Read Chapter 7 before you continue…
Elaina stared at Matthew with trepidation, feigning a sullen silence as she was unable to come up with a greeting that was equally deprecating. It seemed ironic that, only a few minutes ago, she had decided to avoid this man altogether and already she was alone in his company, save for horse and hay.
Matthew looked on smugly at her discomfort. His stonewashed jeans were strapped by a length of woven suede around his waist and hung from narrow hips, clinging to his strong thighs before they fell to well-worn leather boots. The sleeves of his green chambray shirt were rolled up to his elbows, revealing the sinewy forearms of a man who obviously worked a lot with his hands. He had even donned a brand new Stetson that rested slightly askew on his head. In his current surrounding, he looked the spitting image of a rustic hero despite the expensive designer finish of his attire that begged to differentiate him from any cowboy that she knew. “Cat got your tongue?”
She searched the furthest recesses of her mind to deliver a smart retort but nothing. How could one kiss turn her into such a lack wit?
Matthew stepped closer, his eyes sparkling with mirth and insinuation. “That’s not fair. Since I already proved I can make better use of your tongue than the cat, I obviously should have had dibs.”
To Elaina’s utter dismay, she flushed four shades of crimson straight to her golden roots.
Matthew chuckled softly. “Well, I’ll be damned. Miss Devil-May-Care isn’t immune to my kisses after all,” said he, doing a fine impersonation of a Texan drawl. Then he lowered his voice to a huskier decibel. “You don’t know how encouraging I find that fact, sweetheart.”
And that put an end to her distress, as Elaina bristled at the endearment. “There’s just no getting away from you, is there?”
Matthew leaned against the column of the stall, his arms crossed over his chest as though he was just settling down to aggravate her and his ankles crossed comfortably to prove he had all the time in the world to do it. “I hope not, as I’m doing my best to ensure otherwise.”
Elaina narrowed her eyes. “Meaning?”
“Well, my dear, dear cowgirl, it hasn’t escaped my notice that since we’ve met, you’ve already dismissed me four times. Four times. I haven’t been dismissed by four ladies in all my life let alone be dismissed by one lady four times. So I decided that I needed to get back in the game before you took too much of a lead. I even took riding lessons today to balance the odds.”
“A bit sure of ourselves, aren’t we?” taunted Elaina.
Matthew grinned like a Cheshire. “Not without reason,” replied he, not even attempting to hide his self-confidence.
“And so claimed many a fool before meeting their downfall.”
“Oh, I’m no fool. I definitely plan to collect on what I enjoyed a prelude to yesterday.” Despite his affable tone, there was an indomitable glint in his eyes that told her he was quite serious about his declaration.
Elaina stepped around him and out of the stall to hide the blush that was beginning to creep up her neck to her face. It was not only the mention of their kiss that flustered her but rather her sudden need to comply with his demand. What was coming over her?
Matthew straightened and turned to follow her. “Just where are you going?”
“I promised Jonny I’ll teach you how to take care of the horses after they ride. The sooner that is over with, the sooner I can get rid of you,” replied Elaina without looking back as she came to a halt before the two horses that were left unattended in the aisle. She groaned as she saw the sight. While one horse had made his way to a large pile of hay in the outer corner of the stable and was chomping away at lunch happily unrestrained, the other horse had relieved himself of his breakfast in the middle of the aisle and was looking enormously pleased with his performance. “Marty,” chided Elaina at the offending beast, “you know better than to poop in the walkway!”
Marty snorted and Matthew shared his humor by snickering.
Elaina wheeled around, her hand automatically bracing against her hips as she belligerently glowered at the person she had already mentally monickering as an offending-beast-of-another-breed. “Think it’s funny, do you, Halls? Well you’re on aisle duty.” She grabbed the shovel and cart that just happened to be parked beside the nearest stall and shoved them at Matthew. “There you go. Oh, don’t you frown! It’s only a wee bit. Marty, here, obviously hasn’t done justice to his breakfast this morning. But it’ll be a very illuminating beginning for you nonetheless.”
Matthew stared at Elaina defiantly and only accepted the proffered tools when he saw she was serious about making him shovel manure. Grumbling, he made a furious stab at the odorous mess, spraying bits of excrement everywhere, most of which landed on his own designer jeans. Frustrated, he barked a string of profanity that was as colorful as they were inappropriate to fall on a lady’s ears. Elaina paid it no mind, however.
“You want to be careful with that now,” she drawled smoothly, a smile tipping up a corner of her mouth slyly. “I’ll just be putting Marty and Regis over there into their stalls and get a head start on taking care of Regis. Marty may volunteer himself for your lesson since you guys seem to be already bonding.”
Matthew scowled and went back to work as Elaina led the horses to their stalls, gleeful at how her mandatory time-sharing with Matthew was turning out. Ten minutes later, having done a prerequisite onceover on one horse, Elaina had already moved into Marty’s stall. She was congratulating the stallion again for helping her put her adversary in his place when Matthew drew up behind her.
“I’m glad I can be the source of such happiness but I wish your entertainments weren’t derived at my expense.”
“Must you always creep up on me?” Elaina yelled, thoroughly startled.
Matthew pouted. “I did not creep up on you. You asked me to meet you in Marty’s stall.”
“Right,” replied she, resignedly. “Let’s show you how this is done then.”
“What’s your hurry, sweetheart?”
“Stop calling me that.” Elaina spoke through gritted teeth but Matthew went on as though she had not spoken.
“It is a rare boon that I have this time alone with you and I’d like to prolong it for as long as possible.”
“Well, your time is almost up. Now this is how we do it,” Elaina spoke as she began unsaddling the dark horse, demonstrating each step. “Jonny unbridled him already so you already saw how that’s done. To unsaddle the horse, you first undo the cinch. You do this from his offside, that’s on his right. Now you should loosen the cinch soon as you’re done riding – before you cool him down – but you can undo it completely later.”
She carried on with her lesson and Matthew carefully observed her every move and word, the intensity of his focus making her nervous. However, soon she realized that his interest in what she was teaching him was sincere and he paid her all the deference a good student paid an experienced teacher. His questions were pertinent and she began to relax and even enjoy his company as she fell into her own element. She knew cattle and steed. She had done this a million time and it was gratifying to have someone show the kind of respect for her work the way Matthew was doing, even if it pertained to something as mundane as unsaddling and checking the hooves of a horse.
“Usually we do this out at the same place we tack up the horses but since Jonny already brought y’all inside we did the work here. Any question?” said she as she came to a finish.
Matthew shook his head. “You really enjoy working on the ranch, don’t you?”
Elaina scowled. “Of course, I enjoy working on the ranch. Why else would I be here every day before the roosters are up?”
Matthew shook his a second time. “No, I never doubted that you enjoyed it. I just didn’t realize how much until this minute. It’s a beautiful sight watching you work.”
Matthew’s eyes were warm with an emotion that made Elaina nervous. She was not experienced enough with men to understand what they were trying to communicate but they were making her start to hope for something she sure was not ready for. She turned from him to sponge the shiny coat on the horses back where some saddle mark was still visible.
“Hey” exclaimed Matthew.
Elaina paused, the sponge raised just above Marty’s back, and looked at him over her shoulder.
Matthew grabbed her arm and pulled her against him, the force making her startle and drop the sponge to the straw strewn floor of the stable. “I thought I told you I won’t let you dismiss me again.”
“A-and why should I care that you don’t want me to?” Despite her challenging words, she stuttered and wanted to kick herself for it.
Matthew’s gaze on her face was intense and searching. They seemed to be looking for a window straight to her soul and she tried her best to shut him out. But his next words undid her efforts. “It seems to me that when you told me to forget our kiss yesterday, you were more successful than I was. I think it’s time I rectify that.”
He did not give her time to protest. Hell, he did not even give her time to process what he intended before he swooped down and captured her mouth in a searing kiss. Briefly, she realized that her alarmed gasp was muffled by his lips, if indeed she had verbally managed the sound. She knew she should fight his manhandling but whatever reasoning skills that she still possessed quickly gave away to the demanding onslaught of his mouth. After shuttering her emotions from the invasions of anyone outside her family for half a decade, she had not realized how starved she was for attention and human caress. Until Matthew entered her life. And now she lapped up what he so openly offered and kissed him back with a fervor she did not know she possessed.
Matthew’s lips were aggressive and demanding. They would have tolerated no opposition even if she had put up any. And only when she leaned back into his kiss, only when she parted her lips to allow him access to her mouth, did he relax himself. Then he molded his mouth to hers just the way he molded his body to hers. He became a gentle lover. His fingers worked their way into her braid and she felt as though she would swoon from the tingling sensation they created in her scalp. Her hands traveled with a will of their own as she buried her fingers in his hair to create the same sensation that he taught her. Tentatively, she met her tongue with his and was gratified when he groaned in approval and deepened the kiss.
This was heaven. This knowledge that she could create such desire in him. That a man could crave her the way this man did. And she knew Matthew craved her. It was apparent by the way he continued to pursue her despite her rebuffs. She tried to remember through the haze of their kiss why she had been pushing him away. It had been something about not trusting him. Some fear of being abandoned afterwards. The way Brooke had betrayed and abandoned her.
Elaina stiffened. Matthew grunted in protest even as he continued their kiss. His arms tightened around her but she began pushing him away. Somehow she managed to break their kiss but he would not let her extricate herself from his embrace.
“What?” he gasped, his breath coming out harsh, his eyes still glazed with passion.
“Please let me go.”
“No. Why?” When she did not answer, his voice became harder. “Why?” demanded he.
She looked away from him, too ashamed of herself to meet his eyes. “Brooke,” said she simply, as though that was explanation enough.
But apparently it was not. “Brooke,” asked he, obviously not comprehending.
Elaina clenched her jaws, feeling a spurt of irritation racing up her spine. “Yes, Brooke. You know the beautiful woman that you came down to Lainie’s Creek with? Whose ranch house you’re staying in?”
Matthew’s jaws clenched too, but somehow she knew he was doing a better job at it than she was. “What does, pray tell, she have to do with what we were doing?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re here with her, aren’t you? That must mean something!” She was yelling incoherently though what she really wanted was to remain calm and appear aloof.
Matthew gritted his teeth and closed his eyes for a moment, as though praying for patience, before he spoke. “Please do not tell me that you have been employing your efforts avoiding me because you think Brooke and I are an item.”
“Well, it’s obvious that you are,” Elaina huffed.
Without quite releasing her, Matthew shoved her until her back was pressed against the inner side of Marty’s stall. Then he pressed his hips against hers until she felt the proof of his arousal pushed up against her lower abdomen. “I think it’s obvious that I’m not in a relationship with Brooke. Do you now understand how much I’m not?”
His arousal was turning her legs into jelly but she managed to look defiant. “I understand no such thing. I –”
“Why would I lie about something that can so easily be cross checked? And I remember telling you as much already the other night at the bar. But you clearly seemed to have forgotten.”
Elaina shrugged, stubborn to the end.
Matthew’s eyes darkened with something graver than passion. “Then let me spell it out for you. Brooke and I are not dating and neither do we intend to. We are just friends. And I am a free man to bestow my attention on any woman I please. And of late, it seems that that woman has been you. Almost since the moment I met you, my body has been hard and pant up for you and I have been able to think of little else. So much so that my work has suffered as a result of it and I’ve been forced to pursue you despite the blows my ego has taken from your rebukes. But I can’t help myself because I want you so desperately that I can’t seem to think reasonably. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Elaina could only nod apprehensively at such a declaration.
“Good,” Matthew sighed. “Now if you no longer have any doubts or questions, I’d like to return to enjoying that delectable mouth of yours. Do you have any objections?”
Again, Elaina only shook her head in response.
A slow hungry smile replaced the aggravated frown that had been etched over his face during his tirade. “I’m so glad you agree,” replied he, before lowering his head for another kiss.
And this time Elaina kissed him back without restraint.
Read Chapter 9