(Note: In this excerpt, 8-year-old Merrilee learns that Wes, who is working undercover, has been stung by a bee. Since Merrilee is highly allergic to bee stings, she imagines the worst will happen to Wes. She runs to fetch her guardian, Aurora “Rorie” Sinclair, to cure him. At this point in the novel, Wes has been posing as a hired hand to search for murder evidence on Rorie’s farm. Rorie, who is six years older than Wes, does not know that he is a Texas Ranger.)
Bandera County, Texas
“It’s all right, Merrilee,” Rorie soothed the child. “I’m sure Mr. Wes will survive his bee sting.”
She’d no sooner said this, than a pitiful moan came from the farmhouse’s parlor, where the scoundrel had apparently entrenched himself to “convalesce.” Merrilee grabbed her guardian’s hand and started dragging Rorie down the hall.
“Hurry, Miss Rorie! Hurry!”
Much to her secret amusement, Rorie spied Wes sitting on her desk, swinging a muscular, denim-sheathed leg and frowning perplexedly at the taffy box that she’d filled with sewing notions.
“Damn,” he muttered before realizing he’d acquired a female audience.
“Does it hurt, Mr. Wes?” Merilee asked, tugging Rorie all the way to his side.
He nodded woefully, but Rorie saw the amusement in his wicked green eyes. She suspected then that there’d been no bee and no sting, and that he was the only pain.
Merrilee stepped up onto the stool by the desk and pressed a small palm to his sun-baked cheek. “He’s real hot, Miss Rorie!” The child turned anxiously to her mentor for guidance.
Wes had the audacity to smirk behind the child’s back. “That’s not the only place I’m hot, Miss Rorie.”
She shot him a quelling glare. “Merrilee, sweetheart, why don’t you gather up all your flowers and put them in a vase for Ginevee.”
The child looked torn between her patient and her chore.
“Go ahead, Miss Merrilee,” Wes said in a brave voice, “Miss Rorie will fix me.”
I’ll fix you all right.
After the child had finally left the room, Rorie planted her fists on her hips and glared at the scapegrace sitting on her desk.
“Ah, my angel of mercy,” he drawled.
“Mercy’s the last thing you’ll get from me, Wes Rawlins.”
“You sure do have a lot of flash in those eyes. Reminds me of a Winchester when its brass receiver catches the sun.”
“Don’t change the subject.“ She tugged the taffy box from his hands. “Don’t you have any scruples?”
“Now don’t go spitting smoke. I was only going to eat one tiny, little piece.”
not what I meant, and you know it. Lying to the child that way – ”
”What, you don’t think I have a bee sting?”
She blinked, her reprimand faltering on her tongue. It had never occurred to her that he really might.
She wasn’t sure she liked the silky tone of his voice. “Where?”
“On my belly.”
For the first time since arriving in the room, she noticed the wilted wildflower tucked into the belt loop of his denim work pants. A bee sting in such a tender area probably throbbed worse than a sore tooth
She sighed. Why hadn’t he said he was hurting in the first place?
To her embarrassment, she realized he had.
“I see.” She cleared her throat. “Very well. Unbutton your shirt while I get the salve.”
She stepped to the cabinet, flustered by self-recriminations. She couldn’t have turned her back on him for more than half a minute. When she turned with her jar of salve to face Wes again, he’d stripped off his vest and shirt.
Her jaw dropped.
The jar nearly did, too.
Perfectly at ease in all his bare-chested glory, he settled back on the desk, every sinew rippling in shameless display. She tried not to gawk, but it was impossible, given his striking virility. Broad and brawny in the shoulders, lean and narrow in the hips, Wes had hidden a whole world of wonders beneath his faded cotton work shirt: knotted biceps, corded forearms, and a rock-hard abdomen that would have taken a stinger of steel to scrape, much less to puncture.
She swallowed, and he flashed a dazzling smile
“You don’t mind me unshucked, do you, ma’am? I figured since you were a doctor’s wife and all, you grew kind of used to fixing up patients with their shirts off.”
She clutched the jar like a lifeboat in a hurricane.
“Er . . . no.” Her voice sounded too high, and she felt her face flood with color. “Of course not.”
Think of him as Shae, she instructed herself. You’ve massaged salve into Shae’s aching back a dozen times or more
She took a step closer, then forced herself to take another. Wes began swinging his leg again, an incongruous combination of youthful exuberance and manly sensuality. It drew her gaze to the thickened trunks of his thighs, which spread apart oh-so casually on a level with her warming womanhood. The realization had a devastating effect on her pulse.
“Where, uh, were you stung?” she asked.
“Here.” He touched a reddened spot a hairbreadth higher than his buckle.
She nearly groaned aloud. To treat his bee sting there, she’d have to walk right up to him and . . . and stand between his thighs!
She glanced uncertainly at his face, which he’s smoothed into stoic lines. She suspected his solemnity was a mask behind which he’d hidden a wealth of mirth, all at her expense.
She, however, wasn’t about to let Wescott Rawlins see how much he could disturb her.
Drawing a bolstering breath, she marched with the jar of salve into the danger zone. She tried to keep her eyes focused on her hands, which, she realized to her mounting frustration, were sticky-damp and shaking as she tried to turn the jar’s lid.
“Need help?” he drawled
“I . . . uh, can manage. Thank you.”
She stole a glance upward – not at his eyes, for she wasn’t quite nervy enough for that – but at his chest. Never in her life had she seen anything so perfect – until her furtive gaze was arrested by the jagged, circular scar on his left shoulder. She caught her breath. Another scar, not far below it and ominously close to his heart, looked much fresher. She’d never seen a bullet hole, but she knew with gut-wrenching certainty that these were gunshot wounds.
Her gaze flew to his. “Wes, you could have been killed.”
He stared into her eyes for what seemed like forever. Only inches away, she could see all the shades of green in his gaze, from pine, to jade, to emerald, bursting outward in concentric circles from their pitch-black center.
The dark core of his gaze mesmerized her. It was the doorway to his secret self, a portal where shadows flitted past like phantoms fleeing the light. She thought he might be hiding some secret he didn’t want her to know. When his red-gold lashes fanned downward like a veil, intuition told her she’d touched Truth.
“Naw.” His voice was husky, low. “No little bitty honeybee could send me to the boneyard.”
He hadn’t come close to fooling her. She knew that he knew it, too.
“How did this happen?” With a will all their own, her fingers touched that second bullet scar. “This wound can’t be more than a year old.”
“Eleven months,” he corrected her in a strangely hushed voice. “I remember, because . . . “
His voice trailed off.
“Does it hurt to talk about it?” she asked gently.
His heart jumped hard beneath her fingertips, its rhythm growing ragged. “A little,” he admitted.
His gaze moved beyond her, growing dark with some haunting memory. “A man doesn’t forget being bushwhacked and left for buzzard bait. Or lying helpless, unable to stop a blood feud from becoming a family massacre,” he added with uncharacteristic grimness.
She swallowed, too shaken by his admission to press him further.
Silence wrapped around them. He spared her the gruesome details of the nightmare he’d lived through, and yet his refusal to share more of the tale and let her ease his hurt made her feel strangely shut out and alone.
“I’m not that young.”
She caught her breath. His voice held a razor-keen edge, a stab of warning so sharp, one might have thought she’d challenged him.
“I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”
She retreated a step, retrieving her hand. But when she reached again for the jar’s lid, he caught her fingers. His haunted expression was receding, leaving in its place something just as unnerving. Those forest-green depths gleamed now with a primal intensity, one that he couldn’t entirely hide behind his fallen-angel’s smile.
“I like when you touch me,” he said, his voice deep and rumbly.
He raised her hand to his lips, and her pulse leaped. She was so disconcerted by the moist connection of his flesh tasting hers, that for a moment, she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. He raised her hand higher, pressing a damp kiss into her palm, and her knees went dangerously weak.
“Wes,” she protested feebly.
He wouldn’t release her hand, though, or free her from the smoky promise in his eyes. Turning her arm over, he applied gentle pressure to her palm with his thumb. The tip of his mustache, so provocatively soft, followed the sinfully wet brush of his tongue across her knuckles. She’d had no idea that goose bumps could make one feel so giddy.
“Wes, please,” she whispered. “It’s not proper.”
He pressed her now moist and trembling hand against the hard, fierce beating of his heart. “You mean ‘cause I’m so young?”
The earthy cadence of his murmur gusted fresh shivers down her spine. She was no blushing innocent, and yet this man – dare she say this young man? – had made her feel like a maid. She suspected he’d done so on purpose. She also suspected he’d gotten a ripsnorting thrill out of making a barren spinster randy.
She flinched at the thought.
“Are you quite finished?” she demanded, snatching her hand away
He arched his eyebrows, looking for all the world as if her outrage surprised him. “Well, that depends. Are you going to touch me again?”
She nearly choked. She had started the whole thing, and there was no canyon on earth that was deep enough to hide her from the light of knowing in those foxy eyes.
“Do you, or do you not, want salve for that bee sting?”
“Hmm. As I recollect, my Aunt Lally used to suck the stinger out when I was a boy. Me being so young and all, you might want to try that first.
“I think not!”
“Then I guess I’ll settle for the salve.”
He looked inordinately amused and much too smug for her peace of mind.
“Here.” She thrust the jar into his hand. “You can salve the sting yourself.”
“But from way up here, I can’t tell if there’s a stinger,” he pointed out affably. “You aren’t going to leave me with a stinger in my belly, are you?
She ground her teeth. He did have a point.
“Very well. I’ll look for a stinger.”
“You won’t have to look far.”
Heat coiled through her insides at his innuendo. “Kindly behave yourself.”
“I’m trying, ma’am, but you make it so consarned hard for a man.”
With a wariness she usually reserved for coiled rattlers, Rorie dragged her gaze to the flesh in question. Red and swollen, the bee sting lay well below her line of vision, and she realized that glancing at him simply would not be enough. She would have to move closer, stoop, or worse, kneel between his thighs to bring her eyes close enough for her inspection. There was no way on God’s green earth that she could accomplish her task by keeping her face a respectable distance from his crotch.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
She didn’t have to see his face to know he was smirking
“No.” She silently vowed if she found more than one stinger thrusting out of his nether region, she’d make him wish that honeybee had sent him to the graveyard.
Knotting her hands in her skirts, she mustered her courage and did the unthinkable: she lowered her head between his thighs. As hard as she tried at such proximity, it was impossible to keep his fly out of her field of vision. An unsettling mixture of relief and disappointment washed over her when she spied no evidence of a straining, robust bulge.
“See anything?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she admitted, turning scarlet when she realized where her eyes and thoughts had strayed.
“Maybe it would help if I loosen this – “
He was reaching for his buckle, and she grabbed his hand, straightening so fast, she nearly butted her head against his chin.
“Don’t you dare!”
His deep, rich laughter was intoxicating. “Aw, Rorie. I don’t bite.”
She heated like a furnace. “You . . . you take far too many liberties, sir
“Me?” His voice lowered to an intimate murmur. “But you’re the one touching me.”
She glanced down and realized, to her utter mortification, that he was right. How her left hand had found a resting place on his thigh was a thorough mystery to her. She jerked it away, then next tried removing her right hand from his neatly turned grasp, but he held on, making her feel like a mouse to his cat
”You’re enjoying this entirely too much,” she accused.
“No, I most certainly am not!”
“Oh. My mistake.”
His thumb was stroking her palm. It was the barest whisper of flesh against flesh, yet his touch shot confused signals through her body. Her insides shivered while her skin burned.
“You are no gentleman,” she said hoarsely. “If you were, you wouldn’t be touching me so.”
“You mean a gentleman wouldn’t hold a lady’s hand?” His eyelids drooped, hooding the stare that she felt like a hunger on her lips. “Or give it a little kiss?”
“Being a gentleman doesn’t sound like very much fun.”
She gulped a breath. He’d finally freed her – which was precisely what she’d wanted, she reminded herself.
Mustering her wits, she prepared to make a hasty retreat. Unfortunately, her feet had tangled in his discarded vest and shirt. When she tried to turn, she staggered.
It all happened so fast. One moment, she was making a beeline for safety; the next, she was flailing, grasping at anything to keep from falling. His neck proved the handiest anchor. Her breasts collided with his chest, and the air whooshed out of her lungs at the stunning feel of hard, male musculature.
In that heartbeat, with her face so close to is, she could see surprise flare in his eyes.
Then something very different, something primal and male, blazed to life in the depths of his gaze. She sank a fraction lower as his arms and legs cradled her, leaving little doubt in her mind that she’d had a stirring effect on him, too.
The gentle ridge of his manhood pressed against her woman’s flesh, leaving her hot and shaken, scandalized and exhilarated. His lashes swept down to hide the appetite lurking in his eyes. She had little time to form a coherent thought other than the nerve-jangling, pulse-firing realization that her lips were mere inches from his own. . .
“Oh, geez.” The boyish voice, which and come from the doorway, was filled with childish disgust. “You two aren’t going to smooch, are you?”
In that instant, Rorie would have preferred facing a thousand raging honeybees than watching her four orphan children swarm into the room with their bright and curious eyes.
“Not now, I reckon,” Wes answered dryly and released her.