And not for good reason, Ally Garrett thought, pushing aside the memory of her unsettling morning. She stepped out of her sporty blue Audi, ignoring the reflexive jump of her pulse, and glanced at the ranch house where she'd grown up. The aging yellow Victorian, with its wraparound porch and green shutters, was just as she remembered it.
Unfortunately, she couldn't say the same about the handsome Texas cowboy standing beside her. At thirty-three, the ex-marine was sexier than ever.
Ally got a handle on her mounting tension and turned back to the Mesquite Ridge Ranch's caretaker. Looked beneath the fringe of rumpled, dark brown hair peeking from under his Stetson, and into his midnight-blue eyes. Aware that he was just as off-limits to her as ever, she paused as another thrill coursed through her. "I wanted to get here before dark."
Hank McCabe tipped the brim of his hat back with one finger of his work-glove-covered hand. He regarded her with a welcoming half smile. "You accomplished that, since it's barely noon."
He was right—she should have been at work. Would have been if…
Determined not to let on what a mess her life was suddenly in, Ally bent her head, rummaging through her handbag for her house key. "I gather you got my message?"
Hank pivoted and strode toward his pickup truck, his gait loose-limbed and easy. "That you wanted to talk?" He hefted a bundled evergreen out of the back, and hoisted it over one broad shoulder. "Sure did." As she headed for the ranch house, he fell into step beside her.
The fragrance of fresh cut Scotch pine was nearly as overwhelming as the scent of soap and man. "I'd planned to have the tree up before you got here."
Which was, of course, the last thing she wanted on this last trip back home. Shivering in the bitter December wind, Ally ignored the stormy, pale gray clouds gathering overhead, and held up a leather-gloved hand. "I hate Christmas." The words were out before she could stop herself.
Hank set the tree down on the porch with a decisive thud. "Now how is that even possible?" he teased.
Ally supposed it wouldn't have been—had she been a member of the famously loving, larger-than-life McCabe clan.
Aware that her fingers were suddenly trembling, she paused to unlock the front door, then stepped inside.
The foyer of the 1920s home was just as plain and depressing as she recalled. "My parents weren't big on celebrating any of the holidays. On this ranch, December 25 was just another workday."
Hank hefted the tree over his shoulder again and followed her into the adjacent living room. His blue eyes flickered briefly over the sadly outdated thrift store furniture and peeling horse-and-hound wallpaper, which was at least forty years old. Then he plucked a pair of scissors from the scarred rolltop desk and cut through the webbing on the tree. "That's sad."
Ally shrugged. "That's just the way it was," she said flatly.
Hank shook out the tree and set it in the waiting metal stand. "It doesn't have to stay that way." He moved closer and briefly touched her arm, prompting her to look him square in the eye. "People have the power to change."
Not in her experience, Ally thought.
Although in her own way, she had tried, by leaving Laramie, Texas—and the ranch that had been the root of all her troubles—as soon as she was old enough to do so.
Oblivious to her feelings about the property, Hank strode into the equally depressing kitchen and returned with a beaker of water. He filled the stand, then stood back to admire his handiwork. One corner of his mouth crooked up, as he pivoted back to her and continued his pep talk, with all the enthusiasm of a man who was used to accomplishing whatever he set out to do. "I'm pretty sure you've got what it takes to infuse Mesquite Ridge Ranch with the yuletide spirit it deserves."
That wasn't really the point, Ally thought, as she inhaled the fresh, Christmasy scent. What did it matter if this was one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen? "To tell you the truth, I'm not really into colored lights and presents, either."
Hank knelt to make sure the tree was settled securely in the stand. He gave one of the metal pins another twist. "Christmas is about more than just giving gifts, and trimming a tree."
"Let me guess." Ally paced over to the white stone fireplace. She turned so her back was to the mantel and took in what otherwise would be a cheerful tableau. "It's about family." Which was something else she no longer had, thanks to the fact that she had been an only child, as had each of her parents. Ally's only remaining link was to the house and the land, and soon that would be severed, too.
"And friends," Hank added, grabbing a cranberry-red throw off the couch and settling it around the base of the tree, like a skirt. "And wrapping up one chapter of your life, celebrating the bounty of it, before moving on to the next."
Unfortunately, Ally thought, she did not have much of anything positive to reflect on…especially this year.
"Although…" He paused, clearly thinking back to the events of last summer that had landed him here, in her absence. He straightened, then closed the distance between them, setting a comforting hand on her shoulder. The warmth of his palm penetrated her clothes, to reach her skin. ".I imagine it's pretty rough for you now, since this is the first holiday since your dad passed."
Ally didn't want to think about that, either. She stiffened her spine and deliberately lifted her chin. "No need for pity."
He studied her with a gentleness that threatened to undo her. "How about a little empathy then?" he insisted softly.
She shook off his compassion, and his light, consoling grip. Taking a deep breath, she gestured carelessly toward the eight-foot-tall symbol of Christmas. "So.back to the tree. If you're doing this for me—" she pressed her lips together, aware all it was going to do was remind her of what she'd never had, and likely never would "—don't."
Something in Hank hardened, too, at the harsh, unwelcoming tone of her voice. "I live here, too, now," he countered. "Or have you forgotten?"
Time to get back on track.
To undo all those reckless promises she had made in the throes of an emotion that couldn't possibly have been grief.
Ally sighed, certain that Hank McCabe wasn't going to take the news any better than she was facing the upcoming yuletide. She drew a bolstering breath. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Hank had known from the tone of Ally's terse email at seven-thirty that morning that the meeting was not going to be good. Hoping to delay the inevitable, he followed her down the hall that led to the rear of the sadly neglected ranch house. When they entered the kitchen, he observed, "You must be tired from the drive."
She stepped toward the sink in a drift of orange blossom perfume, her elegant wool business suit and silk blouse in stark contrast to his own comfortably worn jeans and flannel-lined canvas barn jacket. She took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with tap water. "Houston is only four hours from here."
Which meant she'd left moments after she'd sent the email.
Wondering why Ally had dressed so inappropriately for a day at the ranch, he watched as she drained the glass and then continued checking out the rest of the place, her ridiculously high heels making a clattering sound on the wood floor. Ambling after her, his body responding to her nearness, he took in the slender calves, trim hips and alluring thighs. She was five foot nine to his six foot three. Graceful and fit, with a sophisticated cap of sleek, honey-blond hair that framed her piquant features. And a body designed for lovemaking. But it was the sassy cynicism— coupled with the almost unbearable sadness in her wide-set, pine-green eyes—that always drew him in.
Ally rarely said what she was really thinking. She worked even harder to conceal what she was feeling.
Hank respected the need for privacy. He rarely shared his most intimate thoughts, either. But there were times, like now, when he felt she would be a lot better off if she confided in someone. To his knowledge, she never did, but remained determined to prove herself to everyone who crossed her path.
She wanted everyone to know that she was smarter, better, tougher.
That she didn't need anyone.
And that she couldn't wait to hightail it out of her hometown of Laramie, Texas.
Which was, Hank noted ironically, where he'd finally come back to stay.
Having completed her brief, wordless tour, Ally swung around to face him. Up close, he could see the shadows beneath her eyes. The brief flicker of uncertainty and vulnerability in her expression.
She wasn't as over her grief as she wanted him to think.
He understood that, too.
The need to move on, even when moving on felt impossible.
"I'm putting the ranch up for sale on December 24," she said, leaning against the desk in the study.
Hank had figured this was coming. It was why he'd offered to take care of the place in her absence.
He'd wanted first dibs when it came time for her to let go of the four thousand acres she had inherited from her folks.
Ally folded her arms. "You've got two weeks to vacate the ranch house and move your herd off the property." Two weeks to place his bid.
"In the meantime, I'm moving in," she added.
The thought of them encountering each other at all hours of the night and day wasn't as intrusive as Hank would have figured. Maybe because she was so damn pretty…not to mention challenging.
"I plan to start emptying the house immediately," she said.
Ally had donated her parents' clothing to a local church. As far as Hank could tell, all their other belongings remained. "You're sure you want to do this?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
Figuring he'd better word this carefully, he shrugged. "Sorting through a loved one's possessions can be difficult." You never knew what you might find…. "The fact that it's Christmastime is only going to make it harder."
Ally curled her hands around the edge of the desk. "I don't plan to celebrate the holiday. I thought I'd made that clear."
Hank wondered how long it had been since someone had engulfed her in a nice, warm hug. Or made love to her slowly and thoroughly. Or shown her any affection at all, never mind made a segue way into her heart. "In other words," he guessed, mocking her droll tone, "your way of dealing with something painful is not to deal with it at all."
Her green eyes flashed with temper. "Thank you, Dr. Phil." She paused to give him a withering once-over. "Not that any of this is your business."
Hank knew that was true. Nonetheless, it was hard to stand by and watch her make a huge mistake that she was bound to regret, maybe sooner than she thought.
Having learned the hard way that some events couldn't be undone, no matter how much you wished they could, later on, he pointed out, "Mesquite Ridge Ranch has been your home since birth."
A flicker of remembrance briefly softened the beautiful lines of her face, before disappearing once again. "I haven't lived on the ranch for eleven years. My life is in Houston now." She swallowed visibly. "Not that what I do with the property is any of your concern, either."
Hank stepped closer. It was time to put his own intention on the line. "Actually," he murmured, "it is very much my business, since I made it clear when I took over the ranch last summer that I wanted to purchase the land from you, if and when you were inclined to sell." He hadn't been sure at the time that would ever be the case.
Ally gestured apathetically, all-business once again. "If you come in with the best offer, it's yours."
That wasn't possible—at least right now, Hank thought pensively. He did his best to stall. "Sixty days is the usual notice given for vacating a property."
Brushing past him, Ally hurried out the front door. He followed her lazily as she crossed the porch and headed toward her shiny red sports car. "If we had a written contract instead of an oral agreement, that would be correct. May I remind you we don't?"
Hank watched her punch the electronic keypad twice and open up the trunk.
"In case you've forgotten, in these parts, a man or a woman's word is good enough for any business deal."
Ally hefted two suitcases over the rim and set them on the ground. With a grimace, she slammed the lid shut. Her honey-blond hair swirled about her pretty face as she pivoted to face him again. "If you remember, I said you and your cattle could stay here until I put the property up for sale."
And he'd agreed, not getting into details, because he had known she hadn't been ready to make a decision of that magnitude last June. And in his estimation, she wasn't ready now. Not during the holidays, when she was still clearly grieving the loss of her family.
"The general rule of thumb is not to do anything major until at least a year has passed. Your dad died just six months ago, your mom eight months before that," he reminded her gently.
In hindsight, if Hank had known Ally intended to act this soon, he would have had his business plan all ready to go.
She sighed dramatically. "And it's Christmas again, or it will be in two weeks, and I don't want to be here for the holiday."
Hank wrested the suitcases from her hands and, ignoring her frown of disapproval, carried them to the porch for her. "Then why not wait until spring to put the property on the market?" he pressed.
She shrugged. "I have vacation days that need to be taken before the end of the year."
Something in her expression said that wasn't the whole story. Curious, Hank asked, "The company you work for wouldn't let you hold them over to the new calendar year?"
Ally's eyes became even more evasive. "The one I used to work for, before the merger, would have. The financial services firm I work for now is a lot more hard-nosed."
Clearly, she wasn't happy with her new bosses. "You could always quit," he pointed out. "Work the ranch instead."
He may as well have suggested she take a bath with a skunk.
"Not in a million years," she retorted, stomping around to the passenger side. "Besides, there's no way I'm voluntarily giving up my management position."
She removed a heavy leather briefcase on wheels and a shoulder bag from the front seat, then headed toward the steps.