I walked toward them and he watched me, leaning against our house with one big boot up against the shingles like he owned the place. Under his gaze I walked unsteady on my feet in my own yard. I felt so excruciatingly self-aware, my bare legs, the tiny skirt of my silly uniform. I wished I’d already changed before I met this guy. It seemed so juvenile, like I’d been caught playing with my old Barbie dolls. Cheerleading suddenly seemed so… high school. He looked like he’d traveled to faraway places I’d never heard of and though he didn’t really look that much older than me he seemed like he already understood more about life than I ever would. Somehow he looked aloof, a million miles away, even though he stood right there before me in dusty boots and jeans.
A lick of a tattoo slid out under the sleeve of his t-shirt, coiling around the bulge of his bicep. I wondered what it was. It looked like it might be the tip of a snake, but then as I got closer I thought I saw a pattern.
Sensing my interest, he crossed his arms against his chest and brought his hands up over his arms. I couldn’t see the tattoo anymore. I could see him stare me down cold, unfriendly, almost reprimanding.
I bit my lip and looked down at the dirt. He’d caught me checking him out. And he didn’t want me to. How embarrassing.
“This here’s my little girl, Kara.” My daddy gave me a pat on the head like I was five.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said to Declan, cool and polite, trying save face like I hadn’t just left a trail of drool walking over to him.
He nodded in response, dismissive.
Turning toward my father, my smile came back. “Daddy, can I head out to the lake tonight? A bunch of us want to hang out.”
“Is Bruce taking you?”
“Course you can, princess.”
Oh, no. The nickname he’d been using since I was a little kid. Every photo from the ages of three to five showed me in some kind of princess costume. I’d loved it all, funny pointed hats with satin streamers out the top, sparkly wands, and of course the big, poofy gowns I’d worn until they were nothing but tattered rags. My father had indulged me, his only child, the only girl on his big ranch. And until now, princess had seemed like a sweet term of endearment. Now, though? I felt as dumb as an 18-year-old with some corny dress-up princess hat on top of my head. Why couldn’t he have just used my name?
Sure enough, Declan had a smirk on his face. Not the kind you could see breaking into a big, fun laugh. A quiet kind, real controlled, that could be gone in an instant.
“Declan’ll be staying down in the old cabin,” my father said. “Until September.”
His level, cool gaze made me shiver. I couldn’t see much of his hair underneath that cowboy hat, but I could tell it was dark. I could picture it hanging low across his forehead like the lead singer of my favorite band. Only I was pretty sure Declan would get himself kicked out of a band in about 60 seconds. He looked dangerous, the way his eyes narrowed, watchful. He kept one fist balled at his side, and even though he leaned against the house, his chest stayed strong and solid like a cobra waiting to strike. He looked like he’d been in a lot of fights. And I bet most of them he’d won.
“Have a good time, sugar.” Daddy gave me another smile, then turned his attention back to Declan. I headed straight into the house. I had places to go and people to see. I wasn’t going to let that guy rattle me, no matter how deadly sexy he was.
But later that night as I sat around the bonfire with all my friends, Bruce goofing around like he couldn’t toast a marshmallow right for me so he could keep eating them all himself, my mind wandered. What was Declan up to right then? Was he back in the old cabin? I wondered if we even had a TV set in there for him. The last person to live there had been an older guy who’d come round several summers to help out when things got busy. But that had been a while ago. Had anyone even tidied things up?
Maybe Declan had gone out into town? We didn’t have much going on, but there were a couple of places. There was the grill that stayed open until about eleven and had a decent dartboard in back. But if I had to guess, I’d bet he headed down to the Silver Dollar Saloon. I frowned at the thought. I’d never been into the bar, of course, and my daddy had warned me he never did want to see me hanging around that place. I could see why. Late at night if we ever drove past the parking lot, it would be full of 18-wheelers, motorcycles, clusters of men smoking and drinking and more than likely a fistfight. Basically it was on the corner of seedy and rowdy. One time I’d seen a man with a woman up against his truck and I couldn’t be sure, we were driving fast and it was late, but under the streetlight it sure looked like they were doing more than just kissing.
Had Declan gone there? And if he had, who was he with? Instantly, I pictured Darlene with her dark red lipstick and knowing smile. She’d graduated a few years ahead of me. She specialized in jean skirts that barely covered her you-know-what and fishnet stockings, usually with a few holes ripped into them. Real classy. My frown deepened.
“I’m just playing.” Bruce elbowed me and handed me a toasted marshmallow. “You knew I was going to give you one.”
I smiled at him and his attention turned back to the group. A couple of guys were horsing around and pretending to swordfight with some sticks, like they should be wearing pirate costumes or something. I wondered what Declan would think of it all, hicks out goofing off the same way we had ever since we were kids.
“Last one in has to haul it all!” One of Bruce’s friends yelled out, then raced toward the lake. I knew better than to ignore that threat. I didn’t want to have to lug a cooler and a couple of beach blankets up through the sand. I peeled off my shorts and shirt ran like the wind, dusting more than a few of my tipsier friends as I tore down to the shore and dove into the cool, clear water.
It wasn’t until late that night that my mind returned once again to Declan. I lay in bed and realized that from the window in my room I could see his cabin. At night I would be able to tell what he was up to, if he was in and awake. Tonight he was either asleep or still out. His window was dark.
I had to admit, I was a little surprised that Daddy had hired him. Declan looked like trouble. He was no mild-mannered hermit who barely managed a “thank you, ma’am” if I fixed some sandwiches for the guys for lunch. We’d had a bunch of those types before, seasonal workers just passing through, drifting through life. My father was pretty good at picking out the trustworthy from the troublesome characters, and so far they’d all been harmless. A little lost, maybe, but they’d never caused any problems.
Declan looked hungry. His eyes burned something fierce. I’d met him for all of a minute and I didn’t know what I was talking about, not really, but it was a feeling I had. I couldn’t see him aimlessly bouncing around like this for long, picking up seasonal work on other people’s ranches. He seemed destined for something more. Maybe that’s why my daddy had hired him. Maybe he thought we could use a little more fire in the furnace, maybe even a few new ideas. That’d be interesting.
My head on my soft pillow, a warm spring breeze blew in gentle through the open window, making my white cotton curtains slowly undulate. It was the kind of night you loved to fall asleep, closing your eyes with a smile on your face.
Only tonight, I stayed awake for a while. I had some vivid images in my mind. A strong, masculine jaw set hard like something had made him angry. Corded muscles that had bulged when he’d crossed his arms across his chest. Worn jeans that hung low on his lean hips.
I’d never given much thought to that kind of guy before. We had a few of the dark and dangerous types in my high school. You’d pass them on the way to gym while they smoked a cigarette, skipping some class or another. U
sually it didn’t take long before they dropped out, got arrested or both. I knew some girls went in for that stuff. I wasn’t one of them.
My boyfriend Bruce was a good guy. He was about to head off to U Montana to get his four-year college degree just like his father before him. He’d make some girl real happy someday, I knew that much. I didn’t know about that far down along the line myself, but I did know that right now we fit together like two puzzle pieces. You didn’t even have to think about it, it just worked. Easy.
But Declan. All rough edges and darkness, like you’d never exactly know what he’d say or do next. He seemed dangerous somehow, not violent but exuding a kind of raw power I felt helplessly drawn to, even when I knew I shouldn’t be. He was like a fantasy I didn’t even know I had.
“Are you OK?” A woman with a kind face and a baby stroller stopped by my side.
Doubled over, hands on my thighs, I took a few deep gulps of air. Then I stood up, put on a fake smile and lied through my teeth. “Fine, thanks!”
Outside Declan’s office building, I didn’t know which way to turn. I did know that I needed to calm the hell down after seeing that man again for the first time in six long years.
What had happened up there in his office? He hadn’t said yes, but he hadn’t said no. He’d sat there and surveyed me, all wealth and power. I’d never seen him in a suit before. The shirt taut against his broad chest, his jacket tailored to meet the wide expanse of his shoulders, he looked right at home behind his massive desk, a king on his throne. Yet somehow he still looked like he might strip off the constraints at any moment, unleashing the beast within. The intense, hungry look in his eyes and his tanned skin contrasted with the crisp, white shirt collar, the masculine virility of him wrapped in a suit.
His jet black hair was cropped shorter now than before, all business. But he had the same chiseled jaw, the same mouth I still dreamed of six years later. The same dark, restless heat