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The River Bow had never seemed so empty.
Ridge Bowman stomped snow off on the mat as he walked into the mudroom of the ranch house after chores. The clomping thuds of his boots seemed to echo through the big rambling log home he had lived in most of his life, but that was the only sound.
He was used to noise and laughterto his sister Caidy clanging dishes or singing along to the radio in the kitchen, to his daughter watching television in the family room or talking on the phone to one of her friends, to barking dogs and conversation.
But Caidy was on her honeymoon with Ben Caldwell and Destry had gone to stay with her cousin and best friend, Gabi.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, he had the house completely to himself.
He didn't much like it.
He slipped out of his boots and walked into the kitchen. A couple of barks reminded him he wasn't completely alone. He was dogsitting for Ben's cute little pooch, a three-legged Chihuahua mix aptly named Tripod. Most of the dogs at the River Bow slept in the barn and lived outside, even Luke nowCaidy's border collie, who had been injured the Christmas beforebut Tri was small and a bit too fragile to hang with the big boys.
The dog cantered into the mudroom and planted his haunches by the door.
"You need to go out? You know you're going to disappear in all that snow out there, right? And by the way, next time let me know before I take off my boots, would you?"
He opened the door and watched the dog hop out with his funny gait to the small area off the sidewalk that Ridge had cleared for him.
Tri obviously didn't like the cold, either. He quickly took care of business then hopped back to Ridge, who stood in the doorway. The dog immediately led the way back toward the kitchen. Ridge followed, his stomach rumbling, wondering what he could scrounge from the leftover wedding food for breakfast. Maybe a couple of Jenna McRaven's spinach quiche bites he liked so much, and there were probably a few of those little ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Ham was close enough to bacon, right?
He managed to add a yogurt and a banana, missing the big, hearty, delicious breakfasts his sister used to fix for him. Fluffy pancakes, crisp bacon, hash browns that were perfectly brown on the outside.
Those days were over now that Caidy was married.
From here out, he would just have to either fend for himselfand Destryor hire a housekeeper to cook his breakfast. Too bad Ben's housekeeper, Mrs. Michaels, wanted to move back to be near her grandchildren in California.
He was happy for his little sister and the future she was building with Pine Gulch's new veterinarian. She had put her life on hold too long to help Ridge out here at the ranch after Melinda left. At the timesaddled with a baby he didn't know what to do with, right in the middle of trying to rebuild the ranch after his parents' deathshe had been desperately grateful for her help. Now he was ashamed that he had come to rely on her so much over the years and hadn't tried harder to insist she move out on her own years ago.
She had found her way, though. She and Ben were deeply in love, and Caidy would be a wonderful stepmother to his children, Ava and Jack.
All his siblings were happily married now. He was the last Bowman standing, which was just the way he liked it.
He nibbled on one of Jenna's delicious potato puffs then had to stop for a huge yawn. The obligations of running a ranch didn't mix very well with wedding receptions and dances that ran into the early hours of the morning.
"Is it still a disaster out there, Tri?"
The little dog, curled up in a patch of morning sunlight trickling in from the window, lifted his head and flapped his tail on the kitchen tile, then went back to sleep, oblivious.
Ridge knew from his walk down the stairs that morning that the kitchen was just about the only clean part of the house right now. Jenna's catering crew had done a good job in here and had wanted to go to work on the rest of the house, but he hadn't let them. He had also had to shove his sisters-in-law out the door at 2:00 a.m. when they started wandering around with garbage bags. He loved Becca and Laura dearly, but by then he just wanted everybody to go before he fell over, knowing he had to get up in three hours to start his day.
Given the choice between sleep and a pristine house, he had opted for the former, especially since he knew damn well that Caidy, ever efficient, had made arrangements for a cleaning crew to come in today to mop up after the big party.
He grabbed his improvised breakfast and whistled to Tri, then headed through the party carnage into his office, doing his best to ignore the mess as the dog hopped along behind him.
Though it was Saturday, Ridge had plenty of work to catch up on, especially since the past few weeks leading up to his sister's wedding had been so chaotic. He had several emails to deal with, a phone call to a cattle broker he worked with, ranch accounts to reconcile. Finishing off the last bite-sized ham sandwich on his plate sometime later, he glanced up at the clock and was shocked to realize two hours had passed.
He frowned. Where was the cleanup crew? He was positive Caidy had said they would be here at ten, but it was nearly noon.
As if on cue, the doorbell suddenly rang, and Tri jumped up, gave one little well-mannered bark and raced to the front door as fast as his little hoppy, butt-bouncing gait would take him.
The housecleaners really had their work cut out for them, he thought as he walked back through the house. He only hoped they could finish the job before midnight.
With Tri waiting eagerly to see what exciting surprise waited on the other side of the door, Ridge opened it.
Instead of the team of efficient-looking workers he expected to find, he found one woman. One small, delicate-looking woman with big blue eyes and a sweep of auburn hair that reminded him of the maple trees down by the creek at the first brush of fall.
She wore jeans and a short black peacoat with a scarf tied in one of those intricate knots women seemed to like.
Overall, he had the impression of fragile loveliness, and he wondered if the scope of the cleanup job would be too much for her. He pushed the thought away. He had to trust that Caidy had hired a reputable company and that she knew what she was doing. He sure as hell didn't want to clean the mess up himself, especially after he had rebuffed everybody else's offers to help.
"Hello. My name is Sarah Whitmore. I'm sorry to "
He didn't wait for her apology, he just opened the door wider for her. "You're here now. That's the important thing. Come in."
She gazed at him for a moment, her mouth slightly open and an odd expression on delicately pretty features. After a slight pause, she walked inside.
"I thought you were supposed to be here two hours ago."
The cleaning service must have mixed up the time. While he was usually hard-nosed about punctuality, she appeared so befuddled and a little overwhelmedprobably at the mess confronting her inside the housethat he decided not to sweat it.
"As long as you put in an honest day's work and do what you were hired to do, I don't see why I need to tell the company about this."
With a slight blush staining her cheeks, she gazed around at the muddle of crumbs, discarded napkins, empty champagne bottles. "Wow. What happened here?"
Man, he would have to talk to Caidy about her choice in cleaning services. The woman's bosses really should have filled her in about the particulars of the situation.
"Wedding reception. My sister's, actually. It was after two when the party finally broke up, and since I had ranch chores to deal with early this morning, you can probably tell I just left things as they were."
"It's certainly a mess," she agreed.
"Nothing you can't handle, though, right?"
"Nothing I can't."
"It's not as bad as it looks," he assured her quickly. He really didn't want to clean all this up by himself. "The catering crew took care of the kitchen, so there's nothing to do in there. Just this space, a few of the bedrooms where guests changed clothes and the guest bathrooms here and on the second floor. You should be done in three, four hours, don't you think?
She gazed at him, a little furrow between her brow, her bottom lip tucked between her teeth.
Completely out of nowherelike a sudden heat wave in Januaryhe had a wild urge to be the one nibbling on that delectable lip.
The urge shocked him to his toes. What the hell was wrong with him? He hadn't responded like this to a woman in a long, long time but something about her soft, lovely features, the soft eyes and that silky spill of auburn hair sent raw heat pooling in his gut.
He set his jaw, shoving away the inappropriate, wholly unexpected reaction.
"Cleaning supplies are in the closet in the mudroom, which is just off the kitchen back there. You should find everything you need. I'll be in my office or out in the barn if you have any questions," he said, already heading in that direction in his eagerness to get away from her.
He thought the dog would follow him, but Tri seemed more interested in the new arrival. Not that Ridge could blame the dog for a minute.
"But, sir," she called after him, a slight note of panic in her voice. "Mr. Bowman. I'm afraid"
The phone in his office rang at just that moment, much to his relief. He didn't want to stand here arguing with the woman. She was being paid to do a job, and he wasn't the sort of boss who stood around like a hall monitor, making sure his people did what was expected of them. She could ask any of his ranch workers and they would tell her the same thing.
The phone rang again. "I've got to take this," he said, which wasn't really a lie, as it was probably the hay supplier he'd been trying to reach. "Thank you for doing this. You have no idea what a godsend you are. Let me know if you need anything."
He left her with her mouth slightly ajar and that look of dismay still on her features.
Okay, so he had run away like he was twelve years old at a school dance and the girl he liked had just asked him to take a spin around the floor with her. It was strictly self-preservation.
The last time he had been so instantly tangled up by a woman, he had ended up married to herand look how delightfully that had turned out.
All he could think was that it was a good thing she would only be there for a few hours.
Sarah now understood the definition of the word dumbfounded.
After Ridge Bowmanat least she assumed it was Ridge Bowmanhurriedly left her alone with a funny-looking little three-legged dog, Sarah stood motionless in the big, soaring great room of the River Bow ranch house trying to catch her breath and figure out what had just happened.
Okay, this did not go the way she had anticipated.
She wasn't sure what she expected, but she certainly had never guessed the man would mistake her for someone else entirely.
She stood with her hands in her pockets, gazing down at the little dog, who was watching her curiously, as if trying to figure out what move she would make next.
"I would love to know the answer to that myself," she said aloud, to which the dog cocked his head and studied her closer.
The cold knot that had lodged under her breastbone a week ago as she stood inside that storage unit seemed to tighten.
She ought to chase after the man and explain he had made a mistake. She wasn't from a cleaning crew. She had flown out from California expressly to talk to him and his siblings, though she would rather have been anywhere else on earth.
She drew in a breath, her nails digging into her palms. Do it. Move. Tell him.
The annoying voice of her conscience urged her forward in the direction the ruggedly handsome rancher had gone, but she stood frozen, her attention suddenly fixed on a wall of framed family pictures, dominated by a smiling older couple with their arms around each other.
Sarah screwed her eyes closed. When she opened them, she looked away from the pictures at the great room, with its trio of oversize sofas and entwined antler light fixtures.
He really did need help. The house was a disaster. The wedding of Caidy Bowman must have been quite a party, at least judging by the disarray left behind.
Why couldn't she help him?
The thought sidled through her. In that brief interaction, she had gained the impression of a hard, uncompromising man. She couldn't have said how she was so certain. If she helped him tame some of the chaos in his house, he might be more amenable to listening to her with an open mind.
As a first-grade teacher used to twenty-five six- and seven-year-old children, she was certainly used to cleaning up messes. This wasn't really all that unmanageable.
Besides that, she wasn't in a particular hurry to chase after him. If she had her way, she would put off telling him what she had found in that storage locker as long as humanly possible.
The truth was, the man terrified her. She hated to admit it, but it was true. He was just so big, a solid six feet two inches of ranch-hardened muscle, and his features looked etched in granite.
Gorgeous, yes, okay, but completely unapproachable.
He hadn't smiled once during their brief interactionthough she couldn't necessarily blame him for that since he thought she was a tardy cleaning service. She dreaded what he would say when she told him why she had really come to the River Bow ranch.
What would it hurt to help the man clean his house for an hour or two? Afterward, they could have a good laugh about the misunderstanding. Who knows? He might even be more favorable to what she had to say.
Okay, good plan.
She tried to tell herself she was only being nice, not being a total wuss. She unbuttoned her coat and hung it on a rack by the door, grateful her extensive wardrobe debate with herself had resulted in simple jeans and a lovely wool sweater. As much as she loved the sweater, wool always made her itch a little so she wore a plain and practical white long-sleeved T-shirt underneath.
She pulled the sweater over her head, rolled up the sleeves of the T-shirt to just below her elbows and headed into the kitchen for the cleaning supplies.
He was right about the kitchen. The big, well-designed space sparkled. She headed into the area she guessed was the mudroom and found an organized space with shelves, cubbies and a convenient bench for taking off boots. A big pair of men's lined boots rested in a pile of melting snow and she picked them up and set them aside before quickly drying the puddle.