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For Colin Cade, one of the chief selling points of his motorcycle had been solitude. He preferred being alone, making it a conscious choice rather than a tragic circumstance, but that meant a lot of time in his own head. Unfortunately, not even the Harley could outrun his thoughts. Or his anger.
How the hell had hea man who'd lived like a monk for the better part of two yearsbeen fired for "sexual misconduct"?
Raising younger siblings had taught him patience the hard way, but right now his temper was providing uncharacteristic daydreams of shaking Delia McCoy's shoulders until her professionally whitened teeth rattled. She'd had no business showing up naked in his bed. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that his former employer's wife didn't even want an affair. There had been plenty of other men working the ranch who would have taken advantage of her adulterous offer. So why target the guy who'd never once returned her flirtatious smiles? Was it possible she only wanted to shock Sean McCoy into paying more attention to her? Ranches took a lot of work, and Delia had complained to anyone who would listen that her husband neglected her.
Maybe she had cause to be bitter, but that sure didn't give her the right to screw up Colin's life.
He was supposed to have stayed on at the McCoy place for another month. The McCoys were crossbreeding Angus and Hereford cows, and Colin, the former owner of a large-animal vet practice, had been hired to help deliver calves and see them off to a healthy start. His job would have included routine disease prevention and facilitating adoption for the expected twin sets and any heifers that lost their babies. His next contracthelping move two herds to the high country for summer grazingwas all lined up, but the cattle drive was nearly six weeks away, after his brother's wedding.
What was he supposed to do in the meantime?
An old trail guide acquaintance had given him a possible lead, but he had sounded skeptical about it. "There's a lady in the northwest, not far from where I hired on, who's been looking for help. The Widow Shaw. None of the qualified ranch hands will waste time working for her, because her place is going belly-up any day now. Everyone knows it 'cept her. Frail little thing is clearly addled. Bakes the best rum cake I've ever had in my life, though."
Despite his friend's warning, Colin thought the job sounded promising enough to head for Bingham Pass and call on the Widow Shaw.
After his last two jobswhich had included the naked Mrs. McCoy and, prior to that, a moony-eyed teenage daughter of a foreman in Routt Countyan elderly, absentminded woman who liked to bake sounded perfect. Colin wouldn't stay long, but while he was there, he'd do what he could to get her back on her feet. And if that proved impossible well, life sucked sometimes.
Who knew that better than him?
Inhaling deeply, Hannah Shaw took stock of her situation. The early evening sky was starting to darken sooner than it should, and she had a flat tire on a stretch of road where cell service was nonexistent. How was it possible that astronauts could tweet from space, but there were still places in modern Colorado where a woman couldn't get bars on her phone?
Bright side, Hannah. Find the bright side. After four years, her mantra was automatic. She tried every day to keep the vow she'd made in that hospital bed, to live with courageous optimism. Of course, that vow was currently being challenged by unyielding loan officers and the countless maintenance issues she'd inherited along with the Shaw family ranch. But she hadn't survived this long by whining or embracing negativity.
The silver lining here was that Evan was spending the night at her friend Annette's house instead of watching with worried eyes from his booster seat. Also, Hannah had successfully changed a flat tire once before, so there was no reason to think she couldn't do it again. If the problem had been, say, her carburetor, she'd really be screwed.
"I got this," she muttered, flipping on her hazard lights. She wished she'd been able to move the truck farther off the road, but there wasn't exactly a reliable shoulder on these winding curves. She shrugged out of the lightweight blazer she'd borrowed from Annette. Beneath it, Hannah wore a white blouse that strained at the buttons down her chest, a premotherhood relic from the back of her closet. It was one of the few items in her wardrobe professional enough for a bank meeting, and the neatly buttoned jacket had camouflaged the imperfect fit.
As she twisted her long black hair up in an elastic band, she tried not to dwell on the banker's condescending expression. She'd once again been told that maybe after she made significant improvements on the ranch, demonstrating that it was a solid investment, she could reapply. How was she supposed to make "significant" improvements without funds? She'd planned to rename the spread the Silver Linings Ranch, but it might be more accurate to call it The Catch-22. She'd received money after Michael's death, of course, but a good chunk of that was in savings for Evan. Despite her careful planningand the money she'd set aside to hire competent helpshe had underestimated how much work the ranch would need before she could realize her plans.
One thing at a time. Fix the tire now, save the ranch tomorrow.
She climbed down from the cab and went to the back of the truck, where the tools and spare tire were kept under a cover that could be worth more than the vehicle. Note to self: maybe you should start keeping spare work clothes in the bed of the truck. While she wouldn't necessarily mourn the ruination of the tight blouse, getting on the ground to change the tire was going to be murder on her pretty navy skirt.
A rumble of thunder echoed off the surrounding mountains, confirming Hannah's suspicions about the prematurely dark sky. Rain hadn't been in the forecast until tomorrow, but spring storms could move fast. Which meant she had better move fast, too.
Hurrying, she found a couple of good-size rocks on the side of the road to place in front of the tires. She was reluctant to completely trust the pickup's emergency brake. The air seemed to crackle with expectancy, and wind whipped around her, chilling her skin. She'd only ever changed the tire on a car, and there had been a notch where the jack belonged. The truck did not have one. She was feeling around, trying to determine the correct place for the jack so she didn't crack anything on the undercarriage, when the sky opened. Fat drops pelted her with enough force to sting.
But on the bright side, after a couple of years of drought, ranchers like her really needed the rain.
The shower had moved in fast, catching Colin by surprise. He'd anticipated getting into town before the rain started. He was scanning the side of the road for possible shelter when he rounded the curve and saw a stopped truck.
A woman knelt by a tire in the path of traffic. Not that there were any cars in sight, but lives could be taken in an instant. Stifling unwelcome memoriesthe call from the hospital, the twisted wreckagehe steered his motorcycle off the road and lifted his helmet.
"Need a hand?" he called over the rain.
The woman stood and he realized that, while she didn't even reach his shoulder, she wasn't tiny everywhere. She looked like the generously endowed winner of a wet T-shirt contest. A blouse that had probably once been white but was now translucent was plastered to an equally see-through lace bra. He abruptly glanced away but not before catching a glimpse of dark, puckered nipples.
In one motion, he ripped off his leather jacket and shoved it toward her. "Here."
"Thanks." Cheeks flushed with color, she accepted the coat, her hazel eyes not quite meeting his.
Watching her put on his clothing felt uncomfortably intimate, and he found himself annoyed with her for being here, in his path. "Don't you have some kind of road service you could call?"
"Even if I did, there's no reception here. But I'm not incapable of"
"Wait in the cab," he ordered. "No sense in both of us getting drenched."
Her posture went rigid, and she drew herself up to her fullwhat, five feet? But she didn't argue. "Far be it from me to look a gift Samaritan in the mouth." Once inside, she rolled down the window. Literally. The truck had one of the manual window cranks that had been replaced with electric buttons in most modern vehicles. She seemed to be supervising his work.
"This truck is ancient," he said. "God knows why you're driving it when the kinder thing would be to shoot it and put it out of its misery."
"It's not that bad," she retorted. Was that indignation or worry in her tone? "It just needs a little TLC."
He grunted, focusing on getting the tire changed. Stomping on the wrench to loosen the lug nut felt good. He was in the mood to kick something's ass. By the time he had the spare in place, the rain had shifted to a heavy drizzle. Ominous black clouds rolled closer. The storm might be taking a coffee break, but it hadn't quit.
"That spare's not going to get you far," he warned. "It's in lousy shape. Kind of like the rest of this heap."
His disdain encompassed the replacement door that was a different color from the body of the truck and a side mirror that looked loose.
She met his contempt with a half smile. "On the bright side, getting the flat gave me a chance to rest the engine and let the radiator cool down. Don't worry, my ranch is only a few miles away. In fact, you should come with me. Wait out the storm. Judging from those clouds, we're in for a lot worse."
Although he recognized the logic in her words, the invitation irked him. "Lady, I could be a serial killer. You don't invite strangers home with you."
"Not normally, no." Her hazel eyes darkened, her expression somber. "If it helps, I was taught self-defense by a marine and I'm a lot tougher than I look."
A sizzle of lightning struck close enough to make both of them start.
"You shouldn't be riding that motorcycle in this," she scolded. For a split second, she reminded him of his sister, Arden. Not all women were so at ease bossing around grown men who towered over them. He wondered if Hazel Eyes had brothers. If they worked on that ranch she'd mentioned, it could explain why she wasn't worried about bringing a total stranger home with her.
"Come on," she prompted, impatience creeping into her tone as more lightning flashed. "I have enough problems without picking up my morning paper and seeing that you got fried to the asphalt."
He didn't realize he was going to agree until the words left his mouth. "Lead the way." He hadn't been there the day a car accident had shattered his world, hadn't been able to do a damn thing to help. He found he couldn't abandon this woman until she and her rattling joke of a truck were out of the rain.
Mounting his bike, he shook his head at the unexpected turn of events. Hazel was not the first woman who'd invited him back to her place. But it was the first time in two years that he'd accepted.
Colin was too occupied with the diminishing visibility and handling his bike on the dirt road to study his surroundings. He had a general impression of going through a gated entrance; farther ahead were much larger structures, likely the main house and a barn or stable. But the truck stopped at a narrow, one-story building.
The woman parked in the mud, gesturing out her window that he should go around and park beneath the covered carport, where the motorcycle would be out of the worst of the elements. She joined him under the carport a moment later, her hand tucked inside the purse she wore over her shoulder. He wondered if she had pepper spray or a Taser in there. She'd sounded serious when she mentioned the self-defense lessons.
"This is the old bunkhouse," she said. "I'm about to start refurbing it as a guest cabin, but at the moment it's mostly empty."
He supposed that any brothers or a husband lived in the main house with her. Although what caring husband would let his wife drive a disaster on wheels like that truck?
She tossed him a key ring and nodded toward the door. "You can get a hot shower, dry off. There's a microwave and a few cans of soup in the cabinet. Before you tell me I'm naive and that you might be a master burglar, let me assure you there's nothing to steal. I doubt you could get thirty bucks on Craigslist for the twin bed and microwave combined."
He unlocked the door, noting how she kept a casual but unmistakable distance. Once he'd flipped the light switch, he saw that she was right about the lack of luxuries. The "carpet" was the kind of multipurpose indoor/ outdoor covering used more in screened patios than homes. There was enough space for three or four beds, but only one was pushed against the wall. At one end of the long, rectangular interior was a minifridge and microwave, at the other a bathroom. Aside from a couple of truly ugly paintings of cows, the place was barren.
He stopped in the center of the room, raising an eyebrow. "The minifridge brings up my Craigslist asking price to thirty-five."
She gave a sharp laugh, abruptly stifled. "Sorry the accommodations aren't classier. The ranch is in a rebuilding phase."
The note of genuine embarrassment in her voice made him uneasy. "It's plenty classy. I've slept on the ground during cattle drives and in horse stalls on more than one occasion." By slept, he meant tossing and turning, trying to avoid nightmares of everything he'd lost.
Those hazel eyes locked on him, her expression inexplicably intense. "You work with livestock!"
Isn't that what he'd just said? "As often as I can." He preferred animals to people. "Sometimes I do other odd jobs, too. I was headed into Bingham Pass to get more information about a local employment opportunity."
"Then you haven't already committed to it?" A smile spread across her face, revealing two dimples. "Because, as it happens, I'm hiring." She stepped forward, extending her hand. The oversize jacket parted, revealing a still damp but not entirely transparent blouse. Thank God.
Hannah, Hazel. He'd been close.
"Hannah Shaw," she elaborated when he said nothing. "Owner of the Silver Linings Ranch."
Foreboding cramped low in his belly. Paralyzed, he neglected to shake her hand. "Not the Widow Shaw?" The one who baked cakes and harbored delusions of being a rancher?
She frowned. "People still call me that?"
Crap. It was her. He'd imagined Mrs. Shaw would be a temporary solution to his problems, but now, meeting her earnest gaze, his instincts murmured that she posed far more threat to his safety than any rifle-wielding jealous husband.