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Hank Night Horse believed in minding his own business except when something better crossed his path. A naked woman was something better.
Technically, Hank was crossing her path. He was about to step out of the trees onto the lakeshore, and she was rising out of the lake onto the far end of the dock, but the breathtaking sight of her made her his business. She was as bold and beautiful as all outdoors, and she was making herself at home. Maybe she hadn't noticed the moonrise, couldn't tell how its white light made her skin gleam like a beacon on the water.
At his side, Phoebe saw her, too, but she knew better than to give their position away without a signal.
With all that skin showing, the woman looked edible. Phoebe was trying to decide whether to point or pounce. Hank knew his dog. He couldn't help smiling as the woman turned to reach for a towel hanging over a piling. She was slender but womanly, with a long, sleek back and a sweet little ass. If he moved, if he made the slightest sound, he would kill a perfect moment. It would be a shame to see her…
…stumble, flail, go down on one knee. From graceful to gawky in the blink of an eye, the woman plunged headlong into the lake without a sound issuing from her throat. Hank was stunned.
Phoebe took off like a shot, and their cover was blown.
Fall back, regroup, find new cover.
She had the water, and he had the dog. Excuse my dog. She has no manners. And the woman…
… should have surfaced by now. Maybe the water had her.
Phoebe was paddling to beat hell. Hank skittered sideways down the pine-needle-strewn path until his boots hit the dock, reminding him that whatever he was about to do, the boots had to go.
And then what? He was a man of many talents, but swimming wasn't one of them. If the adoption people had told him Phoebe lived for the water, he would have walked right past her and taken the Chihuahua in the next cage. Instead, he'd saddled himself with a big yellow bitch who thought she was a seal. Or a dolphin. Dolphins could rescue swimmers, couldn't they?
Dive, baby, dive.
Swish! The woman's head broke the water's surface like a popped cork. Phoebe paddled in a circle around her, yapping exuberantly as though she'd scared up some game.
The woman spat a water-filled "Damn!" toward the open lake as Phoebe circled in front of her. "Hey! Where'd you come from?"
"She's with me." The water sprite whirled in Hank's direction. "You okay?"
"Fine. Where did you come from?"
Hank jerked his chin toward his shoulder and the pine woods behind his back. "My dog—Phoebe, get over here—my dog thought I shot you."
The woman laughed. A quick, unexpected burst of pure glee, which Phoebe echoed, adding gruff bass to bright brass.
"Are you coming in, too?"
He hadn't thought it through. Hadn't even realized he was sitting at the end of the dock with one boot half off. "Not if I don't have to. It looked like you fell."
"I did." Eyeing him merrily, she pushed herself closer with one smooth breast stroke. Her pale body glimmered beneath the rippling water. "I have fins for arms and two left feet that want to be part of a tail." She looked over at the dog paddling alongside her. "I'm not dead in the water. Sorry, Phoebe."
"She thought you were flapping your wings. If you really had fins, she wouldn't've bothered."
"But you would have?"
He pulled his boot back on. "The way you went down, I thought you'd had a heart attack or something."
"Klutz attack." She bobbed in place now, her arms stirring the water just beneath the surface. She made not going under look deceptively easy. "The water's fine once you get used to it. Now that I'm back in I wouldn't mind company."
"You've got some." He glanced straight down. Booted feet dangled over dark water. Damn. He felt like he was the one caught with his pants down. Had to get up now. He'd recover his dignity once he had something solid underfoot. Needed something to hang on to, and words were all he had. Keep talking. "That dog won't hunt, but she sure loves to swim."
He scooted toward the piling. "I'm not givin' up the best seat in the house." Until I can grab that post.
"So you're one of those guys who'd rather look than leap."
"I'm one of those guys who'd rather watch than drown."
There was that laugh again, warm and husky, like an instrument played well and often. "And you were going to save me exactly how?"
"By throwin' you a life boot." He smiled, more for his hand striking the post than his wit striking her funny.
"No need to." Her voice echoed in the night. "My feet are touching bottom."
"If I stood up, the water would only be up to my waist."
"From what I saw, that would make it about two feet deep."
"Come try it out." She dared him with a wicked, deep-throated chuckle. "Bring your depth finder."
What a sight. The strange woman and the dog he fed every damn day were treading in tandem, two against one. Phoebe should have known better.
"I've got a measuring stick." Hank grinned. "But it retracts in the cold."
"Speaking of cold…" She hooked her arm over Phoebe's shoulders. "If you're not going to join us, I'd like to take another stab at getting out."
Post in hand, he stood. "My feet are touching bottom."
"Yours is wet." He laid his hand on the towel she'd left hanging over the post. "Bring it up here and I'll dry it for you."
"One free look is all you get, cowboy. A second will cost you."
With the pounding of her fist she sent a waterspout into his face. He staggered back as Phoebe bounded onto the lakeshore.
"Damn! You must have ice water in your veins, woman."
"Warm hands, cold heart. Go back where you came from, please." She assumed a witchy pitch. "And your little dog, too."
If he could've, he would've. Back to the little house in the North Dakota hills where he'd grown up, where his brother lived with his wife and kids, and where the only water anybody had to worry about was spring runoff. Even though he liked the Black Hills—what red-blooded Lakota didn't?—he wasn't big on weddings or wild women. But Hank Night Horse was a man who kept his word.
He touched the brim of his hat. "Nice meeting you."
So this was what a real wedding was all about.
Hank scanned the schedule he'd been handed at the Hilltop Lodge reception desk along with the key to a room with "a great view of the lake." He'd told Scott—the host, according to the badge on the blue jacket—he'd already had a great view at the lake. Scott had promised him an even better one at sunrise, and Hank said he wouldn't miss it. But a wedding was something else. He'd witnessed a few horseback
weddings sandwiched between rodeo events, and he'd stood up for one of his cousins in front of a judge, but he'd never actually watched a guy jump through so many hoops just to trade promises.
Damn. A three-day schedule? His friend had claimed to be done with weekend-event schedules now that he'd hung up his spurs, but you'd never know it by the list Hank was looking at now. Social hour, wedding rehearsal, rehearsal dinner. He had to laugh at the thought of a rodeo cowboy publicly practicing his walk down the aisle. The sound of Western-boot heels crossing the wood floor brought the picture to life.
"What's so funny, Horse?" Zach Beaudry clapped a hand on Hank's shoulder. "You laughin' at me? You wait till it's your turn."
"For this?" Grinning, Hank turned, brandishing the flower-flocked paper beneath his friend's nose. "If you don't draw a number, you don't take a turn."
"My advice?" Zach snatched the schedule and traded it for a handshake. "Take a number. You don't wanna miss the ride of a lifetime."
"Here's two, just for you. Number one, I patch you cowboys up for a living. I know all about that ride of a lifetime. And number two…" Hank gave his starry-eyed friend a loose-fisted tap in the chest. No man wore his heart on his sleeve quite like a lovesick cowboy. "Nobody's askin' you for advice this weekend, Beaudry.
It's like asking the guy holding the trophy how he feels about winning."
"Damn, you're a smart-ass. Be careful you don't outsmart yourself. Come meet my family."
Hank followed Zach through a lobby full of rustic pine furniture, leather upholstery, and glass-eyed trophy heads. Rough-hewn beams supported the towering ceiling, and a fieldstone fireplace dominated one wall. They passed through a timber-framed archway into a huge dining room—bar at one end, dance floor at the other, rectangular tables scattered in between—flanked by enormous windows overlooking the lake. Hank wondered whether the shoreline was visible from the terrace beyond the massive glass doors. According to the plaque in the front entry, the lodge and the lakefront were products of a Depression-era Federal construction project, and everything about them was rough-hewn, but grand.
"This is my bride," Zach was saying, and Hank turned from the windows to the woman linking arms with her man. "Annie, Hank Night Horse."
She was small and pretty, and her smile seemed a little too familiar. But the way it danced in her blue eyes didn't connect, didn't feel like it had anything to do with him. And her curly golden ponytail looked bone dry. Hank held his breath and offered a handshake.
"Our wedding singer," the bride said in a soft, shy voice. "Thank you for coming, Hank."
"Sure." And relieved. He was sure he'd never heard the voice before, so he looked his buddy in the eye and smiled. "You did well, Beaudry."
"I did, didn't I?" Zach put his arm around his intended. "She's got a sister."
"You don't say." Hank lifted one shoulder. "I'm willing to sing for a piece of your wedding cake, but that's as far as I go."
"I'm just sayin', you got a great solo voice, man, but that solo livin' gets old."
"I'll bet it does. I know I don't like to go anywhere without Phoebe."
"She's here? Phoebe's here?" Zach's face lit up like a kid who smelled puppy. "Annie, if we can't get married on horseback, how 'bout we put Phoebe in the wedding party? She could carry the rings. She's like the physician's assistant's assistant. Hank's pretty good with his hands, but Phoebe's got heart. He's stitchin' a guy up, she's lovin' him up like only man's best friend knows how to do. Helps you cowboy up so you can climb back on another bull."
"He can't," Ann assured Hank. "We wrote it into the contract."
"That's good, 'cause I'm tired of sewing him up and watching him rip out my stitches in the next go-round."
"Where's Phoebe?" Zach demanded. "I'll bet she's not tired of me."
"She's outside. Caused me some trouble, so she's in the doghouse."
"No way. You tell Phoebe she can—" Zach glanced past Hank and gave a high sign. "Sally! Over here! I want you to meet somebody."
"Can he swim?"
That was the voice. "Sounds like I'm out of my depth again." Hank turned and hit her feet first with a gaze that traveled slowly upward, from the red toenails she'd claimed to be touching bottom to the blue neckline that dipped between pale breasts. He paused, smiled, connected with her eyes—blue, but more vibrant than her sister's—and paid homage again with the touch of his finger to the brim of his hat. Her short blond hair looked freshly fixed. "I like your dress."
"What's that? You like me dressed?"
"That, too. But clothes don't make the woman." He'd already seen what did.
"So true. I didn't catch your name."
"Hank Night Horse."
Ann looked up at Zach. "I have a feeling we missed something."
"I have a feeling this is the sister," Hank said as he offered his hand. Hers was slight and much colder than advertised. He gave it a few extra seconds to take on a little heat. He had plenty to spare.
"And this is the music man." Sounding as cool as her hand felt, Sally looked him straight in the eye.