The dry Montana heat was unforgiving today. Dust coated the back of my throat, my sweat-slicked skin prickling from the harsh midday sun. The thunder of hooves drew my attention from unpegging the laundry and over to the field behind the house. Two of my horses galloped along the fence line, kicking up more dust as they passed. I lifted my ponytail from my sticky neck and shielded my eyes to watch.
They slowed, danced around each other, sizing the other up.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked to the sky, searching for rain clouds. We were in the middle of a drought, suffering the highest temperatures we’d had in over ten years. I had animals to feed, a ranch to keep afloat. If the rain didn’t come soon, I’d have the bank manager out here again, hounding me. These were the things that should be occupying my mind as I tugged the last towel from the clothesline.
But how could I concentrate on any of that with the low, steady murmur searching me out, coming to me on the light breeze? The way that gravelly yet soothing voice was being used to gentle one of my skittish mares made me tingle all over, until I was forced to squeeze my thighs together.
Folks around town called Elijah Hays a monster. They were intimidated, scared of him. Even said he was dangerous. Not to his face. Never to his face. You’d have to be a stupid son of a bitch to say any of those things to Eli—and crazier than they accused him of being. But I’d never seen him that way. Not once. I trusted him to take care of my ranch just like my father had.
The ranch’s main income came from cattle, but with the drought and everyone selling stock to get by, unable to afford the feed, cattle prices had dropped to an all-time low. If we sold now, we’d never recover. We usually survived the dry season by selling off the wild horses we brought in and broke for a nice profit. My dad loved horses, had wanted to eventually expand that side of our business. But this year, with him gone and only Eli here to work them, I didn’t know if we’d make it through.
Pushing back the strands of hair that had come loose from my ponytail, I turned to watch him, unable to help myself. How could I see him as the townspeople did when I witnessed him like this each and every day? Eli had a way with horses unlike anyone I’d seen. It fascinated me, watching this huge, at times unnerving, man care for and baby them. The way he could break a horse with kindness—taming, bending them to his will with whispered words and those big, gentle hands—until they seemed desperate to please him.
He stood beside the mare, one hand gripping the wide brush, dragging it over her shiny coat, the other following in its wake while he whispered sweet nothings in her ear. My attention was drawn to his forearms, corded and veined, dusted with dark hair. Pure strength. His hands never left her once. And God, they were beautiful hands—huge and so damn rough. I knew this because when I brought him coffee in the afternoons, his fingers would brush against mine. But what had my nipples hardening against the soft cotton of my dirt-streaked tank top was his unbelievably wide back. It was bulked up with thick slabs of lickable muscle, deeply tanned from hours spent outdoors. My gaze dropped to soft, worn Levi’s sitting low on his hips, cupping an ass that was meant to be squeezed, and often.
But if what people said was true, no one had ever squeezed that magnificent ass. No one had seen what he had hidden behind that straining zipper, either…
He swept the brush across the mare’s side again and again, biceps—thick as one of my thighs—bunching and rolling, dancing as he worked. I’d never seen the likes of him in my life. The man was beautiful, masculine on a whole new level. And he absolutely fascinated me.
The sound that had been steadily building in my chest slid past my lips before I could stop it. The needy moan loud enough for him to hear. I spun around before he caught me staring, quickly bending to pick up the wash basket at my feet. But it was too late. I’d been caught. The rhythmic cadence of Elijah’s deep voice cut off suddenly, followed by the crunch of gravel under his boots as he spun around.
He didn’t say anything. He rarely did, not to me—besides the “please and thank yous” he quietly rasped whenever I brought him food or drink. Otherwise he kept to himself. Had done so since he started working here twelve months ago.
I shivered again, that familiar zip of electricity shooting across my shoulders and down my spine. His eyes were on me. He had beautiful eyes, wide and thickly lashed. They were often on me, maybe as much as mine were on him. I liked it. I didn’t see Eli as a monster. Because if he had murdered his father when he was just a boy, like everyone said, the man had deserved it. My dad, God rest his soul, had said so many times. Said Wyatt Hays had been a mean son of a bitch and he was surprised no one had done it before his son took a kitchen knife to him defending his mom.
But the folks here were still wary of him. I’m sure people who visited Deep River thought they’d stepped back in time. The people born in our isolated, backwater town generally lived and died here. And that’s the way they liked it. Anyone different from them…scared them. They didn’t like the way Elijah rarely spoke, the way he kept himself apart. Though plenty of the women liked the way he looked just fine. I’d seen the lust-filled glances cast his way. Still, they kept their distance, would never dream of approaching him, frightened by his dark past, the gossip that surrounded him. His size and strength were intimidating, not that I’d ever seen him use them against anyone in anger.
No, Elijah preferred his own company, and I didn’t blame him. Not when he’d only ever been subjected to the ugliest versions of everyone around him.
When he wasn’t busy with the ranch, he was reading, or giving the sand-filled bag he’d suspended in the corner of the barn a beating.
He was a mystery, and I hadn’t gotten any closer to him, learned any more about him, in the six months since my father passed away and I took over running the ranch. Because despite the way he watched me, he sent off unmistakable don’t-come-any-closer vibes that could be felt fifty yards away.
I jolted in surprise, goose bumps popping up all over my skin like an icy breeze had washed over me at the sound of his low voice edged with that delicious growl. Elijah never initiated a conversation. Not when he didn’t have to. His voice sounded cautious, gritty, nothing like the tone he used on my horses.
My heart galloped faster as I turned on shaky legs. I plastered a smile on my face, forcing my eyes to stay above his shoulders. “Oh, hey, Eli,” I said, like I hadn’t been acutely aware of his quiet, dominating presence the whole time. Eli knew his job better than I did. The only time I sought him out was when I needed him to come to town and help me collect supplies. I usually just wrote what needed doing on a notepad in the barn, and he did it. I squinted against the sun, taking several steps closer, laundry basket resting on my hip. “Mare’s looking good.”
His brown eyes were locked on mine, making me squirm. He dipped his chin, dark hair that was darker from sweat falling forward across his brow.
Damn, the man had a way of looking at a person, direct, unwavering. Telling you without words that he didn’t care what you thought about him, that he didn’t care one whit if you believed all the talk about his past or what your opinion was about it, either. I didn’t know if that was true or not, or if it was a defense mechanism he’d built to protect himself, but it was unnerving as hell.
I retreated a step. “Right, well, I’ll leave you to it. I have to…ah, go get ready.” He didn’t say anything, just kept his steady gaze locked on mine, and as usual my mouth ran away with me, trying to fill the inevitable silences when we were alone. “I’ve got a date, you know, with Kyle, so I better…”
Something flickered behind his eyes, something that had the skin crinkling at the corners—not from a smile, no, he never did that—he looked tense, strained. That square, scruff-covered jaw was tight. His Adam’s apple slid up and down the front of his thick neck before his expression smoothed out, once again impassive. My eyes dipped, like someone else had control over their movement. His sudden discomfort made my thigh muscles clench, wanting to move me closer, to brush his hair back and search his gaze until I knew what caused that unease.
Then my brain registered what my eyes were looking at, and I sucked in a breath at the sight of his bare chest. Something about his size…his bulk… The brown hair that dusted his pecs, bisecting his deeply ridged abs, all the way down to the waistband of his jeans, made me lose my breath every damn time.
Those tight abs tightened further, and my eyes darted up. Color darkened his broad cheekbones, but that was the only sign that he’d caught me ogling him. His rugged features remained arranged in their usual inscrutable position.
The strong and sudden urge to force him to react, to tempt him past his control—to climb that massive, ripped body, wrap my thighs around his hips, and hang on while he bucked into me like an ornery bull, snarling and grunting until we were both spent—was near overwhelming.
Then I noticed the way his powerful fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. It wasn’t threatening. He was uncomfortable. Guilt swirled in my belly. He may watch me sometimes, but he’d never given any indication that he wanted more. He was happy with the horses, with his own company. I hated that I’d made him uneasy. He’d had enough of that his whole life, being stared at like a sideshow freak. I refused to be lumped in with the gossiping townsfolk whispering behind his back, speculating, judging. Eli wasn’t the kind of man you toyed with, and I’d been reminded six months ago, as my dad was lowered into the ground, that close ties, relationships…love, only ever caused pain.
“Well, it’s getting late…”
He motioned to the overflowing basket in my arms. “Let me.”
At those two words, just an innocent statement, my heart jumped forward, smacking against my ribs, my quickening pulse relocating itself between my thighs. “I’ve got it. Thanks, though.” I stumbled back another step. Like I had two left feet. “You have a good evening, Eli.” Then turning away, I hustled my ass inside.
And somehow I knew his intense stare followed me the whole way.
“Girl, I’m sick of your damn teasing.” Kyle dragged his sweaty hand higher under my skirt. “You finally gonna give me what’s under here, or what?”
There was a slight slur to his voice, a slur I hadn’t noticed when we left the bar. “How much did you have to drink? You said you only had a couple beers.”
He shrugged. “A few shots as well.” He grinned in a way I knew he thought was charming, but with a gut full of beer and whiskey, he just looked like a big, dumb idiot.
I’d known Kyle since high school. Back then he’d been a chauvinistic, irresponsible asshole; it seemed nothing had changed. When he’d asked me out a month ago, I’d decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, hoping he’d matured. The fact that he was good-looking, built, and had all his teeth may have played a part in my decision to give him a shot. Not to mention an eight-month-long dry spell and an itch that needed one hell of a good scratch. But nothing was going to happen here tonight. Not now, not ever.
I shoved the passenger door open and slammed it shut behind me. His door wrenched open as well, and he rounded the car fast. Grabbing my arm, he hauled me back and pinned me to the car before I’d barely taken two steps.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” He pressed into me, the liquor on his breath invading my nostrils. “Time you paid up, honey. I’ve done the time, taken you out, bought you a burger, drinks, all that shit. Time to give it up.”
I shoved at his shoulders. “You’ve lost your goddamn mind, Kyle Harris.” I tried to wriggle free, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Back the hell up, get in your car, and get out of here.”
Grinding his hard dick against my leg, he grunted and nipped my earlobe, yanking my shirt down over my shoulder. “Cock-teasing whore. What the fu—”
Kyle was on me one minute, then being pulled away the next. My jaw went slack as Elijah, fingers wrapped around the back of Kyle’s neck, dragged him like a sack of potatoes to the driver’s side and slammed him face-first against it. Kyle flailed and cursed while he was being manhandled. The door was yanked open, and Eli shoved him in like his own personal rag doll, then slammed it shut behind him.
The expression on Kyle’s face as he blinked up at the big man through the window was priceless. He looked shit-scared when he realized who he was staring at. The car started a second later, then it was gone the next, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.
My gaze shot to Eli. I don’t know how it was possible, but the man looked even bigger, muscles flexing, jaw tight, nostrils flaring with each angry breath. “Elijah?” I took a step toward him, and he jerked back suddenly, shock covering his face, before he turned and stormed toward the barn. The bang of the door after him was loud, echoing through the quiet night.
I had two options: I could go inside like a coward and pretend what just happened hadn’t, or I could go after him, thank him for coming to my rescue, and attempt to erase some of that worry I’d seen in his dark eyes.
Wiping my sweaty hands on my skirt, I headed toward the barn. It was still hot out, but there was a breeze, and the light floaty fabric of my skirt whispered around my thighs. Anticipation ignited low in my belly as I neared, then the deep, repetitive thump of those solid fists connecting with the punching bag in the corner of the barn reached my ears.
I’d heard the same sound often as he beat the crap out of that bag, but this time was different. He was hitting harder, faster, working off his anger and frustration. Maybe I should be afraid. Maybe going in there now was a damn stupid idea, but I couldn’t make my feet stop, couldn’t make them turn me around. Pressing a hand to the barn door, I pushed it open and stepped inside.
The familiar scent of hay and motor oil hit me first. Every light was on, throwing a golden wash into the corners. A tractor took up one side of the barn. Tools and other equipment were scattered on the workbench that ran the length of the wall. On the other side was a rough wooden staircase that led to Eli’s rooms, and in the corner, beating the hell out of that bag, was the man himself.
I stood there motionless, unable to take a step closer, yet I couldn’t turn and walk out, either. As if he sensed me, he stopped abruptly and spun around. His wild stare crashed with mine, and I sucked in a breath. Every ripped muscle, vein, and tendon bulged. He’d obviously tugged off his shirt when he’d walked in, because now his chest was bare and glistened with sweat. He was breathing heavily, fists still clenched tightly.
“Miss Abigail?” he said through panted breaths.
Despite that wild stare and the way his body throbbed with aggression, when he spoke, none of it came through. His cheeks were dark from exertion, mouth slightly parted as each heavy breath pumped from his lungs, struggling to maintain control, but still he hadn’t directed any of that anger at me.
I managed to unglue my feet and started toward him. He seemed to brace himself as I moved closer, hands on hips, back and shoulders stiff. When I stopped in front of him, instead of his direct stare, he aimed his eyes at the ground. “Eli?” He didn’t move, didn’t speak. Reaching out, I touched his arm. “Elijah?”
He jolted, muscles tightening under my fingers. God, I felt tiny standing this close to him. He finally answered, voice low, “Ma’am.”
My nipples tightened painfully. He didn’t pull away. “I just…I wanted to thank you for what you did back there.”
His head was still down, not allowing me to see those dark eyes. Without thought, I reached up, threading my fingers in his hair, and tipped his head back. My only thought had been to get those eyes on me again. I needed them on me.
My belly dipped and swirled at the rough sound that tore from his throat. I was about to pull away, to apologize, but he tilted his head, pressing more firmly against my palm, moving the tiniest bit closer. Finally, he raised his chin, thick lashes lifting, and I had them. My body zapped, sparked, breath escaping in a rush, heat curling and growing like a wildfire was spreading over my skin.
“You like my hands on you?” I whispered before I could think better of it.
His breathing had grown ragged, a softness, a vulnerability in his eyes that made me want to give him everything I didn’t think he’d allow himself to ask for. His gaze darted to my bare shoulder, where Kyle had yanked my shirt down, and his wide chest expanded with his sharp inhalation. He didn’t like the reminder of what happened, of Kyle touching me that way.
“Do you want to touch me, Eli?” I could barely believe the words that just came out of my mouth, but I didn’t want to take them back, I wanted those massive hands on me, had wanted them on me for the longest time.
The tip of his tongue darted out, sliding across his bottom lip, then his head dipped, just a fraction.
“You do, don’t you?”
He stared down at me, his large frame, thick with muscle, towering over me, looking like he could pick up that tractor beside us and fling it halfway across the field, which made the almost innocent curiosity, the restrained excitement he was currently aiming my way all the more surprising.
“Yes,” he rasped, cheeks darkening further.
He made no move to touch me, though, kept his arms at his sides, fingers curled in loose fists, bracing for I didn’t know what. I reached down, taking one of his hands in mine, lifting it slowly. The skin was as rough as I remembered and hot, so damn hot. He smelled of clean sweat, the outdoors, the soap he used. The combination was incredibly sexy. I uncurled his fingers and rested his hand just above my heart. My top was low cut, so we were skin to skin, and my body went up in flames from that simple touch.
I watched him, gauging his reaction. His eyes were locked on his fingers. His hands were scarred with cracks and gouges, dark and stained, as clean as they ever got. The contrast against my lighter, smooth, unblemished skin was startling—exciting.
“Is this what you want?” I asked softly.
He dipped his head again, fingers flexing slightly, stare intent, scorching.
Oh God, the way he said it, deep, rough… I jammed my legs together, the throb between my thighs making me reckless, making me do things, say things I might not usually. But here in the barn, so quiet and still, it was just us and this moment. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.
Wrapping my fingers around his thick wrist, the coarse hairs tickling my skin, I lowered his hand slowly, until his palm grazed the swell of my breast. “You ever touched a woman here, Eli?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, jaw tightening, then shook his head.
I could barely believe it. No, he didn’t talk much, kept to himself, but he was smart, gorgeous, and a harder worker I’d never met. “Why not?”
He didn’t answer, just kept his eyes locked with mine. An answer wasn’t necessary. I knew why—the same reason everyone in this town kept their distance. Fear. I moved his hand lower, struggling to breathe when the rough skin of his palm dragged over my hard, aching nipple. He swallowed audibly and made another one of those hungry, low sounds.
“Your skin’s so hot,” I whispered, curling my fingers around his, encouraging him to squeeze me. He flexed them, but he didn’t let up this time, no, he pressed in, tightening around me in a way that had me soaking my panties. “Feels good?”
“Yes, ma’am.” When he said those words, there was a spark of something thrilling in his eyes. His nostrils flared. “Better than good.”
Dear God, it was. What the hell was I doing?