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Grant took a swig from his beer and set the long-neck bottle on the familiar oak surface of the kitchen table. He grimaced. It tasted like swill, and didn't smell much better in his opinion, but it was all part of the ritual.
"Damn it, Bud, this is the third one in two months." His date last night had ended the evening with a Dear Grant speech, and he hadn't even been able to work up enough remorse to make her feel properly appreciated.
He'd been too busy trying to control the urge to follow Zoe and the guy on the Harley. He'd been looking after Zoe Jensen for as long as he could remember. Too long to take seeing some leather-clad joker with his hands all over her with any kind of equanimity.
Bud did not answer, and Grant took no offense. He stared morosely into his new friend's beady but understanding eyes.
"Guess you understand, amigo. You got dumped too."
Bud wiped his face and stared silently back at Grant. Grant nodded. "Women. Who can understand them? Even Zoe is like a puzzle with a piece missing lately. You should have seen the loser she was with last night."
Just remembering the thick-necked biker-wannabe who wore more leather than one of his bulls made Grant's jaw ache. He knew Zoe had been going through some kind of emotional crisis since her dad had sold Grant the family ranch, but he hadn't thought she would take it so far. She did not belong on a cattle ranch and she had to know it. He had expected her to come to terms with that truth by now.
If her recent behavior was anything to go by, she hadn't.
He moved the hamster's cage so that he could put his booted feet up on the already scarred oak tabletop. It was the oldest piece of furniturein a house that had been home to four generations of the Cortez family. Surprisingly, it had survived the decorating efforts of his grandmother, his mother, and then his stepmother.
Looking at Bud, he sighed.
A man who talked to hamsters probably had no room to criticize Zoe's choice of dates. On the other hand, a hamster would make a better companion for her than the guy last night.
Grant stood up and put his now empty beer bottle on the counter. He could not stay still and he did not enjoy the feeling. Zoe had him tied in knots and she was not even his woman. But he felt as possessive of her as if she bore the name Cortez. He only wished he saw her as a sister.
His image glistened in the window behind the sink. He glared at his reflection. Disgusted blue eyes glared back. Almost black hair left a little too long brushed the collar of his denim shirt. For once, he looked like the rancher he was. He spent most of his time in suits, overseeing the Cortez conglomerate, but at heart he was every bit the rancher his Spanish great-grandfather had been.
Ramón Cortez had left his aristocratic roots and the country of his birth to make a new life for himself, and every generation after him had built on his efforts. There was no conceit in Grant's belief that he'd increased the Cortez empire more than any man before him, only simple truth.
His father was a millionaire; Grant was a multimillionaire. Unlike the rich and famous who had winter homes in the area, his family had their roots in this small town. And, as wealthy as he was, he preferred the slow pace of life here to that in the big city, though his business interests dictated that he spend a fair amount of time there.
In fact, he had a business trip coming up he could not get out of. And maybe that was a good thing. He needed to get away from Zoe before he did something they would both regret. He wanted her, but his daddy had a saying and it made a lot of sense: "Don't piss in your own backyard. It kills the grass and gets your boots muddy."
Giving in to his desire for Zoe would be a very stupid thing to do, and Grant Cortez was not a stupid man.
He swung around and faced Bud's cage again. Opening the door, he reached in and took the hamster out. The tiny furball started climbing up his arm. "Do you know what my problem is?"
The hamster did not pause in his ascent up Grant's arm to answer.
"I need sex."
Saying it out loud didn't help, and neither did the idea that Zoe's date might be getting more in that department lately than Grant was.
The hamster shifted his path to climb across Grant's chest, unimpressed with the man's problems. After all, the little rodent had gotten cut off too.
Grant petted the hamster curled up near his breast pocket. "Don't worry, Bud. Zoe'll take you in."
She had a soft spot for animals that resembled a Double Tuffed down pillow.
He'd never forget the look on her face the day they'd met. He'd saved her life from a mountain cat, only to find out the reason the six-year-old had been wandering the range was that she had been trying to save her pet cow, Flower, from a stock sale. Her dad had been furious, but had reluctantly agreed to sell the cow to Grant instead.
At eleven, he had given up the money he'd been saving to build a soapbox car to buy that cow. He had learned the lesson well, and he'd been taking care of Zoe ever since.
He put the hamster back in its cage as he heard the back door open. Zoe came into the kitchen with a blast of cold air and a flurry of snow. He hadn't realized it was snowing.
He frowned. "You should have waited to come until tomorrow. Just because your truck has four-wheel drive is no excuse to risk the ride over in the snow."
Zoe pulled off her stocking cap, revealing the silky length of her pretty brown hair. The ridiculous bobble on her hat bounced when she tossed it on the counter.
"I'm not driving my truck." She yanked on one glove with her teeth and shivered. "Something went wrong with the doo-hickey and Wayne has it down at the garage. I borrowed my landlady's compact." She shivered again.
"The heat's broken."
Grant grabbed her hand and pulled off the other glove. "What the hell were you thinking? You could have frozen on the way over here." She nearly had. Her small hand felt like an icicle. He chafed it between his own much larger and warmer ones, enjoying the smell of spring she carried with her, even in the dead of winter. "Angel, you need a keeper."
Zoe smiled up at him and her chocolate-brown eyes twinkled. "I already have one. You."
He did not smile back. "I'm not doing a very good job if you're out driving in the snow in some broken-down car without a heater, niña." No way was she driving home in that death trap.
She pulled her hand from his grip and started unbuttoning her coat. Her fingers trembled. "I'm not a child, and the car isn't brokenjust the heater. What's the emergency?"
He picked up the hamster cage. "This is the emergency."
Zoe's eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest, pressing the swell of her breasts against her loose knit sweater. "No."
Ignoring his body's blatant reaction to the subtle stimulus, he forced his gaze to her less than welcoming expression.
She stomped her foot and snow fell onto the kitchen floor. "Do you hear me? I'm not taking him."
Grant opened the cage and pulled the hamster out. He extended his hand to her. "Look at those sad little eyes. He's already been rejected by one woman. Don't do this to him."
She did not take the animal, but stood defiantly silentall five feet two inches of her.
"He was a gift to my foreman's daughter, along with another hamster. The pet store said they were both female."
Zoe's eyes widened in comprehension. "They weren't, and your foreman did not want a zillion hamster babies running around the house?"
Grant nodded. "Little Sheila had to choose between her two hamsters. She chose the female. Bud got left out in the cold."
Zoe unclipped her long brown hair and smoothed it back, clipping it again. Grant recognized the gesture. She was thinking. She looked at him, her expression unreadable, and then shifted her gaze to the hamster. She reached out to take Bud and cuddled the little furball close to her chest.
Her nicely rounded, high-breasted chest. He ground his teeth at the thought. He hadn't noticed Zoe's feminine attributes since the summer she was nineteenhe'd made sure of itbut lately his body had been going haywire around her. He definitely needed an outlet for his libido.
"What's his name?" she asked.
"Why didn't they just take him back to the pet store?"
"They tried, but the store owner wouldn't take the older hamster along with the babies."
Zoe's gaze shot to his. "They already had babies?"
"Yep. That's how they figured out they weren't both females."
Zoe raised her brows at this. "They couldn't figure it out before that?"
Grant shrugged. "I guess not."
"Why can't you keep him?"
"Get real. I don't do small furry animals. That is your domain. I do not begin to have time for a pet." Not even a hamster. "Besides, I have to fly out for a business trip tomorrow."
"So, me coming tomorrow would not have worked?"
"No, but had I known you planned to take your life into your hands to make the trip, I would have come to you."
"Bringing Bud, no doubt."
He did not bother to answer. That was a given.
Her eyes skimmed the kitchen, another indicator that she was thinking heavily, and her gaze lit on his empty beer bottle. "Get dumped again?"
"Don't sound so cheerful about the prospect."
"The woman last night? Linda?"
Zoe smiled. "She take exception to you turning your evening into a double date at the last minute?"
As a matter of fact, she had. But Grant wasn't about to share that with Zoe. He shrugged instead.
She laughed. "You didn't have to join me and Tyler. He's a sweetheart under all that leather."
"Sweethearts do not get tattoos of naked women in chains on their biceps."
Zoe had got that I'm going to protect the underdog look on her face. "He got the tattoo when he was a lot younger. You shouldn't judge a man by the vagaries of his youth."
Grant couldn't help it. He laughed. Zoe leaping to the defense of an abandoned kitten made sense. Zoe protecting the reputation of the guy she had been out with the night before did not. He had looked like someone who could take care of himself and Zoe besides. That was why Grant had insisted on joining them. He hadn't liked the way the other man had looked at her.
"You going out with him again?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
"Come on, niña. He's not your type."
She looked at him, and something in her eyes made his body tense, ready to do battle. "Just what is my type, Grant?"
"It's not that clown from last night."
She walked over to the table and gently put Bud back in his cage. "His name is Tyler."
"I don't care what his name is. He is not the right man for you."
"Yeah, well, according to you, neither are any of the other men I've dated since I was sixteen."
It was an old argument and Grant knew he'd lose. Zoe dated who she wanted, driving him crazy in the process.
She grabbed her coat. After she'd put it on, she yanked on her gloves and hat. The bobble bounced wildly from her harsh tugging. "I'm really not in the mood to argue about this. I've got forty little yellow bells to cut out for tomorrow's craft project. I'd better be getting home."
Grant grabbed his car keys from the drawer by the sink. "Take my truck. You don't want Bud to freeze."
She considered his suggestion silently. He could tell she was warring with her desire for independence and her concern for the hamster. "What about my landlady's car?"
"I'll follow you and drive my truck back."
She chewed on her lower lip. "It's a cold ride. Mrs. Givens doesn't need the car right now. It belongs to her son and he's away at college. Just bring it by when you get back from your trip. I assume you are flying out in the morning?"
"You could have one of your hands make the transfer tomorrow, if you like."
"We'll see," he said noncommittally, knowing he would not do so. He would rather she kept his truck until his return, when hopefully her own vehicle would be repaired. He was careful not to let the satisfaction he felt show in his face, however.
If she thought he was getting away with being "overly protective", as she called it, she was stubborn enough to insist.
That Sunday, Zoe rushed around her apartment before Mrs. Givens arrived for tea. She had invited her landlady the previous week and didn't want to cancel at the last minute. It would make the older woman suspicious. Zoe didn't want Mrs. Givens to realize that she had taken in another stray. Even this close to Christmas, she had the feeling that one more pet would prompt an eviction notice.
She led her German Shepherd, Snoopy, into the back bedroom and shut the door, and then tucked Bud's cage into the cubbyhole above the sink in her tiny bathroom. That should do it. With luck Zoe would find a new owner for Bud before Mrs. Givens was any the wiser. The hamster's exercise wheel squeaked as Bud's short rodent legs trod a constant rotation on the plastic device. Princess, one of Zoe's cats, watched with a hungry look. Zoe tapped the acrylic cage and smiled. Even Princess could not get into the hamster's haven.
Just to be safe, she shooed the cat out of the bathroom and shut the door. The doorbell rang and Snoopy let out a shattering series of barks. She hushed the dog before opening the front door, and almost fell backward as she came face-to-face with Grant's imposing six-foot-two-inch frame.
He reached out to steady her. "You okay?"
"Sure." She'd just been expecting a rather short, rather round older lady rather than his well-muscled, ultra masculine person. She'd done a pretty good job of sublimating her body's response to Grant since that awful night when she'd been nineteen, but every so often feelings she'd rather not acknowledge leapt past her defenses. Like now.
"What are you doing here?" Her breathless voice gave her away, but if Grant followed past patterns he wouldn't notice.
Sometimes she wondered if he thought she was as sexless as he wanted her to be. Not that she wasn't, but she shouldn't be, darn it. And that wasn't going to change any time soon. Not as long as her body still thought Grant was the one, even if her mind and her heart now knew better.
"I have come for my truck."
"I thought one of your hands would come for it." She frowned in consternation. She hadn't been mentally prepared for a confrontation with Grant right now, even a pleasant one. Not when she needed all her wits to make nice with her increasingly annoyed landlady.
"Still mad I called your boyfriend a clown?"
"I'm not mad, just busy." She forced a smile.
She hadn't been angry the other night either. Not really. Grant couldn't help being overprotective. Besides, she wasn't really dating Tyler, just trying to fix him up with a friend of hers from school. They were both skittish. "Mrs. Givens is coming for tea."
Grant leaned down and scratched the silver fur on her cat's neck. His lean, tan fingers moved in a mesmerizing rhythm, a rhythm Zoe had an overwhelming desire to experience herself. She tamped down the feeling, just like she'd been doing with similar desires for the past four yearslonger if you counted how long she'd wanted Grant before The Night.
He straightened and dropped a set of keys in Zoe's hand. "She'll be happy I brought back her son's car."
His fingers brushed her palm and she jerked her hand back at the contact. Darn. She needed to get some perspective here. She turned around too quickly and nearly went sailing when her feet got tangled withAlexander, Princess's brother. She yelled. Grant gripped her shoulders and pulled her toward him. She landed against his chest. Still standing, but barely.
Snoopy's barking, the parrot's screeching and Grant's laughter faded as Zoe became aware of the feel of Grant's hard chest against her back. What would he do if she turned around and kissed him?
Would he open his lips over hers and let her taste his tongue like he had that one time when she'd discovered passion included a whole lot more than the rather innocent dreams she'd been weaving around Grant since she was sixteen? More likely he'd think she'd gone nuts. And she had if she was contemplating giving Grant another run at her heart.
She trusted him with her life, and always would, but her emotions were a different matter entirely.
The sound of another voice alerted Zoe to her landlady's arrival; she jumped away from Grant. This time she watched where her feet landed and managed to stay upright. "Mrs. Givens. Grant was just returning your son's car."
The elderly woman smiled and patted Grant's cheek with her fleshy pink fingers. "Dear boy.You are so very thoughtful. I'm sure we would not have missed the car if you had waited until the weather improved before returning it."
Grant turned his smile on Mrs. Givens and Zoe was able to collect herself enough to find his truck keys. "Here." She handed him the keys. "We won't keep you. I know you have better things to do than stay and have tea with us."
For whatever reason, her hormones were in overdrive today, and no way could she handle Grant's presence at her tiny dinette table. Mrs. Givens frowned at Zoe.
Grant just winked. He really wasn't fond of Zoe's landlady. "As always, my schedule is full."
She knew it was true, and didn't understand why he had come to bring the car back himself. "Then I guess you had better go." Zoe pushed him out the door. "I'll talk to you later."