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Copyright © CHANDRA RYAN, 2013

All Rights Reserved, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.

Chapter One

Kat stared at the man on the platform. With thick dark-brown hair and a muscular body that filled his clothes out nicely, he was handsome enough. Not that his looks mattered. Not really. She needed a husband to be a partner. She wasn’t some young, naïve thing with silly notions of lust and love. Practical and pragmatic were a much better fit for her life. Still, a pragmatic woman could admit that having a man about the house who was easy on the eyes wouldn’t be a hardship.

She chuckled under her breath as she made her way over to him. She doubted she would fare as well if he was hoping for a piece of eye candy for his wife. Oh she could be pretty when she needed to be. But coming all the way to town to collect a man didn’t merit the fuss. She worked long days on the ranch and this excursion had already caused enough of a delay. If she got all gussied up, she’d not only lose that time but also the time it took her to get back into her work clothes when they returned to the ranch. Time was her most valuable commodity right now. She couldn’t afford to squander it.

“Excuse me, sir.” Her calm words broke through the chaos of the port station and gained his undivided attention. This close to him, staring into his rich, brown eyes, her stomach began to churn with nerves. She quickly pushed through the sensation, though. She didn’t have the time for silliness. And it was the height of absurdity for her to be uncomfortable around her soon-to-be husband. “I’m Katarina Maxim. My friends call me Kat.”

She held her hand out to him in casual greeting as she tried not to fidget. She’d debated how to greet him as she’d driven to the station. A kiss seemed rather forward. But she did want him to feel welcomed. A handshake seemed like the best idea at the time. Now, as she waited for him to take her hand, she started second-guessing herself.

“Katarina, that’s a lovely name.”

She noted that he’d called her Katarina but tried not to let that color her first impression of him. She didn’t hate the name nor did she hate being called by it. It just didn’t fit her. Not anymore. Katarina sounded soft, delicate—refined, even. Like she’d been before her family had moved here. She could only hope that he didn’t see her as any of those things. If he did, he would be sorely disappointment when he got to know her better. “Kat. Only my mother called me by my full name,” she pressed.

“Kat it is.” His smile seemed genuine but his palm was as soft as new leather when he finally took hers. If he stayed, that would change. This planet demanded calluses and blisters. Her hands were proof of that.
“Jasper Lee, ma’am. I’m honored to meet you. Out of the thousands of applications you must have received, I am grateful you selected mine.”

Apparently his tongue was as smooth as his hands. That didn’t bode well for their future. Smooth men didn’t do well when faced with the harsh realities of settler planets. “I’m not a politician nor am I a starlet, Mr. Lee. Out here we speak our minds and we keep our words straightforward. My ranch is a great opportunity, especially if you’re looking for a fresh start. But I think we both know there aren’t thousands of men out there looking for backbreaking work on a world so uncivilized that its brothel is its only restaurant.” She took a moment to look him over carefully. He wasn’t a dandy. His stance spoke of power and awareness. She couldn’t very well start patting him down like a horse at auction, but as far as she could tell, her first impression had been spot on. The man looked to be in shape. “But if you’re willing to put in the time and the work, I’ve a feeling you could make it here.”

He returned her careful examination and then nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

She couldn’t ask for more. “That should do. If you’ll grab your bags, my transport is just over this way. It’s not a long drive to the ranch but I don’t make it back to town very often. If there’s anything you need to pick up from the store, now would be the time to tell me.”

He grabbed two suitcases and then shook his head. “I think I’ve got everything I need.”

She led the way to the transport, all too aware of his gaze burning into her back. “The ranch is pretty self-sufficient as far as food goes. Most everything else can be bought in town as long as it’s nothing too fancy or extravagant.”

“Sounds good.” He could’ve said the words sarcastically but she chose to believe he was being sincere.

At her transport, she pressed her palm against the registry’s biometric screen and waited for it to scan her palm. The doors clicked softly as they unlocked when her identity had been confirmed. It only took a moment to store his bags in the back and then they slid into their seats and were ready to go. Only, as he shifted in the passenger seat to lock the restraint, all the space between them seemed to disappear. The man took up entirely too much room. Even though not a single inch of him touched her, she could feel the warmth radiating from him and it made her stomach flutter and her hands shake a little.

“Comfortable?” she asked, her tone holding more chill than she’d intended. It couldn’t be helped, though. His sudden nearness made her twitchy and she hated being twitchy.

“Absolutely. Mind if I nap awhile until we get to the ranch?”

Mind? That might just give her enough time to collect herself. And, put into that context, nothing had ever sounded better. “Feel free.”

As soon as he shut his eyes, though, the need to ask a million and one questions bubbled up inside her and threatened to burst. She didn’t know much about the man and now that he was here she wanted to know everything about him. But if she woke him up, she’d have to deal with him taking up too much space again. She didn’t seem as twitchy around him while he slept. If she could just wait until they got to her ranch, she could ask her questions while keeping her distance.

It seemed like a solid enough plan at first, but the more she tried to concentrate on the road in front of her, the more questions kept popping into her head. She couldn’t really be blamed for her natural curiosity. Her mother had always encouraged her to read and reading had made her an inquisitive person. Not only that, but it’d also given her a colorful imagination. The two combined were hard to control on the dullest days and today was anything but dull.

She held the questions at bay as long as she could. But shortly before they reached her ranch she finally gave in and asked, “Why did you answer my ad?”