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Abby Turner of Whitehorn, Montana, was getting married. There never was a more reluctant bride. She stared at the small diamond solitaire on her left hand with sad gray eyes in a pretty face framed by wavy dark hair and wished with all her heart that she'd said no instead of yes when Troy Jackson had proposed. He was a kind and sweet man, but she knew for certain that within a month of the wedding, she'd be walking all over him. She was a fiery, impulsive woman with an outrageous sense of humor, and she embarrassed him. She'd tried to deny that part of her nature, but it kept slipping out. Inevitably people noticed.
Whitehorn was a small town where people lived as they had for generations. A ranching community sprawled outside the city limits and Troy, along with his father, ran several hundred head of Hereford cattle on their third-generation ranch. It wasn't as large as Chayce Derringer's spread, but then, Chayce had more money than most local people. He was involved in mining as well as ranching. He'd been Abby's guardian since the death of her father, his foreman. Abby had been ten at the time. Her mother, Sarah Turner, had been crippled in the same wreck. Chayce had taken mother and daughter right into the big house with his housekeeper, Becky, and assumed total responsibility for them.
Whit Turner, a former rodeo cowboy, had been not only his foreman, but his idol and surrogate father as well. Chayce had loved him. He was fond of Abby, too, and he'd spoiled her rotten. At least, until she was sixteen. That had been when the arguments began, each one hotter than the one before.
Abby had given Chayce fits, not because she was rebellious, but because she was feeling the first stirrings of love for him. He was fifteen years her senior and completely impervious to her, and it hurt. Consequently, Abby's temper grew steadily worse until she was eighteen. She'd pushed him too hard only once, and something had happened that had kept him completely out of her life ever since. It had been almost four years since Abby had seen him at all. He made sure of it.
He'd arranged for her to go away to college as soon as she graduated from high school, just two weeks after their disastrous encounter. It had been traumatic. Her mother had died that same year, and Chayce had been determined that she needed the change of sceneand to get away from him. What had happened, he told her grimly, couldn't be allowed to happen again.
So Abby had gone to college at California State University, taking her degree in business, and Troy Jackson had come to her campus to do some work on his teacher certification. They'd started dating and very soon Troy had proposed. They lived in the same town, he pointed out, and he'd inherit his father's ranch one day. What could be more natural than to marry Abby and have kids to inherit it when he himself passed on?
It had seemed logical. Abby's encounter with Chayce had put a wall between them that hadn't ever come down. He was a fiery and independent man who'd had a devastating love affair when he was little older than Abby was now at twenty-one. He'd never gotten over the loss of his fiancée, and he'd never let another woman close enough to wound him. He'd made it crystal clear that Abby didn't have a chance, despite his headlong ardor that night so long ago.
Abby had just graduated the first week of June, with only Troy and her college roommate, Felicity Evans, to watch her accept her diploma. Chayce hadn't come near the campus, although he'd sent a telegram of congratulations.
He wasn't home, now, either, of course. He found reasons to go on long business trips the minute Abby announced any plans to stay at the ranch. She'd written him about her engagement to Troy and asked him to give her away at their August wedding in Whitehorn. He hadn't replied. She wondered if he would.
She tried not to talk about Chayce, but he was so much a part of her life that it was inevitable that she did. Troy made his distaste for her guardian quite clear, although he promised to tolerate Chayce once he and Abby were married. He only hoped, he told her firmly, that Chayce would be a little more discreet in future about his love affairs. Chayce was handsome and rich and eligible and he was dating a well-known Hollywood starlet. Therefore, it was inevitable that he was photographed with her and the pictures ended up in the tabloids. The publicity nauseated Troy, who was even more old-fashioned than Becky, Chayce's housekeeper.
Because Troy made so many tart comments about Chayce, Abby made sure that she didn't let her own feelings for him show.
She stared at the ring on her finger, wondering what on earth had possessed her to agree. Despite his glacial treatment of her, she loved Chayce. She was never going to be able to give her heart or her body to anyone else. After four long years, that was painfully apparent. But Troy was kind and sweet and after one ardent kiss that Abby hadn't been able to respond to, he'd confined his affection to hand-holding and lazy smiles. Perhaps he hoped that his reticence would succeed where his ardor hadn't.
What he didn't realize was that Abby was incapable of feeling physical desire for him. It was a problem that she hoped they could work out after they were married, but she didn't dwell on it. She couldn't go around forever mooning over a man who didn't want her and who had made it perfectly clear.
Becky was working in the kitchen when Abby joined her there, smiling as she took down a glass and poured iced tea into it.
"Thirsty, are you?" The gray-haired woman smiled affectionately at the younger woman in tight jeans and a pretty pink tank top. "And so you ought to be after all that cleaning. You've been in the attic almost since daybreak."
"I've been in hiding," Abby confided with a grin. Her gray eyes sparkled and around her face, wavy but untidy dark hair curled. She had a lovely figure and she wore clothes these days that emphasized it. Troy didn't like that, either. In fact, Troy didn't like a lot about her, she realized worriedly.
"What are you hiding from?" Becky wanted to know, interrupting her thoughts.
Abby sighed, sipping her tea. "I'm hiding from Troy. He's miffed with me again."
"What did you do this time?"
"Not much," Abby defended herself. "I just decorated his new vet's car for him."
Becky put her face in her hands. "Oh, no."
"It wasn't bad! Listen, I didn't even write a dirty word on it! I just drew pictures of cows and calves and silos and things with cans of that pretty colored children's bath foam
come back here. I'm not through!"
"Troy's father is a deacon in the Baptist church!" Becky choked. "Troy teaches school, for heaven's sake! And the new veterinarian is his best friend from grammar school!"
Abby put her hands on her full hips. "I know that," she said. "The vet has a wonderful sense of humor. He thought it was hilarious! But Troy didn't. He was so angry that he wouldn't even speak to me when I left." She threw up her hands. "He's so somber, Becky! Like a judge. He needs to lighten up. I was just giving him a nudge in the right direction."
"What sort of nudge?"
Abby shrugged. "Well, I sort of hinted that he did the writing on Dan Harbin's truck."
Becky stared at her. "Hinted, how?"
"I sort of signed his name to it," Abby said pertly. She held up a hand when Becky turned red. "It was very discreet. I signed his name in a dignified black script."
Becky put her face in her hands again. "He'll shoot you. His father will shoot you, too."
"His father approves of me," she said pointedly. "Why, he said that Troy takes himself much too seriously and that anyone should be able to take a little joke."
"Yes, and I remember when he said it. He only did it to keep Sheriff Hensley from arresting you when you pulled that last crazy stunt!"
"It wasn't crazy," Abby defended herself stoically. "And Judd wouldn't have arrested me."
"You could have gone to jail!"
"Nobody got hurt."
"By the grace of God!" Becky was all but waving her arms now. "You turned one of Sid Jackson's best young bulls loose on the streets of Whitehorn! It chased the pharmacist at BobCo right into the Hip-Hop Cafe!"
"It didn't get inside," Abby stated. "It stopped at the door and trotted right back to the 4-H corral for its dinner! Anyway, it was a tame little bull that followed people around like a dog. It only wanted the pharmacist to pet it." She looked indignant. "What sort of pharmacist runs from an itty-bitty bull, anyway?"
"Of all the crazy stunts
"Now, Becky, Troy had just been talking about how exciting it would have been to be at the running of the bulls in Spain, like Hemingway wrote about. I was only helping him to experience it firsthand."
"The bull ripped off Miss Ellison's skirt," Becky snorted. "And her a maiden lady of sixty-five!"
"It was only because she'd petted it, and it was trying to get her to do it again. She laughed," Abby reminded her.
"Chayce wouldn't have."
Abby bit her lip and turned away. "Chayce never laughs
not at me, anyway," she said tersely. "I irritated him from the age of ten. I haven't stopped yet. I wrote him that I was getting married in August and I wanted him to give me away at my wedding and he hasn't even bothered to answer the letter."
"It may not have caught up with him," Becky said. "He was going to take Delina back to California after her filming in the Bahamas finished. He didn't say exactly when that would be. The letter may still be on its way."
"I suppose." She glanced at Becky. "What's Delina Meriwether like?"
"She's dark-haired and dark-eyed and very sweet," came the reply. "And she adores Chayce."
"Maybe he'll marry her," she said without any real enthusiasm.
"Chayce won't marry," Becky said as if she knew. "He had a hard time of it when Beverly Wayne let him down so badly. You were ten," she recalled, "so I don't imagine you'd even remember how hurt he was. He loved her. And all she wanted was pretty things and a lot of male attention. Chayce wasn't enough for her. She loved men, plural. He caught her with one the day after they became engaged, and she laughed. It amused her that he hadn't known she had other lovers." She shook her head, searching out ingredients for a pie. "He was twenty-four and in love for the first time in his life. He took it real hard. I don't think he's really trusted another woman since. Not even Delina, although she's crazy about him."
Abby was more depressed than ever. Women had come and gone in Chayce's life until now. Delina had lasted over a year. She'd worried Abby more than all the others put together, but she couldn't let herself get overly concerned. She had to look ahead, not behind. Asking Chayce to give her away was a sort of test. If he agreed, it would start them on a new relationship, and hopefully cauterize the wounds of the past. They could start over. He'd never love her, but they might find some sort of common ground.
"Have you bought your wedding gown yet?" Becky asked.
She shook her head. "I wanted to wait until we settled on a definite date in August."
"What's holding you up?"
"I want Chayce to be here," she said simply.
Becky hesitated, not quite looking at her as she began to make pastry for a pie. "I wouldn't count too much on him agreeing to do it, Abby," she said gently.
"But why not?" she replied. "He's looked after me since I was ten."
Becky still hesitated. She busied herself with the dough. "He has.other interests."
"He could bring Delina with him. She might like to be a bridesmaid. I wouldn't mind." That was a vicious lie, but she told it with a calm expression.
"He wouldn't do that, I'm sure." She added the shortening to the flour. "He's possessive about you. I've wondered ever since you mentioned the engagement if he was going to come back at all while you were still here. He doesn't, usually." She glanced at Abby worriedly. "You must know that he doesn't like Troy."
Abby looked astounded. "No, I didn't know. When has he even seen Troy to dislike him?"
"Troy went to talk to him while you were both in school last summer in California," Becky said reluctantly. "To get his blessing to court you. You know how old-fashioned Troy is."
Abby's heart turned over. "Troy never said a word about it!"
"I don't guess so, after what happened." She grimaced. "Chayce told him that you needed to grow up before you thought about getting married. He wasn't pleased at the news. Not at all. I expect when he gets this letter of yours about the wedding, he'll go right through the ceiling, Abby."
Her breath seemed strained. "That's surprising. I thought it would delight him to know that I'd finally be out of his hair."
"He's taken care of you for a long time, Abby," Becky said. "Despite the fact that he's kept his distance all these years, he's kept a careful eye on you. It isn't going to be easy for him to hand you over to another man."
"He doesn't want me around," Abby said with helpless bitterness.
"That isn't true!"
"Yes, it is." Her gray eyes met Becky's blue ones. "He couldn't even be bothered to come to my college graduation. But Troy did. And so did my friend Felicity."
"That isn't why you're marrying him, is it?"
Abby stiffened. "Of course not. I'm marrying him because we have a lot in common and we get along well together."
"Do you love him?"
Abby wouldn't look at her. "I'm very fond of him."
Becky started to speak and then thought better of it. She grimaced as she poured milk into her dough mixture and began to form it into a ball.
Abby drank the last of her iced tea. "I'm going to finish clearing out the attic," she announced. "If Troy comes looking for me, I went to town."
"He'll see the car in the garage."
"I was arrested and they took me in a police car," Abby improvised.
Becky tried to suppress a grin and failed. "You're incorrigible, dear."
"Not yet. But I'm working on it."