A runaway bride. A single-dad rancher. Who said opposites don't attract?
Perhaps applying to a Help Wanted ad in her wedding gown wasn't the best way to make a first impression on a job interview! But Kate Scott needed to escape the humiliation of her hastily called-off wedding. Cabot Dixon's Montana ranch, if not the most welcoming place in the West, seemed like the perfect place to keep a low profile.
Cabot was a ranchernot a couples' counselor!and his past experiences with women (plus the dusty wedding dress) told him Kate was a runner. So when his young son, Tyler, attached himself to Kate and made not-so-subtle hints about wanting her as his mom, the single dad wondered what he'd opened himself up to especially when he realized that he'd do anything to have the runaway bride by his side for keeps!
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It wasn't often a woman walked into the Grizzly Bear Diner wearing a strapless wedding dress and four-inch satin heels.
If Cabot Dixon wasn't seeing it for himself, he'd have heard pretty quick because people in Blackwater Lake, Montana, talked and this was something to talk about. The bride had parked a beat-up truck out front and she was a looker. The woman, not the truck. From his seat at the diner counter he had a view of Main Street and had watched her lift the floor-length cream satin skirt in one hand, probably to avoid tripping because it was way too late to keep it from getting dirty. Then she marched inside, as opposed to down the aisle.
He was sitting on a swivel stool, and she slid between the two beside him to talk with Michelle Crawford, the diner's owner, who was openly staring.
"I'm here about the Help Wanted sign in your window."
The bride was even prettier up close, with light brown, blond-streaked hair and a figure that could back up traffic for miles. And that wasn't all. Her voice had the barest hint of huskiness that could stop a man's beating heart for a second or two.
There were a few customers in the diner and everyone continued to stare when the newcomer added, "I could use a job."
"Okay." Michelle slipped him a help-me-out expression, obviously wondering if he would jump in, considering he was the one looking to hire.
When he'd put the Help Wanted sign in the diner window, she'd promised to run interference and weed out the applicants who weren't really serious so he didn't have to come all the way into town from the ranch every five minutes. Frankly, he was looking forward to seeing Michelle handle this one on her own. Because there was no groom in sight, the lady clearly was a runner. It would appear that, unlike his ex-wife, she'd cut out before taking vows and getting pregnant.
Cabot glanced at her flat belly in the tight, unforgiving, dropped-waist gown that wouldn't hide even an extra ounce of fat, let alone a bump. He couldn't swear there was no baby on board, but it didn't look likely. Her bare arms were super toned and she had great shoulders, slender but strong. She was a little lacking in the chest department, but her cute nose and even better mouth made up for it.
The bride rested her palms on the red Formica counter. "I've never waitressed before, but I'm a fast learner and a hard worker"
Michelle held up a hand. "Let me stop you right there. I'm not hiring, just handling the interviews for the rancher who is." She glanced at him. "The ranch is about ten miles outside Blackwater Lake."
"I see." The woman looked momentarily thrown, and then she nodded. "I admit I didn't read anything on the poster after the help wanted part and that doesn't speak well about my attention to detail. But I'm a bit distracted just now."
Cabot figured that was the truth. The wedding dress was a big clue.
"Well" Michelle gave him another jump-in-anytime look. "The job is for a summer camp counselor. The owner runs a program for kids at his ranch, and duties include activities, sports and whatever else comes up. General pitching in as needed."
"I can handle that," the bride said. "I love kids."
"I'm not sure you're what he had in mind."
"The rancher who's looking to hire," Michelle responded. "You're probably overqualified."
"I just want to work." Cabot saw something vulnerable and fragile in her expression. "These days a lot of people are taking jobs they're overqualified for and happy to have them."
She was right about that, he thought. Although the job he needed to fill was more suited to a young college kid or recent graduate, he'd posted the sign in the diner window later than he usually did. Camp was starting soon and most people who wanted summer work had already lined something up. That meant he couldn't afford to be as picky as usual.
Michelle folded her arms over her chest and looked the woman up and down. "Even your average employee doesn't go formal to apply for work."
"So you noticed the wedding dress." The bride's tone was deliberately casual, as if she always showed up for a job interview in a long white gown. "I guess I stand out like a fly in milk."
"Pretty much," Michelle agreed.
The woman was plucky, Cabot thought. He'd give her that. Taking a sip of cold coffee, he listened intently, interested to hear what she had to say.
"The truth is, I ran out on my wedding."
"Really? Could have fooled me." Cabot knew he should have stayed out of this conversation but just couldn't resist. "So you broke some poor guy's heart."
She met his gaze and took his measure. "And you are?"
"Cabot Dixon. Couldn't help overhearing. So, why did you run?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but he's a lying, cheating, scumbag weasel dog."
"That sounds bad," he said. "But I have to askcouldn't you have said something to him before he showed up for the wedding?"
"Probably I should have. My sister warned me, told me he hit on her, but I was stubborn and didn't believe. Then I caught him kissing one of my bridesmaids at the church. It seemed like an excellent time to let him know the marriage probably wasn't going to work out." She clenched her teeth and a muscle jerked in her delicate jaw. "I hate it when my sister is right."
"Jerk," Michelle said, the single word dripping with disgust.
Cabot had to agree.
"I gave him back the ring with a fervent wish that he'd choke on it, but dealing with the rest just then was" The bride sighed and the movement did amazing things to a chest that suddenly didn't seem so lacking. "I grabbed the truck keys and left. Drove all night and this looked like as good a place as any to stop."
"It is a good place, honey." Michelle patted her hand and gave him a glance that begged him to take over.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Katrina Scott. Kate." She glanced between him and Michelle. "Why do you keep looking at this guy?"
"I keep looking at this man because he's Cabot Dixon, the rancher who put the Help Wanted poster in my window. Take over anytime." Michelle settled a hand on her hip and met his gaze. "In my humble opinion, Kate is just your type." To the bride she added, "He's a sucker for hard-luck cases."
"I know you mean that in the nicest possible way," he said to Michelle.
"Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't." She smiled at the bride and said, "My work here is done. By the way, I'm Michelle Crawford. It's nice to meet you, Kate. Welcome to Black-water Lake, Montana."
"Thanks." After the other woman left, Kate turned to him. "You could have said something about being the rancher in question before I spilled my guts."
"You were on a roll," he said.
"Just so we're clear, I'm not a hard-luck case. And I don't suppose there's a chance that you could overlook or forget everything I just said?"
"I didn't think so." She sighed.
"So Katrina. Like the hurricane."
"I came first and I'm pretty sure my parents named me after a Viking queen or at the very least a Swedish princess."
He laughed. She was quick-witted. He liked that. But Michelle was probably right about her being overquali-fied. He would guess her to be in her late twenties and likely on a career path that had been interrupted by running out on her wedding. Although by the looks of the ancient truck out front, she didn't have much money.
"Thanks. I plan to burn it." She smoothed a hand over the curve of her hip.
The gesture drew his attention and suddenly his mouth went dry. This was a pretty strong reaction and he didn't much trust the feeling, but there was no reason to read anything complicated into it. He was a guy and she was a pretty woman. That was all. But she was looking to work for him and he was looking for a reason to turn her down.
"You need a job."
"It would help me out."
She had pride. He understood and respected that. Cabot pushed his empty plate and coffee cup away. "Like Michelle said, it's really a nowhere job."
"Just where I want to be."
"The kids' activities include sportsbasketball, baseball, soccer."
"I'm athletic." He noted conviction in her voice, not so much in her expression.
He couldn't tell about athletic, but she looked as if she was in great shape. "I'm offering minimum wage, and that's not much more than gas money for a college kid who's willing to work."
"I'm obviously not a college student but definitely not afraid of hard work. And money buys gas whether you're in school or not," she said. "I'm sensing hesitation on your part and just want to say that you're not seeing me at my best right now."
He had to disagree with her on that. What he saw was pretty darn nice, although she did look tired. She had dark circles under her eyes. Green eyes, he noted. Beautiful, big green eyes.
"When was the wedding supposed to be?" he asked.
The skirt of her dress had deep creases, as if she'd been sitting for a long time. Behind the wheel of a crappy old truck.
"Where did you sleep last night?"
He'd guess she was running on fumes. "Do you have a place to stay here in Blackwater Lake?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. Maybe you could recommend something."
Glancing out the window, he assessed her ride. The paint was old and chipped, and rust showed through in some places. It had seen better days. He figured she probably couldn't afford to pay for a room.
"Blackwater Lake Lodge is the only place in town, but it's expensive."
"That's okay. I'll be all right."
Again, that was probably pride talking. Sleeping in the truck wasn't a good idea, but she likely had no other choice. She was here without a lot of options. And somehow he felt she was now his problem, which he didn't like even a little bit. Bottom line was the camp needed an extra pair of hands and the duties weren't rocket science. He couldn't afford to be too choosy.
He stood up. "The job comes with room and board. Meals included."
She blinked those big green eyes at him. "Are you hiring me?"
"Subject to approval by Caroline Daly. She manages the camp for me and also does the cooking."
"Wow. I don't know what to say."
He didn't, either. If anyone had told him he'd be hiring a runaway bride that day, crazy would have been the first word that came to mind.
The thought made him irritable. "Do you want the job or not?"
"I want it."
He looked at the dress then met her gaze. "Do you have anything else to wear?"
"You'll need stuff. I can give you an advance"
"That's okay. I can handle it."
"Okay." He wasn't going to argue. "Michelle can tell you where the discount store is and give you directions to the ranch. Like she said, it's about ten miles outside of town. When you've got what you need, meet me there."
"Thank you, Mr. Dixon."
"It's Cabot." He looked at his watch and shook his head. If he didn't leave now he'd be late picking Tyler up from school. "I have to go."
"Okay." She held out her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Cabot. I promise you won't regret this decision."
Time would tell. He shook her hand and the electricity that shot up his arm made him regret not letting Michelle handle the interview solo. But the diner owner was pretty close to dead on about one thing. He was a sucker for hard-luck cases. At least he wasn't a romantic sucker anymore.
When a wife walked out on her husband and infant son, it tended to crush the romance out of a man.
A few hours later, as Kate Scott was driving to the ranch, she figured a rush of adrenaline was the only explanation for the fact that she hadn't passed out and run off the road into a ditch. She'd never been this tired in her life. As an athlete she was trained to eat well, get enough sleep and take care of her body. In the past twenty-four hours she'd done none of the above. Candy bars and coffee were nothing more than survival snacks. That was what happened when you drove from Southern California to Montana in nineteen hours.
But the adrenaline rush in the diner had been unexpected. It had a lot to do with Cabot Dixon, she thought as she drove Angelica, her brother's ancient truck, through his gates and beneath a sign that announced Dixon Ranch and Summer Camp.
Serenity was the first thing she noticed. It was all about rolling green meadows crisscrossed by a white picket fence. Majestic mountains stood like sentinels in the distance. As the truck continued slowly up the long drive, she passed a huge house. It looked a lot like a really big wooden cabin with dormers and a double-door front entry. The kind of place Architectural Digest would have on the cover for an article about mountain homes for the wealthy.
Following the instructions Michelle Crawford had given her, Kate drove past a real working barn, then a smaller barnlike building with a large patio and scattered picnic tables. That must be where camp meals were served. Beyond that were six spacious cabins. Michelle had told her the first five housed campers and senior counselors, and the last one, a much smaller cabin, would be where she'd stay for the summer. If she got the cook's approval for the assistant-counselor position.
She parked by cabin number six and turned off the truck's ignition before blowing out a long breath. What a relief to just be still. It felt weird. Not good; not bad. Just strange. She couldn't remember the last time she hadn't had a million things going on at once. Training, practice, competition and product endorsements made for twenty-hour workdays. Now she had nothing.
Sliding out of the truck, she noticed a little boy running toward her. Oh, to have that much energy, she thought.
The dark-haired, dark-eyed kid skidded to a stop in front of her. He looked about seven or eight. "Hi. I'm Tyler, but most people call me Ty. Not my teacher, though. She believes in calling kids by their given name."
"I'm Kate Scott. Nice to meet you, Ty." His features and the intensity stamped on them were familiar. "I bet your last name is Dixon."
"It is." His long-lashed eyes grew bigger, as if she'd read his mind. "How'd you know?"
"You look like your dad."
"That's what folks say."
And when he grew up, he'd probably be just as drop-dead gorgeous as his father. It hadn't escaped her notice that Cabot Dixon was one fine-looking man, which had probably sparked the unexpected blast of adrenaline at the diner. She hadn't been too tired to notice that he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.