Save the Last Dance

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Chapter One

Flying should be done in a perfectly good airplane, not while being catapulted off the back of a recalcitrant horse.

Mariah Baker lay spread-eagled on her back, not certain she’d live to ride again. Mud—sticky gooey mud—sucked at her body, soaked her clothes, and covered her face like a beauty treatment gone bad. To heap insult on top of insult, the stuff smelled like rank fertilizer and stale water and quite possibly horse manure. Heaven couldn’t have mud like this, if it even had mud.

She wiggled her toes and fingers to test each one. Lifting her still-spinning head, she scraped mud from her face with her gloved hand. Her blurry eyes focused on two large cowboy boots about a foot away. Angels didn’t have big feet and wear scuffed cowboy boots.

“Are you okay?” A deep, sexy voice vibrated with concern.

She tried to raise her head higher. A large hand to match those big feet entered her field of vision.

“What happened—?”

“You fell off your horse.”

Oh, yeah, she remembered now. An invisible horse-eating troll lurking in the nearby woods scared her ditz-brained gelding. He’d bucked and sent her flying like a rag doll, a short flight which ended with an ungraceful face plant. At least it was a soft landing, as last night’s rain had transformed the footing in her riding arena into a mud bog.

“Are you all right?” The man sounded rattled.


“Don’t move. You might have broken something.”

“Nothing’s broken. I just had—the wind knocked out of me.” She choked and spit out a mouthful of mud. The owner of the cowboy boots squatted next to her. Long legs, strong thighs, narrow hips, broad chest. Definitely heaven.

With a groan, Mariah pushed herself to a kneeling position and came face-to-face with Adonis. Well, at least he could have doubled for a Greek god. His appearance tickled her memory, yet she was certain she’d never met him. She blinked a few times to clear her vision and stared.

And stared.

And stared.

Heaven wouldn’t have temptations like him. He’d turn any good girl into a very bad girl, and she’d be first in line.

A day’s growth of beard darkened his handsome face. His unruly brown hair begged for attention from a decent stylist. He wore clothes most garage sales wouldn’t bother to sell. His threadbare jeans had never seen a designer label. Yet his disheveled appearance didn’t come close to concealing his model good looks. Suffice it to say, the man fit every clichéd description of a hero in a romance novel, despite his scruffiness.

Too bad she’d sworn off men as of last night. So what if he was kiss-your-heart-goodbye gorgeous? Unfortunately, her heart wasn’t listening. Instead, it told her brain to get lost and snuggled up next to Mr. Scruffy, at least in its dreams.

He might appear scruffy, but he smelled wonderful in a clean, masculine sort of way. His scent actually cut through the smell of rancid mud that clung to her body. Without thinking, she leaned closer to get a better whiff of his expensive aftershave. A dedicated shopper, Mariah knew expensive when she saw it or smelled it. She’d also bet a winning lotto ticket he wore a Rolex watch and Gucci sunglasses.

Raising her gaze back to his face, she found him staring at her. He removed his sunglasses and shifted his gaze from her lips to her eyes. The man had the most incredible brown eyes, as yummy as a chocolate mocha espresso fringed with long, black eyelashes. Guys shouldn’t have eyelashes like that when they never appreciated them.

Those mocha eyes sucked her in like dust bunnies sucked into a vacuum cleaner. She felt light-headed. And hot. Really hot. Taking a deep breath, Mariah gathered her composure—and her dust bunnies—about her like a suit of armor.

Relax, girl, relax. This guy radiated sexual energy like the sun radiated heat. She’d just been gobbled up by his magnetic sensuality. He was dangerous, and she didn’t need a guy like that to complicate her life. She’d get rid of him, and the sooner the better.

“I’m Enr—” He hesitated. “I’m Rodrigo Perez.” He studied her with interest, as if waiting for a reaction. “I’m staying at the Delgados’ vacation house for a month. That’d make me your neighbor.” He held out his hand to her.

She stared at it, while her mind stalled somewhere between fantasy and reality. He cleared his throat to get her attention. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, and he grinned. His hand hovered in mid-air. Mechanically, she removed a mud-encrusted glove and offered her hand to him. His long fingers surrounded her smaller hand with a firm but gentle hold, and his dark eyes never left hers. The man was a seduction machine, and Mariah fell for his technique, hook, line, and sinker; stupid, gullible woman that she was.

“And you are?”

“I’m Mariah,” she croaked, feeling like an idiot.

“Well, Mariah, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”


Rodrigo straightened to his full height, leaving Mariah to stare at his belt buckle, tight jeans, and… Oh, damn. He tugged on her hand to help her up, but her legs refused to cooperate.

“Can you stand?” His brown eyes were laced with true concern.

Roused from her stupor, Mariah pulled her hand away, and scrambled to her feet.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Concern gentled his brown eyes.

“I am. Really. I’ve fallen off many times. It’s nothing. Something in the woods scared my horse.”

“Can’t imagine what that would be.” The picture of complete innocence he shrugged and looked away, shifting his weight from one cowboy boot to another.

Sueño, her gray gelding and the guilty party, wandered over and stuck his head between them. Mariah picked up his reins.

“Where did you—? I mean, how did you—?” Her brain lost the ability to form words. His amused grin didn’t help.

“I was walking along the road and saw you launched into the air like a human missile.”

“Thank you for helping me.” Mariah swiped at her face with her arm, but the action only spread the mud around. Pulling off her riding gloves, she rubbed her face with her hands but that wasn’t much better.

“I’m just glad to see you’re okay.” A slight accent blended with the rich timbre of his voice. A handsome man with an accent made a freaking deadly combination.

Attempting to be inconspicuous, she rubbed her clammy hands on her thighs. Her horse stirred beside her, and she glanced at him. The big busybody hadn’t missed a thing. One furry ear swiveled to catch each tidbit of conversation. His eyes followed their every move with interest. Mariah glared at Sueño. Maybe you’d like some popcorn and a beer while you watch me squirm? Whose side are you on? After all, who feeds you? Help me out here, will you?

Sueño shook his long forelock over his eyes and ignored her.

Knowing she was on her own, she searched for something clever to say. She turned into a blabbering idiot around most men. She doubted Señor Grunge would be an exception. “You’re staying at Max and Carmen’s house? It’s—it’s really nice. I’ve been in it. I did some work for them about six months ago. Carmen wanted the rooms redone in a country style, something relaxed. I looked all over Seattle for just the right—” Now, she was blathering.

“Great place. I’m enjoying it. Very private and peaceful,” he agreed smoothly.

Pulling herself together once again, Mariah put on her polite cocktail-party voice and inquired, “Where are you from, Rodrigo?” His accent intrigued her, and much to her surprise, she imagined him whispering Spanish to her in the middle of the night.

“I spent the first eight years of my life in Puerto Rico. Now I live in LA. I’m here on Orcas Island for a vacation.” He paused to look around him. “Do you have any idea what a view like this would cost in Southern California?”

“I can’t begin to imagine.” She glanced around, imagining the place from new eyes. The horse arena sat on a bluff overlooking a small cove. In the distance, the San Juan Islands glittered like precious jewels on the water. A green and white Washington State ferry wound its way through the myriad of passages bound for the Orcas ferry landing. To the north, the boats in Deer Harbor floated lazily in the morning sun.

Even in her most tumultuous times, this place had brought her peace. Unfortunately, the taxes and expenses threatened to drive her out. Every month, that stack of bills on her desk increased exponentially in comparison to her meager income.

Rodrigo coughed and brought her attention back to him. He wrung his hands together. “I have to confess. I’ve been watching you ride for a few days.”

“You’ve been watching me ride?” Oh, great, her neighbor was a stalker. Even as she considered it, she didn’t actually believe it. He appeared to be a professional heartbreaker, not a stalker. She’d almost married a man like him once so she recognized the type. Besides, tourists from the nearby resort stopped on the road occasionally and watched her ride.

“Uh, yeah.” Rodrigo pushed his hair off his forehead and looked down at his feet. He seemed worried about how she’d interpret his confession. “I was walking by earlier this week, and I saw you through the trees. I’ve never seen anyone ride a horse like that. It’s mesmerizing.”

“Thank you.” Mariah glanced up at him. A shock wave zipped through her system. She stepped away and added more space between them.

“I thank you for being such a skilled rider as to capture my attention.”

Ah, what a silver-tongued devil. “Most people would rather watch concrete dry.”

He raised one eyebrow, as he knew she might have his number. “What do you call this type of riding you do?”

“Dressage, a very old equestrian sport. Actually, it’s more of an art form than a sport when it’s done correctly.”

“How do you steer him? With your thoughts?” He seemed genuinely interested.

“No, not really. I use subtle signals from my leg and shift my weight in the saddle, but there are times when it seems as if he’s reading my mind. When we’re in sync, it’s the most incredible feeling. It’s like we leave this planet, as if we’re on a different plane of existence. It’s hard to explain. Time slows, has no meaning. It’s almost…holy. Athletes have a term for it. They call it being in the zone. Sueño and I seem to find that zone together more than any horse I’ve ridden.” Mariah stopped. She’d told him way too much. To his credit, his eyes didn’t glaze over from sheer boredom.

“How long does it take to learn to ride like that?”

“It takes years. This horse is my baby. I raised and trained him myself.” Mariah patted her gelding’s coat.

“You’ve done a great job, but it’s more than training; even I can see that.”

She looked away for a moment then met his eyes, feeling a little jolt right down to her toes. “Yes. Yes, it is,” she admitted in a soft whisper. She didn’t speak of her connection with this horse to just anyone. Non-riders didn’t understand. In fact, most long-time riders didn’t understand it either.

Rodrigo reached up to pet the horse. Sueño lowered his head so the man could scratch a preferred spot behind his ears.

“He likes you. He’s very picky about his people. I can’t believe he’s letting you pet him. He’s very perceptive about people. I should listen to him more….”

“Si, you should. I love animals.” Rodrigo interrupted, stroking Sueño’s neck. Her horse gave him a hard push with his nose.

“Feel free to smack him when he does that. It’s rude.”

“Why does he do that?”

“He wants a carrot.”

“A carrot? Sorry, big guy, I don’t happen to have one on me.” Rodrigo held his hands out, palms up. Sueño sniffed at each hand.

“He doesn’t deserve a carrot when he behaves like that.”

Expressing his opinion against the no carrot rule, Sueno gave her a hard push and knocked her off balance. Rodrigo came to her rescue again and caught her before she fell, holding her a little too close. Her body betrayed her, and her heart and mind followed. Throwing her good-girl reputation to the wind, she fastened to him like Velcro. His warmth soaked into her pores. That hard, muscled chest pressed against her soft contours. She inhaled the scent of his aftershave and filled her lungs with his essence. Heaven could never feel this good.

Sueño snorted again and tugged on the reins, yanking her back to Pacific Daylight Time. Leaping backwards, she extracted herself from Rodrigo’s arms. Keeping a safe distance from the two males, she studied them warily. Rodrigo didn’t seem to notice or care that his white T-shirt now sported several muddy spots.

“You know, you shouldn’t let him get away with that.” Humor glinted in his dark eyes. “He’s being rude.”

“Thanks. I’ll remember that.” She didn’t trust her voice enough to say another word.

She’d just clung to a strange man like he was a Titanic lifeboat and enjoyed every delightful second of it.