I forced my feet to continue on to my truck, Bessie, in my cutsie-poo cheerleading outfit that I suddenly, desperately wished I wasn’t wearing. It screamed high school. A second ago, I hadn’t cared about that at all. I’d been focused entirely on getting to our extra practice session to prep for a couple of end-of-year pep rallies and senior year farewells. After seeing Declan: mental mush.
So much hard muscle. That solid jaw, the way he hooked a thumb in his jeans, all cocky, rugged, masculinity. I climbed into my pickup. I needed the A/C on. Too bad it had broken a couple of years ago.
“Be back by eight. It’s still a school night,” Daddy called after me like I was 12, not 18 going on 19.
“OK!” I smiled brightly—at my father, not Declan. I still hadn’t met his eyes, didn’t intend to either.
“I only get to say that for three more weeks! My baby’s growing up!”
“Yup.” My smile grew tight as I threw Bessie into gear. The closer I got to high school graduation, the more nostalgic he got. Again, it usually didn’t bother me, just old dad having a moment, but now, in front of Declan? What would he do next, hand me a stuffed animal or a brown bagged lunch with my name written on it? I knew he babied me, especially since he’d raised me on his own, but there was a time and a place.
I couldn’t help it, like a small piece of metal near a powerful magnet, my gaze drifted over to Declan. He was watching me, taking me in with his dark eyes, a smirk I recognized all too well spread across his handsome face. I gunned the engine and took off.
Still shaking as I drove down the road, my heart beat out of my chest. I was as breathless as the president of a teenage fan club who’d just met the Hollywood heartthrob of her dreams.
I had to get a grip. What exactly did I think would happen with Declan? The problem was thinking didn’t much factor into the equation. My stupid heart played it out like a Nicholas Sparks movie. It would start to rain late one night and he’d come to me, shirt plastered to his broad, muscled chest, shaking with emotion as he clasped me in his embrace and pledged his undying love.
I took a deep breath and turned up the tunes on the radio. I was a senior about to graduate. I had a boyfriend. I had things to do and people to see. From that moment on I wouldn’t even give Declan the time of day.
My plan lasted three days. Then Daddy asked me to bring something out to Bill in the barn. He was an old confirmed bachelor, set in his ways and independent to the core. But he was getting on in years, slower than he used to be, so when my dad asked me to bring something out for him, I didn’t mind. Especially late in the day when no one was likely to be in the barn, long past quitting time.
The sun lay low, close to setting in the sky. Light pink, dark purple, dusky gray, I didn’t think I’d ever tire of looking at our Montana sky. Not during a sunset, that was for sure.
“Better watch where you’re going.” A low, sly voice ruined my reverie.
I looked down and, sure enough, I’d come real close to tripping over a large tractor part. I stepped around it, cursing myself for wearing flip flops. A sundress and casual shoes worked in the kitchen, not out here.
“Shouldn’t wear flip flops over here,” Declan continued to admonish me. He stood in the entrance of the barn, working his way through cleaning and polishing a line of saddles. I hadn’t expected anyone to be there. I’d forgotten how Declan never quit working.
He didn’t have on a shirt. He looked like a portrait of rippled, corded muscle. The flat ridges of his abs, the definition of his pecs, even his forearms looked sexy with a few veins and a dusting of hair. Declan stood up and threw on a plaid shirt he had tossed to the side. I must have been standing there staring, my jaw dropped on the ground. I looked down in embarrassment.
“What are you doing here?” He always spoke to me with that tone of voice, like I was an annoyance, a bother.
I sighed and held up a package. “Dad asked me to bring this out for Bill.”
“You can put it over there.” Declan gestured to a workbench.
“I know where I can put it.” I’d lived there my whole life.
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch.” I threw down the package. “Careful with that.” He took a step over, like he needed to catch it from falling.
“You don’t even know what’s in it.” I sounded like a petulant child.
I shrugged. He stood closer to me now, his shirt unbuttoned, hanging loose over his finely toned chest. I swallowed and looked away. He returned to the saddles.
“Damn things.” He flicked a broken strap with a finger. “Lot of stuff around here needs an upgrade. Place I was at last…” He shook his head.
“Where did you work last?” A nugget about him! I felt so ea
“Did you like it there more than here?” He shrugged. “Do you like working here?”
“It’s a paying job,” he said. “A man’s got to eat.”
“You make it sound like it’s torture.”
“Only sometimes.” He gave me a sideways smile. What was he talking about? Why did he smile at me like that? I felt my cheeks flush.
“What was the last ranch like?” I couldn’t help asking. I wished I could stop myself from talking, wished I could walk right out of the barn, but I couldn’t. I was too fascinated by this man. I had to find out as much about him as I could, stay near to him as long as he’d let me.
“You’re full of questions, kid.”
And there was the slap across my face I’d been expecting. He was such an arrogant bastard. “I’m not a kid! I’m 18 going on 19!”
“Are you 18 and three quarters?” he teased.
Even pissed off, I had to smile, just a bit. I did sound like a little kid, insisting on counting the fractions of the year. It was his fault, though, always making me feel like a baby. I paused, readying myself to go when he surprised me by speaking again.
“The ranch I’m heading to next seems pretty cool. They’re turning it into a resort.”
“You know, for tourists. So they can come and stay and play ranch hand for a while.”
I’d heard of a couple of places doing that, catering to the wealthy and powerful who liked to vacation in America’s wilds. “How does it work, though? Don’t they mess everything up?”
Declan chuckled and shook his head. “They don’t actually do any work. You make them think they are. They ride around on horses, make a big mess with the hay. The brave ones do some branding.”
“And they pay to do that?”
“You wouldn’t believe how much.” Declan grew animated, a light in his eyes. “Kara, there’s a future in this, I can see it. You give these people a taste of life out here and they eat it up. They’ll pay crazy money to live like a cowboy for a week.”