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The Army Ranger's Surprise (the Men of At-Ease Ranch) by Donna Michaels (1)

Chapter One

Restlessness was a bitch.

Until recently, Leo Reed had been perfectly content to spend his free time on At-Ease, the ranch his Army Ranger buddies opened to help veterans transition back into society. He was one of those vets. Hell, he was the reason behind the ranch, thanks to relentless pain, too much booze, and too damn many memories in his head that led to poor judgment and two hospitalizations he wasn’t proud of.

All of that was in his past. The carnage-heavy memories that used to taunt him with images of those he failed to save no longer ate at him day in, day out. He could start to move on—live again—but not if he clung to the ranch. Lately, he itched to do more. See more. Be more.

But more what?

Leo finished his shower, got dressed, then sat on his bed and shoved his feet into his boots.

Although he could relate to some of the sullen veterans staying in several of the bunkhouses and who had just sat in the group therapy session that finished downstairs, the suffocating dark cloud that used to follow and surround him no longer existed. Seeking help, both here at the ranch and at the rec center near his grandmother, plus the support of family and friends had motivated him to crawl out of the pit and back into society.

Trouble was he wasn’t sure what to do. Or with whom. All his buddies were in relationships. He lived with two of them and their significant others.

Grabbing his packed duffel bag, he headed downstairs in the main house they all shared.

“Hey, Leo.” Stone came out of the kitchen carrying tortilla chips and salsa. “You’re just in time for movie night. Vince is making popcorn, and Jovy and Emma are in the rec room grabbing the drinks.”

Jovy was Stone’s wife, and Emma was Vince’s fiancée. Over the past fifteen months, all four of Leo’s Ranger buddies had fallen in love. Two were married, and the other two were engaged. He was the lone bachelor of the Ranger Rifle Unit.

Stone frowned. “Do you remember whose turn it is to pick the movie?”

“It’s the girls’ turn,” Vince replied, exiting the kitchen with two big bowls of popcorn that filled the room with a buttery aroma that made Leo’s mouth water.

Hah. Any chance the guys had of watching car chases and gunfights just went out the window. Leo had shared enough Friday night movie nights to know the women usually chose a romantic comedy.

Stone motioned with his head to the duffel bag in Leo’s hand. “Where are you off to?”

“I’m heading to my grandmother’s for the weekend.” He slung the strap over his shoulder, never more grateful to have a legitimate reason to leave. Watching a chick flick while the couples snuggled on the couch was getting old. Not that he wasn’t happy for his friends. He was, but it was damned awkward, and a reminder of all that he lacked. Like a clean past worthy of getting involved with someone. Courting a girl was out of the question.

Helping his mom out, however, was a different story. She was in Galveston, assisting his sister who just had twins, and he knew it would ease her mind if he checked in on his grandmother a little more often while she was away.

It would also ease his mind. Ava Pendleton was a senior citizen who acted like a feisty thirty-year-old. Without his mom around to keep his gram out of trouble, he decided to stay on the weekends and check in on her once throughout the week, too.

“That’s too bad,” Stone said. “The girls will be disappointed, because they picked the movie just for you.”

He lifted his brows. “They did? Which one?”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Vince grinned.

Leo grimaced. Christ, if he had a nickel for every time someone told him he looked like the actor who played the Winter Soldier, he’d have enough money to finance a damn movie.

Stone chuckled. “I thought you’d approve.”

Leo flipped him off.

The asshole chuckled louder, and Vince joined in. Now they were both on his shit list. He would’ve told them, too, but they glanced at the girls in the other room and got sappy looks on their faces.

That strange restlessness whispered through Leo again. It occurred more and more whenever he was around the couples. Witnessing devotion soften their expressions made him feel an emotion he’d never felt before. Envy.

Time to go.

He adjusted the strap on his shoulder and cleared his throat. “Enjoy your movie.”

“You need to get yourself a woman and bring her here for movie night,” Stone told him.

An image of a pretty brunette drifted through Leo’s mind with perfect clarity, thanks to his photographic memory.

Kaydee. His grandmother’s neighbor. With a ready smile, infectious laughter, and a warm brown gaze that mesmerized and drew him in, she was half the reason he was eager to spend the weekend up there.

More than half. Although he’d never tell her.

He couldn’t head down that road. In order to achieve the kind of a relationship his buddies had with their women, he’d have to open up and share his past and all the damn shame and guilt that came with it. No woman deserved that.

No woman deserved the mess that was him.

Better to leave things alone and settle for the enjoyment he got from living on the ranch and working at Foxtrot, the construction company his buddies owned.

“You could always bring her here for a nice picnic. I can whip up something simple for you to eat,” Vince said. “And you know Emma would be happy to bake you a pie.”

And he’d be happy to leave the damn conversation. “Thanks, but it’s not necessary. Have a great weekend.”

Without waiting for their reply, he pivoted on his heel and walked out the door. Taking it upon himself to spend more time with his grandmother wasn’t just a great reason to leave the ranch, it was also a great reason to possibly bump into Kaydee. She lived across the street and a few houses down from his grandmother. He should know—he’d helped her move in to one side of the duplex and her grandfather move in to the other last September.

He got in his truck and started the hour’s drive north toward Dallas with the woman on his mind. Being around her always brought a sense of calm. She looked at him through these gorgeous brown eyes that conveyed a warmth he felt right down to his boots. And her upbeat, sunny disposition—which he normally shied away from—always made him feel alive. It was almost addicting. Hell, it was addicting, and lately, he found himself going through withdrawal.

Not long after she moved in, he started to run into her at the rec center, mostly on senior citizen night when he was there to pick his grandmother up from bingo. Not that his spirited grandmother wasn’t capable of driving. No. She could drive, just not without a license. Too many speeding tickets saw to that. Yeah, his gram had a bit of a lead foot. But he was grateful for it, because he sometimes got to meet Kaydee at the center when she was there to get her grandfather.

You need to get yourself a woman.

Stone’s words echoed through Leo’s mind. If he were to follow that advice, then Kaydee was the one he’d pursue. His pulse kicked up a notch at the thought, then slowed to a crawl. The point was moot. A woman as bright and shiny as Kaydee deserved better than him and his dark past.

By the time he pulled into Gram’s driveway and cut the engine, he’d put those foolish thoughts aside. No sense in entertaining something so far out of reach. He wasn’t the type to live with his head in the clouds. More like stuck in the dirt.

With a snicker rumbling up his throat, he knocked twice before entering. It was his normal ritual, and he enjoyed hearing his grandmother huff that he should just walk in without knocking. Today, she didn’t pay him any mind.

No. She was too damn busy sitting on the couch necking with the neighbor.

What the hell?

Leo made the mistake of sucking in a breath while still snickering. Now he coughed and sputtered, which broke the couple apart.

His grandmother arched a brow. “What? I’m eighty-one. Not dead.”

And he was never going to get that damn image out of his head.

“You’re late. We ate without you.” Her voice was stern, but her gaze twinkled. “I saved you a plate. It’s on the kitchen counter.”

“Thanks.” He transferred his gaze to the man she just checked for tonsils. “Nate.”

With the same twinkle in his eyes and I’m not sorry expression as his grandmother, the guy smiled. “Good to see you, Leo.”

Gram waved toward the kitchen. “Go on. Eat your supper while I continue to have my dessert.”

His stomach rolled. Twice. Fuck. Eating wasn’t an option now. But standing there was even worse. Christ, he didn’t need more images of his gram going at it hot and heavy in his head. Fighting his gag reflex, he scrambled from the room, booked it through the dining room and straight into the kitchen…and stopped dead.

Kaydee stood by the sink with her back to him while she washed dishes. Except she wasn’t exactly standing. She had a set of white earbuds in her ears and was either dancing or doing some kind of ritual for the dishwashing gods.

Intrigued, Leo dropped his duffel in the corner and leaned against the wall to watch the show. A smile twitched his lips. Her moves were uncoordinated, but her enthusiasm was stellar. The woman gave everything her all. Dancing…badly. Caring for her grandfather by giving up her own place to move next to him. Her garden, which bordered both sides of her house in a mixture of flowers and vegetables—because she’d gotten the seeds mixed up.

Kaydee’s ability to embrace her mistakes and turn them into something positive left him in awe.

So did the way her jeans hugged her sweet ass. They conformed to her rounded curves like a second skin, and the more she moved the more his zipper bit into his thickening erection. Not good. Guilt propelled him forward to put an end to his viewing pleasure.

As he neared, he cleared his throat a few times, but she didn’t hear him, just continued to dance and test both his integrity and that of his zipper. Damn thing wasn’t the only object ready to burst. His whole groin was hard and throbbing now. A reaction he’d grown accustomed to around her.

“Kaydee,” he said as she wiggled while spraying a pot with water.

Bubbles formed and overflowed, much like the awareness rushing through his body. She had him harder than the damn pot. His attraction to the woman intrigued him as much as it scared the hell out of him.

Kaydee,” he said again, but this time he reached out to lightly touch her shoulder.

Letting out a startled cry, she turned toward him with the sprayer still in her hand. Water immediately pelted his face and the side of his head with the force of a mini power washer, blasting his flesh with a shock of heat that ran down his neck and chest. Luckily, it was only hot and not scalding.

“Oh my God, Leo!” She dropped the sprayer, then shut off the water with one hand and yanked her earbuds out with the other. “Are you okay?

“Yeah. I needed a good soaking.” He slicked back his wet hair and grinned. “No harm done.”

But apparently, she chose not to listen, because she grabbed a nearby dish towel and started to mop the wetness from his face and chest. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I know.”

She stilled, and her gaze slowly rose to meet his. “Oh, crap. Exactly how long were you in here?”

Loving the flush of color that swept up into her cheeks, he decided to tease her a little more. “Long enough to know you’d be dangerous on the dance floor.”

“Yeah, to others.” Her blush increased. “Oh God, I can’t believe you saw that.”

Before he could reply, she dropped her forehead on his chest, and her whole body shook as she laughed.

The unexpected move and feel of her soft curves brushing his body removed all traces of teasing from his mind. He always wondered how she’d feel in his arms, and now he knew, even if—technically—he didn’t have his arms around her. Yet. Because he could. It’d be so easy. So damn easy. All he had to do was put his hands on her back.

But that would be playing with fire, and he didn’t want her to get burned.

“I can’t believe I got you soaking wet.” She drew back and started mopping his shirt with the towel again. “I’m so sorry.”

Thankful for the reprieve, he went back to teasing. “No harm done. I won’t melt.”

She snickered and continued to dry him off, but her nearness and press of her fingers weren’t doing his libido any good, so he placed his hand over hers to stop her movements.

Big mistake.

Before, at least a wet shirt had separated their skin. Not now. His palm covered her hand, and the feel of her soft, warm skin kicked his pulse into gear.

Once again, their gazes met, but this time mortification and teasing were no longer present, just a raw, untamed attraction. It posed a danger big enough to rival her lethal dance moves.

Her gaze dropped to his mouth, and Leo’s heart rocked in his chest. A sensation he hadn’t felt in years. Leave it to Kaydee to induce the movement. It was strange. He knew he should back away, but he didn’t. Couldn’t. It felt as if his whole body was coming alive, and until that moment, he hadn’t realized how truly out of touch with life he’d been the past few years. Perhaps always.

Would he wake up even more if they kissed?

Ignoring the red flags going off in his head, he lifted his other hand to cup her chin and slowly lowered his mouth.

“Is everything all right?” his gram called out from the other room. “I thought I heard Kaydee scream.”

The startled woman in his arms jumped back and turned to face the sink. “Everything’s fine. I just didn’t hear Leo come in, that’s all,” she called over her shoulder before returning her attention to the dishes. Too bad she didn’t save some for the sprayer, because she fumbled with it, and this time, she managed to get herself wet. “Dammit.”

Leo handed her the towel, but kept his mouth shut. Mostly because he was trying to keep from laughing.

“Thanks.” She mopped up her shirt and glanced at him. “Shut up. Not a word.”

Then she burst out laughing.

He joined her. It’d been a long time since he’d laughed with pure abandon. It felt good. Kaydee always made him feel good, and he was finding it harder and harder to fight his attraction to her.

It was a sobering thought. He didn’t want to be attracted to her or anyone. And yet he was, and he was beginning to realize he had no damn control over it.

Kaydee Wagner was laughing on the outside, but on the inside she was trying very hard not to give in to the urge to snuggle against her hot friend. Again. It hadn’t been her intention earlier, but when she’d stupidly drenched the poor guy with hot water she’d forgotten to keep her distance. Just thinking about it now sent another wave of heat into her face, and it burned as she recalled how her embarrassment had turned to bliss. When she’d set her head against Leo’s wet chest, she couldn’t stop from melting into his incredible, hard, sexy body.

A treat for sure. She’d always had sort of a secret thing for Sebastian Stan in the Marvel movies, but Sebastian had nothing on Leo Reed. The handsome former Army Ranger had starred in her fantasies ever since they met. But he was so out of her league. Guys like him only wanted to be friends with girls like her. A fact he’d proven several times over the past few months, even though she’d caught him looking at her with interest in his gorgeous blue eyes.

That was okay, though. Thanks to growing up an army brat, Kaydee had learned early in life how to adjust and move on. She was far from good girlfriend material anyway. Thanks to that army brat lifestyle, “restlessness” was her middle name. She never stayed in one place more than two or three years. Putting down roots was not in her wheelhouse.

Besides, she didn’t have a lot of free time, between her long list of household repairs, part-time job at the salon, and helping her friend find a location to open a beauty shop. Yeah, she was too preoccupied to date.

Still, there was something about this man that made her want to hug him and never let go. It was a new and peculiar feeling.

The moment Leo had appeared from out of the blue in her yard and offered to help when she and her grandfather had been struggling to carry a couch into her grandfather’s side of the house, Kaydee was smitten. She knew right then that he was different. Between his generosity, good manners, gorgeous blue eyes, and panty-melting smile, she was never the same.

“Want some help with the dishes?” he asked, bringing her mind back to the present.

See? Most men would’ve made fun of her startled reaction, scarfed down their food, then handed her their dirty dish.

Not Leo.

“No. You eat.” She motioned toward his covered dish on the counter. “Thank God your food withstood my water attack.”

For months now, she had enjoyed his company both here at his grandmother Ava’s and at the rec center. Each encounter left her wanting more and looking forward to the next one. This was way out of character for someone who never got attached to people outside of family. Except for her friend from work and Ava. But Ava was their neighbor, and since her grandfather was probably going to stay at his current address for the rest of his life, she reasoned it was okay to befriend the woman.

Who was she kidding? Ava was a hoot. She was sassy and shot straight from the hip. Qualities Kaydee admired. As for the woman’s grandson, she admired his sense of family and how he helped people, whether it was support for other veterans or lending a hand and backbone to an old man and his granddaughter on moving day.

And she really liked the bad-boy look he had going on.

His hair was dark and wavy, and she knew it hadn’t been cut in a few years. The itch to style it was strong, but the look actually worked for Leo. Really well. As did the delicious five-o’clock shadow covering his strong jaw. She bet it would feel amazing against her skin. And his eyes…damn, they were a startling blue that could switch from a hardened I-don’t-give-a-damn expression to wicked amusement with a mere blink.

Kind of like the way he regarded her now.

He smiled. “Unlike our shirts.”

What were they talking about again? She glanced at what was in his hands. Oh. Right. His food not being ruined. “Yeah.” She snorted. “I’m going to have to go home and change before I head to the rec center.”

“Rec center?” He stuck his plate in the microwave. “Is there something going on tonight for seniors?”

“No.” She finished rinsing the last dish. “I need to hang up some flyers.” A thrill rippled through her. “My idea got approved.”

Last month, on behalf of herself and her coworker, Fiona, she’d petitioned the board of directors from the nonprofit corporation that ran the center to hold a “cutting clinic” once a month to offer free haircuts to senior citizens, veterans, and the disabled. But truthfully, she and Fiona wouldn’t turn anyone away. And the proceeds from any donations would go to a different charity each month.

“That’s terrific. Congratulations!” He pulled her in for a quick hug, then released her just as quickly. “I knew they’d go for it. When do you start?”

Her body was still tingling from contact with his solid muscles, and it took a moment to get her mind back on track. “Next month. We’ll hold the clinic the first Tuesday of every month, from six to eight p.m.”

“This will be a great way for you to drum up some word-of-mouth business for Fiona’s future shop.”

He was aware that she worked with Fiona, and that her friend wanted to strike out on her own. What he didn’t know—what no one knew—was that Fiona repeatedly asked Kaydee to partner in the venture, and she always declined. Owning a business was a root, and restless spirits didn’t have roots. Not that she ever planned her moves. They were always triggered by an overwhelming suffocating feeling that hit her like a bug and spurred her to move on. She’d just let people down if she tied herself to a business or person. Without attachments, it was much easier to pick up and leave when the urge hit…and the urge would hit.

It always did.

The microwave beeped. “Any luck finding a location?” he asked, retrieving his plate.

For the past two months, she’d helped her friend work on a business plan, and they recently started to search for a place for Fiona to lease.

“Not so far.” The spaces were either too run-down, in a bad part of town, or way out of Fiona’s financial reach. But neither of them were a quitter. They’d find something. Sooner or later opportunity would show itself; she was sure of it. Mostly.

“Just remember what I told you about my friends. They own property in Joyful and would be willing to work out a good deal for Fiona to lease one of their shops.”

Her heart warmed as it had last month when he first made the suggestion. “Thank you. And I promise, she’s keeping it in mind. It’s just that an hour is a little too far for some of her regulars to travel, and she’s counting on them to follow her to her shop.”

“And the new customers she’s going to pick up from the rec center,” he said.

She nodded. “True. I’m so grateful you encouraged me to submit that proposal to the board.”

“That success was all yours, Kaydee.” He tugged the silverware drawer open and grabbed a fork. “I had nothing to do with it.”

Every time she tried to pay the darn guy a compliment, he rebuffed it. Not this time. “There wouldn’t be any success if you hadn’t suggested writing the proposal in the first place.”

She hadn’t had a clue where to start. Leo was the one who pointed her in the right direction.

“Still—”

“Stop right there.” She cut him off and gently shoved him toward the table. “Take the thanks and go eat your food.”

He blinked at her for a second before amusement replaced his somber expression. “Yes, ma’am.” He saluted her with his free hand. “Geez, you take a step toward independence and you’re suddenly giving orders.”

“That’s right. You got a problem with that?” Kaydee tried to hold a straight face, but amusement twitched her lips.

“Not at all.” A slow, sexy grin spread across his face. “I’ve got no problem letting a woman in the driver’s seat.”

Awareness zinged through Kaydee’s body, flooding her belly with a boatload of heat. If she hadn’t been sure before, she was sure now. Leo was flirting with her.

Too bad she sucked at flirting. Still, she couldn’t let the opportunity pass without trying. With warmth filling her cheeks, she forced herself to hold his devilish gaze and said the first thing that came to her befuddled mind. “Good to know.”

He must’ve approved, because he gave her a winking nod.

Her pulse hiccuped. She had no idea how to respond to that, so she didn’t. Instead, Kaydee pointed to his plate, and water dripped on the floor from her still-wet hand. “You really should eat before it gets cold again.”

As she grabbed a paper towel and bent to wipe the floor, a thought occurred.

Was she the reason he hadn’t scarfed down his food and left yet?

Nah. Couldn’t be.

But when Kaydee straightened, she caught Leo checking out her butt. She drew in a breath. “Are you in here killing time on purpose?”

The sound of laughter and giggles drifted in from the other room.

Leo sat down at the table and winced. “Yeah, because of that.” He motioned toward the living room with his fork. “How long has that been going on?”

Disappointment squeezed Kaydee’s chest. She should’ve known there was a purpose behind his open attention, and it had nothing to do with her. He was spending extra time with her to avoid the couple in the other room.

And that was the other reason for the invisible weight pressing down on her. For months, Ava and her grandfather had been flirting. It was about time they stopped circling each other. Kaydee thought it was cute how they held hands and carried on like teenagers. She also thought Leo would be happy for them. It really sucked to be wrong about that.

“This week,” she finally replied. “Why? Don’t you want them to be happy?”

“Yeah, of course. Trust me, I have no problem with them dating.” He met her gaze, and the amusement-tinged honesty in his blue eyes soothed some of her disquiet. “I just don’t want to walk in on them again when they’re…overjoying in each other.”

So she hadn’t been wrong about him. But then the rest of the poor guy’s words sank in, and Kaydee’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God. You walked in on them…uh…making out?” She bit her lip, but it didn’t stop her grin.

“Yes.” A grimace rippled across his face. “That image will haunt me the rest of my life.”

She laughed. “Then maybe you need a new image to focus on.”

Dammit. That slipped out without permission.

Leo stilled for a full second before he turned toward her with a sexy, lopsided grin on his face. “Exactly what image do you have in mind, Kaydee?”

A fluttering instantly commenced in her belly. She couldn’t tell if he was just toying with her or serious. Whatever it was, she was too befuddled to say something catchy. “It’s a surprise,” she said, unwilling to show fear. Or stupidity. She’d shown him enough of that tonight.

But apparently, she said something wrong, because the light disappeared from his gaze.

“I don’t like surprises,” he muttered, and turned his attention back to his food.

Her giddiness dimmed. Why didn’t he like surprises? Did it have to do with his past?

Leo wasn’t aware that she knew about what he’d gone through, and she wasn’t about to bring it up. The guy had worked hard to overcome his demons and move on. He deserved happiness. Deserved to smile. Deserved some carefree moments in his life. And carefree happened to be something Kaydee was good at.

Now that was in her wheelhouse.

So she vowed, then and there, to show Leo that surprises could also be fun.

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