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One Wild Cowboy and A Cowboy To Marry: One Wild Cowboy / A Cowboy to Marry

One Wild Cowboy and A Cowboy To Marry: One Wild Cowboy / A Cowboy to Marry
One Wild Cowboy and A Cowboy To Marry: One Wild Cowboy / A Cowboy to Marry Cathy Gillen Thacker TWO WESTERN TALES ABOUT FINDING LOVE…AND FAMILY!ONE WILD COWBOYAll Emily McCabe wants is for Dylan Reeves to pretend they're dating, so she can get her overprotective clan out of her life. But he flat out refuses. So why does the sexy horse whisperer kiss her in front of the whole town? Could the untamable bachelor actually be dreaming of making a life with Laramie County's most willful woman?A COWBOY TO MARRYThe only way for widow Libby Lowell to move on with her life is to leave Laramie, Texas. But Holden McCabe isn't letting Libby go. Not after she turned to him in her hour of need…and their passion created a baby. Is this their biggest mistake, or the second chance they've both been searching for? ONE WILD COWBOY All Emily McCabe wants is for Dylan Reeves to pretend they’re dating, so she can get her overprotective clan out of her life. But he flat-out refuses. So why does the sexy horse whisperer kiss her in front of the whole town? Could the untamable bachelor actually be dreaming of making a life with Laramie County’s most willful woman? A COWBOY TO MARRY The only way for widow Libby Lowell to move on with her life is to leave Laramie, Texas. But Holden McCabe isn’t letting Libby go. Not after she turned to him in her hour of need…and their passion created a baby. Is this their biggest mistake, or the second chance they’ve both been searching for? “I never said I didn’t desire you,” Dylan said in a low, rich voice that practically oozed testosterone. He was acting as if their madcap embrace was a good thing. Emily fumed. “How dare you!” He stepped forward and further invaded her space. “How dare you?” With effort, Emily ignored the sexual tremors starting deep inside her. Determined to get command of a situation that was fast escalating out of control, she extended her index finger and tapped him on the center of his rock-solid chest. “Let’s get something straight, cowboy.” She waited until she was certain she had his full attention. “My request for help did not include anything sexual.” He winked at her facetiously. “Too bad, ’cause if it had, I might have said yes.” Dear Reader (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f), We hope you enjoy the Western stories One Wild Cowboy and A Cowboy to Marry, written by bestselling Mills and Boon American Romance author Cathy Gillen Thacker. The Mills and Boon American Romance series is a celebration of all things Western! These stories are heartwarming contemporary tales of everyday women finding love, becoming part of a family or community—or maybe starting a family of her own. And don’t miss an excerpt of Home to Wyoming by Mills and Boon American Romance author Rebecca Winters at the back of this volume. Look for Home to Wyoming, available September 2013. Happy reading, The Mills and Boon American Romance Editors One Wild Cowboy A Cowboy to Marry Cathy Gillen Thacker www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u98d044d6-4a5f-5cca-b620-55d7b4077cbe) Back Cover Text (#u7606f7d9-2ff4-5d3a-8d01-e13fc864937b) Introduction (#u39181b49-31ec-5c30-b8f0-ca8ba74aea59) Dear Reader (#uc37a3e57-0df2-5aef-b413-6da4f18b6708) Title Page (#u1a185b5c-fa8d-5ac8-b980-7aca11af9971) ABOUT THE AUTHOR (#u972ad043-e467-57db-8fc9-2e6cf30109ea) One Wild Cowboy (#ufc85f10f-851c-531d-95ff-876386d81f5b) Chapter One (#u20f804cc-64c1-5cf3-96d1-82e952c09b33) Chapter Two (#u2a14b7a7-eca5-56a9-80e3-644dddb006a4) Chapter Three (#u7b70de0a-8ba8-5668-a591-eaaed6e2952c) Chapter Four (#u2bc984b5-ff75-54cd-9f1d-66ed79b960a9) Chapter Five (#u45f84ff2-4bf3-5274-919a-8c90738df502) Chapter Six (#u2b6ae9cf-e757-5ca9-a78b-78c38e40908b) Chapter Seven (#u1cbe2697-788a-5f11-b873-5e6032fb5e5b) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) A Cowboy to Marry (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) 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) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) ABOUT THE AUTHOR (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) CATHY GILLEN THACKER is married and a mother of three. She and her husband spent eighteen years in Texas and now reside in North Carolina. Her mysteries, romantic comedies and heartwarming family stories have made numerous appearances on bestseller lists, but her best reward, she says, is knowing one of her books made someone’s day a little brighter. A popular Mills and Boon author for many years, she loves telling passionate stories with happy endings, and thinks nothing beats a good romance and a hot cup of tea! You can visit Cathy’s website at www.cathygillenthacker.com (http://www.cathygillenthacker.com) for more information on her upcoming and previously published books, recipes and a list of her favorite things. One Wild Cowboy (#ulink_5874ee54-d156-5237-8a4f-79b71ad0e873) Cathy Gillen Thacker Chapter One (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) This is not good, Emily McCabe thought as she led her beloved mare, Maisy, toward the Circle M Ranch stable. Standing just inside the entrance to the barn were all three of her older brothers. Their postures were as inflexible as the set of their jaws, and they appeared to be waiting on her. The relaxation she’d felt after her Monday afternoon ride was fading fast as Emily studied the trio of determined expressions. “What’s going on?” she asked warily. It had to be something. Otherwise, Jeb would have been looking after his rodeo livestock, Hank would have been tending his cattle, and Holden would have been caring for his quarter horses. Instead, all three ranchers were gathered here on her parents’ property. Awkward glances were exchanged—the kind that told her this was not an actual emergency. Great, Emily thought. Just what she needed—her wildly overprotective clan butting into her life again. Looking less rambunctious than usual, Jeb squared his shoulders. “We wanted to talk to you.” Emily sighed, bored already. She patted Maisy’s silky black mane and led the big bay mare past her brothers, toward her horse’s stall. “About what?” “Mom and Dad are worried about you.” The always-gallant Holden kept pace. “You’ve put everything you’ve got into the café for two years now. And with the new diner opening...” They were all acting as if she was about to have her heart broken. “I have a very loyal customer base. It’s not going to cut into my business.” To her annoyance, her brothers stood their ground. “On top of that,” Holden continued, “it’s been over a year since you had a date.” Uh-oh. Now that had an ominous ring. Emily knew her brothers could be ridiculously sexist where she was concerned. They had been that way since she was a kid, something that happened when there was only one girl in a family. It didn’t mean she had to like it. “So?” Emily unfastened the girths on Maisy’s saddle and lifted it off. She set the saddle and blanket on the cement floor outside the stall. “Since when do you-all care about my social life?” she demanded, aiming a disparaging look their way. Ignoring her Hank replied pleasantly, “Since we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do you a big favor and help you out.” Emily liked the sound of that even less. Wordlessly, she removed the rest of Maisy’s tack and heaped it on top of the leather riding gear. She ran an affectionate hand down Maisy’s neck and rubbed her face against her beautiful horse in silent thanks for a great canter across the meadow. Then she stepped outside the stall, shutting the door behind her. While Maisy quenched her thirst from the stall water trough, Emily confronted her three well-meaning but totally idiotic brothers. “Didn’t you learn anything from the last time you guys tried to fix me up?” What an unmitigated disaster that had been! The longest evening on record, followed by an impossibly awkward good-night. She propped her hands on her hips and glared at them. “No more!” “Normally we’d agree.” All three nodded vigorously. “But that was before Mom figured out who you should be seeing,” Hank explained. Emily’s heart sank. She had no doubt her mother meant well, too. Thanks to more than thirty-six years of happily wedded bliss with the love of her life, there was no one more romantic than her mother. Her father, in his own way, was just as bad although her dad had yet to actually approve of any man she’d dated. “Tell me you’re pulling my leg here,” Emily pleaded. “Nope.” Jeb flashed a grin. “Mom’s planning to play matchmaker at tonight’s charity dinner for the Libertyville Boys Ranch.” There was no way Emily could avoid the fund-raiser. Her Daybreak Café was one of a handful of restaurants in town providing food and beverage for the outdoor event. Plus, it was a worthy cause. Emily picked up the reins and bridle while Hank carried the saddle and blanket to the tack room. She put the riding equipment away, then turned back to face her brothers. She swept off her flat-brimmed hat and slapped it impatiently against her thigh. “Surely Dad isn’t going to sign on for this foolhardiness.” If there was anyone who could talk sense into Greta McCabe, it was her husband.... Her three brothers watched as she went to the fridge in the corner and took out a bottle of blackberry-flavored water, kept on hand just for her. “Actually,” Holden recounted, serious as ever, “Dad thinks Mom might be onto something. You have to admit, you have been one heck of a bum magnet on your own.” Emily narrowed her eyes. “Thanks, heaps.” Jeb chuckled. “It’s true, little sis. Who knew there were so many losers in the world till you dragged them all home?” Emily recalled with startling clarity why she’d had such a hard time with her love life. Part of it was her ability to see the “potential” in just about everyone. The only problem was, most men did not want to be “improved” and certainly not by the woman they were dating. So she constantly had to shelve her need to help. The rest had to do with the fact that all the truly successful men she had met seemed to want a woman who’d be content to tend to their needs and live in their shadow. Few wanted a woman who was already successful in her own right. But not wanting to get into any of that with her brothers, she turned to the third and most annoying reason her love life remained a bust. “My lack of dates this past year is because no guy in his right mind has wanted to come near me knowing he would have to put up with you-all constantly breathing down our necks.” Hank refused to apologize. “We were just trying to protect you.” Emily glared at her three tall, brawny brothers. “Well, stop!” Holden looked her in the eye and held the line. “No can do. Now, here’s the plan. We’re sure we know better than Mom and Dad who you should be dating. So...we have each picked out a guy for you to meet. All of them understand the restaurant business—so you should have something in common—and all of them already get along with us.” He smiled confidently. “And as a bonus, none of them are from around here. So it won’t be anyone you’ve already met and rejected.” Emily didn’t care where these potential suitors hailed from. “I’m not going on any blind dates!” she warned. “And especially not with any men that have already received the McCabe Men Stamp of Approval!” That would simply confirm they were the type who would bore her to tears. Jeb grinned, mischievous as ever. “That’s the beauty of our plan, baby sis. You won’t have to go out with them, ’cause we’re bringing them to you at the cafe. You can scope them out while you’re serving them breakfast or lunch and then decide who you want to go out with—and then we’ll set it up for you.” This was insane, Emily thought. Like some sort of reality show she never would have signed up for in a million years. “These three guys agreed to be looked over by me, like hunks of prime beefcake?” For the first time, her brothers looked uncertain. Aha, Emily thought, this plan did have a hitch! And a possibly insurmountable one, at that... Grimacing, Holden said, “They all agreed to have breakfast or lunch with us at your place. The meals themselves are going to be more like business meetings, with a little socializing thrown in.” “And during said meeting, I’m supposed to come over, make nice and flirt a little,” Emily mused sarcastically. Jeb shrugged and regarded her as if she were overreacting. “Couldn’t hurt.” Oh, yeah? Emily drained the rest of her water in a single gulp and tossed the empty bottle in the recycling bin. “You’re making it oh so tempting,” she drawled in her Scarlett O’Hara imitation, batting her eyelashes for effect, “but no. Besides, I already have a date,” she fibbed with as much bravado as she could muster. “It’s tonight, at the benefit for the boys ranch, as a matter of fact. So you might want to pass that on to Mom and Dad, because I know they wouldn’t want to interfere in a date I already lined up.” “Is that right?” Hank prodded, clearly not believing a word of what she’d just said. “With whom?” Emily mentally ran down the list of eligible men in Laramie, Texas, and quickly centered on the one who would be the least desirable, at least by her family’s standards. The one man who had sworn he would never be tamed by any woman... She beamed at them proudly. “Dylan Reeves.” * * * “NO.” Emily stared at the sexy rancher in front of her, sure she hadn’t heard right. Especially, since she had just offered the town’s most notorious bachelor the kind of deal he couldn’t possibly resist. “No?” she repeated, stunned. Dylan Reeves swept off his hat, ran an impatient hand through his thick, wheat-colored hair and stepped out of the round training pen. His golden brown eyes lasered into hers with disturbing accuracy. “That’s what I said.” Emily cast a glance behind Dylan at the once-wild gelding who was now mooning after his momentarily distracted trainer like a little puppy awaiting his return. Then she returned her attention to the ruggedly fit cowboy who was scowling down at her. Dylan wasn’t just an incredibly attractive man with a towering build that dwarfed her own five-foot-seven frame. He was a horse whisperer who had moved to Laramie five years before and, through sheer grit and hard work, founded the Last Chance Ranch. Dylan took on the horses everyone else had given up on, and transformed them. That being the case, Emily reasoned, he had a heart in there somewhere that would allow him to participate in yet another worthy cause. “It’s a fund-raiser for charity.” His lips formed an uncompromising line. “It could be a dinner for the Crown Prince of England for all I care.” He lounged against the metal rails of the round training pen and folded his arms in front of him. “The answer is still no.” Emily ignored the way the tan twill shirt hugged his broad shoulders and molded to the sculpted muscles of his chest before disappearing into the waistband of his worn, dark blue denim jeans. She forced her gaze away from the engraved silver-and-gold buckle on his belt. “Look. You know we have nothing in common,” she said as a shimmer of awareness shifted through her, “so there’s no possibility this will be a real date. That’s why I asked you to go with me tonight.” Dylan narrowed his eyes at her. “Asked being the operative word. You asked...I declined. As, I might point out, I have every right to do. End of story.” “Fine.” Emily stepped closer and tilted her head toward him. “Then what’s it going to take?” He looked her up and down suspiciously, from the top of her flat-brimmed hat, to the toes of her favorite burgundy rattlesnake boots. “What do you mean?” “How many free meals at the café?” she bartered. Initially, she’d thought two was fair. Evidently not, in his opinion. Dylan flashed her a crocodile smile that didn’t begin to reach his life-weary eyes. He rubbed his jaw with the palm of his hand. “What makes you think I want to eat at your restaurant?” “Oh,” Emily looked him up and down just as impudently and mocked his condescending tone to a T. “Perhaps the fact that you’re there every morning when I open—and sometimes lunch, as well. And you’ve asked more than once why I don’t serve dinner at night!” That alone conveyed that either he couldn’t cook, or he was too unmotivated to do so. He also had a penchant for the cowboy cuisine she had perfected. Poking the brim of his cowboy hat up with maddening nonchalance, he leaned toward her and whispered conspiratorially, “It’s a good point, sweetheart. You’d make more money if you did stay open through the dinner hour.” She would also be competing with her mother’s restaurant, which was a Laramie institution and had a dance floor and lively music every night. “I would also have to work much longer hours,” Emily replied, suddenly flustered by his blatant nearness. He smirked in a way meant to infuriate. “Or—” he prodded “—hire more staff.” Emily harrumphed. The last thing she wanted was anyone telling her how to run the restaurant she had dreamed up and started from scratch. “I don’t want to hire more employees. I like my café the way it is—open for breakfast and lunch six days a week. Now,” she said, peering at him sternly, “back to what we were saying....” Dylan chuckled and released a long-suffering sigh. “Goodbye, I hope?” She ignored his stab at a joke and stepped even closer, not caring that the move left mere inches of empty space between them. She felt the heat emanating off him, stronger and warmer than the April sunshine overhead. “Just tell me your price, cowboy.” To keep me from being thoroughly humiliated in the wake of my premature claim to have a date with you. Emily stood and propped both hands on her hips. “How many meals is it going to take for you to pretend to be my date for the evening? I need you just long enough to scare away the man my parents have picked out for me—and to disabuse my brothers of their own lame-brained matchmaking idea.” “None.” Dylan gave her a steady look, then straightened and moved behind her. Taking her by the shoulders, he pivoted her in the direction of her car. As abruptly as he’d taken hold of her, he dropped his firm but gentle grip and stepped away. Her shoulders tingled as badly as the rest of her. “’Cause I don’t do family drama,” he said flatly. Temper boiling, Emily whirled back around to face him. He lifted one work-roughened palm. “And I don’t tame women, either.” Tame! Had he actually used the word tame? “Excuse me?” she fumed, daring him to say that again! The corners of his lips twitched in barely checked amusement. “Your family is right. You are a woman in need of ‘assistance’ when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.” He paused, wearing a self-assured, faintly baiting expression, then returned to the pen and the magnificent horse he’d been training when she arrived. He closed the gate behind him and let his glance drift lazily over Emily before deliberately meeting her eyes. “Luckily for both of us, darlin’...that schooling is not going to come from me.” * * * “WELL, IF YOU ASK ME,” Simone Saunders said two hours later, “I think you should just relax about the whole thing.” “Easier said than done,” Emily murmured, arranging trays of fruit cobbler and pecan-pie bars on the banquet tables set up on the town square. “You never know,” the Daybreak Café’s assistant chef teased. “The guy your parents want you to meet could be a real hottie.” Emily regarded the petite dynamo with the copper-colored hair. Simone was not only her trusted employee but also a close friend. “Don’t you start! Besides, aren’t you the one who has been extolling the virtues of freedom since your divorce?” Simone cast a worried look at her increasingly rebellious fifteen-year-old son, Andrew, who was hanging out with a group of friends on the other side of the green. “My situation is different. My husband was a crook.” Who was now in jail, Emily thought. “Any guy your parents want you to meet would at least be honorable.” True. Emily shrugged. “I like nice guys, but there has to be chemistry.” It couldn’t just be conjured up on demand because her parents wanted it to be. With Dylan Reeves on the other hand... Emily still couldn’t believe the audacious cowboy had turned her down, and so rudely! Put his hands on her shoulders and invaded her space. Simone glanced at the fast-growing crowd, then reached for another tray of brownies off the pastry cart. “How are you going to explain not having a date with the horse whisperer after you told your brothers you did?” Good question. Emily added apricot scones to the table. “I could always say something came up, that Dylan wanted to attend but just couldn’t.” “Uh...no...you can’t.” Emily brought the buckets of fresh churned ice cream out of the portable cooler, and set them in tubs of ice on the buffet table. “Why not?” “Because Dylan’s here. Talking to Holden and Hank right now.” Heat flooding her cheeks, Emily turned around. Sure enough, Dylan Reeves was here, looking mighty fine in a starched white shirt, a clean pair of jeans and a black Resistol hat. It was all she could do not to wring her hands in dismay. “Holden and Hank are probably grilling him on why he didn’t accompany me. If Dylan tells them I asked him for a date and he turned me down, I’ll just die of embarrassment.” “Maybe he won’t.” And maybe, Emily thought, already tossing her chef’s apron aside, there was only one way she could stop this. She hoped it wasn’t too late. “Are you okay here?” Simone nodded, her expression as resolute as Emily’s mood. “I’ll handle this. You go do damage control. And from the looks of it,” Simone said softly, as the men’s faces grew serious, “you better hurry.” * * * “SO WHAT’S GOING ON with you and my sister?” Holden McCabe asked. Didn’t Emily’s brothers ever lighten up? Dylan wondered, resenting the polite chitchat that was fast turning into a McCabe family inquisition. Dylan folded his arms in front of him. “I make it a policy never to discuss my personal affairs.” Not that there was anything to report. Hank McCabe paused. He exchanged confused looks with his brother, then turned back to Dylan. “So the two of you are dating?” he asked finally. Dylan was still contemplating how best to respond when Emily rushed up, looking gorgeous, flushed and a bit disheveled. Not that he was noticing the way the sunshine-yellow sundress hugged her slender waist and feminine curves. Or how sexy her legs looked when not encased in the usual jeans. “Holden...Hank, for heaven’s sake!” she scolded. Predictably, her ridiculously overprotective brothers refused to back down. “What’s the problem?” Hank asked. Holden added innocently, “We’re just talking to your ‘date’ here.” Emily swirled around in a drift of jonquil perfume he found amazingly enticing. She shot Dylan a beseeching glance that only he could see. Her soft-as-silk hand curved possessively around his biceps, compelling him to remain silent. Curious as to how she was going to get herself out of this mess, he merely smiled. The panicked look in her blue eyes fading, Emily released her grip on him and turned back to her brothers. “Dating is for teenagers, guys.” More skeptical glances. “What does that mean?” Holden demanded. “It means she doesn’t like to put a label on things any more than I do,” Dylan intervened. “And neither of us like answering nosy questions,” Emily added. Holden shrugged, unrepentant. “You’re the one who brought it up.” He turned to Dylan. “Emily told us earlier that the two of you had a date tonight.” Jeb sauntered up, a typical know-it-all grin on his face. “I’ve got to say, we didn’t believe her then and given the fact the two of you arrived separately now...” He regarded his little sister suspiciously. “Now you wouldn’t happen to be pulling one over on the whole family just because we’re trying to set you up, would you?” The only thing Dylan liked less than being put on the spot was seeing a strong, independent woman like Emily reduced to making up stories simply to get her interfering family out of her business. “I can’t believe you would even think that!” Emily sputtered. Something about her vulnerability got to Dylan. He’d never been prone to rescuing damsels in distress—because that could only lead to trouble. But this was different. So he did the only thing that he knew would shut everyone up. He wrapped his arm around Emily’s slender shoulders, pivoted her slightly and brought her all the way against him. Chapter Two (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) Shock rendered Emily completely still. She couldn’t believe Dylan was about to kiss her, but she could not deny the electric jolt of the first brush of his lips. Suddenly breathless, she found herself closing her eyes and parting her lips. Darn it all, this reckless cowboy was one fine kisser. And she was susceptible as could be to the seductive heat of his mouth, combined with the masculine certainty of his tall, strong body pressed against hers. Despite her efforts to remain immune to this ridiculously false display of affection, she impulsively wound her arms around his neck. And still he kept on kissing her, until she shivered with sheer pleasure and the rest of the world literally fell away... Dylan hadn’t meant to get so caught up in the moment. And maybe he wouldn’t have, had Emily’s lips not been so incredibly sweet, her body so warm and womanly.... This was supposed to be his chance to put the audacious heiress in her place and make sure she never made false claims about the two of them again. And yet, the kiss that had started out merely as a way to knock her off balance and show her who was boss swiftly turned into much, much more. It was an invitation to delve further into the chemistry between them. A lightning bolt of desire that instinct told him neither of them would soon forget. He might not be the right kind of guy for her, or she the right kind of woman for him, but the passion between them was potent. Too potent, Dylan decided, for the kiss to continue. It took everything he had to let the passionate embrace come to a halt. And a second after that he was reminded that they had an audience. All three of her big brothers looked at him as if they wanted to clock him. Dylan could hardly blame them. Had Emily been his wildly impetuous baby sister... Blushing, Emily stepped back slightly, grabbed Dylan’s sleeve and held on tight. “You know,” she said, seemingly making up words on the fly with the same impetuousness that had him kissing her, “that wasn’t the smartest move either of us has ever made, Dylan. But,” she continued before any of the four males around her could interrupt, “that’s what happens when you’re in love.” She paused to beam at him. “Right, Dylan?” Once again, he had a chance to put her in place. All he had to do was disavow having any feelings at all for her. Tell the truth about their “date.” Certainly, it would have been the wise thing to do—if he wanted to end this craziness. For some reason, he didn’t. Dylan rocked back on his heels, braced his hands on his waist and shrugged in the direction of her outraged brothers. “I’m not sure there are words that would ever adequately explain this situation,” he said. “You’ve got that right,” Emily concurred. “Besides, we should get a move on. We have to go back to the café and pick up the rest of the desserts for the buffet.” She dropped her grip on his sleeve, clasped his hand in hers and tugged Dylan away from her still-scowling, perplexed brothers. “See you later, guys!” She tossed the dismissive words over her shoulder. Seconds later, Dylan felt Emily begin to disengage her hand from his. Loath to let her go—because that would have meant he was letting her call all the shots, which was not a good precedent to set—Dylan held tight. She turned, flashed a smile that did not reach her pretty eyes and then whirled around and kept going. Half a block of historic downtown buildings later, she had unlocked the front door to the Daybreak Café, stormed inside and shut the door behind them. Still fuming, she promptly wrested her hands from his. “All right, cowboy!” she snapped, pausing only to give him a long, withering glare. “You have one heck of a lot of explaining to do!” * * * EMILY EXPECTED AN APOLOGY. It was, after all, the only decent thing to do, given the outlandishly passionate way Dylan had just kissed her. In front of an audience of her family and countless others, no less! “Hey.” Dylan mocked her impudently. “I’m not the one still claiming to have a date with a person who’s already rejected me!” Indignation warmed Emily’s cheeks. “Claim what you like, cowboy, if it soothes your ruffled feelings, but there was nothing ‘rejecting’ about that kiss you just gave me.” “I never said I didn’t desire you,” Dylan volleyed back in a low, rich voice that practically oozed testosterone. He was acting as if their madcap embrace was a good thing. “How dare you, anyway!” He stepped forward and further invaded her space. “How dare you?” With effort, Emily ignored the sexual tremors starting deep inside her. Determined to get command of a situation that was fast escalating out of control, she extended her index finger and tapped him on the center of his rock-solid chest. “Let’s get something straight, Dylan.” She waited until she was certain she had his full attention. “My request for help did not include anything sexual.” He winked at her facetiously. “Too bad, ’cause if it had, I might have said yes.” Emily curtailed the urge to deck him for that remark. She didn’t know what he was up to now, but she did not like it one bit. “Furthermore, you are incredibly ill-mannered.” “Never claimed to be otherwise,” Dylan said with a careless shrug. Emily arched her eyebrows and ignored his pronouncement. “And you owe me an apology for that kiss.” “You owe me an apology for that kiss!” he countered just as emphatically, even as her knees grew weaker still. “Really.” She lifted her chin, drew a deep breath. “Really?” Dylan looked at her as if he already knew what it felt like to make love to her. “You bet your hot temper you do!” “Listen, cowboy, I did not start that!” He moved closer, once again towering over her. “You sure continued it enthusiastically though, didn’t you?” Darned if he hadn’t made her flush all over again. Emily’s spine stiffened. “Only because I didn’t want to make my brothers suspicious,” she retorted, hanging on to her composure by a thread. “Yeah, well,” he pointed out glibly, “you sure failed on that count.” Emily blinked. “Are you kidding? They thought our embrace was so genuinely hot they wanted to punch you out.” And whether Dylan wanted to admit it or not, their clinch had been genuinely hot. As well as definitely misguided, Emily thought, pushing aside the potent fantasy this discussion was evoking. The last thing she needed to be thinking about was kissing him again, she reminded herself firmly. And she certainly didn’t need to be imagining Dylan’s beautifully muscled body stretched out alongside her own. Or fixate on the fact that everywhere she was soft, he’d be hard. Everywhere he was male, she’d be female.... He regarded her with a devil-may-care glint in his eyes. “Your siblings wanted to throttle me because they suspected it wasn’t a real date and therefore felt I had no place making out with you—on the town square no less.” “They had a point about that, Dylan. You did not have a right to haul me into your arms and plant one on me.” Dylan exhaled. “You reap what you sow, sweetheart.” The warning in his tone sent a chill down her spine. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Dylan narrowed his eyes. “I’m not interested in being one of your little projects.” Despite her desire to stay cool, calm and collected, Emily’s heart beat faster. “Excuse me?” Dylan eyed her seriously. “I wasn’t in town five minutes before I heard all about how the beautiful Emily McCabe likes to bring home ‘strays’ and fix ’em up...and then gets them to fall in love with her before she dumps them.” More like the guys dumped me, Emily thought glumly. But not about to correct Dylan on that, she let the misconception stand. She gave him an arch look and started to turn away. “I don’t deny I was trying to help you, too.” My mistake! He caught her by the elbow and reeled her back. “By ensnaring me in your web so you could make me over, too?” “You could use a few more manners, not to mention a haircut and a decent shave,” she said tartly. “But that’s hardly the point.” He snorted in exasperation. “Then what is?” “Your horse-training business here in Laramie is only a couple of years older than my business.” Searching for a theory he might accept as plausible, she continued making it up as she went. “I know you’re constantly trying to improve the facilities and equipment on your ranch, and I thought free meals here might help your bottom line.” He glared at her. “First of all, I’m paid very well for the problem horses I diagnose and train—and I have no shortage of work coming my way. So my bottom line is fine, thank you very much.” And yet, Emily noted, she had somehow struck a nerve with her mention of money.... Her pulse inexplicably picking up, she angled her head at him. “If business is so good, why don’t you hire some cowboys to help you?” Dylan grimaced. “I like working alone. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s livelihood. And most important of all, I don’t ever want to invest so much in a piece of property that I can’t pick up and move the whole operation if—and when—I feel like it.” Emily had the feeling he was talking about much more than just his ranch now. She shook her head in mocking censure. “That’s a crying shame, cowboy. You’ll never put down roots that way. Never belong. Probably never marry and have a family, either!” Although why that should bother her, she did not know. It wasn’t any of her business! Dylan’s broad shoulders stiffened. “I don’t want roots. Or marriage. Or any of the happily-ever-afters you’re peddling, because that’s never been for me, either. I want my freedom. Which is why I would never—and I repeat, never—hook up with a down-home family gal like you.” Emily inhaled the sandalwood-and-spice fragrance of his cologne. “I don’t deny I love my family, but I am my own person.” A victorious light gleamed in his golden brown eyes. “Then how come they all feel they need to find your boyfriends for you?” Emily bit down on a most unladylike oath. She threw up her hands in frustration, hating the fact she had to practically beg this temperamental cowpoke to cooperate. But the fix-up currently being engineered by her parents—not to mention those of her three brothers’ machinations—remained a very big problem. One she was determined to solve. Hopefully, with his help. Emily inhaled deeply and said in the softest, most feminine voice she possessed, “Look, Dylan, all I ask is that you pretend for just a little while longer that you and I are an item.” She added persuasively, “It shouldn’t be that hard, after the way you just kissed me.” He lifted an eyebrow, said nothing. “My offer for free meals at the café still stands.” Telling herself the end justified the means, this once, Emily lifted a hand airily and recklessly gave herself permission to go crazy. “You can have as many breakfasts and lunches as you like...as long as you cooperate with me.” There, that ought to do it. A gal couldn’t get more magnanimous than that. He hooked his thumbs through his belt loops and rocked forward on his toes. “That’s very generous of you, Miss Emily.” Emily flushed at the sudden moniker of respect. “Thank you.” He lowered his handsome face until they were nose to nose. “But if I were to agree—and that in itself is a long shot—that is not the payment I want.” Oh, dear heaven. How was it he knew just what buttons to push with her? “Then what compensation do you want?” she asked sweetly, fearing she already knew. “This.” Bringing his lips even closer, he cupped a hand beneath her chin. Emily could not believe he was about to kiss her again. Or worse, that she was welcoming his attentions! What kind of fool did that make her? She knew this didn’t mean anything to him. Not what it should have anyway, for someone kissing her with this much passion. Behind them, a bell rang. Abruptly aware they were no longer alone, Emily turned her head slightly without actually stepping out of the circle of Dylan’s arms. To her dismay, her parents walked in the door. * * * DYLAN STEPPED BACK as Shane and Greta McCabe stared at him in mute amazement. He could hardly blame them. What had gotten into him? He was usually so controlled. Whenever he was around Emily, he acted like a hormone-driven teenager—and she was behaving just as badly. Except right now, she looked as if she wished a hole in the floor would open up so she could sink right through it. He felt the same. This was not the way he wanted the respected horse rancher and his accomplished wife to see him. Especially given all he now had at stake, with a soon-to-be-announced deal Emily apparently knew nothing about. Otherwise, Dylan was sure she would have mentioned it. Not about to apologize for kissing Emily—even if it would smooth over what was an incredibly awkward situation—Dylan nodded at the older couple. He said formally, “Mr. and Mrs. McCabe. Nice to see you.” “Good to see you, Dylan,” Shane and Greta McCabe replied, in unison. “Emily.” A cautioning lilt was in Greta McCabe’s tone as she took in her daughter. “Your father and I just met the proprietor of the new restaurant.” “I hope he’s not the guy you’re planning to fix me up with,” Emily said. For some reason, Dylan noted, that notion seemed to amuse them. “Ah—no,” Shane said finally. Unconvinced, Emily narrowed her eyes at her parents. “You’re sure?” “Absolutely,” Greta said, her tone definitive. “Because I can see how that would seem to make sense to you,” Emily continued, working up a head of steam. “Me and the new diner owner, becoming a thing.” “Believe us,” her mother said firmly, “the two of you are not a match your father and I would ever try and make.” “That’s too bad,” said a smug teenager with trendy, bleached-blond hair, catching the tail end of their conversation as he sauntered in to join them. He was just under six feet tall, wearing a burnt-orange Cowtown Diner T-shirt, jeans and the most ridiculously expensive and ornate pair of ostrich boots and gold belt buckle Dylan had ever seen. Ignoring him, the kid grinned at Emily and extended his hand. “Because I would very much like to get to know...and date...you!” * * * EMILY’S JAW DROPPED even as she did the polite thing and accepted the proffered greeting. “Xavier Shillingsworth, owner of the soon-to-be-open Cowtown Diner.” The teen continued holding her hand long after it would have been polite to let go. He leaned in even closer, inundating Emily with expensive cologne. “And you must be the Emily McCabe, head chef and owner of the Daybreak Café, that I’ve heard so much about.” Emily forced a smile and wrested her hand from the young man’s grip. “Yes. I am.” Xavier continued sizing her up with undisguised interest. “I hear we’re going to be in hot competition with each other—since our two restaurants are the only table-service establishments in Laramie that serve breakfast.” Emily had been brought up to be courteous, even to those who were pushy and borderline rude. And that rule went double in business situations. “I’m sure there is room for both of our establishments,” she said pleasantly, injecting the situation with the down-home hospitality for which Laramie, Texas, was known. “If not, may the best restaurateur win,” Xavier taunted. Grinning confidently, he aimed a thumb at his chest and proclaimed, “I know who my money’s on!” The look in his eyes briefly telegraphing he’d had enough, Dylan stepped forward, putting his tall body between Xavier and Emily. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Dylan Reeves. One of the ranchers in the area. And I know a lot of people here tonight who would like to meet you, too. Especially Emily’s three brothers. So why don’t we go—” Dylan slapped a companionable hand on Xavier’s shoulder and spun him around toward the door “—and talk up your new establishment.” Quick steps were made, and the door shut behind them. “That was nice of Dylan,” Greta said. “No kidding.” Emily breathed a sigh of relief. Shane shook his head. “Shillingsworth is going to be unpleasantly competitive.” Emily rolled her eyes. “You think?” “So, if you need help putting him in his place...” Shane growled, all protective father. Emily lifted a palm. “I can handle the situation, Dad. Just like I can figure out, on my own, how to rev up my personal life.” “So it’s true?” her mom interrupted, with furrowed brow. “You do have a date with Dylan this evening?” Talk about putting her on the spot! “In a manner of speaking...” Emily cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I know you mean well, but I really don’t need any help finding a man to hang out with. So I’d rather not hear any suggestions on who I should be seeing. And I certainly don’t want to be fixed up on any dates by anyone in the family!” Finished, Emily braced herself for the emotional argument sure to come. Instead, to her utter amazement, her mother completely backed off. “You’re right,” Greta murmured, looking at Shane for verification, as if wanting to make sure they were on the same page. Shane locked eyes with Greta. Something passed between them. “It would be a mistake for us to try to matchmake at this point,” Emily’s father concluded finally. Well, that was easy, Emily thought with relief. Astoundingly...almost suspiciously...so. “We came in to tell you that the opening ceremony is about to start,” Greta said. “I’ll be right there,” Emily promised. “I just need to get a few trays of chocolate and lemon-meringue pies.” “We’ll all help,” her dad said. Five minutes later, the pies were set out on the buffet tables. Shane and Greta—the charity event’s hosts—were stepping up to the microphones. They spoke about the Libertyville Boys Ranch, and how much the facility helped juvenile delinquents turn their lives around. “The institution has been so successful, they are expanding again. The problem is, they need more therapy horses for the kids to care for. So,” Shane said, “I’ve made arrangements with the Bureau of Land Management to purchase three wild mustangs for training. Dylan Reeves—the renowned horse whisperer in the area—is going to be doing the schooling.” Wild applause erupted. “When they are ready, the horses will go to the boys ranch, where they will be adopted into a very good home....” Incredibly impressed, Emily made her way through the crowd to Dylan’s side. In shock, she murmured, “I had no idea you were a philanthropist.” Was it possible the two of them had more in common than they knew? Not surprisingly, Dylan looked irritated by her compliment. “Don’t view me as some sort of saint. I’m not,” he muttered gruffly, and then for good measure, added, “I’m being paid.” “Just not your normal rate,” Emily guessed. Dylan scowled. “It’s a challenge,” he said flatly. “I like working with mustangs. I like the fact the horses will find a good, loving home at the boys ranch.” He regarded her, all tough lonesome cowboy. “Don’t make more of it than that.” * * * HOURS LATER, EMILY turned to Simone, as the after-event cleanup commenced. Emily followed Simone’s gaze to where her son, Andrew, stood talking with that same group of boys. “You’re worried, aren’t you?” The kids were from a neighboring town and looked like bad news. Simone stacked serving platters onto a wheeled cart. “I have a feeling he’s going to ask me if he can go out past his curfew tonight.” “If it’s not a good idea,” Emily counseled, “you have every right to say no.” “I know that,” Simone sighed. “It just seems like that’s all I say these days.” The group of kids were edging toward a late-model pickup truck with extra lights mounted across the top. They seemed to be encouraging Andrew to ditch the cleanup, forgo getting permission and just take off. Emily touched Simone’s arm. “Why don’t you go on?” Simone’s posture relaxed with relief. “Thanks. I’ll make it up to you.” “No problem.” Emily cast a glance at Dylan, who was busy helping a group of ranchers disassemble the bandstand. Her brothers were off with her dad, in another direction, taking down the strings of banners and colored lights. Pleased the event had turned out so well, she finished loading up her cart and wheeled it in the direction of the café. No sooner had she gotten inside than a light rap sounded on the door. Xavier Shillingsworth stepped in, all young bravura. “I was thinking...the two of us should go out on a date.” Emily did not like hurting anyone’s feelings. Still, this was ludicrous and she had to make her would-be suitor realize it. “How old are you?” she asked gently. “Nineteen.” Xavier slicked back his hair with his free hand. “But that shouldn’t matter.” She arched a brow. Was he talking down to her? “You can’t be that old.” “I’m twenty-eight,” Emily said drily. “That’s nine years older than you. It’s a big difference.” Xavier shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’ve always wanted to go out with a cougar. And you’re hot!” Was he serious? Apparently so. Emily went back to loading dishes in the machine. “I’m curious. You are obviously a smart guy with a lot going for him. Why aren’t you in college?” Xavier seemed flattered by the attention. “I didn’t want to go. So my dad bought me a franchise restaurant to run instead.” Of course. Can’t solve a problem so throw money at it instead. And while you’re at it, get the problem kid out of the picture, too. Emily smiled with encouragement. “You both may want to rethink that. College can be a fun, exciting time...with lots of girls your own age who are dying to go out on dates.” “I don’t want a girl. I want you!” Emily sighed and walked toward the exit. “Well, it’s not going to happen.” “See?” Xavier caught up with her as she reached the dining room. He clamped his arms around her and crowded her all the more. “That’s what I like about you. You’re a real spitfire.” Not about to let him so much as try to kiss her, Emily stomped on his toe with all her might. “And you’re a real horse’s rear end,” she spat out. “Ouch!” Xavier hopped up and down in pain. The door to the café opened and Dylan strode in. It took him all of two seconds to size up the situation. “Allow me.” He grabbed Xavier by the back of his Cowtown Diner T-shirt and escorted him to the door. Dylan let him go just inside the portal. “If you ever touch her again, you’re going to have to deal with me.” “On what grounds?” Xavier straightened his shirt. He regarded Dylan pugnaciously, clearly spoiling for a fistfight. She was afraid there just might be one if the kid didn’t cut it out. “I don’t see an engagement ring!” Eager to be rid of the callow youth, Emily swung open the door to the café and glared at the teenager. “I don’t need a ring to be his. Now go.” “You heard the lady.” When Xavier didn’t immediately comply, Dylan shoved him out the door and shut it firmly in his face. Emily turned to Dylan. She knew it was unnecessary and politically incorrect of her, but she really liked the idea of Dylan jumping to her defense. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an action she could let stand as precedent. She rolled her eyes comically. “Obviously, I was exaggerating...about being your woman.” The way Dylan was looking at her—as if he didn’t know whether to kiss her or chide her—forced Emily to remember exactly how good it had felt to be held in his embrace. “I am aware of that,” he retorted. “And for the record,” Emily continued stiffly, telling herself she and Dylan would not end up kissing again, no matter what, “I don’t need you to come to my rescue.” The corners of Dylan’s lips twitched. “It would appear you did.” Was it possible he had enjoyed defending her honor as much as she had? Emily pushed the bothersome thought away. “No,” she corrected forcing herself to stay on track. She needed to keep her emotions under wraps. “I didn’t.” “Uh-huh.” Dylan came closer, all sexy, determined male. “If you change your mind...” Emily’s pulse jumped. “Why would I do that?” “Because guys like that don’t like to be told no,” Dylan said in a low, cautioning tone. Emily had been successfully fighting her own battles for as long as she could recall. “Well, in this case the kid is going to have to get used to it, because I am not interested in being his cougar.” One corner of Dylan’s mouth curved upward at the notion. “He actually said that?” So, she wasn’t the only one who found the teen’s proposal to her completely ludicrous! “It was part of his come-on,” she explained. “I think in Xavier’s teenage fantasy I was just supposed to melt in his arms or something.” Dylan grunted in response, his disapproval evident. “Anyway,” Emily rushed on, anxious to put the embarrassing situation behind her, “I’m sure that after what just happened he’ll leave me alone now.” Dylan’s expression was suddenly as inscrutable as his posture. Deliberately, he inclined his head. “If he doesn’t...you’re welcome to be ‘my woman’...anytime.” Chapter Three (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) “Dylan Reeves really called you his woman?” Simone echoed in the café kitchen early the following day. Doing her best to keep her focus on getting ready for the morning rush, Emily shrugged nonchalantly. “He was mocking me because of what I said to that boy in the heat of the moment.” The fact that Emily warmed from head to toe, every time she recalled it, was her own foolishness. “Obviously, Dylan didn’t mean it because it’s not true.” She brought an extra large pan of golden-brown cinnamon rolls from the oven, and slid in a pan of buttermilk biscuits. Simone manned the sausage and bacon on the griddle. She winked. “He could be—if you wanted it. Seriously...he’s got the hots for you.” Emily guffawed. “You only wish my life were that exciting. Dylan is the kind of guy who roots for the underdog in every situation and he thought I was disadvantaged in that moment.” “Were you?” Emily gave the hash-brown potatoes a stir. “I had just stomped on Xavier’s toes and planned to escort him to the door. But...Dylan beat me to it.” “Wow...” Simone comically fanned her chest. “Two men fighting over you.” Emily blushed despite herself. “I wouldn’t call Xavier a man,” she said. “I know.” Sympathetic, Simone furrowed her brow. “What’s up with that? How old is he?” “Nineteen.” “That is way too young to be running a restaurant,” Simone said. “No kidding. But I imagine he’s going to find that out the hard way.” The bell on the service door sounded, as Billy Ray and Bobbie Sue Everett came in. The married couple waited tables at the café during the day and attended community-college classes at night. Normally very down-to-earth and unflappable, they were giddy with excitement. “You-all have got to see this. We’ve never seen anything like this!” All four of them rushed to the front windows. Dawn was barely streaking across the sky, but there it was—on the opposite side of the Laramie town square—a big burnished-bronze trailer-style restaurant, with an old-style saloon front, sitting on top of an enormous tractor-trailer bed. Next to it was the enormous crane that would move the Cowtown Diner onto the lot where a gas station had once stood. Emily’s heart sank. It really was happening. “Can you believe it’s actually going to be open for business by the end of the week?” Billy Ray said. Aware the customers would soon be lining up outside the door to be let in when the café opened at six o’clock, Emily went back to the kitchen and brought out the platters of homemade cinnamon rolls and sticky buns that would be on display. “It’s only possible,” Emily said, “because the building is delivered ready to go and everything they serve in the restaurant is prepackaged and pre-made.” “It’s still amazing,” Bobbie Sue murmured, while quickly helping her husband set up the tables. Emily had a sinking feeling her customers were going to think so, too. * * * THE LUNCH CROWDS WERE finally thinning when Dylan walked into the café at one-thirty, so he was able to get a table right away. To his surprise, Emily came out of the kitchen personally to bring him a menu. After the events of the previous day, he had suspected she might try to avoid him. He couldn’t blame her; he had done as much this very morning, choosing to eat breakfast on the ranch instead of coming to the café, as usual. But then he’d thought about it and decided that was pure foolishness. He was blowing this all out of proportion and really wanted to get back on solid ground with her. “I don’t need to see that,” Dylan said, determined to keep the exchange as casual as possible. “I memorized the offerings on your menu the first week you opened.” And like most ranchers in the area, he had been eating her “cowboy cuisine” frequently ever since. “You sure? I’ve put a few new things on the menu, just today.” He was sure. But since it seemed to mean so much to her, he opened the laminated menu anyway. A hand-lettered inset offered two new sandwiches and a fried jalapeño-cheese popper appetizer that was a customer favorite at the Cowtown Diner chain. “Competing already?” he drawled. He’d figured the sight of the rival establishment would have upped Emily’s competitive spirit. Curious to know just how far she would go, he leaned back in the red vinyl booth and prodded, “Or just stealing another restaurant’s signature dish?” She ran her hand lightly over the red-and-white-checked oilcloth. “Ha-ha.” “You’re better than that. Your food is better than that.” Her feisty gaze met his once again. “Says the man with the bottomless pit for a stomach.” Well, at least she still had her temper. Enjoying the exchange more than he had a right to, he angled a thumb at his chest. “Hey—you make a lot of money off me.” Emily folded her arms in front of her. “Not today, since I assume you are here to collect on my promise of free food for however long you want it.” Was it possible that the feisty, inimitable Emily McCabe was actually depressed? Dylan didn’t want to think so, but there was something different about her eyes. “I’ll have the chicken-fried steak meal with all the vegetables you got, biscuits, a strong pot of coffee and two glasses of water, to start. We’ll see about dessert later.” Their fingers brushed briefly as Emily took the menu and insert back. Dylan wondered if she’d thought about their kisses as much as he had last night and today. Not that it mattered, he told himself, since it wasn’t going to happen again. “And be sure you bill me for every last morsel,” he added sternly. Emily arched a delicate eyebrow. He looked her square in the eye. “No lady pays my way.” Emily laughed out loud, ready to challenge him on that and a few other things. “So now you’re calling me a lady?” Her bow-shaped lips curling in an appreciative smirk, she pocketed the order pad in her apron. That was a lot less dangerous than calling her “his woman.” Dylan figured they both had to know that. He worked to get their conversation back on its usual smart-aleck track. “And a hothead. Not to mention a damn fine cook.” Abruptly, moisture gleamed in Emily’s eyes. Before he could question her about it, she ducked her head and turned to leave. “Coming right up,” she said hoarsely over her shoulder. Five minutes later, Bobby Sue was there with his dinner. It was as hot and fresh and delicious as always. Dylan downed it all with relish. He was considering whether or not he had time to order dessert before the café closed at two, when Emily’s father walked in. Dessert was going to have to wait, because he had business to conduct. Dylan stood to greet the elder McCabe, as previously arranged. “Everything going okay so far?” he asked. Shane nodded. “The horse trailers are due to arrive any minute.” Emily walked out of the kitchen. Obviously surprised to see Dylan standing there with her dad, she looked from one to the other. “What’s going on?” Shane greeted his daughter with a hug. “The mustangs are coming in. We decided to meet up here because I thought you might like to take a peek at them before they’re taken to Dylan’s ranch.” That swiftly, the light was back in Emily’s eyes. She smiled, her love of horses as apparent as ever. “I would. Thanks, Dad.” She hugged her father, then turned to Dylan awkwardly. She started forward, as if to hug him, too, then reconsidered and made do with a shy nod. “Dylan. This was nice of you.” He cleared his throat. “No problem.” Emily turned back to her dad. “Tell me about the horses,” she said eagerly. “Two of them are less than twelve months old. They’re traveling two to a trailer, as per bureau of land management rules. The three-year-old mare is in a stock trailer by herself. She’s not yet fence-or halter-broken and may be a problem when it comes to unloading her.” Dylan figured that was an understatement. “Any of them got names?” he asked Shane. The older gentleman shook his head. “Just registration numbers. So feel free to name them whatever you see fit while you’re training them.” Simone’s son, Andrew, walked in on the tail end of the conversation. A backpack slung over his shoulder, he appeared ready to assume his duties as part-time dishwasher and kitchen help. He looked at his mom, who’d come out of the restaurant kitchen. “Can I go see the horses? Maybe help the guys unload them?” Simone shook her head. “It’s too dangerous, honey.” Andrew’s expression fell. “But...” “And you have homework to do, don’t you?” Simone insisted. “Well, yeah,” the fifteen-year-old admitted with a reluctant shrug, “but...” “You’ll have a chance to see the mustangs later,” Simone promised. “When they’re tamed.” Andrew sulked. “That’ll be forever.” “Knowing Dylan and the magic he works, probably not as long as you think.” Simone put her hand on her son’s shoulder. “Right now you and I need to help Bobbie Sue and Billy Ray get the kitchen closed for the day. See you later, everyone.” The two of them went back into the café kitchen. Emily glanced out the window at the commotion outside. “Looks like they’re here,” she said, and smiled. Shane turned back to Emily. “Do you have plans for this evening? Because if you don’t, your mother and I would like you to come over to the dance hall and have dinner with us. Maybe do a little brainstorming about how you’re going to weather this new competition?” Emily bucked at the fatherly interference, even as she started for the door. “Thanks, Dad,” she said over one slender shoulder, “but I’ve got it covered.” Shane persisted. “Just dinner, then?” Emily pressed her lips together firmly. “I can’t.” Her glance shifted to Dylan’s face. She gave him the look that beseeched him to play along with her. “I’m going out to Dylan’s ranch, to help him get the mustangs settled.” Dylan felt for Emily. It couldn’t be fun to be on the end of such constant meddling. But that didn’t mean he wanted to sacrifice his own professional standing with her father—one of the most respected horse-ranchers in the state—just so she did not have to do her parents’ bidding. He tamped down his own irritation. “That’s okay, Emily,” Dylan said just as firmly, holding her glance deliberately. “I think I’ve got it.” “Oh, I know you could do it without me.” Emily slipped out onto the street and strode toward the horse trailers, as excited and energetic as the animals whinnying in the confines. “But I really don’t want to miss this!” * * * “AT WHAT POINT are you going to stop using me to dodge your familial difficulties?” Dylan asked Emily, after the papers transferring financial responsibility to Shane and care of the mustangs to Dylan were signed and they were headed out to their vehicles. “Never?” Emily paused at the door of her car. Dylan peered down at her. “Think again.” She hit the unlock button on the automatic keypad. “Look, I owe you for last night, and thus far you’ve refused to let me pay you back with free food, so I’m left to come up with another way to pay off my debt. This is it.” Dylan curved a hand over the top of her open door as she climbed in behind the wheel. He leaned down so they were face to face. “I repeat. You do not have to do this.” “Sure I do. For the very same reason you don’t ever let a lady pay your way.” He should have known she would use his words against him. She smiled, unperturbed. “So I’ll help you with the mustangs.” Damn, if she wasn’t used to getting her own way, even if it meant upsetting the hard-earned tranquility of his life. “Just understand,” Dylan said, “when you’re out there, playtime is over. I’m putting you to work.” Turning the key in the ignition, she shot him a sassy look. “Bring it on!” * * * EMILY COULDN’T WAIT to get a good look at the horses. She bounded out of her car the moment she arrived at Dylan’s ranch. She set her hat on her head and strode toward him. “What do you want me to do?” Dylan turned, all business and all cowboy. “Honestly? Stay out of the way,” he said, grimacing. Emily blew out a disappointed breath. Before she could figure out how to persuade him otherwise, he took a step closer and growled, “I mean it, Emily. I don’t want you getting trampled.” Emily followed him over to a big round corral with high metal-bar sides. “I’ve been around horses all my life.” Dylan opened the gate wide and motioned for the truck carrying the two yearlings. He directed the driver to back slowly toward the opening. “These mustangs are completely different from the domesticated cutting horses your father breeds and trains. These horses are wild, down to the core.” Hand to her shoulder, Dylan guided her to the outside of the pen, then walked back around to the rear of the enclosed vehicle. Emily’s heartbeat picked up as he opened the trailer and let the first horse out. It was a filly, about six months old, with a speckled white coat and an ivory mane, her beauty marred only by the identifying freeze marks on her neck. She whinnied as she came barreling out of confinement and raced to the other end of the pen. Emily could see she was frightened—she was standing with her tail puckered tight against her hindquarters and the back of her legs. Dylan stood quietly, as did Emily, as the filly trembled and kept her head up. Dylan let the second horse out—a jet-black gelding about a year old. His head was up, too—his tail wringing in anger. Obviously, he had not appreciated the long ride. Or maybe the procedure that had put the freeze marks on his neck, Emily thought. He galloped across the pen, his ebony mane flying, and took a protective position next to the smaller white filly. They were already forming a herd, Emily thought. Moving purposefully and calmly, Dylan stepped out and shut the gate. The first truck drove off. The next trailer backed toward the pen. When it was in position, Dylan opened the gate and released the third horse. Emily caught her breath as the mare kicked and bucked her way out of the trailer. The color of ginger, she had darker-colored legs, a dark ginger mane and a striking white blaze down her forehead. Her tail was stiff and pointed up as she kicked and reared her way across the pen. Once near the other horses, she raised up on her hind legs again, her ears pinned back, whinnying furiously at the humans she blamed for her captivity. Turning her rear to the other two horses, she backed up and pawed the ground. Dylan smiled. So did Emily. “No doubt who is in charge of the herd,” she said, nodding at the ginger mare. The question was, who was going to be in charge of her and Dylan—if she spent any time alone with him? She’d only been around him a short while and she was already thinking about how thrilling it would be to kiss him again. “So what next?” Willfully, Emily turned her attention back to the mustangs. “I let them settle in for a few days to recover from the trip, get used to their surroundings and begin to trust this is a place they are going to like.” Made sense. “When it’s time, I’d like to help you with their training,” Emily offered. Dylan glanced at her skeptically. For reasons she did not understand, his doubt hurt. “Don’t think I can do it?” Dylan shook his head and sauntered toward the barn. “Let’s just say I don’t think your family would approve.” Emily followed. “It wouldn’t be the first time.” For some reason, Emily thought, that struck a chord—one he didn’t like. He let his glance trail over her, lazily inspecting every curve, before returning to her face. “You have a major challenge facing your business.” He picked up a bale of hay and carried it back over to the corral. “Why don’t you concentrate on that?” Emily watched him cut the twine, holding it together. She scoffed and folded her arms across her chest. “I can do both.” “Really?” Methodically, Dylan broke up the square of crisp sweet hay. He tossed it over the fence. “Then you must be a superwoman.” Emily watched the mustangs. The herd was still on the other side of the pen but contemplating every move Dylan made. “I am an excellent horsewoman.” Dylan threw out the last of the feed and exhaled in frustration. He slowly straightened and poked up the brim of his hat. “Why don’t you do us both a favor, Emily, and stick to cooking?” Emily didn’t know whether to slug him or kiss him. Truth was, she wanted to do both. “Why won’t you let me help?” Her pique increased his own irritation. “Because you don’t work for me.” He walked over to turn on the spigot and fill the trough with water. “I don’t have enough liability insurance. I don’t have time to train them and you, too. Pick a reason.” The mustangs made their way stealthily toward the feed. “Can I at least come by and watch from time to time?” He rubbed the underside of his jaw, testing the stubble of afternoon beard. Their glances met and held. “If I say no, will you stay away?” Emily offered a careless shrug. “Maybe.” The silence between them drew out, prompting her to eventually admit, with a reluctantly candid sigh, “Maybe not.” His expression hardened. “That’s what I thought.” She didn’t know why she wanted his respect so badly in this regard, she just knew that she did, and she wished he would give her a chance to earn it. “Dylan—” He turned off the spigot with a harsh twist. His eyes narrowed as he regarded her intently. “Do us both a favor, Emily. Go back to your family. Work out whatever needs to be worked out.” He lifted a gloved hand before she could interrupt. “And leave me—and these horses—out of it.” * * * LATE THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, Dylan answered another summons from Shane McCabe. He met with Emily’s father in the study of the Circle M Ranch house, where they discussed the condition of the mustangs and Dylan’s plan for training them. It was a cordial, productive meeting and, despite himself, Dylan found himself warming to the elder rancher. Usually, he did not care for men of such power and wealth, although he never minded doing business with them. Money was money, and they easily paid the fees Dylan commanded. At the conclusion of their discussion, Shane handed Dylan a check, as previously agreed upon. “This should cover your time and the expenses of caring for the mustangs for the first month. If you need anything else, be sure and let me know.” “Thank you.” Before Dylan could get up, Shane said, “If you’ve got a moment, I’d like to speak with you about the Libertyville Boys Ranch. The director—Mike Harrigan—is a friend of mine. He mentioned your devotion to the facility.” This was headed toward territory Dylan had no wish to discuss. He lifted a hand to cut off the discussion. “It’s no big deal.” Shane leaned forward earnestly. “On the contrary, it’s a very big deal, Dylan. The boys ranch turns a lot of young lives around. I want to do more than just provide a few horses. So here’s what I was thinking...” Shane elaborated for the next few minutes. Finally, he finished, “And given your expertise in this area, I’d really like your help in making that dream a reality.” The offer was unexpected. And amazing. Not to mention out of the question. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do what I can to contribute to your efforts.” “But?” Shane sensed a catch. “I don’t think I am the right man for the setup you have in mind. I’ll continue training the mustangs and then hand them over to the Libertyville Boys Ranch as promised. But that’s really all I can guarantee, in terms of helping you out.” Shane had the same look on his face that Emily had on hers whenever Dylan told her no. The one that said a McCabe wasn’t giving up on what they wanted, no matter what obstacles lay in front of them. Finally, Shane rocked back in his chair. Dylan expected Emily’s father to say something like the offer was always going to be open. Instead, he steepled his hands in front of him and inquired, “So what’s going on with you and my daughter?” Dylan swore silently to himself. For the life of him he did not know how to answer that. There was desire, certainly. And he really liked her cooking. But beyond that... His concern for his only daughter apparent, Shane continued, “I’ve never seen her run after anyone the way she’s been chasing you.” He paused. “Usually, it’s the other way around. Guys are beating down her door.” Dylan had been around long enough to know that to be true. Not that Emily had been inclined, in the past year or so anyway, to let anyone make much of a move on her. As far as he knew, she hadn’t even had a date—not counting the pretend one with him. “So...” Shane stood and looked at Dylan, man-to-man. “If I may...a word of advice?” Dylan took the cue and got to his feet, too. He honored the elder horseman with a look of respect. “If you don’t think you will ever be serious about Emily...then do whatever you have to do...” Shane said, firmly, “but don’t let my daughter catch you.” * * * DYLAN WALKED OUT the front door of the Circle M Ranch house, still contemplating the counsel from Shane McCabe. As much as he hated having others meddle in his business, Emily’s father was right. Emily might think she was a free spirit, but she was also vulnerable and traditional to the core. A wild affair would never make her happy. Nor would deceiving her loved ones. Not in the long term. And for some reason he couldn’t figure, Dylan wanted to see the pretty brunette happy. Which made what came next all the more unpalatable. Striding toward Dylan, his arms full of Cowtown Diner goodies, was Xavier Shillingsworth. The teen flashed a pretentious smile his way. “Going the wrong way there, aren’t you, fella?” There was no denying the snide undertone in his words. Or the resentment in Xavier’s gaze. Dylan paused on the wide front steps of the rustic fieldstone and cedar ranch house. He did not bother to smile back. “Excuse me?” “Hired help comes and goes from the back, right?” Xavier sneered. “So...you should have gone in and out the back entrance.” Dylan had suffered the taunts of the snotty rich from boyhood on. He knew he should let it go, straighten the brim of his hat, ignore the little twerp and keep moving. Yet something about the guy, and the situation, had him returning equably, “Ranchers go in the front.” “And here I thought you were just another cowboy,” Xavier said, as Emily and her mother drove up in their respective vehicles. Looking gorgeous and ready for a night out on the town, Emily was first to emerge. Xavier shifted the stack of Cowtown Diner memorabilia in his arms and turned to face Emily. “Going to be joining us for dinner this evening?” “Uh, no,” Emily murmured, appearing not the least bit disappointed about that. Bypassing the teen completely, Emily walked up to Dylan and looked him straight in the eye. “May I have a word with you?” Figuring he’d find out sooner than later why the feisty heiress was so piqued, Dylan shrugged. “Sure.” He ambled down the steps alongside Emily, as Greta McCabe emerged from her Mercedes. “Nice to see you, Dylan,” Greta said pleasantly. He briefly removed his hat in a gesture of respect. “Nice to see you, Mrs. McCabe.” “Perhaps you’d like to join us for dinner this evening, Dylan?” Greta continued pleasantly. “Emily? You, too?” Emily perked up. Xavier looked totally ticked off. Which in Dylan’s view, made it all worth it. “Don’t mind if I do,” he told Greta. It wouldn’t be the first time he had dined with the Laramie, Texas elite, but it would definitely be the most satisfying. Chapter Four (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) “Mind telling me what’s going on around here?” Emily asked, the moment her mother and Xavier Shillingsworth had disappeared inside the house, and shut the door behind them. Dylan was getting a little tired of being a bit player in the McCabe family drama. He lounged against the rail edging the porch steps and folded his arms in front of him. “You’re going to have to be more specific if you want me to answer that.” Emily wrapped her hand around his biceps and led him down the steps, across the yard, into the shade. “Fine. You want to cut to the chase, we’ll cut right to the chase.” She glared at him. “I heard you had a meeting with my father.” Man, she had a temper! Dylan couldn’t help but grin. “Spies everywhere, hmm?” he teased. Emily regarded him with greatly exaggerated patience. “My mother mentioned it in passing.” Dylan clapped a hand over his heart, mimicking her damsel-on-high-alert attitude. “Then it was top secret!” “I’m serious.” Emily stomped closer, the delicate daffodil scent of her freshly washed hair and skin teasing his senses. She’d changed out of her casual work clothes and slipped into a sexy lavender dress that clung nicely to her curves. His eyes drifted to her feet. Instead of the usual boots, she had on a pair of open-toed sandals, perfect for the warm spring weather. “What did he say to you?” Lifting his gaze, Dylan resisted the urge to touch the silky dark strands spilling loosely over her slender shoulders. Instead, he concentrated on the determined pout of her soft, sensual lips before returning his attention to her eyes. “And this is your business because...?” She tilted her head in a discerning manner. “I know it was about me.” “Or...” He sidestepped the direct inquiry by producing the check from his shirt pocket. He waved it in front of her, like a matador taunting a bull. “Perhaps it was about...this?” Emily exhaled loudly. “I know that’s what it was about officially, dummy.” Her pretty chin jutted out. “I also know he would not have missed an opportunity to privately tell you what he tells all the men I’m interested in.” Dylan liked being lumped in with her other discarded suitors about as much as he liked being interrogated. He blinked in feigned surprise. “You’re interested in me?” A flash of amusement sparkled in her eyes, then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. “Ostensibly,” Emily admitted. “Not really.” Dylan told himself that was irritation—not disappointment—he was feeling. Emily paused and appeared to do a double take. “Are you interested in me?” It was his turn to regard her with a droll expression. “What do you think?” he asked in a smart-alecky tone. Her delicate dark eyebrows lifted. “That you are without a doubt the most infuriating man I have ever met.” Dylan noted she had enunciated every word with perfect clarity. He lifted his hat in salute and resettled it on his head. “Thank you.” Emily harrumphed. “It’s nothing to be proud of.” “Maybe not in your opinion,” Dylan murmured, aware he was enjoying matching wits and wills with her more than he had enjoyed anything in a long time. Emily shook her head as if that would get her back on track. “So, why are you suddenly so eager to have dinner with me and my family?” Good question. It couldn’t be because he had started to feel protective of Emily, could it? He knew better than that. Rich heiresses were not allowed to fall for guys like him. And even if they bucked all propriety and followed their hearts, the misguided affair had little hope of lasting, because of family influence. In their case, they’d have to contend with Shane McCabe and all three of her overbearing brothers. Aware she was still waiting for an explanation, Dylan said casually, “Maybe I’m in need of a good evening meal?” “And maybe you’re trying to get under my skin?” “Always an unexpected bonus.” Silence fell between them. Emily continued to study him beneath the fringe of dark lashes. “So you’re not going to tell me what my dad said to you in private?” she said eventually. And give her even more reason to rebel against her family? For both their sakes, Dylan checked his own desire. “No.” He offered her his arm. “Now, shall we go in?” * * * DINNER WITH EMILY’S parents turned out to be a lot less formal, and more comfortable, than Dylan had expected. Xavier Shillingsworth, on the other hand, was as much of a pain in the rear as ever. The hopelessly inexperienced restaurateur commandeered the conversation from the moment the five of them sat down at the wicker-and-glass patio table, zeroing in on everything he felt was wrong with the way Emily was running the Daybreak Café. “I don’t understand why you’re only open for breakfast and lunch, six days a week,” Xavier told Emily. “I’ve seen the line of people waiting to get in. Why not serve dinner, too?” “There are already plenty of places that serve dinner,” Emily explained. “My mother’s dance hall for one.” Xavier leaned across the table toward Emily. “So?” She shrugged. “I don’t want to compete with her.” Xavier frowned. “You compete with her at lunch.” Emily paused, a forkful of baby-lettuce salad halfway to her mouth. “It’s not the same.” “Why not?” Xavier persisted, failing to notice the discreet looks Shane and Greta were giving each other from opposite ends of the dinner table. Emily shifted in her chair, her knee nudging Dylan’s briefly under the table. “Because the dance hall has live bands on Friday and Saturday evenings, and DJs in the evening the rest of the time.” Xavier grimaced. “So play music in your café.” “There’s no room to dance,” Emily said, still trying to talk sense to him. Xavier finished his salad and pushed his plate to the side. “A lot of people don’t dance anyway.” Dylan wondered if the kid thought he was going to attract Emily by criticizing her business sense. One thing was certain—he certainly wasn’t scoring any points with her or her folks. And if he treated the rest of the town this way... “The point is, there is no demand for another dinner place right now,” Emily said matter-of-factly. “Laramie already has a handful of local establishments that have pretty much got the evening food covered.” “And maybe if you tried, you’d have standing-room-only business at dinner, too, and force someone else to close down.” Eyebrows raised all around at that. Not good, dude, Dylan thought. Not good at all... “I think the point my daughter is trying to make,” Shane McCabe cut in with remarkable kindness, “is that in Laramie, it’s not just the ranchers who help each other out. The business owners look out for one another, too.” As Dylan expected, that notion didn’t go down well with their teenage guest. Greta collected the empty salad plates and replaced them with servings of Southwestern-style meat loaf, mashed potatoes and peas. “We want all the restaurants to be successful, and of course that would include yours,” she told Xavier graciously. Xavier sat up straighter, looking affronted. “I hope you’re not asking me to cut back on the hours the Cowtown Diner is open.” Shane McCabe lifted a hand. “No one’s going to tell you what to do. It’s your business to run, after all. We’re just suggesting that you might want to join the chamber of commerce and any of the other service organizations in town that interest you. It’s a good way to get to know everyone and become a real part of the community.” Xavier rejected the notion with a shake of his head. “I’m not interested in charity work. The only thing on my mind is turning as much of a profit as soon as possible.” The kid just wasn’t getting it, Dylan thought. The McCabes were offering him a hand up. And he was too clueless and arrogant to take it. “When is the grand opening?” Dylan asked, attempting to draw some fire himself. Xavier dismissed Dylan with a glance that revealed Xavier still considered him “hired help.” “Friday.” Emily studied the teen, suddenly on edge again. “You’re really going to be up and running three days from now?” Nodding proudly, Xavier grinned at Emily. “I’ll bet you can’t wait.” * * * “CAN YOU WAIT?” Dylan asked Emily an hour later, after they had thanked her parents for dinner and said their goodbyes. “Very funny, cowboy.” Relieved that Xavier had finally rushed off to continue work on his restaurant, Emily ambled down the front steps to her car. Dylan was right beside her, a surprisingly steady presence. “But as long as we’re recapping...” Emily paused to search through her bag for her keys. She looked at Dylan, wondering what his take on the situation was. His attitude throughout the meal had been so maddeningly inscrutable that she had no clue. “What was Xavier’s deal? He really went overboard with that intense interrogation.” Dylan leaned against the side of her car, one foot crossed over the other, arms folded in front of him. Dusk had given way to night, and the sky overhead was filled with a full moon and a sprinkling of stars. He gave her a bemused look. “I think that was Xavier taking self-absorbed to new heights.” “Not to mention immaturity.” Emily fished the keys out. “Can you believe his father bought him a restaurant?” She closed the clasp on her handbag. “Never mind plunked it down in Laramie, Texas, of all places?” He moved closer, smelling like soap and man. “I’m sure they both figured there would be less competition here, and hence, it would be easier for a greenhorn like Xavier to succeed.” Emily bit her lip. Unable to take her eyes off his broad shoulders and nicely muscled chest, she said, “I suppose you’re right about that. If the kid were in Dallas or Houston, it would be a much tougher road for him to travel.” “Although small towns come with challenges, too.” Dylan looked over at her, seemingly in no hurry to move on. “It was nice of your parents to invite him over, though.” That was the way her folks were—generous and welcoming, to the bone. “They’re just trying to bring Xavier into the ‘fold’ of Laramie business people. Obviously, my mother did not anticipate the way he was going to go after me with the third degree, hinting that I didn’t know what I was doing, running my business.” Emily sighed, still feeling a little embarrassed about that. Dylan met her eyes. “And yet you were incredibly nice and patient with the kid, too,” he observed kindly. It hadn’t been easy, given how obnoxious Xavier had been. But Emily had nevertheless tried to give the clueless teenager the benefit of the doubt. “I figure he probably doesn’t know any other way to interact with people, given how he was likely raised.” Dylan lifted a brow and guessed. “With too much money and too little guidance?” Emily nodded, aware she and Dylan were now close enough to feel each other’s body heat. She swallowed and stepped back slightly. “Think about it. Rather than help Xavier deal with whatever issues he has that are keeping him from wanting to go to college with his peers, his father bought him a franchise and sent him off to the boondocks alone to run it.” She frowned. “That doesn’t exactly foretell a lot of tender loving care.” * * * DYLAN KNEW WHAT it was like to be on the receiving end of a family with too much money and too little heart. A family that just wanted you out of the way... To his surprise, he suddenly felt a little sorry for the kid. “You’re right,” he said quietly. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Empathy radiated in Emily’s blue eyes. “Unfortunately, Xavier won’t survive in this town for long if he continues the way he has been.” “Also true,” Dylan said. Kindness and concern for one’s neighbor was the norm in Laramie County, not cutthroat aggression. Emily shrugged. “So...I figured...since my parents had taken the initiative and tried to help him acclimate more successfully, I would be as compassionate as possible, too.” That would have been fine had it not been for her personal history. Dylan lifted a brow. “Another of your makeover projects?” Just that quickly the flash of temper appeared on her face. Emily propped her hands on her hips. “That would imply Xavier and I are romantically involved,” she retorted, resentment simmering in her low tone. “You know very well we’re not, and are never going to be.” Dylan smiled—she had just given him the answer he was looking for. “So you admit you try and make over the guys you date?” he pressed. Did her father also get in the act—behind the scenes, of course? Was that what had really prompted Shane’s offer to him earlier? Dylan hated to think so. He wanted to think the proposal put to him was merit-based. On the other hand, he also knew Shane and Greta McCabe adored their only daughter and would do whatever they had to do to see she was well matched. Even by giving her current “love interest” a hand up...? Oblivious to the downward spiral to his thoughts, Emily continued, “Isn’t that what love is supposed to be about? Changing for the better because you’re involved with your ideal mate?” Her lips looked so soft and inviting, he wondered what it would feel like to silence her with a kiss. But he told himself to stay focused. “I thought relationships were supposed to be about not having to change. Being adored for who and what you already were. What’s that saying?” He attempted to lighten the mood. “‘I love you just the way you are.’” Emily scoffed. “It’s a song lyric, not a saying. And for the record—” she softened her tone wistfully “—I kind of like that you-complete-me thing.” He should have figured she would be a Jerry Maguire fan. Knowing this had to be said if they were going to be friends, he pointed out sagely, “If the man and the woman ‘complete’ each other, then that would imply they can’t live without the other person.” “So?” Lazily, Dylan tracked the way the breeze was ruffling her hair. He reached over to tuck an errant strand behind her ear, then let his hand drop. “What kind of life would that be?” he asked unhappily. “If everything hinged on a person who might or might not live up to your expectations?” * * * IT WOULD NOT be the kind of life Dylan apparently wanted, Emily thought. She sighed, her emotions abruptly as turbulent as his. “Anyway,” Dylan continued, dropping his hand back to his side. He studied her expression. “I’m guessing your parents don’t know that Xavier hit on you.” Thrilling from his brief, casual touch, Emily turned so her back was to the car. She lounged against the driver door, wishing Dylan wasn’t such a hard man to get to know. But he was extremely independent—and as emotionally elusive as the wild mustangs he was going to tame.... So she needed to forget about making him her next “diamond in the rough.” After all, there was no point in pretending he would be willing to transform himself into what she wanted—any more than she would be willing to convert into what he wanted. “I’ve been trying to forget that incident with Xavier.” Emily forced herself to get their conversation back on track. “And for the record, Dylan,” she warned, locking gazes with him, “I would prefer my family never know about all that cougar silliness.” Suddenly, the humor was back in the situation. “Why not?” he said as his lips formed a most devil-may-care smile. Emily’s exasperation returned anew. “Because Xavier’s pass was ludicrous enough without adding another layer of ridiculousness to it by having my father call him to his study and sit him down for The Talk.” Abruptly, Dylan went very still, a fact which only confirmed Emily’s worst suspicions. Seeing her chance to do a little more sleuthing, she added cheekily, “You know, kind of like the one I suspect my father had with you today, about me?” The kind that generally sent weaker men running for the hills... Just like that, a wall went up. “It’s not going to work, Emily.” Dylan was the picture of lazy male self-assurance. She stared at him. He stared right back. “I’m still not telling you what was said.” Emily sighed—she could have predicted that. Pushing away from the car, she suddenly felt reinvigorated. “Then how about doing something to cheer me up instead?” Dylan pushed away from her car, too. “And what would that be?” he inquired with mock seriousness. “Allow me to come and visit the mustangs again,” Emily said, this time stepping forward to invade his space. Dylan stayed where he was even as respect glimmered in his eyes. “Are you going to have time?” Emily ignored the tingle of excitement that started within her whenever they were within kissing distance. “I will if we go tonight.” For a minute, Emily thought Dylan was going to turn her down. “Isn’t it a little past your bedtime?” he teased in a tone sexy enough to make her want to melt right then and there. Stubbornly, Emily held her ground, knowing she wasn’t ready for her time with Dylan to end. “It’s only nine-thirty.” He continued to look down at her, considering. “And you have to go to work at four tomorrow morning.” “I can get by on very little sleep, when I want,” Emily murmured in her most cajoling voice. “Please, Dylan. I’ve been thinking about the mustangs all day. Wondering how they’re adjusting. If you’ve given them names yet.” Seeming to realize her interest and concern were genuine, his expression softened. “They’re settling in. And no, I haven’t given them names.” “Maybe I could help with that.” “Thirty minutes,” he warned. “Tops. Then you have to be on your way.” “Great.” Emily felt a completely uncalled-for fluttering in her middle. “You won’t regret it.” * * * THE TRUTH WAS, Dylan already regretted it. Emily McCabe might be all wrong for him, but she was also the kind of woman he could fall hard for. And the last thing either of them needed was any more complications in their already overburdened lives. So on the drive over, he figured out how to get what needed to be done accomplished in the shortest time possible so he could send her on her way. He led the way in his pickup truck. She followed in her car. The first problem appeared as soon as they had parked and she got out of her sporty little sedan. He looked at her shoes. No question, her sandals were not appropriate for the pen. Emily caught his gaze and lifted a hand. “Not to worry, cowboy. I’ve got that covered.” And to prove it, she sashayed back to the trunk and opened it up. Inside were enough clothes, shoes and purses to fill a closet. Deliberately, Emily fished out a pair of cowgirl boots. “Come prepared, do you?” Dylan quipped, wondering if there was a toothbrush and nightie in there somewhere, too. Emily shot him an arch look over her shoulder. “I’m a Texan, after all,” she declared with a warm, winning smile. She was so darn charming he couldn’t help but smile back. “So naturally it follows...?” She winked mischievously. “That I can’t go anywhere without at least one pair of boots.” Dylan stood by while she bent to slip off her sandals. She donned a pair of socks and her cowgirl boots, the hem of her dress riding up her thighs as she did so. Dylan ignored the immediate response of his body and headed for the barn. There, he switched on both interior and exterior lights, the yellow glow a beacon of reassurance in the moonlit, starry Texas night. He came back with two bunches of alfalfa leaves. As always, Emily was raring to go. “You always feed them this late?” “They require up to fifteen-pound rations of hay per horse per day. Because of their small stomachs, it’s better to feed and let them forage all day.” “Makes sense.” Emily fell into step beside Dylan. “And it’s a way to rapidly increase their trust of me and now you.” The three horses were in a high wood-rail-sided paddock, linked by a fenced aisleway to the two round training pens—one with a roof, one without—on either end. From where the horses stood, they could see everything that was going on. Another schooling plus. By the time it got to be their turn, the mustangs knew what to expect. Which again, made it easier for all of them. With the ease of someone who had grown up around horses, and loved them dearly, Emily followed Dylan into the paddock. “How invested are you in actually doing the naming?” she asked curiously. “Not at all.” Focused on the feeding, Dylan tore off leaves of alfalfa and put them just ahead of the trio of horses. Emily followed suit. And so they went—dropping, moving on, dropping another two leaves, moving on—until finally the horses were following them. Emily kept her voice low and calm. “Does that mean you’ll let me do it?” Dylan shrugged and replied before he could think, “If it makes you happy.” Emily chuckled in delight. “Oh...so you want me happy now....” Dylan rolled his eyes. “Don’t let it go to your head.” Clearing his throat, he nodded toward their equine companions. “So back to the stars of the show....” Emily regarded them carefully. “The three-year-old should be Ginger. The yearlings, Salt and Pepper.” Made sense. Dylan nodded. “I’ll let the interested parties know.” Finished, they stepped out of the paddock. As they strode toward the barn, Emily asked, “Do you have a horse of your own?” Dylan slanted her a glance. “What do you think?” “Can I meet him, too?” Women didn’t usually ask him that. But then, Dylan thought, the women he saw usually weren’t interested in horses. “Sure,” he said. * * * EMILY EXPECTED A stallion, from a thoroughbred bloodline. Instead, she found a brown-and-white quarter horse–thoroughbred mix that would likely have ended up who-knows-where had someone not stepped in and seen the potential. The gelding came closer to Emily. He stuck his head over the stall door, lowered his head and sniffed her hair, and then her face. Emily reached up to stroke his face as his warm breath ghosted over her. His eyes were alert but gentle, and she found his presence calming and reassuring. Emily took the apple Dylan handed her and presented it to his horse. “What’s his name?” “Hercules.” Able to feel the strength emanating from the horse’s sleekly muscled build, Emily smiled. “It suits him.” And the horse, who was anything but blue-blooded, suited Dylan. Dylan offered Hercules a carrot. Hercules took it and luxuriated in a nose rub from Dylan, too. Emily’s heart warmed at the overwhelming affection between man and horse. She turned to Dylan. “How long have you been riding?” “Since I was fifteen.” Unable to resist, she prodded a little more. “Did you grow up on a ranch?” Once again, she thought, in the silence that followed her question, it was like trying to get information out of a spy sworn to secrecy. Finally, Dylan said, “No. I spent time on one later, and that’s when I learned to ride.” “And realized your calling was horses.” “More or less.” He looked at his watch. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” Emily grumbled good-naturedly. “Time’s up. But not before I say goodbye to everyone.” She headed for the paddock situated between the round pens and stood looking at the three mustangs. They were gathered together on the opposite side of the corral, ears moving, nostrils flexing, clearly relaxed. Scattered among other paddocks and turnout sheds in the distance were other horses Dylan was working with. They all looked pleasantly settled and were enjoying the warm spring night, too. Thinking how much she loved the peace and the tranquility of this ranch, Emily turned back to Dylan and let her enthusiasm be her guide. “When are you going to start training the mustangs?” He lifted one large hand in an indolent manner. “I’m going to work with Salt and Pepper tomorrow morning.” As he spoke, Salt and Pepper approached them, one coming up on either side of them. First, they nosed the wooden rails and then eventually came over to Emily to investigate her. After several long moments, they put their heads on Emily’s shoulders for a nuzzle. These young ones weren’t going to be that difficult to train, Emily thought, as she rubbed their faces and touched their manes. Already, they seemed used to people. The three-year-old mare, on the other hand, was going to require more intensive schooling. Emily wanted to see how it was done. She turned to Dylan, watching as the two yearlings went over to greet him, too. “When will you work with Ginger?” Dylan accepted their nuzzling with a grin. “Late afternoon, tomorrow.” Emily eyed the beautiful mare, who had moved closer but not close enough to touch. “Mind if I come and observe and maybe help a little?” Dylan lifted a brow. “Sure you got time for that?” It wasn’t an invitation exactly, but it wasn’t an edict to stay away, either. Emily smiled. “There’s always time for something you want to do.” And she really, really wanted to do this. Chapter Five (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) “Looking at the Cowtown Diner is not going to make it disappear.” Guiltily, Emily moved away from the front window. Five more minutes, and the Daybreak Café would officially be closed. But with the exception of the tall, handsome cowboy standing next to her, it had been a ghost town for the past hour. “There hasn’t been a lull in the activity over there all day.” Utility trucks had come and gone for gas, electricity, water and sewer. Safety inspections had been done, a neon light on the front of the diner turned on and tested. Emily wanted to protest the burnished bronze exterior of the diner didn’t fit in with the historic buildings on their side of the green, any more than proprietor Xavier Shillingsworth fit in Laramie. But the truth was the snazzy exterior and old-style-saloon design of the building added the kind of pizzazz that would have passing tourists stopping in droves. Emily scowled. “There’s a lot to do if they’re going to open in two days.” Dylan laid a soothing hand on her shoulder. He leaned down to murmur in her ear, “You keep saying if.” Emily blew out a gusty breath. “Wishful thinking, I guess.” Dylan said matter-of-factly, “People are going to go there, to try it out and see what they think.” Their glances meshed. “You think I don’t know that?” She turned away from the window and headed back to the booth Dylan had just vacated. She picked up his empty coffee cup and dessert plate and carried both to the kitchen. Dylan ambled after her. “Once the newness wears off, they’ll be back.” The point was, Emily didn’t want to lose any customers in the first place. And really, how selfish was that? Dylan was about to say something else, when the front door opened and slammed shut. Andrew walked in, book bag slung over his shoulder. “Mom!” he yelled. Simone came out of the back. Andrew thrust a paper at her. “I just got a job at the Cowtown Diner!” Emily blinked in surprise. “You already have a part-time job here,” Simone reminded him. Andrew shot her a look. “No offense, Miss Emily, but the diner is a much more awesome place to work. All my friends at school are getting jobs there. Everyone who works there has to be either in high school or college.” Or roughly Xavier’s age, Emily thought, not sure whether that was a good or bad idea. “So...can I?” Andrew asked his mom. Emily looked at Simone. She did not want to put her friend on the spot. “Look, it’s okay...” “No,” Simone said firmly, “it’s not. Andrew, you have a part-time job here and you are going to honor that commitment.” A mother-son stare-down commenced. Simone won. “Fine!” Andrew slammed out the back. An awkward silence followed. “Sorry,” Simone finally said, clearly upset. “If you need to go ahead and leave for the day,” Emily murmured sympathetically. “Thanks...I think I will,” Simone sighed, rushing out the back door. Then things went from bad to worse. The front door opened and Xavier Shillingsworth sauntered in. * * * HOW MUCH MORE was Emily supposed to have to take? Dylan wondered. “Hi, Emily. Dylan—” Xavier paused dramatically. Furrowing his brow, he asked snidely, “—don’t you ever work?” Dylan refused to pick up the gauntlet. “You’re not worth the effort, kid.” Disappointed, but no less smug, Xavier turned back to Emily. “Andrew’s under sixteen so he’s going to need a work permit. His mother will have to fill the papers out and get them approved by the Texas Workforce Commission, before he can start.” Emily continued wiping down tables. “They’ve already left for the day.” Shillingsworth followed her, further invading her space. “Maybe you could give the papers to them for me, then?” Whatever pity he’d felt for the kid the previous evening vanished. Dylan stepped forward. “You know Andrew was working here?” Shillingsworth lifted an autocratic brow. “Yes. He told me that.” Dylan studied him. “And you’ve got no compunction about trying to hire him away from Emily?” “It’s business. I’ll hire anyone I want who wants a job. Even, say—” Xavier gestured lazily “—Emily...” Oh, Dylan thought. Them’s fightin’ words. Emily, on the other hand, stepped forward, fire in her gaze. “Well, kind as that is of you, Xavier,” she drawled, “I really can’t see that happening. Because I actually like to cook the food—from scratch—not just take off the plastic wrap and heat it in the microwave.” Dylan threw back his head and laughed. Having had more than enough, he slapped Xavier on the shoulder and steered him in the direction of the exit. He seemed to be doing that a lot. “Looks like you’re outmatched and outclassed, kid. So you best be on your way.” Xavier stepped sideways instead. “First of all, you’d be surprised how good our stuff is.” He squared off, indignant. “And second, Emily has not asked me to leave. So...” Emily set her chin. “I’m asking you to leave.” Xavier looked at Emily, ready to continue to push the issue. Emily remained unmoved and Dylan lifted a warning brow. The restaurateur suddenly changed his mind and headed slowly for the exit. “My offer of a date is good anytime, Emily. ’Cause I still want a cougar for my trophy case.” The kid turned around and winked. “If you know what I mean.” Emily’s glance narrowed. “Goodbye, Xavier.” Reluctantly, he sauntered out, slamming the door after him. Emily turned to Dylan. Instead of complimenting him on the great restraint he had shown, in not booting the kid out by the seat of the pants practically the second the interloper walked in, Emily glared at him. “You do not have to run interference between the two of us. I am perfectly capable of looking after myself.” Dylan was willing to be amenable, but only to a point. “Suppose I want to defend you. Me being your pretend boyfriend and all. What then?” He had no idea what Emily was going to say. He didn’t want to know, either. All he wanted, at that moment, was to stake his claim in a way neither of them would ever forget. He wound an arm around her waist and used the leverage to pull her intimately against him. He heard her soft gasp of surprise—and delight—as he threaded his hand through her hair and tilted her face up to his. The first contact was soft and tender. Their lips fused together. And yet there was no surrender. It didn’t matter. Dylan had met with resistance before. He knew gentleness and patience worked wonders. As did a full-on kiss filled with passion and need. He utilized both, grazing the shell of her ear, touching his mouth to her throat, the underside of her chin, her cheek, the tip of her nose, before moving once again to her lips. And this time, when he fit his lips to hers in a soft, sure kiss, she was ready for him. Drawing him closer, she tangled her tongue with his.... The lines were blurring, Emily thought, as Dylan flattened a hand down her spine, pressing her body into his. Confusing her as to what was real and what wasn’t...what was possible and what was not... It didn’t matter how hot and hard he was...or that she was the reason for it. It didn’t matter that his embrace was magic, or that this fleeting embrace had her experiencing more pleasure than she ever had in her life. What mattered was that they weren’t in love. Couldn’t be. Wouldn’t be. So even if it felt like something more, Emily told herself it wasn’t. Shaken, she broke off the kiss and pushed away. “This can’t continue,” she managed, drawing a jerky breath. Not without some sort of promise that their relationship would one day be as real and true as the physical passion they felt. Sadly, no matter how much he lusted after her, she couldn’t see Dylan agreeing to that. * * * “I WASN’T SURE you’d show up,” Dylan remarked when Emily got out of the car several hours later. She had known he had figured no affair meant no working together, but she hadn’t bothered to correct his misimpression at the time. “Then you must know even less about me than you think,” Emily replied. Dylan laughed and favored her with his sexy, oh-so-male presence and what-I’d-really-like-to-do-to-you golden-brown eyes. She drew a conciliatory breath. “When I want to do something, I do it.” Dylan prodded devilishly. “And right now...?” Emily settled her hat on her head. “I want to see you start Ginger’s training.” Seeming pleased at that, Dylan dipped his head in a gallant bow and showed her the way. “Then let’s get to it.” The horses Dylan was working with were housed in a maze of corrals and pastures, all feeding into a central alley. Salt and Pepper were in an adjacent paddock, grazing sedately. Ginger was by herself in another. Dylan lifted the latch. Ginger took the opening he gave her and bolted down the aisleway. She took the first available exit and landed in a high-walled round pen. Dylan stepped in after her, closing the gate. Emily climbed onto the riser, above the pen, to watch. “Easy, girl,” Dylan said, as the beautiful mustang pranced back and forth, eyeing Dylan nervously all the while. He unfurled a long cloth line and gently threw it in the mare’s direction. Ginger pranced away from it. Dylan pursued, calmly extending the line, forcing Ginger to go away from him again and again. First in clockwise motion. Then counterclockwise. Across the center of the round pen. Around the sides. Again and again, they went. “How long are you going to do this?” Emily asked. Dylan cast her a look over his shoulder. He raised his hand—Ginger went faster. He dropped his hand to the side, she slowed. “Average time is about six minutes.” And then what? Emily wondered. Six minutes later, she found out. Dylan stopped throwing out the cloth line and simply stood quietly in the center of the pen. Slowly, he turned, so his shoulder was toward the mustang. Head bowed, he waited. Ginger stood, trembling with nervousness. Emily wondered what was up now. Still, Dylan stood, his body quiet, posture relaxed, head down. Ginger edged closer. Closer still, until her elegant thousand-pound body was right beside him. Ever so slowly, Dylan turned toward her. Keeping his head down, his gaze on the ground, he murmured, “That’s it, sweetheart. See? I’m not going to hurt you. I’m your friend.” With exquisite gentleness, he rubbed Ginger’s face, then moved around to stroke the sides of her neck, her back, the vulnerable skin of her stomach, and back around to her hips and flanks. Emily watched, mesmerized, as the once-wild horse leaned into his touch, completely accepting, trusting absolutely. “That was amazing,” Emily said an hour later, when Dylan led the mustang back to the paddock where Salt and Pepper were pastured. So this was what horse whisperers did. “Do you use the same method every time?” Dylan nodded, matter-of-fact in his expertise. “The horse has to go away from me before he or she can come back to me.” “So you drove her away repeatedly,” Emily marveled. “And yet you knew she would come back to you in the end.” Dylan inclined his head. “It’s basic horse—or herd—psychology.” To want what you can’t have? To go where you’re not supposed to be? “Or psychology in general.” Emily paused. Suddenly suspicious as her next thought hit, she narrowed her eyes at Dylan. “So I have to ask—is that what you’ve been doing to me?” * * * DYLAN STARED AT Emily, hoping the conversation wasn’t headed where it appeared to be. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. Emily gave Dylan a deliberately provoking look and smiled with all the steely resolve of a Texas belle, born and bred. “You pique my interest,” she observed sweetly. Then she looked at him in a way that made him want to haul her into his arms and kiss her senseless. Which maybe, given the heat between them, was not such a bad idea.... Emily stepped closer yet and continued with a cantankerous toss of her head. “You only let me—or any other woman for that matter—come so close.” That was true of other women, he thought. Not Emily. Her soft lips pursed in dismay. “Then you drive her away, again and again.” Once more, she seemed to be watching and weighing everything he said and did. “Waiting patiently,” Emily continued. “Knowing that she’ll come back and join up with you in the end, just the way Ginger did.” If Dylan didn’t know better, he would think it was Emily’s heart that was hurting, instead of her pride. When the truth was, this was about something much more fundamental. He folded his arms and leaned against the fence. “You’re making it too complicated,” he said mildly. She brushed past him, a censuring light in her eyes, a downward slant to her lips. “I don’t think so.” He caught her by the arm and swung them both around so fast she stumbled into his chest. His own body humming with the crazy feeling of need running riot inside him, he steadied her, then planted his hands on either side of her and leaned over her, so she was pinned between his body and the smooth rails of the wooden fence. He let his eyes slide over the inviting curves of her breasts, flat abdomen and sexy, jean-clad legs, before returning to her tousled hair, soft lips and wide blue eyes. “There’s nothing complicated about me wanting you, or what I need,” he told her frankly, not afraid to be bold if boldness was what was called for. She released a breath. “Which is what exactly?” Ignoring the flash of indignation on her pretty face, Dylan leaned even closer. He’d lost the battle to be a gentleman, but if nothing else, he would be honest. “To take you in my arms,” he said very, very softly, “and make love to you.” Before Emily could do more than gasp, Dylan caught her beneath the knees, swung her up into his arms and strode toward the house. Resenting having his integrity and his actions questioned now—especially by Emily, who had spent enough time with him to know better—Dylan continued acting with the total freedom he’d enjoyed his entire adult life. “What’s complicated,” he told her, as he mounted the steps and carried her on into the house, “is the notion of us being together.” His point made, that if they so chose, the two of them could do anything they damn well wanted, he set her down inside the foyer. Not sure when he had ever been so thoroughly exasperated by a woman, he gazed at her. “’Cause there is no way you’re ever going to want what I want—a no-strings affair that lasts as long as we want it to and still allows us to walk away, completely unscathed.” And that was one heck of a shame.... Sparks gleamed in Emily’s blue eyes. “Want to bet?” she challenged. * * * DYLAN THOUGHT SHE was a chicken. That she’d never be wild and reckless and yes—courageous—enough to act on the needs of her body. He was wrong. And she was going to show him. Giving him no chance to resist, Emily bounded up and leaped into his arms. She landed with her arms wrapped around his neck and shoulders, her legs locked around his waist. Caught completely by surprise, Dylan stumbled backward, his weight falling against the wall. And then all was lost in the first thrilling rush of freedom and the impact of her lips planted squarely on his. Emily knew he didn’t mean to kiss her back. Any more than she could help kissing him. And somehow that made the culmination of their mutual desire all the hotter. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Yet it was. She wasn’t supposed to be this reckless. Yet she was. “Emily. Emily...” Dylan groaned. The rush of emotion overwhelmed her. In the feminine heart of her, the tingling started. “Don’t stop.” She caught his face in her hands, looked deep into his eyes and whispered, “Don’t stop.” She celebrated the victory of being together, of leaving constraints behind. Of daring intimacy...and sex...and the possibility that every fantasy she had about him just might come true... And he seemed enthralled, too. He deepened the kiss, exploring her mouth with his tongue, leaving not a millimeter untouched. Sensation swept through her like a tsunami, followed by a tidal wave of need. It had been so long since she had been held and kissed with anywhere near this conviction. Never mind the pure physical need. When his hand slipped beneath her blouse and cupped her breast through the lace of her bra, Emily arched her back and trembled with pleasure. She was drowning in the incredible sensations sweeping through her. Wanting more, Emily threaded her hands through his hair and held his head. “Let’s go to bed, Dylan,” she whispered, her breath coming raggedly. “Right now.” Dylan paused, breathing hard. Clearly he wanted to take their lovemaking to the limit and beyond. He searched her face. “You’re sure?” “Very.” His glance dropped to the nipples protruding visibly through her blouse. He flashed her a debilitating sexy grin. His grip tightening possessively, he regarded her with a mock gallantry that kindled her senses. “Well, then, whatever the lady wants...” He shifted her closer to his chest and carried her, still straddling his waist, through the hall and up the steps. He strode down the hall and lowered her, with surprising gentleness, onto the rumpled covers of his bed. Pausing only long enough to kick off his boots and take off hers, he stretched out next to her. She flushed hotly as he unbuttoned her blouse, dropping kisses along the curve of her cheek, the slope of her neck, the décolletage of her bra. He looked at her lovingly as he traced the bow shape of her lips with his fingertip. Then that, too, dropped to her breast. He found the curve, the tip, the valley in between. Emily shuddered in response. She had never felt more beautiful than she did at that moment, seeing herself reflected in his gaze. “I knew we’d end up together,” he whispered, kissing her again, desire exploding through them in liquid, melting heat. Then he was on top of her, his weight as welcoming as a blanket on a cold winter’s night, his mouth on hers in a kiss that was shattering in its seductive sensuality. He kissed her as if he were in love with her, and would be for all time. He kissed her as if he had always known they had something special and were meant to be together like this. Emily had never before felt such deep-seated longing surge through her, driving her toward wild abandon. And these intoxicating emotions proved to be the ultimate aphrodisiac. Feeling sexier, more adventurous than she had in her entire life, she gave herself over to the experience. Moaning softly as Dylan unclasped her bra and explored the tenderness of her skin. She arched in ecstasy with each caress of hand and lips and tongue. Then she unbuttoned his shirt and discovered the hard masculine contours of his chest. Lower still, she unzipped his jeans, releasing the burgeoning proof of his desire. He was hot and hard all over. All warm satin skin and coarse wheat-blond hair. Determined to prove to him that she was as exciting and fiercely independent as he was, she held his eyes with the promise of the hot, languid lovemaking to come.... * * * DYLAN HADN’T MEANT for any of this to happen. He had expected to spend time with her. Maybe put on a little show of public ardor once or twice, do whatever it was she felt “couples” did together, until the facade ended. But that was before he had watched her dare damn near everything and luxuriated in the soft, silky feel of her. Or looked into the turbulent sea-blue of her eyes and kissed her hard and soft and every way in between. “You’ve got to promise me something,” he whispered, as he took her to the very edge of the bed. The need to make her his was stronger than ever. “No heartache. No regrets...” “Just pleasure,” she whispered back, “in the here and now.” And those vows were all it took, Dylan noted, to get her on the same track as he. She moaned against him, kissing him ardently. Even as she surrendered, she took. Even as he gave, he found. Determined to set the pace, he parted her legs and slipped between her thighs. Holding her close, he pushed inside her, timing his movements as she wrapped her limbs around him and lifted her body to his. His hands caught her hips as she pulled him deeper still. Their eyes locked and a mixture of tenderness and primal possessiveness filled his soul. He knew it was just friendship and sex, but it felt like more. Although he knew it would end, it felt like it never would. And then there was no more prolonging the inevitable. Trembling, they succumbed to the swirling, enviable pleasure. * * * EMILY LAY CUDDLED in Dylan’s strong arms for long moments afterward, still hardly able to believe what had happened. It was just sex. They’d both been very clear about that. Yet...the magic of his tender, amazing lovemaking left her feeling that Dylan intuitively understood what she wanted and needed in a way no one else ever had, or would. And that left her feeling oddly weak and susceptible. Odds were, vulnerable was not what Dylan wanted to see from her. Hence, this was her chance to prove how detached she could be, too. Adopting a studied, casual look, she extricated herself from his warm embrace, rose and began to dress. As always, Dylan saw way more than she would have preferred. He lay where he was, arms folded behind his head, seeming to intuit her emotions were in turmoil, even though his expression was inscrutable, too. “What are you thinking?” he asked finally, his voice as casual as her demeanor. Searching for a decidedly flip remark, Emily shrugged. “The obvious.” She flashed a flirtatious grin. “That you’re not just a horse whisperer. You’re a woman whisperer, too.” His eyes crinkled at the corners, her backhanded compliment only partially satisfying him. He regarded her with rueful contemplation, something hot and sensual shimmering in his eyes. “This is going to be a problem, isn’t it?” His husky voice sent shivers down her spine. Emily glanced down and realized she had buttoned her shirt incorrectly. Dismayed by the evidence of her disquiet, she opened the fastenings and started all over again. “I don’t know what you mean.” Her fingers trembled as much as her voice. He threw back the covers and walked toward her in all his naked glory. “You’re not the kind of woman who can get involved with someone or have an affair without asking them to commit to something for a lot longer term—and to change into what you need them to be.” Emily sent him the kind of offhand glance meant to presage a quick and uncomplicated exit. She moved away. “That’s not true.” “I think it is.” He sauntered closer, studying the turbulent emotion in her eyes. “I think you’re waiting for some guy to come in and let you change him as much as you want, without demanding anything of you in return. And the two of you will marry and live happily ever after.” Emily kept her eyes above the waist. “I don’t think that way!” He shook his head. “The look on your face just now says otherwise.” More attracted to him than ever, Emily wiggled into her jeans. “I admit, I’ve never had an out-and-out fling before.” Dylan pulled on his clothes and boots. He gave her the same look her parents gave her when they thought she needed to delve deeper into the workings of her heart. “How many boyfriends have you had?” Emily picked up his brush and ran it through her hair. “Casual?” Meaning the kind she left with a kiss, at the door? “Tons.” He frowned. “Serious.” Emily sighed. “Two. One in college. One about four years ago.” Dylan took her hand and led her toward the hall. “What happened?” Emily followed him down the stairs. “The first one felt it was his duty as my significant other to try and control me.” Dylan let go of her hand as they wandered into the kitchen. “I bet that went over well.” “You can only imagine,” Emily admitted drily. He looked in the fridge. “And the second?” Emily lounged against the counter, observing the enticing play of muscles in his chest and shoulders beneath his shirt. Within her, desire started all over again. Forcing herself to keep her mind on the conversation, she replied, “He couldn’t get along with my family.” He set a smoked chicken from Sonny’s Barbeque on the counter. Added flour tortillas and a hunk of Colby-Jack. “Why not?” Curious—because she had assumed Dylan couldn’t cook—Emily moved back to give him room to work. “Ridge liked his family better. He thought they were superior to mine, and he wanted us to spend all our time—every holiday and a lot of other weekends, as well—with them.” Dylan added olive oil to a cast-iron skillet. “Doesn’t sound fair.” “It wasn’t.” Emily paced while Dylan chopped up an onion and green pepper and added those to the skillet, too. “I tried to get Ridge to be reasonable about the situation—to at least divide the extended-family time fifty-fifty, but he wouldn’t budge, so that ended that.” The kitchen quickly filled with a delicious aroma. “And since then...” “There’s been no one serious.” Emily hadn’t wanted to get hurt. “I haven’t wanted to put myself out there, emotionally, unless I knew everything else was falling into line, that we were going to be compatible in all the ways that mattered, even if that meant one...or both of us...had to change.” Dylan wrapped the tortillas in foil and set them in the oven to heat. “And you were willing to do that,” he murmured, as he grated the cheese. Emily nodded. “Sometimes the guys were, too. But ultimately, that didn’t work, either, because if you have to make yourself over to be with someone...you sort of start questioning if it’s worth it.” Dylan brought out some premade guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream. “I can understand that.” “Anyway, I got frustrated with working so hard on a personal life and failing, so two years ago I decided to start pouring all my energy into my career.” Dylan added smoked chicken to the sizzling vegetables. “And that’s when you started the café.” Emily nodded, edging closer to the stove. She watched as he gave the ingredients a stir. “And then, it became my baby,” she said softly. “So to speak.” Dylan brought out two bottles of cold dark beer. Emily set the table. Minutes later, they sat down to eat their smoked-chicken tacos. Emily was pleased to find the pulled-together feast was every bit as delicious as it looked. Deciding to satisfy her curiosity as well as her appetite, Emily murmured eventually, “Okay, enough of a confessional from me. What is your romantic history like? Have you ever been head over heels in love?” Dylan paused. “I thought I was at the time. Looking back, I’m not so sure.” “What happened?” “I was working on a horse ranch in Wyoming, and I fell hard for the boss’s daughter. Mariah was in college at the time. I only had my GED. She knew her parents wouldn’t approve, so we had to see each other on the sly.” This did not sound good. “She kept telling me that it would be all right once she finished her undergrad and got into vet school—that her parents would know she wasn’t going to give up on her dream to be with me.” “But it wasn’t,” Emily guessed. Dylan shook his head. “In her parents’ view, a line had been crossed. There is the hired help—” “You.” “And the rest of the cowboys and house staff. And then there is the landowner. In their view I was never going to be part of the latter.” That had to have hurt. “Did they fire you?” Dylan nodded. “Oh, yeah, and they refused to give me a recommendation, which made it hard as hell to get another job—at least a good one—for a while.” “I see,” she murmured. “Employers want to know why you left.” His face hardened. “I wasn’t going to lie.” “But at the same time...” “When you say you had to leave because of an unfortunate romantic entanglement with the boss’s daughter, it doesn’t look good.” He exhaled sharply. “And you can forget it, if the prospective employer has a daughter of courting age.” “Which brings us back to that talk you had with my father...” she prompted gently. Guilt flashed across Dylan’s handsome face. Emily leaned toward him. “He wanted to know what your intentions were, didn’t he?” Dylan’s expression grew cagey. “He didn’t put it like that.” “But he said something in the vicinity.” Dylan lifted an infuriatingly autocratic hand. “You don’t need to worry about it.” “But I—” Emily stopped abruptly at the sound of high-pitched whinnying. “Dylan, did you hear that?” she asked in alarm. “Yes.” Dylan rose. “I sure as heck did.” Chapter Six (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) Emily and Dylan rushed out to find Andrew letting himself into the paddock with the three wild mustangs. “Let ’em all out!” the rowdy boys shouted. “Andrew, no!” Emily screamed. Realizing they were busted, the three teenage boys on the outside of the corral left Andrew high and dry and bolted for the pickup truck in the driveway. Dylan and Emily made no move to stop them as they peeled out—their concern was for the trapped, shaking boy, and the three horses who sensed danger. “Easy, now, Ginger.” Dylan entered the enclosure. Head bowed, Dylan turned his shoulder toward the mare and tried to draw her in. She was having none of it. Her eyes were on the quaking boy behind him. Emily opened the gate, moving slowly and quickly, and slid inside, too. While Dylan talked to the mustangs, urging Salt and Pepper to stay calm, Emily grabbed a hold of Andrew’s arm. She guided him outside the corral and shut the gate behind them. Dylan continued soothing the three mustangs. When all were calm, he eased out of the gate and strode toward Emily and Andrew. “Keep him here,” Dylan ordered before striding into the house. Embarrassed and surly, Andrew yelled, “Go ahead—call my mom. I don’t care.” What had happened to the once-sweet boy, Emily wondered. Who was this angry, defiant stranger? Andrew wheeled on her. “Maybe you’ll fire me from the café now, too.” “Is that what you want?” Emily asked, shocked. “I want to do what I want, when I want.” “Andrew, you’re only fifteen. You don’t want to start doing things that will earn you a criminal record.” Andrew shrugged. “Maybe it’s in my blood. Maybe I’m just like my dad,” he asserted, as Dylan returned. “Maybe I belong in jail, too.” Was that what this was about? Emily shot a troubled look at Dylan. Andrew glared at Dylan. “I don’t know what the big deal is,” he said angrily. “I didn’t really do anything.” “You were trespassing, and you could have been killed,” Dylan reprimanded sternly. “That’s plenty.” Andrew fumed. “What did my mom say? Is she coming to get me?” “I didn’t speak with her.” Dylan looked at Andrew without apology. “I spoke with the sheriff’s department. They have a patrol car in the area. Deputy Rio Vasquez will be here momentarily to take you into custody.” Custody! “Was that really necessary?” Emily asked Dylan, after Andrew had been cuffed, read his rights and taken to the station. “What would you have had me do?” Dylan stalked back into the ranch house, as impatient with her as she was with him. “You should have called Simone!” “The sheriff’s department can do that.” Dylan shoved his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans and picked up his keys. Emily followed him out to the pickup truck. “This could have been handled privately.” Dylan disagreed. “If we don’t hold him accountable, all this will be is a close call and an incentive to do more the next time.” Dylan caught her by the shoulders and continued before she could interrupt, “And make no mistake about it, Emily, there will be a next time—unless something happens to shake some sense into Andrew and get him off this path.” Her emotions in turmoil, Emily glared at Dylan. “What makes you so sure of that? Maybe what happened tonight is the wake-up call Andrew needs, to straighten up.” Dylan let go of her, and stepped back. “I’m not changing my mind, Emily.” She thought of all the devastation Simone had been through the past couple of years, first with the shock of her husband being arrested for masterminding a burglary ring and sent to jail, the resultant divorce, and now Andrew’s incessant “attitude” and rebellion. Surely, Simone didn’t deserve to relive the nightmare of her husband’s tangles with the law, with her only son. “Not even if I beg you to reconsider, for the sake of my friends?” Emily asked plaintively. Dylan shook his head. “Not even then.” * * * “I’VE NEVER SEEN IT so deserted in here,” Hank remarked, when he came into the café the next morning, accompanied by a debonair gentleman she didn’t recognize. Emily looked at her older brother. Since he’d gotten married, the ex-Marine had become as hopelessly romantic as their parents. Like Greta and Shane, Hank wanted to see everyone he loved happily paired up. Unfortunately, Emily thought, thinking back to her own love life—or sudden lack thereof—such a fate was not in the cards for everyone. Especially not her and Dylan Reeves, the spectacular sex they’d had notwithstanding... “The Cowtown Diner is having its grand opening this morning,” Emily explained. “Yeah,” Hank commiserated. “The line was around the block when the doors opened at six this morning.” Emily bristled, the betrayal she felt as unexpected as it was intense. “Did you and Ally eat there?” she asked her older brother. Hank frowned. “Of course not. But I probably will at some point. Got to support all the businesses in town, you know. And speaking of business...I’d like you to meet Aaron Markham. He’s a tax attorney and CPA from Dallas.” Emily welcomed the nice-looking man in the gray suit. “Nice to meet you.” “Since you’re not busy, maybe you could sit down for a few minutes and chat with us,” Hank suggested. “How about I bring you-all some coffee and a few menus first?” Emily suggested. She gave them their choice of tables and hurried off. Aaron Markham seemed like a pleasant and personable man. Her brother meant well. She could not have been less interested. Until the door to the café opened and closed and Dylan Reeves walked in, that was. Their eyes locked. Emily felt a thrill go through her, followed swiftly by anger. She carried the coffeepot over to the table. Hank tracked the direction of her gaze. “Yeah...” he murmured. “I heard what happened at Dylan’s ranch last night.” “Then you also know how wrong he was!” Not waiting for her brother’s take on the situation, Emily stalked over to Dylan’s table. “A word with you, please?” Dylan gestured to the other side of the booth. “Have a seat.” He only wished she were that malleable! Emily gritted her teeth. “I’d prefer to take this outside.” Dylan rose with exaggerated chivalry. “After you.” Emily ushered the incorrigible rancher through the back door, into the alley. She didn’t know why she was still so angry with Dylan. She had disagreed with others plenty of times, on a variety of subjects, and never been this emotional, but somehow this felt intensely personal. As if she should have been able to talk to him and effect some change. Instead, he’d been as immovable as a two-ton boulder and, from the looks of it, still was. “Simone had to post bail last night to get Andrew out of jail,” Emily reported. “It might have been better had she let him stay the night in a cell.” She should have known Dylan would say that, Emily thought, with quickly mounting aggravation. And when had he gotten to be such a hard case? Emily huffed and went on, “The arraignment was held this morning. Thanks to your statement and the recommendation of the sheriff’s department, the district attorney charged Andrew—and his three accomplices—with trespassing and third-degree burglary. His friends all had previous records and have been sent to juvenile detention. Only Andrew, thus far, has been released to parental custody. And rather than be relieved, he was resentful about that, too.” Emily paused, shook her head. “I’ve never seen Simone so upset.” She had told her to take a few days off—with pay—until she could get things straightened out. Dylan listened quietly. “How’s Andrew taking it?” he asked finally. “He’s angry and ashamed.” “Remorseful?” he pressed. “I wouldn’t say that.” Dylan nodded, not at all surprised. Where was his compassion? Emily wondered in frustration. She knew he had it—he showed it to the horses he trained. He’d also bestowed it on her on more than one occasion. “And don’t say I told you so,” Emily grumbled, actually as shocked as Simone that the trauma of being arrested hadn’t been enough to shake some sense into the fifteen-year-old boy. Something inscrutable flickered in Dylan’s expression as he folded his arms across his chest. “I wasn’t planning on it.” Emily studied Dylan, not about to let him off the hook for his part in this mess. For a moment she thought he was going to put up the usual barrier to his private thoughts. Instead, something in his gaze shifted, became more intimate which, in turn, prompted her to admit, “I’m afraid this is going to backfire on everyone.” Emily sighed. “That all it will do is make a bad situation worse.” “That’s up to Andrew.” Emily wasn’t used to feeling this helpless. She wrung her hands. “I feel I should do something.” Dylan placed a steadying hand on her elbow. “The best thing you can do is stand back and let it play out. This is Andrew’s life. These are his choices to make, his consequences to deal with.” Emily forced herself to remain calm. “He hasn’t made the right choices thus far,” she warned. “Let’s hope that changes,” Dylan said. “And soon.” * * * EMILY WAS NOT CONTENT to leave everything up to fate—or the impulsive emotions of a teenage boy in crisis. As soon as the café closed for the day, she drove over to the sheriff’s department, to see what she could do. Luck was with her. Deputy Rio Vasquez, the officer who’d arrested Andrew the night before, was just coming on duty. Her cousin, Kyle McCabe, was also on shift. The two deputies shared the same outlook. “Dylan was right to call us and take a hard line,” Rio said. Kyle nodded. “I know it seems like it isn’t that big a deal. But it is. Pranks like this are gateway crimes. The kids don’t see it that way, of course. They think they’re just messing around and accepting dares and having fun.” He sighed heavily. “But things have a way of getting out of control—fast—with kids this age and before you know it, someone is badly hurt. Or there’s a fatal car accident. And then lives are really turned upside down.” “Dylan knows this better than anyone,” Rio added. Emily did a double take. “What do you mean?” she asked. Rio and Kyle exchanged wary looks. Whatever they knew, Emily realized in disappointment, they weren’t going to share. “The point is,” Rio continued, sidestepping her question completely, “Dylan takes the situation very seriously. And that’s good. The worst thing any of you could have done is used your influence with the district attorney to try to have the whole matter dropped, before any real consequences were felt.” Dylan had said as much, but somehow it helped hearing the same thing from two such experienced lawmen. Emily thanked them both, and Kyle walked her outside. Because he was her cousin, and they’d grown up together, he knew her pretty well. “So does this mean it’s over with you and Dylan Reeves?” he asked curiously. Emily could confide in Kyle the way she couldn’t confide in her brothers. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I could date anyone who is as intractable as he is, for very long.” Maybe it would be best to cut her losses while the potential damage to her heart was still small. “So it’s not like the two of you are in love or anything?” Kyle teased. Emily blushed. “Heavens, no!” “You were just kissing him on the green, the other night....” “You saw that?” “Emily, everyone saw that. It looked pretty hot.” It had been hot. Their tumble into bed the evening before, hotter still. But sex wasn’t everything. Even between friends. Emily bit her lip. “I’m just not sure we’re compatible in the ways that count.” Kyle chuckled. “You mean he’s not makeover material.” “I haven’t tried to make him over.” Not like she had in the past. She hadn’t gone clothes shopping with him, helped decorate his place or suggested a way to further his career aspirations—like she had with the previous guys she had dated.... Clearly not seeing the difference in her approach to this male-female relationship, Kyle lifted a skeptical brow. “Well, that’s good. Because unlike your previous boyfriends—who, by the way, were all way too malleable for their own good—Dylan is a man who operates on the strength of his convictions. And I don’t see that changing. Not for you. Not for anyone.” * * * EMILY HAD PROMISED herself she would not get enmeshed in any more dead-end romances. Which left her with only one choice. “I think we should be friends,” she told Dylan, when she showed up at his ranch that afternoon. “I thought we already were. Or at least were on the way to becoming good friends.” “What I mean is,” Emily explained, aware her voice sounded a little rusty, and her emotions felt all out of whack, too, “I don’t think we should have sex again.” Their glances locked and they shared another moment of tingling awareness. Finally, Dylan said, “It was that bad, hmm?” Emily told herself not to read anything into the concern in his eyes. “You know it wasn’t,” she murmured, blushing. The truth was she had climaxed like crazy under his masterful touch. “But sex complicates things. I don’t need additional complications right now. My life is chaotic enough.” Dylan rocked back on his heels. He tore off his leather work gloves and braced his hands on his hips. “Okay.” Emily tore her gaze from his rock-solid chest and abs. She looked into his eyes, a little surprised he hadn’t argued with her. She cleared her throat. “You’re fine with this?” The tension between Dylan’s shoulder blades eased. “You just told me no. I respect that, and I will honor that.” His gaze gentling all the more, he flashed her a crooked smile meant to conciliate. He stepped closer and lifted a hand to her cheek, briefly touching the side of her face. “That doesn’t mean I still don’t want to have sex with you. So,” he said, and slanted her a telling look, “if you change your mind and decide you would like to have sex with me again, it’s up to you to let me know.” Emily wasn’t used to guys being this reasonable. Aware her face was still tingling from his brief, sensual touch, she drew a deep breath. “Okay, then.” “Okay.” Another pause. He scanned her Western-wear-clad form. “Did you want to help with the mustangs?” he asked finally, as cheerful as ever when it came to his work. Emily smiled, glad her efforts to redirect their relationship had worked out so well. “I would love to.” Dylan turned and headed for the training area. “Salt and Pepper have already been put through their paces today.” Falling into step beside him, Emily teased, “Saving the best for last?” Dylan winked. “I figured you would show up, and since Ginger clearly is your favorite...” He walked into the round pen, motioning for Emily to join him. This time, when he shut the gate, Ginger came right over to him. Everywhere Dylan went, the mustang followed. He petted her nose, her mane, her neck. Ran a hand under her abdomen, across her flanks and down her legs. The beautiful mare seemed to not just tolerate his handling of her, but welcome it. A phenomenon Emily understood all too well... “I noticed you’re not disagreeing with my assessment that you’ve been playing favorites with the herd,” Dylan said. Flushing with guilt, Emily shrugged. “What can I say? Ginger’s complicated and challenging. I’m trying to understand her.” Dylan nodded his agreement, looking as if that was a conundrum he understood all too well. “The question is, will she allow us to tame her?” “What do you mean?” Emily watched rancher and horse interact with teamlike proficiency. “It’s been less than a week and Ginger is already following you around the pen, going wherever you go....” “You’re right, she is watching my every move. Unfortunately, her curiosity is more than a demonstration of interest—it’s an expression of fear.” He met her eyes. “A horse doesn’t bother to investigate something that it is not afraid of. A horse isn’t curious unless it harbors some uncertainty. And that underlying fear can make a horse unpredictable.” Emily watched Dylan pick up one hoof. Ginger bucked slightly and wrested her leg from his light, testing grasp. Dylan went back to stroking Ginger all over. When she was calm, he tried again, picking up her foot. Again, she resisted but he didn’t back down. And on and on it went, until at last Ginger gave in and let Dylan touch and rub and inspect all four feet without complaint. “Now you try,” Dylan said, while holding on to the lightweight training halter on Ginger’s head. Emily—whose only experience had been with the tame-from-birth quarter horses her father bred and trained—moved away from the wall. Ginger eyed Emily warily while Dylan murmured soothingly and stroked her face. She pricked her ears and lifted her head slightly, inspecting Emily with her dark, soulful eyes. She seemed to be waiting to see if she could trust Emily as much as Dylan. Emily took her time, just as Dylan had. Murmuring softly, she explained every step she took, every move she made. Ginger reacted in kind, calmly allowing Emily to pet her all over. Then finally, tenderly nosing Emily’s hands, before gently nuzzling her face. “I think she’s in love,” Dylan said softly. I think I could be in love, Emily thought. With both of you. If I were foolish, that is. Good thing I’m not. The mustang wasn’t hers to keep, and neither was Dylan. Ginger had a home to go to—when she was trained. Dylan already had a home of his own; he’d made it clear for years now that he didn’t want to share it with anyone. Nothing about that seemed to have changed. Emily shrugged off the compliment. “She knows kindness when she sees it.” Dylan slipped outside the gate and came back with two apples. He tossed them to Emily. “Reward her.” She did. Dylan returned Ginger to the paddock with Salt and Pepper, then strode back, praise in his eyes. “Now it’s time for me to reward you,” he said, flashing her a sexy grin. Emily knew what quickly sprang to her mind, despite their new just-friends status. Afraid she would get herself in just as deep as she had the night before if she didn’t watch it, she warned herself to slow down. She put up a staying hand. “You really don’t have to do that, Dylan. Just being able to spend time with Ginger is thanks enough.” “You don’t want to owe anyone anything? I don’t want to be beholden to anyone, either.” He looked at her, his mind clearly made up. “So I’m taking you to dinner as payment. It’s up to you to say when and where.” Chapter Seven (#u0bbc0630-59cf-5b77-875e-ea5ae938998f) Dylan waited while Emily stood, tapping her foot and considering her options. “Tonight. The Cowtown Diner.” Where she was likely to run into Xavier Shillingsworth again? “You’re joking,” Dylan said mildly. Her expression innocent, Emily swept off her hat and ran her fingers through her silky locks. “I figure we should be neighborly. And since you’re paying...” Dylan knew trouble brewing when he saw it. “I think it’s a dumb idea,” he said bluntly. “Really.” She plopped her hat back on her head and shot him a sassy look, determined to do what she wanted no matter what he thought. “How so?” “Tonight is the grand opening for the dinner rush.” “So?” Her lower lip slid out in a sexy pout. “So we’re likely to have to wait for a table,” he said. Emily shrugged. “I’m okay with that. The only thing is, I want to go home and shower first.” Dylan was the first to admit he needed to do the same. “You want me to pick you up?” She nodded. “Seven-thirty okay with you?” “Fine with me.” It was the rest of the evening he wondered about. * * * DYLAN WASN’T SURE what he had expected Emily’s apartment to look like inside. The glimpse he’d had of the adjacent bath and bedroom revealed a pink and frilly décor. This surprised him, because he’d never seen her wear anything pink or frilly, since he’d been in town. The living area where he sat was a lot more predictable. She had a large overstuffed ivory sofa and a pair of mismatched wing chairs. Blinds, but no drapes. There were a lot of throw pillows in different fabrics and sizes. A couple of throws—one in burgundy velour, the other a soft sage-green knit. Nice lamps. And one wall that was all bookshelves, filled with fiction, cookbooks and horse stories. An antique leather-and-brass steamer trunk served as her coffee table. Cooking magazines, especially ones that featured Southwestern-style cooking, were piled high. A small round table and two chairs and a kitchenette that could only be described as woefully inadequate. It didn’t even have a stove or microwave, just a hot plate, sink and dorm-size fridge. Emily swept back out, shutting the bedroom door behind her. But not before he’d caught sight of the wardrobe crisis that had just ensued. There were clothes scattered everywhere. He liked the ones she had on, though. Emily strode toward the kitchen counter and snatched up her purse and keys. She spun around in a drift of floral perfume. “Ready to go?” Ready for something...that’s for sure, Dylan thought, feeling an uncomfortable pressure at the front of his jeans. To distract himself, he let his glance sift over her pretty turquoise dress and surprisingly high heels. Damn, but she had a nice body. Nice legs, too. “You look good,” he said gruffly. “Too good to be eating in an unscrupulous competitor’s restaurant.” Her soft lips curved in a parody of a smile. “Thanks. I think.” Resisting the urge to pull her close and kiss her again, he said, “You know Shillingsworth is probably going to conclude you dressed up just for him.” Emily’s brow arched. “Then he would be wrong—you’re my date. Not that I dressed up for you,” she amended quickly. “I dressed up for me. Because I like to look nice when I go out.” He studied the rosy color in her cheeks, the emotion shimmering in her eyes. “Well, you look gussied-up, all right.” Her gaze swept over his cleaned-up form, making him glad he had taken the time to iron his shirt and polish his boots, instead of just showering, shaving and finding a clean change of clothes. “So do you,” she said softly. Basking in the compliment, Dylan followed her down the stairs and into the alley behind the row of historic buildings downtown. On the other side of it was a row of slanted parking. Emily’s car was there, beside his pickup truck. Instead of going toward the passenger side of the truck, she hesitated and looked up at him. The last of the day’s sunshine glimmered in her molasses-colored hair. He had to fight the urge to reach out and touch the soft, silky strands. “Want to walk or drive?” “It’s a nice evening.” She caught his gaze. “It’s only a couple of blocks. How about we hoof it?” Anything to ease the pressure in the front of his jeans. “Sounds good.” She fell into step beside him. He observed the pulse throbbing in her throat. “I’ve got a question.” “Fire away.” “This evening, are we still pretending we’re dating? Or are we now publicly owning up to being ‘just friends’?” Her lips compressed. “Good question, since only one of my brothers has produced a potential love interest for me thus far, and my parents have ceased and desisted their matchmaking efforts entirely since we allegedly became a pair.” “Want my advice?” Dylan asked. She cocked her head to one side and waited. “Unless some gal has come in and swept Shillingsworth off his feet in the past twenty-four hours or so, I very much doubt the little twerp has given up on making you his cougar.” She elbowed him gently. “Careful, cowboy, you’re sounding a mite jealous.” “Not jealous,” Dylan corrected. “Matter-of-fact. And I’ll lay odds Shillingsworth makes another pass at you tonight, whether he thinks I’m your date or not.” Emily chuckled. “Enough to wager?” “Depends on what the stakes are.” “One home-cooked meal. Cleanup, included.” Which meant another night alone together, wise or not. Dylan extended his hand. “Okay,” he said agreeably. “You’re on....” * * * THE PLACE WAS HOPPING, when Emily and Dylan reached the newest dining establishment in town. Throngs of people stood in a line that filled the old-fashioned, saloon-style porch and extended halfway down the block, and more were arriving even as Dylan and Emily joined the line. And the patrons weren’t just residents of Laramie. Emily garnered from the bits of conversation floating around, they were flocking in from all around the county. And why not? The Cowtown Diner oozed excitement. Exterior speakers played popular country and western music. A waitstaff of college-and high-school-age kids kept tabs on the activity with wireless headsets, while less experienced staff circulated among the waiting area with platters of free appetizers and tumblers of lemonade, water and iced tea. Despite herself, Emily was impressed. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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