What more could a woman want than a stud contract?
Kelby Lynn Richards, navigating the hallway from grooming area to dog show arena, could think of a thing or two she'd rather have. Like love and Mr. Right. But at age twenty-seven, she was beginning to despair of ever finding either.
Not that she'd looked too hard of late. Nice, Midwestern boy-next-door types left her yawning and all because of one bad boy with a heady, Texas drawl. So here she was ten years P.T.B.B.—post Texas Bad Boy—nurturing puppies instead of babies. Thank you very much Clay Davidson.
Why was she even thinking about Clay after all these years?
Because the stud contract she'd just signed gained her the services of the latest protégé from Bell Hill Kennels, Clay's mother's kennel.
Kelby's fingers tightened around the show lead in her hand. She should be focusing on the imminent heat cycle of the collie at her side and the fact Willow Creek's Second Chance was still a few points shy of a championship, not rehashing a defunct, decade old romance. She'd been a fool to offer herself body, heart, and soul to the most notorious skirt-chaser on the dog show circuit—to think she'd meant more to Clay than another conquest. She been a fool to believe he wouldn't kiss and tell. She'd never make that kind of spectacle of herself again.
Kelby quickened her pace toward the arena entrance. At least she wouldn't run into the culprit who'd caused it all here. Clay hadn't returned to the dog handling business after college the way she had, or so she'd garnered from his mother before she consented to sign the stud contract.
She was almost to the arena entrance when the rubber band around her arm anchoring the numbered armband, broke. The thin cardboard strip popped up and out, ricocheted off a handler's bald spot, and careened over a woman's shoulder toward the backend of a standard poodle.
Kelby lunged after the armband, tripping over her dog in the process of doing so, and lurched shoulder first into something solid as a wall.
Correction. Almost as solid as a wall. Whatever she ran into had the give of a firm body.
The impact pitched Kelby onto her backside hard enough to rattle her teeth and loosen the barrette pinning back her hair, hard enough to remind her of the first time she landed on her keester at a dog show. She could thank Clay Davidson and his win-at-all-costs methods for that embarrassing moment in her life, too. At least this time she hadn't fallen while gaiting her dog around a show ring in front of a crowd of spectators.
She blinked up through her blond hair but caught only a pair of long, denim-clad legs just before they stepped around her and out of sight. This revealed the traffic in the hall . . . which had slowed to gawking pace.
Blast it. This was not the kind of attention she wanted. She cast about for Chancy's leash.
"You all right, darlin'?" drawled a deep, masculine voice from behind her.
The hair at the nape of Kelby's neck bristled. Darned if this guy didn't sound just like—
Impossible. He wouldn't be here. Had to be this guy's Texas drawl that made her think of Clay.
"We in need of the paramedics, darlin'?" the drawling voice prodded, closer now as though he'd squatted to her level.
"No," she managed, tightening her fingers on Chancy's leash. She needed to take inventory of the damage done, pull herself together, and get to ringside. She couldn't afford to forfeit an entry fee. She bent her leg and a hole blossomed in her nylon where it stretched across her knee. She fingered the run and scowled. A low chuckle whispered across the back of her ear and her nerves.
"Appealing as those long limbs of yours are, it's unlikely anybody'll notice. People here come to look at the dogs."
Kelby shoved her skirt down over her knees. Even this guy's wisecracks were the sort Clay Davidson would have made. Please let this not be a sign that stud contract with Bell Hill Kennels is a mistake, she silently prayed.
"If a stocking and your pride are all you've injured, darlin', let's get you back on your feet." Masculine arms slid between her elbows and torso, slid along the sides of her breasts—large, warm hands. Maybe under different circumstances, maybe if this guy didn't have a deep Texas drawl and quippy comebacks, she might have savored the experience. God knows she had little time, what with work and a kennel to care for, to allot to dating these days.
She batted at the large hands hooked under her shoulders, making her body remember things better left forgotten. "Let go of me. I can manage on my own, thank you. Besides, you don't know if a nylon is all I've damaged. I could have jarred something."
"Like a sense of humor?" he asked dryly.
He tugged. She resisted.
"I could have pinched a nerve."
"You're close to pinching one of mine," he muttered. "Try cooperating."
Cooperating? The last time she'd cooperated with a guy who sounded like this one, she'd gotten her heart trounced.
His knees bracketed her hips far too intimately and he murmured in his deep, back-in-the-throat voice, "How long you estimate keeping me this way?"
Kelby's heart missed a beat. There couldn't be two men in this world who could utter such an irreverent sentiment in so seductive a voice. Or was it the whiff of orange lacing those droll words reminding her that Clay always drank orange soda that galvanized her into action?
As though shocked by an electrical charge, she reared up. The crown of her head collided with a firm chin. The chest pressed against her back flinched and the hands under her arms fell away.
"You're tryin' real hard to lay me out alongside you, aren't you, darlin'?"
She was on her feet, facing him in a flash. "In your dreams, Clay Davidson."
He stood there between her and the milling crowd, all six foot plus of him, a puzzled crease scoring his broad brow beneath midnight dark hair. Damn but that hairline hadn't receded one iota in ten years.
She pushed her hair back from her face and he grinned, his teeth white between his chiseled lips, brilliant in contrast to the dark stubble along his jaw. He looked dangerous. More dangerous even than he had as the cock-sure, smooth-cheeked boy who'd charmed a confession of love out of her, then bragged about his conquest.
"Kelby Richards. I should have recognized the lash of that tongue."
She swiped floor grit from her skirt, refusing to meet his eyes, trying not to notice the long, square-tipped fingers flexing against the double-stitched, outer seams of his jeans. Those expressive fingers had once slid across her skin, making her skin tingle . . . bringing her body to life.
She flushed and looked up. "Only you'd insist on moving a person who'd been flattened. I might have been paralyzed."
"You just got knocked on your behind." He craned his neck as though checking out that part of her anatomy and added, "And a nice behind it is, too."
Kelby tingled and tugged the front of her blouse straight, anything to distract herself from his glib flattery, from the memory of how his touch had once made her feel. "The way you blind-sided me, I could have broken my neck."
"Blind-sided you? Darlin', I'm the one who caught a shoulder in the solar plexus." He thumped his chest with a bent knuckle. When the truth of what he'd been up to with her in the back of his mother's Winnebago that long ago night came out, she'd wanted to do something with her knuckles . . . like cram them down his throat.
"And, of course, you just strolled innocently into my path," she charged.
"Well, maybe I wasn't exactly strollin'," he allowed. "But who were you trying to tackle?"
Chuckles waffled through their audience. Chancy bumped against her thigh. One corner of Clay's mouth tugged upward, and Kelby's pulse spiked a beat that took her back beyond the moment of betrayal.
The first time he had smiled one of his sexy smiles at her, she'd tripped and fallen on her face. The second time, she'd darned near landed in his bed. And this time . . .
Kelby eyeballed the floor for her armband, hiding the tears that burned at her eyes behind lowered lashes. He held the numbered band out to her and she all but ripped it from his fingertips.
"Excuse me," she muttered. "I have a ring to get to."
"You're in a mighty hurry for a class not due to start for another fifteen minutes." He didn't move out of her way.
Trapped between him and the wall, she went for sarcasm. "Nothing gets past you, does it, Clay?"
His smile slipped. "You did, once."
His drawl slipped across her cheek making her want to tilt her head to the side and brush the hair away from her neck. She wanted him to speak again.
"You're looking good, darlin'."
Maybe if he hadn't used that particular endearment and a hank of her hair hadn't just slipped back over one eye, she might have remained caught up in his charm. Looking good? Oh, she had a good idea what she looked like with her clothes in disarray and her hair every which way.
As if she needed the obvious to expose Clay Davidson's true colors. She cocked her chin at him. "Same old Clay. Haven't changed a bit, have you?"
The corners of his mouth twitched. "Good to see you after all these years, too, darlin'."
"Don't darlin' me." She thumped him hard in the chest with a bent knuckle. "Just stay out of my way."
* * * * *
Shrill yips echoed off the vaulted ceiling, powdered grooming chalk hazed the air, and the odor of damp dogs wafted past Clay's nose like bad déjà vu. He stopped just inside the grooming area; half an acre of dog crates, rubber matted tables, handlers and dogs fanning out before him. Kelby fled into the maze, motes of dog hair scattering in her wake.
She'd had her say, turned on her heel, and marched off in the direction she'd come. He wasn't surprised. They'd always been like oil and water with each other. Urban boy. Country girl. World class kennel. Backyard breeder.
How innocent he'd learned the last weekend of their junior handler careers in the back of his mother's Winnebago. He and Kelby had competed a few seasons against each other in junior showmanship by the time they hit seventeen. Sometimes she'd win. More often he'd taken the blue ribbon, and not always because he'd practiced good sportsmanship. Kelby had had a crush on him and he'd used it against her to affect her performance in the ring. She just didn't know it . . . until that fateful night when, on a dare, he'd invited her inside his mother's motor home.
He winced at the memory of the moment his fingers had discovered she was a virgin. Winced, and experienced a familiar tightening low in his groin. He'd wanted it to be another part of himself inside her that long ago night. Judging by the reaction of his body, he still wanted her . . . even though he'd spent the last ten years thanking his lucky stars his fingers had made the discovery and not another part of him. Had the latter been the case, he wouldn't have been able to stop.
He wouldn't have been removed enough from the act to hear the urgency in her words of love, an urgency that had echoed his own emptiness.
Nope, he'd never forgotten the girl who'd made him look his deficient soul smack dab in its horrific face—the girl who'd changed his life.
Seemed she hadn't forgotten him either, leastways, not the hormonally-driven boy he'd been.
Clay sighed and gave Kelby a last look as her long legs hurried her off toward the rear of the grooming room, her blond hair swinging back and forth across her shoulders. Of all the things he should have said to her, "You're looking good" was far down on the list . . . even if it was true. The awkward duckling had grown into a spectacular swan.
He couldn't do anything about Kelby now, but he sure as blazes could take care of the conniving dog thief he'd tracked from Texas to Wisconsin. He scanned the prime locations nearer the main aisle for his mother.
Her perfectly coifed, henna-tinted hair wasn't hard to spot amid the handlers snipping, spritzing, and brushing. A dozen dog crates away from the entrance where he stood and one row in from the commotion of the main aisle, Grace Davidson wielded a blow dryer in one hand and bristle brush in the other.
But it was the stolen dog on her table enduring the pre-ring fluff Clay focused on as he headed their way. The dog's nose twitched in his direction. Clay smiled and stepped up his pace. There was nothing better than a collie greeting. And Pirate, his pet and best buddy, never failed to make him feel accepted and adored, metaphorical warts and all. Clay was almost within arm's reach when Pirate spotted him, let loose a high pitched bark, and hurled his ninety pound black, tan and white body into Clay's arms.
"Nooo!" Grace shrieked, and dove across the grooming table after her escaping dog, or rather, his dog.
"Hello, Mother," Clay said dryly as he hugged Pirate and accepted a thorough face washing from a long, pink tongue.
"Clay!" Sprawled across the rubber-matted table, her eyes wide and her mouth agape, his mother looked like a burglar caught midway through a jimmied open window. Appropriate, considering she'd run off with his pet while dog-sitting for him.
"You're slipping, Gracie. I'd have expected the first words out of your mouth to be for me to stop mussing the dog's coat."
His mother righted herself and stopped the hum of the blow dryer with a flick of her thumb. Her faded blue eyes narrowed at his coat-crushing grip on Pirate.
"The way that dog acts around you is utterly obscene."
"He's being a pet." Clay set Pirate back onto the grooming table and ruffled the fur behind his ears. "You don't recognize the behavior because you've never allowed the dogs at Bell Hill to be pets."
He leaned over his dog's back toward his mother. "Which I erroneously thought would be the only pitfall of leaving Pirate in your care while I worked on the Galveston project. What is he doing at a dog show?"
Grace raised her surgically-firmed chin. "Bell Hill's Pirate is the most spectacular dog I've ever bred."
"When you gave me pick of the litter for my birthday three years ago and I chose Pirate, you objected because you considered him mere pet quality."
"It didn't seem right," she huffed, "the son of a top collie breeder with anything less than a champion."
"You also thought the incentive of a champion quality dog would get me back in the show ring."
Grace looked her son in the eye. "You were Junior Handler of The Year three years running. You handled as well as any adult. You handled like a pro." She brandished the silent blow dryer at him. "You should be handling this dog."
"You gave up turning me into a professional dog handler the day I chose pet quality over show. What's the deal here, Mother?"
She tossed the hair dryer into the tack box atop a crate and shrugged. "Pirate grew into champion quality. Not showing him is a waste."
"For whom? Certainly not Pirate. He doesn't care."
"He loves the ring."
"He loves the liver treats you give him."
Grace's eyes turned the steely hue that had warned him as a boy when he'd overstepped the boundaries of his mother's authority. But he was no boy now. He had learned that the only pack over which she ruled was her kennel full of collies.
Clay met his mother's gaze. "My show days ended the day I aged out of the junior handling class."
She blinked. "But, Clay dear—"
"And his end today." Clay gathered up Pirate's leash.
"But he's only one win shy of a championship."
"A common dog suits me just fine." Clay gave his mother a tooth-baring grin. "Which is why I never registered him."
"I did," she said.
"Obviously," he retorted, motioning Pirate down from the grooming table.
"And he's been contracted to stud," she said just as Pirate's feet hit the floor.
"I didn't sign any stud contract," Clay said as he scanned the expansive room for the nearest exit.
"But the bitch is spectacular."
"I don't care if she took Best of Show at the Westminster. The day I drove away from Bell Hill with Pirate at my side, I promised him I'd never turn him into any champion stud." Clay spotted an open door at the back of the building. "And since you don't own Pirate, any contract you signed regarding him isn't legally binding."
"About his ownership—"
The lilt of his mother's voice raised the hair at the back of Clay's neck. He took one step toward the sunshine, toward escape.
"When I registered him," his mother went on, "I listed myself as co-owner."
Clay wheeled back at his mother. "You did what?"
"When you left his papers behind, all I could think was, if something happened to you, heaven only knows where the dog would wind up."
He glowered at her.
She clucked. "I couldn't very well risk a Bell Hill dog ending up servicing some puppy mill bitches."
"Or take the chance that you might have misread Pirate's potential?" He loomed over his mother's five foot five frame. "I want his papers signed solely over to me, and I want them now."
Grace plucked dog hair from the bristles of the brush, the nonchalance of the act sending an ominous shiver up his spine.
"I'll make you a deal," she said.
"You'll make me a deal? You gave me Pirate as a gift."
Carelessly, Grace dropped the wad of fur from the brush onto the floor. "Everybody knows I always give you a cashmere sweater for your birthday."
True, he'd gotten the requisite sweater from mumsy and daddy that year. The pick-of-the-litter gift had been offered by his mother privately.
"You'd actually fight me over him?" he demanded.
"Here's the deal," she said, waving the brush in his face. "Get me pick of the litter and I'll sign over Pirate's papers."
"And here's my deal. Catch me if you can." Clay spun on his heel toward the open door on the far side of the room, Pirate's leash firmly in hand.
"The stud contract is with an old friend of yours," his mother called after him. "You remember Kelby Richards, don't you?"
Clay wanted to keep walking. He wanted to feel the remaining rays of summer beating down on his neck and have Pirate cavorting at his side. He wanted to leave behind the show, his mother, and the girl who reminded him of the errors of his misspent youth.
He stopped and peered over his shoulder at his mother. "You specifically chose Kelby for this, didn't you?"
She gave him a smug smile. "Teach you to mind what you say to your mother in front of the entire membership of the North Dallas Kennel Club."
He faced her. "I was a mouthy eighteen year old who didn't want to handle dogs for his mother the rest of his life."
She jabbed the grooming brush at him. "You accused me of putting the producing of champion collies above family and home. You said I could take lessons in dog care and ring etiquette from Kelby."
Kelby, whom he'd more than once teased for mothering the dogs in her charge, whom he'd made fun of because she was such a goody two-shoes.
Kelby, whose example had taught him the greatest lesson of his life.
"You said I had no conscience," his mother huffed, flung the brush into the tack box, and slammed shut the metal lid.
"So this is about paying me back for embarrassing you ten years ago?" Clay asked.
"Don't be ridiculous." She waved a dismissive hand. "This is about producing spectacular collie puppies."
Clay snorted. "I reiterate. You have no conscience."
Grace braced her hands on her hips. "And I suppose you think your Kelby didn't jump at the chance to gain the services of a Bell Hill stud."
"If I explain to her about Pirate being a pet, she'll understand."
"Then explain it to her."
Kelby's parting words rang in Clay's ears. Stay out of my way. Not quite the sentiment of a woman who'd stand still long enough to listen to any explanation from him.
"This is your mess, Gracie. You explain it."
His mother folded her arms across her chest. "As far as I'm concerned, the deal is still on."
Clay rubbed his road-weary eyes. He'd like to oblige Kelby's request that he stay out of her way. Somewhere, a shaded, country road awaited him and Pirate.
But if he left without explaining the circumstances of the stud agreement to Kelby, when her dog came into season and the stud of her choice wasn't available, sure as God made little green apples, she'd resent him all the more. He needed to explain why his dog couldn't service hers.
As Kelby gaited Chancy into the last turn, she spotted Clay outside the ring. He stood taller than most, his long, muscled legs gloved by faded jeans. Only a rookie competitor wore jeans into the ring, faded or otherwise . . . a rookie, or someone very secure in his own ego.
Kelby almost barreled into the competitor in front of her who'd halted. She muttered under her breath, frustrated that her senses still homed in on Clay Davidson. They shouldn't. He meant nothing to her.
But if that were true, why did her heart skip a beat at the sight of him? Why did her stomach lurch in anticipation when his gaze met hers?
He couldn't still have the kind of effect on her that had confounded her as a teenager. Impossible. Mere coincidence, for sure.
Yet her concentration faltered and her feet tangled the moment he stepped back into her path, just like when they were teenagers. A decade of perfect balance taunted her with definitive proof that the Bad Boy of Bell Hill drew her off center in the same way the moon governs earthen tides.
Now he was here watching her with sad eyes and a day's growth of stubble planing his cheeks into austere angles. He could have skipped a shave or two to camouflage his lethal schoolboy looks.
But to fool her?
No. He hadn't come to the show site for her sake. He'd been too surprised at seeing her for their reunion to be planned, even for the consummate showman.
Kelby put her money on his mother. And money, mommy's to be specific, might be the object. He looked shaggy with his dark hair curling over the collar of his rumpled chambray shirt and day's growth of beard. Maybe those faded-in-all-the-right-places jeans weren't as designer faded as she'd first thought. Maybe Clay Davidson had fallen on hard times.
She noticed the dog at his side, the magnificent tri-colored stud who was the reason she'd agreed to a union between Bell Hill and her own Willow Creek Kennels. The dog hadn't shown in his class today. And now Clay had possession of him. Apprehension raised the hairs on the back of Kelby's arms. Or was it the killer smile he lifted at her that made her skin prickle?
The judge approached her and Chancy. Kelby flashed a hunk of boiled liver in front of Chancy's nose, bringing the dog to full alert, and stepped back to give the judge an unobstructed view of Willow Creek's Second Chance. Kelby's heel caught on a ripple in the rubber matting. She stumbled. The judge raised an eyebrow. She could guess at Clay Davidson's reaction. Not that she'd give him the satisfaction of glancing his way.
Still, as the judge checked Chancy's teeth, Kelby couldn't resist a furtive look toward the corner ring barrier. Clay gave her a thumbs-up.
The judge stiffened at her comment. "I beg your pardon?"
Kelby winced. Now she was offending judges because of that green-eyed devil. She forced a smile for the judge. "Nothing."
The judge huffed and moved on to the next competitor.
She had to stop letting Clay affect her. She had to ignore him. Had to concentrate on handling her dog. Anything less would jeopardize Chancy's shot at the blue ribbon and the points toward her championship.
And if they won, Clay would congratulate her. The Bell Hill set liked winners. His mother had reconfirmed that with her sudden interest in Chancy four weeks ago at an Illinois show where Chancy had beaten out all other dogs at the class level to compete with the champions for Best of Breed. She'd have to firm up her resolve not to be affected by Clay . . . if they won.
The judge finished his individual exams and motioned his field of contenders around the ring. As dogs and handlers trotted through the last turn, the judge pointed out his choice. It wasn't Chancy.
"Blast it," Kelby muttered again. She'd blown the win with that expletive. She knew it. The judge had thought she'd sworn at him. As if it wasn't hard enough to survive the elimination rounds.
Kelby scowled in the direction of the corner barrier. But Clay was already receding into the crowd. The Bell Hill set didn't hang around losers, either. Maybe now her betraying emotions would straighten out.
Fellow competitor Bubbles Moran sidled up to Kelby's elbow. "Who's the hunk?"
Kelby gave her long-time friend a beleaguered look. "What hunk?"
The thirty-something divorcee in purple spandex leggings and ruby-red sweater slanted a dubious grin at Kelby. "The one ringside you kept peeking at during the competition."
Kelby headed toward where the winner of the class was accepting congratulations. "I swear, Bubbles, if the Air Force could convert your radar for eligible bachelors to missile detection, we'd never have to worry about national security."
"Greek gods are impossible to miss," Bubbles defended, dogging Kelby's heels. "So, is he?"
"Is he what?"
"You ever hear of the god Pathos?" Kelby asked her.
Bubbles huffed. "So not all gods are good."
Kelby shook hands with the winner and turned toward the exit. Clay stood to one side of the gap between stanchions, chatting with the ring steward. It'd be just like him to gloat over her loss after the way she'd snapped at him in the hallway. She'd do just about anything to avoid him.
She eyed the hip-high wooden barrier. Anything but vault the ring barrier. Heaven knows, she didn't need to fall on her face in front of Clay Davidson twice in one day. Once in a lifetime was enough.
Bubbles nudged Kelby. "If you're not interested in him—"
"I'm not." Keeping Bubbles and her blue merle collie between herself and Clay, Kelby escaped from the ring.
Her name slipped smoothly off a Texas drawl. She pretended not to hear. Bubbles didn't. "The Greek god is calling you, Kelb."
Kelby elbowed a path between a florid-faced man with an Old English sheepdog and a neckless woman cradling a pug. Bubbles followed, undaunted by Kelby's hasty escape attempt. "Kelb, don't make like you don't hear him. I want an introduction."
"Nothing's stopping you." Kelby sidestepped the German shepherds gathering for their turn in the herding ring.
"But if you know him, you could introduce me," Bubbles pressed on much to Kelby's chagrin. Most of the time Kelby liked how Bubbles teased reactions out of her, even if they nudged her out of her comfort zone. This was not one of those times.
One of the shepherds on the fringe of the pack bared a lethal set of canines. Kelby gripped Chancy's lead close. Years of selective breeding had gone into producing Willow Creek's Second Chance; and Chancy was too valuable a dog to take chances with, whether the threat be a testosterone laden shepherd or a win-at-all-costs competitor.
"Kelby." Clay's drawl lifted once more through the crowd, louder this time. That voice had a way of weaving through her senses and making her want things she could never have. "Your dog should have won."
Her legs seized up. She tried to tell herself she'd stopped because a burly man with a muscled rottweiler had stepped into her path or because Bubbles had a death-grip on her elbow. She knew better.
Bubbles leaned close. "Gotta give him credit for a better than average pick-up line."
"I know exactly what to give him credit for," Kelby muttered, extricating her elbow from her friend's grip and facing Clay.
The crowd parted before him. Blast them all for kowtowing to the Bell Hill protégé. And blast herself for standing there, wanting the praise of a man who, as a teenager, had taken advantage of her schoolgirl crush.
He stopped in front of her, so near that her toes curled back inside her canvas shoes from the heat radiating from his. "Your bitch has great movement."
Bubbles elbowed Kelby in the ribs.
Kelby looked Clay in the eye. "What's the matter, your mother afraid a run-in with you might make me back out on the stud contract?"
He jammed a hand into a hip pocket and settled back on his heels. "About Pirate . . . ."
Kelby glanced at the stud she'd contracted to service Chancy, the collie who now gazed at Clay as though the sun rose and set by him. The peanut butter sandwich she'd eaten for lunch wadded in her stomach.
"What about him?"
"He's really my dog."
"Your dog?" The dogs and handlers milling around them blurred into a singular mass. "Are you saying the stud contract I signed with your mother isn't valid?"
"Which is it, Clay?"
"It seems Grace and I co-own Pirate."
Kelby didn't like the way he said that last line through his teeth. He wanted something, and the rumpled appearance of his chambray shirt and his day old beard screamed that that something was money, which she didn't have an excessive of . . . unlike his mother.
"What's the problem," she ventured, "pick of the litter not payment enough for you?"
"It's not about payment."
"Then what is it about?"
"I never intended for Pirate to be used as a stud."
When they were kids, he'd teased her with his jokes and Adonis looks. He'd distracted her in the ring to the point that she'd falter and he'd win. She hadn't seen his danger then. She hadn't seen it until that last fateful weekend of their junior showmanship careers. She knew to look for ulterior motives now.
"Is that for all potential mates or just any dog of mine?" she demanded.
"Look, darlin', this isn't personal. It's just that Pirate is a pet."
"And I'm the Queen of England. Come on, Clay, you've never cared enough about any dog to make a pet out of one."
"Until Pirate." He shifted closer, his shoulder brushing hers—jolting her with an electrical charge, his voice low, almost plaintive. "Kelby. I'm not the boy you remember. Things change. People change." He tilted his head, his orange-soda flavored breath warm against her temple. "I've changed."
Money and charm. The heir of Bell Hill Kennels had had both. And what one hadn't bought, the other had wheedled. Now it appeared he had only his charm to wield, a charm he'd once used to blind her to his lying ways. Never again, Kelby silently vowed and reared back from Clay.
"If you're so dead set against your dog being a stud, why haven't you neutered him?"
* * * * *
Why hadn't he neutered Pirate?
"I never gave it much thought," he said, wondering why he hadn't.
Kelby arched one fine, ginger-brown eyebrow and he momentarily forgot about neutering studs.
"You, the son of a top breeder?" she said in a crisp tone that brought him back to the present. "I don't buy it. In the first place, I've never known any of The Bell Hill set to keep pets."
"Until now," he interjected, finding himself mesmerized by the storm clouds roiling in her eyes. Damned if she couldn't be combative and sexy all at the same time.
"Second, the minute a Bell Hill dog was deemed pet quality, he was cut."
"Cut, huh?" Clay grimaced and shifted from one foot to the other. "Maybe it's a man thing, this aversion to castration."
"That's just the kind of answer I'd expect from you."
He shrugged. "It's as honest an answer as I can give."
She poked her index finger into his chest. "Tell you what I'm going to do. Since pick of the litter is all the compensation I can afford—"
"Compensation isn't what I'm after, darlin'." He resisted the urge to close his hand around the finger jabbing his chest, raise it to his lips, and kiss its tip.
"—I'm releasing you from the contract. Your Bell Hill stud doesn't have to lower himself to mate with a Willow Creek bi—"
"But Kelb!" sputtered the redheaded woman at Kelby's elbow. "He's exactly what you want."
"Is he?" Clay closed his hand around Kelby's jabbing finger. She snatched her hand back from his chest.
"You said he was perfect," the friend insisted.
Kelby's glare as much as shouted at the redhead to be silent. But the redhead propped a hand on one hip and stated, "You're doing it again. Cutting off your nose to spite your face."
Kelby spun on her heel and plowed off through the crowd. That was one way to break the stud contract. But it wasn't the way Clay wanted it.
He wanted the woman who still rose to his teases to see the man he'd become. He wanted to repay her for the part she'd played in his transformation. And he wanted something else, something the swirl of her skirt around her calves and the slide of the pliant fabric over her hips, as she wove off through the crowd, hinted of.
She charged out of the building. He went after her and had taken one step across the blacktop when a small but strong hand closed around his elbow, stopping him.
A round face framed by a mass of red hair and dangling, pink flamingo earrings cocked up at him. "What's the story with you two?"
A less experienced eye might have mistaken the woman's interest as self-serving. Clay recognized the protective tilt of her chin. A friend to Kelby. A true friend.
"If you want the story, darlin', you'll have to get it from her," he said.
Mischief twinkled in the woman's eyes. "I like a man who doesn't kiss and tell."
Kiss and tell. Clay's conscience niggled at him, a conscience he hadn't listened to until a night ten years ago when a lonely girl with eyes the hue of an autumn sky opened her heart to him. But the damage had been done by then. The dog show gang knew why he'd lured her inside his mother's Winnebago that night.
The redhead hurried off after Kelby, who only waved her away. The friend shrugged at him and headed off in another direction.
Clay slumped, and scrubbed his fingers into the dark fur on Pirate's head. "If she won't listen to a friend, she's not going to listen to me."
Pirate leaned against the side of Clay's leg, a gesture Clay had always found consoling. He tugged affectionately on the dog's ear. "But I shouldn't leave her thinking she's been used."
Pirate pressed his head against Clay's dangling fingers, demanding. Maybe he should just load himself and Pirate into his Jeep and drive to that quiet country road he'd been fantasizing about. Maybe a little quality time with his best, four-legged buddy and a good sleep would help him see things clearly.
Across the parking lot, rows of pop-up campers, travel trailers, and bus-sized motor homes staked out territory with awnings, Astro-turf, and dog-filled exercise pens. Kelby jerked aside the panel door of a dusky blue van and climbed in. Every muscle in Clay's body went on alert, but not because her early model van didn't quite meet the standards of the Winnebagos, Airstreams, and Jayco mobile living quarters surrounding it. Kelby's van was parked just beyond the canvass awning of his mother's trailer.
"A man can't ignore opportunity when it knocks this hard."
"I know. I've already struck out with her twice today."
The dusky blue van rocked with activity.
"But I can't leave her thinking I was part of Grace's scheme. Besides, I owe that gal."
Clay hunkered down beside Pirate and slung an arm over the dog's shoulders. "Third time's a charm."
Kelby re-emerged from the van, her flowing skirt replaced by jeans, her show shoes traded for tennies, and Chancy on a sturdy leash. As soon as the pair trotted out of sight, Clay strode into his mother's campsite.
"Don't roll that awning up yet, Mother."
Grace spun around. "What—"
"You're putting me up for the night."
"But if I can't show Pirate tomorrow—"
"—might as well leave today?"
"Consider the delay payback for sneaking off behind my back with my dog." He tossed his car keys to his mother. "And move my Jeep someplace where Kelby won't see it."
"And while I'm doing that, you'll be—"
"—gettin' some shut eye." He lifted one foot to the motor-home steps, paused, and looked once more over his shoulder at his mother. "And Gracie, cook up a pot of your hot and hardy chili. You're inviting the neighbors to dinner tonight."
Tropical fruit shaped patio lights strung from the framework of his mother's awning cut a swath of light across the Astro-turf carpet between trailer and van. Half a dozen occupied lawn chairs marked the choicest territory, their occupants discussing judges, dogs, and grooming techniques. From behind the screen door of the motor home, Clay regarded the scene. When he'd told his mother to invite the neighbors for supper, he hadn't meant all of them.
And where was Kelby? On the far edge of the gathering seated in the open cargo bay of her van, her legs stiff along the track of the panel door. He'd forgotten how long they were, her legs. Or maybe what had once seemed coltish to him now begged a more womanly description? But, much as he'd have enjoyed explaining to her in intimate detail what he thought of her legs, he hadn't set up this dinner for his pleasure.
Besides, a barrel-chested man with droopy jowls and a pushed in nose had already claimed her attention. Then again, she didn't look any too enthralled with the guy leaning against the side of the van talking to her. Okay, so they weren't a couple. The hair at the nape of Clay's neck still prickled. He suspected her unhappy look had nothing to do with droopy jowls. More likely she'd figured out he was the one using the shower while his mother played hostess. Kelby had never been stupid. Gullible at times. Easy to get a rise out of. But never stupid.
"Guess I should be glad she stuck around," he muttered.
Head against the side of Clay's knee and nose to the screen, Pirate gave a low woof of agreement.
Clay opened the door. Everybody except Kelby glanced up. Her fingers curled into the white mane of the dog whose head lay in her lap.
Pirate slipped past him and bounded toward the van. Stepping down onto the Astro-turf, Clay called him back. He suspected Kelby wouldn't welcome a gangbuster approach from any dog of his.
Grumbling, Pirate plodded back to Clay's side. Grace, lording over the party from a canvass captain's chair, waved a hand at the pug-faced woman seated in one of the lawn chairs to Clay's immediate left. "You remember Mavis Avery, don't you, dear? And her husband, Ted, over there with Kelby."
Kelby seemed engrossed in her dog's ear. Clay nodded at Ted and extended his hand toward the wife. He nearly tripped over Pirate. The dog's attention, like his own, was fixed on the comely occupants of the van. Kelby didn't so much as blink in his direction as he shook Mavis' hand.
"Bulldogs, right?" he said.
"Is there any other dog?" Ted retorted from van-side.
"And Alexa." His mother indicated a woman with tawny, shoulder-length hair and a long face seated beside Mavis.
Alexa raised her vodka gimlet toward him in a salute and smiled. He remembered her and her big-boned collies from the old days. He also remembered the sway of her hips even though she was at least a half dozen years his senior. That was youthful hormones for you.
He didn't know the others, a sharp-faced woman with a faded Shetland sheepdog appliqué on the front of her t-shirt, another with frizzy hair that puffed out over her ears who raised poodles. He said his hellos. He glanced Kelby's way. Her slim fingers splayed across her dog's head.
He could almost feel those fingers threading through his hair. They had. Once. And that one time they'd wound up touching him deep in his soul. He drew a breath and started toward the van.
"Would you give the chili a stir, Clay dear?"
He frowned at his mother. But Grace had returned to her grooming debate with the sheltie lady.
Gracie wouldn't rattle his chain just because he'd delayed her departure, would she? Only in a heartbeat. She knew exactly for which neighbor he'd ordered up this little dinner party.
He pivoted toward the table against the side of the RV. Pirate danced backward out of his way. Clay gave the chili in the crock pot a stir, glanced over his shoulder at Kelby, and started to replace the lid.
"Is it ready, dear?" Grace asked.
He looked at his mother, her face a mask of innocence. He dipped out a scant portion of chili and tasted.
"It's ready," he said in a tone that dared his mother to delay him a moment longer.
"Good." Grace popped to her feet and announced, "Dinner is served."
Ted bowled his way up to the table beside his wife. Sheltie prodded poodle into line ahead of herself. Clay all but tripped over the Winnebago's metal-mesh steps trying to get out of their way. He ordered Pirate to lie down on the far side of the RV door where he'd be safe from spilled chili and trampling feet. Now was his chance to intercept Kelby.
He turned for the van and all but collided with Alexa. She stood in front of him, one arm crossed beneath her ample bosom, the other waving her gimlet in front of her cocked chin. "Care for a drink?"
What he cared for was her out of his way. He couldn't even see Kelby over the woman's ratted-up hair.
"No thanks," he said and started around her.
She placed a hand against his shoulder, her index finger tracing the shoulder seam of his t-shirt. "My, my. Hasn't Grace's little boy grown up."
If Kelby hadn't given him a good shot of recrimination back when he'd been on the brink on adulthood, he might have grown into the kind of man who rose to Alexa's game. He plucked the woman's fingers off his shoulder. "Nice of you to have noticed, Alexa. How's your husband?"
"The latest one."
"He's on shaky ground," she responded in a suggestive tone.
"Ah. Well, a pity. How about a bowl of chili?"
What'd his mother do, recruit Alexa to pick up the delaying tactic when she quit? He glanced at Kelby . . . who glared back at him. She had to pick this moment to finally look his way.
The first contingent to the chili pot having dished up their bowls and returned to their chairs, he stepped back to the table, ladled out a healthy helping of chili, and offered it to Alexa. She slid her finger along the rim of the glossy red plastic bowl where a drop of chili had landed and suggestively licked the dribble from her finger. "In case you change your mind about the drink, my rig's right behind Grace's."
He looked at the smear her finger left on the edge of the bowl. He looked at her batting eyelashes. He gave her a weak smile and released the bowl to her.
She strolled away. He glanced at Pirate, his best friend, his confidante. Pirate gazed back him, the tan splotches above his black-masked eyes bunched together. Woeful.
"I know the feeling," Clay muttered under his breath.
He glanced Kelby's way. She watched him, her eyes narrowed now and her eyebrows puckered in studious angles. She looked less likely to shred him now if he broached her territory.
He hefted an empty bowl toward her, a questioning gesture. She turned her face, put it into profile to him.
He'd tweaked that little, upturned nose of hers more times than he could count. And she'd thrust her lower lip into a pout at least once every time their paths had crossed.
He filled two bowls and strolled over to the van. Clay held out one of the bowls. Chancy raised her head from Kelby's lap and Kelby glanced up. "Thanks, but I can dish up my own."
"I know. But, after the day you've had, you deserve a little pampering."
Kelby's eyes darkened. Undaunted, he shrugged and added, "If you don't eat it, somebody else will have to. I hate to waste food."
He waved the bowl in Chancy's direction. The dog craned her neck over Kelby's lap, sniffing at the rim of the bowl.
"Aah," Clay said. "Looks like I have a taker."
Kelby swung her feet out of the van, sat up, and snatched the bowl from Clay. "You get my dog sick and I'll haul your sorry behind over here to clean up the mess."
"If I thought it'd get you to listen to me—"
"That's just the sort of thing you would pull."
He peered over his shoulder at Pirate, who still lay beside the RV, head up, ears on alert, and eyes on his master. "I'm beyond ill-using innocent animals to get what I want." He faced her. "I grew up Kelby."
She lifted the handle of the spoon from the edge of the chili bowl. "Did you now?"
Slowly, she stirred the spoon through her chili. "But you still want something. That hasn't changed."
"I want you to hear me out."
She huffed. Bowl balanced on her knees, she reached into the van and flipped up the lid on a scuffed, yellow and white cooler.
He shouldn't be noticing how her cotton t-shirt stretched across her breasts. He shouldn't be remembering how those breasts had once fit precisely in the palms of his hands. He shouldn't be regretting that he would never again be able to test their readiness with his hands and mouth. Kelby already thought him a jerk.
She straightened with a jug of homemade iced tea and he wondered if her lips would taste as sweet as sugared tea.
"Care for some?" she asked, her voice frostier than the tea in the jug could ever be.
It was enough to break him from his musings and he shook his head. "Knowing Gracie, she has a fridge full of wine coolers. Can I get you one?"
A shadow crossed Kelby's eyes and her voice, though still cool, wobbled a bit. "The last time you gave me a wine cooler, I got way too tipsy."
Ah yes, the rendezvous in the back of his mother's Winnebago ten years ago. Clearly, she hadn't forgotten one detail of that misguided caper. He grimaced. "I doubt that will happen again."
"You can count on it," she shot back at him and he got the distinct impression she was talking about far more than a wine cooler. He'd definitely, albeit unintentionally, guided their conversation into the minefield of bad old days. Now what to do?
Just past her hip on the van floor, he spotted a plastic bag of sandwiches she'd removed from the battered cooler to get at her tea. He nodded at them. "You forgot to put your sandwiches back in the cooler."
"They'll keep," she said, pouring tea into a mug. "They're peanut butter and jelly."
He couldn't help but smile. "Ah, nostalgia, take me back. Haven't had one of those since I was a kid."
She snorted. "You? Raised on peanut butter and jelly? I've visited Bell Hill Kennels. Don't con me."
"What do you think I ate as a kid, peanut butter and caviar?"
She eyed him dubiously.
"Okay," he said. "I confess. Grace had Cook cut the crusts off my bread."
One corner of Kelby's mouth quivered.
"Careful," he cautioned. "You almost smiled."
She bit her lip and made a production of recapping the tea jug and setting it aside.
"If you offered me one of those, I wouldn't say no."
She raised two perfectly arched, ginger-brown eyebrows at him.
"I won't let the sandwich go to waste, if that's what you're thinking," he said. "Promise."
She snorted as though she knew what his promises were worth. She did know. But what she knew came from the old days, days when he'd been a brash boy who'd stretched boundaries to get what he wanted. Still, she dug out an individually wrapped sandwich and offered it to him.
"Thanks. It'll hit the spot tomorrow when we're on the road." He snagged the baggy wrapped sandwich between his fingers. His knuckles grazed her fingertips. Her hand jerked back as though his touch burned.
"We?" she asked, bowing her head over the chili bowl.
"Pirate and me."
Her head jerked back up at him. "He's not going back to Bell Hill with your mother?"
"I told you, darlin', Pirate's my pet."
"Sure he is," she huffed. "You sent him off with your mother in pursuit of a championship just for fun."
"I didn't send him with Grace. She took him."
Her eyes narrowed with doubt. He couldn't blame her, not given the kid he'd been when she'd last encountered him.
Across the Astro-turf, Pirate whimpered and Kelby nodded toward the dog. "I notice he's not leashed."
"Your mother leashes him."
Clay grinned. "He minds me. He's my pet."
"So you keep saying."
Clay gave a whistle. The dog leapt to his feet and bounded over to him.
"Happy now?" Clay asked, scrubbing the dome of Pirate's head with his free hand.
Pirate raised his long muzzle into the air and barked.
Kelby was looking at the pair of them oddly. "An obedient Bell Hill progeny. How novel."
"I'm not as unruly as I was as a boy."
"I was talking about the dog."
"Sure you were."
Clay leaned a shoulder against the side of the van and tucked the sandwich into his shirt pocket. Kelby's eyes followed the movement. Reflex? Or something more? The darkening of her eyes suggested more. He wouldn't mind exploring what that more was—wouldn't in the least mind sliding his hands over her hips, cupping that delicious heart-shaped behind of hers, and pulling her against him. But Pirate nudged Kelby's chili bowl, reminding him that she already thought Bell Hill studs were self-serving—all of them, whether four-legged or two.
"Behave," he warned Pirate.
The big stud danced around Kelby's knees and stuck his nose in Chancy's face. The bitch's ears went back, not unlike how Kelby had reacted to him—was still reacting. Clay chewed at a mouthful of chili. He'd better get out what he needed to say before the four-legged blonde next to Kelby broke the mood. He swallowed.
"Things change. People change."
She spooned up chili from her bowl.
"I changed," he said.
"Am I supposed to be impressed?"
"You should be. You're the cause."
The spoon stopped just shy of her lips.
He straightened away from the side of the van. "I guess you could say I followed your example. I gained a conscience, learned some manners, quit stepping all over other people's feelings. You could say you were my guiding light."
The thick, tawny lashes lowered over her eyes and her brow puckered. Unsure what to read in that crinkled brow, he gave a nervous chuckle. "I made a pet out of my dog, even if I didn't neuter him."
She lowered the spoon to the bowl and looked up at him, her eyes back to a stormy, steel blue. "You are pathetic," she said in a low, tight voice.
Clay blanched. "Pathetic?"
"Is there nothing you won't say or do to get me to honor that stud contract?"
"This has nothing to do with the contract, darlin'."
"Don't darlin' me. I'm no longer the too tall, too skinny girl you made a game of seducing."
"Tell it to the boys. You're good at bragging."
"As for that stud contract you and your mother conned me into signing, it's good only for Chancy's next heat cycle. Count on me to be as honest about letting you know when that happens as the two of you have been with me."
"But, I don't care when your dog comes into heat."
From next to Kelby's hip, Chancy answered Pirate's play invitation with a snarl. Clay's focus shifted to the dogs. His mother straightened in her chair.
"Is Chancy coming into season?" Grace called.
"It's the food," Kelby blurted and popped to her feet. "Chancy's protective about food. That's all."
Clay studied Kelby's face, trying to read the reason for the panic widening her eyes. Grace persisted.
"She's due, though, no?"
"These things are hard to predict," Kelby countered. "You know how they are."
Grace leaned forward in her chair. "When we negotiated the stud agreement, you were pretty certain about when she was due."
"Still a guess at best."
Chancy snapped at Pirate. Clay called him off. Grace got to her feet.
"Pirate and Chancy got along before," Grace said.
"It's the food," Kelby insisted, setting aside her chili bowl and fumbling a leash from inside the van. "Just the food."
She snapped the leash onto Chancy's collar. "Excuse us. It's time for our evening walk."
Clay watched Kelby hurry off into the gathering dusk. He thought about her blazing red cheeks and hard-sell denials. He noticed Pirate was more interested in sniffing the space where Chancy had lain than the nearly full bowl of chili Kelby had left behind.
"It's not like him to ignore food," he murmured.
Grace sidled up to Clay's side. "Nope."
"What do you think, Gracie?"
"That bitch is coming into season. I'd stake my reputation as a breeder on it."
"Not that I'm inclined to change my mind about turning Pirate into a stud," he said.
"Be a shame to—"
"—pass on such a spectacular bitch?" Clay gave his mother a smug grin. "I think we can manage."
"I was going to say, be a shame not to help out an old friend in need." Grace nodded at the interior of Kelby's van.
"Gracie, you haven't an altruistic bone in your body."
Still, Clay eyed the interior of Kelby's van. He eyed the gallon milk jugs filled with water wedged in next to the scuffed yellow and white cooler. He saw the frayed nylon duffel bag and the army-surplus sleeping bag piled against the uncarpeted wheel well. Willow Creek Kennels was still a shoestring operation.
"Think what the Bell Hill name on a litter of Willow Creek pups will do for Kelby," Grace crooned.
He recalled what Kelby's redheaded friend had said about her cutting off her nose to spite her face. Much as he hated to agree with his mother, she was right about Kelby being in need of help. And he did owe Kelby for turning a self-centered boy into a man of integrity. So, how was he going to help a woman who refused even an apology from him?
Grace unfolded a sheet of paper from her pants' pocket and rattled it in front of his face. "It's legal. It's binding. It's an enforceable contract."
"Goldarn you, Gracie." But at the same time he cursed his mother's scheming ways, the wheels of reason ground to dust any option but the one she offered. The problem, to comply was to break his promise not to turn Pirate into a champion stud.
Pirate strained against the rocker panel of the van, his nose twitching over the spot where Kelby's dog had lain. Then again, how much of a sacrifice would it be for Pirate?
Clay hunkered down beside his dog. "You know how I've always said I'd never let you be turned into a champion stud? Well, buddy, the stud part of it isn't as bad as I made out."