NIRVANA. THAT WAS the state Daisy instilled in Luke. Her touch was like velvet, and her kisses were magic, whisking away his worries. He didn't understand why and he didn't care to. All Luke knew was that for the first time in his life, he felt different. Better. Right. Connecting. Nothing stuck with Luke. Not women, and before the ranch, not jobs, either. He'd always been restless, and the ranch and his horses had changed that significantly. But he'd never felt what consumed his body and mind when he kissed Daisy. The feelings weren't even definable. He wanted to kiss her, hold her, protect her, not rush to have sex with her. He wanted to know what made her sad and what caused that flinch of reservation he'd felt right after she'd kissed his face with so much love. He searched his mind for the meaning of it all and couldn't remember ever feeling like that before. Not with a single person. He wanted something more, and as much as he'd planned on keeping his distance, and as much as it scared him and made his heart go all sorts of crazy, he wanted it bad.
"Walk with me, Daisy." He reluctantly took a step back and lifted her from the motorcycle. As difficult as it was to pry himself away from her, he didn't want to just fall into bed with Daisy. He wanted to get to know her, to date her, even if she was in town for only a few weeks. She was the only girl he'd ever felt that way toward, and he wasn't about to ignore it.
She took his hand and it felt natural, a perfect fit, as they walked toward the pasture where two of his broodmares were anxiously awaiting his attention. Daisy gasped a breath, and Luke knew it was at the beauty of the horses. Gypsy horses were heavily feathered around their hooves, much more luxuriously than a Clydesdale or a draft horse, and their abundant manes and tails gave them almost humanlike characteristics.
He stroked the black-and-white horse's cheek. "This is Chelsea. She's a tobiano, see?" He stroked the back of the horse's neck. "Her base coat is black, and see how the white patches cross over her spine? That's what sets her apart from other pinto patterns. Look at her legs. See how they're solid? They're not always, but usually they are in tobianos." Chelsea pushed her muzzle into his chest and he kissed the bridge of her nose.
"You can pet her." He took Daisy's hand in his and stroked Chelsea's cheek.
"She's so soft, and...loving. Look at how she's practically trying to bury her nose in your chest."
"Yeah, my girls love affection. This is awful to say, but with her powerful frame and thick feathering, she reminds me of Anna Nicole Smith. Remember her?"
That earned him another sweet laugh.
"I'm serious. Look at how luxurious her mane is. When she's out in the pasture running and her mane is flowing behind her, it's a match." Chelsea's mane was thick and full, and when just groomed, it hung to her knees.
"She's gorgeous. Your girls?" She arched a brow. "I love that."
"Yeah? They are my girls. I love them." A chestnut-colored horse with white feathering over her hooves nudged Chelsea aside and Luke laughed. "This is Rose. She's a little pushy." He kissed the soft space between her nostrils.
Daisy petted the horse, and Luke felt her eyes on him. "Was it hard for you to come back to Trusty after being away at college?"
He took her hand again and walked along the fence line. "Not really. I mean, my whole family is here, and I knew I wanted either a horse ranch or a farm, so for me, it really wasn't much of a question of if I'd come back."
She nodded. "I can see that."
"It's not like that for you." He knew it wasn't, and when she shook her head in confirmation, he expected it. "I guess not, given what you went through when you were younger."
"Do you remember standing up for me?" She stopped walking and looked up at him.
She was so beautiful with the moonlight glistening in her eyes and the hopeful look in her eyes. It was hard for him to concentrate on talking rather than taking her in his arms again.
"Yeah." He nodded. "I had forgotten about it until after seeing you again at the diner, but yeah, I remember. We were at a field party. I can't remember whose party it was, but I was pretty drunk." Like most teens in the rural town, weekend nights were spent drinking too much and hanging with friends until the sun came up. "Some guy had his hand on you. I remember that, and I remember the look in your eyes." It had nearly slayed him that night, the mixture of venom and fear he'd seen in her eyes as she fought off the guy, all the while scanning the people around her to see who was watching.
He slid his hand to the back of her neck and settled his other on her hip, then stepped forward, hoping to protect her from the memory. "I remember, Daisy." She was breathing hard, her breasts brushing against his stomach with every inhalation. "I remember how you looked scared and angry, and I remember tearing the guy away from you, and when I looked back, you were gone." He brushed his thumb along her neck and she lowered her eyes.
"Hey," he whispered.
She met his gaze.
"There was one problem with that night. You forgot to leave a glass slipper." It was a good thing she hadn't. He'd been nowhere near ready for a girlfriend back then, and even back then Daisy had been girlfriend material despite her reputation: smart, strong, and based on how she'd reacted the other night, loyal. He wanted to protect her and love her like he'd never loved a woman before. For her, not for him.
She blushed, and more frightening sensations trampled through him. Every breath heightened the anticipation of kissing her again. She pressed her hands to his chest and Luke pulled her against him, aware of everything around them. The horses whinnying in the distance, tree frogs and crickets singing in the night. The smell of the thick grass and the pungent scent of horses and hay. And then there was Daisy, her skin slippery from the heat. The floral scent of her perfume sent his best intentions off balance. He lowered his lips to hers in another deep kiss, and she rocked her hips against his hard length. Her moan of pleasure filled his mouth, stealing what little resolve he'd been clinging to. His hand slid down the curve of her ass, and he pressed her body against his, holding her there, feeling the beating of her heart against him. He tangled his hand beneath her hair and tilted her neck back, giving him better access to her silken skin. He kissed and sucked her salty skin until all that was left was desire seeping from her pores.
He forced himself to pull away and rested his forehead to hers again. "Daisy, we should stop."
Her hands were still pressed to his chest, and she gathered his shirt in her fists and held on tight, as if her life depended on being there. With him. She didn't need to say a word, because he felt it too. A connection of more than wanting sex. Of wanting something deeper. Needing something deeper. He let out a shaky breath.
He searched her eyes as her fingers trailed the wave of muscles across his chest. She closed her eyes and kissed the center of his chest, pulling a moan from his lungs.
"Daisy," he whispered again.
She looked at him again with the same wanton look he felt. "I want this, Luke. I'm not a kid. You don't have to protect me."
Like hell he didn't. She'd cracked through some silent barrier to his heart that only his family had been privy to, and yeah, he had to protect her. He wanted to. But hell if he was strong enough to protect her from his desires.
"We don't have to go any further. I really like you, Daisy." He paused to swallow and to try to slow the pace of his words and maybe his racing pulse. "You're only here for a few weeks. We can just..." Be friends? Nope. Somehow they'd skipped that altogether, left it in the dust back at the diner. He couldn't even try to convince her it was worth fighting. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and walked with her up to his house. Luke had lived there two years, and since he'd been staying away from women in Trusty, he realized, as he opened the door and watched Daisy walk inside, he'd never brought any of them home.
He closed the door behind them and took her in his arms again, then kissed her softly. Her fingers slipped under the edge of his shirt to his bare skin, sending heat searing through him and spurring him to deepen their kiss as he swept her into his arms and carried her across the hardwood floor and down the hall to his bedroom. When he lowered her feet to the floor, they were both fighting to breathe between hot, deep kisses. Luke reached behind him and tore his shirt over his head. Daisy's soft, wet mouth found his nipple, and she sucked and licked until he thought he'd lose his mind. He brought her mouth back to his, taking her in another greedy, needful kiss as he drew her shirt over her head-their lips parting just long enough for her top to slip through; then he kissed his way down to the center of her glorious breasts, freeing her bra in one easy move and tossing it aside. Her fingers tangled in his hair and drew his mouth to her taut nipple. She arched against him, sighing loudly. He had to have more. Taste more. He filled his hands with her full breasts, brushing her nipples with his thumbs as his mouth moved south. Daisy sucked in a breath as he gently lay her down on his king-sized bed, then traveled south again, rolling the waist of her skirt down low on her hips and kissing her freshly exposed skin as he divested her of the skirt and her white, lacy thong. Then he kissed his way back up her body, gyrating his hips against her naked sex. Jesus, he was never going to last. She was so soft, so beautiful. He gazed deeply into her eyes.
She nodded, her eyes closed.
"Look at me, Daisy."
Her eyes blinked halfway open.
"We can stop. I'm not one of those guys who will get pissed if we don't go any further."
"Luke." She swallowed hard. "I want this. I want you."
Hearing those words sent a shudder through him. He kissed her again, feeling her need in every stroke of her tongue and in the press of her hands on his shoulders, urging him lower as she lay there, completely open to him.
"Christ, you're beautiful."
Eyes still closed, she bit her lower lip and pushed his shoulders again. Jesus, they were on the same page. Connecting. He moved down her delicious curves to the slight protrusion of her hips, taking each one into his mouth and loving it as she writhed for more. Her knees fell open, and he splayed his hands on her lower belly as it rose and fell with every needy breath while his lips rode the soft plane of her hip down to her sex. One soft lick and he was a goner. She was so wet, tasted so sweet, and when she spread her legs further, he took her inner thighs in his hands and helped her efforts, then brought his mouth to her, licking, stroking, circling her most sensitive spot as she sucked in tiny breaths, driving him out of his frigging mind. He slid his fingers inside of her, drawing another seductive sound from her lips. He licked her harder, up one side of her folds and down the other, lingering when she arched against him, stroking her with his fingers as she grasped at the comforter.
He knew. He felt it, too. Could barely breathe as he licked harder, faster, feeling her inner muscles tightening around his fingers. He slowed his pace, holding her on the brink.
"Luke. Oh God, Luke."
He thrust his tongue deeper, tasting her desire, feeling the pulses of pleasure that made her body twitch and tremble as she came apart beneath him. She came down slowly, panting, reaching for him. He laid his cheek on her thigh for a beat, his body awash with desire.
"I want you, Luke."
A shiver pulsed through him as he slipped from his jeans and briefs and took a condom from his wallet. He slid on the latex sheath and settled his hips above her. He wanted to tell her how his heart was filling his chest and how she wasn't just another stress release, but he looked into her eyes and no words came, only the need for intimacy. For Daisy. He pushed into her slowly, savoring the feel of her, knowing he wouldn't last long, which really sucked, because he was a damn good lover. Their eyes locked, their hot, slick stomachs slid against each other until he was buried deep and they both gasped a breath. He had to move. Had to feel her moving with him. As if she read his mind, she wrapped her legs around his hips, and they moved in perfect sync, kissing, loving, pawing every bit of flesh they could reach.
"Luke," she said in another long breath.
"I know. I'm right there with you."
Their lips met again as he thrust hard and deep. Her hips bucked, her head fell back, her lips parted, and her breath came in short, fast bursts. Her thighs tightened around him as she cried out his name, and he followed her right over the edge with his own fervent release.
HOLY. MOLY. DAISY'S body tingled from shoulder to toes. She didn't want to open her eyes and break the divine spell of being close to Luke. He nuzzled against her neck, and he felt oh so good. She felt his weight lift from her chest, felt the heat of his stare. Then he pressed a tender kiss to her lips, and her eyes fluttered open. Jesus, he was gorgeous. He had that sex-hazed look, the one that looked like a sigh felt, and a smile crept across his lips.
"Wow, Daisy. That was nowhere near what I had planned for us tonight," he said with a serious tone.
"Me either." Was it? Lord knew she'd wanted him from the moment she set eyes on him in the diner. While it wasn't an actual plan, she definitely didn't regret it.
He rolled onto his side, pressed his chest against her, and wrapped his strong arm around her. She would be perfectly content staying in the safety of his arms forever.
"You've got goose bumps."
"I'm okay." It had been so long since she'd been intimate with a man that she wondered if she'd just forgotten how incredible it could be. She couldn't remember ever wanting to crawl under a man's skin and seed herself into his core like she did with Luke.
She didn't know if it was a good thing or another symptom of how crazy being back in the town made her.
He ran his finger down the center of her stomach, drawing her attention to his dark-as-night eyes. She felt the quiet awkwardness of after-sex-with-a-new-partner but saw none of the same in his eyes.
"Your mind is going in a million directions. I see it in your eyes, and I feel it in your body." He cupped her cheek. "Talk to me."
Was she that transparent? She had so many things swirling through her mind-her feelings for him, the details about his arrest and whether those details might make things worse for her, given the reputation she was trying to move past
. She should have found out the facts before she ever locked lips with him, but she had followed her instincts, and now that she'd been with him, she needed to know, because she wanted to be with him. Badly.
With a sigh, he rested his head beside hers. "Is it weird that I want to go take down all those girls who made up rumors about you?"
No. It makes me like you even more. He'd protected her all those years ago, and there was no denying the feelings that were blooming wider with every breath. This was it. Lying naked beside him, vulnerable to his getting upset and sending her away. Risking it all. She turned onto her side and looked into his eyes.
"Is that why you were arrested on that trip? Because someone said something about a girlfriend?"
His eyes narrowed, seemed a little colder, but they never shifted away. "No."
She held his gaze, feeling the tension of her question thickening the space between them. She could follow her heart, and she could follow her lust, but she couldn't-wouldn't-open her heart without knowing exactly what she was dealing with.
He brushed her hair from her cheek. "It wasn't for a woman, and I haven't had a girlfriend in forever. When I said I don't connect, or never had connected, I meant it." The muscle in his jaw bunched again. She really liked him. Probably too much for a guy she'd have to leave in a few short weeks, but still, she forced herself to push a little harder, no matter what the risk.
"Luke, I sort of need to know."
He fell back on the pillow again with another sigh.
When he faced her again, it was with a guarded look in his eyes. "Why is it that I don't need to know the details of your past and you need to know mine?"
That shook her a little. "My past?" She swallowed against the insinuation. "I don't have a past."
"I know, Daisy, but even if you did, I wouldn't care. If you told me that you slept with every guy in your graduating class, it wouldn't change what I feel when I'm with you." His voice was sincere, and the hurt in his eyes was real, almost tangible.
She wanted to stop, didn't want to push any harder. But Daisy was too smart to be ignorant. "Is it that bad, Luke? Because now I'm getting a little scared that it's something I should be worried about." She lay back and stared up at the cathedral ceiling. She should have thought about this before she was lying naked in his bed. She crossed her arms to keep from trembling.
"No. It's not bad. Daisy, what happened, I feel like it's tied to my past in some way. Long ago, stuff I don't even have the answers to. I just thought...You know what? It would be really great to be trusted for the man you know me to be, not..." He paused. "Never mind."
She turned to face him again. "Then trust me. Connect with me."
He was silent for a beat, and her pulse kicked up a notch.
"I thought I just did."
She touched his stomach and felt his muscles tense. She splayed her fingers and pressed a little harder. She pushed herself up so she could look into his slightly confused eyes. God, she loved his eyes. "We did connect, physically. Share all of yourself with me. Emotionally, mentally, and physically."
He opened his mouth, as if to talk, and then pressed it tightly closed.
"Luke, look who you're talking to." She smiled down at him, knowing he knew just what she meant. "If I can deal with the crap I dealt with, I can deal with whatever this is, and if not, I'm gone in a few weeks anyway." She shrugged like it didn't matter, but the words sliced unexpectedly through her.
He reached up and touched her cheek. His brows knitted together, and when he spoke, his voice was soft, his tone tender.
"I'm not good at this, Daisy. Look, I like you, and I felt something I've never felt back with you, but I'm not good at...sharing those parts of myself. It doesn't come easily like it does for you." He came up on his elbow, and for a long moment they stared into each other's eyes, sharing a silent message of what the hell do we do? Where do we go from here?
She saw fear in his eyes at the idea of really letting her in. Daisy knew all about calming patients and gaining trust, but in the man department she was a little flustered. All she could do was lead with honesty and hope that he felt enough for her to do the same.
"Okay. I get that, I guess, but how can you expect me to get close to you when I have no idea what I'm up against?"
He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, melting her resolve a little.
"Two-way street. You have to trust me enough to tell me."
"Fair enough." He held tightly to her hand. "You didn't deserve the rep you had. I don't deserve the gossip about what I did. Is that good enough for now? The charges were dropped. That should tell you something about me."
She wanted it to be enough, but it wasn't. The words tumbled from her lips. "Luke, being with you tells me something about you."
His eyes softened, pleaded. "Then trust it, Daisy." He searched her eyes, and she couldn't think of a thing to say. "Or don't."
Her stomach took a nosedive. "Or don't?"
"I can't change my past. Yes, I was arrested. I didn't do anything wrong, and I hate having to explain it away. I hate feeling like a cretin when I shouldn't. But most of all, I hate knowing that if I don't explain it, you'll probably never see me again."
Her body craved him, but her mind-her sharp, trustworthy mind-told her not to play with fire. She tried to figure out how to explain what she couldn't put into words in her own mind.
"I spent years fighting lies and misconceptions. I know how hard it is to live under the veil of gossip, and while I believe in you, I don't want to fight something I don't understand." Daisy sat up and tried to steel herself against the feelings that whirled around inside of her so she could get up, get dressed, and leave.
God. I don't want to leave.
His arm slid around her waist from behind. "Oh, sweet Daisy, you're right."
She closed her eyes, feeling the weight of guilt for pressuring him and sighing as relief washed it away.
She turned to face him and pulled the blanket up over her chest. His hooded eyes held a mix of emotions that tangled together and tugged at her heart. She didn't say anything, and she knew by the way his shoulders dropped a little and the way his gaze softened, that she didn't have to.
"Daisy, I know nothing about being a boyfriend and everything about avoiding deeper relationships, so you'll have to be patient with me." He reached for her hand.
"You know how to connect. You just have to follow that guarded heart of yours." She was drawn to Luke's honesty, his warmth, and even the strength of his silent struggle. She was supposed to leave in a few weeks. She needed to guard her own heart, not teach him how to open his.
He continued with a serious tone. "I was working for Wes at the time. Dais, what happened at the fair isn't that uncommon for me."
Dais. She loved that.
"I wish it was, but I have trouble keeping my mouth shut with guys like that." He paused, she assumed to let his words sink in, which they did.
That she knew from the high school party in the field when he'd stepped in to rescue her, but she wondered if it ran deeper.
"What do you mean, they aren't uncommon? Do you get in a lot of fights?" Her stomach clenched at the thought. She was all for chivalry, but fighting was a whole different situation.
"No." He shook his head. "You saw me at the fair. I tried to talk him down, not push him around. Even when he pushed me, I didn't strike back." He ran his hand through his hair with a loud sigh. "You know, I want to tell you all this, but sitting here naked, it's a little disconcerting. I need to pace. Can we get cleaned up and maybe sit outside and talk?"
Oh, thank God. "Yes, please."
After rinsing off and dressing, Daisy felt much less anxious, and she could tell by the way Luke wrapped his arms around her and pressed a soft kiss to her lips that he did, too. She followed him through the large, open great room. A stone fireplace ran straight up the wall to the exposed beams on the cathedral ceiling. The mantel was covered with framed photographs of horses, which she assumed were his, and his siblings. Two chocolate-brown sofas formed an L before the fireplace with a heavy wooden coffee table in between the sofas and the hearth. Daisy noticed several horse magazines and green living magazines on the coffee table. An overstuffed armchair and ottoman were tucked into a cozy reading nook lined with bookshelves. A reading light arced over the armchair, giving the area a warm, inviting feel, like the rest of the room.
"Do you want some wine or something?" Luke pointed past the bar that separated the living room from the kitchen.
He opened the door, and a chilly breeze swept past them.
"Hold on one sec." Luke went back into the living room and grabbed a throw blanket. "Here." He wrapped it around Daisy's shoulders, then draped his arm around her. "Let me know if it's too cool outside. We can talk in here if you'd rather."
She loved that he'd thought of the blanket. "I'd rather be outside."
It was a beautiful, starry night, and being with Luke, knowing he was opening up to her, and seeing how difficult it had been for him to do so, deepened her feelings for him.
Luke paced the slate patio. "Before I tell you, I just want you to know that I wasn't trying to keep it from you." He took both her hands in his. "I wanted you to like me free and clear of that incident. Regardless of it, really, and I know that wasn't fair. I'm sorry if I seemed evasive."
"It's okay. I do understand what you mean. Even now, if someone mentions the rumors from high school, I want to either run the other way, tell them to go to hell, or beg them to believe that it wasn't true." She hated how it felt to say that aloud, to admit she even felt that vulnerable.
He drew her close and leaned his forehead against hers again-another thing she loved. "I hate that you went through that at all. You know what, though? We have common ground. And considering I've never connected with anyone on the same level that I feel a connection with you, I'm not surprised."
Even if they hadn't come together physically, she felt closer to Luke right now than she'd ever felt to any other man. Common ground. She'd never felt like she had common ground with anyone. Daisy always felt like she had to work harder to prove herself than anyone else.
Luke kissed her forehead before taking a deep breath and pacing again. "Okay, so here goes. One of my brother's clients came to his dude ranch for an overnight trail ride with his wife and another couple, and I went with Wes to help him out. The guy kept yelling at his wife. I'm not talking about just telling her she was doing something wrong. Every move this woman made was wrong in his eyes. He was a big guy, probably my height and a good thirty pounds heavier than me, and she was this petite woman. Sweet as the day was long. And every time he yelled at her or told her she'd never get it right, out of respect for my brother, I bit my tongue."
"What did your brother do?"
"Nothing. We exchanged a few looks, you know, like what an asshole. But then we were packing to go down the mountain, and my brother had gone ahead with the other family and the guy grabbed his wife's arm. I saw her flinch. It wasn't the flinch of a woman who was surprised. It was the practiced flinch of a woman who knew what was coming next, so I stepped in. Like I did at the fair, only this guy wasn't drunk, and when he pushed me and I tried to talk instead of fighting, he threw a punch." He was breathing harder now, still pacing a path in front of Daisy. "I caught his hand before he hit me and tried to talk him down, but he pulled his arm free and threw another punch. I blocked it, and..."
"And?" Her voice was thin and quiet.
"I didn't hit him, if that's what you're thinking. I flipped him. He wasn't hurt, but his ego was damaged. Wes came back looking for us, and I didn't know until afterward, but he saw the guy swing at me the second time, and he saw me flip him." His eyes darted nervously around the patio.
Luke shrugged. "I studied a little martial arts when I was at college. Trust me. Flipping him was about the nicest thing I could have done besides walking away. And I couldn't walk away."
"And you were arrested for it." She could imagine the scene unfolding in her mind, much like it had at the fair, and she felt herself open a little more toward him. Not just for what he went through, but for his honesty and for that vulnerable and defensive look in his eyes that she understood so well, because she'd lived the feelings he was experiencing. The annoyance at having to explain himself, the swallowing of his pride, and...the relief once it was all out on the table.
Luke nodded, and when he spoke again, his tone was softer, easier, as if the weight of his actions had been lightened. "Assault. It was our word against his, and from what I understand, his wife refused to back his story." He shrugged, only it wasn't his typical whatever shrug. This shrug was slow and heavy. An it's-okay-if-you-still-don't-want-to-see-me shrug. "He dropped the charges."
She took a step closer to him and touched his hand, stopping his pacing and drawing his attention to her.
"Thank you for telling me."
"I wish I never flipped the guy, but to be honest, I can't say I wish I never stepped in."
"Unless you're not giving me the whole story, it doesn't sound like you did anything wrong."
Luke looked away, and the muscle in his jaw bunched again. He dug his phone from his pocket and handed it to her. "Wes's number is in there. Call him. He'll tell you exactly what went down."
She put the phone back in his hand and covered it with hers. "Trust is a two-way street, remember? I don't need to call Wes. What I meant was-and let me be sure to say it clearly." She stepped closer to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Based on what you described, which I fully, one hundred percent believe, you should be proud that you did the right thing."
He folded her into his arms. "I can't tell you how many people have told me that I did the right thing, and I've been battling believing it until just now. Jesus, Daisy. You dropped a cake. How did I get lucky enough to catch something so much sweeter?"
Her world cracked open and he slithered right in.