The Rancher's Wedding by Diana Palmer



THE SNOW MAN

AMELIA





To my friend Tara Gavin,

who has been with me through many adventures.

And to her lovely daughters,

Emma Grace and Mary Margaret,

who seem like part of my family, too.





Chapter One

Cassie Reed wondered why none of the other protesters had shown up at this ranch, where they were supposed to be picketing. At the restaurant where she was a waitress, one of the customers who flirted with her had told her horror stories about this place.

This rancher had three big chicken houses, the cowboy said, and he kept lights on all night so that the poor chickens would be forced to lay over and over again, without rest. It was just sad, he said. So he and some of the other men who worked on ranches near Benton, Colorado, were going to form a picket line and show Big Jack Denton that he couldn’t get away with animal cruelty in this small community.

Cassie, who’d recently moved to Benton from a house north of Atlanta, on a huge lake, was shocked that such a thing would be tolerated. Couldn’t the cowboy just call the local animal control people? He’d replied that they didn’t have one. There was a county shelter, but it was hard to get people to go against Big Jack, who had a reputation locally for his hot temper. So if they picketed, maybe some newspaper or television station would come and do a story and put him out of business. The thought of newspaper coverage gave her pause, but after all, this was Colorado. Neither Cassie nor her father were known here. That was a blessing, after the tragedy they’d sustained.

Her customer, whose name was Cary, said that she could join them, if she liked; they were protesting on Saturday morning. She’d agreed that she’d love to help. Her father had been skeptical, but she’d convinced him to drop her off at the entrance to the ranch. There would be lots of people, she assured him, and she’d phone him when he needed to come and get her. He was off on Saturday from his job at the local farm supply store, where he sold heavy equipment like harvesters and irrigation equipment. He’d gotten the job through an acquaintance. He couldn’t go on living in New York City after the scandal. He wanted a change. He’d lost his wife, Cassie’s mother, as well as a fabulous, well-paying job. The scandal had cost him. The stigma was so great that he and his daughter had moved across the country in the hope that they wouldn’t be hounded by reporters anymore.

His full name was Lanier Roger Reed, but a lot of people would recognize that first name, with the story so fresh. So he used his middle name instead, hoping that in a small town like Benton, he would go unnoticed.

Colorado seemed like a nice place, and her father got along well with Bill Clay, the man who owned the agricultural equipment business. Cassie and her father had found a house and she’d lucked out finding an open job at the town’s only restaurant, the Gray Dove, waitressing. It wasn’t her true profession, but she had to take what she could get for the time being.

So here she was, several weeks after starting her new job, and she wondered if she’d left her mind back in Georgia. It was insane to be standing out here all alone in the driving rain. Because it was raining. Not only raining, sleeting. Her father had left her reluctantly. She had a coat, but it was better suited for Georgia’s warmer climate, not freezing Colorado weather. Winter here was harsher than she’d expected, and her light coat wasn’t doing much good. Her fingers were freezing as she carried the homemade sign that read CHICKENS SHOULDN’T BE MISTREATED! Her feet were freezing, too. What had seemed like a good idea in the warm restaurant was looking like foolhardiness in the face of icy winter.

She shivered. Surely the other picketers would eventually show up! Nobody was anywhere around. There wasn’t even any traffic on this back road. There was a sign that read DENTON BAR D RANCH, and an odd-looking symbol that was probably his registered cattle brand. No cowboys were in sight, either. Maybe they were gathering eggs in those warm chicken houses.

She paced and marched some more, unaware of a security camera that was recording her every move.

Minutes later, a big burgundy luxury SUV pulled up at the gate and the engine died. The door opened.

A big man in denim and a shepherd’s coat with a black Stetson slanted over one eye and big boots peering out from under thick denim jeans stood looking at her incredulously.

“Do you . . . work here?” she asked, her teeth chattering as she shivered.

“Sort of. What are you doing?” he asked in a deep, amused voice.