Now Jared would need more than his surefire charm and seductive smile. For this woman and their son were priceless. And this Dakota daddy would stop at nothing to make them his own.
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That old saying about a woman scorned was too damn true, Jared Dalton thought.
He thought back to when he'd first learned that old man Sorenson had died and that Megan had no apparent interest in keeping the family ranch. Jared assumed he could buy it easily. To his surprise, the minute Megan had learned who intended to buy the ranch, she'd withdrawn it from the market. Now he was here to get her to sell.
With a disturbing skip in his heartbeat that overrode a simmering anger, he saw Megan emerge from the Sorenson barn, carrying a saddle to the corral. She was too far away for him to see if her looks had changed. Her red shirt was as noticeable as her long-legged, sexy walk, which still revealed the years she had studied dance before she'd left for college. Her black hair was in a thick braid that lay on her back. Setting the saddle and blanket on the fence, she turned to the approaching horses to give each a treat. Within minutes she had saddled and mounted a sorrel.
The sight of her brought back too many hurtful memories. Vengeance was sweet. He just wished her father had lived to be part of the intended payback.
Jared intended to encounter her out on the ranch, where she would have to talk to him. He'd spent the night in a comfortable log guesthouse on her ranch without her knowledge in order to watch for her this morning. Before dawn he had dressed in jeans, a blue Western shirt and a wide-brimmed black Stetson.
Now he went to the barn to saddle a bay to follow her without haste.
The vast, grassy land made it easy to see in all directions except along the river, where trees could hide a rider from view. He knew he could catch her when she stopped at the river to let her horse drink. Until then, he didn't want to alert her that he was trailing behind. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a glance at gathering clouds told him rain seemed imminent.
As soon as she reached the line of trees, she vanished from view. Watching, he could remember meeting her at the riverand their steamy kisses. Since their split, he rarely thought of her without bitter feelings surfacing.
Unwanted memories enveloped him. He had known her all his life. Even as their dads battled over water, he'd paid no attention to her because she had been six years youngerthe skinny little kid on the neighboring ranch. The first time he'd ever noticed her was when he was getting his master's degree and she'd entered his same university in Chicago.
Too clearly he could recall that initial encounter. Her black hair had cascaded in a cloud over her shoulders and her startling turquoise eyes sped his pulse. She filled out a white cotton blouse that tucked into the narrow waistband of a tan skirt. When she'd smiled broadly at him and said hello, he'd thought he was looking at a stranger. If a beautiful woman greeted him, however, he had no intention of not responding.
"You don't know me, do you, Jared?"
Surprised, he'd stared at her and frowned, trying to recollect. "Did you go to UT?" he asked, referring to the University of Texas, where he'd gotten his undergraduate degree.
She laughed and stuck her tongue out at him and he sucked in his breath. All her pink tongue had done was make him think about kissing her. He was getting turned on and he didn't have a clue how he knew her.
"Jared, for heaven's sake!" she said. He shook his head, touching a lock of her soft hair.
"Okay, I give. I can't believe I don't remember a gorgeous woman. Where have we known each other?"
"I'm Megan Sorenson," she'd said, laughing at him. He stared in astonishment, seeing it now in the turquoise eyes. But that was all. Gone was the skinny little kid, replaced by a luscious, curvaceous woman.
"You grew up," he said, and that sparked a fresh burst of laughter.
"I didn't know you're going to school here," she said. "I thought I'd heard you'd graduated."
"MBA," he said slowly. "Have dinner with me tonight."
She tilted her head to study him. "You know how our dads fight. You and I should keep a distance."
"C'mon, Megan. Their fight isn't our fight. I've never in my life had anything against you."
"Oh, liar, liar!" she accused with amusement again dancing in her eyes. "You thought I was a pest. You wouldn't even say hello if you saw me."
He felt his face flush. "I'll make it up to you. I promise to give you my full, undivided attention," he said, and saw a flicker in her eyes. The moment between them sizzled and his heart raced.
"Dinner it is," she said breathlessly.
"About seven," he'd replied. And from that moment on, he'd thought he was in love. He'd hoped to marry her. They'd talked about it and planned on it, and then that summer after her freshman year, when Megan had gone to Sioux Falls to stay with her aunt and uncle, Olga and Thomas Sorenson, her dad sent one of his hands to summon Jared.
The old man had run him off by threatening harm to Jared's dad. He'd always wondered how much Megan had known about what her father was doing. For over a year he'd hurt, pain turning to anger that had grown when she wouldn't answer his letters. It pleased him enormously to buy her ranch. This payback was long overdue, and again he wished he'd offered to buy the ranch when Edlund Sorenson had still been alive, just to watch the old man's face.
Most obstacles weren't insurmountable, he'd discovered. Not with the wealth he had accumulated. He didn't expect this one to be, either.
He heard her horse before he rode into a clearing at the river's edge, and then he saw her. His insides clenched. Longing, hot and intense, rocked him. He rarely spent time on regrets but briefly, the thought that he never should have left her tore at him. Surprised, he shook aside his uncharacteristic reaction as she whirled around.
Color drained from her face. Her eyes widened until they were enormous and she swayed, making him wonder if she were about to faint. "Jared!" she exclaimed, as if he were an apparition.
"Megan, I didn't intend to startle you." He dismounted, dropping to the ground.
She drew herself up. As abruptly as she had looked on the verge of fainting, she pulled herself together.
Jared's heartbeat quickened at the sight of her. "You're more beautiful than ever," he said, and cursed himself with his next breath. Anger flashed in her turquoise eyes, those crystal-clear blue-green eyes that were astonishing when he first looked at her.
"Why are you trespassing?" she asked, her composure obvious. He'd surely imagined her terrified reaction to the first sight of him. "This isn't your ranch, nor will it be. You get off my land."
"Whoa, give me a chance," he replied in amusement, reassessing changes in her. "Seven years was a long time ago."
"Not long enough. Your people were told this ranch is no longer on the market. I'm not selling. You'll never own this land." While thunder rumbled overhead, she withdrew a cell phone. "I don't know how you got one of my horses, but leave it where you found it and go. You're trespassing, and if you don't get off this ranch, I'm calling the sheriff."
"Don't be so emotional," Jared said, wishing he could unfasten her thick braid. "At least listen. You have nothing to lose."
Thunder boomed again, and she glanced skyward.
"I think, unless you don't mind getting soaked, you'll have to ride back to the barn with me," he added.
Without saying a word, she glared at him and then turned to mount her horse. Observing her tight jeans that pulled across an enticing bottom, Jared swung into the saddle as well, and waited for her to lead the way through the trees.
As the first large drops hit leaves overhead, they rode into the clearing. A jagged bolt of lightning flashed, and Jared knew they should get out of the open field and back to shelter.
He urged the bay he'd chosen, Jester, hoping she could keep up. Drops were coming faster by the time the barn loomed in sight.
As they galloped into the barn, the heavens opened. Jared dismounted, dropping to the ground while both horses shook their heads, sending drops flying.
To the accompaniment of the steady hiss of rain, they unsaddled and rubbed down the horses. Once the animals were in stalls, Megan strode to the open door and watched the rain.
"Probably a summer shower. It'll move on," Jared said, standing close enough to catch the scent of an exotic perfume, not the rose perfume she once wore. "Why don't you listen to my proposition? I know you don't intend to retire to the ranch."
"You don't know that," she said, glancing up at him with hostility simmering.
"So you are?" he probed, and saw another flash of anger, knowing he had been correct.
"I am not selling my ranch to you," she said slowly and clearly. He looked at her mouth, remembering their kisses. She'd been eighteen years old then. What would it be like to kiss her now? "Why do you even want it? There are other ranches."
"I have a bet with my cousins, Chase and Matt, to see which one of us can increase his net worth the most during the coming year."
"My ranch is to help you win a bet?" she asked, glowering at him.
"That shouldn't make any difference to you."
"One more thing that you want for your own purposes," she said in a clipped tone.
"Whoever buys the place will purchase it for his own purposes," Jared said.
"I don't see how acquiring my ranch can put you over the top," she observed.
"That alone won't. It'll be one of several projects," he answered easily.
"How'd you get here and where did you get my horse?" she asked.
"If I had called you, I didn't think you'd take an appointment to talk to me about the ranch, so I sent one of my lawyers, Trent Colgin," Jared answered, and she compressed her lips.
"I should have known," she said. She rushed to yank up a horse blanket. "I'm going to the house. It could rain all day, and I don't intend to stay here. You get off the ranch however you got on it. Don't spend another night here, or I truly will call the sheriff."
"You're going to get soaked."
"That's better than staying here with you," she said and turned to dash for the sprawling ranch house. Jared ran easily beside her, not caring if he got wet as long as he could try to convince her to listen to him. They rushed up the back steps and across the wrap-around porch. While she draped the dripping blanket over a rocking chair, he pushed his hat to the back of his head.
In spite of the blanket, her jacket was soaked in the front and she shed it to hang it on another chair. Her damp shirt clung, revealing lush breasts that stirred erotic memories of kissing her as he caressed her breasts.
As she started to turn away, he looked into her eyes and suspected she guessed what he was thinking. His gaze trailed leisurely over her. Her quick breaths made her breasts thrust out more. When he looked up again, sparks flashed between them.
Raising her chin defiantly, she placed her hands on her hips. "I'm not inviting you inside."
"Megan, listen to what I have to offer. You may be losing a huge fortune. One you could make easily by getting rid of something you don't want anyway. You're letting emotion get in your way."
"I know what I want," she said with a frown.
"Try to keep an open mind. Come to dinner at my house tonight and let's discuss the sale."
"In this weather? I think not, thanks," she said, shaking her head.
"According to the paper, this rain is supposed to stop before noon and it won't rain again until tomorrow afternoon. Now quit spiting yourself and come have dinner with me. Why don't we discuss a deal? You have nothing to lose."
"I won't sell to you at any price," she snapped as she yanked a key out of her pocket and put it into the door.
"Scared to eat with me?" he asked softly in a taunting voice.
Her head came up and she faced him with anger blazing in her eyes, making them look more green than blue. "I'm not the least bit afraid of you," she replied in a haughty tone. "All right. I'll come to dinner, but you should know you won't change my mind."
"I'll be there."
"You know the way," he said, and her cheeks turned a deeper pink. "See you then." He left for his cabin, fighting the urge to glance to see if she stood watching him. He hadn't heard any door slam, but then in the rain, he probably wouldn't have.* * *She was coming for dinner, so there was hope. When hadn't he been able to talk a woman into something he wanted? She was beautiful, more poised than she'd been as a teen. Then, she had been friendly and warm as a kitten. Now she was a hellcat. Despite her anger, her self-confidence showed. She was not the naive, starry-eyed eighteen-year-old he had fallen in love with years ago.
Anticipation bubbled in him. How long before he could seduce her? he wondered. He planned to keep a clear sight on his goal of acquiring her ranch, but this new Megan was an unbearable temptation.
He packed his few things and drove back to his ranch to make arrangements for dinner. As if nature were cooperating, the rain ended by noon and sunshine broke out with a magnificent rainbow arching in the sky.
When he caught some news on the television, he went to his office to make a phone call to his cousin.
The minute Chase Bennett answered, Jared could picture his green eyes and easy smile. "Hi, Jared here. Just caught you on the news about oil you've found in Montana."
"Hope to find," Chase corrected. "If it pans out like I expect, it's going to be a tidy discovery."
"A bonus that it's in your home state," Jared remarked dryly.
"Yeah, but I don't spend much time back on the ranch," Chase replied.
"I'll wager you think you're going to win our bet," Jared joked, rubbing his finger on his knee as he talked.