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Martie pushed open the screen door to the house. When she heard it swing shut, she turned around, blinking against the subdued interior light. For a moment all she could see was a silhouette again: the tall man, lean and wiry—and very disturbing with his quiet air.
"There's coffee on in the kitchen," she motioned to the left of the huge parlor. "If you'll go ahead and help yourself, I'll, uh." She paused, glancing down at her ripped shirt in explanation. "I'll be right with you."
He stepped past her and Martine watched his shoulders, broad and taut beneath his cotton shirt, until he disappeared past the swinging door. Then she sighed and looked about the room.
It was beautiful. The ranch house was more than a hundred years old; it had originally been built by French trappers then was refurbished as a cathouse in the gold rush days. It had maintained a stately elegance anyway, and though every generation had added on and modernized in one way or another, it was still an old-fashioned and gracious place. In the back of the house, past the French doors that led to the office and bedrooms, was a game room as vast as the parlor. From the game room the view was a very modern one. Wall-to-ceiling glass looked out onto the pool and a barbecue and patio that could accommodate several hundred guests.
If she could ever afford a hundred guests, Martine thought bitterly. Parts of the ranch might not have changed much in a century, but times certainly had for her. She sighed. Then she forced herself to forget about the house for a minute and turn down the right hallway to enter her bedroom.
In the bathroom she repeatedly splashed her face with cool water, then pressed a cold cloth to her cheeks. What had it all been for? she wondered wearily. She was grateful to Kane Montgomery—whoever he was—but what good had any of it been? She might have gained a few more hours with his help, but she had lost. Even if the ranch didn't belong to Ken Lander now, it would by tomorrow morning.
She sighed, quickly grabbed a T-shirt from her drawer and, with an oath of fury, tore her ruined shirt to shreds. She then flung it into the wastebasket.
Oh, but this whole damned thing was incredible! If only she'd been born a male. She might have lost the ranch, but she'd have never found herself in the predicament she'd been rescued from. The Perils of Pauline indeed!
Kane Montgomery, she reminded herself, was sitting in her kitchen. She quickly grabbed a brush to run through her tangled hair, then left her bedroom behind, surprised that she felt a little breathless, that her heart seemed to be pounding too fast.
He was there. She saw him as soon as she passed through the swinging doors. He was leaning against the counter, staring out the window to the eastern fields. She knew he heard her, but he took several seconds to leave his vigil and turn to face her. To her surprise, she found herself the object of his thorough scrutiny. His strange tawny gold eyes moved over her from head to toe, very slowly. Annoyed that a blush was rising to her cheeks, Martine hurried into the room, passing him on her way to the refrigerator. He didn't touch her, but his scent lingered, a scent of leather and horses, fresh soap and ... something else. He wasn't wearing after-shave, but there was still something pleasant and appealing.
"Ah, you said bacon and eggs, right?" Martine inquired, reaching into the refrigerator to find the desired foodstuffs. It was just him, she realized, trembling a little. His scent ... It was just him, very clean and very male.
Not "Right, thank you," or "Right, if you don't mind," just "Right." Martie reached for the bread, too, and brought the things to the counter. He watched her, then left his position at the counter to sit on a chair at the kitchen table. She felt a little odd with her back to him and wondered at the wisdom of asking the man into her house. Beyond a shadow of doubt Ken Lander would have raped her. But had she been saved from a rapist only to find herself in more trouble? No, surely not! But—Kane Montgomery was dangerous. That fact, too, left no room for doubt.
"How would you like your eggs?" she asked as she turned to face him, not so much because she cared as because she wanted to see what he was doing. He was sitting, leaning back in the chair, idly smoking a cigarette while he watched her. He had taken off his hat and tossed it onto an empty chair, and she could see that his hair was Indian black, without a streak of gray. She couldn't tell if his age was closer to thirty or forty, only that it wouldn't matter to him. He seemed to consider himself a law unto himself. He probably had for quite some time. He wasn't handsome in a conventional way, but his features were fine and strong, with a fascinating appeal. To soften the hard line of his bronzed jaw, there was a small cleft in the center of his chin. He had dimples, too, when he chose to smile. His hair parted at the side but fell slightly over his forehead; she was willing to bet it annoyed him when he was busy. That sleek darkness contrasted sharply with the tawny gold brilliance of his keen eyes, making them appear like those of a cougar, always wary and dangerous.
"Scrambled will be fine," he told her. She gave him a little smile and turned back to her work, reaching over the counter for a bowl in which to scramble the eggs. The bacon she decided to stick in the microwave. She didn't ask him if he minded; she just did it, certain that he would want his bacon fried.
She jumped when he spoke again.
"Want to tell me about it?"
"What?" she asked, spinning around.
He grinned, and when he did, she saw that he had white, even teeth. And his features didn't look quite so hard or craggy; they were really very nice, just set with his own brand of determination. "I said, do you want to tell me about it? To the most undiscerning eye, Ms. Galway, this is not your usual situation. What's going on here?"
She turned back to the counter. "You mean Ken Lander?"
"If he's the pretty boy that I suggested leave your property, then, yes, I mean Ken Lander."
She looked at him again just as he was leaning across the table to crush out his cigarette in the ashtray. He had expected her to turn; his tawny eyes were sharp as he gazed at her.
She shrugged. "It's rather obvious. I was in financial trouble. The banks didn't want to touch me. He offered me a loan that I believed I could pay.... I couldn't."
"So he wanted his ounce of flesh?"
She was annoyed to see that one black-as-ink brow was raised at her a little skeptically. "That's the story," she answered sharply, spinning around to attack the eggs with a fork.
"In a nutshell anyway."
Martine turned on the gas, set the skillet on the stove, and almost sent the eggs flying out of it by tossing them in with vehemence. She didn't care. She pirouetted cleanly again and strode to the table with her hands on her hips.
"Who are you—and what is all this to you?"
He laughed, and she decided that he was closer to thirty than forty—just very, very sure of himself.
"I told you—"
"Yes, yes, that your name is Kane Montgomery. But you're asking a lot of questions for a man who seems to have tripped into being a hero, is anxious for breakfast—and nothing else."
He stood, then touched her shoulders to step past her and rescue the burning eggs. "I'm looking for a job," he told her. "I hear your foreman's laid up with a broken leg. You could use me. And since I did happen to trip into being a hero, I think that out of common courtesy you might want to offer a few explanations."
Martine dropped into the chair he had vacated, suddenly so weary and frustrated that she picked up his coffee cup and sipped it without thinking about her action. "You've really got the only explanation. I've known Ken Lander a long time. I've never trusted him; he's always resented the Galways. But I thought I could pay the loan. And I could have if my cattle hadn't gotten sick," she muttered fiercely, closing her eyes with the painful memory. It had been a strange and isolated outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. Isolated, of course, because between her and the government, they hadn't allowed it to spread. But it was strange because it was a viral disease that had suddenly—out of the clear blue—attacked only her cattle. It had been a nightmare for her, watching the cattle sicken, finding herself quarantined, discovering that a good portion of the herd had to be put to death, and then working around the clock to disinfect the entire ranch.
That, at least, was in the past. Martine opened her eyes and shrugged. "I can't give you a job," she told him. Surely that had to be as obvious as everything else. "You might have bought me a few hours, but I don't own this place anymore."
The eggs were done. Without asking, he searched quickly through the cabinets and brought out two plates. Martine frowned as she followed his movement. He pulled the bacon out of the microwave next and divided the food neatly.
"I'm not hungry," she said, but the plate clattered to the table in front of her anyway.
"I've got this strange feeling you haven't eaten this morning," he told her, "and that isn't any way to run a ranch."
Martine sat back and folded her arms over her chest, smiling with exasperation. "Mr. Montgomery, you do not look at all daft, nor do you seem to be hard-of-hearing. I told you, I don't own this place anymore."
He pulled out the chair next to her and sat, pushing a fork and napkin her way. "Hey, get another cup and the coffee, will you? You drank mine."
With a vast sigh—and not at all sure whether to be angry or amused—Martine decided to comply. She poured herself a cup of coffee and refilled his.
"Have you got any juice?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact," she replied a little tersely, "I do."
She brought the juice and said sarcastically, "anything else? Champagne, caviar? I'm afraid I'm out."
His fingers wound around her wrist, and she glanced down at them. They were as bronzed as his face, as lean as his long, hard body. The nails were clipped, clean, and neat. His palm and his fingertips were calloused; they were the hands of a man accustomed to work.
But then she had known that he was accustomed to physical activity; it was in the way he moved, confident and secure at all times.
"Sit down," he said.
She pulled her hand away, staring at him a little deliberately. He was nothing but a drifter, she tried to tell herself. She would not be intimidated by him.
She sat, determined to be amused by the interlude. God knew she could use some amusement. The rest of the day promised only nightmares.
Kane Montgomery had no problem eating. He consumed half his food, then persisted with his questioning. "Tell me more about this thing between you and Lander."
Martine lifted her hands in a gesture of weary annoyance. "I've told you the whole story! It's as simple as what I said and what you saw."
Kane took a sip of his coffee, watching her over the rim of his mug. Then he said, "Lady, that man has a grudge against you, not your family. What did you do to him?"
"Me?" Martine said angrily. "I never did a damn thing to him! Ken Lander hates everyone in this valley, but no one was ever cruel to him. His father was a useless drifter, but everyone around here took Ken in when he was a boy. And then he didn't need any help. He saved up some money and started buying everything in sight—whether the owners wanted to sell or not."
Kane sat back, drumming his fingers on the table. "Sounds like he's got a bit of a social problem."
"If you want me to feel sorry for him, forget it!" Martine exclaimed. "He grew into a cruel and avaricious man. And worse." She paused, staring down at her coffee cup. "A friend of mine almost committed suicide because of him."
She looked up at him. He appeared intensely interested, and she shrugged. "Her name is Susan. She was always crazy about him, and somewhere along the line he decided he wanted her. Susan was a nice kid. A little sheltered probably. Anyway, she eventually moved in with him. I don't think he actually beat her, but he tossed her around like winter wood. She stayed like a fool, because she had fallen so deeply in love with him. Then she got pregnant. He told her in no uncertain terms that he didn't want to marry her or be saddled with a child. He made the appointment and took her for the abortion." Martine paused for a minute. "She went a little crazy after that. Oh, what difference does any of this make? Tonight I'm out of here. There's nothing else left to do."
"Nothing?" His eyes mocked her. "You're not much of a fighter, are you, Ms. Galway?"
"What are you talking about?" Martine demanded angrily. "I've done everything I could. I've been to every financial institution in the damned county, tried every trick possible with the ranch. I—"
"How much do you owe, and how much do you have?"
"What the hell is it to you?" Martine said angrily.
He reached into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes and took a long time lighting one. She noticed a little tic in a vein in his strong neck, and for a moment she was very nervous again. He had a temper all right; he just seemed to know how to control it. Her explosive words hung between them like tension in the air, and inwardly she trembled. Her eyes seemed drawn to his hands and on to the breadth of his chest, and then her lashes lowered because she had followed the pearl buttons of his shirt downward as his body narrowed to his waist. She was annoyed that she was swallowing and blushing again. Damn! He was a breed of man she had never met before; just being near him spoke of heat and tension, and while she wondered about him in a way that made her body grow warm, she was also warning herself that if she should make a move he didn't like, he would probably stop her with the speed and skill of an angry rattler.
"I'm sorry," she murmured at last, remembering that whoever or whatever he was, he had come from the blue to save her from what would have definitely been rape. She kept her eyes on her coffee cup and played idly with the handle. "I would have done just about anything to save this place." She looked up at last. "It means a lot to me.
He shifted slightly in his chair, stretching his long legs out, exhaling smoke and watching it rise in her sunny yellow kitchen.
"Because it's my home. It's my ... heritage." She smiled a little wanly at last. "At the far end of my two hundred acres is the old town church. Both my parents are buried there." She lifted a hand to indicate the house. "This is a beautiful place. They made it that. The ranch encompasses hills and ponds and streams and can be a paradise all in itself." She smiled. "I grant you, I have dust and dirt and tumbleweed too. But"—she waved her hand again—"it has everything."
He did not follow the wave of her hand; she was certain that he didn't need to. He knew something about the ranch, and he had already ascertained that a lot of hard work had gone into it all.
"What happened to the finances?" he asked bluntly.
She paled a little. "My mother died when I was little. I barely remember her. But my father ... died just last year. He'd had triple bypass surgery and was in the hospital for months the year before." She paused because she'd be damned if she were going to cry in front of a hard, assessing stranger, even if she did feel she owed him a few explanations since he had saved her. Brusquely she added, "Insurance for independent ranchers isn't the greatest in the world. Dad had to go to a number of doctors, and it was really quite easy to eat up the savings and the income."
"I'm sure it was."
She looked up at him quickly but could fathom little from his gaze. His eyes were fascinating, she thought: fringed with thick dark lashes, searing where stars of yellow shot out from the pupils, deeper gold beyond that color, all blending to the shade of a newly washed gold nugget.
"Maybe I can help you," he told her.
She started to laugh, then realized how rude it sounded. "I'm sorry, Mr. Montgomery—"
"If I'm going to work for you," he interrupted, "you should get used to calling me Kane."
Laughter bubbled in her chest again. No, she couldn't start laughing because she'd start crying. She sobered quickly. "Kane, I owe twenty thousand dollars. I've got twelve. I just don't see—" She stopped abruptly. She had been about to tell him she couldn't see where a drifting ranch hand could come up with that kind of money. She rephrased her sentence. "I don't see how anyone could raise it."
He shrugged, and she felt uncomfortable because now his eyes did tell her something: They told her that he knew exactly what she had really been going to say.
"Your friends can't come through with that much?"
Excerpted from The Maverick and the Lady by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1986 Heather E. Graham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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