Chapter Nine

Something had changed in that split second when Grady had looked into Karen’s eyes at Stella’s. It was as if a light had gone off inside him, as if he’d been defeated. It wasn’t long before he’d made his excuses and left, leaving her staring after him in confusion.

She had told herself then that it would pass, that things would return to normal, that he would pop up when she least expected him at the ranch, but it hadn’t happened that way. Just as he’d disappeared before when she’d hurt him, he hadn’t been around for days now. Even Hank and Dooley, who had regarded him with suspicion from the beginning, had commented on his absence.

“Thought he was becoming a permanent fixture around here,” Dooley said, a hint of disapproval plain in his voice.

“Well, he wasn’t,” Karen said defensively. Hiding her confusion behind anger, she added, “And we don’t have time to stand around gabbing about a man who had no business being here in the first place.”

“Fine by me,” Dooley said.

“And me,” Hank said fervently. “The boss never did like him.”

“I’m the boss now,” Karen reminded him. “You need to worry about what I like.”

Dooley’s eyes widened. “Are you saying you trust a scoundrel like Grady Blackhawk?”

“He’s not a scoundrel,” she said. “And what I was saying is that you both have work to do. Didn’t I ask you to finish checking that fence today? I saw another section down when I drove back here yesterday. We’re going to be moving the herd in a few weeks and I don’t want them wandering off our land. We can’t afford to lose a single head.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Dooley said, his tone respectful, even if he was regarding her with a worried frown that suggested he wasn’t entirely certain she was in command of things.

After both men had left, she sat down with a sigh. Who was she kidding? She might be in charge, but she was only holding on to this place by a thread. She knew well enough what needed to be done, but she didn’t have the resources to make much of it happen. Lately it seemed she lacked the stamina as well. She simply wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep the winter away.

For a brief time Grady’s presence had stirred her out of that depressing inertia, but now that he was no longer around, she couldn’t seem to shake it.

The welcome ringing of the phone jarred her out of her misery.

“Hey, girl,” Lauren said, her cheerful voice bringing a much needed smile to Karen’s lips.

“Hey, yourself. What’s up in Tinseltown? I need some hot Hollywood gossip to perk me up.”

“Since when do you care about celebrity gossip?”

“It’s the closest I’m likely to come to having any glamour in my life,” Karen said. “Come on. Spill something absolutely titillating.”

“Sorry. I’ve been holed up trying to learn my lines for this new movie. Brad Pitt could get married and I wouldn’t know it.”

“Brad Pitt did get married,” Karen pointed out with a chuckle. “Ages ago, in fact.”

“See what I mean? I’m oblivious.”

“What good is it having a friend who’s a superstar if you never know any hot secrets?”

“I do know one,” Lauren retorted. “I know that a certain rancher has been seen hanging out with her mortal enemy. Quite an intense little t?te-?-t?te from what I heard.”

“Cassie blabbed,” Karen said with a resigned sigh. She should have known her friend would make way too much out of that public appearance she and Grady had made at Stella’s. It had probably taken all of fifteen seconds for her to spread the word to the others.

“I never reveal a source,” Lauren said loftily. “So, what’s the scoop with the sexy Mr. Blackhawk? Are you two becoming an item after all?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Karen snapped, pushing back the thought of those two steamy kisses. “Even if I was attracted to him, which I’m not, how could I get involved with Grady?”

“Because of Caleb,” Lauren said flatly.

“Of course because of Caleb.”

“You have to live your life for you now,” Lauren reminded her, her tone gentle. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t remember Caleb, but you can’t take on his baggage, Karen. If you like Grady, if you want to spend time with him, that’s your decision to make.”

“Not according to the Hansons,” Karen said dryly.

“Oh, what do they know?” Lauren said, dismissing the importance of the opinion of Karen’s former in-laws. “Besides, they’re in Arizona.”

“With a direct hotline to the gossip in Wyoming,” Karen reported.

“Ignore them,” Lauren advised.

“How can I? They’re Caleb’s parents.”

“So naturally they’re going to be upset if you get involved with someone new. They’ll get over it.”

“Not if it’s Grady,” Karen said flatly.

“Then you are interested,” Lauren said, seizing on her slip and obviously concluding that Karen regretted being unable to act on her fascination with the man.

Karen sighed. “I don’t know how I feel about him.”

“Is he pressuring you to decide that right this second?”

“No. Actually he hasn’t been around much lately. Not since the morning Cassie saw us together. I think something I said or did upset him, but I can’t imagine what. He’s a very complex man.”

“A break may be exactly what you need. Give it some time. You’re a smart woman. You’ll sort out your feelings when the time is right.” Lauren hesitated, then asked, “Do you want me to come home? I’m a pretty good judge of character.”

“Oh, really? I can list two lousy marriages that say otherwise.”

“Ouch,” Lauren said. “No one can see their own mistakes until it’s too late. Everyone else’s, however, are crystal clear. An outside opinion wouldn’t hurt and I can be there tomorrow.”

“No. You’ve put your career on hold enough for me as it is. I can’t ask you to come running every time I get scared.”

“Scared?” Lauren teased. “Of Grady or yourself?”

“Maybe both,” Karen admitted.

“You listen to me, Karen Hanson. Nobody I know has a better head on her shoulders than you do. Trust your instincts. And any time you want me there for backup, you call. I can drop everything and be there in a few hours. To tell the truth, I like feeling needed for a change. Say the word and I’ll be back there mucking out stalls and working with the horses for as long as you need me.”

Karen was so startled by the heartfelt sincerity of the offer that she was at a loss for words. It wasn’t the first time the offer had been made, but something in her friend’s voice suggested that she was truly hoping to be asked to rush home.

“Stunned into silence?” Lauren asked.

“Truthfully, yes. You’ve hinted around about wanting to come home for good, but that’s the first time you’ve come right out and said it. What’s wrong, Lauren? What haven’t you been telling us?”

“There’s nothing wrong,” her friend assured her. “Nothing I can put my finger on anyway. I’m sure whatever it is, I’ll get over it. But the offer stands, no matter what. If you need me, just say the word.”

“Thank you,” Karen said softly. “And…Lauren?”

“What?”

“If you need to be here, don’t wait for an invitation. I’ve got a room waiting any time you want to come. I mean that. And if it’s hard physical work you’re looking for, I can supply that, too.”

“I know you mean it. and I love you for saying it. Take care, sweetie.”

“You, too.”

Karen had barely hung up when she realized she wasn’t alone. She turned to find Grady standing just outside the screen door. Still troubled by her conversation with Lauren, she barely spared him a glance. And this time, she refused to get her hopes up. His habit of coming and going when she least expected it was too disconcerting.

“Anything wrong?” he asked, his expression concerned as he stepped inside without waiting to be invited.

“Not with me,” she said, injecting a false note of cheer into her voice. She was not going to discuss Lauren’s odd mood with a man she didn’t entirely trust. If it wound up being splashed all over the tabloids, she would never forgive herself.

Even as the thought of Grady pitching such personal information to a tabloid ran through her mind, she scolded herself over the absurdity of it. Why would he do such a thing? He certainly didn’t need the money. And he was trying to prove to her that he was trustworthy. Wouldn’t such a deliberate act of betrayal be counterproductive? It just proved how deep her own distrust ran.

“I thought I’d stop in and let you know that I’ll be out helping Hank and Dooley today. The fence along the highway is down.”

“I know. I spotted it yesterday. They’re out there now. They can handle it.”

“I’m sure they’d be grateful for an extra pair of hands.”

Her gaze narrowed. “Look, it’s been obvious the past few days that you have a life of your own to live. You don’t have to keep doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“Pitching in around here. Stay home and take care of your own chores.”

Amusement lurked in the depths of his eyes. “So you did miss me?”

“I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

She frowned at him. “Is that why you stayed away, so I’d miss you?”

“No,” he said curtly. “Now let me make this clear for the last time. I don’t mind helping out around here. I like the company.”

She regarded him with skepticism. “Hank and Dooley’s?”

“Hardly,” he said, grinning at last. “But the boss lady has a certain way about her that I find intriguing.”

Her heart fluttered at the compliment. “Is that so?”

He nodded. “Besides that, she owes me dinner. Our deal’s not over.”

“I thought you’d forgotten about that. Besides, the two weeks were up long ago.”

“We missed a few nights,” he reminded her.

“I never gave you a rain check.”

“But you wouldn’t renege on a deal, would you? Doesn’t that go against that conscience of yours?”

“I suppose.”

“That’s settled, then. And just so you know, I have a real hankering for apple pie.”

“Stella’s is good,” she told him.

“But I’ll bet yours is better.” His gaze caught hers. “Still warm from the oven with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into all the little crevices.”

Karen swallowed hard. Somehow he had managed to make a perfectly ordinary slice of pie sound like something wickedly sensual. Or was that just her state of mind?

“How about it?” he asked. “Pie for dessert?”

She gave him a resigned look. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He winked at her. “I’ll be counting on it.”

Don’t, she thought to herself after he’d gone. Don’t count on me, Grady.

Because the truth was, if push came to shove, she had no idea which of the men in her life she’d choose…a ghost or the flesh-and-blood man who was tempting her more and more each day, despite his entirely too unpredictable comings and goings.

Grady heard the argument long before he spotted Hank and Dooley.

“I say we’ve got to tell her,” Hank shouted fiercely. “The woman has a right to know that someone deliberately cut this fence.”

“Mrs. Hanson’s got enough on her mind,” Dooley argued. “We’re taking care of it, aren’t we? There’s no harm done. Why get her all worked up about a problem that won’t exist after today?”

Grady crested the hill and spotted the two hands squared off, a section of barbed wire in Hank’s hands.

“I’m telling you she needs to know that somebody’s out to get her,” Hank countered. “She ought to be calling the sheriff. This isn’t right.” His gaze narrowed as he looked at Dooley. “Or is there some particular reason you don’t want the sheriff involved?”

The old man drew back his fist and aimed a punch straight for Hank’s face. It landed solidly, snapping the younger man’s head back.

Grady leaped from the saddle and got between the two men. “Okay, enough. What the hell’s gotten into you two?”

Whatever distrust they felt toward him was apparently less than they were feeling about each other at the moment, because both men started hurling accusations so fast and furiously, Grady could barely keep up.

“Hold it!” he commanded finally. “One at a time. Dooley, you first.”

Hank glared at Grady as a look of satisfaction spread across the old man’s face.

“Like I was trying to tell this pea-brain here, the boss already has too much on her mind,” Dooley said. “There’s no need to worry her with this latest incident, since we’re taking care of it.”

“The incident being that someone deliberately cut the barbed wire?” Grady concluded.

“Exactly,” Hank said, holding out the section of wire. “Cut through, clean as a whistle. This is new fence, too. Put it in myself just last spring.”

Grady didn’t like the implication one bit. Once again, someone was trying to sabotage the Hanson operation. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the blame was going to fall on his shoulders sooner or later. That raised those same two interesting possibilities again. Either someone wanted to force Karen out of business for their own reasons, or they wanted to cast more doubt on his integrity simply to keep her from selling to him.

“Who owns the land on the other side of the highway?” he asked Dooley.

“Tate McDonald.”

The name meant nothing to Grady. “Has he been around long?”

“Bought the place eight, maybe nine years ago,” Hank said. “About the same time I came to work for the Hansons.”

“Has he been looking to expand?” Grady asked.

Both men exchanged a look, then shook their heads.

“He’s not here much,” Dooley said. “Spends most of his time in California, from what I hear. His foreman runs the place. They keep a small herd over there, nothing like what Duke Walters had when he owned it.”

That didn’t mean that McDonald didn’t aspire to having a much bigger operation in the future. Grady resolved to find out what he could about the man.

He already knew that the land to the west had been owned by the same family for sixty years-the Oldhams-and that the property due north belonged to Jack Fletcher, a cantankerous ex-rodeo star who trained horses and whose daughter, Maggie, had a difficult streak of her own. None of them struck him as the kind of people who’d try to force a neighbor out of business, but he’d have Jarrod Wilcox do some checking, just in case.

Grady took the piece of wire from Hank. “I’ll hang on to this. For the time being, let’s not say anything to Karen. Both of you keep your ears open when you go into town. See if anybody’s bragging about being up to some mischief out this way. I’ll check out this Tate McDonald.”

Both men regarded him skeptically. “Isn’t it to your advantage if somebody is stirring up trouble for Mrs. Hanson?” Hank asked. “If she goes under, you can buy this place for next to nothing.”

“I’ve already made her an offer for a good deal more than the land is worth. I won’t renege on that.”

Dooley snorted. “Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to get it for less.”

“You can believe me or not, but I’m not interested in ruining her,” Grady said flatly. “She’ll get a fair price if she decides to sell. And if she sells, it won’t be because I’ve done something to make her desperate.”

Dooley regarded him intently. “And you swear you’re going to get to the bottom of this latest damage?” he asked.

“I swear it.”

Once again, the two men exchanged a look, then seemed to reach a conclusion.

“All right, then,” Dooley said. “But we’re keeping an eye on you.”

Grady bit back a grin at the warning. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Karen was getting better at gauging Grady’s moods. She didn’t allow herself to consider what that meant. All that mattered was that he hadn’t been himself since he’d returned from working on the downed fence. He was virtually silent all through dinner and as soon as he’d finished his serving of pot roast, he excused himself.

Karen scowled as he rose from his place at the table. “Okay, that’s it. Sit back down, Grady Blackhawk.”

Clearly startled by the command, he stared at her. “What?”

“I said to sit down.” She frowned until he’d complied. “Now tell me what has you in such a foul mood.”

“I’m not in a foul mood,” he insisted, looking vaguely bewildered by the accusation.

“Okay, maybe that’s the wrong word, but you certainly aren’t yourself. You haven’t been since you got back.”

“I just have a few things on my mind.”

“That’s obvious enough. What things?”

“Nothing worth mentioning,” he insisted.

“Or nothing you want to get into with me?” she challenged.

A guilty expression passed across his face. “Why would you say something like that?”

“Because you usually have plenty to say. Because you’re the one who wanted to share these little getting-to-know-you meals, and you haven’t said two words all evening. Because you all but begged me to bake you an apple pie, and now that I have, you’re about to walk out the door without even tasting it. I’d say the evidence is overwhelming.”

A grin tugged at his lips. “Is that so, Sherlock? Any other clues you’d care to mention?”

“No, I think that about does it,” she said, arms folded across her chest. “I’ve said my piece. Now it’s time for you to say yours.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you’ll sit there until you think better of it.”

This time he had the audacity to laugh. “Who’s going to make me?”

“Me,” she declared.

“Oh, really? Now that is a fascinating prospect. Care to share your tactics for keeping a man who’s twice your size where you want him?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said. “Trust me, though. I can do it.” She wasn’t exactly sure how, but she would manage it, if it came to that. “Now, talk. What happened when you were with Hank and Dooley? Did the three of you get into it about something? I know they distrust you, but they’re just being protective of me.”

“I know that. And I respect the fact that they’re loyal to you.”

“Then you didn’t have an argument?”

“No.”

She regarded him with exasperation. “But something did happen?”

He beamed at her. “I’ll take that pie now. Make it a big piece with lots of ice cream on top.”

“Not a chance. It’s too late for that. I want to know what went on out there today or that pie goes straight into the garbage.”

Grady sighed heavily. “You’re a very persistent woman, you know that?”

“Yes,” she said proudly.

“It’s a very annoying trait.”

“I suppose that depends on your point of view,” she countered.

“I imagine I could distract you, if I wanted to,” he said, eyeing her thoughtfully.

“I doubt that.”

“Are you challenging me to try?”

Karen spotted the spark of mischief in his eyes and realized that she’d just made a serious tactical error. Before she could correct it, he was on his feet and reaching for her.

With a look of grim determination, he slanted his mouth across hers. Whatever his intention, though, whether to silence her or challenge her, it quickly became something else entirely. The coaxing kiss turned greedy. Gentle persuasion became breath-stealing hunger.

All thoughts about winners and losers in their battle of wits fled as they set a new, common goal: passion. Karen’s head went spinning, her pulse ricocheted wildly, her blood heated and pooled low in her belly.

This is wrong, she thought. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

And yet she couldn’t seem to stop, couldn’t seem to pause even long enough to catch her breath. A frantic neediness was making her breasts ache and her body eager. Grady had moved beyond kisses now. His hands were everywhere, gentle, persuasive, provocative.

Karen felt the buttons on her dress give way, felt the cool air against her overheated skin, then the warmth of Grady’s clever caresses as they streaked fire in their path. She wanted things she had never expected to feel again, wanted to feel gloriously alive and loved and irresistible. Grady was giving her all of that with his wicked kisses and increasingly intimate touches.

“Not here,” she pleaded, when her dress was in a tangle around her feet and her bra was across the room.

“Tell me where,” he said, scooping her into his arms.

“Upstairs.”

At the top of the stairs, he hesitated, and so did she. Not in her room, not in the bed she’d shared with Caleb.

“Over there,” she said, gesturing toward the guest room with its colorful quilt on an antique iron bed.

There were no memories in this room, no personal mementos of her years with Caleb.

The sheets were crisp and smelled of sunshine, not the lingering-or imagined-scent of a familiar aftershave. The mattress was firm, not shaped by years of accommodating two bodies that slept curved together in the middle.

She couldn’t help thinking of the contrasts as Grady lowered her onto the bed, then slid in next to her, his gaze tender as he slowly stripped away her remaining clothes. The trip to the second floor had eased the tension, the frantic need, but with one glance, one touch, he was able to bring it back until she was lying there trembling and desperate for the feel of him deep inside her.

She tugged at his shirt with impatient fingers, pushing it up and over his head, then setting to work on the snap of his jeans with total concentration. She couldn’t seem to manage it, though. Her fingers trembled and, next to the heat of his bare belly, they felt icy cold. He rested his hand atop hers, then met her gaze.

“It’s okay. There’s no rush,” he reminded her.

“There is,” she insisted, struggling to free herself from his grasp so that she could finish what they had begun.

She almost missed the flash of wariness in his eyes, it came and went so quickly. But it had been there and for an instant, she felt a flicker of shame.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice ragged.

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to think I’m using you, that I just want this to be over with.”

His smile was tinged with unmistakable sadness. “Isn’t that the truth, though? At least part of it?”

“Maybe,” she finally confessed in a small voice. “I want you, Grady, but I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“That it’s for all the wrong reasons, just like you said.”

He rolled away from her, locked his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling until his breathing steadied. Karen felt bereft, but she didn’t pursue him, didn’t dare touch him the way she desperately wanted to.

Finally, when she thought she wouldn’t be able to bear the tension building inside her for another second, he reached for her hand, pressed it to his lips. “Another time,” he said quietly and without rancor.

Tears stinging her eyes, she reached for the sheet, clutched it to her bare breasts. “Are you sure?”

His gaze met hers. “Oh, darlin’, if I am sure of anything in this world, it’s that. There will be another time for this, for the two of us. And when it happens, we’ll both be sure it’s the right thing for the right reasons.”

A smile curved his lips. “Now come over here and cuddle up beside me.”

Sheet firmly tucked in place, she slid closer until she could feel his heat warming her and the steady beating of his heart beneath her ear. And in that moment, her heart filled with gratitude and maybe something else, something that felt an awful lot like the first amazing moments of falling head-over-heels in love.

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