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He never liked coming here. The stupid calf followed him around, everywhere he went. He couldn't get the animal to leave him alone. Once, he'd whacked the calf with a soft fir tree branch, but that had led to repercussions. Its owner had a lot to say about animal cruelty and quoted the law to him. He didn't need her to quote the law. He was, after all, the chief of police in the small Montana town where they both lived.
Technically, of course, this wasn't town. It was about two miles outside the Medicine Ridge city limits. A small ranch in Hollister, Montana, that included two clear, cold trout streams and half a mountain. Her uncle and his uncle had owned it jointly during their lifetimes. The two of them, best friends forever, had recently died, his uncle from a heart attack and hers, about a month later, in an airplane crash en route to a cattleman's convention. The property was set to go up on the auction block, and a California real estate developer was skulking in the wings, waiting to put in the winning bid. He was going to build a rich man's resort here, banking on those pure trout streams to bring in the business.
If Hollister Police Chief Theodore Graves had his way, the man would never set foot on the property. She felt that way, too. But the wily old men had placed a clause in both their wills pertaining to ownership of the land in question. The clause in her uncle's will had been a source of shock to Graves and the girl when the amused attorney read it out to them. It had provoked a war of words every time he walked in the door.
"I'm not marrying you," Jillian Sanders told him firmly the minute he stepped on the porch. "I don't care if I have to live in the barn with Sammy."
Sammy was the calf.
He looked down at her from his far superior height with faint arrogance. "No problem. I don't think the grammar school would give you a hall pass to marry me anyway."
Her pert nose wrinkled. "Well, you'd have to get permission from the old folks' home, and I'll bet you wouldn't get it, either!"
It was a standing joke. He was thirty-one to her almost twenty-one. They were completely mismatched. She was small and blonde and blue-eyed, he was tall and dark and black-eyed. He liked guns and working on his old truck when he wasn't performing his duties as chief of police in the small Montana community where they lived. She liked making up recipes for new sweets and he couldn't stand anything sweet except pound cake. She also hated guns and noise.
"If you don't marry me, Sammy will be featured on the menu in the local cafe, and you'll have to live in the woods in a cave," he pointed out.
That didn't help her disposition. She glared at him. It wasn't her fault that she had no family left alive. Her parents had died not long after she was born of an influenza outbreak. Her uncle had taken her in and raised her, but he was not in good health and had heart problems. Jillian had taken care of him as long as he was alive, fussing over his diet and trying to concoct special dishes to make him comfortable. But he'd died not of ill health, but in a light airplane crash on his way to a cattle convention. He didn't keep many cattle anymore, but he'd loved seeing friends at the conferences, and he loved to attend them. She missed him. It was lonely on the ranch. Of course, if she had to marry Rambo, here, it would be less lonely.
She glared at him, as if everything bad in her life could be laid at his door. "I'd almost rather live in the cave. I hate guns!" she added vehemently, noting the one he wore, old-fashioned style, on his hip in a holster. "You could blow a hole through a concrete wall with that thing!"
"Probably," he agreed.
"Why can't you carry something small, like your officers do?"
"I like to make an impression," he returned, tongue-in-cheek.
It took her a minute to get the insinuation. She glared at him even more.
He sighed. "I haven't had lunch," he said, and managed to look as if he were starving.
"There's a good cafe right downtown."
"Which will be closing soon because they can't get a cook," he said with disgust. "Damnedest thing, we live in a town where every woman cooks, but nobody wants to do it for the public. I guess I'll starve. I burn water."
It was the truth. He lived on takeout from the local cafe and frozen dinners. He glowered at her. "I guess marrying you would save my life. At least you can cook."
She gave him a smug look. "Yes, I can. And the local cafe isn't closing. They hired a cook just this morning."
"They did?" he exclaimed. "Who did they get?"
She averted her eyes. "I didn't catch her name, but they say she's talented. So you won't starve, I guess."
"Yes, but that doesn't help our situation here," he pointed out. His sensual lips made a thin line. "I don't want to get married."
"Neither do I," she shot back. "I've hardly even dated anybody!"
His eyebrows went up. "You're twenty years old. Almost twenty-one."
"Yes, and my uncle was suspicious of every man who came near me," she returned. "He made it impossible for me to leave the house."
His black eyes twinkled. "As I recall, you did escape once."
She turned scarlet. Yes, she had, with an auditor who'd come to do the books for a local lawyer's office. The man, much older than her and more sophisticated, had charmed her. She'd trusted him, just as she'd trusted another man two years earlier. The auditor had taken her back to his motel room to get something he forgot. Or so he'd told her. Actually he'd locked the door and proceeded to try to remove her clothes. He was very nice about it, he was just insistent.
But he didn't know that Jillian had emotional scars already from a man trying to force her. She'd been so afraid. She'd really liked the man, trusted him. Uncle John hadn't. He always felt guilty about what she'd been through because of his hired man. She was underage, and he told her to stay away from the man.
But she'd had stars in her eyes because the man had flirted with her when she'd gone with Uncle John to see his attorney about a land deal. She'd thought he was different, nothing like Uncle John's hired man who had turned nasty.
He'd talked to her on the phone several times and persuaded her to go out with him. Infatuated, she sneaked out when Uncle John went to bed. But she landed herself in very hot water when the man got overly amorous. She'd managed to get her cell phone out and punched in 911. The result had been unforgettable.
"They did get the door fixed, I believe ?" she said, letting her voice trail off.
He glared at her. "It was locked."
"There's such a thing as keys," she pointed out.
"While I was finding one, you'd have been."
She flushed again. She moved uncomfortably. "Yes, well, I did thank you. At the time."
"And a traveling mathematician learned the dangers of trying to seduce teenagers in my town."
She couldn't really argue. She'd been sixteen at the time, and Theodore's quick reaction had saved her honor. The auditor hadn't known her real age. She knew he'd never have asked her out if he had any idea she was under legal age. He'd been the only man she had a real interest in, for her whole life. He'd quit the firm he worked for, so he never had to come back to Hollister.
She felt bad about it. The whole fiasco was her own fault.
The sad thing was that it wasn't her first scary episode with an older man. The first, at fifteen, had scarred her. She'd thought that she could trust a man again because she was crazy about the auditor. But the auditor became the icing on the cake of her withdrawal from the world of dating for good. She'd really liked him, trusted him, had been infatuated with him. He wasn't even a bad man, not like that other one.
"The judge did let him go with a severe reprimand about making sure of a girl's age and not trying to persuade her into an illegal act. But he could have gone to prison, and it would have been my fault," she recalled. She didn't mention the man who had gone to prison for assaulting her. Ted didn't know about that and she wasn't going to tell him.
"Don't look to me to have any sympathy for him," he said tersely. "Even if you'd been of legal age, he had no right to try to coerce you."
"Your uncle should have let you get out more," he said reluctantly.
"I never understood why he kept me so close to home," she replied thoughtfully. She knew it wasn't all because of her bad experience.
His black eyes twinkled. "Oh, that's easy. He was saving you for me."
She gaped at him.
He chuckled. "He didn't actually say so, but you must have realized from his will that he'd planned a future for us for some time."
A lot of things were just becoming clear. She was speechless, for once.
He grinned. "He grew you in a hothouse just for me, little orchid," he teased.
"Obviously your uncle never did the same for me," she said scathingly.
He shrugged, and his eyes twinkled even more. "One of us has to know what to do when the time comes," he pointed out.
She flushed. "I think we could work it out without diagrams."
He leaned closer. "Want me to look it up and see if I can find some for you?"
"I'm not marrying you!" she yelled.
He shrugged. "Suit yourself. Maybe you can put up some curtains and lay a few rugs and the cave will be more comfortable." He glanced out the window. "Poor Sammy," he added sadly. "His future is less, shall we say, palatable."
"For the last time, Sammy is not a bull, he's a cow. She's a cow," she faltered.
"Sammy is a bull's name."
"She looked like a Sammy," she said stubbornly. "When she's grown, she'll give milk."
"Only when she's calving."
"Like you know," she shot back.
"I belong to the cattleman's association," he reminded her. "They tell us stuff like that."
"I belong to it, too, and no, they don't, you learn it from raising cattle!"
He tugged his wide-brimmed hat over his eyes. "It's useless, arguing with a blond fence post. I'm going back to work."
"Don't shoot anybody."
"I've never shot anybody."
"Ha!" she burst out. "What about that bank robber?"
"Oh. Him. Well, he shot at me first." "Stupid of him."
He grinned. "That's just what he said, when I visited him in the hospital. He missed. I didn't. And he got sentenced for assault on a police officer as well as the bank heist."
She frowned. "He swore he'd make you pay for that. What if he gets out?"
"Ten to twenty, and he's got priors," he told her. "I'll be in a nursing home for real by the time he gets out."
She glowered up at him. "People are always getting out of jail on technicalities. All he needs is a good lawyer."
"Good luck to him getting one on what he earns making license plates."
"The state provides attorneys for people who can't pay."
He gasped. "Thank you for telling me! I didn't know!"
"Why don't you go to work?" she asked, irritated. "I've been trying to, but you won't stop flirting with me."
She gasped, but for real. "I am not flirting with you! "
He grinned. His black eyes were warm and sensuous as they met hers. "Yes, you are." He moved a step closer. "We could do an experiment. To see if we were chemically suited to each other."
She looked at him, puzzled, for a few seconds, until it dawned on her what he was suggesting. She moved back two steps, deliberately, and her high cheekbones flushed again. "I don't want to do any experiments with you!"
He sighed. "Okay. But it's going to be a very lonely marriage if you keep thinking that way, Jake."
"Don't call me Jake! My name is Jillian."
He shrugged. "You're a Jake." He gave her a long look, taking in her ragged jeans and bulky gray sweatshirt and boots with curled-up toes from use. Her long blond hair was pinned up firmly into a topknot, and she wore no makeup. "Tomboy," he added accusingly.
She averted her eyes. There were reasons she didn't accentuate her feminine attributes, and she didn't want to discuss the past with him. It wasn't the sort of thing she felt comfortable talking about with anyone. It made Uncle John look bad, and he was dead. He'd cried about his lack of judgment in hiring Davy Harris. But it was too late by then.
Ted was getting some sort of vibrations from her. She was keeping something from him. He didn't know what, but he was almost certain of it.
His teasing manner went into eclipse. He became a policeman again. "Is there something you want to talk to me about, Jake?" he asked in the soft tone he used with children.
She wouldn't meet his eyes. "It wouldn't help."
She grimaced. "I don't know you well enough to tell you some things."
"If you marry me, you will."
"We've had this discussion," she pointed out.
"Stop that!" she muttered. "I'll find her a home. I could always ask John Callister if he and his wife, Sassy, would let her live with them."
"On their ranch where they raise purebred cattle."
"Sammy has purebred bloodlines on both sides," she muttered. "Her mother was a purebred Hereford cow and her father was a purebred Angus bull."
"And Sammy is a 'black baldy,'" he agreed, giving it the hybrid name. "But that doesn't make her a purebred cow."
"Semantics!" she shot back.
He grinned. "There you go, throwing those one-dollar words at me again."
"Don't pretend to be dumb, if you please. I happen to know that you got a degree in physics during your stint with the army."
He raised both thick black eyebrows. "Should I be flattered?"
"That you take an interest in my background." "Everybody knows. It isn't just me." He shrugged.
"Why are you a small-town police chief, with that sort of education?" she asked suddenly.
"Because I don't have the temperament for scientific research," he said simply. "Besides, you don't get to play with guns in a laboratory."
"I hate guns."
"I really mean it." She shivered dramatically. "You could shoot somebody by accident. Didn't one of your patrolmen drop his pistol in a grocery store and it went off?"
He looked grim. "Yes, he did. He was off duty and carrying his little .32 wheel gun in his pants pocket. He reached for change and it fell out and discharged."