The Cowboy’s Valentine

  The Cowboy’s Valentine

  Crooked Valley Ranch #2

  February 2015

Amazon/Barnes and Noble/ Kobo / Indiebound / iBooks

HEART OF A COWBOY

Coming home is hard enough without ranch manager Quinn Solomon making Lacey Duggan feel like an unwanted guest. She’s only here until she figures out what to do with her one-third ownership of Crooked Valley. But Quinn’s irresistible daughter is giving Lacey ideas about being part of a family. And though they don’t even like each other, Lacey’s having crazier notions about the widowed single dad.

Does Lacey think she can waltz in and turn Quinn’s life upside down…only to leave again? The pretty accountant knows nothing about running a ranch, yet she’s making the Montana homestead feel like a home. Quinn isn’t looking for love again. Until a woman who’s all heart and a determined little girl help one lovestruck cowboy see the light.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The last place in the world Lacey Duggan expected to find herself was back at Crooked Valley Ranch.

It had only been a month since she’d shared the Christmas holiday with her brother Duke at the ranch they’d once called home. Those days were a lifetime ago. She’d never wanted to return to the small town of Gibson, Montana. Instead she’d made her life in Helena, working for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. She wasn’t a farmer, or even much of an outdoor girl. Her work for the department was spent in an office. It wasn’t that she didn’t care; she genuinely enjoyed working with grant proposals and budgets. She just didn’t need to be out there in hip waders or rubber boots doing all the digging around. The desk job suited her just fine.

Or at least it had. Past tense. She stood on the porch of the main house, hesitating. All it would take was the slightest reach and she could open the door and step inside. But right now it seemed like too much to ask. The moment she did that was the moment she admitted every single aspect of her life had fallen apart. First it was the diagnosis that had killed her dreams. Then it was the divorce. She’d made it through both of those, holding on to what she had left—her job. Then came the kicker. The new budget had come down and her position had been made redundant. After six years in the same department, she was out of work.

And one-third owner of a ranch she didn’t want.

A gust of wind swirled up the steps and around the porch, icy cold on her legs. This was ridiculous. It was just a door. It signified nothing, really. Except that it was warm in there and cold out here. With a frown she reached for the knob, only to have it ripped out of her hand the moment she touched it. She stared blindly as the door opened and a large figure stood in the doorway, blocking her from entering.

Quinn Solomon.

Her hand was still stretched out, hanging in thin air as she looked up to see the ranch manager staring down at her. Quinn. Quinn with the startling blue eyes and broad shoulders and long legs and cute daughter—and a low opinion of Lacey Duggan.

“Are you coming in or are you going to stand there all day?”

His harsh voice interrupted her assessment and despite the cold she felt her cheeks heat. “Sorry…”

“We’re not paying to heat the outdoors. Get in here, you foolish woman.”

Her pride blistered as she obeyed, sliding past him into the warmth of the foyer. The house wasn’t huge but it was welcoming, and she dropped her purse on the floor and rubbed her arms a bit. Exactly how long had she stood out there? She glanced up and met his probing gaze. “I didn’t expect you to be here,” she said, not meaning it to be an accusation, but it sounded like one just the same.

“I work here. My office is here. But don’t worry, Lacey. I’ll stay out of your way.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.” She sighed. Duke and Quinn were good friends now, and she was sure her brother had told the ranch manager all about her situation, which was humiliating enough. “Look, Quinn, I’m not that happy about being here, either.”

“I’m pretty sure I already knew that. So why did you come, Lacey?”

From the moment they’d met, he’d never beat around the bush with her. He always said exactly what was on his mind and she might have found that refreshing except that she was usually on the receiving end of a criticism. Her pride already smarting, she decided she’d meet bluntness with bluntness.

“The truth is, if I’d been wise and built up a better savings, I could have had cash flow to keep my place while I looked for another job. As it is, I had to cover my month’s rent with my last paycheck and my unemployment won’t kick in for another few weeks. My furniture is in my mom’s garage while I figure things out, and I already feel like a big fat failure, so you don’t have to go out of your way to exert your authority. I get it. You’re the boss.” She didn’t even mention the car repair that had cost her nearly a thousand dollars. A thousand bucks might have at least afforded her a buffer. She couldn’t seem to catch a break, and she’d die before going to Carter for money. She was pretty sure she was sick of the “throw good money after bad” speech.

He took a step closer, close enough that she could feel the warmth of his body emanating from beneath his plaid work shirt, smell the clean, fresh scent of his soap and see the particularly attractive bow shape to his lips. Determined, she stood her ground.

“This,” he said darkly, “has absolutely nothing to do with my authority but a hell of a lot to do with yours. You own one-third of this ranch, but you’ve made it clear that you hate it and that it’s a last resort for you. Forgive me if that doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy.”

“I didn’t mean it that way…”

He shook his head. “Yes, you did. And that’s fine. Let’s just not pretend it’s anything other than what it is. You need a place that’s free and Duke needs time to convince you to hang on to your third. My job? Is to run the place as if your family drama didn’t exist.”

She swallowed. He was absolutely right. Instead of appreciating the fact that she actually had an alternative, she was showing up with a big ol’ resentful chip on her shoulder. It just so happened that Quinn seemed to be able to get her back up without even trying. He had from the moment they’d met.

“I don’t want to keep you from your job, then,” she replied, mollified. “I’ll just get settled. And find Duke.” She didn’t know what would happen after that. She owned a third of Crooked Valley, but she knew absolutely nothing about running a ranch. What had her grandfather been thinking, anyway, leaving the place to the three of them? Duke had been in the Army when the will had been drafted, and Rylan…well, Rylan was never in one place for long. She supposed leaving the place to the three of them was the old man’s way of getting them on the ranch since he hadn’t succeeded in doing that when he was alive.

“Duke and Carrie are both out, moving the herd to a new pasture. They won’t be in until midafternoon.”

“Oh.”

“You’re a big girl. I’m sure you can find a way to amuse yourself. If you’ll excuse me…”

She stepped aside, took off her coat and hung it on a hook in the entry. Quinn, on the other hand, pulled on boots, a heavy jacket, hat and thick gloves. “You’ll find the door’s rarely locked here, Lacey. All you have to do is turn the knob and come in.” It might have been a welcoming sort of sentiment if it hadn’t made her feel stupid and foolish. With a huff she turned her back on Quinn and walked away, heading towards the kitchen and main living room. A few moments later she heard the door open and close and she finally relaxed her shoulders.

Good riddance. She had to admit, the house was cozy, despite its size. The downstairs contained a huge kitchen, living room, formal dining room, and the ranch office as well as a half bath and large doors exiting onto a deck that offered a view of rolling hills and the mountains in the distance. Upstairs, as she’d learned at Christmas, were four large bedrooms. All of them were vacant at the moment, though at Christmas they’d been partially occupied by her mom and stepdad, David, and her brother Rylan who’d surprised everyone by showing up. And for one night, Quinn had shared another with his daughter, Amber, who was a total sweetheart.

Lacey wondered if it mattered which room she took as hers during her stay. It was just temporary; there was no question of this being permanent. Maybe Duke thought he’d be able to convince her to take on her share, but Lacey had a plan. Sort of. She was going to take a few days off to refresh herself, and then she was going to spruce up her résumé and start applying for positions. Surely someone needed a person with an accounting degree to do their accounts payable or something.

There were logs by the fireplace but it was unlit, so she took a few moments to set up some kindling and light a match. It took a while for the dry wood to catch, but when it did Lacey was pleased with herself. She’d check the fridge, maybe make some coffee or tea and chill in front of the fire for this afternoon. She added a stick of wood to the growing flames and wished she’d worn a thicker sweater. Which reminded her that she hadn’t brought in her bags…

A loud thump startled her, making her jump as she pressed her hand to her heart. The door opened down the hall, followed by stomping of feet and a general commotion. When she stepped around the corner, she saw two of her suitcases standing guard at the bottom of the stairs, and Quinn’s retreating back as he went to her car a second time, retrieving her last suitcase and an overnight bag. She wished he’d just left it alone. She didn’t want to be beholden to him for anything. Ever.

He stomped in again and put down the bags. “Your hatchback was unlocked. I saw the bags through the window, and…”

“Thank you, Quinn. I was just going to get them. I appreciate you bringing them in.” Her polite voice seemed to take him off guard and he stared at her for a moment.

“You’re welcome.” The civil exchange made for an uncomfortable silence between them. A log snapped on the fire and he raised his eyebrows. “You built a fire?”

“It was a little chilly in here. I thought I’d make some tea, get settled, that sort of thing.”

“Right.” He lifted a finger to his hat. “Well, I’ll be off. I’ll be in the horse barn if you need anything, and by the time I take off for the day, Duke will be back.”

“You have to pick up Amber at day care,” she supplied, smiling a little. It was hard not to smile when thinking about the little chatterbox—even if it did cause a pang of sadness in Lacey’s heart. It was totally unfair that Amber was left without a mother and Quinn without his wife. By all accounts, Marie Solomon had doted on her child and been a perfect mom. Something Lacey would never be.

“Yeah. Anyway, I’d better go. Work won’t do itself.”

She shut the door behind him, then scooted to the office window and watched him walk across the yard, long strides eating up the distance between the house and the barn. He’d touched his hat, such an old-fashioned, mannerly gesture, that she was momentarily nonplussed. She wasn’t sure they even made men like that anymore. Certainly Carter had never been like that. Not unless there’d been an audience, and then he’d been all chivalry and sweetness. But when they were alone? The walls went up between them again. By the time they’d divorced, she’d been relieved—even if she did still blame herself for how it all went wrong. She’d held on too tight, fought too hard and driven him away.

Then again, there was a limit to Quinn’s chivalry. He hadn’t offered to carry her bags upstairs, had he? Just put them inside the door and expected her to get on with it. She was glad. She was a big girl and could look after herself. Including making a few trips up and down stairs to transport her luggage.

She was huffing and puffing by the time the last bag was settled in what she assumed was the master bedroom. The heavy pine furniture was solid and sturdy, the quilt on the top she suspected was homemade—perhaps by her grandmother, Eileen? She was a little sad that she didn’t know, that the connection to the Duggan side of the family had faltered so much after Lacey’s father’s death. All in all, this was her new temporary home and she felt like a square peg in a round hole.

But she’d make the best of it. She always rallied after being kicked around, and this time was no different. She sat on the bed, fell back into the soft covers, and stared at the ceiling, wondering exactly where she should start.

*   *   *

QUINN HAD KNOWN she was arriving today. He’d thought it would be later, that he’d finish his work in the house and be gone outside by the time she arrived and they could avoid that awkward first meeting. Lacey Duggan had every right to be at Crooked Valley—she owned a third of it.

It was the fact that she didn’t value it that got under his skin. She’d rather sell the place and be rid of it entirely. The only reason she hadn’t pushed for that solution to the inheritance dilemma left by her grandfather, Joe, was that Duke had come home first and wanted to make a go of it. The whole family looked at Duke as some hero…a military vet with a permanent hearing disability who stepped in when everything went wrong.

Quinn had been skeptical, but he’d liked Duke right away. Humble and not afraid to admit he didn’t know what he was doing. Willing to learn and work. Ready to lead.

But Lacey? That woman had waltzed in here at Thanksgiving and come right out and told Duke that he should unload the place. As if it and the people who worked it and loved it meant nothing.

Things had to be really desperate for her to agree to move in for a while.

He opened the front door to Sunshine Smiles Day Care and let his troubles drift away. It smelled like sugar cookies and fruit punch and there were happy squeals coming from the playroom. He smiled at the young woman at the front. “Hey, Melanie.”

“Hey, yourself. Amber’s helping clean up from after-school snacks. I’ll get her.” His daughter was the light of his life. She attended preschool for half days and spent the balance of the day at the day care. There were times he felt guilty about the amount of time she spent with people other than a parent, but it couldn’t be helped. Being a single dad was a hard job. He’d had to get good at things like pigtails and bows. There’d been a lot of tears before he got a handle on the tiny elastics and learned how to make a bow so that the ribbons didn’t sag and droop. Marie had always done the little girly things. She’d known Amber’s favorite colors, foods and preferred toys, sang to her at night and read her favorite stories. It wasn’t that Quinn hadn’t been involved—of course he had. But Marie had been the anchor. The details person, the one who held them all together.

He still missed her every damn day. And not just for the details and day-to-day jobs he’d had to assume. He missed having someone to laugh with, missed hearing her breathing when she slept, her voice when she called out for him to do something, the way she ran her hands through his hair. He was damned lonely and struggling to get through every day.

“Daddy!” He smiled suddenly as Amber came charging out of the playroom.

“Hey, princess! How was school?”

“It was good. We gots to paint pictures of our favorite thing to do in winter.”

He knew what hers was, but he asked anyway. “And what did you paint?”

She twirled in a circle. “Skating!”

Quinn’s skating expertise was limited to hockey skates and a pond scrimmage now and again. This year Amber had wanted to learn, so for Christmas he’d bought her little white figure skates and signed her up for weekly lessons at the rink in town.

“Nice,” he commented, reaching for her backpack while she shoved her arms in her coat. “Come on, let’s go home and get some supper on.”

She was jamming her hat on her head as she peered up at him. “Can we go see Duke and Carrie? I want to show them my picture.”

“Maybe another time.” Quinn swallowed, thinking about Lacey being at the house by herself tonight. She’d looked sort of…lost, he thought. It didn’t really matter that he wasn’t overly fond of her. Losing your job was stressful, especially when you didn’t have a backup plan. She’d been making ends meet on a mediocre salary. He knew how upset he’d be if he lost his job and had Amber to support. Maybe he was being too hard on Lacey.

“Please, Daddy? I haven’t seen Duke all week.” She pouted prettily as she took his hand and they walked to the door.

“Duke was still out in the pasture when I left. He might not even be back yet. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Okay.” He helped her buckle into her booster seat in the backseat of his truck and then got in and started the engine.

“Hey, pumpkin? Do you remember Lacey, Duke’s sister? The one that was here for Thanksgiving and Christmas?” He looked in the rearview mirror. Amber was nodding vigorously.

“The pretty lady,” she announced. “With the long red hair. Like Ariel.” Quinn blinked. He wasn’t sure that Lacey looked like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, but there was no question that she had gorgeous hair—when she didn’t have it all pulled off her face and shoved into a tail or bun or braid. He’d only seen it down once, but Amber had hit the nail on the head. Her hair was long and thick, a rich burnished color with just a hint of natural wave. Even disheveled in the morning, as he’d seen her on Christmas Eve, it was stunning.

“Daddy? What about her?”

He was pulled back from his musings. “Oh,” he replied, turning at a stop sign. “Just that she’s going to be staying at the big house for a while. I know I take you with me a lot, so when you’re there you’re going to have to be extra good. It’s not just you and me now.”

“But Lacey is nice. She played with me lots.”

“But she might not want to entertain you all the time, sweetheart. Do you understand?”

Amber shrugged. He could see the exaggerated movement in the rearview mirror and his heart gave a sad little thump again. The gesture was so like Marie. Amber had parts of Marie that she didn’t even realize, because her memories of her mother were already beginning to dim. They should have had Marie longer. She should have been here through all of this. They were like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Pieces that could never be replaced. “How about spaghetti for supper?” he asked, suggesting one of Amber’s favorites. There had to be at least one more container of frozen sauce in the freezer. It wouldn’t take long to thaw it and cook some noodles and throw some garlic bread in the oven. Cooking was something else he’d learned to do over the past year and a half.

“Spaghetti! Yum! I’ll help!” He smiled then, pushing the maudlin thoughts aside. He might miss Marie, but he was still a lucky man. He had a job he loved, a roof over his head and a daughter he adored. They could muddle through the rest if they had each other. Lacey, on the other hand, would be sitting at the ranch house tonight all alone. And for the first time, he truly felt sorry for her.

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