Authors: Ann Major
“You're right,” she said in a breathy voice. “He's fine. Just had to make sure.”
Luke's fine bone structure looked even tauter than usual in the dimly lit hall. What was it about the dark that made her blood run wilder?
Despite the danger Luke posed, she was terribly glad she wasn't on the ranch alone with a sick child. Luke cared about Daniel, as she did. He seemed to feel the same profound responsibility, which amazed her since he'd known his son for only a few days. But because he did feel so strongly about Daniel, she felt linked to him by more than mere desire.
Why, fool that she was, she was beginning to believe in him again, as she had when she'd been in love with him. It seemed impossible that such a man would rob an employer he'd respected and abandon a woman he'd loved. He didn't seem capable of such unsavory behavior now, and she wondered if he ever had been.
Suddenly, as she continued to stare at him hungrily, she remembered Luke's warning that first night when she'd followed him out to the porch. So, what was she doingâstanding in the hall, ogling him?
It was always a mistake to mix business with pleasure. The fate of Wild Horse Ranch was in his hands. If for no other reason, she should fight her attraction.
If she didn't want to send the wrong message to this man who held such power over her, she should say a curt good-night and march into her bedroom and shut the door.
Instead, she continued to stare at him, her heart pounding and her breath fluttering.
When he took a step toward her, an electric shock went through her. Even then, she remained where she was, shivering from the thrill of what might happen next. He took another soundless, heart-thudding step. And then another. And another.
“Caitlyn?” The bold challenge in his emerald eyes set off a pulsing excitement that sizzled through her even before he reached out to touch her.
“Luke?” Torn, she backed away from him.
“Come to me,” he whispered thickly. “Just let me hold you.”
She should run. She knew that. His past betrayal stood between them. The role he intended to play in Daniel's life was still uncertain. He had the beautiful, perfect Teresa waiting for him in London. Teresa, the countess who probably had soft hands and a softer life. But right now, London and Hassan and all their unresolved issues seemed so far away.
Feeling strange and excited, Caitlyn took a tremulous step toward him, and then another, until she stood close enough to touch him. She trembled with the need to slide her hands over his body. Still, she hesitated.
“Luke,” she breathed.
He touched her first, causing her to shudder. Wasting no more time, he gently framed her face with his blunt fingers and plundered her mouth in a long, hard kiss. His tongue plunged inside, taking possession of her.
Her heartbeat quickened. Rising on her tiptoes, she kissed him back for all she was worth.
A fierce laugh erupted from his throat as he caught her closer and aligned their bodies, so she was all too aware of how powerfully aroused he was. Another kiss sent her world spinning out of control until she was limp and clinging to him. That was when he stunned her by ending the kiss with the same startling abruptness with which he'd begun it.
Breathing in savage bursts, his hands fell to his sides and clenched.
“What?” she whispered. “What's wrong?”
“That's for you to say. I don't want you to regret this tomorrow.”
“Don't you want me?”
In the deep shadows his eyes glittered. “Yes, I want you,” he growled. “How can you even ask?”
When he didn't touch her again, she knew he must be giving her the chance to change her mind.
But for the life of her, she was helpless against the tide of desire that swept her. From the first moment he'd returned to the ranch, some force had taken over. It possessed her utterly now. She'd always wanted him. She'd measured all other men by him, even after her mother had convinced her he was no good.
She'd wanted him more each day he'd been here. She'd been lonely for this, for him, for too many years. She was only human. How long could she fight the inevitable? If he'd gone that first day without ever finding out about Daniel, then maybe she would have been safe. But now that he knew the truth and she saw how much Daniel needed him, she couldn't regret that he'd found out.
She knew Luke didn't love her and that almost
certainly he never had. But in this moment all that mattered was the sexual joy she'd know if she slept with him again, if only for one night.
She hurled herself into his arms, and he caught her against his naked chest, crushing her close. “Darling,” he whispered in a low, raw tone that thrilled her. “Sweetheart. I want you so much. But I won't pressure you.”
“I can't fight what I feel for you any longer.”
He pushed her against the wall, kissing her until her heart raced and she could barely breathe. She knew he was wrong for her. Still, she clung to him, never wanting to let him goâ¦because she knew too well the loneliness of being without him. Six long years she'd lived here without this man's love. “I want you more than anything,” she whispered.
Lifting her into his arms, he carried her to his bedroom. He kicked the door shut and threw the bolt. Then he swept her down onto his bed.
“Take off your clothes,” he ordered in a deep, hoarse voice that caused her to shiver.
She tore off her robe. Then she lifted her nightgown and flung it away. “Beautiful,” he rasped. His eyes devoured her as he ripped off his pajama bottoms.
“You're beautiful, too,” she whispered as she studied his broad shoulders, rippling torso and huge erection. “So beautiful.”
He lay down beside her and stroked her breasts, and tongued her navel. Her nipples hardened and goose bumps pricked all over her belly. “When I left you that note and found you in bed naked and looking so adorably sexy, it was all I could do not to kiss you awake.”
With a shy smile that probably gave too much away, she turned her face fully toward his. She had hoped he'd felt something like that for her.
“Adorable,” he repeated. Gathering her closer, he kissed her passionately.
At the contact with his hard lips and naked skin, she trembled. His body was warm and muscular. His obvious desire made her feel loved and safe, but, of course, that was an illusion.
Something to worry about tomorrowâ¦
Better to focus on the burning thrill of his hands and mouth, better to abandon herself to this soul-deep need he had taught her to want, better not to worry about the consequences.
But they would come eventually.
In no time, his mouth and hands took her beyond anything she'd ever experienced or imagined, even with him. As his tongue laved her, she arched her body into his. Soon she was lost in the white heat of a passion that left her shattered. Afterward, all she could do was lie limply in his arms, her fingertips splayed across his chest feeling every beat of his heart.
Their first night together, so long ago, she'd been limited by her shyness and inexperience. Now she knew that no one else could ever make her feel like he didârapturous, ravaged, cherished and utterly satisfied.
She loved him. Fool that she wasâshe always had. Not that she'd been proud of loving him, after the way they'd parted. Still, he'd been sweet to her when she'd been a girl, and ever since he'd come back, he'd taken care of her and Daniel, amazing her with the depth of his feelings for his son.
Even so, being older, she should know that gratitude and sexual attraction and having a son together were
not enough for a solid relationship. She should have resisted temptation.
Easy to say, when not faced with Luke and her own needs. When he again kissed her lips as hungrily as he had out in the hall, she did not resist. The second time was even better than the first.
When it was over, she lay beside him, feeling faint and shaken. Wrapped by the darkness and their body heat, neither spoke. She could only wonder what he thought and felt. She didn't ask, since she feared the worst.
Why had he slept with her? Would he be finished with her now? Would he announce his solution and then leave? Did he now feel free to marry the perfect Teresa?
A strange desolation stole over her heart. She was such an idiot to want him, and then to sleep with him, especially when he had final say over the fate of Wild Horse Ranch. But could one control one's feelings?
She closed her eyes, willing herself to sleep and forget, but such peace did not come easily. This night in his arms had heightened his power over her. She knew she would want him again, and again. She wanted him to love her, to stay with her, to be an ordinary rancher rather than a glamorous billionaire.
But that was not possible. So somehow, when he informed her of his plans to get her ranch on sound footing, she would find the strength to let him go.
his was one of those moments in life that was so perfect she wanted to seize it and make it last forever.
Cool air seeped through the ancient wooden windowpanes, bringing with it the sound of morning doves. Soon it would be time to get up and get Daniel ready to catch his bus.
Drowsily Caitlyn lay still, savoring this fleeting moment. It was delicious to just remain under the covers, nestled close to Luke's blistering warmth. All too quickly his watch alarm went off.
He rolled over and kissed her lips. “Time to get up, sweetheart,” he drawled in a lazy voice, his heated breath tickling her earlobe.
“Hmm,” she murmured. For another long, delightful moment Caitlyn lay where she was, her eyes closed, not wanting to face the day or its realities. She hadn't slept so blissfully in years.
“If you don't get up, Daniel will find you here in my bed,” Luke whispered. “Is that what you want?”
“Of course not.” Not that she liked being reminded that her presence in his bed might be a shameful thing in other people's opinions. Her eyes snapped open and she forced herself to sit up and focus.
He seemed so cool and businesslike this morning. Leaning down, he picked up her nightgown and handed it to her.
Feeling uncertain, she pulled it over her head. Then she stood up and grabbed her robe, tying the sash.
“We'll talk later,” he said.
“About your mysterious solution?”
His expression darkened. “Did you sleep with me thinking I'd go easier on you when it came to sorting out your ranch's problems?”
His green eyes seared her.
“No!” she whispered, feeling guilty even though she didn't have a reason to. “How can you ask me that?”
“Maybe you're like that, but I'm not.”
“Okay. I'll take your word for it. Let's leave it at that.”
She hated the distance he was deliberately putting between them.
“When are you planning to go back to London?” she asked.
He frowned. “Sooner than I'd like. There's a crisis brewing in one of my more recently acquired companies.”
At the thought of him leaving for good, a raw, aching loneliness swamped her. So she played dumb. “Oh, that's what that phone call last night was about?”
“Yes. Although, I would have sworn you were hov
ering right outside the door, hanging on to every word. I hope I didn't sound too tough.”
She blushed. “Maybe I did glean that some of your new employees see you as a tyrant.”
He exhaled a sharp breath. “There are necessary adjustments that must be made for that company to be viable and competitive in the global marketplace. I'll explain later.”
She nodded. Without a word, she crossed the room and opened the door to leave him.
He touched her shoulder and pulled her back for a spontaneous kiss. When she jerked away, he said, “Caitlyn, I'm sorry we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot this morning. Is something else the matter?”
“Like you saidâ¦I'd better go before Daniel wakes up and finds me with you.”
She scampered down the hall on her tiptoes, but stopped short in her own room at the sight of her reflection in her mirror. Her dark hair was wildly matted; her eyes looked bruised. Fighting tears of humiliation, she swallowed. She was sure last night hadn't meant much to Luke, and she felt ashamed that he might suspect the depth of her feelings for him.
Despite the problems with the ranch, she'd seen herself as a strong person. She'd survived Luke's betrayal, a marriage of convenience to a man who hadn't been able to love her as a real husband, her parents' deaths and then Robert's illness and death. She'd lived with pressing financial burdens as a single mother. But once Luke reappeared she'd realized just how vulnerable she'd always beenâ¦alone out here with no family other than Daniel. And needy, at least where Luke was concerned.
Last night in his arms she'd felt a rush of joy such as she hadn't felt since her parents' and Robert's deaths. But what was such foolish happiness based on if all he'd felt was lust?
Soon, he'd issue some unpleasant ultimatum concerning her ranch and darling horses. Then he would leave her to deal with her options. Luke would leave and be glad to be gone, and she would go on, alone. Still, the sooner the business between them was over, the better. Because every day and every night that she spent with him, she would only fall more deeply under his spell.
Moving slowly, she showered and dressed. Vaguely she was aware of Luke telling her through the door that he'd made coffee and would see to Daniel. Thinking how nice it was to have him do fatherly things for Daniel, her attitude toward him softened even more.
Still, because she was determined to avoid him, she tarried so long in her room that when she finally came out, the house was empty.
Somehow she had to make him tell her the solution to her business problems so she could end thisâbefore it got any more complex.
He shouldn't have slept with her.
But how could he have stopped himself?
Maybe sex was a basic mammalian function, but it always complicated the hell out of everything.
After dropping off Daniel at the bus stop, Luke drove Caitlyn's truck up to the house and braked in a whirl of dust. Reluctant to face her for reasons he didn't analyze, he cut the ignition. Out of the corner of his eye he saw furtive movement at the kitchen window, but when he turned his head the curtains snapped together.
Clearly, she was in no mood to face him, either. The sex had been so great last night, he'd thought their connection might help his case. But as usual, Caitlyn hadn't reacted as he'd expected. She'd been so moody and unpredictable this morning, he now wished he hadn't lost control.
He was in a bind. Because of the crisis in London, he had to get back. He'd run out of time to woo her or cajole and explain. But because of Daniel he wasn't about to go away without clarifying their situation. Daniel needed a man in his life. Her business was going under. She needed Luke's skills, his money and his support, with Daniel and in her business.
He'd decided to offer her marriage in exchange for such help.
No doubt Hassan had bankrolled her ranch primarily because he was sure Luke would help her once he knew about Daniel. So, knowing Hassan would support whatever decision he made, Luke wanted to step in and take over as soon as possible.
When the thought of marrying her had first occurred to him, he'd been stunned to realize how old-fashioned he was. Why bind himself to a woman who'd treated him so badly?
But there was Daniel, who needed a father, and Luke, who knew too well what it was to be fatherless. His childhood had been bleak after his mother had left. Maybe for that reason he'd always idealized families where both parents stayed together and raised their children.
He'd already missed five years of Daniel's life, and he didn't want to miss any more or to divide Daniel between them in a custody arrangement.
Stillâmarriage? In this modern time surely there
was a better, easier way for him to help her and become a part of his son's life? But he had to admit that this wasn't a logical decision. From the moment he'd seen Caitlyn, a widow now and free to marry, he'd known his powerful feelings for her were far from dead.
For years, jealousy over her marriage had consumed him. That emotion and the love he'd felt had eaten at him for so long it had separated him from all other women, including Teresa. He wished he didn't feel so strongly for Caitlyn, but against all logic he wanted her by his side.
He didn't know why he felt so deeply. Maybe it was because they were linked by this land and culture. In London he always felt edgy and alienated. Here, with her, he was his true self. He'd always been ashamed of being Bubba's son, of not being good enough for Caitlyn, according to her mother.
Well, he was rich now, and proud of it. He was in a position to solve all of Caitlyn's problems.
Daniel might be the catalyst behind his proposal, but Luke wanted to share his life and wealth with Caitlyn. He knew his proposal would be ill-timed and ill-received, but the fact that he'd once loved her and that he was still so strongly attracted to her made him hope that he could forget how poorly she and her family had treated him. Perhaps she would see him as the man he'd become instead of the man her mother had thrown off the ranch.
For six years, the memory of Mrs. Cooper's gloating had taunted him.
“She's with Robert Wakefield, who can offer her way more than you ever could. If you love her as you say you do, you'll collect your pay and leave. All you'll do if you stay is ruin her life, and ours, too. Your own mother ran
away. Do you want to make Caitlyn so miserable she'll do the same?”
Hurt by Mrs. Cooper's words, hurt that Caitlyn preferred Robert Wakefield, he'd left in a rage. A few weeks later, he'd decided to hear Caitlyn's side, so he'd called. Her mother had answered with the news that Caitlyn was happily married to Wakefield.
Jealousy had torn through him. Luke had slammed the phone down, believing he'd lost Caitlyn because he'd been poor. Ambition born from that pain had driven him to great heights. He vowed to become more than the nothing Mrs. Cooper believed him to be.
Well, he wasn't nothing anymore.
Now he frowned, hating wanting Caitlyn so much but clear about what he had to do. He headed up the stairs, into the house. Crossing the living room, he strode into the kitchen.
Her back was to him when he banged open the door.
When she stiffened instead of turning to greet him with a smile, his stomach clenched.
After last night he felt like wrapping her in his arms and kissing her endlessly, but her coldness stopped him.
“The bus was right on time.” What an inane thing to say, he thought, but how should he begin when she was clearly in a snit?
“Was it?” she replied indifferently.
“About last night,” he began, warmth stealing into his voice as erotic visions swamped him.
“Right! Last night!” She jumped back as if he'd struck her. Then she whirled around and placed both hands on her hips. “Don't worry. I know it was just sexâ¦and that all we have is Daniel and that you have your Teresa and your real life in London.”
“Hey. Wait a minuteâ”
“No, you wait! I know last night didn't mean anything. You said you wanted to get me out of your system.”
“That's not how I feel.”
“I'm a big girl! You don't owe me anything. I told you from the first all I want is for you to leave! I think last night proves we should finish our business and get back to living our own lives, before we drive each other even crazier.”
His heart pounded with astounding violence. How could she dismiss him and what they'd shared last night so carelessly? He'd never felt half so much for any woman, and he'd come in here to ask her to marry him. Where was the passionate woman who'd come alive in his arms last night?
Suddenly he hated all those tender emotions and craven feelings that woman had aroused in him. His gaze narrowed. With extreme difficulty he masked his anger and fierce hurt and fought to appear as indifferent and cold as she believed him to be.
“I understand how you feel,” he said. “But unfortunately we have a son.”
“Yes, well, I don't find his existence as unfortunate as you do,” she snapped.
“You know what I mean. I'm thrilled with Daniel. I love him. I'm only sorry I didn't know about him sooner.”
She tilted her chin defiantly. “So you mean now that you're so high and mighty, you hate feeling connected to me, just as much as I hate feeling connected to you.”
Last night was beginning to feel like a dream. Was he a fool to care so much for her? To want to give her another chance?
Her face and lips were bloodless. But her eyes, which
for a moment reminded him of her mother's, blazed with what he took for passionate dislike.
Hell, no, he didn't hate being connected to her, but her harsh words and look made him mask his pain with cruelty. Pride made him swallow any tender confession he might have made. She'd just become the last woman on earth he'd ever reveal his true feelings to.
After investigating her situation here, he'd admired her hard work and the gambles she'd taken to make Wild Horse Ranch succeed. She'd worked herself to the bone. Why, her palms were as rough as Manuel's. But she had pluck and more determination than most of his executives. She was a good mother to Daniel, too. Sure, she'd had a run of bad luck with some of the mares she'd bought, but she had a fighting spirit and a determination to succeed. That went a long way with him.
It didn't bother him one bit that she wasn't rich. He hadn't started off with money, either.
The past was a negative he didn't like revisiting. But she'd been young and probably easily persuaded by her mother and by her family's need to get the ranch back. Caitlyn's courage and passion for horses and her accomplishments since her parents' deaths were heroic.
Bottom line: he'd admired herâimmenselyâuntil two seconds ago. Now, raging anger momentarily consumed every positive feeling he'd had when he first walked into the kitchen.
“I may hate the connection every bit as much as you do, but I'm asking you to marry me anyway. And in case you don't realize it, since you don't like the other choices we already discussed, you have no better option. Daniel is my son. Because I owe him, I'll bail you out of your financial mess.”
“You heard me. I'm asking you to marry me.”
“Well, for your information, I don't want your charity.”
“Maybe I don't want to give it. Neither of us has a choice.”
“Surely we could work out something else.”
“I think Daniel would be better off if his parents didn't live on opposite sides of the ocean.”