THE LONER Author: Diana Palmer Publisher: Canary Street Press
Despite his globetrotting ways, Tanner can’t help but be enthralled by the quiet girl next door. But as the embers between the two are fanned into flames, Tanner wonders if he’s found forever in the last place he ever expected.
Anastasia Bolton, nicknamed Stasia, was nineteen today. She looked at herself critically in her bedroom mirror, making a face at her lack of beauty. She had a pretty mouth and big, soft brown eyes. Her cheekbones were high, her ears small. She was only medium height, but her figure was perfect. She had elegant long legs, just right for riding horses, which she did, a lot. She’d done barrel racing when she was younger, but art had taken over her leisure hours. She painted beautifully. She was named after a semi-fictional character in a movie her romantic late mother had loved, Anastasia, which starred Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. Her mother had loved the movie and named her only child after the unforgettable heroine. Stasia lived with her father, Glenn Bolton, on a huge beef ranch in Branntville, Texas. Her last living grandparents, her dad’s parents, had died of a deadly virus the summer before her graduation from high school. Her mother had died tragically when Stasia was only thirteen. There was no other family left, just Stasia and Dad. They were close.
Glenn Bolton was only fifty years old, but he had a very bad heart and he was in the final stages of heart failure. It was treatable, but he hadn’t shared that knowledge with Stasia. He was terrified of the open-heart surgery treatment would require. He and the doctor had spoken privately the week before, and afterward, Glenn had been quieter than usual and he’d contacted his attorney. That had been a private conversation as well. Stasia worried about what was being discussed. She didn’t want to think about what her life would be like without him. She had no family except him. Well, there were the Everetts, who lived next door to her father’s ranch on their own enormous ranch, the Big Spur. They were sort of like family, after all, since Stasia had known them all her life. Cole Everett and his youngest son, John, were frequent visitors.
Glenn had the only groundwater suitable for ranching in the small community of Branntville, Texas. A river ran like a silver ribbon through his entire property, so he wasn’t dependent on wells for watering his cattle, as other ranchers were. He approved of Cole and John. He wanted more than anything to see his daughter settled with one of the Everett sons, but she was only in love with one of them—with Tanner, the eldest, who was the cookie-cutter design of the spoiled rich kid. Cole hadn’t spoiled Tanner. That had been his wife, Heather, a former singing star and current songwriter. Their firstborn had been the light of her life. He was twenty-five now, a strong, incredibly handsome young man with dark hair and pale blue eyes, almost silver like his father’s, and a Hollywood sort of physique. He liked variety in his women, but for the past year he’d had a girlfriend who enjoyed the jet-setting lifestyle that he favored.
Cole had given Tanner a Santa Gertrudis stud ranch that he’d bought when the owner went into a nursing home, hoping to settle down his wild son. It was a good property, adjoining his and the Bolton properties, but the water situation there was dire. There had been drought in the past year, and they’d had to drill wells to get enough water just to keep the livestock watered. The Bolton place had a river running through it, and many small streams that ran over into the Everetts’ holdings. However, that water didn’t belong to them so they were unable to divert it for any agricultural purposes. For a long time, Cole had toyed with the idea of a merger with Glenn Bolton, but Glenn wouldn’t hear of it. He found all sorts of reasons for his stubborn attitude. Cole saw right through him. Stasia was still living at home, and she was in love with Tanner. The fly in the ointment was that Tanner didn’t like Stasia. He liked experienced, sophisticated women like Julienne Harper, his girlfriend. Tanner could have made an empire out of the ranch Cole had given him, but he wasn’t home enough. He and Julienne were always on the go somewhere. Skiing in Colorado, parties on somebody’s yacht off Monaco, summers in Nice. And so it went. Stasia knew about Julienne. Everybody in Branntville did. It was a small community where gossip flourished. It was mostly kind gossip, because the people who lived there had known each other’s families for generations. Tanner was one of them. But Julienne, who was sarcastic and condescending, was an outsider, a city woman who’d alienated just about everyone she came into contact with. Tanner had a couple, Juan and Minnie Martinez, who ran the house and managed the ranch for him while he played around the world. They’d just threatened to quit because ofJulienne’s last visit to Tanner’s ranch. Cole had played peacemaker. The Martinezes were good at ranch management, and somebody had to keep the place going. Cole despaired of Tanner ever settling down to real work. He’d always had everything he wanted. Cole, who adored his wife of twenty-five years, hadn’t had the heart to make her stop coddling Tanner, while there had still been time to knock some of the selfishness and snobby attitude out of him. Now, it was too late. Stasia came into the living room where the men were talking with a tray of coffee and sliced pound cake. All three men stood up, an ancient custom in rural areas that still had the power to make her feel important. Her generation cared less about such things, as a rule, but Stasia was a throwback. Glenn had raised her the way his parents had raised him. She’d absorbed those conservative attitudes on the way of the modern world. She hated it. She hated it most because Tanner liked women who belonged to that sophisticated crowd. John Everett looked like his mother, Heather, in coloring, at least. He was big and blond and drop-dead handsome, with his father’s silver eyes. His young sister, Odalie, also looked like Heather, with pale blue eyes and blond hair. Tanner was the one who most resembled Cole, who was tall and still handsome. Tanner had the same thick, dark hair but with pale blue eyes that just missed being the silver of his father’s. John went forward and took the heavy tray from her. He grinned. “I love cake.” She laughed, a soft, breathy sound. “I know.” She smiled at him with warm affection. He was like a cuddly big brother to her. He knew that and hid his disappointment. “How’s the art going?” Cole asked with a smile. “I sold a painting!” she exclaimed happily. “There was a man passing through, from someplace back East, and he sawthe landscape I painted in the local art shop. He said it was far too cheap for something that lovely, so he gave Mr. Dill, the owner, three times my asking price. I was just astonished.” “You paint beautifully,” John said, his eyes brimming with love that she tried not to see. He indicated the landscapes on the walls of the Bolton home; one with running horses in a thunderstorm was entrancing. “Thanks,” she said, flushing a little. “Mr. Dill said the man looked Italian. He was big and muscular and he had these two other big guys with him. He was passing through on the way to San Antonio on business.” “Sounds ominous,” John teased. She laughed as she poured coffee all around and offered cake on saucers with sparkling clean forks. “He told Mr. Dill I should be selling those paintings up in New Jersey, where he was from, or even New York City, where he owned an art gallery and museum. He said he was going to talk to some people about me! He even took down Mr. Dill’s number so he could get in touch.” She sighed. “It was probably just one of those offhand remarks people make and then forget, but it was nice of him to say so.” “You really do have the talent, Stasia,” Cole told her. “It would be nice if he could put you in touch with some people in the art world back East. If that’s what you want to do with your life,” he added gently. She smiled at him. “I like to paint.” She grimaced. “I’d like to marry and have a family, though.” “No reason you couldn’t do both,” John said. “And if you had to fly back East to talk to people, well, we have a share in a corporate jet, you know. You could let us know when you had business there and I could go with you.” She smiled sedately. “Thanks, John, but it’s early days yet.” “How’s Tanner?” Glenn asked.
Cole’s light eyes grew glittery. “Off on another trip. To Italy, this time. My daughter’s studying opera in Rome. He thought he’d stop by and see her on the way to Greece.” “Odalie has a beautiful voice,” Stasia replied, hiding disappointment. She’d hoped Tanner might show up with his brother and father. “Does she want to sing at the Met eventually?” “She does,” Cole replied. He drew in a long breath and sipped coffee. “I’ll hate having her so far from home. But you have to let kids grow up.” He glanced at John with affection. “At least this one doesn’t have itchy feet yet!” “I’m a homebody,” John said easily. “I love cattle. I love ranching. I don’t want to leave home,” he added, with a covert glance at Stasia. “Good thing,” Cole chuckled. “I have to leave the ranch to somebody when I’m gone.” “You’re not going anywhere for years,” Glenn chided. “The Everetts are a long-lived bunch. Your grandfather lived to be ninety.” “Yes, but my father died before he was sixty, and my mother died before I married Heather,” Cole replied. His face tautened as he relived those days, when a lie split him apart from Heather, whom he’d loved with all his heart. It had been a torment, those months apart before he discovered that a jealous rival had told him lies about Heather’s parentage and made it sound as if he and Heather were actually related. They weren’t, but it was heartbreaking just to think it. Heather had been singing in nightclubs in those days. Cole had been cruel to her because her feelings for him were all too visible and he thought nothing could ever be allowed to happen between them. When he found out the truth, Heather had already backed out of his life. It had taken a long time to win her back.
He glanced at Stasia. She reminded him of Heather in her youth. She wasn’t as beautiful as his wife, but she was sweet and gentle and she’d make someone a good wife and mother. He knew that it wasn’t going to be Tanner. The boy had mentioned weeks ago that he hated having to talk to her father at all because Stasia would sit and stare at him as if he were a tub of kittens needing a home. He found her juvenile and dull. John, on the other hand, adored her. Cole grimaced as he processed the thought, because Stasia so obviously thought of John as the brotherly type. “Now, about what I mentioned on the phone,” Cole began as he finished his coffee and put it and the cup and saucer back on the tray. “I know what you’re going to say,” Glenn broke in, with a smile. “But I’ll never give you permission to dam the streams.” Cole sighed. “Only one stream, the one nearest my south pasture. The cattle are going to suffer for that decision,” he told the older man. “We’ve drilled every well we can.” “I know that,” Glenn told him. “I’ve got things in motion that will solve your problem. Don’t bother asking; won’t tell,” he chuckled. “But you’re worrying over something that’s already fixed. Just a matter of time. Short time, at that,” he added with a faraway look in his eyes. Cole started to argue, realized it would do no good and just shrugged good-naturedly. “Okay. I’ll rely on your conscience.” “Good place to put trust, since I do have one,” Glenn replied. He scowled. “That boy of yours got himself into hot water in France, they say. It was on the front page of the tabloid those Lombard people back East publish.” “It wasn’t Tanner who started the trouble,” Cole replied curtly. “It was his…companion, Julienne Harper. She started a row in a high-ticket French restaurant with another woman, and her companion started cursing and threw a punch at Tanner when he intervened. Tanner had some explaining to do.” He glanced at Glenn. “This time, I didn’t interfere, and I wouldn’t let Heather do it, either. The boy’s got to grow up and take responsibility for his own actions.” “According to the tabloid, he made restitution for the victim’s dress and paid the dentist to replace one of her date’s front teeth.” Glenn shook his head. “Reminds me of you, when you were that age,” he added with twinkling eyes. “Got arrested for a bar brawl when you got home from the service, I believe…?” Cole glared at him. “Some yahoo made a nasty joke about what soldiers did overseas. I took exception. The guy wasn’t ever even in a good fight, what would he know about being a soldier?” “Well, your dad kept him from suing, at least,” Glenn said, and chuckled. “Most people around here were scared of your father anyway. He was a real hell-raiser.” Cole smiled sadly. “He was, and he died far too young.” Glenn knew some stories about Cole’s father that he wasn’t about to share. Some secrets, he reasoned, should be kept. “Your son was in black ops when he went in the military, wasn’t he?” he asked suddenly. Cole looked thunderous. “Yes, he was. I didn’t find out until he was back home.” He sighed. “I told him he had to get an education, so he joined the Army and got it that way. At least he finally decided that risking his life daily wasn’t conducive to running a ranch. It’s one reason I bought the old Banks property for him, to draw him back home.” He leaned forward. “I thought if his income depended on ranching, he’d make better life decisions. At least he did get a degree in business, even if it was between assignments.” He laughed shortly. “And then he met her.” He shook his head.
Everybody knew what that meant. “Her.” Julienne Harper. The fly in the ointment. She’d lured Tanner back into the jet-set lifestyle the military had purged him of, and now he was even less responsible than he’d been before. “A bad woman can make a fool of a good man. And sometimes, the reverse,” Glenn added. He didn’t mention his late wife, but they all knew the tragic story. His wife had been suddenly and hopelessly attracted to a man straight out of prison who’d worked on the ranch. The tragic consequences were still being lived down, by Glenn and his daughter. “She was a good woman,” Glenn said stubbornly. “She was just impulsive and easily led.” “Which is how many good people end up in prison,” John said sadly. “I’m hopeful that we can keep my big brother out of it.” Cole stood up with his son and clapped him on the back. “Something I’ll never have to worry about with you,” he said with obvious affection. “At least one of my kids turned out right.” He was referring to Odalie, who’d had a brush with the law in her teens, just as Tanner had—when going into the military was the only thing that saved him from serving time. Tanner had fallen in with a few ex-cons and gotten drunk with them. He passed out in the back seat just before they robbed a convenience store, but Cole had to get attorneys and pull a lot of strings to keep his son out of jail. “Most kids turn out right eventually, even those who have a rough start,” Glenn said with a smile. “Yours turned out very well,” Cole said, smiling gently at Stasia. “She reminds me of Heather at her age.” “And that’s a compliment indeed,” Glenn said, watching his daughter flush shyly. “Well, we’d better get back home,” Cole said. “We’re getting ready for roundup. If you need any help over here, when you start, you know we’ll do anything you need us for.” Glenn smiled and shook hands with both men. “Yes, I do know. I’ll send my hands over if you need extras. We’re waiting a week to start.” “We’d be grateful. No matter how many hands you have, a few more are always welcome.” “Done. Just say the word.” “I don’t guess you’d like to take in a movie this weekend?” John asked Stasia on the way out the door. She hesitated. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She smiled gently. “I would, but I’m working on a landscape and I have a real incentive to finish it quickly now, just in case that nice man does give my name to somebody back East,” she added with just the right touch of regret. She liked John, but she didn’t want to encourage him. Nobody could replace Tanner in her heart. “Okay,” John said easily, hiding his disappointment. “Rain check?” “Sure,” she lied. He grinned and they all went out onto the long, wide front porch to see the Everetts off. Cole stared into the distance. “Good weather, for early spring,” he said, admiring the grass that was just getting nice and green in the pastures beyond. “I hope it holds.” “So do I,” Glenn replied. “See you.” Glenn threw up a hand. Stasia waved. The Everetts got into one of their top-of-the-line black ranch trucks and drove away. “John’s sweet on you,” Glenn mentioned over supper that night. “I know,” she groaned. “I like him so much. He’s like the brother I never had. But he wants more than I can give him, Dad. It wouldn’t be right to encourage him.” Glenn nodded. “I agree.” He cocked his head at her. “It’s still Tanner, isn’t it?” She grimaced and nodded. “I can’t help it. I’ve been crazy about him since I was fifteen, and he can’t see me for dust. It’s such a shame that I’m not beautiful and rich and sophisticated,” she added heavily. “A man who loves you won’t care what you are or what you’ve got,” he said gently. “I guess not.” She poked at her salad with a fork. “Julienne’s really beautiful. Of course, she doesn’t talk to the peasants. I saw them together in Branntville just before they left for overseas. She looked me up and down and just laughed.” Her face burned at the memory. “So did he, in fact. He thinks I’m a kid.” Glenn had a faraway look in his eyes. “That could change,” he said, almost to himself. He turned his green eyes toward her, the same green eyes that he’d hoped she might inherit. But her brown ones were like his late wife’s, he reflected, big and brown and beautiful. “You’ll inherit this ranch,” he added. “I hope you’ll have the good sense to find a manager if you don’t want the responsibility of running it yourself. And I hope you won’t be taken in by any slick-talking young man who sees you as a meal ticket,” he added worriedly, because she wasn’t street-smart. “This property has been in our family for a hundred years. I’d hate to see it go to an amusement park for tourists.” She frowned. “Why would it go to someone like that?” “Oh, this guy offered me a lot of money for the property just the other day, when I was at the bank renewing a couple of CDs. The bank president introduced us.” “You told him no, of course, right, Dad?” she asked.
He pursed his lips. He drew in a breath. “I told him I’d think about it.” He didn’t tell her that the ranch was mortgaged right up to the eaves of the house. His bad business decisions had led the place to ruin, something Cole Everett knew. It was why Cole was trying to get the ranch. But then, he’d have it soon, Glenn thought sadly. He couldn’t let Stasia become a charity case, and the sale of the ranch wouldn’t even cover the debts, as things stood. “But it’s right next door to the Everetts’ new ranch, the one Tanner owns,” she said worriedly. “Can you imagine how nervous purebred cattle would react to an amusement park next door?” “I can,” he said. “Tanner could lose everything,” she said. “His livelihood depends on the new ranch, especially since his dad has already split the inheritance at Big Spur between John and Odalie. He figured Tanner would have enough of a fortune with the Rocking C.” The Rocking C was the name of Tanner’s ranch. The previous owner, an elderly Easterner, had called it his rocking chair spread. Hence the name. “Well, Tanner might have to make a hard decision one day, when I’m gone,” Glenn said, and smiled to himself. “Are you plotting something, Dad?” she asked, worried. “Me?” He contrived to look innocent. “Now what would I have to be plotting about?” He chuckled. “How about some of that apple pie you made? This new heart medicine my doctor put me on makes me hungrier, for some reason.” “You never did tell me what he said when you went to him last week,” she mentioned. “Same old same old. Take it easy, take my meds, don’t do any heavy lifting,” he answered, lying through his teeth. He was due to speak to a cardiologist soon, who would decide ifthe open-heart surgery Glenn was frightened of was required to keep him alive. A quadruple bypass, the doctor had recommended, and soon. Too many fats, too much cholesterol— despite Stasia’s efforts to make him eat healthy food—a history of heart problems and not recognizing his limitations had placed Glenn in a bind. Glenn hadn’t shared that information with his daughter. No need to worry her. Besides, he felt fine. A few days later, just after his cardiologist’s office had phoned with an early appointment to see the intervention cardiologist, he started up the steps into the house and fell down dead. Tanner Everett was cursing at the top of his lungs, so loudly that Cole had to call him down before Heather heard her son. “Go ahead. Rage,” Cole snapped. “But the will can’t be broken. Nobody in Branntville will agree that Glenn Bolton wasn’t in his right mind when he made it.” “An amusement park! Next to my purebred herd!” Tanner whirled on his heel and glared at his parent. “And if I don’t marry damned Stasia, that’s my future.” Cole felt the resentment in the younger man. In his place, he’d have felt it as well. “It was a rotten thing to do,” Cole agreed. “But we have to deal with what we’ve got, not what we wish we had.” “I’m twenty-five years old,” Tanner raged. “I’m not ready to get married! Not for years yet!” He stared at his father. “You were older than me when you married Mother.” “Yes, I was. I played the field for years.” He looked down at his boots. “I loved your mother. For a long time. But she had a rival who lied and said Heather and I were related by blood. She took years away from us.” Tanner knew the story. All the Everett kids did. It would have been a tragedy if Cole hadn’t found out the truth in time.
“Heather was just about Stasia’s age when I fell in love with her. She sang like a nightingale, just like Odalie does now. She was beautiful. She still is,” he added softly. Tanner, who’d never felt love for a woman, just stared at him without comprehension. “There must be some way to dispute the will,” Tanner said doggedly. “Go ahead and look for one. But I’ll tell you what our attorney told me: no way in hell. You marry Stasia or the property goes to the Blue Sky Management Properties. Stasia will get nothing.” “Bull! The ranch is worth millions,” Tanner shot back. “It was. Glenn was no rancher, even if his father was,” Cole replied curtly. “The place is mortgaged to the hilt, and you can’t tell Stasia that. She’s got enough misery right now coping with her dad’s death.” He grimaced. Even he was sorry for Stasia’s situation. She couldn’t help what she felt for him, he supposed. But he was never going to return it. She had to know that. “Which leads to my suggestion. I’m giving you the Rocking Chair ranch, and merging Stasia’s with Big Spur. We can pay off the debt by disposing of most of Glenn’s beef cattle and replacing it with our purebred Santa Gerts. In other words,” Cole added quietly, “either you make a go of your new ranch or you’ll be out in the cold. I’m not changing my will, Tanner,” he added firmly. “I’m sorry. But you could do worse. And it’s about time you stayed home and managed your own damned ranch and stopped acting like some Eastern playboy.” “I hate dust and cattle,” Tanner muttered. “You should have given this ranch to John. Then he could have married Stasia.” “She wouldn’t have him,” Cole said simply. “She doesn’t love him.” He jammed his hands into his slacks pockets. “She doesn’tlove me, or she wouldn’t have encouraged her father to do this to me!” “I don’t think she had anything to do with it. Glenn had a bad heart and she had no other family.” “You could have adopted her,” Tanner said with a sarcastic bite in his voice. Cole’s silver eyes narrowed and started to glitter. Tanner cut his losses. “All right, damn it!” he muttered. “I’ll do what I have to. But I’m not settling down to aprons and babies and white picket fences! Not for any woman!” “Nobody’s asking you to.” Cole felt sorry for Stasia. She loved Tanner. Maybe, maybe love on one side would be enough. But he was worried. Tanner was like a stallion with a new rope around his neck. This wasn’t going to end well. Stasia was in shock. She sat at the kitchen table and made the funeral arrangements, relying on the funeral home and her father’s attorney for clarity. She was penniless. Worse, her father had forced his attorney to put a clause in the will. Tanner married Stasia, or her father’s property went to the amusement park man, who would turn it into a loud, cluttered nightmare for Cole’s horses and cattle. She’d heard the terms of her father’s will from their attorney, Mr. Bellamy. She was shocked and miserable, especially when she recalled what her father had told her only days before, about the offer from the amusement park man. She’d thought she’d get at least enough to live on from the deal, but it wasn’t like that at all. Her father had kept so much from her. The ranch was worthless, mortgaged and debt-ridden. There was no way she could run it for a profit, or even hire someone to run it. And if the amusement park man got it, it would destroy Cole’s ranch as well as Tanner’s. Neither of them could afford to tear down existing stables and barns and rebuild them in a safer location. In fact, there would be no safer location, with that overlit nightmare of noise and light nearby. Not for one minute did she think Tanner would give in to her father’s subdued blackmail and marry her. She was ashamed that he’d even put that clause into his will. Tanner would probably think it was her idea. When she finished the preliminaries, she went to her father’s closet to look for his one good suit and his best pair of wing-tip shoes. The sight of the suit set her off. She dropped down onto the spotless paisley duvet on her father’s bed and bawled until her eyes were red and her throat hurt. That was probably why she didn’t hear the knock at the front screen door, which wasn’t locked. It was also probably why she wasn’t aware that Tanner had come into the room and was standing in the doorway, just watching her. He knew she loved her father. He was the only family she had left. It hurt him to watch her cry. He’d had no real feelings for her, except irritation that she was infatuated with him and let it show too much. But she was really hurting. He’d never lost anyone in his family. Both sets of his grandparents had been dead when he was born. He didn’t know death except as an observer. “Stasia?” he called quietly. She jumped, startled, and lifted a wet face with red-lined eyes to his. She swallowed down the pincushion that seemed stuck there and swiped at her eyes with the tail of the bright yellow T-shirt she was wearing. “It wasn’t my idea, what he put in the will,” she said, as if he’d already accused her of engineering it. Angry brown eyes warred with his pale blue ones. “He said the amusement park man would pay him millions for the land and in the next breath he said it had been in our family for over a century and we should hold onto it.” She swallowed, hard.
“I didn’t know we were bankrupt. I didn’t even know how sick he was. He said he had new medicines and the doctor said he was…doing fine…” Her voice trailed off. Tears fell like rain from her eyes. She averted them. She could feel the pity in him and she didn’t want it. He didn’t want her. She knew that without asking. But he couldn’t watch her cry. It touched something deep inside him that he didn’t even know was there. He moved closer, pulled her abruptly into his arms and folded her up close. “Let it out,” he said in the softest tone he’d ever used to her. “Go on.” She did. Her father had never been physically affectionate with her. Neither had anyone, except Tanner’s mother. It was so nice to be held and cuddled and told that everything was all right. Nothing was all right. But Tanner was strong and warm and he smelled of deliciously expensive male cologne. She melted into him, letting the tears fall. Finally, she regained control of herself and moved shyly away. “Thanks,” she choked. He shrugged. “I’ve never really lost anyone,” he confessed. “Buddies, when I was in the service, and in black ops. But nobody close.” She looked up at him. “I guess not. I’m really sorry. About the will.” She swallowed, hard, and turned away. “I’ll find another buyer,” she said softly. Then she remembered that she couldn’t sell it herself. Besides, it was bankrupt. “There must be a way…” “There’s no way to break the will,” he returned. “My father spoke to our attorneys about it. Your father was in his right mind all the way,” he added tersely. She grimaced. Her pale blond hair was loose around her tanned shoulders, disheveled and wavy. In the tight jeans andT-shirt she was very attractive. Tanner had never noticed how attractive before. “Well, then, how about this?” she asked suddenly while he was still exploring her with new curiosity. “Suppose we get married and the next day we get it annulled?” “No wedding night?” he asked with mock horror. She just looked at him. “I don’t want to sleep with you. I don’t know where you’ve been,” she said and forced a smile. Humor flared in his pale blue eyes, despite his resentment at the situation they were in. “Besides, I’m saving myself for my future husband,” she added with faint hauteur. “Most men like experience, not green girls, in bed,” he returned. “My husband will be an extraordinary man, with a good heart and brain, and he’ll be grateful that I waited for him,” she said. “Of course. He’ll be standing right next to the Easter Bunny, waiting.” She just stared at him. “Dad and I went to church every Sunday. My great-grandfather was a Methodist minister. He founded the church we go to. My great-grandmother had been a missionary in South America. You may live in the fast lane. Some of us still believe in fantastic things and we like a slower pace.” “Snail pace,” he scoffed. “Whatever.” She turned away from him and pulled her father’s suit and a clean, nicely pressed white shirt, and a tie, off the clothing rack. She picked up his immaculate black wing tips and put them beside the bed. “What are you doing?” “He has to have clothes to be…buried in.” She almost faltered, but she took a deep breath and pulled a duffel bag outof her father’s closet. “I’m going to take them to the funeral home and go over the arrangements with the director. Dad had insurance there that will pay for it all.” He was surprised at her efficiency, despite her obvious grief. He didn’t know her well. In fact, he was convinced now that he’d never known her at all. “Can I help?” he asked. “Yes.” She turned to look at him. “Go home.” Both eyebrows went up. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be snappy. I just want to be alone. I have to work through this by myself.” Her eyes turned back up to his. “You never answered me. Can’t we just get married long enough to fulfill the terms of the will and then get it annulled?” she asked. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “But I can find out.” She nodded. “Then, would you do that?” He stared at her with open curiosity. “You’ve followed me around like a puppy for years,” he said absently, watching her flush. “For a woman with a monumental crush on me, you seem strangely reluctant to try and keep me.” “Most girls have crushes on totally unsuitable people,” she said, fighting a scarlet blush. “They outgrow them.” “And you’ve outgrown yours?” he asked softly. “Yes,” she lied, averting her eyes. “Well, sort of. I mean, I just turned nineteen and I think I may have a future in art.” Sure she did, he thought to himself. She was talented, but a lot of women painted and never went past giving the canvases away as presents. His eyes went to a landscape on the wall of a windmill with a lone wolf sitting on a small grassy rise under a full moon. Beside it was a portrait of her father that was incredibly lifelike. He frowned. She really did have talent. Not that it would do her much good in this back-ofbeyond place.
There was a knock at the front door. She stopped what she was doing, went around Tanner and went to the door. Two women from the church were there with casseroles and bags of food and even a cake. “Oh, it’s so kind,” Stasia said, the tears returning as she hugged both women. “Thank you so much!” “Your dad was a good man, honey,” the eldest of the two said. “We all know where he’ll end up.” “If you need anything at all, you just call. Or if you’d rather not be here alone at night…” “I’ll be fine,” she said softly. “But thanks for the offer.” They said their goodbyes. She put up the food, aware that Tanner had come out of her father’s room and was now lounging against the kitchen door. “Small towns,” he said, shaking his head. “And all the little idiosyncrasies that go with them, still amazes me. Nobody outside a rural community would bring food.” “It’s a tradition here,” she said quietly. “I’ve done my share of cooking to give to grieving families.” She glanced at him. “But of course, that’s not your style or Julienne’s. You hate living here.” “I do. I’ve spent too much time in exotic places to settle for boring routine, even to please my father.” He thought about Julienne with faint despair. She was great in bed. He’d never be able to replace her. She was already furious and threatening to leave him after being told about Bolton’s will. “This isn’t the lifestyle I want. The family ranch, a bunch of kids, a wife in the kitchen.” He made a face. “I’d rather have Julienne in see-through black lace than all that put together.” “Fortunately for you, that’s still possible. All we have to do is fulfill the conditions of my father’s will and you can be off to the south of France, or Greece, or wherever you people go for fun.”
He frowned. “What do you do for fun?” Her eyebrows arched. “I paint.” “Besides that.” He looked around. “It’s just dirt and grass and mesquite and cattle.” “I like cattle. We have little white kittens in the barn,” she said, and her face softened, like her brown eyes. “There’s a family of rabbits out behind the barn. Dad had to fence them out of the kitchen garden.” She stopped, swallowed hard, went back to storing away food. “I like to sit on the front porch in the evening, just at dusk, and listen to the dogs baying in the distance.” “God, how exciting!” he groaned. She turned and looked at him. “You’re older than me, but you don’t know much about the way things really are, do you? You live in a fantasy world of artificial people and artificial places. I’d rather be who I am, where I am, doing what I’m doing.” “You’ll rot here,” he said shortly. She just smiled. “Difference of opinion. I like my reality straight up. I don’t need exotic stimulation to keep me going.” His eyes narrowed. “Meaning that I do?” “You’re not like your brother. John loves ranching,” she said. “He doesn’t even like to drive his Mercedes. He’s more at home in a pickup truck or in the saddle. He’s a realist, like me.” She smiled sadly. “You’re a dreamer. This is never going to be your kind of life.” She said it with a hollow certainty that dulled her eyes. She loved him so much. But he didn’t want her. He told her so with every word, every look. What he’d said about Julienne was like a knife through her poor heart. “If I don’t keep the ranch and make it pay, I’ll lose everything and be stuck here in the mud like my brother,” he said shortly.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it!” she exclaimed in mock horror. “What would you know about pretty clothes and party manners and sophisticated behavior?” he asked frankly, giving her a once-over with wise, sharp eyes. “I’d be embarrassed to take you anywhere in decent society.” “Did someone ask you to?” she asked reasonably and hid the pain that careless sentence dealt her pride. “Just as well,” he retorted. “Because if we can marry one day and annul it the next then, by God, we’re doing it. I can’t think of a worse fate than being tied to you for life.” “Thanks. I like you, too,” she replied with a determined smile, mischief showing in her twinkling eyes. “You’re sooooo sexy!” she breathed in her best femme fatale voice, puckering her lips at him. Suddenly, it was just all too much for him. He was confused. She made him hungry, in a way even Julienne couldn’t, and he was feeling trapped all over again. Damn her father! He let out a rough curse and turned and walked out of the house. Only then did she give in to the misery she felt, when he could no longer see it.
Excerpted from The Loner. Copyright © 2023 by Diana Palmer. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Facebook: @Diana Palmer
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