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HE'S THE ONE
By LINDA LAEL MILLER, Jill Shalvis, LUCY MONROE, KATE ANGELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All rights reserved.
Batteries Not Required
* * *
Linda Lael Miller
The last thing I wanted was a man to complicate my life. I came to that conclusion on the commuter flight between Phoenix and Helena, Montana, because my best friend Lucy and I had been discussing the topic, online and via our BlackBerrys, for days. Maybe the fact that I was bound to encounter Tristan McCullough during my brief sojourn in my hometown of Parable had something to do with the decision.
Tristan and I had a history, one of those angstfilled summer romances between high school graduation and college. Sure, it had been over for ten years, but I still felt bruised whenever I thought of him, which was more often than I should have, even with all that time to insulate me from the experience.
My few romantic encounters in between had done nothing to dissuade me from my original opinion.
Resolved: Men lie. They cheat—usually with your roommate, your best friend, or somebody you're going to have to face at the office every day. They forget birthdays, dump you the day of the big date, and leave the toilet seat up.
Who needed it? I had B.O.B., after all. My battery-operated boyfriend.
Just as I was thinking those thoughts, my purse tumbled out of the overhead compartment and hit me on the head. I should have realized that the universe was putting me on notice. Cosmic e-mail. Subject: Pay attention, Gayle.
Hastily, avoiding the flight attendant's tolerant glance, which I knew would be disapproving because I'd asked for extra peanuts during the flight and gotten up to use the restroom when the seat belt sign was on, I shoved the bag under the seat in front of mine. Then I gripped the arms of 4B as the aircraft gave an apocalyptic shudder and nose-dived for the landing strip.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
The plane bumped to the ground, and I would have sworn before a hostile jury that the thing was about to flip from wing tip to wing tip before crumpling into a fiery ball.
My stomach surged into my throat, and I pictured smoldering wreckage on the six o'clock news in Phoenix, even heard the voice-over. "Recently fired paralegal, Gayle Hayes, perished today in a plane crash outside the small Montana town of Parable. She was twenty-seven, a hard-won size 6 with two hundred dollars' worth of highlights in her shoulder-length brown hair, and was accompanied by her long-standing boyfriend, Bob—"
As if my untimely and tragic death would rate a sound bite. And as if I'd brought Bob along on this trip. All I would have needed to complete my humiliation, on top of losing my job and having to make an appearance in Parable, was for some security guard to search my suitcase and wave my vibrator in the air.
But, hey, when you think you're about to die, you need somebody, even if he's made of pink plastic and runs on four "C" batteries.
When it became apparent that the Grim Reaper was otherwise occupied, I lifted the lids and took a look around. The flight attendant, who was old enough to have served cocktails on Wright Brothers Air, smiled thinly. Like I said, we hadn't exactly bonded.
Despite my aversion to flying, I sat there wondering if they'd let me go home if I simply refused to get off the plane.
The cabin door whooshed open, and my fellow passengers—half a dozen in all—rose from their seats, gathered their belongings, and clogged the aisle at the front of the airplane. I'd scrutinized them—surreptitiously, of course—during the flight, in case I recognized somebody, but none of them were familiar, which was a relief.
Before the Tristan fiasco, I'd been ordinary, studious Gayle Hayes, daughter of Josie Hayes, manager and part owner of the Bucking Bronco Tavern. After our dramatic breakup, Tristan was still the golden boy, the insider, but I was Typhoid Mary. He'd grown up in Parable, as had his father and grandfather. His family had land and money, and in ranch country, or anywhere else, that adds up to credibility. I, on the other hand, had blown into town with my recently divorced mother, when I was thirteen, and remained an unknown quantity. I didn't miss the latest stepfather—he was one in a long line—and I loved Mom deeply.
I just didn't want to be like her, that was all. I wanted to go to college, marry one man, and raise a flock of kids. It might not be politically correct to admit it, but I wasn't really interested in a career.
When the Tristan-and-me thing bit the dust, I pulled my savings out of the bank and caught the first bus out of town.
Mom had long since moved on from Parable, but she still had a financial interest in the Bronco, and the other partners wanted to sell. I'm a paralegal, not a lawyer, but my mother saw that as a technicality. She'd hooked up with a new boyfriend—not the kind that requires batteries—and as of that moment, she was somewhere in New Mexico, on the back of a Harley. A week ago, on the same day I was notified that I'd been downsized, she called me from a borrowed cell phone and talked me into representing her at the negotiations.
In a weak moment, I'd agreed. She overnighted me an airline ticket and her power of attorney, and wired travel expenses into my checking account, and here I was—back in Parable, Montana, the place I'd sworn I would never think about, let alone visit, again.
"Miss?" The flight attendant's voice jolted me back to the present. From the expression on her face, I would be carried off bodily if I didn't disembark on my own. I unsnapped my seat belt, hauled my purse out from under 3B, and deplaned with as much dignity as I could summon.
I had forgotten why they call Montana the Big Sky Country. It's like being under a vast, inverted bowl of the purest blue, stretching from horizon to horizon.
The airport at Helena was small, and the land around the city is relatively flat, but the trees and mountains were visible in the distance, and I felt a little quiver of nostalgia as I took it all in. Living in Phoenix for the decade since I'd fled, working my way through vocational school and making a life for myself, I'd had plenty of occasion to miss the terrain, but I hadn't consciously allowed myself the indulgence.
I made my way carefully down the steps to the tarmac, and crossed to the entrance, trailing well behind the other passengers. Mom had arranged for a rental car, so all I had to do was pick up my suitcase at the baggage claim, sign the appropriate papers at Avis, and boogie for Parable.
I stopped at a McDonald's on the way through town, since I hadn't had breakfast and twenty-six peanuts don't count as nourishment. Frankly, I would have preferred a stiff drink, but you can't get arrested for driving under the influence of French fries and a Big Mac.
I switched on the radio, in a futile effort to keep memories of Tristan at bay, and the first thing I heard was Our Song.
I switched it off again.
My cell phone rang, inside my purse, and I fumbled for it.
It was Lucy.
"Where are you?" she demanded.
I pushed the speaker button on the phone, so I could finish my fries and still keep one hand on the wheel. "In the trunk of a car," I answered. "I've been kidnapped by the mob. Think I should kick out one of the taillights and wave my hand through the hole?"
Lucy hesitated. "Smart-ass," she said. "Where are you really?"
I sighed. Lucy is my best friend, and I love her, but she's the mistress of rhetorical questions. We met at school in Phoenix, but now she's a clerk in an actuary's office, in Santa Barbara. I guess they pay her to second-guess everything. "On my way to Parable. You know, that place we've been talking about via BlackBerry?"
"Oh," said Lucy.
I folded another fry into my mouth, gum-stick style. "Do you have some reason for calling?" I prompted. I didn't mean to sound impatient, but I probably did. My brain kept racing ahead to Parable, wondering how long it would take to get my business done and leave.
Lucy perked right up. "Yes," she said. "The law firm across the hall from our offices is hiring paralegals. You can get an application online."
I softened. It wasn't Lucy's fault, after all, that I had to go back to Parable and maybe come face-to-face with Tristan. I was jobless, and she was trying to help. "Thanks, Luce," I said. "I'll look into it when I have access to a computer. Right now, I'm in a rental car."
"I'll forward the application," she replied.
"Thanks," I repeated. The familiar road was winding higher and higher into the timber country. I rolled the window partway down, to take in the green smell of pine and fir trees.
"I wish I could be there to lend moral support," Lucy said.
"Me, too," I sighed. She didn't know about the Tristan debacle. Yes, she was my closest friend, but the subject was too painful to broach, even with her. Only my mother knew, and she probably thought I was over it.
Lucy's voice brightened. "Maybe you'll meet a cowboy."
I felt the word "cowboy" like a punch to the solar plexus. Tristan was a cowboy. And he'd gotten on his metaphorical horse and trampled my heart to a pulp. "Maybe," I said, to throw her a bone.
"Boss alert," Lucy whispered, apparently picking up an authority figure on the radar. "I'd better get back to my charts."
"Good idea," I said, relieved, and disconnected. I tossed the phone back into my purse.
I passed a couple of ranches, and a gas station with bears and fish and horses on display in the parking lot, the kind carved out of a tree stump with a chain saw. Yep, I was getting close to Parable.
I braced myself. Two more bends in the road.
On the first bend, I almost crashed into a deer.
On the second bend, I braked within two feet of a loaded cattle truck, jackknifed in the middle of the highway. I had already suspected that fate wasn't on my side. I knew it for a fact when Tristan McCullough stormed around one end of the semi-trailer, ready for a fight.
My heart surged up into my sinuses and got stuck there.
The decade since I'd seen him last had hardened his frame and chiseled his features, at least his mouth and lower jaw. I couldn't see the upper part of his face because of the shadow cast by the brim of his beat-up cowboy hat.
What does Tristan look like? Take Brad Pitt and multiply by a factor of ten, and you've got a rough idea.
"Didn't you see the flares?" he demanded, in that one quivering moment before he recognized me. "How fast were you going, anyway?" It clicked, and he stiffened, stopped in his tracks, a few feet from my car door.
"No, I didn't see any flares," I said, and I must have sounded lame, as well as defensive. "And I don't think I was speeding." My voice echoed in my head.
He recovered quickly, but that was Tristan. While I was pining, he'd probably been dating rodeo groupies, cocktail waitresses, and tourists. While I was waiting tables to get through school, he was winning fancy belt buckles for the school team and getting straight A's at the University of Montana without wasting time on such pedantic matters as studying and earning a living. "Back around the bend and put your flashers on. Otherwise, this situation might get a whole lot worse."
I just sat there.
"Hello?" he snarled.
I still didn't move.
Tristan opened the door of the rental and leaned in. "Get out of the car, Gayle," he said. "I'll do the rest."
My knees were watery, but I unsnapped the seat belt and de-carred. Four stumpy French fries fell off my lap, in seeming slow motion. It's strange, the things you notice when the earth topples off its axis.
Tristan climbed behind the wheel and backed the compact around the bend. When he returned, I was still standing in the road, listening to the cattle bawl inside the truck trailer. I felt like joining them.
"Are they hurt?" I asked.
"The cattle?" Tristan countered. "No. Just annoyed." He did that cowboy thing, taking off his hat, putting it on again in almost the same motion. "What are you doing here?"
For a moment, I was stumped for an answer. His eyes were so blue. His butternut hair still too long. Everything inside me seized up into a fetal ball.
"Gayle?" he prompted, none too kindly.
"The Bucking Bronco is up for sale, as you probably know. My mom sent me to protect her interests."
The azure gaze drifted over me, slowly and thoughtfully, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. "I see," he drawled, and it sounded like more than an acknowledgment of my reasons for returning to Parable, as if he'd developed X-ray vision and could see the lace panties and matching bra under my linen slacks and white cotton blouse. My blood heated, and my nipples went hard. When we were together, Tristan had had a way of undressing me with his eyes, and he hadn't lost the knack.
I flushed. "How long until you get this truck out of the way?" I asked. "I'd like to get my business done and get out of here."
"I'll just bet you would," he said, and a corner of his mouth quirked up in an insolent ghost of a grin. He leaned in, and I felt his breath against my face. More heat. "You're real good at running away."
My temper flared. "Whatever," I snapped. If he wanted to make the whole thing my fault, fine. I wouldn't try to change his mind.
His gaze glided to my left hand, then back to my face. "No wedding ring," he said. "I figured you would have married some poor sucker, out of spite. Maybe even had a couple of kids."
"Well," I said, "you figured wrong."
"No boyfriend?" There was a note of disbelief in his voice, as though he thought I couldn't go five minutes without a man, let alone ten years.
I straightened my spine. The pitiable state of my love life was nobody's business, least of all Tristan McCullough's. "I'm in a committed relationship," I said. "His name is Bob."
Tristan's mouth twitched. "Bob," he repeated.
"He's in electronics," I said.
Something sparked in Tristan's eyes—humor, I thought—and I hoped he hadn't guessed that Bob was a vibrator.
Get a grip, I told myself. Tristan might have known where all my erotic zones were, but he wasn't psychic.
Feeling bolder, now that I knew I wouldn't spontaneously combust just by being in Tristan's presence—provided he didn't touch me, that is—I cast a disgusted glance toward the trailer, full of unhappy cows. "So, how long did you say it will take to get this truck off the road?"
"You already asked me that."
"Yes, but you didn't answer."
He looked irritated. "I called for some help. There's a wrecker on the way. Guess you're just going to have to be patient."
I approached the trailer—the cattle smelled even worse than they sounded—and noticed that a set of double wheels at the front had slipped partway into the ditch. Beyond it was a drop-off of several hundred feet.
My stomach quivered. "I really hope they don't all decide to stand on one side of the trailer," I said.
Tristan was right beside me. He looked pale under his rancher's tan. "Me, too," he said.
"What happened? I thought you were this great driver."
He scowled, did the hat thing again. Before he had to answer, we heard revving engines on the other side of the truck. We ducked between the trailer and the cab and watched as a wrecker and about fourteen pickup trucks rolled up.
An older man—I recognized him immediately as Tristan's grandfather—leaped out of a beat-up vehicle and hurried toward us. "We gotta get those cows out of that rig before they trample each other," he called. He squinted at me, but quickly lost interest. Story of my life. Sometimes, I think I'm invisible. "Jim and Roy are up on the ridge road, unloading the horses. We're gonna need 'em to keep the cattle from scattering all over the county."
Tristan nodded, and I looked up, trying to locate the aforementioned ridge road. High above, I saw two long horse trailers, pulled by more pickup trucks, perched on what looked like an impossibly narrow strip of land. I counted two riders and some dozen horses making their careful way down the hillside.
"What's she doing here?" the wrecker guy asked Tristan, after cocking a thumb at me.
I didn't hear Tristan's answer over all the ruckus. Oh, well. I probably wouldn't have liked it anyway.
"Get out of the way," Tristan told me, as he and the guys from the flotilla of pickup trucks up ahead got ready to unload the cattle. I retreated a ways, and watched as he climbed onto the back of the semi-trailer, threw the heavy steel bolts that held the doors closed, and climbed inside.
Excerpted from HE'S THE ONE by LINDA LAEL MILLER. Copyright © 2013 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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