Duncan's Bride(10)

By: Linda Howard



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They had left Billings far behind before he spoke again. "Are you hungry? If you are, there's a cafe at the crossroads up ahead."

"No, thank you," Madelyn replied a bit dreamily as she stared at the wide vista of countryside around her. She was used to enormous buildings, but suddenly they seemed puny in comparison with this endless expanse of earth and sky. It made her feel both insignificant and fresh, as if her life were just starting now. "How far is it to your ranch?"

"About a hundred and twenty miles. It'll take us almost three hours to get there." She blinked, astonished at the distance. She hadn't realized how much effort it was for him to come to Billings to meet her. "Do you go to Billings often?"

He glanced at her, wondering if she was trying to find out how much he isolated himself on the ranch. "No," he said briefly. "So this is a special trip?"

"I did some business this morning, too." He'd stopped by the bank to give his loan officer the newest figures on the ranch's projected income for the coming year. Right now, it looked better than it had in a long time. He was still flat broke, but he could see daylight now. The banker had been pleased.

Madelyn looked at him with concern darkening her gray eyes. "So you've been on the road since about dawn." "About that." "You must be tired."

"You get used to early hours on a ranch. I'm up before dawn every day." She looked around again. "I don't know why anyone would stay in bed and miss dawn out here. It must be wonderful."

Reese thought about it. He could remember how spectacular the dawns were, but it had been a long while since he'd had the time to notice one. "Like everything else, you get used to them. I know for a fact that there are dawns in New York, too."

She chuckled at his dry tone. "I seem to remember them, but my apartment faces to the west. I see sunsets, not dawns."

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that they would watch a lot of dawns together, but common sense stopped him. The only dawn they would have in common would be the next day. She wasn't the woman he would choose for a wife.

He reached into his shirt pocket and got out the pack of cigarettes that always resided there, shaking one free and drawing it the rest of the way out with his lips. As he dug in his jeans pocket for his lighter he heard her say incredulously, "You smoke!" Swift irritation rose in him. From the tone of her voice you would have thought she had caught him kicking puppies, or something else equally repulsive. He lit the cigarette and blew smoke into the cab. "Yeah," he said. "Do you mind?" He made it plain from his tone of voice that, since it was his truck, he was damn well going to smoke in it.

Madelyn faced forward again. "If you mean, does the smoke bother me, the answer is no. I just hate to see anyone smoking. It's like playing Russian roulette with your life." "Exactly. It's my life."

She bit her lip at his curtness. Great going, she thought. That's a good way to get to know someone, attack his personal habits.

"I'm sorry," she apologized with sincerity. "It's none of my business, and I shouldn't have said anything. It just startled me."

"Why? People smoke. Or don't you associate with anyone who smokes?'

She thought a minute, treating his sarcastic remark seriously. "Not really. Some of our clients smoke, but none of my personal friends do. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and she was very old-fashioned about the vices. I was taught never to swear, smoke or drink spirits. I've never smoked," she said righteously.

Despite his irritation, he found himself trying not to laugh. "Does that mean you swear and drink spirits?"

"I've been known to be a bit aggressive in my language in moments of stress," she allowed. Her eyes twinkled at him. "And Grandma Lily thought it was perfectly suitable for a lady to take an occasional glass of wine, medicinally, of course. During my college days, I also swilled beer."

"Swilled?"

"There's no other word to describe a college student's drinking manners." Remembering his own college days, he had to agree. "But I don't enjoy spirits," she continued. "So I'd say at least half of Grandma Lily's teachings stuck. Not bad odds."

"Did she have any rules against gambling?" Madelyn looked at him, her mouth both wry and tender, gray eyes full of a strange acceptance. "Grandma Lily believed that life is a gamble, and everyone has to take their chances. Sometimes you bust, sometimes you break the house." It was an outlook she had passed on to her granddaughter. Otherwise, Madelyn thought, why would she be sitting here in a pickup truck, in the process of falling in love with a stranger?

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