Janie Fitzhugh had a new rule: Never make drunken promises at a bachelorette party.
When she’d hit the local honky-tonk for Harper Masterson’s big blowout, Harper’s former nail clients—all women over the age of seventy—insisted on buying multiple X-rated shots, including a tasty little one called a cowboy cocksucker. She’d lost track of the number she’d consumed and vaguely remembered dancing on the bar with a firecracker of a woman named Garnet. Evidently Janie had a rip- roaring time; too bad she had zero recollection of her actions after the karaoke started. Evidently she’d also promised her ex-husband, Abe Lawson, she’d owe him a favor—any favor—if he took her drunken ass home.
A favor Abe had waited a whole week to collect on.
So that’s how Janie found herself driving to the Lawson ranch on a beautiful fall morning, half in disbelief she was returning to the one place she swore she’d never go again.
As she started up the long, winding driveway, past the haystacks, the refueling station, the hopper that released the livestock supplement known as “cake”, she expected to see the same old, same old. Most ranchers were averse to any kind of change, which was one of the main issues she’d had with Abe. He maintained the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude in all aspects of his life.
At first, she’d really loved Abe’s steadfastness. But eventually that trait had driven them apart.
Not that you’re completely blameless. When Abe swept you off your feet, giving you everything you told him that you wanted, how could you fault him for being the man you’d fallen in love with?
So the improvements shocked her. The dull gray house had been repainted a vibrant shade of terra cotta. The front deck had been revamped with the addition of a sheltered arbor and a wooden porch swing. A new split rail fence separated the yard from the pasture and disappeared around the back of the house.
The outlying areas between the house and outbuildings no longer had piles of busted farm machinery, abandoned vehicles, and stacks of warped lumber. How much of the cleanup had been Hank’s wife’s doing? The cluttered state never bothered any of the Lawson siblings when Janie lived here.
The enormous wooden barn had retained the charming, weathered look. It was sandwiched between the machine shed and a new metal structure twice the size of the old one.
She parked behind a 350 Cummins diesel truck caked with mud. Made no sense why she experienced a bout of nerves.
How many times had she come home from a long day of classes to see Abe leaning against the porch rail, waiting for her with a smile on his face? No one had been as happy to see her since. Maybe she was disappointed he wasn’t waiting for her like he used to. Shoving aside her melancholy, she climbed out of her car.
Janie admired the new concrete walkway crafted to resemble a cobblestone path. She resisted smoothing her hair or adjusting her clothes after she knocked on the door.
The door swung inward. Abe smiled at her. “Hey. Come on in.”
Wasn’t it grossly unfair he looked better now than he had when she’d married him almost eleven years ago?
Maybe it’s poetic justice since you left him.
His gaze moved over her head to toe as sensual as a full body caress. “You look great even when you’re fixin’ to clean the basement. I always admired that about you.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. I say what I mean, Janie. You know that about me.”
Maybe it’s time you stop kidding yourself you’re immune to his attempts to lure you into his lair for a little mattress dancing.
Hah. Janie wasn’t immune to him. Not even freakin’ close.
And the hell of it was, his damn cowboy charm was weakening her resolve not to get mixed up with him again. They’d been divorced eight years. She was over him. She’d been over him a long time.
Meeting his gaze, she swallowed a purely feminine moan. Abe Lawson had the most beautiful eyes—silvery-gray offset by long, thick black eyelashes. Yet he hadn’t mastered the art of masking his feelings. They’d always been right there, bold and unapologetic. Like now.
Intent. Fortitude. Amusement. Lust.
Then he violated her personal space, moving close enough she caught a whiff of his cologne. Not the Chaps scent she remembered but a woodsy, skin-warmed aroma that encouraged her traitorous brain to purr, what are you waiting for? Hot man, hot skin, hot damn.
“Cat got your tongue, cupcake?” he drawled.
“No. Seems a little weird to be here.” Janie stepped around him and into the entryway. Boxes of ceramic tile were piled next to the wall and new mortarboard spread to the edge of the carpet.
“Watch your step. It’s a mess. I hope to get back to it this week.”
“I didn’t know you could tile, Abe.”
“I didn’t either. Not until we started putting the finishing touches on Hank and Lainie’s house. Found out it ain’t as hard as I thought.”
“I’m sure it’ll look great when you’re done. Can I see the tile?”
Abe pulled out a square from the top box. “Nothin’ fancy.”
The tile was swirled with brown and rust in a random pattern, but wasn’t plain. “I like it.”
“Thanks.” Abe set the tile back and gestured for her to precede him past the wall separating the entryway from the living room.
Now this room had sustained major improvements. The frayed orange and brown sofa patterned with horses? Gone. As were the matching tangerine-colored corduroy side chairs. Abe’s late mother’s knickknacks no longer adorned all available shelf space. The room was typical bachelor, puffy tan couches with built-in recliners. A ginormous TV. A sturdy wooden coffee table piled with remotes. The only reminder of his parents was the family picture on the wall and the crocheted afghan draped over the back of the couch.
“I know it ain’t up to the decorating standards of the Split Rock.”
Ooh. Snap. Janie bristled. “I wasn’t comparing, if that’s what you’re getting at. I was trying to remember what it used to look like.”
The tense lines around his mouth relaxed. “I’d think you’d remember in detail, since I pretty much forbid you from making any changes after we got married, didn’t I?”
“Probably. But I was moving into your home with your family, so I didn’t push it.”
“I shoulda tried harder to make it our home.” Abe rubbed the back of his neck. “I did some dumb things, Janie. You can’t know how sorry I am.”
As thoughtful as his apology was, she waved him off. Playing the blame game now was pointless.
* * * *
Home at last.
Inside her modular log cabin, Tierney Pratt pressed her back against the door and inhaled a deep breath. Although tiny compared to her Chicago apartment, she loved the coziness of the space. She loved that it was one hundred percent hers.
Daddy had to buy you a brand new house? You too good to live in a used trailer, brainiac?
Once again she’d allowed Renner’s rude opinion to intrude on her thoughts. The man was everywhere. She’d run into him while buying groceries. Granted, Muddy Gap had only one store, but his smug comment irritated her—how it must be a real hardship she couldn’t find caviar and lobster rolls at the C-Mart.
How little the man knew about her. How much he assumed.
Tierney remembered the tipping point last night at Harper and Bran’s wedding reception as she silently reeled from the insufferable man’s incendiary comments. On impulse, she threw her martini in Renner’s face, and secretly basked in his total surprise as the vodka dripped off his stubborn chin. She’d sidestepped him and headed to the bar. No one had intercepted her, but plenty of curious eyes had followed her across the room. Sometimes she felt like a character in a Clint Eastwood movie—an unwelcome stranger in a small western town.
Dwelling on it won’t change anything because you’re here for the duration.
Distracted, she stared out the bay window beside her desk. No snow had fallen yet, but heavy gray storm clouds hung in the distance. Before moving to Wyoming she’d never noticed how the time of year affected the color of the sky and the shape of the clouds. After spending hours gazing in wonder at the wide-open space where rugged, unforgiving land met endless horizon, she could discern some differences in impending weather. But it’d take a lifetime to catch the nuances. That prospect appealed to her more than she’d ever imagined.
Bang bang bang pulled her out of her musings.
Only one person knocked with that much authority. And arrogance. Mr. Tenacious would keep banging until she answered.
She took her time crossing the room. Wouldn’t want him to think she jumped when he beckoned. She peeked out the blinds to find those vivid blue eyes peering back at her. Eyes the same beautiful hue as the Wyoming sky on a hot summer day.
“Dammit, Tierney, let me in.”
Sighing, she flipped the locks.
Renner rushed over the threshold. “We need to talk.”
“How about in the office tomorrow morning?”
He stopped wiping his boots on her rug, peeking at her from beneath the brim of his black cowboy hat. “Why not now?”
“Because it’s my day off.”
“Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but there are no days off in the ranch business.”
“Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but this isn’t a working ranch—I’ve yet to see a single cow. And last night you put me in my place as far as the horses are concerned. Since we won’t have guests checking in until tomorrow, I’d like one day this week without a confrontation with you.”
“You threw the drink in my face, remember?”
“You deserved it, remember?”
A scowl twisted his full lips. “Believe it or not, I don’t get off on fightin’ with you.”
She resisted the urge to retort, Coulda fooled me.
“You gonna move and let me off your rug, or what?”
Say no. “Fine.” Tierney headed for the kitchen where they’d have to stand, to keep this talk short. “What’s on your mind?”
“It occurred to me when I saw you at the store today that we didn’t discuss your role in helping out at the Split Rock until Harper gets back from her honeymoon.”
“Helping out how?”
“Hands on help with the guests and employees instead of hiding in the office.”
Her cheeks heated. “I don’t hide. There’s actual work done in my half of the office.” Sort of. For the first time in her working life, she had little to do and all sorts of time to kill. She stretched out her accounting duties, but they still took less than an hour of her workday. In the last month, she learned to look busy, disguising her online chess games and closing her e-books whenever he blew into the room like an angry bull.
“We’re shorthanded on opening week, so I’ll need you acting as Split Rock hostess for the guests.”
He cocked his head like he’d misunderstood. “Come again?”
“I said no. Now, was that all?”
It pissed her off that Renner stalked her until her back hit the edge of the counter. It really pissed her off she allowed him to force her retreat.
“What? Think you’re too good to mingle with the common folk?”
No. I’m too awkward. I’ll embarrass the resort and myself with my obvious lack of social graces.
Not that she could tell him that because the shrewd man would lord her insecurity over her forever.
At her nonresponse, he goaded her. “Don’t want to get your manicured hands dirty? You feel it’s beneath your lofty position as financial whip cracker?”
Rather than lashing out, Tierney said, “You really have me pegged. I’m a stuck-up bitch who has no place in the hospitality business. I can’t imagine why you’d want a snob like me hanging around making our guests feel uncomfortable, so I’ll pass on your charming request. Now please leave my house.”
The man remained as solid as a stone wall in front of her, but he sure threw off a lot of heat. Tierney kept her face aimed at the floor, her arms folded over her chest. Her posture screamed “back off,” but apparently Renner was deaf because he kept trying to provoke her.
“Is this some new tactic?” he demanded. “Insulting yourself then giving me the silent treatment? Hoping I’ll get confused and fed up and go away? Guess what, it won’t work.”
“It’s worth a try.”
He laughed abrasively. “You don’t give an inch, do you?”
Another laugh. Softer. “I don’t like talkin’ to your hair. Can you look at me?”
“Even if my eyes shoot fireballs at you and you spontaneously combust?”
“I’ll take my chances.” Her pulse leapt when his rough fingers slipped beneath her chin and tipped her face up. “Gotta flash them pretty browns if you want to start my hair on fire.”
Pretty browns? What was he up to, complimenting her? When she met his gaze, the compassion in his eyes stunned her. As did his gentle, “Ah darlin’, what’s really goin’ on?”
Tierney blurted, “I stay in the office because I’m good with numbers. I’m not good with people. I’m not charming like Janie or sly and sweet like Harper. The Split Rock would be better off having no hostess than having me acting all fake and shit.”
That’d shocked him. “Why didn’t you just tell me that?”
“Because you jumped in and told me why I said no. Why should I explain myself to you when you’ve already made the worst assumptions about me, my character and my business acumen?”
Renner’s too blue eyes searched hers intently. “Tierney—”
“You can’t claim you didn’t do that, because you did exactly that.”
“I know. I’m an asshole sometimes.”
“No argument from me.”
He smiled. A wide, gapped tooth smile packed with pure roguish charm and damn if she didn’t catch herself smiling back. He touched the left side of her mouth. “Whoa. Lookit that. You’ve got dimples. Never noticed those before. Is this really the first time you’ve ever smiled at me?”