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"I should warn you about my cousin," Carla stated casually as she flew down the flat expanse of highway. After turning off Interstate 20 the road was virtually empty, a perfect opportunity to push the new Nissan 350ZX Turbo boy magnet she'd just given herself. This was the first real chance Carla had had to open it up and both girls were enjoying the speed and freedom the little car embodied.
"The fact is you're exactly his type a delicate thing who's china-doll pale with big blue eyes and black hair. Of course, he's older than we are, the first child of the oldest son and all. He probably has six chicks on a string anyway. Likely, you don't have to worry. He'll be busy."
"Worry? Why would I worry? He's not a rapist, is he?" Lauren asked, laughing at her friend who seemed serious about the warning. Until now it had been a relaxed, girls out kind of trip. For Lauren it was an even greater step into independence than most, a welcome chance to get completely away from her loving yet stiflingly protective family. This little taste of Thelma and Louise was just the ticket as far as she was concerned. She was unwilling to let anything ruin the carefree weekend as they cruised down the road with the windows open. The sage and sun-laden air felt and smelled like sweet freedom.
"No, no, nothing like that. It's just that he's so 'in charge' about everything. He's the stereotypical tall, dark and handsome cowboy," Carla grumped as her long body shifted uncomfortably behind the wheel. "He's really bossy, dictatorial and a general pain in the ass. I'm only going to the ranch because all my other cousins will be there, and, well, I'd like to see his reaction to you."
"Me? Why me? He's seen a million of me according to you," Lauren commented in growing concern.
"Yeah, but he's never met you. The original Ice Queen is what you are and you know it. I know I should have told you about him sooner, but I was afraid you wouldn't come," Carla confessed. "I've told everyone else about you and they can hardly wait to meet you."
"What? Who is 'everyone' and why are they so eager to meet me?" Suspicious and irritated, Lauren slid around to face her friend.
"The cousins. They, um, well...I told them you'd turn a cold shoulder on him for sure. They're sort of anxious to see that," Carla confessed.
"I see. You're selling tickets to a show, Carla? That's low. You're right. I wouldn't have come if I'd known what you're up to. It's not fair to me and certainly isn't fair to what's his name."
"Aw, Lauren. He's an arrogant, never been wrong, never been turned down jerk," Carla responded. "His name is Romeo."
"You're kidding," Lauren scoffed.
"Nope, seriously not kidding. Sick, isn't it? He's rich, good-looking and named Romeo. You can hardly blame us for wanting him to get a little taste of humble pie. You're just the ticket. The woman of his dreams who's never gonna be interested." Carla's attractive face twisted in a grimace while her wide hazel eyes sparkled with mischief. High energy radiated off her long, lean body even after several hours of tedious driving. In almost every way the two girls were exact opposites. One tall and in constant motion, the other petite and surrounded in an almost palpable calm. Their instant friendship was a mystery to most until you got to know them.
"Carla, I came as a favor to you. You begged me to come because you'd be so 'bored.' I didn't agree to be the main attraction. You know I've never been on a ranch before and that alone makes me uncomfortable, with all the large, stinky animals and things. You promised it'd be fun. Now you spring this convoluted tale of what revenge?" Lauren frowned darkly.
"Come on, be a sport. You don't have to do anything differently than you normally would. I didn't actually lie. The ranch is a blast when Romeo isn't hanging around making up a bunch of rules. He really is a pain in the ass," Carla continued.
"What do you mean, a lot of rules?" Lauren asked.
"You know, no running at the pool, no cannon balling each other, no playing bumper horse, it's endless," Carla explained.
"Sounds like reasonable safety stuff to me. Are the cousins a bunch of teenagers?" Lauren wanted to know, doubtful now that she'd heard the complaints.
"Oh, we're all around our age, twenty to twenty-five now. Last time we were all at the ranch I guess we were teenagers." Carla laughed. "Oh, well, he deserves it. The man lives a charmed life, I swear. He needs shaking up."
"I hardly think my visit will relieve all the angst I hear in you, Carla. It's more like you and your cousins need therapy over this guy. Good grief. Those rules were an attempt to keep you all alive to reach your twenties. I doubt he'll give me a second look anyway. You'll be disappointed again and the little chip on your shoulder will just get bigger," Lauren predicted. "In any case, I don't intend to perform like some dancing bear. If it weren't such a long way back, I'd make you take me home."
They were three hours and forty-five minutes into the trip. Turning around now would be another three hours and forty-five minutes of being mad at each other as they drove back. Yuck.
"Yeah, I knew you would. Part of why I didn't work up the nerve to tell you 'til just now. Come on, Lauren. You know I love you. You're the one who got me through that whole Philip fiasco. I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. The Romeo junk isn't that important. I just thought I should warn you," Carla sheepishly added.
"I have a feeling it's the only important thing about this trip, Carla. I detest subterfuge. You know that. Tell me about your other cousins. The wild monkey ones," Lauren demanded. "I get the feeling I'll be the odd one out anyway. What the hell is 'bumper horse' and is it as dangerous as it sounds?"
Laughing at her city friend, Carla proceeded to explain bumper horse and various other activities. Soon Carla turned into an imposing entry gate and drove up a long, winding road to the Texas ranch her cousin owned. The drive was long enough for her to get through a short history of the ranch and its present bad-boy owner.
The ranch was the original family homestead, but now it was owned and operated by Carla's oldest cousin. His parents had died tragically young in a private plane crash. He'd been seventeen, an only child. His grandparents had still lived at the ranch then so they'd been his guardians. By the time Romeo turned twenty-two, they'd both passed away. He'd been sole owner and completely in charge for fifteen years now. His aunts, uncles and their families visited often. Somehow, he'd managed to retain the ranch as the family hub for the entire clan.
Privately Lauren was intrigued, although Carla told the whole story in an offhanded manner. Carla was not impressed with the man who'd been forced into the responsibilities of adulthood so young. As far as she was concerned, he'd been an ass forever.
As they pulled up to the sprawling ranch house, Lauren grinned. It looked like a scene from a western movie. The main house was a prominent feature but surrounded by barns and outbuildings in easy walking distance. A massive operation if you went by the number of barns, Lauren decided. A porch wrapped around the rambling house, which had obviously grown through several decades and styles. The resulting massive structure retained a relaxed casualness expressed in the comfortable rockers and porch swings distributed along the entire veranda. The landscaping surrounding the house was gracious and welcoming, as was everything about this large working operation.
Lauren stepped out on the far side of the car while Carla sprang up from behind the wheel to greet a number of young people. Lauren took the few seconds she remained unnoticed to glance about. The tang of cut hay mixed with animal scents drifted up from the barns. It wasn't unpleasant, just a sort of fresh outdoors smell she wanted to inhale into every part of her. It was a smell she'd never experienced before in a life filled with sterile interiors. Her gaze drifted to the side of the house to see a huge dog race around the corner. Following the dog sauntered a large man using a battered cowboy hat to beat the dust off his body. The man was tall and moved with the loose-limbed grace of muscles honed and developed through hard use. His rolling gait was simply the cowboy stroll at its finest. His dark head was bent as he whacked thick thighs with the hat. The shirt stretched interestingly across his heavily muscled chest might have been white or beige at one time, now it was mostly dirt-red and sweat-stained. The soft material moved with him to mold a flat abdomen then disappear into low-riding jeans. Slim hips seemed emphasized by the powerful long legs below them.
The man glanced up at the commotion and while his face didn't change, Lauren received the impression of a grimace as his eyes slid over the sporty little car they'd arrived in. His dark, lazy gaze traveled to the boisterous crowd and suddenly he looked directly into her eyes. Lauren blinked at the shocking intensity of that gaze and glanced down at the stampeding dog again. Coming from the side made its path a direct line to Lauren first. The dog was completely okay with the arrangement as he managed to doggy-grin and wag his tail while pounding across the lawn. Lauren weighed a hundred and ten pounds the dog had her beat by at least seventy and showed no signs of slowing down. Lauren considered jumping in the car again but that just seemed too cowardly. No one else appeared concerned. They wouldn't let a killer dog run loose, would they?
A plump lower lip sucked and white teeth clamped down on it as she watched the thundering approach. Abruptly a low whistle pierced the air and the dog stopped, turned in a flash and rushed back at the man. Lauren's eyes shot up to him and a hint of a grin met her gaze. He kept moving toward the group as a whole but looked only at her. His focused attention was just beginning to feel uncomfortable when Carla called her name and waved her around the car to start introducing Lauren to the boisterous gang. Smiling and greeting each one with seeming undivided interest, Lauren still knew exactly where the cowboy was at all times. He stood back and watched, the dog squirming at his side. The feeling that his eyes never left her was unsettling, but at least the dog didn't leave his side either.
Romeo was content to wait while Carla introduced her friend around to his cousins. It gave him a minute to enjoy the view. His first look into those liquid blue eyes had sent a sharp bolt of heat straight to his cock. From this slight distance, he drank in a long look at the rest of her and experienced the sensation of his life flashing before his eyes. Bachelor days were over. Heat surged up from his crotch like a swarm of angry bees. It enveloped him with stinging awareness. He'd been attracted to compact little women all his life, but he hadn't known there was a perfect one out there. This curvy feminine being with her flawlessly beautiful face was the one he'd been looking for.
Her every feature seemed painted with perfection. Huge, dark blue eyes, full inviting lips, a shining cap of soft black curls tumbling around her head. She was barely five feet four inches tall, but no one could mistake her for a child. The gentle slope of breast and hip drew the male eye like a magnet. His absolute awareness of her femininity overwhelmed him for a moment. Her delicate bones, the graceful way she tilted her head and smiled at something one of the idiots said. Even the way her body shifted as she turned to another member of the family captivated him.
He was damn glad to hear her name wasn't Juliet. That would have been just too much. As it was, he'd have a hell of a time not jumping her in the next ten minutes. It was surprisingly difficult to control the elemental drive to claim what he considered his already. This aggressive need to possess her wasn't even remotely rational, he realized in amazement. Romeo wasn't comfortable with the conviction that this was his woman. He wasn't arguing with it, just startled by it. Yeah, that was probably the biggest understatement since "Houston, we have a problem."
She stood there and changed his world by merely existing. Making up his mind swiftly was both a curse and a blessing, but that's how he'd always been. This time it shoved him off the edge of the planet into an unknown universe. His future suddenly stretched before him full of things he'd thought were a long way off. Now he could hardly wait to get there. He'd imagined feeling trapped when some crafty female finally made him contemplate walking down the aisle, not this overwhelming drive to propel her there as fast as possible.
Her wide-eyed look at Edgar told him large animals intimidated her. She also looked tired. He noticed tiny lines of strain around her edible mouth. Schooling his features not to frown at that, he waited for Carla to get around to him. The primitive monster that was his need to protect and control a loved one's environment reared its head. The need to cosset and pamper infiltrated lust with searing urgency, shoving aside all other considerations as he studied those telltale signs, which were chillingly familiar. He wanted to whisk her off to a soothing environment, to personally ensure his overactive family remained at bay until she felt better. He ruthlessly wrestled the possessive monster into submission and consciously projected civilized urbanity.
Romeo stepped forward as Carla finished with everyone else. "Hello, hellion," he greeted her warmly.
Laughing, Carla went up on tiptoes to peck his cheek while warning him, "Don't you touch me, Romeo. You're filthy."
Lauren had known who it was. No way to miss the air of quiet authority draped across the wide expanse of his dusty shoulders. He might look like a ranch hand, but his presence said "master of the domain." His above-six-foot height made him imposing, but it was the dark intensity of aristocratic features that told one of his Spanish ancestors mingled with the tough Texan survivors of a bygone age. It created a sinfully handsome man with thick black hair, which now fell over his brow in Rhett Butler rakishness. From the top of his glossy head, down his chiseled nose to the cleft in his perfect chin, the man was just ridiculously handsome.
Carla turned to Lauren. "This is my friend Lauren. I knew you wouldn't mind one more this weekend."
"What?" Lauren sputtered, grateful for a good excuse to drag her eyes off his unbelievable face. "You didn't tell him you were bringing a guest?" she demanded of Carla. Oh great, just great. Not only was she the dancing bear for half this crowd, she was an unexpected guest to the other half.
"Romeo doesn't mind. Do you?" Carla insisted.
"No, not a problem. Nice to meet you, Lauren, I hope you enjoy the ranch." His low voice seemed to vibrate down to her bones as he held out a hand to her. Placing her slender hand in his large grip shot that vibration right back out again with an electric jolt to her system. Damn, not a good indicator for the Ice Queen expectation.
"I'm sure I will," she managed in a steady voice as she pulled away from his gentle grip. "Sorry if it's an inconvenience," Lauren added self-consciously.
"Don't be silly," one of the young men assured her. "Another beautiful face is always welcome, right, Romeo?" The young man turned to Carla. "Hot car, hellion. You didn't say you'd gotten a new one. Can I drive it?" Lauren decided the family resemblance was most pronounced in the high energy radiating off each one of these cousins. All of them tall...well, anyone was tall compared to her, but the family seemed to breed tall and good-looking right down the line. The constant motion thing would have marked them though. In a group, they were like a force of nature.
Before Carla could answer, Romeo's deep voice interjected smoothly. "Perhaps the girls would like to take their bags in and relax first, Steve. It's a four-hour trip down here. Pop the trunk, Carla." His tone was low and quiet, but there was no suggesting about it. Those soft directions were commands. Lauren immediately recognized the attitude that drove Romeo's cousins nuts.
A little smile snuck up her face and she had to look down to hide the amusement. When she glanced up again, Romeo shot her a questioning look. He'd seen her instant amusement and questioned it with a raised brow. Lauren pretended not to see the brow as she reached into the now open trunk for her one bag. A large hand closed over hers from behind and gently moved her hand aside as Romeo lifted out her bag.
"This it?" he questioned softly, his tone intimate in the midst of the crowd. Around her, Lauren felt watching eyes and avid expectations. He now stood beside her to curve his large body over hers for the bag. His scent of fresh-cut hay, pine and just pure male enveloped her in a slightly dizzying fog of strange new hormones she didn't know what to do with. No, no, no. These vultures were not going to read anything from her interaction with Romeo.
Being careful not to breathe in too deeply and lose all hope of rational thought, she resolutely turned slightly away from him. "Yep, and the rest are Carla's." Lauren smiled brightly and intentionally looked over at Steve. "You look like you're into weightlifting, Steve, they should be no problem for you." Her flirty joking blended into the ribbing and diffused the attention off her and Romeo.
Steve and his younger cousin Jason grabbed Carla's bags and commenced to loud groaning at the weight. Carla smacked both of them on the back of the head in playful protest and everyone moved toward the house. Somehow, Romeo was right beside Lauren with a large hand at her back as she went up the steps to the porch. She moved away from him quickly, trying to be casual as the group entered the house to greet more family in the form of aunts and uncles.
The large entry, which had probably been the front room at one time, was crowded with Monteros and it was almost difficult to see the casual comfort that made this rambling structure a home. There was a fireplace off to the side, beside it were long rustic benches for removing boots and coat racks at each end so clothing could be shed right at the door. No stuffy pretension of a formal entry existed.
Through several archways one could see the various rooms and a hallway leading off down both sides of the house. Directly in front of them was the oversized living room whose casual seating arrangements fed naturally into what appeared to be a den, complete with a pool table. In the opposite direction off the living room an archway led to a large dining room. Beyond that appeared a doorway that probably led to the kitchen since there was also a pass-through in the wall and cabinetry barely visible in the other room. Every room boasted its own fireplace, which seemed to draw the rustic past into the present. The fireplaces were large and welcoming with wood stacked neatly by each one, even in the middle of summer.
The introductions over and general pandemonium continuing unabated, Lauren suddenly felt a warm rush of breath wash over her ear from behind. "Come on through here, I'll show you where you can relax a moment." His low voice sent a shiver down her spine.
It would have been nice to turn down the invitation, but at this moment, her head was pounding and her legs had just started trembling. Lauren really wished she wasn't physically desperate for a few seconds' peace. She should have told Carla about her little problem before accepting this invitation. It's not like the condition was transmittable or contagious. It was just a pain in the ass, as Carla would say.
Lauren's head turned slightly to him and nodded. Immediately his large hand spanned her back again and guided her backward. With tender insistence, his hand remained on her back as he turned them down a hallway.
At the end of the hall he opened a door, ushering her into what immediately felt like a soothing space. But Lauren couldn't be sure anymore she needed her medication as the pounding in her head grew louder. Romeo stepped past her to deposit her case on the bed. In that moment when his back was to her, Lauren let herself grope for the chair at the wall beside the door. She sank into it while shaking hands fumbled with her purse.
He seemed to sense her distress and glanced back at her even before he dropped the bag. Sharp eyes took in her collapse onto the chair and shaking hands.
"What is it?" Romeo demanded as his big body moved across the room in a second and he sank to his haunches before her. Steady hands took the purse from her and delved into it. "What am I looking for, Lauren?"
"Prescription," Lauren breathed, her head relaxed back onto the tall chair and her eyes closed gratefully.
"Let me get you a glass of water, just a second." He bounced up and was gone. Then she felt a glass pressed into her hand and a pill to her lips. She opened for the pill and drank the water gratefully.
Opening her eyes a slit, Lauren found him in front of her on his haunches again, studying the prescription bottle. He read it carefully then plucked her purse off the floor and started digging through it again. "Are there more?" he asked tightly.
"No, just that one for headaches. I'll be fine in a few minutes. It's only a migraine," she assured him. His casual commandeering of her purse was something she didn't have the energy to deal with right now. However, it highlighted his in-charge attitude. Lauren was aware enough to be relieved she'd put the immunosuppressive drugs she'd now be on for a lifetime in her case. His nosy ass would have had a field day with those. Aaarrrrggg, even snorting silently hurt.
Romeo dropped the purse and looked into her eyes. "Why?" he asked bluntly.
"Because I get them?" Lauren attempted a feeble joke to distract him.
"I'm asking why you get migraines? People who get them this bad know why, Lauren. Tell me." There was that commanding tone again it was beginning to wear on her.
Lauren smiled weakly he really could be a pain in the ass. "It's stress. That's the trigger. Relax. I'll be fine soon."
"What caused this much stress, Lauren? You've only been here ten minutes. It takes much longer than that for this sort of thing to build. You were already shaking and couldn't see very well, could you?" Romeo pressed her with surprising knowledge about the condition.
"You really want to know, Romeo? You won't like it," she warned him tiredly and leaned back, closing her eyes again. It took too much energy to look at him and argue.
His hands settled on her jean-covered thighs and rubbed up and down in a soothing caress. "I already don't like the fact you get them, honey. I really don't like the fact that the doctor on your prescription is a heart specialist. What's one more thing to dislike?" His low tone was an auditory smile as he murmured to her encouragingly. "So tell me why you have the headache, then tell me about your heart."
Shocked at his perception, Lauren managed to lift an eyebrow. "What makes you say it's a heart doctor?" Lauren asked.
Before he could answer she opened her eyes and frowned at him. "Look, Romeo, we just met a few minutes ago. I'm an unexpected guest in your home so that entitles you to some answers about a near collapse. It does not give you the right to demand my life story," she informed him firmly and removed his hands from her legs.
"I see," he mused, allowing her to remove his touch but now resting both palms on the chair arms on either side of her. "Then tell me the part it does get me."
"I am feeling stressed because of your cousins. The reason Carla invited me this weekend is not entirely what it seems. I found out in the car outside your gates. That's what gave me the headache," Lauren stated and closed her eyes again.
"Really?" Romeo's voice was a gentle murmur. He straightened up and bent to scoop her into his arms. Before she could react to being in his arms, he deposited her on the bed and adjusted the pillow behind her. Immediately turning to the tall windows, he pulled the drapes, submerging the room into a dimly lit environment that did calm her. The bed she lay on had to be a queen, its width covered with a muted forest green down comforter that pillowed her entire body in welcome softness. The room seemed to flow around them in tranquil tones of well-polished natural wood and plush woodland colors.
Fetching water again from the attached bathroom, he held it to her lips until she drained it. Then he was sitting on the side of the bed and leaning over to take her hand in his. "Now tell me the real reason you were invited."
Lauren huffed. He was good, very good. He'd done everything possible to aid her recovery, waiting on her hand and foot, and then asked for information. She felt obligated to tell him. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore how gorgeous this dominating, caring man was, and began her explanation.
"Carla said she convinced me to come this weekend because she wanted to see your reaction. She has also told your cousins what a cold shoulder I'll give you and now they're watching our every move. She thinks I'm the Ice Queen. They can hardly wait to see me put you in your place," Lauren said resignedly.
"Why does she think you're an Ice Queen?" Romeo asked.
"Because I hardly ever date, and when I do, I don't...um, she knows I don't put out," Lauren finished determinedly. He wanted details, might as well be blunt.
"Ah, Carla doesn't know about your weak heart, does she?" Romeo surmised.
"I do not have a weak heart. It's perfectly fine!" Lauren defended herself.
"But it wasn't fine before, was it? Tell me what happened, Lauren. It's better if I know to begin with. That way we won't have any nasty surprises later." His gentle tone made him sound perfectly reasonable. Until you thought about what he was saying. The weasel wouldn't give up.
"My heart is fine. It's the rest of me that's, ah, not what it could be. However, I am not in danger or an invalid. So stop with all the concern and let me rest a minute. I'll be up soon and everything will be normal," she insisted. Lauren determinedly closed her eyes and decided ignoring him was the best method of getting rid of him.
Firm lips briefly brushed hers then were gone. Her eyes blinked open as he straightened and smiled down at her. "I need to clean up and then I'll be in my study when you get up. It would be a good idea for us to have a chat about this little plot my cousins are trying to involve us in." He strode to the door and turned. "Don't worry. It was right to trust me with the truth. You'll come to find I'm a dependable guy."
Romeo Montero moved down the hall frowning. The little female he'd left in the darkened room disturbed him on every level. The first thing he needed to know was what her condition really was. A photographic memory gave him the doctor's number from the prescription bottle. He'd known the name anyway. He knew what the man did for a living and it worried him.
Looking at a frail form lying in a darkened room wrenched him back in time. The flood of helpless anger was familiar and not welcome. His mom had been a tall blonde but slender, easily exhausted and often suffered the same migraines. Intellectually he knew it wasn't his fault she had been sick. It wasn't his fault she and his father had died so young. Emotionally it'd been hard to deal with. Losing his parents and grandparents in a short time span left side effects that lasted a lifetime. It had created a deep fear of losing loved ones. His natural protective instincts kicked into high gear at the first sign of danger.
After a quick shower and change, he headed across the house. Entering the den on his way to the study, the din of laughing and talking quieted suspiciously as his six cousins looked up at him.
Carla glanced around. "Hey, where is Lauren?" she asked.
"I showed her to her room. She seemed tired," Romeo answered tersely. He was sure Carla didn't know her friend had been or was gravely ill. That didn't excuse her from obviously losing track of her for this long, much less not noticing the white lines of strain around Lauren's mouth a few minutes ago.
"Is she all right? Should I check on her? I thought she'd share my room, where did you put her?" Carla wanted to know in her usual rush of both questions and information.
"She's in the green room. She said she'd be out in a few minutes. I doubt she wants anyone checking on her," he responded.
"She's cute, isn't she?" Carla insinuated as if it'd just occurred to her.
"Beautiful," Romeo agreed casually. "But she seemed a bit prickly to me." Six sets of eyes lit up at his comment. The whole group was obviously in on this just as Lauren said. That required some attention right after he took care of the important stuff.
"I've got work to do. I hope you guys are old enough to refrain from killing yourselves or one another." With that, he headed off to make a few phone calls.
Shortly thereafter, Romeo had all the information he needed. Lauren was a heart transplant recipient. Her surgery had been two years ago. At the age of ten she'd been in a serious car accident, which had nearly killed her. That's when they'd diagnosed the heart problem. She'd spent years waiting for a new organ and the injuries from the accident complicated her condition. Consequently, her life up to a year ago had been very sedentary. The doctor explained she now had a healthy heart but her body was trying to catch up.
The doctor also divulged that Lauren belonged to a very protective family with three older brothers and father who were all still uncomfortable letting her go. They'd spent too long with a sweet little girl on the edge of death. The doctor laughed as he commented she'd be pissed if she found out he was telling another protective male about her condition. But Romeo and the doctor were old acquaintances. Their relationship went back too far for the request to be denied. Especially when Lauren was at Romeo's place.
Leaning back in his chair, Romeo realized the house felt very quiet. Lauren hadn't shown up in his study and he began to have a bad feeling when he realized how much time had passed. Rising, he went in search of her. She wasn't in her room, the pool area was quiet but down at the corral there seemed to be a commotion. Romeo frowned as he headed in that direction.
All six cousins were appalled when Lauren confessed she'd never been near a horse, much less on one, at their suggestion of a ride before supper. Carla assured her it was a blast. She had to learn to ride, it was just wrong to be a native Texan and not know how. So wearing her brand spanking new cowboy boots and jeans, Lauren stood beside what looked like a giant of a horse and petted it nervously. Steven was the one who brought it out of the barn and "tacked up" for her. Now Carla was insisting she "mount" it.
They were standing in the wide, long corral directly off the horse barn door designed for a large number of horses to be tacked up at the same time. It was actually big enough for the private rodeo shows Romeo and the hands occasionally put on for visiting groups of schoolchildren.
"You're sure it's gentle?" Lauren asked for the fifth time.
"As a lamb. It's the most boring horse Romeo owns," Carla assured her. "Now put your foot in the stirrup and swing the other leg over."
"I can't reach the thing, Carla. I haven't got the mile-long legs you have. Is there a stepladder I could use or something?" Lauren questioned as Carla laughed and the big beast swung his head around to eyeball the two women. Lauren stared back at it and could swear the thing was laughing at her. Could horses laugh? This one could apparently.
"Shouldn't there be, like, padding? Or helmets? A hockey uniform to ride these things?" Lauren wanted to know. Up close and personal put a new perspective on riding and it wasn't a nice one. How could anyone consider the insisted precaution of wearing boots protective clothing? Carla had made a big production out of the appropriate attire for riding, making Lauren go change before they came out here. Dang, that whole irritating clothing scene seemed woefully less than adequate now. The horses were mammoth.
"Jason," Carla called. "Come over here and help Lauren up. She's too short to reach the stirrup." At barely twenty and the youngest cousin, he was all energy and action on a whole new level it seemed. Jason grabbed Lauren around the waist and easily lifted her slight form up on the animal in what seemed to Lauren an abrupt motion giving her no time to prepare.
Lauren found herself perched atop a shifting mountain of muscle. Fear shot through her and she froze. Unaware of her friend's momentary bout with terror, Carla untied the horse from the rail to lead it to the center of the corral so she could teach Lauren the basics of riding. At that moment, Steven emerged from the barn with the horse he intended to ride. It was a magnificent, prancing beast. As far as Lauren was concerned it snorted fire and had a death wish for every other living thing. It reared and screamed, broke away from Steven and charged down the corral at top speed, straight at Lauren and her huge horse.
The horse under Lauren had no problem deciding what to do. It whirled and jerked to get out of the way. The swift, unexpected movements made it seem to simply step out from under her. She didn't have a good hold on it and her feet weren't even in the stirrups yet. Crashing to the ground from that height was not Lauren's greatest concern. It was the black hooves of death thundering toward her as she lay in the path of the screaming devil horse.
All she could do was roll over and bury her head in her arms. There was a lot of action around the corral as people tried to yell instructions, but the two seconds between Lauren's hitting the ground and wild horse being upon her didn't allow escape.
Only one hoof hit her with a glancing blow to the back of her upper thigh. The way it moved her and her cry of pain made it appear to the horrified eyes watching that she'd been trampled with every fall of the steel-shod hooves. Romeo's huge body vaulted the fence and came skidding to his knees beside her prone form. Large hands hovered over her, afraid to touch, afraid not to. Lauren groaned and lifted her head to check the location of the satanic beast.
"Oh, God, you can move? Don't move! Where does it hurt? Is it your back, your neck? Don't move!" he commanded again as she attempted to roll over and look at him.
"Why not? I need to get out of here," Lauren stated belligerently. "That damn beast wants to kill me. Getting on the other side of the fence seems like a really good idea to me."
"He could have seriously injured you. We have to be careful moving you. Now tell me where it hurts! Please, Lauren, don't move," he begged her desperately.
The panic in his voice made Lauren twist her head around to look at him. The Romeo kneeling beside her was a pale, tortured man. It was an emotion she recognized immediately. She'd seen that face leaning over her hospital bed on countless occasions she'd seen it as they wheeled her into surgery. She was tired of that face.
"I'm just bruised from the fall. The devil beast didn't manage to actually trample me. It got me once on the thigh, which hurts like hell, but I doubt it's a fatal injury. Now help me up. I think I'm lying in poop or something. It smells like poop down here." Lauren started to push herself up. Strong hands stopped her and pressed her back down in the dirt.
"You're sure? We can fly straight to the hospital. But it's so important not to injure you further. If it's an internal injury we may not know right away," he insisted.
"Romeo! Let me up!" she demanded. "I told you I'm fine! Stop with all the commanding shit and let me get out of here."
"Okay, okay, but go slowly. It's better to be sure," he insisted.
As Lauren rolled over, she found herself looking up into a ring of faces. Romeo on his knees beside her was running a clinical hand over her body while every one of the cousins gathered around. Lauren frowned fiercely at all the attention and the stricken look on everyone's face.
"If all of you are staring at me, who is keeping the wild beasts away?" she demanded.
For the first time Romeo glanced up and realized they were all there. "Put the horses away," he barked. His low voice held lethal command. Everyone jumped into action immediately. Looking back down at Lauren, he sighed deeply. Her shirt was ripped at the shoulder and several scratches could be seen on the back of her shoulder and upper arm, her face and hair were covered in dirt, but she seemed whole otherwise.
He slid his arms under her and lifted her to his chest as he stood up and headed for the gate. Over his shoulder, he issued orders in terse statements. Lauren felt the immense body carrying her shudder as he lifted her and knew it certainly wasn't the strain of her weight that bothered the big lug. He was feeling a reaction to fear. Somehow, she always seemed to make big men feel helpless when something happened to her. She knew she wasn't as delicate and fragile as they liked to think she was, but the look on his face had told her he'd thought the worst when he saw her hit the ground. Her arms slid around his neck and her head came to rest on the broad shoulder beneath it. One hand crept into his hair to massage his scalp while the other patted his back. She always felt sorry for them when she saw that look.
"It's okay," she whispered to him, trying to ease his burden. "I'm not really hurt."
Striding away from the confusion in the corral, he whispered back to her, "Well, I'm not okay. You scared the goddamn life out of me, baby. Don't do it again!" The sight of her being trampled was burned into his brain with ghastly clarity. He'd almost lost her before she even knew him. Losing another person was unacceptable. Losing her would be an event he couldn't survive. Never mind they'd shared less than an hour's acquaintance. She might not know it yet but she was his woman.
The simple fact that her shirt was torn and he could see blood on her body was intolerable on a cellular level. The unexpected shock of watching her fall shook him to his core.
"It wasn't my fault, Romeo," she murmured defensively, mistaking the stark terror in his tone for reprimand. "It's those beasts. They went crazy."
"It's Steven's fault," he informed her. "He had no business taking that animal out! Of course, all of them were behaving like irresponsible imbeciles again. You've never been on a horse before, have you?"
"Well, no. It seemed like a good idea until I got right next to one. They are much bigger than they look on TV," Lauren commented seriously.
Romeo barked out a laugh at that. They entered his private apartment. He carried her through his bedroom to the bathroom. Sitting her down carefully on the vanity, he started unbuttoning her shirt.
"What are you doing?" Lauren demanded.
"Undressing you. We have to treat the scratches on your shoulder and you need a shower before we do. It'll help wash out the wound and you smell like poop anyway," he teased softly, trying to appear harmless and altruistic.
Romeo's need to possess would not allow him to let her out of his sight to take care of the injuries. He knew this level of intimacy was neither normal nor called for, but it was unthinkable to do anything other than see to every one of her needs himself.
"No." Her hands came up to cover his and stop the action.
"Look, baby. You've got to take care of those scratches right away. I know you want a shower so why not take it now?" he argued gently.
"I'm not undressing in front of you, Romeo. Let me go to my room and I'll take care of it myself," she stated calmly.
"Aw, don't worry, Lauren. I've seen a woman before. There is no need to be embarrassed, honey. Now let's get this done. You'll feel better afterwards," he insisted.
"I said no, Romeo. Are you going to force me?" she asked quietly.
"No! Good God! Why would you even think that? I just want to be sure you're all right." His concerned eyes searched her face. Something else was going on here. The way she looked at him was old. Way too old for the twenty-three he knew her to be. It wasn't embarrassment on her face, it was armor. Her face was a mask he couldn't see behind.
"What's going on, Lauren?" he asked quietly. "Why is undressing a hot spot for you? Did someone hurt you? Did something bad happen?" His serious face turned hard and a deep flush swept over it. "You can tell me, sweetheart. It's okay. We'll just deal with that, too."
"No, nothing like you're thinking happened," Lauren quickly responded to his tight look and shuttered eyes. It didn't consciously occur to her that they were reading each other on an intimate level. She simply knew exactly what his dark mind had come up with. "But I've spent a lot of time in hospitals. People treat you like a piece of meat in there. They undress you and bend over you in groups examining you. They discuss you and forget to pull the sheet back up. Sometimes you can't do it for yourself. It's all done 'for your own good,'" she explained in a tight voice. "I am not going to be the only naked person in the room ever again. If you want to undress me, you'd damn well better get naked first."
He smiled. Already knowing her history, the problem became crystal clear. "Sure, I can do that."
Copyright © 2007 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.