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Grant Clifton set out that sunny Sunday afternoon with the best of intentions.
He meant for Stephanie Julen and her mom, Marie, to know of his plans good and early, so they could start getting used to the idea. He had it all laid out in his mind, just how he'd tell them.
First, he would remind them that you can't hold on to the past forever. That sometimes you've got to let go of what used to be, let the wave of progress and prosperity take you. Dump the excess baggage and move on.
In his own life, Grant was doing exactly that. And loving every minute of it. He would make Steph and Marie understand that it was time for them to move on, too.
Since the sun was shining bright and proud in the wide Montana sky, Grant called down to the stables and had one of the grooms tack up Titan, the big black gelding he rode whenever he got the chance—which wasn't all that often lately. He worked behind a desk now. His days as a rancher were behind him.
In his private suite of rooms on-site at the Thunder Canyon Resort, he changed into Wranglers and boots and a plain blue chambray shirt. When he got to the stables, Titan was ready to go. The gelding whickered in greeting and tossed his fine black head, eager to be off. The groom loaned Grant a spare hat and he grinned to himself as he rode out.
A Clifton without a battered straw Resistol close at hand to stave off the glare of the summer sun? His dad would never approve.
Fact was, John Clifton probably wouldn't have approved of a lot of things lately. Too bad. Grant settled the hat lower on his brow and refused to let his grin fade as he let Titan have his head and the horse took off at a gallop.
On Titan's strong back, the ride to the house at Clifton's Pride Ranch took about an hour. Once he'd left the sprawling resort behind, Grant rode crosscountry, stopping now and then to open a gate, going back and closing it once his horse went through.
In the distance, the high mountains still bore their white caps. And the grasses, which would be fading to gold soon enough, lay green and lush beneath the gelding's hooves, rippling in the everpresent Montana wind.
As Titan ambled up and down the cuts and draws, Grant rehearsed what he would say. Yeah, he knew Steph and her mom would be disappointed. But he would remind them that he would always take care of them. He would make sure they had work when they left the ranch. That much would never change: He would watch out for them.
In no time, it seemed, he reached Clifton land. He took a couple of dirt roads he knew of and then approached another pasture gate, patiently shutting it behind him once his horse went through.A few cows, lying down near the fence, got up from their grassy bed and looked at him expectantly. He tipped his borrowed hat at them, mounted up again and rode on.
Ahead, cottonwoods loomed, lush and green, lining the banks of Cottonwood Creek. They seemed taller and thicker than he remembered, obscuring the creek completely now. Grant clicked his tongue and urged the horse onward, his mind on getting it over with, getting Steph and her mom together and breaking the news that he'd had a great offer and he was selling Clifton's Pride.
The horse mounted a grassy slope and carried him in beneath the screen of wind-ruffled trees, where the ground was mossy and soft and Titan's hooves hardly made a sound. Grant could smell water, hear the soft gurgling of the creek not far ahead. He topped another slight rise and the creek lay below, crystal clear and inviting.
But it wasn't the sight of the creek that stole the breath from Grant Clifton's lungs.
He drew on the reins without thinking. Soundlessly Titan came to a stop.
A woman stood at creekside. A naked woman. Beads of water gleamed on her golden skin and her hair, clinging in soaked tendrils to her shoulders, dripped a shining wet trail down the center of her slim, straight back.
She faced the opposite bank. As he stared, she lifted both hands and smoothed her hair, cupping the delicate shape of her skull, catching the wet strands at her nape, wringing gently, so that more water trickled in little gleaming trails along that amazing back, between those two little dimples that rode the base of her spine…
Grant's gaze followed the path of the water. Sweet Lord. The lower he looked, the harder he lusted. He sat frozen in place astride the gelding, feeling the blood pool hot in his groin, his pulse pounding so deep and hungry and loud, he was surprised the woman didn't hear it and turn.
What the hell was she doing there, naked beneath the cottonwoods on Clifton land?
Not that he planned to ask. Not right now.
He would have smiled—if only if he hadn't been aching so bad with desire. Make no mistake. He'd find out who she was one way or another. He'd get to know her. Well.
But now would probably be a bad time to introduce himself.
Light as a breath, he laid the reins to Titan's neck. The horse started to turn—and the woman raised her slim arms to the sky and let out a laugh, a sound all at once free and husky and glorious.
His mind reeled. He knew that laugh.
Grant drew the horse up short again. Impossible.
This beautiful, naked stranger, fully a woman… Steph?
His head spun with denials. Stephanie Julen was hardly more than a kid, she was like a little sister to him, she was…
Damn it. Couldn't be. No way. The woman who couldn't be Steph laughed again, and then, without warning, in midlaugh, she turned.
And she saw him there, frozen in place, at the top of the bank. The green eyes that always looked at him with trust and admiration widened in shock as she formed his name on a low cry.
"Grant?" Frantic, she tried to cover herself, one hand to her small, perfect breasts, the other to the patch of dark gold curls between her smooth, amazing thighs. "Oh, God…"
At least he had the presence of mind to lay the reins at the horse's neck again and, that time, to follow through.
Once he faced the way he'd come, he called over his shoulder, "Get dressed." He kept his voice as calm and level as possible, given his own stunned, disbelieving state of arousal. "Ride on back to the house with me…"
Behind him, she was dead silent—except for a low, agonized groan.
"Come on." He kept his gaze resolutely front and he forced all hint of gruffness from his tone.
"It's okay." He spoke gently. Soothingly. "I'm sorry I…surprised you."
Behind him, down the bank, he heard frenzied rustling sounds as she scrambled to get into her clothes. He waited, taking slow breaths, knowing he had to be calm and unruffled, totally unconcerned, in order to put her at ease again.
At ease. Damn. Didn't he wish?
Within a couple of minutes that only seemed to last for eternity, he heard the soft thuds of hooves behind him. She came up beside him mounted on her favorite mare, Trixiebelle.
Unbelievable. He'd been so busy gaping at her naked backside and planning how he would get her into his bed, he hadn't even noticed she had her horse down there by the creek with her.
Titan chuffed in greeting and Trixiebelle snorted a response.
Grant put on a smile and turned it on Steph, not allowing it to waver, even as another bolt of lust went zinging through him.
Her clothes were as wet as the rest of her. Her shirt clung to the fine, sleek curves he'd never noticed till moments ago—curves that from this afternoon onward would remain seared into his brain.
Impossible. Wanting Steph. It had to be illegal. Or, at the very least, immoral.
Her hair hung in damp ropes on her shoulders and her sweet, innocent face was flaming red. "How long were you…" Her voice faltered. She swallowed and made herself finish. "…watching me?"
"I wasn't," he baldly lied, somehow managing to keep his easy smile in place at the same time. "I'd just topped the rise when you saw me." He turned Titan again and started down the bank to creekside. She followed.
Since she would know the best place to cross, he pulled back once they reached the bank and signaled her to take the lead.
All too aware of the man behind her, Steph rode Trixiebelle into the shallows. Once on the other side, they climbed the far bank and emerged from under the dappling shade of the cottonwoods into open pasture. Grant caught up with her and rode at her side.
She didn't look at him. She couldn't bear to meet his eyes right yet—and if only her silly cheeks would stop blushing.
Really. It wasn't that big a deal.
Okay, it was embarrassing. Way embarrassing. She'd never in a million years expected Grant to appear on horseback out of nowhere during the rare moment she'd chosen to indulge herself in a quick, private skinny-dip.
He had to know she hadn't expected him—or anyone, for that matter—didn't he?
After all, he hardly ever came to the ranch anymore. In the six months since he'd hired her to take over the job of foreman, this was the first time she'd seen him out on the land. As a rule, when he did drop by, he always stuck to the roads and arrived at the ranch house in that fancy black Range Rover of his.
Grant didn't have time for the ranch these days. He was too busy at the resort. In two short years, he's gone from sales associate to comanager. And he played as hard as he worked. Not a lot of nights went by that he didn't have some new out-of-town beauty hanging on his arm. The women loved him. He was thirty-two, single and getting rich fast.
Steph dared to slide him a glance. He was looking straight ahead.
He was also way too handsome. Always had been. His profile could take a girl's breath away: that sculpted nose, that fine mouth, that firm jaw. He was six foot four, lean, rangy and muscular—all at the same time. She had no doubt he'd seen a lot of naked women. To him, a naked female wouldn't be anything new.
She felt a stab of pure green jealousy as she thought of all those beautiful women he dated. Stephanie had loved Grant Clifton with all of her yearning heart since she was five years old. Of course, she knew he would never return her love. He cared for her. A lot. But not in that way.
And she was okay with that…
Or so she kept telling herself.
And what do you know? She wasn't blushing anymore. Her heart had stopped jumping around in her chest like a spooked jackrabbit and her pulse had even slowed a tad. Maybe hopeless blazing jealousy had its uses, after all.
So all right. He'd seen her naked. Best to get over it. Let it go. Move on.
But for some idiotic reason, she couldn't stop herself from launching into a totally lame explanation. "Me and Rufus pulled a cow out of that pond in the far pasture…"
Rufus Dale had been the top hand on Clifton's Pride for as long as Steph could remember. He'd stepped up to run things when Grant started working at the resort. But arthritis had forced the old cowboy to slow down and given Steph her chance to take over for him.
She babbled on, "I sent him on back to the bunkhouse. You know how he gets these days. He hates that he can't do all the things that used to be so easy for him."
Grant didn't say anything. He didn't look at her, either. Was he mad at her, after all, for being out there in the altogether where anyone could ride up on her?
She tried again. "I was covered in mud. I got to the creek and it was just too darn tempting. I jumped in with my clothes on, to rinse everything off at once and, well, then I was all soggy—like now." She cast a rueful glance down at her wet shirt and jeans. "And it's a warm day and I couldn't help thinking how good the water would feel without… uh. Well, you know."
He grunted. Didn't he? Hadn't that been a grunt she heard?
A grunt. A definite grunt. One with sort of a question mark at the end of it.
"I really didn't expect anyone to ride by. I truly didn't…"