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She’ll do whatever it takes to keep a promise, even a stupid, reckless one. He’ll do whatever it takes to protect his family, and she’s threatening it.

Poppy Grayson promises to help her friend Tom save his marriage by making his wife jealous. Cue instant regret for her reckless promise, a Montana dude ranch, a jealous wife, and hotter-than-a-volcano rancher Mac MacLean. Poppy’s desperate to keep her promise so she can let Mac light her fire, but every time she gets near Tom, Mac is there to defend him.

Mac thinks Poppy is trying to break up his sister’s marriage. He’ll do what it takes to defend his family, but he wants her for his own. Is she really an unprincipled homewrecker? Does he care?

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In spite of her brave plans, Poppy spent the rest of the afternoon, spinelessly pretending jet lag and gathering up courage.  Alice put a stop to that by banging on the door.  The chill of her brusque, “I came to see if you'd like to join us for happy hour,” didn't promise a fun evening.

“Of course.”  About as much as she wanted to take the MBTA home from her lab.  Alone.  At one in the morning.

She trudged behind her reluctant hostess up the path to the main ranch house, trying to ignore the pine-scented air and faraway sounds of children's laughter and water tumbling over rocks.  The view of horses and split-rail fences and rustic wooden buildings didn't look as alien as it had only a few hours ago.

But there was still Alice, and Poppy really didn't want to do this.  “It'll be easy,” Tom had assured her.  “If you make her jealous, she'll stop with her nice-one-minute-deep-freeze-the-next routine.”  And when Poppy had demurred, Tom had grabbed her arm and begged.  “I've tried everything.  Candy.  Flowers.  I gave her the deep freeze back and flirted with guests.  She knew right away that was a fake, because I'd never...but you could make her believe it.  I even tried taking her away for the weekend to talk about our relationship.”

Poppy had almost smiled at the horror in his voice.

“But all she did was cry.  Please, Poppy.  You're my last chance.”

She couldn't have turned him down after that impassioned plea.

This Alice radiated a displeasure that almost eclipsed her professional hostess charm.  And Tom hadn't mentioned the misery in her eyes, a deep unhappiness that made Poppy want to offer tea and a shoulder to cry on instead of adding another problem.

Poppy's guilt couldn't have been more real if she'd been planning to seduce Alice's husband in fact instead of appearance.

Well, the sooner she started, the sooner she'd be done.  She smiled innocently and looked toward the barn, her gaze lingering a careful moment too long on a wrangler leading a couple of horses into the corral.  A cowboy.  A real cowboy.  She made a soft sound in her throat that wasn't entirely for Alice's benefit.

When Alice looked at her, she ran the tip of her tongue across her lips and let an anticipatory smile curve her mouth.  “It must be an overwhelming job to run this place,” she said, pitching her voice a little lower, a little throatier than normal.  “Surely you don't do it all by yourself?”

Alice's expression chilled a few additional degrees.  “No,” she said.  “My husband and I run the ranch.  He's the one who drove you in from the airport.”

“Oh, yes. Tom,” Poppy cooed, amazing herself.  She'd never cooed before in her life.

“He's taken some guests on an overnight camping trip.  They'll be back tomorrow.”  'And keep your hands off' sounded as clearly as if she'd said the words.

That had been almost too easy.  She'd convinced Alice she was an empty-headed twit on the make without any trouble.  Maybe Tom was right—this would all be over soon.

On the other hand, maybe she'd only make things worse.

The purr of an expensive engine caught her attention.  A sleek black Mercedes bumped across the cattle guard and pulled up at the main house.  Poppy couldn't see Alice's expression, but the stiff shoulders relaxed and her hands lifted, reaching for the man who climbed out of the driver's seat.  She ran toward him.  “Mac!”  Her glad cry floated through the clear air.  “Mac, you came.”

At this distance, all Poppy could see was big.  Tall.  Broad shouldered and lean-hipped.  Dark as sin.  If she believed in Jase's theories about auras, this one would be colored dangerous.  If this man stayed, poor Tom might have a bigger problem than he realized.  She'd have to charm this man away from Alice while she was at it.

The stranger radiated power.  If he owned the place he couldn't appear more in control.

His charcoal suit whispered 'money.'  Glossy black cowboy boots and an outsized silver belt buckle added 'western money.'

Poppy's skin prickled, and her heart began a slow, thudding beat.  He looked—familiar.  This was the Prince Charming, the rogue, the hero who had seduced her in a thousand exotic, erotic dreams.

What nonsense.  As if she could tell anything about him from this distance.

Alice hurled herself into his arms.  He gathered her close, his dark head bent to her.  Poppy stopped, breath wedged in her chest, and watched.  As if she were the one melting against him, the heat of his embrace surrounded her.  The strength of his arms held her safe—

She sent a last, sour glare at the entwined silhouette and stamped up the path, heading around the lodge toward the pool for a few minutes to herself before happy hour.  She didn't do tall, dark, and deceitful.  This was Home on the Range, not Some Enchanted Evening, no matter what her traitorous body said.


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