep the ranch afloat for two people who will never come back here? This place is a nostalgic memory for the Hansons. For you, it’s nothing but backbreaking work,” Cassie pointed out. “Don’t forget, you were relieved when your own parents sold out and moved to Arizona. You said you’d never set foot on a ranch again.” She grinned. “Of course, that was five minutes before you met Caleb, and from that moment on, all bets were off. You claimed to each and every one of us that you had always wanted to be a rancher’s wife.”
Karen frowned at the well-meant reminder. “No, to be perfectly honest, you’re right. I don’t want to be a rancher. I never did,” she admitted. “But-”
Cassie cut her off. “Then consider Grady’s offer if it’s a fair one. Caleb would understand.”
But Karen knew he wouldn’t. The kind of enmity he had felt for Grady Blackhawk was deep and eternal. It was an emotional, gut-deep hatred that couldn’t be abandoned in favor of practicality or sound business reasons or even sheer exhaustion, which was what she was beginning to feel as the endless days wore on.
“Okay, if the issue really comes down to keeping this place away from Grady Blackhawk, then I’ll buy the ranch,” Lauren said, drawing laughter.
“And what would you do with a ranch?” Karen asked, trying to imagine the big-screen superstar mucking out stalls or castrating bulls or any of the other backbreaking tasks required by ranching.
“You seem to forget that I grew up on a ranch, same as you,” Lauren replied with a touch of indignation. “In fact, nobody around here had a better way with horses than I did.”
“That was a long time ago. Somehow it’s hard to picture now. It doesn’t quite work with the glamorous image you’ve created in Hollywood,” Cassie said.
Lauren scowled. “It could work if I wanted to make it work. This glamour stuff is highly overrated.”
Karen thought she heard an increasingly familiar note of dissatisfaction in her friend’s voice. She’d heard it when Lauren was home for the reunion, and it had continued to pop out from time to time on her return visits.
The fact that those return visits, even under the guise of checking up on Karen, were happening more and more frequently was telling. Lauren had done only one film in the past six months and turned down half a dozen offers. Compared to the pace of her career in the past, that was darned close to retirement.
“Okay, Lauren, spill it,” Karen ordered. “What are you not telling us? Are you getting tired of being the multimillion-dollar superstar?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” Lauren said with a touch of defiance. “And you needn’t look so shocked. I never intended to be an actress. I certainly never thought I’d be famous for my looks. I was the brainy one, remember? I wore glasses and had freckles and hair that wouldn’t quite do what I wanted it to. I still do. Do you know that without my contacts and makeup and with my hair air-dried instead of styled, I can actually walk into a supermarket and no one looks twice at me?”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Karen asked. She had never been able to grasp how a woman as private and shy as Lauren had always been had learned to cope with fame.
“Yes, but it just proves how shallow the rest of my life is,” Lauren said. “It’s all built on lies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not whining.”
“Yes, you are,” they all said in a chorus, followed by laughter.
“Okay, maybe a little. I just want something more.”
“A ranch?” Karen asked skeptically.
Lauren’s expression set stubbornly. “Maybe.”
Karen shook her head. “Let me know when you make up your mind for sure. Until then, I think I’ll just hang on to this place.”
“You know what I think?” Emma said, her too-perceptive gaze studying Karen intently. “I think Karen’s just holding out so she can keep this Grady Blackhawk coming around.” A grin spread across her face. “Have you seen this man? I remember him from the funeral. He is seriously gorgeous. All dark and brooding, with trouble brewing in his eyes.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Karen insisted, but she had. God help her, she had.
“Liar,” Emma accused. “You’d have to be blind not to notice.”
“It was my husband’s funeral,” Karen snapped. “I wasn’t taking note of the sex appeal of his worst enemy.”
“What about today?” Emma persisted. “Did you notice today?”
Since in typical attorney fashion, Emma wasn’t going to let up until she got the confession she was after, Karen conceded, “Okay, he’s a good-looking man. That doesn’t make him any less of a scoundrel.”
“Have you figured out just why Caleb hated the man so much?” Gina asked as she absentmindedly shredded the last piece of garlic bread into a little pile of crumbs.
“Because of the land, of course,” Karen said. “Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about?”
Gina was already shaking her head before Karen finished speaking. “I don’t think so. There had to be more to it. I think this was personal.”
“It’s fairly personal when a man tries to buy up your mortgage so he has the leverage to take your land,” Karen said. “It’s even more personal when you suspect him of trying to sabotage your herd of cattle.”
“I think there’s more,” Gina said stubbornly. “Caleb was the nicest guy in the world. He loved everybody. He trusted everybody. He even liked Emma’s ex-husband well enough, though heaven knows why. He got along with everybody-except Grady Blackhawk.”
“The bad blood between the Hansons and Blackhawks went back a lot of years,” Karen reminded her. “It was always over the land.”
“Maybe that’s just what they said, maybe that was a cover for the real reason for the animosity,” Gina said.
Karen sighed at her persistence. “Okay, Gina, what do you think it was about?”
“I think there was a woman involved,” Gina said at once. “And a broken promise.”
The rest of them groaned.
“If you ever decide to give up the restaurant business, maybe you could write romance novels,” Emma said. “In this instance, it sounds to me as if you’re reaching a bit.”
“More than a bit,” Karen said. “Can we change the subject?”
“You got us over here to talk about Grady,” Emma reminded her. “You said you wanted advice. I could always have a restraining order drawn up to keep him out of your hair.”
“Typical lawyer,” Gina said with an undeniable trace of bitterness that ran awfully deep under the circumstances. “Turn a simple situation into a legal brawl. All Karen has to do is tell the man she’s not interested in his offer. Period.”
“Which I’ve done,” Karen said.
“And you think that’s the end of it?” Emma scoffed.
Karen thought of Grady’s taunt as he’d walked out. No, unfortunately, she didn’t believe it was over. He would be back. The only questions were when and what his tactics might be.
“He’s not through,” she admitted reluctantly. “He’s not the kind of man who will give up easily. He’s been after this land as long as I’ve known Caleb. And his father was after it before that. I doubt he took my refusal to sell all that seriously. In fact, it seemed to amuse him.”
“All the more reason to sell to me,” Lauren said. “I know how to deal with men like that. Hollywood is crawling with creeps who don’t know how to take no for an answer.”
“I’d love to hear how you handle them,” Gina said, looking surprisingly despondent. “I’ve got one I’d like to shake.”
Emma’s gaze sharpened. “Care to explain that?”
“No,” Gina said flatly. “But if Lauren has any techniques that are both legal and effective, I’d like to hear them.”
“I can’t talk with a lawyer present,” Lauren joked. “She’d be duty-bound to turn me in.”
“Illegal, then,” Gina surmised. “I’ll keep that in mind, if it comes to that.”
Karen was about to jump all over the remark and demand answers, but a warning glance from Cassie silenced her. Maybe Cassie knew more of the story than the rest of them. She and Gina had always had a special bond, perhaps because they’d worked together so often when they were teens, both as waitresses, but with Gina always snooping around the kitchen, testing recipes of her own whenever she was given the chance.
“We’re getting pretty far afield, anyway,” Cassie said. “We need to help Karen decide what to do about Mr. Blackhawk if he comes around again. Since she won’t let Emma file for a restraining order, does anybody have any other ideas?”
“Like I said earlier, speaking personally, that man gives me plenty of ideas,” Emma said. “He’s a hottie.”
They all stared at her.
“A hottie?” Karen echoed incredulously.
“Are you denying it?” Emma asked.
“No, I’m trying to figure out how such a term became part of your Harvard-educated vernacular.”
“Lauren,” Emma said succinctly. “She spent all last night telling me which Hollywood leading men were really hotties and which ones weren’t. It was quite an illuminating conversation. It set my heart aflutter, I’ll tell you that.”
“Oh, really?” Karen said. “Do you think maybe you’ve been single and celibate a little too long now? Maybe it’s time to start looking for a replacement for your despicable ex-husband-or at least a hot date for Saturday night.”
“I’m a single mom,” Emma reminded her. “I don’t have ‘hot dates.”’
“Then look for something more serious,” Karen advised. “I’m sure Caitlyn would be delighted to have a stepdaddy around, especially one who actually pays some attention to her.”
“I think our friend here already found somebody,” Cassie said, giving Emma a sly look.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I have not,” Emma protested.
“I don’t know,” Cassie countered. “I’ve seen you and the local newspaper editor with your heads together an awful lot lately. The two of you are in Stella’s almost as much as I am, and I work there.”
“And you know why that is,” Emma said tightly. “It’s about the case I’m working on. That’s it. There is nothing personal involved.”
“Protesting too much?” Cassie said, gazing around at the rest of them.
“Definitely,” they chorused.
“Well, get over it,” Emma snapped, gathering up her purse, her coat and her briefcase in a sudden rush. “I have to go.”
She took a few steps across the room, then came back for the cell phone that was never more than an arm’s length away. Then she swept out before any of them could react.
“Was it something we said?” Karen asked, staring after her.
“I think we hit the nail on the head,” Cassie said, her expression thoughtful. “Wouldn’t it be great if Emma did fall madly in love with Ford Hamilton or someone else in Winding River?”
“Just because you’re married now doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to jump into relationships,” Gina pointed out.
“This isn’t about having a relationship, though I think it would be great if she did,” Cassie said. “It’s just that I dread seeing Emma go back to Denver when this case here is over. She’s been more relaxed the last few months, despite all of the commuting back and forth to Denver and the pressure of the trial coming up.”
“That’s true,” Lauren agreed. “She almost forgot her cell phone tonight. For a while last summer I thought it was attached to her hand.”
They all fell silent as they considered Emma’s welfare. It would be nice if she stayed, Karen thought. In fact, about the only thing good to come out of their high school reunion was that the five of them were spending more time in Wyoming again. She had missed having a tight-knit circle of friends more than she’d realized. And now, with Caleb gone, she treasured the friendships more than ever.
“Thank you for coming all the way over here tonight,” she told them. “I don’t know what I would have done without you these past few months. Every time I’ve been ready to come unglued, you’ve been here.”
“And we’ll continue to be here whenever you need us,” Lauren said. “You can count on it.”
That made two things today she could count on, Karen thought-her friends, and Grady Blackhawk’s threat that he would be back time and again until she gave up and sold him the land he wanted.
Maybe it was all of Emma’s talk about Grady’s undeniable sex appeal, but that threat wasn’t striking fear into her the way it should have, not the way it had just this afternoon. In fact, to her very deep regret, she was beginning to feel just the slightest hint of anticipation.