One day soon, he’d get rid of this wedding ring.
Gabe Miller tossed the gold circle into the air and snatched it back again, trying not to think of the woman who’d slipped it onto his left hand, third finger. Trying not to think of what she’d had inscribed inside.
Ha. What a crock. Forever hadn’t lasted but three short weeks.
Scowling, he shoved the band into the velvet-lined jeweler’s box and slid it back beneath the stack of flannel shirts in the dresser drawer. Call him a dumb cowboy, but it’d taken his own wife’s desertion to finally get the message rammed into his thick skull:
Never trust a woman.
He turned. Warren stood in the bedroom doorway, his whiskered face scrunched into a frown.
“Shake a leg. The boys’ll be raring to eat any minute now.”
“Right.” He hustled along the hall in his elderly ranch hand’s wake. Their two pairs of boots sounded loud on the bare wooden stairs. He glared at the older man’s back, then felt immediate guilt. Warren hadn’t caused his ugly mood.
He followed him into the kitchen.
“We gotta get us a cook, boss. It’s been months since Joe and Mary went back east.” Warren flipped a switch, powering up the coffeemaker Gabe had gotten ready the night before. “Lord knows, a rancher’s got enough to keep him moving, sunup to sundown. And you’re kept busier than most, considerin’ the size of your spread, and managing it yourself ‘n all.”
“We’re doing just fine, Warren.” He kept his tone neutral, knowing how much the older man hated that he couldn’t pull his weight with the younger hands any more.
“Yeah, ‘long as you don’t try gettin’ too fancy.”
“Okay, so the pancakes didn’t work out too well.”
That earned him a chuckle.
Gabe grabbed the egg carton and a pack of pork links from the refrigerator. Sure, this’d been the last thing he’d needed–undertaking kitchen duties once his ranch cook and her husband had moved on. And Gabe did have more to handle than most of the local ranchers. Something Marissa hadn’t understood.
He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to swallow a growl. Tried to stop thinking of Marissa.
Lost cause, that idea. He brooded on it, anyway. Why in heck did he wake up this morning–alone in his big bed–with the feeling today would turn out worse than the usual? He couldn’t manage to push the feeling of gloom from his mind, the way he’d shoved the wedding ring back under his flannel shirts. The ring he should have tossed out, just the way she’d tossed him aside and walked out, months ago.
That, right there, was the problem.
She’d taken off three months ago today.
Jared and Hank and the rest of the cowhands trooped into the kitchen. Their usual whooping and hollering drowned out the sizzle of eggs and sausages.
“Hey, boys, hold it down a bit,” Warren grumbled. “Don’t know where you get your energy this early in the morning.”
Gabe grimaced, knowing his own bad mood had caused the complaints. He was used to rowdy cowboys before the sun was even up–he’d breakfasted with ranch hands all his life. But he remembered those days–those way too few days–when he’d skipped the chow-downs out at the bunkhouse and spent every last early-morning moment he could bedded down with his wife.
Hank, best known as the ranch’s clown, looked over Gabe’s shoulder. “No pancakes today, boss?”
The rest of the men guffawed.
“All right, so I’m not much of a cook.” Marissa was. He shook the thought away. “Better knock it off, or y’all will be taking turns at the stove yourselves.”
Silence fell heavier than a bale dropped from the hayloft. His back still turned to his men, he reached for the egg carton again and grinned. Shut them up, all right.
In the calm, he heard the noise of a car’s engine outside. Awfully early for visitors.
Warren pushed up the blind over the kitchen sink and squinted through the window. “Seems like you got company, boss.” The old cowboy’s voice had gone rusty.
Gabe stepped to his side. “Must be Doc, right? Nobody else’d–”
What he saw through the window shut him up, too. The light over the back porch stabbing through pre-dawn darkness. The white Mustang purring in the drive. And the woman sitting behind the wheel.
He must not have woken up yet after all, must have dreamed Warren’s call and his trip to the kitchen. Because, Lord only knew, he was dreaming now. Blinking didn’t help. The picture didn’t go away. He closed his eyes for a long moment and opened them again. Nope, she was still there.
Looking right at the lighted kitchen window.
He stumbled back a pace.
“Easy, now.” Warren might’ve been talking to a skittish colt. He pulled the forgotten carton of eggs from Gabe’s hands. “Got it under control here, boss. I guess you got some business needs taking care of.”
“Yeah, right.” He looked through the window again, gritted his teeth and set his jaw.
He had something to take care of, all right.
Throwing his ex-wife off his land.