Irish rebel, p.20
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       Irish Rebel, p.20

         Part #3 of Irish Hearts series by Nora Roberts
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  back was against the wall, and his eyes, so suddenly dark, burned into hers. "I don't want to be so careful, just this once."

  The thrill of it was a bolt through the heart. "Then don't. I'm not fragile like your horses, Brian. Don't be fooled."

  "I'll frighten you." He couldn't have said if it was a threat or warning, but her answer was just another dare.

  "Try it."

  He tore her shirt open, sending buttons flying. He watched her eyes widen in shock even as he crushed his mouth to hers to swallow her gasp. Then his hands were on her, a rough scrape of callus over sensitive skin. Part of him expected her to object, to struggle away, but she only moaned against his savaging mouth, and held on.

  When her knees gave like heated butter, he dragged her down to the mound of hay.

  He used his mouth on her, his teeth, his tongue. A kind of wild fury. His hands raced over her, rough and possessive in their impatience to have more. To take all.

  Her choked cries had the horses moving restlessly in their boxes. As he propelled her over that first breathless edge, she fisted her hands in his hair as if to anchor herself. Or to drag him with her.

  He'd given her tenderness, shown her the beauty of lovemaking with patience and care. Now he showed her the dark glory of it with reckless demands and bruising hands.

  Still she gave. Even with the whirlwind rushing inside him, he felt her give. Flesh dampened until it was slick, hearts pounded until the beat of them seemed to slap the air, but she rolled with him, accepting. Offering.

  Even when her eyes were blind, the blue of them blurred as dark as midnight, she stayed with him. The sound of his name rushing through her lips seemed to sing in his blood.

  She cried out, arching against his busy mouth when her world shattered into shards bright as glass. There was nothing to cling to, no thread to tie her to sanity, and still he drove her harder until the breath tearing from her lungs turned to harsh, primitive pants.

  "It's me who has you." Wild to mate, he gripped her hips, jerked them high. "It's me who's in you." And plunged into her as if his life depended on it.

  She heard a scream, high, thin, helpless. But it wasn't helplessness she felt. She felt power, outrageous power that pumped through her blood like a drug. Drunk on it, she reared up, her eyes locked on his as she fisted her hands in his hair once more.

  She fixed her mouth on his, savaging it as he rode her, hard and fast. And she held on, held on, matching him beat for beat though she thought her body would burst, until she felt him fall.

  "It's me," she said on a sob, "who has you." And still holding fast, let herself leap after him.

  Chapter Ten

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  As far as Keeley was concerned it was perfect. She'd fallen in love with a man who suited her. They had a strong foundation of common interests, enjoyed each other's company, respected each other's opinions.

  He wasn't without flaws, of course. He tended to be moody and his confidence very often crossed the line into arrogance. But those qualities made him who he was.

  The problem, as she saw it, was nudging him along from affair to commitment and commitment to marriage. She'd been raised to believe in permanency, in family, in the promise two people made to love for a lifetime.

  She really had no choice but to marry Brian and make a life with him. And she was going to see to it he had no choice, either.

  It was a bit like training a horse, she supposed. There was a lot of repetition, rewards, patience and affection. And a firm hand under it all.

  She thought it would be most sensible for them to become engaged at Christmas, and marry the following summer. Certainly it would be most convenient for them to build their life near Royal Meadows as both of them worked there. Nothing could be simpler.

  All she had to do was lead Brian to the same conclusions.

  Being the kind of man he was, she imagined he'd want to make the moves. It was a little galling, but she loved him enough to wait until he made his declaration. It wouldn't be with hearts and flowers, she mused as she walked Finnegan around the paddock. Knowing Brian there would be passion, and challenge and just a hint of temper.

  She was looking forward to it.

  She stopped to check the gelding's leg for any heat or swelling. Gently she picked up his foot to bend the knee. When he showed no signs of discomfort, she gave him a brisk rub on the neck.

  "Yeah," she said when he blew affectionately on her shoulder, "feeling pretty good these days, aren't you? I think you're ready for some exercise."

  His coat looked healthy again, she noted as she saddled him. Time, care and attention had turned the tide for him. Perhaps he'd never be a beauty, and certainly he was no champion, but he had a sweet nature and a willing spirit.

  That was more than enough.

  When she swung into the saddle, Finnegan tossed his head, then at her signal started out of the paddock in a dignified walk.

  She went cautiously for a time, tuning herself to him, checking for any hitch in his gait that would indicate he was favoring his leg. It pleased her so much to feel him slide into a smooth rhythm that after a few moments she relaxed enough to enjoy the quiet ride.

  Fall had used a rich and varied pallette this year to paint the trees in bold tones of golds and reds and orange. They swept over the hard blue canvas of sky and flamed under the strong slant of sunlight.

  The fields held onto the deep green of high summer. Weanlings danced over the pastures, long legs reaching for speed as they charged their own shadows. Mares, their bellies swollen with the foals they carried, cropped lazily.

  On the brown oval, colts and fillies raced in the majestic blur of power that brought thunder to the air.

  This painting, Keeley thought, had been hers the whole of her life. The images that came back, repeating season after season. The beauty and strength of it, and the settled knowledge that it would go on year into year.

  This she could, and would, pass on to her own children when the time came. The solidity of it, and the responsibilities, the joys and the sweat.

  Sitting aside the healing gelding, she felt her throat ache with love. It wasn't just a place, it was a gift. One that had been treasured and tended by her parents. Her part in it, of it, would never be taken for granted.

  When she saw Brian leaning on the fence, his attention riveted on the horses pounding down the backstretch, her aching throat seemed to snap shut.

  For a moment she could only blink, stunned by the sudden, vicious pressure in her chest. Her skin tingled. There was no other word to describe how nerves swarmed over her in a wash of chills and heat.

  As she fought to catch her breath, her heart pounded, a hammer on an anvil. The gelding shied under her, and had danced in a fretful half circle before she thought to control him.

  And her hands trembled.

  No, this was wrong. This wasn't acceptable at all. Where did this come from—how did she get this ball of terror in her stomach? She'd already accepted that she loved him, hadn't she? And it had been easy, a simple process of steps and study. Her mind was made up, her goals set. Damn it, she'd been pleased by the whole business.

  So what was this shaky, dizzy,painful sensation, this clutch of panic that made her want to turn her mount sharply around and ride as far away as possible?

  She'd been wrong, Keeley realized as she pressed an unsteady hand to her jumpy heart. She'd only been falling in love up to now. How foolish of her to be lulled by the smooth slide of it. This was the moment, she understood that now. This was the moment the bottom dropped away and sent her crashing.

  Now the wind was knocked out of her, that same shock of sensation that came from losing your seat over a jump and finding yourself flipping through space until the ground reached up and smacked into you. Jolting bones and head and heart.

  Love was an outrageous shock to the system, she thought. It was a wonder anyone survived it.

  She was a Grant, Keeley reminded herself and straightene
d in the saddle. She knew how to take a tumble, just as she knew how to pick herself back up and focus mind and energy on the goal. She wouldn't just survive this knock to the heart. She'd thrive on it. And when she was done with Brian Donnelly, he wouldn't know what had hit him.

  She steadied herself much as she had done before competitions. She took slow and deliberate breaths until her pulse rate slowed, focused her mind until it was calm as lake water, then she rode down to face her goal.

  Brian turned when he heard her approach. The vague irritation at the interruption vanished when he saw Finnegan. He felt a keen interest there, and passing his clipboard and some instructions to the assistant trainer, moved toward the gelding.

  "Well now, you're looking fit and fine, aren't you?'' Automatically he bent down to check the injured leg. "No heat. That's good. How long have you had him out?"

  "About fifteen minutes, at a walk."

  "He could probably take a canter. He's looking good as new, no signs of swelling." Brian straightened, narrowing his eyes against the sun as he looked up at Keeley. "But you? Are you all right? You're a bit pale."

  "Am I?" Small wonder, she thought, but smiled as she enjoyed the sensation of holding a secret inside her. "I don't feel pale. But you…" Swimming in the river of discovery, she leaned down. "You look wonderful. Rough and windblown and sexy."

  His narrowed eyes flickered, and he stepped back, a little uneasy when she rubbed a hand over his cheek. There were a half a dozen men milling around, he thought. And every one of them had eyes.

  "I was called down to the stables early this morning, didn't take time to shave."

  She decided to take his evasive move as a challenge rather than an insult. "I like it. Just a little dangerous. If you've got time later, I thought you might help me out."

  "With what?"

  "Take a ride with me."

  "I could do that."

  "Good. About five?" She leaned down again and this time took a fistful of his shut to yank him a step closer. "And, Brian? Don't shave."

  The woman threw him off balance, and he didn't care for it. Giving him those hot looks and intimate little strokes in the middle of the damn morning so he went through the whole of the day itchy.

  Worse yet the man who was paying him to work through the day, not to be distracted by his glands, was the woman's father.

  It was a situation, Brian thought, and he'd done a great deal to bring it on himself. Still how could he have known in the beginning that he'd become so involved with her on so many levels inside himself? Falling in love had been a hard knock, but he'd taken knocks before. You got bruised and you went on. A bit of attraction was all right, a little flirtation was harmless enough. And the truth was, he'd enjoyed the risk of it. To a point.

  But he was well past that point now. Now he was all wrapped up in her and at the same time had become fond of her family. Travis wasn't just a good and fair boss, but was on the way to becoming a kind of friend.

  And here he was finding ways to make love to his friend's daughter as often as humanly possible.

  Worse than that, he admitted as he strode toward her stables, he was—from time to time—catching himself dreaming. These little fantasies would sneak into his head when he was busy doing something else. He'd find himself wondering how it would all be between Keeley and him if things were different, if they were on the same level, so to speak. And he thought—well, that is if he were the settling down sort—that she might be just the one to settle down with.

  If he were interested in rooting in one place with one person, that is. Which of course, wasn't in his plans at all. Even if it was—which it wasn't—it wouldn't work.

  She was clubhouse and he was shedrow, and that was that.

  Keeley was just kicking up her heels a bit. He understood about that, couldn't hold it against her. For all the privilege, she'd had a sheltered life and now was taking a few whacks at the boundaries of it. He'd rebelled himself against the borders of his own upbringing by sliding his way out of school and into the stables when he'd still been a boy. Nothing had stopped him, not the arguments, the threats, the punishments.

  As soon as he'd been able, he'd left home, moving from stable to stable, track to track. He'd kept loose, he'd kept free and unfettered. And had never looked back. His brothers and sisters married, raised children, planted gardens, worked in steady jobs. They owned things, he thought now, while he owned nothing that couldn't easily fit in his traveling bag or be disposed of when he took to the next road.

  When you owned things you had to tend them. Before you knew it, you owned more. Then the weight of them kept your feet planted in one spot.

  He flicked a glance up at the pretty stone building that was his quarters, and admired the way it stood out against the evening sky. Flowers in colors of rust and scarlet and gold ran along the foundation, and the truck he'd bought from Paddy was parked like it belonged.

  He stopped and, much as Keeley had that morning, turned to survey the land. It was a place, he realized, that could hold a man if he wasn't careful. The openness of it could fool you into believing it wasn't confining, then it would tempt you to plant things—yourself included—until it had you, heart and soul.

  It was smart to remember it wasn't his land, any more than the horses were his horses. Or Keeley was his woman.

  But when he stepped over toward her paddock, that fantasy snuck up on him again. In the long, soft shadows and quiet light of evening she saddled the big buff-colored gelding he knew she called Honey. Her hair was pinned on top of her head in an absentminded, messy knot that was ridiculously sexy. She wore jeans and a sweater of Kelly green.

  She looked… reachable, Brian realized. Like the kind of woman a man wanted
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