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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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She opened the passenger door while he stared at the bucket. “What's this for?”

“In case you feel the need to puke again. I wouldn't want you trashing my truck.”

His gaze swept over the interior. The dirt-stained upholstery seemed to be growing dog hair. Various collars, leashes, ropes, receipts, coffee mugs, and candy wrappers were strewn across the seats and floor. At the sight, something strange happened to him. The muscles in his face stretched his mouth into something that felt almost like a grin.

Few things had brought him close to real amusement in a long time.

The emotion lasted only as long as it took him to climb painfully into the truck. He hid a grimace as his shoulder brushed the back of the seat.

No sooner had he settled than she slammed his door shut, ran around to her side, and jumped in behind the wheel like a friggin' gazelle.

The agility she displayed, the complete confidence she had in her body, was bad enough, filling him with envy. But then, without warning, she lunged sideways until her ear was pressed against his chest. Struck by a jolt of shock at the position of her head—a few inches lower and they'd be arrested—and the strange need that pierced him, he registered the splintering pain in his shoulder only distantly.

He sucked in a breath, then spoke through gritted teeth. “What the hell are you doing?”

She didn't reply at first, only plastered herself more firmly against his ribs as she reached across with her arm. Straightening, she waved the seat belt at him before clicking it in place.

“Safety first.” With a damnably perky smile she scooted back behind the wheel.

He glared through the windshield, torn as to which angered him more: that he missed the pressure of her streaky blond head with its thick and somewhat snarled ponytail against his chest, or that she obviously viewed him as too pathetically weak to manage something as basic as buckling a seat belt.

The first only exposed his sad-sack needs. Forget sex. It seemed like an eternity since he'd been close enough to feel the warmth of a woman's body or to catch her scent.

Quinn smelled of sunshine and pine needles.

The fragrance was implausibly sweet after the stale, antiseptic odors of the hospital or the rank stench of men's bodies living in close quarters in a desert clime, the funk of the latrines, the acrid stench of gun and rocket blasts, or the reek of blood, fear, and death permeating the air. It pissed him off that with one careless gesture she'd made him think about all those things, when remembering what had happened in Afghanistan was what he'd come to California to avoid. He didn't want to reflect, remember, need, or feel, goddamn it.

Still staring through the windshield, he spoke through a clenched jaw. “I'm injured. I'm not an invalid, and I'm not a fucking baby. Got it?”

He heard the hiss of indrawn breath as his words struck. He was pretty sure he'd wiped that chipper smile off her face.

Good. He didn't want to be on the receiving end of any more of her sly wit or effortless charm. And while the Ethan Saunders of old would have gone out of his way to straighten out any SOB who spoke that way to a woman who'd merely, if misguidedly, been trying to assist him, that version of himself had disappeared months ago. The sooner she and everyone who came into contact with him understood that fact, the better.

—

What a jerk.
Quinn was still fuming when she pulled onto the highway.

She wasn't simply taken aback by Ethan's snarky comment; she was embarrassed, too. After all, she'd only been trying to help. The guy had a sling strapped around his middle, and it was obvious from the way he used his left arm it wasn't his dominant side.

Along with chagrin, resentment crept into the mix. Guys generally liked her—at least until they tried to sleep with her. It seemed that Ethan Saunders was the notable exception. Maybe he preferred hard-ass witches. Or maybe he liked women who sat around docilely and batted their fake eyelashes at him while he barked out orders. And why in God's name was she even thinking about what kind of woman Ethan Saunders liked?

She glanced to her right. His expression was as stony as Mount Rushmore, but a lot grimmer. And to think she'd been looking forward to his company on the drive back home. Suddenly Acacia seemed far away.

Annoyed with both herself and him, she picked up her iPod from where it was wedged between an empty coffee cup and a crumpled ball of M&M's wrappers, her favorite road candy—she liked to suck the colored coating off and then bite into the chocolate—and scrolled through her playlists. An impish impulse had her selecting the one she'd made for her mom for Valentine's Day, because what better way to show her love than compile a playlist of the most treacly stuff on earth? The gift had been perfect. Her mom had adored it. And she would bet her bottom dollar that Ethan was going to hate it.

The Bee Gees' “How Deep Is Your Love” came on in surround sound. Her truck might have over a hundred thousand miles on it and the suspension might be shot to hell, but the sound system rocked.

When a groan reached her, she bit the inside of her cheek to hide a smile and oh so casually turned up the volume.

Her brand of vengeance was sweet but unfortunately short-lived. A quick glance to her right revealed the tendons in his neck standing out in relief. His left hand gripped the bucket as if it were a lifeline. The sight killed her desire for petty revenge faster than air escaping a popped balloon.

She let her foot up on the accelerator and then flicked on the indicator, intending to ease into the breakdown lane.

His fierce growl put a stop to that. “Don't you dare pull over, or I swear I'll ditch this bucket and hurl all over your precious truck.”

But she'd learned her lesson. Sympathy didn't work with this man. “Try it, buster, and you'll be the one ditched. At the speed you walk, I'd estimate you'd make it to the ranch in about a month.” Ticked off as she was by his earlier rebuff, a part of her couldn't believe she was talking this way to someone who couldn't even arm-wrestle. But it seemed that, as medicine, rudeness went down a lot better than kindness.

Infuriated, he glared at her.

That was fine with her. She'd take his death stare over his emptying his guts any day.

“Who'd have thought you'd grow up to be a royal pain in the butt?” he asked.

“Who'd have thought you'd grow up to be a Neanderthal?” she countered. Giving him her sweetest smile, she began humming along to Neil Diamond's “Song Sung Blue.”

W
HEN
Q
UINN OPENED
her front door four hours later, she was greeted by a series of barks and leaps from Sooner, a figure-eight pass between her legs by Pirate, and eardrum-splitting squawks from Alfie, who was doubtless doing somersaults from one perch to the next in his oversized cage in the study.

Her friend Lorelei was the only sentient being under the roof who chose not to greet her acrobatically. She remained curled up in an armchair, reading. One of Sooner's more ambitious leaps and spins must have entered her field of vision, for she looked up from her book. With a smile of greeting, she removed two bright orange earplugs. “You're back.”

“Yeah. Brilliant idea,” she said with a nod at the foam plugs. Brushing past Sooner's wriggling black-and-white body, she sank onto the drop-cloth-covered sofa with a groan of relief and patted the cushion next to her, so Sooner would know he had permission to join her.

Her cat didn't need permission. Pirate jumped up and then took a stroll along the back of the sofa, brushing his body against Quinn's head. From the study, Alfie began barking.

She grinned. “Boy, it's good to be home. Got any more earplugs?”

Lorelei laughed. “No, but I can't recommend them enough. They make all the difference. Francesco got them for me after our first takeout dinner here. He brought over these great burritos from this new Mexican place on Route 101, just south of Ukiah. The guac was to die for. He's such a sweetie,” she said happily.

Francesco and Lorelei had been dating for almost a year now, and from what Quinn could tell, Francesco wasn't just a sweetie; he also had intelligence and good taste. He was crazy about Lorelei.

“Yeah, you could do worse,” she said. “Like fall for the guy I just had to spend three-plus hours with. Luckily, he slept most of the drive.” The second Ethan had fallen asleep, his closely cropped head resting against the window and the tightness in his jaw relaxing somewhat, Quinn had eased up on the gas to smooth out the ride. Judging from the dark circles beneath his eyes, she had a feeling he hadn't slept in a while.

“This is the guy you were picking up at the airport? The family friend?”

“His parents are friends. The jury's out on Ethan.” She blew out a breath. “It's possible he's a prince.”

“From your tone I'd guess he was more toad than prince.”

“Mm-hmm. A prehistoric toad. Still…” She sighed and stroked Sooner's head, which was resting on her thigh. He was gazing at her with fixed devotion—a balm after the hostility Ethan had displayed. “To be fair, it's hard to tell what he's like. He's pretty beat up. I imagine he's none too happy about his limitations. What I can't figure out is why he's chosen to come here. I parked as close as I could to the cabin he's staying in, and even then he looked ready to pass out by the time he reached the cabin door. And he's big—whip thin but tall. Hard to lug.”
Impossible to lug,
she added silently, since she'd have been terrified of hurting his arm. “Luckily I'd called my dad as soon as we reached Acacia, so I didn't have to drag Ethan up the path. He and Mom were waiting at the cabin to help get him inside and settled.”

Her parents had managed to hide their dismay, but Quinn knew them, knew what signs to look for before they were quickly erased. Even had they known theoretically what shape Ethan was in, the reality had clearly taken them aback.

It was strange, but despite their rocky start and Ethan's less than charming attitude, she'd been reluctant to leave him. There was a part of her that felt possessive toward him, as if it were her responsibility to make his snapping, snarling self better. What was even odder was that when it became clear that there were at least one too many bodies in the cabin Mom had had readied and Quinn had offered a casual “See y'all later,” she'd felt the weight of Ethan's dark gaze as she crossed the cabin to the door.

She'd been tempted to turn around, thinking, hoping, that his expression might hold something other than irritation or hostility.

She shook off the memory, telling herself not to be foolish. She was good with animals, not surly, injured men.

“So my beasts behaved?” she asked Lorelei as she shifted her hand to scratch Sooner behind his velvety ears.

“Oh, they were great. And once I got these babies,” Lorelei said, tossing the earplugs in the palm of her hand, “I could even hang with Alfie without rupturing my eardrums. You definitely want to invest in a pair.”

“What's that? I can't hear you.” With a grin Quinn cupped a hand to her ear. The parrot's high-pitched yaps had segued into the blast of a truck horn. His previous owner must have put his cage next to an open window on a busy street because Alfie could mimic the rat-a-tat percussion of jackhammers, the rumble and grind of garbage trucks, and the wail of ambulance sirens, an entire catalogue of obnoxious sounds.

Lorelei laughed. Raising her voice, she said, “Let's go put a smile on that crazy bird's beak. Otherwise he'll start tossing peanut shells. How does he throw them so far, anyway?”

“What can I tell you? He's a major blue-fronted Amazon talent.”

“That's for sure. His wind-up is no joke.”

“FYI, I owe you a batch of my killer brownies for this weekend of pet-sitting. I'll bring them by the shelter.”

“That'd be great. Marsha needs some cheering up. Budget cuts,” she said by way of explanation.

“They're that bad?”

“Yeah. We were operating on a shoestring before. It's dental floss now.” The grimace on Lorelei's face had nothing to do with Alfie's piercing squawk as they neared the study.

“I'll make it a double batch, then.”

Quinn stepped inside the room. Spying her, Alfie flung his electric green-and-yellow body at the bars of the cage, his wings flapping madly. “Quinn, Quinn, Quinn!”

She walked up to the cage and, inserting her fingers, scratched Alfie along the side of his neck, gently ruffling his short feathers. He stretched his neck farther and began whistling softly.

“Jeesh, you really have a way with males, don't you?” Lorelei said.

Unbidden, the image of Ethan's scowling face sprang to mind. She certainly hadn't wowed him. “I specialize in the four-legged and winged variety.”

“That so? What about a certain cowboy named Josh? He sounds a lot like Alfie with his ‘Quinn this' and ‘Quinn that.' We crossed paths yesterday when I went to say hi to the goats—Mel and Adele spoiled them with tons of treats, by the way. I bet Josh would let you run your fingers just about anywhere you want.” Lorelei grinned.

If only the idea of running her fingers anywhere near Josh filled her with a smidgeon of excitement. Now that she'd had a couple of days to clear her head from the dizzying effect of Josh's stunning looks and smooth charm, her ambivalence was back in full force. She kept her gaze fixed on the patch of royal blue just above Alfie's curved beak. “Not sure I'm interested.”

“Why in the world not? He's certainly interested in you. Actually, he seems perfect for you.”

Quinn shrugged. “Maybe that's the problem. He's
too
perfect.” She hoped that was the reason for her indifference. Unfortunately, her present attitude toward Josh was the same resounding
meh
she'd had toward the other guys she'd dated or attempted to get physical with.

“So a guy who's perfect for you—who loves horses, knows ranches, and seems to like and be liked by just about everyone—is flawed, huh? Go figure. Quinn, sweetie, has anyone ever told you that you're hard to please?”

Oh yeah, but not so gently or affectionately.

It was one thing for her to be disappointed in herself and her inability to dredge up any kind of enthusiasm, quite another for men to look at her and find her lacking. Or worse. There'd been a whole bunch of words that had followed each of her disastrous attempts at sex. The words of choice had been
unresponsive
and
stiff,
as well as the favorite:
frigid.
Unlike the guys whose egos she'd bruised, Quinn knew female frigidity had been busted as a sexual myth, so she'd been kind of able to shake that one off.

Fucking tease
was the term that really hurt, muttered furiously as her rejected sex partner yanked on his jeans and kept his gaze averted. The label didn't simply make her out as weird or abnormal in her responses. It cast her as cruel and manipulative, as if she enjoyed leading a man on only to refuse to put out at the crucial sticking point.

Quinn didn't believe she was naturally a mean person. But clearly something happened to her whenever she tried to be intimate with someone. After her last failure, she'd come to the conclusion that she'd rather skip the whole sex thing—even if a “perfect” guy was interested—than face that accusation again.

What with Alfie's antics—he'd spread his beautiful wings and was flapping them against the bars in a plea to be sprung from his cage—Lorelei hadn't noticed Quinn's silence. “Well, I think you're going to have to resign yourself to being pursued by that smooth-talking Texan with the same energy Sooner devotes to running down your flock of sheep.”

Forewarned was forearmed. And Quinn was pretty sure she had more brains than the average sheep.

—

Ethan was glad Quinn had left the cabin. It meant he no longer had to make his screaming muscles hold his shoulders back.

“Ethan, son, it's good to see you, but for God's sake, sit down,” Daniel Knowles instructed with more than a hint of exasperation in his voice.

Grateful that Daniel hadn't tacked on the all-too-obvious “Before you fall down,” Ethan dropped onto the loveseat, which was positioned at a forty-five-degree angle to a wood-burning cast iron stove. In the corner of the room stood a double bed with a frame constructed of gnarled tree limbs. He fixed his gaze on the patchwork quilt covering the mattress until its squares of blue stopped swimming and the room stopped tilting. Now, if only Daniel and Adele would follow their daughter out the door, he could release the groan of agony bottled inside him.

Instead he forced himself to be polite, his payment for being allowed to escape the fear in his own parents' eyes. “It's good to see you, too. Neither of you has aged a day.”

“We haven't been living in a war zone,” Daniel replied.

“What happened, Ethan?” Adele asked.

A world of shit, too horrific to describe in this rustic cabin that, after the cement block he'd bunked in, seemed as luxurious as a penthouse suite in the Four Seasons. “An IED exploded as our Humvee passed. The impact banged up my shoulder and arm. My head took a hard knock.”

Adele's choked sound of dismay reminded him of his mother's. He didn't glance up to check whether she, too, had tears slipping down her face, as his mother did whenever one of the doctors came in to evaluate him.

“A bang and a knock,” Daniel echoed dryly.

His shoulder hurt too much to shrug. “I'm alive.” Unlike the others who'd been riding in the vehicle, or that child who couldn't have been more than eight years old, damn it. Blocking the horrifying memory, he looked up at Adele. Yup, her eyes were awash in tears. “Thanks for taking me in.”

Adele's expression grew warm as a soft smile lifted her cheeks. He thought he remembered that look and how it would settle over her face when one of her kids ran up to her with some story to share. Even then he'd understood that she was a beautiful woman.

“Of course, Ethan,” she said. “You should stay and recuperate for as long—”

“I want to earn my keep while I'm here.”

Adele's eyes widened in surprise. They were a softer blue than Quinn's, which had bright shards of light emanating from the irises.

“What kind of work were you envisioning?” she asked, as if he hadn't been about to topple over three minutes ago.

BOOK: Once Touched
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