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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Long, Hot Texas Summer

There were times for doing things yourself and times for not. This, Justin McCabe thought grimly, surveying the damage he had just inflicted on a brand-new utility cabinet and the drywall behind it, was definitely one of the latter.

Frustrated, because there was little he couldn't do well, Justin shook his head in disgust. Then he swore heatedly at the blunder that further derailed his tight schedule and made it even harder to prove the skeptics wrong.

It was possible, of course, that this could be fixed without buying a whole new cabinet. If he knew what he was doing. Which he clearly did not—a fact that the five beloved ranch mutts, sitting quietly and cautiously watching his every move, seemed to realize, too.

A motor sounded in the lane, and he hoped it was the carpenter who'd been scheduled to arrive that morning and had yet to actually make an appearance. Justin set his hammer down. He stalked to the door of Bunkhouse One just as a fancy red Silverado pickup truck stopped in front of the lodge. It had an elaborate silver Airstream trailer attached to the back and a lone woman at the wheel.

"Great." Justin sighed as all the dogs darted out the open door of the partially finished bunkhouse and raced, barking their heads off, toward the vehicle.

The obviously lost tourist eased the window down and stuck her head out into the sweltering Texas heat. A straw hat with a sassy rolled brim was perched on her head. Sunglasses shaded her eyes. But there was no disguising her beautiful face and shapely bare arms. The young interloper was, without a doubt, the most exquisite female Justin had ever seen.

She smiled at the dogs, despite the fact that they were making a racket. "Hey, poochies," she said in a soft, melodic voice.

As entranced as he was, the dogs seemed more so. They'd stopped barking and had all sat down to stare at the stranger.

She opened her door and stepped out. All six feet of her.

Layered red and white tank tops showcased her nice, full breasts and slender waist. A short denim skirt clung to her hips and emphasized a pair of really fine legs.

She took off her hat and shook out a mane of butterscotch-blond hair that fell in soft waves past her shoulders. After tossing the hat on the seat behind her, she reached down to pet the dogs. The pack was thoroughly besotted.

Justin completely understood.

If there was such a thing as love at first sight—which he knew there wasn't—he'd have been a goner.

The woman straightened and removed her sunglasses. "I'm Amanda," she said in the same voice that had magically quieted his dogs.

Justin stared into long-lashed, wide-set amber eyes that were every bit as mesmerizing as the rest of her. His brain seemed to have stopped working altogether. His body, on the other hand, was at full alert. "I'm Justin McCabe."

"This the Lost Pines?" Amanda asked, taking a moment to scan their surroundings.

Working to get the blood back in his brain where it belonged, Justin merely nodded.

"So," she said, still admiring the acres of unfenced grassland peppered with cedar and live oak, as well as the endless blue horizon and rolling hills in the distance. "Where do you want me to park my trailer?"

And then, all of a sudden, the fantasy ended. This gorgeous woman had not been dropped into his life like a karmic reward for all his hard work. Brought swiftly back to reality, he stopped her with a regretful lift of his palm. "You can't."

She pivoted back to him in a drift of citrusy perfume. Her eyes sparked with indignation and her delicate but surprisingly capable-looking hands landed on her hips. "I made it very clear to whomever I spoke. My camping out here is part of the deal."

What deal? "It can't be."

She came closer, her soft lips pursed in an unhappy frown. "Why not?"

Embarrassed that it had taken him this long to correct her misconception, Justin explained without rancor. "Because this isn't the Lost Pines you're looking for."

A flicker of indecipherable emotion flashed in those beautiful eyes. She regarded him skeptically, seeming to think he was trying to pull something over on her. "But how can that be? The sign above the gate said this is the Lost Pines Ranch."

"The sign's on the long list of things waiting to be changed." A new one had been ordered but wasn't coming in for another month. Which meant he would continue to have these mix-ups with nonlocals.

"Are you sure I'm not in the right place?" she asked with a frown. "Because…"

Justin shook his head, a little disappointed that this beautiful amazon would not be settling in for a long stay. He turned and pointed in the opposite direction. "What you want is the Lost Pines Campground, which is another three miles down the road, next to the Lake Laramie State Park. But…" What the heck, why not? Just this once he was going to go for what he wanted. Which was a little more—make that a lot more—time with this sun-kissed beauty. "Once you get set up there, Amanda, I'd be happy to take you to dinner."

This was, Amanda Bliss Johnson thought, the most bizarre encounter she'd ever had. Even if the tall rancher with the shaggy chestnut-brown hair and gorgeous blue eyes was the hottest guy she had ever come across in her life. From the massive shoulders and chest beneath that chambray shirt, to his long muscular legs, custom-bootencased feet—and ringless left hand—everything about him broadcast Single and Available.

Which meant Strictly Off-Limits to her.

She wished she'd left her sunglasses on so he wouldn't see her dazzled expression. "First off," she told him crisply, "I don't date customers."

Now it was his turn to look shocked. "Customers! What are you talking about?"

Amanda pushed on. "You called for a carpenter, right? At least, Libby Lowell-McCabe, the CEO of the Lowell Foundation and chairwoman of the board for the Laramie Boys Ranch, did. She said it was an emergency. That your previous carpenter quit with no notice and you only have four weeks to get the bunkhouse ready for occupancy." She paused to draw a breath. "I emailed her back that I'd be willing to help y'all out, but only if I could keep my travel trailer on the property so I wouldn't have to waste time commuting back and forth to San Angelo."

Amanda fought her racing pulse and tried to stay calm. "But if that's not going to work, I guess I could park my Silversteam at the campground. Assuming, of course, they have a space available. Since it's the busy summer season, they may not."

He lifted a hand. "You don't have to do that."

Amanda folded her arms in front of her. "Sure about that? Because just now you seemed dead set against me camping here."

He flashed a slow, disarming smile. "That's because I thought you were a tourist, not an apprentice."

Apprentice? Strike two for the handsome Texan! "I'm not the apprentice," Amanda said tightly, her temper rising. "I'm the master carpenter."

He pulled the paper out of his pocket and squinted at it as if he couldn't believe the words in front of him. Then his head lifted and he speared her with an incredulous gaze. "You're A. B. Johnson Jr.?"

Amanda wondered if it took him this long to process everything. "Amanda Bliss Johnson. Junior's the nickname I got at work."

"You want me to call you Junior?" he asked, with a hint of humor in his low baritone.

"Or Amanda." She waved a hand. "Whatever. It doesn't matter to me." What did was getting this gig. It would allow her to settle in this ruggedly beautiful place for an entire month before moving on to her next rural job.

Justin McCabe continued to contemplate her as if he either didn't believe she could really be an ace carpenter or wasn't going to be comfortable having a woman undertake such a large job.

Amanda sighed.

Great, just great. She'd gotten up at the crack of dawn to put the finishing touches on a built-in bookcase for a very fussy client, then spent hours getting all her stuff packed up and driving all the way out here. Now, the deceptively laid-back McCabe was acting like he wanted to fire her on the spot.

Deciding it was his turn to be put in the hot seat, Amanda stepped closer. "Do you have a problem with the fact I'm a woman?"

"No." He was clearly fibbing. "Not at all."

Then why couldn't he stop looking at her like he was going to need a protective force field just to be anywhere near her? "I come highly recommended." The defensive words were out before she could stop them.

"I know." He exhaled, beginning to look as off-kilter as she felt. "I just expected a guy. That's all."

A common mistake, given that most of her competitors were male. Still, Amanda refused to let Justin McCabe off the hook. Sensing there was more to whatever it was going on with him, she arched a brow.

There was a beat of complete and utter silence.

He scrubbed a hand across his face. "I did a Google search on your company after Libby told me she had arranged for A. B. Johnson Carpentry to come out and finish the work on an emergency basis. The website said the company was founded in San Angelo, Texas, by Angus 'Buddy' Johnson thirty-eight years ago."

Proudly, Amanda relayed, "That's my grandfather. He still runs the business—although he's supposed to be phasing out of that, too—but he stopped doing the rural gigs a year ago." After much persuading on her part.

Amanda touched her thumb to the center of her chest. "I do them now."

It was McCabe's turn to appear irritated. "So why didn't you make that clear in the communication with Libby? Unless—" he paused, still scrutinizing her closely "—you're trying to purposely mislead people?"

Amanda really did not want to get into this. However, he'd left her no choice. "When I first started doing jobs on my own the company was getting a lot of requests for me that had nothing whatsoever to do with my talent as a carpenter."

Understanding dawned on his handsome face. Along with a hint of anger. Amanda warmed beneath the intensity in his eyes. "So we took all the employee photos off the website and just listed the carpenters by name, or in my case, just my initials and last name. To differentiate me from my granddad we added the Junior to my name. That successfully eliminated all the customers just interested in making up jobs to hit on me."

"Makes sense."

She straightened. "Luckily, that's not going to be the case here."

"No," he concurred, meeting her stern gaze. "It's not."

"Good to hear." Amanda relaxed in relief. The last thing she wanted to deal with was the amorous attention of the tall, sexy Texan. Given how physically attractive she found him, the situation might be just too tempting.

Thinking he was possibly the most easygoing man she had ever met, Amanda drew a deep breath. "Anyway, back to the way the company operates. My grandfather takes the service requests. He makes up the schedule and does all the accounting work required to run the business. The other four employees are all master carpenters, and they work in San Angelo. They all have families, and don't want to be away for days at a time, so I take the gigs on all the remote locations."

When he opened his mouth she lifted a staying hand. "Unless you're not comfortable with that? If that's the case, I'll see if one of the guys wants to do it." She paused again, frowning. "They'd have to commute back and forth, and the two hours' travel time daily would add significantly to the overall cost and time it will take to complete the job."

McCabe shook his head, swiftly vetoing that suggestion. "That won't be necessary," he reassured her. "You're here. You should do it."

Happy that much was settled, Amanda was ready to move on, too. She returned his easy smile. "Then how about you show me everything you want done so I can get started."

Justin spent the next half hour showing Amanda the bunkhouse they were converting for the opening of the Laramie Boys Ranch. It would house the first group of eight boys and two house parents. There were cabinets to install in the bathrooms. Trim and doors to put on. Bookshelves and built-in locker-style armoires to be constructed in each of the five bedrooms.

Amanda paused next to the mangled drywall and damaged utility cabinet in the mudroom. She brushed splinters of wood from the plumbing hookup for the washer. "What happened here?"

Motioning for the dogs to stay back, well out of harm's way, Justin grabbed a trash bag. "I tried to put the cabinet up myself and it fell off the wall, taking the drywall with it."

Amanda dropped the shards of splintered wood and ripped-up drywall into the bag. Justin knelt to help her gather debris.

"Can you fix it?" He wasn't used to screwing up. Failing in front of a highly competent woman made it even worse.

"Yes." Amanda dusted off her hands and took out her measuring tape.

Justin watched as she set down her notebook and measured the damaged back of the cupboard. "No need to order a new cabinet?"

Nodding, she jotted down a set of numbers.

When she had finished looking around, Justin asked, "What's your best estimate?"

Amanda raked her teeth across her lush lower lip as she consulted the list she had made. "You said you wanted hardwood flooring installed throughout?"

"Except for the bathrooms. Those are going to have ceramic tile."

"The target date?"

"August first."

"Which gives us a little under four weeks." She tilted her head slightly to one side, her hair brushing the curve of her shoulder. "That's an ambitious schedule."

"Is it doable?"

"That all depends. Are you willing to have me work weekends and some evenings, too?"

Until more donations or grants came in, things were really tight. "We don't have the budget for overtime pay," he admitted.

Understanding lit her eyes. "I'll just charge you the regular rate, then."

He paused, tempted to accept yet not wanting to take advantage. "Sure?"

She tucked her notebook under her arm and headed for the open front door. She stepped outside, the sunshine illuminating her shapely legs. "Consider it my donation for your cause. Which, by the way, is a good one."

Justin fell into step beside her as they continued toward her truck. "You think so?"

She tossed him an admiring glance. "Troubled kids need a place to go." A hint of a smile curved her lips. "If that can happen in a beautiful setting like this, more power to you."

"Thanks." Not everyone was on board with his idea for the ranch. It helped to know she was.

Also available in this Anthology Reissue

McCabe Homecoming

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.