An excerpt from STRIPPED DOWN, a contemporary cowboy romance releasing on February 8th!
The cold water of the Blackhawk Ranch’s swimming hole almost, but not quite numbs me, teasing me with the possibility of forgetting everything I’ve screwed up to date in my life. I’m just days away from my new second chance and that’s what I need to focus on.
Next week I’ll be filming a reality TV show about tattoo artists in San Francisco. We’re competing for a grand prize of a hundred thousand dollars, which is more than enough money to set me up with a real shop and a place of my own. I won’t be able to talk to anyone for the three months of taping, so I’ve come back to Lonesome to say my goodbyes to Auntie Dee in person.
There are other people here that I’m hoping to avoid, however. I wasn’t exactly Miss Popularity when I lived here. In fact, I went out of my way to antagonize a few of Lonesome’s finest in particular.
I’ll bet Angel Mendoza still hates my guts.
Which is fine. Really, it is. He’s an asshole, and I’ve known that since the day we met. When his dad first introduced me, Angel tipped his hat forward, and then he asked me how old I was. He demanded actual numbers, too, rejecting my flippant old enough. I was nervous enough about our new digs to give in when he asked that second time. When he heard sixteen, he looked at me as if I was something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of his cowboy boots. I wasn’t old enough, wasn’t good enough. Story of my life.
Okay. So maybe I wanted just a teeny-tiny bit of approval from him. I was sixteen and stupid. I hadn’t yet learned to chant fuck off to the world and mean every syllable. Angel didn’t like me, and that bothered me. He’d also blown me off the one time I’d put it all on the line and reached out to him. Kissed him my thoughts whisper to me. You jumped him, you threw yourself at him, and he didn’t want anything you had to offer.
Because of that, I tormented him on principle. My last living situation had been less than ideal—understatement—and I was still figuring out how to make sure some things never happened again. Usually, tits and ass keep a guy in line. I don’t have to give him a taste, but a quick flash and a whole lot of tease gets me what I need. Sex makes me powerful, and I’m never going to be vulnerable or weak again. Angel was the first man I met who didn’t cave when I worked my brand of magic, and that only made me like him less.
Crave his attention more.
Angel was spectacular. He was a big guy, and the whole US Navy SEAL business was the cherry on top of an already spectacular sundae. No girl looked at Angel without sinning coming to mind. The man’s name was a misnomer and an invitation at the same time. At sixteen, my sexual experiences had been exclusively of the extremely unpleasant variety, but instinct told me he’d make it good. Wicked good. He’d put that powerful body and all those muscles he packed to the best possible use, and that was how I felt before I got a good look at his face.
Angel’s face was too harsh, too fierce for pretty or even handsome. He reminded me of the birds of prey that swoop down from the California Mountains and pick off the softer creatures on the range. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark soul. He was the complete package, and part of me was stupid enough to want to try and cage him. Make him mine. You could probably touch Angel, but he’d touch back and his brand of sensual domination was bad news for a girl like me. I’d never own Angel, but he could own me.
I need to stop thinking about him. Sure, I’m back in Lonesome, and the odds of my running into him are high, but I’m years older now, an adult. One screwed up, not-quite kiss does not have to color every other interaction I have with the man.
“This one’s for you, Auntie Dee.” I lift the shampoo bottle in a mock toast. Auntie Dee loves crazy escapades. When my mother broke up with Mendoza Senior and left town without a forwarding address, Auntie Dee took me in and then we adventured ourselves around Lonesome. When I moved away for a failed attempt at college followed by a less-than-successful attempt at becoming a tattoo artist, we shared our latest adventures by phone. She’s all for the reality TV show, claiming I’m a sure thing to win and the producers knew what they were doing when they picked me.
It’s not true, of course, but her vote of confidence means the world to me. She believes in me, and sometimes I’m pretty certain she’s the only one. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, she always wants to hear all about it, even though she never lacks for stories of her own to tell. Auntie Dee believes in living, and she’s done that for as long as I can remember. She’s an expert on ringing every last experience out of life.
I can’t feel my boobs, my butt, or my toes. It’s summer and hotter than Hades everywhere else, but I’m turning into an ice cube because the water here is cold, cold, cold.
I swam my heart out here summer after summer. I whooped and jumped every chance I got because I loved the adrenaline rush as the swing’s rope curved up through the air, flying me higher and higher. Eventually, I’d find the courage to unknot my fingers and let go and then I’d fall, soaring through the air with the water waiting beneath me. Falling. Flying. I got those two mixed up back then. Then, when I left Lonesome, I did more than my share of both. The reality TV show is a much-needed second chance to soar.
Gravel crunches somewhere beyond the ring of trees concealing the swimming hole. This far out on the ranch, there’s wildlife. It’s part and parcel of the place, but there isn’t anything out here that can really hurt me unless Angel has imported a rhinoceros or a Bengal tiger. Still, the sound makes my head turn instinctively, my eyes scanning the darker shadows of the trees.
Adrenaline pumps through me in a sickening, dizzying rush of sensation. I don’t like the dark. Too much bad shit, too many Technicolor memories I can’t shake. I look, ready to tell myself I’m being silly. Someday soon, I need to stop jumping at shadows, except… that’s not wildlife. At all. Someone’s standing there in the shadows. A large, too-male someone who stares at me like he intends to eat me up. I’m out here alone, the wasp spray I pack in lieu of pepper spray is ten feet away, and I’m giving some stranger one hell of a peep show. And that’s the best-case scenario.
It would be impossible to get out of the water, spray the guy, grab my keys, and make it past him to my car. I’d have to put myself within arm’s reach to get my stuff, and I know exactly how that scenario ends.
Been there, done that, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.
Maybe I can wait him out? To buy some time, I swim out to the center of the swimming hole where the water suddenly seems too cold, too dark. God, I have to learn to think first. I shouldn’t have come here, and I definitely shouldn’t have come alone.
Booted feet move forward. Loudly. Mystery Man isn’t making any effort to keep quiet. He doesn’t care if I know he’s watching; in fact, he’s warning me of his presence. I clamp down hard on the stupid bottle of shampoo. Eight ounces of Suave won’t save me now, but the plastic is my only lifeline.
A rough growl of a voice comes out of the darkness. “What do you think I should do with a naked trespasser, darling?”
The voice is sexy, smoke, and sin incarnate, which is only fitting because it belongs to the devil.
The man steps out of the shadows, crouching down by the water’s edge. I know the legs in those faded jeans and those hand-tooled, worn-in cowboy boots. Even with his hat pulled down low, I recognize him. Angel Mendoza. He was my nemesis from the moment I first set foot in Lonesome, and he was only home for a handful of months. Those months, however, burned his hard-edged, darkly handsome face and big, strong body into my memory. Even then, with his daddy still alive and nominally in charge of the ranch, he’d been the authority in these parts, while I’d spent every minute breaking his rules.
So it just figures Angel is the one to catch me red-handed in his swimming hole with a shampoo bottle, bare-ass naked.
“Well, cowboy, I’m thinking you should march on back to that pickup of yours and drive straight to hell.” The woman’s voice is feminine, husky. And also familiar. Way too damned familiar.
Recognition jolts through me, tossing a big dose of wake-up onto my fantasies. Even wet and slick from water, I recognize her face as she turns toward me. I know that honey-colored hair that hits just below her shoulders, even if it’s not all the colors of the rainbow now like her new ink. Maybe this is her natural color, or maybe it’s something different she’s trying out. I like it, and I want to know if the carpet matches the drapes. I also know exactly how her creamy skin freckles in the summertime. Her baby browns telegraph an equally familiar message. Defiance. Disdain. One big fuck-you to the very idea of rules. She swims like a fish—and like she damned well belongs here on my place.
“Not a fucking chance.”
“You sure about that, ace?” She smiles up at me slowly, treading water while she plots her next move. Even now, in the dark, the water isn’t enough to hide her body from me. The curve of her breasts is all too obvious when her arms meet and then push the water away. My dick likes our view a whole lot. Rose has done a whole lot of growing up since she was not-so-sweet sixteen. Thank God.
She’d come onto me hard back then, and I’d shot her down. There are rules a man doesn’t break, and if he does, he’s in no place to complain when somebody with a stronger moral compass castrates the fuck out of him. I hadn’t touched Rose then because she’d been too young. Now, however, I can see for myself that she’s all grown up, and believe me, I’m grateful.
“My place, my rules.” She learns that now.
She snorts, a whole lot of get-lost packed in the sound. Nothing has changed. Paddling her ass had once topped my fantasy to do list, followed by screwing the hell out of her. I hadn’t got either wish, but she’s not sixteen anymore.
Things change, and sometimes for the better.
“You wanna explain why you’re here?”
I mean in Lonesome—because Rose swore on more than one occasion that once she shook the dust from my ranch and my town that she wasn’t coming back, ever—but of course she takes me literally.
“It’s hot, cowboy.” She flicks a handful of water toward me. “I wanted to cool off.”
Pretty sure I don’t care about the explanation. Broke, tired, missing Auntie Dee, hell frozen over—none of that matters. The one thought pounding through my head is that Rose isn’t sixteen anymore. She’s grown up.
She’s not off-limits.
“You finally came home, darling. It’s about time. Past time, actually.”
Unfortunately, the naked part is downright distracting. Naked. My head—both big and little—is stuck on that. This is Rose Jordan in the flesh. Rose Jordan I could scoop up out of that water and lay out in the back of my pickup. I’d make her holler as I ate her right up. I’ll bet that, when Rose Jordan comes, she comes as wholeheartedly as she does everything else.
This is my land. My territory.
And, whether Rose Jordan realizes it or not, she’s mine, too.