Lacey didn't know what woke her. Perhaps it was the fact she'd spent the night in a strange bed after so many years away. But then she heard noises coming from outside her bedroom window and realized immediately what it was. The early morning sounds of the ranch gradually coming to life. Familiar sounds she'd grown up with. The neighing of several horses and the distant drone of voices as the men started out on their daily routines brought back memories of when she'd been a little girl waking up in that very room.
The room had changed since then, no longer one of a little girl in pink and white. Gone was the wall mural of children making sand castles on the beach with the sun and the waves behind them, their hair blowing in the wind. The walls had been painted over in muted shades of green and cream, the furniture replaced with something more suitable for adults.
With a throaty groan Lacey stretched lazily, pulling back the satin coverlet and swinging her bare legs to the floor. She sat for a moment, fighting dizziness, and glanced at the alarm clock she'd placed on the nightstand the evening before. She blinked several times before the time came into focus. No wonder she felt so tired, she hadn't even slept for five measly hours.
She ran her hands through her thick, honey-blonde hair and reached for the robe at the foot of the bed, wondering if she'd catch her father before he headed out for the day. Standing, she slipped it on and tied the sash around her waist, then pulled her hair out and left it to fall loosely against her shoulders. After sliding her feet into slippers she left the bedroom.
Halfway down the stairs Lacey caught the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She followed her nose to the dining room, where she found her father sitting at the table with his nose buried in his morning newspaper. Some things never changed.
"Good morning." She gave him a peck on the cheek before taking a seat next to him. "Good, breakfast." She reached for the coffeepot.
"Up early, aren't we?" He peered at Lacey over his lowered newspaper.
"I'm always up early." She took a sip and closed her eyes, swallowing it with a gratifying sound. "A habit from childhood I've been unable to break."
"I remember," he said with fondness in his tone.
Carl Owens was a man in his fifties, yet he didn't look a day over forty-five. A big healthy man, his thick brown hair was just beginning to gray at the temples. Lacey opened her eyes to look into the ones she'd inherited. Only there were crow's feet at the corners of his from years of squinting in the sun.
"It's good to have you home, dear. You've been gone much too long."
Lacey smiled and lifted the lid to a large platter of eggs and ham. "I hope you say that six months from now." Both knew she'd never stay that long. Over the years when she could make it home it generally was only for a few days, but this time she planned on staying awhile. Her choice of profession allowed her the luxury of being able to pick up and go whenever she wanted, she just didn't take advantage of it often enough.
She eyed the food with distaste, used to nothing but coffee and vitamins in the morning, and maybe an occasional bagel. The sight of all that food, which she knew would go to waste, turned her stomach. Tempted by nothing, she replaced the lid.
"You've been quiet too long, Dad. What are you cooking up?" She leaned back in her chair and eyed him reflectively. She sensed he was up to something; she could see it in his eyes, but what?
"I've missed you," was all he admitted.
"I was home--"
"Four years ago."
Lacey felt her cheeks grow warm and lowered her eyes against the hurt in his. Had it been that long? She couldn't believe she'd let that much time go by since her last visit. She opened her mouth to deny it, but then shut it again when it dawned on her that he was right. She'd met Paul after her last visit home and they'd been together four years.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I guess I kind of got wrapped up with my personal life and--"
"I didn't say that to make you feel bad. You're here now, and that's all that matters." He gently patted her hand, smiling, until she had no choice but to answer with a smile of her own. "You're not planning on working the whole time you're here, are you?"
Lacey thought about it for a moment. She hadn't said anything about working while she was home, so he must have assumed it. "I'll try not to." She knew work was the only thing that would keep her mind off Paul, and she planned on doing a lot of it. An illustrator for children's books, she loved her work. It was in her blood and had been since she discovered she had drawing talent at the age of eight.
The cook entered the room and began to clear the dishes and silverware off the table with the mechanical movements of a robot. Dressed in black and white and with a sour expression on her long face, she was nothing like the sweet-natured old woman Lacey remembered growing up with. A lot of things had changed when her father remarried. Her stepmother liked things done the traditional way when it came to the household staff.
Her father laid down his paper and rose to his feet. When he moved behind her chair, Lacey stood because she felt it was expected. She turned curious eyes on him. "Are we going somewhere?"
"I have a surprise for you." He took her by the arm and began leading her toward the front door.
She frowned and pulled back slightly when it dawned on her he was taking her outside. "Dad, I'm hardly dressed for going out. Your men--"
"Are all out to the pastures by now. Stop worrying. Besides, you're beautiful no matter what you look like."
"I am?" she said with pretended awe, her lips twitching with amusement.
"Haven't you looked in the mirror lately?" He led Lacey down the short roadway toward the stables.
"Only every day." Lacey knew she was attractive. She received her fair share of attention from the opposite sex. Paul had paraded her around town like an ornament on his arm when they went nightclubbing and she was dressed to the nines. But when it became apparent her looks were more important to him than her brain, their relationship started to crumble.
As they continued toward the barn, she glanced at her father for an explanation. Mud began to soak over her thin slippers. He only smiled and pulled her along.
"Can't you at least tell me why we're heading toward the stables?" Lacey didn't like surprises, especially when they were intended for her. And what's more, her father knew it. She was beginning to feel self-conscious, aware her thin silk robe covered nothing but a thin silk teddy. At least her father was right about his men not being around. As far as she could tell it was just the two of them.
"You'll see in good time. Be patient." They finally halted at the entranceway to the stables.
"Well?" Lacey inquired, raising a well-shaped brow. But her father only motioned to the stairs that led up to the foreman's quarters directly above the stalls. With an impatient sigh, she put her hands on her hips. "Are you going to stand there all day with that cat-got-the-mouse grin or explain what's going on?"
Lacey probably would have stood there for as long as it took if it hadn't been for the man walking out of the cattle barn a short distance away. An impossibly tall, well-built man with the most piercing silver eyes she'd ever seen, set in a face that seemed carved from stone. He had the look of an experienced cowboy, from the top of his sweat-stained cowboy hat right down to his old leather boots. The leather chaps he was wearing over his jeans emphasized a certain part of his anatomy that didn't appear to be lacking in size or length.
She tried to swallow, caught totally off-guard by the animal magnetism he exuded. He looked like a cowboy straight out of the 1800s, only twice as sexy. Was this her surprise? Who was he and when had he started working for her dad?
Lacey's first instinct was to take her hands off her hips, aware her stance could be considered provocative to any man other than her father. She met the man's gaze before his cool, slate-gray eyes dropped to take her in from head to foot to head again. Much in the same way she'd been ogling him. To her mortification, having his eyes on her produced an unexpected result. It suddenly felt like there was fire replacing the blood in her veins, and she felt her nipples become taut and tingle with intense awareness.
She had to remind herself to breathe.
Before she had a chance to see if he liked what he saw, she turned quickly and started up the stairs. "I guess I'll just have to find out for myself, since you seem to have lost your tongue all of a sudden."
She heard her father chuckle and knew he was right behind her. When they reached the top of the stairs she glanced down just in time to see the cowboy with the piercing eyes disappear around the corner of the barn. She turned to her father, able to breathe easier now.
"Do we go in?"
He surprised her by reaching around and opening the door. Lacey's eyes briefly scanned the room she entered, not missing the elegance, the expensive furniture, and the feminine decor. With a frown, she swung back to him. "Why are we in your foreman's quarters?"
He laughed. "Does this look like your average foreman's apartment, dear? Chase Saunders wouldn't be caught dead living in a place like this."
Lacey wouldn't blame him. It wasn't exactly her style either. It screamed of her stepmother's overdone and expensive tastes. But she'd already assumed his foreman must have a wife, which would explain the decor.
"Then whose apartment is it?" she questioned, looking more closely about the room.
The walls were freshly painted, the smell still lingering in the air. She knew the cranberry Berber carpet was new, covering the old, scratched, and faded tile she remembered. The open floor plan let her see that most of the furniture was the same style she had in her bedroom. She imagined the small bedroom located in the back looked much the same way.
It wasn't until Lacey noticed the picture on the wall above the overstuffed sofa that a warning sensation began to take form. It was a collage of pages from the first children's book she'd ever illustrated, matted and framed simply in black-and-white to complement the simple black-and-white rough draft charcoal sketches. Where had Rita found those? She slowly turned to confront her father.
"It's yours," he said simply, a big smile beaming on his handsome face.
It was the last thing Lacey expected. "Why?"
He shrugged. "Chase bought a place of his own down the road. When you called and said you were coming home for a while, I got the brainstorm of remodeling this place for you so you could have some privacy. I know how important that is to you. Rita did the rest."
"And," he interrupted before she had a chance to go on, "I won't lie by saying I didn't have ulterior motives. I thought if you had your own place while you were here that you might stay a little longer with us."
Put like that how could she hurt her father's feelings by turning down the apartment? Lacey hadn't really planned on how long she would be visiting, but the thought of having her own little place was very appealing. And since she was going to spend some of her time working, this would give her the privacy she needed.
Her gaze scanned the room again, seeing it in a different light. Her stepmother had decorated it in her own taste, but she had been thoughtful about hanging Lacey's first work over the sofa. Aware that her father was waiting for some sort of reply, she offered him a pleased smile. "Oh, Dad." She gave him a quick hug. "This was so thoughtful of both of you." She couldn't exactly exclude Rita without hurting his feelings.
"You don't mind that it's over the stables?"
"Of course not!" Lacey assured him sincerely. "I love the location. You know when I was a kid I spent more time here than I did in the house. I love the smell of horses, hay, and leather."
"I remember all too well. Come and I'll show you the bedroom. I have another little surprise for you." Taking her by the arm, he only took her as far as the doorway.
Lacey glanced over the small room briefly. Someone had left a window open, and the light breeze ruffled the sheer curtains hanging there. A window that she knew hadn't been there before.
"I had that added after Chase left, not that I didn't offer while he was living here. Since you're located right over the stables, I thought it might be nice for you to be able to open a window somewhere in here and get a decent breath of fresh air."
"You've thought of everything to make me comfortable." Lacey smiled. "But as I said, I love the smells from below. Apparently they didn't bother your foreman either."
"He's a tough old cowboy. And speaking of Chase," Carl glanced down at his watch, "I'm late for an appointment with him." They began to walk toward the front door. "Your suitcases are already here, so you don't need to come back to the house with me. But I do have one small request."
"What's that?" Lacey paused with him at the door, wondering vaguely how he'd managed to get her suitcases there without her knowledge.
"That you join us for dinner in the evenings."
That was easy. "I think I can manage that."
"Rita planned a special dinner for tonight." Lacey rolled her eyes and groaned. "You know she means well. She's invited a few guests so please, for my sake, be a good girl."
Lacey raised her brows mischievously. "Now, Dad, have I ever been anything but a good girl?" They laughed, and Lacey knew that, for her father's sake, she would do whatever he asked. It wouldn't be the first time she'd suffered through one of her stepmother's dinner parties.
After he left, Lacey spent some time unpacking her suitcases before taking a quick, eye-opening shower. She threw on some clothes leftover from her younger days, jeans she couldn't bear to part with because they were so old and comfortable. Paul had hated them, so she hadn't worn them in a while. But when packing to come home, and discovering them in a box at the back of her closet, she'd tossed them in her suitcase, knowing she would need them. She ignored the fact they were a little snug.
She twisted her hair into a loose knot and worked her feet into well-worn boots, knowing the long walk to the river would be muddy from recent rains. She intended to get a little sketching done, and she grabbed her pad and pencils before leaving her new apartment.
Lacey found her gaze roaming the grounds as she cut across the driveway, wondering if she'd see the man with the gray eyes again. There'd been something about him, a raw element that had attracted her, as brief as their encounter had been. But she didn't see anybody in the twenty minutes it took her to reach her destination.
Once she reached the river, she paused to look at its raging beauty and suck in a deep breath of fresh air before finding the perfect spot to settle down. Using a willow tree for a backrest, she sank to the ground, crossed her legs Indian-style, and opened her pad. Like most times when she began sketching, she became absorbed in her work, finding almost any object to work on that would warm her up for the real thing. She worked with a carelessness and speed that made the time pass quickly for her.
She'd been commissioned to illustrate the next Sue Cramer book, Backyard Babies. After the first rough drafts of several possible book covers were done, she dropped her pad and sank back against the tree with a sigh. Hunger pains and a stiff neck made Lacey wish she'd worn a watch, but she was more tired than anything else. The coffee she'd gulped down for breakfast had long ago worn off and her eyes were beginning to blur. She closed them. It was time to go home, but for now she was content to stay where she was, enjoying the peace and quiet that had become so foreign to her over the years. She let the sounds of nature lull her.
Lacey could only guess how much time had elapsed when she roused from her late-afternoon nap. It was clear that it would be dark soon. She gathered up her things, knowing she didn't have much time before dinner. She began the trek back and was halfway home when the ground began to vibrate beneath her feet, indicating a horse approaching. Spinning around, the breath caught in her throat. Everything happened so fast after that. Her choices were few. She could either jump out of the way and pray she went one way and the horse another, or remain still and hope the rider pulled up on the reins in time to avoid hitting her.
She chose the latter and closed her eyes, steeling herself for whatever happened. When the horse didn't plow into her, Lacey opened her eyes in time to see the rider pulling up on the reins and coming to an abrupt halt. The horse neighed in obvious protest at the unexpected action.
"Whew, that was close." Relief washed through Lacey. The setting sun was behind the rider, preventing her from seeing his face. She used her hand to shield the glare and reached up with her other one to run it along the length of the horse's nose at the same time. "Hi."
He was a handsome man, with brown hair streaked blond in some places. His eyes squinted down at her and something in his expression seemed vaguely familiar. Only later would she know what that something was. Smiling, Lacey took in his muddy boots and dust-covered work clothes. He was obviously one of her father's hired hands.
"Howdy," he said in return, pushing his cowboy hat back from his forehead. He appeared friendly enough, but his next words took on a harder quality. "What the heck are you doing walking around out here? I almost ran you down."
"But you didn't."
"Only because I saw you in time. Aren't you aware the bulls are pastured out here?"
"No, I wasn't. I've been down at the river all day." Lacey continued to caress the horse's nose, feeling the animal quiver beneath her touch. "And I haven't seen one bull."
"Believe me, they're around, and very dangerous. Being that you're Owens' daughter you're probably aware of that." He grinned.
"What gave me away?" Lacey grinned in return.
"Everyone knows what you do for a living." He indicated the pad in her hands. "And we all knew you were coming home. Would you like a ride in? It will be dark soon."
"Sure." Lacey instantly offered him her hand so he could help her up, noticing his slight hesitation. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm a bit dirty," he apologized.
"I think I'll survive a little dirt." She put her hand in his gloved one. "What's your name?" Her hands held on to the sides of the saddle they were sharing.
"Nice to meet you Brian, I'm Lacey. How long have you worked for my father?"
She felt his slight shrug. "Guess about three years. How long have you known him?"
Lacey laughed. "Guess about twenty-nine years. Was that a trick question to find out how old I am?"
"No, ma'am. My wife taught me a long time ago that it's impolite to ask a lady her age."
"Sounds like you have a smart wife."
Lacey saw the house ahead of them, but instructed Brian to take her toward the stables instead. When he didn't question her, she came to the conclusion that her apartment wasn't a secret. He stopped directly in front of the steps and, with a helping hand, she slid to the ground.
"Thanks." Smiling up at him, she brushed a strand of hair away. Brian's eyes moved past Lacey and his grin vanished.
Lacey followed his gaze and saw the rugged cowboy from that morning. He'd just secured a large black stallion into one of the stalls and was now making his way toward them in tense, unhurried strides. The look on his face revealed he was angry about something.
"What's wrong?" She glanced back at Brian.
"Big brother is definitely unhappy about something." Lacey's gaze shot back to the big man nearing them.
Now she understood why Brian looked familiar to her. They had the same eyes. And though Brian was a big man, his brother was bigger. Standing well over six feet she guessed, his powerful physique was all muscle. He moved with the sureness of a stalking mountain cat, his eyes sharp and pinning them with a piercing directness that caused a shiver to run down Lacey's spine. Something in his eyes, in the way they raked over her, turned her blood to fire. He was mad about something, but there was a hunger there, too.
His thick, too-long hair was jet black and unruly, and he took off his hat long enough to run a hand through it, his eyes never leaving them. Lacey couldn't miss the tic working furiously in his jaw, the slightly flared nostrils. She looked back at Brian nervously, said good-bye, and made a cowardly exit up the stairs to her apartment. Whatever Brian had done to cause such a reaction from his brother, she didn't want to be around to find out.
Realizing her father hadn't given her a key, she was glad she hadn't locked the door. But once Lacey was inside she didn't hesitate in doing so. She glanced at the small clock in the kitchen. She had less than an hour to make herself presentable for dinner. Tossing her sketchpad on the table in front of the sofa, she continued to the bathroom and shed her clothes along the way.