From New York Times bestselling author Diana Palmer comes a sexy opposites attract tale of unbridled love, set against a breathtaking Colorado landscape made for happily ever after—if things don’t get too complicated . . .
When a rugged Colorado rancher who’s in the red meets up with a screenwriter-turned-waitress dogged by scandal, they put their talents—and their hearts—together. But will front page news put a damper on the sparks flying between them?
“No one beats this author for sensual anticipation.”
*Previously published in the anthology Marrying My Cowboy
Release date: November 24, 2020
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 150
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Rancher's Wedding
This rancher had three big chicken houses, the cowboy said, and he kept lights on all night so that the poor chickens would be forced to lay over and over again, without rest. It was just sad, he said. So he and some of the other men who worked on ranches near Benton, Colorado, were going to form a picket line and show Big Jack Denton that he couldn’t get away with animal cruelty in this small community.
Cassie, who’d recently moved to Benton from a house north of Atlanta, on a huge lake, was shocked that such a thing would be tolerated. Couldn’t the cowboy just call the local animal control people? He’d replied that they didn’t have one. There was a county shelter, but it was hard to get people to go against Big Jack, who had a reputation locally for his hot temper. So if they picketed, maybe some newspaper or television station would come and do a story and put him out of business. The thought of newspaper coverage gave her pause, but after all, this was Colorado. Neither Cassie nor her father were known here. That was a blessing, after the tragedy they’d sustained.
Her customer, whose name was Cary, said that she could join them, if she liked; they were protesting on Saturday morning. She’d agreed that she’d love to help. Her father had been skeptical, but she’d convinced him to drop her off at the entrance to the ranch. There would be lots of people, she assured him, and she’d phone him when he needed to come and get her. He was off on Saturday from his job at the local farm supply store, where he sold heavy equipment like harvesters and irrigation equipment. He’d gotten the job through an acquaintance. He couldn’t go on living in New York City after the scandal. He wanted a change. He’d lost his wife, Cassie’s mother, as well as a fabulous, well-paying job. The scandal had cost him. The stigma was so great that he and his daughter had moved across the country in the hope that they wouldn’t be hounded by reporters anymore.
His full name was Lanier Roger Reed, but a lot of people would recognize that first name, with the story so fresh. So he used his middle name instead, hoping that in a small town like Benton, he would go unnoticed.
Colorado seemed like a nice place, and her father got along well with Bill Clay, the man who owned the agricultural equipment business. Cassie and her father had found a house and she’d lucked out finding an open job at the town’s only restaurant, the Gray Dove, waitressing. It wasn’t her true profession, but she had to take what she could get for the time being.
So here she was, several weeks after starting her new job, and she wondered if she’d left her mind back in Georgia. It was insane to be standing out here all alone in the driving rain. Because it was raining. Not only raining, sleeting. Her father had left her reluctantly. She had a coat, but it was better suited for Georgia’s warmer climate, not freezing Colorado weather. Winter here was harsher than she’d expected, and her light coat wasn’t doing much good. Her fingers were freezing as she carried the homemade sign that read CHICKENS SHOULDN’T BE MISTREATED! Her feet were freezing, too. What had seemed like a good idea in the warm restaurant was looking like foolhardiness in the face of icy winter.
She shivered. Surely the other picketers would eventually show up! Nobody was anywhere around. There wasn’t even any traffic on this back road. There was a sign that read DENTON BAR D RANCH, and an odd-looking symbol that was probably his registered cattle brand. No cowboys were in sight, either. Maybe they were gathering eggs in those warm chicken houses.
She paced and marched some more, unaware of a security camera that was recording her every move.
Minutes later, a big burgundy luxury SUV pulled up at the gate and the engine died. The door opened.
A big man in denim and a shepherd’s coat with a black Stetson slanted over one eye and big boots peering out from under thick denim jeans stood looking at her incredulously.
“Do you . . . work here?” she asked, her teeth chattering as she shivered.
“Sort of. What are you doing?” he asked in a deep, amused voice.
“Picketing! The man . . . who owns this place . . . oppresses poor chickens!”
He blinked. “Chickens?”
“In his chicken houses,” she explained. She pulled her useless coat closer. She didn’t even have a cap on her long reddish-gold hair. Her blue eyes met his shaded ones. She wondered idly what color his eyes were, because they weren’t visible under the brim of his hat. “He tortures chickens,” she continued. “He keeps the lights on all the time so the poor creatures will lay eggs! It’s an abomination!”
He pursed sensuous lips and cocked his head at her. “Chicken houses,” he said, nodding.
“Who sent you?”
She blinked. “Nobody sent me. This cowboy in the restaurant where I work said a whole group was coming to picket and he invited me, too. He’s nice. His name is Cary.”
“Cary.” Now he looked very amused. “Tall guy, black hair, scar on his lip . . . ?”
“Well, yes,” she said.
He chuckled. “He’s my cousin. I gave him the scar on his lip.”
Her eyebrows raised. “Your cousin?”
“Yes. And he’s known for practical jokes. Although this one is low, even for him,” he added, studying her. “Come with me. You’ll freeze to death in this weather.” He looked around. “You didn’t drive here?”
“My dad brought me. Can I see the chicken houses, if I go with you?” she asked, trying to sound belligerent.
He smiled. “Sure. Come on.”
She put her sign in the back seat—the letters on it were faded because it was cardboard. She got in beside the man and automatically fastened her seat belt. It was a nice vehicle. Big and fancy, with heated seats and powered windows and a CD player built into the dash.
“This is great,” she remarked.
“It’s functional,” he replied. He wheeled the vehicle around and headed it down the ranch road. “You got a name?” he asked.
“Oh. I’m Cassie,” she said. “Cassie Reed.” She studied him. He had a handsome face, if a little rugged. Sensuous mouth. Long nose. Square jaw. “Who are you?”
“You can call me JL,” he offered.
“This is a big place,” she remarked as he sped down the road.
“Thousands of acres,” he agreed. “Plus a lot of leased government land for grazing. It takes a lot of cowboys to keep it going.”
“Does Cary work for you?”
He laughed. “He does his best not to work at all,” he said. “Mostly he goofs off and lies to people.”
“Lies to people?”
He slowed as they approached a sprawling brick house sitting in the middle of other widely spaced buildings, including a barn, a stable, a silo, and a metal equipment shed far bigger than the house Cassie and her father lived in.
She looked around, frowning. “Where are the chicken houses?” she asked, surprised.
He chuckled as he pulled up the drive toward the house. “I don’t keep chickens,” he said. “I run purebred Black Angus cattle.”
“But Cary said—” she began.
“Cary was pulling your leg,” he assured her.
“How do you know that?”
“Because this is my ranch,” he replied. “I’m JL Denton.”
She ground her teeth together. She was embarrassed. “Why?” she asked miserably, pushing back a scrap of drenched red hair. “Why would he do that to me?”
“Cary likes a practical joke,” he said. He was recalling another of his cousin’s jokes, even less funny than this one was. Cary would spill his guts for enough drinks, and an unscrupulous woman had plied him with alcohol to find out enough about JL to come on to him in a big way.
JL had thought he’d found the perfect woman. She seemed to be exactly like him in attitude and politics, likes and dislikes, everything. She had taken him almost to the brink of marriage, in fact, until he heard what she’d said to someone on her cell phone when she hadn’t known his cousin Cary was listening.
Cary was heartbroken to tell him about it. He said she was telling a friend that she’d found this reclusive rich rancher, and he was dumb enough to accept her pretense as fact. She’d learned enough about him to mirror his thoughts, and now he was going to marry her and she’d have everything she wanted. She wouldn’t stay on this dumpy ranch for long, she added; once the ceremony was over she’d go out to Beverly Hills and get a nice apartment in some fancy building and shop, shop, shop.
It had seemed to surprise her, Cary added, when she turned around and found him standing right behind her. She’d stammered an excuse, and begged him not to tell JL. He’d refused. It was a rotten, low-down, dirty thing to do, he’d said indignantly. And he’d marched right back to JL’s ranch to tell him all about it.
JL had been livid. She’d come home that night and he’d met her at the door with her things neatly packed by his housekeeper into two suitcases. He’d asked for the engagement ring back and told her that he wanted nothing else to do with her.
She’d stared at him blankly, as if she feared for his sanity. Why was he doing this, she asked.
Because he knew what sort of woman she was, and Cary had told him what he’d overheard her saying on her cell phone.
She’d countered that she knew what he thought of her family, and she should have broken the engagement when he made that remark about her father.
He couldn’t remember saying anything about her father, whom he’d met and instantly disliked, but he’d passed over it. He never wanted to see her again, he added. Cary had also mentioned her opinion of him as a lover, which put his pride in the dirt. He didn’t tell her about that. It still hurt too much.
She wanted to talk it out, but he knew he’d cave in and take her back, and she’d stab him in the back. He’d closed the door in her face and she’d left. He hadn’t heard anything else from her. Cary had mentioned that he heard she’d gone to Europe to take a job at some winery as a receptionist. JL hadn’t paid that remark much attention. It didn’t occur to him to wonder how Cary knew it.
The whole experience had warped him. He’d have staked his life on her honesty, but she’d sold him out. He’d never trust another woman. He’d had three months of absolute bliss until Cary told him the truth about his perfect fiancée. Now he was distraught. He drank too much, brooded too much. He’d let the ranch slide, endangering his livelihood. He didn’t blame Cary, exactly, but he associated the man with his misfortune, and it was painful to have him around.
And here sat a victim of his cousin’s warped sense of humor. She looked absolutely crushed.
“Don’t take it so hard,” he said. “Cary can fool most people when he tries.” He glanced at her as they approached the huge, one-story brick ranch house. “Why did you think I kept chickens on a ranch?”
“I’m from Atlanta,” she said, and then flushed because she hadn’t wanted to admit that. “Well, north of us a lot of people have chicken houses. I’d heard stories about how they were kept, but Cary said . . .” She stopped, swallowed. “I guess Cary knew about them somehow. I’m sorry I picketed you,” she added miserably.
He was surprised at how much he liked her. She was vulnerable in a way that most women today weren’t, especially in his circle of acquaintances. She had a sensitivity that was rare. “What do you do?”
“I’m a waitress at the Gray Dove restaurant in Benton. Cary comes in there a lot,” she added reluctantly.
A waitress. Well, he hadn’t expected a debutante, he thought sarcastically. “Cary runs his mouth too much,” he murmured.
“Yes, he does,” she agreed.
“That coat is too thin for a Colorado winter,” he remarked.
She winced. “I guess so. We don’t get a lot of really cold temperatures in Atlanta,” she added.
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect it to be that cold in the Deep South,” he agreed. He liked her accent. It was a soft, sweet drawl.
“Yes, well, we don’t get much snow, either, only very rarely. And then the whole city shuts down,” she added with a soft laugh.
He grinned. “I can imagine. We get used to snow because we have so much of it.”
He pulled up in front of the ranch house. “Come on in,” he said as he swung down out of the SUV.
She hesitated. She’d never gone to a man’s house or apartment in her life. Her father and mother had sheltered her. She was an only child and she’d had a lot of health problems through her youth. She’d dated very rarely, and mostly double dates with her best friend, Ellen. She grimaced. She missed Ellen.
“It’s all right,” he assured her as he opened the door for her. “I don’t bite.”
She flushed. “Sorry. I’m not . . . well, I’m not used to men. Not much.”
Both thick eyebrows went up over silvery eyes.
She cleared her throat. She unbuckled her seat belt and held on to the handle above the door so that she didn’t fall out. It was a very tall vehicle.
“Shrimp,” he mused.
She laughed self-consciously. “I’m five foot seven inches,” she protested. But she had to look up, way up, to see his amused smile.
“I’m six foot two. To me, you’re a shrimp,” he added.
He went ahead of her to open the door. She hesitated, but just for a minute. She was really cold and her clothes were drenched.
“Bathroom’s that way,” he said, indicating the hallway. The floors were wood with throw rugs in Native American patterns. The furniture in the living room was cushy and comfortable. There was a huge television on one wall and a fireplace on the other. It was very modern.
“Thanks,” she said belatedly when she realized she was staring around her.
“I’ll see what I can scare up in the way of dry clothes.”
“We’re not the same size,” she protested, measuring him.
He chuckled. “No, we’re not. But my housekeeper’s daughter left some things behind when she came to visit her mom. You’re just about her size.”
He walked off toward the other end of the house.
She darted into the huge bathroom and took off her coat. She looked like a drenched chicken, she thought miserably. At least the bathroom was warm.
She heard heavy footsteps coming back, and a quick rap on the door. She opened it.
“Here.” He handed her some jeans and a shirt.
“Thanks,” she said.
He shrugged. “Come out when you’re ready. We’ll throw your wet things into the dryer.”
She had to put the jeans and shirt over her underwear, which was damp, but she wasn’t about to take it off and put it in a dryer in front of a man she didn’t know. She was painfully shy.
She came out of the bathroom. He called to her from a distant room. She followed the sound of his voice to a sprawling kitchen.
“Drink coffee?” he asked.
“Oh, yes!” she agreed.
“Give me those.” He held out his hand for her clothes. “I’ll stick them in the dryer.”
He gave them a cursory look, pursed his lips amusedly at the lack of underthings, and took them to the dryer in still another room. She heard it kick off.
He came back in and poured coffee into two thick white mugs. “Cream, sugar?”
“No,” she replied, seating herself at the small table against the window. Outside, cattle were milling around a feed trough. “I always drink it black and strong. It helps keep me awake when I’m working. . . .” She stopped suddenly. Waitresses didn’t work at night in Benton.
He raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t question the o. . .
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