Libby Lowell had just ducked into a deserted corner of the Laramie Community Center to check her BlackBerry when a shadow loomed over her. It was Holden McCabe, as big and broad-shouldered and chivalrous as ever…
Libby frowned at the good-looking man who had been her late husband's best friend, wishing, as always, that the six-foot-three rancher did not feel so compelled to watch over her.
Ignoring the way his shirt brought out the cobalt-blue depths of his eyes, she smiled tersely. "If you're here for what I think you are, Holden, I have to warn you…I am not in the mood."
His smile full of mischief, Holden inclined his head toward the buffet tables on the other side of the crowded venue. "For pumpkin or pecan pie?"
Libby rolled her eyes and leaned in a tad closer. The truth was, she was stuffed to the gills from the delicious holiday meal. All she really wanted now was a nice long nap. "For any well-meant but totally unsolicited advice," she corrected. The kind that Holden thought Percy would have given her, and hence, intended to deliver in her late husband's stead.
Holden rubbed a hand across his chiseled jaw and continued to play dumb. "Why would you think I want to tell you what to do?" he asked.
"Maybe because just about everyone else has at some point or other today." Libby lifted a lecturing finger before he could interrupt. "And don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, because I saw you talking to my employees, earlier, as well as at least a half-dozen area ranchers."
He shrugged his shoulders amiably, then folded his arms in front of him. The motion drew her eyes to the solid, muscular contours of his chest.
Swallowing, she turned her attention to his ruggedly attractive face.
Libby didn't know what was wrong with her. She had known this man for years now. And yet.
Holden leaned toward her. "Of course I was chatting with everyone. It's Thanksgiving." And this year, everyone was eschewing private family gatherings to attend a holiday fundraiser for the local children's home, an event Libby had helped organize.
Not about to have her suspicions blown off, Libby lifted an eyebrow in challenge. "Really? Because it didn't look like any of you were discussing the probable outcome of the upcoming University of Texas and A and M football game." Which was what all the men would normally be talking about. She paused again and looked straight into his mesmerizing eyes. "Admit it, Holden. Everyone is coming to you. Trying to enlist your help."
Keeping his gaze locked with hers, the handsome meddler flashed a dimpled smile. "People are concerned."
"Well, they shouldn't be," she snapped.
Holden leaned in even closer and murmured, "The fear is you are acting rashly…"
"And unwisely?" she couldn't help but add. Frown lines bracketed his sensual lips. "Because of the holidays."
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's had been hard in the two years since Percy had died. Made even worse by the fact she had no other family left, on either side.
It was just her and the ranch-equipment dealership she had inherited from the Lowells. Stuck in a place that reminded her of all she had lost and would never have again. At least if she stayed in the small but thriving West Texas town of Laramie.
Which was why she had finally come to her senses and decided to stop delaying the inevitable and move on with her life, once and for all. No matter how hard it was going to be initially, she had to do it.
Ignoring the softness of Holden's gaze, Libby scrolled through the text messages on her BlackBerry until she found the one she wanted. It was from Jeff Johnston and said, Tomorrow evening at seven-thirty all right?
Libby typed in: Perfect. Meet me at the dealership. We'll go to dinner from there.
Aware of Holden reading over her shoulder, she flashed him another insincere smile, turned off her phone and slipped it back into the pocket of her black cashmere blazer.
"You're really going to pursue this?" His low, sexy voice rang with disbelief.
Was she? When just agreeing to meet with Jeff Johnston made her feel extremely disloyal? Libby pretended a cool she couldn't begin to really feel. "This is my decision, Holden."
It didn't matter what Percy or his family would have wanted, she reminded herself purposefully. None of them were here any longer..
Holden clamped a gentle hand around her elbow, the action sending ribbons of sensation flowing beneath her skin. "No one is saying otherwise."
Libby stepped back, pushing aside the sudden onslaught of sexual feeling. For years, she had been devoid of physical yearning. Only to have it all come rushing back now, with the aching desire to be touched, held.loved.
Which was something else that could not happen in this small town, where everyone still saw her as the late Percy Lowell's wife.
Fighting off her increasing feelings of disloyalty, she said, "They just want me to keep everything status quo."
"They want you to be happy," Holden corrected, looking as if he and he alone had the solution to that, too. "We all do."
Libby looked at him stubbornly, aware of the restlessness inside her. She was thirty-two now, and overwhelmed with the sense that life was passing her by. How would she feel at thirty-four, thirty-five, if she didn't act…?
"Then forget how you and everyone else feels. And give me room to pursue a possible agreement with Jeff Johnston in my own time and in my own way."
"I know what you're thinking, Holden, but Libby is not your responsibility."
He turned to Libby's best friend, Paige. The pediatric surgeon, and wife of his cousin Kurt, had made her way to Holden's side the minute Libby stormed off in a huff.
Not wanting their conversation to be overheard, he ducked into the empty storeroom where the banquet tables were usually stored. "I promised Percy I'd look after her and make sure no one took advantage of her," he reminded Paige.
"And you have—for over two years now. But Libby is a grown woman, fully capable of making her own decisions."
"In certain regards," he conceded. In others, she was still way too giving—and unconsciously sexy—for her own good.
Paige lifted a brow in quiet dissent.
Which prodded Holden to argue, "I don't have to remind you how emotional and overwrought she was after Percy's death." So deliriously "happy" she was practically walking on air one moment then completely devastated the next.
The look on Paige's face told him she recalled the same tumultuous swings in Libby's moods. "That was grief and hormones."
And guilt on his part. Terrible, haunting guilt.
"Beyond all that…" Paige paused. "She made a mistake—an understandable one."
One, Holden acknowledged painfully, that he and Libby had recklessly gone on to make even worse, and were both still trying to get over.
But Paige didn't know about that. And hopefully never would.
He scowled. "The point is, none of it would have happened had Percy been alive."
Libby wouldn't have trusted him with her secrets and thrown herself joyously into his arms…or called him just hours later, sobbing hysterically, begging him to take her to the emergency room. Only to find out that the terrible malady she'd thought she was experiencing didn't exist after all.
It had been a horrible, embarrassing mess. One they still hadn't figured out how to handle.
Oblivious to the complicated nature of his thoughts,
Paige sighed. "You're right. If Percy had been here, she probably wouldn't have gone off the deep end like that."
And, Holden thought, he would not have been the one to take a distraught Libby home from the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, or been pressed into staying until dawn until Paige was finally off duty and could be with her..
Paige continued with the matter-of-factness of a physician. "The point is, that time has passed. Libby's pulled herself together and made a success of the family business she inherited from the Lowells."
"To the point," Kurt McCabe stated as he strolled up to them, "that a rival businessman wants to purchase it."
Not surprisingly, the gravity of the situation had the rest of Holden's family joining them, too.
"And that," his brother Hank interjected with the expertise of a cattle rancher, "could spell trouble for all of us."
"Or not," Holden's other brother, Jeb, concluded, with the ease of a man used to taking life as it came. "From what I understand, there's nothing thus far to indicate Jeff Johnston is a shyster."
"And nothing that tells us he is not," their dad, Shane McCabe, warned in a brisk, businesslike tone. "The only thing we do know for certain is that we all need heavy farm equipment to run our ranches. And if anything happens to the tractor dealership here, we'll have to go a hundred miles to get sales or service."
"That would definitely be a pain," Holden's brother-in-law, Dylan Reeves, said, "but I think we can all agree it's not the main worry for any of us."
Holden's mother nodded emphatically. "Our main concern is Libby," Greta said with feeling. "None of us want to see her hurt. And, sad to say, the sale of the Lowell family business could be a lot more devastating to her than she thinks."
At the behest of his family, Holden decided to give it one more try. Unfortunately, by the time he emerged from the storeroom, Libby had already left for home. Holden stopped by the dessert table, picked up some sweets to go and drove to the Lowell residence on the edge of town.
The magnificent two-story stone-and-cedar farmhouse was located just across the road from the tractor dealership. Surrounded by a white picket fence and a beautifully landscaped yard, it had been in the Lowell family for three generations. Libby's Range Rover was parked in front of the detached garage. Holden parked his pickup beside it.
He was just getting out, foil-covered plate in hand, when a third vehicle drove up. The compact sedan contained two women—Miss Mim, the retired town librarian, and the twentysomething college grad, Rosa Moncrief, who had taken over from her.
So much for spending time with Libby and getting to the heart of whatever was bothering her, Holden thought.
"I am so glad you're here!" The older woman hurried forward to give Holden a hug, while the younger one shyly said hello. "We need all the help we can get."
Help for what? Holden wondered, as Libby stepped out onto the porch, looking more exquisitely beautiful than ever. She had already changed out of her party clothes into boot-cut jeans, suede moccasins and a fitted flannel shirt that made the most of her slender five-foot-five frame. Her silky, honey-blond hair had been swept up into a ponytail. She had a pair of sexy reading glasses on her face, a thick novel in her hand. As always when he was near her like this, Holden found it difficult to turn his gaze away or stifle the protective feelings welling up inside him.
Part of it was because he had made a promise to protect her. The other part wasn't quite so gallant…
Oblivious to the depth of his interest in her, Libby looked curiously from one to the other. "What's going on?"
"A bit of a conundrum." Her colorful earrings jangling, Miss Mim rushed forward to hug Libby, too. "I hope you don't mind—we asked Holden to join us."
Libby flashed him a look that said she did not exactly share the elder woman's sentiment, but smiled and beckoned everyone inside.
Holden set the plate of desserts on the hall console while Libby took their jackets. "Now, tell me what's gotten you so upset," she urged, as she led them into the sweeping living room, with its mix of comfortable modern furniture and priceless antiques.
Miss Rosa gulped. "You know we've had problems with the water lines in the library all year. Well, yesterday morning we had another leak, and Rowdy Whitcombe had to come out and start pulling up the floor. This time, he wasn't able to fix it, and he left with everything still torn up." She sighed. "Naturally, I called the county to find out what in the world was going on. All they would tell me was that a few others were coming to assess the problem and that I should get everyone out and keep the facility closed until further notice."
"That sounds…ominous," Libby murmured, trading concerned glances with Holden.
Wishing he was sitting close enough to give her hand a squeeze, he nodded back.
"Which is why I got involved," Miss Mim confided with an unhappy sigh. "But by then the government offices had closed for the Thanksgiving holiday."
Clasping his hands between his knees, Holden leaned forward. "Did you try talking to Rowdy?"
Miss Mim nodded. "He wasn't at liberty to reveal much at this juncture, but said that if the situation was what he suspected, the library might be closed for a good long while."
"Which would be a problem," Libby said worriedly. "So many residents depend on it."
Holden knew she spent a lot of time there, too. Books had always been of great comfort to her. Even more so after Percy died..
"Plus—" Miss Rosa's low voice quavered "—we have all those Christmas events planned for the children, starting Monday. All the book clubs in the area have signed up to use the space for their holiday parties. Not to mention all the free literacy tutoring that goes on there." She wrung her hands in distress. "I'd arranged for a tree and everything!"
"And we all know," Holden murmured, "how bureaucracy can slow things down."
"No kidding!" Miss Mim turned back to Libby, her gaze intent. "We're going to need a real crusader. Which is, of course, why we came to you!"
Libby smiled. "I'll do everything I can to help."
"Me, too," Holden promised.