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"Gotcha," she murmured as she threw her dish towel onto the counter and ran after him. He had been avoiding her for the better part of a week, and had been acting like a jerk for most of the month, and Alyssa was going to get to the bottom of it.
Mark opened the screened door and walked out onto the large front porch of the Morning Glory Ranch, his family's home. Alyssa slipped through behind him before it slammed shut.
"Go away," he said over his shoulder.
"You can't run forever, Mark."
Mark grabbed the ladder that had been left propped against the side of the house and walked down the steps to the yard.
"Come on, Mark, you've been acting like a baby all day," she shouted, and followed him down.
"Have not." He reverted to his usual infuriating calmness and Alyssa felt the old familiar urge to grab him and shake him until words with more than one syllable fell out.
Mark kicked open the ladder and looked at it in relation to the peak of the porch roof. Alyssa crossed her arms, waiting impatiently for him to look at her. She watched and continued to wait while Mark made minute adjustments to the ladder and effectively ignored her.
Stupid infuriating cowboy! Alyssa thought.
Mark reached for the sign he had left on the porch, the sign Alyssa had spent most of the night making, but she beat him to it and quickly put the sign behind her back.
"If you want this sign, you're going to have to talk to me," she said, arching an eyebrow at him.
"I don't really want the sign," he said reasonably. "You're the one who wants it put up."
Alyssa gnashed her teeth but didn't give him the sign. For the moment, at least, she had his attention. "You're right, I do want this sign up. What I can't figure out is what has crawled up your butt."
"Nice, Lis." Mark shook his head at her.
"Well?" She ignored his censure. "You've been walking around like the Grinch for weeks while the rest of us have gone nuts getting the place ready. What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing is wrong with me. I just have better things to do than hang signs and move furniture and spit shine every piece of tack we own." Alyssa watched with satisfaction as the skin under Mark's collar turned red. She couldn't help but smile; it was so rare that Mark got this upset.
Mark must have taken offense to the smile because he reached around her and grabbed the sign before she could stop him. He turned and started up the ladder.
Alyssa blew one of her long curls out of her face and went after him.
"It's not good for you to hold all of this in," Alyssa told him. "You should talk about this stuff. You know ... vent."
"Hold the ladder, would you?" Mark asked without even looking. Alyssa grabbed the rickety ladder as he climbed. He got to the top and heaved the sign into place.
Well, she thought as she looked up at Mark and felt the old warm sizzle of attraction in her stomach, I might as well enjoy the view. His muscles bunched and flexed under the worn work shirt he was wearing. He wasn't a big man, like his brothers. His muscles were lean and he was not much taller than Alyssa, but there was something about him that captured Alyssa's attention and imagination. He had attracted plenty of attention over the years from the girls in town, because he was truly one of the nice guys. Athletic and handsome like his brothers, but unlike Ethan and Billy, Mark was respectful and considerate.
And sure Alyssa liked that he was a good guy, but it was so much more for her.
It's his eyes, she thought as she watched him pull nails out of the pocket of his shirt. They were pale blue and they always made Alyssa feel as though he could see right through her. He had a way of watching people, of measuring them up and seeing their worth, that made those eyes something special. They could be eerie and haunting ...
And you have no business standing here, thinking about Mark Cook's eyes, let's move on. Alyssa's practical better sense jabbed her into action.
"I don't know what the big deal is, Mark," Alyssa said, watching him place the sign. "Over a little to the left," she advised, and Mark shifted the sign over a few inches.
"Your other left," she clarified, and Mark shifted the sign back a few more inches. "This is going to be good for the ranch," Alyssa told him.
"Good?" Mark asked. "How in the world could this possibly be considered 'good'? We're going to have a movie star traipsing around here ..."
"Not just any movie star ... Dirk Mason!" Alyssa felt obligated, on behalf of her absolute favorite movie star, to keep Mark from maligning him.
Mark looked down at Alyssa and batted his eyelashes in mockery of a starstuck teenager. Alyssa tried very very hard not to indulge Mark's little fit by laughing, but she couldn't help it.
"Don't you think you're overreacting?" Alyssa asked. She waited for Mark to answer but he remained silent on the top of the ladder. "Dirk Mason is an international star." Again she felt duty-bound to remind Mark who exactly they were going to be dealing with.
"International? What does that mean?" Mark muttered under his breath, clearly unimpressed.
"He's huge in Thailand," Alyssa said defensively.
"They don't even speak English in Thailand. He's not an international star, his butt is," Mark said, referring to Dirk Mason's gratuitous flashes of nudity in his pictures. Gratuitous flashes of nudity that were one of the real small pleasures in Alyssa's life.
"Don't I know it," she said, and smiled cheekily at Mark when he looked down at her with a scowl.
Poor Mark, he's really not taking this well, she thought, surprised.
"Okay, okay, Mark. Seriously, what's wrong with Dirk Mason?" Alyssa persisted, hoping that maybe if she didn't goad him he would tell her what was really eating at him. "Everyone knows he's your favorite actor, too."
"Nothing is wrong with Dirk Mason," Mark answered, and looked back up at the sign. "What's wrong is having him here disrupting everything."
"Mark, what is he disrupting?" Alyssa exclaimed.
"Look at all the stuff that's not getting done because you and I are hanging this stupid sign." Said sign slipped and Mark grabbed it and slapped it back against the roof.
"Work around here has ground to a halt and we're just getting ready for him. My family has gone crazy about this whole thing. Mom redecorated the living room," he said as if it had been some crime against the family to replace the BarcaLounger.
"Well, it needed it," Alyssa said reasonably. "We can't live in the fifties forever."
"Dad bought a new car," Mark added, having gotten himself onto a roll. "What in the world do we need a new car for?"
"Well, I don't think he wants to drive a movie star around in a pickup that smells like manure."
"Billy's done nothing but practice his rodeo skills."
"There's nothing different about that. He barely works anyway."
"And you've been walking around like a lovesick teenager. Last week you burned dinner and we all had to eat scrambled eggs."
"Everyone likes eggs," she said defensively. She would have been embarrassed if she had been the only one distracted by the prospect of Dirk Mason's arrival. But Mark was right, the whole family had become consumed with the movie star's visit. Work had certainly slowed down, but the Morning Glory would survive. Alyssa didn't know if Mark would, though.
"And that's just getting ready for him," Mark continued. "I can't imagine what it will be like when he's actually here!"
"Mmm-hmm," Alyssa hummed, unable to resist.
Excerpted from Cooking Up Trouble by Molly O'Keefe Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.