Sonofabitch. This close. He’d been this close to getting a shot of the marking on the stallion’s right hindquarter when some lost hiker stumbled her way off the hillside and spooked the horses. Jake was beginning to think he’d never know if the scar on the animal was from an injury or an owner’s brand. He closed his eyes, counted to—he only made it to three.
“Can I help you? Are you lost?”
Jake opened his eyes and put his hat back on. The first thing he noticed was the hiker wasn’t dressed for hiking at all. Short denim skirt, lacy, pale blue tank top and… Keds? Keds for crying out loud. What, was she twelve? The second thing he noticed was that no, she wasn’t twelve. Not with the way her hips swayed as she walked toward him, or the way her tank top fit snugly against her… Nope. Definitely not twelve.
“Hello?” She pulled her sunglasses off and waved her hand.
Jake’s head snapped up. The third thing he noticed was her eyes. So blue they were almost violet. “I know where I am. I think maybe you’re the one—”
“Then you know this is private property.” She stopped, gestured back toward the road. “Did you see the sign when you came through the gate?” When she turned back to face him, her gaze darted from his eyes to the hillside behind him. “Um, how did you get in here?”
“I’m well aware this is private property.” Stay calm. “I happen to know the owner, and I have permission to be here.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I think the question is, what are you doing here?”
She mimicked him and crossed her arms as well, the position creating some very distracting cleavage.
“I beg your pardon?” One sneaker clad foot tapped the dirt. “I’m the owner of this property, and I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
Jake shook his head. This woman wasn’t making any sense. Upon closer inspection, her violet eyes were a little puffy, like maybe she’d been crying. Her long, blonde hair was a bit tangled as if she’d been running her hands through it. Was she lost or was there more going on here? Uncrossing his arms, he took a step forward. “Hey, are you okay? You seem a little…confused.”
The woman didn’t retreat. In fact, she took a step toward him. She glanced past him at his backpack and other gear. “The only thing I’m confused about is why a strange man is camping out here.”
“My name is Jake. I’m not camping. I’m studying the wild horses.”
Now he knew she was lost. If this was her land, she would definitely know about the herd. “Yes. A herd of wild horses lives in this canyon.”
She perched her sunglasses back on her perfectly straight nose and walked around him. Shielding her eyes with her hand she scanned the area. “Where are they?”
With an exasperated sigh, Jake answered. “They took off when you yelled at me. They’re pretty jumpy around people.” Being wild and all. “Listen, I can take you back to town. Or wherever—”
She turned to look at him. “I’m not leaving. You, on the other hand, are trespassing. I’ll wait while you pack up your things and make sure you get out the gate.”
Hands on his hips, Jake took a calming breath and thought about how best to handle the situation. Before he could come up with a solution, she stepped closer to him, her eyes narrowed.
“Who… Are you Goldstone?”
“Listen, I don’t know what you’re up to, but my attorney is all over your bogus petition.”
What the hell was she talking about? “Whoa, whoa.” He held up his hands in the universal sign for wait, let’s back this up peacefully. “I don’t know who Goldstone is, but I’m not him. I’ve already told you. I have permission to be here.”
She shook her head. “And I already told you. My family…” She cleared her throat. “This land belongs to me.”
Her family. Jake didn’t miss the catch in her voice or the way her bottom lip trembled. God, he was an idiot. This wasn’t some lost, crazy hiker. She was John’s granddaughter. “Wait. You’re Dolly.”
Meg’s mouth dropped open. The only person who called her Dolly was her grandfather. He’d given her the nickname when she was born because she’d reminded him of a porcelain doll that had belonged to his mother. And this man knew about her? Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe her grandfather really had given him permission to come out here.
A completely irrational wave of jealousy hit her. Who was this guy, and how had he known her grandfather? She hadn’t been home in a couple years. Not since her grandmother’s funeral. Why wouldn’t her grandpa find other ways to spend his time? Other people to spend it with?
Meg looked at the stranger. At over six feet tall, he was an imposing figure. The black T-shirt he wore stretched snugly over his muscled chest. He’d taken his hat off to reveal dark blond hair that was a bit curly and a little long, just brushing the tops of his ears, like he might be overdue for a haircut. His handsome, tanned face wore a worried frown.
“Um, miss? Dolly?”
She shook her head. “My name is Megan. Meg. You knew my grandfather?”
Relief flashed across his face, but sadness filled his deep brown eyes. “Yes. I knew John.” He stepped closer. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Meg.”
Fresh tears threatened, but she fought them back. “Thank you. You were friends?”
“We were. Good friends.”
Wrapping her arms around her middle, she turned away. She had no right to take her frustration out on a complete stranger. She had selfishly—stupidly—left her home, her family, the most wonderful support system she could ever hope for because she’d felt smothered. God, what a fool she’d been. There was a difference between feeling sheltered and loved and being controlled. Too bad she’d learned it the hard way. Through her ex’s lies and manipulation, Meg had believed that her grandparents thought her a wicked, ungrateful child. That they would never welcome her back into their loving arms. And while she’d been dealing with her broken heart, assuming the worst, this man had built a relationship with her grandfather. A complete stranger had befriended her beloved grandpa, spent time with him.
Time she could never get back.
The soft rustle of dry grass alerted her to the presence she’d already felt—his. Surprisingly, there was nothing threatening about his nearness, but her heart pounded with anticipation nevertheless.
She would not to cry in front of him. With her back still to him, she spoke, trying to keep her voice even, “Since the horses are gone, there really isn’t any reason for you to hang around.”
“You’re upset. Why don’t you let me give you a ride? My truck is parked at the West entrance. I’ll go get it and take you wherever you need to go.”
“I can make it to the cabin on my own.” Holding back a sob, she started back up the path. “Could you please make sure the gate is locked when you leave?”
She didn’t break stride, tears welling in her eyes. “That’s it.”
After only a few steps, his hand on her elbow brought her up short. Jeez, what was with this guy? Couldn’t a girl have a breakdown in peace? She turned slowly, hoping to keep it together a minute longer, but the look of concern on his face broke the dam, and the tears she’d been holding at bay tickled her cheeks as they streamed down her face.
“Aw, hell. Please don’t cry.” Before she knew what was happening, two strong arms wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her close. One of Jake’s large hands cupped the back of her head and pressed her cheek to his chest.
Several things hit Meg at once.
Instead of paralyzing fear, the utter sense of being protected took her off guard. While one hand sifted through her hair, his other one slowly stroked up and down her back. The feeling of being cocooned in his warmth was both soothing and troubling. She didn’t fall into the arms of strangers. In fact, it would take all her fingers and toes to count the number of months it had been since she’d been this close to a man. Hell, she’d need an extra hand. In the last two years, she’d learned to make it on her own. She didn’t cry often, but being held like this seemed to give her permission to blubber like a baby. His masculine scent comforted her as she drew in a breath and his heart beat steadily against her cheek.
Without thought or consent, her arms wound around his waist, and his hold tightened on her.
Inheriting her grandfather’s ranch is the perfect opportunity for Meg Reynolds to begin again. The land is her only chance to hold onto the last bit of family she had. But Jake Matthews has other plans. He says her grandfather wanted a horse refuge on the land, and despite the heat blazing between them, Jake will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
What Jake realizes he wants is Meg, but someone’s threatening her and seems willing to kill her for her land. Meg doesn’t know who she can trust. When she’s kidnapped, it’s up to Jake to help rescue her before he loses the chance to tell her that he cares more for her than the land that stands between them