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This is not good, Emily McCabe thought as she led her beloved mare, Maisy, toward the Circle M Ranch stable. Standing just inside the entrance to the barn were all three of her older brothers. Their postures were as inflexible as the set of their jaws, and they appeared to be waiting on her.
The relaxation she'd felt after her Monday afternoon ride was fading fast as Emily studied the trio of determined expressions. "What's going on?" she asked warily. It had to be something. Otherwise, Jeb would have been looking after his rodeo livestock, Hank would have been tending his cattle, and Holden would have been caring for his quarter horses. Instead, all three ranchers were gathered here on her parents' property.
Awkward glances were exchangedthe kind that told her this was not an actual emergency. Great, Emily thought. Just what she neededher wildly overprotective clan butting into her life again.
Looking less rambunctious than usual, Jeb squared his shoulders. "We wanted to talk to you."
Emily sighed, bored already. She patted Maisy's silky black mane and led the big bay mare past her brothers, toward her horse's stall. "About what?"
"Mom and Dad are worried about you." The always-gallant Holden kept pace. "You've put everything you've got into the café for two years now. And with the new diner opening "
They were all acting as if she was about to have her heart broken. "I have a very loyal customer base. It's not going to cut into my business."
To her annoyance, her brothers stood their ground.
"On top of that," Holden continued, "it's been over a year since you had a date."
Uh-oh. Now that had an ominous ring. Emily knew her brothers could be ridiculously sexist where she was concerned. They had been that way since she was a kid, something that happened when there was only one girl in a family. It didn't mean she had to like it.
"So?" Emily unfastened the girths on Maisy's saddle and lifted it off. She set the saddle and blanket on the cement floor outside the stall. "Since when do you-all care about my social life?" she demanded, aiming a disparaging look their way.
Ignoring her Hank replied pleasantly, "Since we've taken it upon ourselves to do you a big favor and help you out."
Emily liked the sound of that even less. Wordlessly, she removed the rest of Maisy's tack and heaped it on top of the leather riding gear. She ran an affectionate hand down Maisy's neck and rubbed her face against her beautiful horse in silent thanks for a great canter across the meadow. Then she stepped outside the stall, shutting the door behind her. While Maisy quenched her thirst from the stall water trough, Emily confronted her three well-meaning but totally idiotic brothers. "Didn't you learn anything from the last time you guys tried to fix me up?" What an unmitigated disaster that had been! The longest evening on record, followed by an impossibly awkward good-night. She propped her hands on her hips and glared at them. "No more!"
"Normally we'd agree." All three nodded vigorously. "But that was before Mom figured out who you should be seeing," Hank explained. Emily's heart sank.
She had no doubt her mother meant well, too.
Thanks to more than thirty-six years of happily wedded bliss with the love of her life, there was no one more romantic than her mother. Her father, in his own way, was just as bad although her dad had yet to actually approve of any man she'd dated.
"Tell me you're pulling my leg here," Emily pleaded. "Nope." Jeb flashed a grin. "Mom's planning to play matchmaker at tonight's charity dinner for the Libertyville Boys Ranch."
There was no way Emily could avoid the fund-raiser. Her Daybreak Café was one of a handful of restaurants in town providing food and beverage for the outdoor event. Plus, it was a worthy cause.
Emily picked up the reins and bridle while Hank carried the saddle and blanket to the tack room. She put the riding equipment away, then turned back to face her brothers. She swept off her flat-brimmed hat and slapped it impatiently against her thigh. "Surely Dad isn't going to sign on for this foolhardiness."
If there was anyone who could talk sense into Greta McCabe, it was her husband
Her three brothers watched as she went to the fridge in the corner and took out a bottle of blackberry-flavored water, kept on hand just for her.
"Actually," Holden recounted, serious as ever, "Dad thinks Mom might be onto something. You have to admit, you have been one heck of a bum magnet on your own."
Emily narrowed her eyes. "Thanks, heaps."
Jeb chuckled. "It's true, little sis. Who knew there were so many losers in the world till you dragged them all home?"
Emily recalled with startling clarity why she'd had such a hard time with her love life. Part of it was her ability to see the "potential" in just about everyone. The only problem was, most men did not want to be "improved" and certainly not by the woman they were dating. So she constantly had to shelve her need to help. The rest had to do with the fact that all the truly successful men she had met seemed to want a woman who'd be content to tend to their needs and live in their shadow. Few wanted a woman who was already successful in her own right.
But not wanting to get into any of that with her brothers, she turned to the third and most annoying reason her love life remained a bust.
"My lack of dates this past year is because no guy in his right mind has wanted to come near me knowing he would have to put up with you-all constantly breathing down our necks."
Hank refused to apologize. "We were just trying to protect you."
Emily glared at her three tall, brawny brothers. "Well, stop!"
Holden looked her in the eye and held the line. "No can do. Now, here's the plan. We're sure we know better than Mom and Dad who you should be dating. So.we have each picked out a guy for you to meet. All of them understand the restaurant businessso you should have something in commonand all of them already get along with us." He smiled confidently. "And as a bonus, none of them are from around here. So it won't be anyone you've already met and rejected."
Emily didn't care where these potential suitors hailed from. "I'm not going on any blind dates!" she warned. "And especially not with any men that have already received the McCabe Men Stamp of Approval!" That would simply confirm they were the type who would bore her to tears.
Jeb grinned, mischievous as ever. "That's the beauty of our plan, baby sis. You won't have to go out with them, 'cause we're bringing them to you at the café. You can scope them out while you're serving them breakfast or lunch and then decide who you want to go out withand then we'll set it up for you."
This was insane, Emily thought. Like some sort of reality show she never would have signed up for in a million years. "These three guys agreed to be looked over by me, like hunks of prime beefcake?"
For the first time, her brothers looked uncertain. Aha, Emily thought, this plan did have a hitch! And a possibly insurmountable one, at that.
Grimacing, Holden said, "They all agreed to have breakfast or lunch with us at your place. The meals themselves are going to be more like business meetings, with a little socializing thrown in."
"And during said meeting, I'm supposed to come over, make nice and flirt a little," Emily mused sarcastically.
Jeb shrugged and regarded her as if she were overreacting. "Couldn't hurt."
Oh, yeah? Emily drained the rest of her water in a single gulp and tossed the empty bottle in the recycling bin. "You're making it oh so tempting," she drawled in her Scarlett O'Hara imitation, batting her eyelashes for effect, "but no. Besides, I already have a date," she fibbed with as much bravado as she could muster. "It's tonight, at the benefit for the boys ranch, as a matter of fact. So you might want to pass that on to Mom and Dad, because I know they wouldn't want to interfere in a date I already lined up."
"Is that right?" Hank prodded, clearly not believing a word of what she'd just said. "With whom?"
Emily mentally ran down the list of eligible men in Lara-mie, Texas, and quickly centered on the one who would be the least desirable, at least by her family's standards. The one man who had sworn he would never be tamed by any woman.
She beamed at them proudly. "Dylan Reeves."
Emily stared at the sexy rancher in front of her, sure she hadn't heard right. Especially, since she had just offered the town's most notorious bachelor the kind of deal he couldn't possibly resist. "No?" she repeated, stunned.
Dylan Reeves swept off his hat, ran an impatient hand through his thick, wheat-colored hair and stepped out of the round training pen. His golden brown eyes lasered into hers with disturbing accuracy. "That's what I said."
Emily cast a glance behind Dylan at the once-wild gelding who was now mooning after his momentarily distracted trainer like a little puppy awaiting his return. Then she returned her attention to the ruggedly fit cowboy who was scowling down at her.
Dylan wasn't just an incredibly attractive man with a towering build that dwarfed her own five-foot-seven frame. He was a horse whisperer who had moved to Laramie five years before and, through sheer grit and hard work, founded the Last Chance Ranch.
Dylan took on the horses everyone else had given up on, and transformed them.
That being the case, Emily reasoned, he had a heart in there somewhere that would allow him to participate in yet another worthy cause. "It's a fund-raiser for charity."
His lips formed an uncompromising line. "It could be a dinner for the Crown Prince of England for all I care." He lounged against the metal rails of the round training pen and folded his arms in front of him. "The answer is still no."
Emily ignored the way the tan twill shirt hugged his broad shoulders and molded to the sculpted muscles of his chest before disappearing into the waistband of his worn, dark blue denim jeans. She forced her gaze away from the engraved silver-and-gold buckle on his belt. "Look. You know we have nothing in common," she said as a shimmer of awareness shifted through her, "so there's no possibility this will be a real date. That's why I asked you to go with me tonight."
Dylan narrowed his eyes at her. "Asked being the operative word. You asked I declined. As, I might point out, I have every right to do. End of story."
"Fine." Emily stepped closer and tilted her head toward him. "Then what's it going to take?"
He looked her up and down suspiciously, from the top of her flat-brimmed hat, to the toes of her favorite burgundy rattlesnake boots. "What do you mean?"
"How many free meals at the café?" she bartered.
Initially, she'd thought two was fair. Evidently not, in his opinion.
Dylan flashed her a crocodile smile that didn't begin to reach his life-weary eyes. He rubbed his jaw with the palm of his hand. "What makes you think I want to eat at your restaurant?"
"Oh," Emily looked him up and down just as impudently and mocked his condescending tone to a T. "Perhaps the fact that you're there every morning when I openand sometimes lunch, as well. And you've asked more than once why I don't serve dinner at night!"
That alone conveyed that either he couldn't cook, or he was too unmotivated to do so. He also had a penchant for the cowboy cuisine she had perfected.
Poking the brim of his cowboy hat up with maddening nonchalance, he leaned toward her and whispered conspiratorially, "It's a good point, sweetheart. You'd make more money if you did stay open through the dinner hour."
She would also be competing with her mother's restaurant, which was a Laramie institution and had a dance floor and lively music every night.
"I would also have to work much longer hours," Emily replied, suddenly flustered by his blatant nearness.
He smirked in a way meant to infuriate. "Or" he prodded "hire more staff."
Emily harrumphed. The last thing she wanted was anyone telling her how to run the restaurant she had dreamed up and started from scratch. "I don't want to hire more employees. I like my café the way it isopen for breakfast and lunch six days a week. Now," she said, peering at him sternly, "back to what we were saying "
Dylan chuckled and released a long-suffering sigh. "Goodbye, I hope?"
She ignored his stab at a joke and stepped even closer, not caring that the move left mere inches of empty space between them. She felt the heat emanating off him, stronger and warmer than the April sunshine overhead. "Just tell me your price, cowboy." To keep me from being thoroughly humiliated in the wake of my premature claim to have a date with you.
Emily stood and propped both hands on her hips. "How many meals is it going to take for you to pretend to be my date for the evening? I need you just long enough to scare away the man my parents have picked out for meand to disabuse my brothers of their own lame-brained matchmaking idea."
"None." Dylan gave her a steady look, then straightened and moved behind her. Taking her by the shoulders, he pivoted her in the direction of her car. As abruptly as he'd taken hold of her, he dropped his firm but gentle grip and stepped away. Her shoulders tingled as badly as the rest of her. "'Cause I don't do family drama," he said flatly.
Temper boiling, Emily whirled back around to face him.
He lifted one work-roughened palm. "And I don't tame women, either."
Tame! Had he actually used the word tame? "Excuse me?" she fumed, daring him to say that again!
The corners of his lips twitched in barely checked amusement. "Your family is right. You are a woman in need of 'assistance' when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex." He paused, wearing a self-assured, faintly baiting expression, then returned to the pen and the magnificent horse he'd been training when she arrived.
He closed the gate behind him and let his glance drift lazily over Emily before deliberately meeting her eyes. "Luckily for both of us, darlin'.that schooling is not going to come from me."
"Well, if you ask me," Simone Saunders said two hours later, "I think you should just relax about the whole thing."
"Easier said than done," Emily murmured, arranging trays of fruit cobbler and pecan-pie bars on the banquet tables set up on the town square.
"You never know," the Daybreak Café's assistant chef teased. "The guy your parents want you to meet could be a real hottie."