by Nancy Pirri
Gina Liberatti, an image consultant, has her hands full when rancher, Stone Mitchell, comes knocking on her door for a makeover. Gina soon finds there’s a handsome man beneath all of the whiskers and the too-tight jeans he’s had since college. But when he inserts himself into her life as a steady hand for her twelve and fifteen-year-old sons, she learns to appreciate him for more than his rugged appearance.
But after living with a controlling father, followed shortly by an equally controlling husband, she has no desire to marry again, thoroughly enjoying her independence.
Can Stone convince her to change her mind?
Release Date: November 17, 2020
Genre: Western Contemporary Romance
A PINK SATIN ROMANCE
Present Day San Antonio Texas
Gina Liberatti didn’t reach for the phone when it rang. She had a secretary to take her calls. Her attention was completely focused on the amazing ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of her latest client. The physical changes in Mrs. Amelia Murphy were profound, even though the items Gina had suggested the woman alter were minimal.
The shorter hairstyle removed ten years from the woman’s appearance. Taupe-colored eye shadow and peach blush were more natural appearing than Mrs. Murphy’s previous signature make-up of harsh blue shadow and stop-sign-red lipstick. But Gina’s recommendation of a minor facelift made an astonishing difference.
That’s what people paid Gina to do; to polish their appearance. Gina’s relatively newfound vocation in life as an image consultant was fulfilling, albeit not as prosperous as she would have liked, but the business was steadily growing.
Money had never meant a whole lot to her while her husband had lived, but it did now. Since Charlie died, she learned raising two sons on one income wasn’t easy. But she sure was thankful Charlie’d had an insurance policy through the company he worked, which paid her well upon his death, hence how she managed to start her consulting business in the first place.
Because she had two children, she chose to grow slowly, working only four days a week, no more than five hours a day. She loved her less than full time work schedule, and the flexibility.
The phone’s persistent ringing gained her attention. Looking down at the phone’s panel she saw it was her secretary buzzing her. She punched the speaker button. “I’m here, Ruby.”
“Your four o’clock appointment arrived five minutes ago.”
Gina frowned as she sank against the back of her ergonomically correct chair and proceeded to absently tap the end of the pen against her desk blotter. “I thought Miss Schneider canceled for today.”
“She did, but I filled the spot. Remember?”
Gina didn’t recall but wasn’t surprised. She had a lot on her mind lately; in particular, her fifteen-year-old son’s latest attempts at becoming a first-class juvenile delinquent. Gina had spent a small fortune on psychologists, but Jack had charmed them all. Heavens, they made it sound like she was the problem, not her kid! And forget the school counselors; they were so busy dealing with the really hard cases her son appeared angelic in comparison.
“You know, Gina, the more I look at this guy, the more I think we should send him on his way,” Ruby murmured.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’ll be quite a challenge.”
“That’s what people pay us to do for them, Ruby, make changes—some more than others.”
“Well, you might want to rethink this one because he’s sort of, well...hairy.”
“What?” Gina wondered if she’d heard right.
“I’ll just show him in.”
“Good idea. Give me a sec, though.”
Gina knew by her secretary’s cryptic reply that this potential client wasn’t husband material. Ruby was always on the lookout for a husband—number three this time—which Gina couldn’t understand at all. One husband had been enough for her. Just before she depressed the speaker button, she heard Ruby say softly, “My, oh, my.”
“Ruby? Are you still there?”
“He’s in front of the magazine rack,” Ruby said, her voice a muffled whisper. “Now he’s bending over, waaaay over, and—Sweet Jesus,” she softly growled.
Gina kept her voice calm though she felt like shrieking at the top of her lungs. “What in the world is going on out there?”
When her secretary didn’t reply Gina slammed down the phone, scrambled from her seat and crossed the office. With a hand on the doorknob she bent to retrieve one of the beige high-heeled shoes she’d kicked off earlier, which had landed behind the door.
As she slid her foot inside the shoe the door suddenly opened and smacked her hip.
“Ahhh!” she screamed as she toppled to the floor, landing on her hands and knees. She looked up and scowled into Ruby’s surprised expression until she noticed the tall, brawny, red-eyed beast towering behind her.
Okay, so his irises were brown, but the whites of his eyes were definitely bloodshot. She could only assume he hadn’t slept much last night or had been on a hell of a bender. She stared at him until she had a vague idea of what the man, not a beast after all, looked like beneath long sideburns, bushy mustache, and full, thick dark beard. She couldn’t help but wonder what he was hiding behind all that hair.
He looked fierce and intimidating until she met his warm, sherry-colored eyes, the corners crinkling with humor. Somehow his dark-brown, wavy hair touching the wrinkled collar of his shirt made him appear a bit more approachable than she’d initially thought.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said in a strong, Texan drawl.
Ditto. Gina was already fairly certain she’d be damned if she took him on as a client. Yet, with his dust-covered, hopelessly rumpled clothing, scuffed boots and all that hair he’d be her most challenging client to date. Luckily, these were all external improvements that should be easy to change. Now a man’s character was an entirely different matter.
Gina hadn’t noticed his battered black Stetson until he handed it to Ruby then edged around her, moving forward into Gina’s office.
Ruby held the hat at arm’s length, away from her sleek red dress. It took all of Gina’s fortitude to keep a straight face.
He bent slightly, then lowered his hands toward Gina. “Allow me.”
She liked the fact he waited for her nod before he took her hands and pulled her to her feet.
She didn’t mean to be impolite, but she couldn’t help but sweep a lingering look over his body. He was at least six-four and built like a linebacker. He also appeared right at home in a pair of too snug, faded jeans that encased his long legs.
Gina was not a woman who ignored a good-looking guy in a pair of tight jeans but his were also an inch too short, possibly relics from his younger years while he was still growing. His wide shoulders stretched the fabric of his chambray shirt, the cuffs rolled back to reveal strong, hairy forearms.
Her cheeks turned hot when she saw the appreciative look in his eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured as she tugged on the hem of her fawn-colored jacket and smoothed down the matching pencil skirt.
“Sorry, boss,” Ruby apologized. “What were you doing behind the door?”
“Retrieving my shoes,” she said, thinking that’s what she got for kicking them off, as she did between appointments.
Starting to reach for the shoe, Gina paused when the man offered, “I’ll get it.” He went down on one knee, scooped the shoe up in his big hand and grinned up at her. “Better hold on to my shoulder, darlin’.”
Hold on? Darling?
He took her foot and raised it off the floor. She wobbled on the other foot with a gasp then latched onto one of his broad shoulders. It was either that or fall on her butt. The warm sensation of his hand on her calf as he slid on her shoe prompted her to think silly thoughts of Cinderella. As she stared down at his shaggy head, she decided he didn’t look like the prince in that particular fairy tale, but resembled the huge, furry beast from another.
“Thanks.” She felt heat seeping into her cheeks.
His gaze was still focused on her shoes as he rose to his full height. “They’re pretty.” He folded his arms across his chest and added, “Though I thought ladies nowadays liked comfortable, athletic-style shoes.”
“If one is in to exercising, perhaps.”
Gina’s idea of exercising didn’t include working up a sweat. Playing a tame game of pool or table tennis with her sons was more her speed. Belatedly, she noted that her hand was still on his shoulder so she withdrew it.
He sent her another one of his captivating grins, even white teeth flashing in deep contrast against his tanned complexion. Gina couldn’t help but return his smile. Then she waved her hand toward a chair positioned in front of her desk.
“Please, have a seat.”
In two strides he stopped beside the chair, an expectant look on his face.
She strode behind her desk, sat down in her seat, and decided she couldn’t quibble about his manners. Stretching out her hand, she said, “I’m happy to meet you, Mister—?”
“Mitchell. Stone Mitchell.” He reached out and grasped her hand.
Gina smiled. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Mitchell.”
“I own Falcon’s Ridge Ranch, about two hours southwest of here,” he announced with undisguised pride. “You come highly recommended, Miz Liberatti.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Excuse me, Gina?”
She looked up and met Ruby’s eyes as she stood in the doorway. “Yes?”
“Do you need anything before I leave for the night?”
Gina glanced at her watch “It’s only four-fifteen. You’re leaving already?”
“I have a doctor’s appointment. Remember?”
“Oh! I’d forgotten.” Maybe she’d better make a doctor’s appointment, a tiny voice inside chastised her. There wasn’t a thing wrong with her memory, but then again, her eldest son’s recent escapades drove her to distraction.
“Would you please bring us some coffee before you leave?”
“Sure thing.” Ruby moved to Stone and handed him back his hat. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
Gina turned her attention back to Stone.
He tossed his hat on the chair beside him as he looked around. “Nice place.”
“Thank you.” She smiled her appreciation.
She’d decorated the office in tones of mauve and navy. A Berber carpet of burgundy with flecks of blue covered the floor. A navy blue leather sofa and matching chairs were grouped for easy conversation. It was a classic, yet comfortable look.
Ruby returned with a large tray where she balanced a thermal coffee server alongside a creamer and sugar bowl, and two white coffee mugs. She set the tray down on the desk, leaned forward and poured two cups of coffee. “Cream or sugar?”
She slid the cup across the desk toward him then settled back in her chair. She glanced up in time to see Ruby back out of the office, a scowl on her pretty face.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Ruby. Have a good night.”
Gina ignored her secretary’s wide-eyed, apprehensive look and smiled at the big man sitting comfortably across from her.
“Now then, what can I do for you, Mister Mitchell?”
She heard the door close, satisfied Ruby had left for the night. She didn’t feel a need to heed her secretary’s warning look. For some incomprehensible reason she felt perfectly safe with this stranger.
“I’d like to hire you, Miz Liberatti. A neighbor of mine, Stan Jenkins, said you did wonders for him.” He frowned and crossed one snakeskin booted ankle over his knee. “Hmm, the more I think about it, it might have been his wife who said it, not him.”
Vivid memories of the hard-core cowboy-rancher for whom she’d performed somewhat of a miracle on months ago came to mind. Stan Jenkins was from the old school of thought on bathing—every Saturday, and only on Saturday. The man was a rancher who worked hard and copiously sweated because of it. She’d managed to convince him his new wife wasn’t out of line expecting him to shower every day. The whisker and hair trim and a few sets of new clothing hadn’t hurt either.
She leaned forward, her hands around her cup. “Do you understand my line of work?”
“Stan explained everything to me.”
Gina saw a tinge of pink appear on his neck above his shirt collar, just below his beard. “What did Mister Jenkins tell you?”
“He said you made a gentleman out of him.”
“Stan Jenkins was a perfect gentleman from the moment we met. I simply advised him in selecting new clothes, instructed him on proper table manners, and encouraged him to get a decent haircut and to shower more often.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Gina raised her brow. “Are you telling me you’d like the same advice?”
Stone set his own cup down on the desk. He reached up and raked his overly long hair off his forehead. But as soon as he removed his hand it fell forward again. “I haven’t had a haircut in a while.”
Or a shave, she noted.
“Haven’t had much time since I’ve been mending fences and moving cows for the past month, pretty much non-stop.” He paused then a discomfiting look on his face. “There’s something else I’d like you to do; teach me how to dance.”
“I’m an awful dancer,” he admitted. “Maybe you could help me choose some new clothes, too.”
She gave him the once over again and decided his was a very tempting proposition. “My rates are one-hundred and twenty-five dollars an hour, and I require a two-hundred-dollar retainer when you sign a contract, non-refundable.”
“That’s all?” he asked.
She gave him a cool smile. “They’re competitive for the area, Mister Mitchell. Sure, we can do some dance lessons. By the time I’m through with you, folks will be calling you Fred Astaire.”
He cracked his knuckles and nodded. “Hot damn—uh—that’s great.”
“May I ask why you feel compelled to make these changes?”
“I’ve decided it’s past time I married,” he announced.
Gina leaned forward with a broad smile. “So, who’s the lucky lady?”
“That’s the problem. I haven’t done any serious courting, but my goal is to be married by Christmas.”
Good grief! Christmas is only six months away. Gina sank back in her chair with a sigh.
“So, you’re telling me you don’t have a fiancée?”
He shook his head, staring down at his boots.
“How about a girlfriend?” she asked gently, guessing his answer, and yet hoping she was wrong.
“Like I said, I haven’t devoted a lot of time to wife hunting. Now that the ranch is up and running smoothly, though, I’m ready to tackle the job.”
He made looking for a wife sound like any other ranch chore, and Gina found it hard to believe women weren’t calling him all hours of the day and night. In a rough, rugged way, he was handsome, and he did have his own spread.
“I’ve someone in mind, though,” he offered.
Gina sighed in relief. “Wonderful. Tell me about her.”
“She’s a widow lady who owns the ranch next to mine, The Rockin’ J. She has hundreds of acres of grazing land, and deep wells that won’t run dry any time soon.”
Criminey! I asked about the woman and he’s raving about land and wells.
“About those dance lessons, Miz Liberatti...” He tugged uncomfortably at his collar. “I have to tell you I’ve two left feet when it comes to waltzin’ a lady around the dance floor.” He shrugged and muttered, “Never been any good at it.”
“You know, many women could care less about dancing,” she said gently.
His face colored again. “Maybe, but Rachel goes line-dancing every Saturday night. So you’d need to teach me how to do that too. I figure it can’t hurt to learn.”
Gina eyed his long hair and beard. “I’m sure once we make some changes in your appearance your neighbor will be very interested in you, if she isn’t already.”
“Maybe.” He rubbed his lips with a thumb, a thoughtful look on his face. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt for me to learn to talk a bit more refined, too.”
His low, soft drawl was pleasant, but she hadn’t missed the sprinkling of light profanities in his speech.
“Right. Is there some pressing reason why you must marry by Christmas?”
Gina’s heart plummeted when she saw the uncomfortable expression on his face. She cursed herself for asking his reasons for marrying so soon and listened intently to his reply.
“I’ve spent many a Christmas alone since I haven’t any family. I’ll be thirty-five next month and it’s time I settled down. Christmas is a joy-filled time of year. It just seems like the right time.”
“I understand.” And she did. Who was she to judge him when she’d only known her husband six months before marrying him?
“So, teach me how to dance, give me advice on buying new clothes and remind me not to cuss, then I’ll be ready to go courting.”
“Don’t forget the haircut.” She tilted her head to one side and stared at him. “You know, you may want to shave off the beard and mustache as well.”
His dark expression told her he had no intentions of budging on the issue, including responding to her suggestion.
Gina decided she’d take up that particular crusade later. She came to her feet and extended her hand. “I do believe we’ve a deal. I’ll draw up a contract first thing in the morning.”
As Stone rose, he reached out and clasped her hand. “I’m looking forward to working with you.” He released her hand and stretched his arms wide. “How about a dance lesson right now? There’s no time like the present, I always say.”
Gina stared at his massive body and eager expression and sighed. He was something else. She leaned down, opened a drawer, and pulled out her monthly planner. Call her old-fashioned but while she also used her email-outlook calendar, and she used the cloud for storage, she’d had her share of technology issues in the past and still depended on a paper trail back-up for her appointments.
“Today is Wednesday. It appears I should be finished with two of my clients by Friday, which will free up my time considerably.” She met his eyes. “I really can’t fit you in before Monday.”
“How about Saturday?”
“My weekends are reserved for my children.”
He frowned. “We’ve got a problem then, I’m afraid. As I mentioned earlier, my ranch is two and a half hours away, which makes it damn—er—darned hard for me to get away during the week. I’ll meet you here at five on Saturday.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, thinking he’d perfected the art of persuasion. He reminded her of a steamroller rolling over everything in his path in order to have things his way. She’d love to argue, doubting folks rarely challenged him, but decided not to push her luck. He’d learn soon enough she controlled her own life aside from the fact she needed the pay.
She couldn’t allow him to slip through her fingers, for it seemed with every satisfied customer, she earned another by word of mouth. Her goal was to build up her clientele if she had any hope of tucking a substantial amount of money into her boys’ college funds. She thought about her household chores, grocery shopping and chauffeuring the boys to and from baseball practice on Saturday and figured she’d be free by three.
“Saturday around five is fine.”
“What about your kids?”
“Things wind down by mid-afternoon.”
“Then your husband takes care of them?”
She wondered about his innocent expression. Was it possible he was fishing to see if she was married? No, he hadn’t shown the least interest in her as a woman. Well, perhaps that wasn’t true. She’d seen the way he’d looked her over when he’d assisted her with her shoe. But then she thought about the neighbor rancher-woman he planned on courting and decided his once over earlier was innocent.
“I’m a widow.”
His cheeks colored. “Uh, sorry. Why don’t you add the cost of a baby-sitter in your fee?”
She laughed. “My sons would take great offense at your name-calling. They’re twelve and fifteen. I’ve an elderly neighbor who keeps an eye on them for no charge.”
“Good.” He gave her a contemplative look. “Before I leave, just off the top of your head, do you see anything I could work on between now and Saturday?”
He was tall and powerfully built. Unfortunately, his clothes appeared as clean as they could get due to their hard use and age. One shirttail hung over his belt while the other had been haphazardly tucked into his waistband.
She twirled her finger in a circle, indicating he should turn around. He complied and she moved up behind him. Reaching high she lightly smoothed the chambray fabric along his broad shoulders, down the length of his arms to his wrists, noting the snug fit.
Her hands tingled.
She moved around to his front, gazed at his tanned neck and broad chest.
Her heart raced.
Then she made the mistake of meeting his eyes. Her breathing quickened when she noted his appreciative look. This wasn’t the first time she’d been this close to a male client before, but never had she experienced this heart-pounding sensation. This rugged cowboy was turning her on! So much for thinking his look earlier had been an innocent one. This guy was lethal to women, even with all of his whiskers.
The telephone rang, startling them both. Gina backed away from him, toward the phone. “Excuse me.” She snatched it up on the second ring, then turned her back on him facing the windows.
* * *
Stone hadn’t missed the relieved look in her eyes when the phone rang. He disturbed her, which was fine with him since she disturbed the hell out of him.
She was a lovely sight with her short, turned up nose, defiant chin, and wide eyes the color of light chocolate. The long length of her tawny hair reminded him of a lion’s mane, and she smelled like raspberries. At first, he hadn’t been certain from where the scent generated, until he caught a whiff of her hair. She must have washed it with raspberry-scented shampoo.
He swept her a long look from head to toe, lingering on her curvy ass, one of the finest he’d seen in all of San Antonio—maybe in all of Texas. After a while, he moved closer, focusing on her voice, tried making out her words. Though he’d left his life behind as a Texas Ranger, it didn’t stop his cop’s intuition from kicking in. After eavesdropping a moment he realized she was more than a bit irritated with the person on the other end.
Abruptly, she ended the conversation and slammed down the phone. She turned to him, her lips thinned, but she quickly lifted them into a false smile. “Sorry about the interruption. It was—” She leaned back against her desk, stopping herself.
He folded his arms and quirked one eyebrow. “Everything all right?”
“Oh, yes, just peachy keen.”
“You’re sure?” He frowned when she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
He nodded and said, “You were about to give me some advice before the phone rang.”
She looked up and he saw the confusion in her eyes until she suddenly remembered. “Yes, that’s right.”
He felt hot under the collar and stroked his beard self-consciously when she deliberately moved her gaze over every inch of him. Damn! Never would he do that to a woman again, he mused, chagrinned. It was embarrassing.
After a long silence, he growled, “Well?”
“I suggest you go up one size in your clothing.”
He slammed a hand against his chest as though she’d stuck a knife in him. “Hell. Are you talking about my shirt size?”
“Pants, too. And I didn’t know hi-rise jeans were in style any longer.”
Stone caught the twinkle in her eyes and grimaced down at his worn jeans. “I’ve had these for a while…” Okay, so he’d had the jeans since right after college. Hell, they’d fit fine until then, but he’d grown another inch and half after college, which surprised the hell out of him. He was now six foot three and half inches tall and had put on extra pounds too. But he worked hard on his ranch so didn’t carry an ounce of fat. “Just when I got ‘em broke in the way I like ‘em,” he muttered.
“Walk away from me, please, toward the door,” she ordered.
With a big grin on his face he strode across the room, swiveled on his boot heel, and came back, stopping directly in front of her.
“Shorten your stride a bit,” she suggested, “and don’t swing your shoulders so much from side to side.”
His grin slipped but he walked back and forth again, stopping in mid stride when she laughed.
“Sorry,” she murmured. “Your legs are stiff as a board. There’s no need to be self-conscious. With the exception of a bit of a swagger, your walk needs little improvement.”
His scowl deepened. “Then why in the hell—why did you tell me to change it?”
She shrugged. “You seem compelled to have me find something to correct.”
“I don’t swagger.”
“Sure you do.” She tilted her head to the side and examining him more. “Although I must admit it does seem to work for you.”
Stone couldn’t recall when a woman made him feel more self-conscious. Did he really want to subject himself to her scrutiny and her ideas of change? He was ready to call off the deal when he remembered the favorable improvements she’d made in his neighbor.
He’d set himself a goal to marry soon. He’d endure the woman’s blasted changes, but once he married, he’d return to wearing his comfortable, worn clothing, and grow his hair to his shoulders if he wanted to. But no way was he shaving off his sideburns and beard. They had their purpose, concealing the wicked knife scar running down the left side of his face, from temple to chin, along his hairline.
His career as a Texas Ranger had been relatively short-lived, yet they’d felt like the longest years of his life. His biggest worry was that no woman would ever want to marry him if she saw the scars he’d sustained, both physically and mentally.
Which was the reason he’d come to Gina for help. He needed to improve his chances if he expected to convince his neighbor, Rachel Williams, to marry him. She had plenty of guys calling on her—some of them strong competition.
Settling his Stetson squarely on his head, he tipped the brim down just the way he liked. “See you Saturday. By the way, when do you think we can fit in that shopping trip?”
“Ah, yes,” she murmured then returned to her desk and reached inside the drawer for her calendar again. “How about next Wednesday evening? Stores here in San Antonio are open until ten. You could meet me here when I’m done with work around five. I’m sure my neighbor would stay with the boys longer.”
“Sounds good to me.” He tipped his hat and headed for the door. With his hand on the knob he glanced at her over his shoulder. “See you Saturday.”
After he left, Gina moved to the windows overlooking Flores Street. There was something about his smooth, low-timbered voice that made her want him to keep talking. She stared at the traffic below until her new client appeared. He swaggered across the street and every female he passed halted to stare at him. It was hard to tell from this distance if their expressions held admiration or terror.
She’d need to stay alert around this cowboy because his confident, albeit somewhat arrogant manner was too appealing. After growing up with her dominating father then marrying Charlie, she’d long ago made the decision to be her own woman and not live under the thumb of any man again. Decisions regarding her life and boys would be hers to make, whether right or wrong.
She thought about the disturbing phone call from her eldest son and started chewing on one fingernail. Jack had been suspended from school for smoking on school property. This was the second time in as many weeks. She’d reached her rope’s end and hadn’t figured out a way to make him obey. Denying him privileges hadn’t worked; grounding him hadn’t done any good, either.
The death of his father a year ago had hit him hard. At first, she’d been sympathetic toward him and had taken his rebellious behavior in stride, but not anymore. If he didn’t want to find himself living in a court-ordered foster home he’d learn to follow hers and his school’s rules. She’d heard about ‘tough-love’. One of the families in her neighborhood had attended some of the tough love meetings held at a nearby Lutheran church. She made a mental note to call that neighbor tomorrow. It was way past time she got tough with Jack.