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"Well, well, well, if it isn't Saedra Robbins."
Saedra's whole body jerked at the sound of that voice, the piece of luggage she'd been in the middle of pulling out of her rental car momentarily forgotten.
She closed her eyes, blotting out the California mountains and pine-studded meadows that surrounded her.
Cabe Jensen. The fly in her soup. The splinter beneath her nail. The rock in her shoe. Too bad he would be her host for the next two weeks.
Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the man. "Cabe," she said with as pleasant a smile as she could muster.
He stood on the porch of his two-story Victorian home painted the color of an autumn forestbuttercup-yellowhis hands resting on the white railing. From nowhere came the thought that he looked like the quintessential master of the manor standing there, his tall, broad-shouldered frame the epitome of masculinity. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Even sideburns. For a moment she wondered if he expected her to curtsy before him as if he were some kind of feudal lord.
His gaze swept her up and down. "I see you made it in one piece."
He looked for flaws, no doubt, although he would find none in the tasteful jeans and long-sleeved brown cotton shirt she wore.
"I sure did."
She'd come to California straight from Nevada where her best friend, Trent Anderson, had won the team roping average at the National Finals Rodeo with his longtime roping partner, Mac. That left her exactly two weeks to plan Trent's wedding, something that seemed like an impossible task, especially without his bride, Alana Mc-Clintock, around. The two of them had flown home to meet Trent's mother. That meant she was on her own with nobody but Alana's best friend, Cabe, and Cabe's daughter, Rana, to help her out. To top it off, she'd never planned a wedding before in her life, but it couldn't be that hard, right? And she had the food thing dialed-in thanks to the catering business she used to own. All she had to do was make arrangements for a wedding hall. Flowers shouldn't be too hard. Party favors. Centerpieces. Decorations. She could handle all that, and the cake .
"You need some help?" Cabe stared pointedly at her car.
She glanced at the three pieces of luggage in her trunktwo suitcases, a matching toiletry bag and a garment bag that contained the dress she would wear to Trent and Alana's wedding, bought in Las Vegas, of course. Enough clothes for three weeks. "No, no, I've got it."
"Here." He darted down the steps.
The man didn't know how to take no for an answer. She quickly pulled the last piece of luggage outthe small toiletry casehoping to scoop everything up before he got there, but she should have known better. He was by her side in an instant.
"Let me have that." He grabbed the handle of her largest suitcase before she could stop him. "You don't need to do that."
She was treated to his censorious stare beneath the brim of his black cowboy hatone that matched his shirtbut that wasn't curled up around the rim like a traditional hat. In this part of the country, everyone wore them wide and flat. They might look silly on some cowboys, but not Cabe. Too handsome for his own good, she thought, not for the first time.
"Thanks," she said, cursing inside because she'd meant the word to come out sounding truly thankful, but it'd come out all wrongmore grudging than grateful.
He didn't like her. She'd known that, although it didn't make it any easier to swallow. She knew why, too. From the moment she'd first spotted Cabe Jensen standing in the middle of a barn aisle five months ago, she'd become a babbling moron. She hadn't meant to sound so domineering and bossy, but she knew that's exactly how her words had come off to his ears. She'd tried to rectify the situation at least a half dozen times, but every time she opened her mouth she said the wrong thing all over again. Drove her nuts.
"And thanks so much for letting me stay with you." She really was grateful about that. It would make things much easier.
"It's going to be great." His smile looked as sickly as a cardiac patient's. "I can't wait."
She almost laughed. Acting would never be his forte. "I can't wait, either."
He glanced back at her. She felt her cheeks flush with heat. The man had that effect on her. That, too, drove her nuts.
"I, ah " She smiled. "It's going to be a lot of work, of course. You know. The whole wedding in two weeks thing, but it'll be easier with your help."
There. That hadn't sounded too bad.
He picked up the last of her luggage and turned to face her. She almost laughed all over again. Poor man looked like a pack mule with her luggage stacked beneath his arms.
"Don't count on me for much help. You're the pro." He headed for the house before she could stop him. "And I hope you can pull it off for Alana and Trent's sake," he added over his shoulder.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, she found herself thinking. Typical Cabe. He was Alana's boss and best friend, and so she bit back a sarcastic retort, but it was hard.
He paused at the top of the steps, glancing back at her. "Coming?"
She'd been staring after him like a buffoon. "I need to get my cat."
Oh, dear. He hadn't been told. Darn that Alana and Trent. They should have given him a heads-up.
"Ramses." She smiled sheepishly. "My cat. After the pharaoh. He thinks he's king of the world, and if I'd left him behind in Colorado, he wouldn't have spoken to me for a month. Seriously. He has major catt-itude. Didn't Alana and Trent tell you I was bringing him along?"
"I hate cats."
Big surprise. He probably hated puppies, babies and fuzzy little chicks, too. "I promise you won't even notice him."
His lips tightened in a way that projected "Famous last words."
Oh, well. Nothing she could do about it now. It wasn't like she could ship Ramses home.
"You'll see. He's adorable. Nobody can resist Ramses."
Nobody but him, she would bet.
She headed toward the front seat of the rental where Ramses had spent the past few hours riding it outmuch to his dismay. The orange Peke-faced Persian stared up at her in the same way Cabe Jensen didwith a combination of resentment and disgust.
"Hey there, buddy." She lifted the travel kennel up to her face. Ramses's gaze moved from her to the pasture behind her, then back to her face again, pupils flaring, smooshed-in nose lifting up as if he'd caught a whiff of the pines and freshly cut grass behind her. "You okay?"
As a reply, the cat let out his trademark Persian howl, a cross between stepped-on kitty and wailing banshee. Her gaze darted to Cabe, but he just raised his brows and shook his head.
"Great," she thought she heard him mutter.
Relax, she told herself. It wasn't as though she and Ramses would be seeing a lot of the man. He was the proprietor of a guest ranch, one that specialized in people with disabilities. This time of year the ranch catered to a different type of clientele, Alana had told her: big-game hunters. According to Alana it was a booming business. Elk and antelope and a whole host of other animals made their home in the high California desert.
"Got anything else in there I need to know about?" he asked.
"Nope." She cradled Ramses's cage in front of her. "This is the last surprise."
This time, she was certain she heard him grunt. "I hope so."
She hoped so, too.
He could feel her behind him.
Stubborn, opinionated woman. Why wasn't he surprised she'd brought along her cat? And what the hell was in the suitcases he lugged up the steps of his home? Damn things weighed as much as a ship anchor.
"Wow. This is pretty, Cabe."
Hadn't she been in his home before? He frowned.
Now that he thought about it, she hadn't. He'd given her a wide berth when she'd visited the ranch last summer.
"How long have you lived here?"
"All my life," he said, struggling to get the multiple pieces of luggage up the first flight of stairs. It was like carrying bales of hay, and it took everything he had to keep his breathing under control. Damned if he'd let her see him struggle.
"You sure you don't want help with that?" she asked, almost as if she read his mind.
"Just hold on to your cat."
"Not my hat?"
He glanced back down at her. She smiled up at him. He decided to ignore her.
She wouldn't let him. "The house looks really old."
He paused for a moment, ostensibly so he could respond to her comment, but really so he could catch his breath at the top of the steps. He felt as if his arms had stretched two inches by the time he set her luggage down.
"It was built in 1859," he all but wheezed.
At the bottom of the steps was the family room, the hardwood floor so shiny it reflected the image of a massive stone fireplace that sat kitty-corner from the front door. Claw-footed furniture was arranged around the room, a beige-and-brown cowhide lay in the middle of the floor, matching pillows on the sofa. Across from the family room, still along the front of the house, was a drawing room, and behind that, toward the back, the kitchen overlooked a side pasture that stretched all the way to the main road.
"Our family was one of the first to settle in the area."
At the look of approval in her eyes, he picked up the luggage again. Sure, he was normally a lot friendlier to his guests, and sure, he was probably a bit hard on her, but Saedra Robbins annoyed the heck out of him with her I-can-do-anything-you-can-do attitude. That was why he'd be boiled in hoof tar before he let her see how out of breath he was.
One step at a time.
"Where are you taking me?"
He heard her laugh. "Going to lock me in there?"
Now there was an idea. Granted, Trent and Alana might not approve, but it sure would make his life easier. She rubbed him the wrong way, but he was also man enough to admit that part of his problem was how gorgeous the woman was. Not just mildly pretty. Not even vaguely pretty. She was breathtakingly beautiful with her wide blue eyes, full lips and heart-shaped face that featured a tiny button nose and softly rounded chin.
"Not unless you misbehave." He was only half-kidding.
Maybe things wouldn't have been so bad if he'd had a spare cabin for her to stay in, but with the ranch fully booked, it'd made sense to have her stay in his home. Frankly, it'd been the only option. Even the hotels were booked this time of year.
"Hmm." Her long blond hair fell over one shoulder as she pretended to consider his words. "That sounded like a challenge."
Was she flirting with him? He drew himself up as best he could considering his burden, arranging his face into a mask of indifference. She would learn he had no interest in women, not even a beautiful one. His damn sexual attraction was just an annoyancenothing more.
"It was meant as a warning."
He'd made it to the top of the steps, thank God, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Funny that she could stand beneath him on the steps, smaller by at least a foot, and yet he could still feel the urge to run away.
"Did you hear that, Ramses?" She turned the cage around so she could peer at her cat. She pitched her voice down low and gruff. "We've been warned."
This would be a long couple of weeks, he thought, turning back to the task at hand. At least she was a full floor away. And with life on the ranch as busy as it was, what with livestock management and guests to entertain, he'd see very little of her.
"Here you go."
He left the luggage outside her room before swinging open a door. The roofline was lower here, but only along the front of the house. It sloped upward, toward the middle of the home, allowing for two dormers, one to the left and one to the right and each with a bench seat and a puffy pillow in front of it. The perfect place to sit and daydream or write.
He backed away from that thought like a horse spooking at a plastic bag.
"Wow." She brushed past him, the air she disturbed leaving behind the scent of vanilla and cinnamon. Gently, she set her cat down on the daybed to her right. "This is stunning."
Blue. His wife's favorite color. On the walls, billowing down in drapes, echoed in the quilt on the bed.
Why hadn't he been up here before now? Why had he waited until it was time to show Saedra to her room to make the trek upstairs?
So you could put off facing Kimberly's hideaway and be reminded of her and all that you lost.
"Enjoy." He brushed past her.
"Wait!" He heard her take a few steps. "Where's the bathroom?"
"Out the door, to the right."
He couldn't get away fast enough.
"But I thought we could go over a few things. You know, for the wedding."
He should have let her stay in one of the guest bedrooms. He shouldn't have allowed her up here. And he definitely should have ignored his instincts to keep her far away.
"Can't," he shot over his shoulder. Keep walking.
"Things to do."
Ignore her. Don't look back. There's no need to pretend you like the woman. She's not a guest.
But years of playing the polite host proved impossible to ignore. He paused near the top step, slowly turned to face her despite the inner warnings to do the exact opposite. The sight of her standing there, sunlight framing her silhouette, blond hair set aglowit did things to his insides.
So much like Kimberly.
Saedra was taller, of course, but everything else seemed the same, from the length of her hair to the shape of her body, even down to what she wore: the stone-washed jeans and formfitting long-sleeved top. He could just picture Kim standing there, a smile on her face as she chastised him for interrupting her while she'd been in the midst of writing. Usually those interruptions led to something else, something that would quickly change her teasing grin into sighs of pleasure .
"I just want to say thanks again for inviting me to stay in your home." She rubbed her hands together, as if nervous. "I know you and I don't exactly see eye-to-eye, but I promise to make this as painless as possible."
It wasn't her fault he'd never gotten over the death of his wife. Not her fault at all.
He turned away before he could say something he might regret because although he might not be interested in women, his body didn't seem to know it. And that presented one tiny little problem.
He was attracted to her.
"I'll see you at dinner," she called out after him.
Not if he could help it.