Authors: Barbara White Daille
“Of course not.” Ford stared up at the Wyoming stars, the familiar constellations in their early-summer formations, twinkling like far-off candles against the black velvet sky. “I'll keep it in mind, if I decide to shift gears.” He let a silence fill with the sounds of nearby crickets and the whisper of the wind. “Everything going all right on the Circle M?”
The boss didn't answer right away. “With ranching, there's always something going wrong,” he said at last. “Cattle prices are down, the grass-fed market demand is slow. Winter lasted longer than usual, so we're late moving herds into the higher pastures. The Forest Service has limited the parcels we can use, which means fattening up these early steers is gonna be harder.” He blew a rueful snort. “Same stuff, different day.”
“Well, my investments are sound, the dividends are high and we've got a solid buffer in place. If you have cash flow problems, just let me know.”
“Sure.” Wyatt's hand came to rest on his shoulder. “Mostly, we're just glad to have you here, Ford. Thanks for making the effort.”
“The Marshalls stick together,” Ford told him, meeting his brother's dark gaze with his own. “I wouldn't be anywhere else.”
* * *
in the church choir, Caroline Donnelly noticed the new arrival as soon as he entered the building on Sunday morning. He was tall and broad-shouldered like all the Marshall brothers, but Ford was the one blond in the bunch, his hair still the bright, sleek gold color he'd inherited from his dad.
Mr. Marshall had been her father's business manager as far back as Caroline could remember. She'd known him as the smiling man who kept a bowl of hard candy on his desk and always let her have a piece when she came by.
“Sweets for the sweet,” he would say and wink at her.
The Marshall boys had never come with their dad to the Donnelly ranchâher dad had strict rules about who she could play withâbut she'd gone to school with the oldest three. Because he was five years behind her, she hadn't seen much of Dylan, but there was always talk in town about the latest stunt the youngest Marshall had pulled.
Ford, however, hadn't been one for pulling stunts. Even before they lost their parents, he'd been the serious Marshall, the driven, studious one. He seemed the same now, with his expensive haircut and his designer jacket worn over a pair of jeans.
Actually, he looked even better nowâlike every woman's fantasy of a cleaned-up cowboy with lots of money. It was all pretty much make-believe, but oh, so nice to dream about. His successful law career was a claim to fame as far as the citizens of Bisons Creek were concerned.
“Psst. Caroline!” Beth Forbes, the woman next to her, tugged on her sleeve. “Time to start!”
Caroline stood up belatedly and opened her choir book. Thank goodness she knew the opening song by heart, since she was on the wrong page. Those Marshall boys had always distracted her from what she was supposed to be doing. Especially Ford.
She tried to concentrate during the service, but she found her gaze straying to his face too often for her own comfort. They'd been in the same grade and some of the same coursesâEnglish, history, math. He hadn't grabbed attention by clowning around or disrupting class, the way other boys did. But none of the troublemakers bothered him or tried to goad him into acting out. Something about Ford kept everybody at a distance.
Listening with half an ear to Garrett's sermon, Caroline recalled the day Ford had returned to school after his dad died. Mr. Marshall hadn't worked at the Donnelly ranch for a couple of years by then, but she'd wanted to say something since he'd been a big part of her life. So she'd stopped at Ford's locker just before lunch.
“I'm sorry about your dad,” she'd said, meaning every word. “He was kind to me when I was little.”
Ford had slammed his locker shut, making her jump. He'd turned in her direction, but his dark blue eyes looked right through her. After a moment, he nodded and then walked away.
She'd been too spooked to speak to him again.
Not today, though. Today she would talk to him and make sure he listened, because what she had to say was important. Not just to herâthough the work she was trying to do had cost her dearlyâbut to the whole community of Bisons Creek.
Butterflies flitted around in her stomach as she thought about talking with Ford. She'd been nervous enough when she'd expected to have to consult with Wyatt, but Garrett had told her that Ford was running the ranch this summer and that he was the one she'd have to convince. At least she'd have Garrett to back her up. Ford couldn't walk away from the two of them.
As usual, Dylan fell asleep during his brother's sermon, but today Ford elbowed him awake for the final hymn. In the choir room afterward, Caroline shelved her folder and spent a minute at the mirror to add a swipe of lipstick to her mouth and make sure her hair was okay. She put a hand on her stomach and drew a deep breathâthe butterflies had taken up kickboxing.
Finally she went to the social hall, where refreshments were provided, giving members a chance to greet each other and chat over cookies and lemonade or coffee. Garrett had promised that he would make sure Ford stayed.
And there he was, surrounded by folks who hadn't seen him since the last time he was home at Christmas, all of them asking about his glamorous San Francisco law practice and how Wyatt was doing. Dylan hosted his own fan club, composed of the single women from eighteen to thirty who wanted to be flirted with. The youngest Marshall was only too happy to oblige.
Caroline wolfed down three sugar cookies and a glass of lemonade before the crowd thinned enough that she stood a chance of getting through. As soon as she stepped into the circle, Ford glanced her way. His eyes narrowed slightly before refocusing on the face of the person talking to him. He smiled at the womanâsuch a nice smile, but one he used so rarely. And never with her.
If it were up to me
, Caroline thought,
I'd make him laugh at least three times a day.
Maybe, if the project she wanted his help on got going, she might get the chance!
Finally, with most of the congregation out of the way, she moved close enough to say, “Hello, Ford.” She breathed deep and held out her hand. “Welcome home.”
For a secondâjust an instantâhe hesitated. Then his hand took hers, and his eyes brightened. “Hello there, Caroline. Good to see you. It's been a long time.”
The warmth of his skin against hers was nearly as distracting as the smile. “Fifteen years, believe it or not, since graduation. I hear you've done magnificent things in San Francisco.”
“I do my job. What have you been up to?”
Garrett stepped up beside his brother. “Caroline runs the Department of Family Services in Bisons Creek. She's working with the area's disadvantaged families.”
“Really?” Ford lifted a disbelieving eyebrow.
Caroline nodded. “Really,” she said, and at that moment realized they were still holding hands. She slid hers quickly out of his grasp. “I majored in psychology, got my master's degree in social work and was with the department in Casper for four years before moving back here. There are people in trouble in this area, just like anywhere else, especially the teenagers. High school is a lot more dangerous now than when we were there.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, which only made his shoulders broader. “So I understand. Garrett said you have a project you want to talk to me about.”
“I do.” She glanced around and noticed the volunteers were cleaning up the refreshment table. “Now might not be the best time, though. Could you meet me in town for lunch tomorrow?”
He glanced at Garrett. “I'm here to take on some of the work Wyatt can't get to. I expect I'll be in the saddle all day tomorrow. What about right now? Kate's CafÃ© is still open on Sundays, right?”
“I've got some sick parishioners to visit,” Garrett said. “I can't take a break for lunch today.”
Caroline hesitated. She'd expected to have Garrett's support when she explained her plan. Would she be as persuasive by herself?
Ford read her indecision. “If you're busy, maybe later in the week...?”
“No, not at all.” She would do this and do it well, for the kids. “Right now is perfect. Shall we meet there in about ten minutes?”
Dylan sauntered up. “Hey, Miss Caroline. You are looking especially fine today.”
She gave him the big smile he deserved. “Thank you so much, sleepyhead.”
He flushed and pushed his dark hair back off his face. “Stayed up till dawn working on a piece. Then somebody stomps in at seven and drags me out of bed to feed horses.” His gaze went to Ford. “So I'm a little short on shut-eye.” He yawned for emphasis. “Going home to bed.”
Ford propped his hands on his hips. “That leaves me without a ride.”
Caroline swallowed hard. “No problem. We can go to the cafÃ© in my truck. I'll run you home after.”
His gaze, meeting hers, was hard to read. “Great. I'm interested to hear what you have to say.” He stepped forward and pressed the tips of his fingers against her shoulder blade. “Shall we?”
They got a few interested stares from lingering church members as she led the way to her truck. Caroline wanted to yell, “Just business!” at them but restrained herself. She wondered if Ford would prefer that she had.
She unlocked the truck from a distance with the electronic key and was surprised when he followed her to the driver's side to open the door.
“Th-thanks,” she said, after climbing in with as much grace as she could manage in a dress.
“You're welcome.” He shut the door, came around the back and swung into the passenger seat with a cowboy's smooth control.
“You're still at home in a truck, I see.” She let her gaze brush over him as she turned her head to reverse out of the parking space. “Do you drive one in San Francisco?”
“I've got a Mercedes for town. The clients prefer it.”
“Do they know your ranch background at the law office?”
“My partners are aware. I have some pictures in my office, but most people don't notice. They're concerned with their own issues, not mine.”
“Not like Bisons Creek, where everybody wants to hear your business?”
“Not remotely like Bisons Creek, which has its good and bad points.”
The drive to Kate's CafÃ© took all of three minutes. Caroline parked in a spot the next block upâone of the five blocks that made up Main Streetâbecause the lot around the restaurant was full. They didn't talk as they walked to the cafÃ©, but the never-ending Wyoming wind blew her hair in all directions.
Caroline sighed. She would be giving an important presentation to the most intelligent, educated and sophisticated man she knew in front of at least half of the town's citizens, and she'd look as if she'd walked through a tornado. Great.
Ford held the door open for her again when they reached the cafÃ©. The bell on the handle rang as he came through behind her, and every face in the building turned in their direction. Caroline kept her smile in place and scanned the suddenly silent crowd for a table.
“Here ya go, son.” Marvin Harris stood up from the table in the front corner. “The missus and I are done. You're welcome to sit here.”
“Thanks, Mr. Harris.” Ford shook the older man's hand and his wife's. “Good to see you, Mrs. Harris. How are those grandsons of yours? I hear they're real firecrackers.”
“You got that right.” Mr. Harris chuckled and rubbed his hands together. “Caught them one day trying to fly out of the hay loft with a pair of wings they'd made out of cardboard. Lucky they didn't break their darn fool necks!” He turned to Caroline. “Hello, Missy. How's your mama these days?”
“Just fine, Mr. Harris, thank you.” At least, she hoped so. She hadn't visited with her mom in almost a month.
Mrs. Harris walked up to Ford and patted his arm. “It's about time you finished with this San Francisco foolishness, boy, and came back home where you belong. Get yourself a wife and some kids and settle down.” As she left, she gave Caroline a wink that Ford would surely notice. “You two have a nice afternoon.”
Just kill me now
, Caroline said to herself.
It can only get worse from here.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Cheryl B. Bacon
The Cowboy's Little Surprise
Copyright Â© 2015 by Barbara White-Rayczek
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