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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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“I'll wash dishes if that's what you need, but I'd like to be outside if possible. I've been staring at walls too long.” Staring as he remembered the blood and the pain and the death, and growing sick with guilt. He longed for the sweet blankness of hard labor, the glimpse of the fir-covered mountains breaking the horizon, and the scent of crisp, clean air when he inhaled—all so different, so not
there.

“Uh, Ethan, I think you should take a couple of days of R&R before we put you to work. In the meantime we'll see where we can best use an extra pair of hands,” Daniel said, keeping his gaze fixed on his face, rather than on the sling immobilizing his arm.

Ethan wasn't fooled. “I can do the work.” He had to.

“Of course you can. Now, the refrigerator and the cupboard are stocked, but if you're hungry for anything else, just ring the kitchen—I left a list of numbers on the counter by the sink. Just tell them who you are. The kitchen staff will be more than happy to bring you food. Our phone numbers are there, in case you need us.” The brisk cheer in Adele's voice couldn't quite mask the worry there.

Ethan had traveled the world, photographing the jungles of Borneo, the Sahara desert, the slums and palaces of the great capitals, but now this generous woman wasn't sure he could manage on his own in a simple twenty-by-thirty-foot cabin.

He hated that she might be right.

“I'll be fine,” he said, more harshly than her well-meaning kindness deserved. And even if he weren't okay, he'd rot in hell before imposing on the Knowleses any further.

A
S
L
ORELEI PREDICTED,
Josh wasted little time hunting her down. She'd only just finished grooming Tucker, her rescue gelding, the next morning when she heard him call out, “Hey, Quinn, brought something for you.”

She glanced over her shoulder. He was standing about five yards away—his time at Silver Creek Ranch more than long enough for him to know that Tucker didn't tolerate men too close. Meeting her gaze, he smiled and held a paper bag aloft. The movement caused his faded denim jacket to rise, exposing a tan corduroy shirt and a megasized Texas star belt buckle.

“I got a pecan pumpkin muffin for you. Maebeth and Nancy say hi.”

She leaned closer to Tucker and stroked his chestnut neck to communicate her calm, hoping the gelding would do no more than twitch his ears and shift his weight from side to side.

“That's really nice of you, Josh. Uh, you know I was only kidding about your needing to ply me with muffins, right?”

“Domino was such a treat, I figure you deserve one, too. And besides, now that I've been down to the luncheonette for breakfast, I'm kinda hooked. Especially since Maebeth has started slipping me a few extra pieces of bacon.”

“I'm sure she appreciates your appetite.”

He smiled as if he knew just how much Maebeth appreciated a man like him. “Want me to hold on to this until you've finished with Tucker?” He jiggled the bag and then cursed when he realized what he'd done. “Damn!”

Already nervous, Tucker had shied at the bag's strange rustling, jumping sideways as though his hooves had become springs. The lead rope slipped through Quinn's hand. She followed it as smoothly as she could to prevent him from spooking more.

“Easy, Tucker,” she said, moving with him as he skipped sideways. Her hand closed about the rope, offering a light resistance, while she continued to use her voice to soothe and reassure.

It took several more sidesteps before her horse calmed, for his head to drop and his body to relax a bit—his flight instinct was still strong. With a cluck she led him back to the spot where she'd been grooming him.

Raising her voice a little, she spoke to Josh. “Just stand there quietly, okay? I'm going to brush him lightly on this side before I release him. I want him to see you're not a threat.”

“Got it.” He made sure to keep his voice low.

A few minutes later she unsnapped the lead rope from the halter and stepped away from Tucker as he whirled on his hind legs and took off at a pounding gallop, not slowing until he was on the other side of the paddock. Gathering her grooming tools, she placed them in the carryall before ducking between the fence's railings.

“Real sorry about that, Quinn. I was sure I was far enough away. That rescue of yours would shy at his own shadow, wouldn't he?”

“He's come a long way. But his fear factor skyrockets when someone does anything out of the ordinary. Some moron did a real number on him.”

“Yeah, Jim mentioned that to me. Here, take this,” he said, plucking the carryall from her fingers and passing her the paper bag. “I might eat it otherwise.”

She took the bag and opened it. “It does smell awfully tempting.” Retrieving the muffin, she eyed it, and bit deep. “Mmm,” she said and swallowed. “They do an epic job baking at the luncheonette. Thanks.”

“Hope it goes some way toward forgiving me for spooking your horse.”

From the corner of her eye she caught him looking at her. She swept the back of her hand over her mouth in case she'd left a trail of brown sugar and pecans, telling herself that, no, that wasn't vanity. It was good manners. Her mom would be proud.

“What's that look for?” she asked when he continued to regard her. Had she left a streak on her cheek?

“I was just wonderin' about you.”

She swallowed. It wasn't enough that he'd brought her a muffin, now he had to tell her he was
thinking
about her? Despite the alarm bells ringing in her head, she couldn't help but feel a little flattered. And wasn't that messed up? “Why were you wondering about me?”

“The rescue thing,” he said.

Her brow furrowed beneath the sweatband of her Stetson. “What about it?”

“Well,” he began as they walked toward the corral where Domino and Josh's horse, Waylon, were dozing near the water trough, “I've been hearing about all the different animals you've rescued and such. You strike me as a sunny kind of person. You've got so many healthy and happy animals here to enjoy.” The sweep of his arm encompassed the barns and corrals. “Isn't it kind of depressing to see so many who've been hurt or treated so badly?”

She shrugged uncomfortably, not liking to have to explain such a fundamental part of her character and a touch annoyed that Josh apparently believed that just because she lived in a beautiful place among healthy and well-cared-for animals, she wouldn't be interested in helping ones in need. That it might be too much of a downer. “It's something I've been doing a long time. If I can heal them and find homes for them where they'll be loved the way they deserve, that's worth dealing with the ugliness of their condition.”

“I noticed your family treats the stock differently. The roundup and loading this past weekend had a real…well…” He paused, searching for the word. “
Easy
feel to it. It was interesting.”

“The roundup and loading is straight-up Temple Grandin.”

“Come again?”

“Temple Grandin. She's an animal scientist. She's got amazing insights when it comes to animals. I had my family and Pete attend one of her seminars on ways to reduce stress for livestock heading for slaughter. Her ideas make you rethink your notions about animals and how they see the world. I have some of her books—”

She stopped. She had a tendency to get nerdy fast when she talked about Temple Grandin, Buck Brannaman, Monty Roberts, or Jane Goodall, her personal superheroes.

Josh rubbed his cheek. “Yeah, well, I'm not much of a reader. I'm much better at doing, practicing until I get it just right. Know what I mean?”

Though he hadn't taken a step toward her, somehow his body seemed nearer.

She swallowed. Yup, she had a pretty good idea just how determined and active a learner he'd be. Enthusiastic, too. No dragging his heels for this cowboy.

“Maybe you could tell me more about this Church person—”

“Temple,” she corrected with a smile.

“Right, Temple.” Twin dimples appeared when he smiled back. “We could go to The Drop together some night this week. How about it, Quinn? You free on Friday?”

“I…uh…” Shooting the breeze and munching muffins with Josh while they were on the job was fine and dandy. A date at the Drop would change things. He might start thinking she was interested in more. Her heart began thudding in panic. “Sorry, this Friday I'm waiting tables at the restaurant.”

“Okay. Then how about the Friday after that?”

Her brain froze. Unable to come up with a viable excuse, she scanned the barn area looking for an escape. Spotting her brother Reid talking to Jim, she mustered a cheery casualness. “Sure. Sounds good. But hey, you know what? We should have Reid and Mia come with us. Reid's been to Temple Grandin's clinics, so he can tell you about her, too. And I need to catch up with Mia and make sure she isn't spoiling Reid too much.”

Something flickered in Josh's expression. Astonishment, probably. She doubted women did anything but jump at his invitations. And she bet she was the first one to suggest a double date. To his credit, he recovered quickly. “That'd be fun, too.”

“Great.” Never let it be said that she was as easily corralled as one of their long-wooled Lincoln sheep.

“Hey, Reid,” she called out, waving to catch her brother's attention. “Are you and Mia up for a night at The Drop Friday after next?”

Reid walked over to them. “Yeah, why not? We haven't been down to The Drop in a while, and Bruno's doing better. Mia won't worry too much about leaving him on his own for an evening.”

“Who's Bruno?” Josh asked.

“Mia's dog. He was poisoned. It was touch and go for a while, but he pulled through like a champ,” Reid said.

“So we're all set then,” Quinn said brightly, then added as if the thought had just occurred to her, “Maybe we can even round up a bunch of the guys so we can fill the place with cowboy boots. What do you think, Josh?”

“I'll be sure to ask around.” His enthusiasm seemed a little forced.

Reid cocked his head, doubtless wondering why she was acting like her social calendar was the most important thing on her mind at seven in the morning. Then he shifted his attention to Josh. “Pete was looking for you. He's over at the sheep pen with Ward. They're trimming hooves this morning and could use an extra hand.”

“I'll get right over there. Don't know much about handling sheep, though.”

“You'll get the hang of it pretty quick,” Reid promised.

“See ya around, Quinn,” Josh said before heading off toward the sheep barn, the smallest of the three weathered barns.

Reid pinned her with a gaze that was laser bright. “What was all that about?”

“He wants to go to The Drop.”

“On a group date?”

“No.” She grinned. “That was my idea. I'm going to get Ward and Tess to come, too. Like I always say, the more Knowleses and soon-to-be Knowleses, the merrier.”

Reid laughed. “Poor dude. Bet he didn't see that one coming.” His expression turned serious. “You let me know if he starts sniffing around in earnest.”

She snorted. “Don't be such a big brother. I can take care of myself.”

“Perhaps, but Josh strikes me as a smoother operator than the guys who usually hang around you.”

He was. Funnily enough, it didn't make Josh any less likeable. And because she was feeling the effects of Josh's potent appeal, she found herself once more wondering whether she shouldn't just go for it and get the whole sex business over with, because boy, the Texan certainly had the walking, talking, six-foot-tall stud muffin thing going on. “I thought you liked him.”

“I did. Until about three minutes ago.” His tone was only half joking. “Hope he doesn't start acting stupid. Dad won't be any too pleased if he catches Josh making goo-goo eyes at you instead of working. He wants to speak with you, by the way.”

“Dad? About what?”

Reid shrugged. “No clue. He's up at the main lodge.”

Her feet were already moving. He fell into step beside her, the two of them following the gravel road that led up to the main lodge, where the public rooms—the lounge, the bar, the restaurant, and the conference rooms—were located, as well as the offices used by her family and the lodge's staff.

“Don't you have the trail ride to lead this morning?” Quinn asked. She had checked the schedule. Their foreman, Pete, had put her in the afternoon slot. She'd lucked out—Pete told her the riders were advanced. She was itching for a good run on Domino.

“Jim's taking it for me,” Reid answered. “Mia and I are meeting with Tess and Phil to figure out an advertising strategy for the wine auction we're going to hold.”

Phil Onofrie was in charge of reservations and marketing. He and Tess, who did the events planning and handled all the social media stuff for the guest ranch, made a formidable team.

“An auction?” she asked.

“Yeah, Mia and her assistants, Johnny and Leo, pulled off a minor miracle—saving what they could of the wine.”

“I still can't believe that Mia's psychotic cousin tried to sabotage her by emptying all the fermenting tanks and wine barrels in the cellar. I hope he rots in jail.”

“You're not alone, sis. I was worried Jay had destroyed it all, that the juice fermenting in the tanks would be unsalvageable. But my girl's a fighter.” Reid's voice rang with pride. “Mia did a barrel test over the weekend. The young wine shows real promise.”

BOOK: Once Touched
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