This time, he slid his arm around her waist. They weren’t running at full speed, so there really wasn’t a need for it. But it brought her a sense of security she wasn’t aware she craved. They were traveling at a leisurely walk, and even though Anya knew she had a thousand things to do when she got back to the clinic, she didn’t complain.

She could feel the muscles of his chest against her back, and her mouth suddenly went dry. The man was incredibly handsome in spite of his often surly attitude. Even beneath his ranch clothes, she could tell he was muscular, but feeling his biceps flex as his arm curled around her, she knew he was even more so than she’d originally thought. And it was hard not to look at him.

His face was just as fierce as he was, with strong, angular lines and a square jaw. His jet–black hair and dark eyes only emphasized his olive skin and full lips. He was a man who knew what he wanted and would stop at nothing to get it—-at least, that was what his expression said every time she looked at him.

The warmth of the morning sun beat down on her, and she found herself relaxing deeper and deeper into his embrace. His arm tightened around her waist, and she smiled. The next thing she knew, his lips were against her skin, murmuring softly. Then she felt a small kiss behind her ear, and she slowly let her head fall to the side as he layered kisses down her neck. Heat built within her lower belly, and she didn’t want it to ever stop.

“I’d love to stay like this all day, but I think the horse might get a bit irritated with us,” he whispered in a husky voice against her ear.

“Mmm,” she replied, wanting more. His arm tightened around her gently, then began to release her, and her eyes opened slowly. They were back at the ranch house, sitting atop the horse near her truck. She had been asleep! Had it all just been a dream? A sweet, wonderful dream? “Oh!” she said, sitting upright, unaware she’d grabbed ahold of his forearm. “I’m so sorry I fell asleep.”

“I’m not,” he said in a deep, rumbling voice, sending vibrations through her chest, and her nipples tightened in response. The man exuded everything masculine and sexual, from the way he moved to the way he spoke. And she was practically draping herself all over him. Reluctantly, she peeled herself out of his warm embrace and instantly felt cold and lonely.

He dismounted quickly and pulled her down gently, letting her body slide down his. She felt him inch by agonizing inch until her feet were firmly on the ground. His cologne was intoxicating—-a warm, heady aroma of spices, leather, horses, and the delicious scent of man.

She needed to control her wayward mind. She had so many things to do, and standing here fantasizing in the arms of this man wasn’t going to get anything accomplished.

He reached up slowly, as though approaching a skittish young filly, stroked some of her unruly hair out of her face, and hooked it behind her ear. “Where do you go from here?” he asked softly.

“I leave from here to the clinic. We don’t open for another hour, so at least I’ll be able to get some paperwork done and freshen up a bit. That is, so long as there isn’t another call for a calf birth.”

“You look practically dead on your feet as it is.” Had his words not been framed by his expression of concern, she would have been offended. She gave him an amused shrug of her shoulders.

“I get to sleep when all the calves are born.”

“That could be weeks!” When all she did was shrug once more, he frowned deeply and slid his arm around her waist again in a protective gesture.

“Come inside.” He said it as if it were a command, but she decided it was a request, and her heart began to beat wildly in her chest. This man was…dangerous. She could feel it in the leashed power of his muscles, see it in the mystery stirring deep in his dark eyes, and knew it from the way she could sense he hadn’t been completely honest with her about his past. But somehow, deep inside, she believed he wasn’t a danger to her. The way he looked at her, the way he had so carefully removed the thorns from her, the way he wanted to protect her now… He wouldn’t hurt her.

She nodded, and he kept his arm around her waist as he led the horse to the patch of green grass near the house. He released her only long enough to tether the horse, then returned to wrap his arm about her, holding her against his side. It felt natural, as if that were where it belonged. She wondered if he could feel her racing pulse.

A wave of cool air washed over her as she stepped into the magnificent foyer of the home, and she smelled the scent of bacon wafting about the house. She heard men talking and laughing boisterously, and hesitated. Stryker’s arm tightened around her. She looked up at him, suddenly filled with doubt. “I…I really should go back to the clinic. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“You aren’t intruding. I invited you in, remember?” His voice was still a low rumble, and it was making her insides quiver. What was it about this man? She had never felt this way before. Maybe she was getting sick.

She drew a deep breath and nodded again, and he smiled down at her. Suddenly she didn’t care about the other men in the house, didn’t care about her thundering heart or the butterflies low in her stomach, because she thought she was going to melt into a giant puddle on the floor. “You should do that more often,” she said softly.

“Do what?”

“This,” she whispered, and before she could think better of it, her fingers lightly traced his smiling lips. His eyes darkened, and the smile slowly slipped from his face.

“You’re playing with fire, bella.” His reply was soft and almost seemed to caress her.

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