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Zane Cantrell was looking for a woman. And not just any woman.
As a Texas Ranger, he'd made a career of either tracking or protecting men, women and sometimes even children. But this time it was different. This time it was personal.
His gut twisted and his jaw tightened. He wasn't a Ranger anymore; still, following her to this small town of Mule Hollow had been the easy part.
Facing her that was where the hard part would begin.
Hearing his name, Zane turned just in time to see a giant of a man emerge from Sam's Diner. A broad smile spread across the man's chiseled features. Given the gold star pinned over his heart and the fact that only one person knew he'd been due to arrive in town late last night, Zane took this to be Sheriff Brady Cannon.
When Zane had called inquiring about a job, the sheriff had surprised him by hiring him as deputy within minutes. Of course he'd been officially checked out and no doubt the background check had revealed his storyat least most of it. The sheriff didn't know about Rose. Didn't know that Zane had more reasons than just a bum leg to take early retirement.
"Sheriff Cannon?" Zane said, extending his hand for a brisk shake.
"Glad you made it. I see you found the apartment all right."
A funny statement, since there were only two intersecting streets. Zane's mood eased with a feeling of finding a kindred spirit in his new boss. "I didn't have too much trouble," he said.
"It's not exactly Corpus, is it?"
One side of Zane's mouth lifted. "Not by a long shot."
Only seven hours separated the two places, but they seemed worlds apart. However, his leg injury required frequent stops to walk and stretch therecovering tendons. Because of that it had taken him eleven hours. He'd arrived in town shortly after ten, long after the streets had been rolled up. In Corpus, the nightlife would have just been getting started. He doubted the police here had much going on at any time of the day.
"Thanks for locating the apartment for me. You didn't have to do that, but I appreciate it." He glanced behind him at his new home over Mule Hollow's only real estate office. That it had twenty steep steps was a painful blessing Zane welcomed. Every step would help him heal more quickly.
"I'm the one who should be thanking you," Brady was quick to counter. "Having a man with your credentials call up out of the blue looking for a job, especially when I'm in need of helpit goes without saying that I'm pleased." He chuckled. "And my wife insists you're a godsend. Come on, let's go around the corner to the office."
A godsend. Zane could only pray that God was directing his steps here.
Rose Vincent lived here.
And that was Zane's only reason for coming. Plain and simple.
Falling into step with his new boss, he surveyed the tiny town in the daylight. "I don't believe I've ever seen such a colorful place." Each building along Main Street was painted a different color. The feed store was yellow, the diner grass-green and across the street was a pink hair salon among a row of equally bright buildings. When he'd walked down the stairs that morning and seen the town in the light of day for the first time, he'd been startled. But he'd adjusted, liking the idea of Rose living in a place that looked so happy. Especially after learning about the years she'd had between then and now. The time she and her son had spent in hiding, struggling and alone, because he'd failed her. It was a small comfort to know she'd found this place. He owed this town a debt of gratitude.
Brady's expression warmed. "The people are just as colorful. You won't find a better group of folks. The pace around here is pretty slow, but with all the festivals and weekend traffic we've started attracting, it can get wild sometimes. Keeps me busy and me and my wife have got a baby on the way so I really need the extra help."
"I'm glad to be of help," he said, and knew he meant it.
"So how's the leg?" Brady asked.
They turned the corner at the end of town, their boots clicking on the plank sidewalk. Though he could usually hide the weakness, the sound of his boots hitting the wooden planks accentuated the limp. "It's coming along." He'd been up front about his healing process from the injury that had almost killed him. He'd already assured Brady before taking the job that he was on the road to a full recovery. That was all the talking he planned to do. However, that wasn't what had Zane's answer stuck in his throat as they approached the sheriff's office. It was the color of the law enforcement headquarterschocolate brown with It couldn't be.
Rose trim on a sheriff's office just wasn't right. Then again, maybe it was red and he simply had Rose on his mind. The thought of being this close to her again after all these years had his attention distracted beyond repair. Almost as much as Zane feared their ability to reconcile the past would be.
Brady glanced over his shoulder and chuckled. "You'll get used to it. The ladies came up with the color scheme."
"That's a relief," Zane said, forcing a grin as he followed Brady inside the office. Paint was the last thing he was going to have to get used to in this new life. But if he could make things right by Rose then he'd be satisfied. It was a lot to ask of her. During his recovery, though, he'd realized he had to try. God had given him time to make things right God had given him a second chance and he was taking it.
"So everything is here?" Rose Vincent asked, eyeing the packages spread out across the counter of Pete's Feed and Seed.
"Goggles. Two pair. Just like you wanted," the robust store owner said, pulling them out of the stack. "Two thick work shirts. One for you and one for Max. Leather work gloves, bandanas and a pair of size-seven boots."
It was all here. "I just feel giddy, Pete. This is so thrilling. Not to mention I now own a pair of cowboy boots!"
Pete shook his head and grinned. "Greenhorns Oh, I almost forgot." He pulled two small canisters from the shelf behind him and set them on the counter. "You don't want to forget your blowtorches."
Rose laughed. She couldn't help it. "Max cannot wait to get his hands on those. Thanks so much for showing him how to use them correctly."
"It's a guy thing and he didn't need much teaching. Y'all are gonna do real good with this venture, Rose."
She took a deep breath and started stacking the boxes. Her heart was bursting with emotions she couldn't put into words. If Pete only knew what it had taken for her to get to this point in her life. A life that hadn't turned out anything like she'd envisioned it. And yet despite everything that had happened to her, she'd come to realize that she was finally happy.
More important, Max was happy. Her son was so excited about the new business they were starting together even if it was selling jelly. The idea made her smile. Her grandmother's wonderful jelly recipe was the perfect foundation with which to build their new future. God rest her soul; she'd always wanted the best for Rose.
Her heartstrings tugged as always when she thought of her grandmother. Oh, how she missed her. "I'm going to bring you my first jar of prickly pear jelly."
Pete rubbed his belly. "I can hardly wait. Let me carry these packages out to your car for you."
"Oh, no, you don't," she said. "I can get this. You have better things to do and I have two capable arms." She proved it by scooping the stack of boxes into them.
"I don't feel right about you carryin' all that," Pete grumbled, leaning across the counter to balance the top boxes as they teetered.
"That's because your momma raised you right. But really, I've got this. You have feed orders waiting to be filled, so go on and take care of that and stop worrying about me."
He didn't look convinced, but didn't push the issue as Rose headed for the door. She'd learned a man with manners was a wonderful thing, but she wasn't one to get used to such things. She glanced back to reassure him. "You have a great day," she called. Her excitement about the boxes in her arms had her quickening her steps toward the door. Max was waiting at home, eager to start their first fruit harvest.
It was amazing, through years of bitter disillusionment, betrayal and a broken heart God had led her and Max hereto this new life they were starting today. She'd never felt so exhilarated or optimistic about her life. She was practically singing as she stepped out into the bright sunshiny day.
And straight into a wall of a man!
"Whoa, there," he rumbled from behind the grass separating them.
Rose froze. That voice!
Shock washed over herif it hadn't been for his strong hands holding her up, her knees might have buckled beneath her. Dazed, she looked over the packages into the eyes of a two-legged skunk.
Her name coming from Zane Cantrell's lips was like the rock slamming through her heart.
"Zane," she managed. Zane was the last person she'd ever expected to meet on the streets of Mule Hollow. The last person she'd ever wanted to meet anywhere ever again! "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I, well, I moved in last night."
His eyes, his unforgettable, gold-dust eyes, leveled on her as the words moved in hit home. Her eyes widened.
"I'm the new deputy in town."
"Deputy" She yanked from his touch. Fought to appear calm. Fought to appear casual. Fought not to notice how good the years had been to himthat he was as handsome as she'd remembered and just as rugged. His cheekbones were more prominent, his jaw harder, his lips Her mouth went dry. "You're living here?" she repeated. Repeated, as though he hadn't just said it loud and clear.
He nodded, probably thinking she'd lost her mind in the years since they'd had their since their paths had crossed. Humiliation swamped her and she felt her cheeks heat as her past opened like a yawning black hole and threatened to swallow her. For a brief instant she almost welcomed the refuge fainting would give her. But weakness wasn't an option. Weakness was a weapon that she'd sworn no one would ever use against her again.
He jerked his head to the right. "I moved into the apartment up there."
Her gaze followed his to the apartment above the real estate office. It was directly across the street from the dress store where she worked!
Rose wasn't a good enough actress to hide her shock. "I see." No, I don't, she silently said. What are you doing here?
"It's been a long time, Rose. How are you?"
How are you? After all they'd been through and all that had happened between them What kind of question was that? This man had torn her world apart and now he wanted to make small talk! Her insides rolled. "Fine," she blurted. "Mule Hollow is a great place." How was she chatting when she wanted to throw up? Pass out. Run.
"That's what I hear," he said, his gaze searching hers. "Here, do you want me to take those for you?"
"No!" she exclaimed, and jerked away. Experiencing his touch again was the last thing she wanted. She was amazed she didn't drop her packages. More amazed she didn't throw them at him.
"II really need to be going. I have to get to work. But I'm sure we'll see each other again. This is a small town."
Too small for the both of them, she thought, angling past him.
"That's what I'm counting on."
She managed a nod, then hurried across the street to the dress store. She was off today, but she'd forgotten momentarily that her car was parked in front of the feed store. Her only thought was getting away. She wasn't sure how her legs held her up, but she made it across the street and to the door.
"Hang on," she growled under her breath. Her hand shook violently as she grasped the doorknob, wrestled with her packages and at the same time somehow got inside. She kicked the door closed just as her arms turned into noodles and the boxes toppled to the ground. Struggling to breathe, she fell against the wall and fought to regain some sort of control. It was a hard thing to do when everything she cared about was now at risk.
Zane Cantrell was here.
Zane watched Rose disappear inside Ashby's Treasures. He wasn't certain if he'd been right in coming here, but one look into her midnight-blue eyes told him he'd done what he needed to do. He wasn't surprised that she hadn't been glad to see him. He was trained to read people, but it hadn't taken a trained eye to see that he'd upset her. An expected reaction, considering the likelihood she hated him.
And with reason.
What are dreams made of?
Standing in the center of the pasture surrounding her newly acquired home, Rose smiled despite the turmoil she was feeling since seeing him that morning. Not many would say their dreams were made of ugly, purple, egg-shaped fruit. But that was exactly what Rose's dreams were made of. Delicious prickly pear fruit.
The house was old and the pastures were overrun with huge prickly pear cacti. To the town it looked about the most useless of any land the Lord had ever created. But that was precisely the reason she'd saved and worked to buy this particular piece of property. These heavily laden plants, whose beautiful yellow flowers had given way to the ugly fruit, were a thing of beauty. They were her field of dreams.
She and Max had arrived in Mule Hollow on a bus loaded with other women relocating from a burned-down women's shelter in L.A. They'd come with the hope that the small town and the new women's shelter might be the answer to their prayers.