The Cowboy She Couldn't Forget (Harlequin Romance Series #4387)

The Cowboy She Couldn't Forget (Harlequin Romance Series #4387)

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by Patricia Thayer

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One stolen kiss with a cowboy 

When Ana Slater's father is taken ill, she knows she can't look after The Lazy S Ranch alone. There is one man who can help. The cowboy she has found it impossible to forget—Vance Rivers. 

With the words "Work hard and hands off my daughters!" etched into his memory, Vance knew from the very

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One stolen kiss with a cowboy 

When Ana Slater's father is taken ill, she knows she can't look after The Lazy S Ranch alone. There is one man who can help. The cowboy she has found it impossible to forget—Vance Rivers. 

With the words "Work hard and hands off my daughters!" etched into his memory, Vance knew from the very beginning that Ana was strictly off-limits—no matter what! All he could do was ensure he was the best cowboy in Montana. 

But now, with Ana back on the ranch, the rules are set to change. And finally their chance at happiness might be just around the corner….

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Ana gripped a handful of the horse's mane, lowered her head and gave the animal its lead as she flew over the dew-soaked meadow.

She felt the sting of the cool Montana air against her cheeks, but didn't stop. If she did she was afraid she'd fall apart. And Analeigh Maria Slater was always composed and calm. She had to be. She was the oldest daughter, and since her mother's desertion, the responsibility of her younger sisters had fallen on her shoulders.

Finally reaching her destination, she slowed her horse. The buckskin mare was reluctant to end the run, but obeyed by the time they reached the old, dilapidated cabin. The place Ana had come to as a kid when she needed to be alone, or needed to think. When she needed to cry.

She climbed off, and her legs nearly gave out as she hit the ground. It had been a while since she'd ridden, and she'd pushed it hard today.

After tying the mare's reins to the post, she climbed the single step onto the sagging porch. Using her shoulder, she nudged open the weathered door and walked inside.

The cabin was just as dismal as she remembered. The one room was small, but serviceable. A sink and a water pump, a shelf overhead that still held canned goods. There was a set of bunks attached to the opposite wall, with filthy mattresses. The building would have been torn down, but her great-great-grandfather had built it when he'd settled in this area.

She walked to the one window and looked out at the view she loved. The lush meadow was green with new spring grass and wildflowers. She shifted her gaze to the side to see the Rockies, then in the other direction toward Pioneer Mountain and the national forest. In between were miles and miles of Slater land. Colton Slater's pride and joy, the Lazy S Ranch.

And at one time this ranch had been home to Ana and her three sisters. That had been a long time ago.

She brushed a tear from her cheek. But now with her father's emergency… Another tear followed. What was going to happen? What if Colt didn't survive?

She tensed at the sound of another horse approaching, then boots on the porch. She swung around, but didn't feel any relief on seeing the ranch foreman, Vance Rivers, stepping through the doorway.

The man was tall, with wide shoulders. Over the years, she'd caught sight of him without a shirt when he'd been digging fence posts. He'd earned the muscular chest and arms. Her gaze moved down to his flat stomach and narrow waist.

A black Stetson hid most of his sandy hair and shaded those deep-set, coffee-brown eyes that seemed to pierce right through her. She hated that he made her feel nervous and edgy whenever he got near.

"I figured I'd find you here."

"Now that you have, you don't need to hang around," she told him, and turned away. He had been the one who'd called her early this morning about her father's stroke. He also had been the one she found in the hospital room. Of course that was who her father would want with him. "Shouldn't you be at Colt's bedside?"

Vance had always hated that Ana Slater could make his gut twist into knots. All that thick ebony hair and flawless olive skin showed off her Hispanic heritage, but her brilliant blue eyes let you know she was a Slater. All he knew was the combination made a perfect package.

He drew a calming breath.

Ana had never liked him much. Too bad he couldn't feel the same about her. "It's you who needs to be there when he wakes up."

Vance watched as she straightened, her shoulders rigid.

"Look, Ana, you're the only family here to make the decisions."

He thought about the other Slater sisters, Josie, Tori and Marissa, scattered after college. Not Ana. She might have left the ranch, but only to move into town and take a counseling job at the high school. Close enough so she could come out and check on the old man. On occasion, she saddled a favorite mount and went riding.

Ana finally turned around to face him. He expected to see anger, but instead he saw sadness mixed with fear in her eyes. Again his body reacted. After all these years this woman still had an effect on him.

He thought back to the day Colt Slater had taken him in, twenty years ago. He'd been barely thirteen. The man gave him a place to live. Vance's first home. Slater had only two rules: work hard and keep your hands off his daughters. No matter how difficult, Vance had kept those rules.

"Do you really think Colt Slater is going to listen to me?" Ana asked. "Besides, I'm not even sure if he can hear me."

"That's why you need to be there. Talk with the doctor and find out what you need to do. A stroke doesn't always mean he can't recover." Hell, Vance had no idea what he was talking about.

She shook her head. "You should be there, Vance. Dad will want to see you."

Although Colt was as close to a father as he'd ever had, he couldn't overstep any more than he already had. Whether Colt knew it or not, he needed his daughters.

"No, he needs his family. You have to get your sisters back here and fast. It's way past time."

It was an hour later when Ana and Vance got the horses back to the barn. Then he'd driven her into Dillon to the hospital, where her father had been airlifted just after dawn that morning.

Ana stood in the second-floor waiting area. She'd just left a voice message for her baby sister, Marissa. Tori and Josie at least took her call. The twins told her to keep them informed, but didn't offer to fly in from California. Both had made excuses about their jobs. So that left any decisions about their father's care up to her. She couldn't blame them. How many times had Colt Slater overlooked, rebuffed and just plain ignored these girls?

"Miss Slater?"

Ana turned around and saw the neurologist, Dr. Mason, walking toward her. "Has something changed with my father's condition?" she asked anxiously.

"No, he's remained stable since he was brought in this morning, and the test results are encouraging. I'm not saying that the stroke didn't cause damage to his right side and his speech, but it could have been much worse. He was lucky he got to the hospital so quickly."

Ana was relieved and thankful to Vance, since he'd been with Colt. "Thank you, Doctor. That's great news."

"He's not out of the woods yet. He'll need extensive rehab to bring him back completely. We would like him to go to a rehab facility to help with improving his motor skills and his speech."

"Good luck with that," Ana said. "No one gets Colt Slater to do anything he doesn't want to do."

"Then you'd better start convincing him he needs this," the doctor suggested.

Before Ana could say any more the elevator doors opened and Vance stepped off.

As much as she hated that he was around, she knew if her father would listen to anyone it would be Vance. Sadness washed over her as she recalled the times Vance had gotten the one-on-one attention she and her sisters had begged for.

He strolled toward them with confidence; add in a little arrogance and you've got Vance Rivers, Ana thought.

"Ana. Doctor." He looked back at her. "Has something happened to Colt?"

"No, in fact it's better than I'd hoped." She went on to explain the doctor's rehab plan. "You need to get him to agree to go."

Vance just stared at her. "What makes you think I have any influence?"

"Well, he sure doesn't listen to me."

The doctor raised a hand. "When the time comes, whoever talks to Mr. Slater had better explain how important rehab is to his recovery." He said goodbye and walked away.

Vance wasn't sure why he was involved in this. He had enough to worry about taking care of the ranch. And he needed Colt's input on so many things. For one, he didn't know how to deal with the daughters.

"Look, Ana. You shouldn't have to handle this on your own. When are your sisters getting here?"

She shook her head. "They aren't coming back for a while."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said—they can't get home…right now. They want me to keep them informed."

Vance knew deep down that Colt had never been close with his girls. He more or less let Kathleen handle anything that had to do with the females. The housekeeper and one-time nanny had been with the family for over twenty-five years.

"Then let's go see Colt," Vance said. "For the first time ever, I'm hoping he's his usual cranky self."

Colton Slater blinked and opened his eyes, trying to adjust to the brightness. He glanced around the unfamiliar room. He saw the railing on the bed, heard the monitor. A hospital? What happened? He closed his eyes and thought back to his last memory.

It had been dawn. He'd walked out to the barn to feed the livestock. His arm had been hurt like a son of a bitch since he'd gotten out of bed; then he'd started to feel dizzy and had to sit down on a straw bale. Vance was suddenly beside him, asking him if he was okay.

No, he wasn't okay. Not when he woke up to find that he was in this bed with a needle in his arm, monitors taped to his chest. Worse, he couldn't move. What the hell was going on?

He tried to speak and the only thing that came out was a groan.

"Mr. Slater? Mr. Slater?" He heard a woman's voice. "You're in the hospital, Mr. Slater. I'm your nurse, Elena Garcia. Are you in pain?"

Again he could only groan.

"I'll give you something to help you."

Colt blinked and focused on the raven-haired beauty, and his breath caught. Seeing her heart-shaped face, those almond eyes, he sucked in a breath and opened his mouth to speak. "Luisa…" he whispered, then there was nothing.

Twenty minutes later, Ana walked into her fa-trier's hospital room. She held her panic in check on seeing the monitor and the IV connected to the large man in the bed.

She made her way closer. Colt Slater had always been bigger than life to her. The one-time rodeo star was nearly six feet tall, and muscular. The years of ranch work had kept him in shape. His brown hair was now streaked with gray, but even with the tiny lines around his eyes, he was still a handsome man. And she loved him. Maybe in his own way he loved her and her sisters, too. She felt a tear on her cheek and brushed it away.

"Oh, Daddy." She reached out and took his big hand, thrilled that it felt warm. She wanted another chance to get close to this man. Would he be around for that?

A nurse walked in and smiled. "Hello. It's good to see Mr. Slater has a visitor."

"How has he been?" Ana asked.

"He was awake not long ago."

Ana felt hopeful. "Really? Did he say anything? I mean, was he able to speak?"

Again the nurse smiled. "He said the name Luisa. Is that you?"

Ana gasped at hearing her mother's name. "No, it's not." She released her father's hand and hurried out of the room. Oh, God. He still wanted her mother. Ana couldn't stop the tears once she reached the visitors' room and found it empty. She finally broke down and began to sob.

Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder, then heard the familiar voice. She wiped her eyes and slowly turned around to see Vance. His dark gaze locked on hers and she saw the compassion. He didn't speak as he slowly drew her close. God help her, she went into his arms, letting his strength absorb the years of pain and hurt. She gripped his shirt and buried her face against his chest and sobbed.

Vance fought not to react to this woman. That was like saying not to take his next breath. Not to ache for something he'd wanted for so long and knew he couldn't have. Now, sweet Ana-leigh was in his arms.

The top of her head barely reached his chin, and it seemed every curve was pressed against him, tormenting him. He moved his hands over her back, feeling her delicate frame. She might feel fragile but she was far from it. He'd watched for years how she'd corralled her siblings, broke up fights, helped with school projects and even stood up to Colt for them.

He'd never seen her so broken as right now. "Hey, bright eyes, what's wrong? Is Colt worse?"

Vance reached in his back pocket, pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to her. She took it, but kept her head down. "C'mon, tell me," he coaxed. "Is it Colt?"

She shook her head.

"What's breaking your heart, Ana?"

She finally looked up at him. Her eyes welled with tears, her face was blotchy, but she looked beautiful. "He said her name."

Vance frowned. "Whose name?"

"My mother's. He said Luisa."

Vance wasn't shocked. "He's had a stroke, Ana. The man might be confused with the place and time."

She nodded, and as if she realized their closeness, she took a step back. "You're probably right. Sorry. It's just he hasn't said anything about our mother in years. I thought he'd gotten over her." She pointed to Vance's wet shirt. "I'll wash it for you."

Vance wondered if it was possible to wash her out of his head, his heart.

It had been a long day by the time Vance brought Ana back to the ranch. He drove up the circular drive and let her out of the truck. Then he took off toward the barn to check on the stock and the ranch hands.

Ana stood there and looked up at the large ranch house. It had been months since she'd been inside, but when the housekeeper, Kathleen, insisted she stay over tonight, she didn't have a choice.

She walked up the steps to the wraparound porch. Colt had built this house for his new bride, Luisa Delgado. It was well known about her parents' whirlwind romance, also about Lu-isa's disappearance twenty-four years ago.

Ana had been five years old at the time. She made herself remember the loving woman who'd hugged and kissed her little girls endless times. The woman who told those made-up bedtime stories, sat with her daughters when they were sick.

Not the woman who'd one day up and abandoned her family. All of them had been scared, including Colt. So much so, he couldn't even stand to be their father anymore. And today, Ana had realized he still wanted his ex-wife.

She walked through the front door. Everything was the same, including the large table in the entry, adorned with fresh cut flowers from Kathleen's garden. Ana glanced up at the open staircase with the decorative wooden banister, winding up to the second floor. She walked farther into the house, passing the living room. Two overstuffed leather sofas faced the river-rock fireplace. This was definitely a man's room. Her dad's office was next, then came the huge dining room with its high-back chairs and a table that could seat twenty. She moved on to her favorite room, the kitchen.

She smiled and glanced around to see the rows of white cabinets, which had been painted many times over the years to keep their high sheen. The countertops were also white, and the same with the appliances. The room was clean and generic. Long gone were any Spanish influences.

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