Unlikely Lover, page 1
“The boss is fading fast. His last request is that a writer compose his memoirs” was Aunt Lillian’s plea. Helping the elderly oilman seemed natural to Mari. But Ward Jessup was anything but old and sickly….
“Poor little Mari,” her aunt fretted. “I’m worried about her state of mind-deep emotional scars.” Ward’s sympathy went out to Lillian’s niece, and he invited Mari to the ranch. But the woman who arrived was hardly a helpless little girl….
Though they knew they had been tricked, neither could fight the power of Cupid’s magic arrow.
Also by Diana Palmer
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Heart of Winter
The Texas Ranger
Lord of the Desert
The Cowboy and the Lady
Fit for a King
Rage of Passion
Once in Paris
After the Music
Roomful of Roses
Friends and Lovers
The Rawhide Man
Her Kind of Hero
Ward Jessup went to the supper table rubbing his big hands together, his green eyes like dark emeralds in a face like a Roman’s, perfectly sculpted under hair as thick and black as crow feathers. He was enormously tall, big and rangy looking, with an inborn elegance and grace that came from his British ancestors. But Ward himself was all-American. All Oklahoman, with a trace of Cherokee and a sprinkling of Irish that gave him his taciturn stubbornness and his cutting temper, respectively.
“You look mighty proud of yourself,” Lillian huffed, bringing in platters of beef and potatoes and yeast rolls.
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked. “Things are going pretty well. Grandmother’s leaving, did she tell you? She’s going to stay with my sister. Lucky, lucky Belinda!”
Lillian lifted her eyes to the ceiling. “I must have pleased you, Lord, for all my prayers to be so suddenly answered,” she said.
Ward chuckled as he reached for the platter of sliced roast beef. “I thought you two were great buddies.”
“And we stay that way as long as I run fast, keep my mouth shut and pretend that I like cooking five meals at a time.”
“She may come back.”
“I’ll quit,” was the gruff reply. “She’s only been here four months, and I’m ready to apply for that cookhouse job over at Wade’s.”
“You’d wind up in the house with Conchita, helping to look after the twins,” he returned.
She grinned, just for an instant. Could have been a muscle spasm, he thought.
“I like kids.” Lillian glared at him, brushing back wiry strands of gray hair that seemed to match her hatchet nose, long chin and beady little black eyes. “Why don’t you get married and have some?” she added.
His thick eyebrows raised a little. They were perfect like his nose, even his mouth. He was handsome. He could have had a dozen women by crooking his finger, but he dated only occasionally, and he never brought women home. He never got serious, either. He hadn’t since that Caroline person had almost led him to the altar, only to turn around at the last minute and marry his cousin Bud, thinking that, because Bud’s last name was Jessup, he’d do as well as Ward. Besides, Bud was much easier to manage. The marriage had only lasted a few weeks, however, just until Bud had discovered that Caroline’s main interest was in how much of his small inheritance she could spend on herself. He had divorced her, and she had come rushing back to Ward, all in tears. But somewhere along the way Ward had opened his eyes. He’d shown her the door, tears and all, and that was the last time he’d shown any warmth toward anything in skirts.
“What would I do with kids?” he asked. “Look what it’s done to Tyson Wade, for God’s sake. There he was, a contented bachelor making money hand over fist. He married that model and lost everything—”
“He got everything back, with interest,” Lillian interrupted, “and you say one more word about Miss Erin and I’ll scald you, so help me!”
He shrugged. “Well, she is pretty. Nice twins, too. They look a little like Ty.”
“Poor old thing,” Lillian said gently. “He was homely as sin and all alone and meaner than a tickled rattlesnake. And now here he’s made his peace with you and even let you have those oil leases you’ve been after for ten years. Yes sir, love sure is a miracle,” she added with a purely calculating look.
He shivered. “Talking about it gives me hives. Talk about something else.” He was filling his plate and nibbling between comments.
Lillian folded her hands in front of her, hesitating, but only for an instant. “I’ve got a problem.”
“I know. Grandmother.”
“A bigger one.”
He stopped eating and looked up. She did seem to be worried. He laid down his fork. “Well? What’s the problem?”
She shifted from one foot to the other. “My brother’s eldest girl, Marianne,” she said. “Ben died last year, you remember.”
“Yes. You went to his funeral. His wife died years earlier, didn’t she?”
Lillian nodded. “Well, Marianne and her best friend, Beth, went shopping at one of those all-night department store sales. On their way out, as they crossed the parking lot, a man tried to attack them. It was terrible,” she continued huskily. “Terrible! The girls were just sickened by the whole experience!” She lowered her voice just enough to sound dramatic. “It left deep scars. Deep emotional scars,” she added meaningfully, watching to see how he was reacting. So far, so good.
He sat up straighter, listening. “Your niece will be all right, won’t she?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes. She’s all right physically.” She twisted her skirt. “But it’s her state of mind that I’m worried about.”
“Marianne…” He nodded, remembering a photograph he’d seen of Lillian’s favorite niece. A vivid impression of long dark hair and soft blue eyes and an oval, vulnerable young face brought a momentary smile to his lips.
“She’s no raving beauty, and frankly, she hasn’t dated very much. Her father was one of those domineering types whose reputation kept the boys away from her when she lived at home. But now…” She sighed even more dramatically. “Poor little Mari.” She glanced up. “She’s been keeping the books for a big garage. Mostly men. She said it’s gotten to the point that if a man comes close enough to open a door for her, she breaks out in a cold sweat. She needs to get away for a little while, out of the city, and get her life back together.”
“Poor kid,” he said, sincere yet cautious.
“She’s almost twenty-two,” Lillian said. “What’s going to become of her?” she asked loudly, peeking out the corner of her eye at him.
He whistled softly. “Therapy would be her best bet.”
“She won’t talk to anyone,” she said quickly, cocking her head to one side. “Now, I know how you feel about women. I don’t even blame you. But I can’t turn my back on my
“Oh, for God’s sake, you know me better than that after fifteen years,” he returned curtly. “Send her an airline ticket.”
“She’s in Georgia—”
Lillian toyed with a pan of rolls. “Well, thanks. I’ll make it up to you somehow,” she said with a secretive grin.
“If you’re feeling that generous, how about an apple pie?”
The older woman chuckled. “Thirty minutes,” she said and dashed off to the kitchen like a woman half her age. She could have danced with glee. He’d fallen for it! Stage one was about to take off! Forgive me, Mari, she thought silently and began planning again.
Ward stared after her with confused emotions. He hoped that he’d made the right decision. Maybe he was just going soft in his old age. Maybe…
“My bed was more uncomfortable than a sheet filled with cacti,” came a harsh, angry old voice from the doorway. He turned as his grandmother ambled in using her cane, broad as a beam and as formidable as a raiding party, all cold green eyes and sagging jowls and champagnetinted hair that waved around her wide face.
“Why don’t you sleep in the stable?” he asked her pleasantly. “Hay’s comfortable.”
She glared at him and waved her cane. “Shame on you, talking like that to a pitiful old woman!”
“I pity anyone who stands within striking distance of that cane,” he assured her. “When do you leave for Galveston?”
“Can’t wait to get rid of me, can you?” she demanded as she slid warily into a chair beside him.
“Oh, no,” he assured her. “I’ll miss you like the plague.”
“You cowhand,” she grumbled, glaring at him. “Just like your father. He was hell to live with, too.”
“You sweet-tempered little woman,” he taunted.
“I guess you get that wit from your father. And he got it from me,” she confessed. She poured herself a cup of coffee. “I hope Belinda is easier to get along with than you and your saber-toothed housekeeper.”
“I am not saber-toothed,” Lillian assured her as she brought in more rolls.
“You are so,” Mrs. Jessup replied curtly. “In my day we’d have lynched you on a mesquite tree for insubordination!”
“In your day you’d have been hanging beside me,” Lillian snorted and walked out.
“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” Mrs. Jessup demanded of her grandson.
“You surely don’t want me to walk into that kitchen alone?” he asked her. “She keeps knives in there.” He lowered his voice and leaned toward her. “And a sausage grinder. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Mrs. Jessup tried not to laugh, but she couldn’t help herself. She hit at him affectionately. “Reprobate. Why do I put up with you?”
“You can’t help yourself,” he said with a chuckle. “Eat. You can’t travel halfway across Texas on an empty stomach.”
She put down her coffee cup. “Are you sure this night flight is a good idea?”
“It’s less crowded. Besides, Belinda and her newest boyfriend are going to meet you at the airport,” he said. “You’ll be safe.”
“I guess so.” She stared at the platter of beef that was slowly being emptied. “Give me some of that before you gorge yourself!”
“It’s my cow,” he muttered, green eyes glittering.
“It descended from one of mine. Give it here!”
Ward sighed, defeated. Handing the platter to her with a resigned expression, he watched her beam with the tiny triumph. He had to humor her just a little occasionally. It kept her from getting too crotchety.
Later he drove her to the airport and put her on a plane. As he went back toward his ranch, he wondered about Marianne Raymond and how it was going to be with a young woman around the place getting in his hair. Of course, she was just twenty-two, much too young for him. He was thirty-five now, too old for that kind of child-woman. He shook his head. He only hoped that he’d done the right thing. If he hadn’t, things were sure going to be complicated from now on. At one time Lillian’s incessant matchmaking had driven him nuts before he’d managed to stop her, though she still harped on his unnatural attitude toward marriage. If only she’d let him alone and stop mothering him! That was the trouble with people who’d worked for you almost half your life, he muttered to himself. They felt obliged to take care of you in spite of your own wishes.
He stared across the pastures at the oil rigs as he eased his elegant white Chrysler onto the highway near Ravine, Texas. His rigs. He’d come a long damned way from the old days spent working on those rigs. His father had dreamed of finding that one big well, but it was Ward who’d done it. He’d borrowed as much as he could and put everything on one big gamble with a friend. And his well had come in. He and the friend had equal shares in it, and they’d long since split up and gone in different directions. When it came to business, Ward Jessup could be ruthless and calculating. He had a shrewd mind and a hard heart, and some of his enemies had been heard to say that he’d foreclose on a starving widow if she owed him money.
That wasn’t quite true, but it was close. He’d grown up poor, dirt poor, as his grandmother had good reason to remember. The family had been looked down on for a long time because of Ward’s mother. She’d tired of her boring life on the ranch with her two children and had run off with a neighbor’s husband, leaving the children for her stunned husband and mother-in-law to raise. Later she’d divorced Ward’s father and remarried, but the children had never heard from her again. In a small community like Ravine the scandal had been hard to live down. Worse, just a little later, Ward’s father had gone out into the south forty one autumn day with a rifle in his hand and hadn’t come home again.
He hadn’t left a note or even seemed depressed. They’d found him slumped beside his pickup truck, clutching a piece of ribbon that had belonged to his wife. Ward had never forgotten his father’s death, had never forgiven his mother for causing it.
Later, when he’d fallen into Caroline’s sweet trap, Ward Jessup had learned the final lesson. These days he had a reputation for breaking hearts, and it wasn’t far from the mark. He had come to hate women. Every time he felt tempted to let his emotions show, he remembered his mother and Caroline. And day by day he became even more embittered. He liked to remember Caroline’s face when he’d told her he didn’t want her anymore, that he could go on happily all by himself. She’d curled against him with her big black eyes so loving in that face like rice paper and her blond hair cascading like yellow silk down her back. But he’d seen past the beauty to the ugliness, and he never wanted to get that close to a woman again. He’d seen graphically how big a fool the most sensible man could become when a shrewd woman got hold of him. Nope, he told himself. Never again. He’d learned from his mistake. He wouldn’t be that stupid a second time.
He pulled into the long driveway of Three Forks and smiled at the live oaks that lined it, thinking of all the history there was in this big, lusty spread of land. He might live and die without an heir, but he’d sure enjoy himself until that time came.
He wondered if Tyson Wade was regretting his decision to lease the pastureland so that Ward could look for the oil that he sensed was there. He and Ty had been enemies for so many years—almost since boyhood—although the reason for all the animosity had long been forgotten in the heat of the continuing battle over property lines, oil rigs and just about everything else.
Ty Wade had changed since his marriage. He’d mellowed, becoming a far cry from the renegade who’d just as soon have started a brawl as talk business. Amazing that a beautiful woman like Erin had agreed to marry the man in the first place. Ty was no pretty boy. In fact, to Ward Jessup, the man looked downright homely. But maybe he had hidden qualities.
Ward grinned at that thought. He wouldn’t begrudge his old enemy a little happiness, not since he’d picked up thos
Marianne Raymond didn’t know what to expect when she landed at the San Antonio airport. She knew that Ravine was quite a distance away, and her Aunt Lillian had said that someone would meet her. But what if no one did? Her blue eyes curiously searched the interior of the airport. Aunt Lillian’s plea for her to visit had been so unusual, so…odd. Poor old Mr. Jessup, she thought, shaking her head. Poor brave man. Dying of that incurable disease, and Aunt Lillian so determined to make his last days happy. Mari had been delighted to come, to help out. Her vacation was overdue, and the manager of the big garage where she kept the books and wrote the occasional letter had promised that they could do without her for a week or so. Mr. Jessup wanted young people around, he’d told Lillian. Some cheerful company and someone to help him write his memoirs. That would be right up Mari’s alley. She’d actually done some feature articles for a local newspaper, and she had literary ambitions, too.
Someday Mari was going to be a novelist. She’d promised herself that. She wrote a portion of her book every night. The story involved a poor city girl who was assaulted by a vicious gang leader and had nightmares about her horrible assailant. She’d told Aunt Lillian the plot over the phone just recently, and the older woman had been delighted with it. Mari wondered about her aunt’s sudden enthusiasm because Lillian had never been particularly interested in anything except getting her married off to any likely candidate who came along. After her father’s death, especially. The only reason she’d agreed to come down to Ravine was because of poor old Mr. Jessup. At least she could be sure that Aunt Lillian wasn’t trying to marry her off to him!
Mari pushed back her hair. It was short now, a twenties-style pageboy with bangs, and it emphasized the rosy oval of her face. She was wearing a simple dropped-waist dress in blue-and-white stripes and carrying only a roly-poly piece of luggage, which contained barely enough clothes to get her through one week.
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