He was a stranger and she had no reason to alert him to herpresence. Before he watered his horse and left, she hastily sketched a quickimage for later transfer to paint and canvas. It startled her when, instead of riding away, he dismountedand retrieved tools from his saddlebags. Without wasting any time, he setto work fixing the broken-down fence separating them.
Energizedby her human subject, River immortalized muscle, sweat and brawn in lightpencil strokes. When he aimed his hammer wrong, landing a solid blow to thumb insteadof nail, he grunted. River stifled an echoing groan as tension coiled in herbelly, responding to the guttural, primitive sound.
By midmorning, the earlier breeze had stilled and therelentless sun poured from a cloudless sky, raising the day's temperature toscorching hot. Inside her willow retreat, perspiration trickled from River'sforehead to her nose and dropped in a splat on her sketchpad.
Pursing her lips impatiently, she sent a stream of airupward, attempting to move the damp curls plastered to her forehead. Abruptly,the cessation of noise below pulled her gaze back to the cowboy. He'd stoppedhammering and, as she watched, he pulled his shirt over his head, wiped hisface with it before dropping it on the ground.
Wishing she could discard the bodice of her riding habit ina similar manner, River settled for swiping the crumpled and damp washclothacross her face. Prodded by earthy desire rather than artistic intent, shestudied him. She had, of course, seen partially clothed male torsos before--butnot often and never in the last five years.
Even from the distance of the willow tree, his masculinebeauty made her insides quiver but her pragmatic nature, wince.
Has he no sense? Shegloried in enjoying the sight of his exposed skin. But as the sun crept higherin the sky, his tan muscles became flaming red and her indecorous ogling gaveway to concern.
By the time the sun reached overhead, she regretted herinitial silence for two reasons. First, she wanted to caution the fool that hiscommune with nature would be sorely regretted tonight. Much as she didn't wanther cowboy Adonis to cover an inch of skin, he needed to protect himself fromthe merciless rays.
Decidedly more pressing, her bladder warned that shortly shewould be forced to climb from her perch, revealing her presence. As sheconsidered methods of getting away unseen, he stopped work.
Thank God. Tensely,she watched him gather his shirt, hanging it around his neck like a towel whileputting his equipment in his saddlebags. But, instead of leaving, he led hishorse to the lopping gate and came through. His actions were innocuous enough.He scratched his horse's muzzle affectionately, murmuring words she couldn'thear.
Surprising her, he mounted and rode into the river,splashing water as he crossed to her side. He sat on his mount just below thebranch she occupied, close enough for her to see details of his features she'donly guessed at before--lined forehead, bushy brows, strong jaw hidden beneath darkwhiskers, bump that marred an otherwise perfectly formed nose. He tilted his head, drawing a deep breath as if inhaling theperfume of morning.
"Lilacs," he murmured, his approval delivered in a gravellyvoice. His gaze skated over the clearing as if seeking the flowers.
River hastily balled her wash cloth in her hand, trying tosuppress the aroma of lilac as she peeked at the man so close she could countthe sun lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. His glance turned back tohis morning's accomplishment and his expression changed to a depreciating,lop-sided grin.
"Take a long time atthe rate we're working," he murmured. His horse cocked his ears, snorting as ifagreeing and the cowboy patted the beast's withers in silent communication withthe animal.
River's heart unexpectedly jumped in response to the smile,her mouth automatically mirroring the curve of his lips. Viewing the man's easymanner while he thought himself unobserved, her wariness abated. Before shecould anticipate his intentions or call out a warning of her presence, hedismounted, ground-tied his horse, and dropped the shirt once again.
She waited breathlessly for more possible revelations. The cowboy didn't disappoint. Swiftly, he unbuckled his gunbelt and removed the chaps hewore over his denims. Piece by piece he shed the rest of his clothes,discarding them all before reaching into his saddlebag and pulling out a sliverof soap and a drying cloth.
Grasping her pencil, River leaned forward, almost fallingfrom her hiding spot as she prepared to draw her first live nude subject.She had studied Hellenic art, copying pictures of naked gods and men, but the sun-kissedfigure below eclipsed the one-dimensional depictions in her books.
Standing thigh deep with his back turned toward her andhis shoulder muscles rippling, the cowboy reached low, scooping water to wethis face and chest. The fiery red color of his shoulders and back contrastedwith the pale skin on his rump and thighs.
When he bent, cupped water, and rinsed whitesoap from the dark tufts of hair sprouting from his armpits, River stared at the tautmuscles in his buttocks where a jagged scar ruined the contour of the leftcheek.
And then he turned around...