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Wildewood Ranch lay an hour and a half outside San Antonio and had been in the Armstrong family for four generations. It boasted over twenty thousand acres of rich southwest Texas land, twenty-six ranch hands and five thousand head of Angus cattle.
And twenty-nine-year-old Trace Armstrong was the successful manager and half owner of the whole operation.
Or, rather, had been for the past six years. But with his older brother, Eric, a marine, coming home for good this weekend well, Trace expected everything would be thrown into a state of flux.
"Now that's the type of filly stallions will stand in line to service."
Trace tilted his cowboy hat back on his head and stared at the town's sheriff, who stood beside him on the bunkhouse porch. Had the old son of a bitch just said that about one of his ranch hands? Yes, he had. Trace knew this not because he'd followed John Brody's line of visioneven though it had been his own moments beforebut because Jo Atchison was the only "filly" currently on the premises.
A couple of cowboys chuckled behind him.
Trace grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck, which the day's drive had coated with dust and grime in the June heat. He was born to this land, so he supposed he should be used to the often explicit nature of the men's exchanges. But for reasons he preferred not to identify, Sheriff Brody's commentary didn't sit well with him.
"Too bad she's already got one," another of the ranch hands said.
Trace squinted into the bright orange ball that was the setting sun, watching Jo talk to her sometimes boyfriend, who had just pulled up on his Harley outside the stables. She was some two hundred yards away, so Trace couldmake out little more than her silhouette, but oh, what a silhouette it was. Legs that went on forever, full breasts and long, flowing dark hair. Jo was one of the ranch foreman's more recent hires. She'd started six or seven months ago, and had become the guys' favorite topic around this time of day, if only because of the absence of any other female on the ranch, and Jo's lack of response to their interest.
Trace turned away and leaned against the porch railing of the modern bunkhouse, ignoring his own desire to watch her. He told himself he wasn't like the other men, but in the end he was no different. Despite Jo's considerable talents as a wranglershe bested a lot of the guys on a bad day, and on a good day bested them allhe caught himself staring after her more times than he'd care to admit.
"I don't think you came all the way out here to drool after one of my ranch hands, did you, Sheriff?" he said quietly, taking a couple of beers from the nearby cooler, which had been set out with the barbecue dinner for the two dozen cowboys. He handed the older man a bottle.
Trace found his gaze wandering back to Jo, his gut tightening at the sight of the biker reaching out for her, and her swatting his arm away. She'd never given Trace cause to think she needed protection from anyone. On the contrary, she went out of her way to prove she was capable of taking care of herself.
He rubbed his chin, hiding his grin as he recalled his exchange with her earlier in the day. They'd been four hours on the range when he'd found his steed steering toward hers. He knew a few details about her. Some were on the form the ranch required all hands to fill out, others the result of an official background check they ran as a matter of course. She was from Beaumont, an only child. She'd had a few run-ins with the law in her teens assaulting an officer, disturbing the peace and public intoxicationbut her record had been clean since.
She had also been a U.S. Marine for six years, honorably discharged the month before she came to work on Wilde wood Ranch.
This morning, he'd watched as she took her hat off, piled her black hair on top of her head and put the hat back on, the result making her look not one bit less feminine.
"In the service where'd you serve?" he'd asked her.
Her blue eyes had registered surprise. But only for a split second, before she recovered her trademark grimace. One of the guys had said she always looked as if she'd just gone for a dump behind a tree and had used poison ivy for cleanup because there was nothing else around.
"He speaks," she'd said, rather than answering his question.
Trace had grinned. "Fair enough."
He hadn't said more than a handful of words to her since she'd hired on, and he remembered all of them "Welcome" and "See you back at the ranch" the most prominent. His reticence was partly because the other hands had been within earshot, but mostly because he was attracted to her in an awful way.
And it seemed like that wasn't going to change anytime soon. In fact, it was worsening. Just last night he'd woken up with a hard-on the size of Texas and she had been the dream girl responsible.
Which meant he needed to try another tactic to battle the attraction. It wouldn't stand for him to demonstrate anything but professional courtesy to their only female ranch hand. Forget sexual harassment; it just plain wasn't smart.
"You didn't answer my question."
She'd given him a small smile, her full lips turning up at the corners. "No, I didn't, did I?"
They'd ridden in silence for a couple of minutes, Jo darting out to force a couple of wayward steers back into the herd, then returning to his side.
"My brother, Eric, is in Iraq now," he said. "A member of your family as much as mine."
She'd looked at him from under the rim of her hat. "I met him briefly when I hired on here six months ago. He was home on leave."
Trace had figured she might have. "He's being honorably discharged this week."
She'd nodded. "I heard that."
He hadn't been surprised. There wasn't much else to do on these long drives except gossip and wait for the sun to set. Besides, there was a big welcome-home barbecue planned for Eric. Most of the hands were looking forward to it.
Trace had squinted at Jo, thinking that she wouldn't be one of them. She didn't strike him as a party girl.
"What made you sign up for the military?" he found himself asking.
She didn't say anything for a long moment, then asked quietly, "What made you not?"
He'd shifted his weight in the saddle. Then shifted again as she took off her shirt and tied it around her waist, revealing the snug white cotton tank she wore underneath. It scooped low on her tanned skin and clung to her breasts and narrow waist. Trace leisurely drank his fill of her fine form, then looked up to meet her gaze, finding a knowing look in her eyes even as she pulled her nicely toned shoulders back and readjusted her gloved hands on the reins.
"Look," she said, "I appreciate your effort to be cordial, but if you think you understand anything about me because I was a marine, you're driving your truck down the wrong road."
"I didn't realize I was driving down any road."
She gave him a long look, her eyes raking down his torso and then back up again. She seemed to know exactly where he wanted to put his truck. And for a moment he got the feeling she might open the gate for him to pass.
Instead, she dug her spurs into her horse's sides and galloped ahead.
He hadn't had another opportunity to speak to her since.
Oh, yes. Miss JoEllen Sue Atchison presented what his father might have called a quandary. She had to rate among the most beautiful, sexiest women Trace had ever come across. And was stubbornly determined to prove herself more than the sum of her comely parts.
He focused on her again now, watching as her boyfriend rocked his Harley up onto the stand and climbed off, following her into the stables.
"There she goes again," a ranch hand said.
Trace frowned, took off his hat and then dragged his bandanna out of a back pocket and across his forehead. There she goes again, indeed.
He had the feeling this was going to be another long, sweaty night imagining what exactly she did in that stable whenever her guy visited.
Trace idly wondered if he should trade in his truck for a bike .
"Come on, come on," Jo said breathlessly, fumbling to unbutton Carter Southard's jeans, only to be blocked by his belt buckle.
She shifted from where she leaned against a stall door and pushed him against it instead, pulling and tugging, kissing and hissing, desperate to fill the emptiness that gaped within her.
"Whoa, hold on there, Marine," Carter managed to mumble between assaults on his mouth. "Where's the fire?"
Jo looked into his ruggedly handsome face, taking in his five o'clock shadow, the slight crow's-feet that fanned out from his gray eyes, his dark hair, tousled from the motorcycle ride to Wildewood from Dallas.
She wanted to tell him that the fire was everywhere. It roared through her veins, under and over her skin, threatening to consume her if she didn't find a way to douse it. Now.
"I've been on the road for three hours in the summer heat," Carter grumbled. "I could use a shower and a cold beer."
Jo closed her eyes to shut out him and his words. If she was also trying to banish the image of one very striking ranch owner by the name of Trace Armstrong, she wasn't copping to it. She saw his suggestive grin every time she blinked, as if the image had been branded on the back of her eyelids.
Her mother's soft voice filled her head. If you're ever to be a proper Texas lady, JoEllen Sue, you're going to have to master patience.
Jo had heard the words when she was three and was stuffing the pink tutu her mother had bought her into the garbage disposal after a disastrous ballet lesson.
"Screw patience," she whispered now, pushing Carter against the stable wall.
Her muscles were tight, and her entire body seemed to vibrate with an energy she needed to release.
Truth was, she'd been hot in a way that had nothing to do with the summer heat ever since Trace Armstrong had sidled up beside her earlier in the day, resting his brown eyes on her and making no secret of the fact that he found her physically attractive.
Truth be told, she'd known that fact since the moment she'd signed on for the temporary, seasonal stint at the ranch. Spotted it the instant her gaze met his, and that undeniable crackle of electricity traveled between them. She'd been fresh out of the service, traveling around South Texas taking odd ranch jobs, when she'd heard that Wildewood was hiring.
She'd had no idea of the fringe benefits that would go along with the position, and now she seemed more drawn to Trace than was safe. Attraction to the boss might have compelled her to leave other places she'd worked. Especially considering she'd spent so much of her life yearning to be judged by her actions and the job she did rather than on her appearance.
Now Carter said, "God, I wish I'd have known you in the sandbox."
She bit his bottom lip and then kissed him restlessly. "If you'd known me in Iraq, you would never have gotten next to me."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that."
"Oh, I'mpositive," she said. "The last thing you want to do with someone who's supposed to be protecting your six is give them a reason to be preoccupied with it."
"Six" was military speak for "ass."
Carter chuckled and then groaned when she ground her hips against his.
The two of them had met two years ago on a transport back from the Middle East. They'd both been on leave, and Jo had ended up staying with him for a couple of days of intense R & R in Dallas before heading down to see her parents in Beaumont late. The welcome-home cake had been stale. The punch gone. And her mother so inconsolable she'd taken to bed with one of her "spells", as her father called her bouts of depression.
It had ended up being one of the best leaves Jo had ever had. Partly because she'd met Carter. Mostly because she'd gotten to spend uninterrupted stretches of time with her father.
Which made her feel guilty just thinking about it. Another emotion she wanted to squash with physical activity.
She shrugged out of her denim shirt, revealing the tank she wore underneath. Carter immediately palmed her right breast, squeezing through the cotton and her bra. She batted his hand away and gave his belt buckle another go.
"Jesus, Carter, what is this? The male equivalent to a chastity belt?"
His chuckle tickled her ear, along with his tongue.
Her exasperation boiled over.
"Oh, just forget it," she said, starting to put her shirt back on.
"Aw, baby, don't be like that," he said, reaching for her.
She picked up his hat and tossed it to him. It hit the area of his anatomy that disappointed her most. He trapped it there with his hand.
"Hey," he said, pushing himself off the wall. "I ate three hours of road to see you, Jo. What's up?"
"I'm not in the mood anymore."
If she were being honest, she'd admit that wasn't the only factor. Being so close to Beaumont, and the complicated problems that existed with her parents, seemed to wreak havoc with her emotions in a way she didn't quite understand. It wasn't as if the difficulties were new. She'd pretty much grown up with them, even if they had become more serious.
Still, a good sack session had always been enough to chase away the shadows of the past, if not shine a fresh light on the future.
Carter did up the buttons on his jeans. A horse neighed and poked its nose out of the stall, and he stepped aside to avoid it.
"That's funny. I was just thinking that you haven't much been in the mood since you took this damn job. You call, tell me you want to see me, then I get down here and you find some reason to be pissed at me."
She started buttoning her shirt, surprised to find her hands trembling.
"Since the moment I pulled up you've done nothing but bitch."
She said quietly, "Yes, well, if you'd give me the attention I want when I want it, maybe I wouldn't be so upset."
His grin reminded her of times past, when they'd shut themselves up in a seedy motel room on the outskirts of Dallas for days on end, leaving only to get beer and burgers.
The problem now was that it hadn't been his grin she'd been seeing when she closed her eyes moments ago; it had been Trace's.