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Lane Donaldson couldn't help but laugh as he watched the five men he called brothers acting like a bunch of damned fools.
It was funny how a baby could do that to otherwise intelligent grown men. And whether he wanted to admit it or not, he was no different. He had done his fair share of making faces and odd noises to try to get a smile out of the kid, as well.
He had invited his family and friends to the barbecue to celebrate his winning half of the Lucky Ace Ranch in a poker game last fall. But because of the birth of his nephew a few months back, the celebration had turned into a party to welcome the new baby to the family as well as to commemorate his big win.
"Y'all are going to scare the pudding out of little Hank," Nate Rafferty complained as he made another face at the infant in his brother Sam's arms.
Nate and Sam were as different as night and day, even though they were the only two biological siblings out of the band of foster brothers who had spent their adolescence together on the Last Chance Ranch. While Sam was happily married with a three-month-old son, Nate was too busy trying to date the entire female population of the southwest to settle down. In fact, of the four remaining confirmed bachelors, Lane included, Nate was hands down the wildest of the bunch.
"And I suppose you think you're not scaring the kid with that sappy grin of yours, Nate?" Ryder McClain asked, laughing. "I play chicken with two thousand pounds of pissed-off beef every weekend and you're still enough to scare the hell out of me." A rodeo bull fighter, Ryder was without question one of the bravest men Lane had ever had the privilege of knowing-and Ryder was also the most laid-back, easygoing of his foster brothers.
"How much longer before you become a daddy, Ryder?" T. J. Malloy asked, taking a swig from the beer bottle in his hand. A highly successful saddle bronc rider, T.J. had retired at the ripe old age of twenty-eight and in the ensuing years had started raising and training champion reining horses.
"The doctor told us the other day that it could be just about any time," Ryder answered, glancing uneasily over to where his wife, Summer, sat talking to Sam's wife, Bria, and Bria's sister, Mariah. "And the closer it gets, the more I feel like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."
"Getting a little nervous, are you?" Lane asked, grinning.
"More like a lot," Ryder said, glancing again at his wife as if to assure himself she was still doing all right.
"I know exactly how you feel, Ryder," Sam said, nodding. "About a month before Bria had little Hank, I mapped out the quickest route to the hospital and made several practice runs just to be sure I could get her there in time."
"Both of you have helped cows during calving season for years," Nate said, his tone practical. "If you'd had to, you could have delivered little Hank, Sam. And you could deliver your and Summer's baby, Ryder."
Every one of them gave Nate an unimpressed look, then, shaking their heads, resumed their conversation.
"What?" Nate asked, obviously confused.
"I want the best for my wife when the time comes for her to have our baby and I'm man enough to admit I'm not it," Ryder answered, his disgusted expression stating louder than words what he thought of Nate's logic.
"Have you given in and asked the doctor if the baby is a boy or a girl, Ryder?" Jaron Lambert asked, staring across the yard at the women.
"We really don't care as long as the baby is healthy and Summer is okay," Ryder answered, shaking his head. "She wants to be surprised and I want whatever she wants."
"Well, I hope it's a girl," Jaron said flatly.
Lane couldn't help but chuckle. "Mariah still not talking to you, bro?"
Jaron shook his head. "She's still pissed off about what I said when Sam and Bria told us they were having a boy."
Jaron and Mariah had been arguing from the time they learned that Bria and Sam were expecting. Jaron had been sure the baby would be a boy, while Mariah had insisted it would be a girl. Apparently, Mariah had taken exception to Jaron's gloating after he'd been proven right.
"Yeah, women don't like it very much when a man says 'I told you so,'" Lane said, grinning.
"You think, Dr. Freud? I figured that out all by myself right after she stopped talking to me, genius." Jaron's sour expression and reference to Lane's psychology degree caused Lane to laugh out loud.
"When are you going to stop beating around the bush and take that girl out for a night on the town?" Lane asked.
"I've told y'all before, I'm too old for her," Jaron answered sullenly.
"That's bull and we all know it," T.J. shot back. "She's only eight years younger than you. It might have mattered when you were twenty-six and she was eighteen, but she's in her mid-twenties now. Your ages aren't that big a deal anymore."
"Yeah, and it's not like she wouldn't go," Ryder added. "She's had a crush on you from the time she met you. Although I can't for the life of me figure out why."
Taking a sudden interest in the tops of his boots, Jaron shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I've got a world championship to win and I don't need the distraction." Competing in bull riding and bareback events, Jaron was a top contender to win the All-Around Rodeo Cowboy Championship for the third year in a row.
"While you guys try to talk some sense into Jaron, I see a lady who looks like she could use a trip around the dance floor," Nate said, grinning. "And I can't think of a man here who is better at doing the Texas two-step than me."
When they all turned to see which woman Nate was talking about, Lane felt as if he had taken a sucker punch to the gut. A little above average in height, the leggy redhead in question wasn't just pretty, she was absolutely breathtaking. Her long, straight, copper-colored hair complimented her creamy complexion to perfection and he couldn't help but wonder what it would feel like to run his fingers through the silky strands.
"Who is that?" T.J. asked, sounding as awestruck as Lane felt.
"I've never seen her before," Lane answered, looking around. It didn't appear she was with any of the other guests.
"She had to have just arrived," Nate added, sounding quite certain of the fact. "Otherwise, I would have noticed her before now."
As Nate started across the yard toward the woman, Lane couldn't say he was sorry she had decided to crash the barbecue he was throwing to celebrate winning half of the Lucky Ace Ranch. He would have thrown the party when he first became a partner in the place, but it had been so late in the fall he had decided to wait until spring, when it was warmer and they could celebrate Texas style-with an outdoor barbecue and dance. And now he was glad that he had. She was without question one of the prettiest women he'd ever seen and a welcome addition to the view in his ranch yard.
Lane frowned at the uncharacteristic stab of envy coursing through him as he watched Nate introduce himself to her, then take her in his arms to move around the temporary dance floor Lane's hired hands had installed for the festivities. He'd never been envious of any of his brothers before, but there was no denying that was exactly what was wrong with him at the moment.
When the country band took a break, Lane watched Nate talk with the woman for a moment before he shrugged and sauntered back to the group. The woman glanced at him and his brothers standing on the opposite side of the dance floor, then walked over to the refreshment table.
"It doesn't look like that went exactly the way you planned, Nate," T.J. said, laughing.
Looking as if he couldn't quite believe what had happened, Nate shook his head. "I must be losing my touch."
"Why do you say that?" Sam grinned. "Has she heard about your love-'em-and-leave-'em reputation?"
"No, smart-ass." Nate gave Sam a dark scowl before turning his attention to Lane. "All she did was ask me questions about you."
"Me?" It was the last thing Lane had expected to hear. Why would she be inquiring about him? "What did she want to know?"
Nate shrugged. "She mainly wanted to know how long you've lived on the Lucky Ace and if you intend to stay here or sell out and move on." He frowned and glanced over his shoulder at the woman. "She didn't even know which one of us you were. I had to point you out."
Lane was more bewildered than ever as he stared across the yard at the woman surveying the array of food the caterer had prepared for his guests. He supposed she might have been in the gallery at one of the high-stakes poker tournaments he'd played over the years. But he rejected that idea immediately. If she had, she wouldn't have needed Nate to identify him.
"Looks like you might have an admirer, Lane," Ryder said, grinning like a six-year-old kid turned loose in a toy store.
"I doubt it," Lane answered, shaking his head as he stared across the yard at the woman. "If that was the case, she wouldn't have had to ask Nate about me."
His brothers all nodded their agreement as they continued to stare at her.
Deciding that he could speculate all evening and still not come up with any firm answers as to why the woman would be so curious about him, Lane took a deep breath. "No sense in standing here wondering about it. I'm going to ask her."
"Good luck with that," Jaron said.
"If you strike out like Nate, let me know and I'll give my luck a try," T.J. added, laughing.
Ignoring his brothers' teasing comments, Lane crossed the dance floor to the opposite side of the yard, where the woman had seated herself at an empty table. "Mind if I join you?" he asked as he pulled out a chair and started to sit down. "I'm-"
"I know who you are. You're Donaldson." She was silent for a moment, then, without looking up from her plate, shook her head. "You might as well join me. It wouldn't do me a lot of good if I told you that I did mind."
Her cool tone, obvious hostility and refusal to look directly at him caused him to hesitate. He was almost certain they had never met. What could he have possibly done to offend her? And why had she crashed his party just to give him the cold shoulder?
"Forgive me for not being able to recall, but have we met before?" he asked, determined to find out what was going on.
"Then why the chilly reception?" he asked point-blank as he pushed the chair back under the table without sitting down. He had no intention of sitting beside her when it was obvious she didn't want his company. But for the life of him, he couldn't figure out the reason for her attitude toward him.
"I'm here to discuss something with you and I'd rather not get into it in front of your guests," she said, pushing the food around on the plate in front of her with her fork. When she finally looked up at him, her emerald-green eyes sparkled with anger. "We'll talk after the party is over."
Lane studied her delicate features as he tried to get a read on what she might be up to. She had never met him before. She'd shown up to his party uninvited, and she was extremely angry with him. Now she was refusing to tell him why?
He had no idea what her agenda was, but it was more than a little apparent she had one. He had every intention of finding out what was going on, but she was right about one thing. Getting to the bottom of things would have to wait until the party started winding down. He wasn't about to ruin the rest of his guests' good time by getting into an argument with her now. And there was no doubt in his mind that an argument was exactly what was going to happen.
Nodding toward her plate, he gave her what he hoped, considering the circumstances, was a congenial enough smile. "I'll let you get back to your meal and I'll see you after the party."
As he turned to walk away, Lane checked his watch. Being a professional poker player for the past ten years, he'd long ago learned the fine art of patience. But it was sure as hell failing him now. He suddenly couldn't wait for the party to end so he could find out who the woman was and what she wanted. Then he'd send her on her way.
As Taylor Scott waited for the last of the guests to leave the barbecue, she gathered her anger around her like a protective cloak and reminded herself she was on a mission. Donaldson was a scheming, cheating snake in jeans. Villains in the old Western movies her grandfather used to watch always wore black hats and, quite appropriately, Donaldson's wide-brimmed Resistol was as black as his heart. But the one thing she hadn't counted on was how darned good-looking he would be.
Watching him bid farewell to an extremely pregnant woman and her husband, Taylor couldn't help but notice how tall he was, how physically fit. From his impossibly wide shoulders to his trim waist, long, muscular legs and big, booted feet, he had the body of a man who spent his days doing manual labor. Not the look she'd expected of someone who sat for endless hours at a poker table. But what had really thrown her off guard was the warmth and sincerity she'd detected in his chocolate-brown eyes. Framed with lashes as black as his hair, they were the kind of eyes a woman could feel safe getting lost in.
Taylor gave herself a mental shake. Donaldson might be Mr. Tall, Dark and Drop-Dead Gorgeous, but he wasn't a man who could be trusted any farther than she could pick him up and throw him. He was a con man, a swindler-a conniving thief. There was no way he could have won half of the Lucky Ace Ranch in a card game with her grandfather if he hadn't cheated. For over sixty years her grandfather had been considered one of the best players in the world of high-stakes professional poker, and he would never have risked any part of his ranch if he hadn't been certain he could beat the man.
"Let's go inside," Donaldson said when he reached the table where she was sitting.
She hadn't been inside her grandfather's home in several years and she worried her emotions would get the better of her when she walked into the house without him being there. That was something she would rather die than allow Donaldson to see.
He pointed to the catering staff as they cleaned up. "I thought my office might be a little more private." He shrugged. "But it's up to you how much privacy you think we need."
Grinding her back teeth over the fact that he'd called her grandfather's office his, Taylor pushed her chair back. She could deal with her feelings later-after she'd ousted the interloper.
"The office is fine," she said, rising to her feet. "I doubt that you'll want anyone to hear what I have to say anyway."
He stared at her for several long seconds before he nodded and stepped back so she could lead the way across the yard.
Taylor felt his gaze on her back as she walked up the steps and crossed the porch, but she ignored the little shiver of awareness that streaked up her spine. She had come to Texas for one reason. She was going to confront the man who had stolen part of her grandfather's ranch, buy it back, then take great pleasure in ordering him off the property.
But when she entered the kitchen, she forgot all about Donaldson and his disturbing gaze as emotion threatened to swamp her. Being in her grandfather's ranch house, knowing that he wasn't there and never would be again, was almost more than she could bear.
"The office is just down the hall and to your.. "