Christmas in Cowboy Country (4 page)

He waited for her answer as Annie took off her tortoise-frame glasses and tucked them into her bag, which already held her notebook and printed information handed out before the meeting. “Just a sec.”
Annie got her father's attention by waving at him. “I'll be outside,” she called.
“Okay, honey.” He turned to discuss something with her mother before he could see that Marshall Stone was going with her. Annie pushed open one of the double doors of the town hall's entrance.
A light snow was falling straight down, since there was no wind. She stopped for a minute to take in the lovely sight. He did too. Neither spoke.
She walked a few steps ahead of Marshall, knowing he had to shorten his long strides to follow her. But she wanted to be the one who decided where they'd end up. Annie stopped by the tiled entryway of a closed restaurant, moving right next to the narrow side wall so that he'd have room to stand a few feet away.
She had wanted to talk to him without half the town being able to listen in. And that was all. The entryway would do.
“Nice,” he said, looking up at the sparkling snowflakes that twirled down from on high. The street lamps' illumination made each one stand out before it vanished forever. Annie held out a hand to catch a few, unable to resist, even though the crystalline snow melted almost instantly on her warm skin.
“You must be used to a lot of snow where you're from.”
“That's so. Wyoming gets its share.” His deep voice echoed against the tiles of the entryway. His reply was to the point, but it held a thoughtfulness that she liked.
He was a man of few words, and each of them seemed to count for something. The warmth in his voice was genuine.
She hadn't picked up on that while the meeting was in progress, when he'd seemed so indifferent to what was going on in Velde.
She told herself to cut him some slack on that. It wasn't his hometown and he didn't have to have an opinion on local politics. The meeting could be the first time he'd seen a different side of his employer.
Annie now understood why her dad just didn't trust the man who owned the land adjacent to his. The conflict might never amount to more than the occasional spat over boundary lines, but the Bennetts could handle themselves. She was much more concerned about the elderly residents who had flocked to Shep Connally after Chuck Pfeffer introduced the man.
Call it a rude awakening for her and Marshall Stone.
Annie wasn't going to obsess over it.
Not when he was this close to her and they were as alone as they might ever be. She turned to look at him, realizing that he was keeping the same respectful distance. But when his eyes met hers, she felt a much stronger connection.
“Are you—going to be staying here in Colorado for a while?” The question hung in the air. She almost felt like someone else had asked it.
“Maybe,” he replied.
With a flash of chagrin, Annie guessed from the amused gleam in his eyes and her own sentimental rush of emotion that she had to be looking up at him as wistfully as a lovelorn teenager. Which was so not like her. And she certainly didn't want to give him the impression that she'd dragged him into a doorway with the intention of kissing him. Still and all, it had been way too long since she'd kissed anyone. And there he was. Everything she wanted in a man and then some.
Stone closed the distance between them with one long step and took her in his arms. Then he angled his head over hers, supporting the nape of her neck with one large hand and pulling her body nearer to his with the other. Gently but insistently, he brushed his lips against her cheek and pressed a kiss to her closed lips.
She wanted him to. She sank her hands into his hair, loving the silky thickness of it.
With an almost inaudible moan, she parted her lips. He deepened the kiss and strengthened his hold on her, sliding his hand from her neck to slowly caress her back. Up and down. The pressure of his hand was sensual and easy, but it soon intensified. The hand around her waist went lower too, rounding over the back pockets of her jeans in full appreciation of the curves beneath the snug denim.
Soon both of his hands were well below her belt. Gently, he lifted her up by her behind so she could easily throw her arms around his neck and kiss him back just as hard, once her mouth was level with his.
Annie was literally floating in air, her boots off the ground. The sensation was strongly erotic. She used her thighs to get a grip on him, clasping his narrow hips with the same muscles she used to ride horses.
He might not be a cowboy, but he sure as hell kissed like one.
Murmuring some interesting ideas in her ear about taking this as far as she wanted to go, Marshall pressed her back against the narrow wall, swiftly freeing his hands and helping her support herself by pressing into her. She tried to concentrate on staying up, but it was far from easy when those big hands moved to her breasts, circling both at the same time.
He stopped and inserted an exploring finger between them, looking at her hopefully. “Front clasp?”
Annie shook her head. Stone seemed a little disappointed, but he went back to what he'd been doing.
A button on her shirt gave up and popped. He bent his head.
Annie breathed raggedly, her mouth open against his, her body quivering with excitement, not quite believing that this was still only a kiss.
The cool tile was a sharp contrast to the heat of the big, muscular body that had her pinned. They weren't in plain sight, because there was no one on the street, but if anyone walked by, they could be seen.
Annie almost didn't care. The way he handled her—with tender care and a dash of roughness that conveyed the ultimate in masculinity—had her dazed and craving much more.
Distantly, she heard the doors of the town hall creak. Men came out, talking loudly and joshing each other. She didn't recognize the voices. Not anyone she knew. She couldn't see them.
But Marshall swore under his breath and released his grip, letting her slide down and out of his embrace. “That's Chuck. Gotta stop. Sorry. I don't want to get caught.”
“Excuse me?” She stared at him, wobbling a little when she touched down, off balance. She dragged a hand through her tangled hair. It hurt enough to snap her back to reality.
You're a grown man,
she wanted to say.
Too quickly, like an overgrown, shame-faced teenager, Marshall Stone straightened his shirt and smoothed the dark locks she'd tousled.
Annie was dumbfounded. But she couldn't stop him or scold him.
If that was his employer—and she had to assume that Stone had guessed right—she could understand, sort of, why Marshall wouldn't want to get caught necking in a doorway.
“Go,” she said in a low voice. “Just go.”
Marshall hesitated, reaching out to stroke her hair. She pushed his hand away and gave him a shove. “I mean it. I need a minute to myself.”
He seemed to get what she wasn't saying. Her parents would come out sooner or later. She didn't want them to see her with a blurry mouth and high color in her cheeks and messed-up hair.
Since she'd moved home, they hadn't bugged her about any of her infrequent dates or what she'd done or even when she came home, except that time at four in the morning when she'd had a flat tire on a girls' night out. Which was reasonable.
She moved back into the shadows of the doorway, watching Marshall Stone walk away from her. There was nothing about the way he made her feel that could be described as reasonable.
What on earth had she just done? She usually insisted on getting to know a man fairly well before she kissed him. But she and Marshall had put the kissing first and the conversation second. Actually, no. They'd never exchanged enough words to add up to a whole conversation.
Something about the man from Wyoming shredded her common sense, to say nothing of her self-respect. She wanted him too much. For no good reason.
She saw him approach Chuck Pfeffer, who was standing with the councilman named Gitterson near a huge new truck, a dark color that looked iridescent under the street lamp despite its dusting of snow.
“There you are,” Chuck called to him. “We were looking for you inside. Did you come out for a smoke or something? Can I bum a cigarette?”
“I just needed some fresh air. And no, I don't smoke.”
“Aw, hell. Are you telling the truth? You look like an ad for smokes, pal. But I guess they don't have those billboards anymore.” Chuck paused, chuckling at his attempt at humor. “Sure you don't have some cigs in your truck?”
He thumped the hood of the huge new vehicle, making the snow dance. Marshall didn't tell him to quit.
Some cowboy,
Annie thought.
So not.
From where she was, she took a longer look at the truck. It was not only new, it was expensive and loaded with custom features from what she could see. Did surveyors make that much money? She didn't get it.
Marshall Stone wasn't who she'd thought he was. It dawned on her that he might have earned enough to pay for a truck like that by doing something else. But what? His trade didn't lend itself to crooked dealings. Surveying was all about straight lines. Measurements had to be accurate.
“Just kidding.” Pfeffer slapped Marshall on the back. “Listen, me and Joe wanted to talk to you about that old buzzard Tyrell Bennett. I don't know who he thinks he is—”
Annie froze. Marshall Stone said not one word in her father's defense, just let Pfeffer lead him away, when the loudmouth seemed to realize that someone might overhear.
She regretted what she'd just let him do to her in the doorway. Deeply regretted it.
Annie stepped out of the doorway, heading back to the town hall. She walked quickly past the alley that ran alongside it, stopped by a hooting voice she now recognized.
Pfeffer and Gitterson were standing by a row of garbage cans. It would have been an ideal photo opportunity if she'd had a camera. Marshall was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey there. Annie, isn't that your name? Aren't you a Bennett?”
“Yes.” She kept walking.
“Just saying hi.” Chuck seemed to be talking to the man at his side, not to her. “I heard she used to be a snow bunny up in Aspen. Bet she likes this weather.”
The stupid comment was too annoying to ignore. She gave him a withering look instead of an answer and ran up the stairs to the town hall entrance, going inside to find her parents.
 
 
Marshall rejoined the two other men, coming back around the hidden side of his truck. Annie had to have heard Pfeffer refer to her father as an old buzzard. The hell of it was he couldn't have said anything or argued with the man.
Not without tipping his hand about the ongoing investigation of Pfeffer's new best friends, Joe Gitterson and Shep Connally. Chuck was only a side note to the real-estate fraud Connally intended to pull off in Velde, a scheme very similar to one in Arizona that he'd gotten away with. Or had until now. The FBI was still putting the pieces of the puzzle together and tracking the money.
One wrong move and Stone would go in front of a judge and request an arrest warrant for Connally. So far, Joe Gitterson hadn't officially made the list of bad guys. Stone just hoped Annie would believe him when the time came.
He felt guilty for giving in to the temptation of her lush mouth and incredible body. But the way she'd looked up at him once she got him alone had shredded his self-control. That kiss had blown him away. It was a rash act that could get him taken off the case and fired in a heartbeat.
Chapter 4
“W
hat are you worrying about? The snow is
mostly melted. The road won't be icy.”
Tyrell Bennett stood by the window, looking out over the fields. “I suppose you're right. The way it was coming down after we got home from the meeting, I was thinking we might need to get the snowplow onto the truck, and then I started thinking about how best to fix the roof again.”
“Zach said it would hold through for the winter,” his wife reminded him.
“Well, I hope so. At least we got the horses boarded out and the cattle to market,” he mused. “But then I started thinking about—”
“Just stop thinking,” Lou admonished him. “Everything will get done eventually, as soon as we can afford it.”
She went into the pantry and came out with a long white receipt from the supermarket that Annie had tacked to a bulletin board, waving it at him.
“We've got a freezer full of beef, but everything else we have to pay for. You can add it up yourself.”
“No, thanks. I sure wish the boys were coming home for Thanksgiving,” he muttered. “Annie does what she can, but her leg ain't fully healed yet. I still see her limping when she's tired.”
“I know.” Lou was quiet for a moment. “She did last night when we were coming in from the truck.”
“Well, that's why I need Zach and Sam for the heavy jobs. I'm not sending her up a ladder.”
“They promised us a whole week at Christmas. I'm not going to complain. And speaking of the holidays, we need to buy flour and sugar and whatnot in bulk for baking.”
 
 
The discussion floated up to Annie's bedroom, where she lay under the comforter, her head cradled on a pillow. She watched the morning light move across the ceiling. Bright as it was, it did nothing to improve her mood.
She felt like she'd been had. The worst part was that she'd wanted so badly to
be
had by Marshall Stone, that snake. But wallowing in bed wasn't going to help her figure him out. It sounded like her mom could use her help anyway.
Annie sat up and let her feet rest on the smooth wood floor. Then she stood and stretched and did side bends, and threw in a couple of downward dogs and sun salutes for good measure. Yoga helped her flexibility—a lot of skiers did it. She quit when her leg began to twinge again.
The way she'd stormed into the house last night had done that.
Annie entered the kitchen still in pajamas. “What are we out of? Wish I'd known when I went to the supermarket.”
“Lots of things. It's all right, honey. It'll be more fun if we shop together.”
Annie nodded in agreement. “Let me brush my teeth and get dressed.” She hadn't been able to brush away the sensation of Marshall Stone's amazing kisses last night. Maybe she'd have better luck this morning.
Her mother sat down to review the receipt. “They do have good prices.”
Tyrell brought over a cup of coffee for his wife, fixed the way she liked it. “You making a list?”
“Yup.” She slid over a piece of paper when he sat down next to her. “Add anything you like.”
“Do they have those taco chips that I like? The extreme-cheese flavor?”
“Yes,” Annie confirmed.
“Get two bags,” her father said. He wrote it down. “There's a football game this weekend. Can't watch football without taco chips. Gotta keep my strength up.”
She and her mother didn't talk much on the way to the supermarket, just drove along in companionable silence, until Lou got a call from Cilla.
Annie listened absently to the flustered female voice describing the joys of life with two kids under six in the house and her mother's soothing reassurances.
She definitely wasn't ready for that. But maybe one of her brothers was. No telling which one, though, and of course her sisters-in-law had fifty percent of the vote on that subject.
But Annie wouldn't mind a little niece or nephew. Not at all.
 
 
Annie pulled a cart from the rack at the supermarket and handed it off to her mother, pulling out a second one for herself. When they shopped together, they tore the list in half and started at opposite ends of the supermarket, meeting in the middle.
Her mother held up the list. “Ready?”
“This is like a wishbone,” Annie said.
“I folded it exactly through the middle. No one gets the short end.”
Annie got the produce and dairy half. Her mother headed off to buy the dry staples that she needed.
She dawdled over the stacks of colorful fruits and vegetables, patting a large, light orange pumpkin pie and hoisting it to see how heavy it was before putting it back. Seven or eight pounds, by her guess.
She'd always wanted to make pumpkin pies from scratch. There were recipes in a wire rack above the heaped pumpkins. Annie took one and perused it, then replaced it in the rack. Five cans of puree would take care of all their pumpkin needs and be a lot less trouble.
Someone bumped her cart. She glanced up, assuming it was a mistake. It was a mistake. A tall, ruggedly handsome mistake in jeans and a flannel shirt, with a sad look in his dark eyes.
Marshall Stone's cart had bumped hers. He looked like he hadn't slept a wink either. She felt not one iota of sympathy for him.
“Did you do that on purpose?” she asked him.
“No. Sorry.”
She angled her cart away. He blocked it with his. “Stop it,” she ordered. “Go away.”
“In a minute. Want to tell me why you're mad at me?”
“You know exactly why.” Annie was ready to walk away and stepped out from behind the cart. It wasn't like she owned the damn thing or was somehow responsible for the few items she'd put into it.
Marshall caught her arm. “Let go of me.” He didn't, but his grip relaxed slightly. Something about his touch made her irrational, because she didn't pull away. “Listen,” she began. “You can't be on both sides of the same fence. I would think a surveyor would know that.”
He looked at her like he wanted to say he was something else and not just a surveyor, that he was really a misunderstood knight in slightly tarnished armor.
“I'm sorry. I didn't know Chuck was going to say something like that about your dad. I should've told him to shut up, but . . . he wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise. He's a jerk.”
“And your boss.”
“True.”
He let go of her. Annie couldn't think of anything else to say. She looked down, noticing what he had in his cart. Hamburger meat and buns. A tub of dip. The same brand of extreme-cheese taco chips her father liked.
Annie felt herself relenting ever so slightly. Inwardly. Not outwardly.
“Just the usual,” he said. “Big game this weekend.”
“I know.” She realized he might watch the football broadcast with Chuck, mostly because he didn't know anyone else around Velde besides her. Tough luck. He was not forgiven for letting the rude comment about her father go past him, and she still didn't know the whole story behind what he was doing and how he could earn enough doing it to afford a tricked-out truck like that.
Although he wasn't eating filet mignon and drinking champagne. She looked down into his cart again and frowned.
“What? You don't approve?” he asked. “Those are the basic four man-food groups.”
“Don't forget crow.” She gave him an icy smile. “And a big, juicy slice of humble pie. Made from scratch.”
Annie pushed past him without a backward look, abandoning the cart. He didn't even try to stop her.
 
 
There were youngsters decorating storefront windows all over Velde the next time Annie went in. The pre-Thanksgiving event was a yearly tradition sponsored by the scouts and local businesses. The kids wore bright new jackets against the cold snap, and their exuberant artwork made for a colorful scene.
Closely set together, the turn-of-the-century buildings along the main street each sported a different theme. The masterpieces on glass showed a lot of imagination. Annie spotted four-legged turkeys and Pilgrims on skateboards. A few would have to be defined as works in progress. She really wasn't sure what they were.
She stopped to admire an abstract painting in glorious shades of amber with splotches of white, thinking that it reminded her of something. Maybe it wasn't an abstract.
The artist, a towheaded boy of around eight, stood to the side of his creation while his scout leader took a quick photo with a smartphone.
“Great job,” Annie said to the boy. “I love the colors. But what is it?”
“Candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows,” he said proudly.
“Aha. Of course.” She just hadn't recognized the side dish at nearly billboard size. “Well, keep up the good work.”
She strolled on, seeing Cilla Rivers on the next block with the two little girls her mother was always talking about. Brushes in hand, they were busily dabbing color onto a storefront window that was low enough for them to paint.
“Hi, Cilla. Nice day.”
The older woman nodded, even though she was shivering a little inside a lightweight fleece top. “Jenny and Zoe are having a great time.”
With their tumbling brown curls and wide green eyes, it was easy to see the resemblance between the sisters, who were working on the window at different heights.
Jenny, the older one, was adding a rainbow to a snow scene, arching stripes of color over something that looked like an upside-down broom stuck in a snowdrift.
No. Brooms didn't have red wattles and beady black eyes.
Jenny stepped back, casting a critical eye on her artwork. “I didn't do the turkey so good.”
“Looks fine to me,” Annie said, and laughed.
“We used to have one just like that running around the ranch.”
A thick brown brushstroke at the bottom marked the line between Jenny's painting and her sister's. Zoe squashed her brush into a blob of red and yellow paint and dabbed at a green background that was already dry.
Annie squatted down to talk to the little girl on her level. “And what are you painting?”
“Flowers. Under the ground. That's because it's winter,” the child replied, a serious expression on her face. “My mommy says snow helps them grow in the spring.”
“She's right,” Annie said. “Which do you like better, winter or spring?”
“I like them both better.”
Cilla exchanged smiles with Annie, who got up again, stepping back to admire the whole painting one more time. Cilla dug in a pocket and took out a smartphone.
“Annie, would you take our picture?”
“Of course.”
“Here comes Ed. You can get all of us together.”
“Can we send it to Mommy?” Jenny asked.
“That's the idea,” Cilla said. The girls put down their brushes and she moved them in front of her, smiling at her husband as he walked up and put an arm around his wife's shoulders.
“Say cheese, ladies,” Ed told the others.
Annie held up the smartphone and clicked it.
“Take another one,” Zoe piped up. “So Mommy has just me and Jenny.”
Annie laughed and obliged.
 
 
The ranch kitchen was warm, what with the oven going all morning. Tyrell Bennett didn't seem to mind. He was reading the paper, enjoying the mingled scents of cinnamon and brown sugar that wafted through the air as his wife bustled around, talking to him as she worked.
“They have their own lives now, Tyrell. I consider myself blessed to have two wonderful daughters-in-law.”
“I just wish they were able to come home more often.” Her husband nodded in agreement. “You're right about Nicole and Paula. I'm always telling Sam and Zach how lucky they are.”
He fell silent for a little while, studying the column on school sports in the local newspaper. “Says here in the
Voice
that the high school has a stellar lineup for the football team. Remember when the boys were on it?”
“Do I ever.” Lou laughed. “I was the one who had to wash all those muddy jerseys and britches and knee guards.”
“Until I made them see to it themselves,” Tyrell pointed out. “What'd you do with that stuff, anyway?”
“Donated it all,” she said briskly. “Ages ago. No sense keeping things some other kid could use.”
He nodded, his gaze moving to the social column. Absently, he read aloud. “Albert and Gloria Sanchez have announced the engagement of their daughter Teresa to Ned Dawley of Denver. Who's he?”
“I'll ask Gloria next time I see her. But when did you get interested in stuff like that?”
“I read the whole paper. I like to be well informed,” Tyrell said with lofty dignity. He kept on reading. “Think Annie's ever going to get herself married?”
“Of course. She just needs to find the right man.”
Tyrell leaned back in his chair until the front legs lifted a few inches off the floor, and folded his arms behind his head. “That could take a while.”
Lou flicked a dish towel at him. “Let her figure it out. And don't you try to do any matchmaking.”
“I wouldn't dare,” Tyrell said mockingly. “I believe that's still a woman's job.”
“Don't look at me.”
He waggled his eyebrows and did just that. The chair legs came down on the floor as Tyrell reached out and pulled his wife onto his lap. “How long do you think Annie's going to be in town?”
Lou giggled. “I don't quite know. But she's only been gone a half hour and she said she was going to the mall with Nell.”

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