Read on for an excerpt of Janet Dailey's Big Sky Country, and then download the book!
"Horses?" Kerry swallowed.
A black brow arched briefly in cynical amusement. "Yes, horses," Riordan affirmed. "Unless you want to walk to the top of the mountain?"
"No, of course not," Kerry rushed nervously, glancing to Jill to see her reaction.
"You did say you could ride," he reminded Kerry pointedly.
"She can ride well enough," Todd answered for her, reaching out to cover Kerry's hand. "I'll pick out a nice, gentle mount for you."
"And you, Jill?" Riordan drawled, his impassive gray eyes shifting to her. "Can you ride, or will you require a nice, gentle mount, too?"
Despite the casualness of his voice, there was a decided bite underlining the question, She tried to fathom his expression without success. She still couldn't believe that he sincerely meant to go through with it.
"I can ride." Her reply was marred by uncertainty.
"You don't sound very enthusiastic," he commented dryly.
"Maybe—" Jill breathed in deeply, drawing on her reserve of bold courage "—because I don't think the invitation for this trail ride was offered willingly."
"Jill!" whispered Kerry in a shocked plea for caution.
"You believe that Mary's little speech yesterday reminding me of my responsibilities as host blackmailed me into suggesting this?" Riordan challenged, leaning back in his chair and regarding Jill thoughtfully from his mask of aloofness.
“Yes, I do," she nodded.
"Well, you're quite right in believing that." The hard line of his mouth quirked briefly as he arrogantly inclined his head in acknowledgement. "The question remains, do you want to go?"
Jill definitely wanted to go. Her brother had been the last one to take her on a trip into the high country around her home in Yellowstone. But this wasn't exactly Kerry's cup of tea. Of course, her friend would go to the moon if Todd asked.
Her chin raised thoughtfully, as she met Riordan's narrowed gaze of watchfulness. He was very well aware of Kerry's timidity toward animals, especially something as large as a horse, and her lack of an adventurous streak that made Kerry prefer the security of a house to the unknowns of the wilderness. Jill had been the one who had prompted the exploring walks around the ranch.
Kerry's only dissatisfaction in their stay here had been she hadn't seen as much of Todd as she wanted. She would have been content to potter around the house.
Jill didn't condemn Kerry for being unwilling to experience other worlds, but Riordan did. He considered it a fatal flaw for his brother's prospective bride to have. It was time he learned that Kerry had a lot of spunk, Jill decided. However much Kerry wanted the security of a house, she would, without a grumble, go wherever Todd led her. Kerry was like a lot of pioneer women had been—she could make a home wherever her man was.
If Riordan expected to hear Kerry complain about the hardships of the long ride and camping out, or give way to fits of terror at crawling insects and the night cries of wild animals, he was going to be in for a surprise. A secret smile teased the corners of her mouth.
“Yes," Jill finally responded to his question with a decisive nod of her head, "I would like to go."
"It's settled, then," Riordan stated, a faint glitter of curiosity at the almost complacent look on Jill's face. "I'll start making the necessary arrangements."
Dawn was only splintering the sky when they pointed their horses away from the ranch buildings toward the shadowed mountain slopes three days later. Fresh and eager for the trail, Jill's horse snorted, sending vapor clouds into the brisk morning air. She glanced behind her at the wide path they had left in the dew-heavy grass of the meadow.
The silence seemed almost enchanted. Only it wasn't really silent. The grass swished beneath the horses' hooves, scattering diamond droplets of dew. All around was the chirping wake-up call of the birds. Loudest of all was the rhythmic creak of saddle leather.
“Having second thoughts?" Riordan asked in a low voice.
The roofs of the ranch buildings had almost disappeared behind the rise in the meadow as Jill faced the front again. There was a serene glow in her expression when she glanced at Riordan riding beside her, leading the packhorse carrying their supplies.
"None at all," she assured the mocking gray eyes playing over her face.
The faint glow of pale yellow lasted only a few short minutes more before the sun popped above the craggy peaks to the east. The mountain seemed to catch the light of the rising sun, reflecting the golden hues. By the time they reached the foothills, it was well up in the sky, flooding the forested, slopes with brilliant sunshine, piercing the foliage with golden streamers of light.
The delicate scent of pines dominated the air as the four riders entered the forest. Riordan led the way through the moderately dense growth with Jill behind him, followed by Kerry and Todd bringing up the rear. The narrow, weaving route through the trees was traversed single file which made conversation almost impossible. Jill didn't mind. She savored the solitude of her own thoughts.
The private glimpses of wildlife were many. A jay followed them for some distance through the trees as if inspecting the invaders of his domain. Squirrels hid behind trunks waiting for them to pass before resuming their endless search for food.
At the edge of a small forest glade, Jill's horse stopped. She had been watching a squirrel peering warily around a trunk. Glancing forward, she saw that Riordan had reined in his horse and checked the packhorse's progress. Curious, she looked beyond him.
In the sun-drenched glade, two deer stared motionless in their direction. Then, with a flick of a white tail, they bounded away, gracefully leaping through the tall rippling grass dotted with brilliant reds and yellows of wildflowers.
Without a word or glance being exchanged with the others, Riordan nudged his bay horse into the open. Jill followed keeping single file and not attempting to draw level with him. For a moment, she ignored the scenery and concentrated on the wide shoulders ahead of her.
Riordan sat with casual ease, a part of the horse and environment, the untamed look about him more pronounced than before. The warmth of the sun had made itself felt and his suede jacket was swinging open. A wild tremor shook her senses as she caught a glimpse of his rugged profile. With the golden sun striking sparks off the chiseled features of his strong jaw and the faintly ruthless line of his mouth, his virile attraction pulled her like a powerful magnet.
Riordan was in his element in this wilderness country, Jill told herself, trying to shake away her purely physical reaction. Her blue eyes swung determinedly away from him to focus again on the landscape they rode through. But more and more often as the morning wore on, her gaze was drawn to the man riding in the lead.
Farther on, the trees began to thin out, giving way to a grassy plateau studded with rocks and colored with mountain wildflowers. It seemed as if their steady climb should have gained them great height, but craggy mountain peaks towered all around them. This was only an insignificant hill dwarfed by its bigger brothers, connected by a dipping ridge to their slopes.
Yet the crest of the hill beckoned Jill. Behind her, the valley floor was a twisting corridor through the fortress walls of the mountains. The vista at the top of the hill promised a look at it and the untouched wilderness beyond. She urged her horse even with Riordan, meeting his sideways glance of inquiry, a black brow lifting slightly.
"Are we riding to the top of the hill?" she asked.
The breathlessness in her question was merely from the exhilaration of the ride. It had nothing to do with the quicksilver glitter in his considering look, she told herself.
"We can." He reined in his horse and turned sideways in the saddle toward the slower couple following them. "We're going to the top, Todd."
Todd waved them on. "We'll meet you at the ridgeback."
That wasn't what Jill had in mind. She had intended that the four of them share the view, but she could hardly protest now. Riordan took a wrap on the packhorse's lead rope. Clicking to it, he touched a spur to his bay's flank, and the horse's striding walk obediently extended into a reaching trot. Jill followed.
The crest of the hill was farther and steeper than she had guessed. A lone pine growing out of an outcropping of jagged rock at the top seemed to be the point to which Riordan was taking her. The last few yards she gave her horse his head to pick his way over the stony ground, always climbing.
"I didn't realize it was so far," she said when her horse stopped beside Riordan's at the top. Her gaze was already sweeping the breathtaking panorama. "But it was worth it."
The ranch bundings far below were almost totally hidden by the windbreak of pines. The verdant meadow stretched tike a curling green ribbon on the valley floor. The unexplored horizon on the opposite side of the hill was dominated by snow-capped peaks and virgin valleys, wild and unscarred by man, stunning in their casual grandeur.
Riordan dismounted, looping the rope to the packhorse around his saddle horn. "We'll take a breather here and give the horses a rest."
Her dismount was considerably less graceful than his, stiff muscles unaccustomed to extended periods of riding making their protest felt. All of that was forgotten as she spied a dark shape in the crystal blue sky.
"Riordan, look!" she whispered excitedly. He was loosening the cinch on his saddle and paused to follow her pointing finger. "Is it an eagle or a hawk?"
"An eagle." His sharp gaze remained fixed on the wide span of wings. Unconsciously Jill moved closer, her blood racing with excitement. "I'd say it's a bald eagle. This is one of the few regions you can still find them where they haven't been driven out by civilization."
She was unable to take her eyes from the eagle soaring high on the wind currents above the mountains. "I don't know how anyone can claim to be rich if they haven't seen an eagle flying wild and free."
"That's a profound statement."
Something in his voice drew her gaze. Behind the lazily piercing quality of his eyes, she suspected she saw a glint of admiration. The sight of the eagle had made her spirits buoyantly light. It was like a heady wine, making her feel decidedly reckless.
"You mean coming from me," she returned boldly, "you don't expect such statements."
Riordan moved lazily around to her horse. A stirrup was laid over the saddle while he loosened the cinch. A breeze lifted the tousled wings of her hair, spinning wisps of burnished gold in the sunlight.
"Maneuvering again, Jill?" he taunted softly.
Unbuttoning her medium-weight jacket of lined blue corduroy, she pushed it back so the refreshing breeze could reach her skin.
"I don't know what you mean," she shrugged carelessly.
"You knew when you suggested we come to the top of this hill that Kerry wouldn't willingly make any side trails on her horse." Patting the horse's neck, he ducked beneath its head to stand beside Jill. "Weren't you arranging for her to be alone with Todd?"
"If you say so." With a contented sigh, she tilted her face to the sun, letting its warm rays spill over her, with her hands on her hips holding the jacket open. "I'm in much too good a mood to argue with you, Riordan."
"I wasn't arguing," he replied smoothly.
"Weren't you?" Amusement dimpled her cheeks.
Glancing through the gold tips of her lashes, she met his aloofly mocking eyes. They trailed slowly over her face down her neck to her blouse, dwelling on the material straining over the jutting roundness of her breasts. A silvery flame seemed to lick through the material, igniting a rush of warmth in her veins.
"I believe you're trying to flirt with me," he drawled, stepping by her to remove a canteen from his saddle.
Studying the jet black hair that curled around his collar, she tipped her head to one side, feeling playfully bold. "And if I am?"
He unscrewed the lid of the canteen and handed it to her, his mouth quirking. "I think you're outclassed."
Her azure eyes sparkled brightly over the rim of the canteen as she took a swallow of the cool water. Her senses were vibrantly alert and ready to take up the challenge. Jill gave him back the canteen.
"I don't think you know me very well," she retorted softly, almost in warning.
I believe you're trying to flirt with me.
Had he not raised the canteen to his mouth at that moment, Riordan would have seen the mischief glittering in her eyes. At precisely the right second, she lifted her hand and tipped the canteen, spilling water over his face. Despite the dangerous glitter in the gray eyes, she couldn't keep from laughing.
"Why, you little minx!" Riordan growled, but without real anger. The lid was replaced on the canteen as he took a threatening step toward her.
The hasty, laughing step Jill took backwards sent her bumping into his horse, who moved only a protesting inch. She tried to elude his reaching hands and failed as they dug into the soft flesh of her upper arms.
"I'm sorry, Riordan, honestly." But the bubbling amusement that remained in her voice belied the assertion. "I couldn't help it."
Her forearms were pressed against his chest as she laughingly tried to struggle free of his hold. Swinging her head back, she turned her mirthful eyes to his face.
The smoldering light in his eyes was not from anger and the smile slowly faded from her lips. Her gaze slid to his mouth, so hard, so masculine, and so close, and resistance ebbed with a rush.
In the next instant, her hands were curling around his neck and his mouth was dosing over hers with a savage insistence. Her lips parted voluntarily in response to his passionate demand. Hands slipped beneath her jacket, sliding smoothly to her back, arching and molding her closer to his male outline.
Any sense of inhibition was forgotten as she yielded to his expert caresses. Primitive desire seared through her veins. Shivers of excitement danced over her skin as he minutely explored the hollow of her throat and the pulsing cord in her neck. Her breast seemed to swell as his hands cupped its roundness, arousing previously unknown longing for a more intimate caress. His mouth was hungry and possessive when it returned to hers.
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The clatter of hooves against stone shattered the erotic spell. "Riordan, are you coming or not?" Todd called, still some distance away, the pine tree and the horse shielding them from his view.
As he lifted his head reluctantly, Riordan's hands slid to her waist, holding her against him. Jill nestled her head against his chest, a soft smile curving the lips that still throbbed from his ardent kiss.
"We'll be right there," Riordan called in a voice that was husky and disturbed.
Excitement shivered over her skin. Beneath her head she could feel his ragged breathing and hear the uneven beat of his heart, very much in tempo with her own. She could have him.
In that exultant moment, she knew she could bring this man to his knees. It mattered little that he disliked her because now she knew he desired her. The knowledge provided an immense power she could use to gain her own ends.
Then Riordan was setting her away from him and walking to the horses to tighten the cinches. Outwardly he seemed completely unmoved by the charged embrace they had just shared. The gray eyes were cool and aloof, like impenetrable granite, when they met the brightness of hers. His control was remarkable. If she hadn't had those few seconds in his arms after he had broken off the kiss, she might not have guessed that she had so successfully aroused him.
"Mount up," he said, swinging into his own saddle.
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully as Jill gave him a bemused smile and complied with his order. This trail ride was going to be much more interesting and exciting than she had thought. She met his gaze with an alluring sweep of her long lashes, then moved her horse into the lead.
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