Authors: Sherryl Woods
Restless, it was probably inevitable that she would wander out to the barn. She swore it had nothing at all to do with Duke's presence out there. Everyone was there, after all. Not just the man who made her toes tingle and tempted her to forget every resolution she'd made about choosing more wisely the next time she fell in love.
She also swore that she wouldn't have gravitated directly toward him, if it hadn't been for Joshua and Zachary. They rushed over and each clasped a hand, drawing her straight toward their father.
“Tell her, Dad. Tell her about the horses you're gonna get us,” Joshua said, practically jumping up and down with excitement.
Dani met Duke's gaze and felt that increasingly familiar jolt of excitement, the unmistakable tug that would have had a less stubborn woman throwing herself into his arms. She was almost used to it now. At least, it no longer left her thoroughly tongue-tied.
“If you're thinking of getting them horses, I gather they've passed the pet test?” she said to him.
“It's been months now, and the cats are still alive,” he said dryly. “It's a small victory for responsibility.” He regarded her speculatively. “You know, I'm going to need some help with this one.”
“What kind of help?”
“Picking out the right horses, checking into their breeding, going over them to make sure they're sound. You're a vet. You'll be much better at that than I would be,” he said, then added a little too casually, “Think you could carve out a little time and go with me to a horse sale?”
Dani was flattered that he trusted her judgment, but going off to a horse sale with him meant spending time alone, just the two of them. She suspected from the gleam in his eyes that finding the best animals for his money wasn't the only thing on his mind.
For weeks now Duke had done nothing to alarm her. He hadn't even given her more than a chaste peck on the cheek. Still, she was smart enough to realize that the growing lust she was feeling wasn't entirely one-sided. A few hours cooped up in a car and who knew what ideas he might get.
Not that she didn't trust him, she told herself. It was herself she didn't trust. The very sensible reasons she'd had for resisting Duke were fading, lost in a haze of pure longing that was deepening over time.
She forced herself to try once more to beg off. “Duke, I'm more than happy to give you some pointers, but I'd hate to be responsible for the final decision. It's your money.”
“I'll be taken to the cleaners,” he insisted. “They'll see me coming a mile away.”
“Then take my father or Uncle Cody,” she said, unsuccessfully trying to fight the note of desperation that was creeping into her voice. “Heck, Grandpa Harlan would love to go. There's nothing he likes more than a good horse sale and a chance to do some bargaining.”
“I want your help,” he insisted.
The man could match any Adams she knew for pure cussedness, she concluded with a sigh. “Why me?” she asked.
“You aren't scared to spend the day with me, are you?” he retorted.
Her temper flared with predictable speed at the taunt. “Of course not.”
“You sure about that, darlin? You sound scared.”
“Oh, for heaven's sakes, when is this sale?”
It would be a long trip, but it could be done in a day, Dani reassured herself. They would be surrounded by hordes of people for most of that time. What could happen? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Not if she didn't allow it. Maybe it was time to put her resolutions to the test. She sighed.
“What time do you want to go?”
“I'll pick you up at five, so we'll have time to look the horses over before the sale starts.”
She studied his face intently. His expression was pure innocence, but there was a glint in his eyes that suggested he was gloating. After all, he had gotten his way. Again. Why shouldn't he gloat? She had the resistance of a limp noodle where he was concerned.
“Can we come, too?” Joshua pleaded.
As if he'd forgotten his sons' presence and the purpose of the trip to Fort Worth, Duke blinked and stared at Joshua for a full minute before shaking his head.
“No,” he said flatly.
“But, Dadâ¦” Zack protested.
“I said no,” Duke repeated.
“The horses are for us,” Zack argued.
“Yes, they are,” Dani agreed, siding with the boys for her own less than honorable purposes. “They should have some say.”
“Coward,” Duke murmured just for her ears.
Since she couldn't deny it, she pretended she hadn't even heard. “Well?” she said. “Can they come?”
“No, indeed, they can't go,” her grandfather said, stepping into the fray at the most inopportune moment possible. “I have plans for you two boys right here.”
“Butâ¦” Joshua began.
“No buts,” her grandfather said firmly. “No point in picking out horses, if you can't ride. While your daddy and Dani are off in Fort Worth, Cody and I will give you your first lessons.”
To Dani's dismay, both boys reacted with enthusiasm. So much for her salvation. This time when she met Duke's gaze, there was no mistaking the triumph. Since Maritza wasn't nearby to reproach her, she told him to go to hell, too.
He laughed. “Been there, darlin'. This time I'm aiming for heaven.”
t was pitch-dark outside, the kind of velvet blanket of darkness that made a person want to snuggle up next to a lover and light up the night with emotional fireworks.
Dani stood in the doorway, a cup of very strong coffee in her hands, and tried to dismiss from her thoughts the provocative image she'd just created. It was virtually impossible, especially since Duke seemed to be the lover crowded into that image with her.
It was barely four-thirty and she was already dressed and far too eager for their trip to Fort Worth. A dozen excuses for staying home had popped to the tip of her tongue since Thanksgiving, but she hadn't uttered a one of them. Either she was totally and unredeemably reckless or she was deluding herself about the power of the attraction between her and Duke.
When bright headlights cut through the darkness at the end of the block, her nerves kicked in. At this hour there was no question of it being anyone other than Duke. Since he was early, she could only assume
he was as anxious as she was about whatever lay ahead.
She already knew that he'd made arrangements to drop Josh and Zack off at White Pines the night before. For some reason the evidence of his eagerness seemed to calm her just a little. He was usually so confident, so blasted sure of himself. It was nice to see a little hint of vulnerability for a change.
As he pulled to a stop, she stood her ground, watching, waiting to see what note he would strike when he greeted her. Casual and easy? Provocative? Maybe daring?
Her pulse skittered crazily as she anticipated his lips settling on hers for what he meant to be a cool, friendly greeting. Both of them knew by now that no amount of control or caution could tame a real kiss between them. It was why he'd deliberately dusted the air by her cheek and forehead for weeks now. Even innocent kisses had a way of turning stunningly sexual in an instant.
“Hey, darlin', are you ready?” he called out without leaving the car.
Fighting a ridiculous sense of disappointment, she forced a smile. “I'll be right there. Would you like some coffee for the road?”
He held up a covered mug. “Already have it. There's another one here for you, along with a bag of doughnuts fresh from the oven. I threw myself on Sallie's mercy over at the bakery, and she slipped me a few out the back door.”
Dani had a hunch Sallie hadn't required much persuading. She was a sucker for a handsome face. Always had been, even though she'd been happily married to the same man for almost fifty years now.
Sallie was every bit as much of a flirt as Betty Lou. Every man in town knew they could sweet-talk her into tucking an extra doughnut in the bag every now and again.
Dani took one last look at the cats' lineup of bowls in the kitchen to make sure they were all full, then grabbed her jacket and purse and locked the front door behind her.
When she reached the car, Duke leaned across the front seat and opened the door for her.
“No overnight bag?” he inquired.
Her alarmed gaze flew to his, but she managed to keep her voice even. “We're coming back tonight,” she said firmly. “That was the plan.”
“Well, of course, it is,” he agreed at once. “But you know how unpredictable the weather can be this time of year. I've brought one. It never hurts to be prepared for plans to go awry.”
“Ours won't,” Dani stated grimly.
Duke grinned. “I'll be sure to pass along your conviction to the weatherman.”
She studied him through narrowed eyes. “Do you know something about the weather that I don't?” she asked, cursing herself for not checking out the eleven o'clock news the night before or the weather channel this morning. For all she knew a blizzard could be headed for Texas, and they were driving straight into it. If getting stranded suited Duke's purposes, she wondered if he would bother to mention an approaching storm.
“Maybe I ought to check the weather channel before we take off,” she said, reaching for the door handle.
“No need. They're just predicting a little rain around Fort Worth. It shouldn't be a problem,” he said blandly, pulling out of the driveway before Dani had a chance to evaluate whether the rain presented a real danger.
“Just rain?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Unless the temperature drops.”
She didn't like the way he was hedging or the way he was avoiding her gaze. “Maybe we should do this another time.”
“Darlin', they're just calling for a little rain,” he protested. “What's the worst that could happen? We'd have to stay overnight. We're both adults. That shouldn't be a problem, right?”
No, it shouldn't be, Dani agreed to herself. But it would be. She could feel it in her bonesâ¦and elsewhere.
“I don't knowâ” she began.
“Trust me, darlin', we'll be just fine. Now sit back and relax. Drink your coffee before it gets cold and try one of these doughnuts.” He gestured to the bag on the seat between them. “There are jelly-filled, glazed and old-fashioned.”
The bag was huge, big enough to hold at least a baker's dozen, though there were far fewer than that left. The assortment had clearly been plundered. Dani couldn't help grinning. “Just how many have you eaten already?”
“A couple,” he said, then grinned guiltily. “Okay, maybe four. I never get to have doughnuts anymore. I'm trying to teach the boys to eat a healthy breakfast by setting a good example. I've eaten enough bran flakes in the last year to fulfill my fiber quota for two lifetimes.”
“You know, an occasional doughnut won't kill any of you,” Dani said. “Maybe if you ate them in moderation, you wouldn't be pigging out now.”
“Darlin', I don't need a lecture on my eating habits from you.”
“If you say so,” she said, peering into the bag. The aroma of dough and sugar and raspberry jelly hit her smack in the face. She drew in a deep breath. “Oh, my.”
“Downright intoxicating, isn't it?” Duke teased.
“Incredible,” she murmured distractedly. All of her attention was focused on the choice she was about to make.
“You could have one of each,” Duke said, clearly guessing her dilemma.
“I couldn't,” she insisted and settled for the raspberry-filled doughnut that was still warm to the touch. Powdered sugar coated her lips. Jam settled in the corners of her mouth and left her fingers sticky. “Heavenly.”
Duke glanced over at her, then sucked in a sharp breath. Pure lust darkened his eyes.
“What?” Dani demanded, her own breath catching.
“There are napkins in the glove compartment,” Duke said in a choked voice.
“Why? Am I a mess?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “But if you don't wipe away the sugar and jam around your mouth, I'm going to have to do it for you.” His heated gaze clashed with hers. “I won't be using a napkin.”
The image of his tongue searching out every little trace of sugar and jam slammed into her with the force of a gale. She fumbled badly as she tried to open the glove compartment and retrieve a napkin.
Her hand shook as she tried to wipe away any trace of the doughnut she had savored.
“Too bad,” Duke teased when she was done. “I was looking forward to helping.”
“I'll just bet you were,” she said. A change of topic was definitely in order. “Why don't you tell me what you have in mind when it comes to the horses. How much do you want to spend? Is there any particular type of horse you want?”
He chuckled. “Smooth transition. Don't tell me I was making you nervous.”
“You weren't,” she insisted.
She regarded him impatiently. “Duke, you asked me to come along today to help you buy horses. That's all I'm doing here.”
“I know,” he said.
She didn't trust that dutiful tone one bit. “I hope you do.”
He sketched a cross over his heart. “Darlin', if you made yourself any clearer, I'd have a knot upside my head.”
“Don't tempt me.”
“Damn, but you're cute whenâ”
She scowled at him. “Don't say it. Don't you dare say it.”
“You want me to be honest, don't you?”
“Of course, butâ”
“That's all I'm doing. Telling it like it is.”
Dani sighed heavily. “Why don't I believe that?”
“You have a suspicious nature,” he suggested.
“My nature, as you put it, has been honed by experience.”
“You're not comparing me to that Rob person again, are you?” He didn't wait for her reply. “I'm disappointed. I thought we were way beyond that.”