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A Cowboy Summer
By Debra Salonen
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE ONE-PIECE? Or the bikini?
Anne Fraser knelt before the bottom drawer of her dresser like a novitiate at prayer. Her hand wavered between two disparate clumps of fabric. One sober, practical - useful for the occasional on-site inspection of a World Hospitality Corporation hotel pool. The other a sexy scrap of bright colors purchased at a time when tempting the man in her life took precedence over checking the chlorine levels of a WHC property.
She snatched the black one-piece suit from its spot and tossed it over her shoulder, hoping it would land near the open suitcase on the bed. "I don't even know if the Silver Rose has a pool," she muttered, opening a second drawer. "It didn't when I lived there."
But a lot could change in fourteen years. Lord knows she had.
She stared, unseeing, at the neatly folded summer clothes. Three months in Nevada. Was she out of her mind?
Her boss, Roger McFinney, had asked the same thing less than an hour earlier when he'd accosted Anne in her office. Even though her request for family leave had been approved by the head of personnel, Roger hadn't been pleased. "Am I expected to hold this door open for you for three months while you trot off to the wilds of Nevada to fulfill some tenuous stepdaughter obligation?"
In his early sixties, Roger looked fifteen years younger.
Some in the office attributed this to his vampire heritage. But he'd been Anne's mentor for five years and was the reason she had a shot at an executive-level job.
"Anne," he'd said, softening as much as Roger ever softened, "your mother is dead. Surely whatever guilt you feel for not spending more time with her at the end isn't worth the job of a lifetime."
Anne's mother, Esther, had passed away in February, and not a night went by that Anne didn't think about her with regret. So when A. J. Cavanaugh, Anne's stepfather, called to ask for her help this summer, Anne couldn't say no - especially when Zoey added a little emotional arm-twisting. "Please, Mommy," her eight-year-old daughter had begged. "Grandpa needs us. And you promised I'd get to visit the ranch when I was older. I'll be nine in July, you know."
Anne knew. And Esther's death had driven home one immutable fact: life was fleeting. Zoey was growing up too fast, and Anne was missing out. Maybe that was the true reason she'd agreed to this trip. All Anne knew for certain was that her motivation didn't stem from any love for Nevada. The eighteen months she'd spent there in high school had been eighteen too many in her book. Esther had come to love the sage scrub and fir-covered landscape of the high desert, but Anne didn't share those feelings.
Anne quickly selected an assortment of shorts, jeans and tops then turned her attention to her lingerie drawer. Two sports bras. Three regular. Maybe the push-up ... Her hand hovered over the satin fabric. Why bother taking it? She didn't have an answer but added it to the pile. A 34-B didn't take up much space.
She chose two sets of pajamas. One summer-weight cotton, one flannel. Late May on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range offered variable weather as she recalled. The snow had probably been gone for a month, but mornings could be chilly.
The historic Silver Rose Guest Ranch was a unique anachronism - a working ranch existing within a stone's throw of a burgeoning population. Thirty minutes from Reno, the Silver Rose was a juicy prospect for developers. Given the economic realities of ranching, A.J. had been forced to sell off several parcels close to the highway in the mid-1970s. He might have sold out completely if he hadn't met Esther. She'd talked him into opening the ranch to guests not long after Anne moved out.
Anne's brief sojourn at the Silver Rose had ended with her graduation from high school. She'd returned several times over the years, but never for a prolonged stay. The Silver Rose was her mother's domain - a shadowy memory that still had the power to haunt Anne's dreams and fill her with a sense of failure.
She let out a sigh and turned on one heel, her bare foot making a squeaky sound on the gleaming hardwood floor. Wood provided a fiber-free surface that was easier to keep clean. Dust, pollen, pet hair, smoke and mold were her daughter's enemies. Once Zoey stepped outside, her fragile lungs and easily compromised bronchia were subject to forces beyond Anne's control. But behind the door of their apartment, Anne was as vigilant as possible. "A clean-freak," Anne once heard Maria, her housekeeper/nanny, tell someone on the phone.
Anne didn't care what the woman thought as long as she followed Anne's rules: no smelly cleaning products, aerosol cans, perfumes or scented lotions. Maria also had to pass an emergency-response course and learn CPR before entering Anne's employ.
How Anne would create an asthma-friendly environment in an eighty-year-old ranch house with barns, a riding arena and a forest just beyond the main compound was anybody's guess. But she was hoping the altitude and clean air would offset any indoor hazards. She'd already shipped their spare ozone purifier for Zoey's room. At worst, the little girl would be housebound, but Anne prayed it wouldn't come to that. Zoey had her heart set on learning how to ride a horse this summer. A prospect that didn't thrill Anne in the least.
Anne had consulted all three of Zoey's doctors, and each was optimistic about the positive benefits of the move. One had even gone so far as to suggest that simply having Anne around more would lessen Zoey's stress level and reduce the frequency of her attacks.
Just what I need, Anne had thought at the time, another helping of guilt. No single mother who worked for a living needed to be told that her absence was stressful to her child - especially an asthmatic child.
And the past six months had been more chaotic than usual - for both Anne and Zoey. Just before Christmas, an opening in the top tier of WHC management had been announced. Roger had assured Anne the job was hers if she wanted it. The position represented the brass ring Anne had been striving for for years. When she called her mother with the good news, Anne learned that Esther was at the clinic in Reno for some "stomach trouble." Three weeks later, A.J. called to say the problem had been diagnosed as pancreatic cancer and the prognosis was bad.
Anne had immediately headed west. Alone. The winter months had already taken a toll on Zoey, who seemed to catch every germ in public school. To everyone's regret, the little girl wasn't well enough to accompany Anne on either of her two trips to Nevada - one to visit her mother in the hospital and the other to say goodbye just hours before Esther passed away.
Now, Anne was going back again. With Zoey. For the entire summer.
Three thousand miles from our respiratory professionals, Anne thought, a germ of fear replicating with abandon in her belly.
As she folded the clothing with practiced ease, she recalled the conversation that had produced this unwelcome bit of penance. When A.J. had called three weeks earlier, Anne had been touched that he'd turned to her. "I need you, Annie girl." He was the only person in the world who called her Annie.
At the time, she'd been prepared to drop everything and fly to Nevada for a few days to help him over this hurdle of grief. She was still hurting, too. The speed of Esther's demise hadn't given anyone time to prepare.
But A.J.'s call wasn't about solace. He wanted - no, he demanded - three months of her life. "I promised your mother I'd take her home when the time came," he'd explained. "I need you to hold down the fort while I'm gone. Some of our guests have been coming for ten years or better. This isn't going to be easy for them."
Them? Anne had wanted to cry. What about me? There's no way in the world I can fill Mom's shoes.
Rather than admit that the thought of trying to take her mother's place terrified her, Anne argued that it was unfeasible to expect a person to request a three-month leave of absence from her job. Her life.
Excerpted from A Cowboy Summer by Debra Salonen Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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