Chapter Two

Jolted upright by the insufferable screech of a rooster—a pathetic creature who seemed intent on annoying him every morning—Creed Gatlin dragged himself from bed with a curse. Since the cowardly capon never crowed when rain loomed on the horizon, the sun must be out. Three days of a hard-driven downpour had rendered the land an endless sea of mire and muck, and he longed to feel the warm rays on his face again.

He dressed, saddled his horse and headed for his parents' house several rods down the road. By the time he stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast, his mom, dad and brother, Brand, were sharing a pot of fresh brewed coffee at the table.

"You're up early this morning." Brand smiled as Creed settled into a chair beside him.

"Off to the Morse place." He filled his cup, took a sip and grimaced. His mother, Polly, said coffee shouldn't be called coffee unless the aroma roused the neighbors. "Estelle asked me to stop by and replace some broken boards in the barn."

Polly rose from the table and returned with a platter of flapjacks that had been warming on the stove. "I thought they intended to raise a new barn this year?"

"You know Mason, if there's one nail popping through, he wants it fixed."

Brand grabbed a biscuit from the plate and slathered it with butter. "Until things dry out, I don't think we'll be attending any barn-raisings."

Creed thought about the structures he'd built in the last ten years. He'd picked up a hammer the day he turned twelve and hadn't put it down since. Never lacking for work, he put up buildings faster than he could count, bunk houses, corncribs, hen houses, and every outbuilding known to man. He liked the variety, the continual change of scenery and the luxury of answering to no man.

His father leaned back in his chair, cup in hand. "Estelle's niece arrived in late March. Hails from one of the Carolinas, and they say she's a beauty."

Creed shrugged. She could be lovelier than Bathsheba and he wouldn't be interested. He hadn't met a woman who held his interest for long, though not from lack of them trying. The thought of commitment made his gut flip. His thoughts drifted to Anna. He'd have to tell her he wanted to move on. She would cry, and he would be cloaked with guilt, but he could no longer put it off. He slammed down a biscuit, finished his coffee, and rose from the table.

"Creed, it's a long morning without decent food in your belly."

"No time, Ma, but I have time for this." He kissed her on the forehead and rushed out the door.

Blackbirds scattered from the treetops as Creed pulled into the Morse place a short time later. He entered the barn and began wresting the wooden planks from a stall when frantic whinnies from a horse echoed through the rafters. He knew more about animals than he did carpentry, and the beast's bellows screamed panic.

A string of expletives from a woman's lips reached his ears, and then deafening silence. His curiosity piqued, he tossed the hammer on the ground, walked from the barn and headed for the corral.

Sprawled in a cesspool of black mud, long limbs hugged her sides. Warning bells went off in his head. Had she been knocked unconscious when the mare threw her? Moments later, she groaned and brought a hand around to rub her lower back.

Stifling a grin, Creed walked toward her and stretched an arm out. "You must be Estelle's niece. Do you think anything is broken?"

The woman lifted her head, her gold-flecked, brown eyes sparked with anger. "I am Estelle's niece...and 'no' to your second question." She waved off his offer of help. "I'm capable of rising on my own."

He watched her rise to her elbows with a frown.

"Oh, look at my riding pants and boots, caked with mud."

He bit his lip to keep from laughing. "Yes, ma'am, they are."

Struggling to her hands and knees, she dragged herself upright, teetered like a twig caught up in an eddy, and hit the mud again, face down. She gasped for air, cleared the dirt from her mouth with her fingers and followed it up with another curse. "Damn!"

Clutching his abdomen, Creed roared with laughter.

She glanced toward the house. "Be quiet you fool. Do you want the whole world to know?"

"I'm sorry, Miss, I can't help it. I've never seen anything so damn funny—you rolling around in the mud like a pig."

"I'm so happy to amuse you, Mister—"

"Creed-Creed Gatlin. I'd like to shake your hand but I have an aversion to mud."

"An aversion to compassion too." The mesmerizing eyes narrowed. "Could you ask your cold heart to tell your face to stop grinning?"

Heat flared in his blood. He couldn't imagine how a woman covered in slime could stir his desire. "I'll do my best, Miss."

"Look." She clambered to her knees again. "I don't know where you came from Creed Gatlin, but you're no gentleman."

"And you, ma'am, are no lady. My ears are still burning from the cuss words you hurled."

Anger came sudden and intense, turning her brown eyes into veritable flames. "Don't you have something better to do...like leave? Yesterday would have been preferable. "

"My apologies, I meant to help." With a flourish of his arm, he bowed and found it hard to stifle the laughter bubbling up his chest. "I'll be about my business then."

Compulsion forced him to look at her again. She pressed her mouth into a thin line. He had a sudden urge to kiss those lush lips, dirt and all. Her heart-shaped face, veiled by a waterfall of mud-caked tresses, failed to hide the high cheekbones and delicate features. His breath hitched when her gaze locked with his. Taking a step back, he turned and walked back to the barn, aware of his hard shaft pressing against his trousers.

Still trying to control his mirth, he picked up the hammer and resumed his task in the barn. Fearful the mud-angel might hear him he clamped his mouth shut while visions flooded him. Despite the grit covering her head-to-toe, she oozed sensuality. The long, dark hair tumbling down her back added to her allure. One thing he knew, beneath all that muck, a woman with grit existed.

While spread eagle on the ground, every body part she possessed came into view. Slender and curvaceous, her legs were long, her waist narrow, and her hips slimmer than a boy's. Despite her anger, she spoke like a well-educated woman, the slow, southern drawl arousing every sense he owned.

Her angry words rang in his ears, and he wondered what gave her cause to speak in such a rude tone. He'd offered his assistance, and a chuckle or two. With a shake of his head, he ripped a board from the wall. The sooner he finished the job he could leave, and not have to deal with the little witch again.

* * *

Lauren pulled herself from the mud and limped toward the front porch. Settling onto the bench, she removed her boots and poked about her ankle for broken bones. She should've known better. Hank and Justus had warned her about riding that mare. She had ignored their warning.

Glancing toward the barn, the humiliating scene returned in a montage of flashbacks; images that made her look ridiculous. The irksome creature from the barn hadn't even tried to hide his laughter. His shoulders still shook while walking away from her. Another image surfaced; one she didn't want to revisit—Creed Gatlin's handsome face. Most men of the time fancied the long handlebar mustache, but not him. Neatly trimmed, it matched his long, midnight hair. His eyes had laughed too, although he tried hard to hide the pale smoke orbs by bowing like a court's fool. His other features were like cut-glass and much too aligned for a male.

She gasped when another image surfaced. He'd heard her cuss, had the audacity to call her out about the blasphemy from her lips. She prayed he wouldn't tell everyone the Morse's niece swore like a sailor. At least he had the decency to remain in the barn while she licked her wounds. With a sigh, she rose from the bench and hobbled into the kitchen.

Nelly looked at her, the whites of her eyes starker than cotton bolls. "Lawdy, Lauren, what done happen to you?"

"Never mind about that. Have Ol' Biddle bring a tub and plenty of hot water to my room."

"But why is ya covered in mud?"

Sarcasm laced her words. "I wrestled a pig in the corral."

"I best fetch Miss Estelle from her sewing."


'Well how is it ya got tangled up with a pig?"

"Never mind about that either; just fetch Biddle."

Recalling Creed's words about her rolling around in the mud like a sow, her cheeks burned. God's teeth, she didn't want to see the man again for as long as she lived.

Biddle appeared in her room with the tub moments later and looked at her, mouth agape.

Before he had a chance to form the words, she sent him a withering glare. "Don't ask."

"No, Missy, I won't." He forced a somber face. "I be right back with the water."

Biddle finished filling the tub and left the room. Not a minute too soon, Lauren lowered her achy body into the steamy water. Picking up the bar of soap with a prolonged sigh, she scrubbed the grime from her body and then washed her hair. Nelly would tell Aunt Estelle she'd returned to the house looking a fright, if the little meddler hadn't already.

I'll beat the little busybody at her own game, tell Aunt Estelle the first chance I get, omit the part about the swear words, of course. Besides, I have a thing or two to tell Estelle about the overbearing Creed Gatlin.

Lauren stepped into the subject at the supper table, determined to challenge her aunt and uncle over their choice of hired hands. "I encountered the most arrogant man

today in the corral." She brought a hand to her throat. "I believe he said he went by Creed Gatlin."

Estelle looked up from her plate with raised eyebrow. "Whatever do you mean, dear? Creed is a bit on the wild side, but never condescending." Estelle paused her expression thoughtful. "What happened in the corral, Lauren?"

Curious, round eyes fell upon her, Uncle Mason's, Nelly's, Biddle's, and Aunt Estelle's. "The mare tossed me from her back, and Mr. Gatlin walked from the barn. Rather than offer his assistance, he laughed."

Estelle lowered her chin, but not before Lauren saw a smile curl her lips. "You were covered in mud, dear, from what Nelly tells me."

Oh, the day would come when she'd wipe that haughty grin from Nelly's face. "But I could have broken my neck and the impudent man laughed!" She lowered her voice. "What kind of a gentleman would remind me that I looked like a pig rolling around in the mud?"

Mason choked on his coffee and Ol' Biddle averted his gaze. When she looked to Nelly again, the girl's eyes sparkled with laughter.

In an attempt to soothe her ruffled feathers, her aunt assumed a straight face. "Lauren, men in this part of the country are not as genteel as they are in the South. They weren't raised in this manner, and I find it quite stimulating."

"I find it loathsome and disrespectful."

Estelle's brown eyes met hers. "This is a rugged land, inhabited by rugged men. If push ever comes to shove, you'll thank your lucky stars they don't take on the world with linen hankies and ruffled sleeves."

"Maybe so, but that does not give them cause to be cruel."

"Perhaps you just got off on the wrong foot. Creed is often aloof, but never mean-spirited."

"We got off on the wrong foot all right," she snapped. "Mine."

Mason piped in. "You won't find a nicer brood than the eight Gatlin children."


"Yes." Estelle chuckled. "We grow large families in the wilderness. Let's see, there's Creed, of course, the eldest, and then Brand and Finn. And the girls are Belle, Emily, Martha and Minnie."

"I believe you forgot the littlest one," Mason said.

"Oh, of course, baby Jack."

"Dear, me." Lauren drew a deep breath. "I hope the others have better manners."

"You'll meet them all soon." Estelle winked. "When we have an annual barbeque and dance at Full Circle, people come from miles around."

"I can't wait," Lauren hissed under her breath.

Mason reached for the newspaper beside his plate and held it up. "We must speak of more serious matters now."

The room fell silent and a niggling fear snaked down Lauren's spine. "What is it, Uncle Mason? What has happened?"

"On the twelfth of this month, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston. The fort surrendered a day later and Lincoln has called for seventy-five thousand troops to be sent to the South to stop the rebellion."

Remembering her conversation with her father in the library several months ago, Lauren closed her eyes. Father, my childhood friends. What will become of them now? When she opened them again, everyone at the table seemed stunned into silence.

Her uncle cursed, adding to her dread. "Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas have joined the Confederacy. The remaining slave states, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky have sworn loyalty to the Union."

"We so hoped it would never come to this," said Estelle.

Lauren recognized the panic in her aunt's voice. "Come to what?"

"War." Mason put the newspaper down and looked at them one at a time. "We'll pray for all, Confederate and Union alike."

"I'll pen a letter to Father tonight."

"I think it's a good idea, Lauren," Estelle said. "Perhaps he'll be able to enlighten us, although the news is often stale by the time it reaches the settlements."

Her uncle changed the subject with a smile, lessening her concern for the time being. "When you've finished eating, I've something to show you in the barn."

Lauren perked up. "What is it?"

"A horse and this one won't throw you."

She pushed away from the table and rose. "Come on, Uncle Mason, I couldn't eat a bite now."

Once in the barn, he told her to close her eyes. She heard him rustling around a stall and moments later felt leather straps placed in her hands. "Okay, you can open them now."

She'd never seen a finer steed and fell in love with him on the spot. His reddish-brown coat reminded her of the sun-dried cliffs surrounding Red Wing. A dark brown stripe ran the length of his back and matched his mane and bushy tail. Keen and alert, he stood apart from the rest of Uncle Mason's herd.

"Adobe." She nuzzled his snout. "I must name you Adobe."

"I purchased him in Dakota Territory last week with you in mind."

"Can I ride him?"

"Are you up to it with that sprained ankle?"

With a nod, she climbed into the saddle and urged him from the barn. Uncle Mason opened the paddock and she rode Adobe into a nearby field. Her breath escaped in a rush as they sped across the land. His leg muscles taut and hard, his gait solid, Lauren had never ridden a horse as fleet of foot.

Mason stood outside the barn when she returned. She scrambled from Adobe's back, threw her arms about her uncle's neck and fought back tears. "Thank you, I adore him."

Adobe nudged her arm and her uncle snickered. "Looks like the feeling is mutual."

That evening, Lauren sat with Estelle and Mason on the front porch and listened to the soothing sounds of crickets in the calm night air. Nelly walked onto the porch with a tray of beverages.

"Ah, here's my mint julep." Estelle reached for a glass. "The one thing I haven't been able to surrender since living in the South."

Mason made a face and plucked a glass from the tray. "Why can't I just have my brandy straight up without the frothy ice, mint and sugar?"

Estelle looked up from her drink. "You know you enjoy julep, dear, although you'd never admit it."

Still nursing a sore ankle, Lauren rocked in a nearby chair. "How did Full Circle get its name?"

"I've a theory about life." Mason paused, tossed the drink back and then puckered his lips, no doubt from the sweet taste. "We're born and if we're lucky, grow to adulthood. Children come along and then grandchildren, perpetuating the never-ending circle of life. By the time we come to the end of our days, we've come full circle, birth to death. Stella and I weren't fortunate enough to have children, but nonetheless, this is our full circle."

"Aunt Estelle says you claim to be holding on to your own little piece of heaven here."

He nodded. "Look around you, girl. Have you ever seen such beauty?"

"No," Lauren said, and meant it. "Truly, I haven't."

Mason raised his glass. "Here's to holding on to our own little piece of heaven, ladies."

Estelle raised her glass of julep and Lauren her glass of lemonade. "It will be difficult to return to Beaufort now. I'm bedeviled with the land and the people."

Mason placed his hands out as his sides and smiled. "Then stay, Lauren. Stella and I would love to have you remain at Full Circle."

"Oh, dear, what of Father? I miss him and promised to return soon."

"You don't have to make your mind up this very minute, dear." Estelle's soft brown eyes met hers. "Give it some thought, that's all we ask."

"All right, Aunt Estelle, I promise to think about it."

* * *

The weeks flew by as Lauren familiarized herself with the daily routines of the ranch. Everyone worked tirelessly, including her. With the smell of manure, leather and horse spiraling up her nose, she learned to clean out stalls, fork hay and groom the mounts. Despite the unfamiliar scents, the environment suited her well and she thrived in the fresh, crisp air of spring.

Frequent guests arrived at Full Circle, neighbors and friends seeking a short respite from the hard rigors of running farms and ranches. It came as no surprise to Lauren that Aunt Estelle mirrored her mother's graciousness when it came to receiving guests. An assortment of homemade sweets made the rounds on these occasions—teacakes, slivers of pie and squares of cobbler, washed down by cold lemonade, coffee and tea. Estelle insisted every guest leave Full Circle with a full belly.

Lauren realized how much her life had changed since leaving Beaufort. At Grand Cove, she met every day with detached resignation, knowing tomorrow would bring more of the same. At Full Circle she awoke every morning eager to face the day, her heart light, her thoughts pleasant. She had to admit, ranch life suited her best.

This morning while in the midst of her chores, Uncle Mason poked his head into the barn. "Your aunt and I are off to New Ulm for supplies. A new hotel just opened and they serve fresh trout every day at noon."

"Is that an invitation?"

He winked. "Time you show off Adobe."

Uncle Mason and Aunt Estelle rode in the buckboard while she trailed behind on Adobe. A soft breeze fanned her face beneath a vivid blue sky. The snow had melted and the river had overrun the massive slabs of ice, announcing the formal arrival of spring. Here the land formed a relatively level plateau surrounded by deep streams and tributaries, presenting another breathtaking view.

"New Ulm is nestled into a scenic valley surrounded by green hills and inhabited by a plethora of German immigrants." Uncle Mason followed her gaze as he spoke. "Agriculture drew them and the rich, fertile soil."

She drank in the beauty of the landscape. "They were well rewarded by their wanderlust."

When they arrived at the main thoroughfare of town, Mason turned the team toward the general store, a one-story structure in the middle of the block. The sign over the entry, Knapp Mercantile and Dry Goods, sported a fresh coat of red paint.

Estelle climbed from the wagon. "Let's get the new ribbons you wanted before we head over to the hotel to eat."

Lauren dismounted and tied Adobe to the railing. A jangle of bells announced their arrival as they opened the front door. Her aunt didn't seem the least surprised when a young woman standing by the front counter waved to them before turning to the clerk again. The girl looked familiar in an odd way and the man looked love-struck by her presence.

Estelle removed her bonnet. "Hello Em and Frank. Allow me to introduce my niece from North Carolina, Lauren McCain."

The young woman straightened and turned to her with a warm smile. The odd sense of familiarity hit her full force. Em looked like Creed Gatlin.

Estelle continued. "I believe you met her brother, Creed." Her aunt nodded toward the man. "This is Frank Knapp, Emily's beau."

They exchanged banal greetings while Lauren's stomach twisted into a knot. She wondered if the insufferable man had accompanied his sister into town. As if her thoughts could summon him, the door opened and Creed walked in, followed by a handsome, young man.

Directing his conversation to her aunt, the Greek god nodded in Lauren's direction. "This is a pleasant surprise, Estelle. I didn't expect to see you in town today."

"Afternoon, Creed." Estelle lifted her chin and peered over his broad shoulders. "Finn." Her aunt flashed a warm smile. "How nice to see you again."

A wide grin spread the boy's lips. Lauren couldn't help but smile in return.

"May I present Master Finn, another dashing lad from the Gatlin brood?" Her aunt liked the boy. "And you do remember our Creed, don't you, Lauren?"

Our Creed indeed. Lauren gave a curt nod to Creed, but flashed her best smile at Finn. Boyishly adorable, an unruly cowlick jutted from the golden-brown locks of his forehead. His smile would melt the coldest of maiden's hearts. Lauren extended her hand. "Nice to make your acquaintance, Finn."

The boy removed his hat. "It's nice to see you Mrs. Morse." Still clasping Lauren's hand, he turned to her. "My pleasure, Miss McCain."

She caught Creed's eye and his mocking grin. Dear Lord, he's reliving our first meeting in the corral. Turning her back to him, she rifled through a stack of fabric on a nearby table. Then she closed her eyes. Why did she have to remember every muscular curve, the broad shoulders and lean hips? The man exuded power and danger, with emphasis on danger.

A memory of pewter eyes loomed and the knot of tension in her stomach tightened. She couldn't afford to know what lay beyond that predatory look or what wicked thoughts lingered in his mind. She didn't doubt most of the man's thoughts ran along the lines of sinful pleasures. Bedazzled by his mere presence, she willed her trembling hands to still and opened her eyes and ears to the conversation behind her.

Estelle's voice again. "How's your mother, Finn, and our little Jack?"

"He never did learn to walk, Mrs. Morse, went from crawling to running."

Lauren felt Creed's stare boring into her back. She flipped through the bolts in perfect sync to the mad patter of her heart. If ever she could be a mind reader, it would be now. Did he plan to tell Aunt Estelle about her foul mouth?

Her aunt's voice dripped honey. "Thank you for helping Lauren when the horse threw her, Creed."

"Happy to be of assistance. She bore up well under that sprained ankle, conducted herself in a way you'd be proud of."

Anger surged up Lauren's chest. Over her shoulder, she pinned him with a withering glare.

"I'm thankful you were working in the barn." Estelle seemed oblivious to the undercurrents cracking the air. "Allow me to buy luncheon today at the new hotel in town—Finn, Em, you too, Frank."

Mouth open, Lauren whirled around. "Oh, no, Aunt Estelle, I don't…." The challenge in Creed's eyes stopped her mid-sentence. She had no idea what he'd say if she continued to object.

"Lauren, dear, we have plenty of time, and they serve a wonderful trout." Her aunt turned to Frank. "What do you say; can someone mind the store for a time?"

"We'd love to join you." Em turned to Frank. "Can you get away?"

The clerk nodded and scurried off. "I'll ask Henry to watch things while I'm gone."

Lauren couldn't believe the turn of events. Good God! She wanted to forget about her first meeting with Creed Gatlin. Mortification ripped through her recalling the encounter.

When Frank and Henry returned, they left the store and strolled down the boardwalk to the hotel. Mason had arrived and seemed delighted to see their companions. With the restaurant filled to capacity, her uncle lassoed a table on the veranda. Fresh wildflowers in a pottery vase adorned the table, eliciting nostalgic memories of Lauren's mother and Grand Cove.

Wearing a white shirt and black trousers, a waiter appeared to take their order. Everyone chose the fresh trout, accompanied by wild rice and fresh sourdough biscuits.

Despite her initial qualms, Lauren enjoyed herself. Creed talked to Mason about the new construction in town and then entered into a teasing banter with Emily and Frank about impending wedding plans.

Mason asked, "Is Belle in town with you today?"

Finn's face lit up with another smile "Oh, yes. We dropped her off at the lumber mill so she could pester Simon."

"Polly tells me there's a wedding on the horizon." Aunt Estelle looked at Finn. "When do Belle and Simon plan to marry?"

"This coming fall, and they plan to ask Mason to officiate," Finn offered.

"Polly and Sam must be happy about the joyous occasion and the prospect of grandchildren on the horizon."

"You know our mother." Creed's rich voice. "The more children around her feet, the happier she is."

After the meal, Mason headed off to the blacksmith's shop to see about shoes for the horses and the rest of the group returned to the store.

"Estelle, Miss McCain," Creed tipped his hat. "We enjoyed the visit."

Taken aback by the sincerity in his voice, Lauren managed a nod.

Estelle took Creed's hand. "Mace and I will be hosting the annual barbeque and barn dance soon. Don't forget." Next, she faced Finn. "Tell your mother to bring the peach cobbler—the melt-in-your-mouth-peach-cobbler."

"Yes, ma'am, I'll tell her." Finn returned the wide-brimmed hat to his head and tipped it in Lauren's direction.

Disconcerted over the entire ordeal, Lauren uttered a feeble, "Goodbye."

They left Knapp's store a short time later with several purchases, a bolt of green calico fabric for Estelle and a dozen hair ribbons for Lauren.

"One more stop, dear." Her aunt slipped her arm in hers. "I'd like you to meet Belle, the eldest of the Gatlin girls."

Before Lauren could utter a word, Estelle dragged her toward the lumber mill.

Standing inside yet another store, Estelle made the introductions between Lauren, Belle and Simon.

Vivacious and pert, Belle smiled at Lauren. "We heard about you─all good things, of course."

Lauren nodded, and then wondered what they’d heard. "Nice to meet you, Belle, Simon."

She studied Belle as she conversed with her aunt. The girl resembled Finn. Shiny brown hair framed her small face and delicate features. Several loose strands tumbled from her forehead, pointing to a pair of sparkling blue eyes. Simon looked like a scholar, leaving little doubt that one day he'd be a prosperous business owner.

Estelle bubbled over with exuberance. "Your brothers said you'd be here discussing the wedding. Is there anything special you'd like me to bring?"

Belle sighed. "Simon has his heart set on fruit cake, and I've been doing my best to convince him Mother's chocolate-walnut would be best."

"Polly's chocolate-walnut took first prize last year at the county fair." Her aunt's voice rang neutrality. "Fruit cake is traditional, so Simon's preference would work too." Estelle delivered the words and looked from Belle to Simon. "A little piece of advice from an old busybody who's been married to the same wonderful man for years: Choose your battles with care, a secret formula for a lifetime of marital bliss."

Simon and Belle smiled and nodded in unison.

"We must be going, children. My dear Mason waits for us."

Out the door again, they headed for the buckboard. Mason stood behind the wagon loading a crate of horseshoes.

After climbing onto the seat, he turned to Lauren and Estelle. "Are we ready, my turtledoves?"

Estelle shifted in the seat and tied the strings of her bonnet. "I believe we have everything we need."

On the journey home, Lauren slipped into daydreams. No man should be as handsome as Creed Gatlin. Although aloof, bordering on withdrawn, he'd proven he could also be sociable, even amicable when he set his mind to it. How she had hoped he'd be dull and boring like most of the young men in Beaufort.

His siblings seemed to admire him. Aunt Estelle claimed he'd acquired his height and broad shoulders from his father, Sam, and from his mother, Polly, he'd inherited the dark hair and smoke-gray eyes. Lauren sighed and wondered who had handed down the perfect features. She couldn't deny it; the man left her weak-kneed and tongue-tied.

By the time they pulled into Full Circle, Lauren's thoughts had wandered to the dance and barbeque her aunt and uncle would host soon. She drew a shuddering breath with the realization she couldn't wait to see the man again.

* * *

Creed gathered his siblings and they headed for home. His thoughts wandered to the encounter in town with Lauren McCain. While conversation flowed around him, he saw only the stunning creature in his line of vision rifling through bolts of fabric. She looked nothing like the woman he once saw sprawled in a cesspool of mud, her hair caked in slime. He'd tried a hundred times to imagine her features beneath that grime, knew she embodied beauty, but nothing had prepared him for the picture she presented today. Freckles sprinkled the bridge of her small nose, and her sun-kissed skin reminded him of honey. Her facial bones were delicately carved, her mouth full and kissable.

He imagined her hair black, not chestnut brown streaked with golden lights. The exotic dark brown eyes he recalled. Only a demented fool could discard them from memory.

She'd challenged him with her confident expression, dared him to spill his guts to her aunt that she could hurl cuss words like a veteran salt. He had no desire to snitch on her, but rather another desire surfaced, primitive and potent.

At the time, he wanted to push her back onto the table and remove every stitch of her clothing. He thought of running his tongue over her small, pert breasts, flat belly and slender thighs. He'd work his way to the soft mound of curls between her legs and bury his tongue inside her until she writhed beneath him like a wild thing. Before he fucked her senseless.

Overcome with need when she spoke; his pulse launched into a staccato rhythm and matched his wild heartbeat. Recalling that sultry, rusty-hinged voice now, his cock expanded. Damn, the woman oozed trouble in spades. He felt it with every drop of blood in his veins. He thought of nothing today but yanking her to his chest and devouring those sweet lips.

One day he would.

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