Mary Lynn Baxter Totally Texan
Dedicated to Walter G. Bates, forester and friend, who
once again gifted me with his immense talent.
Coming Next Month
Grant Wilcox had just stepped out of his truck when Harvey Tipton, the postmaster, walked out of the Sip ’n Snack coffee shop.
Harvey greeted Grant with a grin through his scruffy beard and mustache. “Hey, about to take a look-see, huh? Or maybe I should say another one.”
Grant gave him a perplexed look. “What are you talking about?”
“The new piece in town.”
Grant made a face. “I’m assuming you’re referring to the new woman in town, right?”
“Right,” Harvey responded, with his head bobbing up and down, his grin still in place. He obviously saw no reason to be ashamed or to make an apology for his unflattering terminology. “She’s running the shop for Ruth.”
Of all people to run into, Grant groaned inwardly; Harvey was the town’s most prolific gossip. And the fact that he was a man made it worse.
Grant shrugged. “That’s news to me, but then I haven’t been in for coffee in a while.”
“When you see her you’ll regret that.”
“I doubt it,” Grant said wryly.
“I didn’t figure you for dead yet, Wilcox.”
“Give me a break, will you?” Grant was irritated and didn’t bother to hide the fact.
“Well, she’s a stunner,” Harvey declared. “Heads above anyone else around here.”
“So why are you telling me?” Grant asked in a bored tone, hoping Harvey would take the hint.
Harvey gave him a conspiratorial grin. “Thought maybe you might be interested, since you’re the only one around here without a wife or significant other.” He slapped Grant on the shoulder and widened his grin. “If you know what I mean.”
For a second Grant wanted to flatten the postmaster’s nose, but of course he didn’t. Harvey wasn’t the only one who had tried to play matchmaker for him.
Sure, he’d like a hot-blooded, feisty woman to occupy his bed on occasion, but the thought of anything permanent made him break into a chill. For the first time ever, life was good—especially in the small town of Lane, Texas. As a forester, Grant was doing what he loved and that was playing in the woods, cutting trees that would eventually earn him a ton of money.
More than that, he wasn’t ready to settle down. With his roaming past, he never knew when the itch to move might strike; then where would he be? Trapped. Nope, that wasn’t for him, at least not now.
“So want me to go back in and introduce you?” Harvey asked into the silence, following with a deep belly laugh.
Grant gritted his teeth and said, “Thanks, Harv, but I can take care of myself when it comes to women.” He pointedly looked at his watch. “I’m sure you have customers waiting for you.”
Harvey winked. “Gotcha.”
Yet once the postmaster was out of sight, Grant found himself walking a bit faster toward the entrance to the Sip ’n Snack.
Kelly Baker scrubbed her hands hard in the hot, sudsy water, pulling her lower lip between her teeth. She had been putting pastries in the front counter and was convinced she had goo up to her elbows.
Since she’d been in this small country town of Lane—three weeks now—she’d asked herself over and over if she’d truly lost her mind. She knew the answer, though, and it was no. Her cousin, Ruth Perry, had needed help, and Kelly had come to the rescue, just as Ruth had come to hers following the tragic event that had changed her life forever.
“Ouch,” Kelly mumbled, feeling a stinging sensation in her hands. Jerking them out of the water, she grabbed a towel, then frowned as she looked at her fingers. Gone were the long, beautifully manicured nails and the soft skin she was once so proud of. Now, her hands looked all dried and pruney, as if she kept them constantly immersed. She did, even though she had two daytime helpers, Albert and Doris.
Another sigh followed as Kelly looked around the empty coffee shop, picturing how it would look in a short time. It would be teeming with people. She smiled to herself at the word teeming. That term hardly fit this tiny town.
Still, who was she to make fun? Ruth’s newest addition to this logging community of two thousand had been a huge hit. With little invested, her cousin was already turning a profit—albeit a small one—selling gourmet coffees, pastries, soups and sandwiches.
According to the locals, Sip ’n Snack was the place to be. And that was good. If Kelly had to be in this place, at least she was where the action was, until the shop closed every day.
Kelly dreaded the evenings. They were far too long and gave her too much time to think. Even though she walked in the door of Ruth’s small, cozy house so exhausted she could barely make it to the bathtub, much less to bed, she still couldn’t sleep.
But nights had been her problem long before she came to Lane. And now with the empty afternoons, the past had ample opportunity to rear its traumatic head and haunt her once again. Soon, though, she would fulfill her obligation to her cousin and would be back at home in Houston where she belonged.
However, she reminded herself ruefully, her personal life hadn’t been any better there or she wouldn’t be here now. Inside, at the core of her being, her heart had been coated with cement that nothing could chip away.
“Phone for you, Kelly.”
When she picked it up, Ruth’s cheerful voice said, “Hi, toots, how’s it going?”
“I don’t want to keep bugging you, but I can’t stand not knowing what’s going on. I’m having major withdrawals from the shop.”
“I can imagine.”
“Have you met him yet?”
Kelly made a face. “Met who?”
Ruth chuckled. “The town hunk, the only single guy worth his salt around there.”
Kelly purposely hid her agitation. “If I met him, I didn’t know it.”
“Oh, trust me, you’d know.”
“You’re wasting your time, Ruth, playing matchmaker.”
Her cousin sighed. “It’s past time you looked at other men. Way past.”
“Who says I don’t look?”
“Pooh. You know what I mean.”
Kelly laughed. “Hey, don’t stress yourself about me. If I’m supposed to find someone else, I will.” Only not in this lifetime.
“Sure.” Ruth’s tone was a tad cynical. “You’re just telling me what I want to hear.”
Kelly laughed again. “Gotta run. I just heard the buzzer.”
Before Ruth could reply, Kelly hung up. Setting her smile in place, she came from behind the counter, only to pull up short and stare. Later, she didn’t know why she had behaved in such a manner. Perhaps it was because he was so tall and handsome.
Or better yet, perhaps it was the way he was looking at her.
Was this the “hunk” Ruth had just told her about?
To her chagrin, the stranger’s dark blue eyes began at the tip of her toes and worked slowly upward, missing nothing of her trim frame. He gave a pointed glance at her breasts and hair, making her strangely glad she had recently placed highlights in her short, sherry-colored tresses.
When those incredible dark eyes whipped back up to hers, the air was charged with electricity. Stunned, Kelly realized she was holding her breath.
“Like what you see?” she asked before she thought. God, where had that come from? Her real job. Being bold and forward was what had pushed her to succeed in her profession.
The big guy grinned, a slow, sexy grin. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
For the first time since her husband’s death four years prior, Kelly was completely unnerved by a man’s stare. And voice. She sensed, however, this stranger wasn’t just any man. There was something special about him that commanded attention. Rugged was the word that came to mind.
She wasn’t used to seeing men in worn jeans, washed so much that their color had faded, plus a flannel shirt, scarred steel-toed boots and a hard hat in his hand. Even in Lane, this caliber of man was rare.
He was still staring at her. Kelly shifted her feet and tried to look away, but failed. That ruggedness seemed to go hand in hand with his six-foot-plus height, muscled body and slightly mussed, sun-kissed brown hair.
Big and dangerous. A treacherous combination.
God, what was she thinking? No matter how attractive or charming the man, she wasn’t interested. If so, she would’ve encouraged other men’s affections—in Houston. He was probably up to his armpits in women, anyway, even in Lane.
No man would ever measure up to her deceased husband, Eddie. Having drawn that conclusion, Kelly had concentrated on her career and made it her reason for living.
Breaking into the growing silence, she asked in her most businesslike tone, “What can I get you?”
“What’s the special today?” he asked in a deep, brusque voice that matched his looks.
Kelly cleared her throat, glad some normalcy had returned. “Coffee?”
“That’ll do for starters,” he responded, striding deeper into the shop, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
“The specials are on the board.” To her dismay, Kelly was rooted to the spot like a tongue-tied imbecile. Then, red-faced, she finally whipped her gaze to the board behind the counter, which always listed the day’s coffee and food specials.
“Not this time,” he drawled, “unless I’ve lost a day.” He paused. “Today’s Wednesday, not Tuesday. Right?”
Convinced her face matched the color of her hair, Kelly nodded. She hadn’t changed the sign, which under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t have been a big deal. But for some reason, this man’s comment made her feel inadequate, a condition she despised.
Shrugging her shoulders, Kelly gave him a sugary smile and said, “French vanilla latte is the coffee flavor for the day.”
He rubbed his chin for a moment, then frowned. “Too bad a fellow can’t just get a plain cup of joe?”
Realizing that he was teasing her, she kept that smile in place and said, “Sorry, this is not that kind of shop. But then you know that. So if it’s supermarket coffee you want, you’ll have to make your own.”
He chuckled. “I know.”
Despite her reluctance, she felt a grin toying with her lips.
“I’ll take the plain brew that’s closest to normal old coffee.”
When she returned with the cup and placed it in front of him, Kelly didn’t look at him, hoping to discourage further conversation. Despite his good looks, for some reason, this man made her uncomfortable, and she wanted no part of him. Still, she handed him a menu.
He glanced at it, laid it aside, then looked back up at her. “So you’re the new Ruth?”
“So where is she?”
“Out of state caring for her ailing mother.”
“You’re filling in, huh?”
“For a while, anyway.”
His thick eyebrows bunched together as his gaze locked on her again. “By the way, I’m Grant Wilcox.”
Instead of offering his hand, he nodded. “A pleasure.”
Every time he spoke, she had a physical reaction to his voice. It was like being struck by something you thought would be severe and bruising, so that you recoiled inwardly. Only it wasn’t at all. It was pleasant, in fact.
“You from around here?” he asked after taking a long sip of his coffee.
“No,” Kelly said hesitantly. “Actually, I’m from Houston. How about yourself?”
“Not originally. But I am now. I live about ten miles west of town. I own a logging company and recently bought the timber on a huge tract of land. So I’m stuck in Lane. At least for the time being.”
The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he was smiling now. “We’ve just started cutting, and I’m happy as a pig in the sunshine.”
Was he deliberately trying to sound like a hick or was he trying to tell her something by using that off-putting terminology? “That’s good,” she said for lack of anything else to say. Despite her reaction to Grant, intellectually she couldn’t care less what he was or what he did. So she asked if he’d like something to eat now.
As if he picked up on her attitude, a smirk crossed his lips, then he said, “I’ll have a bowl of soup and a warm-up on my coffee.”
All he needed to add was “little lady” to go with that directive. He definitely didn’t seem to be the world’s most progressive guy. Was it so obvious she was out of her comfort zone? Or was he just intuitive? It didn’t matter. What did matter was that his condescending manner not only infuriated her, but also made her more determined than ever to serve him with perfection.
Grabbing the pot from behind the counter, Kelly made her way back toward his table, a smile plastered on her lips. She picked up his cup, and that was when it happened. The cup slipped from her hand and its contents landed in Grant Wilcox’s lap. He let out a shout.
Speechless with horror, Kelly watched as he kicked back his chair and stood.
“I’d say that was a good shot, lady,” he said.
Though her empty hand flew to her mouth, Kelly’s eyes dipped south, where they became glued to the wet spot surrounding his zipper.
Then they both looked up at the same time, their gazes locking.
“Fortunately, none the worse for wear,” he drawled, a slow smile crawling across his lips.
Horrified, mortified—you name it—Kelly could only stammer, “Oh my God—I’m so sorry.” Her voice sounded nothing like her own. “Stay put and I’ll get a towel.”
Whirling, she practically ran to the counter, When she returned, Grant’s eyes met hers again.
“Here, let me,” she said, reaching out, only to stop abruptly when she saw the open grin on his face. She yanked her hand back, feeling blood rush into her cheeks.
“That’s okay. I think I’ll just change my jeans.”
“Uh, right,” Kelly said after finding her voice.
“How much do I owe you?”
Kelly was appalled that he’d even ask that. “Under the circumstances, absolutely nothing.”
He turned then and walked toward the exit. Kelly could only stand spellbound in shock.
When he reached the door he turned and winked. “See ya.”
She hoped not. But at the same time, she was sorry, because he did have the cutest ass and swagger she’d ever seen—even when he’d just braved hot coffee from her hands.
Too bad they were wasted on her.
He hated paperwork, but that didn’t mean he could ignore it.
Grant’s gaze cut over to the desk in the corner of the room, and he groaned. Not only were there stacks of invoices that had to be paid, there were folders that needed to be filed.
He’d gone outdoors for a while. Swinging an ax had given him some much-needed physical relief. After spending most of the morning behind closed doors with his banker, reviewing his finances, he’d needed the outlet. Bank sessions nearly always made a nutcase out of him.
A lot of things this morning had made him half-crazy. Following his shower a short time ago, he’d checked his crown jewels for the first time, since their coffee bath that morning, and deduced they were intact and good to go.
Grant snorted. Only problem with the latter, they had no place to go. Better yet, no one to go to. He could barely recall the last time he’d shared a bed with a woman and really enjoyed it. Through the years, few women had had the power to either disturb his libido or hold his interest.
However, he had to admit with brutal honesty that Ruth Perry’s replacement, whoever she was, had definitely done both.
Kelly Baker was one fine woman. He couldn’t help but notice her fragile porcelain skin with its delicate dusting of freckles. She had wonderful bones, with curves that were just right, and her clothes draped her slender frame to perfection.
Too bad she didn’t seem to have a brain to match all those physical assets. A twinge of conscience bit him, telling him that probably wasn’t a fair assessment of the woman. They’d spoken for barely two minutes, and he didn’t know anything about her but her name. No doubt, though, she was out of her element and didn’t have a clue what she was doing in the food business. Under other conditions and circumstances, he might have enjoyed spending time with her.
“Ah, hell, Wilcox,” he muttered, reaching for his beer and taking another swig, “give it a rest.”
She wouldn’t be caught dead with the likes of him. It hadn’t taken him but a few seconds to get her number—a city broad with a city attitude. As far as he was concerned, both those things sucked. No way would the two of them ever get together.
Again, that was too bad; she was a looker. He liked women with spunk, and she appeared to have more than her share of that. He’d relish the opportunity to play with a woman like her. For a few days anyway, he mused ruefully. It was okay to dream, just as long as he didn’t do something foolish and try to turn those dreams into reality.
He almost laughed aloud at that crazy thought.
No way was he going to mess with that woman. Already there was something about her that was a real turn-on to him. Perhaps it was because she appeared so untouchable, so condescending, that he wanted to explore what lay under that sheet of ice, then prove he was man enough to melt it. First by grabbing her and pressing her against the wall of his chest… He could almost taste her flesh as he imagined himself caressing, nibbling, kissing her mouth, her neck, her shoulders and her back.
What would she feel? Would he make her tingle, make her hot?
Now that was a hoot, thinking she’d ever let him within touching distance. Disgusted with his thoughts of the ice queen, Grant got up, trudged to the kitchen and helped himself to another beer.
It was after he’d killed the contents that the idea struck him. He stood still, feeling heat boil up in him. “Ah, hell, Wilcox. Forget it. That’s crazy. You’re crazy!”
Crazy or not, he was going to do it. Grabbing a jacket, he headed out the door, knowing that he’d probably lost what mind he had left.
Her face still flamed.
And not from the tub of hot water she’d been soaking in for at least thirty minutes. How could she have done such a thing? How could she have been so clumsy? She never had been at such a loss before. Cool, calm and collected was how she was thought of at the firm, how she generally operated on a day to day basis.
Or at least how she used to, before…
Kelly shook her head, refusing to go there. She had already beaten up on herself enough. To dwell on the now was not only detrimental to her psyche, but stupid. What happened four years ago couldn’t be changed. Nothing would ever bring her family back.
What happened this morning, however, was another matter altogether.
“Merciful heaven,” Kelly muttered, reaching for the loofah and sudsing her body so hard she left it tingling. Then, deciding she couldn’t change the morning’s embarrassment no matter how much she might want to, she got out of the tub and dried off.
Later, wrapped in a warm robe, she sat on the sofa close to the fireplace. Even though it was relatively early, she should try to get some sleep, but she knew any attempt to do so would be futile. Her mind was still too revved up. Besides, at home she hardly ever went to bed before midnight, usually kept company by a ton of work she brought home from the office.
Thinking about work, Kelly felt her heart falter.
She missed her office, her clients, her condo. She missed them with a passion. In the Houston Galleria area she heard the sounds of traffic, not owls. She shivered and wrapped her robe tighter around her. Something hot to drink always seemed to soothe her. Not this evening, however. Although she had made a cup of her favorite flavored coffee and took several sips of it, she still felt unsettled.
She lay back and closed her eyes, only to find the image of Grant Wilcox unexpectedly imprinted on the back of her lids. Instead of freaking out, she let her mind have free reign—first, picturing him again in his flannel shirt and tight, faded jeans, covering a body most men would die for, then wondering what made him tick.
Why did she care?
So he was better than average looking in his rough, sexy way—she’d already conceded that. His features were carved with decisive strokes, and he had a killer smile and dimples to go along with that amazing body.
He had that muscled, yet loose-limbed agility that most big men didn’t possess. She could picture him working outdoors shirtless, mending a fence, felling timber, or doing whatever he did.
Suddenly, her mind jumped ship and she imagined him without his jeans. No underwear, either.
The image didn’t stop there. Next came the vision of the two of them together, naked…
Stop it! She told herself. What had gotten into her?
She was so traumatized by her thoughts, she couldn’t even open her eyes. So what? No one knew what was going on inside her head. Those erotic, mental meanderings were hers and hers alone and would bring harm to no one.
This was a dangerous mind game she was playing—examining her life, including her loneliness and her need to be accepted and loved. Still, the images wouldn’t let go—of mouths, tongues, entwined, of kisses that sucked out the soul.
The phone proved merciful to her, ringing with a jarring clarity just then. Lurching up, heart palpitating and drenched in sweat, Kelly let go of a pent-up breath.
“God!” she whispered, mortified and confused. Loosening her robe, she reached for the receiver.
“Hey, kiddo, how’s it going?”
Ruth again. Although Kelly didn’t want to talk to her, she had no choice. Perhaps her cousin’s laughter was the antidote she needed to gather her scattered wits about her.
“How was the rest of the day?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Kelly asked, a tremor in her voice.
“Uh-oh, something happen?”
“You might say so.”
“Hey, I don’t like the sound of that.” Ruth paused. “Okay, did the help quit?”
“No way. They love me.”
“Whew. That’s a relief. If you knew how hard it was for me to find those two, you’d be relieved, too.”
“I am. They’re great.”
“So, if the place is still standing and you’re selling the goods, what could be so bad?”
Kelly cleared her throat. “Do you know a farmer by the name of Grant Wilcox?”
Ruth laughed. “First off, he’s no farmer. He’s a forester.”
“They aren’t the same, cousin dear.”
“That’s a minor point, but I’ll concede.”
“Girl, he’s the hunk I was telling you about. Surely you figured that out.”
“I guessed as much.”
“So what do…did…you think?”
If only you knew. “He’s okay.”
“Just okay?” Ruth practically screeched. “I’m not believing you. He’s had every female in the county and surrounding ones try to get him down the aisle.” She paused with a laugh. “Without success, I might add.”
“That’s too bad. You of all people know I’m not interested in being with a farmer, for God’s sake.” Kelly found herself squirming on the sofa.
Kelly ignored that. “What he is is a country bumpkin who probably prefers to hug trees rather than women.” She paused. “No offense intended.”
“None taken,” Ruth replied with more laughter. “I know how you feel about the country. Or should I say the woods?”
“They’re one and the same to me.”
“Uh, right. So back to Grant. What’s up with him?”
Kelly cleared her throat one more time, then told the unvarnished truth, leaving nothing out.
Afterward, there was silence on the other end of the line, then Ruth whooped like a banshee. “Oh, my God, I wish I’d been there to see that.”
“You mean you’re not furious at me?” Kelly asked in surprise.
“For being clumsy as a lame duck?”
“I have no leg to stand on,” Kelly said, “and no pun intended.”
Ruth whooped again.
Kelly simply held her silence, confused about her cousin’s reaction. “It sounds like you think he deserved what he got?”
“Not at all,” Ruth said, her voice still dripping with humor. “It’s just that he of all men—the county stud—got burned where it hurts most.”
“Ruth! I can’t believe you said that.”
“Well, isn’t that what you did?”
“He had on jeans, Ruth. Surely—”
“When it come to scalding liquid, jeans ain’t that thick. You can bet his gonads took a hit.”
“I guess they did,” Kelly admitted in a meek voice.
“Let’s just hope, for the sake of gals still chasing him, that his pride is just burned and not charred.”
“Ruth, I’m going to strangle you when I see you.”
Her cousin’s giggles increased.
“You’re making me feel awful.”
“Honey, don’t worry about it,” Ruth said. “Grant’s a survivor. He’ll be fine. He may never come back in the shop, but hey, that’s the way it goes. Other than emptying hot coffee in customers’ laps, how’s business?”
Later, after they had talked at length about the shop, Kelly finally made her way back into the kitchen, then heard a knock on the door. She stopped midstride, then turned around and headed back to the living room. Frowning, she opened the door, only to receive the shock of her life. Her mouth gaped open.
Grant stood on the porch with flowers in hand.
Before he said anything, she felt his gaze roam over her.
She tried to swallow, but it seemed her tongue had grown too large and was about to choke her.
“It’s obvious you’re not expecting company.” He shifted his feet. “But may I come in, anyway?”
Kelly felt her breath grow shallow. Of course he couldn’t come in. There was no reason for him to be here. Certainly no reason for him to come in.
Yet she continued to stand with the door open, her common sense beginning to crack. Surely she wasn’t going to give in to this insanity.
She wasn’t even dressed, for heaven’s sake. She had nothing on under her robe, but at least it was made of thick terry cloth, impossible to see through.
Grant cocked his head and grinned. “These flowers are sure hankering for some water. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to survive.”
Kelly shook her head and smiled. “I noticed they are a little droopy.”
“See, I knew we were bound to agree on something.”
She gave him an exasperated look. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re full of it?”
“Yep,” he said.
That nonchalant honesty was followed by a chuckle, a deep belly chuckle that sent Kelly’s already hammering pulse skyrocketing. It amazed her that this man aroused her sexual nature where others hadn’t. And not from their lack of trying, either.
Even so, she hadn’t looked at men through any eyes except passive ones for a long time.
So why was he different?
Kelly didn’t know. For more reasons than one—none of which she cared to analyze, especially with him camped on Ruth’s porch as if his boots had been embedded in concrete—he frightened her.
“How ’bout I promise just to stay long enough for you to put the posies in water.” It wasn’t a question, though his raised eyebrows made it one.
Realizing her common sense had deserted her, Kelly stood back and gestured with her hand.
Grinning, Grant removed his hat and, in two long strides, was across the threshold. Kelly closed the door and followed him, managing to keep a safe distance between them, but giving him a once-over in the process.
Not only did he look great in another pair of faded jeans and a blue T-shirt that exactly matched his eyes, but his height and the broadness of his shoulders seemed to dwarf the room, making it much too small for both of them.
With her pulse still hammering much harder than it should have been, Kelly wanted to move farther away, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. There was no place to go that would put enough space between them.
“Got a vase?” he asked, that grin still in place.
“Uh, I’m sure Ruth has one around here somewhere.”
“Maybe you ought to go and look.”
A short tense silence followed, before she stated, “Maybe I should.”
He chuckled again. “Hey, I’m harmless. Really and truly.”
Kelly raised her eyebrows and smiled. Sure you are—like a rattlesnake on a mission. The cure for that was to keep her wits sharpened. She reached for the flowers. “Have a seat while I look for a vase.”
“Sure you don’t need any help?” he asked, handing them to her.
“I’m sure,” she said, with more sharpness than she intended. But jeez, this man was getting under her skin, and the worst part about it, she was giving him carte blanche to let that happen, especially when she knew he’d deliberately let his hand graze hers. Light though the touch was, it left her quivering with awareness.
She finally located a vase, filled it with water and crammed the flowers into it. She then made her way back into the living room, setting the vase on a nearby table. He was bending over the fireplace, stoking the dying embers of the fire back to life.
No question he did have one cute rear end. And right now, she was privy to staring at it without his knowledge Then, realizing what she was doing and the track her mind was taking, she shook her head violently and said, “Thanks for the flowers.”
He straightened and whipped around, his gaze narrowed on her. For a long moment, their eyes met and held. Finally Grant’s gaze slid away, and she breathed a sigh of relief. His being here was simply not going to work if she didn’t get control of her scattered emotions. God, she was acting like a teenager in the grip of hormones, for heaven’s sake.
“It’s a peace offering,” he said, rubbing a chin that had the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow, which only added to his attractiveness.
“If that’s the case, then I should be showing up on your doorstep.”
“Actually, it was just an excuse to see you again.” He paused and looked directly at her. “Any problem with that?”
Yes! “You certainly don’t mince words,” she said, stalling for time. Now was the perfect opportunity to tell him she wasn’t interested in him, or any man, for that matter. Instead, she heard herself say, “Do you want to sit down?”
“I’d like nothing better, but are you sure that’s what you want?”
“No,” she said in a slightly unsteady voice, “I’m not sure of anything right now.”
He plopped down on the sofa and concentrated on the fire while she sat on the edge of the chair adjacent. “I didn’t offer you anything to drink,” she said inanely.
“A beer would be nice.”
She stood. “Ruth has some in the fridge.”
“I don’t like to drink alone.”
“I have my coffee.”
His belly chuckle followed her all the way to the kitchen. With her heartbeat still out of sync, she fixed the drinks and returned to the room. Meanwhile, he’d sprawled his long lets out in front of him. Unconsciously, she eyed his powerful thighs and the bulge behind his zipper.
When she realized where she was staring, she whipped her gaze up, only to find him watching her with heat in his eyes. She took a deep breath, but it didn’t help. Both her face and lungs felt scorched.
He really should go.
She eased back down in the chair and watched as he took a swig of his beer. After setting the bottle on the table beside him, he said, “What brings someone like you here?”
Kelly gave a start. “Someone like me?”
“Yeah, a real classy lady who looks and acts like a fish out of water.”
“My cousin needed my help, and I came to her rescue.”
“Nothing’s that simple.”
He reached for his beer and took another deep swig. “But that’s all you’re going to tell me. Right?”
“Right,” she said bluntly, though she felt a smile tug at her lips.
“So you’re either carrying a lot of baggage or a lot of secrets, Kelly Baker. Which is it?”
“I’m not telling.”
“If you’re not willing to share, how are we going to get to know each other better?”
She didn’t know if he was smiling or smirking. She suspected the latter. “Guess we’re not.”
“Man, you know how to pull the rug right out from under a fellow.” He stood, lifting his shoulders up and down as if to stretch, before stoking the fire once again. That motion called attention to his sexual agility and charisma once again. God, the man just oozed it.
“You know the fact that you will barely talk to me makes me more curious than ever,” he said.
The tension heightened.
“You know what they say about curiosity.” She interlaced her fingers.
“Yeah, it killed the cat.” He grinned and the atmosphere eased.
“So what about you?” she asked, watching him plop back down on the sofa.
“What about me?”
“I bet you’re not willing to open your life to a stranger.”
He shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
She started to say, everything, then caught herself. “Whatever you’re comfortable telling me.”
“Hell, if I have anything to hide, I don’t know it.”
“Everyone has secrets, Mr. Wilcox.”
His features turned grim. “Mr. Wilcox? You gotta be kidding me.”
Her face burned. “I don’t know you well enough to be on a first-name basis.”
“Bullshit. The fact that you got me hot the first time I saw you puts us on familiar territory.”
“Funny,” Kelly retorted, though she knew her face was beet-red.
The lines around his mouth deepened, suggesting he was about to grin. “All right, Grant,” she said.
“Ah, now that’s better.” He polished off his beer, then got back on the subject. “I guess the most important thing about me is that I have trouble staying in one place.”
“Why is that?”
“Army brat. My dad was constantly on the move, so we didn’t stay in one place long enough to put down roots and form long-lasting relationships.
“Are you an only child?”
“Yep. Both my parents are dead.”
“Ah, be careful now, or you’ll tell me something personal.”
She glared at him and he laughed; then continued, “It was only when I attended Texas A & M University that I learned what settling down meant. That was tough for a roamer like me, until I met my best friend, Toby Keathly.
“Toby was majoring in forestry at A & M, and since I also loved being outside, we bonded. I ended up majoring in forestry myself and spent all the time I could with Toby in East Texas, where he grew up.
“With the money I had inherited from my parents, after graduation I purchased several hundred acres in Lane County and built the log cabin where I now live. Soon after that, I formed my own company, and traveled around the world. And now, with the signing of this new contract for cutting timber, I’m as content as a pig can be.”
“That’s quite a story,” Kelly said.
“It’s my boring life in a nutshell.”
She laughed without humor. “There’s nothing boring about you.”
“Coming from you, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“There’s one thing you left out.”
“Your personal life. Women.”
“Not much to tell there, either. What experience I’ve had with them taught me one important thing.”
“And what was that?”
“They like men who can offer them security—home, family, steady job, the whole package—a package that’s as foreign to me as some of the countries in which I’ve lived.”
“Do you really believe that?” He sounded like a throwback from the 1950s.
He paused and gave her a look. “Now you’re meddling.”
“Ah, so when push comes to shove, I’m not the only one with secrets, or is it baggage?”
That word was followed by an awkward silence, then he rose. “Guess I’d better be going. It’s getting late.”
She didn’t argue, although she experienced a twinge of disappointment she couldn’t believe she was feeling about this impossible man.
“Thanks for the beer,” he said at the door, turning to face her.
“Thanks for the flowers.”
“Wilted and all, huh?”
He was so close now that his smell assaulted her like a blow to the stomach, especially when she noticed that his blue eyes were centered near her chest. She glanced down and saw that her robe had parted.
Before she could catch her next breath or move, the tip of his finger was trailing down her neck, her shoulder, not stopping until he had grazed the exposed side of her breast. Her mind screamed at her to push him away, but she couldn’t. She flinched, not from embarrassment but from the lust that stampeded through her, holding her rooted to the spot.
His eyes darkened as he leaned toward her. In that second she sensed he was going to kiss her, and she was powerless to stop him. He moaned, then crushed his lips against hers; she sagged into him, reveling in his mouth, which was both hungry and urgent, as though if he didn’t get it all now, he wouldn’t get another chance.
When they finally parted, their breathing came in rapid spurts. Her emotions, at that moment, were so raw, so terrifying, that all she could do was cling to the front of his shirt.
“I’ve been wanting to do that since I walked through the door of the coffee shop,” he rasped.
She wanted to respond, but couldn’t. She didn’t know what to say.
Grant spoke again, “Look, I’m leaving now, but we’ll talk later.” He peered down at her with anxious, searching eyes. She seemed on the edge, and he sensed that more than his kiss had propelled her there. “You’re okay, right?”
No, I’m not all right!
She swallowed, then nodded. After he had left, Kelly had no idea how long she stood in a daze before she made her way to bed, where she lay across it and sobbed her heart out.
How could she have let her guard down like that, betray her husband—the love of her life—by letting this stranger kiss her? What had come over her? She didn’t want to expose her heart ever again for fear of the pain and hurt she knew it could bring. She had promised herself that. And it was so important for her to keep that promise.
The sad part was she didn’t know how to right the wrong she had just committed.
Grant had just finished chopping and stacking more wood that he didn’t need. But who cared? If swinging an ax made him feel good and kept his frustrations at bay, then that was A-OK.
Unfortunately, his manual labor had not worked out as planned. He couldn’t get Kelly off his mind even though he hadn’t seen her in two days. He could still smell and feel her soft skin, as if his flesh had absorbed hers. Actually, he could damn near taste it.
That type of thinking could get a man in big trouble, because it had to do with dependency, need and becoming emotionally connected to a woman he barely knew. With Kelly Baker that was out of the question. She wasn’t going to be around for long, it seemed, and he could tell she had too damn many secrets.
Still, that one kiss had turned him inside out, made him feel higher than a kite. Who was he kidding? It had made him want more. He couldn’t get her breasts off his mind. Even though he’d only managed to peek at the side of one and barely touch it, he knew it would be as firm and delicious as a newly ripened peach.
Just thinking about tasting that white flesh made his mouth water.
Careful, man, he told himself. You’d best put the brakes on or you’ll scare her off for sure. If he ever expected to see her again he’d have to take it easy, use finesse. Even then, she wouldn’t be a pushover.
Yet he’d seen the desire in her eyes, felt the heat radiate from her body. She wanted him, too, only she might not want to admit it. Therein lay the problem. But he had no intention of giving up. If he weren’t mistaken, underneath that veneer of ice was a hot, explosive woman.
While she was here, why not test the waters and find out?
With that question weighing heavily on his mind, he cleaned up his mess, then made his way into the cabin, where he showered, dressed, then grabbed a beer. The bottle was halfway to his mouth when he heard a loud rap on the door. “It’s open,” Grant called out.
Seconds later, his foreman and friend, Pete Akers, entered, his weathered face all grins.
“Wanna beer?” Grant asked without preamble.
Pete’s grin spread as he quickened his pace. “Thought you’d never ask.”
Once the foreman had his beverage in hand, they made their way back into the great room and sat near the roaring fire.
“Damn, but it’s colder than Montana out there.”
“How would you know?” Grant asked, giving Pete a sideways glance. “You haven’t ever been out of East Texas, much less to Montana.”
“Makes no difference.” Pete’s tone was obstinate. “I know cold when I feel it.”
“Then get your bald head over here by the fire.”
Once Pete had done just that and sat down, they quietly sipped their beers, both content with their own thoughts.
“What’s with all that wood?” Pete finally asked. “Looks like you cut enough wood for an Alaskan winter. And here it is nearly March.”
“So you noticed?”
Pete quirked a thin brow and gave Grant a penetrating look. “How could I not?”
Grant shrugged. “Guess I just needed to work off some excess energy.”
This time both of Pete’s brows went up. “Surely you’re not stressed about anything, not when things are all going your way.”
“Can’t argue about that.” He wasn’t about to mention his fixation with the new woman in town, so he stuck to business. “Buying that tract is something I never thought would happen. And I think it’ll pay off handsomely.”
“Put your company on the map is the way I see it,” Pete commented.
“Hopefully. In the meantime, I got a whopping lot of bills to pay at the bank. Don’t forget that. As you know, the timber wasn’t cheap—neither was that new equipment I had to buy.”
Pete blew out his breath. “I know. When you put things in perspective, I guess you’ve got a helluva good reason to be stressed.”
“Stressed is probably the wrong word,” Grant admitted with a frown. “Actually, I’m excited and confident that this tract will turn a profit and get me out of debt. So update me.” He set his empty bottle down and gave his foreman a straight look.
“I’ve already placed both crews.”
“Equipment and all?”
“Yep,” Pete said in an animated voice, as though proud of that accomplishment.
“Have you found another foreman?”
Pete frowned. “I thought maybe you and me together could handle it. You know how I am about hiring people I don’t know.”
“But you know everyone around these parts.”
“That’s why I ain’t hiring nobody.” Peter cocked his head. “Get my drift?”
“That’ll work, especially since none of the other tracts are cuttable right now due to the poor conditions.”
“Let’s hope the rain continues to hold off.”
“It will. I’m convinced my luck has changed and all for the better. So where did you put the log sets?” Grant asked, back to business.
“I put one crew on the northwest side next to the county road and the other on the south end next to the old home place.”
“I’ll work the south end,” Grant said, knowing it would be the most difficult site to cut.
“The saw heads are already buzzing and it looks like we’re going to be able to get twelve to fourteen loads per day.”
“Man, if we do that for six weeks to two months, then I’d be on easy street for sure.”
Grant grinned and raised his hand. Pete hit it in a high-five just as Grant’s cell phone rang. Frowning, he reached for it, noticing that the call was from Dan Holland, the landowner who had sold him the timber.
“What’s up, buddy?” Grant asked without mincing words.
“I’m afraid we got a problem.”
Did he regret the kiss?
Kelly figured that was the reason she hadn’t seen him today. Of course, she didn’t know for a fact. As always, her mind was her own worst enemy, taking off like a runaway train, imagining all sorts of crazy things.
Since she’d been in charge of the shop, she’d seen Grant only once. He hadn’t been a regular customer so why would he stop in again?
The truth was, she couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss. If only she hadn’t let that happen, she’d be just fine. But she’d made an unwise choice, and choices had consequences. She wanted to see him again, even though she kept reminding herself that would be foolish.
Kelly’s life was back in Houston. She would soon be gone from Lane, Texas. More to the point, she couldn’t wait to get back to her real job, and to the challenge it offered.
“Kelly, phone for you.”
Jerking her mind back to reality, she smiled at Albert, went into the small office and picked up the receiver. It was her boss, John Billingsly.
“How’s it going?” he asked in a pleasant tone.
“Do you really want to know?” Though she had a deep respect for John and thought of him as a friend as well as a boss, he wasn’t exactly high on her fan list now. After all, if it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t be stuck here.
His sigh filtered through the line. “You know I do, or I wouldn’t have asked.”
“Actually, things are going better than I thought they would down here, though I hate to admit that.”
He chuckled. “I know you’re still unhappy with me.”
“And will be for a long time.” Although Kelly had spoken bluntly and truthfully, there was no rancor in her words.
“You know how much I care about you, Kelly. I only want what’s best for you.”
“I know.” And she did. At times she sensed he would like to be more than her boss, yet he’d never once crossed that professional line. She thought there was more to his feelings than he had ever expressed, however.
“So just stay put for a while longer,” John said, “to give your body and mind a chance to completely heal. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No,” he said in a soft but firm tone.
She knew he was right, though she was loath to admit that. Both John and Dr. Rivers, her psychiatrist, had told her that, but it was John who had made a believer out of her. He hadn’t exactly threatened the security of her job, but he had certainly threatened her pending promotion, a position she wanted badly.
She remembered that day so well. He had called her into his corner office. When she’d taken a seat, John had gotten up, come around his desk, sat in the chair closest to her and taken her hand. “Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not struggling?”
Kelly couldn’t. Tears clogged her vision as her shoulders began to shake. “Have I hurt the firm? If I have, I’m so sorry.”
“I won’t lie and say you haven’t made some bad decisions and choices recently, because you have. But I think you know that yourself. You haven’t damaged the firm—not yet. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
“Thank God.” Kelly had hung on to his hand and squeezed it.
“You have a chance to become a partner in this firm,” John said, “but only if you get control of your emotions and become the attorney we know you can be.”
But that’s the person I was before my daughter and husband were killed by a drunk driver, she’d wanted to scream.
As if John had read her thoughts, he’d added, “You have to come to grips with your loss.”
“I have,” Kelly cried, jerking her hand out of his. She resented being patronized, as if she was a child. She dug her fingers into her palms. She couldn’t believe this. She was Kelly Baker, firm overachiever. She had brought into the firm some of its biggest and best clients. Shouldn’t that count for something? Apparently not, because at the first sign of trouble they wanted to toss her away like a piece of garbage.
Her conscience suddenly rebelled, reminding her that she was blowing John’s words way out of proportion. Deep down, she knew he and the company were firmly on her side.
“No, you haven’t faced your loss,” he said softly, patiently. “Far from it, and that’s the problem. You’ve buried your pain and heartache in your work. Now, four years after the fact, the headache you never faced, or dealt with openly, is doing a number on you. It’s taking its toll on your emotions and your health. We both know you’re on the brink of having a complete breakdown.”
She hated to admit that he was right, but he was.
Push had come to shove and she could no longer fool herself into thinking she and everything around her was just fine.
“I know your cousin needs help, Kelly,” John said into the growing silence. “Go and help her. New surroundings, new people, new job…” He paused with a lopsided smile. “Although I can’t imagine you serving coffee or food, you’ll give it you all, like you do everything else you tackle.”
She forced a smile. “I can’t imagine that either, but it looks like you’ve given me no choice.”
“That’s right,” John admitted in a stern voice.
Because her throat was too full to speak, Kelly had leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, then walked out. That had been three weeks ago. Three of the longest weeks of her life.
“Kelly, are you still there?” John asked into the silence now.
“Yes. Sorry. Actually, I was just rehashing our last conversation.”
“That’s good, because nothing has changed on this end.”
“I know.” She heard the break in her voice but hoped he hadn’t. She wanted to keep her dignity at all costs.
“You get back to work. I’ll talk to you again soon.”
The second she replaced the receiver and walked back into the dining area, Kelly pulled up short. Grant was walking in the door with a scowl on his face.
Her heart dropped to her toes. She’d been right; he wasn’t glad to see her. Then why was he here? Simple. He wanted some food or coffee. Maybe both.
“You look surprised to see me,” he said in a pleasant enough tone, however, his big body striding toward a table.
Today he was dressed a little more formally than he had been before. He had on jeans and boots, of course, but his shirt was smooth cotton, not flannel, and instead of his hard hat, he had on a black Stetson, which he removed.
“Actually, I am,” Kelly said with honesty once she found her tongue. After that she didn’t know what to say, which was totally unlike her. But then she reminded herself she’d just recently kissed this man’s mouth with hot, heady passion, which had and still did unnerve her to the core.
When he’d walked by her, she’d gotten a whiff of his scent—fresh and good, as if he’d just gotten out of the shower. That added to her unnerved state.
Feeling her face flame, Kelly turned away. She hadn’t had thoughts like that since her husband died. “Would you care for something to drink?” she finally asked. “Or eat?”
“Are you sure you want me to serve it?” She made herself ask that with a smile hoping to lighten his mood. Probably another foolish move.
The scowl on his face softened and he actually grinned, which affected her heart again. God, she had to get hold of herself.
“Sure, though notice I’m sitting real close to the table.”
She smiled again.
This time he didn’t reciprocate. That scowl reappeared, even fiercer than before.
Feeling as though she were treading in deep water, Kelly got his coffee and carefully placed the mug in front of him. “You seem upset.” A flat statement of act. If it had to do with her, she wanted to know it.
“Yeah, but not at you.” His eyes met hers.
She felt a flush steal into her face.
He leaned forward and said in a low, husky voice, “You look so damn good, if I had my way, I’d grab you right now and kiss you until you begged me to stop. Even then, I’m not sure I would.”
His provocative statement took her aback so much that all she could do was stand there speechless while a flush of heat charged through her body.
“Do you have a minute?”
“Sure,” she said, uneasy that she was going to hear something she didn’t want to.
He pulled out the chair adjacent to him and indicated that she sit.
“Let me get a cup of coffee first. I’ll be right back.” Once she’d returned and sat down, they remained silent while taking several sips out of the big mugs. Finally she said, “Something’s happened.”
Grant’s brows bunched together and he sighed. “You got that right.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“I’m looking for a good attorney. Know any?”
Kelly’s heart skipped a beat, but she kept her calm facade in place. Did she ever! “With all your business dealings, I’m surprised you don’t have one.”
“I do, but unfortunately he’s out of the country. And his partner’s an idiot.”
Kelly’s eyebrows rose, but she simply said, “Okay.”
“Sorry. That’s not exactly true. Let’s just say we don’t see eye to eye on things.”
Kelly merely nodded, then asked, “Why do you think you need an attorney?” If he didn’t want to tell her, he didn’t have to, but apparently he wanted someone to talk to or he wouldn’t have said anything to begin with.
“Dan Holland, the landowner I bought the timber from, just called me and dropped a friggin’ bombshell.”
“Yeah, and one of the worst things about it is that I thought he was my friend.”
“Friendship and business are two different things, Grant. You should know that.”
“I do know that, dammit. Still, in a small town, a man’s word is as good as his signature. And I had both from Dan.”
“So what’s changed?” Kelly pressed, sensing his tempter building to no good end.
“He wants my crews to stop cutting timber.”
“And the reason?”
“Some crap about an illegitimate half brother showing up out of the blue and wanting a say in the deal Dan and his brothers had just made with me.”
Kelly was not only shocked but puzzled. “And your friend’s buying that story and wants to stop the deal?”
“Hook, line and sinker. He said that if Larry Ross—that’s the guy’s name—turns out to be legit, then he has a right to be included.”
“It’s more than that. It’s crazy as hell.”
“So what was your response?” Kelly asked.
“I told Holland he was nuts if he let some bozo he’s never seen before waltz in and make that kind of claim, and not tell him to take a freakin’ hike.”
“I find it unbelievable that he didn’t,” Kelly said, shaking her head in dismay.
“Dan said he’d never seen me this upset.”
Kelly’s eyes widened. “I have a feeling that was the wrong thing to say.”
“You’re right. I told him if he thought I was upset now, just wait. He ain’t seen nothing yet. At the moment, I was as calm as the Pope taking a nap.”
Kelly shook her head. “What a mess.”
“There’s more,” Grant said. “Dan defended this Ross character, saying that his dad had been a womanizer, that it was possible he’d had an affair and Larry Ross could be the product of that affair.
“And apparently the woman, Ross’s mother, said that she’d kept quiet long enough, swearing to her son that Lucas Holland was definitely Ross’s daddy and that Ross should get anything and everything that was entitled to him.”
Kelly gave him a pointed look. “And your response?”
Her lips twitched.
Grant blew out a long breath. “I told him that’s just too pat, too hokey. Ross is his problem, not mine. And if he is legit or not has zip to do with me. We have a deal that is on the up-and-up—signed, sealed and delivered.”
“He didn’t see it that way, right?”
“You got it. Apparently Larry Ross has threatened to file an injunction to stop my operation, claiming his family doesn’t have the right to sell the timber without his signature.”
Kelly was aghast and it showed.
“This is crazy, because at the time Dan didn’t even know this guy existed. But this Ross character evidently doesn’t care.
“So I told Holland to give me my money back. An injunction could wipe me out financially.”
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