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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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She really wanted to say no. But now she had four pairs of eyes and ears trained on her. To refuse to dance would only lead to questions. And Ray Charles was singing. Everyone would know something was wrong if she didn't get up and dance.

At least she could set the stage for an early departure. “I'm not very good,” she warned as they made their way to the dance floor.

“That's okay. I am.”

—

The Texan hadn't been exaggerating. He had the moves. Within seconds of stepping on the dance floor, Josh had her twirling, dipping, and spinning before reeling her back to the hard wall of his chest with the same confidence he showed in everything else, and drawing her close as he settled his large hand against the small of her back. Just as panic set in and she began to recall the hurt and angry faces of every other guy she'd attempted to get physical with—a collage of disappointment—he would release her with an easy fling of his arm so she twirled like a top.

The second time he whirled her back into his arms, he grinned down at her. “What do you mean, you're not good at this?”

“This is all you, I promise.”

“Need a partner to make the dance fun. Dang, you look pretty tonight. And you smell nice, too. I like your perfume.” He dipped his head.

Freaked, she blurted, “Do you know that ambergris, a time-honored ingredient in perfume, is made from the fatty excretion of a sperm whale? And that musk comes from the anal glands of civets?”

Josh's brows drew together in confusion. “Come again?”

“I'm not wearing any.” When he still looked baffled, she clarified. “Perfume.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. I guess a woman who looks like you doesn't need it. You clean up good, Quinn.”

It was true, she had taken a shower. Between the dust from the trail ride she'd led in the morning and then the lanolin coating her from neck to toe after grappling with the Lincoln sheep so Mel could deworm them, Quinn had looked a little like Pigpen in the
Peanuts
comic strip, with her own personal dirt cloud. But to guard against encouraging Josh into thinking this was anything more than a group outing, she'd gone out of her way to dress as she did around the livestock. Along with her jeans and boots she wore a long-sleeved Henley. Once a deep eggplant purple, it was now after many washings a soft lavender.

“Uh, thanks. So where'd you learn to dance?” she asked in the hope of steering the conversation away from how she looked or smelled.

“There were a couple of honky-tonks in the town closest to the ranch. The ladies sure loved to dance. So I learned.”

Deftly he spun her and then, with a mischievous grin, dipped her low over his arm, holding her there as the last notes of the song ended.

His face was inches away. “Feeling a little dizzy here, Josh,” she said breathlessly.

“Dizzy looks good on you, Quinn.” Slowly he pulled her back up, this time letting her feel every inch of his hard body, and grinning even more widely as the onlookers clapped their hands.

“Thanks for the dance.” She took a wide step back so she could breathe. “It's, um, getting late and I have a ton of stuff lined up tomorrow.”

“Yeah, me too,” he said. “Mind if I bum a ride back to the ranch? I don't think Jim's ready to leave yet.”

Yup, Josh surely had the moves.

B
EING A SEXUAL
failure and secret virgin was an exhausting business, Quinn decided as she drove Josh back to the ranch. She spent a good portion of the three-mile trip pretending that everything was hunky-dory, that it was okay that Josh had his arm casually slung across the back of her seat. After all, he wasn't doing anything; it wasn't his fault that while he was talking about how great a foreman Pete was and how much he liked the other wranglers and interacting with the ranch guests—except the ladies who came on too strong—she was holding a mental debate about whether it would be too obvious if she parked the truck close to Josh's cabin so she wouldn't have to deal with him asking to come inside her house.

Josh was a chatterbox compared to the last man who'd ridden in her truck, she thought with a certain nostalgia for Ethan's taciturn presence. There'd been no need to worry about deflecting a pass from him.

She wondered what kind of woman would rouse Ethan's interest. A sophisticated globe-trotter like him? A journalist? Or would he go for a temperamental artist? Maybe he was already involved with someone. Her brows drew together in a frown as she pulled into the staff parking area and turned off the ignition. While she'd been obsessing about the possible women in Ethan's life, the rest of her had obviously come to a decision: best to park here rather than at her place. Now all she needed to do was make a quick exit and she could go home, where she wouldn't have to think about men and have her brain reduced to a gloopy mess.

She hopped out of the truck, aware that her heart was beating faster than normal. Determined not to betray her nervousness, she adopted a brisk tone. “Well, that was really nice.” She shoved her hands deep in her pockets and walked with her arms locked by her sides.

Josh ambled beside her with that easy, rolling gait. “Yeah, it was.”

When they got to the row of cabins reserved for the staff, she noticed that most were dark. But the windows in Ethan's glowed bright. She wondered what he was up to at this hour of the night.

Josh came to a stop and so she did, too, because it would've looked weird otherwise.

She glanced about, up and down, looking everywhere but at his broad chest or, heaven forbid, his face with his wide, slanting cheekbones and firm lips. He really was almost ridiculously attractive.

She swallowed. “I, uh, I'm going to head off now.” She even took her balled hand out of her pocket to point up the path in case he didn't know where she lived. Could she be any dorkier?

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Okay.”

Somehow he'd moved closer, taken one of those smooth steps he'd exhibited on the dance floor. “Mind if I kiss you, Quinn?”

A thousand excuses sprang to mind. Was she that chicken? “Uh, I guess not.”

His lips parted in a smile, and then his head was descending, tilting on a slight angle as it did. She waited, frozen, for his lips to touch hers.

Josh's kiss was like so much else about him. Practiced and confident, it held the promise of a good time. His lips remained firm, not all of a sudden feeling too wet or mushy or creepily suction-cup-like—and yes, she'd experienced all of those distressing transformations. They moved over hers in an unhurried exploration, sampling and learning.

She should respond and kiss him back, she knew that.

An unexpected thump had her jumping backward out of the loose circle of Josh's arms. The noise was followed by another one, a loud bang. She turned her head to locate the source and identify the sounds. The thump had come from chair legs hitting the narrow porch belonging to Ethan's cabin. The slam of the screen door as Ethan went inside had caused the sharp bang.

Ethan must have been sitting in the darkened space between the door and the window, his chair tipped back so that it rested against the cabin's rough timber siding. Had he watched Josh kiss her? The idea made her strangely queasy.

Josh seemed unfazed by the interruption. He reached up, skimming his fingers along her cheek as he carefully tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “You're real pretty, Quinn. I've been thinking about kissing you since I came here.”

“Josh, I'm not sure I'm ready to—”

“Hey, I didn't say that to pressure you. I just like you, Quinn.” He touched her cheek again. “Do you like me?”

“Well, yeah.” It was the truth. Josh was a nice guy. And the kiss he'd given her hadn't been bad, she reminded herself. It was really possible he possessed the necessary skill to make her relaxed enough to eventually consider sex. And that was a good thing. Because it was clearly past time she got over her hang-up, did the deed, and joined the rest of the world. “Yeah, I like you,” she repeated, trying her damnedest to sound assured.

“Okay, then.” Slowly he brushed the pad of his thumb over her bottom lip. “We'll see how things go.”

She could only smile weakly, all too aware of just how terribly things could go.

—

Quinn was roused from sleep by a loud hammering on her front door. She squinted blearily at her bedside clock. It was two-thirty. In Quinn's experience, with the exception of lambing, calving, and foaling season, nothing good ever happened at two-thirty
A.M.

The knocking had roused her animals. Sooner began barking, and Pirate leapt off the bed as if it were on fire. Swinging her legs over the edge of the mattress, she hurried toward the door, her bare feet slapping the cold wood floor. She yanked it open to find Ethan outside.

“Quiet, Sooner,” she said distractedly, her eyes never leaving Ethan. “What is it? What's wrong?”

“Your horse—”

Her heart lurched. “Domino?”

He shook his head. “Not the Appaloosa. The chestnut. Tucker. He's acting strange. I think he's sick.”

Sick.
The word was like the firing of the starter's gun. She sprinted back to her bedroom, scooped her jeans off the floor, pulled on some socks, and plucked a sweater from a chair and dragged it over her T-shirt, already running out of her room and toward the mudroom next to the kitchen. There she shoved her feet into a pair of boots. In the kitchen she grabbed her cellphone. Jamming it into her pocket, she ran back to where Ethan stood and blew past him, Sooner on her heels.

—

The moon was bright enough to confirm what Ethan had said. Tucker stood in the pasture near the fence. Normally he carried his head high, alert to every noise and movement. But when Quinn ran up to the fence line with Ethan, who'd caught up, he didn't even raise his head. His muzzle inches from the ground, he pawed the dirt with his right foreleg.

Then the gelding sank to his knees. That's when she saw his heaving flank. It was covered with dirt.

“Oh, no!” Quickly she ducked between the rails to reach him. Grabbing his halter, she tugged it and clucked loudly.

Though Tucker pinned his ears, he didn't shy, rear, or even swing his head and bare his teeth. She'd have preferred any of those reactions to the horse's obvious determination to lie down.

“Come
on,
Tucker. Up, up,” she repeated, tugging on the halter until he finally rose to a stand. “Thank God,” she said, exhaling in relief.

“What's wrong with him?”

“I'm pretty sure it's colic. I've got to walk him to keep him from rolling. Can you get me a lead rope? They're—”

“I know.” And he was off, running. She spared a thought for what the flat-out sprints were doing to his shoulder, but then Tucker dropped his head to the ground once more, and her worry for her gelding eclipsed all else.

She'd gotten Tucker to the gate when Ethan ran back with the lead rope bunched in his left hand. Instead of swinging his right arm, he held it locked against his side. While he may have taken on more and more jobs around the horses over the past few days, he was far from pain-free. She was going to owe him big-time for tonight.

“Thanks,” she said as he passed her the lead line. She snapped it on Tucker's halter while Ethan opened the gate. When she and Tucker walked through the opening, the horse didn't so much as flinch at the strange man standing close enough to touch him.

At any other moment Quinn would have been grinning from ear to ear. Right now his lack of response filled her with fear. She glanced over her shoulder.

Now that they were nearer the barns there was more light, thanks to the floodlights attached to their exteriors, and she was able to see the gelding more clearly. The dirt sticking to his side was thick, clumpy. A bad sign. How many times had he been down, trying to relieve the pain in his gut by rolling?

“I need to call the vet.” Even as she spoke, she shoved her hand in her front pocket for her cell and began scrolling for the number. Every member of her family—Pete Williams, too—had Gary Cooney, the best large-animal vet in the area, programmed in their address books. Anxiety made her clumsy. She bobbled the phone. Her cry of dismay as it slipped from her hand turned into a gasp of surprise when Ethan caught it.

“Here.” Straightening, he pressed the phone into her hand. “Give me the rope. I'll walk him while you telephone.”

“Tucker won't let you—”

“Call the vet, Quinn. I'll take him.” He took the rope from her and stepped up to the gelding.

For a second she opened her mouth to argue, but then snapped it shut. Though Tucker's gait was sluggish, his hooves practically scraping the crushed gravel, he nonetheless followed Ethan's lead, the two circling the open space in front of the barns.

Gary Cooney answered on the third ring. “Cooney,” he said, sounding remarkably alert for someone answering the phone at close to three in the morning.

“Gary? It's Quinn Knowles. It's my horse Tucker, the rescue. I think he's got colic. I don't know when it started—sometime after the six
P.M.
feeding, I guess. It looks like he's already rolled. And he's still trying to. I'm worried. Can you come out?”

Over the line, Cooney exhaled heavily. “Unfortunately, I'm covering for a colleague who's on vacation. I'm on my way to a farm west of Willits. A prize bull escaped and ended up entangled in a neighbor's barbed wire fence. I'm almost there now, but I can't predict how long I'll be.”

“Tucker's in a bad way, Gary.”

“You're walking him?”

“Yes.”

“Good, but let him rest, too, unless he tries to roll again. No food, no drink—”

“Banamine?”

“No medications, either. Nothing until I can examine him. I'd have you take him to the hospital now, but my assistants would essentially be doing the same as you—walking him—and the strange environment might only add to his stress and agitation. I'll be there just as soon as I can.”

“Okay.” She pressed the off button and hung her head. “Damn,” she whispered.

“He can't get here?”

“No. Not yet. There's an injured bull near Willits.”

“So?”

“So I have to keep him on his feet. I don't know what's caused the colic, but it's possible that by rolling he's made his condition worse. Rolling can end up twisting the small intestine. And that can be fatal.” She swallowed. She couldn't dwell on that. What Tucker needed was for her to follow Cooney's instructions, and when he arrived he would save her horse. Pocketing her phone, she went over to Ethan. She stretched out her hand, ready to take the lead from him. “You don't have to stay—”

“Screw that,” he said bluntly. “I'm not going to leave you alone for who knows how long until the vet shows.”

She looked at him. He was still thin. He was still hurting. His cheeks were covered in a three
A
.
M
. stubble. But it struck her that Ethan was a handsome man.

His weren't the features of a cover model—Ethan's face was more ascetic, with sharper planes. And though his deep-socketed eyes were still shrouded by whatever had happened to him in Afghanistan, they radiated keen intelligence. For some reason his sharp features and enigmatic gaze reminded her of the wolves at Wolf Peak: beautiful and mysterious.

BOOK: Once Touched
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ads

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