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Spirit of the Wolf
By VONNA HARPER
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Vonna Harper
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLose yourself in the land. Breathe the cleanest air you'll ever know. Scan the cloudless summer sky for a glimpse of a hawk. Stay in the moment. Remember why you live here. Let the breeze quiet you.
Despite the high-desert heat, Cat Alward drove with the window down and her elbow out, undoubtedly adding to her sunburn and risking a collision with an insect. Air-conditioning would be nice, but there was none in her old Ford pickup. Fortunately it had the necessary pulling capacity. As long as it could haul what she needed hauling, she'd find ways to keep it running.
A glance in the rearview mirror assured her that, yes, the horse trailer was still tracking behind her. Ginger, an okay name for a horse, had been chosen by the mare's former owner in deference to her light mane and tail. The last thing Cat wanted to do was confuse the three-year-old by changing her name.
She was taking Ginger to Matt Yaye—a job fulfilled, a cattle rancher supplied with the well-trained mount he needed to do his job. Nothing more.
The hell it was.
Thoughts of Matt's land and work-hardened body slipped like hot silk through her and settled, as she knew would happen, between her legs. Matt, early thirties, a tad over six feet with hands like new leather, dark eyes permanently squinting against the sun, and a rumbling voice that stirred her as she'd never been stirred.
If she dared grip the steering wheel with a single hand, the left would go between her legs and press against her jeans. However, with no power steering and a single-lane dirt road conspiring against her, she knew better. Squeezing her pussy muscles only worked what didn't need to be worked.
Damn Matt. Damn his cowboy body and take-no-prisoners cock.
It's not all him, she reminded herself. A Greek god couldn't crawl under her skin and into her body if she didn't allow it to happen. And she allowed. In spades. When it came to Matt.
Who, if she was being honest, was little more than a stranger.
The so-called road leading to Matt's place was a good two miles long. Between rocks and potholes, what was left of the Ford's shocks was going down for the count. Her back ached, and she wouldn't be surprised if her butt sported bruises. However, because dirt roads were more common than paved ones in central Oregon cattle country, she gave it little mind.
Unlike her parents, who'd declared that the high-desert land was worthless.
They had been and still were wrong.
Resigning herself to a leaking pussy, she let her attention drift to the low summer-gray hills to her right. They rose treeless into an achingly blue sky sparsely painted with clouds incapable of bringing rain to the parched area. To the uninitiated, this area was lifeless, dead. Capable of sapping the soul from anyone trapped here.
"Get out," her mother had demanded when she and her father had come for a visit nearly two years ago. "Before you shrivel up and die in this godforsaken land."
What her parents hadn't understood was that she'd never felt more alive. Maybe too much lately, full of screaming energy and the deep-seated desire to take wing and fly.
Find peace in the hills. They've always offered you comfort and fulfillment and will again if you let them. Tamp down this restlessness. This tension. Call those things out for the nonsense they are.
Or was it nonsense? she questioned as the trailer shuddered, and Ginger whinnied a protest. Maybe something was trying to get through to her. Maybe she needed to get away from work, turn off her cell phone, listen to herself. Call up instinct. After all, hadn't she gone with instinct when she'd first come here? Hadn't instinct gotten her on her first horse when she was still a toddler?
And hadn't instinct told her she was going to fuck Matt the moment she met him?
Okay, maybe it was time for her to clean out all the junk in her mind and open it to what waited on the land she loved with every cell in her being, because whatever it was, it wanted a piece of her.
Matt Yaye cranked on the fence puller, tightening the barbed wire. In deference to the heat, he wore a once-white undershirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing tanned strength. His ever-present Western hat rode low, as did the faded and dusty jeans clinging to narrow hips. Equally dusty boots dug into the earth.
Although he must have heard her approach, he didn't look at her because he was intent on replacing a fence section that ran along the dirt road. Traveling at little more than a crawl, Cat divided her attention between driving and the man—mostly the man.
There was nothing easy or soft about Matt. He faced life as if it were a Brahma bull, not with bravado but wrapped in self-confidence. He accepted without question or doubt that thousands of beef cattle lived or died because of the decisions he made, of his understanding of them and the possibility for danger.
Coming alongside him, she stepped on the brakes and waited as the man she'd been looking forward to seeing for a week secured the top strand to the metal fencing. Sweat tracked down his neck. The wind teased what showed of his too-long black hair under the gray hat, making her ache with a powerful need to run her hands through the strands. What did it matter that equal parts dust and sweat coated his hair? Those things were part of him, part of both of them.
Rolling his shoulders, Matt turned toward her. His features were quiet, his emotions hidden, and yet something simmered in him. "You're here."
"Later than I said. I'm sorry." Like every other time she'd seen him, her throat didn't want to work. Her body hummed.
"Something came up?"
"Doesn't it always?" He needed a shave, damn him. Did he have any idea how sexy the added shading made him look? "Chet over at the Lazy M called. He wanted my opinion of letting his horses go unshod. He said he'd read that horses did just as well without as with."
Matt shook his head and licked dry lips. His gaze drilled into her, looking for what? "Chet's cheap. He doesn't want to pay a farrier."
There were only two farriers in the county, and both brought a lifetime of experience and compassion to their jobs. They charged fair. Short of learning how to shoe himself, Chet wasn't going to get a better deal anywhere.
"That's what I told him." She smiled for the first time, wishing it was easier but knowing how she was around Matt—flying apart. "An unshod horse in an irrigated pasture or in a barn's one thing. Riding all over hell and gone keeping up with range cattle's another."
"He didn't like hearing that, right?"
She shrugged. At least they were talking, albeit about things that didn't matter. With Matt, she never knew what was going to come out of his mouth, if anything. "He asked for my opinion; I gave it. You want to see Ginger?"
"In a few." Stepping closer to the truck, he closed rough fingers over her elbow. His eyes dared her not to react. "Your arm's hot," he unnecessarily announced. "Prickling from the sun, not that you care. You're as bad as me when it comes to facing the elements. You take whatever Mother Nature throws at you."
"I guess." Most of the time, Matt was as quiet as the stereotypical open-country cowboy. This much from him was close to a record. Now, suddenly, thanks to his touch, it was she who couldn't put two words together.
Quite possibly, they were the only two human beings for miles around. No one would ever know what they said or whether they did anything about the rage between them. Granted, Addie might be at Matt's and her ranch, but the older woman couldn't see clear out here. Even if she did, she'd undoubtedly declare Matt was an adult and then some. What he did with his life was his business.
"Tell me something," she came up with, because the question had been stuck in her craw. "If you didn't need a new horse, would I have heard from you?"
Back to one-word sentences, was he? But then wasn't that part of his appeal? The mystery? "When you were horny enough?" she challenged.
"Unless you got that way first."
He hadn't released her elbow. The pressure should have been enough, no other contact needed—surely nothing deep. After all, conversation hardly defined their relationship, but something else was at work this afternoon, something new in the air maybe.
"I'm wondering if there's going to be a storm," she said, because it was a given that they were going to have sex. No further definition needed.
"Yeah?" Lifting his head, Matt scanned the sky. Done, he met her gaze again. His eyes made her think of obsidian as they always did, but today she caught a hue she'd never seen. Maybe the sun was responsible, and there was no need to ask where the hint of scarlet had come from. "What makes you think that?"
Pulled back by the question, she shifted into neutral and eased her foot off the clutch. Pins and needles traveled up her leg. "You don't feel the energy? Like static electricity."
"Sorry," he said on the tail of a shrug, yet there was something artificial about the word, a deliberate dismissal, perhaps.
"Look, Ginger's been in the trailer long enough." Much as she wanted to, she didn't place her hand over his. "You want a ride back to the house? If you aren't done, I'll put her in the corral and—"
"I'm done for now." That said, he released her, hoisted the wire puller over his shoulder, and walked around to the passenger's side. He got in, placing the tool of his trade on the seat between them. "I was going to quit working when you got here."
Because there was something he wanted to do more than ranch upkeep—specifically, fuck the county's only female horse trainer.
A couple of conversation possibilities skittered through her mind, only to evaporate under the masculine presence an arm's length away. She'd known about Coyote Ranch long before meeting Matt at a Lakeview bar last fall. Her friend Daria had been singing Matt's physical praises for years, but with Addie's husband, Santo, handling the Coyote Ranch's horses, there'd been no business reason for their paths to cross. Besides, Cat hadn't been hurting for male companionship—one of the perks of being single, lean, and strong in a land where strength counted for a lot.
Then somehow Santo had gotten himself thrown by the tall, gentle mare he'd been riding for years. He'd landed on rocks, breaking ribs and an ankle and, according to the coroner, probably sustaining a concussion. Also according to the coroner, he'd lived the first of the two days he'd been in the backcountry. It had taken Matt, Addie, and the men searching with them that long to find him.
The moment she'd first seen Matt Yaye in the Rangerider Bar, Cat had become like a mare in heat. With Daria handling the introductions, Matt had quickly gone from "Glad to meet you," to "Can I buy you a beer?" to "I've heard about your reputation with horses. You're damn good."
Everything had gone fast between them. Fast and furious, as the saying goes. Close to cold sober, they'd sweated and screamed through the quickest sex of her life in the bed of his pickup that first night. Maybe someone had heard them having sex, but hopefully everyone had been in the bar. Either way, it hadn't mattered then. It still didn't because every time she got within a few hundred feet of Matt, she was ready to jump his bones.
Five minutes after picking Matt up, she pulled into a large area that was surrounded by wooden fencing and a couple of corrals to the right of the old Coyote Ranch house. The barn used mostly to house pregnant cows and sickly newborn calves was to the left. Guessing Matt would want to take Ginger through her paces—even sex took a backseat to business with him—she'd saddled and bridled the mare before coming out. Now, however, she couldn't find the words to explain her thinking. Five minutes of watching him rub his left thigh and wishing to hell she was the one doing that, but minus the denim, had her opening the truck door and facing into what breeze slipped over the nearly treeless acreage.
She had to get a grip. Somehow. Otherwise, despite what was bothering his thigh, she'd back him against her rig and start clawing at his zipper.
A metallic creaking let her know he was already opening the horse trailer gate. Joining him, she watched as Matt stepped into the trailer. Scant seconds later, Ginger's rump and tail came into view. She'd been a little concerned that Ginger would need time to adapt to having a strange man handle her, but as soon as the mare was out, she pressed her head against Matt's chest.
"Standoffish," he observed as he rubbed behind both ears. "Skittish and shy."
"She knows when she's being handled by a man who understands what a woman wants."
A black-eyed glance in her direction left her with no doubt Matt had picked up on the subtext.
Hands meant for physical work ran up and down Ginger's neck. Instead of dozing off as horses often did, the mare remained alert.
"I wish I wasn't doing this," Matt muttered.
"Having to retire your old horse?"
"Not that so much. Buck deserves to relax. I'm talking about Santo."
Until this moment, she'd believed Matt didn't want to talk about the man. Knowing he'd been part of the group that had found Santo's body, she hadn't pushed. "From everything I've heard," she ventured, "he was a good man."
"The best." Still stroking Ginger, Matt turned his body and attention toward her. He stood on widespread legs, drawing her attention to the bulge beneath his snug jeans. "Came to the U.S. illegally to get away from the poverty in his village so he could support his parents. He said he got his papers, but I never saw them." He shrugged. "Didn't matter to anyone around here, especially me."
Especially him? Strange he didn't mention Santo's American wife, Addie. "You miss him, don't you?"
"I'm not sure I'd be alive without him."
Rocked by the unexpected glimpse of what there was of Matt beneath the surface, she struggled to come up with something to say. Damn both of them for making sex first, second, and third in their relationship—if what existed between them could be called that.
"People, ah ... Some wind up having more impact on us than we expect." She winced at the stupid words.
"Yeah, they do."
Leaving Ginger, he headed toward her, his boots landing soundlessly on the packed earth. Solid thigh muscles beneath old denim caught and relaxed. "How soon you have to be back?"
"Before dark. I need to feed the horses."
"Hmm." His breath slid hot over her forehead, entered her bloodstream. "An hour drive. You have time."
Although he hadn't yet touched her, the promise and challenge coated the air. Another woman, one whose body hadn't been imprinted with his, might think he was asking permission, but she knew better. Matt would haul her jeans down over her hips when he was good and ready. When he'd gotten her to the boiling point—which she was already approaching.
"Who's here?" She nodded at the house that, like most around here, hadn't seen a paintbrush in years because other things took priority.
Just us. Just like I hoped. "What about Addie?"
"Staying here's hard for her. She's off seeing her sister in Vegas."
As a child, she'd briefly lived in Las Vegas with her parents. Hated everything about it.
"When's she coming back?"
"She's not sure."
Matt didn't want to talk anymore; he was ready for action. So was she, and yet there were things she wished she could ask him about his relationship with Addie—and with Santo before the older man's death. The three of them had lived together in the house, sharing work, meals, and companionship. According to her friend Daria, Addie's parents had been the ranch's original owners. When Addie was a teenager, her parents had hired Santo. Before long, the two young people had fallen in love. Daria didn't know how Addie's parents had felt about their only child hooking up with a man who spoke broken English, but no one disputed Santo's competence when it came to running a cattle ranch. After Santo and Addie married, Santo had moved into the house. For years, the two couples from different generations had worked together to keep Coyote Ranch going.
Excerpted from Spirit of the Wolf by VONNA HARPER Copyright © 2011 by Vonna Harper. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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