With one hand, he raked his hair off his face. His dripping clothes clung to his body. His breath eased out in a long exhalation. “That's more like it,” he said. “Now what was it you wanted, Lauren?”
His voice was as cold as his look. Lauren was on the verge of excusing herself and walking away when a crazy idea struck her. Taking a reckless chance, she placed a boot on the middle rail and swung over the fence to stand facing him. With a nod, she pointed to the bucket in his hand. “I could use some of that myself if you wouldn't mind,” she said.
“But you aren'tâ” He broke off, raising one ink-black eyebrow. His expression had become knowing, half-amused. With a deliberate move, he stepped to the trough and scooped the bucket full of water. Lauren braced herself, closing her eyes as he lifted it above her head.
If he hesitated, it was no more than an instant. She felt the shock of the cool water, breathed the mossy smell of it as it poured over her, soaking her hair and her shirt, dripping down over her jeans and boots.
When she opened her eyes, Sky was grinning down at her. “You look damn good wet,” he said. Then his eyes went hungry.
Lauren didn't reply. She'd become sharply aware of the way their clothes clung and the way their gazes devoured each other's bodies. The ache that rose in her was sweet and hot and raw. If he so much as touched her she knew she would topple past the edge of all common sense.
But nothing was going to happen here, in the sunlit paddock where anyone coming out of the barn or passing the corrals could see them. They stood in mute frustration, moisture steaming off their hair and clothes.
Sky cleared his throat. “Let's go for a ride,” he said.
They saddled Storm Cloud and Belle, mounted up, and headed west into the rugged canyon country. Riding single file through the scrub, hat brims lowered against the glare of the late-day sun, they said little until they'd reached the lengthening shadows of the escarpment. It was cooler here, the trail more open. The first rays of sunset cast a glow over the rocky buttresses and hoodoos.
“I had no idea it would be so beautiful here.” Lauren caught up with Sky, who'd paused on a level spot to wait for her.
“People can miss a lot with their heads buried in their computers,” he said.
“I'll try not to take that personally.” Lauren let her hat fall back against her shoulders. Her hair and clothes had dried in the heat. A light breeze cooled her face.
Storm Cloud snorted and tossed his handsome head. They made a striking pair, Lauren thought, the black horse and the hawk-proud, black-haired man. If she'd been an artist she'd have chosen to paint them like this, with the setting sun and the canyon behind them.
“Storm Cloud seems to be behaving today,” she said.
Sky patted the gelding's shoulder. “I haven't had much time to work with him, but he does seem more relaxed. If he's calm enough by the time we're ready to go back, I'll let you ride him.”
“No perfume today, I promise.” Lauren laughed, thinking this was as happy as she'd felt in months.
“There are some petroglyphs up that steep-sided canyon. It's not far. We should have enough daylight left to see them.”
“Then let's go.” Lauren nudged the mare to a walk. The uneven ground here was slow going, but the pace made it easier to talk.
“I want to apologize for yesterday,” she said. “I was trying to smooth things out for my father's sake. It turned out to be a bad idea.”
“I don't own you, Lauren.” Sky's voice had taken on a slight chill. “I've no right to judge your choice of company.”
“Not even if that company turns out to be a horse's ass?”
He sucked in his breath as if her choice of words had shocked him, then exhaled with a chuckle. “I won't have you insulting some poor innocent horse.”
“Sorry.” Lauren had to laugh. “I'll say no more, except that my father went rushing to the bank this morning to make sure the man hadn't stopped payment on his check. I've learned my lesson. No more political favors for me.”
Sky was silent for a moment. “I take it your father doesn't know about usânot that there's much to know.”
The last words stung. Lauren shook her head. “I'm a big girl. I don't have to tell him everything.”
“He wouldn't be happy.” It wasn't a question.
“No, he wouldn't. But since he chose not to be part of my life, why should it be any of his business?”
Sky didn't answer. His eyes had taken on a veiled look, as if his thoughts had wandered elsewhere.
“What about your parents?” she asked him. “Do you have family somewhere?”
“My mother died when I was three. My father . . .” The words had taken on an edge. “My father's dead, too. They weren't married.”
“I'm sorry,” she said.
“Don't be. It is what it is. I was raised by my aunt and uncle in Oklahoma. I still touch base with my cousins, even though I can't say much for the way they live.”
“And what you do with horses? How did that come about?”
“My grandfather was good with horses. He died when I was twelve, but I owe everything I know to that old man. The most important lesson he taught me was to look at every situation from the horse's point of view.”
“I guess that's the fancy word for it. But I'm not much for talking about myself. How about you?”
Lauren hesitated, knowing she needed to share but unsure where to begin.
“Beau told me you'd been engaged. If that's too personalâ”
“No, I need to say it. He died last year. Jumped off a bridge. He even left me a noteâas if that would help.” Lauren was startled by her sudden surge of anger, the first she'd felt toward Mike since his death. What a horrible, selfish thing to have done to the people who loved him.
Sky didn't speak. Anything he might have said would have been inane.
“That night in the Blue Coyoteâit was the one-year anniversary of Mike's death. I'd had an ugly fight with my father, and it had all come crashing in on me. I just wanted to forget.”
“I figured something like that.”
“I never thanked you for making sure I was all right.”
Sky's mouth twitched in a hint of a smile. “As I recollect, you weren't in a grateful mood.”
She glanced down at her hands. “Just so you'll know, it wasn't the first time I'd done something like that.”
“We're all human, Lauren. Sometimes being human hurts.”
They rode in silence for a time, taking in the stillness of the canyon. The shadows were longer now, the sky like a river of flame above the canyon walls. Clumps of cedar, fed by deep roots, grew green in the hollows below the cliffs.
The trail had narrowed. They were riding single file again, but Lauren was sharply aware of Sky's presence and the heat that flowed between them. Shivers of anticipation rose in the depths of her body. Would he have brought her this far just to look at the petroglyphs?
Where the trail branched off into a side canyon, he paused and waited for her to come even. “Has your father ever mentioned that little canyon?” he asked her. “It used to be part of the Rimrock, but years ago Bull Tyler sold it to your grandfather for one dollar. Nobody knows the whole story, except maybe Jasper, and he's not telling.”
“So that's the place.” The opening to the side canyon was screened by brush. If Sky hadn't pointed it out, Lauren would have ridden past without a second look. “My father told me Will had offered to buy it back.”
Sky nodded. “It's the only piece of Rimrock land that's ever been sold. I know Will wants it in the family. But he said your father couldn'tâor wouldn'tâsell. Something about a deathbed promise to your grandfather.”
“I wouldn't know about that. But I've heard of the Spanish gold that's supposed to be buried there.”
“Will says that's just a story. Old Fergâyour grandfatherâsifted through every inch of ground and never found it.” Sky glanced upward. “It'll be dark before long. Come on.”
She followed him along the winding trail into the depths of the main canyon. Halting the horses, he swung off the gelding and dropped the reins. Lauren dismounted to stand beside him on the smooth sand at the base of the cliff.
“Look there.” He guided her gaze upward. Stylized figures of men, women, and animals were etched across the cliff face, cast into relief by the slanting light. Lauren could make out warbonneted chiefs, deer, cougars and bison, birds and horsesâdozens of horses, their leaping, galloping poses frozen in time.
“Beautiful . . . and so sad,” Lauren murmured, recalling the history she'd read, how the Comanches had been the finest horsemen on the plains until the army had defeated them in these canyons and slaughtered all their beloved horsesâslaughtered them by the hundreds and hundredsâto make sure the tribe would never rise up again. Here in this place, the heartbreak became real.
Without a word, Sky turned and pulled her into his arms. His kiss was rough and hungry, his sex a straining ridge against her belly. Frantic with need, Lauren melted against him. She wanted his hands on her skin, the weight of him between her legs. She wanted the feel of him thrusting inside her, filling her, owning the secret depths of her body.
Clumsy with eagerness, her hands fumbled with the front of his shirt. With a mutter of impatience he ripped the garment open and tossed it onto the sand. When he took her in his arms again the feel of his golden skin was like being wrapped in sunlight. She breathed in his mossy aroma, her tongue tasting the subtle, salty sweetness in the hollow of his throat, her fingers ranging over his body, coming to rest on a nipple. He groaned as it puckered and hardened beneath her touch.
Freeing the hem of her shirt, he slid his hands up her ribs. The front fastener of her bra came apart with a skillful twist. Lauren's breath caught as his hand closed over one breast, cupping its weight, stroking its sensitive surface. She butted against him, grinding like a stripper to heighten the shimmers that were already rocketing through her body. She was spiraling out of control, and she didn't care. All she knew was that she was dripping wet and she wanted himâevery splendid inch of him.
“Please . . . don't wait,” she muttered.
He chuckled against her ear. “Does that mean the same as
“That comes laterâ” She gasped as he yanked her jeans and lace panties off her hips and lowered her onto the shirt he'd flung to the sand. While she wriggled the rest of the way out of her jeans and boots, he dropped his Wranglers and paused to add protection.
Lauren lay back on the shirt, gazing up at him. Standing there naked with the sunset glowing on his skin, he took her breath away. He was all power and grace, all muscle and sinew and jaw-dropping sex. If ever there was a magnificent figure of a man, it was Sky Fletcher. And for the moment, at least, he was all hers. A freshly healed pink scar, deep and ugly, marked his left side below the ribs. Lauren remembered what Beau had told her about his being shot and almost dying. Right now it was as if his life was a gift to her.
For the space of a breath he turned away to kick his clothes aside. Only then did Lauren see the other scars, faded and white, that streaked across his back like the marks of a whip. The awareness struck her that there was much more to this man than she knew. But right now all she could think of was wanting him.
Her fingers stirred, beckoning him. “Come here, you,” she whispered.
With a raw laugh he dropped between her outstretched legs. Her knees came up to clasp his hips as he pushed into her, gliding on her slickness, his swollen size filling her so tightly that the first climax rushed through her body even before he began to move.
“Oh . . .” she breathed as the wave ebbed.
He grinned down at her transfixed face. “Finished already?” Giggling like a schoolgirl, she pulled his head down for a kiss. His tongue teased hers in a playful dance. With Sky there were no complications, no promises, no guilt, just pure, giddy, mind-blowing pleasure.
He began his thrusts with exquisite restraint, pulling back and sliding in deep, giving her time to feel every subtle change in the contact of their bodies. Soon what began as a delicious tingle rose, swirled, turned urgent. Her breaths became whimpers of need. Her hands clasped his taut buttocks, driving him harder.
She felt his control shatter. Breath rasping, he thrust like a stallion, driving into her deeper, faster, their wild ride ending in a burst of fireworks that would put the Fourth of July to shame.
Sky lay still for a moment, his breath easing out in a long exhalation. Pushing forward, he feathered a kiss on the tip of Lauren's nose. His smile was shameless. “Next time I'd like to show you what can happen when we don't have to hurry,” he said.