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Wind whipped through the valley and howled around the old house like a widow keening.
A crack of thunder shook the earth. Rain pelted the windshield faster than the wipers could clear it away, blurring the outline of the cabin.
Matthew Long swore he could hear years-dead voices whispering things better left unsaid. Grief clung to this place like a bad dream, still breathed his father's obscenities and his mother's lunatic ravings.
He wished that Jenny Sterling could have found somewhere else to ride out this storm other than the house he'd grown up in.
Lightning flashed the midnight sky with midday brightness, exposing a still life of the land on which Matt had hoped to never again step foot. Weeds had obliterated any trace of the small garden his mother had once planted in the yard. A hole the size of a pebble marred one of the living room's windows.
The flat roof of the veranda listed like a drunken sailor.
The house looked forgotten and lonesome.
Warm light flickered in the cabin's windows and wood smoke scented the air. Jenny had started a fire.
Matt couldn't put it off any longer. He had to go in there and drag her back home to the Sheltering Arms.
Hank might be a friend, but he was also their employer. The little idiot needed to apologize for the argument she'd started with Hank's guest, Amy.
He turned off the engine and jumped out of the truck.
In the few seconds it took him to cross the muddy path between the truck and the veranda, the wind picked up, bending the trees beside the house horizontal and soaking him to the skin with driving rain.
The aged floorboards creaked beneath him with every step he took. He had to put effort into pushing the warped door while it groaned its resistance before finally opening.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He hadn't been in here since his parents had died. What was that? Ten years ago? The living room hadn't changed one bit, except for the woman standing in front of the fireplace.
Jenny kept her back to him, ignoring him when he knew he'd made enough noise entering to rouse the dead.
Soft candlelight shone on her bare back, lit the threadbare blanket that was wrapped around her and hanging below the flare of her hips. When she bent to arrange her wet clothes in front of the fire, it slipped down to her smooth, round bottom, and anger forged a trail through him.
She had a lot of nerve ruining a perfectly good friendship by growing up. Matt didn't care how unreasonable that sounded.
A gust of wind through the open doorway blew his hat from his head but he caught it in one hand.
The cold air raised goose bumps on Jenny's skin.
Even though the candlelight was too dim for him to be sure, he swore he could see them. But then, he'd noticed everything about her lately, like her curves and the new way she walked, swinging her hips too much.
Feminine curves and cowgirl strength. A stunning combination, never mind that she was feisty and fun, and made him feel bad to the bone.
His horsing-around-buddy was a better person than he could ever be, without even trying. She just was.
And now she was a grown woman.
Matt stepped into the room and slammed the door. The cabin seemed to get smaller, becoming too intimate. He rapped his hat against his thigh, spraying water across the wood floor, and threw it across the room to land on the kitchen table.
Jenny straightened, turned and looked at him with the eyes of a woman. Damn. No longer the kid he could toss into the pond when she got mouthy, she'd started to watch him with awareness, making his skin itch and his groin scream for attention.
Looking at her, he felt that old devil, yearning, swamp him. Yearning for what? For a warm body to sink into? Hell, any number of girls in town offered that regularly. For a comfort that would ease his soul? He could always wander into Reverend Wright's church for that. For…love? No way. No how. For a family? Not in this lifetime.
That yearning had been trailing him for too long. Quit, already, he ordered. But it was no use with Jenny standing in front of him looking like a cowboy's dream. Damn.
A flicker in Jenny's eyes echoed his desire.
"Matt," she said, gripping the gray blanket against her chest. It rose and fell with her shallow breaths.
He tried to say her name, but nothing came out. He stepped toward her. His boots hit the floor too loudly in the quiet room.
He finally admitted what he'd been denying to himself. That he'd been aware of her growing up not in the last couple of months, but in the last few years. She'd been calling to him and he'd done his best to hide from her.
Jenny stared at him with heat in her eyes, with smoky knowledge and a woman's desire.
Lately, she'd been trying to reel him in like a calf at the end of a rope, but he was too smart for that. He'd resisted her. But here? Now? When she stood in front of him like a slice of heaven on earth?
"You play with fire, kid, and you're going to get burned." His throat hurt, sounded raw.
"I'm not a kid," she said. "I'm twenty-two."
She dropped the blanket and air hissed out from between his teeth. His gaze shot around the room, trying to look at anything but her, but in the end, he was only human.
Her thick braid fell over her shoulder to tease the nipple of one of her breasts. He groaned. Those breasts. Those mile-long legs.
He tried to be noble. "We're friends, Jenny. This could ruin it." He forced his lungs to expand and inhaled the scent of lilacs. God, she was beautiful. "I know about these things. You don't."
"I want to be more than friends, Matt."
A sheen of sweat broke out on his upper lip.
Itchy and unsettled and angry, he yanked her toward him. Roughly. Her breasts hit his chest, warm through the damp denim shirt.
She wanted to be a woman? Fine, he'd treat her like one.
Matt settled a hand on her hip. He'd held a lot of women in his time, but Jenny's skin was softer than any he'd ever touched.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he didn't want to talk. He brushed one eyelid with a featherlight kiss then moved on to her cheek, and the corner of her mouth. She shivered.
"No regrets, Jenny," he said, his voice husky. "This is sex. Nothing more."
"I want you, Matt," she told him. "What do you want?"
He felt the long-denied truth a split second before he said, "This," and his mouth came down on hers, heavy and demanding.
A rough exhalation escaped him. He braced his arm across her back and crushed her to him, forcing his erection against her belly.
Jenny breathed one word. "Yes."
He spread the blanket on the floor and brought her down with him. He lay on his back and pulled her to kneel above him so he could watch the firelight pour over her curves like molten caramel. While the windows rattled with the violence of the storm outside, the fire sent shadows leaping across the walls.
Jenny unbuttoned Matt's shirt while he unzipped his pants.
She smiled. He reached up to taste that smile.
Wrapping his arms around her, he gave her every particle of himself, taking as much as she had to offer.
When he entered her, he felt like laughing, crying, shouting from the mountaintops.
Jenny came apart in his arms then lay against him as trustingly as a newborn kitten.
Matt followed her into a nameless bliss, found peace, and whispered, "I love you."
Get out of here.
Firelight limned the ancient furniture Matt knew too well.
He couldn't breathe.
I love you?
Where the hell had that come from? It was a goddamn lie, just like everything else in this hole he'd grown up in.
Jenny lay sleeping beside him. Maybe she hadn't heard. She must have.
She craved a family. Damned if he'd hang around to fulfill her dreams. He couldn't do it.
He should have stopped this, should have left it at friendship. Sex always screwed things up.
He pulled his arm out from under her head and sat up. He looked frantically around the room. Shadows of bad memories danced in the corners, thickening the air, choking him.
Bile rose in his throat.
Get the hell out of here.
No way did Matt do the white picket fence, the vows at the altar and the "I'll love you forever" crap. No way did he do kids.
Marriages ended badly. With a bang.
I love you. What was he thinking?
The fire had long since died, and now the candle flickered out. Darkness pressed on his lungs.
Matt dressed in the dark, his fingers thick and clumsy. He fumbled on the table for his hat, slammed it onto his head and stepped toward the door. The floor creaked.
When Jenny rolled over, his throat constricted, and he felt that marriage noose tighten around his neck.
She sighed, still asleep.
With shaking hands, he pulled on his boots. Opening the door a crack, he squeezed out then rushed through the storm and climbed into the Jeep, the lowest of the low, a jerk.
He'd never promised Jenny he was anything other than that, any better than his father or his grandfather before him. Long men didn't do responsibility.
He couldn't have been more honest. This is sex. Nothing more.
But was it only sex?
Aw, shut up.
When he roared out of the clearing and across the prairie, the Jeep sprayed rooster tails of mud and water.
Five years later
Jenny lifted another forkload of hay into Lacey's stall. She had mucked out too many stalls today, fed too many horses. Her muscles throbbed with the strain.
She'd been exhausted lately, doing both her jobs and Angus's.
Angus hadn't even turned out for the branding last week. Jenny had handled it all, had called in friends and local teenagers to help with the job. It had been a big one. They'd had a good crop of calves this year.
Maybe soon, he would feel up to doing more around the ranch. He'd been grieving for his dead son for a long time, a couple of years now. It was time to rejoin the land of the living.
The low rumble of a pickup truck caught her attention as the vehicle pulled into the Circle K's yard.
Jenny tossed her rake against the wall and stepped outside, happy for the break until she recognized that black truck and the horse trailer behind it.
Her heart writhed against her ribs.
Why was Matt Long in this corner of Montana five years after he'd left?
She'd hoped never to see him again.
When he stepped out of the truck, still as gorgeous as ever, Jenny's traitorous heart twitched, but she forced it to settle down. Fast.
Shallow charm and a killer grin wouldn't turn her head this time. She'd learned her lesson when he'd run out on her.
He could no longer set her on fire. The only thing that burned for him within her now was anger.
His five-year absence hadn't been anywhere near long enough for her to forgive him.
Had he heard the news? Was he here to mess it all up for her? She wouldn't put it past him.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, striding to within a couple of feet of him, not a trace of welcome in her voice.
He slammed the truck door, then saw her. His mouth dropped open then closed just as quickly. The line of his jaw hardened.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in return, leaning against the door of the truck, crossing his arms. "Thought you'd still be working for Hank on the Sheltering Arms. You just visiting here today?"
His mirrored sunglasses shielded his eyes.
She needed to see them, to figure whether he was a better man than he used to be. Not that it mattered to her. She should have never trusted the rat. Matt, the rat.
"I work here." She stepped closer.
"Four years now."
He didn't comment, just brushed past her and opened the back doors of his horse trailer. Masterpiece let out a demanding whinny. They must have been on the road awhile.
"You have a lot of nerve coming back to Ordinary," she said. "Especially after the way you left. You couldn't have said goodbye? Or left a note?"
Once a rat, always a rat.
Good to know. She wouldn't feel guilty about the decisions she'd made anymore. She'd been right to do what she'd done and the hell with Matt's feelings. They weren't her concern.
Matt backed Masterpiece out of the trailer.
Master nudged his chest and Matt took a caramel out of his shirt pocket, unwrapping it. The horse picked it up from Matt's palm with the delicacy of a surgeon.
Jenny still didn't know what he was doing here, and really didn't care, but she was booting him off this ranch.
"Load Master right back into that trailer," she ordered, her tone so cold her tongue got frostbite. "Get out of here."
"Nope," he said, ignoring her as if she were of no more consequence than a flea. "I take my orders from Angus, not from a ranch hand."
"What are you talking about? What orders?" Dread circled around her belly. Why would Angus be giving Matt orders? "Why are you here on the Circle K?"
"Angus hired me."
No way. She stared at Matt. No freaking way.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope." He raised his eyebrows at her tone. "What business is it of yours?"
She'd gotten over him years ago, but she sure didn't want to work with him. Never again. And what about Jesse?
Jenny leaned forward, getting into Matt's space. He smelled good. He still used the same aftershave and it brought back memories. Those memories were tainted, though. They weren't the gorgeous dreams she'd wanted with Matt when she was a teenager.
But then, adolescents weren't always the smartest creatures, were they?
Matt had forced Jenny to become a realist overnight. To start planning. She would never again be a dreamer. "Angus wouldn't have hired you without consulting me first."
"Why would he ask you who he's allowed to hire?"
"I'm ranch foreman."