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Stretching out her legs in the tall grass, with her eyes closed and her back against the rough bark of a tree, Erin Walker smiled at the sound of a fish breaking the surface of the water. Content, she pulled in a breath of warm, June afternoon air and started to toe off her boots. But the sound of a second, a third and then a fourth splash followed, all louder and each sounding closer than the one before.
That was no fish.
She sat up straight, her heart rate increasing as she looked out onto Lake Walker, the large pond on the ranch near Desperation, Oklahoma, where she'd grown up. That was when she spotted the naked man, standing not twenty yards away in the pond.
Erin felt an eerie flash of déjà vu but blamed it on the shock of the moment. Surely he hadn't seen her. If he had, he would have left immediately. Instead, he stood hip deep in the water, his back to her, his arms stretched above his head, flexing muscles that would have caused a half-blind ninety-year-old spinster to suffer a case of the vapors.
If only he 'd turn around.
Just as she finished the thought, he started to do exactly that. She quickly but carefully scooted down to lie on the ground, while praying he was too busy enjoying his skinny-dip to notice her. From her prone position, all she could see was the very top of his headand that was only if she stretched her neck uncomfortably. She was also aware that if she moved, he might notice her. With a silent sigh, she lowered her head, settling in to wait him out.
Closing her eyes so she could concentrate on any sounds, she yawned, her previous late night catching up with her early morning. After a few minutes, she heard the sound of movement in the water. He was leaving. Or maybe coming closer. She couldn't be certain, but the sound seemed to be getting farther and farther away, until it stopped. Straining to listen for confirmation, she thought she heard the soft whinny of a horse, but she couldn't be certain.
More time passed, as she waited for some kind of indication that he was no longer in the area. When she heard nothing else, she finally felt relatively safe.
"Did you enjoy the view?"
She froze. She knew that voice, would never forget it and was trapped by the person it belonged to. She suspected he was waiting for an answer, but she needed time to settle the slamming of her heart and attend to her need to breathe. The first was impossible; the second was achieved by forcing air into her lungs.
She refused to open her eyes, her heart pounding in her ears as she struggled to gain control. When she finally opened them, there was no one there. No person, no horse, no evidence that what she'd heard had been real. For all she knew, she'd fallen asleep and dreamed it. If so, it had been her worst nightmare.
In spite of being fairly certain she'd imagined the whole thing, she remained cautious as she got to her feet. The first thing she did was check to make sure no one was lurking behind her in the bushes, but there was nobody there.
"No, it didn't happen," she muttered.
She used the walk back to her childhood homenow her brother's houseto clear her head. She'd been dreaming. That had to be it. But why? It had been years since
Unwilling to think about what had happened long ago, she forced her thoughts to something else. When she first decided to visit Lake Walker, she'd thought she would do some riding, but the idea of saddling and mounting the horse that had replaced Firewind only made her miss him that much more. Erin prided herself on not being particularly emotional, and she didn't want to give herself any reason to get that way, so she'd chosen to walk instead. She welcomed the exercise. She hadn't been sleeping well for weeks, and she'd been so tired latelyit made sense that she'd imagined someone had spoken to her, although the man in the pond had definitely been real.
Back at the house, she stepped inside the screened porch, then opened the door that led into the kitchen, where she found both of her brothers seated at the table. "I see you took"
"It's about time you got back here," Luke, the youngest, announced.
She looked first at him and then at Dylan, who scowled at her. "What?" she asked. "I'm not allowed to get some exercise?"
Dylan leaned back in his chair, his scowl deepening. "We have somewhere to go. We meaning you, too."
"Did you forget?" Luke asked.
She had forgotten, but they didn't need to know that, now that they'd reminded her. "Of course not. We're meeting up with the others at Lou's Place."
"Right." Dylan crossed his arms on his chest. "And we're expected to be there in thirty minutes."
"No problem," she replied. "It won't take me long to get cleaned up and"
"Dean is expecting to meet you there."
She stared at Luke, hoping her confusion appeared believable. "Dean? Dean who?"
"You know damn well who," Dylan said. Pushing away from the table, he stood and walked over to her, his six-foot-plus body towering over her. "Dean Franklin. You remember him. We introduced you to him at the fall festival last October."
"I have no idea who you're talking about." No way would she let herself be set up with another man her brothers had chosen for her. And if they insisted, she would pack up her motor home and leave. She had plenty of friends on the rodeo circuit who would be happy to give her a place to park until she found somewhere permanent to live. For that to happen, she needed money, and she refused to ask her brothers for it.
"You agreed to meet him," Luke said.
Erin shook her head. "No. Youboth of youset it up and told him I'd be there. I never had a say in it or in the other men you've tried to marry me off to since the leaves started falling from the trees last October. Give it up, boys. I've had enough of your game. You act like I can't get a man on my own. No, let me rephrase that. You act like I can't even attract a man. Let me assure you right now, that isn't the case."
"Did I say it was?" Dylan asked.
"You didn't have to. It's as plain as the noses on your faces that you're trying to fix me up with somebody.
"You've got this all wrong."
"Do I? I think it's you two who have it all wrong, and you need to butt out of my life."
This time it was Luke who spoke. "We're only trying to help, Erin."
"Well, don't," she said. "If I decide I need a manwhich I don'tI can find one on my own. Understand?"
"We're concerned. We want to make sure you have someone to take care of you."
Her mouth opened and words came tumbling out. "Take care of me? You both seem to forget that I've been on my own for almost fourteen years. I've traveled the rodeo circuit across this whole country and even into Canada by myself. Nobody was holding my hand. Nobody was keeping me company or taking care of me."
Dylan nodded. "Which is all well and good. But you're older now. Don't you want a family?"
She felt the twinge of regret that always hit her when she thought of what she'd done, nearly seventeen years before. But they didn't know, and she wasn't about to tell them. Ever. She'd had her reasons for staying away from the ranch and for remaining single. And at the age of thirty-four, she wasn't about to get tied down now.
"I have a family," she replied. "I have you two. But if you don't stop insisting that I marry the first yahoo that comes along, you'll give me no choice but to leave. Do you understand that?"
Luke looked at Dylan, who shrugged. "You always were stubborn."
"Bullheaded," Luke added.
"No more than the two of you. Shall we talk about your lives before I stepped in to fix them? If it hadn't been for me finding you the perfect women to marry, there's no telling what would have happened to you." She looked pointedly at Dylan, who had come close to losing his share of the ranch, barely a year earlier, until she'd devised a plan to set him up with a former classmate, which had ended in an engagement and an upcoming wedding.
He looked down at her, his green eyes full of a gratefulness she wished he would move beyond. "All right. You've made your point, Erin." He looked at Luke, who nodded, then back at her. "We'll leave you alone, if that's what you want."
She wasn't sure if she should feel relieved. She knew better than to trust them, but they both appeared sincere. "Thank you."
She turned to leave, hoping they wouldn't have to revisit this topic again. The men her brothers had introduced her to had been good men, but she'd never met a man who didn't try to run her life. She suspected she never would.
She didn't mind her solitary life. It was what she'd chosen, and the idea of getting married or anything close to it was out of the question. She liked being single and had no reason to change.
"Fifteen minutes, Erin," Dylan called to her as she started for the door. "No more."
She swallowed her sigh. They weren't going to let her off the hook.
The mere thought of the word hook caused her to nearly trip on the threshold. That word reminded her of fishing and ponds and a naked man. A shower was exactly what she needed.
Without looking, Jake Canfield knew Erin had walked into Lou's Place, Desperation's local tavern. All he'd needed was to hear her voice.
He'd been surprisedno, make that shockedwhen he'd spied her lying in the grass near the pond. If he'd known she'd come home, he never would have gone there. Two things had drawn him back. He'd inherited his uncle's ranch, and he'd thought Erin was still on the rodeo circuit. At least he knew now that she wasn't riding. And he was curious to know why. Becoming a barrel racer had always been her dream, much like his own dream of being a rancher. Hers had come true early, and from what he'd heard, she'd done well. Very well. He'd had to wait a while for his, but it had been worth it.
He shouldn't have been surprised to see her at Lou's. After all, she was a grown woman now, not the girl he'd known since he was eight and who'd stolen his heart when he was fifteen.
Had she known it was him at the pond? He hadn't gotten a reply to his question, so he couldn't be sure. He would solve that, though, soon enough.
Turning around, he saw her with her brothers and another man, who at that moment had her hand in his. A pang of jealousy shot through him, and he immediately shook it off. He had no claim on her. All they shared was their childhoods and a night he'd never forgotten. It still hurt to think about it.
He knew the minute she spotted him. Her eyes grew wide, and she took a small, stuttering step back, then quickly regained her composure and nodded in his direction. In reply, he touched the brim of his Stetson. She eased away from her brothers and the man with them, and walked toward him.
She stopped in front of him, and he couldn't hide his smile when she had to tip back her head to look up at him. "I suppose I should have known," she said.
"Good to see you again, too, Erin," he replied. Her hello wasn't as bad as he'd expected.
"Erin?" a woman said from the table behind him.
Erin raised her hand in a wave, but didn't break the gaze that held her to him. "Apparently you've forgotten that Lake Walker is private property. Walker property."
"So you did know it was me."
"Not until a minute ago"
"And you didn't answer my question."
She hesitated for a split second. "What question is that?"
"Did you enjoy the view?"
Her chest rose with a deep breath before she answered, "What little I saw wasn't bad."
He had to grit his teeth to keep from laughing. Same old Erin. "I wouldn't use that word, if I were you."
Her eyes narrowed, but the twinkle in them made a lie of it. "What word? Little?"
"That would be it. Have you even grown an inch since the last time I saw you?"
She opened her mouth, only to close it. Looking past him, she jerked her thumb in his direction. "You all may have met Jake Canfield, ne'er-do-well, years ago but completely forgot him. It happens a lot."
She'd made her point, and he wished he hadn't mentioned the past. She obviously didn't want to revisit it. Had he hurt her that much?
She flashed him a triumphant smile, and he thought he saw a wink as she walked past him. With a shake of his head and a chuckle, he turned around to see a table where several women were sitting and instantly recognized them from his summers in Desperation.
"That name sounds familiar," one of them said with a grin, as she offered Jake her hand. "I'm Kate"
"Mrs. Dusty McPherson," Erin finished for her, and looked pointedly at Jake. "You might remember Dusty."
He responded with a smile and took Kate's hand in his. He would play along, if that's what Erin wanted. "I do remember your husband, Mrs. McPherson. Quite a bull rider, not long ago. I was sorry to hear he'd retired."
"It's Kate," the woman said, frowning at Erin.
One of the other women from the table leaned in front of Erin, a confused look on her face. "I'm Trish, Kate's sister. Trish Rule."
He released Kate's hand to take Trish's outstretched one. "Sisters, huh?"
"Better behave, Jake. Her husband is the sheriff," Erin announced.
"Is that so? He didn't mention that he had such a pretty wife when I stopped in at his office the other day."
Erin closed her eyes and shook her head, then moved away. Score one for him. They'd battled on a daily basis, all summer long, every summer he spent at his uncle's ranch. Verbal sparring, he'd called it, and she'd been an expert at it. He learned from her and had gotten pretty good at him himselfuntil he'd realized she wasn't a little girl anymore and lost his heart to her.
He felt a hand on his back and heard, "Good to see you again, Jake."
Jake turned his head to see Erin's youngest brother. "Luke, it's been a long time. Thanks for returning my dog the other day."
They shook hands as Dylan, the older of the Walker brothers, joined them. "We thought it might be yours, and sorry we missed seeing you. We'd been watching all the building going on at your uncle's place and hoped you had something to do with it."
Jake released Luke's hand to shake his brother's. "Everything to do with it, you could say."
"We were sorry to hear about your uncle," Luke said. "What's it been? Two years?"