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There were a million other places Cynthia Giles should be. Well, maybe not a million. But there were definitely a few other places she could think of that would be more appropriate for her to be on Valentine’s Day night besides riding in a pickup truck, only a bump and jostle away from bouncing into Seth McBride, who sat only inches away from her. Inches.
Way too close. Especially considering every nerve in her body was totally aware of his proximity and was going completely haywire because of it. Sure, she’d been in close spaces with Seth before. Very close. But that was different. Her body should not be betraying her with its obvious and totally uncontrollable attraction to him. Even if he was incredibly handsome in that rugged mountain man, outdoorsy way. If that was your kind of thing. And it was most certainly not her kind of thing. At least it hadn’t been.
Cynthia risked a glance over at him. One hand rested casually on the steering wheel as he navigated the truck through the snowy roads as if he’d done it a thousand times, which he probably had. A lock of his hair flopped over his eye. He swiped it away, and in doing so, caught her looking at him.
“If you want me to drop you somewhere, I can,” he said. “You don’t have to come with me.”
It was the second time he’d tested her, trying to give her an out. From the moment he’d set foot in her shop, the Store Room, he’d been testing her, almost as if he’d been trying to get her to admit something she wouldn’t. But what? It was Valentine’s Day. It was bad enough that she didn’t have a date. She didn’t have to admit it to him. Not Seth McBride. Not after what they’d….
“No,” she said quickly, and returned her gaze straight ahead out the windshield to the snow that started to come down harder. “I told you I’d come to check on the puppies, and I will.”
Less than an hour ago, he’d come into her store to buy dog kibble for a stray husky who’d found her way into the maintenance shed at Stone Summit, the local ski hill where he was general manager, and had a litter of puppies. Or at least that was the story he told her. Not that he had any reason to lie. Why would he?
To get her to spend Valentine’s Day with him, a little voice in the back of her head said.
She quickly dismissed it. Seth wasn’t the type of guy to go to such lengths to get a girl to spend time with him. Hell, he wasn’t the type of guy to go to any lengths. He was the type of guy who worked his way through women like consumables. It was well known around town that Seth McBride didn’t do relationships. He did one-night stands and casual flings, but that was it. She herself had known it for years; even if she did have a momentary lapse of judgment—twice—and thought maybe, just maybe it could be different with her…that moment was over.
“If you insist.” There was a hint of humor in his voice and she whipped around in her seat.
“I don’t insist.” How the hell did he do that? Turn it into her idea? It was Seth who had walked into her store and told her about the puppies. It was Seth who asked her if she wanted to come see them. “You’re the one who…” She trailed off at his grin. He was trying to get her riled up. And it worked.
Cynthia crossed her arms and faced forward again. “Why do you do that?”
“Like to get me worked up.”
“Because you’re incredibly sexy when you’re mad.” Seth spoke the words so simply it took her off guard. She risked another glance at him but he was focused on driving as he turned down the short road that led to Stone Summit, the newly reopened ski hill that Malcolm Stone owned and Seth managed. A job that was set to become even busier now that Malcolm’s girlfriend, Cynthia’s best friend, Kylie Wilson, was getting ready to leave town to go to school in Vancouver. Malcolm planned to split his time between Vancouver and the ski hill, which would leave Seth primarily in charge. A role that would no doubt go to his head even more, Cynthia thought with a sniff.
She couldn’t explain why she was so antagonistic toward the man. Okay, she could. She just didn’t want to. It was a proven fact that Seth was a womanizer and she hated herself for her moment of weakness and falling for his charms. Not once, but twice. She was not that girl. Sure, Cynthia liked to have a good time. She liked to enjoy herself and no one appreciated a party more than she did. But after a failed attempt at a relationship with Jax Carver, the head chef at the Springs, she’d sworn off men. Or more specifically, men who weren’t interested in something serious. And it was clear Seth wasn’t interested. But he didn’t have to be such an ass about it.
“I’m sorry,” Seth said, taking her off guard.
For a second, she thought maybe he was finally going to apologize for the way he’d gotten what he wanted from her and then quickly moved on to the next woman in line. She raised her eyebrow and waited for him to say more.
“I didn’t mean to make you mad.” He grinned and she hated the way her body responded to him while at the same time she wanted to smack the smile off his face.
She shook her head. Only a few weeks ago, Cynthia had thought things could be different between them, that maybe the connection they shared physically was enough to actually turn into something more. Because, damn, even if she didn’t want to admit it, there was definitely a physical connection between them. She’d actually been naive enough to think that maybe the right guy for her had been under her nose all along, disguised as Seth McBride. But then she’d discovered his true colors when she caught him having dinner at the Stillwater Grill with some other woman. She hadn’t even seen her face, nor had she bothered to confront him about it. Why would she? It’s not as if they were dating. Besides, she’d known that was how Seth was right from the start. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Her anger was her shield, and she’d carry it as long as it took for her to forget the way his touch made her feel, the way his kiss made her come alive.
“Hey.” Seth grabbed her arm, forcing her to turn and face him. “I am sorry, Cyn. Really.”
The light was too dark for her to read his eyes to see whether he was being sincere, but there was something in his voice that she believed and she let some of her hostility melt away. After all, even if there was nothing between them, spending the night visiting newborn puppies certainly beat the alternative, which was sitting home alone and drinking a bottle of wine by herself on Valentine’s Day. And he did say she looked sexy. She forced herself not to smile.
“How many puppies did you say there were?”
He grinned; his teeth flashed in the dim light of the truck. “Three.”
She nodded. “Right.”
Seth looked at her a moment longer and held her eyes for just a fraction of a second before he turned back to the road. She turned her head again and mentally chastised herself. Get it together, Cynthia. He’s just a guy. Just a guy.
She could tell herself that all she wanted, but it was a lie and she damn well knew it. Seth McBride was more than a guy.
“Here we are.”
Cynthia snapped to attention as Seth pulled up next to the steel building that she knew housed the snow groomers and snowmobiles for the ski hill. She’d never actually been in the maintenance shed—why would she? But she’d spent enough time at Stone Summit to know most of the buildings.
After Seth hopped out of the truck, she waited for a moment to see whether he’d come around and open her door. He didn’t. Not that she expected him to. It’s not as though they were on a date or anything. Still. With a sigh, Cynthia opened the door and turned to slide out into the chilly night.
“Here.” To her surprise, Seth held his hand out for her. “Let me help you.”
It took her a second to realize what he was offering. She looked at his hand and then back at him. “I got it.” With a less than glamorous move, Cynthia hopped down from the cab of the truck. When she saw the look on his face, she instantly regretted not accepting his help. Before she could say or do anything, he turned away and went to retrieve the bag of kibble from the back.
“They’re right in here.” Seth gestured with his head and Cynthia followed as he led the way into the shed.
They dodged and weaved their way past equipment and workbenches; the smell of oil and something else, something distinctly male, hung in the air. She’d never been in such a space before. It felt oddly as if she were trespassing into some other world. Seth’s world. She watched him, matching his steps, being sure to avoid the bits of machinery that stuck out until they reached the far corner of the shed.
“You put her way in the back?”
Seth shrugged casually. “Don’t blame me.” He gave her that sly smile again. “She chose the spot. I just went with it. Stubborn female and all that.” He winked and looked away.
Cynthia shook her head and looked around him. “Is that her, over there?”
“Just in the corner. Maybe be careful before you get too close to her pups.” He put a hand on her arm to still her. Cynthia froze, but not because of the action. More from the electricity that flew through her from one simple touch. Even through her winter jacket, his touch had a powerful effect on her. She had to turn away, unable to look him in the eye. “I don’t know how she’ll react, Cyn. I wouldn’t want you to—”
When he didn’t answer, she turned and their eyes locked. For a moment, she thought she saw something else in his dark brown eyes, but then he blinked and the moment was gone. “I don’t know the dog,” he said quickly. “And you never know how a new mom will react. Let alone a stray. Just be careful.”
She slipped past him and moved toward the box in the corner. “Don’t worry, I’ll—” Her words dropped away when she saw the beautiful husky with three impossibly tiny little puppies tucked up next to her. The dog lifted her head and looked at her with big, sorrowful eyes. Cynthia dropped to her knees on the concrete and reached her hand out to the dog, who sniffed it once before she licked it and tilted her head into Cynthia’s hand to be stroked. Of course, Cynthia obliged.
“She likes you.” Seth was next to her, on his knees on the concrete and for once, Cynthia’s stomach didn’t flip or react at his proximity. Instead, all her energy was focused on the dog.
“What’s her name?”
“I told you, she’s a stray. She wandered in here earlier tonight and—”
“I know, but she needs a name. She’s a mama now. It seems wrong to keep calling her the dog.” Cynthia scratched the dog’s ears for another second before the dog bent her head to attend to her puppies. She licked them all in turn and nuzzled them closer to her belly. “She’s beautiful and look how much she loves her babies.” Cynthia’s heart swelled. She’d always had a soft spot when it came to animals, although somehow she’d never had a pet of her own. When she was younger, her mother was so busy working that she refused to take on the responsibility of another life; even though Cynthia would beg her and try to convince her that she’d do all the work, it hadn’t worked. As she got older, it was easy to see that her mother might have been right. Besides, she was too busy being a teenager and getting into trouble; a pet was the last thing from her mind. By the time she was old enough to really think about it again, her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she’d had her hands full of taking care of her and the store.
“What are you thinking?”
Cynthia’s smile was sad, but she answered Seth honestly. “I was just thinking how much I missed by never having a pet.”
“You’ve never had a dog?”
She shook her head.
“Or a cat?”
She shook her head again.
“Well then, I think you should name her.”
She turned her head to see Seth only inches away from her. He was close enough to kiss and for a moment she let herself entertain the idea. But only for a moment. She looked back at the dog. “The fact that I’ve never had a pet hardly makes me qualified to name her.”
“It makes you perfectly qualified.” His voice was low and sexy and she knew without looking that he stared at her. With renewed determination, she kept her gaze fixed on the dog.
“Okay…” She pondered her options but there was only one that spoke to her. “Nala.”
“It means loved.” Cynthia reached out and stroked the dog’s soft fur. “And I think she definitely loves and is loved.” The puppies wriggled and made soft mewling sounds until Nala tended to them and nudged them gently with her muzzle. “Yes.” Unbidden tears pricked at her eyes and she blinked hastily to keep them at bay.
Silently, Seth moved around behind her and wrapped his arm around her. She didn’t slide away the way she should have and when he pulled her in to his chest, instead of stopping him, she leaned into his solid muscle. He was strong and warm and smelled of fresh cut wood and something else that was uniquely Seth. She closed her eyes against the unexpected emotion the dog and her puppies brought on and let herself have the moment in Seth’s arm. Because that’s all it would be.
Just a moment.
* * *
She felt good in his arms.
He had no claim on her, no reason to reach out and hold her. In fact, Seth had half-expected Cynthia to pull away and put that ever present distance between them again. But the moment he saw the tears in her eyes, he’d acted totally on instinct. There was no way he was going to sit by and watch her get emotional. Not that it meant anything, he told himself. He would have done the same for any woman. He simply could not handle it when women cried or got upset.
He shut down the thought. Besides a few hookups—a few hookups that had been nothing short of freaking amazing—they had nothing. They were friends. And even then, they hardly seemed like friends these days. For a while, Seth thought that maybe there could be something between the two of them. He’d never felt that way about another woman before. After all, his entire MO was to have fun and get out before it got serious. Growing up with just his dad and his string of girlfriends after his mom died, it was easy for him to swear off serious relationships.
Things with Cynthia felt different, but then, just when he started to consider something more than just a casual fling, she pulled away. He couldn’t explain it, but she stopped answering his calls, and made a point to ignore him when they ran into each other. He’d never pretended to understand women, but Cynthia was in a class of confusing all on her own.
It didn’t matter anyway, because really, they had nothing in common besides a few joint friends. Besides, she’d made it clear that she didn’t want anything further to do with him. He should have been smart enough to leave her alone.
But he couldn’t.
Something about the damn woman kept him coming back. Had him seeking her out. Just the way he had earlier tonight. It was Valentine’s Day. She should have had a date and even though she said she did, he knew she didn’t. Not that he could understand it. With her long, lean body with curves in all the right places, and the fiery red hair that he knew for damn sure was natural, the woman was smoking hot. There was no reason she shouldn’t have had a date.
No. He wasn’t going to put any more thought into it. For the moment, she was in his arms and she felt damn good. That was good enough for him.
“What’s wrong?” He whispered into her ear, close enough to kiss her earlobe. An urge he fought. “Are you okay?”
She nodded against his chest. “I’m fine. I just…I don’t know. It’s just so sweet watching her. The immediate love and instinct she has for her babies.” She turned in his arms so their noses almost touched. He could feel her soft breath on his face. “Do you think every mom feels that way?”
Again, he fought the urge to kiss her, knowing she’d just pull away and the moment would be lost. “I do. I’ve seen a lot of animals with their babies, and I’ve yet to see any mother who didn’t react just the way Nala has.”
Her smile was gorgeous and even in the dim maintenance shed, it lit up her face. “Nala,” she repeated. “Do you like the name?”
Their eyes locked and Seth moved his hand up her back and brushed her hair off the back of her neck. Forget every reason he shouldn’t. No matter what it was Cynthia thought she was running from, it felt right being with her. He closed the slight gap between them and brushed her lips with his. They were soft and slightly chilled from the cool air, but after a moment she opened to him in a soft, slow kiss. His body responded at once with the promise of what was to come. Gently, he pulled her to her feet without leaving her mouth and pulled her even closer until their bodies were pressed together.
Just as he began to think it might be a good Valentine’s Day after all, Cynthia stepped back and broke their kiss.
Damn her pushing him away again.
“Cynthia, why are you—”
“I don’t think…No.” Her hand went to her mouth and she shook her head. “I should probably get going.”
“You don’t have to go.” He reached for her again. “We have such a good time together.”
Something flashed across her face and then the confusion was gone, replaced by a hardness as she closed herself off again. “We did,” she said. “Once.”
Her eyes flashed and she took a deep breath. “I have…I have a date.”
He opened his mouth to call her bluff. When he’d walked into the Store Room to pick up the bag of kibble, she’d said something about a date for Valentine’s Day but he hadn’t believed her. Or had he just not wanted to believe her?
“With who?” He hated that he probably came off as a jealous boyfriend; that wasn’t his style. Not even a little. He didn’t care. Except when it came to the woman in front of him, he did. And it made him crazy.
She looked at him then and stared right into his soul with those striking jade green eyes. “It’s none of your business, Seth McBride.”
You had your chance. She didn’t say it, but she might as well have for the way she looked at him and crossed her arms over her chest, shutting him out.
Seth shook his head, ran a hand through his hair and gave her his best shit-eating grin. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to be late for Mr. Wonderful.” It was easier to be an ass than try to get to the bottom of whatever it was that was going on with her. Besides, if she didn’t want him, plenty of women would.
He stalked off through the shed, not waiting for her to follow but knowing she would.