STRIPPED DOWN

•February 7, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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

 

EXCERPT SEVEN

 

ANGEL

Fuck holding back.

Fuck restraint.

Nothing in my life has ever felt more right than pulling Rose Jordan into my arms. When I’ve touched before, when she tempted me at the swimming hole, when she was living in my house, it was accidental. Now I’m touching her on purpose. She stiffens, as if I’ve surprised her, but then she melts. She doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want me, but her body trusts me. She’s not a little girl anymore.

She needs me.

Needs more than my dick inside her, even if I can make her enjoy it.

I can’t replace Auntie Dee. The woman was part of Lonesome for so many years that the town seems emptier now she’s gone. Rose cries for her, and that makes me want to fix things. Make everything better. But even I’m not fucking Superman, and I can’t bring people back from the dead.

Rose tucks her head into the curve of my shoulder. The instinctive gesture makes me feel like maybe I could fly if that’s what she needed. It’s sexy as hell, this unspoken trust she has in me. I run my hand down her back, my fingers finding the soft line of her bra straps beneath the gauzy dress. She hasn’t said no. The heat of her scorches me, the way her breasts shove against my chest making me revisit and revise my list of Rose fantasies. I’m gonna fuck her there, I decide. Tunnel my dick through that soft, sweet cleavage until I paint her chest with my come.

Christ. I’m a bastard.

Sex isn’t gonna fix shit for Rose.

If she came here expecting a miracle, she’s about to be disillusioned. The house isn’t in good shape (which is a fucking understatement, honestly), although it could be worse. The walls haven’t caved and the roof hasn’t fallen in—but that’s about it. I’d sent my boys over to fix what I could, but Auntie Dee didn’t take freebies, and I hadn’t bothered after she passed because all I’d wanted was the water. Don’t need the house for that.

Rose, however, needs the house, and I don’t know what to do. She definitely doesn’t want my money, although this house does. Auntie Dee’s little addendum keeps playing through my head, too. Mitch didn’t share that note with me when he gave me a sneak peek at the will, and now I’ve got to figure out how to honor Auntie Dee’s dying wish that I keep Rose safe. Pretty sure I’m fucked here.

Rose snuffles. Shit. I don’t mind if she uses my shirt as her own personal Kleenex, but she’s not happy. I’m not big on expressing emotions or so the Navy shrink tried to tell me. I walked out his door, but something tells me Rose doesn’t have the same reservations. Fuck if she’s repressing anything right now.

I pat her on the back cautiously, trying to find a nice, neutral spot that doesn’t involve bare skin or lingerie.

“Where did you sleep last night?” I kinda growl the question against her skin, my mouth way too close to her ear. She’s dabbed something sweet on her skin and she smells like candy and apples. If she’s gonna wear an eat me invitation, she has to expect me to RSVP in the affirmative, right?

“The RV,” she mumbles and tried to pull away. I’m not ready to let her go yet, so I tighten my grip. Plus, I’m not real happy about any RV scenario. It’s all too easy to imagine her sleepy and flushed in some piece of shit vehicle. Anyone could jack the door open and she’d be so fucking vulnerable. A woman sleeping alone is easy prey for a man who doesn’t care about right and wrong. It’s not like I’m so hung up on ethics myself, but I have lines. She’s gonna say yes to everything we do, and I’d never hurt her.

Ask, don’t tell, I remind myself, but then I go and blow it anyhow. “Come on back to the ranch with me. We’ve got plenty of bedrooms there.”

She shakes her head. “I’m good. I’ve got company. Rory’s waiting for me.”

“Who the fuck is Rory?” I try to keep my voice level, but the fury leaks through anyhow. We may have to share the ranch, but I’m not sharing her now that I’ve got her back. Rose is mine.

“None of your business,” she shoots back.

Everything about you is my business. I want you out at my place.” Not shacked up with some unknown guy. Had she done more than sleep with him? Had she gone home last night and fucked him?

“Rory’s my best friend.” She looks like she has no idea why she just told me that, but something eases up inside me. Maybe I don’t have to rip the guy to pieces.

“Come out to my place,” I tell her again. “I’ll give you a good bed.”

This time, when she stiffens up like a poker in my arms, she doesn’t relax again. The stiffy in my jeans isn’t helping me any. I’d never trade a bed for sex, but Exhibit A might make her think otherwise.

“I can stay here,” she counters.

“There’s no price tag,” I tell the top of her head. She tugs, trying to break free again. “Be reasonable, Rose.” I can see daylight through the roof of the porch, for Christ’s sake. “Staying here is one step above camping, and the RV can’t be better. Just this once, can’t you let me take care of you? Giving in this one time doesn’t mean you’re surrendering unconditionally.”

Okay, so I’m kinda lying to her on that one.

“Nothing’s free,” she tells me quietly. This time when she tugs, I let her go. My arms feel empty, but I’m playing the long game here. Five more minutes would be awesome, but I want all of Rose.

“You need a solid place to stay.” I shove off the porch and head for the truck. She hesitates, but then she follows me. Even Rose isn’t impetuous enough to risk being stranded here. “We’ve got room on the ranch.”

Naturally, she has to argue with me. “I belong here. Rory can bring the RV over.”

“You don’t have to do without electricity tonight,” I counter. “Or dinner. Bring Rory and the damn RV if you have to.”

I can park the bastard out in the bunkhouse. He won’t get near her. And she has to be tempted because, while her suitcase is heavy enough to hold a fridge, I’m betting it doesn’t. I must be right, because she actually lets me open the truck door for her. Or maybe that’s because she’s working up to another argument.

“If I come, that doesn’t mean I’m giving up the house.”

I really don’t need to think about her coming. Not now. But now she’s put the dirty thoughts into my head, and I can’t help but imagine it. Her clenching around my dick. The sweet little ripples as her pussy milks me as she gets closer and closer. Bet I can make her come twice. Three times.

I need to get my big head back into the game.

“So we have a temporary deal. Stay at the ranch, and take a couple of days to think things over. You don’t have to decide standing on the damned porch, do you?”

“All right,” she says, climbing up into the truck. “Yes. But this is just temporary, Angel. I’m moving in here.”

Hearing Rose say yes is addictive. I’ve gotta hear it again.

“Yes,” I tell her, and it’s an agreement, a concession, and a fucking win all rolled into one. She drives me crazy and she doesn’t even know it, which is good because Rose would walk all over me if she could. I’ve got her right where I want her: back in my life. Next step is getting her into bed.

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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

                                                       AmazonButton   BarnesAndNobleButton   KoboButton   iBooksButton

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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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 5, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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

 

EXCERPT FIVE

 

ROSE

 

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.

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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 4, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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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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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 3, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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

 

EXCERPT THREE

 

ROSE

Angel still packs a brute-force sensuality that makes no bones about the raw power of the man. Sure and confident, he runs this ranch and everyone on it. Angel is a mostly benevolent dictator—I’ve always know that, even when I gave him shit about his dictatorial ways—but he’s the man in charge, and he’ll always do what he believes is best for Blackhawk Ranch.

He drives me crazy.

There’s no place for me in his world. I’ll never belong to any man, not one percent and definitely not one hundred percent, and Angel would demand nothing less than complete possession. You can tell that just from looking at him. And even if I did have that kind of interest in him, he’s never seen me as more than just another one of his younger brothers’ friends. There’s also one more thing I know: he might yell, but he won’t hurt me. Which means he’s scared the shit out of me on purpose with his sneaking up and issuing threats crap. Before I can think it through, I wind up and chuck the shampoo bottle at him.

He fixes me with a hard stare, one hand shooting up effortlessly to catch the plastic bottle before he sets it down carefully by my things. He’s always so precise, so restrained. It makes me want to crack that gorgeous surface of his and see if I can make him lose control.

No.

I’m different now. I’m not sixteen, and I don’t need or want his attention. Not anymore.

“Hell, Rose,” he drawls. “This is my land. You shouldn’t be out here, swimming all by yourself.” That calm voice is the voice of reason. Logical. So damned right when I’m always wrong. “It’s dark. You’re alone. Does anyone know you’re here?”

“I’m perfectly safe.” I can hear the betraying tightness in my own voice, but now that the adrenaline has subsided, there’s no way I’ll admit he’s right. I never have before, and I’m sure not starting now. Let a man like Angel know he has the upper hand, and he’ll walk all over you. “I practically grew up here. The only people likely to be out here are you and your brothers.”

He shakes his head… and cue the disappointment speech. “Likely doesn’t mean certain, Rose. Shit happens all the time.”

“Yeah.” I ease my head backward, keeping my chest underwater. There are stars overhead— how long has it been since I watched the impossible crispness of this black sky with its countless pinpricks of light? My fingers work through my hair, washing out the last remnants of shampoo. “I know all about shit happening, Angel. I don’t need a lesson from you there.”

He doesn’t say anything, the asshole. Nope. He just keeps on eying me, and I’d pay a fortune I don’t have to know what the man is thinking, because there’s a hot lick of something in his dark eyes. The Mendoza brothers are big, dark men with a family tree rooted in the Spanish conquistadores who claimed vast swaths of California for their own. There’s an almost possessive gleam in his eyes as he stands there.

Watching me.

I’m not sure how much of me is actually on display in the dark, but as he drops into a crouch next to my underwear, he knows damned well that I’m swimming naked. Worse, my awareness of him creates a sweet, hot ache in me that I shouldn’t welcome. I’ve been down this road before, and lusting after my not-quite-stepbrother is an exercise in futility. He doesn’t see me that way, and even if he did, I’ve sworn off men. The sex is never worth it in the end, and I don’t want this one last fantasy smashed. I’m already broken inside, and I don’t need more hurt.

So what if I still dream about Angel? Those dreams happen despite myself, and only now and then. In my dreams, he’s a hot, possessive lover who knows exactly how to make me come, but the real-life cowboy is infuriating.

Instead of going away, however, he leans forward, hands resting on his knees, and the sheer male power of him steals my breath away. He looks sensational, and of course I have to imagine him naked. Mentally stripping away the Levis, the boots, the wash-worn T-shirt, my head goes wild. I’ve always had a good imagination. For example, I imagined all too clearly, before I left Lonesome for the last time, what it might be like to teach Angel a thing or two. On my terms.

“If you don’t want me to teach you a lesson,” he says, as if he’s reading my mind as he reaches down a hand to haul me out, “don’t make me come in there after you.”

He’s not the boss of me, even if he wishes he were, so I ignore that hand and get on with washing the rest of the suds out of my hair.

“I mean it.” His rough growl makes me wetter than I already am. Apparently, I have a secret Neanderthal fetish. You’d think I’d be smarter than that by now.

I recognize the protective, overbearing stance Angel takes all too clearly. This man doesn’t think I should be where I am, and he’s decided to help me out with a little redirect. His intentions might be sweet (although the jury is definitely out on that one, because sweet and Angel have never been used in the same sentence unless it involves kinky sex acts with frosting), but I’m not exactly sweet myself. I’m more used up and bitter, if we’re being honest.

“You won’t come in after me.” Jumping into the water to forcibly fish me out means lowering himself to my level and giving up that much vaunted control of his. Angel guards his control like water in a drought. He’d never play silly games, so I’m safe.

“You sure?” He tosses his hat aside. My libido cheers and urges him to remove another article of clothing. Like his pants. Bad libido.

“I’m naked,” I point out this awkward fact out, just in case he’s missed the Day-Glo pink of my bra and panty set by his boots.

I still can’t read him, but the few months we spent together all those years ago taught me how to rile him up. That knowledge is bittersweet. I’m not the same girl I was, but he hadn’t liked that girl anyhow.

“I’m gonna give you one warning,” he growls. He’s still got just two modes: surly and domineering. Eight years hasn’t changed that. “The next time I see you, I’m making you mine.”

The water’s cold, and I tell myself that’s why I fight back a shiver. It has nothing to do with the way Angel looks at me, like he’s finally seeing me.

“Time to get out, Rose.” He reaches out to me again and temptation beckons. One good tug—he won’t expect that— and I’ll have him in the water. He simply waits there, so big and tough and confident; I want to take him down a notch or two. Put him at a disadvantage. When I shove my hand into his, his fingers wrap around mine, the muscles tensing to pull me out. Instead of letting him, I pull, hard.

His large, hard body hits mine, his rough curse filling my ears as we both go under. The delicious coolness of the water closes over my head, and I sink downwards, letting the weight of his body pull me toward the bottom.

Finally, I’ve gotten to him—the same way he always did to me.

~*~

ANGEL

I hit the water hard, twisting to spare Rose my full weight, because damned if I saw this coming. I’m not a small man. The impact traps her slender frame beneath mine and both of us go down deep beneath the surface.

The cold shock of the water feels good, even if I hadn’t planned on swimming in my clothes. Or my boots. Rose bucks, pushing away from me instinctively, fighting to reach the surface and breathe, and my hands brush her soft skin. It would be so simple to let my fingers move of their own accord and trace her slick pussy. Her body is warm and supple, despite the chill of the water, and I could pull her close so easily. She can’t fight me, not here.

But she’s not mine to touch. Not yet. She’s not a woman flirting with her lover. I’m her former best friends’ older brother. Her not-quite-stepbrother for a few short months. Fuck. I don’t feel the least bit avuncular. Despite the cold water, I’m rock hard and have been since the moment I spotted Rose swimming.

Wrapping an arm beneath her breasts, I kick upward with powerful strokes, bringing her with me toward the surface. I won’t leave her behind. Rose has always been resilient, but this isn’t a thing to chance. Not in the dark, where it’s impossible to find her underwater if something went wrong. Afghanistan taught me that. No one gets left behind in the dark ever again.

Three hard kicks, and I break the surface, her back pressed to my front. She squirms, pushing at my arm locking her in place.

“Be still,” I order. Damned if I’m moving before we have a few things straight, Rose and I. “Did you think this one through?”

Rose has never done the expected. She should be pissed off, scared, something. Instead, she laughs, and the sound is downright happy and amused. I’ve never been able to read her. “No, but you think too much.”

“You’re alone out here,” I point out roughly. “Naked. In the dark. What do you think could happen, Rose?”

“You wouldn’t hurt me,” she says and that makes me angrier. She shouldn’t make that assumption. There are so many things wrong inside me, so many broken parts of me. If she stripped away my skin and got inside, I don’t think she’d like what she finds. I don’t.

Instead of answering, I brush my thumb over the underside of her breast where there’s some kind of green vine with a pink flower. She’s impossibly soft and so damn pretty. “You so sure I’m safe, Rose?”

“What else would you be, Angel?”

Some primitive part of me responds fiercely to the unmistakable challenge in her voice, or maybe that’s the broken part of me. Because the question isn’t what I want to be—it’s what I want her to be. Mine. I drag my thumb over her skin again.

Unfortunately, Rose Jordan has always loved challenging me, and she keeps right on talking like I’m not inches from claiming her nipple.

“I swam here for years. Why shouldn’t I now?”

She tries again to twist away from me. I consider tightening my arms. Showing her just what happens when she teases like that. Wouldn’t be right, though, so I simply hold on. Rose is different than the girl who spent six months in Lonesome. My feelings for her haven’t changed, though, even if they feel more right than wrong now.

My dick throbs in agreement, the cold water no deterrent to what she stirs up inside me.

She freezes—no way she doesn’t feel that. I’m big, and I’m not trying to hide. She’s plastered up against me, and my clothes are soaked through.

“I’m asking again, Rose,” I whisper, my mouth by her ear, where the scent of those damned apples is strongest. “You so very sure I’m safe?”

She shoves at my arm. “Let me go.”

I do let go, despite my unruly dick fighting to overrule the good manners that were drilled into me as a kid. I kind of want to hang on to her, haul her up really close until she stops asking questions and the only demands she issues are sensual ones. But that can’t happen. Not yet. She’s gonna give it up to me, surrender herself, and that can’t happen if I take tonight.

“You’re the one who started this, Rose. I’ll be happy to finish it, though.”

She cuts through the water with fast, sure strokes. There’s a teasing flash of bare arms and legs as she hauls herself out of the swimming hole. She waxes and that little strip of soft, soft hair on her otherwise bare pussy hides a part of Rose Jordan I intend to be kissing sometime real soon.

She bends down, reaching for her towel, and my libido explodes. Christ, doesn’t she care what she looks like? What that luscious body of hers does to me? Is she deliberately teasing me—or am I still just her friends’ older brother, hardworking and sexless?

Treading water, I watch her. My boots are uncomfortably heavy with wetness, but I can’t haul myself out of the water sporting the erection that seems to be my new permanent companion. She must sense my impatience, because she doesn’t bother getting dressed, just scoops up her clothes and beats a retreat.

“Night, Angel,” she calls, making tracks for the Bug. Damned if she isn’t going to drive away bare-assed naked. I bite back a grin. The mental picture is almost worth the soaking.

I swim for the ledge. She’s got her head start, but now I’m coming for her, and this time she’s not getting away.

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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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

 

EXCERPT TWO

 

ROSE

 

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.

Boo-fucking-hoo.

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.

Badly.

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.

 

~*~

 

ANGEL

 

“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.

Fuck me.

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.

 

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STRIPPED DOWN

•February 1, 2016 • Leave a Comment

 

LONESOME COWBOYS 1 Other Sites

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

EXCERPT ONE

 

June

 

ANGEL

Blackhawk Ranch doesn’t run dry on my watch. Almost three hundred years the Mendozas have owned this part of California, my forefathers wrestling the arid landscape into submission. We reign here. We’re the fucking kings, and it’s not an empty title. Stetsons instead of crowns are the rule, but I’ve still got power. I run a fifty-thousand acre spread with ten thousand head of cattle. Forty cowboys depend on me for their living, and it’s about more than keeping the lights on and beer in the fridge. These boys are mine, and in exchange for their loyalty, I take care of them.

My name is Angel Mendoza, and anyone who hurts what’s mine learns fast that I’m more devil than not.

Protecting and defending isn’t the problem. Rain is.

This is the second well I’ve visited today. The first one was bone-dry, and this one yields only a sluggish trickle. Even a Mendoza can’t force the winter rains to come. The creek we get our surface water from is dried-out mud, the bed baked into razor-sharp ridges by the unrelenting sun, and the surviving wells fight to bring the water up nine hundred feet. If will could do it, I’d yank the water from the ground and feed it to the skin-drying heat of our California summer. Instead, for only the second time in my life, I’m fucking powerless.

The cowboys accompanying me eye first the well and then my face. They’re gonna take their cue from me. I yank my Stetson lower and head back to my truck. My boys fall in behind me, led by Dare, my foreman. Dare’s a tall, lean bastard who walks with a limp he took from a bad fall three years ago out in the mountains. The landing cut up his face some too because he and his horse planted on an old section of barbed wire fencing. It took us all night to get to him, and by then some of the damage was permanent. He wasn’t dead, though, so that went in the victory column as far as I was concerned. And he’d ride if he had to tie himself to the horse because he’s mean son-of-a-bitch if you push him hard.

“We’re dry,” Dare states the obvious as he stares at the well. He flicks the brim of his Stetson back so he can get a better look at Trouble with capital T. He’s not a pretty man. Unlike some of the guys who ride the Blackhawk spread, he’ll never be cowboy poster material. His buzzed-short hair and scarred face makes him look more MMA fighter than rider. He commands respect, though. The other cowboys don’t say shit when he talks, just wait for one of us to come up with a solution, to take charge.

I have one ace in the hole. “We’ll drill deeper.”

Sometimes cash can solve a problem and I’ve got money. Plenty of it.

“You so sure we’ll hit water?” Dare leans on the edge of the concrete reservoir, assessing first the water level and then the big yellow pipe sucking the wet stuff up from underground. He and I both know this isn’t a mechanical failure. Dare fixes things. If a wrench could make this shit better, he’d be all over it.

“I will.”

It’s that fucking simple. Plan. Execute. Succeed. Failure simply isn’t an option.

“Give me a drill date,” he says. If I say it’s done, it’s done and he knows that.

“I’ll have that for you tomorrow,” I tell him. “Until then, truck the water in from the reservoir.”

Hauling water is gonna cost money, but the ranch can handle it short-term. Longer term, we bleed cash, and I didn’t build my ranching empire by losing money.

After Dare is sorted, I get back in my ride and steer the battered pickup over the dark dirt road. Setting my plan in motion is as simple as punching the driller’s number on my cell phone and giving the order to go deep. Drilling for water is expensive, the price rising with each foot you punch down and ending in a price tag that makes Tiffany’s look like the Dollar Store. I know this, but even still the driller quotes me a per-foot price that makes my breath catch. For that kind of cash, he’d damned well better hit water and it had better taste like liquid gold.

Time kinda slows to heated, sensual shimmer outside the cab while the driller blah-blah-blahs his way through next steps because there’s one driving urge pounding through everyone and everything on my spread: find water. The cattle need it. My vaqueros covet it. I’ll be damned if I allow a dry well to consume what I’ve built here.

Making a living from the land means fighting every step of the way. Fortunately, I love a good fight and I’ve also planned for this day—already have the solution. I drill, the cattle can drink, and we all live happily fucking after. If I hit water. If it’s enough.

I drive for what seems like hours, making the rounds and ironing out problems. I’m the best at what I do, and everybody wants a piece of me. I oblige, but by sunset I’m pissed off and hot. Taking a few minutes for myself is a no-brainer when the turnoff for the swimming hole appears out of the shadows. I aim the pickup down the dirt road. I’m bone tired from a day that began before sunrise and has only just ended. I’m hot, and I smell like sweat, horse, and probably a dozen other unpleasant things as well. Right now, a swim sounds perfect, exactly what I need to cool down and think things through.

I pull in and kill the headlights, soaking up the nighttime peace and quite. You can practically feel the heat escaping slowly from the ground. Images flicker in the corner of my vision, but those are ghosts. I’m home. I’m in charge of my life now, and Afghanistan is far, far away. I’ve put a continent between me and that place.

The quiet grows when I get out of the truck. After a long day wrangling the ranch, I need to be alone. Sometimes, there are too many bodies, too close, and it’s hard not to remember that last month in Afghanistan.

Fuck.

And sometimes memories refuse to leave me alone.

I shut the truck door carefully, deliberately. Slamming shit doesn’t help because I don’t want or need the loud crack of sound that follows the violence. Something got broken inside me in Afghanistan, something I haven’t fixed yet, but I will. Failure is never an option. Turning toward the swimming hole, I fist the bottom of my T-shirt, ready to strip down. Ready for the cold lick of water on my face and my balls.

Except . . . I’m not alone. Tucked into the edge of the road is a beat-up Bug I can’t believe made it down the dirt track. Even in the near-dark, the hot pink paint job is an eyesore. One tire looks almost flat, and there’s a crack that stretches the entire length of the windshield. California plates, though, so I’ve got myself a local.

Christ, I’m sick and tired of the trespassers who think ignoring Blackhawk’s signs and fences is a game. High school kids have been sneaking onto Mendoza land for decades, which is a stupid fucking thing to do. We’re a working ranch, and we run cattle. Idiot kids wise up fast when they meet the wrong end of a bull, a barbed wire fence, or a snake. All they have to do is ask and follow a few basic rules to keep themselves safe. I’d say yes. Instead, they’re all about forbidden fruit, reenacting their own twisted version of the Garden of Eden and the fall. They get hurt, when all I want is to keep them safe.

Scrubbing a hand over my head, I reach in and snag the Stetson from the passenger seat. Somehow, I’ve acquired the reputation of being a mean-ass, coldhearted bastard. I cemented my new rep when I came home from the SEALs. Since I don’t give a damn what folks says, my fan club isn’t all wrong. Safety comes first.

I move out silently. No point in advertising my presence until I have to. Tonight’s trespassers are probably just kids and nothing more sinister, but, damn it, it isn’t safe to swim out here unsupervised. I’ve warned them not to come at night and never to come alone. I have to know when someone’s on my land because too many things can happen out here if a person isn’t careful. And if it turns out the visitor is less benign, well, I’ve got a Glock tucked in the waistband of my jeans. I don’t leave shit to chance. Not anymore.

It takes just a minute to penetrate the fringe of cottonwood trees ringing the swimming hole. Older than anyone now living on the ranch, those trees have seen plenty. My brothers had a rope-and-tire swing here. They spent hours whooping it up, clambering into the tire, soaring out over the water, and then letting go of the rope as soon as the swing floated over the center of the pond where the water ran deepest. They’d free fall screaming with pleasure, never second-guessing their landing. The temperature hovers too close to frigid for comfort, but the water table isn’t deep enough to tap. It can’t end my dry spell.

When I reach the edge of the trees, my feet stop moving without a direct order from my head; tonight’s swimmer is unexpected. I expected to find a few high school kids. Maybe a cooler of beer or a couple busy discovering each other. Instead, there’s a woman in the water.

A damned fine, completely bare-ass naked woman. She cuts through the dark surface with slow, lazy strokes. Not too tall and real damned curvy. Her sun-kissed skin is on display in the silvery moonlight and ink curls up her spine and wraps around her throat and her ribs. I can’t tell what the design is from where I’m standing, but there are branches and flowers and curly shit that follow the lines of her body. When she moves, the ink moves with her like leaves and vines shifting in the wind. It’s fucking gorgeous. Water-slicked blond hair covers her bare shoulders and back, obscuring more of the lines and colors. I should be a gentleman, should look away. But damned if her paddling around bare-ass naked in my swimming hole wearing nothing but ink isn’t the sexiest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

She dives beneath the surface, treating me to a spectacular view of her ass. Fuck if I don’t swallow hard. Her curves look soft as peaches and every bit as luscious. The urge hits me hard to cup both cheeks in my hands. Run my fingers down that skin and explore every inch of her up to and including the shadowed crease between her cheeks. I’ll show her every dark, sweet, dirty pleasure I know—and I’ve got a long, long list.

For the moment, though, I stand and look, feeling an unexpected grin tug the corners of my mouth. She’d be so much safer if my hell-raising younger brothers had been the ones to find her. I don’t pretend to be nice. I don’t have to. The Mendozas own this ranch. This world, this place, is mine because I’m the Mendoza, the oldest and the patriarch even if I’m only thirty-two, and here she is, blatantly trespassing without so much as a by-your-leave.

I’ll let her make it up to me.

My sexy swimmer reaches a rocky outcropping and grabs for a plastic bottle of shampoo. The scent of green apples fills the air as, with a little hum, she treads water and lathers up before slipping beneath the surface of the water. That body of hers is now slick with foam and apple goodness.

Christ, I love apples.

Even though I haven’t seen her face yet, she looks good enough to eat.

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