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Cassandra Rafferty. Mr. and Mrs. Ethan Rafferty. Ethan and Cassie Rafferty.
With a pleased sigh, Cassie McGuire smiled down at the delicately scrolled words she'd written in her diary. She resisted the temptation to dot the i in her name with a tiny heart. After all, she was two days past her eighteenth birthday and a woman now, no longer a child.
She ran her fingers over the lines, as though they were braille symbols whose importance she could discover through touch. They were important, because very soon this was who she would become—Cassandra Rafferty— and nothing anyone said or did could change that.
She felt her heart go into a wild gallop. Sometimes she still couldn't believe it.
There was a knock on her bedroom door and Cassie jumped, startled. As usual, her father didn't wait for permission to enter. She had little time to slip her diary into her desk drawer before he appeared.
"It's getting late, cupcake," Mac McGuire said, offering her a tentative smile. They had barely escaped an argument earlier this evening, and he was obviously hoping all was forgiven.
She couldn't leave tonight without trying to make it right between them. Crossing the room, she gave him a hug.
He was a big man, barrel-chested, with skin turned to leather by years of riding in the hot sun. His full name was Donald Alastair McGuire, Scottish through and through, but everyone in East Texas called him Mac. The Flying M wasn't the biggest ranch in the Beaumont area, and it certainly wasn't the richest, but her father was well-liked and respected.
Cassie adored him. After her mother's death, it had been just the two of them. He was a good, loving father, a man of strong opinions, but possessing a tender heart. Especially where she was concerned.
Unfortunately, he could also be unbearably overpro-tective, and she hated that her marriage to Ethan had had to be planned in secret. When their absence was discovered tomorrow, her dad would be hurt and angry. Better to face him afterward with marriage license in hand. He would come to terms with it, though she couldn't bear the idea that he might not. But somehow, one day, she would make it up to him.
"I'm heading over to the Wheeler place for a little while," he said.
"Now? It's so late."
Josh Wheeler lived at the next ranch over from the Flying M. He had inherited River Bottom after his parents were killed in a car accident last year. The place was small, but had great potential, and Cassie's father seemed to have taken Josh under his wing.
"Josh says his prize mare is looking colicky. Probably nothing, but I thought I'd drive over and take a peek. I suspect he's just lonely and wanting company on a Saturday night."
Oh, no, you don't, Cassie thought. You're not drawing me back into a discussion about how I ought to spend more time with him. Josh Wheeler was twenty-five. He was smart, had sunny good looks and had been her best friend for years. Lately, he'd made it pretty clear that he had a romantic interest in her as well.
Unfortunately, she felt nothing for him except friendship.
In fact, tonight's near argument had been over Josh, who had asked her out on a date. She'd refused. Her father had thought she ought to reconsider, and Cassie had been forced to dig in and defend her decision without revealing the basic truth of the situation.
How could she go on a date with one man, when in less than twenty-four hours, she'd be married to another?
A sudden niggling worry made Cassie bite the inside of her cheek. In a few hours she was supposed to meet Ethan in the horse barn. The last thing she needed was to run into her father coming in the front door as she was going out. She'd have to be extra careful.
She faked a yawn. "Well, have fun, but don't stay out too late. Since tomorrow's Sunday, I think I'll sleep in."
"Don't forget that we're going to work Bandera at ten. Time for me to see what I've gotten myself into."
Bandera was the new chestnut stallion her father had purchased during his last trip to Dallas. He'd been delivered today, and from the glimpse Cassie had seen of him from her bedroom window, his sleek red coat and her father's auburn hair would make an arresting, impressive sight.
"Is Ethan supposed to help?" Cassie couldn't resist asking.
Her father shook his head. "The horse doesn't need to be broken. He just needs some manners."
"You will be careful, won't you? You're too old to be getting bounced."
"Brat! Not too old to keep young stallions and impudent daughters in line," he said, reaching out to tweak her nose. "I know how to keep my mind in the middle. But don't worry, I told Ethan to make sure Bandera stays tranked until we give him a workout tomorrow. Just a small second dose to keep him calm. I don't want all that pent-up energy exploding under me before I get a read on him." Her dad gave her an odd look. "Why do you ask if Ethan's involved?"
"Just curious," Cassie said with deliberate nonchalance. Had she been foolish to mention Ethan's name? "I like watching him work the horses."
"Stay away from him. He could use some manners, too."
"I mean it. He's too rough around the edges to associate with anyone but the crew."
Cassie couldn't help that surprised response. Her father never spoke about anyone this way. She tried not to look defensive or hurt, but the remark worried her a little. Once she was married, it would be crucial that the two men she loved most in the world get along.
"He seems very nice to me," she said quietly.
"I didn't say he wasn't nice, although he seems to like horses better than people. I said he was rough around the edges. He's good at what he does and he learns quickly.
He could make something of himself one day when he's ready to settle down, but that's a long way off. Stick to men like Josh."
Predictable men like Josh, she amended in her head.
To cut the conversation short, Cassie produced another yawn and caught the edge of her door. "I'll see you in the morning," she said.
He chucked her on the chin and started to turn away.
"Dad." Impulsively, she caught his arm, and when he turned back, she looked him directly in the eyes. Her senses were dull with misery at the realization that, after tonight, nothing between them would ever be quite the same. "You do know I love you, don't you?"
He grinned. "Love you, too, cupcake. More than life itself."
She rose up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Her throat suddenly felt tight at the thought of leaving him, deceiving him. But what else could she do?
Her decision had been made. She'd finally gotten up the nerve to follow her heart, and she wouldn't change her mind.
Not even for a father she loved dearly.
Precisely at midnight, Cassie slipped down the stairs, suitcase in hand. She didn't think her father had returned from the Wheeler place yet. The ranch truck wasn't parked out front, and there was definitely no snoring coming from his room.
Careful, Cassie. The first real adventure of your life. Don't blow it now.
She quietly let herself out and hurried along the path to the horse barn. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Not from fear, really, although it would be horrible if she was caught; mostly it was excitement that left her breathless with anticipation. In a matter of hours she and Ethan would be married, starting a brand-new life together. The night felt as though it held magic.
When they'd first met a year ago, he'd seemed so foreign, so different from the usual men who came looking for work at the ranch. He had shown up to apply for one of the wrangler jobs, without a horse, a dog for company or even a well-worn duffel bag. He didn't look or act like the other hands on the Flying M. The crews who worked the herds were either grizzled older men with a lifetime of scars and tall tales behind them, or college kids playing cowboy until school started again.
Ethan seemed to be neither. At twenty-one, he already had the physique of a man, with the soft edges of boyhood filed down to toned, lean muscle. He was handsome, but in a rough, slightly battered kind of way that actually made him seem better-looking than if he'd been conventionally attractive. And that devilish twist to his mouth—that made him seem slightly dangerous.
She'd heard that he didn't smoke or drink, and he kept to himself, never joining the other men who went into town on Saturday nights. Her father said he took his job seriously, which was a good thing, because everyone knew Mac McGuire didn't put up with slackers on the Flying M.
Initially, when their paths crossed, Ethan had been respectful of her position as the owner's only child, but he still unnerved her. He seemed so self-contained, almost secretive. Sometimes she had caught him watching her—a glimpse of soulful blue eyes under those long, dark lashes that perfectly matched his silky-looking black hair. She'd pretended to ignore his surveillance, but inside she had shivered.
He still made her shiver—though for completely different reasons now.
The barn door creaked open on rusted hinges. Several of the horses along the corridor moved restively and stuck their heads out of their stalls. Midnight visitors were uncommon at the Flying M.
She found Ethan in the tack room, and slipped up behind him to place her hands over his eyes. "Guess who? And if you say any name but mine, the wedding's off."
He turned and grabbed her up, grinning. "Hey there, darlin'. What's your name again?"
She laughed softly and punched his arm. He responded by giving her the kind of kiss she'd never experienced from anyone but him. He smelled of leather and spice and a heated male energy that sent tingles through her stomach.
She bathed in the heady delight of his touch, his scent, the nudge of his thighs against her legs. Her body hummed and sizzled, sparked by nothing more than simple contact, and he knew it instantly because he kissed her again, more slowly, more thoroughly this time.
She nestled against him, and when his hands pushed under her thin blouse, cupping her breasts, she almost stopped breathing. He was coaxing her body to life, his eyes speaking volumes of need and want and desire, and Cassie couldn't help but answer.
Slowly, savoring every murmur and sigh, she let her head fall back. She clutched his dark hair in both hands, bringing his head down. Ethan's mouth came against the pulse point at her throat, stroking with his tongue, teasing, raking his teeth lightly against her skin until she felt consumed by fire.
She let her fingers trail along his strong back, thinking of all the ways she'd daringly slide her hand down his body the next time they made love. They'd been intimate twice before, but she had been embarrassingly unskilled and nervous. Tomorrow, she would find the courage to be the aggressor.
She adored the weight and shape of him, the coiled strength of his biceps and the taut muscles of his stomach. His fingers were callused, and their texture as they moved over her body made a quick, jittery thrill trip through her.
She wanted more. She wished desperately for it.
But when Ethan's hand slipped to the top button of Cassie's jeans, her hand stopped him. She straightened as best she could, and though her body protested the separation, her brain demanded they go no further.
"We can't," she whispered against his ear. "We have to leave."
"I'm on time," she said as she shifted her clothes back into order.
"I hate a clock watcher."
"You should have thought of that before you proposed." Ethan's one failing—at least the only one she'd found so far—was that he was seldom punctual for anything unless it was a direct order from her father. "Still want to marry me?" she asked, smiling up at him and trailing a finger across his bottom lip.
He growled low and brushed his stubbled chin gently against her cheeks, as though branding her. "Yes, I want to marry you. I want to make love to you. I want to make babies with you and watch them grow up to make babies of their own." He caught her face in his hands so that their eyes met. "Good enough for you, princess?"
"Yes." She exhaled with a happy sigh. She loved this about him—the secret, tender sincerity beneath the rough, sexy exterior that everyone else saw. She liked to think that she was the only one who knew the real Ethan Rafferty, though the truth was, she'd fallen so quickly, so hopelessly in love that she knew little more about him than the most basic facts.
He talked so seldom about his past. She knew only that he'd walked away from an abusive home when he was eighteen and that his father had been a horse trainer in Kentucky, a great one, but that talent had drowned in buckets of booze.
For three years Ethan had drifted, but the talent with horses that he'd inherited from his father had made him believe he had a future. Someday.
Just who was this man she intended to marry? Was she really willing to walk out of the pampered life she had known, cut herself loose from her youth and the adoring shelter of her father's love to set her future on this unknown path?
Yes, she thought. It didn't matter. She knew enough. She knew the essentials of Ethan Rafferty, the shape of his courage, the depth of his heart, that quiet confidence that could make her believe that anything was possible. And it pleased her to think that she'd have an eternity to find out everything else about him.
He had latched on to one of her long, red curls, rubbing it between his fingers as though testing it somehow.
He loved playing with her hair. She pulled the lock through his fingers. "Stop that. I want it to look halfway decent tonight."
His fingers cupped her face. "Decent is much too ordinary a word to describe what I see when I look at you."
She lowered her head, embarrassed by the way his eyes caressed her.
A slow smile twisted his lips. "You really have no idea how beautiful you are, do you?"
She had no illusions about her looks. She might be blessed with her father's dark red hair, but she could never do anything with it thanks to the humidity of East Texas. She had inherited her mother's ready smile, but her lips lacked that full, pouty look that seemed to make men drool. For a while Cassie had actually prayed to have a perky cheerleader's nose, but with her Scottish heritage there was little chance of that.