I Believe

I believe-
That we don’t have to change
friends if we understand that friends change.

I believe-
That no matter how good a friend is,
they’re going to hurt you every once in a
while and, you must forgive them for that.

I believe-
That true friendship continues
to grow, even over the longest distance.
Same goes for true love.

I believe-
That you can do something in an instant
that will give you heartache for life.

I believe-
That it’s taking me a long time
to become the person I want to be.

I believe-
That you should always leave loved ones with
loving words. It may be the last time you see them

I believe-
That you can keep going long after you can’t.

I believe-
That we are responsible for
what we do, no matter how we feel.

I believe-
That either you control your attitude
or it controls you.

I believe-
That regardless of how hot and steamy a
relationship is at first, the passion fades and there
had better be something else to take its place.

I believe-
That heroes are the people who do what
has to be done when it needs to be done,
regardless of the consequences.

I believe-
That money is a lousy way of keeping score.

I believe-
That my best friend and I can do anything
or nothing and have the best time!

I believe-
That sometimes the people you expect to kick you when
you’re down, will be the ones to help you get back up.

I believe-
That sometimes when I’m angry I have the right to
be angry, but that doesn’t give me the right to be cruel.

I believe-
That just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want
them to doesn’t mean they don’t love you with all they have.

I believe-
That maturity has more to do with what types of experiences
you’ve had and what you’ve learned from them and less to
do with how many birthdays you’ve celebrated.

I believe-
That it isn’t always enough to be forgiven by others.
Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.

I believe-
That no matter how bad your heart is
broken the world doesn’t stop for your grief.

I believe-
That our background and circumstances may have influenced
who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

I believe-
That just because two people argue, it
doesn’t mean they don’t love each other, And just
because they don’t argue, it doesn’t mean they do.

I believe-
That you shouldn’t be so eager to find
out a secret. It could change your life forever.

I believe-
That two people can look at the exact
same thing and see something totally different.

I believe-
That your life can be changed in a matter
of hours by people who don’t even know you.

I believe-
That even when you think you have no more to give, when a
friend cries out to you – you will find the strength to help.

I believe-
That credentials on the wall do not make
you a decent human being.

I believe-
That the people you care about most in
life are taken from you too soon.

I believe-
That you should send this to
all of the people that you believe in.

I believe-

I just did.

Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 8

When Clay spotted the crushed look on Ella’s face—the shock, the disappointment, the pain—his heart dropped to his gut.

He wasn’t sure what the darn Realtor had revealed to Ella just now, but it must have had something to do with him. And from what he could see, Ella hadn’t taken it very well.

Damn. He hadn’t meant for her to stumble onto his identity before he got a chance to tell her himself.

He set the rag and can of lubricant he’d been holding on the windowsill, then headed outside to try to ease Ella’s mind with the truth he’d been holding back. But before he could reach her, she met him at the door, her hands folded across her chest and a fire in those pretty, green eyes.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “Why did you lie to me?”

“I didn’t exactly lie.”

The flame that blazed in her eyes threatened to burn him alive. “Oh, no? You let me think that you didn’t have a job or a penny to your name.”

She had a point, but he’d never actually said he was unemployed and broke. “You came to that conclusion on your own.”

“But you could have corrected me.”

Yes, he could have. And he probably should have. He’d deceived her, and while his reason for doing so had seemed justified at the time, he realized she wouldn’t see it that way.

“I wanted a chance to get to know you better,” he said.

She stiffened. “Excuse me?”

He wasn’t so sure if he could explain without making it worse.

“You’re angry,” he said.

“You bet I am. I’m also shocked. And crushed. You were probably plotting to get inside the house all along.”

“Now wait a minute.” Clay placed his hands on Ella’s shoulders, trying to connect with her again. “That’s not true, honey. I never thought about buying the house until I saw how sad you and Aggie were about moving. So I made the offer this morning, asking that you remain here until summer. But even after that, I wouldn’t have let you move until you wanted to.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why would a man like you—a successful businessman, of all things—purchase a piece of property he had no intention of using?”

“I did it for you. Because I—”

She tilted her head to the side. “Because you what?”

Clay glanced at the people who stood near the For Sale sign, gaping at him and Ella. Then he reached for her hand. “Come with me, and I’ll try to explain.”

He feared that she might put up a fight, but she walked with him through the house and out to the backyard.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“For starters, I’d like to have some privacy.”

Once they were in the back of the old, three-story house, he led her to a wrought-iron chair that sat under the elm tree. When they were finally alone, he said, “I have a confession to make.”

“You should have made it a lot sooner.”

“You’re right. I realize that now. But when I saw you at Red, I knew there was something different about you, something special. And I was determined to get to know you.”

“It was a mean trick.”

“Maybe so, but I never meant to hurt you. It’s just… I’ve been with women in the past who said they loved me, when they were only interested in my money, my success. I’ve seen the damage those kind of people can cause.” He thought of Connor’s widow. “And I wanted to make sure you were different.”

“Oh, I’m different, all right. I don’t have any money to my name. And if I did, I’d use it to go back to school and get a college degree.”

“I find that refreshing.”

“Do you?” The flame, which had seemed to cool down a bit once he’d gotten her alone, flared again. “Well, I don’t. And where is your sense of fairness? Didn’t you think that I would have liked to be able to get to know you? You didn’t offer me the same courtesy that I’ve given you—honesty.”

She was right; he hadn’t thought of it that way.

“In a way, you did see the real me,” he added.

Skepticism crossed her face. “How do you figure?”

“In the past, I was so focused on business, that I lost the real me along the way. That’s why I spent a week camping by myself. I’d just returned to Red Rock that night when I met you at Red. And it seemed as if you were…some kind of divine answer, I guess. A gift I’d been waiting for all my life.”

As she wrapped her mind around that, he added, “I liked coming by the house and doing chores for you and Aggie. And not just because you’re beautiful and witty and charming. I actually enjoyed the fix-it projects, as well as mowing the yard, trimming the tree and pruning the hedges. In a way, while I was working on the house and in the yard, I was fixing all the broken and run-down things in my own life.”

He scanned her face, trying to read her expression, hoping she understood what he was trying to say. When she didn’t comment, he said, “I’m sorry, Ella. And if you’ll let me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“How do you plan to do that?”

By pulling out all the romantic stops, he supposed. And laying his heart on the line.

Clay got down on one knee and reached for her hand. “I love you, Ella. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”


Ella blinked. Had she heard him correctly? He loved her? “I don’t understand.”

“I can’t explain it, either. I never believed in love at first sight, but I’d never met anyone like you before. I believe in it now. I fell for you, Ella. And I fell hard.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, for starters, you could forgive me for deceiving you. I swear I’ll never lie or hold anything back from you ever again. And then, maybe you’ll agree to go out on the town with me, so I can show off the woman I love.”

All the anger, all the pain, faded away as she gazed into Clay’s eyes and saw the love shining there.

She might have been angry at him for withholding his identity, but in doing so, she’d been able to see the real Clay and to get to know him on a level she never would have allowed herself to enjoy before. And it had given her the opportunity to share more of herself with him than she would have under different circumstances.

“I love you, too,” she admitted. “Although, I must admit, the money and success frighten me a bit.”

“They frighten you?”

“I’m not well-versed on things like fashion or socializing at fancy places with the rich and the famous.”

“That’s fine with me. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything if you’re not comfortable. I’d be happy to spend every night at home with you.”

Ella laughed. “I didn’t say I was a homebody. It’s just that I might not fit into your world.”

“My world is anywhere you are, honey.” Then he cupped her face, his eyes shining with love. “So what do you say? Will you marry me and make me the happiest man in the world?”

Ella wrapped her arms around his neck and answered his question with a kiss that promised she’d love him forever.

Fairy tales didn’t get any better than this.


Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 7

Just as he said he would, Clay stopped by Ella’s house the next morning around eleven, and he continued to show up at the same time for the next two weeks, ready to do whatever they needed him to do.

He fixed leaky faucets, repaired broken electrical outlets, mended shutters and even mowed the yard and trimmed the big tree out front.

He took a liking to the place and began to come up with ways to renovate the old Victorian. And today, after he helped Ella take down the holiday decorations, he suggested that they paint the exterior.

“I’m afraid that would be way too costly,” Ella said.

“Who knows,” Clay said. “Maybe you’ll win the lottery.”

“Yeah, right.” She cast him a pretty smile, and it took everything he had not to wrap his arms around her and kiss her senseless. To tell her that her worries were over.

With each day he spent with her, he became further convinced that he’d fallen in love with her—and that she’d probably had his heart from that first night he’d met her at Red. After Connor died, Clay had wanted to change his life because it had felt empty, but now that he’d met Ella, he’d found a sense of purpose and more.

In fact, he’d almost told her yesterday how much she’d come to mean to him, but he’d held off.

He knew she felt something for him, too. And that those feelings were for the man he really was—and not for the lifestyle he could provide her.

But yesterday, when he’d made an offer to purchase Aggie’s house, he’d heard something that caused him to continue exercising a little caution.

His real estate agent had mentioned that Fred Stewart, the man selling the property, had said his niece, who currently lived in the house, wasn’t to be trusted. She wanted to remain living with Aggie for free, when the woman was getting senile and needed round-the-clock care.

Clay had remembered the episode with the dirty sink water. But nothing he’d seen since indicated it wasn’t safe for Aggie to live on her own.

He’d also wanted to argue in Ella’s defense, to say that he’d gotten to know her and that Fred Stewart was wrong. He was sure of it…but not quite sure enough to lay his heart on the line. So he hadn’t admitted his identity to her yet—or revealed his attempt to buy her and Aggie all the time they wanted to stay in the old Victorian.

Okay, so maybe there was another reason. He was also dragging his feet because he hadn’t quite figured out how to tell her that he hadn’t been completely honest with her.

But he would.



Ella stood at the kitchen window and looked out into the yard, where Clay had just finished cutting back a tree branch that had been weighing down on the fence. Now he was in the living room, putting lubricant on a squeaky window.

She was amazed at his strength, at his work ethic. He gave all his effort, all his focus, to each job he took on. In fact, he seemed to have a personal stake in renovating the old house, something that touched her heart.

In fact, there was a lot about the man to… Well, a lot to love.

She realized she hadn’t known him long, but he was everything she’d ever wanted in a man—kindhearted, dedicated, loyal and honest. Before meeting him, she’d been afraid to get too close to people, especially after Fred’s betrayal. But Clay listened to her and valued her opinion. So how could she not trust him?

In fact, she’d begun to think that meeting Clay at the restaurant had been fate.

They’d yet to kiss again, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t tempted to catch him alone. And so she’d asked him to stay for dinner tonight, hoping that she’d find the right time to say that she’d like to date him, even if he didn’t have any job prospects at the moment.

Okay, so there was still a lot she didn’t know about him, but she hoped to put that behind her this evening, over dinner.

She’d already asked him questions about his childhood, about his education, about his friends. Trouble was, his answers had all been pretty vague.

But maybe he hadn’t lived a very exciting life.

As she prepared a chicken and rice dish, the telephone rang. When Aggie didn’t answer, Ella rinsed her hands in the sink, dried them on a dishtowel, then grabbed the receiver from the mount on the wall. “Hello?”

“Where’s Aunt Aggie?”

Ella wasn’t sure what Fred had against her or why he’d become brutally short and to the point. Would it have hurt him to greet her?

“I’m not sure. I thought she was talking to the handyman, but she didn’t pick up the telephone, so I’m not sure.”

“A handyman? Tell her to stop wasting her money.”

Ella bit back the anger and frustration Fred never failed to incite lately. “It’s difficult when so many things aren’t working properly around here.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not going to be a problem for you any longer. We got an offer on the house this morning. And it was almost full price, so I accepted it.”

Ella’s heart sank as she realized the move was now imminent, that Aggie would have to live in a retirement home. And she would have to find a new place to live, a home that didn’t have the same loving memories.

“The details in the contract are a little unusual,” Fred added. “But I didn’t see any reason not to agree to them.”

Ella gripped the receiver as though she could squeeze the details out of Fred. “What do you mean? What did you agree to?”

“The new owner can’t move in until this summer, and he’s adamant that the house not be left vacant. He’d like you and Aggie to remain living there for the next six months. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Of course not.” They’d been given a reprieve. The longer Aggie could stay in her home, the better.

When Fred ended the call, Ella hung up the receiver. Then she strode to the living room, where Clay was working on a squeaky window. She watched him for a moment, the way the sunlight shined on him with a heavenly glow.

He’d shown up in her life when she’d really needed a friend. Should she tell him that they didn’t require his services anymore?

Just the thought of not seeing him again turned her heart topsy-turvy. And that’s when she realized she’d fallen head-over-heart in love with Clay Baldwin.

The man might not have any money, but he had everything else that mattered. He was not only handsome, he was sweet, kind, funny—but most of all, he was honest.

What more did she need in a man?

“Clay,” she said.

He turned and shot her a boyish grin that sent her heart spinning. “Did you find something else that needed fixing?”

Her future, maybe. But was it too soon to lay her heart on the line like that?

Old habits were hard to kick, she supposed. So she offered him a smile, rather than an answer, then asked, “Have you seen Aggie?”

“She’s in the front yard, talking to a guy putting a Sold attachment on the For Sale sign.”


“Thanks.” Ella strode to the door then out to where Aggie stood talking to the Realtor.

“This man says the house is sold,” Aggie told her.

“Yes, I know. Fred just called. But don’t worry, Aggie. We won’t have to move for another six months.”

“The buyer can’t move in until then,” the Realtor said. “So he’s asking you to stay in the house so it won’t remain vacant.”

“I suppose that’s nice,” Aggie said.

“What do you know about the buyer?” Ella asked.

“Just that he’s a corporate executive who paid cash for the property.”

“No loan?”

“The guy’s rich.”

He must be, Ella thought.

“He asked for me to keep his name out of it, but…I don’t see any problem in mentioning it to you. You’ll know it as soon as you get the papers. His name is Clay Baldwin. He’s the CEO of a successful firm in Red Rock. And he’s got the money to fix this place up, which is going to increase the value for other home owners.”

Clay? It couldn’t be.

The man who’d let her buy his dinner? The man who pretended to be jobless? The man who was inside the house right now, fixing things and checking out all the flaws?

Had he planned to purchase the house all along? Had he only been using her to get inside, to gain Aggie’s trust?

Ella shot a glance at the living room window, where Clay worked. He smiled at her—until he read her pained expression.

Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 6

As Clay’s thumb stroked Ella’s cheek, his gaze locked on hers, Ella’s heart raced in anticipation. And when he lowered his mouth and kissed her, she dropped his wet shirt to the floor and placed her hand on his waist.

As their lips met and his tongue sought hers, the kiss deepened until she thought she would melt into a puddle at his feet.

For a moment, she not only forgot where they were, but who they were—still strangers to each other. Yet nothing seemed to matter other than this magical moment in time. And when the kiss finally ended, leaving her craving so much more, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to breathe evenly again.

“I’d wondered how kissing you would feel,” he said.

She’d wondered the same thing, especially when she’d caught sight of him without a shirt.

And now they both knew exactly how it felt—star-spinning, earth-shaking. And…promising. Which made no sense. After all, she’d only just met him yesterday. And he’d been very light on details of his life.

“You look a little uneasy,” he said.

To say the least.

“I, uh…” She stepped back, then bent to retrieve the wet shirt she’d dropped. “I’d better rinse this and get it in the dryer.”

Yet instead of moving, she remained rooted to the spot, as the bathroom walls seemed to close in on her, on them.

Her gaze, which had been locked on those stunning blue eyes of his, lowered to his bare chest, a sight that had triggered that amazing kiss in the first place. Yet she couldn’t help taking a second look at the magnificent perfection of his broad shoulders, well-defined pecs and six-pack abs.

Oh, for Pete’s sake. She’d been ogling him. Had he noticed?

She risked a glance at his face, where a crooked grin lit his eyes.

Shaking off her embarrassment and ignoring the heat that had undoubtedly flushed her cheeks, she nodded toward the doorway. “I’d better get out of here, or your shirt will never dry.”

Then she turned and headed for the laundry room, more than ready to put a little distance between herself and the sexy stranger she still knew way too little about.

When she got as far as the kitchen, Aggie had just finished mopping up the water from the floor.

“Don’t worry about that,” Ella said. “Sit down and relax. I’ll take care of the mess.”

Aggie pulled out a chair, but before taking a seat, she smiled and said, “Your young man is very nice.”

“He’s not my ‘young man.’ We’re just friends.”

Of course, friends didn’t kiss the way they had just moments before. And as much as she’d like to forget what had happened, she had a feeling she’d be dreaming about it long after Clay went back to wherever he’d come from.

After rinsing out the shirt and putting it in the dryer, Ella returned to the kitchen.

“You know,” Aggie said, “if Clay is a handyman, we could certainly use him around here.”

Ella supposed he might like the extra work, but was it a good idea to invite him into their lives? After all, what did she know about him?

Not much. And even when you thought you knew someone, she reminded herself, they could still prove to be someone else entirely. At one time, she’d thought of Fred as a father, only to have him show how selfish he really was, leaving her nearly destitute and with no say in her life or Aggie’s.

“Do you think we should ask Clay if he would be interested in a side job?” Aggie asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, I hope he would be. Fred never seems to take any of my complaints seriously. He’d rather sell the house than make any more repairs. And it breaks my heart to let it go.”

Ella crossed the room, placed her hand on Aggie’s shoulder and gave it a gentle and affectionate squeeze. “It breaks my heart, too.”

“It can’t be helped, I suppose.” Aggie let out a weary sigh. “But this house could be so beautiful again—if we had the money to renovate it.”

“I know, but the truth is, neither of us can afford to do much more than we already have. And so we should let the new owners worry about any repairs and renovations.”

Sensing the presence of someone else, Ella looked up to see Clay standing in the doorway—bare chest and all. Goodness, if she had something that might fit him, she’d offer it to him, just to save herself from fawning over him like a lovesick adolescent.

“Did you hear what we were saying?” Aggie asked.


Yes, Clay had pretty much heard it all, especially the part about how much Aggie loved the place and hated to move, but he didn’t want to admit that he’d not only been deceiving Ella, but eavesdropping, too.

So he said, “Just that you might be in need of a handyman.”

“That’s what I meant,” the elderly woman said. “Would you be interested in having a side job?”

Clay shot a glance at Ella and tried to gauge how she felt about having him around more often, especially after that heated kiss they’d shared.

She’d seemed pretty shaken by it, but then again, why wouldn’t she be? When they’d come up for air, he’d been so amazed and aroused by it that he’d been afraid he’d lose his head and say something he might live to regret—like, “I could fall for you.”

That might be true; he was certainly feeling something for her. But he didn’t want to make a mistake by opening up his heart too soon to the wrong person.

Sure, there was something powerful brewing between them—and love might be just around the corner, but he wouldn’t make any confessions about the depths of his emotions—not to mention any claims of wealth—until he knew without a doubt that she was the woman he hoped she was.

“We do have a few odd jobs that need to be done,” Ella said. “But we can’t afford to pay very much.”

“If we did have the money,” Aggie added, “we’d hire a contractor to renovate the house, like several of the other people on the street have done. But since we don’t, my nephew would rather sell than to spend any money on improving the value.”

Clay had noticed the For Sale sign on the front lawn when he’d arrived.

“What’s your nephew have to do with it?” Clay asked.

“He’s the executor of my estate, and I made him the trustee a couple of years ago. Back then, he seemed to be a lot more understanding, more sensitive to my wishes.”

“Did you tell him that you’d rather stay here?” Clay asked.

“Yes.” Aggie’s voice softened. “But he thinks it’s best if I move to an old folks’ home. He says I’ll be happier there, but I know he’d just rather not bother with the house—or with me any longer.”

“I’d buy it myself,” Ella said. “It breaks my heart to think of you leaving.”

“I’m an old woman,” Aggie said. “I can’t blame Fred for not wanting to take care of me anymore.”

“Is your trust irrevocable?” Clay asked.

“I’m not sure,” Aggie said. “Why do you ask?”

Because Clay had a top-notch attorney who’d drawn up his own trust, and it was possible Aggie could still make changes—if she wanted to. But maybe it was best if he didn’t get involved, so he said, “I was just curious. Sometimes, those trusts can be changed. Maybe you should talk to your attorney.”

Aggie seemed to think on that for a while.

“Either way,” Ella said, as she turned to Clay, “would you be interested in helping us with a few fix-it projects?”

She was giving him permission to come back? To see her on a regular basis?

A grin tugged at one side of his lips, but he forced a serious expression. “Yes, I’d be glad to. But I can’t show up until after eleven each day.” He’d scheduled interviews at the office all this week, hoping to find someone who could take on the projects Connor had been working on when he’d died.

“Why can’t you come any earlier?” Ella asked. “Aren’t you a morning person?”

Actually, Clay was up each day at the crack of dawn, but he paused, thinking out his answer. He wanted to be as truthful as possible, so he’d have to remain vague. “I’ve got some…job interviews lined up.”

“Well, good luck,” Ella said. “I hope you find the perfect position soon.”

Something told him he’d found perfection already. After all, everything he’d seen so far clearly showed that Ella had a kind, loving and loyal heart. And she wasn’t overly concerned about money and what it might provide her.

All he needed was a little more time with Ella, then he’d know for sure.

Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 5

Clay couldn’t help but smile as he gazed at Ella, her eyes wide, her lips parted.

“It took a little detective work,” he said, “but I found you.”

She bit down on her bottom lip and furrowed her brow.

Uh-oh. He didn’t want her to worry that he might be a stalker, so he raised his hand and unfolded his fingers, revealing her bracelet.

She glanced at the heirloom, then back at him, tears flooding her pretty green eyes. “Oh, thank goodness. You found it.”

Then she carefully took the bracelet from his outstretched palm.

“One of the links is broken,” he said, “which caused it to fall from your wrist during dinner. I noticed it on the table.”

She studied the damaged chain, then fingered the family heirloom as if it were a priceless relic. And to her it was, at least in sentiment.

When she looked at him again, her expression morphed from one of surprise to wonder. “Thank you for taking the time to return it. But how did you find me?”

“You mentioned that your aunt had recently taken the bracelet to be cleaned, so I went to every jewelry store in town until I located a jeweler who recognized it.” And once he had Agatha Stewart’s name, it hadn’t taken much effort to track down the woman and the great-niece who lived with her.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Ella said, swiping a tear from her cheek.

Just seeing her again and having an opportunity to ask her out was thanks enough. “Dinner last night was a nice trade-off.”

She paused a beat, then glanced out into the street—looking for his vehicle, he figured. But she wouldn’t find it. He’d parked his new Mercedes three blocks away, hoping to continue his “poor man” charade, at least for a while longer.

Moments before Clay had arrived at Ella’s house, he’d received a call from the attorney representing Connor’s widow. Apparently, the gold digger was hoping for another cash settlement to keep her from suing for the stock she still felt entitled to. It just went to show that money brought out the worst in some people.

“Did you walk all this way?” Ella asked him.

“Walking is good exercise. Besides, it wasn’t all that far.”

Again his conscience tweaked, but he shook it off. He wasn’t ready to tell her the truth yet. His heart and hormones might think it was possible to fall in love at first sight, but he was a man of reason and knew better than that.

Ella swung open the door and stepped aside. “Please, come in. Aggie and I are making sandwiches for lunch. Can I offer you one—either turkey or ham and cheese?”

“Either sounds good to me.”

After he entered the house and closed the door, he followed Ella into a cozy kitchen with yellow walls and old-style white appliances. An elderly woman, who had to be Ella’s aunt, stood at the counter with a loaf of bread, lunch meat and condiments.

Ella made the introductions, calling Clay “a friend” and explaining to her aunt that Clay had found the bracelet and returned it to her.

Aggie brightened, although she seemed to be more excited to see Clay than the missing heirloom. “You’re just in time for lunch, young man. Have a seat at the table.”

Clay thanked her, then complied. “But you’ll have to let me do the dishes or something in return.” Clay might be playing the role of a poor man, but he wasn’t going to continue to let Ella feed him.

“Actually,” Ella said, “there is something you can do for us. Do you have any plumbing skills?”

The question took him aback. “Well, that depends. What seems to be the problem?”

“Our garbage disposal isn’t working, and the sink has been plugged up. One of Aggie’s nephews was supposed to either come by or send someone to fix it, but… Well, it’s been several days, and he hasn’t gotten around to it yet.”

That sounded simple enough. Clay’s dad had been a handyman—one of the best in town—and he’d insisted that his sons learn a few tricks of the trade.

“I’d be glad to take a look at it,” he said.

“And after you do that,” Ella added, “we have a lot of other things that need doing around here. If you have the time, we’d be more than happy to pay you for your trouble.”

So she really was under the impression that he had no car and was out of work. He supposed the faded jeans he’d chosen to wear, along with the “lucky” shirt he’d kept since his freshmen days at college, had her further convinced.

Again, his conscience urged him to set her straight, but the whole down-on-his-luck thing was working for him. Plus, it gave him the opportunity to spend more time with her.

So after they’d eaten a pleasant lunch, Clay asked Ella if she had a wrench he could use to loosen the pipes, as well as a bucket to catch the dirty water. While she went to get the things he needed, he removed everything from the cupboard under the sink so he had access to the drain.

Minutes later, he’d cleaned out the pipe that had been plugged and prepared to put the plumbing back together again.

“I don’t suppose I can get one of you ladies to empty this bucket for me,” he said, still stretched out on his back under the sink and reaching for the wrench.

“I’ll do it,” Aggie said.

But instead of taking the bucket outside or to the laundry room, she emptied it into the kitchen sink, where the dirty, stinky water poured through the open pipes and splashed onto Clay’s face and shoulders.

“Oh, no,” Ella cried out, when she realized what had happened. “I’ll get a towel.”

“Goodness,” Aggie said. “I’m so sorry, Clay. I just… Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

Clay, his face and chest sopping wet, climbed out from under the sink, glad he hadn’t blurted out an obscenity. “It’s okay, Aggie. No harm, no foul.”

“Here,” Ella said, handing him a towel to dry his face. “Why don’t you let me show you to the bathroom where you can wash up.”

Clay would have told her that it didn’t matter, but that dirty water had been nasty. So he followed her out of the kitchen, down the hall and to an open doorway.

Once inside the small room, he turned on the faucet and waited for the water to warm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ella lean against the door frame and he turned to her, his gaze locking on hers. Something stirred between them. Sexual awareness, for sure. And a yearning to explore it.

Rather than broach the subject, he turned back to the sink and rinsed his face, using the bar of soap on the counter.

Ella came closer and handed him a fluffy blue towel. “I’m so sorry. She gets a little scattered sometimes.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Clay chuckled. “Those things happen.”

“I know, but, if it’s all the same, I’m sorry it had to happen to you.” She offered him a pretty smile, then added, “If you’ll give me your shirt, I’ll rinse it out and throw it in the dryer.”

“All right. Thanks.” Clay peeled off the wet material, but as he began to hand it over, Ella’s lips parted and her gaze sketched over his bare chest.

She swallowed, as though finding it difficult to speak, to move.

And the awareness, the yearning, returned full force. They stood frozen for a moment, caught up in a swirl of sexual attraction and…well, who knew what else.

But this time, it was impossible to ignore. It might be a risky or crazy move for him to make, but Clay couldn’t help doing what seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

He placed his hand along her jaw, brushed his thumb across her cheek, then lowered his mouth to hers.

Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 4

While Ella had eaten dinner with Clay last night, she’d tried to conjure a reason to leave before he had a chance to ask her out or to assume that sharing a meal together had meant more than either of them had expected it to.

She couldn’t risk another disappointment, especially when Fred’s lies and broken promises had just about crushed her.

Then a phone call from Aunt Aggie had provided her with the perfect excuse.

Aggie’s nephew Fred, the oldest and most selfish of the two, had dropped her off at the house without waiting to see if she got inside safely. But when the older woman had reached the door and dug through her purse, she hadn’t been able to find her key.

Instead of calling Fred and asking him to come back, she’d called Ella. “There’s no need for you to rush home to let me in, dear. I have a sweater. I’ll just wait on the porch until you get here.”

“I’m just paying the bill now, Aunt Aggie. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

After ending the call, Ella had left the money to cover the check and a tip on the table, as well as a note for Clay, explaining that she had to leave unexpectedly. Then she’d dashed out the door and climbed into her car before he could return from the men’s room.

There was something cowardly—and probably even tacky—about ducking out while he was away from the table, but if he’d gazed at her one more time as if she was the only woman in the world, she might have completely lost her head and started putting more stock in him as a… Well, as a romantic interest. And she had no business getting involved with anyone until she landed a new job and found another place to live.

After all, she’d promised herself that she would become self-sufficient and never be reliant on anyone else ever again for her future security. And that was a vow she meant to keep.

She’d only driven a couple of blocks from the restaurant when Aunt Aggie had called again, saying she’d found her key after all. But Ella had continued home.

When she’d entered the old Victorian, she found her auntie sitting in the rocker and watching the evening news.

“How was dinner?” Ella asked.

“It was okay. Fred doesn’t ever have much to say, but he took me to the Peking Palace, my favorite restaurant.”

“I like that place, too.”

“Then you’ll be happy to know that I brought home the leftovers. If you’re hungry, they’re in the refrigerator.”

“Thanks, but I had a taco salad at Red this evening.” Ella placed her purse on the bottom step of the stairway.

“I really wish you would have come to dinner with us,” Aggie added. “You could have kept the conversation going.”

Ella would have rather had a root canal than sit across the table from the man who wanted to move his aunt into assisted living, especially since his reasons for doing so were selfish. The old Victorians on Bluebonnet Lane had increased exponentially in value over the past two years, so it was no mystery why he’d put Aggie’s house up for sale.

But the cost of assisted living would be more expensive than keeping Aggie at home, even with the expense of repairs, so Ella suspected something other than Fred’s greedy side was behind his plans: he was tired of caring for his aunt. He denied it, of course, but he’d lied to Ella in the past, and she wouldn’t put it past him now.

Ella had asked him to reconsider his decision to sell, but he’d told her it wasn’t any of her business. He was the trustee of Aggie’s family trust, and he’d do as he saw fit.

Sadly, the fact that the elderly woman had practically raised Ella’s mother and been like a grandmother to Ella meant nothing in the legal scheme of things.

“I really wasn’t in the mood for Chinese food,” Ella told Aggie. “And you don’t get many chances to spend time alone with Fred.”

Aggie let out a little “humph” and gave a half shrug, which left Ella to wonder if Aggie might have preferred a dental appointment this evening, too.

But she couldn’t blame Aggie for that. Fred was asking her to leave the only home she’d known for nearly sixty years, even though she was still spry, fairly healthy and as sweet as ever.

Ella loved looking out for Aggie and would have done so out of love and loyalty, even if Aggie’s nephews hadn’t paid her a small stipend. And while the room and board increased the value of her earnings, she could make a lot more money working elsewhere.

But Ella never had put that much stock in money, although she wished that weren’t the case now. If she had the funds, she’d purchase the house herself and let Aggie live here as long as she wanted.

She turned to her aunt and smiled. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No, thanks. I had more than enough with dinner.” Aunt Aggie cocked her silver-haired head to the side. “You’re not wearing the bracelet I gave you. Did you put it away?”

Ella lifted her arm, noticed her bare wrist, gasped and uttered, “Oh, no!”

Had it fallen off in the car? Or maybe at the restaurant?

Her stomach lurched. What if she’d dropped it while dashing through the parking lot to her car? What if someone had run over it or found it and claimed it as their own?

She hated to admit that she’d lost something so valuable, so special. But it was obvious that she had, and there was no way she’d deceive her aunt. “I had it an hour ago, Aggie. I’m going back to Red. I’m sure I’ll find it.”

After searching the car first and coming up empty-handed, she drove to the restaurant and spoke to the acting manager, who told her no one had turned it in.

“You should call back tomorrow,” he said. “We have a janitorial service that comes in after we close. I’ll tell them to keep an eye out for it.”

She nodded, then went out into the parking lot and searched the ground to no avail. With her heart heavy, she drove home. Fortunately, by the time she arrived, Aggie had already gone to bed, so the confession could wait.

The next day, Ella waited until late morning to call Red and ask if her bracelet had been found, but it hadn’t.

And now, as she hung up the telephone, she tried to find the words to tell Aggie that it was lost forever. It would be so much easier to lie, to say Ella had put it in the safe deposit box at the bank, but lying went against her grain, no matter how difficult the truth might be.

Before she could head for the kitchen, where Aggie was preparing lunch for the two of them, the doorbell rang, giving her a momentary reprieve.

She crossed the room and swung open the door, then gasped. There, standing on the stoop, was the man she’d had dinner with last night—shaved, fresh from the shower and wearing a crooked grin that nearly dropped her to her knees.

She wanted to ask what he was doing here and how he’d found her, but in the myriad emotions, the least of which was surprise, she was speechless.

Red Rock Cinderella – Chapter 3

Dinner with Ella had been an unexpected delight. And while Clay would have given anything to have an ice-cold Corona with his meal, he wouldn’t take any further advantage of her offer to spring for dinner when she was losing her job and probably couldn’t afford it.

So, for that reason, he’d requested water to drink. He’d also ordered two tacos à la carte instead of the hearty—and more expensive—carne asada plate he’d decided on earlier.

It was one thing to let Ella believe he was struggling to make ends meet, but there was no way he’d let her pay a hefty bill when a smaller one would do. Even then, he would make it up to her—somehow.

He risked another glance across the table, noting the way the candlelight glistened along the glossy strands of her hair, the way her expressions danced across her face, telling him that there were no secrets behind her smile, no hidden agendas.

From the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, she’d intrigued him. And her appeal had only grown stronger with each minute he’d spent in her company.

“The food is good here, isn’t it?” She looked up from her plate and smiled.

“It’s the best.” Yet it was more than the food making him glad he’d stopped by Red tonight. It was Ella herself.

She reached across the table and placed her hand over his, warming his blood and stirring up emotions he’d never realized he had, like faith and hope and maybe even love.

Then she smiled at him, revealing a pair of dimples that turned him inside out. “Things are going to really look up for you in the New Year.”

They’d perked up already—right this minute, in fact, with her gazing at him as if she knew the future, as if she really did hold a bit of magic in her hands.

He marveled at her optimism, at the sensual lilt of her voice. At the serendipitous way in which they’d met.

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

“Because your luck is going to change, Clay. I can’t tell you how I know it, but I do.”

Oh, his luck had changed, all right. He couldn’t quite explain it, either, yet he also knew it to be true. And he wasn’t talking about his finances. He was talking about everything that truly mattered in life, those things he’d tried to prioritize while he’d been camping. The ones that had begun to really fall into place this evening. A lasting relationship with a woman that was built on love, on trust, on truth.

Like the truth of your net worth? His conscience rose up, prodding him to come clean. He’d always been honest in his relationships, whether they were business or personal.

But he couldn’t do it. Not until he had more time with her, not until he knew for sure that her magic wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. He sensed that Ella wouldn’t be swayed by his wealth, that her interest in him was real—but Connor had thought that way, too, and his wife had played him like a fool.

And Ella was interested in him, all right. He’d noticed her stealing glances at him all during dinner—and once, when he’d caught her flat-out, she’d flushed and looked down at her meal.

The pheromones that had been swirling around him all evening had been buzzing around her, too.

At that moment, the waiter brought their check—and with it the awareness that their evening together was ending. Clay noted a change in her expression, a mood change maybe.

Was she, like him, sorry to see their evening end?

Clay fought the compulsion to reach for the check, to lay his credit card down—which wasn’t available since it was in his wallet, and hopefully, in his car. Yet he let Ella take the bill instead.

“Thank you,” he said.

She tossed him a carefree smile. “You’re welcome.”

A man who’d come from behind Clay moved past the table—probably on his way to the men’s room.

Clay hadn’t needed to see J.R. Fortune’s face to recognize the tall rancher with a lanky swagger and a head of blond hair. The two of them not only had a business deal in the works, they had become friends, too.

When J.R. returned through the courtyard, he’d be facing Clay and would undoubtedly stop to say hello. But that would blow Clay’s cover before he was ready.

Deciding to find J.R. first and ask him to play along, Clay lifted his napkin, blotted his mouth, then said, “Would you excuse me, Ella? I’ll be right back.”

“Of course.”

As Clay headed for the men’s room, Ella’s cell phone rang.

He didn’t think anything of it until he got back to the table several minutes later and found Ella gone.

For a moment, he thought that she, too, had gone to the restroom. But then he saw she’d left twenty-five dollars in cash next to the bill and a note scribbled on a cocktail napkin.

Clay, I’m sorry I had to leave. Thanks for the company. Wishing you the best, Ella.

That was it? She’d left without saying goodbye? Without leaving a phone number or telling him her last name?

Every last bit of luck Clay had ever seemed to have drained right out of him, leaving him unbalanced and at a loss.

She was gone?

Clay scanned the courtyard and beyond, looking for the woman who’d promised to be more than a passing fancy, but he didn’t see hide nor tail of her.

When he turned back to the table, he spotted her bracelet lying next to her discarded napkin, glistening in the candlelight. He picked it up, noting that the delicate chain was broken—maybe from when it had caught on the basket earlier this evening.

Would she notice it was missing before she got home? Would she come back for it?

Yet one question was even more pressing of all: Would he ever see her again?

Yes, he told himself. He had to find her. And not just to return the heirloom.

He took the bill as well as the cash, and carried it to the hostess, who was also the cashier. “Did you notice the woman I was with?”

“Yes. She went outside.”

“How long ago?”

“Two or three minutes.”

Damn. Why had he taken precious time to ask J.R. about the upcoming wedding? Why had he even left the table at all?

Just minutes ago, he’d found a new direction for his life. And now?

Clay went to the door and peered into the parking lot, but he didn’t see Ella getting into her car. In fact, there weren’t even any vehicles pulling onto the street.

She was really gone.

But where?

He took a moment to wrap his mind around his loss, then he rallied. Whenever he wanted something, he went after it—a trait that had worked well for him in business. And one he hoped would work for him now.

He opened his hand and peered at the bracelet that lay in his palm. The heirloom she’d left behind wasn’t much to go on—certainly not a glass slipper—but Clay Baldwin knew what he wanted.

And his heart was set on finding his Cinderella if it was the last thing he did.