His flicker of a smile warmed her. “You're one smart lady, I'll say that for you. But why Blanco Springs? It's nowhere.”
“Because I can still do work for the Prescott Ranch from there, and for Beau as well, if he hasn't fired me by now.” Lauren had realized early on that her only chance with Sky was to get her own place in town, away from her father, but she wasn't about to tell him that.
“I guess Hoyt Axelrod's old house is still vacant. His kids are long gone. They'd probably be glad to sell it.”
“I'll think about it. But the idea of living in that place sounds kind of creepy.”
He laughed. “I know what you mean. If you want, I can ask Tori, Will's ex, for the name of a good Realtor. She'll know somebody.”
“Thanks.” They'd passed the back corner of the house and were headed for Lauren's carânot what she wanted. She put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “When was the last time you had a moonlight dip in a nice, cool swimming pool?”
He hesitated. “Can't say as I recall. Is that an invitation?”
“If you want it to be.” She tugged his arm. “It won't take long. Besidesâ” She wrinkled her nose in mock distaste. “You don't exactly smell like a rose garden. What makes you think I'd allow you in my car?”
“I'm a cowboy. I've put in a long, hot, honest day's work, and I'll be damned if I'm going to apologize for how I smell.”
She laughed, pulling his arm toward the back gate to the patio. “Come on, it'll be fun.”
He gave her a wicked glance as she locked the gate behind them. “Sorry, I didn't bring a bathing suit.”
“What a coincidence. Neither did I.” Lauren tried to sound playful and confident, but her voice quivered. She'd laid everything on the line, coming back to Texas and Skyâand she'd just handed him an open invitation to break her heart.
He was like a wild mustang, proud but wary of being penned. Even if she could rope him, could she keep him? Or would his natural urge to be free draw him away?
He undressed without a trace of self-consciousness, tossing his boots and clothes onto one of the poolside chairs. His splendid body gleamed like a blade as he cut the water in a clean dive.
Seconds later his head broke the surface. He was grinning, water drops streaming like liquid diamonds off his ebony hair. “Not bad,” he said. “I hope you're coming in.”
Lauren had stripped down to her underclothes. His expression changed subtly as she undid the front clasp of her bra. Letting it fall away, she slid her panties off her hips to drop around her ankles. He lay back in the water, watching her.
“Don't move an inch,” he said. “Let me look at you.”
Lauren felt the heat rise in her body, flooding her face with color. She was aware of the way a lock of her long hair curled to frame one small, firm breast. In an era when half the girls she knew were getting breast implants, she'd become overly aware of her modest size, but that seemed to be where Sky's gaze was fixed.
Shying away, she made a leaping dive into the pool and came up a few feet from him, where the bottom was shallow enough to touch with her toes. She held out her arms. “Come here,” she said.
Kicking into the shallows, he gathered her close. The feel of his cool, bare skin against hers was heaven. They kissed hungrily, Lauren nibbling his lower lip and thrusting with her tongue. Their bodies pressed, legs tangling deliciously as his sex rose and hardened against her. She wiggled closer, her blood racing.
“Lauren.” There was an edge to his voice. He disentangled himself and pushed her away from him, his hands resting on her shoulders.
She stared at him. “Whatâ?”
“Listen to me, beautiful lady. Tempting as it might be, I'm not going to make love to you tonight.”
To demand to know why not would be crass. She studied him, waiting for an explanation.
“For one thing, sex underwater doesn't work anywhere near as well as it seems to in the movies.”
He must have tried it, of course.
But this was about something else. “What's the real reason?” she asked, feeling wounded.
“Because I don't want to take this any further in your family home. And because, before we get any more involved, you need to get your feet on the ground.”
“I'm not sure I understand.”
“Look at yourself. You run away. You come back. You talk about moving out and getting a place in Blanco, but it's not a very practical idea, and there's no guarantee you'll do it. If I didn't care about you, it wouldn't matter. But I do careâand what we're doing here is only complicating things.”
The water, which had felt refreshing at first, was becoming chilly. Lauren suppressed a shiver. “Are you trying to break up with me? Because that's the way it sounds.”
He shook his head. “All I'm saying is let's put things on ice till you get settled. I've got work to do and you've got a life to put in order. If this is something more than a summer fling, we'll find out. If not . . .” He shrugged his gleaming shoulders. “If not, at least we'll know.” He traced a fingertip down Lauren's cheek. “Friends?”
Lauren checked the urge to fly at him and leave knuckle bruises on his manly chest. Sky had gotten through to her. He was right, of course. But it still hurt like crazy. She blinked away a tear and forced herself to speak the word.
His hand released her shoulder. “Then what do you say we get dressed and you drive me home?”
No, it was too abrupt, she thought. She needed time to let go of him, to adjust to this new reality with Sky at a distance. “There's chocolate cake and cold milk in the kitchen.” She seized on the first thing that came to mind. “Are you hungry?”
“Lauren, it's after midnightâ” he began, then seemed to sense what she needed. “But I never turn down good chocolate cake.”
“Great.” She pulled herself up the ladder. A laundry basket of clean towels stood next to the pool. After wrapping one around her body, Lauren snatched up her clothes. “I'll leave the kitchen door open. Come in when you're ready.”
Feeling like a sixteen-year-old at the end of a bad prom date, Lauren fled into the house.
Sky climbed out of the pool, toweled himself dry, and began pulling on his clothes. It had been tough, rejecting Lauren like that. As she stood naked in the moonlight, her beauty had left him breathless. And then in the water she'd been so eager, so vulnerableâand his body had been more than ready for her. Taking her and doing what they'd both wanted would've been the most natural thing in the world.
But he'd forced himself to be nobleâand he'd seen the glimmer of her tears. Hurting her had been like slapping a puppy.
It had to be done. Until Lauren figured out who she was, what she wanted, and how to deal with her father, she wouldn't be ready for any kind of stable relationship.
Not that he'd ever been ready himself. When it came to getting a commitment from him, most of the women in his past had thrown up their hands and walked away. But Lauren wasn't like most women. She was stunningly beautiful, scathingly honest, and smart enough to challenge him at every turn. He wanted to get to know her betterâboth in and out of bed.
But before that could happen, she had some serious growing up to do.
Cursing under his breath, he buckled his belt and yanked on his boots. She'd thank him later on. But right now Lauren probably hated him. For all he knew she was going to spit on that chocolate cake she'd promised him. But he'd just have to take his chances.
The kitchen light was on. Lauren was standing at the cluttered counter cutting generous wedges of chocolate layer cake. She was fully dressed, her damp hair twisted up and fastened with a silver clip.
“Sorry about the mess,” she said, as if nothing had happened between them. “Miguel's a terrific cook, but he's not the tidiest. Go on into the dining room and have a seat at the table. That's where we serve our guests.”
Sky passed through the swinging door into the dining room, where a chandelier fashioned from deer antlers dangled above the long tableâprobably Ferg Prescott's idea of good old Texas decor. The brown walls were hung with family photographs. Sky gave them a passing glance before he sat down at the head of the table, where Lauren had set two places. Sky was filling the glasses from a carton of milk when she came in with two saucers of cake. As she sat down and passed him his slice, she gave him a smile. Her eyes looked watery, as if she might have been crying. Sky felt like a jerk, but he couldn't cave in now. His decision had been made with the best intentions. He had to believe he'd done the right thing.
“Good cake.” He washed down a bite with a swallow of milk.
“Thanks. I made it myself. From scratch.” Her expression was bland, totally believable.
“I didn't know you could cook.”
“You'd be surprised. I'm a regular little domestic goddess. I even sewed the curtains for my bedroom. And I'm knitting Daddy a sweater for his birthday. I have lots of hidden talents.”
The deepening of a dimple gave her away. “Laurenâ”
She dissolved into giggles. “Admit it! I had you going, didn't I?”
“Only for the first few seconds.” Damn her, the woman was an adorable rascal. He had to restrain himself from grabbing her and kissing her silly. “Something tells me the most domestic thing you do is order takeout.”
Lauren took a dainty forkful of cake. “I'm a good decorator, given enough money. Take this ghastly dining room. I've sat here imagining what I'd do with it. That god-awful chandelier would go first. I'd keep the photos, because they're family history, but I'd put them in matching black frames, with pearl gray linen matsâ” She broke off. “What is it, Sky? Is something the matter?”
Sky had barely heard what she was saying. He was staring at the large black-and-white group photo above the far end of the table. His throat had gone dry as ash.
“That woman in the Reagan picture.” He forced himself to speak in a conversational tone. “The tall, dark one on the far side, with the tray. She looks familiar. Do you know anything about her?”
“Not much, I'm afraid. I noticed her earlier and asked my father. He couldn't even remember her name. He said she was the maid and that she'd left while he was away at school. That was all he could tell me. But isn't she beautiful? A woman like that could be a supermodel or even a movie star.” Lauren glanced at Sky. “You say she looks familiar. Do you know her?”
“No. She looks Comanche. Maybe she's some distant relative.” He had to lie. How could he tell Lauren the truth when he could barely process it himself?
His mother, Marie Joslyn Fletcher, had worked as a maid for Ferg Prescott's family.
Sky had done his best to listen to Lauren's small talk as she drove him home. Lauren was a classy lady. She was trying to put a good face on things, and he respected her for that. But it was hard to focus on what she was saying when his thoughts were milling like cattle on the verge of a stampede.
What had happened between Bull and his mother? Had Bull met her on a visit to the Prescott ranch? Had she come to him willingly or, heaven forbid, had he forced himself on her? Had they cared for each other at all?
Bull must have found out she was pregnant. How else would Jasper have known? And how else, when Sky had shown up sixteen years later, could Bull have been so sure that the boy was his son?
Jasper had offered to tell him everything. But did he really want to hear it? He hated the way his gut clenched when he thought about the things he'd already learned. What good would it do to know more?
Maybe someday he'd be ready to hear the whole story. But would Jasper be there to tell him, or would the old cowboy, Bull's one steadfast friend, take the secrets to his grave?
Lauren had turned the car off the paved road, onto the long gravel drive that led up to the house. She'd put the top down on the Corvette and unpinned her long, coppery hair to let it blow in the moonlight. She was putting up a good front, but Sky knew the hurt was there.
“Where'd you get this car, anyway?” he asked, filling the silence. “I can't imagine you bought it around here, and I know you didn't drive it all the way from Maryland.”
Her laugh sounded fake. “You didn't know about my grandfather's collection? Ferg Prescott left behind a whole garage full of vintage cars, most of them still working. That's where my father got his Cadillac. I chose this little Corvette to drive while I'm here.”
“That collection must be worth a lot.”
“A small fortune. But I can't imagine selling even one of them. They're like the family treasure.”