Read an Excerpt
What a circus. From the porch of the main house, Zeke surveyed the crowded grounds of the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys. In all the years he'd spent as a kid on this ranch, he'd never seen the place so packed with people. But that was the ideato get folks involved in this bachelor auction Rex Trowbridge, an alumnus who was now on the board of directors, had cooked up to raise money for the ranch.
Zeke longed to stay where he was, comforted by the familiar feel of the porch rail under his hand. But he had maybe five minutes before he had to walk out to the arena and climb up on the auction block where a gang of ranch alumni were gathering. The aroma of barbecued ribs filled the air, and fiddle music rose above the buzz from the crowd. Even CNN had shown up to film the action, so it looked like Rex would get the corporate sponsors the ranch needed to survive.
And Zeke wanted the ranch to survive. Lost Springs was his safe place, the haven his mind returned to whenever he felt rootless and alone. His thumb on the porch rail brushed over a small, crude carving of a lone pine. When he was ten he'd used his pocketknife to cut his mark into the wood, fully expecting to get in trouble for it. But he'd wanted to put his stamp on the place so that years later he could come back and find proof that Zeke Lonetree had been here.
He hadn't been punished for carving the tree into the rail. Every time he'd returned to the ranch he'd checked that nobody had sanded it downto reassure himself that some things in life stayed the same. The thought of Lost Springs closing was more horrible than the thought of taking part in this bachelor auction, so he'd agreed to be here. But Rex had no idea how much it was costing Zeke. Walking up on that platform would be like slicing off a chunk of his soul and offering it to the buzzards.
A piercing whistle sounded above the hubbub, followed by shouted comments directed at Zeke from the auction block.
"Yo, Lonetree!" called Shane Daniels, one of the alumni who'd become a champion bull rider and a close friend. "We ain't got all day, son."
"Yeah, get your Native American butt out here!" yelled Chance Cartwright, who'd made good as a horse breeder and trainer. "All these women saw Last of the Mohicans and they want you bad."
Zeke groaned and wished he could treat this auction the way Shane and Chance did, as a big joke to be enjoyed. But both of them were used to being in crowds and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. In fact, most of the guys on the block had high-profile, public positions, while Zeke's park ranger job in Yellowstone allowed him to spend most of his time the way he preferredalone in the wilderness.
"Move it, Lonetree." Amos Pike, a toy manufacturer, motioned Zeke over to the platform.
Zeke took a deep breath and reminded himself why he was doing this. A phone rang inside the ranch house, but unfortunately it wasn't Zeke's job to answer it. He couldn't put off the inevitable any longer. Shane had given him a new Stetson for luck. With a sigh he tugged it low over his eyes and started down the porch steps.
Rex, the guy responsible for his current misery, pushed open the screen door. He had a cordless phone in one hand with his thumb over the mouthpiece. "Come on in for a second," Rex said.
Zeke was delighted for any delay, but still he gestured halfheartedly toward the arena. "The guys want to get started."
"I know. We will in a minute. But it looks like you're being pulled from the lineup."
Hope lightened the heaviness in Zeke's chest as he followed Rex into the cool interior of the ranch house.
"Yeah. Let me finish my discussion with this lady, and then you can talk to her."
Zeke listened to Rex's end of the conversation and figured out that someone was making a large donation in order to take Zeke off the block. He didn't understand what was going on or why, but he wasn't about to complain. He might still be obligated to a woman for a date of some kind, but at least he'd be spared the agony of walking the runway. He'd take it.
"Okay," Rex said to the person on the other end of the line. "That sounds great. I'll let you work out those details with him. And thanks again for your generosity, Ms. Rutledge. You'll be helping many young boys get a better start in life. Here's Zeke." Rex handed over the phone. "Way to go, stud," he murmured.
Zeke frowned in confusion as he took the phone and covered the mouthpiece. "I have no idea what this is about, Rex."
"Well, when you do, I hope you'll fill me in. My curiosity's killing me. Listen, even if you're out of the auction, how about hanging around, anyway? Some of the kids were hoping you'd give them an update on the wolves in the park."
"Sure." Still feeling bewildered, Zeke held the phone to his ear. "This is Zeke Lonetree."
"Ah, Mr. Lonetree. I'm Naomi Rutledge, editor in chief of Cachet."
Cachet. He'd heard that name somewhere, but he couldn't quite place it.
"The fashion magazine." She tossed her explanation into the silence as if she couldn't believe his ignorance.
"Oh." Oh. Katherine's magazine. A wave of dread washed over him. He hoped she wasn't tied into this bachelor-auction business in some way. He never wanted to see her again.
"Listen, I'll get right to the point. I believe you are acquainted with my senior fashion editor, Katherine Seymour."
Zeke closed his eyes. Surely it wasn't heartache he was feeling. He'd wiped that episode out of his memory months ago.
"Mr. Lonetree?" she prompted. "Does the name Katherine Seymour mean anything to you?"
He opened his eyes and cleared his throat. "We've met."
"Yes. So I understand. Well, she has some personal business to discuss with you, so I would like"
"Put her on. I'm sure we can handle it over the phone." Panic rose in Zeke's chest as he tried to fend off what he feared was coming.
"I'm afraid that's not possible. She's unavailable."
"Is she okay?" The nature of Zeke's fear changed. He didn't want to get within two thousand miles of Katherine, but he didn't want anything bad to happen to her, either.
"She's fine. But she needs to see you, so I've arranged for her to fly out to Jackson Hole the last weekend in August. I presume that would be convenient to your place of employment."
"You can fly her anywhere you want, but I have no intention of"
"The man I just spoke with assured me that you'd honor the terms of the bachelor auction and meet her there."
"You bought me for her?" Having a woman win him at an auction was bad enough. Having a woman procure him for someone else was ten times worse.
"I did nothing of the sort! Cachet is donating a generous sum to the Lost Springs Ranch for Boys, and in exchange I want you to meet Katherine in August and talk with her. It's a business arrangement. I'll even cover her expenses. Agreed?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the reason. You need to take it up with Katherine when you see her. I'll mail you the particulars."
"Look, Ms. Rutledge, this is a complete waste of time for everyone. Katherine and I have nothing to"
"I assure you, my donation to the ranch is very generous. I'm certain you wouldn't want to jeopardize that."
Zeke felt the trap closing around him, and he had no one to blame but himself. He'd acted totally out of character by making love to Katherine the night he'd saved her from the river. Then he'd made the further mistake of thinking the encounter had meant something to her. Months of her silence had convinced him otherwise. Now he was being summoned like some menial servant without being given any explanation. He longed to hang up on this bossy woman with the New York accent that reminded him of Katherine's.
But she'd practically said she'd withdraw her donation if he didn't go along with this ridiculous arrangement. He'd agreed to this damn auction to help the ranch, and now was his big chance.
"Do we have a deal, Mr. Lonetree?" she asked.
"We have a deal, Ms. Rutledge."
Katherine touched a finger to Amanda's cheek and guided the rosebud mouth to her nipple. As the baby nursed, Katherine stared at her in wonder. She couldn't believe that Amanda was nestled in her arms. So many times during the pregnancy she'd thought she would lose her. But Amanda had clung stubbornly to her chance at life, and Katherine had never known such joy as she felt now, holding her child. "What a lovely picture you two make." Naomi smiled gently as she walked into the hospital room dressed in her usual color scheme of black-and-white, her silver hair perfectly coiffed, her makeup flawless.
Katherine returned her smile. "Can you believe she's really here?"
"Not quite." Naomi walked over to the bed and leaned down to stroke Amanda's tiny head. "I didn't dare count on this, not with the problems you had carrying her." She finger-combed the baby's abundant jet-black hair. "I don't think this is going to turn blond."
"Probably not." Just her luck her baby's hair would forever remind her of that lusty night in the forest with Zeke Lonetree.
"She's beautiful, Katherine. I'm so sorry your parents didn't live to see her."
"Me, too." Her throat tightened, but as she watched Naomi tenderly smoothing Amanda's hair, she gave thanks that at least she had Naomi. "I guess this makes you a god-grandmother."
Naomi looked up, her eyes moist. "So it does." She cleared her throat and returned her attention to Amanda. "Although god-grandmother is a mouthful for a little kid. Maybe she could just call me grandma."
Katherine's heart squeezed. "Of course she could."
Naomi gave the baby's hair one last stroke before turning to find a chair, which she pulled over to the bed. "And now that we've made it to this point, you and I have a few things to discuss."
"I plan on getting right back to work. If you have no objection, I'll bring Amanda to the office and set up a bassinet for her. I'm sure I"
"I'm sure you can, too." Naomi laid her manicured hand on Katherine's arm. "But that's not what I want to discuss. I'm thinking of making some staff changes."
Katherine's breathing quickened. She was being demoted.
Naomi might have seen her through this problem pregnancy with loving care, but she was the founder of Cachet, and she hadn't built the magazine into the industry giant it was by being soft. She'd decided to give Katherine's job to someone else because she didn't believe a new mother could handle the demands of being a senior editor.
Worst of all, Katherine dared not question the decision. When her parents died, Naomi had been her salvation, giving her a job at Cachet right out of college and promoting her regularly until she finally gained senior editor status. Katherine knew she hadn't worked up to capacity during the final months of her pregnancy, but Naomi hadn't ever complained. Under the circumstances, Katherine didn't feel she could beg for more consideration.
Feeling like a doomed prisoner, she gathered the courage to look directly into Naomi's eyes and take the bullet like a woman. "What sort of changes?"
"I want to train you to take over for me."
Katherine sighed with relief. She would work like a demon to justify Naomi's continued faith in her. "So you're going on vacation?"
"No, I want you to take over permanently."
Katherine's gasp dislodged Amanda's mouth. The baby's reedy cry of protest brought her attention back to the task and gave Katherine a moment to recover herself as she resettled Amanda at her breast. But her heart was still pounding when she finally glanced back at Naomi. "I don't know what to say. I never in the world expected.. " She stopped, at a total loss. Editor in chief. She couldn't comprehend it.
Naomi chuckled. "I can't go on forever, you know."
Katherine felt as if someone had just hit her over the head with the NYC phone book. "I guess I thought you would."
"And die in harness? Not this lady. Or worse yet, I could start losing my edge and have a staff who's afraid to tell me.
No, I want to slip out of the top spot gracefully and leave someone I trust in charge."
"But what about Sylvia? Or Denise, or"
"Darling." Naomi squeezed her arm. "You've been my choice ever since you were born."
"I have?" Katherine took a moment to digest that startling information. "No wonder you were so excited when I decided to work on the high school newspaper."
"It was all the encouragement I needed. Of course, I would have backed off if you'd chosen one of those other careers you talked about. I remember once you wanted to be an actress, and then there was your doctor-nurse period. And what was it you wanted to be when you were ten? A wilderness guide?"
Katherine smiled. "Yeah. Then I thought about all the bears I'd meet."
"Well, you made the right choice, both for you and for me. You've turned out to be a damned good writer and a highly competent businesswoman."
"Who got herself knocked up!" No matter how happy Katherine was about having Amanda, she was still embarrassed that she'd stumbled into motherhood by accident.
"Stress counteracted your birth-control pills," Naomi said briskly. "You couldn't have anticipated that." She gazed at mother and baby. "And don't tell me you're sorry, because I know you're not."
"No." Katherine dropped a kiss on the top of Amanda's head. "I'm not."
"So, are you up for some new responsibilities?"
The shock of Naomi's offer had lessened and now Katherine began to fully realize the scope of itthe confidence and the love that it implied. Her eyes filled. "You know I am."
Naomi blinked and looked away. "Good. Very good." She cleared her throat and glanced back at Katherine. "We only have one pesky detail to take care of."
A catch. Katherine wondered if she'd been premature in her gratitude. "What's that?"
Katherine swallowed. It wasn't a comfortable subject. Many times during the past few months she'd wished she could claim immaculate conception. After promising Zeke that birth control wasn't a problem, she dreaded telling him she'd been wrong. She'd rationalized postponing the call because she'd seen no reason to involve him if she ultimately lost the baby.
"You have to tell him," Naomi said.
"He might just relinquish all rights to her."
"Maybe." Funny how little she knew about the man who had given her life twice, first by saving her from drowning and second by fathering Amanda. He was possibly the most gentle man she'd ever known, yet beneath that gentleness burned a fierce passion. Her heart still raced whenever she allowed herself to remember their moment of joining, when she'd felt somehow claimed.