Book 1 of Cowboys & Brides
From New York Times and USA Today-bestselling author Carolyn Brown comes a contemporary Western romance filled to the brim with sexy cowboys, gutsy heroines, and genuine down-home Texas twang.
Colton Nelson was twenty-eight years old when he won the Texas Lottery and went from ranch hand to ranch owner overnight. Now he's desperate to keep the gold diggers away. It shouldn't be too hard to find a pretty girl and hire her to pretend to be his one-and-only.
Laura Baker's got mixed feelings about this-she's on the ranch to work, not to be arm candy. On the other hand, being stuck for a while in the boondocks with a gorgeous cowboy isn't half-bad.
What neither Colton nor Laura expects are the intensely hard lessons they have to learn about the real cost of love...
Fans of Linda Lael Miller and Diana Palmer will thrill to this moving story of a marriage of convenience between a cowboy who has it all...and the woman he could never have enough of.
Cowboys & Brides Series:
Billion Dollar Cowboy (Book 1)
The Cowboy's Christmas Baby (Book 2)
The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride (Book 3)
How to Marry a Cowboy (Book 4)
Praise for Bestselling Contemporary Western Romances by Carolyn Brown:
"An old-fashioned love story told well... A delight."-RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
"Sizzling hot and absolutely delectable."-Romance Junkies
"Funny, frank, and full of heart... One more welcome example of Brown's Texas-size talent for storytelling."-USA Today Happy Ever After
"Alive with humor... Another page-turning joy of a book by an engaging author."-Fresh Fiction
About the Author
Carolyn Brown is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author with more than sixty books published. She writes bestselling single title cowboy and country music mass market romances, as well as women's fiction. Born in Texas and raised in southern Oklahoma, Carolyn and her husband now make their home in the town of Davis, Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
It was just supper, for God's sake; it wasn't an inquisition. They weren't going to take her out in the yard and stone her to death if she ate with the wrong fork. Andy had said they were just like family, and since she was his assistant she should meet them, but she didn't want to get all friendly with the "family." She just wanted to work off her debt and get out of Ambrose, Texas. She'd managed to avoid most of them for a whole week and thought she could do so for months, but oh, no, Andy decided it was time for her to break bread with them that very evening.
Laura sat up straighter in the chair and pushed her glasses up on her nose. She hated going back to glasses after years and years of wearing contacts. She could wear her contacts on special occasions, but not more than a couple of hours. Tonight didn't qualify for that in her opinion.
"We are glad that you came to supper, Laura," Maudie said.
Maudie was tall, thin, with salt-and-pepper hair, and not nearly enough wrinkles to be Colton's grandmother. She'd never be worth a damn in a poker game because Laura could easily read her through her green eyes. She'd popped in and out of the office at least once a day, so Laura had met her, but saying a brief hello and sitting at the supper table with her were two different things.
Laura's smile was strained at best. "Thank you."
Andy clapped his hands once. Conversation stopped and all eyes were on Laura. She sincerely thought about crawling under the table and hiding, but she refused to let anyone intimidate her. Not even the people who lived in a house so big that it took her breath away when she first saw it. It had turrets and wings and tall windows, a deep wraparound porch, and would put Tara from Gone with the Wind to absolute shame.
"Introductions!" Andy said with a sweep of his hand. "Maudie is the only one who has met Laura, who has been getting settled into the apartment and the job this week. As you all know, she is my distant cousin so I've known her since we were both kids."
Laura nodded at Maudie even though saying hello from behind a desk and computer was far different than knowing them.
"And," Andy went on, "that feller over there with the platter of steaks in his hand is Rusty. He's the ranch foreman and the person who knows what's going on in any corner of the ranch. The kid beside him is Roxie, our new resident teenager."
Rusty smiled. "I'd begun to think you were just a figment of Andy's imagination or that he'd hired a robot. Welcome to the ranch. If I can help you with anything, you just holler. The apartment suiting you all right?"
"Yes, sir. It's great," she said.
Roxie looked up and Laura's heart went out to her. There was something in her blue eyes that said she wasn't real sure of her place in the world or where she'd fit in if she figured out that she even had a place.
"Hello," Roxie said in a soft Southern drawl.
Laura saw herself at sixteen when someone new came to dinner at Aunt Dotty's ranch. Trying to remember her manners and not talking too much, but being friendly. It was an awkward age at best. Andy had already mentioned that Roxie had just recently come to the ranch on a full-time basis and was more than a little bit shy.
Andy pointed in the opposite direction. "The cowboy at the head of the table that looks like shit is Colton."
"Thanks a lot, Andy, for telling your kin that I don't run my own ranch and that I look like shit. He's a real good best friend, Laura. I want to thank you for taking on the job of working with Andy. It can't be easy as picky as he is about everything," Colton growled.
"I'm pretty much a perfectionist too. It must run in the family," Laura answered.
Andy picked up a basket of hot rolls and passed it to Rusty. "Laura is a whiz kid on computers, so she's kept her nose to the grindstone this week. We're catching up, though, so you'll see more of her from now on. I had to twist her arm to get her to come to supper. She's never been shy before, so I don't know what her problem is."
Roxie caught her eye and smiled. The girl had blond hair pulled up in a ponytail, crystal clear blue eyes, and a flawless complexion. She was so tiny that she looked fragile, but Laura would guess there was a tough interior hiding inside her soul that would surface in a hurry if someone pushed her too hard.
"What's the matter with you, Colton? You look like you've got a hangover. You never pass up hot rolls. Are you sick?" Maudie looked genuinely worried.
Colton passed the green beans on to Rusty. "I think I was drugged last night."
Laura glanced toward the end of the table. She'd seen Colton from her second-story window several times and with his swagger, boots, and hat, she'd thought he was handsome. Sitting at the table with him proved that he went beyond handsome even with the slightly green cast around his mouth and bloodshot eyes. Biceps stretched at his shirt sleeves that had been rolled up to just above his elbows. His dark brown hair was feathered back away from his face in a perfect cut. His light green eyes left no doubt that he had the mother of all hangovers. Before he'd settled into his place at the table, she'd seen the way he filled out those jeans and she could well understand the problems he'd have with the women even if he was just a poor dirt farmer. Add a bank account that would stagger Fort Knox and it was no wonder that the man was the most sought after bachelor in all of northern Texas.
"Good thing I was there," Rusty said seriously.
Colton nodded. "No telling where I'd be today if you hadn't hauled me home, but dammit! I hate needing a babysitter everywhere I go. Why do women act like that?"
"I'm not your babysitter. I'm your bodyguard," Rusty said.
"Money! That's why women act like that. You don't remember one bit of it, do you?" Maudie asked.
"I remember drinking one beer and looking out over the crowd. Then I ordered another one and didn't even finish it," Colton said. "I'm going up to my room. Maybe later I'll make some toast or feel like having a milkshake. Right now my head hurts too bad to even chew. Nice meeting you, Laura. I'm real glad that Andy hired you. Now maybe he'll stop whining like a little girl about how much work he has to do."
Laura looked up from her plate and pushed her glasses up again. "Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you. Sorry that you don't feel so good."
Maudie looked at Rusty. "Two beers? Really?"
He shrugged. "We hadn't been there thirty minutes so he's probably telling the truth. A tall blonde and a brunette sat down on the bar stools, one on either side of him. She was sneaky about it so I could never prove it, but I do think the blonde put it in his drink while the brunette distracted him."
Maudie shook her head slowly from side to side when Colton was out of the room. "Now they are drugging him? What are we going to do? One of them is bound to kill him if we don't think of something."
Andy laid his fork and knife down and sipped sweet tea. "Money sure brings out the monsters."
Laura knew a little about the money and the monsters, but from the other side of the fence. She wouldn't be sitting at the table with Andy that evening if she didn't, but she did feel sorry for Colton. Andy had told her that the poor man hadn't had a normal life since he'd gotten rich and that things went from bad to worse every day.
Rusty nodded seriously. He was Andy's opposite. Where Andy was medium height, overweight, and barely thirty with a full head of curly blond hair and pale blue eyes, Rusty was tall and lanky, had graying hair, and brown eyes set in a face with a ready smile and enough wrinkles to testify to lots of experience.
"I barely got him in the house and on the sofa in the den. I pulled his boots off and threw a cover over him. That the way you found him this morning, Maudie?" Rusty asked.
She shook her head. "He was in his room, passed out on top of his covers. I tried to wake him for breakfast, but it didn't work. Must've been something powerful that the woman dosed him with. He's strong as a bull."
Laura had been hired to help Andy in the office, not to sit at the table and hear all about the family's problems. So the rich cowboy had major issues with the women wanting to lasso him. She had problems with a sister who wouldn't or couldn't fight her addiction to gambling. Everyone had their own sad tale of woe, but she didn't have the time or energy to get involved in Colton's.
"He'll live. Enough about our family problems. Laura, please join us for any meals that you want. We want you to feel right at home here on the ranch." Maudie looked across the table at her.
"Thank you." Laura squirmed in her seat. She damn sure didn't plan on eating three meals a day in the big house.
"And what did you do before Andy hired you?" Rusty asked.
"I worked at a greenhouse in Amarillo. The owner sold it and the new owners brought in their own staff. So, Roxie, what grade are you in?" Laura deliberately turned the conversation in a different direction.
"I'll be a junior this fall," she said.
"She's in summer school to make up classes she missed when she skipped school," Andy said.
Roxie looked at her plate. The gesture reminded her so much of her sister, Janet, that it shot a pang of homesickness through Laura's heart.
"And what are you going to be when you grow up?" Laura asked.
Roxie raised her eyes. "A fashion designer or an interior decorator."
"That takes college and to go you've got to have good grades in school," Laura said.
"What you ought to do is take lots of computer classes and go to work for the ranch. You're really good with technology," Andy said.
Roxie gave him a shy smile. "That's what Dillon says. Maybe I will change my mind, but right now I just want out of Ambrose. I want to go where nobody knows me."
Laura had felt the same about Claude, Texas, and there had been two summers that she had to do makeup work at school. Not for skipping classes but for being too shy in those days to raise her hand to answer questions. Janet was the one who had to attend summer school for skipping, and Aunt Dotty had given her extra chores as punishment.
They talked about crops, church, and Roxie's class schedule, but Laura only listened with one ear. She wondered what Janet was doing that evening. It had been a whole week since they'd hugged and said their good-byes. It would be a long time before they saw each other or even had phone privileges again. If only she'd had another way to get the money to bail Janet out one more time, but she'd had no other recourse than biting the bullet and going to Andy. She just hoped that Janet was holding up her end of the bargain.
At first she was angry at Andy for laying down such rules. She and Janet were sisters and adults. He didn't have to be such a hard-ass about loaning her the money, but the more she'd thought about it that week, the more she realized that he was a genius. Janet would never stop gambling if she could run to Laura every time she got into trouble.
Andy's rules had been simple. Number one: they could have no contact, not even phone, emails, or texting until the debt was paid in full. Number two: they could not see each other until the debt was paid in full. Number three: Janet had to stay out of casinos, bingo halls, anything that had to do with gambling, and she had to go to Gambler's Anonymous twice a week.
Laura shook the rules from her mind and pushed back her chair. "It's been a pleasure meeting you all. Thank you for supper. I'll be getting back to the office now to finish up the day's work."
"We are glad to have you here on the ranch. Feel free to take any of your meals with us. There's buffet breakfast and lunch and we sit around the table at supper." Maudie waved her away with a flick of her wrist.
"Thank you," Laura said, but she sure did not intend to eat three meals a day with the family. No sir!
"Don't let Andy chain you to the computer in that office," Rusty said.
"I'm sure I'll be out and around more often as soon as we get caught up," Laura said.
She escaped across the foyer and down the hallway to the small office that she shared with Andy Joe. She flopped down into her office chair, leaned back, laid her glasses on her lap, and pressed her thumbs into her temples. Thank God for Andy and his offer to come to her rescue, but she'd be damned if she made that supper thing a nightly affair. A tuna fish sandwich with peace surrounding her was a lot better than all those eyes on her.
"Hey." Andy poked his head into the room.
She sat up so quickly that the room did a couple of spins before she got it all under control. "I was just resting my eyes for a minute."
"It's been a long day, Laura. We'll finish up those reports tomorrow morning. We're trying to figure out some things in the dining room. You missed dessert so I brought you a slice of pecan pie."
"Thank you. Maybe I'll get a run in tonight before I go to bed," she said.
"If you get lost in the big town of Ambrose, call me and I'll come get you. Believe me, Claude is a metropolis compared to Ambrose." He grinned. He turned off the lights and set the pie on the fax machine. "See you tomorrow morning."
She stuck her glasses on top of her head, ate every bite of the pie, and headed back toward the kitchen to put the dirty plate away. She could hear the soft drone of voices floating down the hall and stopped in her tracks when she heard her name. She tiptoed closer to the open dining room door and plastered her body against the wall.
"That's crazy. She'll never do it," Rusty said. "And neither will Colton."
"How do you know? We could at least ask them," Maudie said.
"I vote that we don't ask. We just orchestrate it and see what happens," Andy said.
"I think it's mean," Roxie said.
Laura was amazed that the girl spoke up, but what in the devil were they talking about. It had to do with her and Colton and something they'd both never go for... but what?
Rusty's deep voice carried better than Roxie's when he said, "She will pitch a fit when she finds out. You might be her cousin, but you'll be in big trouble, Andy. She don't fool me one bit hiding behind those glasses. She's a fighter."
"Yes, she is. She's always had to be, but I can handle it," Andy said.
"It sounds like a good plan, and the only way it will work is if you blindside them with it," Rusty answered.
"I vote we at least give it a try. Raise your hand if you are with me," Andy said.
She couldn't see the vote but rustling said that they had cast their vote and were on their way out of the dining room. She hurried down the foyer and out the back door before she got caught eavesdropping.
"Damn!" she whispered as she climbed the steps to her apartment. They were up to something that involved her and Colton together and she'd sure like to know what it was before it happened.
Her apartment was the upper floor of the old carriage house that now garaged three of the family's pickup trucks. The sun hung above the treetops like it didn't know whether it wanted to set that night or just look at the world a while longer. Laura looked at the clock when she opened the door. If she hurried, she could get in a run before dusk.
In Amarillo, Laura had a schedule that included running three times a week in addition to the exercise she got at the greenhouse. And she didn't eat three huge meals a day. Breakfast was usually yogurt in the middle of the morning, dinner was a salad or a sandwich that she brought from home, and supper was one of those lean frozen dinners that she popped into the microwave.
She changed into her favorite old gray sweat suit, put on her running shoes, and did a few stretches in her room. The night air was pleasant, not too hot for the first week in June, which could be getting close to triple digits hot. She'd started to work for Andy on Saturday morning, the first day of June, and now it was a full week later. The sun dipped behind the tall pecan trees lining the lane as she took off in an easy warm-up trot on the gravel road. By the time she reached the road leading into Ambrose, she had built up a good speed. She didn't see anyone, not until she reached the T in the road and turned north into Ambrose. Then a rusted-out old pickup slowed down behind her. The driver honked, stuck his hand out the window, and waved as he went on by.
Calling Ambrose a town was a far stretch of the imagination. It had a population of less than a hundred people, and the post office had long since been shut down. Now the mail came out of Bells on a rural route. The old school was the color of the formations at the bottom of the Palo Duro Canyon not far from Amarillo and was now a community center. The yard looked unkempt and she visualized a few lantana plants and iris bulbs along with some coleus set back in the corners to perk it up.
She was about to rest a minute on the community center porch when she noticed the church off to her left. It looked far more inviting with its deep shade and freshly mowed yard. Surely God wouldn't mind if she caught her breath before she ran back to the ranch. The roses were lovely, the sweet williams were thick and luxurious, and the hedges had been clipped, and the smell of fresh clipped grass filled the evening air. She sat down on the porch steps, leaned forward, and put her head on her knees.
She'd barely taken three good long breaths when the church doors creaked open. Her first thought was that whoever took care of the yard should spray some oil on the hinges. Then she looked up to see a short man in faded jeans, a red bandana rolled up and tied around his forehead, and a big smile on his face.
"Hello. You lost or out for exercise?" His big booming voice sounded like it should have come from a six-foot cowboy like Colton, not a yard man for the church.
"Exercise," she gasped.
He sat down beside her. "I'm Roger Green, the preacher here at this church. Don't think I've seen you around. Are you new to Ambrose?"
Running in heat must have killed the brain cells that pertained to sight and hearing. The man said he was a preacher? Preachers did not wear sweat rags made from bandanas, and they didn't wear faded jeans and a red knit shirt with a hole in the sleeve.
"I'm Laura Baker. I work at the Circle 6," she said.
"Well, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Expect you'll be in church tomorrow morning with the family?"
Laura didn't want to lie and say that she'd be sitting on the family pew the next morning, but she wouldn't make a promise that she had no intention of keeping. "I'm not sure," she hedged as she stood up and stretched. "Sorry to rush but got to get back to the ranch before it gets dark."
"I'll look forward to seeing all y'all tomorrow." His voice rang out behind her as she sped away.
Did Andy go every single week?
Andy said that since she'd be on a ranch she could wear her jeans and boots. She had brought three or four sundresses for days when jeans and boots were too hot to wear to work, but they weren't church clothing. Aunt Dotty had always insisted that she and Janet be dressed proper on Sunday morning and that meant sleeves, panty hose, and closed-toed shoes.
She was still worrying about what to wear when she turned the corner into the lane and slowed down to a fast trot to the house. She'd barely sat down on the top porch step to cool off when Colton came out of the house and sat down in the swing.
"Looks like you've been running. So what did you think of Ambrose?" he asked.
"What makes you think I ran into town? And I thought you were sick."
"Preacher called. Said he met you and invited you to come to church with us tomorrow morning. And I'm feeling better."
"Damn!" Her most overworked swear word slipped out slicker than boiled okra.
"Does that mean no?"
"It means I didn't bring things for church. I just packed working clothes for the most part."
"You got a dress?"
"Couple of sundresses."
"What's it look like?"
"It's blue and it doesn't have sleeves and it only comes to my knee."
"Sounds fine to me. Wear it and you'll look great or wear jeans and boots," Colton said.
She looked over at him. "You must be feeling better."
"I am, but the thought of heavy food gags me. I'm thinking a snow cone might taste good. You want one?"
He was just being nice, but a rainbow snow cone did sound wonderful. "How far is it to get one?"
"Seven miles over to Bells. They've got a place that makes wonderful snow cones. You look hot and I'm ready to put something in my stomach. You might as well ride over with me."
"Okay," she said slowly. Was this part of what the family was talking about in the dining room? Had they already let him in on the proposition and now it was just a matter of being nice to her so that she'd get on board? There was only one way to find out.
Bells is six miles south of Ambrose on a little two-lane farm road. Colton could easily get there in less than ten minutes, but he poked along at forty-five miles an hour. Laura wore the same jeans and shirt she'd had on at supper. She had changed from boots to running shoes and had rolled the legs of her jeans up to right under her knees. Even with the glasses and the bandana tying all that blond hair back, she was still attractive in a hauntingly cute way. She reminded him of someone but he could not put his finger on it. Maybe it was a woman he'd seen in a bar.
He bit back a groan. Could she be running her own scam on him?
Andy said that she was his cousin and that she needed a job and a loan to get her sister out of gambling debt. She had worked in a greenhouse for eight years but got laid off when it sold; however, she was an expert computer geek just like him. Andy would never lie to him, not in a million years. They'd been friends since day one of kindergarten and Colton would trust Andy with his life. The cousin, not so much! At least not until she proved that she wasn't pulling the wool over his eyes and poor old Andy's!
"Look!" His forefinger grazed her breast when he reached across to point out a big buck and his harem of half a dozen does just over the pasture fence.
Heat shot from the tip of his finger through his entire hand. He slapped it back on the steering wheel. It didn't look like he'd held it over an open campfire, but it damn sure felt like it. He'd been without a woman far too long, but hell's bells, trusting didn't come easy even for a casual relationship.
"Wow!" she mumbled.
She pointed up at a flock of ducks coming in for a landing on a farm pond. "They are so graceful. Janet says I was born with no grace at all."
"Whoever Janet is, don't believe her. You are very graceful," he said.
"Janet is my sister," she said tightly. "Yeah, right! I'm a nerd. I know it. I accept it."
He changed the subject. "So you have a sister, you worked at a greenhouse, and you like snow cones?"
She continued to look up at the last of the ducks floating down from the sky to the pond.
"Yes, to all of the above."
"Let's play the old twenty questions," he said. "I'll ask five and then you can ask five. That way I'll get to know who my best friend in the world has hired and you can get to know your boss."
Her brows knit together and a veil dropped over her clear blue eyes.
"I thought Andy was my boss. And besides, it takes too long to play twenty questions so let's just play five questions."
"He is your immediate supervisor. I'm your boss," Colton said.
Why didn't she want to answer simple questions? What was she hiding anyway?
He looked across the cab of the truck at her. "Hey, it's not bare-thy-soul confession time. Just answer with the first thing that comes to mind. Favorite flower?"
"See? That wasn't so hard. Favorite food?" he asked.
She smiled and the tension between them eased. "Breakfast. Love pancakes, eggs, gravy, sausage, biscuits, bagels, all of it."
He grinned. "Three more and then it's your turn. Favorite color?"
She asked, "For what? My favorite color is different for painting my living room than it is for what I would buy to wear or what I like in nature."
"Nature, then," he said.
"Because three years ago my sister and I drove to Florida and spent two days on the beach and that's what color the water was. It reminds me of peace and eternity."
She sounded as wistful as a child with no money standing in front of the snow cone stand.
"Eternity?" he asked.
"Yes, and that's your fourth question." She nodded. "I sat on the beach and looked out across the water and there was nothing but water and sky. I felt like God lived way out there where the emerald green water met the sky. Your eyes are the color of that water, Colton."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Number five, and yes it is. My turn. I already know that your favorite food is steak, so I don't have to ask that."
"It is not! It's pizza."
He slapped the steering wheel. "That was sneaky."
"I didn't ask, so I still have five, but since I did trick you, you can have one more."
"So what is your sister's name?"
"Janet Elizabeth Baker."
"Is she as pretty as you?"
"That's question six, but I'll answer it. Janet is much prettier than I am. Now it's my turn for real. Do you pout when you don't get what you want?"
He fought the urge to step on the brakes and ask her what kind of question was that anyway. Instead he thought about it and said, "No, I'm not the pouting type."
"Did you have serious relationships before you got rich?"
Mercy! She was skipping the small stuff and getting right into the heart of the matter.
"A couple," he answered softly.
"If you could go back and not buy a ranch but travel and enjoy life with your money, would you?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I wouldn't change any of it, except maybe this problem I've got with women."
"Well, you are sexy and you are a billionaire. That comes with the territory. Now what is it about ranching that you like?"
"All of it! I like plowing and cows and the smell of hay. I like finding a litter of kittens snuggled down in the hay barn. I like new baby calves and all four seasons on the ranch. So you think I'm sexy?"
She pointed. "There is the Bells sign. We are here and that was only four questions so I get another one sometime in the future. Right now I want to eat my first snow cone of the year and think about nothing but how good it tastes. And Colton, I may wear thick glasses, but I'm not blind."
She'd popped those questions off so fast he scarcely had time to think. If they'd been playing poker instead of twenty questions she would have taken him straight to the cleaners.
He pulled up to the drive-by window on the side of the small snow cone stand and studied the list of flavors. "See something that you like?"
"I want a rainbow with cherry, banana, and grape," she said without looking at the menu.
If there was a doubt in his mind that she was about to fleece him and Andy both, it disappeared when she ordered the snow cone.
"How did you know that?" He narrowed his eyes at her.
She leaned across the seat and looked at the chart. "Know what? It's what I always order. Don't they have those flavors?"
"I heard the lady, and for you?" the teenager asked from the other side of the window.
"The same," he said.
"You are kidding, right?" Laura said.
"I swear it's what I always get. Cherry on one side, grape on the other, and a thin strip of banana in the middle."
He was onto her and she wouldn't get away with it. She and her sister had cooked up something and dragged poor old Andy into the middle of it. There was no better way to get suckered into a first-class con than inviting it to come live in the house.
"So where to now?" he asked.
"To the school yard to eat them while we swing," she said.
Yes, sir, that girl had done her homework.
Laura was cute as a bug's ear and as unimposing as a child with those thick glasses and her big blue eyes, but there was no way that it was coincidence that she ate the same flavor snow cone as he did or that she liked to sit on the school yard swings while she did.
He drove to the elementary school and parked in the lot beside the playground, got out of the truck, and was rounding the backside of it when she opened her own door. She slurped up a mouthful of cherry syrup from the side of the cone-shaped paper cup and headed toward the swings.
Her lips and tongue were stained bright red from the cherry syrup. Colton kept stealing glances toward her full mouth after they'd sat down on the swings. Would they be warm and inviting or cold as the snow cone?
"I love rainbow snow cones even better than ice cream, and I really, really love homemade banana ice cream," she said.
"Aha, and I didn't even ask what your favorite dessert is."
"That's not my favorite dessert. It's just something I like."
"I'd ask you the question, but then you'd want to ask one, right?"
She nodded. "Tit for tat."
"So you worked on a ranch, did you?"
"I lived on one until I was eighteen," she answered. "Now I get to ask one. Why are you asking?"
"Just thought that when Andy gets caught up that you might drive a tractor or whatever else needs done. There's always room for extra help during the summer and after this month the computer business slows down a little," he said.
He waited for her reaction, expecting her to stutter and stammer her way around the fact that she didn't know a blessed thing about real ranch work. Sure, Andy said that she'd lived on a ranch with her great-aunt, but that didn't mean she'd done any work there.
"Sure. I'll do whatever needs to be done until I can get Andy paid," she said. "It's just like riding a bicycle. It all comes back to a person. I kind of like getting outside to work." Her tongue was turning purple now that she was working on the grape side.
"I'll talk to Andy. He's been a lifesaver even when the women started hounding me. Guess a billionaire sounds better to gold diggers than a plain old millionaire." Using the straw/spoon combination, he shoveled a bite of pure banana into his mouth. "I just want to go to the feed store without worrying about a paternity suit. He said that he was working on a plan to help me out, but he didn't want to tell me the details just yet. I just hope he's not sending off to Russia to buy me a wife from one of those places you hear about on the Internet."
She smiled. "Is it really that bad?"
She giggled. "What would you do if he did?"
"Fire his sorry ass. That's where I draw the line. You don't buy people and I sure don't want a woman that I didn't pick out or one that I can't understand." He laughed with her.
She looked so danged cute with a purple tongue and cherry red lips.
"Andy wouldn't do that for real anyway. I was just joking," Colton said.
"You must feel better," she said.
She pushed out of the swing and carried her empty paper cone to the trash can. He followed her and together they walked back to his truck. He opened the door for her and she hiked a hip up onto the seat. He reached across her to fasten the seat belt like a gentleman and looked up right into her mesmerizing blue eyes.
He cleared his throat and stepped back quickly. He had doubts about her and he'd be damned if he played into her scam by kissing her.
They were back on the ranch in less than an hour. She bailed out of the truck before he had time to open the door and hurried toward the carriage house, throwing a word of thanks over her shoulder for the snow cone.
The sound of her boot heels on the wooden steps leading up to her tiny apartment made the same sound that they did when she climbed the steps to her apartment in Amarillo. Janet lived there now and hopefully she'd keep the rent paid and the place clean.
Laura had learned to like the rut she'd fallen into the past week. It would work really well until she was ready to leave. No commitments, except to hold up her end of the bargain with Andy. No friendships, except with Andy, and she'd been his friend since they were kids.
She went into the office at eight every morning, ate a sandwich while she worked at noon, and then took an hour break at supper before going back to finish up for the day. Andy said that once they got caught up, she'd have Saturdays and Sundays off each week, but they'd worked all day on Saturday and Sunday afternoon when he got home from church the first weekend. The one redeeming thing about working so many hours was that she could pay off her note to Andy faster with all the overtime.
She flipped a switch just inside the door and wished she had never agreed to go to supper that evening. Less than four hours had already turned her life around.
First there was supper with the family, then meeting the preacher, and going for a snow cone. And she still didn't know what Andy was talking about when he and the rest of the family were discussing her and Colton. She really believed the snow cone trip had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. She was very good at reading people and he couldn't have had an underlying motive or she would have seen it.
A single lamp illuminated the small efficiency apartment. A bank of cabinets covered the south wall of the apartment. A small sink, apartment-sized stove, and under-the-counter dorm-sized refrigerator made it into a kitchen. The queen-sized bed took up a chunk of the remaining area. A rocker/recliner faced a television at the foot of the bed, and a doorway right beside it led into a bathroom.
That is where Laura headed, leaving clothing and running shoes in her wake. She turned on the water in an old cast-iron claw-foot tub and crawled into it as it filled. She leaned on the sloped back and shut her eyes. Had she missed a nuance in Colton's actions? He'd changed slightly when she ordered the rainbow snow cone, but that's what she always got. He'd ordered the same one, so what was the big deal? Then he'd had a strange expression when she wanted to go to the school playground, but again, that was her favorite place to go.
It always reminded her of summertime in Amarillo. When Aunt Dotty finished at the feed store and the grocery store, she would let Janet and Laura have a snow cone-if they'd been good that week. And she'd take them to the school playground to swing while they ate it. That was the highlight of their Saturday afternoons when they were kids.
She worked her toes around the faucet handle and turned off the water without sitting up. Andy said the old tub was still in the apartment because they'd have to take a wall out to remove it. She was glad no one had wanted it gone because it had become her refuge-the place where she escaped to each evening while she tried to convince herself that keeping her promise to Andy was the right thing to do when she wanted to call Janet so badly. Just hearing her voice would be enough, but she'd agreed not to even talk to her.
Knowing that Andy was right didn't make it a bit easier. After all, Janet was her sister and Andy was just a distant cousin. True, without him, she might not have a sister. But she'd always taken care of Janet. Could she really, really practice tough love, as Andy called it, this late in the game?
She leaned back and stared at the ceiling, her thoughts going back to the broken bits of conversation she'd overheard and the snow cone incident. She had moved past that and was thinking about a new computer firewall program when she dozed off, awaking a while later to chill bumps on her bare arms and a kink in her neck. She quickly sat up and pulled the rubber plug, letting the cold water drain as she got out and wrapped a towel around her body. She dried off on the towel and draped it over the side of the tub. She had just finished pulling her favorite tattered old flannel robe over a faded nightshirt when someone knocked on the door.
No one had ever come to visit before. It wasn't fair to get her first visitor when her clothing was strewn from door to bathroom and a wet towel was crumpled on the floor. Lord, she hoped it wasn't Colton.
"Hey, Laura, you in there?" Andy yelled.
She slung open the door. "Come in."
Andy's grin brightened the room. He'd always been a teddy bear-slightly overweight, wearing his jeans below his belly, and addicted to T-shirts from country music concerts. His curly hair never looked like it had been cut, and his round face always looked slightly scruffy but his blue eyes were as honest as an angel's. She'd always known that Andy would do anything for her. That's why she called him when she had no other place to turn.
"Naw," he said. "I just come to invite you to church with me tomorrow morning. Sorry, I didn't think about it last week. Ambrose is just a little bitty place, but we got a pretty nice congregation. It'll get you out and into the community."
"I met the preacher this evening when I was out jogging. I sat down on the church steps to catch my breath. He asked me to come to church tomorrow but I skirted the issue. That's my day to do laundry and catch up on my housework. It takes a lot of work to keep a place this size clean," she said.
He leaned against the doorjamb. "I remember when I first came to the ranch and lived here. Man, it took me all of fifteen minutes every Sunday morning. You can do your laundry tomorrow afternoon after church. The utility room is available in the afternoon as well as the morning."
"We work on Sunday afternoon," she said.
"Not this week. We're going to church and you are going to do laundry and then maybe catch up on some rest. Pick you up at ten thirty. Church starts at eleven. Oh, and Maudie says to ask you to eat with the family from now on," Andy said.
The skin on the back of Laura's neck prickled, kind of like when Janet looked at her with a deer-in-the-headlights stare that said she was in trouble again. She tried to think of an excuse not to go to church but nothing, not one thing, came to mind. Yet, that little voice in the back of her mind kept screaming that Andy had something hiding behind that teddy bear facade. She told herself that she was seeing demons in the shadows because of what she'd heard that evening. Hell, nothing could happen at church. All those righteous people, the preacher, and even God would be there.
"I'll be ready," she said and immediately wished she could cram the words back into her mouth. But truth was, she owed Andy big-time and if he wanted her to go to church, then she'd go.
"That's great. Preacher Roger delivers a good sermon and you'll love the singing. See you in the morning, then."
She stood in the open door and watched him all the way across the yard and into the back door of the house. Was he going to try to fix her up with a preacher? Well, he could just wake up and smell the coffee. She didn't have time for romance. And even if she was looking for a relationship, it wouldn't be with a preacher.