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It didn't take Carly Baron long to figure out coming home to the Roughneck just might have been the worst decision she had ever made.
Every minute she stayed on the ranch, every second spent in her family's farm store, every moment anywhere near her dad pushed her closer to a confrontation with his ranch manager, the one man she never wanted to see again.
At the worktable in the back room of the Peach Pit, her thoughts shifted from the images she'd rather forget to the cartons she was filling with jars of preserves. She'd spent days out here at the store helping with new orders and most of this afternoon lending a hand to package them up. Finished with the final carton, she slapped the top of the box. "That ought to get these to their destination in good shape."
"I can't believe we're finally done," her older sister Savannah said. "I owe you, Carly. I've been so wrapped up in day-to-day business lately, I let the plans for expansion slide. That was a brilliant idea of yours for the targeted ad. This was my biggest order yet."
"No big deal." Carly shrugged. "Marketing 101. I need to get some use out of my degree. Selling Western wear wasn't exactly part of my five-year plan when I got out of college. And I'm glad you stuck to your guns about the store." The Peach Pit offered fresh produce and baked goods made from peaches and pecans grown on their farm, part of the Baron family's ranch.
Turning the small roadside stand into a full-fledged store had been Savannah's idea, one she had managed to implement and keep going despite resistance from their dad. Brock Baron never liked the thought of sinking capital into any endeavor he didn't control himself. His focus wasand always would beon their North Texas ranch and on Baron Energies, the oil company he ran from the executive offices in a downtown Dallas high-rise.
"Daddy's got to see that this farm store's a little gold mine," she assured Savannah.
"Well, it's nowhere near there, yet. But it has the potential. Thanks to the ads, we've now got almost more orders than we can handle."
Carly put the tape dispenser back into its spot on the shelf and rested her hips against the worktable. "Speaking of orders, it's probably time for me to head back to the house to get mine."
Savannah shook her head. "And I'm sure Dad will have an entire list. You know we were all thrilled to have you come to visit a couple of months ago when Lizzie was in the hospital. But I'll confess we were overjoyed when you decided to come back again to stay for a while."
"I'll bet." Unwilling to think about her reasons for not returning to the ranch, Carly focused on what had finally brought her homeshe was here to play nursemaid.
Seventy years old and as bullheaded as ever, Brock Baron also couldn't accept that the time had come for him to give up rodeoing and just let his kids continue to carry on the family tradition. His last seniors' event had left him with a broken leg and more aches and pains than he would ever admit to. Now, his enforced inaction was giving everyone else major headaches. "He was driving y'all nuts from the beginning, I'm sure."
"Oh, that's an understatement. Lucky for us, you've always been able to stand up to him."
"Another understatement." She'd be the first to acknowledge she had more than a little of their dad's hard-headedness in her.
They both laughed.
"Really, though," Savannah said. "How are you holding up?"
"Just fine. But I have to say, now that Daddy's reached the point he can get around by himself in that wheelchair, it's nerve-racking. I can never tell where and when he'll turn up in the house."
"Trust me, I know. It's only the fact he can't travel too far with it that's keeping me safe here at the store."
They smiled at each other.
Carly pushed away from the workbench, and Savannah reached out, surprising her with a hug. Her next-to-oldest sister had always been the quietest of the three girls in the Baron family.
"As much as I appreciate all your help this week," Savannah said, "I'm even happier just to have your company."
"Same here." To her surprise, she meant it. With a family of six kids, four of Brock's own and two stepsons, she had grown up lost in the middle of the crowd. Somehow, she had felt cut off from her sisters long before she'd left the Roughneck for college. With another young stepson of Brock's added to the mix shortly after that, the situation hadn't improved at all.
She still sometimes felt lost around the family but, on her past few visits, she had enjoyed spending more time with Savannah. "It's my pleasure to help you out here." She shook her head and laughed. "I need to do some manual labor. Sitting around the house is turning me soft. I can feel myself losing muscle tone."
"You're entitled to time off from babysitting Dad, you know. Don't you have any events coming up?"
Carly shook her head. "Not right away." They both barrel raced, though her sister made it out on the circuit less frequently than she did. "And I'm thinking of taking a break from racing, anyhow." Lately, it had become harder and harder for her to ramp up the enthusiasm for rodeo.
Or for anything else.
She forced a grin. "But enough about me. I imagine you're getting soft yourself. Although, maybe not." Tilting her head, she looked Savannah up and down. "After all, you're a newlywed. You ought to be getting plenty of another type of exercise to keep you in shape."
"Carly!" Savannah's cheeks flushed, but her eyes sparkled.
"Hey, don't play innocent with me. You know my so-called crazy advice helped you get what you wanted."
Otherwise known as a brand-new husband.
Savannah and their older sister, Lizzie, had both found their true loves recently. Carly swallowed a sigh. A forever relationship wasn't in the cards for her. Not now, maybe not ever, and she'd just have to live with that. Still, she wished her sisterswished the four of them, counting their new significant othersall the best in the world.
"Will I see you over at the house at supper?" she asked.
Savannah shook her head. "No, I've got a stew going in the slow cooker."
"Smart move, moving into the apartment upstairs when Daddy expanded the building."
"Believe me, now that he's home full-time, I'm thanking my lucky stars I made the decision."
"Come on, he's not so bad." Neither am I, even if we are like two peas in a pod. And why did she feel the sudden desire to state her case to Savannah? Getting more comfortable around her was one thing. Getting close enough to spill sisterly secrets wasn't gonna happen. "Talk to you later," she said, heading toward the main room of the farm store.
She turned back.
"I forgive you for your smart remark about exercise, but speaking of Travis"
"Were we speaking of Travis? I didn't hear anyone mention the name."
"Stop." Smiling, Savannah swatted her arm. Then her expression turned serious. "You haven't asked about his progress."
"No," she said, just as seriously, her heart missing a beat.
Twenty years earlier, their mother had left the ranch, abandoning them all. Just this spring, Savannah had hired Travis, an old school friend and now her husband, who worked as a private detective, to track down Delia Baron. Not an easy job, as it turned out. They'd now reached the beginning of July with still no substantial developments. Or
"Did he have luck with that connection to Albuquerque?" She hid her clenched fists at her sides and stared, waiting.
"No, it turned out to be another dead end." Savannah sighed. "I know you're trying not to breathe down my neck about Travis's search, the way I'm trying not to hover over his shoulder."
But Carly would like to hover over his shoulder. Heck, she wanted to help with the search and hurry things up any way she could.
Yes, when it came to comparing her to their dad, the appleor maybe the peachdidn't fall far from the tree. "Well, don't give up," she said, attempting to sound reassuring. "I'm sure if he just keeps digging, Travis will catch a break soon."
Outside, sunlight dazzled her eyes before she could slip on her sunglasses, and heat seemed to haze the peach-scented air. Even with the high temperature, the short ride to the main house didn't warrant turning on the ranch truck's air conditioner. It would barely cool the interior before she arrived.
She left the windows open and drove slowly, appreciating the time alone. The time to breathe.
That last thought reminded her of her sister's comments about breathing and hovering.
Savannah had assumed she'd hung back from asking questions about the search to keep from pressuring Travis. Partly true. But, for the most part, she walked around nearly biting her tongue in half to keep the two of them from guessing how eagerly she wanted results. She had her own need to find their mom and, like her reasons for staying away from the ranch, it was one her sisters and brothers didn't know. If she had her way, they would never know.
A few minutes later, Carly nosed the truck into the long drive to the ranch house. The open windows caught a cross breeze, mild but welcome.
Several yards from the house, she glanced toward the barn and saw a sight she didn't welcome at all.
Everything about her tightenedher hands on the wheel, her shoulders, her throat, her breath.
The cowboy standing in the barn doorway started toward the truck, his long legs in worn jeans eating up the space rapidly. He wore a battered Stetson, the wide brim shading most of his face, but no matter how much she tried to convince herself this was just any old cowhand striding toward her, she couldn't believe the lie.
There was no mistaking those mile-wide shoulders or that sandy-blond hair. No mistaking the way her heart pounded.
The last time she'd seen Luke Nobel, he had turned and stalked away from her in anger, leaving her teenage heart crushed in the dust beneath his boots. To this day, she hadn't healed right and probably never would.
She wasn't ready for this meeting.
He wasn't giving her a choice.
Seconds later, he halted within arm's reach of her driver's door, his eyes seeming to hold the power to pin her into her seat.
All these weeks of worrying, and here was the one situation she had wanted to avoid. All the years of running, and here stood the one man she'd tried so hard to leave behind.
"Carly Baron," he said. "At last."
His voice rumbled deeper than it had years before, coming from a chest broader and more solid than the boy's she remembered.
"Luke." She forced a grin. "Isn't this flattering. Sounds like you were just waiting for the chance to run into me."
"I figured it was bound to happen, once Brock said you'd come home again. But when I never caught sight of you, I started to wonder if he'd been hitting the pain pills too hard."
"No pills. And, to Daddy's dismay, we take great care in measuring out the bourbon. Also, I'm not home again. I'm just visiting."
"The helpful daughter."
"That's me all over." Her body tingled when he continued to stare. Gripping the steering wheel, she fought back a wave of disgust at herself. If she let a mere look from this man bring that reaction on, she would soon find herself in a world of hurt from him. Again.
She had parked at the wrong angle to allow for a quick exit to the house, and the truck sat too far from the road to reverse all the way down the drive. Maybe she could just back up a bit and then run over his danged toes.
The thought brought on a smile.
"Excuse me." She shoved open the door and he jumped back.
A double dose of attitude made her stand straight in front of him. He stared back without saying a word. Let him look all he wanted. One touch, though, and she'd deck him.
The silence stretched on, till her nerves began to feel stretched thin, too. Never let 'em see you sweat, an old rodeo clown had once told her. She'd go that one better. Never let Luke see you care. She waved her hand in front of him. "Hel-loo. I'm still here. No sense trying to act like I've disappeared in a puff of smoke."
"Not yet, anyhow. I was just thinking. It's been a long time."
"And you've come a long way." If he picked up on the added meaning behind her words, he didn't show it. Anger at his reminder of their past couldn't quite overcome the hurt. Still, she managed to keep her voice even. "I hear you're manager now. Daddy's right-hand man. You finally made the connection and landed a job on the Roughneck, the way you'd always wanted."
He got that message, all right. His jaw hardened, and his chest rose with a deep breath, as if he'd had to summon his patience.
What did he expectthat she would have forgotten the way he'd tried to use her to get a job on her dad's ranch?
"Maybe I had other reasons for showing up that day, besides the job."
"What reasons? Trying to win me over?" She laughed without humor. "Why bother, when you already had me where you wanted me?"
"You think that's what it was all about? I wanted to get to your daddy through you?"
"I said that to you then, and you didn't argue. But it looks like you found a way without me, after all."
He stared at her for a long moment before shaking his head. "Funny. By now, I would have thought you'd grown up some."
The pity in his tone rubbed her nerves raw. "I expected you'd have grown beyond working for my daddy."
"A man's gotta have a job," he said mildly. "And I guess none of us knows what the future has in store."
"I'm not concerned about the future, only in what's happening today. And in making sure not to repeat the past."
"Yeah. Well, what's happening in my world today includes managing this ranch. I'd better get back to it."
"That's what Daddy pays you for," she said, forcing a lightness that vied with the heaviness in her heart.
He touched the brim of his Stetson. "See you around."
Not if I can help it.
He turned and walked away with enough of a tight-jeaned swagger to make her breath catch.
She leaned back against the sun-warmed truck, bombarded by memories she'd tried for so long to forget. Memories of that innocent, insecure high-school girl who always blended into the woodwork. Who had felt lost in the crowd of her own family. And who could never push away the vision of herself as a little girl her own mother couldn't love.
At least, not enough to make her stay.
Not even being the apple of her daddy's eye could make up for all that.
Just once, she'd wanted someone to single her out, to notice her differences, to see her as an individual, not as simply one of the Baron brood.
She had thought she'd found that someone in Luke Nobel.
She couldn't have been more wrong. Or been so betrayed.
Pushing herself away from the truck, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him as he made his retreat. Their first meeting in seven years had gone no better than she'd expected, no worse than she'd feared.
Regardless of what he thought, she had grown up since the days they were together. Toughened up, too.
And yet she wished this could be the last time she would ever see him.
All the needs and secrets and sorrows she kept from her family had to be kept from Luke, as well.
Especially from Luke.
He was a big part of the reason she had so much to hide.