The ranch-house kitchen was filled with the warm smell of chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. When the last cookie on the metal sheet pan joined the others cooling on the paper spread on the counter top, Sharon Powell turned to carry the sheet pan to the table where the bowl of cookie dough sat.
Her hazel-eyed glance fell on the empty chair pushed away from the table, where a half-finished glass of milk remained along with two cookies, each with a bite taken from it. Her reaction was a combination of alarm and exasperation.
"Tony?" Sharon tossed a potholder onto the table and laid the cookie sheet, hot from the oven, on to it. There was no response to her querying call, although she strained alertly to catch any sound. Muttering to herself, Sharon started out in search of the toddler. "Now I know why they call them terrible two-year-olds. I turn my back on him for two minutes and he disappears."
This time she didn't have to search far or long to find the boy. As soon as she entered the living room, she spied him standing at the screen door, stretching a small hand to reach the latch. A wry shake of her head sent her short, toffee-colored ponytail swaying.
"Come on, Tony. Let's go back to the kitchen." Sharon started across the room to retrieve the adventurous little boy. "Don't you want to help Sharon finish baking the cookies?"
Just before she reached him, he turned. The tow-headed boy's expression was animated with excitement, his blue eyes gleaming. "Horses, horses," he declared and swung around to press his face against the wire-mesh barrier.
With a sinking feeling, Sharon glanced through the screen toward the corral by the barn. A flaxen-maned chestnut horse had nudged the gate open and was taking its first tentative step to freedom. The five other horses in the corral, horses Sharon had contracted to train, were crowding into line behind their chestnut leader.
Her gaze never left the horse warily stepping through the opened gate as she scooped Tony off the floor and swung him onto her hip. She didn't dare leave him alone in the house while she chased the horses back into the corral. Heaven only knew what he'd get into; mischief seemed to be his middle name.
Sharon fumbled with the screen-door latch for a second, then pushed it open to race from the house. The sleek chestnut threw its head up and snorted in alarm at her approach. Her boots skimmed down the porch steps while Tony rode on her hip, laughing with delight.
"Huck! You spoiled, good-for-nothing animal! Get back in there!" she shouted at the troublesome horse, cursing its latest trick of opening the corral gate.
As the chestnut lunged to make good its escape, Sharon ran an intercepting course that would place her directly in the path of the horses and hopefully prevent them from bolting down the ranch lane to the road.
It wasn't easy doing that with Tony on her hip. She didn't dare set him on the ground. With his penchant for adventure, he'd get right into the thick of things, ignorant of any possible danger to himself. In the back of her mind, there was a silent tribute to her mother, who had probably coped with many similar situations raising her two children on this western Colorado ranch.
At her shrill whistles and waving arm, the chestnut horse broke stride. Its hesitation provided Sharon time to get in front of the horses. For a second, she thought the other horses pressing the lead chestnut from the rear might prod it into charging against her.
"Wave your arms and yell real loud, Tony," she enlisted the boy's help in raising a commotion to turn the horses. He thought it was all great fun and threw himself into this new game with such abandon that Sharon nearly dropped him.
The horses swerved, hooves clacking. She had stopped them from galloping down the lane, but herding them back into the corral was another thing. It became a frustrating game of tag. Sharon was able to contain them, but she couldn't coerce the horses to re-enter the fenced enclosure. If only she could get one inside, chances were the others would follow, but each time Sharon tried to lure the horses in, they shied away from the open gate.
Her cowboy boots were not designed for running over rough ground for long periods. Her leg muscles soon began to feel the strain, while Tony was getting heavier and heavier, his weight more awkward to balance. Her arm ached from holding him on her hip, and he didn't help the situation. Weary of the game, Tony wanted it to stop so he could pet the horses. His whining and demanding protests wore on her already frazzled nerves. She was hot and tired, choking on the dust churned up by the milling horses.
Sharon paused a second to catch her breath, wondering how on earth she was going to get the horses back in the corral on her own. Neither her parents nor her brother were due back until evening. She felt doomed.
From out of nowhere it seemed, a brown streak flashed by Sharon. It only took her half a second to recognize Sam, Ridge Halliday's cow dog. She overcame the impulse to turn around and locate its owner. The well-trained dog had already driven the loose horses into a tight circle and was pressing to herd them through the gate. All that was needed to accomplish the feat was her assistance.
With a burst of flagging energy, Sharon pushed forward. The flashy chestnut made one bold attempt to break from the pack, but the efficient cow dog smoothly turned it back. There was a rippling toss of the horse's flaxen mane, then it whirled and trotted meekly through the corral gate. The other horses followed single file.
While the dog guarded the opening, Sharon rushed to shut the gate. When she set Tony on the ground to secure the gate latch, the muscles in her arm vibrated uncontrollably from the prolonged strain of holding the child. As soon as the gate clicked shut, the panting dog ducked under the lower rail and trotted back to its master, obviously located somewhere behind her.
"Doggie, doggie." Tony lost interest in the horses to begin chasing the smaller, four-footed prey, his clutching hand outstretched in a supplicating gesture.
"Stay here, Tony," Sharon ordered sharply, fully aware the cow dog was not a pet. It required an economy of breath to speak, making her voice tautly low and impatient. "The doggie will bite you."
She spared a glance in Tony's direction long enough to ascertain that he was hesitating, unsure whether or not she was telling him the truth. There was the crunch of an unhurried stride approaching her from behind.
"Did somebody forget to shut the gate?" Ridge Halliday's low, drawling voice ran over her weary body with a soothing laziness.
"No. Wonder Horse in there," Sharon flicked an irritated look at the gleaming chestnut horse as it began walking docilely toward the gate where the humans were gathered, "opened the gate. Would you bring me a piece of that baling wire by the barn."
She pushed the waving sweep of caramel-colored hair off her perspiring forehead. She was marking time, postponing the moment when she actually had to look at Ridge, and knew it. But she needed the respite to marshal her carefully practiced, light-hearted friendliness.
If there was a course in adolescent crushes getting out of hand, Sharon could have qualified as an expert. Ridge Halliday was a fellow rancher in the basin and a contemporary of her brother -- and the embodiment of every woman's fantasy. It wasn't fair to any impressionable teenager to be exposed to a man like him.
As his long shadow fell across hers, Sharon recognized the real problem -- she was no longer a teenager, but that didn't stop a quiver of excitement from shooting through her. She took the proffered baling wire from his leather-gloved hand, her glance skimming him while she became irritated because of her hot and disheveled appearance.
An inch over six feet, Ridge had the loose-limbed ease of a rider about him. His long frame was hard and lean, not given to bulging muscles but a sinewed toughness. These same characteristics were stamped on his sun-browned features, except that his hard-bitten looks were made handsome by the lazy glint in his blue eyes and the grooves carved near the corners of his mouth that always seemed to suggest a lurking smile. A dusty brown cowboy hat was pulled low on his forehead, covering most of his mahogany-dark hair except at the back, where its shaggy length curled onto his shirt collar.
All in all, it was a potent combination of hard virility and a lazy sexual charm. There was a surface recklessness about him that seemed to hide the deadly serious side of him. Or so Sharon had always thought. Perhaps it was the case that he took his ranch and his work seriously -- and nothing else. There was no doubt in her mind that Ridge could be an outrageous flirt at times. Heaven knew he had flirted with her enough times to lead her into believing she meant something more to him than just his buddy's kid sister, only to learn the painful lesson that with Ridge it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.
While Sharon concentrated on wrapping the baling wire around the gate post and the gate, the blaze-faced chestnut hung its head over the gate and nuzzled her shoulder in an overture of friendship. But she refused to forgive the animal so easily.
"Unless you have wire cutters for teeth, you aren't going to be able to open the gate the next time," she informed the horse as she tightly twined the ends of the wire.
"Beautiful animal," Ridge remarked and stroked the sleek, muscled neck of the horse.
"Beauty is as beauty does," Sharon retorted. "And that horse is close to being worthless. He's the yearling Sue Ann Langford's father spent a fortune a couple years ago. She's spoiled him to the point where he's nearly ruined. It was a mistake ever to agree to train him for her. Huck is headstrong and unruly, tame as a puppy but completely undisciplined. He's been here only three days and already we've had to padlock the grain bin, nail his stall door shut -- and now this."
All her senses were so completely focused on Ridge that for a few moments Sharon had completely forgotten about her young charge until she heard a low growl coming from the mixed-breed dog. The warning growl alternated with an anxious whine as Sharon turned to see Tony crouched over and inching closer to the nervous dog unwilling to leave its master's side to escape the unwanted attention from the child.
In a high, little voice, Tony was trying to coax it to stay still. "Doggie. Nice doggie."
"I told you to leave the dog alone." Sharon moved, scooping Tony again into her aching arms while the dog wiggled with relief now that he was no longer being pursued by this small person. Tony struggled in her arms, wanting to be put down. "The last thing I need today is for you to get bitten," she muttered, because everything had seemed to go from bad to worse. "If it isn't one thing, it's another."
"Why don't you marry me and I'll take you away from all this?" Ridge declared lazily.
She swung around, facing him. He was leaning against the corral, an arm draped carelessly along the top rail, an easy familiarity in his blue eyes that was so unnerving. It didn't seem to matter how many times she heard that joking comment -- there was always a little leap of her pulse. But she had also learned not to wear her emotions on her sleeve.
With so much practice, her laugh came naturally. "If I ever said yes to that, you'd run so fast that we'd be seeing your dust for days. You're going to say that to the wrong girl one of these days and find yourself being sued for breach of promise," Sharon warned.
Ridge chuckled, amused rather than annoyed by her response. He pushed away from the fence to move toward her. "Have you got any coffee hot?" In the past, Ridge had frequented the Powell house too often not to feel he could invite himself in for coffee.
"No coffee, but I've got a batch of homemade cookies fresh from the oven," Sharon countered, adopting the role of friend and neighbor that had served her in such good stead the last three years.
"Leave it to a woman to know the way to a man's heart." Slanting her a lazy smile, Ridge hooked a hand companionably on her shoulder. Together they started for the house.
The idle weight of his hand made itself felt, but Sharon had learned how to deal with such things. She had stopped reading anything intimate into his attitude. An arm around her shoulders meant precisely nothing. A kiss here and there meant nothing. She had stopped making mountains out of molehills. She had put aside her childish dreams that someday Ridge would look at her and discover that she was something special. It simply wasn't going to happen. Over the years, she had finally come to accept that and it hadn't been easy.
At first, she had strongly considered leaving home -- leaving Colorado and seeking a job training horses somewhere. But something had warned her that Ridge's ghost would follow her and torment her with what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. So she had stayed -- to face the situation and come to grips with its harsh reality.
"I want my cookie," Tony complained with a demanding frown.
"Who is the little guy?" Ridge looked around her at the boy riding on her hip again. "I know I haven't seen you the last couple of times I've been over, but not even you can keep a toddler hidden this long."
As he spoke, his gaze ran down her slender curves. He knew very well the child wasn't hers, but it amused him to tease her with the possibility. Once such a remark would have aroused a blush. Now Sharon shrugged it off without a blink of an eye.
"Tony is Rita Campbell's little boy." Rita was an old schoolmate of Sharon's. They were still friends even though marriage, a home and a family, plus a part-time job had severely cut into the free time Rita could devote to that friendship. "Her regular sitter was sick today, so I volunteered to look after Tony," Sharon explained her unusual occupation. "You need to be three people to keep up with him."
In unison, they climbed the porch steps and crossed to the screen door. His hand slipped off her shoulder as he reached in front of her to open the door.
"Stay." It was a low-voiced order issued to the dog trailing after them. With a plaintive whine of protest, the dog obediently sat on its haunches to wait for its master.
Tony twisted around as Ridge closed the door, shutting the dog outside. "Doggie come in and play," he said to Sharon.
"No, the dog has to stay outside," she insisted. "Let's go out to the kitchen and see if somebody ate your cookies while we were gone."
"Doggie wants a cookie." Tony gave her a bright-eyed look that Sharon ignored.
"I take it you're here by yourself today," Ridge inserted.
"Yes. Mom and Dad and Scott are out at the South Meadow gathering the first-calf heifers. It always happens that way, doesn't it?" She smiled in his direction. "Livestock never gets out unless you're the only person around. You could have helped," she said in a half-accusation.
"You and Sam were doing all right," he replied with a faint grin. "I thought I should stay by the lane in case the horses got past the two of you."
"Sure," she mocked him with an exaggerated agreement. "The truth is you were standing back there so you could watch me racing around there like a mad hen with two-ton Tony on her hip." Upon entering the kitchen, she plunked Tony on his chair and pushed it up to the table. "You'd better finish your cookies and milk," she advised him, but he was still pouting because she wouldn't let the dog come in the house. He hung his head, his lower lip jutting out sullenly, and showed no interest in the cookies or milk.
Ridge wandered over to the kitchen counter where the cookies were cooling on the newspaper. "I'm going to be needing a couple of extra riders at Latigo the day after tomorrow. I stopped by to see if Scott might be able to shake free."
Latigo was the name of his ranch, which encompassed nearly a hundred square miles of Piceance Basin in western Colorado. The rough terrain of hill and gully was well suited for cattle ranching, and Latigo was one of the larger ones in the area.
"I'm sure Scott can help out," Sharon answered. Although her father and brother were ostensibly partners in their ranch, her brother often hired out for day work at neighboring ranches to lessen the drain on the ranch's finances and permit them to put more of the profits back into the ranch.
"Do you suppose I can persuade your mom to come along and cook for us -- and maybe swing a rope now and then?" He arched her a querying look as he bit into a cookie.
The corners of her mouth deepened with a faint smile. Her mother was widely respected and sought after as both a cook and a cowhand, although the approval of her skill on horseback was usually grudgingly given. Of course, her father gave full credit to his wife for working at his side and building their ranch from practically nothing to the modest holding it was today. Sharon admired her because even though her mother did a man's work, she never stopped being a woman. She didn't resort to cussing or rough talk to gain male acceptance as one of them. If anything, men respected her more for that.
"You'll have to ask Mom." Sharon didn't answer for her mother.
"What I should do is arrange some sort of package deal for the whole Powell family?" A slow smile widened the line of his mouth.
"That might be arranged." She laughed briefly, pleased by the subtle recognition of her worth as a working rider. After she washed her hands in the sink, she walked to the table to begin spooning the rest of the cookie dough onto the sheet pan. It was easier to keep busy while Ridge was around. It kept her from focusing too much attention on him. "Do you want me to have Scott call you tonight?'
"Yeah, why don't you do that?" he agreed and came over to the table to watch her, a fistful of cookies in his hand. He stood idly for a minute, then pulled out a chair to sit down.
When she carried the pan to the oven, she had to step over his long legs, his boots hooked one atop the other. Ridge always seemed so relaxed, and she always felt so tense. Turning back to the table, she deliberately shifted her attention to the pouting Tony.
"Drink your milk." She pushed the glass closer to him so it was within his reach.
"No. Don't want it," he refused sulkily. "It's warm. I want another glass."
A fresh glass of cold milk from the refrigerator would probably have only one swallow taken from it, then be left to sit as this one had been. In Sharon's opinion, that was a shameful waste.
"You have to drink this milk before you can have any more," she informed him.
"No." Tony slumped in the chair and peered up at her through tearful lashes.
"Don't be so mean," Ridge eyed her with mock reproval. "I don't blame the kid for not wanting warm milk. I don't either."
With an adult supporting his demand, Tony reasserted it, banging his feet against the chair in a slight temper display. "I want milk."
"You're a lot of help," she muttered to Ridge. "I tell him no and you undermine what little authority I have."
There was an amused glint in his eyes at her flash of anger. "There is a simple solution to this that will satisfy both you and Tony," Ridge insisted.
"What's that?" Sharon asked in skeptical challenge.
"Ice." After delivering his one-word answer, he rolled to his feet in a single motion and crossed to the refrigerator, removing a tray of ice cubes from the freezer compartment. "Tony still drinks the same glass of milk, but the ice will make it cold." Taking two cubes from the tray, he walked to the table and dropped them in Tony's glass. "You see?" An eyebrow quirked in Sharon's direction.
"I hope you're right." For some reason, she was still skeptical of his solution.
"Of course I'm right," Ridge said as Tony reached eagerly for the glass.
Instead of drinking the milk, Tony tried to scoop out the ice cubes, and Sharon understood why she had instinctively doubted the wisdom of Ridge's solution.
"No, Tony, don't play with the ice cubes," she admonished and pulled his stubby fingers out of the glass to dry them with a kitchen towel. She slid a dry glance at Ridge. "Terrific idea."
"Drink your milk and see if the ice made it cold." Ridge changed chairs, sitting in the one next to Tony offering him the glass again. "Once you drink all your milk, then you can have the ice cubes." With seeming obedience, Tony took a drink of his milk and Ridge shot a complacent glance at Sharon. "You just have to know how to handle children."
"And you're an expert, of course," she mocked. "How many children did you say you had?"
"None...that I know about," he qualified his answer with a roguish twinkle glittering in his eyes.
pardIt wasn't as if half the women in the county wouldn't have been willing to bear his child, Sharon thought. She turned away quickly to the oven to check on the cookies before her gaze lingered on the raw strength and maturity etched in his roughly hewn features. It was much too easy to love him -- and much too hard to stop.
The cookies were close enough to being done, so she removed the pan from the oven with the aid of a protective potholder and carried it to the counter. She concentrated on lifting them one by one from the sheet pan with the metal spatula so she could block out the physical impact of his presence.
"Scott mentioned you were planning on cutting back on the number of shows you're attending this year," he remarked.
"I think so," she admitted. "It's getting too expensive to haul horses to some of the distant shows. I thought I'd concentrate on the major shows in the immediate area. I can't quit the show ring altogether or I'll lose the chance of getting new horses to train." She was well aware that competing in stock and western pleasure classes brought her to the attention of owners willing to pay to have their horses trained by a professional. Her reputation as a trainer was growing -- and she had a roomful of trophies and ribbons to prove it.
As she turned to carry the empty cookie sheet to the table, she saw Tony slyly dipping his hand into the milk glass. "Tony -- "
At her sharply reprimanding tone, he jerked his hand out of the glass. The suddenness of his action tipped the glass over, spilling the milk -- right into Ridge's lap.
"Now look what you've done, Tony." But she couldn't keep the smile out of her voice as she deposited the cookie sheet on the table and reached for the towel. Her hazel eyes were dancing with laughter when she met Ridge's glance. "Was the milk cold?" she murmured innocently.
The anger went out of his expression as quickly as it had come in. "You know damned well it was," he muttered with a half smile and took the towel she offered to blot up the excess wetness.
"The ice cubes were your idea." Sharon took delight in reminding him of the fact.
"Maybe father doesn't always know best," Ridge conceded with a rueful look and stood up to wipe at the front of his jeans where the wet blotch spread onto his thigh. "There's one consolation. Milk is probably the cleanest thing that's touched these jeans lately."
The faded material was dusty and dirt-stained, but Sharon was more conscious of the way the work-worn fabric snugly shaped itself to his hips and thighs like a second skin. It turned her thoughts in a direction that had no place in the kitchen.
The spilled milk that hadn't initially landed on Ridge was now dripping off the edge of the table. Sharon grabbed the dishcloth from the sink and mopped up the milky film on the table. All the while Tony stayed very quiet and very small, not wanting to draw further attention to himself in an attempt to avoid possible punishment. He looked sufficiently chagrined so that Sharon didn't feel anything more needed to be said.
As she returned to the sink to rinse the dishcloth under the faucet, Ridge followed her. "I'm afraid your towel is soiled," he said, acknowledging it had picked up some of his dirt along with the milk.
Copyright © 1983 by Janbill, Ltd.