Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (6 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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“I can make it,” he growled.

“Yes, you can. If I let go, you'll make it right back to the ground.” She paid no attention to his objections as she held his booted foot and placed it in the stirrup. Then she got behind him and shoved as he pulled himself up into the saddle.

“You never could keep your hands off my butt,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, shut up and get behind the saddle. I'm driving,” she snapped in irritation.

“You're the boss.” He eased behind the saddle and spoke gently to the horse that shifted uneasily at the maneuver.

“Lean back so I can get on, or you'll end up with my boot in your ear.” The mental image helped soothe her irritation. She swung up into the saddle, and the horse sidestepped at the extra weight. “Easy, fella,” she murmured.

Immediately, she regretted her decision to have Neal ride behind her. His arms circled her as he leaned forward and held on. His broad chest pressed against her back, and the feeling brought a quick flash of memories. Memories of the nights when he'd held her like this in the dark and made her feel so loved and cherished.

“You smell wonderful—like spring flowers,” he murmured against her hair.

She didn't answer. She didn't dare. Her emotions were a wild jumble of anger, guilt, longing and regret. She nudged the horse forward. A mile farther on, they descended into the winding canyon again and followed the floor of it until they rounded a sharp bend and rode into paradise.

Tall cottonwood trees filled the small box canyon. Their leaves flashed silver and green in the faint breeze that penetrated the narrow white limestone walls. A spring burst from halfway up the wall at the back of the canyon and fell softly onto stone steps. Over the centuries, the water had carved out a hollow in the stone and created a bowl where the water pooled, and then it slipped over the rim to fall into the next bowl, and then the next, until it splashed into a large pond at the foot of the cottonwoods.

Little Bowl Springs. It was a special place that belonged to a distant, happy past. It lay almost exactly the same distance from her home as from Neal's. It had made the perfect spot for them to meet as kids and while away the long summer days. Later, when they were older, it became their special romantic rendezvous.

She drew the horse to a stop beneath the trees. “You can let go now,” she said tartly. He did and slid off over the horse's rump. Perversely, she missed the feelings of his arms around her as soon as he let go.

Chiding herself for the fool she was, she swung her leg over the horse's neck and dropped to the ground. After leading the pinto to the top of the canyon, she tethered him where he could crop grass and reach the water without difficulty. She began to unsaddle him. She unbuckled the girth, but before she could lift the saddle, Neal brushed her hands aside and lifted it easily.

“I can get it,” she protested.

“I don't mind being rescued by a woman, but I draw the line at watching one work while I rest in the shade.”

His lips were pressed into a tight line; she knew it must hurt his ribs to lift the heavy rig, but she kept quiet. He carried the saddle to the foot of a tall cottonwood and propped it up as a backrest.

Pointing at it, he said, “Sit.”

She did as she was told. For now. Pulling up several handfuls of dry grass, he began to rub down the horse. Against her better judgment, she leaned back and let him do the job. He moved slowly, and his hand strayed several times to rub his brow, but he managed well enough. When he finished, he walked back to her.

She handed him the canteen, and he took a long drink. When he was finished, he sat down beside her. Neither of them said a word as they rested in the shade and let the peace of the little canyon steal over them.

At last, Neal stood and said, “I think you should strip.”

“What?” Startled, she glared at him.

He began to unbutton his shirt. “Unless you intend to swim with your clothes on.”

“I don't intend to swim at all,” she answered primly.

“Suit yourself.” He sat down and pulled off his boots.

Then he stood, shed his shirt and hung it on a limb near his head. “I'm hot, and I'm going to get cool.”

Her gaze was drawn to his muscular body and the thick, corded muscles of his arms and shoulders as they flexed. The small scar from the chest tube was almost invisible in the sprinkling of dark hair that covered his broad chest and glinted with beads of sweat.

She watched a single droplet slip free of a curl. She followed its path as it slid over the sculpted firmness of his belly. Mesmerized, she watched as it paused for an instant at his navel and then raced down to disappear behind his hand as he slowly unbuckled the belt that rode low on his hips.

She licked her dry lips. The tiny clink of the metal snap popping open broke the spell. Her gaze flew to his face. He was watching her. The black eye patch made his expression hard to read, but she recognized the dangerous smile that barely curved his sensual mouth.

She raised her chin. “You shouldn't get your wound wet.”

“It's healed. My doctor gave me the okay to shower and to swim. He said I could resume...other activities, too.” His grin widened as he began slowly unzipping his jeans.

Bolting to her feet, she rushed past him. “I—I'm going to get a drink from the spring,” she managed to stutter.

“There's still water in the canteen.”

“I want a cold drink.”

“Watch out for snakes in those rocks,” he called after her.

She paused and stared at the hillside in front of her. She hated snakes. She didn't remember seeing any there when she was a kid. Was he trying to scare her? She glanced back at him, but he had turned to face the water.

With one easy movement, he shed his jeans, and she had a perfect view of his taut, strong legs and buttocks clad only in a pair of navy briefs. She started to call out a warning, but she pressed her lips closed and let him dive into the pool. His head and torso shot out of the water, and his whoop of surprise echoed off the high walls.

“Whooee, it's cold!”

A smug smile of satisfaction curved her lips as she turned away. She did remember how chilly the spring-fed pool stayed, even in the heat of summer.

Listening to his shouts and splashing behind her, she climbed the rocky slope to the source of the spring. When she reached it, she scrubbed her hands vigorously under the stream of cold, clear water and then cupped them to drink. The water was as sweet and refreshing as she remembered.

She drank her fill and wiped a trickle from her chin with the hem of her shirt. Then she sat back on the stone and surveyed the oasis below her.

The horse was busy tearing up mouthfuls of green grass that grew down to the water's edge. Neal was wading toward the deep end of the pool and splashing water at a dragonfly that hovered close to the surface beside him. The sound of the water falling over the rocks and splashing into the pool below began to soothe her frayed nerves. She closed her eyes and relaxed.

The peace of the place stole over her once more. Had it been like this when she was a kid, or had she been too busy having fun to notice? If only she could slip back in time and become that carefree child again. A rattle of stones clattered off to her right, and her eyes snapped open. Maybe he hadn't been kidding about the snakes.

Quickly she stood and brushed off her jeans as she looked around carefully. She glanced down at the pool. The horse continued to crop grass and dragonflies skimmed the still surface of the pond, but there was no sign of Neal.

She waited a long moment for him to reappear. Where was he?

“Neal?” she called.

The horse looked up at her briefly before he dropped his head and began to graze again. She picked her way down the broken rocks surrounding the spring and surveyed the pool. Where was Neal? He couldn't hold his breath this long, could he?

“This isn't funny, Neal,” she yelled as she began to walk along the edge of the pond, searching its opaque depths. He had been rubbing his head earlier—what if he'd passed out in the water?

“You come out right now. I'm not coming in after you. Do you hear me?”

Still no answer. “If this is your idea of a joke, I'm going to tear you up worse than that old bull did. You answer me this minute!” she shouted.

Only silence greeted her. She sat down on the bank and quickly pulled off her boots. Then she stood and shed her jeans. A large limb from the cottonwood tree stretched out parallel to the surface of the pond. She stepped out onto it, hoping to see better. The moment she did, a hand shot out of the water, grabbed her ankle and yanked. She toppled into the water.

She came up coughing, sputtering and furious. As she pushed her bangs and some unidentified weed aside, she heard the sound of loud, familiar laughter. The same laughter that had echoed throughout her childhood. Laughter that had been missing from her life for a long time.

* * *

N
EAL
COULDN
'
T
HELP
but laugh, even though it hurt his ribs. He watched Robyn brush the water out of her eyes and pull a long strand of green pondweed out of her hair. Her eyes were as green as the stray weed, and they brimmed with loathing as she rose to her feet. Her wet cotton shirt held another strand of the green stuff, draped over one shoulder like a banner, and he began to laugh again.

“I can't believe you fell for that same old trick.” His healing ribs rebelled, and he pressed his hand against them.

“I was twelve the last time you tried it. For some unknown reason, I assumed you had grown up since then.” She discovered the weeds clinging to her clothes, tore them off and threw them at him.

The wet weeds splattered in a gooey mess against his chest. “Yuck.”

“What possessed you to do this?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

“You weren't going to come in and swim,” he answered defensively as he realized his little joke had gone over badly.

“No, I wasn't.” She began to slog toward the shore.

“I'm sorry,” he called after her.

“You are such a lamebrain. Ouch— Oh!” She fell backward into the water with a grimace of pain and grabbed her leg.

He moved toward her. “What's wrong?”

“Cramp!” she bit out through clenched teeth, floundering into deeper water.

“Hold on—let me help. Don't struggle.” His joke had really blown up in his face. He quickly reached her side.

“Okay, I won't!” She surged out of the water and pushed his head under with both hands.

It was his turn to come up sputtering.

Her lilting laughter echoed across the water. “I can't believe you fell for the old ‘I've got a cramp' trick.”

“You little she-devil. You're going to pay for that.” He squinted at her as he wiped his face.

“Have to catch me first,” she taunted, then dived in and stroked for the far bank.

He couldn't catch her even when his ribs didn't hurt. She'd always been the better swimmer. He was only halfway across when she pulled herself out of the water on the far bank. When his hand touched the edge, she dived over his head and surfaced in the middle of the pool.

“I'm still faster than you,” she shouted.

He swam to her side with leisurely strokes. “That may be, but I bet I can still hold my breath longer.”

“Ha! Just try.”

They moved to the shallow end for their age-old contest.

“We'll go on the count of three. Agreed?” she asked.

“Agreed.” He bobbed beside her as she began to count.

“One, two, three!” She held her nose and dived under the water. A second later, her legs shot up into the air.

He stood beside her and admired the view of her shapely legs as she struggled to stay upside down. He'd always loved her legs. Come to think of it, there wasn't much about her body that he didn't like. A minute passed before her feet came down. He sank under the water and came up gasping for air a few seconds after her.

She frowned at him. “Okay, you still do that one better, but not by much.”

He grinned as he slicked back his hair. “No, not by much.”

A quick arch of her hand sent a spray of water over him. When he opened his eye, she was paddling away. He followed her slowly. Together they swam, splashed and floated in the pool for the next half hour.

Finally, Robyn called a halt. He followed as she pulled herself out of the water. She turned away quickly when he began to climb out. After sluicing off as much water as he could, he pulled his jeans on over his wet legs. The air was hot even in the shade of the trees. He knew it wouldn't take long to dry off.

He lay down, stretched out in the soft grass and raised himself up on one elbow to watch her. She twisted the water from the front of her T-shirt as she frowned at the baggy material. God, he wanted to make love to her right that second.

“Oh, well, I guess I'll drip-dry,” she muttered.

“Why don't you put on my shirt and hang yours up? I won't peek,” he added.

“I'll bet you won't,” she replied drily, but she grabbed his shirt from the limb. He craned his neck to watch her, but she stepped behind a willow clump and foiled his view.

When she came back into sight, his chambray shirt came to the middle of her thighs, but it rode higher as she stretched to hang her wet clothes on a limb.

Sitting up, he shifted his position. If this kept up, he was going to need another dip in the cold water. Did she have any idea how sexy she looked?

She glanced his way. “Is something wrong?”

He scratched his side. “Too bad we don't have a blanket. The grass is making me itch.”

“Ask and you shall receive,” she quipped. She crossed to the saddlebags and bent to rummage in one. She held up a folded pad of material. After shaking it open, she spread a white sheet on the grass.

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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