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Kathryn Ellis closed her eyes and took a deep breath. What she was about to do, seeking out Holt Calhoun when he clearly didn't want to be found
She swallowed hard. It had been years since she'd seen him and she tried not to envision Holt with his dark good looks and those brown eyes flecked with gold that pinned a person to a wall. The fact that she had once wanted those eyes to pin her, anywhere, was beside the point. She'd been young and naive enough not to understand what she was asking for then. Now she was older, a bit battered and not nearly as naive. She'd learned that a forceful, controlling man was the worst kind of nightmare for a woman like her.
Yet she was voluntarily walking right into the lion's den.
"So walk," she whispered as she climbed from her barely-held-together car and started toward Holt's family home on the Double Bar C Ranch. During the few years she'd lived here, she had driven past the ranch and seen the big white house in the distance but she'd never been inside or even on the grounds. She'd wanted to be invited in back when she'd been a teenager and called larkville home. Now she didn't.
But she was going in anyway.
Her heartbeat thudding in her throat, she rang the doorbell and waited, willing herself to stay strong, stand tall, look professional.
But the baby kicked at that moment, and despite the fact that she should be used to such things by now, she splayed one hand over her abdomen and glanced down.
The door opened and she jumped. To her relief and regret, it wasn't Holt but Nancy Griffith, his housekeeper. The woman had kind eyes, but right now she looked a bit concerned.
"I'm sorry. I didn't call ahead, but" Kathryn cleared her throat, trying not to sound nervous "is Holt around?"
Nancy smiled at her. "I'm afraid he's not. Since he returned from, well, I guess everybody knows where he was."
I don't, Kathryn thought. Because she had been determined not to be one bit curious about Holt's personal life. No doubt a woman had been involved, Kathryn couldn't help thinking. Holt had always had women trailing after him.
"But he's home now, right?" she asked. "I'd heard that he'd returned."
"He's home, but he's not here. Since he came back, he's been so tied up in the office that today he declared he was getting out on the range and nothing was going to stop him."
Including me, Kathryn thought. She'd tried to call Holt several times this week, even this morning. He hadn't picked up. Nor had he replied to her requests for an appointment to see him. She was pretty sure that he knew what she wanted. Maybe he'd heard about it from the mayor. Clearly, he wasn't enthused. She'd been warned not to expect much.
She didn't expect anything, but she wanted
No. Don't go there, she ordered herself. Wanting wasn't good enough. Another lesson she'd learned too well. If something was going to happen, she had to make it happen. She couldn't rely on or trust anyone else.
"I really need to see him. If he's on the range, could you point me in his direction?" she asked.
Nancy looked stunned. "I You've been away a long time, Kathryn. I don't know how much you knew of this place, but the Double Bar C is huge and pretty stark in places." Nancy glanced pointedly at Kathryn's car, down at her watermelon abdomen, then up at the sky. The day was sweltering, the sun relentless and blinding as a camera flash.
"I know, but I'll be fine. I'm a runner and these days I keep my phone handy," Kathryn said, ignoring her own misgivings. The ranch might have its stark areas, but the Calhouns had always run it like a well-oiled machine. Communication lines were kept open. "Or I was a runner until recently. I'll be okay."
Nancy gave a curt nod. "Let me just call Holt." She paused. "I have to be honest. He's not going to like this."
"I know. Besides the fact that he's busy, I've already called six times. If you're going to tell him anything, tell him that I'mthat I'm not giving up. I'll do whatever it takes. Including wandering all over the ranch looking for him."
That wasn't exactly true. She was trying to keep her courage up, to appear determined. Still, she wasn't stupid, and she didn't plan to wander far from the road. But for now, let Nancyand Holtthink she was a crazy pregnant woman if that was the only way she could get his attention. Frustration and fear were making her a bit desperate. She needed to get as much done as possible before the baby arrived.
"All right. I'll see what I can do." Nancy retreated to the other end of the room, speaking into the phone quietly. She appeared to be holding her hand over the receiver, too, but even so, Kathryn could still hear Holt's curse when he realized what was happening.
"Just find out where he is." She gave Nancy an apologetic look. "I'll handle the rest. You shouldn't have to deal with my problems."
Instead, Nancy listened to whatever Holt was saying, then directed Kathryn to a seat in the living room. "He's coming."
And he clearly wasn't happy about the situation. Kathryn could see it in the strain in Nancy's eyes.
"Do you mind if I sit on the porch? I'd rather face him head-on. Outdoors. Just in case he throws anything at me." She smiled slightly when she said it, trying to make it sound like a joke, but it wasn't completely. She'd lived her whole life with people who were prone to sudden outbursts of anger. It was always good to have an exit plan.
Nancy gave her a stern look. "Suit yourself, but Holt would never throw anything at a woman. Especially a pregnant one."
Kathryn nodded and marched to a rocking chair on the big low porch. She could tell by Nancy's look that the woman wondered about whatever circumstances had led to Kathryn being alone and pregnant, but she wasn't sharing that with anyone. Not Nancy. Certainly not Holt.
Not that the man would ask. He didn't even want to see her. She was surprised he even remembered who she was.
Maybe he doesn't, she thought. He'd always looked right past her when she was a skinny, lovesick teenager and he was a moody, broody football player who barely said a word to anyone and never even said hello to her.
She'd daydreamed about him being like her, kindred souls trapped in untenable circumstances with no one to confide in.
Of course, she'd been wrong. He'd simply been a guy who hadn't noticed or cared. And clearly nothing had changed with him.
A lot had changed with her. Except for the fact that she still got tense just thinking of Holt coming down the road, exiting his car and stepping onto the porch.
Which was totally nuts. She didn't have room or the inclination for a man in her world anymore. Especially not this man.
And anywaya dust cloud in the distance heralded an oncoming vehiclethere was no time to do anything but brace herself. She and Holt were going to talk.
Holt threw open the truck's door. He started toward her, big and imposing with a granite jaw and dark eyes that told her she'd pushed him too far.
Kathryn swallowed hard. She reminded herself that she was a full-grown woman, almost ten years older than she'd been the last time she'd seen Holt. And determined to be what she hadn't been then. Strong. Independent. Not affected even by a man as overwhelming as Holt.
"Hello, Holt," she said, rising a bit more awkwardly than she wanted to and holding out her hand in as casual a gesture as she could muster. "Thank you for stopping by." How stupid. This was his home. And she was acting like a queen expecting him to kiss her hand.
"Not an issue. I was headed in, anyway," he said, putting her in her place. "Besides, this won't take long."
She blinked. "How do you know that?"
"I know it, because the answer is no," he said, those dark caramel eyes smoldering. "I know why you're here. I don't know what the mayor said that led you to believe that I get involved in causes, but she was wrong. I do only one thing and that's ranch. I'm sorry you wasted your time, but I believe it's best to be honest."
Kathryn sucked in a breath and hoped that her knees weren't shaking. "I believe that, too. And the truth is that I don't intend to stop being a pest. You'll have to hear me out."
"I already know what you want. There's no point in discussing the details."
"Whatever you've been told, it's clearly not everything. And I intend to follow you around until you listen to the whole story." It was all she could do to keep her voice from wobbling. Not just because Holt was so big, with such broad shoulders, but because he was so.male. The fact that he was also hostile Kathryn fought to stay calm. To remain standing.
"Excuse me?" He frowned, those fierce dark eyes making her squirm inside. She wondered how many women had ever told Holt Calhoun no. Probably not many.
Probably none. The man looked like the definition of sex, all long legs, muscles and thick tousled, near-black hair. He looked like a man who knew how to do things. And not just ranching things. Things that involved getting naked with a woman.
Which was totally irrelevant and terribly distracting. "I mean it," Kathryn said. She frowned back at him, even if she was mostly upset at herself. Her Holt-crush years were long gone. She was going to be a mom. She needed to get her off-track life on track and do right by her baby, not get derailed by stupid, hormonally driven thoughts about a man who didn't even want to talk to her and who reminded her of the bad places she'd been, not the good places she wanted to go.
"You plan to follow me around?" he finally said. "Lady, do you even know what you're saying?"
No. "Yes. Mayor Hollis highly recommended you."
Holt swore beneath his breath. "Johanna is sharp as they come, but she's dead wrong about this."
"I don't think so. And you can't make me leave. I'm I'm persistent." Which was such a lie. She'd never persisted with anything. And her ex-husband had loved to taunt her with that humiliating fact. Which might, she admitted, be a big part of why she had to persist with this now.
"This is a ranch," Holt reminded her. "It's big and dirty. There are animals that can break your foot if they step the wrong way or break your body if they fall on you. You are a pregnant woman."
"Yes. I've noticed."
He gave her a you-don't-know-a-thing look. "No following."
"Just give me a few minutes."
He started to say no. She was sure of it, but she stuck out her hand and touched his arm. His blue chambray shirtsleeve was worn. His muscle was firm and warm beneath her palm. Kathryn didn't know what the heck she was doing. She felt reckless and stupid and awkward, as she always had around him, but.
"We've already wasted several minutes arguing. Wouldn't it be easier just to listen to me?"
"I have the feeling that nothing about this will be easy."
So did she. "Just a few minutes," she prompted.
"All right. Let's get this over with. Sit. Talk." He turned a chair backward, straddled it and looked at his watch. "You have ten minutes. No more."
Kathryn swallowed hard and tried to find the right words. For the first time in her life she had Holt Calhoun's attention and she couldn't afford to waste the opportunity. There was too much at stake.
Holt felt like a volcano, bubbling hot and on the verge of blowing up everything around him. What in hell had the mayor been thinking when she'd recommended that he be the one to help Kathryn Ellis? And what was this about, anyway? Some nonsense about a clinic and donors, whatever that meant.
He wanted this conversation to be over, but he'd promised her ten minutes. And just look at her. Despite being heavily pregnant, which brought back terrible memories he didn't even want to acknowledge, she was slender, bone-china fragile, and when she looked at him
He noticed how her dark blond hair, streaked with a hundred shades of wheat, kissed her delicate jaw, how those big gray eyes looked so anxious. Despite her determined words, this woman looked as if a sharp wind could break her, both physically and emotionally. And then there was the fact that she was pregnant. That made her the last person in the world a man like him should be around. He'd seen her from a distance in town after the mayor had mentioned the situation, so he'd already decided that this wasn't happening. And not just because he didn't want to do what he'd heard she wanted him to do.
"Ms. Ellis," he began.
"I'm Kathryn. You knew me when I was a teenager."
He'd known who she was. Vaguely. A skinny, scared-looking little creature. That's all he remembered. And by calling her by her last name he'd been trying to create distance, to make a point. "Ms. Ellis," he said determinedly. "I'm afraid you've been led astray."
"Johanna said you had business and political contacts that no one else in town has. Is that true?"
"It may be. But it's irrelevant."
"I'm sure you've heard why I'm here."
He knew what he'd heard. The town already had a clinic, so.
"Why don't you just spell it out?"
"I'm trying to get a new medical clinic built in Larkville. And lure a permanent doctor here. To do that, we may need the help of influential people."
"Johanna's the mayor. She has political contacts."
"She's the mayor of a town of less than two thousand. Her influence is limited. Your family name is known by people in high places."
"I don't suck up to them. I don't ask favors. Ever." He glared at her.
"I'm not asking you toto prostitute yourself," she said, all prim and librarian-like. Her eyelashes drifted down, just a bit before she righted them. Her slender hands were in tight fists. She was clearly nervous. Because she was determined to drag a yes from him or because he was out-and-out scaring her?
Holt wanted to let loose with a string of blue curses. He was rotten at situations like this, at dealing with women with expectations. He'd learned from his mother, his father, from his former fiancée, Lilith, that needing, caring, wanting too deeply, expecting too much, came with a hefty price tag. Emotion could cripple. He knew that. He'd paid that price before and was still paying it. So while he was used to doing all kinds of favors as the owner of the Double Bar C and he did them willingly, he kept things cut and dried, light, easy, uncomplicated by emotions. And he didn't ask for favors himself. He was pretty sure based on what he'd heard that Kathryn Ellis was asking him to break several of his unbreakable rules. Be the giver, not the recipient. Remain in control of the situation at all times. Never let emotion enter into a deal.