An excerpt from STRIPPED DOWN, a contemporary cowboy romance releasing on February 8th!
My VW Bug rattles up Lonesome’s main—and only—street, making it clear that the car is only going this far because I’ve insisted. It’s fortunate parking is never an issue in Lonesome because the engine wheezes to an undignified stop when I spot the lawyer’s office.
There are more than enough spots for cars, although horses are a different story. I’ve never seen so many horses before. Or horse poop. Lonesome could definitely smell better. Picking a place, I park and get out. When I unhitched the Bug from the back of the RV and consulted the trunk earlier, looking for something clean to wear, I’d settled on a purple chiffon sundress that floats above my knees in a tease of airy fabric—make-you-look clothes leftover from my days on the tattoo parlor reality show. The producers dressed me like a living Barbie doll, but I also scored a new wardrobe that I’ll use to my advantage now.
“I know what I want. I deserve it.” Saying the words out loud doesn’t help, so I settle for slamming the car door hard. I’ve never mastered the Zen-ish art of affirmative mantras.
The only thing standing between me and Auntie Dee’s legacy is Angel, and no matter how hot he is, he’s my own personal bad news. Worse, everyone here knows everyone else, and not just on a first-name basis or a hi-how-are-ya exchange. Lonesome’s finest know who your parents are, where you were born—every detail spread through the local grapevine. From first word and first tooth right on up to and including first date and firstborn, Lonesome doesn’t keep secrets. Doesn’t need to. Lonesome’s families are born here, die here, and pretty much do all their living either on the surrounding ranches or on the handful of streets.
That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for an outsider girl like me. The label the town’s gossips put on me was trouble. That label still isn’t wrong. I came to Lonesome with my mom, and she was trying to put as much distance between us and the L.A. trailer park that was our last known address. We’d been all but broke, one step away from living out of her car, when she’d met Mr. Mendoza at a casino. He’d fallen in love or in lust—the jury was still out on that one—but he’d agreed to move us both into his fancy ranch spread. I hadn’t wanted to leave Los Angeles for good, despite the shit that had happened there, but a sixteen-year-old girl doesn’t have many choices, and I was smart enough to realize, even then, that there are worse destinies than time spent in Lonesome.
After my mom bugged out, I met Auntie Dee. The good residents of Lonesome might not have been sure about me, but Auntie Dee had been. I’d had several good years with her before I’d finally packed my bags and left. I’d headed for college and San Francisco, then made a detour for a career as a tattoo artist.
I hadn’t come back since I’d left—and that was intentional, because I’d been avoiding Angel even though he, of course, had no clue how I felt—but I’d convinced Auntie Dee to make the bus ride down to San Francisco, and I’d shown her the city. I should have come back. I shouldn’t have worried about running into Angel or any other member of my non-fan club.
Angel probably would have looked me square in the eye, given me a polite meet-and-greet, and even offered me a cold longneck. I was a friend of his brothers, and Angel valued his family. Me? Not so much. I was the bonus accessory, the free gift with purchase that he accepted because it came with the people he really wanted around. Namely, his brothers.
All of which made me want to plant my brand-new cowboy boot in the middle of his equally fine ass and shove.
I’d never had brothers. The six months I’d spent on Blackhawk Ranch had been educational. I’d been one of the boys. Sort of. While my mother canoodled with their dad and tried to work the old man up to a wedding ring (good luck with that), I’d followed the younger Mendoza boys around from one piece of mischief to the next. Naturally, as soon as he came home on leave from some super-secret, really patriotic Spec Ops unit, Angel dogged our heels disapprovingly. He’d never once looked at me and seen a girl. Or a potential girlfriend. And by the time we’d been halfway through his leave, I’d wanted him to look at me. I’d made just one move. Once. One attempt to kiss Angel and make him see me as someone more than his brothers’ friend or an unwanted stepsister. I’d done it because I’d wanted to own him, to take control, and it had backfired on me.
He’d been standing by his truck of his, looking serious and focused as he examined a fledgling olive tree. I’d never been sure why he’d added olives to the ranch but Angel had always had a vision and a plan, so there was probably a damned smart reason behind the change. The ranch looks good these days, and God knows, the economy did a number on too many of my former neighbors. Auntie Dee complained frequently about how tight times were getting.
Angel understood that and he understood the ranch.
What he hadn’t understood was me.
“Angel—” I killed the motor on the ATV and coasted to a stop next to him. At sixteen, I was technically just old enough to drive thing as long as I stuck to private property.
“Not now, Rose,” he grunted.
I wasn’t taking no for an answer. “This is important.”
The look on his face said the olive tree was important, too, but he turned that dark gaze on me and the usual butterflies kicked up in my stomach. God, he was something else. All big and remote and so very, very disciplined. I’d never seen him out of control. Not once. He knew exactly what to do and when and how to do it.
He was perfect.
I loved everything about him, from the broad shoulders beneath the sweat-dampened T-shirt to the worn denim cupping his ass. That part of him was perfect, too. The delicious curl of heat low in my belly had nothing to do with the July heat and everything to do with the man watching me so intently. And he was all man. Those seven years between us weren’t too much. Not at all.
“I want to try something,” I announced.
“Alright.” He stepped back from the tree, leaned against the side of the pickup patiently. Waiting for me.
This was it, I told myself. This was the new start I’d wanted for the two of us. He was finally, finally looking at me, and I had a chance. Don’t screw up. Get this right. But the words weren’t coming, were drying up in my throat. He was perfect—and I sure as hell was not.
Palms damp, I swung off the ATV. This would work. I was willing him to me, using that power of attraction bullshit one of my counselors had tried to teach me. She’d wanted me to will good grades and a college education my way, but I wanted this man instead.
Screwing up my courage, I threw myself at him. My breasts hit that hard, firm chest, his arms closing reflexively around me, steadying me. God, he felt good. I could have stayed like that for hours, days even, all wrapped up in him and safe, but I had to do this before the nerves got the best of me.
“Rose—” He sounded irritated. Impatient. Not romantic.
Before he could say anything else, I reached up and tugged his head down. He let me. I didn’t know if that was because I’d actually surprised him or because he wanted to be closer to me. Please let it be the latter.
Still, I chanced looking up because I needed to see him coming closer. His lashes swept down over the dark eyes I loved so much, hooding his gaze. He was thinking too much. Screw it. I yanked his head down to mine and got my mouth on his.
He tasted perfect, felt perfect. His lips were firm and so very, very male. I parted my own, coaxing him to open up for me. To come out and play as my tongue licked the closed seam of his mouth.
Perfect, but only for a too brief handful of seconds. His hands carefully moved me backwards and away from him. The twelve inches of space he put between us felt like a continent or six.
“Christ, Rose.” He sounded tired. “I don’t have time for your games today. Go cause trouble somewhere else.”
Shame punched me in the gut, the sucker punch you didn’t see coming in the crowded bar you snuck into or the elbow to the stomach you took on the dance floor when other people couldn’t be bothered to see you there or to move. He thought I was playing games
“Angel—” I held out my hand to him.
“Go home, Rose,” he said, already turning back to the olive trees. “No more games.”
So much for my chance. I’ve screwed up. Again. Just like always.
After that, I decided that if I couldn’t have Angel as a boyfriend, I’d settle for keeping him on his toes. I devoted every day to proving all the reasons I wasn’t good enough and pushing all of his buttons. I rocked that mission, and he went back to his Spec Ops team cursing me.
Since I don’t like the direction my brain’s headed in now, I pick out the lawyer’s office. The place is right where it’s always been, because nothing changes in Lonesome—mountains, buildings, or people, we stay the same. I grunt—fuck being ladylike—and hoist my suitcase. It’s missing a wheel, but if I get it balanced just right, the bag rolls, and I won’t have to sort out the paperwork the lawyer e-mailed me from my clothes.
Plus, if today’s meeting plays out right, I’ll finally have a place to call home. Even from beyond the grave, Auntie Dee is watching out for me, and I blow a kiss toward the sky.
“You need some help, miss?” One of the cowboys loitering in front of the bar strolls over, offering his assistance. He’s all boots, tight jeans, and hat, so he’s probably offering something else, too, but I’m not going there. Man moratorium.
The bag wobbles, but then I get it balance. Score. Mr. Tight-Jeans can return to his previous post. I’m not sure whether he’s waiting for the bar to open or for a herd of cattle to storm the street, but he’s free to go about his business.
“I got it.” I flash him a smile because burning bridges is stupid and he probably means well. I’m almost certain cowboys can’t help themselves because certain things—like well-intentioned, teeth-gritting chivalry— are practically imprinted on their DNA from birth. The guy’s a living disadvantage, but I don’t have time to set him straight.
Naturally, Mr. I’d-Like-To-Be-Your-Cowboy tips his hat at me. “If you’re sure.”
At least he doesn’t ma’am me.
“Positive.” I aim the suitcase for the lawyer’s office. “I’m only going a hundred feet. I’ve got it.”
I’d drag the bag to Bora Bora if I had to, but he doesn’t need those details.
My cowboy hero nods, as if good manners require him to pretend to believe me, but he backs off. “You have a good day, then.”
I intend to. Shooting him another smile, I get my feet moving. My destiny waits for me inside the lawyer’s office, and I’d cross my fingers if they weren’t clenched around the bag’s handle.
God, I need this to be a good day.