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"You want me to what?"
Melanie McFarlane's fingers tightened around the glass stem of her lemon-drop martini as she stared at the stupefied expression on Russ Chilton's annoyingly rugged face. "I believe you heard me." It took an enormous effort, but she kept her voice low. Mild. It helped that she had a lifetime of keeping herself well modulated and in control.
That's what one did, after all, when one was a McFarlane. Heaven forbid that they actually indulge in some sort of human manner.
"I heard you," Russ muttered. His long fingers were wrapped around the base of his beer bottle. No icy pilsner glass for him. He probably figured he was too salt-of-the-earth to bother with such niceties. "I just figured you're off your bean or something."
Or something, definitely. In her current vocabulary, or something was code for increasingly desperate.
She swallowed. Slowly turned the stem of her delicate martini glass and eyed the narrow twirl of lemon rind floating in the liquid. The waitress had already delivered their third round, and Melanie knew better than to finish off the drink when just two was already beyond her limit.
"It is important for me to make a success of this endeavor." She didn't believe it was any of his business just how important. Asking for his help in any way whatsoever was taking all of her strength as it was. Particularly when she knew he didn't approve of her presence in Thunder Canyon in the first place.
She didn't want anyone to know that it wasn't "McFarlane" money that was invested here. It was only Melanie's. And if she lost it all, she didn't know what she would do. Because returning to work for one of the McFarlane hotels wasn't anoption for her.
Russ snorted softly. "You mean you don't wanna fail at turning a perfectly good working ranch into some damn fool tourist trap. As if there aren't enough of those already cropping up around Thunder Canyon," he added derisively.
"The Hopping H will be a guest ranch," she corrected. "With your assistance, the actual" her fingertips lifted "ranch sort of activities will still continue." She was banking everything on Thunder Canyon's increasing popularity as a resort destination to help ensure her success. She knew plenty of people who would pay astronomical sums to get away from their high-pressure lives and at least play at getting back to what they thought of as "the simple life."
She'd been one of them, after all.
Only simple was turning out to be not quite so simple.
His lips twisted in a motion that ought to have made them look less sensual. "Ranch sort of activities," he mocked softly. "What's the matter, Red? Talking about shoveling manure and castrating calves a little too earthy sounding for you?"
Sadly, she had plenty of earthy thoughts where he was concerned, and not a single one of them were prudent.
Particularly for a McFarlane.
She needed this man's help, not his his
She managed to shut off the untoward thoughts as she softly cleared her throat and shifted in the hair-on-hide chair where they sat across from each other at a leather-topped table in the lounge at the Thunder Canyon Resort. The live band wasn't playing its usual eclectic mix, though, choosing instead to go with Christmas standards that were more in keeping with the holiday party that had been going on around them for the past few hours.
Melanie had never been a huge fan of the holidays, but just then, she felt even less than her usual smattering of holiday spirit. "I'm perfectly willing to shovel manure and do whatever as well as manage my guests' lodging and entertainment needs." She'd even learn how to cook and change bedding if she had to. And given her luck lately in holding on to ranching staff well, hands, they were calledshe just might need to.
He made a strangled sort of sound, as if he were trying not to choke. Or laugh.
This was not going the way she'd hoped.
Nothing about coming to Thunder Canyon was going the way she'd hoped. Scratch that. Even before she'd come to Thunder Canyon, nothing had gone the way she'd thought it would.
She was supposed to be in Atlanta, still capably running the newest jewel in the family crownMcFar-lane House Atlanta. She would be, too, if she hadn't found out that while she'd been running things, her father and brother had been behind the scenes really calling the shots. She'd been nothing more than a figurehead. An ignorant, humiliated figurehead.
"Think you might as well call me Russ, ma'am." He leaned back in his high-backed bar stool, hooking an elbow behind him and looking every inch the poster boy for Western living.
Only there was nothing boyish about Russ Chilton. From the tips of his leather bootspolished only because this was supposed to be a Christmas party, she suspectedup the six feet-plus of rangy muscle covered in black denim and thick Irish wool to the top of his dirty-blond hair that always seemed disheveled and an inch too long, he was a supremely well-grown male.
He wasn't handsome in the strictest sense. His nose was too hawkish, his jaw too square and stubborn.
But the end result was definitely good-looking. But was he too good-looking for her peace of mind? She needed someone believable, but she certainly didn't need someone she was in danger of falling for.
Fortunately for her, Russ Chilton could hardly stand her. So all she had to do was convince him they could help one another, and maybe she had a chance of success where the Hopping H was concerned.
"Fine." She sipped her drink, reminding herself that she was the one in control of this little tête-à-tête. "Russ. I know that you were interested in acquiring the Hopping H."
He sat forward suddenly, folding his elbows on the small high-top table, and seeming to take up all of her oxygen as he fairly loomed over her. "Interested?" There was no Western hospitality showing in his flinty brown eyes. "I had an offer in on the place with those city fools who inherited it from their grandparents, and you know it."
"And I beat your offer," she said reasonably. "It was simply a matter of business, Mr., er, Russ. It was nothing personal."
"Things in a town like Thunder Canyon are personal," he said evenly. "At least they always have been before" His lips twisted again and he jerked his chin slightly, as if to encompass not only their surroundings, but the town beyond the walls of the Thunder Canyon Resort. "We don't need more progress," he said flatly.
"We damn sure don't need more tourists to fill up the beds at your guest ranch. Go open a McFarlane House somewhere else, honey."
The "honey" was hardly an endearment. If anything, it was condescending, and her resolve stiffened. She didn't need condescension from anyone. She'd been living with plenty of it from her own family, thank you very much.
It was one of the things she hoped to put an end to once and for all. All she needed was to turn the Hopping H into a success. A McFarlane-sized success.
Then maybe she'd finally get the respect she deserved.
"Progress is inevitable, Russ." Her teeth snapped off his name as it lingered on her tongue. "Which any intelligent person should recognize."
"Guess I'm just a dumb, backwoods hick, then." His drawl was deliberately thick. "Mebbe I should 'jess tip ma hat and thank ya for the opportunity of purrtendin' to be yer"
"Shh. Keep your voice down. Please." She looked around them. Even at the late hour, there were plenty of partygoers still present, and she certainly didn't want someone overhearing. It had been foolish of her to bring up the subject with Russ at this time, anyway.
But she'd been watching him most of the evening as he worked through the crowd, seeming to be friendly with about half the guests. And then, when he'd been standing with his friend, Grant Clifton, who owned the original property she'd hoped to purchase, her thoughts had just seemed to finally coalesce.
Russ Chilton owned the Flying J, which bordered a sizable portion of the Hopping H.
He was her closest neighbor and he'd wanted the property for himself.
So she'd taken the bit between her teeth and run with it.
Just like her parents were always telling hershe'd obviously acted too hastily.
"What's the matter, Miz McFarlane?" His brown eyes hadn't warmed one iota. "If you'd wanted strict privacy for this discussion, you could have chosen a more discreet setting."
He was absolutely correct, of course. All he needed now was to tell her that she was behaving impetuously, and she'd suspect that Russ Chilton counted mind reading among his various talents. "Perhaps I thought you might be more approachable in a social setting." She turned the stem of her glass again. "A miscalculation on my part." She slid off the chair and gathered up her small red purse. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
Her heart was in her throat as she turned to leave. "Hold on there, Red."
Everything inside her sagged with relief but she knew that not a speck of that weakness showed on the outside. Thirty years of McFarlane existence had taught her that, at least.
She slowly turned on her heel, ignoring the way her head swam, and smoothed back a lock of her short hair that had fallen forward against her cheek. She gently lifted her eyebrows with inquiry. "Yes?"
"Is that look an acquired skill or a genetic trait?" She tucked her slender purse beneath her arm, remaining silent.
He let out an aggravated breath. "Sit back down." He reached over and jerked her chair a few inches out from the table.
"Such gallantry." She slid back onto the high chair, slowly settling her purse in her lap. Outside the windows that overlooked the mountainside, the bright twinkly white lights seemed to dance more than usual. She blinked and focused instead on Russ's face.
It was not twinkly at all, and far more steady.
"Do I take it that you are interested in my offer, then?"
"Like you said. I'm interested in the Hopping H."
"Then we have an agreement." Act as if success were a foregone conclusion. Her parents had fed that to her along with her baby formula.
He lifted his hand. "Not so fast, sugar pie."
She wanted to shout with impatience. For six months now, ever since she'd stepped foot in Thunder Canyon, this particular man had been a thorn in her side. It was no wonder she'd needed an extra dose of Dutch courage to even approach him with her business proposition. "Is there something you'd like me to clarify?"
His lips twisted. "Oh, you've been pretty clear already."
"Then you can see that this arrangement is mutually beneficial. In return for your assistance, you'll receive a very generous interest in the Hopping H."
"Which only benefits me if you don't run the place into the ground."
"Which is why I need your assistance," she returned evenly. For pity's sake. How long would it take for the man to give his yea or nay? "You can ensure that never comes to pass by teaching me what I do need to know."
"What about your hired hands? Be an easier matter, I'd think, if you just learned about ranching business from the people you're already paying."
She studied his face, wondering if he were being sarcastic or not. Thunder Canyon was still, in many ways, a small community.And given her experience in the months she'd lived there, gossip was as much an avocation as skiing or hunting for gold. "My last two hands quit."
A faint flicker in his eyes warned her that maybe he truly hadn't known that fact. "Harlan and Danny?"
His lips tightened. "When?"
"Five days ago."
"And you've been staying on trying to manage everything on your own since then."
He made a noise under his breath that sounded like a rather creative oath. He gave her a square look that had her breath catching oddly in her throat. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
She was grateful for the purse in her lap. It gave her fingertips something to dig into. "There's nothing for you to be sorry for," she assured smoothly. "It's not as if you were responsible it." The brothers who'd been her last remaining hands had simply quit with no notice whatsoever. They'd collected their final pay and had moved out of the bunkhouse by the end of the day. Where they'd gone, she had no clue.
Nor much care. They'd barely been better than no help at all.
"No wonder you're anxious for an answer," Russ was saying. "Look, Miz McFarlane"
"Melanie. You have a mouthful of nicknames for me. Surely you can manage that. Russ," she added pointedly.
He ignored her. "I don't know what kind of people you're used to, ma'am, but around here, neighbors tend to watch out for neighbors."
"Is that what you were doing three months ago when I moved onto the Hopping H and you assured me I was doomed to failure?"