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Authors: Laura Moore

Once Touched (9 page)

BOOK: Once Touched
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“Sure thing. I'll be there in a few.”

“Sounds good. Good to meet you, Ethan.”

“Likewise.”

With friendly nods the two wranglers continued on their way to the pasture to bring in the horses that would be used on the trail ride that morning.

“So you know horses, Ethan?” Josh asked.

“Some.”

“Huh,” Josh said.

“That chestnut looks like he's got some Thoroughbred in him.”

“Who? Tucker? Yeah, I'd say so, too,” Quinn replied.

“Josh told me he's a rescue.”

“Yes.”

“Good for you.”

Her cheekbones became even more pronounced when she smiled in real pleasure. Ethan realized he'd become pretty good at gauging her happiness.

“From what the guys tell me, Quinn's got a whole menagerie of rescued animals. The one I want to see is the parrot. I hear he's incredible,” Josh said.

“He is. No doubt about that,” Quinn said with a laugh.

“I've never seen a parrot before. Maybe after we come back from The Drop you can introduce me to him,” Josh suggested.

“Um, Alfie goes to sleep pretty early,” she answered.

And there it was: a slight tightening in her expression that dimmed the wattage of her smile. Had Josh even noticed?

“Hey, Ethan,” Quinn said abruptly. “You should come to The Drop. A bunch of us are going.”

Apparently Quinn's ideas about date night at the local bar were distinctly different from Josh's. The look on the Texan's face confirmed he was less than happy about Quinn's spur-of-the-moment invite. He'd lost that
you can't help but love me
grin he'd been flashing her way. Ethan wondered how she would react were she to know that Josh had gone out of his way to stake his claim.

Not your problem,
he reminded himself. “No thanks. I prefer drinking alone.”

Josh's grin reasserted itself. Quinn's smile dimmed. And Ethan told himself that he was a fool for caring about either one.

T
HE
D
ROP WAS
full of people Quinn knew and many that she loved. The bar—a reconstructed old barn—was her and her brothers' local hangout, their favorite after-hours escape from the demands of being accommodating hosts for nearly 365 days out of the year. The Drop was owned by Nell and Beau Donovan. The couple had bought the barn about five years ago and renovated it, decorating the beamed and whitewashed interior with faded chesterfields, wingback armchairs, tree stump coffee tables, and a long zinc bar that Beau's family had delivered all the way from New Orleans. Nell and Beau ran the place with an unhurried efficiency as attractive as Beau's Louisiana accent. In addition to the comfy chairs and sofas and funky tables, the space was large enough to hold a pool table at one end and a dance floor at the other. Since it was Friday, the place was crowded. People were kicking back and relaxing, racking up the pool balls, twisting to Fats Domino, or leaning against the zinc countertop, sampling the new Harvest IPA that Beau had on tap this week. Everyone looked like they were having a fine time.

Quinn had never been more twitchily claustrophobic.

That's what came from feeling like some sort of trophy a certain eager and too charming Texan wanted to bag. At a table with Mia and Tess, she sat hunched over her beer, trying to make herself invisible.

“You could just dance with him, you know,” Mia observed.

She scowled at the burl of the tabletop. “Right. You know where dancing leads.”

“To a lovely dark corner?” Tess said.

Quinn's tension ratcheted up a notch. “Not helpful, Tess. Don't you have a wedding to go plan?”

“Afraid not. Mine's all set to be absolutely beautiful, and Mia and Reid want to wait until after next year's harvest—”

“And I already know where I want to have the ceremony. On the terrace that Reid built for me,” Mia interjected.

“So we've got plenty of time to work out the remaining details for Mia's special day. Although I've already found a dress I think you'll love,” Tess said, her expression becoming animated. “It's made of vintage lace.”

Quinn groaned. The noise reminded her of the one Ethan had made when she inflicted the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond on him during the drive from the airport. In hindsight she realized how unusually cruel she'd been. But at least she'd relented and put him out of his misery before subjecting him to Neil Sedaka's “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” Tess could go on about wedding dresses forever.

“No wedding dress talk, please,” she begged.

Tess leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her black scoop-necked sweater. “Then how about you explain why you're hanging with us—not that we don't love you—instead of letting Josh dance with you? He keeps glancing over, by the way, so I'd say your minutes are numbered.”

Quinn slumped deeper in her chair. “I thought Maebeth was doing her best to distract him.”

“She is,” Tess said.

“She should try harder,” Quinn muttered.

“Her heart might not be in it unless he's a Leo,” Mia said.

“What?” Quinn straightened in surprise.

“I think she must have consulted an astrologist who read her chart. Apparently she's destined for a Leo,” Mia said.

“No,” Quinn said.

“Yes indeed. That's why Maebeth knew it would never work out between Reid and her. Remind me to thank your mom for giving birth to him in May,” Mia said.

“If I had to guess, I'd say another reason Maebeth might be holding off on giving Josh a full blast of her charm is that it's pretty clear he came here with you tonight,” Tess said.

“We came as a group. This is not a
date
date,” Quinn insisted.

Mia took a sip of wine—she'd ordered a glass of her own pinot noir, which was understandable since the Bodell Family Winery produced really good stuff. Even Quinn, a rank wine ignoramus, could taste its superiority. “Gee, Quinn, I never expected you to react this way to Josh being interested in you. What don't you like about him? He gets along with everyone at the ranch—your mom can't say enough good things about him.”

Tess nodded in agreement. “That's right. She was telling me just the other day how well he handled the female guest who came a-knocking on his cabin door the other night. He marched her right back to the lodge before her husband could even miss her.”

The guest's name was Sally. She'd been even more determined than Katherine, the woman who'd wanted to ride with Josh on the trail and maybe take some “private lessons,” too.

Tess wasn't finished singing Josh's praises. “He's quick-witted, cute, and likes horses as much as you. What's stopping you from seeing whether you guys hit it off?”

Only about six cringe-worthy attempts at sex, that's what,
Quinn retorted silently. Looking at her friends' expectant faces, she wondered whether maybe Tess and Mia had joined forces with her mother in her quest to pair off every person on the planet. She tamped down the thought. That road led to true paranoia. “I do like Josh. I just find him a little overwhelming, that's all.” Actually, what she found overwhelming was what Josh represented: a man who was interested in her sexually.

Mia patted her forearm. “I can sympathize. Josh is kind of like Reid that way. They both can turn a woman's brain to mush with just a smile. But at least in your case it's a level playing field. Josh might have met his match in the looks department.”

Quinn gave her friend a hard look. “Don't start that again. I thought you'd kicked the habit of selling yourself short, Mia. Don't you know Reid goes all goofy when you walk into a room?”

Mia's smile lit up their corner of the bar. “He does kind of, doesn't he?”

Quinn resisted the urge to shake her head in despair. “Yeah, kinda. But with Josh and me, it's not a question of a level playing field, it's one of leagues. It's obvious Josh plays in the majors.” Whereas she hadn't even made it out of the peewee league when it came to sexual experience. It was hard to think of a metaphor for striking out when one had a vagina. Refusing to take the plunge? Blocked? Just another example of how ill-equipped she was…

“Now who's selling herself short?” Tess asked.

“Huh?” For a second she was scared Tess had read her thoughts. “Oh, you mean about Josh? Believe me, I'm not.” She glanced about the bar, and when her gaze landed on the man in question, she lowered it quickly, pretending a rapt absorption in the condensation forming on her beer. “I wish Ethan had come along,” she said abruptly. “He's spending too much time by himself.”

“Ethan Saunders? I imagine he's flat-out exhausted from all the work he's been doing. Ward says he's pushing himself pretty hard,” Tess said.

“My point exactly. He should be unwinding. Having some fun with the guys. Holing up with his demons can't be good.”

“Have you been able to get him to talk about Afghanistan at all?” Mia asked.

She shook her head. “He's awfully good at shutting a person down,” she said, recalling the look he'd given her when she'd asked why he refused to continue with his photography.

“I can see how that might be,” Mia said. “We have to respect that.”

Mia would definitely empathize with Ethan's hurt. She had a lot of pain she'd kept bottled up inside her. She'd lost her mother really young, never knew her father, and then had grown up with her cousin Jay, the sociopath who'd sabotaged their family winery and attempted to kill her dog, Bruno. Thank God things were better for Mia now. Not perfect, given how much wine had been lost, but at least Mia had Reid's love and support as well as all the Knowleses'.

But Afghanistan…the war took “bad” to a whole new realm, one where Quinn was totally out of her depths. She sighed. “The thing is, it's hard to question a guy about a crazy war in the Middle East at six
A.M.
when he's milking one of your nanny goats. I need to find something to get him more involved. He's too isolated.”

“He does have that solitary loner quality to him, doesn't he? But Ward really likes him.”

“Reid does, too.”

“I was thinking he needs a dog,” Quinn said.

“A dog?” Tess said blankly.

“It worked for Mia, didn't it?”

“True. Bruno came into my life and made it a million times better.”

“As I recall, another male had already begun working his magic on you,” Tess said with a wicked grin that had Mia blushing.

Quinn pretended not to notice. “I was originally considering loaning Alfie to Ethan—”

The chorus was instantaneous: “Alfie?” with Tess adding, “Quinn, you've got to be kidding.”

She shrugged. “You can't deny he has a certain charm, and he's definitely attention-grabbing. But I may have abused Ethan's ears enough when I forced him to listen to the playlist I made for Mom. Besides, Alfie's cage would take up too much space in his cabin. So a dog it is.” As she spoke, the idea of finding a dog for Ethan grew ever more urgent. She could easily picture some rescued canine curled up on the sofa beside him. She bet he wouldn't even be aware of it when his hand moved to stroke its fur. “Because really, is there any better therapy than unconditional canine love—at least until Ethan's strong enough to get on a horse?”

Her friends exchanged smiles. “No, Quinn, there isn't,” they said in unison.

“And you have been talking about getting another herding dog for Sooner to teach his tricks to,” Tess added.

“Ethan definitely strikes me as a working-dog kind of guy,” Mia said.

“Yes, and yes again. Wow,” Quinn said marveling. “Who'd've thought a girl from Queens, New York, and a wine geek would make such awesome soon-to-be sisters-in-law?”

“Kindly remember that thought the next time you try to convince me to lope on Brocco and I refuse,” Tess replied.

“Come on, Tess, I'm only trying to correct a gross error of judgment. You're going to love his lope. It's as easy as sitting in a rocking chair. And I have a feeling Mia's itching to see what Glory can do in a higher gear.”

“Quinn,” Mia said, leaning forward to pat her hand, “this is what we vintners call wishful thinking.”

“It's what the rest of the world calls it, too,” Tess added dryly.

“To be clear, there will be no loping until after the auction for our wine. I'll need all my energy—and limbs—for that,” Mia said.

“Come on, I've seen the way you both watch Ward and Reid when they ride out.”

“Sorry to disillusion you, Quinn, but what we're actually thinking about is how they're going to look when they ride back. All sweaty.”

“And a little dirty,” Mia said, making Tess laugh.

“And in need of a long, hot shower—”

“And maybe some other things.”

“Amen to that.”

The two clinked their glasses in camaraderie.

“You are so shallow,” Quinn said.

“Mmm.” Tess nodded. “And happy.”

“Oh!” Mia straightened in her chair.

From the sudden sparkle in Mia's eyes, Quinn didn't have to work her brain too hard to guess who was approaching their table.

Tess tucked a lock of her dark hair behind her ears. Another tell.

Quinn glanced over her shoulder to welcome her brothers, and her tension, momentarily relieved by her friends' conversation, returned. Josh was with them. A little wildly, she scanned the bar's interior for Maebeth, thinking to call the woman over and give her a talking-to about the folly of pinning her romantic hopes on an astrology chart. This town was too small for that kind of nonsense. The number of available men born under the sign of Leo might be a big fat donut hole.

The woman was nowhere in sight. And wasn't that perverse, because Maebeth knew how to make herself
seen.

“Hey, Quinn, feel like a dance?”

BOOK: Once Touched
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