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"You're absolutely sure you want me to watch out for your sister?" Dawson Prescott asked again.
He studied Griffin, sitting across the desk from him. Dawson wasn't afraid of him; he was a friend. In spite of Griff's dangerous reputation, Dawson liked him and his brothers. It was their sister, Matilda, who rubbed him the wrong way.
Griff brushed a hand over his dark brown hair. The short, military cut didn't move. "You heard me right," he said. His Australian drawl did nothing to soften the words. If anything, his "down under" accent added intimidation. "I want you to watch over Mattie while I'm gone. We had this discussion already."
"Yeah, I remember," Dawson said. "I just didn't think you were serious." Hoped he wasn't serious would be more accurate. But Dawson suspected Griff never said anything he didn't mean.
"Dead serious," he answered, confirming the suspicion. "If I could put off this job, I would." He met Dawson's gaze squarely and a predatory glint crept into his brown eyes. "But I have to go."
Dawson knew he would say no more about it than that.
Here in the plush carpeted, wood-accented office at Fortune TX, Ltd. where he worked as a financial analyst, it was hard for Dawson to imagine what the other man did when he disappeared. But Dawson had quickly come to like and respect him. Whatever it was that took the man out of town, Dawson instinctively knew Griffin Fortune was one of the good guys.
Dawson pushed his cushy leather chair away from the desk, leaned back, and linked his hands over his abdomen. "But again I have to ask - why me? My baby-sitting skills leave something to be desired."
"If she were a baby, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Griff said, his Aussie drawl thickening with irony.
As much as he wanted to, Dawson couldn't argue with the fact that Matilda Fortune was no baby. Every time he heard her name, he instantly thought of her long, shapely legs encased in denim - followed quickly by a flash of those legs wrapped around his waist. He'd only ever seen her in work clothes with her shirt pulled out and hanging loose. If the rest of her was as good as those legs, and he ever got a look at the package, they would all be in trouble.
The weird thing was that in the looks department she was nothing to write home about. Ordinary braided blond hair, average gray eyes, and pale skin all added up to a woman as plain as her name: Matilda. Who thought that up? Dawson only knew that she pushed some of his buttons - all of them wrong. But it was unlikely that anything personal would ever happen with her. Ever since they had laid eyes on each other, sparks had flown between them - and not the good kind.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," he said, "but isn't she twenty-one? Why does she need looking after?"
"She's been sheltered. She trusts everyone and has never met a stranger. My four brothers and I have always watched out for her. But she's changed since she got to Texas. What do you people put in the water?"
Dawson blinked. "Excuse me?"
"There's something going around and it's called Matrimony. Seems to be catching. Soon my brother Brody and Jillian will be tying the knot. But it all started with my brother Reed when he married your sister."
Dawson and his half sister Mallory hadn't grown up together. Different mothers. But his gut told him his sister's match with Griff's brother was a good one. "I've never seen her happier."
"Reed, too." One corner of Griff's mouth lifted as he sat up straighter in the chair. "On top of that, Mattie's been acting strange ever since she found out that Jillian is going to have a baby. I overheard her tell Jillian that she wants one of her own soon. I wouldn't put it past her to run off with one of the ranch hands at the Double Crown."
Dawson couldn't remember ever hearing Griff string together that many sentences. Obviously the guy was really concerned. With a sister of his own, Dawson could understand the protective instinct. But he was a financial analyst for crying out loud. Granted, he worked for the family company, Fortune TX, Ltd. But surely they wouldn't expect him to nursemaid Matilda Fortune, the troublemaker cousin from Australia.
The assignment was definitely above and beyond the call of duty. He worked on spreadsheets ... Bad choice of words. Instantly he thought of Matilda's long legs and tangled bed sheets. Damn, this was a bad idea. He'd agreed reluctantly, and only because he'd never actually expected Griff to take him up on it. Now he wished he'd never said yes.
The question was how he could gracefully get out of this. Here goes, he thought ruefully.
"She doesn't like me much, Griff. Surely you've noticed. If looks could kill, I'd be a chalk outline on the floor. Wouldn't it be better if you found someone else for guard duty?"
"There are three things that make you an ideal candidate for this assignment." Dawson didn't miss the harnessed strength in the other man's wrist and forearm as he held up three fingers. "One - Reed is on his honeymoon, and Brody is too preoccupied with his own upcoming wedding and becoming a father in a couple of months to do the job justice. Two - you're practically a Fortune, being my cousin Zane's friend and all. Three - you're right. She hates your guts." He grinned. "That makes you perfect for the job, mate."
"I've got number four."
"What's that?" he asked.
"She's just a kid."
He was eleven years her senior, a fact he'd pointed out at his first meeting with the Australian she-devil. Not that he was old. She'd figured that out all by herself. They'd accompanied Reed and Mallory to the rodeo. All Dawson had said was that he hadn't expected Reed's sister to be so young. That had instantly gotten Matilda's back up, and she'd fired off her own verbal shot.
Even if Dawson were attracted to her - at least the "her" that was separate from those dynamite legs - the disparity in their ages was something he would never get past. After his parents had split up, his father had married a much younger woman - a fact that had angered and embittered his mother. She'd had her nose rubbed in the fact that she was no longer young and had no weapons to fight for her man. Dawson had vowed that he would never use a woman and toss her aside like yesterday's meat loaf. Furthermore, he would never make the same mistakes his father had.
He wasn't like his father. He would never be like him.
Excerpted from Shotgun Vows by Teresa Southwick Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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