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"Whoa there, Lady Bird, let me give you a hand with that."
As Donna Byrd heard the deep, drawling voice behind her, she kept on lifting the hand-carved rocking chair that she'd barely been able to liberate from the bed of one of the Flying B's pickups.
But just as she got the furniture under control, she looked over her shoulder to see who was calling her such a name as "Lady Bird," and her grip faltered.
That was what she saw first. Then the light blue eyes that pierced her with an unexpected shock. A shock that she hadn't felt for Well, a long, long time.
A shock that she really didn't have time for with everything that was going down at the Flying B Ranch.
The owner of those dimples didn't seem to care about Donna's bottlenecked schedules or Byrd family scandals as he grabbed the wobbling rocking chair from her and deftly swung it on to one of his broad shoulders. Then he flashed that smile at her again, his cowboy hat now shading his face from the early July sun. "Where do you need me to put this ?"
"You can call me Donna Byrd," she said, correcting him before he could get too cute and call her Lady Bird again. She gestured toward the main house, with two separate wings spreading out from its core and a wraparound porch. It was the very definition of Texas cattleman's domain to her. "You can set the rocker in the living room, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind a bit."
He gave her a long look that covered her all the way from head to toe and sizzled along every inch of skin.
By the time his gaze burned a trail back up her body again, Donna's breath had completely stopped.
Even though she was trying to tell herself that she didn't know him from Adam, she vaguely remembered him. She'd seen him one time, a few months ago, back when her cousin Tammy had injured herself and this same ranch hand had been there to help her out.
He hadn't smiled at her this way, though At least, Donna didn't think so. She'd been too focused on Tammy's injury to remember. Plus, there'd been a million other things distracting her, like turning the main house and surrounding cabins into a bed-and-breakfast business. She, her sister, Jenna and Tammy had inherited the property from a grandfather none of them had ever met before. Besides that, there were all the personal issues that she'd been trying to deal with.
Even if she had noticed this guy's dimples, she wouldn't have had time for more than a passing glance.
Now he winked at her and carried the rocker up the steps and through the front door she'd already opened. She took a moment, getting her first official good look at him, his worn Wranglers cupping his rear end, his white T-shirt clinging to the muscled lines of his back.
That shock she'd felt before returned with a blast of heat, and she chased it away by shutting the pickup's tailgate, the slam like a punch of reality.
She was thirty-one, too old and too wise to be ogling cowboys. Besides, after she, Jenna and Tammy finished up with all the logistics of the B and B, there would be a big marketing push for Donna to carry outa task that she had embraced wholeheartedly, since she could accomplish it from New York, where she planned to rent a less costly apartment than she'd had before her grandfather's impending death had summoned all of the Byrd family to Texas. And when she got back to the city, she could return to real lifetaking up where she'd left off after her online magazine, Roxey, had collapsed. She had ideas for a relaunch under a different title and premise in this new economy .
As she went into the main house, she tried not to think about how the stock market had taken a hit, and how her finances had made her magazine tank. Her wonderful life, her stylish apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and nights spent prowling all the new, hot restaurants nearbyit'd all fallen out from under her until Tex Byrd had called.
She silently thanked her grandfather for thinking of his grandkids during his last days. He'd at least been successful in introducing all of them to each other, even if his big hope of reuniting his estranged sons hadn't come true just yet.
In the living room, she found the cheeky ranch hand standing over the rocking chair, which he'd set near a stone fireplace. It was right where she'd been thinking of putting it.
"I appreciate your help," she said, thinking this would be the end of him and she could get back to work.
Yet, he wasn't leaving. No, he was running a hand over the mahogany wood of the high-backed Victorian rocker, making her wonder what it would feel like to have his long fingers mapping her with such slow deliberation.
"Where'd you find this beauty?" he asked with that lazy drawl.
She cleared her throat and her head. "It was in the last abandoned cabin on the property."
"I hear that you and the other Byrd girls have turned all the rest of those cabins upside down and inside out," he said, looking up at her with a grin. "Then you fancied them up with gift baskets and flowers in vases, just like a hotel."
"We want people to be comfortable when they stay here."
God, those dimples. They made her angry for causing such a stir in her. Made her entire body tingle, too.
"It's true," she said, ready to go on her way now. "We Byrd girls have been very hard at work."
"I haven't been back on the Flying B for long, but I've noticed some of the changes you've made to the main house, toothe new swing on the porch outside, the flower garden and fountain you put out back for the guests."
He stood, but he kept a hand on the rocker, his thumb brushing over the carvings of ducks and swans that some man must've painstakingly etched for a woman who'd rocked his child to sleep years and years ago. A strange ache in the center of Donna's chest weighed her down for some reason.
But that was strange, because she'd never planned for children.
No time. Not her, the woman always on the go.
Yet that ache stayed in Donna as she ripped her gaze from the rocking chair and crossed her arms over her chest.
The ranch hand wasn't going anywhere. Whatwas he expecting a tip, like a doorman?
He sauntered across the room, his boots thudding on the Navajo rug until he got close enough to extend his hand to her.
"It's my turn to introduce myself," he said. "Caleb Granger."
Even his name sounded so very cowboy. Politely, she took his hand and shook it.
"Thank you for your help, Caleb," she said.
Most normal people would've let go of her by now, but not this guy. He kept a hold of her for an extra secondenough to send a pulse of pure need through her fingers and straight down to.
Well, to a location that twisted her around inside.
She let go of him and stepped aside, making it clear that the room's exit was all his.
"So what other gems did you dig up in those old cabins?" he asked, as if he had all the livelong day to charm her.
All right. Maybe it would be a good idea to go along with this. Donna knew full well that she came off as prickly to a lot of people, and she'd been trying to remedy that lately. Honestly, her remoteness was something she'd been aware of for a while now, ever since it had emerged after her parents had divorced and her mom had passed on from cancer when she was nine and Jenna was eight.
People left you. Donna had learned that early in life, and she'd only been readying herself for it to happen again and again.
"We've pulled out some good furniture from the cabins," she said, continuing the small talk. "Cherrywood end tables, a couple of handcrafted cedar chests, cute knickknacks that we've polished up and used to decorate all the guest rooms, even in the main house."
"You're using themeslike the Ace High Saloon Room and Fandango Room."
"We might as well capitalize on the Old West atmosphere of the area. Buckshot Hills has some colorful history to work with."
Donna didn't add that the Flying B had a lot of its own history that wouldn't make it into any room. When she, Jenna and Tammy had gone through what they'd started calling the "dream cabin," they had decided to make only mild improvements to itespecially with the so-called "magical" feather bed stored in there.
Too many weird vibes. Too much history for the Byrds.
Family legend had it that when someone slept on that bed, their dreams would come true. Donna hadn't believed a word until Tammy had experienced it firsthand, which had led to her engagement to "Doc" Mike Sanchez, who'd also had a dream. Then the same thing had happened to Jenna and her fiance, J.D., bringing them together, too.
Yes, Donna was staying as far away from that mattress as possible, because Savannah Jeffries, the woman who'd started all the trouble between Donna's father, Sam, and his twin brother, William, had once slept on that bed, and Donna still wasn't sure what to make of the woman who'd caused all the warring in this family.
The silence between her and this Caleb guy had stretched on for too long, and for the first time, he seemed to be aware of her notorious standoffishness. It'd just taken him a little longer than others to realize it.
"Well then," he said, "if you need any help hauling around more rocking chairs, just give me a holler."
"Okay." Thank goodness, he was finally going to give her some peace.
He tipped his hat to her, and for a moment, she let herself be enthralled with those dimples.
Just one little second.
Then he left the living room, allowing Donna to catch her breath again, once she heard the front door close.
On a whim, she furtively glanced around the room, and since she was quite alone, she wandered over to the window. She peeked around the lace curtains to see Caleb Granger taking his sweet, slow time down the steps, one hand at his waist, his thumb hooked in a belt loop.
She watched until he rounded the corner of the house, no doubt heading toward his side of the ranch, leaving Donna to her side.
It took her a minute to recognize that her heart was throbbingin her neck, in her chest .
And down lower.
But Caleb Granger? Was absolutely not her type. So why was her body trying to tell her differently?
She liked men in pressed suits. Men with some city polish who figuratively got their hands dirty behind a desk, not literally in the stables. Men who smelled like cologne, not.
Saddle soap. Musk.
That was what Caleb Granger had smelled like, come to think of it. And, when Donna had initially come to the Flying B, she'd discovered that being too close to hay made her sneeze, and she'd stayed well away from it ever since, stocking up on allergy medicine and lingering near the main house and cabins instead of the stables.
There was no doubt in her mind that she would be allergic to cowboys like Caleb Granger, too, and that suited her just fine.
Donna was still gazing out the window when she heard a chuckle behind her. Two chuckles.
She looked over her shoulder, to where her cousin and sister stood near the living room entrance. Tammy's dark hair spilled over her shoulders, covering the spaghetti straps of her stylish flowered summer topone result of a complete makeover for the former tomboy, who could still rope and wrangle with the best of the ranch hands. Jenna, who was the same shade of blond as Donnaalthough her sister's hair was longer and wavierwas just as pretty in a light blue blouse that brought out the color of her eyes, plus skinny jeans and fashionable yet practical boots.
"What's so funny?" Donna asked.
"You." Jenna leaned against the wall. "We saw you giving him the eye."
Tammy bit down on another laugh.
"Him?" Donna pointed toward the window. "That ranch worker?"
"His name's Caleb Granger," Jenna said.
"Don't I know it." Donna shook her head and walked away from the window, as if to show that she hadn't been interested for even a hot moment. "He made it a major point to introduce himself."
"I think he has a thing for you, Donna." Jenna again.
"He does not."
Tammy spoke up. "The first time he laid eyes on you, he was smitten. And I know the meaning of smitten, since I felt the same way when I met Mike."
A flutter winged around Donna's chest, and she rolled her eyes, thinking that would stop it.
"As if you'd know what Caleb was doing the first time he saw me, Tammy," Donna said. "He was there when you fell and ate it in the dream cabin that day, and you were no doubt hurting too much to dwell on what he was thinking about me. He just didn't leave an impression on me because all I cared about was getting you some medical help."
Tammy and Jenna laughed again, and Donna inwardly cringed. They had to be thinking about how clueless she was sometimes, how mired she tended to get in the bigger picture, whether it was Tammy's injury or all the projects they had going on the Flying B. But that's how it had always been with her, because work shut everything else out.
Divorce, death Work was far more comfortable. And so were goals, like having her own successful magazine and a bright-lights-big-city life again.
Of course, goals could change. Before she'd come to the ranch, she'd never thought about forging a better relationship with the sister she'd been so distanced from her whole life, seeing as Jenna didn't seem to have much in common with Donna when they were young and their dad had raised them to be single-minded women who went after what they wanted, no matter the cost. She'd never thought about getting close to the cousins she'd never known, either.
But losing Grandpa Tex just when he'd come into her life had shown Donna, once again, that you had to tread lightly with others, that getting close was still a chancy proposition that she was just now dipping her toes into.
Not too deeply, though.
Never too deeply.
After Tammy and Jenna had laughed it up quite thoroughly, Tammy said, "I hear that most girls do remember Caleb. Really well."
Jenna added, "/ hear there're more than a few of them, too."
"Who knows how many there've been since he's been off the Flying B?" Tammy gave Donna a sly glance. "He took a leave of absence for some family matterssomething about helping his father and aunt move to Buckshot Hills and get settled."
"J.D. took his job in the stables for a while," Jenna said.
At least Donna had been paying enough attention to know that Jenna had met J.D. when he'd been wandering the Flying B Road to the ranch. He had lost his memory, and Jenna had helped nurse him back to health along with Doc, until J.D. had regained his senses.
Jenna was waggling her eyebrows. "But now Caleb's backand this time it looks like Donna actually had time to notice."
Tammy cracked up again as Donna sighed in exasperation. Maybe she had noticed, but it didn't matter. Not when she had a million things to do today.
And definitely not when she wasn't planning to stay around the Flying B for much longer, anyway.