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From under his hat, Deputy Sheriff Harry Gowan surveyed the scene at the local steak house and bar in Rawhide, Wyoming. It was Friday, the second busiest night in town. And he was in charge of keeping the peace.
His roving gaze stopped when it lit on a young woman sitting at a table in the center of the room. She didn't look like an inhabitant of Rawhide, with her short, spiky brown hair and that bright red lipstick on her pouty lips. Still, she was beautiful...and she was alone.
He strolled over to her table. He had no objection to strangers in his town, and besides, as an employee of the city, wasn't it part of his job to make people feel at home in Rawhide?
"Evening, ma'am," he said, tipping his hat. "I suspect you might be new to town. If there's anything I can do to help you enjoy your stay, please let me know."
The young woman smiled at him and he was struck by her beautiful blue eyes. "How nice of you. I could use a dance partner," she said, looking expectantly at him.
Now Harry was embarrassed. He fought the urge to back away. "Sorry, ma'am, but I can't dance with you."
"Why not...Sheriff?" she ventured.
"Deputy," he clarified, nodding at the badge on his chest. "I'm on duty, and dancing isn't in the deputy manual. The sheriff would fire me if he caught me. Besides, I'm a really lousy dancer," he confessed. "But I can get you a partner."
Without waiting for her consent, he turned and headed for the bar, where a few cowboys had their boots propped up on the foot rail. "Hey, Josh," he called out to a friend. "I've got a favor to ask."
"There's this knockout looking for a dance partner. I told her I'd find her one."
Josh broke into a smile. "Lead the way. I haven't met a real knockout in a while." He put down his beer and followed Harry across the room. "Where is she?"
"Right there," Harry said, pointing toward the center table.
Josh came to an abrupt halt. "Wait a minute. You don't mean that siren sitting by herself, do you?"
Harry let himself look at the woman. "Who else? She's something, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she's something, all right, but I won't be dancing with her."
Harry stared at his friend as if he'd lost his mind. "Why not?"
"Cause I don't dance with my cousins, Harry."
"People would think I was crazy...or weird."
"She's a Randall?" Harry stared at the woman. "No, she can't be. I know all the Randalls!"
"She's been living in France since before you came to Rawhide. She's Uncle Griff's daughter."
"What are we going to do? I promised to find her a partner."
Josh surveyed the room. "There's Dwight Barnes. He's a dancer."
"Yeah, but..." Barnes wouldn't be Harry's first choice but he'd do. "Okay, you go get him while I tell her he's coming."
Harry walked back to the table where the young lady sat sipping a beer. "I didn't know you were a Randall."
"Aren't Randalls allowed to dance?" she asked, her eyes teasing.
He bit back Josh's retort, saying instead, "Your cousin Josh went to get a guy to dance with you—Dwight Barnes. I just wanted to tell you not to go outside alone with him." When she seemed taken aback by his warning, he hurriedly said, "Dwight's a good dancer, but... Well, you don't know him, so I thought I should say something."
"Thanks for the warning, Deputy," she said sweetly,
"but I do know how to handle men."
"Then my apologies," Harry said, and tipped his hat, prepared to walk away.
"Wait," she said at once. "You haven't told me your name." She fluttered her thick lashes at him.
"I'm Harry Gowan, deputy sheriff."
"Nice to meet you, Harry Gowan, deputy sheriff." She flashed him a brilliant white smile, momentarily stunning him. He was about to ask her name when Josh strode up, the dancer cowboy following.
"Hey, Melissa, this is Dwight Barnes."
"How nice to meet you, Mr. Barnes," Melissa said. Harry watched her flutter those same lashes at Barnes and was pleased to see that he wasn't the only man who melted at her feet.
He guessed Ms. Randall was telling the truth. She did know how to handle men.
MELISSA RANDALL RETURNED to her parents' house at
11:00 p.m., an incredibly early hour if she were still in Paris. It was even early in Rawhide, Wyoming, on the weekend.
Her parents were waiting up for her, making her feel more like an eighteen-year-old than a twenty-six-year-old who had lived abroad for six years.
"Hello, dear," her mother said with a smile. "Did you have fun?"
Melissa debated how to answer that question. She loved her mother dearly and didn't want to hurt her feelings, but Paris was so much more exciting than Rawhide. "Uh, yeah, it was all right."
Griff Randall eyed his daughter a bit sharply. "Did you meet anyone new?"
"Dwight Barnes?" he blustered. "You need to keep away from him!"
"I know," Melissa said.
Her mother frowned. "What do you mean by that? Did he do something he shouldn't have?"
"No, but the deputy sheriff warned me about him."
"Which deputy sheriff?" her father demanded.
"You mean Rawhide has more than one?" Melissa asked in mock awe.
"That's enough of that, young lady," he retorted.
"Now tell me his name."
"Harry Gooden, I think."
"And I think that would be Harry Gowan."
"Oh. Well, I was close."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate that," her father said, letting his sarcasm show.
"Dad!" Melissa protested, dragging the word out as a teenager would do.
"And here I thought our daughter had grown up."
"Griff, you're being too hard on her. She just got back the other night. She probably still has jet lag," her mother protested.
"That's her own damn fault, Camille. She lives too far away from home. This is her first visit in six years!"
"But you and Mom came to see me. Wasn't that fun?"
"It was for me, sweetheart," her mother immediately said. "But these past four years have seemed like forever."
"I know, Mom, and I intended to come home before now, but—but I got busy and—"
"And then there was Pierre," Griff growled.
"You told me you liked him!" Melissa protested.
"That was before I knew he was your lover!"
"Griff!" Camille protested at the same time. Before Melissa could say anything else, her mother added,
"You promised, Griff."
"I know, but she asked!"
"Both of you, go to bed. I can't handle the arguments this late at night!" Camille said in exasperation.
Both father and daughter, so much alike, immediately said they were sorry. Camille accepted their apologies but insisted she was heading to bed, and Griff immediately agreed to join her. They both kissed their daughter good-night and left the kitchen together.
Melissa stood there, thinking about one of the things she'd missed in her glamorous life in Paris. It was seeing how much her parents loved each other and remained faithful to one another no matter what.
She didn't know any older married couples in France. Still, she was pretty sure that a marriage like her parents' wasn't normal anywhere. Her father wasn't about to let his wife go to bed without him, especially when he was afraid she was still a little mad at him.
Melissa found a smile on her lips and warmth in her heart as she thought about her parents' love affair. Even while growing up, she'd noticed their devotion to each other. She'd never had any doubt about their faithfulness. As an adult, she realized how unusual it was, though she knew her dad would just tell her it was a Randall trait.
Melissa really wasn't sleepy, but she strolled to the room that had been hers before she'd gone to France. The move had been a hard-fought battle, one she hadn't thought she could win. She couldn't have without her mom's backing. But Melissa had done so well in French in her first two years of college that her professor had helped convince her mother to let her live in France for one semester.
And she'd never come home.
When she'd asked her mom what she'd like for Christmas, her mother had simply said, "For you to come home for the holidays."
Melissa couldn't say no to her. Camille was such a sweet, gentle person. But she was also a fighter. When she realized how much Melissa had wanted to go to France, she'd fought hard for Griff's approval. There had been several days when Camille wouldn't even speak to her husband.
Melissa owed her mother big time.
HARRY WAS PUMPING IRON, his muscles straining under
the two-hundred-pound bar. He'd just finished a half hour on the treadmill, set at a steep incline, and he was still sweating. But he needed it. The workout center had been added on to the Sheriff's Office several years ago. When Mike Davis had become sheriff, he'd wanted his men to be in good physical shape so that using a firearm was not their first thought when subduing a lawbreaker.
Mike had asked the Randalls if they could get together with other ranchers in the area to contribute a modest sum for a couple of weight machines. The Randalls, who never did anything in a small way, had showed up at his door the next morning to begin remodeling the storeroom into a first-rate workout facility.
In gratitude, Mike had opened the facility to all the men in town as long as his staff had dibs at certain times of the day. Right now only Harry and his partner, Steve Lawson, were working out, spotting each other.
Harry had just returned the heavy bar to its stand and sat up, sweat dripping from his brow, when a sweet voice asked from the doorway, "Is Harry Gowan in here?"
Steve whirled around, almost losing his balance. "Lady, this is a men's facility. You can't come in here!"
With a pouty smile that Harry recognized at once, Melissa Randall said, "Well, technically, I haven't come into the room. Oh, hi, Harry," she said, her smile widening as she saw him turn to face her.
Harry was wearing a pair of shorts and nothing else.
Now he wished he had a T-shirt or a towel nearby so he could cover up a little. "Hello, Melissa. I'm afraid I'm not dressed for company. If you'll give me a minute, I'll be right out."
"Oh, I don't mind," she said, her smile increasing as she took in the sight of his muscled chest.
"Yeah, but I do. I'll be right with you."
Conceding gracefully, Melissa fluttered her fingers in a wave as she stepped back and let the door shut again.
Steve stared at his partner. "Who was that? I've never seen her before."
"I hadn't either until last night," Harry said, grabbing a towel and drying himself off.
"You must've had a good night."
"Not like you're thinking. I just met her, that's all."
"I meant it, Steve, and I'd better not hear you spreading any gossip about her." Harry added a glare to convince his partner.
The man backed away. "I wouldn't, Harry, I promise, but she is really hot."
"Yeah, she's also a Randall." He pulled on his sweat pants.
"A Randall? I thought I knew all the Randalls by now."
"She's been living in France for the past six years." He belted his gun holster at the small of his back and pulled on a sweatshirt that covered it.
Steve was still standing there with his mouth open. "What's the matter? You've never heard of France?" Harry teased.
"I've never heard of a Randall being in France," Steve replied.
"Me, neither, but I guess wonders never cease."