When Genevieve Riley sneaks onto the O’Bannon Ranch to return a stolen heirloom, the boy she’d fallen in love with as a teenager, Nick O’Bannon, catches her before she can slip away. The problem is, he’s now a big, rugged cowboy, and those feelings from a decade ago resurface. She can’t concentrate on anything but picking up where they left off.
Nick can’t believe what his dogs cornered. Beautiful ‘Jellybean’ Riley, all grown up and sexier than sin. He never knew what tore her from his life when they were teens, just as their relationship was starting. With the heat radiating between them, he knows he can seduce her, but can he make her stay this time?
“Perfect.” Genevieve Riley stepped back from the screen door. Trapped in the O’Bannon ranch house kitchen by three huge black dogs that barked at her from the porch. She’d snuck onto the ranch on a service road and parked around the side of the house. The darn dogs must have heard her truck. Or the squeaky screen door.
This was her reward for doing the right thing?
She glanced around the big room. It had been updated since the last time she was here. Was that ten years ago? No, eleven. Stainless steel appliances and dark granite countertops had replaced the all-white kitchen she remembered. She hadn’t been anywhere but in this room, but she knew there was a door somewhere on the other side of the house. If she could find it, sneak out, and reach her truck before the hounds alerted anyone…
A whistle cut through the air. “Crap.” Too late to make her escape, she’d been caught.
A man in a tan cowboy hat, dark T-shirt, jeans, and boots walked toward the house from the direction of the barn, his long legs closed the distance fast. Was it him? A bubble of panic swelled inside her.
She glanced out the side window at her little pickup truck heating in the warm February sun. So close. She’d planned to get in and out in seconds and be gone before anyone knew she’d been here. Especially him.
Eleven years ago, she hadn’t left under the best circumstances, but she’d been only fifteen, and had no choice.
When he was still a few yards from the house, the cowboy whistled again. The dogs stopped their ruckus and turned toward him. “Down.” He pointed to the grass beside the porch steps. The dogs raced to the spot and sat at attention.
He braced one foot on the bottom step and looked at her through the screen door. “Can I help you, ma’am?” His Texas drawl rolled low and sexy.
With the sun casting his face in shadow beneath his hat brim, she couldn’t tell if it was Nick or not.
She gestured toward the small box on the kitchen counter next to her. “I just wanted to drop off something for you.” She inched open the screen door, ready to make her getaway.
The dogs growled. The cowboy took the steps two at a time and stopped directly in front of her before she could step over the threshold. “Hang on a minute.” Without touching her, he herded her back inside, followed her in, and let the screen door shut. Taking off his hat, he hung it on a peg next to the door.
Oh God, it was him. Nick O’Bannon. His deep green eyes had stayed exactly the same, but now his face had become the face of a man. Tan, with strong cheekbones, a square jaw, and firm, sensual lips, he was outrageously handsome.
His body had matured, as well. His wide chest and big arms filled out his shirt, and he’d gotten so tall. When he was fifteen, his short, straight hair had been wild and red. It had turned a gorgeous dark auburn. His brow lifted. “Ma’am?”
He didn’t recognize her.
She hadn’t expected him to, really, but it would have been nice if he had. They’d spent every possible moment together that summer. Had she changed so much since then? Her fingers threaded through the long strands of her strawberry blonde hair as it rested on her breast.
His eyes followed the movement. When she’d been fifteen, her hair had been shorter and almost white-blonde from spending her days in the sun. Skinny, tall, and just starting to bloom, she couldn’t blame him for not seeing that girl in the woman she was now.
He crossed his arms over his chest and his eyes narrowed. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here.”
He must think she’d rummaged through his house and stolen something. Would she have to submit to a strip search? The image of his hands on her skin sent a lovely shiver along her spine.
Genevieve laced her fingers behind her back. “Um…” Great start. She’d practiced a speech, in case she couldn’t just drop off the box and run. She struggled to remember the first line. “I…my father died five months ago.”
He dropped his arms to his sides. “My condolences.” His voice carried sympathy and his brows drew together. She had to be confusing him.
“All his things were put into a storage locker. I just came back to San Antonio to sort through everything.”
He nodded once and tipped his head slightly, as if to say, “Get on with it.”
She gestured to the locked box she’d set on the counter. “I found this among his things, and wanted to return it to you. To your family,” she quickly amended. If he ever figured out who she was, she didn’t want him to think she’d come here just for him. Although, seeing him again excited her more than she’d expected.
Nick turned and looked at the box. “Thank you.” He picked up the envelope that held the card she’d written, but hadn’t signed.
This would have been done anonymously if those damn hounds hadn’t pinned her down and alerted their owner. While he stood in profile, she let her gaze wander down to where his perfect ass filled out his jeans. All those hours riding horses. “Mm.” It just slipped out.
He jerked his head and caught her staring at his butt.
She tugged at her hair again then dropped her hand. She hadn’t been this nervous since her first day teaching last fall. “I put it in a safety box, just in case you had kids in the house.”
He shook his head once. “No kids.”
“Wife?” She bit her tongue. Where the heck had that come from?
He lifted a brow. “No wife. No girlfriend.” The corner of his mouth curved up slightly. “Anything else you’d like to know about me?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but tipped up the box and looked at the combination lock.
She took a step toward him. “The code is your dad’s birthday. I wrote that in the note too, instead of the numbers, just in case your kids, you know. But since—”
He swung toward her, his brow furrowed. “How do you know my father’s birthday?” The words snapped from his mouth as he set the box back on the counter.
She took a breath. She could either lie and get out of here clean—without giving him her name—or she could tell the truth and suffer the embarrassment of Nick having proof of what her father had done eleven years ago.
He waited silently but Genevieve could sense his keen interest in her explanation.
Selfishly, she wanted him to remember her. Wanted him to recall their first kiss down by the lake that hot July day. And the second, third, and fourth kisses as they spent the summer falling in love as only teenagers could. “My father worked here as the foreman.”
Nick’s body stiffened, his green eyes went wide as he looked into her blue ones. She knew the moment he recognized her. His hands came forward. “Jellybean?” He took her shoulders and looked down at her with surprise in his gaze and a smile on his face. “Is it really you?”
A bubble of emotion slid up her throat and burned wet behind her eyes. “You remember me?”
“How could I forget. Jellybean Riley.” He said his pet name for her as if it were a prayer.
She covered the burst of sentimentality with laughter. “I go by Genny now, but yes, it’s me.”
“Aw jeez.” He looked like he didn’t know what to do next. Then he pulled her in for a crushing hug.
Her chest warmed as her heart thumped wildly. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed right back, as if the tightness could wipe away the years she’d spent missing him. “Nick.”
He pulled back to look at her, brushed his knuckles across her cheek, along her jaw, and rested it on her neck. “God, I missed you.” His gaze moved over her features. “How did I not recognize you right away? You’re right here.”
She touched the back of his hand as it rested on her neck. “Eleven years older, six inches taller, about fifty pounds heavier.”
“Jeez, you look great.” His gaze traveled down her shirt, slowing at her breasts, then moved to her hips and her legs below her shorts. “Really great.”
“You do, too. She barely resisted checking out his wide shoulders and narrow hips again. Then his words struck her. He’d missed her? “I missed you too, Nick.” It felt so good to tell him.
“You didn’t even say goodbye. What exactly happened?”
The pain of that day knifed into her soul. “I thought you knew.”
He shook his head. “My parents wouldn’t tell me. I went on a rant when I came home that night and you were just gone. But they wouldn’t say what happened.”
Her mouth went dry. This wouldn’t be easy. “Your father caught my dad stealing.”
A wrinkle formed between Nick’s eyebrows and his jaw tightened.
“He fired my dad on the spot and had the ranch hands clean everything out of the foreman’s house.” She could see it happening as if it had been yesterday. Too shocked to cry, she’d stood in the September sun watching her life disintegrate. The third time in five years her father’s ‘problem’ had forced them to move.
“I’m sorry, Genny. I didn’t know.”
She nodded and tamped down the grief that threatened to overwhelm her. “Mom couldn’t take it anymore. This was the third job Dad had been fired from, and she wanted out. She went to your father for help.”
Nick looked like he was having trouble assimilating all this, but she forged on.
“Your father was very kind. He gave her a loan to help her get a new start, gave her one of the old ranch trucks, had the hands pile our things into it, everything except Dad’s clothes.” Her father hadn’t contested the termination, hadn’t fought the eviction, but worse, hadn’t said a word as her mother loaded Genevieve in the truck and drove them away. He’d just stood there as if he’d been expecting it all to happen.
“Dad did all that?” His voice came out soft. “I wondered where that truck disappeared to.”
Genevieve blinked to keep the tears from falling. “He was a good man.” She smiled gently. “Still is, from what I heard in town.”
“He and Mom have a little place in Harlingen.” Nick shrugged his eyebrows. “They threaten to stay there permanently unless Rory and I start having grandkids for them.”
“Rory.” Nick’s little brother had been ten that summer. Nick had found clever ways to ditch the boy so the two of them could be alone. A smaller replica of Nick, he’d inherited their father’s black hair instead of their mother’s red. “How is he?”
“Good. Still single. He built a house on the back forty and we run the ranch together.” His hand slid to her shoulder. “But what happened to you after you left here?”
She’d cried nonstop until they’d crossed the Texas border, locked herself in the bathroom of the hotel they stopped at, and moped through the state of Colorado. “I begged Mom to stay in the area so I could finish school.” And be with Nick, but she hadn’t said that to her mother. “She wanted away from Dad, so we went north to Colorado, to her family. We did well there. She remarried, I have stepsisters, and…” A smile curved her lips. “I’m teaching.”
“You are? Good for you. That was always your dream.” He took a breath. Taking in her scent? “Still in Colorado?”
She caught his, too. Fresh air and pine. Her belly jittered with awareness, twice as potent as it had been when she was fifteen. “Yes, I’m at a two-year college.” She glanced out the screen door. “This is my first trip back to Texas since we left.”
He paused. “The funeral?”
“He didn’t have one. He had no one, and I guess he liked it that way.” A wash of sorrow for the way her dad had ignored her turned to pity for the lonely way he’d lived. Yet, he’d chosen his solitude. She’d had her father’s ashes shipped to her in Colorado, and she and her mother had buried them in a small corner of a cemetery. “But he left everything to me when he died.” She looked at the box on the counter.
“So what’s in it?” He tipped his head toward it.
She eased out of his arms and walked to the counter. When Nick saw the contents, he might not be so anxious to renew their friendship. “When I was cleaning out Dad’s stuff from the storage locker, I found a few things that looked important enough for people to want returned.” She worked the combination lock. “There’s this, and a half dozen other things in my truck that I’m going to return to their rightful owners this week.” This return would be relatively easy. She was not looking forward to the rest of the deliveries.
The lock clicked and she opened the box, stepping aside.
Nick touched the two-tone semi-automatic pistol. “This is Dad’s.”
She nodded. The engraving on the silver slide included his name as well as the date and shooting contest at which he’d won it. “I’m sorry, Nick. Please apologize to your father for me. My dad had sticky fingers.”
Palming the gun, Nick held it and stared at the inscription. “There’s no need for you to apologize for what your father did.” His voice came out gruff. “The man made his choices. You aren’t responsible for his actions.”
It was sweet of him to absolve her, but she still felt the sting of guilt. “I didn’t see him often; my dad, I mean. Once, maybe twice a year. He wasn’t really interested in me much.” All the years of neglect still hadn’t dulled the hurt.
Nick looked at her then set the gun back in its foam packing. “Men can be fools.”
She shrugged it off as she’d done far too often. It was her cue to leave, but she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye. “Well…” That’s all she could manage. She took a step toward the door.