“I do,” Trey Walker uttered.
In a million lifetimes, he never dreamed he’d say these words. Especially not to Maddie Brooks, the auburn-haired beauty standing beside him, her eyes wide with gratitude. They stood under an arbor of lush traveling vines in the small garden area behind his house at 2 Hope Ranch.
“I do, too,” she offered. A gentle breeze blew by and tousled her hair all sexy-like.
Trey swallowed. He was intrigued by the young woman who’d be living with him for an unforeseen length of time. In truth, the petite, green-eyed female scared the hell out of him with her innocent looks and wholesome demeanor. She was the exact sort of woman Trey avoided—the kind that said “KEEPER” in big, bold capital letters. But damn it all, if Trey hadn’t needed her, or rather if 2 Hope Ranch hadn’t needed what she had to offer, Trey would never have agreed to this.
“So you agree to the terms?” She repeated softly, her voice a mere whisper on the wind.
“I do, Maddie. There’s no need to sign a contract. My word is as good as gold.”
Maddie nodded a bit tentatively as she swiveled her body around, glancing at his property, her slender hands set in the back pockets of her denim jeans. Trey looked his fill, enjoying the view of a perfectly formed backside. He was one to appreciate a good-looking woman and Maddie was all that—even in her range-dusty work clothes.
When she turned around, Trey snapped his head up to meet her gaze. Again, her words were soft as morning dew and Trey got the feeling she was as reluctant about this arrangement as he was. “I’ll move my things in tonight, and tomorrow I’ll set up my office in the old barn. The animals all seem to be doing fine. I think this might just work out.”
Trey squeezed his eyes shut momentarily. He grunted a reply and held out his hand. A handshake in this part of Texas was more than enough to bind an agreement. Maddie lifted her right hand from her pocket and slid her palm into his. He shook the hand quickly before the impact of her touch could register to any other part of his body, other than his addled brain. “It’s a deal then.”
She bit down on her lip drawing his attention to a heart-shaped mouth so pink and ripe that Trey was certain the Almighty had made her lips expressly for kissing. Too bad, Trey thought with regret, because he’d already set Maddie Brooks strictly off-limits. She was now a business partner, of sorts.
She would rent out one room in his house, use the old barn as her office and treat her animal patients there. Not only would 2 Hope Ranch gain from the rental fee, but Maddie had also agreed to treat all of Trey’s livestock for free. It was a deal he couldn’t refuse. His ranch had encountered more than a few setbacks lately, and Trey just plain needed the revenue. He’d had no choice really and neither had Maddie. Her veterinary office had burned clear down to the ground just days ago, and Trey’s was the only ranch within miles that had an extra barn and a ranch house big enough to accommodate her without any problem. There was no denying Trey had plenty of room on the grounds as well as three empty bedrooms inside his house.
Trey had taken in her animals first thing after they’d been rescued by the fire department in Hope Wells. They included a yellow Labrador retriever recovering from a birdshot wound, a border collie named Toby that had been hit by a car, and two rabbits suffering from ear mites. They and various other small pets were now housed inside Trey’s smaller, older barn. Hell, he couldn’t have the animals suffer. They needed a home, but he hadn’t bargained on Maddie coming to live with him. No sir.
Uncle Monty had pulled a fast one talking him into this arrangement, and Trey wasn’t at all certain his uncle hadn’t had matchmaking on his mind.
Maddie graced him with a small smile. “Deal.”
Trey began to walk off but turned when a thought struck. “You need help moving your stuff in?”
“Uh, no. Not really. I don’t have much at the motel but some clothes and a few things I managed to accumulate since the fire. I’m pretty much starting out fresh. I don’t even have much left in the way of files.” She shrugged, keeping up a brave front, but Trey figured Maddie was as broken up inside as that old border collie. “Guess I’m just going to have to improvise.”
Trey nodded. Maddie lived in a small apartment above her office in town, and now she’d lost almost everything. The insurance company came through with a small sum for the time being, but the rest of her claim was contingent upon an investigation into the cause of the fire.
He tipped his hat. “I’ll be here, if you need me.”
He was just being neighborly, doing the polite thing, yet those words sent his body into small shock. He shuddered and turned to walk away before Maddie noticed. No sense worrying the girl. She had enough to worry over. But the fact remained that Trey didn’t want to be needed.
Ever—and especially by a female.
He’d been cursed in that regard. Both his father and grandfather had bad track records when it came to women. They’d done a great job of breaking hearts and wrecking lives. Trey had seen the destruction firsthand and it hadn’t been pretty. From early on, after one failed engagement, Trey had vowed to keep his own life simple. And women close only when they both agreed on temporary. Trey didn’t do permanent. Nothing was going to change that.
And now that pretty little filly Maddie Brooks would be sharing bath towels with him under his roof. An image instantly flashed—Maddie’s petite body wrapped in a two-by-nothing towel and bumping into him in the hallway. He paused, letting the image sink in of soft ripe curves and healthy, tanned skin all tucked into a tight little package. He caught himself and cursed up a blue streak then kicked up his heels so fast that his boots cut a straight-arrow path back to the corral.
Sometimes, being neighborly came with too high a price.
Maddie slowed her truck to a stop by the rubble that was once her home, her office and her very existence in Hope Wells. It was all gone. She’d lost the small place on the edge of town she’d proudly called home for the past year and a half. Sucking up courage, she glanced at the devastation through the truck’s window. Large cinders still radiated heat and practically everything she’d owned was diminished to varying shades of black, charred beyond recognition.
Maddie stepped down from the truck and breathed in the smell of destruction. She coughed, choking on a deadly combination of burnt belongings and wafting smoke. Only a small broken-down remnant of her storefront sign remained. The sign that had once said, The Animal Place, T.A.P. Gently, Madeline M. Brooks, D.V.M., now only touted the first three letters of her first name, Mad. How appropriate. A little irony of life, she thought sadly. Tears welled in her eyes as she stared at the loss.
Goodness, she still didn’t understand how the fire started exactly. Faulty wiring, one firefighter guessed. He’d known old Dr. Benning for years, the man who had sold Maddie his veterinary practice before moving to Dallas to be closer to his grandchildren. He’d been a mainstay in the community, a man who cared for animals until his eyesight had just about given out. Maddie, fresh out of an internship in northern California had been overjoyed at the prospect of buying a small but fully established practice and had just enough funds to cover a down payment on the asking price.
Doc Benning had stayed on for one month after the sale, guiding Maddie, introducing her to his clients, and mentoring her much like a tutor would a new student. Maddie had been grateful for the help, but she’d been eager to get started on her own. She’d studied hard, learned fast and her love of animals came easily. She’d been graced with the “touch” from a young age, a special way she had of communicating with animals that went beyond description. Her well-honed instincts—in combination with her schooled training—served her well, and Maddie was extremely proud of her accomplishments.
She reached into the truck, grabbing a beat-up pair of leather work gloves and tiptoed her way through the charred remains. Heat curled her toes from inside her boots, but it wasn’t unbearable, so she ventured forth, searching. This would be the last chance she’d have to find something, anything left partially intact, before a crew would come to clear it all away. She’d been through the place once already, right after the fire. At that time she’d been too distraught to really see anything beyond the damage.
Maddie tiptoed carefully through the wreckage, her gaze traveling along slowly, eyeing each inch of ground carefully in hopes of finding something she might recognize, but nothing appeared salvageable. She sighed and turned to leave. She shouldn’t have come. The venture was as fruitless as it was painful. Everything was gone.
But then a glint of something shiny caught her eye. Afternoon sunlight beamed down and at first Maddie thought it was just light reflecting off burnt metal. She stepped closer and bent to make a better inspection, putting on her gloves. With nimble fingers, she parted the ashes that partially covered her discovery. The Appaloosa emerged, a sterling-silver necklace given to her by her Grandma Mae when Maddie had graduated high school. Maddie lifted the piece, picking it up by the chain, dangling the necklace before her eyes. She gasped her relief then chuckled with glee. “Hello, Aphrodite. I should’ve known nothing would keep you down.”
The charm appeared undamaged, except for a layer of ash that Maddie quickly blew away with a forceful gush of air. Then with a gentle rub of her gloved thumb the sterling horse winked back with luster, appearing unscathed and good as new. Clutching the charm to her chest, tears stung her eyes—tears of relief, happiness, and gratitude.
If there was one thing Maddie would have chosen to salvage from all this destruction, it would have been Aphrodite. Lucky her. Maddie believed that small miracles happened every day, and today she’d been graced with a precious one.
Grandma Mae’s sage words flashed through her mind as she recalled that cloudless spring day when she’d been given the family heirloom. “Love who you are, child. Love what you do. Love your family and friends and God’s creatures, and then love will also find you.”
“I’m glad I found you.”
Trey Walker’s deep voice startled her out of her thoughts. Maddie whirled around. With her heart in her throat, she peered at him as he stood with arms folded, leaning against the cab of her truck. Trey’s voice did things to her. His impossible good looks knotted her stomach. His long lean stature, that cowboy stance, the hypnotic way a tic worked at his jaw, all conspired to throw Maddie’s once nicely orchestrated world upside down.
At one time, she had thought to be in love with him. She’d hoped to gain his attention since the first time she’d laid eyes on him, out in his barn at 2 Hope.
Trey had called Doc Benning out to see to an aging mare. The old girl had been failing for quite some time and Doc had brought Maddie along with him to mentor her and give her a grain of experience. She doubted she’d ever forget the image of Trey Walker bent over that old roan, whispering soft soothing words in her ear. Strong, work-roughened hands slid gently and with masterful grace over the horse’s muzzle. He worked his hands along her mane, each stroke careful, calculated to give the old girl peace.
There wasn’t anything she or Doc Benning could do, but give the horse a shot to put her down. But Trey disagreed. He wanted her to go as God intended, when He intended. And Maddie knew, without a doubt, that Trey had made the right choice. The horse had eased out of the world with Trey’s loving hands caressing her softly, spilling words from his heart and speaking a final farewell to a longtime friend.
Maddie had fallen in love with Trey Walker that day—instantly and without a doubt in her mind.
But she’d been clearly disappointed when Trey Walker ignored her every attempt to gain his affection. Oh, he’d been polite, sweet as peach pie when she’d come out to check on his livestock. But he’d also been distant and at times, indifferent. Maddie had even tried a supreme makeover once—highlighting her hair, learning to do her makeup without smearing herself all up and wearing the most revealing, cleavage-spilling clothes a woman dared to wear. Nothing had worked. He hadn’t given her the slightest glimmer of hope. Clearly he wanted no part of her. And seeing him around town making easy conversation with women at times surely broke her heart.
Heck, you don’t have to hit Maddie Brooks over the head with a sledgehammer. She’d finally gotten the message. She’d given up. Wholly and completely.
But darn if the man standing right in front of her still didn’t make her legs go wobbly. Only now, Maddie was smarter. She armed herself with steely resolve. She didn’t have a clue about enticing a man like Trey. She wasn’t the sort of woman to catch Trey Walker’s attention. She understood that now.
“Trey, are you looking for me?”
Trey glanced at her tear-smudged face but Maddie refused to let it bother her. She wasn’t out to impress Trey Walker anymore. She wouldn’t rub her cheeks dry, but they burned hot as Trey’s deep blue eyes studied her.
He pushed away from the truck and stood at the edge of the ashes, his gaze holding hers. “Ah, Maddie, you’re crying.”
Maddie stiffened her shoulders against Trey’s knowing eyes. She lifted the necklace and swung it out, catching his attention. “Happy tears. I found something . . . something that wasn’t destroyed. Something . . . precious.”
Trey glanced at the necklace then arched a brow, but nodded in understanding.
“My grandmother gave this to me when I graduated high school. I wore it every day in college. It has special meaning.”
Trey stepped into the rubble, coming up close for a better look. He reached for the necklace, his fingers brushing over her gloved hand. Even through thick leather, Maddie felt the shock of his slight touch. The careful way he lifted the jewel from her, as if he trusted that it was indeed precious, only magnified the sensation. She stared at the dark fringes of his eyelashes as he peered down and she noted a tiny quirk of a smile erupting. “It’s nice. I’m glad you found it in all this mess.”
Maddie glanced around. “Yes. It’s about all I found.” When she turned to him again, she wondered if he purposely sought her out. “What are you doing here? Do you want me for something?”
Trey pursed his lips, disguising a devil-made grin. Hell, he’d never seen anything like it. Maddie Brooks, traipsing through these ruins, with her auburn hair tangled around her face and tearstains running a path down her ash-smudged cheeks. She looked like a lost child—a vulnerable one at that, but he’d yet to find anyone prettier, or more appealing.
Did he want her for something?
A loaded question and one Trey would never answer.
“I was heading to town to buy feed for the horses, when I realized I hadn’t given you the key to the house. But first,” Trey said, placing his hands on her shoulders and turning her around so that her back was to him. He lifted her hair and slipped the necklace around her neck, letting the loose chain slide down her throat to fall into the soft valley between her breasts. He breathed in, a sharp intake of oxygen. Damn. His mind drifted to thoughts of putting his hands where the necklace lay and touching her soft skin there. Hell, he wanted to do more than merely touch her.
Wow . . . where had that come from? If only Trey wasn’t a hard nose when it came to good, decent women. Maddie wasn’t for him. So he removed all thoughts of lust out of his head. He wasn’t about to let the subtle scent of Maddie’s skin—a trace of sweet raspberries—and her vulnerable state affect him. He wouldn’t do that to Maddie Brooks. She’d been through enough. “There,” he said and stepped away.
Maddie turned around, removing her gloves so she could finger the charm. Joy lit her eyes, but she guarded her delight carefully, as if she were afraid to indulge in happiness for too long. Trey understood that better than she might guess.
“Thank you,” she said with a small smile.
He nodded, keeping his eyes focused on her face and not on the deep inviting cleavage that framed the necklace. He slipped a hand into his pocket, coming up with a key ring. He removed one and handed it to her. “Here you go. Come and go as you please on the ranch. I won’t wait up.”
“Oh, I won’t be going out much, unless I have to make a late-night house call.”
He nodded again, not happy with the notion of Maddie Brooks underfoot every night. “Sometimes, I get in late,” he admitted, “but if you need anything when I’m not around, you know Kit, my foreman?”
“Yes, we’ve met. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Okay then. I’d better get that grain before the store closes.”
She lifted the key to the ranch house. “Thanks again. I guess I’ll get my things from the Cactus Inn now.”
Trey reached into his back pocket and presented her with his red bandanna. “For your face.”
“Oh.” Color rose from under her smudge marks, brightening her face to a rosy hue. “Is it that bad?”
“Doesn’t bother me a bit. But I figured you’d want to clean up before heading to the motel.”
She began swiping her face for all she was worth. “Thanks. I must look like heck.”
Trey turned his back on Maddie, released a reluctant sigh and headed for his truck, mumbling, “Heck never looked so danged cute.”
Trey got into his truck, gunned the engine and took off, his wheels spitting up a cloud of dry Texas dust. He’d come into town to help Maddie move her things from the motel. It hadn’t set right that she’d refused his offer. What kind of man would allow a woman, who was down on her luck, alone in the world and who had lost most of her possessions, face that task alone?
But one look at her today, standing there in the midst of her onetime home and something powerful stabbed at him. It wasn’t like anything he’d felt before, this protective, warm feeling he had for her. Trey didn’t like it, not one bit. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be under her spell, she’d be under his sheets, and then disaster would strike.
Maddie would come out the loser.
He didn’t want to add to her troubles. As much as he wanted to help her, going to the motel wouldn’t have been wise. Trey shook his head. Spending time with Maddie Brooks would just be dang foolish. He’d have to nip this problem in the bud, before anything dared to blossom.
Tonight, he’d lay things out straight with Maddie.
But in truth, he’d be more comfortable wrestling half a dozen big, hungry grizzly bears.
Maddie was finally going to see the inside of Trey’s house at 2 Hope. She stepped through tall column pillars into a dwelling, beaten down from time and perhaps a bit of neglect.
Yet, undisguised warmth seemed to invite her in. Her heart squeezed tight as she stood in the entry, gazing at a massive stone fireplace, complete with a heavy beamed mantel and a wide accommodating hearth. The only thing missing from this picture was the moose head above the fireplace. Instinct told her Trey wouldn’t approve or indulge in the hunting of innocent animals, thank goodness.
A slightly worn, completely comfortable-looking leather sofa graced the wall facing the fireplace, and antique pieces from days gone by surrounded the room. Maddie couldn’t help feel like an invader, intruding on Trey’s privacy, the total masculine feel of the room alluding to Trey’s lone-wolf demeanor. A woman had no place here. There were no lace curtains or hand-sewn pillows, nothing feminine at all, yet the house had a welcoming, solid, lived-in feel. A house made for a man.
Maddie was certain Trey didn’t want her living here.
But she had no other option. She had responsibilities, clients who depended on her to keep their animals healthy. There was no one else in Hope Wells to look after the animals of the twenty-odd ranches in the county. And just the other day, she’d had to neuter Randolph Curry’s rambunctious Irish setter, before the neighbors shot the dang dog for lewd acts of conduct on the main streets in town. Then there was young Bessie Mallery’s cat Lucky, who’d surprised everyone with a litter of seven. Maddie had had to untangle that feline’s umbilical cord before it strangled three of the kittens. Fortunately Lucky’s name had held true, and she hadn’t lost any of her offspring, much to everyone’s relief.
With a nod, Maddie concluded if she were to keep her practice going, she would have to accept Trey’s hospitality. But she’d made a solemn vow to stick to her business and stay out of his way, until the time came when she could rebuild her own office in town.
“All set,” Trey said, coming to stand before her. “I put everything inside your room. Down the hall, third door on the left.”
“Thank you,” Maddie offered. When she’d pulled up just minutes ago with her oddball assortment of clothes, medical books, some veterinary equipment—the smaller tools of her trade she’d been able to salvage—Trey had been waiting on his front porch. He wouldn’t allow her to lift a thing from the bed of her truck. He’d just reached in and grabbed everything, loading up his arms and telling her to make herself comfortable inside the house. “The house is nice, looks like it’s been lived in some. I’ll bet there’s a batch of stories hidden in these old walls.”
Maddie bit her lip and glanced away. She’d never been one to babble, but then she’d never felt this darn awkward before.
Trey grinned. “This house goes way back. It was one of the first ones built in Hope Wells back in the day when there was free range. I know a few stories, but they aren’t fit for telling in polite company.”
Maddie sighed, wondering what wonderfully sinful things had happened at 2 Hope years ago. “I’d love to hear them sometime.”
Trey looked her over, and began shaking his head. With a dubious expression plastered on his face, he flat out refused. “No way, Maddie. You don’t want to hear any of those stories.”
Maddie fumed silently. She’d never shed her wholesome, good-girl image. The one time she’d tried transforming into a sexy siren, she’d failed miserably. Trey hadn’t paid her any notice at all. She was over it, and him, but she wished that he would treat her the way he treated other women. She wasn’t a child who needed protecting from vile stories. She wasn’t a frail dove that needed rescuing. She was a strong woman who knew when to give up on a hopeless cause. Maddie had given up on Trey Walker.
“I think I’ll put my things away now. Thanks, again.” She moved past him, heading down the hallway.
“Dinner’s at eight.”
She swirled around. “Oh, I don’t expect you to feed me.”
“You have to eat.”
“I . . . I guess I didn’t think—”
“Kit and the guys are off tonight, so you’re stuck with my cooking. With any luck, I’ll manage not to poison the both of us.”
An encouraging thought. “What’s for dinner?”
“I’ll help and don’t even dream of refusing the offer. It’s the least I can do. After all, you’re putting me up and allowing me to keep my practice running on your property. I certainly don’t expect to be waited on. I want to pull my weight around here. Besides, I don’t have a kitchen anymore, and I sort of miss cooking.”
Hands on hips, Trey stared at her. “Are you through?”
Maddie’s mouth dropped open. “Uh, yeah.”
“Meet me in the kitchen in an hour.”
She gulped then nodded. She couldn’t tell if Trey was amused or annoyed at her little outburst. She had to remind herself that he was a man who wasn’t accustomed to having a woman around, and he was probably already sorry he’d agreed to their deal.
“This is hardly poison, Trey.”
Trey riveted his eyes on Maddie polishing off her second bowl of son-of-a-gun stew. “And I never figured you for a liar.”
He arched a brow. “Liar?”
“You can cook. I mean really cook. You had the meat marinating in this yummy sauce and then you did this amazing thing with the spices. I’ve never had better stew.”
“You helped,” Trey said, standing to take his plate to the sink.
Maddie immediately rose and gently grabbed the plate from his hand. “All I did was cut up potatoes and carrots. Essentially, you made the meal, so I’m going to do all of the cleanup. It’s the least—”
“I know, it’s the least you can do.”
“Yes, so please sit down, and I’ll pour your coffee. It’ll take me only a minute to have this kitchen back in order.”
Maddie brought him a mug of steaming hot coffee—cream, no sugar, just the way he liked it. Trey decided to sit, rather than argue. He sipped from his coffee and watched her bustle about his kitchen. Wasn’t too often a woman graced his kitchen. In fact, the last time he could recall was when his father had married wife number four, and they’d held the wedding here at the ranch. Then, there’d been a wagonload of women in the kitchen, caterers and servers alike, cooking up the wedding feast.
The marriage had lasted all of ten months. Hell, Trey couldn’t even remember the gal’s name exactly. Elisa, Elena, something with an E.
“How’s the coffee?” Maddie asked as she bent down to load the dishwasher.
Trey’s gaze fastened on the derriere pointing in his direction. He couldn’t quite help watching the wiggle as she shifted to make room for more plates. He had a tantalizing view of her backside, and petite as Maddie was, everything she had was perfectly proportioned. Her tank top pulled up as she bent and a slice of skin appeared in the gap at the small of her back. The combination of her wiggling behind and that particular delicate area, newly exposed, caused Trey a moment of grief and that grief was growing harder by the second.
“Coffee’s fine,” he managed.
She closed the dishwasher door and lifted up. Thank you. Trey gulped down the rest of his coffee, landing his mug down on the table with a thud.
Maddie appeared before him with the coffeepot in hand. “Another cup?”
Before he could answer, she leaned over to begin pouring. That damn silver horse she wore around her neck caught his eye as it swung out. He followed the glint until the charm settled right smack in the deep hollow between her breasts.
His grief intensified.
He wasn’t used to having a pretty woman around, helping with the meals, serving him in his kitchen as though she really belonged here. This cozy domestic scene would give him hives if he wasn’t careful. And the last thing he needed was to walk around stiff between the legs all day.
He reached out and took hold of Maddie’s wrist. “Sit down, Maddie. We need to talk.”
Maddie’s eyes grew wide, probably from the sharpness of his tone. She sat in a chair across from him and suddenly Trey felt older than his thirty-one years. He opened his mouth to begin, but a commotion coming from the corral had him clamping his mouth down. He listened as his stallion whinnied and snorted, kicking up a fuss. Trey bounded up from his seat.
“Storm’s fixing to have a tirade. I’d better go check on him.”
Trey headed to the corral quickly, knowing what damage his feisty stallion could do. He reached the fence just as Storm lifted his front legs up in a flurry, snorting loudly, disturbing the quiet of the night.
“Hey, boy. Simmer down,” he cooed, trying to soothe the stallion’s ire.
Storm took note of him, pranced around the perimeter of the corral then stomped, sifting dirt with his front hooves, communicating to Trey the only way he knew how. “I know how you feel, boy. But I can’t let you out. Not with the way you’re all tangled up inside.”
Trey whistled softly, an old cowboy tune he’d learned as a child, the melody something Storm recognized. The horse snorted again and pranced against the wind, his ink-black mane catching the moonlight.
He was a thing of beauty, Storm. His restless nature proved him wild at heart, an animal that didn’t hold much trust. Trey understood that horse better than he did most people.
“He’s a free spirit.” The gentle voice came from behind.
Trey turned, noting Maddie standing in the shadows. She stepped closer, carefully, with one eye on Storm. Trey trusted her not to spook the horse. Leaning against the fence, he rested his arms on the top rail. “We understand each other.”
Maddie smiled. “I guess I know what you mean.”
Trey nodded. “I guess you do.”
Storm had pretty much settled down, his tirade all but over. He pranced a bit more, showing off his beautiful grace and agility probably for Maddie’s sake. He didn’t blame the horse for trying to impress the lady.
“Do you ride him?” Maddie ventured closer, taking up space next to him by the fence.
Trey chuckled. “He doesn’t care much for riders.”
“Have you had him long?”
“Less than a month. I went to a cattle auction, took one look at the stallion and that was that. I had to have him. His previous owner said he’ll never be all yours. It was what I liked best about him.”
What he didn’t add was Storm’s owner had practically given the horse to Trey, having had his fill of the wild, unruly stallion.
Maddie smiled then called softly to the horse. “Hey, Storm. Here, boy.”
She put out her hand, reaching beyond the fence.
Much to Trey’s amazement, Storm wandered over, coming to stand before her. “Careful, he doesn’t know you.”
Maddie placed her boots on the lower rung of the fence rail and lifted up, coming eye to eye with the stallion. She reached out gingerly, smart enough not to touch the feisty animal, and the horse snorted, as if taking in her scent, each one completely aware of the other. “There, boy. You just need some attention, don’t you? All alone out here in this corral.”
Maddie’s voice, her calm demeanor, her confidence with the now sedate animal, impressed the hell out of Trey. He’d seen her work with animals before and it never ceased to amaze him. She had special qualities.
Trey swallowed hard, watching her speak softly, her delicate hands reaching out in a nonthreatening way, until Storm allowed her a touch. She slid her hands slowly, carefully, without hesitation over Storm’s mane. The stallion snorted, stomped, but didn’t back off. He allowed her a brief stroke, one time, before racing off.
Maddie smiled warmly, her heart-shaped mouth turning up with genuine affection. “He knows me now. I think I’ve made a new friend.”
Trey’s groin tightened. His mouth went bone-dry. Maddie cuddling with his wild stallion was a sight to behold. The last thing he wanted was to have lusty thoughts about Maddie Brooks. She had a gentle nature, one he couldn’t destroy. “About that talk . . . .”
Maddie’s smile evaporated as she glanced one last time at Storm. She jumped down from the fence, but the heel of her boot caught on the fence rung just as a gust of wind blew by and she lost her balance. Trey caught her just before she tumbled, his hand brushing the swell of her breast. He wrapped her tight against him, relishing her small, delicate body against his big frame. “Whoa. The wind nearly blew you over. You okay?”
Trey forced himself to release her and step back. She stared up at him, her eyes gleaming, her face lifting up to his and that perfect mouth trembling slightly. “I’m . . . okay. You wanted to have a talk?”
Yeah, he needed to talk to her. He needed to lay things on the line, leaving no room for doubt that this was strictly a business arrangement. He needed to protect her from the Walker Curse. In the long run, she’d be better off. And so would he. Maddie wasn’t a woman to fool with. But the words that had played out in his mind a dozen times wouldn’t come. They stuck in his throat like a mouthful of dry cotton. He opened his mouth then clamped down.
His fingers still tingled from where he’d touched the soft small slope of her breasts and his body shook with powerful need. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from that lovely, upturned face. He simply stared, swallowing hard, a colossal debate warring in his head. He didn’t get it—this unwelcome need he had for her. Maddie in the moonlight was a beautiful thing, but it was something else, something more powerful that drew him to her. He wanted to hold her again. To feel her softness crushed against him. The need inside him was great and all of his hard won mental rules slipped away instantly.
Maddie Brooks was the last woman on Earth he should touch.
But he wanted her. Just once.
He leaned in, bending to cup the back of her head with his hand. Her silky hair fell against his palm as he gently tilted her up, toward him.
“‘Trey, what are you doing?” she asked, her voice a breathless whisper against his lips.
“Being a damn fool.”
Then he brushed his mouth over hers.
End of Excerpt