The Great Texas Wedding Bargain

She needed a husband–fast. He just wanted a few home-cooked meals. Let the great Texas wedding bargain begin!It was desperation that had Megan Ford proposing to solitary rancher Rick Astin. She promised to pay handsomely for an in-name-only marriage and swore their understanding would end in mere months, while secretly wishing it would last forever.As flattered as he was by the loveless offer, it was the thought of a spick-and-span home that had Rick agreeing to the charade. He told himself he had no interest in his new bride becoming a permanent part of his quiet life. And despite his body's cravings to make Megan truly his, Rick intended to honorably uphold his end of the deal. Until they sealed their bargain with a kiss…
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The Great Texas Wedding Bargain

   

“We’re not talking about a real marriage,” she assured him. “It would be a marriage on paper.”

   She was desperate, Rick realized. So desperate she was on the verge of tears. Walking away from Megan Ford would be hard to do. He’d be haunted forever by those big blue eyes.

   

   “What kind of coffee do you make?”

   

   She blinked several times. “What kind? I—I usually grind my own beans. I like—”

   

   “Grind your own beans? Tell me you can cook, too.”

   

   Megan gave him a befuddled stare. “Well, yes. Of course.”

   

   He grinned at her, hoping to chase away those tears that still lingered. “Honey, looks like we got a deal.”

   

   Come back to Cactus, Texas, in Judy Christenberry’s bestselling series TOTS FOR TEXANS! You’re guaranteed to have a grand ole time!

The Great Texas Wedding Bargain Judy Christenberry

   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

   Judy Christenberry has been writing romances for fifteen years because she loves happy endings as much as her readers. Judy quit teaching French recently to devote her time to writing. She hopes readers have as much fun reading her stories as she does writing them. She spends her spare time reading, watching her favorite sports teams and keeping track of her two daughters. Judy’s a native Texan, living in Plano, a suburb of Dallas.


Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

   Chapter Fifteen

   Chapter Sixteen

   Epilogue

Chapter One

   He was the one.

   Megan Ford nibbled on her bottom lip as she stared at the dusty cowboy leaning against the feed-store counter. She’d heard Mr. James, the store owner, call him by name, confirming his identity.

   Richard Astin.

   Her mother’s friends had recommended him.

   If she weren’t so desperate… But she was. Time was of the essence.

   “Well, hello, there, Megan. What can I do for you?” Mr. James called out, having finally seen her in the dim shadows of the store.

   “Good afternoon, Mr. James.” She remembered he’d gone to school with her mother and treated her as if she were a favorite niece even though she’d only met him a month ago.

   The cowboy turned around to glance at her, and she sucked in a deep breath. He might appear tired, dirty and down-at-the-heels, but he was good-looking. Maybe he wasn’t as perfect for her plans as she’d thought. But she didn’t have any other candidates.

   She stepped forward and extended her hand to the stranger. “I don’t think I’ve met you. I’m Megan Ford.”

   “Sorry, I should’ve introduced you,” Mr. James said. “This here is Richard Astin. We call him Rick. He’s got a smart little spread outside of town.”

   She smiled politely. “How nice.”

   His eyebrows raised over his warm brown eyes. “Yeah. Are you ranching in the area?”

   She shook her head. “No, I’m a nurse. I work for the doctors.” She didn’t need to give their names. Dr. Greenfield had been the only doctor in the west Texas town of Cactus for a number of years. He’d recently taken in a partner, Samantha Gibbons. She’d married one of the local men last summer.

   The cowboy didn’t look terribly interested in her history. Even better.

   Turning back to Mr. James, the cowboy finished his business and started to go, tipping his hat at her as he strode past.

   She wanted to grab his sleeve, to stop his departure, but she certainly didn’t want to conduct a conversation in front of Mr. James. That would never do.

   With a quick nod in the older man’s direction, she followed Richard Astin outside.

   “Mr. Astin?” she called out. He’d covered a lot of territory in the two minutes he’d been out of her sight and was now standing at the door of an old pickup.

   “Yes, ma’am?”

   In the sunlight, though his gaze was shaded by his cowboy hat, the strong planes of his face were visible, making Megan hesitate. He wouldn’t be easy to manipulate.

   She drew a deep breath. It was now or never. “Could I have a word with you?”

   

   RICHARD ASTIN stared at the pretty woman on the porch of the feed store.

   Not another one.

   He’d thought he was safe here in Cactus. The eight months since he’d moved here had been the happiest of his life. The good people of Cactus took a man at face value…and left him to live in peace.

   Well, most of them. The Matchmakers weren’t quite as good about staying out of a man’s life. But he’d found them amusing. The four women had gotten their sons married, with children on the way. Then they had started looking for fresh bait. But lately they’d left him alone.

   “Yes, ma’am? Talk to me about what?” He didn’t budge. She could come to him. Maybe there was another dance and the ladies had sent her over to lure him to it.

   His left eyebrow was raised as he recognized distress on her face. Those blue eyes of hers appeared wary and she was nibbling on her full bottom lip.

   She took one step toward him, and stopped. “It’s…it’s personal.”

   He dipped his head down so she wouldn’t see his grin. He wondered which matchmaker had put her up to approaching him. He’d have to tell them that she didn’t know much about flirting.

   Looking up, he said, “Can’t be too personal. We just met.”

   “Could I buy you a cup of coffee?”

   Now she was tempting him. He’d never learned to make good coffee. The instant kind he made each morning was only a mockery of the fragrant coffee he loved. “Where?”

   His question seemed to throw her. She should’ve planned better. He could give her pointers, from his past experiences, but why help the enemy?

   “At the drugstore?”

   He deliberately looked at his watch. No point in letting her think she’d roped him in. “I’ve got five minutes to spare.”

   Her chin rose. “Then we’d better walk fast,” she retorted and turned on her heel to head down the sidewalk in the direction of Brockmeier’s Drugstore.

   Rick chuckled under his breath. At least she had some spirit. She’d been so hesitant at first, he’d thought she was timid.

   He strolled after her, not hurrying, but his long legs caught up with her a few storefronts away. Not that she had short legs. Her denim skirt ended above her knees, catching his eye.

   No doubt she was good-looking. Half the single men in town should be after her. He didn’t understand why she was chasing him. Unless she knew his secret.

   She stopped outside the drugstore and turned to make sure he’d followed. He’d admired her restraint in not looking before. He reached around her and held open the door.

   Sweeping past him with her chin raised, in the fashion of a grand duchess, she headed for the side of the drugstore where several empty booths awaited customers.

   “Howdy, Rick,” Lucy, the waitress, called out. Then she noticed the young woman standing beside him. “Megan, right? You’re Faith’s daughter. Welcome to town.”

   “Thank you. May we sit anywhere?”

   Lucy waved them toward the booths. “You bet, hon. Take your pick. It’s not like we’re busy.”

   Rick followed Megan’s determined march and slid into the booth she chose, opposite her.

   “What can I get you folks?” Lucy asked.

   “A cup of coffee for the gentleman and iced tea for me. Would you care for anything else, Mr. Astin? I believe the pie is supposed to be good.”

   “Best in town,” Lucy declared, staring at Rick, waiting for his decision.

   He deliberately took his time, watching Megan’s antsy movements across from him. “What kind do you have?”

   “Apple, coconut cream and chocolate.”

   “I’ll have apple, with a scoop of ice cream,” he said, smiling at Lucy.

   “Coming right up.”

   “For someone who only has five minutes, you’re certainly taking your time,” Megan muttered as Lucy hurried away from their table.

   “Pie’s worth the extra time,” he assured her, adding a wink. He thought she seemed a little tense, but it was silly to get her tail in such a twist over a dance.

   She glared at him.

   “Look, honey, don’t act so uptight. If going to a dance is that important, I’ll take you.” This time he might even enjoy himself.

   Her blue eyes widened and she blinked several times. “I beg your pardon?”

   “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To ask me to take you to a dance? I’ll have to admit, buying me pie and coffee is a new approach. I like it.”

   Her mouth dropped open. A tasty little mouth, too. Full lips, slightly pink, no lipstick. In fact, she didn’t have on hardly any makeup at all. Most of the women who’d come after him usually loaded up on the war paint.

   Smart lady. Her dark lashes framed her blue eyes and her cheeks were soft pink over ivory. She didn’t need any fake enhancements.

   “Why, you conceited…conceited oaf!” she exclaimed.

   He gave her a lopsided grin. “Did I get it wrong? Okay, what do you want? We don’t know each other. I doubt you’d want to buy cows. I can’t think of any other business we’d have.”

   She suddenly retreated, her gaze becoming secretive, her openness disappearing. Looking away, she said nothing.

   Lucy arrived at their table with their drinks and the pie and ice cream. “How’s your mother, Megan? Tell her to come in and visit. I haven’t talked to her since y’all came back.”

   “Thank you, I will.”

   After Lucy left the table, Rick leaned forward. “You just recently came to town?”

   “A month ago.”

   Her clipped tones didn’t invite conversation.

   He frowned. The lady was presenting a puzzle. He assumed she’d been told to approach him by one of the matchmakers. Maybe he was wrong. “Look, I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions. I figured Mabel or Florence or—” He stopped as her cheeks flooded with color. Guilt if he ever saw it.

   “How did you know?” she asked with gasp.

   He didn’t answer at once. The pie and ice cream, already melting, demanded his attention. After he’d digested a tasty bite, he grinned. “Everyone in town knows those ladies are determined to marry off every single man in the county.” He shook his head, still grinning. “Not that I’m accusing you of trying to marry me. They usually start off with a date to one of the barn dances they have around here.”

   He thought she’d be even more embarrassed, maybe even back out of asking him. Too bad. He might have enjoyed dancing with Miss Megan Ford.

   Taking another bite, he was enjoying the combination of warm fruit pie and cold ice cream, when she spoke.

   “You’re wrong, Mr. Astin. We’re skipping the date part and going straight to the wedding vows. I’m asking you to marry me.”

   He sputtered pie and ice cream across the table.

   

   NOT HER MOST shining moment, Megan decided.

   She shouldn’t have lost her temper, but the man was so sure she was eager to fall at his feet in adoration.

   “Don’t get your hopes up,” she added sharply as he stared at her. “I’m not in admiration of your masculine charms. But I need a husband.”

   He gave a low chuckle that shivered down her nerves as he wiped off the table. “That’s sure a unique approach, Miss Ford.”

   “I’m serious!” she snapped.

   That fascinating left brow slipped up toward his dark hair, but he was still grinning. “Yeah, and I’m the Easter bunny.”

   Okay, so she hadn’t handled it right, but the man didn’t have to be sarcastic. She gritted her teeth and waited for him to stop laughing.

   “I can offer you five thousand dollars,” she said grimly.

   The mention of money seemed to sober him up. She’d thought it would. He didn’t have the look of a wealthy man. Mabel Baxter had told her he was trying to operate his ranch on a shoestring, doing most of the work himself.

   He put down his fork and leaned forward. “Let me get this straight. You’re offering me five thousand dollars to marry you?”

   She nodded.

   “Why?”

   She twisted her hands together. The explanation wasn’t as simple as the request. And a lot depended on her convincing the stranger across from her to agree to her proposal. “It’s complicated.”

   “Getting married always is.”

   His drawl carried a note of bitterness.

   “You’ve been married before?”

   He gave a brief nod.

   “Do you have children?” That would really make things complicated.

   “Nope. I’m not cut out to be a father.” He put more pie on his fork. “You’re not going to surprise me again, are you?”

   The twinkle of humor in his brown eyes was reassuring. When she shook her head no, he even smiled, which made him more handsome.

   “Um, the reason I need to marry is to get custody of my niece and nephew.” If the man didn’t like kids, he probably wouldn’t agree. Why hadn’t Mabel said anything? She knew why Megan was looking for a husband.

   His chewing slowed, as if he was considering her explanation. After swallowing, he leaned forward. “Where are their parents?”

   Her eyes filled with tears. After all, it had only been a few months since she’d lost her sister. “My…my sister’s dead.”

   “And her husband?”

   Husband. That word had once meant good things to her. Until Drake Moody had come into her sister’s life. “He’s in prison.”

   She could tell her abrupt answer had surprised him, but at least he didn’t lose any food. He put his fork down and stared at her. Finally, he said, “Looks to me like you won’t have much competition for guardianship.”

   She pressed her lips tightly together before drawing a deep breath. Then she forced herself to relax. “He’ll get out soon. And he’ll come after them. Mr. Gibbons said I’d stand a better chance if I’m married.”

   “Mac? You talked to Mac?”

   “Yes, Dr. Gibbons’s husband.”

   “He’s good.”

   “Yes.” She knew the man was a good attorney. He’d been honest with her, not offering false promises. That’s why she’d made the desperate move of asking this man to marry her.

   “Well? What’s your answer?” she prodded, staring at him.

   

   RICK BLEW OUT his breath, leaning back against the booth. She wanted an answer now? Automatically, a no rose in his throat. After all, he’d tried marriage once. Who would consider a second marriage? Not him.

   “I might be able to come up with another twenty-five hundred,” she said, pleading with her blue eyes.

   He shook his head, frowning. The money didn’t matter. Not that he could tell her that. Someone might discover his secret. Which made his answer hard to explain.

   “I’ve been married once. I don’t want to do that again.”

   “We’re not talking about a real marriage. It would be a marriage on paper. We’d stay married until I get the children. Then…then we’ll get a divorce.”

   “Won’t the courts be suspicious?” What was he doing, arguing with her?

   “We…we might have to wait six months. I could ask Mr. Gibbons.”

   Damn, he didn’t want to tell her no. Those blue eyes tugged at his heart. “Look, we’d have to live together. You don’t want to do that.”

   “We…we can give you your own room. I’ll take the children in with me and—”

   “Lady, I have to live on the ranch. I have a lot of work to do. I can’t live in town.” Okay, here was his out. He’d given himself a year to prove himself. He had four months to go.

   “Do you have a house?”

   “Yeah.” He had a big old house, made for families. Too much house for him. He didn’t have the time to clean it. He barely kept the kitchen decent. Maybe decent was too nice a word. But he couldn’t afford a housekeeper. Not on his present budget. Things had cost more than he’d thought.

   “We could move into your house. We’d be quiet. We wouldn’t cause you any trouble.”

   She was desperate, he realized. So desperate she was on the verge of tears. Walking away from Megan Ford would be hard to do. He’d be haunted forever by those big blue eyes.

   “What kind of coffee do you make?”

   She blinked several times. “What kind? I…I usually grind my own beans. I like—”

   “Grind your own beans? Are you serious?”

   “Well, yes, but—”

   “Tell me you can cook, too.”

   She gave him a befuddled stare. “Yes, though not as good as my mother.”

   “Your mother?”

   “There’s four of us. Me and my mother and the two kids. But two rooms would be enough. I promise we wouldn’t take up much space.”

   “Can you clean house?”

   “I don’t—why are you asking me these questions?”

   “I need a housekeeper and I can’t afford to hire one.” The idea that had struck him sent a surge of adrenaline through him. He could have a housekeeper and it wouldn’t cost him anything. In return, he’d help Megan gain custody of two little kids.

   Not a bad trade-off.

   “What do you think?” he asked, as she continued to stare at him.

   “You’re serious?”

   “Why not? We’d each get what we needed. A temporary husband for you and a housekeeper for me. Sounds like the perfect bargain.” He grinned at her, hoping to chase away those tears that still lingered.

   Her eyes narrowed. “I shouldn’t have to pay you if I’m going to work for you. Oh! I mean, I already have a job. But Mother and I together could—”

   “I agree. No money. Does your mother keep the kids while you’re working?” His wife had never worked. Or cleaned house for that matter. He’d had a housekeeper. He wished he still had her. In fact, he’d been having dreams about Maria and her enchiladas, but she’d retired when he left Austin.

   “What can you cook?” he asked, his gaze intent on her face.

   “You seem to be fixated on food,” she muttered, frowning at him.

   “If you’d been eating what I have, you would, too.”

   “You don’t have enough money for food?” she asked, her voice rising in horror.

   “I have enough money for food, but when I come dragging in at dusk, after putting in twelve or fourteen hours, I don’t have the energy to cook anything. Or find a clean pan,” he added under his breath, hoping she didn’t hear him.

   “You don’t have any pots and pans?”

   “I’ve got a few.” But they were all dirty. He pictured his kitchen as he’d left it this morning. Not a pretty sight.

   “We have plenty of kitchen things. We could bring ours and then there’d be enough. We’re renting a place month-to-month, so we could move in at the end of the month.”

   He barely heard her words. All he could think about was sitting down to a decent meal at the end of the day. Coming home to a clean house. Maybe even having his laundry done for him.

   Maria had taken care of all that stuff for him. He hadn’t even considered those aspects of his life when he left Austin. He’d thought of a breeding bull. Fencing materials. A secondhand tractor. A couple of trucks.

   Nothing for the kitchen.

   “So, you still haven’t told me. What can you cook?”

Chapter Two

   “What did he say?” Faith asked, meeting her daughter at the door of their small apartment.

   Megan tried to smile. She wanted to reassure her mother. The past year had been hard on her. “He said yes.”

   Faith closed the door and turned back to Megan. “You don’t sound happy about it. Have you changed your mind? You shouldn’t marry him if it’s not what you want to do, Meggie.”

   “Megan?” a shrill little voice sounded only seconds before her niece burst into the small living area. “You’re here!” Victoria squealed and launched herself into her aunt’s arms.

   Megan held her close, kissing her little cheek. The child’s warmth against her chased away the chill she’d been feeling. She looked over Torie’s shoulder. “I’m happy about it, Mom. He’s…he’s a little strange, but nice,” she hurriedly added.

   “Where did you go?” Torie demanded, putting her hands on Megan’s cheeks and turning her face to her.

   “I had to go to a meeting. Were you good for Grandma?”

   “Very good. I took my nap, didn’t I, Grandma?”

   “She did. She just woke up a few minutes ago. Andrew is still sleeping.”

   The guilty look that covered Victoria’s face, plus the cry from another room, told its own story.

   “You woke up your brother?” Megan asked Torie.

   “I didn’t mean to. I thought he would play with me,” Torie responded, her eyes filling with tears.

   Megan knew she had to be stern with her niece, but not now, not today. She hugged the three-year-old closer. “Then let’s go see if he wants to play.”

   When she and Torie, along with nine-month-old Andrew, returned to the living area, Faith was seated at the breakfast table.

   “Let the children play and you come talk to me,” Faith ordered.

   Megan settled the children with some toys. Andrew sat on the floor, his chubby legs spread wide to give him balance. Torie had several stuffed animals she used to entertain the baby.

   Her mother poured her a cup of coffee as she sat at the table. “Why did you say Rick Astin was strange?”

   “Because all he wanted to talk about was what we could cook. He wanted to know if you could make enchiladas.”

   “Didn’t you ask him to marry you?” Faith asked, her eyes widening.

   “Of course I did. And he agreed. And I don’t have to pay him any money,” Megan assured her mother, her chin jutting out as she remembered her negotiations.

   “Not pay him? Then why is he willing…Megan, he didn’t assume…you explained it wouldn’t be a real marriage, didn’t you?”

   “Of course I did. But we’ll have to share living quarters if we’re going to convince the courts. You knew that.”

   “Yes, but—we agreed you and I would share the sleeper sofa, the children would have one bedroom, and he could have the other.”

   “He can’t stay here.”

   Faith’s alarm increased, upsetting Megan. The doctor had warned that her mother had to be relieved of stress or it could cause permanent damage to her heart. “Mom, let me explain. Everything’s going to work out fine. But he’s a rancher. He has to live on the ranch. But he has a big house.”

   “He does? And we could live with him?”

   “Yes. And we’re not paying him because we’re going to be his housekeepers and cooks during our agreement. So we’ll save on rent, too.”

   “That way we can save more money to pay for the legal bills,” Faith said, obviously relieved.

   Megan took a deep breath. However much she hated the agreement she’d made, it would be worth it if it brought relief to her mother and saved the kids.

   “So we’re invited to his house for dinner this evening, to look at our new living quarters,” Megan added, putting on a big smile.

   “Tonight?” Faith asked and looked at her watch. “But it’s already four o’clock. Let’s see, I’ll bathe the children. While I’m dressing them, you can have the shower. Then—”

   “Mom, he’s not going to inspect us. He already agreed.”

   “But you want to look nice for him, Megan. He should be proud of his new family.”

   Megan sighed. “I think all he cares about is enchiladas, Mom.”

   

   FROM HIS POSITION at the backdoor, Rick took a long, hard look at the kitchen. It was even more of a disaster than he’d remembered. Or wanted to admit.

   The sink was piled high with dirty dishes. The cabinets needed cleaning. The trash was overflowing. The long table had a week’s worth of mail, empty cereal boxes, more dirty dishes and…uh-oh, a pair of dirty socks.

   He looked at his watch. Just after four. He’d invited Megan and her family to dinner at six.

   With a sigh, he headed for the phone. The only good meals he’d had since he moved to Cactus were the nights he splurged and ate at The Last Roundup. He’d order a meal to go. If he picked it up at five-thirty, he’d have an hour before then to straighten the kitchen, shower and drive back into town.

   Working like a whirlwind, he cleared as much of the kitchen as he could. Just removing all the trash made everything better. But he managed to fill the dishwasher and turn it on before he took a brief shower and threw on a newer pair of jeans and a T-shirt. All his regular shirts were so wrinkled he didn’t dare wear them.

   He ran for the pickup and zoomed into town. Jamming into a parking spot in front of the restaurant, he vaulted from the vehicle and almost collided with Cal Baxter, the town sheriff.

   “Whoa, Rick! You’re in a little hurry, aren’t you?” Cal asked, clasping Rick’s shoulder as he tried to pass him by.

   “I’ve got company coming for dinner,” Rick explained. “Your wife’s doing the cooking.” Cal’s wife, Jessica, owned The Last Roundup.

   Cal laughed. “Good thinking. Well, slow down on the return trip. I wouldn’t want one of my deputies pulling you over.”

   “Thanks, Cal, I will,” he agreed and raced ahead of him into the restaurant.

   His luck ran out on the way home. He hit what looked like a piece of cardboard in the road, but it turned out to be metal and ripped his back tire all to pieces.

   He muttered a few highly appropriate words, even if they wouldn’t be acceptable in polite company, and set to work putting on the spare as fast as he could. The kitchen needed more work, and the rest of the house hadn’t even been touched.

   By the time he got the tire changed, he needed another shower and it was almost six o’clock. As he reached for the truck door, a four-door sedan passed him. He caught a glimpse of Megan driving.

   Damn, the whole agreement was about to go down the drain. All because he was a lousy housekeeper. With a sigh, Rick slid behind the wheel and trailed the sedan to his ranch.

   Megan got out of her car and stared at him as he pulled in behind her.

   Getting out of the truck, he pasted on a smile. “Hi. I intended to be here to greet you, but I had a flat tire.” He couldn’t even offer his hand for a greeting. It was smeared with black dirt.

   An older woman, a faded version of Megan, got out of the passenger seat. “Hello, I’m Faith Ford. I hope we’re not causing you too much trouble.”

   “No, not at all,” he assured her, impressed with his own acting ability. “Uh, I’m not a very good housekeeper, though. I hope you won’t be offended by…by everything.”

   The look on her face reminded him of Maria. She’d always scolded him about his lack of tidiness. But he’d had his mind on other things.

   “I explained that you don’t have time to clean the house,” Megan hurriedly said.

   He shot her a grateful look. “Thanks. I have dinner in the truck. Let me get it and we’ll go in.”

   While he gathered the containers of food, Megan and her mother unstrapped the two children from their seats. He was nervous around kids. The few he’d spent time with seemed to constantly scream and complain. These two weren’t making any noise. That was a good sign.

   He led them to the backdoor. No one used front doors in Cactus. He juggled the containers to pull the door open and stand to one side. The ladies stepped through and he took it as a good sign that they didn’t turn around and run out screaming.

   He followed them in, discovering them staring around them, a surprised look on their faces.

   He must’ve done a better job than he’d thought. But as he surveyed the kitchen, too, he realized, with a sinking heart, that he’d only made a dent in the mess. He’d cleaned off the table, but he’d done so by making piles on the floor, on the hutch and in one corner of the cabinet. He had gotten rid of the socks, but he didn’t think it would be good to brag about that.

   He’d meant to sweep the floor, but he’d run out of time. The mud he’d tracked in last week after they’d had a spring rain was still there. Dog hair was noticeable. When Daisy barked at the backdoor, he automatically opened the screen for her even as he was trying to figure out what to say.

   “Uh, the table’s clean,” he muttered.

   “A doggie!” the little girl squealed, reaching out to Daisy.

   “We can’t touch the doggie right now, Torie. It’s time to eat,” Megan said. Then she looked at him, a question in her blue eyes.

   “Yeah, I’ve got the food right here,” he assured her, setting the containers on the table.

   The two women exchanged a look. Finally, the older one said, “Do you have place mats? Or…or dishes?”

   Heck, they could see he had dishes. A lot of them were piled in the sink. He hadn’t been able to get them all in the dishwasher.

   “There’s clean ones in the dishwasher. I’ll—”

   “I’ll get them,” Megan said gently. She helped the little girl into one of the chairs at the table. “You sit still, Torie, and do not pet the dog.” Then she turned to him and said softly, “You might want to wash up.”

   He turned bright red. “Uh, yeah, I’ll be right back.” He hurried to his bathroom and washed. As he looked in the mirror, he realized his white T-shirt had a streak of black on it. Whipping it off, he searched for another shirt.

   Much to his disgust, all he could find was a pink one, created when he’d washed it with something red. “Damn, I’m going to look like a sissy. A messy sissy!” he said in disgust. But he had no choice. He couldn’t go without a shirt.

   The little girl was still seated at the table, but her gaze was on Daisy, who was sitting on her haunches by the door, waiting for Rick.

   “If you’ll hold Andrew,” Megan’s mother said as he entered the kitchen, putting her words into action by placing the baby in his arms before he could protest, “I’ll help Megan.”

   He stood there, dumbfounded, while the two women quickly set the table. Then they opened the boxes to set out the food.

   “I didn’t buy anything for babies,” he suddenly realized. “I’m not used to—”

   “You don’t dislike children, do you, Mr. Astin?” Faith asked, alarm in her voice.

   “No, ma’am. That is, I don’t dislike them. I haven’t been around too many children.”

   She beamed at him. “You’re doing just fine with Andrew.”

   Surprised, Rick looked down at the little boy he still held clasped to his chest. “Yeah, hey, he’s not crying.”

   

   MEGAN HID HER GRIN. She didn’t want to spoil his sense of accomplishment by telling Rick that Drew seldom cried. Especially when he’d recently been fed.

   After getting a look at Rick’s home, the kitchen, at least, she decided this cowboy needed to feel good about something. How could anyone live in the middle of disaster? She only hoped he was better at ranching than he was at taking care of himself.

   She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. That pink T-shirt was a surprise. It clung to his muscles, showing his strength, but it was an unusual color.

   When all the food was on the table, she looked at Rick. “Um, do you—is there any tea, or—”

   His face turned brighter than his T-shirt. “I haven’t made any.”

   “We’ll drink water,” Faith assured him, reaching out to pat his shoulder.

   “There are sodas in the fridge,” he hurriedly offered.

   The little girl immediately asked for a soda, and Rick was relieved that he could please any of them. A hiccup sounded from the baby he was holding and he peered down at him. He seemed content. Two out of four wasn’t bad.

   Except the two he’d hoped to impress were the two he couldn’t count on his side.

   Megan took some glasses out of the dishwasher and added ice. Faith had opened the refrigerator and taken out some sodas and put them on the table. Then she turned to him and reached for the baby.

   He was amazed at his reluctance to release the little guy. His warmth had been a comfort.

   “Does it matter where we sit?” Megan asked.

   He shook his head no. But when she joined Torie, he took the seat at that end of the table.

   “I like pink,” the little girl announced, beaming at him.

   Reminded of his unusual attire, he blushed again. “I, um, I’m not very good with laundry.”

   Megan’s mother, sitting on his other side, patted his arm again. “Don’t worry about it. I would be a terrible rancher. How long have you lived here?”

   The conversation moved a little more smoothly after that and by the time they’d finished the meal, Rick counted Faith on his side, too.

   But Megan hadn’t relaxed, hadn’t drawn him into conversation, hadn’t smiled at him as Faith had. She’d remained silent most of the meal, dealing with the little girl, but not talking to him.

   “May we see the rest of the house?” Faith asked as they finished eating.

   All of Rick’s comfort disappeared. “Um, it’s in pretty bad shape, Faith,” he said, as he’d been instructed to call her. “I didn’t manage to do any work on it today.”

   “Why don’t you just tell us about it, then,” Faith said.

   Rick smiled at her. The woman was wonderful. He sent a look at Megan, but she ignored him. “Okay. There are five bedrooms. One of them is down here. The rest are upstairs. I could move to the bedroom down here, and let you have the upstairs. There’s only one bath up there, though I’ve been thinking about adding another one.”

   When he finished his year, he’d made a few plans. But until that year was over, he was sticking to his budget. No matter what.

   “Why?”

   That single word from Megan drew his attention. “Why what?”

   “There’s only you. Why would you need another bath upstairs?”

   “The bath upstairs is not very large. I’d like a second bathroom added to the master bedroom.”

   “Megan, I think it’s admirable that Rick wants to improve his home,” Faith said softly.

   There was some kind of rebuke in her words because Megan’s cheeks turned red.

   Rick rushed into speech. “I can’t do anything right now, but I’ve been thinking about the future. Unfortunately, you all will have to share that small bath if I move downstairs.”

   “We’ll manage,” Megan muttered, not looking at him.

   “Of course we will. We only have one bath now. Our house in Fort Worth was much larger, but—well, we’re glad we’re here.”

   “When do you want to get married?” Rick asked, fearing Megan had changed her mind. She didn’t appear as determined tonight as she had earlier in the day.

   At her mother’s surprised look, he feared he’d blown it. “You did talk to your mother about…I mean—”

   “Yes, I know,” Faith hurriedly said. “I thought maybe Megan had explained that we need to handle this business right away.”

   “We didn’t get very far in our discussion this afternoon,” he confessed.

   “That’s because all you wanted to talk about was food,” Megan said, her chin in the air.

   He couldn’t hold back a grin. “Now you see why. I’m not much good with domestic details.”

   Megan rolled her eyes.

   Faith was more sympathetic. “It’s hard to do everything. I think this arrangement will suit us well.”

   “Megan mentioned the end of the month,” Rick began, relief filling him that he’d hadn’t blown the whole thing.

   “Must we wait that long?” Faith asked.

   “Mother, we’ve paid rent until then,” Megan inserted.

   “I know, but that’s three weeks away. I don’t see any reason to wait.”

   “You might even get some of your rent back,” Rick added, hoping Megan would agree with her mother. Home-cooked meals right away. He smiled.

   “You’re thinking about food again,” Megan accused.

   Damn, she was able to read him too easily. He felt a little unnerved.

   “Megan, quit teasing Rick. He’s being most cooperative.”

   Megan smothered her groan and dropped her gaze to her half-eaten meal. There was nothing wrong with the food. It had been excellent. But her appetite had dwindled as the evening had progressed.

   She had promised to marry the man beside her? To share a house, if not his bed, for at least a year? To see him every day?

   Already she was learning to read his thoughts, to feel sympathy for him, to want to help him. She had to remain apart from this man. She wasn’t going to fall into the trap that had claimed her sister.

   “Today is Saturday. I think Wednesday would be a good day to be married,” Faith said, beaming at Rick. “We could move in Thursday, and, by next weekend, be all settled.”

   “I think that sounds great,” he agreed.

   He would, Megan thought to herself. He was thinking in terms of his comfort. Selfish man. Suddenly, she was filled with regret. He was providing what she’d asked for. It wasn’t his fault she was in the position she was in. She shouldn’t hold it against him.

   “Okay, fine. Is there a justice of the peace in town who can marry us?”

   “Megan, no!” Faith returned, alarm on her face.

   “What, Mom?”

   “Mr. Brown, the pastor of our church, will marry you.” She turned to Rick. “We can’t manage a real wedding, but a nice ceremony and then dinner at Jessica’s restaurant would make it a festive occasion.”

   To Megan’s fury, Rick smiled at her mother and nodded agreement. “I think you’re right. It will make it nice.”

   “Are you two crazy?” Meg asked, then realized her voice was too shrill and lowered it. “This is a business arrangement, not a romantic occasion.”

   “But do you want the rest of the town to know that?” Rick asked calmly. “When the time comes for the court to decide who gets the children, do you want them to suspect that it’s a business arrangement? Or a romantic, love-at-first-sight marriage?”

   Her mother and Rick stared at her, united in their decision, waiting for her response.

   First round to them.

Chapter Three

   Megan lost a lot of battles in the next few days. Mostly with herself. She might have to pretend that her marriage was a love match, but she wanted to keep her heart whole.

   Her sister had fallen for the entire package. Swept off her feet by a wealthy, charming man, she’d felt like Cinderella with her handsome prince. Less than six months after her fairy-tale wedding, Andrea had discovered the flip side of her romance. Prince Charming had grown more and more abusive.

   But by then she was already pregnant. She told Megan she had to stay for the sake of Victoria. Then she became pregnant with Andrew. After his birth, Andrea had hoped her marriage would change. It hadn’t.

   Finally, she’d left Drake. Then he’d asked her to discuss everything with him. He’d picked her up, without her realizing he’d been drinking, and killed her in an automobile accident.

   Megan wasn’t going to be swayed by romance.

   Or hormones.

   But it was an uphill battle. Rick Astin was definitely charming. He had a smile that could turn her heart upside down. And he was as handsome as sin.

   At least he wasn’t wealthy, though he’d offered to foot the bill for the dinner reception at The Last Roundup. She and her mother had argued with him about that. After all, they weren’t paying him to marry Megan. They’d finally agreed to split the cost.

   With that settled, her mother’s attention had turned to Megan’s dress. “We’ll go into Lubbock to shop.”

   “No, Mom, we don’t have time. I have that cream-colored suit I bought last year.”

   “But, dear, you should wear white. You’ll make a beautiful bride,” Faith said, a smile on her face.

   Megan was glad her mother was doing better. She’d shown more energy and hope since Saturday night than she had in almost a year. But she was getting carried away.

   “If we’re going to move to Rick’s place on Thursday, we need to do some cleaning out there,” she pointed out, knowing her mother would be distracted with their move. “You know he’s a terrible housekeeper.”

   “Yes, the poor dear. He needs someone to make a home for him. Cal says he’s a hard worker. Everyone likes him.”

   Megan ground her teeth. According to her mother, Rick was perfection. But then she’d thought the same thing about Drake at first, too.

   “We’ve set everything up with Reverend Brown. We’ve made reservations with Jessica. I have something to wear. Let’s go to Rick’s and see what we can do to get the house ready,” Megan suggested.

   She’d been right. Her mother fell for her distraction. “Yes. If we go now, we can put the kids down for a nap, giving us some uninterrupted time.”

   “Actually, Florence’s housekeeper volunteered to keep the kids for the day,” Megan told her. Florence Greenfield, wife of one of the doctors, was an old friend of Faith’s, one of the ladies who had suggested Rick as a potential husband.

   “How wonderful. I’ll call and see if we can drop them off right now.”

   In the end, Megan found herself one in a small army of women. Her mother’s friends, Florence, Mabel Baxter, Ruth Langford and Edith Hauk joined them, as well as several of their housekeepers.

   The old house began to come alive as lemon-fresh scent replaced dust, changing Rick’s disaster to a comfortable home. Folding a white T-shirt reminded Megan of Rick’s pink shirt Saturday night, and his embarrassment. It brought a smile to her face.

   “You look happy,” Mabel said, catching her by surprise.

   “Um, yes, of course,” she agreed, remembering the role she had agreed to play.

   “I’m glad everything is working out. Now, we need to move Rick’s belongings downstairs. Why don’t you come direct the change?”

   Megan swallowed. She didn’t want to make decisions for Rick. But she had no choice.

   When it got late in the afternoon, the crew of women began to disperse. After all, they had their own homes and families to deal with. Megan wanted to hang the freshly washed curtains for Torie’s room before she left, and Mabel offered to take Faith to get the children and take them to their apartment.

   “I should be finished in a few minutes, Mom, if you want to wait.”

   “No, dear, I’m tired. I think I’d better go on with Mabel.”

   “Okay,” Megan agreed, frowning. She hoped her mother hadn’t overdone it today.

   As Mabel and her mother were leaving, Mabel said, “There’s a casserole in the oven. It needs to come out in half an hour.” Then she disappeared out the door.

   Megan realized some of the women had brought in bags of groceries, but she hadn’t realized they’d cooked. She moved to the oven and opened it. A wonderful aroma filled the room.

   With a grin, she realized Rick was going to be pleased. It was some kind of enchilada casserole. She checked to be sure the timer was set and closed the oven. She needed to finish her chore and get out of there.

   Then she realized she couldn’t leave until Rick returned or the casserole would be ruined.

   With a grimace, she went upstairs to hang the curtains. Surely he’d come in soon. It was almost six o’clock.

   An hour and a half later, Megan was pacing the floor. It was almost dark. When was the man going to appear? What was he doing?

   She’d called her mother to explain why she hadn’t arrived, but her mother hadn’t been surprised.

   “Most ranchers work until the light goes, dear. He’ll be there soon. Why don’t you share his supper and then come home?”

   “No, I’ll be home as soon as he shows up.”

   “But we’ve already eaten—”

   “I can take care of myself, Mom. I’ll see you in a little while.”

   

   RICK HAD INTENDED to cut his day a little shorter because he’d promised himself he’d give some time to cleaning the house tonight. Faith had asked if she and Megan could come out today to start moving in and he’d reluctantly agreed, telling her the house would be unlocked.

   He should’ve cleaned on Sunday, but even Sundays sometimes required work. It was calving season. And today had been particularly busy. He was filthy and tired.

   Next week, after his marriage, he would come home to a clean house and a hot meal. That idea brought a smile to his weary lips.

   He parked his pickup near the backdoor and struggled out, ready to drag himself up the steps. He came to an abrupt halt, however, when he discovered a frowning Megan standing at the backdoor.

   “Something wrong?” he asked, speeding up his walk.

   “Where have you been?” she asked, instead of answering his question.

   “Delivering calves.”

   “You mean you were actually working?”

   Her utter surprise irritated him. “Naw, I was sun-bathing by the pond in the back pasture.” He regretted his sarcasm as her cheeks flushed. “Why are you still here? Is there a problem?”

   “No. I waited to take the casserole out when it finished cooking. Then, I thought it would be rude to leave, so I waited, thinking you’d be here any minute.”

   He picked out the key word. “Casserole? You fixed dinner?”

   “Not me. One of the ladies who helped us today.”

   “Well, let’s eat. I’m starving.”

   He started to move past her and saw her nose wrinkle in distaste. “Uh, I’ll grab a quick shower first,” he promised even as his stomach protested the wait.

   She followed him into the house. “You go ahead. I’ll set out the food and then leave.”

   “You’re not staying to eat?”

   “No. I need to go to the apartment and help Mom put the kids to bed.” She didn’t meet his gaze, which made him wonder if she was lying, but he was too hungry to care.

   “Okay.”

   He was halfway across the kitchen when his surroundings pierced his fog of hunger and weariness. The room gleamed in the fading light and smelled great. “What happened?”

   “To what?”

   “The kitchen. Man, you must’ve worked all day to get it to look like this. Nice job, Megan.” He turned to smile at her, but she was still frowning.

   “We had a lot of help. Mom’s friends, the ones who recommended you, came to help.”

   “Ah, the matchmakers.”

   “The matchmakers?”

   “That’s what everyone calls them now, since they had a contest to marry off their sons. You know, Mac, Tuck, Spence and Cal.”

   “They were just being helpful to me,” she muttered and turned her back on him. “Hurry and clean up before your dinner gets too cold.”

   “Yes, ma’am,” he said and bounded up the stairs, spurred on by his hunger.

   The hot shower refreshed him, even though it was a quick one. He stepped out and grabbed a towel, doing a quick rubdown. Then, wrapping the towel around his waist, even though Megan was supposed to be gone, he hurried into his bedroom for clean jeans and T-shirt.

   And found nothing.

   His bedroom was spotless. And the chest of drawers was empty. He opened the closet. Empty. Obviously, the ladies today had taken over the entire house. Now that he thought about it, the bath was immaculate, too. Or it was until he’d showered.

   Maybe they moved his things to the downstairs bedroom. He came down the stairs, reaching the bottom as the kitchen door swung open. Megan ran smack into him, her hands coming to rest on his bare chest.

   “Oh!”

   “Megan! I thought you were leaving.”

   She backed away and he grabbed for his towel, afraid his modesty was about to disappear.

   

   MEGAN TRIED TO look anywhere but at him, but her gaze kept returning to that magnificent expanse of chest. The muscles were big and brawny and coated with dark hair that tapered down to the white terry cloth towel.

   “Are…are you eating without any clothes on?”

   “No! At least, I hadn’t planned on it. But all my things are missing from the bedroom.”

   “Sorry, I should’ve told you. We moved you to the downstairs bedroom. You said—”

   “That’s fine. I just hadn’t realized the extent of your efforts. The house looks great, by the way.”

   She couldn’t look him in the eye. She was acting like a teenage girl who’d never seen a man’s body before. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake. “You’d better get dressed.”

   “Okay. Did you decide to stay and eat with me?”

   “No, my car won’t start. I wondered if you could look at it.” She hated asking, but she’d called the one mechanic in town, and he couldn’t come out until morning. Her mother had the children already in bed, and Megan had decided the only practical thing to do was ask Rick for help.

   “Before I eat?” he asked, his voice filled with despair.

   “No. No, I’ll eat with you, if you don’t mind. Could you look at it after?”

   “Sure. Be glad to. Now that I don’t have to do any cleaning tonight, I have lots of time,” he agreed, giving her a smile that sped up her breathing.

   “Okay,” she agreed, turning her back on him. “Dinner will be ready when you’re dressed.” She had to get away from the near naked man before she reached out to touch that warm flesh again.

   He reappeared only a couple of minutes later, taking a deep breath as he came through the door. “That smells like enchiladas.”

   “One of the ladies made it after I mentioned you liked enchiladas. It’s some kind of enchilada casserole.”

   Megan was surprised when Rick held her chair for her. She hurriedly slid into the seat, then he took the chair across from her.

   He offered no conversation until after he’d eaten at least half of his helping of the casserole. Megan remained silent also. He’d put in more than a twelve-hour day and she knew he must be exhausted.

   So when he finally spoke, it shocked her. “This is great. Great food, and the house looks wonderful. You must’ve worked hard today.”

   She smiled her thanks. “Not as hard as you. If delivering calves is anything like babies, you must be very tired.”

   “There were a couple of hard deliveries. Have you ever pulled a calf?”

   “No. And I think I’m glad. That doesn’t sound pleasant.”

   He grinned. “Maybe not, but a healthy newborn is worth the effort. The crop today looks good.”

   “Congratulations, then.” She remembered something she wanted to ask him. “When we cleaned and everything, I noticed all the computer equipment in your bedroom downstairs. Are you sure you’ll have enough room?”

   “Yeah.” He continued eating, apparently unconcerned.

   “Mother and I can share a room, leaving you the master bedroom.”

   He stopped eating and frowned at her. “That’s not necessary. I want you to be comfortable. If today’s any example, you and your mother are going to make me a lot more comfortable.”

   “We’ll try.”

   “Think you could get this recipe?”

   She rolled her eyes. The man thought with his stomach. Her gaze dropped to that flat, muscular area of his body. When she lifted her gaze again, it slammed into his. “Uh, probably.”

   “Good.”

   She struggled for another topic of conversation. “Uh, you must like computers.”

   His fork stopped halfway to his mouth.

   Megan raised an eyebrow when he glared at her before taking a bite. “Is something wrong?”

   “No. I like computers, okay?”

   His aggressive attitude bothered her. “I didn’t mean to intrude. But you’ve got a lot of expensive equipment in that room. Maybe you shouldn’t leave the door unlocked.”

   “No one locks up out here in the country.”

   “Oh. Do you…do you spend a lot of time on the computer?”

   He put his fork down. “Not now. In the winter, I do a little—that is, I work at the computer. I’m developing a system that helps me keep track of things here on the ranch.”

   Relief flooded Megan, surprising her. She hadn’t realized how worried she’d been. After all, she was going to marry the man. “Oh, good. That could be helpful to a lot of people.”

   “Yeah,” he assured her with a grin. “But I don’t have time for much right now. Not with calves being born day and night.”

   “At night? Are you going back out again tonight?”

   He rubbed the back of his neck, then shrugged his shoulders. “I brought a couple of cows in for the night. I’ll check on them later.”

   “What about the vet?”

   His brown eyes looked puzzled. “What about him? Are you interested in him?”

   “No!” Megan returned, her cheeks flushing. “I meant did you call the vet to help with the calves.”

   “You don’t know much about ranching, do you?”

   “No, I’m from the city,” she said defensively, stiffening her shoulders. “And it doesn’t matter. After all, I’m not really going to be a rancher’s wife. It’s just pretend.”

   He looked away. “Yeah, pretend.”

   Megan stared at him in alarm. “You still want to do this, don’t you?”

   

   RICK STARED at the beautiful woman across from him. She really needed to rethink her question. This could mean a lot of different things, including some highly stimulating—he halted his thoughts before he got carried away.

   Clearing his throat, he nodded. “Yeah.”

   “There’s also chocolate cake, if you’ve finished the casserole,” she said, watching him.

   He couldn’t help the pleasure that filled him. “Homemade chocolate cake?”

   “Yes. Mom made it.”

   “I’d love some.”

   She got up from the table and moved to the counter. He hadn’t noticed the cake plate sitting there, but he practically drooled when she removed the cover. He loved chocolate cake.

   After putting a piece in front of him, she began clearing the table.

   “Hey, I’ll do that,” he protested.

   “No need. I’m not going to have cake, and you’ve agreed to look at my car for me. It’s a fair exchange. In fact, I’ll probably be in your debt if you can fix my car.”

   “So we’re going to work on the barter system? You do something for me and I do something for you?”

   She looked embarrassed, which only made her skin more tantalizing. He wanted to warm his fingers on her cheeks.

   “This isn’t a normal marriage. I think we need to establish some rules.”

   “Okay. What is a chocolate cake worth? ’Cause I’m going to be needing a lot of it.”

   “You like it? I’ll tell Mom.”

   “Like it? I think your mother is a genius. This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had.” He added his best smile with the compliment.

   Megan chuckled and he loved the sound. It was husky, warm, inviting. It made him want to hold her against him, feel the laughter move through her body.

   Whoa! He was going to be in big trouble if he thought that way.

   “You’re too easy. Mom will love cooking for you.”

   “Good.”

   They stared at each other, tension building. Finally, she moved back to the sink, grabbing the dishcloth as if it were a life raft. “I’ll…I’ll finish cleaning while you look at my car.”

   “Okay. I’d better wash my hands first. Wouldn’t want to get chocolate icing on your car.” He moved to the sink and she hurriedly backed away. “I don’t bite,” he said, keeping his voice mild.

   “No, of course not. I didn’t want to get in your way.”

   Rick didn’t believe her. He’d felt the tension a moment ago. The same tension they’d felt when they’d run into each other in the hall. When he was naked. And wished she was.

   Was he crazy to think he could share the house with this woman and not feel anything? He couldn’t find relief somewhere else, not if he was married to her. He was about to enter a celibate period in his life.

   About to? He almost snorted with derisive laughter. He’d been celibate for a couple of years now. After his divorce, he’d tried dating, but he discovered the women he’d met had a hidden agenda. First him, then his money. Whatever it took.

   So he’d accepted a different life-style. And been happy with it until today. Or actually Saturday when he’d first met Megan Ford. What was it about her that stirred him?

   Other than her beauty. Her body. Her smile. Her sad story. Her selflessness. Her family.

   He shook his head. He could go on listing things he liked about her forever.

   “You won’t look at my car?”

   “What? Of course, I will. I said I would.”

   “But you were shaking your head no.”

   He smiled at her, barely restraining the urge to drop a kiss on her soft lips. “I was thinking about something else. I’ll go look at your car right now.”

   “Thank you,” she said, offering him that special smile again.

   He almost stumbled in his hurry to move away before he forgot why he should.

   “I’ll be outside.”

   She nodded.

   He turned his back and rushed outside, taking a deep breath of the spring night air.

   Then he moved to the economy sedan she drove. Like he was a mechanic. Well, he could at least look at it. He knew a little about cars.

   She’d left the keys in the ignition. He slipped behind the wheel and turned them, just in case she’d been wrong. No such luck.

   He reached down and released the hood and got out of the car. With the porch light on, he thought he’d be able to see well enough to tell if the damage was something he could handle.

   Propping up the hood, he scanned the motor. Then his gaze reached the battery.

   Bingo.

   The negative battery wire was disconnected. He frowned. Why would that happen? Driving on a rough road wouldn’t pull the wire loose. It probably required a wrench to loosen it.

   Which meant the damage was deliberate.

   A sinking feeling settled in his stomach.

   It looked like the matchmakers were at work again.

Chapter Four

   Megan watched Rick from the kitchen window. The dishes were all rinsed and put in the dishwasher, but she hadn’t started it. It only had a few things in it.

   What was she supposed to do now? Rick was bent over her motor, like he knew what was wrong. She could offer to help, but she knew almost nothing about cars. She’d been raised in a female household since her father had died when she was a little girl.

   Maybe she should see if Rick had left his dirty clothes upstairs. She could put them in the washer. Running up the stairs, she found the clothes he’d been wearing when he came in just where she’d expected to find them. In a pile on the floor of the bathroom.

   Men! But maybe picking up his clothes was worth it if he fixed her car. She went to the downstairs bedroom to collect the towel he’d used.

   She sighed as she looked around the room. He was really going to be crowded in here, with all the computer equipment. He had several computers, a fax machine, two printers, and some other things she couldn’t identify. It did seem excessive for a rancher.

   If all this equipment was in his master bedroom, he’d have more room. It was the largest bedroom in the house. Her mother had insisted she take the master bedroom, even though she’d protested. Maybe she should offer to trade with Rick. He could—

   “Megan?”

   She returned to the kitchen, clutching her armful of dirty clothes. “Yes? Did you fix it?”

   “Yeah, I did.” Then he frowned. “What are you doing with those smelly clothes?”

   “I thought I’d put them in the washer.”

   “I can pick up after myself.”

   His voice was hard, unfriendly, which puzzled her.

   “I’m just trying to keep the house clean. Remember, that was our agreement.”

   “I didn’t mean for you to pick up after me constantly. I can take care of that.” His face turned red. “I know it didn’t look like it the other night, but—”

   “Rick, it’s okay. You fixed my car. I’m grateful. I wash your clothes, you’re grateful. Okay?”

   “You make things sound simple.”

   Some of the tension had left his voice and Megan breathed a sigh of relief. “I think it is. Even if you hadn’t fixed my car, you’re doing a wonderful thing for us.”

   “Uh, about the car. I fixed it.”

   She beamed at him. “Yes, I can’t thank you enough. It would’ve been expensive to have the mechanic come out in the morning.”

   “Uh, yeah. Did you tell your mother the car wouldn’t start?”

   “No, I haven’t said anything yet. Why? Shouldn’t I tell her?” There had been something in his voice that told her everything wasn’t right.

   “Well, I’m not sure, but I think someone sabotaged your car.”

   “Someone what? You think someone actually broke my car on purpose? That’s ridiculous, Rick. The only people here today were the ladies and me and Mom.”

   “I know, Megan, but—”

   “Why, even if they wanted to, and I can’t think of a single reason they would, they’re women. They wouldn’t know how to do anything to the car.”

   Rick laughed. “You have a lot to learn.”

   She stiffened. “Why are you laughing?”

   “Because the only one of those ladies who hasn’t lived on a ranch most of her life is Florence. And I suspect she could manage as well as any of them. Mabel, Edith and Ruth could probably take a tractor apart and rebuild it before you could blink an eye.”

   “Why?”

   “Why? Because a rancher’s wife is his partner, his helpmate, his—his wife.”

   Megan waved away his words. “No, I mean why would they want to mess up my car? They’re our friends.”

   “Ask their sons.”

   His cryptic words didn’t make any sense to Megan. She stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

   Rick rubbed the back of his neck again, a movement Megan was beginning to realize meant he wasn’t sure what to say. When he did speak, it wasn’t to explain his words.

   “You’d better go put those clothes in the washing machine before you need a bath yourself.”

   She hadn’t even realized she still held the stinky clothes. With a huff of frustration, she charged down the hall to the utility room and dumped the clothes into the washing machine. Quickly adding soap, she twirled the dial and started the washer. Then she returned to the kitchen.

   “Well? Are you ready to explain?”

   “Is there any coffee?”

   With another frustrated sigh, she prepared his percolator and plugged it in.

   “We can talk while it’s perking,” she suggested, waving him to the table.

   He didn’t look happy, but he accepted her invitation, settling himself in the same seat he’d used when he ate dinner. “Look, Megan, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I think the ladies were matchmaking.”

   She did think he was crazy. Obviously, he hadn’t thought things through. With a patient smile, she said, “You’re wrong, Rick. They have no need to matchmake. We’re getting married, remember? They were kind enough to suggest you when we explained our problem. But we’ve come to an agreement, so there’s no difficulty.”

   He rubbed the back of his neck again.

   Which was beginning to drive her crazy. “Well? I’m right, aren’t I?”

   After a minute, he said, “Sure. Yeah, sure. Um, do you want me to follow you back into Cactus? To make sure you get home all right?”

   “No. You’re just saying that, aren’t you? You don’t think I’m right.” She leaned forward, determination in every bone. “Explain, please.”

   He looked like a cornered bear, big, powerful and irritated. “I agreed with you.”

   “But you didn’t mean it.”

   “How do you know? We just met Saturday. You don’t know me that well.”

   Strangely enough, she wondered if his words were true. She thought she was beginning to know him, to feel comfortable with him. At least most of the time. Not when he was naked, of course, but that wasn’t even a consideration. Just an accident.

   “Maybe I know you better than you think.”

   “I don’t think so.”

   “So,” she said, drawing the word out slowly, “I should believe you’re upset that I thought logically and you didn’t?”

   The immediate spark of irritation in his eyes brought a smile to her lips. Yes, she was getting to know him.

   “What are you smiling about?”

   Her smile widened. “I’m trying to be a pleasant companion, Rick. Hadn’t you rather I smile than be an old sourpuss?”

   He ignored her teasing. Leaning forward, he covered her clasped hands, resting on the table in front of her, with his. Immediately, her hands were surrounded with warm flesh, reminding her of when she’d fallen against him in the hallway.

   “It’s not a question of logic. These ladies are romantics,” he explained.

   “So they should be happy. We’re getting married.” She was beginning to get an inkling of what he was trying to explain and she wanted to deny it.

   “We’re cementing a business agreement.”

   Her chin rose and her smile disappeared. “So?”

   “So, they want romance.”

   “But surely they wouldn’t—why, it would be wrong to break my car. Against the law.” She frowned more deeply. “I’m sure they wouldn’t do that.”

   “Cal’s mother put holes in condoms when she was trying to get Cal married.”

   Megan’s eyes widened in horror and she gasped, “No!”

   “It’s true.”

   “How do you know? Cal wouldn’t tell anyone that. Why, he and Jessica have the prettiest little boy. He wouldn’t—”

   “We were sitting in The Last Roundup around Christmastime. The ladies were scheming against some guy named Joe Chamblee. I said I didn’t think there was much they could do to get someone married if they didn’t want to marry. Cal told me what his mother had done as a warning.”

   Megan was floored. To think that his mother would do something like that to Cal. Her own son. Messing up Megan’s car, in a way that was easily fixed, didn’t seem nearly as bad.

   “But why?” As he opened his mouth, Megan interrupted. “I know you said for romance, but why would my having car trouble do anything?”

   Both their gazes immediately flew to the clasped hands in the middle of the table. Then they both jerked away, as if by touching they were endangering themselves.

   “Look, if I’m right, they may try other things,” Rick said, his voice rough. “I want to be honest with you. I’m not interested in any real marriage. I don’t believe in it anymore. And nothing they can do will induce me to submit myself to that kind of misery again.”

   Megan hurried to reassure him even as she felt a twinge in her chest at the desolation on his face. “Me, neither. After all, marriage killed my sister. I have no intention of marrying. For real, I mean.”

   Rick stood, towering over her. “I hope you don’t mean that, Megan. Eventually, I hope you meet your Mr. Wonderful. But…but, for now, at least we understand each other. We’re not going to be caught in their trap. Right?”

   “Right.” She started to extend her hand for a handshake to seal their agreement. Then she remembered it would be better not to touch again. So she rose and stared at the handsome man across the table from her.

   “I guess I’d better go. May we start moving in our things tomorrow?”

   “Yeah, sure. I’d like to offer to help, but—”

   “You have calves to deliver. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.” She turned to go and he followed her to the kitchen door.

   “You sure you don’t want me to follow you?”

   “No, that’s not necessary. I’ll be fine.”

   “So I’ll see you tomorrow?”

   She turned to look at him. It had sounded like it mattered to him if she saw him. But no, that couldn’t be true.

   “Maybe. But there’s plenty of casserole left for your dinner tomorrow. And lots of chocolate cake.”

   “Yeah. If I’m not careful, I’ll get too fat to get on a horse,” he said with a grin, patting his flat stomach.

   Megan laughed, but her gaze concentrated on his lean frame, his hard muscles. “I doubt it.”

   “Good night, then. Thanks for all you’ve done.”

   “You, too,” she said, lifting her gaze to mingle with his warm brown one. She gave a hurried wave and ran to her car.

   It was time to get the hell out of Dodge.

   

   RICK SPENT the night in the downstairs bedroom. The bed wasn’t as comfortable as his. Not because the mattress was old, but because it was a standard-size mattress, not king-size like his bed.

   But it was a pleasure to rise to a clean house, freshly laundered clothes. He even had a piece of chocolate cake after he’d eaten his cereal. No one was there to tell him not to.

   He decided he’d better enjoy it. Once the women invaded his territory, he figured they’d preach about nutrition.

   He lingered over a second cup of coffee. He needed to get to the barn and check on the cows he’d brought in the night before. And then cover the pastures. Jose was supposed to work with him today. An extra pair of eyes and hands.

   The sound of a car had him leaping to his feet and crossing to the kitchen window. When he realized what he was doing, he dumped the rest of his coffee into the sink and stalked out of the kitchen.

   He’d been sitting there hoping Megan would come before he left the house.

   He never paid attention to cars on the road. But this morning he’d immediately noticed. And hurried to see if it turned into his place.

   He’d better be careful, or those interfering ladies were going to cause him a hell of a lot of trouble. He hurried out to the barn, ready to turn his attention to his cows.

   

   MEGAN WORKED with Dr. Gibbons, or Samantha, as she’d suggested Megan call her. Megan had never worked for a doctor who treated her nurse like a human being. It was an interesting and pleasant phenomenon. Since Samantha had a daughter almost twenty months old and was expecting another baby in October, she only worked part-time. Megan’s hours were the same.

   Samantha greeted her as she reached the office Tuesday morning. “How are you settling in?”

   “Fine. We’ve been here a month, you know.”

   “Oh, I know. But I meant at Rick’s place.”

   Megan’s cheeks flushed. “You heard?”

   “I heard that there was a massive cleaning. Florence mentioned several times at dinner last night that men were hopeless when it came to housework.”

   The two ladies grinned at each other.

   “I’m not sure that’s true,” Megan said, “but with Rick’s long hours on the ranch, he doesn’t have much time for housework.”

   “I guess not. It is calving season. Mac’s planning on taking off a couple of weeks when his friends do roundup.”

   “But he’s a lawyer,” Megan protested.

   “A man never stops being a cowboy. He loves it. Every year he helps them.”

   “Rick could use some help. He only has one hand who comes a couple of days a week.”

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