Cord kissed her until she was dizzy. Until she was sopping wet with need.


He whispered, “Again,” and picked her up, carrying her to the rocking chair in the corner. He straddled her legs across the arms of the chair and sank inside her. “Always so ready for me, baby doll.”


“You know how to touch me to make me that way.”


“You’re so damn sexy I never know where I wanna touch you first.” He lifted her breasts to his mouth level. “How about I suck these while you’re ridin’ me, cowgirl? I wanna feel your nipples throbbin’ on my tongue when you come.”


This go round was slower, a solid, steady rocking of the chair and a longer climb to pleasure. In the aftermath, Cord kissed her like he couldn’t bear to have their lips be apart.


They didn’t talk. They returned to bed and touched and kissed and made love until they were exhausted.


Sleepy, AJ shivered beneath the covers.


“You’re always cold.” Cord rummaged in the dresser alongside the bed. “Here’s a T-shirt.”


She slipped it on. Pathetic, but she had every intention of stealing it so she’d have something to remember him by.


“I’ve gotta check on Ky. I’ll be right back.”


When he returned, AJ noticed he’d left the door cracked open. Cord spooned against her and breathed in her hair. “Stay. Just a little while. I’ll wake you up before dawn.”


“Mmm. Okay.” She knew he’d keep his word because he wouldn’t want Ky to find them in bed together. She allowed herself to drift away.


Two sharp pokes on her arm startled her awake. Her gaze flew to the alarm clock.


Five thirty.


Dammit. It had happened again.


Two more insistent pokes and AJ moved her head to see mini-Cord, aka Ky—


wearing Superman pajamas, peering at her suspiciously. “Amy Jo? Hey, how come you’re havin’ a sleepover in my daddy’s bed?”


Crap. She elbowed Cord in the ribs.


“You coulda had a sleepover in my room.”


By Ky’s petulant expression he was upset because he considered her his friend, not his father’s friend. Her fingers automatically reached out to smooth Ky’s dark sleep-tousled hair. “No way, Jose. You snore.”


Ky smiled. “Daddy snores louder.”


“No kidding.”


“So did you move back for good? I shore missed you.” Ky hopped up on the bed, right next to her. “Are you gonna babysit me today? We could bake some of them cookies. And ride horses. Hey, wanna see the pitchers of the ocean—”


“Hang on, sport,” Cord said in a husky morning voice. “Let’s have breakfast before you go makin’ any plans.”


“Are you stayin’ for breakfast, Amy Jo?”


“I-I don’t know—”


“Please?” Two enthusiastic bounces. “Pleeeeaaase?”


She was such a sucker for this kid. “Okie-dokie, artichokie, but you’d better have a coffee cup out for me by the time I get down there.”


His face bloomed with a devilish grin that was pure bad-boy McKay. “I knew you would. You can even sit by me.” The look Ky sent his dad dared him to argue about seating arrangements.


“Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll meetcha downstairs?” Cord said.


“Okay.” Ky stood on the mattress and bounced twice before he hurled himself off the bed like a long jumper.


AJ gasped.


Cord sighed.


“Better’n last time, huh, Dad?” Ky’s little chest puffed up. “Pretty soon I’ll be able to make it all the way to the door.” He scampered out.


Before AJ could comment, Cord’s mouth was on hers for a deep kiss. He broke away and smiled. “Good mornin’. And before you worry about my son catchin’ us in bed, let me say it ain’t the end of the world.” He nuzzled her neck. “Makes me think maybe we oughta go public with this. Maybe we oughta get…married.”


A whack upside the head couldn’t have stunned her more than a marriage proposal.


From Cord McKay. First thing in the morning.


“What say we get hitched? We’re compatible—in bed and out. You know what it takes to be a rancher’s wife. You like my kid and he adores you. You’d be a great mother to him and any other kids we have.”


“And I have all my teeth and I can cook, too,” AJ snapped and jumped out of bed to scramble for her clothes.


“What?”


“I am not a goddamn broodmare, McKay.”


“Fine. Maybe the reasons don’t sound romantic, but why ain’t it a good idea? You love it here. This could be your new home. You already know the land and my family.


You could stay right here and you wouldn’t have to go back to Denver.”


“Have to go? I want to go to Denver. I want to finish school because it is the single thing in my life I’m doing for myself and no one else.” She yanked on her jeans. In the last few weeks Cord hadn’t listened to a damn thing she’d said. He wanted her simply because…she suited him.


At one time that might’ve been enough for her, but not now. Marriage should start with a declaration of I-love-you-and-can’t-live-without-you. Period. It didn’t make her childish to expect love, not compatibility, as a reason to spend her life with him; it just made his reasons emotionless and selfish.


“AJ, listen—”


She whirled around. “Do you love me, Cord? Is that why you’re hinting you’d like my boots under your bed every night?”


Cord averted his eyes. “There are more important things in a relationship than love.”


Not for me there isn’t.


The front door slammed and voices echoed in the foyer. Before either of them knew what the ruckus was about, footsteps pounded up the stairs. The bedroom door was flung open and Carolyn McKay raced in, Carson and Ky on her heels.


Carolyn threw her arms around AJ. “Thank God. Oh, thank God you’re okay, Amy Jo. We thought…”


AJ couldn’t breathe, Carolyn was squeezing her so tight.


Ky announced, “Amy Jo had an overnight with Daddy, Gran-gran.”


Cord groaned. Carson cleared his throat. AJ felt her cheeks flame.


“That’s good. Real good that she was here and not there.”


“There? What is going on?”


Carolyn eased back and tucked a strand of hair behind AJ’s ear. “Sweetheart, I don’t know how to tell you this.”


All the blood drained from her face. “Did something happen to my mother?”


“No, but your house caught fire and burned to the ground.”


AJ stared, in utter shock. “What? When?”


“About two hours ago, near as they can figure.”


“You’re sure?”


“Yes.”


“But…how?”


“No one knows. It went so fast the volunteer firefighters didn’t get there in time to save anything. And we thought you were inside…”


“Until I realized your Jeep wasn’t there,” Carson said. “We called Keely when we couldn’t get you on your cell and she told us to check here.”


“The house burned?”


“Yeah, honey, I’m sorry.”


“Is there anything left?”


“Didn’t appear to be. Didn’t spread to the barn or any of the outbuildings so they’re assumin’ it was just somethin’ in the house that somehow ignited.”


AJ nodded numbly. “I know Ma told you we’d been having problems with both the propane and the old coal furnace. Some of the wiring was kinda iffy too. I can’t believe it. If I would’ve been there, maybe—”


“Don’t say it, don’t even think it, AJ,” Cord snapped.


“Not your fault. Sweetheart, we’re just so glad you weren’t there.”


“But everything else was. All our family pictures and furniture and the movers were supposed to come and get it all tomorrow…” Tears broke free like a dam breach.


Carolyn wrapped an arm around her shoulder and led her from the room. She offered to make coffee; all AJ wanted was to see the wreckage that used to be her home. Alone.


But Carolyn insisted on coming along.


Pumper-trucks and pickups filled the yard. When AJ caught the glimpse of the smoking pile of rubble, she covered her face and sobbed. The only thing that remained was the foundation and the cement walkway.


Poof. Everything gone. Carolyn held her while she cried. She stayed close when AJ


called her mother and her sister, and the insurance agent. Luckily they’d kept the house insured until the final step of the deed transfer, which wouldn’t be for another couple days.


Hours passed before the firefighters declared the last embers out. It was late afternoon and she was alone with her scattered thoughts, lost in the smell of smoke, guilt and tears. Carolyn had saddled up Lucy and rode her to the McKay homestead, promising to take care of her horse until AJ was settled. Wherever and whenever that might be.


AJ wondered if she’d ever feel settled again. Not only had she lost her home, she’d lost decades worth of family history. She literally had nothing but the clothes on her back.


She knew things could be replaced. She knew she was lucky to be alive. She knew it, yet, she mourned. And dammit, she figured she had a right to it.


Cord’s big truck rumbled up the driveway. With all that’d happened she’d completely forgotten their early morning conversation. AJ hoped Ky was with him because he wouldn’t speak so freely about future plans with his son around.


But Cord was alone and he didn’t get out of his truck for the longest time, he just stared at the debris pile. When he climbed out, he ambled straight to her and enclosed her in his big strong arms.


Why did he feel like home?


Wishful thinking.


She allowed his comfort and managed not to cry. Finally she untangled herself from him. “It’s probably better it burned now, rather than after Carter and Macie moved in with their sweet little baby, none of them suspecting what horrors were awaiting them in this old crappy house. I couldn’t live with myself if it would’ve happened to them.” AJ

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