I’m a soldier.
A cattle rancher.
My family’s legacy is spread out in front of me, just waiting for me to seize it. If it weren’t for one outdated rule, I’d be the owner of the Hayden Cattle Company and my aging father could retire.
When Dakota Wright shows up to buy and develop twenty acres of Hayden land, I see more than a pretty mouth and strawberry blonde hair. I see a way around the decree keeping me from getting what I want.
And, as luck would have it, Dakota has a big problem of her own. We strike two deals: one for the land, and a second that’ll make both our problems a distant memory.
It isn’t too long before I realize I’m in over my head. I’ve convinced myself the ends should justify the means, but everything begins to fall apart when my birthright is no longer all that I’m after.
I never thought there’d be anything I could love more than my ranch and my country.
I was wrong.
Turns out, I want it all.
The second he walks into the lake house, I notice him. Not because he is a sight to behold, with his short hair the color of mesquite and angular jaw that could’ve been carved from marble, although I admit those traits are enjoyable. No, my attention has been captured by my response to him: the lurch of my stomach, the erratic beating of my heart, the goose bumps covering every inch of my flesh. Is this what magic feels like?
He doesn’t see me. I’m standing off to the side in the living room, hidden from easy view by Emily and Paige’s backs. We’ve formed a little circle, drinking from our red plastic cups and surveying the scene before diving in. We don’t know anybody here, aside from Jason, the homeowner, and even then we’ve only known him for about five hours. We’d gone on a walk around the lake after lunch and he was outside cleaning up his yard. One well-muscled attractive guy and three females walking past? Didn’t seem like too much of a stretch when he asked us to come to the party he was throwing tonight. I think he likes Emily. He only had eyes for her when he opened his front door and saw the three of us standing there. He was polite, getting us drinks and chatting, but he needed to be a good host and greet some others who’d shown up. We shuffled away, but he kept looking over, checking to make certain Emily was still around.
Right now, her lips are moving, but I don’t hear what she says. Paige must hear her, because she laughs, and I smile automatically, my brain understanding this is an appropriate response even though I am paying zero mind to her. How can I when every cell inside me has been called to attention?
My eyes, my entire body, remains locked on the newcomer. He strides through the house, his presence commanding. He walks up to Jason, and they greet each other with a half-hug accompanied by a solid back slap, but it’s the look they share that makes me curious. The look is bloated with meaning, heavy under an unseen weight.
Jason leads the new guy out of the house and into the back yard. The adrenaline doesn’t leave my body just because he has left the room.
When our cups are empty, we make our way outside, too. Music blares from a speaker set up on a cheap plastic chair. The back yard gently slopes down until the bright green grass turns into dark blue water. A small aluminum boat drifts at the end of a long dock, but it’s tied up so it can’t float away. It’s a stunning view, but wasted on me. I might appear to be absorbing my surroundings, but really I’m looking for him.
Panic ricochets through me. I don’t see him.
I search in what I hope is a covert manner, but he isn’t to be found in any of the groups of people standing around or in the line for the keg. How does someone whose presence filled a room so completely, disappear?
“Let’s dance!” Emily shakes her shoulders, her fingers wrapping around my wrist and pulling me closer. It’s a country-rock song, something very danceable, and we make the most of it. There isn’t a whole lot I like to do more than dance.
The song switches and we keep going. After two more, I pause and stick out my tongue and fan my face. “I need a drink,” I shout above the music, shimmying out of her grasp.
I’m on my way to the keg when it happens. The shuffling of bodies, just enough to create a chasm in the crowd, and our eyes meet. He’s sitting on a picnic table, his feet propped on the bench below him. His gaze is sharp and swift like an arrow, piercing my chest, anchoring me to this moment.
He doesn’t smile. His eyes don’t light up. Nothing about his posture invites me over, but I can see the words he’s thinking as if his thoughts are available for public consumption. And then, floating out from between those perfect lips, are the words I knew he’d been thinking.
I’m not one to follow orders, but this feels less like a command and more like a plea. I put one foot in front of the other, and then it hits me.
I never had a choice. Not from the moment he walked into the house. This was always going to happen.
His intense gaze stays on me as I walk to him, plucking a bottle of liquor from an empty table as I go. I don’t know what kind it is and I don’t know who it belongs to, but I do know he finds this amusing. A small upward movement of the corner of his mouth is all that breaks through his stoic veneer, but it’s enough.
I slow down as I approach, like a Mack truck putting on its brakes far ahead of a red light. The insane amount of attraction I feel for this person needs a good bit of road in which to slow itself. My goose bumps have returned.
I’m three feet away from him when I stop and take a sip, trying like hell not to grimace at the burn of liquor. “Did you come to a party just to hide out in the back all by your lonesome?”
Something flickers in his dark eyes. “All by my lonesome?” His voice is deep and rough. His Adam’s apple bobs as he speaks and I feel the urge to run my tongue along it.
“That’s what I said.” My eyebrows lift, offering a small challenge.
The corner of his mouth crooks up higher. He sticks an open palm into the air between us. I don’t know if he’s reaching for me or the bottle, but I go with the bottle. Just because I have the desire to throw myself in his arms doesn’t mean he shouldn’t work a little harder for it.
He takes a sip of what I think is probably whiskey, doesn’t appear to fight any sort of grimace, and sets it on the table beside him. The message is clear: If you want it, come over here and get it.
“My grandma used to say that,” he explains. “All by your lonesome.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“You said used to. Past tense.”
He nods once. “Right. She passed a couple years ago.”
“You said that already.”
Now I’m the one fighting a smile.
His gaze lowers to my T-shirt. “Kappa Kappa Gamma?”
At first I’m confused, and then I remember I borrowed Emily’s little sister’s shirt. I was never a sorority girl, not by a long shot.
I shake my head. “Not mine. I borrowed it. I’m a few years past that stage in life.”
His chin lifts, his nod slow and measured. “Are you a friend of Jason’s?”
A smile tugs on the corner of my mouth. “I’ve known him for less than half a day. I’m guessing you’ve known him for longer than that?”
“Military,” he answers, and then nothing more.
I’m quiet, waiting for him to make the next move. And he does.
He holds out his hand again, and this time I know it’s for me. My hand sinks into his, and when our skin touches the goose bumps covering me turn into tiny fires. But these flames? They feel so very good.
His eyes widen just the tiniest amount. His lower lip peels away from his upper, leaving a thin space between them. A flash of fear darts across his face.
“Wes,” he grits, as if his name can barely make it past other words stuck in his throat.
“Dakota.” My voice trembles, which is fitting, because at this moment it feels as if there’s an earthquake shaking me from the inside out.
He tugs gently, bringing me closer.
I step into his arms, and it doesn’t feel new. It feels like the place where I belong, and am only late arriving to.