Deidre Nelson has never forgotten the man who stole her heart so effectively a decade ago. When circumstances bring her back to Ventura, Texas to look after her parents’ B&B, she prepares to face Jonas Mendez, the sexy wrangler-turned sheriff, with growing anticipation.
Deidre’s engaging smile and seductive gaze has haunted Jonas for ten years. But life’s cruel ironies pepper his past, leaving him guarded and wary. He vows to keep his interaction with Deidre strictly professional while she’s in Ventura.
But when vandalism at the B&B turns life-threatening, Jonas finds himself intimately involved with the one woman he has always wanted but never touched.
As a decade of built-up anticipation becomes reality, suddenly the line between protector and possessor begins to blur.
The man I could never have, Deidre thought as the man who had haunted her thoughts for a decade drove up in his blue and white police car. Her heart thumped at a rapid pace and her stomach muscles flexed as he cut the engine and climbed out of his car.
Her parents told her a few years back that the Flying Wind’s wrangler had become the town sheriff, but nothing could have prepared her for the devastating sight of Jonas Mendez’s broad shoulders decked out in a uniform, complete with a shiny silver badge. The white shirt showed off his mixed Hispanic and Caucasian skin tone to perfection, and the gun belt strapped around his black pants only added to the steely confidence he exuded even more now than ten years ago.
Even though she knew there couldn’t be anything between them, her heart sank a little that he hadn’t called her Deidre. She let her smile melt away and put her hand in his warm one, shaking it with a firm grip. “Thanks for stopping by, Sheriff. My parents appreciate you making the effort.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.” He released her hand and touched the rim of his hat, giving her a respectful nod.
Despite his formal tone, the brief clasp of his warm hand around hers had ignited a burst of tingles in her arm. Why are all the good ones always taken? she lamented until her brain caught up with what she she’d seen, or rather what she didn’t see when he’d touched his hat.
His left hand was bare.
Her heart stuttered in shock. Was there a reason he wasn’t wearing his wedding band? Deidre’s gaze jerked to his dark blue one in hopes he’d volunteer an answer to the question she knew reflected in her eyes.
“It’s the least I can do considering I haven’t been able to stop the vandalism that has occurred at the Flying Wind lately,” he said as he scanned the B&B and its surrounding property with an assessing gaze. “I’ve missed the quiet tranquility of this place.”
“I heard you’ve taken over your parents’ property now.” She tried to keep her tone casual despite her pulse’s rushing whoosh in her ears. “I understand the Mendez spread is pretty vast.”
He nodded and squinted into the sun. “My mom died six years ago and my dad followed her a couple years later. My brother wasn’t interested in running the ranch, so I took over.”
She tilted her head in curiosity, wanting to know so much more about him, like if his favorite food was still chili with lots of Tabasco, what made him decide to become a sheriff and why there wasn’t a tan line on his left ring finger. “Can’t be easy being both sheriff and full-time rancher.”
Jonas’ gaze returned to hers. Fine lines were more apparent around his eyes, his bearing more intense. His shoulders might be broader, but his cheekbones were leaner, projecting a harsher, less relaxed persona than she remembered from the twenty-six-year-old wrangler she’d met a decade ago.
“I have a foreman who oversees the ranch during my office hours, but I enjoy the constant hard work.”
With very little time to relax, she mentally finished for him.
While the late summer Texas wind whipped around them and the early evening sun dipped low in the cloudless blue sky, tense silence stretched between them. Deidre lifted her hands in the air, spreading them wide as she cast her gaze from one side of the B&B’s long front porch to the other. “Well, as you can see, the Flying Wind is safe and sound so you can head home now.”
His black eyebrows drew downward and his mouth set in a firm line. “I don’t like you staying here by yourself.”
He sounded so serious and forceful, she couldn’t help but grin. The quiet town of Ventura, Texas was far safer than living in Manhattan! “Hey, no worries. I just finished my last contract and had some free time on my hands, so I offered to housesit. My parents decided since nothing has happened at the B&B in the past three weeks they would take their vacation before the fall season kicks in full swing. I wanted them to enjoy their first cruise without having to worry about leaving an empty house behind.” Shaking her head at his stoic expression, she continued in an upbeat tone. “Mom and Dad told me nothing has happened for three weeks. I’ll be fine.”
He stared at her for a couple more seconds, then dipped his head in a curt nod. Reaching into his front pocket, he withdrew a business card and handed it to her. “I’ll be by tomorrow around this time. Call my cell if you need me any time. My property is adjacent to your parents’. I can be here in three minutes.”
And if my needs are of a more personal nature? she thought with an inward sigh as she took the card and gave him a half smile. “Thanks, Sheriff.”
He touched the brim of his hat once more and walked back to his car. Opening the car door, he paused and leaned his arm on the window’s frame, regarding her with a steady gaze. “I may have more responsibilities now, but I’m still the same cowboy, Deidre. Jonas will do.”
Her heart raced as he drove away, gravel dust clouding over the red taillights. After ten years, hearing her name again in that sexy Texan accent caused a shiver to ripple over her body. How many times had she fantasized hearing him say her name in a passionate moment? She stared at the crisp card in her hand, wishing it were six o’clock tomorrow already.
* * *
Jonas’ horse moved at a slow pace up the wooded trail. Velvet walked behind them via the lead rope. The mare held her head low…as she should, Deidre thought with a wry smile as she turned her attention forward once more. Darn horse had scared the wits out of her, taking off like as she had.
But Jonas’ firm grip around her waist distracted her from her anger and made her forget about the stinging cut on her cheek she’d acquired during the skittish horse’s mad dash down an unmarked trail. She glanced at his tan forearm wrapped tightly around her waist, noting the sprinkle of dark hair and the defined veins that spread up his muscles. With each step his horse took, her body dipped and swayed, molding her against Jonas’ hard frame.
“I’m not gonna let you fall, darlin’.” Butterflies scattered in her belly at the sensation of his fingers gripping her ribcage. His chest pressed against her back, muscular and warm. She leaned into him, inhaling his woodsy, masculine scent—a scent that had driven her nuts the last several days she’d spent at her parents’ brand new bed and breakfast retreat, Flying Wind. She’d thought the Texan B&B would be a nice place to visit during her fall break from college. What she didn’t expect was to be instantly attracted to the Flying Wind’s head wrangler in the process.
She laid her head in the crook of his neck and closed her eyes…wishing.
His warm breath came close to her temple as if he were going to say something…or kiss her. Her pulse skittered in anticipation and goose bumps formed on her skin. When he did neither, a maddening mix of relief and disappointment washed over her.
His horse slowed and she opened her eyes to see they were near the end of the wooded trail. Dusk was almost upon them, and sunlight filtered through the thick trees above them, making her feel warm and secure. The smell of earth and outdoors, mixed with Jonas’ heavenly scent, surrounded her in a blanket of rightness. She didn’t want to let go.
When he placed his hand on her thigh and squeezed, her belly tightened in instant response to the heat generated by his broad palm. She bit her lip as she lowered her gaze to his tanned hand. In a month he’d been wearing a wedding band on his ring finger. Why didn’t my parents open their B&B a year earlier? she mentally wailed in frustration.
Jonas slid off his horse in one graceful, fluid movement. His black Stetson tilted until his deep blue gaze collided with hers.
As he encircled her waist to lift her down, words lodged in her throat. Once her feet touched the ground, she finally forced an appropriate response, unlike the zillion other inappropriate thoughts rumbling around in her mind. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
He smiled and instead of letting her go, his grip tightened around her waist. Pulling her close, he pressed his jaw against her temple. The sensation of his chest rising and falling in a deep, shuddering breath surprised her.
“In another life…” he said in a gruff voice before he released her and moved to untie Velvet.
Deidre awoke with a dull ache in her belly. Heart racing, she sat up and pushed her hair away from her face, staring at the bright morning sunlight filtering past the green gingham curtains in the B&B’s front guest bedroom. She’d lost count how many times she’d dreamed about the last time she’d seen Jonas Mendez—the last words he’d spoken to her before she went back to college. Of course, since then she’d fantasized about different scenarios, the main one being the fact he wasn’t engaged. And why wasn’t he wearing a wedding band ten years later?
Irritated with herself for dwelling on Jonas’ marital status, she pushed the covers back and got out of bed. The goats needed to be fed, and her parents had asked her to fertilize the main flowerbeds while they were gone. Fortunately it had rained hard the night before and there wasn’t any rain in the forecast. Now was the best time to spread the fertilizer. Better get started on those chores, not to mention the fact I apparently need a distraction from fruitless ponderings. Shaking her head at her meandering thoughts, she stood and headed for the bathroom.
* * *
“Hey, Sheriff,” the cashier called out as she swiped Deidre’s credit card through the automated machine.
Deidre cast her gaze over her shoulder to see Jonas heading toward the back of the mom and pop store. His boots hit the wood floor with a heavy, purposeful stride, sending shivers down her spine. He stopped at the bottom of a ladder and spoke to the older man who was stocking extra canned goods on a top shelf.
“I’m so glad to see you back. You’ve grown into a beautiful lady.”
Deidre’s gaze returned to the cashier’s full cheeks, puffed up by her broad smile.
Heat tinged her face. “Thank you, Sally. It’s great to be back. I really enjoyed my summer here while I was in college. I wish I’d come back sooner.”
“Pshaw!” Sally grinned as she bagged the last of Deidre’s groceries. “You had to experience the big city “rush” for a while. Only then would you appreciate the relaxed lifestyle our town has to offer.”
Deidre laughed and put her hands around the bag to pick it up. “Amen to that. There’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing some things don’t change,” she commented as she glanced around the store’s fresh produce on display.
“True, but there’s one thing I wish would change.”
Deidre elevated her eyebrow. “What’s that?”
Sally’s deep green gaze cut to the two men talking in the back of the store. Jonas was holding the ladder while Sally’s husband climbed a rung higher to straighten some boxes. “It’s about time the sheriff settled down.”
Deidre’s heart began to hammer at a rapid rate and the bag crumpled under her fingers. “For some reason I thought he was married.”
Sally exhaled an unladylike snort of disdain. “He never married.” She leaned forward and spoke in a lowered voice. “Two weeks before his wedding, he caught Candice with his best friend.”
Deidre’s chest constricted. His fiancée had cheated on him? A knot formed in her stomach, but she resisted the urge to glance back at Jonas’ handsome profile.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she heard herself saying. And she was sorry…for Jonas. Sheesh, in a small town like Ventura, everyone knew everyone’s business. No wonder he appeared harder and less approachable than she remembered. Why hadn’t her parents told her? Then again, they never knew about her crush on their wrangler.
She was pissed at herself however. Damn it, she’d avoided seeing him again all this time for nothing!
She’d thought about Jonas and his sexy smile often over the years, to the point she refused to come back to visit Texas. Why torture herself? Since her parents loved to travel, she’d invited them to New York for the holidays each year. They spent quality time together in her cozy apartment, and she always made sure her mom and dad had a grand time. She was glad her parents never pushed her to visit them at the B&B.
“Anyway, it’s been almost ten years,” Sally continued. “’Bout time he moved on in my opinion. You married?”
Deidre couldn’t help the chuckle that rumbled past her lips when the woman cast a surreptitious glance at Deidre’s left hand. “You trying to play matchmaker, Sally?”
The older woman shrugged, then gave Deidre an expectant look. “So are you?”
“I’m sure my mom has shared my marital status or lack there of with you.” Deidre shook her head and grinned. “You and my mother are two peas in a pod.”
Sally let out a full-bellied laugh. “True. Dorothy and I are like long-lost sisters. I miss her company already.”
Deidre’s smile broadened. “She and Dad will be back in a couple more days. I’m sure they’ll be full of cruise adventure stories.”
Sally wagged her pudgy finger toward her. “Your mom better have taken her digital camera. I told Dot I wanted lots of photos.”
Deidre started to pick up her bag of groceries when someone came from behind her and swooped the paper bag out of her arms.
“I’ll carry ’em out for you, Deidre.”
Her gaze locked with Jonas’ blue one. Without his hat shadowing his face, his eyes appeared a deeper blue than she remembered, more stormy and turbulent. No longer crew cut short, his coal black hair had a wave to it that just begged to be touched. Slight changes for sure, but her pulse still raced like it had ten years ago.
“Um, thanks.” She waved to Sally as she turned to walk out of the store.
“Bye, you two,” Sally called out. As they walked away, Deidre caught the woman’s broad smile and “thumbs up” signal out of the corner of her eye.
When Jonas started to turn and say goodbye to Sally, Deidre grasped his elbow and tugged him out of the store. “How’s your day been?”
“Sally trying to set me up again?” The corners of his mouth turned up a little as he followed her outside.
Disappointment settled in her stomach. He sounded amused, like this was a common occurrence. She didn’t want him to know it bothered her. She came to a full halt next to her dark blue rental car and stuck her bottom lip out in mock exaggeration. “And here I thought I was special.”
He leaned so close she could smell his aftershave. God, he smelled good…spicy, musky and all male! His imposing six-foot-three-inch frame blocked out the sun, dwarfing her five-foot-nine-inch height. He might’ve gone through some rough times, but Jonas’ charisma had magnified a hundredfold over the years. With a mere glance he caused her heart to race and her body to heat in instant response.
Handing her the bag of groceries, he said in a low voice, “You’ve always been special,” before he headed toward his sheriff’s car. Once he reached the vehicle, he opened the door and called across the parking lot, “I’ll stop by tonight to check on you.”
When he drove past, his gaze locked with hers for a brief second, causing Deidre’s skin to prickle. She’d never been more aware of a man and her reaction to his presence than she was of Jonas Mendez. No man had ever come close to affecting her the way he did. From his smoldering gaze to his magnetic heat, he made her ache for more whenever he came close. Did he sense it? The crinkle of the crushed paper bag underneath her fingers brought her back to the present.
After she opened her car door and set the groceries in the passenger seat, Deidre sat down in the seat with a heavy sigh and acknowledged that her emotional response was part of her problem. Since she’d never been with Jonas, she wondered if she’d subconsciously built him up and put him on a pedestal. Her imagination had definitely left the other men she’d dated—hell, even the man she’d been engaged to—lacking in many ways. She hoped her imagination wasn’t that cruel.
Daniel had said he wasn’t perfect and he never would be. Did she expect perfection? Even once they were engaged, her fiancé had never curbed his overt flirting or his roving eye. After she saw him slipping a waitress’s phone number into his jacket pocket when he thought she wasn’t looking, Deidre didn’t fool herself into believing he would change once he was married. She wanted the same wonderful, trusting marriage her parents had. She wouldn’t accept anything less for herself. Three months into their engagement, she handed Daniel his engagement ring and never looked back.
Squaring her shoulders, she started her rental car and shrugged of the bitter memory.
“I’ll stop by tonight to check on you,” Jonas had said.
And now he was a free man.
Her heart skittered and excitement coiled within her as she backed out of the parking space.
* * *
Deidre smoothed her pale-yellow sundress, then opened the front door, intending to sit outside on her parents’ porch. Of course, Snowball chose that moment to squeeze past her legs and bolt outside.
“Snowball!!” Deidre’s sandal heels clicked across the porch’s wooden floorboards and down the stairs.
The cat meowed and took off toward the barn. As Deidre made her way across the pebbled lot, her shoes turned this way and that with the rocks’ movement. Rock dust stirred over her sandals and across bare toes, dulling the shine of her newly polished toenails. Annoyance surged, along with fear for the indoor cat’s safety. “My parents will kill me if anything happens to you. Come back, you silly cat!”
Snowball never even looked back. Instead, his bushy white tail disappeared through the old barn’s partially opened door.
Deidre blew out an irritated breath and trekked the rest of the way to the barn with determined steps. She knew the cat was mousing.
Sliding the creaky door fully open, she peered into the barn’s dim interior. “Snowball. Stop this nonsense.”
As she walked inside, a light bouncing sound above her head told her Snowball had already made his way up the wooden ladder and was in the upper loft.
She approached the ladder and stared up the length, knowing full well there was only one way he was coming back down. By being carried.
Kicking off her sandals, she put her hands on the ladder and stepped on the first rung. “Mom and Dad said they wanted to keep you forever. I’m thinking taxidermy might be a great option.”
When nothing but silence greeted her, she let out a heavy sigh and began to climb the ladder.
Jonas drove up to the Flying Wind Bed and Breakfast, tense anticipation flowing through him. After seeing Deidre earlier, the rest of his day moved at a record snail’s pace. Usually he was so lost in his work he stayed late and didn’t leave until his stomach started rumbling. Today, he couldn’t wait until his watch read six o’clock. Pulling to a stop in front of the B&B, he cut the engine.
Disappointment settled in his chest when he didn’t see Deidre’s smiling face appear in the doorway. Through the screen door, he could see the front door was open. Maybe she was in the kitchen and didn’t hear him drive up.
He opened his door and unfolded his tall frame from his car. As walked up the steps, he wondered if he should’ve changed clothes first. No, that would make this trip appear premeditated. It had to appear as if he were just doing his duty. Yet only he and God and he knew his motivations for checking on the Nelsons’ house weren’t entirely altruistic. Ever since Glen and Dot Nelson told him their daughter was going to watch their home for them while they were on vacation, Deidre had invaded his thoughts.
“Deidre,” he called out through the screen door before rapping on the whitewashed wooden frame.
Nothing. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up.
Jonas reached for the automatic weapon clipped to his hip. As he slowly pulled open the screen door, Deidre’s frustrated voice reached him from a distance. He turned in the direction, tightening his fingers on the gun’s grip. She sounded as if she were outside somewhere. His senses on high alert, he closed the door and listened.
Deidre’s voice carried once more, sending him in the direction of the barn at a rapid pace. Gravel crunched and scattered under his boots as he ate up the distance in record time, his pulse racing.
Once he entered the barn and his gaze landed on the lone pair of woman’s sandals sitting at the bottom of the ladder, Jonas’ heart skipped several beats.
“Deidre,” he called, deep concern making his tone harsher than he’d intended.
“I’m up here.”
His tense shoulders relaxed at her reassuring tone and he tracked her movement above him by the bits of hay dust that fell through the space between the boards. When the floorboards over his head made an eerie creak, his sense of calm evaporated once more.
“Get down from there. There’s a reason your parents built a new barn. This one’s not safe.”
“I have to get Snowball. Be down in a sec,” she called out right before he heard a heavy thump and a triumphant, “Gotcha!”
A distinct popping sounded accompanied the thick billow of hay dust underneath her movement. Jonas’ tensed. “Get down from there. Now!” he called. Deidre moved and something snapped. Jonas moved with lightning speed beneath her position on the weak wood.
She screamed as the floor gave way. Broken boards and hay rained down on his head as Jonas took Deidre’s full weight with her fall, catching her in his arms. Her momentum sent them both to the barn’s floor amid broken planks and onto an old bed of hay.
Jonas got a mouthful of cat fur before Deidre scooped up the animal and stared at him in wide-eyed shock. Gripping the cat tight to her chest, she panted while her gaze darted between the hole in the ceiling and back to him several times before she seemed to catch her bearings. “Sheesh, my stomach went straight to my throat. That was close!”
As he pushed a broken board off her lap, Jonas took shallow breaths himself. He felt as if the air had been knocked clear out of his lungs, and the sensation wasn’t due to having Deidre land on him. It was the feel of her against him. The woman had thrown him a sucker punch.
Her long light brown lashes blinked several times, wide green eyes darting everywhere, before she regained her composure and gave him a shaky smile. “Well, I did tell you I’d be down in a second.”
He chuckled, appreciating her quick wit despite the scary fall. “Yeah, darlin’, but this wasn’t the way I expected you to make your entrance.”
“Um, thanks for rescuing me, Sheriff.” She squirmed to get out of his arms and stood up, her cheeks turning an endearing shade of crimson.
Jonas’ body had ignited from their brief contract. He missed her sweet pear-blossom smell and warm softness already. As he moved to a standing position, he pulled a piece of hay from her hair. “It’s Jonas, remember?”
She locked gazes with his, searching his deep blue one. Remember? Was he asking her to remember that they were on a first-name basis the last time they’d seen each other or the unspoken attraction between them?
Her heart thumped out of control. What she felt for this man had intensified tenfold compared to her response to him in the past. Life’s experiences—the good and the bad—had a funny way of instilling steadfast certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt. She’d spent the past ten years experiencing life and knew exactly what she did and didn’t want in a man.
“I remember.” Her voice sounded breathless, husky.
He stepped closer and cupped the back of her neck. Warm fingers massaged the sensitive curve of skin as his thumb traced along her jaw in a slow, seductive caress. “Do you?”
Copyright © Patrice Michelle. All rights reserved.