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His Tomboy Bride

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His Tomboy Bride Leanna Wilson HarperCollins EUR JUNE BRIDESBRIDE IN BLUE JEANS?Boy, how Billie Rae Gunther had changed! She'd gone from a neighbor's pigtailed, skinned-knee little girl to a vision in white satin and laceat least, until she lifted her dress and Nick Latham saw cowboy boots! Yep, Billie was a capable, confident womanexcept in matters of the heart.Still, though Billie would make a beautiful bridewhat about her fianc? Nick couldn't allow her to marry that arrogant twerp until he'd had a chance to show Billie what she'd be missing. But as marriage-shy Nick demonstrated the pleasures of single life, he realized the only aisle Billie should be walking down was one leading to him!Celebrate a month of joyful marriages with Silhouette Romance! We need to talk. Privately. (#u9e63d5f9-3733-596d-b958-1894e7858a6f)Letter to Reader (#ueed9f21e-af0d-5b85-80c2-fa9db6a22919)Title Page (#u4d284955-5c8b-5feb-8a33-e552854cee3e)Dedication (#uce532e4f-ef87-5fca-b1c1-b023706c1b8e)Acknowledgments (#u782b0dbf-181c-5a31-a68a-ae721c9896dd)LEANNA WILSON, (#u619eff8a-30e1-50b0-8421-e57660eac1cd)Chapter One (#u8dc55062-25cd-5101-a84c-869eb8177e25)Chapter Two (#ucecd7a4f-1582-516c-84c7-c01f0e644146)Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) We need to talk. Privately. Nicks voice resonated inside Billie like a gust of warm air. His hot gaze traced every curve from the round of her breast to the indentation of her waist and swell of her hips. No one had ever looked at her as Nick did now. It unraveled her composure. It made her jittery. But it also gave her a smug confidence shed never experienced. Shed always known she could ride or rope as well as any cowboy. But shed never known she could turn a mans head. Fine, Ill show you the ranch. Maybe hed be impressed. Hed see her as a strong-willed woman who could run a ranch and marry any man she pleased. And well talk, he warned. Terrific, Billie thought, just what she neededa heart-to-heart with the man whod unknowingly stolen hers. Dear Reader, Traditionally June is the month for weddings, so Silhouette Romance cordially invites you to enjoy our promotion JUNE BRIDES, starting with Suzanne Careys Sweet Bride of Revenge. In this sensuously powerful VIRGIN BRIDES tale, a man forces the daughter of his nemesis to marry him, never counting on falling in love with the enemy.... Up-and-comer Robin Nicholas delivers a touching BUNDLES OF JOY titled Man, Wife and Little Wonder. Can a denim-clad, Harley-riding bad boy turn doting dad and dedicated husband? Find out in this classic marriage-of-convenience romance! Next, Donna Claytons delightful duo MOTHER & CHILD continues with the evocative title Whos the Father of Jerutys Baby? A woman awakens in the hospital to discover she has amnesiaand shes pregnant! Problem is, two men claim to be the babys fatherher estranged husband...and her husbands brother! Granted: Wild West Bride is the next installment in Carol Graces BEST-KEPT WISHES series. This richly Western romance pairs a toughened, taut-muscled cowboy and a sophisticated city gal who welcomes his kisses, but will she accept his ring? For a fresh spin on the bridal theme, try Alice Sharpes Wife on His Doorstep. An about-to-be bride stops her wedding to the wrong man, only to land on the doorstep of the strong, silent ship captain who was to perform the ill-fated nuptials.... And in Leanna Wilsons latest Romance. His Tomboy Bride, Nick Latham was supposed to give away childhood friend and bride-to-be Billie Raenot claim the transformer beauty as his own! We hope you enjoy the months wedding fun, and return each and every month for more classic, emotional, heartwarming novels from Silhouette Romance. Enjoy! Joan Marlow Golan Senior Editor Silhouette Romance Please address questions and book requests to: Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie. Ont. L2A 5X3 His Tomboy Bride Leanna Wilson www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) For Gary, the best husband in the world! Acknowledgments As always, to my critique budsAlyson, Betty and Tommy. Much thanks goes to Frank Weatherford (and Hawker Crane!). LEANNA WILSON, a native Texan, was born and bred in Big D, but shes a country girl at heart. More at home dreaming up stories than lesson plans, she gave up teaching to pursue writing. Once she began putting her stories onto paper, it didnt take her long to publish her first Silhouette Romance novel, Strong, Silent Cowboy, which won the Romance Writers of Americas Golden Heart Award. Shes married to a strong, not-so-silent city slicker and lives in Lewisville, Texas, with their childrentwo lively shih tzus. She loves to hear from her readers. You can write to her c/o: Leanna Wilson, P.O. Box 294277, Lewisville, TX 75029-4277. Chapter One With a mixture of disbelief and wariness, Billie Rae Gunther stared at her wedding gown. The Italian satin looked like a collapsed bridal cake flung across her bedroom floor. How could she wear this frilly concoction? Shed look like a child playing dress-up instead of a beautiful, blushing bride. Be careful, Rosa warned. The dressmaker opened the gown and pushed the expensive material out of the way of Billies feet. Nervous about the outcome of this folly, Billie pointed a silk-covered toe and stepped into the mounds of fabric to have the dress fitted. A tremor of apprehension rippled through her. What if she tore a seam? Worse, what if she looked like a fool? Wiggling her hips, Billie settled into the waist and draped the satin across her shoulders. The cool cloth felt as slippery as the catfish shed caught in Willows Pond last fall. Feeling like a stuffed trout, she rocked back and forth from foot to foot. Hold still, Rosa admonished. Billie sucked in a breath. It seemed to take hours instead of seconds as Rosas nimble fingers fastened the long row of buttons along Billies spine. Worried, she slanted her gaze toward the oblong mirror angled in the corner of her childhood room and watched the slow transformation. The creamy white material hugged her frame, and the lace gave her more curves than she owned, making her look softer and more feminine than her faded Wrangler jeans and scuffed Justin boots ever did. Hope swelled inside her. Maybe she could shed her tomboy image and be the woman shed always imagined. Then she caught sight of her V-necked tan line standing out in the middle of her chest like an inverted scarlet letter. A wave of apprehension rolled over her. She couldnt hide the fact she was a tomboy, a cowgirl, or good ol Billie the Kid. In the far recesses of her mind she heard Jake, her older brother, and his best friend, Nick, snickering and calling her that nickname. The memory brought a sharp, double-edged pain to her heart. Rosa secured the veil across the top of Billies head with hairpins, then stepped back. Satisfied with her creation, she beamed, her wide smile splitting her coppery face. Ah, so beautiful! Her solid black gaze narrowed and her brow withered into a frown. Why this face? She lifted Billies chin a notch. Why so sad? Billie shrugged. Im okay. I was thinking about Jake and... She stopped, shaking her head, trying to shrug off her sorrow like a pesky injury. But this ache wouldnt go away. Hed been too young, too foolish driving his truck hell-bent for leather. She couldnt think about her brother now. Nor would she think about Nick Latham. His memory would bring a different kind of pang. Hed moved out of Bonnet, Texas, and on with his own life...without her. No longer a kid with fanciful dreams, she was a full-grown woman of twenty-three. She drew in a confident breath and adjusted the material bunching around her shoulders. How difficult could parading around like a Barbie doll be? It couldnt be harder than running her daddys ranch, juggling the finances or marrying a man she didnt love. Responsibility constricted her like the dress tried to cut off her circulation above her waist. She never could stay ahead of the demands on her time or bank account. Her fathers sudden death five years ago had heaped half the responsibility on her narrow shoulders. In his will, hed left Billie and Jake the ranch, knowing their mother would never be able to take care of it on her own. Two years later Jakes death had left her with a barnyard of unexpected debts and all the responsibility. Now, her desperation, her determination, had brought her to thisher wedding. Reality had a sharper edge and required practical decisions. This marriage solved a truckload of problems for her. Shed face her future with the same grit that had helped her through each tragedy in her life. This time, the things she cared about wouldnt be taken away from her. This time, shed take the reins in her own hands and guide her own destiny. Marriage didnt come wrapped up in a nice, neat package with frilly ribbons and bows. Billie would not risk her heart on her fianc or anyone else. Shed tried that once. And failed. With deep scars as proof, shed learned once too often that love hurt. She could do without any more pain. Rosa sniffed. Too much sorrow for one family. Let us think of your wedding. Put on your shoes and come. Lets not keep your mother waiting. Ignoring the satin pumps that looked about as comfortable as the strapless underwire bra she wore beneath her dress, Billie pulled her fancy white boots out of the closet. She hadnt worn these since shed gone boot-scootin in high school. At least the boots were comfortable. She left her bedroom, lifting the heavy skirt out of the way, the lush satin brushing against her legs and rustling with each step. She moved past framed pictures of family vacations in the Rocky Mountains, her and Jake huddled in front of a tilted Christmas tree, and school pictures chronicling Billies blackened eyes, pigtails and braces. The fond memories fortified her with the courage she needed to face her future. Here comes the bride! Martha Gunther sang, her voice warbling like an old-fashioned organ. Her face crinkled with a warm smile. Her blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears. Feeling less like a bride and more like a trussed up heifer, Billie waddled into the den. Shoulders back, she gave her mother her best, most optimistic smile, the same one she used after she paid each months bills and counted the leftover money in the checking account. A movement in the corner of the living room caught her eye. She squinted against the afternoon sunlight pouring through the bay window across the front of her parents house. The tall, dark, masculine frame had broad shoulders and a height that would put most men to shame. Her breath caught in her lungs. Had Doug, her fianc, come early? Maybe the light distorted his size, making him larger than his normally slight, elegant build. Her groom shouldnt be seeing her wedding dress. It was bad luck. And that was one thing she didnt need any more of. Billie the Kid? The warm, deep, masculine voice jolted her like a bolt of electricity. Her breath whooshed out of her. For a second she felt dizzy, her world tilting off center. Nick! Nicholas Barrett Latham stepped toward her, effectively blocking the sun slanting through the window behind him. She met his gold-flecked amber gaze. Something warm and uncomfortable, something she hadnt experienced in years, stirred inside her. He ran his fingers through his thick chestnut hair. A grin split his chiseled, tanned features and zapped the strength right out of her knees. Well, he said, rubbing his hand against his square jaw, Ill be damned. Nick wasnt her groom, but he was bad luck, all right. She wished her dress would swallow her whole and bury her beneath the yards of lace and satin. So help her, if he laughed at her in this dress, shed deck him. In anticipation of having to do just that, her hands curled into fists. Isnt it wonderful for Nick to visit us, honey? her mother said, hugging her own middle as if she might burst with excitement. Billie nodded automatically. For once in her life words failed her. Or maybe for the second time. The first had been when shed kissed Nick. Shed grown up since that hot summer day when shed been a naive sixteen-year-old. But with Nicks irresistible smile and curious gaze settling on her now, her insides felt mushy once again, like jelly left out of the refrigerator for too long. I heard you were getting married, he said in a rumbling voice that made her stomach roll. Had to see it for myself. His surprise ruffled her feathers. She met his intense gaze squarely. Why? Is it so impossible to believe someone would want me? I didnt mean...I... No. Course not. His features twisted with confusion. He stepped forward and awkwardly brushed a kiss against her cheek. Congratulations, Billie. The warmth of his lips sent a surge of heat through her body. She drew in a quick, inadequate breath. Nick stood so close she could have touched him if shed dared. She smelled his clean, spicy scent, which reminded her of the sharpness of cedar after a summer rain. Her voice caught on the words, Welcome home, Nick. His hand slid around her cinched-in waist and pulled her close against his chest. She felt the hardness of his muscles, the strength in his arms, the gentleness of his words as his breath warmed her ear. Its good to see you again, Billie. His solid embrace made her feel weak as a newborn colt. She stepped back on the hem of her dress. To her chagrin, Nick steadied her with a hand under her elbow. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her breath came hard and fast, as if shed run up a steep hill. How long has it been? she asked, knowing it had been exactly two years, one month and sixteen days. She didnt ask herself how she knew or why. She didnt want to question whether it was because she so clearly remembered the cool, rainy spring day when shed stood at her brothers graveside or because Nick had been there. Too long, he answered. Knee-deep in grief at her brothers funeral, Billie remembered Nicks fierce hug, an awkward pat on her shoulders, a gruff, Im so sorry, Billie. Shed been unable to restrain the resentment at seeing his pretty wife standing beside him. Maybe thats why shed been so damned determined to handle the Rocking G Ranch on her own. If she couldnt have Nicks love, then by God shed have his respect. Thats why he couldnt know she was selling out now...to marriage. So much had changed since that rainy day. Regret swept through her. She alone bore the guilt of why Nick hadnt visited the Gunthers since his best friends funeral. Instinctively she sensed Nick had changed, too. Something in his face, his eyes. A harder glint had replaced the mischievous glimmer of his youth. Feeling his gaze on her like a warm caress, her dress suddenly felt tight, the air thin, her blood thick as molasses. We all should have kept in touch, Martha said, after Jake... She shook her head. Sorrow darkened Nicks eyes to a deep walnut After Jakes funeral hed offered to stay and help with the ranch, but Billie had wantedneededto prove she could handle it as well as any man. But she hadnt known about the money Jake had borrowed. She hadnt known a lot of things then. It had been an uphill battle ever since to stay in operation. Martha patted Nicks arm as if he was her own son. Weve missed you. I was negligent, he said, his voice thick. I should have come back sooner. Billie lifted her chin and met his questioning gaze. We managed fine. We didnt need any help. And we dont need anything now. A wry chuckle escaped his tense mouth. You always could take care of things. Her heart lurched. She hadnt managed very well with the ranch. Good ol Billie Raestrong, capable, dependableshe d always prided herself on her good qualities. But did they really describe her or a well-bred stock horse? Irritated at her own comparison, she wanted to believe Nicks words were a compliment. But in her heart they taunted her. For a moment she wished she could melt into a helpless puddle of tears instead remaining stoic and practical in the face of adversity. But she hadnt. She couldnt. More than ready for him to leave, she asked, What brings you back here? You. Something suggestive in his tone made her toes curl under. Me? Her voice squeaked. With the swiftness of summer lightning, she remembered the burning intensity of their one shared kiss, the awareness sparking between them, the heat searing her to her very feminine core. The texture of his mouth, firm yet gentle, as rough and tempting as raw silk, had awakened her like Prince Charming had stirred Sleeping Beauty from sleep. She had suddenly been proud of her softer curves, grateful finally that she was a girl... woman. At sixteen shed suffered a bad case of puppy love. But it had been more, shed realized as time had passed, as shed matured, as the feelings had lingered and intensified. It had been real, true. From the very depths of her soul. Shed wanted to marry Nick, have his children. Loving him had outshone all her other dreams. When hit with his captivating gaze, shed have done anything for him. Then hed splintered a small part of her heart. So shed focused with laser beam precision on her hopes of becoming a vet. It hadnt taken long for that dream to crash beneath the weight of her fathers death and be buried beneath the burden of her brothers. Years of hard, backbreaking work and shoulder-scrunching responsibility had demolished the rest of her innocent hopes. Once shed had grand plans for her life. None of them had come to pass. But she hadnt given up on all of them yet. As abruptly as shed been set back on her heels that day when Nick had told her of his impending marriage, now again she pulled herself up short from her steamy memories. She reminded herself with a quick mental kick that she didnt want Nick. She had other plans, plans that resurrected her dreams. Plans that didnt include him. The cold, wet glass cooled the skyrocketing temperature that burned inside him like a high-pitched fever. Nick felt hotter than the hundred-degree weather outside. He sipped the sweetened tea, and the ice clinked together. The ceiling fan sifted cool air over his heated skin. Wedding! He still couldnt believe it. Billie the Kid was really getting married. His world turned upside down as if E no longer equaled mc . He felt the foundation under him collapsing. But Nick couldnt concentrate on anything except Billie. And her vibrant blue eyes. Her golden hair teased her smooth, bare shoulders and made him think of things he didnt ordinarily associate with Billie, like satin sheets on hot summer nights. Her faint tan line, outlining the opening of a work shirt, brought a smile to his heart as he remembered the rough-and-tumble girl shed once been. And now she was all grown-up. For the first time he noticed her very distinctive, patently feminine and too-damn-sexy curves. His kid sister had become a woman. A part of him was more than grateful there wasnt an ounce of blood relation between them. His throat went bone-dry. He coughed, uncomfortable with his blatant, sexually charged reaction to her. Tim Cummins told me your good news. I ran into him yesterday in Houston. One part of the rumor had been true enough. But he still held out hope the rest had been false. We should have called, Martha said, but its been so rush-rush, with all the plans and everything. She touched a trembling hand to Billies veil. I wish your father could see you like this. He would have been so proud. She turned away and sniffed again into her handkerchief. Billies features contorted, the muscles along her neck flexing. Nick wondered if her fathers absence took away part of her wedding joy. Mr. Gunther wouldnt be there to walk her down the aisle or twirl her around the dance floor. Didnt a woman want that emotional support, those tender moments? None of the Gunther men were alive to offer guidance to Billie. Nick knew neither of them would approve of the groom Tim Cummins had said won Billies hand. Nick wouldnt, either. It had to be some mistake. The Billie he knew would be more discerning than that. Thats why hed dropped everything, including work, and raced back to Bonnetto make sure she knew what she was doing. She met his gaze. A sparkle glinted in her eyes, making them look as dazzling as sapphires. One minute she looked childlikelost, alone, bereftand the next, she appeared ready to take on the world. Billie had always surprised him with her quick-flash change of emotions. What the hell did he know about women, anyway? They were an enigma. His divorce was a blatant reminder. She broke the fragile silence with, Jake would have gotten a good belly laugh about all this. Something familiar and warm passed between them, but a new spark ignited, something disconcerting and way too hot. Ignoring his very male reaction to her obvious feminine charms, he matched her smile with an unsteady one of his own. Youre right. He would have. Then her eyes flashed. Her smile faltered. She tipped her chin higher. He recognized that old challenge. Jake might have laughed at her all dressed up like this. But Nick couldnt. His lungs constricted, trapping his breath. Words lodged in his throat. She looked so damn different...so grown-up...so beautiful. When had all these changes taken place? At her fathers funeral five years earlier shed looked like a frightened child, her eyes wide, but unable to shed a tear. At Jakes funeral two years later, shed looked thin as a rail. Shed stood strong for her mother, brave, controlling her trembling lip. Hed missed the gradual transition from girlhood to a full-fledged woman. Somehow she seemed softer than hed expected, vulnerable, yet he knew she was tough enough to handle a Texas cattle ranch on her own. Still, a trace of that uncertain, freckle-faced girl could still be seen in her wild, blue gaze. Jake would have been a fool not to see how beautiful you are, he managed. Uncertainty darkened her eyes to the turbulence of a stormy sea. She glanced down at the yards of lace swirling around her. I feel like I got walloped with confectioners sugar. Nick chuckled. Youre a lovely bride, Martha reassured her daughter. Lovely was a simple word that didnt do Billie justice. She was a vision. The dress pinched in her waist, accented her full breasts, showed off her honey tan. As if the years scrolled backward, he remembered the boldness of the kiss shed given him. He could feel her creamy-smooth lips seasoned with innocence brushing his. It had taken every ounce of strength to set her away from him then. Hed belonged to someone else. And Billie had been way too young. But now, when the four-year difference between their ages had shrunk in importance, other things stood between them. She belonged to someone else. He never intended to marry again. Dragging his gaze away from the bride, he set the iced tea on a crystal coaster. He stuck his hands into his pockets and reminded himself of why hed come here. As a defensive maneuver, he pictured Billie in pigtails and braces with more scrapes and bruises than a prizefighter. Step up on the footstool, Rosa instructed, her hands fluttering around the shimmering white skirt that looked like it had been sprinkled with fairy dust. Billie turned and took a step. Her foot caught in the hem. She wobbled and tilted off center. Her arms flung wide, seeking balance. Ah, damn. Nick reached out and caught her to him. His hand slipped around her tiny waist. Her body collided with his. He felt the impact of her full breasts against his chest. He sucked in a breath and drew in her enticing scent, something mysterious and exotic, like jasmine. Far too tempting for his own good. A shiver rippled through her and it echoed in his body. His heart thudded against his rib cage. His insides tightened as if he walked an I-beam on the fiftieth floor. These new sensations aroused by Billie caught him off guard, kept him off balance. Her nearness jumbled his thoughts. What was wrong with him? Had he gone without a woman for too long? Since his divorce hed focused on work, expanding his construction business. Women, hed decided, were as welcome as bad weather to a construction site. And Billie Rae Gunther was like a hurricane to his senses. He had an urge to let her fall on her rump, as he might have if she were an obnoxious twelve-year-old. Then he could clear his mind, stay focused, make sure shed made the right decision and leave. Instead, against his better judgment, he held her tight against him, his hands secure on her waist. In a thick voice, he asked, You okay? Yeah. My boot got caught. She pushed away from his shoulder and stood firmly on her own two feet, the way she always had, never leaning on anyone, never showing any weakness. She carried the heavy load of responsibility shed been left with well. Nick admired her for her ability to withstand adversity. Two years ago hed understood her pride dictated her rejection of his offer to help with the Rocking G. But should he have insisted? Or had he only felt the barb that she no longer needed or wanted him? Regret shamed him. He knew he shouldnt have stayed away. Boots! Where are your wedding shoes? They are perfect for the dress, Rosa was saying, her brow wrinkling with concern. Yeah, but you dont have to stand around in them for hours at the wedding and reception, Billie complained. Its only for one day. Martha soothed her daughter. The right shoes are so important Why? Billie asked. Whos going to see them under this skirt? She lifted the hem, giving Nick a glimpse of one silk-covered foot rubbing across the top of the other. Everyone, her mother answered. Youll have to lift your skirt so Doug can remove your garter to throw to the single men. Nick gritted his teeth. Doug. It had to be a mistake. The groom couldnt be Doug Blockhead Schaeffer! Besides, Martha continued, youll have so many other things to think about you wont even notice your feet. Youll be floating on cloud nine. Thats how I was when your daddy and I wed. A wistful look came into her soft blue eyes. Im sure I will, Mother. Had Nick heard a note of doubt in Billies voice? Or had he only wanted to? Scowling, he watched her maneuver toward the step stool in her oversize skirt. The heavy material rustled and swayed, emphasizing the movement of her hips. He stayed close enough to offer assistance if she tripped again, but far enough not to breathe in her secretive scent or reach out to feel the silky strands of her shoulder-length blond hair. Hiking up the skirt to her knees, she climbed onto the footstool, unassisted. Nick caught a better view of shimmery hose covering slender legs. Whos the lucky groom? he asked, averting his gaze and crossing his arms over his chest. Doug Schaeffer. Something irrational and dangerous exploded inside Nick. He thought hed prepared himself to hear that name, but obviously not enough. Are you nuts? She propped her hands on her hips and gave him a stubborn I-dare-you-to-say-another-word stare. Yes. He managed to close his mouth and rein in his confusion... irritation...contempt. How could Billie possibly fall for that bastard? What could she see in him? Of all the men to win Billie! Smug and arrogant were two of Dongs best traits. The heir to Schaeffer Enterprises should never have been a contender. He remembered Doug, flaunting his daddys bucks, cruising around in a fancy convertible that probably had the same price tag as the house Nick had been raised in. Hed been too rich for his own good, too self-assured, too...too much. Had he overwhelmed Billie with all that glitter and gold? If so, then Billie wasnt the girl he remembered. Maybe now she was more like his ex-wife. Where is Schaeffer? Nick asked, his teeth clenched. Billies father never would have welcomed Schaeffer into the family. And Jake would have booted his butt across the Texas border. Nick would settle this quick and take great pleasure in shoving Schaeffer out of the picture. Oh, the groom should not be here to see the bride dressed in her gown. Rosa shook her head. Very bad luck. Better than if Schaeffer saw her undressed, Nick mumbled, his scowl deepening. Rosa and Martha paid no attention to him. They concentrated on tucking and pinning pieces of the dress to Billies long, lithe form. He wondered then if the bride and groom had been...intimate, if Schaeffer had held Billie, naked in his arms. A cold clamp tightened around Nicks spine. He ground his teeth at the idea of Doug Schaeffer touching Billie, kissing her, making love to her. A headache twisted through his skull like steel screws digging into his scalp. Dougs working, Billie answered. The healthy glow across her cheeks brightened and made Nick imagine her lips swollen from kisses, her skin flushed, her hair tousled from lovemaking. His hands balled into fists. work was never in Schaeffers vocabulary. Hes running Schaeffer Enterprises. Irritation made her snap the words. She crossed her arms over her chest, pushing her breasts higher until the soft mounds almost spilled out of the scooped neckline. I bet old man Schaeffers still pulling the strings. Nick turned and drained the glass of iced tea as if it was a shot of whiskey. Unfortunately, it didnt have the same numbing effect. Didnt your father start that construction company you run, Nick? Billie taunted. Her barb hit its mark. He swung around to throw back another sharp retort, but her smug look killed it on his lips. He wouldnt give her the satisfaction. Martha uncrossed her daughters arms so the dress would hang right Rosa clucked her tongue and examined the hem. I didnt have any choice, he said finally, his voice cracking with suppressed anger. My dad needed me. There were contracts pending, signed agreements that had to be met. Dad was injured. He didnt have anyone to rely on...but me. Billie had to understand that kind of responsibility. Shed done the same with the ranch. Doug works for his daddy because he cant do anything else. How would you know? Billies jaw squared in that old familiar way. You two, Martha grumbled, pins stuck between her teeth. Sounds like old times. Then why doesnt Doug do whatever he wants? Nick asked, ignoring Billies mother. He is. Billie smirked. Hes marrying me. Touch. The muscles along Nicks shoulders tensed, pinching the nerve endings like steel clamps. Her quick defense of Doug showed Nick hed have to take another course. Irritating her wouldnt help. Stroking his chin as Billies father had often done when confronted with one of his kids problems, Nick said, What are Dougs big plans for the future? Live off his healthy trust fund? Then what? He has... We have plans. Lots of them. But I dont see that its any business of yours, Nick Latham. Youre not my father...or brother. Her voice deepened, a husky quality emphasizing her turbulent emotions. Youre not even family. That hit another nerve. A raw one. As if hed taken a direct right hook to the jaw, he stepped back. His gaze locked with Billies. In that moment he knew she was a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions and mistakes. Hed have to let her make this one on her own. But he didnt have to stay and watch. Billie Rae Gunther, Martha snapped, you apologize this minute. Nick met Billies gaze, saw the regret, the pain inside her reflecting his own. He hadnt come here to argue. Hed come to help a girl whod once been like a little sister. But that person no longer existed. She doesnt have to. He stepped toward the woman whod been like a mother to him. Billies right Im intruding. He gently kissed the older womans cheek. Ill come back later. Before the weekends over. So we can catch up. Shaking her head, Martha bent and pinned another part of Billies hem. Its just like when yall were kids. Bickering and carrying on. How did Jake ever put up with the two of you? He didnt, Billie said. Nick caught the mischievous look in her eye and tension eased out of his body like air out of a balloon. Thats right. He used to lock you in the barn. Or toolshed, she added with a tight laugh. Not a bad idea. Maybe hed give it a try. Let her stew until she came to her senses. Tempted to do just that, he wondered who would let her out now. Hed once been her rescuer. Not anymore. Was Schaeffer her knight in shining armor? His gut tightened. Schaeffer had never thought of anyone but himself. Shaking off his anger and concern. Nick reminded himself that Billie wasnt his responsibility. She never had been. With a soft, reluctant sigh, he turned away. Nick... The soft lilt of Billies voice caught him off guard. He heard the rustle of her dress and a soft curse. Turning back, he watched her hobble toward him. Chagrin darkening her eyes to a deep blue, she said, Im sorry. You are family. Its just been a long time since weve seen you. And the wedding has me all stirred up. Martha nodded. Very emotional. Billie rolled her eyes and compressed her lips into a thin line. Had she matured more than hed thought? Billie the Kid had never refrained from saying anything that was on her mind or in her heart. But shed never cried. Not even when shed fallen off a horse and separated her shoulder. Shed never apologized, either. Not even when shed run away from home at the age of seven and scared the living daylights out of her family...and Nick. Instead of relying on tears, shed fought tooth and nail. Shed buried her emotions at her fathers funeral, acting brave and strong for her mother. Hed seen the need to grieve at her brothers burial. But again, shed suppressed it. Maybe falling in love had tapped into those hidden emotions, pulling them loose and helping her reach her full potential as a woman. But with Doug Schaeffer? He held his tongue. This wasnt the time or place to challenge Billie about her choice of a groom. Hed spoken out of turn earlier. What would he have said if someone had bad-mouthed his bride? Actually, he wished someone had. It would have saved him a load of grief. But he wouldnt have listened then, and he doubted Billie would listen now. I understand, Nick said. Ive got bad timing. As usual. No, its fate. Marthas cheeks dimpled and her gaze shifted between Nick and the bride-to-be. You are the answer to my prayers. We need you to help us with the wedding. Great. He wanted no part of it. But how could he refuse? His love and concern for the Gunthers carved a deep groove in his heart. Whatever you need, he said, trying to manage a convincing smile. What can I do? Billie and I were discussing this just last week, Martha said. Now that I think about it, youd be perfect Since youve been like a big brother to her and a son to me. Mother. Billie gave her a warning look. What are you saying? Marthas gaze narrowed, then a grin split her face. Nick, you should give away the bride. Give her away? He stared first at Martha, then his gaze flicked to Billie. How could he give her away? When all he wanted was to keep her for himself. That thought hit him like a demolition ball. He crushed it with common sense. He didnt want marriage, love or Billie the Kid Gunther. Keeping Billie for himself was a ridiculous notion. Marriage was not for him. Not anymore. Not since his had failed. His ex had made it abundantly clear that he didnt have what it takes to be married. He didnt understand the wants and needs of a woman. And he probably never would. He wouldnt risk his heart again. But he could make sure Billie wasnt making a mistake. He owed Mr. Gunther and Jake that much. Before he left Bonnet, hed make damn sure Billie loved Doug Schaeffer and vice versa. No matter how distasteful it seemed to Nick. For he knew the heartache of making the wrong choice. He wanted to spare Billie that much pain. Giving away the bride gave him a responsibility... and maybe the excuse he needed to stay. Being a part of the wedding party would give him access to the bride and groom, to better evaluate if they were making the wrong decision. If they were, then he wouldnt hesitate to step in and break it up...as a big brother. Chapter Two Fat chance shed let Nick Latham walk her down the aisle! Tension crackled in the silence following her mothers request. With an irritated flick of her wrist, Billie flung the veil off her shoulder. Her gaze collided with Nicks and started a chain reaction along her spine. She had to nip her mothers idea in the bud before it grew and took root. She couldnt let Nick give her away. Not in a million years! She ignored the pesky, unrealistic notions popping up in her mind. Nick would not whisk her away and keep her for himself. That was ridiculous! He didnt want her. Not as a woman, anyway. He never had. And never would. She no longer wanted him, either. That had been a crazy childhood fantasy. Like other schoolgirl dreams, it had died. Love hurts, she reminded herself. She wouldntcouldntlove Nick anymore. It was only seeing him again, his whiskey-colored eyes and easy smile, that had her so...unsettled. Tiny pinpricks of awareness made each millimeter of her skin feel vibrant and alive. Her insides burned. Ignoring the hot sensations Nick aroused, she turned away from him and focused on the one person who could stop this insanity. Mother, Billie said, her voice rising with each pounding beat of her heart, have you lost your mind? Her mothers smug smile dimmed. Her eyebrows arched in that familiar youve-gone-too-far maternal look. No, I have not. And I dont appreciate your insinuation, young lady, Martha admonished. Im being very practical, just like you always are. After all, since your dear father passed away, Ive spent long nights worrying about things like this. You need someone to escort you down the aisle. No, I dont. Billie planted her hands on her satincovered hips. Im more than capable of walking myself down the aisle. Her mother clucked her tongue. Thats just not done. Sure it is, Nick interrupted. Marthas eyebrows slanted downward. Surprised hed stood up for her, Billie cut her gaze toward him. Women do it all the time, he continued. Last week, I attended a wedding in Houston. The brides father had...well, not passed away, but hed abandoned his family years before. The bride walked down the aisle by herself. She looked elegant and mature. For once grateful for his presence, Billie perked up, liking his impressions of a lone bride proving her independence. See, Mother? Its disgraceful. Martha stated. Rolling her eyes, Billie knew her romantic mother would never understand. Poodle skirt ideals remained fashionable in Bonnet, Texas. Martha would keel over in a dead faint if she knew Billie was marrying Doug for any reason other than love. If Nick knew, hed probably jump on her mothers bandwagon, too. Which confirmed her conviction for keeping tight-lipped about her practical reasons. Nick settled his hand on Marthas shoulder. Billie should do whatever she chooses. After all, its her wedding. His words reassured her. She had made-the right decision. Was Nick finally seeing her as a full-grown woman? The cocky slant of his eyebrow made her wonder. Maybe he was only looking for an excuse to get out of attending the wedding. Somehow that notion gave her an overwhelming sadness. Nick, honey Martha clutched at his arm I was counting on you to help me talk some sense into my daughter. He patted her hand. His gaze shifted to Billie. His pointed stare put her back on the defensive. Oh, Im going to do just that. His words held an ominous ring. What did he mean? Crossing her arms over her chest, she stood firm. She wouldnt let him derail her or her goal. She had plans for herself. Plans shed waited a long time to fulfill. If Nick tried to stop her, shed run right over him. Shed made up her mind. Shed chosen a matefor better or worse. Why dont you finish with the dress fitting? He nodded to Rosa who held her pincushion between her hands like a bouquet of delicate roses. Billie and I can talk afterward. Privately. His arrogant wink unnerved her. Whatever he had in mind, shed beat him at his own game. For a moment she felt as if she were ten years old, trying to compete with her older brother and Nick. Shed had to work twice as hard, most of the time shed relied on brains instead of brawn. This time wouldnt be any different. But to best him, Billie needed to be on her own turf, not fumbling in a froufrou wedding dress in her mothers dainty parlor. She felt about as feminine as a tractor plowing down summer daisies. Her regular work clothes would give her the surefooted competence she needed. With a confident tilt of her head, she said, Fine, Ill show you the ranch. If he saw the changes shed implemented on the Rocking G, then hed know for certain she could make well-thought-out, intelligent decisions. Maybe hed be impressed. Hed see she wasnt a girl under the spell of puppy love. Hed see her as a strong-willed woman who could run a ranch and marry any man she damn well pleased. Thats a good idea, he said. His voice resonated inside her like a gust of warm air. His hot gaze traveled the length of her, tracing every curve from the round of her breast to the indentation of her waist and swell of her hips. Her body tingled with his lingering glance. Far more vulnerable in these layers of lace than she cared to admit, Billie longed for her denim jeans and muddy boots. Shell probably put you to work. Martha smiled and turned her attention to the satin trim along the bottom of the veil. I dont mind hard work. His rough, work-worn hands emphasized the truth of his statement. He gave Billie a mischievous grin that set her nerves on edge. No one had ever looked at her as Nick did now. It unraveled her composure. It made her jittery. But it also gave her a smug confidence shed never experienced. Shed always known she could ride or rope as well as any cowboy. But shed never known she could turn a mans head. Or was she only wishing shed caught Nicks attention now? And well talk, he warned. Terrific, Billie thought, just what she neededa heart-to-heart with the man whod unknowingly stolen part of hers. Inside the barn, Nick inhaled the musty scent of baled hay and the sweet aroma of rolled oats. Memories assaulted his senses, reminding him of long days spent in the saddle...backbreaking workdays, happy days when Mr. Gunther would ask him to give Jake and Billie a hand with their chores. Those times seemed old and dim compared to the vibrant image before him. Billie walked out of a stall leading a sleek, chestnut quarter horse. Even though she tried to hide the facts under an oversize plaid shirt, the evidence was clearshe was all woman. Her faded jeans hugged her slim hips as intimately as a man longed to hold a woman. The soft denim clung to her long legs and ended with frayed threads curling across well-worn black boots that boasted more cow manure and scratches than shine. With each step, she exuded confidence. He couldnt decide which way he liked her bestrough as an ordinary cowhand or elegant as any New York model. Or which wreaked more havoc on his libido. How long has it been since youve ridden horseback? Billie asked, a smirk tugging her lips into a half smile. High school, I guess, he said, leaning against a stall door where hed draped his jacket. The warmth of the day had encouraged him to roll up the sleeves of his starched white shirt When Jake and I rode in that local rodeo. Remember? That was the day I knew I wasnt cut out for getting dumped in the dirt and stomped on like a rag doll. Actually his dads dream of handing the business over to him had been the deciding factor. It had been his dream, too. But it hadnt turned out the way hed imagined. You decided youd rather dig in the dirt? A teasing smile pulled at her mouth. I let others do the digging. Im the boss, remember? His grin slowly faded with well-worn memories. I always did like working with my dad, though. He missed not being able to anymore. Hed always imagined them working side by side, building their construction company together. Tom Latham had retired and left his company entirely to his sons management. Sink or swim, it was up to Nick. Over the past five years his enjoyment had been squashed under the impact of reality. Hed liked working with his hands, building things, taking pride in his work. Now, running Latham Construction on his own kept him busy with management problems, obtaining permits, bidding on new contracts, handling employee relations. All the work and none of the fun. How is your dad? she asked, her eyes full of interest and concern. Fine. Enjoying the easy life. She nodded and turned back to her horse, smoothing her hand over the broad expanse of its back. I remember your dad whooping and hollering for you at that rodeo, she said with husky warmth in her voice. Didnt you get thrown? His shoulders snapped to attention. Hell, who wouldnt have? That was a rank ol bronc. If I recall, Jake didnt fare so well, either. And your fianc didnt even have the guts to try. A real man doesnt have to ride a bronc to prove himself. Ah, so that explains Schaeffers...disinterest. Nick grinned. She gave him a tight smile and slipped a snaffle bit into the horses mouth, then slid a bridle over its head. Each movement shifted the unbuttoned plaid shirt and gave him a glimpse of the skimpier white cotton top beneath. The material stretched across her full breasts and lifted a notch to expose her smooth, flat stomach, which was two shades paler than her face and arms. His gut clenched tight as a Boy Scout knot. Guilt lifted his gaze and urged him to give her an apology. But she didnt seem to notice him. Her attention was focused on the horse. She lovingly stroked the mares nose. She had a way with animals. Her father had often entrusted her to care for scrawny calves that wouldnt nurse, and shed turned them into big, strong beasts. I recall Nick rubbed his jaw you were plenty interested in cowboys back then. Werent you worried about me? Didnt you run out into the arena to see if I was all right? He remembered Billie rushing toward him as he lay in the dirt, his pride bruised as much as his backside. Fear had creased her brow, clouded her eyes. Embarrassment had pushed him onto his feet despite the pain in his knee. Hed brushed past her, trying to hide his limp. Now, for some odd reason, a part of him longed for her to show some concern again. It made no sense. He didnt need her, any more than he needed anyone else. Being near her unsettled him. Maybe he was simply feeling nostalgic, wishing for a simpler, easier time. Her cheeks brightened to an enticing pink. She reached for a blue-and-green-plaid saddle blanket. I was a silly schoolgirl then. One of her shoulders lifted as if she shrugged off the memory. You were grumpy as an old bear, growling at me to leave you alone. He chuckled. Shed cared about him once. Had those feelings faded like the blue in her jeans? Of course they had, he realized as disappointment pinched his already knotted gut. No guy wants attention drawn to him when hes just landed on his rump in front of a hometown crowd. I wanted to lick my wounds in private. Well, trust me, if you get thrown today, Ill ignore You: No, you wont. Youll laugh. Maybe. She gave him a sly wink and laid the saddle blanket over the horses back. You wont offer to kiss it and make it all better? The words slipped out before he could stop them. They were a mistake. Instantly he regretted them, but he found himself holding his breath, watching her with more anticipation than he should have, waiting for her response. Her eyes darkened like a cloud blotting out the sun. Im an engaged woman. A wintry chill whipped through him. His face stiffened. He needed that reminder. He needed to get a firm handle on his feelings, his responsibilities. Whats the mares name? Billies eyes narrowed, then she looked at her horse. She nuzzled the side of the mares neck. Calamity. He raised an eyebrow. Is she a klutz? Or always causing trouble? Billie grinned, her white teeth flashing against her honey-colored tan. If theres a root snaking over the ground, shell find it and trip. If theres a gopher hole, shes bound to step in it. Shes been lucky not to hurt herself too badly. But shes great with rounding up calves. I dont know what Id do without her. He watched Billies hands move over the horse in a loving, confident manner. He remembered how shed cared for her fathers animals, staying up late to help a colt enter the world, handling vaccinations deftly, crying when a sick kitten couldnt be saved. She had a tender heart. And he wouldnt let Doug Schaeffer trample it. Billie flung a saddle over Calamitys back. Nick stepped to the side, bent and handed her the leather girth beneath. Their fingers brushed. His smile disappeared. With supreme effort, he clamped down on the desire to find out what it would feel like to hold her for real this time. You still remember which side to mount on? she asked, humor lacing her words. Just give me a running start, he said, wondering if her mind swam with the same memories. Focusing on the past helped him picture the future. Billie was getting marriedto someone else. She glanced at him, a question lighting her eyes, then laughter burst out of her, the full, throaty sound stirring his interest again. Oh, God, you remember that? How could I forget you trying to ambush Jake and me like a Comanche on the warpath? Shaking her head, she grabbed the reins and headed out of the barn. Come on, Ill saddle your mount. Which one am I riding? he asked, stepping into the warm sunlight. The rays caught the gold shimmering highlights in Billies blond hair and the intensity of her blue eyes. Diablo. You remember him, dont you? How could he forget Jakes surly black gelding that liked to kick and bite more than Billie the Kid? He nodded, wishing hed brought his old rusted spurs. Meanest bronc this side of the Red River. Her mouth twitched as if she couldnt decide if she should smile. He figured shed hold her laughter till he got thrown and busted his butt. She looped Calamitys reins loosely over a post, grabbed a rope and walked down the fence line. Come on, weve got to catch him first. Hes not very sociable these days. When had Diablo ever been? Nick stuck his hands into his pockets. He was in for a long afternoon. Billie whistled, and the shrill sound pierced the quiet barnyard. Birds fluttered toward their perches in the barn loft In a nearby corral, a smattering of black cows and calves flinched. Diablo stood in the middle of a patch of green and chomped on sweet clover. Nick blinked. The once solid-black gelding was now gray, almost white in places. Billie climbed the fence and jumped down into the corral. Hes hard of hearing, too. You sure its safe to ride him? Nick asked. He looks...fragile. Dont let him fool you. Hes stronger than he looks, she said, giving Nick a pointed stare. He caught her meaning. Billie was stronger than she looked, too, always had been. Besides, Diablo likes the challenge. Great, Nick thought. Wasnt Billie enough of a challenge for one day? He opened the gate for her to lead the gelding out of the corral. The horse acted as docile as an old hound. You think you can race and win, with me riding this poor, pathetic excuse for a horse, huh? No such thing. But she flashed him a devilish smile. A few minutes later, mounted, they rode through a copse of live oaks and toward the green pastures. The horses hooves crunched acorns as they walked. Nicks gaze trained on Billie, riding just ahead of him, as he rolled with Diablos slower gait. The saddle cupped Billies backside, framing her bottom, accenting the shifting motion of the horse. Nick groaned and concentrated on the thick green grass, the cornflower blue sky, the stark white fence surrounding the north stretch of the ranch. That a new fence? he asked, noticing the rails where there used to be barbed wire. She nodded. Jake and I put that in right before... Her voice faded, then she resumed. It was expensive but in the long run itll require less maintenance. And I dont have to worry about a cow breaking through and getting out onto the highway. Unless an eighteen-wheeler plows through it. He grinned, agreeing with her decision. Then Id have more problems than an ornery cow on the loose. What are you going to do with the ranch once you get married? he asked, prodding Diablo alongside the chestnut mare. Out of the corner of his eye, he detected the abrupt stiffening of Billies spine. What do you mean? I cant see Schaeffer letting his wife herd a bunch of smelly cows, he confessed, slanting his gaze to her face. Her jaw squared, and her eyes flashed. No man lets me do anything. Its my choice...whatever I do. With the Rocking G or anything else. Her crisp tone signaled that the discussion was closed. He ignored the warning. Are you selling out? No. Her answer came quick. Too fast, almost defensive, in his opinion. His eyes narrowed, but he couldnt read her expression. She shuttered her emotions behind a determined mask. Youve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this place. Its your heritage. I know that Better than anyone. Her shoulders slumped as if beneath a great weight. But... What? She shook her head. Nothing. Were keeping the ranch in the family. Doug can p-p She clamped her mouth closed and looked out over the north range. He studied her for a long moment. I didnt know you were unhappy here. Theres a lot of things you dont know about me, Nick. She cut her eyes toward him. Hows the construction business these days? Growing, he said, making a mental note that she hadnt denied she was unhappy. Do you like living in Houston? Reining Calamity near a patch of clover, she draped her wrist over the saddle horn. He shrugged as Diablo stopped to graze beside the mare, and turned in his saddle to look at her. It offers a lot of opportunities. I would imagine so. For a single man. A faint tinge of pink brightened her cheeks. Her gaze softened. We heard about the divorce, Nick. Im sorry. He tightened his grip on the reins. So am I. Is marriage as hard as everyone says? she asked. For me it was. Shifting on the hard saddle, he said, Your mom would be a better one to ask. She made a marriage work for twenty some-odd years. But you know what its like starting out in the nineties. He set his mouth in a stern frown. Yeah, its hard. He took the opportunity to drive home his point. Thats why it shouldnt be entered into lightly. He leaned toward her, until he was close enough to smell the musky scent that fogged his brain. Level with me, Billie. You dont really love Doug Schaeffer, do you? She closed her fist over Calamitys reins and heeled her mount into a faster pace. What do you mean? You dont act like a blushing bride. Well, maybe because of the way you behaved earlier, I didnt think you wanted to hear me gush about my groom. Thats probably true, he admitted, matching her stride. A sudden need gripped him. A need to know she really didnt love Doug. For a split second he wondered if he was jealous, then dismissed it as concerna feeling any big brother would have. Tell. me youre not going to marry him. Her eyes narrowed. Were engaged. The wedding date is set for one month from tomorrow. Its never too late. Not until youve said I do. Sadness softened his tone. He shook his head. After all Dougs teasing. The way he used to pick on you. Why would you marry him? Hes a jerk, Billie. She squared her shoulders. We were all jerky when we were young. She raised one brow. Some of us outgrew junior high. She gave him a pointed stare. Besides, Doug wasnt the only one who teased me. He chuckled. I see you havent lost your backbone. Thats a good sign. I teased you like a lil sister. I wasnt mean. Not like Schaeffer. No, she admitted, her gaze softening. You werent mean. Now what can I say for you to break your engagement? he asked, his voice low. She jutted out her chin. Doug and I are getting married. What can I do, then? His voice dropped to a provocative tone as he remembered the kiss theyd once shared. His gaze shifted to her sensuous mouth. He stared at her full bottom lip, which looked ripe and plump as a summer strawberry. He remembered the softness of her lips, the warmth. His body tightened with renewed awareness. He jerked his thoughts upright. What had gotten into him? Had he lost his mind? She turned in her saddle to face him. You cant do a damn thing, Nick Latham. Go back to Houston... where you belong. And let me get married in peace. Billie heeled her mount into a cantor, anger straightening her spine like a steel rod. What was Nick trying to do? Stop her wedding? Why was it so important to him? Of course, she wouldnt let him. His pointed questions about the ranch stabbed at the raw guilt she already felt for failing to make it profitable. Nick was right; it was her heritage. But not her chosen path. She wanted to work with animals, but not breeding to sell them for somebodys juicy steak or cheeseburger. Each time she sold a truckload of cattle, her heart ached. Shed had to sell more recently to make ends meet. How much longer could she hold out? Her plan would keep the land in the family, provide a place for her mother to live, and give her the freedom to move on with her life. With Dougs money, she could hire someone to handle the ranch, and shed oversee it as she went to school. For some reason, though, she couldnt explain her feelings to Nick. He wouldnt understand. Hed made his fathers business a success. And she didnt want his pity...or his contempt. She wouldnt let him affect her, either. Although he already had. Far more than she cared to acknowledge. Her senses swirling, her mind spinning, she rode hard and fast until she noticed Calamity laboring for each breath. She reined in her mount and slowed to a trot then a walk. As her heart calmed to a steadier beat, she heard the rumbling sound of a horse approaching from behind. Knowing it was Nick, she kept her gaze straight ahead. She heard Diablo wheeze as Nick pulled alongside her. We better let Diablo rest, she said, swinging a leg behind her and dismounting. Once again, shed overreacted, putting the gelding at risk. Guilt hung around her neck like a heavy yoke. She patted the old horse in a quiet apology. Nick met her in front of the horses and looped the reins over Diablos head. He watched Billie., but she ignored him. Her cheeks stung with an internal heat. Too aware of Nick, his stare, his smile, his broad shoulders that looked strong enough for a girl to rest her weary head upon, she broke off a sliver of knee-high grass and stuck the end between her teeth. Boy, Ive missed this place. It feels like home. He led the horse through the field. But its changed. Unsure of his tactics, she furrowed her brow. At least hed chosen a safe topic. A few months ago I built a new corral over near the swamp. Remember when Dad had us drag a feed trough over there to entice those wild heifers out of that pasture? Yeah. He placed a hand on his lower back as if an old injury still pained him. That she-devil kicked the slats out of me when I tried to herd her toward the truck. Well, now we have a feed lot with two troughs and a chute. I can bring the cattle in, worm them, spray for flies or weed out any I plan to sell. I can herd one or two into the chute, then load them straight into the trailer from there. Pretty smart, he said. Relaxing a smidgen, she shrugged. Well, I didnt come up with it all on my own. I saw Harold Jacobson with a similar operation. Do you remember ol Mr. Jacobson? He used to teach the Ag courses at the high school. Dad and he were friends. And hes been generous with more agriculture advice since Jake and I started running things. He comes around about once a week to see how things are going. She smiled suddenly as if remembering something. You had the hots for his daughter. Nick rubbed his jaw with his thumb as his mouth quirked with a fleeting smile. Id forgotten about her. Billie snorted and pursed her lips. You always were the love-em-and-leave-em type. It was like a parade, watching the girls march in and out of your life. How many wore your letter jacket? Your class ring? Ah, hell, Billie, I cant remember every girl Ive ever dated. Can you remember every boy you ever went out with? Her jaws locked. Tension coiled around her like a snake. Of course, she could remember. There had only been one boy shed ever wanted. And only one shed ever dated. The first was standing beside her, staring at her as smug as any Neanderthal. The second was her fianc. Can you? he prompted, not letting her off the hook. She kept her gaze trained straight ahead. Yes, I can. Maybe I took dating a little more seriously than you did. Why? he asked. She glanced at him, then wished she hadnt. He looked too damn sexy. Natural as any cowboy, he handled Diablo like a wrangler, not like her fianc who looked like hed rather be air-conditioned and sipping a Scotch. Squeezing off that thought, she walked faster. Because dating is...serious business. It has a purpose. To find the one youre going to marry. And I did. She reiterated her engaged state for her own sake as much as Nicks. When she looked at him, at the crinkles surrounding his hazel eyes, the tempting curve of his lower lip, she needed a clear reminder of why shed chosen Doug instead of waiting for love. Its also to have fun. Didnt you ever date for fun? His brow crunched into a frown. Feeling the bite of resentment, she gritted her teeth. That was one more thing shed never had time for. In fact, much to her chagrin, shed never dated around period. Her experience with men had mostly been proving herself in a mans world. Shed preferred branding irons to curling irons. She hadnt cared about makeup or twittering gossip about the cutest boy. Unless it had centered on Nick. He stopped walking and draped his arm over Diablos withers. The reins dangled between his tanned fingers, drawing attention to his work-worn hands, which exuded strength, confidence and an amazing gentleness that she remembered from a long-ago caress. Didnt you ever go out with a man, he asked, knowing you wouldnt marry him, and yet you had a damn good time? No. You should before you get married, Nick said, his tone serious. You could go out with someone safe...a a friend...like me. You? S-safe? she sputtered. Sure. He rocked back on his heels. Im like your big brother. You couldnt be safer. His hot gaze made her feel anything but. Just like that? she quipped, her heart hammering its way into her throat. What makes you think Id go? That Doug would agree? She doubted her fianc would care if she went out with a friend, but shed never wanted to date Nick...as a friend. And she didnt want to do so now. I thought you said no man let you do anything. Hed caught her. His teasing smile pulled one out of her. So, are you gonna take me up on my offer? he asked, his smile casual, his gaze intense. Her mouth thinned into a tight line. This wont work, Nick. I dont know if youre desperate or what, but I cant go out with you. Why? His voice sounded smooth as silk. She turned on him then. Would you have let Diane date while yall were engaged? He rubbed his jaw. I wish now that I had. I might have learned a few things before the wedding. Like what? He shrugged as if his button-down shirt had suddenly shrunk. It might have saved both of us a lot of grief. He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, which sent a shiver of pure delight down her spine. Thats why you should experience as much as you can before you get married. Youre trying to get me to break my engagement. Maybe. But not this way. This is important. Why? Confusion made her mind whirl. Part of her wanted to grasp his tempting offer. Part of her wanted to shove it away, the way hed set her aside so long ago. Because if you dont date for the fun of it, how will you know that youre really marrying the right one? Thats insane. Marriage isnt supposed to be fun. Everyone, including you, says its hard work. Was that all Diane was? A fun date? Immediately she regretted that question. Nick, Im sorry. I spoke out of turn. No. He shook his head. Thats a good point. But theres more to it than that. Maybe we didnt take time to have enough fun. Maybe we didnt date long enough. Bottom line, if you dont enjoy your spouse, then its not worth all the effort. His gaze narrowed. Life is too hard to go through if youre not with someone who can make you laugh once in a while. He shifted the reins into his other hand. How does Doug compare to the other men youve dated? That stumped her. She rolled her lips inward and studied Calamitys mane. A long moment of silence followed. Billie refused to look at Nick. How could she compare her dream to reality, Nick to Doug? She couldnt lie to Nick. Hed be able to read through her. But she couldnt face the truth, either. She didnt want to see the shock, the slight head shake of pity. Why would I want to go out with you? What makes you think wed have any fun? We did growing up, didnt we? His jaunty grin made her head whirl. She pursed her lips. Yeah, I guess we did. Im sure it would be an education. Maybe one I should do without. After all, you and Jake taught me some...well, not very sociable manners when I was a kid. Doug might not appreciate anything you have to teach me. Nick scowled. What did we teach you that was socially unacceptable? The finer points of spitting, she said in a matter-of-fact tone, but laughter lurked beneath the surface as she remembered those hot summer afternoons down at Willows Pond. Hey, we taught you not to spit on others. Thats socially correct. His broad shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. You were a natural. You could hit a fly at fifty paces. Her mouth twisted with the effort of containing a chuckle. You taught me how to box, too. And that got me in trouble when Charlie Wallace and I had a fight on the playground. Only because you bloodied his nose. Otherwise he probably would have been in more trouble for picking on a girl. Nick rubbed his jaw. You never know, though, that right hook of yours might come in handy. Itll keep me in line. If I get fresh, then I give you permission to wallop me. Yeah, right. She rolled her eyes, but her heart hammered in her chest. You get fresh with me. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926314&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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