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This was either the most brilliant move KayLee Morgan had ever made in her life or it was the biggest blunder. One thing was absolutely certain, they weren't in Southern California anymore. No, two things were certain. She didn't have a warm enough coat for April in Montana. And, for crying out loud, she shouldn't have worn her favorite blue wrap dress in this wind, either.
The early afternoon sun shone brightly, but a chill swept across the expansive porch of the rambling house at the Shadow Range Ranch and had her holding the folds of her coat tightly together for protection. To get herself pumped, she rose up onto her toes and lowered and did it again. Time to be brave.
Do something. Don't just stand there time.
Securing the strap of her shoulder bag in place with one hand, she put her other palm on her belly. "Here we go, kiddo."
"Talkin' to yourself?"
KayLee spun to see a man standing several feet away from the base of the stepsnot just a man, a rancher, a real live Montana rancher. He had his cowboy hat pushed back on his forehead and gloriously blond curls spilled from under the brim. His well-worn leather jacket gaped opendidn't he know it was cold in Montana?and showed off a cream-colored shirt, open at the neck. His jeans clung to his muscular thighs, cowboy boots gave him an inch he didn't need and on his face he wore an expression that could only be described as neutral, though he was only a millimeter away from a frown.
But man, he waswell, by the standards she had left two days agobeautiful.
"I guess I was talkin' to myself." She used his own vernacular and then spread a quick so-pleased-to-meet-you smile across her face. She knew how to look confident. She had, after all, recently come from the land of people versed in becoming the part, any part. "would you be one of the Doyle family?"
"Baylor Doyle, ma'am." He doffed his hat and the curls jumped loose. And then, oh, my God, he actually ran his hand through his hair.
A new kind of shiver passed through her. Yeah, yeah, she said to her pregnancy-crazy libido. All she wanted from this guy was for his family to hire her for the job. She did not need another pretty face in her life, but she'd deal.
She started to descend the steps with her hand outstretched. "KayLee Morgan of K. L. Morgan and Associates."
Diamond-blue eyes narrowed a bit and a frown came on full bore. Baylor Doyle met her halfway up, engulfed her hand with his big rough one and squeezed with a polite amount of firmness. He studied her without blinking.
"You're K. L. Morgan."
It wasn't a question. It was a disappointment. K.L. was supposed to be some fortyish man with a touch of confidence-building gray at the temples. Most of the people she'd met during this desperate work search kept expecting her to tell them she'd go get the boss and to throw off a curtsy or something. Not her fault she looked a lot younger than twenty-eight or that her "nads" were ovaries.
Oh, shoot. She had forgotten to wear her glasses. She didn't really need them, but they helped her look her age.
"I am K.L." She pulled her spine straighter. She absolutely could not afford to blink even once, as she was positive ranchers were no-nonsense peopleand she was working for two, or she would be when somebody gave her a job. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me in person, I'm excited to show you and your family my ideas for the Shadow Range Eco Ranch project. I think you will all be very pleased."
"I expect everyone else is already in the house." He held his hand out for her to proceed back up the steps.
His soft Western drawl clipped a few of his words as he spoke and she found the sound attractive in an exotic, alien-to-the-Eureka-state kind of way.
Wait a minute, she thought as she crossed the porch. Everyone else? She knew there was a son or two involved in the deal. How many more players were there? were they all going to frown like this one?
He held open the door of the house for her and she stepped into a previous century. Antlers hung from the walls of the foyer and the huge stone fireplace in the adjoining pine-paneled room had discoloration from the heat and smoke of a hundred years of use, maybe more.
He led her into the large room dominated by heavy leather furniture and filled with western objects from varying cultures and time periods.
"About time you got home, Baylor. She'll be here anytime," a man's voice called from down the hallway.
He grimaced. "Wait here, please. I'll see if they are ready for you."
"Am I early? Do you want me to wait outside?" KayLee regretted the questions as soon as the words were out. They made her seem tentative. Not good in a place where life was serious and flippancy was most likely confined to the children.
He shook his head and strode off down a hallway from where the voice had come. His broad shoulders, it seemed, spread from wall to wall, and could probably hold the weight of the world.
Frown or no frown, if she weren't careful, she'd be in love Hollywood-style with this manfast, hot and gone as soon as sanity returned.
She took in her surroundings as she waited: pottery on high shelves, stark black-and-white photos of Old West life in groupings on one wall, family type photos hung in a large collection on the far wall. If these were all family photos, there were a lot of Doyles. One photo, if she wasn't mistaken, was Baylor Doyle, with his parents, his two brothers and a sister from at least ten years ago. She walked over to the photo.
She wondered if she'd have to face all of them today.
"They don't bite." Baylor's deep voice came from behind her.
Funny, she thought, coming from a man who looked as if he might, but when she faced him, he wore a deliberate smirk. It made him skew bad boy even more than the frown. Attraction stirred in her and she gathered her full coat around her. A pox on bad boys. That had been why her husband had been so attractive, a rogue producer on the fringes of Hollywood.
"Most of them don't, anyway," he continued, sans drawl, and it was her turn to narrow her eyes in suspicion. "My mother will be here in just a couple of minutes."
"Thank you." Bring 'em on, all of them, KayLee decided as she stepped away from the wall of photos and over to a carefully lit painting of a solitary horse, saddled, riderless, standing on a rocky hilltop, proud. If he hadn't been wearing a saddle, she would have thought him a wild stallion.
"This horse must be special to your family," she said as she examined the delicate brush strokes and the colors suffused with light and energy.
"Not the horse so much as the artist."
KayLee glanced at the man again. His playfulness was gone, replaced by something that might be hurt, but also might be "none of your business, so don't ask."
She leaned closer. In the lower left corner in pale blue paint was the name Crystal.
"It's beautiful." She wanted to ask about it, but if she didn't get the job
He let her wander the room, getting to know the Doyle family a bit more. She tried to affect casually interested and empathetic, not needy or like the fish out of water she was.
If the objects in the room were an indication of the family history, KayLee couldn't help but feel awe at the depth. She moved from the gleaming silver cup sealed in a glass box to a handmade baby gown pinned out on a frame and also protected behind glass. "Some of these artifacts appear to be really old."
"Many of them have been in the family for a long time."
"Those?" She pointed at the pair of rifles hanging above the fireplace.
"They were used on the ranch well over a hundred years ago."
The stocks of the rifles were worn and the barrels dinged but they had been polished with care. She wondered how many lives they had taken and how many they had saved.
"It's all so far-removed from the chrome accessories and plastic fingernails in my life."
He checked her hands and she held them up. "A little clear polish is all."
"Good, I'd have hated to have to throw you out over plastic fingernails." His expression gave nothing away, but he sounded as if he were kidding.
At least she hoped to God he was. Baylor Doyle was a swarming mass of confusing signals. She'd have to steer clear of him as much as she could.
An older woman entered the room from the hallway. She glared pointedly at Baylor, then smiled welcom-ingly as a tray of chocolate chip cookies just off the cooling rack in grandmother's kitchen.
"Hello, Ms. Morgan. Don't pay any attention to him. He's lookin' to be booted out of the state," she said, giving the man a "be good" look that could only come from a mother.
"You must be Evelyn Doyle." KayLee stepped toward the older version of the woman in the family photo and put her hand out. "This is a lovely home, so full of history."
"The Shadow Range Ranch has been in the family for over five generations. Though it's much larger than the original homestead." Evelyn Doyle's smile broadened and she adjusted the thick gray ponytail that hung down the front of her Western-style plaid shirt.
"And we'd like to keep it that way." Baylor leaned down, placed a kiss on his mother's cheek and then stepped away.
Evelyn took KayLee's hand in one of hers and put her other hand on Kaylee's shoulder, giving her a couple of pats. "I am Evelyn Doyle, but Evvy will do," she said. Then, without taking her hand away, she looked up at Baylor. "Welcome back, Bay, dear. Your buying trip must have gone well."
"They'll be delivering the new stock as soon as it can be arranged."
Evvy let her hand drop and smiled at KayLee again. "I'm afraid there'll be a lot of livestock talk here. We've bred our own line of Angus beef and we'd like to think it's superior to most of what's out there."
"I'm afraid I don't know much about beef that isn't ready to put on my plate," KayLee said and looked from Evvy to Baylor, hoping that wasn't some sort of faux pas.
Baylor made a quiet, derisive sound.
"Baylor." Man and mother held a momentary wordless exchange and then Evvy continued, "I'm glad you made it in time. Bay, take her coat now, please."
Evvy gestured toward KayLee, who shrugged off the heavy shoulder bag and placed it on the floor at her feet. The light touch of Baylor's fingertips on her shoulders as he helped her out of her coat might have felt sensual if she weren't standing between the rancher and his mother. And not at all if pregnancy hormones hadn't tricked her brain into becoming a sex engine. Thankfully, Baylor took her coat and left quickly.
"And your drive?" Evvy asked KayLee as Baylor strode away.
KayLee tugged on the tails of the white sweater she had put over her dress when she realized her coat wasn't going to be warm enough. "I can't get over how gorgeous Montana is. I hope I'm not being insulting if I say you all live in a scenic postcard."
"Not at all. Even those of us who were born here think the same thing from time to time. Well, come, we're all in the den."
"I'm so glad to have the chance to meet everyone." Everyone. Gulp.
When KayLee heard Baylor coming back into the room, she spun around slowly and faced him. His steps faltered and he gave her a long, questioning look with his eyebrows nearly drawn together, but he didn't say anything.
She smiled to herself. This was the moment he realized he was seeing a pregnant woman, that her girth wasn't just from her coat that fell from her shoulders in voluminous folds.
Evvy had not been surprised or, at least, not bothered.
After more smiles and nods, Baylor snatched up Kay-Lee's shoulder bag from the floor, and they all headed down a hallway, Evvy Doyle in the lead.
The ranch house was bigbigger than she expected. Good. They were already used to big spaces inside as well as out. Hopefully, they'd like the wide-open design of her guest cabins the best. If K. L. Morgan and Associates got this job, her design firm might have a future, she might have a future and so might her baby, who was the only associate she had.
KayLee buried any sign of desperation under a bright Hollywood smile and kept her place in the parade.
Moments later, they stepped into a den with a knotty pine floor and walls, and a cheery fire in the fireplace. Five more faces assessed KayLee as they stood to greet hertwo women and three more men. Seven against one. Fine, she'd faced worse odds when her husband's creditors came after her.
The older man, no doubt the Curtis Doyle from the phone calls and the father in the photo, stepped forward to stand beside his wife. If there were middle-aged, Western-wear wedding-cake couples out there, then this pair had been the model. There weren't two people in the world as well-matched as Evvy and Curtis Doyle, or who looked more honest and upstanding.
Or two people she knew she couldn't disappoint. Well, where did that come from?
"Mr. Doyle, I'm KayLee Morgan. Nice to meet you in person."
He shook her hand firmly and then introduced her to the rest of the family. The younger men and women were dressed in what KayLee thought might be casual-office Western wear, jeans and boots with open-necked button shirts from plain to plaid, and they all inspected her carefully.