Once they were outside, Roberto headed for the car.

“Would you mind very much if we walked awhile?” Brynn asked. Physical movement would help ease the stuffed feeling. Besides, she didn’t want the evening to end so soon.

“By all means, let’s walk,” Roberto agreed. He reached for her hand and set a slow, easy pace. The night was crisp and cold.

“It looks like it might snow.”

Roberto glanced skyward. “Wishful thinking on your part,” he murmured. “There’s barely a cloud in the sky.”

He was right. The image of them walking together, hand in hand through lightly falling snow, appealed to her.

Although she’d enjoyed their dinner, her one regret was that with all the food being served, and Stefano checking to be sure everything was to their liking, there hadn’t been much of a chance for the two of them to talk.

“Thank you, Roberto, for a wonderful meal.”

He released her hand and slipped his arm around her waist. “Thank you for coming with me.”

Brynn pressed her head against his shoulder. “What made you decide to ask me out?” She wasn’t sure what prompted the question, but she was curious.

“I wanted everything to be right for you.”

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“Be right?”

He exhaled slowly as though he weren’t sure how to explain himself. “You aren’t like other women I’ve known.”

Brynn smiled to herself. “Is that a compliment?”

Roberto was taken aback by her question. “I meant it to be. Have I insulted you?”

“No,” she assured him.

“You’re special, Brynn. Not only to me, but to Emilio and his friends, too. They think a lot of you. I’ve heard the teens talk about you, and when they do, well, it’s with respect. It takes a lot to impress kids these days.”

“And how do you feel about me?” she asked. It would be far easier for her if Roberto came right out and told her. She’d never been so bold with a man, but this wasn’t a normal relationship.

“Me?” He hesitated, taking some time to formulate his thoughts. “You’re stubborn and strong-willed.”

Brynn wouldn’t deny it. “If you think I’m stubborn, you should meet my mother.” She bit down on her lip when she realized what she’d said. Reminding him of the mother he’d lost was the last thing she wanted.

“So you inherited the trait.” He sounded amused, and Brynn was relieved.

“I care for you, Roberto,” she told him softly. “More than I care for anyone other than my family.” If he wasn’t willing to acknowledge his feelings for her, then she’d be the first one to say it. “Knowing you has blessed my life. When I have a problem, you’re the person I want to share it with. When something good happens, you’re the one I want to tell. I find myself thinking about you a lot, probably more than I should.”

His arm tightened around her middle. “I feel the same way about you. I want very much to kiss you, Brynn,” he said with a deep sigh that revealed his longing for her, “but I don’t want to do it in public. Not again. I’ll wait until we get back to your apartment.”

Brynn’s heart swelled with emotion as she looked to him. “We could leave now, don’t you think?”

Roberto chuckled, and together they raced across the street and back to Mama Celeste’s, where Roberto’s car was parked.

As they neared Brynn’s apartment their amusement ebbed, replaced with a growing anticipation. Brynn’s hand shook slightly as she unlocked the front door, knowing that soon she would be in Roberto’s arms.

Together they walked into her apartment. Brynn didn’t bother to turn on the lights. Once the door was closed, she lifted her arms and reached for Roberto.

With a deep-seated groan, he backed her against the door and kissed her.

The kiss was like fire, a spontaneous combustion of desire and need. Once wasn’t near enough to satisfy either of them, and Roberto kissed her again and again. He surprised her with his tongue, and she gasped as he thrust it deep inside her mouth, stroking and teasing her. Gradually her gasp became a whimper that trembled from her lips.

When she was sure they were both about to faint with the intensity of their lovemaking, Roberto pulled away. She noted that his chest was heaving; hers was, too. In the dim light he looked down on her, and she met his look recklessly, unafraid for him to see all the love and longing in her eyes. Her fingers clung to the lapels of his suit as she studied him.

She waited, needing to know he’d experienced the same wonder she had. He closed his eyes momentarily, his breath deep and harsh, as though he needed to separate himself from her, if not physically, then emotionally.

Brynn might have been offended if he hadn’t continued to hold her close and with such tender care. She pressed her head to his chest and listened to the strong, fast-paced beat of his heart.

“I don’t dare touch you again,” he whispered thickly.

“Why not?”

“You make me lose my head.”

“That’s bad?” she asked.

She felt his smile against her cheek. “Not exactly. It would be very easy to take you into that bedroom and make love to you, but I won’t.”

“You won’t?” She couldn’t believe she was asking him this.

“I can’t allow that to happen. Once would never be enough with you. I would want you again and again, and that would only lead to—”

A loud knock sounded against the door, startling them both. Roberto’s eyes met hers in the faded light. “You’re expecting someone?”

She shook her head.

“Who is it?” she asked, struggling to make her voice strong enough to be heard.

Roberto turned on the light switch.

“Emilio,” Roberto’s brother shouted from the other side.

Roberto stiffened with irritation and opened the front door.

“It’s Modesto,” Emilio cried as he stumbled into the apartment. His eyes were wide with panic and fear. The teenager slumped onto the sofa and covered his face with both hands. “Modesto’s been shot.”

Jammed inside Jenny and Michelle’s dinky apartment for the potluck Christmas party, everyone seemed to be talking at once. Trey felt as out of place as a bull moose at one of those fancy dog shows, the ones with dolled-up poodles with painted toenails.

Jenny’s acting friends were certainly a mixed breed. There were everyday people, the kind he would have been hard-pressed to guess were show people, and then there were the others. The others, he noted, tended to be flamboyant attention seekers.

It made for an interesting evening, he would admit that much. Holding his drink, he found a quiet corner and played the role of casual observer.

A couple of times Jenny drifted his way, but she wasn’t able to stay for long. Trey understood. Since she shared hostessing duties with her roommate, she couldn’t very well give him all her attention. Though to be honest, that was what Trey would have preferred.

He sipped the wine, a fruity-flavored one he wouldn’t normally drink, but was all the market had offered. He found himself watching Jenny, mesmerized by her. She was as beautiful as he remembered, more so. Yet he couldn’t look at her without his gut twisting up in a knot. This had been his lot when she was growing up. Loving her from afar.

Next to burying his parents, the most difficult thing Trey had ever done was to let Jenny Lancaster leave Custer, Montana, without telling her how much he loved her. He hadn’t felt particularly self-sacrificing and noble at the time. He didn’t feel that way now. It was just that he had some decisions to make, damned important ones, and they involved Jenny.

He loved her, and although he’d tried to forget her in the last three years, he couldn’t. Countless times he’d attempted to convince himself to look for greener pastures.

It hadn’t worked.

He’d spent the better part of ten years in love with Jenny, and it didn’t appear that time or distance was going to change the way he felt.

She’d been little more than fifteen when he’d first recognized her as a woman. Until then she’d been a pesky kid. Living next door, so to speak, Trey had dealt mostly with Dillon, Jenny’s father.

He remembered the day he’d realized she was a woman. He’d driven over to talk to her father about one thing or another and gone into the barn. Jenny had been there, grooming her filly and practicing her lines for a school play, when he’d stumbled upon her by accident. Without missing a beat, she’d continued with a flawless delivery. She’d ended her soliloquy by dramatically throwing herself into his arms, then leaning back and planting the back of her hand against her forehead. Less than a second passed before she’d recovered from her death, leaped upright, and asked him what he’d thought of her performance.

What he’d saw, Trey realized now, was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. Until that moment Trey had thought of Jenny as a kid. But it hadn’t been a child he’d held in those few moments.

Trey had scowled and muttered something about needing to talk to Dillon. Then for the next several years he’d waited impatiently for Jenny to grow up so he could court her. Three long, torturous years. It hadn’t been easy watching her date one young buck after another. Nor had he liked her riding over to tell him about her dates and seeking his advice.

Trey suspected Jenny’s parents knew how he felt about their daughter. But if they did, neither one said anything to him, and for that he was grateful.

By the time Jenny entered community college, she was dating one particular young man, and it looked for a time as if the two of them might be growing serious. More than once Trey had thought to go to her with his heart on his sleeve and tell her the way he felt.

This happened shortly after his parents had died, one after the other, within a nine-month period, and he was struggling financially. Dealing with his family’s estate had drained his ready cash. Unfortunately this was about the same time that beef prices had plummeted. While he was fighting off the banks and barely holding his head above water financially wasn’t the time to be asking a woman to be his wife.

By the time he felt he had something to offer Jenny, she’d made the decision to leave Montana for New York.

Trey remembered that Jenny’s family had thrown a big going-away party for her. Trey couldn’t force himself to attend. He knew if he let her leave, there was a good chance he’d never see her again, at least not the Jenny he knew. New York would change her. New York would make her into one of those sophisticated women who carried their dogs under their arms while they went clothes shopping.

Letting Jenny leave Montana was a testament of how much he loved her. His love couldn’t compete with her dreams. The bright lights of Broadway was her destiny. He was a cattle rancher with damn little to offer someone as talented as Jenny Lancaster.

At the last minute, Trey had stopped by the ranch and managed to wish her his very best. He remembered he’d said something corny about her breaking her leg in New York. Then he’d stood with her family and waved good-bye.