Authors: Vicki Lewis Thompson
Clay opened the driver’s side door and climbed in. He had her panties in one hand, and he draped them over the steering wheel before turning toward her. “You okay?”
She surveyed his extremely handsome and remarkably pulled-together look. He’d put on his hat, fastened the snaps of his Western shirt and tucked his shirttail into his jeans. She, on the other hand, was sitting here with the hairstyle from hell and wearing absolutely nothing, not even a hat.
Oh, wait. Her bra still dangled loosely from her shoulders. “I’m fine,” she said, “but I must look like something the cat dragged in.”
“No cat I’ve ever known has dragged in anything so beautiful.”
His compliment warmed her. In fact, everything about this man, from his deep voice to his thrilling touch, made her feel treasured. “Thanks, Clay. That means a lot coming from you.”
“I don’t think there’s an insincere bone in your body. You say what you mean and mean what you say.”
“I sure try to.”
“And for the record, you delivered on your promise.” She looked into his dark eyes. “I will never, ever forget what just happened.”
He turned sideways in the seat and reached over to cup her cheek. “Me neither.” Tipping his hat back, he leaned across the console and gave her a gentle kiss. Passion hovered in the background of that kiss, lending a rich undercurrent to the sweetness of the gesture.
She sensed that if she held his head and demanded more, he’d give it. Then they’d land right back where they’d been moments ago, mindless with the force of their need for each other. They’d already created problems for themselves. No point in making things tougher.
Gradually he released her and settled back in his seat. “I hope you’re not disappointed, but we’ll have to skip visiting the sacred site today.”
She almost laughed. As if she gave a flip about that after what they’d shared instead. “I’m not disappointed.”
He glanced at her and smiled. “Good.”
“In any sense of the word.”
“Even better.” He held her gaze. “We can stay here as long as you like, but eventually we have to go back to the ranch house.”
“I know.” Sitting up, she pulled her bra together and fastened the clasp. Then she reached for her panties hanging on the steering wheel.
His hand closed over hers. “I didn’t mean you should rush. These aren’t even close to dry.”
Just that much contact was enough to send shivers up her spine. “I should put them on anyway. People might already wonder why we’re not back yet.” She pulled her hand out from under his and took the panties. They were still damp and she didn’t relish putting them on; nevertheless she slipped them over her feet and up to her knees.
“There’s a simple explanation for the delay. You wanted to explore the creek and then you fell in. I doubt anybody’s paying that much attention to how long we’ve been out here.”
“Maybe not, but I was supposed to be helping you so that you’d be finished in time to take me for a horseback ride.” Holding on to the dashboard with one hand, she lifted her hips so she could drag on the clammy underwear.
“Here, let me.” He leaned over, grasped the panties and pulled them up with quick efficiency.
Just as quickly, she was aroused and ready for action. She froze in place as she fought the urge to ask him to reverse the process. Those talented hands of his could give her another mind-blowing orgasm in no time.
“You can sit down now,” he said gently.
She swallowed. “I should probably sit on the blanket instead of the seat, if you wouldn’t mind unfolding it for me.”
Positioning the blanket brought him back in close proximity. As she felt his warm breath on her bare arm and caught his musky scent, she gritted her teeth to keep from begging him to love her some more. He acted so nonchalant about helping her. He must not be feeling the same tension.
you can sit down.”
“Thanks.” She lowered herself onto the blanket and stared out the window as she tried to get her heartbeat back to normal.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I want you so much right now I can’t see straight.”
She groaned and buried her face in her hands. “No, you shouldn’t have told me.” Lifting her head, she looked at him, knowing he’d be looking right back. “What are we going to do about this?”
“I have no idea. Spending the next few days being around you and not able to touch you is liable to drive me crazy.”
“I should never have let you give me that blow job.”
“I should never have let you touch my hoo-ha.”
He stared at her in obvious frustration. Then slowly he began to grin, then to chuckle. Finally he was full-out laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“Us! We’re ridiculous! We’re consenting adults, and we should be able to have sex with each other if we want to.”
“Yes, but as we’ve said several times, my father would have a fit if he found out. I don’t know if he’d be more upset with me or with you, but he would definitely be upset.”
“So we’ll make sure he doesn’t find out. We’ll make sure nobody knows.”
She shook her head. “Even if that’s possible, it’s not just about him, it’s about you. What if I break your heart?”
His smile never wavered. “Trust me, Emily, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how to guard my heart. This isn’t about my heart. It’s about a totally different part of my anatomy.”
MILY PULLED THE BLANKET
around her. “Let me think about it.”
That wasn’t the answer Clay had hoped for. “Don’t think too long.” He started the truck and slowly backed it in an arc so he was facing the meadow again. “When are you leaving?”
“Probably Saturday. I made the trip in one day on the way here, but it’s close to seventeen hours. I might break it up going back. I’m supposed to be at work Monday, and I don’t want to be wiped out.”
He put the truck in gear and started back to the graded road. He hadn’t given much thought to her decision to drive, but it was a hell of a long way. “Why didn’t you fly?”
“I wanted to save a few bucks.”
And here he’d thought she was a spendthrift. Instead she might be a beautiful cheapskate. “Yet you have all this money stashed away.”
“I do, and you know what? I feel like giving it back to him.”
Clay winced. “I wouldn’t, if I were you. I don’t think his pride could handle that.”
“Maybe I could tell him I won the lottery and wanted to share.”
“No, that’s a really bad idea,” she said. “Assuming he’s already lied to me about where the money’s coming from, I don’t want to compound that by creating a second lie in order to give it back.”
Clay sighed with relief. “Good. Besides, he wouldn’t take it, no matter what story you cooked up. I’m sure in his mind he’s the parent who’s supposed to give to the kid, not the other way around.” From the corner of his eye he saw her nod.
“You’re right,” she said. “But I promise you, if he needs anything as he gets older and doesn’t have savings to cover it, I’ll find a way to help him.”
“So will I. I know how it feels to depend on the kindness, or sometimes the unkindness, of strangers.”
She was quiet for several moments. “You don’t have to answer this, but I really want to know what it was like.”
He thought about taking the fifth because he didn’t enjoy talking about those days. But he had just told her that he knew how to guard his heart, so maybe she needed to understand. “You feel like somebody lost in the desert with no water and no shade. You see this oasis, but when you get there, it’s a mirage. Eventually you stop believing in the oasis and you learn to survive without water and shade.”
“But what about the Last Chance? Isn’t that a real oasis?”
“I want to believe it is, and it’s the closest thing to a home I’ve ever had, but I’m still a hired hand. I sleep in the bunkhouse, and I don’t own any part of the ranch.”
“Emmett thinks of you like a son.”
“I know he does.” Guilt pricked him. “Which is why he trusts me with you.”
“As he should! You would never let any harm come to me.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” He cut the wheels to the left and the truck bounced over a small ditch as he drove onto the dirt road leading back to the ranch. “But I doubt he’d want me fooling around with you, either.”
“More for your sake than mine. He doesn’t want you falling for a California girl the way he did.”
Clay looked over at her. “That might be part of it, but you’re still his little girl, and any man with intentions like mine would probably face a loaded shotgun.”
“But I’m twenty-seven years old!”
He couldn’t help laughing, because her exclamation made her sound no more than five. Without makeup and wrapped in a blanket, she didn’t look twenty-seven, either. More like seventeen. But she probably wouldn’t appreciate hearing that.
“I don’t think it matters what age you are,” Clay said. “I hope I’ll be a dad someday—I’ve watched how they behave with their kids, so I can learn something. They may try to treat their sons and daughters the same, but they don’t. They’re way more protective of those girls.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.” She sounded sad. “My dad wasn’t ever around long enough for me to find out if he’d be protective or not.”
Instantly he regretted ever bringing up the subject. “I’m sorry. I have a bad habit of thinking nobody’s had childhood problems but me.”
“If we’re comparing, I certainly had it better than you, though. At least I had a mom and a home.”
“There was a time I would have given anything for that, but who knows? I might not have ended up on a ranch, and I love that life. It suits me to a T.”
He felt her gaze on him and turned to see her smiling in a way that made his groin tighten. “You probably shouldn’t look at me like that while I’m driving.”
“Because it makes me want to pull over and ravish you.”
“Ravish me?” She laughed. “That sounds like fun.”
“I guarantee it would be, but you said you had to think about whether you and I should have any more sexual adventures together.”
“I do have to think about it. And not because of my dad’s disapproval, either. Still, we might want to hold off until after his birthday.”
“Which gives us one whole day?”
He groaned. “I can’t convince you to sneak out of the house tonight and meet me in the barn?”
“No. My dad will only turn sixty once, and I don’t want to risk upsetting him on his big day. Either with a discussion about this supposed inheritance, or by carrying on a secret affair with you.”
“You’re right.” He blew out a breath. “You are so damned right. I’m being selfish to even think of it.”
“No, you’re not. I’ve thought of it. I’ve imagined all kinds of scenarios.”
“Yeah?” That gave him hope. “Like what?”
“You don’t want to hear them while you’re driving.”
“You are a hard woman.” He avoided a rut partly to save the shocks but mostly because bouncing around with an erection was extremely unpleasant. “And you’re turning me into a hard man.”
“Now that’s funny.”
“No,” he said with feeling. “Believe me, it’s not.”
UCK WAS WITH
made it upstairs without anybody seeing her. She’d been given Nick’s old room, although according to Sarah none of the furnishings were the same. Apparently Nick had cherished the bed he’d had in there and had taken it to his house.
Sarah had put a secondhand bed and dresser in the room temporarily while she searched for something more distinctive. Emily hadn’t thought much about the room, but as she walked around after a quick shower in the bathroom across the hall, she pictured it with a king-size bed and dresser.
The headboard and footboard of the bed would be made of some kind of rugged wood with old-fashioned brands burned into the surface. The dresser would be constructed the same way, and a red leather armchair in the corner would give the room a splash of color. She liked her vision so much she thought about telling Sarah.
If Sarah had an idea of what she wanted, she might be able to find someone to make it. Emily thought about coming back when everything was done, and how much she’d enjoy sleeping in a room she’d helped design, in a house that she loved. Then she brought herself up short.
What was she doing, turning into some sort of Western girl? One day of hot sex with a cowboy and she’d gone native? How her mother would wrinkle her nose at that.
As if to prove that she was from California and proud of it, she dressed for dinner in a short white skirt and a black tank top. Then she piled on the gold jewelry with big hoop earrings, a three-strand gold necklace and gold bangles on her arm. For good measure she added a gold ankle bracelet and wedge-heeled sandals.
When she walked down the curved staircase to the living room, she found Sarah sitting there drinking wine with a blond woman who looked to be in her late fifties.
“Emily!” Sarah called out. “I wondered if you’d turn up. I have someone I want you to meet.”
As Emily walked toward the two women seated in leather armchairs she wondered if, like it or not, she was about to meet her father’s girlfriend.
“Hello, Emily.” The woman stayed seated but held out her hand. “I’m Pam Mulholland.” She had a warm, firm handshake and kind gray eyes.
Emily wanted to instantly dislike her, but she wasn’t the sort of woman to inspire instant dislike. Her dimpled smile of welcome invited Emily to smile back. “I’m glad to meet you. My dad has mentioned you.” She didn’t add
because that would give more importance to the relationship. At this point, Emily didn’t want it to be important.
“And he’s certainly mentioned you to me! He’s very proud of you.”
“That’s nice to hear.” It was the polite response, but Emily couldn’t imagine what her father had to be proud of. She hadn’t done much of anything.
She was so focused on Pam that she didn’t notice Sarah had left to get another glass from the liquor cabinet until Sarah held it out to her already filled with wine. “Oh! Thank you, Sarah.”
“I took a chance that you like red, but please, watch out for that skirt.”
“I do like red. Thanks.” Obviously she was meant to join them for a little chat. She’d rather not, but she’d taken the wine and now she was caught. She chose a seat next to Sarah. “Is…uh…my dad home yet?”
“Any minute, now,” Sarah said. “We’re waiting dinner for him, since we sent him off on all those errands to make sure he was gone for the afternoon, we can’t very well start dinner without him.”
“I should have gone with him,” Pam said. “I could have made sure he didn’t get sidetracked, but I had so much to do. I’m training the girl who’ll take over for me tomorrow night when I come to the party, and she has lots to learn.”
“A bed-and-breakfast must be a big responsibility.” Emily studied Pam and noted some similarities to her mother—both Pam and Jeri had fair complexions and a nice smile. But Emily’s mother had an edge to her, a sharpness that was missing from this woman. Pam definitely seemed softer. She also dressed like a westerner in a yoked shirt and jeans.
“It doesn’t seem like a big responsibility to me,” Pam said. “But I’ve been doing it for a while. I suppose it’s overwhelming to someone who’s just being introduced to the job.”
Sarah beamed at her friend. “I’m excited because you’re finally getting a whole night off. I don’t think you’ve taken the night off since you bought the place.”
“No, I haven’t, but Emmett’s sixtieth warrants my full attention.”
“Indeed.” Sarah raised a glass in Pam’s direction. “Which reminds me, Emily. How did you and Clay make out at the picnic site?”
Emily was grateful that she hadn’t just taken a mouthful of wine, because if she had, it would have spurted all over her white skirt. “Just fine,” she said in a voice that sounded almost calm. “The tables and benches are all set up and the fire pits are ready.”
“That’s great. So here’s my plan. We have a yearling named Calamity Sam who’s recently developed a phobia about the noise of plastic bags. Gabe keeps meaning to work with him, but he’s gone so much with his cutting horse competitions that he hasn’t had time. I’ve asked Emmett to work with Sam tomorrow morning. Desensitizing a horse with a phobia is a tedious job, and it should keep Emmett occupied so we can sneak our nonperishables out to the picnic site.”
“And tomorrow afternoon I’m going to develop a plumbing problem at the Bunk and Grub,” Pam said. “While he’s fixing that, you can haul the perishables out there.”
“Can I help in any way?” Emily didn’t want her dad’s girlfriend to contribute more to the plan than his only daughter.
“Absolutely,” Sarah said. “You can be part of the Calamity Sam plan. Two people are usually more effective. While Emmett calms the horse, you can rustle a plastic bag. This may take more than tomorrow’s session, but we need to cure that colt of his phobia. I think Emmett will be happy to show off his horse-training skills for you.”
“I can do that. After all, I came here to spend time with my dad.” She gave that last sentence extra emphasis.
“And he’s absolutely thrilled to have you here,” Pam said. “So am I, for that matter. I’ve been eager to meet you after all the wonderful things Emmett has told me about you.”
“He has?” Emily had a hard time imagining her dad bragging about her and fought the impulse to ask what those wonderful things had been.
“Of course. He thinks you’re so smart, and he envisions great things for you once you settle on a career.”
Emily grimaced. A smart dilettante wasn’t particularly admirable. “Finding a career has taken far too long, I’m afraid. You’d think by twenty-seven I’d have more direction in my life, but instead I’m working at something that pays the bills but doesn’t really interest me all that much.”
“My, my.” Pam exchanged an amused glance with Sarah. “Twenty-seven already and you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. Sweetie, I was past fifty before I figured that out.”
“As for me,” Sarah said, “I married Jonathan and that made the decision for me. I was a rancher’s wife. But I chose the man, not the vocation. I didn’t realize until after the wedding that I’d made a career choice at the same time. Turns out I love it, but I didn’t know I would. Jonathan’s first wife wasn’t so lucky. She hated ranching and left.”
“She did?” Emily had never heard that story. “Like my mother?”
“Not exactly like your mother.” Sarah took a sip of her wine. “Diana left her son, Jack, behind. He was only four.”
Emily gasped. “She
him? How could she do that?”
“I don’t know, but Jack had some major problems dealing with his mother’s abandonment. Thank God for Josie. She’s helped him come to terms with it. I think having a baby is the best thing that could happen to them because Jack can give that kid the security he didn’t have.”
Emily shook her head in amazement. “And all this time I thought he was your son.”
“Well, he is. Just not biologically.”
Emily wondered what other important facts she’d missed over the years because she’d visited the ranch under protest and had kept a protective shell around herself the entire time. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Jack. At least I’ve known all along that both my parents love me.”
“And that’s a gift,” Pam said. “I can vouch for the fact Emmett loves you dearly. You should see his face light up when he talks about you.”