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Ryder McClain's temper flared as he stared at the five men grinning at him like a bunch of damned fools. Having spent their teen years together on the Last Chance Ranch, a home for boys that the foster care system had labeled lost causes, he loved all of them. In all ways except by blood, they were his brothers. However, at this moment, nothing would be more satisfying than to wrap his hands around their throats and throttle every one of them.
"I'm only going to say this one more time and then I expect you all to drop it," he said through gritted teeth. "I brought Summer Patterson to the party tonight because she's a friend who didn't have any other plans. Period. There's absolutely nothing going on between us."
"Sure, if you say so, bro." Jaron Lambert's skeptical expression indicated that he didn't believe a word Ryder had just said. "And I'll bet you still believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, don't ya?"
"I'll give you all a hundred-to-one odds that the lady in question has other ideas," Lane Donaldson said, rocking back on the heels of his handcrafted Caiman leather boots. A highly successful, professional poker player, Lane used his master's degree in psychology to read people like an open book. In this instance, the man was definitely reading the wrong chapter.
"Yup. I'd say she's cut you from the herd and getting ready to measure you for a saddle," Sam Rafferty added, laughing. The only married one of his foster brothers, Sam and his wife, Bria, were throwing the party to celebrate the renewal of their wedding vows, as well as Bria's pregnancy. "You might as well face it, Ryder. Your bachelor days are numbered."
"You're just hoping one of us will join you in the pool of the blissfully hitched," Ryder said, blowing out a frustrated breath. "But as far as Summer and I are concerned, that's not going to happennow or in the future. Neither one of us have any intention of being anything more than best friends. End of discussion."
Smiling, T.J. Malloy paused with his beer bottle halfway to his mouth. "Ryder, did you get kicked in the head by a bull at the last rodeo you worked? That might explain you not being able to see what's as plain as your hand in front of your face."
"Well, now, this makes things a whole lot easier for me," Nate Rafferty said, smirking as he turned toward the dance floor where Summer stood talking to Bria and her sister, Mariah. "As long as you're not interested, I think I'll just mosey on over there and ask the little lady to dance."
Ryder knew that his brother was baiting him, but without a second thought, his hand came down like a vise-grip on Nate's shoulder. "Don't even think about it, Romeo."
"Oh, so you have staked your claim," Lane said smugly.
"No, I haven't." Ryder's jaw was clenched so hard that he wouldn't be surprised if it took a crowbar to pry his teeth apart. "But Summer doesn't need Nate's brand of grief." He thought the world of his foster brother, but Nate Rafferty had a love 'em and leave 'em philosophy that had left a string of broken hearts across the entire Southwest and then some. "No offense, Nate, but you're the last thing she needs."
"He's got you there, Nate," Sam said, nodding. The only two biological siblings of the group, Sam and Nate couldn't have been more different. The older of the two, Sam had never even come close to having the wild streak that his younger brother Nate had.
Nate shrugged. "I can't help it if I love the ladies."
"You take your interest in women to a whole other level," Ryder said, shaking his head in disgust. "Leave this lady alone and we'll get along just fine. Cross that line and you and I are going to have one hell of a big problem, bro."
He chose to ignore the knowing looks his brothers exchanged and, in favor of doing them all bodily harm, walked away. For one thing, he didn't want to ruin Sam and Bria's reception by getting into a knockdown, drag-out brawl. And for another, he made sure he never raised a fist in anger to anyone for any reason. He had been down that road once, when he was a teenager, and the results had damned near ruined his life. He wasn't going to risk going down it again.
Turning at the sound of the familiar female voice, he watched the pretty blond-haired woman with the bluest eyes he had ever seen walk toward him. He and Summer had been best friends for the past few years, and although any man would be lucky to call her his woman, Ryder had avoided thinking of her as anything but his friend. Anything more between them and he would feel obligated to tell her the reason he had finished growing up at the Last Chance Ranch. That was something he didn't care to share with anyone and why he didn't intend to enter into a serious relationship with any woman. Some things were just better left buried in the past. Besides, he didn't want to take the chance of losing the easygoing friendship they had forged by becoming romantically involved with her. He suspected she felt the same way.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, her expression reflecting her concern.
Letting go of his anger, Ryder shook his head as he smiled at the petite woman standing next to him. "No, I just got tired of listening to my brothers' bull."
She smiled wistfully. "You're lucky. At least you have brothers to irritate you. I've never had that problem."
Ryder felt as guilty as hell. As aggravating as his foster brothers could be at times, there wasn't a doubt in his mind they would all be there for him no matter whatthe same as he would be for all of them. They meant the world to him and there wasn't a day that went by he didn't thank the good Lord above that he had them in his life.
But Summer had never had anything like that. Over the course of their friendship, he had learned she was the only child of an older couple who, during her senior year in college, had been killed in the small plane her father owned. With their deaths, she had been left with no family at all.
"Yeah, they sure can be a thorn in my side sometimes." As the last traces of his anger dissipated, he grinned. "But I guess after all these years I don't have any other choice but to keep them."
She laughed. "Good idea, cowboy. But seriously, your family is great. I know some of your brothers from seeing them compete at the rodeos we've worked, but I'd never met Sam's wife and her sister. They're very nice and I think it's wonderful that you all have stayed so close over the years."
When Ryder noticed Nate eyeing Summer like a fox sizing up an unguarded henhouse, he shot his brother a warning glare, then asked, "Have you had a chance to dance yet?"
"Only the line dances," she answered, glancing at the dance floor Sam had his hired hands construct in one of the barns for the celebration.
"I thought I saw Sam's head wrangler ask you to dance a little earlier," he said, frowning.
"I suppose he was nice enough," she replied, shrugging one slender shoulder. "But I wasn't in the mood to dance then."
"Well, if you don't mind a cowboy with two left feet and the worst sense of rhythm this side of the Mississippi, I'd be honored to stand in one spot with you and sway in time to the music," he offered.
Her eyes filled with humor. "I thought all Texas cowboys took pride in sashaying around the dance floor doing the two-step or the stroll."
"You know me better than that, darlin'." As the band started playing a slow, dreamy country tune, he shook his head in mock disgust and placing his hand to her back, guided her out onto the dance floor. "This is one Texan who doesn't sashay, prance or shimmy anywhere. Anytime. Ever."
"I beg to differ with you," she murmured, placing her hands on his biceps when he rested his at her trim waist. "I've seen you when you're dancing with a two-thousand-pound bull. You have some pretty smooth moves, cowboy."
"That's because it's my job." He shrugged and tried to ignore the warmth of her soft palms burning his skin through the fabric of his chambray shirt. "If I don't get those old bulls to dance with me, a bull rider gets run over."
"Don't you have a degree in ranch management?" she asked. "I would have thought you'd be content to stay home and run your ranch instead of traveling around the country playing chicken with a bulldozer on hooves."
"Yup, I'm a proud graduate of Texas A&M." He put himself between her and a couple enthusiastically twostepping their way around the dance floor in an effort to keep them from bumping into her. "But I have a good, reliable foreman I pay quite well to check in with me several times a day. He gives me a full report on how things are going, I tell him what I want done and he sees that it's taken care of. That frees me up to be out on the rodeo circuit saving knuckleheaded bull riders like Nate and Jaron."
As Summer gazed up at him, she frowned. "I don't think I've ever asked, but why did you choose to be a rodeo bullfighter instead of a rider?"
"One time when our foster dad, Hank, was teaching us all to rodeo, one of the training bulls got loose and tried to mow down Jaron. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but I jumped in the arena and put myself between the two of them to keep that from happening. It turned out that I was pretty good at distracting a bull and getting it to chase me." He shrugged. "I've been doing it ever since."
"In other words, you like being a hero," she said, smiling.
Laughing, he shook his head. "Nah. I'm in it for the adrenaline rush, darlin'." It was an easier explanation than admitting that he had always felt compelled to protect others from danger at the risk of his own safety.
When the song ended, Ryder led her off the dance floor and after finding an empty table for them, made sure she was comfortably seated before he went to get them a couple of drinks. He frowned as he made his way to the bar. His arms still tingled where she had rested her hands, and for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why. That had never happened before. Had his brothers' ribbing put ideas in his head about Summer?
As he continued to ponder the strange sensation, he looked up to see his brothers watching with no small amount of interest. They all wore the same sappy, know-itall grin, making him want to plant his fist in all of their guts.
Ryder was extremely grateful that their foster father had instilled a strong sense of family among the boys he helped guide through their troubled teenage years. As Hank Calvert always told them, once they were grown they would appreciate having each other and a little bit of history together that they could look back on since none of them had any other family to speak of. And that's the way Ryder felt most of the time. But at other timeslike right nowhaving brothers could be a real pain in the ass.
As Summer waited for Ryder to return with their drinks, she absently watched the dancers form a couple of parallel lines and begin to move in unison to a lively tune. She couldn't get over how much she was enjoying herself. Normally she turned down all invitations from the men she worked with, no matter what the occasion or the circumstances. But Ryder was different. They had been best friends from the time she took the job as public relations director for the rodeo association southwestern circuit, and for reasons she couldn't explain, she trusted him. He was honest, didn't play the games that most men did, and despite his above average height and muscular build, she didn't feel at all threatened by him.
Of course, that might have something to do with the way he had run interference with some of their more aggressive male coworkers when she first started working for the rodeo association. From the day they met, Ryder had made it a point to remind all of them that she was a lady and should be treated as such. He had shown her nothing but his utmost respect, and it hadn't taken long before they had developed an easy, comfortable relationship. And not once in all the time she had known him had he indicated that he wanted anything more from her than to be her friend.
Unfortunately, she couldn't say the same for a lot of the men she knew. Most of them fell into two categoriesblatant flirts who made it clear what they wanted from a woman, and the seemingly harmless type who lured a woman into a false sense of security before revealing their true hidden agenda. It was the latter group that was the most dangerous. The flirts were easy to spot and, once rebuffed, usually moved on to set their sights on another female. But the men with hidden agendas were nothing more than predators hiding behind a facade of sincerity.
As she absently stared at the dancers, a shiver slithered up her spine. Regrettably, she had learned that lesson the hard way. But it was one she never, as long as she lived, intended to forget.
"Would you mind if I join you, Summer?" Bria Rafferty asked, from behind her. "After that last dance, I need a minute or two to catch my breath."
Turning to glance over her shoulder, Summer smiled at the pretty auburn-haired woman. "Please have a seat." She looked around. "Where's the rest of the clan?"
"Sam, Nate, T.J. and Lane are in a lively debate about the differences between breeds of bucking bulls and which ones are the hardest to ride." Bria laughed as she pointed to the other side of the barn. "And Mariah and Jaron are arguing again about whether I'm going to have a boy or a girl."
"What are you and Sam hoping to have?" Summer asked, smiling when Bria lowered herself into the chair across from her.
"I don't care as long as the baby is healthy," Bria said, placing her hand protectively over her still-flat stomach.
"What about your husband?" Summer was pretty sure she already knew the answer. "What does Sam want?"
The woman's smile confirmed her suspicions. "Sam says he doesn't care, but I think he's secretly hoping for a boy."
Summer smiled. "Isn't that what most men want?"
"I think it's because men want a son to do things with, as well as carry on their family name," Bria answered.
"Not to mention the fact that females of all ages are a complete mystery to most men and they'd rather not have to deal with raising a child they can't understand," Summer added.
Grinning, Bria nodded. "Well, there is that."