"You're going to do what?"
Sarah Maxwell gazed at her cousin's mutinous expression, willing her to understand. "Rafe's reputation is in shreds since I left. I need, deep in my soul, to set things right. Please try to understand, Pipi, I have to go back."
"Back into the lion's den." Pipi shook her head. "Listen to me, cuz. You'll be going on a fool's errand. You don't think the man will actually take you back with open arms after you deserted him on your wedding night three weeks ago do you?"
"Rafe's housekeeper is going on a long deserved vacation. I'm all set to fill in for her at the ranch."
"So she's the one who's been feeding you all these gloom and doom stories about him." Pipi scowled. "It could be a set up you know."
"No, Rafe's not that devious." Sarah added sadly, "He can't even tell a decent white lie. That's how I found out that he doesn't really love me. He only married me because of my family connections."
Pipi shook her head. "You, a housekeeper? I can't picture it."
Sarah shrugged. "How hard can it be? You mop a few floors, open a few cans. I should even have enough spare time to finish the series of endangered species photos I was working on. It's the best work I've ever done and my editor said it could lead to some prestigious work."
"That's just an excuse, Sarah, and you know it. You aren't responsible for ruining the cowboy any more than your mother was responsible for ruining your father. That was all our grumpy old grandfather's imagination. You can't fix the past by doing this."
"That's not why." Sarah noted Pipi's disbelief and sighed. "Maybe that's part of it, but the plain truth is I love the hardheaded, stubborn cowboy and I can't see his life ruined."
* * *
"Somebody's sure in an all fired hurry, boss."
Rafe leaned forward in his rocker. His fatigue after a long dusty day on the range melted as he watched the silver Jeep Cherokee kick up a plume of dust in its wake. It sped toward them down the long ranch driveway. "It's the wife."
"Wife." Zeke Taylor, his ranch foreman, made the word sound like a curse. "I can't believe she has the guts to show her face around here after hightailing it on your wedding night."
Rafe noted the sour expression on Zeke's wizened face, but ignored it. This wasn't up for debate. "I want you to spread the word. She's to be treated with respect."
"I don't get it. The woman runs roughshod over you and you're going to lay out the red carpet for her."
"Don't worry about it, Zeke." Rafe smiled, adding confidently, "I've got everything under control this time around."
"What you plannin' to do, sweet talk her into sticking around this time?" Zeke scowled and spat on the ground.
Rafe shook his head, his jaw tightening. "No, it'll take more than sweet talk to bind a saddle shy filly like Sarah to my side. Don't you worry, I've got her figured out and before she knows it I'll have her tied to my side."
Zeke slowly got up from the creaky rocker, slapping his battered Stetson against his leg. "I hope you know what you're doing, boy."
"So do I," Rafe said softly as he watched Zeke stomp toward the bunk house. He had to make this work. His future depended on it.
The Jeep came to a halt amid a cloud of dust. The inevitability of the moment hit him hard. He never doubted that one day Sarah would return, and when she did he would be the one in control. But first, he planned to extract a little payback before they settled down to domestic bliss. Sarah got out of the jeep and Rafe swallowed the lump in his throat. Dying embers of the sun caught the golden highlights in her long, red hair, turning it to molten fire.
As she walked toward him, Rafe was struck anew by the confident way she moved. That was what had attracted him in the first place six short weeks ago when she'd come to the area to shoot a series on the Grand Teton wildlife.
Rafe noted the proud angle of her chin and the keen intelligence in her sparkling green eyes. Dealing with her was going to be a challenge. And oh, how he loved challenges. The first moment they met, he'd known he had to have her and he almost had until she ran off on their wedding night. Three weeks later he still wasn't sure what spooked her, but he knew the best way to treat a spooked filly was put blinders on her. Instead, Rafe put up a blinder of a small white lie. Sure it was true that there'd been unmerciful gossip, but he could take it. And yes, his expansion loan had been turned down but there were ways to keep from selling up.
Rafe knew that Sarah's sense of honor would make her come back to right a wrong and he intended to capitalize on her integrity. He studied her as he would any opponent. There was strength in the proud angle of her chin, and a keen intelligence in her sparkling green eyes.
Rafe sat motionlessly in the shadows of the porch and watched her stride falter as she neared the steps. He could almost feel her instinctive desire to turn tail and run as she gazed up at him. His fist tightened on the rocking chair arm, awaiting her decision. Sarah took the first porch step and Rafe leaned back, letting out an imperceptible sigh.
He tilted his head back snagging her gaze as she drew near. "It's mighty nice of you to come a' calling, wife. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?
Sarah frowned, her chin rising defiantly. "I can see that you're not surprised to see me. Rose must have filled you in on our conversation."
"That's right." He kept a tight reign on his emotions as he watched the play of emotions across her expressive face. "So you want to sign on as my housekeeper. Have you got any references?"
"It's no joking matter, Rafe." Sarah scowled at him. "To put it bluntly, I've come to save your reputation. Now do you want my help or not?"
Rafe slowly got to his feet, feeling her simmering resentment. But he felt something else as well—the unrequited passion that hung between them. He walked past her hearing her indrawn breath as he brushed by her and opened the door. "Why don't we take this inside, wife? There's no need to give the hands any more food for gossip."
Sarah nodded and briskly walked through the door with Rafe at her heels.
"Let's go into the study," he directed.
Rafe followed her. The door clicked shut behind him with a soft finality. He watched Sarah's shoulders tense before she turned to face him, her expression enigmatic.
Rafe hastened to relieve her mind. "Don't worry, wife, there aren't going to be any tearful recriminations. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones."
Sarah wrinkled her nose. "That's very magnanimous of you. As you know, I've heard about your alleged problems. I've come to offer you a deal."
"Do tell." Rafe straightened and sauntered toward her. She backed away, coming to rest against his desk. Rafe inhaled her scent and his senses went into overload. She drew in a tremulous breath. He watched the pulse flicker at the base of her throat recalling it was where she dabbed herself with perfume. He was ever so tempted to nuzzle that sweet spot.
She gulped. "Yes, well, I've heard that you've been having some problems since we split."
"You mean since you tore out of here on our wedding night like your tail was on fire." Rafe closed the gap between them, put his hands on her waist and lifted her onto the desk.
She gasped and Rafe smiled, pleased by her response. Oh yes, she wanted him just as much as he wanted her. He couldn't help focusing on her slightly parted lips. It brought back memories, thoughts of when he'd tasted that intriguing line.
Sarah shimmied back and smoothed her skirt down. "Stop that! I didn't come here to be manhandled. As I was saying, I'm prepared to help you out under certain conditions..."
"What's in it for you?"
Sarah hesitated, biting her lip. "My editor has been clamoring for the series I started shooting. I could finish it in addition to my housekeeping duties."
"Hm..." Rafe's index finger slid along Sarah's silky calf drawing an outraged glower from her. He watched her shake her hair back over her shoulder. What would it look like spread out on his pillow? That he'd never found out was one of his many regrets. But he intended to rectify the error soon. "So we both win. That's mighty generous of you, wife. Just what did you have in mind?"
"Like I said before, I've come back to save your reputation. I'll fill in for Rose for the next two weeks. People will just assume we've gotten back together. The talk will die down. I'll finish my series and then I can quietly slip out of town."
He frowned at her eager tone. Could she dismiss him that easily? "Just like that, huh?"
She quickly added. "Of course, there can't be any intimacy between us."
Rafe shook his head. "I wouldn't be too sure about that, wife. We do have a natural attraction, just like a couple of magnets."
"You don't love me." Sarah glared up at him. "So this attraction you mention is meaningless. What we had was just physical on your part. Sooner or later it'll go away."
Rafe sighed as his suspicions were confirmed. "So that's why you left. Because I didn't give you the words."
"Among other things, important things..." Sarah sighed and said wistfully, "We just won't work, Rafe. I thought a sudden break would be less painful."
Sensing her vulnerability, he closed in for the kill. "Because you love me."
Sarah shrugged and looked away. "Don't worry about it. I'll get over it."
Rafe trapped her chin with his callused fingers, holding her still while he studied her face. She looked as panicked as a deer caught in a car's headlights. She was regretting her decision to come back. He could see it in her startled gaze. But he couldn't let her get away again. He didn't think he could take it if she did. "It's actions that count, to me the words are meaningless. And your actions hurt me, a lot."
Sarah closed her eyes. "I wanted to do the right thing. But I guess it was a mistake to come here, sorry."
Rafe muttered a curse. Damn, he'd pushed her too far. He dropped his hands to his side. "It wasn't a mistake. I do need your help. But under certain conditions."
Sarah opened her eyes, her expression brightening. "Such as?"
He held up one finger. "First, if you're going to give me back my reputation, it's got to look real."
She nodded. "Of course, within reason."
Rafe eyed her sourly. "Word spread when you ran off screaming on our wedding night. People started speculating on what kind of kinky things I might have tried on you. A few even wondered whether I was over-endowed. Some tried to find out."
Sarah's mouth kicked up in a startled grin as she thought of other men trying to sneak peeks at him in the men's room. She bit her lip but a giggle escaped. "After three weeks, I'm sure the talk must have died down."
"Not in a small town like Shelbyville, especially with you coming back. The telephone lines are probably buzzing."
"I never thought of that." She let out a dismayed sigh.
Rafe nodded. "I did. Like I said, it's got to look real."
Her eyes narrowed. "How real?"
"Here's the deal. You move in with me for the rest of the summer. By then the talk will have died down. That should also give you plenty of time to complete your series." Rafe tilted his head, studying her reaction.
"Three months is a heck of a lot longer than I was counting on." Sarah scooted back on the desk. "I can't spend the rest of the summer here. I do have a life of my own, you know." She sighed then said resignedly, "I guess this isn't going to work..."
"Ever hear of a little thing called grand theft auto?" Rafe asked dryly.
"What do you mean?" Sarah's head shot up and she gazed at him warily.
Rafe smiled grimly. "You stole my truck when you ran off."
"That old rattle trap wasn't worth a grand." She scowled up at him. "The thing is held together with bailing wire and string. I just borrowed it to get to the airport. And besides, you got it back, didn't you? I saw it standing out in the yard."
Rafe shrugged. "That's not how the sheriff saw it when I reported it missing that night."
She gasped. "You called the cops on me. I can't believe you would do such a dastardly thing."
"I wasn't exactly in a sweet, understanding mood." A nerve pulsed in his jaw as he gazed at her. "That night I would have done anything to retrieve you."
Sarah frowned up at him her chin rising with defiance. "It's a good thing there's been some cooling off time in the interim."
"You're darned right it's a good thing," Rafe said firmly. "Otherwise I might be tempted to turn you over my knee."
Sarah snorted. "Mr. Halliday, sexist remarks like that aren't going to win my good will."
He shrugged. "That's what you get for picking an unenlightened rancher like me for a husband. Now shall I call the sheriff, or are you staying?"
Sarah bit her lip. "You wouldn't call him."
"You win, but you don't play fair, cowboy," she said sourly while glaring at him.
Rafe turned away saying, "I don't play at all."
"So when do you want to begin this great deception?"
He turned back. "There's no time like the present."
Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Just how am I supposed to convince people we're a real couple?"
Rafe smiled triumphantly. "For starters, you're going to be a perfect ranch wife. Or at least as perfect as you can be with your limited abilities. You're also going to act like I'm the hottest thing in pants you've ever seen."
"That's a stretch." Sarah ignored Rafe's disapproving glower and stood up.
"That brings me to item number two," he said. "You owe me a wedding night. I intend to collect."
Sarah poked his chest with her index finger. "No way. There is absolutely no way I'm going to sleep with you!"
Rafe smiled back at Sarah like a cat with a bowl of cream. "Sure you are, sweet Sarah. You want me as much as I want you. You won't be able to resist the temptation."