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Copyright © 2011 Mari Carr and Jayne Rylon

Cindi shook her head as Seth helped his brother up the stairs. She didn’t have to be introduced to recognize the man who’d ridden in with the southern charmer. Another one of the infamous Compass Brothers had returned.

Magnets from the four corners of the country, not to mention several places around the world, pinned pictures of Vicky’s heartbreakers to the refrigerator in the main house. Even without the recent headshot of one of New York’s top traders, she’d have had no trouble identifying JD’s offspring.

Sam had inherited his father’s build and the easy flow of his movements. Something about him called to her even more than the other potent Compton men. Maybe it’d been his sophisticated style, his understated yet quality clothing or his classic haircut, which highlighted his handsomeness more than his ruggedness.

In person, he blew away the photo she’d drooled over when putting up leftovers. Damn.

“Careful, sweetie.” Jake approached from where he’d been tinkering with a piece of equipment. He wiped the grease off his hands onto his jeans before trailing his index finger down her neck. “You’re looking like you might swallow that talented tongue of yours.”

“Jealous?” She lifted a brow.

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Can’t imagine a Compass Brother sharing his girl. That’d be a mighty big problem. For both of us I’d reckon.”

“You do realize Silas has sex with both Colby and Lucy, right?” She adored the blush that enhanced his deep tan.

“That’s different.” He shook his head. “You know what I’m talking about. Or if you’ve forgotten, maybe I could show you. Pretty sure Duke, Johnny and Levi are finishing up inside. We’ll make you forget you ever saw that kid. City-slickers like him don’t have anything on real men.”

“Not tonight, Jake.” For the first time, the idea of a romp in the hay with them didn’t appeal. Usually an invitation to be embraced by their group inspired a shiver. Not today. “And don’t talk like that, okay? It doesn’t improve my opinion of you.”

“Really, Cin?” He retreated a step or two as though she were one of her beloved barn cats, hissing and slashing at him with sharp claws. “Is that how it is? I always thought you didn’t care about a man’s standing as much as his open arms. We’ve made you part of our family, given you what you needed. The second you see some rich prick you’re going to throw us over? Hell, you’ve never even talked to the guy.”

“Don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself?” She chuckled. “All I’m doing is standing here, enjoying the evening air and the scenery.”

“I’ve seen that look before.” Jake came closer. He crowded her against the wall, but she didn’t flinch. He’d never hurt her.

When he bent his head and stole a kiss, she added enough heat to the brief glide of her lips to reassure him.

“I like it better when it’s aimed at me,” he whispered in her ear. “Have your fun. I’ll be ready to pick up the pieces.”

“What do you have against Sam?” She tilted her head as she studied the tightness in Jake’s jaw. He was one of the most relaxed, easygoing cowboys she’d ever met.

“It’s hard to respect a kid who doesn’t appreciate his good fortune.” Jake shook his head. “I’d have killed for the kind of folks he has, the support he threw in the garbage. All of the Compass Brothers.”

“Didn’t they leave right after high school?” That’s what ranch rumor had to say about it, anyway.

“Yeah. All of them lit out of here like their asses were on fire, the moment they turned eighteen. Silas… Of all of them, I get how that situation could screw with your head. Maybe.” He kicked at a rock. “The rest, well, I don’t understand.”

“You can’t judge what they did as teenagers, Jake.” She snagged his hand and squeezed. “You’re older. We both know how important these kinds of connections are. They were lucky. They didn’t have a clue what it’s like to be totally alone, like us. Never will probably.”

“I hope you’re right.” The cheerful mask he typically wore drooped a fraction, and Cindi couldn’t resist their bond. Jake had provided a safe haven for her when she needed it. Tonight seemed like a bad night for him. “Wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

She leaned toward the open door, tugging on him gently. “Your offer still stand?”

“Why?” He peered from beneath the brim of his dark, dusty hat.

“I think I changed my mind.” She walked backward, drawing him into the barn.




1. Northern Exposure

2. Southern Comfort

3. Eastern Ambitions

4. Western Ties