Gentling the Cowboy(8)

By: Ruth Cardello

Melanie, who’d simply stared at Sarah during this overflowing river of speech, raised her eyebrows and stated succinctly, “I’m not his wife.”

“Whew,” Sarah said with a laugh, then stopped and looked at both of them again. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. If you’re his girlfriend or whatever, I’m cool with that. It was just that—whoa, explaining this to a wife would be so much worse. Not that anything happened.” Sarah closed her eyes briefly as if the thought pained her, then continued earnestly, “Unless you count that he saw me naked, and that totally wasn’t his fault.”

Melanie said blandly, “I work here.”

“Oh, I thought . . .”

“No,” Melanie and Tony said in unison.

Another blush spread across Sarah’s cheeks. The quick look she gave Tony sent his heart racing and his thoughts scattering.

“Sarah isn’t staying,” he said gruffly. “As soon as she locates her friends, she’s leaving.”

Sarah deflated a bit at his harsh declaration. “Yes, in fact, they should be there now. I should head out.”

I’ll probably regret this. “Melanie, make a second plate for dinner. Sarah and I will eat in the dining room.”

Hard to say which woman he’d shocked more. Sarah looked back and forth between them as if seeking reassurance. “I am hungry. If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”

Melanie didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. In fact, he preferred she didn’t. He wasn’t ready to explain to anyone, not even himself, why he was reluctant to see Sarah leave.

It was more than how his body responded to hers. He wanted . . .

He wasn’t sure what exactly.

Was it because she had no idea who he was? She was neither intimidated by his reputation nor excited by the idea of being with a man many considered dangerous. No, she looked at him like there wasn’t a reason in the world why they couldn’t be friends . . . or more.

Tony had been alone so long that he’d begun to believe he preferred it that way. In the beginning it had been easier, and over time it had become comfortable. Tonight he didn’t want to be a man with a past he regretted. He didn’t want to be angry. He wanted to have an uncomplicated dinner with a beautiful woman. Knowing she was leaving after their meal made it much easier to allow himself to enjoy it.

Melanie had just finished setting two places at one end of his dining room table when he and Sarah entered the room. No one would have guessed this was the first time anyone had sat there in the five years he’d owned the place. He preferred the solitude of the small kitchen table. He wasn’t about to mention it though––women would falsely read meaning into something like that.

Chapter Two

Standing in the doorway of the dining room, Sarah wished life had a pause button. She wanted to slow time and savor each moment. Another woman might have been afraid, but the joy of the unexpected was the reason Sarah often chose riding the trails instead of sticking to the ring at the barn she belonged to. Outside of the riding ring, she was free, and anything was possible.

This wasn’t how my trip was supposed to go, but look at me, standing next to a real cowboy—one with a shy smile and a slow, Southern drawl. He belongs in a book. He was in his late twenties or early thirties, but the rugged lines of his face spoke of years of hard work, and his callused hands held a powerful promise she’d never imagined in the manicured, smooth texture of the city men she was used to.

He even smells like the outdoors.

How strange would I look if I took out my notebook and jotted down all the things I don’t want to forget about him? I’d start with those muscles. Those heavenly muscles. Unlike the hulking men who strutted like peacocks at her local gym, this man had the understated, quiet strength that Sarah found a million times sexier. He earned those delicious biceps and that rock-hard body in a way that wouldn’t have diminished the size of his . . .