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"What's past is prologue" -The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The secret to Gage Phillips's happy existence was ridiculously simple: stay far away from women, specifically those who had marriage on their mind.
He put his duffel on the porch of the New Mexico farmhouse and looked around. The rebuilding project he'd taken on for Jonas Callahan was perfectly suited for a man who gloried in solitude. Gage knew his formula for a drama-free, productive lifestyle seemed oversimplified to some people, especially ladies who wanted to show him how much better life could be in a permanent relationship with a good woman. Yet he was thirty-five and a die-hard, footloose cowboytestament to remaining single being the best choice a man could ever make on this earth, besides finding the right career and spending hard-earned cash on a dependable truck.
He hadn't always been die-hard and footloose. Fourteen years ago he'd been at the altar, and fourteen years ago he'd learned a valuable lesson: marriage was not for him.
His friends were fond of saying he was just too much of a renegade to be tied down. Gage figured they might have a point. Fatherhood had been a late-breaking bulletin for him. About a year ago he'd been delivered the news. What man was so busy traveling the country that he didn't know he had a daughter?
Leslie, convinced by her parents not to tell him about his child so they wouldn't have to share custody, made a midlife decision to invite him to Laredo to come clean. He was pretty certain Leslie had told him only because she was at her wits' end with Catand because her teenager apparently was fond of making her mother's new boyfriend miserable.
The situation was messy.
So it was time for a little escape. This desolate, dirt-as-far-as-the-eyes-could-see forgotten hideaway was also perfect for getting away from his other problemthe family. If anybody needed quiet and a place to plot his exit strategy from The Family, Inc., it was he.
"Excuse me," a female said, and Gage jumped about a foot. "If you're selling something, I'm not buying, cowboy. And there's a No Trespassing sign posted on the drive, which I'm sure you noticed. And ignored."
He'd whipped around at her first words and found himself staring at a woman of medium height, with a slender build and untamable red hair, eyeing him like a protective mother hen prepared to flap him off the porch. Maybe she was the housekeeper, getting the place cleaned up for his arrival. He couldn't place her accentperhaps Irish or Scottish. Either way, she seemed intent on him not getting past the front door. He plastered on a convincing smile to let her know he was harmless. "I'm not selling anything, ma'am. I'm moving in."
She blinked big, glass-green eyes. "You have the wrong address."
"This is Dark Diablo Ranch." It was impossible to have the wrong address; there were no other houses around for miles. "Owned by Jonas Callahan of Rancho Diablo, right?"
She nodded. "It is. But Jonas never mentioned anything about anyone living here."
He could see she wasn't the kind of woman who could be swayed with easy charm. Probably didn't trust strangers, which was a good thing. By the way her hand moved impatiently to rest on her slim hip, it was obvious she didn't trust him, even with his pointed mention of Jonas's name. A woman who had nice long legs like hers usually caught his eye. He loved tiny freckles, too. She had a light dusting on her pale legs and arms exposed by her green tank top. Even across her delicate nose But she also had a healthy dose of ire clouding her brow.
Nope. This was not a lady one enjoyed for a night or two in the name of good sex.
"Sorry," he said. "I've definitely got the right address, then. Looks like we're going to be housemates."
"I don't think so." She remained stubborn, not giving an inch. "There's a run-down barn out back, and a small bunkhouse, which, though antiquated and not exactly a five-star hotel, will suit you. I'm going inside to call Jonas and tell him there's been some kind of mix-up."
"That's a good idea," Gage said. "Ask Jonas why he didn't warn me about Lucy Ricardo being my bunk mate." Gage shook his head, deliberately trying the lady's patience. "He knows I'm not a fan of redheads. There's two things in life that should be left well alone, and they both happen to be the same shade." He grinned, a rascal in denim, determined to needle her. "That'd be a stick of dynamite and a redhead, ma'am, if I need to spell it out for you."
"Really." She gave him a last annoyed look and went into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. Gage sat on the porch, whistling to himself, leaning back on his elbows as he stared up at the jewel-blue New Mexico sky. He could hear her complaining to Jonas, and grinned as bits of dialogue confirmed to him that Jonas was verifying his story.
She wasn't happy about it, either.
"You might have told me," she said, her tone begrudging as she came back out, "that you're here to do work for Jonas."
"You didn't seem interested in my curriculum vitae," Gage said. "Better to let Jonas tell you. Funny thing, he didn't mention you to me." He gazed at her again, thinking how attractive she was, even for a redhead. "My name's Gage Phillips." He stuck out a hand, which she pointedly didn't accept. Shrugging, he shoved it in his jeans pocket.
"I don't need to know your name," she said. "You'll be staying in the bunkhouse, as my mother and I live here."
Mother? He was going to read Jonas the riot act the next time he saw him. The ornery son of a gun had said nothing about a saucy female and no doubt equally prickly ma infesting his solitude. "My understanding is that the barn and the bunkhouse are fairly uninhabitable," Gage said. "That's part of the reason I'm here."
She pressed her lips together, catching his attention. He thought she'd be really pretty if she ever smilednot that she seemed interested in doing much of that around him. Very tantalizing, though. He gazed at her, wondering why Jonas would have left out telling him about this very luscious detail when he'd hired him. Jonas had specifically told him he'd be staying at the farmhouse. He'd never mentioned females.
"Wait a minute," Gage said. "Where are you from?"
"Dublin, Ireland," she said, her tone stiffer than an ironing board.
"You're Jonas's ex-fiancée," Gage said, a light dawning. "I had an invitation to Sabrina and Jonas's wedding, though I couldn't make it over from Hell's Colony in time. But I heard about you."
She looked at him, not pleased. "Jonas and I are good friends, and nothing more."
He laughed. "Cupcake, I get the whole setup now. Those damn Callahans. They want everyone to share their misery."
"What are you talking about?"
Gage couldn't wipe the smirk off his face. It was all so obvious. "You're not a United States citizen, are you?"
"No. What does that have to do with anything?"
He shrugged. "You. Me. One house. It's a setup."
"I don't think so," she said, her voice subarctic. "There is no setup."
"Sure." He leaned forward on his knee. "How long are you planning to stay here?"
"Here? As long as I can."
"And how long would that be?"
She sniffed. "I'm in the process of getting a green card."
"So you want to stay a while?"
"Being in New Mexico has had a wonderful effect on my mother's health. We're hoping to remain here permanently, if possible. Mum and I have been traveling, and we're getting to the end of my legal time here. Filing the paperwork has been a very slow process. But I don't see what that has to do with you, or" Her expression suddenly changed from ire to horror. "You think Jonas sent you out here so I could snare you into marrying me! Because I'm his ex-fiancée? You think I just need another man to make all my problems go away, and Jonas sent you as some kind of consolation prize."
He smiled. "Don't look so shocked, cupcake."
She shook her head. "You're dumb. I'm going inside, and I hope our paths cross very rarely."
"Hang on a second."
He didn't think she'd stop, but to his surprise, she turned to look at him with all the misgiving she'd probably have when eyeing a coyote. "What?"
"What's your name? I can't just call you Irish."
"My name is Chelsea Myers, but I prefer you don't call me anything. Look." She gave him a mulish glare. "I don't believe Jonas would try to get us together"
"You don't know the Callahans all that well, then. They're notorious for their practical jokes."
"The two of us getting together would indeed be a joke. Jonas promised me I would have nothing but peace and quiet here for my writing. Peace and quiet is what I need, or I can't work. Does that make sense to you?" She gave Gage a look that quite clearly said he was probably incapable of understanding much of anything. "So if you like brawling, loud music or wild nights with the ladies, you'll need to go into town for all that."
"Sure thing, sweetie." He picked up his duffel and strode past her into the house. "What are you doing?"
"If we're going by Jonas's rules, then I'm staying in here. He said nothing about a redhead with an attitude disturbing me on my own personal time-out. He said nothing about sleeping in a ramshackle bunkhouse or a caving-in barn. He said there was a quaint, newly furnished though spartan farmhouse I could live in while I create his horse program and rebuild this joint. And if you don't mind, Miss Myers," he said, his tone deliberately soft to let her know he did mind very much, "I abhor the sound of a TV, especially the soap operas you ladies love, and most particularly reality TV. When I come home at night, I want no bickering, no bossing and no busybodying interrupting my routine. Got that?" He glanced around, seeing the redheaded storm about to erupt, and spoke to forestall it. "Now, where's Ma Myers? I'd like to introduce myself."
"She won't be here until tomorrow. She's in Diablo helping Fiona Callahan pickle vegetables for the Fourth of July family celebration. Never mind about my mother," Chelsea said. "We can't both stay in this house."
"There's a barn and a bunkhouse," he reminded her.
Her lips pressed flat again. "Mum and I will take the upstairs, you will take the downstairs."
He glanced around, liking the look of the place. Jonas hadn't been far off when he'd said it was almost new inside. He'd begun renovating the house first, then hired Gage to whip the rest of the ranch into shape. "Fine," he said. "I leave early, come in late."
"I couldn't care less what you do."
"I just don't want to catch you wandering around in your nightie, sweetheart."
"I promise not to wander around in my nightie," Chelsea said, her voice oh-so-sweet, "if you don't mind leaving your boots on the porch. The hardwood floors are new."
She had him there. His own mother would have already read him the riot acthe and his brothers and sister had learned to leave their boots outside or in the mudroom from the time they were old enough to wear them. He'd be better off dealing with a scorpion in his boot than his mother catching him wearing them in the house. "Deal. Pleasure doing business with you, Miss."
"Whatever," Chelsea said, and went up the stairs.
He watched her climb, his mouth curving a bit at the sight of female hips swaying ever so enticingly. She was a mouthy little thing, but he didn't mind mouthy so much. Mouthy could be tamed.
"One more thing I need to mention," he called up the stairs.
"My daughter is arriving tomorrow, so she'll be staying here with me."
Chelsea appeared at the top of the stairs. "Daughter?"
Gage nodded. "Yeah. Cat and her mom have been having a bit of mom-daughter drama. Cat's thirteen, so she and Leslie, my ex-wife, want a small break from each other."
Chelsea's eyebrows rose. "Small break? Like a couple of days?"
He shrugged. "Like the rest of summer vacation. Jonas said this was probably the perfect place for Cat and me to get to know each other better."
Gage saw that Chelsea did in fact "see" and wasn't pleased. "I don't imagine a teenager will be much of a bother."