Hiring Cynthia to run the newly restored Coulter Lodge was a stroke of pure genius. The petite blonde hotel manager had the hands-on expertise Zach needed. But the bachelor rancher was finding it hard keeping his hands off her. Someday soon, Cynthia was going to give up and give in to the powerful passion zinging between them. He'd bet the ranch on it .
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Indian Springs, Montana
A week later, Zach stepped out of the Billings, Montana airport terminal at just after 1:00 p.m. and was welcomed by warm spring weather.
Normally he enjoyed the adventure of travel, but for once he was damn glad to have solid ground under his feet. Swinging his loaded duffel bag over his shoulder, he raised a hand to hail a taxi.
He left the lot at Haagensen's Auto Rentals driving a new pickup truck an hour later, the leasing documents tossed on the passenger seat beside him as he headed north toward Indian Springs and the Triple C Ranch, where he'd grown up. He hadn't been in eastern Montana for thirteen yearsnot since he and his brothers, Cade, Brodie and Eli had left the Triple C the day after Eli, the youngest, graduated from high school. They'd all sworn they'd never come back, and Zach had mixed feelings about returning even now. But Cade had said he needed him and his brother rarely asked for anything.
In fact, Zach thought as he slipped sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, he couldn't remember the last time Cade had asked him for a favor.
He made good time, even making a quick stop for a much-needed cup of coffee. When he was fifty miles south of Indian Springs, his cell phone rang. A quick glance at caller ID made him smile.
"Yo, Cade, what's up?"
"Zach, glad I reached you. Where are you?"
"About fifty miles out. I should be there in less than an hour."
"Can you stop at Ned Anderson's law office in town first?" Cade asked. "He has documents for you and the keys to the Lodge."
"Can I see him tomorrow? I'd rather come straight to the Triple C."
"You couldbut it would be better if you talked to Ned first."
"All right. But you owe me, and as soon as I sleep for about forty-eight hours and can function again, I'm collecting."
Cade's deep chuckle sounded over the connection. "Just as long as it's food or a bed, you've got it. Anything else and you might be out of luck."
"Works for me. See you in a couple of hours."
Zach disconnected before he remembered he hadn't asked Cade why he wanted the lodge keys picked up. And why Cade hadn't collected them himself.
Oh, well, he thought with a mental shrug. I'll see the attorney, then head out to the ranch. Then I'll find a bed and sleep until tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.
He rubbed his eyes; the inside of his lids felt as if they'd been sifted with sand. He'd lost track of time somewhere during the endless round of waiting for trains and planes, and he couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd slept more than a couple of consecutive hours. Weariness dragged at him.
He rolled his shoulders, picked up his coffee and swallowed the barely drinkable brew. Caffeine had kept him going this far, he reflected. It would have to do for a few hours more.
He reached the outskirts of Indian Springs and within minutes was driving down Main Street in the center of the small town. He scanned the businesses, locating the attorney's sign halfway down a block, and angled his truck into a parking spot.
He yawned, scrubbed a palm over his face and stepped out of the pickup and onto the curb before he stopped abruptly, riveted by the sight of the petite blonde standing a few yards away with her back to him. Tired though he was, testosterone fired off rockets, sending adrenaline racing through his bloodstream and erasing his weariness as if it had never existed.
He was so focused on the gleam of sunlight in silky blond hair and the slim, curved body in snug jeans and red sweater that he paid little attention to the man she was talking to.
But then the pretty blonde moved to walk on and the older man shifted to stop her.
Her shoulders moved in a faint shudder before she lifted her head, her body tense.
Oh, hell, no. A surge of protectiveness had Zach stepping forward as he heard the woman's clear feminine voice ask the man to step aside.
Cynthia Deacon left the small but well-stocked department store on Main Street and stepped out into the warm afternoon sunshine. A shopping bag holding a new pair of crimson lace bikini panties dangled from the fingers of one hand.
Slipping sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose, she strolled down the sidewalk. The weather was warm for a May afternoon in northeast Montana. The old-timers in town were predicting an early summer with temperatures hotter than usual.
Indulging in window shopping was a rare luxury for Cynthia. Until three weeks ago, her daily routine meant long hours on the job managing high-end hotels around the world and most recently, that meant a posh hotel in Palm Springs, California. She'd resigned abruptly, however, when her boss made it clear he expected her duties to include sexual favors.
She had no regrets that she'd stood up for her principles. Being unemployed, however, was shockingly outside her comfort zone. She'd worked nearly nonstop since she was sixteenpart-time during high school and while studying at Harvard, and full-time thereafter. She'd spent the day after resigning sending out resumes and calling or emailing her business connections to let them know she was looking for a new position. Then she'd packed her bags, moved out of her rooms at the hotel and driven north from Palm Springs to her childhood home in Montana. She'd been putting off dealing with her great-uncle's estate for several months and her unexpected free time seemed the perfect opportunity to do so.
Today, though, she refused to worry about being unemployed. Instead, she embraced the novelty of leisurely shopping and dawdling along Main Street in the small ranching community where she'd grown up.
She stopped and pulled off her sunglasses to look more closely at a window display just as the throaty growl of a powerful engine broke the sleepy afternoon quiet. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a black pickup truck nose into a parking spot behind her. The vehicle's tinted windows prevented her from seeing the driver clearly and she turned back to the boots displayed in the store window.
She'd been considering buying the pair of turquoise-and-black Tony Lama cowboy boots for the past week. Being temporarily unemployed, she knew she should stay on a budget, but the boots were seriously gorgeous. She could almost hear them whisper her name, calling to her each time she walked past the window.
A quick burst of loud music startled her and she glanced sideways down the sidewalk to her left. A beefy, middle-aged man in jeans and a cowboy hat exited the open door of Slocums Bar and walked toward her. Behind him, the heavy door swung shut, cutting off the music and crowd noise.
Cynthia registered the swift interest and smile on the man's face before she turned back to the window, hoping he'd take the not-so-subtle hint and walk on by.
"Well, hello there."
Cynthia nearly groaned aloud at the suggestive note in the male voice. She didn't turn around, although experience told her it was unlikely he'd leave her alone.
"Didn't you hear me?" The voice was closer. A hand cupped her shoulder.
With a practiced move, Cynthia slipped from beneath his touch and turned to face him.
"I beg your pardon," she said with cool precision. "You must have mistaken me for someone you actually know."
She didn't recognize the man but the interest gleaming in his brown eyes was all too familiar.
"But I'd like to get to know you. You're the prettiest thing I've seen in a long time." His gaze swept over her, lingering on her breasts. His smile widened, creasing his florid face. "Let me buy you a drink," he said, his voice heavy with innuendo. "We'll get acquainted."
"Sadly," she said, her voice icy enough to chill, "I'm afraid I have to turn you down."
"Aw, come on, honey," he coaxed. "You'll like me if you spend a little time with me."
Cynthia moved to step around him.
He shifted sideways, blocking her.
"Let me pass," she said tightly, ruthlessly holding down a wave of panic. She hated the feeling, hated being unable to control it, especially since she knew on a rational level that it was unlikely the man was a serious threat. Not on Main Street in broad daylight. At the end of the block, two young mothers strolled, three little boys bouncing along beside them down the sidewalk. Despite knowing she wasn't alone on the street with the man, Cynthia couldn't stop the instant shudder that shook her.
"The lady said step aside." A different deep male voice held cold authority.
The man's face tightened into a belligerent scowl as his gaze moved past her. Whatever he saw made his eyes widen, as the ruddy color leached out of his face and he immediately took a step back.
Cynthia drew a deep breath and fought for control. She half turned to look over her shoulder and felt her own eyes widen as she caught her breath at the sight of the man standing a few feet behind her.
He was over six feet tall with broad shoulders and long legs. Beard stubble shadowed his jaw and his coal-black hair looked several weeks overdue for a haircut. The hard angles of his face were set in implacable lines and beneath the slash of dark eyebrows, his grass-green eyes were narrowed and focused on the other man in a menacing stare. He wore a scarred brown leather bomber jacket that hung open over a black T-shirt and faded jeans with scuffed black cowboy boots. The jeans had apparently seen so many washings that they were faded white at stress points, the soft worn denim stretched over the powerful muscles of his thighs.
He looked as if he'd ridden straight in off the range, packing a six-gun and looking for trouble, Cynthia thought with disbelief. There was something vaguely familiar about him but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.
That deep, cold voice prompted the other man. "I think it's time you moved on."
"Uh, yeah." The shorter man touched his hat with a quick nod at Cynthia and turned on his heel to hurry off down the sidewalk.
"Are you all right?" The stranger turned his gaze on her and Cynthia was transfixed.
Dangerous, she thought. This gorgeous male could be seriously dangerous.
"I'm fine," she assured him, gathering her wits. "He was annoying but I don't think he would have actually hurt me."
The stranger smiled, white teeth flashing in his tanned face, turning him from lethal to the poster boy for male charm.
"I certainly hope not," he drawled. "Unless Indian Springs has changed drastically, women don't normally have to worry about being assaulted on Main Street." He cocked his head to the side and eyed her with interest. "It's been a long time since I lived here, but I don't ever remember anyone in town as pretty as you."
Cynthia laughed, amusement bubbling at his obvious line. "I grew up here," she told him. She was immensely relieved to find she was comfortable with his flirting. Lots of men had flirted with her over the years and she usually enjoyed the fencing with words that ensued. It wasn't until someone stepped into her personal space and wouldn't accept a refusal, as the older man had earlier, that she lost her composure and felt threatened.
"Not possible," he promptly denied. "I would have remembered you. I have an infallible memory for beautiful women."
"And I bet you've known a lot of them," she shot back, smiling when he winced and grinned at her.
His eyes twinkled, only slightly easing the heat in his green gaze.
Cynthia hadn't felt this attracted to a man in well, she realized, never. Though he was clearly a heart-breaker, he was undeniably charming and just as clearly, interested in her.
"I'm Zach Coulter," he said.
Her eyes widened and her breath caught. Of course you are, she thought. I should have realized the moment I saw you. All the Coulter boys had coal-black hair, green eyes and lady-killer charm. It was part of what made them so unforgettable.
She was five years younger than Zach, and he'd graduated from high school while she was still in junior high. Cynthia wasn't surprised that he didn't remember her because she'd simply been too young for him to notice. But she suspected most females who saw the Coulter brothers before they left town hadn't forgotten themand that included her.
"And you are ?" he prompted with the lift of a brow.
"Cynthia Deacon." She held out her hand and felt it immediately enclosed in hard masculine warmth. His grip was firm, the surface of his palm and fingers faintly rough with calluses.
"Cynthia." He repeated her name slowly, as if savoring the sound of it on his lips. Then his mouth curved upward in a small, wholly male smile. "It's nice to meet you."
"Likewise," she told him, tugging gently to free her fingers. "I'm sorry about your father. I'd heard your oldest brother was back at the Triple C, but the local grapevine said he was the only Coulter who'd returned."
"He was until today." Zach nodded briefly in confirmation. "I just got in."
"From where?" Cynthia knew her question was impolite but curiosity overrode good manners.
She felt her eyes widen again. "Nepal? What on earth were you doing there?"
His eyes laughed at her as his white teeth flashed in a grin. "I was climbing Mount Everest."
"Seriously?" Nonplussed, she stared at him, speechless. "I think you're the first person I've ever met who even attempted that. Did you reach the top?"
"Summit," he corrected her. "And yes, we did."
"What was it like?" She stared at him, wondering what drove a man to climb mountains covered in snow and ice.
"Cold," he told her gravely. "Really cold."
Startled, she laughed out loud. Amusement lit his features and laugh lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes.
"What? You don't believe me?" he asked mildly.
"Oh, I believe you," she said hastily. "I just can't believe that's the first thing that comes to mind when you've climbed a mountain most people only dream of attempting."
He shrugged, broad shoulders shifting beneath the leather jacket.
"It was awe inspiring." The teasing quality was gone from his voice. "Like standing on top of the world."