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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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“So she introduced you to the goats,” Reid said. “Don't let them or Quinn drive you crazy. Believe me, they can.”

Ward nodded in agreement. “Quinn's like a force of nature. She leaves most of us reeling.”

“But we're rooting for you,” Reid told him. “Right, Dad?”

Daniel smiled. “We are indeed.”

What would her brothers and father think if they knew that, far from driving him nuts, there was something about Quinn that helped beat back the madness, the darkness in his soul?

If they cared as much about her as he suspected, their laid-back geniality would vanish. They'd do whatever was necessary to keep him the hell away from her and her herd of goats.

And they certainly wouldn't be rooting for him.

A
S THE SPECTER
of her group date with Josh loomed larger, Quinn found herself increasingly enjoying the time spent in Ethan's company. His prickly monosyllabic reserve was the perfect antidote to her pre-date jitters. And as her dread increased, his complete disinterest in her as a woman was like chocolate buttercream frosting on a perfectly baked cake.

Every morning he arrived punctually at the goat pen to help feed and then milk the does while she supervised and carried the pails full of milk into the storeroom's refrigerator for George Alston, cheesemonger extraordinaire, to pick up later.

The routine lasted until the fourth day, when he announced, with the steel-jawed determination she'd come to recognize, his intention to start mucking out the pen for her. Naturally, they'd argued.

“I want to work, damn it. You've got to give me more to do.”

“You don't need to do more. Why don't you rest?” Sure, he was moving better now, not in that frighteningly stiff way he'd carried himself at the airport when she'd first seen him, but that didn't mean he was ready to take on more.

He looked at her as if she had the wits of a slug. So very refreshing. “I rested in the hospital. You want me to sit around on my ass from nine
A.M.
on?”

“Of course not. But that doesn't mean you need to shovel goat droppings. Why don't you take some photographs?”

The second she uttered the suggestion, his expression closed tighter than a sealed vault.

“I'm finished with photography.”

Clearly this was dangerous territory. She ventured into the minefield nonetheless. “But why? You're really good—”

“Leave it alone, Quinn.”

She was learning Ethan-speak. What he actually meant was leave
him
alone, and that was something she wasn't going to do—until she looked and saw the depth of pain in his eyes. “Fine. Go ahead and pick up the droppings in the pen if that makes you happy. It'll give Hennie extra time to trail after you like Mary's little lamb.”

His glower made her feel better about having caved to his demands. She much preferred it to the shuttered look he'd worn earlier or the bleak light in his eyes.

And if he was going to shovel shit, at least her goats' leavings were a lighter load than horse or cow manure. She didn't want him straining his injury.

And Hennie
was
overjoyed. The doe had taken an instant shine to Ethan. After Ethan finished milking her, she stuck like a shadow as he led the other goats from the feeder to the milking stand. When he bent over to position the pail and began working, she'd sidle up and begin nibbling on his collar. Never once did he push her nose away. It was cute as anything.

Ethan was also the first person outside of her family to be able to distinguish the goats.

When she mentioned this to him, he looked at her for a long moment, long enough that she succumbed to temptation and bit into the pear and cinnamon muffin she'd filched from Roo—the one she'd given Ethan having disappeared within seconds.

“Yeah, well, I generally make an effort to remember a female's name once I've put my hands on her teats.”

She coughed her muffin halfway across the pen. Maybelle beat the other girls to it, scarfing down the crumbs.

When she recovered, she swiped the back of her hand across her lips to wipe away any stray muck, and noticed that the corner of his mouth was tilted up. “That's real big of you,” she said tartly. “No wonder Hennie's smitten. She's probably got you confused with Romeo—the buck she and the girls visited a couple weeks ago.”

There,
she thought. That would show him she wasn't thrown by the idea of his fondling other women's breasts. And please God, don't let him guess that she still remembered the weight and warmth of his hands over hers.

And what would it have felt like if Ethan had slid those hands up her body until he reached her breasts, caressing them and then teasing her nipples with his long fingers?

With a convulsive jerk, she pulled herself up short. Where had that thought come from? The reason she liked hanging out with Ethan was because he
wasn't
interested in her. Never once in the time they'd spent together had he acted as if he was mentally undressing her or figuring out the quickest way to get her to a place where he could do so literally.

“Very funny. Listen, I need you to assign me some more jobs.”

She had trouble switching gears, still embarrassingly stuck on the hands-fondling-breasts fantasy starring a guy who exuded indifference the way others did Old Spice. And wasn't that proof that she was the only creature in this pen thinking about sex? Except perhaps Gertrude, who was a little slutty.

“Seriously? You've already taken over the goats' care. I know this is a working ranch, but it's also a
resort
—you know, a place where people relax.”

“I don't do relaxed.”

No kidding. He specialized in intense and brooding.

She scrambled to come up with something else that would allow him to exercise but not overtax his shoulder. “Can you groom a horse? I can help pick out the hooves—or you can manage yourself,” she tacked on quickly when Ethan's lips thinned to a flat, irritated line. “Frank and Mel, two of our hands, went to visit family now so they could be back here for Thanksgiving, so we're understaffed. And Dad, Ward, and Reid are spending the morning stacking a new load of hay that's come in, so I'm sure our foreman, Pete, would appreciate your help.”

Her dad would be fine with the suggestion. Ethan could use his good arm to brush off the horses if need be, and honestly, she couldn't think of any other tasks to give him. She doubted he'd be too thrilled at the prospect of picking squashes and kale or spreading compost around the rows. Besides, working the garden was solitary—the last thing Ethan needed. He should be in the company of men. And animals. Along with dogs, horses were some of the best medicine in the world.

“When you're finished mucking out the pen, come on over to the corrals. I'll introduce you to the herd. Oh, and can you do me a favor?” she added casually.

“Yeah.”

“Keep Sooner here with you. I'm going to be grooming Tucker, and I don't want him getting nervous.” It wasn't an outright lie, just a taffy-like stretch of the truth. Her rescue gelding did get nervous, but it was men who made his eyes roll back and his hind leg kick out in fear, not dogs. And her Sheltie was well trained. She could have asked him for a down/stay at fifty paces during the entire time she worked with Tucker. But the germ of an idea had sprouted.

In response, Ethan eyed Sooner, who was sitting with his head cocked now that she'd spoken his name. Then he looked back at her.

She held her breath, waiting for Ethan to call her out on her BS request. But he merely shrugged with his good shoulder. “Suit yourself.”

She intended to, especially as her idea had taken root and she was beginning to see its potential. It could be perfect. Epic. Not to brag, but she had a genius for these things.

“Stay,” she told Sooner. Then, flashing Ethan a bright smile, she said, “When you're done here, just tell him to find me.”

—

The sheltie was like a mini Lassie. Or maybe he was just another male who'd fallen under Quinn's spell. Either way, after Ethan had finished shoveling the goats' pen and kicking around a scuffed-up soccer ball for a few minutes with Hennie—the real reason the nanny goat liked him—all he had to do was open the gate and say, “Find Quinn,” and the dog rose from his alert crouch and shot off like a bullet toward the horse barn.

Ethan followed more slowly.

The fiery chestnut with the white blaze must be the one Quinn called Tucker. She was bending over his rear right leg, carefully picking out his hoof. Though the horse's ears twitched back and forth, his raised hoof remained cradled in her hand.

Ethan stood some distance away, figuring she'd deal with him when she was finished tending to the horse. Around him the ranch hands were crisscrossing the open space between the barns and the corrals. As usual, he sensed that they did a quick scan, identified him, and left him alone. No reason they should interrupt their morning's work.

“Hey, Ethan. What's up? You escaped the goat pen?”

Ethan nodded but kept his gaze trained on Quinn and the chestnut. They were a far more interesting sight than Josh. “I'm finished, is all.”

“Hmm.” Josh came to stand beside him. “She's something, isn't she?”

The horse was a gelding, so Josh had to be referring to Quinn. But there could have been a whole crowd of cheerleaders, a throng of glamorous models, and even a herd of cowgirls and Ethan would have assumed he was talking about Quinn. He'd spent several days now waiting for the radiance of her beauty to dim. She was captivating when cranky and undercaffeinated; she was breathtaking at thirty feet away, wielding a hoof pick. The amazing thing about her was that she didn't even make an effort to enhance her allure. She just was.

“Yeah,” he replied. No point in saying otherwise. “That's a nice horse. Looks like he's got thoroughbred in him.”

“He's a rescue. Apparently he was in real bad shape when Quinn got him. Still spooks at his own shadow.”

Ethan could relate.

“So, you into her?”

Ethan shot him a look. “Into her?”

“Yeah. Into her,” Josh repeated.

“I babysat her.”

The corner of Josh's mouth twitched. “Bet she was something.”

“She was four.”

“She ain't four now.”

For some reason Ethan's fingers had curled into a fist. “Doesn't matter,” he said flatly.

“Well, yeah, it does. Because I do like you. The thing is, I like Quinn a whole lot better. I've asked her out, you know. We're going to the local bar Friday night. Word has it that Quinn is very choosy. I'm going to do everything I can to get her to choose me.”

“Have a great time.”

Josh's smile was slow but didn't stop until it had stretched wide across his face. “I plan to,” he said. With a laugh he slapped Ethan's injured shoulder, nearly sending him to his knees. “You and I should grab a beer sometime. Not Friday, though.”

Ethan was saved from unlocking his jaw and attempting an articulate reply by Quinn. Finished cleaning out the hoof, she lowered it to the ground, straightened, and gave his rump a pat before moving to stand by his head. Ethan watched her say something as she unsnapped the lead rope attached to the gelding's halter. Releasing him, she stepped back and the horse sprang into motion, a fiery streak tearing across the corral. Midway he bucked, flashing his copper belly and the matching white stockings on his hind legs.

The grin on Quinn's face slipped a fraction when she turned and found the two of them observing her. Bizarrely, that made Ethan happier; Josh didn't rank as high as her horse.

Her dog, Sooner, had been waiting with the patience of Job by one of the corral posts. At a signal from Quinn, he bounded forward, his body quivering, ready to obey his mistress's next command.

“Morning, Josh. Is Pete around?”

“Yeah, he's in the barn. Wheeler's got a cut on his shoulder.”

“Bad?”

“No. It won't need stitching. He should be done cleaning it by now. You want me to get him?”

“No, thanks. I'm going to volunteer Ethan's services. Find Pete, Sooner.”

The three of them—Josh seemed loath to let Quinn out of his sight—followed the dog toward the horse barn with its sloping roof.

As they neared it, two wranglers came out, carrying lead ropes. Quinn stopped to say hello and then introduced Ethan to them.

He shook their hands and learned that Jim and Rick had worked at Silver Creek for five and seven years, respectively. Unsurprising. The Knowleses were the sort of people to foster loyalty.

“You mind grabbing Chester and Rush's tack, Josh?” Rick asked.

BOOK: Once Touched
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