The sun was sinking low on the horizon, though, and it occurred to her that it was liable to be very dark at sunset. Not like her neighborhood in Studio City, where she could run at all hours of the night and still see because of the streetlamps. Taking a moment to stretch in the hope it would ease some of the stiffness in her muscles, Emma breathed in the scent of fresh air and wildflowers. The breeze stirred the tall grass inside the four-rail fence.
She was just about ready to start running again when the hum of an engine alerted her that a vehicle was heading her way. Her shoulders tensed. Yes, Emma had taken plenty of mixed martial arts classes, training that served her well in stunt work and helped to make her feel sure of herself in isolated places. Still, she couldn’t shake some of the old fears. Her ex-boyfriend was a fellow fitness trainer who’d hit her in a public place, in front of a room full of witnesses after a kickboxing class he’d taught. He’d tried to play it off like he was giving her an extra lesson, but thankfully no one else in the class believed that. An off-duty cop had been among the attendees, leading to the battery charges that kept her ex locked up for almost three years.
She didn’t want to ever need saving again, though. She tightened her ponytail and started a light jog that irritated her burning thighs.
As the sound of the engine drew closer, punching up her heartrate, she turned to see a two-seater utility vehicle with an open cargo bed in back. The compelling cowboy she’d been trying to excise from her thoughts sat behind the wheel.
Her fears dissipated fast.
Carson McNeill braked to a stop beside her. The tension inside her shifted from fright back to the attraction she’d been fighting all day. She told herself it shouldn’t matter that she was red faced and sweating. But it was tough not to be aware that she looked like roadkill when he looked like he’d just had a shower, with his hair still damp and his face freshly shaved. He wore a white button-down with the sleeves rolled up and a clean pair of jeans.
She paused beside the vehicle, swiping the back of her hand over her damp forehead. “You can’t possibly be here to critique my form. On my own two feet, I absolutely know what I’m doing.”
He didn’t even crack a smile. “My foreman told me you decided to run back to the White Canyon.”
“When running alone, it’s a good safety practice to let someone know where you’re going.” She’d taken extra precautions. “I told Zoe, too.”
His jaw flexed. She’d seen that look often enough today when she’d tried his patience. Now, the furrow in his brow said he was downright aggravated.
“Speaking of safety practices, how many times did I mention that a Wyoming ranch can be dangerous? That animals can be dangerous?”
“Several.” Hot, tired and sore, she was beginning to feel her own patience fray. “But since I’m off the clock for the day, I’m no longer your concern.”
“If you’re on McNeill lands, you’re my responsibility.” He swiped his Stetson off the passenger seat and tossed it in the cargo bed behind him. “Get in. I’ll drive you the rest of the way.”
She didn’t appreciate the command, but she also didn’t want to antagonize a man who still had the power to send her packing. Besides, her legs hurt and twilight would turn to full dark soon.
The vehicle didn’t have a door so she swung into the passenger seat while holding on to the roll bar. Carson revved the engine once she was seated with her safety belt buckled.
“Nice ride,” she remarked lightly, hoping he wasn’t going to hold this latest transgression against her during this extra stressful week.
She’d had multiple texts from her roommate and her mother reminding her not to answer any calls from unknown numbers this week. They were both worried about her, with her ex getting out of prison. As if Emma wasn’t worried enough on her own. But she couldn’t imagine how Austin would find her here. Hollywood made no secret of lead actors’ whereabouts, but anyone looking for information about stunt roles, especially smaller roles like this one, would be hard-pressed to find it. Another bright spot was that Austin would have no idea she’d gone into stunt work, even if he wanted to find her.
Beside her, Carson remained silent while the stars popped out overhead. One. Two. And then a million. The sight was breathtaking. She craned her head back to stare straight up, but she didn’t need to. Pinpoints of blue and white light blanketed the sky in every direction.
“Wow.” She glanced over at her silent driver, wondering if he’d grown immune to the beauty. “I’ve never seen stars like this.”
Maybe some of her wonder seeped through his frustration, because he slowed the vehicle, then stopped altogether, the engine rumbling at idle in the creeping night. They sat on a hilltop with meadows rolling out into the distance on one side, and a shadow of rocky cliffs and trees on the other. He snapped off the headlights to give them a better view and turned off the ignition. The engine ticked for a few moments and then went silent.
“It’s amazing how much the lights of a city detract from the night sky.” Carson tipped his head back, too, his hands resting on his sprawled denim-covered knees.
The right one hovered close to her leg, radiating a warmth she could feel. Or maybe it was the electric current of attraction that made her skin tingle that way beneath her leggings. She had been on a few dates since breaking things off with Austin but nothing serious. She definitely hadn’t experienced the sizzling awareness she got from being around Carson. What a shame for her body to finally wake up again around a man she needed to impress with her professionalism.
“It’s funny,” she said, needing to break the intimate thread of silence between them, “because I always think I live in a quieter area of Los Angeles.” She tried not to think about his knee next to hers. His hand close to her leg. But memories of the way he’d touched her earlier—shifting her thigh on the horse—sent a fresh surge of heat through her.
“Even in Cheyenne, you can’t see the stars the way you can out here. There aren’t many perks to ranching, but the night sky is definitely one of them.”
Straightening in her seat, she peered over at him. The breeze turned cooler.
“You don’t like your work?” She was curious about him, this man who allowed a film production company onto his property but couldn’t really relinquish control. “After seeing you on horseback today, I guess I just assumed you were born in a saddle.”
He’d ridden beside her briefly before setting her loose to try the track on her own.
“Almost.” She thought she heard a hint of a smile in his voice. Or was that wishful thinking? “But I never imagined myself overseeing cattle at my age. Ranching is fine for my twin brother, but I thought I’d be riding rodeo into my thirties.”
She hadn’t known about the twin brother. Or the rodeo past. Still, she could relate to what he was saying. She felt him shift beside her, turning toward her. A gust of wind blew through her hair, flicking strands against her cheek.
“I never thought I’d be recreating sword fights or high-speed chases, either. But sometimes life takes surprising turns.”
“I’ll bet it’s an interesting story how you got here, Emma Layton.” Her name on his lips felt as intimate as a caress to a woman who hadn’t been touched by a man in a long, long time.
The rush of heat through her veins shouldn’t have caught her off guard—she’d been feeling it all day around him. She’d run four miles to try to escape it. Even so, the magnetic force that seemed to pull her toward him was like nothing she’d ever experienced. Her shoulders shifted fractionally closer. Her knee brushed his.
She drew in a sharp breath at the contact, ripples of pleasure radiating out from the point where she touched him. She forgot what they were talking about. Couldn’t think of words to say even if she remembered. There was only the moment and the man. The