LAUREN BISHOP TOOK her cup of coffee from the pickup counter at Sugar Cup and collapsed at the nearest table. She set the coffee and her planner down in front of her, staring morosely at both. There was so much left to do. And right now, she resented that cheerful, pink-and-white planner more than she could remember resenting anything.
Including her late husband.
Maybe she should just spill her cup of coffee on the thing. Hope that the dark liquid bled into all the pages, made them stick together. Made the ink run and made everything unreadable. And then she would have a good excuse for why she hadn’t gotten everything done. Her entire life was contained in that book.
Doctor appointments, orthodontist appointments—both of which required that she arrive early to fill out new patient paperwork—client information, phone calls with banks, a meeting with the school district...
Moving was hard. The last time she’d done it alone she had been nineteen years old, stupid, in love and with nothing more than what she’d been able to stuff into a knapsack. Everything else was expendable, at least in her idiotic teenage head. She’d felt like an adventurous sojourner and not an empty-headed child who was headed for disaster.
Now, she wasn’t moving alone, but she was the only adult. If it weren’t for her parents, she would have lost it completely.
But at least Ava and Grace were taken care of. They were angry at her, resentful that she was making them leave, but time spent with their grandparents was helping at least.
None of that took care of the long list of projects Lauren had set out before her to make their new house habitable. To make everything official. They had signed an agreement with the previous owners to be able to do repairs in the house before closing, and with paperwork still unsigned Lauren was holding her breath hoping that nothing fell apart.
If so, she was just out... So much money. And so much time.
And probably living in her parents’ house for the next several years. Possibly until Ava went to college.
Assuming she would even be able to afford to send Ava to college.
She had come to the coffeehouse not just to get a hit of caffeine, but to sit in silence and make some phone calls, go over the work that she had to do. It just didn’t seem at all appealing.
She sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking around the room. Looking anywhere instead of at that horrendous little book that told her what she should do and where she should be at all times.
It had come with stickers. As if putting daisies on it would make it less overwhelming. She’d tried that for about two seconds, and had then decided it was just one more stupid thing she had to keep track of. Not only did women have to be organized, they had to be fancy while doing it?
That was a big hell no from her.
The little coffee shop was full of people sitting at tables, with groups or by themselves. Most of them with shiny silver laptops in front of them. Drinking coffee, talking, on the phone or to someone else. It was definitely the unofficial office space of everyone who worked for themselves in Gold Valley.
She tried to see if she recognized anyone. She wasn’t sure if she was hoping she did, or hoping she didn’t. On the one hand, having a conversation with someone she hadn’t seen in years would give her an excuse to delay in her responsibilities. On the other hand, then she would have to talk to someone about her life.
That fell so low on her list of things to do it wouldn’t even make the planner.
The door swung open and she turned her attention there, grateful for yet another distraction. But distraction didn’t even begin to cover it.
The man who walked in was...
From his cowboy boots, to the way his jeans conformed to all the very masculine places on his body, to that tight black T-shirt that showed off his flat, solid-looking midsection, muscular chest and broad shoulders, to his black cowboy hat settled on his head.
All that, and his face was good, too. A chiseled jaw with a bit of a five o’clock shadow. Lips that made her own tingle in response.
It had been more than three years since she had been kissed by a man.
That thought came out of nowhere, and was one she honestly hadn’t had any interest in over the last three years. She was too overwhelmed by Mount Planner. Too underwhelmed by what the reality of love and marriage had been. And far too involved in the parenting of her daughters to have those kinds of fantasies.
But she was having one right now. Big-time.
The man moved deeper into the coffeehouse, moving up to the counter and giving her a solid view of his broad back and very compelling ass. She would have said she didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking at men’s asses. But right now, this particular ass seemed about the most important thing in the world.
Certainly more important than the pink-and-white planner.
She did her best to look away from him enough times that anyone casually observing her in the coffee shop might not think she was totally checking him out. But whatever. He wasn’t looking at her. He wouldn’t know. And anyway, she had already established that she didn’t know anyone in here. So why not?
She was a thirty-five-year-old woman with two children, who had been married unhappily, widowed and left on her own to deal with all the fallout. If she wanted to check out a guy, she was going to do it. And she wasn’t going to feel embarrassed about it.
He turned around and she looked away quickly. Not embarrassed, sure, but she had pride.
She looked back up, and her eyes connected with his perfect blue ones. The color of unwashed denim. She had only ever seen eyes that color in one family.
But there was no way...
“Lauren Bishop.” And then he smiled. That mischievous grin that she’d seen once on a dirty-faced little boy. But he was not a little boy now. Oh no. This man standing before her was... Well, he was all man. “I haven’t seen you in... Too long.”
No. No no no no.
That was wrong. So...so wrong.
Ew. No. No.
Of all the men she could have possibly checked out, it had to be the one she used to babysit.
She couldn’t remember how much younger he was than her. Maybe five, six years. Probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. Except she had babysat him. And now, she had looked at his ass.
“It has been a while,” she said, keeping her voice measured.
Seventeen years, actually.
Which didn’t make her any less appalled she had gawked at his butt.
His name was called by the barista, and Calder grabbed his cup of coffee from the counter before moving closer to her table. He pulled out the vacant chair across from her, taking a seat without asking. She wrapped her hands over the top of her planner and pulled it across the table, closer to herself. As if she could use it as some kind of shield.
“Are you visiting?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“You moved back?”
“Yes.” She had no idea how much Calder knew about her life. She didn’t think her mom was in contact with anyone who would send direct gossip down to his family.
She had no idea what was going on with his family, which was probably a pretty good metric for how much he knew about her. She had no idea if he’d ever gotten married, though judging by the bare left hand, he wasn’t married now. Or, maybe he was. There were plenty of ranchers who didn’t wear rings for safety reasons. And, she assumed he was a rancher based on what he was wearing.
“Well, welcome back,” he said, leaning back in his chair, his large hands circling the coffee cup in front of him. They were very, very large hands. It was easy to imagine them against her skin. Rough and calloused and... She was insane.
She blinked, trying to get a hold of herself. “Thank you.”
“Are you working here?”
“Here?” she said, gesturing around them.
“Not in the coffeehouse. In town.”
“Kind of,” she said. “I’m a freelance web designer. So, I can work anywhere.”
“That sounds nice,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I make my own hours, no dress code. I can live wherever I want...”
“A lot like being a rancher, then,” he said. “That’s what I do. I work the family ranch now. I have my own place on the property. I’m not living in the house or anything. But, of course, animals and the sunrise make my hours, I have to live on the damned ranch and, while there is no official dress code, it’s the kind of work that makes it pretty important for you to keep things strapped in. You don’t want to lose any parts.”
Her face got hot. Was she blushing? She did not blush. But also, she didn’t usually think about what were essentially a stranger’s parts while she was sitting across from him thinking about how attractive he was. He’d always been a bold kid, brash. On a preteen it had been funny to moderately irritating. On a man it was...oh boy. “Yeah,” she said, looking away. “I can see how that would be...a consideration.”
“Definitely,” he said. His lips quirked upward into a smile and he leaned in, shifting his hands so that they were practically stroking the coffee cup. And it was killing her. Because there was no way she could stop herself from thinking about those hands stroking her. “Since you’re new to town again I imagine you haven’t made a lot of new friends. Maybe I could take you out tonight?”
Was he hitting on her? Little Calder Reid was hitting on her.
Of course, Little Calder Reid was also not little at all. He was clearly over six foot and muscular enough to wrestle a steer down to the ground. But nonetheless, in her memory, he was Little Calder Reid.
“I...” She lifted up her hand. “I have to stop you there.”
“Yes. I am busy tonight.”
His eyes collided with hers again, and she felt it. Like an electric shock. Where everything inside you froze for one moment. Her blood. Her heart. Her breath. And she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he felt it, too. This insane, instant chemistry. There was attraction, there was checking out a hot guy, and then there was this. She wasn’t sure she had ever experienced this. It was the stuff of romantic comedies and romance novels. Stuff that happened in fiction. Something she had never thought might happen in reality.
“No,” she said softly, gritting her teeth to keep any more words from following. She’d said no. And that really should be enough.
Her heart kicked back into gear, going over the appropriate speed. The sad thing was it didn’t feel like enough, because she wanted to throw out all of her justifications, all of everything and say yes to whatever it was he had in mind.
“Breakfast. I draw the line at brunch. I’m not really a brunch guy.”
“No,” she said. “I’m... I have kids, Calder.” She waited for him to respond to that, but his handsome—Lord it was handsome—face was unreadable. “And, I have a feeling that...that isn’t all that you’re asking about.”
He leaned back, and then in again. “Are you married?”
Another piece of baggage to chuck on the pile. He would run the other way. “Widowed.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He genuinely sounded it.
She never knew how to respond to that. She was very sorry that Robert was dead. He was the father of her children, and nothing could ever change that. But she was angry with him, too. Angry that she had been right about where his behavior was going to end up. He had been irresponsible, always. And what she had found exciting and fun when she had been a teenager had become stressful, worrisome and painful as a woman.
“Thank you,” she said. He didn’t want her life story. And anyway, she didn’t want to give it to him. “I’m actually here because I’m in the process of closing on a house, but there are some repairs that need to be made first, and I’m in kind of a precarious arrangement with all of it. There’s home-improvement stuff to do, so that the bank will agree to the loan and... It could all fall through, and I’m pouring time and money into it.”
“What needs to be done?”
“A lot of things. There’s one room that only has subfloor. I need steps built up to the back door...”
“I can do that.”
“I don’t... Calder. That’s very nice of you, but I don’t have a lot of money to pay you. I’m just going to look up YouTube videos. I can figure it out.”
“No,” he said, his voice firm. “I don’t want your money. I want to help you out. It sounds like you’re in a tough spot, and all of that would be easy for me.”
“I just... I can’t...”
“I’ll come over tonight.”
“I can bring food.”
She frowned. “You want to fix my house and you’re going to bring me food?”
He shrugged. “Yes. Consider it a welcome back to Gold Valley.”
“I’m not in a position to...” She didn’t know what to say. And she didn’t know how to say it. Not without sounding full of herself. And not without sounding hopeful.
“No charge,” he said, his voice steady. “I mean that. No expectation. You need help. I have time and the skills. It’s a good thing we ran into each other. Though if I’m going to help, I’ll need your number.”
She could decline. But she needed help. And wanting help from him had nothing to do with how darn pretty he was. Nothing at all.
Anyway there was something... Well, it was flattering. None of her old friends were waiting in line to help her. She’d left town so long ago it wasn’t like she expected it. Still, this unexpected...kindness. Attention. Whichever. It felt good.
It felt better than sitting here filling in planner pages.
“Okay. Give me your phone.” She took it from him and called herself from it. “There. Now I’m in your call log.”
“Perfect.” He stood up, tapped the table, then picked up his coffee cup. And then, he tipped his hat. By the time he turned around and left, her head was spinning.
And she couldn’t help but think that it was a very good thing she had run into him. Except...
Except she felt kind of dizzy. And she didn’t think it was just because of how fast all that had happened.
He wants to help you. And you need help a hell of a lot more than you need a kiss... Or anything else.
It was true.
And anyway, she had taken care of Calder when he’d been a little boy. Now he was taking care of her.
There. That should kill any and all ridiculous attraction she felt.
It should. But it didn’t.
But, ridiculous attraction or not, suddenly the list of things in the planner seemed a whole lot less insurmountable.
And she was just going to take that as a win.