Eli Covington erased all traces of his cowboy upbringing to become a high-powered attorney. Then his father dies, and his brothers need him to rescue the family ranch. So, after fourteen years, Eli returns to the life he left behindand the one woman he can't resist.
Veterinarian Reagan Matthews was furious with Eli for leaving her all those years ago, and yet she was never quite able to let him go. Their attraction is as incendiary as ever, and Eli is very good at stoking the flames. But Eli doesn't belong in her world, any more than Reagan belongs in his. So until Eli leaves for good, why not take her pleasure where she can? Pleasure only her cowboy can provide
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Elijah Covington never thought he'd find religion on a commuter flight, but when the tiny plane plummeted the last fifty feet to the runway, he prayed. Little more than a closed-cockpit crop duster, the little plane skipped down the cracked asphalt runway hard enough to compress his spine. He would have given anything for the firm's corporate jet and his chiropractor right about then.
Of course, he should probably just be grateful they weren't landing on a dirt strip. They'd had to circle several times while the neighboring rancher retrieved his cows from the runway. That had been bad enough.
The flight attendant made an inane joke at the pilot's expense, but Eli only half listened. Thumbing his smartphone on, he waited for a signal. His service indicator showed a single bar. A .single bar.
"I'm in hell," he muttered, but that wasn't true. Hell undoubtedly had better cell service.
Scrolling through emails, he ignored the flight attendant's glare. He might have been obligated to come home to manage the distribution of his father's estate, but that didn't require he cut himself off from civilization entirely. With any luck, he could get to the ranch, go through the estate paperwork, file the will and be gone within the week. Had his old man been remotely organized, this could have been done by mail. And had the estate been reasonably solvent, they could have hired someone to manage the distributions altogether. No doubt, there wouldn't be any money.
That had to be why his youngest brother, Tyson, had emailed and asked him to come home and handle estate "issues." Otherwise? They never would have called him home. He'd have just received whatever his old man left him via certified mail.
Eli glanced out the window at the desert landscape. New Mexico always looked caught between centuries and droughts. The landscape was as foreign to him as Austin would be to his brothers. Here in Tucumcari, the wide plateau created a backdrop decorated with cedar shrubs, barbed wire fences and black grama grass. Cows outnumbered people twenty to one, and if you didn't drive a pickup, you'd better be riding a horse.
The only beef Eli cared about was braised, his vehicle was an Audi R8 and the only horses that mattered were under the hood.
He'd always been the piece that didn't fit this particular puzzle.
Elijah snorted and shook his head, pulling his small travel bag out from under his seat. Might as well get this over with.
Fifteen minutes later he was standing beside a tiny Ford Fiesta with a dented fender, an AM/FM radio and questionable air-conditioning. It was the better of the two cars available at the only car rental service in town.
"I'm in hell," he repeated, struggling against a temper he'd all but mastered over the past fourteen years.
He'd been gone almost as long as he'd lived here.
Peeling off his Canali suit jacket, he tossed it across the passenger seat before folding himself behind the wheel. A generous layer of grit on the rubber floor mat ground under his heel. The little car shimmied as the four-cylinder engine sputtered and choked before it caught and, obviously under duress, whined to life.
The rental attendant tipped the brim of his hat in salute and wandered inside the tiny office as Eli drove away. He hadn't remembered Elijah, or had pretended not to as a matter of convenience to avoid unnecessary chitchat. Small towns worked that way. You were either on the inside or exiled for life.
The next few days would be a lot of the same. Tight-knit communities were very unforgiving when one of their own escaped, and his leaving had been an escape. As well loved as his father had been, everyone saw his departure as a first-rate betrayaloldest son to old man.
Elijah refused to feel guilty for wanting a different life, a better life. He had it now and hadn't asked for handouts along the way. He'd earned his place, and he wasn't sorry that place wasn't here. With one exception
Caught up in his own thoughts, he ran one of the two traffic lights in town.
An extended-cab four-wheel-drive pickup swerved, brakes chattering and tires squealing. It hit the curb, skipping up and over with a hard bounce before coming to rest in the hedges in front of the Blue Swallow motel.
Heart lodged in his throat, Eli shut the little car down and left it in the middle of the road, racing toward the truck. He couldn't see anyone moving inside. Then a black-and-white head popped up and looked out the rear window.
If anything, the dog seemed exhilarated at the wild ride, his feathery tail wagging with obvious enthusiasm.
Eli reached the driver's side and found a cowboy-hatted individual slumped forward, forehead against the steering wheel, arms lax, hands resting next to trim thighs. A woman. He reached for the truck door. The dog objected, going from excited to back-the-hell-off between breaths. The animal crossed his owner and bared his teeth in a feral growl, blatantly daring Eli to open the door.
Not interested in losing any body parts, Eli knocked on the window hard enough to rouse the woman.
She rolled her head to the side, green eyes narrowed in an impressive glare. The moment those eyes focused on Eli, they flared with almost-comedic alarm. Almost.
Because his did the same thing.
The one person he'd intended to avoid altogether stared at him in utter disbelief. Her mouth hung open in shock. She didn't move.
History rose up between them, an invisible, insurmountable wall of differences that stole every word that might have allayed old hurts or bridged the gap of time to allow them to communicate. At least while he was here.
Leaning one arm against the truck's door frame, Eli gave a small jerk of his chin. "Reagan? Lower your window."
She mouthed something that, if it matched the look in her eyes, was seriously foul.
He was prepared for that. What he wasn't prepared for was for her to shove the door open. The mirror folded as it nailed his shoulder. Then the hot metal of the door's edge slammed into his sternum hard enough he wasn't sure if he'd been burned or if the bone had cracked or both.
She spoke before her boots hit the dirt, her voice as smooth as the truck's diesel engine. "Well, well. If it isn't Elijah Covington. Or would that be Mr. Covington, Esquire, since you're an Austin attorney now? Just what you always wantedbigger, better and worlds away from hereso I suppose congratulations would be appropriate. I mean, you made it out, made your way and managed to break your word, all in one impressive feat."
His brows drew together. "What are you talking about, 'break my word'?"
"You said you'd come home. Promised, in fact. But I'd be willing to bet you hit the county line at a dead run and never thought about us again. Good on you, Esquire." The last was offered with near indifference or would have been if she hadn't begun to clap slowly for emphasis.
It was that last action that betrayed her, because, despite their fourteen years apart, Eli knew her.
The aged and seasoned hurt that lurked beneath the surface of her words sliced through his conscience with cold efficiency. He'd wanted her to come with him, but she'd made it clear her life was here. And his life could never be here.
"You knew we wanted different things. I was never going to fit in here. Not like you did. My dad. My brothers. Leaving was my only option. And I didn't just skip out on you." Running his hands through his hair, he huffed out a heavy breath. "Look, Reagan," he started, and then the wind shifted, carrying her smell to him, all fresh-cut hay and sunshine on warm skin.
Overwhelmed with sensory memories, his gaze homed in on lips that parted in almost curious shock. And just like that, she was the girl he'd loved. And yet, with time and distance, she had somehow evolved into more.
She'd always been his sun, chasing away the shadows he hadn't been able to banish himself. Unwelcome memories of yesteryear hovered at the fringes of his consciousness. He needed to touch her, needed the tenderness he'd always found waiting in her.
He closed the distance between them. His lips closed over hers and he pulled her into his embrace. The shock of cinnamon on his tongue told him she still loved Big Red gum, and the flavor transferred between them. Her lips were soft, pliable and so familiar his heart ached with the memories of a thousand and more shared moments. Being here, in New Mexico, didn't hurt so much with her in his arms.
He wasn't only "Covington's oldest boy." He wasn't burdened with the unshakable disappointment his father had found in him. He wasn't a failure of an older brother. He was Eli. Just Eli. And he could survive that.
His troubles became manageable as their tongues touched, tentative for the briefest moment. Then he took over the kiss. Dominating the moment, he took comfort in her nearness and yelped like a scolded pup when she bit his lip. Hard.
Parking both hands on his chest, she shoved and shouted, "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?" Eyes wild, she dragged a hand over her mouth. "You don't waltz into town after fourteen years, run me off the road and then You don't You can't kiss me like like you ass!"
"'Ass'? I kiss you and you call me an ass?" Eli's lips thinned as his once-infamous temper, second only to hers and all but squashed under years of educational and professional training, raced forward like a laser-guided missile, target locked, impact imminent. "I'm going to point out the obvious here, Reagan. You kissed me, too."
"I didn't That is No. There was no mutual No, I didn't!" Chest heaving, she drove a finger into his chest. "Why are you even here? The funeral was two freaking weeks ago. You should've been here then. But you show up now, expecting everyone to bend to your expectations. That's so typical, Eli. It's always been the way you operate," she snapped, backing up until she bumped into her truck. She hopped in, never taking her eyes off him. "You haven't changed at all. You're still smart as shit when it comes to business and dumb as dirt when it comes to people."
"Hey," he objected, but she powered on without pause.
"You're too late to do any good, Eli, but, then, you taught me what to expect a long time ago. I'd truly thought you'd show for the funeral, though. For your blood." She looked him up and down with a critical eye as she delivered the blow he should've anticipated but never saw coming. "I might have been your girlfriend once, but Cade and Tyson are your brothers, Eli. They needed you." Her gaze met his, anger turning the normally moss green color of her eyes deep and vibrant. "They needed you here to help them manage the mess your old man left behind, but you clearly couldn't put your high-society life aside for a few days to come home and help them out of the bind they're in. You never could be bothered. Not for them. Not for anyone."
She moved to slam the door, but he grabbed it, stepping close. "That's why I'm here nowto probate my father's estate. But that's irrelevant. You don't get to sit there in your shiny truck, that captain's chair your personal throne, and pass judgment on me, Armstrong."
Jerking away as if struck, she stared at him with wide eyes. "It hasn't been 'Armstrong' for eight years. It's Matthews. And to you? Dr. Matthews. Nothing less, and never, ever anything more. Now let go of the door, Eli."
His hand fell away from the truck.
She 'd married Luke Matthews. He'd had no idea.
The reality he'd likely see her and Luke together while in town made Eli's stomach lurch up his throat until he seriously wondered if he might puke. Wouldn't that be awesome.
Then there was the fact she was a doctor. From the size of her truck and the type of work boxes, he didn't have to ask what kind. A vet. She'd always wanted to be a large-animal vet.
He cleared his throat once, then twice, before he managed to croak, "Great. Happy for you."
Slamming the truck door shut, she made it a point to click the locks down. Couldn't get much clearer than that.
Her dog whined loud enough for Eli to hear the cry over the soft rumble of the truck's engine. Reagan absently soothed the animal, her hand shaking.
Eli could totally relate. Years in court had trained him to present a totally calm and controlled exterior under extreme pressure. That didn't mean his insides weren't rattling, though. The emotions buffering him now were both uncomfortable and unrecognizable. But there was no point examining them too closely. This visit didn't center around assuaging years of curiosity and doubt; nor did it have anything to do with healing old hurts. It was about finally closing this part of his life. Permanently.
Swallowing his anger and determined to keep things civil, he motioned for her to roll her window down.
Green eyes that had always before met his with open trust and absolute passion narrowed and glared. She punctuated the stare with a one-fingered salute. Without waiting for him to move, she slammed the truck into Reverse and punched the accelerator.
He leaped aside with a shouted curse.
The truck surged off the curb, suspension squeaking in protest. She shifted the truck into gear and, leaning on the accelerator, she rapidly put distance between them.
The dog, its tail still wagging, watched him with open curiosity thought the rear window.
Closing his eyes, Eli parked his fists on his hips and let his chin fall to his chest.
What the hell am I doing here?
"Settling an old debt," he answered quietly. He was here to make sure his brothers were okay. Yet according to Reagan, he was already too late for that.
Trying to wipe the unforgettable taste of her off his lips, he crossed the still-vacant street and crammed himself into the compact car before making a left and heading up Highway 54.
He was going to get this done and get gone. That would spare everyone involved any further awkwardness. Then he'd return to Austin, to the career he excelled at and the life he'd carved out for himself.
And Reagan was right. He wouldn't look back.