The first time she'd seen him, she'd had on three inch
pumps; he'd been wearing Italian loafers. That had to be the reason he
hadn't seemed as tall then as he did now.
On the plane they hadn't stood this close, so close he
filled every inch of her vision. That had to be why she didn't remember
his chest being as broad beneath navy silk as it was now under white
But try as she might, she couldn't come up with any rational
explanation for the man to look so sexy, so breathtakingly magnificent,
so utterly male. And that was exactly the way he looked now.
Even when he stepped closer, so close she had to tilt back
her head, she couldn't look away from his eyes. Eyes she didn't remember
being this green, sparkling with this much life--or fire. He blinked
slowly, lazily, the easy sweep of his long dark lashes at odds with the
banked emotion behind.
The peripheral movement of his arm was more a feeling than
an image, the flex of a shoulder, the crinkle of crisp cotton. Trembling,
Harley breathed in the scent of soap and sun-kissed cloth, and waited
for his touch.
His breath stirred the wisps of unmanageable hair curling
at her temple, the contact no more than a stroke of air on skin. Harley
shivered, hunched deep into the turned up collar of her belted wrap,
Angling his head toward her, Gardner reached up, trailed
his thumb along her lower lip, tugging on the center until she wet the
spot with a flick of her tongue.
"Cat got your tongue, Harley Golden?"
No, but you do, she thought. His flavor
filled her mouth. She spoke the first words that floated through her
mind. "I didn't
know you were a cowboy."
His knuckles grazed her jaw line, his
huge palm sizzled against her neck, his fingers speared into the hair
behind her ear. "Does
that matter to you?"
Not only did it not matter, but from the moment their eyes
had made contact, the rest of her world had ceased to exist. Instinctively,
she shook her head.
"Good." The brim of his Resistol cast an intimate
shadow over her face. "Because I don't think I can wait any longer."
The warmth of his smile tickled her cheek. Her breasts
tingled, her blood thrummed, and Harley felt like she'd been waiting
Sliding his hand from her neck down her shoulder, Gardner
wrapped his fingers possessively around her upper arm and backed a step
With the return of her space, came her sanity. Harley shook
off her daze to the murmur of voices and the sounds of shuffling chairs,
rustling paper, and hammers on nails. Never in her life had she lost
all awareness at a single touch.
Gardner Barnes was a dangerous man.
Still, she went with him willingly. His insistent pace
gave no quarter to the flurried beating of her heart. The man qualified
as aerobic activity. Her pulse rate had reached optimum level and she'd
barely flexed a muscle.
They cleared the barn door in a matter of seconds and Harley
blinked at the sudden glare of the sun. Gardner didn't say a word, but
neither did she. She couldn't. Her senses were a riot, a whirlwind, a
crazy jumble of perceptions. With nothing but his hand on her arm, he
had reduced her to a bundle of frenzied nerves.
Wrong, Harley. Your jitters started about the time he gave
you that be-my-love-slave look. Or when he said so much in so few words.
A basket case, that's what she was. A basket case waiting to happen.
Her denim skirt swirled around her calves. Her briefcase
bounced against her hip. And, even through the ramie cotton fibers of
her Navajo patterned wrap, Gardner's hand was warm against her arm.
He guided her around the corner of the barn, down the side,
past a stack of straw-filled shipping crates in view of nothing but a
sliver of the graveled parking lot and the rolling expanse of central
Then the barn wall was behind her, Gardner's hands splayed
flat on either side of her head. Two feet of tense air seethed between
their bodies. His eyes blazed with green fire, his chest rose and fell
with short choppy breaths.
And the denim-covered promise straining the zipper of his
jeans told her all she needed to know of his fight for control.
Harley dropped her forgotten briefcase at her feet. A heady
rush of feminine power chased desire through her blood. He wanted her,
and wasn't ashamed to let her see exactly how much.
She touched her tongue to her upper
lip. "How did
you find me?"
"You told me where you were," he
said, grinding his jaw.
The tic of the muscle along his ear
beat in meter with the pounding in Harley's blood. "I didn't think--"
"Shhh." He laid two fingers over her lips. "I
said I'm through talking. Remember?"
Moving her lips against the rough pads of his fingers,
she barely managed a nod because, as he'd talked, he'd stepped closer.
"Good." He withdrew his hand
and touched her with his gaze. Only his gaze. First her face, then
the length of her
body, his heated glance lingering below her waist where she held her
twisted hands together.
"God, you're gorgeous." He smiled then and raised
his head. "And you're nervous, aren't you?"
"A little." What an understatement.
Her anxiety was so obvious she didn't know why he'd asked. But the
play of her nerves
wasn't as much hesitation or anxiety as frustration and desire. She didn't
want to make a wrong move and destroy a chance at something she so desperately
His wrists hovered at her jawline, his hands on the wall
supported his weight. With every ragged breath he took, his chest imperceptibly
grazed hers. He spread his legs cowboy wide, and the denim of his jeans
scraped the denim of her skirt.
Harley wanted to close all those distances--and more. To
press her body against the solid length of his. To fulfill the promise
of this first encounter. To take them both to a place where differences
and pasts and futures didn't matter.
What Harley wanted was her forgotten dream. Her illusion
of perfect life. One man. One woman. Forever.
His glittering gaze held her immobile. And then he lowered
his head, touched her with nothing but the faintest brush of his mouth.
It wasn't the first taste she wanted. So, she gripped the mountainous
muscles of his shoulders, stepped in closer and parted her lips.
His flavor came from the earth, pure, unseasoned, and male.
His scent teased her, the fragrance a mix of fresh air and clean skin,
and . . . and Gardner. His was an aroma dark and potent, as elemental
as the sun, as primitive as the land. She detected no hint of the shallow,
artificial man she'd once thought he might be. And she was glad.
Needing more, she opened wider, teasing the seam of his
lips with her tongue. She laid her palms against his chest, the muscles
she touched honed to cowboy perfection, and not from hours spent training
on Nautilus or Soloflex. This man made his living with his body. He was
a man in a way Brad could never understand. A man who challenged her
deepest spirit of womanhood.
She welcomed the gauntlet, sliding her hands up the starched
chambray to encircle his neck. With the press of her fingertips at his
nape, the slide of her tongue along the sweet length of his, Harley told
him how she felt, how she wanted him.
God, she wanted him. She wanted him until she ached, until
she couldn't be sure where passion left off and necessity began. She
rubbed tiny circles at his hairline, pressed her body fully to his. The
movements displayed her juxtaposed feelings, equal in sentiment, diametric
Gardner responded by shifting the kiss, in position and
in tone, frantically lifting the hem of her skirt. Cupping her bottom
in his palms, he bunched the denim in his fists until it grazed the top
of her boots, the backs of her knees, her lower thighs.
She parted her legs at the gentle nudge of air against
her skin, and at the insistent search of Gardner's fingers. His need
to get close was a tangible thing.
It was Harley's need, too. And it was eating her up.
He'd given her four days of visions and wild imaginings,
all of it leading to this. His mouth on hers; his breath hot against
her hotter skin. Her nipples peaked, begging. She clenched her thighs
beneath his questing hands.
He tore his mouth away. The stubble
on his jaw abraded her cheek. "This isn't enough, Harley."
"Yes." Was it a breath? A
promise? An unconscious invitation? No matter. Gardner seemed to know.
He moved his hands to
her waist and lifted her to sit on the nearest crate. He tossed his hat
Without a word spoken, his mouth returned to hers, his
hands on her knees pushing her skirt high on her legs. His fingers found
the bare skin of her thighs and a groan rolled up his throat.
Harley struggled to get closer, the kiss all but forgotten.
Her hands flexed, pulling at his shirt. He parted her legs and Harley
opened wider; he stepped between and she scooted home.
Her lips were bruised and his were damp as he settled them
against the base of her neck, but the wetness was nothing compared to
the slick heat he would find should he touch her.
And she wanted him to touch her. To take her. To ease the
ache she'd lived with since the first time they'd talked on the phone.
He slid his hands beneath her skirt, up her thighs to her waist, hooked
his fingers in the band of her panties.
She lifted her hips and he rolled the scrap of satin and
lace down her legs and over her boots. With his hands spread along her
upper thighs, his thumbs in the crease where her hips met her legs, he
teased the nest of curls between, and Harley knew she was ready.
Hugging his waist, she palmed his buttocks, the back of
his thighs. The muscle tensed and flexed beneath her touch. Responding
to her. For her. Harley wanted to cry out, soaring with the power she
held in her hands.
She slipped her fingers under the waistband of his jeans
and grazed the skin beneath his Fruit of the Looms. This is madness,
she told herself, reaching for his belt buckle. Wild and crazy, she added,
moving to his button fly. She didn't know this man at all, yet she knew
So when he closed his hand over her
shaking fingers and stopped her, she wasn't totally surprised. "This is insane, Harley." He
breathed his echo of her sentiment across the kiss-damp skin of her throat.
"I know," she murmured.
"We have to stop."
"I know." What was she saying?
What was he saying?
"Now, Harley. I can't do . . .
I don't have . . . Dammit, Harley. Stop."
Harley stiffened, pulling back all the emotion floating
around her like sunlight. She jerked at his hold, trying to free her
hands. She wanted to push him away and make a bee-line for her Blazer
before the red flush of humiliation spread all the way to her face.
She'd thrown herself at him like a cowboy groupie of the
worst kind and he'd roped her advance to a halt. He didn't want her,
but he still wouldn't let her go. A muffled cry spilled from her throat.
He released her hands and she scrambled to pull down her
skirt. Then he took her by the shoulders, moved one hand gently to her
"Harley, look at me."
Reluctantly, she did. His eyes had lost none of their fire.
The tendons on his neck stood in rigid relief beneath his bronzed skin.
"I didn't mean for this to go so far so fast. And
I don't have a condom." He stroked his thumb over her cheekbone,
his smile gentle, his eyes kind. "You do crazy things to me, Harley
Golden. You make me lose my mind. And you deserve better than a quick
grope on a shipping crate."
Harley lowered her lashes. Damn her
blush-happy complexion. "I
thought . . . I wasn't sure . . ."
"About what?" he asked, trailing
the tips of his fingers down her neck.
Desperately, she searched for an answer,
but her mind was a muddled mess. Gardner's fingers had drifted lower.
Lower still. "You
stopped me. I wasn't sure if--"
"If what? I wanted you?"
He'd reached the deep 'v' of her neckline now, the point
a good two inches lower than normal due to the loosened belt at her waist.
He leaned forward, dipped his tongue in her cleavage, then moved up to
nuzzle the base of her neck in a possessive kiss.
"You thought I'd changed my mind?" He
laved the bruised skin with a healing lick of his tongue, then drifted
bit her again.
He was eating her alive. That had to mean he wanted her.
Harley arched into him and told her old wounds to take a hike.
"Give me your hand," he ordered.
She did, and though shocked at the initial contact, allowed
him to press her palm firmly to his arousal.
"This is how much I want you." He cupped her
fingers around the rigid length. "But this sure as hell isn't where
I want it to happen. And it will happen." He squeezed her hand around
him, ground himself against her palm, then let her go. "You know
that don't you?"
Mouth dry, she nodded.
Bending down, he scooped up her panties
and her briefcase. The briefcase he handed over. The panties he tucked
into his back pocket. "Then
let's get the hell out of here."
Boosting her down off the crate, he reached behind her
for his hat, laced her fingers tightly through his, then headed toward
the front of the barn.
Cognizance returned long enough for her to realize the
parking lot had nearly emptied. Shadowy figures moved through the barn,
cleaning, straightening. Gardner never stopped to look back. He never
said a word. His sights were set on a crew cab pick-up parked at a crooked
slant against the fence on the far side of her Blazer.
He suddenly seemed to take measure of
their two-vehicle situation. He stopped abruptly, bringing Harley up
short. Tilting his
head to one side, he asked, "Is that your Blazer?"
She nodded and managed a tremulous smile, the moment still
thick with the tension of what had passed between them--and where they
"C'mon," he said and took
off again like a shot. Once there, Harley produced her keys from the
briefcase with a minimal
show of nerves. She climbed into the seat and Gardner loomed over her
in the open door, one hand propped on the roof of the Blazer, one gripping
the door frame.
He stared down at her, his gaze intense and burning with
so much life that she couldn't resist the urge to reach up and kiss the
sun-dimpled corner of his eye. He smiled then.
And Harley fell in love.
"You said you'd cleared your schedule to the end of
the week." He toyed with a lock of her hair, rubbing the strands
between his thumb and forefinger with intense concentration. "Spend
the time with me."
He shook his head and looked up. "At
She offered him a private smile. "Is
this ranch your family business?"
"One and the same." Tucking her hair behind her
ear, he asked, "Where are you staying?"
"At a bed and breakfast on Main
"Then I'll follow you back and
wait while you pack your things."
"Is this our date?" she asked.
A grin, dazzling in its innocent charm,
broke across his mouth. "I guess it is."
Harley forced a pout. "A girl likes
to be romanced, Gardner. Not ordered around."
He patted his shirt pockets. "I'm
fresh out of flowers and diamonds, Harley."
"Then I'll settle for a pretty
He dropped to one knee, actually dropped
to one knee, removed his hat, and took her hand in his. "Harley
Golden, would you do me the honor of spending the rest of the week
"Not bad, Barnes."
"Well?" He settled his hat back in place. "I'm
"I'd love to," she said, wishing
in some renegade part of her heart that he'd asked something else,
and she'd answered
Gardner got to his feet. With a brief
nod he indicated the crew cab doolie parked twenty feet away. "I
need to return the truck I borrowed. We can leave your Blazer at the
"Yeah. It's where I left the Cessna." He
leaned forward then and kissed her, his mouth a consuming presence.
Then he slammed the door and walked away, his stride long-legged
and determined, his shoulders broad and capable of carrying a family's
The man owned a Cessna, used diamonds and flowers interchangeably,
planned to put his kid brother through veterinary school.
And the white flag fluttering from his back pocket was