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The Chaparral ranch house was shrouded in darkness as Laramie Jones entered an atrium that also served as a back porch. The long room filled with plants and cushioned lawn chairs was faintly illuminated by a row of outside footlights, but he hardly needed a light to show him the way to the kitchen door. He knew the path by heart. This New Mexico ranch had been his home for nearly eighteen years, and for the past year he'd been residing right here in the Cantrell's family home.
About to reach for the doorknob, he instinctively jumped back when the wood and glass panel burst open and a tiny person crashed directly into his shins.
"Whoa!" Reaching down, Laramie attempted to snatch a hold on the darting child.
"Dillon! Come to me. Right now!"
The female voice was soft but firm, and Laramie quickly looked around to see a very young woman standing in the open doorway. As he stared, trying to figure out who she might be, the wayward boy scampered to her side and latched a death grip around her leg.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "My son doesn't normally run from me. I hope he didn't hurt you."
Her son! The boy appeared to be about three. From this limited view, she hardly looked old enough to be his mother. The light shining through the entryway silhouetted her petite figure and created a flame-colored halo around black hair that was pulled sleekly back from her face. Although her features were in shadow, he could see the faint shape of broad lips and a pair of very dark eyes. Neither of which were smiling.
"Don't worry," he assured her. "The little guy couldn't hurt me if he tried." Moving forward, he extended a hand toward her. "I'm Laramie Jones, the Chaparral foreman." She took his hand and he was immediately struck by how small and soft it felt against his. Was this woman a guest of the ranch? Frankie, the mistress of the ranch, was still away in Texas visiting her sons and their families, so she couldn't be a guest of hers, he decided. Perhaps she was connected to Reena Crow, the ranch house cook. This young woman was clearly Native American, as was Reena. The two might be related.
Her next words answered his questions.
"I know," she said. "I was expecting you. I'm Leyla Chee. I have your dinner ready."
She dropped her hand and quickly started back into the house with the boy in tow. Laramie stared after the two of them. This was the new cook? She had taken Reena's place? A few days ago, Quint had mentioned the regular cook would be heading over to Apache Wells to replace his grandfather Abe's cook, who'd had the misfortune to break his leg. But Laramie hadn't dwelled on the matter.
Who prepared his meals was the least of his concerns. Especially these days, when everything seemed to be going wrong on the ranch. Still, he'd hardly expected a young mother to be taking over the job. And where was Leyla's husband? Had he moved into the house with her?
As Laramie followed her into the house, Leyla didn't give him the opportunity to ask those questions. She and the boy quickly moved ahead of him, then passed through the kitchen doorway and out of sight. With a puzzled shake of his head, Laramie turned the opposite direction and headed upstairs to his bedroom.
Ten minutes later he returned to the kitchen, his dark hair damp from a shower, his dirty jeans and shirt replaced with clean ones.
The new cook was standing, her head slightly bent to one side as she adjusted a burner on the huge gas range. She was dressed in black jeans and a white blouse with the sleeves rolled up on her forearms. Her black hair, which must have been extremely long, was coiled into a braided knot and fastened to the crown of her head.
Immediately upon hearing his footsteps, she turned to face him and Laramie was once again struck by the youthful appearance of her face. Beneath the glow of florescent lighting, he could see her skin was a beautiful creamy tan, her lips pink, her eyes a shade just shy of black. High, rounded cheekbones were flushed with a deep rosy color and he wondered if that was a result of working over the heat of the stove or of seeing him.
Hell, Laramie, why should you make this young girl blush? She couldn't be that shy around men. She has a child.
"In the dining room," she said, pointing to an open doorway leading into the main part of the house. "Sassy is already finished cleaning for the evening. So I put everything in there for you."
The dining room? This young woman was treating him like he was someone special. Hell, he was just the foreman. Maybe she was confused and thought he was a part of the Cantrell family. "Uhlook, Leyla, I'm sorry you went to all that trouble. I always take my meals here in the kitchen."
As she walked toward him, he spotted from the corner of his eye the boy, who was sitting on the floor near the breakfast bar. He was a stocky child with sturdy shoulders. Brown hair, the color of powdered cocoa, fell across his forehead in thick, jagged bangs. A crayon was clutched in his little fist, and a sheet of lined paper lay flat between his outstretched legs. At the moment, though, the child was ignoring the crayon and paper and was staring at Laramie with a guarded expression.
"Reena said you are the boss man," Leyla reasoned.
It was Laramie who suddenly found himself blushing as he looked away from the boy and back at her. He'd been called "boss" before by the ranch hands but not by a lovely young woman like her. It made him feel way overrated.
"Wellin a way. Quint Cantrell and his mother and sister own this ranch. I only manage it for them."
"Then you are the boss. And Reena told me to serve your meals in the dining room."
Laramie shook his head, and as he did his gaze swept across her hands folded loosely in front of her. There was no wedding ring or sign of where one had been. Did that mean she was single?
Feeling like an idiot for even wondering about the woman's marital status, he said, "I don't know why Reena would have told you such a thing. I never eat in there. That's for the Cantrell family and their guests."
The color of Leyla's cheeks turned an even deeper red as she bit down on her bottom lip and glanced at her son. "I'm not sure why she told me that. Maybe I misunderstood her. Or she might have thought Dillon would bother you here in the kitchen."
"The child won't bother me," he assured her. "I like kids."
Even though it was hard to read the expressions in her features, he could clearly see a look of relief in her eyes, almost as though she'd expected him to be difficult to deal with or even mean-natured. The idea was bothersome, to say the least.
She said, "I'm sorry there was a mix-up. I'll bring everything back here to the kitchen."
She started toward the doorway, but Laramie quickly called to her. "No. Don't go to that trouble now. It's okay. I'll eat in there for tonight."
He quickly made his way to the dining room and found the wooden table, easily capable of seating twenty diners, was set for one. Not far from the plate, two fat candles were flickering and a huge bowl of fresh cut flowers decorated the center of the table.
Laramie had eaten in this room before, when the family was present and guests had been invited for one particular reason or another. To be taking a meal here alone, as though he was the patriarch of the place, felt ridiculous to him. But he'd endure it for one night to save Leyla unnecessary work.
He'd just sat and started filling his plate from an assortment of covered dishes when the cell phone attached to his belt broke the silence.
Pulling the instrument from its holder, Laramie saw the caller was Quint Cantrell. The owner of the Chaparral ranch had been Laramie's friend for many years and they worked together more as brothers than owner and foreman.
"What's up, Quint?"
"Believe it or not I'm on my way to the grocery store. Maura's craving peanut butter and the boys cleaned out the last jar this morning. Like a good husband I offered to go get some for her."
Quint had been married for a few years now to a beautiful red-haired nurse. They had two young sons, Riley and Clancy, who would no doubt grow up to be ranchers themselves. Now Maura was pregnant again with a third child who would be born in late summer. His friend had a perfect, loving family. Something that Laramie had never experienced.
"You spoil that woman of yours rotten," Laramie joked. "Aww, she treats me like a prince, so what's a man to do?"
Laramie could have told Quint he was asking that question to the wrong man. His experience with women was the short, uncomplicated kind. Unless four dates in one month counted as long term, then he'd never had a lengthy relationship with a woman.
"I'd say you should do exactly what you're doing."
"Smart man," Quint replied with a chuckle. "So what happened at the ranch today? Nothing major, I hope."
Leaning back in the chair, Laramie swiped a hand through his damp hair. "Not today, thank God. In fact, we found those three missing horses. They were at the back of the property. Not far from Tyler Pickens's boundary fence."
"How in hell did they get back there? Did you find any downed fences between you and Pickens's land?"
"No. But we've not yet had time to check every fence line."
"That would take days," Quint said. After a long, thoughtful pause he added, "And you don't have the manpower to waste on that right now. You're going to need all hands for spring roundup. Since the horses were found, let it be for now."
For the past few months, the Chaparral had been experiencing incidents that couldn't be explained. Like sick cattle, missing horses and perfectly good machinery suddenly going on the blink. Both Laramie and Quint wanted to believe the occurrences were just a string of bad luck, but as the problems grew, that idea was harder and harder for the men to accept.
"Right. Branding is more important. And there isn't a man on the ranch who isn't excited about roundup. I'd probably have a mutiny if I sent a few off on fence line detail."
"Worse than a mutiny," Quint agreed. After a moment's pause, he went on, "Actually, the main reason I'm calling is to see if Leyla arrived."
"I met her a few minutes ago. I'd forgotten you'd mentioned the change in cooks. I didn't remember it was going to take place this soon."
"Hell, Grandfather was having a fit to get Reena out to his place. I'm not sure she was wild about the move, but she doesn't want the old man getting stirred up."
"Abe is a tough old codger when he doesn't get his way."
"You're right. I have enough on my plate without that. Especially with Maura pregnant again. You know, Laramie, I want this baby so muchjust as much as our other two boys. But I worry about Maura because I can't slow her down. She's forty but acts like she's twenty." He suddenly paused, then let out an apologetic chuckle. "I'm sorry, Laramie. That's enough about me. I should be asking if Leyla can cook. If not I'll have to find someone else to suit you."
"Can't tell you that yet. I just sat down to eat when you called."
"Damn, it's late," Quint cursed. "You should have quit work two hours ago."
"Just like you keep sane hours?"
Quint let out a snort. "Maura tries to keep me on schedule. Sometimes I make it to the house by dark at least three evenings a week."
"I'm not hurting myself." And he would make it clear to Leyla that there was no need for her to hang around to serve his meals if he came in late at night.
Quint suddenly cleared his throat. "I don't ask much of you, do I?"
Perplexed by his friend's question, he frowned. "You don't ask me to do anything that you wouldn't do. Why?"
"This is probably going to sound crazy, but I hope that whenever you are in the house you'll be easy on Leyla."
A frown quickly replaced Laramie's grin. "Why wouldn't I be easy? I'm not exactly a ladies' man, but I know how to be mannerly."
"Yes, you're always a gentleman. But I Well, Maura and I would appreciate it if you'd be extra kind to her. She's gone through some rough spots in her life. It's time somebody treated her kindly."
"Oh. Does she" concerned that she might suddenly enter the dining room and hear him, Laramie lowered his voice "have a husband?"
"No. The only family we know of her having is an aunt and Oneida is elderly and in the nursing home. My sister-in-law, Bridget, and her husband, Johnny, delivered Ley-la's boy in the backseat of a vehicle a few years ago. She'd been trying to drive herself to the hospital down on the res. The road was deep with snow and she'd gotten stranded. It was fortunate they found her. Otherwise, she or the baby might not have made it."
Laramie was momentarily stunned. He couldn't imagine the young woman enduring the pain of childbirth while being stranded in a freezing, snowbound vehicle. She must have been terrified. She must have felt the whole world had deserted her.
"Damn, that's tough."
"Yeah. She told Bridget that her family was dead. But we're wondering if she might have folks somewhere and split from them for some reason."
"You mean like she might have run away?"
"Nowadays who can tell? Whatever happened, it's clear that no one is around to give her any support."
"I see," Laramie said, even though he didn't. How could a woman like her be so alone? "And I promise not to give her a hard time."
"Good. Now eat your supper and I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Quint quickly ended the call, and after Laramie had put his phone away, he focused his attention on the food on his plate. But as he ate the roast beef and vegetables, his thoughts were spinning with Leyla and her young son.
Even if she'd separated herself from her parents, there was a man somewhere who'd gotten her pregnant. Why wasn't he around? The boy needed a father. Just like Lara-mie had needed a father all those years ago, he thought.
But you had a father. Diego Jaime might not have planted the seed in your mother's womb, but he'd cared for you, loved you just as though he 'd been your father. You don't have a right to feel cheated or sorry for yourself, Laramie.
He was trying to squash the little voice going off in his head when he heard footsteps entering the dining room.
Looking up, he watched Leyla walking toward him, a pitcher of iced tea in her hand.
"Would you like your glass refilled?" she asked.
He placed the glass near the edge of the table to make it easier for her to reach. Still, she drew near enough for him to catch a whiff of her musky scent.
As she poured the tea, he said, "The food is delicious. You're a very good cook."
"I didn't realize Reena was going to be leaving so soon. You must have gotten here after breakfast this morning."
Nodding, she said, "Mr. Cantrell was eager for her to get to Apache Wells. Jim, his cook, has a broken leg. They're not certain how many weeks it will require a cast. So she'll be there. I'll be here."
"Yes. Quint told me."