She shivered. The orchard was freezing out here under the moonlight. Thanks to Hudson’s brother, neither of them had a jacket. His arms immediately went around her to stop her shaking. “You’re cold?”

She nodded and his grasp tightened on her. Her heart raced. If anything, she was shaking more at his touch. He ran his fingers down her arm and she felt herself go weak. Why was she giving him all the power to pull them closer together or divide them further apart? She was the clay and he was the sculptor. She felt herself melting under his warmth. She’d relax against him, but there was an intention behind his touches. She turned to catch his eyes glittering under the moonlight. His breath grew uneven. Was he going to kiss her?

His eyes closed, so did hers. He grumbled something under his breath and squeezed her tighter. “We shouldn’t… be…” he said, huskily.

She cracked open her eyes. “Be what?”

“Uh…” He blinked as if coming to his senses. He pulled back and she listened to the saddle creak under his shifting weight. What was stopping him? He clearly was attracted to her. They’d always connected. Was she really that wrong for him? They owed Hudson everything, their freedom from West, their present ease, even this happy Cider Carnival was due to his generosity. And the fact that he’d take no payment or gratitude? Well… he wanted nothing from them. Once again, he hadn’t darkened their doorstep for months. Anything they offered would never be enough. The familiar pain gnawed at her stomach. She had a lot to give… the least of which was her heart.

“We need to get back,” he muttered. He still dutifully held her close to keep her warm. He rubbed down her prickling arms, his thumbs making circles over her exposed skin.

Mimi fought to catch her breath. She had all sorts of curses for those twins right now. She’d rip away from Hudson, stalk through the orchard to escape his overbearing presence, but… she was cold. And to be honest, she loved his protective arms too much.

The two of them broke from the trees towards the apple stands where her black-haired momma gave out cups of hot cider. Mimi was sure Hudson was in a hurry to drop her off, but he still held on to her like someone might try to wrestle her away. Mimi, on the other hand, felt beat up—her emotions did, anyway—like he’d truly rescued her from bandits.

Momma was in deep conversation with Hudson’s parents. Hudson’s mother, Lily, was a tall woman with hair so blonde that it was hard to tell the white from the gold. Lately she’d seemed tired and now was no exception as she leaned against her husband. She smiled serenely and sampled the apple fritters. “Oh, Kris! You’ve truly outdone yourself. I could die happy after this night!”

His father seemed less engaged, especially when he glanced up and spied the bedraggled newcomers on the horse. He frowned darkly. Hudson’s hands tightened over Mimi. She didn’t have time to wonder what his father’s displeasure was about before Hudson was sliding off the white stallion. He lent her his hand next. His face seemed both resigned and rebellious.

“Hudson,” his father called out in a harsh voice. “I thought you were taking your nephews out?”

“Tell that to Nash and Porter,” Hudson grumbled. His gaze rested on her and his tone softened. “You okay?”

She nodded, but she wasn’t about to let him get away that fast. She found his hand. “I owe my rescuer an apple fritter, at least.” Maybe she’d take him inside and figure out exactly what was happening between them. His father’s stern looks only added to the mystery. Jase Slade had looked much the same way at the waterhole. What was up? “We never devised our revenge,” she whispered. “And you promised we’d get your brothers back. I won’t rest until we do.” At the very least they had to discuss the “bring a friend to work” day.

Hudson hesitated.

In another moment, she’d have sneaked him into her parents’ cute little ranch house where she’d grown up, except for a shrill voice that cried out in excitement.

“Hudson!” Kylee suddenly came out from the shadows to claim him. No one would ever accuse the little tart of being cold in her adorable red knit stocking cap and matching scarf. Her yellow jacket hung saucily over her plaid skirt and black stockings. Okay, yeah, Kylee could complain about being a little cold in that. “I came!” She pushed Mimi to the side and wrapped Hudson in her demanding arms. Her sapphire eyes narrowed over his shoulder at Mimi, who stiffened at the challenging glare.

Oh no, she didn’t! Kylee knew exactly what she was doing, didn’t she?

After trying to show Mimi her place, she bestowed a bright smile on Hudson. “You promised to share a hot cider with me. I need it!” The blonde stepped back, never letting him go. Yeah, Kylee knew how to wrap a man around her every little finger. Poor Hudson didn’t stand a chance against her charm. For once, Mimi wished she was a little better at flirting. Kylee never would’ve allowed herself to stay unkissed in that orchard.

Hudson met Mimi’s eyes and cracked a sober smile. “We’ll have to figure out our revenge later.”

She nodded. “Of course.” Her disappointment gnawed its way through her, but it was for the best. She’d narrowly escaped another close call. Hudson was too lethal to her pathetically weak heart. She wouldn’t bother him again.