Mitch can't believe the woman his "little Katie" has become. She's beautiful, has a body that gives him all kinds of naughty ideas and, best of all, she's lost none of her fiery spirit and take-no-prisoners sense of humor. So, when Kate comes a-calling—he can't resist—and won't! But will their luck be better the second time around?
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Kate Manning jumped at the loud pop. She tilted her head back, her gaze going to the explosion of red, blue and silver that burst against the night sky, and then rained down in glittering streamers to the delight of the spectators. The annual July Fourth celebration and fireworks display hosted by her family was almost over. Friends and neighbors would soon leave the Manning ranch, exhausted from the three days of festivities. She couldn't wait for them to go.
She should have been happier. Ecstatic, really. Standing apart from the crowd, she leaned against the kitchen door and stared down at the sparkling one-carat diamond ring on her finger. She was engaged to be married in six months for goodness' sakes. She'd long ago chosen a dress and started making plans for a late-winter wedding when West Texas wasn't so horribly hot.
Her college friends were here, having traveled thousands of miles to join her in celebrating her engagement. Only two weeks ago she'd called each of them herself, and practically begged them to come. A day later the blues had taken hold, and she'd nearly called them back to rescind the invitation. But she hadn't, and now she wondered if subconsciously she wished they'd come to talk her out of getting married.
Another explosion of red and blue lit up the sky, and she peered into the crowd, focusing in the direction where she'd last seen Dennis talking to Clyde Thompson, owner of the Red Rock Ranch. One thing about her fianc , she thought wryly, he had quite a knack for zeroing in on the wealthy and powerful.
Damn him for missing most of the weekend. He knew how important it was to her that he meet her friends, but he'd skipped the barbecue and dance yesterday, then the rodeo and picnic this afternoon, finally showing up an hour ago. Since then he'd spent his time working the crowd like a seasoned politician. Was that her appeal, she thought uneasily, her family name and community standing?
It was nerves making her short-tempered with him. That's all. Over a hundred and fifty people had shown up this weekend, requiring an enormous amount of preparation to make sure there was enough food and drink. After the cleanup was through, and she'd had a couple nights of good sleep, she'd be back to normal. Happy again that she was marrying such a good man. One she would always be able to count on. One who understood her and loved her. She could continue planning her wedding without all the distractions, which would surely lift her spirits.
Feeling a bit queasy, she wrapped her arms around her middle. One minute, then she'd go find Dennis. So far he'd met Jessica, but not her other two friends. They were both off somewhere with her brothers. Man, she hadn't seen that coming.
A breathtaking array of blue and gold blossomed in the sky, quickly followed by a rapid succession of fiery rockets in brilliant colors, which meant the show was building to the finale. Kate smiled at the appreciative murmurs of the crowd, content that the weekend had been a success. Near where the children's rides were set up, silvery white sparklers bobbed in the dark, and she briefly considered turning on the driveway floodlights for anyone wishing to get a head start on the exiting crowd. Or was it a tad too soon?
She turned toward the lineup of trucks and cars, and thought she saw the silhouette of a man coming down the drive. Odd that someone would be arriving only now. Squinting, she waited for the next burst of light. Her breath caught. The man almost looked like…
No, it couldn't be Mitch Colter. This man's shoulders were broad like Mitch's, and he was tall and narrow-hipped, his hair long and dark. He even walked with that slight swagger. But Mitch wasn't even in the country, as far as she knew. God, he hadn't been back to West Texas, much less Appleton, in eight years.
And one week.
As the man got closer, her insides started to flutter, and she straightened. No way on earth could that be Mitch.
He saw her standing outside the kitchen door. Mitch almost hadn't realized it was Kate. All grown-up, taller than he remembered, and a lot curvier. But the rich auburn hair gave her away. He'd never seen that color on any other woman. She'd cut it, though, to just above her shoulders. Too bad. He'd always liked it long and kind of wild.
As he closed in on the house, he knew she'd spotted him and he reversed his decision to head into the crowd. Instead, he strode toward her and noticed how she suddenly straightened, her stance almost defensive. That he didn't understand. Maybe she didn't recognize him. No one knew he was coming. He hadn't known himself until two days ago.
The fireworks were almost over. He'd been to enough of the Manning's July Fourth shindigs over the years to know that the big finish was coming any minute. Which made him wonder why Kate was standing off by herself.
She moved away from the door and down to the bottom step. "Mitch." She frowned slightly. "Does anyone know you're back in town?"
"It was a last-minute decision." He opened his arms to her. "Don't I get a hug?"
Her lips parted, uncertainty flickering in her face, and then she smiled and moved toward him. "It's good to see you," she said, hesitating a moment before clumsily embracing him.
He slid his arms around her and lifted her off the ground, swinging her in a half circle. It was a mistake. He knew it the moment their bodies touched.
Little Katie had breasts now. Nice, firm round breasts that felt too damn good pressed against his chest. When the hell had that happened?
He quickly put her down. Too quickly, judging by her confused look. And then he really screwed things up by running his hands down her back until his palms molded to the top of her backside. Careful not to make another sudden move, he drew his hands to either side of her slender waist, set her back to look impassively at her, and then gave her a brotherly smile.
"You look terrific," he said, casually lowering his arms.
"I swear you're taller than when I last saw you."
She blinked, and hunched her shoulders. "I had a surprise growth spurt."
Rather than hide her breasts, the action drew his attention because the blue shirt gaped slightly. He abruptly lifted his gaze. Got a grip. This was Katie, Joe and Clint's baby sister. "What's it been, Katie, six years?"
"Eight," she said with faint irritation. "And no one calls me Katie anymore."
"Ah." His smile broadened at the defiant lift of her chin, an old habit he'd found amusing because she'd always been on the shy side.
"I promise I'll try to remember."
She drew in her lower lip, studying him for a second, before her gaze drifted toward the crowd. "Your parents aren't here, are they?"
"Still in Little Rock with my sister and her kids."
She sighed. "I'm so sorry about what happened to their cattle. Tom Jenkins and the Reynolds were hit by rustlers, too. The Double R is still in business but they're hurting."
He nodded. Hard to hear even though he already knew the facts. The ranchers in the area had been here for generations so he knew every one of them.
Her lips twisted in a wry smile. "So why are you here?"
"To handle some ranch business for the folks," he said, the grim reminder of the reason for his return taking some of the pleasure out of seeing Kate.
Ranch. What a joke. Only an empty house remained, and land that had been in the Colter family for over a hundred years. The small herd of cattle that had once sustained the place was gone. And it seemed as if the authorities didn't give a damn.
"I miss your parents," she said, "even though I only spend summers and holidays here anymore."
"You're teaching, right?"
She nodded. "In Vernal. I keep an apartment there because a round-trip takes two and half hours out of my day."
"Heavens no. Middle school is hard enough."
"I bet." He willed himself not to look at her breasts. Bad enough his chest was still imprinted with the memory of them. Her eyes looked greener, brighter, or maybe it was the light coming from the kitchen. "How many of your students have crushes on you?"
"Oh, please." Her cheeks turned pink, and making a sound of exasperation, she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
Something sparkled on her hand. Startled, he stared at the diamond on her finger. "I see that congratulations are in order."
"What?" She blinked, and then gave the ring a cursory glance before hiding her hand behind her back. "Oh, right."
"When's the wedding?"
She hesitated. "The end of January. Look, I don't know where Clint is. Joe's upstairs but I think he's kind of busy." She looked up at the sky and then toward the crowd. "I really should get out there and say goodbye to people."
"Of course." He waved her on. "I didn't mean to hold you up."
"No, I'm glad to see you. Really." She moistened her lips and took a step back. "I'm looking forward to talking to you some more," she said as she kept backing away. "If I see Clint, I'll tell him you're here."
Mitch watched her hurry toward the tent and stage area. Kate was getting married? Now why was he so surprised? She was six years younger than him, which made her about twenty-seven. As a kid she'd been on the gangly side, showing more interest in trying to keep up with her brothers than in fashion or makeup. But she'd grown up to be quite a looker, always had been bright and dependable, too. She'd make a great ranch wife.
Nope, there was no trace of the tomboy now, he thought as he watched the gentle sway of her hips. He'd started getting too engrossed in her shapely rear end and had to sternly remind himself that this was Kate. Besides the fact she was an engaged woman, he didn't need Joe or Clint kicking his ass.
Kate hurried in desperation toward the refreshment booth where she thought she saw Dennis. People looked at her as if they feared she were on her way to a fire. Ironically, it was the other way around. The searing heat of flesh and muscle that had threatened to engulf her in a mindless burst of flames was what had her racing through the crowd.
Mitch, here in the flesh. She still couldn't believe it. He'd touched her. Held her against his strong broad chest until she thought she'd suffocate from lack of oxygen. The physical exchange had lasted a heartbeat, but it might as well have been a lifetime. A hundred-odd sensations crashed in on her for which she hadn't been prepared. Sure, she'd had a childish crush on him until he'd left for college, but that was eons ago.
After dropping out of Texas A&M his senior year, he'd started drifting from one job to another and rarely came home. Once she had gone East to school, their paths crossed less frequently. She still thought about him from time to time, but normally only when she saw his parents or the Colter name came up in conversation.
But he was different somehow. Her crush had been on a boy. Mitch was a man now. A damn good-looking man, who by merely showing up, had just thrown her a curveball she could never have anticipated. Had that cleft in his chin always been that deep? Or his voice so low and sexy? Her legs felt a bit wobbly, and it occurred to her that if she didn't sit down soon, she might end up making a fool of herself.
"Chica, are you all right?" Maria's concerned voice came from behind.
Kate spun around and saw the older woman with one of her young grandchildren tightly clasping her hand. "Yes, I was just looking for Dennis." Kate smiled at the child. "Hello, Hilda, are you having fun?"
The little girl nodded, her mouth curving in a toothless grin. Maria continued to stare speculatively at Kate. After being the Manning's housekeeper for over twenty-five years, not much got by her. When Kate's parents had been killed in a car accident, Maria had been there to cradle her as she sobbed uncontrollably for hours.
"Have you seen him?" Kate asked, her pulse finally starting to slow down. "Dennis?"
Shrugging her plump shoulders, Maria shook her head. She didn't like Dennis, Kate knew. Neither did her brothers, even though no one had said a word to her. Maybe that was the reason for her earlier funk. He'd not only disappointed her this weekend by showing up late, but he'd disappointed them, and that didn't help. She'd tried to tell them that Dennis was a nice man with a good sense of humor, and all the other things that made her care for him, but in her heart she knew her family thought of her as a kid, and that no man would ever please them.
"Go on," Kate said, making a shooing gesture with her hand. "I'mfine. Enjoy the fireworks. They're almost over."
Anxious to be away from Maria's knowing eyes, Kate quickly wove her way into the crowd, trying to remember the color of his shirt. Brown, maybe? That wouldn't help much. Half the men here were wearing dark colors. Dennis wasn't nearly as tall as Mitch, or so muscular that he could easily lift her in the air. Nor did he have thick sable hair and slate-gray eyes that seemed to darken along with his mood. And there was no comparing Mitch's strong square jaw to…
Briefly closing her eyes, she gritted her teeth. She had to stop this. Not only was her sudden preoccupation unfair to Dennis, but she was only making herself crazy. God, how she wanted a margarita, or a beer. Anything with alcohol would do. Tequila. One shot would calm her nerves. Hell, one shot would probably put her to sleep. She occasionally drank a glass of wine, and she loved a slushy margarita with Mexican food, but that was pretty much it.
She didn't care. Her nerves were buzzing like angry bees, and she needed the respite of blessed numbness. Heading straight for the refreshment booth, she avoided eye contact as much as possible, but smiled politely when necessary. She slipped behind the bar and found the tequila. After pouring some in a paper cup, she noticed Sylvia Crabtree eyeing her with interest. The woman had a heart of gold but was also capable of spreading gossip faster than the Internet. Kate resisted the urge to slam back the shot of tequila, smiled at the woman instead, then walked away without the drink. Silly, because why should she care what anyone thought? But she did, and that fact wasn' t going to change just because she recognized the foolishness of it.