Authors: J. J. Ranger
"Does the smell of burning wood still turn you on?"
Shannon yelped and whirled, but her flip-flop heel caught on a tree root and she tumbled head first into Dustin's arms. Heat radiated off his lean, muscled body as his arms curled around her torso, locking her in place. The chuckle rumbling from his chest tightened her nipples.
"You keep throwing yourself at me. You do realize that if you want me, all you need to do is ask."
The easy grin she remembered so fondly still had the ability to awaken sexual desires. Her panties dampened with instant need, and she squeezed her thighs together.
Tell him you want him. Take him up on the offer and get it over with.
“My God, have you always been this annoying and I blocked it out of my mind?"
Dustin quirked an eyebrow and angled his head, looking down into her eyes. His hazel gaze grew serious. “It's good to have you home, Shay. Right where you belong."
Unease circled in her stomach as he leaned closer.
"What are you doing?” she breathed, fighting to keep her hands at her side.
"I'm dying to kiss you."
She put a restraining hand on his chest. “You're not supposed to fraternize with the guests. Don't you remember any of the rules?"
He gave a crooked grin. “Don't you remember that I am part owner? Screw the rules.” He shot a glance around. “Besides, no one can see us."
His head descended and he captured her mouth in a searing, toe-curling kiss. Hunger, passion, anger, and love all wrapped into one emotion as he cherished her lips. He tasted of male and cinnamon. She didn't dream of stopping him. She wanted his touch as much as he seemed to want hers. She pressed into him, trusting him fully as he backed her against the tree trunk. Every inch of his body molded against hers, a distraction from the uncomfortable bark biting into her back.
His tongue traced the fullness of her lips, then slipped inside to stroke the contours of her inner cheek. He traced the line of her teeth and the roof of her mouth, swirling around her tongue. Her heart pounded, thudding against him. She arched into his hold, wanting to be closer, forgetting they were just a step away from prying eyes. God, she wanted him. She wanted to drop to her knees and suck on him. She nipped at his lips. Dustin curved his hand around the back of her head, tilting her head so he could have better access. One hand slid down and cupped her ass, holding her firm against his erection.
He broke the kiss and braced his hands on either side of her head. His chest heaved. Shannon flattened her palms on his pecs, feeling each pulse of his heart under the sculpted muscles. She could only imagine what he saw in her eyes at that moment. She'd never been good at concealing her emotions from him.
Dustin blew out a slow, cinnamon-scented breath. “We really need to talk."
Reality crashed in. Right. They did need to talk. But not here, not where anyone could walk up and interrupt them. Funny, she didn't care if anyone saw them kissing, but she couldn't handle an overheard conversation.
"Shay.” He tilted her chin up. “You know I'm not a weekend-fling guy. That's not what I'm about."
No, he wasn't. Dustin was a settle-down-and-have-babies kind of guy. He was forever, security, loving even through the wrinkles and gray hair of old age. Thanks to Carolyn's example, Shannon had never been a settle-down girl. Now that she owned Gran's ranch, could she be that girl he wanted?
"Me, either.” She dropped her hands from his chest to settle briefly at his hips. “I'd better get to the group. We'll talk later.” With a fleeting smile, she ducked under his arm and retreated to the campfire, her heart heavy.
A while later, Shannon sat off to the side, mesmerized by the flickering flames. Every so often, her gaze strayed to Dustin where he lounged on a log beside his brothers. In dark denim jeans, dusty brown cowboy boots, and a red button-down dress shirt, he looked every bit the rough and tumble cowboy. Beneath that chiseled exterior was a heart of gold. Dustin was the type of man who stood up for the underdog, who would give every last penny he owned to help a friend in need. What had possessed her to walk away all those years ago? What an idiot she'd been.
As if he knew she was thinking about him, Dustin turned and met her stare. With a grin and a wink, he touched the brim of his hat and nodded. Big heart, but cocky. Her heart tumbled madly in her chest. Oh yeah, she was still in love with him.
Rich, one of the ranch hands, grabbed his guitar and sat not too far from Shannon. He plucked at the strings, and she made out a current pop song. She grinned as Dane got up and started singing, with Rich catching the harmony. Their voices blended well. Funny, she'd never really thought of doing karaoke to acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Dustin got up from his spot on the log and grabbed a marshmallow and roasting stick. No way could she sit here and watch him eat—licking the crispy, oozing treat. Her pussy clenched, begging to be coated in the melted goo and devoured with slow, tantalizing licks. She groaned and shook her head to dispel the image. Instead, she played the chicken and escaped.
She had to get away from the ranch and away from temptation. She ached for Dustin, but she couldn't very well have ripped his clothes off right there in front of everyone. She wanted him, but there was a bit of fear as well. Fear of getting her feelings tossed back in her face—no matter that he'd done his bit of initiating kisses.
After a quick pit stop at the cabin, she jumped in her SUV and hightailed it down the gravel entrance road. She slowed the vehicle to a crawl at the end of the long drive. The gate beckoned, transporting her back to her youth. Mr. Dumen always assumed kids from town had been responsible for unscrewing the
on the sign—more often than not it had been her and Dustin.
They had been best friends for most of her life. He was the only person she could truly be herself around. He said he didn't want a weekend fling, but what if she walked into those strong, open arms and turned out to be just like Carolyn? What if, once she had him, she grew tired of the relationship and walked out, abandoning those who loved and counted on her...again?
She drove on. Though she'd intended to drive to one of the bars in Bandera, the SUV had other plans and made the right turn onto the access road for the Rocking P Ranch—Gran's ranch.
The ranch house was dark save for the porch light when she pulled up and cut the engine. The last time Shannon had been here was fourteen years ago, the night before she moved to New York. Gran was supportive, as always, only telling her that before she left, she needed to make sure there would be no regrets.
At the time, Shannon had been sure she had no regrets. After all, she had a great career in New York, a salary most people would kill for, and some good friends.
But now, after seeing Dustin again, she knew she'd been wrong. Could she have pursued the same career in San Antonio? Probably. But at eighteen, she wanted to get out and see the world. She'd wanted to take Dustin, but he'd wanted to go to school close to home and stay on the Double D.
Shannon drew a deep breath and slid out of the vehicle. The keys hung from her fingers like lead weights. The front door's lock turned easy enough, and she walked through the entry. The house smelled of vanilla, just like Gran. Nostalgia clutched at her heart as she walked the rooms, clicking on lights as she went. The large floral couch still adorned the living room with the stone fireplace dominating the south wall. Family photos lined the mantel.
The gourmet kitchen stood at attention, waiting. She could still see Gran in her “Kiss The Cook” apron, prancing around, baking muffins and basting the pot roast for Sunday dinner. Even in the later months of her life, Gran made a point of sending her homemade muffins. Tears clogged Shannon's throat. God, she missed the old woman.
One by one, she explored the rooms, reminiscing. Everything looked as it had the day she left. Even her childhood bedroom remained pink and frilly—a total girl's room. She sank to the comforter and stared around her. Posters of boy bands cluttered the white walls, and her favorite mystery books still perched on the bookshelves. If she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine herself as a little girl again.
The front door slammed shut.
She jumped to her feet, her heart racing. Someone was in the house.
Grabbing the baseball bat from her closet, left behind from her days of playing ball, she crept down the hallway. A shadow danced on the kitchen wall. Bottles clanked in the refrigerator and then the door closed. The intruder was in the kitchen...and raiding the refrigerator? What the hell?
Shannon lowered the bat slightly and peered around the kitchen door. Dustin stood by the sink, a bottle of beer dangling from his long fingers. She sighed, her heartbeat returning to normal, and propped her hip against the door jamb. “What are you doing here?"
He looked up from his beer and grinned. “There you are. I was on my way to town when I saw all the lights on. Figured I'd make sure Carolyn hadn't gotten back in."
"You were afraid my mother was here?"
He shrugged. “Gran asked me to keep an eye on the place and told me under no circumstances was ‘that woman’ allowed back on the property."
Shannon laughed. Gran was very protective of her home. “And the beer?"
Dustin had the grace to blush. “I figured if I was going to keep checking the place, I should at least keep my favorite beer on hand."
That was Dustin, always dependable and practical. Her heart swelled, her pulse kicked into overdrive. His presence filled the room. “In that case, wanna toss me one? I could use a drink right now."
He obliged, and they went into the living room. They sat side by side on the flowered couch, feet propped on the coffee table. The ceiling fan clicked and whirled, muffling the chirping crickets outside.
"This is your first time back, isn't it?” The question was more a statement as Dustin took a pull from the bottle. “Are you doing okay?"
Shannon twirled her bottle on her knee.
“It's a little weird. I still expect her to be in the kitchen, ya know?” She swallowed back tears. “I never should have gone to Paris. If I'd only listened to my instincts. I knew she was sick, and I told her I would come home..."
Dustin put his large hand on her thigh. Heat scorched to her pussy, and she wanted to grab his hand and move it farther up.
"Stop. Gran wanted you to go. If you had missed out on that part of your dream simply to tend to her, she would have felt horrible, and you know it."
Tears filled her eyes. “But she died alone."
He shook his head. “No, she didn't. Mom and I were here with her all the time. Don't feel guilty, Shay, not for a minute. She was so proud of you.” He brushed a tear from her cheek.
"You were with Gran?” Even more guilt assuaged her. “You took care of her when I was out traipsing around the world.” She hung her head. “You both must have hated me for leaving you here.” And for the first time, his behavior struck a chord. “Why aren't you more upset with me? Since I got here, you've been friendly and flirty and like nothing I expected."
"So, what? You want me to waste energy on being bitter?"
It would have made her feel better if he had.
He set his beer on the table and cupped her cheeks, his palms cool from the chilled bottle. “Look at me, Shannon.” When she looked up, he said, “We all knew that leaving was what you needed to do. You had to follow your dream."
"You were so mad at me,” she whispered, her chin trembling. The anger in his eyes was burned in her memory. Her heart clenched. “You told me to leave and never look back.” And all she wanted him to do was beg her to stay. Would she have? Probably not, but she needed him to prove she was wanted. What a pathetic, needy loser she'd been back then.
"How else was I going to get you to leave?” He lifted the corner of his mouth in a wry smile. “If I thought for one second I could have kept you here and made you happy, I would have. I was so in love with you, Shay, I would have done anything to make you smile."
Past tense. Her heart clenched in misery. Yet, here he was comforting her, touching her. His face was so close.
"What about now?” Oh, God, had that question just slipped out? Her heart skipped a beat waiting for his answer.
His hazel eyes darkened to jade green. “I would still do anything to make you smile."
Not a declaration of true love, but she'd take it. A cool breeze brushed her cheeks, like Gran had given her blessing for another chance at happiness. “Thank you for being here when I wasn't."
He breathed a kiss across her lips. “You're welcome."
This man, this fuck-me sexy man, had taken it upon himself to care for her gran. He had opened his arms wide and accepted her family as his own. And not only that, but from the moment they saw each other, he'd made her feel alive again.
Desire flared to life deep in her belly. She set her beer on the table and swung onto his lap to deepen the kiss. His hat bumped her forehead so she plucked it off his head and chucked it across the room.
"Hey, that's my favorite hat,” he protested, his large, hot hands clutching her hips.
She braced her palms against his shoulders and quirked an eyebrow. “You want me to get it for you?” She scooched back on his lap, but he stilled her.
"Not on your life.” Gripping her ass, he yanked her forward until they were belly to belly. Her crotch brushed the fly of his jeans, his cock hard and ready beneath it. She gyrated against him in slow circles and closed her eyes as her pussy throbbed. “I've waited a long time to get you back in my arms."
Snaking his arms around her waist, he swirled his tongue around the interior of her mouth, teasing, seducing. He traced the fullness of her lower lip and then sucked gently. Shannon sighed in sweet surrender. She leaned forward, resting against his chest. This was right. Being with him was where she belonged. She didn't need New York. She only needed—and wanted—Dustin Dumen. Her tongue stroked his, tangling, promising. Her clit twitched in response, demanding attention.
With fumbling fingers, she wrestled with his belt buckle. Finally, it was open and she moved on to the button-fly closure of his jeans.