Hunter should have gone to bed an hour ago. But the words he’d exchanged with Johnny Ray still churned in his gut, and every time he thought about quitting for the day, his mind would replay the tape of their conversation. So he worked hard, stacking hay bales that didn’t need stacking, scrubbing down tack that didn’t need scrubbing, and sweeping the barn floor until it was clean enough for a five-course meal.
His arms ached, his back twinged, and sweat beaded on his brow. But still the nightmares that haunted his nights danced at the back of his mind, waiting for him to cave to sleep. Foster had given up on his master ever heading back into the warm and cozy house and was curled into a ball in the corner of the barn, asleep.
Thunder rumbled outside, then the skies opened up, and rain began thudding hard and fast against the stable roof. Foster roused enough to decide the rain wasn’t worth his attention, then went back to sleep. Hunter opened the stable door, letting in a gust of wind loaded with fat rain drops that whisked across the threshold like anxious new brides.
Barbara Jean had read him the riot act about skipping dinner. He knew his aunt meant well, but she didn’t understand how hard it was for him to talk about the Silver Spur—and with a woman who made him face all the things he’d been running from for two years. Just by being here, asking questions, with that interested look in her eyes. Elizabeth had made him open doors he’d left shut. Best to avoid her and this interview all together. Maybe have her interview Barbara Jean instead.
He swept up the pile of debris and dumped it into the trash, and admitted to himself that none of that was the truth about why he kept avoiding Elizabeth.
Deep down inside, he didn’t want to do this interview because he didn’t want to answer for what had happened two years ago. To try to explain how those mistakes had damned near broken him. To tell another soul that if it hadn’t been for this place, these horses and this family, he wouldn’t be here today.
The storm began to escalate. Hunter stood, stretching his back, and crossed to the open doors, watching the wild wind ripple through the trees, while the rain battered the buildings and fields. In the stable, one of the horses whinnied, and a second answered the sound. Every inch of this place held a memory, some so sweet they made his heart ache and some so painful he could hardly breathe. Some days he thought he was a masochist for staying here, for thinking that if he turned things around or saved one more horse or grew some goddamned flowers that he’d change a thing.
Because he hadn’t. And he wasn’t going to. He either needed to accept that or move on, but considering how many people were counting on him to stay right where he was, moving on wasn’t an option.
That made him think of Elizabeth Palmer. How she’d just quit her job and driven down here to interview him. For a girl who said she didn’t like taking risks, that sure as shooting sounded like a risk to him. He envied that about her, more than he wanted to admit.
His gaze went to the house, ablaze with lights, beckoning like a warm friend. But he knew when he went in that house that he wouldn’t find comfort or peace. He’d be plagued by regrets, haunted by mistakes. Best to stay here and work until his body reached the point of total exhaustion, as he had every night for close to two years. Work, work, and more work, the only sleeping pill he knew. He started to turn away when he noticed a figure dashing across the lawn. Barefoot, long pale hair streaming behind her like a flag.
“What the hell are you doing?” he had to shout above the storm, which seemed to double in volume in the last few seconds.
“Checking on you.” Elizabeth skidded to a halt inside the stable, and shook off the worst of the water. Her shirt was once again plastered to her chest, and her dress pants were snug against her hips. Her bare feet, with those tempting crimson toes, added a sexy, undone edge. “It’s one in the morning. I saw the light on in the stable, and I worried that maybe you’d gotten hurt or mugged or—”
“Mugged?” That made him laugh. A good laugh, the kind that came so rarely, he sometimes wondered if he’d forgotten how. “Lizzie, this is a ranch, not gang territory.”
She propped her fists on her hips. That only made her breasts rise under the thin, wet fabric. Hunter’s hormones stood up and took notice. Hell, they’d been taking notice of her since the first time she’d stood in front of him, wet and bedraggled. And here she was, wet and bedraggled again, and he wanted her even more.
“I come from New Jersey,” she said. “Muggings are about as common as sunrises there.”
“If some random mugger from Jersey comes running in, I’m sure Foster would protect me.” He gestured toward the dog, who didn’t so much as flick his tail.
Lizzie scoffed. “He’s about as much of a guard dog as a teddy bear.”
“Well, that’s because there isn’t anything to guard me from right now. Except maybe tough Jersey girls.” He took a step closer to her, his gaze dropping to her shirt, plastered against her body. He couldn’t focus on anything but that, on the way her peach skin seemed dark, mysterious, beneath the flimsy wet fabric. How much he wanted to see what was under that shirt, to touch her, to finish what had been brewing between them ever since she showed up on his doorstep. “Seems you’re always running around in wet clothes.”
Her cheeks flushed. “It seems to rain . . . a lot here.”
“It’s fall. Storms happen. Whether you expect them or not.”
“Those storms can come out of nowhere. Sweep you up into something . . . dangerous.”
“And it’s hard to be prepared for that,” he said. They weren’t talking about rain or clothing choices. They were talking about the undercurrent between them, a storm that could be as destructive as a hurricane if he wasn’t careful.
She glanced down at her shirt, then back up at him, her eyes wide and dark in the dim stable. “Maybe I should have bought a jacket when I was in town tonight.”
“Or maybe you should just . . .”
“Just . . .” His brain had stopped working a while ago. All he could see, all he could think about, was the lacy outline of her breasts, the stiff peaks of her nipples. Desire pounded in his veins, and before he could think twice about what he was doing, he reached up, tangled a hand in her long, damp hair, and drew her to him. She let out a little mew of surprise, then tipped her head to meet his.
They came together like an explosion, his mouth tearing hungrily at hers. She surged into his chest, her arms going around him, gripping his back, pulling him closer, until his shirt was as wet as hers.
Hunter hoisted Elizabeth up, perching her on the bottom half of the open Dutch door. It banged into the wall with a thud of metal on wood, and Foster let out a surprised yip. But Hunter didn’t care if the door punched through to next Tuesday. He had this amazing woman in his arms and all he wanted was more. He slid between her legs and gripped her ass, still devouring her mouth.
She was warm against him, soft where he was hard. He reached between them, yanked open her silky shirt, dragging back the lacy edge of her bra. She let out a gasp when the cool night air hit her skin, but he was there, his mouth on her breast, teasing her nipple with his tongue. She clawed at his back, her legs wrapping tight around him.
“Oh, God, Hunter, oh, this” —she gasped, breathed, gasped again—“is wrong . . . we shouldn’t.”
Wrong. We shouldn’t.
His common sense returned like a boomerang to his temporal lobe. God, what was he doing? He barely knew her, and worse, this kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Not with the woman who was profiling his ranch. And not with him. He wasn’t fit for a relationship—or whatever this was between them.
No, they sure as hell shouldn’t. He drew back, releasing the fabric of her shirt. It settled back in place over her breast. He took a couple steps back. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“It wasn’t just you.” A half smile flickered on her face. “I didn’t exactly say no.”
“You’re right.” He drew in a ragged breath, another. “That shouldn’t have happened. It was a mistake.” Was he telling himself? Or her? “I’m not . . . interested in you like that.”
“For someone who isn’t interested, it sure felt otherwise.” She hopped off the Dutch door and brushed at her pants, as if wiping away any trace of him. Her voice had gone harsh and cold. “I’ll head back into the house. And look for somewhere else to stay tomorrow, if we haven’t finished the interview by then.”
“We haven’t even started the interview yet.”
“No, Hunter, we haven’t.” She stopped at the open door and turned back to him. The rain fell in sheets outside the stable, with thunder crackling above them. “Because for some reason, you are afraid to trust me. I have done everything you have asked of me. And yeah, I know I don’t have a ton of experience, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write a good story, one that will help you save this place you say you love so much.”
“I do love this ranch. It’s everything to me.”
“Then prove it.” Then she walked out into the rain, disappearing a moment later in the dark night.