Book 2: Wyoming Rebels
It was Steen Stockton.
Erin couldn’t believe the man who was standing before her. After all her years of fantasizing about him, wondering what had happened to him, searching the web for information about his football career after he’d blown out his knee in college, he was standing right in front of her.
An old, faded cowboy hat was pulled low over his forehead, almost shielding his dark eyes from her view. His face was clean-shaven, his jaw angular and refined. He was wearing a black tee shirt, black jeans, and boots that would fit more with a motorcycle helmet than a cowboy hat. His shoulders were still wide and his body angled down to a V toward his narrow hips, but he was lean, too lean, and his cheeks were sunken, as if he’d been in a bad place for a long time. He was pure male, well over six feet tall, and his muscles were hard and cut beneath his shirt, despite his leanness.
He was no longer a boy, but the man she’d envisioned. He was pure, raw heat, with a languid grace that she knew hid his lightning-quick reflexes and innate physical grace. For the first time in years, she felt a pulse of physical attraction. Involuntarily, her gaze flicked to his mouth. His lips were pressed together, as if he were trying to contain the words that wanted to escape. Sexy and silent, just as he’d always been, only now, he was so much more.
In the face of the sheer strength of his presence, she suddenly felt like the ugly, geeky fourteen-year-old again, hopelessly outclassed by the only person she’d ever known who lived life on his terms and didn’t care one bit what anyone else thought of him.
He frowned. “You okay?”
Erin suddenly realized she’d been gaping at him. Horrified, she snapped her mouth shut, trying to regain some semblance of self-respect. “Yes, fine. Thanks. It’s so incredible to see—”
“You need some help with your engine?” he interrupted, cutting off her sentence before she could finish commenting how good it was to see him.
It was her turn to frown now. Did he not recognize her? After all these years of fantasizing about him whenever she’d needed to escape from the reality of her life and marriage, he didn’t even remember her?
Desolation flooded her, the kind of utter loss that happens only when a dream is shattered, a dream that had all its power because it was pure fantasy, and therefore could never be destroyed. And yet, in one instant, he’d shattered it, because he was reality now, standing in front of her. Steen had been the only one who’d ever looked at her, instead of through her, but it apparently hadn’t meant anything to him, at least not enough for him to remember her.
She lifted her chin resolutely. It didn’t matter. She knew that her imagination had elevated him into the perfect man, and just because the real life man didn’t even remember her, it didn’t change the fact that he’d been her salvation, her escape over all the years. She knew he was a good guy, and it wasn’t his fault that she’d been such an insignificant blip in his life that he didn’t remember her.
He tipped his cowboy hat back, giving her a clear view of his eyes for the first time. They were haunted. Deeply haunted. She was shocked by the change in them from the jaunty, arrogant boy she’d known in high school. There was no humor in his gaze. No life, even. Just emptiness. She’d never have believed anything could take him down, but something had, something that had broken the spirit of the man she believed in for so long, the one who had lived in her heart for over a decade. Her heart tightened, and instinctively, she reached out, touching his arm. “What happened to you, Steen?”
Steen froze, and his muscles went rigid under her touch, making her realize that she’d overstepped her boundaries in a major way. She quickly jerked her hand back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“You recognize me?” he asked.
She blinked. “What? Of course I do. How could I not?” Did that mean he recognized her? She wanted to ask, but she didn’t dare. His gaze was too intense, and his silence was too unyielding.
After a few moments, she began to shift uncomfortably. She cleared her throat, and tried to change the subject to one that wasn’t quite so incredibly awkward. “So, um, you know engines? Is that right?”
“Yeah.” He still didn’t take his gaze off her face, which she found both completely intimidating and wildly intoxicating. She used to catch him watching her when they were in school, but his face had always been inscrutable and distant. Now, however, there was so much intensity burning in his eyes that her heart started to race. No longer were his eyes empty and apathetic. They were simmering with heat, and all of it was directed at her.
So much for the fantasies not living up to reality. Even in her dreams, he’d never made her feel the way he was making her feel in this moment, like she was the only thing in his world that had ever mattered. Flustered, she pulled her gaze off him. “Well, um, here.” She grabbed Josie’s notebook from the engine. “I have this diagram of what I’m supposed to do if Faith dies, but I can’t figure it out.”
“Faith?” He still didn’t take his eyes off her, not even to look at the notebook that she was waving at him.
“My car. Josie’s car. Do you remember Josie? She was my only friend…I mean, she was my best friend in high school. Anyway, she’s a vet out here, but she had to go to Chicago to help her mom through surgery, so I’m out here for a few weeks taking over her clinic while she’s gone. So it’s her car, and I don’t know how to use it and—” She stopped when the corner of his mouth tipped up in a slight smile. “Sorry. I’m babbling.”
“You used to be so quiet,” he said. “I think you spoke more words just now than you uttered during your entire high school career.”
“I used to be so quiet?” She stared at him as the meaning of his words sunk in. He remembered her from high school? The liar! He remembered her! Elation flooded her, and she couldn’t stop the silly grin. “I’m still quiet,” she said. “That was just a momentary babble because I’m nervous. So, don’t get used to it. I’m not suddenly going to become a talker.”
His right eyebrow quirked. “You’re nervous? Why?” As he spoke, he plucked the forgotten notebook out of her hand and walked around her toward the engine.
“Because you make me nervous.”
He glanced over at her as he leaned over the engine. “Me? Why?” There was an edge to his voice that was like steel.
“You always have.” She leaned against the side of the truck and folded her arms over her chest, watching him as he looked back and forth between the notebook and the engine.
He tossed the notebook over his shoulder and braced his hands on the truck, his gaze methodically scanning every inch of the engine. “Why?” He repeated the question, not even bothering with polite preamble. He wasn’t even looking at her, but she felt his intense awareness of her.
“Because you’re you.”
“That’s not an answer.” He bent over and fiddled with something in the shadowy recesses of the engine.
Her heart began to pound as silence built between them. She knew he was waiting for her answer, and a part of her wanted to give him the absolute truth. She’d never see him again after she left in three weeks, right? After so many years of suppressing every emotion and trying to be the woman that everyone in her life wanted her to be, now was her chance to speak up, to admit who she was, to let it all out. To take a chance. That’s why she’d come out to Wyoming, right? Because she’d been dying inside, and she’d been desperate to find some kind of kick in the pants that would get her heart beating once again.
He twisted something and moved a wire, still waiting for her answer.
After a moment, he looked up. “She’s all set,” he said, his voice rumbling through her. His gaze was boring into her. “You’re good to go.” He waited a heartbeat, and she knew this was her last chance to speak up. In a split second, he was going to lower the hood, and she was going to drive away, and he would walk out of her life…again.