CHASING AFTER LOVE...
She doesn't believe in love at first sight, so why does she feel like this? Breathless. Excited. It's just infatuation--right?
At least that's what big-city PR wizard Lani Willilams tells herself when she meets client Chase Cavenaugh: cowboy, hunk and unwilling celebrity. Unwilling? The man's downright obstinate. Dealing with a pack of frenzied tabloid reporters turns out to be the easy part of managing the ex-rodeo star's unexpected fame. A heck of a lot easier than falling in love with him.
All Chase wants is to put the past behind him and tend to his cattle. He didn't ask to become a Western music idol and he certainly didn't intend to open his heart to any more women. If only the media--and Lani--would leave him alone.
But as he beings to suspect, the media will eventually go away. Lani won't. And that might leave this cowboy into some serious trouble...of the heart.
"This entertaining contemporary romance stars two individuals who would be the last pairing anyone would expect, yet Pamela Britton persuades the audience that Lani and Chase make a fine couple. The story line focuses on Chase's aversion to fame that he handles poorly almost as bad as he deals with his desire for Lani. Fans of opposites attract tales will enjoy the big city woman and the rural man although the final compromise seems too easily negotiated." - The Best Reviews
Good thing this was a rental car, Lani Williams thought as she bounced in and out of pothole number nine-thousand-one-hundred and twenty-one, all of which had been the size of her ex-boyfriend's ego, and that was saying quite a lot. At this rate her wheels might fly off the vehicle before she got to the Running L ranch.
"I should have passed on this assignment," she mumbled to herself. "And stayed in New York."
Oh, yeah? And not earned the bonus Mr. Abernathy promised you should you complete the job?
"I could have lived without the money."
Like you have been? What about wishing you had a little cushion on the bank? Besides, at least in California you won't run into Eric the Egomaniac ex-boyfriend.
"Oh, yeah," she answered herself as she rounded a bend. "Forgot."
The small valley she'd just traveled through opened up. She slammed on the brakes, gravel skittering out from beneath her tires, the tiny little rental car that would give a Mini Cooper a run for its money sliding a few feet before coming to a stop.
"Dang," she said, straightening behind the wheel. "I wonder where he hides the moonshine."
She leaned closer to the windshield, feeling the oddest urge to turn on the wipers—as if by doing so it that would swipe away the picture. With the oak-studded hills opening up before her, and a June sun beating down, she had a perfect view of the ranch's ruins. A cabin—because she wouldn't dare to classify it as a house—stood near a stream that had the grand good fortune to out-sparkle everything around it. That house used to be...white, she noted with a squint, but was now as bare of paint and dignity as the big brown barn that stood out behind the barn to the house's left. And yet it was a peaceful scene, with tall oak trees dotting the property, including a giant one to the house's left, it's branches bobbing in a slight breeze.
"I've got my work cut out," she said, pressing down on the accelerator after a shake of her head, branches from the oak trees she crossed beneath flicking shadows in and out of her car as she approached.
A closer look didn't help. After crossing the creek by piloting her car over a pair of board-covered railroad tresses that Lani feared would collapse, she followed a road that ran along a tree-studded creek to her left and pulled to a stop in front of a yard to her right that was in serious need of a herbivore—perhaps some of the cattle that grazed in the pasture out behind the house. As it was, the tall dried grass and overgrown shrubs were a fire hazard. So was the formerly white picket fence whose gate hung off its hinges as if it'd given up hope of ever working again.
"Dang," she said again as she stared out the passenger window.
Bam. The fist hit her driver's window again. Her foot slipped off the clutch, the car stalled with a jerk and caused her seat belt to lock in place. Her whole face flinched as she waited for the airbag to go off.
"Thank goodness," she muttered, blinking at the gray dash.
Her car door opened.
"I beg your pardon," she turned to the person who'd opened it, only to gulp—that was the sound her throat made as she swallowed convulsively—glup, as she got her first view of Chase Cavenaugh. It must be Chase Cavenaugh, she thought, because he fit the description perfectly. Only the generic brown hair and blue eyes used to describe the man was a bit like calling a prized stallion simply a horse.
"Who the heck are you?" he hissed. "Never mind," he said, his eyes the exact color of the blue ribbons she used to win at the Idaho State Fair. "I don't care who you are. Get off my land."
"I—" Her gaze darted from the top of his black cowboy hat to his snug fitting tan chaps and sterling silver belt buckle with a bucking bull on it and some kind of writing. She couldn't help it. Her eyes just went off on their own little thrill-seeking tangent, catching on a certain area that those chaps left exposed—
"Now," he added.
She pulled her gaze back up. To be honest, she'd wanted to meet country music's newest star, even if he didn't exactly want to be that star.
"I can't leave," she finally rearranged her floppy mouth to say. "I'm supposed to be here."
"You're a reporter, aren't you?"
"No," she said, gulping again as he leaned down into her boxy little rental and caught a whiff of not Ralph Lauren, but a me-man-been-working-the-earth musk that sent her hormones into overdrive.
"How'd you get in here? The gate is locked."
"Actually," she said. "It wasn't. In fact, I'm surprised one of the news vans didn't figure that out before I did."
"Get off my land," he said, his square jaw hardening. "I'm not giving any interviews, especially to reporters who trespass."
"I'm not a reporter," she said again. "I work for Abernathy and Cornblum."
"A PR firm."
"A PR firm?"
Lani decided it was time to take control of the situation. Well, all right, perhaps that was slightly optimistic. Chase Cavenaugh was one handsome man.
Jeesh, Lani don't sugarcoat it. He's yummy.
And that yummyness knocked her for a loop. In New York cowboys were a rarity. Oh, she'd seen the odd lot at airports and the like, but she'd never seen the broad shoulder, lean-faced, genuine article before; not this close up, she hadn't. What was more, this cowboy looked like he should grace the cover of those western magazines she'd glimpsed on the kiosk that dotted the aisle of airports—he had a tan beneath his cowboy hat, a deep chest, and face that was highly attractive and utterly masculine. All she could think for a moment was that country music fans—those of the female persuasion—would eat him up.
Yes, but see— That's exactly why she was here, she reminded herself. She was supposed to help him out. To divert the press, or, if Mr. Chaps here decided, to help him with the press should he decide to accept the fame and fortune that had come his way thanks to a song he'd recorded and that a nefarious recording studio had sold out from under him.
She leaned forward to undo her belt. Unfortunately, the thing had locked her in.
"Look," she said, feeling more and more trapped by the minute. She tugged on the seat belt, pulled again, then pulled some more, saying, "I was hired by your friend Scott Beringer," through gritted teeth, each work punctuated by a jerk on the belt. "I'm a publicist."
Forget the belt, she thought, looking back up at him again. "Scott Beringer. Actually, I think it was his wife who came up with the idea. She said you were too stubborn to hire someone yourself so she did it for you," she looked over at the Robinson Crusoe cabin. "And it's a very generous offer, I might add, because my services don't come cheap."
"Amanda Beringer sent you."
"She did," she said, trying to undo the belt again by scrunching as far back as she could, only to have the seat belt click her into an even tighter position. Darn it. Next she pressed the caution-red button impatiently, one, twice, a third time, feeling like she'd been released from bondage when the thing finally popped free. At last. She relaxed, regaining a bit of her dignity now. When she looked up at him again, he still stared down at her.
"She said you needed someone to handle the press, and I'm it."
Mr. Six Shooter for eyes blinked at her a few more times, then popped his head back and straightened, though he was no less intimidating with him standing and her sitting. He even placed his arm across the top of the door frame—casual like—his body relaxing a bit as he slowly leaned forward again. The denim shirt her wore strained around his masculine shoulders as he studied her.
Did he like what he saw?
"Go back home Miss—"
Obviously not. "Williams," she said. "Lani Williams."
His brown eyebrows smooshed together. "Lani?"
"After the television show. WKRP. My mother suffered a delusional hope that if she named me after a tall, buxom blonde, I'd turn out to be a tall buxom blonde. Obviously, it didn't work," she said, referring to her dark hair and green eyes. "I didn't even get the breasts."
How utterly unprofessional. She blushed again, but he...He didn't so much as smile—which might have made her feel a bit better. Perhaps.
The eyebrows straightened out. "Like I said, Miss Williams. Go home. I don't need help from a publicist."
She shook her head in frustration. "But, you see, I can't go home." Because if she did she'd lose out on all the bonus money—but she didn't tell him that. "Mr. and Mrs. Beringer told me to tell you that they hired you, and thus you can't fire me."
"No, but I can kick you out."
Well, now, he wouldn't be the first man. "That's true," she said, lifting her index finger for good measure. "But from what I've seen parked outside your front gate—reporters, news vans, curiosity seekers—you're in deep doo-doo. Mr. Beringer tells me you've had people to the house, helicopters flying overhead, telephone calls. You're in the midst of a media frenzy. Frankly, Mr. Cavenaugh, you needed my help two weeks ago."
He stepped back from the door. Lani took the opportunity to escape from her car, her legs a bit wobbly after all her traveling, and then the half-hour drive from the San Francisco Airport to Los Molina—not because Mr. Cowboy here made her feel weak-kneed. Her black skirt had ridden up, so she tugged it down—casual like—pulling on the hem of her matching black suit coat, too. The spicy odor of dried grass, the peaceful gurgle of the nearby stream, and the low hum of an approaching helicopter caught her unaware.
Chase Cavenaugh heard it, too. Lani watched as he straightened, which made her go back to feeling bloody short again.
"It's that damn photographer again."
"Is it?" she said, her eyes darting all over his hard body. "Would you like me to find out who he's with? To ask him to—" Her words fizzled out as he turned away, his feet—booted, she noted—stomping upon the hard-packed gravel road. "Hey. Where are you going?"
She thought he would ignore her, but he didn't. Oh, no, he paused by the worn gate. "To get my shotgun."
"What?" She leaped after him, grabbed him by a very wide and very hard arm and turned him around again, his feet grinding in the packed earth that served as a walkway up to the house as he did so. "You can't do that."
"Why not? This is my land." He motioned to the brown hills and overgrown yard and then the house. "It'd give me immense satisfaction to see those no good reporters crash to the ground."
"You don't mean that."
"Actually, I think I do."
She shook her head, the pins that held her bun in place tugging at her scalp, making her want to scratch.
"Look. Why don’t we go into your," she glanced at the structure he lived in and tried not to wince, "house where we can discuss this calmly. If that's your friendly photographer approaching, you won't give him a shot if you go inside—" another glance at the dwelling, only this time she added a wave toward it, "—your house. A shot that might be sold to magazines and tabloids so they can splash a headline across it like 'Country Music's Newest Star in Seclusion With Girlfriend', because that's what they would say, even though you and I have never met before today." She glanced up. She could see a white dot that quickly took on the shape of a helicopter. "Or do you mind people thinking you and I are an item?"
He stared at her for a heartbeat longer, then said, "Follow me."
Lani felt hope. She had a foot in the door. Hopefully, that would be enough to convince him to let her stick around.
The day had turned out to be one of the worst of his life, Chase fumed as he wrenched open his front door, the helicopter just about on them, the knob squeaking in protest. Chase looked skyward long enough to see that a man hung out the side of it, a camera pointed down.
"Son of a—" He pulled Lani inside, only to watch her wave a hand in front of her face and cough.
"Loverly," she said over the sound of the thrumming helicopter blades as she inspected the place, her gaze sliding over the worn furniture of his family room. That was all there was—family room to her right, kitchen to her left, bedroom straight ahead. "I see your decorator went for the earthy look."
She had small forearms, the thought popped into his head as he let her go. Really small. "I wasn't expecting visitors."
She didn't answer, just kept glancing around. Her gaze paused on the ancient and scarred hard wood floor.
Chase followed her gaze and spied a pair of his Jockey underwear, the brilliant white in direct contrast to the dusty floor. He bent down, scooping them up and tossing them in the general direction of his room. Outside the helicopter hovered, the windows of his house vibrating with sound.
"Where's my shot gun," he mumbled to himself, scanning the dark interior of his farmhouse.
"You're not serious about shooting it, are you?" she said after stepping on front of him. She was petite, with striking green eyes. And nice smelling hair.
"Shoot at it, no. Point my rifle at it, yes," he said in disgust—at himself for thinking her eyes looked 'striking'. Sounded like a darn fool.
"No," she said grabbing at his arm. She had a lot of strength for one so little. "You can't do that. The press would have a field day if you did."
"I don't care what the press says about me. I just want them away from my land."
He tried to move away again, but the woman had attached herself as stubbornly as a Spring tick. "No, Mr. Cavenaugh, you can't."
"Can't? Lady, nobody says I 'can't' do anything."
"Yes, I can see that about you. But, still, if you point a weapon at it, you'll be brandishing a weapon, and having lived in California before, I know that’s a felony."
"My point being that certain members of the press will use whatever leverage they have to bring your story to the world, including blackmail. Don't give them the opportunity to vilify you, or worse, threaten you."
"Vilify? Lady, last I heard it was still legal to defend your own property."
"Yes, but not without a reason," she said, stepping closer to him. It wasn't her hair that smelled, it was her perfume, the scent a distinct improvement over his musty house. "A helicopter flying overhead is not a reason. Besides, there are other ways to deal with the press," she said, placing her hand against his chest. "That's why the Beringers sent me here."
Flowers. The word popped into Chase's head. She smelled like flowers, and observation that took him by surprise because all his thinking about how she smelled wasn't exactly like him. He didn't usually notice how a woman smelled. Not since Rita had died.
Stepping back from her, he swiped a hand over his jaw, surprised to feel a day's growth of beard. Must have forgotten to shave.
"Be patient," she said. "They'll go away once they realize you're in hiding."
As if they heard her words, the sound of the rotors changed pitch. Chase moved to the water-stained window, his shoulder's relaxing as he flicked aside a worn brown curtain. Leaving. Good.
"There," she said. "You see? All gone."
He turned back to her, crossing his arms. With her hair bound up on her head, wearing that prissy black skirt and jacket, she looked like a woman who'd been dropped into his tiny family room by accident. Heck, he thought to himself, this whole day's been an accident. No, the whole month. Hell, who’d have believed a song he’d written and recorded in the privacy of a small studio could be sold out from under him and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it? If Rita were still alive, she'd be outraged, too. So would his former rodeo friends, especially Buck. But remembering the friends he'd lost only upset him all the more. The whole damn thing had blown up in his face, and worse, music that he wanted to forget about was being blasted in households across the nation.
"Look, I appreciate your wanting to help—"
"I don't want to help, Mr. Cavenaugh, I was hired to help. By your friends."
"Hired or no, I can deal with this myself. The attorneys I've hired have promised me they'll have the album pulled within a week. In the mean time, I can deal with the matter from the business end of a shotgun. Or an Uzi. Or a flame thrower."
"Can you?" she asked in a low voice. "You don't seem to be handling it so far."
"Lady, I'm a six time all around world champion rodeo rider. I can handle anything."
"I don't doubt that you used to charm the skirts off the female reporters who followed your career as a cowboy. But to paraphrase from a famous movie, 'Toto, you're not in Kansas anymore'. You have no idea what it's like to be nationally famous—not just a momentary blimp on the media's radar, but truly, really famous. This album you recorded, the one that's zooming up the charts, it's caused a national sensation, especially since the story broke that you're trying to get it pulled from the air. America is fascinated by a man who doesn't want to be famous, but who suddenly finds that he is, and who has such a unique voice."
She lifted her hand, bobbing it along with her words, "Ex professional cowboy hits it big with an album he recorded years ago." Her hands dropped to her sides. "They're eating it up."
The word made him stiffen. Yeah, he could see how people would think of it that way. But the fact of the matter was, he'd recorded the songs a long time ago—heck, he'd even sold a few copies of the CD to his rodeo pals. But that was a different Chase Cavenaugh. Now he didn't want a thing to do with fame, and the notoriety that goes along with it.
"Look, whether you choose to follow the path of fame and fortune is up to you, Mr. Cavenaugh, but I'm here to help you deal with it in the interim. I'm here to point out to you that your very recalcitrance to speak to the press has made you even more of a story. People want to know what you're thinking. They want to know how it feels to hit it big. To hear your thoughts on the album being released without your approval. The fact that you haven't spoken makes their desire burn even more."
"Unbelievable," Chase muttered, swiping his face again.
"It's a slow news week and this is a terrific human interest story."
"There's nothing interesting about it," he mumbled.
"I heard tell you had to call the sheriff to get the news vans away from the house. And that you've had to change your phone number. That you're afraid of going into town."
"What? That's a bunch of B.S.."
"I was planning on going into to town today, as a matter of fact."
"That wouldn't be wise, Mr. Cavanaugh. They'll follow you to Los Molina. But if you drop me at the front gate, I'll deal with them. You can go away. Leave town—"
"I can't leave the ranch. Or did it escape your notice that I have a couple hundred head of cattle to feed?"
"Is that what that smell is?"
He narrowed his eyes.
She gave him a smile. "I'm joking, Mr. Cavenaugh—Chase," she quickly corrected. "Since you can't leave, I think it's all the more reason for me to stay. You need my help, whether you like it or not."
But as Chase stared down at her smiling face he realized he didn't want her to stick around—and not because of the mess he found himself in. No, he admitted with a stab of shock. He didn't want her around because darn it all to hell, he was attracted to her.