DAISY HONEY JUGGLED a cup of coffee, a cake she'd bought for her mother, a bag of two chocolate-dipped doughnuts-because a girl's gotta have something sweet in her life, and this was about all the sweetness she had time for at the moment-and her keys.
"You sure you got that, sugar?" Margie Holmes had worked at the Town Diner for as long as Daisy could remember. With her outdated feathered hairstyle and old-fashioned, pink waitress uniform, Margie was as much a landmark in Trusty, Colorado, as the backdrop of the Colorado Mountains and the miles and miles of farms and ranches. Trusty was a far cry from Philly, where Daisy had just completed her medical residency in family practice, and it was the last place she wanted to be.
Daisy glanced at the clock. She had ten minutes to get to work. Work. If she could call working as a temporary doctor at the Trusty Urgent Care Clinic work. She'd worked damn hard to obtain her medical degree with the hopes of leaving the Podunk town behind, but the idea of relocating had been delayed when her father fell off the tractor and injured his back. She'd never turn her back on her family, even if she'd rather be starting her career elsewhere. She supposed it was good timing-if there was such a thing. Daisy had been offered permanent positions in Chicago and New York, and she had four weeks to accept or decline the offers. She hoped by then her father would either have hired someone to manage the farm or decided if he was going to sell-an idea she was having a difficult time stomaching, since the farm had been in her family for generations. Since the closest hospital or family physician was forty-five minutes away and the urgent care clinic picked up the slack in the small town, Daisy was happy to have found temporary employment in her field even if it wasn't ideal.
"Yeah, I've got it. Thanks for the cake, Margie. Mom will love it." She pushed the door open with her butt-thank you, doughnuts-just as someone tugged it open, causing her to stumble. As if in slow motion, the cake tipped to the side. Daisy slammed her eyes shut to avoid seeing the beautiful triple-layer chocolate-almond cake crash to the ground.
There was no telltale clunk! of the box hitting the floor. She opened one eye and was met with a pair of muscled pecs attached to broad shoulders and six foot something of unadulterated male beefcake oozing pure male sexuality-and he was holding her mother's cake in one large hand, safe and sound.
She swallowed hard against the sizzling heat radiating off of Luke Braden, one of only two men in Trusty who had ever stood up for her-and the man whose face she pictured on lonely nights. When she'd decided to come back to Trusty, her mind had immediately raced back to Luke. She'd wondered-maybe even hoped-she'd run into him. Residency had been all-consuming and exhausting, with working right through thirty-six-hour shifts. She hadn't had time to even think about dating, much less had time for actual dating. Her body tingled in places that hadn't been touched by a man in a very long time.
"I think it's okay." With smoldering dark eyes and a wickedly naughty grin, he eyed the cake.
His deep voice shuddered through her. Okay, Daisy. Get ahold of yourself. He might have saved you in high school, but that was eleven years ago. He was no longer the cute boy with long bangs that covered perpetually hungry eyes. No, Luke Braden was anything but a boy, and by the look on his face, he had no recollection of who she was, making the torch she'd carried for him all these years heavy as lead.
"Thank you." She reached for the cake, and he pulled it just out of reach as his eyes took a slow stroll down her body, which was enough to weaken her knees and wake her up. She'd left Trusty after high school and had purposely found work near her college and med school during summers and breaks, so her memory of the people she'd gone to school with was sketchy at best after eleven years, but his was a face she'd never forget.
"You've got your hands full. Why don't I carry it to your car?" His dark hair was cut short on the sides. The top was longer, thick and windblown in that sexy way that only happened in magazines. His square jaw was peppered with rough stubble, and Daisy had the urge to reach out and stroke it. His stubble, that is.
Luke looked like one of those guys who took what they wanted and left a trail of women craving more in their wake, and in high school his reputation had been just that. Carry the cake to my car? Like that won't end up with you trying to carry me to your bed? The idea sent another little shudder through her. It was exactly what she'd been hoping-and waiting-for.
He had been two years ahead of Daisy in school, and because she'd spent her high school years fighting a reputation she didn't deserve, she'd kept a low profile. She'd darkened her hair in medical school to combat the stereotypical harassment that went along with having blond hair, blue eyes, and a body that she took care of. Now, thanks to a six-dollar box of dye every few weeks, it was a medium shade of brown. She'd never forget the time in her sophomore year when Luke had stood up for her. She'd carried a fantasy of him thinking of her for all these years. Was I really that invisible to you? Apparently, she was, because by the look on his face, he didn't recognize her. It stung like salt in a wound.
Her eyes caught on a flash of silver on his arm. Duct tape? She squinted to be sure. Yes. The wide strip of silver on his bulging biceps was indeed duct tape, and there was blood dripping from beneath it.
He followed her gaze to his arm with a shrug. "Scraped it on some wire at my ranch."
She should take her cake and walk right out the door, but the medical professional in her took over-and the hurt woman in her refused to believe he could have forgotten her that easily. She took a step back into the diner. "Margie, can I borrow your first-aid kit?"
Luke's brows knitted together as he followed her inside. "If that's for me, I don't need it. Really."
Margie handed Daisy the first-aid kit from beneath the counter. "Here you go, sugar." She eyed the tall, dark man, and her green eyes warmed. "Luke, are you causing trouble again?"
He arched a thick, dark brow. "Hardly. I'm meeting Emily here, but I'm a little early."
"Good, because the last thing you need is more trouble." Margie gave him a stern look as she came around the counter, and he flashed a warm smile, the kind a person reserved for those he cared about.
Daisy felt a stab of jealousy and quickly chided herself for it. She'd been back in town for only two weeks, and she had kept as far away from gossip as she could, but she couldn't help wondering what type of trouble Luke had gotten into. Her life was crazy enough without a guy in it. Especially a guy with enticing eyes and a sexy smile who deserved the reputation she didn't. She focused on his arm and slipped into doctor mode, which she was, thankfully, very good at. In doctor mode she could separate the injured patient from the hot guy.
Luke shot a look at Daisy, then back to Margie. "Can't believe everything you hear."
"Glad to hear that." Margie touched his arm like she might her son. "I have to help the customers, but it's good to see you, Luke."
He flashed that killer smile again, then shifted his eyes back to Daisy, who was armed and ready with antiseptic. "I don't allow strangers to undress my wounds." He held out a hand. "Luke."
"You really don't remember me." Even though she'd seen it in his eyes, it still burned. "Daisy Honey?"
His sexy smile morphed into an amused one, and that amusement reached his eyes. "Was that Daisy, honey, or Daisy Honey, as in your full name?"
She bit back the ache of reality that he didn't even remember her name and passed it off with an eye roll. She turned his arm so she could inspect his duct-tape bandage. "Daisy Honey, as in my given name."
He laughed at that, a deep, hearty, friendly laugh.
She ripped the tape off fast, exposing a nasty gash in his upper arm.
"Hey." He wrenched his arm away. "With a name like Daisy Honey, I thought you'd be sweet."
She blinked several times, and in her sweetest voice, she said, "With a name like Luke Braden, I thought you'd be more manly." Shit. I can't believe I said that.
"Ouch. You don't mince words, do you?" He rubbed his arm. "I was kidding. I know who you are. I get my hay from your dad. I just didn't recognize you. The last time I saw you, your hair was blond." He ran his eyes down her body again, and damn if it didn't make her hot all over. "And you sure as hell didn't look like that."
You do remember me! She ignored Luke's comment about her looks, secretly tucking it away with delight, and went to work cleaning his cut. "How'd you do this, anyway?" She felt his eyes on her as she swabbed the dried blood from his skin.
"I was walking past a fence and didn't see the wire sticking out. Tore right through my shirt." He rolled down the edge of his torn sleeve just above his cut.
"Barbed wire, like your tattoo?" Your hot, sexy, badass tattoo that wraps around your incredibly hard muscle?
He eyed his tattoo with a half-cocked smile. "Regular fence wire."
"Was it rusty?" She tried to ignore the heat of his assessing gaze.
He shrugged again, which seemed to be a common answer for him.
"When was your last tetanus shot?" She finished cleaning the cut and placed a fresh bandage over it before wrapping the dirty swabs in a napkin.
He shrugged. "I'm fine."
"You won't be if you get tetanus. You should stop by the medical clinic for a shot. Any of the nurses can administer it for you." She tucked her hair behind her ear and checked the time. She was definitely late, and he was definitely checking her out. Her stomach did a little flip.
"Are you a nurse?" He rolled up his torn sleeve again.
"Doctor, actually," she said with pride. She wondered if seeing her helping him stirred the memory of when he stood up for her all those years ago. By the look in his eyes, she doubted it. He had that first-meeting look, the one that read, I wonder if I have a shot, rather than the look of, You're that girl everyone said was a slut.
He nodded, and his eyes turned serious. "Well, thank you, Dr. Daisy Honey. I appreciate the care and attention you've given to my flesh."
He said my flesh with a sensual and evocative tone that tripped her up. She opened her mouth to respond and no words came.
Margie returned to the counter. "Can I get you something, Luke?"
Thankful for the distraction, Daisy pushed the first-aid kit across the counter, then gathered her things. "Thanks, Margie."
"I'd love coffee and two eggs over easy with toast," Luke said.
Daisy felt his eyes on her as she struggled to handle the cake, bag, and coffee again.
"Coming right up, sugar." Margie disappeared into the kitchen, and Daisy headed for the door.
He touched her arm and batted his long, dark lashes. "You're just going to dress my wound and leave? I feel so cheap."
Despite herself, she had to laugh. "That was actually kind of cute."
He narrowed his eyes, and it about stole her breath. "Cute? Not at all what I was going for."
Then you hit your mark, because it wasn't cute that's making my pulse race.
He held the door open for her. "I hope to see you around, Daisy, honey."
"Tetanus isn't fun. You should get the shot." She forced her legs to carry her away from his heated gaze.
LUKE THOUGHT ABOUT Daisy as he sat in a booth drinking coffee and waiting for his sister to arrive. Luke bought hay from Daisy's father, and he'd known David Honey's daughter was coming back into town for a few weeks, but he'd never have put the Daisy Honey he met today with her entrancing blue eyes and way-too-sexy body as the white-blond girl who used to walk through the halls of school with her head down, trying desperately to be invisible. Daisy's eyes were sharper and wiser than they'd been all those years ago, and there was something else about this new, grown-up Daisy that had captivated him. When she touched him, the air between them sizzled. She'd done everything possible to keep him from seeing that she'd felt it, too, and for some strange reason, that intrigued him.
He was still thinking about her when Emily slapped an armful of drawings and folders down on the table.
"You are such a pain. I can't believe that after I asked you a dozen times if you were sure you wanted the bed and bath separate, and I begged you-begged you-not to do it that way, now you want to change it." She tossed her straight dark hair over her shoulder and straightened her white silk blouse and black pencil skirt before sitting down. Emily was an architect and owned a design build company. She was also becoming an expert in the field of sustainable energy. "This would have been much easier if you'd listened to me at the beginning-but..." She narrowed her eyes and pointed a finger at him. "Then again, if you had listened to me, I could have built you a passive house, and you could have saved seventy percent on your energy bills-"
"Okay, okay. I get it. Sit down and chill." Emily was fourteen months older than Luke, and at the moment she was giving him the same narrow-eyed, knitted-brow stare he'd seen too many times growing up. "Maybe you should skip the coffee this morning."
"Ha-ha." She flagged down Margie and ordered coffee. Black. Emily had always been feisty, and Luke supposed she'd had to be, growing up with five brothers. "So, are we just modifying the bed and bath in the apartment above the barn, or did you decide to move the kitchen to the other side of the apartment as well?"
He knew moving the plumbing and the framing was going to be a pain in the ass for Emily and her staff. He'd never ask another builder to move the plumbing; he'd have left it as it was originally designed. But just as Emily had no issue calling him at three a.m. to discuss a dream she'd had or to show up unannounced with a bottle of wine when she needed to vent with someone she trusted, he knew she probably had expected his changes and was relieved he'd made them before the walls were erected.
She ran her eyes down his arm. "Hey, what happened?"
Margie brought Emily her coffee as Wes walked into the diner. "And then there were three."
"Hey, Margie." Wes slid into the booth beside Emily. Each of the Bradens were blessed with thick, dark hair, though Emily's was straight and shiny, Luke's was coarse and wavy, and Wes's was a shade lighter and he kept it cropped much shorter than his brothers'. His cargo shorts and tank top were streaked with dirt, as was his forehead.
"Hey, sugar. I'll bring your usual over in just a sec." With her hand on her hip, she looked Wes over and shook her head. "Were you out on the trails already today?"
Wes raised his hand. "Guilty as charged. Checking out new trails. Tough life, but someone has to do it." Wes ran a dude ranch and spent his days teaching well-paying clients how to rope and run cattle, ride horses, skeet shoot, and fish and many evenings taking them on overnight pioneering adventures. Wes eyed Luke and Emily, then the pile of drawings on the table. "Did I miss anything?"
"What are you doing here?" Luke had recently helped Wes on a pioneering trip with a group of clients. He'd wound up going head-to-head with one of them and was arrested for assault. Even though the charges against Luke had been dropped, Luke was still dealing with what it said about him. He'd been thinking of nothing but ever since.
"Em said she was meeting you for breakfast." Wes shrugged. "I was hungry."
"I was just asking Luke what happened to his arm." Emily arched a finely manicured brow.
Luke shrugged. "It's nothing. I cut it on a fence, but I did just run into Daisy Honey, who cleaned it up for me. You guys remember her?" He thought of the way she'd ripped the tape from his arm and her snarky comment. She was feisty, and he liked it.
"Isn't she the girl who had that horrible rep about sleeping around in high school?" Emily drank her coffee and opened one of her folders. "God, I felt so bad for her." Trusty was like any other small town, where gossip spread faster than weeds.
"Hot little blond number?" Wes asked.
"Not anymore. I mean, hot, yes, but she dyed her hair darker. I guess she got tired of dealing with all the crap, and just for the record, I don't think those rumors were true." Luke could relate to dealing with crap, and a memory was snaking its way into his mind. He couldn't quite grasp it, but he had the distinct feeling that it had something to do with Daisy.
"I see that look in your eye, Luke. Careful. You're the last thing a woman dodging a prickly past needs." Wes held his gaze a beat too long. One of his key employees, Ray Mulligan, had quit a few weeks earlier, leaving Wes and his business partner, Chip, to lead every group that came to the ranch. Wes had been snappy and short-tempered ever since.
Luke was all too aware of his own reputation, and the arrest didn't help much. He wasn't big on lasting relationships. Or rather, he didn't connect well on deeper levels with people. Give him a horse and he could practically tell what they were thinking, but people? Women? Whole different ball game. It was only recently that he'd begun to wonder why that was.
"Dude, what's that supposed to mean?" Luke held his brother's gaze. Having been raised by their mother after their father, Buddy Walsh, took off with a dime-store clerk from another town while their mother was still pregnant with Luke, all of his siblings were protective of one another. Luke was the same, and usually their fierce family loyalty served them well, but at times like this, the last thing he needed was to be judged by Wes.
"She's had enough of a bad rep. She doesn't need yours following her around."
"Shit, Wes. You know damn well that arrest wasn't my fault. You saw what went down." The muscles in his jaw twitched.
"I wasn't talking about the arrest."
Emily slid a folder across the table to Luke; then she unfurled a set of architectural drawings, her eyes darting between them. "Can we not play Neanderthal today? Please? I have client meetings to attend to."
Margie brought Luke and Wes their breakfasts, and Emily slid the drawings to the side. "There you are, boys. Em? You want anything else?"
"No, thanks, Margie. I'm good." Emily watched Luke skim the file. "Want me to explain it?"
Luke set the file down. "Nope. I just want you to do it. I don't need to decipher the details. I want the bathroom and bedroom attached. It was shortsighted of me not to do that in the first place. I just didn't like the idea of there not being a guest bath."
Wes shook his head.
"What?" He knew damn well what Wes was thinking. His brother was a planner. He mulled over every detail of his life, which was a good thing in his profession, and he thought Luke was impetuous, that he didn't think things through. The truth was, Luke was a pantser-hard and fast. He ran from planning too far ahead or in too much detail like a rebellious teenager. Most of the time, his gut instincts were right, but sometimes, where they might have been right at the time, after he thought things through, he realized that the next idea he had was better.
In Luke's eyes, those changes would have come after his decision was made even if he'd planned things out first, like Wes did. That thought process was so far from Wes's that they often butted heads.
"Don't you want to go over the specifications?" Wes asked.
"Hell no. What I want is to get home and check on my new foal. I trust Emily's judgment, and she knows my budget. She's banging out a few walls, moving some plumbing around."
"Hey. Nice to know you value my job so much, you ass." Emily took a piece of toast from his plate and bit it, then smirked at him. "It's a one-bedroom apartment for a ranch hand. Why on earth would it need a guest bath? If you'd only listened..."
"Sorry, Em. You know I value what you do, and yeah, maybe I should have listened." Luke shoveled his food into his mouth and lifted his chin in Wes's direction. "Don't you have a playdate?"
"Yeah," Wes said with a sly grin. "With a petite little brunette and a set of books."
"Clarissa?" Emily pointed at Wes. "I knew you two would hook up."
"She's my bookkeeper, not my girlfriend, and we've never hooked up." He put his arm around Emily with a sigh. "If you put as much energy into your own love life as you do mine, maybe you wouldn't be alone."
"I'm not alone. I'm dating." She scrunched her nose. "Sort of. I think. Ugh. Do you have any idea how hard it is to date in this town?"
Luke and Wes both laughed, deep, loud, knowing laughs.
"Right. I guess you do, but it's easier for guys. You guys have dated half the women in Trusty and it just makes the women you haven't dated want you more. It's not like that for girls."
"It sure as hell better not be," Luke said. He might be her younger brother, but he'd learned from the best four older brothers a guy could have how to protect his sister. Part of protecting her meant making sure she didn't put herself in a position to become the talk of the town. That was better suited for the men in the Braden family-or at least it had been. Luke had changed. He'd always been restless, and that included being unable to settle down with just one woman, but since buying the ranch two years ago, that restless itch had calmed, and he'd become far more focused. He liked working with his hands, being around animals, and not being told what to do. The ranch was a perfect fit, and he was finally ready to make changes in his personal life, too. He wanted to be with one woman, a woman who would understand him, love him for who he was-his inability to plan and all. Someone who valued family, loved animals, and wasn't looking for something more than he could give. But that took opening himself in ways he didn't even understand, and he had no clue how to go about any of it.
Wes finished his food and locked his eyes on Luke. "I've got to run. Bro, just tread carefully with Daisy, that's all. You know what she's been through."
Twenty minutes later, Luke climbed onto his Harley and headed back toward his ranch, thinking about Daisy and what she'd gone through in high school. Maybe they weren't so different after all.