An excerpt from STRIPPED DOWN, a contemporary cowboy romance releasing on February 8th!
Blackhawk Ranch doesn’t run dry on my watch. Almost three hundred years the Mendozas have owned this part of California, my forefathers wrestling the arid landscape into submission. We reign here. We’re the fucking kings, and it’s not an empty title. Stetsons instead of crowns are the rule, but I’ve still got power. I run a fifty-thousand acre spread with ten thousand head of cattle. Forty cowboys depend on me for their living, and it’s about more than keeping the lights on and beer in the fridge. These boys are mine, and in exchange for their loyalty, I take care of them.
My name is Angel Mendoza, and anyone who hurts what’s mine learns fast that I’m more devil than not.
Protecting and defending isn’t the problem. Rain is.
This is the second well I’ve visited today. The first one was bone-dry, and this one yields only a sluggish trickle. Even a Mendoza can’t force the winter rains to come. The creek we get our surface water from is dried-out mud, the bed baked into razor-sharp ridges by the unrelenting sun, and the surviving wells fight to bring the water up nine hundred feet. If will could do it, I’d yank the water from the ground and feed it to the skin-drying heat of our California summer. Instead, for only the second time in my life, I’m fucking powerless.
The cowboys accompanying me eye first the well and then my face. They’re gonna take their cue from me. I yank my Stetson lower and head back to my truck. My boys fall in behind me, led by Dare, my foreman. Dare’s a tall, lean bastard who walks with a limp he took from a bad fall three years ago out in the mountains. The landing cut up his face some too because he and his horse planted on an old section of barbed wire fencing. It took us all night to get to him, and by then some of the damage was permanent. He wasn’t dead, though, so that went in the victory column as far as I was concerned. And he’d ride if he had to tie himself to the horse because he’s mean son-of-a-bitch if you push him hard.
“We’re dry,” Dare states the obvious as he stares at the well. He flicks the brim of his Stetson back so he can get a better look at Trouble with capital T. He’s not a pretty man. Unlike some of the guys who ride the Blackhawk spread, he’ll never be cowboy poster material. His buzzed-short hair and scarred face makes him look more MMA fighter than rider. He commands respect, though. The other cowboys don’t say shit when he talks, just wait for one of us to come up with a solution, to take charge.
I have one ace in the hole. “We’ll drill deeper.”
Sometimes cash can solve a problem and I’ve got money. Plenty of it.
“You so sure we’ll hit water?” Dare leans on the edge of the concrete reservoir, assessing first the water level and then the big yellow pipe sucking the wet stuff up from underground. He and I both know this isn’t a mechanical failure. Dare fixes things. If a wrench could make this shit better, he’d be all over it.
It’s that fucking simple. Plan. Execute. Succeed. Failure simply isn’t an option.
“Give me a drill date,” he says. If I say it’s done, it’s done and he knows that.
“I’ll have that for you tomorrow,” I tell him. “Until then, truck the water in from the reservoir.”
Hauling water is gonna cost money, but the ranch can handle it short-term. Longer term, we bleed cash, and I didn’t build my ranching empire by losing money.
After Dare is sorted, I get back in my ride and steer the battered pickup over the dark dirt road. Setting my plan in motion is as simple as punching the driller’s number on my cell phone and giving the order to go deep. Drilling for water is expensive, the price rising with each foot you punch down and ending in a price tag that makes Tiffany’s look like the Dollar Store. I know this, but even still the driller quotes me a per-foot price that makes my breath catch. For that kind of cash, he’d damned well better hit water and it had better taste like liquid gold.
Time kinda slows to heated, sensual shimmer outside the cab while the driller blah-blah-blahs his way through next steps because there’s one driving urge pounding through everyone and everything on my spread: find water. The cattle need it. My vaqueros covet it. I’ll be damned if I allow a dry well to consume what I’ve built here.
Making a living from the land means fighting every step of the way. Fortunately, I love a good fight and I’ve also planned for this day—already have the solution. I drill, the cattle can drink, and we all live happily fucking after. If I hit water. If it’s enough.
I drive for what seems like hours, making the rounds and ironing out problems. I’m the best at what I do, and everybody wants a piece of me. I oblige, but by sunset I’m pissed off and hot. Taking a few minutes for myself is a no-brainer when the turnoff for the swimming hole appears out of the shadows. I aim the pickup down the dirt road. I’m bone tired from a day that began before sunrise and has only just ended. I’m hot, and I smell like sweat, horse, and probably a dozen other unpleasant things as well. Right now, a swim sounds perfect, exactly what I need to cool down and think things through.
I pull in and kill the headlights, soaking up the nighttime peace and quite. You can practically feel the heat escaping slowly from the ground. Images flicker in the corner of my vision, but those are ghosts. I’m home. I’m in charge of my life now, and Afghanistan is far, far away. I’ve put a continent between me and that place.
The quiet grows when I get out of the truck. After a long day wrangling the ranch, I need to be alone. Sometimes, there are too many bodies, too close, and it’s hard not to remember that last month in Afghanistan.
And sometimes memories refuse to leave me alone.
I shut the truck door carefully, deliberately. Slamming shit doesn’t help because I don’t want or need the loud crack of sound that follows the violence. Something got broken inside me in Afghanistan, something I haven’t fixed yet, but I will. Failure is never an option. Turning toward the swimming hole, I fist the bottom of my T-shirt, ready to strip down. Ready for the cold lick of water on my face and my balls.
Except . . . I’m not alone. Tucked into the edge of the road is a beat-up Bug I can’t believe made it down the dirt track. Even in the near-dark, the hot pink paint job is an eyesore. One tire looks almost flat, and there’s a crack that stretches the entire length of the windshield. California plates, though, so I’ve got myself a local.
Christ, I’m sick and tired of the trespassers who think ignoring Blackhawk’s signs and fences is a game. High school kids have been sneaking onto Mendoza land for decades, which is a stupid fucking thing to do. We’re a working ranch, and we run cattle. Idiot kids wise up fast when they meet the wrong end of a bull, a barbed wire fence, or a snake. All they have to do is ask and follow a few basic rules to keep themselves safe. I’d say yes. Instead, they’re all about forbidden fruit, reenacting their own twisted version of the Garden of Eden and the fall. They get hurt, when all I want is to keep them safe.
Scrubbing a hand over my head, I reach in and snag the Stetson from the passenger seat. Somehow, I’ve acquired the reputation of being a mean-ass, coldhearted bastard. I cemented my new rep when I came home from the SEALs. Since I don’t give a damn what folks says, my fan club isn’t all wrong. Safety comes first.
I move out silently. No point in advertising my presence until I have to. Tonight’s trespassers are probably just kids and nothing more sinister, but, damn it, it isn’t safe to swim out here unsupervised. I’ve warned them not to come at night and never to come alone. I have to know when someone’s on my land because too many things can happen out here if a person isn’t careful. And if it turns out the visitor is less benign, well, I’ve got a Glock tucked in the waistband of my jeans. I don’t leave shit to chance. Not anymore.
It takes just a minute to penetrate the fringe of cottonwood trees ringing the swimming hole. Older than anyone now living on the ranch, those trees have seen plenty. My brothers had a rope-and-tire swing here. They spent hours whooping it up, clambering into the tire, soaring out over the water, and then letting go of the rope as soon as the swing floated over the center of the pond where the water ran deepest. They’d free fall screaming with pleasure, never second-guessing their landing. The temperature hovers too close to frigid for comfort, but the water table isn’t deep enough to tap. It can’t end my dry spell.
When I reach the edge of the trees, my feet stop moving without a direct order from my head; tonight’s swimmer is unexpected. I expected to find a few high school kids. Maybe a cooler of beer or a couple busy discovering each other. Instead, there’s a woman in the water.
A damned fine, completely bare-ass naked woman. She cuts through the dark surface with slow, lazy strokes. Not too tall and real damned curvy. Her sun-kissed skin is on display in the silvery moonlight and ink curls up her spine and wraps around her throat and her ribs. I can’t tell what the design is from where I’m standing, but there are branches and flowers and curly shit that follow the lines of her body. When she moves, the ink moves with her like leaves and vines shifting in the wind. It’s fucking gorgeous. Water-slicked blond hair covers her bare shoulders and back, obscuring more of the lines and colors. I should be a gentleman, should look away. But damned if her paddling around bare-ass naked in my swimming hole wearing nothing but ink isn’t the sexiest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
She dives beneath the surface, treating me to a spectacular view of her ass. Fuck if I don’t swallow hard. Her curves look soft as peaches and every bit as luscious. The urge hits me hard to cup both cheeks in my hands. Run my fingers down that skin and explore every inch of her up to and including the shadowed crease between her cheeks. I’ll show her every dark, sweet, dirty pleasure I know—and I’ve got a long, long list.
For the moment, though, I stand and look, feeling an unexpected grin tug the corners of my mouth. She’d be so much safer if my hell-raising younger brothers had been the ones to find her. I don’t pretend to be nice. I don’t have to. The Mendozas own this ranch. This world, this place, is mine because I’m the Mendoza, the oldest and the patriarch even if I’m only thirty-two, and here she is, blatantly trespassing without so much as a by-your-leave.
I’ll let her make it up to me.
My sexy swimmer reaches a rocky outcropping and grabs for a plastic bottle of shampoo. The scent of green apples fills the air as, with a little hum, she treads water and lathers up before slipping beneath the surface of the water. That body of hers is now slick with foam and apple goodness.
Christ, I love apples.
Even though I haven’t seen her face yet, she looks good enough to eat.