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"Come on, Lainey. Have a heart! You can't leave us like this!" Lewis McCabe declared as he pushed his eyeglasses farther up on the bridge of his nose.
Aside from the fact she was here under false pretenseswhich she had quickly decided she couldn't go through with, anywayLainey Carrington didn't see how she could stay, either. The Lazy M ranch house looked like a college dorm room had exploded on moving day. Lewis needed a lot more than the live-in housekeeper he had been advertising for, to bring order to this mess.
Lainey studied the nerdiestand most technologically brilliantof Sam and Kate McCabe's five grown sons and wondered how anyone so rich could still be so out of step with popular culture. Where had he gotten those clothes, anyway? From some 1980s-style shop?
"What do you mean us?" she asked suspiciously. Was Lewis married? If so, she hadn't heard about it, but then her knowledge was spotty at best since she hadn't actually lived in Laramie, Texas, since she left home for college ten years ago.
The door behind Lainey opened. She turnedand darn near fainted at the sight of the man she had secretly come here to track down.
Not that she had expected the six-foot-three cowboy, with the ruggedly handsome face and to-die-for body to actually be here. She had just hoped that Lewis would give her a clue where to look, so that she might help her friend Sybil Devine hunt the elusive Brad McCabe down and scrutinize the sexy Casanova celebrity in person.
"Brad, of course, who happens to be my business partner," Lewis McCabe explained.
"Actually, I'm more of a ranch manager," Brad McCabe corrected grimly, shooting an aggravated look at his younger brother. He knocked some of the mud off his scuffed, brown leather boots, then stepped into the interior of the sprawling half-century-old ranch house. "And I thought we had an agreement, Lewis, that you'd let me know when we were going to have company so I could avoid running into 'em."
Lewis shot Lainey an apologetic glance. "Don't mind him. He's been in a bad mood ever since he got done filming that reality TV show."
Lainey took the opportunity to gather a little background research. "Guess that didn't exactly have the happily-ever-after ending everyone expected it to have," she observed.
Brad's jaw set. Clearly, he did not want her sympathy. "You saw it?"
Obviously he wished she hadn't. Lainey shrugged, not about to admit just how riveted she'd been by the sight of Brad McCabe on her television screen. "I think everyone who knows you did."
"Not to mention most of America," Lewis chimed in.
Bachelor Bliss had pulled in very high ratings, especially at the end, when it had taken an unexpected twist. Which wasn't surprising, given how sexy Brad had looked walking out of the ocean in a pair of swim trunks that had left very little to the imagination. He'd been equally appealing on the back of a horse, riding into the mountains at sunset, or dressed in a tuxedo while enjoying a night on the town.
The only thing she hadn't liked was the sight of him kissing one pretty woman after another and he had done an awful lot of that.
"You shouldn't have wasted your time watching such bull," Brad muttered, his scowl deepening as his voice dropped a self-deprecating notch. "And I know I shouldn't have wasted mine filming it."
Lainey agreed with him wholeheartedly there. Going on an artificially romantic TV show was no way to find a mate. "For what it's worth, I don't think they did right by you," Lainey said.
Brad's brow arched as if he dared her to go on.
Lainey gulped but held her ground. "The way they depicted you was not very flattering," she continued bravely, knowing that if she was going to convince him to open up to her, he was first going to have to realize she did indeed believe he had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, that she wanted him to be able to tell his side of things. Which, to date, he had not done.
"Gee." His gaze clashed with hers. "You think?"
"I agree," Lewis put in genially, seeming not to notice the sparks arcing between Brad and Lainey. "Those producers did make you look like a womanizing jerk with the attention span of a flea."
Brad folded his arms over his chest, frustration coming off him in waves. "Maybe I am a womanizing jerk with the attention span of a flea," he said.
Somehow, Lainey didn't think so. For one thing, the McCabeswho were known for their honesty and integritywould never have let him get away with that in real life. She knew he'd tried it as a kid, shortly after his family moved to Laramie, Texas, and had gotten reined in quickly, both by family and by the girls he had triple-timed. And for another thing, Brad had not appeared to be enjoying himself on the TV show as he tried to decide which of fifteen eligible women to take as his bride. Instead, he had seemed impatient with the entire process. Restless. Except when with Yvonne Rathbone, the flame-haired beauty he had eventually paired up with. Then, he had seemed genuinely love-struck. Until the end, anyway.
"And maybe you're not," Lainey countered calmly.
Not that her opinion was widely shared. Thanks to the brouhaha that had followed the finale of the eight Bachelor Bliss episodes featuring Brad McCabe, he had been a fixture in gossip columns and celebrity magazines. Everyone wanted to know why Brad had done what he had, but Brad wasn't talkingat least not to the press.
And thus far, those close to him weren't talking, either.
It was Lainey's task to see what she could do about changing that, and letting the whole truth and nothing but the truth finally be known. Not that it looked to be easy.
She had heard from mutual acquaintances that Brad McCabe's experience as the sought-after bachelor on Bachelor Bliss had turned him not just into persona non grata where the entire viewing public was concerned, but also into a hardened cynic. Judging by the scowl on his face and the unwelcoming light in his eyes as he swept off his straw cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his gleaming dark brown hair, that assumption seemed to be true.
The Brad McCabe that Lainey recalled from her youth had been two years ahead of her in school, cheerful and charming as could be. He had been more city kid than cowboy back then. Full of charm and life, always ready with a wink and a smile and a witty remark.
Now, he appeared ready to bite her head off. His brother's, too, as Brad surveyed them both with shadowed, sable-brown eyes.
Lainey swallowed hard and tried not to notice how nicely the blue chambray shirt hugged his broad shoulders and molded to the sculpted muscles of his chest, before disappearing beneath the waistband of his worn, dark blue denim jeans.
"Not that I expected to see you out here, in any case," Lainey continued truthfully, forcing her eyes away from his rodeo belt buckle and gazing back up at his face. "Since word is you've been hiding out from just about everyone."
"I'm not hiding." Brad looked ready to kick some Texas butt. Hers, specifically. "I'm getting on with my life. And there are plenty of people in Laramie who know exactly where to find me."
Lainey shrugged as another shimmer of awareness sifted through her, weakening her knees. "The press can't seem to locate you."
"And that's exactly the way it's going to stay," Brad enunciated clearly, looking deep into her eyes. "I have nothing to say to them."
Which was a problem as far as Lainey was concerned, as she was currently trying to fulfill her long-held dream of becoming a reporter.
"Brad figures too much has been said about him as it is," Lewis confided to Lainey. Lewis tried to adapt some of his older brother's inherent cool as he slouched against a low wall of moving boxes, but instead he knocked several over. They tumbled to the scuffed wooden floor with a clatter. Lewis scrambled to pick them up while Brad, shaking his head in silent exasperation, leaned forward lazily to lend a hand. "The past is over," Lewis continued. "He's looking toward the future. Which is why he agreed to start up this ranch with me"
"You have to pay in half to be a partner," Brad interrupted, looking irritated again. "I haven't done that. Therefore I'm the ranch manager." Brad turned back to Lainey. He looked her up and down suspiciously, from the top of her carefully coiffed chin-length blond hair, to her casual suede slides. "And you are ?"
It shouldn't have surprised Lainey Carrington that Brad McCabe didn't recognize her. Brad was two years older than she was. It had been a good ten years since they had run into each other in the halls of Laramie High School. And she hadn't been back to Laramie much in the last couple of years since her parents died.
She touched the strand of pearls around her neck. Wishing for some odd reason that she was wearing something other than the demure, pale blue sweater set and knee-length khaki skirt, she smiled. "I'm Lainey Carrington."
To Lainey's frustration, Brad still had no clue.
"When I was in high school I was known as Lainey Wilson," Lainey explained. "Greta Wilson McCabe, who runs the Lone Star Dance Hall"
"Our aunt by marriage." Lewis beamed.
"Right." Lainey nodded. "Well, Greta's my cousin."
"Lainey was one of the princesses on the Homecoming Court, when she was a senior and I was a freshman," Lewis explained. "I remember because the dress you wore for the parade."
Had caused quite a scandal. Lainey felt herself flush bright pink.
Brad looked at Lewis and lifted a brow, waiting for him to finish.
Lewis started stammering and staring at the toes of his Birkenstock sandals. Obviously, he wished he had never started the story.
Figuring she might as well own up to itBrad McCabe was going to hear all about it later anywayLainey put in dryly, "Suffice it to say, the dress I chose for the festivities was a little too 'adult' for the occasion." She had picked it up at a secondhand shop in nearby San Angelo that was run by the Junior League. The black velvet dress had been beautiful, no doubt about it, and at ten dollars, quite a steal. But the plunging neckline, short clinging skirt and five-inch stiletto heels had been more suited for a sophisticated cocktail party than a high-school football game.
Lainey had known this, of course, even as she had accepted a dare from her friends to wear it. She had worked to disguise the deep V neckline, front and back, with an embroidered white-and-black silky evening wrap that she had worn with movie-star grandeur. Until a strong gust of Texas wind had ripped it off her shoulders and under the wheels of the junior-class float behind her.
And there she had been, her decolletage exposed nearly to the waist for all the world to see. A terribly embarrassed Lainey had had no choice but to finish the parade, sans wrap. When the floats had reached the stadium, the entire Homecoming Court had been whisked off the backs of their borrowed convertibles and onto the football field for the crowning ceremony during the pre-game festivities. The principal, seeing Lainey being walked across the field by a gawking football player, had been apoplectic, as had many of the other parents, at the amount of cleavage exposed. Lainey's equally ostentatiously dressed mother was the only one who hadn't thought it a big deal.
"You got suspended for violating the school dress code, didn't you?" Lewis asked.
Lainey nodded, her humiliation complete. She hadn't thought about any of this since Chip Carrington had taken her under his wing and made sure she knew what suitable attire was. Ten years had passed and she'd never worn anything the slightest bit risque since.
Brad threaded his way through the boxes and furniture stacked here and there, and made his way into the kitchen. He pulled a soda can out of the refrigerator, seemed to think about offering one to Lainey, then didn't. Probably, she figured, because he didn't want to give her an excuse to linger.
She watched as he popped the top.
Wordlessly, Lewis walked over to the fridge and got out two cans of blackberry-flavored soda. Lewis brought one back to Lainey, still talking to Brad over his shoulder. "The reason you probably don't recall any of this is that you had already graduated from Laramie High School two years before, and gone on to.well."
"Flunk out of college," Brad said, finishing yet another sentence Lewis never should have started.
Visibly embarrassed, Lewis pushed his glasses up on his nose again. He shoved a hand through his spiky, light brown hair. "Yeah. Guess you two have that in common, since you both were always in trouble back then."
Only because she hadn't had the guidance she needed, Lainey thought resentfully. "Well, not anymore," she said firmly. "I have an eight-year-old son now." She was a pillar of the community in the Highland Park area of Dallas. Or at least she had been, until she had agreed to drive out to the Lazy M Ranch, to see what she could find out for her friend, Sybil.
Brad and Lewis both glanced at her left hand, checking out the wedding and engagement rings she had recently stopped wearing. "I lost my husband, Chip Carrington, two years ago."
"Sorry to hear that," Lewis said.
Lainey nodded, even as she noticed the flash of sympathy in Brad's eyes that disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared.
"That why you're looking for a job as a housekeeper?" Brad asked with a look of utter male supremacy.
Lainey didn't even want to consider what her blue-blooded in-laws, Bunny and Bart Carrington, would think about her taking a position as a domestic. Financially, she didn't need to, thanks to Chip's trust fund. Emotionally, intellectually well, that was something else. She wasn't sure how much longer she could go on living a life that didn't even feel like her own. There were too many hours in a day, not nearly enough for her to doand with her son, Petey, needing her less and less Not that loneliness and boredom were any excuse for what Sybil had asked her to do, or offered in return, Lainey chided herself. Even if such action was the gateway to the career she had always yearned for and had never had the opportunity to go for. At least not yet.
Aware Brad was waiting for her answer, she said, "I'm not here to apply for a job."
Suspicion hardened the ruggedly handsome features on Brad's face. "Then what are you doing all the way out here?"
Sybil had been rightthis man had turned into quite a handful. "I was on my way back from Laramie and heard Lewis had bought a ranch out here. So I thought I would stop by and say hello."
"And yet you two were never friends," Brad stated suspiciously.