She squirmed a bit, shifting her weight on those boots of hers. She bit her lip and tucked a stray strand of long, blonde hair behind her ear. I’d bite that lip of hers for her.
“Thanks for meeting with me.” Her voice sounded quiet, shy.
I nodded and said nothing. I knew I was being a cold bastard, but I loved seeing her there before me, unsure and agitated. Fuck, I loved it.
She didn’t look much different than when I’d last seen her. Curves more lush, if that were possible. Cheeks still flushed with the pink bloom of youth. She was 24 now to my 27.
“Um… how are you?” she asked.
“I’m good.” I leaned back in my big leather chair, clasping my hands together behind my head. I’d worn a suit that day, even though when I was in Montana I rarely did. Dark jeans and a collared shirt worked fine most days in these parts. The suit and tie came out with the New Yorkers. But today had felt like a day for a suit. Now I knew why.
I watched her take me in, my strong chest stretched out as I leaned back. She’d never seen me as anything but a young, dusty ranch hand. I wanted her to see how much I’d changed. I wanted her to know without a doubt that she was now dealing with a wealthy, powerful man.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Fine. It’s good to see you.” She blushed as she met my gaze, heavy on her. She licked her lips, quick and nervous with her pink tongue.
I clenched my jaw, my breath coming out a quiet hiss. “Sit down.”
Breathless, she complied. So good at taking orders.
“What brings you here, Kara?” I took control of the meeting. She didn’t seem to have the composure to do so herself.
Sitting on a smaller, less comfortable chair than my own, I could see Kara try to pull herself together. She drew her shoulders back, unconsciously offering me a more generous view of her gorgeous breasts, a slice of cleavage peeking through at the base of the modest V-neck. She lifted up her chin and began.
“We’re bankrupt.” Now she looked straight at me, meeting my steely eyes. “We’re in debt, bad. I’m going to lose the ranch. Unless…” Here she found herself unable to form the words and actually name it out loud.
So she needed my help. That was it. I should have guessed it was my money that drew her back to me.
“Why don’t you apply for a loan?” I asked, coolly.
She gave a short laugh with no humor. “I’ve applied for loans. I didn’t get any of them.” In a quick flash of frustration, she gestured to my desk. “Believe me, I’ve sat through a lot of meetings with a guy behind a desk telling me no.” She swallowed, hard.
“Where’s Harlan?” I asked, getting frustrated myself. Why was he sending his daughter out to do all the dirty work?
“He died. Cancer.” She fought it, but tears welled up in her eyes.
“Sorry to hear that.” I meant it. I might have some mixed feelings about the man, but those few words spoke a world of hurt. She nodded in response, gripping the arm of her chair.
“Six months ago. He fought it for about a year, but…” She shrugged.
I could see it now, the shadow of pain in her eyes. The tension in her jaw. I hadn’t caught it at first. “I didn’t know. How are you getting by?” No ring on her finger, no toddler on her leg, I guessed somehow she was still single.
“Bill’s been staying on, helping me run the place. Do you remember him? Our foreman?”
“I remember.” Our gazes locked. The words were simple, but the memories were not. I knew we were both recalling much more than old Bill, back in the day.
She looked away first, seeming to need the separation to re-focus. “So, Bill. He’s been helping out, but I can’t ask that of him much longer. I need money.” She looked back at me, desperation now creeping into her voice. “Declan,” she choked out. “I’m hoping you can help me. I need a loan. I’ll pay you back, I swear.”
She sat before me, plump lips parted, hands now on her knees as she leaned toward me. Needing me. The girl I’d had to watch for months on end prancing around in next-to-nothing, tantalizing, teasing, making me crazy.
And now she’d come to me asking for money.
“It’s been a while, Kara,” I observed, drily.
“Six years.” She gave a nervous laugh and looked down at the floor.
“I’m sorry to hear about Harlan. But tell
me, why should I be interested in bailing out a failed ranch?” I knew I was being an asshole. A good guy would pull out the checkbook right then and there, no questions asked. But I wasn’t a good guy, now was I? I was a cold, ruthless bastard and I wanted to hear her out, see where it might lead.
Kara looked up, those clear blue eyes now flashing with anger. “My father was a good man.” She stood up, shaking, one hand still on the arm of the chair. “He cared about people. He wasn’t always the best businessman. He didn’t always make the best choices. But he did take a chance on you, Declan, back when not a lot of people would have. You were young and looking for work and he helped you out.”
“I worked hard for that man. I don’t owe you anything.”
She exhaled sharp and angry between her teeth. “Sure, fine. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She put her hand on her hip and looked down at the floor, then dropped her hand down again. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll figure something out.”
She looked at the corner of my desk, not meeting my eyes. Then she steeled her resolve and took one last shot. “Listen, I hear you invest in real estate now.” She gestured around my office, as if it demonstrated her point. “You run luxury ranches, or ranches for tourists. I don’t know everything about it, but I figure you probably need some help. I know a lot about running ranches. If you have a job for me at one of your places, I’ll do it. I’ll work to pay off my debt.”
“You want a job?”
“Yes, Declan, I want a job. I need a loan and I need some way to pay you back. Picking up more shifts at the Chat ‘n’ Chew isn’t going to cut it.”
Intriguing. Unexpected. I rested my chin on my fist and watched her fidget, animated and flushed.
“I’m organized. I’m a hard worker.” She ticked off her selling points. “I know everything that needs to be done on a ranch. And I’ve just had a crash course in bookkeeping.” She gave that dry laugh again. I wanted to hear her real laugh, the one that bubbled out of her like a spring brook.