Judd Foster is the perfect new project for Moon Valley's resident do-gooder, Erika Dunn. After serving in Special Ops, Judd has returned to his family's ranch, seeking solitude to overcome the traumas he's endured. But sweet-talkin' Erika intends to wipe away this cowboy's pain with a dose of her irresistible small-town charm.
Of course, Erika's interest isn't purely selflessnot when Judd's been the man of her dreams since she was a little girl. Sure, he's a bit gruff and withdrawn now. But when the two are forced to pretend they're a couple, Erika knows that Judd is still the only man for her. And this Texas Cupid isn't above using every arrow she's got to capture the heart of her cowboy!
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"Damn, here she comes again."
Judd Foster peered through the dusty slats of the mini-blinds and heavy, outdated drapes that covered his living room window.
It was the third time this week that Erika Dunn had shown up uninvited at his ranch house. She was making it difficult for Judd to settle into his self-imposed role as a recluse.
The first time that bubbly female glided up the uneven sidewalk to approach him about selling his old cedar barn and a few surrounding acres Judd had given her a flat-out, unequivocal no. But that hadn't discouraged Ms. Cheerful and Determined from making return visits.
Two days earlier Erika had arrived, bearing food from her restaurant in Moon Valley, claiming she had extra portions and didn't want to see food go to waste.
Best food Judd had eaten in years. Not that he had encouraged that perky restaurateur by admitting any such thing, mind you, because Erika Dunn wasn't a woman who appeared to be easily discouraged.
In some ways she reminded Judd of his former selfthe self he had turned his back on in order to pay penance at the family ranch. After all, gloom and isolation were what he deserved after what had happened.
Judd squinted against the glaring light of the spectacular Texas sunset that silhouetted Erika's appealing physique. She had the kind of unadver-tised and understated beauty that intrigued a man who had been trained to look beyond surface appearances. He reminded himself that he wasn't in that line of work anymore. These days, his only assignment was to try to lead a normal life.
Whatever that was. He wasn't sure he even remembered.
His wandering thoughts trailed off as he watched Erika approach. The woman didn't just walk toward his house; she practically floated, he noted sourly. She was too vibrant, too energized. He didn't want her coming around here, spreading good cheer and flashing that infectious smile.
He just wanted to be left alone.
His attention shifted to the covered dish in her hand. Judd's mouth watered involuntarily. He wondered what delicious, culinary temptation she had delivered this time. More of that melt-in-your-mouth smoked chicken that had been marinated in pineapple juice and coated with her secret concoction of herbs and spices? Or something equally delectable? Apparently, Erika figured the most effective way to coax a man away from his property was to sabotage his taste buds and his stomach.
Judd's betraying gaze focused on the titillating jiggle of her full breasts that were encased in a cotton knit blouse, then dropped to the trim indentation of her waist and finally settled on the sensuous flare of hips clad in faded blue jeans.
Annoyed with himself for being distracted by her feminine attributes, he snapped his attention to Erika's face. Not that it helped. Her face was wholesome and animated and her eyes reminded him of a cloudless sky. Her ivory skin, dotted with freckles on her upturned nose, made her look fragile and delicatea blatant contrast to her assertive, bubbly personality. She was part bombshell-in-hiding and part girl-next-door. A woman of interesting contrasts and potential. Much too complicated for a man who had sworn off deep, analytical thinking permanently.
He simply wanted to exist and let the world pass him by.
Judd watched Erika balance the covered plate in one hand while she hammered on the front door with the other. Judd knew she wouldn't give up and go away because he had ignored her for a good five minutes the last time she came by. She had outlasted him and outstubborned him, damn her.
Judd opened the door before she pounded a hole in it. "Now what?" he questioned unsociably.
"Hi, Judd. How's it going?"
Erika beamed an enthusiastic greeting as she sailed, uninvited, into his house. The woman was as inevitable as sunrise bursting into a room to scatter the darkness. And worse, the subtle scent of her perfume teased his nostrils. The citrusy fragrance didn't meet you halfway across the room, as if she had bathed in it. Oh, no, it tempted a man closer to inhale a deep, tantalizing whiff.
The instant Judd felt himself leaning impulsively toward her, he withdrew and stiffened his resistance. "The answer is still no," he said right off.
Might as well beat her to the punch and hope she would give up her ongoing crusade to buy his property. He didn't want her to sweet-talk him into signing over that old barn that held fond childhood memories. He didn't want to salivate like Pavlov's dog when the aromatic smoked meat, piled beneath a layer of aluminum foil, whetted his appetite.
Undaunted, Erika thrust the heaping plate at him and smiled radiantly. "No what? No, you won't do me a favor by taking this extra food off my hands? No, you have decided to stop eating altogether?"
She glanced around the gloomy living room, shook her head in disapproval, and then strode to the west window. "Really, Judd, it should be a criminal offense to keep this grand old home enshrouded in darkness. It looks like a vampire headquarters."
Leaving him holding the plate, she threw open the drapes, jerked up the blinds and opened all three living room windows. Fresh air poured into the room, carrying her scent to him again. Judd winced when blinding sunbeams speared into the room, spotlighting Erika's alluring profileas if he needed another reminder of how well-proportioned she was.
He didn't. Furthermore, he didn't want to deal with the lusty thoughts her appearance provoked. He didn't want to like anything about Erika Dunn. In fact, he didn't want personal or emotional involvement with anyone these days. Erika was too attractive, too optimistic. Too everything for a man who had become cynical and world-weary after years of belly-crawling around hellholes in third-world countries and leading a double life in the process.
Judd wondered what it was going to take to discourage Erika from waltzing in here, as if she owned the place, trying to befriend a man who was completely unworthy of friendship. He hadn't been able to protect the one true friend he'd had the past decade and that tormented him to no end. After that, he didn't want anyone to depend on him or expect anything from him.
No one was going to get close to him again. He was just going to have to try harder to scare off Erikathat shouldn't be too difficult for a man trained in the military's covert ops forces, specializing in the lethal techniques of combat. Just because he had returned to his hometown after an extended stint in the army didn't mean he had forgotten the skills that had kept him alive and kicking all these years.
Erika pivoted toward him, her smile still intact. "Much better," she declared with a nod that made her red-gold ponytail bob and shimmer in the afternoon sun. "You need to stop hiding out here like a hermit, Judd."
"And you need to stop showing up here to pester me. If your objective is to ruin my peaceful day, then you're done. You can leave now," he added with a steely stare.
She didn't so much as flinch. "You know what your problem is?"
"Yes, you," he said.
She ignored the comment. "Your problem is that you have isolated yourself. Everybody in town is starting to think there's something wrong with our local hero. People would roll out the welcome wagon if you would interact with them. You need to renew old acquaintances and make an active contribution to this community."
He snorted, then stared at the air over her head so he wouldn't be tempted to focus on the thrust of her breasts in that passion-pink knit blouse. He was not interested in this woman, wasn't interested in getting involved with any woman at the moment. Not interested in rejoining society yet, either.
"I'm not a hero," he countered. "I don't care what people in town think of me. Furthermore, I don't want to sell my barn so you can set up a larger cafe that will cause traffic jams in front of my home." He made a stabbing gesture toward the plate in her hand. "And I don't need your charity food, so stop showing up here with heaping platters."
To emphasize his point he gave her one of those quelling stares he had used occasionally to encourage men, men who were withholding vital information that threatened national security, to sing like canaries.
Unfortunately, the menacing promise in his eyes didn't seem to faze Little Ms. Local, Helpful and Cheerful. She merely graced him with another one of those hundred-watt smiles that implied that she wasn't the least bit intimidated.
He had to admire her for thatin an exasperated sort of way. Clearly, his previous military training had not prepared him to deal effectively with this particular woman. She was a pushy, bulldozing kind whose engaging smile made you feel guilty for giving her a hard time.
Erika gestured toward the covered plate. "Better eat while it's hot. Today's special of barbecue ribs, potato salad and baked beans is excellent, even if I do say so myself. Fact is, customers have been raving all day."
Standing in precise military stancespine erect, shoulders thrust back, chin upJudd looked down his nose at Erika. "You've dropped off the food. Thanks. I can take it from here," he said dismissively.
She didn't take the hint, of course. No surprise there. Her smile doubled in wattage. She mimicked his military stance, offered him a saucy salute, and then turned on her heels to march into his kitchenas if she owned that, too.
Muttering, Judd stalked after her, watching in annoyance as she flung open the shutters to brighten up the room. Then she rummaged through his cabinets in search of glasses.
Judd's gaze slid to the rounded curve of her bottom, then he snapped to attention. His objective was to discourage Erika from dropping in on him whenever she felt like it. Why was he having trouble remembering that?
Erika wheeled around, a glass in each hand. "What'll it be, Rambo? Water, tea or"
Me. The word slammed through his brain and sizzled through his body the millisecond before she said, "coffee?"
Judd was still cursing his betraying thoughts when she opened the freezer to scoop up ice cubes. "Okay, I'll decide for us. We'll have water." She turned back to the sink to fill the glasses, then placed them on the antique oak table that graced the middle of the oversize kitchen. She plucked the plate from his hand and gestured toward the place he was to sit. "I'll get the silverware."
Accustomed to giving orders, Judd couldn't believe himself when he just plopped down in the chair, as if he had been outranked. It was ridiculous, baffling really, the way he responded to this pint-size woman who stood five feet nothing to his six feet plus. He decided he just must be a sucker for this woman who exhibited so much energy and assertive determinationtraits he once greatly admired in himself.
Erika leaned over to place a knife and fork beside his plate. Her arm lightly brushed against his shoulder. Judd stifled the thrum of pleasure caused by her incidental touch. He didn't want to enjoy human contact or participate in the slightest emotional involvement. He just wanted to exist on an isolated plane until he had made peace with the recent incidents that haunted him.
His physical response was a hazard of self-imposed celibacy, he assured himself. That was the only reason he reacted to the way she looked, to the sensuous way she moved, to her luring scent, to the smoky sound of her voice and to the lively sparkle in those luminous blue eyes. Unwanted physical reaction and nothing more, he told himself reasonably.
It would pass eventually.
When she uncovered the oversize plate, succulent aromas bombarded him. His stomach growled. His mouth watered. His nostrils flared. Hunger blasted through him, reminding him that he'd had coffee for breakfast and hadn't taken time for lunch.
Tempted past his resistance, Judd grabbed his fork. "No matter how good this food is, I'm still not selling my barn," he declared before he sampled the potato salad.
The food triggered memories of family picnics, carefree laughter, summer wind and young boys racing through the cottonwood trees to reach Moon River and their favorite fishing hole. Judd sorely resented a meal that instantly reminded him of happier times because he was determined to pay penance for his greatest failure in life.
He bit into the smoked rib and his taste buds went into full-scale riot. Man, oh man, Erika Dunn could cook like nobody's business!
When Judd glanced across the table Erika was staring pensively at him. When he noted the hint of sadness in those expressive sapphire eyes he went perfectly still, the smoked rib poised inches from his mouth. When he realized he was being rude by attacking this meal like a starved wolf he pushed the plate toward her.
"Have some." His courteous offer didn't erase the trace of sadness at the edge of her smile. It annoyed him that he was so attuned to her to notice, especially after he had sworn not to let anyone close enough to cause him pain again.
She plucked up a rib. "You still don't remember me, do you, Judd?"
He frowned, wondering how anyone could forget a woman who practically fizzed with effervescence. "No, should I?" he asked nonchalantly.
She shrugged. The coil of reddish-blond curls flowed over her left shoulder and settled on the rise of her breast.
Judd looked the other way.
"You were on hand during one of the most crucial, uncomfortable moments of my life," she prompted.
"You had a crucial moment more than sixteen years ago, before I left Moon Valley and joined the military?"
She nodded, then bit into the barbecued rib. "I was twelve years old and you were the big man on the high school campus," she reflected. "A bunch of my classmates circled around me, harassing me because my mother dumped me when I was a kid and left town, headed for parts unknown. The other grade school students were taunting me and chanting that I was good for nothing and my unwed mother didn't want me. When I broke down and started crying the taunts got worse.
Then here you camethe football, basketball and baseball superstar from Moon Valley Highto save the day."
When Erika glanced down at the rib in her fingertips Judd noticed a vulnerability that he had rarely seen in her. Apparently, she was exceptionally good at concealing old pain. Much better than he was.
When she glanced up at him from beneath those long, sooty lashes, her smile was back in place. "You marched right up and told the kids to skedaddle. Told them that you better not catch them badgering me again. Then you took my hand, walked me to the cafe and bought me a Coke."
She propped her chin in her hand and added, "You told me not to pay any attention to those brats. You told me I shouldn't feel ashamed because my mom bailed out on me, that it wasn't my fault she was irresponsible. You predicted that I was going to turn out a whole lot better without her bad influence on my life." Her smile widened. "That was the day you became my hero."
"Yeah?" Judd was sorry to say he didn't recall the incident. But then, there was a mountain of memories standing between his high school years and the present day.
"Definitely my hero," she affirmed. "That's when I fell in love with you. Every boy I dated in high school failed to meet your standard of excellence."