A Stranger in the Family

Patricia McLinn

a stranger in the family ebook patricia mclinnThe Bardville, Wyoming Trilogy, Book #1
Price: $2.99

VRW HOLT finalist

A sexy, intriguing stranger arrives unexpectedly at her Wyoming ranch, threatening the one thing Cambria protects more fiercely than her heart – her family.

Bodie’s discovery that he fathered a son 17 years ago starts a search that leads him to the warm and welcoming Weston family. But his response to one member of the family is far more than he ever expected. The sparks between him and Cambria are real … and so is the danger to his hopes for their future if she finds out why he’s really in Wyoming.

“. . . It’s one of those books that when you finish, you think, “I’m definitely going to read that again and everything else this author has ever written!” – Live, Love, Write

Patricia says: A line of dialogue from Pete to Bodie about three-quarters of the way through the book came into my head first; that’s what started the book. I feel so much for all the characters in this story – no easy answers.

Reviews…

“An emotionally complex romance of wounded hearts and broken trust” Romantic Times

Originally published by Silhouette Special Edition

PROLOGUE

“Bodie, there’s somebody wai—”

Bodie Smith didn’t break stride crossing to his office door, the voice of his assistant not quite fast enough to keep up. A thousand details aligned in his head—things he’d see to, people he’d call, decisions he’d make—to keep Bodie Smith Enterprises where he’d put it. On top.

Two steps into his office, all those thoughts vanished.

They were wiped away by the sight of two large, well-broken-in running shoes propped on his desk. Bodie Smith’s eyes traced the rangy figure in a tipped-back chair until they met the assessing gaze of the man who’d been his friend since they’d raced bicycles on pitted North Caro­lina mountain roads.

“You found something. Cully?”

“You didn’t give me much, Boone.”

Cully Grainger was one of the few people alive who called him Boone. And the only one who recalled the day his younger sister’s childish attempt at his first and middle names—Boone Dorsey—had come out “Bodie.” He was so used to the nickname that his real name sounded odd. And solemn.

“I didn’t give you anything,” Bodie amended.

Cully shrugged. “Wouldn’t go that far. You gave me what Hank let slip—that after his cousin Marlene left North Carolina, supposedly to help out a sick aunt in Ne­braska, she had a baby. Your conversation with her con­firmed that.”

Conversation was a damn polite word for the tense confrontation he’d had with the high school girlfriend he’d tracked down after not seeing her for nearly seventeen years.

“So I focused on the clue of Marlene’s aunt in Ne­braska,” Cully continued. “After a couple of false starts with maiden names and all, I followed that up.”

“You found something.” Boone braced himself.

“Yes.”

“What?” The demand came out harsh. How would he live with himself if something awful had happened, something he could have prevented if he’d been around, if he’d known. . . .

“I found your son.”

Chapter One

“We’ve got a guest coming this afternoon.”

Cambria Weston turned from the kitchen counter, where she’d poured herself coffee, to face Irene Weston, who ate breakfast with the rest of the family at the round wooden table. To trim the temptation of her stepmother’s cooking, Cambria ate her breakfast—toast—at her cabin before she took the three-minute walk to the main house to begin her workday as manager of the Weston Ranch Guest Quarters. It was tough to beat that commute, especially with early May bringing in spring’s warmth and birds and flowers.

Having made her announcement, Irene appeared con­tent to return Cambria’s frown with a mild smile.

“A guest? We’re not open yet. Not until Memorial Day weekend.” Cambria had a detailed schedule of what she had to ac­complish each day until then. “That’s three and a half weeks before we open.”

“Officially,” Irene agreed placidly.

“Well, then why didn’t you tell them—”

“Him,” Irene corrected. “One guest. A man.”

“Why didn’t you tell him we aren’t open yet? The cab­ins reek of paint and the floors haven’t been done, not to mention the scrubbing. And the bunkhouse hasn’t even been opened. We can’t have anybody here yet.”

“He sounded tired,” Irene said, then gave a pleased look around the table loaded with apple nut bread, home­made pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon and all the fixings of butter, jellies and syrups. “And thin.”

Cambria sat down, meeting the amused smiles her father and brother flashed at her from across the round table. It took something to get the men in her family to take that much time out from enjoying Irene’s bountiful spread.

The men in her family, she thought again with a catch in her heart. Ted Weston’s hair had gone totally silver in the past few years and had grown a little thin on top. Whenever he forgot to wear a hat while he worked in the sun and wind that had long ago corrugated his face and neck, the tender scalp pinkened like a baby’s. In the same few years Pete had nearly reached manhood, gangly adolescence filling in with confidence and character practically before her eyes.

She couldn’t resist a smile back at them. They all knew Irene’s heart was even bigger than her larder. But Cambria took a shot anyhow at adding the salt of practi­cality, trying to keep her voice stem.

“How can anyone sound thin over the tele­phone, Mama?”

Mama—that was a tactical error. Cambria had been slipping back and forth between “Irene” and “Mama” since she’d been five years old, a quarter century ago, when Ted Weston had met then married the warm-hearted, gin­ger-haired young widow. Cambria never used “Mama” when she really meant business.

The older woman’s smile softened as their eyes met.

“He sounded thin,” Irene repeated.

“Weak?” Cambria asked.

“Oh, no, not weak. Not at all. Maybe . . . stressed. Isn’t that what you and Jessa said when you moved back from Washington and she came along to open the shop?”

Yeah, that’s what she and her long-time friend, Jessa Tarrant, had decided to tell her family and everyone else by way of explanation. Their separate reasons were more complicated and less easily revealed.

Cambria sighed in capitulation, drawing another pair of grins from the Weston men.

“All right, I’ll give the west cabin a once-over this morning. It’s in better shape than the others. It should do for. . .  how long did this guy say he wants to stay?”

“He didn’t say. A couple days, I’d suppose.”

Irene’s inattention to such practical details as finding out how long guests would stay or making sure they paid before they left was the reason Cambria handled the business side of the bed and breakfast.

“Well, don’t be surprised if he walks away saying it’s not worth paying for.”

“We’ll get the cabin ready together,” Irene said. “Everything will be just fine, you’ll see. You worry too much.”

“Or worse,” Cambria said, pursuing her own line of thought. “He’ll stay a couple nights, then, when it’s time to pay, he’ll say the facilities weren’t up to par and he’ll try to get out of paying.”

“I wish you weren’t so cynical, Cambria.” Cambria felt a twinge of discomfort at the concern in her stepmother’s blue eyes. But that didn’t make her buy the reassurance of the words that followed. “Everything will be just fine.”

* * * *

Shortly before four o’clock, Cambria heard car tires on the road that wound from the highway to the ranch build­ings. They had the cabin about as well pulled together as they could, considering the limited time.

Open windows helped dispel the fresh-paint smell, but at the cost of a definite chill. The wooden floor was scrubbed and waxed, though to her critical eye it could have used another coat. The wooden table and chair were also polished, the fireplace cleaned and a new fire laid. The tiny bathroom had been disinfected within an inch of its life, the stuffed chair aired and vacuumed, the shelves dusted. They’d washed the sheets, but without enough time to adequately air the other bed linens, she’d used two quilts from the main house.

Irene was at the house preparing the usual welcoming plate of oatmeal-raisin cookies, while Cambria made the bed. That’s when she heard the car reach the gravel on this end of the drive. Which reminded her—she needed to get a load of gravel to smooth over the ravages of a Wyoming winter before the guests came. The regular season guests, anyway, since this one had already arrived.

She let the top sheet drift down as she looked out the win­dow. A glossy, midnight blue sedan with Wyoming plates pulled to a stop. A rental, definitely not economy class, she judged from two summers’ experience of running the guest quarters. Her left eyebrow rose as she got a better look—definitely not economy class.

Mostly their visitors were family groups, with a few young couples, some retired folks. This car didn’t fit any of those types.

She should have pressed Irene about their guest. Not that it would have done any good. Irene might ask his fa­vorite meal so she could cook it for him, but the chances she’d ask the questions Cambria wanted answered were a thousand to one.

The car door opened and one long, jeans-clad leg ap­peared. Cambria supposed she should go greet the guest. She’d never cared for being sociable on demand when she’d worked in Washington, and re­turning to the ranch hadn’t changed that. Being warm and welcoming came easily to some people. Not to her.

Then she heard a voice—Irene—and gratefully continued with the bed. With Irene on hand, Cambria had no need to play gracious hostess.

She was aware of footsteps on the cabin’s wooden porch, the opening of the main door and a murmur of voices, but she paid no attention, concentrating on her task. Spreading and tucking, spreading and tucking. She slid the second pillow into a case, tossed it in place, con­sidered the effect, then stretched to plump its brethren on the far side of the bed.

She began to straighten, the action accelerated by an arrogant, low drawl from behind her—where its owner would have  an excellent view of her derriere as she’d bent over the bed.

“Do you come with the room?”

She spun around, momentum advancing her a step so she almost crashed into the solid, male figure. He auto­matically reached to steady her and she just as automati­cally withdrew. But her gaze did crash into his—leaving her feeling as if she’d been run over by a pair of gray eyes. Gray eyes that seemed both depthless and flat under a pair of startlingly black eyebrows. She stared into those eyes with the sort of haunting familiarity of deja vu.

In that instant, chagrin spread across the man’s face. Whether it was at his own rudeness or because he was smart enough to see he’d riled her, Cambria didn’t know. And didn’t care.

“Sorry. I didn’t expect to find anybody in here,” he said, the drawl not as pronounced. “But that was out of—”

“We try to meet our guests’ expectations.” Recovering rapidly, she cut across his apology with a smile so icy she thought it might crack her lips. “So I’ll leave right now, Mr.—”

It would have been a good exit line if she hadn’t real­ized too late that she didn’t know the guest’s name.

“Name’s Boone Dorsey,” he said slowly.

“Mr. Dorsey,” she repeated, then walked past him and out of the room, out of the cabin.

* * * *

“You can call me Boone.”

Cambria jerked her head up at the casual words, spo­ken as if an hour hadn’t passed since their previous ex­change. As if he hadn’t tracked her down to the barn where she was grooming Jezebel and Snakebit. As if he didn’t have to address her across Snakebit’s broad back. And as if she didn’t hold a very sharp hoof pick.

He’d entered through the open double doors on the east end of the barn. The evening sun, streaming low through the matching doors at the opposite end, so washed him in light that he barely seemed real. She waited, not certain of his motives or his sincerity.

“Or,” he went on in a drawl she realized owed more to the South than the West, “you can call me jackass.”

He took a step forward, out of the dazzle but not so far that the shadows swallowed him. Now she could see one side of his mouth lifted in a half grin of self-de­rision, grooves echoing up his left cheek. She could see threads of gray that softened the hair that sprang back from his forehead and reached his collar to a lighter shade than the harsh black of his strong eyebrows. She could also see the tiredness around and behind his black-lashed gray eyes. And, yes—Irene had been right, of course—she could see a thinness in his face that went beyond a nat­ural angularity.

She let out a quick breath. Why did she have the feeling that staying angry at this man would be safer, even as her anger slid away?

Buying time, she brushed Snakebit’s back with her fin­gertips, then stroked the coarse, smooth hide.

“Jackass has a nice ring to it.”

The other side of his mouth caught up, lifting into a full grin. Another skitter of. . . something—was it familiarity? instinct warning her to beware?—scratched at her nerves, then disappeared.

“Look, we got off on the wrong foot, and that was my fault. I really am sorry,” he said. “You caught me off guard. Irene didn’t tell me anybody was in the room. And I had a situation where there was a good-looking woman in my room I didn’t expect. . . . Not that there’s any good cause for me to have talked to you that way. Can I make it up to you?”

It was no surprise that he already called her stepmother Irene. But there were several items of interest in his speech. Belatedly she recognized that his leer might have been, at least partly, defensiveness at being caught off guard. And what sort of situation had he been in that a woman had unexpectedly shown up in his room? But foremost, there was his offer.

It might be interesting to see where talk took them. She’d often mar­veled at the willingness of guests to volunteer informa­tion, from mundane chatter about family and jobs to the most intimate details of sex lives and phobias.

“You know horses?” Cambria asked.

A glint lit his eyes. “I know some people I’d describe as their rear ends. In addition to me, naturally. That what you mean?”

She fought an answering smile. “Not quite. I meant, caring for the four-legged kind.”

He sighed, drawing her attention to the broad shoulders in his dazzling white shirt, whose perfect fit announced that it, like the rental car, was not economy class. “I was afraid the apology wouldn’t be enough. You’re going to make me clean out stalls, too, huh?”

She laughed, and meant it despite herself. “I won’t go that hard on you. How about combing Jezebel—” she nodded to the mare behind her “—while I finish with Snakebit’s hooves.”

“Sounds fair to me.”

He took the brush she held out over Snakebit’s back, placing his hand on the gelding’s hindquarters as he came around behind. At least he knew enough to give a horse that warning. Still, she watched for a moment as he worked on Jezebel, satisfying herself that he knew what he was doing. He raised an eyebrow but didn’t ob­ject to her scrutiny. Finally she turned back to Snakebit, lifting his front near hoof and bending to remove any packed-in dirt or grit.

“So, Irene tells me you don’t usually open for another month or so,” he offered after several minutes of silent work.

“That’s right. We have a lot of preparation to do before we’re ready for guests.” She wasn’t about to come out and make excuses, but. . .

“The cabin looks great to me.”

“It smells of paint.” Now why did she say that when she’d decided not to make excuses?

“Small price to pay for privacy.” Was privacy so pre­cious to him? She didn’t have a chance to wonder long, as he went on. “Irene also tells me your name’s Cambria. Cambria—that’s a pretty name. Unusual.”

“Did Irene also tell you the name comes from a deserted coal-mining community?”

“Yeah, Irene told me that. Doesn’t change that it’s pretty.”

Ignoring the second part, she asked dryly, “Anything else Irene told you?”

*Yes. She said you’re the brains of the outfit. I’m won­dering if you’re the brawn, too. All this preparation for the guests, you do it alone?”

“No, of course not. The whole family works.”

“Family,” he repeated in a murmur.

She glanced over her shoulder, but he was bent, strok­ing down Jezebel’s hindquarter. That posture probably explained the odd note in his voice.

“Irene, me, Pete—that’s my brother—and Dad, when he can spare time from the cattle operation. It’s a smaller operation than it used to be, but it’s a lot for one man.”

“Does, uh, your brother help with that, too? I mean, if he’s old enough.”

She chuckled. “He’d probably tell you he’s old enough to do anything and everything. He does help a lot, and he’d do more if Dad and Irene let him, but they’re deter­mined that he have a chance to do things at school, too. He was in a play over the winter and now he’s playing base­ball.”

“Baseball?”

“Yeah. Why does that surprise you?”

“I don’t know.” Then he shrugged and she had a feeling the rest of his answer wasn’t going to be as honest. “Maybe I fig­ured a kid around here would be involved in rodeo.”

“Oh, he does that, too. But he really loves baseball.”

“He’s on a team?”

From her discussion of Pete’s American Legion base­ball team, his questions led to other aspects of life on the Weston ranch. At one point they swapped places so she could work on Jezebel’s hooves and he could brush Snakebit. And all the while that she answered about the family, local schools, network of neighbors and friends, ranch routine, social activities available in the nearby town of Bardville, and the kinds of people who came through as summer guests, she wondered what on earth a stranger would find interesting in this.

At the same time she felt an undercurrent of uneasiness coming from the man. A restlessness in his movements, a slight jerkiness in some of his questions. It reminded her of the way a young horse might react to a jump—eager to get to the other side, but dreading the actual jump.

She’d thought letting him lead the conversation might answer her questions about him. Instead, it raised more. He hadn’t volunteered one piece of information about himself, and that was most unusual.

Finished, she led the horses one at a time into their stalls while he gathered the various combs, brushes and picks. After she’d forced closed the stubbornly sticking stall door, he followed her into the tack room, handing equip­ment to her one by one as she put it away.

“Thanks for helping.” She wished it had come out more naturally. There was no reason to be ill at ease with him. Cautious, yes, as she was cautious around most strangers. But this discomfort came from something much more elemental. And that was odd. He was attrac­tive, but she hadn’t gone tongue-tied around good-looking men since high school. Besides, this man was more interesting-looking, with his dark brows, graying hair and angled face, than classically good-looking. Definitely interesting.

“You’re welcome.” He sounded distracted. “Do your guests usually get involved with the routine around here?”

“Sometimes.” She wasn’t going to tell him he wasn’t a usual guest. “It’s a mat­ter of what the guests want from staying here—some want to be left alone and some want to join right in. Plus it de­pends on how much inexperienced help we can handle at any one time.”

“That sounds fair.”

She caught a glimpse of that lopsided grin again as she took the curry comb from him. It left her a little off-bal­ance, and that made her next words more challenging than she’d intended.

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“Sorry.”

“I have some of my own.”

“Oh?” It was not an encouraging syllable.

She didn’t let that, or his slight stiffening, stop her. “Where are you from?”

“North Carolina, born and raised.”

“That explains the drawl.”

“What drawl?” he said in exaggerated perplexity, which she ignored.

“Another question.” She also ignored his renewed ten­sion, though it intrigued her. “Would you have cleaned out the stalls if I’d asked you?”

“Sure,” he said a little smugly, holding out the final brush. “I didn’t bring it up until I saw they already had fresh straw.”

Again he drew a laugh from her when she hadn’t ex­pected it. Taking the brush, his hand connected briefly with hers, almost hot against the chilling air of evening. She stepped away, backing into the tack room wall.

He reached out to her, but she’d easily steadied herself so his hands settled lightly on her shoulders, his thumbs not quite meeting where they brushed at the pulse in her throat, a pulse that abruptly pounded like a racehorse coming out of the gate.

A brassy clang, strident for all its distance, made them both jerk. The movement brought her closer to him for an instant and tightened his hands fractionally before they simultaneously stepped apart, severing the connec­tion.

“That’s the call to supper.” Buoyed by her success in keeping her voice steady, she told herself that in an­other second she would meet his eyes without a qualm.

“Good, because I’m definitely hungry.”

The rough, low tone of his slow voice changed her mind. She wouldn’t look at him until they were in the house sur­rounded by her family.

* * * *

Boone Dorsey Smith considered the image in the mir­ror of the small bathroom off the main house’s back hall, where Cambria had directed him to wash his hands before supper.

In a few minutes he’d meet his son for the first time. A life he’d helped create, though he hadn’t known it until sixteen years later.

God, what if he said the wrong thing? What if he said something that would let everybody know before the time was right?

You’re not going to just march in there and announce you’re the boy’s father, are you, Boone?

No, l am not. For God’s sake. Cully, what kind of fool do you take me for?

The kind of fool who takes action. Sometimes that’s needed, sometimes not. You don’t always know the dif­ference.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Cully.

You swear you’ll settle back, see what the situation is before you say anything?

I swear.

Swearing not to wade right in had been easy. Now he had to match his actions to the pledge.

He wanted to do this right. No mistakes. That’s why he’d sought out Cambria. To find out more about his son, so he’d be less likely to make a hash of this first meeting.

His groin pulsed with a faint reminder that maybe in­formation hadn’t been his sole reason for seeking out Cambria.

What the hell did he think he was doing?

In the cabin he’d had an excuse. Maybe. He’d been tense from marathon sessions at Bodie Smith Enterprises the past month, trying to wrap up as much as he could. Then flying to Wyoming, picking up the car, driving out here. Meeting Irene Weston, the woman who’d been his son’s mother. But he’d gotten through that. When Irene had given him a final smile and left the cabin, he’d started to ease up on his rigid control, thinking he was alone.

Instead he’d walked in to find a woman bent over his bed, sunlight adding gold and red to her light brown hair. Her position revealed long legs in snug jeans, suggested at the swell of breasts under a loose-fitting shirt. And the smooth, firm curves filled out the seat of her worn jeans, close enough to reach out and stroke. . . .

But what excuse did he have in the barn?

Another couple of seconds and that gong wouldn’t have been any more than a whisper against the roar of hor­mones rushing through him.

He’d gone there to mend fences and find out what he could about the boy they called Pete.

He’d done that, and more. He’d watched Cambria Weston bend and straighten over the horses’ hooves. Lis­tened to her soothing murmurs to the animals. Felt the brush of her fingers against his hand. . . . And then they’d stood close enough that another step would have brought her softness fully against him. Until the gong had sounded.

He wiped his hands on a small green towel hanging be­side the sink and scowled at himself in the mirror.

All right, so it had been a while since he’d had a woman. Between the demands of business and his disinclination for women who made it all too clear they’d be happy to oblige the owner of an up-and-coming company, he’d qualified as a trainee for the monastery—in deed, if not in thought—for a good many months.

That didn’t mean he had to leap into action with the first attractive, interesting, challenging woman to come along. Especially not with thiswoman. He couldn’t risk his chance with his son for a woman he didn’t even know.

Lord, his son’s adopted stepsister. What did that make her to him?

Besides desirable.

And—if he had any sense—completely off-limits.

* * * *

Dinner started a little awkwardly.

Irene was her usual cheerful self, and Pete remained ab­sorbed in packing away as much of Irene’s cooking as possible. But maybe Ted wondered some of the same things about their guest as Cambria did because she noted he was even quieter than usual.

As for Boone Dorsey, she wondered if his calm exterior really did hide a strong tension and if he really did keep directing the conversation away from himself, or if her imagination was working overtime.

“Thanks for inviting me to supper, Irene. This is deli­cious. I’m sure I won’t be fed half as well when I start searching out the places the lady at the airport recom­mended.”

“This early in the season not many restaurants will be open,” Irene said. “We’d be happy to have you take your meals with us as long as you’re here.”

“Irene, I don’t—”

“Thank you, Irene, I’d love to do that.”

Cambria’s protest and Boone’s acceptance came simul­taneously. Boone won. His deep voice kept going with barely a pause. “Of course, I’ll pay extra for meals. I know that’s not in the room rate.”

“It’s not any bother to add a plate, but you’ll have to settle that with Cambria.” Irene dismissed the practical­ity with a wave toward her stepdaughter. From the comer of her eye, Cambria was aware of the look Boone shot her, but she didn’t return it as Irene continued. “Now, if there’s anything you need in your cabin, you just let us know, Boone.”

“I appreciate that. The cabin looks great. All the com­forts, thanks.” He chewed a bite of mashed potato, then added, “There is one thing—1 know you said cell phone reception wasn’t good right here, but I didn’t see a landline phone when I was stowing my gear. I didn’t look carefully, but. . . ”

Irene was shaking her head, even as she passed him more green bean casserole. “The guest quarters don’t have phones.”

“No phone?”

Cambria had to hide a smile. If the man sounded that bereft without a phone, no wonder he looked stressed. Though how he expected to get much rest she couldn’t imagine, since she’d spotted a laptop computer, portable printer and other accoutrements of a traveling workaholic when she’d swept out of his cabin.

“No, but you’re welcome to use the phone in the den. That’s where you can watch TV, too. We don’t pick up many channels, but Cambria donated her VCR and her movie collection when she moved back from Washington, D.C., so we do have that.” Irene turned to Pete. “Remember to leave the phone for Boone’s use, you understand?”

“Aw, Mom. . . ”

“No, no, that’s okay, Irene.” Boone’s quick re­ply made obvious his discomfort at the idea of using the phone in the main house. “I, uh, if I need a phone, I can go into town.”

“There’s no need for that.”

“No, really, it’s okay. I’d probably need to hook in my portable fax, too. And that would tie up your phone for­ever. So, if there’s someplace in town that I can pay a fee . . . ”

“Truth to tell, I don’t believe there is,” said Irene with a smile. “So that’s all settled, Boone.”

Cambria had to bite back a grin as he mumbled his thanks. Clearly, Boone Dorsey was trying to figure out how Irene had managed to both outmaneuver him and leave him obligated to say thank you. He wasn’t the first.

“Where’d you get the name Boone, anyhow?” Pete asked, making his first real contribution to the conversa­tion now that he’d finished a second full plate of pot roast, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and stewed toma­toes.

“Pete. . . ”

“It’s okay,” Boone said over Ted’s soft reproof. “It’s what you might call a, uh, a family name.”

Pete cocked his head at him. “You’re related to Daniel Boone?”

“Hard to say. Now, I don’t want to malign the dear de­parted’s reputation, but my grandma used to refer to him as Darling Danny. And,” he added slyly, “my grandfa­ther was away an awful lot to have had eight children.”

“Yeah? But— Wait a minute, how old was your grand­mother?” Pete demanded.

Amid the general laughter, Boone grumbled about hav­ing folks ruin his tales with math and history. But he grinned across the table, and Pete grinned back.

Cambria barely heard Irene say that she wanted Pete to get to the barber before Pete’s hair got so long he’d be taken for Daniel Boone.

A shiver of uneasiness crossed her skin. She couldn’t explain it, but there was something about this man. . . . She had avoided focusing on their guest since coming in from the barn, but now she did.

He was attractive. Charming. He drew out Irene and Ted and Pete one by one with questions, just the way he had drawn her out in the barn. And said nothing about himself.

He didn’t fit the mold of their guests, that much was certain.

The conversation she’d paid little attention to hit a lull and Cambria impulsively demanded, “How long are you planning to stay?”

Boone raised a brow, but an­swered readily enough. “I was thinking a month.”

Everybody stared at him. Most guests stayed a couple of nights on their way cross-country, looking for a resting place between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone Park. Occasionally they’d stay as long as a week, or even two. But a month? That had never happened before.

“Most jobs you can’t take that much time off,” said Ted mildly.

“I’m pretty much my own boss.”

Cambria found her voice. “A month? Why on earth would you stay here a month?”

“Cambria,” Irene murmured in reproach. “Boone, we’d be happy to have you with us a month, or longer if that suits you.”

“Thank you, Irene. I’ve been needing some rest a long time. This seems a quiet place.”

“Oh, yes,” said Irene. “An excellent place to get away from stress. As Cambria can tell you. When she came back to us from Washington, she needed rest, too. She’s much better now, though—”

Cambria was caught off guard by the turn of the con­versational spotlight onto her.

“I do wish she wasn’t still so cynical,” her stepmother concluded.

Boone looked at Cambria, dark eyebrows raised slightly as if asking for the rest of the story. She turned to glare at Irene, who smiled blandly and patted Cambria’s hand.

And that, Cambria thought sourly, capped off this whole dissatisfying discussion, which failed to produce a satisfactory answer—or any answer—to why a man from North Carolina with a budget that stretched to luxury rental cars and top quality clothes, who had a reluctance to talk about himself and entirely too much appeal, would stay at a working Wyoming ranch for a month.