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Traditional Romance Approximately 50,000 Words


This work is supplied as Shareware. If you enjoy this book you must send $1.00 to: Attn. Counterfeit Cowboy P.O. Box 4845 Dallas, Texas 75208-4845 Copyright ©2000 by Robert Preece, All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.


Chapter 1

"I've saved you a seat," a pleasant baritone said. Mickey Murphy whirled around, then caught sight of a broad expanse of very male chest. the vee in his worn denim shirt. eyes to his face.

Dark hair curled from Slowly she raised her

Warm brown eyes stared at her from a

deeply bronzed face.

Brown curls poked out under a worn

and battered cowboy hat. "Oh, my," Mickey began. Mickey's friend Sandy stuck out her hand. Sandy and this is Michaela."


Sandy had grown up in Texas

and her ‘howdy' attitude that contrasted sharply with Mickey's more reserved style. "Kevin Sullivan," the man said. a table for us."

"Like I said, I got

He grabbed Sandy's hand, shook it

heartily, then took Mickey's arm and guided her across the floor toward a table held by a worn leather jacket. Sandy tagged along like a terrier after a bull. Who was this man, Mickey wondered, and, of all the women there, why had he singled her out?

The tables at

Rowdies were at a premium and it was great to be able to sit.

Still, she’d grown up in New York.

Everything had

its price. On the other hand, she wasn’t a nun.


Sullivan’s price might be worth paying. The club spun by in a blur as she tried to keep up with his long strides.

A six-man band twanged out a

country tune that clashed with the glittering disco balls hanging from the ceiling. "Ah, do you come here often?" Mickey asked. idiotic question.

What an

Why couldn't she just fall into the

floor? Things like this didn't happen to her.

Of course,

if Sandy would guarantee that drop-dead-handsome men would sweep her off her feet every time she set foot in one of these Texas honky-tonk places, maybe she'd go out more often. While she and Sandy had worked that terrible software-company party, Sandy had somehow managed to persuade Mickey to give Texas bars another chance.


least Rowdies was supposed to be where real cowboys hung out rather than where Dallas lawyers played dress-up. Kevin Sullivan looked like he might live up to the billing. "Never been here before," Kevin answered as if oblivious to the fact that Mickey had used the oldest pickup line in the world.

"It's a good long ride up from


But the manager at my ranch mentioned it."


You work on a ranch?"

the excitement out of her voice.

Mickey tried to filter A cowboy could lead her

to a worthwhile job in the country.

If she could meet

someone who could help her get her foot in the door, she'd be that much closer to her favorite dream. She hoped she didn't come off sounding like a cowboy groupie.

Of course, any girl could dream about being

swept away by someone who looked like Kevin. "Well, shoot," he answered. call what I do working.

"I don't know if you'd

Seems more like playing to me.

Still, they pay me for it, so I guess it's all right." He gave an almost negligent wave with his hand and a waitress bustled over.

"I'll have a longneck.


about you ladies?" Mickey ordered a beer while Sandy chose a margarita. "I suppose you're wondering why I dragged y'all over here, aren't you?" Mickey nodded.

She had no idea.

"Let me guess," Sandy said coming to her rescue. "It's a long shot, but since you've been staring at Mickey--oops, I mean Michaela--like she was a long-lost something-better-than-a-sister, I'm thinking you want to ask her to dance.

Am I right?"

"Hey," Mickey broke in. this?"

"Don't I get any say in

Since arriving in Texas the month before, she'd

taken lessons in the Texas Two-Step and in something

called the Progressive Three-Step.

Most of what she'd

learned consisted of dodging clumsy male feet and ducking away from half-hearted male pawing.

Since she'd bought

her boots, her partners were in as much danger of being tromped on as she was. Kevin turned a brief smile on Sandy before shifting his intense gaze back to Mickey.

The sun had beaten hard

lines into his face, giving him a look of control and power.

When he smiled, she could tell that he wasn't

that much older than her own twenty-nine. thirties, she guessed.


His warm and expressive smile

spoke of the great outdoors.

The force of his full

attention was more than a little overwhelming. "Well, Michaela," he told her, "it's like this.


afraid you don't get any say on whether I ask you to dance. You just to say yes or no.

Of course, a yes would

make things a lot simpler." With his outrageously good looks, Mickey wondered whether anyone ever said no to him--and not just about dancing.

Why had he sought her out?

He had been

standing at the door as if waiting for her, but she felt certain that she'd remember a face, or a body, that looked like his.

Besides, he hadn't claimed to know her.

"I'm not a very good--" Mickey began. "I'll be out on the floor.

Have a good time," Sandy

interrupted, swinging off in the arms of a man Mickey hadn't even noticed.

"Let me worry about the dancing," Kevin murmured as he gently lifted her to her feet. The band was just finishing a number by the time Kevin had paid the waitress and led Mickey to the dance floor. Mickey couldn't help but notice the covetous looks several women shot at Kevin.

Incredibly, he seemed

oblivious to them; she'd never known a man who wouldn't eat up that kind of attention. really known a cowboy.

Of course, she'd never

New York still had a fair number

of farmers, but its ranches were few and far between. Maybe cowboys really were different from other men. shook her head.

It didn't matter.


She was looking for a

job, not for a one-night stand. Mickey couldn't decide whether she'd be safer with a fast tune or a slow ballad.

If the band played something

slow, she might be able to fake a few steps.

On the

other hand, there were things more dangerous than dancing badly.

Draping herself all over Kevin's sexy body and

possibly drooling on his starched denim shirt might one of them. "Relax," he breathed into her ear. Easy for him to say.

He already knew how to dance.

Still, while his warm breath in her ear wasn't exactly relaxing, it did take her mind off of the dance floor. One of his hands seized hers, while he rested his other gently on her waist.

Even that light touch seemed intimate, sending a shiver of desire through her.

She ignored her irrational

urge to pull him against her as many of the dancers were doing and told herself to ignore the heat radiating from his hand, or maybe from her body. The band started playing, fast, and Kevin whirled her out on the floor. She knew she'd collapse, trip over her feet, or turn into a pumpkin in the middle of the floor. realized she was dancing.

Then she

Kevin made it easy.

His leads

seemed to travel from his body to her feet without her mind having to do anything.

Just as well, since her mind

found itself fully occupied with controlling her sensual response to this male. Powerful biceps bulged in his right arm where her hand clasped it.

She couldn't sense any aftershave, but

his clean male scent smelled sexier than anything bought in a store.

His eyes, golden as much as brown, gleamed a

smile that matched that on his lips. Of course, she must be grinning back like the cat that ate the canary. "You dance like a dream," he murmured. Before she could respond, he spun her around and kept her spinning until she wondered if he'd catch her before she lost her balance and collapsed to the floor. Just when she decided it was a lost cause, he pulled her out of her spiral and back to his arms, much closer than


A woman could get used to a strong cowboy who

seemed able to read the way her body responded to his every move.

If he was like this on the dance floor, what

would he be like in bed? Mickey shook her head, as much to clear away her sensual overload as to control the dance floor's spin. What could she be thinking?

She hadn't exchanged more

than fifty words with this stranger.

He might even have

a wife back on the ranch. The loud music didn't give her a chance to ask any questions.

A blessing in disguise, she realized, since

the only question she felt like asking was "my place or yours." What in the world was wrong with her? Mickey the Mouse from Albany, New York.

She was

She was the girl

who had gone on exactly two dates during her entire senior year of high school. Kevin knew how to hold a woman, how to move a woman. A good feeling, sure. you wanted a man.

In fact, terrific.

Assuming that

Since Mickey wanted a job, all this

was a distraction. The song ended and he smiled again. He had to feel the way her hand was trembling, but she gathered up her nerve and took a step back from him. "You weren't thinking of running off already, were you?" he asked. another dance.

He actually looked like he wanted Definitely a Dallas first.

Usually, one

dance was enough to scare away both her partner and any other prospects. "I'd better check--" "On your friend Sandy?

She's over there with a

fellow who's at least a foot taller than me." toward the other end of the dance floor.

He pointed

"I hope you

don't intend for me to rescue her." She didn't believe Kevin would be afraid of taking on the man, taller or not. her.

He only seemed interested in

It was an intoxicating sensation. The next song started, saving her from an answer.

But only for a moment. Kevin drew her in until her breasts brushed against his hard chest and swept her into a waltz.

The softer

music made conversation possible. "Where'd you learn to dance like this?" she asked. It wasn't a brilliant opening, but Mickey was prepared to accept anything that didn't end up with her tongue halfway down her chin. "My mother figured that a man had to know a few social graces.

Unfortunately, dancing was the only one

that got through. "Um.

How about you?"

Dancing or graces?

Nobody ever accused me of

dancing before." "You're light as a feather."

He spun her around and

then pulled her back into his body. The soft texture of his worn jeans and the hard

muscles of his thighs brushed against her stockings, sending a tingling up her spine.

She felt light, as if

he could lift her and throw her into the air. "I'm pretty solid. feather."


I wouldn't be much of a Let's start out by talking

yourself down. "I like a girl with a little muscle. don't worry about her breaking."

That way I

After another twirl, he

asked, "What do you do?" "I'll give you some credit.

You're doing a little

better than 'do ya come here often.'" Kevin gave her a grin.

"You beat me to that line or

I'd probably have tried it myself.

I'm serious, though.

Right off, you guessed me as a ranch hand. are easy.

I guess guys

You really aren't going to make me guess, are

you?" "Give it a try." He furled his brow in concentration. are soft.

"Your hands

That means you don't do manual work.

Otherwise you'd have hands like mine."

He opened his

palm and let her run her fingers along the hard callus ridges there.

"You either don't spend much time outside

or keep the sunblock industry in business. anything like that." good, though. are short.


He sniffed. Let's see.

I don't smell

"You do smell awful Other clues?

Most women seem to like them long.

something with your hands.

Your nails So you do

You haven't yelled at me yet,

so you can't be a teacher. "I guess that excludes pretty much everything. I've got it. leprechaun.

Black hair and blue eyes.


You're an Irish


She giggled, then bit her cheek to make herself stop.

"I thought you were playing for real."

"No leprechaun?

I give up."

"I work for a catering agency.

You know,

bartending, serving food, that kind of stuff.

Before I

came to Texas I was a bookkeeper but I wanted to get out of New York." "Manhattan?" "The state, not the city. "Been there.

I come from Albany."

It's pretty enough.

Cold in the

winter, though." "It's a long way from a ranch.

I figured that Texas

would be closer." She wondered if he could hear the little shiver in her voice as she spoke.

This complete stranger was

holding her in his arms in a clasp so intimate that they were practically making love with their clothes on and she was lapping it up.

Her body curved against his as if

the two were designed to fit together.

His soft voice,

breathing in her ear, made everything he said, every question, as intimate as a lover's kiss. "You want to work on a ranch?"

He sounded

surprised, as if wondering why anyone would pursue his

own career.

Surely he wasn't one of those sexist jerks

who thought that only men knew how to work. Before she could probe for his meaning, the music picked up again.

Mickey decided that shouting in his ear

wouldn't be the most romantic, or career benefiting, way to spend the next little while, and she would want to savor this night for a long time.

Drifting in his arms,

trusting him to steer them between the fast-moving dancers, and enjoying the pure sensuality of a male animal's body pressed against her own made more sense than thinking and asking questions.

She didn't find it

too hard to reassure herself that she would do better career networking if she didn't have to shout at the top of her lungs. It seemed like only a few minutes, but all of a sudden, the band stopped.

Instead of starting the next

number, they began packing their instruments. Sandy appeared.

"I've got an early job tomorrow and

it's two o'clock," she told Mickey. home?"

"Do you need a ride

That had been their agreement, but Sandy sounded

awfully unwilling. "If you don't mind sharing the ride with a truckload of hay, I'd be happy to offer you a lift," Kevin interjected. "Well, I don't--" "Can you lose her?"

Sandy's tall dance partner was

making goo-goo eyes over Sandy.

Obviously the two wanted

to spend some private time together. "You guys go ahead," Mickey answered.

"I'll call a

cab." Somehow, the evening had evaporated leaving her body tense with sexual energy and her job search exactly nowhere. "Terrific.

You're a babe," Sandy told her.

grabbed at the big man.


"Come on, hon, let's get out of

here." So much for Sandy's chaperone service. "You're not going to call a cab while I'm here." Kevin frowned. "Look, don't get macho on me.

You're the best

dancer I've ever met and I'd love to get together some time.

But I'm not the kind of girl who goes out driving

and parking with some guy I just met."

There were still

plenty of other women, she noticed, who looked ready to take Kevin home at a moment's notice.

The thought was

not at all comforting. "Hey, I could give you my mother's phone number in Florida," he said, sounding half serious.

"She'd vouch--

" "Never mind.”

She wasn’t jealous, exactly.

how could it hurt to let him give her a lift?


“If you

don't mind driving me home, I guess that would be all right."

This would be a perfect opportunity to do ask

Kevin about any jobs at his ranch. Somehow, with her hand gently cradled in his arm,

Mickey felt completely safe.

Not comfortable, exactly:

the blood roaring through her head saw to that.

But safe

nevertheless. When she and Sandy had arrived, they had driven around the lot three times before finally finding a spot a good quarter mile from the entryway.

Kevin's truck sat

at the very front, parked next to the handicapped space. "You weren't kidding about the hay."

The robin's

egg blue truck had to be out of the fifties, but it had been lovingly preserved, even though dirt now caked it. "You didn't believe me?

I know hauling hay from

Dallas to the country sounds silly, but we've got a sick horse and it won't eat anything but this special-formula alfalfa with molasses.

Dallas is the only place to get

it." "I wasn't sure what to think," she confessed.


of guys dress up like cowboys but they really aren't. It's good to meet the genuine article." He reached into his pocket and tugged out a set of keys.

She followed the motion, watching his strong brown


They looked good, almost too good.

unseasonably warm night, she shivered. hands feel running over her body?

Despite the

How would those

On the dance floor, he

had showed her that he could mix strength with surprising control.

Would his caress be like that?

"You said something like that before," he said, interrupting her thoughts before she absolutely threw

herself all over him.

"Most girls run from a real cowboy

like he had some kind of disease.

Some sort of

instinctive prejudice against living more than fifty miles from the nearest beauty shop.

What makes you

different?" "It's a long story." "You know, it's a strange thing but my appointment book looks empty tonight.

Maybe I could buy you a cup of

coffee and you could tell me the long story. I feel a little guilty.

After all,

I kept you out on the dance

floor so long that you never got a chance to drink your beer." "Coffee sounds nice."

She certainly hoped she knew

what she was doing.

Kevin had no idea what he was doing. Overhearing Mickey’s decision to go to the country bar that afternoon had given him the seeds for a plan. His partner, George, had brought up their old pickup from the ranch the two men co-owned, and was spending the weekend at his place in Dallas.

That gave Kevin the

materials he needed to put his plan into operation.


would whirl Mickey around, talk pretty to her, get her to like him, then drop the bomb of his true identity.


needed someone to blast her out of her smug prejudice. Or so it had seemed at the time. The instant he had swung Mickey out onto the dance

floor, he must have lost his sanity.

He had only meant

to dance a few numbers and maybe pique her interest.


hadn't intended to lose sight of his plan, a plan that now sounded as silly to him as it had to George.

He most

definitely hadn't counted on his irrational reaction to the touch of her hand, the light brush of her thighs against his legs, her breasts against his chest. Instead of ending the evening abruptly with the truth, he had beamed at her like an idiot and pretended he had all the time in the world.

He had let his

hormones take control of his action and now he actually found himself liking her. "I noticed a Pancake House on the way here.

That be

okay?" he asked. "Sure. places.

I'm not real big on those fancy coffee

In my job I spend so much time making fancy

coffee drinks that I long for the stuff right out of the pot." Well, they had something in common, at least.


couldn't understand this fascination with three-dollar cups of coffee too small to warm you inside. Kevin drove the oversized pickup onto Dallas's Central Expressway and headed north. "This is a beautiful truck.

My father used to have

one a lot like it." "You really like it? got out of high school.

I found it the summer after I The contractor who owned it was

just letting it rust out in the rain.

A friend and I

fixed it up." He hadn't lied.

Not in words.

reminding himself of that. him was really true.

But he had to keep

Nothing Mickey believed about

It didn't make him feel any too

good. Now, though, he had waited too long to spring his trap.

He'd have to write this whole adventure off in the

really-stupid-plans category. "I remember how my father used to spend hours just puttering around on his truck,” Mickey said.

“He said it

reminded him of the farm." "I'll bet.

Always something to do."

"That isn't how my father remembered it.

He always

said that the farm would give you what you put into it. Like an old truck." "Maybe he had a point."

Kevin didn't think so, but

he wasn't going to win this argument. He pulled into the Pancake House driveway and parked. "So is that why you're attracted to cowboys?" he asked her as a waitress seated them in a corner of the nearly empty restaurant. "What?

You mean my father?"

"Dear old dad," he said. "Not hardly. mother.

Dad left farming when he married my

He always talked about going back, but with four

girls and no boys, he needed to keep the paychecks


After we grew up, he kind of lost his energy."

Her deep blue eyes stared across the truck's bench seat into his.

He could fall into them, he realized,

fall and lose himself. him.

Except that she wasn't looking at

She was looking at some ranch hand who only lived

in her dream. "I guess you didn't take after him that way," he said.

Mickey had more energy than any other three women

he'd known.

He'd never found a woman who could keep up

with him, dance after dance, like Mickey had. "I don't know." "Well, if you're going to tell me a long story, we'd better head in and get some coffee before they call the police on us." Resting his arm across her shoulders felt like the most natural thing as they walked to the restaurant. was making things worse, he told himself. later, he'd have to tell her the truth.


Sooner or The more

attached he became to her, the more her reaction would hurt. "Only one thing," he said as he held the door for her. "What's that?" "Your friend Sandy couldn't seem to make up your mind.

Are you Mickey, or are you Michaela?"

Mickey laughed, tossing back her long black hair. He loved her laugh.

She seemed so fresh, happy with

herself and the world. "Everyone calls me Mickey.

Sandy thinks Michaela is

more exotic and that I should use my real name when I meet strangers." "I hope we won't be strangers.

I'd like it if I

could call you Mickey." The waiter showed them to a back booth, poured coffee into mugs that might have been stylish in the fifties, and left a full pot on the table. Without thinking, he reached his hand across the table and took hers.

"Long story time?"

She gave a start, then squeezed his hand back. right.

Why cowboys?"


She looked at him, then smiled.

"I'll bet this is going to be a disappointment to you.


mean, I do think there's something special about a cowboy.

A man who works on a ranch must have to have a

pretty good idea about whom he is.

You'd have to, living

where you depend on your intelligence and strength.


like most city jobs where you get paid for sitting at a desk and staying out of trouble. was looking for a cowboy.

But that's not why I

My motives were a lot more

shallow and a lot more selfish." "We'll get back to that selfishness in a minute. Let's start with this romantic idea about cowboys.


of guys on the ranch are just plain rotten." She sighed. much.

"I may be a little naive, but not that

There are losers everywhere.

Fire, hammer, and

tongs can work miracles with the right steel.

With tin,

you'd only have tin foil." "So you're looking for steel." She shook her head. you.

"That's what I'm trying to tell

I loved dancing with you and you're easy to talk


But I'm not looking for a man.

steel in myself.

I'm looking for the

I moved to Texas to get closer to the

country and now I'm trying to save enough to get out of the city altogether." "So how does a cowboy fit in?" She colored.

"I'm being totally mercenary.


turns out that most ranch jobs don't get filled by answering newspaper ads. know.'

It's a game of 'who do you

I don't know anyone with a ranch.

for contacts.

So I'm looking

That's why I went to the bar tonight.

That's why I agreed to stop and get a cup of coffee with you."

She looked guilty as she extracted her hand from

his and reached for her purse.

"Of course I'll pay for

my coffee and the beer you bought me." "Hey, don't run away.

Nothing wrong with using

contacts to help you in business." "I'm afraid I've been leading you on all night, like I was some sort of cowboy groupie.

It's not like that."

He hadn't thought that Mickey was throwing herself at him.

If he had, he'd have told her exactly where he

stood long before now.

Although dancing close, the press

of her body against his, had excited him more than he

really wanted to remember, it hadn't been because Mickey had been making any erotic moves.

Her natural exuberance

exhilarated him despite her innocent approach to life. He still didn't have a clue why she hated software programmers, the people he worked with in his real life. "All right.

You aren't a cowboy groupie," he said.

"If you do get a job in the country, what then?" "What's anyone looking for?

I don't know.

In the

long term, I'd like to have some land of my own, own a ranch maybe.

In the short term, I'm looking for a job

that will pay the rent and get me away from the city." All he had to do was tell her he'd look around and see what he could see.

He could walk away now.


never know that his total ranch involvement was a silent partnership.

"That doesn't sound unreasonable to me," he

told her. She smiled.

At least he supposed it was a smile.

It felt as if she just let the sun come out. not," Mickey said. know where I stand.

"I hope

"I'm trying to be honest and let you That doesn't mean I can't use a

friend even if you don't know about any jobs. being around people like you.

I like

You know, people who don't

feel like they have to put on a big act.

To me, that's

what makes you cowboys interesting." She paused, toying with the cream pitcher, then looked directly at him as she continued.

"Lots of

fellows in the city will go out for a hunting trip and

sleep in a fancy sleeping bag. brag about how they roughed it. about it that way.

When they come back, they Real cowboys don't think

They sleep outside when they have to,

because they have to. It isn't a big deal either way. Sleeping outside or riding a horse doesn't make them men because they already are men. That's what I like about you, Kevin.

You aren't trying to be anything but what

you are." "Shoot.

Now you're embarrassing me."

embarrassing him.

Not just

Making him feel like a heel.

"I don't think so.

I think you're pretty happy with

who you are." "Actually, most of the time that's true."

Just not

now. He looked at his watch. already.

Three in the morning,

He had to finish a proposal for a multi-million

dollar system integration deal that weekend.

Right now

business was about as far from his mind as it had been in years.

Unfortunately, tomorrow, it would be right there

in his face. "Oh.

It really is late, isn't it?" Mickey asked.

"I'll bet you have a long drive tomorrow.

How far away

do you work?" "The ranch is about a hundred miles southeast of here."

He'd managed not to lie, again.

hero. "I'd love to see it."


What a

"It's pretty much like most ranches in east Texas," he said dismissively. buildings and fencing.

"You know, cattle and worn-out They're not as big as west Texas

ranches." Mickey scooted out of the booth. deserve that.

"I suppose I

I'm not coming on to you.

the chance to meet some ranchers. could help me with that."

I'd just like

I'd hoped that you

She turned and started for the

exit. Kevin tossed a five on the table and headed after her.

"I don't have a problem with what you're saying,"

he said as he caught her arm. She spun easily into his grip, her body brushing against his from thigh to chest.

Her face turned up

slightly, looking at him. He couldn't resist that temptation.

He bent, then

pressed his lips to hers. For an instant, he thought he'd made a mistake.


tensed and he prepared to back off. Before he could move, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him back, hard. A round of applause brought him back to his senses. Everyone in the pancake house seemed to be giving the two of them a standing ovation.

This was definitely not

according to plan. Reluctantly he backed off. "You can't scare me away that easily, cowboy,"

Mickey whispered in his ear.

"I still want to see your

ranch, and I'd like to see more of you too."

Chapter 2

"Let me get this straight. spend a week on the ranch. bunkhouse?"

You not only want to

You want to live in the

George could have at least tried to keep a

straight face. "You've been getting on me to take a vacation," Kevin parried weakly. "Oh, sure.

And this is exactly what I had in mind.

You can spend your time eating our delicious, more-orless-cooked ranch food, ride fence in the freezing rain, and pull cattle out of the mud.

It'll be a treat."

They were sitting at the dining room table in Kevin's posh townhouse, downing coffee as fast as it dripped through the pot.

The hour was ungodly early.

Kevin had set his alarm to be sure he caught his partner before George headed out of town. George shook his head.

"It may not matter in

climate-controlled Dallas, but it's February where I live.

Silly me to think you might favor the Bahamas or

maybe Mexico." "I don't need that kind of vacation," Kevin growled. "'Course you don't. might actually have fun.

If you went someplace nice, you By the way, when was the last

time you took a weekend, had a beer or two, watched football, and just relaxed?" "About the same time you did.

I remember a spring

break to celebrate fixing the truck." "You mean ten years ago when we broke down five times on the way to Galveston and spent all of our money on parts because the truck wasn't exactly totally finished after all?" "We made it, didn't we?" "Yeah.

We put our toes in the Gulf, then went

looking for fresh water to put in the radiator.

I meant

a real vacation." "Me too.

I want to get back to nature, spend some

time with real men. Stuff like that."

You know, burp, forget to shave. Kevin had tried to explain his plan

but George didn't get it.

Not too surprising, since

Kevin himself didn't get it either. George's smile faded. Kevin.

You're half owner.

and use big words.

"That's what I'm afraid of, And you've gone to college

The hands will think you're looking

down on them even if you're not.

I worry you'd be

disruptive." Kevin considered George's words.

It had taken

months to persuade George to accept his financial help with the ailing ranch. good.

The man was too proud for his own

If the ranch went under it would hurt Kevin's

pocketbook but it would destroy George.

Worse, George

would never forgive himself for losing Kevin's money. So what, exactly, did he think he was proving?


abandoned his original plan well before he'd kissed Mickey. Now he wondered if he'd really just been angry about her disdain toward software engineers.

Maybe he'd

used anger to mask the attraction he'd felt when he first saw her. Finally he shook his head.

"Cowboys or not, people

work harder when they think of the boss as a human being. It isn't as easy to slack off, or to pocket a few extra paper clips if you're stealing from someone you know." George threw up his hands.

"Maybe you're right.

don't have any slackers, but what the hell.


If they hate

you, they'll sympathize more with me having to work with a hardheaded co-owner." Kevin punched his friend in the shoulder. Oh, by the way, I'm going to need the truck.

"Right. I'll trade

you the BMW." "I'll look really special tooling around dirt roads in a beemer.

If you're going to make me look like an

idiot in front of most of east Texas, I think you owe me the whole truth.

What's this really about?"

Kevin sighed. can explain it.

He’d have to come clean.

You remember the party I threw last

Friday for my employees?" "Sure.

"Hell if I

You spent months planning it."

"It was a big deal.

We’ve got programmers who’ve

worked two years for almost nothing based on my promise of a little equity when we turned the corner.

I owe them

more than a few drinks." "Hey, thanks.

That clears everything up.

to be a cowboy because you threw a party." him on the shoulder.

You want

George patted

"Kevin, maybe you should see

someone about this little problem." "Very funny.

One of the bartenders was badmouthing

programmers, saying what nerds they were, stuff like that." "In front of the guys?" "Well, not exactly. the other bartender.

She was on break and talking to

But they could have been overheard.

I certainly heard them.

She said that she'd never be

able to confuse 'one of these pencil-necks' with a cowboy." "I think I'm seeing where this is going.

That's why

you borrowed the truck Friday night." "Right." "So what happened?"

George had obviously guessed,

because he could hardly force the words through his snicker. "So I liked her.

Is there a law against that?"

"You never got around to telling her what a pencilneck you are?" "Smile when you say that."

"You're going to have to tell your honey the truth." "I intend to." "If she's worth your time, she'll look beneath the surface.

I know it's hard to believe, but some women

actually go for the affluent, take-the-world-by-storm type of guy." Kevin laughed.

"That's rich, coming from you.


were roommates for three months before you even talked to me.

If I hadn't bought that damned truck and asked for

your help, you probably never would have." "Until then, we didn’t have anything in common--" his voice trailed off.

"You didn't buy that truck just

to get me to talk with you, did you?" "I'll plead the fifth on that.


One more

thing." "I've got a bad feeling this is only the first of many 'one more things.'


"I need to learn how to ride." "You don't ask for much, do you?" "When you meet this woman, you'll understand.


remember, Mr. Rancher, I saw her first." George shook his head again.

"All right, Kev.


you insist on going through with this, I'll do my part. It'll be good for you to get away from the office. me hook up the beemer to the tow bar and we'll head down." "Now?"


"Pour your coffee into a travel mug, cowboy. six in the morning.


On the ranch, that means the day is

half over." Kevin shuddered.

Like most computer students, he'd

become a night owl in college.

Only at night could hard-

core computer gurus like him run the big programs that soaked up computer horsepower from workstations across the campus.

At six in the morning, he was more likely to

head for bed than the open range. good.

Oh, well.

Change was

Wasn't it?

Mickey checked Kevin’s hand-scrawled map, then read the sign.

Ware Ranch.

This had to be the place.

She could still turn around. about Kevin, really?

What did she know

So what if he danced like a dream,

kissed like Valentino, and lived on a ranch?

Maybe her

entire plan had been hopelessly naive. Since their discussion, she'd given a lot more thought to her ideas about cowboys.

Maybe she'd been

drawn to Kevin for more than just a job opportunity. She’d always thought that, when she was ready to really settle down on her own place, she’d find a cowboy to share it with.

She just hoped Kevin wasn't the one.


wasn't ready, yet. She shifted her Jeep into first and pulled onto the gravel road leading into the ranch.

Her headlights barely dented the thick fog that had descended on the road only miles outside of Dallas. Between a huge traffic tie-up on 635 and creeping along to make sure she didn't miss her turn, she was hours late.

Kevin had probably given up on her.

Finally she made out the house at the end of the road.

It looked, she decided, exactly right.

had been a small, two-story home.

Once it

It appeared as if

succeeding generations had added wings until it became a sprawling family home.

Warm lights shone at the front

entryway and peeped from the windows in the original structure.

A slight flicker spoke of a fire in the


Only the BMW sitting in front looked horribly

out of place.

If she could ever save enough to fulfill

her dream and get a place like this, she'd opt for a classic truck like Kevin's. She pulled her Jeep next to the sedan and stepped out.

A tug on her suitcase persuaded her that it wasn't

going anywhere.

Besides, she couldn't be presumptuous

enough to carry in a bag before she heard the invitation from the owner rather than from one of the hands. Her knees weren't knocking together as she walked up to the heavy carved wooden door.

Not quite.

But her

throat tightened so much that she had to force her breath through it. Kevin had told her to knock on the door of the main ranch house.

She did exactly that.

For an instant, she heard nothing. be asleep?

Could they all

So much for positive first impressions.

Then the door flew open. "So you're Kevin's girl.

I'm George Ware.

Come in

out of the cold." A fist clenched down on her stomach.

What had Kevin

told this man? She had imagined Kevin working for an old rancher, preparing, perhaps, to take over when the old man retired.

Kevin clearly had the intelligence and energy

to be successful, to run his own herd. needed some encouragement.

Maybe he just

This man looked as young as

Kevin. "Was it something I said?"

The man spoke so softly

that it took a minute for his words to register. "Oh.

I'm sorry.

Kevin's girl.

It's just that I'm not exactly

I'm just a friend.

And when he invited me

to spend the weekend here, he said I could stay in the ranch house.

I hope this isn't an imposition."

"It's been a few years since I was in school, but I think the Texas Constitution clearly states that a beautiful woman is never an imposition.

Come on in.

I'll call the bunkhouse and get Kevin here." He pointed to a comfortable-looking chair in front of the fireplace. Can I get you one?

"I was just getting myself a cocoa. Or perhaps you need something

stronger to warm you up after your drive.

Can't believe

we're still having weather like this when it's almost spring." "Any warming going on around here, I'll take care of it," Kevin's rich baritone interrupted. "I was just about to call you, Kevin.

Would you

join us for a drink?" "Let me bring in Mickey's things and get her settled, then I'd go for a cup of coffee." "Decaf all right?" Kevin gave a vastly over-acted shudder. work, George.

"It won't

You can't poison me and steal the girl.


saw that movie." Mickey looked at the men in amazement. dream of talking to a boss like that.

She'd never

Kevin might be a

great cowboy, but a couple of bad references and he'd have a heck of a time finding any job, let alone the kind of job that would let him save for his future. To her surprise, George laughed. strange breed," he told Mickey.

"Cowboys are a

"Unlike me, Kevin here

has to be up at five tomorrow morning, but he wants caffeine at midnight." George must not be an early riser like the ranch hands, Mickey thought.

She'd set her travel alarm and

plan on getting something for breakfast without any help from her host. Kevin disappeared, then returned with Mickey's bag.

"I'll bet you guys want to catch up on each other," George said.

"Once Ms. Murphy tells me what she'll have,

I'll get out of here." Mickey.

He turned his attention to

"What'll it be?"

"Cocoa sounds great," she told him. Mickey.

"And call me

Everyone does."

"Right, Mickey.

Two cocoas and a coffee.

caffeine, and no sugar.


Ten minutes."

George disappeared and Kevin filled her view. In the week since she'd seen him, she had spent far too much time trying to persuade herself that she had been swept up in a rush of hormones.

No man, no touch,

no kiss, could possibly be so special.

At least she’d

been sure of that. Kevin drew her close, his lips pressing hers, his muscular body echoing the kiss with its own caress. glad you made it," he murmured into her ear.


His breath

tickled her as he spoke, but the sensation was erotic rather than annoying. No.

She hadn't imagined anything.

If she wasn't

careful, she could spend the entire weekend with him, touching him, kissing him, and forget why she was here. This man made her a little crazy.

She pushed herself

away, but couldn’t help treating herself with one last brush of his lips against hers before breaking contact.

"I can't believe you talked to your boss that way," she told him when she thought her voice might be close enough to normal to pass. He looked genuinely confused.

"Did I say something

wrong?" She reminded herself that a cowboy's training emphasized control over the elements and dumb animals. Few cowboys were likely to have strong "office politics" skills

"Telling your boss you think he'll poison you

could be considered a poor career move." "I don't think George gets offended that easily," Kevin replied.

His smile indicated that he didn't take

her warning at all seriously.

"He understands his men

and makes allowances for small quirks." "He must be a great boss.

Still--oh, never mind.

I'm happy to be here." She had pulled away just in time.

George swung open

the door and carried in a tray holding three steaming mugs. "Make yourself comfortable, both of you," George said. Mickey looked around, sat on a couch near the fire, then accepted the hot chocolate from George. "Has Kevin worked for you long?" George looked uncomfortable for a moment.

"I guess

I don't think about things that way," he finally said. "Pretty much, we all work for the ranch.

Kevin and I go

back about twelve years now.

He's a good man.

long hours and doesn't complain much. smartest guys I know, too.


One of the

As my father would say, I

think you've got a keeper." She felt the blush in her cheeks and swallowed.


far we're just friends." "'So far' is the operative expression," Kevin interjected.

He still held her bag as if it weighed


Her suitcase, Kevin decided, had to weigh a hundred pounds. Normally that wouldn't have been a problem. daily routine included an hour in the gym.


Right now,

after a week on the ranch, his body felt like the Prussian army had marched over it, goose-steps and all. George had warned him that working here would hardly be a vacation.

He hadn't figured on it being quite this

tough. Riding was bad enough.

Then George had decided

that Kevin also needed to know how to drive cattle. Being fit hadn’t helped.

The horse and those damned cows

had found new muscles to torture every day. "I'll put your bag in your room.

Back in a second,"

he told her. Mickey looked like a dream.

Four hours of driving

in the fog would exhaust any normal person; she seemed as full of energy as a puppy.

"I was just telling Mickey about the ranch," George told him when he returned. The most inviting seat in the place was on the couch by Mickey.

He snared his coffee, then sat next to her.

"All lies, no doubt," he said. "Maybe a few." Kevin turned to Mickey. the strong silent cowboy?

"You know the stuff about

It's a big lie.

Cowboys spend

so much time alone that they talk your ears off if you give them half a chance.

I heard once that they dreamed

up the idea of the strong silent cowboy because some of the old silent movie stars couldn't remember their lines for the talkies."

Might as well show off some of the

knowledge he'd picked up over the past couple of days. He'd never met such a bunch of talkers as the ranch hands.

Only Hank, the old foreman, came close to meeting

the stereotype. "Well, I'm about lied out," George said. it a night.

"I'll call

Mickey, your room is in the south wing.

I'll be in the north wing so you'll have to shout pretty loud if you need anything." "Thanks," she said. Abruptly she found herself alone with Kevin, and this time with no threat of interruption. for a topic of conversation. expected.

She searched

"The ranch isn't like I

I thought there'd be cactus and desert instead

of so many trees."

He smiled at her naiveté. Texas.

"You're thinking of West

Still, this is a pretty part of the country.

have a fair amount of wildlife out here too.



skunks, maybe a pig or two." "Is that it?" "Lots of cows and horses.

Do you ride?"

He shot

off a silent prayer that she'd decline. "I love riding." So much for taking it easy for a day.

His aching

muscles could use a break. "I'll pack us a lunch and we'll go for a ride first thing tomorrow.

I know the guys will want to meet you,

so why don't we have dinner with them tomorrow." "You've got it all planned out." "Not at all," he quickly corrected her. thought of some things that might be fun. around to your networking, don't worry.

"I just

We'll get It's just when

you live in a place for a while, you sometimes forget about the fun spots.

When I was in college, one of the

guys in the dorm was from California but he'd never been to Disneyland." Her ears perked up. college. Oops.

"I didn't know you went to

Where did you go?" Just when he'd been complimenting himself on

keeping his story simple, he let something slip. he told her.

"They have a good ranching program."

that he'd taken any ranching classes.

"A&M," Not

The University

also had a top computer science department.

For just a

moment, he considered adding that fact. Later, he told himself.

Mickey awoke to the smell of burning coffee.


rolled over, punched the pillow, then froze. Through the window, the night sky was begrudgingly yielding to the dawn. against the sun.

Stars still blazed their defiance

The deep blues of night blended with

the purple-pink of dawn. How long had it been since she had seen such a beautiful sunrise?

She couldn't remember.

In the city,

the ever-present glow of city lights washed away the intense colors of the morning leaving only a constant gray. Here, even at dawn, more stars adorned the sky than she had seen in years. She pulled a robe over her flannel nightgown and stepped into the hallway. "You're up," a cheery voice called.

"I just put on

coffee." George, already dressed, met her at the kitchen door with a steaming mug of coffee. her.

Maybe he'd gotten up for

She'd have to tell him how unnecessary that was. "I've got milk in the icebox," he told her. She went to look.

No familiar plastic jug caught her gaze.

She was

about to ask when she noticed a china pitcher. "That's yesterday's milk so you might want to mix the cream back in," George suggested. "Just like the Little House in the Prairie," Mickey breathed. A thumping sound, gradually approaching the house, caught her attention. "What's that?" she asked George. He peered out the window over the kitchen door. "Hard to say. Kevin.

Either we've got bears out there, or it's

I'm not sure you could tell the difference at

this hour.

Why don't you pour him a cup of Java and then

ask him?" "Morning, sweetheart," Kevin muttered as he entered the room. Kevin tossed off his endearment so casually it couldn't have meant anything to him. every woman he met "sweetheart." down her spine.

He probably called

Still, it sent a shiver

She had to fight back the urge to run

her fingers through his soft brown hair and bring some order to it. "Good morning," she returned, handing him a steaming mug. Kevin took the coffee and gulped. the world."

"Worst coffee in

"Every time."

George laughed.

"With these drip

coffee machines, you'd think anyone could make good coffee.

Not so."

"At least it's got caffeine," Kevin said. right, I'm human."


He pulled a comb from his back

pocket, raked it through his hair, then tucked in his shirttails.

"Who's making breakfast?"

"Doesn't someone cook in the bunkhouse?" Mickey asked. "You might call it that," Kevin complained. "Roger's wife fixes dinner.

In the morning, it's catch

as catch can." "Fix the eggs," George suggested.

"I'll make

another pot of coffee." "Oh, no," Kevin objected with a shudder. sit down, George.

"You just

Read the newspaper and find out what's

happening to pork belly prices.

I don't think I could

stand another cup of this paint remover you call coffee." With quick economical motions, Kevin pulled a frying pan from a shelf under the stove and started cooking a mess of bacon.

"You're not a vegetarian, are you?" he

asked Mickey. "She'd better not be," George warned.

His eyes

smiled, but his voice sounded serious. "Prices for red meat have been soft for the past decade," Kevin told her.

"They've really only recovered

in the past couple of years."

"I guess you ranch folks are big on the low carbohydrate diet fads, then," Mickey said.


assured, I'm a carnivore." Still, she cringed inwardly as Kevin poured some of the bacon grease into a second frying pan and cracked a dozen eggs into it.

When he had them well started, he

grated cheese over them.

Finally, he inspected the

coffee maker. "Thought so," he called out. "What?" George wanted to know. "You didn't use a filter." "A what?" "You know, those paper things you put the coffee in." "Why would I do that?"

To Mickey, George's surprise

seemed genuine. "So you wouldn't poison my guest.

Or me.


they're supposed to be good for the compost heap."


rummaged around in George's shelves until he found an old package of filters nestled in with the coffee maker warrantee.

"I guess this will teach me not to give you

anything electronic." "Not my strong suit," George agreed companionably. Apparently his employees familiarity didn't bother him in the least.

"So what are you two going to do today?"

Kevin had spent last night praying for rain. wasn't going to happen.


He sat down with Mickey and George and stuck a fork into his eggs.

Hopefully Mickey wouldn't ask about how

he'd acquired his breakfast-making skills.

Before he'd

put his wild twenties behind him, he'd taught himself to cook breakfast as an enticement for overnight guests. The female kind. He took a bite, then swallowed.

"I thought we'd

take a picnic and ride out to the west. makes a pretty view.

The stream there

I could check on those cows while

I'm out there." "You don't have to call them cows because of me," Mickey giggled.

"I know enough about ranching to know

they're cattle." "Um, right."


He could let her believe

that his misstatements were an attempt to talk to her in non-ranching language. How the heck had everything gotten so complicated? Back before he'd started his company, dating was simple. You met a girl, let her know you were interested, and things went on from there.

Just because he had tried to

teach Mickey a simple and straightforward lesson, his life had suddenly become complicated.

Right now, he

couldn't think of a way to uncomplicate things that wouldn't drive her away.

The longer he waited, the more

he wanted her to stay, and the more certain he was that he had already waited too long. water, he'd tell her today.

Well, come hell or high

"Fence out there is new, but it still needs checking,” George said. Since riding to the west was the easiest ride in the ranch, Kevin had checked the darned fence twice a day for the past week.

Still, Mickey didn't have to know all of

the gory details.

Details like he had to sit perfectly

still because his thighs burned every time he moved and that his entire body ached from the fall he'd taken yesterday. "Mind if I borrow Angel for Mickey?" he asked George. Rather than answer, George turned to Mickey.


you ride?" "Some.

I took lessons in high school.

It's been a

long time, though." How could anyone be so chipper and happy sounding in the morning?

She swung her legs from the tall stool

she'd pulled up at the table, exposing long, slender calves under the silk bathrobe she'd draped around herself.

The bow looked awful tempting.

and it would open.

A little tug

Kevin’s lips still tingled from the

kiss they'd shared the previous night and right now, he'd rather find a way to tumble into bed with her than get on another of those fat horses.

Whoever came up with the

idea that riding a horse is sexy? Wayne--but really.

Too late to shoot John

"I think Angel will be fine, then. bite, though.

Don't let her

That's her one bad habit."

"I'll try." Kevin shoveled down the rest of his breakfast.


thing about the country air, it dramatically improved his appetite. "If we're going for a ride, I'd better get changed," Mickey said.

She excused herself and headed for her wing

of the house. "So what do you think?" he asked George softly. "I think you're dog food." "I haven't lied to her.

Is it my fault that she

chooses to believe that I'm a cowboy?" "In a word, yes. on face value."

In the real world, we take things

George clicked his tongue.



she finds out the truth, she's going to be one ticked-off camper.

If I were you, I'd take a real vacation.


to the South Pole." "I know.

I'm going to tell her on our ride."

"You'd better," George told him. "Ready."

Mickey stepped back into the kitchen.

Kevin neatly managed to avoid choking on his coffee. Her jeans clung to her hips, showing every slender curve.

She had tied her long dark hair into some

complicated braid thing and topped it all off with a hat.

He'd seen dozens of denim shirts since he'd been here, but he hadn't seen one worn like this, with its tails tied together, leaving her slender midriff bare. Maybe she'd fastened two of the buttons on her shirt. Thank goodness the wind was out of the south today and they were actually getting some warm weather, or she'd be risking frostbite. Despite his noble intentions, his eyes followed the arrow of her décolleté. satisfactory.

Definitely better than

Damn, things were getting hard.

"Let's go," she said. Kevin came back to reality.

If she hadn't said

anything, he might have spent the rest of his life staring at her.

How the heck did she manage to keep

looking prettier every time he saw her?

It didn't seem

possible. "You look great," he managed to stumble out. "You don't look so bad yourself, cowboy.

Let's see

how we look after a day on the horses, all hot and sweaty." He was already hot. horse sweat.

But this had nothing to do with

Maybe he should have taken a cold shower

this morning instead of the blissfully warm one he used to try to wash away his aches. "Are these the stables?"

She pointed at the

outbuilding when he led her outside. "Yep."

"Painted red, just like a country barn should be," she said with a satisfied nod. When they reached the stable, Hank, the Ware Ranch's foreman, stepped outside leading two horses already saddled. "Figured y'all would be heading out a little late if I didn't give you a hand," the man said. for a ride.

"Beautiful day

Going to check on those cattle down near the

creek?" "Uh-huh," Kevin answered. Murphy.

"Hank, this is Mickey

She's visiting us for a couple of days."

Hank touched his knuckles to his hat.



I'd known you could find things pretty things like this in the big D, I'd spend more time there myself.


to meetcha, Ms. Mickey." "Nice to meet you, Hank. the horses."

Thanks for your help with

Her eyes sparkled as she spoke to Hank, and

she reached out to take a bridle from him. "Try not to let her eat anything other than grass, Ms. Mickey," Hank urged.

"She's not smart enough to

recognize poison ivy." "I'll try," she promised. "Thanks, Hank," Kevin told the foreman, grateful for his quiet support--unlike some of the other hands. Kevin's dilemma must have been the most exciting social activity to hit the ranch this year.

He had

overheard two of the hands betting on what this girl

would do to Kevin when she found out what a fake he was. Kevin didn't approve of either suggestion. Hank, at least, seemed most unlikely to overact and give the thing away before he had a chance to come clean.

"Let's go," Mickey urged.

She mounted her horse as

if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A week

in the saddle had improved his technique considerably. Unfortunately, he still had a long way to go. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," he muttered to himself, then mounted Randy. "Did you hurt yourself?" she asked as soon as they were out of sight of the ranch house. "What do you mean?" "I'm not unobservant. He nodded.

After five minutes, his deception was

already unraveling. One more hour.

You're riding stiffly."

Another hour.

That's all he asked.

He’d find the right place to tell her

the truth and throw himself at her mercy.

Chapter 3

"Sure you're all right?"

Mickey knew she was

mothering him, but she figured a cowboy type like Kevin would insist on showing her around even if he had a couple broken legs. "Just a little sore.

I took a fall yesterday."

She nodded her head.

"I hear it’s an occupational


Maybe you should see a doctor."

His grin reassured her.

"I'll live."

"We'll take it easy on the ride then. lots of time--"


We'll have

What was she saying?

Somehow she

had jumped to the conclusion that she'd be able to turn his invitation for the weekend into a job somewhere in the area. "That'd be great.

If you're ready, let's head out."

At least he hadn't noticed her premature assumption. Rick led the way up a low rise to the south. He rode well, she noticed, if a little stiffly. She'd always imagined cowboys slouching as they rode, taking it easy.

Kevin rode almost too perfectly.

Probably because of his fall, she concluded. She urged Angel closer to him. to college together?"

"You and George went

The two men seemed very close.

That would work out nicely for George, but if Kevin had a flaw, it seemed to be that he was willing to do too much for other people at his own expense.

Could he be

allowing George to take advantage of him, unintentionally of course? A man as self-confident, intelligent, and independent as Kevin wouldn't be content to spend the rest of his life working for someone else. place of his own, just as she did.

He'd want a

Still, he could get

sucked into the problems of a friend who happened to prefer impractical European luxury sedans to hard work and American trucks. "Sure did," Kevin answered.

"We roomed together all

four years." "He's a nice man."

She paused, looking for the

right way to ask her next question.

"Did your parents

have a ranch of their own?" "Not them."

He smiled at her again.

a Fort Worth doctor.

"My father was

My mother worked the Junior League.

When I was growing up, they always said I could be anything I wanted.

Of course, they really meant that I

could decide between becoming a doctor or a lawyer.


afraid I'm a disappointment to both of them." "Where are they now?" He furrowed his brow. Florida now.

"I think they're at home in

I get postcards from them every few weeks.

Generally they're in exotic locations.

They say they're

spending my inheritance."

His voice indicated his

approval of their decision. "So you're on your own when it comes to buying a ranch." Kevin reined in his horse.

"What makes you think

I'm interested in buying a ranch?" "I--" Mickey stopped herself before she said anything foolish and took a deep breath.

Always before,

her goal of moving to the country and eventually getting a place of her own had been sufficient.

Since she had

met Kevin, had her mind taken a detour?

She'd kissed

enough frogs to realize that she had a prince on her hands, but that didn't give her the right to hop to a conclusion. Kevin smiled at her, but it didn't look as if he'd start riding again until she answered. "I don't know," she finally told him.

"I just don't

see you working for someone else all of your life.


though George is your boss, he doesn't treat you like a field hand.

He almost looks up to you.

you went to college.

You're smart and

What was your major?"

"Business," he answered. "I figured it was something like that." He pressed his knees into his horse again, climbing to the top of the low hill.

"You're right," he told her. idea of working for myself.

"I've always liked the

From the time I was a kid, I

figured I'd go off on my own." "I could help, you know." "What?"

He sounded as if he had been bitten by a

snake. "I just meant I have a little money.

Just a few

thousand, but I'd be happy to lend it to you.

It might

be enough, with whatever you have, to put a down payment on a place.

I'm hardly earning anything on it now, so

you wouldn't have to pay me much interest." He shook his head.

"Mickey, you are impossibly

sweet--and desperately naive. out.

I truly can't figure you

But I'm not going to borrow your money." "Maybe we could be partners--" He was already shaking his head when he opened his

mouth, so she hurried ahead to cut off his objection. "We could incorporate and each be stockholders. Believe me, I don't mind working.

I've never worked with

cattle before, but you know I can ride.

My degree is in

accounting, so I could do the numbers and make sure we didn't get cheated." Kevin kept on shaking his head. you're going pretty fast?

"Don't you think

I know your dream is to live

and work on a ranch, but you hardly know me. some kind of con man."

I could be

She batted away the tears that suddenly appeared in her eyes.


You, and George and Hank, and everyone

else here set up a fake ranch operation to con a woman you'd never met before, all for a couple of thousand dollars.

I don't believe it."

"I could be one of those guys who drinks away everything he makes." "Are you?" "I had a beer the other night." "You bought a beer but I didn't see you take a single swallow.

Last night you drank coffee.

I think

you can come up with a better excuse than that." "All right," he pushed his Stetson back on his head. "I don't owe anything to anyone. take care of things myself."

I make my own way and

He stopped talking for a

moment, then nudged his horse forward.

"Come on, let’s

get up this hill." Jennifer looked at him for a moment, then spurred Angel to a trot, putting herself in the lead so Kevin couldn't see her irrational tears. thinking about a future with him. best.

She had no business Her original plan was

Get a job in the country, save her money, and some

day, buy a spread of her own. big a place as Ware Ranch.

It wouldn't have to be as

Once she'd taken care of her

dreams, she might be able to find time for a man.


Mickey had never thrown herself at a man before. She hadn't meant to do it this time either, but how could

she expect Kevin to believe that her intentions were wholly platonic?

They weren't.

The partnership she was

interested in having with Kevin involved more than a couple of hundred acres.

It involved their naked bodies

wrapped so tightly around one another that neither would know where one stopped and the other started. Fortunately, the hill proved high enough to give her a chance to pull a handkerchief from her jeans pocket and wipe her eyes.

Of course she was probably a mess now,

but she couldn't help that. "That was the nicest business proposition I've had in a long time.

I didn't mean to hurt your feelings,"

Kevin's gentle voice said as she pulled Angel to a stop at the top of the hill.

Somehow Kevin had managed to

catch up with her during the climb.

He took her hand in

both of his, guiding his horse with his knees. they say in the city?

Maybe we should do lunch?

"What do I just

happen to have something with me." Mickey didn't want him to see her now with makeup smeared all over her face, so she looked the other way. They had climbed a gradual slope but on the other side, almost directly in front of her feet, the hill fell away steeply.

Straight ahead, a stream tumbled at the bottom

of the steep descent. "It's beautiful."

For the moment, Mickey could

forget what an idiot she had made of herself. "You should see it at sunset," Kevin told her.

He swung from his horse and then helped her from hers. She had forgotten how riding and the clean air of a ranch whet her appetite but, although she had managed a huge breakfast just a few hours ago, now she felt famished. asked him.

"Shouldn't you check on the cattle first?" she Jennifer couldn't help but feel that he might

be neglecting his work because she had frazzled him. "We're out here because it's pretty and because I wanted to spend some time with you, alone. of some silly cows," Kevin told her. come, I talked to George.

Not because

"When you agreed to

He worked it out so the other

hands would cover for me and give me some time with you." He tossed both horses' reins around a bush, reached into his saddle bags and started to remove one wrapped package after another. At Angel's tug, the reins came loose and the filly began to wander away.

"Hey," Mickey called out.

Kevin looked up from his saddle bags.

"What's the

problem?" "Nothing," she told him as she trotted after Angel, catching her easily, then securing her.

It seemed odd

that Kevin would be so casual about a horse.

His own

mount might be trained well enough to stay where he put it, but obviously Angel wasn't. The fast-growing pile of packages caught her attention.

"What have you got there?" she asked.

"Did you ever read The Wind in the Willows? She nodded warily. Interesting.

A cowboy who liked to read?

"It's one of my favorites, but it makes me

cry." His smile shone.

"I've always wanted to throw a

picnic like the one at the beginning when Mole and the Water Rat first met.

What better way to get to know

someone?" Kevin's lean body didn't look like he ate much at all.

His tanned and hardened muscles showed the benefits

of working outdoors with horses and cattle.


nothing in the saddle bags was especially heavy, his movement still sent his muscles into play against each other, flexing and rippling smoothly underneath his skin as he spread a red checkered cloth on the ground, then set the places with Fiestaware china. "You must have spent all night getting this ready." "Not really.

I stopped in Tyler yesterday and

picked up some things. "Nothing fancy?

Nothing fancy."

You've got to be kidding.

I'm a

simple girl.

You didn't have to do all of this to

impress me."

Her emotions warred with her common sense.

Kevin should save his money rather than waste it on frivolous picnic fixings, most of which they could never eat.

Still, she enjoyed the extravagant gesture.


made her feel special, as if pleasing her were the most important thing in his world.

"You only live once," he told her. Warning bells went off in Mickey's mind. Kevin really believe this?


She'd assumed that their

shared attraction meant shared interests.

But did it?

Could he have rejected her offer of a partnership because he wanted to continue a life lived for the moment? Certainly this, rather than a fear of him turning out to be a drunk or a con man, represented the real danger to her dreams. She took a deep breath.

She had no business

entering into a relationship with a man who couldn't settle down.

Now that she saw the risk, she realized she

had already committed too much of her hopes.

She had to

confront the issue now, even though it was the last thing she wanted to do. "That's not the way I look at things," she told him. Even to her own ears, her voice sounded short, harsh.

Mickey's stern tones warned Kevin that something had gone very wrong.

Still, her eyes didn't hold any anger.

Instead, they showed concern. He reviewed their conversation up to that minute. No help there.

"I'm clueless," he finally admitted.

"What did I say?" "Don't take this the wrong way," Mickey began.


put her hand on his upper arm, then pulled it away as if the touch of his body burned her.

"I've done the 'live-

for-today' stuff.

That was before I moved to Texas.


don't want to wake up thirty years from now and find out I've partied away my life and it's too late to accomplish what I need and want." Which told him exactly nothing new.

She hadn't kept

her plans a secret. Kevin pushed his hat back and rubbed his forehead. "You know, here I am, thinking I'm following you, then suddenly there's this logic jump and I'm gone.

Can you

take me through this one more time, slowly?" Mickey had begun to back away so he snagged one of her hands and held it between both of his own. "Look at you, Kevin. I know.

You're one of the smartest men

You went to college at a top school and got a

business degree.

You can talk me 'round in circles

without even trying. you ever did try.

I'm afraid of what would happen if

But you're working as a cowboy for

someone else and taking life as it comes." "This is a switch.

I thought you liked cowboys."

She pulled her hand away, looked at it for a moment, then slid it back into his grasp as if concerned that he'd take her rejection too hard. "Of course I like cowboys.

You told me yourself

that you can't see working for someone else the rest of your life.

But you've got to follow your dreams, not

just dream them." "So you want a dreamer, not a cowboy?"

"You keep making me sound like I'm desperate for a man.

I'm not.

To me, a cowboy stands for something.


stands for a man who isn't afraid of solitude, and who talks only when he has something to say.

A man with

hands sensitive enough to care for a new-born calf and strong enough to pull a steer to a stop.

A man who

sleeps under the stars and conquers the land to make it his own.

It doesn't stand for a guy who gets a job from

his best friend and spends all of his money trying to impress a girl." "Look, this is just a picnic," Kevin said. "Sure it's a picnic, now," she responded. narrowed for a moment, then met his gaze.

Her eyes

"Can I ask you

a question?" "Shoot."

He had hoped to put off the moment of

truth about his cowboy career until after lunch, but if she pushed, he'd tell her everything right now. "George's ranch hasn't exactly been making money hand over fist, has it?" she asked. "How'd you guess that?" "I mean, look at it. goodness sake. life.

The man drives a BMW, for

I can't think of a sillier car for ranch

Tell me if I'm wrong, but aren't you involved in

this ranch to help your friend?" "All right, I'll come clean."

He made himself

laugh, but he could hardly get the words out.

Of course

he was involved in the ranch to help his friend.


than last week's riding lessons, his purchase of half the ranch was his total involvement.

That and negotiating a

few price breaks with suppliers. "Why are you laughing?" He’d have to come clean now. beautiful picnic.

Rick looked at his

At least the wild pigs would have a

nice meal because he didn’t think they would. Really, I'm serious. "Kevin."


I'm not--"

Mickey's eyes took on a distant look, then

she looked back at him.

"I think there's something wrong

with those cattle." He followed her gaze.

A small group of George's

cows had gathered around a flat place around the stream, but one of them appeared to have wandered out too far and got caught up somehow. "I think that one's in trouble," he told her. "What are you going to do?" An excellent question.

Now that he had a chance to

look, he could see that the trapped animal really was a cow rather than a steer.

George and he had poured a

major part of his equity infusion into upgrading the ranch's breeding stock.

Losing one of the new cows

wouldn't bankrupt the operation, but every animal was important and the loss would be a setback both financially and to George's self-esteem. Sure, Kevin could throw out a few more bucks and buy a replacement, but his investment in the ranch already

strained their friendship.

George wouldn't like to have

to come back for more funding, especially not before the ranch actually turned a profit. "I'll head down there and see what I can do," Kevin decided. "Then I'll come along in case you need some help," Mickey told him.

She sounded absolutely convinced that

he could manage things himself. "All right, but stay back. need it.

I'll call for help if I

In the meantime, I'll get a little backup."


pulled his cellular phone from the saddle bag and dialed the ranch house. In an instant, he was telling George what had gone wrong. "Don't do anything to frighten her," his friend told him.

"We'll be out as quickly as we can get there." One look at the wallowing cow told Kevin that

George's advice was way too late. screaming in fear or pain.

The animal was already

"She'll have torn herself to

pieces by then," he told George.

"We're going in."

"Take the hill slow," Kevin shouted to Mickey as he urged his mount downward.

With every second counting, he

went faster than was safe but hoped that she'd be there to help him if he broke his fool neck. At the bottom of the hill, he stepped down from his patient horse and plunged into the water.

The complacent cattle ignored him and he had to force his way among them.

He should, he realized, have

stayed on his horse until he was closer to the frightened cow.

Still, he twisted his way past the other cattle

until he stood near the panicked animal. Her eyes glared at him as if he were the source of all of her problems, then she bucked. Now he could see that she was hung up on a huge, mired tree branch.

Every movement seemed to wedge the

cow deeper into the hole she was digging for herself. Even in the few moments it had taken to ride down the hill, she’d sunken deeper.

Only her head remained above

the water level. Kevin reached under the water and felt for any obstruction.

Nothing at first.

felt a ‘v’ in the branch. into a frenzy of pain.

He pushed deeper and

His touch, though, set the cow

She twisted and lashed out with

one front leg, striking him in the ribs, hard. Fortunately the water cut the force of the blow. Even so, his lungs gasped for breath. obviously wasn't the trapped one.

Well, that leg

It must be the other

foreleg. "Are you all right?" too close.

He looked up.

Mickey's voice came from far She had ridden Angel into the

stream, but was holding the small horse a safe distance from the raging cow.

"I'll live," he grunted.

"Do you have a rope on

that saddle?" "Sure," she told him. "Loop it a few times around the saddle horn and toss me the other end." "Do you want me to lasso her?" If he'd been able to do that, or thought to do that, he might have saved himself a good wetting and what felt like a couple of broken ribs.

Now, though, the rope

around the cow's neck would only panic it more. "Just toss me the rope," he replied. Mickey looked disgruntled, but did as he asked. Holding onto the tree branch, he submerged himself in the stream.


The cow's leg was caught in the "v"

of the branch.

Its struggles had merely impaled the

branch's other end deeper into the stream's sandy bottom. Working underwater, he tried to tie the rope to the far end of the branch. The rope slipped between his cold-numbed fingers, and he had to have Mickey pull it in and toss it to him again.

The second time, he finally secured it.

"Thank goodness for the Boy Scouts," he told Mickey as he popped his head above the water level.

It hurt to

talk, but he didn't want Mickey to panic. He led Mickey's horse down-river, away from the cow.

The rope slowly took the strain, stretching slightly at first, then coming to a throbbing rigidity. Angel leaned against the pull, then stopped.


amount of tugging made her budge. "I have to go back up.

When the branch gives,

unfasten the rope from the saddle. take you too."

Otherwise it might

He dragged himself back upstream, pulling

himself along the rope against the strong current.


cow’s nostrils remained above the water line, but that was all.

When he finally reached the log, he grasped it

and pulled upward. It gave slightly. "Pull," he shouted. "Come on Angel," Mickey urged.

She dug her heels

into the horse's side. Angel gave a second effort and the branch came loose. The cow bellowed, then, free, she lumbered out of the pool.

Mickey gave a brief look at her rope, then

stripped it from her saddlehorn. "We'd better check that leg," Kevin said. "We'll let them do that," Mickey told him, pointing in the direction they had come. down the hill in the old pickup. you."

George and Hank tore "Let's take a look at

He nodded, took a step toward her, then his legs buckled and he felt himself slip quietly beneath the water.

"I think he's back." Kevin's head felt as if a punk rock band had taken up permanent residence somewhere between his ears.


moaned, then tried to move. Sharp pain reminded him of what had happened. "Be still, Kevin."

Mickey's voice might be soft,

but obviously she intended to be obeyed. "Good idea," he said.

Really and truly, he had

intended a light, humorous reply.

Instead, even to him,

he sounded like a pathetic invalid. His ribs ached. kicked him.

That's right.

The damned cow had

But something felt wonderful on his

forehead. He managed to open one eye. He was in one of George's spare bedrooms at the ranch house with absolutely no memory of how he got there. Mickey sat so close to him that he knew he could touch her.

Her soft hands stroked his brow.

"Is that cow all right?" he asked. "She'll be fine," George said. her leg." "Good."

"We put something on

"Looks like you'll be fine too," George continued. "You should have seen Mickey. certainly is strong.

For a little thing, she

She practically dragged you out of

the river before we could do anything." "Thanks, Mickey," he said, feeling distinctly unmacho.

"Don't worry about it," she replied.

A note in her voice warned him that he had something important to worry about. happy camper.

Mickey was definitely not a

Could this incident have spoiled her

dreams of a peaceful life in the country? "The doctor was here earlier," George continued. "Do you remember?

You seemed to be okay when he was

here, but then you went unconscious again. you smacked your head on a rock.


I think we should get

you to the hospital." He didn't remember the doctor.

"No, I'm all right."

George and Mickey exchanged dubious glances. "I'm fine," he said more firmly. "Well, we'll see.

Mickey said she'd keep an eye on

you. I'll stop by a little later."

George vanished.

Kevin decided to rest his eyes for just another minute.

When he opened them, he could see nothing.


blind," he croaked. Mickey's laughing voice answered. dark.

"It's called

It happens out here in the country."


Sorry, I didn't realize I'd dropped off."

"That's all right." "Say, Mickey, I really need to talk to you." "Do you think you're ready to talk?"

Her question

seemed so innocent, yet her voice had an edge to it. "Um, well, yes. "Perfect.

I guess so."

Then why don't you tell me who the hell

you are and what kind of game you're playing." "What do you mean?" realized.

Not a smart comeback, he

After all, he had planned on telling her the

truth by now anyway.

What possible purpose would further

lies serve? "I think it's a pretty straightforward question. Let me run through the evidence, though, just in case anything is too hard for you.” on her fingers.

She ticked the points off

“First, you ride a horse like someone

who just took a week of lessons.

Second, everyone here

is just a little too polite to you.

Third, I don't think

many cowboys carry cellular phones around with them. Fourth, you didn't have a clue how to handle that cow. It's a miracle that you weren't killed.

Fifth, when the

doctor finally got here, he'd never seen you before. Sherlock Holmes I'm not, but eventually even I can put one and one together.

You've been lying to me from the

very beginning." Mickey had stopped stroking his forehead, but her warm hand still rested there, comforting and exciting him

at the same time.

Had Kevin destroyed the possibility of

trust between them by waiting too long to tell her his story?

She would never believe he really had intended to

tell her the truth, that he had been ready to on the picnic before she'd spotted that fool cow. position, he would be just as skeptical.

In her Right now, he

figured to have about as much credibility as a used-car salesman. "I'm not sure that lying is exactly the right word," he began cautiously. "Oh, good.

I want to hear this story."

"I never claimed to be a cowboy.

You assumed it and

I neglected to correct your mistake." She jerked her hand away from him as if his skin had burned her. right?

"I get it.

You were just playing a game,

See how you could fool the little girl."

"Nothing like that."

Sure it was nothing like that, Mickey told herself sarcastically.

How often had Kevin played this trick?

With his looks, he could catch any girl he wanted. as an act of desperation, she could understand.


But his

strange willingness to toy with another person's life, that didn't make sense at all. "So what came next on the agenda?

I assume I wasn't

going to be a virgin sacrifice or anything?" His eyes flashed open.


Is that an option?"

Her cheeks burned. for him to see.

Thank goodness it was too dark

"That's one thing you'll never know,

buster." "Sorry.

I know this isn't the time for jokes.


it down to the painkiller." "The doctor didn't give you anything.

He said it

was too dangerous with the concussion." "Then chalk it up to temporary insanity caused by a concussion.

Look, Mickey, I intended to tell you the

truth today." "Sure you did."

Hadn't he told her enough lies

without adding to them? right?

"As soon as you got tired of me,

I'll bet you figured the truth would get rid of

me quick without all of those inconvenient good-byes." "So why haven't you?

Left, I mean."

"If you took one look outside, you'd know why.


fog is so thick I couldn't even see the center lane in the highway without opening my car door.

I'm not going

back to Dallas in weather like this." "Pray for more fog," Kevin muttered. What was that supposed to mean? her to stay?

Did he really want

Nothing about this charade made one lick of

sense. "Why don't you start by telling me the truth, Kevin. Or is that really your name?" He nodded, then winced.

Instinctively she smoothed his hair from his forehead. His skin’s clammy feel contrasted with the healthy warmth of his kisses the previous evening. Kisses she had to forget about before she went absolutely insane. "Kevin.

Kevin Sullivan."

"All right.

So you've got a name.

What else?"

"I really did go to college with George. roommate at A&M.

He was my

When I moved back to Dallas I sold him

my truck." "Okay, no truck," she nodded.

"Go on."

"A couple of years ago, I worked for a company that made Internet software.

When they went public, my stock

was worth enough for me to start my own company and to help George out at the ranch. "Absentee landowner.

I own half of this place."

What a recommendation.


must really have been laughing when I suggested that I go partners with you.

As if the money I've saved amounts to

anything to you." He winced, and she felt a pang of conscience.


she should tone down the sarcasm in light of Kevin's injuries.

And maybe she was an idiot for letting him

talk to her, letting his warm voice penetrate through her skin.

If she kept on listening to him, any jury in the

world would convict her of insanity.

Why, now that she

knew the truth, did she still want to kiss this man?

"I wasn't laughing, Mickey. what you offered.

I really appreciate

And I'm not just an absentee landlord.

I also help George out on the business angles.


about six weeks ago, he had a bookkeeper here for the day-to-day stuff.

But I negotiated for better prices on

his stock back in Dallas and we jointly decide where to invest." of him.

He really sounded like he wanted her to approve Why did it matter so much, and if it did matter,

why had he started with the big lie? "Let's skip the ancient history stuff.

What was the

deal at Rowdies last weekend?" He gave her a tentative smile.

"I was hoping to put

that part off until you calmed down.

I guess I'll be old

and gray before that happens, though." If only he was old and gray, Mickey thought. did he have to be so doggoned handsome? he looked like a cowboy.


The problem was,

How could a girl keep from

falling for that tousled, 'rode all night to see you,' look? "Talk," she told him. "Oh, well, here goes nothing. you worked a week ago?

Remember the party

At a little software company just

north of Dallas." "Sure.

Software 32.

"That's my company.

In Richardson." When you were on break, I

overheard you talking to Sandy.

You went on about what a

bunch of jerks software guys were, how you could spot

them a mile away, and how you wished you could meet a real cowboy.

I thought I'd teach you a lesson about

stereotypes." For a moment she was embarrassed that he'd overheard her insulting remarks.

What had she said?


about pencil-neck geeks who couldn't relate to real human beings? But at least her observations had been honest ones.

She fought down that feeling, replacing it with

anger. "You lying snake.

You figured that you'd act like

the biggest jerk in the world.

That would teach me how

wrong I was and how software people can be kind and generous.

Thanks a lot.

I'll certainly remember this

lesson." "Come on, Mickey. you.

I'm trying to be straight with

Would you please hear me out, then decide?" She should stand up and walk away.

So what if Kevin

would be left alone because all of the real cowboys were out trying to gather lost cattle in the densest fog to hit this part of Texas in years?

Snakes didn't need TLC,

did they? But Mickey couldn't make herself leave him.


into ice cold water to rescue that cow had been brave. More so since he obviously didn't know what he was doing. What could it hurt to listen to the man?

One thing for

sure--after what he had done, she had to be immune to his charm.

She just had to be.

"I'm listening, Kevin," she told him.

"But only

because you're hurt and you need someone to watch you." "Fair enough.

I told you why I went to that bar.

But after I met you, I lost interest in teaching you a lesson.

That kind of lesson, anyway."

"So why didn't you tell me your real occupation then?" "Tell you that I was another of those urban cowboys who drive you nuts?

When you suggested visiting my

ranch, I figured that I could help you with the job contacts like you wanted and then ‘fess up. Mickey.

I like you,

I didn't want to drive you away."

Mickey watched his face for any sign that he might be laying another line on her.

She couldn't see anything

but sincerity, but right now she doubted her judgment. "All right," she finally said. "All right, what?" "All right I believe you.

Now if you'll just get

out of my life and keep out, I'll pretend that I never met you."

Chapter 4

Things could have gone worse, Kevin assured himself. He couldn't figure out how exactly, but surely they could have.


After a day and a half in bed, his head felt better and his ribs only hurt when he laughed.

Laughing was

about as far from his mind as kissing the cow that had kicked him. He still heard Mickey's voice, her laugh, fill the house almost as if to taunt him with the void she had left in his heart.

She hadn't visited him since the

night of his accident.

He hadn't moved from his bed, so

she knew how to find him.

He had to conclude that she

was avoiding him. "Here's breakfast, champ."

George was quite a step

down from Mickey in the looks department, but at least he didn't bite Kevin's head off when he came into the room.

Kevin looked at the stack of pancakes, plate of eggs and grits, and what smelled suspiciously like bad French roast coffee.

"What gives?"

"Would you believe, changing the coffee filter made all the difference?" "Come on.

Filter or not, you didn't cook this."

"Well, I hired a new bookkeeper and she does a little cooking on the side." "Praise be.

Did you run an ad at the Senior Center

like I suggested?" "Not exactly.

I found a sweet young thing who

wanted to take on a ranching job." Dark suspicion oozed into Kevin's mind.

"I don't

happen to know this young thing, do I?" George looked embarrassed.

"As a matter of fact,

you do. Mickey gave me her resume yesterday.

She doesn't

have ranch experience, but she has worked as a bookkeeper for several small companies.

All the men like her.


think she'll fit in." "Of course the men like her.

She's only drop-dead

gorgeous with a body that doesn't stop.

If this

breakfast tastes as good as it smells, you may have a knife fight every morning.

I'm afraid you're making a

mistake with that one." "You're half-owner so you get a vote.

Want me to

fire her?" Oops.

Laying Mickey off just when she found the

ranch job she had dreamed of all her life would not be a smart decision.

Kevin had learned one lesson early in

his business career--cut your losses.

"No, no.

it back. Hiring her is a great thought." give Kevin an idea.

I take

Good enough to

"As a matter of fact," he added

innocently, "I was thinking that I'd spend more time here

on the ranch myself. After all, my company makes software to support telecommuting.

I can't imagine a better

test." "Kevin," his friend warned him. blew it with this woman.

"Face facts.


That doesn't mean the end of

the world. Sure she's pretty and a lot of fun to be around.

But she's not the only pretty woman out there.

While I was visiting you the other weekend, your phone rang non-stop. At least five different women called and invited you for dinner.

Some of them sounded like they

wouldn't mind if you skipped the meal part.

Why don't

you follow up with them and get Mickey out of your head." Why not indeed?

Ever since he had met her, the

woman had baffled him, excited him, and frankly driven him crazy. Why couldn't he have the same reaction to one of the women in the Dallas Five Hundred Inc.?


since he had met Mickey, he hadn't thought of another woman. That, of course, was the crux of the matter. might not make sense, but he wanted Mickey.


Just any

woman wouldn't cut it. "I know staying here sounds stupid.

Mickey will

think I'm desperate and women avoid a desperate man. Frankly, staying is the second-dumbest thing I can think of doing." "I'm afraid to ask. "Not staying."

What would be dumber?"

"You've got it bad, Kev. seen her in the kitchen."

Let me warn you now, I've

He made a cutting motion with

his fingers and spoke in a falsetto.

"She knows how to

use a knife." "I'll risk it." "Mind if I pass the word around that you'll be staying?" George asked, looking toward the door. "Why not?

From here I can handle breakfast myself."

George closed the door behind him and Kevin struggled to his feet, then pulled on a silk bathrobe and stepped gingerly from the bed to the small table in his room.

The pancakes steamed their invitation and he

smeared butter over them and helped himself to a bite. Delicious.

Even the grits, which he normally avoided,

tasted great.


She could at least be a lousy cook.

Mickey looked up from her books as George emerged from Kevin's bedroom. Despite herself, a surge of panic swept over Mickey. Caring about a cockroach like Kevin made no sense at all.

Still, she couldn't deny that her hormones acted up

around the man.

Why did it have to be a lying, cheating

software jockey whose kisses turned her knees to rubber? "Is he all right?" "Huh?

Oh, Kevin.


He kicked me out.

could manage on his own." "You look concerned about something."

Said he


Well, I am concerned.

stay on at the ranch for a while.

Kevin's decided to He says he can manage

his company from here." Kevin, here.

In her wildest dreams or nightmares,

she hadn't considered that possibility.

"I guess I'll

have to go, then." George frowned.

"I hope not, Mickey.

help with the books." frowned.

I really need

He wrinkled his nose, then

"You don't have to help out with the cooking

thing if that's bothering you." "I don't mind doing my share of the work around here.

Hank said he'd show me how to herd cattle, so I'll

even be able to help with that when it gets real busy. It's just that I don't think things would work out with Kevin and me in the same place." George shook his head. best friend.

"You know that Kevin is my

That doesn't mean that I agreed with his

decision to lie about being a cowboy." Mickey sniffed.

"He says he didn't actually lie.

The snake." "I can believe that.

He's never actually lied to me

either, although he has let me believe some things that just weren't so.

Once he let me believe that this girl

was interested in me when she hadn't even noticed me." "You must have been mad." "Not really.

You see, after he talked to me, he

told her about me too.

By the time I got up the nerve to

talk to her, she was dying to know more about me.


dated for a couple of years and we're still friends." Mickey frowned.

"I can smell what you're trying to

do. Give it up, I don't want to understand how his mind works." "Like I said, I don't approve of the way he handled things with you.

Still, he didn't really hurt you, he

helped you get a job you always wanted, and he's a heck of a fine man and a good friend." That was the problem, of course.

Mickey knew she

was being silly, but couldn't help it.

Kevin might not

have hurt her physically, but he had persuaded her to trust.

Worse, he'd tricked her into letting herself


And he was a software guy, although not the type

of software geek she’d imagined they all would be. "Sure," she told George.

"One day, he'll make some

girl real happy. I just don't like the lie of the land." George looked at her, then grinned. can joke about it.

That's progress.

"At least you

Speaking of which,

I'm way late on mending some outside type fences.


you tonight." He opened the door and vanished. The sound of his footsteps faded as he stepped off the porch.

Mickey felt completely alone.

A heady sense of excitement pulsed through her system. Working on a ranch and playing a role where she could really make a difference had been her dream for so

long that she could hardly believe she had accomplished it. The ranch was the silver lining to the dark cloud of meeting Kevin. Kevin’s ability to fool her so completely, though, baffled and frightened her.

How had he managed to get

past her defenses so completely?

She wasn't naive enough

to believe that all of her anger was at Kevin.

She had

acted like an idiot, throwing herself at a man about whom she knew nothing other than that he drove a truck. She sighed, then turned back to the desk. enough work to keep busy. obsess about Kevin.

She had

She wouldn't have time to

George might claim that the former

bookkeeper had worked until only a few weeks previously. From the state of the books, though, the man must have mentally quit months before.

She needed to sink her

teeth into the numbers and get things straightened out. With luck, she might find something important, something that could help the ranch make some money.

Who knew,

maybe she could save enough money to let George could buy his place back and send Kevin packing. The faint tinkle of rattling china interrupted her thoughts.

Moments later, Kevin emerged from his room

carrying an empty tray.

He paused in the open doorway of

her office. "I understand I have you to thank for the delicious breakfast," he told her.

"George tried to tell me he'd

made it himself.”

He shook his head.

“I've eaten his

food." "I'm glad you liked it, sir."

He was an owner and

her boss, so she had to be respectful.


Talking was difficult with him standing so close. He didn't appear to be wearing anything underneath his Chinese silk robe, and her eyes were magnetically drawn to the knot that held it shut. "Sir?

We’re being pretty formal."

His tongue

slipped out moistened his lips, then vanished.


George tell you I'm going to be staying on?" "You'll last a week.


"How come?" "Because this is a ranch.

You're a city guy."

He shrugged, then winced in pain from his injury. Mickey resisted her insane urge to comfort him. "Who knows?

In the meantime, it'll give us a chance

to get to know each other better,” he said. "The more I learn about you, the less I like.


you went back to Dallas and disappeared, I'd like you a lot." "Possibly." His quick agreement didn't give her the surge of happiness it should have. "Well, if that's--" "I'm not sure I could stand you liking me that much," he interrupted.

"So I’m staying.

Since I’m here,

maybe you’d share what you have against software engineers." She hadn't wanted to get into this. deserved an answer.

But maybe he

"You asked for it," she replied,

letting her anger get the better of her.

"The Texas

Department of Motor Vehicles has computerized all of the Drivers License information. "Sure. state.

Did you know that?"

It was one of the biggest projects in the

Unfortunately it's a project we didn't win."

"So you know that they use the Drivers License information to track deadbeat dads and check kiters and things like that." "Don't tell me that you've been skipping out on parking tickets." "No, I haven't been skipping out on parking tickets." him.

She really didn't mean to lose her temper with

Somehow, though, it was easier to hate him when she

was mad. He nodded carefully.


Please continue with

your explanation." "With a computer system like this, you know how important it is to keep people straight, especially when two of them share the same first and last names." "Of course.

Otherwise they'd probably just arrest

everyone." "You can joke all you want. jail thought it was funny too.

The clerk at the county Of course it was too much

trouble to look to see if someone made a mistake. said that everyone claims mistaken identity." to catch her breath, then continued. the strangest part.


She paused

"Let me tell you

That entire night I spent in jail

because some computer jerk entered my drivers license number against the name of some woman who cashed fifty thousand dollars worth of hot checks, I didn't laugh once." "I can see how that would make you a little angry," he agreed. "A little angry?

I've never been so humiliated in

my life." He nodded.

"So why blame software developers?


computer program didn't create the lazy clerk." "You just don't get it, do you, Kevin? make people lazy.


If they had to keep track of criminals

themselves, they'd keep track of them.

But if a computer

does it for them, they don't have to worry about the mistake.

It's not their fault.

Computers are a crutch.

People should spend less time with them and more time with the rest of their lives." Kevin nodded again.

"I can understand your point,

even though I disagree with it," he told her. "Right now, computers let the police track down stolen cars and collate evidence that we could never get to using paper. Still, no system is perfect."

"That's what's so special about a place like this." Mickey waved her hand in the general direction of her desk and then the countryside that they could see through the window.

"Out here, people can't pretend."

him a significant look.

"Computers let you pretend.

Pretend to be important, pretend to be working. to have a life.

She gave


That’s what happened to my father.


lost his farm and went into the computer.” She paused for a breath, but Kevin let her continue. “On the ranch it’s different. the computer.

You can't blame things on

It's person against the elements.

Sometimes the person wins.

Sometimes," she smiled at

Kevin, "the cow wins." She expected him to turn on his heel or to lash back.

He surprised her by staring at her for a moment,

then breaking into a hearty laugh. "Got to stop," he finally gasped.

"It hurts too

much." Concerned, she pulled his hand away from his ribs and ran her fingers along his side.

His skin felt like a

furnace, burning her fingers and reminding her of the passion they had never shared. "Not…a good idea," Kevin strangled out. Mickey stepped back hurriedly. her?

What had gotten into

She'd never want to see any man hurt.

didn't need to throw herself at Kevin. "Sorry," she began.

Still, she

Before she could decide what to say next, the door to the ranch house burst open.

Hank stepped into the

house. "Hey, boss.

Glad to see you up."

"Thanks, Hank. "Sure, sure."

But George is the boss, not me." His dismissal of Kevin's statement

made Mickey wonder if Kevin had inserted himself into ranch management more than he had let on.

If so, she

would find out once she really got into the books. Certainly after what she had been through, she had no reason to believe anything that Kevin told her. "The real reason I'm here," Hank said, "is that George allowed as how Ms. Murphy might be interested in a lesson in how to handle cattle.

That so, Ms. Murphy?"

"I'd love that," she blurted out. Kevin smiled, but she could tell he hadn't liked her instant agreement. what to do.

Not that he had any right to tell her

Unfortunately, Hank could hardly be a

romantic foil.

The man had to be over fifty, and looked

even older. "That is," she continued, "if you think you'll be all right here, Kevin." He waved her away.

"Go ahead.

us going stir crazy in here. with you a little later. everything now." "We won't be long."

No point in both of

Maybe I'll be able to ride

At least I'm only seeing one of

"Be careful," he told her.

He surprised her by

reaching into his laptop bag and taking out his cellular phone.

He shook it, then pressed a button.

a beep, he smiled.

"Nothing seems broken, which is more

than I can say for myself. along.

When it made

Do me a favor and take this

I'll be here if you need anything."

She took the phone and tucked it into a jacket pocket, then followed Hank to the stables. *** "Have you worked here long?" she asked the cowboy. "Few years, I guess.

I started back when old George

ran the place." As they walked into the stable, Angel looked up and nickered.

Fortunately, Mickey had remembered to bring an

apple for her and rewarded the interest. "She took a real liking to you, Ms. Murphy." "For Pete's sake, Hank, call me Mickey.


does." He shook his head. world's coming too.

"I truly don't know what the

When I was growing up, You had to

pretty much marry a girl before you could think of using her first name." Mickey smiled. back then, Hank.

"Things must have been different

Do you miss those days?"

He shook his head and snorted.

"Not much, I don't.

I sort of like having modern clothes to keep me warm in

the winter, ‘lectricity in the bunkhouse, and especially hot water." She nodded in agreement.

Her father had always

talked about how wonderful life on the farm could be. She was realistic enough to realize that modern technology could make ranching a lot more comfortable. lot safer too.


She shuddered to think what could have

happened if Kevin hadn't used his phone to call for help. When the cow kicked him, no one but her would have been close enough to offer any assistance.

Despite George's

praise, she wasn't certain that she would have been able to keep Kevin afloat and get him out of the stream if the men hadn't arrived.

The only mental image she could draw

had her holding onto Kevin as the water sucked her from her mount. "I already saddled her," Hank said, breaking her concentration. Embarrassed, she pulled her attention back to the here and now. "George said he might let me ride with the hands during the roundup," she told Hank. To her surprise, he just nodded. pretty young thing around." horse.

"Be nice to have a

He swung himself onto his

"George just bought some calves.

I thought I'd

herd them out to the west pasture where most of our cattle are grazing now." "That sounds like fun."

No streams broke the flat prairie as they rode north.

Barbed wire fences separated the pastures.


kept one eye on the calves as they repeatedly attempted to scatter over the field.

To her surprise, he kept the

other on Mickey. From time to time, he offered her advice on her riding or sent her to herd one of the calves back to the group, but mainly they rode in companionable silence. If only Kevin could be more like Hank, she thought. Then she suppressed her laughter.

Other than the fact

that the two were male, they were nothing alike. really lived the cowboy ideal.


If he didn't have

something to say, he kept his mouth shut.

Kevin got his

muscles in a gym and lied for his living. "You all right?" Hank asked. "Sure," she answered, somewhat untruthfully.


she was crazy wasting her time thinking about Kevin. That didn't mean she was insane enough to want everyone else to know what an idiot she could be. He nodded.

"I guess you and Kevin are fighting?"

She shook her head.

"Not at all.

Mr. Sullivan and

I have nothing to fight about." "Good," he answered, obviously misunderstanding her comment.

"He's a good enough fellow.

Guess he'll be

going back to Dallas any day now." "I don't know. for a while."

He said something about staying on

Hank's face shifted from surprise, to disappointment, to resignation. trouble.

"Hope George isn't in

He's a good man."

"I don't think we have to worry about that.


and Kevin are best friends." Hank shook his head grimly.

"There's no best

friends where money is concerned, Ms. Mickey.


ranching is a money business." Could Hank be right?

Maybe Kevin was using her as

an excuse to take over the ranch.

The idea made a lot

more sense than Kevin's story about wanting to test his company's software. "Maybe we'd better head back," Hank suggested. Mickey hadn't even noticed the calves trotting off to join the larger herd of cattle.

"You go ahead.


be along in a few minutes." He looked for a moment like he wanted to argue, then nodded and turned his horse away.

"Watch out for the

wild pigs," he called over his shoulder.

Then he spurred

his horse. Mickey let Angel walk at her own pace while she considered what she had learned. She had definitely proven her own incompetence when it came to judging men.

She had bought Kevin's line

without the slightest question.

Even now, she wanted to

believe the best of him, wanted to ignore Hank’s warning.

Angel hopped back, almost dislodging Mickey as a jack rabbit ran in front of the horse. "We'd better get back, girl," she told the horse. She didn't know what Kevin was up to, but from now on, she intended to keep an eye on him.

She owed George a

lot more than just that for offering her the job. The idea of keeping a close eye on Kevin wasn't as unpleasant as it should have been. totally out of sync with reality.

Talk about hormones She shook her head.

"It doesn't matter, Angel," she told her horse. brain rules.


My hormones are just along for the ride." ***

Kevin looked up as Mickey rode back into sight. She moved easily with the horse, her body seemingly anticipating each step.

Her curves jiggled just enough

to leave his mouth dry.


Since when did he let his

hormones have this much control over him? He grabbed an apple and headed for the stable. "You should be in bed," Mickey told him as he stepped into the stable and tossed the apple to her horse. With any other woman, he'd consider that an offer. With Mickey, he was learning, slowly, to keep his mouth shut. "I'll live.

Let me help you with that saddle."

During the days before Mickey's visit, the ranch hands had drilled him unmercifully on taking care of tack

and brushing down the horses.

He had recognized their

efforts to get out of their own work, but had played along.

It was the least he could do in exchange for

their time.

Plus, he’d learned a useful skill.


The word came grudgingly, but Mickey got

it out. "You're welcome," he returned. "Are you sure you know what you're doing? should call Hank.

Maybe I

You wouldn't want to get your hands

dirty." He bristled.

"That is completely unfair.

I have

never done anything to indicate that I'm afraid to get my hands dirty.

If I have trouble, I'll ask for help.


far as I can remember, the only time I did have any trouble, I called for help in advance." She took a deep breath.

Obviously her Irish temper

threatened to break loose, then she smiled. step over the line. "No problem."

"Maybe I did

Sorry, Kevin." Fortunately, her saddle was smaller

than the ones the ranch hands used.

His cracked ribs

could only stand so much. "Would you like to go into town tonight?" he surprised himself by asking. She looked at him for a moment. -well maybe so."

"No, I don't think-

His quick flash of hope was snuffed

when she added, "I could use some supplies if you think

anything will be open. ledger book.

You know, calculator paper, a

Stuff like that."

"We can make it if we leave now." She shook her head.

"No way I'm going anywhere

until I shower." "Okay.

If you can make it a quick one, I'll drive

fast." She led him into the ranch house, then headed for her room.

Moments later, he heard the roar of the

shower. An image of Mickey in the shower lodged in his mind and wouldn’t leave.

The water would run through her dark

hair, over her face, and down her throat and breasts.


would have given a lot to be one of those drops of water. Fortunately, Mickey’s definition of quick didn't differ too much from his own.

She emerged from her room

in clean jeans and a flannel shirt, still toweling her hair.

"Let's go," she told him.

"I'm ready."

He escorted her outside, resisting the

urge to touch, to take her arm or place his hand at the small of her back.

This wasn't exactly a date.

George had taken the truck so Kevin opened the door to the BMW and let her in. She looked at it, then nodded. that George drove a car like this."

"I thought it odd

" In my job, I spend a lot of time on customer sites.

A pickup wouldn't really be practical when you

have to take a group of business people out to lunch." "I see."

If her voice was any indicator, her vision

on this issue was about 20/200.

So far he had made

exactly no progress in getting her to listen to him. "What town are we going to?" she asked him after a surprisingly comfortable silence. "Tyler," he answered. roses.

"They're famous for their

If you're good, I'll buy you some."

"Bribery won't get you anywhere," she warned him sternly.

But her lips showed a hint of a smile.

Maybe, just maybe, things weren't totally hopeless. "Great, I'll save a fortune.

What are you hungry for?"

While Mickey had been in the shower, he had called ahead to make sure the office supply store would remain open.

There were, he decided, some advantages to small

town living.

The man had agreed to stay past his normal

closing time to help out.

In Dallas, only used car

salesmen offered that level of service.

Of course, in

Dallas half the stores are open twenty-four hours anyway. At the shop, he tried to talk her into a computer program that would mechanize all of the bookkeeping activities.

Obviously horrified at the notion of

becoming a computer geek herself, Mickey ignored his advice and bought paper, a new ledger book, and No. 2


If his sales manager could see him now, he'd be

laughed at for weeks. "So why are you staying?" Mickey finally asked him after they had been seated at Tyler's nicest barbecue place. "My story is that I've decided to enjoy ranch living," he told her. "Yeah, right.

And the wolf really was Riding Hood's

grandmother." So far, lying to Mickey had led to nothing but trouble.

Telling the truth couldn't get him into more

hot water than he had already found.

"All right.


wanted to spend more time with you." She looked totally unconvinced by his explanation. "Did you see the way that waitress looked at you?" He shook his head. angle but straight.

Mickey seemed to come from every

"I didn't notice the waitress,

Mickey." "The one with big--oh, never mind.

I'm sure she'd

be happy to take you home tonight." "So?"

Her explanation left him even more confused.

"So that's why I don't believe you.

I'm just

another woman and there's no reason why you should go to such an effort for me. else."

You must be after something

Her eyes bored into him as if she hoped that he would suddenly confess.

Unfortunately, he already had

spilled his entire story. "Would you think I had a big head if I told you I never had problems finding women who wanted to spend time with me?" "Of course not. single.

You're handsome and rich and

You are single, aren't you?

Or were you lying

about that too?" "I'm single.

What I mean, though, is that I'm not

just looking for any woman.

I like you."

She shook her head, anger flashing in her deep blue eyes.

He fought back the urge to try to kiss away that


Fought, lost, and leaned forward.

"What are--" His mouth descended on hers before she could complete her question.

Besides, it was one of those

"better to show than to tell" things anyway. Her lips tightened beneath his.

For an instant, he

wrestled with the certainty that he had made a terrible mistake.

Had he ever kissed a woman before without being

absolutely certain that she would welcome his lips? Well, of course he had.

But he certainly couldn't

remember kissing a woman who had accused him of being a liar and a cheat. Then her lips softened, parted slightly.

A pulse pounded in his lips.

Whether it was his,

hers, or perhaps their two pulses beating in harmony, he couldn't tell. "Just because I can't help kissing you doesn't mean I like you," she told him minutes later as they both gasped for breath. "Good," he murmured.

"If you kiss like that when

you don't even like me, I can hardly wait for what you'll do when you change your mind." "Of all the arrogant, obnoxious, boorish, ignorant behavior." "I think the lady protests too much."

He hadn't

missed her suppressed smile, nor her faint blush. "If I have to take this abuse, kiss me again." He sought her lips once more. "By the way," she murmured when his lips neared hers, "if you're lying again, I'll cut your nose off."

Chapter 5

Perhaps, Mickey decided as she struggled out of bed, she had done the right thing after all. her own sanity after those kisses.

She'd questioned

But, now that she

thought about it, she'd provided herself with great cover.

If Kevin had kissed her like that to distract her

from digging into his business dealings, he’d certainly believe he'd succeeded. of a smitten woman.

She'd done a perfect imitation

She was home free.

He probably

thought he'd convinced her of his utter wholesomeness. Now she could really dig into the ranch finances without anyone suspecting a thing. As rationalizations went, it wasn't very convincing, nor did it compensate for the fluttery feeling around her heart that Mickey couldn't get rid of.

Still, it was all

she had and she planned on sticking with it until something better offered itself. A glance at her watch told her that the day had begun without her. even showered.


Nine o'clock and she hadn't

George would think he'd hired a slacker.

Half an hour later she peeked out of her room. George had evidently left and the pickup truck was conspicuously missing from the front.

The clatter of

clicking computer keys mixed uncomfortably with the sounds of nature outside the house.

"Oh, good.

You're awake.

I'll fix you some

breakfast in return for yesterday," Kevin said. Her cheeks burned.

"You don't have to pay me for

some meaningless kisses." She had to give him credit.

His face contorted for

a good half minute before he lost control and laughed. "Actually I meant in return for yesterday's breakfast," he finally gasped.

"But suit yourself.

If you don't

want my cooking, you can eat what's left over from the crew.

The good news is that George didn't cook this


The bad news is that Hank did.

I think they

went to the same school." She decided to ignore Kevin.

Unfortunately, Hank's

food was just as difficult to ignore.

Rock-hard biscuits

sat in her stomach like soggy newspapers.

And Hank

seemed to share George's uncanny ability to ruin perfectly good store-bought coffee. She liberally dosed a second cup of coffee with milk and headed for her desk. "Let me know if you need the phone," Kevin told her. "Why?

Expecting a call from someone?"

The idea

that some city bimbo might call him way out here sat with her about as well as Hank's biscuits. "Call?

Oh, no.

I'm logged into my office."


pointed to his tiny computer. "Oh, it's cute."

The words escaped her before she

could think rationally.

The black computer looked more

like a toy than an implement of destruction.


colors chased themselves across the screen as he tapped the keys. "I'll show you how it works," Kevin offered.


have some pretty good software that might help with your bookkeeping." Sure, she thought. do.

And let you trace everything I

"No thank you," she said sounding stiff even to

herself. "It's up to you.

Be careful, though.

It won't be

long before you're the only bookkeeper in America who doesn't use a computer." "If I wanted to keep up with the Joneses, I would hardly look for a job on a ranch, would I?" He frowned.

"Unfortunately, I think that's part of

the problem we're having.

People seem to think that

ranching still lives in the nineteenth century.

If we

adopted business techniques used by every company other in America, I think we'd make money.

Since I own half of

this ranch, I have an interest in having it run efficiently.

A bookkeeper who does everything manually

when a computer would cut the time in half doesn't seem like efficiency to me." "Give me a chance and you'll see efficiency," she told him grimly.

If she had work nights and weekends,

she'd show him that she could do the job without his little toys.

"I'm looking forward to it.

Well, let me know if I

can get you anything." Mickey threw herself into the numbers.

She had to

acknowledge that Kevin had raised some valid points. Once upon a time, she might have dreamed that ranching life magically stood still.

Certainly anyone who had

listened to her father could hardly believe otherwise. Even George's old truck and cowboys like Hank, who looked as if they hadn't changed since that truck was new, helped further the illusion. The numbers proved that the ranch was no mere nostalgia fest.

It was a business.

A big business.

Just the taxes on the ranch, withholding taxes, property taxes, a whole gamut of others, could have bought a dozen of Kevin's BMW's. Salary and board costs for the half dozen hands, plus the added labor for spring and fall roundups, added up to real money.

The hands might not

make much compared to a hot-shot software guy like Kevin. Still, they had to be paid every week and the money had to come from somewhere. She traced the income side of the ledger.


Kevin had become involved in the ranch, income had gone up rather than down.

If he was pulling any shenanigans,

they were well disguised.

Still, despite the increase in

dollars per head of cattle sold, she couldn't escape the cold logic of the numbers. bleeding cash.

This idyllic ranch was

Kevin's investment had kept the place

afloat for a couple of years, but it had essentially vanished. "Kevin?" she asked softly. "What?

Oh, you need the phone?"

"What is it with you and that phone?" He looked startled.

"You know, I hadn't thought

about it before, but I guess I am a little sensitive about the telephone.

Back when I was a programmer, I

thought a phone was just something that you stuck in the wall and used to talk to your parents and buddies.


I moved into management, it twisted into a terrible burden.

Sort of like that rock one of those old Greek

guys tries to push up a hill.

You know, that keeps

rolling down and crushing him?" "Sisyphus you mean? He narrowed his eyes. on, aren't you?

"You're smarter than you let

The more you use a phone, the more

demands it makes on you. just enough.

I don't follow the analogy."

You can never stay in touch

There's always another customer to call,

another employee to persuade to stay, another supplier who needs to be encouraged to keep his commitments." "But you love it." "What gives you that idea?" "Look around, Kevin."

She waved her arm at the

sliding glass door that faced toward the east. the raw.

Nature in

Leafless trees stood proud against the hard

Texas wind.

Winter grasses showed green, signaling hope

against the cold.

As she watched, a pair of cowboys rode

their horses into a small herd of cattle and headed them toward the other side of the hill.

Already, purple

shadows had begun to collect behind some of the hills to the south. His eyes followed her gesture, but when she looked back, he was staring at her rather than the panorama. "It's sort of stunning, in a way," he said. She flushed at the uncomfortable feeling that he might be talking about her rather than the great outdoors.

Ignore that thought, woman.

will get you exactly nowhere. It's the real world.

Wishful thinking

"It isn't just pretty.

There's a lot more of this than

there is city and suburb.

You know what Adam Smith said,

agriculture is where nature works along with man, doubling productivity." "I don't think that's exactly what he said," Kevin stated carefully.

"From the financials, anyway, Adam and

nature haven't exactly been doing their share out here. I know George and the guys certainly have been doing their part." The distant cowboys had broken off from their herding and headed back to the house.

Even from a far

away, Mickey could see the fatigue in their shoulders. Kevin was right. The men were doing everything they could.

It didn't make sense that they couldn't make such

a lush ranch pay off.

Kevin seemed to be trying to look through her, to read her soul.

Either that or he was mentally undressing

her the way she had mentally undressed him earlier.


the millionth time since she'd taken the job, she tried to figure how Kevin could be manipulating the ranch's profit picture. "Do you want to take a break?" Kevin asked suddenly. "I'm going stir crazy and thought I might take a ride." "Why?" "Why am I going stir crazy, or why would I want you to come along?" "Well of course, why do you want me to come too. But I mostly want to know why you want to ride.


haven't exactly kept your contempt for ranchers any secret." He shook his head.

"My best friend is a rancher.

And there's this woman whose attention I've been trying to attract. on earth.

She works on a ranch and thinks it's heaven I think ranching is great."

He looked so sincere when he spoke that she had to mentally remind herself what a skilled liar he was. going to take you up on that ride, Kevin.


We’ll see if

you really meant it." His grin made her think of a boy who wakes up to find it has snowed--on the day of a test he didn't study for.

Except Kevin was far more sexy and dangerous than

any boy.


Are you ready now?"

Mickey fought the irrational urge to run to the bathroom and check her makeup, her lipstick and her hair. She wasn't interested in Kevin or what he thought about her. Of course she found him attractive.

She hadn't

gotten to where she was, though, by yielding to physical attraction every time she experienced it.

On the other

hand, when had she ever experienced this type of physical attraction?

She could count the number of times on her

thumbs, with two left over.

"I'm ready."

"Let's go, then." *** Kevin opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. Some time that morning, the wind had shifted from the north and already a chill had entered the air. "Going to be cold tonight," he told Mickey. "You're crazy.

It's spring."

Why did he find her constant doubting so attractive? Was it the challenge? "With your home-on-the-range attitude, I forget that you aren't from Texas. She nodded.

Is this your first winter here? "


"So, a Texas winter is sort of predictable.


pretty certain to get a couple of good 'Northers.' Sometimes they just come a little later in the year." "What's a Norther?"

"Look at a map. here and the Arctic. wave.

There aren't any mountains between The cold sweeps down like a tidal

The only good news is that Northers don't normally

last long." She laughed.

"This is Texas.

"Bad enough," he warned.

How bad can it be?"

"Better bring some warm

clothes." "Planning on getting me trapped in the snow?" He rolled that thought around in his head.

Maybe an

igloo where the two of them could hole up until late summer. He felt certain that he could get her to forget about his lie and start to focus on the upside, given three or four months to wear down her resistance.


could imagine a lot worse ways to spend a season. Unfortunately, a Norther generally didn't bring enough snow to trip a man, let alone provide igloo material. He settled for, "Don't tempt me, Mickey." rejoinder, he knew.

His heart just wasn't in the game of

giving Mickey as good as he got. maybe.

A weak

Someday, for fun,

Right now, when she continued to be mad at him,

it was too discouraging. This time, since he didn't have to pretend to be an expert, riding turned out to be fun. raised the horses spirits.

The nip in the air

The animals struggled to move

just a little faster than either he or Mickey wanted. Every move he made, even the slightest nudge of a knee or twist of his shoulders, was magnified by a ton or

so of horse.

The sensation of barely controlled and

inhuman power exhilarated him. He glanced toward Mickey to share his thoughts.


look of rapture on her face persuaded him not to bother her with old news. "This is the life," she told him. "Sure.

People pay thousands for a week or two of

this at dude ranches."

He instantly regretted his slam.

Unlike him, Mickey was working, contributing to the ranch.

Over the past two weeks, all he'd been was a

burden. "People who can't get it any other way," she agreed. At least she didn't seem to have taken offense.


race you to those trees." Predictably, she shouted the last of her challenge over her shoulder, spurring Angel to a gallop. He started after her but slowed his horse to a trot when the pang in his ribs reminded him that he hadn't recovered from his last attempt at ranch machismo. "I hadn't thought a Texas ranch would be like this," she told him when he finally caught up. "Like what?" he asked. "You know.

Trees, hills.

Green grass.

I sort of

thought it would be cacti and tumbleweeds." He pointed west.

"Out there a couple of hundred

miles, that's all you'd find. state."

East Texas is like another

"I'm so lucky.

Did you know that I've always wanted

to do something like this?" "Well, you have mentioned it a time or two."


hadn't noticed, but somehow their horses had drifted together and they were riding knee to knee.

Through his

jeans he could sense the heat rising from her leg. "I know."

She sighed.

the visual effect.

Kevin let his eyes feast on

Her breasts rose as she inhaled,

pressing against her sweater.

Perhaps it was the cool of

the air, but their nipples had puckered, pushing points through the knit fabric. Kevin ached to reach out, pull her to him, and taste her lips again.

Taste those tempting breasts.

"So when are you heading back to Dallas?" she asked. Crash.

Talk about breaking a romantic mood.

"Our annual User's Group meeting starts in three weeks.

I'll have to be back a few days before that to

make sure everything is really ready.

But I can do most

of the work from here." She frowned at him.

"I hate to say this, but if all

you're going to do is play with that computer of yours, you might as well be back at the office. isn't what ranching life is about.

Surely that

If you're going to

stay out here, why not give it a real chance?" Why not indeed?

He had two-and-a-half weeks to

explore this strange attraction that Mickey held for him. Surely he would get her out of his system in that time.

"I think you're right," he told her. "You do?"

She looked as if she had bit into a

chocolate bar and found a liqueur instead of marshmallow in the middle.

Surprised and confused, but not really

disappointed. "Sure.

After all, I do own half of this place.

be a fool not to learn more about it.


Maybe I can figure

something that will help us turn a profit." "Oh.

Well, I see."

She bit her lip, opened her

mouth, shut it, opened and shut it again, then finally blurted out, "What happens after your user meeting?" Why did she care?

She might have kissed him last

night, but that didn't mean she'd forgiven him for his deception.

Could she be suffering from the same

emotional turmoil that she was putting him through? "Do you have any suggestions?" he asked. "You've got a pile of money invested in this place. It seems that you might want to move down here, watch over your investment." "Oh."

Here he had been reading emotional

entanglements into her question and she had been pursuing her agenda of looking out for the ranch's financial health. At least she was proving to be a conscientious bookkeeper.

Pretty clearly, Mickey believed that he

planned to despoil George's ranch.

He toyed with the

idea of telling her that he'd tried to give George the

money to pay off his debts, but that George had insisted on selling Kevin equity. No, he decided.

Let her look into the numbers with

all the skepticism and suspicion she could muster.


fresh look couldn't hurt anything. Who knows, she might uncover something that would help them make money.


would help preserve his friendship with George, at least. Kevin was pretty sure it would take more than that to win Mickey over to his side. "I'll see how I like it over the next couple of weeks."

He answered only Mickey's spoken question.

A gust of wind blew Mickey's hat into the air and earned a sexy squeal from her. Kevin pressed his heels into his horse's flanks and took off after the errant headgear. A quarter of a mile away, the wind finally dumped it on a holly bush.

He leaned over his horse's side and

grabbed it, turning back to Mickey with a smile of triumph. "You really aren't a bad rider," she told him. "Thanks."

His athletic ability made it easy for him

to learn new sports.

Still, he hadn't expected even

faint praise from Mickey.

Not about ranch skills at any

rate. "Sometimes," Mickey continued pensively, "even when we pretend to lie, we end up creating a new truth."

"Are you being philosophical or is this going somewhere?" "You told me you were a cowboy." "I never actually said that." saddle.

He shifted in his

He didn't want Mickey to get false hopes.

Still, he certainly did want her to stop thinking of him as the enemy. She ignored his interruption. course, you weren't a cowboy. software guy.

"At that time, of

You were a big city

About as far from a cowboy as you can get.

But look at you now." He pretended to examine himself. the night I met you.



"I look a lot like Shirt.

The leather

jacket is different, of course." "I’m not talking about clothes. were acting.

That night, you

Now, I think you’re becoming that person."

"Mickey," he warned.

"Don’t go jumping to

conclusions." "Think about this ride,” she argued.

“I'll bet you

haven't had this much fun for years." "I had more fun at the barbecue place last night." One thing about the Irish blood in pretty Mickey Murphy.

It sure made for some spectacular blushes.


was one of the most colorful he'd seen. "I wasn't talking about that." "Oh."

He'd have to experiment with a lot of

Mickey's kisses to let his normally rational mind sort

out whether his hormones or real emotion lay behind the attraction she held for him.

Still, even if it took a

hundred kisses, or a thousand, right now he felt prepared to undertake the test. "All right," he told her. "All right, what?" "All right I'll give it a try.

While I'm staying at

the ranch, I'll try to do ranch things and really get into it." "Really?"

She breathed the word as if afraid that

something precious would be snatched from her if she dared speak out loud. "Sure." Her face showed a play of emotion and thought about as easy to read as a book. him, he had hurt her badly. trust him again.

The last time she had trusted Obviously she wanted to

But could she?

He wasn't sure he would

have, had he been in the same situation. He decided to give her a push in the right direction and slid his hand around her shoulders, pulling her close to him. She stiffened, as if considering whether to resist, then melted into him and suddenly his arms were full of beautiful, desirable woman.

Her lips met his with the

fireworks that he had begun to associate with her kisses, but still hadn't even begun to get accustomed to.

Somehow, she ended up out of her saddle and on his lap. Ever since he had danced with her, he had been reminding himself not to let his imagination run away from him.

It didn't make sense that one woman would

somehow magically fit against his body better than any other, that one woman's kisses would mean more than any other.

Only every time they touched, Mickey became more

special to him. She, or he, deepened the kiss.

Tongue met tongue,

swirling and dancing a strange waltz. Slowly, ready to back off if he pressed his luck too far, he slid his hands from her shoulders to her firm breasts. "Oh, yes," she murmured. Another gust of wind, even stronger than the one that had stolen Mickey's hat, brought him back to the present. "Neither of us is dressed for the cold," he reminded her. "I'm feeling pretty hot right now," Mickey answered. Her grin made it clear exactly what she was hot for. "Me too," he agreed. "Where's Angel?"

He bent to kiss her again.

This time, Mickey brought him back

to reality. "Who?

Oh, the blasted horse."

He scanned the hillside.

To the north, a thick

black line heralded the arrival of the cold front. flicker of lightning confirmed his instincts.


They were

in for a bad one. "She can't have gone far," Mickey assured him. "The heck she can't," he answered. the south.

He pointed to

There, just crossing the crest of the next

hill, the chestnut filly glistened, then disappeared. "You'd better put me down and catch her," Mickey told him. Just drop her off with that front coming? likely.

He nudged his horse into action.


"Sometimes, I

wonder why you keep kissing me, especially if you really think I'd leave you here." "You're not being practical.

You've got to catch my

horse." "We'll catch the horse."

Big words.

For all he

knew, they could spend the next week chasing the horse from one cold front to the next. "All right, kimo sabe," she said.

"Let me shift

around, though." She was so light, he hadn't really thought about how he was holding her almost side-saddle.

He helped her

find the stirrup and slide around behind him, then set off after the errant Angel.

When they had last seen the filly, she'd been moving at a good pace.

He gave his own horse a little extra


What had she done to deserve this?

Mickey smiled to

herself, glad that she didn't have to look at Kevin's handsome face right now. She leaned forward into his body, savoring the hard muscles in his back and the warmth that radiated from his body like a race car engine. He held his reins loosely, professionally, but she could see the slightest tension in his grip.

A tension

that grew as she snuggled more closely against him. "Do you see her?" he asked. They should have at least two hours before dusk, but darkness was descending far more quickly than the sun. She stared into the gloom.

"Something is moving.


there." Through her jeans, she could feel the muscles of Kevin's legs tighten as he directed the horse in the direction of the movement. As they rode nearer to a small copse of trees, she saw a rider approaching. "Halloo.

Lose something?"

The voice echoed through

the hilly country. "Who's there?" Kevin called back. "Hank," came the reply.

"I found your horse."

"I guess we won't have to ride all the way back to the barn like this," Kevin quipped. "Another time, maybe," she suggested. "Perhaps," he murmured.

His words trailed off as

his lips traced a trail of kisses down her neck and shoulder. "Not now," she giggled.

"Hank might get the wrong

idea." "I really can't imagine how he could get the wrong idea about this," Kevin noted.

"You and me cuddled up on

one horse while the other wanders around lost." "There are any number of innocent explanations," Mickey retorted. "I'd like to hear a few," Kevin laughed.


though, I've sworn off lying." "I'll come up with one," she shot back.

Her ability

to do her job would be compromised if everyone assumed she was sleeping with the owner.

"I know.

I was taking

a picture and Angel got away." "Camera?" he asked. "Here."

She slapped her fanny pack.

"I cart it

along pretty much everywhere I go." It wasn't fair, she knew, to expect him to lie to protect her reputation when she'd made such a big deal about his previous untruthfulness. her lie could hardly hurt anyone.

On the other hand,

Hank emerged from the trees with Angel in tow, and Mickey got her story ready.

To her surprise, however,

the man simply tossed the reins to her and started to ride away. "Need help with anything, Hank?" Kevin asked. "We'll be fine," the man answered, though he stopped his horse.

To Mickey, his reply lacked conviction.

Apparently Kevin heard Hank's words the same way. "There's a big front coming through.

We're available to

do anything that needs doing." Hank wavered, obviously torn between his need for help and his unwillingness to ask for it. "Just tell us where we can help the most," Kevin continued, refusing to give Hank an easy out. "All right," the older man finally agreed, turning to face them.

"We shut off the pasture over there," he

waved his hand toward the south, "over a year ago since it was getting overgrazed.

George thought he saw

something move out there earlier today.

It was too small

to be a steer but it might be one of the calves.

If it

is, we need to get it back with the cattle before the cold hits. "Right.

Otherwise we're likely to lose it." We'll take a look and see what we can

find." "You really think you can do it?" Hank asked. Hank's incredulity made Mickey want to stand up for Kevin even though she shared the older man's doubts.

"Can't hurt," Kevin answered. "Right."

Hank didn't sound convinced.

was more worried than he let on, though.

Evidently he

He let the two

of them proceed. Mickey slid from Kevin’s horse and took Angel's reins. As soon as she mounted, Hank rode off leaving the two of them alone again. "Might as well see what's going on," Kevin said. She trailed behind, studying him. hurting, but he didn't show it. world like a cowboy.

He must be

He looked for all the

It wasn't Pygmalion, but she did

feel a small glow of accomplishment.

Thanks to her push,

Kevin had discovered a new part of himself. She shook her head and tightened her hold on Angel's reins.

What was wrong with her?

They rode in silence for a few minutes.


strained her eyes to see through the darkness.

A calf

was a fairly large animal but the pasture was almost a forest.

It would take them forever to search it

completely. "That's odd." She started at Kevin's voice.


"I thought Hank said he'd repaired the fence." She followed his lead.

The barbed wire fence was down for about fifty feet. As they moved closer, she saw that one of the uprights had collapsed. Kevin slid off his horse and tossed her the reins. His slight gasp as his feet hit the ground warned her that he'd overdone it.

He should be back home

resting rather than running around like a fool.


they had come this far and they might as well finish. "Strange."

Kevin knelt next to the downed upright.

"What?" "There are some weird gouges in this log.


like something's been gnawing on it." "You aren't trying to scare me with that 'true' bear story, are you?"

She tried to make a joke out of one of

George’s anecdotes but fell flat.

The blowing black

clouds looked so ominous that nothing evil sounded completely impossible. "I've never seen a bear's teeth marks so I don't know for sure.

These are pretty big.

They certainly

don't look like a cow's." "Do you need some help?"

She'd feel a lot better

when both of them were mounted again.

The horses would

have a better sense of self-preservation than any human. "Just ride around a little and keep your eyes open. I don't need a surprise." "Right."

If Kevin was trying to scare her, he'd

carried the joke too far.

Based on his kisses just a few

minutes before, she didn't think he'd risk a practical joke like that. She rode further toward the south wondering exactly what she was supposed to do if she did see a bear. cougar, or a mutant killer coyote. totally impossible.

Or a

The situation seemed

Surely George's ancestors had hunted

out all of the dangerous wild animals generations before. She strained to hear over the rustle of winter leaves that the wind was blowing up.



Then all of a sudden, something. The noise came from Kevin's direction.

What was he

doing?" She tugged Angel's head around, then headed back toward the man. "Did you call?" she shouted to him, trying to make her voice carry over the wind. Then she saw it.

A large hairy shape snaking across

the thick prairie grass directly at Kevin. "Watch out," she called.

As she shouted, though,

she felt the wind tear her words from her lips. could never hear her in time.


And even if he did, what

could he do against whatever that thing was? She kicked her heels into Angel.

"I'll apologize

later," she murmured to the horse under her breath.


the meantime, she had to warn Kevin. Angel responded to her pressure, breaking into a run that would make a quarter-horse proud.

As they sped toward Kevin and the animal, it appeared to grow larger. Finally she recognized it--a wild boar. The thing had to stand over three feet tall at the shoulder and five feet long.

She had read that wild pigs

terrorized much of East Texas but hadn't dreamed of actually seeing one, let alone confronting one. She slipped her jacket off and swung it like a bolo, shouting as she sped toward Kevin and the boar. At the last moment, she caught both of their attentions. Kevin instantly took in the situation, then grasped a head sized rock to defend himself. The boar stopped, its ugly head twitching as it tried to decide which human to attack. "Run," she breathed. For an instant, she thought that the boar had read her mind, that it really would run in the face of the horse-borne threat.

Then it snorted, pawed the ground

like a bull, and charged straight toward Angel. Mickey had read stories about medieval boar hunts in which badly injured boars would, nevertheless, run down and kill one or more fully armed and armored hunters. This feral creature looked fast enough, and deadly enough, to make short work of her. She spun Angel around and Angel did the rest.

Too much so, Mickey saw.

When it realized that

Angel could outrun it, the pig turned more abruptly than any animal that size had a right to do and started back toward Kevin. "Darn it, pay attention to me," Mickey shouted at it.

She had to get the animal far enough from Kevin so

she could double back and give him his horse. Kevin shifted his weight between his feet.

If he

had managed to get the fence repaired, he could at least hop to the other side.

Unfortunately, even from here,

she could see that his makeshift repair might suffice to keep a well trained steer under control, but it would collapse if hit by five hundred pounds of pig. She headed back toward the boar, shouting at the top of her fool lungs and waving the jacket like she was some kind of bullfighter. Actually the analogy was sadly accurate.

Except she

was a rodeo clown rather than a fierce bullfighter. Again the boar changed its direction. Mickey waved her jacket and held Angel to a trot, tugging to keep control and prevent her poor horse from panicking. Like a bird pretending to have a broken wing to guide a cat away from its nest, she would have to stay nearly within reach of the boar's tusks until she had lured the pig away from Kevin.

Kevin must have figured her plan because he angled away from the fence to a grassy spot where a horse could approach directly. A flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a thunder crash warned her that bad things never come alone. Again she forced herself to turn, to wait for the boar as she twirled her jacket and shouted at it. Again, the boar decided to pursue her rather than going after Kevin.

This time, when it approached, she

took off perpendicular to her original direction. It followed her. She led it until it started to look back over its shoulder at Kevin, then turned abruptly. to do.

This would have

She doubled back toward Kevin's horse, grabbed up

its reins, then met Kevin halfway as he made a heroic sprint toward the relative safety of the saddle. She looked behind her.

The boar had stopped and was

snorting and tossing its head, apparently confused by the antics of its prey. "Let's blow this joint while we have the chance," she shouted. The heavens opened up.

Chapter 6

The crash of thunder merged with the pounding pain in Kevin's side, almost paralyzing him for an instant. Even the short distance that he had run was more than his body was ready for. Rain poured down on him, splashing off his leather jacket and soaking into his Stetson.

He gathered up his

frightened horse's reins, preparing for flight. The pig looked disgusted, pawed at the ground a couple of times, then headed for a patch of shrubs. Mickey still held the jacket she’d used to distract the giant pig.

Only her sweater protected her from the

freezing elements or his heated gaze.

Its thin knit

appeared totally inadequate for either job. In the few moments that Mickey struggled to untangle her jacket from where it had wrapped itself around her fist, rain soaked through her sweater, molding it to her body. He knew he was staring.

A gentleman, he told

himself, would look the other way. grade teacher had been right.

Obviously his fourth

Kevin was no gentleman.

She glared at him for a moment.

"I'm a mess," she

shouted over the rain as she untied the last knot in her jacket.

"You'd better put that on fast, before I peel the rest of your clothes off," Kevin warned her. She pretended to think about it, then laughed, probably from sheer relief that they weren't going to become a pig's supper. check?"

"Too cold.

Can I take a rain

She struggled into her jacket.

Kevin took off his hat and let the cold rain wash over his face for a moment.

Obviously Mickey had no clue

how thoroughly his body had responded to her banter and to the sight of that sweater clinging to her torso. "Speaking of which," Kevin said, "we'd better get back to the ranch house before we wash away."


gestured over their shoulders. She gasped.

"Oh, my."

"What?" She gestured back the way they had come. At least now they knew why the fence had been down. The little gully where it had stood had become a raging flood.

If that pig hadn't gotten Kevin, the water might

have. He turned his horse back toward the ranch house. "Let's move." She nodded, but he didn't miss her shiver. "Are you going to be warm enough?" he asked. "Don't even think about doing something stupid like taking off your jacket and giving it to me," she fired back.

"I've got enough to wear, I'm just wet."

She must have read his mind because he had been considering exactly that offer. The hard-beating rain made conversation difficult. What had been a pleasant half-hour ride out stretched into more than an hour of bone numbing cold return.


they and their horses were thoroughly exhausted when they finally rode into the stables. The scent of warm horse, alfalfa, and oats warmed Kevin's nostrils. Ignoring the pain in his ribs, he stripped off the tack and turned to help Mickey with Angel.

Too late.

She had beaten him to it. "Better rub them down," she told him. want the horses to catch cold."

"We wouldn't

She turned back to Angel

and began to follow her own directions, rubbing an old piece of blanket over the mare's damp flesh. His own horse looked so trusting, so faithful, that Kevin did the same, although taking care of a horse right then was about the farthest thing from his mind. "I'm not sure riding was such a good idea," Mickey said.

At least that was what he assumed she said.


sounded more like "Ahm dod sure ridin' was sech a good idea."

She completed the sentence with a tremendous

sneeze. "I should have made you take my jacket," he said. Better late than never. tossed it to her.

He stripped off his jacket and

"Put this on.

As soon as we get

inside, we'll put something warm inside of you and turn up the fire." She laughed.

"You don't turn up a wood fire.


put another log in." "Right," he responded.

"Guess city life spoiled

me." How long had it been since he had cuddled a pretty girl in front of a wood-burning fireplace?

He couldn't

remember. For years he had merely to flip the gas on and have a roaring fire every time. been similar?

Had his relationships

Pretty, with lots of quick warmth, but

with no real substance? He waited until Mickey pulled his jacket over hers and fastened every snap before opening the stable door. The rain chose that moment to redouble its efforts to wash away the ranch.

Lightning criss-crossed the

wine-dark sky like spiderwebs. He almost suggested that they burrow into the hay and wait out the storm.

Mickey gave another huge sneezes

dissuading him of that idea.

She needed to be inside and

taken care of, not left outside and taken advantage of. "We'll have to run for it," he said. She started unbuttoning his jacket. "Leave that on," he ordered.

He knew that he'd pay

for his cavalier attitude later, but Mickey looked wet and bedraggled enough that he didn't really care.

"But you'll get cold," she objected.

"You're still

hurt, you know." Did he ever.

His saddle must have soaked up about a

hundred pounds of water.

Even raising his arm above

waist level sent surges of agony through his body. "I'll be fine," he told her.

"Come on."

He grabbed her hand and ran. He almost made it.

Unfortunately, he hadn't

reckoned with the mud, a supersaturated mixture of Texas clay and water.

Mickey hit a spot and slid.

He tugged her back, trying to help her regain her balance.

Just as she started to regain control, his own

feet skidded out from under him.

He dropped her hand and

looked for a soft spot, but waited too long for both.


his feet reached for the sky Mickey wobbled as well. This was not going to be pretty. A couple of sharp rocks dug into his back as he landed, hard.

Seconds later, Mickey followed, falling

directly on his damaged ribs.

The doctor had told him to

go about his normal business and that his ribs would heal themselves.

He didn't think the doctor would see this as

normal business.

He'd dreamed of Mickey's body next to

his, but this hadn't been exactly the picture he had in mind.

Still, better that Mickey land on him than the


Bad enough she caught a cold without him

falling on her and giving her broken ribs to match his own.

He lay in the mud for a moment, his arms and legs entangled with hers.

Even through his heavy leather

jacket, he felt her breasts yield against him. hardly seemed to weigh anything.


If only it were fifty

degrees warmer, he might suggest staying right where they were and seeing what happened next. The thought slipped away from him as fast as his feet had slipped in the Texas clay. stuck half way between water and ice.

The rain seemed The miserable

precipitation hit hard like sleet, but was wet enough to penetrate his shirt and jeans, leaving him a cold mess. "Come on.

We're almost there," he urged, pushing

himself back to his feet. "Believe me, I'm not staying out here on purpose," she agreed.

Her feet gave a quick impression of cartoon

running, sliding over the mud without any forward motion. He put his hand against her back and together they slipped and slid their way to the ranch house. A grim-faced George met them at the door. gosh you guys made it," he said.


"I was about to send a

search party." From his heavy slicker, Kevin guessed that George intended to lead the search party, not merely send it. "I was just telling Mickey that you'd turn on a log or whatever," Kevin answered. "Sure.

I'll do that now.

In the meantime, you guys

should stand in the shower for a while and warm up."

Kevin's face must have reflected his all too impure thoughts, because George looked at him for an instant, then laughed. "I mean separate showers, of course." "Well, sure," Mickey agreed. Did he really hear regret in her voice? probably only a projection of his desire.

It was

Mickey's "Rain

Check" comment had stirred his libido in a way that it didn't need much stirring, but she had probably just been making a weather joke.

Damn, he wanted this woman.

An hour later, Kevin, George, and Mickey met in George's parlor. going.

As promised, George had a roaring fire

Somehow, Kevin realized, the combination of the

fire inside and the cold wind outside felt more secure than running his heater in Dallas.

Mickey might be a

little extreme with her love of the country, but she definitely had something here. Kevin mixed coffee, hot chocolate, and just a touch of the Kentucky whiskey he found at the back of George's cabinet, and poured each of them a drink. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Finally George stood. up," he told them.

"You two just sit there and warm

"I'll fix us something to eat."

Kevin watched him leave.

When he turned his

attention back to Mickey, her stare bore into his eyes.

"So," she began.

"Do you show all of your dates

such a good time?" He laughed.

Her cold had gotten worse and she

looked miserable, but she approached the world with more vigor than any five people he'd ever met. "I try, Mickey.

Sometimes, though, I have a hard

time getting the piglets to cooperate." That earned him a laugh. one.

"I'll always remember this

My second day as a ranch bookkeeper, I doubled as a

bullfighter." "More of a pig-fighter." "Who's telling this story?" He stepped behind her and lightly massaged her shoulders through the long sleeved T-shirt she'd put on after her shower. "You are. "Sure.

It's just up to me to keep you honest."

That'll make one of us," Mickey countered.

"Kevin?" she murmured after a moment. From the purr in her voice, he figured that rubbing her shoulders was doing at least one of them some good. If his frustration level rose any higher, he'd probably start to shake. "Yep?" "George was telling me that the ranch next door might be coming onto the market soon. and won't be able to manage it."

The owner is sick


George didn't tell me anything about this.

Does he think we need to expand?" "Um.

Not that, exactly.

I was just thinking, if

you decide you like ranching, you could buy it for yourself.

With interest rates as low as they are, you

and George could refinance this place and add the other ranch.

Your combined payments wouldn't be too much

higher than what you’re paying now.

I could work your

books there too and so that wouldn't cost you and George anything extra.

And you'd be close to your friend.

Also," she cleared her throat.

"Also, if you happened to

. . . well, anyway, it might be a good idea." He had a pretty good idea she had almost said something about the two of them.

At least he hoped so.

Her almost gaffe should have panicked him.

He'd spent

years avoiding commitment with women because he had a business to build.

Maybe his office party had been a

turning point for him.

After all, his business had grown

to the point where he really could take a vacation and handle most of the management tasks remotely, as he had been doing here. Of course he might be reading too much into her words. Sure they had shared a few hot kisses, but that was all.

Just because she could kiss like a dream didn't

mean that she trusted him, though.

She might still be

suspicious of his motives and interested in whether he wanted to kick George out of his place.

"Buying a ranch is a pretty big commitment," he said.

Might as well see if he could draw her out

further. "I didn't mean you'd have to make a decision right away.

The ranch isn't even on the market yet."


folded her arms across her chest. "I didn't say that a commitment is a bad thing," he quickly added.

"You can't be successful in business if

you don't make decisions and stick with them.

It's just

that I've spent a grand total of two weeks here since buying half of the ranch.

Most of that time I spent

taking lessons to learn to fake being a real rancher or in bed recovering from the fact that I didn't learn fast enough." " Maybe it's a bad idea. working down here now. . . .

I mean, just because I'm I mean, I thought it would

be nice if . . ."

Kevin's expression reminded Mickey of the curious gaze you'd give to a turtle flipped over on its back. Small wonder.

The way she was floundering around, he

might be waiting to see if she could turn herself inside out.

Well, she'd gone looking for the strong silent type

and she had no one to blame but herself if he didn't bail her out when she got into trouble with her big mouth. "Well, think about it," she told him. graceful retreat, perhaps.

Not a

For whatever reason, her

tongue seemed to get tangled up whenever she was around Kevin. "Sure," he told her. The nearby ranch was almost too ideal, Mickey decided. She couldn't have come up with a more perfect situation to spark all of her fantasies. Of course Kevin wouldn't just throw more money into ranching.

As badly as George's ranch was doing, he

didn't need more aggravation. though.

One thing she'd noticed,

Kevin didn't seem the kind of man who would run

from a challenge.

From what she'd read, software was not

exactly a cake-walk and he'd built his own company. She'd seen Kevin's face when he walked into the parlor and saw the fire.

She couldn't have mistaken that

look, a look of finally coming home.

If he shared that

with her, how could he want to return to the urban ratrace he had left?

Now that he'd spent some time in the

country, really got a chance to feel the wind in his hair, see the sunrise, glory in the millions of stars that city lights washed out, surely he would come around to her dreams. Mickey didn't know what else she could do to let him know that she was interested in him.

She'd almost clawed

his clothes off when they'd fallen in the mud outside the house. Even now, her mother would have washed out her mouth with soap if she'd heard her "rain check" comment when Kevin had been inspecting her body.

And somehow it

had taken her a little longer than it should have to untangle her jacket and put it on.

She hadn't done that

on purpose, exactly, but feeling Kevin's eyes on her always made her feel self-conscious. "I didn't mean to oversell the place," she told him. "Of course it would be a major financial commitment." Kevin looked at her as if she had taken leave of her senses and was babbling. "I mean, even if you did refinance," she hurried on, "you'd probably have to make some investments in the physical plant. a while.

Cash flow could be a serious problem for

I think you could make a go of it, though."

Could he have so much of his money tied up in George's ranch that he couldn't actually afford a place of his own?

After his reaction the first time she'd mentioned

it, she'd wait a while before she offered him her little nest egg again. Kevin didn't say anything for a moment, so she stood and walked to the window. she didn't want to see it. her.

If he thought she had flipped, Everything was so obvious to

Why was it so difficult to explain things to him? Outside, the north wind shook the last leaves from

trees and swung branches around.

Lightning flashed,

reflecting in the nearby tank. "It's beautiful," she murmured.

The city seemed

able to diminish even lightning storms, turning them from

displays of nature's beauty into traffic inconvenience. Here, in the country, people could appreciate them. "Very," Kevin said. His voice came from closer than she had thought. She whirled around. He had stepped close to her.

His eyes ignored

nature's light show and focused only on her. "I meant outside," she said, breathing more quickly than she intended.

Was he going to kiss her?

"I didn't," he answered.

He stepped toward her,

pulled her to him, then bent his lips to hers. Outside, a great flash of lightning, accompanied by a near simultaneous blast of thunder, shook the house. The lights flickered, then went out. "Wow," Kevin murmured in awe. "It's just lightning," she told him. "I know it felt like lightning," he breathed. it was a kiss.



"Dinner," George announced.

"Get it while it's

hot." "Too hot," Kevin breathed.

The next morning, Mickey arrived at the breakfast table cranky and ready for a fight.

She had managed to

disprove modern medical science's insistence that you don't catch cold by hanging out in the rain, and she had a beauty.

Kevin hadn't followed up on his kiss. he'd vanished to his room.

After dinner

At three in the morning,

she'd awakened and heard him still clicking on the computer keyboard. Worse, he smiled at her as she arrived at the table. He looked completely fresh and good enough to eat, his jeans snug around his hips and trim legs, his flannel shirt unbuttoned enough to show powerful muscles across his chest. "Good morning, sunshine," he called to her. "What's so good about it?" she answered, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "I made the coffee this morning," Kevin said.


don't know about you, but that certainly makes a difference for me." "Yeah, sure." wasn't like this.

Her mood surprised her.

Normally she

She should be happy and raring to go.

She had landed the dream job and found a man who came awful close to being her dream guy. the country a chance.

He said he'd give

Once he did, of course he'd want

to stay as badly as she did. "I'll push your bed against the wall if you'd like," Kevin told her with a straight face. "What on earth are you talking about?" "So you can't get up on the wrong side again."

"You were up all night last night clicking on that computer.

You're supposed to be crabby and mad, not

happy." His smile faded.


I thought I was being quiet.

If it bothers you again, let me know.

I learned how to

type on a data entry keyboards so I pound pretty hard with two fingers.

It's not pretty and it can get loud.

Sorry." Good, Mickey, she told herself. the man. for more.

Lay a guilt trip on

That will certainly encourage him to come back "I'm sorry," she told him.

"I need my

coffee." "I made it with Coleman Stove," Kevin explained. "Power is still out, obviously.

George says it's repair

day." "How'd you manage to spend all night working on the computer if there's no power?" "Battery. "Oh.

I had an extra."

Well, what do I need to do to help with the

repairs?" "Depends.

How are you coming on the numbers?"


smile belied his serious question. She blushed.

She'd been working bard but it seemed

like every time she began to get a hold on things, she'd find another stack of bills or receipts to enter.


had started looking like a bad situation kept getting


"I've got a good start.

I didn't mean I'd help

you all day." Kevin laughed. for my office. morning.

"I've got a few more things to do

Why don't we both work in here this

If you're feeling up to it this afternoon,

we'll go outside and do repairs with the hands." Mickey choked down a couple of biscuits that George assured her he'd made from scratch but tasted suspiciously like he'd scratched a cardboard box, and a second cup of coffee that tasted like heaven. When she finished, she looked up to see that Kevin had set a pair of candles in her workspace.

It was such

a thoughtful gesture that she didn't even try to resist her instinctive decision to walk over and kiss him. He looked startled, the smiled.

"Let me guess.


wicked witch is gone and the beautiful princess has reappeared.

The miracle of caffeine."

"Not caffeine," she disagreed.


My father

didn't have electricity on his farm when he was growing up.

He told me about how they would work by firelight.

Candles were for special occasions and made everything seem like a celebration." "I'll remember that," he promised. For some reason, today Kevin's computer clicking didn't disturb her, even from a few feet away.


dug into the books, entering the small mountain of bills that might as well have been deliberately hidden the way

they had been left in stacks in out of the way cupboards around the house. It would take more time than she'd imagined to bring the entire mess into balance. "Time for a break?" Kevin's voice broke into her concentration and she realized she'd been a million miles away. "In a minute.

I've almost got this entered."

It must have taken her more than a minute, she realized.

When she looked up, Kevin had arranged lunch

meats and bread on the table. "Lunch," he told her. "We just ate." "Maybe you think four hours is 'just.'

I'm starved.

If you really aren't hungry, you can watch me eat. can't recommend it, though.


It may not be a pretty

sight." " If you eat, I eat."

Mickey grabbed the plate

Kevin had set out for her and loaded up.

Now that she

gave herself a moment, her stomach called for some TLC. "George asked me to look at the tractor," Kevin said between mouthfuls of sandwich. "Tractor.

Does he do any farming?"

Kevin shook his head. mower.


He uses it to pull the

He hasn't invested in a roll baler yet."

"Why did rolling hay suddenly become so popular?"

"Hey, you're the bookkeeper.

It's less work, you

can just dump the entire roll out for the cows, and the rolls shed water better than square bales." "Cattle," Mickey corrected half-heartedly.


might get a few of the words wrong, but he obviously knew something about the business side of ranching. After what she'd seen of the books, she could no longer believe that he intended to steal George's ranch. Who would want to?

Kevin could have picked it out of

bankruptcy a couple of years ago rather than pumping in his own money.

Now, if he waited too long, he'd have to

do the same thing again. Kevin's investment had allowed George to pay off a second mortgage, but the ranch continued to leak cash. It shouldn't be so hard. hands.

George didn't overpay his

Despite the comfortable ranch house, he obviously

tried to keep expenses down. How could she get Kevin interested in ranching if the ranch he had invested in couldn't pay his way? "Do you know anything about tractors?" she asked. "Nope. I'll be counting on your help." "But I don't--" His eyes flickered with laughter, cutting off her protest that she didn't have a clue how to fix mechanical things. "I'm guessing tractors are pretty much like any other vehicle.

You only have so many choices with

internal combustion. though."

I could use some moral support,

He looked embarrassed for a second before

continuing "If you wouldn't mind doing a little go-fer work, it would save me getting up and down all the time. These ribs are still a little sore." "I'd love to help," she told him.

Mickey took a

last bite and struggled into her jacket.

She’d freeze

her butt off if it meant hanging around with Kevin. Outside, the wind had tapered off, but bitter cold enveloped the landscape.

Kevin's boots crunched the thin

layer of ice left by the freezing rain. "Be careful," he warned.

"Do you need to take my

arm?" She didn't need to, exactly. good.

But touching him felt

Mickey didn't bother reminding him that she was a

big girl who could take care of herself. The tractor had been red once, but had long since faded into something rusty and tired looking.

Its hood

gaped open and bits of engine lay scattered around the small metal building where it had been stored.


yellowed manual offered easy to use instructions in repairing the International Harvester 1953 Tractor. "This doesn't look promising," she told him. "Nope," he agreed.

"George told me that one of the

hands took a whack at it last summer. good description." "Can you fix it?"

I'd say whack is a

Kevin didn't even seem to hear her words.


beginning of a grin fixed itself to the corner of his lips. His eyes flickered over the hodgepodge of engine morsels and wrenches and things that littered the ground. "Can you make sense of a bunch of numbers that some complete idiot entered into George's books?" he asked after a few moments of silence. "What?"

Some times, Kevin seemed to come totally

out of left field.




If I have

enough time and if the original invoices are still around.

The other bookkeeper's weird methods can make

things tough." "Same thing here," he said.

"Given time, and if no

one walked away with any of the parts, I should be able to figure this thing out.

I've got the manual and George

has a pretty good little machine shop.

It would have

been easier if some idiot hadn't spread out the parts like some sort of jigsaw puzzle." Kevin wandered around the structure mentally inventorying the parts, and Mickey sat on an old kitchen chair and watched him. She could almost see his brain connecting the mess of parts, sorting out what was there, what might be missing, and what would need repair.

He bent and moved a

long metal rod, the muscles of his arm and chest forming a perfect flow of motion that looked effortless, until

the loud clang of metal falling assured her that he had lifted a heavy weight. "Take it easy," she told him.

"Your told me your

ribs are still hurting." "Yes, Ms. Nightingale," he answered.

His grin took

the sting out of his words. He looked like he had been transported into some magical toy land for grown up boys. Mickey didn't bother to conceal her smile.


father had retreated into his shop for hours every weekend, working with his hands to get the feel of banking out of his system. It had helped, but it hadn't been enough.

On the farm, his work had been vital, a

part of something important. played.

In the city, he had simply

Kevin needed this type of work as much as her

father had.

He would stay, Mickey felt certain.


tomorrow she'd remind him of her nest-egg again. If living on a ranch was a dream, actually owning one, or at least being a partner in one, was beyond her dreams. Her parents hadn't had much of a marriage.


relationship had been held together by the shared efforts in raising children, earning enough to afford the suburban lifestyle that her father abhorred, and bickering.

She wanted more out of life.

live in the country, on a ranch like this.

She wanted to She couldn't

give up that dream without giving up a part of herself.

Before, though, a man had been only an abstract part of the dream.

Of course she'd always assumed that she'd

marry and have children one day.

Now, though, she’d put

a face and body to that part of the dream. Mickey wanted Kevin to be that man to whom she would make a permanent commitment, the one who would share her life and her dreams. "Can I help?" Mickey asked to break the silence. "I don't know.

Do you think you could hand me the

tools I need when I ask for them?" "Sure."

She had spent enough time with her father's

workshop to at least recognize most of the more common tools. "Okay, why don't you see if you can find the quarter inch attachment for this socket wrench?"

He held up a

rusty tool, then sprayed it with WD-40. She hunted around through the mess on the workbench while Kevin started searching through the mess on the floor and pulling together the different engine parts he'd need. Her momentary sense of triumph on finding the attachment lasted about two seconds, until she realized that the socket was so totally out in the open that Kevin must have seen it all along. "Was that supposed to be some sort of a test?" "I didn't want to waste a lot of both of our times if you couldn't even find something easy.

Next time

you'll really have to search."

His smile melted away the

pique she'd felt over his trick. Two hours later, Kevin looked up from his work. "You must be bored stiff." "How could I be bored?

You've kept me running silly

looking for parts." He wiped his hands on a clean rag and stuck one out. "Thanks, partner.

I think this we've got a chance to

save this poor tractor." Although the temperature outside hadn’t cracked freezing, it had warmed up in the shop.

Kevin had

stripped down to a T-shirt, his whole body glowed with the heat his energy had generated. stove when she grasped it.

His hand felt like a

His scent of soap and clean

sweat filled the workshop. " When do you think it'll be ready for a spin?" Mickey asked. "I need to go into civilization tomorrow and pick up a new battery for it.

With luck, that'll do the job."

She held his hand a little longer than she really meant to.

His casual use of the term 'partner' launched

more pleasant fantasies than a woman could feel safe with.

Still, she wouldn't trade them, or this moment,

for anything.

Chapter 7

Kevin put down the phone.

"That was the office.

One of our customers is coming to town tomorrow.


want me there to help swing a big deal." Mickey stared at him, trying to read his expression. He sounded almost relieved, as if happy to be escaping her. "Will you be gone all day?" she asked. For an instant, confusion played over his face, then he laughed.

"I should be back for the weekend."

"The weekend.

But that's three days."

"Four days, counting today."

He got up and poured

himself a second cup of coffee and topped off her cup. "Can't some of your people handle this for you?" She didn't want to grovel, but the words escaped before she had a chance to consider them. "I pay my sales manager a lot of money.

The only

way I can let him earn it is to do what he says. According to him, we can close a million-dollar deal if we work it right. If we don't, we may lose the jobs we're already doing for this particular client, not to mention the referral base." "Oh."

She wouldn't beg again.

Kevin's tone of

voice indicated that he certainly didn't share her concerns that his leaving might damage their budding relationship.

Her lips still tingled from his kisses but

she'd been around enough to know that this was no guarantee that Kevin felt the same way. "Why don't you come along?” Kevin asked.

“At worst,

you could get some good meals at nice restaurants.


be a wonderful excuse to tone down my sales manager's ideas of evening entertainment." "You know I can't.

I don't get any vacation for six

months." "Last I looked, old bills and checkbooks were pretty portable.

You could bring them along and work on them

during the day, then spend the evening with me." If she wasn't going to grovel, she certainly wouldn't accept this sop. "I think I'd better stay here.

I may need to talk

to the people who actually wrote the checks." "I don't suppose you need me to tell you about this wonderful new invention called the telephone?" serious face belied his attempt at humor. that you're living your dream here, Mickey.


"I understand But you have

to understand that I'm not asking you to give it all up. I'm just suggesting that you could spend a couple of days in Dallas." She couldn't put a name to the surge of adrenaline that hit her.

She couldn't leave.

All of her life,

she'd planned on her move to the country.

Now that she

had the job, she certainly didn't intend to find some way

to move it to the city.

"I was really looking forward to

our inaugural ride on the tractor," she managed to say. This time, he didn't fake his smile.

"Me too.

need to tell George to keep his mitts off it.


The way he

drives, he'll have the tractor in more pieces than when we started with." "He's my boss.

Is it all right for me to tell him

no?" "It's all right for you to tell every man no." "Hum?

And what about you?"

She wouldn't grovel but

she wouldn't give up without a fight either. "Except me, of course.

Me, you're supposed to say

'yes' to." "You've got it all planned out, don't you?

Like we

used to say in high school, 'dream on.'" "I've been doing that."

His eyes smoldered as he

stepped around the kitchen counter and wrapped her in his arms.

His lips reached for hers and made them his

prisoners. Her softer body yielded against his hard contours. Physically, they were such a perfect match. Unfortunately, this morning's conversation proved only one thing beyond any reasonable doubt. totally physical. that later, though.

The match was

She would have time to worry about Right now, she had no thoughts

beyond this man in her arms.

Kevin came up for air first, as she'd known he would.

This kiss would have to last for four days,

assuming that Kevin actually did return.

Despite his

assurances, she had seen the anticipation in his eyes. At least part of him wanted to get away, and she had a very good idea what he wanted to get away from. "I've got to get going. "Sure."


Walk me out?"

She picked up his computer case while he

shouldered an assortment of duffel bags, garment bags, and suitcases. He loaded the bags into his BMW, gave the truck an affectionate slap, then turned back to Mickey. This time, she beat him to the punch.

She threw her

arms around him and let him sweep her off her feet. Again his lips burned into his.

His hard arousal, only

partially hidden by his jeans, perversely pleased her. "Hurry back," she murmured as she stepped away. Kevin's stunned nod assured her that their kisses had shaken him as much as they had her. Minutes after the BMW had faded from sight, Mickey stared after it, willing it to return.

Should she have

taken Kevin up on his offer to go with him? looked at the ranch. reach this goal. true.

Then she

All her life, she'd sacrificed to

Men were fickle.

Only the land was

Until Kevin could sink his feet into the soil and

grow roots, his life would be transitory and he'd always be leaving for the next quest for some holy grail.


had done everything she could to lead him to this truth. She'd even offered her money to let him buy a place of his own.

What more could she do?

Finally she turned and headed back into the house. Ledger books called for her attention even if she had little emotional energy left to deal with them. She sighed, then sat down.

If she didn't get some

control over expenditures, Kevin wouldn't have a ranch to come back to.

"Hey," a loud voice boomed.

"You going to go for a

ride today?" Hank's voice barely penetrated her consciousness at first.

For the first time since she'd arrived, she

seemed to be getting at something. than simple disorganization.

Maybe there was more

She'd have to look at some

of the original receipts, but some of the expenses looked out of line.

Way out of line.

She had abandoned her

earlier suspicion that Kevin might be sabotaging the ranch, but something just didn't smell right.


intended to keep working until she dug it out. "I asked if you planned on getting out of here today."

Hank hadn't raised his voice but in her small

office, it boomed and echoed almost deafeningly. "I'm sorry Hank.

Were you looking for something?"

"I've got to go out and mend some fences.


weather looks pretty safe for a change, so I thought you'd like to come along." She looked at the books, then at Hank.

With his

sun-baked wrinkles, the man was the spitting image of her father.

Unlike her father, he had stayed with the land.

" Give me a few minutes and I'll shut this down for the afternoon."

She'd have the entire evening to catch

up on anything she left now.

With Kevin gone, her social

calendar stood completely open. "I'll get the horses saddled," Hank shouted as he headed for the door. The man seemed to hate being cooped up, even in George's comfortable ranch house. It took her a little longer than the couple of minutes she had promised Hank, but not much.

The sun had

started its quick winter descent, but they still had ample time before darkness set in.

Hank waited patiently

with two saddled horses and a pack pony loaded with bales of barbed wire and metal fence posts. "I noticed a couple of bad areas when I was out earlier," he told her.

"Thought I'd get 'em fixed before

we lost any more cattle." "Have we lost many cattle lately?" "You know how it goes," he told her. accidents.


Then every year, some just vanish.


betting its human poachers rather than aliens, but I sure haven't been able to catch any of the varmints." Hank mounted, then swung his horse, trailed by the pony toward the open gate.

He set his jaw firmly as if

any added words would be too many. As quickly as she could, Mickey mounted and nudged Angel to follow the man. If only she could find some way to take some of Hank's sensibility and give it to Kevin.

Hank was as

much as part of the ranch, of the land, as the dust that blew by.

She couldn't imagine him living or working

anywhere else. with his kisses. their repartee.

Kevin, on the other hand, drove her wild Even more to the point, she enjoyed Of course it didn't hurt that Kevin was

better looking than any man should be. Mickey told herself to stop thinking about Kevin. If he returned, he would return.

She had to get used to

the idea that he had a life of his own, a life that required him to be in Dallas.

At least until she managed

to turn the ranch's financial situation around, she could hardly expect him to drop everything and move here. She almost missed the broken spot in the fence, but Hank headed for it resolutely. "This might be a little boring," he warned her. you want to ride around, go ahead. far.


Just don't go too

There’s more of these to do while we're out here."

"You don't think there'll be any pigs do you?" she asked. He scratched his head.

" That was the first I've

heard of a bore attacking a human.

I figure we're safe.

He untied the bundle from the pack pony and squatted down next to the fence. After a few moments, she realized that Hank was right. Even on a horse in the middle of a beautiful wilderness, sitting still could get a little boring, especially now that the wind had started to pick up. She dismounted, secured her reins over a handy bush, and stepped toward the fence. The fencepost kept slipping from Hank's hands and the barbed wire had already torn through his work gloves leaving a bloody scrape. Mickey stepped around him and held the post firmly, letting Hank use both hands for the pliers and fencing wire. "That should do it," he told her.

"We've got a

couple more to do so we should get started." He hadn't thanked her, but he seemed to accept her as a part of the ranch.

Another part of her oldest dream

clicked into reality.

Kevin's body felt as drained as his mind.

He didn't

know who had originally given customers the idea that Dallas was a party town where they need to be entertained

until the wee hours every night. just might shoot them.

If he found out, he

Still, despite his physical

complaints, he had done it.

Working with his management

team, they had come up with a powerful and comprehensive presentation on the services they could offer, and won a multi-million dollar outsourcing deal. But he sure hadn't slept much.

Dreams of Mickey in

his arms, dreams of her body against his, had disturbed what little rest he had stolen. He enjoyed a woman's companionship, but he'd never experienced the strange fixation he felt toward Mickey. Until now, work had washed away any lingering thoughts of the previous night's date.

This week, memories of Mickey

kept him from fully concentrating at the office. He checked his watch and cursed softly to himself. After ten, and he still had five miles to go before reaching the ranch.

Traditionalists like George and

Mickey believed in setting their hours by the sun.


would have headed for their beds long ago. The single light burning in the ranch house snuffed out the forlorn hope he hadn't even realized he'd held. Of course Mickey had gone to bed. be late.

He'd told her he would

What kind of an egotist was he to expect her to

arrange her schedule around him? He parked the BMW a few car lengths from the house so he wouldn't awaken Mickey and George, grabbed his

travel bag and laptop from the back seat, and closed the car door gently. The house seemed almost ominously quiet, as if some vampire had sucked away its life force. He opened the front door and stepped inside.


Mickey. Why did he keep taunting himself? Irrational depression outfought his fatigue. didn't want to go to bed now.


While the rest of his

office had celebrated, he had made the lonely drive east. Even if he had to do so alone, he planned on doing a little celebration. He pulled a bottle of champagne out from his travel bag and headed for the kitchen to find a glass. The cork's sharp pop sounded louder than it should have in the silent house. He poured a glass and stared into it.

Tiny bubbles

formed, expanded, and made their way to the top. "Is that for me?" He managed not to drop the glass but his fumbling wouldn't have won many style points in the Miss Manners etiquette school. Mickey stood in the kitchen doorway rubbing her eyes.

"I fell asleep waiting for you."

"You stayed up for me?" "Of course."

She plucked the champagne glass from

his hand, took a sip, then made a face.

"Too sour."

Kevin laughed.

"It's called Brut."

"A little to brute for me." "Not--never mind.

Take a few more sips before you

decide you don't like it." Mickey shrugged her shoulders, pursed her mouth, and took a tiny swallow.

Her face wrinkled like a prune.

"On the other hand, why don't I get you a Coke?" A smile broke through her feeble attempt to enjoy the drink.

"I'd love that."

She followed him to the refrigerator, close enough to touch. Slowly, he reached out and plucked the champagne glass from her hand, pouring the hundred-dollar-a-bottle wine down the drain and replacing it with ninety-ninecent-a-bottle cola. "So, what should we do this weekend?" he asked her. "I'm still waiting for that tractor ride," she responded.

"I've got a lot of work to do, too.

Something just doesn't add up.

All of the bills appear

to be in order, but our expenses are running ahead of the standard costs I generated talking to our vendors." He shook his head. Mickey frowned.

"Weekend, remember."

"You may not care what happens to

your investment here, but I do.

With the amount of

capital that you and George have invested in this place, plus the amount of work that George and Hank and the

other hands put into it, there's no reason why we shouldn't expect a decent return." Kevin crossed his arms.

"Don't get me wrong.


want to make money as much as the next guy.

And I sure

don't want George to lose his family place.

All I'm

saying is that if you spend your entire life buried in those ledger books, you'll burn out. protect you from that."

It's my job to

A job he intended to enjoy to

the fullest. "I'm a big girl, Kevin." He couldn't resist a big fat pitch down the middle of the strike zone like that.

"I've noticed, Mickey.

And I like it a lot," he murmured.

Then he swept her

into his arms, his lips seeking hers. Mickey's response blew away all of his dreams.


wrapped his arms around him, dragging him to her, her to him, as if seeking to meld with him. Tentatively, he stole his tongue into her mouth, tasted the sweet taste of Coke and of Mickey. Her tongue met his, followed it back into his mouth, caressing, dancing. Daringly, he ran his hands down his back over her firm buttocks. She responded by grinding her hips against his. "I think--" he began. "We'd better stop while we still can," she concluded.

"I wasn't going to say that."

Mickey looked into his golden eyes, wishing for all the world that she could give him what he wanted, what she needed.

It wouldn't be fair, though.

She had spent the four days Kevin had been in Dallas pumping George for everything he knew about Kevin.


had learned his shirt size, his college grade point average, the names of his baseball teammates, and something important about what made him tick. Kevin sacrificed for his friends. She had sensed that from the beginning.


generosity toward George, his insistence that she take his jacket in the rain.

All of it pointed to one thing--

a man who could be taken advantage of by someone he trusted. If she took him to bed, as her body so insistently demanded, he might stay with her here even if he wanted to be somewhere else.

She couldn't risk it.

"The day we met, I told you what I was looking for." She waved her hand, nearly knocking over the Coke glass that she had laid down when Kevin had swept her into his arms.

"I haven't changed.

I've been working to escape

from the city and find a real life where things are genuine.

I've got that now and I don't intend to give it

up." "I understand."

"I don't think you do.

Every night, my father would

tell my sisters and me about living on the farm. so we said the words along with him. in me that it makes up who I am.

We got

It's so imprinted

I can't risk getting

involved with someone who doesn't share the dream." All true until the big lie at the end, she knew. She was involved.

Over the days alone, she had forced

herself to face reality.

She loved Kevin.

She took a deep breath to tell some more lies when she caught a glimpse of the smoke in his eyes. "I'll settle for kisses," he growled.

"For now."

Kevin pulled on his sweats and running shoes.


hours of kissing Mickey the previous night had added to an already tense week.

He needed to burn off some

energy. The gray of dawn mixed with red from the rising sun. Through his bedroom window, he saw stars winking out, vanquished by the more powerful sun. windows.

Frost coated the

If the old sailor superstition had any value,

the red sunrise might mean a stormy day.

Another reason

to get his run in now. He tiptoed through the house.

He and Mickey had

talked and kissed until two and he didn't want to disturb her. The faint tick of a computer keyboard caught him in midstride.

Mickey, dressed in baggy sweats, sat staring at a computer screen. "Don't you ever sleep?" he asked. She jumped.

"I've got work to get done."

"Working hours don't start before six.


you're using a computer." She had the grace to blush. earlier.


“I overreacted,

I listened to what you said about

computers being tools and decided to try." He shook his head. take care of yourself.

"Computer or not, you need to I'm going for a jog.

Want to

come along?" He couldn't figure where the invitation had come from.

Minutes before, he had been looking forward to a

fast, hard run to get some of the frustration out of his system. Mickey smiled.

"I'd like that.

I haven't been for

a run in weeks." Oh, well.

Even a slow jog would get his blood

moving. While Mickey vanished into her room, he looked at the computer. She had been reviewing the veterinary expenses. Probably a good idea.

If you don't keep the animals

healthy, you go out of business fast.

In this case,

though, keeping them healthy only prolonged the agony. The stream of veterinary bills was staggering.

She emerged in only a few moments, her hair pulled back with a rubber band and her baggy sweats exchanged for a silky warm-up suit that looked comfortable yet managed to draw attention to her long legs. "Let's go before everyone wakes up," she urged him. To his surprise, Mickey set a fairly fast pace. "Where'd you learn to run like this?" he asked her after they had covered a couple of miles in silence. "I was in track in high school.

I try to get out a

couple of times a week." Once his muscles had warmed up, the chill air, coupled with Mickey's companionship, gave Kevin a sense of exhilaration. her.

"I'm glad you came with me," he told

"It makes the run go faster." She nodded.


"The cowboys don't need this kind of a

Riding and doing their jobs seems to be enough.

When I know I have to face a day with the financials, doing something physical gives me the energy I need." "So how are the numbers coming?" She shook her head.

"Everything’s logged but things

don't make sense. I think I've got my hands on something, then it evaporates.

One thing, though.

Our vet expenses

have been high." He nodded.

"They're always high."

"About three years ago, they went up pretty dramatically.

And they haven't come down."

"How much is dramatically?"

"Almost double." "So if we were able to get back to our former costs, we might actually break even on this deal?" "It couldn't hurt." Kevin spent his life talking about business. Talking with Mickey shouldn't be any different. it was.


He was preoccupied with the feelings that being

with her evoked in his mind and heart.

Not that he

really understood exactly what those feelings were. "I guess we should head back," he finally said. She nodded, then stripped off her warm-up jacket, tying it around her slender waist.

Her sweat plastered

her T-shirt to her body, molding her slender form. Without even thinking, he reached over and ran his hand down her back.

Her muscles tightened under his

touch, but she said nothing. "Let me know if we're going too fast," he told her. "Too fast?"

Mickey laughed.

"That was a warm-up.

Let's go." She visibly increased the pace. challenging him? knew he could win. jacket.

Could she be

If so, she had picked a game that he Still, he unzipped his own warm-up

Whether because of the faster pace, or the view

of Mickey's body, his pulse rate increased noticeably.

Mickey knew she was a dripping mess. insist on competing with Kevin?

Why did she

He had to be laughing at

her efforts to run him into the ground.

He had hardly

been breathing hard when she finally gave up. She panted to a stop at the ranch house.


dibs on the shower.” Minutes later, she cranked up the hot water.


jets beat down on her body, soothing abused muscles and washing the fatigue out of her system.

She had lied to

Kevin about why she had been working so early in the morning.

Kevin's touch had stolen into her dreams,

making it impossible for her to sleep.

Thank goodness

the only constant with their ranch breakfasts was the strength of the coffee.

She'd need that caffeine if she

were to get her job done, let alone keep her energy up when dealing with Kevin.

So long as it was strong, she

could handle everything. When she finally emerged from the bathroom, she followed her nose to the kitchen. Kevin stood, pancake flipper in one hand and a large spoon full of batter in the other.

"How many stacks?" he

asked. "One," she answered, looking dubiously at the huge griddle.

Six huge pancakes were cooking simultaneously,

their golden brown color looking like a summer day. "Two batches, minimum," he told her. our tractor ride." "They'll be wasted," she warned him. "What'll be wasted?" George asked.

"Today we take

From Kevin's wink, Mickey realized that he'd seen George come in. "He's trying to get me fat," Mickey told George. "Can't have that, Kev," George said.

"I don't

believe in force feeding our cattle, and we certainly won't force feed our women.

Not that Mickey doesn't look

like she's been wasting away a bit." "I have not," Mickey started, before she realized that both men were teasing her. three pancakes now.

"All right.

Give me

If I want more, I'll let you know."

Kevin flipped the three cakes onto a plate and handed it to her, then gave the rest of the batch to George.

"We're going to take the tractor out," he told

George. "I thought you told me it wasn't done yet," George accused Mickey. "I didn't say it wasn't done, exactly," Mickey sputtered.

"What I said was that Kevin wanted to take

another look at it first." George pressed his hand to his forehead and sighed. "I'm surrounded by people who lie without actually coming right out and saying something that isn't true." Could George be right?

Could what she had done

really be equated to Kevin's lie?

She had forgiven

Kevin, but in her heart, she knew that she didn't trust him the way she wanted to, the way that a woman should trust the man she loved.

If she really was falling in love with him, it had to mean something.

Mickey knew beyond any doubt that she

had no inclination toward self-destruction.

Falling in

love could only mean that her instincts had determined that he was the man for her, or would be once he made up his mind to move into ranching.

She'd renew her

suggestion that he look at the next ranch while they were on their tractor ride. She looked up to see Kevin staring at her. "I thought you'd gone into a trance," he told her. "Are you going to eat?" "What?

Oh, sure."

She stuffed a forkful of

pancakes into her mouth, scarcely registering their fluffy texture. "Good.

We wouldn't want to face that tractor on an

empty stomach." No chance of that.

Even without the pancakes, her

stomach was full of butterflies.

The tractor snarled as if awakening from a long hibernation, then roared to life. "Climb on," Kevin invited. Mickey realized that she'd never bothered to check out the seating. tractor.

A single seat straddled the ancient

Kevin already sat in it and gestured to her to

climb in front of him, as good as sitting in his lap.

Mickey swallowed, then gathered her will power.


wouldn't let his physical presence distract her from what she had to ask him.

It just would have been a little

easier if they had been sitting side by side. She sat down gingerly, but he put her hands around her waist and pulled her back to him, sliding her hips between his legs. Despite the chill air, the tractor's engine had already begun to churn out heat, heat matched by the temperature rise where his legs pressed against hers. "Hold on tight," he called into her ear over the tractor's din, then he popped the clutch and headed out of the shed. The tractor rattled and shook as Kevin fed fuel into the engine and headed across the open field. "Shouldn't we be pulling something?" she asked. "We'll let the hands worry about that.

Right now,

we need to make certain that this thing will keep on running." "It isn't going to blow up, is it?" "You did tighten those last screws that I left undone, didn't you?" Mickey drew a blank. "No.

Had she killed them both?

I mean, I don't even remember--" Kevin's laugh cut her off.


I couldn't

resist. Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine."

The combination of the tractor's vibration and her derriere pressed against him obviously aroused him as well. The knowledge that she could do this to a man like Kevin filled her with elation.

He had to be the man.

This had to be the time. "I've been thinking about that ranch next door," she began. "You have?" he asked. Over the roar of the tractor, she couldn't hear any emotion in his voice.

Was he encouraging her to

continue, or warning her off? wouldn't be warned off.

It didn't matter.


Her instincts couldn't let her

down about something as important as the love of her life. "You know I told you that I've saved some money.


talked to the real estate agent who'll be handling it when it hits the market and he let me look over he books. If you could get credit, between what I have and what we could make if we were able to get the costs under control, we could actually make money on that place and pay off the mortgage." Kevin jerked the tractor to a stop. "What are you talking about?" "I think we should go in together, be partners." Kevin shook his head.

"Obviously you've been doing

a lot of thinking over the past few days. It all comes down to one thing.

I have too.

Ranching is fun for

weekends, but I miss the city.

My employees and my

customers need me and I need them too.

I'm not a full-

time cowboy and I don't intend to become one."

Chapter 8

"I don't understand."

Mickey's voice sounded weak,

as if she were gasping out words after being kicked in the stomach. Her pain tore at Kevin's guts, but he didn't know any way that he could help her.

He had gotten into this

relationship with a lie, but he wouldn't live the rest of his life as a counterfeit cowboy.

"Why don't we see if

we can come up with a compromise," he proposed. "I'm not looking for a husband who comes home on weekends," Mickey shot back.

Then she covered her mouth

with her hands. He considered telling her that this was the first mention of marriage that either had made, but obviously she'd beaten him to the thought.

Now that the idea was

out on the table, though, spending the rest of his life with Mickey, having little Mickeys running around underfoot, sounded pretty good. "That wasn't what I was going to propose," he said. "All right.

I don't know what you were going to

propose, but let me tell you what I need.

I need this."

She waved her hand in a broad circle, encompassing the entire countryside.

"I need wide open spaces.

I need

horses, and cattle, and barbed wire fences, and broken down tractors, and being able to see the stars at night." Kevin nodded.

Mickey hadn't made any secrets about

what she was looking for.

Fortunately for her, but

unfortunately for him, there had to be five guys for every woman who wanted that kind of rural life.


would be able to find someone who met her qualifications. He tried to conceive of some way that he could be the one to satisfy Mickey while preserving his sanity. No matter how wonderful their relationship might be, no matter how happy they would be together, he owed a responsibility to his team back in the office.


couldn't just dump them. "I understand how you feel," he said slowly.


hoped that I could persuade you to at least consider some of the alternatives.

Maybe something closer to the city

where I could commute in, and maybe telecommute once or twice a week." Mickey shook her head. "I guess it is. to do it right.

"Is that a proposal?"

It slipped out before I could think

Do you want me to try again?

I can get

down on the knee and everything." Mickey slid down off the tractor.

When he started

to follow her, she put her hand on his, stopping him. "The evening I met you, I told you what I was looking for.

Don't get me wrong.

Part of me will always

treasure your proposal and I think you did fine.

Try to

understand me.

I saw how my father's compromises made

his life miserable, always wanting something just beyond his reach.

Thanks to you and to George, I've attained my


I wish I could share it with you but I won't give

it up.

Not even for you."

She turned and started walking back to the ranch house. Kevin watched her for a moment, then started up the tractor.

From the shake in her shoulders, he could tell

that Mickey was sobbing.

He couldn't hear anything over

the roar of the engine. He put the tractor into gear and drove it after her. It took him a minute to catch up, but when he did, he reached over and pulled her back into the seat.


said I'd take you for a ride and I intend to take you for a ride," he growled into her ear. Mickey only nodded but he saw the gulp in her throat as she fought for control. Kevin turned the tractor toward the road. The recent cold had sent any harbingers of spring into retreat leaving the bare black dirt, and winter dreary foliage barely contrasted with the monochromatic gray sky.

As he drove along the narrow farm road,

weathered houses and outbuildings swung into view, then vanished from sight. He had no objection to hard work or working with his hands.

After he'd gotten over his initial qualms, he'd

enjoyed riding, taking care of the cattle, and most of all, spending time with Mickey.

But he couldn't give up

his company, his career, and his whole way of life. even for a woman.


Not even for the woman he loved.

The drab and lonely countryside confirmed his decision, but it wouldn't have mattered if he'd waited until spring beat back winter’s rear guard and all of the trees blossomed and the fields turned so green that you could film an ersatz Ireland here. Finally Mickey broke the silence.

"Are we going

anywhere in particular?" "I thought we'd both like a few minutes together to think about our decision." "If I think any more, I'll explode.

Why don't you

take me back home?" "I guess we've given the tractor enough of a test," he said.

Somehow, along the way, they'd also managed to

give themselves one test too many.

"I'll turn around."

Mickey didn't say a word the entire trip back.


made a few attempts at conversation, then lapsed into silence himself.

The chill in the air had nothing to do

with the weather.

"You're leaving?"

Even through the solid wooden

walls of the old ranch house, George's shout was loud enough to let Mickey know that she, not Kevin, was the intended beneficiary of his words.

She headed toward the parlor. Kevin stood, his workout bag in one hand and his laptop in the other. "I'm not a ranching guy, George.

You know that."

George clasped Kevin on the shoulder.

"So what?"

"What are you talking about?" "So you aren't a ranching guy.

You think I'd let a

thing like that get in my way if I met the girl for me?" Kevin frowned.

"Plenty of girls threw themselves at

you while we were in college but I don't see any here. They knew that you were more in love with the ranch than you could ever be with them." George shrugged.

"Ranching is in my blood. If a

girl doesn't get it, how could I ask her to stay with me? But that's not the point." "That's exactly the point.

You wouldn't ask a woman

to cut off one of her legs to please you, would you? That's what it's like with Mickey and me.

Sure I'm crazy

about her.

I can hardly sleep at night from thinking

about her.

But it isn't right for me to demand that she

give up her dreams.

You know that I can't give up my

business." "Yeah, sure." Kevin didn't back off from George's sarcasm.


got two hundred people back in Dallas who are counting on me for their next paycheck.

Should I just leave them

high and dry? I've made commitments to customers that I

intend to honor.

I wouldn't feel right walking away from

that." "You can say anything you want. thing.

I'll just say one

You two are right for each other and you're

pissing it away." Kevin shook his head. help.

"I know you're trying to

Some day, I'll appreciate what you're doing.

Right now, I feel like I got punched in the stomach so hard that I'm lucky to be standing.

I can hardly breath

so I can't argue. But I'll tell you one thing. counterfeit cowboy the day I met Mickey.

I played

Later, when she

found out, I promised Mickey I wouldn't lie again.


I'm not going to live the lie for the rest of my life. George clasped Kevin on the shoulder. Maybe I was out of line.

"All right.

It's just that I've seen you

with a lot of women, but I've never seen you take a hit like this before.

Why don't you spend the rest of the

weekend here, at least?" A quiver shot through Mickey, whether from anticipation or dread, she couldn't tell. "I don't think so," Kevin answered.

"As soon as I

say good-bye to Mickey, I'll hit the highway.

I'd just

as soon get to Dallas while it's still light." "I'm here," Mickey broke in. "Ah, I have some work to do in the--ah, the stable," George said, following his words with action. "I was just telling George--"

"I heard." "I think I should leave.


"It's your choice," she replied. the place." to stay.

"You own half of

She bit her tongue to keep from begging him

Everything he said made perfect sense.

If they

tried to compromise their dreams, their affection would eventually turn inside out. "Sure," Kevin agreed.

"If you change your mind

about meeting me in the middle, let me know." She nodded, afraid that if she spoke again, her tears would spill out and embarrass both of them. "I guess this is it, then."

He dropped his bags.

As far as she could tell, he even ignored the sinister thump his computer bag made when it hit the ground.


he swept her into his arms. For the last time, she reminded himself, squeezing him against her, enjoying the way that hard surfaces of his chest fit against her yielding breasts. The moisture on her cheeks surprised her.

She had

been certain that she had kept her tears in check.


she reached up, stroked Kevin's face, and realized that the tears came from his eyes and not from hers. His lips sought hers, captured them. her as if they would never kiss again.

Then he kissed

Of course, she

realized, he never would. Finally Kevin took a rasping breath.

Mickey pushed him away softly, letting her hands remain on his chest. "I'd better go," he told her. contained his pain.

His eyes barely

A pain her heart echoed.

"Yeah," she agreed.

If nothing else could, this

last kiss proved their desperate need to put distance between them.

The longer they spent together, the more

she would be tempted to throw her life away, discard all of her decisions and beliefs.

Thank God Kevin

understood. He grabbed his bags and backed away from her, staring at her face as if willing himself to commit every detail to memory. Mickey grasped a kitchen chair, holding onto it as if it were an anchor she could use to save herself from running into his arms again.

She was so close.


now, if he asked, would she really stand fast in her decision? He didn't ask.

Slowly, but with a grim resolve she

knew better than to question, he stepped back. turn until he reached the door.

He didn't

Then he opened it,

walked quickly to his car, threw the bags into the back seat, and started the engine. Only then did he look at her again. compassion, love, and need.

His eyes held

But they didn't waver.

knew that Kevin would never back down.

Unlike her


father, he would never give up his dreams.

Dreams she

could not be a part of.

For the next week, Mickey threw herself into her accounting.

George and about half of the cowboys headed

for the far north pasture, making sure that it was ready for them to move the cattle into the hills.

She, Hank,

and a few of the younger cowboys were left to take care of the cattle and keep the ranch running while they were gone. Her days passed quickly enough.

When she got bored

of her paperwork, there was always plenty for her to do around the ranch.

Mornings were difficult.

Her coffee

never tasted as good as it had when Kevin had been there. Evenings and sleepless nights were the worst.

The young

cowboys invited her to join them in their regular evening outings, but she quickly tired of riding into Tyler and hanging out at the country western bar there. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the extent of their leisure activities.

Even if she had been interested in

meeting someone so soon after losing Kevin, the cowboys from her ranch were overly protective, treating her like an easily corruptible sister.

Whenever someone would ask

her to dance, she felt three or four pairs of eyes on her, watching her partners' every move, ready to step in if any man so much as pulled her too tightly against him. Not that it mattered, she supposed.

Whatever grace she

had magically obtained when dancing with Kevin, she had lost with his departure. pair of shins.

Her boots dented more than one

Worse, none of these men set off the

hormonal fireworks that Kevin had. known what she was missing.

Before, she hadn't

Now, she would never settle

for less. Hank's patient efforts to help her with her riding, her herding, and her roping, provided quiet times for her to remember why she had made the decisions she had made, to enjoy the countryside. "I've been saving for a place of my own," he told her the Friday George was expected home. They had been riding so silently that even his soft words jolted her. "That's wonderful, Hank. too.

You know, that's my dream

It doesn't have to be as big as George's ranch.

Just a few hundred acres would do.

Of course it would be

hard to make a living without more than that." Hank frowned, apparently unable to deal with her vocal outpouring.

"Well, what I was thinking was that if

I did get a place, I'd like to have you go along with me." "Oh.

Well, once I get the books under control, I

should have more free time.

If you were close, I'd be

happy to look over your accounting too.

I could charge

George a little less and still make a good deal for you."

Hank reined his horse, then pulled off his Stetson and punched the crown.

"That's not what I had in mind."

This conversation wasn't taking the turns Mickey expected. "What did you have in mind?" "I was sort of thinking maybe you and I could get married." Two proposals within a month.

Mickey wondered if

she had set some sort of record here. "Oh, Hank, that's so sweet." "So you'll do it?"

Hank's weathered face cracked

into what Mickey assumed was a smile. She shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Hank.

marry someone I didn't love.

I couldn't

I'm flattered, of course.

I-" She cut herself off, then spurred her horse back to the ranchhouse. Why had she turned him down?

Sure he didn't have

the drop-dead looks that had initially attracted her to Kevin, and he was almost as old as her father.


neither looks nor youth were all that important to her. Hank, of all people, embodied the type of ambition and closeness to the land that she looked for. she reject him out of hand?

"You've been working too hard." George startled her from the accounts. "I've got a lot to catch up on."

So why did

" And you did.

It's been three days since we got

back from the north range and you've been working twentyhour days since then.

You aren't even riding any more.

The hands want to know if they've offended you." Thank goodness Hank hadn't blurted any word of his proposal or her rejection.

If he had, they'd probably

think she was too snooty for a mere ranch hand. sorry.


It's just that there's something here and I can't

quite get my fingers on it." "Working yourself sick isn't going to help. you ever lost something and looked everywhere?

Haven't When you

walk away for a little while and come back, it sticks out like a sore thumb." "Of course." "That may be just what you need. a couple of horses.

I had Hank saddle

I thought we'd go for a ride."

Mickey looked at the stacks of bills and worksheets on her desk.

"Let me put these away."

"Let them wait." "I'll go for that ride with you, but I can't leave a mess like this on my desk." George sighed. hurry.

"Do whatever it takes, then.


I don't want to miss any more daylight."

Mickey nodded.

She had no concept of the time.

Since George had returned from the north pasture, she had made coffee when she wanted it and slept when she absolutely had to, without letting the clock dictate her


Maybe she really had been working twenty-hour

days. She filed the receipts and worksheets in their folders, then stood. George tossed her a parka and a pair of gloves. "It's cold out.

Wear a scarf too," he told her.

He pulled a knit scarf around his face, looking like a cartoon version of a cowboy outlaw.

What was going on

here? Mickey hoped this wasn't a repeat of Hank's bungled proposal but she couldn't figure out what it might be. Surely George wouldn't be interested in Kevin's rejects. A heavy frost coated the ground and the horses' breath rose in great clouds of steam. crunch of her boots against the ice. March.

She enjoyed the Still, this was

When would spring arrive for real?

George nodded to Hank, took his horse's reins, and mounted. Mickey followed suit, but the foreman only looked away. "Wonder what's gotten into him," George commented as they rode away. "I think I hurt his feelings," Mickey replied. George looked at her. anyone's feelings, Mickey. you did?"

"I can't imagine you hurting Why don't you tell me what

Mickey felt almost as if she were violating a trust. Still, she needed to talk, to find someone who could understand. "Hank asked me to marry him. "Oh."

I told him no."

George rode in silence for a few moments.


wonder why he did that?" he finally asked. "Well, some men, a few men anyway, find me attractive," Mickey fired back.

"I mean, it's not

unheard of for a man to ask a woman to marry him." He held up a hand.

"Don't misunderstand me, Mickey.

It's just that he had to know he didn't have a chance. The two of you fit together like a swan and a goat." "I don't think I'm a goat."

She couldn't hold back

a chuckle at his analogy. "And he makes a pretty bedraggled swan." They skirted a pond and startled a duck family. "So what happened with you and Kevin?" The sudden intensity in George's voice warned Mickey that they had reached the real reason for this ride. "Nothing happened." "Bosh."

George made the word sound like a

particularly nasty curse.

"Every time the two of you

were together, both of you came alive.

Kevin's been so

involved with building his business that he hasn't thought about a relationship.

Until you.

And then blam,

nothing." "Why don't you ask Kevin, then?

He's your friend."

"I hope you're my friend too, Mickey." softly but hurt tinged his eyes.

He said it

"To answer your

question, I did ask him." "I'm sorry, George.

What did he say?"


didn't think her voice actually squeaked when she asked. She wasn't certain. "He said that it was none of my damned business.


also told me that I should give you a raise, keep you from doing anything stupid and that if I went out on a tractor ride with you, he'd break my neck." Mickey laughed.

"That sounds like Kevin."

"So are you going to tell me that it's none of my business too?" Mickey looked at the little stream that they were skirting, then at George.

"You won't think it makes any

sense, but I'll tell you." "Try me." "Look around at this ranch." George gave her a funny look, then followed her instructions.

"All right."

"What do you see." "Well, the tank's back there.

It needs a little

work. I think maybe we'll dredge it in the spring and stock it with catfish.

Looks like the fences are--"

"What I see," Mickey interrupted, "is nature. sun is shining a lot these days.


Some of the early buds

got killed off by the cold, but the trees are getting

ready with a second effort.

That little trickle over

there is going to grow soon, and I'll bet your pond will be covered with birds on their way north.

And the fields

are waiting, ready for the spring when they'll turn so green that they'll hurt your eyes." George looked at her for a moment without speaking. Finally he took a breath.

"I think that both of us have

something to learn from each other.

Let me start first.

I love ranching, but I love it because I grew up with it and I love doing it.

For me it's taking care of the

cattle, helping with the calving, getting so tired that you wonder if you have a single muscle that isn't aching, then waking up the next morning and doing it again.


country isn't some sort of Rouseauian pastoral wonderland.

But it is beautiful and I forget to watch

and remember how lucky I am to be living in it.

Now your

turn." Mickey shook her head.

"I have no idea what you're

talking about." George narrowed his eyes and stared at her for a moment.

"Maybe not.

At least not yet.

When you figure

it out, I hope that it won't be too late." "What do you mean, 'too late'?" "Kevin is an attractive man who happens to make a lot of money. that.

Dallas is full of women hungry for just

The fact that he's a lot of fun, intelligent, and

that he really cares about people is a bonus.

Most of

them won’t even care that he’s a special man." Mickey cringed.

Everything George said made perfect


Any woman would be happy to sink her claws into


Even the memory of his kisses made her knees


"I'm chasing my dreams.

Unfortunately for me,

they led me away from him." The look that George shot at her told her exactly what he thought of her logic.

Not much.


she couldn't think of a thing she could do differently. "Might as well head back," George finally suggested. "Right.

I have to get back to work," Mickey agreed.

Again George's penetrating gaze told her that he saw too much. "Running away isn't going to help, Mickey."

Kevin picked up his pace. easily to him.

Running had always come

Ever since college, he'd started every

morning with a medium paced five-mile-run, taking his time and letting his mind flow freely.

Often the ideas

that percolated through his mind during the run ended up solving problems that had stumped his development team for days.

Since he'd returned to Dallas, the run had

stretched longer and longer but had also lost its relaxing quality.

He had to consider the possibility

that, rather than running to think, he was running from thought.

"Where's the fire, chief," a perky female voice called out to him. "Oh, hi, Betty," he replied.

The attractive blonde

swung around and jogged beside him. "Slow down Kevin," she urged. "How can I help you?" he asked.

He'd seen her on

the trails for the past couple of years and they'd frequently exchanged greetings but not much more. "Actually, it looks like you're the one who needs help." So much for fooling himself into believing that everything was fine. "Everything is fine with me," he lied. "I'll bet." at him.

Betty tossed her hair back and smiled

"That's why you're gritting your teeth and

frowning at the world.

If the world were any better for

you, you'd probably go on a murder rampage just to let other people enjoy it with you." "All right.

You made your point.

I've got woman

troubles." "Hum.

You've got a good bod, you obviously make

some money, and I saw your BMW so your car doesn't scare them away.

Either you need fashion advice or you're not

looking very hard." "I mean problems with a specific woman." "Ask her to marry you."

Betty's advice startled him so much that he almost tripped over his own feet.

Here he thought maybe she'd

been making a move on him. "Boy, I misread this conversation." "Hey, don't get me wrong.

If you get over it, look

me up.

But I'm not about to play doctor to a lovesick


I've got my pride."

The way she looked, she certainly had every reason to.

Besides, if he remembered right, she'd recently made

partner in a big Dallas law firm. "I already asked her to marry me.

She said no."

"Why do I believe that there's something else going on here?" "Um, maybe because I'm running five-minute miles when I'd been running seven-minute miles for the past ten years." "Nah.

That would be too easy.

I think it's more,

you aren't stupid enough to fall for someone who doesn't like you so she had to turn you down for some reason that makes sense to her and you can't figure out how to overcome it." "All right.

I get why you're such a hot lawyer.

You can see through the BS.

So counsel me this, what

should I do?" "Do what she wants. long run.

You know you're going to in the

You might as well give in gracefully."

It sounded so simple.

Then again, coming back to

Dallas and leaving Mickey in his past had sounded simple too. "I've got my company and I've got responsibilities." "Don't you think you have any responsibilities to yourself?

Get over this noble saint stuff.

You haven't

been able to make a decision here because you won't let yourself see the decision you've already made.

So suck

it up." "Yeah, sure." "Or else get over it. big guy. date.

You can't have it both ways,

Invite me to the wedding or invite me out on a

I'll give you two weeks, then you get a key to my

apartment." He laughed.

Why did he get this kind of offer now,

when he had no more interest in another woman than he had in learning how to help cows have babies?


counselor." "I'll be looking for the invitation."

Betty turned

and headed back toward where they'd parked their cars. Kevin shook his head and picked up the pace again. Before Mickey had come into his life, he'd been satisfied.

He had his business, his employees and

customers, and a steady stream of girlfriends who always seemed to become friends after the early purely physical stage wore off.

Mickey had given him a choice between

two attractive options.

He could continue his life as it

had always been, or he could become a rancher and live with the woman of his dreams. miserable?

Why should he be so

Chapter 9

She was having the dream again. half asleep.

Mickey shifted,

Kevin had left her for good.

she accept reality?

Why couldn't

Why did her subconscious cling to

what she couldn't have? The male scent that she associated with Kevin filled her nostrils and she imagined his hands running through her hair. She shook her head angrily and pulled herself awake. Neither the scent, nor the touch, diminished. "Good morning."

Kevin's voice joined his touch and

scent. "What are you doing in my room?" "Look around, Mickey." She did.

Her office cubicle filled her sight.

Great. First she had nightmares, now she must look like one.

Her hair had to be shooting off in every direction

and she was still wearing yesterday's clothes.

"I guess

I fell asleep." "I guess you did.

George tells me that you've been

doing that a lot lately." "I've just got a lot to get done, that's all. why don't you tell me what you're doing here?"


"Where else should a rancher be other than on a ranch?" "What are you talking about?" "I thought I'd put an offer on the other ranch you kept bringing to my attention." "Are you crazy?"

She turned and looked at him, half

expecting to see a teasing grin. "Yep," he said.

He smiled at her, but his look

smoldered with desire. "You said you have commitments in the city." "True," he agreed. the world.

"I've got commitments all over

What I finally realized, though, is that I

didn't want to run a business and make more money if I had to do it alone.

I've built a strong management team.

If they can't keep the company growing without more of my time than the ranch will spare, then I've done something wrong already." "You are crazy." "You really must be surprised.

I've never heard you

repeat yourself before." "What do you expect me to do?

Welcome you back with

open arms?" "Hum."

He pretended to consider the suggestion.

"That's not such a bad idea.

Actually, I thought maybe

you'd like to take a look at a little something I bought you."


For some reason, her heart tripped with

anticipation. "Close your eyes." "I'm not sure I like surprises."

But she did as he

asked. "Hold out your hands." She complied. A tiny weight dropped into her cupped hands.

"Can I

look now." "I think you'd better." She stared down at the ring, a diamond glittered at her, then blurred into invisibility. Angrily she pulled her sweatshirt sleeve over her eyes and tried to blot the tears. "It looks like a ring."

Brilliant, Mickey.

Sometimes she amazed herself with her conversational skills. "That's what it looked like when I bought it, too." "So what am I supposed to do?" "I'd be awful pleased if you would just slide it onto the ring finger on your left hand." "But--" "I'm asking you to marry me, Mickey.

If you'll have

me after the way I walked out on you last time." "Shut up and kiss me."

She threw her arms around

him and crushed him against her, her lips seeking and finding his like waves seeking and finding the shore.

"I need to hear it," he finally murmured into her ear. "I don't know."

What kind of an idiot was she?

had offered her everything.


Between Kevin's love and the

ranch, she possessed all of her dreams. "I'll wait until you know." She shifted in his arms, seeking his lips again. "I'm not a saint, Mickey," he whispered. you more than I've ever wanted a woman.

"I want

But if you keep

kissing me, I don't know whether I'll be able to stop. And if we make love now, and then you decide not to marry me, I don't think I could ever be whole again." "All right." Kevin pulled away slightly, then reached for her hands and gently unraveled her fingers from behind his neck. "I meant, all right I'll marry you," Mickey protested. him.

She clasped her hands more tightly around

She wanted to see him naked, feel the length of his

body against hers, feel him enter her. Kevin's smile sent shivers straight to her core. She had to be doing the right thing.

Didn't she?

"Now that we've got that settled, let's go buy us a ranch." He bent over and kissed her cheek, then stood.

"That won't cut it, buster," she purred. waiting a long time for this.

"I've been

The ranch can wait."


reached her arms around him and pulled her to her. His lips sought and then captured hers. She held him, ran her hands down his back, reveling in his hard muscles, every inch of her body tingling, aware.

Her lips molded to his, her tongue sought out

his. Slowly but confidently, his hands slid down her shoulders seeking her breasts.

With an easy snap that

momentarily startled her, he unfastened the front clasp of her bra, then captured her breasts in his large hands. She twisted in her chair, catching her leg around his to pull all of him into her when his lips suddenly pulled away. "What the--" Mickey opened her eyes in time to watch Kevin tumble to the ground.

Somehow, she had managed to sweep his

feet out from under him. He landed with a hard crash, looked startled, then started to laugh. "Talk about falling in love," he finally managed to gasp. Finally he regained his footing in an easy, almost acrobatic motion. "What's going on out there," George's voice shouted.

"I can hardly wait," Kevin murmured. we need a little more privacy.

"But I think

Now if you're going to be

a rancher's wife, we'd better see about getting me a ranch.

And with kisses like that, it'd better be quick."

Mickey caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror hanging over the fireplace.

Her rumpled clothes,

messy hair, and makeup-less gaze informed her of exactly one thing. to be crazy.

She'd been right the first time.

Kevin had

Otherwise, she would have scared him away.

"Give me half an hour," she told him.

"I can't go

out like this."

It might have been closer to an hour, but Kevin didn't complain. Mickey had tossed through her wardrobe looking for something to reflect the mood of the day.

Something sexy

to please Kevin, yet business oriented enough to show that she was serious about the ranch.

Her standard

uniform of jeans and flannel shirt certainly wouldn't cut it. Finally, in a fit of daring, she chose a suit.


model in the catalog she'd bought it from wore it with nothing visible underneath and Mickey decided that she could do the same. Obviously Kevin approved.

He rolled his gaze from

her head to her feet, then back. "I'm ready," she told him.

"Ready for anything," he answered.

"Anyone ever

tell you, you clean up real pretty, Mickey?" "Nobody," she replied.

"And if they have any sense,

they won't start now." He grinned.

"I think I can take a hint.

ready, let's get going. finish.

If you're

I'll buy you lunch after we

Then maybe we can find someplace private to

finish what we started." She sank into the leather upholstery of his BMW.


puzzled her that Kevin could fit so perfectly into the ancient pickup, yet look right at home in a luxury sedan. On the other hand, its climate control felt pleasant against the sudden springtime heat that had engulfed the ranch. Kevin drove with a sure confidence that reminded her of a surgeon rather than a cowboy breaking a bronco.


turned the radio to an oldies rock-and-roll station and whistled along for a moment. "So, about this wedding thing," he began.

"Do we

want to do it here, Dallas, or back in New York?" She shook her head. New York. Arizona.

"There isn't anything left in

After my father died, my mother moved to Why don't we get married on our ranch?"

"That sounds good to me, sweetheart." "It'll take me a few days to get a check from my mutual fund," Mickey said.

She didn't want to get into

this with any false expectations.

"I don't know if I

have enough to pay for my half of the down payment right away but don't worry about that. George and for you.

I'll keep working for

We can use my earnings to help

underwrite some of the costs.

I think I can handle my

share of the earnest money, though." "What are you talking about?" "The ranch, of course.

When I told you I had some

money, I didn't mean it was sitting around in a pillow. I've got it invested.

Fortunately my stocks have been

doing well." Kevin shook his head. later.

Right now, we're supposed to be fantasizing about

the wedding. workers.

"We'll worry about the money

I'll have to charter a bus to bring down my

I don't suppose that I could talk you into

serving drinks?" Her face must have showed her shock, because he laughed. "Just kidding, Mickey.

I'll bet that I get razzed

about marrying the bartender at the office party, but frankly, I don't care.

I've never felt as certain about

a decision as I do about this one." He pulled up in front of the run-down ranch house that squatted in the midst of the ranch next door. "It will take some work," Mickey told him happily. "But the roof isn't sagging. "Maybe," he agreed.

Maybe just some paint?"

She looked at him. bit doubtful?

Did his voice sound the least

Surely he couldn't be having second

thoughts already.

But his face showed a combination of

determination and affection that washed away her doubts. He opened the gate for her, then let it creak shut behind him and followed her to the front porch. Mickey took the large brass doorknocker in her hand and enjoyed its worn texture for a moment before letting it drop back. The knock echoed through the house. For a moment, they heard nothing beyond the echo. Could they have come out here for nothing?

But the

pickup truck in the carport indicated someone at home. Finally she heard a shuffling walk. The door creaked open and hazel eyes looked out at her through a sturdy looking chain that held the door partially shut. "Can I help you?" the woman asked. "I'm Kevin Sullivan and this is Mickey Murphy," Kevin told the door.

"We understand that you might be

interested in selling your ranch and would like to talk with you about that." "Buying the ranch.

That's a good one.

Come on in."

The woman had to be seventy, but while her body might be slowing down, the sharpness in her eyes indicated that her mind still worked at full speed.

They followed her into the kitchen where a wood stove threw out welcome warmth.

She offered each of them

a cup of tea in earthen cups. "I'm Mrs. Nicholas," the woman told them. get much company in most circumstances.


But you said

your names were Mr. Sullivan and Miss Murphy. certainly has changed from when I was young.

The world Back then,

people didn't think of setting up together if they weren't married.

In a church too," she added.

"We'd like to marry on the ranch," Mickey said. "Sure you would.

Plans are cheap.

that's your problem, not mine.

But I guess

You say you heard this

place might be for sale, but I've never seen either of you before.

So where'd you pick up that bit of news?"

"I work on George Ware's ranch," Mickey explained. "George mentioned that you might be interested in selling and moving into the city." "Well, that's right, dear.

When you get my age, you

sort of like the idea of having some people around.


anything were to happen to me, who knows how long it would be before anyone thought to investigate?" "We don't have a whole lot of money--" Mickey began, but Kevin cut her off. "We're not asking for a handout," he told Mrs. Nicholas.

"I did a computer search for all of the sales

that have taken place over the past year.

I'm prepared

to offer ten percent over the average price per acre."

Mrs. Nicholas opened her mouth to speak, then shut it. Finally she took a large sip of her tea and cleared her throat. "Well, shoot.

That's about twenty percent more than

I just took from that cowboy.

I sure wish you'd come

here yesterday, young folks." Mickey found her gaze glued to Kevin as he watched Mrs. Nicholas.

To her consternation, his face showed

relief rather than regret. Kevin didn't want the ranch.

He had gone along

because she insisted, but his dreams remained far from hers. Mickey stood.

"I don't mean to be rude, Mrs.

Nicholas," she said, "but this is quite a blow to me. hope you don't mind if we leave.



Even to herself,

her voice sounded weak and phony. "Just a minute, Mickey," Kevin said. not be hopeless.

"This might

Maybe we could buy it from the man who

bought it from you.

Would you be willing to tell us who

bought it, Mrs. Nicholas?" "Sure, honey.

That hard dealing Hank Renner is

who." Mickey tugged on his coat, not trusting herself to speak. Kevin must have finally caught the sense of urgency from Mickey because he stood abruptly.

"I'd sure like to

stay and visit longer, but I think Mickey is right. better get back to work.


Thanks a lot, Mrs. Nicholas."

The older woman showed them out the door. Mickey stood on the porch for a minute, sucking in deep breaths that seemed to lack oxygen.

Once, when she

had been young, she had built a swing using an old rope she'd found. The rotten rope had broken and she'd fallen knocking the wind out of herself.

This emptiness was

even more complete. Behind her, she heard Mrs. Nicholas locking the door, locking out all of her dreams.

Kevin waited for a moment, then reached for her hand.

"Let's go find Hank," he urged.

She jerked away from him.

Huge tears gathered and

rolled their way down her cheeks. Mickey's reaction to the news about the ranch didn't surprise him.

Of course she had her heart set on the

ranch just as he had his heart set on her.


surprised him was that she wouldn't turn to him to share the hurt.

Why would she withdraw into herself?

He waited another minute, but Mickey appeared frozen in place. He wanted to pull her to him, comfort her in his arms. Hell, he wanted to do a whole lot more than that. He was willing to wait, but just barely.

He hadn't

gotten to where he was through patience.

Still, right

now, Mickey obviously didn't want his touch. "Let's get going," he urged again. "You can just drop me off at the ranch," she told him. "Sure.

Then I'll try to find Hank."

"Don't waste your time."

Her voice was flat,

emotionless. "What are you talking about?" "I'm talking about us." "Maybe you can be a little more specific." "All right.

I'll be real specific.

There are

things that you want and things that I want.

The only

overlap I can see is that we find each other attractive." "I wouldn't call what I feel for you simple lust." "You can call it complicated lust for all I care. The fact is that you can't love me if you don't love who I am, if you don't share my feelings about the country." The direction this conversation was taking didn't even come close to anywhere Kevin wanted to go. to spend my life with you, Mickey. problems with some of what you want.

"I want

I admit that I have I grew up going to

the museum every weekend, taking in the symphony, and walking to the library after school. life I understand.

That's the kind of

If I ever have kids, that's the kind

of life I would know how to show them, to teach them. Don't get me wrong, though.

I think that country life is


If we were to have children, you'd be able to

take them out and tell them about the stars and the cows, and the grass, and the trees. me?

But where does that leave

I'd feel like a decorative addition." "You've just made my point." "I'm trying to tell you that it's hard for me.


So it's hard.


That doesn't mean I can't learn."

"You want to ruin your life to be with me right now, Kevin.

I won't let you."

"That isn't the way I see it.

I think I could be

the man you want to love." This time, she let him gather her into his arms. Painful sobs wracked through her body like storm waves. Her tears soaked through his wool jacket.

For the first

time, though, Kevin took no pleasure from the touch of this beautiful woman.

She was shedding the tears that

would wash him out of her life, forever. "What makes you think--" he started. "Don't," she sobbed, pressing a finger against his lips.

"This is hurting too much already."

He nodded glumly. to give.

He had offered everything he had

When Mickey had agreed to marry him, he had

been so elated that he hadn't noticed he was falling until he hit the ground.

He'd been flying on air the

entire time. Finally she pushed away his hands and walked toward the car.

Every motion spoke finality.

Their last hug--

somehow, he knew that she would shake his hand when he dropped her off.

Their last drive together--future

tractor rides were out of the question. "I'll walk the rest of the way," she said abruptly as they approached George's gate. resign my job here.

"If you'd like, I'll

That way you can come down and visit

your friend whenever you want." "I don't want you resigning your damned job." "I hadn't finished.

If I stay here, I don't want

you coming down any more." "Give me a chance, Mickey." "All right, I'll resign today. for the next two weeks.

At least stay away

It wouldn't be right to leave

without giving notice." "I'll stay away." "That was selfish of me. it's up to you.


Stay away or not,

But I won't be here."

Kevin pulled onto the ranch road and drove to the ranch house, ignoring Mickey’s protests.

He certainly

wouldn't drop her off half a mile from her home and let her walk. As he had feared, she stuck out her hand when he finally stopped. He took it and held it for a moment.

This was

hurting her as much as it was tearing him apart, but neither of them had a clue what to do about it.


She withdrew her hand, opened the door, and

fled into the ranch house. Kevin sat still, watching her.

Only then did he

become aware of the hard cold stone in his hand.


had returned his ring.

Mickey didn't stop running until she slammed shut the door to her bedroom. Almost compulsively, she stripped off her clothes and changed to her oldest, baggiest, pair of jeans and ugliest flannel shirt.

Then she went into her bathroom

and scrubbed her face of any trace of makeup.

She knew

she was making the right decision; that didn't make it pleasant. Kevin and her father were very different men.


she let Kevin go through with it, he would never complain as her father had done.

He would make the best of a bad

situation, learning to be the best rancher that he could be.

He would try to push his dreams from his mind and

concentrate on hers. But so what?

Complaints or not, Kevin would be

sacrificing too much for her.

They couldn't be the soul

mates that her hormones pretended, if her dreams filled him with such dread.

Sooner or later, Kevin would find

the right woman for him.

Mickey would always remember

him, hoped that he would eventually choose to remember the positive feelings they had shared.

Still, she

couldn't persuade herself that she was the only woman who could make him happy.

She was only a woman who could

ruin his life. She gave herself an hour to cry, holding onto her pillow as if it were her long lost lover, uncomfortably aware that she had just committed herself to countless nights without a man to love. used to it.

The pillow had better get

When the hour was up, she stood, washed her

face again, and stepped out into the real world. "Where’s Kevin?

Will you guys be here for dinner?"

George looked up from a pile of leather harnesses and other mending material. "He's gone.

I'm giving my notice."

"I take it those two statements are connected somehow." The shock and disappointment that marred George's face only made her feel worse about herself. "I'm sorry.

I wanted this to work out, but

everything reminds me too much of Kevin." "What are you going to do?" Mickey blinked.

What would she do?

"I wouldn't

blame you if you decided not to give me a good reference. I mean, I feel like I just flew in here and stirred everything up, then ran away before the new systems really took hold--"

George held up a hand. reference.

"I'll give you a good

I've never met anyone who worked as hard as

you at an indoor job." "All right.

Well, I guess I'll look for a

bookkeeping job at another ranch." "What about this one?" "I already said that I can't keep working here." "Is there any reason you'd have to do the work here?" Hadn't Kevin asked her that question when he'd tried to persuade her to come with him on his trip to Dallas? "I don't know.

But I need a job on a ranch."

"Well, wherever you land, think about whether you can do our work too.

Now that you've got your system

organized, I'd think you could handle our bills in less than full time." Although she had made up her mind to leave, she couldn't decide whether she wanted George to urge her to stay, or to accept her decision with grace.

His wanting

her to continue with the work certainly felt good, although she didn't see how she could fairly do justice to George and accept a full salary from some other ranch too. "I'll think about it," she finally said. "Good.

Even though we're not exactly getting rich,

I feel a lot more confident about our finances since

you've been here than I did before.

How much longer do

we have with you anyway?" "Is two weeks notice enough?" "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I told you I expect two years?" Mickey forced a laugh.

"No I wouldn't believe you."

George shook his head sadly.

"I hope you know what

you're doing, Mickey." " I don't have a clue what I'm doing.

I only know I

have to do it." He looked at her closely. off," he finally said. let me talk to him.

"Don't let Kevin run you

"If you two are having problems,

I can normally talk sense into him."

"Thanks," she said.

"Nobody but me is running."

George turned his attention back to his mending, his strong hands threading a large needle through strips of leather.

"Can you tell me what went wrong?"

She sighed.

Kevin and I went over to talk to Mrs.

Nicholas about buying her ranch.

She said that Hank had

bought the place." "Really?"

George leaned forward in his chair,

setting aside his mending. "That's what she said." "That Hank.

I guess his poker luck finally changed.

Just a couple of years ago, he had to borrow money from me about every month. every Saturday night."

He used to lose his shirt nearly

"Poor Hank.

Maybe he just stopped playing.

He told

me that he wanted to settle down." George laughed. game.

"I think Hank lives for that poker

Even the other players tried to persuade him to

give it up.

He couldn't keep a straight face and would

bet on every hand.

Still, obviously something happened.

But what does Hank buying a place have to do with you, and why were you and Kevin even looking at it?" She walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. "I can't tell you," she told him, then she went into her cubicle again. Her whole life had changed in the few hours since Kevin had awakened her that morning, right here in her office.

She had gone from lonely woman, to a woman

engaged to be married, to someone who had put all thought of love from her mind forever. "The ups and downs of a bookkeeper's life," she murmured to herself as she plopped in front of the computer. A surge of cold air announced Hank's arrival.


had happened to the south wind of a couple of hours before? "Hey, doll," Hank called out. Nicholas place.

"I bought the old

Are you sure you won't change your mind

about us?" "I heard you bought it," she answered. exciting to have a place of your own."


"It's all right.

Now all I need is a wife to help

me hold on to it." "I already gave you my answer, Hank.

But I'm sure

that there are lots of women who would love the chance." "Yeah.

Well, I don't want lots of women."

Mickey felt the hot blood in her cheeks. mean lots of women all at once.

"I didn't

I meant that you could

pick and choose." "I already told you my choice." "I'm not available, Hank. "Shoot, Mickey. to be.

Nothing personal."

I know I'm not as young as I used

I just can't look at a pretty filly like you

without wanting to make her mine. though.

I'm sure you're right,

I'll find someone."

"Good, Hank," she told him. He turned and stumped back outside. Why couldn't Hank create magic for her?


Kevin, who wanted nothing more than to return to the city, Hank was as much a part of the country as the slow stream feeding George's tank. the man of her dreams.

Hank, not Kevin, should be

So why did her dreams insist on

Kevin? It didn't matter.

She would be gone soon.


Kevin nor Hank would be in any position to pull at her heartstrings. work to do.

In the meantime, she had two more weeks of

She had gone over the veterinary bills weeks ago, but she kept coming back to them.

Why had they increased

so much, so quickly? With the computer system she had finally set up, she could analyze each bill against each problem reported. Finally she had it.

For the same period and type of

illness, the ranch might be charged anything from fifty dollars to five hundred dollars. She zoomed in on the accounts. Gradually the truth unveiled itself.

When George

had signed for the treatment, the bill would be low. When the former bookkeeper or Hank had signed, the bill would be higher. "George," she called. He appeared a moment later.

"Did you need

something?" "I may be completely wrong, but I'd like you to take a look at this." She showed him the numbers. His face transitioned through interest, to surprise, to disbelief, to absolute anger. "They've been robbing us."

His voice grated.

"Then I'm not imagining things?" "I should have known something was wrong. I did know something was wrong. had an incompetent bookkeeper."

Damn it,

I just thought that we

"But what about Hank?

Could he be a victim as

well?" "It sure as Hell doesn't look like it to me." Mickey had never heard George swear before, but he looked ready to let every word in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary rip right then. He stepped out of her office, only to return, moments later, with an ancient revolver.

From the gleam

of the metal, Mickey guessed that this was anything but a dusty antique. "What are you going to do?"

If George got himself

hurt, she would never forgive herself. "I'm going to pay a visit to the bunkhouse and get some answers.

If you don't see me in the next ten

minutes, call the sheriff and get him out here. "You aren't going to hurt anyone?" George grinned. make someone pay."

"Hurting would be cheap.

I want to

Then he vanished from her office.

Chapter 10

Mickey stared at the wall.

The split boards didn't

tell her much, nor did last years farm tools catalog which still hung from a hook over the refrigerator.


long-legged pinup model who draped herself over a tractor appeared to be mocking her. It would take more than the two weeks she had promised George to go through the books and come up with enough evidence to convict Hank and it wouldn't be fair for her to run out on George now. fair for her to continue? problems earlier.

Still, was it really

She should have spotted the

She knew that she would have if she

hadn't let herself get fooled by Hank's country ways.


what if he talked like a cowboy and walked like a cowboy? What mattered was that the man was a thief. George ushered the sheriff out of his office, then sat next to Mickey.

"At least that's over."

"We've got a lot to do." "Sure.

But now we know that we can make money.


we hadn't been robbed, we would actually have turned a profit over the past year. reason enough to celebrate.

As far as I can see, that's Of course, we never would

have been close if Kevin hadn't bought into the ranch and let me retire some of the debt service."

"We'll never get a fraction of the stolen money back." "Not all, maybe.

But we might get some.

sheriff put a hold on Hank's bank account.


He won't be

buying any ranches around here." George was pretty transparent.

He waited

expectantly for her reaction. "That doesn't matter." "Really?

From what Kevin told me, you turned him

out when you discovered that someone had bought the ranch.

I'll bet that he'd be willing to make another

offer." "Oh, George."

She couldn't stop the tears from

running down her cheeks, but she did turn away for a moment and blow her nose. That ranch doesn't matter.

"I wish it were that simple. I would have waited.

It's a

question of how I want to live my life, and how Kevin wants to lead his." "Oh.

Ah, yes.

That reminds me, I should warn you

that I called Kevin with the news about Hank. told him that you had already left.

I also

He's on his way

down." "You did what?" "It seemed like a good idea at the time. you guys were having a lover's tiff." "Lovers indeed--"

I thought

The sound of a door opening, then slamming shut, broke off Mickey's protest. "George.

I brought those legal papers.

Let's get

started." Kevin's deep voice sent hunger pangs through Mickey's insides, although not exactly to her stomach. "I'm gone," she told George. "Sorry.

Too late," he said.

His grin showed her

exactly how sorry he really was. "Here you are.


Hi, Mickey."

Kevin looked so

good she had to resist an impulse to throw herself on him.

He barely glanced at her. "Hello, Kevin," she heard herself say.

butterflies were back in her stomach.


He hadn't bothered

changing into his cowboy costume.

She was surprised how

good he looked in a suit and tie.

That air of

independence and power she associated with a cowboy stuck to Kevin whatever he wore. Her desperate urge to throw herself all over him had to be a reaction to stress.

After all, nothing had

changed since she had sent him away.

As surreptitiously

as she could, she wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans. Why did he always have to catch her looking like a mess? Why should she care? "I thought it pretty strange when George told me you'd left.

I didn't see you as the kind who would run

away from trouble," he told her.

"Thanks." right?

Kevin's praise warmed her, but was he

She had never thought of herself as a coward

either, but had she run from Kevin?


No matter how

she looked at it, no matter how much it hurt, his dreams and hers just didn't match. "I want to go over the finances with you as soon as we're through with this emergency stuff, Mickey.

I have

some ideas on how we can get some money back." "What's that?" George wanted to know. "Unless Hank and Fred actually doctored the bills, the vet had to be involved.

If he is, right now, I think

we own a veterinary office." "Right."

Mickey swallowed hard.

like attitude cut her to the quick. hurt him at all?

Kevin's businessDidn't seeing her

It twisted a knife in her heart.

"Let me bring you up to speed," George began. "I've already talked to the sheriff on my car phone. I called the title company and they put a hold on Hank's escrow account.

That should help a little.


forwarding address turns out to be a letter drop. got a private investigator tracking him down.


If he

didn't do a better job hiding himself than he did hiding his work here, he'll turn up in a few days, at most." "I asked the District Attorney to go for a high bail on Hank," George said. Kevin nodded.

"If anyone bails him out, we'll check

to see if a little more of our money might have been

spread that way.

In the meantime, send out some of the

hands to check on the work that Hank has supposedly been doing over the past month.

I wouldn't be surprised if

we've got a few holes in fences.

I'd also look to see

whether any of the cattle we supposedly lost might turn up with his friends." "George nodded, frantically scribbling down Kevin's instructions. "What I can't understand," Kevin continued, "is why Hank wanted to buy a place here.

If he'd just

disappeared, we'd have had a lot harder time coming after him." "I think I can answer that," George said. his heart set on our Mickey.

"He got

He thought he could win her

love if he bought that ranch she wanted so badly." An angry frown crossed Kevin's face.

"If he touched

you--" "You'd what?" Mickey fired back.

"Don't tell me you

plan on going and playing schoolyard bully with him." Kevin looked dumbfounded for a moment, then gave a bitter laugh, his face turning cold.

"It never crossed

my mind that you'd let him touch you on purpose. you can handle yourself, though." "Yes I can." emotion.

Finally he'd revealed a bit of

It gave her no satisfaction.

I guess

Kevin schooled his expression.

"All right.

don't you get the hands started, George?


I'll go over

the accounts with Mickey." "Right."

George almost ran out the door.

Abruptly, they were alone. Kevin had just given her a backhanded compliment on how well she could handle herself, but she didn't feel that she could handle herself at all well now.


she determined to do her best. "I'm sorry that it took me so long to figure out what was going on," she started. He relaxed slightly, even gave her a faint smile. "You did good, Mickey.

We're in time to save the ranch.

I may have to float the place a loan, but at least I won't have to buy any more equity.

I don't think George

could stand the idea of giving up more than half of this place.

But he also won't take a handout."

"So that's what all of this is about.

You're just

relieved that your friend will be all right?" "Sure.

What else?"

"When you come down here like some kind of gunfighter ready to clear the badguys out of town, I thought that you might . . . oh, never mind." She should have known that Kevin would pull something like this.

Anyone else would send down their

lawyers and accountants to take care of the dirty work. Actually, when she thought about it, Kevin really did

have something of the frontier in his makeup, even in a business suit.

Unless the real reason he had come down

had more to do with her than with George's ranch. "Why don't you show me what you have?" he suggested, breaking into her thoughts. "All right."

She brought him to her computer and

showed him what she had found. Again he surprised her.

"That was good work.


to me like they did a pretty good job trying to hide it. Maybe the old bookkeeper wasn't as incompetent as I thought.

Still, you spotted it."

Mickey knew she was blushing like a schoolgirl, but she stammered out her thanks.

"It shouldn't have taken

me so long," she repeated. "That's right," Kevin shot back.

"George told me

that you slept as much as three hours some nights.


shirking your duties, I guess." "I also went out horseback riding with Hank.


suspect that he was trying to distract me." "Maybe.

I wouldn't put much past him when it comes

to low down sneakiness.

Lucky for all of us, he didn't

succeed." After a couple of hours, Kevin pushed his chair away from his computer and stood. things under control for now. to Dallas. the door.

"Looks like you've got Well, I've got to get back

We've got a couple of contracts to get out I, um, prepared this for you."

For the first

time since he'd arrived, he appeared nervous as he handed her a sheet of paper, then turned away. Mickey watched him disappear out the door before she glanced at the paper.

To her disappointment, Kevin

didn't look back. The paper was a reference letter.

Kevin praised her

dedication to her work and her love for the ranching life, leaving both his business and home phone numbers so any prospective bosses could call him day or night. She almost wadded up the letter, but restrained herself.

Sooner or later, she'd have to find a new job.

The reference would be invaluable, even if it did mean that Kevin had reconciled himself to life without her? After all, wasn't that what she wanted?

It wouldn't be

fair to expect him to pin for her the rest of his life, just because she intended to do exactly that for him. "Where's Kevin?"

George led a small group of hands

into the kitchen in search of coffee. "He left." One of the hands groaned.

"Now we'll have to drink

George's coffee." "I'll make it," Mickey volunteered. "Well," the cowboy stammered, "yours isn't much better." "Then you make it," Mickey snapped.

"If you don't mind."

The cowboy measured the coffee

into a high technology coffee maker, then flipped a switch. "Where the heck did that come from?" George asked. "Kevin brought it down the other day.

He said he

felt sorry for us," the hand replied. After getting their coffee, all but George tromped out. "So what's next?" he asked. "I don't know," she cried. "Can I offer a piece of advice?" "I could use something about now." "Follow your dreams." 'Follow your dreams.'

Easy for George to say, but

hadn't she been doing exactly that? Mickey reviewed her life over the past months.


had followed her dreams to Texas, then to the ranch.


had landed the perfect job, and found a man to love. Could she help it if her dreams ran smack into each other? "I know you mean well, George."

Fighting back her

tears, she went into her room and closed the door.


inside, she opened her suitcase and took out her photo album.

Flipping through faded memories of her past

always helped her think. Picture after picture of a young Mickey and her father. The 4-H club, Pony Club, Dressage, Future Farmers

of America.

Her whole life had pointed her to her

current job. She closed her eyes and, in her memory, listened to her father's words as he wove poetry about life on the land.

He had died before he could return to that land,

but she hadn't. On impulse, she pulled on a parka and headed outside. George spotted her going out, started to say something, then shut up when he saw her face.

Only the

brutally honest light of the stars could shine a light on her problems.

Kevin rubbed his eyes, then glanced at his watch. Three in the morning already. Fortunately, they had plenty to do right now.


could almost persuade himself that he really was needed here, not simply refusing to go home because he could no longer stand his loneliness. He ignored the ringing telephone.

At this time of

the morning, it had to be a modem call from one of his programmers.

No customer would be awake now.

In fact,

only insane programmers like himself, people who had lost all touch with humanity, would be up and working rather than home with their loved ones. He poured himself a cup of coffee, then mixed a packet of hot chocolate into the scalding liquid.

Not a

lot of nourishment there, but better than nothing.


double dose of caffeine, coupled with the sugar hit from the cocoa, would keep him going until morning.

Then he

could take his run, grab a shower, and start a new day. Where had the thrill gone? It must have taken him a minute before he realized that the banging noise was someone at the door rather than the throbbing that too little sleep and too much caffeine created in his head. The programmers had magnetic cards to let them in and no self-respecting delivery person would be out at this hour.

Curiously, he stepped to the front door.

Through the glass he saw Mickey, her fist balled, ready to knock again. He hurried to the door.

"What are you doing here?"

"Following my dreams," she told him. Too little sleep must have made him stupid, because she certainly wasn't making sense to him. are in the countryside.

Farms and ranches.

"Your dreams Cows and

horses and chickens." "Cattle, you idiot," she told him.

Her grin washed

away the insult. "Whatever.

How can I help you?"

"You aren't going to make this easy for me, are you? I guess I’ll just have to blurt it out, then? ring back." That was the last thing he'd expected.

I want my

"You aren't in any kind of financial trouble, are you? I'd be happy to lend you enough to tide you over. You wouldn't have to sell the ring." "I don't want to sell it, Kevin.

I want to wear

it." He didn't want to get his hopes up, but this sounded almost as if she had changed her mind. "I want to marry you, darling.

"You mean--"

If it's not too

late." "It was too late when we met, Mickey. tell me that often enough?

I've done nothing but think

about what you said and you were right. different.

Didn't you

We are too

I want children, but I don't want to raise

them a million miles from a hospital.

I want both of us

to be happy and not to feel as if one of us had to give up everything for the other." Mickey didn't answer his statement immediately. Instead, she walked through the door to his office. this is where you work. "It isn't bad."


It looks very comfortable."

Kevin glanced over his office.

Fortunately she had come after working hours.

During the

business day, his desk was often littered with paperwork. After the rest of the office went home, he had the opportunity to catch up. "I can see why you like it. it."

I think you should keep

"That's what I'm saying."

If only there were some

other answer. "I know what you said. told me something very wise.

Now listen to me.


If you're smart, you'd ask

me what." "The only wise thing George ever said was 'gig-em Aggies'." "You're not asking." "Right. George."

What bit of wisdom accidentally escaped

He wasn't being fair, he knew.

On the other

hand, he wasn't sure that he wasn't hallucinating from too little sleep either. "I don't know if it was an accident or not, but it sure was better than 'gig-em Aggies.'" "Hey.

That's my alma mater you're talking about."

She sighed and put her finger over her mouth. did better than that this time.


He told me to follow my

dreams." "But that's what you have been doing." say that anyway.

He meant to

Through her hand, his voice was rather

muffled. "I though I was following my dreams.

What I was

really doing, though, was following my father's dreams." "You mean you really want to live in the city?" This entire scenario had turned incredible.

He kept

waiting for the April fools, except that wouldn't happen for another week.

"Do you remember when we met?" He nodded.

He'd never forget that night.

"I told you what I wanted in a man and in life.


said I wasn't looking for a cowboy but that there was something about a cowboy that I liked.

I don't remember

my exact words, but it was something about a man who didn't feel the need for casual chit-chat just to fill up the time, who could carve his own way through the world, who would control the situation when he needed to." "I remember." "And I remember thinking you might be that person." "That was before you learned that I was a fake.


counterfeit cowboy." "That was before I learned that real cowboys don't have to work with cattle.

That they can work with

software or whatever they want." "But you love the country." Mickey shuffled her feet. something about a compromise. still be interested.

"Weeks ago, you mentioned I'm hoping that you'll

With what I have saved, plus what

you recover from what Hank and Fred stole from the ranch, we may be able to afford something close enough to Dallas to let you come in to work, but far enough away from the city lights so I could see the stars.

But if we have to

wait, well, I’ve waited all my life." Kevin pinched himself to make sure he really was still awake.

He'd argue about whether they should use

her money later.

"I have to warn you, I can be a bit of

a pain sometimes." She looked embarrassed as if about to tell a secret. "One thing I would like.

In a couple of years, if the

ranch really does turn around, maybe we'll be able to afford a couple of horses." "I'm crazy about you." Mickey smiled at him, a smile that washed away his last doubts.

"Of course, we will have to find someplace

close to a hospital and think about a couple of ponies as well." Kevin stopped her words with his lips and neither of them said anything for a long time. "So you'll marry a counterfeit cowboy?" he asked after catching his breath.

How could every kiss get

better? "Of course not, Darling.

I'd only marry you."

THE END This work was supplied as Shareware. If you enjoy this book you must send $1.00 to: Attn. Counterfeit Cowboy P.O. Box 4845 Dallas, Texas 75208-4845 Look for other books by Robyn Anders at