His Tomboy Bride Leanna Wilson Ëèòàãåíò 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 lace–at least, until she lifted her dress and Nick Latham saw cowboy boots! Yep, Billie was a capable, confident woman–except in matters of the heart….Still, though Billie would make a beautiful bride–what about her fiancå? 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.” Nick’s 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 she’d never experienced. She’d always known she could ride or rope as well as any cowboy. But she’d never known she could turn a man’s head. “Fine, I’ll show you the ranch.” Maybe he’d be impressed. He’d see her as a strong-willed woman who could run a ranch and marry any man she pleased. “And we’ll talk,” he warned. Terrific, Billie thought, just what she needed—a heart-to-heart with the man who’d 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 Carey’s 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 Clayton’s delightful duo MOTHER & CHILD continues with the evocative title Who’s the Father of Jeruty’s Baby? A woman awakens in the hospital to discover she has amnesia—and she’s pregnant! Problem is, two men claim to be the baby’s father—her estranged husband...and her husband’s brother! Granted: Wild West Bride is the next installment in Carol Grace’s 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 Sharpe’s 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 Wilson’s latest Romance. His Tomboy Bride, Nick Latham was supposed to “give away” childhood friend and bride-to-be Billie Rae—not claim the transformer beauty as his own! We hope you enjoy the month’s 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 buds—Alyson, 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 she’s 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 didn’t take her long to publish her first Silhouette Romance novel, Strong, Silent Cowboy, which won the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award. She’s married to a strong, not-so-silent city slicker and lives in Lewisville, Texas, with their “children”—two 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? She’d 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 Billie’s 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 she’d caught in Willow’s 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 Rosa’s nimble fingers fastened the long row of buttons along Billie’s 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 she’d 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 couldn’t 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 Billie’s 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 Billie’s chin a notch. “Why so sad?” Billie shrugged. “I’m 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 wouldn’t go away. He’d been too young, too foolish driving his truck hell-bent for leather. She couldn’t think about her brother now. Nor would she think about Nick Latham. His memory would bring a different kind of pang. He’d 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 couldn’t be harder than running her daddy’s ranch, juggling the finances or marrying a man she didn’t 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 father’s sudden death five years ago had heaped half the responsibility on her narrow shoulders. In his will, he’d left Billie and Jake the ranch, knowing their mother would never be able to take care of it on her own. Two years later Jake’s death had left her with a barnyard of unexpected debts and all the responsibility. Now, her desperation, her determination, had brought her to this—her wedding. Reality had a sharper edge and required practical decisions. This marriage solved a truckload of problems for her. She’d face her future with the same grit that had helped her through each tragedy in her life. This time, the things she cared about wouldn’t be taken away from her. This time, she’d take the reins in her own hands and guide her own destiny. Marriage didn’t come wrapped up in a nice, neat package with frilly ribbons and bows. Billie would not risk her heart on her fiancå or anyone else. She’d tried that once. And failed. With deep scars as proof, she’d 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. Let’s 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 hadn’t worn these since she’d 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 Billie’s 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 month’s 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 fiancå, come early? Maybe the light distorted his size, making him larger than his normally slight, elegant build. Her groom shouldn’t be seeing her wedding dress. It was bad luck. And that was one thing she didn’t 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 hadn’t 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, “I’ll be damned.” Nick wasn’t 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, she’d deck him. In anticipation of having to do just that, her hands curled into fists. “Isn’t 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 she’d kissed Nick. She’d grown up since that hot summer day when she’d been a naive sixteen-year-old. But with Nick’s 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 didn’t 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 she’d 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. “It’s 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 she’d 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 didn’t ask herself how she knew or why. She didn’t want to question whether it was because she so clearly remembered the cool, rainy spring day when she’d stood at her brother’s graveside or because Nick had been there. “Too long,” he answered. Knee-deep in grief at her brother’s funeral, Billie remembered Nick’s fierce hug, an awkward pat on her shoulders, a gruff, “I’m so sorry, Billie.” She’d been unable to restrain the resentment at seeing his pretty wife standing beside him. Maybe that’s why she’d been so damned determined to handle the Rocking G Ranch on her own. If she couldn’t have Nick’s love, then by God she’d have his respect. That’s why he couldn’t 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 hadn’t visited the Gunthers since his best friend’s 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 Nick’s eyes to a deep walnut After Jake’s funeral he’d offered to stay and help with the ranch, but Billie had wanted—needed—to prove she could handle it as well as any man. But she hadn’t known about the money Jake had borrowed. She hadn’t known a lot of things then. It had been an uphill battle ever since to stay in operation. Martha patted Nick’s arm as if he was her own son. “We’ve 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 didn’t need any help.” And we don’t need anything now. A wry chuckle escaped his tense mouth. “You always could take care of things.” Her heart lurched. She hadn’t managed very well with the ranch. Good ol’ Billie Rae—strong, capable, dependable—she’ 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 Nick’s 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 hadn’t. She couldn’t. 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 she’d suffered a bad case of puppy love. But it had been more, she’d realized as time had passed, as she’d matured, as the feelings had lingered and intensified. It had been real, true. From the very depths of her soul. She’d wanted to marry Nick, have his children. Loving him had outshone all her other dreams. When hit with his captivating gaze, she’d have done anything for him. Then he’d splintered a small part of her heart. So she’d focused with laser beam precision on her hopes of becoming a vet. It hadn’t taken long for that dream to crash beneath the weight of her father’s death and be buried beneath the burden of her brother’s. Years of hard, backbreaking work and shoulder-scrunching responsibility had demolished the rest of her innocent hopes. Once she’d had grand plans for her life. None of them had come to pass. But she hadn’t given up on all of them yet. As abruptly as she’d 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 didn’t want Nick. She had other plans, plans that resurrected her dreams. Plans that didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 she’d 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 wasn’t 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 it’s been so rush-rush, with all the plans and everything.” She touched a trembling hand to Billie’s 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. Billie’s features contorted, the muscles along her neck flexing. Nick wondered if her father’s absence took away part of her wedding joy. Mr. Gunther wouldn’t be there to walk her down the aisle or twirl her around the dance floor. Didn’t 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 Billie’s hand. Nick wouldn’t, either. It had to be some mistake. The Billie he knew would be more discerning than that. That’s why he’d dropped everything, including work, and raced back to Bonnet—to 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 childlike—lost, alone, bereft—and 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. “You’re 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 couldn’t. 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 father’s funeral five years earlier she’d looked like a frightened child, her eyes wide, but unable to shed a tear. At Jake’s funeral two years later, she’d looked thin as a rail. She’d stood strong for her mother, brave, controlling her trembling lip. He’d missed the gradual transition from girlhood to a full-fledged woman. Somehow she seemed softer than he’d 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. “You’re a lovely bride,” Martha reassured her daughter. “Lovely” was a simple word that didn’t 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 she’d 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. He’d 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 he’d 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 he’d focused on work, expanding his construction business. Women, he’d 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 she’d 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 she’d been left with well. Nick admired her for her ability to withstand adversity. Two years ago he’d 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 shouldn’t 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 don’t have to stand around in them for hours at the wedding and reception,” Billie complained. “It’s only for one day.” Martha soothed her daughter. “The right shoes are so important” “Why?” Billie asked. “Who’s 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. “You’ll 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 couldn’t be Doug “Blockhead” Schaeffer! “Besides,” Martha continued, “you’ll have so many other things to think about you won’t even notice your feet. You’ll be floating on cloud nine. That’s how I was when your daddy and I wed.” A wistful look came into her soft blue eyes. “I’m sure I will, Mother.” Had Nick heard a note of doubt in Billie’s 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. “Who’s 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 he’d 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 Dong’s best traits. The heir to Schaeffer Enterprises should never have been a contender. He remembered Doug, flaunting his daddy’s bucks, cruising around in a fancy convertible that probably had the same price tag as the house Nick had been raised in. He’d 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 wasn’t the girl he remembered. Maybe now she was more like his ex-wife. “Where is Schaeffer?” Nick asked, his teeth clenched. Billie’s 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 Billie’s 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 Nick’s 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. “Doug’s 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 Schaeffer’s vocabulary.” “He’s 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 Schaeffer’s still pulling the strings.” Nick turned and drained the glass of iced tea as if it was a shot of whiskey. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same numbing effect. “Didn’t 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 wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Martha uncrossed her daughter’s arms so the dress would hang right Rosa clucked her tongue and examined the hem. “I didn’t 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 didn’t have anyone to rely on...but me.” Billie had to understand that kind of responsibility. She’d done the same with the ranch. “Doug works for his daddy because he can’t do anything else.” “How would you know?” Billie’s jaw squared in that old familiar way. “You two,” Martha grumbled, pins stuck between her teeth. “Sounds like old times.” “Then why doesn’t Doug do whatever he wants?” Nick asked, ignoring Billie’s mother. “He is.” Billie smirked. “He’s marrying me.” Touchå. The muscles along Nick’s shoulders tensed, pinching the nerve endings like steel clamps. Her quick defense of Doug showed Nick he’d have to take another course. Irritating her wouldn’t help. Stroking his chin as Billie’s father had often done when confronted with one of his kid’s problems, Nick said, “What are Doug’s big plans for the future? Live off his healthy trust fund? Then what?” “He has... We have plans. Lots of them. But I don’t see that it’s any business of yours, Nick Latham. You’re not my father...or brother.” Her voice deepened, a husky quality emphasizing her turbulent emotions. “You’re not even family.” That hit another nerve. A raw one. As if he’d taken a direct right hook to the jaw, he stepped back. His gaze locked with Billie’s. In that moment he knew she was a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions and mistakes. He’d have to let her make this one on her own. But he didn’t have to stay and watch. “Billie Rae Gunther,” Martha snapped, “you apologize this minute.” Nick met Billie’s gaze, saw the regret, the pain inside her reflecting his own. He hadn’t come here to argue. He’d come to help a girl who’d once been like a little sister. But that person no longer existed. “She doesn’t have to.” He stepped toward the woman who’d been like a mother to him. “Billie’s right I’m intruding.” He gently kissed the older woman’s cheek. “I’ll come back later. Before the weekend’s over. So we can catch up.” Shaking her head, Martha bent and pinned another part of Billie’s hem. “It’s just like when y’all were kids. Bickering and carrying on. How did Jake ever put up with the two of you?” “He didn’t,” Billie said. Nick caught the mischievous look in her eye and tension eased out of his body like air out of a balloon. “That’s right. He used to lock you in the barn.” “Or toolshed,” she added with a tight laugh. “Not a bad idea.” Maybe he’d 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. He’d 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 wasn’t his responsibility. She never had been. With a soft, reluctant sigh, he turned away. “Nick...” The soft lilt of Billie’s 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, “I’m sorry. You are family. It’s just been a long time since we’ve 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 he’d thought? Billie the Kid had never refrained from saying anything that was on her mind or in her heart. But she’d never cried. Not even when she’d fallen off a horse and separated her shoulder. She’d never apologized, either. Not even when she’d 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, she’d fought tooth and nail. She’d buried her emotions at her father’s funeral, acting brave and strong for her mother. He’d seen the need to grieve at her brother’s burial. But again, she’d 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 wasn’t the time or place to challenge Billie about her choice of a groom. He’d 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 wouldn’t have listened then, and he doubted Billie would listen now. “I understand,” Nick said. “I’ve got bad timing.” As usual. “No, it’s fate.” Martha’s 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, you’d be perfect Since you’ve been like a big brother to her and a son to me.” “Mother.” Billie gave her a warning look. “What are you saying?” Martha’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t have what it takes to be married. He didn’t understand the wants and needs of a woman. And he probably never would. He wouldn’t risk his heart again. But he could make sure Billie wasn’t making a mistake. He owed Mr. Gunther and Jake that much. Before he left Bonnet, he’d 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 wouldn’t hesitate to step in and break it up...as a big brother. Chapter Two Fat chance she’d let Nick Latham walk her down the aisle! Tension crackled in the silence following her mother’s request. With an irritated flick of her wrist, Billie flung the veil off her shoulder. Her gaze collided with Nick’s and started a chain reaction along her spine. She had to nip her mother’s idea in the bud before it grew and took root. She couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 wouldn‘t—couldn’t—love 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 mother’s smug smile dimmed. Her eyebrows arched in that familiar you’ve-gone-too-far maternal look. “No, I have not. And I don’t appreciate your insinuation, young lady,” Martha admonished. “I’m being very practical, just like you always are. After all, since your dear father passed away, I’ve spent long nights worrying about things like this. You need someone to escort you down the aisle.” “No, I don’t.” Billie planted her hands on her satincovered hips. “I’m more than capable of walking myself down the aisle.” Her mother clucked her tongue. “That’s just not done.” “Sure it is,” Nick interrupted. Martha’s eyebrows slanted downward. Surprised he’d 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 bride’s father had...well, not passed away, but he’d 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?” “It’s 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, he’d probably jump on her mother’s bandwagon, too. Which confirmed her conviction for keeping tight-lipped about her practical reasons. Nick settled his hand on Martha’s shoulder. “Billie should do whatever she chooses. After all, it’s 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, I’m 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 wouldn’t let him derail her or her goal. She had plans for herself. Plans she’d waited a long time to fulfill. If Nick tried to stop her, she’d run right over him. She’d made up her mind. She’d chosen a mate—for better or worse. “Why don’t 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, she’d 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. She’d had to work twice as hard, most of the time she’d relied on brains instead of brawn. This time wouldn’t be any different. But to best him, Billie needed to be on her own turf, not fumbling in a froufrou wedding dress in her mother’s 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, I’ll show you the ranch.” If he saw the changes she’d implemented on the Rocking G, then he’d know for certain she could make well-thought-out, intelligent decisions. Maybe he’d be impressed. He’d see she wasn’t a girl under the spell of puppy love. He’d see her as a strong-willed woman who could run a ranch and marry any man she damn well pleased. “That’s 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. “She’ll probably put you to work.” Martha smiled and turned her attention to the satin trim along the bottom of the veil. “I don’t 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 she’d never experienced. She’d always known she could ride or rope as well as any cowboy. But she’d never known she could turn a man’s head. Or was she only wishing she’d caught Nick’s attention now? “And we’ll talk,” he warned. Terrific, Billie thought, just what she needed—a heart-to-heart with the man who’d 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 clear—she 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 couldn’t decide which way he liked her best—rough 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 you’ve 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 he’d 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 wasn’t cut out for getting dumped in the dirt and stomped on like a rag doll.” Actually his dad’s dream of handing the business over to him had been the deciding factor. It had been his dream, too. But it hadn’t turned out the way he’d imagined. “You decided you’d rather dig in the dirt?” A teasing smile pulled at her mouth. “I let others do the digging. I’m 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. He’d always imagined them working side by side, building their construction company together. Tom Latham had retired and left his company entirely to his son’s management. Sink or swim, it was up to Nick. Over the past five years his enjoyment had been squashed under the impact of reality. He’d 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. “Didn’t you get thrown?” His shoulders snapped to attention. “Hell, who wouldn’t have? That was a rank ol’ bronc. If I recall, Jake didn’t fare so well, either. And your fiancå didn’t even have the guts to try.” “A real man doesn’t have to ride a bronc to prove himself.” “Ah, so that explains Schaeffer’s...disinterest.” Nick grinned. She gave him a tight smile and slipped a snaffle bit into the horse’s 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 didn’t seem to notice him. Her attention was focused on the horse. She lovingly stroked the mare’s nose. She had a way with animals. Her father had often entrusted her to care for scrawny calves that wouldn’t nurse, and she’d turned them into big, strong beasts. “I recall—” Nick rubbed his jaw “—you were plenty interested in cowboys back then. Weren’t you worried about me? Didn’t 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. He’d 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 didn’t 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. She’d 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 he’s 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, I’ll ignore You: ” “No, you won’t. You’ll laugh.” “Maybe.” She gave him a sly wink and laid the saddle blanket over the horse’s back. “You won’t 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. “I’m 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. “What’s the mare’s name?” Billie’s eyes narrowed, then she looked at her horse. She nuzzled the side of the mare’s 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 there’s a root snaking over the ground, she’ll find it and trip. If there’s a gopher hole, she’s bound to step in it. She’s been lucky not to hurt herself too badly. But she’s great with rounding up calves. I don’t know what I’d do without her.” He watched Billie’s hands move over the horse in a loving, confident manner. He remembered how she’d cared for her father’s animals, staying up late to help a colt enter the world, handling vaccinations deftly, crying when a sick kitten couldn’t be saved. She had a tender heart. And he wouldn’t let Doug Schaeffer trample it. Billie flung a saddle over Calamity’s 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 married—to 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, I’ll saddle your mount.” “Which one am I riding?” he asked, stepping into the warm sunlight. The rays caught the gold shimmering highlights in Billie’s blond hair and the intensity of her blue eyes. “Diablo. You remember him, don’t you?” How could he forget Jake’s surly black gelding that liked to kick and bite more than Billie the Kid? He nodded, wishing he’d brought his old rusted spurs. “Meanest bronc this side of the Red River.” Her mouth twitched as if she couldn’t decide if she should smile. He figured she’d hold her laughter till he got thrown and busted his butt. She looped Calamity’s reins loosely over a post, grabbed a rope and walked down the fence line. “Come on, we’ve got to catch him first. He’s 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. “He’s hard of hearing, too.” “You sure it’s safe to ride him?” Nick asked. “He looks...fragile.” “Don’t let him fool you. He’s 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. Wasn’t 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. Nick’s gaze trained on Billie, riding just ahead of him, as he rolled with Diablo’s slower gait. The saddle cupped Billie’s 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 it’ll require less maintenance. And I don’t 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 I’d 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 Billie’s spine. “What do you mean?” “I can’t 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. It’s 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 couldn’t read her expression. She shuttered her emotions behind a determined mask. “You’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this place. It’s your heritage.” “I know that Better than anyone.” Her shoulders slumped as if beneath a great weight. “But...” “What?” She shook her head. “Nothing. We’re 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 didn’t know you were unhappy here.” “There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me, Nick.” She cut her eyes toward him. “How’s the construction business these days?” “Growing,” he said, making a mental note that she hadn’t 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. I’m 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 it’s like starting out in the nineties.” He set his mouth in a stern frown. “Yeah, it’s hard.” He took the opportunity to drive home his point. “That’s why it shouldn’t 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 don’t really love Doug Schaeffer, do you?” She closed her fist over Calamity’s reins and heeled her mount into a faster pace. “What do you mean?” “You don’t act like a blushing bride.” “Well, maybe because of the way you behaved earlier, I didn’t think you wanted to hear me gush about my groom.” “That’s probably true,” he admitted, matching her stride. A sudden need gripped him. A need to know she really didn’t love Doug. For a split second he wondered if he was jealous, then dismissed it as concern—a feeling any big brother would have. “Tell. me you’re not going to marry him.” Her eyes narrowed. “We’re engaged. The wedding date is set for one month from tomorrow.” “It’s never too late. Not until you’ve said ‘I do.”’ Sadness softened his tone. He shook his head. “After all Doug’s teasing. The way he used to pick on you. Why would you marry him? He’s 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 wasn’t the only one who teased me.” He chuckled. “I see you haven’t lost your backbone. That’s a good sign. I teased you like a li’l sister. I wasn’t mean. Not like Schaeffer.” “No,” she admitted, her gaze softening. “You weren’t 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 they’d 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 can’t 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 wouldn’t 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 somebody’s juicy steak or cheeseburger. Each time she sold a truckload of cattle, her heart ached. She’d 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 Doug’s money, she could hire someone to handle the ranch, and she’d oversee it as she went to school. For some reason, though, she couldn’t explain her feelings to Nick. He wouldn’t understand. He’d made his father’s business a success. And she didn’t want his pity...or his contempt. She wouldn’t 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, she’d 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 Diablo’s 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, I’ve missed this place. It feels like home.” He led the horse through the field. “But it’s changed.” Unsure of his tactics, she furrowed her brow. At least he’d 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 didn’t 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 he’s 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. “I’d 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 can’t remember every girl I’ve 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 she’d ever wanted. And only one she’d ever dated. The first was standing beside her, staring at her as smug as any Neanderthal. The second was her fiancå. “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 hadn’t. He looked too damn sexy. Natural as any cowboy, he handled Diablo like a wrangler, not like her fiancå who looked like he’d 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 you’re going to marry. And I did.” She reiterated her engaged state for her own sake as much as Nick’s. 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 she’d chosen Doug instead of waiting for love. “It’s also to have fun. Didn’t 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 she’d never had time for. In fact, much to her chagrin, she’d never dated around period. Her experience with men had mostly been proving herself in a man’s world. She’d preferred branding irons to curling irons. She hadn’t cared about makeup or twittering gossip about the cutest boy. Unless it had centered on Nick. He stopped walking and draped his arm over Diablo’s 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. “Didn’t you ever go out with a man,” he asked, “knowing you wouldn’t 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. “I’m like your big brother. You couldn’t 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 I’d go? That Doug would agree?” She doubted her fiancå would care if she went out with a friend, but she’d never wanted to date Nick...as a friend. And she didn’t want to do so now. “I thought you said no man let you do anything.” He’d 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 won’t work, Nick. I don’t know if you’re desperate or what, but I can’t go out with you.” “Why?” His voice sounded smooth as silk. She turned on him then. “Would you have let Diane date while y’all 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. That’s why you should experience as much as you can before you get married.” “You’re 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 he’d set her aside so long ago. “Because if you don’t date for the fun of it, how will you know that you’re really marrying the right one?” “That’s insane. Marriage isn’t supposed to be fun. Everyone, including you, says it’s hard work. Was that all Diane was? A fun date?” Immediately she regretted that question. “Nick, I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn.” “No.” He shook his head. “That’s a good point. But there’s more to it than that. Maybe we didn’t take time to have enough fun. Maybe we didn’t date long enough. “Bottom line, if you don’t enjoy your spouse, then it’s not worth all the effort.” His gaze narrowed. “Life is too hard to go through if you’re 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 you’ve dated?” That stumped her. She rolled her lips inward and studied Calamity’s 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 couldn’t lie to Nick. He’d be able to read through her. But she couldn’t face the truth, either. She didn’t want to see the shock, the slight head shake of pity. “Why would I want to go out with you? What makes you think we’d have any fun?” “We did growing up, didn’t we?” His jaunty grin made her head whirl. She pursed her lips. “Yeah, I guess we did. I’m 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 Willow’s Pond. “Hey, we taught you not to spit on others. That’s 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. It’ll 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.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926314&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.