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Sarah Barkley's stomach knotted and her chest ached on a whole raft of second thoughts. She just had driven two-and-a-half days from Seattle to reach Sweet Grass Valley, Montana.
Now, sitting at the counter of an old-fashioned diner in the small rural town, the only place she could find to eat, she wondered if she'd be smart to turn around and go back home.
Unsure what to do, she mindlessly rubbed the nine-inch scar hidden beneath her cotton blouse. Her doctor had warned her against trying to locate the family that had lost a loved one—and had generously saved Sarah's life. "Unless they specifically request contact, organ donors and their family should remain anonymous," the doctor had told her. "You can cause a grieving family to relive their pain and loss."
She had written the family a letter of thanks, but that seemed like paltry appreciation for the extraordinary gift she had received.
The heart that beat steadily in Sarah's chest had once belonged to someone's loved one. The gratitude she felt was as big as the Montana sky. She wanted to find some way to thank the family. But how?
There'd be no need for them to know that the heart that beat so strongly for her now had once known this town, the streets and sidewalks, very likely even this diner.
If her research had identified the right heart donor.
Sarah looked up as the waitress arrived with her order of a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, no mayonnaise, and fruit. The lunch rush had apparently passed and there were only a couple of older men lingering over their coffee in a booth by the wall.
"Here you go, hon. I'll freshen that iced tea for you." A brassy-blonde in her forties with short hair and a great smile, she refilled Sarah's glass. Her name tag read Bonnie Sue. "You just passin' through?"
"I'm not quite sure," she admitted, adding a packet of sweetener to her tea.
"We don't get many tourists."
"It is a bit off the beaten path." So far off the beaten path, she'd almost missed the turn off from Highway 2 in the northern part of the state.
"I'll say. I've lived here my whole life. It's a good place to be if you like neighbors who are good ol' down-home folks and you aren't interested in living high on the hog."
"No big city lights, huh?"
Bonnie Sue laughed a hearty sound. "Hon, we don't even have sidewalks after seven o'clock. We roll 'em up and tuck 'em away till five the next morning."
Sarah smiled, wondering what it would be like to live in such an out-of-the-way place. Peaceful, she guessed. A far slower pace than Seattle.
The bell over the diner's door tinkled. Sarah glanced in that direction. A long-legged cowboy wearing a sweat-stained Stetson, jeans and boots sauntered toward the counter. His shoulders were far broader than his hips, his movements a symphony of masculine grace.
"Hey, Ryder," one of the men in the booth shouted. "How's it goin' on the Rocking R?"
The newcomer gave the men a casual salute. "It's as dry at my place as it as yours, Mason. If we don't get rain soon, we're going to ask the government to divert the Marias River down Main Street."
The two men laughed, and the cowboy took a seat at the counter one down from Sarah.
She averted her eyes, but her mind was racing. Ryder. The Rocking R Ranch. Could he be—
"Hey, Kurt," Bonnie Sue said. "Haven't seen much of you lately." She poured him a big mug of coffee and slid a pitcher of cream in his direction.
Sarah tensed. Kurt Ryder.
"You know how it goes. Cattle and kids can keep you pretty busy." He poured the cream in his coffee. "Can you fix me up with a double cheeseburger and some of those good fries you make?"
Sarah winced at the number of calories he was planning to consume and couldn't even calculate how many of those calories would be from fat. If she ate all of that, the calories would either go directly to her thighs or her arteries. In either case, they'd probably give her a heart attack.
She took a bite of her dry turkey sandwich and realized that on some rebellious level she envied the man.
The man who, impossibly, shockingly, seemed to be the Kurt Ryder who had lost his wife in a deadly car crash in Washington just over a year ago.
The man who had donated his wife's organs to total strangers to save their lives. Including Sarah's life, based on her research.
The turkey turned to sawdust in her mouth. Her hand trembled and tears of gratitude welled in her eyes. She put the sandwich back on her plate.
Had God sent her here, to this diner, to meet Kurt Ryder?
She didn't know what to do. How to act. She hadn't made specific plans when she impulsively left Seattle to come here. She didn't know what to say.
In the mirror behind the prep service area, she saw he had taken off his hat, leaving a sweat line that darkened his saddle-brown hair.
Ruggedly good-looking, he had a broad forehead and square jaw. His firm lips were drawn in a straight line that looked as though they'd forgotten how to smile. Sun-burnished squint lines fanned out from his eyes. Even more impressive than his appearance was the way he carried himself, strong and solid, as elemental as the land where he lived.
He looked up, and for a moment their eyes met in the mirror. A shimmer of awareness, like ripples in a pond, danced down Sarah's spine.
She fought to control her expression. To remain neutral in the face of his compelling presence and the deep sorrow she saw in his eyes, the grief that had etched lines in his deeply tanned face.
She broke the connection and studiously focused on her sandwich, although her appetite had vanished.
He'd lost a wife in that accident. His two children, a boy and a girl, had lost a mother. In her search for her donor family, she'd followed the story, his story and his children's in the Seattle newspaper archives.
Sarah struggled to hold back the tears of empathy she had shed when she first read of his loss. The sweet taste of her tea was replaced by the bitter knowledge of death and grief.
Bonnie Sue delivered his cheeseburger and fries, and refilled his coffee. "How're your kids doing?"
He took a bite of cheeseburger and talked around it. "Beth's acting like a teenager, Toby's all boy, and they're both driving me and my mother-in-law crazy."
Chuckling, Bonnie Sue said, "Yeah, makes you wonder some days why anybody has kids."
"You got that right. In fact, you know of anybody who'd like a job as a housekeeper for the summer? I'm going to have to do something. I think it's all getting to be too much for Grace. With the kids out of school for the summer…" He shrugged. "Having them around all the time gets overwhelming for her."
Sarah tried not to eavesdrop, but that was impossible. He was sitting too close to her, his voice a smooth baritone that held a heavy note of weariness.
"Don't know of anybody offhand," Bonnie Sue said. "I'll keep you in mind though."
He thanked her with a wave of his hand and she went off to refill the coffee mugs of the two men in the booth.
A moment later, Kurt said, "Excuse me. Could you slide that ketchup down this way? "
Sarah started. She hadn't expected—
She found the ketchup behind the napkin holder and slid it in his direction.
"Thanks." He gave the bottle a couple of hard shakes and virtually covered his fries with ketchup.
"I sure hope you like lots of ketchup on your fries."
The corner of his lips lifted with the hint of a smile, just enough that Sarah's heart did a pleasant little flutter.
He picked up a drenched French fry and popped it in his mouth. "That your hybrid car parked out front?"
"Yes." As nearly as Sarah could tell, everyone in this town drove pickup trucks, most with rifles mounted across the back window.
"Looks more like a toy than a car."
"I'm getting almost fifty miles per gallon on the highway," she countered.
"Hmm…" He arrowed another fry into his mouth, and licked the extra ketchup off his lips with his tongue. "You'd probably have trouble stuffing a bale of hay in the back."
"I don't know. I've never tried." His implied criticism of her car annoyed her. She didn't need a truck, certainly not in Seattle. "It may look small, but you'd be surprised how much it can carry."
He eyed her in a thoroughly masculine fashion, which brought heat to her face.
"If you say so," he drawled in his deep baritone voice.
He returned his attention to his burger and fries, leaving Sarah feeling slightly breathless and surprisingly intrigued by the man.
Within minutes, he'd finished his meal, while she'd only made it through half a sandwich. He put some money on the counter and picked up his hat.
"Nice talkin' to you." He touched the brim of his Stetson and sauntered out the door.
In spite of herself, Sarah exhaled in relief.
Bonnie came over to pick up his cash and the dirty dishes.
"He's something else, isn't he?" she said, putting the ketchup bottle back where it belonged. "When he lost his wife, I'd never seen a man so stricken. And his two kids." She shook her head. "A real shame, that's what it was. He could sure use all the help he can get."
Sarah glanced out the front window. Kurt had parked across the street, a black extended-cab pickup. He stood talking with another man, one hand resting on the open window of his truck.
"Do you think he really wants to hire a housekeeper?" she asked.
"I imagine so. Grace Livingston, his mother-in-law, is still grieving. Can't get over losing her only child. I don't expect trying to take care of Kurt's two kids is easy at her age."
Sarah waited for a full minute, trying to decide what to do. Taking a chance warred with her fear of hurting people who had given her so much. She'd come here to help the Ryder family. Had she just been presented with a way to do that?
Please, God, let me do no harm.
She dug some money out of her wallet and put it on the counter. "Thanks."
"Wait, you didn't eat all of your sandwich. Was there something wrong?"
"No, it was fine. It's just that—" Across the street, Kurt was getting into his truck. She didn't want him to leave until she had a chance to talk to him.
She left the diner at a dead run.
Kurt slid his key into the truck's ignition. He had to get back to the ranch. Lately, Beth and his mother-in-law had been all but coming to blows over one thing or another. His job was to referee.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ryder?"
The feminine voice startled him. He turned to find the woman from the diner standing next to his truck, her sky-blue eyes filled with an intensity that pulled her blond eyebrows closer together. Her short, sassy hairdo and the way she dressed in slacks and a blouse identified her as a city girl.
"What can I do for you?" He mentally shrugged. Maybe her impractical little car had broken down and she needed a ride.
"My name's Sarah Barkley. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation in the diner. If you're really looking for a housekeeper, I'd be interested in applying for the job."
Kurt's eyebrows shot up, and his mouth went slack. She was the least likely looking housekeeper he'd ever met. Way too slender and dainty to handle any heavy work. A real lightweight. He had to wonder if she even knew how to cook.
"Miss, my ranch is five miles out of town. My closest neighbor is more than a mile away as the crow flies. I've got two kids who can be a handful and are forever tracking dirt into the house, stacks of laundry are always piling up and three meals a day need to be fixed." His wife, Zoe, had grown to hate the isolation, the constant sameness of each day. That's why they'd gone to Seattle, to give her a break. A second honeymoon, they'd said. And he'd as good as killed her with his own hand. The grief, that truth, had been lying in his stomach like a sun-baked rock for more than a year.
"I don't mean to insult you," he said, "but you don't look like you'd be up to a job like that."
A blush traveled up her slender neck and bloomed on her cheeks. "Mr. Ryder, I'm a lot like my car. I may look small but I'm strong and dependable and tougher than you think." She reached into her purse, pulled out a business card and wrote something on the back. "That's my cell number. I'll be in town for a day or two if you change your mind. Naturally, I'd be happy to provide references."
"References as a housekeeper?" Maybe as secretary for a big-city law firm, or even a paralegal. Not a housekeeper. That didn't fit.
"References from people who know me."
With that, she whirled and walked briskly back across the street. In the side mirror, Kurt watched her go, a bundle of energy in a small but very attractive package. He'd give her an A for spunk, too.
He glanced at the number she'd written on the card then flipped it over. Sarah Barkley, Puget Sound Business Services, Payroll & Accounting, Seattle, Washington.
Maybe she'd been laid off or the company went out of business. He shrugged and tossed the card on the passenger seat. No matter. Time to get back to the ranch.
Less than ten minutes later, he drove over the cattle guard and through the entrance of the Rocking R Ranch. His great-grandfather had moved to the northern plains of Montana with his family when he was ten. They'd homesteaded the land, raised cattle, made friends with the Indians and sometimes battled them. His ancestors' blood and sweat and tears had nurtured the land, protected it. Now it was Kurt's turn to protect that legacy for his own children and teach them to love the Rocking R as much as he did.
He pulled past the two-story ranch house and parked near the barn. By noon today, the temperature had topped ninety degrees. Now clouds were forming on the western horizon, but that didn't mean they'd get rain. Not the way weather patterns had been lately.
He climbed out of the truck. Rudy, their aging border collie, ambled out of his favorite shady spot by the tractor to greet Kurt. Automatically, Kurt scratched behind the dog's ears and gave the old guy a friendly pat on his rib cage before going into the house.