Forget chewing nails Ryan Kendrick was so mad he could have chewed lug nuts. He had a broken down tractor, and the parts needed to fix it should have been delivered to the Rocking K day before yesterday. As of this morning, they still hadn't arrived, and Ryan's follow-up calls had gotten him nowhere.
With one shoulder, he butted open the door of The Works, the largest ranch supply house in Crystal Falls. Harv Coulter, a rancher who'd gone bust, had started the business on a shoestring several years back, and the Kendrick brothers, along with many other ranchers in the area, had been patronizing the establishment ever since. Now the huge store was a going concern, well stocked with everything from heavy equipment to fancy western wear, the only problem being that as sales increased, the quality of service seemed to go downhill.
If Harv didn't get his employees whipped into shape, he'd start losing accounts. Delays like this, smack-dab in the middle of spring planting time, were intolerable. Due to late snows, every farmer and rancher in the basin was already behind schedule, and each day of downtime could mean thousands of dollars in lost crop revenue.
Ryan headed for an overhead sign at the rear of the feed section that read, "PARTS AND REPAIRS," his dusty riding boots beating out an angry tattoo on the concrete floor. When he reached a counter cluttered with parts and catalogs, he shoved aside an air filter, rested his arms on the grease-stained Formica, and settled a blistering gaze on a slender young woman who sat at a computer station near theregister.
A long, luxurious mane of sable hair partly concealed her face. Her slender, neatly manicured fingers flew over the keyboard with speedy efficiency. Ryan waited for just a moment. Being ignored did little to mellow his mood. The morning was half over. He glanced at his watch and set his jaw.
"Excuse me," he said. "Is it possible to get some help around here?"
That brought her head up. Ryan went still, his gaze riveted. She had the most beautiful eyes, large, outlined with thick, dark lashes, and so deep a blue they reminded him of the Johany-jump-up violets that grew wild at the ranch. Normally, he scoffed at the sappy phrases men used to describe women. He'd looked into a lot of eyes and never felt in danger of drowning, or losing his heart.
"I don't usually work the floor, but I can try to help you." she said, her voice as sunny as her smile, which flashed an irresistible dimple in one cheek.
Ryan couldn't stop staring. Her face was small and heart-shaped, with sculpted cheekbones, a pointy chin with just a hint of stubbornness, and a soft, sweet mouth. The tip of her delicately bridged nose was shiny and sported a smattering of freckles, which told him her flawless complexion was natural.
"What seems to be the problem?" she asked.
He started to tell her, but for an instant, his mind went as empty as a wrangler's pocket right before payday, and he couldn't remember why the hell he was there.
He had the strangest feeling, dead center in his chesta sense of recognitionas if he'd subconsciously been searching for her all his life. Crazy. Love at first sight was more his brother's style Ryan shopped for women like he did for boots, trying them on for size before he settled in for a long-term relationship, and even at that, he'd yet to find a comfortable enough fit to last him a lifetime.
"I, um ..." He rubbed beside his nose, a habit when he got nervous. A dull ache throbbed behind his eyes. "I'm Ryan Kendrick from the Rocking K," he offered stupidly.
The sweet curve of her lips deepened. "Hi. I'm pleased to meet you. And don't feel bad. I have days like this, only worse. At least you know your name."
He huffed with laughter. "You actually forget your name?"
The dimple flashed again. "What works for me is to back up. You're Ryan Kendrick from the Rocking K, and you came in here to ...?"
He snapped his fingers. "My parts."
He chuckled. "I want to know where the Sam Hill they are."
Pure devilment crept into her expression. "You've lost your parts and think I've got them? Most cowboys I know guard theirs like Fort Knox."
Ryan threw back his head and laughed. The tension that had knotted the muscles in his neck and shoulders all morning miraculously vanished.
"I hope you don't have a hot date lined up for Saturday night," she added. "A cowboy who's missing his parts could find himself in a very embarrassing situation."
He nudged up the brim of his Stetson. "Well, now, darlin', that all depends. What are you doin' Saturday night?"
It was her turn to laugh. The sound was rich and musical. and it warmed him clear through.
"I usually avoid cowboys who can't keep track of their parts."
"Go out with me, and I guarantee I'll find mine in damned short order."
"Maybe if you'll give me an order number instead of a hard time, I can help locate the little buggers for you."
Little buggers? Ryan almost corrected that misconception. But there were lines a man didn't step over, and he had a hunch this was one of them. Maybe it was the sweetness of her smileor that innocent look he'd glimpsed in her eyesbut something told him she wasn't as worldly as she pretended to be.
As he fished in the pocket of his blue chambray shirt, he swept his gaze over her. She was a fragile, slightly built woman, which undoubtedly explained why those eyes seemed to be the biggest thing about her. But despite that, she was temptingly well-rounded in all the right places. Perfection in miniature.
Her brown shell top showcased a long, graceful neck, thin but well-defined shoulders, and creamy-white arms that looked surprisingly firm for someone with such a slight build. Beneath the brown knit, small, perfectly shaped breasts pleaded for a lingering look. Minding his manners, he flicked his gaze lower and bemoaned the fact that the counter concealed the rest of her. He was a leg man, and it was a woman's foundation that always swung the vote for him.
Wishing she'd stand up so he could get a look, he handed over the slip of paper on which he'd jotted his order number. While she scanned computer files and tracked down his parts order, they carried on a lively exchange, during which he learned she was twenty-six, had no significant other in her life except a feline named Cleo, and was the baby in a family of six kids. Her five rambunctious older brothers spoiled her rotten and kept things hopping at family gatherings.
Ryan enjoyed talking with her. Even with her attention divided between him and the computer screen, she kept him on his conversational toes. It wasn't often he ran across beauty, brains, and a great personality, all in one package.
"Soyou gonna give me a name to put with the face?" he asked.
"Bethany." Finished with the computer, she leaned back in her chair. "Well, cowboy, time to eat crow. Guess where those parts of yours are."
"En route to the Rocking K. And it's not our fault they're late. This is the busy season. Those particular parts are in high demand right now, were on back order, and took two days longer to reach us than they should have."
Ryan had heard that one before, but coming from her, it seemed more credible. He tipped the brim of his bat back down to shade his eyes before returning outdoors. "Hmm. Lucky for me, I didn't raise too much sand, huh?"
"It takes more than a cantankerous cowboy to throw me. Five brothers, remember?" She propped her elbows on the chair armrests, her big blue eyes still smiling. "Have a nice day, and good luck fixing your tractor. Too bad you're not an employee. You could charge yourself time and a half."
By that, Ryan guessed she knew who he was. No big surprise. Practically everyone in Crystal Falls, Oregon, had heard of the Kendrick family. He tipped his hat to her. "Thank you, Bethany. It's been a rare pleasure."
"Any time," she called after him as he walked away.
He had nearly reached the door before he swung to a stop. To hell with walking out. He was thirty years old and hadn't come across a woman who interested him this much in a long time. Bethany. She was beautiful, sweet, and funny. The only other women he knew who could take him from pissed off to laughing in three seconds flat were his mom and sister-in-law. No way was he leaving without at least getting her phone number, a date if he Could manage it.
"I know this may seem forward," he began as he returned to the counter.
Already back at work, she glanced up from the screen, her thoughtful frown giving way to another warm smile. "You've lost your parts again already?"
Ryan chuckled. "Not on your life. I just" He felt heat crawling up his neck. He hadn't felt nervous about asking a girl out since his early teens. "About Saturday night. I know we were only joking, but on a more serious note, I'd like to get to know you." At her startled look, he added, "Hey, I'm a nice guy. Your boss, Harvey Coulter, will vouch for me."
"Oh, I'm sure you're very nice, but"
Ryan held up a staying hand. "How about dinner and dancing? We'll go out, have a fine meal, get to know each other a little better. Then we'll cut a rug. I'm hell on wheels at country western, and I know of a great band."
Her mouth curved in a wistful smile. "You like to dance, do you?"
"I love to dance. How about you?"
She averted her gaze. Ryan wanted to kick himself for coming on too fast. So much for that legendary charm his brother teased him about. Well, it was too late now. All he could do was go for it and hope for the best.
"I used to enjoy dancing very much." She tapped a pen on the work surface beside her computer, her small hand clenched so tightly over its length that her dainty knuckles went white.
Ryan shoved up the brim of his hat. He did his best convincing with his eyes. "Come on, sweetheart, take a chance on me. We'll have fun. I give you my solemn oath to be a perfect gentleman."
"It isn't that."
To his dismay, he saw that all the laughter and mischief in her eyes had been eclipsed by shadows. He sensed he'd said or done something to cause that, but for the life of him he couldn't think what.
"If you're worried that you're too rusty to get on a dance floor, I'm easy to follow. Give me ten minutes, and you'll think you've got wings on your feet."
She rolled her chair back from the computer station and folded her hands in her lap, gazing up at him with a prideful lift of her small chin. "Somehow I rather doubt that." Her strained, overbright smile was foiled by the flush of embarrassment on her cheeks. "Don't you?"
It took Ryan a full second to register what she meant. Then he saw that she was sitting in a wheelchair.
He felt as if a horse had kicked him in the gutan awful. suddenly breathless feeling that made his legs threaten to buckle. It had to be a joke. She was so beautiful and perfect in every other way, the girl of his dreams. There was no wayabsolutely no way.
But then his gaze dropped to her legs. The hem of her gathered black skirt came to just below the knees, revealing flesh toned support hose, finely turned ankles, and small feet encased in black slippers. The way her feet were positioned on the rests, one turned inward, was typical of a paraplegic's, and as shapely as her calves were, he could see that her muscles had begun to atrophy.
Sweet Christ. He felt like a worm. His first knee-jerk reaction was to make a polite excuse and get the hell out of them. To run.
The thought made him feel ashamed. Judging by those shadows in her eyes, she'd been down this path before and gotten badly hurt, undoubtedly by a long line of jackasses just like him who'd run when they saw her wheelchair.
He'd be damned if he'd do that to her. It was only one date.
Bethany fully expected Ryan Kendrick to make fast tracks or start stammering. That was usually the way it went. Watching his dark face, she had to give him credit; he looked stunned for a moment, but he quickly recovered. Flashing a wickedly attractive grin, he said, "Well, hell, I guess dancing's out. Unless, of course, I can come up with a set of wheels so we can do the wheelchair tango."
Usually men avoided mentioning her wheelchair, and while they groped for something to say, their eyes reflected a frantic need to escape. She always wanted to crawl in a hole when that happened, but Ryan Kendrick's reaction was even worse. If he felt an urge to run, he was a great loss to the stage.
"There are a number of things besides dancing that we can go do." He rested loosely folded fists at his lean waist, frowned, and then started naming off ideas, ending with, "How's dinner followed by a good movie strike you?"
It struck her as alarming. Terrifying. He was supposed to be heading for the closest exit. She flirted all the time. A girl had to have some fun, after all. But no man had ever taken her up on it. She didn't know what to say. Every time she looked into his gun-metal blue eyes, her mind went blank. He was so handsome, the epitome of tall, dark, and gorgeous. Chiseled features, a strong jaw, jet hair, and oodles of muscle. A dangerous mix. Crystal Falls was a large town, and Bethany had attended different schools than Ryan had. She'd also been a few years younger, so they'd never moved in the same social circles. But as a teenager, she'd seen him a few times at a distance, usually out at the fairgrounds during rodeos, and she'd thought he was handsome even then. He was even more attractive now. Little wonder his name was almost legend and half the women in town fancied themselves in love with him.
"I, um ..." She shrugged, for once in her life at a total loss for words. If one of her brothers had been present, he would have marked the moment.
Her gaze fell to his mouth. His lips were long and narrow, mere slashes in the granite hardness of his face, yet beautifully sculpted with the muted shimmer of satin. At present, one corner of that hard mouth was twitching, as if he were suppressing a smile.
"Dinner and a movie isn't very imaginative, I know," he stud apologetically. "I'll think of something more exciting next time around."
Next time? She wasn't sure how to deal with this. Why was he wasting his time with her? Because he felt sorry for her, maybe? She didn't want his pity.
She should have made certain he saw the wheelchair right away. Then this never would have happened. She couldn't go out with him. Her legs might not work, but her heart was in fine working order, and Ryan Kendrick Was a little too charming. With those twinkling eyes and that sexy grin chipping away at her defenses, it would be all too easy to get in over her head.
She smoothed her hands over her skirt to make sure it covered her knees. There had to be a graceful way out of this. "Actually, Mr. Kendrick, the reason I hesitate is because I think I may be busy Saturday night."
He never missed a beat. "How about Friday, then?" He no sooner spoke than he snapped his fingers. "No, Friday won't work. I'm sponsoring a tractor in the mud pulls that night, and I really should be at the fairgrounds."
"Mud pulls?" Bethany immediately wanted to bite her tongue.
His gaze sharpened on her face. "Are you a mud-pull enthusiast?"
She pushed at her hair, then rolled closer to the counter to straighten the work area. "I used to enjoy them very much."
"I'm surprised. Mostly only men like the mud pulls."
She shrugged. "I had strange tastes for a girl, I guess."
"Why past tense? If you really enjoy the mud pulls, I'd love to take you."
He'd obviously never been around a paraplegic. "Oh, I couldn't possibly."
"Between the parking lot and track, there's an acre of dirt and gravel."
"What's a little dirt and gravel?"
Her pulse started to pound. She swallowed, drew a deep breath, and tried to calm down. He wasn't interested in her that way; he was only being kind. She needed to focus on that, keep her sense of humor, and laugh this off. A little stark reality was called for, apparently. Who better to give him a dose?
"To a walking person, a little dirt and gravel is no big thing," she said slowly. "But my wheelchair tends to bog down on uneven ground, and getting it across deep gravel is difficult."
He gave her a measuring look. "Does it hurt you to be carried?"
"Does it cause you any pain when someone carries you?"
"You're kidding. Right? You can't mean to carry me."
Why not? He really didn't have a clue. "The question isn't if it might hurt me, but whether or not your back can take the abuse." She shook her head. "It's very nice of you to offer. Really it is, Mr. Kendrick, but"
"Ryan," he corrected. "Or Rye, if you prefer. I answer to both. And I'm not being `nice.' I really want to take you."
"Ryan, then." Searching his gaze, which made her feel as if she'd just swallowed live goldfish, she said, "You're sweet to offer, but you've no idea what you'd be getting into. There are no walkways or bleachers down at that track."
"So? You have a chair, and I'll take a camp stool along for myself."
"No, you don't understand. It's not the seating arrangements that worry me but that you d have to carry my chair down there. It's very heavy and awkward to handle, and then you'd have to haul me down there as well." She shook her head again. "No. About the time you got me settled, it'd be my luck I'd need to use the ladies' room, which ns clear up at the stadium. That's at least a quarter mile. There you'd be, carrying me and my chair all the way up there, then all the way back. By evening s end, you'd be wishing you never asked me."
"You can't weigh more than a hundred pounds. My back can handle it."
"A hundred and eleven," she corrected, thinking as she spoke that nearly half of that was dead-weight, which was heavier and more awkward to handle.
"All of that?" He chuckled, his steel-blue eyes dancing with amusement. "Honey, I lift twice your weight dozens of times a day."
"It's a date," he insisted. Stepping to the counter, he reached over to push a notepad toward her. "I'll be on your doorstep to pick you up at precisely six o'clock on Friday night. Just jot down your address and phone number."
"Come on," he cajoled. "We'll have fun. It isn't often I meet a lady who enjoys the mud pulls. Where have you been all my life?"
She laughed and tried one more time to discourage him. "I'm really not much on dating. You don't have to do this. Honestly. You're off the hook."
In response to that, he narrowed an eye and shoved the notepad closer. "Full name address, and phone number. If you won't give them to me, I'll play dirty and get them from Harv Coulter. The Rocking K is his largest account."
Imagining her father's reaction, Bethany smiled. "I should let you go ask him. It might prove interesting. I don't suppose you're a betting man?"
"Sometimes. What s the wager?"
"That my boss not only won't give you my address but may run you out of here with a shotgun. Daddy tends to be overprotective of his baby girl."
"You're Harv's daughter?"
"His one and only." With a sigh of resignation, she bent her head and wrote the information he'd requested on the slip of paper. "Don't say I didn't warn you. By evening's end, when you're popping ibuprofen and wishing you had a back brace, I don't want to hear any complaints."
As she tore the top sheet from the notepad and handed it to him, she added, "If something comes up and you need to cancel, Ryan, you can reach me here at the store during the day. I really would appreciate a call. For someone like me, getting ready to go somewhere is no easy thing."
He folded the paper and slipped it in his pocket. "I'll show. Count on it."
She shrugged, hoping to convey that she didn't care one way or the other. "I'll accept any excuse. Even `my dog ate my homework' will work." She forced a bright smile.
"Friday," he said huskily. "Six o'clock sharp. I'll be looking forward to it."
As he walked away, Bethany heard footsteps behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see her brother Jake approaching. Dressed in the same ranch-issue faded denim and blue chambray as Ryan, he looked enough like the other man to be related. Tall and lean, yet muscular, her brother had the tough look of a man who'd pitted himself against the elements most of his life.
Jake also had beautiful eyesa deep, clear blue that was almost startling in contrast to his sun-dark skin and sable hair. At the moment, those eyes were fixed with glaring intensity on Ryan Kendrick's departing back. "What was that all about?"
"What was what all about?" she asked innocently.
Jake gave her a long, questioning look. "As I was coming downstairs, I saw the two of you talking, and it looked like he was flirting with you."
Bethany raised her eyebrows. "Flirting with me? How long's it been since you had your eyes checked?"
His jaw muscle started to tic. "You're paralyzed, Bethie, not dead. And you're a very pretty lady. I know men must flirt with you occasionally."
"So why the scowl?"
"Because that particular man is bad news. You steer clear of Ryan Kendrick, honey. The guy's got a reputation."
Still single at thirty-one, Jake had a bit of a reputation himself. Bethany refrained from pointing that out. "A reputation for what?"
"Loving them and leaving them." Jake stepped over to the counter, opened a parts catalog, and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. "Don't do any toe-dipping in that particular pond. It's inhabited by a shark, and I don't want my little sister to be his next victim."