STRIPPED DOWN

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An excerpt from STRIPPED DOWN, a contemporary cowboy romance releasing on February 8th!

 

EXCERPT FOUR

 

 January

 

ROSE

We’re not in the city anymore. The view from my front door makes that perfectly clear. My new view comes with mountains—

and a side of cows, horses, and cowboys in tight Wranglers. The miles between Lonesome and San Francisco assume titanic proportions. We drove up last night and parked the RV in a campground a few miles from Lonesome. Apparently, our temporary stopping place is also right on the edge of someone’s cattle range, and the cowboys are busting their asses wrangling steers or checking fences or doing whatever it is they do besides looking calendar-worthy.

Pretty sure I don’t belong here, and not just because I’m a tattoo-covered, city-loving San Franciscan. It seems like ages since I last saw these mountains and cowboys. The men in the Wranglers may or may not be the same, but Lonesome itself never changes. Not on the outside, at least. The place is missing its heart, though, because Auntie Dee is gone.

A heart attack, or so the doctors said. Quick and merciful. She didn’t see it coming, didn’t have time to be afraid or alone. It also meant I didn’t have time to be here. I didn’t see it coming, either. Didn’t realize I was spending my last hours with her, storing up my final memories. There wasn’t enough time, and now there’s none.

Rory comes up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist and tucking his chin into my shoulder. Rory Olivera has been my bestie since the day we met. I lean back against him, and we stare at the not-so-busy scene. More cows filter by. Or steers. Something with horns, that’s for sure. I probably should have taken the agriculture classes the local high school offered. Bet I’d know all the cow names then. But frankly? Filling in black ink in a tattoo might be more exciting—this is the country equivalent of watching paint dry. We parked here last night because Rory wanted to tie one on at the bar and he’s vehemently anti the-drinking-and-driving after losing his sister to a drunk driver four years ago. I’d been the designated driver, and we’d planned to move the RV out to Auntie Dee’s place later this morning.

Frankly, there’s not all that much to keep us here. I do a quick mental inventory of Lonesome’s “downtown” and my memory supplies two antique shops, one all-purpose general store, a gas station, and a mini-mart. There’s also one church, a storefront doubling as a second place of worship, and two bars, including the one Rory drank dry last night.

My roommate might have a drinking problem. The jury’s still out. He’s a good guy, though, and my best friend. Aside from the penis and balls equipment, he’s as good as a girlfriend. Things between us are and always will be platonic, but he’s also useful for keeping other guys at bay. He’s good-looking in a rough kind of way. He claims to be Black Irish, and he’s got the dark hair and green eyes to back up his claim. Get him drunk enough and he’ll do an Irish impression, too. He and I made a deal years ago. We don’t do each other. We both needed a friend, and it’s worked for us. When I impulsively decided that Lonesome, California needed a tattoo shop stat, Rory didn’t hesitate. He threw his shit in the RV and followed my pink Bug all the way here. Like me, he’s broken on the inside. He uses sex to keep his demons at bay, to make sure he has control over his world. He’s never told me who did what to him, but we recognized each other when we met. We’re both survivors.

You look at him and you don’t know he’s hurt on the inside. The tattoos cover up the scars he wears on the outside. That’s how we met. He came into the street shop where I was working and wanted me to ink his wrists. He said it would be a challenge, and then he gave me a fucking hour. The street shop only does flash tattoos. Our customers come in, usually on an impulse, and we give them a butterfly or a Chinese symbol, an ink quickie, and they leave happy. Rory had a one-inch band of scarring around both wrists. Scars are tricky. They hold the ink differently and the skin beneath the color isn’t uniform. It’s broken, transformed, beautiful in a different way.

He didn’t tell me how he got those scars and I didn’t ask. I gave him a dragon breathing fire. When he puts his wrists together, the flames from the mouth on the left devours the skin and bone on the right. He liked his ink, and we’ve been friends ever since. Right now, however, he looks like he might be rethinking his commitment. Or jonesing for Starbucks.

He nips my ear. “You promised cowboys.”

I lean back into his comforting embrace.

“And cowgirls.” I gesture toward a woman emerging from the mini-mart, a plastic bag in one hand and a Stetson in the other. She’s kind of pretty, and Rory is happy to bang anyone who’s up for his brand of rough sex. Better yet, he likes inking and/or piercing his newest partner and then fucking the hell out of her. Or him. Rory’s adventurous—not particular.

I did the work on the elaborate sleeves of black-and-red tattoos covering his forearms. It’s some of my best, if I do say so myself. If I could have inked Rory on the final episode of Ink My Heart (which had to be the world’s dumbest name for a reality TV show that made tattoo artists compete for a cash grand prize), I’d have won. The chick I drew almost passed out when she saw my needle, and then she quit on me ten minutes into her two-hour tattoo.

Rory isn’t a quitter. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. He smells like ink and metal and the horrible cologne he loves. I’d tried negotiating for a new scent, but I’d lost. And since he was the only tattoo artist I could convince to move out here to the boonies with me, I’d stopped complaining. At least he didn’t smell like cow poop.

“I have to meet Angel Mendoza at the lawyer’s,” I confess. Rory knows all about my screwed up history with Angel—except for our last meet and greet at the swimming hole.

Come back when you’re all grown up and I’m making you mine. The words loop through my head, over and over. I don’t know if Angel meant them as a threat, a promise, or both, but screw him. Auntie Dee left me something in her will, a something that’s going to be my third and final chance. Angel’s whispered words from months ago aren’t going to scare me off.

Rory whistles. “Do you need a bodyguard? Do you think Mr. Dark and Surly still needs a personality transplant?”

I may have shared a few too many stories from my checkered past with Rory.

“Did I tell you I ran into him when I came up here to visit Auntie Dee before I started taping?”

Rory grins down at me. “I’ve got instant and cocoa packets. You can tell me all about it over caffeine.”

Perfect. I pull out of his hug and head back inside. The RV isn’t big—it’s been officially labeled cozy by the manufacturer—and our “kitchen” consists of a teeny-tiny Formica tabletop, a dorm-sized fridge, and a microwave. Before we road-tripped our way here, I upgraded us to include an electric teakettle. Rory hits the heat button and while we wait, I dump packets of Nescafe and powdered milk into two mugs.

No one would know from looking at Rory that he comes from money. He spent his childhood in various wealthy family compounds, finally escaping when it came time to pick a college. Instead of choosing an Ivy where he could network his way into finance or politics (the two career paths his parents found acceptable), he’d gone for UC Santa Cruz. He’s a little vague on what happened between then and now, but it seems to have involved some kind of programming misadventure that may or may not have cost venture capitalists a cool billion and resulted in his seemingly random decision to become a tattoo artist. Since he doesn’t ask me questions about my past, I’m okay with leaving his alone. We’ve all got secrets, and he’s promised me that the FBI won’t be knocking down the door to our RV. Good enough.

Because we pretty much have to sit in each other’s laps if we stay inside, we drag out our folding chairs (we’re classy like that) and park our butts outside. All the better to admire our cows-and-cowboys view.

“Spill,” Rory urges when we’ve got our coffee.

I shrug. “I went to the swimming hole. It was hot and I wanted to cool off. It’s private property, and Angel Mendoza busted me.”

I still can’t believe he saw me naked. I’d hightailed it out of there, buck naked, and I’d driven for two miles before I pulled over and yanked my clothes back on. It had not been one of my finer moments.

Rory toasts me with his mug. “Was he still hot?”

It’s been more than eight years since I last Angel, but yeah, he’s hotter than ever. “It’s not fair.”

“He’s that good?” Rory slurps his coffee, briefly closing his eyes as the first sip hits his throat.

“And then some,” I say glumly. “He’s the hottest guy I’ve ever seen, but he’s still kind of an asshole.”

Rory’s green eyes take on a predatory gleam. “Give me for examples.”

“He yelled. He gave orders. He spouted some bullshit about my ass being his if he ever saw me again.”

“He’d probably tell you when to come, too,” Rory says cheerfully. “Depends on whether or not you like that kind of thing.”

Did I mention that Rory has no filter?

“I’m not into kink.”

Rory grins, his eyes lighting up. That smile of his is reason number one why he never goes home alone when he’s looking for company. He’s wicked naughty, and he makes his new friends want to sin, too. “Not necessarily kinky, cupcake.”

“I don’t take orders.” After my mom and I had gotten out of the last trailer park, and had come here, I’d made myself that promise. I didn’t put myself in situations where guys could run the sex show or tell me what to do. Angel is bad for me in all sorts of ways.

I’m done with my self-destructive phase. For a couple of years after I left Lonesome, I went wild child. Drinking, dancing, sex—I filled every minute of my day so I wouldn’t have to think. It explained a lot about my college career—hard to pass classes when your ass isn’t in the lecture hall or turning in papers—but then I’d discovered ink. First I planned to cover up everything I could on the outside, then I realized it was my chance to change shit.

“Pity.” Rory blows me a kiss as he shoves out of his lawn chair. He’s drained his mug, which means it’s game on time.

I grimace. “I gotta go to the lawyer’s this afternoon. You coming or staying?”

He grins at me. “Staying. I’d just fall asleep on you.”

Rory sleeps more than anyone I know. As soon as I leave, he’ll roll back into bed and sleep some more.

I flick his face gently. “Guess with a face like this, you need your beauty rest.”

 

~*~

 

ANGEL

 

“Nine hundred feet. I got two, maybe three gallons per minute.” The driller looked up from the new test hole he drove yesterday, waiting for me to weigh in.

Hearing the driller call off those numbers is like watching three cherries spin past on the slots when you’re down to your last dollar. Three gallons a minute isn’t enough to take a damned shower, and I have cattle to water. Hitting water in this spot was my Hail Mary pass. I’ve drilled everywhere else and this is the absolute last place to try. It’s also like running the wrong way up the football field and scoring a goal for the opposing team. The only person who wins is the driller, and that’s because he gets paid no matter what.

I’ve got one last ace in my hand, however.

When Auntie Dee pass last October, she left me half her ranch. As ranches go, the place isn’t huge—but it does sit on top of an aquifer. An untapped mother lode of water just waiting for me to hit it.

There’s just one hitch in my plan and her name is Rose Jordan. Until she brings her sweet little ass home to Lonesome and sells me her half of Auntie Dee’s ranch, I can’t drill. Since she’s legally co-owner, I need her approval to do anything that radical. I should have gone after Rose the minute I learned about the contents of the will, but I hesitated. I never fucking hesitate, but I wanted her to come to me.

Rose always has made me wait, but this time I hold all the cards. This time, she dances to my tune. If she’s a good girl, I’ll hand her a check. I sure as hell don’t want to drag this through the courts for six months or more to force the sale. I need that water now, and I’ll get it, but I don’t have to be a bastard about it.

Unless she makes me.

Truth is, Rose brings out the worst in me.

She’s also been a wild card since the day I met her. Her momma had hooked up with my old man. He’d met her playing cards in an Indian casino, and something about her face, or the way she tossed back the comp drinks, or fuck maybe it was her balls-out betting on bad cards, but he took a liking to her.

Honestly, though? It was probably her tits. The woman had a spectacular rack and our old man wasn’t into pity fucks or handouts. The woman had a spectacular rack, all God-given and hanging out in the low-cut shirts she favored. She came bouncing into our life, leading by her Double-Ds and bringing Rose with her. Rose was sixteen, and she’d never met a rule she didn’t want to break. In the six months she lived in my house before I got desperate enough to throw myself back on Uncle Sam’s hospitality before I crossed a line I couldn’t live with, she’d raced cars and horses and thrown weekly parties down in the hollow with my beer. Her momma hadn’t gotten around to enrolling her in the local high school, so Rose sat at our kitchen table, working through a stack of workbooks the homeschooling folks provided, and I couldn’t grab a Coke or a beer from the fridge without also getting a boner.

Sixteen fucking years old to my twenty-three, and I wanted her something fierce. Fifty shades of wrong about it, too, and I knew it. I avoided the kitchen, I avoided Rose, and eventually I enlisted and shipped my ass out. Couldn’t forget, though, because Rose is unforgettable.

In the short time we lived together, I never figured out what color her hair really was. It was long, and she’d curl it or straighten it, depending on her mood, but the color changed like the light on the mountains. Jet black, hot pink, fucking mermaid blue. Sometimes all three at once. No matter what the temperature, she wore short-shorts that cupped her ass, and the twitch and bounce to her step had me alternating between wanting to fuck her pink lips with my dick—or wanting to spank her butt for the filth she spewed. Rose had an attitude, knowing eyes, and a mouth worthy of any SEAL I’ve ever served with. My filthy, dirty girl pushed me, irritated me, and gave me a permanent case of the blue balls because touching her was absolutely, completely out of the question.

Sixteen. Twenty-three. That’s simple math.

I warned her once—I don’t give warnings twice—that if she ever came back when she was grown up, she’d be mine. She flipped me off and announced I wasn’t the boss of her. She was playing with fire and she knew it, but she also thought she was safe.

Off-limits.

Taboo.

She hasn’t figured out that the only rules I played by were my own. We Mendozas have owned this particular part of California for centuries, and the ranch is feudal at heart. As the head of the family, my word is law. I have the money—and the land—to back it up. She got her warning way back in June when she dragged me into the swimming hole and I got to see her naked.

She’s gonna be mine now.

Guess finally seeing her naked did me in. Or maybe it’s the nonstop plans spinning in my head, plans that involve Rose naked and spread. There’s no fucking question but she gets to me, but drilling this test hole here is a weakness. All I have to do is take what’s mine—but I’m letting Rose stop me. I keep seeing her face, hearing her laughter, and I want more. I wasn’t kidding when I told her that if she came back, she’d be mine.

Didn’t realize I wanted her happy, too.

That makes shit more difficult. I mentally try rearranging my plans, but no dice. My brothers give the bad news after a few seconds of respectful silence. The driller just waits. The man gets paid by the foot, so he doesn’t care what happens now.

One option. I have one fucking option.

I take Rose and I take her half of the ranch.

“We’re empty.” Axel hasn’t stopped moving since we rode out to the drill site an hour ago. He’s never been good at staying still, and it’s only gotten worse over the years. He shoves a hand through his hair, yanking the thick mane free of its tie. He looks more than half-wild, his muscles bunching as he fists the tie and shoves it in his pocket. He’s inked both arms and his piercings flash in the sunlight. He came home from the Army claiming he wanted the outside to match the inside since he wasn’t explaining himself to anybody. He reads bad boy, trouble, and stay off my fucking lawn, so he got his wish.

“Party’s not over yet.” J.J. leans back on his ATV, one booted foot propped on the bumper. He’s the civilized brother, the one people like. It’s good to have someone in the family like that. I need to learn why there are shadows beneath my brother’s eyes. It’s possible that, like my foreman, he doesn’t appreciate the driller’s numbers, but I suspect it’s something more. Whatever it is, I’ll fix it. “You want to drill deeper, Angel?”

Although I’m head of the family, the ranch belongs to all three of us. Always has and always will, as far as I’m concerned. J.J. and Axel may leave, but my brothers both know the door is never shut. Whatever they need, I do my damnedest to provide. And, so far, they’ve always come back.

Protecting the ranch means everything. I carved out an empire for our family through sheer sweat and determination and raw, brute force. Before I took the reins, Mendozas had run cattle for decades, scraping out a living until the beef market dried up once and for all and forced us to diversify or throw in our cards. I diversified into orchards, horses and oil. Whatever it took to add to the ranch’s holdings and put by an ever-growing rainy day nest egg in the bank. I threw myself into the day in, day out battle to force the land to yield a living. Drilling dry holes to nowhere, however, isn’t a strategy that wins a man battles.

The driller looks over, still waiting for the go-ahead. The man would drill straight through to China as long as the checks clear. Unfortunately, all the money in the world can’t find water where there’s none.

“Day’s getting on,” J.J. suggests. His boot taps impatiently. “I’ve got work back at the barn. I’m thinking we’re done here.”

My brother’s more than a pretty face. He rides and trains every day for his next rodeo. He’s won a dozen buckles, but it’s not enough. We’re alike, him and I, always wanting more.

“Someone’s not enjoying the party yet.” Axel shakes his head, still watching me like I’ve got magic answers written somewhere on my face, but he tugs his fingers through his tangled hair. My brother’s eyes make him look like a big cat, downright predatory as he stretches, but I read the question there clearly enough. How far do I want to take this?

“We’re out of here. Plug the test drill up.” I won’t waste good money on this. Turning away from the driller, I make for his own ride. “Let’s head back to the house.”

Straddling my ATV, I consider my next move. The answer is as obvious as the solid presence of the sun-warmed leather seat beneath my ass. Auntie Dee’s place has deep water tables.

“Sure.” Axel gives his usual one-word response and shrugs. The fabric of his black T-shirt sticks to his back, because the day’s another mother-fucking scorcher. I’m not looking any prettier myself.

“Plenty to do back on the home front,” J.J. agrees cheerfully, kick-starting his own ATV as if he’s getting ready to hit the arena on the rodeo circuit where he dominates, but the sound of the motor instead of applause fills the empty air.

Only the driller stays put. Since I paid in advance, as I always do, for a thousand feet, the man isn’t looking to settle the bill. Nope. He’s waiting for my next move. “You want me to start the first well on the old Jordan place? I can do it tomorrow. Test drills there hit water at nine hundred feet. Four, five days tops, to get her flowing good, unless I break a bit.”

He’s a businessman, and our wells—and our water problems—make him good money.

“Pick your drill spots, and get your boys lined up and ready to go. We’ll start in two weeks.” Fourteen days is more than enough time for me to take care of my business with Rose.

J.J. leans on the handlebars of his ATV. “Heard Rose finally made it back last night.”

He drops the name casually, like it’s not a BFD. He’s messing with me, and we both know it. I ignore him and set the date with the drill engineer so the man can get on with his day. No point in burning more money out here. Since there’s only one way to fix the problem, I’ll drive the ten miles into Lonesome, show up for my meeting with Rose Jordan at the lawyer’s, scheduled—again—for that afternoon, and do what I have to do.

I run cattle. That’s who I am, what we Mendozas built our reputation on for centuries. I won’t lose that tradition, not on my watch and not when there’s a solution at hand. I’m an asshole and a cold-hearted bastard, or so I’ve been assured by any number of people, male and female. Buying out Rose Jordan should be easy.

J.J. grins. “You think she’ll show at the lawyer’s this time?”

She’s shown me plenty already. I can’t wait to cup her boob again. “She’ll be there.”

J.J. flashes me a thumbs up and guns the motor, tearing off down the road.

“We good?” I ask Axel, when he doesn’t move.

Axel nods absently, staring after J.J.’s dust cloud as if he wouldn’t mind running up that trail instead of driving the distance. Axel did two tours with the Army Rangers before deciding not re-up and returning to the ranch. He also ended his military service with a six-month stint in the disciplinary barracks at Leavenworth. I haven’t asked why, and he hasn’t volunteered. Whatever he did, whatever fucker he assaulted or offended had it coming. The military’s good to most of its sons and daughters, but sometimes dark shit happens and then rules get broken. People get hurt.

Prices get paid.

We don’t talk about our service—about what might or might not have happened during those deployments—but more than once I’ve made the late night walk down the hallway between our bedrooms to shake my brother awake from the nightmares. Next day, like clockwork, J.J. goes on one of his runs, fifteen miles through the arroyos and along the game trails. Just running and running until he comes on back and heads out to the range to work.

That’s our past, though, and I’d prefer to leave it there.

“You ever talk to Rose?” I ask him, already guessing the answer. J.J. must be half way back to the house by now, given the speed at which he took that trail, and Axel only talks when he’s good and ready. He’s the king of one-word answers. The man can pack more meaning into yes and no than most.

“Talking to her was your thing.” Axel’s slow drawl carries just fine. “But, yeah, I’ve talked with her since she left. Not as much as I’d have liked, but she needed the space, had some things she wanted to work out.”

What could Rose Jordan have to work out? She followed her momma here to Lonesome and then stayed behind when the woman left. She was the apple of Auntie Dee’s eye, which just goes to show that love is really fucking blind.

“You ever reach out to her?” Axel examines the ribbon of trail in front of us with a rock steady gaze as he swings a leg over the seat of his ATV. The nightmares that keep him up at night don’t show in the daylight.

“She wouldn’t have wanted that.” I fight the urge to take the ATV off the trail and into all the wide open around us and just open her up. Go somewhere or nowhere, but feel the wind pulling at my face.

“You don’t know that,” Axel points out. He won’t speak for a week after all this talking. Shit, he’s probably used up his quota for the goddamned month. But Rose brings out the best in my brothers—along with their wild sides. She makes them be different. “You ever ask her what she wants?”

“She was your friend, not mine.” I tighten my fingers on the grips.

He gives me a look. “Only because every time the two of you shared space, you listed off all the things she’d done wrong.”

“Not every time,” I counter defensively. “And you can’t tell me that the three of you weren’t up to your eyes in trouble whenever I looked.”

“It made you look,” Axel says calmly. “You were busy whipping the ranch back into shape and don’t think I didn’t appreciate that. J.J. and I, we were never worried about having a roof over our heads, but the ranch kept you damned busy. You were all work, work, work and no play.”

“Someone had to be responsible,” I growl as the ATV roars to life.

Axel just watches me. “And you’re real good at it. J.J., he gets all over the place on the rodeo circuit. He’s raising Cain in a different state each week. He can’t ever sit still for more than a day or two at a time. He knows that, eventually, he’s going to have to change something, but he’s not sure how or why—but he does know that you’ll always be right here, waiting for him when he’s ready to come home for good.”

I feel that same surge of emotion for my brother that I felt the night my five year-old self tiptoed into the nursery to sneak a peek at the newest Mendoza. I don’t need to slap labels on my feelings to have them. “What does that have to do with Rose?”

Axel shrugs. “Maybe, nothing. But she had things hard before she came to Lonesome, and she always worried that she was screwing things up here.”

“She spent every minute of every day looking for trouble,” I snarl. Jesus. She’s not here and she still gets under my skin. “That’s not worrying too much.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to get the screwing up over and out of the way,” Axel points out calmly. “If the worst has already happened, there’s not as much left to worry about.”

I get the feeling he’s thinking about Leavenworth now, because his face tightens up. I eye him speculatively, because I should find out what went down there. I can kick some asses, make the payback hurt. Or I can leave it alone like he clearly wants.

“That’s ridiculous,” I say finally. “Auntie Dee loved Rose. This was— is—her home. She had nothing to worry about.”

“Try telling her that. You think she knows the details of Auntie Dee’s will?” Axel tosses the question out there.

“You want to play twenty questions now?” Rose’s face the last time I saw her at the swimming hole is burned into my memory.

It doesn’t matter. Can’t matter.

I need those water rights. Hell, I already own half of them. I just have to claim it all.

“She has no fucking clue,” I admit. “You know Rose. She’s not picking up.” Or answering her e-mail or any of the three registered letters I had the lawyer send. Auntie Dee apparently kept her intentions secret. Hell, I had no idea she’d leave me half the place to thank me for everything I’d done over the years. Doesn’t matter now. Rose doesn’t know and that gives me one more weapon. I’ll take it. While I’m going to win, Rose is also going to fight me. Taming her will be a fucking battle of wills, but in the end I’ll have my wells, my ranch, and my girl.

Laughter chokes Axel’s voice, his earlier impatience forgotten. Rose has always made him laugh, made him happy. Part of me envies him that casual intimacy. She likes him and enjoys his company. She doesn’t give him shit, push him, or defy him. Of course, the two of them also have no chemistry, which is what makes things simpler for them. I was the only one thinking about having sex on my kitchen table when she was sixteen.

“She’ll get here when she gets here. Our Rose never was an early bird. Plus, if she knows how badly you want her to come, she’ll just take twice as long.”

That’s true shit, right there. Rose is a tease. I considered calling her on it, but even more than the age gap, there was a look in her eyes when she was flaunting her tits and her ass that reminded me of some of the US Navy SEALs I’d served with. Her boobs were weapons she used, and I couldn’t tell if she was setting an ambush or defending her territory. Something happened to my dirty girl before she got to Lonesome, and that something fucked with her head. I’d needed to leave her alone until she got things straight.

Didn’t stop me from fantasizing, though. I fucking wore calluses on my dick whacking off to the dirty thoughts of what I could do to her. With her. The Jordan women were like a master class in how to tie the Mendoza males into fucking knots, because while Rose was tormenting me, her mother proceeded to do a job on my dad.

Honestly, I’m not sure Rose had a clue what she did to me. What I wanted to do to her. She saw me as a loaner brother, as temporary, safe, and older. The words bossy, boring, play-by-the-rules, and too-strict also got tossed around a whole lot. The boobs may have been weapons, but I couldn’t tell if she knew that. She could have been reacting on instinct. Later, after shit went down on that second tour of duty in Afghanistan, I understood where she was coming from better.

I have so many lessons to teach my Rose.

“This can’t wait any longer,” I growl. Fuck, I sound like an animal.

“We’ve still got a couple wells left,” Axel points out, laughter gone from his voice. That’s another side effect from Afghanistan, although I prefer pretending it doesn’t exist. I’m not fun anymore. People respect me or they fear me, but Axel is almost the only one left who laughs when he’s around me. That’s one thing I never want to kill.

“Two. We had four.” The prospect of even one inch of the ranch becoming a dustbowl makes me grit my teeth. This place, this land, is my family legacy. I’ll damn well hold on to it, keep it together. My cowboys and their families depend on me for a living, and since I’ve come home, I’ve poured myself into building the ranch one acre at a time. No one can take us down because I’ve created a fucking empire. If I could build a wall around the place like the Chinese emperor did, I’d probably do that, too.

The truth sucks, but my father took and took, bleeding cash from the ranch and giving nothing back. After my mom (who was not Rose’s mom, who was the arm candy and bonus woman in my dad’s life) died in a car accident, the levels in our bank accounts resembled the water levels in the wells. For all his whoring around, Mendoza Senior apparently loved my mother, because he threw in the towel after she died, at least ranch-wise. He knocked back beers with his cowboys, pointed his horse aimlessly around the ranch, and didn’t give a fuck what happened next. Rose’s mom was one of those don’t-give-a-fucks. She came, he enjoyed her, and then she left. My dad repeated the whole pattern again. And then again.

The heart attack was one of those blessings in disguise. Afterwards, I came home from Afghanistan and I was in charge.

I held things together.

Axel and J.J. played backup when I asked, but my brothers had their own lives off the ranch. That was okay. Not everyone finds everything he needs on fifty thousand acres or from horseback. I do and that’s enough.

Rose Jordan doesn’t get to undo all that work now.

She procrastinates. She leaves the important things undone, rushing in at the last minute when someone rides her ass. In other words, she’s pure trouble.

“She’ll turn up, Angel,” Axel repeats. “She always did. Eventually.”

“She’d better.”

Just remembering Rose drives me crazy, and I need to be in control when I meet her again. I point the quad toward the closest road. The raw power of the ATV motor matches my mood, the primal vibration devouring the sound of Axel’s curse. Another day, I’d have ridden a horse out to the drill site because it’s easier to feel that connection between the ranch and myself when I’m on horseback.

“Rose won’t like it,” Axel bellows from behind me. Dust puffs up in small clouds as he takes the lead. “She’s always had a thing for that crazy little house.”

Yeah. I tug my Stetson down farther as the ATV crests a lazy roll of field. No fucking surprise there. I’ve ranched all my life, and sometimes that means watching as good men are forced to give up the land their families held for generations because they can’t make the note and can’t force a living out of their place. In her own way, Rose Jordan is every bit as passionate as those men—and the best spot to drill for water on Auntie Dee’s ranch is right smack underneath the house. I’m gonna have to knock it down to get at my water.

Rose will fight me, but she spent just a handful of years living in Lonesome. She ran, first chance she got. Does she ever think about what it takes to keep up a property? This isn’t a game, and she can’t just come back and play house. Ranching is serious business, and it takes a cash commitment she simply can’t make.

She might not want anything from me, even though part of me aches to learn every sweet inch of her, but she’s going to take that damned check.

And then she’s gonna take me. This time, Rose is mine.

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~ by Anne Marsh on February 4, 2016.

 
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