A secret life is the best protection against love…

          Men love Rose Badger, and if the other inhabitants of dead-end Blake’s Folly, Nevada, don’t approve, she couldn’t care less. With a disastrous marriage far behind her, settling down is the last thing she intends to do. Isn’t life for fun? Doesn’t a stable relationship always mean predictability and boredom? Well… perhaps things might be different with Jonah Livingstone, but he is off limits for anything other than friendship. Even though he’s started a slow burning fire inside her, he’s still entangled in a complicated past relationship. And Rose has another secret life—one that she’ll never give up for any man.

          The last person geologist Jonah Livingstone expected to meet in a semi-ghost town is Rose Badger. She’s easy-going, delightfully spontaneous, and Jonah is certain their attraction is mutual. But Rose is always surrounded by a crowd of admirers and doesn’t seem inclined to choose a favorite. Though Jonah has also suffered a failed marriage, he can’t help being drawn to Rose—and he dares to hope she may feel the same for him. But is Jonah too independent to settle into a permanent relationship again? He’s leading his own very private life, as well…and secrets are an excellent protection against love. Will he do what it takes to hold on to his DESERT ROSE?



Desert Rose

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Chapter one

            When the bell above the shop door tinkled, Rose's well-practiced welcome smile was almost in place. Almost… Then it stopped in mid-stretch. Stunned, she stared, blinked, stared some more. My goodness: wasn't he gorgeous. Her interest increased, and her heart did a pitter-patter tippy-toe dance as she took him in: tallish - but anyone would be tall when compared to her tiny size - rangy, with tousled hair so dark it appeared blue under the lights, an explorer's bone structure and weather honed skin, deep brown eyes. And, here she was, acting like a complete idiot, frozen into place, gawking at him, as if he were of another species, or something totally new-fangled dropped down from a distant stretch of the Milky Way.

       Not that he seemed to be faring any better than she, not moving, staring at her, his gaze unwavering, the wide-open door letting in frosty air and snowflakes. What was that gaze of his telling her? That he was surprised? Pleased? Oh, yes. He liked what he saw, all right - men did like her, she knew that. She was used to their admiration. They liked naturally golden curls, slanting blue eyes, and the broad, flat cheekbones of the Russian steppe. But, wasn't it especially nice to be admired by such a gorgeous specimen? Yes, indeed.

       Mentally, Rose shook herself, forced herself out of her stupor - somebody had to do something. This was a store, a business, not a blind date. If a man suddenly showed up in a ladies' dress shop, that meant there was already a woman in his life. Unless he was a cross-dresser. Or was lost and needed directions out of this half-a-horse hellhole.

       “Hello.” She forced the formerly incomplete smile into something more fulsome.

       “Hello,” he answered. Smiled back. Not a forced smile, though. A wonderful one that softened the craggy angles of his face, crinkled into deep lines around his mouth and eyes.

       Rose swallowed. Stared for another few seconds, then ordered herself to stop thinking about his smile, his lips, the soft, bristly, salty way his skin would taste if she licked it, just there, at the corner of his mouth.

       The very thought made her knees tremble. A bad case of lust at first sight? With a great effort of

willpower, she corralled the lusty thoughts until they were more manageable, somewhat closer to normality. Heard her own voice, calm practical: “Can I help you with something?”

He shook his head slightly, as if waking from a trance. Then, the laugh lines, the crinkles disappeared, and his expression became more business-like. “Yes, of course.” Stepping into what was left of the warmth in the shop, he turned slightly, closed the door behind him. Looked over at her again. Cleared his throat. “I'm looking for a present.”          

            “For your wife?” Rose held her breath.

       The mouth tightened. He hesitated, but only for seconds. “Not quite.”

       “Ah.” Hope faded. Not quite a wife wasn't nearly as bad as a snuggled-in official wife, but it was close enough. “Your fiancée.” She was just fishing, she knew it too, but hoped he didn't. Not that she was being very subtle.

       “No, not that either.” He shrugged, shook his head. “The woman I'm…ah…well…we live together. In the same apartment, that is.”

       “Ah.” Okay. The woman he was living with. Hope skittered out of the picture with all the clang of a badly tuned wedding bell. Unless she'd detected - no, intuited - another note, one hinting that all wasn't entirely perfect.       

       She tucked the thought into the back of her mind, ready for perusal at some later moment. For now, though, he was a potential customer, nothing more, she told herself…aside from that first blinding moment when he'd opened the door and seen her. A moment that had been nothing less than a spontaneous gut-deep call of male to female, female to male. A call now quashed with the message of: “too late, already taken.”

       “What sort of gift were you looking for?” she managed to ask coolly enough.

       “Damned if I know.” The wonderful smile and the creases were back again. “I was hoping you could help me with that.”

       “Fine,” she said, all efficiency. Even if a passionate romance was out of the question, a few bucks in her pocket would come in handy. Sales weren't a daily occurrence in a dress shop way out in the Nevada desert. She relied on the internet for most of her profits. “Were you thinking of a dress? A blouse? What size does your…your, uh…lady friend wear?”

       “Actually, I didn't have clothing in mind.” He looked around, unsure, taking in the bright fabrics, old-fashioned hats, the shoes of another era - all tucked in between heaped books, the occasional vase, and a mountain of draped scarves; all displayed in a chaos of color. “Most of this is secondhand?”

       “Vintage,” Rose corrected. “The very best.”

       He sighed, frowned. “Marina would never think of wearing secondhand clothes. Even beautiful vintage clothes. For her, everything has to be new and have a designer label.”

       “Oh, I see.”

       “I haven't offended you, I hope.” He even looked sincere.

       “Of course you haven't,” Rose assured him. “We don't all have the same values, thank goodness.” She could just picture a woman named Marina: a snob. Pretentious. What the hell was he doing with a woman like that? Look how he was dressed - in faded, tight blue jeans that hugged his slim hips and muscular legs, a well-worn black leather jacket, scuffed black boots. Sexy as hell.

       “Amen,” he seconded. “I don't have the same values as Marina, either.”

       “Doesn't that bother you?” Rose stopped. Flushed. “I'm sorry. I have no right to ask that question. It was very rude of me.”

       His eyes were meeting hers evenly. Then he laughed softly.

       “Okay.” Rose scraped together some lost dignity. “Let's get back to the gift. What sort of woman is she? Does she like vintage jewelry? I do have some nice pieces over here, in the display counter.”

They were old pieces, in designs no longer made, but Rose had always prided herself on having a good eye and excellent bargaining skills. The result was, she'd managed to get her hands on some very fine necklaces. One, from the 1920s, in wrought silver and set with perfectly cut stones, seemed to please him particularly.

       “Red beryl, banded agate, and topaz,” he said.

       Rose looked up, surprised. “You know your stones.”

       “I do,” he said simply. And, although the price for the piece was a bit hefty, he didn't hesitate.

       “You aren't from around here, are you?” Rose asked idly as she folded the necklace into a little box, began wrapping it in silvery gift paper.

       “I live in Reno, but pass through Blake's Folly from time to time. I noticed your shop before, and I always promised myself that one day I'd stop in, have a look. This was the perfect occasion:

Marina's birthday is on Tuesday.”

       Rose looked up. “You pass by Blake's Folly from time to time? Whatever for? This is the end of the world.”

       “The world has several ends, and I work in all of them. I'm a geologist.”

       “Ah, I see. Well, that explains it. That also explains why you knew what the stones in the necklace were.” Not that she knew a lot about geology, aside from the fact that it had something - or everything - to do with minerals and lurching over the countryside staring at rocks and measuring things with strange gadgets.

       “That explains some of it,” he said, taking her in from head to toe with undisguised curiosity. “If this place is the end of the world, how did you get here?”

       “The easiest way possible. I was born here.” Rose glanced out of the window at the early evening light touching up a bleak, empty landscape that would never interest a city slicker; at the gentle snowflakes drifting lazily, as though they had no intention of ever reaching the ground.

       “And you stayed?”

       He was looking even more curious now - if that were possible. She couldn't blame him. “I did leave Blake's Folly when I was young. I stayed away for years and was absolutely certain I'd never return, that this place was the absolute pits. It's funny: there's nothing going on here. The greatest social event of the year is the Blake's Folly Get-Together - and that's just bad music, awkward dancing, and gossip mongering. There's no cinema within reasonable distance, no shopping outside of Reno - and that's a very long, boring drive away. Yet, this place has a strange pulling power. So I came back, decided to settle.”

       “Your husband is from Blake's Folly too?”

       Rose's eyes flicked back to his. Ah ha. So, he was still interested and checking out the territory. “No husband.”

       He looked surprised. “An unmarried woman in such an outof-the-way place?”

       What was he asking? If she was lonely? Desperate for male company?

       Rose laughed outright. “Oh, there are plenty of men around, believe me.” There were. They were out on the ranches, or climbing over the hills, or looking for gold, or photographing, or pounding along the history trail, or doing research, or taking care of animals, or looking for fossils, or stopping at the Mizpah Hotel and Restaurant for a drink, a chat, a meal, and a little human warmth out here on the lonely flatland. She'd always had her share of admirers too, although none lived in Blake's Folly - they'd have to be half-mad to do something like that. This place was a rusty trailer, scrapyard, abandoned car, clapboard shack, sagging old house community: a dead end if there ever was one.

       Now, although he still looked amused, he was also slightly abashed. “I think I'm the one who's out of line this time.”

       Rose only grinned. His grin met hers.

       He took the little gift-wrapped packet she held out, slipped it into the pocket of his leather jacket. Turned, looked out at the night, but didn't move toward the door. Rose watched him, wondered why he was hesitating. Because he wanted to stay? Talk to her? Get to know her? Because he, too, acknowledged

the buzz that was still hovering in the air around them, and he wanted to explore it, see where it would go?

       Then he shook his head, turned back to her, the smile still playing softly around his lips. “Well, I'd better be on my way. Looks like the snow isn't letting up.”

       “No,” Rose agreed. “There have been blizzard warnings all day.”

       “Yes.” His eyes held hers. Warm eyes. Intimate eyes. Eyes that, in certain circumstances, could create havoc with a woman's senses. “Nice talking to you.”

       “Nice talking to you, too.” She meant it.

       He still wasn't heading toward the door. “My name is Jonah. Jonah Livingstone.”

       “I'm Rose Badger.”

       “I figured your name might be Rose. This shop is called Second Hand Rose.”

       “Yes.” She shrugged. “Sure, I know it's corny. It does get the idea across, though. And, it incites people from elsewhere to stop, take a look.”

       “I'm living proof of that.”

       “You are… since Blake's Folly isn't exactly a tourist destination.” No, that, it certainly wasn't. “It isn't even a realistic destination for anyone reasonably sane.”

       He laughed, of course. “I'll keep that in mind.” He turned, headed for the door. “Until next time, Rose.” She waved once.        “See you then.”

       He stepped out into the night, turned once again, just briefly, his hand also raised in a half-wave, half-salute. Then, vanished into the falling snow and dusky evening.

       Rose shrugged. Next time, he'd said? What sort of next time? This was Blake's Folly. People always said they'd be back, but they rarely were. Why return to a pile of clapboard shacks and abandoned trailers? This was nowhere. This was the end of the line, socially speaking. This was a has-been. This was home.

            Meeting Jonah Livingstone had left her with a strangely unsettled feeling. She wondered why, but had no real answer - other than the fact that she'd liked him. Nothing unusual in that, though. Rose loved men, loved talking to them, loved hearing their take on things. She liked their rougher skin, their

deeper voices, their broader shoulders. She liked making them laugh; she liked getting them to confide in her; and she was good at both of those things too. Because men knew she liked them, they were happy to open up, be with her.

       Sure, that didn't make her a lot of female friends in the world, but having one close woman friend was enough for her - even though that particular friend, Alice, was a bit of a crank, a herpetologist who studied and rescued snakes. Alice probably preferred everything slithery, covered with scales, and venomous, to any human being. What could you expect out here? Normal people didn't live in Blake's Folly. Even if the place was a wash-out now, it had been jumpy and nervous enough back in the old Gold Rush days. Today's residents were the descendants of the wild gun-slingers and goodtime girls, those who'd hung around too long, gotten so caught in the gluey languor of this place, they'd been unable to

move off.

       Jonah. He'd said his name was Jonah. A nice name. Not one you heard often. Idiot. She was acting like a teenager with a crush on the high school pretty boy. Not like a mature businesswoman. She marched herself into the back room, lifted a soft mauve dress - a perfect nineteen-forties tea gown - from her worktable, slipped it onto a hanger, came back into the shop and hung the garment in the right place, just where it would snag the attention it deserved. Then stood back to admire her handiwork with a smug smile of pure satisfaction. That dress was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship; the soft fabric glowed, even in the dull light of a snowy winter evening. She knew that, in the next few weeks, some lucky woman would fall in love with it, carry it away, convinced she'd purchased an authentic vintage garment.

       It wasn't vintage, of course, but no one had to know. The fabric was right, the style was perfect, the lovely thing was hanging here in her little shop, Second Hand Rose. Anyone could imagine the dress had been worn by some glamorous starlet back in Hollywood's heyday. Even if that wasn't true…

Very far from the truth, in fact.

       She looked up at the large old wooden clock hanging on the wall. Would it matter if she closed up a little early? Of course, it wouldn't. How many customers would be willing to risk the icy roads? None. She didn't feel like sitting down, reading, or scraping together a light dinner, or singing, or drawing, or… Or

spending time in her own company. No, she'd go over to the Mizpah Hotel, sit up at the bar, amuse herself, push thoughts of unavailable men like Jonah Livingstone out of her head.

       Still…hadn't she just loved his coloring, the wonderful crinkles around his mouth, those high cheekbones that hinted at more exotic genes - perhaps Shoshone? There was something else that drew her too: his aura? His scent?

       Why waste another thought on him? She'd most likely never see the man again.

       Slipping into her pink fake fur, she turned out the shop lights, locked the door and headed toward the Mizpah Hotel. Time to take her mind off the impossible, and do what she did best. Charm everyone. Flirt. Then bask in the admiration of all the men in sight. She'd manage to do all that very well, too. All

you had to know, was how to snag their attention. Then, they'd come snuffling around, all right.

       So what if local consensus tagged her as an airhead, an inveterate flirt, a loose woman no one could take seriously. She didn't mind one bit. Lighthearted flightiness was just the image she'd been careful to cultivate over the years here in Blake's Folly; it kept all the bored, nosy gossips in the tiny community

satisfied, not prying into her past or her present.

       Because, one of the things Rose liked best in life, was keeping secrets - not that the secrets would have compromised her in any way. They weren't deep, dark things that should best be hidden. No, it was almost a game: hiding who she really was, what she really did. Having a secret life put a tickle into everyday

existence, and it kept a sly smile on her lips, nothing more than that.

            The closer Jonah got to Reno, the worse driving conditions became. Why the hell hadn't he had the sense to stop in Blake's Folly? There had been a hotel and bar - the Mizpah Hotel - right on the main road. He could have spent the night there.

What difference did it make if he got back home tonight? Marina would be fine without him. Or would she be? He didn't know, but more often lately, he'd had the feeling that even she'd finally realized she didn't really need him, or his support, any longer. If that feeling was right, it was quite a relief.

       He'd let her be dependent on him for too long now, and that was very far from the deal they had made in the beginning. The deal that stated this situation was a temporary one; that it would end as soon as she felt she was ready to stand on her own two feet, go back to work, take up the thread of her life, become the energetic woman she'd once been.

       At which time, he'd be free to live his own life again, to play his cello for hours on end - that was what he wanted, wasn't it? Or, had he also become strangely dependent on Marina, taken

advantage of the fact that she was in his life, in his apartment? Perhaps he had just been using her as a shield, an excuse to distance himself from others, to protect his independent loner streak. With her there, he couldn't become emotionally involved with anyone else. If that was true, the idea didn't make him any

happier. It just made him feel like an emotional coward.

       His thoughts drifted back to the feisty-looking woman in that tiny shop in Blake's Folly: Rose Badger. A funny name. She looked like fun too: a shining woman with an open gaze, arching cheekbones, and a tumble of curls. If he'd suggested a drink in the Mizpah Hotel, if he'd invited her out for dinner, would

she have accepted? He had the definite feeling she might well have done so. Yes, that would have been worth a try. He was pretty well certain it would have been an enjoyable evening too.

            But, he hadn't done it. He pushed the niggling feeling of regret to the back of his mind as the distant haze of Reno's nightlights came into view.

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