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'Judah is my seeker," Molly Callahan said of her toddler son, to which her husband, Jeremiah, replied, "Then the apple didn't fall far from the tree, my love."
Judah Callahan couldn't believe the woman of his dreams was waiting in his bed. Unless he missed his guess, Darla Cameron was as naked as the day she was born.
"I've been waiting for you," she said, sitting up and holding the sheet to her chest. His throat went dry as a bone in a New Mexico desert. Blond hair cascaded over pale shoulders, and big blue eyes gazed at him with apprehension. She was nervous, Judah realized, closing the door and locking it behind him.
He wanted to say he'd been waiting for her for years. "I'd think you'd been in the champagne, but I noticed you didn't go near it except to toast Creed and Aberdeen."
She shook her head. "It was a lovely wedding. Really beautiful. All the valentine decorations were so romantic."
He couldn't take his eyes off her. Whatever she thought was romantic about Creed's wedding was nowhere near as attractive as Darla showing up nude in his bed. A little worry crossed her face, and he realized she was afraid he might turn down what she was obviously offering.
Not a chance.
He seated himself on the foot of the bed, the sight of her creamy skin setting him on fire. "If not an excess of champagne, why tonight?"
She blushed. "I wish I could tell you."
That didn't sound like the Darla he knew. Darla was forthright. An excellent businesswomanher new calling since she'd hung up her nurse's badge and gone into business as wedding shop owner with Jackie Samuels. "Try."
She shook her head. "Be with me."
He wasn't going to put her, or himself, through any more agony. He kissed Darla, amazed at the sweet taste of her. "Peaches," he said, his mind fogging up. "I always wondered what you smelled like, and now I know. You even taste like peaches."
She moved his hand to the sheet, and he was beset by the urge to tear it away, feel what lay hidden beneath.
"There's a hook here," he said, knowing full damn well Darla Cameron wasn't the type of woman who slept around. "Someone put you up to this, or you want something."
"I do want something," she said, her voice soft in the darkness. "Tonight I want you."
So there it was. Tonight was only a simple hookup. Outside, music played, and fireworks streaked across the sky, popping and hissing. If he opened the window to his secondstory bedroom, they would see clouds streaking the moon on a cold Valentine's night. This would all be so romantic, if he wasn't suffering from the sixth sense that something wasn't right.
"How did you know I'd be sleeping in here and not the bunkhouse?"
"I know all the guests who are staying in the bunkhouse," she told him, moving his hand slightly so the sheet barely covered her breasts. He could feel heavenly softness just a brush away. Being this close to her at long last was killing him. Parts of him felt like the fireworks, ready to explode.
"And Fiona mentioned that you and some of your brothers were sleeping in the house so the guests could have privacy."
"So here you are."
"Here I am," she said, so sweetly breathless that he didn't have the heart to keep looking the gift horse in the mouth. Luckily, he had condoms in the nightstand, a groom's gift from Creed, who had a penchant for stupid gags. No silver letter opener for his groomsmen; no, just boxes of condoms with peace signs and neon inscriptions on the side. Creed's last laugh, since the brother with the most progeny won Rancho Diablo. Creed was the most competitive of the Callahans.
"All right," Judah said. "I've never thrown a woman out of my bed, and I certainly won't start now."
He didn't get why she was here, but he wasn't going to worry about it. Since the lady had hunted him down, he intended to make tonight very much worth her while.
Two hours later, something made Judah start awake. After the hottest sex he'd ever experienced, he'd fallen asleep, holding Darla in his arms, grateful for the good fortune heaven had thrown his way.
Darla jumped from the bed. "I heard someone in the hall!"
"It's all right," he said, trying to tug her back for another helping of delicious blonde.
"It's not all right!"
She eluded his grasp, so he snapped on the lamp. She was tugging on her party dress like a woman fleeing a crime scene. "Hey," he said, "we're consenting adults. No one's going to bust in here and"
"Shh!" She glanced at the door nervously. "I think the guests have all left. Your brothers will come upstairs any minute."
"And my aunt Fiona and Burke," Judah said, and Darla let out a squeak of fear.
"Get me out of here! Without anyone seeing me. Please!"
He'd prefer it if she stayed until dawn crested the New Mexico sky, but it was clear she was determined to pull a Cinderella and disappear. He got out of bed and pulled on his jeans.
"Can you zip me? Please?" She turned her back to him and Judah drank in all the smooth skin exposed to his hungry gaze.
"Are you sure you won't"
He zipped her, taking his sweet time as he pressed a kiss against her shoulder. "Even if any of my family were to see you, Darla, it's not like they'd brand you with a scarlet A."
"I shouldn't have done this. I don't know what came over me." She yanked on her heels, bringing her nearly four inches closer to his height. He reached for her, determined to show her how well suited they were, but she unlocked the door and dashed out before he could convince her to stay.
Shoving his shirt in his jeans, he hurried after her. He caught sight of a full blue skirt disappearing around the corner as she made it to the landing.
And then she was gone.
"Damn," Judah said. "I'm think I'm going to have to marry that girl."
Which was really funny, because of all his brothers, Judah had always known he would never marry. Not for his aunt, who dearly wanted to see all the Callahan boys married. Not for Rancho Diablo, which would go to the brother with the largest family. And not for love, because he really didn't believe in love. At least not with one woman.
But perhaps he'd espoused that view because he'd always secretly had a crush on the unattainable Darla Cameron. She'd never so much as glanced his way. She'd been a serious student in high school, gone on to be a serious student in college, gotten a grad degree and then become a serious nurse. No, she'd never really given any of the guys in town a look, so he'd figured his chances were slim. He couldn't even strike up a conversation with her.
All that changed tonight, he thought with a selfsatisfied smile. And now that he'd had her, he was pretty certain he wouldn't be able to give her up.
Four months passed quickly when you weren't having fun, and Judah wasn't having any fun at all. Darla had barely spoken to him since that Valentine's Day evening. He'd tried to chat with her, done everything but go by the bridal salon and corner her, which his pride would not allow him to do. For a woman who'd seduced him, she'd certainly taken off fast. And lately, he'd heard she'd been lying low. Maybe wasn't feeling great. Aunt Fiona was no help to him, but had dared to nonchalantly ask after his Valentine's night surprise.
Obviously, Darla hadn't been as enthused about their lovemaking as he'd been.
The realization stung like gritty wind. This was worse than when he'd only worshipped Darla from afar. Now he knew what he was missing out on, and it made him hunger for her more. She was constantly on his mind. People said she wasn't taking phone calls, except from her mother, Mavis, who'd put out the word that Darla wasn't accepting visitors at her small bungalow.
He would bide his time. He had to have her. There was no other option. She was a treasure he alone was going to possess.
If he could just figure out how.
"The first annual Rancho Diablo Charity Matchmaking Ball was such a success, not to mention Creed and Aberdeen's wedding," Aunt Fiona announced to Judah as he slunk into the kitchen, "that I'm in the mood to plan another party."
He grimaced, not interested in discussing Fiona's diehard love of partying. It was all an excuse for her to marry off her nephews. The trouble with having a committed matchmaker in the family was that it was embarrassing when said matchmaker couldn't fix his problem even if he wanted her to. He was sunk. "Do we really need another social function?"
"I think we do," Fiona said. "We raised a lot of money for the Diablo public library, and we made a lot of new friends. And we irritated the heck out of Bode Jenkins, which, as you know, is my life's goal. Not to mention you could stand a little perking up."
Judah grunted. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well," she said, moving around the sunny kitchen, "we need to find our next victim. The easiest way to do that is to keep ladies visiting the ranch." She sent him a questioning glance. "Unless you know something I don't know."
"Like what?" He settled in to eating the eggs and bacon she put in front of him. There were strawberry jamsmothered biscuits on the side, and a steaming cup of brew. Life was too good to mess up with another extravaganza. The feed bag was definitely better when Fiona's concentration was on the Callahans and not on impressing females far and wide. "I'm usually the last to know anything about anything."
"That's no surprise. What I meant was that unless you know that romance is blooming somewhere on the ranch"
He shook his head, silencing that train of thought. "Dry wells around here, Aunt."
"Then let's choose a victim and get on with it. Time is running out."
He looked up reluctantly from his breakfast. "You got Pete and Creed married off. That's a third of us who've given up the flag of freedom. Maybe no more weddings are needed. Or children," he added, knowing that was Fiona's real goal. "Pete has three, and Creed has Joy Patrice, but he brought three more with him if you count Diane's. Either way, that's a grand total of seven new kids on the ranch." He smiled, but it was pained. "Plenty, huh?"
She scowled. "Seven is hardly enough to make the case that our ranch shouldn't be sold for public land use. Bode'll never let us get off that easily. We need more."
Judah looked with sorrow at his eggs, his appetite leaving him. "Well, you could try Sam, but I think he likes the ladies a little too much to settle down with just one."
"And he's just a baby," Fiona said. "Twentysix is too young when I've got hardened bachelors sitting around this place shirking their futures."
Judah rubbed at his chin. "Well, there's Jonas, but that would take too much work."
Fiona huffed. "You'd think a thirtythreeyearold surgeon would be a bit more anxious to find a wife, but nooo. I don't think he has the first clue about women, honestly. He's such a"
"Nerd," Judah said, trying to be helpful, which earned him another scowl from Fiona.
"He's not a nerd. He's just a deep thinker."
That was an understatement. "You could pick on Rafe. He's next in line behind Jonas, and as Creed's twin it would make sense. He'll probably start missing that twin camaraderie now that Creed's got his hands full."
Fiona looked hurt. "Is that what you think I'm doing? Picking on you boys?"
"Oh, no. No, Aunt Fiona." Judah looked at the hurt tears in his delicate aunt's eyes. "We know you just want us all to be happy."
She nodded. "I do. And how do you think I feel about having to make you all settle down before your timeif you have a sense of time at all, and I don't think any of you boys dowhen I've lost Rancho Diablo?"
"We haven't lost it yet," Judah soothed. "Sam's gotten a continuance. We may get out of Bode's trap eventually. Somehow."
"But it's better to load our deck for success." Fiona waved at him. "Eat your breakfast. It's getting cold."
Burke, Fiona's lifelong butler (and her secret husband, which she seemed keen for no one to know about, though all the Callahan brothers had figured it out) brought the mail in, handing it to her.
"Oh, look!" she exclaimed, as Judah pushed the now cool eggs around his plate. She waved an envelope in the air. "Creamcolored stock. Always a good sign!"
"Why?" he asked, his gaze on the calligraphed envelope.
"It's a wedding invitation, if I know my wedding invitations, and I think I do!" Fiona tore into the envelope. She stopped, staring at the contents. "Well," she murmured, "I didn't see this coming. No, I really didn't."
Burke looked over her shoulder, peering at the invite. "Uhoh," he said, and Fiona nodded.
"Who's getting strung?" he asked, feeling cheerful that it wasn't him. Some other poor sack was getting the marital ball and chain, but it wasn't him. Pity the fool who falls into the clutches of a beautiful woman, he thought, as his aunt handed him the invitation silently.
"'Ms. Mavis Cameron Night requests the honor of your presence at the wedding of her daughter, Darla Cameron, to Dr. Sidney Tunstall, on June 30,'" he read out loud, his breath going short and his heart practically stopping. His gaze shot to Fiona's. "Didn't you know about this? She's one of your best friends."
"Mavis didn't say a word to me," his aunt exclaimed. "I can't understand why. And the wedding is in a few days, which I also can't understand. What's the rush?"
She studied the invitation for another moment, then lifted her gaze to his again. Oh, but she needn't have worn such a worried expression. He had a good idea why a woman might marry so quicklyDarla was pregnant.
The thought burned his gut.
"Oh, dear," Aunt Fiona said, her eyes huge.
Judah shoved back his chair.
"Shall I say all the family will be in attendance?" she asked, and he yelled over his shoulder, "I wouldn't miss it," as he dashed out into the hot dry wind. Darla hadn't wanted any emotional connection between them. And he, spare Romeo that he was, had fallen into her arms and dreamed of a future.
He was a fool. But not a fool on his way to the altar, and there was something to be said for that.
Still, Judah wondered if he heard an empty echo in his bravado. And his broken heart drove him onto the range, riding hellbent to nowhere.