The Valentine Two-Step
He had been bamboozled by women before, but for rancher and single father Matt Harte, this is the last straw! Because of his daughter's shenanigans, he's been roped into planning the annual Valentine's Day dance. And who's his partner on the committee? Beautiful big-city vet and recent Salt River transplant Ellie Webster, the woman he can't take his eyes offthough not for lack of trying!
Cassidy Harte and The Comeback Kid
Ten years ago, Cassidy Harte stood at the altar waiting for Zach Slater, but he never showed. So she did the only thing she could—held her head up high and swore off men. Now suddenly Zach's back with an "I'm sorry" on his lips, an explanation she refuses to hear and the vow to make her his once again. And it seems this is one vow he's determined to keep
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"They did what?"
Ellie Webster and the big, gruff rancher seated beside her spoke in unison. She spared a glance at Matt Harte and saw he looked like he'd just been smacked upside the head with a two-by-four.
"Oh, dear. I was afraid of this." Sarah McKenzie gave a tiny, apologetic smile to both of them.
With her long blond hair and soft, wary brown eyes, her daughter's teacher always made Ellie think of a skittish palomino colt, ready to lunge away at the first provocation. Now, though, she was effectively hobbled into place behind her big wooden schoolteacher's desk. "You're telling me you both didn't agree to serve on the committee for the Valentine's Day carnival?"
"Hell no." Matt Harte looked completely horrified by the very idea of volunteering for a Valentine's Day carnival committeeas astonished as Ellie imagined he'd be if Ms. McKenzie had just asked him to stick one of her perfectly sharpened number-two pencils in his eye.
"I've never even heard of the Valentine's Day carnival until just now," Ellie offered.
"Well, this does present a problem." Ms. McKenzie folded her hands together on top of what looked like a grade book, slim and black and ominous.
Ellie had always hated those grade books.
Despite the fact that she couldn't imagine any two people being more different, Ellie had a brief, unpleasant image of her own fourth-grade teacher. Prissy mouth, hair scraped back into a tight bun. Complete intolerance for a scared little girl who hid her bewildered loneliness behind defiant anger.
She pushed the unwelcome image aside.
"The girls told me you both would cochair the committee," the teacher said. "They were most insistent that you wanted to do it."
"You've got to be joking. They said we wanted to do it? I don't know where the heheck Lucy could have come up with such a harebrained idea." Matt Harte sent one brief, disparaging glare in Ellie's direction, and she stiffened. She could just imagine what he was thinking. If my perfect little Lucy has a harebrained idea in her perfect little head, it must have come from you and your flighty daughter, with your wacky California ways.
He had made it perfectly clear he couldn't understand the instant bond their two daughters had formed when she and Dylan moved here at the beginning of the school year three months earlier. He had also made no secret of the fact that he didn't trust her or her veterinary methods anywhere near his stock.
The really depressing thing was, Harte's attitude seemed to be the rule, not the exception, among the local ranching community. After three months, she was no closer to breaking into their tight circle than she'd been that very first day.
"It does seem odd," Ms. McKenzie said, and Ellie chided herself for letting her mind wander.
Right now she needed to concentrate on Dylan and this latest scrape her daughter had found herself in. Not on the past or on the big, ugly pile of bills that needed to be paid, regardless of whether or not she had any patients.
"I thought it was rather out of character for both of you," the quiet, pretty teacher went on. "That's why I called you both and asked you to come in this evening, so we all could try to get to the bottom of this."
"Why would they lie about it?" Ellie asked. "I don't understand why on earth the girls would say we volunteered for something I've never even heard of before now."
The teacher shifted toward her and shrugged her shoulders inside her lacy white blouse. She made the motion look so delicate and airy that Ellie felt about as feminine as a teamster in her work jeans and flannel shirt.
"I have no idea," she said. "I was hoping you could shed some light on it."
"You sure it was our girls who signed up?"
Ms. McKenzie turned to the rancher with a small smile. "Absolutely positive. I don't think I could possibly mix that pair up with any of my other students."
"Well, there's obviously been a mistake," Matt said gruffly.
Ms. McKenzie was silent for a few moments, then she sighed. "That's what I was afraid you would say. Still, the fact remains that I need two parents to cochair the committee, and your daughters obviously want you to do it. Would the two of you at least consider it?"
The rancher snorted. "You've got the wrong guy."
"I don't think so," the teacher answered gently, as if chiding a wayward student, and Ellie wondered how she could appear to be so completely immune to the potent impact of Matt Harte.
Even with that aggravated frown over this latest scheme their daughters had cooked up, he radiated raw male appeal, with rugged, hard-hewn features, piercing blue eyes and broad shoulders. Ellie couldn't even sit next to him without feeling the power in those leashed muscles.
But Sarah McKenzie appeared oblivious to it. She treated him with the same patience and kindness she showed the fourth graders in her class.
"I think you'd both do a wonderful job," the teacher continued. "Since this is my first year at the school, I haven't been to the carnival myself but I understand attendance has substantially dropped off the last two years. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what a problem this is."
"No," the rancher said solemnly, and Ellie fought the urge to raise her hand and ask somebody to explain the gravity of the situation to her. It certainly didn't seem like a big deal to her that some of the good people of Salt River decided to celebrate Valentine's Day somewhere other than the elementary school gymnasium. Come to think of it, so far most of the people she'd met in Salt River didn't seem the types to celebrate Valentine's Day at all.
"This is a really important fund-raiser," Ms. McKenzie said. "All the money goes to the school library, which is desperately in need of new books. We need to do something to generate more interest in the carnival, infuse it with fresh ideas. New blood, if you will. I think the two of you are just the ones to do that."
There was silence for a moment, then the rancher sat forward, that frown still marring his handsome features. "I'm sorry, Miz McKenzie. I'd like to help you out, honest. I'm all in favor of getting more books for the library and I'd be happy to give you a sizable donation if that will help at all. But I'm way out of my league here. I wouldn't know the first thing about putting together something like that."
"I'm afraid this sort of thing isn't exactly my strong point, either," Ellie admitted, which was a bit like saying the nearby Teton Mountain Range had a couple of pretty little hills.
"Whatever their reasons, it seemed very important to your daughters that you help." She shifted toward Matt again. "Mr. Harte, has Lucy ever asked you to volunteer for anything in school before? Reading time, lunch duty, anything?"
The rancher's frown deepened. "No," he finally answered the teacher. "Not that I can think of."
"All of her previous teachers describe Lucy as a shy mouse of a girl who spoke in whispers and broke into tears if they called on her. I have to tell you, that is not the same girl I've come to know this year."
"Since Dylan's arrival, Lucy participates much more in class. She is a sweet little girl with a wonderfully creative mind."
"That's good, right?"
"Very good. But despite the improvements, Lucy still seems to prefer staying in the background. She rarely ventures an opinion of her own. I think it would be wonderful for her to help plan the carnival under your supervision. It might even provide her with some of the confidence she still seems to be lacking."
"I'm a very busy man, Miz McKenzie"
"I understand that. And I know Dr. Webster is also very busy trying to establish her practice here in Star Valley."
You don't know the half of it, Ellie thought grimly.
"But I think it would help both girls. Dylan, as well," the teacher said, shifting toward her. "I've spoken with you before with some of my concerns about your daughter. She's a very bright girl and a natural leader among the other children, but she hasn't shown much enthusiasm for anything in the classroom until now."
The teacher paused, her hands still folded serenely on her desk, and gave them both a steady look that had Ellie squirming just like she'd been caught chewing gum in class. "It's obvious neither of you wants to do this. I certainly understand your sentiments. But I have to tell you, I would recommend you would put your own misgivings aside and think instead about your daughters and what they want."
Oh, she was good. Pour on the parental guilt, sister. Gets 'em every time.
Out of the corner of her gaze Ellie could see Harte fighting through the same internal struggle.
How could she possibly do this? The last thing on earth she wanted was to be saddled with the responsibility for planning a Valentine's Day carnival. Valentine's Day, for heaven's sake. A time for sweethearts and romance, hearts and flowers. Things she had absolutely no experience with.
Beyond that, right now she was so busy trying to salvage her floundering practice that she had no time for anything but falling into her bed at the end of the day.
Still, Dylan wanted her to do this. For whatever reasons, this was important to her daughter. Ellie had already uprooted her from the only life she'd known to bring her here, to an alien world of wide-open spaces and steep, imposing mountains.
If being involved in this stupid carnival would make Dylan happy, didn't she owe it to her to try?
And maybe, just maybe, a selfish little voice whispered,
this might just be the ticket to help you pile drive your way into the closed circle that is the Star Valley community.
If she could show the other parents she was willing to volunteer to help out the school, they might begin to accept her into their ranks. Lord knows, she had to do something or she would end up being the proud owner of the only veterinary practice in Wyoming without a single patient to its name.
"I suppose I'm game," she said, before she could talk herself out of it. "What about you, Harte?"
"It's a Valentine's Day carnival. What the hell do I know about Valentine's Day?"
She snickered at his baffled tone. She couldn't help herself. The man just rubbed her wrong. He had gone out of his way to antagonize her since she arrived in town. Not only had he taken his own business elsewhere, but she knew he'd convinced several other ranchers to do the same. It hurt her pride both professionally and personally that he made no secret of his disdain for some of her more unconventional methods.
"You mean nobody's sent you one of those cute little pink cards lately? With that sweet disposition of yours, I'd have thought you would have women crawling out of the woodwork to send you valentines."
She regretted the snippy comment as soon as she said it. Whatever her views about him, she should at least try to be civil.
Still, she felt herself bristle when he glowered at her, which seemed to be his favorite expression. It was a shame, really. The man could be drop-dead gorgeous when he wasn't looking like he just planted his butt on a cactus. How such a sweet little girl like Lucy could have such a sour apple of a father was beyond her.
Before he could answer in kind, the schoolteacher stepped in to keep the peace with the same quiet diplomacy she probably used to break up schoolyard brawls. "There's no reason you have to make a decision today. It's only mid-November, so we still have plenty of time before Valentine's Day. Why don't both of you take a few days to think it over, and I'll talk to you about it next week."
Ms. McKenzie rose from behind her desk. "Thank you both for coming in at such short notice," she said, in clear dismissal. "I'll be in touch with you next week."
Left with no alternative, Ellie rose, as well, and shrugged into her coat. Beside her, Lucy's father did the same.
"Sorry about the mix-up," he said, reaching out to shake hands with Ms. McKenzie. Ellie observed with curiosity that for the first time the other woman looked uncomfortable, even nervous. Again she thought of that skittish colt ready to bolt. There was an awkward pause while he stood there with his hand out, then with a quick, jerky movement, the teacher gripped his hand before abruptly dropping it.
"I'll be in touch," she said again.
What was that all about? Matt wondered as he followed the city vet out of the brightly decorated classroom into the hall. Why did Miz McKenzie act like he'd up and slapped her when all he wanted to do was shake her hand? Come to think of it, she'd behaved the same way when he came in a month earlier for parent-teacher conferences.
She and Ellie Webster ought to just form a club, since it was obvious the lady vet wasn't crazy about him, either. Matt Harte Haters of America.
He didn't have time to dwell on it before they reached the outside door of the school. The vet gave him a funny look when he opened the door for her, but she said nothing, just moved past him. Before he could stop himself, he caught a whiff of her hair as her coat brushed his arm. It smelled clean and fresh, kind of like that heavenly lemon cream pie they served over at the diner.
He had absolutely no business sniffing the city vet's hair, Matt reminded himself harshly. Or noticing the way those freckles trailed across that little nose of hers like the Big Dipper or how the fluorescent lights inside the school had turned that sweet-smelling hair a fiery red, like an August sunset after an afternoon of thunderstorms.
He pushed the unwanted thoughts away and followed Ellie Webster out into the frigid night. An icy wind slapped at them, and he hunched his shoulders inside his lined denim coat.
It was much colder than normal for mid-November. The sky hung heavy and ugly overhead, and the twilight had that expectant hush it took on right before a big storm. Looked like they were in for a nasty one. He dug already cold fingers into his pockets.
When he drove into town earlier, the weatherman on the radio had said to expect at least a foot of snow. Just what he needed. With that Arctic Express chugging down out of Canada, they were sure to have below-zero temperatures tonight. Add to that the windchill and he'd be up the whole damn night just trying to keep his cattle alive.
The city vet seemed to read his mind. "By the looks of that storm, I imagine we'll both have a busy night."
"I do still have a few patients."
He'd never paid much mind to what a vet did when the weather was nasty. Or what a vet did any other time, for that matter. They showed up at his place, did what he needed them to do, then moved on to their next appointment.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Um we have to break up