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The last thing John Coleman had planned to do when he woke up to the stench of petroleum and the roar of his oil rig was to go chasing after Maddie Gray.
Jamming the phone against his ear, Cole—as everybody from Yella, Texas, called him—leaned back in his leather office chair and rubbed his throbbing temple. "What do you mean Maddie's come back to Yella and she's nursin' Miss Jennie?"
Miss Jennie had been their beloved high school English teacher.
Cole knew his soft drawl sounded mild, even disinterested, as he spoke to Adam, his older half brother, yet Cole was anything but calm.
During his marriage to Lizzie, which had ended when she'd died almost a year ago, he'd dreaded the thought of his childhood sweetheart coming back to town. Because he'd feared how he might react. But he was a widower now, and he'd been thinking about Maddie of late, thinking he might just drive to Austin and look her up. So far he'd always managed to talk himself out of it.
What kind of sap carries on a secret teenage affair with the town's bad girl and then can't move on after she treats him like dirt?
Hell, six long years had come and gone. And still his mind burned with memories of Maddie's fine-boned face, her heart-shaped lips, her violet eyes and ebony hair, and ample breasts. Why couldn't he forget how radiant her face had been every time she'd lain beneath him? Because she'd been more than beautiful. She'd been smart and gifted, especially with contrary horses.
But she had bad genes. Maddie's mother had stolen husbands, fathers—indeed any man who would have her. And in the end, her own daughter had turned the tables on her by stealing her boyfriend and running off with him, leaving Cole behind.
"Miss Jennie fell over a garden hose and cracked her pelvic bone," Adam said, interrupting Cole's thoughts. "Maddie's here to take care of her until Miss Jennie's niece from up in Canada can get down here. Nobody in town can stop talking about Maddie. About how well educated and classy she is now. About how's she's got herself a college degree and all. Cole, she's so damn beautiful she takes your breath away."
"You've seen her?"
His half brother hadn't moved to Yella until after their dad's death, which had occurred shortly after Maddie had run off, so Adam hadn't known Maddie when she and Cole had been together.
"I dropped by first thing this mornin'! All the guys have been stopping by Miss Jennie's place to check on her, so I figured I'd better check on her myself."
"Just to make sure she's gettin' proper care and all. Oh, is Maddie ever beautiful. All curves and creamy skin. She has the softest voice and the sweetest smile—one that lights everything up."
"Enough!" Cole growled.
The brothers' telephone call had centered on ranch business until this last bit of local gossip. When Cole was away from Yella, Adam usually ended their calls about the family business by filling him in on the latest scuttlebutt.
"Well, don't you be going back there just to see Maddie, you hear." It was strange how much more annoyed than usual Cole suddenly was with his older brother. "You're to steer clear of Maddie Gray. I don't care how polished she is now, she's no good. Never was. And never will be."
"Something's sure got you riled this morning." There was an edge in Adam's voice now, too.
"Pressure here on the rig. You know how I was telling you this damn drought has shale frac water in short supply? Well, I'm facing the possibility of having to drill a deepwater well. All the drillers are overbooked except for one bandit who says he'll put me first, but only if I make it worth his time by paying him triple. And now you're distracting me with idle gossip about a no-good woman like Maddie."
"She's the interim CEO of some nonprofit in Austin called My Sister's House. She's worrying herself to death over some fundraiser she's in charge of in a couple of weeks. Sounds like she's trying to do some good, at least, doesn't it?"
"Camouflage! It's an ancient trick."
"Well, I liked her. Oh, and she's got a little boy she left back in Austin at camp. He's six years old. Noah. Miss Jennie's got loads of pictures of him. He's cuter than a bug. Black hair green eyes. He reminds me of someone." There was an odd note in his brother's voice. "All in all, Maddie didn't seem the least bit bad. She's nothin' like her mother."
The last thing Cole wanted to hear was praise for Maddie, or her son. Especially not from his half brother, who often resented him because of their father's mistakes, so he told Adam he was a fool to fall for anything Maddie Gray said and ended the call.
So, Maddie was back, dazzling the town, even his brother. And she had a kid. Who was the father? Vernon? The timing would be about right. Cole had always been careful to protect her, so he knew the boy wasn't his.
Cole pushed his mug of strong black coffee aside so roughly, the steaming liquid sloshed onto several important drilling leases. With thoughts of Maddie stirring his blood, he didn't need more caffeine.
Edgily he shoved the papers aside and stared out the window. He slid his jean-clad legs onto the top of his desk and stacked one scuffed, black, ostrich-skinned cowboy boot on top of the other. It was early yet, but already a brilliant sun blasted the desolate Texas landscape. Thanks to his air conditioner, the interior of his trailer was icy. That was the only thing he liked about living at the drill site for weeks on end while he worked a field. But even the chilled air couldn't keep out the hot memories of Maddie.
Too well he recalled the first time he'd actually spoken to Maddie, who'd been younger and poorer than him, and hadn't run in his social circle.
He'd driven home from the University of Texas on a Friday and had gone looking for his girlfriend, Lizzie Collier, over at her daddy's ranch. It had been spring and the pastures had been filled with bluebonnets.
When Cole had stepped inside the barn and hollered for Lizzie, one of the horses, Wild Thing, had gone off like dynamite, neighing and kicking his stall door. Cole thought Wild Thing was too dangerous to fool with but Lizzie had the softest heart in the world. When she'd found out Old Man Green was starving Wild Thing and beating him, she'd talked her dad into buying the horse. Her father had hired more than a dozen horse whisperers to save the animal, and when they'd failed, Lizzie's father had wanted to put him down. Lizzie wouldn't hear of it.
Cole hadn't thought too much about the ruckus the horse was making until he heard a crooning voice inside the stall. Thinking Lizzie might be trapped, Cole had rushed toward the stall door.
"Shh!" chided a young, defiant voice from inside the stall.
Since Cole couldn't see too clearly in the shadows, he took the slim figure wearing jeans and a baseball cap turned backward for the young male groom who worked for Lizzie's dad.
Fixating on Cole, the gelding's ears swept so far back against his narrow gray skull they all but vanished. Then the big animal lowered his head as his pale forelock shot over terrible eyes that rolled backward. Half rearing, the animal charged, his hooves splintering a board.
"Get out of that stall, boy!" Cole commanded.
Wild Thing's eyes rolled crazily. Again the gelding reared to his full height and heaved himself with murderous intent against the stable door.
The boy jumped back and flattened against the wall. "Are you trying to kill me?" In the confusion the kid's baseball cap hit the sawdust, and a lustrous mane of black hair tumbled down the imp's shoulders. And across breasts.
What male with an ounce of testosterone wouldn't have recognized her sinfully gorgeous, exotic features—Maddie's creamy pale skin, her voluptuous mouth, her violet-blue eyes? Hell, she looked exactly like her no-good mother, Jesse Ray Gray, the town's most notorious slut.
Cole's gaze seared her ample breasts, which heaved against her faded blue cotton work shirt. She'd filled out since he'd seen her last. If her tight clothes were any clue, she'd probably be up to her mother's tricks—if she wasn't already.
"You're Maddie Gray," he repeated accusingly, disliking her more than a little because she stirred him.
"So what if I am?" Her beautiful mouth tightened rebel-liously.
Wild Thing's eyes rolled, and he neighed shrilly. "Please lower your voice and start backing away," she ordered.
At least she wasn't a total simpleton. She saw the folly of being penned in such a small enclosure with a monster like Wild Thing.
"I said back away!" she repeated. "Can't you see you're scaring him?"
She began to speak to the startled horse in a sweet, soothing murmur Cole would have envied if he wasn't so furious at her for her foolhardiness and willingness to blame him for her own stupidity.
"It's okay, big baby. Nobody's going to hurt you," she said huskily in a purr that would have oozed sex had she been talking to a man.
A gray ear perked up. Not that the large animal didn't keep his other ear flat and a suspicious eye on Cole.
"You've gotta go," the girl urged when Wild Thing danced impatiently.
"Not until you get out of that stall," Cole said.
"I will, you big idiot—just as soon as you shut up and leave." For the horse's sake, she kept her insult soft and sweet.
Cole's stubbornness made him stand his ground a few seconds longer, but her pleading eyes finally convinced him. After Cole left, it took another minute or two before the horse settled and the girl was able to slip out. Strangely, no sooner was she safely outside the stall than Cole's temper flared again. He knew he should forget about her recklessness and go to the Collier house and wait for Lizzie, but Maddie had his blood up. So when he heard her light, retreating footsteps as she lit out the back to avoid him, he rushed after her. When she caught sight of him, she let out a cry of alarm.
Grabbing her arms, he shoved her against a wall. "You have no right to be on this property! Or to be in that monster's stall!" Cole yelled. "You scared the hell out of me!"
When Wild Thing screamed and sent his hooves crashing against wood again, Maddie stilled.
"I was just doing my job, okay?"
"I'll have you know Liam Rodgers hired me."
Liam, Lizzie's daddy's foreman, was no man's fool. "Why you? Why would he hire you, of all people, when he could hire the best?"
She frowned. "Maybe because I know what I'm doing. While you've been off at college driving your fancy cars and chasing girls, I've been mucking stalls to get free riding lessons. Maybe I've learned stuff. When he saw Wild Thing stand calmly and let me saddle him in the round pen, Liam about fainted. When I rode the horse just as easy as you please, Liam hired me."
"Well, you can't possibly know enough to work with that monster."
"I did what twelve men couldn't do!"
"You got lucky! Now you listen to me. A normal horse weighs half a ton and has a brain the size of a tomato. Such an animal is wired to defend himself against predators, which includes humans, even half-pint girls like you."
"I know all that!"
"That horse is a maniac. You shouldn't be anywhere near him—not in the round pen, not in his stall, not ever!" Her chest swelled, and her eyes narrowed rebelliously.
Her dark look only fueled his fury. "Don't you get it? Next time he'll kill you!"
"Not if you stay out of this barn and let me do my job!"
"Right! So, it's my fault? I have half a mind to report this to Mr. Collier."
"No! If I don't save him, Mr. Collier will kill him."
"No! Please He's better. I know he's still easy to startle, but he'll get even better. It's just going to take time and patience. He's been through a lot."
"He's a killer."
"Not many living creatures get the easy, pampered start in life you've had. That's why you can't possibly understand what it's like for the rest of us!"
Her lovely voice had softened with desperation and love for Wild Thing but it didn't hold a trace of self-pity. When her impassioned eyes misted, he noticed they were as beautiful as sparkling amethysts.
"I know you don't care what I think, but Lizzie loves him. Spare him for her sake!"
The girl was passionate, compassionate and despite her ragged jeans and faded shirt, gorgeous, as well.
Damn those eyes of hers. Again they reminded him ofjew-els, with lavender facets of light and dark that made his blood run hot and cold. Those damn eyes, coupled with having held her too close for too long in a shadowy barn that afforded him the privacy to follow through on his desire, had him hard as granite. Aware of her soft, slim body pressed tightly into his, he didn't even try to defend himself from the heat that her sexy curves generated.
It would be so easy to take her right here.
Her mouth was full and luscious and suddenly he wanted to kiss her, to dip his tongue inside and taste her. Would she open her mouth and let him?
The heat in her gaze was generated from some emotion. Maybe she felt what he did.
"What?" She had gone still. Her eyes never left his face. "Let me go!" Her voice was shallow.
"You don't want me to do that, and you know it." In the grip of a need too fierce to deny, his voice was raspy.
His gaze moved hungrily lower. She had soft, lush breasts. Hell, he wanted way more than a kiss, and he wanted it very badly. She was Jesse Ray's daughter, so she probably wanted it, too.
Feeling justified in testing a girl of such easy virtue, he gripped her shoulders and pulled her closer. Before she could react, he lowered his mouth to hers so he could take his first taste of her. His lips were hard and demanding because he expected easy compliance. And for an instant she responded just as favorably as he'd imagined, by gasping and sighing and clutching him closer. Her lips did part, and he felt her tongue, if only for an instant. Then almost immediately she stiffened. Recoiling, she balled her hands and began to pound at his chest, thrashing wildly.
When he didn't immediately let her go, her face flushed with anger. "You wouldn't treat Lizzie like this! You wouldn't try to take her in a barn like she was something cheap and easy without ever even having a single conversation with her!"
"Well, you're not Lizzie Collier, are you? You're Jesse Ray's girl."
"And that makes me too low to have feelings like you and your kind? Well, I do have feelings! And I'm not like my mother, you hear! So, go find your precious, saintly Lizzie Collier, and leave me in peace! She's your girlfriend. Not me! And I wouldn't ever want to be!"
But the last was a lie. The quick tears of shame and desolation in her lovely eyes and the thick pain in her ravaged tone told him so. She wanted him, but on equal terms. She didn't want to be someone cheap in his eyes. Her pride, as well as her longing for him, tugged at his heart and made him feel ashamed even as it made his desire for her increase a thousandfold.
He hadn't misread her. She had wanted him, badly. But Jesse Ray's daughter had as much self-respect as Lizzie Collier did any day.
Posted October 24, 2013