Victoria Schulman was hugging his horse.
If that wasn’t enough to piss a man off, Eli Turnbull didn’t know what was. That she was doing it in one of those fussy satin shirts only made it worse.
The woman was tiny, a paisley-covered speck against his horse’s wide black head. Eli had some inclination to worry about Victoria—about her thinness, and the dark circles under her eyes—but he ignored it.
And he felt bad bullying a woman who clearly needed not only a good meal but someone to take care of her. But every time he tried to be nice—thinking about honey versus vinegar and all that shit—something about her would just make him crazy.
Like, right now, her shoes. They were red and they had bows.
How in the world could she put on those shoes and say “yeah, I’ll be a rancher”?
Honestly, he wanted to be nice, but she was just so ridiculous.
“You need boots if you’re going to be in here.”
His voice cut up the distance between them and she stepped away from his horse.
Not very nice.
Instead of flinching, she lifted her chin as if they were about to box. He’d give her points for foolish courage, but foolish courage never helped anyone.
“I . . . ah . . .” She glanced down at the silly shoes on her feet. “I suppose you’re right.”
He stepped across the wide aisle between the tack room and the stall where he kept Patience, his mare. Victoria didn’t back away. Her hands flexed into fists for a moment, but then she spread them wide and ran them down the edges of her skirt.
Her efforts at control were totally ruined by her eyes. Their navy-blue depths betrayed her interest. He felt her gaze travel across his chest, his arms. Felt it linger at the base of his throat where the sweat ran down his shirt.
She tried to act nonchalant, she really did, but she failed.
“Ah . . . Ruby said you were looking for me,” she said.
“It’s nine. I was looking for you at seven this morning.” Okay, that wasn’t nice either, but he couldn’t resist pointing out how terribly unsuited she was for this place. For this job she’d taken on.
“I have a son, Eli. I can’t drop everything when you need me.”
Biting his tongue, he opened the stall to lead Patience into the aisle.
“Careful,” he said when Victoria stumbled out of the way.
She glared up at him as if she knew what he was doing, how he was trying to bully her.
He gave a smile another shot.
“Oh, you can stop the act, Eli. I know you’re mad.”
“I’m not mad.”
“Eli, it’s not like I’m doing this to hurt you.” The brief touch of her hand against his back, like lightning over the high pastures, lit him up from the inside.
This time he shied away, feeling the burn of her hand under his skin.
“Of course not. You’re taking over the ranch because you have a deep and abiding love of the land.”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
He looked pointedly at her hair, pulled so tight from her face, that stupid ruffled collar, her stick-thin legs beneath the hem of her skirt. Those ridiculous shoes.
Two hours ago he’d had a plan for this conversation; now he had to get going, and Victoria was wearing those stupid shoes and he was angry when he’d intended to be nice.
“Fine. All right. Look, Eli, we both know I have no clue what I’m doing with this ranch, but I want to learn. I want . . .” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
Oh crap. She was going to reveal something now. Something that was supposed to make him feel bad, make him want to help her.
Don’t, he wanted to say. Don’t hand me any more weapons to use against you.
“I want to be good at this.”
“Because you’ve failed at everything else?”
Color rose in her cheeks and he smiled in the face of her shame. Through convoluted means she’d gained control of this ranch that should by rights be his, and he just had to correct the mistake. Which he could do, right now.
“I was looking for you this morning because I can make you an offer.”
Be. Nice. “For the ranch.”
Ah, the Scarecrow was cute when she was confused.
“A year from now when the ranch is out of escrow and you’re begging your brother to sell this place, you won’t get that kind of offer. And two million dollars will buy a lot of security for you and your son.”
That pushed her back on her heels.
“You . . . there’s no way you have that kind of money.”
To his ears it sounded like she was wavering, and his heart pounded hard in his throat. This was it. His hands went numb.
“I can get it by tomorrow. Then you can go back to throwing parties and buying curtains and whatever the hell else it is women like you do.”
Oddly, she smiled. And for a moment, surrounded by sun-shot dust motes, he saw the girl she’d been years before, when her father had forced her to come down to this ranch for the summer. Sweet and out of place, she’d followed Eli around like a shadow, even though she was older. She’d been game, always game. And he’d liked her. A lot.
But when she’d arrived at the ranch a few months ago when Lyle Baker was dying, he’d been unable to find any of that girl in the pinched, angry, and scared woman she’d become.
A woman who hadn’t even recognized him at first. She’d looked down at him as if he were a servant. A slow and clumsy waiter.
He didn’t want to see that girl now, not when he was doing his best to crush the woman under his boot heel.
“Do I seem so useless?”
“You know the answer to that.”
The barb sunk deep but instead of curling in on herself, she stood up straighter and somehow, he realized too late, he’d galvanized her.
“I’m sorry, Eli—”
Sorry? His guts twisted. “Didn’t you hear me? I said two million dollars.”
“Two million dollars won’t buy me any pride. Or self-respect.”
“And when you fail at this? How much pride are you going to have then?”
“I’m not going to fail.”
He laughed at her then. Right at her. And that smile faded, replaced by the most ridiculous determination. The most asinine belief in herself. It was like watching a house cat trying to be a tiger.
“Not if you help me. I’m uninformed, Eli. Not stupid. And I want to learn. I want . . . I want—”
“To be good at this, yeah, you said.” He managed to dismiss all of her good intentions, all of her noble and brave efforts, with a curt wave of his hand.
Victoria Schulman, the society widow, who had lost her fortune, had just turned down two million dollars. And Eli was back in the same position he’d been in for the past ten years of his life—throwing money at a Baker who just wouldn’t take it.
He slipped a padded blue saddle blanket over Patience’s back while she sidestepped and shook out her mane. Heaving the saddle on next, he fumed. Victoria was still standing there. Still expecting his help. He put his knee in Patience’s belly as he tightened the saddle cinch. If only every woman in his life were this easy to manage.
But the truth was that Victoria had given him the tools to make her fail, to ensure her defeat. The poor woman had been too honest; she couldn’t even hide her desire for him . . . her curiosity. The way her eyes clung to his body for just a moment too long.
Between his own father and Lyle Baker, the man he’d worked for his entire life, Eli had learned everything he needed to know about being a cruel, self-serving bastard. He’d never had a reason to use those lessons.
He would wear her down until she begged him to take the ranch.
Victoria felt naked, utterly skinless in front of Eli. She’d said all she could to convince him of her good intentions toward the ranch and the land. She didn’t know how else to sway him, and yet he seemed unswayed.
He slipped the bridle over his giant horse’s head, tucking the bit into her mouth, clucking when the horse gummed at him.
It was as if Victoria were totally invisible and after being invisible to every man in her entire life, she’d had enough.
“Where are you going?”
Eli tipped his hat back off his eyes and she forced herself not to look away. Those eyes were like sunlight on a mirror. Too bright. Too sharp.
“It’s Saturday. Auction day for the Angus herd. Up in the north pasture.”
“Today?” she asked and he nodded, leaning past her. The smell of him—sunshine and sweat, horse and dirt—eddied around her, making her dizzy with a terrible hunger.
In the early days of their courtship, Joel had called her femininity delicate. And he’d loved that; said her weakness had made him feel strong. Like a protector. So, like any good idiot, she’d cultivated it. Until she was treated like glass, which was fine in public, but boring in private.
Their sex life had been respectful, she told herself.
And if smelling Eli Turnbull made her feel as if she’d been missing out on something in all those years of quiet and plain missionary position, well, then, add it to the pile of disappointments.
Excerpted from Can't Hurry Love by Molly O'Keefe. Copyright © 2012 by Molly O'Keefe. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.