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Two

Honey yawned and stretched, forcing the covers off and exposing bare skin to the predawn chill. She scooted back underneath the blanket and pulled it up over her shoulders. She was more tired than she ought to be first thing in the morning, but she hadn't slept well. For the first time in over a year, however, it wasn't memories of Cale that had kept her awake.

The drifter!

Honey bolted upright in her bed. He was supposed to show up bright and early this morning. She glanced out the lace curtains in her upstairs bedroom and realized it was later than she'd thought. Her sons would already be up and getting ready for school. She tossed the covers away, shivering again as the cold air hit flesh exposed by her baby doll pajamas. She grabbed Cale's white terry cloth robe and scuffed her feet into tattered slippers before hurriedly heading downstairs.

Halfway down, she heard Jonathan's excited voice. At eight he still sounded a bit squeaky. Jack's adolescent response was lower-pitched, but his voice occasionally broke when he least expected it. She was already in.the kitchen by the time she realized they weren't talking to each other.

The drifter was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee before him. Honey clutched the robe to her throat, her mouth agape.

"Catch a lot of flies that way," the drifter said with a lazy grin.

Her jaws snapped closed.

"Good morning," he said, touching a finger to the brim of his Stetson.

"Is it?" she retorted.

His skin looked golden in the sunlight. There were fine lines around his eyes and deep brackets around his mouth that had been washed out by the artificial light the previous evening. He was older than she'd thought, maybe middle thirties. But his dark eyes were as piercing as she remembered, and he pinned her with his stare. Honey felt naked.

She gripped the front of the masculine robe tighter, conscious of how she was dressed-or rather, not dressed. She thrust a hand into her shoulder-length hair, which tumbled in riotous natural curls around her face. She wondered how her mascara had survived the night. Usually it ended up clumped on the ends of her eyelashes or smudged underneath them. She reached up to wipe at her eyes, then stuck her hand in the pocket of the robe. It wasn't her fault he'd found her looking like something the cat dragged in.

Honey didn't want to admit that the real reason she resented this unsettling man's presence in her kitchen so early in the morning was that she hadn't wanted him to see her looking soso mussed.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

He raised a brow as though the answer was obvious. And it was.

"I let him in," Jack said, his hazel eyes anxious, "You said the hired hand was coming this morning. I thought it would be okay."

Honey took several steps into the room and laid a hand on her older son's shoulder. "You did fine. I'm just a little surprised at how early Mr. Whitelaw got here."

"He said we can call him Jesse," Jonathan volunteered.

Honey bristled. The man had certainly made himself at home.

"Jesse helped me make my sandwich," Jonathan added, holding up a brown paper bag.

Honey's left hand curled into a fist in the pocket of the robe. "That was nice." Her voice belied the words.

"Jesse thinks I'm old enough to make my own lunch," Jonathan continued, his chest pumped out with pride.

Honey had known for some time that Jonathan could make his own sandwich, but she had kept doing it for him because the routine morning chore kept her from missing Cale so much. She was annoyed by the drifter's interference but couldn't say so without taking away from Jonathan's accomplishment.

"Jesse rides bulls and rodeo broncs," Jack said. "He worked last at a ranch in northwest Texas called Hawk's Way. He's gonna teach me some steer roping tricks. He's never been married but he's had a lot of girlfriends. Oh, and he graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in animal husbandry and ranch management."

It was hard for Honey not to laugh aloud at the chagrined look on Jesse's face as Jack recited all the information he'd garnered. The drifter had been, if not grilled, certainly a little singed around the edges.

The shoe was on the other foot as Jack continued, "I told him how you haven't been coping too well since Dad-well, this past year. Not that you don't try," he backtracked when he spied the horrified look on his mother's face, "but after all, Mom, the work is pretty hard for you."

Honey was abashed by her son's forthright-ness. "I've managed fine," she said. She didn't want Jesse Whitelaw thinking she needed him more than she did. After all, a drifter like him wasn't going to be around long. Soon enough she'd be managing on her own again.

She stiffened her back and lifted her chin. Staring Jesse Whitelaw right in the eye she announced, "And I expect I'll still be managing fine long after you've drifted on."

"The fact remains, you need me now, Mrs. Farrell,'' the drifter said in that rusty gate voice. "So long as I'm here, you'll be getting a fair day's work from me."

The silence that followed was uncomfortable for everyone except the younger boy.

In the breach Jonathan piped up, "Jesse thinks I should have a real horse to ride, not just a pony."

"I'm sure Jesse does," Honey said in as calm a voice as she could manage. "But I'm your mother, and until I decide differently, you'll stick with what you have."

"Aww, Mom."

This was an old argument, and Honey cut it off at the pass. "The school bus will be here in a few minutes," she said. "You boys had better get out to the main road."

Honey gave Jonathan a hug and a quick kiss before he headed out the kitchen door. "Have a nice day, sweetheart."

Jack was old enough to pick up the tension that arced between his mother and the drifter. His narrowed glance leapt from her to Jesse and back again. "Uh, maybe I ought to stay home today. Kind of show Jesse around."

Honey forced herself to smile reassuringly. "Nonsense. You have reviews for finals starting this week. You can't afford to miss them. Jesse and I will manage fine. Won't we?"

She turned to Jesse, asking him with her eyes to add his reassurance to hers.

Jesse rose and shoved his chair under the table. "Appreciate the offer," he said to Jack. "But like your mom said, we'll be just fine."

"Then I better run, or I'll miss the bus." Jack hesitated another instant before he sprinted for the door. Honey would have liked to hug Jack, too, but at thirteen, he resisted her efforts to cosset him.

A moment later they were alone. Jesse was watching her again, and Honey's body was reacting to the appreciation in his dark eyes. She rearranged the robe and pulled the belt tighter, grateful for the thick terry cloth covering. She felt the roses bloom on her cheeks and hurried over to the stove to pour herself a cup of coffee.

Too late she realized she should have excused herself to go upstairs to dress. If she left now without getting her coffee, he would know she was running scared. There was absolutely no reason for her to feel threatened. Dallas wouldn't have recommended Jesse Whitelaw if she had anything to fear from him. But she couldn't help the anxiety she felt.

"Would you like another cup of coffee?" she asked, holding up the pot.

' 'Don't mind if I do, Mrs. Farrell," Jesse said.

"Please, you might as well call me Honey."

"All rightHoney."

Her name sounded far more intimate in that rusty gate voice of his than she was comfortable with. She stared, mesmerized for a moment by the warmth in his dark eyes, then realized what she was doing and repeated her offer.

"More coffee?"

He brought his cup over, and she realized she had made another tactical error. She could actually feel the heat from his body as he stepped close enough for her to pour his coffee. She turned her back on him to pour a cup for herself.

"Those are fine boys you have." Jesse moved a kitchen chair and straddled it, facing her.

She leaned back against the counter rather than join him at the table. "In the future, I'd appreciate it if you don't come inside before I get downstairs," she said.

"I wouldn't have come in except Jack said you were expecting me."

"I was-that is-I didn't expect you quite so early."

That was apparent. Honey's bed-tossed hair and sleepy-eyed look made Jesse want to pick her up and carry her back upstairs. He wasn't sure what-if anything-she was wearing under the man's robe. From the way she kept tightening the belt and clutching at the neck of the thing, he was guessing it wasn't much. His imagination had her stripped bare, and he liked what he saw.

It was too bad about her husband. From what he'd heard, Cale Farrell had died a hero. He supposed a woman left alone to raise two kids wouldn't be thinking much about that. At least he was here to help her with the ranch work. Not that he would be around forever-or even for very long. But while he was here, he intended to do what he could to make her life easier.

He knew it would be easier for her if he didn't let her know he was attracted to her. But he wasn't used to hiding his feelings for a woman. The way he had been raised, part of respecting a woman was being honest with her. Jesse planned to be quite frank about his fascination with Honey Farrell.

He liked the way she'd prickled up last night, not at all intimidated by him. He liked the way she had stood her ground, willing to meet him eye to eye. He bristled when he thought of her with any other man-especially that Philips character. Jesse wasn't sure how serious their relationship was, but he knew Honey couldn't be in love with Philips. Otherwise she wouldn't have reacted so strongly to his touch.

At any rate, Jesse didn't intend to let the other man's interest in Honey keep him from pursuing her himself. Which wasn't going to be easy, considering her opinion of drifters in general, and him-a half-breed Comanche-in particular. His look was challenging as he asked, "What did you have in mind for me to do today?''

Honey had been watching Jesse's fingers trace the top rail of the wooden chair. There was a scar that ran across all four knuckles. She was wondering how he'd gotten it when his fist suddenly folded around the back of the chair. "I'm sorry-what did you say?"

"I asked what you wanted me to do today."

"There are some steers that need vaccinating, and the roof on the barn needs to be repaired. Some fence is down along the river and a few head of my stock have wandered onto the mohair goat ranch south of the Flying Diamond. I need to herd those strays back onto my land. Also-''

"That'll do for starters," Jesse interrupted. He rose and set his coffee cup on the table. "I'll start on the barn roof while you get dressed. Then we can vaccinate those steers together. How does that sound?''

Honey started to object to him taking charge of things, but she realized she was just being contrary. "Fine," she said. "I'll come to the barn when I'm dressed."

She waited for him to leave, but he just stood there looking at her. "What is it? Did I forget something?" she asked.

"No. I was admiring the view." He flashed a smile, then headed out the kitchen door.

Honey ran upstairs, not allowing herself time to contemplate the drifter's compliment. He probably didn't spend much time around respectable women. He probably didn't realize he shouldn't be blurting out what he was thinking that way. And she shouldn't be feeling so good about the fact the hired hand liked the way she looked.

She was grateful to discover that her mascara had been clumped, rather than smudged. She took the time to wash her face and reapply a layer of sun-sensitive makeup. It was a habit she'd gotten into and had nothing to do with the fact there was now a man around to see her. Honey dressed in record time in fitted Levi's, plaid western shirt, socks and boots.

Even so, by the time she reached the barn, Jesse was already on the roof, hammer in hand. He had his shirt off and she couldn't help looking.

Jesse had broad shoulders and a powerful chest, completely hairless except for a line of black down that ran from his navel into his form-fitting jeans. His nipples provided a dark contrast to his skin, which looked warm to the touch. She could see the definition of his ribs above a washboard belly. His arms were ropy with muscle and already glistened with sweat. Here was a man who had done his share of hard work. Which made her wonder why he had never settled down.

It dawned on her that the drifter had chosen the most dangerous job to do first. He was standing on the peaked barn roof without any kind of safety rope as though he were some kind of mountain goat. How could he be so idiotically unconscious of the danger!

She started up the ladder he had laid against the side of the barn and heard him call, "No need for you to come up here."

She looked up and found him hanging facedown over the edge of the roof. "Be careful! You'll fall."

"Not likely," he said with a grin. "I grew up rambling around in high places."

' 'I suppose you had the top bunk in an upstairs bedroom," she said with asperity.

Jesse thought of the high canyon walls he had scaled as a youth on his family's northwest Texas ranch and grinned. "Let's just say I spent a lot of time climbing when I was a kid and leave it at that. By the way, I found the spot that needs to be patched. I brought the shingles up with me, but I didn't see hide nor hair of the roofing nails."

"I put them away. I'll get them for you." Honey headed back down the ladder and into the barn. As she passed General's stall, she patted the bull on the forehead. She and Cale had raised him from birth, and though he had a ring in his nose, he would have followed her around without it.

"Hi, old fella. Just let me get these nails for Jesse and I'll let you out in the corral for a while."

The barn was redolent with the odors of hay, leather and manure. Rather than hold her nose, Honey took a deep breath. There was nothing disagreeable to her about the smell of a ranch- or a hardworking man. Which made her think of the hired hand standing on the roof of her barn.

Honey didn't want to be charmed by Jesse Whitelaw, but there was no denying his charm. Maybe it was his crooked grin, or the way his eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled, creating a sunburst of webbed lines. Or maybe it was the fact his dark eyes glowed with appreciation when he looked at her.

"Hey! Where are those nails?"

Honey jumped at the yell from above. "I'm getting them!" She grabbed the box of nails and headed back into the sunshine. Jesse had come to the edge of the roof and bent down to take the nails as she climbed the ladder and handed them up.

When he stood again, a trickle of sweat ran down the center of his chest. As Honey watched, it slid into his navel and back out again, down past the top button of his jeans. It was impossible to ignore the way the denim hugged his masculinity. It took a moment for Honey to realize he wasn't moving away. And another moment to realize he was aware of the direction of her gaze. Honey felt a single curl of desire in her belly and a weak feeling in her knees. Her fingers gripped the ladder to keep from falling. She was appalled at the realization that what she wanted to do was reach out and touch him. She froze, unable to move farther up the ladder or back down.

"Honey?"

Jesse's voice was gruff, and at the sound of it she raised her eyes to his face. His lids were lowered, his dark eyes inscrutable. She had no idea what he was thinking. His jaw was taut. So was his body. Honey was afraid to look down again, afraid of what she would find.

She felt her nipples pucker, felt the rush of heat to her loins. Her lips parted as her breathing became shallow. Honey knew the signs, knew what they meant. And tried desperately to deny what she was feeling.

"Honey?" he repeated in a raw voice.

Jesse hadn't moved, but if possible, his body had tautened. His nostrils flared. She saw the pulse throb at his temple. What did he want from her? What did he expect? He was a stranger. A drifter. A man who loved danger.

She wasn't going to get involved with him. Not this way. Not any way. Not now. Not ever.

"No!" Honey felt as though she were escaping some invisible bond as she skittered down the ladder, nearly falling in her haste.

"Honey!" he shouted after her. "Wait!"

Honey hadn't thought he could get off the roof so fast, but she had no intention of waiting around for him. She started for the house on the run. She was terrified, not of the drifter, but of her own feelings. If he touched her

Honey was fast, but Jesse was faster. He caught her just as she was starting up the front steps and followed her onto the shaded porch. When Jesse grabbed her arm to stop her, momentum slammed her body back around and into his. He tightened his arms around her to keep them both from falling.

Honey would have protested, except she couldn't catch her breath. It was a mistake to look up, because the sight of his eyes, dark with desire, made her gasp. Jesse captured her mouth with his. His hand thrust into the curls at her nape and held her head so she couldn't escape his kiss.

Honey wished she could have said she fought him. But she didn't. Because from the instant his lips took possession of hers, she was lost. His mouth was hard at first, demanding, and only softened as she melted into his arms. By then he was biting at her lips, his tongue seeking entrance. He tasted like coffee, and something else, something distinctly male. His kiss thrilled her, and she wanted more.

It was only when Honey felt herself pushing against Jesse that she realized he had spread his legs and pulled her into the cradle of his thighs. She could feel his arousal, the hard bulge that had caught her unsuspecting attention so short a time ago. She heard a low, throaty groan and realized it had come from her.

Jesse's mouth mimicked the undulation of their bodies. Honey had never felt so alive. Her pulse thrummed, her body quickened. With excitement. With anticipation. It had been so long. She needed-craved-more. How could this stranger, this drifter, make her feel so much? Need so much?

At first Honey couldn't identify the shrill sound that interfered with her concentration.

Pleasure. Desire. Need.

The sound persisted, distracting her. Finally she realized it was the phone.

Honey hadn't been aware of her hands, but she discovered they were clutching handfuls of Jesse's black hair. His hat had fallen to the porch behind him. She stiffened. Slowly, she slid her hands.away.

"The phone," she gasped, pushing now at his shoulders.

Honey felt Jesse's reluctance to release her. Whether he recognized the panic in her eyes, or the presumption of what he had done, he finally let her go. But he didn't step away. Honey had to do that herself.

"The phone," she repeated.

"You'd better answer it." It was clear he would rather she didn't. His body radiated tension.

Honey stood there another moment staring, her body alive with unmet needs, before she turned and raced inside the house. For a second she thought he would follow her, but from the corner of her eye she saw him whirl on his booted heel and head toward the barn.

She was panting by the time she snatched the phone from its cradle. "H-hello?"

"Honey? Why didn't you answer? Is everything all right?"

Dear Lord. It was Adam. Honey held her hand over the receiver and took several deep breaths, trying to regain her composure. There was nothing she could do about the pink spots on her cheeks except be grateful he wasn't there to see them.

At least there was one good thing that had come from the drifter's kiss. Honey knew now, without a doubt, that she could never marry Adam Philips. The sooner she.told Adam, the better. Only she couldn't tell him over the phone. She owed him the courtesy of refusing him to his face.

"Honey, talk to me. What's going on?" Adam demanded.

"Everything's fine, Adam. I'm just a little breathless, that's all. I was outside when the phone started ringing," she explained.

"Oh. I called to see if your hired hand showed up."

"He's here."

There was a long pause. Honey wasn't about to volunteer any information about the man. If Adam was curious, he could ask.

"Oh," Adam said again.

To Honey's relief, it didn't appear he was going to pursue the subject.

"I know I said I wouldn't call until next week," he continued, "but an old school friend of mine in Amarillo called and asked me to come for a visit. His divorce is final and he needs some moral support. I'm leaving today and I don't know when I'll be back. I just wanted to let you know.''

Good old reliable Adam. Honey rubbed at the furrow on her brow. "Adam, is there any chance you could come by here on your way out of town? I need to talk to you."

"I wish I could, but I'm trying to catch a flight out of San Antonitf and it's going to be close if I leave right now. Can you tell me over the phone?"

"Adam, I-"

Honey felt the hair prickle on the back of her neck. She turned and saw that Jesse had stepped inside the kitchen door.

She stared at him helplessly. She swallowed.

"Honey? Are you still there?" Adam said.

"I'll see you when you get back, Adam. Have a good trip."

Honey hung up the phone without waiting to hear Adam's reply. She stared at Jesse, unable to move. He had put his shirt back on, but left it unsnapped so a strip of sun-warmed skin glistened down the middle of his chest. He had retrieved his Stetson and it sat tipped back off his forehead. His thumbs were slung into the front of the beltless jeans. He had cocked a hip, but he looked anything but relaxed.

"The repairs on the roof are done," he said. "I wanted to make sure it's all right with you if I saddle up that black stud to round up those steers that need vaccinating."

"Night Wind was Cale's horse," Honey said. "He hasn't been ridden much since-"

Naturally Jesse would want to ride the wildest, most dangerous horse in the stable. And why not? The man and the stallion were well matched.

"Of course, you can take Night Wind," she said. "If you wait a minute, I'll come with you."

"I don't think that's a good idea."

She didn't ask why not. He could use the distance and so could she. "All right," she said. "The steers that need to be vaccinated are in the west pasture. Come get me when you've got them herded into the corral next to the barn."

He tipped his hat, angled his mouth in that crooked smile and left.

Honey stared at the spot where he had been. She closed her eyes to shut out the vision of Jesse Whitelaw in her kitchen. It was plain as a white picket fence that she wasn't going to be able to forget the man anytime soon.

At least she had a respite for a couple of hours. She realized suddenly that because of Jesse's interruption she hadn't been able to refuse Adam's offer of marriage.

Horsefeathers!

She should never have kissed Jesse. Not that she had made any commitment to Adam, but she owed it to him to decline his offer before he found her in a compromising position with some other man. And not that she intended to get involved with Jesse Whitelaw, but so far, where that drifter was concerned, she hadn't felt as though things were under control. The smart move was to keep her distance from the man. That shouldn't be a problem. No problem at all.


| Honey and the Hired Hand | Three