The Sheriff Catches a Bride
Author:Cora Seton

The Sheriff Catches a Bride By Cora Seton

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

PLAN SLOWLY, RUN FAST.

 

As her mother’s words repeated in her mind like a well-worn mantra, Fila Sahar struggled to right her clothing in the cramped bathroom of the Emirates-owned airplane she’d been traveling in for hours. She’d waited to escape from Afghanistan for over ten years, keeping her head down, gathering information, cultivating contacts, fitting each puzzle piece together with infinite care. Soon—very soon—it would be time to run.

 

She washed her hands with shaking fingers, turned off the tap, and dried them carefully. In the mirror, her dark, almond-shaped eyes were almost obscured behind the delicate netting of her sky-blue burqa. As she smoothed it down and gathered its folds to cover as much as her clothing as possible, she blessed the covering garment for the first time in her life. The men who’d brought her here weren’t relatives and they had never seen her face. That would have brought too much shame to her family.

 

Family. Fila refused to believe any of the radicals who had held her captive for over a decade were related to her in any way.

 

Turn the weapons of your enemies so they point at their own hearts.

 

Those weren’t her mother’s words; they were the words of the Taliban men who’d trapped her in their violent snares and swallowed up her life. But the words still fit, and she’d follow them.

 

One last check in the mirror to see that all was well, and Fila opened the bathroom door, retraced her steps to her seat, and submitted herself to the strict care of her guards once again.

 

“WHAT THE HELL are we doing here?” Cab Johnson asked from his uncomfortable position in the back seat of Rob Matheson’s oversized Chevy. At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was always uncomfortable in back seats. Hell, he could barely wear his hat in here. It didn’t help that he shared the extended cab with three other cowboys—three men he’d normally call his best friends. Rob Matheson, at the wheel, was a tall, blond, blue-eyed man he’d known since grade school. An all-around trouble-maker, Cab had no doubt he was behind today’s shenanigans. Ethan Cruz sat beside Rob in the front passenger seat. A dark-haired, rugged rancher, he’d grown up on the spread next to Rob’s and was another of Cab’s oldest friends.

 

Rounding out the group was Jamie Lassiter, a little shorter than the other two, a little slighter, as well, but he possessed a wiry strength and he’d never taken last place when it came to getting the attention of women. No, that distinction fell to Cab, which was one reason he was still single while the rest of them had recently settled down. More reserved than his friends, he’d always hung back when they flirted and talked with the pretty women at bars, at parties, heck, even in grocery stores. He wasn’t the flirting kind. As county sheriff it behooved him to keep a more dignified demeanor. Plus, he’d had his eye on a particular woman for quite some time.

 

A woman engaged to another man.

 

Cab sighed. It had been a rough few months in many ways. While his friends had gotten married one by one over the sunny summer, he’d helped to track down a killer with the rest of southern Montana’s law enforcement officers. A man who had brutally assaulted and beaten to death three young women, and nearly finished off a fourth before he was apprehended. Cab was still haunted by details of the cases and the fact they hadn’t caught the man sooner. The fourth victim—a woman named Amanda Strassburg—was still in the hospital and would be for some time. Samuel Grady, the perpetrator, was behind bars awaiting trial. The evidence was solid—they’d caught him in the act—and Cab was sure he’d spend the rest of his life in prison at the very least.

 

He was also sure there were other Samuel Gradys out there, and that kept him from sleeping well these nights. Today he wasn’t working, though, so he had planned to head over to Linda’s Diner for lunch in the hopes that he’d forget his dark thoughts in the hustle and bustle of the eatery. Midmorning he’d gotten a call from Ethan, who had asked him to stop by. He did so on his way into town and had met up with the whole gang—Ethan, Jamie and Rob—all getting ready to run an errand. The next thing he knew he’d been coerced into coming with them. Well, coerced was probably too strong a word. He’d been mostly pleased to see his friends all together without their wives for once—not that he minded their wives. It was simply galling to be the odd man out these days. First Jamie became partners with Ethan on the Cruz ranch, then Rob joined in. Now all three of them were married and living on the same spread. Cab was out in the cold. He didn’t begrudge his friends the fun they had living and working together. He just hated being on the outskirts of that fun all the time.

 

He was beginning to have second thoughts about this errand, though. Why were they parked in front of Thayer Jewelers?

 

The call from Ethan seemed innocent enough. He’d asked Cab to come by and pick up an extra pie his wife, Autumn, had baked for him. Never one to turn down pie, Cab made it his business to come right over. As soon as he found the three of them waiting for him, he should have known something was up.

 

Because something was definitely up.

 

“Did Autumn ask for an upgrade on that ring you bought her?” he asked Ethan as they all piled out of the truck. He eyed the jewelry store with suspicion. Rose Bellingham would be in there.

 

Rose. When he wasn’t dreaming about the possibility of a serial killer coming to Chance Creek, he dreamed about Rose these days, even though he had no right to do such a thing. Unfortunately sometimes those two dreams merged and when he woke, thrashing and hollering, he paced the floor of his bedroom for hours, unable to sleep at all. Rose lived alone. Her fiancé, Jason Thayer, was off in North Dakota, making his fortune in the oil fields. Rose rented the carriage house behind Jason’s father’s old-fashioned house in town. Safe enough, but was a young single woman ever really safe?

 

Was anyone?

 

“Nah, we didn’t come here for me,” Ethan said, giving him a friendly shove toward the door.

 

“Then why are we here?” He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer. How was it that everyone else in town respected him except these three idiots? As the county sheriff, he normally called the shots. Not when Rob, Ethan and Jamie were around.

 

“Come on,” Jamie said and pulled the door open. Cab reluctantly went inside. He’d never liked the jewelry store, probably because it made him feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Everywhere he looked stood glass cases filled with precious, delicate jewelry.

 

Definitely not his scene.

 

“Do whatever you need to do and let’s get out of here,” he growled. He wasn’t in the mood to see Rose, either. He didn’t want the reminder that she was engaged to Jason, whose father owned this store. Rose had worked here for a couple of years now. She’d been engaged to Jason for nearly six. What was the man waiting for?

 

Sometimes Cab wished Jason would get a move on and marry Rose already. That would put the final nail in Cab’s coffin and he could get his grieving over and done with. Rose would become Jason’s responsibility and maybe he could stop worrying about her. Other times, he hoped Rose and Jason’s engagement would stretch out until it finally snapped and she gave him back his ring. It was wrong to wish unhappiness on another man, but Cab did. Often.

 

“Over here,” Ethan called, gesturing for them to join him at one of the cases. Cab figured the sooner they finished this charade the sooner they could leave. He moved carefully to join the others as they bent over a display of engagement rings. Rose, who’d been near the cash register when they came in, crossed to join them, a smile on her pretty face. She was petite with glossy dark brown hair and startling blue eyes that often contained a spark of humor. Cab loved the way she was always smiling, even if sometimes that smile was wry. She was cheerful, sharp, imaginative and lively. Jason was a fool to leave her alone so long.

 

 

Cab kept his expression carefully friendly, as always, all too aware of the engagement ring that had been on Rose’s finger for as long as he could remember. He knew Jason had slipped the thin silver band on after he took her to their senior prom. Cab hadn’t noticed Rose much back then. He was a young buck in those days just establishing himself as a sheriff’s deputy. Directly after graduation, Jason moved to North Dakota. Rose stayed in Chance Creek and found herself a job. Cab had noticed her more and more over the years but had kept his distance until Rose became friends with Autumn and started to help out from time to time at the Cruz guest ranch. Thrown together more at social occasions, Cab had gotten to know her better, and as much as he told himself she was off limits—entirely off limits—he couldn’t help wishing she wasn’t.

 

“That one,” Jamie said, pointing to the most ostentatious ring in the bunch. Cab would hate to know the woman who wanted that monstrosity on her finger.

 

“Nah, too flashy,” Ethan said. “I think that one.” He pointed to a wisp of a gold band.

 

“That’s not an engagement ring; that’s hardly a ring at all,” Rob said. “This one.” He jabbed a finger at a circlet of yellowish diamonds that made Cab wince.

 

It was amazing any of them had wives, he thought, leaning over and examining the case for himself. His eyes immediately lit on a vintage art deco ring with flowing lines and several sparkling diamonds. It reminded him of Rose somehow; artistic, womanly, unique.

 

“Rose,” Jamie said. “Pull out that one, would you?” He pointed to the ring Cab was staring at.

 

Rose reached in and pulled out the tray. She angled it toward Cab and he picked up the ring, curious to see it without the intervening glass case. Just as he thought, it was a work of art.

 

“You can’t see it that way,” Rob said, grabbing it from his fingers. He snatched up Rose’s hand, drew her own ring off her finger and jammed the one Cab picked out in its place.

 

“Rob!” Rose snatched her hand away and held it up, shock on her face. She stared first at the ring, then at Cab, then back at the ring again. When her free hand grabbed for the counter, and her knees buckled, Cab reached over the case to steady her.

 

“Rose? You okay?” She looked like she was about to faint.

 

“Told you,” Rob said, grinning at Ethan.

 

“Son of a gun,” Ethan said, “You were right.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Cab was annoyed. “Get her some water, for crying out loud. Rose, do you need to sit down for a minute?” In a horrible flash he wondered if she was pregnant. She’d been Jason’s fiancée a long time. Maybe they hadn’t always been careful.

 

Rose stared at him wide-eyed. Growing worried, Cab tightened his grip on her arm and came around to her side of the case. “I think you need to sit,” he said again.

 

She shook her head and seemed to come back to herself. “I’m… fine.”

 

“Really?” Jamie said. “Because you look like you’ve seen your hus—”

 

Ethan whacked him on the arm.

 

Rose blushed furiously, peeled the ring off and thrust it back into the tray. Understanding dawned on Cab and he felt heat creep up his own neck at the trick his friends had played. They’d gotten him to choose a ring. They’d put that ring on Rose’s finger.

 

They’d waited for her reaction.

 

Everyone knew about Rose’s hunches—the ones she got when a couple chose their engagement ring. Somehow she could predict their future—if their marriage would be successful or not. If they were meant to be together. She’d given her approval to Ethan, Jamie and Rob when they’d bought their rings during the past few months, and since all of them remained happily married they believed her hunches were real.

 

So what did they think they were proving now?

 

He wanted to let go of Rose’s arm. Wanted to apologize for his friends and get the hell out of there, but he couldn’t seem to turn away.

 

“I didn’t feel anything,” she said angrily, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She yanked her arm away from Cab’s grip and set the tray of rings back in the case with shaking hands.

 

“You looked like you felt something,” Rob said with a grin. Rob made a business of teasing women, and he and Rose had been friends for some time. Usually Rose gave back as good as she got, but this time she didn’t come up with a stinging reply.

 

She glanced at Cab again instead, and Cab’s stomach tightened when he met her gaze. He saw something there—awareness, interest—fear?—that sent a shiver of recognition up his own spine.

 

Rob was right; she’d felt something when he put the ring on her finger. The ring Cab had picked out. The ring he wished he could give her.

 

Were he and Rose meant for each other? Did she feel the same kind of interest in him he felt in her?

 

Rose turned away abruptly, grabbed her engagement ring off the counter and shoved the thin circle back onto her finger. Cab’s stomach sank.

 

Of course she didn’t feel anything for him. She had made her choice and it wasn’t him.

 

“Let’s go,” he said gruffly. “See you around, Rose.” He knew he should say something else—apologize for Rob’s behavior at the very least—but he couldn’t form the words. He turned on his heel and headed for the front door, hoping against hope the rest of them would follow his lead for once.

 

They did and a moment later they spilled out onto the sidewalk. Cab waited until Rob took his keys out and headed for his truck before he grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and slammed him face down on its hood.

 

“What the hell?” Rob bellowed. “Hey, let go! You can’t arrest me for playing a joke.” He struggled, but Cab had already pocketed his keys and slapped a handcuff around his right wrist. In a few spare motions he locked the other cuff on his left.

 

“I’m not arresting you. I’m going to throw you into the creek and watch you drown.” He opened the door to the extended cab and gave Rob a shove. “Climb in.” Rob did so, cursing, and Jamie got in beside him, chuckling. If Cab had another set of handcuffs he wouldn’t be laughing long. Ethan got into the front passenger seat while Cab made his way around to the driver’s side.

 

“You better not throw me in the creek,” Rob said as Cab climbed in.

 

Cab shut the door and turned on all of them. “What the hell was that in there?” he demanded. “What would make you do that to Rose?”

 

The others exchanged a look. “We got to talking,” Ethan said. “That’s all. Who you’d likely match up with. Rob said Rose was gone on you. Jamie said no way because she’s engaged to Jason. Rob said there was one way to tell for sure. So…” He shrugged his shoulders.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Cab looked from one to the other. “First of all, I’ll marry who I marry, with no help from any of you. Second of all—” He broke off, exasperated. “Even if I wanted to marry Rose, she’s taken. It’s a done deal. You shouldn’t have done that to her.”

 

A long silence greeted this speech, broken at last by Rob. “Engagements can be broken, you know. Jason’s been away a long time. Seems to me if he was going to marry her, he’d have done it by now.”

 

“Yeah, well, until his ring is off her finger, I won’t go near her,” Cab said. He started the truck and pointed it toward the diner. He still planned to have his lunch. Rob could sit back there and starve for all he cared.

 

 

WHEN ROSE PULLED into the parking area in front of the Big House on the Cruz ranch, she shut off her truck’s engine, but didn’t climb out. It was seven in the evening and, being November, nearly dark already. With her engine off, the cold outside air quickly brought the temperature in the cab down. Still, she kept her seat, not ready to go inside and face all of her friends. The incident in the jewelry store this morning had replayed in her mind all day. How could she react so strongly to Cab’s ring when she was engaged to Jason?

 

Because your heart has moved on even if you haven’t. The voice in her head sounded like Grandma Allison, a plainspoken woman who had died over a decade ago. She would tell Rose it was high time to make up her mind about her engagement.

 

The truth was her relationship with Jason had been going downhill for months. Years, even. She’d begun to suspect the only reason it had lasted this long was because they weren’t living in the same state. If they were, Jason’s attempts to organize and control her life would have driven her crazy. Back in high school she’d thought it romantic when he’d boss her around in that slow drawl of his. Sexy, even. Now it just pissed her off, not the least because everyone else in her life seemed to think they could boss her around, too.

 

Immediately she felt contrite at the uncharitable thoughts she’d aimed at her fiancé. She’d promised herself only last week she’d give this relationship one last real shot before giving up. It didn’t make sense to overthrow a six-year engagement on a whim. Even if that whim had lasted for months. Maybe she could change the way they interacted if she tried hard enough. She needed to be more direct about what she wanted. She needed to speak up. Jason would finally listen to her and stop trying to do everything his way. He loved her, after all. He always had.

 

She pulled out her phone and checked for messages. None. He hadn’t called or texted her in days, and she hadn’t reached out to him, either. He’d barely crossed her mind this week until Rob yanked his ring off her finger and replaced it with Cab’s. Refusing to think too deeply about what that meant, she called him, waiting as the phone rang and rang.

 

Finally Jason answered. “Yeah?”

 

Rose frowned. Hadn’t he seen her name on the screen? Why was he being so abrupt? “It’s me.”

 

“What is it, Rose?” He sounded impatient. He was somewhere noisy. At a restaurant, maybe?

 

“I just wanted to say hi,” she said brightly. “I wondered what you were doing.”

 

A pause. “Nothing.”

 

He wasn’t going to make this easy, was he? This is how their conversations went these days—stilted, with long gaps and awkward questions that betrayed how little they knew about the day-to-day circumstances of each other’s lives. Well, she was trying to bridge those gaps, wasn’t she? Her last-ditch effort to save their sinking ship of an engagement. She tried again. “Where are you?”

 

“Jeez, Rose, what are you, my father?”

 

Stung, Rose snapped. “No, I’m the one who has to deal with your father. You’re five hundred miles away, remember?”

 

“I didn’t tell you to move in with my old man. In fact, I told you to keep living with your parents so we could save more money,” Jason snapped back.

 

Rose shut her eyes. There it was, that harping, bossy tone he always directed at her. Jason knew she hated the idea of living at home. She felt like a child under her parents’ roof. When Emory offered her the carriage house three years ago, she jumped at it. The rent was nominal and the place was all her own. At least, that’s what she thought in the beginning. Now she knew better. Still, how many times had she and Jason had this particular fight? They could say the lines in their sleep. Jason was right; moving onto his father’s property had been a mistake. Emory Thayer was overbearing to say the least. Jason had warned her, but she hadn’t truly understood until she moved in.

 

“Look, I’m not trying to check up on you,” she began, ignoring the rest of what he’d said.

 

“Sure sounds like it. Have you found a new job yet?”

 

“There are no jobs,” Rose said. How many times had they had this conversation, too? “And I don’t want another job until I go to school. I’ve told you that.”

 

“How the hell are we supposed to save up for a house if you’re going to spend all our money?” Jason said. “Art school is stupid. You spend thousands of dollars to learn a skill that makes you no money back. It’s a bad investment.”

 

“Stupid?” Rose echoed, her voice rising. Jason had always been against her going to art school but he’d never used such strong words before.

 

“Art is a hobby, Rose. A hobby. Only idiots pay that kind of money for their hobbies.”

 

Was he for real? She remembered the days back in high school when Jason drove in the demolition derby. How much money had he blown on that particular hobby?

 

“I’m a good artist. I can make money…”

 

“No, you can’t.” Jason’s temper flared, too. “It’s time to get real. No artist can make that kind of money. It’s a one in a million shot, and the chance that it would happen to you is nonexistent. Art school is for little rich kids who don’t need to make a living. You need to make a living. What about that nursing course I told you about? A friend of mine here has a wife who’s a nurse and she’s making a killing! You could go to night school. But first you need to get your ass out of my dad’s store and find another job. I gotta go.”

 

He clicked off the phone and left her staring out the windshield of her truck in shock. Was that how he really felt? That she had no chance as an artist? And nursing—that was his idea of an alternative? The thought made her shiver in disgust. Thank God other people liked nursing, but it wasn’t for her. She was terrified of illness and death and all the things nurses had to take in stride. She was far too private a person to be comfortable with the intimate tasks nurses faced every day. Whatever she did for a living had to be artistic in some sense of the word. That’s why she stuck to the jewelry store even if it meant working with Emory. The rings were beautiful and the variety of jewelry infinite. While Emory didn’t let her pick the merchandise, he did let her peruse the catalogs and dream over all the designs. She’d tried jewelry making herself, but unfortunately it wasn’t her thing, either. She preferred acrylics. Still, selling rings was better than nothing.

 

Why should Jason get to pursue his dream but demand that she give hers up? And if he was so set on saving money, why didn’t he save more of it himself? He had to be earning a ton of money at his oil patch job, but he claimed living expenses ate up most of his wages. After all these years he still didn’t have enough money for them to marry and put a down payment on a house. She was beginning to think he never would.

 

Which was probably just as well. Because if she was honest, she didn’t want to marry him anymore. In the cold, dark stillness of the truck cab, she finally faced the truth. She had promised herself one last try at working things out, but she was out of patience. She didn’t want to try anymore. What was the use of it? Jason wasn’t going to change. As she stared out at the hulking shapes of the barns against the night sky, she made up her mind. She was done with Jason. Done with Emory. Done with all of it. She would break off the engagement, find a new place to live and get a new job. That wasn’t going to be easy, though. The minute she phoned Jason and told him the news, he’d be on the phone to Emory, and Emory would be on the phone with her folks. She couldn’t stay in the carriage house or work for Emory anymore once she broke things off with Jason. And she wouldn’t want to be anywhere near her parents, either. They were going to flip their lids.

 

 

First, she needed a place to call her own and a job. Then she could spill the beans to Jason. Luckily, Jason wouldn’t call her back for at least another week, so she had plenty of time to make a plan. She considered going home and getting started on it right away, but decided against that course of action. She’d already had a long day and she needed company to cheer her up. Home alone, she’d have to fully face the mess she’d made of her life so far, and more than likely Emory would drop in and want to stay an hour. At least here she’d be with her friends.

 

Taking a deep breath, she looked at the band of silver on her ring finger. In one week she’d take it off for good. She expected a stab of pain, or tears to sting her eyes, but instead she felt a lift of anticipation in her heart and then a squeeze of shame. How could she be happy she was breaking off a six-year engagement? What kind of a woman was she?

 

A realist, she decided as she climbed out of the truck. She and Jason weren’t meant to be together. It was time to move on.

 

Inside the Cruz Big House some minutes later, she perched on the arm of one of the sofas in the living room. Every Thursday her friends gathered at Ethan and Autumn’s house for an informal get-together. Usually they played poker, but this week the Cruzes had bought a pool table and they were breaking it in with a tournament. Autumn, nearly six months pregnant, told Rose she was slated to play Autumn’s sister-in-law Claire in a while, but right now Ethan and Jamie were up. The rest of the people present stood around, or sat on stools pulled from the kitchen counter to watch. Autumn circulated with appetizers and everyone knew there was beer in the refrigerator.

 

Rose had always been jealous of Autumn’s elfin features and long, lustrous hair. Someone had once described her as ethereal, and the word suited. Originally from New York City, Autumn fit into Chance Creek like she’d been born here. Rose, who had been born here, couldn’t remember what the town was like before she came. She’d been the one to transform the Cruz ranch into a guest ranch business. Soon afterward, Jamie and Claire built their home on another part of the spread. Jamie helped with trail rides, but he also was starting a horse breeding business. Claire helped when she could but she was much in demand as an interior decorator. Ethan and Jamie had grown up together, along with Rob Matheson, whose family owned the next ranch over. Rob was here tonight as well. A tall, blond, handsome cowboy, he owned a property that straddled the two ranches. He and his wife, Morgan, had just started a winery on part of that land. Like Autumn and Claire, Morgan was pregnant, although she was only in her first trimester. Rob also intended to work with Ethan on the guest ranch and Jamie with the horse breeding. The three friends had found a way to interweave their lives, and Rose, frankly, was jealous of the way it all seemed to work so well.

 

A cheer went up when Ethan sank a shot and Rose’s attention returned to the room. Everyone else seemed mesmerized by the pool game.

 

All except Cab Johnson. He was watching her.

 

Rose frowned. Did the sheriff know what he’d done to her when he picked out that ring and Rob slid it on her finger? Immediately, a rush of emotion had overcome her: joy, excitement, a sense of rightness she’d never felt before. She’d always had hunches when she sold couples their engagement rings, but nothing like this—never anything half so strong. If it was any other man and woman she’d feel sure their marriage was bound to succeed.

 

But it wasn’t any other couple; it was her and Cab. They weren’t even engaged. They’d never gone on a date.

 

What on earth had possessed Rob to drag Cab in there, make him pick a ring and shove it on her finger? She was friends with Rob, sort of. He teased her mercilessly and she did her best to tease him back. How could he have guessed that lately when she saw Cab she felt… interested?

 

She crushed that thought with an iron hand. First she needed to extricate herself from her current situation, and then she needed to find a backbone before she considered dating again. She’d let her parents run her life until she was eighteen, and then even though she’d thought she was showing her independence by getting engaged to Jason, it hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, she felt as if she’d gone from two parents to four. Her mother, father, Emory and Jason all told her what to do. She hadn’t stood a chance at ordering her own life.

 

This time it was going to be different. This time she wouldn’t answer to anyone. Just as soon as she broke up with Jason she’d be free as a bird, and no one, not even the hottest, most eligible sheriff was going to hold her back.

 

Rose sipped her beer, fighting against the breathless feeling Cab’s proximity always conjured in her. What was it about the man that tugged at her in such a primal way? He liked to hang back and let his friends hog the limelight, but to Rose he stood out like a beacon. He was muscular, self-assured, intelligent, and damn him, she wanted to know what he was like between the sheets.

 

She glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed the direction of Cab’s gaze—or guessed the direction her thoughts had taken. Jamie sunk a ball and Claire cheered, her glossy black bob swinging with her enthusiasm.

 

“Hey—what happened to family loyalty?” Ethan said to her.

 

“Husbands take preference over brothers,” Claire said. She was glowing tonight, Rose thought with more than a bit of jealousy. She and Jamie couldn’t be more in love. That was hard to stomach when Rose’s own relationship was disintegrating and she was fighting inappropriate feelings for Cab. Still avoiding the sheriff’s gaze, she considered another couple who’d joined them tonight; Bella and Evan Mortimer.

 

The billionaires.

 

Rose still couldn’t believe that sweet Bella Chatham, the local pet veterinarian who couldn’t say no to any stray animal, had gone on a national reality television show, beat a billionaire to win the five million dollar prize, then married the guy. With his short, dark hair and athletic build, Evan was as hot as any of the local cowboys, Rose had to admit. While she didn’t begrudge Bella her fantastic luck, she also couldn’t help feeling jealous. Again. Evan and Bella were camping out in Bella’s airstream trailer behind her clinic and shelter until they decided where to build their new house.

 

Everyone in this room was coupled up and on their way to living their dreams. Even Hannah Ashton, Bella’s receptionist, had a boyfriend, although he wasn’t here tonight. She and the sheriff were the only ones without partners.

 

She risked a glance over at him, but quickly looked away when she met his gaze. He was still watching her. Not in an overtly sexual way and not in a weird stalker-ish way. Just watching her. As if he was considering something.

 

Considering her reaction to his ring, maybe.

 

She glanced down to her left hand where it rested in her lap. The thin silver band Jason Thayer had slipped on her ring finger six years ago still glinted there. After six years of being someone’s fiancée, she needed at least six years of being on her own before she considered marriage again. By that time Cab would be long gone.

 

Jamie sunk another ball and Claire cheered again, startling Rose out of her reverie.

 

“You won’t be cheering when you go up against Jamie,” Ethan said to her. “If you beat Rose, you play him afterward.”

 

“He’ll go easy on me,” Claire said confidently.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Jamie straightened up from the table.

 

 

“You will unless you want to sleep on the couch tonight,” she said.

 

Jamie chuckled. “I tell you what. When it’s our turn we’ll get rid of the peanut gallery and make it a game of strip pool.”

 

“Strip pool?” Rob said from where he perched on one of the stools. “That’s genius.” He gave his wife’s hand a tug and waggled his eyebrows at her. Morgan rolled her eyes.

 

Strip pool? Rose glanced involuntarily at Cab and met his gaze again. An image sprang into her mind. The two of them alone in the room. Cue sticks in hand.

 

Half undressed.

 

She’d seen him without his shirt before when the whole gang went swimming in Chance Creek. Cab was a big guy—really big.

 

And not an ounce of fat on him. Powerful shoulders, massive thighs, muscles to die for…

 

The sudden intensity in his gaze told her he was thinking about the same possibility she was. Her breath hitched and heat swept through her. What would it be like to unbutton her shirt, peel off her bra and let Cab take a look? Would he touch her…?

 

She wrenched her gaze away, the heat in her face telling her she had flushed to the roots of her hair. Quickly she swallowed the rest of her beer and slipped off her stool to make her way to the kitchen. She took her time fetching a second bottle from the refrigerator. Heck, if she could get away with it she’d climb right in the thing to cool herself off.

 

She couldn’t feel this way—not about Cab. Not now. It would be lunacy to break off one long-term relationship and jump straight into a new one. She needed space and time to figure out who she was. She needed to figure out what she was going to do next. She needed a home. And a job. There was way too much on her plate to allow her the luxury of dating.

 

But when she returned to the living room her gaze sought out Cab like a moth drawn to a flame.

 

And he was looking back at her.

 

A tremor of desire rippled through her and Rose realized she’d waited far too long to break up with Jason. Not because she should be with Cab, but because she shouldn’t feel like this for anyone. Not when she was about to embark on an important new chapter in her life—one in which she’d hopefully discover exactly who she was. She’d allowed herself to get so lonely and unhappy that she longed to throw herself at the next man who crossed her path. That meant it was doubly important she create a new life for herself—a life that didn’t require her to have a man in order to feel complete. She couldn’t keep putting her dreams on hold. Time to put her plans into action.

 

Before it was too late.