FALLING SOFTLY

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Compass Girls, Book 4

Darkness has crept into Sterling Compton’s charmed life, relentlessly stealing what’s left of her grandmother’s memories. When she happens upon a compelling stranger leaning against a broken-down pickup in the middle of nowhere, grief and a gut-deep attraction spur her to take that too-safe life by the horns.

Sterling barely escaped the laser stare of her cousin, Hope, as she transferred her grandmother to the other young woman’s care. Normally they’d sit and chat awhile, enjoying their time with Vivi. Brew some tea, share ranch gossip and cook dinner together so their grandmother didn’t attempt to operate the stove without subtle supervision.

Not today.

With her obligation complete, Sterling needed to escape before she ensnared the rest of her family in the turmoil she’d already been exposed to after Dr. Martin’s sentencing. Dramatic? Maybe, but that’s how it felt.

Rolling the windows down, she let the wind whip her chestnut hair around her face. The tips lashed her and made her eyes water. At least, that was what she identified as the culprit when moisture trickled down her cheeks while she passed through town.

She bounced along in her retro Jeep, letting the rural scenery soothe her. Nature did that for her. It always had.

Blacktop transformed into gravel and tar. Shops became houses and then occasional farms. As the miles ticked by, plowed fields gave way to grasslands. They rolled off to where they met the mountains in the distance. Crystal clear water, which would be freezing if she parked and dipped her toes in, streamed beneath the old wooden bridge she rumbled across. In the distance, a trio of wild mustangs galloped.

Red rocks and scraggly silverberry bushes inspired a design. Finally, the perfect thing to do with those unusual garnets she’d had lying around popped into her mind. She searched the road ahead for a place to pull over so she could haul out her sketchbook to capture the flash of brilliance before it passed.

Except just then, she spotted the glint of sunlight off something distinctly not natural. A hunk of metal. As she crested a gentle hill and neared, she realized it was a busted truck. Way out here, miles from town, it would be irresponsible for her to leave without checking on its most likely stranded owner.

Slowing down, she approached the vehicle. From this distance, it was easy to detect the open hood and the wisps of blue smoke drifting from the engine of the rust bucket. Not a good sign.

But when she got closer still and noticed the man leaning against the clunker, she whistled.

Enormous, he reminded her of a sequoia. Earthy, strong and beautiful. Majestic. One glimpse at him had a thousand ideas sparking to life. Her pencil would be worn to a stub before she could draw them all.

His hair beat hers in both the intensity of its inky blackness and the thickness of its straight length. Classic Native American features made his face bold and strikingly handsome. But his relaxed pose, ankles crossed with arms up and back on either side of him—splayed across the top edge of the truck bed—had her swallowing hard.

Sterling squirmed in the driver’s seat.

Despite his seeming casualness, his broad chest puffed outward, making it clear he could take care of himself. Even if she’d been a two-hundred-and-fifty pound rancher in his prime, she’d have been no concern for this guy.

More sharply than she intended, Sterling hit the brakes, stirring up some dust as she bobbled onto the shoulder behind his vehicle. Instinctively, one of her hands flew to her phone, nestled in her wristlet. She peeked at its screen, double-checking the strength of her signal out here. Thank goodness for satellites.

Furiously, she swiped her finger across the device, sending her cousins a quick text. I found a stray smoking hot man on the side of the road. Going to play the Good Samaritan. Probably give him a ride into town. If I don’t text you back in an hour with details, he turned out to be a psychopath, has eaten me alive and is burying the leftovers in the wilderness. Send help. J

Three beeps pinged off the inside of her vehicle almost immediately.

Be careful! From Hope.

Don’t joke! From Sienna.

Hot, you say? Have fun. Jade, of course.

Gotta go. Sterling laughed softly to herself as she tucked her phone away. She’d probably pay for that later—with an epic pillow fight, or having to muck out stalls with Jade, or by baking dessert for the other Compass Girls—but she didn’t care at the moment.

Still amused, she glanced up and caught her sexy stranger staring at her. He hadn’t moved a single muscle. Not even a twitch. As if afraid of spooking her, he waited for her to approach. His carefully constructed docile illusion didn’t fool her for a nanosecond.

Dangerous though he might be, his raw sensuality drew her. She gazed right back at him, noting the rich chocolate of his eyes and the faint scar decorating the corner of his mouth. Cataloging every detail of his flawless imperfection, she clutched the steering wheel with both hands.

He seemed sort of familiar and yet unlike anyone she’d ever known. So much more.

She swore she could read a million thoughts in his stare during the span of a single heartbeat. What the hell?

And then he smiled.

It seemed a tiny bit contrived, and not as reassuring as he probably intended. Like a Big Bad Wolf whose grin only showed off his fangs. Yet, it might have been the most gorgeous thing she’d seen in a year.

Considering the gems surrounding her day in and day out, that was saying something.

Her fingers trembled as they opened her door.

When she slid out of the Jeep, her boots weren’t as steady on the ground as she would have expected….preferred, really.

It must have been the trip to the hospital throwing her off her game.

Sterling had halved the distance between them, coming to stand with her feet apart and her thumbs hooked in the pockets of her denim skirt, before either of them spoke. She broke the silence. “Truck crapped out on you, huh?”

“Yep.” He still didn’t budge. As if that might make her less aware of the fact that he could overpower her in a hurry, if he was so inclined.

“Waiting for roadside assistance?” She wondered why he was so calm. Most people, even seasoned ranch hands, would be leery about spending the night so far out of touch from town. Without proper supplies, it wouldn’t be very comfortable at best and could be dangerous if the person stranded didn’t have at least moderate survival skills. Already the air grew brisk enough that she resisted the temptation to hug herself.

“Nah. Don’t have a cell.” He shrugged, the motion only highlighting the ripped shoulders beneath his thin T-shirt and the chiseled sinew of his forearms.

Who didn’t carry a phone these days? Maybe he couldn’t afford one, if his truck and ripped jeans were anything to guess by.

“So you’re just going to chill out here and hope for someone to pass by?” She arched a brow at his nonchalance.

“Seems to be a solid plan so far.” This time his grin seemed genuine. “I didn’t expect my rescue squad to be quite so pretty, though. Lucky me.”

Bright white teeth flashed from behind his smile. It hit her in the gut, knocking the wind from her as if she’d fallen off one of the ranch horses. Full lips curved upward and his eyes danced with reflected light. She’d only seen eyes so vibrant, with flecks of gold, like that on one other person in her life.

He could have been the very definition of alive. The something elusive she’d been craving after this afternoon’s bleak reminder of her mortality.

Life’s irony gripped her, and she laughed. At her acquaintance’s wit and flirting, some. But mostly at the pure exhilaration caused by riding the rollercoaster of her existence. Peaks and valleys. Everyone went through them, clinging desperately to the safety rails and trying not to piss their pants on the plunge down, then enjoying the view when things were looking up, she supposed.

Beaming, she planned to make the most of this sudden peak.

Then it was his turn to be rendered speechless. His eyes widened and his pupils dilated as he soaked in her joy and amusement. Fingers gripped the edge of the truck tighter, as if he might give up his charade and finally approach her if he didn’t cling to the metal. Maybe even go crazy and shake her hand. Who knew?

Something warned Sterling that if they touched, even with that itty-bit of skin on skin, sparks would fly and risk kindling a blaze that would set the entire early-fall landscape on fire.

So she dodged. She jutted her chin toward the wrench lying abandoned on the tailgate of his truck and the greasy rag beside it. “So I guess you couldn’t get her going again, huh? I could take a look. I’m pretty good with machines and stuff like that. Working with my hands.”

In fact, her father’s best friend, Jake, had helped her rebuild her entire Jeep from junk. The model from late last century suited her perfectly, classic and funky all at once.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not fixable.” He grimaced. “But you’re welcome to poke around if it’ll make you feel useful.”

“Sure thing. I’m Sterling, by the way.” She snatched up the tool and passed within reach of the gentle giant, who smiled softly at her. “If I can’t do anything with it either, I’ll be glad to give you a ride into town or call a tow truck for you. You know, since you’re so scared of me that you can’t move, never mind get in my car.”

He chuckled, low and half as rusty as his pick-up. When she peeked up at him from beneath his hood, he seemed startled, as if humor hadn’t played a big part in his life so far. Maybe it hadn’t. He sure looked like a hard man. One she’d love to tame. A challenge the cocky young guns on the ranch and in town didn’t pose for her.

Right then she vowed to help him turn around what had to be a shitty day, a perfect match for hers.
When he finally caved and pushed off the truck, ambling to her side, she held her breath. His shadow fell across her, blocking out the sun entirely. Clearly, he’d been slouching. Probably a smart move, though she wasn’t the sort of woman to cow easily.

Putting out one hand, he said, “Viho.”

“Interesting name.” She shook it, marveling at how he swallowed her fingers with heat and a gentle pressure that didn’t crush her but didn’t treat her like she was delicate filigree either.

“I could say the same.” He flashed her another semi-smile. “Mine’s Native American. It means Chief.”
“Seriously?” Sterling nodded, impressed. “So are you royalty or something?”

He certainly had an air of nobility about him, despite his commoner’s clothes.

“Nah.” He shook his head a bit. “I guess I could have been. If we still had chiefs, my grandfather would have been it. The small reservation I grew up on looked to him for approval. But getting involved in our government wasn’t my path. Causing a rift in our community was never my intention. And besides, I’m nobody’s leader.”

“How did you know that?” she wondered. After today, she was starting to doubt herself and her life choices where she never had before.

At first, she didn’t think he intended to answer. She figured that was a pretty personal thing to ask a guy you’d spoken fewer words to than you’d say to a drive-thru attendant in the course of ordering a meal. But something about him made her feel as if they’d known each other for a hell of a lot longer than three point two seconds. Maybe it was the way he didn’t pressure her, letting her take the lead in their interactions and conversation, unlike most guys she met, who were eager to pinpoint anything they had in common.

Some way to get closer to her, either because they were interested in moving up the ranks at Compass Ranch or because they wanted in her pants. Or both. Kill two birds with one cock, so they seemed to think.

Instead, Viho reminded her of Jake, widely recognized as the best man around for taming wild horses. He had that same aloof patience that lured in the wild beasts and made them believe they were safe. And they were. Jake lived up to that implied promise. He cared for all his creatures, went above and beyond to see that they had everything he could give them.

It also could have been the sadness she sensed lurking behind Viho’s spectacular eyes that struck a chord.

“First, the place I grew up wasn’t the norm. It was culturally conservative. Dominated by a few extremist families that would never have seen past my less-than-pure blood. I’d have spent my entire life outvoted by the rest of the council regardless of how worthy my ideas were of their support. We’d have wasted everyone’s time in one giant pissing match, no one moving forward. It’s probably cowardly, but getting more involved seemed like a waste of time. Turning that tide was impossible. It never sat right on me anyway. Politics. People shouting over each other instead of understanding the other’s point of view. I’ve always enjoyed being outside, alone, listening to nature…”

No wonder he hadn’t been worried about spending the night outdoors.

“What does it tell you?” she asked.

And he shut down as surely as if she’d called him a loser.

“Hey.” She paused her examination to lay a hand on his wrist. They both shivered in response. His skin was balmy against hers and his pulse jumped beneath the pads of her fingers at the contact. “I wasn’t fucking around. Not making fun of you. I was serious.”

“Oh.” He sighed. Suddenly he seemed to age, and Sterling realized he was significantly older than she’d first thought. Maybe thirty-five or forty to her twenty-four. A man with some experience didn’t sound like such a bad thing to her. Hopefully, she hadn’t come off as some punk kid harassing him. “I guess I should have said that when it’s quiet around me I can hear myself think. And I don’t feel as out of place in the universe. If I stop listening too long, I start to feel like I don’t belong here and never have. And that’s totally a strange thing to admit. To anyone. But especially to…you know, you.”

He scrunched his eyes closed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I guess that means we’ve passed that awkward introductory stage of our relationship.” With that lame attempt at a joke, she released him and tried to concentrate. On his words. On the truck. On anything but putting her hands on him again. Maybe sliding her palms beneath his shirt to steal some of his warmth and map the contours of his prime body.

Because suddenly, she really wanted to show him that he was in the exact right place in the cosmos, and so was she.

“It’s kind of weird, you know. I’ve always thought I knew where I was meant to be. But lately, things are changing, and I think that might be worse. Finding out that how you thought things were supposed to be isn’t going to last forever, and that your life is your family’s, not your own.”

“I know exactly what you mean, Sterling.” He gazed at her with such intensity that she had to clear her throat and deliberately turn away. “And when that anchor gets yanked up and you start to drift, it’s easy to get dizzy. To lose your way.”

“Is that how you ended up stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?” She recalled the black, red and white bedroll she’d spotted in the bed of the truck. It looked like he’d used it. A lot. Not just for picturesque camping trips to manicured grounds, either.

“I suppose it was the start of that path.” He shrugged, kicking a rock into the distance.

The grief radiating off him reminded her too much of what she’d been feeling when she left Compass Ranch earlier—the pain she’d been trying to obliterate, if even for a few hours.

So she steered the conversation to less dangerous ground. Like the cooling weather.

Viho rewarded her change of subjects with the hint of a smile and the loosening of his tense shoulders.

As they chitchatted, she tinkered with his engine. It quickly became clear that his assessment was accurate. The thing was toast.

Surrendering, she turned toward Viho at the same instant he leaned in for a closer look. They plastered together. Instinctively, her hands flew to his chest to brace herself. And she smeared grease all over his soft, charcoal cotton shirt.

“Son of a bitch.” She tried to wipe a smudge off and only splattered it more. “I’m so sorry.”

“No problem.” His easygoing nature counterbalanced her impending freak-out, which would only enhance the social awkwardness that had always plagued her. But when he reached down, grabbed the hem of the tee and whipped it over his head, he struck her dumb.

Muscles rippled as he moved, hardness covered with smooth, tan skin she wished she had a right to touch. “Uh…”

“It was an accident. No harm.” He wadded up the fabric and tossed it into the back of the truck.

Except there might be some damage to her heart if it didn’t start beating again where it’d nearly exploded in her ribcage. It was time for her to admit it. She had never drooled over a man, not even a movie star or that guy she’d exchanged some heated emails with through an online matchmaking site, the way she lusted after Viho. Instant and vicious, attraction seethed between them.

“Sterling,” he murmured.

“Yeah?”

“I think we’d better wrap up here so you can take me into town now.”

“What if I don’t really want to do that anymore?” She couldn’t stop herself from being honest when he’d been so open with her earlier.

“Then I’ll wait for the next person to come by.” He shrugged, but she didn’t miss the flash of disappointment in his warm stare.

Did he think so little of himself that he didn’t understand her implication?

“Viho, this is not the time to be dense.” Brave, sure, she could be. But making the first move in this situation… Well, that was a little outrageous, even for her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He encroached on her personal space then, and she loved it.

“I think I’d rather stay here with you and listen to what nature is telling me right now.” She wiped her hand on her skirt, then reached up to his cheek.

“You can’t mean that.” His eyes went wide. “Are you for real? Maybe I didn’t drink enough water today. I’ve been stuck out here for a while.”

Sterling smiled. She knew she was doing the right thing. He’d needed to find her as much as she’d needed to discover him today. For whatever reason, they were here in the same place at the same time.

Wasting that opportunity—divine or pure dumb luck—would not be wise.

Sterling might not have believed in fate before, but she could be converted.

“Does this seem like I mean it?” She launched herself at Viho then, sure he wouldn’t allow her to fall. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she went onto her tiptoes.

He didn’t leave her straining for long. His broad hands cupped the back of her thighs and lifted her to his level. The tips of her boots dangled off the ground as their bodies aligned. Locking them tighter, she wrapped her legs around his hips and crossed her ankles even as her hands rested on either side of his neck. A breeze cooled her ass when her skirt rode up due to her very unladylike position.

Holding her as if she was as dainty as her cousin, Hope, he stared into her eyes until she lunged forward, plastering her lips on his before he could bring either one of them to their senses.

That was when his gentlemanly exterior sheared away.