"What are you doing here?" Mandy Morgan asked, dropping her too-heavy overnight case on the sun-roasted tarmac. After a grueling forty-eight hour work stint and a five-hour flight from Philadelphia, she stood wilting under the brutal Texas sun, facing her biggest nightmare.
She groaned inwardly, drinking Beau in with her eyes as if she hadn't had a drop of water in months. Eight years was more like it. If she were eight years smarter, she would be moving her aching feet as fast as she could in the opposite direction. But all she could do was stare at eyes so bright they rivaled the blazing sun. At lips so kissable she'd spent the better part of her adult life trying to wipe the memory clean from her mind.
She had expected Beau would have aged some. When she allowed herself to think about him at all, she reminded herself. The faint lines etched in the corners of his sleepy gray-blue eyes gave a hint of maturity, but most probably caused by long days in the cruel sun.
She fought the urge to take a closer look at his ruggedly handsome features, but failed. How could he have gotten better looking after being abused by every bronc-busting horse on the rodeo circuit? His angular jaw, strong and determined, was shaded with beard growth that was probably a day old, maybe more. Mandy suspected if Beau grew a full beard, it would grow in thick and be the smooth texture of his almost black head of hair. She forced aside past memories that gave her such knowledge with renewed irritation.
The man didn't even have the decency to have a crooked nose. What should have been bent and awkward from being broken a few too many times was instead long and straight, shaped perfectly between high cheek bones most women would swoon over, or kill to have themselves. But on Beau Gentry, it was just one thousand percent robust cowboy.
"I'm your ride out to the Double T," Beau said, gripping the edge of his white straw cowboy hat and tipping it in a cordial gesture.
She ground the heels of her low pumps into the soft tar to contain her growing irritation. Did he think she was an idiot? "No way."
"'Fraid so," he said, his expression slightly askew.
"Hank didn't mention anything about you coming to get me when I spoke to him on the phone."
"I suspect he thought you would have found some excuse not to come if you knew I was picking you up."
"He would have been right. Why didn't one of the hands come get me?"
Settling his hand at the base of his neck, Beau replied, "You're looking at him. As of three weeks ago I am one of the ranch hands at the Double T."
What?! Mandy fought the urge to keep her surprise from showing, but immediately failed. Beau Gentry was the son of her uncle's biggest rival. It hadn't stopped her from falling head over heels for the man on those long, lazy summers she came down to the ranch to visit her aunt and uncle. Of course, back then, rodeo was all Beau cared about, not his father's spread. Not her, she remembered painfully.
He was going to go PRCA and be a world champion. It was his dream and all he ever talked about. He was good enough to do it, too, Mandy thought wryly. So good, he hadn't given her a second glance when he rode out of Texas without her eight years ago on the heels of a golden sunset.
Her chuckle was almost hysterical. "You really expect me to leave this airport with you?"
"That was the plan," he said smiling, his gray eyes seeing more of her than she wanted him to see. He held his ground. He had to know how difficult it was to see him after all this time. It didn't matter that he didn't share her unrest. He could have at least had the decency to think about her feelings. But then he hadn't thought about her feelings eight years ago when he broke her heart, so it didn't seem he was any more incline to do so now.
Beau Gentry might be clueless, but there was no way Mandy was going anywhere with him. No way she'd spend the next two hours bouncing up and down in a hot pickup truck breathing in his scent and wrestling with memories...
Mandy twisted on her heels and surged in the opposite direction. "Forget it," she called over her shoulder.
There had to be a cab going somewhere. Anywhere. A hot, sticky bus would be a lot more inviting than spending the next few hours in inescapable close quarters with Beau.
"Mandy, what are you going to do, walk all the way to the Double T?"
"I'm sorry you were dragged out here like this, Beau. But I'm afraid it was a waste of your time. I...can rent a car."
Behind her, Mandy heard his heavy sigh and the sound of his boots stop short on the tarmac. Defeat? Regret? She wasn't sure, but she was very sure she shouldn't care.
Since Mandy had just come off a forty-eight hour work-marathon and let her cell phone battery run down, she concentrated on finding a payphone.
"It's been a while since you've been around. The car rental service went belly up here two years ago. About the closest thing you could do to get away from me right now is to take a cab to the bus depot. And I'll just have to pick you up when you get to Steerage Rock anyway."
She stopped walking when she reached the pay phone just outside the small terminal, angling back to see where Beau was standing. The airport was small enough not to have gates. All passengers exited the plane on the tarmac. She glanced past the booth to the boarded up window near the entrance to the small building that housed the air tower, the terminal and a small restaurant-a fast food diner of sorts. The peeled paint of the weather-beaten banner didn't hide the letters of a rental car company that indeed had gone out of business.
She blew out an exasperated breath of frustration in the already hot Texas heat. She wasn't ready to give up. Right now, a bus looked as if it might be a possibility, since the last orange taxi just pulled out of the parking lot with one of the passengers who'd been on the same flight she'd taken. She remembered seeing a bus depot not far from here when Uncle Hank used to pick her up. It wouldn't take her all the way to the Double T, but close enough not to put Uncle Hank or Aunt Corrine out when she called and asked for a ride.
She was being ridiculous. Part of her knew that, accept her behavior as being childish. But part of her rationalized it as necessary. She knew all too well the dangers of being with Beau Gentry. It had taken Mandy too long to get over him and she wasn't about to let anything allow the man to seep into her heart again.
"I can manage," she said resolutely.
"I suspect you could. You seem to have done fine for yourself, judging by the fancy clothes you're wearing and that designer luggage."
With a fistful of quarters in her palm, she swung around, cradling the phone in her other hand. Leveling him with a warning stare, she said tightly, "I don't think you're in a position to judge me after what you did."
His face showed a momentary flash of regret. "That was a long time ago, Mandy."
She gripped the quarters in her hand, felt her pulse hammer in her wrist. "I have a long memory."
Turning her attention back to the task at hand, Mandy decided the phone book was useless. What was the company name on the side of that yellow cab? It had been eight years since she'd been in Texas. Eight years was a long time for a county to change. Who could she possibly call if her one and only ally in Texas sent the one man she swore she'd never lay eyes on again?
Defeated, she dropped the out of date phonebook, and chided herself for not charging her cell phone before she left for the airport. She had most of her numbers on speed dial and couldn't even recall the number for the Double T. It would teach her to let her cell phone battery run down again, leaving her unprepared.
"Tell me, Beau. Why did you come here? Someone else could have easily come for me. Why did it have to be you?"
His gray-blue eyes lost some of their luster and grew solemn. There was a time long ago when she thought she could stare at those eyes and be lost in them for hours. You still could, she realized with sudden regret.
Not a good sign.
He adjusted his hat in that lazy way he always did. "Because Hank asked me to. That's why."
There was her life in a nutshell. Beau was asked. And Mandy wasn't. Mandy was never asked, she was told. And like the good girl she was raised to be, Mandy always complied.
She thought back to the conversation she'd had with her mother just three days ago with renewed irritation.
"I'm not asking, Mandy," Leandra Morgan had said over the phone.
I'm telling you.
Her mother didn't have to actually say the last part for Mandy to know what she was thinking. It was a given. It followed every request the woman ever made. I'm not asking you to keep your tongue. I'm not asking you to come to your cousin's party. I'm not asking you to apologize to your father. I'm not asking you to work for the family business...or date the son of your father's biggest client. I'm telling you.
Three days ago Mandy had sat in her downtown Philadelphia office on the phone with her mother, impatiently drumming her foot on the lift on her chair. "I am knee deep in this project for Dad, Mom. There's just no way I'm going to be able to get away. I can't make both of you happy at the same time."
"You'll just have to find a way." Leandra's voice came like static over the phone. "Your uncle...isn't himself. It's been a long time since you've visited him in Texas. I think it would do him some good to see you again. I think it's time you go."
A tug of emotion had squeezed her chest. It had been years since she'd visited Uncle Hank and Aunt Corrine at the Double T. She'd never told her mother why she'd stopped her summer visits, and thankfully, her mother had never pushed for a reason. Mandy suspected her mother had just accepted her decision to not make her summer vacation as Mandy asserting adolescent independence, wanting to remain in Philadelphia to enjoy some summer freedom with her friends. She'd never spoken about what happened that last summer. Never confided of her first love. And that was just fine with Mandy. She didn't need to be reminded.
"I'll call Uncle Hank and explain. I can't get away now. He'll understand," she'd said.
"You make it happen, young lady." I'm not asking.
A voice boomed over the outdoor loudspeaker announcing the arrival of another flight. Mandy was immediately pulled back to the present, back to Texas, and the hot tarmac she now stood on, heels sinking into the sun-softened tar.
"We've got a couple of hours ahead of us. I'm going to get something cold to drink for the ride," Beau said, ambling toward the building. Turning back, he asked, "You want something?"
Yeah, I want you to go away. I want to forget the way you broke my heart all those years ago. But she knew that was futile. She'd been a fool to think she'd gotten over him. If eight years and countless dates with very eligible men hadn't exorcised the memory of Beau Gentry from her heart and soul, nothing would.
Mandy glanced at him, defeat sitting just beneath the surface of her composure, and shook her head.
How could he act so normal? How could he be asking her something as simple as whether she wanted a soda when the last time they'd seen each other had been such a sham?
And how dare he be so handsome after a two hour ride in a hot pickup truck? His white tee-shirt stretched taut across his muscled shoulders. She knew first hand just how strong those arms were when they were wrapped around her in a warm embrace. After years of breaking every wild bronc on the circuit, they were sure to be even stronger.
There wasn't an ounce of body fat on the man. His jeans weren't a tight fit, even baggy in a few places where she longed to lazily roam her hand over and on a few occasions long ago had. But on Beau, there was nothing sloppy about it. Just high voltage sex appeal that had her rampant heart doing an acrobatic dance right there on the blazing tarmac.
And he was nonchalantly asking if she wanted a soda.
The door closed behind him as he stepped into the building and Mandy watched through the tinted window while he wandered over to the soda machine in the corner and made his selection. He stood there, his weight shifted lazily to one hip in a never-do-care way.
She tore her gaze away from her torture. Beau Gentry might look like a dream come true from the cover of Modern Cowboy, but she was an utter disaster after her long flight. Suddenly aware she was still wearing yesterday's silk suit, she ran her hands down her skirt in a futile attempt to smooth out the wrinkles. Giving up, she rummaged through her purse for a barrette and a comb. Anything to pull together hair that had become unruly from neglect, heat and the wind. Settling on a hairband and her fingers as a comb, she wrestled her normally-wavy-gone-curly-in-the-heat dusty blonde hair into a pony tail. She hated that it made her look sixteen again. But there wasn't much she could do until she could get back to the ranch and unpack her things.
As Mandy watched Beau walk out into the sunshine with two Root Beers and a bag of chips in his hand, she reasoned she wasn't as vulnerable as she had been then. Letting the likes of Beau Gentry stomp on her heart was something she wouldn't do ever again. She was a woman now. She could do this. She led corporate business meetings. She used her innovative ideas to dazzle prospective clients into spending millions of advertising dollars with her father's firm. She'd just purchased an elegant townhouse in one of the trendiest sections of Philadelphia. All she had to do was pull herself together and she could handle this situation like the professional she was.
"I'm not going," she said, cursing inwardly for sounding like a spoiled child. So much for the corporate executive touch.
Beau's lips curled into a slight grin. He wouldn't win any points if he ticked Mandy off by laughing at the way her chin tilted up in defiance. That hadn't changed much. Or the flash of fire in her deep brown eyes. They still looked as black and contrasted wildly with the natural streaks of blond in her hair. He'd always found that appealing, adorable as all get-out. Already his fingers itched to dig in and let the soft curls of her hair tumble in his hand.
But she had changed. Any fool could see that Mandy Morgan had blossomed into a five star beauty while he'd been out roaming the country these last eight years.
She was still slim as she was at sixteen, but her figure had filled out in all the right places that made a man take notice. The light rock in her hips that had taunted him when she was sixteen had matured into a graceful sway he found hypnotizing. Although she'd chewed off most of her lipstick, he noticed she now wore a slight hint of makeup on her cheeks and eyes, giving her the more exotic look of a woman.
And she still had the power to make his head spin like a lasso chasing a calf. He longed to see her smile again, hear her laugh bubble up from her soul. But given the way things ended between them, and the way she stood before him now with her arms knotted tightly in front of her chest, her jaw set, he knew she wouldn't crack a smile just to spite him.
Lord only knew why Hank insisted he be the one to pick her up at the airport.
"Did you hear me?" she finally said when he didn't answer her.
"Yeah, I did."
Her dark eyes widened slightly. "Oh. Good."
Beau reached down and picked up her leather garment bag, watching as her bewildered eyes followed his movement.
"It doesn't change anything though. Hank asked me to pick you up at the airport and bring you home, and that's what I'm doing if I have to toss you over my shoulder and drop you in the pickup."
Mandy gasped. "You wouldn't dare!"
"Wanna try me?" He couldn't help but smile. She just looked too darlin' getting all hot and flustered. She had to know he wouldn't give up. Not just because she was virtually stuck, and knew it, but because she knew he would never refuse Hank's request.
She sighed and closed her eyes. "You touch me and I'll..."
"Afraid of what you'll do?" His smile widened just thinking. "Or are you afraid of how you'll feel in my arms again?"