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- ISBN: 9781492631378
- ISBN: 149263137X
- Physical Description: 376 pages ; 18 cm
- Publisher: Naperville, Illinois : Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2016.
Shy computer specialist, dog lover, and amateur chef Tina Hayes has a thing for firefighters, but when she travels to the Circle Bar K ranch on family business, the ranch's cowboys have no trouble persuading her to stay on as their cook. Especially not when she learns that brooding Wyatt McCabe, a man who makes her heart gallop like no one else can, is also a former firefighter.
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|Subject:||Cowboys > Fiction.
Man-woman relationships > Fiction.
Bunkhouse cook wanted.
Must love cowboys.
"You're looking for who?" The eyes beneath his dark, forbidding brow were an indeterminate hazel, yet I'd never seen a more intense gaze-or one that was more intimidating.
"Mr. Douglas," I replied. "Calvin Douglas. He's supposed to work here. This is the Circle Bar K Ranch, isn't it?"
"Yeah. He's here. Just never heard him called âMr. Douglas' before."
Anyone else would have smiled at that point, but his expression didn't soften in the slightest. From beneath the brim of a dusty brown cowboy hat, his eyes bored into me like a pair of drills, setting off an attack of nerves that made my hands shake and my throat go dry. He was precisely the kind of man I tended to shy away from.
Who am I kidding?
I shied away from all of them.
"M-may I see him?"
Getting out of my car had already taken most of the courage I possessed, even with Ophelia by my side. A mix of German shepherd and several other breeds, Ophelia had been rescued from an abusive home and taken to the shelter where I had worked as a volunteer during my senior year in high school. For the most part, she was fairly timid and tended to cringe at loud noises. But she could turn into a fierce, growling protector whenever she thought I was in danger-as several suspicious characters I'd encountered while walking near the park could attest. Surprisingly, she didn't growl at this man.
Obviously, she didn't consider him a threat.
I disagreed. I couldn't even look him in the eye, much less argue with him.
Not that he was arguing.
He nodded toward a long, one-story building near the enormous barn. "He's in the kitchen fixing dinner."
That occupation certainly fit with what little I knew about my grandfather's old Army buddy. According to the letter I'd received from him, their friendship had begun in boot camp and continued on through active duty. Calvin had served his unit as a cook, while Grandpa became a combat soldier. While I could only guess at Calvin's current state of health, Vietnam and Agent Orange had certainly left their mark on my grandfather.
Grammy had been pregnant with my mother when Grandpa was drafted, and she'd had no other children even after he returned. Five years later, unable to deal with the way the war had changed him, she divorced him and remarried. As Grandpa's only child, my mother eventually wound up being the one to deal with the mood swings and poor health that were the legacy of his tour of duty. Although Grandpa wouldn't talk about the war, I'd seen the scars and witnessed the sickness, both mental and physical, that had only worsened with the passage of time.
All of that was over now, and his ashes had been scattered in the Tetons as he'd requested. When his demons got to be too much for him, those mountains had been the only place he could find peace. I had often wondered why he'd never gone there to live, but I suspected even they were only a temporary fix. No doubt he became immune to their effect after a while, just as he'd become tolerant of so many of the drugs used to control his illness.
The tall cowboy tipped his hat in a gesture that struck me as being more dismissive than polite and headed back toward the barn without another word, leaving me to find the kitchen on my own. I watched him go, wondering what his story was. Why he had been so abrupt and unfriendly.
Not that it mattered. I wouldn't be there long enough to find out anyway. I was simply there to fulfill yet another of my grandfather's dying wishes.
"Come on, Lia," I said, giving my dog a pat on her broad head. "Let's do this and get going."
I wrapped my coat more tightly against the chilly wind. Grandpa had died the first of September. No doubt autumn in Wyoming would've been fine weather-wise, but with so many things to do in the aftermath of his death, I wasn't ready to pack up and go before winter set in. Even he had suggested I wait until spring to scatter his ashes.
"Go in April," he'd advised in one of his more lucid moments. "The weather will be better then." As cold as it still was in the mountains in late April, I wished I'd waited until July.
I stared at the building the cowboy had indicated, unable to decide which of the three doors led to the kitchen. Scanning the roofline, I spotted a wispy vapor rising from a vent above the door near the center and headed toward it.
Grandpa had come to live with us when I was a child, and since his bedroom and mine shared a wall, I often heard the rattling of my closet doors as he pounded away on the old Woodstock typewriter he'd inherited from his father. I had always known he corresponded with someone on a regular basis, I just hadn't known who he was writing to until I read his will.
To be honest, I hadn't expected the address to be current, but my letter to Calvin Douglas had received a reasonably prompt reply. In it, he thanked me for informing him of Grandpa's death and offered his condolences, stating that he hadn't heard from his old friend in more than two years.
I hadn't been surprised to learn that-the timing was about the same as when I'd given up my job and my apartment and moved back home to help care for my deteriorating grandparent. By then, he'd been in no condition to write letters, his dementia having progressed to the point that we probably should have put him in a nursing home. Mom simply couldn't handle him. God knew I was no nurse, but I'd managed fairly well until a few weeks before the end.
Despite being too weak to get out of bed, he was still a danger-to himself and everyone around him. I could never decide which hurt worse, his grip on my arm-and once around my neck-or the maniacal hatred in his eyes when he'd been overcome by a bout of paranoia. The memory made me shudder as I climbed the two steps up to a small wooden landing.
In response to my knock, a tall, rail-thin man with sparse gray hair opened the door. "Tina Hayes?"
I nodded, holding out a hand that was still trembling from my encounter with the cowboy. "You must be Mr. Douglas."
"Calvin," he corrected. He looked even older than Grandpa had when he died, but his handshake was firm and he was at least smiling. Smiling men had become something of a rarity in my life, except for those who existed solely in my imagination. I'd become accustomed to Grandpa's wild-eyed glares, his doctor's solemn mask, and then there was the funeral director's grave countenance. Even the lawyer hadn't smiled much. On the other hand, my favorite firehouse fantasy had seen me through many trials and tribulations. Cooking for a bunch of handsome, hunky firemen, laughing with them, making love with those who weren't married, and flirting with those who had wives.
"Thanks for your directions," I said, yanking my thoughts back to the present. "I might not have made it here without them-even with the GPS on my phone."
I'd driven across the country with Grandpa's ashes in a box in the trunk and Calvin's letter taped to the dashboard. Having lived in Kentucky all my life, Wyoming's vast open spaces and rocky terrain were completely foreign to me. Now that I'd finally seen the Tetons in person, I wished I'd found the time to accompany Grandpa on some of his trips out west. Unfortunately, school and work had always gotten in the way.
Always too busy.
And now it was too late.
"Those fancy gadgets don't help much out here," Calvin admitted. "Come on in. Dinner will be ready shortly."
Ophelia whined and gazed at me with anxious eyes, just as she'd done when we'd arrived at the lodge in Jackson Hole. "Don't worry, sweetie," I'd said. "I'm not gonna make you climb those mountains."
As if I would even consider it. My dog was my best friend, and she wasn't getting any younger. I wasn't about to risk losing her in the wilderness. Her life had been tough enough before I adopted her.
"I'm sure we can find something for her to eat too," Calvin added.
"I have food for her in the car. Besides, I hadn't planned on staying that long." I hesitated. I had no desire to sit down to dinner with a bunch of rowdy, uncouth cowboys. If the one I'd met was any indication, they wouldn't want me to-nor did I want to seem rude.
I'd had no idea how this meeting would go. Calvin hadn't heard from Grandpa in two years. A lot had happened in that time, and none of it good. Surely he wouldn't want to hear all the gory details. I certainly didn't want to talk about them, especially over dinner.
"Do you really think I'd let John Parker's granddaughter come all this way and not stay for dinner?" Narrowing his eyes, Calvin gazed at me from beneath bushy gray eyebrows and shook his head. "Ain't gonna happen, young lady."
I started to protest being called that. Granted, twenty-eight wasn't old, but the last two years had seemed like triple that number, and no doubt they showed in my face. Still, Grandpa had been sixty-eight when he died, and since he and Calvin had been drafted at the same time, I assumed they were fairly close in age. Given the way the draft had been organized, they might've even been born on the same day.
The more I thought about it, the more peculiar selecting soldiers on the basis of their birthdays seemed. Imagine an entire platoon of Geminis or Capricorns. Clearly, an astrologer hadn't taken part in the decision-making process.
I caught myself smiling for the first time that day.
Calvin apparently took my smile as acceptance of his dinner invitation. "That's more like it. In honor of your visit, I'm making my famous chili and cornbread." He shot me a wink. "It was your granddad's favorite, although I work with better ingredients now than I did when we were in the Army."
I had the strangest feeling this man knew my grandfather better than anyone. I'd never noticed Grandpa having a preference for that particular meal. But then, perhaps none of us made chili the way Calvin did. What sort of things had they discussed in those letters? I hadn't a clue, but I'd found three full shoe boxes of them in Grandpa's closet after the will was read.
A will that instructed me to do what I was about to do now.
"Sounds great." Several moments went by before I found the words. "I guess you're wondering why I'm here."
He shook his head. "Not really. You have something to give me, don't you?"
I nodded. "In his will, Grandpa asked that I give you back the letters you'd sent him, and these." I handed him the two small boxes I had tucked in my purse.
Tears filled Calvin's eyes. "He saved my life, you know. Saved a bunch of us." He opened one box and then the other. "He got this one for saving us, and this one for nearly dying in the process."
I blinked back a few tears of my own. "A Purple Heart and a Silver Star." I shook my head slowly. "I never even knew he had them."
"John was like that. Kinda shy, really. Never one to toot his own horn."
That description also fit his granddaughter. However, I kept that tidbit to myself.
"I really looked forward to his letters. When they stopped coming..." Grimacing, Calvin pressed his fist to the center of his chest. "I knew I'd lost the best friend I'd ever had."
"I guess it's true what they say about brothers-in-arms."
"It sure is."
"The letters are in the car," I went on. "There are quite a few of them."
"I kept the ones he sent me too. Funny, us both keeping them." He smiled. "Your granddad certainly had a way with words. He wrote some great letters."
That much I knew. I'd kept some of the letters he'd written to me when I was in college. Now I wished I'd kept them all.
Calvin slid the two medals into his pocket, then went back to his stove and began stirring a huge pot of chili. The heavenly aroma of chili combined with baking cornbread soon had my stomach growling, making me very glad I'd agreed to stay for dinner.
I hadn't cooked anything like that for Grandpa in a long, long time, if indeed I ever had. Special diets and a steady decline in appetite had made pleasing him nearly impossible. Knowing I liked to cook, Mom had finally given up and left it to me. Sometimes he ate what I fed him, and sometimes he spit it in my face.
I tried to remember him the way he'd been when I was younger, but even that person wasn't the one Calvin knew.
Voices from the next room broke the silence, accompanied by the scuffling of booted feet and the scrape of chair legs on the wooden floor.
"That'll be the men coming in for dinner," Calvin said. "Go on into the mess hall and have a seat."
Mess hall. I doubted the term was exclusive to the military, making me wonder what the dining room had been called before Calvin had taken charge of the kitchen. "Can I give you a hand?" I didn't want to admit that being the lone woman in a room full of strange men brought out the nervous Nellie in me like nothing else could.
"Sure." His smile suggested he either understood my reluctance or at least acknowledged the reason for it. "I'll dish up the chili if you'll get the cornbread."
Grateful for a task to occupy myself, I took off my coat and laid it on a chair next to a small corner table, then snatched up a pair of slightly singed oven mitts. One by one, I removed two cast-iron pans from the oven, each of which was divided into seven sections containing round loaves of lightly browned bread.
"Smells great," I said. "Love the pans."
Calvin snorted a laugh. "Keeps the men from fighting over who gets the most. They each get two."
That meant there were at least six other men-including the surly fellow I'd met first.
"Don't worry," Calvin added. "You can have one of mine."
Since the miniature loaves were easily twice the size of the typical muffin, I doubted I would go hungry, but that wasn't what concerned me. I cleared my throat, hoping to ease the tightness that anxiety had caused. "Nothing wrong with their appetites, huh?"
"It's practically a full-time job keeping them fed." He grinned. "Kinda like keeping the hogs happy."
"I heard that!" someone shouted from the mess hall. Good-natured laughter followed.
"You boys get on in here and grab a bowl," Calvin called back. "Or should I just pour the chili in the trough?"
"We're coming." After more scraping of chairs and scuffling of boots, the men descended upon the kitchen.
I should have turned around and smiled, but I simply couldn't face them. I would be gone in an hour anyway. No need to make friends with everyone. Not that I could...
Apparently, Ophelia wasn't interested in making friends, either. With a whine, she darted between me and the stove, sending me stumbling backward only to slam into a rock-hard body and be gathered up by a pair of strong arms.
"Good thing you'd already set down that cornbread." His breath stirred the hair lying against my neck and morphed the tickles into goose bumps that skittered down my back. "Wouldn't want to make a mess."
This wasn't the same cowboy. The voice was as different as the attitude. Heat flooded my cheeks.
He relaxed his hold but didn't let go. Nuzzling my neck, he drew in an audible breath. "Mmm...your hair smells even better than the bread."
"Oh, way to go, Dean," another man jeered. "That's sure to go down in history as the best pickup line ever."
"Give me a break, Nick," the one called Dean said. "I wasn't expecting a gorgeous blond to fall into my arms."
Positioned as I was, he couldn't see my eye roll or my red face-yet. I stiffened as he spun me around. My gaze landed on the base of his neck where it met the open collar of a plaid shirt. Placing a loosely fisted hand beneath my chin, he tilted my head back.
His smile stole my breath before the other details even registered. Freckles, dimples, big blue eyes, and an unruly thatch of sandy hair. Men might have made me nervous as all get-out, but that didn't mean I never looked at them. This one was worth a second glance. And a third. And a fourth...
"Enough of that, now," Calvin barked. "Tina's my best buddy's granddaughter. I won't have you teasing her."
"Didn't know you had a best buddy, Calvin," another man said. "Always thought we were your best buddies."
"Me and John go back to way before you were born, Sonny," Calvin snapped. "You don't know nothin' 'bout it."
In response to Calvin's reprimand, Dean released me, although he certainly took his time doing it. Another wave of tingles raced over my skin as he traced the length of my arms with his fingertips.
He scanned my face with appreciative eyes then glanced at Calvin. "Never woulda guessed an old coot like you would be friends with a girl like this."
In the space of ten minutes, I'd been called a young lady and a girl. Clearly, these guys didn't get out much.
"Yeah, well, I just met her myself." Calvin waved his ladle at Dean as though about to swat him with it. "Back off and I'll introduce you." Placing a hand on my shoulder, he used the ladle to point at each man in turn. "Let's see now... I imagine you've already figured out which one is Dean-his last name is Wayland, by the way. The bald guy with the handlebar mustache is Bull Russell. Sonny Ferguson is the kid with the curly hair. Nick Reno's the one with the ponytail and the smart mouth." He pointed at a rather tall, homely fellow. "That's Joe Knight, the foreman." I followed his gesture to the last man, who stood framed in the doorway. "And that mean-looking varmint over there is Wyatt McCabe."
Without his hat, he was even more formidable, and his eyes weren't the only feature contributing to that impression. Tanned skin, dark beard stubble, and thick black hair in a crew cut gone wild with a rather prominent widow's peak marked him as the rugged outdoor type. The sharp planes of his nose and the grim set of a small mouth with a full lower lip that should have been sensuous but wasn't-at least, not at the moment-suggested he was not a man to be crossed. And then there were the eyebrows. Now that I could see them clearly, they reminded me of a seagull's outstretched wings-if there was such a thing as a black seagull.
One of those extraordinary eyebrows rose ever so slightly. "We've met."