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Lacey McCoy opened the cab to the Dodge Ram pickup and climbed inside, careful to close the door gently behind her, partly out of deference to her father's pride and joy. Mostly, though, it was because the pickup sat directly on Main Street in Abysmal, Texas, population two thousand and change, and any kind of an angry scene would be sure to send jaws slackening and tongues wagging all up and down the way.
Hardly what she needed when she was trying to become regular Lacey McCoy again and blend back into the rural Texas scenery.
Besides, she had learned in the past several months that when this desperate, clutching, trapped feeling came upon her, it was best for her to step out of the stream of life for a few moments and focus on being inside her own skin. It was just a whole lot easier on her than trying to make someone understand why she had just blown up at them, when their not understanding was the reason she'd done so in the first place.
But as life often goes, she was not to be allowed the indulgence of putting her mind in order before being shoved back out on the hairy end of the stick.
For in the next second the passenger door of the truck swung open, sending her heart pounding out of her chest in direct opposition to her efforts to compose herself.
In climbed a tall, grim man. He closed the door behind him, then looked at her with pale-gray eyes as cold as glacier ice.
"Drive," he ordered.
He reached across and turned the key in the ignition. A large boot shoved hers off the brake pedal. He yanked the gear shift into Drive, then switched his foot to the gas. He'd steered them one-handedly out of her parking space and halfway down Main Street before Lacey could scarce gather her wits.
When she did, she took hold of the wheel with both hands and stomped on the brakes, hurtling them both toward the dash as the engine revved and the tires screeched. And people stared. Old Man Wilkins, from his standard post on the bench in front of Smitty's Barbershop, looked about ready to drop his teeth, and Lacey caught the flash of Vernal Adams's bright red beehive poking through the doorway of the drugstore before she disappeared again. The phone lines were probably already burning up.
Lacey could see the headline in the Abysmal Times now! "Brake-Stands For Returning Royalty: Ex-Countess Lacey Laslo Lays Rubber On Main." Exactly what she needed when she was trying to convince everyone she was "just folks" and making a stab at getting a job here.
On the other hand, maybe she ought to thank this man for making her feel part and parcel of this town. Because acting like he owned Abysmal and everyone in it was vintage Will Proffitt.
"Take your foot off the gas!" Lacey directed, furious.
Will complied, releasing the wheel as well, palms held up, as if all she'd had to do was ask.
She took control of the Dodge with a cutting glare that made not a scratch on the surface of his impenetrable self-assurance. In fact, Will Proffitt settled into his seat with the air of a man making himself at home. Any attempt to eject him from the cab of the pickup would be futile, she knew.
Her best option was to take this somewhere else.
A few minutes later, Lacey pulled up at a deserted street corner and cut the engine. For a moment, she merely sat there, her fingers curled around the steering wheel as she fought to bring her breathing back to normal. It was by no stretch of the imagination an easy task. And she didn't like that one bit.
Finally, she managed a calm "Hello, Will."
"'Lo, Lacey." He braced the toe of one scarred, dusty cowboy boot on the center console of her father's pride and joy in a way that immediately raked up her resentment. Acting like he owned it. But she slanted him as cool an appraisal as he'd given her a few minutes before.
He wore a Western shirt rolled up at the sleeves, faded-to-gray Wranglers worn down at the cuff, and a sweat-stained straw Stetson pulled low on his brow. Just your everyday, ordinary man-about-the-ranch. You'd never have known by looking at him that Will Prof-fitt owned the biggest cattle operation in the tri-county area.
Except for the way he filled the cab of the truck with his long frame and sharp angles and sheer force of character. He'd always bore a strong presence, especially backed up as it'd been by that combination of money, power, and honest-to-God magnetism. But now Lacey saw how, in her eight-year absence from Texas, he'd become even more riveting, a composition of sinew on bone and features chiseled over time which were a testimony to his survival in the face of the Panhandle's sand-blasting wind and nail-driving rain and brain-baking sun.
He looked cut from stoneand just as invulnerable.
A spark of some emotion seeming much too close to fear sizzled a path up Lacey's spine. She'd have given her right arm for a moment to collect herself, but it wasn't to be hers.
Well, then, she'd have to get through this. And she must remember: she had a pretty formidable layer of bedrock running through her, too.
"You mind telling me what that little performance back there on Main was about?" she asked.
"No performance. I merely wanted to have my own private audience with the countess and didn't think you'd want to do that smack in the middle of town with the whole of Abysmal watching." He lifted his eyebrows. "Was I wrong?"
"Well, you certainly threw any chance for privacy right out the window by drawing all that attention to yourself," she pointed out.
"I drew attention to myself? What do you call the way you've been seen at the cafe with my brother lookin' like cozy itself? Now there's a performance."
Lacey barely managed to keep her mouth from falling open at his gall.
Lee Proffitt had been about the only person in town to give her any encouragement in her aim to make a normal life for herself here in Texas. In fact, not a half hour ago at the cafe he'd told her, with some mysteriousness, that if she could just sit tight for a few days, he could offer her a job at the tack-and-feed store he managed.
Except Lacey found she'd just as soon not have to avail herself of Lee's offer. Something didn't quite feel right about it, which was the best she could pin it down to at the moment.
Then it hit her. Of course. Here was the reason for her feeling skittish about Lee's assurances. How could she have forgotten his older brother and the iron rein Will seemed to hold on Lee and the rest of this town? In fact, that had become his nickname, she'd learned since returning, murmured behind his back with some amount of awe and fear: Iron Will Proffitt.
And now he was looking at her as if to mesmerize her, too, making Lacey feel like a deer caught in the crosshairs of a wolf's gray-eyed sight.
Another quiver of apprehension shot through her, which she tamped down with all her might. She couldn't let this man get the better of her.
"Lee and I have had a few chats, if that's what you mean," she answered guardedly. "He's been a real help to me since I got back."
"And who wouldn't jump to do the bidding of America's Cinderella, right?"
She gritted her teeth at her nickname, conferred upon her eight years ago by a media anxious to cater to the public's feeding frenzy for all things royal.
No way would she give Will Proffitt the satisfaction of seeing what a crazy-maker the whole situation still was for her.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're getting at," Lacey said with a lift of her chin. "You know that Lee and I have always been close, and I'm appreciative of him wanting to renew the friendship, especially when I didn't come back to Abysmal once after I left. Although it wasn't because I didn't want to," she finished revealingly, barely having time to wonder why since Will fairly snorted his disbelief in reaction.
"Oh, come on," he said. "You don't expect me to believe you even thought of lookin' back once you shook off the dust of this town. And now you've got the nerve to come back actin' like bygones'll sashay right by, after the way that Lee practically"
He broke off, which made Lacey ask, "What about Lee?"
But he merely bent that intent scrutiny on her again. "Nothin'," he finally said. "Just answer me one questionare you leadin' my brother on?"
There was simply no getting past it: his accusing tone just irked the life out of her. A better woman would have continued to ignore it, would have risen above it. But Lacey never claimed to be candidate for sainthood even on her best days.
Call her reaction rash or what have you, but some fire starter inside her made Lacey ask, "All right, what if I am?"
At that, Will's face did turn to stone. He bent toward her, one arm sliding along the seat back behind her, the other braced against the dash. "I'll say it once, Laceystay away from Lee."
The door handle dug into her back but she refused to be cowed by him. "How could it possibly be any of your business?"
"Oh, it's my business, all right," he drawled. Up close like this, the force of his will virtually radiated from him. "For starters, it was made my business when I got a call from Lee last night sayin' he'd taken a crack at redoing the financial projections on the tack and feed and according to his calculations there was plenty of room for another full-time store clerk, includin' perks!"
Lacey shook her head, trying not to let his proximity overwhelm her. "Lee mentioned something about a job to me, but I didn't ask him for one, if that's what you're thinking, and I don't expect it, either!"
"Now I can believe that. The countess workin' at a tack and feed? How unrefined." His face was still inches away, and she saw his lashes flicker as his gaze took her in. "But then, the offer of a job probably wasn't what you were hopin' for when you called Lee up to fill his ear and tug on all his heartstrings with your troubles, now was it?"
He really had a talent for ticking her off. With effort, Lacey held on to her composure, but with as much narrow thinking along the same lines as she'd had to contend with this morning, she was perilously close to giving this man a considerable piece of her own mind.
"Now wait a minute," she said, not liking that she sounded defensive, irritated that she was having to be so. "Lee's the one who called me when I first got to town a few days ago to offer his help as an old friend."
She was to the point of not bothering to hide the accusation in her own voice as she continued, "Besides, if what you're saying is true, and Lee is makin' promises you'd rather not have him make, why aren't you calling him on the carpet instead of me?"
"I did, last night." Will's mouth thinned as he sat back in disgust, and Lacey drew her first full breath in two minutes. "He pretty much said what you did, that he was just trying to make you feel welcome after going through a divorce, helpin' you out as you get yourself settled. And finding a job."
He gave a short laugh. "I still think that is one fine touch, you needing to find work. It'll be a tough bill to fill, believe me, with or without Lee's help. Not much call in Abysmal these days for countesses."
Lacey clamped down on her jaw. She would not respond to his digs.
"For your information," she stated as impassively as she would have read a prepared statement to the media, "I am no longer the Countess Laslo."
"Do tell." He studied her the way he had before, watchful steel-gray eyes keen upon her face, which this time she kept as blank and smooth and impervious as a concrete wall.
It was, she realized suddenly, a mask she'd perfected over eight years, a defense mechanism she'd learned well at Nicolai Laslo's hand: detach, withdraw, hold back any feelings which you might be disapproved of for showing or, worse, might be used against you.
That trapped, desperate feeling clutched at her throat.
How dare Will Proffitt set off such a reaction in her! She couldn't let that part of her life follow her here. She simply couldn't.
"Honest, Will, there's nothing between Lee and me," Lacey said with all the reasonableness she could muster. "We're friends and that's all. I'm not angling for anything with him. All I want is just to be Lacey McCoy again."