There was no defense for what he’d done. He’d been young and cocky. Then young and afraid. If either of those combinations were a valid excuse, prisons would be less full.
At first he’d tried to weather the character flogging he received in the press. Everywhere he turned, there was a reminder of what he’d done, who he’d hurt, what he’d taken from the planet. The news played the story over and over until there wasn’t a person on the street who didn’t stop to talk to him about it. It didn’t matter if they were damning him to hell or excusing what he’d done, each encounter left him feeling raw and filled with a guilt so intense he’d considered taking his own life to even the score.
So he’d bought the Double C and retreated there. Drinking heavily and eating next to nothing, Tony probably wouldn’t have lasted long had David not wandered onto his property. The memory of their initial meeting was muddled by the drunken haze of his first months on the ranch, as were the details of exactly how David had become Tony’s manager. Had David bought the first horses with his own money or Tony’s? He couldn’t remember. They’d just started appearing.
At first David had worked them while Tony continued to binge drink, deliberately ignoring the changes at his own ranch. Eventually, boredom, curiosity, or both had driven Tony to watch David train.
Then to work with a horse on his own. Before long, working with the horses replaced drinking, and he and David came to an agreement. Tony didn’t want to meet prospective buyers or hear about the horses after they left his ranch. David could hire whomever he thought necessary to keep the ranch running smoothly, as long as they respected Tony’s privacy and kept their distance from him.
Somewhere along the way, anger replaced fear. Indifference replaced regret. He found peace in the distance he placed between himself and those around him.
Peace everywhere except in those fucking dreams.
And now with Sarah.
Nothing in his life had prepared him for the whirlwind of his little blonde intruder. Pushing her away was about as easy as trying to stop high tide with a spoon. She played by her own rules and challenged every one of his.
For the first time in years, he felt something besides anger, and part of him hated her for it.
She thinks she can save me. She’s too innocent to understand that some people, like some animals, are damaged beyond redemption.
Hand in hand, they walked back to the cabin. Tony asked, “Do you need anything from inside before we leave?”
Those dark brown eyes searched his face before she nodded. He opened the door, fighting temptation and winning by the merest margin.
Sarah closed the door and pulled her shirt off over her head. Her bra followed. His jaw fell open a bit as she stepped out of her shoes and the rest of her clothing. What normally would have been an act of seduction was charged with a different emotion. “I saw a deck of cards in the kitchen. I’ve never played cards naked. Have you?”
He shook his head wordlessly.
“Want to play?”
A man didn’t need to be asked that question twice. Tony stripped bare and, despite his arousal, went to retrieve the deck of cards. They sat across from each other on the rug in the living room. He shuffled the cards and asked, “What do you know?”
She smiled at him and blushed. “I don’t mind learning something new.”
He caught her double meaning but asked a safer question. “Have you ever played poker?”
“No, but I’ve always felt that I would be good at it. Maybe I was a cardsharp in a past life.”
He couldn’t help but return her smile as he dealt. “I didn’t bring much cash with me.” He fished out some dollar bills and change from his jeans pocket.
“Let’s play for something more valuable than that.”
He didn’t try to guess what she wanted, because there was really no way of knowing with her. “Such as?”
She sat straighter and crisscrossed her legs, giving him an unbelievably distracting view that sent his blood pounding southward. “Time. Each one of those quarters can be an hour and every dollar could be a day. The winner gets to choose what we do with that time. You could win a few more hours of silence.” The teaser at the end was unnecessary because he’d already lost the ability to do anything but agree to whatever she suggested. When he didn’t respond, she prompted, “I have no idea how to play, though, so we will have to speak.”
She listened intently as he explained the game, and he was torn between throwing his cards down and taking her again and again until his fascination with her ebbed and demanding that they end the game now, before it was too late.
Don’t trust me, Sarah.
People don’t change.
I don’t want to be the one to teach you that harsh lesson, but God forgive me, I can’t stay away from you, either.
She won six days and three hours from him, which was all the money he’d brought, but he conceded to himself that his attention had been divided. He expected her to gloat when she pulled the last of the winnings to herself, but she didn’t. He waited for her terms, certain that they would exceed what he would honor.
She counted the days on her fingers and said, “Six days. That brings us to Tuesday.”
He hated that he had to know. Hated that he couldn’t charge forward as uninhibited as she’d been since the moment he’d met her. “Six days of what?” he demanded.
She smiled at him gently and shrugged. “Of whatever we want to do, but let’s stay here at the cabin.”
“We have to go back eventually,” he said gruffly, not wanting her to know how much he wanted those extra days alone with her.
“I know,” she said a bit sadly. “But we don’t have to go today.”
Six days and three hours.
He could give her that.
All seriousness fell away as a huge smile spread across her face and she announced, “And we stay naked!”
He raised one eyebrow at her. “Are you a nudist now?”
She shrugged those beautiful shoulders again and said, “No, but I may have been one in a past life, because I would love to play Ping-Pong like this.”
The image of the two of them attempting such a feat made him chuckle and then give in to a hearty laugh. “I don’t have anything like that here.”
“Well, who stocks your food? Maybe they could drop a few games by.”
“I can think of better ways to occupy our time,” he said suggestively.
She placed her hands on her hips, lifting those lovely breasts up and down with the move and countered, “You’re just afraid you’ll lose again.”