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It was time to move on.
Cole Parrish spread the fresh straw around the horse stall. In truth, it was past time to make his departure. He'd never stayed anyplace this long. Four months he'd been at the Bar H Ranch. After the heart attack of the foreman, Cy Parks, Cole couldn't leave the owner to fend for herself all alone.
He braced the pitchfork against the railing and pushed his hat back. The familiar restlessness gnawed at his gut, urging him to leave. He was getting far too attached to this place but the sooner he got out of here the better. The last thing he needed was more memories to carry away with him. He had enough of those to last a lifetime.
That was why he had to go now. And he had to tell Rachel Hewitt. Today.
Determined not to put off the task any longer, Cole walked out of the stall and through the barn. Outside, he looked toward the two-story frame ranch house across the compound. At one time it had been painted white, but like the rest of the place, the structure could use a new coat of paint along with a few repairs.
It would only take him a couple weeks to do the job He shook his head. No. This wasn't his problem. He was leaving.
Before he reached the house, a young Rachel Hewitt came out on the porch. As on every other day she wore her usual work clothesfaded jeans and a man's shirt. Her long, raven mane was tied back in a long braid, exposing her pretty oval face. She was tall and solidly built, but there was something about her expression that suggested a fragile quality. His gaze met her golden-brown eyes and he felt his chest constrict, making it difficult to draw a breath.
He definitely had to leave. Soon.
"Rachel," hecalled as he approached her. "If you have a minute, I need to talk with you."
"What is it, Cole?" She gripped the porch post and smiled, but it didn't hide her fatigue. He doubted she'd gotten much sleep, what with running the house and doing the work of a ranch hand. Not that anything had changed since her father's death two years ago. He'd heard stories that old Gib Hewitt had run the Bar H from his wheelchair, but Rachel had been the one who did the physical work.
Cole had stayed so long because he knew Gib had given power of attorney to a lawyer until his daughter turned thirty. Rachel couldn't afford to pay much to ranch hands and Cole couldn't allow her to struggle on alone. That was the reason why his leaving would be so hard on her. But he had to do it.
He didn't do permanence not anymore.
He stood at the bottom of the porch steps. "I'm giving my notice. I'll be leaving in a week," he said straight out.
He watched as her eyes widened in panic, then she quickly masked it. "You said you'd stay on a while. You know Cy can't do the work by himself."
Cole caught himself fighting a smile. "You better not let him hear you saying that." Cy Parks had been at the Bar H for nearly thirty years. She was right. He wasn't capable of handling it all by himself anymore. But this ranch wasn't big by Texas standards, a three-man operation at best. "Since spring roundup is over, things should be quiet for a time. He can manage feeding the stock. That should give you time to hire someone else."
Rachel didn't want to hire someone else. For one thing, she couldn't afford to. She wasn't even sure how much longer she'd be able to pay Cole. Although he was a drifter, she trusted the man. He was a hard worker. He was the one who'd been with Cy when he had his heart attack, giving him CPR and saving his life. Cole had kept him alive until the ambulance had arrived from town.
"There's no one else to hire. Most of the available men have moved onto the bigger operations around San Angelo."
"I'm headed there, too."
"Look if it's the money "
He shook his head. "Just need a change of scenery. I'll work to the end of the week and if you like, try to find a replacement."
Cole Parrish was a handsome man, with his dark hair and piercing gray eyes. There were times when she saw such sadness in their depths, it made her want to cry. He must have his reasons for leaving, and she shouldn't try to stop him. "Thank you, Cole. That would be a big help."
He tipped his hat, then turned and walked back toward the barn. Rachel couldn't help but watch his departure with appreciation. A chambray shirt covered his wide shoulders but it couldn't hide his rock solid build. Years of rough ranch work showed in the muscle definition across his back and slim waist. He had a loose-hipped gait that showed off some attitude. All cowboys had a little cockiness about them. A gush of heat washed over her, making her insides ache. Since the day Cole Parrish had arrived at the ranch, she'd experienced this feeling many times.
Definitely Gib Hewitt would not approve. Rachel caught her breath and turned away. She'd loved her father, but he'd ruled with a strict hand when it came to his daughters. He'd lectured often to her and her younger sister, Sarah, on the evils of the world. Although he'd never said it to her face, she knew he'd been afraid they'd end up loose women like their mother.
Georgia Hewitt had left them when Rachel was ten and Sarah only five. Rachel tried not to hate her mother, but the abandonment she and her sister had felt never left them. After high school, Sarah was eager to leave and had begged Rachel to go away with her. In the end, Rachel couldn't desert her father and Sarah ran off to follow her dream.
Now, Sarah and her father were both gone. Rachel blinked away the threatening tears and walked into the house. Soon she'd be running the ranch on her own. That frightened her.
It also excited her.
At supper time Cole forced himself to walk through the back door just as he had for the past months. It was so familiartoo familiar. After this week, no more. No more seeing Rachel's smile and the special touches she added to everything.
Besides cooking the meals and caring for the house, she'd climb on a horse and move cattle just like any of the men. She put in twelve-hour days and never asked anyone to do a job she wasn't willing do.
Cole hung his hat on the rack, and stepped inside the dreary kitchen. Like the outside of the house, the walls needed paint. The linoleum was worn through to the pattern and the cabinet doors needed repair. Despite all that, the room was spotlessly clean.
At the stove, Rachel turned toward him and smiled. It sent a jolt of awareness through him. He found he'd been looking forward to seeing her. A man could get used to meeting this woman at the end of the day.
Just not him.
"Rachel." He nodded as he made his way to the table set for three.
After they sat down Rachel spoke. "Cole, I want to thank you for helping me out these past months. It was wrong of me earlier to try to get you to stay on. You have been more than generous with your time."
Why did she have to be so nice? "You're welcome. If there's anything I can help you with before I leave, let me know."
His gaze met hers and a new stirring erupted in his gut. Desire. He could see it mirrored in her eyes, too. He glanced at her breasts, watching the rapid movement of her breathing. His common sense told him to stop, but his hunger wouldn't let him. At that moment a noise pulled his attention away as Cy came through the back door.
The old guy ambled to the table. His thin white hair was combed straight back, his face tanned and weathered by years of being in the sun, and his broad smile, causing tiny lines to form around his hazel eyes. On his doctor's orders, he'd lost weight in the past month and changed his diet.
He hitched up his too-big jeans. "Well, it looks like I didn't miss anything."
"As if you'd be late for a meal," Cole murmured, then walked to the refrigerator and took out a pitcher of water. He filled the glasses as Rachel set roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and garden-fresh green beans on the table.
"Darlin', I've died and gone to heaven," Cy said.
"Oh, Uncle Cy, you say that no matter what I cook," Rachel said as he held out her chair.
"I won't lie and say I don't miss your fried chicken and gravy."
Rachel smiled. "I'll try to come up with a way of fixing it so it will be healthy for you."
Once everyone was seated, the foreman said the blessing. "Lord, thank you for the food on this table. And for Rachel who takes such good care of us. Amen." He raised his head and reached for the potatoes. "Now, let's eat."
After serving himself, he passed the bowl to Rachel. "Thank you, Cy, for the kind words. But we all work hard around here."
"We get paid," Cy said, pouring gravy around his plate. "You do so many extra things for everyone. You don't have to wash my clothes or repair the rips and tears, but you do."
"You've just lost so much weight. Besides, I like to sew," she protested.
"I know," Cy said. "You make the prettiest quilts in the county. You ought to take 'em to one of the fancy shops in San Angelo." He glanced at Cole.
"I've been tellin' her she'd make a lot of money."
She shook her head. "I donate them to the church."
The older man frowned. "And they turn around and sell 'em and make all the money. Money you need for yourself."
Rachel stole a glance at Cole. He didn't seem interested in the conversation. But that didn't stop Cy.
"You know I worked for your daddy for a lot of years, and he didn't always treat you fair and square."
Rachel felt heat rush to her face. "Father wasn't in good health and "
Cy shook his head. "Stop making excuses for him. He made you and your sister pay for your mother leaving "
"Cy please," she pleaded.
"She was your mama, Rachel, and your father drove her away, just as he did Sarah. You got this place to hold together and you can't do a dang thing unless you get permission from that city lawyer." He took a bite of his food. "Thank goodness that's nearly at an end."
Rachel placed her fork on her plate. She didn't want to argue with Cy. What good would it do? Her mother, father and sister were all gone. She couldn't change any of that. "I don't want to talk" She stopped, then pushed back her chair and got up. "If you'll excuse me," she said, then turned and walked out of the kitchen.
Cole fought to keep from going after her. But what could he say to her? He'd known men like Hewitt. He'd grown up with a disapproving parent, too. Nothing he'd done could please the man, so he'd finally stopped trying.
Cy looked across the table at Cole. "Now, don't you go lookin' at me like that."
Cole played dumb. "What way is that?"
"Like I just pulled the wings off a butterfly. That girl needs to rid herself of years of guilt her father hammered into her." The old man pointed to the doorway. "Have you looked at Rachel? She's afraid to be a woman 'cause her daddy made her feel ashamed of the fact she is one. I've stood back for too long and watched it. But that bastard has been gone for nearly two years and Rachel is still afraid to live. She's a beautiful woman. Someone needs to make her realize that."
Cole didn't want to hear any more. "I think Rachel needs to worry about surviving, and she'll do just fine." He took the last bite of food, then carried his plate to the sink.
"You're just saying that so you won't feel guilty when you leave here."
The old man's words hit home, but he still had to go. "I was hired for the roundup and I've stayed on a few extra months."
"And I appreciate you taking on my load."
"It wasn't a problem, but now, I've got a job waiting for me in San Angelo."
Cy didn't argue the point. He just finished his meal, then carried his plate to the sink. He leaned against the counter and studied Cole. There was no doubt the foreman had something else to say.
Cole stared the other man down. "All right, are you going to try to get me to stay?"
"No, you have to decide that for yourself." The old man gnawed on his lower lip as if choosing his words carefully. "I'm just wondering what you're running from."
Rachel had learned a long time ago that tears didn't help anything. They hadn't stopped people she loved from leaving her. Now, she was alone. She had no husband, no family to help her through this rough time. All she had was the ranch, and her own determination to keep it.
She changed into her nightgown and robe, then went into the bathroom and washed her face. She still needed to clean up the supper dishes.
Rachel went downstairs and walked through the large living room. The hardwood floors gleamed with polish, but an old rug in front of the barren fireplace was worn, as was the furniture. This was her home. She just had to think of a way to hold on to it, despite the lawyer's dismal picture of her financial future.
She walked through the dining room, then into the kitchen. She stopped when she saw Cole standing at the sink, his sleeves rolled up and his hands buried in dishwater.
A blush quickly spread over her cheeks. She didn't want to deal with anyone tonight, especially Cole. For a second she wanted to turn around and flee, but she lost that chance when he glanced over his shoulder and saw her.
For a moment they just stared at each other. His gray eyes locked with hers and she couldn't seem to take a breath.
He cocked his head, causing his inky-black hair to fall across his forehead. "Well, don't just stand there, grab a towel."
She managed to snap out of her trance. "You shouldn't be doing those." She went to his side, surprised when he didn't step aside.
"It's not a problem," he said as he rinsed the flatware, and placed them in the dish drainer. "I discovered it's a good way to clean the dirt from under your fingernails. You can dry."