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West Texas, 1886
Matt Baldwin could go straight to perdition. Dr. Anna-lise Fine couldn't stop the thought as she watched the dark, handsome, lowdown snake she had once loved. Who had once claimed to love her.
On a cool April night, she stood on the edge of the dance floor in the lobby of the Fontaine, the fancy hotel where his brother's wedding celebration was underway. The big, rugged rancher hadn't looked at her once. She couldn't seem to stop looking at him.
Even though she had been back in Whirlwind, Texas, for two months, this was the first time she had set eyes on him. His wavy black hair was longer than she remembered ever seeing. Slightly ragged, it brushed the stand-up collar of his white dress shirt. The crisp fabric stretched across shoulders that were more broad than the last time she'd seen him. Touched him.
His frame was solid, hard, from the strong line of his sun-bronzed neck to the powerful thighs beneath his dark trousers. Trousers that fitted him so well they bordered on indecent. Her chest tightened painfully.
The notes of a waltz filled the air, swelling over the clink of glasses, conversation and dancers. She had known she would see Matt, and she had made herself come anyway. It was time to get it over and done with.
His brother, just as big and an inch taller, swept his dark-haired bride around the floor. Russ hadn't stopped smiling since before the wedding.
Like Annalise, Matt's father, J.T., wasn't dancing tonight. An accident he'd suffered several months ago had left him crippled.
Cora Wilkes, a lifelong friend and now a widow, thanks to an outlaw gang, stood talking to him. Tall, with perfect posture, the older woman walked over to Annalise. Her hazel eyes twinkled as she sipped her second glass of champagne.
Annalise glanced at the big man, still surprised each time she saw him in the wheelchair. He had been a good friend to her father and to her, especially during the year she had cared for Hardy Fine before he died.
"Is Mr. Baldwin expected to walk again?" Annalise asked when Cora paused beside her.
"Dr. Butler first had hope, but now he isn't sure. J.T. isn't recovering the way the doctor had anticipated." Cora's face softened. "Has J.T. asked you to look at his leg? He said he might."
"Not yet." Considering the way his youngest son felt about her, Mr. Baldwin probably wouldn't ask, regardless of their former friendship.
Try as she might, she couldn't ignore Matt, and that had frustration churning in her belly.
As he escorted a curvy redhead into the dining room, Annalise noted with resentment that his rugged good looks hadn't faded in the last seven years. If anything, he was more compelling. With those smoldering blue eyes, his was a face that had a woman sighing. Annalise should know; she'd done her share.
But there was more to him than just his looks. Beneath the easy charm, the slow drawl often mistaken for laziness, was a razor-sharp intellect and a keen instinct about people.
"I think I'm finally getting used to seeing your name over the medical clinic instead of your daddy's," Cora said. "Hardy would be so proud of you."
She hoped so because Matt sure hadn't been. He reappeared in the dining-room doorway, this time with an unfamiliar blonde, and Annalise jerked her gaze away to scan the lobby. The polished wood of the oak floor matched the large registration desk positioned to greet people when they walked through the double doors.
Russ and his wife, Lydia, had done a wonderful job with the hotel that had been built in the years Annalise had been gone. Pewter wall sconces above the moss-green sofas on either side of the desk burned continuously on gas lighting. The high ceilings and the staircase opposite the registration desk were accentuated with oak molding.
Annalise had known many of the people here since childhood: Davis Lee and Riley Holt, Bram and Jake Ross. Now all except Bram were married.
"Did you finalize the purchase of Jed Doyle's house?" Cora asked.
"Yes." Annalise smiled, thinking how perfectly it had worked out that the gunsmith had wanted to sell his house just as she had returned.
The frame building was exactly what she needed.
She used the upstairs for her living quarters and the first floor for her medical clinic, the way Jed had used it for his gunsmithy.
"Have you seen any patients yet?"
"Several, and some people have dropped by to introduce themselves. Everyone has been welcoming."
Except Matt. Annalise didn't want a welcome from him. Which was good because she knew she could wait until hell froze over and she wouldn't get one.
"Russ's wife seems nice." She smiled as the groom tugged the bride into his arms and kissed her. The resulting burst of applause surprised Annalise.
"Lydia's very nice. Smart, too. She came here as Russ's business partner. They both owned half of the Fontaine." Cora chuckled, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the party. "She keeps him on his toes. I'm starting to wonder if Matt will ever settle down, and so is his pa. Especially now that Russ is married."
Annalise's stomach knotted. She didn't want to talk about Matt settling down. She didn't want to talk about him at all. She made a noncommittal noise.
Cora continued, "He's with someone different every time I see him."
Annalise could say the same. From the corner of her eye, she was well aware of Matt whirling a raven-haired beauty around the floor. Evidently the man who had once sworn to belong only to one womanto herno longer limited himself.
"Since J.T.'s accident, the running of the ranch has fallen mainly to Matt, and he's heavily involved with the Stockraisers' Association. A little too reckless in his quest to hunt down the rustlers that have been plaguing this area, but he won't stop until he finds them."
"I heard other ranches were losing cattle, too."
Frustratingly aware of the man who had broken her heart, she didn't think she could stand here much longer.
Cora nodded. "The Ross ranch and Riley's place. Between that and the women, Matt stays plenty busy, but he shows no signs of settling down."
Lucky for women everywhere, Annalise thought uncharitably.
Cora slid a sideways look at her. "Y'all were sweet on each other once. Any chance"
"No." Annalise cut her off firmly, sharply. "None." "That's a shame. I thought something might come of that."
Something had. Heartache and a baby. Annalise's throat closed up. And Matt had never responded to her letter about her miscarriage of their child. Not one word.
Her friend continued to talk about newcomers to the town, but Annalise's nerves were stretched taut. Despite the open front door, the air in the room was stifling, as were the reminders of the past. She couldn't take it any more.
She had stayed at least ten feet away from him all night and that was as close as she intended to get.
Having already given her congratulations to Russ and his wife, Annalise quietly said good night to Cora and threaded her way through the group gathered behind her at the foot of the oak-and-wrought-iron staircase. She reached the coat stands on the wall along the staircase and found her shawl.
Once outside, she took a deep welcome gulp of cool air. It felt good against her heated skin, bared by the square neckline of her jade-green silk bodice.
She swept the wrap around her shoulders and started off the hotel's porch, looking down to pull the edges together. She saw a man's boots at the same time she ran into a rock-hard chest. The momentum caused her to stumble.
Hard masculine hands shot out, cupped her shoulders. "Whoa, there."
At the deep familiar rumble, the apologetic smile on her face faded. Her gaze jerked up, clashing with a hot blue one. Matt.
Her pulse stopped then resumed, beating so fast that her chest felt too small for her heart. The warmth in his eyes died, replaced with a cold flatness as he practically pushed her away. He dropped his hold so quickly, so forcefully that she had to take a step back to keep her balance.
A woman stood beside him, the same pretty blonde Annalise had seen with him earlier.
The other woman looked from Annalise to Matt. She slid her hand from his arm and nodded at Annalise. "Good evening, ma'am."
"Good evening." She was surprised to hear the words. Her throat felt as if it were bolted shut and wouldn't work.
The blonde glanced at Matt. "I'll wait for you inside."
"No need," he said harshly. "I'm coming with you."
After another look at Annalise, the woman hurried around her. Who was she? She remembered Cora saying that a furious husband had confronted Matt last year and accused him of having an affair with his wife. Cora flat-out hadn't believed it. But as Annalise stared into the face of the man she had once loved, a face she had once known as well as her own, she wasn't so sure.
They stood there for a frozen moment, eyes locked. The world narrowed to her and him. The scent of man and sandalwood soap on the crisp winter air. The tiny lines of fatigue fanning out from his blue eyes, in the creases around his mouth.
When his lips tightened, she jerked her attention away from them. The stillness of the night and the muted music made it feel as though they were the only two people in the world. Thank goodness they weren't.
Annalise hadn't expected this feeling of suffocation. Of panic. The bone-squeezing pain in her chest.
His gaze slid indolently down her body, hungry and frankly sexual. A look that had been focused on her before. Just the memory made her shiver.
Then his expression changed to one of contempt. His eyes narrowed. He vibrated with anger. The realization had Annalise stiffening.
What did he have to be angry about? He was the one who had turned his back on her.
In the split second it took her to read his face, his eyes shuttered against her.
She was so furious she couldn't breathe for a second. Before she could say anything, do anything, Matt stepped around her and onto the Fontaine's porch. Pointedly, blatantly ignoring her. Turning his back on her again.
Enraged, she looked over her shoulder. "Ah, your back. The side of you I recognize so well."
He went stock-still for a long moment, shoulders rigid, muscles coiled with tension.
She shouldn't have said it, even though it was the truth. Breath suspended, she waited for his reaction.
He continued inside without a backward glance.
The blonde stood in the wide doorway of the hotel, flashing him a quick smile. "Who was that?"
"Nobody." His voice was flat, brittle.
Pain slashed at Annalise. Angry tears stinging her eyes, she walked briskly toward her house at the opposite end of town.
Had she believed they could put the past behind them, even be civil? She knew better now. She made a sound low in her throat and walked faster. Just seeing him, being that close to him had caused her stomach to flutter. And her palms were sweating!
Even knowing she would eventually have to see Matt, she had left Philadelphia, come home to Whirlwind and reopened her father's medical practice. But the sheer depth and agony of coming face to face with him had been more than she anticipated. Still, she had done it, gotten it over with.
There would be other timesthey both lived here, after allbut she wouldn't get that close to him ever again.
Annalise Fine had some damn nerve. Returning to Whirlwind. Showing her face at his brother's party. Black fury drove through Matt. He wanted to hit something. Or someone.
Once inside the Fontaine, he left Willow in the dining room with Ef Gerard, the blacksmith, and his new wife, Naomi, then slipped out the hotel's back door. His gaze settled blankly on the hotel's laundry house some yards away.
Seething, he clenched his fists, unclenched them. He was burning to get his gun and shoot at something. He didn't care what. Maybe the cool temperature would soothe his temper. His body was throbbing, nerves stretched taut, sensation skimming the surface of his skin in a way it hadn't in seven years. He could still feel her slender shoulders beneath his touch, the tease of her breath against his neck when she had run into him.
Her heart-shaped face was even more beautiful, the shock in her light-green eyes every bit as strong as the shock he had felt upon seeing her. She was still slim and delicate, but now her curves were more defined, womanly. Where they had once been more angular, her hips now flared slightly from her taut waist and her breasts were fuller. He'd felt that for himself when she had run into him. And her skin still looked as soft as down.
Immediately, he had wanted to put his hands on her, his mouth, which blistered him up good. He killed that thought real quick.
He stiffened at the sound of his brother's voice. The last thing he wanted was to spoil Russ's wedding day.
"What's wrong? Is it Annalise?"
He gave a sharp nod. With little effort, Matt had stayed away from her all night, then his past had walked right smack into him. There was no point in denying why he was so angry, especially to his brother.
Dragging a hand down his face, he turned, battling to force the sound of her smoke-and-honey voice out of his head. "It happened outside. How did you know about it?"
"You were lathered up when you and Willow came back into the hotel." His brother, a year older, watched him steadily. "I knew it had to be because of her."
Matt wanted to rip into his brother and ask why she had been invited, but the whole town had been. It wasn't Russ's fault Annalise had shown up. Wasn't his fault the woman still affected Matt so strongly. Drawing in her light clean scent of primroses had tied his gut in nine kinds of knots. How could she still smell the same? Why did he have to remember it so well?
"I figured she might come," Russ said quietly.
Matt had tried not to give it any thought. "Did you talk to her?"
"Oh, she did all the talking," he bit out. He felt as though he could explode any second. "Don't you have a bride waiting?"
"What did she say?"
"Leave off." Matt shoved a hand through his hair. "There's no reason to ruin your night. You've got a good woman. You should be in there enjoying her."
"Tell me." Moonlight slanted across Russ's face as he braced one shoulder against the hotel wall.
Matt knew that patient stance, the expectant tone. His brother wouldn't leave until he knew. "She made some smart-mouthed comment when I started walking away. Something about how she recognized my back since I was so good at turning away from her."