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Gabe Benton spotted the car pulled off the straight West Texas highwaya speck on the flat, mesquite-covered horizonand he pulled to a stop expecting to find a stranger.
When he stepped out of his car, the woman, who'd been changing a flat tire, glanced over her shoulder. A thick blond braid hung beneath her baseball cap. She wore jeans and a short sleeved, cotton shirt.
"Got trouble?" he inquired.
She stood. "Gabe?" she asked in disbelief.
His heart missed a few beats. Startled to hear a voice he knew as well as his own, he looked at the woman more closely. Yes, it was Madeline Halliday, and she was even better looking now than she had been at twenty-one.
The curves shaping her white blouse were lush, her waist tiny, her legs as long as he remembered. Her skin was creamy, stirring a vivid memory of how she had looked naked in his arms. His pulse sped up. His breathing altered. She was a knockout, now more than ever.
He was shocked at how glad he was to see her. It took an effort to resist closing the distance between them. And then he couldn't hold back. In two strides, he reached her, wrapping his arms around her, fighting the temptation to kiss her long and hard.
Their last tense week together had been six long years ago. But now Maddie was back in his life.
She was soft, warm and sweet smelling. He held her tighter, his pulse racing. When she embraced him in return and stepped back, he wanted to pull her into his arms again.
"It's great to see you," Gabe said. "You look terrific."
"Thanks, Gabe," she said.
"I'm sorry about the loss of your grandfather," he added, looking into dark brown eyes surrounded by thick lashes. After their breakup, Maddie had moved to Florida.
"Thank you. And thank you for the flowers you sent."
"The flowers were in lieu of my offering condolences in person. I'm sorry I missed the memorial, but I was in Wyoming buying cattle. By the time I got word, I couldn't have made it home in time."
"Some things don't change. You're still traveling for business," she said, and for a moment her smile faded.
"Not as much these days. Sorry I wasn't here. Sorry, too, about the loss of your father. I didn't know about his death three years ago until a year later."
"Thanks. Dad's loss was difficult. My mom has adjusted pretty well. When I came for Granddad's memorial, there was a big crowd. Since my family has lived here almost as long as yours, there were lots of people from the area."
"What brings you back again after only three months?"
"Mom and I inherited the ranch. Neither of us wants it, so I'm here to make the arrangements to place it on the market."
"That's a surprise. I hope you've given it some thought," he said, easily falling into the closeness he had once felt with her, "because that's a fine ranch."
"We're sure about what we want to do. I hope to be back in Florida by next week and have this place sold by July."
When he grasped her hand and looked at her bare fingers, relief flooded him. "No wedding ring."
She smiled again. "No. I've been too busy with work. Let me guessyou're not wearing one either."
He grinned. "You know me too well. Will you be here long?"
"Just long enough to get everything arranged to sell. I'll stay at the ranch while I'm getting the house ready and while I find an agency to deal with the property."
"I'll finish changing your tire and then let's go where we can talk. I'll take you to dinner tonight."
She glanced at her watch. "I shouldn't"
"Come on. You can give one evening to an old friend," he said, gazing into eyes that could, apparently, still make him weak in the knees.
"I never could resist you," she replied, smiling. "Yes," she added, and turned away, walking back to the car before he could reply.
You resisted me once was what he wanted to say, but he kept quiet. His pulse jumped another notch now that he was reassured she was not carrying a grudge about the way they'd ended things six years ago. Already, he was anticipating the evening with her and thinking about dinner. He hurried to get to the tire before she did.
"We've lost touch," he said as he hunkered down to remove the flat. "I heard you got that business degree."
"Yes. I transferred to the University of Florida in Gainesville where I majored in business. Now I work for Clirksonie Realty in Miami."
"Like it?" he asked while he dropped a lug bolt onto the hubcap lying on the ground.
"Very much. I'm busy. I heard you moved back to the family ranch."
"I did. That year after you left, I spent more and more time there. Finally, I retired to the ranch last year. I was restless in my job and wanted the move. Maybe life wasn't the same without you here," he said, giving her a crooked grin.
She smiled, shaking her head in disbelief.
"I can't imagine you leaving your Dallas job for the ranch, but that is what you always said you wanted. I'm glad to be away from our spread. Ranching is hard work."
"Not when you love doing it. If I recall accurately, you always wanted to get away from here. Hard for me to understand. You're in Miami? No way is it as peaceful as it is out here."
She smiled. "We could argue that one forever. The ocean can be peaceful. I love the beach. I love the activity of a big city, too. Miami, Houston, Dallas they're all exhilarating to me. I'm surprised you don't miss the office."
He shrugged. "Sometimes I do," he said. "You have grandparents in Miami, don't you?"
"Yes. My mom's parents. They're both still there and Mom is. We all live close to each other, so that's nice."
In the silence, as he worked on the flat, he couldn't help reflecting on their breakup. Maddie had been getting serious while he hadn't wanted to. When she broke off their relationship, she wouldn't talk to him or tell him why. At the time, the only disagreement between them had been his decision to accept a temporary position in Nigeria, where his company wanted to send him, rather than agree to stay in Texas with her.
It was while he was in Nigeria that he heard she'd moved to Florida. As far as he knew, the only time she'd returned to Texas was for her grandfather's memorial service.
He stood and brushed off his hands. "There," he said, carrying the flat tire to her trunk. "You picked up a nail somewhere."
"I can't imagine. This is a brand-new rental from Dallas. I got it at the airport and definitely didn't expect a flat. I've called them. They're sending out a replacement tomorrow and they'll drive this car back."
"Thanks for stopping to help," she said, gazing up at him. She had pushed the baseball cap back and he looked down into her dark eyes. Strands of blond hair fluttered around her face.
"Wouldn't have missed you for the world. I'm glad to see you again. I'll pick you up at your grandfather's ranch about six."
"That's fine," she said. "Thanks again, Gabe."
He nodded and fell into step beside her as she walked to the front of the car. He reached ahead to open the door for her, his gaze running over her as she climbed into the driver's side. After closing the door, he leaned down, speaking to her through the open window. "I'm glad you're back."
"It's only for a short time," she replied solemnly.
"I'll get you to stay longer," he said, deciding that's what he wanted.
"Still so totally confident," she said with a smile. "Another thing that hasn't changed."
"I'll see to it that you're glad to stay longer," he stated, smiling, but beneath his light tone, he wanted her to know that he intended to do what he said. "See you in a little while." When he stepped back, she turned the key in the ignition.
Driving home, all he could think about was Maddie. Recollections of summer evenings spent with her came back with clarity. After she'd left, it had taken him a while to admit to himself how much he missed her. He had always expected her to return home, but she never had. Until now.
Six o'clock. Would she have let him know she was back in Texas if he hadn't happened to pass her on the road? He suspected she would not have contacted him. Even so, eagerness filled him and he looked forward to the evening with her.
His ranch house loomed into sight. He'd had the place built a mile from his brother's house, which had been the family home. His brother Jake liked to stay on the ranch some of the time and they both owned shares in the ranch operation.
Gabe looked at his sprawling house. The main hall and one wing were finished. They were still working on the other wing. The roof of the house sloped over a screened-in porch, giving the structure an old-fashioned look, which he thought suited him. Every time he saw the house, it gave him satisfaction. Enough that he could almost forget that he sometimes missed Dallas.
He parked in the back and hurried to the kitchen to see what food he had stocked. He wasn't taking Maddie out to eat. Anywhere in the county she would be besieged by old friends and he wouldn't get time alone with her. She used to be warm, loving, ready for fun. He wondered how much she had changed.
God knew he'd changed in the past six years. At one time, he'd avoided all serious relationships, even with Maddie. But this past year, more and more, he'd been thinking about marriage. He'd begun avoiding long, empty nights by himself on the ranch.
His brother and his brother's friends were all married now and appeared happier than ever. His closest friend, Luke Tarkington, had married last year and Gabe saw less of him. Gabe had recently had another birthday. He was in his thirties and he'd felt a growing restlessness, an urge to settle down, but there was no one in his life he wanted to settle with.
Now, here was Maddie. He couldn't help imagining the possibilities.
When Maddie parted from Gabe, she had glanced in her rearview mirror as he walked back to his car. The same purposeful stride, the same lanky, long legs covering the ground easily. His black Stetson rested squarely on his head, the brim rolled in the typical fashion for their area of Texas. His shoulders looked broader than she remembered and she knew his lean look was deceptive, because he was stronger than a lot of men who were heavier. A persistent knot in her chest ached and she held tightly to the steering wheel as if it were a lifeline.
As she drove away, she focused on the stretch of flat highway ahead, seeing heat waves shimmer beneath the afternoon sun, too aware that Gabe was not far behind her. She waved when she turned into the Halliday ranch.
Tonight she was having dinner with Gabe.
She had always let him take charge and get his way, but she was a grown woman now and she should have refused the date.
When she had turned from her flat tire to find him standing behind her, her pulse had jumped. He was still the most handsome man she'd ever known with his startling blue eyes fringed with brown lashes. She had intended to avoid him while she was here. She definitely had not planned to spend any time with him. There was too much unresolved between them.
They had been friends since she was a kid. Later, it became so much more. Sometimes she wished she'd guarded her heart, but then she wouldn't have Rebecca. And she wouldn't have known what it was to love Gabe.
Their last summer still pained her when she thought about him walking away without making arrangements to see her again. While they had been arguing about the future, she had received the shock of her life.
The final week Gabe had been in Texas, before he'd traveled to Nigeria, she had learned she was pregnant with his baby.
Memories rushed at her now: the first shock of learning she was pregnant; the thrill of knowing she was carrying Gabe's baby. She had shared her life with Gabe since she'd been about eight, and she'd loved him almost as long. So, in some ways, the pregnancy was joyous news. It had been a bond with Gabe that was forged for life.
When she'd realized what she had to dokeep the baby a secret from himshe had been devastated. But always, no matter how she looked at the situation, the best thing for both of them had been to keep the news to herself. Gabe hadn't been ready for fatherhood or marriage or a binding commitment. He wouldn't even commit to a serious relationship with her before the pregnancy! Even now, she was still convinced that revealing the truth would have been disastrous to Gabe. She had saved them both. She'd saved Gabe from a marriage and responsibility he hadn't wanted. She'd saved herself from settling for life on the ranch when she wanted something more.
As she drove the familiar road to the home where she had grown up, she tried to ignore the tingly feeling that had started the moment she'd seen him and continued even now.
At the first sight of him her palms had gone damp and her breathing had altered. After all this time how could he still do this to her?