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Staking His Claim
By Karen Templeton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNone of this had been her choice.
Not the car, a leprous, pumpkin-orange GTO with one front fender painted, inexplicably, baby blue. Not the trip itself - as if she had time to schlep back to Oklahoma with all those pending cases sitting on her desk nearly two thousand miles away. And God knows - she waited out a wave of nausea - not the reason for the trip.
Well, that wasn't exactly true. The outcome might not have been her choice, but the events leading up to it definitely had been.
So much for living for the moment.
"No shame, no blame," Dawn Gardner muttered as she drove up in front of the single-story, sprawling farmhouse, still cinnamon brown with white-and-dark-green trim as it had always been. Edging a lawn faded from the early September heat, the same deep-pink roses bloomed, as they always had, only now against a backdrop of tangled deadwood. Cottonwoods stirred listlessly in the breeze, as if worn-out from the effort of shading the house for a whole summer, their lazy susurration no competition for the late-afternoon drone of a bumper crop of cicadas. The mingled scents weighting the humid air - of horse and fresh cut hay, the sweet, heady tang of overripe fruit - assaulted both her reluctant memory and her hypersensitive nose, making her stomach pitch. Making her feel ... untethered, like a soul in limbo.
A retriever mix, whose name she'd forgotten, his coat flashing gold in the late-day sun, sauntered over to the car with a halfhearted woof. She smiled, patting the door so he'd come close enough for her to pet. As she did, her gaze meandered to the front porch step, only one riser up from the yard. Memory nudged into view a pair of children, a boy and a girl, sitting there as they had hundreds of times. They might have been six or seven, the boy - much younger than his two older brothers, who were already in high school - boasting features that foretold of the handsome man he would eventually become, with heavy-lashed eyes, green as new grass, and thick blond hair that refused to be tamed. A little spoiled, perhaps, being the baby, but not a whiner. And not a tease.
About the same height as the boy then, with long strawberry-blond hair her mother refused to cut, the girl liked that about the boy, that he never put her down. While their mothers chatted in the kitchen, the boy would often take the girl with him while he did his chores around the farm, mostly feeding the animals - pigs, goats, chickens, rabbits. The horses. Since they were too young to be around the huge animals by themselves, sometimes his daddy would be with them, a tall man with a white crewcut, dark eyes and an easy smile who always had Tootsie Rolls in his overall pockets and called the girl "young lady," but not the way people did when you did something wrong.
Sometimes she envied the boy his daddy, although she never let on.
Dawn's inner ear perked up at fragments of a conversation she hardly knew she remembered, drifting over from the porch.
"Maybe Ryan and Hank don't want to stick around, but I'm never gonna leave here," the boy said, crunching into an apple from one of the trees off to the side of the house. Totally at ease with himself, in himself, he leaned back on his elbow, an expression on his dust-smudged face the girl would later peg as serene.
Even at that age she thought it was peculiar, not wanting to see what else was out there in the world, and she told him so. Her mama had taken her into Tulsa once when she was five, and all she could think about was getting to go back someday. Except Mama was always busy helping ladies have babies and couldn't afford the time away very often, she said, in case one of the babies decided to come while she was gone.
The boy shrugged and took another bite of his apple. "Whaddya wanna do now?" he said. "Play with my trucks or somethin'?"
"Trucks are dumb."
"Not as dumb as stupid old dolls."
"Well, I don't play with dolls, do I?"
The boy gave her a funny look. "But you're a girl."
"So? That doesn't mean I hafta play with dolls. Besides, that's sexist."
"Ooooh, I'm gonna tell! You said 'sex.""
"I did not. I said sexist. That's when somebody thinks you oughta like or do something because you're a girl or a boy. Mama told me. An' she said nobody should hafta act a certain way just 'cause people expect 'em to."
The boy threw his half-eaten apple off into the yard. One of the farm dogs trotted over to investigate, but since it wasn't meat, he let it be. "You're weird, you know that?" the boy said. "And anyway, so why don't you play with dolls?"
"I dunno. Maybe because I see so many babies and little kids when Mama takes me with her on her 'pointments? Babies cry a lot, you know. And make real stinky messes in their diapers. And their hands get tangled in my hair." The girl sank her chin into the palm of her hand, waiting out the peculiar feeling she got sometimes, like an itchiness on the inside that you couldn't scratch. It wasn't fair, having to get up in the middle of the night to go with Mama when one of her ladies had her baby. But thinking about that made the itchiness worse, so she pushed the thoughts away and said instead, "We could read, maybe."
"Reading's boring," the boy said, but the girl had a pretty good idea he said that because he didn't read as well as she did. "I got a new puzzle. Wanna do that?"
"I don't like working puzzles with you, you never do 'em right."
The boy thought for a minute, then said, "We could go dig in the backyard if you want."
"S'too hot." They sat there for a long time, listening to their own thoughts - well, the girl was, anyway, she was never sure what the boy thought about, if anything - until she suddenly said, if for no other reason than the silence was beginning to hurt her head, "Brenda Sue Mosely called me a bad word today."
The boy looked like this could be interesting. "What kinda bad word?"
"I can't say it."
"Sure you can. I mean, I won't tell." When she slanted her eyes at him, he crossed his heart. "Promise."
So she leaned over and whispered the word in his ear, thinking she liked how he smelled, like earth and animals and apple, and how it made her feel safe for some reason. She'd heard the word several times before, but she wasn't exactly sure what it meant. She just knew it was meant to hurt her.
"Brenda Sue Mosely is stupid," was all the boy said, giving the girl the impression he didn't know what the word meant, either. "If she was a boy, I'd beat her up for you."
"I don't want you beatin' anybody up for me, Cal Logan, you hear me? I can stick up for myself...."
"Dawn? What the hell?"
She jumped a foot, her memories scattering like the roaches in her apartment when she turned on the light in the middle of the night. Panic sliced through her, knotting her stomach. His long, denimed legs wading through an entourage of dogs of all shapes, sizes and parentages, a very much grown-up Cal Logan approached the car, his face creased with concern. A cool breeze ruffled that same unkempt hair, now darker than it had been as a child, and bam! Just like that, even though the thought of sex with anybody right now made her green around the gills, every nerve ending she had screamed, "Remember?"
All her life, Cal had been just Cal. Well, mostly. There'd been the odd tickle of fantasy from time to time, but then, what else was there to do in this town besides fantasize? Their single sexual encounter had been an aberration, a momentary detour off the Road of Reason. She knew that, he knew that, they'd discussed it like rational adults the morning after and she had put the whole episode behind her, chalking it up to One of Those Things. Thought she had, anyway. Her current, totally unexpected condition didn't change the aberration aspect of this. His "just Cal-ness."
Except, now, as her gaze slithered over the body that was no longer a mystery underneath his workshirt and jeans, she silently dubbed herself six kinds of fool. What on earth had she been thinking? That she could simply forget how good the man was in bed? How good he made her? That within twenty minutes he'd changed her mind about sex from whatever to whoa?
Excerpted from Staking His Claim by Karen Templeton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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