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If Natalie Lewis felt any more emotionally battered, she'd dissolve into a teary puddle right there in the middle of Georgina Buckhorn's garden. Pregnant. Abandoned. Surrounded by dozens of happy. October-sun-drenched guests whose very presence dictated she force a smile. Around these parts, the christening of Josie and Dallas Buckhorn's new baby was huge. But how was she supposed to get into a celebratory frame of mind when hours earlier Craig had shattered her world?
She'd loved him and had assumed they'd be married and raise a family together. But then, silly her, she'd only been waiting for that ring on her finger for three years. What was wrong with her that she'd ignored every sign that Craig avoided commitment the way some folks steered clear of root canals? From not wanting to even hold hands in public to bailing on too many important occasions to count. Craig made a habit of reminding her just how little she meant in the overall scheme of his life. He even refused to sleep over on the Friday nights they made love. Oh, he'd invented his own art form when it came to stringing her along. Promising to spend more time with her when his work slowed. Explaining he'd just bought a calendar to help remember their dates. Ha! Fat lot of good that'd had done when he'd left it in a junk drawer. And he worked for UPS! Did they ever slow down? God, she was such an idiot.
"I need a favor."
Natalie glanced up to see Wyatt Buckhorn standing before her in all his glory. "I'm busy."
"Could've fooled me." He pried her cookie-filled plate from her hands, setting it on the table alongside her wicker love seat.
"Hey." she protested. "If ever there was a girl in need of cookie-therapy, it's me."
He rolled his eyes. "Cry me a river. Craig's been an ass before, and I'm sure he will again. This is important." Drawing her to her feet, he tugged her against himtightly enough together a playing card couldn't have been slid between them. Though Natalie and Wyatt had been pals since their first day in Weed Gulch Elementary's kindergarten class, she couldn't ever remember touching himnot like this. He was a Buckhorn, and had everything that came with the name. Criminally handsome, filthy rich, with enough charisma to charm a rattler into being a lap pet. That said, she'd always viewed him as someone to study from afar. He moved in vastly different circles than she did, which was fine. Back in high school he dated only cheerleaders and she'd had no wish to break her arm in a cheerleading pyramid, or, now that they'd grown, his usual date's stiletto heels.
"Yeah." she snatched a cookie from her plate. "so is my strict comfort-food regime."
Fingers around her wrist, he playfully growled before biting off a good three-quarters of her treat.
Before she'd worked up a protest speech, he finished it off.
"Back to business." he said upon swallowing. "In about thirty seconds. I'm going to kiss you. If you play along. I'll forever be in your debt." With a tip of his cowboy hat, he looked as matter-of-fact as if he'd asked directions to the nearest bar.
Natalie lurched back far enough for the pool deck's wrought-iron fence to bite into her lower vertebrae. "How much champagne punch have you had?"
"Promise." he said in his lazy cowboy drawl. "I'm stone-cold sober. Plus, this whole godparent thing makes us practically family, and besides my date you're the only single female under the age of eighty and over the age of seven. You're my only hope."
"No." she insisted. "I've had the worst twenty-four hours in world history and"
Leaning into her personal space, his warm, sugar-laced breath acted like a brick thrown against her resolve. In the lifetime they'd been casual friends, she couldn't recall Wyatt having ever stood so close. Her pulse behaved badly, galloping over her common sense at an alarming speed.
Licking suddenly parched lips, she managed to mutter. "So, yeah, it's been a lousy day for me and I probably should just go home."
"Hell." He inched still closer. "That's what you want. I'll drive you. Just first help me with a kiss."
Where Natalie's words used to live now resided hitched breath and the kind of tingly awareness she shouldn't be feeling. But this was Wyatt Buckhorn standing before her, begging for a kiss. The scene didn't make sensenot in her carefully ordered world.
"So we're good?" Wyatt asked, hovering his lips above hers.
No! This assault against her senses was miles from good. But then, in true Buckhorn style, Wyatt claimed what he wanted, pressing his lips to hers. And then he wasn't just kissing her, but transporting her to another world. A place where she wasn't alone and trying to hide that she was five months pregnant, but shimmering with a slow, honeyed warmth spreading from her head to her toes. Wyatt's kiss was firm yet gentle. Sinful and wicked, but in a heavenly realm of good.
When she moaned, he stole the opportunity to sweep her tongue with his. The broad, leisurely stroke was too much, drowning her in powerful, sexy heat. Arms on autopilot, they twined about his neck, and she pressed her fingertips to the back of his head, urging him in for still more. When he finally released her, it was a struggle for Natalie to keep her rubbery knees from buckling.
"Damn " To Natalie's credit. Wyatt looked a little dazed himself by the power of what they'd shared. Did that mean it hadn't all been her imagination? "Um, that went better than expected."
Breathing still shallow, Natalie managed a nod.
He glanced away, red-faced. "We good?"
"Ah, in what sense?" she asked, doing a quick check to make sure her clothes hadn't spontaneously combusted from her superheated limbs.
"You know, like we're still pals?"
Pals? She choked back a laugh. If this was how he kissed a woman he thought of as his pal, she couldn't fathom the carnal gifts he'd dole out to an actual lover. "Um, sure."
"Thanks." After landing a sucker punch to Natalie's right shoulder, he nodded toward his scowling date. "Pretty sure that did the trick."
"Everyone line up for more pictures!" Georgina Buckhorn, Wyatt's mother, was in her element. Parties were her thing, and the over-the-top angel-themed christening for Josie and Dallas's second daughter together, Esther, was no exception. A trio of harpists provided ethereal song to the gorgeous Indian-summer afternoon. Buffet tables dripping in vintage lace and pearls held outrageously opulent cakes, candies and tarts. Antique-pink roses perfumed the air. "Natalie and Wyatt, you two hold the baby alongside the fountain. Dallas, throw glitter at them so they sparkle."
"I'm not pitching glitter at my child." Dallas barked, handing Esther to his brother. As the eldest of the Buckhorn men, he was also the least playful. A fact that, at the moment, served Natalie well.
"Again." Wyatt whispered above the fountain's gurgle for only her to hear. "I appreciate you helping me out with that kiss. I've been hinting to Starla for days that I'm not the kind of guy who's in it for the long haul, but she refuses to listen. By helping me provide a few more visual clues, you made the perfect assist."
"Sure. No biggee." Liar, her conscience screamed. Part of her wanted to rail at him for including her in such a stupid stunt. Then there was the portion of Natalie still humming with awareness and craving more of whatever Wyatt cared to offerand that girl wanted to thank him.
Georgina, camera in hand, directed. "I need a few with just the godparents. Natalie, you hold Esther. Wyatt, put your arm around Natand for heaven's sake, smile."
Unbearable didn't come close to describing the next five minutes. As much as Natalie had always viewed Wyatt as a fixture in her life, like a brother, she had to admitif only to herselfhe'd grown into one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen. Tall and lanky with spiky black hair and impenetrable brown eyes, he was the dark horse to his fair-haired brothers and sister. He'd been the epitome of Weed Gulch High cool. Star quarterback for football. Pitcher for baseball. He'd changed girlfriends as often as clothes. Wiley Wyatt, he'd been nicknamed for his refusal to commit.
"Nat," Josie Buckhorn called. "scoot closer to Wyatt. He's not going to bite." Natalie's best friend, a petite redhead with freckles and a perpetual smile ever since marrying Dallas, gestured for Natalie to sidle up to Wyatt.
"I might. Bite, that is." He aimed a wink toward his already miffed blonde date, which sent her stomping toward the open bar.
Natalie sighed. Wyatt's action was perfect. Just the sort of thing needed to plant her feet solidly back on the ground. Their kiss might've been scorching, but it was also make-believe. And from a guy apparently every bit as commitment-phobic as Craig.
"Just a few more," Georgina said, adjusting Esther's bonnet, "and we ought to have enough."
The baby started to fuss.
"You're done." Dallas growled at his mom and the high-priced Tulsa photographer. Taking the baby into his arms, he too headed for the bar.
Josie chased after him carrying their other daughter, Mabel.
Leaving Natalie on her own with her pal.
He cleared his throat, extending his hand for her to shake. "I really did appreciate your help. Sorry if our kiss got a little too, well nice."
"Apology accepted." Nice wasn't the word she'd have chosen for the hot tingles still coursing through her body from his touch. Now she wholeheartedly understood why women flocked to him. She'd just never counted herself as being among his groupies.
The afternoon wore on and on and on.
Around three. Natalie searched out Josie to say her goodbyes.
Unfortunately, her best friend wasn't going to let her run out that easily. "Don't even think about getting out of here before spilling every detail of that kiss."
Josie held Esther. Judging by the baby's fitful cries, the one-month-old didn't realize that the party in full swing was in her honor. "Does this mean you and Wyatt have finally succumbed to your base urges to make out and then get married?" As usual. Josie made zero attempt to hide her desire for Natalie to hook up with Wyatt. She'd launched her campaign nearly two years earlier, when she'd married Dallas, and had yet to see the futility of her actions.
"Give it up." Natalie said with a heartfelt sigh. "I know you mean well, but trust me, this bizarre dream of yours will never come true."
"Then why'd you kiss him?" Josie winked.
"He kissed me. A sad tactic to unload his date just in time for all-night poker." While most guests still mingled around the pool and Georgina Buckhorn's renowned garden, Wyatt and his possethe same guys he'd hung out with through high school and collegecould be seen through the den's picture window setting up for the game. They played during or after most of Georgina's parties; just because this was a christening made no difference to their routine.
"Still." Josie said. "it looked hot. Was it?"
Lie! Natalie's voice of reason screamed. If she showed the smallest chink in her Anti-Wyatt Wall, Josie would use it to her advantage. Shrugging. Natalie said. "I've had better."
Josie rolled her eyes. "Mark my words, one of these days you two will discover each other, and when you dopow!" In the process of waving her arm, she startled the baby into a full-blown wail. "Oops. Shh " Jiggle, jiggle. "Sorry, sweetie, Mommy didn't mean to scare you. She was just trying to make Auntie Nat see how much she secretly adores Uncle Wyatt."
"On that note " Natalie kissed the crown of Esther's downy head. "I'm exhausted, but still have a few baskets to make for school tomorrow."
"Excuses, excuses." Josie's expression said she wasn't buying Natalie's exit speech. "See you in the morning."
"Looking forward to itOh, and if you get a sec after the festivities, would you mind rounding up any clothes Betsy and Bonnie have outgrown? I've got a few families in desperate need."
"Absolutely," Josie said, ambushing Natalie in a hug. "Thanks again for comingand agreeing to be this one's godmother. It means the world to Dallas and me."
Natalie was Weed Gulch Elementary's counselor, where Josie taught kindergarten. Though it wasn't in her official job description. Natalie made care baskets she delivered anonymously to community families. Usually, she looked forward to organizing donated goods into utilitarian gifts, but as she climbed into her white VW bug all she truly wanted to doaside from reliving Wyatt's criminally hot kisswas take a nice, long nap.