Melissa Hartford, burdened by guilt over her domineering father's death, meets Lawton Kane in a wild west re-enactment. She must become independent, and fears Lawton's strength will curtail this, yet her heart recognizes him as her savior.
Haunted by ghosts from a brutal past, Lawton dares not let Melissa close lest enemies target him through her. When one closes in, they must combine forces for safety though enforced intimacy creates its own hazards.
Though the sun blazed outside, beneath the protection of the spreading trees the house remained almost dusky. In the shadowed room, Lawton’s eyes glowed with silver fire. His face was so close Melissa could count the individual sooty lashes, each crease of the feathering lines at the outer corners of his eyes. She could see her own pale face reflected in the jet-dark pupils. Time ceased to move. Releasing her hand, he slowly raised his left hand to cup her cheek.
“I tried, Missy,” he murmured. “God knows I tried.” Transfixed by his gaze, she sat perfectly still as he settled both hands on her shoulders. Abruptly, he drew her up, out of the chair and into his arms. She flowed against him. He was stone and she was molten, fluid, shaping herself to him.
She felt a tremor in his body, in the hard arms that held her, but his embrace remained gentle. He drew a deep, ragged breath and buried his face against her neck, in the tumbling spill of her hair.
Reaching around him with her left arm, she spread her hand across the rigid muscle of his back. He took a step backward to lean against the back of the other chair, still holding her. She moved slightly, edging closer, and felt his lips brush across her forehead.
“Everything I’ve done has been wrong.” His voice, husky, rough and low, held the weight of his feelings. “From the first, when I let you get too close. Then I tried to frighten you, drive you away, and ended up abusing you. But you were so loving, so giving, even then. I tried to stay away, but I couldn’t. I thought maybe I could handle a friendship, keep it safe and platonic, but I can’t be near you without touching, can’t touch without wanting. For God’s sake, Missy, I’ll destroy you! Just tell me to let you go. Slap me in the face or something.”
He drew back enough to look down at her. “I promised I wouldn’t hurt you again and I meant it. All you have to do is say no or stop.” He begged her with tormented eyes as well as anguished words. “No.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to. I can’t.”
“Nothing has changed,” he insisted. “I’m still wrong for you, too old, too cynical, too -- I told you I’m not good at relationships. I don’t know how to handle this, Melissa. I’m asking your help!”
Melissa shifted to pull her right arm free from where it had been trapped between their bodies. She raised it and pressed her fingertips against his lips.
“Hush,” she said. “I’ve been trying to tell you, to show you. I’m not afraid, Lawton. Nothing you can say or do will scare me away. The minute I saw you, when you picked up that knife and looked at me -- right then, I knew I’d been looking for you all my life, before I even knew I was looking. At first, I didn’t understand what drew me so, but then I realized every hero I ever dreamed of has worn your face.”
His gaze searched hers, his eyes glowing with some new emotion she could not read. “Do you really know what you’re saying? Are you sure you want ... that you won’t regret it later?”
“Yes, Lawton. Yes, yes, yes! There’s no way you can hurt me now except by rejecting me.”
“I don’t deserve you and you sure don’t deserve me, but Lord knows, I can’t run from it, can’t turn away from you anymore.” He let out a gusty sigh. Even as she stretched up, he bent forward until he found her seeking lips. She reached to lock her hands behind his neck, distantly aware the thick hair curling above his collar felt like silk. She tangled her fingers in its plush richness.