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Julianne's voice was a whisper trapped in her throat, but he dropped the bags he'd been carrying and straightened, as if he'd known she was there. Perhaps he had. Jed had always seemed to know all manner of things.
"Jules." His voice was inflectionless, his face, below the brim of his hat, more so. He nodded to the mound of luggage at his feet. "Is this all you've brought?"
If there was a hint of sarcasm in his tone, she chose to ignore it. "I'm traveling light," she said, moving into the room and facing him.
Time was always very good to Jed. If anything his shoulders grew broader, his thighs harder, his jaw firmer. Though his hat shielded his eyes, she knew they were a cool, direct gray, a startling contrast to the tan he acquired from working outdoors. Beneath the hat his dark hair curled a bit in back of his ears, telling her better than words that it had been too long since it had last been cut. His nose had a slight bump in it, a legacy of the time he'd lost a battle of wills with a half wild stallion. He carried an aura of simple male confidence, and a maddening arrogance, glossed with a sheen of unmistakable danger.
She'd long since recovered from her adolescent fascination with that aura, just as she'd long since given up trying to impress him. So she blamed the sudden tripping of her pulse and the knot in her throat on a justifiable appearance of nerves. She crossed to the dresser and pulled out a drawer. Jed Sullivan was the last person with whom she wanted to discuss the excruciating end of her marriage. The last to whom she'd admit just how alone she felt right now, how uncertain about her future.
But she couldn't prevent herself from asking, "Was Annie very worried?"
She hadn't realized he'd moved until she heard him behind her, felt his knuckle brush her jaw. Swinging around, she found herself caught between the surface of the dresser and Jed's hard body. He crooked a finger beneath her chin, tilted it up. "We both were."
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, regret washing up in waves. "I would have given anything to avoid that. I hoped the whole mess would blow over. I didn't want anyone here to be touched by it."
For a moment, his thumb grazed the soft skin below her jawline. "Anything that affects you touches us, too, Jules. You should know that."
His unexpected gentleness was almost her undoing. It would be so easy to lean on him, to let his solid strength take the weight of hers, to let him absorb some of the hurt and desperation which had ridden her for so long. It was tempting to just let go, to allow someone else to take care of her for a change. The strength of that temptation frightened her.
She strove for lightness. "God, Jed, you're not going to be sweet, are you? I can handle anything but that."
His hand dropped away, and, blessedly, he took a step back. "Just tell me that you're okay now."
That, at least, she could answer honestly. "I am, now that I'm home. You don't know how much I needed to see the ranch again."
His brooding gaze held hers for a long, steady minute. "Makes it hard to figure, then, why you took your own sweet time coming home."
The moment of danger had passed. She turned back to her unpacking. "Well, I had things to do. Dodging the media was top of my list."
"Not to mention the police."
"They were tenacious, too," she replied carelessly. "But they listened to reason soon enough."
"Pretty understanding, were they?" There was no mistaking the sarcasm in his voice.
"Once they had the facts. I wasn't even on the ship the night it was raided."
"I understand that some said otherwise."
Her mouth twisted bitterly. "Times like these you find out who your friends are, don't you?"
"Yeah, you do. But if it took you this long to figure out that your best friends are right here, you're a bigger fool than I ever thought."
Julianne whirled to see him stalking away, and he didn't bother to stop the door from slamming behind him. She took a deep breath and strove to calm the fluttering in her stomach. It must surely be due to some quirk in her nature that she preferred his temper to that uncustomary gentleness. Facing Jed in a temper was like riding into a storm; exhilarating, bracing, and a little scary.
But tenderness from him...
That was nothing short of terrifying.
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