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Desiree Parrish had been secretly observing Carter Prescott throughout the Christmas pageant. So she saw the moment when his jaw tightened, when he closed his eyes and clenched his fists as though he were in pain. A bright sheen of tears glistened along his dark lashes. Moments later he rose from the back pew in which he sat and quietly, almost surreptitiously, left the church.
For a moment Desiree wasn't sure what to do. She didn't want to leave because her daughter, Nicole, hadn't yet performed her part as an angel in the pageant. Nicole was an angel, Desiree thought with a swell of maternal pride. But it was because of her five-year-old daughter that she needed Carter Prescott's help. Desiree had to speak privately with the cowboy, and she wasn't sure if she would get another opportunity like this one.
According to his grandmother, Madelyn Prescott, Carter had come to Wyoming from Texas looking for someplace to settle down. What if Carter moved on before she got a chance to make her offer to him? What if he decided to leave town tonight? Without giving herself more chance for thought, Desiree rose and headed for the nearest exit. She made a detour to grab her coat and wrap a scarf around her face to protect her from the frigid Wyoming weather.
Desiree was alarmed when she stepped outside to discover her quarry had disappeared into the night, hidden by the steady, gentle snowfall. She frantically searched the church parking lot, running through the fluffy snow in the direction his footprints led, afraid he would get away before she could make her proposition known to him.
She cried out in alarm when a tall, intimidating figure suddenly stepped from behind a pickup. She automatically put up a hand as though to ward off a blow. There was a moment of awful tension while she waited for the first lash of pain. In another instant she realized how foolish she had been.
She had found Carter Prescott. Or rather, he had found her.
"Are you all right?"
She heard the concern in his voice, yet when he reached out to touch her she took a reflexive step backward. It took all her courage to stand her ground. She had to get hold of herself. Her safety, and Nicole's, depended on what she did now.
Disconcerted by the growing scowl on Carter's face, she lowered her arm and threaded her fingers tightly together. "I'm fine," she murmured.
"Why did you follow me?" he demanded in a brusque voice.
"I " Desiree couldn't get anything more past the sudden tightness in her throat. The cowboy looked sinister wrapped in a shearling coat with his Stetson pulled down low to keep out the bitter cold. He towered over her, and she had second thoughts about speaking her mind.
But she had no choice. It was two weeks until Christmas. She had to have a husband by the new year, and this cowboy from Texas was the most likely candidate she had found. She examined Carter closely in the stream of light glowing from the church steeple.
From the looks of his scuffed boots and ragged jeans, life hadn't been kind to him. His face was as weathered as the rest of him. He had wide-set, distrustful blue eyes and a hawkish nose. His jaw was shadowed with at least a day's growth of dark beard. His chin jutted-with arrogance or stubbornness, she wasn't sure which. From having seen it in church, she knew his hair was a rich, wavy chestnut brown. He had full lips, but right now they were flattened in irritation. Nonetheless, he was a handsome man. More good-looking than she deserved, everything considered.
"Look, lady, if you've got something to say, spit it out."
Desiree responded to the harsh voice with a shiver that she chose to blame on the cold. Plainly the cowboy wasn't going to stand there much longer. It was now or never.
Desiree spoke quickly, her breath creating a cloud of white around her. "My name is Desiree Parrish. I know from having spoken to your grandmother before the pageant this evening that you're looking for a place to set down some roots."
His scowl became a frown, but she hurried on without stopping. "I have a proposition to make to you."
She opened her mouth and then couldn't speak. What was she doing? Maybe this was only going to make things worse, not better. After all, what did she really know about Carter Prescott? The grown man standing before her was a stranger. She wondered whether he remembered the one time they had met. His eyes hadn't revealed whether he recognized her name when she had spoken it. But, maybe he had never known her name.
After all, they had only spent fifteen minutes together twenty-three years ago, when she was a child of five and he was a lanky boy of ten.
It was spring, and Carter Prescott had come from King's Castle with his father to visit the Rimrock Ranch, since the two properties bordered each other. She would never even have met him if her kitten hadn't gotten stuck in a tree.
She had been trying to coax Boots down by talking to her, but the kitten had been afraid to move. The ten-year-old boy had heard Desiree's pleading cries and come to investigate. She thought now of all the reactions Carter could have had to the situation. He might have ignored her. Or come to see the problem but left her to solve it herself. He might have made fun of her or taunted her about the kitten's plight. After all, she was just a kid, and a girl at that.
Carter Prescott had done none of those things. He had patted her awkwardly on the shoulder and promised to get Boots down from the tree. He had climbed up into the willow and reached for the kitten. But Boots evaded his reach. He had finally lurched for the kitten and caught her, but cat and boy had come tumbling down in a heap on the ground.
Desiree had screamed in fright and hurried over to make sure Boots was all right. She found her kitten carefully cushioned in the boy's arms.
He had handed Boots to her with a grim smile. "Here's your cat."
She was too busy fussing over Boots to notice Carter's attempts to rise. It was his gasp of pain that caused her to look at him again. That was when she saw the bloody bone sticking out through his jeans above the knee.
Her second panicked scream brought their fathers on the run. Her father picked her up and hugged her tight, grateful she was all right. She babbled the problem out to him, her voice too hysterical at first for him to realize what had happened.
Carter's father bent down on one knee to his son. His lips had tightened ominously before he said, "Your mother will give me hell for this."
Carter hadn't made a sound when his father picked him up and carried him toward their pickup. His face had been white, his teeth clamped on his lips to stop any sound from escaping. Desiree had tried to follow him but her father had held her back.
"Let the boy be, Desiree," he'd said. "He won't want to cry in front of you."
"But Daddy, I have to see how he is," she protested. "He saved Boots."
Her father relented, and she ran after Carter and his father.
"I'm sorry," Desiree called up to Carter, her tiny legs rushing to keep pace.
"You ought to be," Carter's father said.
Stunned at the meanness in his voice, Desiree stopped in her tracks. But Carter turned to face her over his father's shoulder. He nodded and tried to smile, and she knew he had forgiven her.
But she and Carter had never crossed paths again. When she asked about him several days later, her father had told her that Carter had been visiting Wyoming for only a few days. His parents were divorced and Carter lived in Texas with his mother. He wouldn't be coming back.
Desiree had never seen Carter again, until he showed up at the Christmas pageant in Casper tonight. Was she willing to gamble her future on a man she had known for barely fifteen minutes twenty-three years ago? It seemed idiotic in the extreme.
Desiree wasn't an idiot. But she was in urgent need of a husband. Carter might not be the same person now as he had been then. But she remembered vividly how he had cradled the kitten to keep it from harm at the expense of his own welfare. Surely he could not have grown up a cruel man. She was staking her life on it.
Carter was already turning to walk away, when she laid a slender hand on his arm. She tensed when she felt the steely muscle tighten even through the sheepskin coat.
"I need a husband," she said in a breathless voice.
Carter's head snapped back around. His icy blue eyes focused intently on her face.
"I'm willing to sign over half the Rimrock Ranch to you if you'll agree to marry me. Of course," she added hastily, "it would be a marriage in name only."
His eyes narrowed, and she found herself racing to get everything out before she lost her nerve. "The Rimrock is the second largest outfit in the area, nearly as big as King's Castle, your father's place. It's got good water and lots of grass. The house was built by my great-greatgrandfather. You'd be getting a good bargain. What do you say?"
Desiree gripped his arm tighter, as though she could hold him there until he responded in the way she wished him to answer. She chanced a look into his eyes and was surprised by the humor she saw there. His lips twisted in a mocking smile.
"Surely you could get a husband in a little more conventional way, Miss Parrish," he replied.
This wasn't a laughing matter. The sooner Carter Prescott realized that, the better. Desiree reached up and pulled aside the heavy wool scarf that was wrapped around her face.
"You're mistaken, Mr. Prescott." She angled her face so he could see the vivid scar that slanted across her right cheek from chin to temple. "No man would willingly choose me for a bride."
She raised wary brown eyes to the man before her and shuddered at the cold, hard look on his face. Her shoulders slumped. She should have known better. She should have known even the promise of the Rimrock wasn't enough to entice a man to face her over the breakfast table for the rest of his life.
Desiree hurriedly wrapped the scarf back around her face to hide the scar. "This was a stupid idea," she muttered. "Forget I mentioned it."
Desiree quickly stumbled away, embarrassed by the stinging tears that had sprung to her eyes. It would have been humiliating enough to have him refuse her offer. She didn't want him to see how devastated she was by his reaction to the scar on her face. It had been so long since she had exposed herself to someone for the first time that she had forgotten the inevitable horror it caused.
She would have to find another way to save herself. But merciful Lord in heaven, what was she going to do?
Meanwhile, Carter had been so stunned by the entire incident that Desiree had nearly reached the door of the church before he recovered himself enough to speak. By then he was glad she was gone, because he wouldn't have known what to say. He stared after her, remembering the look of vulnerability in her deep brown eyes when she had exposed her face.
He was amazed even now at the strength of his reaction to the awful sight he had seen. He had felt fury at the destruction of something that had obviously once been quite beautiful. And pity for what it must be like to live with such a scar. And disgust that she had been reduced to begging for a spouse.
If he was honest, he also had to admit that his curiosity was piqued. How had she been wounded so horribly? Why was she so anxious to find a husband? And why had she singled him out?
Carter wondered if she remembered the one time they had met. It was a day he had never forgotten. He unconsciously rubbed his thigh. His thigh bone-the one he had broken saving her blasted cat-still ached when the weather was wet or cold. If he got tired enough, he sometimes limped. He never had liked cats much since.
For other reasons that day was etched in his memory like brutally carved glass. The scene between his mother and father when his mom had arrived at the emergency room of the hospital had been loud and vicious. It was easy to see why his parents hadn't stayed married. They had been in the process of a divorce when he was conceived, and he had been born before the divorce was final. His mother just hadn't seen fit to inform his father of that fact. She had only brought him to Wyoming to meet his father because Wayne Prescott had accidentally found out about his son and demanded visitation rights.
The incident at the Rimrock Ranch had convinced his mother that his father was not a fit custodian. That day had been the first and last he had seen of Wayne Prescott. So Carter remembered well his first meeting with Desiree Parrish. It had been a dark day in his life.