Unbound Pursuit — Releasing tomorrow!
“Tal Culver had turned around to watch Mattie Lockwood, who with swift, knowing precision had gone to work dumping the paint-filled water from the thirty jars, washing them, and turning them upside down to dry on tea towels she’d set on the countertop.
The back door opened and closed, getting Tal’s attention. The children could come and go through two different exits. The side door led to the playground. The rear door, near the sink where Mattie worked, was hidden from view by a large mudroom. The hair on the back of her neck rose, instantly making Tal focus her attention on the entrance.
What the hell? Normally that reaction served to warn her that there was danger nearby, and it wasn’t something Tal ignored. She was in Texas. In a kindergarten classroom. Why was she suddenly on high alert?
Mattie heard the door open and close, too. She barely looked up, busily washing out the Mason jars. She didn’t want to be late getting Tal back to the ranch. Her mother was making a special meal of leg of lamb tonight for the family, and she needed to get home to help her with making the salad and the mashed potatoes and gravy. She figured it was the parent of a child who had forgotten something in the classroom coming back to pick it up.
A dark shape appeared at the entrance. Mattie she turned and gasped. The Mason jar in her hand slipped and fell to the floor, shattering.
“Mark!” The word came flying out of her mouth.
Her heart pounded in her chest as she stared up into his narrowed gold-brown eyes. He wore a black Stetson, a white long-sleeved shirt with a black leather vest over it, jeans, and cowboy boots. His mouth . . . oh, lordy, his mouth . . . she remembered only too well how wonderful he was at kissing her.
She took a step back, her eyes huge as she stared in disbelief at him. He stood motionless, like a tense statue. Mark’s gaze shot to Tal and then back to her.
“Who’s this with you, Mattie?”
She hadn’t heard his voice in four months, that same low, sensual drawl of his that made her melt, made her lower body burn with need of him. Gulping, she jerked a look toward Tal. “That’s Tal Culver, my friend,” she managed to say, choked up. She turned toward him.
“What are you doing here?” Tears clogged her eyes but she refused to let them fall, straightening her spine, throwing back her shoulders, her chin jutting out, anger flowing through her along with her shock.
“I need to talk to you alone,” Mark growled. “Get rid of her?”
Mattie scowled. Anger took over. “Go to hell, Mark!” She jabbed her finger toward the door of the mudroom. “Just get the hell out of my life! How dare you come back into it! You think you can just waltz in here after being gone for months without a word?”
Her voice was shaking, she was so angry and hurt.
And he looked so delicious to her. He was half Chippewa Indian through his mother, who was now dead. He had his mother’s coppery skin, that shining short black hair, those glittering, intelligent wolf eyes, as she used to refer to them, a gold-brown mixture. His mouth thinned, relaxed a little. For a split second, she thought he’d smiled, or that maybe some amusement had flittered across his narrowed, intelligent gaze.
“I’ve been real busy, Mattie. That’s not the welcome I was hoping for.”
She gulped back her tears. “What the hell else did you expect?”
Mark shrugged lazily, lifting one shoulder, keeping his gaze pinned on Tal. The woman seemed like someone he wouldn’t want to mess with. Mark saw the look in her eyes, saw the fine tension in her body, and felt the energy around her. If she wasn’t law enforcement, then she was military. He met her gaze and hardened his look in her direction, willing her to stay right where she was. Missing nothing upon first perusal, Mark could quickly size up another person and know just how dangerous they were. This woman was damned dangerous, even though she wore a camel-colored pantsuit with a bright orange tee beneath it. She wore no makeup, her black hair lying like a shining cloak around her proud shoulders.
His gaze moved back to Mattie. “I need to talk to you,” he repeated.
Snorting vehemently, she snapped, “I want nothing to do with you, Mark!”
His gut clenched, his heart twisting with guilt and need of her. Mark tried to bury the pain he carried deep within him. He watched the flare of righteous anger in her slitted dark green eyes. Reining in the desire for her that was always with him, he rasped, “Okay, then here it is: you tell your father to keep his wranglers out of the northeast corner of your ranch two nights from now.” His voice dropped. “This isn’t a joke. You need to keep everyone out of that area.”
He started to turn, stopped himself, lifting his head, meeting her tear-filled eyes. Less gruffly, the hardness in his gold-brown eyes dissolving, almost turning tender, he said, “Take good care of yourself, Mattie . . .”
Before she could snarl at him, he turned on his heel and was gone. When the door slammed shut, Mattie jumped. She was breathing raggedly, her heart sledgehammering in her chest. Gulping, she looked at Tal.
“Are you okay?” she asked in a trembling tone.
Giving a slight nod, Tal said, “I’m fine. Is he gone?” She gestured with her chin toward where Mark had disappeared.
Turning, Mattie quickly walked out to the mudroom. Peering out the window, she saw nothing but the outskirts of Van Horn. It was as if Mark had never been there. But he had. She had goose bumps across her skin, and she absently rubbed her upper arms, feeling stunned by his sudden and unexpected presence.
She heard Tal get up, the chair scraping back against the tiled floor. Because of her ankle, she couldn’t move quickly, and she hurried back and met her at the sink. “He’s gone.”
“Did you see where he went?”
Shaking her head, she whispered, “No . . . I looked, but he’s like a ghost. Just . . . gone.” Touching her brow, she added apologetically, “I’m so sorry, Tal. You didn’t need this. God, I didn’t need it either.”
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