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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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“Awesome. She did say that the harvest had been excellent.”

“Yeah. Of course, now that she's tasted what's been saved, it only magnifies the winery's loss. I figure the best way to get people talking about the wine and raise Mia's profile as an up-and-coming vintner is to auction it as a future.”

“Clever you.”

“I hope so,” Reid said. “I want to make it a splashy affair and get Jeff and Roo to cook up a pre-auction dinner to dazzle the guests and get them in the mood to bid high.”

“This auction sounds like it's going to be seriously swank, which means Phil, Ward, and Tess will be seriously stoked,” she predicted.

“More important is getting the bidders stoked. If we can raise a decent amount at the auction and have a good harvest next year, we might just make it. So fill me in,” he said, switching topics. “How was the trip to the sanctuary?”

“Amazing. Una's looking great. And she has a buddy, a retired movie star.” She explained about Griff, the newest pack member at Wolf Peak.

“And Ethan, how was he?”

“Grayer than the wolves. You'd have thought he'd been in prison.”

“I expect where he's been is another form of hell.”

“Well, he's in paradise now.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Ethan's definition of paradise might be quite different from ours, kid. And after what he's seen in Afghanistan, he might not be in a frame of mind to recognize its existence.”

She glanced at her brother. For all his laid-back mellowness, he could be surprisingly perceptive.

They'd reached the main lodge. The large planters in front of it were filled with gold and maroon mums in anticipation of Thanksgiving. The ranch was booked for the holiday, and then things would taper off until Christmas and New Year's.

Reid opened the door and held it for Quinn. She stepped inside the spacious foyer with its honey, wood, and cream tones and felt the familiar sense of pride wash over her at what her parents had accomplished in opening up the ranch to paying guests. The decision had initially been a monetary one, the revenue allowing her parents to continue to raise their horses, cattle, and sheep carefully and responsibly, which didn't come cheaply. But her parents' talents—her father's business savvy and her mother's genius at creating environments that delighted the senses—had made Silver Creek Ranch successful beyond their expectations. If the dry weather continued, her parents' foresight in welcoming paying guests might be what saved the entire operation.

Quinn and Reid waved to Natalie, who was working the front desk and had a phone pressed to her ear. She mouthed “Hi!” back. From the dining room came the clink of silverware as the guests tucked into one of Jeff's hearty breakfasts or spread jam or clover honey on Roo's steaming popovers and buttermilk biscuits. As they opened the door that led to the business offices, Quinn made a mental note to nab a few popovers. The muffin Josh had given her had been tasty, but nothing compared to Roo's baking.

In the carpeted hallway, she and Reid parted ways, Reid heading toward the meeting room, she continuing down to her father's office.

He was on the phone, so she took up her favorite position, perched on the corner of his enormous desk, and ran her fingers over one of the clay sculptures she'd made for him when she was a kid. From the length of the ears, she must have been trying for a rabbit. The misshapen terra-cotta blob sat on her dad's desk in pride of place as if it were a Frederic Remington.

It was clear he was trying to wrap up the conversation. “For sure…Yup…You bet. I'll talk to Adele and see if there's something we can do….I know you do, Joe. I'll call as soon as I can.” With a goodbye, he hung up and blew out a long breath.

“Joe who?” she asked.

“Trullo.” His leather chair creaked as he shifted in it. “He's offering us his property.”

“And?”

“The price he's asking is steep. On the plus side, it abuts our land to the south—”

“But it's also closer to Route 128.” Route 128 wasn't a super-busy road, but there was still traffic.

“Exactly. The property doesn't have the same level of privacy we enjoy here, which is a minus. But it's still a good parcel of land. And I don't particularly like the idea of not knowing who might buy it and what they might decide to do with it. Guess I'm kind of on the fence.”

“Mom'll be sure to have an opinion.”

“Count on it.” Her dad smiled.

Maybe this was why she'd yet to enter into a relationship with a man. Quinn couldn't imagine one that would be as strong and as vital as her parents' partnership. Even when they disagreed over something, their love for each other shone through.

“Reid said you wanted to speak to me. What's up?”

“How was Ethan on the trip back from the airport?”

Her fingers had moved from the sculpture to trace the whorled grain of the desk. They stilled. “You saw him.”

“Yeah.” His reply came with a sigh.

“Did you and Mom find out how he injured his arm?”

“It's his shoulder,” her dad corrected. “There was a roadside explosion—”

“My God.” She felt suddenly ill.

“That was pretty much our reaction. He also admitted he got knocked in the head, which I'm assuming means a concussion at the least. He refused to say more about what happened.”

“It must have been bad. Really bad.”

“Yes. No wonder Tony and Cheryl were beside themselves.” He glanced at her. “Ethan wants to earn his keep.”

“What? Are you kidding me? What can he possibly do, Dad? Listen, I don't want this to get back to Mom because she's already convinced she knows everything, but I actually agree with her. Silver Creek may not be the place for him right now. He should be in rehab and doing serious PT.” How ironic that only minutes ago she'd told Reid that Ethan had come to paradise. Now she was arguing that they should boot him out of it.

Her father's chair creaked again as he leaned back. “As a matter of fact, your mom and I already discussed this. She's come around to my way of thinking.” His voice suggested he was pleased. Winning Adele Knowles over was an achievement, even for him. “Quinn, the man needs to be of use while he recovers, doing something with visible results, not squeezing balls or lifting weights. Isn't that an essential part of your philosophy, that animals and humans alike are at their best and happiest when they're useful?” He paused to pin her with his steady gaze, and she tried not to squirm like a little kid. “Isn't seeing a horse shut up in a box stall all day long, with no room to run or graze, no chance to socialize with the herd, a heartbreaking sight? How many dogs have you fostered that spent their days cooped up in a tiny room, basement, or crate and were only given a fifteen-minute walk as exercise?”

“Too many,” she admitted.

“Same with Ethan. He's already spent two weeks stuck in a hospital room. Let's give him the chance to recover his strength and peace of mind his way. So how about it, Quinn? You ready to take him on?”

“Wait. Me? What am I supposed to do with him? Why not have Pete assign him some task?”

“Your mother thinks he should start with you. She's worried he might try to work too hard too soon under Pete with all the other ranch hands around.”

Men and their lame-brained macho competitions. “Yeah, he probably would hurt himself,” she conceded. “But seriously, Dad, what can I ask him to do when he looks barely strong enough to lift a toothbrush?”

“Come up with some light tasks until he's built up enough strength to work for Pete.”

She must have looked as unhappy as Sooner when she pulled out the washtub for bath time, for her father asked, “Can I count on you, sweetheart?”

Puffing out her cheeks, she blew the air out noisily. “Of course you can. It's only that we didn't hit it off so well.”

Her father looked amused at her admission. “Really? You've always been able to get men to follow you around like puppy dogs. Well, consider helping Ethan recover your repayment for all those times he led you around on Jinx. He helped make you the horsewoman you are.”

“Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?”

Unrepentant, he grinned. “I told Ethan to rest up for a couple of days. That should give you time to come up with some jobs that need doing.”

“It'll call for some seriously creative thinking. I can't even set him to weeding the vegetable garden. The weeds would humiliate him.”

Her father was still chuckling when she slid off his desk. “Quinn, honey, don't mention what happened to Ethan to anyone. It's his story to tell.”

“Of course.” She could keep secrets better than he knew.

“And don't make it obvious that you're going easy on him. I can't imagine he'd take it well.”

“Oh, I already figured that one out for myself—the man's as proud and stubborn as they come.”

“Then you'll be well matched, won't you, Quinn?”

“Ha, Dad. You're a hoot and a half. A comic of epic proportions. The stories they will tell of your wit.”

“Enough,” he said with a grin. With a wave of his hand he dismissed her. “Go on. If memory serves you have a salary to earn.”

—

It took several minutes before Ethan answered her loud rap on his cabin door.

“Hi,” she said. Her glance swept over him. He was still dressed in the same clothes he'd worn yesterday, and the left side of his face was creased. His hollow cheeks were covered in heavy stubble and, like the hair on his head, gray was mixed in with the dark brown.

In a word, he looked like crap. And if he'd managed to sleep, it hadn't left him rested. Or improved his mood or eased his pain.

When it was clear he didn't intend to return her greeting, she said, “You've been assigned to me.”

“What? Why?”

“Because you're lucky?”

He snorted.

So maybe he was strong enough to use a toothbrush, she thought as she caught a hint of mint on his breath. He had good teeth, white and strong. And his lips were nice. Not too thin, but not too fat. For some reason thinking about his mouth distracted her, so she lowered her gaze to the sling cradling his arm.

“Can you use it at all?” she asked, careful to keep her voice casual.

“The sling's coming off.”

“And you didn't answer my question,” she said mildly.

The brackets framing his mouth deepened. “Don't worry about me.”

“I wouldn't dream of it. When you're ready to work later this week, report to the goat pen at six
A.M.
It's past the sheep barn.” The imp in her had her adding, “You'll know you're at the right place when you see six of the cutest does ever. Oh, and here, catch.” She tossed a paper bag filled with one of Roo's biscuits
and
a popover, thinking she'd probably go to heaven for that generous act alone.

He caught it against his chest with his good arm. Not sloppy in the reflex department, she noted.

He scowled. “What's this?”

“Room service. Oh, okay, it's a peace offering.”

When his scowl deepened she said, “Look, don't get bent out of shape. I'm just sorry about the drive from the airport.”

“What the hell do you have to apologize for? I'm the one who acted like a prick.”

Her eyebrows rose. “True.” It was nice that he didn't hold a grudge.

“You do, however, have piss-poor taste in music.”

And she'd go to her grave before admitting that Morris Albert's “Feelings” wasn't her all-time fave.

“Better get used to it. My goats are especially fond of the Captain and Tennille.” Then Quinn left him to brood in his cabin before she could discover anything else she liked about him.

T
HE SKY WAS
the color of slate when Ethan walked past the corrals. Shadows of men moved with quiet efficiency among the horses; the animals had their muzzles to the ground as they sniffed for hay. They paid no heed to his presence. The men glanced his way, their gazes probing beneath the brims of their cowboy hats. Then, presumably identifying him, they ignored him as well, returning to their chores.

These were men who knew how to leave a body alone. He appreciated that even as he tried not to resent them for the ease of their movements.

It had taken him curse-filled minutes to peel off the jeans and shirt he'd slept in, if sleeping was what you'd call the nightmare-ridden hours he'd endured. The shower had washed away the cold sweat covering him. But he couldn't do anything about the new film that had coated him while he dressed.

A mordant smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he imagined Quinn's reaction were he to show up at her goat pen naked as the new day. He was sure the sight of his sorry hide would rob her of any sassy quips or the teasing laughter he sometimes heard in her voice…leaving only pity.

He passed the sheep barn. Its double doors were open, framing a gold rectangle of light. A disjointed chorus of
baa
s emanated from deep inside. He'd have paused to look at whatever was going on, but he didn't want to be late; in fact, he intended to be the opposite.

If Quinn was surprised to see him when Daniel Knowles had suggested he take a couple of days off before reporting for duty, she didn't show it. She merely paused in the midst of filling the raised feeder for the congregated goats that were bumping each other and stretching their necks to grab at bits of hay, and said, “Couldn't wait to get cracking, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Hold on a sec. I'll be right with you.”

She probably hadn't meant the suggestion literally, but he leaned against the metal railing of the goat pen on legs that felt like rubber. He'd walked a little over a quarter of a mile, the longest distance since he'd left Afghanistan on a stretcher.

Finished filling the feeder, she went to the gate and opened it. “Come on in,” she said, and then led him to the side entrance of a small barn. They entered a room with a concrete floor, a stainless steel sink and counters lining the wall to their right. At the end of the counter there was a large, plastic-lined garbage bin with smaller tubs arranged next to it. On the opposite wall stood an industrial-sized refrigerator. Between them was a large storage cupboard. The air inside the room smelled of soap, which made sense, since the place was as immaculate as a surgery room but a whole lot nicer to be inside.

She was looking at him. “So you ditched the sling, huh?”

“Yup.” He'd gotten damned good at one-word responses.

“Wiggle your fingers.”

He had a sudden memory of one of the soldiers at Walter Reed who'd lost his right hand. The poor bastard was probably still there, learning how to live with a prosthetic. Slowly he forced digits as stiff as concrete to move.

“Not bad,” was the verdict. “Though I'm not sure you're ready to play any piano concertos.”

He glanced at Quinn. Her light teasing aside, he could imagine how it must irk a beautiful young woman like her to be stuck with a wreck like him. Because now that nausea wasn't blanketing his vision, Quinn's loveliness was startlingly clear: her glowing skin, her searing blue eyes lit by diamond chips, her wide cheekbones, and her soft, full lips that looked as if she'd just been thoroughly and expertly kissed.

When Ethan was a kid, his teacher at Acacia Elementary used to have the class play a game. It was called something like “What Doesn't Belong Here?” He, standing beside this perfect woman in her perfect, spotless world, was the oddball.

But one thing he knew about Adele and Daniel Knowles: their kindness and generosity were deep-seated and totally genuine. Quinn must have inherited it, for all she said next was, “Go wash up and we'll set to work. Oh, and use the soap in the pump bottle. It's antibacterial.”

While he washed his hands, he tracked her movements as she crisscrossed the room, pulling out neatly folded washcloths and a stack of metal pails from the cupboard next to the refrigerator. Setting them on the counter, she filled one of the buckets with feed pellets from the large bin.

When he stepped away from the sink to dry his hands, she took his place, turning on the water and filling another bucket before squirting some of the antibacterial soap into it. Picking up the two buckets, she hooked her fingers around the stack of still-empty pails and lifted them, too. “Grab the washcloths and follow me.”

He looked at all the stuff she was carrying. “I can at least carry the empty pails for you, damn it.”

With a roll of her eyes, she thrust them toward him so he could grasp the handles in his good hand. “There. Now that your male ego is satisfied, can we get a move on? Coco gets witchy if she's kept waiting.”

The clanking of metal marked their progress outside. The noise had one of the goats removing her nose from the feeder. Looking at Quinn, she bleated imperiously.

“Yes, Coco, you'll go first.”

He watched Quinn set the bucket of water on the ground next to a wooden platform roughly the size of a cot with an odd-looking headboard at its end.

“You can set the pails down here.” She pointed to a spot in the middle of the platform while she walked over to the headboard and poured some pellets into a trough that he hadn't noticed before.

The imperious bleat came again.

“I hear you, Coco. You could try to be a little more polite, you know.”

She brushed past him and the air turned fresh. He inhaled, and her scent—it reminded him of a spring garden—entered his bloodstream. Something inside him tightened and became an ache different from all the others. This one sweet and beguiling.

The sky had lightened. He could see her tall, leggy form as she moved among her goats, continuing her cheerful chatter as they bumped her affectionately with their shoulders and gummed her down vest.

Wrapping her hand about the goat's leather collar, she snapped a lead line on it and led her back to the platform.

“So this here's Coco, my most demanding Toggenburg.” Dropping a kiss on the bony ridge above the goat's eye, she continued, “Coco, this is Ethan. He's going to get to know you today. Up, Coco.” She gestured, and the animal leapt onto the platform and made a beeline for the trough, her neck fitting into the vee of the headboard, which Ethan now understood served as a kind of yoke.

Quinn sat on a low bench and got to work, talking as she picked up one of the washcloths and dunked it into the bucket of soapy water. “Before you begin milking, you have to wash the udder and teats first,” she said, swabbing them with gentle efficiency. “The only good thing about this drought is that the girls aren't playing in the mud. Frankly, I'd do a jig to see them caked in it from nose to tail. There, all done.” She set the cloth and bucket aside. “Now, watch carefully. As I said, Coco's a bit of a diva. She gives a lot of milk but doesn't tolerate fumblers. On the upside, if you can milk Coco, the rest of my girls will be a breeze. I'll—”

“Wait. You intend to have me milk your goats?”

“Yup. It's your new job. Consider yourself enrolled in Milking 101. See this? This here is a teat.” She brushed the distended teat with her index finger. “You ever handled one before?” The ghost of a grin lifted the corner of her mouth.

Damn, he liked her sense of humor. Clearly the moment had come for a little tit for tat. “I've had experience with something similar, but I've never been especially interested in milking any of them.” He paused as if considering. “Suckling, definitely.”

There was enough light to catch the fiery blush that stole over her cheeks. She cleared her throat and coughed. “Excuse me. Must have swallowed some hay.” She made a show of coughing again. “Right. Good. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. You'll need to bring your A-game with Coco. Take a seat.”

He looked around. “Where?”

“Here.” She patted the space next to her. “You need to see what I'm doing.”

He shrugged inwardly. What the hell? He could give it a try. He sat, and she scooted an inch or two closer to the goat's side.

“Watch and learn.” Quinn made a circle with her index finger and thumb. She brought it to the base of the teat until the back of her hand rested against the engorged udder. “You begin by pushing up against the udder like this and feeling for the milk. When you do, you're going to close your thumb and index finger and draw the milk down, the rest of your hand squeezing as you do.” As she uttered the words, a stream of milk shot from beneath her closed fingers and landed on the wood.

“Don't you need a pail?”

“First I have to check that the milk is clear, with no dark lumps. Now that I've seen it's fine, you can place the pail a few inches in front of her hind legs.”

He grabbed one of the metal pails and positioned it as instructed.

“Okay, I'm going to demonstrate again. Then I'll start milking for real.”

As he watched her hand moving up and down, drawing milk from the udder, he wondered whether she had any idea how erotic the act was—not her milking a goat per se, but her hand grasping and tugging on warm flesh and coaxing forth a jet of liquid. It was earthy and unabashedly sensual.

Then her other hand joined in, working the second teat. Quinn pumped rhythmically, the milk hitting the pail in a steady stream. “Once you've started milking, you'll notice that the bag—a.k.a. the udder—empties. When it's less full, you can press higher. See?”

“Yeah,” he said, and then, figuring she wanted him to look, he leaned in. A mistake, as once again he was distracted by her nearness. He told himself to concentrate on the goat and not the girl, on the rich tang of warm milk rather than the lighter, floral scent emanating from Quinn. It was damned hard.

And, Christ, she really must be unaware, or at least totally unaffected and uninterested, because she began chattering away, telling him all about her goats and the cheesemonger who used their milk to make cheese for the ranch's restaurant, selling any extra that remained at the farmer's market in town. Meanwhile, Ethan watched her long, supple fingers and wondered what they'd feel like against his skin….

“Okay, now put your hands over mine so you can get a better sense of what I'm doing.”

He bit back the instinctive
No. Hell, no
that sprang to his lips. He'd been to Afghanistan. Surely he could manage to milk a goat. Surely he could handle touching Quinn Knowles. “Right,” he muttered.

She stilled her hands. He placed his larger ones lightly over them.

For a second she was silent. Then she said, “Here we go.”

Was there a slight breathlessness to her voice? he wondered. But then her hands began moving, her fingers opening and squeezing as she worked the teat, his own following, learning, feeling the softness of her skin and the strength in her fingers. Warm milk streamed into the pail, the sound growing deeper as the pail filled.

“Pay attention to the rhythm,” she instructed.

Oh God, the rhythm. And no, it wasn't a slow thrust and grind but that didn't make it any the less carnal. He frowned, trying to concentrate.
Up, open, down, squeeze,
he recited silently.

“Got it?”

Jesus.
“Yeah, I think so.” His voice was rough.

“Good.” Without warning, she slipped her hands from beneath his and sat back, crossing her arms about her middle.

He knew a moment of panic as he tried to remember Quinn's motions, tried to feel for the milk in the udder that was waiting to be released. Then a minor miracle occurred. A stream of milk spurted into the pail, followed by another—nowhere near as strong or evenly paced as when Quinn had worked the teats, but still.

BOOK: Once Touched
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