STRIPPED DOWN

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

 

EXCERPT SIX

 

ANGEL

I don’t wait. Ever. Waiting is a waste of time, and it’s not like my to do list gets any shorter as the seconds tick away. After ten minutes, the lawyer is sweating despite the AC that’s cranked to arctic temperatures. I lean against the wall and fire off a few emails. Then I pace the floor, my boots rapping out a steady one-two beat as I make the first two calls on my list.

After fifteen minutes, I’m pissed. Rose Jordan is late. Again. And yes—I’m an idiot for not seeing this coming.

When I hang up and slide the cell phone into my back pocket, the lawyer sweats more. Guess the thought of making small talk with me isn’t fun because he goes on an organizing streak, straightening the mountains of papers on his desk. Who uses paper these days anyhow? Swinging the straight-back chair around, I straddle the seat. I’ll give her five more minutes, and then I hunt her down.

When I find her—and that’s gonna be child’s play in a town of four hundred people—I’ll determine my next steps. I’m keeping my options open right now. Options A, B, and C? Yell at her, kiss her, paddle her cute ass rosy pink… fuck me, but I may go for D: All of the Above.

I pin the squirming lawyer with my eyes. The guy should be grateful we’re not living a hundred years ago because my ancestors would have skipped the death stare and used a knife just because the guy wasted our time. We Mendozas know how to make our point. Eighteen minutes. I cross my arms over the chair’s back. I have calving cows back on the ranch and a chore list longer than my arm. The size and reach of my holdings make me a powerful man in Northern California, but even though I own this part of the state, it owns me too, although I don’t talk about that. Dear old dad demonstrated daily what happened when a man took no responsibility for his land.

“You think we’re gonna get started today?” I don’t bother making nice. I’ve been sitting here for nineteen minutes now, and I’m feeling mean.

The lawyer looks as if he’d give anything to be anywhere but on the receiving end of my stare. Too fucking bad. He’s wasting my time, and I’m not okay with that. Mitch tugs on his bow tie—who the hell still wears a clip-on bow tie?—and clears his throat. Pussy.

“We’re just waiting for Miss Jordan,” he says, and I want to no-shit the man.

“We don’t have to wait for her.” I’m certain Mitch knows this, but he’s insisting—ineffectively—and Rose would trample the guy. If she ever bothers to show, which seems more and more unlikely.

Mitch makes a noise, kind of like the bleat a calf makes when it gets separated from its momma and it’s running around in crazy circles looking for her. “She’s family.”

I decide it’s up to me to point out the truth. “Technically, she’s not.”

Auntie Dee had no biological family, not as far back as I can remember. She was a good woman nonetheless. A guy like me can be a bastard and still recognize good when it walks through his front door, insists on stopping by his ranch weekly, and occasionally smacks him upside the head. Auntie Dee liked me, despite my best efforts to ignore her. That had to be why I got into the habit of stopping by her place and fixing all the shit that broke. I’d send a few cowboys her way too whenever I got busy, and Auntie Dee claimed to enjoy the view. No harm in looking, and my guys thought she was a hoot. No one wanted to see her go.

Her will was a surprise. Mitch wasn’t supposed to spill the details to me, but the man is a sloppy drunk and I was curious. It sure seemed like one of those fucking signs from above. Despite the stupid name my parents had saddled me with, I’d never have a halo, but I’d take the water and Auntie Dee would have my gratitude forever.

I think she did it because she believed in balancing accounts. I’d been there for her, and she wanted to give something back. My help didn’t come with a price tag, but she didn’t want to just take. I can understand that, and she’s helping me out of a tight spot now. I mentally tip my hat at her. Wherever she is, I wish her nothing but the best of adventures. Maybe God’ll fix her up with a cowboy, too, because Auntie Dee would be any man’s reward.

The door bursts open, the wood thunking into the frame so hard that paint chips spray into the air. Rose’s very fine ass enters the room first, stopping the door from slamming shut. The door slaps her butt, hard enough to elicit a squeak of surprise from her. Paddling her ass shoots up my to do list, because holy Jesus, that sound goes straight to my dick. She’s wearing some kind of purple floaty thing, and just when I’ve decided it’s too tent-like for my taste, the breeze outside shoots all that fabric up. Rose has pretty knees, but her bare thighs are even nicer. Plus, I’m pretty sure she flashes me her panties.

Not on purpose.

That kind of makes it more fun.

I lean back in my chair, the better to enjoy the show. After all, she’s made me wait. Eight years my dick joins in, as if I need the reminder. We had a deal, too. I told her that if she came back to Lonesome, she’d be mine—and now here she is. Merry fucking Christmas to me. She straightens up and yanks on an enormous suitcase that looks like it’s been pummeled by at least a dozen airlines—or drop-kicked from the cargo hold at fourteen thousand feet. It’s a miracle the thing still closes. I have no idea why she’s brought it with her. Nothing in Auntie Dee’s will requires that much baggage.

She looks even better than I remember, though. Those bright brown eyes glaring at the recalcitrant suitcase, the blonde hair twisted on top of hair in a gravity-defying knot, the gorgeous boobs that absolutely defy both gravity and the teeny-tiny top of her dress. A red bra strap slides down her arm, and I decide right then and there that I’m a lucky, lucky man.

While naked’s a good look for her—the best—this dress works for me too. I should have held on tighter when we were swimming, should have kept her pinned between me and the bank while I made up for lost time. Eight years ago, Rose bounced all over my life in a cheerfully profane litany of fuck yous. She routinely gave me the middle finger before we parted ways. If I’m being strictly practical, she’s made her dislike of me absolutely, unequivocally clear.

I’m the dating equivalent of dog shit stuck to her very sassy sandals. And that, of course, just makes me want to fuck her. Wearing only the sandals.

“Am I late? I am, aren’t I? Did you start without me?” She jimmies the door open another foot and jerks again on the suitcase. Her baggage is as stubborn as she is. I really need to remember that, because instead of reading her the riot act about the time and her incredible lateness, I’m swinging off the chair.

Reaching for the suitcase.

It’s because she’s sex on a stick, I tell myself. It’s because I’ve got fond memories of our last meeting six months ago, memories I may have whacked off to earlier this morning. She’s a sexy inconvenience, and she’s gonna do exactly what I say from here on out. I warned her about coming back, but I should have told her that being in control is what does it for me in bed. Even before Afghanistan, I loved giving orders, loved coaxing my woman into submitting. A woman has to trust you, has to open up every way possible before she lets you own her body and take charge of her orgasm. Rose won’t make it easy.

She’ll make me fight for control.

And I’ll fucking win. I win all my fights now.

Still, my instincts warn me that walking out that open door would be the smart move. I must not be in a mood to listen, however, because my right hand wraps around the handle of the suitcase. Jesus. She’s packing rocks. My left hand… yeah, my right hand’s jealous, because those fingers are snaking around her waist. Just to steady her. That’s all.

I pull the bag away from her, ignoring the words that she babbles about I have it and That’s mine. Since she clearly doesn’t have it and I do, I stash the bag in the empty space behind Lawyer Mitch’s two guest chairs. Problem solved.

“You’re late,” I tell her.

“And?” She glares at me as if I’d kicked her puppy. Maybe she really did want to keep her control of her bag. I think about that for a second, and then decide fuck that. She needed help. I gave it.

She’s just gonna have to get over it—because it’ll happen again. First, we need to establish a few rules. My rules.

“Bad girls get spankings,” I say roughly. I can practically hear Mitch’s ears twitching—this conversation will be all over Lonesome by mid-afternoon—so I step between her and the lawyer. I’m big enough that he can’t see around me as I plant a hand on the wall beside her head, moving closer until she’s good and trapped. Her glare gets stronger, but I don’t miss the pretty pink flush on her cheeks. A man has to wonder where else she blushes, so I make a mental note to find out. Soon. I can think of at least a half-dozen ways to shock her in bed.

“It’s not caveman day,” she announces. See, her problem is that she thinks I care. I lean down, until my mouth is by her ear. She shoves at my chest, and I gather her wrists in my free hand. Carefully. The last thing I want to do is break her.

I’m about to say something that will push her, something that will give her a hint about my plan to fuck the ever-living daylights out of her (on my schedule not hers, although making her wait for it sounds like a plan too) when I get a good look at her face. I don’t know where she spent the night, but the skin beneath her eyes is kind of lilac-colored, bruised and tired. She’s still the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen, but I suspect she once again failed to plan ahead. I didn’t ask if she had a place to stay when she came to Lonesome, and I should have. Should have made it clear that there’s always room for her on my ranch. She’s had me off-balance, though, from the moment she surfaced in my swimming hole six months ago. The whole naked thing hadn’t helped my focus then.

Apparently it leads to impulsive comments now, because I promptly say the wrong thing. “Where did you spend the night?”

What I mean is You look tired. Is everything okay? What comes out, though, sounds like an accusation. Everything would be so much simpler if I could simply pick her up and carry her off to bed with me. Plus, she looks as if she could use the sleep.

Naturally, she glares harder and shoves at my chest as if she can actually make me move. I outweigh her by at least a hundred pounds, so there’s no way she forces me to do anything.

“Are you saying I look like shit?” Since I’m immoveable, she settles for stepping forward, her body slamming into mine. This can’t possibly have the effect she planned. She’s way too tiny to actually hurt me, and I enjoy every second her boobs are pressed against my chest.

“I like your dress,” I tell her. “Especially this ribbon thing.”

The skinny ribbons of her sundress crisscross her shoulders and tie in bows. The dress makes her look fragile and more than a little sweet, which is completely deceptive. Rose is many things, but she’s got a backbone of steel. She’s also devious, more than a bit mean, and resilient. These are all good things.

She backs up, removing her boobs from my chest. Too bad. “You’re into women’s fashions?”

Given the way her eyes skip my face and go straight to my arms caging her in place, she’s contemplating step two in her prison break.

“I’m into you.” She sucks in a breath at my words, and maybe not because I drag my thumb over the some of the ribbon in question. Which happens to be decorating the front of her dress in the best kind of X-marks-the-spot over her cleavage.

Since I like having her off-balance, I step back and motion her to the chair. I can’t sit while she’s standing.

Mitch promptly launches into a hasty reading of the will. Either he thinks we might kill each other, or he wants to finish up here so he can share the news of our attraction with the rest of Lonesome. I already know the contents, but they’re gonna surprise the hell out of Rose because Auntie Dee’s made sure Rose can’t get rid of me.

Auntie Dee left her ranch to Rose and I in a fifty-fifty split.

Rose is still gaping at Mitch, when the lawyer produces a handwritten addendum. It’s more of a note really, in which Auntie Dee mentions that she knows how much Rose loved the house and that she hopes this means that Rose knows she’ll always have a home now. She adds a totally unnecessary message for me, asking me to look after Rose and keep everything safe. I’m not gonna let Rose get hurt and she should have known that. Or maybe she thought Rose needed the reminder. It’s hard to ask a dead woman what she meant. Rose starts blinking fast, holding back tears. Fuck. It’s not like I carry Kleenex on me.

I cut Mitch off when he starts listing the outstanding debts the estate needs to settle before we can claim free title to the place. There’s always a chance that Rose is reasonable and sells out without a fight, but those tears suck. Home. House. Obstacle standing in the way of my new well.

Yeah. Making those three labels work together will take a miracle.

Before Rose can break out into audible sobs or fire off the million questions she’s clearly itching to ask, I lean down and make my offer. Money makes everything easier, and I don’t mind paying. “You don’t want the place, Rose. It’ll just be a giant headache for you. Tell me what you want for it, and I’ll write you a check and buy you out.”

She twists her head and meets my gaze. Shit. Naturally, she’s gonna take the hard way. If she had the choice of driving a herd of cattle to market over a nice, easy plain or taking them through a snow-choked mountain pass, she’d be climbing the slope already.

“Don’t tell me what I want. You have no business even being here today.” She points to her suitcase. “I’ve brought my papers and my business plan. I’m ready to move in and get started today.”

 Business plan? I decide to ignore that for the moment.

“On the contrary, darling.” I can’t keep the satisfaction out of my smile. “I’m just as necessary here as you are. I’m your new partner.”

She crosses her arms over her breasts, which she wouldn’t do if she knew what it did to the top of her sundress. Her breasts are pretty little mounds peeking over the band of ribbon, and part of me insists I trace that naughty line, first with my fingers and then with my mouth. I almost don’t care that Mitch is staring at us, his head whipping back and forth like he’s at a goddamned tennis match. This has to be the most excitement his office has seen in years.

She makes a give-it-up gesture at me. “I’m waiting for an explanation.”

Rose has never been patient. I wonder if she rushes toward orgasm with the same pell-mell enthusiasm.

“I own half. You own half.”

“Half makes us even,” she snaps.

“Maybe I’m the better half,” I growl right back, because fact number one? “I’m the executor, darling, and it’s up to me to settle Auntie Dee’s estate.”

“So you’re in charge. As always.” Her expression turns mutinous as she faces off with me.

Yeah, my Rose is gonna be trouble.

Just like always.

 

~*~

 

ROSE

Angel thinks he’s in charge, but he’s wrong. No cowboy gets to run my show. He doesn’t get to take away my home or my chance at a tattoo parlor of my own.

I may not have the money for renovations, property taxes, or even the damn electric hookup, but being back in Lonesome puts me one step closer to realizing my dream. I’m going to belong here, even if it kills me.

So no way I sell out to Angel.

Of course, words are easy—the bigger-than-life problem is slouched against the wall behind my chair, his jeans-covered thighs brushing me in too many places. I hate that I tingle where our bodies meet. He doesn’t say another word after I reject his latest offer, though. Instead, he settles back against the wall, watching. That’s Angel for you. Slow. Thorough. Immovable. He’s a fucking wall and a roadblock. Somehow, I need to get through him. Around him.

 Under him, a traitorous voice in my head (or maybe it’s my pussy) suggests.

Would he be that intense in bed?

His need to dominate is a major turn-on, but I shouldn’t let it be. When I have sex, I’m in charge. That’s how it has to be. Angel’s will is like fucking steel and there’s every chance he cages me with it.

Oblivious to my inner horniness, Angel holds out a hand, and the lawyer forks over the will. It must be nice to command respect like that, but Angel doesn’t even seem to notice the lawyer’s insta-obedience. Ten minutes later, we’re still waiting while Angel silently reviews the will’s contents. I itch to get going. I hate sitting still, and I need to see the inside of Auntie Dee’s house again.

My place.

Or half of it at any rate. I don’t know why she set things up this way, but she didn’t owe me anything and she’s not wrong about my loving the place. It’s my home.

I make a second attempt at taking charge. “Look,” I say. Calmly. Reasonably. As if there’s no reason at all why Angel shouldn’t agree with me and make both our lives easier. “I just want to go over to my house. Take a look around.”

“Half a house,” he growls. “You want the first floor or the second?”

I’m sure Angel has read the will before, so there’s no obvious reason for him to reread the document right now. Probably, he’s simply enjoying making me wait. After all, I made him wait—and Angel’s big on balancing the scales. I kind of shiver thinking about that. He’s always specialized in swift-and equal-retaliation. Maybe it’s all those years as a SEAL.

“All you have to do is give me the key to the house,” I press. “And I’ll be on my way.”

The lawyer looks at Angel, and I suck in a breath, reminding myself I’m not sixteen any more. “The key?” I prompt.

Angel finally looks up. You’d think that will was the National Enquirer and the Gettysburg Address rolled into one. It can’t possibly be that interesting. “She wants the key, Mitch. Give it to her.”

Pulling open a drawer, the lawyer rummages around as if he’s glad to be busy. When he finally slides a little manila envelope across the desk to me, I tear the sealed flap open impatiently, dumping the familiar key chain into my palm. The key is attached to the little pink rabbit’s foot I bought Auntie Dee one year. The fur has worn away on one side, where Auntie Dee rubbed it religiously before she got onto the bus that took her on senior trips to the local Indian casino. The fur tip is also permanently matted from a run-in with a diet soda, and that’s just one of many injuries. The little pink token somehow became a road map of precious moments of Auntie Dee’s life. Wrapping my fingers around the rabbit’s foot, I fight back tears.

All I have left of Auntie Dee is this worn-out rabbit’s foot, too many regrets, and a house. I’ve lost my one true family, I realize in a rush. My mother’s out there somewhere, working on stepdad six or seven (I lost count after the fourth guy), but to say we’re not close is an understatement. I hadn’t fully acknowledged just how strong the connection was between me and Auntie Dee until it was too late. Now Auntie Dee is gone, too.

Mitch follows up the key with a little plastic-wrapped package of tissues, as if sufficient Kleenex can fix the enormous, insurmountable problem of Auntie Dee’s death.

“I miss her,” I say out loud.

Angel sets the stack of papers back on the desk. “We all do. Auntie Dee was a good woman.”

Bending over the desk, he signs his name on the last page of the will and then slides the stack of legal documents toward me. Points to the empty blank where my name goes and hands me a pen.

“She was proud of you,” he says quietly. “Real proud. She talked all the time about how you were learning to be a tattoo artist in San Francisco. She didn’t get the chance to go to school herself, so it meant the world to her that you went. When you were on TV for that reality show, she made the entire town watch.”

Great. Everyone watched me lose. Worse, while Auntie Dee stayed, I went. Almost clear to the other end of the state. As far away from this man as I could get because he was just the last in a long line of little failures on my part. Lost in the memories, I almost miss his next words.

“We’ll get an appraisal,” he tells me, because God forbid he actually ask me to do anything. “Find out what the house is worth, and I’ll write you a check.”

Like hell he will. “I’m going to live in my house.”

“We’ll talk about it,” he says, and his tone warns me that he thinks there’s no negotiating room.

I let him grab my suitcase and steer me outside and toward his truck. Just like that, he’s taking over my life. Deciding what’s best for me. I’m hyperaware of his large, warm body beside me. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Angel is just doing the right thing, looking out for me. Being protective. Words of interest aside, when he looks at me, he doesn’t see Rose Jordan. Instead, he sees a problem needing fixing—and I’m done with being an item on his to-do list.

“We’ll get the place appraised right away, and I’ll write you a check,” he repeats, and a slow burn starts in the pit of my stomach. I stand on my own two feet now. I look down at my new sandals. Even if my feet are killing me.

“No.” One word, but it covers everything.

Angel pushes his Stetson back on his head and looks me over. “You sure about that answer? Because I’m willing and able to write a check, Rose.”

I don’t want a check—I want a house. A place to open my tattoo shop and ink to my heart’s content. A home, said heart whispers because it’s a dumbass, and another chance to get things right.

“I want to see my house, Angel.”

“Fine.” He shakes his head, as if my agreeing to his terms is just a matter of time. “You want to see the place, I’ll take you there.”

I have a car,” I point out, but he just shakes his head again and opens the passenger door of his pickup. Since this is one battle I’m not winning, I get in. Carefully closing the door behind me, Angel goes around the pickup and slides into the driver’s seat. It’s going to be a really silent ride out to Auntie Dee’s. Angel never does chitchat, but now he appears to have given up on talking altogether. His hands on the wheel shout “capable and fully in control.” He knows where he’s going and why, just like he always has.

After a few minutes, I break the silence. “We could have taken my car.” Now I’m just needling him. Angel doesn’t like others to drive him. Sure enough, he shoots me one of those looks and jams his Stetson down on his head.

It doesn’t matter.

He isn’t getting his way this time.

“You took your sweet time coming back to Lonesome,” he says eventually. He doesn’t take his eyes off the road, doesn’t drive faster than is safe, but riding with him feels like the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. He’ll never be tame or polite—but he’ll be right.

Damn him.

“I . . . had things to do.” The excuse sounds weak even to my own ears.

“What kind of things did you have to do, Rose, that were more important than coming up here and settling the estate of the woman who all but raised you?”

I don’t like the guilt or panic that shoots through me, an itchy, sickening coil of unwelcome emotions. I can’t explain why I hadn’t come, why I hadn’t been ready. Why I couldn’t face the empty house, Angel, or any of the pieces of the life I had in Lonesome. Explaining that would mean explaining all the broken pieces of me, and most days I just want to forget.

Plus, if I’d started any one of those tasks, I’d have been that much closer to failing. To not getting it right. So I’d waited. And then waited some more, until I’d failed anyhow and could stop worrying.

 Second chance, I remind myself.

“Maybe I just wasn’t ready until now,” I suggest, as if I hadn’t had lists of tasks to check off and a timeline for doing so. As if I hadn’t frozen in panic and done nothing. Sweet procrastinator, I can almost hear Auntie Dee whisper. Someday, you’ll figure it out, get yourself started.

I inked a little pink and purple poppy on the inside of my wrist for her. She loved the bright orange California poppies that peppered Lonesome in the spring, but she’d always wanted to try the exotic kind from the seed catalog.

Angel doesn’t turn, but his big body screams frustration. He isn’t buying the line I’m selling. He’s always has been good at recognizing bullshit.

“Not ready.” His voice is too quiet. “Well, that’s a hell of a thing, Rose, when you’ve been asked repeatedly to come on up here, and you’ve never said why you couldn’t. What did you think was going to happen? We’ve all been cooling our heels waiting for you.”

I stare straight ahead. His voice holds the quiet disappointment, the disapproval I expect. I’ve never pleased him, have I?

“I should have explained.” Like always, he’s right. I should have. Of course I should have—and, instead, I’ve procrastinated. Waited, like always, until the last possible moment. I tried college and dropped out. I became a tattoo artist in San Francisco, and then I lost the reality TV show that was supposed to make me my seed money for a shop of my own. I failed to come back for Auntie Dee in time.

Failure, failure, failure. I should make that my next tattoo.

When I don’t explain now, he waits me out, letting the silence stretch between us.

“But I wasn’t ready, okay?” I won’t cry. Instead, I blink furiously, wanting to curse him but bobbing in place instead.

“Hell, Rose.” He tightens his grip on the wheel. “We would have been happy to wait for you to be ‘ready’—you know that. But, darling, you have to either show up or call.”

“You just want to tear down the house and use the land,” I accuse.

“I do.”

He doesn’t bother sugarcoating his intentions, just hits me low and hard with the truth. A truth that isn’t going to become reality if I have my way.

“What if I don’t want to sell it?”

“What else are you going to do with that piece of property? You’re obviously not the settling-down type, Rose, and it takes cash to run a place like that. A steady income.”

I’m working on that, although he doesn’t know it. He’ll find out soon, though, because Angel owns most of Lonesome. Auntie Dee’s is the only place I can open a tattoo shop because Angel owns everything else, and I can’t afford the rent anyhow.

“You don’t think I could do it? What if I want to fix the place up, make a home for myself here?” My heart beats a little faster at my own audacity.

Angel sighs roughly. “Some dreams don’t come true.”

I hate that, like always, he’s right even if he has no way of knowing that I’d been hoping to make a success of myself, then come home to care for Auntie Dee and carve out a better life for both of us in Lonesome.

I just expected to do so before I lost Auntie Dee.

When we pull up ten minutes later, Auntie Dee’s house seems unchanged, heat-soaked and dusty and horribly, deeply familiar. It’s almost possible to pretend I never left, that the last few years haven’t slipped by. Despite the miles I put between myself and Lonesome, I’ve thought about the older woman every day. I needed to stretch my wings and figure out who I really was, and Auntie Dee had understood.

Now I need to come back home.

I wrestle the truck’s door open and hop down from the pickup before Angel can even kill the motor. Whatever doubts he has—and I’m sure he has plenty—he’s keeping them to himself for the moment. Knowing Angel, of course, he’s probably just waiting for me to figure out the truth for myself.

The house redefines fixer-upper.

As I cross the yard, I wave to the contractor I asked earlier to come by to check out the work that needs to be done immediately. Angel took so long reading the will that the other man is almost finished with his external inspection.

The sun’s heat beats down on my bare shoulders, a sensual weight that renders it almost shocking to step onto the porch and into the cooler shadows. Angel follows me inside the house as if he owns the place, the floorboards squeaking noisily with each step he takes, but I can’t bring myself to care. He owns half of my house, but I’m busy wondering if he was always this sexy. He seems even bigger, harder, than I remember.

He’s seen me naked.

The wave of mildew and must that hits me when Angel finally shoulders open the kitchen door—naturally, it sticks—isn’t a good sign. Angel flips light switches. Nada. Of course. No electricity. When I run the tap, however, I score the one win of the day. Water gushes out of the rusty fixture, clear and cool. It tastes good, too.

Angel watches me drink. “You’ve got a good well here,” he says.

Mentally, I arrange the house, placing the furniture I left in storage in repainted, cleaned-up rooms. Angel, on the other hand, focuses on support beams and wiring and whether or not the place is up to code. He’s looking at what Auntie Dee’s is, while I’m already seeing the future.

Still, as the inspector takes me point by point through a damning litany of critical repairs, Angel is a silent, solid presence. He doesn’t add anything to the never-ending commentary of things gone wrong or rotten. Hell, he doesn’t have to say anything. He’s right, just like he always is. The house isn’t livable and might not even be salvageable.

Okay. So it needs work. I’m not afraid of putting in sweat and time—I’ve got those in abundance. It’s possible I’ll still be hammering and sawing when I’m ninety, but I’ll be working on my place.

When the contractor finally shuts the lid of his laptop, he looks as if he just finished a marathon. I’m not sure why he expects sympathy—he’s the one getting paid for his pain, after all.

“I’ll e-mail you the final report,” he says, pocketing the check I hand him. He shakes my hand and then grasps the hand Angel extends.

“Great. Thanks.” I guess it’s good that he’s thorough, but I’m feeling more than a little flattened at the moment. There’s no way my less-than-flush checking account can handle repairs of this scope. Even caution tape or a box of matches might be beyond the scope of my finances.

“You be careful in here,” he says, clearing his throat. “This house needs work.”

“I can handle it.” I do my best to project a confidence I don’t quite feel. Yet. Surely mastering the fine art of home repair should be possible.

“Lots of work.” Angel’s voice seems almost deliberately dry, but it still contains the little growl that starts me thinking about sex. With him. The two of us naked and going at it.

“You listen to your boyfriend here.” The contractor nods toward Angel. “He’s right.”

Shit. Now I need a new contractor.

Watching the man go, I’d bet those words horrify Angel. I’m not the kind of woman he admires. Cool, put-together brunettes are more his style. As soon as he’s done whatever it is he thinks needs doing here and he gets the estate wrapped up, he’ll return to work, and we’ll see each other from a distance rather than from this impossible, too-close perspective.

Things will go back to the way they were before.

Angel will go back to the way he was before. God, I shouldn’t wish things were different.

Angel is the kind of hard, disciplined, determined man who knows precisely where he’s headed in life and how to get there. He’s all wrong for me, but that does nothing to stop the heat from blossoming inside me as he moves around my kitchen, testing the cabinet doors.

Wanting him is crazy.

Sunset makes color streak the horizon and elicits a raucous commentary from the nesting birds in the cottonwoods. I’ve always loved this pretty time, when the sky softens up and things get ready to hunker down for the night. The morning glories twining up the chimney have closed in anticipation of the darkness. For a moment, sitting on what’s left of the house’s wrap-around porch, I can pretend I’ve gone back in time. Dusk makes it harder to see that, while the porch was white once upon a time, now most of the paint has peeled off in long, curling strips.

Last Christmas, I bought home design software and drew a plan for me and Auntie Dee. The two of us talked for hours on the phone, adding rooms or moving them around. I took too long, though—waited too long. I slide the long roll of drawings out of the tube and spread them out on the porch. I included a big open kitchen for Auntie Dee, who loved to cook and who always had folks stopping by to chat. After our last call, I added windows upstairs for Auntie Dee to look out at the ranch land where she grew up, and even more downstairs because I had a sneaking suspicion that the stairs were finally too much for Auntie Dee.

At least the heart attack was quick.

Auntie Dee never had to leave the home she loved. By the time I got the message and understood there wouldn’t be any more phone calls ever again, Auntie Dee was gone. The EMTs didn’t have time to carry her outside, she left so fast.

“You gonna share with the class, darling?” Beside me, Angel rests a booted foot on the bottom rail of the porch. He’s picked the sturdiest rail of the lot, probably the only one not likely to break from his weight. Most of the boards are rotted clear through.

“Tell you what?”

“Why you’re so sure you want to hang on to this place?” He nods toward my sagging porch step seat and the drawings. “What your plans are?”

“It’s just about a tear-down, isn’t it?” Even I can tell my voice sounds rueful.

“Yeah,” he drawls. “It’s safe to say that. Bulldozing it would be the most practical option. We did what we could for Auntie Dee, but she wouldn’t let us help much. None of us realized the house was this bad, or we would have done something, Rose. I promise you that.”

I believe him. Angel isn’t a nice guy and he has a mouth on him that betrays his years in the SEALs, but he’s a protector and no one needed protecting more than Auntie Dee. I’m not sure why she thought she needed to ask him to look after me, though.

“I can fix the house.” I have the time. That’s one advantage of being laid off and jobless.

“Maybe.” I hate how inscrutable his face is. “This place is going to take a whole lot of work, Rose, and it’s going to take even more money. Do you have that?”

“I’ll find a way,” I tell him and I will.

Angel’s hand brushes my shoulder. This isn’t the first time he’s touched me since we came out here. He threaded his fingers briefly through mine to tug me upstairs, and he cupped my foot with his hand when I asked for a leg up to inspect a ceiling fan. Jumping up, suddenly desperate to get away, I perch on the porch swing, hoping to God it didn’t give way beneath me. Angel is driving me crazy, and he doesn’t even know it.

“You ever just known a place was the right one?”

“Sure.” He shrugs, powerful shoulders moving beneath the faded cotton of his T-shirt as he moves toward me and the swing. “The ranch.”

He’s close enough now that I can feel the heat coming off him. The V-neck of his shirt exposes the powerful column of his throat and makes me think about something besides home repairs.

“So how’d you feel if someone came along, wanting to buy you out, Angel? Would you give up that land?”

“Hell, no. That ranch has been in my family for generations. You don’t sell something like that.”

The fierceness that fills his voice and stamps his face is far too sexy. Angel’s ancestors were members of the Spanish aristocracy who came to California to start a new life and then mixed with the fierce, free-spirited Native Americans. Those men were warriors. Men who held on to what they took and who fought for every inch, every arroyo. Angel is a possessive man.

“It’s like that for me. I don’t want to sell this place.”

He doesn’t look convinced. At all. “It’s not the same. This isn’t a ranch. This land hasn’t been part of your blood, part of your family for more than a century.”

I wonder if he’d have me arrested for assault if I hit him. Probably not. Angel takes care of his own problems.

“This is my home.” My voice sounds strained, but fuck him. My home counts too, even if I don’t have ancestors dating back to Mayflower days.

“Sure, Rose,” he snaps. “And I suppose the whole time you were gone, when you were anywhere but here, you just couldn’t wait to come back.”

He can take his supposition and shove it.

He has the literal truth on his side. I ran, and I ran hard. I’m a serial mistake maker, and there’s no way to fix the past. Maybe, I’ll fail at home repairs, too. Maybe, I won’t get Auntie Dee’s house perfect, but I still get to try. I still get to come home.

I gaze at his gorgeous, hard face, searching for words that don’t come. He shouldn’t be so calm always. Getting truly angry at Angel is unfamiliar territory, but it also feels right. I’m done letting other people tell me how to feel, what to do. Where to go and where to be. First in L.A. as a child and then here in Lonesome, I’ve always believed in some impossible standard that I should live up to. I can’t be perfect, but I’ve also moved passed making a career out of imperfect.

“Hard as it is and as naturally as it comes to you, don’t be an ass,” I snap.

His head whips up. I may have pushed him too hard. Angel gets as immobile as rock. From the look in his eyes, he’s more than halfway to pissed off now. Too bad I don’t give a damn. It’s part of my not perfect plan.

“You don’t get to stand here on my porch and tell me what I do or don’t feel. Auntie Dee was the best thing that ever happened to me, and don’t you think I ever forgot that. I left. That was what I needed to do, then. Now, I’m back.”

“Half,” he says. “You own half of a porch. The other half is mine.”

“Then maybe you should go stand on it,” I snap and point. He can have the half that’s visibly rotted and I hope he falls through.

“Let me write you that check, Rose.” His face is closed off and unreachable.

For once, Angel doesn’t get what he wants. “I’m fixing this place up.”

He turns away from the porch railing, watching me intently. I have no idea what he expects to see. “You want to play house, come stay at the ranch house. You can redesign and redecorate to your heart’s content.”

“Consolation prize?”

“No.” An unrecognizable emotion flashes across his face, and then he closes the distance between us, his big, work-roughened hands caging me in the swing as he plants his arms on either side of me. “You know you always have a place on Blackhawk, Rose. You can come home to us.”

“I’m not family.” It needs saying.

And of course he agrees with me on this one thing. “You’re not. Whatever you were to my brothers, don’t make the mistake of thinking I ever saw you as a sister.”

There is that familiar hurt, followed by a flicker of hot, liquid attraction. I don’t need him to swoop in here and take care of me, but he’s not done telling me how things are going to be.

“This place, this house—it’s too much, Rose, and some of the problems are just plain beyond fixing. You’d need a new roof on the house, new siding, a new porch. And those are just the outside pieces. You get inside, and I’ll lay money the plumbing’s shot, right along with the electrical system.”

He’s not wrong. When I stop looking with my heart, I can recognize the never-ending list of what’s gone wrong with the place.

“I know.” I swallow around the knot in my throat. I won’t cry. Crying never helps. Maybe the house itself can be salvaged with paint, lumber, and some serious contractor elbow grease, but Auntie Dee isn’t here anymore and that’s the soul of this place. There’s no fixing, replacing, or filling her absence. Tears swim in my eyes before I can remind myself I’ve sworn off crying just like I’ve sworn off men.

I’m not doing so well with promises.

Angel growls my name and hauls me into his arms, “Don’t cry, baby.”

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~ by Anne Marsh on February 6, 2016.

 
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