Marriage at Circle M (Windover Ranch #2) - Donna Alward

Chapter 1

When Mike Gardner came walking up the path in just that way, Grace knew she was in trouble.

And when he stopped at the foot of her stepladder, hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets, and squinted up at her, she gripped her paintbrush tighter so as not to drop it. Mike was all long, lazy strides and sexy smiles, and despite her best intentions, she’d never been able to remain immune to his charm. Not since she’d hit puberty, anyway.

“Mornin’, Grace.” The words didn’t exactly drawl but were drawn out just enough to give that impression.

Grace straightened her shoulders and did her best to look nonchalant as she swiped another stripe of white paint over the window trim. “Hello, Mike.”

Great. Now why in the world did those two words come out all breathless, anyway?

She had to remember that it wasn’t all that long go that she’d made a fool of herself where Mike was concerned. It had been years since there had been anything between them. But she’d had a little too much punch, there’d been a little too much giggling and she’d blurted out one very ill-thought-out sentence. She still felt the heat of her embarrassment and every time they met now, she did everything she could to assure him—to assure herself, even—that Mike Gardner was completely resistible. Lord knew he didn’t need her fawning over him the way the rest of the female population seemed to. Without thinking, she tucked an errant strand of blond hair behind her ear, leaving it streaked with paint.

“You’re up with the birds,” he commented, a lazy smile creeping up his cheek as she chanced a look down at him.

“And you knew I would be, or you wouldn’t be here so early.” She pointedly checked her watch. “It’s seven forty-six.”

“It is?” His chin flattened ever so slightly. “I’m sorry. I thought it was later.”

“You’ve likely been up and done chores already.”


Darn him. She couldn’t just stand up on the stepladder like an idiot, carrying on a conversation that was barely holding its own. Besides, she was all too aware that his height, paired with her distance up the ladder, put his line of vision right at her backside. She sighed, put her brush across the top of the paint-smeared can, took a step down…and her dew-slick sneaker slipped on the metal step.

His hands were there to catch her.

“Whoa, there.”

She shrugged off his touch. It felt far too strong and too good. “I’m not one of your horses, Mike.”

He laughed. “No ma’am. You sure aren’t.”

It wasn’t fair. She’d had a thing for Mike since she was fourteen, but he’d always treated her like a kid sister. An annoying one. For a brief time, when she’d been in high school, they’d been more. But that seemed a lifetime ago. For him to flirt now, weeks after she’d made a complete idiot of herself, it was too much. That one little slip of the lip was the only time she’d ever come close to telling him how she felt, and at the time he’d only laughed at her.

She was older and far wiser now at twenty-seven. There was no room in her life for schoolgirl crushes. She planted her hands on her hips and stared him down. “Look, you obviously didn’t come around for idle chit-chat, so tell me what’s on your mind so I can get back to work.”

Mike had to turn away to hide his smile. She was good and irritated, he could tell. And besides that, she looked wonderful this morning, almost too good. Her honey-blond hair was tucked into some sort of strange clip and little pieces tangled around her ears. Her eyes flashed at him now, icy blue with annoyance. Looking up that stepladder at her slim, tanned legs had almost made him forget why he was here. And steadying her with his arms as she’d slipped had wiped his brain clean of any other thoughts whatsoever. He liked the feel of his hands on her skin.

He stepped back, ignoring her jab, instead turning to survey the small yellow bungalow she called home.

It had seen better days, but Grace had a way of making it welcoming. A caragana hedge flanked the west side of her paved drive—a driveway that was in need of some serious patchwork. He recognized the bleeding-heart shrubs next to some sort of bushes with tiny white flowers. Everything was dressed up by circles of lilies and stalks of purply-blue flowers he remembered from one of his foster