Copyright (c) Sarah McCarty 2004
All rights reserved

Chapter One

Clint couldn’t believe he was doing this again. Another Saturday, another woman. Another pointless excursion to the Sweet Thyme Bakery in search of a connection that wasn’t going to happen. He’d long since given up that it ever would, so now his search for a wife was purely a matter of lining up traits and searching for a woman who fit them. The same way he selected a brood mare for his breeding program.

He glanced down at the young woman at his side. She smiled up at him, all hope and innocence. So pure she made him feel ancient. Rebecca Salisbury was his latest hopeful. She possessed all the qualities a good wife should have—good breeding, good training, and good wide hips for easy childbirth. He knew he wouldn’t have with her the passionate love that his cousin Cougar had with his wife, but she’d be stable and a good mother. Most importantly, she wouldn’t clutter up his calm with a lot of emotion. He cupped Rebecca’s elbow in his palm and helped her up the wooden steps to the walkway. Peace, he’d discovered, was a hard won commodity.

The smells from the bakery wrapped around him like a fragrant hug, soothing his senses.

Rebecca paused and waited for him to open the door. Her smile was shy as he reached over her shoulder. His response was an automatic stretch of his lips, but his attention was ahead of them, checking out the small, crowded shop and its occupants—most especially the owner.

She was just stepping out from behind the counter, her gait more awkward than usual. He ushered Rebecca in ahead of him, watching Jenna Hennesey as he did, noting the lines of strain on her face, frowning as she pulled up with a gasp, pausing, her focus turning inward. No doubt controlling the pain that all this running around was provoking in her damaged leg.

Damn it! He’d told her to hire some help.

He knew the minute she saw him. It wasn’t obvious as she kept her head down and rarely met anyone’s eyes, but the slight start in her body, and the blush that surged over her cheeks were dead giveaways.

“I’ll be right with you,” she called across the small room. Her voice, with its husky timbre, tickled his senses like a lure. He didn’t like the way she could slip under his calm, yet at the same time some perverse part of him relished these little moments of connection. As if Jenna could ever be for him.

His “Take your time,” coincided with Rebecca’s “Thank you.”

He watched as Jenna brought the tray of coffee and dessert to the older couple at the table in the far corner. Their greeting was warm, hers was quiet and unassuming like the woman herself. Jenna Hennesey was sweet, shy and the biggest temptation he’d ever fought off in his life.

Jenna laughed at something the older couple, the Jacobsons, said. Her dimples flashed, sparking that wild core of lust inside of him that he tried to keep contained. The Jacobsons laughed back. They’d come to help their daughter through her laying in and had stayed. That was happening more and more frequently, proving the theory of the town fathers that Cheyenne just might become civilized after all.

“Word must be out that Jenna can cook,” Rebecca stepped back into him as a little boy rushed past her on his way to the counter. For one second, her rear pressed against his groin. It would have been nice if his body gave a shit. She blushed and stepped away. He merely nodded in response to her “Excuse me.” She was beautiful and perfect, but she left him cold.

The boy reached the counter and proceeded to hop from one foot to the other as he waited for Jenna to notice him. Little Fred was the spitting image of his pa, and at six looked as though he’d have his father’s size and build. And his lack of patience.

“That’s Cyrus’ boy, isn’t it?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Once a week Gertie sends him in for cinnamon buns.”

Speculation was rampant as to what Cyrus did for the woman to

As soon as Jenna noticed the boy, she dropped everything and walked away from her customers, a smile on her full, soft lips, her dimples coming to life. Clint’s cock came to life right along with them. The woman had a killer smile.

She smoothed the boy’s hair, the gesture so soft and gentle that it made Clint ache. He wanted that softness for himself, and the knowledge that there wasn’t much stopping him from taking it ate at his decency. Jenna was alone in the world. Fair game. And she owed him. All he had to do was say the word, and she’d be his. There was nothing stopping him but his own damned conscience. Son of a bitch, it was a pain having a conscience.

“It’d be nice if she could make a go of the place,” Rebecca murmured, watching them. “My momma said she had a hard time of it after her husband died.”

She’d had a harder time of it when he was alive, but Clint didn’t mention that. That was Jenna’s secret. A tinge of guilt hit his conscience when he caught the admiring glance Rebecca shot him. It said more clearly than words that she considered him husband material. He mentally shook his head. Some women just had no sense.

Jenna had sense, though and incredible strength that allowed her to endure and rebuild when others would have just given up. Problem was, she was too often done in by her big heart. He frowned as she wrapped some cookies in a napkin and slipped them to Fred. There was no way that Gertie had sent more than the cost of the rolls with the kid. Now Jenna was going to be out the cost of the cookies and the cost of the napkin. All because she was a soft touch. So damned soft that he didn’t know how much longer he was going to be able to keep his hands off of her. He might be a son of a bitch, but he hoped to hell he wasn’t that far gone.

* * * * *

Jenna put the tray on the counter, quelled the unease that always nibbled at her calm when she was around McKinnely, put on her most welcoming smile, and turned to face the couple standing just inside the door. They were a beautiful study in contrasts. Big Clint McKinnely with his dark skin and darker eyes, and that generous, purely masculine mouth was standing beside the tall, elegant mayor’s daughter with her fair skin, smattering of freckles, and easy smile. Of the two, Rebecca was the least intimidating so Jenna focused on her.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting but if you’ll follow me, your table is ready.”

Rebecca smiled and placed her hand on Clint’s arm. “Thank you.”

Clint didn’t say anything, just followed in her wake. Jenna knew he was annoyed that she hadn’t addressed him directly, but she couldn’t. The man made her a bundle of nerves, always watching her. If he were a gentler kind of man, she might have hoped for his interest, but Clint was so aggressively masculine that she wondered why lawbreakers even bothered to resist when he went after them. She had only to look at him to know that he would always have his way. In everything.

She blamed him entirely when she stumbled. Anyone would be nervous to be watched so intently. Still, she would have been fine if her weight hadn’t fallen on her bad leg, and it hadn’t chosen that moment to collapsed. Behind her she heard someone gasp as she lurched into an empty table. For one second she caught herself on the edge, but then it skipped out from under her. One minute, she was falling and the next she was being yanked against the hard surface of a well-muscled chest. She breathed deeply as the scents of man, smoke and pine swept over her. Clint had saved her. Again.

His hand slid down her back, and she mentally moaned. Why had she chosen today of all days to not wear a corset? At least with the corset some of her…ampleness would have been contained. His big hands spanned her waist and he set her away from him.

Heat surged to her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“No harm done.” Though he’d pushed her a foot away, he didn’t release her. His hands on her waist burned like fire as he steadied her. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just stumbled.”

“Maybe you should sit down for a minute?” Rebecca suggested, holding out a chair, frowning with concern.

Jenna mentally sighed. She was so tired of being pitied. “Really, I’m fine.”

The glance Clint cast said he had doubts. She ignored it. “If you’ll take your seats, I’ll be right with you. Would you like tea or coffee?”

Rebecca’s request for tea was no more a surprise than Clint’s request for black coffee. She glanced across the restaurant and pressed her skirt against the knot below the scar on her leg. The coffee pot was a long way away. She gritted her teeth and headed for it, doing her best to smooth her gait. She made it back to the table without incident. Before she could set the tray down, Clint had it out of her hands and on the table.

“You need to rest.”

“I’m fine.”

“You are not making me happy.”

A kernel of dread took root in her stomach. “I’m sorry.”

She ducked her head and waited. He wasn’t her husband, but he was a man and she was a woman alone. He could pretty much demand whatever he wanted and she would have to obey.

She could feel Rebecca’s stare as well as Clint’s. Bile rose in her throat as she waited for Clint’s decision.

“Could we see the dessert tray?” Rebecca asked.

Jenna wanted to move more than anything, but the years of training froze her in place until Clint released her with a sigh. “Fetch the tray, Jenna.”

Clint’s black gaze followed her as she moved away. She shivered. He was such an intense man. There was no telling what he was thinking. He frowned as she neared the table, and his gaze dropped. As much as she’d like to believe that it was her rose-colored skirt cut to de-emphasize her generous hips that caught his eye, she knew differently.

She was limping. There wasn’t anything she could do about that. All this extra business waiting on what used to be only occasional tables was heck on her leg. She forced a more normal stride. It was vain and pointless, but she didn’t want to look weak in front of him. She struggled to keep from gasping as pain knifed up her thigh.

“Here are today’s choices, Mr. McKinnely.” From the way Clint’s eyes narrowed, she knew he hadn’t missed the breathless quality of her voice after that last step. If he knew how much pain she was in, he’d be furious. Ever since he’d saved her life, he’d been protective. If he didn’t completely ignore her otherwise, she’d think he was staking a claim. But until this last week, he’d never approached her or spoken to her personally. For which she was eternally grateful.

“Mr. McKinnely, Jenna?” Clint asked, taking the paper menus from her hand.

Dropping her gaze at Clint’s disapproving tone was as much instinct as it was upbringing. Clint had a way of speaking that demanded compliance. She barely stopped herself from apologizing. But she did. She wasn’t with her father, her husband, or their church anymore. She was an independent woman.

From beneath her lashes, she saw Rebecca shoot Clint a quick look as he read the short menu, caught a glimpse of conclusion as she looked between them, and then saw her frown of disapproval.

Jenna winced. Rebecca wasn’t the first woman to assume Clint had a relationship with her. He had given her the money for her bakery and he was a frequent customer, though if they thought she was his mistress, she didn’t know what they thought about him doing his courting here.

She wet her dry lips. She didn’t meet Rebecca’s eyes as the flush rushed over her cheeks. She struggled through her embarrassment for a business-like tone.

“I’m out of chicken soup, but I have a nice beef barley all ready to go.”

“That’ll be fine.” Clint looked around. “Business looks good.”

“It is.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Enough to have that leg giving you trouble?”

Heat crept into her cheeks anew. She wished he wouldn’t always notice her weaknesses.

“No more than usual.”

“You were limping.”

“I always limp.”

His frown deepened. “Not that much.”

She shrugged. “It can’t be helped.”

His black eyes cut to hers, unreadable as always, as he said in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice, “You could get off it. Put it up. Wrap a warm towel around it.”

She fought down the instinctive urge to leap to do as he wanted. “I will when I close up shop.”

His gaze flicked over her face, no doubt taking in every sign of the tiredness and strain she tried to hide.

“That’s not for four hours.”

It was a reasonable observation in a reasonable tone of voice, but the underlying censure pricked her nerves .

“Clint,” Rebecca interjected gently. “I’m sure Mrs. Hennesey knows when she needs to rest.”

Jenna’s “Thank you,” coincided with Clint’s “Maybe”.

Rebecca shook her head, a reprimand that Jenna couldn’t ever imagine giving a man. “You’re embarrassing Mrs. Hennesey.”

His gaze never left Jenna. “Maybe.”

No maybe about it. He was. Jenna felt inferior enough in front of perfect Rebecca without him making a fuss about something that couldn’t be helped.

“I can’t afford to close early.”

Rebecca shot Jenna a sympathetic glance. “Honestly Clint, no woman likes to have it pointed out that she’s crippled.”

Jenna clutched her pencil in her hand. She knew how her limp made her look to others, but she wasn’t a cripple. Years of hiding her feelings kept the resentment from her voice,

“Thank you.”

Clint wasn’t as willing to let it go. His normally cool gaze chilled as he turned toward Rebecca.

“That was a damned callous thing to say.”

“I’m so sorry.” Rebecca’s hands fluttered near her throat.

Jenna believed her. Rebecca was enviably sheltered and sweet, but never deliberately cruel.

“It’s fine.” She made her smile bigger to offset Clint’s frown and shrugged. “I hurt my leg, and it’s never going to get better than this.”

Rebecca offered a tentative smile. “It was ill-mannered of me to mention it.”

“Yes, it was,” Clint said

Rebecca flushed, but Clint didn’t relax his expression, completely at ease with the impact of his displeasure. The big bully.

Jenna squared her shoulders and took a breath. If she was going to be an independent woman, she couldn’t be afraid of taking someone’s side when they were being treated unfairly in her establishment.

The pencil bit into her palm as she pointed out, “You didn’t mention it. Mr. McKinnely did.” Clint went very still. “Are you challenging me?”

Fear pooled in Jenna’s stomach like a lead weight. Maybe taking this stand wasn’t such a smart idea. She gripped the pencil between her fingers, saw the distress on Rebecca’s face, and forced starch back into her knees as she forced herself to say. “I just think you’re being too harsh.”

Clint would have probably been more impressed with her stand if she’d been able to get her eyes higher than the open neck of his shirt. Truth was, she was impressed that she’d gotten the words out at all. She’d always been a weak woman, though she was learning to fake strength.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of how I handle a challenge,” Clint pointed out, still using that reasonable tone.

Rebecca gasped and sat back.

Jenna wished she had something against which to brace herself. She dropped her gaze to the table. Clint reached for his coffee cup. His hand dwarfed the cup. Ridges and scars marked the back. He hadn’t gotten them by being soft or backing down. And she’d just told him he was wrong. Dear God, maybe she was as crazy as Jack had always said.

She moistened her lips and managed to say, “I’ve heard.”

He arched his brow and took a sip of his coffee. Jenna’s knees shook, making her leg ache more, and a cold sweat broke out over her body. She waited for him to say something. Anything.

He just sat there drinking his coffee and watching her. Her stomach knotted. She focused on the shadowed hollow of his throat, her heartbeat thundering in her ears as she waited. On the fifth beat, she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“I just meant, if I didn’t mind maybe you shouldn’t.”

A strange sound rumbled in Clint’s chest. Almost like a growl. The ice left his gaze to be replaced by a strange heat. Was he angry? The point of the pencil bit into her palm.

Dear God! she thought, if you could send me some help, I’d really appreciate it.

“But what if I do mind?” Clint asked, replacing the cup on the table.

“I don’t know why you should.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a flash of white as Rebecca covered Clint’s hand with hers.

“Mr. McKinnely, you’re upsetting Mrs. Hennesey.”

Jenna stared at the contrast, Rebecca’s hand so soft and white and fragile, sitting on top of Clint’s lean, powerful one. Jenna envied Rebecca the innocence that protected her from the knowledge of how fast a man could turn on a woman. “Am I scaring you, Jenna?” Clint asked in that calm reveal nothing voice.

Jenna swallowed hard, aware everyone in the small restaurant watched the scene, witnessing her humiliation.

The bell over the door jangled as it opened. She didn’t look up, but she knew who, or rather what, had entered by the way the door thumped twice before closing. Danny.

God had heard her after all. He’d sent her protector. Jenna opened her hand to the warm nose that slid under her palm and sank her fingers into the black fur of the massive dog’s neck. As he leaned against her a low rumbling growl emanated from his throat, clearly directed at Clint.

“What is that?” Rebecca gasped pulling back.

Clint’s answer of was full of dry amusement. “My dog.”

“Are you sure it’s not a pony?” Rebecca’s hand slid from Clint’s as she inched away.

“I’m sure. Threw a saddle on him once and he howled for hours. No mistaking what he was, after that.”

The tension in the room eased as a couple of the men snorted with laughter. Jenna patted Danny as he sat, being careful to avoid his burn scars, knowing they were as painfully sensitive as hers. He rested his head on her chest, the slobber from his jowls soaking through the bib of her apron. She didn’t mind. Danny was safety.

Clint’s chair creaked as he leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “So Jenna? Do you disapprove of my treatment of Miss Salisbury?”

She clutched Danny close and battled her cowardice. She’d started this, and she should end it with a definitive “Yes”, but it wasn’t that easy to get the word out. Clint could destroy her business. He could destroy her. She opened her mouth. Her lips formed the word, but nothing came out.

“What was that?” Clint asked.

She closed her eyes, humiliation washing over her at her own cowardice. Within her arms, Danny straightened and growled a long, low, warning rumble at Clint.

“Aren’t you supposed to be out guarding my horse?” Clint asked the dog, the straight slash of his brow rising on the question.

Danny didn’t move and he didn’t shut up. Jenna leaned down and whispered in his ear. He quieted immediately.

Clint watched as Jenna bent to Danny. Her skin was whiter than white, and her eyes held that haunted look that told him how close she was to breaking. She stood there, her deliciously plump body half hidden by his dog, her pride around her toes and he knew she reached for the strength that she relied on. Knew she’d find it, too. Goddamn it, he ought to let her humiliate herself like this simply because she would. Instead, he found himself wanting to slip between her silence and her intent, wanting to offer her a way out.

The impulse passed as Jenna slowly straightened. Her bright blue eyes met his for the first time in the last five minutes, before dropping away uncomfortably.

“Danny is very sensitive,” she whispered.

Clint gave the huge dog, which looked like a cross between a bear and a bloodhound, a tap on his nose.

“He didn’t used to be.”

But he was a damned good judge of character, and he’d taken to Jenna Hennesey right off, lying beside her in that burning building, ready to die with her. Almost did when the roof of that bedraggled shack had come crashing down around them. He still didn’t know how they’d gotten out of there. She’d shown incredible inner strength that night. Holding on despite the tremendous pain. Holding on when he thought she’d pass out, knowing he’d lose her if she did. Digging deep when he asked her to. He hadn’t seen a lick of that incredible inner strength since, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Plain and simple, Jenna Hennesey was too nice for her own good. Almost a doormat. Unless she thought someone was being picked on. Then she dug in her heels and fought. Quietly, subtly, but with an iron will that didn’t flinch. The hell of it was that she pulled him both ways. One way he wanted to wrap her up and cuddle all that softness close. The other he wanted to throw her to the ground and bury himself in all that lush feminine strength.

Neither was an option. Jenna Hennesey had paid enough in her life for one woman. Hooking up with him would only give her more pain. Jenna needed a man filled with ideals and hope for tomorrow. A man who could echo the optimism she wore like a banner. His had long since dried up.

“Now that we’ve cleared up the unpleasantness, could we have our lunch?” Rebecca asked.

Jenna flashed her a grateful look, one that showed her dimples. Clint felt the familiar twitch in his cock that he always experienced in Jenna’s presence. He squashed the arousal and gave Rebecca his best smile. She blinked and caught her breath. He’d seen the reaction a thousand times from a thousand women. In his youth, he’d used it. In later years, he’d taken advantage of it, but now… Hell. He looked into Rebecca’s expectant face. Hell, now he had no use for it.

“Lunch would be fine.”

Clint glanced at Jenna. Her round face was drawn with tension. She was worried. He was willing to bet that the fingers buried in the dog’s ruff were white-knuckled. Damn, why did he always feel compelled to push her? Was he so shallow, so empty, that he couldn’t handle one woman who did not fall at his feet?

“I’ll have the soup, and if you haven’t earmarked every piece of that custard pie for Danny, I’ll have a slice of that to go with it.”

He could tell from the dismay flooding Jenna’s expression that she had done just that.

“There’s only one piece left,” her voice trailed off.

Clint would have pleaded his case, but as if sensing his pie was in danger, Danny tipped his head back and let the loose skin around his face sag, giving him a look so woeful that Clint didn’t bother to compete.


Jenna kissed Danny’s nose. “I’m sorry.”

She stumbled back as Danny let his full weight lean against her.

“I should be used to it by now,” Clint muttered, catching her wrist and steadying her.

“Used to what?” Rebecca asked, eyeing his fingers on Jenna’s wrist.

“Being outmaneuvered by a mutt.” He released Jenna, noting with interest the faint pink touching her cheeks.

“Danny is not a mutt.”

There was that hint of steel threading Jenna’s husky voice that always triggered a purely sexual reaction in him.

“Then what is he?”

She didn’t have an answer, but her soft mouth thinned with determination. Three seconds later she had one.

“He’s special.”

He would give her that. He had yet to decide if the dog was a blessing or a curse.

“What else is on the menu?”

She shifted her feet and bit her lip, something he’d noticed she did when ill at ease.

“I experimented today with a new recipe.”

“Yeah?” Things were looking up. Jenna’s experiments were always a jaw-dropping experience.


“What did you make?” Rebecca asked cautiously, sitting up and keeping her eyes on Danny the whole time.

“I tried a torte.”

Clint’s mouth was already watering.

“Chocolate?” he asked, hoping against hope. Used to be that Jenna always baked a chocolate desert on Saturdays, but then someone had noted that the new deserts always coincided with his visits, and she’d stopped. He figured she didn’t want him thinking she was encouraging his kind.

Her, “Yes.” was soft, and her gaze didn’t meet his. Her bottom lip slipped between her teeth, forcing her dimples into prominence. His cock went rock-hard in a rush. Damn, the woman was too beautiful for words. Jenna might not be for him, but he’d like to sink for a week into those lush curves of hers. Bury his face in the deep cleavage between her breasts and immerse himself in her scent. He bet she’d be soft and welcoming all over. The kind of softness that took away a man’s loneliness.

“That sounds delicious,” Rebecca sighed.

Jenna’s head came up. Clint noted she didn’t avoid Rebecca’s gaze like she did his.

“I hope so. It has a mocha walnut butter cream filling with a dark chocolate glaze. It might be too much for some.”

“There can never be too much chocolate,” Clint countered at the same time that Rebecca moaned and asked, “Any chance you are looking for sacrificial lambs to try out this new recipe?”

Jenna’s hands twisted in Danny’s fur. “I couldn’t charge you for it.”

Clint swore under his breath. “Like hell you couldn’t.”

Jenna was never going to make it in business if she didn’t realize that both her time and her effort were valuable.

“But it’s only an experiment.”

She looked genuinely distressed, as if paying for a desert he might not like would break him.

“I’ll tell you what, if I don’t like it, I won’t pay for it.”

“I’d like to try it, too,” Rebecca piped up. “My momma has it in her head that chocolate is bad for the complexion, so I never get it unless I sneak it.”

That cinched it, Clint knew. Jenna would bring Rebecca the torte, because the one thing Jenna loved was chocolate and being without it made her cranky. It was why he’d paid Eloise to stock it in her store and to sell it to Jenna for a quarter of the price. She’d never been anywhere to know that the price she paid was too low. And it made Clint happy to know his money gave someone pleasure.

Jenna let go of Danny, wrapped her hands in her skirt and bit her lip, flashing those dimples again. He bit back a moan. His hunger for Jenna was getting out of control.

“I’ll bring it out, but only if you promise that you won’t feel obligated to say you like it if you don’t.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it,” Rebecca assured her. “It’s chocolate after all.”

The gentleness in her tone while talking to Jenna raised her up a notch in Clint’s opinion. He made a mental note to find a way to slip Rebecca chocolate now and again.

“I’ll be right back, then.” Jenna turned, flinching as her weight came down on her bad leg. Danny whined and leaned against her. She nodded to the bum hovering by the door and rubbed her thigh.

Clint shook his head when she invited the bum in before heading to the back of the shop, Danny pressed against her side, supporting her weight. Even from this distance he could smell the sour whiskey and old sweat emanating from the drunk’s dirty clothes. Any other shopkeeper wouldn’t have let him in the door, but Clint knew Jenna would seat him and treat him like a king, apologizing profusely to everyone he offended, but she wouldn’t send him away. He’d bet she wouldn’t even charge the no account, her heart once again getting in the way of business.

Clint made a mental note to double his tip. The woman was too soft for her own good. Too stubborn, too. He could tell from her limp as she pushed through the kitchen door that her leg was killing her. No way was she going to make it through the whole day without a disaster, which meant no way was he going to get any peace for worrying about what form it would take. No sooner had the thought formed in his mind than a crash and a scream came from behind the swinging door. There was a moment of deafening silence, and then Danny howled.

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