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Jenny Ryder's senses heightened as she stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the hundred-year-old building. Anxiety tasted sharp in her mouth. Cars rumbled along Main Street, vibrating under her feet. And the majestic sight of the cloud-covered Gold Ridge Mountain was reflected in the Bank of Red Valley's glass door as she grabbed the cold metal pull. She had an appointment with the bank president, Jacob Campbell, who held her future in his hands.
She felt all grown up in the bank's cool, quiet environment, and was glad she'd dressed like a woman who meant business, not a college student.
Jenny glanced around, not seeing anyone she knew well enough to greet beyond a wave and a smile, even though she'd been born and raised in the small northern California city. She headed straight to Mr. Campbell's office. His assistant greeted Jenny, then led the way to the open door.
The sixtyish man stood and offered his hand. "No pigtails anymore, I see.''
"I couldn't if I tried," she said. She'd had her wavy auburn hair cut to a more carefree chin length last week. Wash and wear. She'd save time and energy during what she hoped would be very busy days ahead.
"Have a seat, Jenny.'
Her knees almost gave way as she lowered herself into a chair across the desk from him. A folder lay open on top. Even upside down she recognized the request-for-loan document she'd painstakingly filled out. Behind it would be her business plan and a personal plea. Her family's business, Ryder Ranch, had been the bank's first customer a hundred years ago. The relationship had held steady through the economic ups and downs of cattle ranching. That should mean something.
"So, you're the last college graduate of your family. That's quite an accomplishment," Mr. Campbell said.
"Our parents were uncompromising," she said with a smile.
"But you majored in farm management, even though the family business is cattle ranching."
"There wouldn't have been room for me at the ranch, not in any position of consequence." She tried not to fidget but she really wanted to end the small talk and get on with her life.
"I can see how anxious you are," Mr. Campbell said, "so I won't make you wait. The loan committee denied your request. I'm sorry."
She felt as if she'd plunged headlong into a wind tunnel. She saw his mouth moving but couldn't hear the words over the roar in her head. Denied. She'd been counting on
"I wish I could refer you to someone else, Jenny, but I doubt you'll find a bank willing to give a novice a loan. Unless, of course, your father will co-sign, but you indicated you didn't want to ask him. Without collateral and a great deal of experience in the field, no one will want to take that kind of risk. You don't even have an income."
Technically she had collateral. She just couldn't use it. "If I got the loan, I'd have a job," she said, trying to smile. Keeping a tight rein on her emotions, she shook his hand before she escaped. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Campbell. I appreciate it."
"Wish I had a different answer for you."
Thirty seconds later she was headed out of town, going nowhere in particular. Just going.
Win Morgan had heard Jenny Ryder was coming home. He'd checked her college's website for the date of her graduation ceremonyJune eighthand figured she'd be back this week, but he hadn't expected to see her right away.
But there she was, almost burning rubber as she took the main road out of town in her fuel-efficient car, which stuck out like a sore thumb among the abundance of pickup trucks.
Win grimaced as she swerved to avoid a truck pulling away from the curb, but it didn't slow her down. She was upset. Or mad.
Or afraid of something?
She'd always been a little high-strung and a lot stubborn, but four years of college should've settled her some, matured her.
Worried, he got into his truck and followed. He had something important to tell her, had already waited too long to do so. Now was as good a time as anyespecially since calling on her at Ryder Ranch was impossible. He was a Morgan, after all, and therefore from the enemy camp, their families rival cattle ranchers for more than 150 years.
A light rain started splattering his windshield as Win scouted the land for signs of her. Hay fields claimed most of the area, except for a grove of trees way off in the distance, at river's edge. Would she have gone there? It seemed unlikely, but there wasn't anywhere else. She would've been kicking up dust if it hadn't been sprinkling, which lessened his odds of tracking her.
As he neared the grove, he spotted her fireengine-red car headfirst in a ditch. Panic struck, then he saw her pop up and start kicking a tire again and again. "I work hard" she shouted. "Harder than any man."
Her feet went out from under her. She landed with a thud, yelling "Ouch!" then adding a few expletives for good measure.
He made his way toward the ditch. If she'd seen him, she hadn't given any indication of it. "You okay?"
Her eyes went wide. Then she curled her arms over her face and laughed, the tone more manic than humorous. "Great. This is just great. The worst moment of my life, and you're the one who witnesses it. My luck runneth over."
He crouched next to her, eyeing her for injuries. "Are you hurt?"
"Just my pride. And my car." She waved a hand toward the offending vehicle.
Apparently she was blaming the car, not the operator, for the accident. "Why were you driving like a bat outta hell?"
"It doesn't matter." Her shoulders slumped.
He'd rather see her mad than defeated, so he strode away. He heard her scramble to her feet.
"Wait. Please, Win. What about my car?" She hurried after him.
"I'm sure any of your big brothers or your father will come to your rescue." He turned and walked backward, then snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah. No cell service out here. Well, good luck with that, princess."
She plunked her fists on her hips. Good. He'd made her mad. She was back to being Jenny.
"You must own a satellite phone," she said.
"Must I?" He hadn't imagined wanting her still, not after all this time. The shock of it burst inside him, sending need and pain through every cell, every nerve. He had to fight the desire that had never died.
"Did you follow me?" she asked, narrowing her gaze at him, brushing the rain from her face. "I wanted to talk to you."
He hesitated. They were already taking one secret to their graves. He couldn't hold tight to his bigger secret, one that affected her, too. Still, he didn't know if he could tell her now. They were both too charged up, even if for different reasons .
"You cut your hair," he said.
She touched it but said nothing as they faced each other like duelists. Then the rain stopped being just a sprinkle and turned into a torrent. He grabbed her hand and pulled her along with him to his truck. The same truck in which they'd slept together for the first time four years ago. How the hell was he supposed to chase that image away?
"Do you have a towel or something?" Jenny asked, shoving her dripping hair from her face and plucking at her white blouse.
A blue bandanna landed in her lap.
"That's all I have. Sorry."
Jenny used it on her face. It smelled like him. Even after all these years, she remembered how he smelled. Tasted. Felt. His brown eyes and hair might be considered ordinary, but there was nothing ordinary about him. He was drop-dead gorgeous, and all man.
And the attraction was still there, sizzling, as if it had happened yesterday. It was why she'd avoided him every time she'd come home on school breaks.
Then she remembered he said he had something to tell her. Her heart pounded. She looked at his left hand. No ring. But maybe that was about to change.
She touched his bare ring finger, then jerked her hand back. Idiot. She had no claims on him. Why did she think she had the right
"I haven't gotten married," he said. "Guess you ruined me for anyone else."
She couldn't tell whether that was the truth or he was trying to lighten the moment with sarcasm. "Are you living with someone?"
His brows went up, but he answered, "Six ranch hands in a bunkhouse."
"Are you sleeping with anyone?" Mortified, she shoved her face in her hands. "Forget that. Please. I don't know why I asked."
He seemed amused by her embarrassment. "Well, there's a mouse who seems particularly fond of me." He took the bandanna she tossed back at him and dried his face. "Why are you interested in my love life, Jen?"
"You said you wanted to talk to me. I figured " She let the words trail. Really, what else could it be, except that he was seeing someone? She made a sound of helplessness. "I could really use a drink about now."
He leaned behind the driver's seat and grabbed a sack. "Your wish is my command," he said, presenting her with the six-pack of beer he'd just bought, bowing slightly, the steering wheel keeping the gesture small.
It made her smile. "Thanks, but no thanks."
He put away the bag. "Well, thanks for the walk down memory lane, anyway," he said, glancing at her wet shirt.
Just having him look at her made her nipples go hard. She put an arm across her breasts, covering herself, but hiding wouldn't do any good, and she knew it. He would remember what she looked like, the same as she remembered him. Nothing changed the fact that she'd given her virginity to him in a glorious moment, and in this very truck. He'd been patient and tender. They'd spent the summer after he'd graduated from college and she from high school meeting when they could in a private niche among the nearby grove of trees. One summer of stolen moments, of emotions taut and explosivethe thrill of a forbidden union, the shock of loving beyond understanding, at least on her part.
Now here they were, four years later, sitting in his truck, the rain creating a magic curtain around them, making it seem as if they were in a world of their own.
Memories assaulted her right and left. Her hands shook. She crossed her arms.
"Cold?" he asked.
She shook her head. "There's just so much going on in my head, snapshots like they sometimes show on TV, images flashing so quickly you can hardly keep up with them."
"Good or bad?"
"Mostly good. Some painful." She touched her fingers to her lips as if he'd just kissed her.
"I know ." He cupped her face with his hand. He didn't ask permissionmaybe he could already see she was willing. He pulled her closer. She expected a gentle kiss, one of remembrance, maybe even a kind of friendship they might have after all this time.
But he groaned as he kissed her, not wasting time with finesse but devouring her, arousing her, reawakening and rekindling what had been. His lips were familiar yet not. His large, rough, trembling hands roamed over her, unbuttoning her blouse and pants. He maneuvered, shifted and angled their bodies until they were both undressed and in the passenger seat, Jenny on top. She lowered herself onto him.
There was homecoming and welcome, and newness, too. She remembered everything about himand nothing.
Finally she was draped over him, both of them struggling to breathe, and the rain stopped as quickly as it started. The windows were steamed up from their breath and body heat, but the shield of rain was gone.
She sat up and studied his face. What are you thinking? she wanted to ask, knowing she didn't dare, not unless she wanted to know the answer. She didn't. He'd made it clear in his years of silence that he wanted nothing from her anymore. Even before, he'd only wanted sex. Their families were rivals. Their union never was meant to be.
But then he dragged his fingers down her bare body. "Do you ever think"
"Yes." She kissed him to stop the rest of the question, then they went about getting presentable again. Her hands shook. He brushed them away and buttoned her blouse.
Then he passed her his phone. "I don't have any chains in the truck or I'd try to pull you out of the ditch."
She called her father. He would assess the situation before they decided whether they needed a tow truck.
"You probably shouldn't be here when they arrive," she said to Win.
"I imagine they would think I was just being neighborly. Anyway, if they have caller ID, they already know whose phone you used."
She hadn't thought of that.
He eyed her directly, as if waiting for more from her. "Well. That was an unexpected pleasure," he said as he tucked her hair behind her ear then caressed her earlobe.