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Lilly Russo wasn't looking forward to meeting with the man who'd so unceremoniously dumped her a mere three weeks ago. She'd do it, however, and just about anything else for the clients of Horizon Adult Day Care Center. They were too deserving, too much in need, too dear to her to lose out on a golden opportunity because of her pride.
"Mr. Tucker will be with you in a few minutes."
If his assistant knew that her boss and Lilly had recently engaged in a brief affair, she gave no indication.
"Would you care for coffee or water while you wait?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
Lilly attempted a smile and sat on the closest piece of furniture, which happened to be an overstuffed couch, and instantly sank like a stone into its soft cushions. She should have chosen the chair by the window instead. Then she would've been able to stand gracefully when the assistant or, worse, Jake Tucker himself came to collect her for their appointment.
While she waited, she studied the comfortable and charmingly appointed lobby. The rustic, western flavor of the mountain guest resort was as apparent here as everywhere else on the ranch. Green checked curtains framed large picture windows. Heavy pine furniture, much of it antique, sat on polished hardwood floors covered by colorful area rugs. Paintings depicting nature scenes and wild animals indigenous to Arizona's southern rim country hung on the walls.
Lilly had been acquainted with Jake Tuckermanager of Bear Creek Ranch and landlord of the mini mall where the day-care center was locatedfor almost two years. They'd first met here in his office, when she'd become the day care's new administrator and her predecessor had introduced her to Jake. Since then she'd visited the ranch only a few times. But at the Labor Day cookout nine weeks ago, Jake had suddenly taken notice of her and asked her on a date.
If Lilly knew then what she did now, she'd have saved herself a heap of heartache and refused his invitation.
The assistant appeared in Lilly's line of vision. "Mr. Tucker will see you now."
She pushed out of the couch, wobbling only once, much to her relief. If it hadn't been so important to make a businesslike impression on Jake, she'd have worn something other than a slim-fitting suit and high-heeled pumps. He wouldn't guess by looking at her how much his abrupt breakup had hurt. Not if she could help it.
"Follow me, please." Jake's assistant led Lilly behind the busy front desk to an open office door. She gestured for Lilly to enter before discreetly moving aside.
The moment of truth had arrived.
Mentally rehearsing her pitch, Lilly stepped into Jake's office. She came to a halt when the door closed behind her. Lilly's stomach, already queasy to begin with, knotted into a tight ball.
Jake sat behind a large, ornate desk reading a computer screen, his profile to her. He turned his head to look at her, and she was struck anew by his intelligent hazel eyes and strong, square jaw. Memories of cradling that face between her hands while they made love flooded her.
She promptly lost track of what she'd planned to say.
He stood and extended his hand across the desk. "Good morning, Lilly. How are you?"
His greeting jump-started her befuddled brain. "Hello, Jake."
She stepped forward and accepted his handshake. His grip was confident and controlled and reminiscent of when their relationship had been strictly professional. But she'd seen him in those rare moments when he lost control and gave himself over to passion. That was the Jake she found most attractive, the one she'd fallen for harder than she would've thought possible.
"Thanks for seeing me on such short notice." She cleared the nervous tickle from her throat and sat in one of the two visitors chairs facing his desk.
"I would've come to the center on my next trip to town," he said, resuming his seat.
"I felt our meeting should take place here, since what I want to discuss involves Bear Creek Ranch."
"Is that so?" he asked and leaned forward.
He wore his sandy brown hair a little longer than when she'd first met him. It complemented his customary wardrobe of western shirts and dress jeansand was surprisingly soft when sifted through inquisitive fingers.
"Yes." Lilly struggled to stay on track.
She couldn't afford to mess this up. The facility's clients and staff were depending on her to make their hopes and dreams a reality.
Besides, she and Jake weren't an item anymore, their personal relationship over. Hadn't he made that abundantly clear three weeks ago? He could get down on his knees and crawl across the floor and she wouldn't agree to see him again.
Lilly Russo didn't court misery. She'd already had enough in her life, thank you very much.
"As you know," she went on, finding her stride, "the center isn't just a babysitting service for emotionally and mentally challenged adults. One of our goals is to provide clients with recreational activities that enhance their life experience, either by intellectually stimulating them or teaching them skills they can use outside the center."
"You have a great program there."
"I'm glad you think so because we'd like your help with a project."
"What kind of help?"
Someone who didn't know Jake quite so well might have missed the subtle change in his expression from mild interest to wariness. Lilly suspected the wariness had more to do with his feelings toward her and their breakup than not wanting to help the center. She rallied against a quick, yet intense, flash of pain and continued with her pitch.
"The center's revenue comes from a variety of sources, including donations. Some of those donations are in the form of equipment or furniture or even small appliances rather than money. We've received an item that I initially thought was unusable. But after some consideration, I've changed my mind. Dave, our owner, and the staff, agree with me that if we can find a suitable place to board this item, it might prove to be very valuable and enjoyable to our clients."
Trust Jake to pick up on the one key word in her long speech.
"Yes. A mule."
"Someone's given you a mule?"
"Tom and Ginger Malcovitch. You may know them."
"I do." Jake frowned.
Lilly knew why. Ginger's brother and Jake's ex-wife had recently announced their engagement. In fact, it was right after their announcement that Jake had asked Lilly out on their first date.
Unfortunately, she hadn't seen the connection. Not until the night he'd ended their relationship.
She pushed the unhappy memories to the back of her mind, determined not to let anything distract her. "The mule is old and very gentle, though slightly lame in one leg. But not so lame that he couldn't be led around a ring carrying one adult."
She nodded. "I'm sure you've heard of the positive effect animals can have on the mentally, emotionally and even physically challenged. They seem to have an ability to bond with these individuals in a way people can't."
"I saw something on TV once."
"Yes, well, the benefits animals have on the elderly and disabled is a documented fact." She wished he'd sounded more enthusiastic.
"And you think this mule will help your clients?"
"I'm convinced of it." She gathered her courage. "In addition to corralling the mule with the horses on the ranch, we'd need to use your riding equipment. In exchange, our clients who are able to will do some work for the ranch."
"What kind of work?"
"Mucking out stalls. Feeding. Cleaning and oiling saddles and bridles. Whatever simple tasks can be accomplished in a morning or an afternoon."
"How often would you come out?"
"Three times a week. More if I can recruit additional volunteers."
Horizon employed ten full-time caretakers, including two nurses and several student volunteers from the nearby college.
Outings required one caretaker for every two clients and put a strain on the center's regular staff. She doubted Dave and his wife would agree to hire more employees.
Jake expelled a long breath and sat back in his chair.
Lilly sensed she was losing him and panicked. "I've spoken with our CPA. She tells me the cost of boarding the mule would be a tax deduction for the ranch."
"It's not just money."
"You've offered to help the center in the past."
"I was thinking more along the lines of repairs and maintenance. Not providing jobs for your clients."
"Work in exchange for boarding our mule isn't exactly a job."
"There's an issue of liability." Jake spoke slowly and appeared to choose his words carefully.
Lilly's defenses shot up. "Because they're disabled?"
"Because they'd be neither guests nor employees. I'm not sure they'd be covered by our insurance in the case of a mishap."
"Oh. Of course." Insurance wasn't an obstacle Lilly had considered, and she chided herself for her shortsightedness. "I understand. You have to do what's best for the ranch."
"I'll call our agent later today. Check with him on how the policy reads."
The wheels in Lilly's mind turned. "What if our insurance covered the clients while they were on the ranch?"
"I'll find out. If not, maybe Dave could have a special rider added."
Jake drummed his fingers on the desktop. "Even if I end up agreeing to your proposition, I'll still need to take it to the family for their approval."
Here was an obstacle Lilly had considered. Jake managed Bear Creek Ranch but it was owned equally by eight members of the Tucker family, including him.
"I'd be happy to meet with them," she said, hope filling the void left by her earlier disappointment.
"Let's wait a bit. That may not be necessary."
She sat back in her chair, unaware that she'd inched forward.
"Your clients would also have to keep a reasonable distance from the guests. Please don't take this the wrong way, but they might make some people uncomfortable, and I have to put our guests' interests first."
Was Jake one of those "uncomfortable" people? Lilly compressed her lips and paused before replying. She encountered this discomfort on a regular basis. And not just at work.
It had started with her ex-husband, immediately following their son Evan's birth. She'd also seen it in the expressions of countless friends and relatives who had visited during the two months little Evan resided in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Then later when they brought him home, still hooked to machines and monitors. The discomfort prevailed even at Evan's funeral seven months later.
Differences and abnormalities, Lilly had sadly learned, weren't always tolerated. All she could do was try to show people that special needs individuals were frequently affectionate and charming.
"That won't be a problem," she told Jake. "The people we choose to bring will be closely supervised at all times. At least one staff member for every two to three adults."
"That should be acceptable."
"Good." She made a mental note to contact the college regarding more student volunteers.
"I'll let you know what the family says." Jake rose.
Lilly did likewise. "Do you know when that might be?" She started to mention the Malcovitches impending house sale, then bit her tongue. Another reminder of Jake's ex-wife's engagement wouldn't advance her cause. "We need to find a place for the mule this week."
"Saturday's the earliest I can get everyone together. If you're stuck, you can board the mule here temporarily."
"Really?" She couldn't help smiling. His offer was both unexpected and generous. "Thank you, Jake."
He came around the desk toward her, a spark of interest lighting his eyes. "It was nice seeing you again, Lilly."
As they walked toward his office door, his fingers came to rest lightly on her elbow. The gesture was courteous. Not the least bit sexual. Yet, she was instantly struck with an image of that same hand roaming her body and bringing her intense pleasure.
Oh, no. She didn't need this now. Not when she'd finally resigned herself to their breakup.
"I'll call you in a day or two about our insurance policy." She casually sidestepped him, the movement dislodging his hand.
"Take care, Lilly."
Was that concern she heard in his voice? Did he regret the ruthless manner in which he'd informed her they were through? A more plausible explanation was that she'd only heard what she wanted to.
But then, there was that look on his face .
"You, too, Jake." She left his office before she could jump to a wrong conclusion, barely acknowledging the young woman seated at the workstation behind the front desk.
Lilly's thigh-hugging skirt hampered her hasty retreat across the lobby. She slowed before she tumbled down the porch steps. From now on, she vowed, whatever happened between her and Jake Tucker would be strictly business. Forget all those looks and touches and vocal inflections. She wasn't going to endanger a valuable program for the center. Nor was she risking her heart on the basis of a few misread signals.
* * *
Buttoning his flannel-lined denim jacket, Jake headed out the main lodge and along the uneven stone walkway leading to the parking lot. A gust of wind swept past him, sending a small pile of leaves and pine needles dancing across the hard-packed dirt.
He held the crown of his cowboy hat, dropped his chin and walked directly into the chilly breeze. Fall came quickly to this part of the state and stayed only briefly before winter descended. Within the last few weeks, the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. By next month, frost would cover the ground each morning. Soon after that, snow.
Bear Creek Ranch was always booked solid during the holiday season, which stretched from late October through the first week of January. Nestled in a valley at the base of the Mazatzal Mountains, it was surrounded by dense ponderosa pines and sprawling oak trees. Bear Creek, from which the ranch derived its name, ran crystal clear and icy cold three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Fishermen, both professional and amateur, flocked from all over the southwest to test their skill at landing record-breaking trout.
Jake had lived on the ranch his whole lifeuntil two years ago when he'd walked in on his then-wife with another man. Given the choice, he'd have sought counseling and attempted to repair his and Ellen's deteriorating marriage, for the sake of their three daughters if nothing else. Ellen, on the other hand, had wanted out and promptly divorced him.
Because he wanted his daughters to grow up in the same home he had, enjoy the same country lifestyle, remain near the close-knit Tucker family, Jake had let Ellen keep their house on the ranch until their youngest child graduated from high school. He'd purchased a vacant lot a few miles up the road. There, he'd built a lovelyand terribly emptyhouse on a hill with a stunning view no one appreciated.
Never once did Jake dream Ellen would bring another man into his home to sleep in his bed, eat at his table, live with his daughters. The very idea of it made him sick. And angry. That anger had prompted him to invite Lilly on a date.