Friday, March 2, 2012
Susan Fortune approached the barn, the weathered wood calling to her like an old friend, stirring scattered memories, making them swirl in her mind.
In the past seventeen years she hadn't been home much. She'd returned now and then, but always in a rush, a day or two at Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. But being back in Red Rock, Texas, back on the Double Crown Ranch, felt different this time.
Because this wasn't a harried holiday weekend, a fast-paced trip she'd crammed into her busy schedule. This was the real thing. A homecoming that turned her heart inside out.
Her cousin Ryan, the Fortune family patriarch, was dying.
Susan moved closer to the barn, the slightly chilled, early February air stinging her skin. She'd spent the most important time of her life, her senior year in high school, on the Double Crown. Ryan had taken her in after her alcoholenraged father had kicked her out. He'd offered her a place to stay, a place to feel loved, a home away from home, from the turbulence that had nearly destroyed her.
And now here she was, wishing she could save Ryan, but knowing she couldn't.
Reflective, she looked around, watching the ranch hands do their jobs. And then a tall, tanned man in rugged denims, with a straw cowboy hat dipped low on his forehead, exited the barn. He strode toward a white dually, and suddenly she couldn't breathe, every ounce of oxygen in her lungs refusing to cooperate.
Was that Ethan Eldridge?
Yes, she told herself. It had to be. He'd grown bigger, broader, more masculine, but she recognized him just the same. Even the way he wore his clothes bred familiarity. A hand-tooled belt that he'd probably made himself was threaded through his jeans, and the hem of each pant leg frayed around a pair of weather-beaten boots. When he adjusted his hat in a memorable manner, her girlhood dreams went up in a cloud of pheromone-scented smoke.
She hadn't seen him since they were teenagers, since she'd pined for him like the emotionally torn, desperate-for-affection female she'd been.
Should she call his name? Get his attention before he climbed into his truck and drove away?
Or would that make her look foolish? Susan Fortune, the reformed bad girl, flaunting herself in front of Ethan Eldridge all over again.
Unsure of what to do, she simply stood where she was, the wind whipping her hair across her cheek. But before she could come to a decision, Ethan reacted to her presence. Like a solitary animal, a cougar sensing an intruder, he slowed his pace and turned around.
Leaving Susan exposed to his gaze.
Chiding herself, she smoothed her hair, batting it away from her face. She wasn't reverting to promiscuity. If anything, she was able to diagnose her teenage self, the rebellious girl who'd paraded other boys in front of Ethan. Susan understood the wild child that had festered inside her. She'd graduated from Stanford and earned a Ph.D. in psychology.
She decided to greet him with a friendly yet noncommittal hello, so she started off in his direction, cutting across the dirt path that separated them. But as she analyzed his catlike posture, she realized that he hadn't identified her.
He had no idea who she was.
Beneath the brim of his hat, his eyebrows furrowed. A frown of curiosity, she thought. A country boy wondering why a citified blonde, dressed in designer jeans and a form-fitting blazer, was determined to talk to him.
Finally when they were face-to-face, with sights, sounds and smells of the ranch spinning around them, recognition dawned in his eyes.
Those stunning blue eyes.
"Susan?" He beat her to the punch, saying her name first.
"Ethan." She extended her hand, preparing to touch him. "It's good to see you."
"You, too." He accepted her hand, enveloping it with callused fingers.
They gazed at each other, silence sizzling between them. She could feel the soundless energy zapping the air, conjuring invisible fireflies.
So much for her Ph.D.
Suddenly she was a smitten seventeen-year-old, reliving the day they'd met. He had been a ranch hand's hardworking, properly reared son, and she had been as untamed as the Texas terrain, a lost girl aching for attention. So much so, she'd parked her butt on a fence rail, as close to him as possible. Then she'd unbuttoned the top of her blouse, complaining about the heat, trying to get him to look at her.
He did, but only for a second. Just long enough to stop working and offer her a bottle of water. His water. A plastic container he'd yet to open, to drink from.
An elusive boy. A gallant gesture.
In her young, needy soul, Susan had fallen like a ton of shattered bricks, wanting Ethan even more. But she'd never gotten him. Nothing. Not even a kiss.
"I'm sorry about what's happening to Ryan," he said, bringing her back to the present. "You know how much I care about him."
She nodded. Ethan had practically grown up on the Double Crown. He knew Ryan well. "He's such a good man. Everyone loves him."
"I'm sure he's glad to have you home."
Home. The word never failed to strike her heart. She'd lived with her parents in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, until Ryan took her in. Sixteen years in Katy and one year in Red Rock. Yet Red Rock would always seem like home, even though she'd moved away from Texas altogether.
Ethan shifted his stance, drawing her attention to his tall, muscular form. He'd been lean and wiry as a teenager, a boy who'd spent all of his free time with the animals on the ranch.
"Ryan told me you became a large-animal vet," she said.
"And he told me you became a child psychologist." A smile ghosted across his lips. "I guess we both grew up, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did." As a girl, she used to dream about that uneven smile. Slow and sexy, she thought. One corner of his mouth tilting in a lazy sort of way.
Caught up in the moment, she stole a glance at his left hand. The last she'd heard, he was single, but that was a few years ago. She hadn't made a habit of grilling Ryan about him.
When she noticed the absence of a ring, she sighed. Ethan was thirty-five, the same age as she was, and she'd never married, either. But her work was her priority, the heartbeat of her existence.
Did Ethan feel that way, too? Or was she jumping to conclusions? Just because he didn't wear a ring didn't mean he wasn't involved in a committed relationship. Or that he wasn't looking for a partner, someone to share the ups and downs in his life.
"Did you just get here today?" he asked.
"Yes." She told herself to quit psychoanalyzing him, to leave her textbook curiosity at the curb. "I arrived this morning." She flipped her wrist and checked her watch. "A few hours ago. Ryan is taking a nap, so I decided to go for a walk."
"How's Lily holding up?"
"She's doing the best she can. When I left the house, she was fussing in the kitchen, giving herself something to do." Lily was Ryan's third wife, a woman he'd loved since his youth but hadn't married until many years later.
The wind rustled Ethan's shirt. "How long are you going to stay?"
"I'm not sure. But I'm hoping to help everyone get through this." She noticed the expressive lines around his mouth, the aging process that had altered his features, cutting masculine grooves into his skin.
He reminded her of a model in a cowboy ad. The stereotyped Texan, with his hard-angled cheekbones, slightly crooked nose and lightly peppered jaw. But she knew he was real.
Tangible. Touchable. Flesh and blood.
Even after all these years she still wondered what it would feel like to kiss him.
When she lifted her gaze to his, he dipped his hat even lower, shielding his eyes.
Just like old times, she thought. She'd never been able to break through Ethan's defenses. Even though he'd been attracted to her, he'd kept his distance, making her long for him even more.
Not that she would let herself long for him now. Kissing him, or even fantasizing about it, would be a mistake.
"You must be working today," she said, trying to resume a casual conversation.
"Yes, I am. But I live here, too.''
She started. "On the Double Crown?"
"It's only temporary. I'm in between homes right now, so I'm renting the hunting cabin from Ryan." He gestured to the barn. "Of course I'm boarding my horses here, too."
From what she recalled, Ethan had been living on the rough-and-tumble property his father owned. Although she wondered why he was moving, she decided not to ask, not to delve too deeply into his affairs, even if she wanted to, even if everything about him still intrigued her. "I've never been inside the hunting cabin."
"Really?" He shifted his feet, scattering dirt beneath his heels. "There isn't much to see, but you can come by later if you want to."
Surprised by the invitation, Susan didn't know what to say. He'd never asked her to visit him before. He'd never encouraged her advances. Of course, this time she wasn't falling all over him. At least not outwardly. Inside, her heart was skipping girlish beats.
"Thanks," she finally managed.
While silence stretched between them, the wind kicked up, the scent of hay and horses triggering her senses. In the distance cattle grazed, like colored dots on the horizon.
"I better go," he said. "I have an appointment on another ranch."
She told herself to relax, to not make a big deal out of his offer. "It was nice talking to you, Ethan."
"You, too," he told her.
He climbed behind the wheel of his white dually, and she watched him start the engine. Within no time, he was gone.
The boy with the slow, sexy smile.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Harlequin reissued ONCE A REBEL, an older title of mine, along with the other books (by other authors) in the Fortunes series. We got great new covers and are excited to see this series come back to life! To purchase a copy of ONCE A REBEL,Click Here