Authors: Jan Bowles
Feeling suitably chastised, she nodded and sipped obediently from the bottle. The white shirt he wore fluttered in the breeze as he stared at her. He looked so manly in his jeans and black cowboy hat—so incredibly powerful, masculine, and strong. Feeling a little intimidated, she turned away from his striking blue gaze. He simply excited the hell out of her.
After a few minutes, he said matter-of-factly, “We need to get you back to the ranch. Let’s see if you can stand.”
When she stood, her legs gave way and she fell into his arms as the dizziness returned. “I’ll be all right in a minute.”
“No. You’ll have to ride with me. If you refuse to eat and drink properly, this is the result.” He sounded irritated as he untied her horse and tethered it to his own.
“Is it absolutely necessary?”
“It is. If you pass out on the way back, at least you won’t fall off and hurt yourself.” He scooped her effortlessly into his arms and placed her on the horse. Within seconds, he mounted behind her and wrapped one arm securely around her waist. When he leaned forward and took the reins, his hard body pressed against hers. Over the last few days, he’d dominated her every waking thought. He’d even dominated her dreams. She reveled in his male musky scent as he turned the horse and headed back to the ranch.
“What’s that place called?” she asked as she leaned back against his torso.
“Cold Creek Crossing.”
“I like it there. I’ve gone there every day since I arrived.”
He wrapped her more firmly in his arms and rested his chin on top of her head. “Yes, it’s one of my favorite places on the ranch, but there are others, too. We’ll have to go for another ride and I can show you them before you leave.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Their relationship seemed to have shifted slightly. For the first time, she felt that Keaton might actually care for her. Well, at least her health and safety. As he held her in his arms, she felt secure, and she leaned against his muscular torso, enjoying the way his body touched hers from her shoulder blades down to her thighs. It was a perfect fit.
He guided the stallion back along the track that would eventually lead to the ranch house. The ground was parched, with just the occasional brush and bush breaking the monotony. Tumbleweed rolled past in the warm breeze that blew into their faces.
“So how come you got into financial difficulty with your house?”
She sighed. If he wanted to know the details, then she’d tell him. “I had a long-term relationship with a city banker. Last year, he decided that I focused too much on my own career and left.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It was my own fault really. I spent too much time on my job and not enough time with him. After he left, I started having difficulty with the payments.”
“So he didn’t help?”
“No. He knew how much I loved that house. I think it was payback time for all the missed dinners and late phone calls.”
“So, in the space of a year, you’ve lost everything.”
“Yes, thanks for reminding me, Keaton. When I leave, I won’t have anything. Not even my self-respect. Perhaps you could lend me the bus fare out of here.”
“As bad as that?”
“Yes, as bad as that.” Her mind focused on her sister, and anger seethed inside her. Her head hurt even more as she tried to figure it all out. It seemed impossible to comprehend that she’d lost everything. Teardrops fell from her eyes, running down her cheeks to converge around her mouth. There was no way she’d let him know she was crying, so she stopped herself from wiping them away.
It seemed to be getting hotter, and she struggled for breath. The dizziness returned, and as if in slow motion, she felt herself falling, falling. She just hoped it would be a soft landing.
* * * *
Without warning, she slumped forwards, and her head touched the neck of their mount, Apollo. Luckily, Keaton had a firm grip around her waist. He pulled her back against him. Holding her in his arms, he removed her hat and looked down into her face. Tears stained her cheeks, yet he hadn’t known she was crying. He guessed she’d deliberately kept it from him. Obviously she didn’t want his sympathy. Or maybe she thought he had none to give.
He withdrew his cell phone from his jeans and made a call.
“Helena, it’s Keaton. You’d better get the doctor. Maddie is suffering from heat exhaustion.”
“I’ll get him straight away, sir.”
“We’ll be back in ten minutes.”
He returned the cell phone to his pocket, and urged Apollo into a canter.
Something didn’t sit right with him. Why had Maddie jeopardized a career she so obviously loved? She’d been so dedicated, too. She’d even lost her partner over it. However, she’d told him she really loved her house. Maybe that had caused her to turn to crime. He supposed she’d do anything to keep up the payments. He shook his head. No, there was more to this than he first realized. He would make a point of getting to the bottom of it. When she felt better, he’d find out a little more about her sister, Simone.
* * * *
The rest of the evening was just a blur. She’d been vaguely aware of Keaton carrying her up to her bedroom, and then the doctor had arrived. He’d prescribed bed rest and plenty of fluids.
Later, she had wondered if Keaton would still expect her in his room, but Helena, his housekeeper, had brought word with a hot cocoa that he would see her at breakfast the next day.
She realized that Keaton Rivers was firm but fair, and that he’d looked after her. He was reading his newspaper as she eased herself into the dining chair the next morning.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Much.” He was staring at her empty cereal bowl, and she knew he was watching to see if she would eat something. This time she had learned her lesson. If she was going to get her revenge on Simone, she needed to be fit and healthy.
Leaning forward, she picked up a container of cereal and loaded her bowl with it.
Keaton folded his newspaper and relaxed back against his chair. She guessed he’d half expected her to still put up a fight.
“Thank you for being so understanding yesterday.” She poured on milk and began eating. “I’ve learned my lesson. If I don’t eat and keep from wallowing in self-pity, I might not be fit enough to seek out my sister and give her a good hiding.”
He nodded and smiled. “Good. I’ve read some interesting articles about your sister, Simone.”
Maddie’s attention sharpened, and she lifted her head to look at him. “Is there something in the newspaper about her?”
He shook his head. “No news of her today.” She relaxed slightly, and Keaton continued, “I just wondered if any of the rumors about her were true.”
Maddie spooned some cereal to her mouth. “Which ones? There’s been plenty of stories circulating.”
He drummed his fingers on the table as he stared intently at her. “The wild parties, for one?”
“True.” Why should she lie? Simone was the last person she wanted to protect.
“And what about the drugs? Was there any truth in that?”
Maddie nodded, a cynical smile pinned to her lips. “Absolutely true.” She pointed the spoon at him. “What you have to realize is, Simone is completely out of control. She’s spoiled and has an ego the size of Texas. When she fell in with the wrong crowd…” She thought for a moment. “In this case, the wrong crowd was not some low-lives from the rough end of town, but highly respectable professional people who indulged in, shall we say, recreational cocaine. Amongst other illegal narcotics.”
“Figures. So did she have enough money to fund this extravagant lifestyle?”
“At first she did, but when she didn’t turn up for castings and major bookings, the work dried up. She still might be famous, but it’s more for what she does outside the modeling industry now.”
He stared at her. His blue gaze held her entranced. “And did she ask you for money? Is that why you couldn’t keep up with the payments on your house?”
“Partly. At first I wanted to help out, at least to see if I could get her into rehab. It did work, but the people she became involved with sought her out.” She shrugged. “I guess the rest is history. So, yes, when I put my house up for sale, she had a big part to play.”
“Now I can see exactly what drove you to steal the money.” His lips compressed together, and she had the distinct feeling that he was annoyed with her. He now had the perfect reason why she’d stolen the money. He rose from the table. “I said yesterday that I would be going shooting. A little target practice first. Would you like to come?”
If she turned him down, she might never be asked again, and rattling around the ranch all day on her own was a lonely experience. Maddie had always been more of a social animal.
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
“Can you shoot?”
She shook her head. “I know nothing about guns.”
“Good, then I will enjoy teaching you the correct way. I’ll be leaving in,” he looked at his watch, “a half hour.” With that, he left the room.
Maddie wondered if she had done the right thing by accepting his invitation, then shrugged her shoulders. What did it matter? Surely, he wouldn’t have asked her if he didn’t want her to come. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that he had something more to say.
* * * *
Keaton watched as Maddie emerged from the ranch wearing jeans and a multicolored chiffon blouse. She looked much better than she had yesterday.
He remembered what he had learned this morning about her sister, Simone. Why would a sister be so selfish? And why hadn’t Maddie told him the whole truth? Well, later on he would enjoy getting to the very bottom of this sorry mess.
He opened the passenger door to the black Mustang and she slid inside, revealing the swell of her ample cleavage as she leaned forward.
Yes, tonight he would get to sample everything that Maddie had to offer. He’d make it a night to remember in more ways than one. There was something in particular that he wanted to show her, something that he would enjoy surprising her with.
He must have been smiling as he settled into the seat next to hers, because she commented, “You seem in good spirits.”
He turned to her, focusing on her pale green eyes. “I am. I’ve just discovered something rather interesting.”
“Hmm.” If he wasn’t careful he’d let the cat out of the bag and ruin the surprise element. He gunned the car into life, reveling in the heady offbeat sound of the V8. “I’ve just shed some new light on a business agreement, Maddie. That’s all.”
He drove for several minutes down the dusty dirt track, all the while aware of the woman sitting next to him. Occasionally, he caught a whiff of her perfume, reminding him how incredibly feminine and soft she was.
Eventually, they reached his private shooting range and parked the car. He stilled the engine, and then turned to Maddie. “Now, we’ll be firing live bullets, so you need to follow everything I say to the letter. Understand?”
Her eyes looked huge, and he knew the idea of live rounds scared her.
“Perhaps it’s best if I just watch.”
“Maybe. We’ll see. There’s no reason to worry if you follow everything I say.” He stroked a hand into her hair and tucked a few stray tendrils behind her ear. He noted with some satisfaction that she accepted his touch without surprise or by pulling away. Maddie was clearly warming to the way he worked. And because she was neither submissive nor combative once out of the bedroom, he realized he was warming to her, too.