How many times had she done dishes at this old enamel sink? She’d never once wondered if it’d be the last time she’d listen for the melodic coos of the mourning doves, or see the golden finches pecking at the bird feeders blowing in the sage-scented breeze.


“Sweetheart?”


“Where would you go?”


“Probably tag along with Jenn to wherever she’s going. Not to live with her, but I can’t imagine not seeing Krista, Mason and Ariel regularly. Does that bother you?”


“Why in the world would it bother me? I know that if I had three kids and an iffy future you’d be right there with me, instead of with her.”


“Instead—”


“Instead, I have school to finish.” AJ faced her mother and smiled. “I won’t pretend this is gonna be easy on me, Mama, because unlike you and Jenn, this is the only home I’ve ever had.”


“I know.”


“Have you called Carson yet?”


“No. I wanted to talk to you first, since it affects you the most.”


“I appreciate it. Call him after you rest.”


Florence squinted at the clock. “He’s probably having lunch, so I believe I’ll call him now.” She grabbed the cordless phone and dialed.


AJ half-listened to the conversation, wondering if Cord was chowing down at his folks’ house, but she suspected the man forgot to eat if he wasn’t cooking for Ky.


The phone beeped when her mom hung up.


“Well? What’d he say?”


“Carson will swing by around three.”


“You relieved?”


She nodded. “And tired. This decision has been weighing on me, girl.”


“I can see that.”


“I assume he’ll bring Cord along, since he runs as much of this part of the ranch as Carson does these days.”


At the mention of Cord’s name, a wave of heat flooded her body.


“Amy Jo, you okay?”


“Ah, yeah, why?”


“Your cheeks are red.”


“Oh. Don’t you think it’s hot in here?”


“Not particularly. Feels good. Always a bit cold in the front room.”


“You want me to adjust the air conditioner?”


“No. It’s fine, I’m used to it with the way the heating system in this house has never worked the way it’s supposed to. Stop fussing. Get some fresh air. Work with Lucy for a few hours.”


“I’m not gonna ditch you to hang with my horse, geez. I’m taking care of you, remember? I’ll deal with Lucy when you wake up.” AJ helped her mom back into bed.


She stirred up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies. While they were baking, she sat on the back porch and called Keely.


“So?” Keely answered. “Did you do the deed?”


“Yep.”


She squealed. “And?”


“Oh. My. God. Why didn’t you tell me it’d be like that? He was everything, so amazingly perfect, romantic, hot, sexy. Sweet. Intense. God is he intense.”


“Okay, I don’t want down and dirty details, because, eww, he’s my brother, but he treated you right?”


“Unbelievably right. A couple of times.”


“Too much information, AJ. So now that your cherry’s been popped by your dream man, you’ll be moving on?”


“Literally moving on.”


“Why? What did he do?”


“It’s not what you think—”


“I’ll come back there and kick Cord’s ass if he pulled that typical McKay love ’em and leave ’em bullshit—”


“No, calm down. It doesn’t have anything to do with Cord.”


“Then what?”


AJ told Keely about her mom deciding to sell the ranch and found herself sobbing out the fears and frustrations she couldn’t tell anyone else.


“Come on, AJ. Dad and my brothers will take good care of it, just as good as you did all those years no one knew about you being the youngest ranch hand in the county. You can stay with us whenever you wanna visit, so it’s not like it’ll be in the hands of total strangers who’re putting up a gate and keeping you out forever.”


“But when we leave Denver for Christmas, I won’t be coming back here. You will be. Where will I go?”


Keely was quiet. “I’m having a blast living in Denver, but I know I can always go home. There’s never been any doubt I’ll move back to Wyoming as soon as I’m done with school. And I can’t imagine that I won’t be able to hop on a four-wheeler or a horse and high-tail it over to your place whenever I want.”


“You’re supposed to be cheering me up, Keely.”


“Sorry. Back to my favorite topic: sex. So you officially seeing Cord now?”


“In secret. We won’t be two stepping at the Golden Boot. Or eating supper at the Twin Pines.”


“Probably for the best. You’ll get to live out your sexual fantasies with a wild McKay man and no one will be the wiser. Not that you’ll have to worry about your reputation in Crook County because you won’t be livin’ there much longer.”


“True. Tell me about your date with Lex the other night.”


“I’m afraid he’s a serial killer. No. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.” Keely regaled her with another dating horror story. “That’s the last time I date a guy who’s not a cowboy. Next time I say yes to some doofus in a three piece suit, remind me about Lex, the letch.”


“And Adam, the arrogant asshole?”


“Yes. And Pete, the prissy prick.”


“And gorgeous Giovanni?”


“Mmm. No. He was worth it. Being a hot, hung Italian stallion and all.”


“Bet he doesn’t have anything on your brother.”


“Eww! AJ, that was just…eww!”


AJ laughed. “You deserved that for all the years you’ve tormented me with too much information. Gotta run. The timer on my cookies just dinged.”


Keely expelled a disgusted sigh. “You’re already making cookies for Cord?”


“Nope. They’re for your dad.”


“Dad? He’ll probably adopt you and disown me.”


“His precious baby girl who drives him insane? Wrong. I’m sure daddy-o will grill me on what you’ve been up to. Studying, right?”


“Absolutely. Speaking of, when you get time off from playing Betty Crocker, I wanna run something past you.”


“Sure. Thanks, K.”


“Later.”


AJ finished a couple of things before she woke up her mother. By the time Carson McKay’s pickup pulled into the yard, AJ realized she hadn’t bothered to look in a mirror all day. She peeked out the window. Sure enough, Cord hopped out of the passenger’s side.


Great.


“Amy Jo, will you put out the creamer and sugar? Cord might use it in his coffee.”


It was on the tip of her tongue to say Cord drank his coffee black, but she didn’t want her mother getting curious about why AJ knew such things about him. Why she’d always known how Cord took his coffee—and every other little thing about him.


AJ welcomed the McKays into the kitchen, including Carolyn, and settled everyone with coffee and cookies. Chatting about Keely and school in Denver was easy enough. It wasn’t so easy not to act stiff around Cord or overly friendly. When she sensed they wanted to get down to business, she made a break for the barn.


She saddled Lucy and took off, riding her hard. It was bittersweet; she loved the freedom of the horse zipping across the open plain as much as she hated the idea she wouldn’t have the luxury much longer. What was she supposed to do with Lucy after the ranch sold? She couldn’t imagine living her life without a horse. Heck, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere but on a ranch.


After treating Lucy to an extended brush down and a bucket of oats, AJ dragged her tack into the barn. She’d hefted the saddle on the hook when the door creaked. She spun around. A shiver went up her spine—Cord stood not ten feet away from her. Burning away every stitch of her clothing with his molten eyes.


AJ wiped the sweat from her brow and straightened the blanket draped over the stall railing. She stood on tiptoe, lifting her arms to hang the halter and bridle. The motion made her shirt ride up and she felt his searing gaze roving over the exposed skin.


Then he was behind her. “Need some help?”


“No. I’ve got it.”


“Yes, you definitely have it all.”


She pivoted. “What are you doing here?”


“Hopin’ to steal a kiss from my girl while they hammer out the rest of the details.”


“Cord—”


“AJ.” He stalked her until her back hit the post between the stalls. “Your cookies were sweet, but not as sweet as the taste I’ve had of you.”


His lips were so close. So warm and full. And tempting. Her tongue darted out and licked the seam of his lips. Mmm. Coffee. Cookies. Cord. His breath caught, but he didn’t take over, as she expected. He allowed her to explore. She slid the tip of her tongue over his teeth. Nibbled on his lower lip, then his upper lip. She kissed the corners of his mouth until he smiled. She stopped teasing and slipped her tongue inside the warm cavern.


Cord kept a firm grip on her wrists, almost as if he didn’t trust himself not to touch her. The kiss went on and on, both sweet and hot, and intense and lazy.


Reluctantly she eased her mouth away. “You make my head spin.”


“That’s bad?”


“Right now? Yes, because my body craves the rest of that headlong rush. I want to tear off your clothes. I want you to tear off my clothes. Then we can race up to the hayloft—”


“Stop. Jesus, AJ.”


“See what I mean? Quit kissing me like I’m nekkid.” She looked at the bulge in his Wranglers and a tiny surge of pride arose. “I’ll walk out first. Give you time to think about baseball or something.”


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