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Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Brown

Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover illustration by Chris Cocozza

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Contents

Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Excerpt from Just a Cowboy and His Baby

About the Author

Back Cover

To Joanne Kennedy,

my fellow smut peddler

Chapter 1

“Dammit!”

Sage’s favorite cuss word bounced around inside her van like marbles in a tin can, sounding and resounding in her ears.

She had slowed down to a snail’s pace and was about to drop off the face of the earth into the Palo Duro Canyon when two men dragged sawhorses and a “ROAD CLOSED” sign toward the middle of the road. She stepped on the gas and slid between the sawhorses, slinging wet snow all over the highway workers.

The last things she saw in her rearview mirror were shaking fists and angry faces before the driving snow obliterated them. They could cuss all they wanted and even slap one of those fines double where workers are present on her if they wanted. She didn’t have time to fiddle-fart around in Claude waiting for eight to ten inches of snow to fall and then melt. She had urgent business at home that would not wait, and she was going home if she had to crawl through the blowing snow and wind on her hands and knees.

She’d driven all night and barely stayed ahead of the storm’s path until she was twenty miles from Claude and got the first full blast of the blinding snow making a kaleidoscope out of her headlights. If she was going to stop, she would have done so then, but she had to get home and talk her grandmother out of the biggest mistake of her life. With the snowstorm and the closed roads into and out of the canyon, Grand wouldn’t be making her afternoon flight for sure. Maybe that would give Sage time to talk her out of selling the ranch to a complete stranger.

“Dammit!” she swore again and didn’t even feel guilty about it. “And right here at Christmas when it’s supposed to be about family and friends and parties and love. She can’t leave me now. I should have listened to her.”

What was Grand thinking anyway? The Rockin’ C had been in the Presley family since the days of the Alamo. It was one of the first ranches ever staked out in the canyon, and her grandfather would roll over in his grave if he thought Grand was selling it to an outsider. Had the old girl completely lost her mind?

“Merry freakin’ Christmas!” she moaned as she gripped the steering wheel tightly on the downhill grade. The van went into a long greasy slide and she took her foot off the gas pedal and gently tapped the brakes to hold it back. She didn’t have to stay in her lane. The roads were closed and no one in their right mind would be driving in such a frightful mess with zero visibility.

Sage could find her way to the Rockin’ C with her eyes closed, and she might have to prove it because she couldn’t see a damn thing except white. From the inside of her house, it might have been beautiful, but from the inside of her van, it was eerie.

Sage laid her cell phone on the console, pressed the button for speakerphone, and hit the speed dial for the landline at the ranch. Nothing happened, which meant the snow had already knocked out the power for both the landline and the cell towers. Grand kept an old rotary phone that worked when the electricity was out, but if the phone power was gone, nothing worked.

Neither surprised her. The next to go would be the electricity. She just hoped that Grand had listened to the weather report and hooked up the generator to the well pump so there would be water in the house.

She was crawling along at less than five miles an hour when she turned into the lane leading to the house at the Rockin’ C, and the van still slid sideways for a few minutes before it straightened up. She slowed down even further and crept down the dirt lane, the engine growling at the abuse.

“Don’t stop now,” she said.

The quarter mile had never seemed so long, but if the van stopped she could walk the rest of the way. She’d even ruin her brand new cowboy boots if she had to. A warm house and her own bed were right up ahead and she was meaner than the storm anyway.

She kept telling herself that until she came to a greasy stop in front of the porch. She unbuckled her seat belt and clasped her hands tightly together to make them stop shaking, but nothing seemed to help. The adrenaline rush had brought her almost twenty miles into the canyon and now it was fading, leaving jitters behind.

Sage Presley was not a petite little woman with a weak voice and a sissy giggle, so she shouldn’t be sitting there shaking like a ninny in a van fast losing its heat. She was five feet ten inches tall, dark haired and brown eyed, and there wasn’t one small thing about her. But Sage didn’t feel like a force right then. She felt like a scared little girl.

The small two-bedroom square frame house was barely visible even though it was less than ten feet away when she stepped out. Her feet slipped and she had to grab the van door to keep from falling square on her butt. She found her balance and took short deliberate steps to the porch where she grabbed the railing and hung on as she climbed the three steps one by one.

If the storm really did stall out over the Palo Duro Canyon for three days, it was going to be one helluva job just digging out. It was a good thing she’d blown by those highway workers because Grand was going to need her help. She pulled her key ring from her purse and finally found the right key and got it into the lock. How on earth could anything as white as snow make it so dark that she couldn’t even fit a key into a door lock?

Stepping inside was similar to going from an air-conditioned office into a sauna. She dropped her purse and keys on the credenza right inside the door and flipped the light switch.

Nothing happened. The electricity had already gone out.

The only light in the house came from the glowing embers of scrub oak and mesquite logs in the fireplace. She held her hands out to warm them, and the rest of the rush from the drive down the slick, winding roads bottomed out, leaving her tired and sleepy.

She rubbed her eyes and vowed she would not cry. Didn’t Grand remember that the day she came home from the gallery showings was special? Sage had never cut down a Christmas tree all by herself. She and Grand always went out into the canyon and hauled a nice big cedar back to the house the day after the showing. Then they carried boxes of ornaments and lights from the bunkhouse and decorated the tree, popped the tops on a couple of beers, and sat in the rocking chairs and watched the lights flicker on and off.

She went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, but it was pitch-black inside. She fumbled around and there wasn’t even a beer in there. She finally located a gallon jar of milk and carried it to the cabinet, poured a glass full, and downed it without coming up for air.

It took some fancy maneuvering to get the jar back inside the refrigerator, but she managed and flipped the light switch as she was leaving.

“Dammit! Bloody dammit!” she said a second time using the British accent from the man who’d paid top dollar for one of her paintings.

One good thing about the blizzard was if that crazy cowboy who thought he was buying the Rockin’ C could see this weather, he’d change his mind in a hurry. As soon as she and Grand got done talking, she’d personally send him an email telling him that the deal had fallen through. But he’d have to wait until they got electricity back to even get that much.

Sage had lived in the house all of her twenty-six years and very little had changed, so she didn’t have any problems going from the kitchen, across the living room floor, and to her bedroom without tripping over anything. There had been a couple of new sofas, but they’d always been put right where the old one had been, under the bar and facing the entertainment unit located to the right of the fireplace. The kitchen table was the same one that had been there when Sage and her mother came to live in the canyon. Grand wasn’t one much for buying anything new when what was already there was still usable. She made her way down the hall to the bathroom and out of habit tried the light again. It didn’t work either.

“That was stupid,” she whispered.

The propane heater put out enough heat to keep the bathroom and the bedrooms from freezing, but it meant leaving the doors open a crack. Grand’s door was ajar and she wanted to see her so badly that she was on her way to peek when she stopped. If Grand woke up there wouldn’t be any deciding about when the fight would take place.

Grand was not a morning person even though she crawled out of bed at six every single day, Sunday included. Sage had learned early on not to approach her until she was working on her second cup of coffee, so there was no way in hell she was going to start the argument right then.

She turned around and went straight to her bedroom, kicked off her boots, and hung her wet shirt and jeans over a recliner in the corner of the room. She pulled an extra quilt from the chest at the end of her bed and tossed it over the top of the down comforter before she slipped into bed wearing nothing but her panties and bra.

She was asleep before her body had time to warm up the sheets.

***

The wind was still howling like a son-of-a-bitch when Creed awoke at daylight. Why in the hell had he decided to buy a ranch in the middle of the winter? Sure, he’d liked the land when he looked at it a week ago and he’d seen potential for raising Longhorns and growing hay come spring. No sir, it didn’t look bad at all at fifty degrees and with the sun shining on the winter wheat.

And God only knew the price was right. Right, nothing! It was a downright steal and he’d felt an inner peace that he hadn’t known in a long, long time when the owner had showed him around and made the deal with him. But he hadn’t planned on the canyon filling up with snow on his first night in the house.

The weatherman said that the blizzard was going to stall out right above the canyon and wouldn’t move on toward the east for at least three more days. That was the last thing he’d seen on the television the night before because the electricity had flickered and then gone out for good.

The phone service had gone out before the electricity. His cell phone’s battery would soon be dead and the battery in his laptop would have bit the dust during the night. So there he was all alone in a blinding blizzard with a hundred head of cattle corralled in a feedlot behind the barn.

He wasn’t very well acquainted with the house, so he moved slowly when he slung his legs out of the bed and made his way across the bedroom floor. He shivered and opened the door wider to let in more heat. At least he had the little two-bedroom house all to himself until the blizzard came and went and things thawed out.

He put on three pairs of socks, long underwear, jeans, and a thermal knit shirt. He topped that with a thick flannel shirt and peeked out the window. There was nothing but a chill from cold glass and thick falling snow beyond that. But rain, snow, sandstorms, or heat, cattle had to be fed and taken care of, and the lady had said that if he wanted to buy her ranch, he’d have to take good care of it for the next three weeks. She’d be home the day before Christmas to see if he qualified as a buyer. If she liked what he’d done, she’d sell. If she didn’t, he’d only wasted three weeks.

Her words, not his!

It was December so he didn’t expect eighty-degree weather, but he sure hadn’t figured on eight inches of snow coming down in blizzard-strength wind either, and that’s what the weatherman predicted. Two inches of snow or sleet crippled folks in Texas as much as two feet so they’d be a while digging out from under eight inches for sure. At least he wouldn’t have to contend with the granddaughter. No way could she get into the canyon in a storm like this. She could just hole up in her fancy hotel in Denver where the gallery was showing her paintings. La-tee-da, as Granny Riley used to say about all things rich and famous.

The stipulation for the sale was that Sage Presley could live on the ranch as long as she wanted. Well, Creed could live with the painter in her own house on the back forty of the Rockin’ C to get the ranch for the price Ada Presley quoted. She could play with her finger paints and take them up to Denver and Cheyenne every year. Their paths might cross once in a while and he’d tip his hat to her respectfully. He’d never heard of her, but that didn’t mean much. In Creed’s world a velvet Elvis was art and pictures torn out of coloring books held up with magnets graced the front of his mother’s refrigerator.

Creed didn’t care what Sage did for a living or what she looked like as long as she stayed out of his way. Miz Ada had said that he’d best be prepared for a shit storm as well as the big blizzard because Sage did not want her to sell the ranch. At least the storm had kept her away from the canyon, and by the time she could get to the ranch she would be cooled down.

He made it to the bathroom, illuminated only by the fire in the open-face wall heater, and then down the hall way and halfway across the living room before he stumped his toe on the rung of a rocking chair.

“Shit!” he muttered.

His coveralls, face mask, and hat were hanging on a rack beside the back door, and his boots waited on a rug right underneath them. He zipped the mustard-colored canvas coveralls all the way to his neck, pulled the face mask over his head, and pushed the bottom behind the collar of the coveralls. Then he stomped his feet down into his work boots and crammed an old felt hat down on his head. It was a tight fit with the knitted mask, but a cowboy didn’t even do chores without his hat.

He leaned into the whirling wind on the way to the barn located only a football field’s length from the house. He’d run that far lots of times when he was quarterback of the Gold-Burg football team and never even thought about it. But battling against the driving snow sucked the air out of his lungs and by the time he reached the barn he was panting worse than if he’d run a fifty-yard touchdown. The barn door slid on metal rails and they were frozen. At first he thought muscles, force, and cussing wasn’t going to do the trick, but finally he was able to open it up enough to wedge his body through.

The air inside wasn’t any warmer, but at least it didn’t sound like a freight train barreling down the sides of the canyon. He shook off a flurry of white powder, grabbed his gloves from the bale of hay where he’d left them the night before, and pulled them on.

“Won’t make that stupid mistake again,” he said.

He hiked a hip onto the seat of the smaller of two tractors and planted a long spike implement into a round bale of hay and drove it up close to the double doors at the back of the barn. He got off the seat, opened the doors, and ran back to get the hay out before the cows came inside. They had crowded up under the lean-to roof and eaten the last of the bale he’d put out the morning before. It took a lot of hay to keep them from losing weight in the winter. He just hoped he’d hauled enough big round bales from the pasture into the barn to make it through the storm.

The feeding job that should have been done in half an hour took twice that long. The two breeder sows holed up in the hog house were so cold that they barely grunted when he poured a bucket of food in their trough. One rooster was brave enough to come out of the henhouse and crow his disapproval before he hurried back inside. When Creed finished feeding, it was time to milk the cow. Glad to be back inside the dry barn, he filled a bucket with grain and gave it to the cow. While she got started on her breakfast, he fetched a three-legged milking stool and a clean bucket from the tack room. His hands were freezing, but he couldn’t milk with gloves.

“Sorry about the cold hands, old girl,” he apologized to the cow before he started.

When he’d finished that job he headed toward the house. Steam rose up from the top of the warm milk, but it didn’t do much to melt the snow coming down even harder than it had been.

“And it’s not letting up for three days!” he mumbled.

When he opened the back door into the kitchen, a scraggly mutt raced in ahead of him. Ada hadn’t mentioned a dog and he hadn’t seen the animal before, but there he was, ugly as sin, shaking snow all over the kitchen floor.

***

Sage was an early riser so sleeping until eight o’clock had given her a stinging headache. She grabbed her forehead and snuggled back into the covers, but the pain didn’t go away. She needed a handful of aspirin and a cup of strong black coffee. She seldom won a fight with Grand when they were playing on an even field. A blasted headache would give her grandmother a real advantage. She jerked on a Christmas sweatshirt printed with Tweety Bird all tangled up in a strand of lights on the front and pulled on a pair of gray sweat bottoms. She finished off the outfit with fluffy red socks from her dresser drawer.

Grand hadn’t even stopped long enough to get a fire going. That could wait. Coffee came before warmth. Sage passed the fireplace and went straight to the kitchen. She filled the electric coffee maker, added a filter and two scoops of coffee, and flipped the switch.

“Well, shit!” she exclaimed.

Old habits sure died hard. If the lights wouldn’t work, neither would the electric coffeepot. And that left out the washing machine, the clothes dryer, and the electric churn to make butter, too.

The fact that the electricity was out wasn’t anything new in Palo Duro Canyon. If the wind blew too hard, and it did real often in the winter, the electricity went out. Grand said that if someone sneezed too loud up in Silverton or in Claude it went out, so no electricity in a blizzard was no big surprise. That’s why they heated the house as much as possible with the fireplace and cooked with propane.

Sage opened a cabinet door and removed the old Pyrex percolator, filled it with water, put a filter in the basket, added coffee, and set it on the back burner of the stove. She wasn’t as good as Grand about knowing just how long it needed to perk, but it would be coffee in a few minutes even if it might taste like mud from the cow lot.

She found the aspirin bottle to the left of the sink and swallowed four with half a glass of orange juice. While the coffee perked, she chose several good-sized logs from beside the fireplace and got a big fire going.

“Bless Grand’s heart for bringing in wood to dry,” she said.

She sat down in one of the two rocking chairs pulled up to the fireplace and warmed her hands by the heat. And a sudden pang of guilt twisted its way around her heart. Grand was out doing chores in this godforsaken weather and she was lollygagging around getting warm. She dug her cell phone out of her coat pocket and punched in the speed dial for her grandmother to see what she could do to help and a message popped up immediately saying there was no service available.

Of course there was no service. Damn storm!

At least Grand would come inside to a good fire to warm her cold feet by and a pot of coffee all perked and ready. Poor old girl would be miserable cold and she hadn’t even had one cup of coffee yet. It was going to be a long morning for sure.

At seventy she had no business out in weather like this without any help. If Sage knew exactly where she was in the process, she would suit up and go help. But those pesky hogs wouldn’t tell her they’d already been fed and neither would the chickens, and starting an argument with Grand already pissed because Sage had wasted chicken scratch or hog feed wasn’t the smartest thing.

The living room soon warmed and the smell of coffee filled the house. Maybe she should whip up some pancakes for breakfast. Grand loved them and that would sweeten her up to see Sage’s point of view. She had just set the mixing bowl on the cabinet when the back door swung open.

“It’s about time you came in from the cold,” she said as she turned.

Her hand flew up to her pounding heart and she backed up against the cabinet.

The abominable snowman pushed his way into the house behind something that was either the ugliest dog on the face of the earth or an alien from a faraway planet. The huge thing set a galvanized bucket of milk on the table and a basket of eggs right beside it before he stomped his feet on the rug under the coatrack. The dog stopped in the middle of the kitchen floor and shook from shoulder to tail, sending even more snow flying everywhere in her kitchen. When it melted there would be water everywhere and her socks would be soaked.

“Who the hell are you? Get out of here and take that miserable mutt with you,” Sage said.

Creed removed his old felt cowboy hat and pulled off the face mask. His nose was scarlet and his dark eyelashes dusted with snowflakes. And of all the crazy things, there was a spring of mistletoe stuck in the snow on his shoulder as if it had grown there.

“I’m Creed Riley, ma’am, and I reckon if you want to throw your dog out in the snow that’s your business, but I’m not that mean or cruel to animals. And I’m here to stay since I’m the cowboy who bought this ranch. I guess you’d be Sage Presley. I didn’t think you’d make it home in this blizzard. I heard the roads were closed off.”

He was well over six feet tall because Sage had to look up to him. His brown hair was a bit too long, and his mossy green eyes were rimmed with black lashes topped with heavy dark brows. His deep voice held a definite Texas drawl.

She backed up to the cabinet and braced herself against it. “Where is Grand? Is she behind you?”

“No, left a day early since the storm was coming in. I expect she’s in Pennsylvania by now where it’s fifty degrees and sunshiny today. Crazy, ain’t it? We get a blizzard and the East Coast is downright pleasant. At least it was yesterday when she called to tell me that she’d made it fine and to tell you so when you got home. Guess her cell phone’s battery was dead and her sister didn’t have one so she called on a pay phone from the airport.”

Sage rolled her eyes. “You have got to be kiddin’ me!”

“No, ma’am! That’s the truth and that’s really not my dog. I’m bringing my two huntin’ dogs out here soon as we make this sale legal, but this old boy just appeared out of nowhere this morning and rushed right in with me. I figured he belonged on the property. He wasn’t none too pretty when he was covered in snow, but it was covering a multitude of ugly, wasn’t it?”

Sage crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him.

He ignored her and started peeling away layers of clothing, taking the time to hang them on a coatrack just inside the back door. He didn’t stop until he was down to jeans, socks, and a red and black flannel shirt.

What have you done, Grand? she thought.

The blizzard would end. The sun would come out and melt the snow. Electricity would be restored along with power lines and cell phone coverage. And Sage could have talked her out of the sale a hell of a lot easier face to face than over the telephone—if they ever got service back in the canyon.

This was Sage’s home and it wasn’t supposed to be sold to some rank stranger, even if his green eyes were sexy as hell with snow hanging on the lashes like that fake stuff out of a can that she and Grand sprayed on the windows when she was a little girl.

“Coffee smells good. Reckon it’s about ready?” he asked. “Thank goodness for a full propane tank. Miz Ada told me that she has a standing order with the propane company out of Claude. And you can wipe that mean look off your face, lady. We’re stuck here together until this ends. I’m not real happy about being holed up with you either, but it’s the way it is and we might as well make the best of it.”

Her eyes narrowed and her brow wrinkled.

You want your face to freeze with that nasty look on it? Her grandmother’s words came back to haunt her.

“Number one, Mr. Riley, you don’t tell me how to look or what to do. Number two, Mr. Riley, Grand won’t ever sell you this place, so don’t get too comfortable.”

“Rule number one, lady, I speak my mind, so get used to it. Rule number two, I’m settling in and getting comfortable because I think she will sell the ranch to me. The deed will say that you get to live on the ranch as long as you want when the sale is sealed, signed, and finished. And back to rule number one, darlin’, if you want your face to freeze like that, then just hold on to that nasty look,” Creed said.

Her face softened, but she wasn’t ready to smile and welcome the damn cowboy. Not yet, probably not ever.

“She wasn’t supposed to leave until today.”

Maybe the blizzard was a blessing. He’d see right quick that life in the canyon was too hard and he’d be ready to get the hell out of the place as soon as he could. Sage didn’t mind doing chores. She hated milking a cow, but she could do that too if the cowboy would ride on out of the canyon as soon as the roads were cleared. Hell, she’d call a helicopter and pay the bill out of her own money if he wanted to get out of the canyon before the snowplow arrived.

“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.

“Whatever you can scrounge up. I didn’t take you to raise,” she said shortly.

He smiled down at her. “Miz Ada said you’d be a handful and you’d come in here mad as a wet hen after a tornado. She was dead on, but darlin’, I am buyin’ this place. You are welcome to live on it. We can be friends, barely acquaintances, or enemies. Your choice and you don’t even have to make it today. But it’s going to be a long three weeks until she comes back and in this storm we’ve got no one but each other, so it can be pleasant or pretty damn miserable. Remember as you drink your coffee that this house ain’t very big and we are stuck in it together.”

The arrogance of the man!

He went on. “She left because of the storm and because her sister needs her, not because she was a bit afraid of you. That woman gave me the impression that she could face down the devil and own half of hell before the fight was over. You wouldn’t pose much problem.”

“You got her right, but you got me all wrong. I’m every bit as mean as she is. She raised me,” Sage said.

Creed wiped the snow from his cheeks as it melted from his lashes. “I like my eggs scrambled.”

“I like mine easy over.”

Creed raised an eyebrow. “Who’s cookin’?”

“Not me,” she told him. She wasn’t about to start cooking for him or feeding that dog he’d brought in either.

The ugly mutt looked from one of them to the other. Finally, he ambled toward the fireplace, where he curled up in a ball, covered his nose with his paw, and shut his eyes.

Creed brushed past Sage and poured two cups of coffee. He set hers on the table beside the bucket of milk and leaned against the kitchen side of the bar separating the two rooms.

“You going to strain that and put it in the refrigerator or am I?”

“I’ll do it. You probably wouldn’t do it right anyway.”

It wasn’t his ranch or his cows or his milk. She’d wear Grand down with the sheer volume of her arguments even if she had to whine and pout. Like she had said, he probably wouldn’t do the job right anyway.

She went to the huge walk-in pantry, then picked up a gallon jar and a piece of clean cheesecloth. She put the cloth on top of the jar, made an indention in the top with her fist, and deftly wrapped a rubber band around the edge of the jar. Then she carefully poured the milk through the cloth and into the jar.

When the job was finished she removed the cloth, tossed it into the empty milk bucket, and set the bucket in the kitchen sink. She squirted dish soap into the bucket and ran warm water in it, washed out the cheesecloth, hung it on the dish drainer, and turned the bucket upside down in the drainer.

“You don’t waste time or motions. That’s good,” he said.

Sage picked up her coffee and carried it to the living room where she curled up in the rocking chair. Creed followed her and she did her dead level best to ignore him. He had no right to be sitting in Grand’s rocking chair with his long legs pushed toward the fire that she’d built.

***

Sage was prettier than the picture of her sitting on the mantel and a lot bigger than he’d imagined she would be. She was almost six feet tall and there wasn’t one thing delicate or dainty about her. She looked like she could take down a full grown bull with one hand tied behind her back. And yet, with black hair floating on her shoulders, eyes the color of milk chocolate, and those full lips, she was sexy as hell. Tall women had never appealed to him but he had to admit, she was a looker, alright.

Hearing that her grandmother had up and sold the ranch had to be the shock of a lifetime. He couldn’t imagine what it would feel like if his parents sold the ranch he’d lived on his whole life.

Of all the scenarios he’d imagined, this certainly wasn’t the way he intended to meet Sage Presley. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, he stole a sideways glance toward her. She looked at the dog as if she could wish him out of the house. It wouldn’t work. If she’d wanted him out of the house, she’d have to grab him by his wiry fur and throw him out and then she’d better shut the door real fast or else he’d beat her back inside.

So much for visions of having a friendship with the woman; hell, he’d be lucky if she didn’t try to murder him in his sleep. He’d have to start locking the bedroom door at night, maybe even putting a chair in front of it for extra protection.

He wiggled his toes and said, “Ah, that does feel good.”

“When did all this happen?” she asked.

“What? The storm?”

“Hell, no! When did you come here and why did she sell the Rockin’ C to you? The first I heard about this was yesterday morning, and I had no idea you were already here. At first I thought she was teasing, but then she made me understand that she was serious so tell me what you did to make her sell to you,” she asked coldly.

He stared right into her eyes. “Are you asking or demanding?”

“I’m not asking or demanding. I’m wondering how this all happened so fast.” She stared back and it became a battle of wills as to who would blink first.

The dog growled and they both looked down at the same time. Poor old boy was probably fighting off a coyote in his sleep because his eyes were still shut.

“Okay,” Creed said. “I can tell you when and what happened. I don’t know why she sold to me and not to someone else. You was gone off to your artist thing when I called and asked if I could come to the ranch and talk to her. She showed me around. I liked what I saw and she gave me a price. We shook and I put up the escrow, but she says she won’t sign the papers or cash the check until three weeks are up so we both have time to think about it.”

The dog whimpered again and he glanced at him before going on, “I went back to Ringgold and got my things. When I arrived yesterday morning, she told me about the storm, showed me where everything was again, including the generator, and one of the neighbors came to take her to the airport in Amarillo. Said she was going to Shade Gap, Pennsylvania, and she’d be back in three weeks, just before Christmas.”

Sage sighed. “Aunt Essie is sixteen years older than Grand and she’s been trying to get Grand to come out there for years. She has a little place in one of those godforsaken valleys.”

Creed stopped the motion of the rocking chair and stared at her wide-eyed. “And what do you call this big hole in the ground? Paradise?”

“I call it home,” she smarted off. “I suppose we’d best set up some ground rules. First of all, exactly where are you sleeping?”

“This place only has two bedrooms and one is yours. You do the math.”

Her eyes popped open even wider. “In Grand’s room!”

He nodded. “She took all her personal things with her. Cleaned out the closet and the drawers. When she comes back she said she’ll have a mover take her furniture to her new home in Pennsylvania and I’ll make a trip over to Ringgold to get the rest of my stuff.”

Sage’s face lost all its color and her jaw set firmly. Her eyes went to the shotgun hanging above the mantel and back to him.

Lord, was he going to die on his second day on the ranch?

“It’s just a bedroom, for God’s sake!” he said.

“It’s her room.”

“I don’t have cooties. And it’s only for three weeks. And I like Miz Ada right well, but darlin’, she ain’t God. That place ain’t holy.”

She shrugged. He could see the gears working in her mind, trying to figure out ways to get rid of him. She could try her damnedest, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

He smiled. “Glad we got that straight. Are you making breakfast?”

“Hell, no!”

“Well, I am and I’m willing to make enough for two people and one scraggly old mutt. Pancakes all right? There’s sausage in the fridge and I make a mean pancake.”

She nodded. “That dog really doesn’t belong to you? Tell me the truth.”

“One thing a Riley does whether it’s painful or not is tell the truth. We’re honest, hardworking, and we state what’s on our mind. The answer is no ma’am. That dog does not belong to me. I’d never seen him before he ran around my legs and shot into the house, but I guess he’s adopted us.”

***

Us!

There wasn’t going to be an us no matter what her grandmother said or did. She didn’t care if Creed had a halo under that thick brown hair and wings tucked up under his flannel shirt; he was not going to take over the Rockin’ C.

The dog whimpered and sat up when he smelled the pancakes cooking in the big cast iron skillet. He stood up, yawned, and rested his head on Sage’s knee. She wasn’t going to pet the critter, and he was going outside right after breakfast. There was no way that ugly thing was staying in the house, and she was not changing her mind—right up until he looked at her with big brown eyes, whined, and wagged his tail.

She scratched his ears and decided maybe he could stay in the house until the storm passed and the sun came out. Grand had probably arranged for him to appear in the blizzard knowing that Sage couldn’t throw him out to freeze. She’d been trying for years to bring a pet into her granddaughter’s life. But Sage didn’t want anything or anyone that would abandon her again.

She didn’t even remember her father, who had been killed in some kind of black ops mission when she was two years old, but there had always been a gaping hole in her heart that wanted a dad. Her mother had moved home to the canyon so that Grand could help with the toddler and then she’d missed a curve coming home from work one night when Sage was four. The hole got bigger. And now Grand had forsaken her too. She damn sure didn’t need a dog or a cat or even a hamster to remind her of just how big that black hole in her soul could get.

Creed piled three pancakes up on a plate and put them on the kitchen table. “Ladies first. I’ll fix a couple for the new pet and then make mine.”

Sage pushed herself up from the rocking chair and stretched, bending from side to side and ending with a roll of the neck that produced a loud cracking noise. “Thank you, but that miserable excuse for a dog is not my pet.”

“Did that hurt?”

“What? Popping my neck?”

Creed grinned and his eyes twinkled. “No, ma’am. That probably felt good. I was talking about it hurting to say thank you.”

The worst blizzard the canyon had seen in her lifetime looked like it would go on for three days past eternity. She was stuck in a house with no electricity and a cowboy she didn’t know and didn’t even want to like. And he was sexy as the devil when he grinned.

“Yes, it did. I speak my mind too, Creed,” she said.

Grand had been talking about selling the ranch for years, but it had all been a ploy to make her find a husband and settle down, raise a canyon full of kids, and be happy. The old girl could never get it through her thick Indian skull that Sage didn’t need a man to provide happiness. Her paint palette and easel did that job just fine.

Her cell phone rang as she smeared butter on her pancake. She recognized the ringtone as the one she’d assigned to her grandmother and jumped up so fast that her chair flipped over backwards. She didn’t even take the time to set it upright but dived for her purse, which was still on the credenza.

They called it a credenza but it was really the bottom half of an old washstand that had belonged to Grand’s grandmother. The bow that held the towel had long since broken off and probably burned in the fireplace, but the rest of the burled oak washstand was still as sturdy as the day it was made. She fished the phone from her purse and hiked a hip on the edge of the credenza as she answered it.

“Hello, Grand,” she said breathlessly.

“Well, you did make it home,” her grandmother said through a buzz of steady static. “Looks like the blizzard is messing with the lines. Just wanted to be sure you were safe.”

“Grand, what have you done?”

Grand giggled. “I told you I’d sell when I felt like the time and the buyer were right. Well, Creed Riley walked up on the porch and I knew it was time. I could feel it in my bones and it was even an omen that his name starts with a C. He agreed to keep the Rockin’ C brand, so that was another good sign. I gave him a good deal and he took it. Live with it or move out here with me.”

Sage shouted into the phone, “To Pennsylvania in the mountains! No thank you!”

“I love it. Wasn’t sure I would, but it’s beautiful. And me and Essie are doing just fine in this big old barn of a house she’s got. I’m going to take care of the two old milk cows and we’ve got this little fruit stand out in front of the house where we’ll sell stuff in the summertime. And the neighbors stop in every day to buy what milk we want to sell.”

“All that will wear off before long,” Sage told her.

“I don’t think so. I knew when I looked into Creed’s eyes that he was the one. My sense never fails me. And Essie needs me. She’s getting feeble, Sage. You are cutting in and out so bad that I’m hanging up now…”

The phone went dead in her hands before she could say good-bye.

Sage redialed but got the no service message again. She picked up the landline and got nothing. It was going to be a long day.