A minute later, Ranger found Ember near the barn entrance scooping two longneck beers from a galvanized tub filled with ice. She was laughing with a younger, dark-haired man that he vaguely recognized. Her head was thrown back, exposing her creamy white throat, and a flirtatious grin lit up her face.
The other man was leaning into her, practically drooling, his eyes fixed on her cleavage.
Quick and sharp, a poke of jealousy stabbed Ranger’s gut, and he had an inexplicable urge to punch the leering guy in the nose. Which wasn’t him. He was the normally the mediator, not the guy starting fights.
But right now? He’d roll up his sleeves for a full-on brawl if it stopped the guy from staring at Ember.
What was this? He knew Ember could take care of herself. She had no need for a chivalrous knight to protect her honor, but damn if he wasn’t mentally searching for jousting armor and a white horse.
Confused, he blinked and shook his head, tried to figure out why he was suddenly feeling so possessive. She was Ember. No one could contain or control her. Nor had he ever wanted to, but right now? Watching this guy touch her shoulder? He felt positively Neanderthal.
Ranger knotted his fists at his sides, bit down on the inside of his cheek.
She caught sight of him and her eyes danced like a kid on Christmas getting the toy she’d long prayed for, and his jealousy vanished. “There you are!”
Her words were a caress, a joyous gift.
Cradling the longneck bottles, dripping with cold water, between her fingers, she reached out to take Ranger’s palm with her other hand, and called, “Bye Warren,” over her shoulder to the other guy.
“Come with me,” she said, guiding him out of the barn and across the dirt road to the cowboy wedding chapel. She opened the door into the empty building. At the back of the room, to the left of the altar, a wooden staircase led to an up- stairs loft.
The place was quiet and dark. Music and laughter from the reception barn sounded muffled and faraway, and the only light came from the full moon shining in through the curtainless windows. The chapel smelled of hymnals and wedding flowers and Ember’s cinnamon-and-anise scent.
It felt mysterious and secret, and Ranger found the place strangely erotic.
What was going on with him tonight?
Ember dropped his hand and hiked up the skirt of her formal gown, a sapphire blue that perfectly matched her eyes, bunching the material in her small fist. She kicked off her high-heeled shoes and climbed barefoot up the wooden ladder, somehow still managing to hang on to those beers.
Part tomboy, part girly-girl, she straddled both identities with ease. Poised and self-confident, Ember was one of those accomplished people who just naturally navigated any environment without having to think about it.
Agog, he stood in the darkness watching her as if seeing her for the first time, amazed at her agility and grace. He noted her delicate feet and toenails painted a pearly peach. Or at least they looked peachy in the moonlight. He admired how soft tendrils of red hair floated from her upsweep to trail against the nape of her long, swan-like neck. God, she was beautiful.
It was as if a year away had spritzed his eyes with window cleaner and rubbed them clear. How could he not have noticed before the ripe lushness of her breasts, the sexy curve of her hips, the pouty fullness of her bottom lip?
She’s your best friend, Lockhart. Stop this.
“Earth to Professor, head out of the clouds,” she called to him from the loft. “You gonna stand there all night?”
Sheepishly, Ranger scooted up the ladder behind her.
Once he joined Ember upstairs, she pushed open the wide barn door and walked out onto a ledge with roof access. Without missing a beat, and still holding the beers, she hiked up her skirt again, revealing those long shapely legs, and glided up a second, spindlier ladder that led to the roof.
Behind her, Ranger felt like a lumbering ape, the heels of his cowboy boots clinging sluggishly to each rung.
“Ahh,” she said, sinking onto the shingles, her knees drawn up, her dress tucked around her legs. Ranger’s heart thumped oddly, and he lowered himself beside her. “Cowboy boots and roof shingles don’t mix well.”
“At least it’s not tin like the barn.” She shrugged, twisted off the top, and passed the beer to him before opening her own.
“True.” He took a long swallow, tasted the familiar yeasty flavor of Lone Star.
With her knees still raised, she lay back on her spine and exhaled forcefully. “Ahh,” she murmured again. “Ahh.”
He doffed his Stetson, lay on his back beside her, resting his cowboy hat on his belly. Their shoulders barely touching, they stared up at the stars, resting in comfortable silence.
How many times had they climbed up on a roof to get away from the hubbub of their large families. A hundred? Two hundred? More?
“Look!” She pointed at the sky. “A falling star.
Make a wish.”
“You know stars don’t have the ability to grant wishes. It’s just—”
“Bits of dust and rocks falling into Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. I know, I know, you’ve told me a million times, but I’ll never give up trying to make a romantic of you.”
“You’re doomed to fail,” he predicted. “I can’t help being born with a scientific mind.”
“Spoilsport,” she teased, and dragged a toe along the roof. “You could pretend once. For me.” “Sorry,” he said. “I can’t eschew a lifetime of education.”
“And that—” she tapped his right knee with her left “—is why you’re not married.”
He didn’t say anything. What was there to say? He’d never much been interested in marriage. His career, and helping his family out with the ranch, took up most of his time, and what was left he spent with Ember.