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Cynthia Deacons left the small but well-stocked department store on Main Street and stepped out into the warm afternoon sunshine. A shopping bag holding a new pair of crimson lace bikini panties dangled from the fingers of one hand.
Slipping sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose, she strolled down the sidewalk. The weather was warm for a May afternoon in northeast Montana; the oldtimers in town were predicting an early summer with temperatures hotter than usual.
Indulging in window shopping was a rare luxury for Cynthia. Until three weeks ago, her daily routine meant long hours on the job, managing high-end hotels around the world and most recently, that meant a posh hotel in Palm Springs, California. She’d resigned abruptly, however, when her boss made it clear he expected her duties to include sexual favors. At loose ends after walking out, she found herself with unaccustomed free time and had packed her bags, moved out of her rooms at the hotel, and driven north from Palm Springs to her childhood home in Montana. She’d been putting off dealing with her great-uncle’s estate for several months and her unexpected free time seemed the perfect opportunity to do so.
Today, she refused to worry about being unemployed. Instead, she embraced the novelty of leisurely shopping and dawdling along Main Street in the small ranching community where she’d grown up.
She stopped and pulled off her sunglasses to look more closely at a window display just as the throaty growl of a powerful engine broke the sleepy afternoon quiet. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a newer model black pickup truck nose into a parking slot behind her. The vehicle’s tinted windows prevented her from seeing the driver clearly and she turned back to the boots displayed in the store window.
She’d been considering buying the pair of turquoise and black Tony Llama cowboy boots for the last week. Being temporarily unemployed meant she should stay on a budget but the boots were seriously gorgeous. She could almost hear them whisper her name, calling to her each time she walked past the window.
A quick burst of loud music startled her and she glanced sideways down the sidewalk to her left. A beefy, middleaged man in jeans and a cowboy hat exited the open door of Slocums Bar and walked toward her. Behind him, the heavy door swung shut, cutting off the music and crowd noise.
Cynthia registered the swift interest and smile on the man’s features before she turned back to the window, hoping he’d take the not-so-subtle hint and walk on by.
“Well, hello there.”
Cynthia nearly groaned aloud at the suggestive note in the male voice. She didn’t turn around, although experience told her it was unlikely he’d take the hint and leave her alone.
“Didn’t you hear me?” The voice was closer. A male hand cupped her shoulder.
With a practiced move, Cynthia slipped from beneath his touch and turned to face him.
“I beg your pardon,” she said with cool precision. “You must have mistaken me for someone you actually know.”
She didn’t recognize the man but the interest gleaming in his brown eyes was all too familiar.
“But I’d like to get to know you. You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long time.” His gaze swept over her, lingering on her breasts. His smile widened, creasing his florid face. “Let me buy you a drink,” he coaxed, his voice heavy with innuendo. “We’ll get acquainted.”
“Sadly,” she said, her voice icy enough to chill. “I’m afraid I must decline.”
“Aw, come on, honey,” he coaxed. “You’ll like me if you spend a little time with me.”
Cynthia moved to step around him.
He shifted sideways, blocking her.
“Let me pass,” she said tightly, ruthlessly holding down a wave of panic. She hated the feeling, hated being unable to control it, especially since she knew on a rational level that it was unlikely the man was a serious threat. Not on Main Street in broad daylight. At the end of the block, two young mothers strolled nearer, three little boys bouncing along beside them down the sidewalk. Despite knowing she wasn’t alone on the street with the man, Cynthia couldn’t stop the instant shudder that shook her.
“The lady said step aside.” The deep male voice held cold authority.
The man’s florid face tightened into a belligerent scowl as his gaze shifted to focus past her. His eyes widened, the ruddy color leaching out of his face and he immediately took a step back.
Cynthia drew a deep breath and reached for control. She half-turned to look over her shoulder and felt her own eyes widen as she caught her breath.
The man standing a few feet behind her was over six feet tall with broad shoulders and long legs. Beard stubble shadowed his jaw and his coal black hair looked several weeks past needing a haircut. The hard angles of his face were set in implacable lines and beneath the slash of dark eyebrows, his grass green eyes were narrowed and focused on the other man, his cold stare menacing. He wore a scarred brown leather bomber jacket that hung open over a black t-shirt and faded jeans. Scuffed black cowboy boots covered his feet. The jeans had apparently seen so many washings that they were faded white at stress points, the soft worn denim stretched over the powerful muscles of his thighs.
He looked as if he’d ridden straight in off the range, packing a six-gun and looking for trouble, Cynthia thought with disbelief. There was something vaguely familiar about him but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.
“Good-bye.” That deep, cold voice prompted the other man.
“Uh, yeah.” The shorter man touched his hat with a quick nod at Cynthia and turned on his heel to hurry off down the sidewalk.
“Are you all right?” The stranger turned his gaze on her and Cynthia was transfixed.
Dangerous, she thought, this gorgeous male could be seriously dangerous.
“I’m fine,” she assured him, gathering her wits. “He was annoying but I don’t think he would have actually hurt me.”
The stranger smiled, white teeth flashing in his tanned face, turning him from lethal into the poster boy for male charm.
“I certainly hope not,” he drawled. “Unless Indian Springs has changed drastically, women don’t normally have to worry about being assaulted on Main Street.” He cocked his head to the side and eyed her with interest. “It’s been a long time since I lived in Indian Springs but even back then, I don’t remember anyone in town as pretty as you.”
Cynthia laughed, amusement bubbling. “I grew up here,” she told him.
“Not possible,” he promptly denied. “I would have remembered you. I have an infallible memory for beautiful women.”
“And I bet you’ve known a lot of them,” she shot back, smiling when he winced and grinned at her.
“A few,” he admitted. “But honey, none were as pretty as you.”
“I’m guessing you told that to all of them.”
His eyes twinkled, only slightly easing the heat in his green gaze.
Cynthia hadn’t felt this attracted to a man in…well, she realized, never. Though he was clearly a heartbreaker, he was undeniably charming and just as clearly, interested in her.
“I’m Zach Coulter,” he said.
She felt her eyes widen and her breath caught. Of course you are, she thought. I should have realized the moment I saw you. All the Coulter boys had coal black hair, green eyes, and a ladykiller charm. It was part of what made them so unforgettable.
“And you are…?” he prompted with the lift of a brow.
“Cynthia Deacons.” She held out her hand and felt it immediately enclosed in hard masculine warmth. His grip was firm, the surface of his palm and fingers faintly rough with callouses.
“Cynthia.” He repeated her name slowly, as if savoring the sound of it on his lips. Then his mouth curved upward in a small, wholly male smile, his hand not releasing hers. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mutual,” she told him, tugging gently to free her fingers. “I’m sorry about your father. I’d heard your oldest brother was back at the Triple C but the gossip grapevine said he was the only Coulter who’d returned.”
“He was until today.” Zach nodded briefly in confirmation. “I just drove in.”
“From where?” Cynthia knew her question was impolite but curiosity overrode good manners.
She felt her eyes widen. “Nepal? What on earth were you doing there?”
His eyes laughed at her, white teeth flashing in a grin. “I was climbing Mt. Everest.”
“Seriously?” Nonplussed, she stared at him, speechless. “I think you’re the first person I’ve ever met who even attempted that,” she murmured, half to herself. “Did you reach the top?”
“Summit,” he corrected her. “And yes, we reached the summit.”
“What was it like?” She stared at him, wondering what drove a man to climb mountains covered in snow and ice.
“Cold,” he told her gravely. “Really cold.”
Startled, she laughed out loud. Amusement lit his features, laugh lines crinkling at the corners of his eyes.
“What? You don’t believe me?” he asked mildly.
“Oh, I believe you,” she said hastily. “I just can’t believe that’s the first thing that comes to mind when you’ve climbed a mountain most people only dream of attempting.”
He shrugged, broad shoulders shifting beneath the leather jacket.
“It was…awe inspiring.” The teasing quality was gone from his voice. “Like standing on top of the world.”
Cynthia had the sense she was seeing the man beneath the easy charm. If she’d been attracted earlier by his teasing smile and unconcealed male interest, she found herself even more powerfully drawn by the depth and sincerity in his words.
“It must have been amazing,” she murmured, trying to understand and knowing she couldn’t, not really. “I’ve never had an experience like that. The highest I’ve ever been – outside an airplane – is standing on top of the Empire State Building’s observation deck and looking down on the streets of New York.”
“I’ve done that, too.” Sunlines crinkled at the corners of his eyes as he smiled down at her, easy charm once more in place. “I liked it.”
“So did I,” she said drily. “But it hardly compares with climbing Mt. Everest.”
“Maybe, but it’s much warmer. And there aren’t as many obstacles along the way, which is always a plus,” he commented. “As hallmark experiences go, there’s a lot to be said for the Empire State Building’s observation deck.”
“You must have climbed sheer rock faces and crossed ice crevasses. I rode an elevator to the top of a tall building.” She shook her head, smiling with amusement. “If we’re comparing dangerous experiences, I’m betting climbing-scary-high-mountain wins.”
He laughed, the deep chuckle reverberating and sending shivers up her spine.
No wonder he had a reputation as a heartbreaker back in high school, Cynthia thought, blinking against the sudden urge to step closer, lay her hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat, and tuck her face against the warm, strong column of his throat to test the subtle scent of aftershave that even now teased her nostrils. I need to get a grip.
Before she could comment, the patter of feet on concrete sounded behind her, accompanied by the shrieks of children.
“Douglas, watch where you’re going!” The feminine voice warned.
The cautionary warning came too late. One of the little boys crashed into Cynthia from behind, knocking her forward.
And straight into Zach.
Her hands rested on his chest and his arms instantly wrapped around her. For a stunned moment, their faces were a breath apart. She was swamped with a flood of emotions. He was much taller than she and the top of her head barely reached his chin. The male body she pressed against was solid and strong, the muscles of his chest hard where her palms flattened against him. Up close, she could see the shadow of beard stubble along his jawline. The curve of his mouth was unbelievably seductive and his green eyes darkened as she stared.
Belatedly realizing she was lying against him, unmoving, she stirred and his arms instantly loosened. His hands shifted to her shoulders, his firm hold steadying her as she stepped back before he released her fully.
“I’m so sorry. Are you all right?” The worried female voice broke the spell that held Cynthia.
She glanced over her shoulder at the flustered young mother, her gaze dropping to the little boy the woman held firmly by the hand.
“Yes,” she managed a shaky smile as she turned to face them. “Yes, I’m fine. No harm done.”
Relief moved over the young woman’s expression. “Thank goodness.” She bent to the little boy. “Douglas, apologize to the lady.”
“Sorry.” The child looked up at Cynthia through thick lashes.
He was adorable. Charmed, she couldn’t be upset with him.
“That’s okay,” she said, smiling at him.
He rewarded her with an ear-to-ear grin that lit his face before he bashfully ducked his head.
With a final apology, the two women and their charges set off down the street.
Drawing a deep, steadying breath, Cynthia turned to face Zach.
His green gaze was intent, focused on her. She was instantly swamped with the memory of his arms around her, her body pressed against his.
“Thanks for catching me,” she said. The effort to appear cool and unaffected by those brief moments took all her control.
“Anytime.” His mouth curved in a slow, wholly masculine smile.
Cynthia’s heartbeat stuttered before settling in a faster, harder rhythm.
With an effort, she pulled her gaze from his mouth and glanced at her watch. “Goodness, look at the time. It was lovely to meet you, Zach – and welcome back to Indian Springs. I have to run – I have an appointment.” As she spoke, she took several steps, moving backward down the sidewalk. “I’m sure I’ll see you around – it’s such a small town.” She smiled vaguely and turned on her heel. Walking swiftly and purposefully, she headed toward her car, parked halfway down the block.
Zach watched her go, surprised at the speed with which she’d gone from friendly conversation to abrupt departure. One moment she’d been smiling at their comparison of dangerous heights and the next, a veil had fallen over her features and she was gone
His gaze tracked her smooth, graceful walk, the slight sway of her hips and the silky blond ponytail that brushed against her shoulders with each step.
Tired though he was after days of travel and little sleep, everything male in him had snapped to attention the minute he’d seen her. He’d stepped out of his rented truck and stopped dead. Riveted, he’d swept her from head to toe, his body tightening as he did. Her back was to him as she spoke with an older man in a cowboy hat. Her legs were encased in snug jeans and the red stiletto heels on her small feet made her legs look even longer. Long blond hair was caught up in a high ponytail and the end’s bright strands brushed against the red sweater she wore. The sweater’s hem ended at the narrow belted waistband of her jeans. A shopping bag and small leather handbag dangled from one hand.
He was only a few feet away when she attempted to step around the man facing her and the older, beefy cowboy moved sideways, blocking her, smiling as he did so.
Zach registered the instant tenseness that gripped the slim, curvy female body.
Anger flared, his hands curling into loose fists. Instinct had him stepping closer and warning the man to back off.
Then she’d turned and he’d seen her face. Heart-shaped, with dark brows winging above deep blue eyes, high cheekbones, a stubborn little chin below a lush mouth – she was outrageously feminine.
The swift urge to protect and claim swept him.
Down the sidewalk, Cynthia stepped off the curb and opened the door of a bright red sports car. A moment later, she backed out of the parking slot and drove away.
Zach shook his head. He hadn’t reacted to a woman with this much instant lust since he was a teen-ager. He shrugged and turned to stride to the entrance of the Andersen Law Office only yards away.
It must be the lack of sleep, he told himself.