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Lights, camera - cowboy!
Stone Farrell has finally returned to the Circle F Ranch, but he left his heart back in Hollywood. The caretaker, spirited Jenna Price, has been expecting a rugged cowboy, not an actor who plays bad guys. Not only is she worried he'll sell the ranch, which has been home for years to her and her brother, but he's already engaged to a spoiled, up-and-coming Tinselton diva.
To think Jenna has been secretly in love with a man who butts heads with her, and who makes it known he's the boss at the ranch. Stone knows how to get that point across, even if it means taking a certain sexy but headstrong cowgirl over his knee.
Deep down, Stone knows that land and everything on it belongs to him…but can he live up to the legend Jenna's made him out to be in her imagination, now that she's turning his world upside down?
Jenna Price winced when she looked out through the kitchen window, nearly dropping the drinking glass in her hand that she'd been washing.
That can't be him, she thought. How could that be him?
For one thing, the man had just stepped out of a sports car. It was one of those classics, like the ones in the car shows Lindsay Falls had in the church parking lot on the Fourth of July. That in itself was crazy: What had she been expecting, exactly? For him to ride up in the saddle of a horse, John Wayne-style?
"Hey, Jen!" her younger brother hollered on his descent down the stairs. A strapping fifteen-year-old, Jake sounded like a wild stallion galloping down those steps. "Somebody's here!"
"Yeah, I saw him," she drawled.
He wasn't a bad-looking guy. Actually, he was handsome, in that sophisticated-city-male sort of way. She lingered at the window for a moment, watching him stand with his long legs apart, staring at the house with a disapproving frown.
His jeans looked expensive, as if they'd never seen a speck of country dust. His sunglasses looked expensive. His boots looked expensive, not at all scuffed, unlike most of hers. Everything about him screamed dollar signs.
That couldn't be him.
That wasn't the way she'd pictured him in her imagination for years.
Jenna hurried to the door, opening it and stepping out onto the porch. There he was in his fancy clothes, and there she was, wearing her most faded, oldest jeans, the knees of which were pretty threadbare by now. Her green tank top was cool and comfortable on that arid Texas summer day. She'd hastily brushed her hair up in a ponytail, not a bit of makeup on her face. Working on the ranch, she had no reason to get all decked out.
Suddenly, for whatever reason, she felt self-conscious.
Seeing her, he smiled and approached the porch.
"Hello, there!" he called out.
"Hello, there. This is private property, just so you know," she announced, all in one note.
She knew that was rude of her. What's more, she didn't care. That property now officially belonged to Stone Farrell. This stranger, moneyed or not, was trespassing on Stone's ranch. Watching him flinch slightly drew a satisfied smirk from her.
"I hope so. And that'd be my private property," he corrected her.
He removed his glasses, an action that was simple. It shouldn't have evoked such a response from her, with this little wave of unexpected shivers going through her. A combination of things, hitting her all at once. The gorgeous blue eyes, for one thing, were a surprise. They were steely, combined with a facial expression that had gone from friendly to stern in zero seconds.
"You're Stone Farrell?" she asked, her eyebrows arching.
"I'm Stone Farrell. Why is that such a surprise?"
"And just who are you?" Before he could answer, his eyes widened. "You must be Jenna. You're the one who looks after this place. That's you, right?"
Her stomach sank with that announcement. Actually, it was more than that�it was a dismissal. She recognized that uncomfortable feeling inside her as disappointment. A feeling she was acquainted with intimately.
Pretending it didn't bother her, she took a breath and forced herself to be businesslike. "Welcome home, Mr. Farrell. Would you like to come in now or have a look around your ranch first?"
"I'd like to come in first, if you don't mind. I'm pretty thirsty." He shrugged, slowly stepping toward the porch steps. "Besides, I don't need to look around. I was here enough times as a kid. I know every inch of it."
"Uh-huh. Suit yourself," she mumbled, not sure he'd heard her.
Wow. Nothing, nothing like I thought he'd be.
In fairness, she hadn't been anywhere near the Circle F Ranch when he was a boy. For one thing, Stone was about five years her senior. For another, she'd been working there as caretaker for his father, who had passed away. Other Farrell family members�his younger sisters�had been there occasionally, checking up on the place. Jenna liked Robyn and Melanie Farrell, both of whom were down-to-earth women. Apparently, the same couldn't be said of their city-boy brother.
So what were you expecting? she asked herself.
Still, she played the role of the hostess, though she suddenly felt uncomfortable in the house she'd occupied for five years, along with her brother Jake. All three of them standing in the foyer, with her brother by the stairs, she noticed them nodding hesitantly at each other.
"You're Stone?" her brother asked.
"That's my name." Giving him a hint of a smile, he turned to Jenna with a question in his eyes.
"My brother, Jake," she told him.
"Oh, okay." Pausing, he extended a hand to the approaching teenager. "Nice to meet you, kid."
"Nice to meet you, too. You're not what I thought you'd be."
Jenna bit down on her lip to avoid letting out a giggle. Despite herself, she thought Stone looked sort of engaging, just the way he did a double-take at her brother.
"Why? What did you think I'd be?" he had to ask.
"I thought�I don't know. You look like your pictures and all. At least the ones of when you were my age. But you don't look�like you belong here."
"That's probably because I don't."
She barely had time to register that discouraging remark before Jake went on, displaying the honesty of a teenaged boy, "But you do look familiar. Like I've seen you before."
"Hey�well, thanks." That sure made him animated. "Maybe you've seen my movies?"
"You're in the movies?" Her brother was clearly impressed. "Which ones?"
"I've got water, juice, and soda," she interrupted them brusquely to ask Stone. "Name your poison."
He ignored her. Apparently, he wasn't thirsty enough to keep from bragging.
"Oh, man, I've been in several. Ever see The Revenge Plan? Gone Too Long?"
"Nope. Never even heard of them."
"Okay, well, those are indies. They're not quite teenager fare. Sooo how about�Deadline? And Guns, Cars and Whiskey? Ghosts in the Basement?"
Now he seemed to be speaking Jake's language. When it came to movies, her kid brother had never met an action flick or scary movie he didn't like.
"I loved Deadline!" he admitted with enthusiasm. "Weren't you the guy who died at the very beginning?"
"Yeah, that was me! But, hey, I had a whole five minutes before that happened. Most of the critics agreed it was a memorable performance�even if it did only last five minutes."
"And Ghosts in the Basement. You were that really mean ghost, right? That was an awesome movie."
"Jake, Stone and I need to talk," she interrupted them again, patting her brother on the arm. "You go on outside and get your chores done."
"Chores? I gotta do chores? But there's a real movie star here."
Jenna flashed him a look that let him know she wasn't going to be swayed on that one. It wouldn't have been as bad if Jake was the only one trying to persuade her.
"We have to talk now?" Stone questioned her. "What's the rush? And what was your favorite part of the ghost movie, Jake?"
"The rush is I have work to do. This isn't a movie; this is a real ranch. FYI, your ranch," she reminded him in a cool tone of voice. "So if you don't mind, let's talk in the kitchen. I'll get you a cold drink."
She guessed that little salute he gave her was meant to be playful. In effect, he was telling her she was taking the whole thing too seriously. That, in itself, made it necessary for her to suppress an impatient sigh.
And, yes, now that Jake had brought it up, Stone did look familiar. Not just because of the pictures she'd seen of him, either. She liked the movies as well as the next person; she just didn't always have time for them. Most of her time had been spent in running the cattle ranch for the Farrell family.
But now she realized Stone had played a cop in a thriller some years ago. That also hadn't been much of a role. If she recalled correctly, he'd been onscreen many fifteen minutes, tops, if that.
As she recalled, too, the young cop in the film had commanded her attention then, exactly like the actor who'd played him was doing now. He'd looked pretty hot in a cop uniform, too.
"So my sisters say you're a terrific caretaker," he started the ball rolling after she handed him an ice-cold bottle of Coke from the fridge. "If we do decide to keep the ranch, and I'm leaning toward that now, we'd like you to stay on. Your brother's welcome, too, naturally�"
"Whoa. Hold on!" Jenna almost dropped the soda bottle she'd brought out for herself. "What do you mean, if you decide to keep it? I thought this was about you coming here to run it. That's what your sisters told me."
"Well, I would like to run it. If that's what I decide to do." Stone paused to seat himself at the table, stretching out his long, denim-clad legs. "I mean, it's lucrative. And I have time between roles. Plus, I'd have you and the ranch hands to help when I can't be here."
Jenna's head, which was already spinning from all these new revelations, spun a bit more. It didn't help that he was distracting her with that California tan of his, his lean but muscular, very male body, and those piercing blue eyes.
"It sounds like you want to be a part-time cowboy," she half-teased, trying to hide the disappointment that refused to go away.
"I play a cowboy better in the movies than I do in person. Except, uh�I haven't really played one yet. But I'm open to the opportunity."
She sighed. "What do you know about being a rancher?"
"Let me think...hmmm, that's right. Nothing. Zilch. Nada."
Jenna fought with the plastic cap on her soda bottle but refused his offer to help with his hand reached out to take it from her. She took a long sip before saying, "You know this place has been in your family for a long time. Your grandfather was a rancher, too."
"I know. I do ride, though. And my dad had me do work around this place, like you probably have your brother doing. That's a start, right?"
"I don't think you understand. This is a commitment."
"I do understand, Jenna. But I have other commitments. Like, for one, my girlfriend."
Luckily, she was close enough to the kitchen island to grasp the edge of it. After hearing that, her grip tightened ever so slightly. It almost felt like she'd been punched in the chest.
He had a girlfriend. Stone Farrell already had someone in his life.
But of course he does! What did you think? How stupid can you be?
"Your girlfriend. She's an actress, too?" she asked.
"As a matter of fact, she is. Ever hear of Ashley Covington?"
"Can't say that I have." Okay, so it was childish of her, yet that admission gave her some pleasure.
On the other hand, she couldn't wait to look her up on the computer, probably as soon as she could make it back to her bedroom.
"Okay, well, she hasn't been in a lot of movies. Yet. But anyway," he sighed and went on, "I asked her how she felt about coming here."
"And she's not too thrilled about leaving L.A. She's a Cali girl, born and raised. And she's in her twenties, so there's not a lot out here for her."
Ashley Covington. Jenna committed the name to memory. It sounded like one of those made-up names. On the other hand, there were more pressing issues to talk about, none of which had to do with his "Cali Girl" Girlfriend.
She'd never felt so conflicted in her life. Strange as it was, part of her was jealous of this twenty-something she'd never met, even being in her twenties as well, and all because she claimed as her future husband a man whom Jenna had been infatuated with for a few years now. Then there was that other part of her that thought, She can have this Hollywood phony!
"So what you're telling me is you don't know what you're doing with this place yet." She tried to pin him down, and by then she didn't care if she did sound prickly. "That's what you're saying, right? And that means my brother and I are up in the air, too."
He was going to get angry. That was fine; she didn't care if she got him all riled up. Right then, she was more upset than she cared to admit.
To her surprise, those blue eyes didn't flash or narrow at her. Instead, much to her chagrin, Stone regarded her kindly and he kept his voice gentle.
"I won't do that to you, Jenna. I'm trying to be honest with you, though." He set his bottle on the table and leaned forward in his seat. "Look, my sisters told me about you and your brother. How you two have been here a long time. They said you love this place almost as much as my father did. Especially you. 'Course, I have to admit�" Pausing, he chuckled. "I expected to see a guy running this place, not a cute little girl like you."
Jenna stiffened. "I'm not a little girl. I'm twenty-four. And I'm good at what I do. I've been around ranches all my life. And it really would�never mind."
"Oh, no, no. Please go on." As he waved a hand in the air, Stone rose from his seat and approached the kitchen island. "It really would what?"
It really would have broken your dad's heart to see that not one of you�not you, not your sisters�is interested in running this place.
Saying that would've been out of line. Stone's sisters had always given her free reign at the Circle F Ranch. Criticizing the whole family, however, wouldn't go over very well.
Besides, she wasn't upset with the Farrell sisters. For a second she almost lost her train of thought, with Stone folding his arms on the island and leaning against it, closer to her, his expression cool and much more relaxed than she was feeling right then. It felt as if his gaze was capturing hers, though she occasionally looked down at his inviting mouth and those strong biceps that filled up that short-sleeved shirt.
"I just think," she stopped, choosing her words carefully, "well, it's not my place to say, but�"
"Don't you worry about something being your place or not, Jenna. You can tell me what you think. Long as you understand that, in the end, it'll be my decision that stands."
She had almost relaxed�until she heard that last part. He hadn't been mean about it, but he'd been firm. There was a bit of a paradox there; part of her rebelled at his final statement and part of her rather warmed to it. For the briefest of moments, he actually sounded like the Stone Farrell she'd conjured up in her imagination.
"I just think your parents worked hard at building this place," she said evenly, "and later on, until the day he died, your dad. I know he would have wanted one of you to hold onto it, to keep it. And I think the one he would have wanted to see doing that was�well, you."
"Yeah, well, my dad and I didn't always see eye to eye." His jaw tightened visibly and he tore his gaze away from her. "But you wouldn't know about that. Let me assure you, though. Since, my sisters have left the decision up to me, I will be giving this place a fighting chance. But if it's not for me, it's not from me. And I'll give you enough of a heads-up if that happens, Jenna. I won't just spring it on you. That's not the kind of man I am."
An employee. He was speaking to her in the detached, businesslike manner that a boss would use with an employee. Jenna swallowed hard, wondering how much more disappointment she could take in one day. Somehow, she managed to hold her head high.
"Good to know. I would appreciate that," she said, employing the same aloof air. "Now if you'll excuse me, I also have work to do."
"That's fine. I'm going to have a look around and then I have to be going. Oh, and, uh�"
When he hesitated, she turned to him. "What is it?"
"My father's room. I guess that'll be mine now."
"I guess so. If you're asking me if someone's been using it, the answer is no. Jake has what I believe is your old room. And I'm in Robyn's."
He was actor, and a good one, at that. Maybe not a famous one, but at the very least he'd almost convinced her with that grin that he was taking this all in stride.
"Good. I've got some things to take care of, and then I'll be back tomorrow with my things." Waving the half-empty soda bottle at her, Stone nodded. "It was good to meet you and your brother. I appreciate having you here. From what I hear, you know a lot more than I do about running this place."
"Uh-huh. Well, that's very nice of you."
Cordial. Keeping him at arm's length. That was about all she could deal with, and luckily he was out the door less than a couple minutes after that.
She hadn't been expecting an actor. Why hadn't his sisters mentioned that? Hell, she didn't even like actors, famous or barely famous ones. To Jenna, most of them looked to be either self-absorbed or not all that bright. Or both. She liked them better when they were on the screen, pretending to be other people and babbling off words written by writers.
She'd been expecting a cowboy. No�she'd been hoping Stone would be a cowboy.
That wouldn't have been such an unreasonable expectation, either. Cowboy was an apt description for his father. In her silly daydreams, he was every bit a cowboy, strong and respectful of the land that belonged to him. In those same silly daydreams, he would have noticed her. He wouldn't have even looked twice at some plastic Hollywood diva in a shimmery size zero gown.
And he certainly wouldn't have ever spoken to her like she was nothing more than the help. Jenna realized how much that had hurt her as she stumbled outside and made her way to the stables, where she would find Thunder. That horse, all he had to do was carry her out around the place and she'd lose herself in the pleasure of the ride.
So that was the real Stone Farrell. Whoever that had been in her daydreams had never existed. It had all just been one big, childish fantasy.
What in the hell was that?
Stone Farrell steered the rental with one hand and adjusted his sunglasses with the other. He was attempting to consult the GPS while trying to sort out in his head what had gone on back there at the ranch.
Why had he pictured Jenna totally different from the young woman he'd just met? First off, Jenna Price was supposed to be this older woman in her fifties. He'd imagined her as tall and somewhat on the chubby side, never married, living there with her overweight brother, also unmarried. No frills, as in no bleached hair or makeup, something of a tomboy in her younger days, friendly sort of gal.
The real Jenna Price didn't come anywhere near that description.
And there was one thing for certain: The real one didn't like him one bit.
"Recalculating! Turn around when possible�"
"Ahhh, speaking of women who don't like me. Now what's your problem?" he muttered to the machine as he searched for a driveway to borrow for the purpose of turning the car around.
That stupid GPS had done him that way three times already; it hadn't alerted him to an important turn up ahead. Of course, without that infernal machine he wouldn't have ever found the ranch. Now it was needed to get him to his sister Robyn's home. That was how long it had been since he'd last been to Wyoming, at least a good five years or so.
Long before Jenna Price and her brother had gotten there. Jake seemed like a cool kid. Stone grinned, recalling their brief conversation before his big sister sent him out to get his chores done. That was fine; he understood that. In fact, he rather admired how well she got that tall, teenaged boy to listen to her.
He also understood that, for all intents and purposes, Jenna had been the boss around that ranch. Heady stuff for a young lady that age, he supposed. Both Robyn and Melanie had their own homes and families. Robyn was a homemaker and Melanie, in addition to her husband and kids, had her nursing career. They'd allowed Jenna to run the place.
But now there was a new sheriff in town. Him. Not a real sheriff, but hey, he'd played one on TV. Stone had no doubt that he and Jenna would get along fine�as long as he set her sexy little butt straight. Now that he would be living there, he was in charge. Not her.
Sounds like you want to be a part-time cowboy.
For some reason, he wasn't sure why, those words coming out of her mouth had given him the same sensation he would have felt garnering a surprise kiss from her. Maybe she was being playful, maybe she was slapping him with one of those backhanded comments of hers. Whichever, whether she'd meant to or not, or maybe it was the way she'd said those things, but he'd been majorly turned on.
Then again, Jenna wasn't the type of woman he'd been around for the past few years. Having worked in television and films for the past several years, Stone had been around stick-thin, just-about-anorexic or out-and-out anorexic women. Most of them had had some work done: a nip or a tuck here, a new nose, lips that were unnaturally plump, breasts and rear ends augmented by a cosmetic surgeon's scalpel.
Jenna Price was a natural beauty. He didn't get to see many of them anymore. She hadn't been wearing any makeup. She was unassuming, with her long, brown hair up in a ponytail. The only adornments he'd noticed were dainty, small earrings and some pink polish on her nails. He liked that, particularly because it showed there was a feminine temptress inside that sexy little tomboy.
But he wasn't about to get sidetracked by the ranch's tantalizing caretaker. Besides the fact they'd gotten off on the wrong foot, he was seeing already involved with someone. All right, so things had been rocky between him and Ashley lately, but Stone wasn't interested in the least in the way people in Tinseltown conducted their love lives. Hopping into one bed, then another, then another, cheating on your spouse with your newest leading lady. That empty kind of lifestyle wasn't for him.
He was going to try to work things out with his girlfriend. In reality, he had a lot of things he needed to work out, not the least of which was his career.
And that ranch. His father's ranch, because it wasn't his. The will said it belonged to the three of them, and his sisters were more than happy to turn the whole thing over to him. As far as he was concerned, he was ready for the option of calling a real estate agency and putting up a RANCH FOR SALE sign up in front of the place.
But then again, something was stopping him.
As he turned onto the street that he now remembered his sister lived on, his cell phone rang. Ashley's name came across the screen. Feeling guilty for having had those lustful thoughts about Jenna, he put a smile in his voice and answered the call.
"Hey, baby! What's goin' on?"
On the other line, Ashley Covington sounded on the verge of tears. "Oh, baby, you are gonna be sooooo mad at me."
Aw, geez�now what? Patiently, he asked, "Everything okay, Ash?"
"It's okay, except�I won't be getting there until next weekend."
"Is that all? That's all right, baby." It wasn't really because they needed to talk, but he didn't care to press the issue and get into an argument.
"Well, I have an interview with People magazine for the movie."
"Do you? That's great!"
"Yeah, and then I promise you, Stone, I'll be there. I was sooooo looking forward to meeting your sisters and seeing the farm."
"Cool. It's a ranch, though, not a farm."
"Whatever!" she responded brightly. "So you're not mad?"
"Of course not." Disappointed, but not mad. "Business before pleasure, right? Gotta grab opportunity when you can, honey. We'll still be here when you're done. Let me know about your flight and I'll pick you up at the airport."
"Sounds good! Love you, babe!" She blew him kisses through the phone.
"Love you, too!"
Ashley Covington. Her real name was Ashley Cropper, which wasn't as made-for-Hollywood a name as Ashley Covington. Her beginnings had been humble; her dad was on disability after an accident, but he'd worked for years in a car dealership's parts department, and her mother still worked as a high school biology teacher. Besides sending her parents on a trip to Europe with her first big Hollywood paycheck, Ashley had other good points, too. That was what he found himself telling his sisters. Neither one had met her, but both Robyn and Mel had already passed judgment on her, with Melanie occasionally referring to Ashley as a bubble-headed doll.
So maybe she was on the maturity level of a thirteen-year-old. A little on the self-absorbed side. It wasn't easy, either, getting her to talk about something other than herself and the business. She was also always on a diet; Stone understood the whole Hollywood pressure thing for everyone, not just women, to stay as thin as possible. But sometimes when he took her out for a steak dinner, he kind of hoped she'd have something besides a plain salad without even an ounce of dressing.
Jenna, on the other hand, was also slim, but on a real-woman basis. She was filled out nicely, too, in all the right places.
And if he had any hopes at all of making things right between him and Ashley, he needed to get that proud little cowgirl, who looked like she could be quite a handful anyway, out of his mind before his girlfriend's plane came in from California.