Daniel Sawyer refused to back down from Hank Patterson’s intense, assessing stare. Maybe he’d never applied for a job before, and maybe, with hindsight being crystal clear, he should have gotten a haircut before coming to Montana. Still, when a man of twenty-eight had already faced death, even a couple of times before joining the Army, and had seen it happen in front of him more times than he wanted to count, a hard stare didn’t rattle his cage.
Still, if the Army and Ranger training has taught him nothing else, it was to meet another man’s gaze with pride and respect. Of course, he wouldn’t be in Montana asking for a job in the first place if he was still in the Army.
“Relax, Sawyer,” Hank said. “No need to stand parade ready.”
Daniel did as instructed, easing his stance enough to give his aching hip a little relief. The pain was better than it had been those first few weeks of recovery, but it still bitched like a bastard.
“So, you heard about us from a friend of Taz’s,” Hank said, glancing down at the papers before him.
“From a friend of a friend of Taz’s,” Daniel corrected. He managed a smile as he quoted the Ranger moto. “Rangers Lead The Way, sir.”
“You enlisted at seventeen.”
“I had parental signature.”
“How much time did you shave off so you could enlist?”
Daniel studied the man staring at him. Hank Patterson, he decided, would know bullshit when he heard it. “I took extra classes so I got my diploma four months before my seventeenth birthday. I forged my mother’s signature.” He shrugged. “She was glad to have me out of the way.”
“Is the new hip giving you much trouble?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Is that your hip or your ego talking?”
Daniel felt his lips twitch. Damn if he didn’t like this straight-shooting guy. He already wanted the job. “A little of both.”
Hank tapped the papers before him. “From what I’ve read the sniper bullet hitting your hip didn’t do as much damage as you did to it when you dragged three of your men to safe cover.”
“I didn’t think about it at the time, I just did the job.” Doing the job meant three of his buddies went home to their families. That meant more to Daniel than the Silver Star the Army awarded him. Just because he’d never had a family – and didn’t see how he ever would – didn’t mean he wanted others to be without theirs. “I can promise the hip won’t keep me from doing whatever task you assign.”
“We have a couple of trained physical therapists in the family, so to speak, if you need anything.”
Hank went on to summarize the policies and procedures, detailed what was expected and what Daniel could expect to face. Hank had just begun to outline a potential first client when the door slammed open. Daniel tensed, only for his stance, and jaw, to go slack as movie star Sadie McClain rushed into the room.
“Hank, you’ve got to do something,” she said.
Hank, who’d already stood and moved around the desk, held the beautiful woman in his outstretched arms. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt? Is it the baby?”
“No.” She lifted her hands to cup his face, rising on her toes to kiss him. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have scared you like that.” Her laugh escaped as she lowered to the floor.
“Damn it, Sadie, you should know better than that. I thought something happened to you.”
“I am sorry,” she said, kissing him again, this time long enough to have Daniel looking away.
That’s when he realized there was another woman standing on the threshold of the room. His body stiffened, not in preparation of a fight, but in the ways a healthy man would respond to an attractive woman. His heart battered against his ribcage and he drew in several quick intakes of breath. A thin bead of sweat rolled down his spine. And his dick swelled to the point of painful. Slow and careful he shifted his stance, even though it provided little relief.
He didn’t understand this quick response of his body. Yes, she was gorgeous. He especially liked the dark red hair that she wore pulled back in a simple ponytail. He clenched and unclenched his hands by his sides with the desire to bury his fingers in her hair, his mind filling with the image of his hands tangled there while she rose above him, riding him for all she was worth. Her long-sleeve T-shirt tucked into well-worn jeans showed off small breasts, hips with just enough curve for a man to hold onto and, despite her short height, legs long and lean enough to wrap around him – all of which added together to complete his perfect fantasy woman.
Still, he didn’t understand this immediate and razor sharp need to have her. Granted, from injury through surgery and rehabilitation, sex had been a distant and fond memory. What was it about this tiny slip of a woman that appealed to him in a way he’d never experienced around any of the pretty nurses or therapists during his hospitalization and rehab?
From the way she stood motionless, her wide-eyed blue gaze locked on his, he had the impression she experienced the same surprisingly intense desire.
“Oh, I didn’t know you had company.” With considerable effort, Daniel turned away to see Sadie McClain holding out her hand to his. “Hello, I’m Sadie, Hank’s wife.”
“Daniel Sawyer.” Her hand was like silk in his and yet he had no response, other than the same pleasant admiration he’d always known whenever watching her in a movie.
“Daniel is here to join the Brotherhood.”
“Oh.” Sadie turned back to Hank. “That’s why I’m here.” She gestured toward the woman remaining silent in the doorway. “Someone tried to run Avery off the road.” She looked back at Daniel. “This is my friend, Avery Lanier.”
Daniel looked over in time to see Avery grimace. “I told Sadie I was fine.”
“But you’re not,” Sadie said. “What if Cole had been with you?”
Daniel swore within the safe confines of his mind. Just his damn luck that the first woman he’d felt an interest for in months and she had someone in her life. Although, his glance lowered to her hands. No ring.
“It was probably just some kids out joyriding.”
“And was it kids who ripped out a section of your fence a month ago?”
“It could have been.”
“It could have been,” Sadie agreed. “Because Bennett Ridgeway hired them. It’s not like he’d do the dirty work himself.” Sadie crossed the room, wrapped an arm around Avery’s shoulders and settled her in the chair facing the desk. Sadie lifted her gaze to her husband. “You have to do something to protect her.”
“Why?” Everyone looked at him, but Daniel kept his gaze locked on Avery’s. “Why would this man want to hurt you?”
“His ranch butts up against mine. By less than a hundred acres, but he’s wanted my land for years.” She swallowed as she curled her hands in her lap. “He thought he’d found a way to get it almost three years ago when he convinced Brad to talk me into selling the ranch and moving away.”
“Brad?” Daniel asked.
Her gaze flicked to the left, a quick move, but one he caught. A move that provoked his suspicions. “My husband.”
“And where was your husband today when this happened?”
“In his grave, where he’s been for the past three years.”
A widow. Still, he found it interesting that he heard little grief in her voice and saw more anger than pain darken her hazel eyes when she looked back at him.
Hank squatted in front of Avery. “Tell me what happened today.”
“I’d driven into Bozeman for some supplies, both for the horses and the ranch. I stopped at Bartlett’s Hardware on the way back.” She smiled a little and Daniel saw a small dimple on the left cheek. “I like to support local businesses whenever I can. Plus it’s good for my own business. That’s where I ran into Sadie and she invited me to join her for lunch at Al’s Diner.” She nodded at the other woman.
“I picked up the brackets and dry-wall screws you need to install the new shelves in the nursery.”
“Kid already has more books than some libraries,” Hank grumbled, only Daniel caught the warmth of indulgence in the smile husband and wife exchanged.
“A kid can never have too many books,” Avery said. “Anyway, I mentioned to Sadie that I have this rocking horse from when I was a girl and offered it for Emma’s use.”
“I tried arguing that she should keep it,” Sadie said.
“Cole’s outgrown it.”
“But you might have more children.”
“Maybe.” Avery shook her head, her eyes soft with sadness. “But I don’t see how. Anyway, that’s why Sadie was driving behind me.”
“We weren’t that far out of Eagle Rock,” Sadie picked up the story. “When I see this truck in the rear view mirror. All I really thought about was how unusual it was to have so much traffic on that part of the road. Then, I realized the truck was speeding up.” She gripped her husband’s hand. “I guess I’m learning a few things from you.”
“Sadie honked her horn at me,” Avery said. “I thought maybe she was sick so I slowed down. That’s when I saw the truck pass her. Before I could get out of the way, it rammed me in the back, and I slid off the road.” Her breath hitched and it took all Daniel had within him to stop from rushing out and going in search of the truck that had scared this woman. “If it wasn’t for slamming into a tree I would have crashed into the ravine.”
“Were you hurt?” Daniel asked. “At all.”
“Not really.” She swallowed when he lifted a brow at her. “I imagine I’ll be sore tomorrow.”
“The truck just kept going,” Sadie said as she reached out a comforting hand to her friend while looking at her husband. “It was an older model truck, black. I didn’t see any significant dents or other markings. The license tag was covered in mud.”
“We didn’t go to the Sheriff,” Avery said. “Sadie insisted we come straight here.” She frowned. “We left my truck against the tree.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Hank rose, looked at Daniel. “You know anything about working on a ranch?”
“No, but I’m a fast learner.”
“Good.” He nodded at Avery. “You’ve got yourself a new ranch hand while I see what I can find out.”
Avery shifted, met Daniel’s stare. Something hot and vibrant shimmered between them, something that made him rub his hands up and down his thighs. If he read what he saw in her gaze right, she wasn’t any happier about it than he felt. But at least she had sense enough not to turn down offered protection.
As much as Daniel wanted to be a part of the Brotherhood Protectors, he wished this job hadn’t fallen in his lap. He didn’t want to protect Avery Lanier.
He wanted to fuck her.
* * *
Avery hadn’t been afraid, not during the seconds it took to understand she was about to be hit and run off the road. She’d known a blinding instant of terror, thinking of her son and what her death could mean to him. Then, as pain and aches accompanied her getting out of the mangled vehicle, anger had spiked and fire had all but burned her from the inside out.
None of that came close to the feelings she felt while staring at Daniel Sawyer.
No matter how often she reminded herself that she wasn’t a virgin, Avery knew she’d never before felt the drumming need that swept through her whenever she looked at him. Eyes as brilliant a blue as the Montana sky held hers, made sensual promises every smart woman knew would be temporary at best. Still, even when she avoided his gaze, her body yearned to lean into his, press against him, craved his touch… his mouth on hers.
With his broad shoulders, wide chest and muscular arms, he looked like former military. Only his hair was longer than any of the others she’d met in Hank’s Brotherhood Protectors group. Daniel’s dark hair hung almost to his shoulders, giving him a wild and primitive look that called to her. She really wanted to tangle her hands in that length.
She didn’t understand it, damn sure hadn’t expected feelings anything remotely like what she struggled with now. Even as a hormone-driven teenager, or during those early days with Brad, she’d never experienced this kind of intense desire. Maybe it was because he was so big, heads taller than her and obviously more muscular. His size alone should have concerned her, only she felt the opposite. Instead she focused on how his size, strength and military training could help in a frightening situation, even as she prayed it wouldn’t be necessary.
The near-brush of leaving Cole as an orphan kept Avery from protesting Hank Patterson assigning Daniel to live at the ranch. She’d do whatever it took to keep her son safe and from losing the ranch.
“Thank you, Hank,” she said now, rising, ignoring her trembling knees. “I, uhm, didn’t ask.”
“Don’t worry,” he interrupted, correctly guessing her question had to do with the cost of protection. He leaned forward to lightly kiss her cheek. “We’ll take care of it.”
It burned her pride to do so, but again she’d do whatever was needed to keep her son and the ranch safe. She turned to hug Sadie, whispering her appreciation for everything the movie star and friend had done for her. Finally, with a carefully indrawn breath that did absolutely nothing to ease the fire in her belly, she turned to Daniel.
“Are you ready?”
His answer was a curt nod of his head. And a burning inferno in his gaze. She suddenly felt like the moth drawn into the fire.
And everyone knew that when you played with fire you risked getting burned.