THE RELUCTANT TEXAS RANCHER
"We have to face facts. We need a man and we need one bad," eighty-three-year-old Tillie Cartwright said, the moment the four women sat down on the porch of the ranch house.
"Like heck we do." Sixty-six-year-old Faye Elizabeth handed out the corn to be shucked. "Men are nothing but trouble. Always have been. Always will be."
"But they have their uses." Forty-eight-year-old Reba winked. "And with my sciatica acting up again…" She winced as she tried to get her aching hip and thigh settled comfortably in the cushioned wicker chair. "I don't know any other way to manage. Unless…"
All eyes turned to the youngest member of the family.
Liz Cartwright shook her head at the three generations of Cartwright women in front of her. Under any other circumstance this conversation would have been ludicrous, but on the estrogen-powered Four Winds cattle ranch, where she had grown up and now resided once again, the ornery, fiercely opinionated comments were to be expected.
"I'm not giving up my law practice to run this ranch," Liz said with the full conviction of her twenty-eight years. It didn't matter how much pressure her mother tried to exert. "I said I would help out—and I will—but other than that, the most I'm prepared to do is help you choose a new ranch hand."
"Then it's a good thing I'm here," a deep male voice interjected.
An audible gasp filled the air as Travis Anderson walked around the side of the house and climbed onto the porch. The tall, oh-so-sexy cowboy removed his hat, revealing thick dark hair in need of a cut, and charcoal-gray eyes.
His respects paid, Travis settled the Stetson squarely on his head and smiled. "Isn't that right, ladies?"
Travis had figured Liz Cartwright would not be all that excited to see him. The two of them had dated in high school. She still resented him for the way he had ended it.
"We're looking for a ranch hand, Travis," Liz told him drily as she ripped a chunk of green husk and silk from a cob. "Not a Houston attorney."
Travis knew the Laramie County rumor mill had been working overtime since he had arrived home a few days ago, suitcase in hand.
Liz was apparently curious, too. Though he doubted his savvy fellow attorney would come right out and admit it.
After taking in the way the spring sunlight brought out the fire in her shoulder-length, auburn hair, he studied the skeptical twist to her pink lips.
It didn't matter that Liz was more beautiful than ever, or that her fair skin looked just as soft to the touch. And the fact she was sexy in an unconscious, girl-he'd-grown-up-with way was of no consequence, either.
What he needed was the opportunity to make a deal.
And this temporary job on the Four Winds Ranch would give him that. As well as a place to stay.
Never one to be taken advantage of, Liz waved a dismissive hand before going on to strip the ear of corn bare and drop it into the bowl. She paused to shoot him a disdainful look. "So maybe you should run along back to the city…."
Travis shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and leaned against the porch rail. As always when they were together, the world seemed to narrow to just the two of them. "Didn't you hear?" he taunted, looking into her emerald eyes. "My days as a bona fide city slicker are over."
Standing abruptly, Liz placed her hands on her slender, jean-clad hips. "Hearing it and believing it to be true are two different things." She let her gaze drift over him before returning ever so deliberately to his eyes. "And why anyone as accomplished as you would give up a downtown loft and a six-figure salary."
Put that way, Travis knew, his actions didn't make sense. He concentrated on what would. "The loft measured less than six hundred square feet." Casting a glance at Tillie, Faye Elizabeth and Reba, he flashed the kind of disarming smile he used on witnesses he was about to depose, before explaining wryly, "It wasn't a whole lot of space to give up. As for the job…" He turned back to Liz and lifted a hand. "I decided I'm better suited at the moment for a wide-open range and a herd of cattle. Two things you ladies have in spades."
A place, he added silently, where I'll have plenty of space and privacy to reflect. Plenty of time to plan my next big move…
Liz folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Neither the land nor the cattle are for sale, so if that's your angle, Travis Anderson."
"I do want my own land. My own herd." As well as something even more important to him: an intact reputation. "But while I'm figuring out how I'm going to get those things, I won't mind taking care of yours."
"I vote we hire him," Liz's mother said, as soon as Travis Anderson walked off to give them a moment to confer.
Tillie shrugged. "He knows cattle."
Faye Elizabeth frowned. "I don't see that we have much choice, given the fix we're in."
"I'm not so sure we have to act this fast," Liz cautioned, with lawyerly calm. "For starters, I don't trust why he's here." Travis had been achievement oriented his entire life. "I think he has an ulterior motive."
She just wasn't sure what it was.
Liz's mother sized her up with a mischievous grin. "No matter. I'm sure you'll be able to contain yourself around that handsome man. If that's what you want," she teased.
Liz flushed and pushed the distant memory of Travis's kisses away. Kisses she had been too uptight to really enjoy, because she'd been so afraid of having her heart stomped on by the cutest boy in school.
Ignoring the knot of anxiety in her solar plexus, she shook her head. "I didn't mean me. There have been rumors in the legal community that Travis Anderson lost his boy wonder status."
Reba frowned. "That doesn't sound like the Travis I recall. Or anyone with Lockhart and Anderson blood running through his veins. Most members of both families are incredibly successful."
"I didn't believe it, either," Liz admitted with a shake of her head. "Until he showed up here today, looking for work. Now I'm beginning to think there might be something to it. Just as there's more to his asking for work here, of all places."
"Such as?" Tillie prodded.
Liz turned her glance to Travis. Currently, he was inspecting the broken-down, thirty-year-old tractor parked next to the barn.
She remembered him being tall and broad-shouldered. Athletic enough to make all the school teams he wanted. Smart enough to graduate with a whole passel of scholarships. But she didn't remember him being that muscular, or so good at filling out a pair of jeans.
"What could he be up to?" Faye Elizabeth asked, inspecting the shucked corn for any stray strands of silk.
Travis turned. The bemused expression on his face said he knew they were watching him.
Thank heaven he didn't know what Liz was thinking!
Eyebrows raised, he stared at her a long moment, then glanced away.
Aware that everyone was waiting for her to weigh in, Liz turned back to them, her pulse racing.
She pushed aside the desire welling up inside her. This was no time to be thinking about kissing Travis again.
"I don't know." She sighed. "Despite what he says, I can't see him ever giving up the law to ranch." Liz knew how hard Travis Anderson had worked for everything he'd earned, how deeply wedded he was to all his plans. "It wouldn't matter what kind of professional disappointment he has weathered. He would still pick himself up, dust himself off and keep right on going toward his goal." Whatever the latest one was.
Reba shrugged. "Sounds to me like Travis has finally come to his senses, in wanting to return to the ranching life he was born into." She looked at her daughter. "You'd be lucky if you had an epiphany like that, too."
Liz dropped her head in her hands and groaned. Would they never stop wishing she would give up everything to take over the ranch?
Getting back to business, Reba pushed on. "All those in favor of hiring Travis Anderson to ride, rope and wrangle for us, say aye."
"Aye," the three elder Cartwright women said in unison.
Trying not to think about how uncomfortable it would be for her to have Travis around all the time, Liz threw up her hands. "Fine." She was so busy with her law practice, she wasn't going to be here much, anyway.
Faye Elizabeth gathered up the shucked corn and took it into the kitchen to start dinner. Tillie headed back to the ranch books. Only Reba remained on the porch with Liz.
Her mother pointed to the fence, where Travis stood gazing out at the vast, rolling terrain of the ten-thousand-acre Four Winds. "Go get him, and show him to his quarters."
Liz tore her gaze from his handsome profile. She hadn't expected him to sleep on the property, too! Irritably, she demanded, "Which are going to be where?"
"The homestead, of course."
Her mouth fell open. "Wait a minute." Indignant, she angled a thumb at her chest. "I'm sleeping in the homestead."
"You were. Now he will be. Unless…" Reba tossed her a speculative look "…you want Travis bunking in the main house with us?"
Her frustration mounting, Liz leaped to her feet. "Why does he have to be on the ranch at all before eight o'clock or after five?" The last thing she needed was a sexy guy she'd once had a crush on underfoot….
Reba winced and put a hand against her lower back. "Because it's calving season, we barely have the funds to pay one ranch hand and we need someone around to do the heavy lifting at all hours of the day and night."
Liz couldn't argue the necessity of having someone to relieve her mother of the physical rigors of ranch work. However, she could disagree with his working conditions. "I know that, Mom, but he has to have time off," she said reasonably.
Reba stretched to relieve the pain. "He can have time off after all the calves are born."
As always, the Cartwright tunnel vision when it came to ranch matters superseded all else, including the needs of others. "Travis may not agree to this," Liz warned.
Reba sent her a confident glance. "Then it's up to you to convince him."