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Nostalgia struck Mitch Ryder with unexpected force as he drove the final miles toward home. He'd been out of the country and might have continued to stay away longer except his father had issued his fourth edictmore emphatic than previous onesto get home or else. The Ryders were cattlemen, having ranched in this particular area of Northern California since the gold rush. Mitch was expected to pull his own weight in the family business, something he hadn't done for three years now.
As he drove, Mitch drew a deep breath, letting the heat of midsummer fill his lungs, savoring the magnificent view. The landscape changed with almost every mileexcept for the spectacular sight of Gold Ridge Mountain, which was a constant, the centerpiece. The Red Valley surrounding it could be flat endless acres of hay or low grassy hills or orchards, all of it beautiful in its own way, but Gold Ridge Mountain dominated from every vantage point.
Nerves grabbed at Mitch as he neared the road leading to Ryder Ranch, gripped so hard he didn't make the turn but kept going. Twenty miles later, his gut finally unclenched, just before his truck coughed and lurched. "Are you trying to tell me something, Lulu?" he asked his prized old vehicle as she smoothed out. "I shouldn't have driven past the homestead?"
Mitch was only half kidding. He believed in omens. As a man who dealt with the realities every day of animals and often unforgiving land and weather, it probably seemed fanciful, but he'd learned to pay attention to his instincts, even if it was for something mechanical.
Like now. His truck coughed harder and lurched farther, signs of imminent death. He spotted the mailbox and private driveway of John "Barney" Barnard and turned in. Then Lulu died.
He checked his cell phone. No service.
Mitch didn't waste energy getting angry. He'd been asking a lot of the old girl to be in top shape after three years of neglect.
He started walking. The land looked different, less abundant, not the well-tended orchard it had always been. Barney's small, weathered house was blocked from view until Mitch got much closer, where the property looked better maintained, less of a jungle. Berry bushes stretched in orderly rows, and raised boxes held thriving plants, although the greenhouse was a dilapidated mess. Chickens pecked at the ground, ignoring him.
What had happened here? Barney had always been The front door opened, and out stepped a womanmaybe five-five, curvy, with long, blond hair pulled into a ponytail. Younger than him, he figured, but not by much.
"It's about time," she said, plunking her fists on her hips. "Did you get lost? Or go on a binge?"
"Um, no, ma'am," Mitch said, entertained. He wondered who she'd mistaken him for.
"You were supposed to be here yesterday. That's what you promised on the phone. Look around. You can see how much work there is to be done."
Mitch swept his hat off and brushed it against his thigh as he considered her. She looked anxious, and sounded desperate.
"Well?" she asked. "Are you going to take the job? Room and board, just like we discussed, and a small salary. I can't do more than that."
His whole body relaxed as he settled his hat back on his head and moved a little nearer to the house. Mitch took her offer as an omen and went with it. She needed a handyman, apparently, and he'd just realized he could use a little adjustment time himself before going home. Whatever his father wanted was not something he was anxious to learn. "I keep my word, ma'am."
"Please don't call me ma'am. It makes me feel old."
He'd gotten close enough that he could see she had eyes the color of the moss that grew on rocks by the stream he'd played in as a boy, a dark, rich green with bits of goldand annoyancegiving them some glitter. "What should I call you?"
"Annie. Annie Barnard." She stuck out her hand.
Mitch noted the dirt under her fingernails, the scrapes and scratches along her arms and hands. No wedding ring. He took a second, surreptitious, appreciative glimpse at her body. She would be a generous handful, that was for sure. He happened to like generous handfuls. A lot.
"Come on out and meet.. I'm sorry. I don't know your name."
"Mitch." He hesitated, waiting to see if she reacted to it. The Ryder family, generations of cattlemen, was well-known, but Mitch had been gone a long time, and this woman was a newcomer. When she didn't ask for his last name, he offered his hand to the boy standing beside her.
"This is Austin," she said. "He's ten. He's a great help."
The boy grinned, eyes the color of his mother's lighting up just like hers, his hair a shade darker blond and buzz-cut.
"Are you hungry?" Annie asked. "We were just sitting down to lunch."
"I could use a little something, thanks."
"Where's your gear?"
He hitched a thumb toward the road. "My truck broke down just as I arrived."
They entered the clean, cared-for house. Mitch hadn't been inside for years, but it looked pretty much the same as he remembered. Old, threadbare furnishings and rag rugs filled the space. Maybe the curtains were new. Framed photos scattered about were her own, but nothing else had her stamp on it.
"I'd like to wash up first," he said.
"Second door on the right."
He nodded his thanks and headed in that direction, wondering how any woman hired a guy off the street like that, without even knowing his full name, offering him a room in her house, trusting him around her sonand herself.
But then, he'd never been as desperate as she seemed to be. Maybe he would do all sorts of things not in the usual way if he found himself in the same straits.
He could give her a few days' help, give himself time to feel at home again. Win-win, he figured.
Annie Barnard let out a calming breath as she ladled chili into a bowl for the man, Mitch. No last name, apparently. It was fine with her. He'd come recommended, and they'd agreed she would pay him in cash anyway. What was one more risk?
"Did you run a background check on him, Mom?" Austin whispered.
Her ten-year-old knew way too much about the scary parts of life, Annie thought. "I'm a good judge of character, honey." The man spoke well, wore clean clothes, was freshly shaven. His dark brown hair had been professionally cut. And those brilliant blue eyes just plain ol' looked honest.
Most important, she needed help. Desperately. Right now. Even if it came from a one-named drifter with an unreliable truck and a strong, powerful body. He looked like he could manage the heavy lifting around her little farm.
Annie closed her eyes for a moment. She could not fail at this. She needed to be successfulfor herself, but especially for Austin. He was entitled to a stable home and good role models, more than she'd ever had. She'd grown up in a family where people didn't live in houses long enough to establish a home or keep jobs long enough to become a career. She wanted roots for herself and her son. And she loved her ramshackle farm.
Mitch took a seat where she'd set the bowl. She passed him a basket with saltine crackers. The meal wasn't fancy, but it was filling. Soon they would have fresh vegetables from their garden. Almost everything she'd canned or frozen from last year's slim crop was gone. They ate a lot of protein-rich beans.
"This is great," Mitch said. "Good and spicy."
"Thanks. We have it a lot."
"A whole lot," Austin added. "Sometimes she mixes spaghetti into it. I like that."
"Sounds tasty," Mitch said. "What's first on your list of chores, Annie?"
"I bought a new high tunnel greenhouse, so the old one needs to be disposed of. We can pile it somewhere until we can get rid of it."
"All right. Mind if I push my truck closer to the house first? I'm hoping I can fix what's wrong with it myself."
"I've got a tractor you can use to pull it. You can put it in the shed, out of the weather, if you want."
"That'd be great, thanks," Mitch said. "How long have you owned this place?"
"My ex-husband inherited it from his uncle two years ago. We decided to give it a try. He didn't take to being a grower, but I did." The truth was she'd fallen in love with the farm and out of love with him. And he'd fallen out of love with both.
"I'm going to visit him in San Diego before school starts," Austin said. "My first airplane ride. You ever been on a plane, Mr. Mitch?"
"Just recently, in fact. I was working at a cattle ranch in Argentina. Do you know where that is?"
"No. Can we look it up on the internet?"
"We can do that."
"Was it fun?"
"Yes, and hard work."
"You can question Mitch after supper, Austin. For now we need to get to work."
That brought an end to the conversation. Soon after, they went outside. Annie drove the tractor as Mitch and Austin walked alongside.
"Wow! Cool truck!" Austin said, running to it. "I've never seen anything like that."
"Her name is Lulu and she's a 1954 Chevy," Mitch said. "She belonged to my grandfather. He gave her to me on my sixteenth birthday, so I've had her a long time."
"She looks good."
"I love this old girl. I've taken care of her." He ran a hand over her fender affectionately. "Unfortunately she's been sitting in someone's garage for three years while I was gone."
Annie wondered what that large, competent hand would feel like against her own skin. When she'd first spotted him from her kitchen window as he walked toward her house, she'd been worried. She couldn't see his face, just the cowboy hat, solid belt buckle, tight jeans and bootsthe whole cowboy thing. She'd been ready to send him on his way. She needed help, but she didn't need anyone that good-looking, that tempting. Then he'd spoken respectfully and intelligently, including to Austin, and his appeal increased in a different way.
"Lulu's got five windows," Austin said as Mitch hooked up the tow chain from the tractor to the truck. "I've never seen that before. She kinda needs a paint job."
"Maybe someday I'll splurge for one. I'm fond of her flaws, though. I always think about my granddad when I drive her. Annie, would you like to steer the tractor or the truck?"
"I'll take the truck. I've never pulled anything that big." She hopped inside the spotless vehicle, noted a large duffel bag on the floorboard. He'd been gone a long time. Were these his sole possessions?
Mitch came up to the driver's window. "Put 'er in Neutral, would you?"
"Does the seat move up? I can't reach the clutch."
He opened the door, found a lever and held it while she slid the whole split-bench seat forward. He smelled good. Clean. Not like aftershave, but like a breath of fresh air among the farm smells.
"Where's Neutral?" she asked, feeling ridiculous, but the gear knob wasn't etched with a diagram.
"Step on the clutch. Excuse me." He reached across her lap and wiggled the gearshift. "That's it. Just keep her true and steady. I'll do the work."
It took him a couple of seconds to take his arm away. Her thighs were on fire where he touched them. No man had laid a hand on her for a very long time. Now this sexy stranger was going to be living in her house, sleeping in the room next to hers, using the same bathroom.
He shut the truck door and jogged up to the tractor, where Austin was sitting, already forming an attachment to the man. "You allowed to drive?" Annie heard Mitch ask her son.
He shook his head. If Austin said anything, Annie couldn't hear it. It'd been a bone of contention between them. He thought he was old enough. Maybe he was. Maybe she babied him too much, overprotected him. Farm life was different for kids. Several of his friends drove tractors already.
But Austin was likely the only child she would have, because she sure wasn't getting married ever again, so she probably clung to him too much. She would only have him for eight more years before he was a man, and she'd pretty much been mother and father to him since her ex left. If Austin really did get to fly to San Diego to visit his dad, Annie would be amazed, because he made a lot of promises he never kept.
At least Mitch didn't interfere. He told Austin to slide over, then squeezed himself next to her son. After the first jerk to get the chain taut, it was a smooth, slow ride into the shed. She wondered if the truck really could be fixed. How did he get parts for a nearly sixty-year-old vehicle?
"Is this home for you? The Red Valley?" she asked him as he crouched to unhook the chains from his truck. Austin had taken off with his dog, an Australian shepherd named Bo, who loved to chase the chickens, satisfying his herding instincts.
"Yep." Mitch moved to the tractor. Her gaze dropped to his rear as he crouched down again.
She could stare at that fine feature all day. The rest of him, too. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, slim hips. All man. She deliberately looked away. "Why were you in Argentina?"
Great. Now he'd decided to act more like a cowboy and go almost silent. "Cattle, you said."
"The opportunity came up. I went."
"Is your family still living in the area?"
"Yep. We're not estranged. I'm just kinda independent."
"Stubborn, you mean?"
He smiled at that as he stood, chains in hand. Using his wrist he tilted his hat back a little. His teeth were white and straight, his lips tempting. "Some have said so."
"So, you've worked cattle. Have you farmed?"
"I've picked up a lot of life skills along the way. I'm thirty-six, in case you're wondering."
"I'm thirty. In case you were."
He nodded but didn't comment. No flattery. No, "you sure don't look your age" compliment. Did she look older? Worn-out? Technically she should, since she was tuckered out from stringing her little farm along, hoping to turn it into a thriving enterprise again, needing to make enough money to live on with a few more comforts than they had now, which were pretty much nonexistent.
Mitch reached into the truck. "If I could stow my gear, I'll get started on the old greenhouse."
"I'll show you which room is yours," she said, walking beside him. "Austin, grab some gloves so you can help with the demo work. We'll be right back."
Annie led the way down the narrow hallway, pointing out Austin's room and her own, then Mitch's. It was beyond sparse, containing only a double bed, a dresser and a lamp.
"It's not much," she said, no apology in her voice.
"It's fine. Don't need more'n this. Thanks." He tossed his duffel on the floor next to the bed.
She moved into the doorway, blocking his exit. He cocked his head. His mouth curled up on one side.
"Ma'am?" he said politely, pointedly, his eyes taking on some sparkle.
"I'll be needing you to dump the contents of your bag onto your bed."
The smile left his face. He crossed his arms. "That would be an invasion of my privacy."
She moved into the room, shutting the door behind her in case Austin came flying in. "No. This would be your background check."