“I did ask you. And you tossed off a smart aleck answer. I want to know why we’re driving across someone’s land.”

“It’s my buddy Alan’s land. He gave me permission to take the shortcut to the lake.”

“Lake?”

“Yeah, we’re goin’ to Keyhole.”

Panic set in.

The truck stopped and then Carson’s hands were on her face. “Sugar. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t swim.”

“That’s—”

“Ever. I don’t even get near the water.”

“You’re afraid of water?”

“Yes!”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know how to swim!”

Warm lips pressed into her forehead. “Hey now. It’s okay.”

She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry to ruin your plans.”

“They’re not ruined. Because we’re still goin’ to the lake.”

“What? No.”

“Look at me.” He stared into her eyes. “Caro, you’re safe with me. I promise. Let’s go down there and see how it goes.”

“You won’t make me get in the water?”

“We’ll see, okay?”

She tried to shake free from him. “Doesn’t matter because I don’t have a bathing suit. There’s no way I’m swimming in my clothes because the skirt could get tangled around my legs and pull me to the bottom—”

His mouth was on hers again.

And of course his distraction worked. After he kissed her senseless she burrowed her face into his neck as his fingers drew circles in the middle of her back.

“I’d never let anything happen to you,” he said softly. “You mean too much to me.”

That shocked her. “What? We’ve known each other five days.”

His intense blue gaze never wavered. “I knew five seconds after I saw you that you were someone special who’d change my life forever.” Then, seeming embarrassed by his answer, he retreated, put the truck in gear and they were on the move again.

They started up a small incline. At the crest, she could see and smell the water. He parked and came around to help her out. Holding her hand, he led her down the embankment.

She noticed the picnic table close to the water’s edge and a couple of cottonwood trees creating a canopy above it. The air was cooler this close to the water.

“Careful. It’s a little muddy.”

So much for her white shoes.

After setting his hat brim side up on the table top, he dropped onto the bench and rested his forearms on the edge of the table behind him. She sat next to him, and took in their surroundings. This section seemed to be a small cove just off the main body of the lake.

He exhaled. “After the scorcher of a day this breeze feels nice.”

“Did you work outside all day?”

“Pretty much. We shoulda fixed the section of fence last week, when it wasn’t a hundred degrees in the shade. But my brothers overruled me. So it was on the list today. Dirty, damn, miserable work.”

“Then why do it?”

“Because it needed done.”

“Even when it’s a hundred in the shade?”

“Even then. Stuff needs done even when it’s fifty below with the wind-chill. Dealin’ with the weather…hot and then cold.” He snorted. “Kinda like dealin’ with my dad. I’m used to that too. He doesn’t have to do the shitty chores anymore. That’s why he has us.”

“That hardly seems fair.”

He shrugged. “It is what it is. My dad won’t just hand over the McKay Ranch to me or my brothers. We’ve gotta prove we’re worthy.”

“Worthy of what?” She didn’t see Carson as the type who’d need validation even from his father; he oozed self-confidence.

“Worthy stewards of the land. He doesn’t say too much unless one of us royally fu—screws up. But owning land isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. Guess that’s something he learned from his dad when he and his brother came over here from Ireland.”

“Speaking of our ancestors… Do you have any idea what happened between the Wests and McKays?”

“Nope, and I don’t care. Water under the bridge.” He faced her. “Besides, I’ve got a new appreciation for the West family.”

Carolyn set her hand on his cheek. “Do you now?”

“Yep. C’mere. You’re too far away.” He plucked her up and settled her on his lap, facing him, with her legs dangling on the opposite side of his.

“Carson, I don’t—”

“You don’t want to be this close to me?” He pushed her hair over her shoulder. “Or you’re feelin’ it’s wrong that you want to be this close to me?”

“Am I that easy to read?”

“Sugar, you’re just that innocent. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. With your background…there’s part of you that feels what we’re doin’ is wrong.” Carson kissed her chin. “But it’s not. I believe you have more curiosity than guilt when I touch you.”

“So I am very easy to read.”

“I’ll respect any boundaries you set. But I ain’t gonna lie to you. If it was up to me there’d be no boundaries between us at all.” He smoothed his hand down her hair. “It’s different with you.”

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