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The Beauty Within

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Resigned to a life of taking care of her spoiled younger sister and doing everything her demanding father decrees, Jana’s long passed the point of wishing for a loving family of her own. Besides, what man in his right mind would want a disfigured woman?

Dan’s serving out a ten-year probation working on the Rocky Basin Ranch. His dreams of owning his own spread keep him going when all seems hopeless. Then Jana, with her bright eyes, beautiful smile, tender nature and gentle touch, enters his life, offering him one night of shared comfort. But his heart demands forever.


“Oh, Bobby!”

“Mmm, Val. You are so hot. Yeah, baby. You know how I like it.”

Thump, thump, thump.

“Oh!”

Dan threw back the covers and grabbed his jeans off the floor. For crying out loud. Those two had been going at it like rabbits for the last hour and a half. He needed to ask Jason if there was any way to put some insulation in the walls between the bedrooms.

He slipped his feet into his boots, grabbed a cola from the fridge in the kitchen, then went outside to get away from the sounds of lust.

Dropping onto the top step of the porch, he twisted the top off the bottle. He didn’t have anything against lust. It was a healthy human emotion. But he had to be up at six in the morning.

Besides, it wasn’t like he was getting any. He didn’t exactly need a very vocal reminder of how long he’d gone without sharing a bed with a warm, willing woman. Since a woman cried out his name in the throes of passion.

His gaze went to the Pepto Bismol pink truck and camper sitting under one of the halogen yard lights. Not many women struck his fancy, he admitted to himself as he took a long pull off of the bottle of cola. Long-term relationships were totally out of the question right now, and Jana seemed like a long-term type gal.

Not that he had any reason to believe that. Her sister obviously wasn’t into deep relationships. Bobby didn’t do long-term, and he was nothing if not honest with the women he slept with. In a few days, he would get bored with Valisa, and then the Kincaid sisters would move on.

But there was something about Jana that shouted marriage and children and happily ever after. She would make a spectacular ranch wife. She knew her horses and wasn’t afraid of hard work. She was something…special.

Dan couldn’t even think of marriage and ever after. It wasn’t in the cards for him. Not for another five years.

As he finished off his cola, the back door on the pink camper opened and Jana carefully walked down the steps, grabbing hold of the handle near the door. When she stepped on the ground, she leaned over slightly and rubbed her right thigh. Again, he wondered about the limp. About the scar on her face. What had happened to her? Farming accident? Those were common enough.

She reached back into the camper and lifted out a lump of something. In the dim light, he couldn’t tell what it was. She bent and set it on the ground. He could see she held a leash.

He frowned and squinted at the lump. It moved. She was right-that thing sure as hell wasn’t a dog. Jana’s limp seemed even more pronounced now as she moved toward the grass of the lawn by the main house. The lump ambled along beside her. It was about the size of a bowling ball, and he could pick out the head. A tail almost as long as its body dragged behind.

What the hell…? He set down his cola, pushed off the stairs, and started across the yard.

Jana turned at the sound of gravel crunching under his boots. She smiled at him as he drew closer. In the halogen lights overhead, her skin was very pale. Even the darkness couldn’t hide the lines of fatigue and possibly pain etched beside her full, luscious-looking mouth.

“Okay,” he said. “I give. What the hell is that?”

Her laugh was silent and breathy, but her eyes crinkled and her straight white teeth flashed. “A woodchuck,” she signed.

He frowned down at the furry bundle as it ambled over the lawn, sticking its pointy nose into the grass, sniffing and snuffling.

“As in, ‘How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?'”

Her breathy, voiceless laugh was a sexy sound. He grinned at her, and she nodded.

“What’s it doing?”

“Looking for bugs,” she signed. “Not that it’ll do her much good.”

“Why’s that?”

“She has no teeth.”

He wrinkled his brow.

Jana went on signing in fluid hand motions. “We were at a rodeo near Denver a few years ago, and I caught some boys throwing firecrackers at her. She’d obviously been hand fed, and didn’t know the danger. She grabbed on, probably thinking it was food, and it exploded in her mouth.”

“Sonofabitch.”

Jana nodded and stared down at the giant rodent. “She was hurt and so scared. I wanted to beat those boys.”

“So you rescued her,” Dan said, and Jana nodded. Commendable, he thought, and very sweet.

Bending over, she made a kissy sound with her lips, and the woodchuck turned and ambled to her. She picked it up, then held it out to him.

“You want me to hold it?”

“Her,” Jana signed, one-handed. “R-O-C-K-Y.”

“You named a female Rocky?” He chuckled and held out his arms. Jana laid Rocky in his arms, on its back, just like a baby, then scratched Rocky’s belly.

Heavier than he thought it would be, probably around eight pounds or so, it sighed as if perfectly contented and dropped its head back over his arm. Its fur was course against his bare chest. He adjusted his arms to cradle it in the crook of his elbow, and joined Jana in scratching its belly.

It groaned as if in bliss, making Dan laugh. “I thought it was illegal to own a wild animal.”

Jana shrugged. “Are you going to tell on me?” she signed with a cheeky grin.

“No ma’am, not me.”

Rocky sat up and turned toward his chest. Startled, Dan almost dropped her. Jana made that breathy laugh sound again. The rodent leaned up and scrambled up his chest, its blunt nails digging into his flesh, and Dan sucked in his breath. But then he laughed as Rocky buried her nose behind his ear and sniffed, tickling him.

“She likes you,” Jana signed. “She doesn’t snuggle with anyone but me.”

Snuggle? Yeah, he supposed Rocky was cuddling. Her little claws dug into his shoulders on either side of his neck, and her nose stayed planted behind his ear. What the hell. This was kind of cool.

“So, if she can’t eat the bugs she’s looking for, what do you feed her?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

He chuckled and adjusted his arms again, holding Rocky’s rump on his arm, as he would a child. The only difference was that Rocky had some nasty nails that were digging into him. He should have put on a shirt. “Try me. I’m a big tough cowboy.”

She grinned and signed, “Mealworms for protein, cooked into a mush with grain and sprouts.”

“Mmm. Sounds tasty.”

She laughed again, and he grinned. Covering her mouth with the back of her hand, she yawned. “I think I need to go to bed,” she signed.

He nodded and leaned over to hand Rocky back to her, but the creature dug its nails into his shoulders and buried its nose harder against his neck.

Jana’s mossy eyes danced with humor as she signed, “I think she’s in love. She doesn’t meet many men.”

“Ah well, I’ve always had luck with the ladies,” he teased with a wink.

Jana reached for Rocky, making those cute little kissy sounds. The backs of her fingers rubbed against his chest as she wrapped her hands around Rocky’s middle. He sucked in his breath at the unexpected, completely pleasurable contact. She stopped moving and stared up at him. Her mouth slightly open, her tongue peeked out to flick over her bottom lip, and all he could think about was leaning over and kissing those full, pretty lips.

She practically snatched Rocky from his arms, and then turned away and hurried toward her camper. He wanted to go after her, pull her into his arms and kiss her. Ask her why she seemed afraid whenever any physical contact happened between them. Did she find him repulsive? Did she not like men?

She pulled open the door to the camper and set Rocky inside, then slowly, carefully climbed the steps, as if it hurt her to do so. She reached for the door to close it, but stopped and looked at him for a moment. Then she slowly signed, “Goodnight,” before grabbing the doorknob and pulling the door shut behind her.

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