Mail-Order Bridegroom

Day Leclaire

Book Donated By A Fellow Reader

PROLOGUE

husband wanted!

Woman rancher in immediate and desperate need of a man!  Interested applicants should:

1.  Be 25-45 years of age and looking for a permanent relationship–a kind and gentle personality is a plus!

2.  Have extensive ranching background–be able to sit a horse, deal fairly with employees, herd cattle, etc. 
3.  Have solid business know-how–particularly the type necessary to please a bullheaded banker. 

I am a twenty-six-year-old woman and can offer you a comfortable home, three square meals and some of the most beautiful scenery in Texas Hill Country.
(Details of a more personal nature are open to negotiation.  )

Interested parties should send a letter of introduction, a resume and references to ‘Miss Bluebonnet’, Box 42, Crossroads, Texas.

Hunter Pryde picked up the newspaper ad and reread it, a remorseless smile edging his mouth.  So Leah was in ‘desperate need’ of a husband.

How interesting.  How very, very interesting. 

CHAPTER ONE

“This will be a real marriage, right? ” the applicant interrupted. “I cain’t take over the place ‘lessen it’s a real marriage.”

Leah glanced up from the resume of one Titus T.  Culpepper and regarded the man in question with a cool gaze.

“Could you by any chance be referring to your conjugal rights, Mr Culpepper?”

“If that means us sleepin’ together, then that’s what I’m referring to. Hell, yes, I mean conjugal rights.”  He rocked his chair back on to two legs, her grandmother’s precious Chippendale groaning beneath his bulky
frame.

“You’re a fine-looking woman, Miz Hampton.  Always was partial to blue-eyed blondes.”

She stiffened, struggling to hide her distaste.

“I’m… flattered, but–‘

” Like a bit of sweet-talk, do you?  ” He offered a toothy grin.

“So long as it’ll get me what I want, I don’t mind.  Because as far as I’m concerned there’s not much point in getting’ hitched if we ain’t gonna
share a bed.”

“I think any discussion about rights–conjugal or otherwise — is a trifle premature at this point,” she informed him shortly.  Especially when she intended to find a nice, tame husband, willing to agree to a safe,
platonic relationship.  One brief, youthful brush with the more volatile type of emotions had been quite sufficient.

“About your resume, Mr Culpepper-“

“Titus T. “

“Pardon me?”

“Most folks call me Titus T.  Ifn we’re to be wed, you might as well get used to calling me by my proper name.”  He winked.

“I see.”  Leah glanced at the papers before her with a jaundiced eye.

This interview was definitely not turning out as she’d hoped.

Unfortunately she’d already eliminated all the other applicants, except Titus T.  and one other–H.  P.  Smith, her final interview of the day.  She
didn’t have any choice but to give Mr Culpepper a fair and thorough hearing.

“It says here that you have extensive ranching experience.”

“Fact is, it was a farm I ran.  But ranch… farm.”  He shrugged.

“Same difference.  So long’s I can tell which end of a cow to stick the bucket under it don’t matter, right?”

She stared, appalled.

“Actually, it does.”

“Not to my way of thinking.”  Before she had a chance to argue the point he leaned forward, studying her intently.  “Your ad also says you need a businessman.  Why’s that?”

He’d hit on the main reason for her ad.  While she could run a ranch with no problem, she needed a husband well- skilled in business to handle her financial obligations.

Leah hesitated, reluctant to explain the precariousness of her monetary situation, but knowing she didn’t have much choice.

“The ranch is experiencing financial difficulties,” she admitted.

“In all honesty, we face bankruptcy if I can’t obtain a loan.  Our banker suggested that if I were married to an experienced rancher who had a strong business background they’d be willing to make that loan. That’s
why I placed the ad. “

Titus T.  nodded, a thoughtful frown creasing his brow.  “I can understand a sweet thing like you having trouble with ciphering, so I’d be more than happy to keep track of the money for you.”  An expansive smile slid across his face.  “Matter of fact, it might be a good idea to put all the accounts and such in my name for safekeeping.  Then I’ll talk the bank into giving us a nice fat loan. Don’t you worry your head none about that.  “

Leah fought to conceal her horror.  There wasn’t any point in continuing
the interview.  She knew a con-man when she met one.  How had she managed to get herself into this predicament?  She should have found some excuse the minute he opened his mouth.  If she hadn’t been so desperate, she would have. Determined to tread warily, she inclined her head, as though she found his every word to be perfectly acceptable.

“Of course.  I don’t see any problem with that,” she lied without a
qualm, and stood, brushing her waist-length braid back over her shoulder.

“But I’m afraid our time is up.  My next appointment is due any minute.” 
She could only pray that the final applicant would prove more suitable. 
The alternatives were unthinkable.

“Now, Miz Hampton…”

“I appreciate your coming,” she said, not giving him an opportunity to
debate the issue.  Loath as she was to come out from behind the
protection of her father’s huge oak desk, she wanted Titus T.  Culpepper
out of her study and on his way.  Heading for the door, she kept a wary
eye on him, hoping it wouldn’t be necessary to call for Patrick, her
foreman.

“I’ll be making my decision in the next few days and will let you know.”

A trifle reluctantly he gained his feet and approached.  “You best think
about one more thing afore you make that decision.”

She never saw it coming.  Moving with amazing speed for a man of his
size, he closed the distance separating them and snatched her into his
arms.  She turned her head just in time, his clumsy attempt at a kiss
landing on her cheek instead of her mouth.

“Come on, sweet pea” he growled, tightening his hold.  “How’re you gonna
know what sort of husband I’d be without a smooch or two? “

“Let go of me!”

Thoroughly disgusted and more than a little frightened, she fought his
hold with a desperation that must have taken him by surprise, for his
grip slackened just enough for her to wriggle out of his embrace.

Taking instant advantage, Leah bolted across the room to the gun-rack.
Snatching free her rifle, she rammed several slugs into the magazine and
confronted Titus T.  “Time to leave, Mr Culpepper.  And I do mean now,”
she announced in a furious voice, giving him a brisk poke in the gut with
the barrel of the rifle.

To her relief, he didn’t require any further encouragement. His hands
shot into the air and he took a hasty step backward.

“Now, Miz Hampton,” he protested.

“No need to get yourself in an uproar.  It were jez a kiss.  If we’re to
be

wed-“

“I think you can forget that idea,” she cut in with conviction. Wisps of
silver-blonde hair drifted into her eyes, but she didn’t dare release her
grip on the rifle long enough to push them back.

He glared in outrage.

“You sayin’ no because of a little bitty kiss? Unless you marry a mouse,
any man worthy of the name’s gonna want a hell of a lot more from you
than that. “

She refused to debate the point. Especially when she’d lose the argument.
It was the one detail in this whole crazy scheme that she preferred not
to dwell on.

“It’s not your problem, Mr Culpepper, since you won’t be that man.”

“Damned tootin’.”  He reached out and snatched a battered hat from off
the rack by the study door.

“Don’t know why you put an ad in the paper, ifn you didn’t want a real
husband.  False advertising, that’s what I call it.”

He stomped from the room and Leah followed, still carrying the rifle.

No point in taking unnecessary risks. If nothing else, it would give
Titus T.  pause should he decide to turn amorous again.  She needn’t have
worried. Without another word, he marched across the front porch and down
the steps. Climbing into his battered flatbed truck, he slammed the rusty
door closed. A minute later he disappeared down the drive.

Watching him leave, Leah’s shoulders sagged.

“I must have been crazy to believe this would work,” she muttered,
rubbing a weary hand across her brow.

“What am I doing?”

But she knew the answer to that.  She was doing exactly what her father
would have wanted her to do when faced with a buy-out attempt from one of
the largest and most ruthless companies in the state: protecting the
ranch and her grandmother by marrying.  While every last ranch in the
area had caved in to Lyon Enterprises’ ruthless tactics and sold their
property, Hampton Homestead remained firm.

Even completely surrounded by the ‘enemy’, they refused to sell, no
matter what.

Of course, there had been no other choice but to defy Lyon.  For, as much
as the ranch meant to Leah, it meant even more to Grandmother Rose.  And
Leah would do anything for her grandmother.  Anything.  Even stand up to
a huge, ruthless company against overwhelming odds.  Even offer herself
in marriage in order to get the money necessary to win their fight.

“We’re not selling the place; I don’t care what dirty tricks they pull,”
the elderly woman had announced just that morning, after the latest offer
from Lyon Enterprises had arrived.

“The only way they’ll get me out of here is in a pine box!  My
grandfather died fighting for this land.  So did my father.  And so will
I, if that’s what it comes to.”

Then she’d crossed her skinny arms across her nonexistent bosom, stuck
her chin in the air and squeezed her eyes closed, as though waiting for
the undertaker to arrive.

But Leah had believed her.  If the ranch went bankrupt and they were
forced off the land, it would kill her grandmother.  It was that simple. 
Keeping the ranch in the family was essential, which meant finding a
solution to their current predicament.  The problem was, unless she found
a way to pry some money from the local bank, losing the ranch would soon
be inevitable.

It had taken three long years of arguing to realize that the bank
wouldn’t loan money to a single woman in her mid-twenties.  They’d proven
especially reluctant when they’d discovered that she alone shouldered the
financial burden of an elderly grandmother and a ranch full of human and
animal ‘lame ducks’.  Learning of this year’s running battle to prevent a
take-over bid from one of the most powerful companies in the state gave
them the best excuse of all to refuse any aid.

On the other hand, she’d recently been told that lending money to a
family whose male head consisted in equal parts of a businessman and a
rancher was a different proposition altogether.  And, though she didn’t
fully understand why that should matter, it provided the loophole for
which she’d been so desperately searching.

She took instant advantage.  She immediately set out to find herself just
such a husband, even if it meant putting an ad in the paper and offering
herself to the highest bidder.  She frowned, thinking of Titus T.
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be offering herself to any of the applicants
she’d interviewed to date.

What she really needed was a knight in shining armor to come riding up
her drive, ready and able to slay all her dragons.  A foolish wish, she
knew. But still.  Some silly, romantic part of her couldn’t help dreaming
for the impossible.

Leah glanced at her watch.  Her final interview should arrive any time. 
She could only hope that he’d prove more acceptable than the
others-docile enough to agree to all her demands and yet skilled enough
in business matters to satisfy the bank.  As though in response to her
silent wish, a solitary rider appeared over a low ridge, shadowed black
against the burnt-orange glow of a low-hanging sun.  She shaded her eyes
and studied him with keen curiosity.  Could this be H. P. Smith, her
final applicant?

He rode easily, at home in the saddle, swaying with a natural, effortless
rhythm.  Even from a distance she could tell that his horse was a
beauty-the pale tan coat without a blemish, the ebony mane and tail
gleaming beneath the golden rays of a setting sun.  The animal was also a
handful.  But a handful he mastered without difficulty.

She frowned, something about him bothering her.  If only she could figure
out what. Then it hit her.  She knew the man.  On some basic, intuitive
level she recognized the way he sat his horse, the simple, decisive
manner with which he controlled the animal, the square, authoritative set
of his shoulders.  Even the angle of his hat was faintly familiar.

But who the hell was he?

She waited and watched, intent on the stranger’s every movement.  He rode
into the yard as though he owned the place. As though he were lord here
and her purpose in life was to cater to his every pleasure.  From beneath
the brim of his hat Leah caught a glimpse of jet-black hair and deep-
set, watchful eyes, his shadowed features taut and angled, as though hewn
from granite.  Then he dismounted, tying his buckskin to the hitching
post.  Not giving the vaguest acknowledgement, he turned to cross the
yard toward her.

He stripped his gloves from his hands as he came, tucking them into his
belt, and she found herself staring at those hands, at the strength and
power conveyed by his loosely held fists.  She knew those hands.  But
where?  A flash of memory hit her–the gentle sweep of callused fingers
against her breasts, tender and yet forceful, pain mixed with
ecstasy–and she gasped.

And that was when he looked up.

Full sunlight cast the shadow from his face and revealed to her the
threat–and the promise–in his cold black eyes.  In that instant she
realized who he was, and why he’d come.

“This just isn’t my day,” she muttered and, acting on blind instinct,
shouldered her rifle and fired.

The first blast cratered the ground a foot in front of him.  He didn’t
flinch.  He didn’t even break stride.  He came at her, his steady gaze
fixed firmly on her face.  She jacked out the shell and pumped another
into the chamber.  The second blast landed square between his boots,
showering the black leather with dirt and debris.  Still he kept coming,
faster now, hard-packed muscle moving with cat-like speed.

She wasn’t given the opportunity to get off another round.

He hit the porch steps two at a time.  Not hesitating a moment, he
grabbed the barrel of the rifle and yanked it from her grasp, tossing it
aside.  His hands landed heavily on her shoulder, catapulting her
straight into his arms. With a muffled shriek, she grabbed a fistful of
shirt to keep from falling.

“You never were much of a shot,” he said, his voice low and rough.

And then he kissed her.

His kiss was everything she remembered and more.  He’d always combined
strength with tenderness, but now there was also a ruthless demand to his
kiss, a fierce assault on both mind and body that held her stunned and
unmoving.  His mouth shifted over hers, subduing any hint of resistance,
taking with a relentless thirst, but also giving a wealth of passion in
return.  One hand settled low on her back, arching her into the tight
cradle of his thighs.  His other hand slid up her spine, beneath the
heavy fall of her braid, his fingers thrusting through the silken strands
other hair and cupping her head.

Unable to help herself, she felt her arms tighten around him, discovering
again the breadth of his shoulders and the lean, compact muscles
sculpting his ribs and chest.  With trembling fingers she searched out
the tiny mole that hid in the hollow at the base of his throat, knowing
that she should fight him, that she should end this farce.  But somehow
she couldn’t.  He’d been her first lover . Her only lover.  There was a
connection between them that could never be severed, much as she might
wish it otherwise.

He deepened the kiss between them, his thumb sliding along her jaw to the
corner of her mouth and teasing the sensitive spot until her lips parted
beneath his.  To her shame, she kissed him back, kissed him with eight
lonely years’ worth of pent-up yearning.  She needed this moment out of
time, and part of her rejoiced in the exquisite memories his touch
resurrected.  She came alive in his arms, became the woman she’d once
been. But another part of her, the part that had suffered at his hands,
knew the clanger knew the price she’d pay for allowing him to sweep away
the barriers she’d fought so hard to build. She couldn’t afford to feel
again. She’d almost been destroyed once by this man; she wouldn’t offer
him the opportunity to complete the job.

He kissed her at length, the conqueror staking his claim, and a small
growl of satisfaction rumbled deep in his chest.  It was that tiny sound
which finally brought her to her senses.  She fought her way free of his
embrace and retreated several steps across the porch.

Raising trembling fingers to her mouth, she stared at him.  stared in
stunned disbelief at Hunter Pryde–the one man she’d hoped never to see
again.

He returned her look, his expression one of cool amusement.

“Hello, Leah,” he said.

“It’s been a long time.”

His careless words brought a world of hurt.  She struggled to conceal her
devastation, to hide the pain his kiss had resurrected.  After all that
had gone before, after all they had once meant to each other, how could
he be so casual, so heartless?  Hadn’t he caused enough anguish by
walking out on her without this?

“It hasn’t been long enough, as far as I’m concerned. Why are you here.
Hunter?”  she demanded in a raw voice. “What do you want?”

He smiled briefly, a flash of white teeth in a bronzed face.

“You know what I want. The same thing I’ve always wanted.”

She shook her head in desperation.

“No. Not the ranch.”

“The ranch?  Try again, Leah.”  He reached into his shirt pocket and
retrieved a newspaper clipping.

“I’ve come in response to your ad.”

A small gasp escaped.

“You can’t be serious,” she protested.

“I’m very serious.”

His voice held an implicit warning and she took another unthinking step
away from him.

“You … you can’t do this.  You don’t even have an appointment!”  She
used the first ridiculous excuse that occurred to her, but she was
grasping at straws and they both knew it.

“Would you have given me one?” he asked, seemingly content to play the
game her way.  For now.

“Not a chance.”

“No.  I didn’t think so.  Which is why I answered your ad under the name
HP.

Smith.”

Briefly, she shut her eyes.  After her experience with Titus T. 
Culpepper, she’d pinned ridiculously high hopes on the unknown H. P.
Smith.  So much for dreaming of a knight in shining armor.  Hunter Pryde
was no knight–a former lover, a one-time wrangler on her father’s ranch,
and a thief who’d stolen her heart before vanishing like the morning
mist–but no knight.  More likely he’d prove to be one more battle she’d
have to fight and win.

He tucked her ad back into his shirt pocket and cupped her elbow.

“Inside, Leah.  We have a lot to discuss.”

“No!”  she protested, yanking free of his grasp.

“I have nothing to discuss with you.”

He bent down, picked up her rifle and emptied the chamber of shells.

He stared first at the slugs in his hand, then at her.

“I suggest you reconsider,” he told her.

It took every ounce of self-possession not to apologize for shooting at
him. She faced him, hands planted on her hips.

“You’re not wanted here.”  She gestured toward the rifle, adding drily,

“You should have taken the hint.”

“Last chance, Leah.  You don’t want to fight me on this.”

The words were arctic-cold, the threat inexorable.  He gazed down at her,
and the expression in his eyes almost stopped her breath.  Why did he
look at her like that–as though all the sins in the world could be laid
at her doorstep and he’d come to exact retribution?  She’d done nothing
to him, except love him.  And he’d repaid that love with desertion.  His
fierce gaze continued to hold her, and with a sudden, gut-wrenching
certainty she realized that somehow she’d wronged him and he’d come to
even the score.  She fought a mind-numbing panic.  If she succumbed to
panic she didn’t stand a chance against him.

Instinct urged her to throw him off her property and be done with it.

But she didn’t have that luxury.  Knowing him, he wouldn’t go until he’d
had his say. Instead, she’d handle this in a calm, intelligent manner. 
She’d hear him out–not that she had much choice in the matter.  Then
she’d throw him off her property.

“Leah,” Hunter prompted in a surprisingly gentle voice.

She didn’t allow his mildness to mislead her.  The softer he spoke, the
more dangerous he became.  Right now, he was deadly serious.

“All right, Hunter.”  She forced out the words.

“We’ll play it your way … for the time being.”

He rattled the rifle-slugs fisted in his hand, the sound more sinister
than any made by a diamond-back snake.  Settling his hat more firmly on
his head, he snagged her elbow, his grip firm and purposeful.

“Let’s go.”

She didn’t flinch.  Instead, she allowed herself to be drawn into the
house. Peeking up at his rigid features, she released a silent sigh.

With no rescue in sight, it looked as if she’d fight this battle alone. 
And she could, too.

So long as he didn’t touch her again.

Once inside the study.  Hunter closed the door and crossed to the far
wall, where the family photos hung.  He paused, assessing them, one in
particular seeming to capture his attention.  It had been taken around
the time he’d known her; she’d been just eighteen.

In the picture she sat on a fence-rail, faded jeans clinging to her
coltish legs, a sleeveless checked shirt revealing slim, sun-browned
arms.  She stared off into the distance, a half- smile curving her mouth,
her gaze unfocused as though her thoughts were far, far away.

Just as the picture had been snapped she’d raised a hand to her cheek,
brushing a stray curl from her face.

“I expected your hair to have darkened.”  He glanced from the photo to
Leah.

“It hasn’t.  It’s still almost silver.  As I recall, it used to flow
through my fingers like silk.  I wonder if it still would.”

“Stop it, Hunter,” she ordered tightly.

He glanced back at the photo.

“It doesn’t do you justice, you know.”

“What, the picture?”  She shrugged uneasily.

“If you say so.  I think it looks just like I used to.”

“Not quite.”  His mouth curled to one side.

“It doesn’t show the passion… nor the ruthlessness.  Even at that age
you had a surplus of both.”  He turned to study her.

“Do you still?”

Her mouth tightened.

“I’ve changed a lot since then.  You figure out how.”

Turning away, she took a stance behind the huge oak desk, hoping it would
put her in a stronger, more authoritative position.  She hoped in vain. 
Hunter removed his hat, dropped it in the middle of the desk and edged
his hip on to the corner nearest her.

“You knew the ad in the paper was mine, didn’t you?” she began,
determined to get their confrontation over as quickly as possible.

“How?”

“The nickname you used.  Miss Bluebonnet.”

She nodded in acknowledgement.

“Dad used to call me that because of my eyes.”  Then, with a sigh, she
asked, “Why are you really here Hunter?  Because I don’t believe for one
minute that it’s in response to that ad.  “

“You know why I’m here,” he said.

“I can guess.”  Pierced by eyes that were panther-black and
jungle-watchful, she’d never felt so intimidated in her life.  And it
took every ounce of resolve not to let it show.

Hunter Pryde had changed, attained a sophistication she’d never have
believed possible.  Eight years ago he’d been in his mid-twenties and
wild, both in appearance and in attitude.  In those days his black hair
had brushed his shoulders, held back by a leather thong, his eyes
reflecting a savage determination to succeed in a world just as
determined to see him fail.  But what had attracted her most had been his
face–the high, sculpted cheekbones, the hawk- like nose, and the tough,
bronzed features that reflected an unmistakable strength and vitality.

His long-limbed arms and legs, his broad chest and lean, sinewy build
spoke of a mix of conquistadors and native American Indian, of a proud
and noble heritage. When he’d taken her into his arms she’d sensed that
no one else would ever make her come alive the way she did with him, that
she’d never love anyone quite as much.

And she’d been right.

“You’ve come to see the Hamptons broken, is that it?”  Leah asked with a
directness she knew he’d appreciate.

A cynical smile touched his mouth.

“Swayed, never broken.  Wasn’t that your father’s motto?  No.  I’ve come
to discover why, if things are so bad, you haven’t sold out.  Are you
really so destitute that you need to resort to this?”  Removing the ad
once more from his shirt pocket, he balled it in his fist and flicked the
crumpled newspaper toward the trash can.  It arched over the rim and hit
the bottom with a faint metallic thud.

He couldn’t have made his disapproval any clearer. She found it
mortifying that he, of all people, had happened across that ad. But she
wasn’t a shy, easily coerced teenager any more. And she wouldn’t be
bullied. Not by anyone. Certainly not by Hunter.

“This isn’t any of your business,” she informed him.

“I don’t owe you a thing, least of all an explanation for my actions.”

“I’m making it my business,” he corrected in a hard, resolute voice.

“And, one way or another, I will have an explanation.”

She struggled to curb her anger.  It wasn’t easy.  He had an uncanny
knack for driving her into an uncontrollable fury.

“Are you really interested,” she snapped, ‘or have you come to gloat?  “

He folded his arms across his chest.

“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t interested.”

“Fine.”  She’d try taking him at his word and see where it led.  Though
she suspected she wouldn’t like it when they got there.

“I didn’t have any choice but to place that ad.”

He dismissed her excuse with a contemptuous gesture.  “Don’t give me
that. We always have choices.  You just have a knack for picking the
wrong ones.”

“You may not agree with my decisions, but that doesn’t make them wrong,”
she retorted, stung.

“The last few years haven’t been easy. Dad … Dad died a year after you
left. ” Hunter’s leaving at a time she needed him most still hurt, even
after all these years.  Until he’d ridden up today, she hadn’t realized
how much of that pain lingered.

“Yes, I know.”

She flinched.

“You knew?”  Knew and never bothered to return?  Never bothered to see how she was, see if she required any help or support?  She straightened her shoulders.  No, not support.

She’d support herself.  And her grandmother.  And the ranch.  And all
those she’d gathered beneath her wing.  No matter what it cost.

“I read his obit in the papers.”  He leaned closer, and she caught her
breath, drawing in the rich, spicy scent of his aftershave.

“I understand the ranch has gone downhill ever since.  You may be just as ruthless and single-minded as your old man, but you’re sure as hell not the rancher he was.  “

She jerked as though slapped, and for a moment the defiant, protective
mask she’d kept rigidly in place slipped, leaving her vulnerable and
exposed.  How could she ever have been seduced by this man?  Even at
eighteen she should have had the sense to see the cold, heartless soul
that ruled his keen intellect, no matter how attractive the outer packing.

“I won’t defend myself to you.  Why should I?  Nor will I be judged by
your yardstick,” she insisted fiercely. “So spit out what you came to say
and get the hell off my land.”

She saw the familiar spark of anger flicker to life in his eyes and
wondered if she’d pushed him too far.  Not that she cared.  With her back
against the wall, both literally and figuratively, she’d fight free any
way she could and damn the consequences.

With an abrupt sweep of his arm he snagged her waist, and forced her
between his legs.

“Don’t you know why I’m here?”  He cupped her shoulders to curb her
instinctive opposition, rough amusement edging his words.

As much as she wanted to tell him to go to hell, she knew he wouldn’t
release her until she’d answered. Glaring at him, she said,

“You came in response to the ad.”

“More than that.  Lean.  Much, much more,” he corrected,  a bitter smile
twisting his mouth.

“I came for the ranch.”  His eyes grew black and pitiless, searing her
with a burning determination.

“And… I came for you.”

CHAPTER TWO

Shock held Leah immobile for a split-second.  Recovering swiftly, she
lifted her chin.

“That’s a real shame.  Hunter,” she retorted, continuing to fight his
hold.

“Because you aren’t getting either one.”

His grip tightened.

“We’ll see.”

She stopped struggling.  Resistance was fruitless.  Instead, she used the
only other weapon she possessed.  Words.

“Did you really believe that after all these years you could just come
strolling back up my drive?  Your arrogance is incredible.  After what
you did to me, I wouldn’t give you so much as the time of day!”

“A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”

Fury ripped through her and she gave in to it, needing the satisfaction
losing her temper would provide.

“Melodramatic?  Not by a long shot.  You stole my innocence, you bastard.
And you did it solely to get your hands on this ranch.”  Bitterness
spilled over, pouring out after years of suppression.  Her pain, her
agony, stripped of any protective cover, lay bare for him to see.

“I was eighteen and crazy in love. And you used me. You used me.” 

” The hell I did.  I just took what you offered. “

His cruelty cut her to the quick and it required all her willpower not to
hit him.  But she remembered his lightning-fast speed of old.

Her blow would never land and his retaliation would be swift and
unpleasant. She looked him straight in the eye.

“You can’t get out of your responsibility that easily.  You took exactly
what you wanted, no matter who suffered in the process.”

His mouth settled into a grim line.

“You never knew what I wanted. You still don’t.”

“Oh, no?”  Did he really consider her so blind, so ignorant of man’s
baser motivations?  Perhaps eight years ago she’d been guilty of such an
oversight, but no longer.  He’d cured her of that.

“It’s the same then as now.  You want my land.  Well, get in line.”

“There is no line,” he bit out.

“Nor will there be.  You’d better face that fact right here and now.”

He tugged her closer, as though to obstruct any chance of flight.

Slowly, relentlessly, he gathered her in, trapping her in a grasp as
binding and inescapable as a mist-net around a struggling sparrow.

She pressed her hands against his chest, striving to keep some small
distance between them.  But instead she found that touching him only
resurrected long-forgotten emotions, reminding her of all that had gone
before.  Tears threatened, but she ruthlessly forced them back.

Tears wouldn’t accomplish a thing.  Not with this man.

“Why are you doing this?”  she asked.

“Why now, after all this time?”

“Because it will give me what I want most.”

She laughed quietly, the sound one of pain and disillusionment rather
than amusement.

“When you said that eight years ago, I foolishly thought you meant me. 
But now I realize you meant the ranch.”

His expression closed over.

“Did I?”

“Yes!  Is that why you bedded me?  Because it would give you your dream? 
It didn’t work out that way, did it?”

“Bedded you?  A rather quaint description for what we did together.
Something a bit more elemental and a lot cruder would be closer to the
truth.  And, as I recall, we never did get around to using a bed.”

She refused to feel shame for an act that had been the most beautiful
experience of her life.

“No, we didn’t.  Because you left before we ever had the chance.  Of
course, you didn’t hit the road until Dad threatened to disinherit me. 
He offered me a choice.  You or the ranch.”

“And we both know which you chose.”

She caught his shirt in her fists.

“How would you know that?”  she demanded passionately, her distress
breaking free of her control.

“You didn’t stick around long enough to find out.  But I can guarantee
choosing you was a mistake I’ve lived to regret.  It never occurred to me
that, without the ranch, I wasn’t much of a bargain.”  Her pride had
suffered from that knowledge.  But her pride had handled the battering. 
Her heart hadn’t been nearly so sturdy.

“So you took what you could and walked.”

A hard smile tilted his mouth to one side and his hands closed over hers,
prying them free of his shirt.

“Let’s be accurate.  I didn’t walk.  I was dragged.”

“Don’t give me that.  I waited in the line-shack for hours.  Does that
amuse you?”  Her breathing grew shallow and rapid, the dark recollections
ones she rarely dredged from her memory.

“The afternoon was sweltering, but I waited inside the cabin for you
anyway. I was so afraid one of the wranglers would stop by … that
there’d be some unexpected strays to round up or fence to string and he’d
decide to spend the night out there and I’d get caught.  But I didn’t
leave.  I kept telling myself you’d come.  The hours became an eternity,
as though the world had moved on and I’d somehow been left behind.  Even
after the sun set, I found excuse after excuse to explain your absence.”

“Stop it, Leah.”

But she couldn’t.  Once started, the memories continued to unravel, like
a wind-up music-box grinding out its song until the music played down.

“It was a full moon that night.  I sat on the floor and watched as it
drifted from window to window, inching a path across the sky.”

He stared at her, impassive and remote.

“It rained.”

Surfacing from the remembered nightmare, she focused on his face.

“Not until two that morning,” she corrected, her voice dull and lifeless.

“The storm rolled in from the south and blotted out the stars as though
an angry hand had wiped them from the sky.  The roof leaked like a sieve
but, fool that I was, I stayed.”  She bowed her head, her emotions nearly
spent.

“I stayed and stayed and stayed.”

“Why?  Why did you stay?”  he asked insistently.

“Look at me, Leah. Look me in the eye and tell me the rest of your lies. 
Because that’s all they are.  “

“How could you possibly know what’s fact and what’s fiction,” she
whispered, “when you weren’t there to see? “

“Tell me! “

Forced by the relentless command, she lifted her head.  He swept a wisp
of ash-blonde hair from her face, and though he touched her with a tender
hand his expression was anything but.

“I stayed because I was waiting for you to ride up and take me away like
you promised,” she admitted, her voice breaking.

“At daybreak I finally realized you weren’t coming.  And I vowed that I’d
never trust a man again.  I’d never give him that sort of power over me
or leave myself open and vulnerable to that much misery.  So tell me. 
Hunter. Tell me the truth.  What happened?  What was so vital that it
dragged you away and you couldn’t be bothered to come back?  “

“Sheriff Lomax happened.”

It took a long minute for his words to sink in.

“What do you mean?” she asked, dread balling in her stomach.

He laughed, the jarring sound slicing across her nerves like a finely
honed blade.

“Cut the bull, Leah.  All that nonsense about waiting for me at the
line-shack and sweltering in the heat and watching the moon.  It didn’t
happen.  I know it.  And you know it.  Though I did enjoy the part about
the roof leaking. Very pathetic.”

“What’s the sheriff got to do with this?”  she demanded, more urgently.

“I went to the line-shack, as agreed.  You weren’t there.”  He paused
significantly.

“The sheriff was.  Along with a few of his men.”

“No.  I don’t believe you.”

“It took six of them to pull me out of there.  You forgot to mention, in
your heartbreaking tale of woe, about the smashed furniture or the broken
window. Or the unhinged door.  They might have taken me, but I didn’t go
easy.”

“I don’t know…”  She struggled to remember.  Had the window and
furniture been broken?

“Things were a bit of a mess, but-“ He didn’t give her a chance to finish.

“I guess you were so busy staring at the stars you didn’t notice.” 
Catching hold of her long, silver braid, he wound it around his hand,
pulling her close.  His mouth hovered a hair’s-breadth above hers.

“Or maybe you didn’t notice because every word you’ve uttered is a lie.
Admit it.  You were never at that line-shack.”

“I was there!”

“Not a chance.  Only two people knew about our meeting.  You… and me. I
didn’t tell a soul.  But, since the sheriff came in your place, there’s
only one explanation.  You changed your mind.  And, afraid of how I’d
react, you spilled your guts to Daddy and begged him to get you out of a
sticky situation. “

“No!  It didn’t happen that way.”

“Didn’t it?  Tell me this.  If we had met that afternoon, would you have
come away with me?  Well…?”  He pinned her with a hard, savage gaze.

“Would you?”

She’d never lied to him in the past and she wouldn’t start now.  No
matter how it might look to him, no matter how he might react, she’d tell
him the truth.

“No.  I wouldn’t have gone with you.”

For an instant his grip tightened and she waited for him to master his
anger, unafraid, knowing with an absolute certainty that he’d never
physically harm her.

“I didn’t think so,” he said.  He released her and stood, and she sensed
that he’d set himself apart, distancing himself from her.

Her explanation wouldn’t change anything, but she had to try.  For the
first time she deliberately touched him, placing a hand on his upper arm,
feeling the rock-like muscles clench in reaction.

“There’s a reason I wouldn’t have gone away with you–‘

“Enough, Leah.” He turned flat, cold eyes in her direction.

“I’ve heard enough.  It’s water under the bridge.  And, to be honest,
your excuses don’t interest me.”

There was no point in trying to force him to listen.  Not now.  Maybe not
ever.

“Then why are you here?”  she asked.  “Why cause more grief–grief
neither of us needs?”

“Because what’s important is today.  Here and now.  Your ranch and that
ad.”

“I won’t let you get your hands on this ranch … or on me,” she informed
him fiercely.

“You might as well give up and move on, because I won’t marry you.”

He laughed, the sound harsh and mocking.

“I don’t recall asking, sweetheart.”

A tide of color washed into her face at his biting response.

“I assumed that was why you’d come.  You had the ad and you implied-“ He
lifted an eyebrow.

“Implied what?”

“That you were interested in marrying me,” she maintained stubbornly.

“You came in response to my notice, didn’t you?”

“Not to offer marriage, that’s for damned sure.  I came because you
wouldn’t have placed that ad if you weren’t desperate, which makes it a
powerful bargaining chip.  So let’s bargain.  I want the ranch, Leah, and
I mean to get it.”

They stared at each other for an endless moment.  Before she could
respond, a car horn sounded out front, and Hunter glanced towards the
windows.

“Someone’s here.  Another applicant, perhaps?”

Slipping past him, Leah crossed to the window, recognizing the pick-up
parked in front.  The occupant leaned on the horn again and her mouth
tightened in response.

“It would appear this is my day for surprises,” she murmured. 
“Unpleasant surprises, that is.”  She crossed to the picture wall where
Hunter had left her rifle and snatched it up.

“What’s going on, Leah?”  Hunter demanded, picking up his hat.

“Who’s your company?”

Intent on reloading, she spared him a brief glance.

“His name is Bull Jones.  He’s the foreman of the Circle P.”

Hunter’s eyes narrowed.

“The Circle P?”

“A new outfit. Actually, they’re now the only outfit in these parts,
except for us.  They’re owned by a big conglomerate, Lyon Enterprises,
and they’re not particularly friendly.  So do me a favor and stay out of
this, okay?  It doesn’t concern you.”

He looked as if he might debate the issue.  Then, with an abrupt nod, he
followed her out to the porch.  Propping his shoulder against a pillar,
he tipped his hat low on his brow, his face thrown into shadow. 
Satisfied by Hunter’s apparent compliance, Leah turned her attention to
the more immediate and far more menacing problem confronting her.

Bull Jones leaned negligently against the door of his pick-up–a pick-up
parked directly in the middle of the tiny strip of flowerbed Grandmother
Rose had painstakingly labored over these past three weeks.

“Afternoon, Miz Hampton,” he said, grinning around the stub of a thick
cigar.

She ignored his greeting, taking a stand at the top of the porch steps.

“Get off my property, you thieving rattlesnake,” she ordered coldly,
‘before I call the sheriff.  “

“In one of your feisty moods, are you?”  She didn’t bother responding and
he sighed.

“Call the sheriff if it’ll make you feel any better. But you know and I
know he won’t be coming.  He’s tired of all your phone-calls.  “

She couldn’t argue with the truth.  Instead, she brought the rifle to her
shoulder and aimed the hurting end exactly six inches below Bull’s
massive silver belt buckle.

“Spit out why you came and get the hell off my land before I send you
home with a few vital parts missing,” she said.

He didn’t seem the least intimidated.  In fact he laughed in genuine
amusement.

“You do have a way with words.”  He jerked his head toward Hunter.

“This hombre one of your prospective suitors?  Doesn’t have much to say
for himself.”

Hunter smiled without amusement.

“Give it time, friend.”

Leah couldn’t conceal her surprise.  If Bull considered Hunter a
potential suitor, then he knew about her advertisement.  But how had he
found out? Before the two men could exchange further words, she hastened
to ask,

“Is that it, Jones?  That’s what you came about?  My ad?”

“One of the reasons,” Bull acknowledged.

“I even considered offering myself up as a possible candidate.  But I
didn’t think you’d go for it.”

“You thought right.”

“As to the other matter…”  He paused to savor his cigar, puffing
contentedly for a long minute.  She knew it was a deliberate maneuver on
his part–an attempt to drive her crazy.  Unfortunately it was working.

“Out with it, Jones.”

“My, my.  You are in a hurry.”  He shrugged, a quick grin sliding across
his face.

“You want it straight?  Okay.  I’ll give it to you straight.  I came to
offer a friendly little warning.”

TriendlyT “I’m a friendly sort of guy.”  He took a step in her direction.

“You give me half the chance, you’d find just how friendly I can be.”

She didn’t know whether it was the sound of her pumping home the shell in
her rifle or the fact that Hunter suddenly straightened from his lounging
position that stopped Bull in his tracks.  Whichever it was, he froze. 
Then she glanced at Hunter and knew what had checked the foreman’s
movements.

She’d always found Hunter’s eyes fascinating.  One minute the blackness
appeared, cold and remote, the next minute glittering with fire and
passion. For the first time she saw his eyes burn with an implacable
threat and for the first time she realized how intimidating it could be.

He leveled that look on Bull.

“If you have something more to say,” he informed the foreman softly, “I
suggest you say it. Fast.”

Bull Jones shot Hunter a look of fury, but Leah noticed he obeyed.

“Seems Lyon Enterprises is getting tired of playing games over this
place.” His gaze shifted to Leah.  “Thought you should know they’ve
decided to call in the big guns.”

“I’m shaking in my boots,” she said.

He removed his cigar from between his teeth and threw it to the ground. 
It landed amongst a clump of crushed pink begonias, wisps of smoke
drifting up from the smoldering tip.

“You will be.  From what I hear, this new guy’s tough.  You don’t stand a
chance.”

His words terrified her.  But she refused to crack.  She wouldn’t allow
her fear to show.  Not to this bastard.  “You’ve been saying that for a
full year now,” she said calmly enough.

“And I’ve managed just fine.”

“That was kid-glove treatment.”

Anger stirred.  The temptation to pull the trigger and be done with it
was all too inviting.

“You call fouling wells and cutting fence-line and stampeding my herd
kid-glove treatment?”

He shrugged.

“We were having a little fun, is all.  But now the gloves are off.  Don’t
say I didn’t warn you.”

With that, he stomped through what remained of Grandmother Rose’s
flowerbed and climbed into his pickup.  The engine started with a noisy
roar and he gunned it, a rooster-tail of dirt and grass spraying up from
beneath his rear wheels.  They watched in silence as he disappeared down
the dirt drive.  A minute later all that remained of Bull’s passing was a
tiny whirlwind of dust, spinning lazily in the distance.  Leah eyed it
with a thoughtful frown.

Hunter slipped the rifle from her grasp and leaned it against the porch
rail.

“Something you forgot to tell me?” he murmured sardonically.

She lifted her chin.

“There might be one or two minor details we didn’t get around to
discussing. Not that it’s any concern of yours.”

“I don’t agree.  I suggest we go back inside and discuss those minor
details.”

“No!”  She rounded on him.  First Titus T. then Bull and now Hunter.

This definitely wasn’t her day.

“You know full well that there’s nothing left to talk over.  You want the
ranch and I won’t let you have it.  Even if you were interested in
responding to my ad–interested in marriage–I won’t choose you for the
position.  How could you think I would?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Position?  I thought you wanted a husband.”

“That’s right, I do.  But since you aren’t interested…”  Fighting to
keep the distress from her voice, she said, “You’ve had your fun.  So why
don’t you leave?”

He shook his head.

“We’re not through with our conversation, and I’m not leaving until we
are. If that means applying for your… position, then consider me
applied.”

“Forget it.  You don’t qualify,” she insisted.

“That ends the conversation as far as I’m concerned.”

“I qualify, all right.  On every point.”

She didn’t want to continue with this charade but, aside from picking up
her rifle and trying to force him off her property at gunpoint, she
didn’t see any other option available to her.  Especially considering how
far she’d gotten the last time she’d turned her rifle on him.

“Fine.  You think you qualify?  Then prove it,” she demanded.

“A challenge?  Not a wise move, Leah, because once I’ve proven myself
we’ll finish that discussion.”  He tilted his head to one side, his brow
furrowed in thought.

“Let’s see if I can get this right… Number one.  You want a man between

the ages of twenty-five and forty-five. No problem there.”

“You should have read the ad more carefully, Hunter!  It says a kind and
gentle man. You are neither kind nor gentle.”

His gaze, black and merciless, met hers.

“You’d do well to remember that.”

Tempted as she was, she didn’t back down.

“I haven’t forgotten.  The ad also says applicants should be looking for
a permanent type of relationship.”  She shot him a skeptical glance.

“Don’t tell me you’re finally ready to settle down?”

“That isn’t my first choice, no.  But I’d consider it if the right offer
came along.  Number two.  As I recall that concerns ranching
experience.”  He

folded his arms across his chest.

“You planning to debate my qualifications there?”

She shook her head.  After all, there was nothing to debate.

“I’ll concede your ranching abilities,” she agreed.

A grim smile touched his mouth.

“You’ll concede a hell of a lot more before we’re finished.  Number three.

He should also have solid business skills–particularly those skills
necessary to please a bullheaded banker.”  He settled his hat lower on
his forehead.

“You’ve tipped your hand with that one.”

“Have I?”  Something about his attitude worried her.  He acted as though
this were all a game, as though she’d already lost the match but didn’t
yet know it.  What she couldn’t figure was, how?  How could she lose a
game that she wasn’t even playing?

His smile turned predatory.

“You’re having financial difficulties and the bank won’t help without a
man

backing you.  Close enough?”

She gritted her teeth.

“Close enough,” she forced herself to confess.

“But you aren’t that man.  End of discussion.”

“Far from it.  There isn’t a bank in the world who wouldn’t back me.”

That gave her pause.

“Since when?”

He closed the distance between them, crowding her against the porch rail.

“It’s been eight years since our last meeting.  A lot has happened in that

time.  I’m not the poor ranch-hand you once knew.  You need me, Leah. 
And soon very soon I’m going to prove it to you.”

“I don’t need you!”  she denied passionately.

“I’ll never need you.”

“Yes, you will.”  His voice dropped, the timbre soft and caressing, but
his

words were as hard and chipped as stone.  “Because you won’t get any

cooperation from the bank without me.  I guarantee it.  And by tomorrow

you’ll know it, too.”

She caught her breath.

“You can prove that?”

“I’ll give you all the proof you need.  Count on it.”  He lowered his
head,

his mouth inches from hers.

“Seems I’ve qualified after all.”

She glared, slipping from between him and the rail.

“I disagree. You’ve already admitted that you aren’t kind or gentle.  And since that is one of the qualifications.  ” She shrugged.

“’Fraid I’ll have to pass.”

“And I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.  In the business world all negotiations are subject to compromise.  You’ll have to compromise on “kind and gentle”.”

“And what will you compromise about?”  she shot back.

“If I can get away with it… nothing.”  He edged his hip on to the rail
and glanced at her.

“Tell me something, Leah.  Why haven’t you sold the ranch?”

She shifted impatiently.

“I think you can guess.  Hampton Homestead has been in our family for–“

“Generations.  Yes, your father made that point quite clear.  Along with
the

point that he wouldn’t allow his ranch or his daughter to fall into the
hands

of some penniless mongrel whose bloodlines couldn’t be traced past the

orphanage where he’d been dumped.  “

She stared at him, genuinely shocked.

“He said that to you?”

“He said it.  But that’s not the point.  You’re out of options, Leah.

Soon you won’t have any other alternative.  My sources tell me that either

you sell or you go bankrupt.  At least if you sell you’ll walk away with
enough money to live in comfort.  “

She lifted her chin.

“There is another alternative.”

His mouth twisted.

“The ad.”

“Don’t look at me like that!  It’s not as foolish a decision as you might

think.  The banks will loan me the money I need to stay afloat if I have a

husband who’s both a businessman and a rancher.”

He stilled.

“They’ve guaranteed you the money?”

She shook her head.

“Not in writing, if that’s what you mean.  But Conrad Michaels is the
senior

loan officer and an old family friend. And, though he hasn’t been in a
position to help us in the past, he feels our business reversals are
correctable, with some work.  He’s a bit old-fashioned.  It was his idea
that I find an appropriate husband.  He hasn’t been able to get the loan
committee to approve financing so far, but he’s positive he can if I
marry.  “

She’d never seen Hunter look so furious.

“Are you telling me that this Michaels instructed you to advertise in the

paper for a husband and you went along with his harebrained notion?”

“It’s not a hare-brained notion,” she protested.

“It’s very practical.  Conrad simply suggested I find a husband with the

necessary qualifications as quickly as possible.  Once I’d done that, he’d

get the loan package put through.”

“He suggested that, did he?  In his position as your banker?”  Hunter
didn’t

bother to conceal his contempt.

“Did it ever occur to you he could have trouble living up to that promise?

He has a board of directors to answer to who might not agree with him any

more now than before.  And then where would you be?  Bankrupt and married
to some cowpoke who’ll take whatever he can lay hands on and toss you
over when the going gets tough.”

“You should know,” she shot back.

“You’re a past master of that fine art.”

“Don’t start something you can’t finish, Leah,” he warned softly.

“I’m telling you–marry the next man who responds to your ad and you’ll

sacrifice everything and receive nothing but trouble.”

“You’re wrong,” she said with absolute confidence.

“I have faith in Conrad.  He’ll put the loan through.”

She could tell Hunter didn’t agree, but he kept his opinion to himself.

“What about the ad?”  he asked.

“The ad was my idea.  I needed results and I needed them fast.”  She
folded

her arms across her chest in perfect imitation of his stance.

“And I got them.”

He laughed without amusement.

“If you got “kind and gentle” I’m less than impressed.”

“It’s not you who has to be impressed,” she retorted defensively.

“It’s Conrad whose approval I need.”

“I don’t doubt your banker friend will make sure your prospective husband
is

qualified as a rancher and a businessman,” he stated with marked
disapproval.

“But what about as a husband and lover?  Who’s going to make sure he

qualifies in that area?”  Hunter’s voice dropped, the sound rough and

seductive.  ‘Kind and gentle’ couldn’t satisfy you in bed in a million

years.  “

She silently cursed the color surging into her cheeks.

“That’s the least of my concerns.”

“You’re right.  It will be.”  He regarded her with derision.

“Is that how you see married life?  A sterile partnership with a husband
who

hasn’t a clue how to please his wife?”

Images leapt to her mind, images of the two of them entwined beneath an

endless blue sky, their clothes scattered haphazardly around them, their

nudity cloaked by thick, knee-high grass.  She resisted the seductive
pull of

the memory.  She couldn’t afford to remember those times, couldn’t afford
to

risk her emotions on something so fleeting and uncertain nor so painful.

Not if she intended to save the ranch.

“That’s not important,” she stated coldly.

“Conrad has promised that if I marry someone the bank considers a sound

businessman and rancher, I’ll get my loan.  And that’s what I intend to
do.

Period.

End of discussion.  I’m keeping this ranch even if it means accepting the

first qualified man who walks through my door.  And nothing you say or do

will change that.  “

“I’ve got news for you.  I am the first qualified man to walk through your

door.  The first and the last.”  He reached into his pocket and retrieved
a

business card.

“Perhaps you’d better know who you’re up against.”

“No, let me tell you who you’re up against,” she retorted, almost at the
end

of her rope.

“That huge company I mentioned–Lyon Enterprises–is after this ranch. 
And they’ll use any means necessary to acquire it.  You’ve met Bull
Jones.  He’s encouraged almost all my workers to leave with exorbitant
bribes.  Nor was I kidding when I accused him of cutting my fences and
stampeding my herd and fouling the wells. The man I marry will have to
contend with that.” She planted her hands on her hips.

“Well, Hunter?  Maybe now that you have all the facts in your possession

you’ll decide to get out of my life.  Just be sure that when you do, you
make

it for good.”

His eyes narrowed and, in a move so swift she didn’t see it coming, he
caught her by the elbows and swung her into his arms.  She slammed into
him, the breath knocked from her lungs.

“Don’t threaten me, Leah.  You won’t like the results,” he warned curtly.
“Give it to me straight.  Are you really being harassed, or is this
another

of your imaginative little fantasies?”

This time she didn’t even try to fight his hold.  She’d learned the hard
way

how pointless it would be.

“It’s no fantasy!  You saw a prime example today.  Or ask my foreman.

Patrick will tell you.  He’s one of the few they haven’t managed to run
off.”

His eyes glittered with barely suppressed wrath and a frown slashed deep

furrows across his brow.  Without releasing her, he tucked his business
card

back into his pocket.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

She nodded.

“Dead serious.”

“You’re also serious about marrying, even if it means losing the ranch?”

“I am.”

“In that case you’re down to one option.”

She sighed, weary of their argument.

“I told you.  I’m not selling.”

“No, you’re not.  You’re going to marry me.”

If he hadn’t been holding her, she would have fallen.  “What?”  she

whispered, unable to hide her shock.

“You heard me.  We’ll many and I’ll see to it that you get your loan.”

She stared at him in bewilderment, the fierce determination she read there

filling her with a sense of unease.  “You said… I thought you didn’t
want

to marry me.”

“It wasn’t my first choice, no,” he agreed.

“But the more I consider the idea, the greater the appeal.”

She caught her breath.

“That’s the most insulting offer I’ve ever heard.”

“Count on it,” he said with a grim smile.

“I can get much more insulting than that.”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” she snapped back.

“Not if you’d like me to accept.”

He inclined his head, but whether in acknowledgement or concurrence she

wasn’t quite clear.  An endless moment stretched between them, a moment
where they fought a silent battle of wills.  It wasn’t an even match. 
Slowly, Leah lowered her eyes.

“You agree,” Hunter stated in satisfaction.

“I didn’t say that.”  She stalled for time–not that it would help.

Exhaustion dogged her heels, making it impossible to think straight.

She needed time alone, time to consider, time to put all he’d told her
into

perspective.  But she strongly suspected she wouldn’t be given that time.

“What about the bank?  Can you guarantee I’ll get the loan?”

His expression hardened.

“I have some small influence.  I’m not the poor, mixed-breed cur I was
eight

years ago.”

“I never saw you that way,” she reacted instantly, despising the crude

comparison.

“And if my father did, he was wrong.”

He shrugged off her rejoinder.

“What’s your decision, Leah?”

This time she did try and free herself.  Not that she succeeded.

“What’s your rush?”  she asked.  His touch grew gentle, soothing rather
than

restraining, at striking odds with his clipped tone.  Had he decided an

illusion of tenderness might better influence her?  If so, he’d soon
discover

his mistake.

“I don’t want anyone else coming along messing up my deal.  You have

twenty-four hours to make up your mind.  Sell the ranch to me or marry
me; I don’t give a damn which.  Because I know it all, Leah,” he informed
her

tautly.  “I’ve had your financial situation investigated. You’re broke.
Without a loan you’ll go bankrupt.  And without me you won’t get that
loan.  “

She caught her breath in disbelief.

“I don’t believe you!”

“You will.  You will when the banks tell you that I’m your only choice
other

than bankruptcy.”

She shook her head, desperate to deny his words.

“How can you possibly do that?”

“You’d be surprised at what I can do.”

“What’s happened to you?”  she whispered.

“Mercy used to be a part of your nature.”

He gazed at her impassively.

“Not any more.  You saw to that.  It’s your decision.  And to help you

decide…”

She knew what he intended; she recognized the passion in his expression,
saw the resolve in his eyes.  To her eternal disgust she lifted her face
to meet

his kiss.  Curiosity, that was all it was, she told herself.  But she
lied.

Her curiosity had been appeased earlier.

She knew from that first kiss that her reaction to his touch hadn’t
changed,

not even after eight years.

No, she returned his kiss because she wanted to experience the wonder of
it

again.  To come alive beneath his mouth and hands.  To relive, if only
for a

moment, the mind-splintering rapture only he could arouse.

He took his time, drinking his fill, sharing the passion that blazed with

such incredible urgency.

But it was all an illusion.  She knew that.  He wanted the ranch and would

use any means available to get it.  Even seducing her.  Even marrying her.

And she’d be a fool to forget that.

Lifting his head, he gazed down at her.

“What we once had isn’t finished, Leah,” he informed her in a rough, husky

voice.

“There’s still something between us.  Something that needs to be settled,

once and for all.”

She eased back.

“And you think our marriage will settle it?”

“One way or another,” he confirmed.

“You don’t leave me much choice.”

“I’ve left you one choice.  And I’m it.”

He set her from him, his expression once more cool and distant.  In that

instant she hated him.  Hated him for making her want again.

Hated him for resurrecting all that she’d struggled so hard to forget. 
But

she especially hated him for being able to turn off his emotions with so

little effort.  Because she knew her emotions weren’t as easily mastered.

“Twenty-four hours, Leah.  After that, you’re history.”  And, without
another

word, he left her.

Long after he’d ridden away she stood on the front porch, unable to move,

unable to think.  Finally, with a muffled sob, she buried her head in her

hands and allowed the tears to come.

CHAPTER THREE

hunter walked into his office and set his briefcase on his desk.  A brief

knock sounded on the door behind him and his assistant, Kevin Anderson,
poked his head in the door.

“Oh, you’re back.  How did it go?  Did she agree to sell the ranch?”

Opening his briefcase.  Hunter removed a bulky file and tossed it to one
side.

“Not yet.  But I’ll have it soon… one way or another.”  He turned and
faced

his assistant, allowing his displeasure to show.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Bull Jones and what he’s been up to?”

“The foreman?”  Kevin hesitated, then shrugged.

“I didn’t think it was important.”

Anger made Hunter speak more sharply than he would have otherwise.

“Well, it damned well is important.  You don’t make those decisions.  I
do.”

“Sorry, boss.  It won’t happen again,” came Kevin’s swift apology.

Then he asked cautiously,

“I assume you’ve made the foreman’s acquaintance?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Did he recognize you?”

Hunter didn’t answer immediately.  Instead, he crossed to the window and

stared out at the Houston skyline.  The intense humidity from the Gulf of

Mexico rippled the air on the far side of the thick, tinted glass,
signaling

the start of another South Texas heat wave

“No,” he finally said.

“He didn’t recognize me.  But then I didn’t go out of my way to introduce

myself.”

“That’s probably smart.  What do you want done about him?”

“Nothing for now.”  Hunter turned back and faced his assistant.

“But I may need to take action in the future.”

“Whatever you say.  You’re the boss.”

Hunter inclined his head.

“One last thing before you go.”

“Sure.  Anything.”

“You keep me informed from now on.  No matter how minor or
insignificant.  I won’t be caught off-guard again.”

“Yes, sir.  Sorry, sir,” Kevin agreed.  Then he quietly excused himself
and

slipped from the room.

After a brief hesitation Hunter crossed to his desk and nipped open the
file

marked

“Hampton Homestead.”  A white tide of letters, legal documents and several

photos spilled across the gleaming ebony surface.  Reaching out, he
selected

two photos of Leah–one identical to the picture he’d studied in the
Hampton

study, the other a snapshot only a month old.

Examining the more recent of the two, a savage desire clawed through him,

unexpected and intense.  He still wanted her.  Wanted to rip her hair
free of

her braid, feel her silken limbs clinging to him, feel again her softness

beneath him.

He dropped the photo to his desk.  Soon, he promised himself.  Very, very

soon.

“We have to talk,” Grandmother Rose announced the next morning, slamming
a thick porcelain mug in front of Leah.

Leah closed her eyes, stifling a groan.  She hadn’t slept a wink last
night

and could barely face the unrelenting morning sun, let alone a more

unrelenting grandmother.

“If this is about Hunter, I don’t want to discuss it.”

“It’s about Hunter.”

“I don’t want to discuss it.”

“Tough toenails.  I have a confession to make and you’re going to listen
to

every last word, even if I have to wrestle you to the floor and sit on
you.”

The picture of her ninety-pound grandmother putting her in a headlock and

forcing her to the tile floor brought a reluctant smile to Leah’s mouth.

“Can we at least talk about the weather for five minutes while I drink my

coffee?”

“It’s sunny and eighty-five, in the shade.  Hope you swallowed fast.
Now.  About Hunter.”

Deep purplish-blue eyes held Leah’s in a direct, steady gaze.  The eye
color

and a relentless determination were only two of the qualities Leah shared

with her grandmother.  Unfortunately, Rose’s determination included a

stubbornness even beyond Leah’s.  She gave up.  She’d never won an
argument with her grandmother, a circumstance unlikely to change any time
in the near future.

“What about him?”  she asked with a sigh.

“What he said yesterday about the sheriff was true,” Rose announced.

“Every word.”

Leah straightened in her chair.

“You heard?  You were listening?”

“I did and I was, and I’m not one bit ashamed to admit it.  What I am
ashamed to admit is that I betrayed your confidence to your father eight
years ago.” She twisted her thick gold wedding-band around a knobby
finger, the only external sign of her agitation.

“You warned Dad that I planned to run away with Hunter.”  It wasn’t a

question.  Leah had already figured out what must have happened.  The only

person she’d confessed to about that long-ago meeting sat across the table

from her.  Not that she’d ever expose her grandmother’s involvement to
Hunter.

“Yes, I told your father,” Rose confirmed.

“I told Ben because, selfishly, I didn’t want you to leave.”

“But I promised you I wouldn’t go!”

Leah shoved back her chair and stood.  Struggling to conceal her distress,

she made a production of pouring herself another cup of coffee.  She’d
told

Rose about her meeting for one simple reason: she couldn’t leave the woman

who’d loved and raised her without a single word of farewell.  What she

hadn’t anticipated was her grandmother’s revelation that Leah’s father was

dying of cancer.  Once in possession of the grim news she hadn’t had any

alternative.  She couldn’t abandon her father in his time of need, no
matter

how desperately she yearned to be with Hunter.  It just wasn’t in her
nature.

Leah turned and faced her grandmother.

“I told you I’d meet Hunter and explain about Dad’s illness.  I planned to

ask him to wait … to return after… after…”

Rose shrugged.

“Perhaps he’d have agreed.  But I couldn’t count on that–on his going
away

and letting you stay.”  She sighed.

“Listen, girl, the reason I’m telling you all this is because I’ve
decided.

I want you to marry Hunter.”

Leah stared in shock.

“Come again?”

“What are you, deaf?  I said, I want you to marry Hunter.”

“But … why?”

“Because…”  Rose lifted her chin and confessed.

“Because I had a call from Conrad Michaels this morning.”

“What did he want?”

“Officially… to announce his retirement.  Unofficially… to withdraw
his

offer of help.  No bank loan in any circumstances was the message I got.”

“Hunter!”  Leah released his name with a soft sigh.

“That thought occurred to me, too.”  Her grandmother’s eyes narrowed.

“You suppose his pull is strong enough to force Connie’s retirement?”

“Possibly.  Though if Hunter is as ruthless as you suspect, I’m surprised

you’re so anxious to marry me off to him.”

“Ruthless isn’t bad … if it’s working on your side.  And, right now, we

could use a whole lot of ruthless on our side.”

“Could we?”  Lean questioned.

“I’m not so sure.”

Rose stared into her coffee-cup as though the answers to all their
problems

lay written in the dregs.  Finally she glanced up, her expression as hard
and

set as Leah had ever seen it.

“You have two choices.  You can sell or you can fight to win against Lyon

Enterprises.  If you want to sell, say the word, and we’ll give up and
clear

out.  But if you want to win.  Hunter’s the man for the job.  It took you

years to get over him.  Fact is, I don’t believe you ever did.  Marry him
or

don’t.  It’s your decision.  But my vote is to snatch him up fast.  Men
like

that only come along once in a lifetime.  You’ve gotten a lucky break. 
He’s

come through your door twice.”

Lucky?  Leah had her doubts.  He’d loved her with a passion that she’d
never

forgotten and she’d let him down.  He wouldn’t give her the chance to hurt

him like that again.  She simply couldn’t read too much into his return. 
If

anything, he’d come back to wreak revenge.  And, if that was the case, by

placing that ad she had indeed exposed her vulnerability and given him the

perfect opportunity to even an old score.

And he’d been swift to take advantage.

One by one he’d cut off every avenue of escape until she faced two tough

alternatives.  Unfortunately, learning that any possibility of a bank loan

had been circumvented left her with no alternatives.  if she intended to
save

the ranch.

Leah returned her mug to the counter, the coffee having gone stone-cold.

She looked at her grandmother and saw the hint of desperation lurking in

Rose’s otherwise impassive expression.  No matter what she’d said, losing
the ranch would be the death of her.

And to be responsible for her demise, when Leah had it within her power to

prevent it, just couldn’t be borne.

“I’ll call Hunter,” she announced quietly.

For the first time in her life, Leah saw tears glitter in her
grandmother’s

eyes.

“Don’t accept his first offer, girl,” she advised gruffly.

“Bargain for position and you can still come out of this on top.”

“I’m not your granddaughter for nothing,” Leah said with a teasing smile.

“He won’t have it all his own way.”

And he wouldn’t.  Very soon she’d find out just how badly he wanted the

ranch– and just how much ground he’d give up in order to get it.

Not until Leah had completed her list of requests for Hunter–she
hesitated

to call them demands–did she realize that he hadn’t left her a number
where

he could be reached.  Not that it truly presented a problem.  Precisely

twenty-four hours after their original meeting Hunter phoned.

“What’s your answer?”  he asked, dispensing with the preliminaries.

“I want to meet with you and discuss the situation,” Leah temporized.

“You mean discuss terms of surrender?”

“Yes.”  She practically choked getting the word out.  He must have known,
for a low, intimate laugh sounded in her ear.

“You did that very well,” he approved.

“See?  Giving in isn’t so bad.”

“Yes, it is,” she assured him.

“You try it some time and you’ll know what I mean.”

“No, you handle it much better than I would.  All you need is a little
more

practice.”

Married to him, she didn’t doubt she’d get it, either.  “Where are you

staying?”  she asked, deliberately changing the subject.  She knew when to

give up on a losing hand.  “Should I meet you there?”

“I’m in Houston.  And no, I don’t expect you to drive that far.  We’ll
meet

tomorrow.  Noon.  The line-shack.”

She caught her breath in disbelief.

“That’s not funny, Hunter!”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”  All trace of amusement vanished from his voice,
his

tone acquiring a sharp, cutting edge.  “I’m dead serious. Tomorrow meet
me at the line-shack at noon.  Just like before.  See that you make it
this time.  There won’t be any second chances.”

“There weren’t eight years ago.  Why should this occasion be any
different?”

“It will be different,” he promised.

“You’d be smart to realize that right from the start.”

“Fine.  You’ve made your point and I realize it.  Things will be
different.”

“Very good.  Lean.  There’s hope for you yet.”

She clamped down on her temper, determined not to be provoked.

“So, let’s meet at the ranch-house instead.  Okay?  Hunter?”  But she
spoke

into a dead phone.  So much for not being provoked.  She was thoroughly

provoked.

Slowly she hung up.  This did not bode well for their future together.

Not well at all.  She reached for her list.  She wouldn’t have that
disaster

at the line-shack held over her head like the sword of Damocles for the
rest

of her life.  She’d done all the explaining she intended to do, but
apparently he had more to say.  Well, this meeting would end it once and
for

all.  She wouldn’t spend the rest of her life paying for something that,

though her ultimate responsibility, wasn’t her fault.

Early the next morning she headed for the south pasture to pay a visit to

Dreamseeker, the stallion she’d recently acquired.  At the fence she
whistled, low and piercing, waiting for the familiar whickered response.
From the concealing stand of cottonwoods he came, a coal-black stallion,
racing across the grass.  He danced to a stop ten yards from the fence,
pawing at the ground and shaking his mane.

“You don’t fool me,” she called to him.

“You want it.  I know you do.

All you have to do is come and take it.  ” She held out her hand so he
could

see the lumps of sugar she’d brought him.

Without further hesitation he charged the fence, but she didn’t flinch. 
Her

hand remained rock-steady.  Skidding to a halt beside her, the horse
ducked

his head into her hand and snatched the sugar from her palm.  Then he
nipped her fingers–not hard, just enough to establish dominance.  With a
snort, he spun around and galloped across the pasture.

She cradled her palm, refusing to show her hurt.  She wouldn’t let
herself be

hurt.  It was an indulgence that she couldn’t afford.  She’d made her
decision— a decision that would protect the stallion, protect her
ranch, and protect all the wounded creatures she’d gathered safely
beneath her wing.

She also understood why Dreamseeker had bitten her.  He’d done it to prove

that he was still free– free to choose, free to approach or flee.  It
saddened her, because she knew he lived a lie.  They had that in common.
For, no matter how hard they tried, neither was truly free.

Not any more.

Leaving the fence, she saddled a horse and rode to the line-shack.

The spring weather had taken a turn for the worse, becoming every bit as
hot

and humid as that fateful day eight years ago.  A sullen mugginess
weighted

the air, filled it with the threat of a thunderstorm.  Leah shuddered.
 The

similarities between then and now were more than she cared to contemplate.

At the line-shack she ground-hitched her gelding.  Hunter hadn’t arrived
yet

and she stood outside, reluctant to enter the cabin.  reluctant to face
any

more memories.  She’d avoided this place for eight long years.  Thanks to

Hunter she couldn’t avoid it any longer.

Setting her chin, she crossed to the door and thrust it open.

She stepped cautiously inside, looking around in disbelief.  Everything
was

spotless.  A table, two chairs, a bed– everything in its place.  A thin

layer of dust was the only visible sign of neglect.  Someone had gone to

great pains to restore the shack.  But who?  And why?

“Reliving old memories?”

Leah whirled around.

“Hunter!  You startled me.”

He filled the threshold, a blackened silhouette that blocked the sun and

caused the walls to close in around them.

“You shouldn’t be so easily startled.”

Searching for something to say, she gestured to indicate the cabin.

“It’s changed.  For some reason I thought the place would have fallen
down by now.”

He shrugged.

“You can’t run a ranch this size without working line-shacks.  The men
need

someplace to hole up when they’re working this far out.  Allowing it to
fall

into ruin would be counterproductive.”

She could feel the tension building between them, despite his air of
casual

indifference.  She wouldn’t be able to handle this confrontation for long.

Best to get it over with– and fast.  She turned and faced him.
Unfortunately that only served to heighten her awareness.

“Why did you want to meet here?”  she asked, taking the offensive.

“To annoy you.”

Her mouth tightened.

“You succeeded.  Was that your only reason?”

“No.  I could have had you drive to Houston and negotiate on my turf.
But, considering our history…” He shrugged, relaxing against the doorjamb.

He tucked his thumbs into his belt-loops, his jeans hugging his lean hips
and

clinging to the powerful muscles of his thighs and buttocks.

She shouldn’t stare, shouldn’t remember the times he’d shed his jeans and

shirt, exposing his coppery skin to her gaze.  But it proved next to

impossible to resist the old memories.

He’d had a magnificent physique, something that clearly hadn’t changed
with

time.  If anything, his shoulders had broadened, his features had
sharpened,

becoming more tautly defined.  How she wished their circumstances were

different, that she didn’t fear he’d use her attraction to achieve his
goal.

to gain his revenge.

Desperately, she forced her attention back to the issue at hand.

“Negotiating here is just as much to your advantage.  Dredging up the old

memories, playing on my guilt, is supposed to give you added leverage, is

that it?”

“Yes.  I play to win.  You’d be wise to learn that now.”

She ground her teeth in frustration.

“And if I don’t?”

He smiled.

“You will.  We’ve come full circle, you and I.  We’re back where we left
off.

But nothing’s the same as it was.  You’ve changed.

I’ve changed.  ” He added significantly,

“And our situation has changed.”

“How has it changed?”  she asked with sudden curiosity.

“How have you changed?  What did you do after you left here?”

He hesitated, and for a minute she thought he wouldn’t answer.  Then he
said,

“I finished my education, for a start.  Then I worked twenty-four hours a
day

building my… fortune.”

“You succeeded, I assume?”  she pressed.

“You could say that.”

“That’s it?  That’s all you have to say–you got an education and made
your

fortune?”

He shrugged.

“That’s it.”

She stared at him suspiciously, wondering what he was concealing.

Because she didn’t doubt for a minute that he hadn’t told her everything.

What had he left out?  And, more importantly, why?

“Why so mysterious?”  she demanded, voicing her concerns.

“What are you hiding?”

He straightened.

“Still trying to call the shots, Leah?  You better get past that, pronto.”

“It’s my ranch,” she protested.

“Of course I’m still calling the shots.”

He shook his head.

“It may be your ranch, but I’m the one who’ll be in charge.  Are we clear
on

that?”

“No, we’re not clear on that!”  she asserted vehemently.  “In fact, we’re
not

clear on anything.  For one thing, I won’t have our past thrown in my face

day after day.  I won’t spend the rest of my life apologizing for what
happened.”

“I have no intention of bringing it up again.  But I wanted to make it
plain,

so there’s no doubt in your mind.  I won’t have you claiming later that I

didn’t warn you.”

She eyed him warily.

“Warn me about what?”

“You’ve been managing this ranch for over seven years and you’ve almost
run it into the ground.  Now I’m supposed to come in and save it.  And I
will.

But you’re going to have to understand and accept that I’m in charge. 
What

I say goes. I won’t have you questioning me in front of the hired help or
second-guessing my decisions.  You’re going to have to trust me.
Implicitly.  Without question.  And that’s going to start here and now.”

“You’ve been gone a lot of years.  It isn’t reasonable—“ He grabbed his

shirtsleeve and ripped it with one brutal yank, the harsh sound of rending

cotton stemming her flow of words.

“You see that scar?”  A long, ragged silver line streaked up his forearm.

She swallowed, feeling the blood drain from her face.

“I see it.”

“I got it when the sheriff helped me through that window.”  He jerked his

head toward the south wall.

“I have another on my inner thigh. One of Lomax’s deputies tried to make
a point with his spur.  He almost succeeded.  I broke my collarbone and a
couple of ribs on the door here.” He shoved at the casing and it wobbled.

“Still isn’t square.  Seems I did leave my mark, after all.”

She felt sick.  How could her father and Sheriff Lomax have been so cruel?

Had Hunter really been such a threat to them?

“Are you doing this for revenge?”  she asked in a low voice.

“Trying to get control of the ranch because of how Dad treated you and

because I wouldn’t go away with you?”

“Believe what you want, but understand this…”  He leaned closer, his
words

cold and harsh.

“I got dragged off this land once.  It won’t happen again.  If you can’t

accept that, sell out.  But if you many me, don’t expect a partnership.  I

don’t work by committee.”

“Those are your conditions?  What you say goes?  That’s it?”

He inclined his head.

“That just about covers it.”

“It doesn’t come close to covering it,” she protested.

“I have a few conditions of my own.”

“I didn’t doubt it for a minute.”

She pulled the list she’d compiled from her pocket and, ignoring his quiet

laugh, asked, “What about my employees?  They’ve been with me for a long
time.  What sort of guarantee are you offering that changes won’t be
made?”

“I’m not making any guarantees.  If they can pull their weight, they stay.

It’s as simple as that.”

She stared in alarm.  Pull their weight?  Every last one of them pulled
his

or her own weight.  To the best of their ability.  But that might not be
good

enough to suit Hunter’s high standards.  Patrick had a bad leg and wasn’t
as

fast or strong as another foreman might be.

And what about the Arroyas?  Mateo and his wife Inez would have starved if

she hadn’t taken them in.  Inez, as competent a housekeeper as she was,
had

six children to care for.  Leah had always insisted that the children’s
needs

come first, even at the expense of routine chores.  Would Hunter feel the

same way?  And Mateo was a wonder with horses but, having lost his arm in
a car accident, certain jobs were difficult for him–tasks she performed
in his

stead.

“But–“

“Are you already questioning my judgement? ” he asked softly.

She stirred uneasily.

“No, not exactly.  I’d just appreciate some sort of guarantee that these

people won’t be fired.”  She saw his expression close over.

“I’m responsible for them,” she forced herself to explain.

“They couldn’t find work anywhere else.  At least, not easily.”

“I’m not an unfair or unreasonable man,” he said in a clipped voice.

“They won’t be terminated without due cause.”

It was the best she’d get from him.

“And Grandmother Rose?”

A tiny flicker of anger burned in his eyes.

“Do you think I don’t know how much Hampton Homestead means to her? 
Believe me, I’m well aware of the extent she’d go to to keep the ranch.”

Her fingers tightened on the list.

“You don’t expect her to move?”

She could tell from his expression that she’d offended him, and she
suspected that it was a slight he wouldn’t soon forgive.

“As much as the idea appeals, it isn’t my intention to turn her from her

home,” he said curtly.

“What’s next on your list?”

Taking him at his word, she plunged on.

“I want a prenuptial agreement that states that in the event of a divorce
I

get to keep the ranch.”

“There won’t be a divorce.”

She lifted her chin.

“Then you won’t object to the agreement, will you?”

He ran a hand across the back of his neck, clearly impatient with her

requests.

“We’ll let our lawyers hammer out the finer details.  I refuse to start
our

marriage discussing an imaginary divorce.”

She wouldn’t get any more of a concession than that.  “Agreed.”

“Next?”

She took a deep breath.  This final item would be the trickiest of all.

“I won’t sleep with you.”

His smile was derisive.

“That’s an unrealistic request and you damned well know it.”

“It’s not.  I—“

He cut her off without hesitation.

“This is going to be a real marriage–in every sense of the word.  We
sleep

together, drink, eat and make love together.”

“Not a chance,” she protested, her voice taking on an edge of desperation

even she couldn’t mistake.

“You wanted control of the ranch and you’re getting that.  I won’t be
part of

the bargain.  I won’t barter myself.”

Sardonic amusement touched his expression.

“You will and you’ll like it,” he informed her softly.

“I know you too well not to make it good for you.”

“You knew an inexperienced eighteen-year-old girl,” she declared
passionately.

“You know nothing about the person I’ve become.  You know nothing of my
hopes or dreams or desires.  And you never will.”

“Another challenge?”  He moved closer.

“Shall we settle that here and now?  The bed’s a little narrow, but it’ll
do.

I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.”

She took a hasty step back, knowing there was nowhere to escape should he

decide to put action to words.

“You bastard,” she whispered.

“I won’t be forced.”

“I don’t use force.  I don’t have to.”  For a horrifying second she
thought

he’d prove it, that he’d sweep her up without regard and carry her to the

bed.  That he’d scatter her resistance like so much chaff before the
breeze.

Then he relaxed, though his gaze remained guarded and watchful.  “What
about children?”  he asked unexpectedly.

“Or are they off your list, too?”

Events had proceeded so swiftly that she hadn’t given the possibility any

thought at all.

“Do you want children?”  she asked uncertainly.

He cocked his head to one side, eyeing her with an uncomfortable
intensity.

“Do you?  Or, should I say, do you want my children?”

“Once, that was all I dreamed about,” she confessed in a low voice.

“And now?”

She looked at him, fighting her nervousness.

“Yes, I want children.”

“You won’t get them if I agree to your condition.  Cross it off your list,

Leah.  It’s not a negotiable point.”

She didn’t want to concede defeat, didn’t want to agree to give herself to

him without love, without commitment.  But he’d left her without choice.

“Hunter, please…”

He closed the distance between them.  Cupping her head, he tilted her
face up to his.

“We’ll make love, you and I, and we’ll have children. Plenty of them. 
Though chances are they won’t be blue-eyed blondes. Can you live with
that?  “

“I’m not my father.  I know you don’t believe it, but it’s true.  Do you

really think I could love my child less because he’s dark…”  she dared
to

feather her fingers through his hair “instead of fair?”

He caught her hand and drew it to his scarred arm, her pale skin standing
out

starkly against his sun-bronzed tan.  “It matters to some.”

“Not to me.  It never mattered to me.”

He nodded, apparently accepting her words at face value.  “Any more

conditions?”  he asked, flicking her list with a finger.

“No,” she admitted.

“But you’d better know up-front I can’t promise I won’t argue with you.  I

love this ranch.  And I’ll do all I can to protect the people on it.”

He shook his head.

“That’s my job now.”

“That doesn’t mean I won’t worry.”

“Worrying is also my job,” he informed her gravely.

She nodded.  That left only one last decision to be made.  “About the

wedding…”

“I want to marry by the end of the week.  Tell me where and when and I’ll
be

there.  Just make sure it’s no later than Saturday.”

“So soon?”  she asked in dismay.

“That’s less than a week.”

“Are you having second thoughts?”

“Constantly.  But it won’t change anything.  I won’t sell and I can’t save

the ranch unless I marry you.  But a wedding… There’s a lot to be done
and

not much time to do it in.”

“Find the time.”  He tugged her more fully into his arms.  “I have to
go,” he

said, and kissed her.

His touch drove out all thought and reason, banishing the ghosts that
lingered from that other time and place.  And no matter how hard she
wanted

to oppose him, to keep a small piece of herself safe and protected, he
stripped her of all resistance with consummate ease.

Deepening the kiss, he cupped her breast, teasing the tender peak through
the thin cotton.  And she let him.  let him touch her as he wished, let
him

explore where he willed, let him drive her toward that sweet crest she’d
once

shared exclusively with him.

For a moment Leah was able to pretend that she meant something to him
again, that he really cared for her more than he cared for her ranch.

But as hard as she tried to lose herself in his embrace, the knowledge
that

this was in all probability a game of revenge intruded, and finally drove
her

from his arms.

He released her without protest.

“Call me with the details,” he instructed, and headed for the door.

“We’ll need to get the license as soon as possible.”

“There’s one last thing,” she suddenly remembered.  He paused, waiting for

her to continue and, almost stumbling over the words, she said,
“Conrad… Conrad Michaels.  He retired.”  Hunter didn’t say anything,
prompting her to state her concerns more openly.

“Are you responsible for his retirement?”

“Yes.”

She’d suspected as much, but it still shocked her to hear him admit it.

“Why?” He didn’t reply.  Instead he walked outside, forcing her to give

chase.  Without breaking stride, he gathered up his buckskin’s reins and

mounted.  She clung to his saddle-skirt, hindering his departure,
desperate

for an answer.

“Hunter, please.  Tell me why.  Why did you force Conrad to retire?”

After a momentary hesitation he leaned across the horn, fixing her with
hard

black eyes.

“Because he put you at risk.”

Alarmed, she took a step back.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the ad.”

“But I placed the ad, not Conrad.”

“He knew about it, and not only did he not try and stop it he encouraged
you

to go ahead with it while in his capacity as your banker.”  His face might

have been carved from granite.

“You still don’t have a clue as to how dangerous that was, do you?”

“We were very selective,” she defended.

“You were a fool,” he stated succinctly.

“You might as well have painted a bulls eye on your backside, stuck your

pinfeathers in the ah- and proclaimed it open hunting season.  Count
yourself

lucky that you and that old harridan of a grandmother weren’t murdered in

your beds.”

“So you had Conrad fired.”

“I wanted to!”  he bit out.

“Believe me, more than anything I wanted to have him fired for planting

such a criminal suggestion in your head.  Considering he’s an old family

friend, I let him off easy.  I agreed to an early retirement.”

A sudden thought struck her.

“If you’re that powerful– powerful enough to force Conrad’s
retirement—what do you need with this ranch?”  She spoke urgently.

“It has to be small potatoes to you.  Why are you doing this.  Hunter?”

A grim smile touched his mouth and he yanked the brim of his stetson low
over his brow.

“That, my sweet bride-to- be, is one question I have no intention of

answering.”

And with that he rode off into the approaching storm, the dark, angry
clouds

sweeping across the sky ahead of him, full of flash and fury.

A portent of things to come?  Leah wondered uneasily.  Or a promise?

CHAPTER FOUR

With only five days to prepare for her wedding.  Lean realized that the

simplest solution would be to hold the ceremony at the ranch.  She also

decided to make it an evening affair and keep it small, inviting only her

closest friends and employees.

Her reasons were twofold.  She didn’t think she could handle a day-long

celebration–the mere thought of celebrating a marriage that was in all

actuality a business deal struck her as vulgar.  And by holding an evening

ceremony they’d entertain the guests for dinner and it would be over
quickly.

No fuss, no muss.

Her grandmother didn’t offer a single word of argument in regard to Leah’s

wedding-plans.  On only one matter did she remain adamant.  She insisted
that Lean invite Conrad Michaels.

“He’s a close friend and should give you away.  If that makes Hunter

uncomfortable, that’s his tough luck.”

“I don’t think it’s Hunter who will feel uncomfortable,” Lean observed
wryly.

“Let me call Conrad and see what he wants to do.  If he chooses to
decline, I

won’t pressure him.”

As it turned out, Conrad sounded quite anxious to attend.  “I’d appreciate

the opportunity to improve my relationship with Hunter,” he confessed.

“I deserved every harsh word he dished out, and then some.”

“Harsh word?”  she repeated in alarm.

“What did he say?”

After a long, awkward silence, Conrad admitted,

“Oh, this and that.

Let’s just describe the conversation as strained and forget I ever
mentioned

it.  He did make several valid points, though–particularly about your
ad.  “

So Hunter had taken Conrad to task about that.  She’d wondered.

“What points?”  she questioned.

“I never should have encouraged you to advertise for a husband,” came the

prompt reply.

“Looking back, I realize it was foolish in the extreme.  It didn’t occur
to

me until Hunter suggested the possibility, but a crazy person could have

responded and we wouldn’t have known until too late.  I never would have

forgiven myself if anything had happened to you.”

Unfortunately, something had happened.  Hunter had answered the ad.  To
her disgust, she seemed to be the only one to appreciate the irony of
that fact.

“It’s all worked out for the best,” she lied through her teeth.

“So don’t worry about it.”  Securing Conrad’s agreement to give her away,
she ended the conversation and hung up.

The next two days passed in a whirl of confusion.  Leah spent her time

deciding on caterers and flowers, food and decorations, and obtaining the

all-important wedding- license.  Finally she threw her hands in the air
and

dropped the entire mess in the laps of her grandmother and Inez Arroya.

“You decide,” she begged.

“Just keep it simple.”

“But, senorita, por favor…”  Inez protested.

“The wedding, it should be perfect.  What if we make a mistake?  You will
be very unhappy.

Don’t you care?  “

Didn’t she care?  Leah turned away.  She cared too much.  That was the

problem.  How could she plan for the wedding of her dreams when the
ceremony on Friday would be anything but?

“Whatever you decide will be perfect,” she said flatly.

“Just remember.  Keep it simple.”

“What about your dress?”  Rose reminded, before Leah could escape.

“You’ve deliberately ignored that minor detail, haven’t you?”

“I thought I could pick something up on Thursday,” Leah said, refusing to

acknowledge the truth in her grandmother’s words.

But on this one point Rose became surprisingly obstinate.

“Oh, no, you don’t, my girl.  I have the perfect gown for you.  Your
mother

wore it for her wedding and it’s the most unusual dress I’ve ever laid
eyes

on.  It’s packed away in the attic, if memory serves.  Find it and see if
it

fits.  Though considering how much you resemble your mom ma I’d be
surprised if it didn’t.”

Reluctantly, Leah obeyed.  It took a good bit of searching, but she

eventually found a huge, sealed box with her mother’s name and the date of

her wedding scrawled across one end.  Wiping away the dust, she carried it

downstairs.  She didn’t return to the kitchen, needing a moment alone in
the

privacy of her bedroom to examine her mother’s wedding-dress.  Closing
and locking the door, she settled on the floor and carefully cut open the
box.

Lifting off the lid, she sank back on her heels, her breath catching in
her

throat.  Her grandmother had been right.  It was the most unusual dress
Leah

had ever seen.  Her mother had been a teacher of medieval history and her

dress reflected her obsession, right down to the filmy veil with its

accompanying silver circlet.  It was beautiful and romantic, the sort of

dress young women dreamed of wearing.

And Leah hated it with a passion that left her shaking.

The dress promised joy and happiness, not the businesslike relationship
soon

to be hers.  The dress promised a lifetime of laughter and companionship,
not the strife and friction that was all she could expect from an empty
marriage. But most of all the dress promised everlasting love, not the
bitterness and pain that consumed her husband-to-be.  She ached for the
future the dress suggested, but knew it could never be hers.

This marriage would be an act of vengeance, and she nothing more than a
pawn in Hunter’s game.  It was a way to even up old scores for the abuse
he’d suffered at her father’s hands.  Soon he would be master of his
enemy’s

castle and she’d be at his mercy.  How long would it take before he had it

all?  How long before he controlled not just the ranch but her heart and
soul

as well?

How long before he had his final revenge?

Gently she replaced the lid of the box.  She couldn’t wear her mother’s

wedding-gown.  It wouldn’t be right.  It would be.  sacrilegious.  She’d

drive into town and find a chic ivory suit that spoke of modern marriages
and easy divorces.  And instead of a gauzy veil she’d purchase a pert
little hat that no one would dream of referring to as ‘romantic’.

Not giving herself time to reconsider, she shoved the box beneath her bed.

Then she ran outside and whistled for Dreamseeker, needing just for an

instant to feel what her stallion felt–free and wild and unfettered.  But

the horse didn’t respond to her call.  And in that instant Leah felt more

alone than she ever had before in her life.

“What do you mean, I can’t wear the suit?”  Leah demanded of Inez.

“Why can’t I?  Where is it?”

“Arrunina, senorita.  Lo siento.”

“Ruined!  How?”

“The iron, it burned your dress.”

“But the dress didn’t need ironing.”

The housekeeper looked close to tears.

“I’m sorry.  I wanted everything to be perfect for your special day.  I
was

excited and…”  She wrung her hands.

“Forgive me.”

“It’s all right, Inez,” Leah said with a sigh.

“But I get married in less than an hour.  What am I supposed to wear?  I

can’t go down in this.”  She indicated the wisps of silk and lace beneath
her

robe.

“Seiiora Rose, she suggests the dress of your madre.  Es perfecta?”

Leah closed her eyes, understanding finally dawning.  Of all the
conniving,

meddling, devious.  Before she could gather the courage to yank the first

outfit that came to hand from her closet, Inez draped the wedding-dress

across the bed.  In a swirl of featherlight pleats the silvery-white silk

billowed over the quilted spread, the hem trailing to the floor.

In that instant, Leah was lost.  She touched the formfitting bodice–a

corset-like affair, decorated with a honeycombed network of tiny seed
pearls

and silver thread– thinking that it resembled nothing more than a

gossamer-fine cobweb.  It really was an enchanting gown.  And it had been
her mother’s.

Knowing further arguing would prove fruitless, Leah allowed the
housekeeper to help her into the gown.  It fit perfectly, as she’d known
it would.  Thin white ribbons accentuated the puffed sleeves, the deep,
flowing points almost brushing the carpet.

“The belt, senorita,” Inez said.

The housekeeper lifted the silver linked chain from the bed and wound it

twice around Leah’s waist and hips, the pearl-studded clasp fastening in

front.  The ends of the chain, decorated with tiny unicorn charms, fell to

her knees, the links whispering like golden-toned chimes with her every

movement.

“For purity,” the housekeeper murmured, touching the unicorns.

“Not terribly appropriate,” Leah said in a dry voice.

“I wonder if it’s too late to change them.”

“You are pure of heart, which is all that counts,” Inez maintained
stoutly.

“I will do your hair now.  You wish to wear it loose?”

“I thought I’d braid it.”

“Oh, no, senorita.  Perhaps a compromise?”  Without waiting for a
response,

she swiftly braided two narrow sections on each side of Leah’s face,

threading a silver cord into each as she went.  Pulling the braids to the

back of Leah’s head, the housekeeper pinned them into an intricate knot.

“That looks very nice,” Leah admitted.

“We leave the rest loose,” Inez said, brushing the hip- length curls into

some semblance of order.  Finally she draped the veil over Leah’s hair and

affixed the circlet to her brow.  Stepping back, she clasped her hands and

sighed.

“Que hermosa.  Senor Hunter, he is a lucky man.”

Leah didn’t reply.  What could she say?  That luck had nothing to do with
it,

unless it was bad luck?  Her bad luck.  “How much time is left?”  she
asked

instead.

“A few minutes, no more.  Senor Michaels is waiting for you at the bottom
of the stairs.”

“I’m ready,” she announced.  She picked up her bouquet of freshly picked
wild flowers–courtesy of the Arroya children–and kissed Inez’s cheek.

“Thank you for all your help.  Go on downstairs.  I’ll follow in a
minute.”

The door closed behind the housekeeper and, finally alone, Leah glanced at

the stranger in the mirror.  What would Hunter think?  she wondered. 
Would he find her gown ridiculous?  Attractive?  Would her appearance
even matter to him?  She shut her eyes and whispered an urgent prayer, a
prayer that Hunter might some day find happiness and peace in their
marriage.  That maybe, just maybe, he’d find love.  Slightly more
relaxed, she turned away from the mirror.  She couldn’t delay any
longer.  It was time to go.

As she descended the stairs, the pleated skirt of her dress swirled around

her like wisps of silver fog.  Conrad waited at the bottom.  He looked up
at

her, and his reaction was all she could have asked.  He stared in stunned

disbelief, his mouth agape.

“Leah,” he murmured gruffly, his voice rough and choked.

“My dear, you’re a vision.  You make me wish…”

She traversed the final few steps, a small smile playing about her mouth.

“Wish what?”

“Wish that I hadn’t so foolishly encouraged you to place that ad,” he

confessed.

“Are you sure this marriage is what you want?  It’s not too late to change

your mind.”

She didn’t hesitate for an instant.

“It’s much too late and you know it.  Not that it matters.  I haven’t
changed

my mind.”

He nodded without argument.

“Then this is it.”  He offered his elbow.

“Shall we?”

She slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and walked with him to the

great room, an area used for entertaining that stretched the full length
of

the ranch-house.  It was her turn to stare in disbelief.

Huge urns of flowers filled the room, their delicate perfume heavy in the

air.  And everywhere was the radiant glow of candlelight, not a single

light-bulb disturbing the soft, romantic scene.

Her gaze flew to the far side of the room where Hunter stood, and her
heart

pounded in her breast.  The wrangler she’d always known had disappeared
and in his place stood a man who wore a tuxedo with the same ease as he
wore jeans.  She’d never seen him look so sophisticated, nor so aloof.

His hair reflected the candlelight, gleaming with blue- black highlights,
and

his eyes glittered like obsidian, burning with the fire of passion held

barely in check.  Despite that, he remained detached from his
surroundings,

the high, taut cheekbones and squared chin set in cool, distant lines.

The sudden hush that greeted her arrival drew his attention and his gaze

settled on her with piercing intensity.  Her hands tightened around her

bouquet, sudden fear turning her fingers to ice.  With that single glance
his

air of detachment fell away and his expression came alive, frightening in
its

ferocity.  He looked like a warrior who’d fixed his sights on his next

conquest.  And she was that prize.  It took all her willpower not to
gather

up her skirts and run.

Conrad started to move and she had no choice but to fall into step beside

him.  In keeping with the medieval theme, soft stringed instruments
played in the background.  She focused on Hunter, barely aware of her
passage down the aisle, even more dimly aware of Conrad releasing her and
stepping back.  But every part of her leapt to life the instant Hunter
took possession of her

hand.

The minister began the ceremony.  She didn’t hear a word he said; she
didn’t

even remember making her marriage vows.  Afterward, she wondered if she’d
actually promised to obey her husband or if the minister had thoughtfully
omitted that rather antiquated phrase.  She didn’t doubt that Hunter
would refresh her memory at some point.

The ring he eventually slid on her finger felt strange on her hand, the

unaccustomed weight a visible reminder of all the changes soon to come. 
She stared at the ring for a long time, studying the simple scrollwork and

wondering why he’d chosen such an interesting design.

Did it have any particular significance or had it been a simple matter of

expediency?

“Leah.”  Hunter’s soft prompt captured her full attention.

She glanced up at him in bewilderment.

“Did I miss something?”  she asked.  Quiet laughter broke out among the

guests and brought a flush to her cheeks.  Even Hunter grinned, and she
found herself riveted by that smile, aware that it had been eight long
years since she’d last seen it.

“We’ve just been pronounced man and wife,” he told her.  “Which
means…”  He swung her into his embrace and lowered his head.

“It’s time to kiss the bride.”

And he proceeded to do so with great expertise and thoroughness.  It was
her

first kiss as his wife and the warm caress held all the magic she could
desire.  She was lost in his embrace, swept up in the moment.  Yet, as
intensely as she craved his touch, she longed to resist with an equal
intensity.  She couldn’t bear the knowledge that this whole situation was
nothing more than Hunter’s way of gaining control of her ranch.  And of
her.

At long last he released her, his look of satisfaction stirring a flash of

anger.  Fortunately her irritation swiftly disappeared beneath the flurry
of

congratulations from the press of friends and employees.  By the time Inez

announced dinner, she’d fully regained her composure.

Like the great room, the dining-room glowed with candlelight, flowers
running the length of the oak table and overflowing the side tables and
buffet.  To heir relief she and Hunter were seated at opposite ends,
though as dinner progressed she discovered her relief short-lived. 
Throughout the meal she felt his gaze fixed on her.  And as the evening
passed her awareness of him grew, along with an unbearable tension.

As the caterers cleared away the final course.  Hunter rose, glass in
hand.

“A toast,” he announced.  Silence descended and all eyes turned in his

direction.

“A toast for the bride?”  Conrad questioned.

“A toast to my wife.”  Hunter lifted the glass.

“To the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.  May all her dreams come

true… and may they be worth the price she pays for them.”

There was a momentary confused silence and then the guests lifted their

glasses in tribute, murmuring,

“Hear, hear.”

Slowly Leah stood, well aware of the double edge to Hunter’s toast.

Lifting her own glass in salute, she said, “And to my husband.  The
answer to all my dreams.”  And let him make what he wished of that, she
thought,

drinking deeply.

The party broke up not long after.  Rose had arranged to stay with friends

for the weekend and all the staff had been given the days off as a paid

vacation.  Only Patrick would remain, to care for the animals.  But,
knowing

her foreman’s sensitivity, he’d make himself scarce.  They wouldn’t see
any

sign of him until Monday morning.

Sending the last few guests on their way, Leah stood with Hunter in the
front

hall.  The tension between them threatened to overwhelm her and she
twisted her hands together, feeling again the unexpected weight of her
wedding-ring.

She glanced at it and asked the question that had troubled her during the

ceremony.

“Did you choose it or…?”

“I chose it.  Did you really think I’d leave it to my secretary to take
care

of?”

“I didn’t even know you had a secretary,” she confessed.  “What do… did
you do?”

He hesitated.

“Mostly I worked as a sort of troubleshooter for a large consortium,
taking

care of problem situations no one else could handle.”

She drifted toward the great room, snuffing candles as she went.

“I imagine you’d be good at that sort of thing.  What made you decide to
give it up and return to ranching?  “

“What makes you think I’ve quit?”  he asked from directly behind.

Startled, she spun around, her gown flaring out around her.

“Haven’t you?”

“They know to call if something urgent comes up.  I’ll find a way to fit
it

in.”  He drew her away from a low bracket of candles.

“Be careful.  I’d hate to see this go up in flames.”

“It was my mother’s,” she admitted self-consciously.

“I wasn’t sure whether you’d like it.”

His voice deepened.

“I like it.”

She caught her breath, finally managed to say,

“You still haven’t answered my’ question

“What question?”  A lazy gleam sparked in his eyes and she knew his
thoughts were elsewhere.  Precisely where, she didn’t care to contemplate.

“Why,” she persisted, ‘if you had such a good job, did you decide to come

back?  “

“Let’s just call it unfinished business and leave it at that.  Do you
really

want to start an argument tonight?”

She glanced at him in alarm.

“Would it?  Start an argument, I mean?”

“Without a doubt.”  He pinched out the remaining few candles, leaving
them in semi-darkness, the night enclosing them in a cloak of intimacy.

“I have a wedding-gift for you.”  He picked up a small package tucked
among a basket of flowers and handed it to her.

She took it, staring in wonder.

“A wedding-gift?”

“Open it.”

Carefully, she ripped the paper from the jewelry box and removed the lid.

Beneath a layer of cotton lay an odd blue stone with a thin gold band
wrapped around it, securing it to a delicate herringbone chain.

“It’s just like yours!”  she exclaimed, tears starting to her eyes.

The only identifying article left with Hunter at the orphanage had been
the

strange gold-encased stone identical to the one he’d duplicated for a

wedding-present.  He’d worn it like a talisman all the time she’d known
him,

though he’d never been able to trace its origin successfully.

“I thought a gold chain a better choice than the leather thong I use.”

“Thank you.  It’s beautiful.”  She handed him the box and turned her back
to

him.

“Will you put it on?”  She lifted her hair and veil out of the way while
he

fastened the chain around her neck.  The stone nestled between her
breasts,

cool and heavy against her skin.

Before she realized what he intended.  Hunter turned her around and swung
her into his arms.  She clutched at his shoulders, her heart beating
frantically, knowing that she couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. 
He strode across the entrance hall and climbed the stairs, booting open
the door to the master bedroom.

She started to protest, but stopped when she saw the candles and flowers
that

festooned the room.  At a guess, it was more of her grandmother’s fine

handiwork.  This time, though, Lean approved.

Giving them the master bedroom was Rose’s tacit acknowledgement of
Hunter’s position in the household.

“Where’s Rose’s room?”  he asked, as though reading her mind.

“Downstairs.  She had a private wing built when my father and Mother
married.  She said the only smart way for an extended family to cohabit
was to live apart.”

A reluctant smile touched his mouth.

“There may be hope for our relationship yet.”

He set her down, his smile fading, a dark, intense expression growing in
his

eyes.  He removed the circlet from her brow and swept the veil from her
hair. It floated to the floor, a gauzy slip of silver against the
burgundy carpet.

He stepped back.

“Take off the dress.  I don’t want to rip it.”

Fumbling awkwardly with the belt links, she unfastened the chain at her
waist and placed it among the flowers on the walnut bureau.  She slipped
off her heels, wondering why removing her shoes always made her feel
small and vulnerable.  Finally she gathered the hem of her gown and
slowly lifted it to her waist.

The next instant she felt Hunter’s hands beside her own, easing the dress

over her head.  He laid it across a chair and turned back to her.  She
stood

in the center of the room, horribly self-conscious in the sheer wisps of
silk

and lace that were her only covering.

“Hunter,” she whispered.

“I don’t think I’m ready for this.”

“Relax,” he murmured.

“There’s no rush.  We have all the time in the world.”  He approached,

wrapping her in his embrace.

“Remember how good it was between us?”

She clung to his jacket lapel.

“But we’re not the same people any more.  Our… our feelings have
changed.”

“Some things never change.  And this is one of them.”  His eyes were so

black, full of heat and hunger, his face, tight and drawn, reflecting his

desire.  He lifted her against him, tracing the length of her jaw with the

edge of his thumb.

She shuddered beneath the delicate caress.  He’d always been incredibly

tender with her, a lover who combined a sensitive awareness of a woman’s

needs with a forceful passion that had made loving him an experience she’d

never forgotten.  It would be so easy to succumb, to be swept into
believing

he loved her still–a fantasy she found all too appealing.

“I can make it so good for you,” he said, his mouth drifting from her
earlobe

to the tiny pulse throbbing in her neck.  “Let me show you.”

He found the clasp of her bra and unhooked it, sliding the silk from her
body.

She closed her eyes, her breathing shallow and rapid.  He didn’t lie.

She knew from experience that making love to him would be wonderful.

It was the morning after that concerned her, when she’d have to face the

knowledge that he’d come one step closer to achieving his goal–of winning

both the ranch and her.  His hand closed over her breast and her heart

pounded beneath the warmth of his palm.  For an endless instant she hung
in

the balance between conceding defeat and allowing her emotions free rein,
or fighting for what mattered most.

Because if she couldn’t protect herself from his determined assault, how

could she ever expect to protect the ranch and all those who depended on
her?

She shifted within his grasp.

“It’s too soon,” she protested in a low voice.

“We’ll take it slow.”  He traced her curves with a callused hand, scalding

her with his touch.

“We can always stop.”  But we won’t want to.  The words lay unvoiced
between them, his thoughts as clear to her as if he’d spoken them aloud,
and she shuddered.

Stepping back, he stripped off his jacket and tie.  Ripping open the
buttons

of his shirt, he swept her into his arms and carried her to the
petal-adorned bed.  Once there he lowered her to the soft mattress and
followed her down.

His fingers sank into her hair, filling his hands with long silvery curls.

“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I saw that picture of you,” he
muttered.

She stirred uneasily.

“What picture?”

He tensed, and for a long moment neither of them moved.  Her question had

caught him unawares and she struggled to focus on it, to figure out why
he’d

reacted so strongly.  He’d seen a recent picture of her.

The knowledge was inescapable and she withdrew slightly, confused,
questions hammering at her brain.  Where and when had he seen the photo. 
in the study, perhaps?  If so, why the strange reaction?

“The picture on your father’s desk,” he explained quietly.  “It shows you

with long hair.”

“It was shorter when you worked here.”

“Yeah, well.  I like it long.”

But the mood had been broken and she rolled away from him, drawing her
knees up against her chest.  There was more to his idle comment than she
had the strength or energy to analyze.

“Hunter,” she said in a low tone.

“I can’t.”

“It’s only natural to feel nervous,” he said in a cool voice, making no

attempt to touch her.

“It’s not just nerves.”  She swept up the sheet, wrapping herself in its

concealing folds.  Shoving her hair back over her shoulders, she met his

watchful gaze.

“You’ve gotten your way.  Hunter.  We’re married and there’s no going
back.

You said yourself that we have all the time in the world.  Why rush this
part

of it and risk damaging our relationship?”

A muscle leapt in his jaw.

“You think making love will damage our relationship?”

She caught her lower lip between her lip and nodded.

“It will if we’re not both ready for this.  And, in all honesty, I’m not

ready.”

“When will you be?”  he asked bluntly.

She shrugged uneasily.

“I couldn’t say.”

“Give it your best guess.  I don’t have an infinite amount of patience.”

“That’s not what you told me five minutes ago,” she flashed back.

He clasped her shoulders, hauling her close.

“Five minutes ago you were as anxious as I to consummate this marriage. 
You want me every bit as much as I want you.  I know it and you know it.”

“That’s lust, not love.  And lust isn’t enough for me.”  Aware of how much

she’d inadvertently revealed, she fought free of his hold and scrambled
off

the bed.

“I… I just need a little bit of time, that’s all.  Can’t you understand?

Am I asking so much?”

He laughed harshly, running a hand through his hair.  “What will happen

between us is inevitable.  Tonight, tomorrow or the next night… What’s
the

difference?”

She peeked at him through long lashes.

“Forty-eight hours,” she said with a hesitant smile.  For a minute she
didn’t

think he’d respond.

Then he relaxed, his tension dissipating, and he nodded, though she
sensed a

strong undercurrent of anger just beneath his surface calm.

“Okay, Leah.  I’ll wait.”  His gaze held a warning.

“Just don’t push it.  My tolerance has limits.”

“I’m well aware of that.”  She backed toward the door.  “I’d like to
change.”

“Don’t be long.”

Striving for as much dignity as possible, considering that she kept
tripping

over the sheet, she left Hunter and hurried to her own room.  There she

stripped off her few remaining clothes.

Pawing through her dresser drawers, she pulled out the most modest
nightgown she possessed and tugged it on.

Covered from head to toe in yards and yards of baby- fine linen, she sat
on

the edge of the bed and nibbled on her fingertip.  Had she made her
situation

better or worse?  she wondered.  She wasn’t quite sure.

Perhaps it would have been wiser to make love with him and be done with
it,

regardless of his motivations for marrying her.  Only, in her heart of
hearts, she knew it wouldn’t truly be lovemaking, at least not on his
part. It would be sex, pure and not so simple.  Or, worse.  it would be
revenge.

She curled up on the bed, hugging a pillow to her chest.  If only he
cared.

If only he loved her.  Her hand closed around his wedding-gift, the
talisman

he’d so unexpectedly given her.  His love would make all the difference in

the world.  But he no longer felt that way about her.  And the sooner she

accepted that, the better off she’d be.

But telling herself that didn’t prevent a wistful tear from sliding down
her

cheek.

CHAPTER FIVE

Leah stirred just as dawn broke the horizon.  Confused by the unexpected

weight pinning her legs to the mattress, she turned her head and found

herself face to face with Hunter–a sleeping Hunter.

It brought her fully awake.  She risked a quick glance around, confirming
her suspicions.  So she hadn’t dreamed it.  She was back in the master
bedroom.

Vaguely she remembered Hunter coming to her old room where she’d drifted
off on top of the bed, a pillow clutched to her breast.  He’d gently
pried it

free, and at her drowsy protest rasped,

“We sleep together, wife.”  With that, he’d lifted her into his arms and

carried her from the room.  She hadn’t fought.  Instead, she’d wound her
arms around his neck and snuggled against his chest as though she
belonged, as though she never wanted to let go.

When he’d put her into his bed she’d been greeted by the sweet aroma of

crushed flowers, followed by a stronger, muskier scent as Hunter had
joined

her on the mattress.  All she recalled after that was a delicious warmth
and

peace invading her, body and soul, as he’d enclosed her in his embrace,

wrapping her in a protective cocoon of strong arms and taut, muscular
legs.

She glanced at him again, studying his imposing features with an acute

curiosity.  Even sleep couldn’t blunt his tough, masculine edge, a night’s

growth of beard only serving to intensify the aura of danger and male

aggression that clung to him like a second skin.  The sheet skimmed his

waist, baring his broad chest to her view, and she drank in the clean,

powerful lines, wondered if he slept nude.  Somehow she suspected that he

did, though she didn’t have the nerve to peek.

In all their times together, never had they been able to spend a night in

each other’s arms.  Their joining had been passionate and earth-shattering

and the most wondrous experience of her life.  But it had also consisted
of

brief, stolen moments away from the suspicious eyes of her father and

grandmother and the other ranch employees.

The irony of their current situation didn’t escape her.  Years ago she’d
have

given anything to spend a single night with him.  To know, just once, the

rapture of greeting the dawn safe and secure within his sheltering hold.

Finally given her dearest wish, all she felt was apprehension and
dismay—and an overwhelming desire to escape before he awoke.

Cautiously she slipped from his loose grasp and eased off the bed.

Only then did she realize that some time during the early morning hours
her

nightgown had become trapped beneath him, and that he’d entwined her hair
in his fingers as though, even in his sleep, he couldn’t bear to let her
go.

Precious moments flew by as she untangled her hair and freed her gown.

Gathering up the voluminous skirt, she tiptoed from the room.

A quick stop in the kitchen to grab an apple and a handful of sugar cubes,

and she was outside and free.  She raced across the dew-laden grass to the

south pasture fence, the wind catching her hair and sweeping it into the
air

behind her like long, silver streamers.

Whistling for Dreamseeker, she wondered if she’d ever tame such a wild and

willful beast.

He came to her then, bursting across the pasture, a streak of jet against
a

cornflower-blue sky.  Forming a deep pocket for the apple and sugar with
the excess material of her nightgown, she awkwardly climbed the fence and
sat on the top rail, the thin cotton affording little protection from the
splintered wood beneath.

Dreamseeker joined her, snatching greedily at the apple she offered.

Not satisfied, he butted her shoulder until she relented and gave him the

sugar as well.  He waited, muscles quivering, head cocked at an arrogant

angle, allowing her to scratch and caress his gleaming coat.

She crooned in delight, rubbing his withers, thrilled by his show of
trust.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Leah didn’t know who was more startled, she or Dreamseeker.  Springing
from her grasp, the horse shot away from the fence, leaving her teetering
on the rail.  With a cry of alarm, she tumbled to the ground at Hunter’s
feet, the

hem of her gown snagging on a protruding nail.

She tugged impatiently at it, the sound of ripping cloth making her wince.

She glared up at him, placing the blame where it belonged–square on his

broad shoulders.

“Dammit, Hunter!  This is all your fault.  What do you mean, sneaking
around like that?”

He folded his arms across his chest and lifted an eyebrow.

“Sneaking?”

“Yes, sneaking.  You scared Dreamseeker and you scared me.”  She shook
out her nightgown, lifting the dew-soaked hem clear of the grass.

Peering over her shoulder, she searched for the source of the ripping
sound.

Finding it, she muttered in disgust,

“Just look at the size of that hole.”

“I’m looking.”

The hint of amusement in his voice brought her head around with a jerk. 
His

eyes weren’t on the tear but on her.  Realization came swiftly.  With the
sun

at her back, the thin cotton she wore might as well have been transparent.

And Hunter, his thumbs once again thrust in his belt-loops, was enjoying

every minute of the show.

“There are times, Hunter Pryde, when I think I hate you,” she declared

vehemently.  With that, she grabbed a fistful of skirt, lifted her
nightgown

to her knees and lit off across the pastureland.

She didn’t get far.

In two swift strides he overtook her, and swept her clean off her feet.

“Hate me all you want, wife.  It won’t change a damned thing. The sooner
you realize that, the better off you’ll be.  “

She shrieked in fury, lashing out at him, hampered by yards of damp
cotton.

Her hair, seeming to have acquired a life of its own, further hindered her

efforts, wrapping around her arms and torso in a tangle of unruly silver

curls.  She stopped struggling, battering him with words instead.  “You
don’t

fool me.  You may have married me because it was the only way to get your

hands on the ranch, but that doesn’t mean you’ve won.  I’ll never give
in.”

“Won’t you?”  A hint of sardonic amusement touched his aquiline features.

“We’ll see.”

She had to convince him.  She had to convince herself.  “You won’t win.
Hunter.  I won’t let you!  “

“So much passion.  So much energy,” he murmured, his arms tightening
around her.

“And all of it wasted out here.  Why don’t we take it inside where we can
put

it to good use?”

She stiffened, quick to catch his meaning, quicker still to voice her

objections.

“You promised.  You promised to wait until I was ready.

And I’m not ready.  “

“No?”  His mouth twisted, and a cynical gleam sparked in his jet-black
eyes.

“Listen up, wife.  It wouldn’t take much for me to break that promise. 
And

when I do, count on it, you won’t complain for long.”

Without another word he carried her inside.  In the front hallway he
dumped

her on to her feet, forcing her to cling to him while she regained her
balance.  His biceps were like rock beneath her hands, the breadth of his
chest and shoulders an impenetrable wall between her and escape.

“Hunter, let me go,” she whispered, the words an aching plea.  She didn’t

dare look him in the eye, didn’t dare see the passion that she knew marked

his strong, determined features.  If she did, she’d never make it up those

steps alone.

“Not a chance.”  Then he further destroyed her equilibrium with a single

hard, fiery kiss.  At last he released her, and she stared at him with
wide,

anguished eyes.  She didn’t want him touching her, kissing her, forcing
her

back to life.  She didn’t want to feel, to experience anew the pain loving

him would bring.

But she suspected that he didn’t care what she wanted, or how much he hurt

her.  He had his own agenda.  And she was low on his list of priorities–a

minor detail he’d address when he found it convenient.

He snagged the bodice of her nightgown with his finger and tugged her
close.

“I warned you last night.  I won’t wait forever.  I catch you running
around

like this ever again and I won’t be responsible for my actions.  You hear
me?”

She wrenched the gown from his grasp, but all she got for her trouble was
a

ripped shoulder seam.  She gritted her teeth.

“Don’t worry,” she muttered, clutching the drooping neckline with one hand

and lifting the trailing hem with the other.

“I’m throwing this one out as soon as I get upstairs.”

His mouth curved at the corners, and he plucked a crushed flower petal
from

her tangled hair.

“Feel free to trash any others while you’re at it.  They won’t be of much
use

to you… not for long.”  Before she could give vent to her outrage, he

instructed, “Hurry up and get dressed.  I’m going to inspect the ranch
this

morning.  I leave in five minutes–with you… or without you.”

Lean didn’t lose any time changing.  Throwing on jeans and a T-shirt, she

stuffed her feet into boots.  Securing her hair into one long braid, she

grabbed a hat from her bedpost and raced downstairs.  At some point she’d

have to move her things into the bedroom she now shared with Hunter.  But

there would be plenty of opportunity for that.  Weeks.  Months.  She bit
down on her lip.  Years.

She found Hunter in the barn, saddling the horses.  He passed her a paper

sack.

“Here.  Thought you might be hungry-“

” Thanks.  I am.” Peeking inside, she found a half-dozen of Inez’s
cinnamon and apple muffins.

“I don’t suppose you thought to bring coffee.”

“Thermos is in my saddlebag.  Help yourself.”  He tightened the cinch on
his

buckskin and glanced at her.

“I moved that Appaloosa mare with the pulled tendon to another stall.

There’s a leak at that end of the barn.  Looks like we’ll need a new
roof.”

She bit into a muffin.

“I’ll have Patrick and a couple of the men patch it,” she said, taking a

quick gulp of coffee.

“No.”  He yanked the brim of his hat lower on his forehead.

“I said the barn needs a new roof.”

She sighed, capping the Thermos and shoving it and the sack of muffins
back into his saddlebag.

“This is one of those marital tests, isn’t it?”

“Come again?”

“You know.  A test.  You say we need a new roof.  I say no we don’t.  You

say, I’m the boss and we’re getting a new roof.  And I say, but we can’t

afford a roof.  And you say, well, we’re getting one anyway, even if we
have

to eat dirt for the next month to pay for it.  And if I say anything
further

you start reminding me that before we married I promised this and I
agreed to that, and that you’re the boss and what you say goes.  Does
that about sum up what’s happening here?”

He nodded, amusement lightening his expression.

“That about sums it up.  Glad to see you catch on so fast.”  He tossed
her a

bright yellow slicker.

“Here.  Take this.  Forecast calls for rain.”

“Hunter, we really can’t afford a new roof.”  She rolled the slicker and
tied

it to the back of her saddle.

“If we could, I’d have stuck one on last spring, or the spring before
that,

or even the spring before that.”

“We’re getting a new roof.”  He mounted.

“Though if it eases your mind any you won’t have to eat dirt for the next

month to pay for it.”

After a momentary hesitation she followed suit and climbed into the
saddle.

“I won’t?”

“Nope.  Just for the next week.”  He clicked his tongue, urging his horse

into an easy trot.

They spent the morning investigating the eastern portion of the Hampton

spread and Leah began to see the ranch through Hunter’s eyes.

And what she saw didn’t please her.  Signs of neglect were everywhere.

Fence-lines sagged.  Line-shacks had fallen into disrepair.  A few of the

cattle showed evidence of screw-worm and the majority of the calves they
came across hadn’t been branded or vaccinated.

At the south-eastern tip of the range Hunter stopped by a small stream and

dismounted.

“What the hell have your men been doing.  Leah?”  he asked, disgust heavy
in his voice.

“There’s no excuse for the condition of this place.”

“Money’s been tight,” she protested defensively.

“We don’t have a large work crew.”

“I’ve got news for you.  You don’t have a work crew, period.  Leastwise
they

don’t seem to be working worth a damn.”

“A lot of what we’ve seen isn’t their fault, but mine,” she claimed,
evading

his searching stare.

“I haven’t had the time recently to stay on top of everything.”

Hunter shook his head.

“Not good enough.  Leah.  Any foreman worth his salt would have caught
most of these problems for you.”

“You told me you wouldn’t fire anyone until they’d had an opportunity to

prove themselves,” she said, taking a different tack.

“I know things look bad, but give us a chance.  Tell us what you want done

and we’ll do it.”

He stripped off his gloves and tucked them in his belt.  “What I want is
for

you to get off that horse and sit down and discuss the situation with me.

One way or another we’re going to come to a meeting of the minds, and I
can’t think of a better time or place than right here and now.”

Still she resisted.

“If we sit under that pecan tree, we’ll get ticks.”

He took off his hat and slapped me dust from the brim.  “Did you last
time?”

So he did remember this spot.  She’d wondered if his stopping here had
been

coincidental or deliberate.  Now she knew.  She closed her eyes.

How much longer would she have to pay?  she wondered in despair.  When
would it be enough?

“I might have found a tick or two,” she finally admitted.

“Then I’ll look you over tonight,” he offered.

“Just to be on the safe side.”

“Thanks all the same,” she said drily.

“But I’ll pass.”

He held out a hand.

“Let’s go, Leah.  I didn’t bring you here to go skinny-dipping again.  I

brought you here to talk.  We’ll save a return trip down memory lane for

another visit.”

Reluctantly, she dismounted.

“What do you want to discuss?”

“The repairs we need to make and your employees,” he stated succinctly.

“I vote we start with the repairs,” she said.

“Have you gotten the loan?  Is that why you plan to replace the barn
roof?”

“And fix up the line-shacks, and restoring fence-line and increase the
size of the herd.  Yes, the loan’s taken care of, and we have enough
money to put the ranch back on its feet.  But it isn’t just lack of
repairs that contribute to a ranch going downhill.”

She sank to the grass with a grimace, shifting to one side so he could
join

her.

“Time to discuss the employees?”

“Time to discuss the employees.  I made a point of meeting most of them

before we married.”

She gave him a direct look.

“Then you know why I hired them.”

“Leah–‘ ” Don’t say another thing.  Hunter!  For once you’re going to
listen

and I’m going to talk.  ” She fought to find the words to convince him,
desperate to protect her workers.

“Not a single one of my employees has been able to find jobs anywhere
else.

The Arroyas were living out of a station wagon when I found them. 
Lenny’s a veteran who doesn’t care to sit around collecting government
handouts.  And Patrick risked his own life to save a child about to be
run down by a drunk driver.  He shattered his ankle doing it.  A week
later he got a pink slip because Lyon Enterprises didn’t want to be
bothered with an employee who might not be able to pull his own weight.”

Hunter shot her a sharp glance.

“He worked for Lyon Enterprises?”

“He used to be foreman of the Circle P.  Bull Jones replaced him.”

“And you took Patrick in.”

“I’ve given them all a home,” she acknowledged.

“I’ve given them a life.  And, as a result, they earn a living.  More
importantly, they’ve regained their self-respect.  So their work isn’t
always

perfect.  I can assure you that it’s the best they’re capable of doing. 
But if you ask for more they’ll do everything in their power to give it
to you. That’s how much working here means to them.  They’re family.
Don’t ask me to turn my back on family, because I can’t do it.  “

He stared out across the pastureland.

“You always were a sucker for an underdog.  I often thought that was what

attracted you to me.”

“That’s not true.”  She stopped, afraid of revealing too much.  She’d
never

seen him as an underdog.  A champion, a man of drive and determination,

someone filled with an intense passion and strength.

But not once had she ever seen him as an underdog.

His mouth tightened, as though he’d mistakenly allowed her to get too

close–revealed too much of himself.

“That still doesn’t change the facts.  And the facts are that you can’t
run a

ranch without competent help.”

“Hunter,” she pleaded.

“Give them a fair chance.  No more, no less.  I swear I won’t ask you for

anything else.”

His expression turned skeptical.

“Won’t you?”

“No.  I won’t.  Because saving the ranch isn’t worth it to me if I can’t

save them as well.”

That caught his attention.

“You’d give up the ranch if it came to a choice between running at a
profit

or replacing the help?”

She considered his question at length, a frown creasing her brow.

“I suspect I would,” she admitted at last.

“Because otherwise I’d be no better than Lyon Enterprises.  And if I
wanted

to be like them, I’d have sold out long ago.”

“You’re that serious about it?”

She nodded.

“I’m that serious.”

It was his turn to consider.  Slowly he nodded.

“Okay.  We’ll do it your way.  For now.  But I can’t make any guarantees

about the future. Will that do?  “

“I guess it’ll have to,” she said with a shrug.

“Why don’t we swing south next, and inspect that side of the ranch? Then
we’ll call it a day.  “

“I’m ready,” she claimed, happy to agree now that she’d been granted a

reprieve.

“Let’s go.”

He shook his head.

“Not yet.  There’s just one more thing I want before we head out.  And I
want it from you.”

“What?”  she asked warily, his tone warning her that she wouldn’t like his

request.

“I want you to kiss me.”

“What?”  she repeated in a fainter voice.

“You heard me.  I want a kiss.  I’m willing to wait until you’re ready
before

we go any further, but there’s no reason we can’t enjoy a preview of
coming

attractions.”  He held her with a searing gaze.

“Come on, Leah.  It’s not a lot to ask.”

It wasn’t, and she knew it.  Not giving herself a chance to reconsider,
she

leaned closer, resting her hands, on his chest.  She stared up at him, at
the

features that were almost as familiar as her own.  The changes time had

wrought were few, more of a strengthening, a fulfillment of what was once
a

promise.  The lines furrowing his brow and radiating from the corners of
his

eyes reflected a deepening of character that had come with age and
experience.

Tenderly she cupped his face, exploring anew the taut, high-boned planes
of

his cheeks.  It had been so long, so very long.  Slowly, she allowed her

fingers to sink into his thick black hair and, tilting her head just
slightly, she feathered a soft, teasing kiss across his mouth.  She half
expected him to grab her, to crush her in his arms and take what he so
clearly wanted.  But he didn’t.  He remained perfectly still, allowing
her to set the pace.

She continued to tease, dropping tiny kisses across his jaw and neck
before

returning to explore his lips.  And then she kissed him, really kissed
him,

the way a woman kissed her man.  And for the first time he responded, not

with his hands and arms, but with his mouth alone, returning her urgent,

eager caresses with a mind-drugging thoroughness that left her shaken and

defenseless.  He had to know how she felt—had to be aware of how much
she gave away with that kiss, how her protective barrier lay in total
ruin.  At

long last his arms closed around her, enfolding her in the sweetest of

embraces, and she knew in that moment that she’d willingly give him
anything he asked.

How much time passed, Leah wasn’t sure.  One minute she existed in a
sensual haze, secure in his arms, the next Hunter thrust her from him,
tumbling her to the ground.  In a move so swift that she barely
registered it he spun around, crouching protectively in front of her.

To her horror, a wickedly curved knife appeared in his hand.

“You’re trespassing, Jones.  What’s your business here?”  Hunter demanded.

It wasn’t until then that Leah noticed the foreman of the Circle P,
mounted

on a bay, not more than fifteen feet away.  She hadn’t heard his approach.

But Hunter had.

“Tell your guard-dog to drop the knife, Leah,” Bull Jones called, his gaze

riveted to the glinting length of steel in Hunter’s hand.

“Or I’ll have to get serious with some buckshot.”  His hand inched toward
his

rifle.

“You comprende what I’m saying, hombre?  You have no business threatening
me. I’d only be defending myself if I was forced to shoot.”

The expression in Hunter’s eyes burned with unmistakable menace.

“You’ll feel the hurting end of this blade long before that Remington
clears

your scabbard.  You comprehende me, muchachol Play it smart. Ride out
now.  “

For a minute Leah feared that Bull would pull his gun.  His hand wavered
over the rifle butt for an endless moment, before settling on his thigh.

“Since you’re new to the Hampton spread I’ll cut you some slack,” he

addressed Hunter.

“But nobody threatens me.  Ever. Somebody’d better explain that to you
pronto, because next time I won’t let you off so easy.  “

“Last warning.”  The blade quivered in Hunter’s hand.  “Ride.  Now.”

“You’ll regret this, Leah,” Bull hollered.  Swearing beneath his breath,
he

sawed at his mount’s bit and rode off.

“Oh, God,” Leah moaned, and she began to tremble.  In one supple move,
Hunter sheathed his knife in his boot and pulled her into his arms.

“It’s okay,” he murmured against the top of her head.  “He’s gone.”

She clung to him, unable to stop shaking, reaction setting in fast and
hard.

He didn’t release her, just stood silently, enveloping her in a tight,
inviolable hold.  Yet she’d have had him hold her closer if she thought
her ribs would stand the strain.  Slowly the warmth of his body and the
strength of his arms calmed her, soothing her terror.

“He could have shot you,” she whispered, fighting to hold back her tears.

He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Not a chance.  I had him dead to rights and he knew it.”  His mouth
brushed

her cheek, her jaw, her lips.

“It’s over.  Leah.  He’s gone.”

She melted against him, needing his touch more desperately than she’d ever

needed anything before in her life.  As though sensing it, he kissed her.
But it wasn’t like the passionate embrace they’d shared earlier.  This
caress was so gentle and tender that it nearly broke her heart.

“He frightens me.  Hunter,” she confessed in a low voice.

He glanced at the thin cloud of dust disappearing to the south.

“Tell me about him.”  It was an order.

She fought to gather her thoughts enough to give him a coherent answer.

“I’ve told you most of it.  Although I can’t prove anything, I suspect
he’s

responsible for our fence- lines being cut.  We’ve had a couple of
suspicious

stampedes and one or two of the wells have been fouled.”  She shrugged.

“That sort of thing.”

“He’s the reason this place is so neglected.”  It wasn’t a question.

“You don’t ride out here alone, do you?  That’s why you haven’t seen the

problems until now.”

She bowed her head.

“I don’t let the others come either,” she admitted.

“Unless they’re in a group.  I’ve been terrified of something happening.”

“Have you reported any of this to Lyon Enterprises?”

She flashed him a bitter glare.

“Who do you think he’s getting his instructions from?”

“Do you know that for a fact?”

She whirled free of his arms, anger replacing her fear.

“I don’t know anything for a fact.  If I did.  Bull Jones would be in
jail and

I’d have a nice, fat lawsuit pending against Lyon Enterprises. You
married me to get your hands on this ranch, didn’t you?  If you want to
keep it, you’re going to have to defend it.  Otherwise we both lose.  “

Hunter bent down and retrieved his hat.

“Mount up.”

She stared in disbelief.

“Now?  Just like that?  End of discussion?”

“I want to check the south pasture before dark.”

“That’s the direction Bull took.  What if we run into him again?”  she
asked

nervously.

The brim of his hat threw Hunter’s face into shadow, making his expression

unreadable.

“Then I’ll make a point of introducing myself.”

She clung to him, checking his move toward his horse.  “Please, Hunter.

Can’t we go home?  We can check the south pasture tomorrow.

There’s no point in looking for trouble.  “

A humorless smile cut across his face.

“You’ve got it backward.  Seems trouble has come looking for us.”  For a

minute she thought he’d insist they explore the south pasture.  But at
long

last he nodded.

“Okay.  I’ve seen enough.  But tomorrow I ride south.”  And with that she
had to be satisfied.

In the study.  Hunter lifted the phone receiver and stared at it for a
long

minute before punching in a series of numbers.  After several clicks the
call

was connected.

“Kevin Anderson.”

“It’s Hunter.  Give me an update.”  He listened to the lengthy recitation

with a frown and jotted down a few notes.

“Okay.  Don’t do” anything for now.  We don’t want to tip our hand.  The
rest can wait until I come in.  “

“Any problems at your end?”  Kevin asked.

“You might say that.”  Hunter poured himself a shot of whiskey, and
downed it in a single swallow.

“I had another run-in with Bull Jones.”

Alarm sounded in Kevin’s voice.

“Does he know who you are yet?”

“Not yet.  Our marriage has been kept pretty much under wraps.  Not a lot
of

people know.  But Jones could be a problem once he finds out–depending
on how much talking he decides to do.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Send me his file.  Overnight it.”

“Will do.  Then what?  You want him… out of the picture?”

Hunter thought about it, rubbing a weary hand across the back of his neck.

“No.  Don’t do anything for now.  We act too soon and it’ll give the whole

game away.”

“Whatever you say.  You’re the boss.”

“Thanks, Kevin.”

Hanging up.  Hunter poured a final shot of whiskey and stared at the
ceiling.

Time to bed down with his beautiful bride.  Time to pull that soft, sweet

piece of feminine delight into his arms and.  sleep.  He downed the
liquor,

praying that it would numb him–at least the parts in dire need of
numbing.

Patience.  He only needed a little more patience.  And then that soft,
sweet

piece of feminine delight would be all his.

CHAPTER SIX

Leah slipped from Hunter’s arms at the crack of dawn the next morning. 
This time she kept yesterday’s warning firmly in mind, and dressed before
going to the kitchen for an apple.  Running to the south pasture fence,
she whistled for her stallion.  But instead of the horse all she found
was a white-tailed deer and a family of jackrabbits who, startled by her
sudden appearance, burst across the grassland and disappeared from view. 
She climbed on to the top rail and waited for a while, but Dreamseeker
proved surprisingly elusive.

Concluding that she’d been stood up in favor of a patch of fresh clover,
she

bit into the apple.  Then she watched as the sun gathered strength,
spreading

its warm April rays across a nearby field splattered with the vivid
purple of

bluebonnets and neon-orange of Indian paintbrush.  Without question this
had to be her favorite time of the day as well as her favorite season of
the year.

A twig snapped behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”  she asked in a conversational tone of voice.

“Yes.”  Hunter folded his arms across the top rail and glanced at her.

“No accusations of sneaking up on you this morning?”

“You banged the kitchen door.”

“And stomped across the yard.”

A tiny grin touched her mouth.

“I almost turned around to look, but you were being so considerate that I,

didn’t want to spoil it.”

“I appreciate your restraint,” he said, with a touch of wry humor.

“Your horse hasn’t shown up yet?”

She frowned, tossing her apple core into the meadow.  “He didn’t answer my

whistle.  But if we’re exploring the south pasture we’re bound to come
across

him.  Ready to go?”  She vaulted off the fence, wanting to get Hunter’s

inspection tour over and done with.  Perhaps if they made an early start

they’d avoid Bull Jones.

“No.  I’m not ready.”  He caught her arm, tugging her to a standstill.

“Not quite yet.”

“Why?”  she asked in apprehension.

“Is there something wrong?”

“You might say that.”  His hold lightened, though he didn’t release her.

“You were gone again this morning.”

She bridled at the hint of censure in his voice.  She’d agreed to sleep
with

him without too much argument; surely he didn’t intend to choose which
hours that would encompass.

If so, he’d soon learn differently.

“Is that a problem?”

“Yes.  I don’t like it.  Tomorrow you start the day in my arms.”

She eased from his grip and a took a quick step back, something in his

expression filling her with a discomfiting awareness.

“What difference does it make if I’m there or not?”  she asked.

Her question seemed to amuse him.

“If you wake me tomorrow, you’ll learn the difference.”

She didn’t doubt it for a minute.  But that didn’t mean she’d go along.

“I’ll consider it,” she conceded.

“But I like having mornings to myself.”

“You’ll have other times to yourself,” he informed her.  “I want time
alone

with you.  All marriages need privacy… intimacy.”

Understanding dawned and she fought to breathe normally.  So the moment
of truth had finally arrived.  If she read his request correctly, tomorrow

morning she’d fulfill her duties as his wife and make their marriage a
real,

fully functioning union–no matter how much she wanted to resist.  No
matter how much that final act alarmed her.  That was what she’d
committed herself to when they’d exchanged their vows, and that was what
she’d soon have to face.  If only the thought didn’t fill her with
dread–dread that she’d

couldn’t keep a small part of herself safe from his possession; dread that

when he took her body he’d take her heart as well.

“All right,” she said at last.

“Mornings can be our time.”

He inclined his head.

“We’ll discuss the afternoons and evenings later.”

“Hunter–‘ ” Time to get to work.  ” He cut her off, amusement gleaming in

his dark eyes.

“Are there any more of those muffins we had yesterday?”

“Plenty,” she admitted grudgingly.

“Inez left us well- stocked.  I’ll go get them.”

“And a Thermos of coffee, if you would.  I’ll saddle the horses.”

Fifteen minutes later they rode out, heading south along the fence-line.

Hunter’s buckskin seemed particularly agitated, fighting the bit and
shying

at the least little movement.  Not that he had any trouble controlling the

animal, but Leah could tell that their battle of wills wasn’t the norm. 
As

though in response, her mare fidgeted as well.

“Is it something in the air?”  she asked uneasily.

“Ladyfinger never acts up like this.”

“Something has them spooked,” he agreed.

“Have your men noticed any sign of cougar recently?”

“None.”  She felt a sudden stabbing concern for Dreamseeker.

“It wasn’t that hard a winter.  There’s no reason for one to come this
close

when the pickings are so easy further out.”  But she knew her protests
were

more to convince herself than to convince him.

“Don’t panic.  I didn’t say it was a cougar.  I just thought we should

consider the possibility.”  He regarded her intently.

“I want you to stay alert, you got me?  In the meantime, we have
fence-line

to inspect.  So, let’s get to it.”

They didn’t converse much after that.  Leah kept an eye open for anything
out of the ordinary.  And, though the animals remained skittish, she
couldn’t

determine what caused their strange behavior.

A short time later Hunter stopped to examine a drooping length of barbed
wire.

“This next section abuts Lyon Enterprises’ property, doesn’t it?”  he
asked,

clearly annoyed with the condition of the fence.

“From here onward,” she confirmed.

“You’re just asking for trouble, letting it fall into such a state of
disrepair.  One good shove and you’ll have a week’s worth of work combing
Circle P hills for your herd.  It gets top priority come Monday morning.”

“What about Bull Jones?”  she asked uneasily.

A muscle tightened in his jaw.

“You let me worry about him.  I don’t expect it’ll take long to reach an

understanding.”

By noon they’d almost mushed their inspection.  Riding over a low hill,
they

suddenly discovered the reason for their horses’ agitation.  The fence
between the two ranches lay on the ground.  And down a steep grade, on
Lyon property, grazed Dreamseeker.  with the Circle P mare he’d corralled.

Hunter reined to a stop and shot Lean a sharp look.

“He’s a stallion? That horse you were with yesterday morning?”

She glanced at him in surprise.

“Didn’t you notice?”

“No, I didn’t notice,” came the blunt retort.

“Because it wasn’t the damned horse that caught my eye.”

Then what.  Realization swiftly dawned, and color mounted her cheeks.  Not

what.  Who.  He’d been distracted by her.  and the fact that she’d only
been

wearing a nightgown.  Well, she couldn’t help that.  Nor did it change

anything.

“I don’t see what difference it makes whether or not he’s a stallion–“

“There’s a big difference,” he cut her off.

“Not many geldings I know are going to bust through a fence to get to a
mare in heat.  But you can count on a stallion doing it every time.”  He
shoved his hat to the back of his head, apparently debating his options.

Leah didn’t show any such hesitation.  As far as she was concerned, only
one

option existed.  Without giving thought to the consequences, she charged

across the smashed fence and started after her stallion.

Or she would have, if Hunter hadn’t been quite so quick.  He spurred his

horse into action and blocked her path.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  he shouted, grabbing her
horse’s

bridle and jerking her to a stop.

As much as she wanted to fight his hold, she didn’t dare risk injuring

Ladyfinger’s delicate mouth.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”  she flashed back.

“I’m getting my horse.  Let go, Hunter.  We don’t have much time.”

He stared in disbelief.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious.”  Responding to her agitation, Ladyfinger attempted to

rear, but a soft word and a gentle hand brought her under control.

Leah spoke urgently.

“If Bull Jones finds Dreamseeker on his property, he’ll shoot first and
ask

questions later.  I have to get my horse out of there before that
happens.”

She gathered up the reins, prepared to rip free at the first opportunity.

As though he sensed her intentions, his hold tightened on Ladyfinger’s

bridle, preventing any sudden movement on her part.

“You try and rope that animal and he’ll kill you–which won’t matter
because

I’ll have killed you long before he has the chance.”

“Hunter,” she interrupted, prepared to dismount and go after Dreamseeker
on foot, ‘we’re wasting precious time.”

“Tough.  You have two choices,” he informed her.

“You can keep fighting me in which case that stallion will stay down there

until hell freezes over.  Or…”

“Or?”  she prompted impatiently.

“Or you can do exactly what I say and we might get him out of there.

But I’m telling you, Leah.  You ever do anything as stupid as coming
between a stallion and his mare and I won’t be responsible for my
actions.  “

“Not responsible…”  Anger flared and she made no attempt to curb it.

“That’s what you said about my running around in my nightgown!  That’s a

pretty broad range you’ve got going there.  Maybe you’d better tell me
what

other actions alleviate you of your responsibilities.  Just so there
won’t be

any doubt in my mind.”

“Believe me, the second you commit one, you’ll be the first to know.”

She didn’t miss the implication.  He’d let her know in his own distinctive

manner–and chances were excellent that it would involve another of those

mind-splintering kisses.  She opened her mouth to argue, and was instantly

cut off.

“Well?  What’s it going to be?  My way or no way.”

More than anything she wanted to tell him to go to hell.  But one quick

glance at Dreamseeker and she knew she didn’t have any other choice.

“Your way,” she gave in grudgingly.

“How hard will it be to get him back?”

“That depends on how long he’s been down there with that mare.  With any
luck it’s been all morning, and he’s expended most of his… enthusiasm.”

She eyed the seemingly placid animal.

“By the look of him I’d say he’s expended plenty of enthusiasm.”

Hunter didn’t appear as certain.

“We’ll see.  Tie Ladyfinger out of the way and stand by the fence.  I’m
going

to rope the mare and try and bring her across.  Dreamseeker will give
chase.

The second they’re both on our property, you get that fence-line back
up.  If

anything goes wrong, stand clear and don’t interfere.”  Serious dark eyes
held her with an implacable gaze.

“Got it?”

“Got it.”  Following his instructions, she tied her horse out of the way
and

stuck her fence tool and staples into her utility belt.

Pulling on work-gloves, she took up a stance by the downed lines and gave
him a nod.

“Ready when you are.”

Jamming his hat low on his brow, he released his rope and slowly rode down

the hill.  He waited near the bottom.  Not wanting to arouse Dreamseeker’s

territorial instincts, he kept his distance from the mare, and though Leah

could barely contain her impatience she knew that Hunter hoped the
stallion

would make things easy and move off a ways, allowing for a clear shot at
the mare.  Everything considered, the throw would be a difficult one.

Ten long minutes ticked by before an opportunity presented itself.

Gently, he swung the rope overhead and tossed.  Leah held her breath as it

soared through the air.  and landed directly on target.  With a swiftness

born of both experience and a strong desire to get the deed done before

Dreamseeker caught wind of his intentions.  Hunter dallied the rope around

the horn and began to pull the mare up the hill.

The trapped animal fought him, rearing and pawing the air.  Dragging a
horse in the exact opposite direction from where she wanted to go was bad
enough, but having to do it up a hill made it near impossible.

Leah could hear Hunter swearing beneath his breath, the sound of his
saddle

creaking and his horse blowing carrying to her as they inched their way

toward Hampton property.

About halfway up the hill Dreamseeker suddenly realized what they were
about. With a shriek of outrage, the stallion gave chase.

Hunter’s buckskin didn’t need any more encouragement than that.  The
sight of seventeen hundred pounds of rampaging stallion barreling
straight for them apparently inspired the gelding to redouble his
efforts.  Even the mare

seemed to lose her reluctance.

All too quickly Dreamseeker reached them.  Instead of attacking Hunter,
the

stallion nipped at the mare, who stopped fighting the rope and abruptly

changed direction, charging up the hill, the stallion on her heels.  It
was

all Hunter could do to get out of the way.

“Leah, stand clear!”  he shouted.

Intent on regaining his own territory, Dreamseeker drove the frightened
mare before him up the hill and on to Hampton property.  As the horses
stormed past Hunter released the rope and followed close behind.

“Get that fence up fast, before he changes his mind,” Hunter bellowed over

his shoulder, positioning himself between Leah and the threatening
stallion.

An agitated Dreamseeker milled nearby, clearly uncertain whether to
challenge the intruders or escape with his prize.  Hunter tensed,
prepared for either eventuality.

Not wasting a single second, Leah slammed staples into the post, securing

the barbed wire.  Not that it would stop Dreamseeker if he decided to head

back to the Circle P.  But maybe now that he’d successfully captured a
mare

and returned to his own domain he’d be less inclined to break through
again.

She cast an uneasy glance at her horse.  At least, he wouldn’t break
through

unless there were more mares to he had.

With a shrill whinny, Dreamseeker finally chose to retreat.  Racing away
from them, he hustled the mare toward the far side of the pasture. 
Assured that the danger had passed.  Hunter climbed off his buckskin and
tied him to the fence.

“Where’s Ladyfinger?”  he asked, freeing his fence tool from its holster.

She spared him a quick look.

“Broke the reins and took off.  I guess she figured that Dreamseeker meant

business and didn’t want to get between him and whatever that business
might be.”

He made a sound of impatience.

“You’ll have to ride with me.  Once we’re done here, we’ll head on in.”

“Right.”  She didn’t dare say more, not until he’d had a chance to cool
off.

He joined her at the fence; helping to string wire and reinforce the
posts.

They worked side by side for several minutes before Leah thought to ask,

“What do we do about that mare?”

“We aren’t going to do anything.  When she isn’t such a bone of contention

I’ll cut her loose and return her to the Circle P.”

Leah paused in her efforts.

“What about Bull Jones?”

To her surprise a slight smile touched Hunter’s mouth.  “I’ll send him a
bill

for stud service.”  He strung the final line of wire and glanced at her.

“Is that stallion saddle- broken?”

She shook her head.

“Not yet, but–“

“He’s wild?” Hunter didn’t wait for her confirmation.

“He goes.”

She straightened, wiping perspiration from her brow.  “You can’t be
serious!”

“I’m dead serious.  He’s dangerous and I won’t risk your safety on a

dangerous animal.”

“Then you’ll have to get rid of the bulls, the cows and every other
critter

around here,” she retorted in exasperation.

“Because in the right circumstances any one of them could be considered

dangerous, too.”

“I’m not changing my mind,” he stated unequivocally, stamping the ground

around a listing post.

How could she explain Dreamseeker’s importance?  Hunter would never

understand.  She wasn’t sure she understood.  All she knew was that the

stallion touched a need, fulfilled a fantasy of being unfettered and
without

responsibilities.  Though part of her hoped some day to tame the wild
beast,

another part longed to allow the stallion his freedom–just as she longed
to

experience a similar freedom.  It was an unrealistic dream, but she didn’t

care.

Looking Hunter straight in the eye, Leah said,

“Don’t do it.  Please don’t get rid of him.  He means the world to me.”

His expression turned grim and remote.

“Another hard luck case?”

“In a way,” she admitted.

“I took him in when others might have put him down.  I suspect he’s been

abused in the past, which would explain his skittishness.”

Hunter leaned his forearms across the post, his plaid shirt pulled tight

across his broad chest.  A fine sheen of perspiration glinted in the
hollow

of his throat, and his thick ebony hair clung to his brow–a brow
furrowed in

displeasure.

“You’re doing a poor job persuading me to let him stay.  If anything,
you’ve

convinced me he’s too dangerous.  Besides, you used up all your favors

yesterday, remember?”

“I remember.”  Having him give her employees a chance was still more

important to her than any other consideration–even saving Dreamseeker.

“I’m not asking for another favor.  I promised I wouldn’t, and I won’t.” 
She

offered a crooked smile.

“But I’m willing to compromise.”

“You’re pushing it.”

She nodded.

“I know.  But it’s important to me.”

He frowned, and she could sense his struggle between what common sense
told him to do and granting her plea.  Finally he nodded.

“One month.  If I can break him, or at least put some manners on him, he
can

stay.  But you keep clear in the meantime.  Agreed?”

Her smile widened.

“Agreed.”

“That’s the last time, Leah,” he warned.

“You’ve pushed me to the limit.  Now, mount up.”

“My horse…?”  she reminded him.

“I haven’t forgotten.  We’ll ride double.”

He crossed to his buckskin and untied the reins from the fence.

Looking from Hunter to the horse, Leah caught her breath in dismay.

With her clinging to his back like a limpet, dipping and swaying, rubbing
and bumping all the way to the ranch, it would be a long ride home.  She
shivered.

Real long.

Leah began to ease from the bed the next day, as she had each of the other

two mornings, but then remembered her promise to stay.  With a tiny sigh
she lay down again, and yanked the sheet to her chin.

Instantly Hunter caught hold of her, ripped the sheet free and tumbled her

into a warm embrace.

“Good morning, wife,” he muttered close to her ear.

“Good morning,” she responded cautiously, waiting for him to pounce, to

force himself on her.  Considering her forty-eight-hour deadline had
expired

last night, he’d be well within his rights.  Instead he enclosed her hair
in a possessive fist and, dropping an arm across her waist, shut his
eyes.  His

breathing deepened and she frowned.

“The sun’s up,” she prompted, fighting nervous anticipation.

“Uh-huh.”

He nuzzled her cheek and she drew back.

“This is our time together, remember?”

“I remember.”

“Well?”  She could hear the strain in her voice, but couldn’t help it.

She wanted to get whatever he had planned over and done with.

“You said this time together would make a difference.  The only difference

I’ve noticed is that I’m late starting my chores.”

He sighed, opening one eye.

“The chores can wait.  Relax.  You’re stiff as a board.”  He slid an arm

around her hips and tucked her back against his chest, spoon-fashion.

Resting his chin on top of her head, he said,

“Now just relax and talk to me.”

“Talk.”  This wasn’t quite what she’d expected when he’d made his demand.

She’d suspected that he intended to .  to do a whole lot more than talk.

“What should I talk about?”

“Anything.  Everything.  Whatever comes to mind.”

“Okay,” she agreed, knowing she sounded stilted and uncomfortable.

“What are your plans for this coming?”

“I’ll start by working with Dreamseeker.”

“And… and the fence-line?  The one that runs alongside of the Circle P?”

“It gets fixed today.”

“You’ll be careful?”  She hesitated to mention her fears, but couldn’t
help

herself.

“I don’t trust Bull.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s just–‘ He brushed a length of hair from her brow and she realized
that

at some point during their conversation she’d rolled over to face him. 
And

with the realization her words died away, and her earlier nervousness

returned.

He noticed.  She suspected that his sharp, black-eyed gaze noticed

everything.  Gently, he cupped her cheek, his callused thumb stroking the

corner of her mouth.

“I’ll take care of it,” he repeated, and kissed her warmly, deeply,
sparking

an instant response.

She didn’t reply–couldn’t, in fact.  He seemed to sense that, for he
pressed

his advantage, his kiss becoming more intense, more urgent.

Sensing her capitulation, he pressed her into the mattress.  Instantly her

body reacted, softening as his hardened, moving in concert with his,
shifting

to accommodate his size and weight.

Her nightgown provided no barrier at all.  He unbuttoned the small pearl

buttons that ran from neck to waist and swept the cotton from her
shoulders.

Drawing back, he gazed down at her, the early morning light playing across

the taut, drawn lines of his face.  Kneeling above her, he seemed like
some

bold conqueror of old, a bronzed warrior poised to take what he willed,
and

giving no quarter.

Slowly, he reached for her, his black eyes burning like twin flames.

His fists closed around her nightgown, and in one swift move he stripped
it

from her.

Reacting instinctively, she fought to cover herself, the expression on his

face frightening her.  She shouldn’t struggle.  She knew she shouldn’t,
but

sudden blind panic overrode all other thought and emotion.

“No!”  The tiny urgent whisper escaped before she could prevent it.

“Don’t fight me,” he demanded, trapping her beneath him and staring down

with intense, passion-filled eyes.

“I won’t hurt you.  Dammit, Leah!  You know how good it was between us,
how good it can be again.”

“I know, I know,” she moaned, a sob catching in her throat.

“I can’t help it.  It’s not the same any more.  I can’t make myself feel
what

I did before just because we’re married now… just because it’s what you

want.”

“And you don’t?”  he bit out.  His hand swept across the rigid peak of her

breast.

“You’re only fooling yourself if that’s what you think. You can’t deny
your body’s response to me.”

“No, I can’t.”  The confession, raw and painful, was torn from her.

How she wished she could open herself to his embrace and enjoy the
momentary pleasure he offered, regardless of the consequences.  But
something instinctively held her back, making the gesture impossible.

He’d taken so much already.  She didn’t dare allow him to take more.

Not yet.

“Give yourself to me, Leah.”  His words were raspy, heavy with desire.

“You want to.  Stop resisting.”

Urgently, she shook her head.

“I won’t be a pawn in your game of revenge.  You have the ranch.  You
can’t

have me.  Not this easily.  And not with such casual disregard.”

“You call this casual?”  He gripped her hand, drawing it to his body,

encouraging the hesitant stroke of her fingers against his heated skin.

“Touch me and then try and call what I feel casual.”  Unable to resist,
her

hand followed the sinewy contours from chest to abdomen.

“If you feel something, then say the words,” she pleaded.

“Tell me our lovemaking isn’t just sex.  Tell me honestly that there isn’t

some deep, secret part of you settling an old score.”  Tears filled her
eyes.

“Tell me that.  Hunter, so I don’t feel used.”

He tensed above her, his hands tightening on her shoulders in automatic

reaction.  Then his head dropped to her breast, a day’s growth of whiskers

rasping across her skin, branding her.  A tear escaped from the corner of
her

eye.  She had her answer.  She’d gambled and lost.  His very silence

condemned him, told her more clearly than any words that his motivations
were far from pure, that his actions weren’t inspired by anything as
noble as love.

“I could take you by force,” His voice was raw and harsh against her
breast.

She prayed that it was only frustration speaking, that his threat was an

empty one.

“You once told me force wouldn’t be necessary.  Have you changed your
mind?” She attempted to slip from beneath him, but his hands closed
around her shoulders, holding her in place.

“Taking what you want won’t help our situation any,” she tried to reason
with him.

“The hell it won’t!  It would help my situation a great deal.  And I’d
bet my

last dollar that it would do a world of good for yours.”

She couldn’t deny the truth.  She turned her face into the pillow,
retreating

from the accusation in his eyes.  Helpless tears escaped despite her
attempts

to control them.

“I’m sorry.  I wish I could give myself to you and be done with it.  But I

can’t.  I can’t be that detached about making love.”

“I don’t expect you to be detached.  I do expect you to resign yourself to

the inevitable and face facts.”  He threaded his fingers through her hair,

forcing her to face him.

“And the fact is, we will be lovers.  It will happen whether it’s
tomorrow or

the next day or the one after that.  Before long, wife, you’ll want my
touch.

I guarantee it.”

“You’re wrong,” she insisted, but they both knew she lied.

With an unexpectedly calming hand he brushed the tears from her cheeks.

“I won’t force the issue this time.  But understand me; I don’t make any

promises for the next.”

Then he rolled off her and left the bed.  left Leah to her thoughts and to

the inescapable knowledge that resisting him would prove futile.  Soon her

body would betray her and she’d be unable to stop him from completing
what he’d started today.  And once that happened, he’d have won it all.

Leah headed for the corral a short time later, to observe Hunter work with

Dreamseeker.  She wasn’t alone.  The Arroya children and a number of the

employees all found excuses to line up along the fence and watch the
coming confrontation.  But if they had thought that Hunter would simply
climb on to the stallion’s back and attempt to bust him, they were
mistaken.  Instead, he lifted a piece of saddle-blanket from the corral
fence and, after letting the horse sniff it, ran it over Dreamseeker’s
shoulders.

“Easy, boy.  Easy.”  His deep voice carded on the early morning breeze as
he

calmed the nervous animal.

Leah watched his hands and listened to his low reassurances, uncomfortably

aware that his gentling of the nervous animal was remarkably similar to
the

way he’d soothed her before leaving their bed.  She didn’t doubt for a
minute

who would win this battle of wills.  any more than she doubted who would

ultimately win the age-old battle Waged in their bedroom.  It was as
inevitable as the changing of the seasons; time was the only variable.

Once done with Dreamseeker, he spent until sundown laboring with the men,
starting to set the ranch to rights.

As the days winged by, Leah began to relax.  He didn’t press her to
commit to him physically and, contrary to her earlier fears, he also
didn’t make any

sweeping changes.  Instead he did just as he’d promised.  He gave her

employees a chance.

Or so she thought until Inez came tearing up to the corral fence.

“Senora, come quick!  The men, they are fighting.”

Leah leapt from the horse she’d been training and ducked beneath the

fence-rails.

“Where?”

“Behind the barn.”

She ran flat out, skidding to a stop as she came around the corner of the

barn.  Sprawled in the dust lay one of her more recent hard luck cases; a

huge, brawny youngster barely past his teens by the name of Orrie.  Above
him towered Hunter, his fists cocked, his stance threatening.  The rest
of the

employees stood in a loose circle around the two.

“Hunter!”  she called, horrified that he’d actually fight one of her
workers,

especially one so young.

He spared her a brief glance.

“Stay out of it, Leah,” he warned.

“This doesn’t concern you.”

Orrie scrambled to his feet, careful to keep clear of Hunter’s reach.

“He fired me, Miz Hampton.  He had no call to do that.  You have to help
me.”

Uncertain, she looked from Orrie to her husband.  “What’s this about?”

Hunter’s mouth tightened.

“You heard me, Leah.  Stay out of it.”

“You have to do something, Miz Hampton,” Orrie insisted, bolting to her
side.

“You can’t let him get away with it.  He’s trying to change things.”

“You must be mistaken.  He promised to give everyone a fair shot,” she

hastened to reassure.

“Do your job and you stay.”  She searched the sea of faces for
confirmation.

“That was the agreement, right?”

Bitterness filled Orrie’s expression.

“Then he strung you along with his lies as well as the rest of us, ’cause
he fired me.  And that ain’t all!”  The words were tumbling from him, as
though

he feared being stopped.  Forcibly.

“Lenny’s gonna have to leave, too.  And he’s made Mateo give up the
horses.”

She couldn’t hide her disbelief.

“Hunter, you can’t do that!”

“I can and I have.”  He motioned to the men.

“You have your orders.

Get to it.  ” Without a word, they drifted away from the scene.

Orrie stared at her with the saddest, most pathetic eyes she’d ever seen.

“You won’t let him fire me, will you, Miz Hampton?”

“Her name is Pryde.  Mrs Pryde,” Hunter stated coldly.  He snagged his hat

from the dirt and slapped the dust from the brim.

“And she has no say in this.  You have your wages, which is more than you

deserve.

Pick up your bedroll and clear out.  ” He started toward them.

“Now.”

Orrie hesitated, shifting so that Leah stood between him and trouble.

“Miz Hampton… Pryde?”

She switched her attention from her employee to Hunter.  “Perhaps if I

understood the reason?”  she suggested, hoping he’d take the hint and
explain himself.

Instead he folded his arms across his chest.

“There’s nothing to understand.  This is between me and the boy.  I
suggest

you go to the house.”

She stared in shock.

“What?”

“You heard me.  You’re interfering.  So, say goodbye to your friend here
and

get up to the house.  Believe me.  I’ll be right behind.”

It sounded more like a threat than a promise.  For a long minute she stood

glaring at him, too furious to speak and too uncertain of the possible

consequences to stand her ground.  With a muffled exclamation, she turned
and walked away, knowing that her cheeks burned with outrage.  She could
only pray that none of her other employees had been close enough to
witness their battle of wills.

Especially when she’d been so thoroughly defeated.

“Miz Hampton,” Orrie cried, dogging her retreat.

“Please.  You gotta do something.”

She paused, glancing at him apologetically.

“It’s out of my hands,” she admitted, risking a quick nervous look over
her shoulder.

“That’s it?  You’re going to let him fire me?  You’re going to give in to

that… that half-breed?”

She pulled away in distaste.

“Don’t ever use that expression around me.”

He’d made a mistake, and apparently knew it.  He hastened to correct the

situation.

“I… I didn’t mean to say that,” he apologized.

“You gotta understand.  I’m desperate.  I have nowhere else to go.”

It took all her willpower to resist his pleas.

“I’m sorry.  There’s nothing I can do,” she said, and continued walking.

She didn’t turn around again.  Once at the house, she stormed into the
study

and stood helplessly by the window, watching Orrie’s departure.

Hunter watched too, remaining dead center in the middle of the drive while

the youngster packed his things into Patrick’s pick-up and finally left.

Then Hunter turned and faced the house, grim intent marking every line of
his body.

Leah didn’t even realize that she’d backed from the window until she found

herself up against her father’-s desk.  Not taking time to analyze her

reasons, she put the width of the oak tabletop between her and the study
door.  A minute later it crashed open.

Hunter strode in, slamming the door behind him so hard that it rocked on
its

hinges.

“You and I,” he announced in a furious voice, ‘have a small matter to set

straight.  “

CHAPTER SEVEN

“You’re angry,” she said, stating the obvious… stating the very obvious.

He started across the room.

“Good guess.”

“Well, I’m angry too.”  She swallowed hard.

“I suggest we discuss this.”

He kept coming.

“Calmly.”

He knocked a mahogany hat rack from his path.

“Rationally.”

He stalked around the desk.

“Like two civilized adults.”  She retreated, using her father’s swivel
chair

as a shield.

“Okay?”

In response, he kicked me chair out of the way and trapped her against the

wall.

“That’s a yes, right?”  she said with a gasp.

A muscle jerked in his cheek and he made a small growling sound low in his

throat that told her more clearly than anything else just how furious he
was.

It took every ounce of willpower not to panic and bolt from the room.  He

grabbed her wrist in one hand and yanked.

Bending low, he clipped her across the hips and tossed her over his
shoulder.

“Hunter! No, don’t!”  she had time to shriek, before her entire world
turned

upside-down.

He clamped an arm around her legs just above the knees, effectively

immobilizing her.

“We’re going to discuss this all right.  But not here where everyone and
her

grandmother can listen in,” he announced.

“Put me down!”  She planted her palms in the middle of his back and
attempted to wiggle free.  Not that it did any good.  His grip was as
strong as a steel band.

“We could continue this conversation at the line-shack, if you’d
prefer.”  He

shrugged his shoulders, bouncing her like a sack of potatoes.  The breath

whooshed from her lungs and she stopped bucking.

“No!  Why not here?  The study is an excellent place for a discussion.

You start discussing and you’ll see how good a place it is.”

“I say it’s not.”

He’d reached the door and Leah began to panic seriously.  “Hunter, please.

Put me down.”

He ignored her, stepping into the hallway.  Heading for the entrance, he

tipped his hat and said,

“Afternoon, Rose.  Glad you could drop in. Or should I say eavesdrop in? 
My bride and I are going for a little drive.”

“You don’t say.”  Rose folded her arms across her chest.  “You’re going to

have trouble driving like that.”

“It’s amazing the things you can accomplish when you set your mind to it.

Don’t wait dinner for us.”  With that, he left the house.  Beside his
pick-up, he dropped Leah to her feet, and held the truck door open.

“Your choice.  You can get in under your own steam, or I can help you.”

She planted her hands on her hips.

“I am perfectly capable of getting into a truck all on my own, thank you
very

much.”

“Wrong answer.”  The next thing she knew, he’d scooped her up and dumped
her on the passenger seat.  Slamming the door closed, he leaned in the
window.

“This conversation may take longer than I thought.  Stay here.”

Before she could say a single word, he’d started off toward the barn.

He returned several minutes later, carrying two fishing poles and a

tackle-box.  She stared at the rods in disbelief.

“What’s all that for?”  she questioned, the second he climbed into the
cab.

“Fishing.”

“I know that!”  Loath as she was to mention the fact, she forced herself
to

remind him,

“I meant… I thought we were going to have a discussion.”  She gave him a

hopeful smile.  “But if you’d rather fish…”

“Believe me,” he said, shooting her a sharp look, ‘we’ll have that talk.

Consider the drive to our.  discussion site as a short reprieve.  “

She struggled to hide her disappointment.

“And the poles?”

“My reward for not killing you.”  He gunned the engine.  “If you were
smart,

you’d stay real quiet and hope it takes a long time to get there.”

“But—“

 “Not another word!” His words exploded with a fury that left her in no
doubt as to how tenuous a hold he had on his temper.

“Woman, you are inches away from disaster.  I guarantee, you don’t want to

push me any further.”

Taking his suggestion to heart, she didn’t open her mouth the entire
length

of the ride.  She soon realized what destination he had in mind.

The rough dirt track that he turned on to led to a small, secluded lake in

the far western section of the ranch.  It had been one of their favorite

meeting-spots eight years ago.  It was also about as far from curious eyes

and ears as they could get.  As much as she dreaded the coming
confrontation, she appreciated his determination to keep it as private as
possible.

“Hunter,” she began as they neared the lake.

“Not yet,” he bit out.

“I’m still not calm enough to deal with you.”

Pulling the truck to a stop at the end of the track, he climbed from the
cab

and gathered up the poles, tackle-box and a plastic bucket.

“Let’s go,” he called over his shoulder.

Reluctantly Leah left the truck, and rummaged in the back for something to

sit on.  If they were going to stay a while and she suspected that they
were

she intended to be comfortable.  Spreading the colorful Mexican blanket in

the grass at the edge of the shore, she removed her boots and socks and

rolled her jeans to her knees.

Sticking her feet into the cool water, she asked,

“Are we going to talk first or fish?”

He spared her a brief glance.

“Both.  You want a rod?”

“Might as well,” she muttered.

She searched the surrounding ben nuda grass until she found a good-sized

cricket.  Carrying it back to the blanket, she knelt beside her pole,
closed

her eyes, and stuck the insect on the end of the hook.  Ready to catch a

catfish or two, she cast toward the middle of the lake.  A bright yellow
and

red bobber marked her spot and she settled back on the blanket, wishing
she

could truly relax and enjoy a lazy afternoon of fishing.  But she was all
too

aware of their coming ‘discussion’.

Hunter attached his spinner bait to his line and cast into a marshy,

partially shaded section of water known to attract bass.

“I’ve told you before, you can’t bait a hook without looking,” he informed

her in a taut voice.

“I just did.”

He yanked on his line.

“One of these times, you’re going to set the hook in your finger instead
of the cricket.  It’s going to hurt.  It’s going to bleed.  And I’m going
to have to cut the damned thing out.”

“If that fine day ever arrives, you can say

“I told you so” Until then, I’d rather not see what I’m murdering.  “She

cupped her chin in her hand and rested her elbow on a bent knee.

“Are we going to fight over fishing, or are we going to fight over the
real

problem?”

He turned his head and studied her.  More than a hint of anger lingered in

the depths of his eyes.

“Do you even know what that is?”

“Sure,” she said with a shrug.

“You hit Orrie.”

“You’re damned right, I hit him.  All things considered, he got off easy.”

Hunter slowly reeled in his line.

“But that’s not the issue.”

She knew it wasn’t, though he’d never get her to admit it.

“Mateo loves working with the horses,” she said instead.  “Did you have to

make him give it up?  And why fire Lenny?  He’s a good worker and a
wonderful man.”

Hunter cast his line again, his mouth tightening.

“Nor is that the issue.”

“It is so,” she disagreed, her frustration flaring out of control.

“It’s why we’re arguing.”

“No, it’s not.  It’s why you’re annoyed, but it’s not why we’re arguing,”
he

corrected harshly.

“You’re annoyed because I didn’t consult with you before making changes
and we’re arguing because I won’t explain my decision.”

He’d hit the nail on the head, and she focused her attention on that
particular aspect of the discussion.

“Why did you do it?  Why did you fire Orrie and Lenny and change Mateo’s

job?”  He remained stubbornly silent and she wanted to scream in
exasperation.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Because it’s not the is sueT she demanded, tossing her pole to the grass
and

scrambling to her feet.

“It’s my ranch, too.  I have a right to know.  You promised to give
everyone

a fair chance.  You promised!”

Setting his rod on the blanket, he reached out and swept her feet from
under

her, catching her before she hit the ground.

“That’s the issue,” he practically snarled.

“I made a promise to you–which I kept.  And you made a promise to
me—which you didn’t keep.”

She fought his hold, with no success.  His strength was too great.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she insisted.

He pushed her back on to the blanket and knelt above her, planting his
hands

on either side of her head.

“Who’s in charge of this ranch?”

“That’s not the point.”

“It’s precisely the point.  Answer me.  Who’s in charge of this ranch?”

It galled her to say it.

“You are,” she forced herself to admit.  She pushed against his chest,

struggling to sit up.  To her relief, he rocked back on to his heels,

allowing her to wriggle out from beneath him.

“So you do remember our conversation at the line-shack,” he said in

satisfaction.

She wrapped her arms around her waist.

“Very funny.  How could I forget?”  It wasn’t one of her more pleasant

recollections.  Every last, painful detail had been burned into her
memory.

“And do you also remember the promises we exchanged?”

“Of course.”

“So do I.”  He ticked them off on his fingers.

“I promised to give your employees a fair chance.  I promised to give your

grandmother a home.  And I promised to sign a prenuptial agreement.  Is
that everything?”

She glanced at him uneasily.

“Yes.”

“You promised one thing.  What was it?”

She knew where he was headed with this and she didn’t like it.

“I seem to remember there being more than one,” she temporized.

“Fine,” he said evenly.

“Name any that you remember.”

Time to face the music.  She should be grateful that he wasn’t rending her

limb from limb.  She looked him straight in the eye and said,

“I promised you’d be in charge of the ranch.  “

“Which means?”

She sighed.

“That what you say goes.  That I’m not to question you in front of the

employees or second-guess your decisions.  You don’t work by committee,”
she repeated his demands by rote.

“And did you do that?  Did you keep your promise?”

Reluctantly she shook her head.

“No.”  Nor had she kept her agreement to make their marriage a fully

functioning one.  She should be grateful that he hadn’t pointed that out
as

well.

“That’s why I’m angry.  One of these days you’ll trust me to do what’s
right

for you and for the ranch.  You’ll trust me without question.”

“You mean blindly.”

“Okay.  That’s what I mean.”

She bit down on her lip.  How could she do what he asked when it might
all be part of an elaborate game of revenge, an attempt to even the score
for old

wrongs?

“I don’t think I can do that.  Hunter.  You’re asking me to risk
everything.”

“Yes.  I am.”

“It’s too much,” she whispered, staring down at the blanket, running the
wool

fringe through her fingers.

“I can’t give it to you.  Not yet.”

A long minute ticked by before he inclined his head.

“All right.  I’ll answer your questions–this time.”

She glanced up in surprise.

“You’ll tell me why you fired Orrie and Lenny?  Why you made Mateo give
up the horses?”

“Yes.  This once I’ll explain myself.  Next time you either trust me or
you

don’t; I don’t care which.  But don’t expect me to defend my actions
again.

You understand?”  At her nod, he said,

“I put Mateo in charge of the haying operation.  It meant an increase in

wages–something he and his family need.  Plus he knows more about
mechanics than he does about horses.”

“But … he knows everything about horses.”

“He knows more about repairing our equipment.  As for Lenny… He wasn’t

happy working on a ranch.  But employment meant more to him than his
dislike of ranching, which says a lot about the man’s character, so I
recommended him for a job as a security-guard at your godfather’s bank. 
Lenny jumped at the opportunity.”

She could hardly take it in.

“And Orrie?”

He frowned.

“Orrie was a thief,” he told her reluctantly.

“A thief!  I don’t believe it.  What did he steal?”  An obstinate look
appeared in his eyes, a look she didn’t doubt he’d find reflected in her
own.

“Hunter?”  she prompted, refusing to let it drop.

“He took your silver circlet.”

She stared in shock.

“From my wedding-gown?  But that was in our…”

“Bedroom,” he finished for her.

The full implication gradually sank in.  Without a word she turned away
and

reached for her pole.  It felt as if she’d been stabbed in the back by a
family member.  Her betrayal went so deep that she couldn’t even find the
words to express it.  Slowly, she brought in the line, blinking hard. 
The cricket was long-gone and she didn’t have the stomach to kill
another.  At some point during their conversation she’d lost her
enthusiasm for fishing.

As though sensing her distress.  Hunter caught her braid and used it to
reel

her in.  She didn’t resist.  Right now she needed all the comfort she
could

get.  He folded his arms around her and she snuggled into his embrace.

“You okay?”  he asked.

“No,” she replied, her voice muffled against his shirt.

“See what happens when you trust people?”

“Yes, I see.  But I’m not Orrie.”

She sighed.

“No, you’re not.  I’m sorry.  Hunter.  I should have trusted you to do
the right thing for the ranch.”

“Yes, you should have.”

“And I shouldn’t have questioned your judgement in front of the men.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.  Apology accepted.”  Without warning he released

her, and stripped off his shirt and boots.  Then, snatching her high in
his arms, he walked into the lake, holding her above the water.

She clung to him, laughing.

“Don’t!  Don’t drop me.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Blindly?”

“Is there any other way?”

She bit her lower lip.

“Okay.  I trust you.  Blindly.”

“Close your eyes.”

“They’re closed.”

“And take a deep breath.”

“Hunter, no!”  she yelped.  He tossed her into the air and she tumbled,

shrieking, landing in the water with a huge splash.  An instant later
Hunter

dived in beside her, kicking with her to the surface.  She gasped for air.

“I thought you said I could trust you.”

A slow grin drifted across his lean face and he caught her close.

“I never said what you could trust me to do.  “

And therein lay the real crux of the matter.  She knew he’d do what he

thought best–but would it be right for her?  As much as she wanted to

believe, she couldn’t.  Not yet.

As they drifted toward shore her hair floated free of its braid, wrapping

them in a net of long silvery tendrils.  He beached them in the grass and

gazed down at her, his attention snared by the wet shirt clinging to her

breasts.  His palm settled on the taut, supple lines of her midriff, where

her shirt had parted company with her jeans.  As though unable to resist
he

lowered his head, and gently bit the rigid peak of her breast through the
wet

cotton.

Her breath stopped in her throat and her nails bit into his shoulders,

marking him with tiny crescent scars of passion.

“Hunter!”

His name escaped her as though ripped from her throat, filled with an

undeniable urgency.

He responded instantly, releasing her breast and plundering her mouth,

parting her lips in search of the sweet warmth within.  She couldn’t seem
to

get enough of him.  Her hands swept down his back, stroking him, needing
to absorb him into her very pores, the seductive brush of cloth against
skin an almost painful stimulation.  His taste filled her mouth, his
unique musky

scent her lungs.  She felt him tug at the fastening of his jeans.  And
then

he hesitated.

Slowly he lifted his head, his angled features stark with want, dark with

intent.  She knew that expression, knew how close to the edge he must be.

She stared at him uncertainly, caught between completing the intimacy he
so

clearly craved and she so desperately needed, and retreating from an act

that would enable him to wrest the final bit of control from her
possession.

And she waited, waited for him to give in to his desire, to strip away the

wet clothes and make her his wife in fact as well as name.  But instead he

drew away, and she could only imagine the amount of willpower it must
have taken him.

He kissed her again, the caress hard and swift.

“Not here.  Not like this.  But soon,” he warned in a determined voice.
“Very soon.  When there are no more doubts in your mind… when there’s
no chance of turning back, we will finish this and you will be mine.”

She didn’t argue.  How could she?  He was right.  Soon they would be
lovers, and if she wasn’t very, very careful she’d lose her heart as
surely as she was losing control of the ranch.  And, when that happened,
Hunter would finally have his revenge.

The next few days passed with a comfortable ease that gave Lean hope for
the future.  Hunter continued to work with Dreamseeker, though whether or
not he’d made any headway with the stallion was a topic of hot debate. 
Still,

she didn’t doubt who would eventually win their battle of wills.

To her relief, the employees seemed quite content working under Hunter’s

management.  Losing two wranglers left ample work for everyone, and she

suspected that the fear of being laid off had finally dissipated.  Mateo
was

far happier than she’d ever seen him.

And dropping in on Lenny in his new position as security-guard proved that

Hunter had been right about that change as well.

Returning from the bank late one cloudy afternoon, she was surprised to

discover Hunter Rototilling the ground around the porch.  The powerful
blades bit into the dark soil, grinding up the crushed remains of
Grandmother Rose’s begonias.

“What are you doing?”  she called.  He didn’t answer, merely lifted a
hand in

greeting and resumed his work.  Inez stood on the porch and Lean joined
her.

“What’s he doing?”  she asked the housekeeper.

“Or perhaps I should ask why.  Why is he plowing the garden under?”

“No se,” Inez replied with a shrug.

“Abuela Rosa, she took one look, said a nasty word, and stomped off to the

kitchen.  I don’t think she is happy that Senor Pryde has decided to ruin
her

garden.”

Lean frowned.

“Hunter isn’t ruining her garden; Bull Jones took care of that already.

Hunter’s just finishing the job.”

Rose appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray with a pitcher of iced tea
and

glasses.

“If we’re going to stand around and watch all my hard work being ground
into mulch, we might as well be comfortable.”

Lean hastened to take the tray, setting it on a low wrought-iron table.

“There wasn’t much left to mulch,” she reassured, pouring drinks and
handing them around.

“Our neighboring foreman made sure of that.”

With a noisy humph.  Rose sat in a rocker.

“If Hunter thinks I’m starting over again, he’s got another think coming.
That garden can grow rocks and weeds for all I care.”  She took a sip of
tea.

“What’s he doing over there?  What’s in those bags?”

“abono, siT” Inez suggested.

“Fertilizer, huh?”  Rose slowly rocked in her chair.

“Yes, sir. That’ll give him a fine crop of weeds.  A truly fine crop.”
She craned her neck.

“Where’s he going now?”

Leah shrugged, frowning as Hunter walked toward the rear of the house.

“I don’t know.  Maybe he’s through for the day.”

“Through!” Rose rocked a little faster.

“With everything such a mess? He’d better not leave my garden like that,
or I’ll have a thing or two to say about it. See if I don’t.  “

Leah jumped to her feet and leaned over the rail.

“False alarm.  Here he comes.  He was just pulling the pickup around.”  He

climbed out of the cab and crossed to the back of the truck.  Lowering the

tailgate, he removed an assortment of bedding plants.  She glanced over
her

shoulder at Rose.

“He bought jasmine for the trellis.  I adore jasmine.”

Inez joined her at the railing, beaming in delight.

Slowly Rose stood.

“Well, I’ll be.  He bought some roses.”

Leah began to laugh.

“How appropriate.  They’re peace roses.”

Hunter lined the plants around the perimeter of the house, then
approached,

carrying a shovel.  He stood at the bottom of the porch steps and looked

directly at Rose.  “Well?  You going to play lady of the manor, or do you

want to get your hands dirty and help?”

Rose lifted her chin.

“Whose garden is it?”  she demanded.

Hunter shrugged.

“I’m no gardener.  Just thought I’d get it started.”

“In that case, I’ll fetch my gloves,” she agreed.  At the door she paused,

and with a crotchety glare demanded, “Don’t you break ground without me.

Hear?”

Leah waited until Rose was out of earshot before approaching Hunter,
offering him a glass of iced tea.

“This is very thoughtful of you. When Bull destroyed her last flowerbed
she gave in to the inevitable and didn’t try again.”

He drank the tea and handed her the empty glass.

“He won’t destroy another.”

She didn’t doubt it for a minute.

“Peace roses?”  she asked, raising an eyebrow.

He tipped his hat to the back of his head with a gloved finger, and in
that

moment, Lean didn’t think she’d ever seen him look more attractive.

“Yeah, well.  I figured it was past time we came to terms. We’ll stick in
a few rose bushes and talk.  Before we’re done we’ll have worked out our
differences.  “

Leah smiled.

“I’m sure you will,” she said softly.

“It’s just difficult for her to adjust to all the changes.”

“I’m not done making them, you know,” he warned.

She nodded.

“I know.”

He’d never promised not to make changes.  But they were for the better. 
And more and more she realized how important he’d become–to her
employees, to the ranch.  even to her grandmother, loath as Rose might be
to admit it.

But most of all, he’d become important to her, perhaps even vital.

And before much longer she’d have to deal with that knowledge.

Leah watched in concern the next morning as Hunter and his men drove one
of the ranch bulls into a pen in preparation for transporting him to his
new

owner.  She’d nicknamed the animal

“Red’ because of his tendency to charge anything or anyone foolish enough
to wear that color.  After nearly being gored by the bull.  Hunter had
decided

to sell the animal.

He’d also flatly refused to allow her to help move Red to the pen, saying
it

was ‘much too dangerous’.  She’d heard that phrase used more than once and

had rapidly grown to hate it.  But she didn’t dare argue, especially in

front of the employees and especially when–in this particular case– he
was

right.  The bull was very dangerous.

She climbed to the top rail of the corral fence and looked on from a safe

distance.  With Red secure and peaceful in the holding-pen, the men only

awaited the arrival of the truck to move the bull to his new home.

“Senora Leah!”  came a childish shout from behind her.  “Silkie!  Get
Silkie.”

She turned in time to see all six Arroya children chasing after their new

sheepdog puppy.  The tiny animal, yapping for all she was worth, streaked

beneath the rail of the corral, barreling straight toward the holding-pen.

and the bull.  And around her neck, bouncing in the dust, hung a huge, red

floppy bow.

“Stay there!”  she called over her shoulder, hopping off the rail.

“Don’t you dare come into the corral.  You understand?”

The children obediently skidded to a halt and nodded as one.  Six pairs of

huge dark eyes stared at her, wide with mingled fear and hope.  Wincing at

their trusting expressions, Leah hot footed it after the wayward puppy.

Across the corral the dog ran, and Leah realized that she’d have only one

chance to catch the animal before it was too late.  At the last possible
second, just as they reached the holding-pen, she flung herself at Silkie.

Belly- flopping to a dusty halt, inches from the bottom rail, her hand
closed

around the furry, struggling puppy.  For a brief second she held the
animal

safely in her grasp.  Then, with a frantic wiggle, Silkie scrambled free
and

scooted beneath the rail.

“Silkie, no!”  she yelled.

Set on a course of total annihilation, the puppy darted toward the bull.
Taking a deep breath and whispering a fervent prayer, Leah ducked beneath
the rail, hoping she could snag the animal and escape unscathed.  A hard,

relentless hand landed on her arm and jerked her back, spinning her
around.

She stared up into Hunter’s furious face.

“Are you nuts?”  he practically roared.

“The puppy!”  she cried, fighting his hold.

“I’ve got to save the puppy!”

He glanced from Leah to the Arroya children.

“Open the gates!”  he shouted to his men.

“Get the bull out of there!”

Yelling and whistling, the wranglers unlatched the gate between the

holding-pen and the pasture.  But the bull didn’t notice.  Focused
entirely

on Silkie, he lowered his head, pawing at the ground and bellowing in
fury.

He scored the ground with his horns, just missing the dog.

Swearing beneath his breath.  Hunter tossed his hat to the ground and
ripped

off his shirt.  Before anyone could stop him, he climbed beneath the rail
and

entered the holding- pen.

“Hunter, don’t do it!”  Leah started to follow, but the look on his face

stopped her.  If she moved another step, she’d divert his attention and
the

bull would kill him.  It was that simple.  She clasped her trembling hands

together, hardly daring to breathe.  With a fervor bordering on hysteria,
she

began to pray.

Waving his shirt in the air, Hunter caught the bull’s attention.

Distracted by this new, more accessible target, the huge animal instantly

charged.  At the last possible second Hunter threw his shirt at the bull’s

head and, diving to one side, rolled clear of the vicious hooves and
horns.

Red pounded by and Hunter leapt to his feet.  Snagging the puppy by the

scruff of her neck, he vaulted over the fence to safety.

Blinded, Red crashed into the fence between the holding- pen and the
corral,

the rails splintering beneath the impact.  Keeping Silkie tucked safely
under

his arm, Hunter grabbed Leah by the wrist and ran flat out for the far
side

of the corral.  The bull stood close to the splintered rails, blowing
hard.

With several shakes of his head he reduced the shirt covering him to rags.

Then he looked around for his next victim.  At long last, he spied the
open

gate and, to Leah’s eternal relief, he barreled through it, racing into
the

pasture.

Leaving her side.  Hunter carried the dog over to the Arroya children and

dropped to one knee in the dirt in front of them.  Leah watched anxiously,

wondering what he intended to say to them, hoping he wouldn’t be too
rough.

“Is this your puppy?”  he asked the children.

“Yes, sir.”  The oldest, Emesto, stepped forward, swallowing hard.

“She sort of got away from us.  We’re sorry.”

“You know what could have happened?”

Every last one of them nodded.  The youngest, Tina, clung to Emesto, tears

streaking her cheeks.

“We’ll be more careful next time,” the boy said solemnly.

“I promise.”

“Promise,” Tina repeated.  After a brief hesitation, she held her arms out

for Silkie.

Hunter handed over the dog.

“Tie her up until she’s old enough to mind.  Okay?”

Tina wrapped her arms around the puppy, burying her face in the dog’s
fluffy coat.  With a playful yip, Silkie washed the dirt and tears from
the little girl’s face.  Satisfied that her pet was indeed safe, she
peeked up at Hunter from beneath long, dark lashes.

“Promise,” she repeated and offered a gap-toothed smile.

Hunter ruffled her hair and stood.  He glanced at Leah and lifted an
eyebrow. Without a word, she ran to his side and threw her arms around
him, blinking back the tears that threatened to fall.  His skin felt warm
and hard beneath her hands, and she drew in a ragged breath, picturing
what he might have looked like had he not been quite so agile.  She clung
to him, not wanting ever to let go.

In that instant she realized that she loved him.  had always loved him and

always would.  If he’d died beneath the bull’s horns, a part of her would

have died as well.  For weeks now she’d held him at a distance, reluctant
to

commit herself fully, because deep in her heart of hearts she knew that,
once

she did, he’d own her body and soul.

Held in the safe harbor of his arms, she surrendered to the inevitable.

“You do anything that stupid again and / won’t be responsible for my

actions,” she whispered fiercely, repeating the words he’d so often used
when taking her to task.

“You hear me.  Hunter Pryde?”

He held her tight against him.

“I didn’t have a choice.  You and the children were counting on me to save

that damned dog.”

And suddenly she realized he was right.  As frightened as she’d been, she

hadn’t doubted for a minute that he’d save Silkie.  Nor had the children.

She glanced over Hunter’s shoulder, seeing the men laughing and slapping
each other on the back.  The men hadn’t doubted either.

They all trusted him, all believed in him.  Every last one.

“And you did save her.  But then, I… I knew you would,” she confessed.

He stiffened.

“Blind trust, Leah?  You?”  She lifted a shaky hand to swipe at an escaped

tear.

“A temporary aberration, I’m sure.”

A laugh rumbled deep in his chest.

“Of course.  Come on.  Let’s get that fence fixed.  We’ve got a bull to
bring

in.”

Reluctantly, she slid her arms from around his neck and stepped back.

“I’ll be right there.”  She watched him return to the corral and snag his
hat

from the dirt.  She did trust him, she realized.  She trusted him every
bit

as much as she loved him.

Blindly.  Totally.  Completely.

And she’d never been more frightened in her life.  For Hunter had it all
now.

the ranch and her heart.  The only question was.  what would he do when he

found out?

CHAPTER EIGHT

Early the next morning Lyon Enterprises’ latest offer arrived by special

messenger.  Gazing in fury at the papers, Leah knocked back the kitchen
chair and went in search of Hunter.  Eventually she tracked him down in
the barn, running a curry-comb over his buckskin.

“Look at this,” she said, holding out the white embossed envelope.

He set aside his equipment and took the papers, scanning them.  His mouth

tightened briefly, then he shrugged.

“So?  Either write your acceptance or trash it.”

She stared in disbelief as he guided his gelding from the grooming-box and

returned the horse to his stall.

“That’s it?  That’s all you’re going to say?”  she demanded, trailing
behind.

He shouldered past her and crossed the barn aisle to a stack of hay bales.

Using two large hooks, he lifted a bale and carried it to the stall.

“What do you want me to say?”

She regarded him with frustration.

“Something more than what you have.  I’m tired of their pestering me.  I’d

think you would be, too.

Or don’t you care if I sell out to them?  “

He released a gusty sigh and glanced^ over his shoulder at her.

“Is that what you want?  To sell?  I thought the whole point of marrying
was

to prevent Lyon from getting their hands on your ranch.”

“It was, but you seem so…”  She shrugged.

“I don’t know.  Detached.”

“I am.  It’s not my ranch.”

She wasn’t sure why she kept pushing it.  But something about his careless

indifference didn’t quite ring true.  After all, he’d also married in
order

to secure the ranch.  She didn’t believe for one minute that he was as

unconcerned about her accepting Lyon’s offer as he claimed.

“So you wouldn’t object if I sold to them.”

“No.”  He paused in his labors.

“Though legally you can’t without offering me first refusal.”

She blinked, momentarily sidetracked.

“Come again?”

He rolled up his sleeves and leaned his arms on the stall door, exposing
the

powerful muscles of his forearms.

“The prenup, remember?

You retain title of the ranch in the even of a divorce.  But if you choose

to sell, I have right of firs refusal.  ” He frowned at her, tilting his
hat

to the back o his head.

“You’re the one who insisted we sign the dam ne thing.  Didn’t you even

bother to read it?”

“Yes.”  No.  She’d just signed where her lawyer had tol her in order to
get

it over and done with.

“Yeah, right,” he said, clearly not believing her.

“Yo should have read it, Leah.  There are one or two other in port ant

clauses in there that you should be familiar with.  That’s the way you

conduct all your business, it’s a wond you weren’t bankrupt years ago.”

She hadn’t come to argue.  She’d come to vent her ang over Lyon
Enterprises’ non-stop harassment an anger It had finally reached the
boiling point.

“That’s not what’s issue,” she said, determined to get the conversation
back

track.

“I’d like to discuss this offer.”

“So discuss it.  I’m listening.”

She took a deep breath.

“I plan to drive to Houston t week and talk to them.”

That stopped him.

“You what?”

“I want to have it out once and for all tell them I won’t sell.”

He stared at her as though she’d lost her mind.

“If you don’t want to sell, just trash the thing.  You don’t need to drive

all the way to Houston to do that.  Last time I looked you kept a
wastebasket

in the study.  Use that one.”

“Very funny.  I have to go to Houston.”

“Why?”

“So I can address the Lyon Enterprises board.”

He froze for a split-second, the check in his movements so brief she
almost

missed it.  Leaving the stall, he slung the remains of the bale on to the
stack and crossed to her side.  His hat brim threw his face into shadow,
but she could see the dark glitter of his eyes and the taut line of his
jaw.  Was he angry?  She couldn’t quite tell.

“And why,” he asked softly, ‘would you want to address the board of Lyon

Enterprises?  “

Her voice sharpened.

“I’ve had it with these people.  As far as I’m concerned this latest
offer is

the final straw.  I’m not putting up with it any more.  I’m going to make
it

clear that I won’t be entertaining any future offers and that I won’t
sell to

them.  Ever.

If necessary I’ll even tell them what you said that our prenuptial
agreement

gives you first right of refusal.  “

He shook his head.

“Over my dead body.  That’s no- body’s business but ours.”

“Okay,” she conceded, uncertain of hisctemperament.  Any time his voice

dropped to such a low, husky note she tended to tread warily.

“But I still want to go to Houston and talk to them.  And I want you to go

with me.”

“Why?”  he said again.

She glanced at him uncertainly.

“To support me, if you’re willing.”

He turned away, resting a booted foot on the haystack.  She could tell
from

the tense set of his shoulders that she’d thrown him, and she studied his

expressionless profile in concern.  Perhaps she’d pushed it by requesting
his

support.  If only she could read his thoughts, she’d know.  But he’d
always

been exceptionally successful at keeping them hidden from her.

Finally he nodded.

“Okay.  I’ll go.  We’ll leave Friday and spend the weekend at my
apartment.”

“You have an apartment in Houston?”  she asked in astonishment.

“You can see for yourself when we get there.”  His brows drew together.

“Leah, I need you to agree to something.”

She eyed him warily.

“What?”

He stripped off his gloves and tucked them into his belt.  “Once you’ve

confronted the board, I want to handle the situation from then on.”

“But it’s not your problem.”

“Yes, it is.  Anything that affects this ranch is my problem.  And dealing

with companies like Lyon Enterprises is my area of expertise–my former
area of expertise.”

“Do you think you can get them to leave me alone?”

“No.  But I can do a good job of holding them at bay.  I’m better equipped

than you to wage this war.”

Suddenly she recalled her need for a knight on a white charger, battling
the

nasty dragon in order to save the damsel in distress.

When Hunter had shown up she’d been sure he was the dragon, and that
she’d have to fight her own battles.  Now she wondered.  Perhaps they’d
fight those battles together, and Lyon Enterprises would be vanquished
once and for all.

“Let me have my say, and then it’s your problem,” she promised.

“Fine.”  He dropped an arm across her shoulders.

“I’m starved.  How about you?”

She grinned.  It felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted
from

her shoulders.

“I think I could eat a horse,” she confessed, and walked with him to the

house.

Late that night Hunter lifted the phone receiver and punched in a series
of

numbers.  A minute later Kevin answered.

“It’s me,” Hunter said.

“I’m coming in.  Call the board together.”

“What’s wrong?”  Kevin demanded.

“What happened?”

“Leah received Lyon’s latest offer and wants to meet with them.”

“She what?”

“You heard me.”

“What the hell are you going to do?”

“Introduce her to the board of Lyon Enterprises, what else?”

“I mean… what are you going to do?  What if… what if she finds out?”

“She won’t.”  Hunter spoke with absolute confidence.

“Why not?”

“Because no one would dare tell her anything.”

“If they think it’ll help with the sale—“

“Once they meet her, they’ll see that she trusts me,” Hunter cut in
briskly.

“And they’ll realize it’s to their advantage to keep quiet.

Telling her who I am won’t help their cause any, and they’re smart enough
to

know it.  “

A long moment of silence followed while Kevin mulled over Hunter’s words.

“You could be right.  You usually are.  I’ll tell everyone you’re coming.”

“And open up the apartment.  We’ll be spending the weekend there.”

“Won’t she be suspicious?  It’s not precisely a poor man’s pad.”

“She’ll have other things on her mind by that time.”

Kevin gave a knowing chuckle.

“Understood.  See you Friday.”

“Right.”

Hunter hung up and leaned back in the chair.  Matters were rapidly coming
to a head.  More than anything he’d like to get this situation over and
done

with, but some things just couldn’t be rushed.  And this, though he’d
prefer

it otherwise, was one of them.

He heard a soft knock and Leah opened the door.

“Busy?”  she asked.

“No.  Come on in.”

She stepped into the room, standing just outside the spill of lamplight
and

wearing a knee-length cotton nightshirt.  Unfortunately, this one wasn’t
the

least transparent.  His mouth tightened.  As much as he enjoyed seeing his

wife in next to nothing, he couldn’t have her running around half-
dressed.

One of these days he’d need to make a serious effort to break her of the

habit.

“Who were you talking to?”  she asked.

“A business associate.”

She came closer.  Her hair, cascading past her waist, caught the light
from

the desk lamp and gleamed like fallen moonbeams.

“Is there a problem?”

He shook his head.

“Just thought I’d tell him I’d be in town at the end of the week.”

“Oh.”  She stood a little uncertainly in the middle of the room.

“Are you coming to bed soon?”

He shoved back the chair and walked toward her.

“Is now soon enough?”

“Yes.”  She couldn’t quite meet his eyes and he felt her sudden tension.

He reached her side and stared down into her face.  He’d never seen such

perfection.  Her eyes glowed like amethysts, her heart-shaped face full of

strength and character and determination.

“I want to make love to you,” he told her bluntly, thrusting his fingers
into

the silken fall of her hair.

“I’ve been patient long enough.”

She twisted her hands together.

“I know.  But…”

“Friday,” he stated, catching her chin with his knuckle and forcing her to

look at him.

“I want a decision by Friday, Leah.  You have to commit at some point.”

Slowly she nodded.

“Okay.  Friday.  We’ll meet with the Lyon board and then have the rest of
the weekend to ourselves.”

He smiled in satisfaction.

“Done.  And now, wife, it’s time for bed.”

He slid an arm around her and lifted her close.  She trembled in his arms,

which told him more than anything his effect on her.

“Hunter–‘ He sensed that her nervousness had gotten the better of her,
that

given the opportunity she’d rescind her agreement.  He stopped her words
with a swift, rough kiss, then took her mouth again in a second, slower,
more

thorough kiss– a precursory taste of the pleasure he intended to share
with

her over the weekend.

They left early on Friday, arranging to meet with the Lyon personnel after

lunch.  Leah had dressed carefully, choosing a pearl-gray suit, matching

pumps and a white silk blouse.  To add a touch of sophistication, she’d

looped her hair into a businesslike chignon, and as a morale booster

displayed the necklace Hunter had given her as a wedding-gift.

To her surprise.  Hunter dressed casually, exchanging his jeans for cotton

trousers, his plaid shirt no different from the ones he wore when working.

The boa tie he’d strung around his neck was his only concession to the

occasion.

“Relax,” he said, driving toward the Post Oak section of Houston.

“They won’t eat you.”

Her expression felt stiff and unnatural.

“I’m more concerned about them slitting my throat,” she attempted to joke.

“Especially after I tell them not to contact me ever again.”

“Too obvious.  They’ll just sell you off to white slavers.”  He looked at
her

and sighed.

“I’m kidding, honey.”

“Oh.”  She grinned weakly and her hand closed over the pendant; she was

hoping it would give her even a minuscule amount of Hunter’s strength and

perseverance.

“I’m beginning to think this isn’t such a great idea.”

He spared her another brief glance.

“You want to turn back?”

“No.  Maybe if I do this they’ll finally leave me alone.”  She shifted in
her

seat and studied Hunter’s profile.

“Do you think they will? Leave me alone, I mean?”

He shrugged.

“They might.  But don’t count on it.  They’re businessmen. All they care
about is the bottom line on the balance sheet.  If buying your ranch
means a substantial profit, then no.  They won’t leave you alone.”

A small frown knit her brow.

“I’ll have to think of a way to convince them I mean business.”

“Short of a.  stick of dynamite between their ears, I don’t know how.”

His comment gave her an idea and a secretive smile crept across her mouth.

“I’m not so sure about the dynamite, although the idea has merit. 
Perhaps a

slightly less drastic demonstration would be in order.”  Opening the glove

compartment, she rummaged around until she found what she sought. 
Without a word, she pocketed the item, hoping Hunter hadn’t noticed the
furtive act.

A few minutes later he pointed out a tall, modern glass building with
smoked windows.

“That’s where we’re headed,” he told her, pulling into an underground

parking- lot.

Leaving the car, they took the garage elevator to the lobby.

“Which floor is Lyon Enterprises?”  Leah asked.

“All of them.”

She stopped dead in her tracks.

“They own the building.”

“They’re a large company.  Lots of companies own entire buildings.”

He cupped her elbow and ushered her along.  “Come on. We want the
executive level.”

She clutched her purse and the large white envelope with Lyon’s offer to
her

chest.  She hadn’t realized.  She’d had no idea they were such an immense

concern.  Suddenly she felt very small and vulnerable.  How could she ever

hope to defeat this Goliath of a company?  She was no David.  She glanced
at Hunter.  But he was.  He’d protect her.  All she had to do was trust
him.

Filled with renewed confidence, she walked with him to the security desk.

After presenting their credentials, they were escorted to a private bank
of

elevators that carried them directly to the executive level.  Inside tie
car,

she tucked back an escaped wisp of hair and straightened her skirt.

Hunter caught her hand, stilling her nervous exertions.  “Listen to me,
Leah.

These corporate types eat people like you for a midnight snack.  So, don’t

fidget.  Keep your arms relaxed at your side unless you’re handing them

something.

Look them straight in the eye.  Think before you speak.  Don’t answer any

question you don’t want to.  And above all don’t lose your temper. Got
it?”

Her tension eased.

“Got it.”

His mouth curled to one side and she realized in amazement that he
actually

relished the coming confrontation.  “Remember, I’ll support you every
step of the way.  The instant you get in too deep, I’ll bail you out. 
Otherwise,

it’s your show.”

“Hunter?”

He lifted an eyebrow.

“What?”

She squeezed his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me, Leah,” he said, and the seriousness of his tone gave his

words an ominous weight.

“Not yet.”

The doors slid open and she released her death grip on him.  It wouldn’t
do

for the Lyon board to think that she needed his assistance, even if she
did.

Stepping from the car, they found a secretary awaiting their arrival.

“Welcome to Lyon Enterprises,” she said.

“You’re expected, of course. If you’d follow me?”

She led the way to a pair of wide, double doors.  Pushing them open, she

gestured for Hunter and Leah to enter.  As though in a calculated gesture,

the doors banged closed behind, barring their exit.  A huge glass table

dominated the conference room, and around the table sat a dozen men and

women.  The man at the far end rose to his feet.

“Miss Hampton,” he said.

“A pleasure to finally meet you.  I’m Buddy Peterson.  Our chairman
requested that I conduct these proceedings, if you have no objections.”

She did object.  She wanted to speak directly to the head honcho.

“He’s not here?”

“He preferred that I negotiate in his place.”  It didn’t quite answer her

question, but from long experience with Hunter she knew she wouldn’t get a

more direct response.

“Pryde,” Peterson said, switching his attention to Hunter.

“We were somewhat surprised to hear you’d be attending this meeting–with

Miss Hampton, that is.”

“Were you?”  Hunter replied.

“I don’t know why, considering Leah’s my wife.”

“Your wife !” The board members exchanged quick glances and Peterson
slowly sank back into his seat.

“This puts a slightly different complexion on matters.”

Hunter inclined his head.

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?”

Peterson laughed, a cynical expression gleaming in his eyes.

“Congratulations… I’m impressed.  I couldn’t have done better myself.”

Leah looked up at Hunter in confusion.

“They know you?”  she murmured.

“We’re acquainted.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“It wasn’t important.”  His dark, unfathomable gaze captured hers.

“Do you have something to say to these people?”  She nodded.

“Yes.”

“Then get to it.”

She felt like a pawn in a game without rules.  She glanced at Hunter,
sudden

doubts assailing her, acutely aware that she’d missed a vital piece of

information, a clue that would help explain the mysterious undercurrents

shifting through the room.  She also suspected that what had to be said

already had been, though in a language she couldn’t hope to decipher. 
What

she chose to contribute would be considered, at best, an empty gesture.

Still, she wouldn’t have this opportunity ever again.  She wanted to say

something they’d remember.  do something they’d remember.  She wanted
them to know that Leah Hampton Pryde had been here and made a statement.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped to the table and held out the envelope.

“This arrived the other day.”

“Yes, our offer,” Peterson said with an impatient edge.  “Don’t tell me
you

plan to accept?”  He glanced at Hunter.  “It would certainly save much of

this board’s time and energy if you would.”

“Not only do I not accept, I don’t want to hear from you ever again. You
people have harassed me for the last time.  I’m not the vulnerable woman
struggling on my own any more.  ” She spared Hunter a quick, searching
look.

At his brief nod, she added, “I have help now.  We won’t allow Bull Jones
to foul our wells or stampede our herd.  We won’t be intimidated by you
any longer.”

“Yes, yes,” Buddy Peterson interrupted, ‘you’ve made your point.”

“Not yet, I haven’t.”

She reached into her suit jacket pocket and pulled out the lighter she’d
taken from the glove compartment.  With a flick of her thumb she spun the
wheel, and a small flame leapt to life.  Stepping closer, she held the
flame beneath the corner of the envelope and waited until it caught
fire.  Then she tossed the burning packet into the center of the glass
table.  Flames and smoke billowed.  Frantic executives scrambled from
their seats, shouting and cursing.

Beside her.  Hunter sighed.

“You really shouldn’t have done that.”

She lifted her chin.

“Yes, I should have.  Now I’ve made my point.”

“That… and more.”

“Good.  Are you ready to leave?”

To her bewilderment, he shot a chary glance at the ceiling, pulled his hat

lower over his brow and raised the collar of his shirt.

“In a minute.  Go to the car.  I’ll be right behind.”

The instant the door closed behind her an alarm bell began to scream and
the

overhead sprinklers burst to life.  In a mad dash the executives scurried

from the room, like rats deserting a sinking ship.

“Get these sprinklers turned off!”  Buddy Peterson bellowed.  He
continued to sit at the table, his arms folded across his chest, ignoring
the drenching

spray.

“That was damned clever.  Hunter,” he called above the screeching siren.

“She does have a certain… flair, doesn’t she?”  Hunter said, impervious
to

the water tunneling in a small waterfall from his hat brim.

Peterson stood and approached.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.  How long are you going to keep

her in the dark–not tell her who you really are?”

“As long as it takes.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game.  You could lose everything,” Peterson

advised.

“I don’t lose.”  Hunter’s voice dropped, a hard, threatening note
coloring his words.

“Fair warning.  One leak from anyone at this table and you’ll all suffer
the

consequences.  I’ll be in touch soon.”  He didn’t wait for a response.

Turning, he left.

“I still don’t understand how you got so wet.”

“I told you.  A freak shower.”

“Where?  There isn’t a cloud in the sky.”  Sarcasm crept into her voice.

“Or perhaps it rained somewhere between the executive floor and the
garage.”

He released a soft laugh.

“Something like that.”

She gave up.  Hunter could be incredibly close mouthed when he chose.

If he’d decided that he wouldn’t tell her, then he wouldn’t.  It was that

simple.

“What did you say to the board after I left?”

He swung into another parking garage, this one beneath a brand-new,
high-rise apartment complex.

“Not much.  They didn’t hang around for long.”

“Hunter!”  she exclaimed in exasperation.

“Why won’t you give me a straight answer?  What did you say?  How do you
know them?  For that matter, how did you know your way around their
building?  And why all the secrecy?”

He pulled into a wide parking space with H.  Pryde stenciled on to the
wall

above it.  Switching off the engine, he rested his arms on the
steering-wheel

and turned and looked at her.

“I know the Lyon board through work, which is also how I knew my way
around their complex.  I told Peterson that I’d be in touch soon.  And
I’m not being in the least secretive–just selective in what I tell you.”

“Why?”

“Because Lyon is my problem now, and I’ll handle it.”

She could accept that.  Having to deal all these years with the constant

stream of difficulties on the ranch, it was a welcome change to have a
second set of shoulders to help carry the burden.

“Why did you tell Buddy Peterson you’d be in touch?”

“To make certain he doesn’t bother you again.”

“And he’ll agree to that?”  she asked in amazement.

“I won’t give him any choice.” He opened his door.  “Coming?”

After unloading their overnight bags.  Hunter led the way to the bank of

elevators.  Once there, he keyed the security lock for the penthouse and
Leah

stiffened.

“The penthouse?”

He paused before answering, and for some reason his momentary hesitation
made her think of his advice about addressing the board members of Lyon

Enterprises.

“Think before you speak,” he’d told her.

“Don’t answer any question you don’t want to.”  Perhaps that advice didn’t

apply solely to board members.

Perhaps it applied to recalcitrant wives as well.

“They paid me well in my previous job,” he finally said.

“I guess so.  I’m surprised you left.”  The car glided rapidly upward and
she

peeked at him from beneath her lashes.  “But that’s right… You said
you’d

still do occasional jobs for them if they called.

Troubleshooting, isn’t that your speciality?”

“Yes.”

“What did you say the name of the company was?”

“I didn’t.”  He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms across
his

chest.

“Why all the questions, Leah?”

“You can’t expect me not to have questions.”  Her grip on her purse
tightened.

“I’m… surprised.”

“Because I’m not the dirt-poor ranch-hand I once was?”

She shot him a sharp look.

“We’ve been over this before.  That’s not the problem and you know it. 
You

ask me to trust you.  To trust you blindly.  But you tell me nothing about

yourself, which means you don’t trust me.”

“Point taken,” he conceded.

The doors slid silently apart, opening on to a huge entrance hall.

Swallowing nervously, she stepped out of the car.

“Good heavens, Hunter, look at this place!”

“I’ve seen it before, remember?”  he said gently.

“Make yourself at home.”  ‘” Her heels clicked on the oak parquet
flooring as

she crossed to the sunken living-room.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”  she asked quietly.

“Why the games?”

His hat sailed past her, skimming the coffee-table and landing
dead-center in

the middle of the chaise tongue.

“All right.  I admit I may have omitted a detail or two about my life
these

past eight years.”

“A detail or two?”  she questioned with irony.

“Or three.  What difference does it make?  I have money.  And I have an

apartment in Houston.  So what?”

“It’s a penthouse apartment,” she was quick to remind him.

He shrugged irritably.

“Fine.  It’s a penthouse apartment.  It doesn’t change a damned thing. 
We’re

still married.  I still work the ranch. And you’re still my wife.”

“Am I?”

He thrust a hand through his hair.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Why did you marry me, Hunter?”

“You know why.”

She nodded.

“For the ranch.  Perhaps also for a bit of revenge.  But what I don’t
understand is… why?  Why would you care about such a small concern when
you have all this?”  He didn’t respond, and she realized that she could
stand

there until doomsday and he wouldn’t answer her questions.  She picked up
her overnight bag.

“I’d like to freshen up.  Where do I go?”

“Down the hallway.  Third door on the right.”

She didn’t look back.  Walking away, she fought an un- ease–an unease she

couldn’t express and chose not to analyze fully.  The door he’d indicated
was

to the master bedroom.  She closed herself in the adjoining bathroom and

stripped off her clothes, indulging in a quick, refreshing shower. 
Slipping

on a bathrobe, she returned to the bedroom.

She stood beside the bed for several minutes before giving into
temptation.

Climbing on top of the down coverlet, she curled up in the center and shut

her eyes.  A short catnap would do her a world of good.  But, despite the

best of intentions, her thoughts kept returning to Hunter and their

conversation.

The situation between them grew more and more confusing with each passing
day.  Standing in the middle of the penthouse living-room, seeing the
visual proof of the wealth and power she’d long suspected, had forced her
to face facts.  Hunter Pryde had returned to the ranch for a reason.  a
reason he’d chosen not to share with her.

And no matter how hard she tried to fight it, the same |j question drummed

incessantly in the back of her mind.  Having so much, what in heaven’s
name

did he want with her and Hampton Homestead.  if not revenge?

CHAPTER NINE

“Leah?  Wake up, sweetheart.”

She stirred, pulled from the most delicious dream of laughter and peace
roses and babies with ebony hair and eyes.  She looked up to find Hunter
sitting beside her on the bed.  He must have showered recently; his hair
was damp and slicked back from his brow, drawing attention to his angled
bone-structure.

He’d also discarded his shirt and wore faded jeans that rode low on his
hips

and emphasized his lean, muscular build.  He bent closer, smoothing her
hair

from her eyes, and his amulet caught the light, glowing a rich blue
against

his deeply bronzed chest.

“What time is it?”  she murmured, stretching.

“Time for dinner.  You’ve been sleeping for two hours.”

“That long?”  She sat up, adjusting the gaping robe.

“I should get dressed.”

“Don’t bother on my account,” he said with a slow grin.  “I thought we’d
go

casual tonight.”

She wrinkled her nose.

“I suspect this might be considered a little too casual.”

“Only one person will see.”  He held out his hand.

“Let me show you.”

Curious, she slipped her fingers into his and clambered off the bed.

He returned to the living-room and gestured toward a spiral staircase
she’d

failed to notice earlier.

“Follow me.”  At the top he blocked her path.

“Close your eyes and hold on,” he instructed.

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”

“Okay.  Don’t let me fall.”

Before she knew what he intended, he scooped her up into his arms.

“Trust, remember?”  he murmured against her ear.  A few minutes later he
set her on her feet.

“You can look now.”

She opened her eyes and gasped in disbelief.  They stood on the roof of
the

apartment building, but it was unlike any rooftop she’d ever seen.  If she

hadn’t known better, she’d have sworn they stood in the middle of a park.

Grass grew beneath her feet and everywhere she glanced were
flowers—barrels of petunias, pansies and impatiens.

Even irises and tulips bloomed in profusion.

“I thought you said you weren’t a gardener,” she accused.

“I lied,” he said with a careless shrug.  He indicated a greenhouse
occupying

one end of the roof.

“Some of the more delicate flowers are grown there.  But I’ve had an
outside

concern take over since I moved to the ranch.  They prepared everything
for

our visit.”

“It’s… it’s incredible.”

“Hungry?”

Suddenly she realized that she was.

“Starving,” she admitted.

“I thought we’d eat here.  You can change if you want, but it isn’t
necessary.”

She caught the underlying message. She could dine in nothing but a robe,
just as he dined in nothing but jeans, or she could dress and use her
clothes

as a shield, a subtle way of distancing herself.

“This is fine,” she said casually.

“Satisfy my curiosity, though.

What sort of meal goes with scruffiness and bare feet?  “

“A picnic, of course.”

He pointed to a secluded corner where a blanket had already been spread on

the grass.  All around the sheltered nook were pots and pots of azaleas,
heavy with blossoms in every conceivable shade.  A bucket anchored one
corner of the blanket, the top of a champagne bottle thrusting out of the
ice.  Next to the champagne she saw a huge wicker basket covered with a
red-checked square of linen.

She chuckled at the cliche.

“Fried chicken?”  she guessed.

“Coleslaw and potato salad,” he confirmed.

“Fast food?”

He looked insulted.

“Catered.”  Crossing to the picnic spot, he knelt beside the basket and
unloaded the goodies on to china.

“You’re kidding,” she said in disbelief, joining him on the blanket.

“China?  For a picnic?”

He gave her a bland smile.

“Isn’t that what you use?”

“Not likely.”  She examined the champagne.  Terrier Jouet flower bottle?
Lalique flutes?  Hunter, I’m almost afraid to touch anything.”

She stared at him helplessly.

“Why are you doing this?”

“It seemed… appropriate.”

She bowed her head, her emotions threatening to shatter her self-control.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“It’s beautiful.”

“You’re hungry,” he said, and she wondered if she just imagined the
tenderness in his voice.

“Try this.”

He held out a succulent sliver of chicken that he’d stripped from the
bone.

She took it from him and almost groaned aloud.  He was right.

This didn’t come close to fast food.  She’d never tasted chicken with
such a

light, delicate flavor.  Drawing her knees up against her chest, she
tucked

into the next piece he offered.

“Don’t you trust me with the china?”  she teased.

He extended a forkful of potato salad.

“Not when I’m seducing you.”

“With potatoes and fried chicken?”  She nibbled the potato salad and this

time did groan aloud.

“Ignore that question.  This is delicious.”

“Want more?”  At her eager nod, he patted the spot next to him.

“Then come closer.”

With a laugh she scrambled across the blanket to his side, and before long

they shared a plate between them, exchanging finger food and dispensing
with silverware whenever possible.  Finally replete, she didn’t resist
when he

drew her down so her head rested in his lap.

“Look at the sunset,” she said, gesturing at the vivid colors streaking

across the sky above them.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re eating out here.”  He filled a flute with

champagne.  Impaling a strawberry on the rim, he handed it to her.

“There’s dessert.”

“No, thanks.”  She sipped the champagne.

“This is all I need.”  His fingers slipped into her hair and she closed
her

eyes beneath the delicate stroke of his hand, his abdomen |t warm against
her

cheek.

“Leah, watch,” he murmured.

She glanced up at the sky.  As the last touch of purple faded into black,

tiny pinpricks of light flickered to life around the rooftop.

It was as though the stars had fallen from the heavens and been scattered

like glittering dewdrops among the flowers.  She raised a trembling, hand
to

her mouth.

“Hunter, why?”  She couldn’t phrase the question any clearer, but he
seemed

to understand what she asked.

“I wanted tonight to be perfect.”

She released a shaky laugh.

“You succeeded.”

“Good.  Because I’m going to make love to you and I want it to be special.

Very special.”  He made no move to carry out his promise.  Instead he sat

motionless, apparently enjoying the serenity of the evening.

“Eight years ago you told your grandmother about our meeting at the

line-shack, didn’t you?”  he asked unexpectedly.

It was the last question she had ever envisioned him broaching.  She
didn’t

even consider lying to protect Rose.  “Yes.”

“You came to the line-shack and waited for me.”

“Yes,” she admitted again.

“When did you find out I’d been arrested?”

“When you told me.”

“I was afraid of that.”  He released a long sigh.

“I owe you an apology, Leah.  I didn’t believe you.  I thought you were
lying

about what happened back then.”

“Did Grandmother Rose tell you the truth?”

“Yes.  She told me.”

“I’m glad.”  Leah hesitated, then said, “There’s also an explanation for
why I wouldn’t leave with you if you’re willing to listen.”

The muscles in his jaw tightened, but he nodded.

“I’m listening.”

“I told my grandmother about our meeting because I couldn’t leave without

saying goodbye to her.  That was when I learned about Dad.  He was dying
of cancer.  Hunter.  I had to stay and help take care of him. That’s why
I wouldn’t have gone with you.  But I would have asked you to come back
afterward.” She stared at him with nervous dread.

“I hope you believe me, because it’s the truth.”

For a long time he remained silent.  Then he spoke in a low, rough voice,
the words sounding as though they were torn from him.

“Growing up in an orphanage, honesty came in short supply.  So did trust.
No one cared much about the truth, just about finding a culprit.”

“And were you usually the culprit?”  she asked compassionately.

“Not always.  But often enough.”

“Didn’t you try and explain?”

“Why?”  he asked simply.

“No one would have believed me.  I was a mongrel.  Not that I was
innocent, you understand.  I provoked my share of trouble.”

She could believe he had, though she suspected that the trouble he’d
provoked had never been undeserved.

“And then one day…”  she prompted.

“How did you know there was a “one day”?”

She shrugged.

“It makes sense.”  She felt his laugh rumble beneath her ear.

“You’re right. Okay. One day–on my fifteenth birthday, as a matter of
fact–they accused me of doing something I didn’t. It was the last time
that happened.”

“What did they accuse you of?”

“Breaking a snow crystal–remember, those globes you shake and the little

flakes swirl around inside?  This one had a knight fighting a dragon.”

She stilled.

“A knight and a dragon?”

“Yes.  I’d always been fascinated by the crystal, but it belonged to one
of

the live-in workers and was off-limits.  When it broke, I took the rap.”

“But you didn’t break it.”

“No.”

“Why was that the last time they accused you?”

“I left. For good.”

“Blind trust,” she whispered.

“Blind trust,” he confirmed.

“I’ve never had anyone give me unconditional trust before–never had
anyone stand by  me in the face of overwhelming odds.  I guess it’s a
futile dream. Still it’s my dream.  “

She sat up and slipped her arms around his neck.

“If I could wrap my trust in a box, I’d give it to you as my
wedding-gift,”

she told him.

“But all I have is words.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he warned.

Her brows drew together and she nodded.

“Then I’ll promise to try.

That’s the best I can offer right now.”

“It’s a start.”

He cupped her face and, after what seemed an endless moment, he lowered
his mouth to hers.  It was as though she’d been waiting an eternity for
his possession.  There’d be no further reprieve, no postponing the
inevitable. After tonight she’d belong to him, joined with bonds more
permanent than his ring on her finger.

Champagne and strawberries flavored his kiss, a kiss he ended all too
soon, leaving her desperately hungry for more.

“Hunter,” she pleaded.

“Easy,” he answered, his lips drifting the length of her jaw.

“Slow and easy, love.”

And he did take it slow, seducing her with long, deep kisses, igniting the

fires that burned so hotly between them.  Slipping her robe from her

shoulders, he cupped the pendant that had become a permanent fixture
about her neck and in silent homage his mouth found the spot between her
breasts where it so often nestled.

She gripped his shoulders, her eyes falling shut, blocking out the pagan

sight of his dark head against her white skin.  All she could do after
that

was feel.  feel the touch of his tongue and teeth on her breasts, feel the

hard, possessive sweep of his hands as he stripped off her robe, baring
her

“You’re even more beautiful than I remember,” he told her.

“Make love to me.  Hunter.  Now.”  She shifted in his grasp, wanting to be

closer, trembling with the strength of her need.

He lowered her to the blanket and she opened her eyes, staring up at
him.  He held himself above her, the embodiment of lean, masculine grace
and raw power–a power muted only by the tenderness reflected in the
black depths of his gaze.  Then he came to her, joined with her, his body
a welcome weight, hard and angled and taut beneath her hands.

And there, sequestered within their tiny slice of heaven, he showed her
anew the true meaning of ecstasy.  She didn’t hold back.  She couldn’t. 
For, if she gave him nothing else, she’d give him all the love she
possessed.

They spent the entire weekend at the apartment, relearning their roles as

lovers.  For Leah it deepened a love that had never truly died.

Unfortunately, Hunter’s reaction proved more difficult to read.  He wanted

her; she didn’t doubt that for a minute.  She could inflame him with the

simplest of touches–his dark eyes burning with a hunger that stole her

breath.  Nor could she complain of his treatment, his gentleness
revealing a certain level of caring.  But love?  If he experienced such
an emotion, he

kept it well-hidden.

To Leah’s dismay, leaving the seclusion of the apartment and returning to
the ranch proved to be the hardest thing she’d ever done.

Worse, the morning after their return Hunter rode Dreamseeker, the
stallion at long last surrendering to the stronger, more determined
force.  Leah couldn’t help drawing a comparison, feeling as though she,
too, had surrendered to Hunter’s perseverance, giving everything while he
remained

aloof and independent and in control.  Never had she felt so defenseless,
so aware of her own vulnerability– nor had she ever felt so afraid.  As
much as she’d have liked to protect herself, she suspected it was far too
late.

The morning after Hunter broke the stallion, her fears took a new
direction. Dreamseeker was missing from the pasture.

“Saddle Ladyfinger,” Hunter directed.

“And grab your slicker.  It looks like more rain.”

Struggling to hide her concern, she did as he’d ordered, lashing the
yellow

oilskin to the back of her saddle.

“Could he have smashed down the fence again?”  she asked apprehensively.

Hunter shook his head.

“Not a chance.”

He mounted his buckskin and they started out, riding toward the area the

horse had broken through before.  They’d almost reached the southernmost

point of Hampton land when the first scream reverberated across the
pasture.

Leah had heard that sound only twice before in her life, and it was one
she’d never forget.  It turned her blood to ice.  Throwing a panicked
glance in Hunter’s direction, she dug her heels into Ladyfinger’s flanks
and charged toward the sound.  Hunter at her side.

Throughout the tense moments of that mad dash to the Circle P she prayed

she’d be wrong.  Prayed that Dreamseeker was safe.

Arriving at the property line, they paused briefly.  The fence separating
the

two ranches had indeed been knocked down again, and Leah’s heart sank. 
There was no doubt now as to what had happened.  nor what was about to
happen. Another scream echoed from over the next ridge, answered by an
equally infuriated trumpeting.  Crossing on to Circle P land, they
sprinted to the top of the hill and discovered Bull Jones sitting on his
mount, watching the scene below unfold.

Dreamseeker stood at one end of a small, tree-enclosed meadow, circling a

chestnut thoroughbred stallion.  Off to one side milled a nervous herd of

mares, undoubtedly the motivation for the fight.

Dreamseeker reared on to his hind legs, gnashing his teeth and striking
out

with his hooves.  The chestnut joined in the ritualistic dance, copying
each

threatening move.

“You did this, Leah,” Bull growled, gimlet-eyed.

“I told you to secure your fence-line.  Now it’s too late.  If that
stallion

of yours injures our thoroughbred, you’ll pay big.  Real big.  Baby Blue’s

worth a fortune.  If he goes down, it’ll cost you your ranch.”

Leah glared at the foreman.

“You deliberately moved Baby Blue and those mares to this pasture in
order to rile up our stallion.  As to the fence… we reinforced it just
last week. The only way Dreamseeker could have broken through is if you
cut the wire.”

He laughed.

“Knowing something’s one thing.  Proving it is a whole different story.”

“She won’t have to,” Hunter said in a clipped voice.

“I will.”

With a shrill roar, Dreamseeker reared back, then dropped to the ground
with a bone-jarring thud and charged.  Baby Blue, his eyes rolling back
in his head, raced to meet his challenger… “No!”  Leah shrieked. 
Without

thought or consideration of the danger, she slammed her heels into her

horse’s flanks, slipping and sliding down the hill.

“Leah!”  she heard Hunter shout.

She ignored him, fighting to stay in the saddle while forcing her mare
toward the heat of battle.  Halfway down  the hill, she realized that the
terrified animal would go no further.

Leah reined to a stop and flung herself out of the saddle.  In two seconds

flat she’d ripped her rain-slicker free.  Screaming at the top of her
lungs,

she ran straight at the stallions, slapping the bright yellow oilskin in
the

air as hard as she could.

Just as she reached them the thoroughbred went down, and a sudden image
of Hunter distracting the bull with his shirt flashed through her mind. 
Before Dreamseeker could move in for the kill she threw the slicker
directly into her horse’s face.  He shied wildly, dropping his head and
shaking it in an attempt to rid himself of the entrapping coat.

“Leah, move!”  Hunter yelled, sprinting to her side.  Clamping an arm
around her waist, he threw her clear of the danger.  Without a moment’s
hesitation he planted himself between her and imminent peril, nothing at
hand with which to protect himself but his rope.

Dreamseeker bucked madly and finally succeeded in flinging the slicker
off his head.  He froze for an instant, as though trying to decide
whether to

charge the man or the downed stallion.  It was all the opportunity Hunter

needed.  In one swift move his rope ripped through the air, snagging the

stallion’s forefeet.  Throwing every ounce of mass and muscle behind the

effort.  Hunter wrenched the rope taut, dropping the horse in his tracks.

Spinning around, he ran flat out toward Leah.  Snatching her to her feet
with one hand, he hurled the rope around the nearest tree with the
other.  With more speed than artistry he secured the rope, effectively
hobbling the horse.

Breathing hard, he slowly turned to face Leah.

“Woman, you and I are going to have a serious conversation.  And, when
it’s done, your sit-down may be a little the worse for wear.”

“Are you threatening me with physical violence?”  Leah asked in disbelief.

His wrath shredded his rigid control.

“You’re damned right I’m threatening you with physical violence!”  he bit
out.

“After what you pulled you’ll be lucky if that’s all I threaten you with.”

“I couldn’t just wait while one of those stallions killed the other!”

He towered over her, his hands clenched, a muscle leaping in his jaw.

“Oh, yes, you could have, and you damned well should have.  Before this
day is through I intend to explain it to you in terms you won’t soon
forget.  For now, you have a more pressing matter to take care of.”

“What’s that?”

He gestured.

“Your horse,” he said flatly.

She couldn’t believe she’d been so easily sidetracked.  To her relief, she

saw that Baby Blue had regained his feet and abandoned the field of
battle, driving his harem of mares before him.  She ran toward
Dreamseeker, careful to keep a safe distance.  Slowly she circled the
downed animal, searching for any serious damage.  He lay on his side,
blowing hard and trembling, but without apparent injury.  Before she
could decide how to handle the stallion’s safe return to his pasture.

Bull Jones rode up.

“Move out of the way, Leah,” he ordered furiously.  She looked up,
horrified to discover Bull’s Remington free of his scabbard and aimed at
her stallion.

“I’m gonna shoot that bronco right between the eyes. If you don’t want to
get hurt, you’ll stand clear.”

Leah never saw Hunter move.  One minute Bull sat astride his horse, the
next minute he lay flat on his back, his gun thrown out of reach and
Hunter’s foot planted in the center of his chest.

“We never had the chance to introduce ourselves,” Hunter said in a soft,

menacing voice.

“It’s time to correct that oversight.”

“I don’t care who you are, hombre.  Get the hell off me and get the hell
off

my land.”  He squirmed in the dirt, attempting to worm his way out of his

predicament.  Not that it did him any good.  Leah could tell he’d remain

where he was until Hunter decided otherwise.

“First, it’s not your land.”  The boot pressed a little harder.  “And
second,

the name’s Pryde.  Hunter Pryde.  You call me hombre once more and you
won’t be talking–or chewing–any time soon.”

“Pryde!” Bull’s eyes bulged.

“I know you!  You’re–“

“Leah’s husband,” Hunter interrupted smoothly.

“Aw, shoot.  I didn’t know you were Pryde…”  Bull protested.

“You shoulda said something.”

“Being a fair and reasonable man, I’m going to give you two choices. You
can get up, climb on your horse, and ride out of here, nice and
friendly-like, or you can stay and we’ll discuss the situation further.
Well, muchacho?  What’s it going to be?”

“Let me up.  I’ll leave.”

Hunter removed his foot and stepped back.  And though he seemed
relaxed–his hands at his sides, his legs slightly spread–Leah knew that
he stood poised for action should Bull offer any further threat.

The foreman slowly gained his feet and reached for his rifle.

“Don’t bother.  You won’t be needing it,” Hunter said, an unmistakable

warning in his voice.

“And one more thing.”

“What’s that?”  Bull asked warily.

“As you ride out of here, take a final, long look around.”

Understanding dawned and a heavy flush crept up Bull’s neck.

“You can’t do that.  I have pull, you know.”

Hunter’s chilly smile was empty of humor.

“I have more.”

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Bull growled, mounting up.

“Any time you want to finish the discussion, feel free to drop by. I’ll
be happy to accommodate you.” Hunter waited until the foreman had ridden
out of earshot before switching his attention to Lean.

“Your turn.”

“How can you do that?”  she demanded, gesturing toward Bull’s rapidly

retreating back.

“How can you fire him?”

Hunter’s gaze became enigmatic.

“Let’s just say that Buddy Peterson will find it in his best interest to
follow through with my… suggestion.”

A tiny frown creased her brow.  After a moment’s consideration she nodded.

“Let’s hope you’re right.”

“I am.”

He took a step in her direction and she froze.  As much as she’d have
liked

to run for the hills, she refused to back down.

“I know.  I know.  It’s my turn.  Well, go ahead.  Yell at me some more.
Stomp around and cuss if you want.  Just get it over with.”

“This isn’t some sort of joke.  Leah.”  He snatched her close, practically

shaking her.

“You could have been killed.  And there wouldn’t have been a damned thing
I could have done to prevent it. I’d never have reached you in time.  “

“I had to save Dreamseeker,” she protested.

He thrust her away, as though afraid of what he might do if he continued
to touch her.

“You don’t get it, do you?  That horse is nothing compared to your
safety.  I should have let Jones shoot the damned animal and be done
with.”

She caught her breath in disbelief.

“You can’t be serious.”

His eyes burned with barely suppressed rage, his features set in stark,

remote lines.

“I’m dead serious.  You promise me here and now that you won’t ever, for
any reason, risk your life for that horse again, or he goes.”

He wasn’t kidding.  She could tell when a man had reached the end of his
rope and, without question.  Hunter had reached it.  Slowly she nodded.

“I promise.”

“I intend to hold you to that promise,” he warned.

She twisted her hands together.

“But you won’t sell Dreamseeker?”

His voice turned dry, the rage slowly dying from his eyes.

“Don’t worry, Leah.  Your horse is safe for now, even if you aren’t. 
Mount up.  Let’s get this bronco home.  And when we get there, and my
temper has had a chance to cool, you and I will finish this conversation.”

“That’ll be some time next week, right?”  she dared to suggest.

He yanked the brim of his stetson low over his brow.  “Try next month.” 
And with that he headed for his horse.

Hunter placed a call to Kevin Anderson, not bothering to waste time on

preliminaries.

“I fired Bull Jones today.”

Kevin swore softly.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Take care of it.  Make sure there aren’t any… complications.”

“Is it Leah?  Has she found out?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  But considering I gave Jones his walking papers
in

front of her, it’ll be a miracle if she doesn’t at least suspect.”

“If she does “

“Don’t worry,” Hunter interrupted sharply. “I’ll handle my wife.”

A small sound brought his head around.  Leah stood at the door, looking

nervous and uncertain.  Had she heard?  he wondered, keeping his
expression impassive.  He gestured for her to come in.

“Listen, I have to go, Kevin.  I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up, not waiting for an answer.  He stood up and walked around the
desk, leaning against the edge.  There he stayed, silent and watchful, as
she approached.  Catching her braid, he tugged her close.

He wanted her.  God, he wanted her.  And he knew without a doubt that she
wanted him as well.  He could see it in her eyes, in the faint trembling
of her lips and the rapid pounding of her heart.

Not bothering to conceal the strength of his desire, he pulled her roughly

between his legs.  Her eyes widened, the color almost violet with emotion.

Her breath came swiftly between her parted lips, a delicate flush tinting
her cheeks.  It took only a minute to unbraid her hair, spreading the
silvery curls around them like a silken cloak.

Unable to resist, he kissed her, taking her softness with a desire fast
flaring out of control.

“Don’t fight me,” he muttered against her mouth.

“Not now.  Not any more.”

“Fight you?”  she said, her voice wavering between laughter and passion.

“I wish I could.”

“Then kiss me, Leah.  Kiss me like you mean it.”

She seemed to melt into him.

“I’ve always meant it.  Haven’t you realized that by now?”  she whispered.

And, wrapping her arms around his neck, she gave herself to him.

Leah stared at the ceiling, the moon throwing a shadowed pattern of
branches across the smooth surface.  What had he meant?  she wondered
uneasily.

She turned her head and studied Hunter as he slept.  His passion tonight
had exceeded anything that had ever gone  before.  More than once she’d
nearly said the words, almost told him how much she loved him.  But
something had held her back.  His conversation with Kevin’, perhaps?

She frowned up at the ceiling again.  So what had Hunter meant?  What,

precisely, did “I’ll handle my wife” signify?  And why did it fill her
with such an overwhelming dread?

CHAPTER TEN

Leah awoke the next morning and for the first time found herself alone in

bed.  She sat up in a panic, not liking the sensation of having been
deserted.  Hunter was right.  Waking in his arms made a difference to her
entire day and she didn’t appreciate the abrupt change.

She got up and went in search of him, only to discover that he’d left a
brief

note explaining he’d been unexpectedly called to Houston.  The knowledge

filled her with a vague alarm.  She’d hoped to talk to him, to be held by

him, to be reassured that his conversation with this.  Kevin had nothing
to

do with their marriage–or the ranch.

So much for blind trust, she thought with a guilty pang.  Let one small

incident a little out of the ordinary happen and her trust evaporated like

mist before the morning sun.

“I think I’ll go into town and do some shopping,” she told her
grandmother, needing an outlet for her restlessness.

“Stop by the jewelers and see if my watch is fixed,” Rose requested.

“They’ve had it a full week and my wrist feels naked.”

“Sure thing,” Leah agreed.

Not long after, she climbed into the ranch pick-up and drove the thirty
minutes to the small town of Crossroads.  She spent a full hour
window-shopping and indulging in an eclair at Cindy’s Sinful Pastries
before coming upon a new antiques store.  Intrigued, she went in, and
after much diligent poking around unearthed a small statue that she knew
she’d purchase regardless of the price.

Made of pewter, a dull silver knight rode a rearing charger.  In one hand
he clasped a lance, holding a fierce, ruby-eyed dragon at bay.

With his other he pulled a veiled damsel to safety.  The damsel’s flowing

gown reminded Leah of her own wedding-dress and she grinned.

Considering the snow crystal story he’d told her, it was perfect.

She’d put it in the study and see how long it took Hunter to notice–and

whether he caught the significance of the gesture.  After paying for the

statue she crossed the street to the jewelers.

“Morning, Leah.”  Clyde, the owner, greeted her, with a familiar smile.

“I just finished Rose’s repair job last night.”  He punched the charge
into

his register and handed her the boxed watch.  Eyeing the imprinted
shopping bag she carried, he said,

“I see you visited our new antiques store.  Find something you liked?”

“Sure did.  Want to see?”  At his interested nod she carefully unwrapped
her purchase, and proudly displayed it for the jeweler.

“My, that’s a fine piece.”  He peered at it over his wire- rimmed
spectacles.

“A belated wedding-gift?”  he asked, with the presumptuousness of a
lifelong friendship.  At her shy acknowledgement he beamed.

“I’m glad.  Hunter’s a good man.”

A sudden idea occurred to her and she pulled Hunter’s pendant from
beneath her blouse.

“Clyde… Can you make a miniature of this?”

“To go around the knight’s neck?”  he guessed.  His mouth puckered in a

thoughtful frown.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult.  Actually, I have a stone that would be
ideal.”

“How long would it take?”  she asked anxiously.  .

His eyes twinkled with amusement.

“I think Mrs. Whitehaven’s ring adjustment can wait.  How does an hour
sound?”

She sighed in relief.

“It sounds ideal,”

“And if I can make one small suggestion?”  He crossed to a display of
pewter charms and removed one of the larger pieces–a cowboy hat.  It fit
the knight as though made for him.

“I could snip off the link and smooth it down, fix it to the knight’s
head so it won’t come off. What do you think? “

It was perfect.

“Do it,” she directed.

“I’ll be back in an hour.  And Clyde?”  He glanced up from the statue and
she grinned.

“Thanks.”

“Any time, Leah.  Any time.”

Precisely sixty minutes later she left the jewelers for the second time,
her

statue–complete with cowboy hat and pendant–gift-wrapped and safely
tucked away in her handbag.  To her dismay, the first person she ran into
was Bull Jones.  Before she could evade him, he blocked her path.

“Why, if it isn’t Miz Hampton.”  He removed his cigar from between his
teeth.

“Oh, excuse me.  That’s Mrs Pryde, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, ” she retorted sharply.

“If you were smart, you’d remember that and stay clear, before Hunter
hears you’ve been bothering me again.”

“I’m not worried.  Your husband isn’t here.  And by the time he returns,
I’ll

be long gone.”

Her blood ran cold and she glanced around, reassured to see that their

confrontation had witnesses.  She glared at Bull.

“You have something to say to me?  Then say it.  Otherwise, move out of
my way before I bring the whole town down around your ears.”

“You always were a feisty little shrew.  Okay.  Why beat around the bush?

Your husband’s in Houston, isn’t he?”  He laughed at her expression.

“What, nothing to say?  Aren’t you even going to ask how I know?”

“I couldn’t care less.”  She refused to play into this man’s hands.

Not that it stopped him.

“I’ll tell you anyway,” he offered with mock generosity.  “He’s there
because he’s called the Lyon Enterprises’ board together.”

She shrugged indifferently.

“He knows the board.  That’s not news to me,” she claimed.

But Bull shook his head.

“He doesn’t just know the board.  He runs the board.”

She jerked as though slapped.

“What are you talking about?”  she demanded.

“That got your attention, didn’t it?”  He laughed, the sound hard-edged
and

rough.

“Hunter Pryde is Lyon Enterprises.  Course I didn’t find that out until he

had me fired.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself.  But think about it.”  His cigar jabbed the air, making
small

smoky punctuation marks.

“Lyon… Pryde… the Circle P.  It all fits.  And if you wanted to
confirm

it, it’d be easy enough to check out.”

“How?”  The question was dragged from her.

“Call Lyon Enterprises.  Ask for Pryde’s office.  If he has one there,
you’ll

have your answer.  You’ll know he married you to get his hands on your
ranch.”

“All I’ll know is that he has an office,” she said scornfully.

“That doesn’t mean he owns Lyon Enterprises.  Nor does it mean he married
me to get the ranch.”  She wondered if he heard the edge of desperation
in her voice.  Probably.

“He owns it,” Bull said with absolute confidence.

“And when he realized he couldn’t buy you out or force you out, he
married you.”

She had to leave.  She wouldn’t stand here and be poisoned by any more of
this man’s filth.

“Get away from me, Jones.  I’m not listening to you.”  She attempted to
push past him, but he grabbed her arm and jerked her to a stop.

He spoke fast, his words striking with a deadly accuracy.  “You were all
set to marry some joe so that you wouldn’t lose your spread.  If you had,
Lyon would have been permanently blocked.  The second Pryde heard about
it, he shows up, and marries you himself.  Pretty shrewd move.  He gets
the girl and the land without paying one red cent.”

“I still own the ranch, not Hunter.”

“Do you?”  He leaned closer and she turned her head away in revulsion.

“Maybe you do now.  But for how much longer?  Those business types will
find a way around that little problem.  They always do.  And then you and
your granny will be out on your collective backsides.”

With that he released her and, clamping his cigar between his teeth,
walked away.  She stood in the middle of the sidewalk for an endless
moment.  Then she practically ran to the truck.  Sitting safely in the
cab, she gripped the steering-wheel as though her life depended on it,
struggling for a measure of calm.

Putting the conversation into perspective, she knew Bull had an ax to
grind and so she needed to weigh his comments accordingly.  But what
horrified her so was that every word he had uttered made perfect sense,
playing on her most intrinsic fears.  Hunter had wanted the ranch above
all else.  And never once had he been willing- to tell her why.

Because he knew she’d never marry him if he did?

She stared blindly out the front windshield for several minutes.  She had
to

think, had to keep a clear head.  Either Bull spoke the truth or he
lied.  It was that simple.  All she had to do was figure out which.

Conrad Michaels.  The name came to her from nowhere and she seized it
with relief.  Of course!  He had contacts.  He could do some digging. 
off the record.  Without giving it further consideration, she started the
engine and pointed the truck in the direction of home.  She’d call
Conrad.  He’d help her.

So much for blind trust, she thought in anguish.  But how could she be

expected to trust when her knight had suddenly turned back into the
dragon?

Leah took a deep breath and spoke brightly into the phone, “Conrad? It’s
Leah.  I’m fine, thanks.  And you?” She listened for several minutes
while he told her, then admitted, ” Yes, I did call for a reason.  I was
curious about something and thought you could help.”

“Of course, Leah,” Conrad said agreeably enough.

“What can I do for you?”

She tapped her pencil against the desk blotter.

“It’s… it’s about our loan.  The ranch loan.  Did Hunter arrange for it
with your bank?  I mean… You had the old one and I thought…”

“It’s not with our bank,” Conrad informed her bluntly.  “Not any more.
Your lawyer insisted that Hunter initially place it with us as part of
your prenuptial agreement.  But I heard that shortly after your marriage
it was bought out by an independent concern.  All perfectly legal, you
understand.”

“But it was with you originally?”

“Yes.”

Now for the hard part.  After a brief pause, she asked, “Do you know who

bought it out?”

“What’s this about, Leah?  Why aren’t you asking Hunter these questions?”

She heard the tension in his voice and regretted putting him in such an

uncomfortable position.  Unfortunately, she had to know.

“I’m asking you, Connie,” she said evenly, deliberately used the family

nickname.

“I need to make sure the payments are current, that I’m not in arrears.”

“I see.”  He sounded old and tired.

She closed her eyes, hating herself for involving him.  But there’d been
no

one else she could turn to.

“I realize you’re retired and out of the loop.  Still, I’d hoped you’d
have contacts who could give you the information.  I’m sorry to ask for
such a big favor.  I wouldn’t, unless it was important,” she apologized.

“Of course.  I’ll look into it.”

“You’ll be discreet?”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll be discreet.”

She thanked him and hung up, checking his name off the list she’d
composed. One down.  Studying the piece of paper in front of her, she
eyed the second name and number.  This next would take even more nerve.

She forced herself to reach for the phone again and dial the number.

An operator answered almost immediately.

“Lyon Enterprises.  How may I direct your call?”

“Hunter Pryde, please.”

“One moment.”

After a brief delay a secretary answered.

“Felicia Carter speaking. May I help you?”

Leah frowned.

“I’m sorry.  I asked for Hunter Pryde’s office.”

“I can help you,” the secretary hastened to assure.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“Is he in?”  Leah persisted.

“He’s tied up with the board all day.  I can give him a message if you’d

like.”

Leah closed her eyes.

“No message.”  She started to hang up, then froze.

“Wait!  His title.  Could you tell me his title with the company?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to discuss that with Mr Pryde.”  A hint of
suspicion

tinged Felicia’s voice.

“Could I have your name, please?”

Without another word, Leah cradled the receiver.  So.  Part of Bull’s
story

checked out.  Hunter could be reached at Lyon Enterprises.  But that
didn’t

mean he had an office there; it didn’t even mean he worked there.  And it
was far from indisputable evidence that he owned the company.  There’s no
need to panic, she told herself, breathing a little easier.  She’d
managed to glean two facts.  He had business in Houston with Lyon and
their meeting was ongoing.

Beneath her hand the phone rang and she lifted it.

“Yes?  Hello?”

“It’s Conrad.”

From the reluctance in his voice she could tell that she wouldn’t
appreciate

the information he’d gathered.

“Get it over with.  I can take it,” she told him.

“It’s not anything definitive,” he was quick to explain, “so don’t jump to

any conclusions.  The company that bought out your note is named HP, Inc.”

“HP, Inc?  As in… Hunter Pryde, Incorporated?”

“It’s… possible, I suppose.  I couldn’t get the status of the loan
itself.

But I have their number in Houston, if you want it.”

“I want it.”  She jotted down the information and thanked him.

“Let me know if you need me,” Conrad said.

“I had hoped…”  He didn’t finish his sentence.  He didn’t have to.

“Me, too,” she said in a soft voice.

This time she didn’t delay placing the call.  Asking for  Hunter’s
office, the operator once again put her through, and once again a
secretary offered

to take a message.

“This is Felicia Carter at Lyon Enterprises,” Leah said.  “I’m trying to

track down Mr Pryde.”

“Why… I believe he’s working over there today, Ms Carter.”

Leah managed a careless laugh.

“How silly of me.  I must have gotten my days mixed up.”  Then on impulse
she said, “I don’t know how he keeps it straight.  It must be difficult
owning two such large companies.”

“Yes, it is.  But Mr Pryde’s an unusual man.  And he only hires the best.

Delegation.  It makes his life much easier.  One minute, please.”

Leah could hear a brief, muffled conversation before the secretary came
back on the line.

“Mr Pryde’s assistant just came in.  Would you like to speak to him?”

“Kevin?”  she asked casually.

“Oh, you know him?”

She ducked the question.

“That won’t be necessary.  I’ll get the information I need at this end.” 
To

her horror, her voice broke.

“Thank you for your help,” she managed to say, and hung up.

The tears, once started, couldn’t be stopped.  She despised herself for
being so weak.  It wasn’t the end of all her dreams.  She still had her
grandmother and the ranch.  She still had her employees and Dreamseeker.
But somehow it wasn’t enough.  She wanted Hunter.  Most of all, she
wanted Hunter’s love.

Too bad all Hunter wanted was her ranch.

“What’s going on, Leah?”

Leah looked up, distressed to see her grandmother standing in the
doorway. Silently she shook her head, swiping at her damp cheeks and
struggling to bring her emotions under control.

“Is it Hunter?”  Rose asked, stepping into the room.

“Has something happened to him?”

“No!  Yes!”  Leah covered her face with her hands, fighting to maintain

control.  She couldn’t afford to break down again.

“His health is fine, if that’s what you mean.”

Rose crossed to the desk.

“Then, what’s wrong?”

“Hunter owns Lyon Enterprises, that’s what’s wrong.”  She slumped in the

chair.

“I’m … I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that.”

“Hunter owns Lyon Enterprises,” Rose repeated.

“You’re joking.”

“It’s true,” Leah said in a tired voice.

“I just got off the phone with his office. Dammit!  What am I going to
do?”

“You’re going to talk to him, of course.”

“Talk” She stared at her grandmother in disbelief.  “What’s to say?

“Oh, by the way, did you really marry me just to get your hands on my
ranch?” That’s why he proposed.  He never made any secret of the fact.”

Rose planted her hands on her hips.

“Then why act so betrayed?”  she snapped.

“What’s the difference if he wanted the ranch for himself or for his
business?  If you married the owner of Lyon Enterprises it sounds to me
like you were the one to get the better end of that deal.”

That brought her up short.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.  Think about it.  Hunter’s gotten one thing out of this
so-called bargain–a lot of hard work and darned little thanks.  But if
he’s Lyon, you get the ranch, the Circle P, and anything else he cares to
throw into the hat…”  She cackled.

“Best of all, you get Hunter.  Yes sir.  Sounds like a damned good trade
to

me.”

“Until he manages to obtain title to the ranch and fore M closes on us.
Next comes the divorce and then we’re begging on the streets.”

Rose snorted.

“You really are a ninny.  Get your butt out of that chair, climb into the
pick-up and drive to Houston.  Talk to the man. Ask him why he married
you. Flat out.”

“I already know—“

“He actually told you he married you for the ranch?” Rose asked with
raised eyebrows.

“Or did you assume it?”

Leah shook her head in bewilderment.

“I don’t remember.  I… I don’t think he said.  Every time I asked, he’d

just stand there.”

“Looking insulted, maybe?  I would have.”

“Why?”  she demanded.

“That’s the reason we married.  It’s not a secret.  No matter how much you

try to wrap it up in pretty ribbons and bows, I married for business, not

love.  And so did Hunter.”

“I’m sure you’re right.  A man as rich as Croesus, as smart as a whip and
as handsome as ever came down the pike is going to sacrifice himself in
marriage in order to get his hands on one little old Texas ranch.”  She
heaved a sigh.

“Sounds reasonable to me.”

Leah bit down on her lip.

“Stop making so much sense!  You’re confusing me.”

“Good.  Now for the punchline.  Do you love him?”

There was only one possible answer to that question.  “Yes,” she said
without a moment’s hesitation.

“More than anything.”

Her grandmother grinned.

“That’s all you need to remember.  Here’s your purse.  Here’s the keys to
the pickup.  Go to Houston.  I’ll see you tomorrow.  Or the next day.  Or
the one after that.  Go hide out in that apartment of Hunter’s and make
some babies. I want to be a great-grandma.  Soon.  You hear me, girl?”

“I hear you.  Judging by how loud you’re shouting I’m sure Inez, her
children and at least two-thirds of our wranglers heard you, too.”

But she obeyed.  Without another word of argument, Lean took the keys and
her purse and walked out of the study.  Not giving herself a chance to
reconsider and chicken out, she climbed into the pick-up and started the
engine. Pulling a Bull Jones, she spun the wheel and stomped on the gas,
kicking up an impressive rooster tail of dirt and gravel as she headed
down the drive.

Half a dozen times she almost turned back.  But something kept her going.

One way or another she’d have her answers–whether she liked them or not.
And maybe–just maybe–she could convince Hunter to give their marriage a
chance.  A real chance.  She loved him.  And she intended to fight for
that love.

She only got lost twice, but the delay added to her growing tension.

Finally she found the Lyon Enterprises building and pulled into the
underground garage.  She didn’t know how she’d talk her way into the
board meeting, but somehow she’d do it.  Stopping at the security desk,
she showed her credentials.

“Leah Pryde,” she told the guard.

“Mrs Hunter Pryde.  I’m supposed to meet my husband.”

“Certainly, Mrs Pryde.  I’ll ring upstairs and let him know you’re here.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said, offering her most persuasive smile.

“I’d like to surprise him.”

He looked momentarily uncertain, then nodded.

“Sure.  I suppose that would be all right.”

“Thanks.”

With a calm that she was far from feeling she walked to the bank of
elevators, and all too soon arrived on the executive floor.  This time no

secretary waited to greet her.  She glanced down at her clothes and wished

she’d thought to change before leaving home.  Jeans and a cotton blouse

didn’t seem quite appropriate.  Did they have dress codes on executive

floors?  At the very least she should have brushed her hair.  Her braid
was

almost nonexistent, loose curls drifting into her face.

She peeked up and down the deserted hallway, aware that it wouldn’t be
wise to delay much longer.  Someone would soon stop her and she didn’t
doubt for a minute that they’d call security or, worse.  Hunter.  Looking
neither right nor left, she started for the boardroom.  If she was going
to get thrown out of the place, she’d rather have done something to earn
it.

Five yards from the huge double doors, the first roadblock appeared.

“Excuse me,” the tall, perfectly groomed woman said.

“May I help you?”

“No,” Leah replied and kept walking.

The persistent woman scooted ahead, planting herself square in front of
the boardroom doors.

“I’m Felicia Carter,” she tried again, offering her hand.

“And you are?”

“Late.  Excuse me.”  Leah brushed past the secretary and reached for the

door, but Felicia proved too quick.  The woman grasped Leah’s hand and
shook it.

“It’s a pleasure.  Miss…?”

“Leah.”

“Leah.”  The handshake turned to an iron-like clasp.

“If you’d come this way, we can find out what your situation is and we
can get it taken care of right away.”

“We appreciate your help,” Leah said with an amiable smile, and turned in
the direction Felicia indicated.  The second the woman moved from the
door Leah broke free, and lunged for the knob.  An instant later she
scooted inside the boardroom and slammed the huge door in Felicia’s face,
locking it.

“Take care of that,” she muttered beneath her breath, and turned to face
the board members.

To her horror there were about twice the number there’d been on her last

visit.  And every last one of them stared at her as though she’d just
pulled

up in a flying saucer.  At the far end, where Buddy Peterson had last
been,

sat Hunter, his chair pushed back, his feet propped on the glass table.
Buddy now sat to Hunter’s right.

“Don’t be shy.”  Hunter’s words, gentle and yet oddly menacing, dropped
into the deafening silence.

“Come on in.”

“Okay.”  She took a single step forward.

“I think that’s far enough.”

For an endless minute their gazes met and held–and if his was implacably

black and remote, she didn’t doubt for an instant that hers was filled
with a

mixture of defiance and fear.

The phone at Hunter’s elbow emitted a muted beep and he picked it up.

“Yes, Felicia, she’s here.  Relax.  I’ll take care of it.”  He hung up and

addressed the board members.  “Ladies.  Gentlemen.  My wife.”

Cautious murmurs of greeting drifted around the room and after a long,
tense moment, he asked, “What can we do for you, Leah?”

She swallowed hard.  Maybe she should have rehearsed this part at some
point during the drive.  She glanced at him uncertainly.

“I wondered.  ” She took a deep breath.

“I wondered if there was something you have to tell me.”

His eyes narrowed and he removed his feet from the table and straightened
in his chair.

“No.  Is there something you have to tell me?”

So, he wasn’t going to admit who he really was.  He’d  warned her that
he’d never explain himself again.  Still, he had to know that she
wouldn’t be here if she didn’t at least suspect the truth.  He had to
know that the cards were stacked against him.  And yet he expected her to
trust him. Or not.  It was that simple.  And suddenly she realized that
despite everything she’d been told, despite all the facts that proved his
duplicity, she did trust him.

And she loved him.

“No,” she whispered.

“I don’t have anything to tell you.”

His mouth tightened.

“Then if you’d excuse us?”

With a passion that brought tears to her eyes she wished she’d never come,

that she’d never listened to Bull Jones, that she’d never given an ounce
of

weight to any of the despicable suggestions he’d made.

Did she believe Jones more than Hunter?  Never.  Now she’d failed.

She’d failed her husband, and she’d failed herself.  When it came to a

choice, she’d chosen to doubt him.  And he’d never forgive her for that.

Her shoulders sagged in defeat and she started to turn away.  Then she
froze. What had he said that night at his apartment?

“I’ve never had anyone give me unconditional trust before–never had
anyone stand by me in the face of overwhelming odds.  I guess it’s a
futile dream. Still it’s my dream.”

She set her jaw.  No.  She wouldn’t walk away.  She wouldn’t give up.

She loved him.  She loved him more than anything in her life.  More than

Dreamseeker, more than her employees, even more than the damned ranch. 
He wanted blind trust?  Fine.  She’d give it to him.

“Yes,” she said, turning around again.

“I do have something to say.  In private, if you don’t mind.”

“Ladies, gentlemen.  Sign the papers,” Hunter ordered, snapping his
briefcase closed and lifting it from the table.

“If you’ll excuse us.  My wife and I have a few matters to discuss in
private.”  He stood and walked to a door that opened on to a small office
off the conference-room.  Shutting them in the restrictive confines, he
tossed his briefcase on to the desk and turned to her.

“What the hell is this about, Leah?”

She gathered her nerve to speak, to say the words that were long, long
overdue.

“The whole time we’ve been married you’ve asked for only one, thing from
me. You told me that it’s more precious to you than anything else.  I
offered to box it up for a wedding-gift if I could. Well.  Here it is. 
My gift to you.  It’s up to you what you do with it.” She opened her
purse and pulled out the gift-box from the jewelers.

He stared at it, making no move to take what she offered.  “What is it?”

“Open it and find out.”

He took the box then, and ripped it apart, removing the statue.  She heard

the swift intake of his breath, saw the lines of his jaw tighten.  And
then

he looked at her, his black eyes aflame with a fierce, raw joy.

“Do you mean this?”  he demanded.

“You trust me?”

She nodded, biting down on her lip.

“With all my heart.”

A brief knock sounded at the door and Buddy Peterson stuck his head in
the office.

“Papers are signed and the boardroom’s all yours.  By the way, that was a

gutsy move.  Some might call it chivalrous.  You could have lost
everything you own.”

Hunter inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“Instead I won.”  He glanced at Leah.

“Everything.”

Buddy grinned.

“I guess things will change now that you own the whole shooting-match.”

“Count on it,” Hunter agreed.

The door closed behind the executive and they were alone again.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered.

“I thought you already owned Lyon Enterprises.”

He shook his head.

“Not until two minutes ago.”

“And before that?”

“I was their chief rival… and their worst nightmare.”

She could hardly take it in.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because until the papers were signed there was nothing to tell.  Like the

man said, I could have failed in my takeover bid and lost everything.”

“Not everything,” she suddenly realized, tears starting to her eyes.

“Not the ranch.”

“No,” he conceded.

“I made sure that was protected by our prenuptial agreement.”

“You told me to read it.  I guess I should have.”  She gazed up at him a

little uncertainly.

“Hunter?”

His eyes glittered with amusement.

“Yes, Leah?  Could it be there’s something you forgot to tell me after
all?” He reached for her braid, releasing the strands and draping the
curls across

her shoulders.

“I believe there is.”  A slow smile crept across her mouth and she tilted
her

head to one side.

“Yes, now that I think about it, I’m positive there is.”  She stepped into

his arms and rested her cheek against his chest.

“Have I told you yet how much I love you?”

He dragged the air into his lungs, releasing his breath in a long, gusty
sigh.

“No.  I believe you forgot to mention that part.”

“I have another question, and this time you have to answer,” she said,

pulling back to look up at him.

“Why did you marry me?”

He didn’t hesitate.

“Because you were going to marry the next man who walked through your
door. And I couldn’t  let you do that unless I was that next man.”  His
tone

reflected his determination.

“Fact is, I planned to be the only man to walk through your door.”

“But you wanted to buy the ranch.”  It wasn’t a question.

“True.  At first, I wanted it in order to block Lyon and force them into a

vulnerable position.  Later it was so that I could protect you from them.”

“That’s what Buddy Peterson meant when he said that the takeover attempt
was a chivalrous move?”

Hunter shook his head.

“It wasn’t.  Buying the ranch would have facilitated my takeover.
Marrying you…”

“Was riskier?”  she guessed.

“A little.  But worth it.”  He reached behind her and removed a file
folder

from his briefcase, handing it to her.

“What’s this?”

“Open it and find out,” he said, throwing her own words back at her.

She nipped open the file.  Inside she found the deed to Hampton
Homestead–free and clear, and in her name.  The date on the title was
the day before their wedding.

“Hunter…”  she whispered.

“I love you, Leah.  I’ve always loved you.  How could I not?  You’ve
given me my dream.”

She managed a wobbly smile, tears clinging to her lashes.

“I think it’s time for some new dreams, don’t you?”

He enfolded her in his arms.

“Only if they’re made with you,” he said.

And he kissed her.  He kissed her with a love and passion that she
couldn’t

mistake.  And wrapped in his embrace she knew she’d found her life, her
heart and her soul.  She’d found her knight in shining armor.

At long last her dragon had been vanquished.

                                END

Books Day Leclaire

Whimzy View All →

People build their lives through reading, I live my life through reading.

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