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“All that happens in the height of summer when the town becomes a living museum. If you're looking for the saloon, the Pioneer's right over there.” He jerked a thumb to indicate a building beside the old Opera House. “This community thrives on the tourist trade now. The rest of the time it's still pretty much a ghost town. I only come here when business requires, generally no more than once a week, sometimes less. Hard to believe this was once a thriving metropolis.”

“What happened? Was there some kind of disaster?”

“You might say that. It was all built up around a single gold strike, the biggest one ever recorded in the Rockies. Within a week of the discovery, hundreds of prospectors and nine mining camps cropped up along the fourteen-mile stretch of Alder Creek. The first real settlement was built up here at the midpoint of the Alder Gulch. The town grew to ten thousand within months, but when the gold dried up so did the local economy.”

“Why is it named Virginia City? It's nowhere near Virginia.”

“The original name proposed for the new town was ‘Varina,' after the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but the territory's judge was a staunch Unionist and refused to approve a charter with her name. He crossed it out and wrote in ‘Virginia' instead.”

“Wow. I had no idea of the Old West history here.”

“There's tons of it. We even have a boot hill. If that kinda thing interests you, I'd be happy to give you the ten-cent tour later.”

“Yeah.” She smiled. “I think I'd like that.”

He parked the truck on the street, hopped out, and came around to offer his hand to help her step down from the truck. For a moment she hesitated. She couldn't recall the last man who'd opened a door or helped her with anything. Even in the South, chivalry seemed a rare commodity these days. She found his old-fashioned manners flattering, although peculiar.

“My office is right here.” He inclined his head to the false front building. “It was once Miss Ruby's boardinghouse.”

“Boardinghouse or bordello?” she asked.

“Probably one and the same.” He grinned. “Half the reason I signed the lease was that I liked the irony of practicing law in a former bawdy house.”

She stepped up onto the ancient-looking wooden boardwalk and gazed down the neat row of authentic nineteenth-century buildings lining both sides of the street. He opened the door with Evans & Knowlton, Attorneys at Law etched on the glass, and gestured for Nikki to precede him inside.

“Mornin', Iris,” he greeted a plump middle-aged woman. “This is Miz Powell. She's up from Atlanta and will be using the office to take care of some personal business. Please allow her free rein to the computer, fax, et cetera…”

“Sure thing, Wade.” Iris smiled at Nikki. “Nice to meet you, Miss Powell.”

Nikki extended her hand with an apologetic look. “I'm sorry to impose on you like this. I'll try not to get in your way any more than necessary.”

“Get in the way? A little bitty thing like you?” Iris waved her hand with a chuckle. She then gave Wade an assessing once over, her brows meeting in a frown. “You look like you could use some coffee.”

“That rough, eh?” He rubbed his bristled jaw. It was a particularly nice jaw, strong and square with the sexiest dimple in the middle of his chin. Why did he have to have that? She was such a sucker for dimples. Nikki wondered what the ones above his ass looked like. She'd noticed that part of him too but acting on her physical attraction to him could only lead to trouble.

What was wrong with her? One moment he was aggravating as hell and the next she was checking out his ass? Her intense reactions to him bewildered and annoyed her. She'd been around a number of hot cowboys before—more than she cared to remember and certainly none worth wasting brain cells thinking about. What made this one any different?
He's your lawyer, nothing else
, she reminded herself.

“Now, I didn't actually
say
that,” Iris replied. “I'd be happy to run down to the café while you get cleaned up. The usual?” she asked.

“Just coffee,” Wade replied.

“Anything for you, Miss Powell? Coffee?”

“Yes. Please,” Nikki answered. “I could use the pick-me-up. It was a long night and will surely be a full day.”

“How do you take it?”

“Extra cream, no sugar. Thank you.”

Wade hung up his hat, and then came behind the desk to glance over Iris's shoulder. “What's on the docket this week?”

“Not much. Just more disputes over grazing rights.”

“Grazing rights again! I'm damned sick of environmentalists and special interest groups sticking their noses into our business. Give 'em an inch and they'll take it all, not giving a damn that the majority of people here are just trying to eke out modest livings.” Wade raked his hand through his sandy hair with a curse. “Damned vegan tree-huggers will destroy our entire state economy.”

Iris rolled her eyes as if anticipating a full-blown tirade. “Be back in a jiffy.” She winked at Nikki as she slipped out the door.

Nikki grinned. “I take it you're not a card-carrying member of the Green Party?”

“No.” His gaze narrowed and brows pulled into a frown. “You're not one of them I hope.”

“Who me?” Nikki shook her head. “No, sir-ee, I'm a live-and-let-live Libertarian and a longtime omnivore. My grandparents had a chicken farm in Lavonia. I betcha didn't know Georgia is the country's biggest chicken producer.”

“No, ma'am.” His shoulders visibly relaxed. “I didn't, but then I'm not a big chicken fan myself.”

She let her gaze travel over him in a slow appreciation of his tall, lean, muscular frame. She guessed he stood at least six-three in his boots. “I suppose not,” she said. “It would be only prime grass-fed beef and Idaho potatoes for you.”

He crossed his arms over his broad chest and leaned on the door frame studying her. “Miz Powell, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were undressing me with those pretty blue-green eyes of yours.”

A guilty flush infused her face but she refused to give him the advantage. She opted for a strong offense instead. “So what if I was? Weren't you quite fixated on my ass at Denver airport?”

He raised a sandy eyebrow. “You noticed that, eh?” His confession came with a shameless grin attached.

She jutted her chin. “
Quid
pro
quo
, Counselor. What do you say to that?”

He approached her slowly, the smile in his eyes transforming in a blink to a wicked gleam. A gleam that promised very bad things. His reply sent a warning signal to every nerve in her body. “I'd say, why just use your eyes?”

Dear
God, he was trouble with a capital
T
.

He closed the space between them in two long strides. Instinctively, Nikki backed up as many steps—but her ass hit the desk. Before she realized what he was about, he'd caught her hips and lifted her onto it. He held her hostage with his gazed locked on hers, his arms braced on either side of hips. “There's something real interesting going on here,” he remarked at length.

Nikki swallowed hard, her gaze wavering. “I already told you I'm not interested. I don't do casual hookups.”

“You think that's what this is about?”

“Isn't it?” she asked, intentionally blithe.

He shook his head. “Hell, I don't know. Maybe. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a damn powerful attraction to you.”

She'd never had such a strong reaction to another man either. All he had to do was
look
at her to get her pulse racing and her insides quivering. And right now he was too damned close for comfort. She shifted backward, trying to create some distance, but there was nowhere to go.

“Don't you have to be in court soon,
Counselor
?” she reminded him in a voice that came out breathless.

“Yeah, I do,” he replied. “Guess I got a bit sidetracked. You're turning out to be a big distraction, you know that?”

She bit her lip. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be such an imposition.”

“I said a distraction not an imposition. There's a big difference. I didn't realize until now just how badly I've needed such a distraction.” He stepped away with a reluctant sigh.

Her pulse still hammering in anticipation, Nikki exhaled the breath she hadn't realized was trapped in her chest.

Wade spun toward his office. “Help yourself to the phone and anything else while I get cleaned up.” He paused again on the threshold. “Of course, you're welcome to use my office if you need greater privacy,” he added over his shoulder with a look of devilment. “Or in the event any wild impulse overtakes you while I shower.”

He went to work on his shirt buttons. His collar was soon wide open revealing a generous show of muscular chest that make her hands itch to rip it off him. She diverted her gaze and curled her itchy hands by her sides.

“Have no fear, cowboy,” Nikki replied in a tone meant to disguise the warm flush that had come over her. “I corralled all my wild impulses long ago.”

“Did you, now?” He still stood in doorway, head cocked. “Somehow, I think you may have missed a few strays.”

“Maybe I need to make myself clearer. I have an aversion to cocky cowboys.”

Just
keep
telling
yourself
that, Nikki. Maybe if you repeat it often enough it'll become
true.

“Is that so?” His brows flew upward. “I can't say I ever met a woman with an actual
aversion
to me.”

“Don't take it personally. It's nothing against you in particular, but to your type.”

“And what do you
think
you know about my
type
?”

“Since I don't have a pole handy, enough to keep you at arm's length. Besides that, this whole line of conversation is entirely inappropriate in light of professional ethics, don't you think? You are my attorney, after all.”

“Well, darlin'”—he scratched his unshaven jaw—“there's a little hitch to that.”

“What do you mean? You said you'd help me.”

“And I will, but you can't engage my professional services until I know who you are.”

“I've told you who I am!” she insisted.

“Sweetheart, I'm a lawyer, and according to the law, your claim don't weigh without authentication.”

“Authentication?”

“Proof.”

“So what are you saying? That you don't believe me?”

“I'm not saying that at all. Only that our
professional
relationship will commence once you get your ID. In the interim”—his gaze slid over her in a way that threatened to melt her insides—“you'd best find yourself a nice, long, sturdy pole.”

* * *

Nikki opened her mouth, but Iris's return with the coffee meant he'd got the last word once again. Wade closed the door with a chuckle, and then shrugged out of his clothes. He didn't know what had come over him to goad her like he had. She was prickly as a porcupine but it was also clearly a shell of self-defense. He'd already seen hints of humor and glimmers of smiles that she fought to suppress, all of which only increased her appeal. He wanted nothing more than to see her let it all loose and laugh.

It was probably just the novelty of the chase, of having to work for it for a change—something he'd rarely had to do where women were concerned, but that wasn't all. There was something different about her. Something that drew him to her at a visceral level. Maybe the whole damsel-in-distress thing had brought out dormant protective instincts, but then again, protecting her wasn't exactly first on his mind—not unless it involved getting real up close and personal.

He hadn't intended to kiss her in the truck, and knew he shouldn't have, but the impulse was too strong to deny. A moment ago he hadn't really planned for anything to happen either. He'd only meant to yank her chain—until he'd registered that unmistakable flash of desire in her pretty eyes. It had invoked another powerful urge but it wasn't the time or place to act on it. Had they been anywhere else he might have been tempted to test her resistance.

He looked forward to another chance to do just that. If she looked at him the way she'd been looking a moment ago, all bets were off. She could deny the attraction until the cows came home, but he'd felt it pass between them—like lightning to lodestone. Just like that moment in the truck when he'd opened the glove box. The knowledge that he'd made her nipples harden had nearly the same effect on his dick.
Hot
damn!
But it had struck him hard.

He'd only known her a short time, but the lust smoldering between them seemed to be increasing by the hour. At this rate it wouldn't take much for it to combust into an inferno. He'd felt it almost from the first moment they'd spoken—and she had too, though he suspected she'd choke before admitting it.

On top of the physical attraction, he was also enjoying the hell out of their verbal sparring. Given his obvious advantage of arguing for his bread, she'd done a damned good job of holding her own. All in all, they were well-matched, which only begged the question of how well they might suit in other ways—something he was mighty inspired to discover.

Hell, yeah
. He looked down as he soaped himself.
He
was
damned
inspired.

Chapter 4

Having made her reports to both the airline and the police, Nikki phoned the Georgia Department of Driver Services, but hung up in frustration after holding for more than twenty minutes. “Is there a computer I could use?” she asked Iris. “The recording said most services are available online. Maybe I can request a duplicate license that way.”

“Be my guest.” The older woman smiled and vacated her seat. “I have some filing to do anyway.”

“Thanks.”

Only a moment later Nikki cried out with increasing aggravation, “Damn it! I can't believe this! I feel like a dog chasing its tail! The website says I can only request a duplicate license with a credit card, and I've already canceled my credit cards!”

“Is there anyone you can call?” Iris asked. “Do you have a family member who might allow you to use their card?”

“My mom and I aren't exactly on speaking terms and my half sister doesn't have a credit card. Too irresponsible.” Nikki shook her head on a sigh of frustration and despair. “What am I going to do?”

“Don't fret, sweetie.” She patted Nikki's hand. “Wade'll help you get it all sorted out. It's what he does.”

“Professionally you mean?”

“Yes, but more than that,” Iris said. “He carries a great deal on those broad shoulders.”

“How so?”

“He's the only thing that's kept his family's ranch afloat these past three years. Under those good looks is also a real good man—a man who should settle down, if you ask me, but he's burning himself out working all the time like he is. Trying to make up for lost time I s'pose, but I still hate to see it.”

“Really?” Nikki said. “He hardly strikes me as the workaholic type with all that charm and swagger.”

Iris shook her head. “You should have known him before. But it's been even worse on his brother Dirk. He isn't the same man at all.”

“Before what?” Nikki asked. “I'm not following you.”

“Before the accident—”

“Iris, you worry too much,” Wade's baritone voice interrupted the exchange.

He stood in the doorway knotting his necktie. He was now clean-shaven, with his wet hair slicked back. To Nikki's chagrin, the lack of beard growth only accentuated the damned chin dimple. “I already have a mother, if you recall, and don't need two. Besides, I'm certain Miz Powell has little interest in my personal history.” His rebuke over the gossip was kind but real, delivered with a steely-eyed smile.

“Sorry, Wade.” Iris flushed, visibly cowed. “I just think you should take some time off and enjoy life a bit before it all passes you by.”

“I just returned from two days in Denver,” he said.

“A working trip,” she argued. “Hardly a vacation.”

“When the ranch is sold, maybe I'll take some time off. Perhaps I'll go to Mexico or try a cruise—
if
I can find an interesting traveling companion.” He slanted Nikki a sly look.

What game was he playing by repeating her earlier wishes to go to Mexico or take a cruise? Every comment he made seemed loaded with innuendo.

When Iris went back to filing, he added in an undertone, “My, my, Miz Powell. All charm and swagger, am I? That's quite an improvement since I left the room. Words like that are sure to turn my head.”

Nikki's gaze locked onto his teasing one, and she felt another flush coming on. “I hardly meant it as a compliment.”
Hell
no
. She'd been a fool for his type too many times before. She didn't believe his earlier denial either. He was a player of the most dangerous kind—a damned hot
cowboy
player. She didn't trust him. But, being honest, she trusted herself even less.

* * *

After Wade left for court, Nikki opted for a shower as well. When she entered the bathroom, the pungent scents of cedar and spice mixed with man struck her senses like a two-by-four. In his hurry, Wade had left out his shaving gel and deodorant, neither of which was heavily fragranced. Men like Wade rarely wore fragrances to mask their natural scent. She'd always preferred guys like Wade to the perfumed and overgroomed metrosexuals. Wade's lingering essence was heavenly. She closed her eyes and breathed in a lungful before turning on the shower.

Nikki wet her hair and picked up the soap, feeling a moment of hesitation. It was soft and sudsy from his use. It seemed almost obscenely intimate to use the same bar he'd used to lather the most private parts of his body—obscenely intimate and incredibly arousing.

She'd had a teasing glimpse of his bare torso earlier. Now her imagination painted a portrait of his entire naked body, all big and hard, sinewy and sudsy. She soaped herself, and then applied his shampoo to her hair. Shutting her eyes to rinse, she imagined sharing not only the soap with him, but the shower, too.
Dear
God, Nikki! Get a
grip.

It had been too long. That was her problem. Six months was far too long to go without sex. Maybe that's what was making her nuts. And there was an easy enough cure for that. The shower was equipped with an adjustable shower massager. She switched the setting to pulsate and adjusted the angle, and then braced herself against the wall, parting her thighs and letting the pulse of hot water work its magic. It didn't take long to get off—not once she shut her eyes to more fantasies about Wade. She shut off the water with wobbly knees, but flying solo always left her dissatisfied…and bitchy.

She wondered briefly if giving in to her attraction might be a cure of sorts. Maybe it would balance her scales. She'd felt completely off-kilter since leaving Atlanta. She knew a lot of women who wouldn't bat an eye at the thought of a short-term fling.

Yeah, that's right, Nikki, let's just start grasping at straws now.
Let's see if we can fabricate any reason at all to jump into bed with a hot
cowboy.

She'd never needed much reason beyond pure lust in the past. Tight jeans, broad shoulders beneath button-down Western shirts, boots, and hats still combined to make her crazy, but she'd finally learned her lesson after Clint. Yes, she had.
Thank
you
very
much!

She then reminded herself how often she'd been disappointed with cowboys in bed—far more often than not. Kinda like anticipating a full night of rodeo only to have it end with the eight-second ride.

* * *

After her shower, Nikki spent the next three hours making calls to the mortuary, her bank, and several credit card companies—all just spinning her wheels. She was almost in tears by the time Wade returned.

“Care for some lunch?” he asked.

“No thanks. Iris already brought me something.”

“Which you didn't eat.” He nodded to the unfinished sandwich. “From the Star Bakery, too. Best homemade bread around.”

“I just wasn't hungry,” she replied. “Help yourself.”

He parked his ass on the corner of the desk and picked up the other half of her sandwich. He took a big bite. “Has Iris gone home?”

“Yes. She left a few notes on your desk.”

“I'll take a look in a minute.” He surprised her by taking a swig from her Coke. It was a thoughtless act, but struck her once more as too intimate. Drinking after another was something you only did after kissing—with tongue. She recalled with a flush that they'd actually passed that marker already.

She'd fixed her gaze on his bobbing Adam's apple as he swallowed and even found that part of him sexy. This wayward pattern of her thoughts was getting out of control.

“Any progress to report?” he asked.

She shook her head and massaged her temples. “Not much. I managed at least to get my driver's license number from my insurance company, but I can't get a replacement without a credit card. And even then, it could take up to seven days before I receive it. I don't
have
seven days! I called to request a longer leave from work but my boss is a coldhearted
be-atch
. I've managed to get the rest of the week off by using up all my vacation time, but if I don't clock in the following Monday morning, I'm canned for job abandonment.”

“But then you won't be working for the coldhearted
be-atch
anymore.” His crystal-blue eyes twinkled with humor. “You see, darlin'? Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Nikki couldn't help herself. For the first time in days, she laughed. Maybe it was just a substitute for despair, but she let it rip, a long, spastic belly laugh that made no sense at all when crying was so much more appropriate. Was she hysterical? By the time her eruption of mirth finally petered out, he looked like he was wondering the same thing.

“I'm sorry.” She sobered. “Please don't think I'm unhinged.”

He grinned wide. “First impressions are mighty hard to dispel.”

“If you're referring to Denver, it's unfair of you to throw
that
meltdown in my face. You have to understand how much I hate to fly. Even in
good
weather. It terrifies me, Wade. It's just not natural to defy gravity like that. I'll never understand how those hulking tons of metal stay in the sky. Then after all that stress, to find the next flight full, it was all just too much to handle.”

“Let's just say your extreme reaction was enough to move me to give up my seat. Matter of fact, I seem to be developing a weakness for helpless and hysterical women. It seems you now have me at your complete mercy.”

“I'm really sorry about that—for putting you in this position.”

“Don't be. I wouldn't have met you otherwise, and you are most definitely worth the trouble, Nicole Powell.” He gave her a slow smile that warmed her to the toes. “Good thing too, since you carry so much of it around with you.”

“I'm not normally like this,” she protested. “I have it together. Really. My life is very quiet, orderly, and uneventful. And I really like it that way.”

“Speaking of carrying things…” He ignored her rebuttal. “You might want to grab your bags. My business here is done. I'll take you to Sheridan now, but I'd rather not come back this way until morning. I'd like to head out to the ranch tonight instead. There's an important matter I have to discuss with my brother, one that's best done in person. I think you should come with me.”

“Why?” she asked. Time away from him was exactly what she needed.

“I don't think you should be alone,” he answered, “especially not knowing anyone.”

She despised her feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and being out of control. It was as if the moment she'd arrived in Montana, someone had pulled the rug out from under her. Worse still, Wade made her
want
to trust him, and
that
was really treading treacherous territory.

“Your concern is kind but unnecessary,” she said. “I can take care of myself. I'm a grown woman after all.”

He gave her another slow perusal. “Don't think
that
has escaped my notice, but like it or not, you're stuck with me, since no other cowboy's come along in his gleaming white pickup to rescue you.”

“It doesn't gleam.
At
all
.”

“It's nothing a coat of wax…or ten…won't fix.” He chuckled and flashed her that contagious grin again. She couldn't help smiling back.

“If you really prefer it, I'll bring you back here for the night, but you'd be much more comfortable bunking at the ranch.”

Although she hated the thought of being alone, his suggestion spelled “danger” in blazing neon.

“I don't think it's such a good idea,” she said. “It's one thing for me to stay here at your office, but quite another to intrude on your family.”

“Look. It ain't like that here. We have one of the sparsest populations in the country. We embrace strangers. In fact, Mama will probably try to move you in. It's not often she gets to have a hen party, outnumbered by men as she always is.”

She gnawed her lip. “I don't know.” She'd be a fool to spend any more time alone with him, but being truthful with herself, she didn't really want to be by herself in a strange place either.

“It's not a problem,” he insisted. “They're already aware I may be bringing a guest.”

Wade's offer seemed genuine. When Nikki weighed her options, she found she really had none. It would be pointless to stay in town when she still had no money and no transportation. Stifling the frantic neon flash in her brain, she replied, “If you're really certain about this…”

“Yeah. There's nothing to entertain you in Virginia City.”

“What about that ten-cent tour you promised me?”

“Oh that? I guess it slipped my mind. I'll make it up to you when we come back through. Tell you what, I'm feeling generous. I'll throw in Nevada City for free.”

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