Maybe that was why she found herself leaning even closer—it all felt surreal. Like a time-out from the worry and stress of her real life, where everything was suddenly simpler. Where kissing Carson McNeill seemed like the only thing that mattered.
Her hand landed on his chest. Warm. Strong. Inviting.
She splayed her fingers wider, wanting to feel more of him. Then she tipped her face up to his. She was close enough to see him well despite the darkness. His eyes locked on hers for an instant—like two stars close up.
And then his lips claimed hers.
* * *
Carson had been wrestling with the need to touch Emma all day. For hours, they’d been in close proximity, and the urge to kiss her had been there. Every. Single. Moment.
He’d resisted. Triumphed. Walked away from her at the end of the work day, satisfied that he’d done the right thing.
But as soon as he’d spotted her treating his ranch like her personal gym out on the pasture road, her glossy brown ponytail swinging while she jogged, he knew his restraint was all out for the day. She’d worn right through it with her bullheaded determination to fake her way through a horseback stunt. Hell, she’d shredded it with her grit and bravado that rivaled any bull rider’s.
So now when she tipped her mouth up to his, freely offering the taste he’d battled his conscience over all day, he didn’t have a prayer of turning away. Petal-soft and strawberry-scented, her lips parted on a sigh, molding to his. Yielding sweetly. She skimmed her palm over his chest, sliding lower. He wrapped his arm around her, anchoring her against him, feeling the swell of her breasts as she eased nearer.
Wind whipped around them, stirring the scent of her fruity shampoo as tendrils escaped the ponytail and tickled his cheek. Hunger for more surged, hunger he couldn’t possibly satisfy. He’d never had a woman affect him like this—so swiftly or so completely. Her fingers clenched around the hem of his T-shirt, her nails gently scraping his skin and arousing a whole other heat they couldn’t possibly indulge...
“Emma.” He blinked his way through the sensual fog, hoping he’d regain reason as he broke the kiss.
As it was, he simply tipped his forehead to hers, waiting to catch his breath. Her eyes stayed closed a long moment. When she opened them, she edged away even more.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
His eyes were adjusted enough to the dark that he could see her run her fingers over her lips. The gesture made his insides twist with need.
“I wish you weren’t. Sorry, that is. I’ll be damned if I am.”
He debated starting up the utility vehicle and flooring the gas until he got her back to her room for the night. Behind a locked door. But his stepmother was being transferred to the local hospital tonight, and he wanted to be there for his family when she arrived in Cheyenne.
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew why I’m here.” Emma tightened her ponytail in a gesture he’d seen her repeat often over the course of the day.
He’d be willing to bet she didn’t let her hair down often. And yeah, maybe that made him want to crow with victory that she’d seemed to forget everything else with him just now.
“What do you mean?” He forced himself to focus on her words and not the leftover heat still sparking through him. Then he started the vehicle, knowing he needed to get on the road for the hospital soon.
“I mean, I’m not an up-and-coming starlet, in town because I’m so excited to further my career.” She hugged her arms around herself, sitting back farther in her seat.
“You’re not trying to get ahead in your career?” He didn’t follow what she was getting at. “Could have fooled me given how hard you worked today.”
“Yes. Well, I want to keep my job. Desperately.” She slanted a look his way as they skirted a patch of trees and neared the lights of the White Canyon Ranch. “But that’s because I need to be anywhere but LA this week since my ex-boyfriend is getting out of prison tomorrow.”
Carson tried to process that. He hoped like hell that the ex in question hadn’t hurt her. But damn. Wouldn’t that account for her level of determination not to be in California this week?
“I’m sorry to hear you were in a bad relationship,” he said carefully. “And I’m glad to know why it means so much that you stay in Wyoming for the film. But that doesn’t make me the least bit sorry I kissed you.”
“There’s relationship baggage, and then there’s relationship kryptonite. I’m pretty sure a felon ex-boyfriend puts me in the latter category.” She lifted her nylon knapsack off the floor and set it in her lap, as if she couldn’t sprint out of the vehicle fast enough.
Carson slowed to a stop outside the deep porch of the huge log guest ranch, wanting to tread warily in this conversation, but also needing to reassure her that her past didn’t change how he viewed her.
“Your ex being in jail doesn’t reflect on you. Only on him.”
She unfastened her seat belt with a jerky movement. She was upset and he regretted having any part in making her feel that way. He’d watched her overcome one challenge after another on her horse today, admiring her never-ending supply of resolve.
“He was in prison for hitting me.” She looked at him, her gaze unwavering. “And once he’s freed, he’ll come looking for me. The last thing I want to do is drag an unsuspecting man into the drama.”
She bolted from the car as if she hadn’t just dropped a bombshell in his lap. By the time he shook off being stunned and set out to follow Emma, the screen door was already banging behind her.
Emma realized she was being a coward the moment she got through the door of the White Canyon Ranch.
She’d kissed Carson and let that kiss carry her away. Then, when she acknowledged to herself how much she’d enjoyed it, she had panicked. She’d flung her past in the man’s face and sprinted. If she ever wanted to move beyond the abuse, she needed to stop acting like this. Like she was ashamed and embarrassed about it.
More than that, if she was going to move forward with her life, she had to stop putting up smokescreens when a hot guy tempted her to take a chance on the opposite sex again. She had to take ownership of her feelings.
Forcing herself to stop, she pivoted on the toe of her running shoe before she hit the first step of the main staircase. She wasn’t surprised to see Carson striding through the front door and into the huge foyer with cathedral ceilings.
Her pulse stuttered, then quickened. He’d been appealing, sitting next to her in the darkened vehicle under the stars. Here, in the light cast by the huge antler chandelier overhead, he stole her breath. His gaze locked on her as he closed the distance between them, and those blue eyes saw right inside her.
“Can we talk privately?” he asked, his expression concerned, his touch tender as he wrapped a hand lightly around her forearm.
“Sure.” She nodded. “I was just thinking the same thing.” Peering around the empty foyer, she set her knapsack in a window seat behind a floor-length curtain draped around a wooden pull back. Then she followed him back outside to the wide front porch that wrapped two sides of the building.
Although the guest ranch was full to capacity with cast and crew members this week, the property was relatively quiet now. Emma recalled seeing a bulletin on her phone that a charter bus had been scheduled to transport interested sightseers into downtown Cheyenne tonight for dinner and entertainment.
As Carson guided her toward the railing at the far end of the building, she decided to save him the trouble of asking her more about her past.
“That was wrong of me to spring on you,” she said, leaning a hip into the railing while he turned to face her.