The newborn calf lay curled in the straw at its mother’s feet while the proud mama started licking it clean. Outside the glowing warmth of the birthing barn, night pressed icy black fingers against the windows, and snow lay thick on the ground.
Exhausted but triumphant, Dr. Lily Munroe tried to ignore the itchy, someone-was-watching-her sensation on the back of her neck, a creepy feeling she’d had off and on for several hours. She patted the cow’s russet-colored rump. “You have a beautiful bouncing baby boy. Good job, Peaches.”
“Peaches?” a familiar husky voice said behind her. “She’s not a pet, Doc.”
The straw at her feet rustled as Lily whirled around, hand to her throat. “Damn it! You scared me to death!”
Tall, dark and annoying.
With one shoulder resting against the planked wall, he looked as though he’d been there awhile. His physical presence was like a hard punch to Lily’s chest, and her stomach did its usual betraying flip-flop at the sight of six foot four inches of pure, potent male. His lean, handsome face was ruddy with the cold, his glossy dark hair mussed sexily by the wind she heard howling outside.
Beneath her fingertips she felt the hard pounding of her heart, and hoped to hell Derek couldn’t hear it. And if he could that he’d attribute it to the fright he’d just given her. The adrenaline rush made her feel light-headed. She ruthlessly tamped down her body’s visceral reaction to the sight of him as she started cleaning up her instruments and other birthing paraphernalia from around the stall.
“Sorry,” he said, voice silky. “Didn’t mean to spook you.” He didn’t look the least bit sorry, and she shot him a dark look. His lips twitched. “You’re hell on a man’s ego, Doc.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your ego. It’s healthy as a horse,” Lily told him. The breathless, heart-stopping feeling would fade if she took deep breaths and got a grip. “Maybe you should wear a bell around your neck when you skulk. Or whistle. Or stomp or something.” She bent to pick up the obstetrical handles and chains she’d used earlier and sealed them in a bag to sterilize later.
“I wasn’t skulking. I was waiting for you to finish what you were doing so I didn’t distract you.”
Oh, he distracted her, all right, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. Had it been the subconscious awareness of Derek watching her that she’d felt for the last few hours? She couldn’t imagine him staying quiet for that long. She met his eyes. Zing went the strings of her heart. She wished her heart and brain would get into sync.
“I’ll have you know I have a reputation for being very light on my feet,” he told her, suave as always. His dark blue eyes twinkled beneath midnight brows.
“Have to be to sneak out of all those bedrooms, huh?”
He shook his head and smiled. A smile, Lily noticed, that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “No sneaking. No bedrooms. I dance like Fred Astaire,” he told her immodestly.
He probably did. For such a big man he did move with surprising grace. “Good for you. Could you dance back a bit? You’re spooking Peaches and the baby.”
They both looked at the cow and calf. Neither had noticed the two humans invading their space. Derek gave her a slow, assessing look. “Feeling crowded, Doc?” One corner of his mouth lifted and Lily told herself to ignore his sex appeal.
He always made her want to fidget. With her hair. Her clothes. Her personality. Everything about Derek was attractive. Exciting. Larger than life. Being around him made her feel like a small brown bird. He was Technicolor. She was sepia.
Nothing wrong with sepia, she told herself firmly, annoyed that she felt this way when she was around him, and not quite sure how to fix it.
“I always feel crowded around you,” she told him honestly, tossing a spare pair of surgical gloves back into her bag. She resisted his charm with the same determination she’d used for years. It wasn’t easy. She felt his pull. Her tide to his moon. Which was fanciful nonsense. Her hormones misbehaved because he was a hottie. Chemistry. Nothing more.
“Why is that, I wonder?” he asked softly. His voice always reminded Lily of dark chocolate. It was smooth, rich and had a slight huskiness to it that abraded her nerve endings like a cat’s tongue.
She straightened and gave him a firm look. “Give it a rest, would you? I’m not up to your sparring weight tonight. I’m exhausted, hungry and absolutely filthy. If you want to flirt with someone, go inside and make a call.”
“Poor baby.” She bent to pick up her jacket, then gave it a good shake and hung it over the rail. “All your lady friends turned into pumpkins?”
“Might as well have,” he groused.
Lily shook her head. “You’re incorrigible.” And charming, and funny and unhealthily appealing.
“What’s the baby’s name?” Derek asked, white teeth flashing. He always teased her about naming the animals. He seemed to enjoy teasing her, period. He also seemed to know exactly how far he could push her, and then he’d cleverly back off. Devious man. “Pit?”
He smiled, and not being made of stone, Lily smiled back. “Only you would name a potential prize-winning bull after a movie star.”
He got it. Of course he did. Lily bit back a sigh as her smile faded. Unlike her husband, Derek had a wicked sense of humor, and an agile and clever mind behind that handsome face. All of which made resisting him damn difficult. “It’s a talent,” she told him modestly, turning back to her task of tidying up. “What can I say?”
Tucking her T-shirt hem back into her jeans as she straightened up, Lily wondered if resisting him would become easier over the years, or if it would always be such hard work.
Still, he was a pleasure to look at. No matter what the circumstances, he appeared darkly elegant and cultured. And tonight was no exception. As always he was appropriately dressed for tromping in the barn on a cold winter’s night. Jeans, boots, and a thick, cream-colored wool turtleneck under a bulky shearling jacket. Appropriately dressed, but somehow looking as though he’d stepped out of the glossy pages of a men’s magazine.
Conscious of her gunk-covered jeans, shit-covered boots and sweaty face, Lily forced her hands not to fiddle with her God-only-knew-what-was-in-it hair. “How long were you standing there, anyway?”
“Couple of minutes. Need a hand?”
“I’m good, thanks.” What she was, was sweaty, filthy and worried. They needed to talk, and talk soon. But a woman needed to be at her sharpest to match wits with Derek. And Lily wasn’t nearly up to locking horns with her partner tonight. On either a personal or business level.
Besides, she needed to have all her facts together before confronting him, and damn it, she wanted to pick the time and the place. He made her jumpier than anyone she’d ever known, including her late, unlamented husband, and she was sure he did it on purpose.
His tone changed as he said softly, “You’re skittish tonight.”
The man was way too observant. Her instincts around him had always been primitive; Lily felt the need to raise the drawbridge, man the battle stations and drag out the big guns. “I’m not skittish,” she lied. “Just tired. Peaches and I have been at this for sixteen hours.”
He gave her an assessing look that made her blood feel as effervescent as champagne as it zipped through her veins. “You look good tired.”
She snorted and shook her head. He really was incorrigible. “Sure. And wearing Eau de Bovine is downright tantalizing, too.”
“On you, yeah.”
She huffed out an amused breath and crossed her arms, then, realizing her body language practically shouted that he made her nervous, uncrossed them and stuffed her hands into the deep pockets of her rubber apron. He didn’t need to know he made her feel a little like a rabbit squaring off against a cobra: scared, but fascinated nevertheless. She cocked her head as she looked at him. “You’re wearing an earring.”
A small sapphire glinted in his left earlobe. It made him look like a chic pirate. The dark hair brushing his collar did nothing to soften his face. His eyes were a dark, almost navy blue, and thickly screened by black lashes. His mouth was frankly sensual and he had a playbill of smiles for every occasion. This one was both mocking and enigmatic and, annoyingly as hell, sent a fresh shiver down her spine. “Like it?”
She shrugged; what she’d like was to nibble it right off his ear. Absolutely disgusted with herself, Lily scowled. For pity’s sake, just how tired was she? “Not many ranchers I know wear gemstones,” she mocked. “Not the guys anyway.”
His chuckle, low, throaty and filled with implications that had nothing to do with the conversation, made Lily’s mouth go dry. “Are you casting aspersions on my masculinity?”
Not just no, Lily thought, but hell no. Derek Wright was all man. He had a magnetic personality, and men and women alike were drawn to him. The earring would make him even more attractive. Women made fools of themselves over him already. He was wickedly attractive, wealthy and charming. And he burned with a smoldering sensuality that had females turning to mush at the mere sight of him.
All it took was a certain look, a suggested arch of his eyebrow and a crook of his finger, and susceptible women with no sense, no self-restraint and no willpower fell at his feet like puppies waiting for their bellies to be rubbed.
Like Sean, Derek was a high-maintenance guy.
No thanks. Been there, done that.
The trick was to keep him at arm’s length at all cost. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“I live here,” he told her mildly.
The original ranch house where Derek lived was a hundred feet away. The ostentatious house Sean had had built for their marriage was five miles away. The ranch house had charm and character. Her house had expensive things. She’d switch any day.
“Here, in the barn, at midnight,” Lily said patiently.
“Sounds like a song.” He smiled charmingly when she arched a brow. “Okay, okay. To see you.”
Lily yanked on the tap and waited for the water to get warm before scrubbing her clean hands . . . cleaner. She glanced at him over her shoulder. “I thought you were in New York seeing that new Neil Simon play with what’s her name.” Derek liked, actually enjoyed opera, the theater and even ballet. He also liked sports and country music. Mostly, though, he liked women. He was a dangerous man.
“Christine. I was. We did. Flew back an hour ago.”
How many men flew to New York for the night just to catch a play? A man with way too many sides to his personality. And a different lady friend for every activity, too. Which is why Lily tried her damnedest to keep some distance between them. Usually she succeeded. Clearly, Derek wasn’t going away, so stalling the much-needed conversation wasn’t going to help her any.
She was in no shape to be doing this now, she warned herself. But if not now—when? Might as well get the small bone of contention out on the table and over with. The other, major one could wait until she’d armed herself with facts and figures.
“I had an illuminating conversation with Angie Blaylock yesterday,” Lily said casually as she looked around for something to dry her hands on. Angie was an ex of Derek’s and the personal assistant to the town attorney, Barry Campbell.
“Sweetheart, if you want to hear about my love life, come to me directly.” The words were spoken as much with his eyes as his voice. His smile was lazy and more than a little arrogant as he finished smoothly, “I’d be happy to te—”
A woman could drown in those somnolent blue eyes— She blew out an exasperated breath. “Don’t be an ass.” It made her insane the way he flirted with her. As if he needed the practice. “Angie told me you deeded half the Flying F to Sean three years ago when he was diagnosed as terminal. Is that true?” Lily’s skin felt hot and tight with equal parts embarrassment and annoyance. Damn you, Sean. How could you?
Derek tossed her a towel. “So much for client confiden- tiality.”
His flippancy made her hackles rise. “Damn it.” She dried her hands and watched as the calf, after several unsuccessful tries, wobbled to his feet and started rooting for nutrition.
She straightened, meeting his gaze again unflinchingly. God, she didn’t do confrontation well. Unfortunately it was one of Derek’s stock-in-trades. “For once be serious. Is it true?”
“What if it is?”
Lily counted to ten, then eleven, then gave it up. “The only way you could have given Sean half was if you had the whole to start with. I thought you were equal partners.” She shoved her hair out of her face. She needed to cut her bangs.
What a hell of a mess Sean had left her. One more lie, she thought. Stacked onto the mountains of lies her husband had spent his life building. And millions of dollars changing hands like playing cards was just one portion of the current mess that still had to be addressed.
“I own half. You own half. What’s the big deal?”
“Sean told me— No, never mind.”
“Sean told you what?”
He might have been a liar and a cheat, but Sean had been passionate about his family’s ranch. “He was embarrassed that he had to bring you in to help with the financial aspect of buying the ranch.”
“That works for me. Let’s leave it at that.”
“But it’s not true.” She knew it wasn’t. Down to her bones, she knew Sean had lied. If the truth would have helped, he’d still have fabricated some wild story that made him either the hero or the victim.
“What do you want me to say, Lily? That I bought the ranch six years ago and let Sean claim ownership?” Derek shrugged broad shoulders. “Made no damn difference to me, and it made him happy. What was the harm? Half the Flying F is yours. That was always the plan.”
Whose plan? Sean’s? Lily would like to believe her husband had been that far-seeing, but it was pretty damn hard to swallow. Hence the name the Flying F. A finger to his dead father, who’d let the ranch go to hell in a handbasket rather than leave it to his only child. She shot a look at Derek. “Then why—”
“Jesus, Lily.” His eyes flashed and his mouth went tight. “Who cares, for God’s sake? No one. Let it go. What difference does it make in the grand scheme of things how it came about? None. Sean and I both wanted you to own half the spread. It’s a done deal. Live with it.”
Fighting back waves of fatigue, Lily stiffened, and gave him a glare equivalent to pitchforking him to the wall. “You might be used to giving orders that everyone jumps to obey, but news flash, Ace: I’m not one of your employees. I don’t jump when you say jump.”
“Don’t I know it,” he said ruefully. He gave her a studied look. “Then fight me for the other half, and boot my ass out.”
“That does have a perverse appeal,” Lily told him. “Thank you, but no thank you.” She leaned her butt against the sink and stuffed her fingers in her front pockets as she watched him prowl around the stall.
Peaches mooed as he walked around her to pick up a couple of small wood figurines sitting on a post. “These are incredible.” His long fingers caressed the detail in her three-inch-high carving of Diablo.
She shrugged, ridiculously pleased, and acutely aware of the way his thumb moved in almost a caress over the wooden bull as he turned the carving in his hand. It was so like him to home in on the one thing she was most proud of and neatly change the subject.
“Just something to while away the time while I’m hanging around waiting for my patient to do her job. About the ranch . . .” Few people knew about her hobby, and she liked it that way. Woodcarving was personal and hers alone. It seemed strangely intimate to have Derek Wright of all people touching—fondling—her work.
“Don’t make any hasty decisions; live with it a while and see how it goes.” He held the carving up to the light and twisted it this way and that. “My God, the detail is amazing. Look at the expression on his face. This guy is pissed and ready to charge.” He looked over at her. The lights reflected in her eyes, making them glitter. “You could sell these, Lily, you’d make a fortune.”
“It’s just a hobby, and I already have a fortune,” she reminded him dryly. Despite Sean’s failings, he’d left her a very wealthy woman, which was why she’d been taken by surprise at the news that he hadn’t had even part ownership of the ranch. “So the ranch was the secret Sean was keeping, huh?”
Derek’s eyes narrowed. “The—what?”
And maybe it wasn’t. Damn. “Nothing.” Suddenly, the barn, the ranch, hell, Montana felt crowded. Lily couldn’t wait to leave for the Iditarod trail. Alone. Just her and the dogs. Miles from anywhere and anyone who had the power to hurt her. She was sick and tired of pretending to everyone, including herself, that things were hunky-dory. She wanted honest emotions and no more pretenses. She needed to be away from the ranch, from memories of Sean and from the discomforting presence of Derek Wright.
What she needed was solitude, miles of it. She’d get that in the next few weeks.
“I knew Sean was up to something before he died.” Lily folded the damp towel and draped it over the edge of the sink, looked around for something else to occupy her hands. She could toss the wood carvings into her bag—but Derek stood between her and the little group. “I guess this business with the ranch was it. Thanks for saving his pride by pretending it was half his. But I really have no interest in being part owner of a ranch.” She put out a hand. “Here, give me those.”
“I’ll buy this carving of Diablo from you,” Derek said easily, his thumb moving back and forth over the tiny bull’s back. “You should have a showing in New York or somewhere. Seriously, Lily, these carvings are magnificent. People would clamor at your door to have your work. It’d be a viable source of income for you.”
Lily dropped her hand, and jerked her gaze from his long, tanned fingers, and that slowly moving thumb, back to his face. “You can have it.” Nobody had anything she’d made over the years. Not even her father. She tried to tamp down the little glow inside at the thought of Derek owning something she’d made. Silly. It’s just a piece of wood. She had dozens, hundreds of them at home.
“Flattering, but no thanks. It’s just a hobby and I like it that way. Besides, I could retire tomorrow if I wanted to. Which I don’t.” She suspected the obscene amount of money in her name in a Cayman bank had been illegally obtained by her husband. She’d give it back as soon as she figured out who it really belonged to. “I love what I do, thank you very much. And I have my dog-training income. By the time I get back from the Iditarod, if I come back, Barry will—”
He stopped stroking the little carving to stare at her. “What do you mean if you come back?”
“I might stay in Alaska, open a practice there. Train sled dogs on the side.” Okay. Not something she’d thought through yet. But a possibility. She had to learn to become more proactive about her own life, damn it. She’d spent most of her twenty-seven years blowing in someone else’s wind. Her father was a vet. She became a vet. Sean—
“You do that here.”
“Maybe I need a change of scenery.” The idea was gaining momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.
“For God’s sake, Lily.” He shoved the little carving into his pocket. Heat poured off his large body as he stepped closer and, typically Derek, invaded her personal space. “You’re overreacting. What does it matter how the split of the estate happened? Half is yours, legally, fair and square. It’s a done deal. You can’t just pack up and leave.” He looked around, as if looking for someone to agree with him. But the cows couldn’t care less. And the calf’s little sides heaved as he nursed, oblivious to the humans.
“You’ve lived here your entire life.” He scanned her face for—what? “You have friends here. Family. Hell, what about your father?”
Lily shrugged. “I’ll call him often. Besides, he has Paula and Matt.” Her dad had married Paula Kruger eleven years ago. Her son, Matt, was Lily’s father’s veterinarian assistant and partner.
In the last few years Lily seemed to have been squeezed out of everybody’s life with no regrets. Even her own dad had moved on, building a new life that didn’t include his daughter. It didn’t matter how adult she was, she missed the closeness she and her father had shared since her mom’s death in a plane crash almost nineteen years ago.
She had nothing against Paula and Matt. They were lovely people. They were just lovely people who’d unintentionally driven an ever-widening wedge between Lily and her father. But she had to admit, if only to herself, that she’d allowed it to happen. All part of that “getting blown around by other people” thing she was so determined to fight her way out of. It wasn’t too late to salvage a relationship with her father, and Lily was determined to find her way back to herself, too.
“Not the same as working with his daughter,” Derek muttered.
Lily smiled, a part of her appreciating the knight-errant comment. “They manage the practice fine without me. Look, Derek. This is a waste of time. I don’t understand the legalities of what you did or how it even came about. That said, I won’t accept charity from you. You and Barry will have to work this out.”
“Yes. Things with you and Sean usually are—were.” She shook her head and stared up at him.
There was good reason not to tell Derek what she’d learned about Sean over the years. She’d like to believe she didn’t want Derek to know about his friend out of a sense of loyalty to the man she’d married. But the reality was, she didn’t want anyone else to know because she couldn’t take the pity—or the humiliation of having everyone know what an idiot she’d been. And even if it didn’t matter to Sean anymore, Lily wanted to hold on to whatever tattered threads of dignity were left to her. Sean might’ve been a philandering jackass, but he had been her husband.
The other, even more powerful deterrent was that as long as she could convince Derek that she still cared about Sean, there was a faint possibility he’d eventually take a hint and stop flirting with her. Unfortunately, he had a skin like a rhinoceros. It didn’t matter how many times she told him she wasn’t interested, he just loved to flirt.
It had been an ego-bashing realization—that to Derek the flirting wasn’t personal. He just . . . did it. It was in his DNA to flirt.
The first time she’d met him, six years ago, she’d taken one look and it had been as if a bomb had exploded. His impact was total, and complete. His looks first, then his charm, but the physical impact, that chemical reaction that said I can’t wait to get my clothes off and feel you skin to skin, had shocked Lily to her toes. Shocked and, God help her, scared her to death. Anything that powerful, that intense, had to be dangerous.
Anything a person wanted that desperately could be taken away. A person could go from euphoria to despair in a heartbeat.
Unfortunately she’d wanted to sink her teeth into him, she’d wanted to lick and taste his skin, she’d wanted to grab great fistfuls of his long dark hair in both fists and draw his mouth down to hers. She wanted to throw caution and common sense to the winds.
After one date with him she’d wanted a whole lot of things, Lily thought crossly. All of them bad for her. So she’d run from Derek, straight into his best friend’s open arms, and found herself in a whole different sort of mess. And if that wasn’t a sad, sorry statement for a widow to make, she couldn’t think of one.
And the reality, the ego-bruising reality, was that Derek had let her go. He’d done nothing to make her change her mind. He’d toasted them charmingly at their engagement dinner, and he’d been Sean’s best man at their wedding, laughing and joking, flirting with every woman present.
So that heat, that fire, had been completely one-sided. Fool me once, she thought ruefully.
He’d never by so much as word or deed, or glance, done anything while she’d been married. But afterward . . . the heat had been back, like a smoldering fire under dry leaves in the fall. Just waiting to ignite into a gigantic bonfire. If she stuck around, she’d be burned to a cinder in no time flat.
“Do me a favor,” Lily said quietly, yanking off the apron and tossing it with her things in the corner. “Don’t run the race this year.” The grueling, thousand-plus-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome was brutal and challenging enough without having Derek along. She already had too many questions, and too little information circling around in her mind. She wanted to sort the wheat from the chaff without Derek around clouding the issue.
He raised a brow. “Why the hell not? Scared I’ll beat you again?”
Lily had trained him and sold him his dogs. He was an excellent musher and had actually beaten her race time twice. A powerful adversary, he was determined, competitive and focused. Before, she’d enjoyed the competition. But for some reason this year was different. “I’d like to run the race without having to watch my back.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Doc,” Derek said smoothly, a glint in his eyes. “As attractive as you are, when I’m in the race, I’m there to win. Hard to watch your back when I’m way ahead of you on the trail.”
“In your dreams,” Lily scoffed, torn between amusement and irritation. “I want to run the race with my full concentration. If you’re there—”
“Well, bless your heart, are you saying I distract you?” He gave her a slow, lazy smile that touched off a response somewhere in her aching body. This was why, she thought, this was exactly why she didn’t want him on the trail this year.
She could handle Derek Wright just fine. Didn’t mean she wanted to. She twisted her wedding ring deliberately around her finger. As soon as she noticed his gaze there, she stuffed her hands back into her jean pockets. She could be as subtle as Mata Hari. Sean’s wedding ring was her body armor, and she used it ruthlessly to hold back the enemy at the gate.
“Don’t you have a serious bone in your body?” she asked crossly.
“Oh yes,” Derek assured her, blue eyes alight with wicked humor, apparently not in the least put off. “I have several bones that are very serious.”