Rancher's Proposition

By: Anne Marie Winston
Prologue

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He couldn't believe his sister had done this to him.

Cal McCall gritted his teeth and fumed silently as he regarded the woman standing before him. She was on the tall side for a woman, but even the oversize shirt and too-large jeans she wore couldn't disguise the stick-thin look of her. Her head was down, and a thick curly mane of dark red hair hid most of her face and half her upper body as she stood passive, unmoving, waiting for … for what?

Questions, he assumed. Instructions. He'd asked his sister to hire a housekeeper for him, so this was his own damned fault. Silver had the softest heart in South Dakota. She'd told him that Lyn Hamill needed a job and a place to stay when she was released from protective services; he, as far as his sister was concerned, was the perfect answer.

Again, his gaze ran over his new employee. Hell, she didn't look well enough to be out of the hospital much less capable of taking care of the big old ranch house he'd recently purchased. He knew she'd been a victim of domestic abuse and he surely was sympathetic to her troubles, but he needed someone who could paint and wallpaper, someone who could scrub bathtubs and haul loads of laundry, keep a vegetable garden, herd cantankerous bulls and groom horses if need be. This woman looked like she'd need help even to groom herself.

"So," he heard himself say. "I, ah, I understand you want to work for me."

The head nodded, a slight movement that set the red curtain of her hair rippling, and copper sparks shot from it where the sun touched it. He had to restrain the urge to reach out and hook a finger through one of the curls that hung freely to well below her shoulders. One thing he'd say for her, she had pretty hair.

He sighed heavily. Silver had him between a rock and a hard place and she knew it. One of his dreams had been to buy back the ranch his daddy had owned. When the opportunity had arisen, he'd lunged at it, and Silver had pitched in to help him clean and redecorate the outdated old house. Unfortunately, she'd fallen for a neighboring rancher and gotten married before the job was done.

Still, he owed her for her help. And the only wedding gift she wanted from him was his promise to give this gal a chance.

"Well, I guess we can give it a shot," he said. "I'm finishing some remodeling, so there's going to be some mess and upheaval from time to time. And I'll need your help with a few outside chores as well." He paused, expecting a response, but she remained perfectly still. After the silence got awkward, he said, "Where are your things? I'll go ahead and load them while you say your goodbyes."

The woman nodded again. Without raising her head, she pointed to a large paper bag with two handles and a familiar department store logo. It leaned drunkenly against one of the porch posts of the women's shelter where he'd come to pick up his new employee.

He looked at the bag, then at her. "This is it?" He'd never met a woman who could travel with less than six pair of shoes, ten pounds of cosmetics and major quantities of female junk. This single bag couldn't possibly be the only thing she was bringing.

"Are you ready to leave, dear?" A big, plump woman wearing a pair of jeans that would fit a much smaller person clumped across the porch of the shelter for women in crisis situations. She wore an eye-popping electric pink blouse with a hefty belt of beaten silver cinched tightly around her, and when she folded his silent companion against her ample bosom, Lyn's hair splayed across the pink shirt in a truly appalling color combination that made him wince involuntarily.

Still holding the young woman in her arms, the director looked over Lyn's shoulder at Cal. "So you're Mr. McCall. I'm Rilla. Your sister is a lovely person." She uttered the words in a tone that clearly doubted he shared his sibling's attributes.

He smiled, giving the director, or housemother or whatever the heck she was, his warmest, most sincere smile. It was a smile that had convinced dozens of wary investors to trust him with their hard-earned money, and it didn't fail him this time, either. "I promise you Miss Hamill will be treated with the utmost respect in my home, ma'am. Is there anything special I can do to make her more comfortable?"

The matron laughed, a full, hearty belly laugh that matched the warm twinkle in her heavily mascaraed eyes. "Other than having a sex-change operation, I doubt there's much you can do to make her more comfortable."

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