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Marine First Sergeant Rick Pruitt had thirty days' leave to decide the rest of his life.
"But no pressure," he muttered and loped across Main Street. He lifted a hand to wave at Joe Davis. His boyhood buddy was still driving that battered, dusty red truck. Rick paused on the sidewalk when his friend pulled to the curb to talk to him. Joe rolled the passenger-side window down and grinned. "Look what the east Texas wind blew home. When'd you get here, Rick?"
"Yesterday." Rick tipped the brim of his hat back a bit, leaned his forearms on the window frame and only winced a little at the red-hot feel of the metal against his arms. If there was one thing a Texas boy learned to deal with at an early age, it was the summer heat.
Right now, the sun was blazing down from a brassy sky and there wasn't so much as a hint of a cloud in sight. July in Texas was good training, weather wise, for a marine who spent his time deployed to the Middle East.
"You home to stay?" Joe asked.
"That's a good question," Rick replied.
"And not much of an answer."
Truth was, Rick didn't have an answer yet. He had spent a lot of years in the Corps and he had enjoyed them all. He loved serving his country. He was damn proud to wear the uniform of a U.S. Marine. But, he thought, glancing at his surroundings, he'd missed a hell of a lot, too. He hadn't been here when either of his parents died. Hadn't been around to run the family ranch, instead trusting in their longtime foreman to do the heavy lifting. And, since the Pruitt ranch was one of the biggest in Texas, that was some serious duty to push off on someone else.
Funny, all those years in the Corps and not one of his buddies had ever known that he was one of the richest men in Texas. He had always been just another marine and that's how he had wanted it.
He'd been around the world and back. Had seen more, done more than most men ever would. But, he thought, his heart had always been here. In Royal.
Rick smiled and shrugged. "It's the only answer I've got. For right now, I've got thirty days' leave and decisions to make."
"Well," Joe told him, "if you want any help deciding, you give me a call."
"I will." Rick looked at his old friend. They'd grown up together, had their first beersand hangovers together. They'd played side by side on the high school football team. Joe had stayed put in Royal, married Tina, his high school sweetheart, had two kids now and was in charge of the family garage. Rick had gone to college, joined the Corps and had come close to love only once.
For a second or two, he allowed himself to remember the girl he'd once thought unattainable. The woman whose memory had kept him going through some ugly days in the last few years. There were some women, he figured, just designed to get into a man's soul. And this one surely had.
"While you're in town, we should do some fishing," Joe said, drawing Rick up out of his thoughts.
Grateful, he said, "Sounds like a plan. You get Tina to make us some of her famous fried chicken for lunch and we'll make a day of it at the ranch lake."
"That's a deal." Joe stretched out his right hand. "It really is good to see you home, Rick. And if you want my opinion, maybe it's time you stayed home."
"Thanks, Joe." Rick shook his friend's hand and blew out a breath. "It's good to be back."
Nodding, Joe said, "I've got to get back to the shop. Mrs. Donley's old sedan had another breakdown and that woman hasn't let up on me for days about it."
Rick actually shivered. Mrs. Marianne Donley, the high school math teacher, could bring a cold chill to the spine of anybody in Royal who had survived her geometry class.
Joe saw the shudder and nodded grimly. "Exactly. I'll call you about the fishing."
"Do that." Rick slapped his hands against the truck, then stepped back as Joe pulled away.
He stood there for a long minute, just soaking up the feeling of being home again. Only three days ago, he'd been with his men in the middle of a firefight. Today, he was on a street corner of a quiet little town, watching traffic roll by.
And he wasn't sure which of those two places he most belonged.
Rick had always wanted to be a marine. And the truth was, since his parents were both gone now, there wasn't much to hold him in Royal. Yeah, there was the duty he felt to the Pruitt dynasty. The ranch had been in the family for more than a hundred and fifty years. But there were caretakers out there, a foreman and his wife, the housekeeper who lived in and saw to it that the Pruitt ranch went on without him. Just as Royal had.
He narrowed his gaze to cut the glare of the summer sun and quickly scanned his surroundings. Things didn't change in small-town America, he told himself and was inwardly glad of it. He liked knowing that he could go away for a couple years and come home to find the place just as he'd left it.
The only thing that had changed, he admitted silently, was him.
Tugging the brim of his Stetson lower over his eyes, Rick shook his head and turned back toward the Texas Cattleman's Club. If there was one place for a man to go to catch up on the news about town, it was the TCC. Besides, he was looking forward to the cool quiet. The chance to do a little thinkingnot to mention the appeal of a cold glass of beer and a steak sandwich in the dining room.
"Bradford Price, you're living in the Stone Age." Sadie Price glared up at her older brother and wasn't the slightest bit surprised to notice he wasn't denying her accusation. In fact, he looked proud.
"If that's your roundabout way of telling me that I'm a man of tradition, then I'm all right with that." Brad leaned down and kept his voice low. "And I don't appreciate my baby sister coming in here to read me the riot act because I don't agree with her."
Sadie silently counted to ten. Then twenty. Then she gave up. Her temper wouldn't be cooled by counting, or the multiplication tables or even with thoughts of her twin daughters' smiling faces. She had been pushed too far and, like a true Price, she was fighting mad.
The main room of the Texas Cattleman's Club might not have been the perfect spot for a throw-down, she thought, but it was too late to back off now. Even if she had wanted to.
"I didn't move back to Royal from Houston just to sit at home and do nothing, Brad."
In fact, now that she was home again, she intended to make a name for herself. To get involved. And the TCC was just the place to make a start. She had been thinking about this all night and the fact that her older brother was making things hard on her wouldn't change her mind.
"Fine," he said, throwing both hands high. "Do something. Anything. Just not here."
"Women are a part of the club's world now, Brad," she insisted, glancing over at the two elderly men sitting in brown leather club chairs. At her quick look, they both lifted the newspapers they were hiding behind and pretended they hadn't been watching.
Typical, Sadie thought. The men in this once-exclusive club were determined to ignore progress of any kind. Heck, they'd had to be hog-tied to get them to allow women in the club at all. And they still weren't happy about it.
"You don't need to remind me of that," Brad said tightly. "Haven't I got Abigail Langley riding me like a bull in the rodeo? That woman's about to drive me out of my mind and I'm damned if I'm going to take it from you, too."
She hissed in a breath. "You are the most hardheaded, ornery "
"I'm going to be in charge around here, little sister," he told her. "And you'd best remember that."
Here being the Texas Cattleman's Club, of course. Brad was planning on running for club president and if he won, Sadie knew darn well that the TCC would stay in the dark ages.
Sadie bit down on her bottom lip to keep the furious words that wanted to spill from her locked inside. Honestly, the TCC had been the bulwark of stubborn men for more than a hundred years.
Even the decor in the place reeked of testosterone. Paneled walls, dark brown leather furniture, hunting prints on the walls and a big-screen TV, the better to watch every single Texas sporting event. Until recently, women had only been allowed in the dining room or on the tennis courts. But now, thanks to Abby Langley being an honorary memberwith full club privileges due to her late husband Richard's name and history with the club, all of that was changing. And the women in Royal were counting on the fact that now that Pandora's box had been opened, the men in town wouldn't be able to close it again.
But if dealing with her brother was a sign of how difficult change was going to be, Sadie knew she and the other females in town were in for a whale of a fight.
"Look," she said, trying for her most reasonable tonewhich wasn't easy when faced with a head as hard as her brother's"the club is looking to build a new headquarters. I'm a landscape designer. I can help.
I've got the name of a great architect. And I did some sketches for the new grounds that"
"Sadie " Brad sighed and shook his head. "Nothing's been decided. We don't need an architect. Or a landscape designer. Or a damn interior decorator."
"You could at least listen to me," she argued.
"I may have to put up with Abby Langley giving me grief, but I don't have to listen to my baby sister," Brad said. "Now go on home, Sadie."
He walked away.
Just turned his back and walked off as if she didn't matter at all. Fuming silently, Sadie thought briefly about chasing him down and giving him another piece of her mind. But that would only give the old coots like Buck Johnson and Henry Tate even more to gossip about.
Her gaze shifted to those two men, still hiding behind their newspapers as if they were completely oblivious to what was going on. Well, Sadie knew better. Those two had heard every word of her argument with her brother and by tonight, she expected that they would have repeated it dozens of times. And men said women were gossips.
Grumbling under her breath, she tucked her cream-colored leather bag beneath her arm, got a hard grip on the folder of sketches she'd brought along with her and stormed for the front door. The sound of her needle-thin heels clicked against the wood floor like a frantic heartbeat.
Disappointment and anger warred inside her. She'd really hoped that she would be able to at least count on her brother's support. But she should have known better. Brad was like a throwback to an earlier generation. He liked his women to be pretty pieces of arm candy and he liked the club just as it wasa male bastion against the ever-encroaching idea of equality of the sexes.
"He's a caveman," Sadie muttered, rushing out of the dark interior of the club into the bright sunlight of a July morning in Texas.
She was still running on pure temper and her eyes were so dazzled by the brilliant light, she didn't see the man until she crashed right into him.
One day back in his hometown and Rick Pruitt ran smack into a tornado. A tall, sleek, blond tornado with eyes as blue as the Texas sky and legs that went on forever. He'd been thinking about her only a minute or two before and now here she was. She stormed out of the Texas Cattleman's Club in such a fury, she'd run right into him only to bounce off like a pebble skipping across the surface of a lake.
He reached out to grab her shoulders and steady her. Then she lifted those big blue eyes up to him and the look on her face said clearly that he was the last person on earth she had expected to see.
"Mornin', Sadie," he said softly, letting his gaze sweep over the patrician features he remembered so well. "If you're really looking to run me over, you should maybe try it in a car. You're not nearly big enough to do it on foot."
She blinked at him. Her face paled and her eyes were wide and shining with shock. "Rick? What are you doing here?"
A long, humming second or two passed between them and that was all it took to get Rick's blood rushing and his body tightening. But Sadie swayed unsteadily.
"Hey," he asked. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," she murmured, though she didn't look it. "I'm just surprised to see you, that's all. I didn't know you were home."
"Only arrived yesterday," he told her. "Guess the town gossip chain needs a little time to get up and running."
"I suppose so."
Her cheeks got even paler and she looked uneasy. Rick wondered why.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry about running into you. Coming out of the gloom of that man-cave into the bright daylight, I couldn't see and I was just so darn mad at Brad "
Good to know, he told himself. He'd much rather she be furious with her brother than him. The one night they'd spent together had been haunting him for three long years. He'd spent a lot of time in the desert, remembering her taste, her touch. She was the kind of woman who slipped up on a man. Got under his defenses. Which was why he'd been glad to be leaving for his tour of duty right after their night together. He hadn't been looking for permanent back then, and Sadie Price was not the kind of woman to settle for a one-night stand.
He took a breath, inhaling her scentthat soft swirl of summer rain and flowers that always seemed to cling to her skin. That scent had stayed with him while he was deployed. And it didn't seem to matter where he was stationed or the misery that surrounded him if he closed his eyes, she was there.