PREVIEW OF ALWAYS DEVOTED: 


"Popular Harlequin/Silhouette romance author Karen Rose Smith adds a bit of a mystery to contemporary romance in ALWAYS DEVOTED, but she continues to delve into the hearts of her characters and includes her trademark heartwarming passages between an alpha man and a child". Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today

"The mystery of what happened to Paige is cleverly handled while the touch of the paranormal enhances the exciting story line. However, it is the changing relationship between the cynic, the mom, and the child who affirm that Ms. Smith is one of the best contemporary family drama authors." Harriet Klausner, reviewer
 
     Single mom, Emma Henderson's worry about her missing sister threatens to overshadow her life. Media mogul Linc Granger offers Emma help, first by airing a nation-wide interview and then... By suggesting Emma consult with his friend Gillian Bradley who has a "gift" for finding missing persons.
     As Emma and Linc walk the beach and she considers his unorthodox suggestion, Emma realizes she feels a sizzle of attraction to this man that she never felt with another--not even her late husband. Linc Granger is out of her league in so many ways. Yet her four-year-old daughter Becky believes he's her new best friend!
     Emma and Linc's chemistry is impossible to deny as they consult with Gillian and follow leads to find Paige. What happens when their attraction explodes and they do find answers? Will Emma be able to leave the past behind to find a future with Linc?


Chapter One

"What do you believe happened to your sister?"

Emma Henderson felt her throat tighten and she found swallowing difficult.  She hated the glare of the television lights and found her gaze swinging away from the camera to offstage where Linc Granger stood.  The successful TV producer, who garnered high ratings with his specials, had convinced her this interview might help find Paige.  That was the only reason she'd agreed to do it.

"I don't know what happened to Paige, Ms. Kahill.  She left one afternoon to drive to San Francisco for the weekend and I haven't seen her since."  Emma's voice cracked.

She almost felt Linc Granger take a step forward.  To do what?  Stop the interview with journalist, Tessa Kahill?  To comfort her?  To tell her everything was going to be okay when she knew it wasn't?

"Her car was found on the shoulder of the highway and she was missing.  Can you tell me what your thoughts were when you found out?" the world-renown journalist asked.

"I was stunned.  I couldn't believe it.  At first we all thought she might have been kidnapped.  But there was no call...no note for ransom...nothing."

"You were on the police list of persons of interest for a while, weren't you?"

"Tessa!"  Linc Granger's deep voice rent the air with authority.  He told the technicians to cut and take five.  Then he strode up beside the interviewer.

His gaze connected to Emma's for a heart-stopping moment.

She tore her eyes from his and took a deep breath.  She shouldn't have this reaction to him.  He'd been compassionate toward her, protective even, and she was grateful.  That's all there was to it.

But as Linc and the beautiful, curly-haired interviewer argued over the questions for the remainder of the interview to be aired later in the week, Emma knew she felt a spark of something with Linc Granger she'd never felt with her late husband Barrett.

After another minute or two of discussion, Linc crossed over to her chair and towered over her.  He raked his hand through his dark brown hair, his green eyes turbulent.  "Tessa insists she has to go this route.  She thinks it's better if everything is out there in the public's face.  I don't necessarily agree.  I know you lost your husband a year ago and this is hard.  If you'd rather Tessa go in a different direction—"

As Emma shook her head, her honey-blond hair fell over her shoulder.  "The family is always questioned.  The family is always of interest.  It's okay, Mr. Granger."

"It's Linc," he said gently.  As cutting as his voice had been a few moments before, it was so different now. 

Ever since their first meeting, she'd felt strangely out of breath.  She was a mother with a four-year-old, and her sister was missing.  She couldn't think about anything else.

Squaring her shoulders, she assured him, "I can handle Ms. Kahill's questions."

As Linc Granger studied her, she felt almost all of the air get sucked out of the room.  What was it about him that made her so flustered?  He was older, between thirty-five and forty she guessed, and she felt young at twenty-six for the first time in years.  She'd taken on a lot of responsibility early.

After a few moments, he reassured her again.  "If anything makes you too uncomfortable, you can say so.  I'm sorry I wasn't here when the interview started.  I would have laid down some ground rules."  He glared at Tessa as she was studying her notes.

"When you offered me the opportunity to publicize Paige's disappearance again, you said Tessa Kahill was the best.  Maybe you should let her do her job.  Before we started, she told me she has to be on a plane out of L.A. tonight to Afghanistan."

"You like her," Linc noted with a wry smile.

"We talked before the interview.  Yes, I do.  And I respect her."

"Good."  He sounded relieved.  "Then I'll let her continue and I won't interfere again.  But I would like to discuss something with you when this is over.  Do you have time?"

What could he want to discuss with her?  They'd spoken at length about what had happened to Paige, the little bit she knew, and Emma's desire to stay out of the spotlight for her daughter's sake.  But he seemed to have something important to say and she did want to hear it.

"My next door neighbor is watching Becky.  I'll have some time."

He was quiet for a few moments, but the intensity of his expression suddenly gave her the knowledge that Linc Granger was a very different man than Barrett Henderson had been.

It shouldn't matter.

But she found herself wanting to listen to Linc, even though she suspected that simple conversation with him could unsettle her life even more.

#

What a stupid thing to do!

Linc never interrupted the flow of an interview.  When he'd asked Tessa to do this, she'd told him she could fit it in during a layover in L.A.  She'd been in Mexico interviewing some diplomat, and then she was gone again for Afghanistan to tape a special report.

So why had he jumped in?

Because Emma Trent Henderson fascinated him.  She and her four-year-old daughter had been through the cable newsringer when her sister had disappeared three months ago.  Yet she'd somehow retained her dignity and poise.  Still, the lost look in her expressive brown eyes when she spoke about her sister, Paige, haunted him.

From her first press conference, he'd been intrigued by her and her story.  Maybe because he knew someone who could help her if she wanted to be helped.  Unorthodox means weren't for everyone, but he had the feeling Emma had exhausted the usual channels.

The cameras were rolling again and Tessa was asking more questions.  As he listened to the rest of the interview, he became more sure about the information he wanted to give Emma.  When he heard Tessa end her questions with, "Tell me how you feel as a widow, with a four-year-old to raise and no idea where your sister is," he listened hard.

Emma didn't hesitate to say softly, "Sometimes I feel as if I'm in limbo.  I'm searching for answers and I don't know if I'll ever find them."

Linc knew he had to tell Emma about Gillian Bradley and her special gift.

#

When Emma finished the interview, she felt wrung out.  Not a new feeling these days.  But after she thanked Tessa, she turned to find Linc waiting for her.  It was easy for her to think of using his first name and she wasn't sure exactly why.

She'd worn a flowered sundress for the interview, a dress she often wore when taking sales orders in her gift basket shop, Occasional Baskets.  But now she wished she'd worn something a little more sophisticated...because Linc Granger in his custom-tailored suit, tie and expensive shirt shouted sophistication.

Who was she kidding?

She'd never been sophisticated.  Hard working and tasteful, maybe, but never sophisticated.

After the camera lights shut down and she stood, Linc took her elbow.  She felt the heat from his fingers through her whole body.  It was an odd, wake-up feeling that she'd never experienced with Barrett.

Barrett.  He'd only been gone a year.  How could she even be attracted to someone else? 

Okay, so that's what this feeling was toward Linc Granger...attraction.  So much for that.  He certainly didn't drive his car in her neighborhood.

Linc glanced around the set where techs were bustling by and men in suits strode purposefully here and there.  He frowned.

Even frowning, his face was ruggedly handsome with character lines around his eyes that cut deep.  From laughter?  Or worry?

Turning his focus back to her, he asked, "My car service picked you up, right?"

"Yes, thank you.  It was nice to relax for a change driving into the city."

He smiled, and then the smile slipped away.  He actually looked uncertain for a moment, but only for a very fleeting moment.  "We're not going to find privacy here," he explained.  "Even in my office I'm constantly interrupted.  Would you consider taking a drive?  I have a place on the beach—"

At her surprised expression he held up his hand in a "stop" gesture.  "This is not a proposition," he assured her, his voice lowering.  "I can even provide you numbers of a few good friends if you want to check me out.  I just believe we need privacy for this discussion."

And just what discussion was it?  "I checked you out before I agreed to do this interview," she admitted.  "At least as much as I could."

He looked mildly amused.  "So, what did you find when you checked me out?"

"I found out that everything you do pretty much turns to gold.  You went to Cal State for a degree in Cinema and TV Arts.  You directed a couple of small films, afterward turning that money over into investments.  Then you started gathering professionals around you who wanted to make the same films and then TV shows that you did.  You've produced cable documentaries as well as network hits.  But that all involves business, not your character or your personal life."

"My personal life is off limits to reporters."  That was said without any amusement at all.

"I did find a couple of Google images with you escorting celebrities or models to charity functions and social galas.  But that really didn't tell me much."

His eyebrows arched, thick eyebrows over deep green eyes that made her feel a little fluttery inside.  Okay, maybe a lot fluttery inside.

"So why did you decide to do the interview?" he asked.

"Because I found transcripts of other interviews you produced.  They were honest and considerate of whomever was being interviewed.  I also liked your..."  She hesitated.  "Your point of view when we talked.  I didn't feel you were going to sensationalize what had happened to me.  You proved it just now when you stepped in."

The nerve in his almost-square jaw worked for a moment.  Then that small giveaway of tension was gone.  "I want to discuss something other than letting the police direct the investigation to find your sister."

That's all she needed to hear.  "Let's go for that drive."

A half-hour later they were in Linc's sporty silver luxury sedan, heading toward the ocean.  Up until now they'd made small talk about the interview, about Tessa, about Emma's daughter who was learning so fast and growing so much.  She'd called Becky's sitter before they'd left to make sure Maris and her daughter could find something for supper if she wasn't back in time.

At a lull in the conversation, Emma watched Linc's large hands on the steering wheel.  He'd discarded his suit jacket and tie and opened the top two buttons on his shirt before he'd climbed into the car.  Sitting beside him like this, the atmosphere seemed oddly intimate as the day started winding down and the sun sank lower on the horizon.

"Not much longer," he told her.

She sent him a small smile.  "Am I looking impatient?"

"No, just a little nervous.  Are you sure you don't want to call my best friend?"

That probably would have been wise.  But Linc seemed straightforward.  "Tell me about your best friend."

After Linc cut her a glance, he focused on the highway again.  "His name is Nathan Bradley.  He's a family man with two daughters from his first marriage he sees a lot, and a little boy, Matthew, from his second marriage.  He's an internet security expert who flies all over the country, taking care of important people's networks."

"I like the fact that you put his family history before his work."

"Would it make you feel better if I told you I baby-sit for Nathan?  I did before he married Gillian and I do now.  Their kids call me Uncle Linc."

She laughed.  "Maybe I should talk to them."

He laughed, too, and glanced at her again.  Something intangible passed between them that she seemed to feel in her heart.  How crazy was that?

Fifteen minutes later, Linc turned off the highway and took a series of turns.  After he drove down a long drive, they exited the car and Emma looked around. 

A one-story house sprawled before her and she could see the ocean beyond.  "What a beautiful setting," she murmured.

"I like it.  It's worth the commute.  We're alone here.  If you prefer to walk the beach instead of going inside, I'll understand."

Alone with Linc Granger.  Maybe she should have trepidations about that, but she didn't.  She felt excited.  Because they were going to talk about a way to find her sister?  Or because he was one very sexy man?

Because he was going to give her information to find a way to find Paige, of course.

"I'll shed my shoes and we can walk the beach," she decided, taking the safer route.

"Give me five minutes to get comfortable and then we'll walk.  There's a deck around back.  Would you like something to drink?"

"No, I'm fine."

"Be right back."

Emma found cushy chairs and chaises on his deck, but she was too fidgety to sit.  Instead, she stood at the railing, looking out at the ocean, wondering if her sister was still alive and if she was, where she was.  She'd spent so many hours while Paige had been gone thinking about that—praying, hoping and trying to stay positive.  But how could she when such dark visions invaded the others?  Paige's car wasn't worth the bald tires it had been running on, so no one would have wanted to hijack her car.  Had she had engine trouble again, left the vehicle and started walking?  Had someone picked her up and then—

There were those dark thoughts that Emma didn't want to have, but knew she had to be realistic about.

When Linc emerged from the house he wore a blue polo shirt and denim cutoffs.  His feet were bare.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Ready to find my sister," she agreed.

She kept her shoes on until they reached the bottom of the wooden steps where grass and sand began.  Then she took them off and laid them on the step.  Seagrass tickled her legs as they made their way across the sand to the packed beach.

As they walked along the shore, the wind tossing their hair, Linc asked, "Do you believe in things you can't see?"

Her gaze met his.  "You mean religion?"

He blew out a breath.  "No, that's not what I mean.  I'm just going to lay this all out," he said.  "If you want to walk back to my house, get in the car and go home, that's fine.  But I felt this was an option you should consider."

"You're not talking about a private investigator, are you?"  The spray from the ocean misted them as they left their footprints on the shoreline.

"Sort of."

"Linc, I can't afford one.  I hired someone the first week after Paige disappeared.  But he couldn't find anything and I couldn't afford to have him go on looking.  When Barrett died, he didn't have life insurance.  It was one of those things he kept putting off doing.  Thank goodness I had my business, but with insurance costs and the mortgage, I don't have much left over each month."

Linc stopped and took her arm.  Again his touch made her tummy somersault and her pulse race.  But she had to focus on what they were discussing, not her reactions to him.

"Emma, this isn't about money.  It's about a gift my best friend's wife has.  Nathan's wife, Gillian, works with another friend of mine, Jake Donovan.  Jake used to be a cop.  Then he turned to private investigation.  But after he met Gillian, his life changed.  For the most part he and Gillian find missing persons, especially lost children.  They started a foundation for this purpose.  People they've helped have donated a lot of money.  Funds just seem to stream in because it's a good cause."

"So Nathan's wife, Gillian, is a private investigator, too?"

"No, she's not.  Nathan found Gillian through Jake as a last-ditch effort when his ex-wife disappeared with his daughters.  Gillian found them for him.  She has a gift.  Some people would label her a psychic.  She doesn't think of herself that way.  She just seems to be able to tune in to missing persons.  She gets sensations and feelings and in themselves they're not enough.  But when family members are questioned, or Jake does research tracking down information Gillian gets, they've got a 99% success rate."

Emma was astonished by what Linc was telling her.  He was a rational businessman and yet he obviously believed in what he called Gillian's gift.

"Let's walk some more," she said to Linc, pulling her arm from his clasp because she couldn't think straight with his hand on her skin.

Silent as they walked, he glanced at her every now and then.  She could feel that glance, feel his concern and compassion for her.

Finally she said, "My dad left after Paige was born.  We never heard from him again.  My mom was really hurt by his abandonment.  When she felt hurt, she went to church, taking us with her for the same comfort she found there until she died of breast cancer."

Linc stopped walking again.  "I'm sorry."

She could see he wasn't just saying the words, he was sorry.  And there was a deeper understanding in his expression that made her wonder about his background.  "Thank you.  The reason I'm telling you this is—before mom died, she took my hand and she made me promise that I would take care of Paige and if I ever had children that I would take them to church.  She thought everyone needed to believe in something outside of themselves, just like she did and just like Paige and I did."

"Do you take Becky to church?"

"I do most weeks.  She attends Sunday School while I go to the service.  So what I'm trying to say is that I believe in something outside of myself."  She looked toward the ocean and waved her hand.  "I believe in the power behind this."

Facing him again, she requested, "So tell me more about Gillian."

"The way I understand it, when she was ten she was hit by lightning.  It was after that the sensations started to come to her.  She's a caring person.  She loves her husband and son, and Nathan's daughters accept her as a second mom."

"And she teamed up with a former cop."

"Jake had heard about her, looked into her success rate and then recommended her to Nathan.  After she found Nathan's daughters, Jake was a believer."

"Are you sure there's no fee, Linc?  I can make a donation, but I don't know how much."

"They don't charge."

"But you've donated to this foundation," she guessed.

"I have.  I believe in the work they do."

Emma stared at the sun beginning to set, the sky shot through with pink and orange.  She thought about Paige and the empty car and dark nights when she couldn't sleep wondering where her sister was, crying because she was afraid Paige had been hurt, crying because she was afraid she was dead.

"Let's walk back," she said, needing to think about all of this.

Linc didn't initiate conversation as they walked, as gulls screeched, as waves pounded the shore.  The tide was coming in, creating puddles in the sand that she was barely aware of as she sloshed through them.  Linc stayed by her side, walked where she walked, a force to be reckoned with himself.

She would have kept walking, but Linc tapped her shoulder and pointed to his house across the expanse of loose sand and grass.  When they reached the steps, she wiped the sand from her feet and slipped them into her shoes.  He let her precede him.

Once they were standing on the deck, she made a decision.  The ocean wasn't as loud up here but it still carried a resonant voice, a pounding that was a backdrop.

When she turned to face Linc, for a few moments the sound of the ocean faded away.  The brush of the breeze on her face hardly registered because she got lost in his green eyes.  But then she remembered why she was here, at his house on the beach.

Her voice was loud and clear above the sound of the surf.  "I'd like to meet Gillian."


PREVIEW OF ALWAYS HER COWBOY:


ALWAYS HER COWBOY, Search For Love, Book 4.  New, never before published, only in e-book.  A sweetly sexy contemporary ranch romance with an old-fashioned flavor but a modern twist. Secondary characters from books 1, 2, and 3 aid in Lucy's search for her sister.

"Smith does not shy away from tackling the most challenging of emotional situations, which presents her tales an opportunity for poignancy and healing that has become her trademark." Cynthia Penn, reviewer

"For heartwarming, romantic tales of love about realistic people in true to life situations, you can always count on Karen Rose Smith." Jane Bowers, Reviewer Romance Reviews Today

       Once a doctor, Zack goes on the road leaving tragedy behind. Growing up on a ranch, Zack heads for a life that once brought him peace. After selling his practice in LA, he finds temporary jobs on western ranches until the work is finished. Then he moves on. Until he arrives at The Rising Star.

       Lucy McIntyre's father interviewed Zack over the phone. But he trusts Lucy's instincts and gives her the job of checking the man's references as well as doing a face to face interview. Adopted, always grateful for the family who accepted her no matter what, Lucy never expects the sizzling magnetic pull to Zackary Burke. Almost immediately she realizes he's a complicated man. But she has her own secrets. Because of a riding accident when she was seventeen, she can't have children. And in the middle of Zack's interview she receives an unusual call from the family lawyer. When she drives to his office in Long Brush, she finds a photo of two baby girls. The lawyer believes she has a twin. Lucy is as loyal to her family as they are to her. She doesn't want to hurt them or make them think they haven't given her enough...that they aren't enough. Should she find this sister who might be a twin?

       Complicating life on The Rising Star, Lucy's brother Marty is drinking too much after a break-up with his girlfriend and Lucy is covering for him. Zack tries to convince her her brother needs help, but Lucy is hoping the situation will resolve itself on its own. She knows Zack is a loner and a drifter and doesn't intend to stay. But they are still drawn together, can't deny their sizzling attraction, and find they can listen to each other with some perspective, even though they don't always agree.

       The McIntyre family accepts Zack into their fold. At first his heart is hard against emotions he doesn't want to feel. But Lucy begins to change all that...she thaws his heart and leads him to love and emotional healing.


Chapter One

 

When Lucy McIntyre heard the roar of a motorcycle breaking the solitude of the Rising Star Ranch, she went to the kitchen window and pushed back the lace curtain with its ivy pattern.  The man on the Harley brought the machine to a halt at the path to the house.  She watched him climb off, hang his helmet on the handlebar, and stand with his hands jammed into the back pockets of his jeans as he studied the barn, corrals, indoor arena, and outbuildings.  Then his attention turned toward the porch that wound around the house.  Although she'd expected someone by the name of Zackary Burke to apply for the job of temporary hand, she'd never expected him to look like this!

He wore boots and jeans, typical attire for men living in and around Long Brush, Wyoming.  But the black leather jacket and the motorcycle told her he was from another place.  His midnight hair—thick, wavy and unruly—needed a trim.  He stood over six feet.  She could tell even from here.  With his broad shoulders and slim hips, all he needed was a Stetson and a horse to make him look as if he belonged.

Lucy didn't think she moved, but the man's eyes met hers through the window.  Caught, embarrassed and mesmerized by something in the man's demeanor and gaze, every question she'd prepared for their interview vanished from her head.

Without any warning, he winked, gave her half a smile and started up the walk.

Flustered and determined not to be, Lucy crossed the kitchen, willing the heat in her cheeks to subside.  But when she opened the door, the man was even taller and more powerfully masculine than he'd looked twenty feet away!  The curiosity and male appraisal as his blue eyes drifted from her long brown hair to her boots brought even more heat to her cheeks and a dryness to her throat.

The man extended his hand.  "Zack Burke.  I saw the job notice at the feed store in Long Brush and talked with Tom McIntyre about it at the day before yesterday."

Lucy shook his hand, surprised by the heat of his skin, its rough texture and the sparks that zipped up her arm.  "Tom McIntyre is my father."  A McIntyre by name rather than birth, it had never seemed to matter because she'd never doubted that her adoptive parents loved her or that her older brothers accepted her.  Always grateful for that love and acceptance, she knew without it, her life might have been much different.

"Is your father around?" Zack Burke asked with a lift of a black brow.

"Dad and my brother are mending fence.  I'm going to talk with you a little more to see if we should hire you.  This is a family-run ranch so family is involved in everything."  She motioned toward the kitchen table.

Unzipping his jacket, Zack waited for Lucy to sit before he pulled out a chair at the large pine table.  His knee brushed hers and he nonchalantly shifted in the high-backed chair with that half-smile back on his lips.  "Your father told me how much the job pays, including room and board.  He said it's temporary—until your brother gets back on his feet.  But if he's out mending fence..."

"That's my older brother, Rick.  You'd be standing in for my other brother, Marty.  He...hasn't been himself lately.  Too unreliable to depend on.  With winter setting in soon, we need a reliable, all-around hand.  We tend some cattle, but our main focus is our Quarter Horses.  Dad's family has raised them for generations."

"If you check the references I gave your dad, you'll see I know how to ride, can cut calves, and I'm handy with a hammer."

Along with her father's estimation of the man after his phone conversation with him and inquiring about him at the boarding house in Long Brush where he'd been staying, her dad had given her Zackary Burke's references and she'd called all three of them.  Zack's last temporary job had been on a ranch in southern Wyoming and the two before that on spreads in Colorado.  His former employers had answered all her questions and agreed he was hard-working and dependable.  But Lucy wanted to interview him herself, to rely on her own instincts for one very important reason.

"Why do you want this job, Mr. Burke?"

"Zack," he suggested with a full smile that was meant to disarm her completely.  It almost did.

But she had learned her lesson about charm and appearances, and a man's definition of a woman.  If this man didn't want her to stand on formality, she wouldn't, but she would get the answers she needed.  "All right...Zack.  Why do you want to work on the Rising Star?"

Giving a casual shrug, his gaze met hers.  "When I like a place, I stop and work.  Wyoming has enough wide spaces that a man can breathe, move around and not feel trapped."

Lucy felt a sudden fascination to know more about Zackary Burke and why he felt trapped.  The light in his intense blue eyes had changed.  The devil-may-care sparkle had disappeared and was replaced by shadows.

Knowing she was maybe probing where she shouldn't, she asked, "Why don't you stay anywhere more than a few months?"

His strongly chiseled jaw tightened.  "I suspect you know how life on a ranch changes with the seasons.  When the work's finished, I move on."

"But..."

"Miss McIntyre," he drawled.  Again he gave her that nonchalant smile that showed her how mobile his lips could be and made her wonder how he kissed.  The thought shocked her!  Well, not the thought, but her having it.

"I like to travel," he continued.  "Working like this, I've seen more of the United States than most people can only dream of seeing.  And I like ranches—the miles of fence, the pine and larch, the bunkhouses where no one cares where you came from or where you're going."

If that was a subtle hint for her to back off with the questions, she wasn't going to take it.  "Then you might not want this job, Mr. Burke."

"Zack," he reminded her.

"Zack.  We don't have a bunkhouse.  My older brother lives in the house up the lane, and Marty lives here.  You'd have a room in this house with the family."

He pushed back his chair as if to push away from her and the whole idea.  "You're kidding!"

Lucy shook her head.  "No, I'm not.  You'd have a room on this floor down the hall and you'd take your meals with us."

Before the man across from her could respond, the telephone rang.  With an "Excuse me, I'll be right back," Lucy stood, went into the living room and picked up the phone.

After another glance at Zack, she answered, "Hello, McIntyres."

"Lucy, is that you?  It's John Buckley."

"Mr. Buckley!  How are you?"

"I'm fine.  Do you have a minute?"

John Buckley was the family lawyer.  What could he possibly want with her?  "What is it?"

"I'd like you to stop in at my office.  I have something I want you to see."

"I don't understand."

"The lawyer who handled your adoption died.  Records were sent on to me.  There's not much, but there is a picture you should look at."

"What kind of picture?"

"I think you should see it before we decide what, if anything, we want to do about it.  I'd email it to you but I'd like you to see the original.  When are you coming into town?"

Long Brush with its quaint shops, professional offices and small hospital was a fifteen-mile trip, and she usually combined shopping and errands when she made it.  She could make time on Monday...

She hadn't thought about her origins and her adoption in a long time.  All she knew about her birth-mother was that the woman had been too poor to keep her and take care of her so she'd given Lucy up for adoption as soon as she was born.  That's it.  Nothing about her father.  No memorabilia.  Nothing else.  Lucy had been perfectly happy all her life in the McIntyres embrace.  Did she want to tamper with that now?

But curiosity was a potent force.  "I can be at your office on Monday around one.  Will that suit you?"

"I'll be in my office all day.  One will be fine.  I look forward to seeing you."

After Lucy said good-bye and hung up, she wondered if she should tell her parents about the call.  But why upset them?  It might be nothing.  She'd wait until after her meeting with Mr. Buckley to decide.  Right now, she had another decision to make—whether or not she should hire Zackary Burke.

#

Glad for a chance to regroup, Zack watched Lucy McIntyre walk into the living room and answer the phone.  Her warm brown eyes slid over him once more before she looked away and concentrated on her call.  Disconcerted by his body's reaction not only to her gaze but to her mere nearness, he tried to dismiss it as a fluke.  For a very long time he'd felt no desire for a woman, the same as he'd felt no inclination to go back to practicing medicine.  He knew they were connected.  He knew he rode across the western states to escape his thoughts as well as the past.  Whenever he stayed in one place too long, all of it came rushing back.

But from the moment he'd taken Lucy McIntyre's hand, smelled lilacs—a scent he associated with long-ago and far-away dreams and white picket fences, and seen the light dusting of freckles across her nose, he'd felt the very real response of a man to a pretty woman.  How could he stay when he was attracted to her?  How could he stay when he knew any attraction would have no place to go?  Not after Kay and what had happened to her and their baby...

Lucy came back to the kitchen, her expression pensive.

"Bad news?" he asked, then wondered why he had.  For the past fifteen months he'd tried to stay uninvolved in other people's lives.

"Oh, I wasn't thinking about the call."  She smiled.  "Actually, I was thinking about you and whether I should hire you."

As she drew closer, the lilacs wound about him again, tempting him with more than a job on a ranch.  The freshness of her smile packed the same mighty punch.  So he asked gruffly, "Why would you want hired help to stay in your house?"

"That's the kind of people my parents are.  But that's also why we checked your references carefully."

"How do you know I'm not an escaped convict?"

"Are you?" she asked with a challenging tilt of her head.

He felt an unexpected laugh rumble from his chest.  It had been a long time since he'd really laughed.  "Do you honestly think I'd tell you?"

Planting her hands on her hips, she gave him another good once-over with her warm brown eyes.  "Yes."

Her certainty drew him out of his seat as much as the scent of her perfume, and he approached her slowly.  "Either you're very naive or a very good judge of character."

"Neither, Mr. Burke...Zack," she amended.  "I've learned to trust my instincts, and they're telling me my family has nothing to fear from you."

Lucy was slender and tall, but he still towered over her a good five inches.  Yet he could tell she wasn't intimidated.  "You're right.  Your family has nothing to fear from me...if I take the job."

"Do you want it?"  Her hands dropped to her sides and he realized he'd like to feel the touch of her skin against his once again.

Impressed with Lucy and her directness, he took a deep breath, knowing he should jump on his Harley and head for far away places right now.  But he wanted the work.  He needed the satisfaction of physical labor so he could sleep at the end of the day.  A ranch would provide plenty of that.  "I want the job."

Their gazes held.  The awareness between them almost hummed in the kitchen as the full realization that they'd be sleeping under the same roof hit him.  Maybe she was thinking about it, too.

Lucy broke eye contact first and took a step back.  "Well, good.  I'll give you a brief tour, then show you where to put your things.  By then—"

The kitchen door opened and a little boy—about five—came running in.  When he saw Zack and Lucy, he stopped.  "Are you the man who's gonna help Dad and Gramps and Lucy till Uncle Marty's okay again?"

Zack watched Lucy's chagrin and he guessed this child heard a lot more than the adults wanted him to hear.  Zack wondered what the story was with "Marty."  Not that it was any of his business.

Lucy said, "This is my nephew, Josh.  My oldest brother's son.  Josh, this is Mr. Burke and he is going to be working here for a while."

Josh stood in front of Zack and stared up at him.  "Is that your bike out there?"

The boy's brown eyes twinkled with curiosity.  His reddish hair spiked in more than one direction, while his sweatshirt proclaimed he was a COWBOYS fan.  Zack's heart ached for the son he'd lost, the child who'd lost his life before he'd had the chance to begin it.  He hadn't been around children since Kay and their baby died.  He'd avoided contact just as he'd avoided the feelings that hurt too much to name.

But he guessed he wasn't going to be able to avoid Josh.  "Yep.  That's my bike."

"Can I have a ride on it?"

"Josh..." Lucy scolded.

Zack grinned.  "I bet we'll have to ask a few grown-ups before I can give you an answer on that."

Turning to Lucy, Josh pleaded, "If you ask Dad, I'll ask Mom.  Please?"

Zack could tell Lucy was putty in her nephew's hands.  He was sure of it when she gave the boy a hug and said, "I'll see what I can do."

"Josh, I told you not to run ahead of me like that."  A pleasantly rounded woman, wearing a down coat smiled at Zack from the doorway.  As she stepped into the kitchen, Zack realized she belonged here as much as the hand-woven multi-colored place mats on the table, the green vines sitting in planters on the window ledge, and the homey aroma of something braising in the oven.

Coming right up to Zack, she extended her hand.  "I'm Esther McIntyre."

The manners he'd thought he'd left back in California but that had emerged with Lucy and now with her mother, urged him to say, "It's good to meet you, Mrs. McIntyre.  I've accepted the job on the ranch.  That is unless you'd like to interview me, too."

Esther smiled at him, squeezed his hand and looked him straight in the eye.  "I trust my husband's judgment and Lucy's, too."  Unzipping her coat, she said, "Now, I've got to get supper ready.  Lucy, you show Mr. Burke around.  And Josh—"

"I wanna go with them."

It didn't look as if Zack had to worry about anything happening even if he was attracted to Lucy.  There were lots of chaperones.  Maybe this stay at the Rising Star was exactly the distraction he needed.  And if it wasn't?

He'd leave.  He'd gotten very good at that.

#

With Josh along on the tour chattering and pointing to his house that was as close to the all-purpose barn as the home where Lucy had grown up, she felt comfortable walking beside Zack.  At least that's what she told herself as he responded to Josh's questions and comments with patience and interest.

When the five-year-old ran ahead, she couldn't help but say, "You're good with Josh.  Have you spent much time around children?"

Zack stopped for a moment, keeping his gaze trained on the little boy.  "Not nearly enough," he answered softly.

Lucy thought she heard longing in his voice and analyzed what it meant.  Like most men, he wanted children.  Like Pete Cantrell.  And when she'd told Pete she couldn't give him a child...  He'd practically left a cloud of dust behind him as he'd rushed to escape their relationship.  Since Pete, she'd concentrated on her family, the ranch, business management courses, and thought about adopting a child herself someday.  She knew better than to repeat past mistakes.  She knew better than to expect a man to give up the idea of blood heirs to take care of someone else's children.

She had no reason to believe Zackary Burke was any different.  As she gazed at his profile, the defined bone structure, the angular line of a strong jaw, the thick vitality of his black hair, her heart sped up.  Yes, she was attracted to him.  But attraction was as insubstantial as smoke.  There was no point exploring her attraction to him...no future in letting sparks catch fire.  Because after the fire, she had nothing to offer.

Zack started walking again and she did, too, keeping her distance, reminding herself he was a drifter and would not be staying.

Glancing at Lucy as she grew quiet, Zack realized she had to take two steps to his one and he slowed his pace.  "Tell me about the ranch."

She smiled then, and he realized it was an automatic response to the place where she'd grown up.  "When I was little, I thought it was the world," she said.  "It seemed to have no boundaries.  I could run in any direction until I was too tired to keep going, and I was still on the ranch.  I can't imagine living in a big city with no land around me, no cottonwoods or fence or as much grass as sky."

"You love it here."

"I always have, and I always will."

Stopping again, he faced her, suddenly filled with the need not only to get closer to smell her perfume, but to know more about her.  "You don't have a desire to venture beyond the town of Long Brush?"

"I'd need a very good reason.  Even to live in town.  I like being out here with my family."

He itched to touch the glossiness of her hair as it swept across her cheek.  "You don't feel crowded?  As if they're in your business all the time?"  He'd never known real family.  He and Kay had been planning to put down roots...

"That's the greatest advantage to living on a ranch.  When I feel crowded, I have plenty of space to catch my breath."

Wanting to keep her talking, he asked, "Do you sell your horses locally?"

Lucy raised her chin a notch and stuffed her bare hands in the pockets of her jacket.  "Rising Star has a reputation.  We sell to customers all over the country.  The Quarter Horse isn't only a cow pony.  He's a great all-around horse.  And Quarter Horse racing is picking up again, too, though most of the horses we sell are trained for cutting events."

The late October breeze carried the forecast of winter as it suddenly buffeted Zack with more force.  When Lucy's hair blew across her lips, he couldn't keep himself from reaching out, smoothing it along her cheek.  Her brown hair was as silky as it looked.  Would her lips taste as sweet as he imagined?  Could her hands make him remember passion and the fire that drove it?

If he lowered his head, he could taste her...maybe taste desire again...

"Hey, Mr. Burke," Josh called from the barn door.  "Come see my saddle."

Lucy's lashes fluttered and she avoided his gaze.  Zack pushed desire away and said to Josh," "We'll be right there."  More disappointed than he wanted to admit that he hadn't kissed her, he was also grateful for the interruption.  What if he'd kissed her and found he was still frozen inside?  And what if she thought a kiss meant something other than curiosity?

As he saw Lucy's cheeks redden not only from the fresh air, but also from the embarrassment she was trying to hide, he knew a kiss would mean more to a woman like this than a moment of desire.

Then all of a sudden, she faced him squarely and asked, "When you leave Rising Star, where are you headed?"

The question took him by surprise—but only for a moment.  He realized Lucy, like most women, had permanence on her mind.  He'd learned too well that nothing about life was permanent.  "Trying to get rid of me already?" he teased.

"Of course not.  I just wondered, that's all."

He could tell Lucy wasn't the type of woman who could be easily sidetracked.  "Probably Texas."

"Any place in particular?"

Frowning, he shrugged as if he hadn't given it much thought.  "San Antonio, maybe."

"Why?"

"Is this still part of the interview?" he asked, impatient with her questions because he didn't have the answers.

"I guess you can say that.  Where a man is going can be just as important as where he's been."

He'd been to hell and was finding his way back to earth.  Holding on to anger that simmered beneath his impatience, he answered, "I'm going to San Antonio because I've never been there."

"And after that?" she pressed some more.

Raking his hand through his hair, he said, "I haven't planned it out.  Maybe I'll head up to Alaska and climb a few glaciers."

Lucy didn't blink an eye.  "What are you running from, Zack?"

Her insight brought his anger to the surface.  "I'm not running.  I'm exploring.  And I didn't realize when I accepted this job that I'd be grilled about my life.  Or are you reconsidering your offer?"

"No, the offer holds.  If you still want the job."

For some insane reason, he wanted it more now than when he'd ridden his bike under the wooden sign where letters carved into the wood read RISING STAR.

"Mr. Burke.  Aunt Lucy.  Are you coming?" Josh yelled again, holding the door open for them.

After waving to her nephew, Lucy waited for Zack's answer.

When her brown eyes searched his face, Zack realized this woman might have the power to make him feel again.  "Look, I want the job.  But I want my privacy, too.  Let's just stick to the here and now."

Her brows arched.  "A man without a past and without a future.  We can try it, Zack.  But I can't promise my family won't ask the same questions I have.  You might get tired of fending them off."

With a grimace, he shook his head.  "Let's go look at Josh's saddle.  I'll worry about fending off your family when I have to."

As he strode toward Josh, Zack realized Lucy's words were more of a prediction than a warning.  At least he'd be ready.

And he would be prepared.  He wasn't about to open wounds that were finally starting to heal.

#

Zack met the McIntyres as they straggled in for Saturday night supper.  Josh introduced each member as if it was the most important job he ever had.  Zack suspected Esther McIntyre had suggested the procedure to Josh as an exercise in social skills but also to make Zack feel more comfortable.  He was definitely a fish out of water in this family atmosphere.

Mary Jo McIntyre, Rick's wife, dressed in jeans and flannel blouse, her light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, sparkled with the same enthusiasm for life as her son.  "It's good to meet you, Mr. Burke.  I hope Josh hasn't been too much of a bother."

"No bother at all.  He makes a great tour guide."

Mary Jo smiled and ruffled her son's hair.  "He knows more about this ranch than I do.  He sees and hears everything."

Zack laughed.  Twice in one day.  How long had it been since laughter had been part of his life?

When Rick McIntyre shook Zack's hand, his grip was firm, his gaze friendly.  "Lucy asked me Josh's very-important- question.  How about you and I take a turn around the place on your bike sometime before I give Josh the okay?"

Zack heard the amusement in Rick's suggestion.  "No problem.  In fact, you might even want to try it by yourself."

Rick grinned like a teenager.  "I was hoping you'd say that.  I think you and I will get along just fine."

When Tom McIntyre came in, he went to the kitchen, hugged his wife and dropped a kiss on her cheek.  Then he joined the group in the living room.  With a grip as strong as his oldest son's, he shook Zack's hand.  "I understand you roared in here on a motorcycle.  Maybe we can convince you a Quarter Horse is a much better means of transportation."

Lucy crossed to her father with a smile.  "Better watch it, Zack.  He's the best salesman in the state of Wyoming."

Her father grinned at her affectionately.  "You know as well as I do our horses sell themselves.  I just find them good riders."  He looked Zack up and down.  "Something tells me, this man is a good rider."

Before Zack could respond, the door flew open and everyone turned toward it.  A younger version of Tom McIntyre stood in the doorway, a load of firewood stacked high in his arms.

Tom said in a low voice to Lucy, "We actually got some work out of him today.  Maybe he's gonna stop mopin' about that girl."

"Dad...," Lucy chided.

"He's got to get on with his life.  You know that better than anyone."

Lucy glanced quickly at Zack, then looked away.  But not before he saw the shadows in her eyes, not before he saw her chagrin that he'd overheard her dad's remark.  Apparently something...or someone...had hurt her.

Marty dumped the logs on the hearth by the fireplace, then turned toward the group gathered around it.  Unlike the other McIntyres, he made no move toward Zack.

After a moment of silence where the atmosphere in the room suddenly became awkward, Lucy introduced the two men.  "Marty, this is Zack Burke.  He'll be working with us for a while."

Marty's dark brown eyes focused on Zack, switched to his sister, then back to Zack.  "So you did it.  Fine.  I didn't know bringing in hired help was an occasion for a party, though.  We usually only have this commotion on Sundays."

Esther, standing in the doorway to the living room, addressed her son.  "We're a family everyday.  I wanted Zack to feel welcome."

"Welcome to the ranch," Marty said automatically, with no real feeling, but because it was expected of him, then he headed for the stairs and disappeared before he could be chided for his rudeness.

Zack couldn't help but be curious about this member of the McIntyre family who was so different from the others.

Lucy came to stand beside Zack, her arm brushing his.  "I'm sorry about his attitude.  He's had rough going lately."

Rick frowned.  "A lot of that rough going is his own fault.  More than once I told him Angie wasn't ready to get serious, but he wouldn't listen.  He wouldn't take advice then, just like he won't take advice now.  He's as hard-headed as they come."

Mary Jo nudged her husband's arm with a small smile.  "As if you know nothing about being hard-headed.  Lucy's the only one of the McIntyre siblings who knows how to bend."

"Are you saying I'm stubborn?" Rick asked with mock indignation.

Mary Jo laughed.  "That's a pleasant way of putting it."

Tom shook his head.  "Stubborn or not, that boy better get his head together.  Lucy, try to talk some sense into him again, will you?  Of any of us, he listens to you best."

"I'll try, Dad."

When she turned toward her father and her elbow brushed Zack, electric charges danced up his arm.

Esther beckoned to them.  "Come on!  Supper's ready.  When we're sitting around the table, maybe Marty will realize how much he still has."

Josh maneuvered to sit on Zack's left.  Lucy sat on his right.  When Marty rejoined his family, he positioned himself across from the two of them.

It had been over two years since Zack had sat down and eaten a home-cooked family dinner.  The night before his camping trip with Kay...

Rick asked, "So...Zack.  What do you do besides ride around on a bike?"

Zack accepted the platter of roast beef Lucy passed to him and considered his options.  He didn't want to lie to these people but he also didn't want to answer questions that would lead to areas he'd rather avoid.  Noticing Lucy's "I-warned-you" look, he answered, "Along with working on ranches, some construction jobs.  I've done a little bit of everything.  Mr. McIntyre, I hear that construction is particularly slow in Wyoming.  Why do you think that is?"

Fortunately for Zack, the conversation turned to the housing market and the economic conditions in Long Brush and the surrounding area.  Then he concentrated on his food and tried to keep his mind off Lucy as she reached for the salt shaker.  Her hair swayed along her cheek—silky, soft, natural.

Suddenly, she leaned close to his shoulder.  "You managed that one like a pro."

If Zack turned his head, his chin would brush her hair.  He tightened his hand into a fist, inhaled her scent, and said as casually as he could manage, "I know a secret.  Most people like to talk about what concerns them."

"I'll remember that," she said with a smile in her voice.

He turned his head then and his chin did brush her hair.  His chest tightened and all his senses went on red alert until suddenly Josh tugged on Zack's arm.  Turning from Lucy, he felt Marty's stabbing gaze on him as he leaned down to the five-year-old.

#

After supper, Marty followed Zack to the living room.

Zack stood at the fireplace and waited.  If Lucy's brother had something to say, he might as well get it off his chest.

It didn't take long until he did.  "Lucy hired you mighty quick."

Zack faced Marty squarely.  "You don't trust her judgment?"

"I don't trust a stranger who looks at her the way you do.  I'm just warning you—we protect our own.  So watch your step."

Zack wondered just how he did look at Lucy.  As if he wanted to touch her, and kiss her, and wrap his body around hers?  He thought he was more guarded than that.  Yet, there was no point denying his attraction to her, and he wouldn't lie about it.  "Lucy and I are adults.  What happens between us is our business."

"Lucy is a McIntyre."

"That doesn't mean you can run her life."

"No, but I can watch out for her like I always have."

As Rick and Mary Jo entered the living room, Marty moved away, leaving Zack to realize more fully what it meant to be a member of a family.  An ache for the wife and son he'd lost filled him...an ache he'd managed to deny for over two years.

 
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