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Noah Ballenger squeezed the telephone receiver so hard it felt as if it might break in his hand. "What do you mean Ivy Seacrest is on her way over here to apply for a job as a ranch hand? Because you told her I was hiring? Well untell her. You should know that I can't hire her. She doesn't belong here, and I don't have anything that a woman like her could actually do. I don't care that she was raised in Tallula. She was a princess when she lived here and she's been an international model for ten years. Whatever she wants, I don't have it here and I never will."
The answer came swiftly. It was too late to retract whatever had been said earlier. Ivy was already on her way, and no one in town knew how to reach her. Noah would have to be the bad guy and tell her no.
He frowned at the telephone and hung up. Ivy Seacrest? Not going to happen.
Noah had hardly known Ivy when she'd lived here. She'd been only eighteen when she'd left, four years younger than Noah. What little he did know from what he'd heard and the little he'd seen was that Ivy had possessed the type of rare beauty that had made people sit up and notice, and pretty much every man in town would have killed just to get her to smile at him. Noah had been the exception. He'd spent his younger years living, breathing and learning the ranch empire that had been in his family for generations and would one day be his, and when Ivy had been old enough for him to notice properly, he'd been away at college falling in love with a woman who was totally wrong for a rancher. A woman who had nearly broken him in more ways than one. A woman not much different from Ivy.
Because of that experience, that woman, that completely misplaced and impossible obsession of his, other shaky dominoes had been put into play.
Old, nearly forgotten pain tinged with a sense of betrayal ricocheted through Noah, but he let it come. He needed to remember that because of his bad experience with Gillian, he had gone on to do things he regretted. Terribly. All because he was stupid enough to forget that Ballenger Ranch was his world, his destiny. It was his legacy to his baby daughter, and nothing and no one who didn't fit with that image belonged here.
Ivy Seacrest was an exotic interloper from some other world. She didn't belong in this town that had been built on cattle. He had no idea why she would even return to Tallula, since she hadn't come back when her father had died a year ago. He sure as hell had no idea why she would try to hire on as a ranch hand. Maybe it was a publicity stunt. Something to do with her modeling career.
He didn't know or care, but no way was he letting her on his ranch. He'd done his stint with beautiful, misplaced women. One of them had broken his heart. Another had betrayed him and his child, because she'd changed her mind about being a rancher's wife after the deed was already done.
He was through with all that. No more women.
"Turn your pretty butt around, Ivy," he muttered. "I don't like to be the bearer of bad news."
But he would do what he had to do. And what he had to do right now was send Ivy Seacrest packing.
Ivy stared at the long, low ranch house and nearly stumbled. She tried not to think about what she was about to do, what she had to do. Voluntarily spend time on a ranch, a world that she had sworn never to return to, a world filled with harsh and devastating memories. No choice. Absolutely no choice, she told herself. Just do it. Grit your teeth and do it.
Easy to say, but first she had to get Noah Ballenger to hire her, and she was pretty sure it wasn't going to be easy. Heck, it might be impossible.
No, I won't let it be impossible. I'm not letting him stop me, just because he doesn't like me.
She wasn't just kidding herself about Noah not liking her, either. When she had lived here ten years ago, Noah had been the only man who hadn't liked her. Or who hadn't appeared to notice her which, back then, was pretty much the same thing.
Lots of girls had disliked her. That much was evident by how many times in the past few days she'd been turned down for jobs by those girls turned women.
But she had to have work, and ranching, much as she loathed it, even though it brought back awful, tragic memories, was the one thing other than modeling that she knew how to do. With modeling no longer an option, it was the only thing she knew how to do.
A wave of panic hit her, thinking about being back on a ranch. Living the life that had trapped her and obsessed her father so much that nothing else had ever mattered including the health of his wife and the well-being of his child.
Barraged by bad memories, Ivy still kept walking. Sometimes you had to go through fire to break free, and this job on this ranch was her ticket out of this town that had killed her mother and had nearly killed her own spirit. Noah Ballenger was her only hope.
Ivy started walking faster. Get this over with. Get it done. Keep working until you've got enough money and then run away again as quickly as you can.
She nearly sprinted to the door. There she took long, deep breaths. As ticked off as Melanie had been, she had probably called Noah to warn him that Ivy was headed his way, so with a little luck Noah would be at the house.
Still, Ivy hesitated. After hurrying to the door, she was suddenly hit with a wave of pure fear. Growing up on her father's ranch, she'd felt trapped, beaten down, with her whole identity ripped away from her. Now she was volunteering to step back into that kind of life. Was she insane?
No, I'm desperate. Just knock on the door, say whatever you have to say to get a job. This is only temporary. It won't be like the last time.
She was on the verge of almost being prepared mentally when the door swung open wide, and the entrance was blocked by a large, broad-shouldered man. Ivy surprised herself by having to look up. A tall woman, she was used to being at eye level with most men. Noah Ballenger was obviously taller than most men.
He was, she noted, like a wall. Big, imposing, dark haired and, from the forbidding look in his amber eyes, not happy to see her.
She wanted to close her eyes and run back to New York. Instead, she forced herself to stay rooted to the spot. She swallowed and tried to control her racing heartbeat and her breathing. "Hello," she managed to say, holding out her hand. "You probably don't remember me, Mr. Ballenger. My name's Ivy Seacrest. I used to live on the Seacrest Shores Ranch. I understand that you're hiring a ranch hand, and I'm here to apply for the job."
Ivy tried a professional-looking smile. It should have been easy. Her smile had once been her fortune. She'd been able to turn it on and off at will. But Noah was looking at her as if she was something unpleasant. She just couldn't manage to make that smile work.
"I remember your family. I know who you are," he said without a trace of warmth in his voice.
She wondered what he remembered. There was plenty to remember, most of it bad.
"Bob Pressman told me that you were looking for a hired hand. I'd like to apply."
He gazed down at her with eyes that had been known to cause women in the town to melt. Ivy had heard the stories, heard the audible sighs, but right now she didn't have the luxury of melting, even though she felt trapped and overwhelmed by his gaze, her heart thundering. What she had was the distinct feeling that Noah was going to try to brush her off quickly.
"Maybe we could discuss this in your office," she suggested, holding out her hand and taking a small step forward in the hope that he would simply step aside and let her cross the threshold.
Bad idea. He moved, but forward, blocking her and bringing her outstretched fingertips into contact with his chest.
He looked down at her hand, not budging. She could feel the warmth of his skin seeping through the white cotton of his shirt, and her breathing kicked up a notch. There was something very virile about this man, something a bit wild lurking beneath the surface.
Noah Ballenger would be a hard man to handle. That was bad. Ivy was used to handling most men, and the ones she hadn't been able to had almost destroyed her.
She jerked her hand away. "Excuse me. I'm sorry. I"
"Why?" he asked. "Why would you even want a job here? The word is that you hated ranching. You took off as soon as your looks won you a modeling contract. Don't try to tell me that you've rediscovered a love of the land."
Ivy looked way up into those amber eyes again, trying not to wince at Noah's reference to her looks. Her appearance had been the one thing she'd been able to count on, but the scars she bore now were a painful and constant reminder of the day everything she valued had been torn from her.
To her surprise, Noah was no longer frowning. His expression suggested a genuine need to know why she was here. But he still hadn't budged or suggested that he might grant her an interview.
She didn't want to have to explain herself.
But it didn't look as if she had a choice.
"Modeling isn't an option anymore." She had grown used to saying the words, so she could do it now without a trace of emotion in her voice, even though the frantic fear at having no way to make a living lurked right beneath the surface, threatening her composure.
He stared at her for a few seconds, the intensity of his expression making her feel naked, nervous. She had a terrible need to duck her head, look down, hide what he was seeing. Even worse, his scrutiny of her damaged face was threatening her composure. She had an awful inclination to go back, relive those devastating moments two years ago. Don't, don't think about that day, please don't. The words spilled out into her consciousness, saving her, and somehow she managed to keep staring directly at him. She forced herself not to remember the terrible, heartrending things that had brought her here to his door.
His nod was almost as brusque as hers had been. "If you say it's not an option, that's your choice, but that still doesn't explain your sudden interest in ranching when you hated it before."
Panic began to swirl within her. She didn't want to talk about her motives. "Does it matter? As long as I can do the job?"
"It depends," he said. "If I wasn't sure a man could do the job he claimed he could do, if his motives were suspect or if I would have to start the hiring process over in a few days because he decided that he'd changed his mind about working here, I'd ask a lot of questions."
She stood there, staring into those eyes. He didn't back down. Finally she looked away.
"Fair enough," she said. "I'm here because the taxes are due on my parents' that is, on my ranch and I don't have the money."
"And you want to keep the property."
She shook her head. Hard. No, she hated that ranch. Just being there these past few days had brought back bitter memories. "I want to sell the ranch, but I have to pay the taxes before I can do that." Did the desperation show in her voice? Did she have any pride left at all?
Not much. She'd lost her pride along with her son, her husband and her career in a car crash two years ago, but she wasn't sharing any of that with this man.
"I'm sorry, but I don't want to talk about this. You have the right to ask me why I want the job. The answer is the same one many other people would give. I need work. I know ranching."
"You hate it. That fact still stands."
She wouldn't deny it. Ranching had ruled her father's world. It hadn't been good to her.
"I know how to do the work."
He looked doubtful. He looked as if she could tell him that she'd won the Ranch Hand of the Year award and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference to him.
"Why not take a job in town?"
Ivy took a deep breath. Should she tell him that she'd been turned away without an interview for every job the town had to offer? That snide smiles had accompanied the "Sorry, but no" responses she'd received?
No. Those were Noah's neighbors and friends.
"That's not an option, either," she said. And, in truth, those had been jobs that were outside her skill set anyway. This one wasn't.
He was slowly shaking his head. "You seem to have ruled out a lot of options, lady. But working here it's just not possible."
"I'll work hard," she promised.
"I never said you wouldn't."
"So hire me. I heard that you needed someone."
"I need a big someone."
For a minute she almost thought he was going to smile. He rubbed one hand over his jaw as if to hide his amusement. "You're tall. I need someone beefy."
"I'll eat more."
Now he did smile. Just a little. "Ivy "
"I can do this, Noah."
He shook his head again. "I'm sorry, Ivy, but you'll find something else. Something will open up in town. I need a man."
Now she visibly bristled. "That's discrimination. It's illegal."
"So sue me."
As if he knew that she wouldn't. She couldn't. There just wasn't time, even if she had the money for a lawyer. And if she had money, she would have already paid the taxes and left town.
"Aren't you even going to invite me in? Can't we talk about this? You could give me I know you could give me a test. Let me do some chores just to show you"
"No," he said stopping her. "I'm sorry, Ivy. It's not happening. Goodbye."
With that, he stepped back and shut the door right in her face.