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Clara had heard a lot about Tyson Diamond. Some of it good, a lot of it questionable. But none of the reports had warned her that he was over six feet of sexy cowboy with a break-your-heart smile and a devilish gleam in his eye, and now he was striding this way as Angela, still resplendent in her wedding dress, waved him over.
Clara wondered if she could say her final congratulations to Sam and Angela and escape before Tyson reached them. She'd managed to avoid him up to this point, after all. She'd been helping his father, Virgil, with his rehab after his stroke, and her off-duty hours were spent helping Angela plan the wedding from the safety of Butterfly house, the transition shelter Angela managed and where Clara currently lived. And Ty had been wrapping up his business up north and spending time with Sam as they worked together running the ranch. Somehow she and Tyson had failed to cross paths in the weeks leading up to the wedding.
This afternoon he'd turned up spit-polished in his black suit with his hair just a little messy. Her mouth had gone dry just looking at him. Ty was exactly the sort of man she tried to avoid. Tall, sexy, confident and careless. The kind that ate shy girls like her for breakfast. The kind that girls like her could never resist.
Her heart had taken a little jump and she'd caught her breath before she could even put a thought together. But Ty had sauntered in, all long legs and crooked grins, and there it had been. Whomp. Attraction, pure and simple. Nothing in the world could have surprised her more.
He was still several feet away but closing the gap fast, and Clara felt panic start to bubble, making her chest cramp and her breath shorten. She wasn't ready to handle this. She felt as tongue-tied as a schoolgirl only with the sobering wisdom of a woman who'd been through hell. Putting the two together only created chaos in her mind. A quick exit was in order. She turned to Sam and Angela and forced a smile.
"I'm going to take Virgil in now, but I wanted to say happy wedding day to you both." She gave Angela a brief hug. "I'm going to miss you around the house, but you're going to have a wonderful time on your honeymoon."
Sam hugged Clara as well. She didn't feel the unholy urge to pull away and run the way she usually did when faced with someone intruding on her personal space. She'd learned to trust Sam in the weeks leading up to the wedding, especially after he'd stood beside Angela as she faced her own demons.
"You did great today," he said quietly, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. "And you look beautiful."
Heat infused her cheeks at the compliment and at the knowledge that Tyson was nearly upon their little group. "Thank you. Now I'd better get Virgil inside, he was looking tired ."
Sam's voice cut her off as he looked over her shoulder. "Have you met Ty yet?" he asked. "Ty, this is Clara Ferguson, Dad's nurse. You'll be seeing a lot of each other from now on."
Too late. Clara closed her eyes and took a steady breath. She really wished she wasn't blushing as she turned around, but she could feel the heat centered in her cheeks. Dammit.
Tyson's jaw sported a faint shadow of stubble and the suit coat hung awkwardly on his rangy frame. But the style worked for him and his dark eyes held a gleam of approval as he looked down at her. His appraising gaze made something curl inside her uncomfortably. What she wouldn't give for a pair of comfy jeans and a baggy sweater right about now. The sage-green bridesmaid's dress was far too fitted to her figure and made her feel conspicuous. Compliments were well and good, but she was far more confident when she was in her comfort zone.
"Mr. Diamond," she said, setting her jaw defiantly as she held out her hand. She could set the tone between them right here and now. Businesslikeexactly the way it should be between her and Virgil's adopted son.
But it was an utter flop of an attempt. His warm fingers enveloped hers in a strong, lingering grip. A hint of a smile flirted with the corners of his mouth. "It's just Ty," he replied, with a voice as smooth and chocolaty as the dark depths of his eyes. "Or Tyson if I'm on your bad side."
Bad side? Right now she felt as though she might swallow her tongue as she looked into his face. She liked the feel of her hand in his. Where was the old reliable revulsion she'd become accustomed to? The instinctive need to pull away and keep her distance? She knew how to deal with that. This was all new territory, and she was momentarily at a loss for words.
His smile widened and she pulled her hand away, hiding her fingers within the clasp of her left hand. "Right," she said, her voice shaking. "Well, I'd better get your dad inside. Good night, everyone."
She couldn't meet his gaze as she scuttled away, but she heard Sam's voice and it made her burn with humiliation.
"Go easy," Sam warned Ty.
"Did I do anything?" There was a hint of defensiveness in Ty's voice that fit with what she'd heard through the grapevine. That things weren't as smooth sailing between the brothers as they seemed.
She quickened her steps so she wouldn't hear Sam's answer. Everything she'd heard around town was right, then. She hadn't been able to tune out the snatches of conversation that had reached her ears today. The return of the prodigal Tyson was a hot topic. Unfortunately so was his track record with the ladies.
Tyson Diamond was gorgeous and he knew it. He was also a wild card and Sam's illegitimate cousin who'd been adopted by Virgil and Molly as a baby. Trouble. He was the last person who should make Clara blush and stammer. She was smarter than that, wasn't she?
Now he'd hung up his rodeo spurs and was coming home to run the ranch with Sam. With Virgil still recovering and needing regular care, they were going to see each other all the time.
Great. Just wonderful.
Clara helped Virgil get settled, but once she was alone in the quiet house her unease came back with a vengeance, sending tingles shooting up the backs of her legs and making an all-too-familiar weight settle in her chest. It had been a long, tiring day and her defenses were down. That had to be the reason why Ty's simple handshake had made her react in such an uncharacteristic way. Or maybe it was just weddings. Weddings did tend to make people sentimental and romantic, right? She twisted her fingers. Or stupid.
Either way, it was one day. It didn't matter a bit if she found Tyson attractive. She had no interest in romance. Not after all that had been taken away from her in the name of "love." She had her eye set on her goal and nothing was going to divert her from it.
She escaped into the first-floor powder room, sat down on the closed toilet and focused on breathing deeply for a few minutes. Once she'd regrouped she got up, ran some cold water over her hands and carefully touched them to her cheeks, soothing the heat there without marring her makeup. She could do this. She'd come too far to go back to hiding away at the first whiff of discomfort. Goodness, a year ago she would never have made it through a day like today. She shouldn't let something like this rattle her.
She stared into the mirror. "Living in fear is not living. I will not live in fear."
The words soothed, both from sentiment and habit. She let out a breath and straightened her shoulders. She opened the door and nearly ran straight into Tyson's chest.
His hands gripped her arms, steadying her from toppling over in the heels she wasn't used to wearing.
"Whoa," he said, his low voice rippling over her nerve endings.
Her faced flamed anew, his word choice making her feel decidedly klutzy and horsy. And he was touching her again. "I'm sorry," she stammered. "I didn't know anyone was waiting for the bathroom."
"I was waiting for you," he replied easily. He squatted down slightly so that he was closer to her height and peered into her face. She didn't like the way he was looking at her. As though he was trying to figure her out. The less he knew about her the better. And she planned to keep it that way, no matter how often their paths crossed in the coming weeks. "Waiting for me?"
"You ran off quite a while ago. I wanted to be sure you're all right."
"Of course I am." His hands seemed to burn through the soft fabric of her dress to the skin beneath. She conjured up the polite smile she'd practiced all week in the mirror. "It took me a while to get your dad settled, that's all."
Liar, her brain protested, but she ignored it. A warmth ran through her at his concern. Usually she managed to fly under the radar, blending into her surroundings like a chameleon. People usually didn't notice if she came or went. But Ty had.
Despite her assurances, Tyson didn't budge from blocking the hallway. His lips curled up in the most alluring manner. Lordy, with a smile like that she bet he didn't even have to try with the ladies. They'd all fall in his lap, wouldn't they?
She stepped around him and he dropped his fingers from her arms. She breathed a little easier once he wasn't touching her anymore. "If you'll excuse me "
"What's your hurry?" he asked, his soft voice humming over her already raw nerves, making her pause, making her realize once more that they were very alone here in the house while the party went on outside.
"I should get back to Angela, make sure."
"Angela and Sam have gone. You missed the throwing of the bouquet."
Clara's heart sank. Had she truly been gone so very long? Not that she'd wanted to catch the bouquet by any means, but she'd disappeared into a corner exactly the way she'd promised herself she wouldn't. Once again she'd missed out on good things because she was too busy hiding herself away from something awkward or uncomfortable.
"I thought all the single women fought over catching it." He raised his eyebrows. "You are single, aren't you?"
The question was so ludicrous that Clara almost laughed. Single? Absolutely. For now and forever.
"I'm not interested in catching any bouquets," she remarked, finally looking up in his eyes. They were good eyes, she had to admit. They were dark brown but she noticed now that they had little golden flecks around the pupils and crinkles in the corners. His lips were finely shaped, full where they needed to be full and just now curved in what she was realizing was his trademark smiletilted to one side as if he was sharing a joke. All in all it was a bit lethal, and he was just the sort of man she might have been interested in before.
Before. She looked away from Ty's handsome face and focused on the closet door behind his shoulder. It seemed her life was split into two distinct parts. Before Jackson and after Jackson. The carefree Clara she had been before no longer existed. Jackson had destroyed her.
For well over a year she'd been rebuilding herself from square one. The new Clara stood here now, in a new life and with a new job. She had to remember that. She had accomplished so much. She was a lot more careful now. A lot more cautious. A lot smarter.
"That's a shame," Ty responded, and she heard a laugh in his voice. "Because I caught this."
She caught a glimpse of a blue-and-white lace garter as he stretched it out over a finger. Was he flirting with her? It seemed preposterous. She was plain as ditch water, and to a man like Ty, probably twice as dull. For heaven's sake, she lived in a women's shelter and spent her days as a private nurse. She was distinctly unworldly and unexciting. And Ty was a rodeo star and drifter. They had absolutely nothing in common.
She was therefore surprised to find that she didn't feel particularly threatened by his presence. Ty Diamond was dangerous, all right. A real bad boy from all accounts. Yet somehow she felt safe.
"Lucky you," she replied dryly, proud that she'd managed to keep her tongue from tying in knots and trying to summon what used to be, in the before Jackson days, a ready sense of humor. "Do you have a girl in mind? Tradition says you'll be the next bachelor to be married." She smiled, but it felt forced, like she was baring her teeth. "Who caught the bouquet? A likely candidate for the next Mrs. Diamond, perhaps?"
"Amy Wilson, and I hardly think so."
His displeasure was so obvious Clara let out a half laugh, half gasp. She was familiar with Amy's vivacious and gossipy ways. Amy had had plenty to say about Tyson today and little of it good. It had sounded a bit like sour grapes. "That's not very nice."
He shrugged. "Amy and I have never seen eye to eye. She wanted Sam, you know. And when she saw me catch the garter she hightailed it to the other side of the garden, well out of my reach."
"Why?" She looked up and saw he was still smiling that sexy half smile and she bit down on her lip. "I mean, why doesn't Amy like you?" She couldn't imagine being repulsed by Ty. He might look slightly out of place in formal wear, but it didn't disguise the fact that he was a stunning display of masculinity. Gorgeous enough even to fluster hersomeone who'd been immune to any sort of charms for some time now. The new Clara was far too practical to be distracted.
He stepped back. "Easy. The adopted bastard doesn't have the same shine as the heir apparent."
Clara turned away and began walking back to the kitchen so they would be out of the close confines of the hall. The words had been said flippantly, but he hadn't quite been able to disguise the bitterness behind them.
"Did you say that just to shock me?"