Read Rebel cowboy Online

Authors: Nicole Helm

Rebel cowboy

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Copyright © 2016 by Nicole Helm

Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Blake Morrow

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Contents

Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

An Excerpt fromOutlaw Cowboy

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Back Cover

For Maisey, who said, “Why not cowboys?”

Chapter 1

Mel Shaw reined in her horse at the crest of the familiar path that wound its way around the Shaw ranch.

She’d ridden this trail her entire life. On her eighteenth birthday, she’d ridden it with her father. On this very spot he’d told her, someday, what lay below would be hers. It had all been veryLion King, and in that moment, an amazing gift. This awe-inspiring tract of land in the shadow of barely snow-peaked mountains would someday be entrusted toher.

Someday had turned out to mean five years, almost to the day, when a freak accident had put her in charge…of a barely surviving ranch, a delinquent brother determined to burn every Shaw bridge, an injured and withdrawn father, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and livestock that needed to be cared for and tended daily.

These days it felt more like a noose than a gift. But it was a noose sheloved.

Mel took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders and squinting into the blue sky. All this was for nothing. She wasn’t giving up leadership here for very long—three months at most. And Caleb…Caleb could handle this.

Maybe if she repeated that to herself enough, she’d actually believe it. Her younger brother had gotten his act together in the past few years. When they thought Dad would die, he’d changed. She could trust him to take the reins now.

Regardless, she didn’t have a choice. The Shaw ranch stretched before her, like her heart laid out on display along the edge of Blue Valley, Montana. Every barn, work building, even the old house, was looking weary in the early summer morning light. Spring had not been kind.

The years had not been kind.

But she would turn them around. Some idiot hockey player wanting to drop twenty grand on a consultant was just the financial stopgap she needed to get things really going again. They could start to rebuild some of those partnerships that debt, and Caleb, had compromised, to rebuild the cattle herd that had diminished to next to nothing. They could beShawagain.

The clopping sound of another horse on the trail behind her interrupted the quiet. She didn’t bother turning around—it could only be one person.

“It’ll be okay.”

“I know.” She’d gotten a lot better at lying to Caleb since Dad’s accident.Everything will be okay. I’m not even tired. Who needs a foreman?

“I won’t disappoint you.”

“I know that too.” She offered him a smile as he brought his horse to a stop next to hers. He looked impossibly young to her, even though she was only two years older. Before the accident, Dad had always joked she’d beenbornolder, like George Bailey inIt’s a Wonderful Life.Apparently destined to be on the hook for a failing business.

Only she didn’t have hero Harry to rescue her. She had a brother who’d alienated everyone in town, finishing the job Mom had started before she abandoned them twenty-some years ago.

Mel swore she could feel the noose tightening, making it harder to breathe. Harder to lie. She tried to shake it off—all the memories, all the doubts, all the responsibilities piling up against her.

She was taking the reins, taking this summer job away from the ranch. She was going to save them. Shewas, and Caleb was going to help. He’d found a constructive way to deal with whatever demons had plagued him. Demons she’d never understood—demons he’d neverlether understand.

She had to believe in him. Trust him. Unclench a little.

Ha.

“Will you get me his autograph?”

“Sure.” She paused for effect, then gave Caleb her best big-sister glare. “On my paycheck.”

Caleb laughed. “Had to ask.” He cleared his throat, staring hard at the ranch below. “I know I’ve said it before—”

“Then don’t say it again. The situation is what it is. I’m done with apologies. All that matters is we’re doing what’s best for Shaw.” That’s all that would ever matter.

“What about what’s best for you?”

She clicked her tongue, turning the horse around so she could head back to the main house. “Shawisme, Caleb.” The thing she could count on no matter what. Each peak in the distance, each slightly leaning building, every blade of grass that came back year after year. It was her center, her core. It was her; she was it. Always.

Everyone around her might let her down, but this place couldn’t.

* * *

Dan Sharpe rolled off the most uncomfortable mattress he could remember ever spending a night on. The twinge in his back as he stood reminded him of the indisputable fact that he was getting old.

Thirty-five meant he was no longer the young phenom on his team.

The sad fact of the matter was, his teammates looked at him like he was as old as his famous father.

That’s not the only way they look at you.

What did it matter? Technically they were no longer his teammates. His contract was up, and after screwing the pooch in two Stanley Cups, rumors were starting to swirl that his complete cave under playoff pressure wasn’t so much psychological as it was criminal. His agent thought there’d even be an investigation.

Dan scrubbed his hands over his face and walked over bowed floorboards to a tiny en suite bathroom that had seen better days. Probably twenty years ago, before Grandma and Grandpa had moved south and rented the old Paulle place out.

Apparently rented it out to people who didn’t care much for comfort or things of this century.

Which was fine. Part of this self-exile was about pushing himself out of his comfort zone and doing some hard work that had nothing to do with hockey. Far away from any rumors that he was some game-throwing asshole. Let the NHL investigate. In fact, he hoped they did, because he’d be proven innocent. Sure, he was still an asshole, but he was not a cheater.

The pounding coming from the front of the house was muffled enough that Dan thought about ignoring it, but then he remembered his consultant was supposed to be showing up today.

He had no idea what time it was.Crap.He grabbed a T-shirt out of his suitcase and pulled it on as he walked through the old hallway he just barely remembered from his childhood, through the kitchen decorated in blue ducks, of all things, and to the front door.

Buck, the guy who’d been doing maintenance for his grandparents the past few years, stood on the porch next to a young woman. They were both smiling…until they looked at him.

Then those smiles died. While he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with hockey, he’d been on the end of that change enough times to fall back into old habits. Because if people weren’t going to be happy to see you, why not make themreallyunhappy?

“Howdy, partners,” he said.

The woman’s cool expression went to pure ice, jaw setting, dark eyes not even bothering to meet his. “Mr. Sharpe, I assume.”

“And you are?”

She stuck out her hand, grudgingly it seemed. Like she didn’t want to touch him. Or even be here. Not the normal reaction from women who sought him out. “Mel Shaw.”

He tried to keep the shock from showing on his face, but he couldn’t manage it. When Buck had suggested Mel for the job, he’d never mentioned she was a woman. A young woman. A young,attractivewoman, even under all the cowgirl garb she had going on.

She was tall, her hair a rich brunette. She had a pert nose dusted with freckles, and a lush mouth that didn’t match the sharp angles of the rest of her. Her hand wasn’t soft as it shook his, but she had long, delicate fingers.

Not at all the picture ofMel Shawhe’d had in his head when Buck said he’d arrange for a summer consultant.

Mel glared at Buck as she dropped his hand. “You didn’t tell him?”

“Sorry, too fun.”

“You’re a jerk, Buck.”

“Anyway, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.” The man tipped his hat, and if Dan wasn’t mistaken, laughed himself all the way back to his truck.

Dan’s Harley looked out of place sandwiched between two old, huge pickup trucks. He looked back to the woman on his porch to find that nothing about her irritated expression had changed.

“I don’t care that you’re a woman.” He didn’t. Really. She was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, jeans streaked with dirt and dust, and a plaid button-up shirt. In every respect, she appeared to be the real deal. It didn’t matter that she also had breasts.

Which she then crossed her arms over, because apparently he’d been staring.Crap.

“And I don’t care that you’re some hotshot hockey player, so I guess we’re even.”

“Well, calling me a hot anything kind of says otherwise.”

She looked to the sky and took a deep breath. “Mr. Sharpe, I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot.”

“You’re right. Come on in.”

She furrowed her brow at him. “You’re not even dressed.”

Dan looked down at his T-shirt and ratty gym shorts. “Well, I’m not naked.”

Her cheeks went a little pink, and he couldn’t stop himself from grinning. Of course, the grin that usually caused women to bat their lashes or slip him their number just caused Cowgirl to roll her eyes.

“I bet you expect women to drop their clothes when you smirk like that.”

He wasn’t sure why her disdain struck him as funny, but it did. Maybe because it had nothing to do with the rumors, nothing to do with him booting the puck more times than a reasonable person could think was an accident.

“Well, Mel, can’t say I’d mind that.”

The pink in her cheeks went darker, but she fixed him with a glare. “Watch it, buddy. I may need the money, but you try to sexually harass me and your balls will be in some serious danger.”

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Let me point out that you were the one who brought up taking off your clothes, not me. Still, I apologize. I’m not really known for saying the right thing at the right time.” No, Dan Sharpe had a habit of always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Funny, none of his teammates had cared until last year. Probably because until then, hockey was the only thing he’d never screwed up.

Guess there was a first time for everything.

Which was why he was here. Hiding out. Couldn’t say the wrong thing to the press if they weren’t around. Couldn’t mess it up more, make everyone’s life harder if he was far, far away.

That was the hope anyway. His hope, his agent’s hope, and though Dad hadn’t been anything but encouraging, Dan had a feeling he was really hoping his son didn’t screw up his chances at a front office promotion.

Besides, Grandpa had once said this place had meaning. Dan might be needing some of thatmeaningin his life if hockey evaporated.

Damn, but he needed to get his shit together. He turned back into the kitchen, leaving the door open for Mel. “Coffee?”

“Please tell me you didn’t just roll out of bed.” She stepped inside, eyes immediately assessing the kitchen as she took off her hat and placed it on the counter. She looked even younger without the hat, with freckles, a fresh face, and her dark hair pulled back into a serviceable braid.

But his eyes kept falling to her mouth. It made him think of a different kind of servicing.

Which was super douchey, even for him.

“I’m still working on the time change,” he offered by way of sad excuse. Bottom line, he had no idea what time it was. The clocks in this place were all wrong. His phone had died last night, and he hadn’t felt much like charging it—not when all the calls seemed to be more bad news.

“Yeah, that one-hour difference must be a real bitch.”

He snorted in surprise. Mel Shaw was an interesting development. He’d been expecting some crusty old stodger to yell orders at him while he slaved over menial tasks. Truthfully, there had been some appeal in that.

There was some appeal in Mel doing the same, though. Anything to keep his mind occupied was A-OK in his book. Since he couldn’t skate to clear his thoughts like he usually did, this was the only other thing he could think to do.

“All right. First, you need to get dressed. Into clothes you can actually do some serious work in. You’re also going to need a different vehicle. I’m assuming money’s no object for you, and you’ll need something with hauling capabilities. Besides, that bike will get eaten up driving around out here.”

She said it with such obvious disdain, like he hadn’t worked hard for his money. Sure, he wasn’t saving the world one blown Stanley Cup game at a time, but hewassacrificing his body and possibly a healthy old age for the fans’ enjoyment. He wasn’t exactly sitting on his ass having gold coins thrown at him.

“You’re giving a lot of orders to a guy who’s your boss.”

She kept her arms crossed over her chest. “You’re not my boss. Consultant means my job is tellingyouwhat to do.”

“I’m paying you.”

“You’re paying me to teach you how to run this place. That means I’m in charge and you listen to what I say. Basically, you’re paying me to beyourboss. Keep that in mind. Now, go get dressed so we can actually get some work done around here.” She gestured to the back of the house. “I’ll make the coffee.”

He didn’t move or say anything at first—just watched her. She certainly looked like Ms. Tough Guy, but she also didn’t meet his gaze, and she looked uncomfortable, maybe even restless. Like this job was the last thing she wanted to be doing with her time.

Interesting.

So, he gave a little nod. “Can’t say no to that. I like mine with cream.”

She snorted, turning to the coffeepot. “Of course you do,” she muttered.

He had to chuckle. Three months of going toe-to-toe with some cowgirl with an attitude problem sounded a hell of a lot better than flashbulbs, veiled and not-so-veiled accusations.

And who knew? It could even be fun.


Page 2

Chapter 2

Mel stared at the coffeepot, watching dark liquid trickle into the glass carafe. She didn’t like the jittery feeling in her gut. Nerves. But not quite like the nerves she got when she had to go talk to the bank or miss a payment on something. These were different nerves.

Crap-he’s-hot nerves. She’d googled the guy. She’d seen some pictures of magazine shoots he’d done, but she figured Photoshop had gone a long way toward making him look like some kind of hot celebrity.

Unless he had Photoshop done on his actual face, he just looked like that. And that smile? That was asmile.Smiling was rare in her world lately. So rare it seemed almost like a mirage.

When Dan reappeared, he was wearing jeans. The dark-wash kind that looked like they’d never seen a day of work. A little too tight around the thigh to make riding a horse comfortable.

A little too tight around muscular, yummy thigh to makehercomfortable.

“Maybe we should start over,” he said, sounding sincere for the first time since he’d opened his door. No condescending drawl ofpartner, and no lame sexual innuendo.

“Yeah. We should.” She turned back to the coffeepot. She was definitely not thinking about sexual anything right now. She most certainly wasn’t blushing.

Liar, liar, pants on so much fire.

She hated him for this. The good-looking thing, the weird-sexy-charm thing. Things she didn’t know what to do with. Hockey players were supposed to be all toothless lunkheads, right? Instead, he looked like fiction. Black hair long enough to run fingers through, green eyes the color of mountain sage, sharp nose and cheekbones, strong jaw, all his teeth.

Plus, an incredible body. Yes, he was obviously a professional athlete with that body. The T-shirt he was wearing was practically a screaming invitation to ogle his shoulders. Broad and muscly and…

No. She was not this girl. Even before, when she’d had the time and inclination for that sort of thing, tongue-tied and blushy had never been her MO.

Everything with her one and only romantic entanglement had been easy and sweet and not…confusing. She did not do confusing.

So, yes, they needed to start over.

She took a deep breath, trying to push the nerves away. “The first thing we should do is take a ride around. Get the lay of the land. Then I can help you draw up an overall ranch plan, a daily schedule.” She handed him his coffee—black, because he hadn’thadany cream in his old, whirring, rusty refrigerator.

She’d been surprised to find the house in about the same shape as that refrigerator. Old, poorly running, heavy with disuse. Every part of the place she’d seen was kind of a dump, really. She’d expected a famous hockey player who could drop a bunch of money on aconsultantwould also drop a lot of money on fixing up a place before he stayed in it.

“You’ll also want to go grocery shopping, if you have any hope of eating today. Have you spent any time getting acquainted with Blue Valley?”

“Is there much to get acquainted with?”

She shook her head. While she hadn’t expected the disrepair, she wasn’t surprised to find Dan Sharpe was kind of useless. She pulled the little notebook and pen that she used for taking notes around the ranch out of her front pocket.

“You eaten breakfast?” she asked.

“Nope. Just crawled out of bed, remember?”

“What were you planning on eating?”

He glanced around the kitchen with a thoughtful look on his face. “You know, I hadn’t given it much thought. McDonald’s nearby? I haven’t had one of their hash browns in years.”

She stared. And stared. And stared a little more.

Dan grimaced. “No McDonald’s, huh?”

“Buck said this was your family place. They didn’t clue you in to anything?”

“My grandparents moved to Florida over twenty-five years ago, and they aren’t in the best shape to clue me in.”

She scratched her pen across the top of the page until the ink gave, then she started her list. “We’ll go to town first. We should go ahead and pick up some fencing supplies—from the looks of it, that’ll be your first order of business. Then we can do a grocery run before coming back.”

“Fencing?”

Jeez. He really was clueless. As much as she’d expected him to be spoiled by money and fame, she thought if he wanted to run this place, he’d actually knowsomething.

“Maybe, before we do anything, we should figure out just what you’re wanting to do here.”

“I want to start a ranch.”

“In your mind, what does that entail?”

He shrugged, starting to paw through cabinets. “I dunno. Riding a horse. Humming theBonanzatheme song.”

She swore under her breath, but when he lifted one eyebrow, she knew he’d heard her. “I need the twenty grand, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not here to get your ranch going only to have you screw it six ways to Sunday once I’m gone. Or once you are.”

He found a tin of crackers and pulled it out, lifting the lid and sniffing before slapping it back shut and tossing the whole thing into the garbage can.

The garbage can that didn’t have a garbage bag in it. This guy was a serious mess.Twenty grand. Twenty grand.She needed to repeat that over and over. Nothing mattered. Nothing but getting to the end of this three-month job and getting that paycheck.

He closed one cabinet and opened another, but it was empty. So he turned to her, leaning against the counter. He had a habit, already, of looking directly at her when he spoke. All charm and smiles and green eyes and…stuff. But this was different. No smiling. He wasn’t even making eye contact.

“Look, I get it. I don’t know a thing about anything. That’s why I hired you. I haven’t the first clue what I’m doing. All I know is my grandpa always made it sound like… He made it sound like ranching meant something. Gave him a purpose or whatever. He said this place was his heart. And, the fact of the matter is, my entire life’s purpose is hockey, and whether or not I’m going to be involved in hockey in any capacity for much longer is questionable right now, so I want something. I want something that’s going to matter if the one thing thatdoesgets taken away from me. Grandpa suggested this—his heart—so here I am.”

She didn’t dare move, or speak. She absorbed those words. The honesty in them. “Why not ask your grandpa for the advice, the help? If he loved it so much, why did they move away?”

Dan stared hard out the dusty, filmy window. “He’s not doing so hot these days. Neither of them are, actually, and it’s been a long, slow road to not really being all there. They moved to a warmer climate for Grandma’s health, and it killed him a little bit. Never been the same. In fact, his suggestion for me to take this on probably wasn’t even a rational one, but it stuck with me.”

She could feel the sadness coming off him in waves. Or was that her own sadness? Dad might still be mentally there, but that was about it. He mainly wheeled around the house like a ghost, barely speaking, never getting involved. So, she was pretty familiar with that heavy bleakness of not knowing how to fix someone you loved.

Then his eyes did meet hers, that cocky grin back in place. The only hint he had just spilled his guts was the fact that his hands were gripping the counter. Which made his biceps stand out, and those shoulders…

“I’m at your mercy, Cowgirl,” he drawled. It didn’t matter that the drawl was fake, or the words were goofy, she could very much imagine him being at her mercy. Or her being athisas he pushed off the counter and walked toward her.

“It’s no accident I’m dropping a pretty penny on you. Just about anyone I talked to brought up your name. Told me to get Mel Shaw, not Caleb. So, here I am, having Mel.”

If he hadn’t brought up Caleb’s name, she might have dissolved into a pathetic puddle of lust. But the mention of her brother—and people warning Dan away from him—undercut any fantasies Danhaving hermight have brought up. All that was left was determination.

She’d done a lot in the way of mending her brother’s burned bridges, but the fact of the matter was, every time Caleb had stolen from one of the businesses in town, every time he’d crashed his pickup into someone’s fence, the people of Blue Valley put a little black mark against the Shaw name. People might like her, respect her, but none of them would give an inch when it came to helping with the ranch, because Caleb was a part of it. No matter what Caleb had done to try to make amends.

At least the town respected what she’d done enough to give her this. She couldn’t ignore that it was something.

So, she’d do this. She’d do a hell of a job helping Mr. Hockey Player become Mr. Awesome Rancher. Or at least Mr. Doesn’t Embarrass Himself Rancher.

She slid the notebook and pen back into her pocket, fixing Dan with her best I’m-the-boss glare. “Grab your wallet, moneybags. We’ve got some errands to run.”

His grin changed, from that cocky “I’ll get the best of you” quirk to something softer and more genuine. “You’re really going to do this?”

“Paying me, aren’t you?”

“I figured when you heard how much work teaching me a thing or two was going to be, you might bail.”

“That’s one thing you’ll learn about me pretty damn quick, Sharpe—I don’t bail.” She grabbed her Stetson off the counter and pulled it low on her head. Then she marched out the door to her truck.

She was here for the money, and she wouldn’t leave without that, but at least she had enough insight into Dan’s motivations to care. Care that he got off his feet and running, care that as oblivious as he seemed, he was in it for the heart of the ranch. She knew how much that could mean.

So, nope, she wouldn’t bail. And maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to get a deserted ranch back and running again.

* * *

Dan watched Mel from his seat in an uncomfortable vinyl booth while she chatted with two sheriff’s deputies at the diner counter.

She smiled at these guys. Laughed at their lame jokes. Not that he could hear their jokes, but they were cops. How funny could they be?

Even after his rather personal revelation of why he was here, and her dragging him around all morning, spending his money on all means of supplies, she didn’t smile or chat withhimlike that. She gave orders. She muttered under her breath.

She didn’t laugh at one of his jokes.

It took him a few minutes to realize he was jealous. It was a foreign emotion for him. He hadn’t had a lot to be jealous of over the years. Sure, there’d been a few times in his younger days he wished he hadn’t been the son of a famous hockey player, because of the way people sometimes treated him, but he was also smart enough to know his dad’s name had paved a few bumpy roads for him.

It also helped that his dad wasn’t a prick—that he was, in fact, an all-around decent guy. So any jealousy on the “famous hockey player dad” front had faded.

This? This was new—and almost kind of nice. Knowing Mel was something he couldn’t have. Like he was practicing for all the other things he couldn’t have.

Are you really sure you can’t have her?

He ignored that asshole thought as she made her way back to the table with two glasses of water. She slapped one on the table then slid into the booth across from him.

“No waiters in Blue Valley?”

“Georgia’s understaffed right now, and I was already up there talking to Garret and Al.”

“Yes, I noticed. Talking, chatting, laughing.”

She gave him a “what the hell are you talking about” kind of look, but he kept his gaze on the counter and those two cops as he took a sip of the water.

“I think we’re good on fencing supplies and basic tools.” She got her little notebook out of her pocket—such a nerdy move, but it always drew his gaze to her breasts, which made him wonder about her breasts…which probably wasn’t okay.

Luckily a harried-looking woman set two plates down in front of them before disappearing behind the counter again, distracting him from that dangerous line of thought. His mouth watered at the plate piled high with fatty food.

“I’m thinking we get the place looking better, then make a plan where to go forward. So, menial stuff first. And since you have no food, we hit the grocery store next.” Mel unrolled her silverware from the paper napkin. “Then it’s back to your place. I’ll help you unload, we’ll check out the storage situation. That will probably finish up today. There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m not putting in overtime unless you pay overtime, got it?”

“Yes, ma’am. You’re the boss, ma’am. Anything you say, ma’am.”

“It’s good you think so much of yourself. It must make up for all the people who want to smack you upside the head.”

He stiffened, because that hit close to home. A home she didn’t know about. Or, if she did, at least didn’t feel the need to point out. Thank goodness for that. He forced a smile and a flip comment in return. “Doesn’t it just.”

He picked up the burger, stomach rumbling. The breakfast apple pie snack cake thing from the convenience store had been lackluster at best. This burger was huge, thick slices of bacon and cheese hanging off the sides. At least he wouldn’t starve thanks to his lack of cooking skills. “This is not on my diet.”

She looked from her burger, eyebrows raised. “Your diet?”

“So to speak. When I’m not skating every day, I tend to have to be a little more careful about what I eat. Thank you turning thirty.”

“You’re only thirty?”

“Only? How old do you think I am?”

“I thought I read that you were—” She cut herself off, immediately taking a too-large bite of hamburger.

“Oh, you read about me? Do tell.”

She shook her head, chewing, then swallowed it all down with a gulp of water. “I just wanted to make sure you were who you were supposed to be and all that.”

“Right. So, what did you read?”

He had to admit, he enjoyed watching her squirm. It was a nice dinner show to go along with his hamburger. Which was delicious.

He would need to find some kind of workout regimen for when he was here. Once they proved him innocent, some team would sign him. They’d have to, and he couldn’t have gained twenty pounds in the off-season.


Page 3

She popped a fry into her mouth and took another bite of burger, stalling for as long as she could, but he wasn’t giving in. He kept eating, watching her, waiting for an answer.

“Look, I read a few articles about…the game, and that article inBright Lights. Which said you were thirty-five, by the way.”

He let the first part slide off his shoulders. She looked more embarrassed by it than accusatory, and he didn’t feel like dwelling on the bad. Not when she’d also looked at hisBright Lightsspread. “Okay, so I’m thirty-five.Bright Lights, though—I was shirtless in some of those pictures. Were you readingonlyfor the articles?” He popped the last bite of hamburger in his mouth. Would it be wrong to order another?

“No wonder you’re in such great shape. Carrying around that ego must be hard work.”

He leaned back in the booth, crossing his arms behind his head. “There you go, complimenting my body again. MaybeIshould be concerned about sexual harassment.”

“I kind of hate you.”

He grinned. He wasn’t all that convinced of that. She might not laugh at his jokes like she did with Barney Fife and Andy Griffith over there, but she’d worked relentlessly to help him out this morning. Being honest about Grandpa and everything had softened her up. “I think you hate that youdon’thate me.”

“Can we go, or are you going to lick the grease off your plate too?”

He looked down at his completely demolished plate. Licking the grease off didn’t seem half bad, but she was already scooting out of the booth. She slapped the bill to his chest when he stood. “Lunch is on you.” She pointed to the cash register and then walked to the door.

Though not before smiling at Cop 1 and Cop 2, of course.

Scowling, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He handed a credit card and the bill to the harried woman who’d dropped their plates off. Well, he’d make sure to leave her a nice tip.

She smiled, shaking her head. “Sorry. We don’t take credit cards.”

“Wait.What?” She couldn’t be serious. Everywhere took credit cards. Even Nowhere, Montana, had to take credit cards.

The lady laughed, and so did the cops sitting at the counter, one tapping something into his phone. “Mel said you’d about die over that.” She took his outstretched card and ran it through the machine, still chuckling to herself.

She handed him the receipt, dimple winking as she smiled. “Welcome to town, Mr. Sharpe.”

“Yeah, gee, thanks.” He signed the receipt, leaving her a more than generous tip in hopes she’d help him get Mel back at some point. Never underestimate the power of money.

He nodded to the cops. “Good to see you fellas hard at work.”

“Told you he was an asshole,” one of them muttered as Dan walked away…realizing a little belatedly that pissing off the local police probably wasn’t in his best interest.

When he stepped outside, Mel was leaning against the building, arms across her chest as they almost always were, but she was smirking.

“Some joke,” he said.

Mel laughed, the sound surprising him. She had a good laugh. Low and genuine. And her smile softened her face. She wasn’t intimidating when she smiled. “Man, you should have seen the look on your face.”

“How could you—”

She held up her phone—a pathetic old flip phone— and he had to squint at the screen to see the picture of him with mouth slightly ajar, eyes a little bugged out.

“Where the hell—”

“Garret.” She laughed again. “You deserved that one, Sharpe. Now, let’s go. We’ve got food to buy and shit to do.”

He snatched the phone out of her hands, but she only shrugged and started walking to the truck. He followed, trying to figure out how to delete the picture on her relic. He finally figured it out, only to run into someone in the process.

When he looked up, a kid and a bike were on the ground.

“Aw, shit, kid, I’m sorry.” He went to help him up, but the boy was already popping to his feet, brushing his knees off and retrieving his baseball hat.

“It’s okay.” The kid grinned at him like he’d found a pot of gold instead of fallen off his bike. “You’re Dan Sharpe, aren’t you?”

Dan used to love this stuff. Kids recognizing him, idolizing him. Now he was always a little worried they’d call him a cheater or spit in his face.

Instead, the kid kept smiling and started digging in his bag. “Hey, if I can find a marker, will you sign my backpack?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Sweet.” The kid pulled out a Sharpie and handed it to him. Dan went through the requisite “do you play hockey” and “who’s your favorite team” spiel.

Then he helped the kid with the bike and handed the kid’s backpack to him. “See ya round.”

When he finally joined Mel at the truck, she was scowling at him.

“What? I was being nice.”

“I know. That’s the problem,” she muttered, climbing into the driver’s seat.

“How is that a problem?” he asked once he was settled into the passenger’s seat.

“I want you to be a bad guy.”

“Why?”

“So I can laugh at you when you fail,” she said in all seriousness, pulling the truck out of the diner parking lot.

“Are you saying youwon’tlaugh at me if I fail?”

She sighed. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Although I’m disappointed in myself for having that kind of heart.” She drove in silence out of Blue Valley and the fifteen minutes to a bigger town and a grocery store.

“You’ll want to stock up. Felicity’s General Store back in Blue Valley has a lot of the basics, but the hours and selection are limited,” she advised, all business again. Any hint at that momentary softening or camaraderie gone. She was the boss man—or woman, as the case may be. He was the lowly serf, paying her a chunk of change to tell him what to do.

They got to the grocery store, and she told him to get what he wanted while she looked around. They separated and Dan searched for all means of easy-to-prepare foods. Easy Mac. Frozen pizza. Yeah, he was really going to need some kind of workout plan if this was going to be his diet.

Maybe he could hire a cook. Maybe he could hire Mel to cook for him.

He happened down the personal hygiene aisle, the condom display catching his eye. It wasn’t like he was so certain he was going to sleep with anyone up here, but it couldn’t hurt to have some on hand. Especially if he hired a cook. Although that would probably be wrong.

If he was thinking a little bit about Mel, well, he was a guy.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Buying condoms.” He plucked a box off the shelf and grinned at her.

She made a kind of squeaking noise as her face went pink.

“Don’t worry, I don’t plan on using them with you. Unless you ask nicely.”

“Fuck off, Sharpe.”

“I’ll take that as a no. I’m good at reading signals like that.”

“You’re…you’re…” She took a deep breath, doing that “look up at the sky” thing she did when he really irritated her. Then she glared. A lesser man might slump down, shrink away, apologize, but he was not a lesser man.

“You’re trying to piss me off,” she finally said. “Possibly your natural state is trying to piss people off.”

“Possibly.”

“One of these days, it’s going to kick you in the ass.”

He could tell her it already had, because if he was the type of guy who hadn’t gotten a rise out of pissing people off, he’d probably have a few more teammates jumping to defend him.

Instead, he was on his own. His agent fought for him because, well, money, and Dad was mostly trying to avoid the situation, keep his nose clean. As he should. Dad didn’t deserve to be dragged into his crap. No one did.

“Can wego? It’s going to be dark by the time we get home at this rate.”

Home. Funny. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thought of somewhere as home. But this very well could be his home now. A nice concept. A silver lining to all the other shit.

So, he smiled at Mel, dropping the condoms into the cart. “Sure thing, honey.”

“I’m waiting in the car,” she grumbled, stomping away.

Yeah, this potentially-being-home thing was a bit of a silver lining after all.

Chapter 3

Mel pulled her truck into the garage and sat there for a few minutes. She was starving, but the chances of Dad or Caleb having made something for dinner were slim. She was exhausted, but she’d have to double-check all of Caleb’s work today or she wouldn’t sleep.

Today had not gone at all like she’d anticipated. She couldn’t pin Dan down. Parts of him were exactly what she’d expected of a spoiled professional athlete. But parts…well, she could admit in the solitude of her truck cab that parts of him definitely got to her.

In not totally unpleasant ways. Luckily, she wasn’t stupid enough to go down that road. Just because something wasn’t unpleasant didn’t mean it was worth going after. Because nothing as shiny and loaded as Dan Sharpe stuck around Blue Valley for very long.

She hopped out of the truck, willing those thoughts away. Right now she needed to focus on food, chores, Dad, and then, if she was lucky, sleep.

Color was creeping into the valley even as it disappeared from the sky. A slow turn to green, hints of pinks and blues, riots of yellow, a big burst, and then gone again.

Usually it was her favorite time of year. The promise of warmth and life and color. Today she missed winter a little bit. The harsh reality of it. The grays, the biting cold.

“You are one sick puppy,” she muttered, pushing into the main house through the back door. She pulled her boots off and dropped them on the mat, trying not to cringe over the fact that Caleb’s weren’t there, which probably meant he’d tracked.

She stepped into the kitchen, where Caleb stood at the counter, still wearing his boots. But he smiled at her, and hey, he was the only one most days, so she gave him a smile back.

Dan smiles at you quite a lot.

“Pizza,” Caleb offered, a plate full of crumbs in front of him. “There’s one of those bag salad things you hate in the fridge.”

“You know, having a penis doesn’t make you incapable of making actual food.”

“Oh, and here I thought it was always flopping around, getting in the way.”

She shook her head and pulled open the fridge. A lot nicer fridge than Dan’s. Probably the only nicer thing she had than him—till he replaced it. “Men are pigs.”

“Beer in the fridge too.”

“Hallelujah. I’ll consider you a little less of one.” Mel rummaged around in the fridge until she’d gotten everything she wanted. “Dad eat?”

“I made him up a plate, but I haven’t checked in.”

“Fiona have any problems?” Mel asked. The nurse that came in three times a week to help Dad was a saint and rarely complained if Dad was rude, but occasionally…

“She didn’t say anything.”

Mel put the beer and salad down on the counter, then stared at it, trying to work through all the exhaustion that made her feel so damn helpless.

“I can fix you the salad.”

“Don’t baby me, I might cry.”

“Don’t cry, I might run.” He was smiling when she looked at him, but she knew he was exhausted too.

“Maybe…maybe if this money pulls through, we can hire someone on.” She unscrewed the cap of the bottle of dressing and poured some into the bag, shaking it a little before grabbing a fork.

“Ifthe money pulls through? Bad first day?”

“No, just weird.” She popped the top to her beer and guzzled the first drink.

“Weird how?”

“I don’t know. The guy is hard to make sense of. He’s a cocky bastard.”

“Well, you were expecting that, right?”

“Yeah, but…” She couldn’t explain to Caleb that she didn’t hate him for it. She didn’t know how to explain that to herself. He was arrogant and way too flirty, but he took everything in such easygoing stride.

Maybe that was it. He could look at life and see easy, and she had never known people like that. Shaws were so bound and determined to make everything damn hard.

“I’m just tired. Tell me how things went here.”

“I checked off every chore on your list, madam taskmaster.”

“I only meant—”

“I know what you meant, and I’m not going to get pissy about it. I did what you wanted me to do. You want to grill me or check my work, you can, but you’ve got enough shit on your plate, Mel. Trust me to handle it, please. If you keel over, I’m really screwed.”

She took a deep breath, then tossed the bag onto the counter and grabbed a pizza off the little cardboard circle it rested on. Nearly cold, but better than slightly browning bagged lettuce.

“But you’ll…” She tried to rein in all the emotions exhaustion was letting free. “You promise me if there’s a problem you can’t handle, you’ll bring it to me. Even with everything on my plate. I need to know—”

“We’re not losing this place. I promised you that when Dad was in the hospital, and I’m not going back on it.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded.

“I’m sorry that I ever made you doubt—”

She waved it away. “We’ve had our apologies and our tears and our come-to-Jesus moment. I don’t want to rehash it. Things are fine. We’re getting there.” She popped the last bite of unsatisfying pizza in her mouth. “I’m going to go check on Dad.”

“I’ll come with. Maybe we can talk him into watching some TV in the same room as us or something.”

She wasn’t sure she was feeling sturdy enough to be rebuffed by Dad right now, but Caleb was so determined. She couldn’t argue with him.

But when she stepped into the living room, they were greeted by Dad’s snoring, soft and even. “Well, so much for family togetherness,” she whispered, going over to grab his—thankfully empty—dinner plate.

She noticed the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s that had most definitely not been half-empty this morning peeking out from a blanket lying on the ground.

Dad had never been much of a drinker, even these few years after the accident, but occasionally…

Yup, when she pulled back the blanket, there was the old family album. She didn’t know where he kept it. It always disappeared after one of these episodes.

The fact that it was opened to a picture of her mother, the mother she looked more and more like with every passing year—made her feel cold all over. Why did she have to look like that woman?

“It doesn’t mean anything, Mel.” Caleb nudged her arm. “He was over it a long time ago. All his stuff now is about the wheelchair, not her.”

Mel wondered if Caleb believed it, because she sure as hell didn’t. Not that she could change any of it. There was no going back. Only forward.

She dropped the blanket back in place, letting it hide Dad’s sins, so to speak. “I’m going to go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Mel…”

When she stopped in the doorway, Caleb didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he said, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to make it okay.”

“I know,” she lied. Then she let a little bit of the truth slide. “But what about him?”

She didn’t wait for Caleb’s answer. Couldn’t. She needed to crawl into bed and sleep away the tears burning behind her eyes.

* * *

Dan hiked toward the aging barn. Surely he could find some cell service somewhere in this godforsaken wasteland.

Okay, that was harsh. The place was pretty awesome-looking, especially with the sun rising over the mountains. The hills were green, and the sky seemed impossibly blue. In the early morning light, the barns and older, ramshackle buildings didn’t look so much like they were out of a horror movie. And, hey, the trek around the property was getting him a little cardio.

He reached the top of the swell of land. To his right was an old barn-type thing. There seemed to be little enclosures for animals inside. If he had to guess, he’d say it had been used for horses.

He held up his phone, but a strange noise made him jump and drop the thing. “Shit,” he muttered, bending to pick it up. When he straightened, he let out a yelp of surprise.

There was a thing. A not-small furry animal thing standing at the fence, staring at him expectantly.

He stared back at the animal, then helplessly at his phone. Hey, cell service. He googled random animal names he thought the thing could be until he found a picture that looked mostly right.

A llama.

How did he have a llama on his property? How had Buck not mentioned he had a llama, period? Surely the guy had been taking care of it. Llamas didn’t take care of themselves, did they? There weren’t packs of wild llamas running about Montana.

Were there?

“So, hi.” The llama didn’t respond at all. It stood there and stared at him. The thing was probably hungry. Maybe he should find it something to eat. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what you’d want to eat?”

The llama stared. Didn’t move. Dan gingerly held out his hand, but when the creature nipped toward him, he pulled back. “Okay, so either you’re very unfriendly or you’re very hungry. We have a word for that in human speak—hangry.”

He needed to feed it, and he needed to stop talking to it like it was going to talk back, because he was sounding crazy even to himself.

He backed away, then jogged down to the house. Of course when he got to his kitchen, he had no cell service to look up what llamas ate. Shit. When was Mel supposed to get here?

He poked around in his fridge before pulling out a container of lunch-meat ham. Grabbed a few pieces of bread and a bottle of water and a bowl.

Worst he could do was offer random food it wouldn’t eat. Surely he couldn’t kill a llama with a sandwich.

He trudged back out to the barn where the llama still stood against the fence. Watching him. Still. Dan slowed his pace. That thing was motherfucking creepy.

“Hey, fella, want some ham?”

It moved around, and he figured that was sign enough. He peeled back a few pieces of the lunch meat and tossed them in the llama’s direction.

“What the hell is that?”

Dan glanced to where Mel was hiking up the hill. Thank Christ she was here. “According to my research, it’s a llama.”

“Why do you have a llama?” She approached, hands on her hips, wrinkling her nose at the creature before them.

“I don’t know. It was just here.”

“What are you feeding it?”

“Ham.”

“Ham?Ham?You can’t feed a llama ham.”

“Well, then what do I feed it?”

“Hell if I know, but not ham!” She made her way to the fence, then gingerly pulled the pieces of ham out of the grass at the llama’s feet. “Grain. Straw. Bread. Something remotely sensible.”

“I maybe panicked a little bit.”

“I see that.”

“I know you’re a genius cowgirl and all, but tell me you wouldn’t panic if you got the crap scared out of you by a llama.”

“My panic rarely involves ham,” she said drily.

“Fair enough.”

She stared at the creature, and Dan couldn’t help noticing she looked a little more haggard than she had yesterday. Her hat was pulled down low, but he could see circles under her eyes, and she looked pale. Even the way she stood was different. Slumpy instead of that ramrod straight “I’ve got this shit covered” posture she’d walked around withallday yesterday.

“You okay?”

She gave him an are-you-crazy look, all scrunched-up nose and drawn-together eyebrows. She seemed to give him that look a lot for only knowing each other about twenty-four hours.

“You look…” He tried to think of a diplomatic way of telling her she looked like death warmed over. But he didn’t have much practice being diplomatic, so he came up empty.

“I look what?”

“I don’t know. Like you had a crappy night of sleep.”

“Perceptive for a man with his head so far up his ass he feeds a llama processed meat.”

“It wasn’t because of me, was it?” He didn’t like the sudden guilty weight in his gut. Sure, he was paying her a shitload of money to be here, but he didn’t want to be making her life miserable in the process.

“Don’t flatter yourself, wannabe cowboy.”

“I meant because you hate me, not because you were up all night fantasizing about me—but if we want to pretend it was the latter, I’m all for it.”

She let out a gusty sigh. “Believe it or not, I have bigger problems in my life than you.”

“Like what?”

“What do you care?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together. Maybe we should be friends.”

She snorted. “You don’t need me to be your friend. You need someone to kick your ass every morning. And you need someone to figure out what the hell to do with your llama.”

“That almost sounds dirty.”

“Buck didn’t tell you about this?”

Dan shook his head. “Didn’t mention it to you either?”

“No.”

“No chance it’s a wild llama?”

“Yes, Sharpe. It’s a wild llama that hopped a fence, went into a stall, and is desperate to eat your ham.”

“Thatalsosounds dirty.”

“You are giving me a headache.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. Her plaid shirt was green and blue today, and while the serviceable work shirts she wore didn’t do much to show off her figure, the jeans did admirable things for her—

“Stop staring at my ass, Sharpe.”

“Sorry.” Sort of.

“Let’s figure out how to take care of this llama, huh?”

“You can’t tell me taking care of llama problems togetherisn’tfriendship.”

She glanced at him. “Don’t have a lot of friends, do you?”

“Not really.” Which he’d never spent much time thinking about, but it was true. Once upon a time he’d counted his teammates as friends, but he’d always been a little bit apart. Not quite one of the group. Probably because he was a jerk, and his dad was a legend. Probably because at the first threat of any complex relationship, he bolted. “What about you?”

She shrugged. “Haven’t had much time for friends the past few years. Besides, not many people stick around Blue Valley.”

“So, how do you have time for this?”

“Twenty grand, Dan. I have a lot of time for twenty grand.”

“Hey look, we’re becoming friends already.”

“Because you’re paying me?”

“Because you called me Dan. Not Sharpe or asshole or moron. You called meDan.” He smirked. “We’ll be best friends before you know it.”


Page 4

“You sure do like your delusions.”

“They aren’t half-bad.” Besides, she was almost smiling instead of looking sad. He’d managed to cheer her up, maybe. That was new. Kind of a nice feeling.

“You’ll leave too, you know.” And all at once, her smile was gone. She didn’t look at him; instead, she looked out at the sky. It was a gorgeous blue, interrupted only by distant mountains.

“I’m not sure it’s permanent, but I’m not building this place to never come back to.”

“You’ll leave,” she said with such certainty it was hard not to believe her. “People like you don’t belong here.”

He was used to people having zero faith in him outside of a hockey rink, so he wasn’t sure why that struck him as a personal insult. That he didn’t—couldn’t—belong. But it hit, and it hit deep. “What does that—”

“I’m going to call Buck and see if he knows anything about the llama.” She walked away before he could argue with her, before he could demand to know whatpeople like youmeant.

Well, he’d find out one way or another.

Chapter 4

Mel was not curious. She refused to be. In fact, she was angry. Angry she was sitting here fixing Dan’s damn fence while he paced the hill, phone to his ear.

Except she couldn’t even musterangry, because for the first time since she’d met him, Dan was not smiling or joking or even looking a little sad and wistful.

He wasfurious. Every step he took seemed to be a personal attack on the ground beneath him. She was all the way down the hill, but she could occasionally hear a sharp curse reverberate in the air.

The call was important. She couldn’t argue that fact away. She couldn’t sit here not doing anything either, even if this was his responsibility. If she didn’t do anything, she’d start thinking again, and she was tired of thinking.

Thinking about Dad. Mom. The stupid dream she’d had last night that had left her feeling lonely and a little achy. The conversation with Dan about friendships didn’t exactly help.

Especially since he’d beenveryfriendly in her dream.

It had been a while, on that front. Which she could deal with. Did deal with, quite fine actually. It wasn’t like sex was some kind of magical experience, no matter what fantasies dreams might offer.

The friendship thing was harder to roll with. The fact of the matter was, shewasalone, because even though her brother provided a certain amount of company, she kept a lot from him. As much as they told each other everything was going to be okay, she was pretty sure neither of them believed it.

It would be nice to have someone hug her, tell her that, and somehow convince her that it was true. Like Tyler had been able to when things were easy. But things weren’t easy anymore. So, someone to care might be nice, but that was not in the cards.

She was an island, and while it was better that way, sometimes the loneliness was a bit much. It made Dan enticing. More so than he should be.

Forgetting that he would ultimately leave risked more than she had to lose.

It took a certain something to stay here, in this dying town, surrounded by so many people with sob stories, struggling to get by. It was not for cheerful people who liked to flirt and laugh. People who were used to a certain way of life, who could throw their money around and have all their problems vanish.

Blue Valley was for people who were either too stubborn to leave or didn’t have a choice. She was little bit of both.

Dan was neither of those things.

So, whatever achy feelings she harbored for a guy she’d known all of twenty-four hours, they were stupid. A friendship with him would be stupid. There were too many holes in her heart to willfully add another.

After a few minutes of almost complete silence, Dan made his way down the hill. It was like seeing a completely different side of him—every muscle in his body tense, a scowl so deep it dug grooves in his face, making him look more his age.

Thirty-five. That was totally way too old for her anyway.

“Everything okay?” The words slipped out despite her knowing better. She should not be getting involved in his non-ranch business. Not asking if he was all right. They weren’t friends. He was her meal ticket. The end.

The anger all but waved off him, and whoever had pissed him off should be glad they weren’t here. She was pretty sure if Dan had the source of his anger in front of him, it’d be bruised and bloody.

He didn’t answer her question, thank goodness, but he looked at his phone, then out in the distance. Pulling his arm back, he hurled it into the overgrown brush on the other side of the falling-apart fence. It landed with a thump far away.

Mel looked at the field, then at him. “Feel better?”

He sighed. “Fuck no. I need that damn phone.” He scrubbed his hands over his face and uttered about every curse word known to man.

Then he stomped into the field, cursing all the while, looking for his phone. It took him a few minutes, but he found it and shoved it deep into his pocket. Mel moved her focus to removing the rotted fence post from its hole, biting her tongue so she wouldn’t ask. She didn’t need to know. It was none of her business.

Screw it; she had to ask.

“Okay, so what’s the deal? Why are you suddenly full of rage? Next thing I know you’ll get all big and green and start smashing things.”

He snorted. “The NHL doesn’t want to conduct a formal investigation into whether or not I took bribes to screw up the game, which screws me, because I’m damn innocent, and now I can’t prove it. And no team will take me. And…” He took a deep breath, but it didn’t loosen any of the tension in his face. If anything, it only centered it. “I need to pound something into dust.”

“Here.” She handed him a post and a mallet, pointing at the hole in the ground where the old rotting fence post had been. “Pound away.”

He stared at the tools, then shrugged. “What the hell.” He wedged the post into the ground, then took the mallet. On a deep breath, he lifted it over his head.

She didn’t think she’d fallen into thatThormovie, but she’d keep watching just to be sure.

The fitted T-shirts he always seemed to wear weren’t practical for ranch work, as she’d tried to tell him, but she was a little glad he hadn’t listened, as the thin cotton clung to the line of his back, his muscles an almost graceful wave of tension and then release.

When the mallet came down, biceps and forearms absorbing the impact of rubber on wood, he barely even paused before he was swinging the mallet back up and bringing it down again.

It was all done with a mesmerizing grace…and was it suddenly really hot? The temperature must have jumped ten degrees at least.

Once he’d pounded the post way farther into the ground than it needed to go, she cleared her throat. “That’s probably enough.”

He looked at the post, slowly dropped the mallet from its cocked position behind his shoulder to the ground. “Guess I got carried away.”

“A bit.” So had she, watching him. Shoulder and arm muscles bunching as he’d lifted the mallet and then brought it down hard. Oh, hard. Muscles.Crud.“Feel better?” She hoped he did, because she sure as hell didn’t.

“Yeah, I do.” He took a ragged breath, let it out.

“Can I ask?”

He sighed with a tiredness she recognized, because she felt it almost daily. The kind of exhaustion that wasn’t so much physical as emotional, because you knew you had to keep fighting, but you didn’t think you’d ever get to stop.

“Ask away,” he said with a grand hand gesture, leaning against one of the sturdier fence posts.

“Whatdidhappen?” None of her business, and knowing probably made all her attempts at not befriending him useless, but, oh damn well.

“I… I don’t know. Two years ago it was a fluke. I was thinking too much about the next play, about how this would be it, the thing that put me over the top, and I lost sight of the puck. Never done that, but I wanted that Cup. I wanted it so bad, and I was an idiot.”

“And last time?”

He kicked at the ground. “I had that moment stuck in my head. Playing like a loop. All I could think wasdon’t fuck it up again, but I did. They’re not lying when they say professional sports is more mental than physical, Mel. Some guys have all the physical talent in the world, but they can’t handle the pressure. I didn’t think that was me, but one mistake and I can’t move past it. I’m not any good at fixing my mistakes, never have been.”

Oh, crud, crud, crud.He justhadto make her feel sorry for him.

“Well, if that’s true, why would anyone think it’s criminal?”

“I’m too good to be that bad only when it matters.” He shrugged like it was indisputable fact. “I don’t really want to talk about this anymore. Can we just pound shit?”

“Right, yeah.” She looked back at the mangled fence, the supplies they’d bought yesterday. They needed to get a few more posts in, pour the quick-set concrete.

“Out of curiosity, do you believe me?” he asked.

He was staring at her earnestly. Like her answer mattered, even though they both had to know it shouldn’t. “I don’t have any reason not to believe you,” she said carefully.

“Well, I guess that’s something. Thanks.” He gave her shoulder an awkward pat, and she tried to ignore the fact that he was close. Kind of sweaty. So hot.

Cruddy crud crud.

* * *

“Well, no one I’ve found is interested in taking the llama off your hands, but the straw we left will do for tonight. I’ll do some more searching tomorrow.”

Dan stood on his porch, watching Mel tick things off her list. There was an unfamiliar panic jumping around in his gut at the prospect of being left alone in this tiny old house in the shadow of imposing mountains. “Yeah, sure.”

“We’ll set her up some grazing space tomorrow. If no one wants her, I guess that makes you the lucky owner. Just leave the ham for your own dinner.”

Dan looked at the house behind him. Though the kitchen was now well stocked after yesterday’s grocery store outing, the thought of making dinner…dinner alone…

“You want to stay for dinner?” It was a pathetic invitation, but he was feeling pathetic. Lonely. If he didn’t distract himself, he might do something stupid. He had no idea what kind of trouble he could get up to in the middle of nowhere, but he didn’t trust himself.

“No, thanks.”

“Ouch. No conscience over leaving me here by my lonesome night after night?”

“Two nights and no conscience at all.” But the way she studied him, frowning, undercut the words. She did care, or she’d already be out the door. He worked on his best pathetic look, until she sighed.

“Look, if you really want a decent dinner and some company, you can come with me.”

“Come with you?”

“To Shaw. I was planning on cooking for my brother and dad.”

“You’re inviting me to your house for dinner? For dinner cooked byyou?” Now he felt really pathetic. Mel Shaw was pity-inviting him to dinner.

“If I have to cook for two assholes, I might as well cook for three. Donottell my dad or brother I called them assholes, but it really gets my goat that I’m expected to cook just because I have breasts and don’t want to eat pizza every night.”

“Gets your goat, huh?”

“You want a decent meal, you shut up and get in the truck.”

He wasn’t going to argue with that, and it might be interesting to see her operation. He hadn’t thought much about her living situation. He figured she’d sprouted from the ground, snarky cowgirl fully formed. No father involved.

But he climbed into her truck, and she drove away from his grandparents’ ranch and toward Blue Valley’s sad little Main Street. It was only seven, but almost every establishment was closed except the diner and what appeared to be some hole-in-the-wall bar.

Back outside of Blue Valley, driving toward the mountains that always seemed to be just out of reach, he glanced at Mel. She had her hands tight on the wheel as she navigated bumpy country roads.

She’d thrown her hat in the backseat, and the braid she usually wore was falling out of its band at the bottom. It had done that yesterday too, strands unraveling from the rigid line of hair she showed up with each morning.

He’d probably never spent so much time wondering about someone before. At least someone who wasn’t himself or an opponent on the ice. But Mel was like no one he’d ever known. Or maybe he’d just never started paying attention until hockey was out of the picture. Until everything was out of the picture.

She turned onto a dirt road that curved up and around a hill. In the valley below, a few buildings seemed to nestle into the earth, like they were sunk there, not built on top. If his place looked old, this place looked ancient. Deserted versus well-used, but both with the heavy weight of the mountains settled on top.

“Here she is,” Mel said, driving onto gravel and winding down toward a cabin-type house. It was bigger than his place, two stories. There was a porch in the front and one above on the second story. A little saggy, a little worn, but it looked cozy. Inviting. Afamily’shome.

Mel pulled in front of a detached garage. She paused as if she was going to say something, but then shook her head and got out of the truck, so he followed suit.

She led him to a side door and stepped into the type of room Mom had always made him throw his gear into. A mudroom, she’d called it, though hockey had never had anything to do with mud.

Obviously ranching did, if the muddy rubber mat on the floor was any indication.

“Lose the shoes, Sharpe,” Mel ordered, pulling her own off.

“But I’m not wearing boots.”

“You should be. I don’t mop, so we don’t do shoes in the house. Lose them. And while we’re on the subject, you really need to get a working wardrobe.”

“Are you going toPretty Womanrancher me?”

“Are you a hooker with a heart of gold?”

He laughed and followed her farther inside, reminding himself not to stare at her ass while in her family’s house. Even he had manners sometimes.

They stepped into a dim, spacious kitchen that looked much more up-to-date than the one back at his ranch, although not nearly as modern as his place in Chicago.

A young man walked in from another entrance. “Hey, Mel. Oh…”

“Caleb, this is Dan. Dan, my brother Caleb.” She gave Caleb a nudge when he walked over to her. “Do not feed his ego. I have enough problems with this one,” she muttered.

Dan shook the man’s outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Big fan,” Caleb said in a low voice, glancing at Mel over his shoulder.

She scowled, but went to the refrigerator and started pulling out ingredients. “I’m going to get the food started. Caleb, be useful and make Dan be useful with you.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

While Mel made dinner, Dan helped Caleb set the table. It was all very homey and weird. He’d never really had homey, that he could remember. Before his life had been hockey, hockey, and more hockey…well, he didn’t remember that time—didn’t particularly want to. The months leading up to his parents’ decision to get divorced had been…not good for him, but when Dad had put him on the ice and told him his troubles didn’t matter there, his whole life had become hockey. And since it had saved him, even Mom hadn’t been able to argue.


Page 5

There hadn’t been home-cooked meals and tables set. More like a sandwich and a piece of fruit from Mom when she was on the go, and being taken out to restaurants when he’d been with Dad.

“So, um, this is a nice place.” Dan had never considered himself bad at small talk. But he was quickly realizing he’d never sat around in silence, because people usually wanted to talk to him, ask him questions. He’d never been counted on to be the conversation starter.

“I’m sure you’re used to a lot nicer.”

“Well, my grandparents’ place isn’t exactly the Ritz.”

“The old Paulle place, right?”

“Yeah, you know it?”

Caleb shrugged, glancing back at the kitchen. “Back in high school, no one was living out there. It was put to use, you could say.”

“Know anything about a llama?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. So, teenagers were out there making out a decade ago?”

“Among other things.” Out of nowhere, Caleb seemed incredibly stiff and uncomfortable. “Hey, you want a beer?”

“Sure.”

“Be back.” Caleb disappeared and suddenly Dan was standing in the middle of a decent-sized dining room alone. The furniture was nice. Old, sure, but the kind that looked like family heirlooms.

He didn’t belong here. The intensity of that feeling struck him hard, a panic that squeezed at his lungs. This was all old and real and it belonged. It had grown from this earth and been here for centuries, and who the hell was he?

Taking on his grandparents’ ranch had been more of a whim, an escape, and it hadn’t come with a heavy sense of responsibility. After all, his grandparents weren’t likely to ever make it back to Montana, and what little memories Dan had of the place weren’t those of lifelong love and devotion. Mom had certainly never been eager to make the trek up here. She’d escaped the minute she’d been old enough.

But the Shaw house? It screamed all those things, and for some reasons he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—define, it scared the bejesus out of him.

He had to get out of here.

He ditched the set table and the old furniture and the discomfort banding around his lungs, and headed for the kitchen, for Mel. She gave him a lot of conflicting feelings, but at least the verbal sparring with her didn’t induce panic.

Her forehead was scrunched up in concentration, eyes on the cookbook while she twisted a can opener around a can of vegetables.

“Do they not have electric can openers in Montana?”

She jumped, some of the liquid from the can sloshing over her fingers. She swore and then plopped the lump of vegetables into a pot on the stovetop. “Where’d Caleb go?”

“Beer.”

She pursed her lips and stared hard at the cookbook. “Everything should be ready in about ten minutes.”

“Domesticity. It’s a good look for you.”

“F—”

“You don’t have to say it.” He held up his hands, pretended not to be highly amused. “That look tells me everything I need to know.”

“I hate you.”

He put his elbows on the counter, resting his chin in his hands as he grinned at her. “You don’t hate me. I don’t doubt youwantto hate me, but you don’t.”

She let out a gusty sigh. “Why, oh why did I think it was a good idea to bring you here?”

“Handsome. Charming. Excellent company.”

“Pathetic. Lonely. Friendless.” She stirred the vegetables in the pot absently. “Apparently my pity kicked in for a few seconds there. Very rare. That’s how pitiful you are, Dan.”

He shrugged. “Got you cooking me dinner. I’ll take it.”

Caleb reappeared. “Ready yet? I’m starving. Frozen pizza leftovers are shit for lunch.”

“Sandwich, Caleb. Two pieces of bread. Ham. Maybe a little mustard. Voilà.”

“I—” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

Mel stiffened. Dan didn’t have much experience reading family dynamics. He didn’t have siblings. He barely remembered a time his parents had been in the same room, let alone discussed each other. The divorce and his subsequent…issues had ended all that. So, he understood people in isolation, when he put his mind to it, but the weird sibling thing here was beyond his scope.

He could only guess there was some history there. Some not exactly nice history.

Mel bent over, pulled something out of the oven. Which gave Dan a rather up close view of her ass. At least, until Caleb cleared his throat.

When Dan looked his way, there was a threatening look on Caleb’s face.

Yeah, Dan really, really should not have come here.

“It’s not gourmet, but you’ll both pretend like it’s the best damn thing you’ve ever eaten.” Oblivious to Dan and Caleb’s nonverbal exchange, Mel continued handing out orders. “Caleb, grab the green beans.” She plopped the casserole dish—a sad version of possibly pork chops—into some kind of holder thing and marched to the dining room.

Caleb got the green beans, and Dan followed him. At least until Caleb stopped.

“I may be the younger brother, and you may be famous, but don’t think I won’t kick your ass to next Friday if you do one thing to hurt her.”

Before Dan could formulate a response tothat, Caleb was walking into the dining room…and asking Mel something about cow testicles?

Dan glanced longingly at the door, but he’d been foolish enough to let Mel drive him over here. He was stuck. Stuck in crazy Shaw-ville. Population two, apparently.

He hoped he’d have a chance to escape.

He settled down in a chair next to Mel. The wood was uncomfortable, heavy and encompassing. Reiterating that feeling of being trapped.

Well, Dan had learned his first important Montana lesson today. Never, under any circumstances, let loneliness lead you to accepting a pretty woman’s dinner invitation. Unless there was guarantee of a whole lot more than food, and a whole lot less family.

An older man wheeled into the dining room. It had to be Mel and Caleb’s father, and yet they looked surprised to see him.

“Noisy,” he muttered. Then his eyes rested on Dan. “Who the hell are you?”

“Um. Dan. Dan Sharpe?”

The man grunted, then turned his wheelchair around and disappeared. When Dan looked back at the table, Caleb and Mel had their eyes on their plates. After a few seconds, Caleb pushed back. “I need another beer. Anybody else?”

“Uh, no thanks.”

Mel shook her head.

Then they were alone in her dining room, the silence heavy and uncomfortable. Dan had no words to interrupt it, no way of diffusing the tension in that silence. Caleb reappeared with a beer, sat down with a heavy sigh, and then they all ate. Not saying anything.

Dan wished he’d stayed home. Alone. Far away from complicated families.

Chapter 5

“You ready to go?”

Dan nodded, looking more than ready. Why hadn’t she thought to have him drive his damn self?

Because she hadn’t been thinking. Not even for a second. He’d looked lonely and lost, and she’d been an idiot.

Dan had a way of tugging on that little softhearted underbelly she tried to ignore at all costs.

Damn, damn, damn.She needed to nip that in the bud quick.

She stepped onto the porch and paused, taking a deep breath of the summer evening. The sun had set, but the sky was still light to the west. Not for long. Stars already twinkled in the east. It was enough to settle some of the pain stirring around in her gut.

Until Dan stepped out behind her.

She should move for the truck. Get away from him as fast as possible. But she needed this view. For a couple more seconds. To feel okay again. Strong again. Like she could handle…everything.

“So, what happened to your dad?”

She should have known it’d never be that easy. “Horse spooked and threw him. He’s pretty much paralyzed from the waist down.” She ran her hands over the smooth wood of the railing. “Happened a few years ago. Can’t say any of us are used to it.”

“That’s tough.”

Tough. Yes. But it wasn’t a tragedy. Just halfway there, or something. “You know, it’s not so bad.” She kept thinking if she said it often enough, out loud, to Caleb, to whomever, someday it would start being true.Not so bad. “We thought he was going to die. So, we’re lucky really. It knocked Caleb out of his rebellious stage.” But Caleb had already had a third beer to his lips when she’d asked Dan if he was ready to go. Rebellious stages weren’t so easy to break. Not when they were rooted in a pain he refused to share with anyone else. A pain she’d never been able to reach or understand.

And if Caleb went back to the way he’d been…

He’d promised he wouldn’t. She had to believe in that promise, even if she’d long ago learned promises were bullshit in the face of reality. “It could all be a lot worse,” she forced herself to say. Because she wasn’t breaking down in front of Dan. She wasn’t breaking down, period.

“It could be a lot better though.”

Her throat closed up, but she wouldn’t let her emotions have that kind of power over her. So, she went with the truth. “Yeah, it could.”

“Things seem bad.”

“Not bad, though we’re kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Medical bills, part-time nurse, making the house accessible, on top of ranch stuff. But we’ll get through. That’s why I had to…”

“That’s why you had to take the job with me even though you’d rather be here fixing this.”

She shrugged. It felt weird having him know that, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad weird. Just odd. “Anyway, it won’t affect how much time and effort I put into you. Don’t worry about that.”

“Trust me, I’m not worried about that.” He was silent for a few seconds, his hands only a few inches from hers on the railing.

For the briefest of moments she wished he’d put his hand over hers. Offer some physical comfort. Because that would be pretty nice right about now. Someone offering something simple. To care, or at least pretend to.

That told her everything she needed to know about her current mind-set.

“I…if you need money…”

The offer snapped away the self-pity, the fear, becausefuckhis pity. She was doing this. It was hard as hell, but she was doing it. “How long have you known me, Dan?”

“Uh, two days.”

“You don’t offer money to someone you’ve known for two days. I don’t care how much you have.” She made a move for the truck, but his hand rested on her elbow.

He didn’t grab or hold her there, but the touch was enough to make her freeze. To try to hold in everythingtouchmight elicit. Sparks. Attraction. Want.

Fear.

This wasn’t the comfortable touch she’d yearned for a few minutes ago—this was something bigger. And she wanted nothing to do with it. She had more than enough on her plate.

“Let me pay you weekly. I thought monthly would work, because it’d keep you around longer if you decided I blew, but let me do it weekly. And I’ll up it, a bit.”

Again, the pity allowed her to break free. Step away from his fingertips against her skin. Even if that stupid touch would remain burned into her memory,shewas the one who broke it. “I don’t want your charity.” But it was tempting. Necessary. Charity or not, more money…more frequently…the things she could do with that.

“You’ll take it, though, won’t you?”

The “no” was on her lips. The “fuck you.” The “I quit.” But she was too smart to let any of those come out. “Yes. Not much of a choice.”

“You can teach me how to cook.”

“Huh?” She frowned back at him. What was he talking about?

“For the added money, you can teach me how to cook.” He smiled, and as charming as that smile was, it was more dangerous than his innuendo, than his body, than everything. Because that smile was kind. Like when he’d signed that kid’s backpack outside the diner. She had to admit thathewas kind, and that was dangerous.

Tyler had been kind, but he’d never made her heat from the inside out. That had been the appeal, why she’d agreed to marry him. He’d never leave and ruin her.

Funny, that.

“You want to paymeto teach you how to cook? You ate those tough-as-nails pork chops, right?”

“I don’t need to know how to make five-course meals. I just need to know how to put a few things together that might, on occasion, taste better than some crap I put in the microwave. Maybe the pork chops were a little chewy, but it was still better than ‘Budget Frozen Meals for One.’”

She should tell him to talk to Georgia. Or find some old ranch wife who was lonely and bored. But instead, because his smile was kind and she was tired and felt things she didn’t want to feel, the truth slipped out. “I’m not sure we should be spending extra time together.”

His kind smile morphed into that “I’m Dan Sharpe sexy and I know it” smirk, and suddenly she felt less mushy toward him. A lot less mushy.

“Oh really? Why is that?”

She smiled sweetly, batting her eyelashes. “I might be forced to murder you, and Shaw willreallybe in trouble if I’m in prison.”

He chuckled, but then his expression loosened, grew serious again. He looked at her, right in the eye, and whatever toughness or humor she thought she’d grabbed faded away. Her heart hammered, her breath came faster, and before she could think better of it, her eyes dropped to his mouth.

If he kissed her…she would smack him. Push him. Kick him in the balls and ream him out good.

Or you could kiss him back and enjoy something for once in your sad, pathetic adulthood.

“I know I don’t know jack shitaboutjack shit, but I can’t image anything you run could ever fail, Mel.”

His sincerity might have broken a lesser woman, but for her—tough, sturdy, responsible Mel—it was a reminder.

She didn’t have time for Dan Sharpe. For enjoying herself. She had a ranch to save. For her father, and for Caleb, but most of all for herself. It was the one thing that could not leave her. So, nothing was more important than Shaw. Nothing ever had been, and nothing ever would be.

“You ready to go?”

He nodded, and surprise of all surprises, Dan finally shut the hell up and did what she wanted.

* * *

Dan woke up to pounding on his door. He rolled over and pulled the pillow on top of his head, trying to drown out the sound.

But it didn’t stop. It got louder and pounded into his bed. Cursing, Dan gave up and rolled off the mattress, trudging to the door.

Halfway down the hall, his brain engaged enough to know it was Mel. But he was too tired to care, or put a shirt on, or muster up the required apology.

He swung the door open. “Go away. I’m tired.”

Her jaw dropped, then firmed. “I’ll remind you this is a business relationship, and you should beclothedat all times, but first, learn this and accept it: you don’t get to run a ranchandsleep in.” She pushed past him, and though he supposed she tried to keep enough distance so they didn’t touch, her hip kind of grazed his…underthings.

Sosonot what he needed with her right now. Not after last night. Not this morning when exhaustion would undermine any attempt to be easygoing and charming.

Unfortunately, erections didn’t seem to understand the wordexhaustion.

“Surely, once in a while, even if you’re running a ranch, you can sleep in. Being your own boss has to have some perks, right?”

“You are so clueless it breaks my brain. Animals don’t give a crap who’s the boss. They need to be cared for every morning. So, no, no perks.”

“I don’t have animals.”

“You have a llama! And if you want to be profitable, you’ll have more than that.”

He took in the dark circles under her eyes, the way her hair wasn’t pulled back quite as tight as it normally was. In fact, her shirt was even buttoned crooked. “You look like you could use a sleep-in.”

“I could. I could use a sleep-in every damn day for the rest of my damn life, but I do not have that luxury, and, this summer, neither do you.” She slammed a hand onto the counter next to the coffeepot. “You couldat leasthave coffee going at this point.”

“Well, you’re pleasant this morning,” he muttered. He’d drum up some sympathy for her later, but right now he needed coffee. Even if what he really wanted was sleep.

He’d stayed up way too late being an idiot. Sitting next to that damn llama pen in the pitch dark and reading article after article online about his future.

The picture the media painted wasn’t pretty. The picture his agent painted wasn’t pretty.

Forced retirement.

When he was still as good as he’d been when he’d led his team to the Stanley Cup the first time.He’ddone that. Practically on his own. No one had picked them to make the playoffs, but he’d been the best damn player in the league, and he’d motivated the rest of the team to step up and follow his lead.

Everyone had said so. He’d been the reason they got there.

And then the reason they’d lost in game seven.

Shit, he really hated thinking about this. He’d come out here tonotthink about this, about how the one thing that had helped him escape when he didn’t know what to do—and Lord knew he never knew what to do—was evaporating, and there was nothing he could do to fix it.

The wordretirementwas being bandied about in a way it never had been before. If no one in the NHL was going to absolve him, he was screwed. And now Mel was barging in, telling him he was failing this too.

That temper he tried to ignore, joke his way out of, stirred, and he didn’t have any reserves left to swallow it down.

“Get dressed.”

Mel’s sharp order cut through the crap in his brain, but it didn’t make him feel any better. “Like what you see?”

“Oh, yes, I can hardly keep my hands to myself,” she said. She was mocking him, and maybe if he’d had more sleep, he’d have the wherewithal not to care, but it pissed him the hell off when he was so close to seeing the end of something he loved.

And she just kept talking.

“Your world must be so nice, Dan. Walk around with more money than you know what to do with, think every woman should fall at your feet. You screwed up, but no one gives a real shit about it, because it’s a damngame.” She gave his bare chest a poke at the wordgame, and it was just about the last straw.

He grasped her wrist before she could keep poking or pushing him or whatever the hell it was she was aiming for. But it didn’t help the frustrated, edgy feeling in his bloodstream. Her wrist was somehow dainty and soft, small compared to his big hand encircling it.

He stared at it, and when he glanced up, found she was staring at it too. And damn if that lick of attraction didn’t twist and twirl with anger and frustration, creating a potent desire that had absolutely no place here.

So, he focused on her furious gaze. “You’re in a pissy mood this morning, and I hate to break it to you, but so am I. So let’s agree to step back before we both say a whole bunch of things we don’t really mean.”

She tried to wriggle her hand free, but he held firm.

“I’m pretty sure I’d mean every last one of them,” she said.

“Not going to be satisfied until you have a good fight, huh?”

Finally, she wrenched her hand from his. “I’m not going to be satisfied until you give me an inch.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her he had quite a few inches he wouldn’t mind giving her, but she kept on.

“Not being ready when I get here is insulting, Dan. Especially,especially, after…last night.” Some of that anger disappeared or lowered into a hurt he didn’t know what to do with. That was the kind of hurt he skated his ass away from.

“You know I’d rather be at my own damn ranch,” she continued. “And I can’t be. The least you could do is make my time here worthwhile.”

Since that made him feel about two inches tall, and since he was tired of her ability to do that—because, sweet damn, the past two years had done plenty to make him feel like that—he forced a smile. Probably more of a nasty smirk.

“Define worthwhile, partner.”

“I know this is all a big joke to you—a fun lark while you wait for other people to get your real life back on track—but you could pretend to care every once in a while.”

It struck a nerve, an exposed one. Struck it hard enough he didn’t have the reserves to laugh it off or pretend it didn’t exist. Not care? He always cared too damn much, so damn much he couldn’t handle it, couldn’t deal with the things he couldn’t fix, so he escaped.

Only there was nowhere left to escape to, so he went on the offensive instead. “Watch it, Mel. I may be trying to be a nice guy these days, but it’s not my first instinct by a long shot.”


Page 6

“Oh, yeah, and what are you going to do to me, Mr. Not-So-Nice-Guy?”

He didn’t take a second to think about it, just went with what had been his instinct since she’d blushed on his porch a few days ago. Gave into the lust mixing in with all those unpleasant feelings.

He crushed his mouth to hers. Not gently, like he’d wanted to do last night. Last night, he’d wanted to comfort her somehow. Offer some kind of commiseration, and while he realized a kiss wasn’t the best way to do that, it had been the only thing he could think of.

This was not a comforting, commiserating kiss. This was “I will show you what’s what.” She was apparently finding outwhat’s what, because she kissed him back. Actually, it was more passive than that. She allowed him to kiss her, to scrape his teeth across her bottom lip, to cage her against the counter.

But passive wasn’t what Dan wanted from Mel, and in the end, that’s what had him stepping back.

He hated himself in that moment. She looked like she wanted to give up, give in, but not to him—to the overwhelming demands that seemed to be dragging her down. She looked like she wanted to dissolve, disappear, never return.

That,thathe hated himself for.

“Don’t ever, and I meanever, do that again.” She straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and let go of the counter behind her. Though he supposed she was trying to look tough, she looked about as menacing as a peewee hockey player who hadn’t learned how to handle a stick yet.

He might hate himself for pushing her there, but he wasn’t going to let her see his regret, his guilt. “I’m an easygoing guy, Mel, but if you keep pushing my buttons, I will damn well keep pushing back.”

“Yeah, well, unbutton my buttons and prepare to lose some anatomy you hold dear.”

He hated to lose his temper, didn’t like to feel all that rushing regret after he went off the handle or did or said something stupid. Because there was a voice inside his head telling him to step back, cool off, but the anger and frustration pumping through his veins made listening to that voice impossible.

So he stood toe to toe with her, and purposefully touched the top button of her shirt. He brushed his thumb across the hollow of her throat. “That so?”

Her eyes held his. She didn’t shiver under his touch, didn’t melt, didn’t slump or cower and make him feel like a total dick. She stood there. Still, yes, but like some untouchable thing. Like some goddess trying to decide if she’d deign to let him continue to think he could touch her.

“You know what?” she said, not moving, not looking away, not anything, her eyes boring into his. “This is stupid.”

“I agree.” Except he had no idea what he was agreeing to. He only knew she wasn’t swatting his hands off her, and she wasn’t stepping back. She was standing there and any insecurities or weaknesses from earlier had disappeared.

The woman in front of him right now looked like she could knock him flat with one blow. One word.

Instead, she knocked him flat with one kiss.

Chapter 6

Mel had never in her life made a mistake that felt so good. A shocking punch of melted heat centered at her core. The rough bristle of his chin scraped her skin, causing her to shiver, but the heat made her insides feel like liquid.

No kiss had ever made her feel this good. So good, she couldn’t even regret it. Because it meant Dan’s mouth was on hers, his big hands gripping her hips with all the strength and precision of someone very used to being in charge.

She would let him be in charge. She wouldn’t even question it, because his hands held her exactly where she needed to be for his mouth to explore hers.

Her palms flattened down his smooth, bare back with a mind of their own, and something growly escaped his mouth as he pushed her back against the counter until she couldn’t go any farther.

She was a woman who rode horses and faced down cows and clomped through all manner of labor-intensive chores every single day. So much so that she never felt small or fragile ordainty, but somehow, being pressed to the counter, feeling the definite outline of Dan’s erection against her stomach, she felt…

Like a siren or a seductress. Someone soft and curvy and beautiful who could bring a man to his knees with a whisper instead of a blow.

She had never in her life wished so desperately for a man to take off her clothes. To feel big hands stroke over her skin. She had never felt an ache this sharp, thisneedy. Never in her life considered making a mistake so…enthusiastically.

She wanted this mistake like she wanted survival. The thrill. The release. Something that wasn’t weighty. That didn’t squeeze around her lungs and her heart.

Here it was. In her reach, against her mouth, pressing up against her entire body. Here was the mistake she’d never allowed herself to make. There was no responsible, sensible part of her brain surviving this.

So she accepted it. The heat. The desire. Even the desperation. The way her blood throbbed in time with need. She let his tongue explore, take. She letgo.

She ran her hands up over his shoulders and then down his chest, letting her fingertips absorb every shock of attraction, every exciting inch of his warm skin, but he caught her wrists halfway down, stopping her before she got to his stomach. “I’m a little soft these days,” he said against her mouth, interrupting the kissing.

She blinked at him, her mouth still all but pressed to his. Her bodydefinitelypressed to his. Which was not soft. At all.

He was famous and had money coming out of his ears. He wasgorgeous, and that little flicker of self-consciousness over his not one hundred percent in shape hockey body—even though in her book he had to be sitting at a 99.9 percent—undid her. She didn’t want to dwell on what it said about her that his weaknesses were the things she couldn’t fight.

Self-consciousness. Not knowing what to do without hockey. This miserable ranch.

So she loosened her wrists out of his grasp and did something even more nonsensical and unreasonable than kissing him. She pressed her palm to the bulge in his pants, absorbed the heat of him, the length of him. “You are decidedlynotsoft.”

He huffed out a laugh, but his fingers curled around her wrists again, pulling them away from his body, but not letting them go once he did. “I don’t want you to have sex with me out of anger.”

Some of the exciting, forget-all-her-troubles warmth cooled, the throbbing dulled, leaving an unsatisfied ache. “I think you might be out of luck any other way.” Because this certainly wasn’t born of anything except basic physical attraction and frustration. Period.

He dropped her wrists, looking ridiculously sheepish for someone who’d initiated this whole thing. “Maybe we should be out of luck then.”

She scooted sideways so he wouldn’t be right in front of her, so she could escape. The rejection stung more, because she never should have let this happen in the first place. It was supposed to be wrong and stupid and feel good, and he was saying no.

No.

Didn’t that figure? “I should go.”

“Mel, you can’t go. We have…”

“Work to do?” She arched an eyebrow at him, because she was determined to be tough and unaffected, on the outside at the very least. She gestured toward his very obvious erection. “I think you might be busy.”

“Don’t go. Don’t make this—”

“Don’t tell me what to do, Sharpe.” She would not be told how to live her life. There were already too many factors taking away her choices. “I’m going to go feed the llama. You get dressed and…do what you need to do. Then we’re going to Bozeman to get you a damn truck.”

“Mel.”

“End of story.” Because she was in charge, and the point here was not Dan. It was to get his neglected ranch off the ground. Dan was an inconsequential part of this whole thing. “Make some coffee and bring me a mug when you’re finished.”

She tried to walk out of his house with a normal, purposeful stride, but she wasn’t delusional enough to believe she accomplished it. This was a stomp, a storm out.

What was wrong with her right now? She needed to get it together. So she walked and walked until she came to the fence around the stables. And the llama.

She stared at the llama, and it stared back.

She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She was fine. This was fine. She was strong and in charge, and just because she’d been feeling a little beat down lately didn’t mean she couldn’t handle this.

She should thank Dan for rejecting her. It was the best damn thing to happen today.

“Oh, that asshole.” Because as much as sheshouldbe grateful, there were certain parts of her not getting the message.

She squeezed her eyes shut and pushed away from the fence. She couldn’t keep losing it with Dan. Even if he felt sorry enough for her not to fire her, she had her pride and her name.

She would not let him think she was a flake, or worse, that she would ever be one of the many women who dropped their panties for him.

She took another deep, centering breath. That thought helped. Imagining hordes of women tossing their—probably much lacier and more expensive—underwear at him helped. She was not made for Dan Sharpe.

She was made for these mountains.

Hard, craggy, but impressive. Standing the test of time, century after century. Maybe she wouldn’t be around for centuries, but things she worked for would.

Mr. Hockey Player could not move mountains, even if he could get her blood pumping.

The llama made some creepy llama noise, like a sheep on steroids. They were really going to have to do something about this thing. How on earth had it survived without anyone even knowing it existed?

Mel faced down the beast. It didn’t move, didn’t blink. She had the sudden desire to somehow win. To show this animal what was what. She was immovable;itwas an animal.

She stared it down to no avail, and when it didn’t move, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She put one foot on the bottom of rung of the fence, ready to leverage herself up and over, but Dan’s voice stopped her.

“What are you doing?”

“Next time, llama,” she muttered, putting her foot back on the ground. She turned to Dan. “Just trying to feed him.”

“Shouldn’t you go through the indoor part? You know, so he doesn’t eat you or pulverize you with his demon eyes.” He handed her a mug of coffee. Just as she’d asked.

Which made her feel soft, and when she felt soft—attack. “Well, I’m not a wimp, Dan.”

He scratched a hand through his hair, which looked kind of wet. He’d taken a shower.What had he done in there?

Her eyes were halfway to his crotch before she remembered she was a mountain and all that. A mountain unmoved by erections, too-tight-for-work jeans, and T-shirts that strained against the bulge of biceps.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Mel, I’m sor—”

“If you apologize, I will punch you.” The last thing she needed was his pity on top of his rejection. Just the thought made her skin crawl and her overheated body cool.

“The normal response to an apology is, ‘that’s okay’ or—”

“There is nothing for you to apologize for. We had a momentary lapse in sanity. It’s over.” And because she was tough and strong, she’d swallow her pride and keep going. “But I am sorry for how I barged in here this morning. Taking my foul mood out on you was not fair or conducive.”

“Conducive.”

“Yes. Conducive.”

“Did I…break you? Because apologies and talk of beingconduciveis really strange coming from you.”

“No. I’m unbreakable.” Or at the very least, she hid her breaks until they went away. “Now, are you ready to go buy a truck or what?”

He was silent, that green gaze steady on her face, dark eyebrows drawn together as if she were some equation he was trying to figure out. She didn’t budge, didn’t blink—much like the llama, she merely accepted his scrutiny. Until his features smoothed out and he nodded.

“Sure. Let’s go buy a truck.”

The llama method worked. She’d have to employ it more often.

* * *

Dan was not in the habit of not knowing what the hell to do. At first, it had seemed like a novelty. Hey, something to learn, something to challenge him. Make him forget all the shit he’d left behind. A new escape.

But not knowing what the hell to do abouteverythingsucked. His career, ranching, Mel—not one thing made sense.

He was lost. And he was being carted around by this woman—who didn’t make any sense to him. Not because she was irrational, or hard to read, but because he didn’t know how anyone could possibly be as mentally tough as she was.

She hadnotbeen happy that he’d put the kibosh on angry sex. Hell, he hadn’t been happy about it, but instead of getting upset, instead of giving him a piece of her mind, she’d shut it down. Hadn’t let him apologize.

She’dapologized.

Gone on as if that kiss was simply a stumble on an otherwise narrow and forward-moving path. But only she knew where the path was going. and he didn’t have a clue.

He glanced at her profile: jaw set, eyes squinting at the road, hands tight around the steering wheel. How could she be wound so tight all the time and not ever break? Mel considered herself unbreakable, and maybe she was. Maybe she was made from sterner stuff than he’d ever known. Like those damn mountains, beautiful and distant.

“What’s your full name?”

Her “what the hell is your deal” looks were almost comical at this point. The way her head jerked back, as if she was allergic to his questions.

But maybe if he could know her better, he could understand how she did it. Handled all this. Maybe he could emulate it. Maybe he could find a way not to cave or run away when the hard stuff came.

“What do you mean my full name?” she demanded as the landscape transitioned from wild and stark to a city. It still wasn’t a city like he was used to. But Chicago and Minnesota boasted no mountains.

“What’s Mel short for? Melanie? Melissa? Mel…Melicent? Melhard-ass?”

She rolled her eyes, and he noticed that her hands on the wheel loosened. He grinned.

He might not have it all figured out, but his general ridiculousness relaxed her…when it didn’t piss her off.

“It’s just Mel.”

“Mel isn’t short for anything?”

“No.” She stared hard at the red light. Always staring so hard at everything. Concentrating. Working. She made him tired. “I was named after my great-great-great-grandpa who started the ranch. I’m the oldest. I was going to be Mel Shaw regardless of the outcome.”

“Not even Mellie?”

Any humor at the question was gone. Her tone was flat. “Sorry to disappoint. There is no secret feminine side of me.”

“Now, on that, I beg to differ.”

“I’ve castrated cows, Sharpe—think about that before you differ too much.”

“You’ve castrated cows, you probably pack a mean punch, but you sighed when I kissed you, sweetheart.”

“Ikissed you, meathead. About took you out in the process too.”

“Can’t argue that.” He waited a beat until she snuck a glance at him, then grinned. “But you still sighed.”

“It’s best if we don’t talk about it.”

“Is it?” he mused. He kind of liked how her cheeks got a little pink.

“Yes.”

“Hmm.”

She leveled him with a sharp look, or as much of one as she could muster before returning her gaze to the road. “Are you rescinding your moratorium on angry sex?”

“Rescinding mywhat?”

She huffed. “You know what I mean.”

“Fine, and no.”

“Then kiss talk is off-limits.” She pulled the E-brake a little soon and the truck jerked to a stop. “Look at that. Here we are.”

He broke his gaze from her profile—pretty and feminine whether she wanted it to be or not—and took in the sea of cars and trucks, shiny and new. He didn’t want to do this.

Maybe he should have done the angry-sex thing after all.

She got out of her truck, all business and determination, and he sat in the passenger seat, sulking. He wasn’t proud of himself, but not embarrassed enough to get out.Shewanted him to get a damn truck,shecould do all the work.

You hired her, you fucking moron.

Right.

There was nothing wrong with getting a truck. After all, it would make him feel all rancher-like, driving around in one of these big-ass things, and that’s what he was here for. To figure out how to be a rancher. The motorcycle wasn’t practical for ranch life. It was a spur-of-the-moment response to not being under contract.

So, he had no idea why this was a thing. A thing he didn’t want to do. A thing that made him feel antsy and pissy.

He supposed it was like a promise. Trucks had to be taken care of. Like llamas. And women. Needing him for things he’d never been able to give.

A man in khakis and a shiny red polo shirt came out, all bright smiles and arm gestures. Nodding and scanning the lot when Mel spoke. She smiled. Her posture was relaxed.He hated how she could be two people. This light, breezy,friendlywoman to everyone but him.


Page 7

Which was enough to knock him out of her truck, ready to take some of the power here. He sauntered over to where Mel stood with the salesman, resisted the urge to scowl when Mel chuckled at something the guy said.

“What’s the word, darling?” he asked cheerfully.

Mel’s look could have probably set his face on fire, but the slick salesman smiled broadly, holding out a hand. “Good morning! So, we’re looking for a truck?” He shook Dan’s hand earnestly, cocking his head. “You look really familiar, sir. Have you bought with us before?”

Dan slung his arm around Mel’s shoulder, which tensed underneath his arm. Which, yes, increased his pissed-off desire to act on his innate douchiness. “Sure haven’t. You mind giving us some space to look around? The lady here sure does like to—” He brought his fingers together to mimic incessant talking.

“Absolutely. We arenotone of those pushy, in-your-face dealerships. Take all the time you need, and just find me when you’re ready to test drive.” The guy gave an overly wide smile, then did the creepy “shake your hand too long and look you in the eye” thing before finally heading back into the pristine-looking office.

The breath whooshed out of him as Mel knocked a fist into his gut before he had a chance to block it.

“Hey!”

“I pulled it, bastard. What is your problem? Why on earth would you send him away? We’re trying to buy you a necessary tool for your ranch.”

“I don’t want to hear some spiel from some asshole. I just want to get this over with.”

Mel sighed, all world-weary and “you’re so stupid, Sharpe.” “The spiel is important. You have to figure out the best truck for your needs. You have to be friendly so he gives you a deal. Oh wait, I forgot who I’m talking to. Do I need to explain what deal and negotiate mean to you, moneybags?”

The irritable, sexually frustrated part of him wanted to be offended, but it was hard to argue. Money had never been a concern, an issue. It was there, like air and hockey and pretty women who usually fell all over him.

In the face of Mel’s life, her struggle, her complete disgust with him—except for that kiss—he couldn’t argue that he didn’t give a shit about deals or negotiations.

All he wanted to do was skate. Lace up and feel the air breeze by, a man in control and on top of the damn world.All your problems float away, don’t they, son?

They did. When he was playing hockey, they fucking did.

He did not want to have to ask Mel for advice, and he did not want to have to question why he’d turned her down when it was not at all what hewantedto do.

He couldn’t remember too many times he’d done the right thing, the good thing, when it hadn’t given him something he’d wanted.

Standing in a warm parking lot, he wanted to take a stick to every last windshield. So, he did his best to not give a crap. “Pick one.”

She blinked at him like he’d asked her to strip.

“What do you mean ‘pick one’?”

“You’re the expert. You know my ranch. You know trucks. I know jack.” He waved an arm to encompass the whole stupid lot, his whole stupid lack of knowledge. “So, tell me which one to buy. That’s your job. If you were me, which would you choose?”

She looked around the lines of trucks, something slackening her jaw. Her expression was…horrified. He couldn’t work that out. She loved making decisions—especially decisions for him—but she all but recoiled from the suggestion.

“I’mnotyou. I don’t have your money. I don’t have your ranch. I don’t…” She cleared her throat, swallowed. “I don’t have these kinds of choices, Dan.”

She had a way of saying things that jabbed somewhere in his chest—a dull, aching pain right in his center. Things he didn’t think she fully understood the weight of.

Because in some strange twist of fate, the things she said hit him like a ton of bricks. He had no way of fighting her words, escaping the emotions in them. And he knew, like he’d always known, at some point he would be unable to escape.

Making things too hard on Mom so she’d left Dad, walking away when Grandpa had wanted to tell him the story of the ranch that was his heart. When he hadn’t recognized Dan for the first time. The mess with his team. And here, there was nowhere to go. Nowhere to run away to.

“You’re the one who said I needed a truck,” he snapped.

“Yes. But, you should pick it!”

It was not the way she usually yelled at him. It was the way she’d yelled at him this morning, like yelling was the only thing that was keeping her from crying. That…that he couldn’t be irritated by or pissed about. This woman had some serious stress on her plate, and while he was in no way up to the challenge of dealing with it, the least he could do was offer a distraction. “Let’s go eat.”

“What?”

“You’re about to break, Cowgirl. Let’s take a lunch break.” He rested his hand on her arm in an attempt to guide her toward her truck.

She jerked her arm away from him. “I told you I’m—”

“You’re human, Mel, whether you want to be or not.” A human who needed something to give, and it didn’t take a genius to realize the give wasn’t going to come from her. “I’m hungry. We’ll do the truck some other day.” A day when they could both handle it. So, maybe never.

She opened her mouth, presumably to argue more, because God knew the woman didn’t breathe without arguing, but then her eyes took in the trucks again, the lot, and her hands shook as she pressed fingers to her temples.

“You’re such a pain in the ass,” she said in a wobbly whisper.

“Yup, that’s me. We gonna go eat?”

“Yes. Yes, food. That’s what we need. Food.”

He didn’t think that was what they needed at all, but he wasn’t about to argue. Not until her hands stopped shaking. Not until something around here started to make sense.

So, maybe that was just never going to happen.

Chapter 7

Mel did not like being steered.

Scratch that. She liked it. She did not like the fact that she liked it.

But sometimes it was nice to be the one following instead of leading, acting out the decision without having to have made it. She let Dan drag her along, grumbling about Montana and its lack of fine dining.

Fine. Dining.

Bozeman had never felt like an alternate reality until she’d stepped into it with Dan Sharpe at her side.

“Here we go.”

Dan pushed her into some restaurant that immediately made her feel out of place. The lighting was dim, and the strains of some classical song played somewhere over the hostess podium. There was a couple at a table facing them—the man in a suit, the woman in a pencil skirt and blazer—and it was clear they didnotapprove of her and Dan’s jeans and T-shirts.

“I don’t think we—” But before she could whisper her suggestion that they didn’t belong, Dan was greeting the hostess, a pretty young blond in black slacks and a white button-up shirt. Bright red lipstick and some fancy eye makeup.

She hated herself for thinking it, for feeling it, but she immediately scowled.Thatwas Dan Sharpe’s type of woman. Someone who knew how to put makeup on and flirt as if she had the key to the damn world hidden in her smile, and it was the guy’s job to find it.

Dan would havenotrouble finding it.

She tried again. “We really shouldn’t—”

He waved a dismissive hand at her, and if she weren’t so out of her element, she might have punched him for that too.

“I know we’re a little underdressed,” he said to the hostess, leaning on her podium, oozing that self-assured charm.Ugh.“But do you think we could get a table? I’d really appreciate it.” He smiled and extended a hand to the woman.

She took it eagerly, and then smiled, looking up at Dan from under her lashes. “It’d be my pleasure,” she said in a husky voice.

Mel knew it was small of her, but she wanted to sucker punch the girl, much like she’d sucker punched Dan in the dealership parking lot, except harder.

A lot harder.

Which…seriously, she’d never been the jealous type. Tyler had actually gotten irritated that she hadn’t been angry when she’d found him cozied up to Kyrie Watson at some stupid party senior year.

But she hadn’t cared. Not really.

Why did she keep comparing Dan to Tyler? First of all, Tyler was ancient history, her ex-fiancé for almost five years. Second of all, Dan wasnother boyfriend or fiancé or anything. And he wasn’t going to be.

So, she seriously needed to get her brain on a track that made any lick of sense.

It was only as the woman grabbed two menus and slipped something into her pocket that Mel realized Dan hadn’t just charmed his way into the too-nice restaurant.

He’d paid her.

“You gave her money!” she hissed, hopefully quietly enough that the hostess a few strides in front of them didn’t hear.

“I did indeed. Is that against some cowgirl code of yours?”

“Here we are. Your server will be with you shortly.” The hostess seemed to be waiting for something, hovering over the table, but Mel didn’t have a clue as to what. Finally, she plopped the menus on the table and left.

“You’re supposed to sit down so they can place the menu in front of you,” Dan explained to her as she might have explained fence-building to him. He slid into his seat, picked up the discarded menus, and began to read.

“You bribed her to give us a table.” She didn’t know why she was stuck on that, maybe because this place gave her the creeps. All white linens and dark woods and people in suits.

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, this has been established.”

“Why?” Mel demanded. She didn’t want to eat here. People were staring. Everything was weird, and she already felt weird enough with all the almost-breaking-down she kept doing around Dan.

“I’m hungry.”

“We passed a diner, a café, a—”

He looked up from the menu, fixing her with a glare—which was surprisingly effective, since he rarely glared. “Shut up and sit down, Cowgirl. And hurry up and decide what you want to order. I’m starved.”

She wanted to argue, but she had nothing in her left to argue. No strength, no fortitude. Maybe shewasbreaking. So she sat and poked through the menu. “I… Everything on here is over twenty bucks.”

Dan laughed, the jackass. “It’s on me.”

“That doesn’t excuse overpriced food. I could buy, like, three steaks at Felicity’s store for the price of that prime rib.”

“Go for the filet. I insist.”

“Sharpe—”

But the waiter approached, went into some spiel about specials and wine lists, and Jesus H., thiswasan alternate reality.

Dan asked a few questions, and it took the waiter disappearing into the kitchen for her to realize— “Hey! You ordered for me.”

“You were sitting there staring at me like I’d grown another head. Besides, payer’s prerogative.”

“You can’t keep…buying my meals.”

“Why not? You wouldn’t eat here if I hadn’t pushed you inside. I should pay. Besides, you had no problem with me paying at Georgia’s.”

“It cost twentytotal. Not per person.”

“It’s all the same to me.” He watched her carefully when he said it, as if he expected her to have another almost-meltdown.

So she swallowed all the words down. Because she was tired of him seeing through her—or more accurately, tired of being so transparent.

Helping him pick out a truck had seemed fine, good even, no different than telling him what to do at his ranch. But the way he’d put it: “if you were me.” That had shaken her, because for a second there, she’d allowed herself to think about what it might feel like. If she had all the money in the world, what would she do?

She wasn’t one for being materialistic, but this wasn’t about buying a fancy car or a new house. She just wanted to feel…safe. Like she had enough to take care of everyone she needed to take care of.

And disappear. You want to disappear.

She blinked at the stinging in her eyes, and Dan pried her hands off the menu she hadn’t realized she was still clutching. Then, even worse, he enclosed her hands in his.

“If you’re thinking I expect you, with all you have to deal with, to be perfect, to always be in control, then you’re wrong. I would not think less of you if you cracked every once in a while. Trust me. I’m the king of cracking.”

“I don’t care what you think,” she said, precisely, carefully, so she didn’t give any emotion away. Why would she care about what he thought? He was little more than a stranger. Just an employer.

Except for the part where you threw yourself at him this morning. And he rejected you.

She didn’t dare look at him, didn’t dare look at his hands over hers. So she looked at the table, the dark wood in contrast to the blinding white of the napkin underneath the gleaming silverware.

He removed his hands, slowly, the tips of his fingers all but trailing along the length of hers.

“Look, if acting like you’ve got it all together gets you through the day, by all means, keep pretending. But I do see through it, and if it’s a bit much, for what it’s worth, you don’t have to pretend with me.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat and straightened her shoulders. It wasn’t pretending—it was surviving. He wouldn’t have a clue about that.

Not a damn clue.

She met his gaze. “I appreciate the offer, but it’s unnecessary.”

He held her stare, unblinking, like he could see through everything. She wouldn’t allow herself to believe that. Some rich-as-sin hockey player didn’t have any insight into her life, no matter how much he knew, or would know. No matter how much she pretended or didn’t pretend. He did not have the life capable of understanding hers.

“Consider it an open invitation.”

Maybe if things were different—if he wasn’t handsome and charming and everything she knew better than to trust—maybe that would be comforting. But much like that night at Shaw, Dan’s kindness was more threat than invitation. Kindness never stuck, and beauty and charm were an illusion.

“You know, if you’re set on keeping your motorcycle, you could consider getting a Gator instead of a truck.”

He was quiet for a few humming seconds—nothing but the murmur of fancy-businesspeople conversations and the faint notes of some string instrument and his green eyes zoned in on her face, assessing, unlocking.

Well, she just had to make it two months, three and a half weeks without being unlocked. She could do that. Shewoulddo that.

Let Dan buy her this too-expensive lunch, let him think he’d gotten to her. Meanwhile, she’d erase this morning from her memory. She’d start over—God knew she was good at that. She’d underestimated Dan, and how close she was to her breaking point.

She wouldn’t again.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess when you sayGator, you mean some kind of vehicle, not an actual alligator.”

“Astute, Sharpe.”

“Thought we’d moved to Dan.”

“You’re whatever I want you to be whenever I want you to be.”

“That so?”

“I’m the boss, remember?”

“Oh, I remember.” He leaned forward and opened his mouth, but before he could say some undoubtedly smart-ass comment, his phone rang. He frowned and pulled it out of his pocket. His frown deepened to a scowl. “My agent,” he muttered, already getting out of his seat. “Be right back.”

He disappeared out of the front, leaving Mel alone, in this place she did not belong, with a very expensive meal being put before her.

A rather meaningful symbol, all in all.

* * *

Dan glared at the red brick of the building across the street, the faded sign that stuck out from what appeared to be a shoe store. Beyond the buildings were more fucking mountains. He didn’t know why they pissed him off—they just did.

“Can’t we do an independent investigation?” he interrupted as his agent yammered on about possibly interested teams that sounded completely one hundred percentnotinterested.

“Listen, Dan, youcould…”

He could all but see Scott pinching the bridge of his nose and rolling his eyes. And the use of “you” instead of “we” was…well, purposeful.

“I’m not saying I don’t believe you, because of course I do. I’m your number one supporter here, but is a private investigation worth the media circus? What about the possibility—”

“The possibility ofwhat?” Dan demanded, fingers clutched around the phone so tight it began to hurt.

“Look, you don’t know what they’ll find. Not that you’re guilty. Just, you can’t trust anyone. You know, man? If someone in an investigative role even hints at you even talking to someone shady—shit, Dan, your career isover. I’ve got Phoenixthisclose to giving you a tryout.”

“Atryout? Atryout? I…” He stopped himself before he saidI am Dan Sharpe, damn it.Because that sounded a little too dickish even to his ears. But hewasDan Sharpe, damn it. He’d outgrown the need for a tryout fifteen years ago.

“We gotta play the game, Dan.”

“If we had an investigation—”

“Look, I’m not going to stop you if that’s what you want to do. I’m advising against it, but I can’t stop you. I just think working your way back up the hard way is ultimately going to be a better way to end your career on a high note.”

End your career.

“Let me work my magic. You just lay low in Idaho—”

“Montana,” Dan said through gritted teeth.

“Right, yeah, hang out there. Keep in shape. See if you can find somewhere to skate. But, you know, take a break. Chill. I’m working things out. You know I want you to play next year as much as you want to.”

Of course he did. That’s how he got paid, but that didn’t make Dan any happier with sitting aroundwaiting. He wanted to act. He wantedsomethingto be in his control.

He took a step down the sidewalk, to where he could make out Mel at the table. Their food had been served, and she was attacking the steak like it had mortally offended her.

He didn’t doubt she was picturing his face as she hacked it to pieces. He didn’t doubt she was working on all the ways she was going to control the rest of the summer. Trucks and Gators and llama care and fuck all.

He didn’t mind taking a backseat when it came to that stuff. He let Mom take care of his money and investments, and Scott handle endorsement deals. He paid a lot of people to take care of every part of his life that wasn’t hockey.

But hockey had always been this thing he’d controlled, been good at, been a king at. He had made it his escape, his everything. He hadn’t felt the loss of that so acutely until this moment, talking about tryouts and working his way up the hard way, and knowing that it didn’t matter.

He was always going to be labeled a cheat. Hockey was already lost to him.

“Dan?”

Dan hit End and shoved the phone in his pocket. He wanted to toss it into a field again and not retrieve it this time, but there were only old, weary-looking brick buildings and huge trucks driving up and down the main drag.

He marched into the restaurant instead. This morning had been full of…weirdness, but he was going to put a stop to it. He was going to find some grasp of control, and if he had to ask Mel to teach him how—so be it.

He slid into his seat and leaned across the table, close enough to Mel’s face to notice the freckles, the way her eyelashes went from dark to almost gold, eyes that edged from dark brown to nearly hazel.

Not feminine his ass. “Okay, Cowgirl, add one more thing to the list of things you’re going to teach me.”

She furrowed her eyebrows at him. “You must have had a pleasant phone call.”

“First of all, you don’t eat the bacon off a filet, like that.” He pointed to the plate, all of the bacon gone, only half the steak left. “Aren’t you supposed to be cow people out here? Don’t you know a thing about steak?”


Page 8

“I know if it’s Montana beef, it’s superior. And if it’s set in front of me, I’m going to eat it however I want.” She pointed her fork at him, leaning in, though she stopped abruptly—perhaps realizing how close their faces were.

How similar this was to this morning.

She moderately leaned back, back rigid and chin in the air. “So, what the hell is on my list of things to teach you?”

“This control thing you’ve got going on. The unbreakable shit. I want to know how to do that.” How she had made herself her own escape. He desperately needed to learn that.

She shook her head. “That’s not a…teachable thing. That’s just me. It’s in my bones. You have to struggle and…learn how to survive. You’ve never had to survive a day in your life.”

He bristled at her assessment, but he certainly couldn’targuewith her. So he leaned back and attacked his steak, much like she’d attacked hers.

“You just have to…decide. That it won’t break you,” she said after minutes of silent chewing. “I don’t know how to teach that. It’s a decision I make.”

When he glanced up at her, she was staring at her plate. She wasn’t frowning, exactly, though her lips were downturned. It was more sad than angry.

“I make it every day,” she said in a quiet voice. “If hockey means that much to you, you decide to find a way to get back to it. Considering the fact that you’re famous or whatever, I doubt it’ll be that much of a struggle.”

“Don’t go feeling too sorry for me,” he said dryly.

“Sorry, I don’t feel sorry for millionaires. I feel sorry only for people with actual problems.”

“You think people with money can’t have problems?”

“I think people with money can solve a lot of problems that crop up. I think money smooths a lot of problems away. I also thinkyoupersonally don’t have too many problems, aside from sucking when it counts.”

Sucking when it counts.Not a pleasant way of putting it, but accurate. Dan Sharpe sucked when it counted. Mel might not see that as much of a problem, but Dan certainly did. It was the kind of problem you didn’t just decide to endure, to survive. It was an inherent piece of himself.

Like Mel’s hard-assness or Dad’s quiet calm, Mom’s intense focus.

Only, sucking when it counted wasn’t a positive. Not even close.

“You’ll land on your feet,” she said sharply, like she was irritated with herself. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Which was part of the problem—he’d worried about very little in his life before this had happened. He didn’t like worrying, didn’t like being uncertain or lost. He was in over his head with this ranch stuff, and it didn’t bother him too much because it was supposed to be a distraction.

But what if come fall it was more than that? What if it was all he had? He had considered that, but not in a real way. In the fairy-tale way where ranching would be easy and fun. It didn’t even take a full week here to realize rebuilding his grandfather’s place wasn’t just throwing some money around and pounding a few posts.

It was hard. It would endure.

Would he?Couldhe?

He cleared his throat. “Hockey is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at.” It was oddly uncomfortable to admit that weakness to Mel. Usually he had no problems admitting weakness in everything that wasn’t hockey. Call him foolish or stupid or selfish—he’d agree with it all easy enough.

But something about admitting the whole of what he was worth to Mel seemed a stupid thing to do. He wished the words back into his mouth as he pushed the green beans around on his plate. “How can I not worry about that?” he grumbled, irritated with himself, with Scott, with her, with fucking Montana and its damn mountains everywhere.

“I doubt hockey is theonlything you’re good at.”

The weak compliment was enough to smooth some of the edges of his frustration. If Mel was complimenting him, surely all wasn’t lost. “Well, sure.” He took a bite of his steak, chewed thoughtfully. Remembering the way she’d kissed him this morning, remembering the fact thathe’dsaid no.Hehad been in charge there. “You know, I’m pretty good at sex too.”

She choked on her water, then glared at him. “That’s an off-limits topic.”

“Off-limits, huh? I don’t know. I was thinking maybe we should revisit the…uh…what did you call it? Some kind of moratorium.” Yeah, maybe they should revisit that after all.

“Too late.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. It is.” She pulled the napkin out of her lap and wiped her mouth. “Now, if you’d hurry up? We’ve wasted an entire morning on nothing, and you have a limited use of my services. You want to be good at something, Dan? You’re going to have to try. You’re going to have to care. And you’re going to have to not get on my bad side.”

Try. Care. Two things he stayed away from outside of an ice rink. Hell, even inside a rink sometimes.

“I can’t promise the last one,” he said. She made an exasperated sound. “But let’s try the first two. I’m going to need a book store.”

“You need towork, not read.”

“Knowledge is power, Mel.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’ll be lucky to get a fence in come August at this rate.”

He didn’t say anything, instead focusing on finishing his steak. When he’d decided he wanted to go pro like Dad, he’d followed his father’s footsteps inch by inch, so he hadn’t had to come up with a plan of his own—there had been a route already laid out to follow.

Wouldn’t Mel be surprised when he came up with his own road map? Okay, he’d probably be a little surprised too, and he might even fuck it up.

But if he was going tocare, why not try?

Chapter 8

“I’m going to start a llama ranch.”

Mel blinked. She had barely gotten out of her truck when Dan blasted her with…what?“It’s a little early to be drinking.” The past three days had been relatively normal after their little blip a few mornings ago.

Dan had been quiet, a good worker, doing whatever she told him to do. No flirting, no sex talk. He had been the perfect gentleman.

It had been weird, actually, but she figured he’d just set his mind to trying to be good at this ranching thing. She’d been thankful that he was over being all…purposefully charming and crap.

But apparently he hadn’t been focusing on getting the more dilapidated parts of his ranch in working order. Instead, he’d been thinking about llamas.

Possibly he’d been abducted by aliens, or hippies.

“I’m not drinking. I’ve been researching.”

“Researching llamas?” She squinted at him in the early morning light, confused that he was carrying a book. Even more confused that he was wearing glasses. “Researching llamas and wearing glasses. Are you okay? There’s this thing called the mountain crazies around here—I think you’ve come down with it.”

“I do not have the mountain crazies.” When she kept staring at his glasses, he yanked them off his face. “So, I don’t see well close up. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Oh my God, you’re so old you need cheaters.” It was such a hilariously un-super-hot Dan thing, she all but giggled. “You have old-guy eyes.”

“I donothave old-guy eyes. I have astigmatism. Kind of.”

This time she couldn’t help herself—she did giggle. Not the sound of an in-control, take-charge kind of woman, but he was so flustered by his “kind-of” astigmatism. “Sure you do,Dad.”

The baffled indignation on his face morphed into one of those sharp, sexy looks that made her completely forget the glasses in his hands. He smirked. “Look, I’m all for pet names, but let’s not get weird.”

She rolled her eyes. “So, we’re back to that.”

“Back to what?”

“All your lame sexual innuendo.”

“Hey, my sexual innuendo is not lame.”

“Can we get back to the point?” When he only looked bewildered, she pointed at the book he was carrying. “Your llama ranch.”

“Right. So I was researching the mystery-llama problem—which would make an excellent band name by the way—and I found some websites for llama ranches. One in Oregon. One in Idaho. There’s a bunch more, but these places raise llamas to sell, or to use as pack animals. Some people even shear them for yarn. I mean, the possibilities are endless.”

She closed her eyes tight, counted to ten. Honestly, she had to be dreaming. One of the biggest hockey players in the NHL was not standing here telling her he wanted to start a llama ranch. It just wasn’t possible.

But when she opened her eyes, he was still there, glasses in one hand,Llamas for Dummiesin the other. As serious as could be.

Llama ranching.

She blew out a breath and tried to figure out how to handle this bizarre turn of events. Even when she thought she had Dan pegged or beaten or something, he found a way to be…completely unpredictable.

Like she needed another complex, unpredictable relationship in her life. Even if it was only a working relationship, it still meant some give and take. Per usual, she was in the all-give position. Though she had to admit that Dan took much less than the rest of the people in her life.

Oh, she was so sick of feeling sorry for herself.

“You know, normal ranch herds include cattle, horses. The end.”

“Well, exactly. It’s been done a million times. Why not do something different?”

“So, are you looking for the consultant who tells you you’re an idiot or the consultant who helps you despite being an idiot?”

He seemed to consider, looking over at the barn/llama stable on the hill. “Let’s go with the latter.”

“I don’t know anything about llamas.”

He grinned, all dazzle and spark. “Then we can learn together.”

She supposed it was that dazzle, thatsmileand the way it radiated fun and ease and just a touch of “why the hell not” kind of attitude that got under her skin so much. That made her lips curve upward in a return smile. That could all but see his ridiculous plan working out.

It was a dangerous dazzle, because it made her want. She could see this different life, this different path, where things weren’t so hard, where she wasn’t tied to this land she loved with balls and chains.

And as always, that want, that brief flash of different, was like being punched in the gut. A light she’d never be able to enjoy. So her smile died, and she frowned at his book. “You’ll need more than that to get started.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve got more inside. This isn’t a whim.”

“Isn’t it?”

He shook his head and started marching for his dilapidated old house, marching with a kind of purpose she’d never seen from him. She would not be swayed by that purpose, or drowned in it. She had her own purpose.

Twenty grand.

So she walked after him, determined to be as helpful as she could for the duration she had to put up with his crazy scheme to start a llama ranch.Llamas.

She had to admit, she was still surprised that he hadn’t brought in a bunch of people to make this place more habitable yet. It was still old, dusty, and creaky, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

He had papers and books all over the old, filmy kitchen table. A laptop sat in the middle of it, all shiny and expensive and way nicer than her and Caleb’s shared desktop that whirred and offered the blue screen of death more often than actually booting up.

“Where did you get all this?”

“Library.”

“The library closes at four. We work until after five every day. How did you—”

“I emailed, um, what’s her name, Jenny? She had someone drop off a bunch of stuff for me last night. I got my Internet set up too, though it’s so damn slow I want to throw my laptop out of the window half the time.”

“And you…”

He picked up a stack of stapled-together papers, and waved them at her. “Examples. Of other llama ranches.”

She took the outstretched papers and began to flip through them. Printouts of llama ranch websites. She knew next to nothing about it, but other than the type of care the animals got, the setup couldn’t be all that different from her cattle.

What was left of their herd anyway.

“This guy has a mullet,” she said, knowing it was unkind and beside the point.

“So?”

She flipped to another stapled-together packet. “Thissite says llamas are addictive.”

“Okay, it’s a little strange, but still. It’s not dependent on cattle prices, or a “horse having the right kind of baby” thing. Llama yarn is llama yarn. Pack animals are pack animals. It’s a low-risk investment.”

Oh, God, he was makingsense? That was cruel and unusual. How could she argue with him when he was making sense, making his own plans, thinking things through? The fact was, no matter how crazy the idea, she couldn’t. She could not argue with sense and someone else making a decision on their own.

“It also gives me room to do a lot of things if these tryouts my agent is working on come through. There are a couple of resorts around here—I can rent the llamas out for pack animals for hikes in the mountains. Which gives me the income that could offset needing to hire someone to handle ranch stuff when I’m not here.”

When I’m not here.So much for wanting the ranch to be his heart and crap like that. He was already planning on not being here, already planning on going back to hockey.

It was not a shock—she’d known that all along—but something deeply uncomfortable lodged itself in her chest at the thought of him not being around.

Which wouldn’t do. Not at all. “All right. Then, let’s make a plan of what we need to do to get you ready for a llama invasion.”

He grinned, and she looked away. She would not get sucked into that grin.

“Llama invasion. Also an excellent band name.”

“Unless you’re ready to move on to making emo punk music, let’s focus on what kind of buildings you’ll need. Any of your books tell you that?”

He pawed around on the desk. “Here we go, captain. Lead the way.”

She sighed. Leading was getting damn exhausting.

* * *

Dan loaded the last bundle of lumber into the back of Mel’s truck. After drawing up plans and to-do lists all day yesterday, he’d finally convinced her they could actually start on a project—repairing and expanding the fence around the enclosure his current llama was already in.

He grinned. Couldn’t help it. Thisdoingsomething—like an actual something with a goal in place, and a plan in mind—was…almost as good as being on the ice again. He felt invigorated, ready to take on the world.

Or maybe just one of Georgia’s bacon cheeseburgers. “Lunch at Georgia’s?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Thought you were determined to do your protein-shake crap this week.”

Right. Staying in shape for possible tryouts. But he glanced down the street toward Georgia’s little diner. “I’ll get a salad.”

“I’m pretty sure their salad dressing has as many calories as a burger.”

“Okay, then I’ll get a burger. I’ve been hauling lumber all morning. I can cheat a little.” Because he knew it would irritate her, he curled his arm up, flexing his bicep. “Muscles still in fine shape.”

She rolled her eyes so far up in her head it was a wonder they didn’t get stuck there. “Work on your humility muscle.”

He lifted shut the truck-bed door and hooked his arm with hers. “Come on, Cowgirl, I’m hungry.”

“You know, if anything, you should be calling me cow woman. Though I prefer Mel. Or rancher. Ms. Shaw if you’re feeling particularly proper.”

He grinned down at her, not letting her pull her arm away. “Ms. Shaw,” he drawled. “That does have an interesting ring to it.”

“It’s my name,” she grumbled, struggling to get out of his grip as they crossed the street.

“Right, but Ms. Shaw…well, it brings to mind a teacher. Hair in a bun. Glasses.”

“Sorry, I don’t have old-guy eyes like you.”

“I’m not old. You need to get over my reading glasses.”

“Youbrought up glasses. And you’re seven years older than me. That means, when you were graduating high school, I was still in elementary school.”

He scowled. Having reading glasses did not make himold. And if he was a little touchy about being seen as old, it was only because his whole livelihood was a young man’s game, and even he had to admit he wasn’tyounganymore.

But hewasn’told, and if she was going to try and irritate him, he was going to return the favor. “Well, you’re not in elementary school anymore, Ms. Shaw, are you?”

She glared at him, but in that under-the-eyelashes way that tended to remind him of the morning he’d kissed her. That hard-assed gaze she’d leveled him with before initiating that kiss.Kiss.What a lame word for the ass-kicking it had been.

He might have ended that possibility, but it didn’t mean he didn’t regret it. It didn’t mean he wouldn’t mind repeating—

“He bothering you, Mel?”

Dan scowled at one of the cops who’d been in the diner with them the other day. The one who’d made the asshole comment.

Fucker.

“Nothing I can’t handle, Al.”

Before Dan could get a word in edgewise, he felt a sharp rap to the back of his knee, so he buckled mid-step and stumbled. Mel pulled her arm out of his and sauntered ahead of him, that low, husky laugh enveloping the air.

“See?” she said, patting Al on the back as she stepped inside the diner.

“Watching you, buddy. Mess with her, you mess with me.”

“You’re not my type,” Dan muttered, following Mel in the diner, half expecting the asshole to follow and start a fight.

But he didn’t, and Mel waved him over to a booth while she talked to Georgia at the counter. There were a few customers, mostly older men wearing overalls or coveralls. All covered in dirt and grease, even on the ones who looked too old to do much of anything with either.

Mel slid into the booth, a glass of water in each hand. “Did you order for me, Ms. Shaw?”

“Yup. A spinach salad with a super-healthy balsamic dressing. On the side. No cheese.”

That sounded about as appealing as eating cardboard, especially when Georgia hurried by carrying two greasy-looking hamburgers.

“Stop lusting after the beef, Sharpe. I got you a damn hamburger.”

“Thank God.” He might have cried if he’d actually had to eat a spinach salad. Or sneak-ordered a hamburger and somehow snuck it back to his place in his pocket or something.

Before he could say more, a tall guy stopped in front of their table. “Mel,” he said, sounding surprised.

Her whole body stiffened, and her face went completely blank, like a switch had been flipped. The only sign of any kind of emotional reaction was that she swallowed before she looked up, and put her hands very carefully in her lap. “Tyler.”

Her lips curved, but Dan wouldn’t call it a smile. It lacked any of the warmth or even sarcastic edge her smiles always had.

“Hey. How are you?”

Dan looked from Mel and then to the guy. He couldn’t get a read on the relationship here. The guy seemed both pleased and…weirded out to see her. Mel just seemed to shut down.

“I’m good,” she said, her eyes never once glancing Dan’s way, as if he weren’t even there. She looked at the guy, but if she felt anything forTyler, she didn’t show it. “You’re back in town for a bit?” she asked, sounding as bland as Dan had ever heard her.

Tyler glanced at Dan before smiling down at Mel again. “Possibly more than a bit. Dad’s…up to something. We’ll see.” Another look back at him. Dan affected his best famous-athlete smile.

Mel’s whole blank expression tightened, but he couldn’t read whatever emotion was behind it. “Tyler, this is my consulting client, Dan Sharpe. Dan, this is Tyler Parker.”


Page 9

Tyler held out his hand, something both friendly and sad in his smile. “Nice to meet you, Dan. I recognize you, right? You play for the Blackhawks.”

“I did.”

“Right.” The guy looked sheepish, making Dan want to punch him. He’d prefer the overt assholery of Al the cop to that.

“Anyway, it’s good to see you, Mel. Maybe we can catch up some time.”

“Absolutely,” she replied, sounding the opposite of absolute. “You know where to find me.”

His friendly cheer dimmed at that. “I do. I do. Well. I won’t keep you. It was nice to meet you, Dan.” His hand reached out like he was going to touch Mel, but then it fell, and Dan did not like thatat all. “Take care,” he said in a quiet voice before moving away from their booth.

She nodded, the empty curved-mouth expression not leaving her face untilTylerexited the diner.

She didn’t say anything. Not one offer to explain who he was or what Dan had just witnessed. She sat there, blank expression, hands in her lap, silent.

He shouldn’t let that piss him off. After all, she’d made clear she had no intention of being friends. Still, he thought they’d been building a kind of almost-friendship. He knew some of the harder pieces of her life, and the things he’d told her about Grandpa and the ranch he’d told no one else.

So, whether she wanted to admit it or not, there was a foundation of a relationship here, and her keeping tight-lipped about the tall guy with the fucking sad smiles pissed him off.

“So, ex-boyfriend, I’m assuming.”

Her expression didn’t change. She didn’t move. Mel Shaw, Queen of the Nonresponse. He hated her a little bit for that talent, probably because he was jealous of it. Sometimes he could hide his pissed off, his hurt, but he had to mask it with other things. Jokes, teasing, being an asshole. He couldn’t just be…blank. All that emotion, reaction—always wrong place, wrong time—folding in on any noble intentions.

“You could say that,” she said, her voice quiet and distant as she looked over her shoulder at the counter. “Man, I’m starving.”

“So, you’re not going to tell me about him.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Why not?”

She finally glanced his way, irritation flickering in her eyes. “Because it’s none of your business.”

“Why? Because you wouldn’t want him to know you threw yourself at me a few days ago?”

It wasn’t a shock something shitty would come out of his mouth. Not a shock the look of hurt on her face made him wince. No, nothing about the way he was handling this all wrong was a shock.

“No, Dan, because it’s ancient history that—and I know this will be hard for you to accept—has nothing to do with you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.”

He didn’t say anything, the hard weight of guilt and self-disgust lodging itself tight in his chest.

Georgia hurried up to the booth, sliding the plates onto the table in her harried manner. For the first time since he’d been here, not one ounce of that burger looked or smelled appetizing.

Hell, maybe he’d found his diet after all. All he’d needed was a little bad behavior and a few dashes of self-loathing.

Chapter 9

They ate lunch in silence. No matter how weird things were, no matter how irritated she got with him, or vice versa, they’d never sat in silence for this long. Dan always broke and said some stupid joke or something.

Anything.

But he ate his burger in silence, leaving half of it on his plate as he got up to pay the bill.

Mel had no idea what she’d done wrong. She didn’t spill her sad Tyler history and wasn’t going to. No reason for him to be bent out of shape.

But…

Damn buts.

She could have been more forthcoming. She probably should have been. Not because she owed him exactly, but because seeing Tyler should not have been a big deal. Talking about Tyler should not mean anything, or be something she avoided.

It was ancient history. The ancient-est. She should have explained he was an ex, and there were no hard feelings, and this was nothing. Certainly nothing for her and Dan to be fighting over, or whatever it was they were doing.

But it hurt. Tyler being nice hurt. Wanting to catch up.

She wished she could blame him for everything that had happened, but in the long line of people who’d turned their backs on her, Tyler was the most justified.

“Ready?”

She glanced up at Dan, standing next to the table in almost the exact same spot Tyler had stood. Back in town. Possibly not for a short while. Meaning she’d likely run into him a billion and one times.

Have to deal with that low-level guilt, that insidious line of thought that told her something was wrong with her for not making it work, not giving a little when he’d wanted something so simple, so fundamental.

You don’t…you don’t love me? You’ll marry me, but you don’t love me?

She shoved out of the booth and forced herself out of the diner, trying to leave that uncomfortable memory behind. The look of shock and horror on Tyler’s face when he’d faced her with that impossible question. She’d been too stressed and worried and sick with everything going on with Dad to lie, to pretend she wasn’t unworthy of all that devotion.

She didn’t love him. Had never really loved him. He’d just been a perfectly serviceable choice. Reliable. Wouldn’t leave. Was good with letting her take the reins. Never pushed.

Never gave you an orgasm.

Thatthought was all Dan’s fault, because she had a really bad feeling he’d be quite the expert on that front.

Good Lord.

She climbed into her truck, and they drove the entire way back to Dan’s ranch in silence. More silence. She pulled her truck up Dan’s drive, around the house, and up to the llama enclosure. He hopped out without a word.

Fine. That was great. Maybe that could last the whole day. By the time she forced herself out of the truck, Dan already had the back opened and was collecting an armful of posts.

She swallowed at the lump in her throat, irritated that emotion was clogged there. Words were clogged there, and they wanted to escape.

He walked over to the enclosure. Stomped, more like. Pissed, like he’d been when he had talked to his agent on the phone outside the restaurant in Bozeman.

Yeah, when you promised yourself you wouldn’t let him get to you anymore.

He was making her really bad at keeping promises to herself, because the words were pushing out her throat. The explanations—she couldn’t keep them in. “We were engaged.”

He stopped mid-stride, a hitch in his step before he dumped the pieces of wood in an unceremonious pile next to where they’d decided to expand. Slowly, he turned, eyebrows drawn together as he studied her. “You wereengagedto that guy?”

“Yes.” Why was she telling him this? He had no right to know her personal life, and yet he made her feel like a jerk for keeping it to herself.

Or you’re that desperate to talk to someone about it.Which was beyond pathetic. Everything with Tyler had blown up years ago. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d thought of it. She’d moved on, or at the least buried it. There had been more important things on her plate to deal with. Dad. Caleb. And now Dan. Dan’s ranch, anyway.

Yeah, like Dan isn’t on your plate too.

She whirled back to the lumber. They needed to focus on work. She’d explained and—

“So what happened? He broke your heart and deserves a punch in the face? Because I’d happily offer my services in that department.”

She swallowed at the lump in her throat. It was such a stupid macho offer she shouldn’t be touched by, because Lord knew if someone deserved a punch in the face, she could certainly deliver it herself.

But somehow it was touching. It was nice. Someone offering to do something for her, or in her name.

But Tyler hadn’t broken her heart, not in the way Dan meant, and he certainly didn’t deserve a punch in the face. She might, but not Tyler. “No, that won’t be necessary,” she managed evenly.

“I’m not talking about necessary. I’m talking about a little repayment for being an asshole.”

“He wasn’t an asshole. He didn’t break my heart. In fact, it was more the opposite.” She stood there, hand on a piece of lumber, trying to work out all the conflicting emotions going on. Emotions she’d never dealt with because everything with Tyler had gone down when she’d still been drowning in surviving Dad’s paralysis, and those emotions had taken precedence.

Yeah, because you’ve really dealt with all those emotions.

“Look, can we get to work? I—”

“Youbrokehisheart?”

She let out a breath. Of course Dan wouldn’t let it go. He was not the let-go, move-on type. He pestered. And she relented. She didn’t want to know what that said about her. “Yes.”

“How?”

“He wanted to marry someone who was going to love him, and that wasn’t me.”I don’t have that kind of thing in me.

“Why the hell were you engaged to a guy you didn’t love?”

Yes, she supposed to someone like Dan, that would sound insane. Crazy. But the last thing she wanted out of this life was love. Love was fleeting. Love was painful. Love disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving people confused, hurt.

Scarred.

All she wanted was stability. She didn’t want to worry she couldn’t measure up to someone’s expectations. She didn’t want passion or dazzle. Those things got eviscerated in Blue Valley. She wanted someone to take half the work, hold half the reins.

She didn’t want to be left again. It wasn’t wrong to want that, to protect herself. It was smart. And worse, so much worse, she didn’t want to be put in the position whereshemight leave, she might hurt that person who cared for her.

She didn’t want her truest, ugliest self to come out, so she kept it locked away far from anything like emotion.

“Mel.”

She cleared her throat. Keeping it in didn’t exactly work—she had too much to keep in—but that didn’t mean she had to spill her guts. “He was a nice guy. I liked him just fine. I wanted something stable, and Tyler was…that.”

“Well, sure, for a friend, but isn’t marriage supposed to be love and…stuff?”

“You ever been married?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“Your parents a shining example of lifelong love and monogamy?” she demanded.

“Well, no.”

“Exactly. I’ve never been a fairy-tale girl, Dan. We started dating in high school. It was comfortable. He proposed right before Dad’s accident. It seemed like the thing to do.” Never have to be afraid or hurt. “Someone to build a life with who wouldn’t hightail it to California when he got the urge.” Or, maybe, more the fact she wouldn’t be devastated if he did.

“Why would hightailing it to California even be an option?”

She wasn’t going there. Nope. She’d gone far enough. “Are we going to expand this damn fence or not?”

“Who hightailed it to California?”

“No one.”

“Look, I’m not the sharpest skate on the ice, I’ll give you that, but I’m not dumb.”

And that was her breaking point, though God knew why. There had been far more poignant breaking points in her life, but those had all been fought through. Somehow.

“God, Dan. I don’t… Fine, you really want to know? When I was seven, my mom walked out. Disappeared. Never heard from her again. I saw my dad struggle to deal with that heartbreak, that betrayal, and still manage to be a decent father and rancher and member of this damn community, and what does he get for it? Paralyzed. A shitty son who undermined everything he worked for until it was too damn late.”

And a daughter who couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t find a way to unlock that cage he’d put himself in. She had to somehow wake up every morning and convince herself it was him, not her. Mom, not her.

It wasn’t that she was unlovable, so easy to leave or shut out. It wasn’t that her father could see that deep down all she wanted to do was run, just like the mother she despised.

She swallowed at the lump now fizzling, a hard wedge in her esophagus. Her normal rationalizations seemed so brittle and weak, and she wasn’t sure why. “With Tyler, I just wanted someone I could depend on, and he wanted more. I don’t have more. So. There. That’s it. No big tragedy.”

And itwasn’ta tragedy. So why did she have tears in her eyes, threatening to fall? She kept her eyes wide, refusing to let them win. She would not cry in front of him. She would not.

I am unbreakable.

Remembering telling Dan that not so many days ago was the last straw. The tears became too many to contain, falling onto her cheeks. Unbreakable Mel, what a laugh. Shewasbroken.

Even knowing she should fight him off, get in her truck and go, when Dan’s arms hesitantly wound around her, she didn’t push away, or stiffen—she leaned into him. She just wanted to lean for a little while. Was that so wrong?

She didn’t sob or wail—no, she wouldn’t let herself do that—but she didn’t fight the tears. She let them fall and soak into Dan’s T-shirt. She let Dan’s arms hold her close. It was odd to take comfort from a man she didn’t understand in the least. But he held her until she was done, and who had ever done that?

She couldn’t ever remember crying until she was spent. The few times she allowed herself to cry, it was usually a quick thing. Get it out and over with. She didn’t have time for long fits of self-pity.

But she had officially cried her eyes out. On Dan.

The embarrassment climbed deep, made it impossible to pull away from the hard, comforting safety of his chest. Because, if she pulled away, she’d have to face him.

She’d rather stay in the cocoon of warm, sturdy comfort that smelled like sawdust and pine. That felt like heaven.

Because she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had hugged her. Not since Dad’s hospital room. Caleb had hugged her then—they’d hugged each other, but that had been the last time.

She felt that loss acutely, so acutely she could almost tell herself she didn’t care who was offering it now. Strong arms holding the weight of her, holding the weight of everything.

How long had she wanted that? Too bad it was from the guy who was going to disappear in a few months.

Actually, that was good, because this way she couldn’t forget that this offering of…whatever…was a temporary thing. Not something she could depend on or get used to.

Dan would leave, like Mom had. Like Tyler had when she hadn’t been able to give him everything. It was an inevitability. She wasn’t cut out for…people’s love.

Which meant she couldn’t be hurt by it.

Comforting in a way, but problematic in another. Because if she knew it was temporary, if she knew she couldn’t be hurt by it, why would she resist it?

Oh, so dangerous to think such a thing. Dangerous enough that she pulled away from the hug and the comfort. From Dan.

Dan, who you don’t have to resist.

But she did. She didn’t know why; she only knew in some part of her that he was dangerous and needed to be resisted, no matter what that dark, quiet voice in the back of her head said.

“We should go unload your lumber,” she managed, her voice rusty.

“That sounds like a euphemism.” There was humor in his tone, but it was tempered with something. Something that made her chest ache.

Not pity. Pity was too gross of a word, and this wasn’t gross. It was sweet. Sympathy or commiseration or, God forbid, care.

“We have to work.”

But his hand reached out and touched her face, brushing tears off her cheeks. Dan stepped closer, like he was going to hug her again. She would stand firm against it this time, she would—

His hands cupped her jaw, green eyes fixed on her face. Onher, the cool of his calloused palms a welcome relief from all the heat in her cheeks. From the crying, from the embarrassment.

“You know, the other day, when I said I wanted you to teach me to be such a hard-ass?” he asked.

“Yeah, you changing your mind?” She tried to step away, but his gentle hands tightened on her, keeping her in place.

“I didn’t even have a clue how deep it goes, how strong you are, and I thought you were pretty damn strong.”

She didn’t know what to do with words like that. Like headmiredher, respected her.

She’d had respect before. Respect for her work was not a problem, but someone being impressed byherwas…well, most people looked at her with half respect, half pity.

That feeling rushed into all the aching breaks in her armor, slipping through the cracks. Dangerous, she knew. She should not let anything he felt for her do anything, be anything. Except, she was weak. Vulnerable. And she wanted the danger, the hard edge of this wrong feeling, the wild heartbeat that came with him standing too close, his hands cupping her face, strong and sturdy like he could take on everything that was on her shoulders.

An illusion, and she’d never been one for believing in illusions, but she saw their appeal now. The appeal of losing herself in it, in him.

“Mel.”

She may have closed some of the distance between them, but she wasn’t the only one. She had promised herself to be strong, to resist, but Dan’s mouth on hers, his hands on her face, it was so much better than resisting.


Page 10

No one had ever kissed her like they couldn’t help themselves. Like it was all that mattered. This was the second time he’d done it, but it still wasn’t the same. This wasn’t angry, frustrated kissing that burst into heat and flame.

It was soft. His tongue traced her bottom lip, swept inside her mouth with a languorous ease that matched the way the heat and ache spread through her. Slow, steady, until she was all but humming with it. With the wordmore.

The ripple of fear settled somewhere underneath desire. She felt it, but she didn’t act on it—couldn’t. She was drowning in a sea of want. She wanted him to touch her, to follow the spiral of electricity that wound through her body. Every time his mouth touched hers, it was all she could think about. His hands on her skin. Her skin on his skin.

Until a bleating cracked through the peace of a quiet mountain afternoon.

Mel jerked back, eyes falling to where Mystery Llama was standing at the edge of the fence. Staring. Judging.

Not judging, wacko.

“He’s hungry,” she said, pointing to the llama even though Dan’s hands were still on her face, even though she could feel his body heat through her clothes and feel his breath on her temple. Even though everything inside of her was still reeling from confusion mixed with desire.

“The llama will keep.”

It would. It probably would, and as much as she wanted to throw up her hands and saysure, why the hell not, it was the middle of the day. They were in the middle of a project. You did not just leave something undone because you wanted connection. Wanted sex.

Oh, but I bet it will be really awesome sex.

She shook her head, stepping away from Dan and the idea that she could ever forget a responsibility. That she could let a few aches and desperate fantasies change the fact of her reality. She raised her chin, determined. “We have work to do. And you’re paying me. So, that makes this weird.”

He was quiet for a few beats, eyes steady on hers. “One of these days, you’re going to run out of excuses.”

She wanted it to feel like a threat, something she could fight against, be angry about. But it didn’t feel like that at all.One of these dayssounded like a gift.

A gift she could have if she ever wanted it.

Not for you.

Why did that keep getting lost in all this…whatever it was? Dan was not for her. She knew that. But she also knew shecouldhave him, however briefly, and she wasn’t sure she was strong enough to resist that forever.

* * *

Dan put every last ounce of energy into work. He wasn’t going to push Mel. The way he saw it, she had enough people trying to take things from her, and he was determined not to be that guy.

Even if it gave him blue balls in the process.

Every time he thought he got to the bottom of all of Mel’s stress, everything that made her so rigid and careful and tough, he fell down some other chasm.

He couldn’t say he was surprised that her mother had abandoned her family. She obviously had issues with people leaving, and she’d never mentioned a mother. What he was still working his way through was the anger, the absolute disgust in the way she’d explained what happened.

Then she’d cried. As if the anger had just been hiding this vulnerable hurt underneath, as if that’s what her tough-girl attitude wasalwayshiding.

Seeing that filled him with an unease he didn’t know how to fight. Hurt was not something he liked to deal with. Was not something he’d ever had any skill at dealing with.

He had cracked under all the emotion of his parents’ crumbling marriage. Fallen apart, trouble and tears and too much.Too much for me to handle with an absent husband, Mom had said when she’d thought he hadn’t been listening. He had been her last straw.

Then Dad had taught him to skate, and he’d skated away from all feelings since then. From his own, from his mother’s. His grandparents’. He’d used hockey as an excuse not to visit. Grandma’s decline had been much worse, much sharper than Grandpa’s, and the way that broke Grandpa’s heart was written all over his face.

Always.

Dan’s chest ached, a deep, helpless pain he didn’t know what to do with. That pain he always chose to escape. So he didn’t do any more damage, like he had done with his parents. Except there was no skating, no escape in his immediate future. Just…fence building and llamas.

Well, at least it was something.

“It’s seven. I need to head out.” Mel yanked off work gloves and slapped them against her knee. “Think you can handle getting it closed up?”

He looked at the two posts they had left, which would bring the enclosure to a new, expanded rectangle.

“Yup.”

She nodded once then turned on a heel and headed for her truck. No good-bye. No “thanks for letting me cry on you.” No “hey, now that it’s quitting time, how about some sex?”

Which was good, really. This afternoon had given him this feeling of being strong and a take-care kind of guy, but he couldn’t let that feeling go to his head. Hugging someone while they cried did not equal being capable of handling much of anything.

When was the last time you tried?

She got to her truck, pulling open her door without a pause. He should not say something. He should focus on the fence and just…leave things as they were.

But he could remember what it had felt like holding her while she cried, wiping away the tears and kissing her with the salt of them still on her lips, and even knowing it was false, fake, and would probably come back to bite him in the ass, he felt like maybe—just maybe—he could be of some help to her. Be some kind of white knight, even if he’d always sucked at it.

“Mel?”

She paused, one foot on the step of her truck, hands braced on either side of the door frame. She cleared her throat, shoulders straightening, always bracing for the next blow.

He wasnotgoing to be the one to deliver it. If he could promise himself one thing this summer, it was that he was not going to be someone who added to the load she had to carry.

Evenhecould manage that.

“What, Dan?”

“My door is always open.”

She looked over her shoulder at him, eyebrows scrunched together in that whole “I do not get you” expression she wore more than occasionally, but then she smoothed out her features and nodded, pulling her cowboy hat down a little on her head, like a tip of the hat. “I’ll keep it in mind,” she said quietly.

That was enough that he found himself smiling as she drove away.

Because something about vulnerability on Mel drew him. The fear and the discomfort didn’t disappear, but stronger than both those things was this strange and powerful urge to help. In whatever lame way he could.

So, he would. Being in Blue Valley was all about learning new things, after all, so that’s just what he’d do.

Chapter 10

Mel peeled off her boots and dumped them onto the mat. The empty mat, because Caleb was in here somewhere with his damn boots on. Tracking dirt. Not giving a damn.

He’s trying as much as you are.

Oh, she didn’t have the energy for this. She didn’t have the energy for anything. She was wrung out—from crying, from working her ass off on a damn llama fence, all so she didn’t have to think about that crying, that kiss.

Was it too much to ask to come home to boots on the mat and dinner on the table? Yes, too much to ask. Everything was too much to ask. That was her life.

Except for the times Dan made her forget. The hug, the kiss, the door-always-being-open thing. It wasn’t real, but it was there. Possible.

The kitchen was dark, as was the living room. Everything was quiet and heavy, and she wanted to scream. Scream and scream and scream until something changed, something clicked.

But she didn’t. She walked through the house, finally going out to the back porch. Caleb was sitting in one of the old rocking chairs, staring moodily at the mountains.

There was a glass next to him, the kind of glass that made her stomach clench. Except, she’d give him the benefit of the doubt, because aside from too many beers the night Dan had come over for dinner, he hadn’t been drinking.

It was just pop. Not a drop of Dad’s whiskey in it.

But when she wrenched her gaze away from the glass, Caleb’s gaze was on her. He didn’t bother to hide the scowl, and she tried to hold on to that last glimmer of hope. She needed him not to have done this.

“Fiona quit,” he said into the dark silence.

“What?” Those weren’t the words she’d been expecting. “Why?” It had to be some misunderstanding, something she could fix. Maybe with the extra money Dan was giving her, she could offer a raise…

“Dad did something, she wouldn’t tell me what.” Caleb waved an arm. “She only said it was too hard, and she couldn’t do it anymore.”

“What are we going to do?” Fiona had been a godsend. Mel hated the thought of going through the process of finding a new nurse who would come out here.

“You could run an ad, I guess.”

“Icould?” Under the exhaustion and the sadness and the fear, a lick of anger flamed to life, and there was just enough kindling to make it blaze.

“My hands are kind of full, Mel.”

“So are mine,” she replied through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, having that guy buy you lunch every day at Georgia’s must be rough.” He pushed out of the chair, taking an angry step toward her. “You know I don’t hear much gossip, but I’m hearing plenty about you and Dan gallivanting around town.”

“Gallivanting?” She was so angry, the repeated word barely exited her throat. He thought she wasgallivanting.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m kind of carrying this ranch on my back right now.”

“And what the fuck am I doing, Caleb?” He had been drinking. She could tell, because he hadn’t been like this in a long time. Belligerent. “What have I been doing the past five damn years?”

“I need a drink,” he muttered, pushing past her. “You want me to have this conversation, I need a lot more booze in my system.”

“You’ve had enough,” she said firmly, following him into the kitchen.

“Easy, Mom.”

He’d never laid a hand on her, but he may as well have with that. “Don’t you ever, ever say that to me.”

His shoulders slumped, hand resting on the outside of the cabinet she thought to be empty. But he must have more alcohol in there.

He rested his forehead on the door of the cabinet next to his hand. “I’m sorry for that. I am.”

“You need to tell me what this is. Why you keep doing this.” They couldn’t keep dancing around this, and she couldn’t keep ignoring what was happening. Not if he was drinking. Not if he was lashing out. She couldn’t do this again.

He straightened and seemed to use great effort to remove his hand from the door. But when he turned to face her, his expression was completely blank. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Bullshit.

It was all too much, and his apology was worthless without an explanation behind it. So damn worthless. All of this. What was she fighting so hard for? When he couldn’t just explain himself. When he had to turn anywhere but to her. “Fuck you, Caleb.” She had to get out of here. Go somewhere…

She knew where she shouldn’t go, but everyone else got to do what they shouldn’t do, so why not her?

“Mel.”

But she didn’t stop, not for a second. She was going to leave. She was going to go be selfish and stupid, and Caleb could deal with that for once in his life. She grabbed her boots, pulled the first on.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.” She jammed her foot into the other boot. “Don’t wait up.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

She turned to face him, and the anger was so big and bright and glowing, she didn’t care what she said, or what they did. “Grow some balls. The pair of you.”

“Nice. Real nice. After all the shit I’ve dealt with today—”

She didn’t listen. She looked down at her boots. No, she couldn’t go in boots and work clothes. So she stomped upstairs to her room. She could still hear Caleb grumbling, but she was done, and nothing he could say could change that.

She pawed through her closet, trying to find something that wasn’t denim or flannel or plaid. She had nothing. Not one scrap of feminine, seductive clothing.

Damn it.

So she did what any smart, resourceful woman would do. She grabbed a pair of scissors from her sorely neglected mending box and cut a pair of jeans into shorts.

Short shorts.

She changed into her nicest underwear—which was black cotton instead of nude cotton, but hey, it was something. She shimmied into the short shorts, and found a red tank top she usually wore under another shirt.

Yanking her hair out of her braid, she stalked to the bathroom. It was all kinky and weird, so there went that idea. But instead of re-braiding, she just pulled it back into a ponytail.

It took about five minutes of searching through her bathroom cabinets to find her makeup. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had occasion to wear it, and the nail polish in there had long since separated, the lip gloss tube all dried out and cracky.

But she had eyeliner and mascara, though not the best hand at putting it on. She frowned at her reflection. The eyes were okay, dark and dangerous, but she needed lipstick.

She looked around the bathroom, then finally got a Q-tip wet and shoved it into the lip gloss tube. She managed to create enough color on her lips that, as long as she didn’t chew it off, should stay for at least a little while.

She gave herself a once-over. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.Story of your life.Well, so be it.

She stomped downstairs, seeing Caleb was gone, presumably to drink himself to death on the porch again. Dad shouldn’t need any help getting to bed, but if he had any problems, he could call Fiona and apologize. Mel had spent a fortune on making the house as accessible as possible for him.

At the cost of everything.

For once,hecould face that. For once she didn’t have to stand there and pretend all the hard work she put in wasn’t a big deal. She was leaving because it was a big deal. Everything she’d done going completely unrecognized was abigdamn deal.

She wouldn’t use liquor or a shitty attitude to make herself feel better. What she needed was something that would feel so good, so encompassing, that she didn’t have to think about anything else.

Dan was the answer. He’d rejected her once, and she’d rejected him once. So they were even—on even ground, and neither of them would make that stupid mistake again.

And if he did? Well, if Dan Sharpe wasn’t up to the challenge, she’d damn well find someone who was.

* * *

Dan stood under the hot spray of his shower. He was starving and would kill for a beer, but he couldn’t quite make the move to get out.

It had been a day. A day that had kicked his ass as well as any high-intensity playoff game might.

Funny how the water seemed to cool at just the moment his brain turned to hockey. Seemed about right. He wrenched the water off and grabbed the towel from the hook.

They still smelled a little musty, and he had to assume they always would after all the washings he’d done. He could get new towels, of course, just like he could get someone to fix this place up, but just like with the truck, something stopped him.

Maybe he should stop letting it. He had a plan now. A plan in place even if he left. He was building something for…something. Someday. Even if he got back in the league, he sure as hell couldn’t play hockey forever.

Much as he’d like to.

He dried off, pulled on his boxers, and ran a hand through his wet hair. He needed a haircut, and to do some laundry that wasn’t towels. He was out of clean pants, and he doubted the T-shirt situation was much better.

But first, he absolutely needed food.

He hadn’t conned Mel into teaching him to cook anything yet, and while he could probably search the Internet for a few tips and tricks to making something with the chicken in his fridge, he was too hungry to fiddle around.

Scrambled eggs would have to do, along with a little light llama reading, then some laundry.

Life had gotten weird.

He went through the prep, cracking a few eggs into the skillet, tossing some cheese in for good measure. He’d get back on the “protein shake, vegetables, and lean meats” thing tomorrow.

Drawing the spatula through the raw eggs, he squinted at the pages of his book. Then he cursed and went to retrieve his glasses. “Old-man eyes, my ass,” he grumbled, sliding the thick frames onto his nose.

He glanced from the book to the eggs, stirring occasionally. When a knock sounded at the door, he paused. Why was someone at his door at nearly eight thirty at night?

Shit, his life hadn’t just gotten weird—it had gotten lame.

The eggs were about done, so he took the pan with him. Buck and Mel and the kid who’d dropped off his library books the other day were the only people who ever came out here, and he wasn’t expecting anyone.

He opened the door and about dropped the pan. Mel stood on his doorstep looking…not at all like Mel.

She stared at his chest, and he acutely felt the fact that he was basically standing here in his underwear holding a pan of eggs. And she wasn’t exactly fully dressed herself.

She stepped inside. “Take off the glasses. Put the pan down.”

They were words, and perhaps at another time they might make sense strung together, but he could see her legs, her arms, the tops of her breasts. He could see more of her than he couldnotsee of her.

“I’m sorry, did you…say things?”

She closed the door and crossed her arms under her breasts, which…um…what was happening? She had makeup on. And sexy clothes. With cowboy boots.

He was dreaming probably. Yes, this was an unconscious fantasy.

“I said, take off the glasses and put the pan down,” she said in a careful, measured tone.

“Could I possibly then get dressed?”

“No.” She shook her head emphatically, the loose ends of her ponytail swinging back and forth as she stared him down. “That will not be necessary.”

“Um.” He’d never considered himself shy before, and he’d certainly had his fair share of brazen sexual proposals thrown his way. He’d even taken up most of those women.

But those women weren’t Mel.

Her eyes met his, cool and determined, but there was a flash of something underneath. He couldn’t read it, she kept it so well hidden. “Glasses. Pan. Now.”

“Can you maybe fill me in on what’s going on, and why?” Carefully, watching her, he set down the pan, flicked off the burner, and then—because, eh, why not—he took off the glasses and placed them on top of his book.

She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She pushed out her chest, which meant he could see down the front of her shirt enough to see the tops of a black bra.

She looked so…soft. Which was not a word he’d ever associated with her, but his fingers itched to touch, to run along the delicate curve of her breasts, the sloping angle of her collarbone.

And then follow it with his mouth.

“We’re going to have sex.”

His gaze jerked from her breasts to her face. “Right now?”

“Yes.”

“And I don’t suppose I have any say in the matter?”

Her expression flickered briefly, like a quick flash of uncertainty before she banished it. “You want to, don’t you?”

He scratched fingers through his hair, trying to work out the right way to deal with this. Because, something about being a good guy for Mel, when he’d never been much of one before, held some strange appeal. He wanted to try this new good-guy thing. “Well, that’s not a straight yes or no question.”

“Yes, it is. Either you want to get me naked or you don’t.”

Oh, he wished it were that straightforward. That they were back in Chicago, his place, a hotel room, anything easy. But nothing about Blue Valley, Mel, or this ranch was simple or easy. “I would like that, but there are…ramifications to that. Complicated ones.”

“No, there aren’t. Not really. I need…” She took a deep breath. There was hurt and pain all over her face, but she didn’t slump in the face of it. She looked at him straight on. “I want to forget about everything. You can make that happen, can’t you?”

“Well, not permanently.”

“I don’t need permanent. I just need right now. I just need you.”

He let out a breath. This whole “be the good guy” thing was proving difficult, because he didn’t know what the good-guy thing to do here was. He felt like good guys probably said no to emotional pleas for forget-everything sex.

But it was what she wanted, and Christ, that getup was killing him. So…

He was at a loss.

“I am going to say this once, and only once.” She swallowed, her palm pressing against his bare chest. Warm, soft, small. He could almost forget those hands were capable of ripping a post out of the ground or—as she’d once warned him—castrating a cow.


Page 11

“Please.”

Then, like she had the other morning, she let her hand trail down his chest, across his abdomen, to the waistband of his boxers, and he sucked in a breath. He’d said “no” once, and it hadn’t done much of anything.

Was it really such a bad-guy thing to do to say yes? To give her what she asked for? What she’d said “please” for? He was pretty certain he could give her exactly what she wanted, and what he wanted in the process.

So…how could that be wrong?

Chapter 11

There was a whole world of emotions going on deep in her gut, but Mel breathed through them. She wouldn’t analyze it—downright refused to—but the warmth of Dan’s chest under her palm was like this center point, a calming force in a sea of frustration, hurt, and anger.

She wanted more of that, more of him. The way simply touching his bare skin made every part of her buzz to attention. She wanted his mouth on hers, his body on hers. She wanted to find the end to this perpetual ache.

She took a deep breath before lifting her gaze to his. He had to say yes, he just had to—

He placed his hand over hers, and for one horrible second, she thought he was going to peel it away and try to be all noble and crap again.

Instead, he lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her palm, his eyes never leaving hers.

The bolt of heat and giddy excitement was sharp, quick—a kind of jolt Tyler had never given her in kisses on the actual mouth. Which wasn’t a fair comparison. They’d been young and inexperienced and, well, she hadn’t allowed herself to be attracted to much more than his stability.

It was the way she worked.

Until Dan.

Involuntarily, she jerked her arm back, feeling that this was maybe just a bit too much, but Dan’s grasp on her wrist was firm. His thumb brushed over the inside of her arm, and she shivered. She honest to God shivered from the simplest touch.

“You can stop me anytime,” he said levelly, those eyes of his seeing too much, understanding far too much.

But she didn’t care, not if simple touches could do this. Not if he could erase all the crap in her head, even for just a few minutes. “I don’t want to stop,” she snapped. She’d put on these ridiculous clothes and this ridiculous makeup and told him to take thoseridiculousglasses off and stay in his underwear.

They were doing this.

“Okay, but I’m putting it out there anyway.”

“Okay, sure.” Whatever. Whatever it took to get him to stop talking and start doing. So she could stop feeling like her nerves were going to cause her to bolt. No. Way.

His grip on her wrist tightened, and he pulled her to him, still keeping space between them, but not much, and it seemed to jump with electricity, like the air during a thunderstorm. Sparking with danger and an unpredictable force of nature.

“You’re going to have to come a little closer, baby,” he said in a low, gravelly voice that was…new. New. No slick lines, no easy jokes. There was a thread of serious intent in his voice, and that was…well, almost hot enough to pretend like he hadn’t called her baby.

But she didn’t like that, even when parts of her did. “Don’t call me baby,” she managed, her voice coming out…breathless. Strange to her own ears.

“Darling? Sugar? Honey?”

She swallowed as his hand traveled up her arm, leaving a trail of goose bumps in its wake. She stared hard at the column of his throat, the way it curved into those strong, broad shoulders. Muscled. Athletic. Real. This man who didn’t seem totally real was touching her, looking at her like she was something edible.

Which almost made her forget they were talking, but then his hand stopped at her shoulder, and she remembered. “None of that endearment crap. Mel.”

“Mel.”

She forced herself to look at him, to be brave and strong and enjoy thehellout of this. “I’m not interchangeable.”

His mouth curved, the sexy smirk of a man who…was going to make her forget. Yes. That.

“No, you’re not interchangeable. You, Mel Shaw, are one heck of a unique woman.”

“Damn straight.”

His palm cupped her neck, thumb brushing the underside of her jaw. The touch shivered through her, gentle, so gentle, but with a hint of a promise for more. Her eyes wanted to flutter closed, but that seemed weak somehow. To not be able to look him dead on when he made her stomach flip to her toes.

He leaned forward, mouth brushing across her temple. “It’s okay to close your eyes.”

“I don’t need to—” Her words stuttered to a stop, her eyes fluttering closed as he pressed his mouth to the spot just beneath her ear, just above her jaw. Everything inside of her seemed to sigh when his mouth lingered there.

“There we are,” he said softly against her ear, the rush of breath making her shiver again. Or was that his other hand on her hip, pushing up her shirt, fingers brushing her side?

She couldn’t decide, mouth or fingers—and then he took her earlobe between his teeth and scraped. Her knees honest-to-God felt weak. It was not just a saying—they all but buckled.

“OhGod.” She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but Dan didn’t give her a chance to be embarrassed over it, his mouth crushed to hers. One minute it was all lazy seduction, and now she was being pressed up against a wall.

And,oh God, seriously. There was no other phrase that did this justice—the possessive way his hands cradled her face, the hard press of his chest, his erection, the near-growl as he used his tongue, his teeth against her lips.

The desperate excitement, the building heat, it was all new and exactly what she’d been after. She hadn’t been overstating the current that ran between them. There was something here. Something bigger than simple attraction.

No. Not more. Just…different.

His hands moved from her face, down her sides, and then without removing his mouth from hers, he pushed her shirt slowly up her rib cage, then over her breasts. She felt his fingers at the top of the bra cup, and then the cool air against her. Exposed. Exposed to him so that every nerve ending in her body was bracing for impact, all but vibrating with the desperate need to be touched.

When he brushed a finger across her nipple she nearly jumped, a noise escaping her. She couldn’t believe that was a sound coming out of her own mouth, but the little squeak popped out, and itwasher.

He finally broke the kiss, but his eyes were still so close to hers, his mouth all smiling and amused and sexy.

“Hm.” He brushed his finger against her nipple again, and she tried valiantly not to squeak and shudder, but it was no use. The feeling was too much. The jolt. The pleasure. The way it centered at her breast and sank lower.

When was the last time something had ever felt this good?

“I like that,” he murmured, his eyes rapt on where his hands cupped her breasts. Then his head bent, and her throat caught.

He was going to…

The soft friction of his tongue was so electric, so erotic, her head fell back and hit the wall. She didn’t even care. His mouth on her like that felt so good she didn’t care about anything anymore. This was all she needed, the heat of his tongue, the press of his palms.

Perfect.

“We can just do it here,” she said, her breath coming out in little bursts. Almost panting. Stupid, but she couldn’t help it. The aching edge of desire was so tight, so needy, she couldn’t help anything. And she’d never done anything like that. Just…spur of the moment, let’s do it in the kitchen. Against a wall. That could be done, right?

He paused, straightening to his full height as if he was considering it, then he shook his head. “Maybe next time. Tonight, I am going to see all of you, Mel.”

All of her? Oh, that sounded…scary, actually. Some of the tight spiral of arousal faded. She felt cramped. She didn’t want that. She just wanted some sex. Explosive, actually orgasmic sex.

But he was pulling her through the little hallway to his bedroom, one cup of her bra still askew, her shirt bunched at her armpits. It was hard to think about any of that when his firm, tight athlete’s butt was right in front of her in thin blue cotton boxer shorts.

She wanted her hands on it. Which was soweird. She couldn’t ever remember being desperate to have her hands on someone’s ass and—

He stopped, and she all but ran into him. He laughed, low and husky, a strangely light and feathery sensation moving down her spine. When she lifted her eyes, she recognized the expression on his face.

Pleased-with-himself arrogance at catching her ogling.

That might usually irritate the crap out of her, but she found with her hand in his and him all but naked, it was a good look. A yummy look.

“You have a nice ass,” she blurted, trying to play it off as something she ever normally said toanyone.

The rumble of his laugh would have made her smile, except he seemed surprised, not just amused. She felt kind of bad for…well, she didn’t feel bad for being hard on him or whatever, but maybe she had a little tiny bit of guilt over one or two of the not-so-nice things she’d said to him out of irritation.

“This isn’t angry sex,” she said.

“Yeah, I put a moratorium on that, remember?” He grinned, tugging her shirt all the way over her head. “Teaching me how to ranch, expanding my vocabulary—this is quite a learning experience.”

Which was fine, but not the point. “I think you’re hot.”

His grin went sly, and he tossed the shirt into the recesses of his messy room. “I know.”

Of course he did. How could he not see the way she wanted to melt into him? The way she all but disintegrated with every illicit touch. “Right, but, what I mean is, it’s not just… I’m not using you, exactly. You are…a person who I don’t… I know I can sometimes come off…”

He gave her ponytail a tug, then cupped the back of her neck, fingertips brushing against every sensitive part. “Spit it out, sweetheart.”

She’d like to, but he kept touching her and looking at her, sending the sparks of attraction and lust so deep, so hot, so intense she had a hard time forming words or thoughts. “I like you, okay?” she said, exasperated and itchy. “You’re not a bad guy.”

His hands stilled, and she realized he was doing all the touching, and she was doing all the letting him touch. She needed to stop that, stop being so passive. Passive was not in her vocabulary. She wanted to touch. She wanted to take as much as she wanted him to take, to give.

“Not a bad guy, huh?”

She forced herself to look him in the eye despite the fact that he was slowly edging the straps of her bra off her shoulders. But she was surprised to find some serious concentration on his face. “I just didn’t want you to think… I mean…you’re not just some random guy.” She’d come here specifically, for him, and yes, it was just temporary, something to do because she wanted to do something on a whim, but it was still… She wasn’t at the Pioneer Spirit getting drunk and hitting on the first guy to cross her path.

“I think I get that.”

“Okay then. I mean, I just, I’m not here to—I…”

He took a step toward her, so his knees pressed to hers, her breasts brushed the front of his chest setting off an electric current that almost made her knees buckle again. “You want to forget,” he said, hands reaching around to unclasp the back of her bra.

“Yes.” Which he was helping her do. All this touching, and she was already forgetting what had brought her here. Because everywhere his fingers touched, she felt revered, she felt things she normally didn’t. Soft and feminine and special.

“Then let’s do that.”

* * *

Dan was trying to take it slow. Not because he thought she particularly needed that, but because he wanted to enjoy this. All of it. For all her “you’re not a bad guy” sentiment, he wasn’t stupid enough to assume there’d be more of this.

This might be a onetime deal, and he was going to make the most of it.

Except, she kept making these noises that made him forget about the slow thing. Like the way she inhaled sharply once he’d gotten rid of her bra, and the way she’d sighed when he palmed each breast.

He wanted to make her sigh a million times, to feel her give, relent. There was nothing he did that wasn’t met with some kind of response, and all those thoughts of going slow dissolved. Dissolved into him nudging her onto the bed and immediately beginning to fumble with the snap and zipper of her shorts.

He wanted all of her. All. Mel, laid out on his bed, wanting him as badly as he had been wanting her. He would find some patience for that. Somewhere.

“Here.” She pushed his hands away, undoing the zipper herself and pushing them down her hips. This time he pushed her hands away, hooking fingers in the waistband of her panties and flattening his palms all the way down her legs until the shorts and panties dropped to the ground.

He kneeled above her, reminding himself to take this in, to remember, and to make it count.

Maybe if he took care, found some way to, itwouldcount, at least for a while.

“Mel Shaw naked on my bed.” Not a terrible thing to feel satisfied over, pride in. Even if she wasn’t really here for him, she was here for something he could give her. She could have gone to one of those dumb cops she always laughed with, to the ex she hadn’t loved but had been willing to marry.

So, yeah, this was an accomplishment.

“Yes, are you going to stare all day, or are you going to do something about it?” Her cheeks flushed, but she kept that chin jutted, as if he needed any more proof she was tough and fearless.

But he didn’t say or do anything. Because for a few seconds he wanted to commit to memory the curves of her body, the way the parts of her that saw sun were darker and more freckled than the pale skin of her breasts, her abdomen. The pink tips of her nipples, the white scar on her shoulder.

Every inch.

“What?” she said into the quiet. He supposed she was trying to be demanding, but she came off unsure.

Like there was one inch of her she should be embarrassed over.

“Christ, Mel, do you have any idea…”Hedidn’t have any idea. She was just…like no one else. Not ever.

He pressed a kiss to the spot underneath her belly button, feeling the muscles of her stomach jerk in response. He savored the places she was soft, delicate. Her stomach, the inside of her elbows. He dragged the pads of his fingertips over her rib cage and then repeated the process with his tongue, savoring each intake of breath, each dreamy sigh.

She gasped when his mouth covered her nipple, his tongue circling it until she all but whimpered his name. He’d been meaning to keep his hands in place, centered on her hips so he didn’t forget to go slow, but it was no use.


Page 12

One hand held him leveraged above her, and he was doing anything with his tongue that made her gasp again. A flick across her nipple, a swipe under her ear. But the other hand…wandered.

Over the soft skin of firm thighs, down to her kneecap and back up again. He inched his finger closer and closer, torturing himself, torturing her.

He thought he heard her whisper “please,” but it might have been his own imagination. It might have been his own desperation echoing in his ears. He slid his finger inside of her and groaned in time with her.

“Dan.”

When he glanced up, he found her watching him, bottom lip between her teeth, eyes slightly wide. It took her a moment to meet his gaze, and when she did, he slid his finger deeper, soaking up every moan.

“You’re beautiful,” he said earnestly—possibly the most earnest thing he’d ever said.

Her eyes fluttered closed, the blush on her cheeks going deeper. “You don’t have to sweet-talk me. I’m already naked.”

“I’m not sweet-talking. Wouldn’t work if I did. You’d see right through it. So don’t be stupid. I think you’re beautiful. Believe it.”

Her lips curved, and for the first time since the kitchen, she reached out, touched him. First lightly on the chest, then moving up to his shoulders, her hands rough from all the work she put in day after day. There was something so…enticing, that she could be so many different things—shy, bold, rough, smooth.

Her fingertips traced the curve of his shoulder blades, the length of his spine. He forgot everything except the warmth of her, the weight of her hands on him, the steady rhythm of his hand, of her breathing.

And when her hands traveled to the inside of his boxers, he was the one watching intently, the one whose verbal response couldn’t be helped.

She closed her hand around him, and he swore roughly, unable to keep his own eyes open. She stroked, the friction welcome and too much all at once.

When he managed to open his eyes and look at her, her mouth was curved. “You’re smiling smugly,” he accused.

Her hand traveled the length of his erection again, and he whistled out a breath, but two could play her game. He kept pace with her, and each time she stroked, he did the same.

“I am not smug.”

“You’re so smug. Trust me, I know smug when I”—she stroked again, and he had to give himself a minute for fear his voice would crack—“see it.”

“Okay, so what if I am smug?”

He added another finger, sliding over the spot that made her squeak.

“Just wait. I’m going to give you a whole hell of a lot more to be smug over.”

“There’s going to need to be less talking and more…actual penetrating.”

He huffed out a laugh, pained to have to leave her in order to paw through the nightstand drawer for the box of condoms he’d bought the other day.

Making her blush.

He sat on the edge of the bed, opening the box of condoms, retrieving one square from the row. “I lied, you know.”

“About what?”

He turned to her, standing so he could push the boxers off. “When I said I wasn’t buying these for you.”

She rolled her eyes, but even so, her gaze was glued to him as he rolled the condom on.

He wasn’t sure what to say, even if she did want less talking and more…penetration. Shit. Maybe therewasnothing to say. They’d certainly done their fair share of talking.

He leveraged himself over her. No, he didn’t have the words for this thing, because it was big, and for all her hard-ass proclamations, it required some level of care. Sure, he was bad at that, but he could learn. He wasn’t an overwhelmed kid anymore. Like any skill, it just took practice and the desire to do it.

He certainly had the desire, and he was very willing to practice.

So he lowered his mouth to hers, something gentle, careful, but she grabbed him, guiding him to the hot center of her.

Okay, careful evaporated. He took her bottom lip between his teeth, scraping as he braced himself on one elbow and closed his hand over her breast, brushing his thumb back and forth across her nipple until she made that squeaking noise again…and then he slid inside her and kissed her as she moaned.

He felt like he was being swallowed alive by something he’d never truly understand. Everything about being inside of her, everything about her under him, everything…

“Honey. Mel,” he corrected. Even though she reminded him of the jar of honey he’d bought off that roadside stand on a whim. Warm and smooth, a decadent sweetness brought on by a whole hell of a lot of work.

Her fingertips dug into the backs of his shoulders, her body arching to take him deeper.

He’d ignore the little flicker of an idea that this was somehow different than his norm. That every feeling, every sensation coiled deeper, stronger, longer than it ever had. That this wasn’t just a physical thing, or even just a vague affection-type deal. Something about being with Mel was…

More.

He did not want that. So he focused on her underneath him. The way her palms were rough, but the skin of her arms was smooth. The way the breath of her sigh drifted across his ear like a whisper. A secret just between them. The tight, wet heat of her as he entered and withdrew, keeping his own release at bay as best he could.

Something changed. He had no idea what. Suddenly she was tense, and when he glanced down at her face, she had her eyes squeezed tight like she was bracing herself for a hit she couldn’t avoid.

He stopped, still inside her, trying to figure out what kind of mistake he’d made, what cue he’d misread. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head, eyes still squeezed tight. “Nothing.”

“Nothing my ass. What is it?”

“Nothing. Really. This is great. I just…can’t. Or something. I don’t know. It’s me.” She made a waving gesture with her hand. “You go ahead and finish.”

It took him a few seconds to get through the shock ofI just can’tin this context, and to see past it. “Um, no.”

“No, really, it’s fine. This was great. I just can’t.”

She still had her eyes all screwed shut, and this was…what the hell? No, he was not going to accept that. “Mel, open your eyes.”

She shook her head emphatically. “It’s too embarrassing.”

“Oh, honey.” He brushed the hair off her forehead, fingertips lingering on her cheek when she just barely opened one eye. “You know what you have to do?”

The other eye squinted open. “If I knew, I wouldn’t have this problem.”

“You’re going to have to let go.”

Her eyebrows drew together, truly perplexed, maybe a little irritated. “Let go ofwhat?”

But it seemed pretty obvious to him. She carried everything, every second of every day, on her back like a million individual weights. Clouding up her mind, her heart. Even when she wasn’t thinking about it, it was there.

Which meant there was only one answer to her question. “Everything.”

Chapter 12

She could only gape at him. Let go ofeverything? What did that even mean? She was here, wasn’t she? Ignoring all her responsibilities and saying “screw you” to the people she was supposed to be watching over? He wasinsideher.

Thiswas letting go. Orgasming was like that mystery llama—she had no idea where that would even come from. And she’d probably never find out. She thought she’d been so close. The way he’d touched her, kissed her, the way he’dexploredher…it was like nothing she’d ever experienced.

Feeling him, taking him, it had been everything she’d hoped for, and she’d been so close. But something about that moment just before letting go…it was like every other time. She tensed, she froze, and she just knew…it wasn’t going to happen.

“Look, I… I just don’t think this is going to happen, okay? You should at least get something out of the deal.” Because she wasn’t selfish enough to walk away. He’d tried, so he deserved a reward.

“Something out of the… Look, Mel, you don’t get something out of the deal, neither do I. Those are the rules.”

She moved up onto her elbows and glared at him. “There are no sex rules.”

“There are. A whole book of them. Dan Sharpe’s Rules for Sex. Rule number one: her first.”

“Ican’t,” she replied through gritted teeth. She refused to be amused by him. This wasn’t funny. He was still inside her! He just needed to understand this washerissue. End of story. And she wasn’t going to lay here under him andtalkabout it.

“Okay,” he finally said, and she could tell he wasn’t going to let this go. He had something up his sleeve. “Tell me one thing.”

She sighed and let her head sink back into the pillow. Of coursethishe would apply himself to. Forget getting a truck, but sex, let’s make sure that happens. “Sure, but—”

Before she could finish, his mouth closed over her nipple. “Oh God.” Everything in her mind fizzled to a stop when he did that. The way his tongue teased, tasted. It bowed that need sharp again, and she arched her back to meet him, even knowing how pointless it was.

“Tell me what you want, Mel.”

A different kind of heat filled her face, but not the sexual excitement kind of heat. The deeply ingrained “oh my God, don’t say those kind of words” kind of heat.

Tell him what she wanted? How could she do that? She didn’t know.

Okay, that wasn’t altogether true. She knew, she just…couldn’t say that. Out loud. She couldn’t… Nope. She couldn’t even say no, so she managed a childish nod.

She closed her eyes, because this was supposed to be fun or easy or anything but another hard thing, another thing that didn’t go right. Futility coursed through her, disappointment, and most stupid of all, tears threatened.

Still Dan didn’t move. But he swept the disheveled hair off her forehead and kissed her there, and then her temple. She didn’t want to open her eyes, but he kissed her cheek, her lips. He kept kissing and touching, and the embarrassment and the self-pitying pain got a little lost in the warm, affectionate touches.

She could tell everyone and herself, too, that she’d learned to live without easy affection. She didn’t need it. It was foolish and probably dangerous, the kind of thing that led to relying on someone or believing in someone wholeheartedly.

The kind of thing that led to heartbreak.

That thought alone forced her eyes open, but Dan’s gaze was intent on hers, and she lost her train of thought.

“How about this,” he said, his thumb rubbing circles over her shoulder, green eyes holding hers. Soothing, relaxing. “I’ll guess, and you at least give me an idea if I’m on the right track.”

“I don’t—”

He took her nipple in his mouth again. This time the pressure was more intense, the sensation zinged through her enough she had to grab onto the sheet. How did hedothat?

“You were saying?”

And he claimed she’d been smiling smugly.

“O-okay, I like that,” she managed, and it wasn’t so bad admitting that. So, she liked it? She was supposed to, wasn’t she? Or he wouldn’t have done it. Or it wouldn’t feel good. So, no, saying “I like that” wasn’t a big deal at all.

“What about this?”

His hand that had been on her shoulder traveled down her side, over her abdomen, tracing her hip bones, and then it dipped to where they met. He withdrew, then slowly thrust deep again, his fingers gently brushing.

It was intense, like nothing else, not even anything she’d ever done to herself. And the orgasm she’d been trying so hard to chase earlier built again. He touched her, listened when she sighed or said “there.” He never made her feel foolish—he stroked each desire, each word with hands, with his mouth on hers.

She was so close to that precipice that always seemed so elusive, but here, with Dan, she could say what she wanted. She couldenjoywhat she wanted. Every time he slid into her, he touched every sensitive spot he could reach, lighting a fire that wouldn’t simply die. Not this time.

There was a brief flash of panic, but he surged deep, and she forgot what she was supposed to be panicking about. Forgot everything except the way the pleasure went sharp, and then warm and luxurious as sudden orgasm pulsated through her.

God, the way he moved, every muscle taut as he seemed to keep his own pleasure at bay, watching their bodies meet as he teased out the last flashes of hers…

She’d never felt this way before. She’d never thought she could.

His mouth curved into a cocky smile at her breathless noise, but then it softened, and he rested his forehead on hers, groaning as he moved deep one last time.

He held her there, and it took a while for things to work around in her brain enough for the reality of the situation to really sink in.

She’d done it. Well, he’d had a lot to do with that, so maybethey’ddone it.

Ill-advised, sweaty,orgasmicsex. And Dan’s arms were around her, holding her close as he shifted to his side. She didn’t burrow in exactly, but neither did she pull away. It couldn’t be too dangerous to enjoy it for a few seconds. The aftershocks of pleasure, the simple fulfillment of someone holding her close.

He kissed the tip of her nose and eased away. “Be right back.” He disappeared into the hall, and she heard the squeak of what she assumed was his bathroom door.

She stared up at the ceiling, trying to pull together a thought through the hazy, lazy warmth enveloping her. She should get out of bed, but the sheets smelled like Dan, and that was kind of nice. To curl up here and wait for him to come back.

And then what?

Her drooping eyes popped open. Yeah, she was not dozing the night away in Dan’s bed. Geez, what was wrong with her? She scrambled out of the bed to find her clothes, except he had piles of crap everywhere, and she didn’t see them in the dim light.

She had to get out of here. This was… Oh, damn it, it had been so much bigger than anything she had begun to anticipate.

She wanted to chalk that up to orgasm, but it was more than that. Some warm, gooey emotion centering in her chest. The kind of emotion that wanted to snuggle into his bed, and breathe the smell of him, and all the things she couldn’t allow herself, because that was not what this was about.

Forgetting not wanting. Doing something irresponsible. Certainly not letting herself dwell.

She’d gotten what she’d come for, no pun intended, and now it was time to get the heck out.

When he returned, unabashedly naked and just so damn gorgeous, it was not fair. Not fair that he could look like that and her brain would grind to a halt.

“Clothes. I can’t find my…clothes,” she said lamely. He might stand there having no qualms about his nakedness, but she felt…weird. Exposed. Like he could see through to that gooey center.

He wrinkled his nose and looked around, then grabbed a lump of fabric from one of his half-opened drawers. “Here, this’ll do for bed.”

He pulled the T-shirt over her head, dressing her as though she were incapable. It should be insulting, but all it did was make the warmth spread, a completely nonsexual ache centering in her chest. It was such asweetgesture. Why did he have to go and be sweet?

She looked down at the logo on the shirt. Some athletic company in Chicago. So far away. The place he’d return to.

She had no doubts about that.

He pulled the band that had already lost half her hair all the way out, raking his fingers through released strands.

“Oh, don’t,” she said, pushing his hands away. “It’s all crinkly from my braid earlier.”

He chuckled, smiling down at her like…something special. “I like it.”

She needed to get out. There were all kinds of alarm bells going off in her head, but they were drowned out by that special feeling.

Had she ever felt special?You’re not.

Before she could begin to analyze the complications that went along with that thought, he was cupping her face—he did that a lot here, so easily, like his palms belonged on her cheeks, his fingertips belonged in her hair.

He kissed her, light and sweet. No deep, dark meaning, no demanding—it was just nice and comfortable.

Every kiss from Tyler had come to mean something, weighted with something. Always like he was searching for something, and she could never find whatever it was within herself to give to him.

It had become smothering, something to avoid or soldier through because he was a stable partner—and that was what she’d wanted. Kissing had become a chore.

But kissing Dan was like a treat, and maybe that meant affection was okay. Light and easy couldn’t be a sign of something more. Relationships were hard and painful, so the weird feelings weren’t something to worry about, probably, because they came with ease and felt good.

Maybe this meant nothing. Wouldn’t that be nice? Something light and fun and, overall, meaningless. Nothing in her life was all of those things.

So she kissed him back and let him lead her to bed. If this was her rebellion, why not rebel to the fullest?

* * *

He couldn’t imagine any scenario in which Mel would be happy with him for letting her sleep in. After all her lecturing about ranching being something you didn’t get a break from, et cetera, et cetera, she’d probably be pretty pissed he let her sleep while he went to feed and water Mystery Llama.

But he also remembered how desperately she’d said she needed a sleep in, how that would be so damn nice.

So he’d give it to her and incur whatever wrath that provoked. He was pretty sure that was taking care of someone, and it kind of shocked the hell out of him how good that felt. How much more he wanted to do for her. It didn’t feel weighty or complicated, like everything with his family. It felt right.

She deserved that, someone to take care. Lord knew she didn’t let anyone do that if she could help it, so he’d press his advantage while he could.

He jogged up the hill to the llama enclosure—his strange morning routine that he was beginning to enjoy. It wasn’t all that different than getting up and going to the gym, the rink, or for a run.

Prettier view. Fresher air. He missed the ice, the smell of it, the feel of that cool air on his face, but even late June mornings in Montana weren’t too hot.

He walked inside of the enclosure, still not quite trusting this llama’s humor. It’d stopped biting at him, but there was still a off-putting staring thing, the occasional spit. Usually the thing didn’t spit while Dan was trying to feed it, though.

He pitchforked some new hay into the space. Possibly the grass in the newly opened enclosure would be enough food for one, but he still felt like making sure there was new hay each morning.

He pumped new water into the multiple buckets, placing them around the edge of the fence, all the while chattering along. He found the more he talked, the more the llama kept away from him, and despite wanting to grow one llama into a pack of llamas, the thing still unnerved him.

“Wonder if you’ll be nicer if I get you some friends.” He’d read that llamas were herd animals and liked company. The vet who’d come by to check her out had confirmed that. Dan still needed to work a few things out first, but he had a to-do list, some potential breeders, and everything.

He was not a one-trick pony. He could do more than hockey, and if he missed the skating and the thrill of competition, well…

Yeah, he didn’t know what to do about thatwell, so he finished up his chores and headed back to the house. If Mel was still asleep—and he kind of hoped she was—he would make her breakfast.

When he stepped into the house, he was met with silence. He paused for a few seconds to see if he heard any movement, but not a peep.

Pleased, he went to the kitchen and found the pan of eggs he’d forgotten all about last night. Pleased did not begin to cover it.

He wouldn’t wonder what had brought her here, what little thread of control had snapped in her.

Okay, so maybe he wondered a little bit, but it didn’t have to matter. Maybe she’d tell him. Maybe she wouldn’t.

She probably won’t.

He ignored that voice in his head. Maybe if he focused on this whole taking-care thing enough, she’d tell him. Maybe if he got really good at it…

What? What do you hope would come of that?

He wasn’t sure. A mix of unease and hopefulness centered in his gut. He wasn’t sure if the unease was caused by the hopefulness or if they were just dual feelings fighting for prominence.

Either way…he didn’t like it. Didn’t like conflict or indecision or any of it. He wasn’t a five-year-old kid anymore, making it too hard on his parents to stay together. He wasn’t a teenager avoiding his grandparents. He was an adult, and he was going to learn how to do this taking-care thing.

One step at a time.

He focused on washing out the skillet, making a new batch of scrambled eggs, making toast.

When he heard movement in the hallway, he didn’t bother to turn around. “Good morning,” he greeted, forcing himself to sound cheerful. Forcing himself tofeelthe cheer instead of the weirdness in his head.


Page 13

“What time is it?” she asked through a yawn.

He glanced back at her, standing in the entrance of his kitchen, the hem of his T-shirt skimming the pale skin of her thighs. He liked her legs, the long, muscular length her sturdy work jeans never gave him a glimpse at.

“If I tell you that, you’re going to kill me.”

She looked around the kitchen, presumably for a clock that was set to the right time. She scowled when her perusal came up empty. “The time, Sharpe.”

“Eight thirty.”

“Eight…” She blinked like she’d never heard such a thing before, as if this was impossible, to wake up at eight thirty. “How could you let me—”

“Before you blow any important gaskets, I already fed and watered the llama, called the lumber company to make sure they had those extra few things we needed—which they’ll have ready for us around noon—and”—with a grand flourish, he presented the skillet of eggs—“I made breakfast. After I threw away the eggs you made me forget about last night and cleaned this pan, since I only have one.”

The shock on her face didn’t dissipate, though some of the irritation did. She looked at the eggs, then back at him. “No one…” She cleared her throat. “Well, anyway, thank you, I guess.”

“You could rephrase that so there’s no ‘I guess.’” He grinned at her before scooping the eggs onto a plate. The toaster popped and he slid the piece of bread onto her plate. “I have peanut butter or…well, I have peanut butter.”

“I can—”

“Sit down and tell me what you want on your toast. I’m waiting on you.”

“Whyare you waiting on me?”

“I’ve never done it before. Nice change of pace.” And it was. Probably because she was so damn baffled by it, and probably because he’d felt ineffectual and useless since he’d come here. Well, scratch that, since he’d screwed The Game—so being effectual and useful had its appeal.

“What do you want on your toast?”

“I guess peanut butter.”

He slathered it on the toast for both of them, then puttered around getting everything on the table in front of her. A big plate of food and a full cup of coffee. He could feel her watching him, but, much like he had with Mystery Llama, he chattered and worked and pretended like he didn’t notice.

And because he knew at least a thing or two about women, he didn’t mention that he was comparing her to a llama in his head.

“You’re…shockingly good at this.”

He slid into the chair next to her, trying to ignore the warmth the compliment offered. It was no big deal. Who couldn’t make eggs and toast and serve it to a beautiful woman he’d had sex with last night?

Twice.

She rolled her eyes. “Smug smile, Sharpe.”

“Just…remembering.”

“Oh jeez,” she muttered, focusing on eating her food, drinking her coffee. He liked the way the messed-up hair and his T-shirt made her look more…human, less like the machine that usually steamrolled into his life.

He liked that too, in a weird way, but he couldn’t deny seeing the softer side of her, this, last night, made her less…intimidating.

Not that he’d ever admit to being intimidated.

“Can I ask you a serious question?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Why llamas? Really? I mean…that thing is so creepy.”

He chuckled. “You don’t believe all the reasons I gave you the other day?”

“Cattle or horses or, hell, crops would be more sensible.”

“Dan Sharpe is not known for being sensible.”

She screwed up her face in mock disgust. “Oh God, you just spoke about yourself in the third person.”

He donned his best hockey-announcer voice. “Dan Sharpe does that sometimes. Dan Sharpe is a pretty important person, and the third person emphasizes that.”

He was more than a little rewarded when she laughed—a full-bodied, cheerful laugh he didn’t think he’d ever heard come out of her mouth.

He would do a million goofy things to have that happen again.

But she stood, her plate and mug empty. “Well, enough of this leisurely morning. There is work to be done.”

“No rush.”

She placed the dishes in his sink, her eyes caught on something outside the window. “Not true, Dan. It’s nearly nine a.m. I haven’t started a day this late in…ever. Even when I have the flu, I get out of bed and do chores before nine.”

“Well, that’s just sad, darlin’.”

She shook her head, shoulders back, and fixed him with an I’m-the-boss glare. “We have work to do, and it’s long past work hours.” Some of her surety faded and she smoothed a hand over her hair. “I’m going to need to go home for a little bit. I don’t have…work clothes.” Her cheeks were pink as she fiddled with the hem of the shirt, pulling it down. “I’ll work overtime.”

“You know that’s hardly necessary.”

“It’s very necessary. You’re paying me to do a job, and I intend to do it. Otherwise…” She looked off at some point past his shoulder, expression pained. “Paying me and having sex is weird without work.”

He pushed away from the table, irritated at what she was insinuating. He wasn’t sure what the odd mix of discomfort and twisting in his stomach was, but he didn’t like it. “I’m not so hard up I have to lure women to sleep with me.”

She didn’t even falter when he stood toe to toe with her.

“I’m sure you’re not, but nevertheless…”

“Honey, your nevertheless always wants to make me beat my head against the wall.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

“Mel,” he said, cupping her face. He liked that for some reason, the feel of her cheeks under his palms, the way she looked up at him when he did it. She always felt warm and real and…alive, with a kind of current that seeped into him, something akin to the feeling he got when he was on the ice. Like there was some untold source of energy there.

“Mel,” he repeated. He’d lost his train of thought on what they’d been talking, er, arguing about. So, he kissed her instead.

He had been braced for an argument, but she didn’t give it. She sighed against his mouth, and he wanted her again. Again and again.

“I need guidelines. For me,” she said against his mouth, not pulling away, not uncurling her fingers from his forearms.

“All right. Name them.”

“I need eight hours of every day that are spent on working your ranch. No touching, no flirting, and definitely no sexing.”

How she said that with a straight face was beyond him. “Sexing,” he said with a snort. “You are something else, Mel Shaw.”

“Deal, then?”

“One question.”

“Yeah,” she said warily, but remained still against him, still not backing away or putting distance between them.

“Do they have to be eight straight hours, or can there be…breaks?”

The slight pink to her cheeks went darker, but her eyes just drifted down to his mouth. “Um, well, I guess. As long as the breaks were specifically delineated.”

“All right. Specifically delineate.” He backed her into his bedroom, more than gratified at the sound of her laugh, the wideness of her smile.

Yeah, taking care wasn’t half bad.

Chapter 13

The stars were out in full force, and Mel knew she needed to head home. She had snuck home after Break #1, managed to avoid Caleb and Dad, and had returned to Dan—no, Dan’s ranch—and put in eight full hours of work on preparing his stables for llamas.

Okay, and two breaks.

Really awesome breaks.

How much longer could she let that go on?

Worry about it later.Yeah, much later.

“Did it ever freak you out as a kid?” he asked.

She glanced back at Dan, who was sitting on the fence they’d just expanded, the llama not too far to his right. The damn thing still tried to bite her if she got that close to it, but it seemed to understand Dan was its meal ticket.

“Did whatever freak me out?” she asked, patting down her pockets to make sure she had her keys and wallet. She couldn’t deny she didn’t want to head home any more than she could deny she needed to go check in on things.

He motioned his chin toward the sky. “Look at all that. So big and vast and bright and we’re just…these little blips. Gives me the creeps. Like aliens are watching me.”

She snorted. “City boy. Just wait till you see the Northern Lights.” Oh, wait, he probably wouldn’t be heretosee those, would he? She turned her gaze back to the sky. Itwasvast, with bright dots and trails of stars and cosmos and whatever else was up there, the world around them completely dark.

It had never been her favorite part of the day. Darkness had always meant too much time for thinking. The fuzzy reminder of something she wasn’t sure was a dream or reality.

Mom whispering good-bye in the dark.

“I have to go.”

“You could stay.”

“Unfortunately, I really can’t. Dad’s nurse quit yesterday, and…” She had never mentioned Caleb’s issues to Dan, not in detail, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to now. “I just need to make sure he’s okay, start trying to make some alternate arrangements.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

Tempting, but she needed to be careful about where she let Dan help. Distractions, yes. Family stuff, that had to be a no. Because it was her family, and she would always be bound to them. She would not always be bound to Dan. She wasn’t bound to Dan, period.

She might do good to remind him of that as well as herself. “Not unless you can find some pretty nurse to charm into working for me three days a week.”

“I’m only interested in charming one pretty rancher at the moment.”

She did not like the little flip in her stomach one bit. That little flip, a hop of hope, a burst of excitement, that was the kind of thing that was going to get her in to trouble if she trusted it too much.

“Then, I guess I’m out of luck.” She pulled her keys out of her pocket and jangled them from her fingers. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Though she could just barely make out his form in the dark, she could tell he hopped off the fence and advanced on her. The kind of advance she should retreat from, but she was not a woman who believed in retreat.

Especially if standing her ground meant a kiss. Which it did. His mouth on hers, soft and warm against the cool of the evening. Strong arms around her, capable when they wanted to be. Sturdy.

Quite a dangerous illusion.

“You know, if you want to think of me tonight while you’re drifting off to sleep,” he said against her mouth, bodies still pressed together, “I wouldn’t be offended.”

“Ha.” Only she was already getting a little squirmy thinking of him and the things he’d done to make her feel good. Really, really good. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Dan.”

“Yes, ma’am.” After a pause he released her and she pulled her hat back down after the kiss had knocked it precariously up.

“Come by early tomorrow. I’ll make you breakfast again.”

She stopped her backward retreat, that annoying flip taking a few extra turns this time. “You don’t have to feed me.”

“Maybe I’m not one hundred percent innocent in my motivations,” he said, and, oh hey, there were all those squirmy feelings again.

Worse, there were other feelings. Those things he made her want that she’d spent so much of her adult life trying not to ever consider. Someone to take care of something so she didn’t have to. Someone to care.

But he didn’t care. Not in that way. This was about attraction and sex and maybe some mutual fondness, but notcare. “You know, there are plenty of women in town who’d sleep with you.” She meant it as a flip comment, a reminder that sex was all this had been.

It didn’t even take the whole sentence getting out of her mouth for her to realize it didn’t sound flip. It sounded nasty and mean, and he didn’t deserve that.

“I thought I’d been clear. I’m well aware that I could talk quite a few women into my bed, but I choose to talk you into it,” he said in that tone that oozed ease, but underneath…underneath something dangerous and cutting was hiding.

She should apologize or make light or something other than dig herself deeper, so of course she went ahead and dug herself deeper. “You didn’t talk me into it. I showed up at your doorstep.”

“Yeah, you really forced my hand.” She could barely make out the shadow of him advancing on her, and again there was her mind telling her to retreat and stubbornness telling her to stand her ground.

It wasn’t a shock which one won, and it wasn’t a shock that her body wasn’t braced for a blow—no, her traitorous body was leaning in for another kiss. Another moment of heat and power and forgetting all the ways she was failing.

But he didn’t kiss her. He gave her ponytail a tug, much like he had last night when she’d been tongue-tied. She couldn’t decide if she liked it or not. On the surface, it seemed like some strange power play, but her lady bits…well, they seemed to like the little tug just fine.

“I can’t promise you much,Ms. Shaw,” he fake drawled, “but I will promise you this.” His tone grew serious, his palm cradling her cheek. She had to repeatedly remind herself not to snuggle in like a cat desperate for a pet.

He was so quiet for so long, his hand resting against her face, her heart absorbing that painful, bittersweet ache she refused to give name to. She couldn’t wait any longer for him to finish. “You promise me what?” It shouldn’t matter. She didn’t believe in promises. At least not from the likes of him. Okay, anyone.

“I promise that I won’t make your life any harder than it already is. I’m not going to add to your load, Mel. I will do everything in my power to make sure of it.”

Her heart was beating harder, her chest tighter, making it difficult to take a full breath.You don’t believe in promises.You don’t believe in promises.

But no matter how much she repeated that to herself, his promise wrapped around her heart and squeezed, painful and sweet at the same time. She had to clear her throat before she could speak, had to blink a few times to make sure the burning in her eyes was just the air…or something.

“Thank you,” she said—a whisper, but in the quiet of the mountain valley evening, the whisper held weight.

His thumb brushed across her cheekbone, then his lips brushed against hers, so light and quick she didn’t even have a chance to reciprocate.

Which was good. She was way too shaky for reciprocation to be a good idea. “Good night, Dan. I’ll…be by…early.”

She couldn’t see his mouth in the dark, but she could only figure he had on one of those cocky-ass grins she wanted to equally smack and kiss off his face.

“Night, Cowgirl.”

“Good night.” This time she forced herself to her truck, no backing away, no dawdling. She needed to get home, not just to check on things, but to distance herself from all this…feeling. Danger.

Who knew danger could feel so good? Make her feel alive and giddy. It was better than anything.

Is that how Caleb feels when he’s drunk?

Well, good-bye giddy, hello responsibility. Would Caleb be sober today? Apologetic? Pretend nothing had happened?

She drove home along dark streets, the only interruption her headlights cutting through the thick black of night. The dread at going home wasn’t new. It was hard not to dread all the things she had to deal with, especially in those early days of Dad’s paralysis.

Whatwasnew was the wishing she was somewhere else. Wishing she’d stayed with Dan. That was new and not particularly comforting. Was that what Mom had felt before she’d left? Wishing for anything but home?

Mel pulled into the garage shed and took a deep breath. She had worked her ass off for years. She was not her mother, no matter how many times she entertained thoughts that might be similar.

Mel climbed out of her truck. She would not be shaken by any choices she made, because she had made them with her eyes wide open. If Dan made herfeel, well, she wasn’t stupid enough to think that might last.

The house was dark, and Mel didn’t know what that could mean. If she should be happy or scared. What would be waiting for her?

You do not have to be responsible for it all. Caleb is supposed to be stepping up.

But Caleb had been drinking last night, drowning whatever pain he wouldn’t share, and she didn’t know how to face that without crumbling.

She stepped into the mudroom, the empty boot mat all but mocking her. She should know better than to even look at this point. She pulled off her own boots, carefully placed them upright with room for the other pair of boots thatshouldbe there.

She stepped into the kitchen and stood there in the darkness, trying to decide what to do. She should check on Caleb, on Dad, but she couldn’t force herself to do either of those things.

What she didn’t have a choice in was making sure Dad had a part-time nurse. No one had been happy when she’d attempted to take on that role back in the beginning.

The floorboard creaked, and Caleb appeared. “Where have you been?”

She straightened, looking him directly in the eye. If he’d been drinking, he hadn’t drank very much. “None of your business.”

“Look, I’m sorry about last night, but—”

“No buts. I am not interested in your buts. Did you do any work to get Fiona to come back or find a new nurse?”

“No, I—”

“Then get out of my way, because I have things to do.” She wasn’t ready to forgive Caleb yet. She wasn’t ready to give him that chance, and she wasn’t ready to face that him drinking as much as he had last night meant…

Yeah, she couldn’t stand to think about what it meant right now.

* * *

Dan was a man who thrived on routine, and luckily he’d forced himself into one the past few days. It made a remarkable difference on his attitude. Probably having a plan in place helped too.

Then there was Mel in his bed. Okay, possibly that had the most to do with his newfound good mood that even texts from Scott aboutstillbeing “this close” to tryout possibilities couldn’t dim.

Especially with the fact that the sun was rising over the mountain, he’d gotten a hell of a run in, and Mel Shaw was driving up the gravel a full thirty minutes earlier than usual.

Oh, there was a lot he could do with those thirty minutes.

First, Mystery needed to be watered and fed. It was a chore Dan would gladly speed through.

By the time Mel made it up to the top of the hill, he had almost filled and moved all the water barrels and added a bit of hay to the pile. He felt like a right and proper rancher, all things considered, even in the face of Mel’s infinitely ranchier appearance.

Flannel shirt, heavy-duty work pants, boots, but he could clearly picture everything that was beneath now, and he looked forward to undoing all those buttons, shedding all those layers she guarded herself with.

“Perfect timing. I was about to go take a shower. You can join me.” He flashed her a grin as he moved the last barrel of water over to where she stood on the other side of the fence. He definitely didn’t miss how her eyes dropped to his arms as he hefted the weight of the full barrel.

When she looked up at him, caught in her shameless appreciation of his muscles, her cheeks tinged pink.

“I already took a shower, Dan,” she said firmly, though he was pretty sure her mouth had curved at the corners just a teeny bit.

“Are there laws against two showers in a day? Some kind of drought? Because I’m pretty sure sharing means—”

She clapped her hand over his mouth, and he grinned against it. Too bad there was a fence between them, because he was pretty sure if there wasn’t—

“You need a hose so you don’t have to heft those barrels around.” She dropped her hand from his mouth and pointed to the barrel of water he’d just moved. “Add it to your to-acquire list.”

“Don’t pretend like you didn’t enjoy the show.”

“Ugh.” But now she reallywassmiling, regardless of how hard she tried to press her lips together.

Something about that, that happiness thatheput there filled him with a kind of…he couldn’t even put words to it. His chest felt full and tight and like if he didn’t act, it would all burst beyond any control he had in this strange place.

So he did the only thing he could think of. He hopped the fence and did the first thing that came to mind.

Tackled her to the ground.

She pushed at his chest, but she was laughing. “Lord, you really do have the mountain crazies.”

“If that’s what I have, it’s not half bad.”

She shook her head, but there was a loosening in her muscles, not quite pushing against his chest as hard. The crisp grass under his palms, the coolness at his knees from where they pressed in the ground, even the warmth of the morning sun on his back all faded away as he looked down at her…and that overflowing-chest feeling was back. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel right, and underneath it was a kind of excitement, like being in one of those playoff games.

The pressure. The thrill. Knowing it mattered.

You screwing it up.

Something deflated, went cold, and Mel was just staring at him, underneath him, and this was stupid. Thinking about anything to do with hockey was stupid when Mel Shaw was on the ground beneath him.


Page 14

He dipped his head lower to press his mouth to hers and forget all that other junk, but she spoke first.

“Your phone is ringing,” she said quietly, her eyes steady on his, searching for something—he wished he knew what. He wished this not-knowing crap would go away already.

Or maybe he really didn’t want to know.

But his phonewasringing in his back pocket, a strange digital loop in the quiet of the mountain valley. “I suppose it is.”

“You should answer it. What if it’s about…hockey things?”

He still didn’t know what that searching thing was about, but he wondered if it had anything to do with the way she’d told him he didn’t belong here all those days ago.

Still, she was right. It could be about hockey, and…he didn’t want to think too hard about belonging here and what Mel might think of that. Whathemight think of that. So he rolled off her and answered.

“Sharpe.”

“Daniel.”

He immediately sat a little straighter, the feminine voice crackling through his crappy service shocking the hell out of him. “Mom. Hey, is everything all right?”

There was a pause, and dread curled in his stomach. Something must be wrong. Mom almost never called him.

“Everything is fine. I just hadn’t heard from you.”

“Oh, well, I emailed you when I got here.”

“Yes, but…” Another pause. The pauses that had begun in those weeks after she’d told him her and Dad were getting a divorce. Silences and watching and pauses, always so careful with what she said to him.

Because otherwise he might break again.

Because they were a reminder of all the ways he hadn’t handled anything, had caused his mother too much stress to stay, he couldn’t stand the pauses, the silences. To the point where they almost never talked. When he’d been a kid, it had been letters. Now, it was emails and the occasional text.

Calls on holidays only.

But if everything was okay, he didn’t understand the reason for this call. “My service isn’t the best, maybe we can—”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Worried about me?” Dan glanced at Mel as she got to her feet, brushing off her pants, her back to him. “Why?”

“I thought for sure you’d be home by now.”

“I told you this was for the summer.” Dan got to his feet, trying to decipher the tension in Mel’s shoulders.

“I know, but…” He wanted to beat his head against the impenetrable wall of those pauses. Her carefulness with him. Not thirty years between then and now, between acting out as a kindergartner and being a thirty-five-year-old man, had changed the way she approached him.

He watched Mel as she strode away.

What was that about?

“Surely you’re tired of that place. I know you didn’t agree with me that it was tossing money away, but you see that now. Surely.”

Dan tried to make sense of what Mom was saying. She hadn’t thought he’d…last this long? Figured he’d screw this up along with everything else? Well, yeah, why should he be surprised? He wasn’t the only one who thought hockey was about all he was good at, and he’d never given anyone any reason to believe otherwise.

But, good God, he should be beyond caring if his mommy had any faith in him.

“Actually, I think…” His glance landed on Mel hefting the giant toolbox out of the back of her truck. Mountains in the background, her hat pulled low, and that weird chest-expanding feeling again. “I think this is a good place to be. To build.”

Crackling silence. A sigh. More silence. Dan closed his eyes and tried to wait it out, tried to find a way to be a better son. Give her whatever it is she was always quietly wanting from him, to prove she hadn’t broken him irrevocably.

But he didn’t have it in him. Not the patience or maybe not even the desire. He didn’t know, didn’t want to know. He wasn’t broken. He was just…a person. “I have to go, Mom. But if you have any more questions or financial concerns, email me. I’ve got my Internet set up and everything.”

“Of course.”

An agreement that was anything but.

“Bye, Mom,” he said, because he honestly didn’t know what else to give her.

“Good-bye, Daniel. I…” Pause. Pause. Pause. Silence. “Well, take care of yourself.”

“You too, Mom.” Though it gave him a lump in his gut to do it, he hit End and shoved his phone back in his pocket.

He took a minute to watch Mel. She was busying herself with things. He had no idea what things. He had no idea…

He needed to shove it out of his brain. There were things he did have ideas about. Llamas. Talking Mel back into his bed.

He forced himself to leisurely stroll to where she stood next to his porch. “Sorry about that interruption.”

She shrugged. “Nothing to apologize for. I was thinking we could open up those stalls like we talked about, and then head to town this afternoon to get you a hose.”

“I thought I was going to make you breakfast.” He reached out for her braid, twirled a loose end around his finger.

But she didn’t relax. Didn’t loosen. She was coiled tight, no give in her. He couldn’t for the life of him figure that out.

“I’m not all that hungry,” she said, hefting her toolbox onto his porch.

“Does this have something to do with…” He trailed off because he felt strange about bringing up her outburst about her mother leaving, and because she looked uncomfortable, and he just wanted that moment in the grass again, when he’d been about to kiss her and that was all that mattered.

“She was checking up on you.”

“Um, yeah. She thought I’d be back by now, I guess. She never did much like this place.” Or believe he could handle anything.Because you haven’t.

That tension in her shoulders drew tighter, till she looked like a stick that had taken too many slap shots and was about to break. “Your mother lived here?”

“Well, yeah. She got out as soon as she could, from my understanding, but she grew up right here.” He gestured toward the house, not quite sure why they were talking about his mother’s past.

She still didn’t turn to look at him, didn’t stop fiddling with the toolbox. Acting like she was supremely busy when it was obvious she was anything but.

“How, um, how old is she?”

“Mom? Um, fifty…eight. Why?”

Mel shook her head. “I don’t know. Let’s—”

“Oh, you think maybe she knew your family? Like, your dad?” Funny, he hadn’t really considered his family knowing Mel’s, though it would make sense if hers had been around forever and so had the Paulle side of his.

“No, I, my dad is only fifty-two, they wouldn’t have—”

“Your mom?” Shit, he was an idiot. There was a reason she was all tense now, and it started and ended with a mother’s phone call. Something she’d probably never had.

“No.” Mel was staring hard at the mountains, and Dan wanted nothing more than to reverse time and never tell her who had called. “My mother wasn’t from here.”

“I bet your dad knew my—”

She turned abruptly. “It doesn’t matter. I think we should get to work on the stables. The sooner we get all this done, the sooner you can actually grow your herd…or whatever groups of llamas are called.”

“You need to eat something first.”

“I’ve done a lot of work without breakfast, Sharpe.”

“Okay, fine,Ineed breakfast.” Her calling him by his last name made a matching tension creep into his shoulders. But he didn’t have Mel’s control, and he’d be damned if he wanted to. “If you want to piss me off some more, keep calling me Sharpe.” His irritation, anger, whatever it was—it was a lot more familiar than the feeling of her underneath him, looking at him like he had some kind of answer. He might not understand what it stemmed from, the way she blocked him out, walked away, erected this maze he didn’t understand. He might not understand how she—or anyone—could just lock those feelings down and away. But…

Hell, he didn’t know. He didn’t know a damn thing, and since she was supposed to be the one teaching him what to do, maybe he’d just follow her lead.

Chapter 14

Mel was still staring at the hammer in her toolbox when Dan’s front door slammed. She wanted to feel angry, but how could she? She’d been…

Hot and cold. Curt for no reason. Unnecessarily bitchy. She didn’t mind being bitchy as a rule, but it was the unnecessary part that had guilt lurching in her stomach along with…

Pain. A pain she thought had been buried deep enough it wouldn’t get churned up against her will. Listening to Dan talk to his mother, her obvious worry over him, thatwaspainful.

She didn’t want that ache, and she refused to accept that it was about her mother. It wasn’t just that. It was anyone caring about anyone. She was human for wanting someone to care about her, even if she knew the care was a big old pile of horse crap.

Something hot and painful lodged in her throat as she remembered the feel of Dan’s finger wrapping around a strand of her hair. She’d had her back to him, but she’d felt the touch, felt the words as iftheywere a touch.I thought I was going to make you breakfast.

Like he wanted to. Like he wanted to do something for her.

But there were other words that had dug in, and not just his mother, a staticky female voice in his ear.

I told you it was for the summer.

She didn’t like the way him saying being here was temporary had hit her hard. Like a horse kicking her right in the chest. Even though sheknewhe wasn’t sticking around; she’dtoldhim he wasn’t sticking around.

He could build this llama ranch or whatever crazy scheme, but he was still going back to hockey, and if he ever came back here on some permanent basis, well, it’d be years and years from now, when he had nothing else in his life to give.

But she’d felt a little pang, and that was not good at all. Completely not his fault though, so she should probably stop being a jerk to him about it.

She forced herself onto the porch, tried to find apologetic words to say to him, except fear kept her rooted in front of the door, not walking inside.

While she could recognize the feeling of fear, identify it, she was having a harder time figuring out the reason for it. What was she afraid of? All she could work out was that she was afraid of the way he made her feel.

Which was so stupid it actually irritated her. What did it matter how he made her feel? She wasn’t under any illusion he was going to stay, so she wouldn’t be brokenhearted when he left. She didn’t want or need anything more from him than some super-great sex and the occasional not-suffocating company.

And what if he wants more from you?

She wanted to ignore that thought, the way the fear intensified, but how could she? It was right there, flipping in her stomach, urging her to run far, far away, because she didn’t need another person needing more from her.

It does not have to be forever. It’snotforever. So, there was nothing to get worked up about. No reason for the flutters of fear to mix with the flutters of him looking at her like she was the center of the world.

Please. He’d been trying to get her to have sex with him. Beginning and end of that story. That was all she was after too, all that could ever happen. So.

So. This was all crazy, stupid emotion getting in the way of reason and sense, and that was not acceptable. She would push it away, bury it down, and find a way to get back to where they’d been.

The way he’d tackled her to the ground, his big, hard body on top of hers, popped to mind. Something so foolish and…fun.And the way he looked at you, was anything but.

“Okay, brain, I have had enough.” She forced herself to turn the knob and open the door and step into Dan’s kitchen.

He was standing in front of his stove, still in his sweaty, grimy running clothes. It did not lessen the appeal of him, not when she could so clearly visualize him naked.

“I…” She cleared her throat because something clogged there. “Could I have…an egg?”

He gave her a one-eyebrow-quirked look, like she was crazy.Yeah, you’re definitely crazy. But he was so hot and he cooked, even if it was just scrambled eggs. There was no reason on the face of the earth not to let this little thing…be a thing. Temporarily.

So she cleared her throat again, and although she was too big of a coward to look directly at him, she forced the uncomfortable words out of her mouth. “I’m sorry. For getting weird. About things.”

“Weird. About things.” He shook his head. “Yeah, that about covers it.”

“I’m not very good with people.”

“See, what’s funny about that, Mel, is you seem to do pretty damn okay with just about everyone in town.”

“I…” She didn’t know how to respond to that, mainly because it gave away something she didn’t want to be dwelling on too much. He was different. He was special. She wasn’t trying to get anything out of him, wasn’t trying to rebuild the Shaw name with him. He didn’t matter, and in some nonsensical way, that made him matter even more. “God, I’m tired.”

His mouth quirked at that as he pushed the eggs around in the pan. “You know why?”

“Not really.”

He actually chuckled that time. “You’re trying too hard.”

“It’s all I have,” she said quietly, perhaps more seriously than the situation warranted. But it hit home. Because she was trying hard, but what other choice was there?

He didn’t say anything to that, and she didn’t know what else to say, or what to do, so she stood there still next to the door, hat in her hands.

“As much as I enjoy waiting on you, honey, why don’t you make the coffee and maybe we can press reset on this day.”

“We seem to have to do that a lot.”

He shrugged and she could feel his eyes on her as she moved to the coffeemaker. “Better to start over and try again than walk away and stew over it.”

“Is that why you want to play again? To prove you’re not…that you didn’t?” She swallowed, because she shouldn’t care about that, or want to know. But she did.

What was the harm in knowing? In asking? What was the harm in any of this? It was like letting out the pressure valve—all that steam that had built and built and built in her life was about to explode. So instead of exploding, she’d let some steam escape. Have some fun and good sex, and then when he left, she could go back to her life and her responsibilities.

Until the pressure builds again.

Well, she made it through twenty-eight years without needing to let a little loose, which meant after this, she’d probably make it twenty-eight more. By that time, she’d find something else to release the pressure.

So, she could know and ask about Dan. She could be with him, and she could feel things, as long as she didn’t feelpermanentthings—and, honestly, what were the chances of that?

* * *

Dan blinked at the eggs. It was hard to keep up with her sometimes, the cold, the hot, the lukewarm. But he didn’t know what this was, her asking about hockey. He didn’t know what he was supposed to say.

Maybe because he didn’t know how to answer that question. Of course he wanted to get back into it to prove he wasn’t a cheat. Of course he wanted to prove he could handle the pressure. Once, at least once in his life, he could handle it.

But there was more, and he hadn’t wrapped his mind around that more. There was an ache, a hole that hockey left. There were parts of his life where he didn’t feel it so deeply—doing hard work, planning for the llamas, being with Mel…

It didn’t change the uncomfortable fact that being without hockey left a hole, and even if he got back next season…there would be a season he wouldn’t be able to go back. Someday.

It scared the hell out of him that the ache might never go away. That in using hockey as an escape, he’d made this temporary thing his whole damn life.

“No one wants to be known as a cheat.” He plastered the easygoing, for-the-crowd grin on his face and filled their plates with eggs. When he glanced at her, she was carefully pouring coffee into two mugs.

The moment struck him as something out of a movie or a TV show. Certainly something he’d never witnessed in real life. Two people working together to make a meal. Two people working together to make much of anything.

He’d seen teamwork, he’d seen people help each other out, but not the easy camaraderie of preparing breakfast as a unit. There was a fuzzy memory, dim and not quite fully formed, something to do with his grandparents and that table, but he couldn’t put all the pieces together and wasn’t sure why it was cropping up now.

“But is it just your reputation?” Mel was saying. “I mean, you said this place meant something to you, or you thought it could because of your grandpa, so… Is it just what people think that makes you want to play again?”

He stood at the counter, two plates in his hand, and she stood next to the table, a mug in each hand. Sunlight streamed through the window across from the table, spotlighting Mel in golden light and dust motes.

Fuck, this day was weird. Had he suffered a concussion last night and forgotten about it?

“Dan.”

Well, at least no more Sharpe for the time being. “It’s a lot to do with reputation,” he said, forcing himself to cross the tiny kitchen. “But it’s not justmyreputation that could suffer.”

Her brows drew together. “Who else’s would? Your agent’s?”

“No.” He placed the plates down and studied her. “You don’t have a clue about hockey, do you?”

She shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t have a lot of leisure time to follow sports.”

Dan’s mouth quirked. “My dad was kind of a big deal. Hockey player. Like Hall of Fame, did commercials, Olympics, whole nine yards.”

“Oh.”

“And, anyway, he’s a front-office guy now, and there are things he wants to do and…well, having stuff said about me doesn’t help him any.”

“And it means you couldn’t do something in the front office?”

“Oh, I’d never be any good at that shit. Can you imagine me in a suit saying all the right things to smooth people’s ridiculous egos?”

She blinked and didn’t respond, which almost seemed like she could picture it. Weird. It was just another thing in a long line of things he knew Dad would always be better at doing.

So, no, he couldn’t imagine doing that.

“Anyway, we should eat.” He gestured to the table, because this was all awkward and not at all what he wanted to talk about. Llamas. Sex. Her. That about completed the list of things he wanted to discuss. “Cold eggs and coffee are less than appetizing.”

She gave a little nod and slid the coffee mugs onto the table, but before he could sit, she leaned in and pressed her mouth to his.

He was surprised enough by the move he couldn’t do much more than put his hands on her shoulders. Mel didn’t do a lot of initiating, but this wasn’t exactly sexual. It was more sweet, like an offer of comfort or sympathy.

Why the hell should she feel sorry for him? Offerhimsympathy? This was all…picnic stuff compared to her life. She should go back to telling him people with money had their problems smoothed away.

But when she stepped back, she only looked at some point behind him, sheepishness wrinkling her nose.

“What was that for?” he demanded, feeling off and wanting to feel something familiar. Irritation would do.

Her eyes were wide, but serious when they met his. Always so damn serious. “I don’t know.”

It was like that moment in the grass—the overwhelmed feeling again, part sweetness, part the sharp need to bolt. But something pulled them tighter, pulled them close, and though part of him wanted nothing more than to bolt, that instinct was no match for the sweetness, for the pull.

“Cold…eggs,” she said, her voice hoarse, the green and brown of her eyes mesmerizing. She cleared her throat. “And work to do.”

Work. Right. That had been the main thing that had lifted his spirits this week, so maybe that’s what he needed to return focus to. Forget hockey and Mel and all the things that made his nerve endings go haywire.

“I’m going to start emailing breeders. Get a firm date for when we need everything done.”

She lifted a bite of eggs to her mouth, but then stopped and set it down. “Maybe you should pause on the breeders. Focus on getting this place ready.”

“Why? I have to know when some are going to be available so I can be ready for them by that time. I suppose I could just pick up some more misfits like Mystery, but I’m not sure how I’d go about doing that.”

“Speaking as your consultant, I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring more animals in until you’re more certain of your future. If you’re going back to play in the fall, there isn’t much sense in—”

“I’m not going to back out or screw up. I may not be good at a lot of things, but the things I can do, I don’t stop until…”Until you fuck up two of the biggest games of a hockey player’s life and are forced to stop. Forced to try out. Forced to…

“Dan.”

A warm, calloused hand slid over the top of his, which he hadn’t realized he’d been clenching into a fist.

“Listen, this isn’t about your ability to do something,” she said. “This is about the fact that it doesn’t make sense to grow a herd if you’re going to try to get back into hockey. I mean, how long is a season?”

He took a deep breath at the tightness in his chest. The pressure. The little voice in his head telling him this was a dumb plan that wouldn’t erase the real problem. “Start reporting in August, but the season can last until April.” If they got to the playoffs, it would be longer.

“It doesn’t make any sense to add animals if you won’t be here.”

He hated that gentle note in her voice, as if she were trying to break bad news to a small child. As ifhewas a small child, too stupid and foolish to understand what he was trying to do. Like Mom, like everyone, thinking this was some dumb thing he was doing to while his time away. “I’ll hire a caretaker.”

“But…why?”

“Because I’m building something. Like I told you before. I’m building something here because I need something important, and this is going to be it. If my career isn’t over, it doesn’t matter. I’m building a place to come back to. And if I can’t get back into hockey”—he paused to make sure his voice didn’t shake, the pain and fear didn’t show—“then I’ve built something for the now.”


Page 15

Mel didn’t say anything to that. She went back to eating, and so did he. He couldn’t control getting back into the show. That was Scott’s domain.

But this ranch, this plan, that was Dan’s, and he wouldn’t let anyone put any doubts in his head.

Even his own.

Chapter 15

Things had gotten tense, and despite her early morning arrival, there had been none of the promised sex. Which Mel wasnotdisappointed over. Because she was a camel when it came to sex. She didn’t need it. She could last for years on yesterday.Years.

So what was the whole itchy, achy, wanty feeling going on in her general…nether regions?

Maybeshehad the mountain crazies.

They had worked, repairing parts of the stables, running to town to get Dan a hose and have lunch. A lunch where Dan had insisted on sitting at the counter and spending all his time chatting with Georgia and making goofy faces at the Lane girl, who’d been in a booth with her grandpa. Cheerful and chatty…with everyone but her.

Not a meaningful look or conversation for her all day. Flirting, yes, but that light, blank kind that she was pretty sure he’d throw at anyone with the right kind of anatomy.

And certainly none of the “breaks” she had been kind of hoping for.

Now it was her usual quitting time, and she didn’t at all know what came next. They’d washed up, were standing next to the llama pen, and…what was she supposed to do?

She wasn’t angry at him, and even with his blankness, she didn’t think he was angry at her. He was lost in his personal stuff, and she had plenty of her own personal stuff to be lost in, but quite honestly, she’d rather be lost in Dan.

But how did she initiate that?

Maybe stop being a wimp.

She frowned. She wasn’t being a wimp. She was being cautious and sensible and—

Wimp, wimp, wimp.

“Um, hey, if you didn’t have anything planned, I could, um, do a cooking lesson for you tonight.” She cringed at how stupid she sounded, like a teenage girl desperate to spend a little time with him.I’ll do your homework for you.

Which made her think of Tyler and how sweet he’d been and how she’d used that to get what she wanted and—

“No need to rush home?”

She looked over at him, standing next to that llama, both of them staring at her. Blankly. Giving nothing away. Ever since that weird moment at breakfast, where he’d been so…angry? Sad? Some mixture of the two.Because I’m building something.

Yes, actually, she should go home and make sure Caleb wasn’t drinking himself to death, and Dad was okay, and check her email for responses from potential nurses, but she didn’t want to do any of those things.

Didn’t want to remember or think. She wanted to go back to the other night when he’d made her forget. Over and over again.

So, she did the unthinkable and lied. “No, I don’t need to rush home.” Caleb had gotten to do whatever he wanted to drown whatever problems he had for twenty-some years. It was long past her turn.

“Let’s skip the cooking lesson, then, and do something else.”

Oh, thankGod, she wasn’t going to have to say it. His smile wasn’t even blank anymore—it was downright mischievous. One of those electric tingles of anticipation wiggled up her spine.

“Let’s go ice skating.”

“I’m sorry. What?” That wasn’t some weird hockey player code for sex, was it?

“There’s an indoor rink in Bozeman, according to my Internet research. Let me take you ice skating.”

“I…” He actually meant ice skating, and she had no idea what that meant. “I’m not much of a skater. I’m not sure I’ve ever—”

“Never been ice skating?” He slapped a palm to the side of his head. “That needs to be remedied, ASAP. Come on. Let’s go. We can get some McDonald’s on the way.”

“That’s some date.” Then she felt stupid, because that’s probably not what he meant.

“Well, honey, if you play your cards right, you might just get lucky at the end of this date.”

“Dan…” Only she didn’t know what to say, if she should agree or argue. She really…didn’t know, and since she was tired of having to know, she figured she might as well go along.Andargue, because that was what she was good at. “I told you not to call me honey.”

He wound his arm around her shoulders, walking her toward their vehicles. “But did you ever think to ask why I called you that?”

“There’s a why?”

“Of course,honey.” He fished his keys out of his pocket. “And for the record, we’re taking my bike.”

“I can’t believe your wheels haven’t fallen off yet out here. The axel will probably crack right in half just trying to drive out to the main road.”

“Ye of little faith in my manly machine.”

“Is that a euphemism, or is this where you start talking in third person again?”

“Come on, you know you want to ride it.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Both literally and euphemistically.”

“It’s supposed to rain tonight. I’m not getting drenched on that thing for literal or euphemistic rides.”

He frowned, but then shrugged. “Okay, we can take your truck, but I get to drive.”

It was her turn to frown. “Why can’t I drive?”

“Because this is a date, and when Dan Sharpe takes a lady on a date, he is firmly in the driver’s seat.”

She wanted to find that irritating, ridiculous. It was her damn truck, but he opened the passenger-side door with a silly flourish, and she just…couldn’t resist him.

“One of the most successful NHL hockey players of the past decade is going to show you how to skate, little lady. I hope you’re prepared.” He made a motion to tip the cap he did not wear, and she rolled her eyes, but he had the effect of making her smile against her will, at the stupidest, goofiest things.

At his gesture, she slid into the seat. He leaned in until she felt the need to pull her head back, press her body to the seat so she wasn’t so…

What? Wasn’t so what? She wanted to have sex with the guy; usually that involved getting close. But when he focused on her withsomethinglurking in his eyes, she felt cornered, pressed down, a kind of fluttering hope without understanding what the hope was for.

“I call you honey, Mel Shaw, because you are sweet and smooth when I kiss you, but the whole of you was made by a million hours of hard work and focus.”

It took her a few minutes of staring at him to realize her mouth had dropped open, that shewasjust staring. So, she tried to talk, had to clear her throat. “That’s quite a line.”

“I can’t make you believe me.” He said it so seriously, with almost a hint of sadness behind the words, that it made herwantto believe him. Believe whatever he said about anything.

But that would make her weak, believing, trusting, giving. Even wanting to believe him was borderline weak. It had to be.

He tilted his mouth to hers, but still kept them a breath apart. “But I hope you will believe me at some point, honey.”

The sharp inhale of breath she took had to have betrayed her weakness, but she couldn’t take it back. Or push him away, or not lean into him.

But he didn’t kiss her. He pulled back and buckled her seat belt across her chest. “Buckle up, Cowgirl—you’re in for a bumpy ride.”

* * *

Dan had not sunk his teeth into a Big Mac in a good ten years. Possibly longer. He wasn’t sure if it was that good, or he was just that hungry.

It didn’t really matter, because tonight he was going to skate. With Mel, which somehow made the prospect even more exciting, if that was possible.

As stupid as eating McDonald’s sitting in the back of Mel’s truck was, he kind of enjoyed it. Mel seemed relaxed, easy, like she was at Georgia’s. Like she hadn’t been at the steak place in Bozeman.

And now they were going to skate. Maybe everyone thought he couldn’t hack it with the ranch stuff. Maybe they were all quietly—or not always so quietly in Mel’s case, waiting for him to fail. It didn’t matter. He was good at something. There was something he didn’t bail on, or hide from, or was just plain bad at. It wasn’t just escape; it was everything.

She would have to see that, and maybe she’d get it.

If she doesn’t?

He shook off that question by drowning it in the grease and fat of his last few french fries. “Ready?”

She nodded, rubbing her hands together, likely trying to get some of the salt off them. “Maybe I can just watch you skate.”

“Scared?” he teased. He grabbed the skates he’d put in the backseat of the truck before they’d left.

When they met at the front of the truck, Mel was staring at his skates. “No, I just…”

“You’re just scared.” He took her hand, and she resisted for a second, but only a second. He grinned.

She narrowed her eyes, mouth pressing into a scowl. Christ, she was sexy, and she didn’t have a clue. He didn’t have a clue, because the heavy work pants and shapeless work shirt did nothing for her, and the braid even less.

But the way she leveled him with one look and carried herself like she could and would fight anything in her path…he could not get over the desire to just worship at the altar of that.

“You’re going to be way better at this than me,” she grumbled.

“Well, I’m a professional for starters, and it’s not like you aren’t better than me at everything else.”

Her hand twitched in his, a hesitation before she squeezed. “In just about the strangest way, you are too hard on yourself,” she grumbled, the words just barely intelligible.

“And in the strangest, grumbly way, you are something of a boost to my ego. Who would have thought?”

She made a grunting sound, but the grip on his hand didn’t loosen, even as they walked into the big shack of a building.

The kid behind the counter immediately got to his feet, and there was a crash from behind him, somewhere Dan couldn’t see. He turned bright red, scurrying out in front.

“Hi, Mr. Sharpe. I mean, hello. W-welcome to Elkmont Ice Rink. We’re really excited about having you skate here.” The kid was practically shaking, and it reminded him of the way people used to come up to his dad, in absolute awe.

People had come up tohimthat way too. Not so much in the past year, but theyhad. Still, the way people had done it to his dad when he was a kid stuck with him more.

“Hey, Kevin, right?”

The kid nodded like a bobblehead doll, so Dan tried to be as smiley and friendly as possible. “Thanks for setting this up for me, man.” He extended a hand, and the teen shook it with openmouthed awe.

Dan didn’t even bother to look at Mel. He could tell by the way she let his hand go and took a few steps away from him she wasn’t comfortable with this.

Well, too bad.

“So, here’s the agreed-upon amount.” Dan handed over the cash for renting the ice for an hour. The kid stared at it dumbfounded.

“And, hey, if you give me and my friend an hour alone on the ice, I can stick around for a bit after and sign anything you or any buddies want.”

“Seriously?”

“Sure. No problem. You guys skate, right?”

Again with the bobblehead nodding.

“Mel, what size do you wear?”

“S-size?” She sounded about as out of sorts as the kid.

“Shoe size. For the skates. Can you get her some skates, Kevin?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure Mr. Sharpe. Thanks so much. My dad and I…we’re like, so excited. We’ve never had anyone famous here before.” The kid all but vibrated before turning to Mel. “Um, just follow me, ma’am.”

Mel gave him a strange look, but then she followed the kid to the counter and got herself a pair of skates before they were led to the benches outside the ice.

“Give us till eight, then bring out whoever. Sound good, Kevin?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s awesome, sir.” The kid slowly backed away from them, clutching his phone to his chest.

Dan slid onto a bench and began untying his shoes. When he looked up, Mel was smiling at him. Innocently, which meant the smile was not innocent in the least.

“He called you sir.”

Dan grunted. “So? He called you ma’am.”

“That’s the polite country thing to do. Sir means you’re old. Do you need your glasses to skate?”

“Mel,honey, bite me.” He shot her a grin as he shucked his shoes and laced up. “And I mean that in a couple different ways.”

Her cheeks went pink and she looked down at her feet, carefully pulling off her boots. He tied off his skates and pushed himself into a standing position. Damn, that felt good. Been way too long. Way, way too long.

Mel was pushing her feet gingerly into the figure skates Kevin had given her, so Dan knelt at her feet and began to help her lace up.

“I could probably do this myself,” she said. He imagined she was trying to grumble, but her voice came out kind of whispery, and she was looking at him with wide eyes.

So he finished lacing her up, never looking away from her gaze. “Could you?” He tightened the laces, clipped them into the stays, and then tied them off. “Stand up, Ms. ‘I Can Tie My Skates.’”

She looked anything but certain as she slowly lurched to her feet, and then she wobbled, grabbing on to his arm. “I don’t like this.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of fun to see. Something you can’t handle.”

“I can handle it just fine.”

“Then let go of my arm.”

She straightened her shoulders, steadying herself, and let go of his arm, chin in the air. Until he gestured to the door to the ice and said, “After you.”

Then she wrinkled her nose and looked at her feet, but this woman was not ever going to let him think he’d won or had the upper hand, even when he did.

She wobbled and oh so carefully edged her way all the way to the door to the ice, clutching on to it like a life preserver.

“It’d be easier if you let me help.”

Something changed in her posture. He wasn’t sure if it was a slump or a straighten or what. It just all kind of changed, and he wondered what was going on in that head of hers. Some fear of anyone offering help?

“I’ll be all right.”

“Of that I have no doubt.” She’d find a way to be all right. There was a little pain right at the center of his chest, and he wasn’t sure why. Wasn’t sure he wanted to know why.

She hobbled all the way to the opening to the ice, and then looked uncertainly back at him. “You go first.”

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