Bedded Then Wed(2)

By: Heidi Betts

“Thanks again for this,” Emma murmured softly when she realized he didn’t intend to carry on a conversation. “I had visions of spending the night curled up on that picnic table. If I’d known Pop planned to stick around playing cards all night, I’d have suggested we take separate cars.”

“No problem. I was headed in your direction, anyway.” He graced her with a quick grin that creased the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah. If I’d thought of that, I probably would have asked you for a ride hours ago.”

Mitch’s ranch, the Circle R, bordered her father’s property. There were plenty of acres in between, but for all intents and purposes, they were next-door neighbors.

“So, what were you doing hanging around the celebration this late? I’d have expected you to hightail it out of there at the first opportunity.”

Mitch was a hometown favorite and more than willing to help out any time Gabriel’s Crossing needed him, but ever since his divorce from Suzanne four years earlier, he’d become quiet and withdrawn. He spent most of his time alone on his ranch, going into town only when he needed supplies, or for an event like tonight’s—the town’s annual Independence Day celebration. But even then, he usually only made a brief appearance before disappearing again, back to the Circle R.

“Chase took Mom home after the fireworks, but since he was in charge of the sound system he needed someone to stick around and dismantle everything.” He hitched a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the equipment piled into the truck bed. “I’ll have to drop that stuff off in the morning.”

“Why didn’t you take your mother home?” she pressed, knowing that would have been Mitch’s choice over staying to the very end of the town-wide party.

Even from where she was sitting, on the opposite side of the bench seat, she could see the wry twist of his lips.

“Because my family thinks I’m becoming a hermit and need to get out more. And that if I stuck around long enough tonight, I might have met a nice girl and gotten married again.”

His tone told her how enamored he was of that idea, but she couldn’t help the tiny flicker of awareness that bloomed to life inside her.

She opened her mouth to speak, then had to clear her throat before she thought the words would come out as more than a squeak. “Did you? Meet a nice girl, I mean.”

“No,” he answered without reservation, and with the slightest hint of an edge to his voice. “But then, I wasn’t looking for one.”

The flicker in her belly sputtered and died. She shouldn’t be surprised. It was no secret that Suzanne’s infidelities and the divorce had hit him hard. He’d never been the most outgoing guy to begin with, but after the divorce he’d become noticeably more sullen. Nothing anyone said or did seemed to shake his sour mood.

And he had never looked at her as anything other than a neighbor and friend—no matter how much she might wish he would.

Not that she’d ever done anything about it. She could have flirted a little, or come right out and told him she had the hots for him. Instead, she’d kept her feelings to herself while pining after him from afar.

She was such a coward. Maybe if she hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have married Suzanne in the first place and wouldn’t be so miserable now.

Swallowing uncomfortably, she rubbed her palms along the tops of her jean-clad legs and breathed a sigh of relief when she realized they were nearing her house. Getting home would mean an end to the awkward silence filling the cab.

Mitch pulled up in front of the pale yellow, ranch-style house and cut the engine.

“You want me to walk you to the door?”

Considering the walk would take all of about two seconds and ten steps, it was a gracious but unnecessary offer.

“Thanks, but I need to check the livestock one last time before I go to bed, anyway.”

She released the latch on her seatbelt and opened the passenger side door. When she turned from closing it, she was surprised to find Mitch moving toward her in that long, lanky stride of his.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her mind drawing a complete blank as to why he’d bothered to get out of the truck at all.

“Helping you with the livestock.”

“That’s all right, I can handle it.” It might not be her favorite pastime, but she’d grown up pitching hay, mucking stalls and grooming horses, and—along with several ranch hands—still helped her father on a daily basis. Checking water buckets and tossing out a little extra grain by herself would be child’s play.

“I know you can,” he told her, catching an arm around her shoulders. “But things will go faster and you’ll be able to get to bed quicker if we both do the work.”

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