LionheartedBy: Diana Palmer
Leo Hart felt alone in the world. The last of his bachelor brothers, Rey, had gotten married and moved out of the house almost a year ago. That left Leo, alone, with an arthritic housekeeper who came in two days a week and threatened to retire every day. If she did, Leo would be left without a biscuit to his name, or even a hope of getting another one unless he went to a restaurant every morning for breakfast. Considering his work schedule, that was impractical.
He leaned back in the swivel chair at his desk in the office he now shared with no one. He was happy for his brothers. Most of them had families now, except newly married Rey. Simon and Tira had two little boys. Cag and Tess had a boy. Corrigan and Dorie had a boy and a baby girl. When he looked back, Leo realized that women had been a missing commodity in his life of late. It was late September. Roundup was just over, and there had been so much going on at the ranch, with business, that he’d hardly had time for a night out. He was feeling it.
Even as he considered his loneliness, the phone rang.
“Why don’t you come over for supper?” Rey asked when he picked up the receiver.
“Listen,” Leo drawled, grinning, “you don’t invite your brother over to dinner on your honeymoon.”
“We got married after Christmas last year,” Rey pointed out
“Like I said, you’re still on your honeymoon,” came the amused reply. “Thanks. But I’ve got too much to do.”
“Work doesn’t make up for a love life.”
“You’d know,” Leo chuckled.
“Okay. But the invitation’s open, whenever you want to accept it.”
“Thanks. I mean it.”
The line went dead. Leo put the receiver down and stretched hugely, bunching the hard muscles in his upper arms. He was the boss as much as his brothers on their five ranch properties, but he did a lot of the daily physical labor that went with cattle raising, and his tall, powerful body was evidence of it. He wondered sometimes if he didn’t work that hard to keep deep-buried needs at bay. In his younger days, women had flocked around him, and he hadn’t been slow to accept sensual invitations. But he was in his thirties now, and casual interludes were no longer satisfying.
He’d planned to have a quiet weekend at home, but Marilee Morgan, a close friend of Janie Brewster’s, had cajoled him into taking her up to Houston for dinner and to see a ballet she had tickets for. He was partial to ballet, and Marilee explained that she couldn’t drive herself because her car was in the shop. She was easy on the eyes, and she was sophisticated. Not that Leo was tempted to let himself be finagled into any sort of intimacy with her. He didn’t want her carrying tales of his private life to Janie, who had an obvious and uncomfortable crush on him.
He knew that Marilee would never have asked him to
take her any place in Jacobsville, Texas, because it was a small town and news of the date would inevitably get back to Janie. It might help show the girl that Leo was a free agent, but it wouldn’t help his friendship with Fred Brewster to know that Leo was playing fast and loose with Janie’s best friend. Some best friend, he thought privately.
But taking Marilee out would have one really good consequence-it would get him out of a dinner date at the Brewsters’ house. He and Fred Brewster were friends and business associates, and he enjoyed the time he spent with the older man. Well, except for two members of his family, he amended darkly. He didn’t like Fred’s sister, Lydia. She was a busybody who had highfalutin ideas. Fortunately, she was hardly ever around and she didn’t live with Fred. He had mixed feelings about Fred’s daughter Janie, who was twenty-one and bristling with psychology advice after her graduation from a junior college in that subject. She’d made Cag furious with her analyses of his food preferences, and Leo was becoming adept at avoiding invitations that would put him in her line of fire.
Not that she was bad looking. She had long, thick light brown hair and a neat little figure. But she also had a crush on Leo, which was very visible. He considered her totally unacceptable as a playmate for a man his age, and he knocked back her attempts at flirting with lazy skill. He’d known her since she was ten and wearing braces on her teeth. It was hard to get that image out of his mind.
Besides, she couldn’t cook. Her rubber chicken dinners were infamous locally, and her biscuits could be classified as lethal weapons.
Thinking about those biscuits made him pick up the phone and dial Marilee.
She was curt when she picked up the phone, but the minute he spoke, her voice softened.
“Well, hello, Leo,” she said huskily.
“What time do you want me to pick you up Saturday night?”
There was a faint hesitation. “You won’t, uh, mention this to Janie?”
“I have as little contact with Janie as I can. You know that,” he said impatiently.
“Just checking,” she teased, but she sounded worried. “I’ll be ready to leave about six.”
“Suppose I pick you up at five and we’ll have supper in Houston before the ballet?”
“Wonderful! I’ll look forward to it. See you then.”
He hung up, but picked up the receiver again and dialed the Brewsters’ number.
As luck would have it, Janie answered.
“Hi, Janie,” he said pleasantly.
“Hi, Leo,” she replied breathlessly. “Want to talk to Dad?”
“You’ll do,” he replied. “I have to cancel for dinner Saturday. I’ve got a date.”
There was the faintest pause. It was almost imperceptible. “I see.”
“Sorry, but it’s a long-standing one,” he lied. “I can’t get out of it. I forgot when I accepted your dad’s invitation. Can you give him my apologies?”
“Of course,” she told him. “Have a good time.”
She sounded strange. He hesitated. “Something wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing at all! Nice talking to you, Leo. Bye.”
Janie Brewster hung up and closed her eyes, sick with disappointment. She’d planned a perfect menu. She’d practiced all week on a special chicken dish that was tender and succulent. She’d practiced an exquisite creme brulee as well, which was Leo’s favorite dessert. She could even use the little tool to caramelize the sugar topping, which had taken a while to perfect. All that work, and for nothing.
She’d have been willing to bet that Leo hadn’t had a date for that night already. He’d made one deliberately, to get out of the engagement.
She sat down beside the hall table, her apron almost stiff with flour, her face white with dustings of it, her hair disheveled. She was anything but the picture of a perfect date. And wasn’t it just her luck? For the past year, she’d mounted a real campaign to get Leo to notice her. She’d flirted with him shamelessly at Micah Steele’s wedding to Callie Kirby, until a stabbing scowl had turned her shy. It had angered him that she’d caught the bouquet Callie had thrown. It had embarrassed her that he glared so angrily at her. Months later, she’d tried, shyly, every wile she had on him, with no success. She couldn’t cook and she was not much more than a fashion plate, according to her best friend, Marilee, who was trying to help her catch Leo. Marilee had plenty of advice, things Leo had mentioned that he didn’t like about Janie, and Janie was trying her best to improve in the areas he’d mentioned. She was even out on the ranch for the first time in her life, trying to get used to horses and cattle and dust and dirt. But if she couldn’t get Leo to the house to show him her new skills, she didn’t have a lot of hope.