Erin De Laney came to Mystic Creek hoping that the slower pace might rekindle her enthusiasm for law enforcement. Instead she feels as frustrated as she did in the city and when her disillusionment with the job increases, she takes a position on her uncle's ranch.
Her life has enough complications without her attraction to handsome, deaf cowboy, Wyatt Fitzgerald, the foreman on the ranch. Wyatt has sworn off dating, and Erin fears that nothing she does will ever change his mind. Yet while working with an abused horse under Wyatt's guidance, Erin comes to better understand herself. She also learns that love can heal almost anything.
Wyatt yearns to take Erin into his arms, but he's hesitant to pursue a romantic relationship. When their work sends them out alone together into a wilderness area, Wyatt is even more determined to hold Erin at arm's length.
But out of their time alone together on the mountain blossoms a chance for a once-in-a-lifetime love if only he's willing to give her his heart and make her his.
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Erin De Laney's hands were already shaking when her old Honda decided to get a bad case of mechanical indigestion. Just as she maneuvered the car around a sharp curve, it belched like a locomotive suddenly out of steam, lurched three times, and stopped on the gravel road with a shudder. The ensuing silence was punctuated by popping sounds from the cooling engine. She released a pent-up breath and let her shoulders go limp against the back of the driver's seat. A local mechanic had warned her the Honda's fuel pump was about to cock up its toes, but she'd taken a gamble that it would keep working until payday. Since Lady Luck had never been her friend, she was tempted to thump herself on the head. Now, here she sat, miles from home, in a vehicle that wouldn't move until a tow truck transported it into town.
Erin gazed out the dusty windshield dappled with afternoon sunlight that slanted through the needle-laden boughs of countless ponderosa pines. At least she would have a pleasing view while she waited for help. She loved her new hometown of Mystic Creek, Oregon, and the beautiful, mountainous terrain that surrounded the small valley where it rested. No matter where she was, she could find something lovely to admire. Unfortunately, that was the only plus in her otherwise dead-end life. Maybe Mary Poppins or Pollyanna would look on the bright side, but Erin's inner sunshine had blinked out.
Normally she didn't embrace gloomy thoughts, but having just attended her uncle Slade's wedding and witnessing so much love and hard-won happiness, she felt depression riding her shoulders like an oxbow. True love, a reason for being. She was glad that her uncle had finally found that. In fact, she was pleased for everyone involved that all had come right for Slade and his new wife, Vickie, in the end. But seeing so many faces aglow with joy had filled her with yearning for a taste of the same, and it was such an unlikely scenario that it made her feel empty and alone. She hated her job as a county deputy. Her social life consisted mostly of chatting with old ladies about their cats. She couldn't get a guy to give her a second look. She wasn't even sure anyone gave her a first look. And now her only form of transportation had petered out on her. Where in all of that was a silver lining?
She drew her cell phone from the pocket of her floral-pattern skirt to call for a tow truck, but before she dialed, it struck her that she should probably at least get out and lift the hood of her car. Otherwise she'd look like a helpless female, and that wasn't and never would be her MO. Other wedding guests would be traveling this road soon as they drove back to town. It was one thing for Erin to know she was pathetic; it was quite another to allow herself to look pathetic.
After releasing her seat belt and gathering the folds of her skirt, she pushed open the driver's door and stepped onto the gravel road. Sharp-edged rocks rolled under the soles of her pink heels, reminding her of how sore her feet were from wearing impractical footwear on a lumpy lawn all afternoon. Given her druthers, she chose to wear boots, county-issue riding boots when she was on duty and black commando boots when she wasn't. They never pinched her toes, and she didn't wobble like a tightrope walker when she wore them.
Tottering and wincing, she circled the front bumper of her car and popped up the hood. One thing her father had never insisted that she learn was how to do mechanic work. She peered into the greasy abyss and acknowledged that she recognized three things: the battery, the oil cap, and the windshield-cleaner reservoir. The unpleasant smell of gasoline wafted to her nose, verifying that the fuel pump had indeed malfunctioned. She deserved a gold star just for figuring out that much. Automobiles mystified her. Half the time, she wasn't sure what a warning light meant.
She wanted a life partner, not just someone to cheer her on when her confidence flagged, but a companion to watch movies with, dine out with her, and believe in her. She was lonely, damn it. Oh, sure, she had her best friend, Julie Price, to keep her company, but that was different. And, of course, she had Uncle Slade, who loved her dearly and was always there if she needed him. With his marriage to his lifelong sweetheart today, Erin had accumulated a heap of new relatives as well: her first cousin, Brody; his wife, Marissa; and their three sons, plus a gaggle of cousins and second cousins by marriage. Raised as an only child by parents who didn't socialize much with relatives, Erin appreciated having extended family for the first time in her memory. But having friends and relations wasn't the same as having one special person she could call her own.
Just then, she heard the rumble of a diesel engine. She quickly got a little grease on her hands so it would appear that she'd been tinkering with the engine. Then she straightened and peered around the uplifted hood. When she saw a late-model, silver Dodge pickup, she almost groaned. Not Wyatt Fitzgerald. Please, God, not now. Only it was Wyatt, of course. After being the recipient of his disdain all afternoon, she wanted to grind her teeth.
The driver's door opened. His dog, Domino, leaped out and raced toward Erin. A beautiful border collie mix, he had long, silky black fur splashed with white.
"Hello, sweet boy." Erin didn't want to pet him with greasy hands, but Domino reared up, planted his paws on her chest, and bathed her chin with doggy kisses, which gave her no choice. "Yes, I'm glad to see you, too."
She wished she could say the same for his owner, who strode toward her with a well-oiled shift of his narrow hips. She had just seen Wyatt a few minutes ago at the reception, and there was no reason for her to drink in every detail of his appearance again, but he'd changed out of a Western-cut suit into work clothes, and he looked as sexy as a guy could get. Tall, well-muscled, and lean, he had the broad shoulders and deep chest of a man who pitted his strength against the elements every day. Beneath his tan Stetson, hair the color of an August wheat field fell as straight as a bullet to the yoke of his red shirt. His eyes, as blue as laser beams, struck a startling contrast to his sun-burnished face.
She forced her attention back to the dog before Wyatt could chastise him for jumping up and said, "It's been at least twenty minutes since we saw each other, which is seven times longer for a dog than it is for people, so I understand his excitement. Please don't scold him."
The last person Wyatt Fitzgerald wanted to see was Erin De Laney. For a man like him, she meant nothing but trouble. For starters, she was pretty, with her wealth of dark hair, dainty features, and expressive blue eyes. And she obviously felt as attracted to him as he was to her. Not happening. He'd sworn off women six years ago, and that was one promise to himself that he meant to keep. He'd be especially cautious with Erin, a county deputy. If he messed up with her, she wouldn't have to call the law on him; she was the law.
"Most people try to coast over to the side of the road when their cars break down," he called out. "When I came around that curve, I had to lock up the brakes to keep from turning that car into a Honda pancake."
She continued to pet his ill-mannered dog. "You're assuming that all cars continue to roll after the engine dies. My Honda did a three-count burp and stopped dead in its tracks."
"You should have recognized trouble with the first burp and steered toward the ditch on burps two and three. A stalled car in the middle of a curvy road is a hazard."
She gave him a syrupy-sweet smile that didn't reach her beautiful blue eyes. "How remiss of me. I'm sure you would have kept a much clearer head if you'd been behind the wheel. Unfortunately, not all of us are superior beings."
Wyatt knew he was being a jerk, but he had no experience with women who had romantic notions about him. He didn't know how to discourage Erin and be nice to her at the same time. So he was being a jackass. That worked. She didn't flirt with him when she was pissed off.
He shifted his attention to his dog, who was not aiding his cause. For reasons beyond him, Domino had fallen in love with Erin at first sight last September and remained besotted ever since. "Domino, off!" Wyatt ordered, disregarding Erin's plea for leniency. It wasn't her dog, and Wyatt didn't want Domino to develop bad manners. "Off, I said!"
Erin dimpled a cheek and said, "He's fine, Wyatt." Then she resumed ruffling the animal's fur. "Yes, you're wonderful," she told the dog. "It's good to know that at least somebody likes me."
Reading her lips to determine each word she uttered, Wyatt found himself wishing he could hear the intonations of her voice. Why, he didn't know, because he felt sure every syllable dripped with sarcasm. During the wedding reception, she'd attempted to chat with him, and he'd shut her down. So now she was all butt-hurt about it. A part of him felt bad about that, but he couldn't afford concern over her. For him, holding her at arm's length was a matter of self-preservation. Today, he found her even more tempting than usual. The silky blouse and flowery skirt displayed her body in a way that a shirt and trousers didn't, making him acutely aware of her physically. Not a good thing. Because of this woman, he'd recently awakened in the middle of the night from the first wet dream he'd had in at least fifteen years. Talk about embarrassing. He'd been surrounded by other men in the bunkhouse, and when he woke up, every other guy in the room had been sitting straight up in bed. Now, whenever Wyatt thought about that night, his stomach felt as if it shriveled up like a rotten walnut. Dear God. In his dream, he'd been making love to Erin, no holds barred. And although he hadn't asked, he knew all the other men had guessed what was going on. Just our foreman, getting his rocks off. Poor, deaf bastard.
"What?" Erin demanded. "You're glaring at me like I just popped your last birthday balloon."
He hadn't meant to scowl at her. Trying to smooth the wrinkles from his brow, he curved his lips in what he hoped resembled a smile. It wasn't that he disliked Erin. Far from it. She just resurrected yearnings and feelings that he couldn't allow himself to have. He wished he knew how to distance himself from her without making her feel rejected. Only how could a guy do that? He guessed he could explain, but in order to do that, he'd have to tell her things about himself she had no need to know. His checkered past was his business and only his business.
Deciding to ignore her comment, he said, "What seems to be the issue with the car?"
She gave Domino a final pat and gently pushed him down. "The fuel pump bit the dust." She held up greasy hands. "There's nothing for it but to get a new pump. That means my car will be at the repair shop for a few days."
Wyatt dragged his gaze from her full lips to the exposed engine. He'd never met a woman with so many talents. He wasn't really surprised to learn that they included shade-tree mechanics. She could make a guy feel inadequate without half trying. "Any way to jerry-rig it so you can make it into town?"
She shook her head. "Nope. Replacing the pump is my only option. I was about to call for a tow truck."
Wyatt's boss, Slade Wilder, was Erin's uncle, so Wyatt knew she didn't make much money as a junior deputy. Towing services didn't come cheap, and the expense would put a dent in her budget. "No coverage for roadside services, I take it."
"I canceled it last month. Doesn't that figure? I paid the premiums for fifteen years and never needed to use it. Then, right after I drop the coverage, bang. Call it bad karma, I guess."
Wyatt preferred to think of it as plain old bad luck, at least for him. She needed help, and he was elected. His pickup was capable of towing her car into town, and he couldn't in good conscience allow her to call for assistance she couldn't afford when he was already on-site.
"I can tow it in for you."
She shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, but I don't want to bother you."
She bothered him more than she could possibly know. "I carry everything I ever need in my toolbox, including a heavy tow chain. Unfortunately, I don't have a tow bar, but that only means you'll have to steer the vehicle and tap the brake when necessary so you don't rear-end me. Think you can do that?"
She folded her arms at her waist. And a very slender waist it was. When she wore a uniform, which was most of the time, her attractive figure was buried under loose-fitting clothing, and her waistline was bulked up by a belt loaded with cop paraphernalia. Today, dressed in feminine attire suitable for a backyard wedding and reception, she looked good enough to make a man's mouth go dry. And that was his whole problem with her. He couldn't be around her without wanting to taste that kissable mouth of hers-and other parts of her as well.
"I can do that, yes. But, like I just said, I don't want to be a bother." She rested a slender hand on Domino's head, her fingertips absently stroking his silken fur.
"No bother. I'm making a grocery run for the bunkhouse, so I'm going into town anyway. I'll drop your car off at the Timing Light and then give you a lift home."
"It's Sunday," she said. "Buck won't be there."
"He has a drop box for car keys. You can just lock up the Honda, drop your keys through the slot, and then give him a call in the morning to get an estimate."
"An estimate won't be necessary. That's the only auto repair shop in town. Taking the car into Crystal Falls for competitive bids would cost so much that any money I saved would be wiped out by towing fees."