June 14th, 2021
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Fresh Pick
THE GHOST AND THE HAUNTED PORTRAIT
THE GHOST AND THE HAUNTED PORTRAIT

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McAllister Brothers #2
Tule Publishing
May 2021
On Sale: May 11, 2021
Featuring: Abby Rogers; Grant McAllister
ISBN: 1953647634
EAN: 2940162970507
Kindle: B08SFZLB6Y
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He’s not looking for anything serious…

When his older brother asks him to move back to Whiskey River to help run the family ranch, former Marine Grant McAllister feels he must agree. After spending two years recovering from battle injuries, coming home finally feels right. Relishing being back on the land, Grant decides to refurbish the family’s old hunting cabin as his new home. When the artisan designer he hires turns out to be a lovely, intriguing lady, he hopes to mix business with a little pleasure.

She needs to remain uninvolved…

After the death of her Marine husband, a pregnant Abby Rogers moved to Whiskey River to be closer to her husband’s family and escape her controlling mother. Reinventing herself as a designer, she now focuses on her business and mothering her young daughter.  She has no time for relationships—no matter how tempting she finds her handsome new client. But when her wealthy mother threatens to sue for custody of her daughter, Grant’s shocking offer forces her to listen to her heart.

Excerpt

Chapter One

As dawn sun painted a rosy stripe along the eastern horizon, Grant McAllister kicked the banked embers of last night’s campfire back to glimmering life. Patiently feeding in bits of dried grass and tinder under the crisscross tower of oak branches he’d constructed over the coals, he watched until the wood smoldered and caught, then stepped aside to fetch the grill that fit over the fire’s framework. Adding water to the battered-tin coffeepot, he placed it on the grill to heat for the morning’s first cup.

Once all was in readiness for coffee and the bacon and eggs he’d cook when his brother Brice arrived, he sat back on one of the wooden stumps that served as stools. With the nearest town miles away and this high ridge reached by isolated ranch roads, only the chatter of birds and the lowing of cattle in the nearby fields broke the silence. Grant closed his eyes, letting the beauty and stillness of the early June morning flood his soul.

His mind filled with images of campfires past. Many built here, on this high plateau sheltered by old-growth cedar and live oaks, where he and brothers, Duncan and Brice, had camped innumerable times while growing up. Later, in dusty bivouacs thousands of miles away, surrounded by his fellow Recon Marines, brothers in all but blood, drinking coffee made on their Jetboils, sharing tall tales and goodies from home.

It had taken a long time to reconcile himself to the anguish and loss, but after eight years in the service and two more living in a high-rise San Antonio condo, working with an organization that matched veterans with jobs, he was back in Whiskey River. The itchy feet that had compelled him to leave right after high school, carried him to various Marine bases across the US and to rocky battlefields halfway around the world, had finally led him home. To McAllister land and the Triple A ranch.

When injuries had forced him out of an active role in the Corps, working with vets had been a way to hang on to some involvement in military life. After spending two years in that role, when Duncan had asked for Grant’s help, he’d decided he might at last be ready to close the book on that phase of his life.

The decision to come back felt right.

The sound of scrabbling rocks and the growl of a distant engine had him opening his eyes. Must be Brice driving up. Better get the coffee going.

By the time his brother’s SUV rounded the last curve and drove across the flat plateau toward his campsite, he was pouring boiling water into the French press, filling the morning air with the rich smell of dark-roast coffee.

He heard the engine die and the slam of car doors—two car doors. Looking up in surprise, he saw his older brother, Duncan, walking toward the fire with Brice.

“Good thing you made a whole press full,” Duncan said as he came over to grasp Grant’s hand and give him their traditional one-armed hug. “I’m thirsty.”

“What’s the bridegroom doing up here?” Grant asked. “Surely Harrison hasn’t thrown you out yet.”

“She’s up early working on the breeding books, then plans to head into town. She’s been doing some tax work for Reba’s Java and Mel Gardiner’s bookstore, and wanted to get them the paperwork to sign before the June fifteenth deadline. So she sent me out for some ‘brother bonding time.’”

Brice rolled his eyes. “Did she really call it that? Women!”

“Careful, now. That’s my darling wife you’re disparaging. She looked so cute saying it with that serious expression of hers; I didn’t have the heart to tease her.”

Grant looked at Brice and both brothers shook their heads. “Completely besotted,” Grant said. “I’d call it nauseating, if Harrison weren’t such a nice girl.”

“Why she ever hooked up with our workaholic brother, I’ll never understand, but otherwise, she’s pretty smart,” Brice agreed.

“Obviously I couldn’t leave my beautiful bride, but why didn’t you camp with Grant last night?” Duncan asked Brice.

“If you weren’t so oblivious to everything beyond your new wife, you’d remember that I had to work undercover. Didn’t finish until too late to join Grant. Besides, I think he wanted a night alone to . . . to ease into being home again. You were . . . okay, weren’t you?”

The anxious looks on both his brothers’ faces told him they were remembering a time not so many years distant, soon after his return from his last deployment and his decision to leave the Marines, when he hadn’t been okay alone, here or anywhere. Recuperating from the injuries suffered on that last patrol, dealing with the grief of losing friends—and the guilt of having survived them—had been a difficult struggle. But he’d won the battle against those demons—mostly. “I’m fine. Meditation, therapy and time—the recipe to heal all wounds. Or at least make them bearable.”

“I’m just glad you’re back,” Duncan said, handing a cup of coffee to Brice before taking one himself. “Now that we’ve recovered the Scott Ranch property and restored the Triple A to its original size, I really am going to need your help. Especially after the town doc confirmed last week that Juan Cortez, whom you may remember had been helping Harrison’s dad run the Scott Ranch, is barred from doing any heavy work permanently.”

“Is he still in a lot of pain?” Brice asked as they settled onto log seats by the fire.

“He says he isn’t, but Harrison’s going to press him to see a pain management specialist in Austin. When that mama cow knocked him around, he apparently aggravated some disc problems he’s had for years. With hay-cutting season upon us, I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t agreed to move back and help, Grant.”

“When your big brother, who’s never asked for assistance with anything, says the only wedding present he wants is for you to help him run the ranch he single-handedly rescued from bankruptcy and has worked sixty hours a week since high school to make profitable again, what else could a brother do?”

“So you gave your boss notice and hoofed it back to Whiskey River,” Brice said.

“Not exactly. I’m still consulting and I’ll handle a few cases. Much of the workload I’ve turned over to my assistant, but he knows he can call me anytime, and I’ll probably go back to San Antonio once a month or so.” At the startled look Duncan gave him, he added, “After I’ve gotten the hay on my section of the ranch cut, of course.”

“Harrison and I are thrilled to have you back on any terms,” Duncan affirmed. “The Triple A’s been McAllister land since great-granddad settled here after the Civil War. Sure, I run it, but it belongs to all of us. It’s our legacy. Shoot, maybe we’ll even convince Brice to give up the law and settle back here.”

“I think the two of you have it well in hand,” Brice said, stretching his legs out toward the fire.

“Too exciting chasing criminals to settle for chasing down stray calves?” Duncan said.

“Naw, he just thinks the ladies prefer a man in a tan Stetson with a ranger star on his chest,” Grant said.

“Speaking of ladies, what did the one you left behind in San Antonio do when you told her you were moving to Whiskey River? Or is she planning to join you?” Brice asked.

“Meredith, in Whiskey River?” Grant laughed at the very image. “Let’s just say that she has about as much love for small-town life as Duncan’s old high school flame, Julie Ann. It was . . . time for that to end.”

“I figured as much, since you didn’t bring her to the wedding,” Duncan said.

“Making commitment noises, was she, bro?” Brice asked.

“And how is that blond honey you’ve been seeing in Austin?” Grant flashed back. “Hankering for a diamond on her finger?”

“Okay, no more talk of women,” Brice said. “Speaking of ‘settling,’ where do you mean to live?”

“There’s plenty of room back at the ranch house,” Duncan said. “You know you’re welcome.”

Brushing off the flake of ash that had landed on his cup, Grant said, “Sure, I’ll just move in with my brother and his new wife. Or maybe not.”

“If you don’t want to do that, I know Harrison would be happy to have you live in the house her dad built at the Scott Ranch.”

Grant shook his head. “Too big for me. I’m used to living in a one-bedroom condo. I don’t need thirty-six hundred square feet.”

“Surely you don’t mean to live in town,” Duncan objected. “That would add on an unnecessary drive, especially in the winter when it will still be dark when morning chores begin.”

“No, I have something different in mind. Remember the little hunting cabin Granddaddy built, over on the land Scott bought? Scott never used it; he built that new house closer to the center of the ranch. I rode over yesterday to look at it. Needs a new roof and some work inside, of course. Since you want me to work the cattle on the eastern side of the Triple A, I’d be right where I need to be.”

Pointing off to the east, Brice said, “The cabin sits on that bluff overlooking that creek where it branches off the Pedernales, near our old favorite swimming hole, right?”

“That’s the one.”

“No one’s done anything to it in decades,” Duncan said. “Are you sure it wouldn’t fall down around your ears?”

“No, the timbers and the rock walls look to be in amazingly good shape. Granddaddy knew how to build a cabin. I can clean it out, add on an extension with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and redo the kitchen. With new insulation, a gas stove insert in the fireplace, solar panels for electricity and a deck built to overlook the river, it should do me fine. I can camp out there while I work on it.”

“With no electricity or running water or—?” Brice began before halting abruptly at Grant’s raised eyebrow. “Never mind. Recon Marine, right? You could camp on a rock and live off dirt.”

“I don’t need a feather mattress and a lighted bathroom mirror so I can apply my scented hair gel,” Grant said, setting down his empty cup.

“Screw you, bro.”

“You can shower and wash clothes back at our place until you’ve got the renovations done,” Duncan said. “Just to be polite, I’ll make sure Harrison is okay with your taking over the cabin. Since technically, it’s on the land her daddy left her.”

“Which she deeded back to you, didn’t she?” Brice asked.

“She’s offered to, saying she wants the Triple A to be legally restored to its original size and name. I thought if it’s alright with the two of you, we’d retitle the whole property, our portion and the Scott portion, with the deed in all our names.”

“Are you sure, Duncan? You probably ought to own it outright, with Harrison, of course. You’re the one who’s held it together all these years, while I was off with the Marines and Brice was busy law-manning.”

“No, Daddy always intended for it to belong to all of us. I don’t think he’d mind me including Harrison.”

“She’s a McAllister now,” Brice said. “All for one and one for all.”

“That’s settled, then. Is that breakfast fixings I see, bro?” Duncan asked.

“Bacon and eggs. After we eat, I thought we’d mount up and you can drive me around, show me which fields are planted to what grasses and which ones need mowing first. I may have grown up on a ranch, but it’s gotten much more scientific and specialized since Daddy had us out cutting native rye grass.”

“I’ll stay for breakfast, then I need to get back to Austin,” Brice said.

“He means he needs to escape before we try to put him to work,” Duncan said.

“I seem to remember that tactic,” Grant agreed. “‘But Daddy, I can’t mow today. I have football practice.’”

“‘Sorry, Daddy, but I’m supposed to run the student council meeting after school,’” Duncan chimed in.

“Careful now, big brothers. I can still whup the both of you.”

“You could try, little brother, but I wouldn’t advise it,” Grant said. “Remember, you being the runt of the litter, we’ve always gone easy on you.”

“Why don’t you stop harassing me and cook the bacon,” Brice said. “Time’s a-wastin’—for getting those chores done.”

“I’m starving too,” Duncan admitted.

“After a night’s hard work, no doubt,” Grant said, and ducked a punch from his brother before walking over to fetch the cast-iron frying pan from his kit and bacon from the cooler. “Only thing you were better at growing up than weaseling out of chores, Brice, was cleaning out the fridge of everything edible.”

“An offensive lineman needs his protein.”

“I’m sure. Pour me another cup, and I’ll get the bacon going.”

Grant took a swallow of the hot, dark brew from the cup Brice handed him and set the bacon sizzling. Listening as Duncan ragged his little brother about the mysterious Austin blonde, Grant smiled.

He hadn’t been sure that moving back was a good idea, but he had to admit, it felt entirely natural to be back up here in this special place with his brothers again, their camaraderie as intact as if they’d last camped here ten days, instead of ten years ago, after his high school graduation. Listening to them hassle each other with the audacity and good humor that came from decades of affection and shared history, he felt a deep connection to them and this place.

He’d been somewhat afraid when he learned Duncan was getting married that the rapport and the closeness the brothers had always shared would be compromised. Duncan showing up this morning, his energy and good humor just as Grant remembered it, reassured him that “the three musketeers,” as they’d called themselves in high school, would continue to ride together.

Although, even if it had affected their relationship, he couldn’t have resented Harrison. His workaholic, serious, driven brother looked happier and more relaxed than Grant had ever seen him.

While forking the bacon onto a plate and deftly cracking eggs into the frying pan, Grant felt a niggle of envy.

Once, while he was still in the Corps, he thought he’d established the same sort of deep bond with a woman. Fortunately, he’d dragged his feet about marrying Kelsey, because her devotion hadn’t lasted through the three deployments he’d pulled. Not that he blamed her—too much—for drifting away. Loving someone who periodically got called to the other side of the world for someone to shoot at didn’t make for an easy relationship.

But having her walk away, and walk away right after he’d been shipped home, injured, grieving and vulnerable, needing her love and support more than he’d ever needed anything, made him skeptical of ever finding a woman who’d stand beside him through the tough times. Stand beside him with the unshakeable loyalty and support his brothers had always given him.

Much as he enjoyed the ladies, relying on family was safer. Even if sometimes his brothers did inspire him with a desire to murder.

“Eggs and bacon are up,” he announced. “There’s some biscuits from town and jalapeño sauce in the grub locker. Grab a plate and come help yourself.”

Soon after, another round of coffee in their mugs and plates full, the brothers sat on the stump seats, watching as the sun rose gold and brilliant into the white sky. Looking around, Grant saw the peace and sense of belonging he felt mirrored in the eyes of his siblings. Of one accord, they raised their coffee mugs.

“So glad to have all of you back,” Duncan said.

“You bet, brothers. All for one and one for all,” Grant toasted.

Chapter Two

A week later, after getting up at dawn to finish the day’s mowing early enough that he would have time to shower, change, and get into town before the shops closed, Grant McAllister pulled up his Chevy pickup in front of a small garage beside an equally small stucco ranch house. If it hadn’t been for some assorted metal sculptures posed in the yard separating the two buildings, he would have suspected he’d taken a wrong turn when he left the state highway and headed down the narrow farm-to-market road.

He vaguely remembered this house had belonged to the manager who used to oversee the old Cameron ranch, before the heirs sold the property to one of the developers who seemed bent on covering every hilltop between Last Stand and Whiskey River with condos. Thank heavens, the valley road leading here didn’t offer outstanding vistas, and it appeared few of the housing sites along it had been sold.

The ranch house looked just as he remembered from high school: small, modest, unassuming. Aside from a fresh coat of paint and a small sign over the garage announcing “Hidden Treasures,” the place appeared deserted—not the bustling, upscale shop featuring unusual western-themed décor he’d been expecting.

As he stepped down from the truck, he heard a squeal of high-pitched laughter. A blond little girl darted out of the house onto the patio between the two buildings. Spotting him, she stopped short and stared.

Though not anxious for any of his own, he liked kids. But he didn’t see how even a child-averse curmudgeon could fail to respond to the blond cherub gazing up at him. With her model-perfect oval face, pink cheeks, sparkling deep-blue eyes, and golden curls pulled up into two topknots, she exuded an innocent “Shirley Temple” radiance. When, inspection apparently completed, she smiled at him, he just had to smile back.

“Hello, angel. Anyone in the shop?”

“My mommy is. Jillee said I could go get her. It’s time to stop working.”

“How about we get her together?”

She must have been properly warned not to associate with strangers, for she hesitated. Then, apparently deciding that with someone in the house watching and her mama in the shop, it was probably safe to agree, she nodded. “Okay. I’ll show you.”

Remaining a non-threatening distance behind, he followed her to the garage and through the door into the shop. And then stopped short himself. Eyes riveted on the woman within, he hardly heard the little girl announcing, “Mommy, there’s a man to see you.”

Perched atop a ladder was a tall, slender blonde in old faded jeans, her tank top showing mouth-watering curves under a loose, open chambray work shirt. She had her arms raised above her head as she attached a lighting fixture to the ceiling.

At her daughter’s words, she looked over at them. Grant felt a spark of pure physical attraction energize his body.

Her face was an oval as perfect as her daughter’s, her eyes the same shade of startlingly deep blue, her mouth lush and kissable. She gazed at him, brushing back over her shoulder a long mane of pale blond hair caught in a loose ponytail, her inquiring expression as innocent and guileless as the child’s.

Seeing that Madonna face in that siren’s body only intensified his first, immediate sensual response.

Grant was suddenly gladder than ever he’d come back to Whiskey River.

Perhaps she, too, felt the spark between them. Surprise replacing her look of inquiry, she leaned toward him—and wobbled on the ladder. Grant was about to run over to catch her when she recovered her balance.

“Can I help you?”

Could you ever. Swallowing to moisten his suddenly dry throat, Grant said, “I hope so. I’m looking for some things for the cabin I’m renovating. Lighting, furniture, décor pieces. I was told you had some unusual and interesting ones.”

She nodded. “I was about to close, but since you’ve driven all the way out here, please take your time and look around.”

As she started to descend the ladder, Grant hurried over to steady it.

“Shouldn’t climb on a ladder without someone to spot you, you know. Especially if you’re working above your head.”

“Are you from OHSA?” she asked wryly. “Please tell me you’re not going to write me up for an infraction. Since I’m the owner, you can’t say I was endangering an employee.”

“I hope to support you. Your business, I mean.” What was wrong with his brain? Okay, she was a stunner. And he did like willowy blondes. A whole lot.

But this was Whiskey River, not San Antonio. The gossip mill here worked overtime. Though he’d more or less decided to put his love life on hold while he settled back in at home, one look at this lady, followed by a quick glance to confirm her left hand was ringless, had him throwing that resolve out the window.

But if he did pursue her, he’d have to step carefully. He didn’t want to become the town’s major subject of discussion before he’d been back barely a month.

“Mommy, Jillee said I could come get you.” The child came over to hug her mother. “She has lemonade ready. I helped make it!”

The blonde kissed her daughter on the top of her head. “That will make it even sweeter, Katie-girl.”

Turning to Grant, the child said, “Would you like some lemonade too?”

“Thanks, but I wouldn’t want to impose. It’s nice of you to ask, though.”

“Mommy says it’s good to share.”

“Your mommy’d be right about that. Most of the time.”

“Why don’t you look around and let me know if anything catches your eye?” the owner said. “I’ll be on the terrace with the lemonade.”

Something certainly had caught his eye. So much so he hadn’t paid any attention to the items in the shop. He’d inspect them after this entrancing woman and her little girl walked out.

“I’ll make sure to keep an extra glass, if you change your mind. You deserve a reward for driving all the way out here so late on a hot June afternoon. I’m Abby Rogers, by the way, and this is my daughter, Katie,” she added, coming over and holding out her hand. “Welcome to Hidden Treasures.”

“Grant McAllister. Pleased to meet you, Abby, and you, too, Katie.” The firm handshake she offered didn’t mask the tingle of electricity that shot up his arm when his fingers gripped hers.

Her eyes widened. For a moment, they both stood motionless, just gazing at each other. Then Abby pulled her hand away. “Come on, Katie. Give a holler if you need anything, Grant.”

“Don’t I get to shake hands too?” Katie asked.

“Maybe later,” Abby said, shepherding her daughter toward the door. “Let’s let Mr. McAllister look around first.”

It appeared he’d found a lot more than potential furnishings for his cabin here. Now he wished he’d paid more attention when Harrison had told him about the shop. Had she mentioned whether the owner had a husband or boyfriend? Just because the lovely blonde didn’t wear a wedding ring didn’t mean she was free and available.

There was a Rogers clan that lived in the Barrels area of downtown Whiskey River; he’d gone to high school with several of them. But not this woman—he would definitely have remembered her. Since she had that charming daughter, Rogers might be her married name, though. If so, was she still married?

He might not be interested in anything long-term, but since ending his liaison with Meredith, he’d missed feminine companionship as well as the physical intimacy. If this luscious blonde were unattached and amenable to masculine company, he’d be more than happy to oblige.

Abby Rogers, I hope to soon get much better acquainted with you.

After Grant watched the mom and daughter settle in a pair of patio chairs under an awning that blocked the afternoon sun, he finally turned to inspect the articles in the shop. Harrison had told him the owner had an artist’s eye she used to transform and repurpose used, abandoned and derelict items into unusual and interesting furniture, light fixtures and decorative objects.

The chandelier she’d been hanging certainly fit that description. Formed from what appeared to be the roots of a cedar tree, it had a classic, broad chandelier shape, illumination provided by fine strands of LED lights that were woven through the root mass, which had been cleaned and coated with a polyurethane that brought out the rich natural color of the wood. He could readily envision a fixture like that for the living room of his cabin.

Hung on the wall nearby, another item sparked his interest—a map of Texas created by cutting the shape of the state out of old, partially rusted and weathered tin roofing, the silhouette mounted on old farm boards.

On the wall behind a rough rawhide sofa, two sections of ladder, hung one above the other, had been fashioned into bookshelves—an airy arrangement that would provide storage without taking up much space in his small cabin. He liked the leather sofa too—comfortable but rugged, a necessary requirement for seating a man who spent much of his day out wrangling cattle.

An old farm table was set up as a dining table, the “chandelier” above it made of a rough-hewn log of mesquite wood wrapped with rope that dangled glass-covered light bulbs. In the corner, what looked like an antique armoire had been made into a buffet, with old baskets storing napkins and rolled place mats, rake heads removed from their handles mounted above them holding wineglasses by their stems, and shelves above that displaying stoneware dishes in neutral colors.

Everywhere he looked, he saw something to intrigue the mind and awaken the senses.

Harrison had nailed his tastes perfectly. Looked like he was going to be spending a lot of money at Hidden Treasures.

In fact, what he really ought to do was hire Abby Rogers to furnish his whole cabin. He loved what she’d collected here, and could envision how great his place would look if she were to take over all of it.

Of course, the fact that it would require Ms. Rogers to come look at his cabin and then consult with him closely during the weeks it took her to find the requisite furnishings made him even surer the idea was brilliant.

Especially if Abby Rogers didn’t currently have a man in her life.

Now all he had to do was charm the owner into agreeing.

As he walked out of the shop, the little girl ran over to him. “Want some of the lemonade I made? Mommy saved you a glass.”

“Well, if you made it and she saved it, I’ll just have to drink it, won’t I?”

He followed the child to the patio, where a full glass awaited him, waving the owner to remain seated when it looked like she was about to get up to greet him.

The child climbed up on the love seat beside her mother and looked at him expectantly. Nothing for it but to take a big sip from the glass.

He was immediately glad he had. “This is delicious—and different! What’s in it?”

“Besides lemon, of course, there’s mint—we grow it in the garden here.”

“It sure is refreshing, especially on a hot afternoon.”

“I made good lemonade, didn’t I?” the child asked, beaming at him.

“You sure did. But I bet everything you make is good.”

Katie nodded solemnly. “Mommy says all my pictures are beautiful too.”

Just then, a woman walked out the front door of the house and, seeing the group, paused. “Excuse me for interrupting, but I’d going to head home now, Abby, if that’s all right. You’ll be out at Marge’s tonight? It’s pizza night, remember?”

“Aunt Margie said Sissie and I could have ice cream too!” Katie said.

“You sure can. Yes, I’ll see you there later, and thanks, Jillee.”

“You bet. Bye-bye, Princess,” she said to the girl. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Katie jumped up to give her a hug. “Bye, Miss Jillee.”

Nodding to the group, the woman walked over to a car parked under a vine-covered trellis on the far side of the garage, climbed in and drove off.

After finishing her lemonade, Katie carefully put the glass back on the tray. “Can I go finish my drawing, Mommy?”

“Sure, Katie-girl. I’ll be inside in a minute, and we’ll get ready to go to Aunt Marge’s.”

“Good! Miss Jillee said Meghan will be there too.”

“Two hen parties,” Abby said with smile. “The young ones and old ones.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. McAllister,” Katie said before skipping off.

“Nice to meet you, too, Princess,” he called after her. “She really is a princess,” Grant said to her mother after the girl disappeared into the house.

“She is indeed,” her mother said with a fond smile. “Though sometimes it seems she’s five going on twenty! She’s amazing, though. She lights up my world every day.”

“Your shop is amazing too.”

Looking gratified, she smiled. “Which items did you particularly like?”

“All of them.”

She blushed, which Grant found charming. “Thank you.”

“Where do you find such unique pieces?”

“I make most of them. Not the leather furniture, though. I order that from a shop in San Antonio. Most of the rest is put together from objects I find in secondhand stores, dumps, yard sales, the side of the road . . . just about anywhere.”

“You have a creative and inventive eye, to use things in such unexpected ways. It’s sheer genius.”

The rosy hue on her cheeks deepened. “I’ve always liked crafting. When I came to live here, I didn’t have much money, so I pretty much had to improvise in order to furnish the house. My husband’s family liked what I’d done, bragged on it, had their friends come to see it. Some of them asked me to make similar items for them, and I did. Eventually I decided to open an online shop, and needed a place to photograph and store the objects, so I renovated the garage. Then people started coming out here asking to see them, so the ‘storeroom’ became a showroom.” She laughed. “From a tiny mustard seed . . .”

“Your husband must be proud of you too,” he said, knowing he was fishing.

A sadness shadowed her eyes. “I like to think he would be. I . . . lost him several years ago, just before Katie was born.”

Grant had the grace to feel guilty. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”

She took a deep breath, as if gathering herself together, and gave him a determined smile. “We’ve made a good life for ourselves, me and Katie. With lots of help from family. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my mother-in-law and sister-in-law and their friends. But enough about me. Did you see anything you’d like for your cabin? Most of the items are just display pieces. When someone wants something similar, I make it up on order. Although if you need something immediately, I might be able to let you have the item from the shop.”

“Honestly, what I’d really like would be for you to furnish the whole cabin. I’ve only just started the renovation, so there would be time for you to make as many items as I need. My sister-in-law warned me that most furniture has to be special ordered and recommended I start looking around now, so the pieces would be finished about the same time as the cabin. She’s the one who sent me here. Harrison Scott, who just married my brother, Duncan, so she’s Harrison McAllister now.”

Abby nodded. “I thought I recognized the name. I saw the wedding announcement in the local papers. Her daddy was the one who ran the Scott Ranch, and died suddenly of a heart attack last spring?” When Grant nodded, she added, “I’m sorry for your family’s loss.”

“It’s been hard for her—she and her daddy were very close. I like to think having my brother there has helped her get through it.”

“I’m sure it did.”

“So—would you be willing to do it? Furnish the whole cabin?”

“Furnish the whole cabin?” she repeated slowly. “How big is it?”

“Not very. Probably about six hundred square feet now, maybe up to one thousand, once I add on two bedrooms and a bathroom.”

To Grant’s relief, she didn’t immediately reject the idea. While he waited with growing anticipation, she appeared to carefully consider it.

“It would be fun to do a whole house again,” she said after a moment. “I really enjoyed doing my own. But are you sure you want to turn that much control over the place you’ll be living in to someone else?”

“I’d consult closely with you, of course. I like everything I’ve seen in your shop, but I wouldn’t let you put up pink curtains in the kitchen or cover a bedroom dresser with feathers and blingy beads.”

“You wouldn’t? It takes a real man to carry off pink,” she said with a teasing glance.

Grant smiled in delight. That comment and the accompanying glance bordered on the flirtatious. She didn’t seem the type to lead a man on, so hopefully that response meant she wasn’t involved with anyone. If she agreed to do the cabin, things could only get better.

“I hope I’m man enough to carry off anything.”

Laughing, she shook her head at him. “Good. But I promise to stick with neutral colors.”

“That might be better. I’d like things that harmonize with the natural colors and materials that surround the cabin. So—you’ll do it?”

“Let me check the order schedule and see how much work I already have lined up. If I think I’ll have enough time to fit in furnishing a whole house without falling behind on the projects I’ve already promised, then yes, I will do it.”

“If you need any help with the heavy stuff—I’d really like one of those Texas maps made out of tin roofing—I’d be happy to assist. Cutting the tin for that map couldn’t have been easy.”

“Thanks, but I can manage. I’m used to being on my own. At first, I didn’t have anyone to help, so if I wanted to get something done, I had to figure out how to do it myself. Trial and error, but eventually I found ways to do most everything I needed to do. I have a shop behind the showroom where I do most of the welding, cutting and glasswork. Kept locked, of course, so Katie doesn’t wander in and hurt herself.”

“A good idea. Cut tin edges can be razor-sharp. When do you think you’ll know whether or not you can take on the project?”

“Can I call you tomorrow?”

“You could meet me for dinner.”

Her friendly smile disappeared. Her tone noticeably cooler, she said, “Thanks for the offer, but I prefer to keep my personal and professional lives completely separate. If that’s a problem, you are still welcome to order pieces from the shop—or take your business elsewhere.”

Grant had never thought of himself as irresistible to women. He’d been turned down before—a few times. But he couldn’t remember being shut down so quickly and with such finality.

Maybe there was a boyfriend in the wings. Not live-in, he was pretty sure, based on the rather feminine size and character of the furniture on the patio. No rugged, oversized chairs or beer coolers here to indicate a permanent masculine presence.

Alarmed, and hoping to salvage something, he hurried to backtrack. “If I was being overly forward, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I just moved back to Whiskey River, and though I grew up here, I’ve been gone a long time. I don’t have many acquaintances here anymore. I admire your skill and I thought maybe we could be . . . friends. But if you’d rather the relationship be strictly professional, I can respect that.” Respect that—but hope to change your mind if I find out you really are available. “I still want to hire you to furnish my cabin.”

She stared at him, as if trying to assess the sincerity of that statement. Grant stared back, hoping she would be convinced.

Not that he could look away anyway. Not only was she achingly lovely, but there was something else, some sort of vulnerability maybe, that called to him. Despite her being a businesswoman, a mother, a widow, there was about her a sense of childlike innocence that activated the same sort of desire to protect that had drawn him to enter the military. It was ridiculous, seeing that he’d only just met her, but beyond the simmering physical desire that made him ache to touch her, he felt the strongest desire to . . . ease her burdens.

So he let himself continue to drink in the beauty of those wide blue eyes, that stubborn, independent chin, that lithe body with tempting curves in all the right places.

“Okay,” she said at last with a sharp, quick jerk of her chin. “I’ll take you at your word, Grant McAllister. I’ll look over the orders tonight and call you tomorrow.”

“Don’t phone, text me instead. I’ll be out cutting hay until late, and cell coverage is spotty in the pastures. I might not be able to receive a phone call, but I’ll get the text once I’m in range.”

“Very well, I’ll text you.” She rose and offered her hand. “Thank you for coming by the shop, Mr. McAllister. I hope I can provide what you need for your cabin.”

“I’m sure you will.” He shook the hand she extended, feeling again that spark of connection—and noting that she broke the contact much more quickly than she had the first time.

She feels it too—even if she won’t acknowledge it.

“Until tomorrow, then,” she said. “Safe drive home.”

“Thank you. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

Giving him another nod, she turned and walked back to the house.

With no excuse to remain, he headed to his truck, watching out of the corner of his eye until Abby Rogers disappeared inside. What he wanted from that intriguing blonde went far beyond a chandelier and a leather sofa.

He would have liked to linger with her on the patio, maybe follow up the lemonade with a beer or a glass of wine. Get to know more about her and her unique skill. How she came to Whiskey River, and why she’d stayed.

She couldn’t be more than thirty, if that. She must have been in her early twenties when she was widowed. And how had that happened?

He sure hoped she decided to take on the project. Despite their disappointing start, he still wanted to see way more of Abby Rogers. And until he had solid confirmation that she was involved with someone, he wouldn’t give up—yet—on persuading her to do more than just furnish his cabin.

 



Start Reading THE COWBOY Now

The McAllister Brothers



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