Naturally the one day Arwen decided to make the feed store run, it was Bubba Taylor and his goon squad who’d placed the order. If she’d thought to check the ticket before her spur of the moment decision, she would’ve gone after Dax another time.
The problem with working the wild wild west were the predators that hovered at watering holes. And Arwen hated feeling like prey.
A quick scan of the parking lot failed to turn up a truck door sporting a D hooked over a T that was the Dalton ranch brand. What she did see—and sense crawling all over her—were a half dozen pair of shifty eyes, Bubba Taylor’s being the beadiest.
She hefted the bag higher, holding it directly in front of her as she climbed the wooden steps to the porch. Both creaked beneath her weight, but neither was as loud as the hinges groaning when Bubba pushed open the screen door.
“Hey, Arwen.” He winked, taking up space she needed to get by. He kept his hand on the wooden frame, the torn away sleeves of his plaid shirt revealing a thick tuft of hair and his disregard of deodorant. “Long time no see. Thought Amy might be delivering today.”
Arwen shoved the bag into his hands, causing him to step back and out of her way. Only then did she take another breath. “Sorry, Bubba. You’re stuck with me.”
“I don’t mind.” He looked her up and down, settling his gaze in her cleavage, and then he actually licked his lips. “As long as you don’t mind getting what’s coming to you.”
Because, of course, that’s why she was here. To be sexually harassed by Bubba Taylor. “Money, Bubba. Cash. Preferably before you eat.”
Bubba sneered. “Ah, well. If that’s all you want, then lemme pass the hat for donations.”
Rolling her eyes with a muttered, “Lord save me,” Arwen headed for the register, fresh air, and the safety of Josh Lasko. He was leaning into his forearms where they were crossed on the counter, and he smiled as she got close.
“How’re things, Josh? Your daddy doing okay?”
“He’s getting there. Doc’s put him on enough meds to choke a bull. Cut him back to one rib-eye a month.”
A cowman facing a beef-restricted diet was not a pretty thing. Arwen sympathized. “Sorry to hear that. We’ve got a mean veggie burger on the menu if he wants to stop in and give it a try.”
But Josh wasn’t having it. “I’m afraid he’s made his last trip to the saloon. At least for awhile. Dad’s not a heathen like Bubba Taylor, but he’s still got an eye for the gals, and that ticker of his might not stand the strain of your hellcats.”
She laughed at Josh’s sidestepping effort not to call his father a dirty old man. “Tell you what. Next time he’s in town, let me know and I’ll bring one over.” When Josh briefly eyed the fit of her shirt, she added, “I’ll even find something less heart-stopping to wear.”
“Well, it’s not that I really want to see that happen, but for his sake, I appreciate it.” His face coloring, he looked quickly away, nodding over her shoulder. “Looks like Bubba’s collected enough to pay you, though I hope you weren’t counting on anything like a tip.”
“It’s Bubba Taylor,” she said, resigned to this trip being more hassle than mission accomplished. “I’m not even counting on getting out of here with my virtue intact.”
“I’m happy to help you run that gauntlet.”
The voice came from the shadows. It was a voice Arwen knew well, though it was seasoned now, deeper and rich as if hung up to age. She tried to swallow, found her throat had swelled. Tried to breathe, found her lungs fighting her heart for the room.
Was he leaner? Rougher? Hard-edged and worth all the years she’d waited?
He’d never been soft, but his body had matured, his build less a cocky teen learning the fit of things and more the cowboy he was now. His was a long rangy strength defined by lean hips and a purposeful swagger, by a narrow waist and wide shoulders and the sharp relief of tendons and veins. He needed every bit of the weight he carried, and she wondered if he’d outgrown his love of excess.
But then she met his gaze, and she was taken back to eighteen when she’d lusted after the things he’d made her feel as much as she’d lusted after him. And, oh, oh, but the lust was grand, her pulse ticking wildly, her skin tingling, her sex anticipating and growing damp. There were so many things she wanted him to do.
Beneath his hat, his hair was shaggy, a darker blond than she remembered, and as careless as was the scruff of whiskers he hadn’t bothered to shave. His jaw was square, bold, his mouth wide and wicked as he smiled. His eyes were the intense blue of high summer skies, and hot. Texas sun hot.
“Dax.” It was all she could say. Her mouth was bone dry.
“Arwen.” His voice rolled over her, the one word, her name.
She didn’t know if she’d ever heard him say it. She didn’t know if getting him out of her system was going to be as easy as she’d thought. She did know if she let him walk her to her truck, she wouldn’t be driving away alone.
Sounded like a hell of a plan. “I’d better get Bubba’s money before he finds something else to spend it on.”
Dax came closer. He didn’t speak. He just smiled, his dimples cutting crescents in the stubble covering his cheeks. He didn’t ask when he took hold of her upper arm and turned her toward the door, or say anything as Bubba silently paid her.
On the way out, he moved his hand to the small of her back. He kept it there as they crossed the porch and walked down the steps, side by side. Once in the parking lot, they turned toward the long row of pickups along the side of the store, and that’s when his hand drifted lower, his thumb inching under the hem of her shirt, his fingers slipping beneath the waistband of her jeans.
She glanced up, wondered if his eyes would give away what he was thinking, if hers would tell him that he was why she was here. This was what she wanted, but he didn’t have to know that, and she didn’t have to make it so easy on either of them. Yet, she didn’t dislodge his hand. And she didn’t pretend his presumption put her off.
All she did was cut her gaze over his shoulder toward the window, asking as she looked back, “Are you invading my personal space for the benefit of Bubba and his boys, or for your own?”
He paid no attention to their audience, his gaze holding hers, a rope pulling tight, choking. “You left out the third option.”
He’d lassoed her. If not for the onlookers fogging up the store’s window, she would’ve stripped to her skin then and there. But he didn’t have to know that either. “Which is?”
“I’m doing it for you.”
He nodded, his gaze sliding from her eyes to her mouth before moving lower, lingering along her scooped neckline as if he had all the time in the world. As if he would take all the time in the world. She couldn’t wait to find out if he would, but he didn’t have to know that most of all.
He reached for his hat brim, pulled it low. “I figure … sixteen years? It’s about time.”
Oh, who was she kidding? He knew. He knew everything. And he’d known it all along. That left her with only one thing to say.
“My truck, or yours?”