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Without feeling an ounce of guilt, Rachel McAllister, still wearing her blue flannel pajamas and comfy robe, left her mother in the kitchen to make breakfast and plopped down on the leather couch in the den with her laptop. Today was her birthday and she was taking the day off. Well, not the whole day. That would be impossible unless she left the Sundance. Upstairs in the guest wing, a dozen women were in the midst of waking up, applying war paint or debating over which inappropriate outfit to wear for their sleigh ride through the foothills.
This was February in Montana, the temperature near freezing and no strongly worded advice Rachel posted on the Sundance's website made a bit of difference. The women came dressed more to impress her brothers than to stay warm. God bless the McAllister boys. All three of them were terrific ranchers, even better eye candy, and the reservations by adventurous single women kept on coming. Good for the bottom line each month, not so good for Rachel's sad little life.
She couldn't complain, though, since it had been her idea to make part of the family homestead a dude ranch. They needed the income until their real business of raising cattle, and the economy in general, recovered. Then she'd be free again. Free to pursue a career, live in the bright lights of the city, wear high heels and orange sweaters that clashed horribly with her auburn hair, without anyone giving her a second look. And hopefully, barter her master's degree for a cool job with a hotel chain that would send her to even cooler places.
But the ranchher familyhad paid for that graduate degree and she owed them big-time. They didn't feel that way, of course. She was the youngest, the only girl, and her mother and brothers would do anything for herincluding keeping her in the dark about the family's floundering finances while paying her tuition. Yet she should've known would have seen it if she hadn't been so self-absorbed and living the good life in Dallas.
Through five generations of McAllisters the three-thousand-acre Sundance had been one of the most prosperous ranches around. Not once had it occurred to her that they were struggling just like any other business in the livestock industry that was dependent on beef consumption and gas prices.
No, she'd turned a blind eye for years, going to school, cashing the monthly expense checks they sent her . The idea shamed her so much she couldn't bear to think about it. And she wouldn't. Not today. Not on her twenty-sixth birthday. She'd cut herself a break. Just for a few hours
Her laptop stirred to life and she checked email first, grinning at the string of funny birthday messages from her college friends. Her sophomore roommate, Ashley, had sent an e-card of a male stripper strategically holding a birthday cake. Rachel laughed, glancing toward the door to make sure she was still alone.
She opened several more e-cards and found that everyone seemed to be on the same cheesy track. The semi-naked men would be far more amusing if she hadn't been celibate for so damn long. Almost eight months since she'd returned home, and before that another four since she'd split from her casual relationship with Tom, a third-year law student. Great. Her dry spell was about to reach the anniversary mark.
Sighing, she clicked the mouse on last year's birthday bash. Twenty-five, a milestone according to her friends who'd used the excuse to go all out. She smiled at the picture of Katy popping the cork. It had been eight-thirty, and they hadn't even made it to their first club yet.
"Ah, here you are."
At the sound of Jamie's voice, Rachel nearly lost her laptop. She kept it from sliding to the floor but didn't close it in time.
Jamie leaned over to better see the picture. "Oh, my God, is that you?"
"Um, yep." Rachel set the laptop to the side and closed it.
"Let me see." With an elbow, Jamie nudged her over, then dropped to the couch beside her. "When was that taken?"
Rachel really liked her brother Cole's girlfriend and was thrilled she'd moved to the Sundance just last week. They'd become fast friends even before the move, while Jamie had been a guest. But Rachel wasn't sure she wanted to share this other side of herself yet. Her family didn't know about her wanting to leave and they'd be hurt. "It's pretty boring stuff since you don't know anyone."
"I know you. Happy birthday, by the way. That's why I came looking for you."
"Thanks. I think." Rachel put her hands on her cheeks and tested the elasticity of her skin.
"Oh, please." Jamie snorted. "Now you're just gonna piss me off. Wait till you're twenty minutes away from the big three-0."
"You have two years yet."
"It goes by fast." Jamie's gaze went to the laptop. "Were those Halloween pictures?"
"Hey." Rachel made a face. "They're from my last birthday."
"You're joking." Jamie stared at her. "Come on, let me see." Rachel got it. All she wore were jeans and oversize flannel shirts these days. Perfect for the ranch. "All right, look, you can't say anything to Cole, or anyone else."
Jamie shrugged, obviously confused. "Okay."
Rachel opened the laptop and brought up the pictures, surrendering the computer when Jamie reached for it.
"You were still in Dallas last year, right?" Jamie studied the image of Rachel in a snug pink top, short black leather skirt and glittery charcoal-colored stilettos. She was wearing full makeup, her fuchsia lips puckered in a kiss she was blowing to the camera. The same pink color as her top wove through her bangs.
She nodded, even though Jamie was too absorbed with the radical image to look up. "I was working on my master's and sharing a house with three other women."
Jamie clicked on the picture of Chloe, Katy and Liz, who all looked effortlessly big-city chic. "Your roommates?"
"We met while living in the dorms, then found a house we could afford right before senior year. My share didn't cost any more than a dorm room." Only when Jamie gave her a curious look did Rachel realize she'd sounded defensive.
"They threw you the party, I assume."
"Um, no party. We were getting ready to go club hopping when someone snapped these. The fun started much later."
Jamie grinned at the champagne toast they were making in the next photo. "Please tell me you didn't get hammered too early."
"Why do you think we had to chronicle the night?" Jamie laughed. "Seriously?"
"No." Rachel smiled. "I was fine. If nothing else, those ridiculous heels kept me in line."
"You mean those weren't part of your normal attire?"
"More than you might think. I have three other pairs."
"You wild woman." Jamie eyed her with amusement. "You know you've totally destroyed my image of you, right?"
Rachel sighed. "Absolutely."
Jamie angled the laptop toward her. "Cute. Who's this?"
She glanced at the photo. "Tom. We hung out for almost a year, when we weren't too busy." He was ambitious, so was she, and they'd been good together until they weren't. Neither of them had had a problem with saying adios when their schedules got too crazy.
"So you guys still keep in touch, or is it over?"
"Both. He wrote me when he passed his bar exam, and then when he moved to join a law firm in Denver." Rachel paused. Explaining too much was tricky. No telling what Cole had revealed about the Sundance's beleaguered financial situation. "We knew that eventually we'd each go where our careers took us."
Jamie frowned a little, half closed the laptop and studied Rachel's face. "You weren't planning on staying here," she said, lowering her voice.
Rachel glanced over her shoulder. "Swear you won't repeat anything I tell you," she said, turning back to Jamie. "Not even to Cole."
"Of course I won't, but that doesn't mean you have to tell me anything. Really. I won't be offended." Jamie passed the laptop back to Rachel. "We all have secrets."
Sighing, she offered a smile. "I'm sorry. I know you wouldn't betray a confidence. That was just me being insecure."
"You? Insecure? Uh-uh. But I know, we all have those days." Jamie started to get up.
"Wait. This isn't some top secret thing, it's just that I don't know what Cole told you about why we opened for guests."
Jamie settled down again. "He mentioned the Sundance was struggling financially and that the dude ranch was your idea. Which was brilliant, by the way, but I also understand it's not easy for everyone in the family to accept."
"At this point, I think the guys have made peace with the idea. Especially since they know it's a temporary solution and we've already seen a profit. But part of the deal was that I handle that side of the business."
"And you feel stuck."
Rachel gave a small shrug. "I wouldn't say I'm stuck, but it did alter my plans somewhat."
Rachel let out a rush of air. "I was only going to stay for part of the summer, spend time with my mom while I decided between two hotel chains that had tried to recruit me."
Jamie's eyebrows went up. "Um, I think that qualifies for more than somewhat. Wow. I don't know if you remember a conversation we had last August about you staying at the Sundance, but I figured something was off."
"I remember." The conversation had been about whether Rachel could be happy staying home. "I'm not looking for sympathy. This is exactly where I'm supposed to be, doing exactly what I'm meant to be doing. I owe my family. If I have to stay here another five years then"
"Oh, God you and Cole and your hyper sense of responsibility ." Jamie's lips twitched in a wry smile. "Must run in the family."
"You don't understand. Cole paid my tuition every semester, then agreed to graduate school, even though the ranch was in trouble."
"And yet the Sundance is still here. There's food on the table every night." Jamie touched her arm. "You think he would do one thing differently?"
"I don't know. No."
"Do you think Cole or the rest of your family would want you to sacrifice your future for the sake of the ranch, or for them?"
Boy, was this turning out to be a shitty birthday. Rachel rubbed her eyes. "I know it's hard for you to understand, Jamie."
"Because I don't have siblings? Or because my parents were more concerned with serving their country than raising me?"
Rachel gasped. "I didn't mean it like that." What was wrong with her? She knew Jamie's background and of course she would jump to that conclusion. "I swear I didn't"
"Relax. Even if that's what you were getting at, you'd have a point." She waved dismissively. "It's just that I'm pretty sure your family never thought you went to college so you could open a dude ranch."
Rachel smiled. "I promise you my brothers haven't given it that much thought."
"Hmm, yeah okay." Jamie let out a short laugh. "I'll give you that one. But your mom?"
Rachel slumped against the back of the couch. "I've spent a few sleepless nights worrying about that. Tiring as it is, she loves having guests to look after and chat with, and she's probably hoping this will be enough for me to stay." She sighed. "I'm really glad you're here, and when Shea makes the move it'll be even better, but I need new scenery. I need a challenge."
The expression on Jamie's face made Rachel feel worse, and a little defensive again. Clearly she also wanted Rachel to stay. But Jamie couldn't fully understand. Her situation was different. She was a travel blogger. Sure she'd moved her home base here but she'd be on the road to faraway exotic locales half the time. Besides, living on a ranch was still novel for her. Just as it would be for Jesse's girlfriend, Shea, once she arrived. For Rachel it was same old, same old . Even so, it would be a hell of a long time before leaving was possible.
Jamie's thoughtful gaze moved to the laptop. Then back to Rachel. "Wanna go to Tahiti?"
Rachel laughed. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"You should share travel duties with me," she said, "while I fill in here for you. It would give me a break. You, too."
"That's crazy." Rachel wouldn't admit it, but the idea sent her pulse skittering.
"I'm serious. Think about it, and we'll talk more later. Tonight your mom has a special dinner planned, with cake afterward. You know all about it.. " she said, and Rachel nodded. "But today it's you and me, kiddo. We're hitting town, going to The Cut and Curl."
Laughing, Rachel wondered if Jamie had ever set foot in Blackfoot Falls's only beauty parlor. Not hair salon, that would be overreaching.
"Wait." Jamie held up a hand. "We're going to have the worksmanicure, pedicure, coiffing and streaks. How about purple this year?"
"You're crazy," Rachel said, shaking her head. "Have you ever been to The Cut and Curl?"
"No." She grinned. "And this is the best partafter, we'll go to the Watering Hole for shots and beer. Who knows? There may be someone new in town and you'll get laid."
"Keep it down," Rachel said, when Jamie's voice rose with her enthusiasm.
Jamie clamped a hand over her mouth, and giggling like schoolgirls, they both swung glances toward the door.
"Come on," Jamie said, gesturing excitedly. "Get up. Get ready while I help your mom and Hilda with breakfast."
It was seven-thirty. Marge's Diner and the hardware store were the only things open in Blackfoot Falls. But Rachel didn't care. She was feeling much better. She grabbed her laptop and ran upstairs. Maybe today would end up being special after all.
"Dear God, I hope those things aren't alive." Jamie stood with her hand on the doorknob, staring at the trio of wigs on foam mannequin heads in The Cut and Curl window display.
Rachel bumped her from behind to get her moving. "Keep it up and you'll be the topic of conversation at every dinner table tonight."
"Please." Jamie snorted. "That was so last week when I arrived with the moving truck."
"Do not underestimate these women," Rachel whispered, and pushed harder.
Jamie was forced to either open the door or smash her nose against the glass. Still it didn't stop her from glancing over her shoulder and murmuring, "You know they're all dissecting me five ways to Sunday, worried I'm not good enough for Cole."
She wouldn't argue that one. People around here were proprietary about their hometown boys as a rule, but the McAllister brothers, Cole in particular, were the cream that rose to the top.
They both stepped inside, a slight whiff of perm solution making Rachel consider turning around. Naturally, Sally, the owner, and her cousin Roxythe only other beautician in the shophad already spotted them outside. So had the two customers sitting under the dryers, one of them being Ruth Wilson, a popular teacher now retired. Rachel almost didn't recognize Mrs. Perkins until she poked her head out from under the noisy plastic bubble.
"Happy birthday, Rachel," she said. "I ran into your mama at the Food Mart buying ingredients for your cake yesterday."
"Thank you, Mrs. Perkins." No such thing as a surprise party in Blackfoot Falls. If anyone ever pulled off such a feat, it would be one for the record books.