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"I'm sorry. It's obvious that I made a mistake. I was wrong to trust you. So, please, just go." Rachel Everly's voice wasn't as steady as she wanted it to be, but she managed to turn away from the car and the man she'd thought she'd known up until a few days ago.
"Rachel, stop acting stupid and hysterical. You're totally overreacting, so just get back in the car and let's go. Besides, I'm still your boss until this trip is over, and we have a photo shoot in Oregon in two days."
Oh, no, had Dennis really used the S word? And called her hysterical? And implied that trying to make another woman jealous by lying and saying he and Rachel were sleeping together was okay when he had claimed to have hired Rachel for her skill with a camera?
This morning, listening to him talking to the woman and then having him admit that his lies about Rachel had his exgirlfriend wild to have him back, reality had hit Rachel hard. Dennis had been lying to her all along. He wasn't her friend. He wasn't fascinated by her skill as a photographer. He was a jerk who was just using her. And she had been used before.
Rachel wanted to whirl back toward the car and tell him what she thought, but right now she was almost as angry at herself as she was with him. Darn it, she had acted stupidly. She'd always prided herself on being nobody's fool, but the man had discovered her weakness. He'd used their shared interest in photography to make her feel unique, when she was clearly just a convenience who could serve both as an assistant and a lure to play another woman for a fool. Using photography, her greatest passion, against her was not cool. But allowing herself to be used was even worse. She needed to get out of here with as much dignity as she could muster.
She pushed her shoulders back. "You'll have to find a new assistant for Oregon. You're not my boss anymore. I'm through with you." With that, she walked away.
Behind her, there was silence. Then Dennis let loose with a string of profanities, his tires squealing as he drove away. She closed her eyes.
"That's it, Everly! That's the last time I trust so blindly. Ever," she muttered out loud as the sound of the car died away. For long seconds she couldn't even think about what to do or where to go in this unfamiliar town. She simply stood in the middle of the street alone.
Or not alone. The sound of something scuffling against the pavement made her breath catch in her throat. Immediately her senses went on high alert. She opened her eyes and locked gazes with a tall, broadshouldered man who, by the way he was looking at her, had clearly witnessed the whole exchange. Some sort of cowboy type judging by his boots, his jeans and his bronzed skin. He was standing just outside a store and must have been on the verge of entering or leaving when she and Dennis had begun their little scene. Her most personal failings had been viewed by this stranger.
She glared at him.
He didn't look even remotely fazed. "Do you need help?" he asked in a deep, whiskeyrough voice that sounded as if it came straight from some rugged cowboy movie.
Did she need help?
Yes, she thought, as a sense of failure tugged at her heart. Her past hadn't been the type that led her to build relationships. And, while this hadn't been a longstanding relationship, she'd thought she and Dennis had had something in common. She'd been wrong. Even worse, she'd been weak, and consequently blind.
Now, because of that uncharacteristic blindness, here she was. Alone. She was she didn't even know where she was. Somewhere with a lot of cows and boots and cowboy stuff. In Montana. And talking to a stranger who had witnessed her humiliation. Still, she should be grateful for his offer, and a part of her was, but mostly she just wanted to escape those tooperceptive silverblue eyes.
"I what town is this?"
"Moraine. Do you need a lift somewhere?"
Oh, yeah, like she was going to get in a car with a stranger. She might have made a rookie mistake where Dennis was concerned, but she'd grown up around some big, bad cities. She'd taken her share of selfdefense classes and knew how to behave when approached by unfamiliar men.
"No, thank you," she said primly. "I'm perfectly fine. I know exactly where I'm going and how to get there. I have friends." Which was, of course, a total lie.
But, selfdefense classes or not, the thought of letting a man so much taller and more muscular than she was know that she was totally on her own in the middle of all this emptiness if he carted her off somewhere, no one would ever even know she was gone.
"I have plans," she said more firmly, willing him to walk away so that she could figure out her next step in private. She tried to smile more broadly, lifting her chin and practically daring him to repudiate her words.
He studied her for several seconds, frowning all the while. Then he nodded once, turning away. Somehow, despite what she'd told him, a totally unreasonable part of her resented just how quickly he'd moved on. Maybe because men were not on her nice list right now. Especially tall, goodlooking men. And, unfortunately, this tall man was gorgeous. He probably had women sending him sexy messages every halfhour. Irrational as it might be, it was easy to transfer her anger to him.
And then things got worse. When the man moved closer to the door of the store and turned slightly, looking back at her, she was sure she saw pity in his eyes.
A groan nearly escaped her. Pity was the worst. Maybe because she'd been forced to choke it down too many times in the past. She narrowed her eyes and pulled herself up to her full five foot three inches. "Did you need something?" she asked, trying to make it look as if she was the one in charge of her life and he was the one who merited sympathy.
He stared at her. She stared right back, doing her best to look totally unaffected by the recent turn of events.
"Not a thing," he said as he gave her one last dismissive look and walked away.
Immediately Rachel's anger vanished. No question she was acting ungrateful and being unfair. But then, this whole situation was unfair.
Still, selfpity got a person nowhere, and she was used to depending on herself. So she turned and marched away as if she had a true destination in mind, when in fact she hadn't a clue.
It was only after she'd turned the corner and realized that she was already almost on the edge of town, with nothing beyond but lots of big, yawning stretches of land, that she began to panic.
"Stop, Rachel. Slow down. Think," she ordered herself, echoing the words of a favorite teacher. What are the facts? What's the situation? What's the logical next step? Good questions for an impulsive person like herself.
Questions she hadn't asked herself when she'd gotten out of the car. The truth was that she had been so shocked when the message and accompanying photo of that scantily dressed woman had appeared on the screen of Dennis's phone that she had simply reacted. The realization that she had been manipulated and used to con and hurt another woman had made her sick.
But now here she was, with no job and nowhere to go. Having planned to work with Dennis on the west coast, she'd given up her apartment. Her mother was on her umpteenth honeymoon, and her father's new wife felt about Rachel the way most people felt about gum on their shoes. And.
"My phone and my wallet were in the glove compartment of Dennis's car," she realized with a horrified whisper. It was enough to make some women sit down in the middle of the road and cry.
Rachel tried not to be that kind of woman most of the time. There's an upside to most situations, she reminded herself. Unfortunately she was having trouble finding the upside right now, and time was against her. A few hours from now it would be dark. She'd need a place to sleep.and some way to pay for it.
Battling panic, she veered back toward the town. She glanced down at her camera, her one constant companion, the one thing she had always been able to depend on. Still, it wouldn't help her today.
She headed toward a small building with the words "Angie's Diner" on the window. There was only one customer and a large, friendlylooking woman behind the counter. Rachel opened the door and the bell jangled. The woman looked up and smiled.
"Can I help you?"
Rachel wanted to close her eyes at the prospect of begging for work. Instead, she took a deep breath and managed to paste on a smile. "Hi, I'm Rachel Everly. Are you Angie?"
"Nice to meet you. Is there any chance that you're hiring?"
Angie looked around the almost empty room. The clock seemed to tick too loudly, emphasizing the lack of customers. "Sorry, no. You're new in town." It wasn't even a question. This was obviously one of those places where everyone knew everyone.
"I'm visiting." Rachel didn't try to explain why she would need work if she wasn't staying. "Is there any place to stay in town?"
"Just Ruby's boarding house. Good food and service with a smile." Angie fired off directions. "But if you want work.well, good luck. Not much around here."
Rachel tried to tamp down her anxiety. "Thank you." She wandered back into the street. Maybe if she humbled herself and begged, or offered to help Ruby with dishes or something, she could at least get through the night. Tomorrow she would figure out the next step, but she knew one thing. She was going to be extremely wary of men and their motives from now on. Because of idiotically trusting Dennis, she was homeless, stranded in the middle of nowhere.
"That's temporary," she told herself, battling her fears. Someday she'd finally have the home she'd never had. In Maine, the one place she'd been happy and the place she'd been trying to get back to for a long time. She'd be there now if.
Stop thinking about your mistakes. That isn't helping. Right now she had to concentrate on finding a bed. Maybe she could barter a free advertising photo of the boarding house for a place to stay, reach some sort of deal.
Just thinking the words made her feel a bit better. At least she wouldn't have to deal with any more men today. Her experience with the cowboy in town had been well, she wasn't going to think about that. She'd never see the man again, anyway.
Shane Merritt wasn't in the best of moods. Being back in Montana, even temporarily, had him edgy, and that encounter with the woman in town hadn't done a thing for his bad mood. He hated feeling responsible for other people. He had a past that proved he was the worst kind of guy to turn to for help, but it had been clear from the little he'd seen that she was stranded in Moraine. It had also been clear that she didn't want his assistance.
"Which you ought to be grateful for, Merritt. The woman did you a massive favor when she turned you down." The truth was that he was itching to get back on the road, back to his wandering life and his business that allowed him to keep moving. But he couldn't do that yet. He was as stuck here as she was, so for now he was going to have to settle for getting these supplies back to the ranch.
Unfortunately, his cell phone rang at that moment. "What's up, Jim?" Shane asked his business manager.
"Trouble. Your next job needs a reschedule. There's a conflict and you need to be in Germany in two weeks."
Shane blew out a breath. "Jim, you know I'm held up here until I sell the ranch. When I got here well, let's just say that Oak Valley is in worse condition than I thought. Try to buy me at least three weeks." Even though in some ways the shorter time frame would be less draining. He'd inherited the family ranch a year ago, and for months he'd been eager to sell his less than happy childhood home, but this was the first time he'd had time to fly in and get the job done properly. And he needed to do it himself. There were things here things that had belonged to his mother and his brother.
The overwhelming pain that followed that thought served as a reminder that he had failed them, and that, difficult as it was, he needed to be the one to supervise the disposal of their personal effects.
That conviction increased his resolve. "See what you can do, but three weeks is the absolute minimum for me to put things to rights. Things here look pretty messed up." Which was his own fault for staying away and letting things deteriorate.
"You okay?" his friend and employee asked.
No. Being here brought back memories he had to keep batting away, but at least once this was done it would be over, or as over as it would ever get. He never had to come back here again. He could spend the rest of his life circling the globe a free man. No ties.
"Shane?" Jim's voice was concerned.
"I'm doing just fine," Shane lied. "It's just a bit of an adjustment being back on a ranch after years of living in offices and hotels." That was one way of putting it. The trip to town had been a mistake. Moraine was filled with too many memories, regrets and ghosts. He wouldn't be going back.
"I can hardly picture you on a ranch," Jim was saying. "Or riding a horse or dating a cowgirl. Are there any cute cowgirls in the area?"
Immediately the image of the woman in town came to mind. She'd been tiny, pretty, spitting mad and full of grit. And not a cowgirl.
"I wouldn't know. I didn't come here looking for women."
"Yes, but they tend to find you." Jim didn't sound even vaguely concerned that he had wandered into personal territory. They'd known each other a long time. "Sometimes they even follow you here."
"That only happened a couple of times. It's not happening again."
"Too bad. I get some of my best dates that way."