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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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Ethan made himself maintain the tempo and smooth it out, even as his arm and shoulder began to throb from moving these few inches. Within minutes both his shoulders, biceps, and forearms felt as heavy as if he'd been chopping wood for hours. He set his jaw and continued, reaching ever higher as the goat's udder softened.

After what seemed like an eternity she said, “You can ease up now. She's at empty.”

He lowered his hands and bit back a groan.

“Pretty decent job for your first time.”

Who would have predicted her words would make him feel like he'd just been awarded a Pulitzer?

She reached up to pat Coco's shaggy flank. “Coco obviously thought so, too, since she didn't kick you in the gut. You up to milking Gertrude? She's a real sweetie.”

God help him. This was harder than any of the PT exercises he'd been given. “Yeah.” He surreptitiously clenched and relaxed his right hand to keep the muscles from stiffening any further.

“Good. Then I can—”

“Morning, Quinn. Brought you coffee.” It was a man's voice, laced with a Texas accent.

Beside him Quinn started. “Oh! Hi, Josh.”

Ethan looked up and encountered an assessing gaze. He had a hunch this Josh guy had been measuring the inches—of which there were none—that separated Quinn and Ethan.

“Hey there,” he said with a dip of his cowboy hat.

“Hey,” Ethan replied.

The word still hung in the air as Quinn scrambled off the bench. She strode over to where Josh stood by the pen and plucked the coffee mug from his hands, speaking in a rush. “Not necessary to bring me coffee, but since you did, it'd be criminal to let it go to waste.” She took a few quick gulps while he and Josh continued to eye each other, and then said, “Ethan, this is Josh Yates, one of our new ranch hands. Josh, this is Ethan—”

“You're the photographer the guys are talking about. I have some buddies in Afghanistan. Marines. Camp Leatherneck. You been there?”

Guessing what was coming, Ethan tensed. “No. I was embedded with a unit in Kandahar, to the east. Camp Nathan Smith.”

“Right. Is it as effed-up over there as they say?”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

“I thought so. I considered enlisting.” He gave a shrug.

Ethan couldn't blame him for his decision. It wasn't as if he'd signed up to fight, either. And it wasn't Josh's fault that so many others had died. That's where Ethan knew he and Josh differed.

“Bet you saw some bad shit, huh?”

Christ, did people really expect an answer to that question? What did they want, a list detailing the horror, the blood, the carnage, the total mind-fucking wrongness of some of the things he'd witnessed? Experienced?

Apparently unfazed by his silence, Josh asked, “Who were you photographing?”

“Army grunts. Just your average Joes.” A number of them younger than Josh.

“Oh, yeah, sure. So, did they finish their tour of duty and return home for some well-deserved R&R?”

What he wouldn't give to make that so, rather than have to live with the fact that Archie Donovan, Aaron Smith, and Casey Logar had died mere feet from him. If they hadn't had the bad luck to be assigned to escort him into Kandahar, they might be alive. Instead they died for a fucking photo shoot.

They weren't the only casualties that haunted him. From deep inside a familiar pain clawed at him. But then Quinn spoke. Though he couldn't make sense of what she was saying, he clung to the sound of her voice. Gradually the pain loosened its hold.

“…I have some needy goats to milk and a pen to clean before I lead the morning trail ride.”

Goats. Milk. Pen.
The words brought him back from that dusty road in the hell that was Afghanistan. He blinked, weak with relief. If she'd been anyone else but the disarmingly beautiful Quinn Knowles, daughter of his parents' close friends, he might have kissed her out of gratitude.

Luckily she didn't seem to have noticed anything off about him as he relived the harrowing pain or his slack-jawed relief at being freed from those memories. Her attention was on Josh.

No big surprise that the wrangler was equally focused on her. A woman like Quinn would have men lined up from here to South America hoping to date her.

“Oh, yeah. About that trail ride,” Josh said. “I'm your backup.”

A frown of confusion crossed Quinn's face. “I thought Pete assigned Jim—”

“Nope. Jim's off to the dentist with a real bad toothache. I volunteered to take his place. Have to admit, I'll be jealous of you on Domino. Any chance you want to swap and ride Waylon?”

“Thanks, but no. Domino's feelings would be hurt.”

“Had to give it a shot.” Turning to him, Josh said, “You seen her Appaloosa? A real beaut. Rides like the wind. And how about these goats? She takes real good care of them. Talks to 'em, too.” He chuckled.

Ethan got the message loud and clear. Josh brought Quinn coffee. He'd ridden her horse. He'd witnessed Quinn in a conversation with her beloved goats. Next on the cowboy's to-do list: get Quinn somewhere private.

“Nothing wrong with talking to goats. They're more interesting than many humans I've encountered,” he answered with a cool stare, even as he reminded himself that Quinn had two older brothers and a father who were more than capable of taking Josh out of the picture if need be. Besides, Quinn didn't seem to mind Josh's attention, though right now she'd ducked her head and was staring in apparent fascination at a tiny hoofprint in the dirt.

To his credit, Josh met his stare with a level gaze. Of course, it was likely the cowboy recognized that Ethan wasn't exactly a threat. Josh could have him flat on his ass before he could even land a punch anywhere near Josh's pretty mug. And in terms of competing for Quinn's attention, well, that was a non-issue on so many levels, never mind that she was the first woman to make him feel and notice things—good things—in months.

Josh returned his attention to Quinn. “Since you're so busy this morning, you want me to groom Domino for you?”

Ah, so Josh didn't know Quinn quite as well as he should.

Ethan remembered the way she'd been with that pony of hers. The brushes had been bigger than her hands but that hadn't stopped her from doing her level best to make that shaggy pinto coat shine. He doubted she would have outgrown the need to spend special time with her horses, connecting with them as she brushed their coats, inspected their hooves, and checked for any soreness in their bodies.

The bright smile that she pinned on her face came as a surprise, except when he realized that it was a shade
too
bright, as if she was eager to be rid of Josh. “That would be so great, Josh. Thanks!”

“Anytime, Quinn.” Along with a slow smile, Josh's voice had dropped, going all husky. The guy was slick. “I'll catch you in a few, then.” With a nod to Ethan he said, “Good to meet you.”

“Yeah. Likewise.” No reason to hold it against the Texan for asking about Afghanistan. It was natural. Plenty of people sounded off on topics about which they knew jack.

And so what if the guy was making the moves on Quinn? Who was he to judge, or denounce Josh as a little too practiced with his moves, or wonder whether he was right for Quinn?

The guy probably thought he was perfect for her, but Ethan had looked at people through lenses for many years. He knew Josh wasn't seeing Quinn clearly. Because for all her easy banter, for all that Quinn appeared to be struck by the cowboy's good looks and charm, she also seemed slightly uncomfortable around him. Why, he didn't know.

Best to stay out of it. He could easily imagine Quinn setting him straight. She wouldn't mince words telling him to keep his nose out of her business. He of all people should respect that. Besides, why go looking for problems when he could hardly deal with his own?

L
IFE AT
S
ILVER
Creek Ranch was something Quinn generally navigated with ease. She didn't mind the long hours or shifting gears as she moved from one job to the next, one minute shoveling manure into the wheelbarrow and rolling it to the pile, the next minute tidying herself up and flipping on the charm switch to lead ranch guests on a two-hour ride or heading over to the main lodge and helping the waitstaff when the ranch's restaurant was short of servers.

But suddenly her world seemed complicated, doubly so.

Men,
she thought with a sigh.

She didn't know which male troubled her more, Ethan or Josh. And she didn't like having either one invade her thoughts while she stood in front of Major's long brown nose and eyeballed his rider's spanking new cowboy boots peeking through the stirrups.

The boots belonged to a guest named Sharon, half of a couple, and she was as new to riding as her boots. But she and her husband, Paul, seemed to love each other, so clearly she had smarts and experience that Quinn sorely lacked.

“How do those stirrups feel, Sharon? You want to be able to keep your legs long and your heels down when Major starts to move.”

“I guess they feel good.” Sharon managed a smile.

“You look great on him, hon,” Paul said, who was far more comfortable in the saddle than his wife, even though he'd confessed it had been nearly a decade since he was last astride a horse.

“That's 'cause he's standing still. All bets are off once he starts going.”

“No worries, Sharon. Major and I will take care of you,” Quinn assured her with an easy smile. “You, Paul, Mellie and Leonard, and Katherine and Stephen will be riding with me. Domino and I are going to take you on some of our favorite trails.”

“And the others get to go with Josh?” Katherine asked, her pout matching her tone.

“That's right. He'll be taking the more experienced riders this morning.” And the less flirtatious ones, too. It was sheer good luck that Katherine wouldn't have been able to keep up with the faster-paced ride, because the overt come-hither glances she'd been casting Josh's way had quickly gone into
Houston, we have a problem
territory. Had Katherine bothered to look over at Stephen, she'd have beheld a supremely pissed-off spouse.

Even if Katherine had been an intermediate rider—and from the way she slouched in the saddle and held her reins, it was clear she was anything but—Quinn didn't want her and Stephen anywhere near Josh. The other guests didn't deserve to be treated to a marital blow-up on their trail ride.

Domino had been standing patiently while Quinn checked stirrups and cinches and adjusted the riders' hands on their reins, urging them to relax their death grip. Each contact made her remember another pair, this one surprisingly sensitive and strong. Even now she could recall the warm weight and steady pressure of Ethan's hands covering hers as she taught him to milk.

Quinn was the first to admit she had a tendency to act impulsively. Her suggestion that Ethan place his hands over hers was a perfect example. In her own defense, she'd believed that, given the stiffness in his injured shoulder and arm, hands-on learning would be the best way to teach him. He'd caught on amazingly quickly—but not before the heat from his body transferred to hers. Not before her body started listening to his, communicating on some level she wasn't used to.

Even now she was feeling odd and unsettled.

Grasping Domino's reins in her left hand, she raised her leg, placed the toe of her boot in the stirrup, and swung herself up into the saddle, finding the other stirrup with her right foot. Settling her weight in the cantle, she leaned forward and ran her hand up the crest of Domino's neck, saying hello to her gelding.

He looked good. Josh had brushed him until his inky black coat gleamed and the white spots on his haunches stood out like giant snowflakes. Even his black ears, which had swiveled at the familiar caress, were at their glossiest.

For that alone she should be able to shake off her annoyance with Josh, irrational though it was. It wasn't his fault he'd been unaware that Ethan had been injured in Afghanistan, especially since Ethan had discarded his sling. And though he was noticeably thin and haggard, the morning light had softened his drawn expression and the shadows in his eyes.

Nor could she blame Josh for behaving like an armchair general. If he had friends who'd been deployed in Afghanistan, he'd probably heard just enough to think he knew something about what it was like for the men risking their lives. But while she didn't know all the details of what had happened to Ethan, she instinctively understood that he'd chosen Silver Creek Ranch as a refuge from those questions. Unfortunately, the Texan hadn't picked up on the fact that a little discretion was in order.

For whatever reason, perhaps because he was caught up in the excitement of discussing the war, Josh hadn't noticed how still Ethan became when asked about the soldiers with whom he'd been stationed and where they were now. No,
still
wasn't the right word. He'd become frozen, locked in his memories.

Josh hadn't noticed the change, but she had. She'd looked into Ethan's face and known that whatever he was feeling right then, it was infinitely worse than the pain that had had him bent in half and puking his guts into the base of the airport's potted plant.

Determined to divert Josh's attention, she'd begun rattling off her morning list of chores, praying he'd get the hint and leave, or at the very least stop talking about Afghanistan until Ethan could escape from wherever he was trapped.

It had worked. She'd babbled on, listing everything she could think of until, from the corner of her eye, she saw Ethan relax, inch by inch. And Josh had abandoned his Q&A to offer to groom Domino for her. She'd accepted. She'd have agreed to a lot of things if it meant giving Ethan a chance to wrest free of his demons.

In a perfect world, she'd have figured out a way to be rid of both men: Ethan, who was hurting and withdrawn yet whose touch left her flustered and hyperaware of things she usually never noticed, like the dark crescent his lashes made against his cheeks, the intelligence that pierced the shadows of his gray eyes, the light brown hair sprinkling his forearms, the intensity of his focus as he'd taken over the milking, his large hands working the teats.

And then there was Josh, so handsome and comfortable with himself, who seemed intent on pursuing her with a happy and steady cheer that was making her feel like a seesaw. One minute she wanted to resist him, the next she found herself tempted to yield.

Quinn knew most women would be dancing on air to have a man like Josh paying so much attention to them. They would be counting the hours until next Friday night in the hopes he might pay even closer attention, like on the dance floor, or on one of the sofas tucked away in a corner of the bar.

But other women didn't have her miserable track record to haunt them.

The prospect of another screw-up, this time with someone she saw every day, filled her with the dread one might feel walking into an exam unprepared. It didn't matter that she would be with Mia, Reid, Tess, Ward, and anyone else she could drag to the bar.

With a hard tug on her battered brown Stetson, she lowered the brim over her brow, shielding her expression. She had a hunch Josh would be tickled pink to know how worried she was about a simple date.

“You set over there?” she called to him. His group being bigger, he'd only just mounted Waylon.

“Ready to roll,” he answered with that disarming grin that made her want to fuss with her hair and maybe dab on some lip gloss, even as she contemplated galloping straight for the hills.

As she urged Domino forward, leading the group out of the corral, she wondered whether Ethan had ever smiled as easily or as often. And how would she feel if he ever smiled at her?

—

Ethan leaned against the pillar that supported the extended overhang of the horse barn and watched Quinn and Josh ready the group of riders. He wasn't sure why he'd stopped at the corrals, since he was bone tired after having helped Quinn milk two more of her goats before she'd told him that milking class was over for the day.

Her horse Domino was a superb animal, as sleek and muscled as that pinto pony of hers had been shaggy and round. He saw her mount lightly and then reach forward and caress her gelding's black mane.

A memory flashed in his brain. It was of Quinn's bright blond pigtails flopping on either side of her pony's brown and white neck as she laid her torso against it and combed his mane with her chubby fingers. It did something inside him to recall that uncomplicated gesture of love and to see it alive and well today. After the hatred and fear he'd seen in too many faces and the despair he'd witnessed in too many places, the simple happiness Quinn displayed around animals was like stepping into the light after the suffocating gunmetal grays and dusty camo colors of Afghanistan, where innocence and joy died too quickly.

So there was the answer as to why he was standing in the shadows of the horse barn: Quinn. She drew him. The sweet animal-crazy kid he remembered had grown into a startlingly beautiful woman who was fascinatingly different. How could there not be a magnetic pull?

Yet he would have to ignore the attraction. While he might harbor a few middling reservations about Josh and whether the Texan was good enough for Quinn, Ethan had no illusions about himself.

He'd never be the right man for her.

First off, he was too old for her. Yet even if there hadn't been ten years' difference between them, there were all the life experiences that set them apart, making a gap a gulf. Second, too much darkness clung to him. He'd be shade in her sun-kissed world. And finally, though he loved the beauty of Silver Creek, he didn't belong here. He wasn't sure he belonged anywhere—

Absorbed in his thoughts, Ethan hadn't heard the footsteps until they were almost upon him. The realization was freaky. In Afghanistan he and the troops had twitched at the rustling of leaves, the unexpected cry of a bird. The soldiers would reach for their weapons while he prayed he survived the ambush.

“Morning, Ethan. You're up early.” Daniel Knowles's glance took in the cream and gray hairs stuck to Ethan's shirt. “Quinn put you to work already?” There was a touch of concern in his voice.

“It was my idea,” Ethan told him.

“So how did it go? She's a hell of a taskmaster,” said a guy with shaggy blond hair and blue eyes that were almost identical to Quinn's.

“She had me milk a few of her goats. An interesting experience. You're Reid, right?”

“Yeah.” He thrust out his hand. “It's been a long time. Good to see you, Ethan.”

“We're glad you're here,” said the third man. “I'm Ward, in case you don't remember.”

“Sure I do,” Ethan replied. Ward was the one who most closely resembled Daniel, with dark hair and a broader frame. “No matter how hard I tried, I could never beat your time when it came to roping a steer.”

The senior Knowles laughed. “Unfortunately for the rest of our egos, Ward's only gotten faster.”

“Hope you'll come out and ride with us when you're ready,” Ward said.

“Thanks.” Due to the shrapnel that had been buried in his shoulder by the IED blast, there was no way he'd be able to ride like his usual self, or even like the lucky kid who'd learned to gallop over these rolling hills. He'd have to get a lot stronger if he wanted to climb into a saddle and stay there once his mount moved forward. And he wanted it. Wanted to feel the powerful flow of a horse beneath him again. Which meant he would have to do significantly more than milk goats to regain his strength and mobility. He remembered the soldiers' workouts. Endless push-ups, sit-ups, squat jumps. The floor of his cabin was a hell of a lot nicer than any spot on the army base. He had no excuse.

BOOK: Once Touched
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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