A Cowboy’s Proposal
Book 1 in the Shannon Sisters Series
She’s not willing to forgive. He’s unable to forget.
One year ago, Montana cowboy Dylan McLean left the love of his life at the altar and fled town, thinking he was doing the right thing by saving her from a scandal. He’s found success on the rodeo circuit, but his love for Cathleen never faded. Now he’s returned home to clear his name, claim his bride and rebuild his legacy.
Bed-and-breakfast owner Cathleen Shannon has moved on from her broken heart. That is, until Dylan shows up at her house one night asking for help and a second chance. Despite Dylan’s betrayal, she promises to assist with his investigation. She doesn’t want an innocent man to go to jail, but her heart is most definitely off limits.
But Cathleen has forgotten one important fact: Dylan is relentless when he’s going after something he wants. He walked away once, but she won’t let that happen again.
A Cowboy’s Proposal
Book 1 in the Shannon Sisters Series
A Cowboy’s Proposal
Almost twenty years ago I published the Shannon Sisters trilogy with Harlequin Superromance. When I revisited the stories early last year I was hoping to love them. I did not. But I did see many ways that the stories and the trilogy as a whole could be improved. I wanted to add more heart, a bigger sense of community and smooth out some rough edges in the plotting. I hope I have succeeded in all these goals. If you’ve read the original books, I beg you to replace your copies with these new releases. And if you’ve never read the originals–please don’t. I guess if I can take any solace in this whole process, it is this: I’ve actually learned a few things in my 25 year career. And that, at least, is a good thing.
A Cowboy’s Proposal
A shadow shifted in the dark forest that circled the Larch Valley bed-and-breakfast. Cathleen Shannon, trying to relax in her new outdoor spa, sat upright, muscles tensing. The dark spot was moving, getting larger. Something was out there. So why wasn’t her dog barking?
A sky of restless clouds filtered out most of the light from the half-moon. She should have brought a flashlight out with her. Her phone. A gun.
“Kip?” She reached over the side of the tub where her border collie had been resting a moment ago. He wasn’t there.
Gaze trained on the moving shadow, Cathleen called louder, “Kip!”
Deer and elk frequented this area, but if one of them was in the vicinity, Kip would be going crazy. Same went for the much less frequent black bear and grizzly.
The dark shape moved closer and in the heavens a cloud shifted allowing a shaft of moonlight to penetrate the surrounding woods. The shadow was a man.
Cathleen considered her options. Did she have time to run for the house? She was naked in the tub and didn’t want to give the intruder a show. Maybe he hadn’t seen her. She let her body sink until just her nose was above the water line.
“Cathleen, it’s me.”
The voice triggered a jolt of joy. Then a flash of fury. Cathleen gripped the side of tub and concentrated on freezing out both emotions. It couldn’t be him.
But as he drew closer, the tall, lean man in the ubiquitous cowboy hat, became uniquely identifiable. It was in the set of his shoulders. The rhythm of his gait.
Her former friend, lover and fiancé, Dylan McLean.
And there, trotting faithfully by his boots, was her dog. The traitor.
“Look who the dog dragged in.” She sank her trembling hands back under the water. Last she’d heard from Dylan’s cousin, Jake Hartman, Dylan was supposed to be in Reno, Nevada, the latest stop in his never-ending rodeo circuit. Jake always filled her in on Dylan’s adventures, even though she purported not to care. And she was certain that plans of Dylan McLean’s return to Whitefish, Montana had never been mentioned.
If they had, she would have prepared herself. Over the past year she’d come up with at least a dozen speeches to rake him over the coals. Trouble was, now that he stood just a few feet away, she couldn’t recall a single word, let alone an entire tirade.
Dylan’s gray eyes sought to engage hers, to coax a smile, but she was in no mood to be charmed. Eventually his gaze skimmed from her face, down her neck, to the line where the water cut across the top of her chest.
“I like your outfit,” he said. “Room in there for one more?”
A year of silence, and this was what he came up with?
“The hot tub is for lodge guests only. Oh, and family and friends.”
He registered the intended insult with a one-sided twist of his mouth. “And I’m none of the above, I take it?”
She said nothing.
He stepped up to the deck that surrounded the tub. Tipped his hat back a fraction. “You know I didn’t have any choice. I had to leave.”
Did he really believe that? “You should have at least talked it over with me.”
Dylan shifted back on his heels. “You’ve got a right to be angry. But you received the letter, right? Jake said he put it directly in your hands.”
“Yeah, Dylan. Thanks a lot for going to the trouble.”
She pictured herself a year ago, standing at the open screen door of this very house, back when it had been only a home, not a bed and breakfast. She remembered the feel of the white silk dress flowing down to her sandaled feet. Her long, normally wild dark hair coiled in luxurious curls down her back. Two bouquets of orchids—one larger than the other—lay at the ready on the kitchen table.
The envelope had been white, legal-sized, with her name on the front, penned in Dylan’s distinctive bold script. She remembered how Jake’s truck had kicked up dust like a patch of white fog as he drove away after delivering the missive.
She hadn’t needed to tear open the flap and read the single sheet of paper within to know there would be no wedding that day.
“You didn’t think your note ought to be supplemented by something as personal as a visit or a phone call?”
He winced. “I was afraid you would talk me out of my decision. But you’ve got to admit I did the right thing.”
She’d admit nothing of the kind. But she didn’t argue with him. If he’d cared what she thought, he would have talked this over with her before leaving, not one year after.
“I’m sorry you had to deal with the aftermath—telling the guests, canceling the minister and the caterer…”
Her sisters had handled those details for her, but she didn’t want to give him the comfort of knowing that. Besides, the logistics of the wedding arrangements had been the least of her heartaches that day.
Thinking back to that time, brought back the old pain when all she wanted to feel was anger. Or indifference. Yes, indifference would be better.
She held out her arms, skimming the bubbles that frothed on the water’s surface. It was easier when she wasn’t looking at him.
“What did you do with the ring?”
She pulled her hands back under the water.
“I sold it,” she improvised. “Just like I sold the wedding dress. Advertised them both on Craig’s List. I put the money into renovating the lodge.”
Dylan was silent for a moment. “Yeah, Jake tells me you’re opening October first. That’s exciting.” Dylan cleared his throat. “He also said you started dating again.”
“A little.” Just a few dates, none of which had been much fun. But Dylan didn’t need to know that. She could only imagine the hook ups he’d had during his year on the rodeo circuit.
Dylan rubbed his chin. “So who’s the current favorite?”
He wanted to talk about them like they were jelly-bean flavors. Maybe that’s what the women he’d dated had been like to him. “Not sure I can pick a favorite. Maybe Thad Springer.”
“Springer? You mean the detective?”
Two dates last June, followed by Cathleen politely rejecting the third.
“Damn, Cathleen.” He took a second to digest that, before asking, “Anyone else I know?”
This time she hesitated for a beat. “James Strongman.”
If she’d surprised him with Thad, she shocked him with James.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
She just raised her eyebrows.
“Of all the men in Whitefish, why would you date my stepbrother?”
“Why wouldn’t I? Because you never got along with the man? Because you hate his father? Those are your issues, not mine.”
Actually the one time she went out with James, she’d spent the entire dinner wishing she was home watching Netflix.
“I’m not saying this out of jealousy, but you should stay away from that man. You can’t trust him.”
“You mean if he asks me to marry him—he’d back out the day of the ceremony?”
Dylan winced. “How many times are you going to throw that in my face?”
She didn’t bother answering. Apparently it didn’t even occur to him that he still owed her a face-to-face official apology.
“For the record,” he volunteered, “there’s been no one in my life—no one—since you.”
Ah. For a second her heart soared. Then her mind took over.
“I have no interest in the sorry state of your love life. This conversation is pointless. Why don’t you go back to wherever you came from?”
“I can’t. Jake gave me a lift and now he’s gone. He’s got a flight out of Calgary in three hours to Australia.”
“He finally decided to go?” The past year had been difficult for Jake, too. Before Dylan’s mother married Max three years ago, Jake had lived with Dylan’s family on the Thunder Bar M. He and Dylan weren’t just cousins, but best friends too.
“He’s on a six week tour while he decides what to do with the rest of his life. Meanwhile his house is being remodeled. New kitchen, bathrooms and flooring. The works.”
Cathleen remembered running into Jake a few weeks ago at the paint chip display at Ace Hardware, contemplating the subtle difference in tone between “tumbleweed” and “flax.”
“So you’ve basically stranded yourself here? That was pretty stupid.”
“I kind of specialize in stupid lately.”
Even if that was genuine regret on his face, it couldn’t make any difference. Being sorry didn’t change a damn thing.
“What, exactly, are you hoping to accomplish tonight Dylan?”
He removed his hat. “I was back in Whitefish. How could I not come to see you?”
“Okay. You’ve seen me.” She paused. “Now what?”
Dylan frowned, then slipped a pack she hadn’t noticed off his shoulders. He set the canvas bag on the deck and balanced his hat casually on top of it.
“I know you’re not officially open yet. But I was hoping you would let me rent out a room for a few weeks.”
“Whitefish is a tourist town. There are plenty of motels and other bed-and-breakfast places.”
“Yeah. But somehow none of them seemed to have a room available once I gave my name.”
So the rumors hadn’t died. It was all such nonsense she couldn’t believe it.
“And this is my problem because…?” She reached for the controls to the jets, but was stymied when Dylan laid his hand over hers. She hated how familiar—and wonderful—his touch was, right down to the rough cowboy calluses. She jerked away.
“Don’t touch me.”
He looked wounded. Then nodded. “Okay. I respect that. But can I tell you you’re still so beautiful? Even more than I remembered.”
She resented the compliment as much as his touch. Whatever was going on just didn’t add up…
Did he really expect he could turn on the old charm and she’d crumble at his feet? He’d end up with a place to stay and a woman in his bed.
“Wish I could say the same for you, but you’re looking rough. What happened to your forehead? And your shoulder?” The scar was new, she’d noticed it when he raked back his thick dark hair with his hands. As for his shoulder, he held it stiffly when he walked.
Dylan acknowledged his injuries with a shrug.
“You idiot. Do you think you could’ve found a more dangerous rodeo event than bull riding?”
“Hey, I wore off a lot of anger on those babies. And won a good pile of money at the same time.” He patted the backside of his jeans, where he doubtless kept his wallet. “You probably had to hire guys to do the work that I promised I would do for you. I could help cover some of that for you.”
“You are not paying me for renovating my father’s old house. You and I aren’t a couple anymore.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Besides, it’ll only take a few years for me to pay off those debts. I’ve got my website up and running and the bookings are looking good.” That might be a bit of an exaggeration. But Cathleen didn’t want Dylan to think she couldn’t manage without him.
He regarded her for several long seconds. Then his gaze shifted to the parking area behind the lodge, where a bright green VW bug was parked next to her red Jeep. “You said you’re not open yet. Whose the bug belong to?”
“Poppy Turner. She’s sort of my first “unofficial” guest.” The sixtyish-year-old woman had showed up one day wearing an orange silk caftan with her curly bottle-red hair flying all around her warm but weathered face. She’d gushed over the beautiful setting and sounded crushed when Cathleen told her she wouldn’t be open for more than a month.
“Would you consider letting me rent a room now? I need a place to stay for a few months. And access to the kitchen. I’m hoping to test recipes for a cookbook I’m working on. I’ll clean my own room and make my own breakfast. Heck, I’ll gladly make your breakfast, too.”
Cathleen had liked the older woman on sight. It sounded like she wouldn’t be any trouble—and it turned out she was the opposite. Poppy was an amazing cook and not above doing laundry or running the vacuum. And despite all the work she did around the place, she insisted on paying the regular rate for her room.
Dylan put a hand on his pack. “If you’ve made an exception for one person, maybe you’ll make another for me?”
Folding her arms over her chest, she narrowed her eyes. “The answer is no.”
“Cathleen, you’re hurting my feelings.”
“We’ve already established your feelings don’t run much deeper than the bark on a birch tree.”
He adjusted the position of his hat, balancing it carefully on the top of the canvas pack. “You’re probably right about that. Fortunately, yours don’t either. Got rid of the dress and the ring—wasn’t that what you said?”
“Well, then. Since you’re not still hung up on me, why not put me up? I’ll pay for one month up front.”
“At least. I’ve got some unfinished business here.”
He had to be talking about Joe Beckett. The memory of the man shot down in cold blood on the McLean ranch made Cathleen shiver, despite the heated water surrounding her. “The family had a memorial for him, Dylan. I went. He might have been involved in an industry you don’t approve of, but he was a good man.”
“I had nothing against him personally and nothing against logging per se, as long as it isn’t happening in the wrong places. And the Thunder Bar M is definitely the wrong place.”
Which was why Dylan had organized a protest two weeks before their wedding, trying to stop his mother and stepfather from signing contracts to clear a good third of the timber off the Thunder Bar M.
Unfortunately, someone had brought a gun to the protest and one of the men from the logging corporation had ended up dead. No one had witnessed the actual shooting and insufficient evidence had been found to make an arrest.
However, lack of proof hadn’t stopped people from drawing their own conclusions.
“Cathleen, did you ever think I—”
She shook her head. Like so many things, it was too late for him to ask that question.
Pain pinched his features. “For the record, I didn’t.”
“Don’t you think I know that? You’re so dense sometimes.”
He just turned his head, stared out into the dark.
Above their heads a cloud drifted by and the moon washed the deck in soft light. Dylan faced her again. “The killer is still out there. And you know what’s really scary?”
She was almost afraid to ask. “What?”
“He’s living with my mother.”
* * *
Cathleen was the one person—besides Jake—Dylan expected to believe him. He’d come here with the faintest of hopes and almost no expectations, just an innate need to see her. So it hurt when he saw doubt in her eyes.
“You’re asking me to believe your stepfather shot Joe Beckett?”
“Yes.” He glanced at her, then forced his gaze back out into the night. It was impossible to forget, for even one minute, that she was naked in the hot tub. Not that he could see much in the dark and with all the bubbles. But he’d seen enough.
“When did you arrive at this conclusion?” she asked.
“Took me longer than it should’ve. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.” That he’d lost the love of his life. That he’d probably be an old man before he was able to ranch his own land again. That his own mother thought he was a vicious murderer…
But last month he’d been hospitalized—first serious injury since he’d started rodeo life—and the downtime had given him plenty of opportunity for reflection. Then Jake had called and told him he was worried about Rose. Max had convinced her to move off the ranch and into a fancy house in Whitefish. Since then Rose had become something of a recluse. She’d even refused to see Jake last time he called her.
That had been the final push Dylan needed. The next day he’d sold his rig and bought a ticket to Kalispell.
“But what evidence do you have?”
“That’s what I’m here for. To find evidence. And to talk my mother into leaving him. Have you seen her lately?”
She shook her head. “After our wedding was canceled, dropping in for coffee seemed inappropriate. And of course she’d living in town now. How about you? Have you kept in touch?”
He heard the recrimination in her voice, as if she expected the answer to be no. But he’d tried. “Mom didn’t answer any of my emails or accept my calls.” He rubbed a dirty spot on the knee of his jeans and wondered if he dared ask. What the hell, she could only say no.
“I plan on dropping in on her tomorrow. I don’t expect she’ll be thrilled to see me, but if you were there, too, she probably wouldn’t slam the door in my face.”
Cathleen had been a favorite of his mother’s. When they announced their engagement, Rose said she was glad because she already thought of Cathleen as a daughter.
“I’ve heard she’s become something of a recluse.” Cathleen looked like she blamed him for that.
“You probably think it’s my fault. If so, I’ll accept the blame. I just need to see her. Make sure she’s alright.”
“You’ve heard she and Max have moved off the Thunder Bar M into town?”
“Yeah, Jake told me. I don’t get it. Leave the house, maybe. But her gardens?” He’d put in enough back-breaking labor that even he was attached to them.
Dylan felt a bitterness in his heart. “Jake also told me Max sold all the cattle and hired some kind of caretaker to look after the home quarter.”
“Yes. Danny Mizzoni. He’s living in the main house with his wife and two kids.”
“Seriously? Jake didn’t tell me that.” Danny had been a few years behind them in school. Dylan vaguely remembered hearing he’d been arrested on drug charges a while back. “Isn’t he still in jail?”
“Danny was paroled a year after we were engaged. I assume Jake also told you Max was elected mayor of Whitefish this year on a pro-development platform?”
“Pro-development. That figures.” Whitefish, next to a world-class ski resort as well as the popular Glacier National Park, had always been a battleground between those who wanted to capitalize on the town’s appeal to tourists and those concerned about preserving the natural beauty and wildlife habitat of the surrounding area.
He noticed how flushed Cathleen’s face was getting. As she allowed her feet to float up and out of the water, he could see that even her toes had turned red.
“I’m not a chef, darlin’, but I’d say you’ve been cooked.”
“Usually I limit myself to twenty minutes. You’ve kept me in here almost double that. Why don’t you go into the kitchen for a drink. I’ll join you in a minute.”
A gentleman would probably do just as she asked, or, at a minimum, retrieve the towel draped on a nearby Adirondack chair, then turn his back as she slipped it around herself.
But both options seemed kind of dull to him. He glanced from the towel back to her, then raised his eyebrows. Without a word spoken, it was out there. Dare you.
She glared at him.
He went to the chair, reached for the towel, then changed course and sat down. “This is real comfortable. I could sit here all night.”
“Of course, if you were to offer me a room, that would probably be even more comfy.”
“Bastard,” she muttered. Then, even as he was congratulating himself on a hand well played, she stood.
Cathleen took her time climbing out of the tub and replacing the cover.
Her body gleamed. Taut muscles, curved lines, gorgeous legs. In the moonlight her skin was honey-brown—except for the dreamy places protected from the summer sun by her bikini.
Once she’d secured the lid she walked right up to him and pulled the towel out from under him. Methodically she patted off the moisture beaded on her skin—then tossed the towel at his face.
Completely naked, completely beautiful, she strolled to the patio doors, then turned back casually. The coldness in her eyes slapped down his libido as effectively as a pail of cold water over the head.
She hated him. Almost immediately he rejected the impression. She was still angry, that was all. She’d get over it.
“Come Kip.” She ushered her dog into the house, then glanced back at him. “About tonight…”
“Yeah?” His confidence surged. After all, even before they’d fallen in love, they’d been best friends. She would never—
“There’s a cot in an empty stall in the horse barn,” she said. “If you’re desperate, you can have that.”