HIS BABY BARGAIN
“I told you. I’m not doing it.”
Sara Anderson stared at the ex-soldier standing on the other side of the half-demolished pasture fence. Matt McCabe had come back from his tour in the Middle East eighteen months ago, and despite the efforts of family and friends to draw him out, had seemed to go deeper into his self-imposed solitude every day.
This kind of moody isolation wasn’t good, even for a newly minted Laramie County rancher.
Hadn’t she learned that the hard way?
Heaven knew she wasn’t going to willingly allow another similar tragedy to happen again. And especially not to someone she’d once been close to, growing up. Not if she could possibly help it, anyway. And she was determined that she could.
Shivering a little in the cool March air, Sara stepped around the heaps of old metal posts and rusting barbed wire strewn across the empty pasture. She plastered an engaging smile on her face, while taking in his handsome profile and tall, muscular physique. With his square jaw and gorgeously chiseled features, Matt had always been mesmerizing. Even when, like now, he did not put much effort into his appearance. His clothes were old, clean and rumpled. Boots scuffed and coated with mud.
The dark brown hair peeking out from the brim of his black Resistol was a little on the long side, curling across his brow and over his ears, down the nape of his neck. And though he had clearly showered that morning, he hadn’t shaved in days. All of which combined gave him a hopelessly rugged, masculine look.
The kind that set her heart racing.
Given the fact she had definitely not come here to flirt or see where the age-old attraction between them would lead. An attraction they hadn’t ever dared to explore, even in their reckless high school days.
Sara drew a breath. Tried again. Picking up the conversation where they’d left off.
“And I told you,” with effort, she held his stormy gray-blue eyes and murmured, “I’m not giving up.” She was determined to enlist his help…and save him along the way.
With a scoff, Matt swaggered away from her, his strides long and lazy. He bent to pick up the pieces of wood fence post scattered across the field, then tossed them into the bed of his battered Silver Creek Ranch pickup truck. “Well, you should retreat,” he advised, over one broad, chambray-clad shoulder. His dark brow lifted in a warning that set her pulse racing all the more. “`Cause I’m not changing my mind.”
Like heck he wasn’t!
Sara put on her most persuasive smile and stalked through the knee-high grass and the Texas wildflowers getting ready to bloom. “Never say never,” she warned cheerfully. Especially when she had set her mind to something this important.
Matt pushed back the brim of his hat with his index finger. Brazenly looked her up and down in a way that heated her flesh, head to toe. “And why is that?” he challenged softly.
Sara focused on the nonprofit organization and the ex-soldiers she was helping. Her actions every bit as deliberate as his, she moved closer still. “Because if you ever deign to meet him, you just might fall in love with Champ. The remaining black Lab puppy from the latest West Texas Warriors Association’s litter.” She certainly had. Not that she was signing up to train a service dog. Not when she would soon be going back to work as a large-animal veterinarian, and had a six-month-old son to raise.
He folded his arms across his muscular chest and let out a sigh that reverberated through his entire six-foot-three-inch frame. “Good thing I’m not planning on visiting the puppy, then.”
Time to play the guilt card, and appeal to the legendary McCabe chivalry. “You’re seriously opposed to helping out other returning military veterans in need of a therapy dog?”
Irritation darkened his eyes and he pressed his sensual lips into a thin, hard line. “Of course not.” He gestured offhandedly. “Just tell me where to send the check and…”
She held up a staying palm. “We’ve got money, Matt.” At least for the needs of the current litters. “What we need are more hands-on trainers to help socialize the puppies.”
His expression grew even more impatient. “Well, that’s not me,” he countered curtly. “Haven’t you heard? I’m not exactly a dog person these days.”
Actually, she had learned he’d become mysteriously averse to pets. Which was strange. When they’d grown up together, there hadn’t been an animal who didn’t automatically gravitate to the personable cowboy with the exquisitely gentle touch.
Deciding to call him out on this—and anything else that needed to be challenged—she scoffed, “Oh yeah. Since when?” What had happened to him, in the time he’d been away from Laramie County? That had made him decide to clear a two thousand acre ranch, all on his own?
Their eyes met, held. For a moment, the years of near estrangement faded and she thought he might answer, but the opportunity passed, with nary a word.
Matt squinted right back at her. Shrugged. “I’ve got a question, too, darlin’.” Deliberately, he stepped into her personal space. “When did you get so darned pesky?”
The endearment, coupled with the insult, worked just as Matt hoped.
Sara’s slender shoulders stiffened and she drew herself up to her full five foot nine inches. She glared at him resentfully. “I’ve always been extremely helpful and forthright!”
He grunted and reached for the metal cutters. Walking along the fence, he snipped through the lengths of rusting barbed wire. Irritated to find she was still fast on his heels.
“Is that what they’re calling your do-gooding these days?” He slanted a glance at her, and noted the way the breeze was plastering the soft knit of her sweater against her delectable breasts. Ignoring the hardening of his body, he turned his gaze back to her face. “And here I was thinking you were just bossy and interfering.”
She dug her boots into the hard ground beneath them and propped both her hands on her denim-clad hips. “I go where I’m needed, Matt.”
The fact she, like so many others close to him, apparently saw him as a charity case rankled. Gathering up the wire, he walked back to toss it into the bed of his pickup truck, alongside the stack of weathered metal posts. “I don’t remember calling for a large-animal vet.”
She continued shadowing him, getting close enough he could inhale the lilac of her perfume. “Then I guess it’s your lucky day,” she announced. “Me, showing up here—”
“Uninvited,” he turned to point out.
She held her ground “—and all.”
This ornery woman had no idea who she was playing with. “Uh-huh.” Matt moved closer, drinking in her fair skin and sun-blushed cheeks. Damn, she was pretty, standing there in the spring sunlight. Her cloud of golden blond hair drifting across her shoulders and framing the delicate features of her face.
In an effort to further repel her, he let his gaze move lower, to the lithe build of her body. From her dainty feet and long sexy legs, to her slender waist and the lush fullness of her breasts, she was all woman.
Still enjoying the view immensely, he returned his focus to the elegance of her lips, cheeks and nose. The jade depths of her eyes. “Sure you’re in the right place? Talking to the right ex-soldier?”
“Definitely.” She trod even closer and tilted her chin up to his. “And believe it or not, I’m strong enough to handle you, cowboy.”
“Sure about that?” Matt asked gruffly, wishing he hadn’t noticed how feminine and perfect she was. All over.
“Yes,” she repeated.
Funny. She hadn’t seemed strong when she’d lost her husband a little over a year before. She’d seemed vulnerable. Achingly so.
To the point every time he’d run into her, he’d been tempted to take her in his arms and hold her close. Not as the platonic friends they’d once been in their high school days. But as an ex-soldier comforting another ex-soldier’s wife.
There were several problems with that. First, he’d already gone down that route before—and learned the hard way that any relationship based on rebound emotions was a huge mistake.
And second, she was so damn pretty and accomplished these days he knew he’d never be able to leave it at that. Holding Sara close would make him want things he couldn’t have, and had no business wanting.
Because, thanks to the mistakes he’d made and the guilt he still harbored, having a wife or a family of his own was no longer in the cards for him.
Clearly misunderstanding the reason behind his long pause, Sara pleated her brow. She looked at him more closely, then queried cautiously, “Really, Matt? You seriously doubt my inner strength?”
“No,” he conceded honestly. “You’re as feisty as they come.”
“Feisty,” she repeated the term distastefully. “Really.”
He grinned, thrilled to be getting under her skin.
It was that friction that would help keep them apart.
Watching the color come into her high, sculpted cheeks, he removed his hat and let it fall idly against his thigh. “Don’t like the term?”
Her pretty green eyes narrowing, she watched him run his fingers through his hair. “It’s condescending!”
He settled his Resistol squarely back on his head. “Yeah?” he retorted sardonically. “In what way?” Because she was feisty and then some. Always had been.
Oblivious to how much he liked her spirit, Sara let out a lengthy sigh. “In the sense that feisty is an adjective usually attached to a female or small animal one would not expect to defend itself.”
He rolled his eyes at her deliberately haughty tone. “Spoken like a veterinarian,” he said. Then seeing a way to needle her further, added, “A woman veterinarian.”
Now she was spitting mad. She planted her hands on her hips again. “You just keep digging yourself in deeper, don’t you, cowboy?”
He shrugged in a way designed to rankle her even more. “Hey. If it annoys you, maybe you should leave.” He went back to pull up some more aging fence posts.
“Not until you at least agree to come to my ranch and see the puppy.”
He turned so suddenly she nearly slammed into him. He inhaled another whiff of her lilac perfume. “Why me?” he asked as his gaze drifted over her fitted suede jacket and dark, figure-hugging jeans. “Instead of someone else a hell of a lot more amenable?”
Sara sighed and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her action plumping them up all the more. “Because we need more veterans actively involved in helping other returning military personnel,” she stated softly, her breasts rising and falling with each agitated breath.
He rocked back on the heels of his worn, leather work boots. “Isn’t that the mission of the West Texas Warriors Association?” Of which, he knew, there were hundreds of members.
Her expression turned even more serious. “We need everyone, Matt.”
He rejected her attempt to make him feel guilty for not wanting to dive back into the world of his nightmares. “I don’t think so.”
She glowered at him. “Why not?”
“I like my solitude.”
She made a face and then, to his mounting frustration, tried again. “Listen to me, Matt,” she beseeched, hands outstretched. Her gentle eyes filled with compassion. “I know how hard it was for Anthony to really reconnect after he came back to civilian life….”
So, the rumors about her late husband’s unhappiness…and maybe hers, too…were true.
He scowled, not sure why the comparison bothered him so much. “I’m not your late husband, Sara.”
She acknowledged that with a nod, then pushed on despite his gruff, unwelcoming tone. “Working with dogs can help alleviate PTSD-related depression and anxiety.”
Now what was she trying to infer? “Do tell,” he prodded.
She tilted her head to one side and offered a tantalizing smile. “Who knows?” Another shrug. “It might help right your temperamental attitude, too.”
Not sure whether he wanted to haul her close and kiss her, or demand she leave now, he sent her a censuring look. “Thanks, but I’ve got my bad moods covered, Sara.”
She huffed, her eyes narrowing all the more. “Spending all your time alone?”
“Making the Silver Creek Ranch a cash-generating enterprise,” he corrected.
Sara seemed unimpressed. “By tearing down tons of trees and ripping down sections of old fence?”
He went back to snipping barbed wire. “First of all, the fence is so old it’s a hazard. Second, Texas barbecue restaurants need either oak or mesquite. And I’ve got plenty of both.”
Sara tapped one boot-clad foot impatiently. “And then what? When you clear-cut all this land?”
She sounded like his folks. Constantly complaining that whatever he was doing wasn’t enough.
He yanked out a rusting metal post and added it to the pile on the ground. “I’m going to plow the weeds and sow some grass. Put up new pasture fence and lease out the land to my brother Cullen so he can run some of his cattle here.”
Giving him room to work, she took a moment to consider that. Probably finally realizing he did indeed have a business plan.
“Not planning to buy any of your own?” she asked eventually.
He shook his head. The last thing he wanted was to be responsible for another living thing—person or animal. “Did enough cattle herding growing up.”
That she did seem to understand. It didn’t mean she let up. Her gorgeous honey-blond hair blowing in the spring breeze, she followed him down the fence line. “You know, you could do all this a lot faster if you hired some help. Or even enlisted some of your family members and friends.”
Her unsolicited advice irked him. He turned and studied the guileless look in her eyes. “Don’t want me to be alone, huh, darlin’?”
She pursed her lips in a worried frown. “I don’t think it’s healthy and neither does your family, Matt.”
So now they were finally getting down to it, he thought wearily.
She stepped closer, once again invading his space.
Her soft, feminine voice took on a persuasive lilt. “Your mom came to see me. She thought, maybe I could talk you into rejoining the community again.”
Matt shook his head at Sara’s naïveté. His mom hoped for a lot more than occasionally getting him off the Silver Creek spread. “She only did that because…”
Sara beamed, turning on her full wattage of neighborly charm. “What?”
He edged closer. “She knows I’m attracted to you.”
She laughed in disbelief, the ambivalent sound filling the air between them. Her lower lip took on a kissable pout. “You’re just saying that to get me to leave.”
He surveyed her indignant expression. Leaned in closer. “Is it working?”
The look in her eyes grew turbulent. “No.”
He dropped his head. “Then how about this?” he taunted softly, taking her in his arms.
Rather than step away, she put her hand on the center of his chest, and gave him a small, purposeful shove.
That sent him exactly nowhere.
“No.” She glared at him heatedly. “But nice try, cowboy.”
He reluctantly let her go and stepped back, his own temper flaring. “Then maybe you should rethink this plan you and my mom cooked up. Because I’m not the guy who’s going to treat you with kid gloves, darlin’.” And he was pretty sure, at the end of the day that was what Sara wanted.
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t want you to treat me with kid gloves.”
He came back to her, took her in his arms again and lowered his lips, just above hers.
Damn, if she didn’t make him feel ornery.
He smiled as she caught her breath. “Sure about that?” He rubbed the pad of his thumb across her lower lip.
Her brows furrowed as she began to see where this standoff between them was likely headed. “Yes,” she said, stubborn as ever, trembling even as she held her ground.
Loving the delicate feel of her body so close to his, he asked, “Really sure?”
“Completely sure,” she taunted right back. “In fact, cowboy,” she went on to dare in spunky delight, “you could kiss me and—”
The gauntlet had been thrown down between them.
Matt never gave her a chance to blurt out the rest.
His mouth touched hers, laying claim to every sweet soft inch. Only the indignant slap he expected—the one that would have heralded his immediate gentlemanly release of her, and her quick, fiery exit—never came.
Sara told herself to resist the sensual feel of his lips moving over hers. But her body refused to listen to the wary dictates of her heart. She had been numb inside for so long. Responsive only to the needs of her adorable infant son.
Now, suddenly, she was alive in a way she had never expected to be again. The yearning to be touched, held, appreciated for the woman she was, came roaring back. Making her tingle all over. Opening her lips to his, she pressed closer to the unyielding hardness of his chest, and lower still, felt his undeniable heat and building desire. With a low moan of surrender, she went up on tiptoe, wreathed her arms about his neck, and tilted her head to give him deeper access. He uttered a low moan of approval. His tongue twined with hers. He brought her nearer still, delivering a kiss that scored her soul. Left her limp with longing, and trembling with acquiescence. Her middle fluttering, she melted against him. And then all was lost, as she experienced the masculine force that was Matt. For the first time in her life, she was with a man who didn’t hesitate to give her the complete physicality she craved and had always longed to explore. Excitement roaring through her, she reveled in the thrill of his commanding embrace. The hard, insistent pressure of his kiss, and the tantalizing sweep of his tongue, for the very first time in her life, she experienced the temptation to surrender herself completely. Forget her worries about the future. Live only in the moment she was in.
Had her life not already been so complicated, full of the grief and guilt she still felt…for not doing as much as she could have, or should have, when she’d still had the chance? Had she not intuited that his own private world was much the same as hers and her husbands had once been, who knew what might have happened had their make-out session continued on this brisk and sunny spring day.
But they did both harbor secrets and heartache.
And combining the two would only risk further hurt. For her, for him, for her baby boy.
So she did what she should have done all along, and finally put her hand on the center of his chest and tore her lips from his.
Just that quickly, Matt let her go.
They stared at each other, breathing hard. To her surprise he looked every bit as shaken as she felt.
Compelled to save them both and downplay this, however, she took another step back. Gave a hapless shrug, looked into his eyes and said, “Just so you know, cowboy. You’re not the first man who’s made a move on me since Anthony died.”
He was the first one who’d made her feel something, though. Too much, actually. Way too much.
Emotion warred with the skepticism in his eyes. “Trying to make me feel competitive?”
No! Heck, no! Sara thought, chagrined. “I’m just saying,” she returned as calmly as possible, “I wasn’t interested then. And I’m not interested now.”
The corners of his lips turned up as his gaze raked her luxuriantly, head to toe. “Your kisses just said otherwise, darlin’.”
Once again, she shook her head. Embarrassed. Humiliated. And worst of all, still wildy turned on. Swallowing around the ache in her throat, she held his eyes deliberately, correcting, “My kisses said I’m human, Matt.” Human and oh so lonely, deep down. So ready to get out of my own misery and help someone else in need. Like you, Matt. And how crazy is that?
She waited a moment to let her words sink in. Then said, “As are we all.”
It didn’t mean she had to be a fool for a second time.
And especially not with the far too irresistible Matt McCabe.