“Me? You’re the financial whiz.” Janie shoved a hand through her hair. “There’s got to be a way to keep this place out of your father’s hands. Except for writing him a check so you take ownership of the Split Rock, then turn it over to Renner, because he will see you bailing him out as charity. Trust me on this.”

“Just like he assumed my father handed me the job,” she murmured.

“Exactly. I know life is not supposed to be about keeping up appearances, but out here in the West? It is. Renner won’t be able to hold his head up in the community if locals assume you’re his sugar mama.”

When Tierney slowly straightened, Janie saw the wheels spinning. “What? You already came up with something, didn’t you?”

“Maybe. I need a couple days to see if it’s feasible.”

Janie took that as her cue to leave. “At the risk of sounding self-centered, do I still have a job?”

“Of course. I know why my father wanted to snap you up, Janie. You’re very good at what you do.”

“Except for my inability to sniff out office romances,” she said dryly.

“We were discreet.”

“Well, discretion sucks. Maybe if we toss it to the wind, we’ll both get lucky with what we want.”

Tierney flashed a decidedly sharklike smile. “Not luck. Skill. We both have the skills to get what we want. We just have to be smart enough to use them.”

Janie rolled out of bed at four a.m. She muttered as she dressed in her warmest clothes, including the ugly neon orange winter cap Abe had purchased for her at the feed store. She shivered as she climbed in her car in the pitch black and drove out to the ranch. The lights were still off in the house, but she knew he’d be up soon.

Abe hadn’t bothered to lock the door. She snuck into the kitchen and started coffee, listening to George whimpering in his crate. She whispered, “You have a lot to learn about being a ranch guard dog, pup.”

As the pot brewed, she dug in the front coat closet for an old pair of Celia’s coveralls and a small jacket.

Shoot. She eyed her athletic shoes. They’d have to do until she found time to buy a new pair of boots.

She pulled out two insulated mugs from the cupboard. When she turned and saw Abe leaning against the counter, his muscled arms folded over his chest, his dark hair rumpled from sleep and even darker whiskers covering his strong jaw, her heart swelled, flipped over in her chest, and clogged her throat. She couldn’t leave this man—this beautiful, stubborn, wonderful man she loved so much—and she hated she’d led him to believe she could.

“Janie? What the devil are you doin’ here this early?”

Vocal chords, don’t fail me now. “Making coffee before we start chores.”

Abe’s eyebrows lifted. “We?”

“Uh-huh.” Eloquent, Janie. She squared her shoulders. “I realized something the last two nights I spent alone. Since I’ve lived here with you, I never once got up and helped with chores. Granted, you didn’t ask. Nor did you poke me in the ribs until I rolled out of bed, grumbling, like you used to do when we were married.”

“You always hated that.”

“But I never realized why you woke me up. Now I understand it was your way of showing me you wanted to start the day with me by your side.”

Abe’s gunmetal gray eyes stayed on hers.

“I didn’t understand a lot of things back then that I do now. I’m here because I need to apologize for the childish way I acted the other night. I was looking for a reason to fight. It was easy falling back into old familiar patterns. We’d fight. I’d retreat. Or I’d storm off. And I expected you to find me or follow me. I expected you to coax me back.” As much as she wanted to look away, she forced herself to hold Abe’s eyes. “Did you know that’s one of the things that hurt the most when I left? You didn’t come after me. At the time I believed it was a sign it was over between us because you didn’t care enough to chase me down. Now when I see myself reverting to that woman-child who expected you to make all the effort, I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. I don’t want to be her. I’m not her anymore.

“So you should know . . . I lied. I had no intention of taking Gene Pratt’s job offer. I thought by taunting you with the possibility, you’d beg me not to leave. You’d convince me that although we’d both changed in the past eight years, we still belonged together. I wanted that sweet coaxing from you so badly that I picked a fight to get it. But you didn’t give it to me. I spent all night stewing in my own stupidity. I spent all yesterday wondering how I could have my pride and have you. But know what I figured out?”

“What?”

“I don’t want pride when it comes to you. I want honesty. So here’s the whole truth, Abe. I love you. I want to stay in Muddy Gap with you here on the ranch. I want you to take a chance on me. On us. Starting fresh.”

Abe pushed off the counter and wandered to the coffeepot. He took his own sweet time filling both mugs. Janie had to bite her tongue to keep from yelling at him to hurry up and tell her if they had a future.

When several long minutes passed and Abe didn’t move, didn’t speak, Janie had a bone-deep fear that she might be too late.

Finally he cleared his throat. “I’ll give you the chance. But there will be conditions.”

Sweet relief nearly knocked her to her knees. “Anything.”

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