Excerpt from THE RANCHER'S HIRED FIANCEE, June 2012
Catherine Loza napped in a child's bedroom at the Walker family's ranch in Texas, dreaming of sold-out nights on Broadway, the heady sound of applause and the pounding of her heart after a well-executed performance.
She took a bow, then straightened and glanced out into the audience, only to see an empty stall and a bale of straw in an illuminated old barn, where a group of children clapped their hands in delight.
Their faces were a blur until two of them glided toward the stage, greeting her with red rosebuds, their long stems free of thorns.
Recognizing Sofia and Stephen, Dan and Eva Walker's youngest twins, Catherine knelt and received the flowers. Then the darling two-year-olds wrapped their pudgy arms around her and placed soft, moist kisses on her cheeks, on her forehead, on her chin.
How strange, she thought, but so sweet.
She'd no more than thanked them and sent them on their way when she heard a light tapping noise in the distance.
Thoughts and visions tumbled together in her sleepy mind—until another knock sounded, this time on the bedroom door.
"Yes?" she said, realizing she'd dozed off after reading a storybook to the children. Now, as she scanned the empty room, she saw that they'd both slipped off, leaving her to nap alone.
Eva opened the door and peered into the darkened bedroom. "I'm sorry to bother you, but we're having company for dinner tonight, and I thought you might want to know."
Catherine glanced out the window, which was shuttered tight, only a faint light creeping through the slats. She tried to guess the time of day but didn't have a clue—other than it was obviously nearing the dinner hour.
"A lot of help I am," Catherine said. "I wasn't the one who was supposed to fall asleep."
Eva chuckled softly. "Sofia and Stephen woke up a few minutes ago. Now they're in the kitchen, coloring and playing with their sticker books."
Catherine never had been one to nap during the day. Apparently the fresh air, sunshine and the rural Texas setting had a calming effect on her.
"If you'd like to rest a little longer," Eva said, "it's not a problem. You've been burning the candle at both ends for so long. Your body probably needs the sleep."
"Who's coming for dinner tonight?" Catherine asked.
"Ray Mendez. He's a local rancher and a neighbor. In fact, he'll be here any minute."
"Thanks for the heads-up." As Eva closed the bedroom door, Catherine raked her fingers through her hair, her nails catching on a couple of snags in her long curls. She probably looked a fright, with eyes puffy from sleep, but she wouldn't stress about it. This was supposed to be a vacation of sorts.
Ever since her arrival on the ranch, she'd decided to go au natural—no makeup, no fancy hairstyles. She was also kicking back for a change—no schedules, no grueling workouts, no rehearsals. And quite frankly, she was looking forward to having a break from the hectic life she'd once known in Manhattan.
Catherine rolled to the side of the bed and got to her feet. Then she straightened the pillows, as well as the coverlet, before opening the door and stepping into the hall.
She'd taken only two steps when the doorbell rang. The rancher had just arrived. Wanting to make herself useful, she detoured to answer the door. What had Eva said his name was? Ray something.
Catherine had never met any of the Walkers' neighbors, but she assumed Ray must be one of Hank's friends. Hank, Dan's elderly uncle, who'd once owned the ranch and now lived in a guesthouse Dan had built for him, always ate dinner with them in the main dining room.
Not seeing anyone else in the room, Catherine opened the front door.
She expected to see a weathered rancher who resembled Dan's uncle, a sweet but crotchety old cowboy who reminded her of Robert Duvall when he'd played in Lonesome Dove or Open Range. But nothing had prepared her for the tall, dark-haired visitor who stood on the porch.
The man, whose expression revealed that he was just as surprised to see her as she was to see him, didn't look anything like the grizzled Texan she'd envisioned just moments before. At first glance, he bore enough resemblance to Antonio Banderas to be his younger brother—all decked out in Western wear, of course.
A sense of awkwardness rose up inside, and she tried to tamp it down the best she could. She might be dressed like a barefoot street urchin in a pair of gray sweatpants, an old NYU T-shirt and no makeup to speak of, but she was actually an accomplished woman who'd performed on Broadway several times in the past—and would do so again.
"I'm Catherine Loza," she said. "You must be Ray
"Mendez." His voice held the slightest bit of a Spanish accent, which made him all the more intriguing.
She reached up to flick a wild strand of her sleep-tousled curls from her eyes, only to feel something papery stuck to her face. She peeled it off, and when she looked at her fingers to see what it was, she spotted a child's butterfly sticker.
Oh, for Pete's sake. How had that gotten there?
It must have been on the bedspread or pillow, and she'd probably rolled over on it.
Determined to shake the flush from her face and to pretend that her ankles weren't bound together with duct tape, that her brain hadn't been abducted by aliens, Catherine forced herself to step forward and reach out to shake the neighboring rancher's hand. "It's nice to meet you, Ray. Eva said you'd be coming to dinner tonight. Please come in."
The handsome rancher's smile deepened, lighting his eyes, which were a vibrant shade of green.
As he released his grip on her hand, leaving her skin warm and tingling, he lifted a lazy index finger and peeled another sticker from her face.
Her lips parted as he showed her a little pink heart.
"You missed a couple of them," he said.
Huh? A couple of
He removed a gold star from over her brow and a unicorn from her chin.
Catherine blinked back her surprise, as well as her embarrassment. Then she swiped her hand first over one cheek and then the other, discovering that either Sofia or Stephen had decorated her face while she'd slept.
Goodness. What else had the twins done to her while she'd been asleep? Surely they hadn't used their Magic Markers on her, too?
She hadn't felt the least bit self-conscious in years, but it all came rushing back at her now. She must look like a clown. What must the man be thinking?
Calling on her acting skills and her ability to ad-lib on stage, she gave a little shrug, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. "Well, what do you know? The sticker fairies stopped by while I napped."
Ray tossed her a crooked grin, humor sparking in his eyes. "You've got to watch out for those fairies, especially on the Walker Ranch. There's no telling what they'll do next."
"I'm afraid he's right about that," Dan said as he entered the living room. "Our younger twins can be little rascals at times."
Before Catherine could respond, Dan greeted his friend with a handshake, then invited him to take a seat, suggesting that she do the same.
But there was no way Catherine wanted to remain in the living room looking like a ragamuffin, so she said, "I'd better help Eva in the kitchen."
"I was just in there," Dan said. "And she has everything under control."
Catherine didn't care where she went—to the kitchen, her bedroom or the barn. All she wanted to do was to disappear from the handsome rancher's sight until she could find a mirror before dinner.
"Well, since Eva doesn't need my help, I'll just go freshen up." She lobbed Ray Mendez her best, unaffected smile. "It was nice meeting you."
"The pleasure was mine."
The sound of the word pleasure on the lips of a man who not only resembled a Latin lover but sounded like one, too, was enough to knock her little Texas world off its axis.
And until she flew back to Manhattan, she'd do whatever it took to keep her feet on solid ground in Brighton Valley.
One screwed-up world was more than she cared to handle.
Ray Mendez had no idea who Catherine Loza was, why she'd been napping this late in the afternoon or why she'd been included to have dinner at the Walkers' ranch. He watched her leave the room, turn down the hall and walk toward the bedrooms.
The minute she was out of hearing range, he turned to his neighbor and friend. "You're not starting in on me, too, are you?"
"Starting in on you? What do you mean?"
Ray crossed his arms and tensed. "Is this dinner supposed to be a setup?"
Dan looked a little confused by the question—or rather the accusation. "A setup? You mean, with you and Catherine? No, I wouldn't do that." Then he glanced toward the kitchen, as if realizing his pretty wife might have had a plan of her own.
But why wouldn't she? Every time Ray turned around, one of the women in town was trying to play matchmaker.
"Eva called and asked you to dinner because we hadn't seen you in a while," Dan said. "Why would you think we had anything else in mind?"
"Because ever since word got out that my divorce was final, the local matchmakers have come out of the woodwork, determined to find the perfect second wife for me. And the last thing I'm looking for right now is romance. I've got my hands full trying to run my ranch from a distance and finish out the term of the previous mayor."
"Has it been that bad?" Dan asked.
"You have no idea."
"For the record," Dan said, "Catherine is a great woman. She's beautiful, talented and has a heart of gold. But she's just visiting us. Her life is in New York, and yours is here. So it would be a waste of time to try my hand at matchmaking."
That was a relief. Thank God Ray's friends hadn't joined every marriage-minded woman in town—or her well-intentioned best friend, mother or neighbor.
He unfolded his arms and let down his guard.
As he did so, he glanced down the hall just as Catherine returned with her hair combed, those wild platinum curls controlled by a clip of some kind.
She'd changed into a pair of black jeans and a crisp, white blouse—nothing fancy. She'd also applied a light coat of pink lipstick and slipped on a pair of ballet flats.
For a moment, Ray wondered if she had romance on her mind. But the cynical thought passed as quickly as it had struck.
If Catherine had expected to meet someone special tonight, she wouldn't have opened the door with her hair a mess, stickers all over her face and no makeup whatsoever.
Although he had to admit, she'd looked pretty darn cute standing at the door, blue eyes wide, lips parted
As Catherine crossed through the living room on her way to the kitchen, she gave him a passing smile.
And when she was again out of hearing range, Ray turned back to Dan. "Where'd you meet her?"
"She used to be Jenny's roommate."
Dan's sister, Jenny Walker, had left Brighton Valley after graduating from high school. She'd gone to college in the Midwest, majored in music or dance and moved to New York, where she'd done some singing and acting off-Broadway.
About eight or nine years ago, Jenny gave birth to twins, although she died when Kevin and Kay-lee were in kindergarten. Dan and Eva adopted the kids and were now raising them, as well as their own younger set of twins.
"Catherine has come out a time or two to visit," Dan added, "but she never stayed long. She's an actress and a dancer, so she usually has a Broadway show of some kind going on."
"Is that what she's doing here now? Visiting the kids?"
"Actually, this time I'm not sure how long she'll be with us. She broke up with some hot-shot producer back in New York and wanted to get away for a while. I don't know all of the details, but it really doesn't matter. She stepped up to the plate and helped me and the kids out when we really needed her, so I'm happy to return the favor now."
Ray raked his hand through his hair. "I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions. I should have known you wouldn't have invited me to come over with more than dinner on your mind."
Dan studied him for a moment. "Is the matchmaking really that bad?"
He chuffed. "I can't make it through a single day without someone trying to set me up with a single daughter, niece or neighbor. And that's not counting the unmarried ladies who approach me on their own behalf." Ray grumbled under his breath, wishing he'd stayed out of politics and had remained on his ranch full-time.
"Well, I guess that's to be expected." A grin tugged at one side of Dan's lips, and his eyes lit up with mirth. "You're not a bad-looking fellow. And you've got a little cash put away. I guess that makes you an eligible bachelor in anyone's book."
"Very funny." Ray had never been full of himself, but most women considered him to be the tall, dark and handsome type. He also had a head for business, which had allowed him to parlay a couple of inheritances into millions. As a result, he had more money and property than he could shake a stick at, something that made every unattached female between the ages of 18 and 40 seem to think he was a prime catch.
He could always give them the cold shoulder, but his mother had taught him to be polite and courteous—a habit he found hard to shake. Besides, he didn't know how to keep the women at arm's distance without alienating half the voters in town.
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