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An irritated whinny drew Callie Cummings's gaze to the barn, where a cowboy was backing a reluctant horse into the corral with a tight grip on its halter.
Callie caught her breath. It was Deck. She would have recognized that butt blindfolded.
Providing she could touch it.
Touch it. An automatic ping of lust passed through her. And why not? What woman with blood in her veins wouldn't respond to Declan O'Neill and his fabulous behind?
But she wasn't here to appreciate Deck's backside. Or his front side, for that matter, which also delivered. She was here to turn her father's failing dude ranch into a desert spa.
A daunting task for a Manhattan event planner, but Callie was determined to succeed.
She had no choice. Her father was counting on her. When he'd said he was afraid he'd have to sell, he'd sounded so heartbroken it had been like losing her mother all over again.
Callie stood poised on the bottom porch step with her bag. Eleven years hadn't reduced the tension between her and Deck. By unspoken agreement, they avoided each other during her frequent trips home. She could pretend she hadn't seen him and go in, but Deck was ranch foreman and they had to work together. Better to get the first awkward conversation over with.
Plunge into the hard part, that was Callie's way.
Dropping her bag, Callie took a steadying breath and marched toward the corral, her heart as jumpy as the horse Deck was wrangling, her feet wobbly in the kitten heels perfect for travel, but dangerously flimsy for the rocky desert ground.
You're not in Manhattan anymore.
For better or worse, she was home. The Arizona sun, warm enough that January was high season, toasted Callie'sscalp and arms. The familiar smellshorse and creosote, hay and woodmade her both homesick and miserable. She missed the place and she dreaded it, too. Mixed memories. Always.
Reaching the corral, she leaned on the fence, trying to look casual, taking Deck in. Tall and lanky with broad shoulders and long legs, he had an animal grace that used to make her melt just watching him walk.
He had all the good-cowboy traitshonor, loyalty, strength, stoicism, skilland none of the bad. He didn't chew tobacco or drink or cheat or gamble or act crudely or have bad hygiene. He smelled of Irish Spring and leather and cedar and sunshine. And the only thing ratty about him was his ancient Stetson, but that looked classy.
That was old news. Eleven years old.
Bound by the shared tragedy of losing a parent, they'd fallen into each other's arms for six incredible weeks their senior year.
"Hey, Deck," she called. Too late, she saw she'd snagged her silk sleeve on the rough wood and frowned.
"This is no place for silk, Callie. Or anything white." The crinkles at the edges of his sky-blue eyes deepened with humor. He looked rugged and knowing. And he was laughing at her.
Her cheeks warmed. "I just got here. Give me a minute to get grimy and start smelling like manure." She hoped she'd sounded amused, not snotty. She never got it right around him.
He just looked at her. What was in his eyes? Disapproval? Superiority? He hadn't been that way back then. Maybe she'd only assumed she'd understood him. The one thing they'd had in common was grief and need, after all. Now Deck seemed more guarded. On the other hand, when you had history, everything could mean something or nothing at all.
Deck's expression shifted like clouds in changeable weather, but remained unreadable. She felt another sexual zing.
Did he feel anything? Anything at all?
The horse whinnied and pulled back on the reins.
"You training a new horse?" she asked, glad for an excuse to break an eye lock that felt like arm wrestling.
"Yeah. This is Brandy. Cal bought her for his lady friend. I've been working her for a while." He ran his hand down the neck of the restless horse, who gave a ferocious snort. "Brandy's still too spirited for a beginner."
Her father's lady friend, his first since Callie's mother died, was Dahlia Mitford, whom Callie would meet for the first time today. She felt responsible for the woman, since she'd paid for the dating service, then prodded her father into using it. He'd hit the jackpot right out of the chute.
"Spirited? She looks demon-eyed with rage."
"She just needs a rider she can trust, don't you, girl?" Deck's voice seemed to send ripples of relaxation down the horse's body. He'd had the same effect on Callie those first awful days when she'd been frantic with sorrow, wild to escape her own skin.
Deck had saved her. Deck understood her pain, accepted it, having lost his dad to a brain aneurysm after a fall from a horse six months before her own mother's car wreck.
"So I hear you're sprucing up the place," Deck said, not looking at her, but slowing his hand on the horse, listening.
"That's understating it a bit."
"What do you mean?" His gaze lifted to hers.
"We'll be making some changes."
"This and that." She didn't want to get into the details right off the bat, but he clearly wanted more. "Updating the ranch house, adding a room annex, more casitas, adding amenitiesa pool, a spa, tennis courts. We're renaming it Rancho de Descanso."
"Rest Ranch? Is that a joke? The Triple C is a working cattle ranch."
The ranch had been named for her and her parentsCalvin, Colleen and Calissabut those days were done. "We're capitalizing on the trend toward experiential vacations with luxury. Desert getaways are hotthe good kind of hot."
"People come here to run cattle, to learn to rope and ride, to enjoy the desert, not to get facials and mud baths."
"Tastes change. We can't afford to get left behind." Wait until he heard she would be selling off the cattle.
"Sure, the place needs paint," he continued. "And I'll rebuild the porch as soon as Cal signs off on the supplies. I've been after him to buy some ads, since we run empty some weeks, but there's no need to turn the place inside out."
"Paint and ads won't cut it, Deck. This is high season and we've only got eight guests. We can handle thirty."
"Cal know about this?" he demanded.
Anger stung her cheeks. How dare he talk to her as if she were a kid taking the pickup without permission?
"We haven't gone over the details, but he trusts me. He asked for my help."
Deck paused. When he spoke his voice was softer, oil on troubled water. "Sorry. It's just that he's been tough to pin down on ranch issues lately, so I'm not sure what he wants."
"What do you mean?"
"He's gone a lot. Out of town. Not available. Frankly, if he'd been paying more attention, the ranch wouldn't be in the shape it's in and" He stopped himself. "Sorry. I'm just the foreman, not the boss."
"Exactly. And you haven't seen the books." The spreadsheet was a study in red. "The only place we haven't lost money is on the guests. I'm doing what has to be done. Be assured of that."
She'd sounded pompous and that wouldn't improve their rapport. "We can talk about all this later, Deck. For now, I can sure use your help." She managed a smile. The man knew the ranch as well as she knew her Brooklyn apartment. "I'll talk to Dad."
"That would be wise."
If she'd had hackles, they'd be on end and she'd be growling. Deck was so damn sure he was right, as if he'd already separated the chaff from the wheat, the worthwhile from the waste, and she should bow before his wisdom.
She opened her mouth to say, And who named you the Great and Powerful Oz? but was saved from making things worse by someone calling her name.
She turned. From the porch, a thin woman in a tie-dyed dress motioned wildly for her to come. "You're here! Come in!" Had to be Dahlia. Callie was startled to notice how young she looked. Her father hadn't mentioned that. "Get out of the sun before you wrinkle!" she called.
"Watch out for her teas," Deck said. "If she gives you a choice, take peppermint. The rest are nasty." His eyes lit with the mischief she'd loved back then, like he'd let her in on a great secret. He tilted his hat, dove gray and worn, but perfect on his head. "Good to have you back."
Instantly, she remembered that August night, her last before leaving for college. "Don't go, Callie." His voice had been rough with emotion. "Stay with me." He'd been drunk, but his words seemed dredged from somewhere deep.
Did he remember? Or had he washed it from his mind? Probably. You had to protect yourself. Certainly he'd learned that, too. They'd had the lesson young, after all.
"Thanks, Deck," she said. "It's good to be back." Sort of. She turned to go, feeling his eyes on her as she walked away. She tried not to wiggle on her flimsy heels.
The man was still sexy as hell. He made her nervous. He made her mad. He made her want him.
She hated that.
She turned her attention to Dahlia, who was dragging Callie's suitcase up the porch stairs, while two guests looked on from the porch.
Callie rushed over. "I've got it. Thank you." She had to yank the bag free of Dahlia's grip. At the top, Callie nodded at the man and woman playing cards and drinking lemonade in faded wicker chairs.
Those would have to go. Callie would replace all the furniture and redo the porch for sure. A glance at the log facade told her she was right. A new stain and fresh trim in something trendysay, umber?would do just fine.
The pots of flowers on either side of the door were new and bright. Dahlia's touch, she'd bet. The woman created beauty products and ointments from desert plants. Callie had said she'd consider them for the ranch's new spa.
Once they were inside, Dahlia yanked Callie into a bruising hug, then looked her over with bird-bright eyes. "I'm so, so glad to meet you." She smelled pleasantly herbal. If that was a sample of her creams, Callie liked it so far.
"I'm glad to meet you, too, Dahlia."
"You're as lovely as your pictures." Dahlia examined her face like an aesthetician with the blackhead remover. "I have the remedy for the bags under your eyes. In fact " She hurried to the registration counter to grab a large cellophane-wrapped basket, which she thrust into Callie's arms.
"My gift to you. One of everything. Face cream, body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, masque." She tapped each jar or tube as she named it. "I can't wait to work with you."
"I'll try them out and we'll go from there. And my dad ?"
"Catching his siesta. He gets so weary." Her father was a youthful fifty. She'd made him sound like a fragile old man. Close up, Dahlia looked midthirties, not that much younger. "I have tea steeping for us." Dahlia gestured toward the tucked-away Cummings family kitchen.
"Let me put my things away and check on Dad," Callie said, starting for the stairs with the overloaded basket of Dahlia's Desert Delights. She shifted her suitcase to one side so a couple and their young daughter could head down the stairs. They were chatting happily. When Callie was finished, the place would be lively with guests year-round.
Deck held his shit-eating grin in case Callie glanced his way again. She thought he was a smug asshole. No point in disappointing her. She wiggled away in her all-wrong outfit, her heels so fragile they'd snap in a knothole. She was too busy wrestling Dahlia for her bag to look back.
Meanwhile, Deck still reeled from the brain buzz and flood of lust he got whenever he saw her. When the ranch house door closed, he rested his forehead against Brandy's neck and blew out a breath.
What was it about her? No other woman gave him the thud in the chest, the hot knot in his gut, the below-belt ache. She was the first, the one that got away. Maybe that was it.
All she had to do was say his name, and his pulse kicked like a riled horse. Then he never failed to act like a dick. Which was why he avoided her when she was home. At least he hadn't let on how much he still wanted her.
Did she still want him? Unlikely. She got nervous and defensive around him, but Callie never looked back. She'd left Abrazo for Manhattan like she'd staged a prison break.
Brandy whinnied, so he led her a few yards into the corral with a firm hand, talking low. "Easy, girl. Settle. Steady does it." No way would the horse be ready for the sunset ride Cal had planned with Dahlia and Callie.
Deck usually bought all the horses for the Triple C, but Cal hadn't asked his advice on this spirited filly, which would be perfect for Callie, if she hadn't stopped riding back in seventh grade. Her horse, Lucky, died and broke her heart, though she would never admit that was the reason.
He trotted Brandy around the corral until she managed an easy lope, beginning to trust him. He led her out of the corral, closed the gate and took her for a quick ride across the rolling pasture before he brought her back to her stall and rewarded her with some oats. "Wish I could stay, but I have business inside," he said with a sigh.
He had to tell Cal Brandy wasn't ready, which meant another run-in with Callie. Deck needed to remind Cal of the planning and zoning hearing tonight, toothey both sat on the commission.
Taylor Loft, the police chief, was buttonholing commissioners to push through a tax exemption that coincidentally would save him thousands, since he'd started moonlighting as a developer. His father had been a decent chief, but Loft was a manipulative opportunist, who pissed Deck off every time he ran into him.
Because Callie went back to him? Could Deck be that small? With Callie around, he wasn't sure of anything.
"Wish me luck, girl," he said to Brandy, patting her rump before he headed toward the ranch house.
Instead of Callie and her dad, he found Dahlia alone in the Cummingses' kitchen. "Cal around?" he asked.
"Callie went upstairs to get him. She just got here."
"Yeah. I spoke to her. I can come back." He turned away.
"No. No. Let me get you some tea."
"No thanks, I'm just" The woman looked so nervous and desperate, he said, "Sure. Half a cup, I guess."
She handed it to him.
Praying for peppermint, he took a sip. Score. "Very nice."
"Sit, sit," she said, eager to entertain someone, it seemed. "So you saw Callie already? She's such a pretty girl."
"She is that," he said, sitting across the table from her. Which only made her more annoying.
"Calvin is so happy to see her."