Torn between the home she loves and the man she’s falling in love with, Hayden must decide which one she will leave behind.
When Hayden Merrick travels to meet her grandmother for the first time, she doesn’t expect to find the father who abandoned her or a man who could prove to be the love of her life.
There hadn’t been much time for romance in Ben Winslow’s life and no woman has interested him enough until Hayden arrived at his neighbor’s home. As soon as he meets her, Ben believes she could be the woman he’s always hoped for, but he has to convince her life could be just as sweet on the prairie as on the coast.
Hayden’s plans to return to her home are put on hold as she struggles with a difficult decision—pursue a life in South Dakota or return to the one she’s loved at the edge of the ocean? Ben hopes he can give her the best of both worlds.
Copyright © 2007 Ceri Hebert
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Well this is a lovely sight.”
The voice startled Hayden and she turned to see who had disturbed her concentration.
An inky silhouette blotted out the sun, a tall and imposing vision, and it took Hayden’s eyes several seconds to adjust.
“Missy, why don’t you head on back to the ranch? I’ll keep Hayden company.”
Missy pushed herself up off the ground and handed Roxy’s lead to Ben.
Hayden’s hand went to her sketchpad, ready to lay it face down so Ben wouldn’t see what she’d been doing, but with a cursory glance at the sheet, she decided he wouldn’t get much from the rough drawing of the butte.
With a quick goodbye, Missy mounted up, put her horse into a gentle lope and headed back to the ranch.
For a moment neither Hayden nor Ben spoke. It was the first time they’d been alone since the kiss in the Sweet Prairie parlor. With her heart climbing into her throat, Hayden managed a small smile. She willed herself to stay calm, but her body had other ideas.
“How did you manage to get away from your duties?” she asked, forcing her voice to casual.
Ben shrugged and without waiting for an invitation, sat on the blanket next to her, letting both horses reins go. Neither animal moved but continued to graze.
“Tuck is taking care of the guests so I thought I’d go out for a ride.”
“And you just happened to head this way?” Hayden inquired, raising one brow in mock surprise.
“Amazing how that happened. But it’s nice to find you here. We haven’t had a chance to talk since you’ve been here.”
“We’ve talked plenty of times,” she murmured, pretending she didn’t know what he really meant.
Ben cocked his head to the side and gave her a look that declared he didn’t buy her ignorance of his meaning.
“Alone,” he stated firmly. “We’ve been surrounded every moment by guests and family.”
“You have a job. I don’t want to get in your way.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that here. Not another person in sight.”
Hayden couldn’t even see Missy retreating toward the ranch any longer. She and Ben might as well have been the only two people in the entire state and Ben didn’t look like he minded at all. His legs were stretched out, his boots hanging over the edge of the blanket, and he leaned back on his hands as he looked up at the sky. His eyes matched the powder blue expanse nearly perfectly, with only subtle specks of gray in their contemplative depths.
“Gran is looking much better,” Hayden remarked, grasping for a safe topic of conversation.
Ben nodded. “She’s doing very well. I think she likes the attention she’s been getting. Amelia just loves to take care of people. She and Lu have been friends for years.”
“Well, if I haven’t said it before, I really do appreciate all your hospitality,” Hayden said earnestly. “I hate to have put you out.”
Ben turned his gaze back to her.
How can such ice blue eyes look so hot?
Hayden shoved the thought from her mind, though her desire for Ben pushed at the hastily thrown up emotional barricade.
“How many times do I have to say it? You’re not putting me out at all. It’s a pleasure to have Lu here. I’d never be able to relax if she were back at Sweet Prairie, no matter who was with her there. I prefer to have to two of you here.”
“And not Sally?” Hayden teased.
“Ah, Sally,” Ben said with an exaggerated sigh. “Let’s not talk about her. The day is too beautiful. I’d rather talk about you.”
Hayden sobered quickly. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Truthfully, when are you going to let me show you the sunset? We’ve missed several perfect ones this past week.”
“Ben, please,” she protested a little too breathlessly. “We’ve already decided not to do this.”
Ben shook his head, a little smile playing on his lips. “Nope. You may have decided that. I don’t recall ever agreeing to it.”
Hayden wasn’t sure how to respond to his statement. She didn’t want to have to plead with him not to get too close. It was too hard not to give into the feelings that pushed and tugged relentlessly at her heart and body. It would be far too easy to close the distance between them, precious inches that were the only walls that could keep her safe.
It wasn’t going to be enough though. As soon as she let her eyes lock with his, she knew it was going to be a losing battle. Somewhere along the line, his will was going to overtake hers and she’d find herself falling hard and fast for him. And what good would that do?
“What do you want from me?” she whispered, laying down her pencil on the open tote. She wouldn’t be getting any more drawing done. Her concentration was shot. She pushed the sketchpad carelessly from her lap.
“Do I have to spell it out?” he replied, his own voice little more than whisper too. He leaned toward her and like some kind of magnet, she was pulled in, closing the distance between them with sweet leisure.
Yet he didn’t touch her. He paused just centimeters from her lips. It was as if he waited for her to close the remaining gap between them, having met her more than halfway. Hayden’s gaze dropped down to his lips, parted expectantly, and then raised her eyes back up to his. They were hooded and smoky.
She had to kiss him. Despite all her best-laid plans to keep their relationship at arm’s length, she knew right then and there that there was absolutely no squelching the need to touch him.
Yet she didn’t move in, not just yet. She paused for a moment and breathed him in. He smelled like leather and hay, just a hint of his cologne and hard work. There was a scent of coffee on his breath and something sweet. She inhaled his essence and breeched the remaining space, touching her lips to his.
It was as if Ben’s patience disintegrated. He adjusted his seat so he could take her into his arms, pulling her so she was nearly on his lap. Their first kiss had been timid, their second testing, but this one was complete, engulfing her entire body and mind. Even if she wanted to back away it wouldn’t be easy. Ben possessed her and just for a moment she wanted to stop thinking about what the consequences would be and let herself sink into the embrace.
She opened her mouth to his, and eagerly drew his tongue in to play with hers, pulling back so their lips barely touched before plunging forward once more. Against her mouth she could hear his groan as the last threads of control let go. Then there was nothing left to hold back. She wanted him completely.
Ben caressed her cheek, his fingers tangled in her hair then trailed down her neck and rested on her breast, rubbing gently through the fabric of her shirt and bra. She felt every nerve ending under his hand tingle with excitement and desire. His tongue traced her lips then joined her tongue in passionate play.
She let her hands find their way under his shirt, lightly scratching a trail up his back. She wanted to sink her fingers into his flesh, to absorb his body into her own. Like her mind was a separate entity looking on, a sliver of Hayden’s logical mind protested their embrace, but that voice was too tiny, to insignificant to make any difference. Ben’s touch was much more powerful, much more seductive than any reason. Though she’d only known this man for only a matter of weeks, her body’s cravings had taken over. The thought of making love on the blanket in the middle of the prairie was the most delicious thing she’d ever wanted.
A light sheen of perspiration covered Ben’s torso and Hayden slid her fingertips along the contours of his muscles along his back, up to his shoulders and back down again until she came in contact with his rib cage. She swept upwards with the palm of her hand over his hot skin to his chest where she paused to feel the way his heart beat.
The wave of passion swept over them, again and again, sending her thoughts whirling off like a prairie twister. Ben’s fingers danced over her flesh, sending sparks through every part of her body. It was too perfect not to be right, and any protest she could’ve possibly come up with was swiftly shattered to bits by the way his lips ran down the length of her neck.
“Hayden,” Ben whispered against her ear.
“Mmmm.” It was the only reply she could make.