Backlash – Lisa Jackson

“Ilove you,” Tessa Kramer whispered. Lying on the summer-dry grass, staring into eyes as blue as the sea, she smiled, blushing a little at the boldness of her words. At nineteen she was certain she was in love. And no one, not her overprotective father, nor her suspicious brother, nor even Denver McLean himself, could convince her otherwise. Denver’s thumbs traced the arch of her cheeks. Passion smoldered in his eyes. “You’re sure?” “Absolutely.” Her lips quivered anxiously. “So don’t try to tell me that I’m too young or too naive or too . whatever, to know what I’m talking about.” “Am I arguing?” He kissed her softly again, his lips warm and filled with promise as they brushed tenderly over hers. Strong fingers tangled in her long, strawberry-blond hair. Winding her arms around his neck, she felt the weight of his chest crush her breasts, could see blue sky through the shifting pine needles of the branches overhead.

The summer sun hung low over lazy mountains, and insects hummed in the whisper-soft breeze that ruffled Denver’s coal black hair. Nearby, the horses, a buckskin gelding and a sorrel mare, were tethered together. The animals stood nose to rump, nickering softly and switching their tails at the ever present flies. The afternoon was perfect. “I love you, too, Tessa,” Denver vowed, moving gently above her. Through her jeans Tessa could feel the heat of his body, the solid warmth of his legs entwined with hers. Pressing eager lips against her neck, he groaned—a deep, primal sound that caused her heart to trip. Her breath caught somewhere between her throat and lungs as he said, “I want to make you mine.” She believed him. With all of her heart, she knew he wanted to marry her, intended to spend the rest of his life with her. Her heart began to clamor, her pulse jumping wildly as he circled the hollow of her throat with his tongue. His breath was as warm as the summer wind, the honesty in his eyes clear as a mountain lake.

“I trust you,” she whispered. She felt the buttons slide through the buttonholes in her blouse. The gauzy fabric parted, and sunlight warmed her bare skin. She smiled to herself, throwing caution to the wind. Today she would prove just how much she loved Denver, just how wrong her father was about him. Shifting, he traced the sculpted lace of her bra with his tongue. Eager shivers darted down her spine. With ease he unlatched the fastening and tossed the scrap of white cotton into a clump of sagebrush. She sucked in her breath. His hands moved protectively over her breasts, kneading each darkcrested mound until she burned inside with that same unsatisfied ache she felt whenever they kissed.

He touched one nipple with the tip of his tongue and she moaned, wanting more and responding by instinct, holding his head against her, whispering his name as her blood, like wildfire, ran hot and fast in her veins. She couldn’t think and didn’t want to. Her fingers moved to the waistband of his faded jeans and she released the button, pushing worn denim over his legs, feeling for the first time the downy hair on his thighs as he, too, stripped her bare. Sunlight danced through the trees, dappling their naked bodies as they gazed upon each other in silent rapture. She wasn’t embarrassed and met his hungry gaze with her own. He swallowed. She licked her lips. “I’ll love you for the rest of my life,” she said softly. Touching his bare chest, watching the muscles of his shoulders ripple and strain, she smiled up at him. Her fingers traced a feather-light line against his ribs, and he groaned.

“Tessa, don’t tease me—” “Never,” she vowed, devouring him with her eyes. At twenty-three, Denver had matured into a handsome man. Long and lean, with tanned skin, flashing blue eyes and hair as dark as the night, he was rugged and charming. His features were no longer boyish, but chiseled into manhood. He was everything she had ever wanted, and unless she convinced him otherwise, he was leaving. “Oh, Tessa,” he whispered hoarsely, smoothing her hair from her face, his palms caressing her cheeks. “I want to make you happy.” “Do I look so miserable?” she asked, chuckling deep in her throat. He grinned crookedly. “You’re gorgeous.

” “So, Mr. McLean, are you.” “I never want to hurt you,” he said, growing serious again. “You won’t.” Slanting his mouth over hers, he moved until he was lying over her, his knees between hers, his thighs rubbing sensually as he entered her quickly. A swift flame of pain burned for a second within her, only to be extinguished by the gentleness of his strokes. Tessa gasped, her arms circling his neck, her lips pressed to his as he began to move within her, enticing her to do the same. He kissed her eyes, her cheeks, her lips. The wild flames running through her blood leaped out of control and she was moving with him, riding on a storm as furious as a prairie fire, a tempest that swallowed them both. “Love me,” she whispered.

“I do—oh!” he cried, his voice raw as he stiffened above her, then fell spent into her waiting arms. “Oh, love.” The wind shifted silently, moving across the rugged ridge on which they lay, bending the dry grass and catching in Tessa’s hair. “Don’t ever leave me,” she begged, her mind still spinning in a kaleidoscope of colors as she clung to him and tried to still her racing heartbeat. She felt the dew of sweat on his arms, smelled the scent of lovemaking on his skin, saw smoky clouds swirl in a sky tinged with pink. “I have to go to L.A.” His words were a cold dose of reality. “You don’t have to,” Tessa protested. “Yes, I do, Tessa.

I’ve got a job there in two weeks.” Evidently seeing the disappointment in her eyes, he kissed the tip of her nose. “But you could come with me.” She swallowed back the urge to cry and looked away from him to the hazy heavens. “My dad—” “Doesn’t need you. I do. Come with me.” “What would I do in Los Angeles?” she asked, shifting her gaze back to his. “I train horses. I don’t belong in the city.

And neither do you.” Blinking rapidly, she told herself not to cry, not this afternoon, not after loving him so completely. Clouds drifted overhead and the smell of smoke wafted through the trees. “I’m an engineer, Tessa. I want to build bridges and skyscrapers and—” His nostrils flared and every muscle in his body flexed. “And what?” “Smoke!” he whispered, his gaze darting through the surrounding hills, to the valley floor far below. “Oh, God—” “What?” she asked, reading the terror in his eyes. “Denver?” Her throat suddenly dry, she, too, smelled the biting odor of burning wood. Fire! Scrambling into his jeans, Denver stared down the hillside, his face a mask of horror. “Oh, God, no!” Tessa followed his gaze, only to see steel-gray smoke billowing from the stables of the McLean Ranch.

She felt the blood rush from her face as she scrabbled on the dry ground for her jeans and blouse and struggled into her clothes. Denver ran barefoot to his horse and grabbed the reins. While the poor beast sidestepped and tossed his head, he swung onto the gelding’s back and kicked hard. Leaving behind a cloud of dust, the buckskin tore down the rutted trail, his hooves clanging sharply on the rocks. “Wait!” Tessa cried, cursing the buttons of her blouse as she yanked on her boots, then ran to her sorrel mare and climbed into the saddle. “Come on,” she urged, shoving her knees into the mare’s ribs. The little quarter horse leaped forward, half-stumbling down the rocky trail. Tessa slapped her with the reins, and the mare scrambled down the hill. Wind tore at Tessa’s face and hair, and tears blurred her eyes as she clung burrlike to her horse’s neck. Denver was yards in front of her, cutting away from the trail and through the trees.

“Wait!” she called again. He didn’t even glance back. Tucked low over the buckskin’s shoulders, he streaked ahead. “Giddyap!” Tessa screamed, praying that the smoke pouring from the stables was from a fire already under control—trying to stop the horrid dread knotting in her stomach. Her game little mare sprinted into the pines, and Tessa had to duck to escape being scraped off by low-hanging branches. “Come on, come on,” she whispered as they broke from the trees and raced across a long pasture leading to the stables. The ranch was a madhouse. Stable boys, ranch hands and the kitchen help were running through the yard, yelling at one another, turning hoses onto the burning building. Thick, pungent smoke clogged the air, changing day to night. Flames crackled and leaped through the roof.

Horses shrieked in terror, their horrific cries punctuating the ring of steel-shod hooves pounding against splintering wood. “Dear God,” Tessa prayed. “Dear God, save them!” Denver yanked his horse to a stop, and as the buckskin reared, Denver jumped to the ground, then vaulted the fence. “Stop! Denver, no!” Tessa cried, stricken as her sweaty mare slid to a halt near the gate. She leaped onto, then over, the top rail of the fence. Her eyes were glued to Denver as he raced, shouldering his way through useless ranch hands toward the stables. “Somebody stop him! Denver!” Smoke burned her lungs and her eyes stung as she followed, stumbling forward. Somewhere in the distance she heard the wail of sirens. “Denver!” “You can’t go in there,” her brother, Mitchell, commanded. He seemed to come from nowhere through the smoke.

“Like hell.” “Precisely.” His gaunt face was streaked with soot, his hair grimy, his eyes red as he stared at the inferno. Hot, crackling flames knifed through charred shingles in the sagging roof. “Just like hell.” “Denver’s in there!” she cried, still heading across the yard. But Mitchell had no trouble keeping up with her, taking one swift stride to her two. “Listen to me, Tessa,” he yelled over the roar of the fire, the shouts of men and the screams of terrified animals. “You can’t—” “I have to!” She was running now, only a few yards from the stables. Mitchell tackled her, his momentum pushing her to the ground.

Her chin bounced on gravel, but she didn’t care. She had to get to Denver. “Damn it, Tessa,” Mitchell’s voice hissed urgently in her ear, “most of the McLean family’s already trapped in there!” “No!” “When the fire broke out, Katharine and Robert tried to help save the animals and the ranch records stored in the office.” Struggling to a sitting position, Tessa clamped a trembling hand over her mouth and shook her head, staring at the burning building. Originally two stories, the stable had an upper floor used for storage and an office. The horses, the pride of the McLean Ranch, had been boxed in stalls on the ground level. Tessa thought she would retch. “The fire department will be here soon,” Mitchell said, his voice rough from the smoke, his strong arms holding her back. “There’s nothing anyone can do until they get here.” “We can’t just sit here and watch them burn!” she choked out, feeling helpless.

Sirens screamed nearby and heavy tires crunched on the gravel. Red and white lights flashed through the smoke. A paramedic van ground to a stop, followed by a red car from the fire department. Three huge, rumbling trucks roared behind. The fire chief threw open the door of his car and shoved a bullhorn to his mouth. “Everybody get back!” he ordered, his eyes searching the grounds as he waved to the driver of the pumper truck. “There’s a lake around behind!” The truck tore around the main house to the large pond now reflecting scarlet. Firemen jumped from the trucks, dragging heavy canvas hoses toward the stables. “I want that barn contained and the surrounding buildings covered. We can’t trust the wind today.

” Water began jetting from the hoses, arcing high in the air before spraying over the burning building, sizzling as the first jets hit scorched timbers. Tessa broke away from her brother and ran to the chief, Mitchell on her heels. “You’ve got to save them!” Tessa cried over the deafening cacophony of pumps, screams, the roar of the fire and her own, hammering heart. “The horses, or—?” “The McLeans are in there,” Mitchell clarified, yanking a thumb toward the stables. “They might be upstairs in the office or on the ground floor. They were trying to save the stock—” “Christ!” the chief swore. “How many?” “Five—no, four. Denver and his parents, Robert and Katharine. And … and Dad, Curtis Kramer, the ranch foreman.” “Dad, too?” Tessa whispered hoarsely.

“That’s it?” the chief demanded, his tired eyes narrowing on Mitchell. “What about John McLean and the other McLean son—what’s his name?” “Colton,” Tessa murmured, thinking of Denver’s younger, daredevil brother and praying that he was safe. Mitchell shook his head. “John and Colton are in town, and I think the rest of the hands are accounted for.” “Make sure,” the chief insisted. Snapping the bullhorn over his mouth again, he barked, “Okay, we’ve got four people trapped inside, possibly more. Upstairs and down. Get ’em out!” He glanced back at Tessa and must have read the dread on her face. “Get her out of here,” he said to Mitchell. “There’s nothing she can do.

” “I’m not leaving,” she insisted. “Come on, Tess—” “Not when Denver and Dad are in there. No way!” She started forward and tripped over a hose. “You’re in the way, lady,” the fire chief said. “Hey, Chief! We got one!” One of the firemen was dragging a coughing, soot-streaked man from the fire. Tessa tried to run forward, but Mitchell’s arms tightened around her waist. “Maybe you don’t want to see this,” he said. “Let me go!” “It might be Denver—” “Then I have to be with him!” Her heart pounding with dread, she shook him off and started running. The paramedics reached the rescued man first. They were already working over him, forcing oxygen into his lungs when Tessa recognized her father, his face black, his white hair singed.

“Thank God,” she whispered, falling to the ground near him. “Hey, lady, give us a break! We need a little room,” one paramedic snapped, and she backed away on her knees, her eyes glued to her father’s face. Gray beneath the streaks of soot, his skin looked slack and old. His thick white hair had been singed yellow and he was coughing so hard he nearly threw up. But he was alive. Closing her eyes, she prayed silently. Her father blinked rapidly, still coughing, his eyes unfocused. “Get him into an ambulance,” the fire chief ordered. He glared grimly at her father. “You see anyone else in there?” “I—I don’t know,” he mumbled, still coughing.

The paramedic glanced at the fire chief. “He wouldn’t know. He’s three sheets to the wind.” Tessa swallowed back a hot retort as she leaned over her father and smelled the familiar scent of whiskey on his breath. A pickup roared down the drive and slammed to a stop. The driver, Denver’s younger brother, Colton, jumped out of the cab and started forward, his boots crunching on gravel as he ran faster and faster toward the fire chief. “What the hell’s going on here?” he asked, his face white as he stared at the stables. Orange flames shot out of the roof and heat rippled in sickening waves from the inferno. Curtis coughed loudly and stirred, his red-rimmed eyes focusing on his daughter. “Tessa, gal?” he murmured, cracking a weary smile.

“Thank God, you’re all right!” She wrapped her arms around his grimy work shirt, buried her head in his chest. “Did you see Denver?” “You were with him,” Curtis said. He shook his head. “No one—” “But Denver’s in there! So are his parents,” she protested, her head snapping up. “Oh, God!” Colton cried. Without thinking he started for the stables. “It’s too late!” Mitchell yelled. “Colt—stop! Damn him!” “Stay back!” the chief commanded through the horn. “Christ! Somebody stop him—” A blast ripped through the stables, and the building exploded in a fiery burst. Glass shattered, spraying out.

Timbers groaned and crashed to the ground. Flames crackled and reached to the sky in hellish yellow fingers. The earth shuddered. Tessa fell to the ground sobbing, knowing in her heart that Denver would never survive. “Come on, Tess,” Mitchell whispered, picking her up and carrying her to his old, battered truck as the firemen and hands recovered and scurried toward the stables. As if in a dream, Tessa saw her father being loaded into the ambulance, felt the scratchy denim of Mitchell’s jacket against her cheek. “There’s nothing more we can do here,” Mitchell said softly. “I don’t think there’s anything anyone can.” “But Denver . ” “I know, Tess.

I know.” Chapter One Helena, Montana Seven Years Later “I don’t want it!” Denver McLean declared as he dropped into a tufted leather chair close to Ross Anderson’s desk. “We’re talking about the entire ranch,” the young attorney reminded him. Ross was serious, his watery blue eyes steady behind thick lenses, his narrow features pulling together. He smoked a twisted black cigar. The old-fashioned Western cheroot smelled foul and seemed completely out of place in this modern chrome-and-glass office building, Denver thought. He rubbed the scar on the back of his left hand. “I guess you didn’t hear me. I don’t want it. Sell the whole damned thing!” “We can’t do that without your brother’s consent,” Ross said in that soothing lawyer tone that irritated the hell out of Denver.

“No one knows where Colton is. I haven’t heard from him in years.” “Nonetheless, half the ranch is his—half yours. Split fifty-fifty. That’s the way your father wanted it, and your uncle saw fit to carry out his wishes.” “I wish John had talked to me first,” Denver said flatly. If his uncle weren’t already dead, he gladly would have wrung the old meddler’s neck. “Too late now,” Ross said succinctly. Denver’s lips twisted at the irony. Though he’d been away from the McLean Ranch for seven years and had ignored his uncle’s repeated pleas to visit, the old man had gotten him in the end.

“Okay,” he decided, flopping back in his chair. “Just sell my half.” “Can’t do it. Back taxes.” “Son of a—” The door opened and Ross’s secretary, a willowy woman with pale blond hair, eyes heavy with mascara and a glossy smile, carried in a tray of coffee, cream and sugar. “Just set it on the desk, Nancy,” Ross instructed as he puffed on his cigar, gradually filling the room with bluish smoke. Nancy did as she was bid, casting Denver an interested glance that made him shift uncomfortably in his chair. Even after three successful operations, he felt as if his burns were as red and harsh as when he was dragged barely alive from the fire. The fire—always the fire. He had never escaped it.

Not really. And he never would. His guts churned at the memory, and he tried to concentrate on the plastic cup of black coffee Ross handed him. “So, you think your uncle was getting back at you by leaving you the ranch?” “Wasn’t he?” “It’s over a thousand acres of Montana ranch land,” Ross said dryly. “Doesn’t seem like such a curse.” “No?” Denver sipped the coffee. It was scalding and bitter. He didn’t really much care. “Why weren’t the back taxes paid?” “The ranch has been in the red for the past few years.” “I thought there were supposed to be huge silver deposits on the land,” Denver said, thinking back to those years of speculation, before the fire, when both his parents and his uncle had been excited at the prospect of mining silver from the ridge overlooking the ranch—the ridge where he’d lain with Tessa while a smoldering cigarette butt ignited dry straw in the stables far below.

“I guess the silver didn’t exist,” Ross said. “Too bad,” Denver muttered. “What about the stock?” “It’s holding its own, I think. Your uncle seemed to think that he was on the brink of turning things around.” Denver doubted it. Ross was just giving him the sales pitch that good old Uncle John had peddled him time and time again over the past few years. Denver hadn’t bought it then and he wasn’t buying it now. “The stables were never rebuilt after the fire, right?” “The insurance company paid reluctantly—claimed the fire was arson. The fire chief concurred. Unfortunately the building was grossly underinsured.

The money only covered cleaning up the mess and adding a few stalls to the barn.” Ross squinted through his glasses. “John was hell-bent on suing the insurance company—claimed he’d been misrepresented, that he’d paid higher premiums than he should have for the amount of coverage. But he finally gave it up.” “On your advice?” Ross nodded and drew on his cigar. “What’s your point?” “The point is that the McLean Ranch is little more than a few decrepit buildings, some rangy cattle, a few horses and acres of sagebrush.” “Some people would see it differently.” Denver leaned back in his chair. “Maybe. I call ’em as I see ’em.

The place isn’t worth much. Let’s get what we can out of it and call it good.” Ross sighed. “This is a mistake.” “Not my first.” Tugging at his collar with two fingers, Denver wished this whole mess were over and done with. He didn’t need any reminders of the past. Shoving a copy of the will across the desk, Ross said flatly, “There’s nothing you can do until the taxes are paid.” “I’ll pay them.” “Okay, that’s the first hurdle.

Now, what about Colton?” “Find him.” “That won’t be easy.” “There has to be a way,” Denver said wearily. “Last I heard he was still a United States citizen. Start with the State Department, a private investigator, the IRS and the CIA.” “It’ll take time.” Denver narrowed his eyes. “Maybe you’ll get lucky.” “I tried writing him through that magazine he free-lanced for a couple of years back,” Ross explained. “Never received a reply.

” “Keep trying.” Denver glared angrily at the will. “I can wait.” He felt his jaw clench at his next thought. “Is old man Kramer still running the place?” Shrugging slim shoulders beneath his jacket, Ross said, “Far as I know. But I heard John say once that Kramer’s daughter is really in charge. I can’t remember her name.” He crushed out his cigar. “Tessa,” Denver bit out, her name stinging his tongue. After seven years, he still felt needlelike jabs of regret that had turned bitter with age.

If he tried, he could still recall the taste of her skin that hot day. But he wouldn’t. No need to dredge up a past based on lies. “Yeah, that’s it. John confided in me that she covers for her old man.” Ross leaned back in his chair and regarded Denver carefully. “Apparently Curtis Kramer has a drinking problem.” “Some things haven’t changed,” Denver observed. “You can do what you want, of course. But since you’re in Montana already, you may as well drive over and check out the place, make sure you really want to sell.

” “I do.” “So you’ve said. I just thought you might want to find out why a ranch that was owned free and clear was losing money hand over fist—at least until recently.” Denver considered. He knew why: poor management. Curtis Kramer knew horses but couldn’t handle a ranch. Denver’s father had seen it and had been ready to let Curtis go just before the fire … the damned fire. Unfortunately Uncle John had kept Tessa’s old man on. No one could prove Curtis had started the blaze, and John had been convinced of the man’s innocence. Denver wasn’t so sure.

He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Isn’t finding out how much the ranch is worth and how much it earns a job for the bank that’s probating the estate?” Ross smiled crookedly. “Are you willing to trust someone from Second Western Bank to understand the ins and outs of ranching?” Denver snorted. “Right.” Ross tugged on his tie. “Of course it’s up to you. It’s yours now.” “Great. Just great.” Denver shoved his chair back and strode angrily out the door, past the blond receptionist and through the labyrinthine corridors of the law firm—the largest in Helena, Montana.

Although small compared to most in Los Angeles, where Denver had lived for the past seven years, the firm of O’Brien, Simmons and Taft was top-notch even by California’s high standards, and Ross Anderson, a junior partner, knew his stuff. Shouldering open the glass door, Denver stalked onto the street. The pace in Helena was much slower than that in Los Angeles and Denver was restless. Ross’s advice followed him into the parking lot where his rented car was baking in the late-afternoon sun. Clouds gathered above, but there wasn’t a breath of wind, and the humidity was unusually high, the air sticky. Denver climbed in and switched on the ignition, unwillingly remembering the inferno. * * * It had all happened so fast. One minute he’d been lying on Tessa, her dew-covered skin fusing with his own, her lips soft and sensuous, her hazel eyes glazed in passion—the next he’d witnessed the horror of the blaze, horses screaming in death throes, hooves crashing in the billowing, lung-burning smoke. He’d felt the explosion, been thrown to the floor. When he finally awakened, his skin burning, his face and hands unrecognizable, it had been three days later.

He’d learned the devastating news: both his parents had been killed. Colton, eyes red and shadowed, coffee-colored hair falling over his eyes, had been waiting for Denver to wake up. “It’s old man Kramer’s fault,” Colton insisted as he huddled near Denver’s bed, avoiding his eyes and watching the steady drip of an IV tube that ran directly into the back of Denver’s right hand. “How—how could it be?” God, he hurt all over. “He’s been stealing from the ranch. He was up in the office altering the books when the fire started. If you ask me, he did it to destroy the evidence.” “You can’t prove it.” “Can’t I?” Colton thundered, his gray eyes sizzling like lightning. “Weren’t you supposed to go over the books that day? Didn’t Tessa insist that you go riding with her instead?” He stood then, the back of his neck dark in anger, his boots muffled on the carpeting.

Denver’s dry throat worked in defense. “What did she do? Seduce you?” Colton must have seen some betraying spark in Denver’s eyes. “Of course she did,” he muttered in disgust. “No—” “Don’t you see? It was all part of the plan—Curtis’s plan to rip off the ranch! Dad was on to him, and he had to cover his tracks.” “No way!” Denver rasped. “Whose idea was it to go riding?” Denver didn’t answer. “Right. And I’ll bet Tessa was more than willing.” “Get out of here.” Colton didn’t move.

“You’re a blind man, brother! She and that drunk of an old man of hers have been bleeding us dry. I’d even bet Mitch is in on it with them.” Denver tried to sit up, pushing aside the pain that scorched the length of his body. “I won’t believe —” “Then don’t. But think about this. Mom and Dad are dead, Denver. Dead! Dad thought Curtis was embezzling, and he was out to prove it. Doesn’t it seem a little too convenient that all the records were destroyed on the day Dad asked you to go over the books?” “He didn’t say a word about Curtis.” “He couldn’t, could he?” Colton pointed out. “He wanted an impartial opinion!” Colton’s furious gaze skated across the wrinkled sheets and gauze bandages to land on Denver’s scarred face.

“I know that you and I have never seen eye to eye, but I thought you’d agree with me on this one.” His jaw worked for a minute. “They’re gone, Denver. And you—look at you.” Colton’s eyes clouded with pity. “Look at what they did, for Christ’s sake.” “Get out!” Denver didn’t want to think about the damage to himself. He’d always been proud, and the look on Colton’s face twisted his guts. He couldn’t think about the pity in Tessa’s eyes should she ever see him again. Colton’s gray eyes flashed furiously.

“Any way you cut it, Denver, Curtis Kramer is to blame.” He strode out of the room then, leaving Denver alone with his scars and his memories. * * * Now, shaking his head to clear it of the unpleasant past, Denver rammed the car into gear and backed out of the law firm’s parking lot. The car rolled easily onto the street and Denver turned north, toward the airport. Not once since the fire had he returned to the ranch. He’d never seen Tessa again. At first pride had kept him from her, and eventually Colton had convinced him that she had, intentionally or not, conspired against him. He’d told himself he was doing her one big favor by leaving, and he’d been right. He had been badly scarred, physically and emotionally. Plastic surgery had fixed the exterior, he thought cynically as he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the same blue eyes he’d been born with.

One lid was a mere fraction lower than the other, but his skin was smooth, the result of more skin grafts than he wanted to count. But no surgeon or psychiatrist had been able to remove the bitterness he felt whenever he thought about that day. “So don’t think about it,” he muttered aloud, scowling at himself. It was many miles north to the ranch, and the airport was only across town. He could drive to the airport and return to Los Angeles as he’d planned, or he could phone his partner and take time off—the vacation he hadn’t allowed himself in years. Jim would understand, and business was unseasonably slow. But if he stayed in Montana, he’d have to face Tessa again. His lips curved into a crooked, almost wicked smile. Maybe it was time. He saw the flashing neon sign of a local tavern and pulled into the pothole-pocked parking lot. One beer, he decided, then he’d make up his mind.

.

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