Galen Chacon Callahan looked over Rancho Diablo, where dark smoke filled the sky above the canyons with smudges of black. He put his binoculars to his eyes, studying the smoke as it grew and thickened.
He turned as his sister, Ashlyn, drove up in the jeep. “It’s not a wildfire,” she said.
“No.” Rancho Diablo was safely separated from the fire by the canyons, but if someone was sending up signals near the expansive ranch, it would be a message the Callahans couldn’t ignore. “It’s the land Storm Cash has offered to sell us.”
“I know. I wonder if the elderly farmer who sold that land to Storm still lives there.” She studied Galen’s face. “Think we should ride over and check on him?”
“I’ll call the sheriff. He can alert the proper authorities. I think it’s best if we stay out of it for now.” He was troubled by the fire, and an uneasy feeling was growing in the pit of his stomach. “I’m heading back.”
“I’ll stay here a bit longer.”
“Got your gun?” Galen asked, knowing full well that Ash could take care of herself. He could order her back to the ranch—should order her—but she’d just ignore him. Probably give him a blistering retort to send him on his way as well.
“When do I not have my gun?” Ash didn’t even bother to glance at him. Her eyes were glued to the horizon.
“Don’t go over there.”
“I won’t. Quit fussing. You’re like a mother hen.” Ash finally turned to look him in the eye. “By the way, the new agents are at the house, waiting for you to interview them.”
“The ones to replace Ana and River. Jace lined them up every hour on the hour for interviews. Remember we agreed we needed new agents? Sawyer Cash can’t handle everything on her own. And anyway,” Ash muttered under her breath, though he could plainly hear every word of her complaint, “I’m not exactly sure she’s capable of handling anything.”
He’d listened to all the negative things the Callahan clan said about Sawyer, and he couldn’t say there wasn’t real reason for concern. She was Storm Cash’s niece, after all, and they’d never been certain if they could trust their wily neighbor. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the right time. “Maybe we’re just being suspicious,” Galen said.
“There’s no such thing as too much caution.”
“I know. I’m heading off. Be careful. Don’t invite trouble.” Even though he knew Ash was more than capable of protecting not just herself, but the ranch, Galen couldn’t help leaving his sister with that warning before riding toward Rancho Diablo’s main house. After last month, when their aunt Fiona blew up Uncle Wolf’s hideout in Montana, he and his brothers had decided that the women in their family had earned their stripes. They could more than take care of themselves. Ash, like the rest of them, had been in the military, a trained operative. She was as tough as any male Callahan. Tougher, maybe. And so he and his five brothers had finally decided that their overprotective attitude toward their baby sister was accomplishing nothing and was detrimental to their family harmony.
Ash had never listened to anyone’s concerns, anyway. Like Fiona, and the women who’d married into the Callahan family, she did what she wanted—which was mostly chase Xav Phillips, a family employee who rode the canyons and kept an eye out for trespassers.
Galen was pretty sure Ash caught him on occasion, too.
He was so busy pondering the smoke in the canyons and his platinum-haired baby sister that he almost missed the rider heading his way. A brunette he didn’t recognize rode up on a gray horse.
“Hi,” she said, smiling, as if it was every day strange women appeared at Rancho Diablo.
“Hello?” He swallowed, peering into the dark green eyes smiling at him from under a white cowgirl hat.
Her smile turned sweeter, somehow sexy. Galen tried to pull his brain back from the alluring abyss into which it was threatening to fall. “My name’s Somer Stevens. I’m here to apply for the agent position.”
“I believe the agents are supposed to be waiting for their interviews up at the house.”
“There are ten candidates over there right now. It’s not every day that an opening comes up for a position at Rancho Diablo.” Somer winked conspiratorially. “I figured I’d better take a look around before I decided whether I belong here or not.”
He frowned. “My brothers were going to show everyone around.”
“Yes, but if I’d waited for the canned tour, I wouldn’t have gotten to speak to you directly.”
Direct. Assertive. These were valuable traits in someone working for the Callahans. Most likely he would’ve done the same thing, if he’d been in her shoes. But he wasn’t, and he was going to let her know that stroking his ego wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
This one wasn’t getting the job. Somer didn’t follow directions, and she made him sweat. She wore dark blue pants and a blue jacket, all very proper for an interview; she had a great horse and a lot of attitude, yet something told him Somer was nothing but trouble.
And he never ignored his instincts.
Unusual moment number two of Galen’s day was when he walked into the massive den at Rancho Diablo, looking for Fiona and the others. He wanted to corral his brothers into the upstairs library, where they always held their meetings, so he could set a game plan before they began interviewing. Galen wanted to apprise his brothers of Somer’s tactic, and make certain she didn’t win her way into the job by pulling the same thing on them that she had on him.
He gawked at the woman sitting demurely in the den, recognizing her from one of Fiona’s many Christmas balls in Diablo. She wore a gypsy costume and flashed a big smile he found irresistible. “I believe I know you.”
“I’m Rose Carstairs.” She shook his hand, and it was crazy how much he enjoyed feeling her small hand in his. “You were there the night Dante was raffled off. Will it be your turn this year?”
He found himself transfixed by her costume, which consisted of a flouncy black skirt that fell to her knees, a fluffy white blouse, lots of dangling chains around her neck and huge hoop earrings. She wore many thin bracelets, and her blond hair was swept up in a bouncy ponytail, topped by a red rose. “That’s some outfit you’re wearing.”
“I’m here to apply for the bodyguard position.”
Galen laughed. “You don’t look the type.”
“Isn’t that the point?”
He watched her full lips curve into a smile. Appreciated the sparkle in her blue eyes. “I don’t see how you’d blend into the background, gorgeous.”
“Hello, Galen,” Aunt Fiona said, bustling into the den. “Don’t stand there monopolizing the talent, please. You have interviews waiting.”
“The talent?” He looked at Rose.
“I see you’ve met Rose,” Fiona said. “She’s applying for the nanny position.”
“Ah. The nanny position.” Galen took a second look at her shapely calves, her flat black, practical shoes, and the laughter in Rose’s eyes. “I should have known.”
“Come on, dear,” Fiona said, “before Galen hires you to be his personal bodyguard. Goodness, Galen, get a move on. You need to change, look like a respectable employer.”
Rose grinned at him. “Good luck.”
“Good luck to you. Nice to meet you, Rose.” He went off, forcing himself not to watch her curvy backside as she followed Fiona out of the room. It was clear his aunt was interested in hiring her. He didn’t think his brothers would get a thing done with Rose around. The scenery would be just too tempting.
Then it occurred to him that he and Jace were the only bachelors left at Rancho Diablo. Sawyer was doing her best to monopolize Jace, though Galen wasn’t certain how effective her barrage of attention was on his brother’s single status.
But that left him as the lone available Callahan. The Lone Ranger of Rancho Diablo.
Neither Rose nor Somer might make the cut with his five brothers and headstrong sister. His brothers were dumb as woolly mammoths, and his sister, well, Ash was unpredictable at best. Her mind stayed on Xav Phillips. She could go thumbs-up or thumbs-down on either woman. Plus there were a number of other applicants.
He was thumbs-way-up-high on Rose.
He’d just let the situation develop and hope that Rose and her playful, kid-friendly gypsy costume were voted yes by the family council. There was something so sexy and darling about a woman who came dressed to play.
Jace followed Galen into the upstairs library for the meeting.. “Did you see that woman from the Christmas ball year before last showed up?”
“I did.” Galen ignored his brother while he dug through some paperwork. “Let’s lay out our battle plan. We need a new strategy, or have to improve on the old one. Something has to change.”
“I might ask her out,” Jace said. “You know, she’s from Tempest. Not that far down the road—and we’ve got family and friends there. Our cousins have the Dark Diablo ranch in Tempest. It’s a nice place. And Rose is probably a real nice gal. Looks like it, anyway.” He grinned at his brother.
Galen hesitated, suddenly losing interest in the stack of papers. “Why?”
“She’s hot as an oven, dude.”
Galen swallowed. “Poetic.”
“I know, right?” Jace grinned, pleased with his announcement. “If Fiona hires her, I’m definitely going to think about it.”
“I almost hate to ask, and we do have greater matters to discuss other than your love life, but don’t you and Sawyer have kind of a secret thing going on?”
Jace shrugged. “If it’s a secret, why are you asking? And no, we don’t. Sawyer is a pretty girl. That’s all. I think she flirts with all the guys. She’d probably flirt with you, if you’d unbend.”
Galen decided he didn’t care about Jace’s love life. “Whatever.”
“Why? Do you want to ask Rose out?”
“No, I don’t.” Damn straight I do.
“Because if you want to,” Jace said, like a dog with a juicy bone, “I wouldn’t stand in the way. I wouldn’t want to make you look bad. You’re not getting any younger, old-timer.”
“As if you could make me look bad.” Galen glanced toward the door. “Where’s the rest of the team?”
“I think they saw the other candidates and stopped to chat. I, on the other hand, stick to the assignment.” Jace poured himself a whiskey with a huge grin. “What’s up with your face, bro? Look like you have a stomachache. Need a soother?” He waved the bottle Galen’s way.
“I do not need a soother.” He sat on a sofa, dismissing his brother, and pondered what he should say about Somer. She’d definitely gone after the job, and he felt vaguely uneasy about her aggressiveness. He was the eldest Callahan, a doctor, a man who believed that fate and hard work brought many gifts. Why should Somer bother him so much?
“One of the candidates took off by herself to tour the ranch,” Galen said.
“Oh.” Jace seated himself at the opposite end of the sofa. “The tall, hot brunette? I think I heard Fiona tell her to go let her horse have some exercise. She pointed her in your direction, knowing the two of you would meet up. Fiona would never send a female onto the ranch without protection, but she knew you were on your way back, and that Ash was out there, too.”
Now that made more sense. Aunt Fiona’s fey mind at work, probably culling the tempting beauties from the herd and dangling them in front of the remaining single Callahans. “Why’d she bring her own horse?”
“Probably because she’d be expected to ride here? This is a ranch, you know.”
It all sounded reasonable.
“Gorgeous piece of flesh, if you ask me.” Jace’s grin was so irritating Galen wished he could bean him one across the head as he had when they were children. He’d given up beaning his siblings when they went off to boot camp.
“Are you planning on asking her out or not?” Galen asked.
Jace gave him an annoyed look. “The horse was a gorgeous piece of horseflesh,” he said, emphasizing the word as if Galen were stupid. Then he grinned again. “Galen, my brother, has a woman finally walked into your path that stirs your quiet, hard-to-reach soul?”
“No,” he said, thinking, Yes, that petite blonde with big eyes, but I’m not about to give you anything to crow about.
The rest of their brothers filed in, as well as Ash, whose grin was big as the quarter moon.
“What’s going on with the fire?” Galen asked her.
“Sheriff says he’s got men over there checking it out. We’ll know soon enough.”
He studied his brothers, grateful that he’d been able to keep them on the right path, the path of men committed to the fight. Strong, brave, true. Of course, Grandfather Running Bear had set the path for all of them. When their parents had gone away from the tribe, Galen returned home from his medical studies and raised his brothers and sister. They’d been a headstrong bunch, fierce and courageous. All of them had opted to join the military—and then retired to quiet lives. Then Running Bear had reached out with his astonishing instructions that they come to Rancho Diablo and protect cousins they’d never known they had. Protect a heritage they’d never known was theirs.
That decision had been the turning point that marked them all, and changed their lives.
“Excuse me,” Fiona said. Their aunt poked her head into the library. “I know the family meetings are sacred, but Rose is about to head back to Tempest. Are there any objections to her being hired on here?”
Jace looked at him. “Yes, Galen, are there any objections?”
Galen grimaced. “Why would I care who is hired as a nanny here? I don’t have children.”
“Well, you always seem to have an opinion about everything, relevant or not,” Fiona replied. “And you’ve met Rose before, so I just wanted to make certain there’d be no awkwardness. Awkwardness is bad when we all live as closely as we do.”
His frown deepened. “Why would I feel awkward around Rose? I barely know her.”
The rest of the family was quick to sense that something was in the air.
“Are we roasting Galen about something, Aunt Fiona?” Ash asked.
“No. Just making sure his highness is consulted about the new hires.” Fiona looked pleased with her jibe.
“Ah,” Dante said, “you’re trying not to get on his bad side by hiring Rose.” He nodded wisely, as if he understood the entire situation. Galen felt pretty much in the dark. “So, Galen, what do you think about the new girl?”
Galen cleared his throat, realizing his family had him pinned against the wall. If he let on that he did have a weakness for Rose, there would be incessant teasing and subtle ribbing. “I couldn’t care less who is hired on at Rancho Diablo.” He pondered his words for a moment. “Though I do admit I’m not certain about Somer Stevens,” and everyone said, “Ah!”
He sighed. “I guess I couldn’t convince you that there’s just something about her that puts me off. It’s not personal.” He glared around the room at all the smiling faces. “Never mind. I don’t care who gets hired. Can we get on to planning how to beef up security?”
They moved on with the meeting, shooting him a few knowing looks, sizing up his mood in a way that family does when they know you’ve got something on your mind. His family did know him, very well, but on the matter of his heart, Galen preferred to remain an enigma.
Then he could romance Rose without his family observing every single move he made, the way they had with his brothers when they were courting. Of course, Galen did the same thing to them, which was why he had no desire to have the matchmaking tongs applied to him. Once his family had you in their sights, the well-meaning interference never ended.
If Rose accepted the position, he’d begin to plan a different strategy, called Romancing the Nanny.
He didn’t want to be the Lone Ranger of Rancho Diablo for the rest of his life.
“What are you grinning about, bro?” Tighe asked, and Galen shook himself from his daydream of Rose’s delightful curves and big smile. “Look like you had something sweet on your mind.”
“Just wondering how you dolts ever ended up with women. Proceed.” He waved a hand imperiously. “Let’s hear all your plans for securing this ranch, especially if that fire over there was set by our renegade uncle Wolf. Because if it can happen across the canyons, it most certainly can happen at Rancho Diablo. And I refuse to allow the work of our father and Uncle Jeremiah to go up in smoke.”