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Chapter One


Teri kicked at the flat tire of her borrowed car with the toe of her high-heeled sandal. What the heck was she supposed to do now? She’d already had one flat tire since leaving the airport in Kansas City. She was fresh out of spare tires. Fresh out of luck, too, it appeared. No way would she make it to Hutchinson for the first night of the Kansas State Fair, for which she’d been hired to take photos for Kansas Today. Not that she’d really wanted that assignment, or any other photo assignment. She had tired of being a travel photographer in the last year. She just hadn’t come up with a plan for a new temporary career for the next ten years or so.

She kicked the tire again out of pure annoyance. This time she stubbed her big toe and ended up hopping around cursing her rotten luck of late. And her recent tendency to make poor decisions, such as deciding to fly into Kansas City instead of Wichita, and then deciding to take a side-trip off the turnpike to check out what had sounded like an interesting small town on the last billboard. “Boot Scooting Bar, Templeton. Best Rocky Mountain Oysters and The Hunkiest Cowboys in all of the Flint Hills Cattle Country.” Not that she’d been hungry, simply curious about Rocky Mountain oysters, something she hadn’t heard about in her nearly twenty-six hundred years of existence. Checking out some hunky cowboys had sounded like a nice diversion, too.

So here she was basically in the middle of nowhere with a useless car that she didn’t mind abandoning at all. Tyrone was going to hear about this! Her long-time friend had connections everywhere and a whole fleet of cars he loaned out to people like her, who didn’t exactly have a legal driver’s license and had to skirt around some of the rules and regulations on occasion. But this had been the only car he could come up with for her. Again, a rotten piece of luck. Now she wasn’t going to make the first deadline of her latest assignment, which didn’t bother her too much. Still, she was frustrated by the delay.

She looked up at the setting sun, pleased that something at the moment was going her way. The day had been hotter than she’d expected and the heat was wearing her down. But she couldn’t get the car problem solved until tomorrow, she was fairly sure. From her previous experience with small towns, she knew businesses tended to close up shop at five o’clock on the dot, except for maybe some diners and bars. Even a gas station still being open would be highly doubtful.

So, unless she wanted to spend the night in the car—which she didn’t—she’d need to start hoofing it down the road heading into Templeton. Her life seemed to be one big bother after another lately. Actually she’d felt bored and lonely…and just plain tired of her long existence for some time now. Humans constantly talked about wishing they could have a taste of the Fountain of Youth, live forever. They had no idea how tedious life became after awhile or what a nuisance it was to have to keep moving around, keep recreating yourself because you didn’t age. She’d rather have been blessed with some skill to wiggle her nose and fix things, like the car.

The question was did she take her camera bags with her or the small duffel bag with her beauty necessities? The suitcase of clothes was out of the question. Too big. She’d never learned to pack lightly even for short trips. She decided a compromise might work and quickly pulled a pair of her favorite jeans, a T-shirt, and her worn-but-beloved canvas tennis shoes out of the suitcase. She tossed out her hairdryer and curling iron from the duffel and replaced them with the clothes and shoes. Then she grabbed her small digital camera and added it to the duffel before putting the other cameras in the trunk with her suitcase. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t be back for the car, but probably not tonight. She hoped to at least find a hotel or B & B where she could stay the night.

Almost an hour later she managed to stumble her way on aching feet—Why hadn’t she changed into her tennis shoes?—toward what appeared to be the only business open in town: Cassie Mae’s Diner. She needed to sit down, wanted an ice-cold drink and some time to figure out the “What now?” for the night ahead. She’d seen no signs of a hotel of any size or of a bed-and-breakfast. And after the lengthy walk, she would almost kill for a chance to take a long, hot bath.

Barely able to lift one foot in front of the other, she aimed for the diner. A half dozen dusty pickup trucks were parked outside. The door was open to let in the cool breeze of the early fall evening and the sounds of the 60s drifted from a jukebox just inside the small building. That made her smile for the first time in hours. She’d been fond of the 60s, a rather unique time in American life.

With a smile and feeling mellow as she enjoyed a flash of pleasant memories for that time, she walked into the diner. She took a second to glance around. Red upholstered booths, chrome and Formica tables, a waitress buzzing around on roller skates, a long counter lined with chrome and red-upholstered stools. She loved it! Then there were the familiar smells of greasy fries and meat grilling. Not that they appealed to her, but she might eat a cheeseburger just for old time’s sake.

“Sit wherever you want, sweetie,” said a middle-aged woman with smiling blue eyes and a name tag that said Maybelle as she rolled by carrying a tray of food.

Teri tugged the duffel’s shoulder strap higher and further studied the diner. A family of four, with a harried-looking mother struggling to deal with two kids clearly nearing their bedtime and cranky, sat in the far corner booth. Two white-haired ladies watched her with mixed disapproval and curiosity from two tables away from the door. Another booth near the back held three men probably somewhere in their late twenties to early thirties, she judged. The redheaded one had spotted her and was flashing a come-hither grin. As if. Then she heard the low rumble of the ebony-haired man with his back to her. Oh my! She’d always been a sucker for deep, sexy voices and this man’s was definitely that.

Unable to resist, she headed for a table two booths behind them. She set her bag on one seat and sat with her back to the men. Near enough to savor more of Mr. Sexy’s voice and seated so they wouldn’t see her all but drooling in pleasure. It had been a while since she’d given in to her baser needs for relations with a male of any species. Her heart twisted at the still painful memory of her last mate dying in her arms. She’d had three mortal husbands and they’d all died far too young…at least for her. She didn’t want to go that route again.

“Here you go, sweetie.” Maybelle interrupted her musings and handed her a well-worn menu and put a glass of water in front of her. “You new to town? I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”

Teri had been in enough small towns around the country to understand things about them. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew everyone’s business. She didn’t mind chitchatting and being friendly…to a reasonable point.

“I’m just passing through.” She casually reached up to shove her long, blonde ponytail back over her shoulder and smiled. “Actually, I had some car trouble down the road and had to walk into town to see about getting some help.”

Maybelle’s kind face pinched in concern. “Sorry to tell you the only service station we have here in Templeton is closed for the night. Actually for the next couple of days. I’d call Pete, the owner, to help you out, but he’s taken his family into Hutchinson for the weekend. To the state fair.”

Hmmm, now that was more of a problem than Teri wanted to hear about. What was she going to do until Monday? And where would she stay? She sure didn’t want to sleep in the car.

Before she could do more than ponder her mounting bad luck, the waitress turned toward the table with the three men. “Seth, you and your men there can come to the rescue of this poor girl.”

While smiling and thinking how very long it had been since she’d been a “girl,” Teri felt all three men look in her direction. She batted down the compliment and craned her head to look back. The redheaded one with freckles grinned even more at her. The other two, one with thinning brown hair and the ebony-haired, deep-voiced man, looked more annoyed than friendly. Especially Mr. Sexy. Acting the white knight clearly wasn’t in his plans for the night.

“What’s the problem?” the redhead asked. “I’d be glad to help.”

Teri could read his thoughts. Yes, he wanted to help her with whatever problem she had. But, more than that, he wanted to get some alone time with her. Some down-and-dirty time. All sorts of plans for them rolled around in his head. Yuck! came immediately to mind. She pushed him a whispered thought that basically told him “not in his lifetime would she consider it.” He rubbed at his forehead and frowned, confused, but his previous interest had dimmed.

“It’s some kind of car problem,” Maybelle explained. “Outside of town. Said she had to walk here.”

“Red and I both got gals expecting us at the Boot Scoot in about an hour,” the brown-haired man said, nodding at the man seated next to him, who evidently hadn’t really cared about the other “gals.”

“That leaves you, Seth.” Maybelle clearly intended for one of the men to act the gentleman whether he wanted to or not. She planted her hands on her ample hips and glared him down.

Teri almost felt sorry for him, except she really would like to get some help.

Mr. Sexy heaved a put-upon sigh. “Fine. I’ll take care of it.”

His surly attitude changed Teri’s mind, brought out the rebel in her. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll….” What? Whip up a spare tire out of thin air and fix the problem myself? Yeah, right.

“What happened?” he asked, ignoring her meager rejection. He scooted out of the booth and picked up a Stetson from his bench seat to plant on his head. Then he ambled her way on long, muscled legs covered by jeans that fit him oh so nicely.

“Flat tire,” she managed to say from a suddenly very dry mouth. She snagged the glass of water and downed almost half of it.

He rolled his eyes. “Can’t change a tire, huh?” His opinion of her seemed to lower even more.

She studied him for another second. The annoyance in his expression made her both irritated and curious. Did he not like her because she was a blonde? Did he think blondes were all airheads, like some people teased about? Or had he, too, had a potential date planned for the night?

“Yes, I can change a tire. But not two flat tires.” She lifted her chin and met his surprised gaze.

The two older women were watching and listening. The look of disapproval more noticeable than when she’d walked by them a few minutes ago. As if she wasn’t good enough for the men of their town, in particular this man. She sensed their admiration for this Seth, a feeling of loyalty and a sort of desire to protect him. Interesting, definitely interesting.

He appeared to mull over the problem so she took another second to try to figure him out. She opened her mind to his. Nothing. His thoughts didn’t just meld with hers as normally should have happened. She tried to push her mind into his. Wham! She blinked and felt as if she’d mentally slammed into a brick wall.How bizarre! This had never happened to her before, not once in twenty-six centuries. There was definitely something odd about this man. Now that she thought about it, she sensed something, but couldn’t quite figure out what.

She sat reeling from that fact when he finally said, “Well, come on. We’ll go see what size tires you have. Maybe I can scrounge up one from my ranch to get you by.”

* * *
Seth waited until the tiny woman beside him buckled her seat belt before he started up the truck. In the diner she hadn’t seemed quite so small, so delicate. Fragile women weren’t his style. They made him nervous, like if he dared to touch them, he’d break them. With his genetic background, that could easily happen. He was a big man, nearly six-foot-four and was used to towering over most people. His body was bulky, ranch-work hardened. Added to that, he was an alpha male, had been…. No, he didn’t want to go there about that.

He glanced at her and then the road. She’d barely looked able to tote that duffel of hers let alone having carried it from wherever her car had broken down. Nope, not my kind of woman. Not that he was even thinking about getting involved with another woman after the recent hellish divorce he’d gone through.

Still, there was something about the little blonde that got to him. Made him think of rumpled sheets and sweat from hours of raunchy sex. He swore under his breath. He was helping this gal out and then getting as far from her as possible. No more getting involved with human females. He’d definitely learned a lesson with Sarah. Fortunately he’d come to his senses and ended the marriage before she’d had time to learnwhat he really was.

“Where’s this car of yours?” he asked, a little embarrassed at how angry he sounded. He wasn’t really upset with her; it was his dang body that was ticking him off. His dick had no business getting hard.

She cocked her head at him and questioned bluntly, “Did I do something to make you mad? You don’t have to do this, you know.”

His hands tightened on the wheel. She had the most sensually alluring voice he’d ever heard. “Just not having one of my best weeks. Sorry. Not your fault.” He backed up and headed down Main Street in the direction he figured she must have walked. “Issues at my ranch. Like my housekeeper up and quitting out of the blue. And I don’t have time to put an ad out for a new one.” That was only one of his current problems, but an issue that needed attention soon. He didn’t have time—or the desire—to do the laundry. And cooking…well, not his thing.

She nibbled on her bottom lip for a second and seemed thoughtful. “My car is two or three miles out of town. I’m not real good with distances, but it felt like I walked twenty miles.”

He glanced down in disapproval at her choice of footwear but simply said, “Name’s Seth, Seth Stevenson. I own the Double S Ranch about ten miles outside Templeton.”

“Teri Pennington. Actually it’s Terianna, but I go by Teri, with one ‘r.’”

“Just passing through town, I heard you tell Maybelle.” He wasn’t big on chitchat, but she appeared nervous. She kept glancing sideways at him and frowning. It bothered him that she might feel somehow threatened by him. “Most folks around here think kindly of me. So don’t worry that I’m going to attack you or something.” Okay, his body favored the idea. He was a sexual man and he’d been too long without a woman.

She blinked in surprise. “Oh, I’m not worried about that. I can take care of myself just fine, anyway.”

“You’re a bit on the small size, dainty-like. If a man wanted to have his way with you, well….” Oddly, it worried him that this young woman with a body to drive any still-breathing man crazy would so casually get in a truck with a complete stranger. Worried and angered him, too.

That chin of hers lifted a notch and she looked at him with brown eyes dancing in irritation. “Such a man would find himself in grave danger. I meant what I said, Mr. Stevenson, I can take care of myself. Have been for a very long time.”

“A ‘very long time,’ huh? You’re what twenty-two, twenty-three?”

She opened her mouth to tell him her correct age, he thought, but suddenly snapped, “Stop! Stop!” She motioned toward the other side of the road where a suitcase and a box sat next to the sign announcing “Templeton.”

Seth gaped in surprise and quickly did a u-turn to stop a few feet behind the piled items. “Yours?”

She was out of the truck before he finished his question. She marched indignantly toward the suitcase, grumbling under her breath about someone named Tyrone. Something about she was going to kill him the first chance she got. Something about him butting into her business again, playing matchmaker or some other such nonsense. Seth couldn’t quite catch it all because she seemed to be muttering half in English and half in some language he didn’t understand. But she was ticked off, that he knew for certain.

He ambled over, tipping up his hat to study the box filled with a peculiar mix of a couple of fancy cameras, a hair dryer, a book on Kama Sutra, and the biggest box of condoms he’d ever seen. Damn interesting stuff she toted around. Of course, his brain immediately began flipping through what kind of pictures would be in that book. And his cock started thickening, lengthening. He could make good use of some of those condoms.

“Guess you aren’t as innocent as you look,” he said in a husky tone, trying to look away from that box but unable to do so.

“What are you talking about?” She glanced at him in annoyance, and then followed his gaze to the box. Her eyes widened and she bent over it to hiss, “Dead! He is soooo dead!”

“This Tyrone person you mumbled about?” Seth forced his gaze away, focused on Teri, which was a mistake. She looked incredibly sexy all puffed up with irritation, her cheeks pink in anger and possibly embarrassment, her pretty mouth pursed in a pout. He wanted to rip open that box of condoms and try one on for size. And he wanted to take her back to his truck, lower the door to the truck bed and bend her over it to sink himself deep into her sweet body. ‘Course he envisioned all of that with her being naked.

She snapped her fingers in his face. “Wherever you’ve gone off to, cowboy, come back!”

Heat shimmied up his face and he scowled. He didn’t just think about nailing every woman he came across. There was something different about Teri Pennington, something that made him stop using his brain and made him think with his dick. And that pissed him off. He needed to find some place to dump her off, let her be someone else’s problem.

He bent down to pick up her suitcase and thrust it at her. Then he lifted the box, forced himself not to look inside it, and strode back to the truck. He set the box in the truck bed, fought down another flash of her bending over the lowered door. “I don’t know what the hell happened to your car, or why your belongings were left here. But I’ll take you back to town. Maybe Maybelle can help you out somehow.”

She struggled to lift her suitcase high enough to put it in the truck bed and he tugged it out of her hands. The mere touch of their fingers sent a jolt of awareness from his fingertips straight to his dick. Damn thing swelled up and stretched the limits of his jeans. “You’re a powerful lot of trouble,” he growled and shifted awkwardly before he walked to the driver’s door.

“So I’ve heard many times over the years.” She scurried around to the passenger’s side and climbed in, slamming the door. “You know, you’re the worst white knight in history.”

They didn’t speak further as Seth raced back into town. Worst white knight? Damn right he was! A true white knight would want to rescue the damsel in distress and then be pleased he’d done so. He wanted to do some hot and naughty with said damsel in distress. To hell with rescuing her. She brought out the animal inside him, the one desperate to mate.

 

Maybelle was just about to get into her battered, ancient Cadillac when Seth pulled up beside it. He flung himself out of his truck and stormed over to her. “Her car was gone, weird thing that. She’s got her suitcase, though. And a box.” His face heated again as he thought about what was in the box. “She needs somewhere to stay or a phone to use or something.”

Teri pranced up next to him and his nostrils flared at her now familiar scent, something soft, something sensual…something different. He inched away from her. “You got room at your place?” he asked Maybelle.

She shook her head and looked regretfully down at Teri. “Sorry, honey, but my kids and my grandkids are staying with me for a week. I’m full to capacity.” She looked straight at Seth. “You’ve got plenty of room in that big old house of yours.”

His heart pounded in panic. “It wouldn’t be right.” It wouldn’t be safe, for either of them.

Maybelle rolled her eyes. “Your last housekeeper lived with you.”

“I won’t go where I’m not wanted,” Teri stated and spun back toward his truck. She went up on tiptoes and attempted to reach for her suitcase in the truck bed. “Maybe I can get someone else to help me. I’ll set my things in the alley next to the diner and go to that bar. The Boot Scoot or whatever it was.”

“The hell you will!” Seth barked, shocking himself. He might not want her close to him for obvious reasons, but he sure didn’t want one of them yahoos who’d be there tonight at the bar anywhere near her either.

Maybelle chuckled and climbed into her car. “Believe I’ll head on home. You two can work out this little problem.”

She backed up and gave him an odd smile, then waved happily at Teri as she drove off.

Teri went back to trying to reach into the truck bed. He swatted her bottom. “Stop that!”

“You hit me!” she accused, glaring at him, but something flared in her eyes. Something more than anger, almost sensual.

“Smacked your sweet butt,” he corrected. “Because you’re acting nuts. You can’t reach the stuff and you’re going to hurt yourself if you keep on trying.”

“What do you care?” she said in a pouty manner. Her eyes shimmered with heat. Desire?

Just as he was about to answer a horn honked and his neighboring rancher leaned out of his pickup to yell out, “You coming to the Boot Scoot?” He grinned at Teri and winked. “Bringing the pretty little blonde? Can I have a dance with her?” He winked again.

Seth bristled and nudged Teri around the other side of his truck. “I’ve got other plans tonight.”

Teri glowered back at him. “Stop pushing me.”

“Need some help, sweet thing?” his neighbor questioned hopefully.

“I need—“

Seth took her elbow and escorted her to the passenger’s side. “You need to get in the damn truck.” As she gave him a look meant to shrivel him to nothingness, he was sure, and climbed inside, he called back to his friend, “Show’s over. You can head on to the Boot Scoot now.”

He heard the other man chortling as he drove away. Shaking his head at his idiocy, Seth walked back around the truck and got inside. She sat waiting for an explanation. He just wished he had one. “You can stay at my ranch until we get your car reported as stolen and arrange for a rental or something.”

She sighed. “It wasn’t stolen.”

Cranking on the engine, he gaped at her. “Looked like it to me.”

“Looks can be deceiving.”

Didn’t he know that! He was a perfect example of it. But he had an odd feeling she was talking about much more than her missing car. He was too tired, too confused to press her about what she meant. “You okay with staying at my place? We don’t have any hotels in Templeton, not even in the next town over. And I don’t particularly want to drive all the way into Emporia or back to Topeka.”

“You’re inviting me to stay with you? Really?” She glanced at him, clearly shocked.

He should change his mind. He should suck it up and drive her to Emporia. Yet he couldn’t spit the words out. Idiot man. “At least for tonight.” He’d make damn sure she was gone the next day.

 

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