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Her Secret Thrill(3)

By:Donna Kauffman



“Cattle ranch.”

She couldn’t hide her surprise. “You work on a cattle ranch?” Cowboy. She should have guessed. Definitely more a cowboy type than a UPS guy. Although they both looked damn fine in brown. She felt that giggle rising in her throat again and took a sip of the coffee the waitress had set down.

“Actually, it’s a family-run operation. I’m fourth generation. But I spend more time on airplanes than I do on the ranch.”

“Ranching requires a lot of travel?”

“It’s as much a corporation as it is a ranch. I handle the business end of things. We sell our stock worldwide.”

“Wow, I never knew cows were in such demand.”

“Cattle. And our breed is. We Lannisters have been selling cattle for as long as there’s been cattle in the West. Or close enough, anyway,” he added with a grin.

He lifted his cup, and she found herself studying his hands. They were big, with thick fingers that she could see were quite scarred. Apparently he hadn’t spent his whole life in airplanes.

Echoes of Liza and Con rippled through her mind, and she couldn’t help wondering what those rough hands of Jake’s would feel like if he—

“Is this the first time Liza has ditched her hostessing duties on you?”

She jerked her gaze back to her own mug. “Actually, no. Most of the time, Liza goes where the evening leads her.” She smiled dryly. “I just thought this time it led her out of the penthouse. I don’t mind helping out. I know the party was important to her, business-wise.” She stopped just then, remembering what “business” Liza had been engaged in.

She felt a little heat rise to her cheeks and covered it with another sip of coffee. It was one thing to laugh with a stranger when caught in an uncomfortable situation, but now that they were sitting in the relative quiet of a coffee shop, she couldn’t simply discuss it as if it were an everyday topic.

“You said you knew Conrad as a child,” she said, gamely moving the conversation along. “I guess you must be pretty proud of his success.”

“I’m happy he’s found something he likes. His family back home is soaking it all up, enjoying his celebrity status.” Jake smiled. “Even if they are a bit uncomfortable with the show itself. Have you seen it?”

Natalie shook her head. “I’ve only heard what Liza told me. I guess a name like Steam sort of sums things up, though.”

“Exactly. Con’s parents aren’t uptight, and neither is our town, really. But I have to admit the show was a lot more graphic than I’d ever thought. Especially right in the middle of the day.”

“Not a soap fan, I take it,” she said.

“No.” He chuckled. “Although, I’m thinking about changing my mind. Beats CNN when you’re on the road alone as much as I am.”

He laughed, and so did Natalie, but she couldn’t push the accompanying images out of her mind. Jake in all those hotel rooms, watching all those amorous couples on the television screen, feeling amorous himself, doing—

She cleared her throat. “I—I used to watch a couple of them. In college. Actually, it was Liza that got me watching. She has always loved the entertainment industry. I’m not at all surprised she’s found her niche there. Things have really taken off for her.”

“You sound like a good friend.”

She smiled at that. “Thanks. I’m not so sure she’ll agree after I have a little chat with her tomorrow, though.”

He raised his eyebrows. “What are you going to say?”

“Well, just that I don’t really appreciate her putting me in such an awkward position. Not the hostessing—I could do that in my sleep. But what if there had been more people still around when they started—you know.”

His grin made his eyes twinkle. “Well, that could have been interesting. Maybe everyone would have loosened up a little.”

Natalie’s mouth dropped open, then snapped shut. What was he suggesting? An orgy?

As if sensing her thoughts, he added, “Well, you have to admit that was a pretty uptight group. Everyone was so concerned with who was talking to whom and what designer they were wearing. I’ve never seen so many self-involved people in my life. No disrespect to your friend. She wasn’t like that at all.”

Natalie blew out a breath and relaxed. “No, she’s not, but I agree about the rest. Although you should mingle with the people in my firm trying to make partner. Talk about self-involved. Only, all the talk is about investment counselors, stock portfolios and real estate. The only designers they talk about are interior designers.” She suddenly started laughing.

“What?”

She shook her head. “Nothing.” But she couldn’t stop grinning. “Okay, I was just picturing Liza pulling that stunt during one of my business parties.” She rolled her eyes. “Although, I don’t think even Liza and Con doing the wild thing right in the middle of the room would have loosened up any of them.”

Jake shared her laugh. “Guess your world is pretty buttoned-up, huh?”

She considered that. “On the surface, certainly. Behind the scenes…well, let’s just say the gossip mill doesn’t suffer from lack of worthy grist to keep it going.”

“I think people are all pretty much the same in that regard, once you get beneath the surface, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, no matter whether they are free spirits like Liza and Con, or a three-piece Suit whose daily routine is as predictable as the weather, underneath they are all still motivated by sex. Or their sexual nature, anyway. Suit might not ever do what Liza and Con did, but that doesn’t mean he might not fantasize about it, or wish that he was bold enough to do it.”

“I don’t think that’s the case at all. I mean, some people would be appalled publicly and feel exactly that same level of mortification personally.”

He took a sip, considering, then held her gaze over the edge of his coffee cup. “Did you?”

She stilled. Or, at least, her heart felt as if it had. “I beg your pardon?”

But her attempt to make him reassess the conversational turn he’d taken didn’t even make him blink. If anything, he looked even more determined. “I said, did you? You were definitely uncomfortable, so was I. I mean, it’s an embarrassing situation, no question. Made more so by the fact that we were strangers to each other, but both knew the…well, them.” He put his mug down. “But other than dealing with my presence while you were listening to them, were you really appalled personally by what they were doing in there?” He leaned closer. “If you’d been alone, what would you have done?”

His expression was daring her. She took him up on it. “I’d have gone into my room, closed the door and run a loud bath. I believe in giving people their privacy.”

“Okay. So not appalled, then. You’d just remove yourself from the situation.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

“So you’re in the tub. Are you honestly not thinking about them then? Thinking about what you just heard?”

“Probably I’d be thinking about it, it’d be pretty hard to ignore. I mean, it’s not a typical thing to be presented with.”

“So you’d be thinking about it. Appalled? Or aroused?”

She wasn’t liking where he was going, she’d come here to get away from this—not examine it. But his question intrigued her. Mostly because she was finding something out about herself that surprised her. And since it was only a harmless discussion, she saw no harm in sharing it.

“Maybe I’d be aroused. But not in a voyeuristic way. I can’t say that element has ever remotely appealed to me. But in the earthy way it would make you think about sex in general, I suppose.”

There, that was safe and analytical sounding. Never mind that she wanted to squirm in her seat and that the friction of her shirt against her nipples was driving her mad at the moment. He didn’t have to know that.

Looking into those amusement-filled blue eyes of his, however, she had to wonder.

“So you see, we are all the same,” he concluded. “In general, I mean. We might harbor different fantasies. You don’t get into voyeurism. But you have other things that work for you. We all do. No matter how prim and proper we are on the surface, we are all basically driven by our sexual selves, don’t you think?”

“Not to the exclusion of everything else, no.”

“But you do agree that people who pretend they aren’t sexual creatures, that they don’t respond to some kind of stimuli, are fooling themselves? Even cheating themselves?”

Natalie thought about that. “Perhaps.”

He grinned. “You don’t look too convinced.”

“I think maybe there are people who don’t so much deny their sexuality and their needs, as ignore them.” After all, that summed her up neatly. Not that she was going to share that. “People can have other priorities besides sex.” She shot him a dry smile. “Well, women can, anyway.”

He raised his hands. “Ha-ha. But I’ll agree that men are a bit more sexually centered than women. In general.”

“Now, there you have my complete agreement.”

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