THE GENTLEMAN RANCHER
Trouble In Paradise?
Newlyweds Zak and Zoe Townsend may act like love-birds on their reality TV show, detailing the most intimate moments of their first two years as husband and wife, but on the set of their first feature film, Sail Away, the mood has been anything but romantic. The pop/rock stars have been at each other's throats since filming began two months ago. Why, no one seems to know, least of all the legions of fans who have rooted for the Hollywood couple since their fairytale romance began…
June 1 edition, Celebrities Weekly magazine
As the sun went down, bringing dusk to the West Texas sky, Taylor O'Quinn had been in her Jeep Liberty for seventeen hours and fifty-three minutes. By her calculations, she had about twenty more minutes to go before arriving at the Chamberlain ranch, outside of Laramie, Texas. She couldn't get there a moment too soon.
Her air-conditioning had begun malfunctioning somewhere near the California-Arizona border. By the time she reached New Mexico, it had quit altogether. Driving with the windows down hadn't been so bad when she was up in the mountains, but when she had hit the flatlands of Texas, the heat had been brutal.
One-hundred-and-ten degree summer heat—even when blowing over her body at sixty-five miles an hour, was still hotter than blazes. The only thing keeping her going was the thought of the swimming pool awaiting her. Well, that and the fact that she had a place to stay rent-free for the next few weeks. Another fringe benefit was no one would ever think to look for her at the family home of her best friend.
Speaking of which… Taylor pulled over long enough to loop the hands-free receiver over her ear and dial her cell.
Paige Chamberlain answered on the third ring. "Hey, girlfriend, where are you?"
Her familiar voice brought a smile to Taylor's face. "About fifteen minutes away, I think."
"Great!" Paige exuded her customary good cheer and stellar organizational skills. "I left a key for you in the planter next to the door. Help yourself to anything in the fridge. The yellow guest room in the main house is yours. Clean towels are in the linen closet across from the hall bath." After a brief interruption, she returned to the line. "I've got an appendectomy to do, so I'll be at the hospital a few more hours. Until then, make yourself at home."
"I will. And thanks, Paige."
The sound of an announcement over the hospital intercom system blared in the background. "No problem." Paige shouted to be heard above it. "See you soon!"
Taylor said goodbye and concentrated on finding the un-assuming entrance to the ranch, a task that was not so easy as dusk covered the Texas countryside with a soft gray gloom. Luckily, the plain black wrought-iron archway, sans lettering of any kind, was just as Taylor remembered it. She turned fields of mesquite and scrub brush that remained wild until she was completely out of sight of the two-lane farm-to-market road. Then, the fence started, the grass grew more manicured, and the sprawling hacienda-style ranch house rose above the plain, glowing with welcoming lights. The personal retreat was an oasis of privacy and rustic comfort, the kind of home where legendary actor-film director Beau Chamberlain and his movie-critic wife, Dani, could live in relative anonymity. Taylor had stayed there many times when she and Paige had been college—and med school—roommates.
Acutely aware of just how long ago that had been—a good seven plus years—Taylor parked in the empty driveway and got out. Leaving her belongings in the car, she passed the front of the house and followed the flagstone path to the backyard. The pool was designed to look like a hidden lagoon, complete with waterfall and tropical plants. The underwater lights weren't on, but there was enough illumination from the adjacent ranch house and the guesthouse on the opposite side to allow Taylor to take a swim.
The shimmering blue water beckoned, cool and inviting. Deciding to heck with going back to search for her swimsuit—she had waited far too long for relief from the searing summer heat as it was—Taylor kicked off her sandals and reached for the hem of her sweat-sticky T-shirt. Suddenly a familiar masculine voice jolted her from the task at hand.
"I wouldn't, if I were you."
It figured, Jeremy Carrigan thought, that the first time he'd gone skinny-dipping in years, he'd get caught with his pants off. By none other than the most aggravating woman he had ever had the misfortune to meet in his life.
Taylor O'Quinn turned to get a closer look.
In profile, she'd been beautiful.
Facing him, she was even lovelier. In the years since he'd seen her, the delicate bone structure of her facial features had only become more pronounced. Long-lashed blue eyes dominated a slender nose and full, soft lips. As she released her thick black hair from the elastic band that had been holding it away from her face, the windswept strands fell, rippling across her slender shoulders and brushing at the graceful slope of her neck. Lower still the perfection continued in her five-foot-six form. His pulse picked up as his glance roved her full breasts, slender waist, curvy hips and long, shapely legs.
Somehow, Jeremy thought, it wasn't all that surprising to find that Taylor O'Quinn had only gotten sexier as she aged. What stunned him was the realization that, even after all these years of resentful silence, he still wanted her as much as ever.
Taylor froze—as if sensing she were being scrutinized. Slowly, she peered into the shadowy cove where he was lounging. When she spied him, her chin took on the familiar tilt. "What are you doing here?" Taylor demanded.
Jeremy put up a staying hand to keep her from coming any closer. "I might ask the same question of you," he remarked dryly, silently wishing his response to her would fade.
"Paige said I could stay here with her for a few weeks, while her own house is being remodeled and her parents are in Montana. She didn't say anything about you being here."
Jeremy shrugged. "She didn't tell me anything about you arriving, either."
Still a good twenty-five feet away from him, Taylor knelt to test the temperature of the water with her hand. "Then you're just here to swim?" She regarded him with lifted brows.
The way she'd said that told Jeremy she wasn't here just to get in a workout, either. Which probably meant Paige had neglected to tell them both something very important. He pushed aside his irritation with effort. He shrugged matter-offactly. "I'm bunking here for a few weeks."
Taylor took her wet hand and rubbed it across the back of her neck, in a futile effort, he guessed, to cool down. The gold shamrock necklace she had been given by her late grandmother, and wore as a symbol of luck and blessing, still glistened around her neck. "In the guesthouse," she presumed, obviously hoping to put as much physical distance between them as possible.
"Paige has the guesthouse," Jeremy corrected, treading water, and drifting further back into a shadowy corner so he could still gaze at her, but she could not see much of him. "I have the green bedroom in the main house."
Taylor approached the corner of the pool, caddy-corner to him, where the steps were located. Hand on the railing, she walked down until the water came up to the hem of her capris. "Don't you have your own place?" She sounded piqued.
He couldn't blame her, they hadn't parted well. And they hadn't communicated with each other in the seven years since. "As a matter of fact, I do own a home." His voice resonated with pride. "Lago Vista Ranch, on Lake Laramie."
She walked back up the steps, to the decorative tile edging the swimming pool. Standing there, running her foot across the surface of the water, she seemed to be weighing her next move. Ever so slowly, she directed her glance at him. "Then why aren't you staying there?"
Jeremy wished people would stop asking him that. It was all he'd heard for the past two years. He let his shoulders rise and fall. "It doesn't have any indoor plumbing at the moment."
She strode toward Jeremy and looked at him as if he were an idiot. "You bought a place with no working plumbing?" Disbelief resonated in her low tone. "I figured I'd get the septic tank replaced eventually and in the meantime it has…portable…accommodations for emergencies."
"You have a port-a-potty on your property?"
"It was either that or build an outhouse. This seemed more practical."
"I'll bet." She edged closer still. She seemed to be regarding him with the same fascination she would have shown an unfamiliar species in the Houston zoo. "Just out of curiosity…what was the deal-maker on the property?"
That, Jeremy thought, was easy. He gestured expansively. "It had to be a ranch and it had to have a water view."
Taylor chewed on her lower lip. "I get the wanting to live on the water thing."
Jeremy wasn't surprised. Water had always soothed Taylor as much as it relaxed him.
"I don't get the ranch." She peered at him through narrowed lashes. "You've never been a cowboy."
Nor did he intend to raise cattle, horses or any other form of livestock. He angled his thumb at the center of his chest. "I'm a gentleman rancher. And I wanted acreage around whatever home I purchased for privacy reasons."
She tilted her head, considering. "Does it have a pool?"
"It's got a dock…and private access to the lake," Jeremy related with pride.
Without warning, she looked down into the water and smirked. "Nice." She took her sweet time lifting her gaze to his. "What happened to your swim trunks?"
Jeremy grimaced, trying to ignore the way the blood was rushing to his lower half. All she'd have to do was look down again and she'd know exactly what was on his mind—at least subconsciously.
"They're in the house." He kept his voice casual, his eyes on hers. He smiled slowly, offering, "If you want to go and get them for me…"
Contrary as ever, Taylor replied, "Can't say as I do." Hips swaying lightly, she sauntered back to the opposite side of the pool, began emptying the pockets on her capri pants. She set lipstick, keys, a receipt or two, and some change down on a glass-topped patio table. Jeremy's throat went dry at the thought of her stripped down, too. He cleared his throat, regarding her steadily. "Tell me you're not doing what I think you're doing."
Amusement rippled in her voice. "What do you think I'm doing?"
He flashed her a cryptic smile. "Taking off your clothes."
"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock."
Treading water—naked—while she was standing up there, observing him, was tough enough. Having her in the pool with him… A chill of intense awareness rippled through him. "You don't want to do this," he insisted.
She smirked again, not the least bit dissuaded. "You only think that because you don't have a clue how hot I am."
Once again, Taylor O'Quinn was dead wrong. He had always known how sexy she was. It just hadn't been a good idea, getting romantically involved with another first-year med school classmate.
He played it safe. Noncommittal. "I'm serious, Taylor." She chose to ignore the unsubtle hint. "So am I." She lifted her arms above her head and engaged in a languid whole-body stretch. "If the sight of a naked woman bothers you—and it really shouldn't, given how many years you've been a doctor now—then turn your back."
And miss the show? No way!
He studied her, not believing she would really stand there and strip in front of him.
Then again, with the swiftness with which her capris and T-shirt had just come off… Clad only in a pale pink bra and panties that revealed a hell of a lot more than they covered, she reached around behind her.
Blood surged, low and fast. It wasn't that he was unfamiliar with what she was about to uncover. In medical school, they'd had to practice giving other students physicals, before they examined any real patients. Jeremy and Taylor had been in the same Introduction To Clinical Medicine section. Hence, they'd both seen each other and eight other fellow students in states of undress. The experience had been humbling and instructional. It hadn't been arousing—they'd been learning the art of being a doctor.
This was different. This was no classroom setting. He wasn't in doctor mode. Nor was she…
He swore, then reluctantly gave her the privacy she deserved and turned his head.
Seconds later, the water splashed with the force of a clean, graceful dive. She swam along the bottom of the pool and came up, on the opposite side.
TAYLOR WATCHED Jeremy's eyes widen as her shoulders broke the surface and he focused on the bra straps clinging to her. She couldn't help it, she started to laugh.
She waggled her eyebrows at him. "Faked you out, didn't I?"
"It would seem I'm the only one at a disadvantage, here." And Taylor wished like heck he wasn't.
Seeing Jeremy's buff body, even through the soft illumination of patio lamps and the filter of water, was a jolt to her system. Six foot two and muscled…everywhere. His broad shoulders and long limbs were all male, and imposing enough to make her feel out of her depth here. His hair was a very dark brown with the barest hint of red. These days the damp strands were on the short side, maybe an inch and a half long, and styled in the cut so popular with professional guys his age. But there was nothing usual about the high cheekbones and eloquent brow of his angular face. A blunt masculine nose topped an even more rugged jaw and the don't-toy-with-me set of his lips.
She'd always been attracted to him physically, even when she couldn't say they respected each other very much. Un-bidden, the memory of the last time they had seen each other and the harsh words they had exchanged, returned.
"You're making a mistake, Taylor. Don't do it… Don't quit!" Disillusionment filtered through her at the memory of that angst-ridden time in her life.
Jeremy swam closer. "I guess this is the point where I congratulate you on your success as an author."
It shouldn't have mattered to her what Jeremy Carrigan thought. Any more than she cared about what her parents or her two surgeon-brothers thought of her career choice. To her chagrin, it still did. Taylor turned her gaze from the water beading on his sinewy shoulders. Struggling to ignore her reaction to his nearness, she sidestroked a short distance away. "You heard?"
Still treading water, Jeremy looked her square in the eye. "That The Guy Who Sailed Away and the Girl Who Found Herself is being turned into a movie starring Zoe and Zak Townsend?" He shoved a hand through his waterlogged hair. "It would have been hard not to know that, given how much it's been in the news for the last six months."
"The celebrity and entertainment news."
"That's still news." He regarded her through squinted eyes.
"So what's next? Are you going to move out to Hollywood for good now? Write more books? More screenplays?"
She noted he didn't seem to want her to do that now any more than he ever had. "No."
She breast-stroked down to the opposite end of the pool and sat down on the lowest of the circular steps, so the majority of her body was covered by the soothing chill of the water. "I prefer writing novels to movie scripts."
"Meaning what?" He studied her, a thoughtful expression on his handsome face. "If they turn your next novel into a movie, you won't write that screenplay, too?"
About this much, Taylor was certain. "I'm not selling the movie rights to another book."
He swam closer. His glance took in the new stiffness of her spine. "How come?" he asked.
"I—" Taylor abruptly turned her glance, to avoid getting a full-on view of everything about him she had sought to forget. Suddenly she saw movement in the hedge of red-tipped photinia bushes enclosing the landscaped backyard. "What the…?" She frowned, as a branch snapped, close to the ground. Leaves rustled.
Jeremy's gaze narrowed, too. He tensed. "You hear that?" he asked.
Taylor nodded. "Could be some form of wildlife," Jeremy speculated. But what kind? Taylor wondered. Armadillos and porcupines usually had more sense than to wander this close to the ranch house. Snakes, on the other hand, had been known to search out water in the summer heat. More than a few had ended up in Texas swimming pools…surprising the heck out of the people in or around them.
Jeremy swam closer. "You stay here. I'm going to check it out."
His insistence on being chivalrous now—when he had not done so during the time when she desperately needed and wanted his support—rankled. "Don't be ridiculous." Taylor stood, dripping water onto the steps. Haughtily she announced, "I'll look."
Oblivious to his lack of clothing, Jeremy vaulted out of the water. He clamped a staying hand just above her elbow. "No. I'll go."
Ignoring the view of his gloriously handsome body, she wrested free and stalked in the direction of the sound. To her mounting frustration, it took Jeremy less than two strides to catch up. She increased her pace determinedly. So did he. Side by side, they cautiously approached the hedge.
As they closed in, a fifty-something woman, clad in outrageously short shorts and a halter top, shot up. Simultaneously, a camera flash went off in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. By the time they could focus again, she was already running away.
"Sorry!" she shouted sheepishly over her shoulder. "Didn't mean to get you. I was looking for Beau!"
Also available in this Anthology Reissue