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If Wyatt Locke believed in omens, his return visit to the Last Chance Ranch had disaster written all over it. Rain drummed on the roof of his truck and sluiced over the windshield faster than the wipers could sweep it away. Every so often lightning would strike close enough to deafen him while providing a camera-flash view of the muddy road and the soggy Wyoming countryside.
The storm had come on quickly, ambushing him after he'd already committed to the rutted dirt road leading to the ranch. The weight of his camper shell and the gear in the back helped keep him on the road, but trying to turn around now would almost guarantee he'd end up axle-deep in mud. Going forward was his only option.
He slowed the truck to a crawl and kept his headlights on, although they didn't accomplish much. Still, he'd hate to run into something. A pair of taillights winked in the distance to let him know he wasn't the only fool out here. But then the rain got serious again and reduced visibility to about fifteen feet in front of him.
If his twin brother, Rafe, could see him struggling through this deluge, he'd laugh himself silly. Rafe had tried his best to talk Wyatt out of this harebrained scheme, but once Wyatt latched on to an idea, he couldn't let it go. Jack Chance was his half brother, damn it, and they should get to know each other. Jack was Rafe's half brother, too, but Rafe wasn't interested in cementing any family ties.
The rain let up for a second and there were the tail-lights again, several yards in front of him. Probably one of the ranch hands coming back from town. Could even be Jack.
Wyatt's gut tightened as he thought about his half brother. He probably should have alerted Jack that he was coming, but he knew exactly why he hadn't. He'd been afraid Jack would tell him to stay away.
Wyatt had shocked the hell out of him the previous summer by dropping by the ranch to introduce himself. He'd shown up without warning that time, too, not sure until he'd knocked on the ranch house door that he'd go through with it. Realistically, he should have expected Jack's chilly response.
No doubt Jack hadn't believed him at first. He would have believed Rafe right away because the two men looked so much alike, both having inherited their mother's dark hair and eyes. But Wyatt and Rafe were fraternal as opposed to identical twins, and Wyatt had ended up with his dad's sandy hair and gray eyes.
Eventually Jack had seemed to accept that Wyatt was his half brother, but he'd remained suspicious, as if Wyatt might want to cash in on the financial success of the Paint horse breeding operation at the Last Chance. No, and hell no. Wyatt had a profitable wilderness trekking company based in San Francisco and wasn't the least bit interested in Chance money, but Jack couldn't know that.
The money issue wasn't the biggest reason for Jack to be prickly, though. Finding out that the mother who'd abandoned him had subsequently married a successful businessman and raised two more kids couldn't be an easy pill to swallow. Worse yet, she'd kept Jack's existence a secret from her second family until last year when the divorce from Wyatt and Rafe's father had apparently loosened her tongue.
Hiding the fact she'd had a kid thirty-odd years ago was pretty radical, even for his mother. But it wasn't totally out of character. Diana had always been evasive about her past, as if she was ashamed of it. She claimed that she'd been through hard times and nothing more needed to be said. Yeah, well, she'd put Wyatt and Rafe through some hard times as they tried to deal with a completely self-absorbed mother.
The taillights disappeared again as the rain redoubled its effort to drown this part of the country. Wyatt had years of experience handling every kind of weather, and he'd be damned if he'd end up in a ditch this afternoon and have to call the ranch for help. That wouldn't improve his rep any.
And he wanted his rep to be solid, wanted Jack and everyone else on the ranch to think of him as a competent outdoorsman, even if he wasn't a cowboy. Maybe he and Jack would have things in common other than the obvious connection of having the same mother. Wyatt liked the idea of being related to a rancher.
He'd always felt out of place in the circles his parents preferred. Rafe, with his business degree and his talent for investing, fit right in. Not Wyatt. He'd taken up hiking and camping as a teenager to escape charity balls and gallery openings.
Jackson Hole had some of that high society element going on, especially within the Jackson city limits. But the little town of Shoshone about ten miles from the ranch was definitely more Wyatt's style. A collection of small businesses and a single traffic light at the only major intersectionthat was urban enough for Wyatt.
If he chose to, he could relocate his company here. Adventure Trekking could operate as wellor maybe even betterfrom the Jackson Hole area as it did out of San Francisco. If he lived here, he could spend time at the ranch and get to know the Chance family. He had a feeling he'd fit in with them better than he ever had with his own family.
But before he made any drastic changes, he needed to find out if Jack had mellowed toward the idea of Wyatt's and Rafe's existence. Jack's resentment could be a major obstacle to Wyatt's plan. The guy had obviously been hurt when Diana had left him, but in Wyatt's opinion, Jack might have been better off without her in his life. Wyatt had asked around town, and the guy seemed to be doing just fine.
Sure, his father had died a while back, but he still had his stepmother, Sarah, and two half brothers, Nick and Gabe. They all owned a part of the ranch and, according to what Wyatt had heard, everyone got along great. Jack was happily married now and had a kid of his own.
Wyatt planned to keep that last bit of info to himself. He wasn't sure how Diana would react to finding out she was a grandmother, and Jack didn't need to have her suddenly appear and claim her grandmotherly rights. She might not care a whole lot about the baby, but she loved being the center of a drama.
If Jack had a baby, that made Wyatt an uncle. He smiled at the idea. It was kind of cool to think about. Maybe he should have brought something for the baby, especially because he was once again arriving unannounced. But he hadn't .
Lightning flashed, nearly blinding him with its intensity. For a split second the road was lit up like a movie set. A crack of thunder followed, loud enough to make his ears ring. But in that brief moment of full light, he'd seen a Jeep Cherokee off on the side of the road up ahead, its right wheels buried in mud, the tail-lights still on.
He hadn't been able to tell if the vehicle was occupied, but he guessed it was if the lights were on. Once he was alongside it, he stopped and lowered his passenger side window to get a better look.
The driver's window on the Jeep slid down, too, which gave him his answer even before he saw the pretty woman with the hopeful expression gazing over at him. Her shoulder-length hair was streaked with red and blond, obviously a salon job and not her natural color, but it looked good on her. The Cherokee's tail-lights must have been the ones he'd followed down the road.
"Seems like you're stuck!" he called out over the sound of the rain.
"Yep! I was about to phone the ranch. Maybe somebody can come get me."
"I'm headed that way, if you want a ride." He knew what he was suggesting wasn't a perfect solution. That salon hairdo would be dripping with water by the time she made it into his truck, and her shoes would be covered with mud. But she'd be in the same fix if someone drove out here to get her. Trying to hitch a tow chain to her Jeep in this downpour with lightning flashing all around wasn't reasonable.
A couple of seconds went by with rain coming in his open window and hers, too, probably. He had a chance to study her a little, which added to his initial impression that she was prettyhigh cheekbones, rounded chin, full lips and very blue eyes. He wondered if she was worried about accepting a ride from a stranger. "My name's Wyatt Locke," he said. "I'm Jack Chance's half brother visiting from San Francisco."
"Sarah didn't mention anyone coming to visit today."
Wyatt wondered if Jack's stepmother would be annoyed because he was dropping in. "It's a surprise. But if you want to call the ranch and double-check that I'm legit, go ahead. The surprise isn't that important." And they couldn't tell him to leave with this gully-washer in progress, even if they wanted to.
She smiled, revealing even white teeth with a tiny space in the middle. "I'm sure you're perfectly safe, Wyatt Locke. Serial killers don't usually come out in weather like this." She glanced at the seat next to her before turning back to him. "But I have a couple of bags of stuff I need to take up to the ranch house."
"Will it get ruined if it gets a little wet?"
"Not really, but"
"You can't carry it all in one trip," he said, making a guess.
"Hang on. I'll help." Leaving the motor running, he opened his door and stepped out. He was drenched immediately. Cold water soaked his Adventure Trekking T-shirt and hiking shorts, and burrowed into his hiking boots.
"Wait!" she called out. "You don't have to"
"Yeah, I do. Can't leave a damsel in distress." He slogged around the front of the truck, his boots making a sucking sound with every step. First he opened his passenger door and then turned toward her Jeep. "Let's get your bags in there first. Do you have an umbrella?"
"No such luck." She opened her door and passed him two large zippered totes.
"Got 'em." Water ran in rivulets down his face, but now that her door was open he could see the rest of her if he blinked the rain away. She had a great figure, nicely showcased by jeans and a black scoop-necked top. Then he noticed her feet. Dear God, was she wearing high heels? Not good. "Stay put. I'll come back for you."
"No need. I'll take off my shoes and roll up my pant legs for the trip over."
"It'll be better if I carry you," he called over his shoulder as he navigated the short but muddy stretch between her Jeep and his truck. He put the totes on the floor of the cab and turned back to her.
She had one bare foot propped on the edge of the seat as she rolled her pant leg up and her toes had some sort of glittery stuff on them. Her left arm and leg were already wet from the rain coming in the open door.
"You really don't want to step out here. It's nasty."
"It's only mud." She glanced up at him, her blue gaze resolute. "You can go back to your truck. I'll be right there."
"But I'm already a mess. If I carry you over, you won't have to be."
She looked him up and down. "Yes, but the footing is terrible. You could easily slip, and then where would we be?"
He swiped the rain away from his eyes. "I won't slip." By now his boots were so full of water they'd keep him well stabilized.
"I'm sure you wouldn't mean to slip, but how often do you carry a person who weighs a hundred and twenty through the mud?"
He couldn't help grinning. Women and their weight issues. "More often than you'd suppose. I'm a wilderness guide, and I'm certified for search and rescue. In other words, I'm a professional."
"Oh. That explains the Adventure Trekking logo on your truck and your shirt."
"Exactly. I could carry you even if you weighed one-thirty." He was guessing at how much she'd subtracted from her actual weight.
Her cheeks turned pink and her chin lifted. "One-twenty-six."
She wore it well, too. "Come on. Just let me do my thing. It would be a shame to get those sparkly toes all covered with muck."
"They'd wash off, but all right, Wyatt Locke of Adventure Trekking. You're getting soaked, and you've convinced me I'm just being stubborn."
"I wasn't going to say that."
"I believe you, and that kind of restraint is impressive." She smiled at him. "Let me put my shoes in my purse before you hoist me out of here."
He waited as the rain plastered his clothes to his body. He hadn't been this wet fully clothed since the time he'd fallen in the Snake River on a canoe trip two years ago.
"Ready." She hung her purse strap around her neck and scooted out from behind the wheel. "Can you get the door once I'm out?"
"Uh-huh." Moving into a half crouch, he slid one arm under her knees and the other behind her shoulder blades. She felt warm, soft and infinitely huggable. If it were up to him, she wouldn't lose an ounce of that one-twenty-six. "Put your arms around my neck."
She did, bringing with her a tantalizing scent of jasmine.
He was starting to enjoy himself. "On the count of three. One, two, three." He lifted her, taking care not to bang her head on the door frame, and stood slowly as she nestled against him. "Okay?"
He was more than okay. Coming to the aid of a beautiful womanhe'd upgraded her from pretty to beautifulwas a rewarding experience. Besides getting points for gallantry, he was required to cuddle with said woman for a brief time, all in the name of a heroic rescue. He turned toward his truck. "Don't forget the door."
"Right." Which he had. The sensual pleasure of holding her had short-circuited his brain.
Rotating in place, he nudged the door with his left knee. The sideways tilt of the Jeep meant gravity was in his favor, and the door swung closed with a solid clunk. But using his knee to close the door threw him slightly off balance.
She let out a little cry of alarm and tightened her hold on his neck. "Don't you dare drop me!"