WOLF’S PROPERTY

•May 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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An excerpt from WOLF’S PROPERTY, a werewolf biker romance releasing on May 15th!

 

EXCERPT TWO

 

WARE

 

Big Dog’s female stands in the middle of the living room when we push our way back inside. She looks ready to bolt, despite being barefoot and buck-ass naked except for my T-shirt and jacket. The bruises mottling her legs and arms make me want to drag Big Dog out of the bayou and resuscitate his ass just so I can kill him again. Slowly.

 

I don’t even know her name.

 

She squeaks when she spots us, but she also raises a two-by-four slat that must have come from the bed frame. I like her spirit, although the wolf she should be pounding on is now gator food.

 

“I’m leaving,” she whispers. Her eyes dart between us, through us, and I want to promise her that Big Dog is never, ever coming back. He’ll never hurt her again.

 

“We’ll give you a ride,” Jace says. “You can ride with Ware or with me. You pick.”

 

She hesitates, and I bite back another growl. Her hands shake, the two-by-four trembling as she fights to keep it up. She won’t meet Jace’s gaze, as if she instinctively recognizes the Pack Alpha. I don’t want her afraid, though. I want her to fight, to choose.

 

To choose me.

 

Fuck, but I need to get out of here.

 

“You got a name, honey?” I freeze by the wall, fisting my hands on my thighs. If she were wolf, she’d smell my anger and frustration.

 

“Marly.” Her voice gets stronger. That’s my girl.

 

“You got stuff you want to take with you, Marly?” Jace asks nice and casual as he reaches into his pocket and produces a lighter. Her eyes follow his hand, focusing on the lighter. She sucks in a breath and freezes, but doesn’t protest. Guess she’s on board with today’s arson plans. “If so, you might want to grab it.”

 

She nods and vanishes back into the bedroom as if she’s got a pack of wolves nipping at her ass. She doesn’t like us, and I can’t blame her for that.

 

“There another way out?” Jace asks, and I hear the unspoken question. If Marly runs, if she takes off in the bayou when she’s barefoot and mostly naked, she’ll end up hurt. And her hurting days are over.

 

So I shrug and think. “The windows in the bedroom are boarded up.”

 

It’s true. She’s not gonna find an exit in the bedroom. Also? I already checked that room for stuff—and it was empty. So what’s my girl doing in there?

 

“Not gonna fix that girl overnight,” Jace warns me like he’s fucking Doctor Phil. “If you’re serious about claiming her, you’re gonna have to wait. Some stuff takes time.”

 

Fuck him. “You figure this out with Keelie Sue? Did you give her the time she needed?”

 

Jace growls, prowling closer. He’s not gonna back down—or let me forget that he’s the Alpha here. Not sure why I’m pushing him or why keeping Marly matters so much. But it does. She’s something—someone—special. I don’t have to admit it out loud to Jace, but part of me kinda thinks she really is my one and only. My mate. I’d never take her without a yes from her, but keeping her safe? Yeah. That’s the only fucking option that’s on the table, and if I need to get Jace on board, I will.

 

Marly slips back out into the living room, her hands fisted in the pockets of my jacket. I guess she did the 4-1-1 of the bedroom and realized it hadn’t grown any exits since the last time she was there. She glances toward the door, then back at us. I can practically hear her weighing her chances of getting past us.

 

“You ready to ride?” Jace asks. “You pick which one of us you want to ride with, and we’ll get you somewhere safe.”

 

It’s not like she has choices, but her nod still makes my wolf want to howl with pleasure. She’s picked us. Picked me. Okay. That last is pure bullshit, but I still like thinking it. Jace holds out the lighter.

 

“You want to do the honors, honey?”

 

MARLY

 

When I flick the Bic and that little orange flame shoots out, I feel powerful. I don’t know where Big Dog’s gone, but I know he’s not coming back. The scraped and bloody knuckles of my rescuers make that perfectly clear. I hope he’s dead. I hope it was long and painful and that he learned exactly what it feels like to be helpless and betrayed. To have your trust and your body turned against you until there’s nothing you can do but hang on and wait for someone else to fix things. Setting Big Dog’s house on fire is a felony, but it’s also an action I’m choosing to take.

 

Something else I don’t know and can add to my long, long list of WTF moments? I don’t know who my rescuers are and that’s actually not a point in their favor. If they were the boys in blue, their reasons for being here would be clear. They’re not social services here to bust me out, and they’re not friends or family. They’re strangers. Big, tattooed, leather-wearing, bike-riding strangers. The odds of my hitting the jackpot in a Vegas casino are higher than the odds that they came all the way into the bayou just to rescue me. Since Big Dog’s motorcycle club knew he was holding me, I suspect this visit is more payback than rescue mission anyhow. As soon as we’re outside, I take a closer look. The patch on their cuts announces their membership in the Breed MC—so it’s got to be club business that brought them here today. If I’m lucky, they won’t care when I head on my way. If I’m strong enough, however, I won’t care how they feel about my departure.

 

Remember that Vegas jackpot I mentioned? Yeah. I should totally hit that. I could be a multimillionaire by sunset.

 

I stroll closer to the porch. I’ve never set anything larger than a barbecue briquette on fire before, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I squat down by the sagging steps, pretending that I’m not barefoot. Not naked except for a stranger’s T-shirt and jacket.

 

My stranger is a whole lot more naked now that I’m wearing his clothes. His leather cut hangs open over his chest, giving me a good view of the dark ink swirling over his skin and up his neck. It’s like the universe branded him trouble. He’s muscled, and the ridges of his abdomen are drool-worthy. A pair of worn jeans hangs low on his hips, but I’m not looking further. Okay. I may sneak a peek or two. The man’s gorgeous and I’m not blind. Battle-scarred and sick to death of aggressive men, but not blind. He’s just a really nice piece of scenery that I’m appreciating.

 

I poke the lighter and its teeny-tiny flame at the steps. The fire licks at the wood, leaving a black mark, but then it flickers out. Story of my life. I huff and try again. Like relationships and having a satisfyingly kinky sex life, this looks so much easier and more satisfying in books. The library has entire shelves of survivalist manuals that, clearly, I should have read.

 

My rescuer crouches down beside me. Part of me wants to flinch away, but I stay put. So what if he’s big and reminds me way too much of Big Dog? I have to draw the line somewhere, have to get on with my life. He’ll be my practice man. Of course, he’s completely oblivious to my minor panic attack. He reaches out—toward the mess of sticks and leaves at the bottom of the step rather than toward my not-so-sexy self—and scrapes together a pile of crumbly, dry, brown bits.

 

“Gotta feed it,” he rumbles. His voice is low and harsh, like chains pulling through metal. I nod. It’s as good a day as any to learn the ins and outs of arson.

 

“Tinder.” I nod and file my new knowledge under F for fire. Probably could go under F for fun. Or F for failure.

 

“Ware Evans,” he grunts and pulls his own lighter out of his back pocket.

 

He’s not much for conversation. I mean, I’m a librarian (or was—bet I’ve been fired as a no show thanks to Big Dog’s forcible relocation of my person) and silence is supposed to be my thing, but I still like to have a conversation. Is Ware his name? It’s not quite as ridiculous as Big Dog—and that man was definitely compensating for his deficiencies in other departments—but it’s hardly normal.

 

“That’s really your name? Ware?” Shoot. I need to grow a filter.

 

He turns his head and stares at me. He’s a bad-ass biker. He outweighs me by two to one (okay, not quite, but I’m entitled to cheat on my weight after the month I’ve had). He’s felonious, murderous, and probably every inch of him is a lethal weapon, but I feel… safe?

 

He nods tersely. “That’s me.” He jerks a thumb toward his companion. “That’s Jace Jones.”

 

Okay. I have to wonder if Ware is the name on his birth certificate, or if it’s some kind of road name. As in: beware of danger? Good to know.

 

Again I try—and fail—to set the porch step on fire. At this rate, I’m going to be celebrating my centennial before the place burns. A thought occurs to me.

 

“What’s the date?” I blurt out the question, proving I truly am filter-less.

 

Behind us, the other big scary dude snorts. “Hot date?”

 

Not a chance. I hate Big Dog and right now I’m more than willing to extend that loathing to all penis-toting members of society, including present company. No more men, no more domination fantasies, no more sex. As if he can sense the hostility rolling off me, Ware fishes a phone out of his back pocket and turns it around so I can see the screen without touching it or him. He’s definitely not big on wasting words.

 

But he’s got ears, right? He can listen. “It’s my birthday.”

 

“Congratulations?” He growls the word like he can’t believe I’m talking about birthdays. And honestly? He’s not wrong. I can feel my brain shutting down, hanging onto the little, normal things.

 

“I’m Marly Silva.” I transfer the lighter to my left hand and automatically shove my right in his direction. Warm, hard fingers close around mine. He’s got tattoos on his knuckles, and I wonder if he’ll ink a reminder of Big Dog there. He has scars, too, like he’s lived hard in his body and hasn’t been afraid to wade into a fight. I’m probably not supposed to find that reassuring.

 

I look down at the fire we’re supposedly starting.

 

“Is this efficient?” Based on the small scorch marks I’ve succeeded in creating on the steps, Big Dog’s cabin is more likely to rot than to burn. I mean, I already know the answer—but I want to hear him admit the truth.

 

Ware grunts, shoves to his feet, and goes over to the bikes. When he comes back, he’s holding a gas can. Slowly I lift my gaze to his. “So that’s a no.”

 

He shrugs, clearly giving zero fucks. “Everything’s better with an accelerant.”

 

Good to know.

 

He starts dousing the place with gas, so I stand back. He soaks the perimeter with casual expertise, makes a trip inside the cabin to do some more splashing, and then comes back out. He’s satisfyingly thorough.

 

He nods at me. “Now try.”

 

Since I’m planning on keeping my eyebrows, I find a nice, leafy stick and light that up. Then I drop it on the gasoline-soaked strip. There’s a satisfying whoosh and then orange flames lick toward the cabin.

 

“Shoulda brought marshmallows,” Ware grunts.

 

That surprises a laugh out of me. I’m not sure if he’s just hungry, or if he’s actually trying to make a joke. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who delivers punch lines, though, so maybe I have my answer.

 

Holy smokes but the guy is hot. Nope. My brain (and my libido) can stop right there. See, I originally thought Big Dog was kinda hot, too. That didn’t work out so well for me. Instead of dating and a rocking sex life, I got six months of him grunting and taking and hurting. The first time he tied me up, I stupidly thought it was a game. I’m always willing to try new things, so I tried it. Turned out it was one game I didn’t like—but he backhanded me when I said so. Our relationship didn’t come with a safe word. That’s when I realized the only rules were his. I still didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into, though, until he shifted on me one night.

 

So I have to ask myself: if Jace and Ware knew Big Dog well enough to kill his ass in a highly personal and painful fashion, did they know about his furry side? Are they wolves? They ride, too. The bikes are parked outside the cabin. There’s got to be a way to ask, but nothing comes to mind. So for the next few minutes, I just stand there and stare. It’s satisfying, watching Big Dog’s shitty cabin go up in flames. It’s not like he cares— I’m 99 percent certain he’s floating somewhere in the bayou, hopefully being consumed alive by alligators—but I’ll take what I can get.

 

As the flames get bigger, the air around me grows hotter. While I stand there like I’m watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, Ware and Jace scratch a fire line into the dirt yard. Guess they draw the line at burning down the bayou. Safety first, and all that.

 

Big Dog has a propane tank around the side, which is probably why Jace steps toward me. Or maybe he just wants to ride, wants to put some road between him and this place. I wouldn’t care except clearly he intends for me to go with them. Although walking out of the bayou barefoot holds zero appeal, I’ve learned my lesson. No more strangers. No more men. Instinctively, I look around for Big Dog, preparing to dodge the fists. Followed by the belt.

 

I hate being afraid.

 

Jace stops, his eyes examining me. I’m certain he sees way more than I want, and I don’t mean my naked legs.

 

“Who you riding with?” he asks.

 

This is one of those between the devil and the deep blue sea choices. He didn’t ask if I was ready to ride. He didn’t toss me a set of keys. Clearly, in the Jace-verse, I’m supposed to hop on the back of a bike and wrap my bare legs around a total stranger. I’d like to tell him to fuck off, but I’m back to being scared. I hate it, but Jace is big. He’s take-charge, too, and today’s been another long, bad day in a string of nightmarish days. Worse, I doubt anyone other than my boss and my landlord even noticed I’d disappeared. Except thinking about that now won’t get me out of here—and I need to leave in the worst possible way.

 

“I’d rather leave on my own.” The words come out less authoritatively than I’d like, a suggestion rather than a statement of intent. I try again. “I’m leaving on my own.”

 

Jace grunts and I think he’s… amused? “Only got bikes. You know how to ride?”

 

The answer to that is a resounding no. I scan the yard, but no working car or truck magically appears. It’s the back of a bike or my feet.

 

My bare feet.

 

“Pick a bike,” Jace invites, although those three words are all command. He’s not asking what I want—but he is giving me a choice. He’s not leaving me stranded here (although he hasn’t indicated where he plans on taking me), and he hasn’t just tossed me on the back of his bike. He’d do it, too. I know that instinctively. So I need to make a choice because at least then I’m choosing rather than letting life and another man run me over.

 

“Ware,” I announce. Jace doesn’t look surprised—I don’t think he likes the idea of riding with me much, either.

 

Ware tosses me something. A pair of battered jeans and motorcycle boots. Since both he and Jace are still fully clothed…

 

“Big Dog’s,” he tells me.

 

Oh. Yuck.

 

I shouldn’t be such a baby about it, but did he pull these off Big Dog’s body? I’ve been tied up, naked, in a bedroom. I should be willing to wear anything, right? But I can’t. I just… can’t. These jeans might have been taken off a dead body. He’s probably asking me to wear a dead man’s boots, and I think I’d rather chance the road rash.

 

“They’re clean,” Jace says from behind us. “Enough.”

 

I didn’t realize Big Dog kept his spare shit in this cabin. It’s possible.

 

It’s also possible Jace is lying to make me feel better.

 

Honestly? I appreciate the effort.

 

“Get dressed,” Ware rumbles. He sounds impatient. The cabin is well on its way to being engulfed in flames. Maybe if I hang out here, I can hitch a ride back to civilization with the fire department.

 

I’m yanking the jeans up my legs before my brain even throws a flag on the play. Ware gave me an order. I followed it. Shit. That’s how I get myself in trouble. It doesn’t matter that he feels right. I have a bad habit of picking dominant men. Possessive men. They make me feel needed, wanted, valuable. I’m not happy with the kink in my head.

 

Maybe it’s because I’m newly divorced, fresh from five years of vanilla sex. Married Marly was boring, not new, the ball-and-chain. Becoming Marly 2.0 was therefore my plan when I hit Louisiana, and I’d promised myself I’d belong, be someone’s fantasy, be his first choice. Monty, my ex, and I sort of fell into marriage. We dated in high school. We attended the same college and dated there. Marriage was just the natural next step and we didn’t question it, tying the knot in a private ceremony at a local winery. The pictures were gorgeous. What came after, however, was less so. He was bored and nothing I tried seemed to spice up our married life, either in or out of bed.

 

Guys look at me and see librarian rather than sex kitten. I could tell them exactly where the erotica books are shelved under E for erotic romance (although I maintain they should live under F for Fantasy or D for Dreams, because nothing like that has ever happened to me in my life), or I could point them to the most-borrowed sex self-help books. I’ve got plenty of book knowledge—it’s just the real-life, hands-on stuff that I appear to suck at.

 

Big Dog is Exhibit A.

 

So I’m the quiet librarian who lives in her head or in a book, and most days I don’t mind. It turns out, though, that real life is way too exciting for me. Big Dog seemed exciting. Different. I had no idea. I’m not sure what to do about the wolf thing, to be honest. It really seems like I should tell someone, but what I want is a month-long bath and to crawl into bed. I want to feel safe.

 

Ware throws a leg over his bike and slaps a palm on the seat behind him. The sound is short and sharp, as authoritative as the man. Guess that’s my cue.

 

I shouldn’t go to him. I definitely shouldn’t cave, but I… do. I button the jeans and yank on the boots. And then, like the idiot of the century, I slog over to him and his bike. Somehow, he pulls me or lifts me, and I’m magically straddling the seat. He turns, zips up the jacket, and hands me a helmet.

 

Jace peels out of the yard, impatient to be gone. That leaves me and Ware.

 

“So,” I say. I tighten my grip, but that puts me closer to Ware and makes it very clear that the man is packing. I can feel his gun against my stomach.

 

He grunts (I’m shocked) and turns the bike on. The engine’s vibrations flood my body with sensation everywhere, but particularly between my legs. Or maybe that’s because I’m sandwiched against Ware, my pussy all but glued to his butt. My legs hug his hips.

 

He adjusts something on the bike. “Hold on.”

 

To what? The only option is him, so I carefully slide my arms around his waist. He’s hard, his body without an inch of give. My fingers brush the buckle of his belt and my stomach comes into close contact with what is unmistakably the handle of a gun. Guess he’s not worried about my shooting him in the back.

 

My heart slams into my chest, reminding me that my ride isn’t my safest option. Behind us, the flames crackle as they devour Big Dog’s cabin.

 

“Where are we going?” Honestly, I’m not sure I want to hear the answer. Going home tops my wish list, but I disappeared into the bayou five months ago. My landlord likely cleaned out my place and tossed or sold my stuff. I’m starting over and I’m all but naked.

 

“My place.” Ware guides the bike away from the cabin and onto the road. Or what passes for a road. The way to Big Dog’s is definitely off the beaten path—and it’s more dirt and rocks (a track?) than anything formalized in asphalt.

 

This is a bad idea. I know it, and I should put the brakes on his high-handed decision-making. But the thing is? I don’t know where else to go. I’m likely jobless, homeless, and pant-less—and that’s a trifecta of problems I’m not prepared to deal with right now.

 

Instead, the throb of the engine vibrating through my body makes me feel alive in a way I haven’t for months. There’s a beat and a rhythm to it, the roar of the pipes almost enough to drown out the panicked thoughts in my head. When Ware shifts to take a curve in the road, my body instinctively matches his, and I like the ease with which his body guides mine, too. I’ve always loved Harleys.

 

“What you’d do before?” He asks his question casually, as if he’s not also announcing that my life is over. Changed. Forcibly rerouted in a new direction. I try reminding myself that I like new experiences, but this isn’t so much new or an experience as it is flat-out catastrophe.

 

I rest my head against his shoulder, both hating and loving my weakness. No more bikers, I remind myself. He guides the bike down the road effortlessly, left, right, straight. Each decision is followed by a powerful flex of muscles. I’m wearing both his shirt and his jacket, so his shoulders are bare beneath the leather cut. His skin smells like that leather and something warmer, wilder, and more alive. I’d like to say I hate how out of control he makes me feel, but somehow this feels…right.

 

“I was a librarian,” I tell him. Because we’re on the bike and the noise of the pipes bounces off the trees and the bayou’s still, dark waters, I have to put my mouth almost on his ear. I’ve got my legs wrapped around his and my hands tucked against his stomach, but somehow that new proximity feels almost too intimate.

 

He nods. “Books.”

 

“And magazines and ebooks and DVDs. All sorts of stuff.” I have no idea why I’m discussing collection development with him. It’s not like he cares, and I have a hard time imagining that he’s much of a reader. This is a man who rides a Harley and who just beat the crap out of another man. Who most likely killed that other guy, since Big Dog wouldn’t have let me just walk away without some powerful persuasion. Plus, B.D. deserved to die. I’m just sorry he didn’t invite me to help the way he did with our arson.

 

I realize that I’m less concerned about his possible penchant for violence than I am about his knowing Big Dog. I mean, I doubt there’s a rule that says he has to be a wolf, too, but if he knew Big Dog and they rode together in the same MC… what are the odds?

 

“Are you a wolf?” Shit shit shit. I’ve blurted the question out. Apparently, I left my sense of self-preservation behind in the bayou.

 

“Fuck.” Ware doesn’t toss me off the bike, although I’m not sure how to interpret his four-letter response. Fuck, as in let’s stop and get it on by the side of the road (he’s hot, but I’ve officially sworn off men). Fuck, as in “you have outed a secret wolfish conspiracy and now I must take steps”? Or just fuck, he doesn’t know what to say to me because my question is so outlandish that now he fears for my sanity?

 

“Big Dog could change into a wolf.” I know I sound crazy, and I’m sure I look even crazier. I mean, Ware just untied me from the bed where I was spread-eagled and naked, so clearly my judgment is questionable. But I can’t help noticing that his body stays loose and relaxed. He doesn’t tense or edge away or give any sign of distress—which means one thing.

 

He knows.

 

“Big Dog was a shifter,” he agrees. “You know about that?”

 

We’re out of the bayou now, driving through the outskirts of Baton Rouge. The surrounding area is rough, the buildings dilapidated and run-down. There’s also a singular dearth of people and escape routes, so I kind of wish I’d waited to ask my question until we were somewhere more civilized. Someplace with visible people.

 

“He liked to play show and tell,” I admit. The first time Big Dog shifted, I peed myself. I’m not ashamed to admit it. One minute he was holding me down, and then I blinked or closed my eyes, and a wolf was pinning me down. He scraped his teeth over my jaw and homed in on my shoulder. He bit me there, and I’ve woken up more than one night since then, screaming. “He bit.”

 

I can’t help but notice we’re talking about Big Dog in the past tense. And that Ware doesn’t seem to be actually headed back into the city. We’re still riding through the outskirts, where the bayou meets industrial wasteland and undervalued properties. There’s a strange kind of beauty to the way Mother Nature has reclaimed what the people had and left. It’s all warehouses and skeletons of abandoned buildings, their original purposes lost along with roofs and windows. Weeds grow up through the asphalt, emphasizing the wildness of the place.

 

Like Ware.

 

“Am I going to turn into a werewolf?” I’m not sure why this hasn’t occurred to me before—probably because my shit list was already overflowing, and my brain was smart enough not to add anything else. But now that I’m away from Big Dog’s cabin and he’s gotten what he had coming to him (I should probably feel bad about his death, but I just can’t), I have a little more bandwidth.

 

The corner of Ware’s mouth tugs up. Apparently, this is his version of a smile. “No,” he says. “We’re not contagious.”

 

“Oh. Good.” Wait. I peel back from him. He said we.

 

He curses again and shoves a hard arm around my waist. He’s probably just making sure I don’t fall off the bike—road rash wouldn’t improve my day any—but suddenly I can’t quite catch my breath as I mentally try to fit Ware under “W.” W for wolf. He’s a wolf. Too. Wait wait wait.

 

“Don’t freak out,” he growls as if it’s that simple. He orders. I obey. Is giving commands a Ware thing—or a wolf thing? He’s good at it. My stupid clit apparently still thinks dominant men could be fun in bed—it perks up—but I ignore it. From now on, I’m filing sex under T for Trouble. Or Terminal.

 

Ware turns sharply off the road and heads for another run-down, beat-up structure. It’s a warehouse. I think. It’s kind of hard to tell, to be honest. The building is one of those non-descript two-story industrial boxes with a small parking lot, tons of chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire, and a general sense of fuck off, you don’t belong here. Or maybe it’s trespassers will be eaten. I know one thing: letting Ware take me inside an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere is even stupider than dating Big Dog. I make a point of learning from my mistakes.

So when Ware parks the bike outside the warehouse, I’m off and sprinting for the street.

 

 

 

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WOLF’S PROPERTY

•May 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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An excerpt from WOLF’S PROPERTY, a werewolf biker romance releasing on May 15th!

 

EXCERPT ONE

 

An excerpt from WOLF’S PROPERTY, a werewolf biker romance releasing on May 15th!

 

Sometimes it’s the day-to-day that gets you. I’ve survived a change in pack leadership, and I’ve earned my top dog spot as the new Alpha’s right-hand wolf, but nothing in my too many years has prepared me for the shit I see in this run-down, fucked-up bayou cabin. Jace pulls up hard, throttling his bike and killing the engine, and I don’t realize yet that Fate’s about to hand me my own ass followed by my heart.

I’m too old for this shit.

The hunting cabin is located deep inside the Louisiana bayou, the part that most locals don’t get to, let alone the tourists. It’s a rundown shack that stinks of damp. The porch sags and the yard is a mess of bike parts, beer cans, and whatever trash the cabin’s owner wanted to get rid of but was too lazy to burn. The place begs for a burning, and I’m pretty sure Jace agrees with me because he blows through the front door and immediately goes alpha on the wolf inside the cabin.

B.D. “Big Dog” Martin doesn’t stand a chance.

When Jace goes to work with his fists and his feet, I’ve got his back. That’s my job and I’m gunning for exceeds expectations when he gets around to giving me my performance review. If you’re a wolf, you either succeed or you fail. There’s no middle ground, and the pink slip that comes with failure is the permanent kind.

As loser wolf is about to find out.

I could take Jace in a fight. I’m certain of it. I’m older, which means I’m more experienced. I fight dirty, too, and I give zero fucks about rules, expectations, or honor. I fight to win, pure and simple. After all, I’ve seen what happens to the losers. My first lesson came when I was a pup and my father, who was the Alpha of our pack, went head-to-head with a younger, stronger challenger. The throat bleeds out hard. Thirty-eight fucking years and my knee feels like it’s eighty and change. If I challenge Jace, someone else in the pack challenges me tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day, too, until I’m too old, too broken, and I lose. Jace knows this, which is why he keeps me close at hand. I’m a useful weapon and the best fighter this pack has, but I’m also a threat.

Big Dog took a mate six months ago. He did it wolf-style—saw the girl, fucked the girl, kept the girl. He didn’t ask her permission, didn’t pop the question, and damned sure didn’t treat her right. I saw her around once or twice before Big Dog got his paws on her, and she was a hot little thing. Made me look twice, that’s for certain, and I don’t bother with the ladies. When I’ve got an itch to scratch, I take care of it with the club whores. They’re good girls, straightforward about what they want. In exchange for some cold, hard cash, they don’t give me shit about emotions or relationships. They don’t ask for more than I can give.

Big Dog’s mate was way too young for my ancient ass, plus she had relationship tattooed across her face. She was a keeper female, a good woman—so no way I tapped her. Fuck, I hadn’t even caught her name. It wasn’t like I deserved a shot at her.

Part of me—the part that’s a real bastard—can’t help noting that I couldn’t have been any worse than Big Dog. Big Dog likes fast bikes, guns, and serial pussy. He’s not a relationship guy either, and I doubt he could spell the word monogamy, let alone act on it. And since the human inside the cabin deserves better than that, I followed Jace Jones out to Big Dog’s cabin, prepared to kick some wolf ass.

It’s not as if I’m Super Man hunting for Lois Lane, but some shit is flat-out wrong. The cabin stinking of feminine pain and terror? Wrong. If your ass is lucky enough to find a female of worth, you protect her. You never, ever fucking break her.

Jace drives his fist into Big Dog’s stomach, the blow punctuating my thoughts. I’m itching to get in on the action, but Jace doesn’t give me a shot.

“I’m gonna tell you about my problem.” In case Big Dog has any ideas about bowing out on the conversation, Jace plants his boot hard in the middle of Big Dog’s chest and leans down. I move closer, keeping half an eye on my Alpha. The rest of me is wondering where the hell the girl is and if she’s okay.

Big Dog snarls a few obscenities and jackknifes, trying to throw off Jace’s hold. Resistance is futile because Jace simply shoves down harder, until something cracks in the vicinity of Big Dog’s ribcage. This shuts the whining fucker up, and I’m tempted to applaud.

“I’m in charge of this pack,” Jace growls. He waits until Big Dog whines out an agreement, presses down harder, and gets to the point of our visit. Finally. “And I told you boys that we’ve got a new rule. We don’t rape our females. We don’t put our dicks where they’re not wanted—and if you’re not man enough to get it right in bed, you don’t force your way in there. Are we clear?”

The day’s unexpected bonus comes when Big Dog grabs for Jace’s boot—no clue what that stupid fuck hoped to accomplish with the maneuver—and Jace snaps both his arms. Big Dog lets go with a snarl of pain and unleashes a whining litany of complaints, whimpers, and pleading bitchery. Jace isn’t into mercy—and neither am I. That’s the number one reason I’ve given my loyalty to our new Alpha.

“Why don’t you tell us where you put your mate? Think of this as a welfare check. We’re practically fucking social services. If she’s happy, you’re happy, and we go on our way.”

I back Jace’s speech one hundred percent, and I’m pretty sure the death glare on my face announces this to Big Dog. The wolf’s gaze skitters from Jace to me and then drops.

“Fuck—” Big Dog starts, and Jace kicks him in the jaw. Then he nods to me.

“Get her.”

I follow my nose and make straight for the closed door on the other side of the room. Behind me, I hear the sounds of Jace redecorating with his fists. Big Dog’s gonna look and feel like shit.

The bedroom door’s locked. I could ask Big Dog for the key—bet that fucker’s got it on him—but I’m impatient and we’re not planning on leaving the cabin standing anyhow. One hard kick and the door splinters.

Turns out I wasn’t prepared for this. Big Dog’s got his female locked up in the bedroom, but he’s gone one step further and tied her to the bed. Naked. Plus, he’s into some kinky shit, because he’s got her muzzled with one of those BDSM ball-gag things that makes a man think about replacing all that leather with his dick. Ordinarily, the visual would tick all my boxes because it’s one hell of a view and my imagination is filthy.

And I still get a boner that punches out the front of my jeans because there’s no denying biology. She’s naked, she’s sexy, and she could be mine. If, you know, I were an asshole like Big Dog. She whimpers when I come busting through the door and tries to scoot backward on the mattress, her fingers flexing on the ropes tying her wrists to the bed frame. Her pretty, fragile skin is raw and red because that bastard went for the hurt.

This isn’t a game.

This isn’t okay.

Shit. I should say something.

Instead, I stand there and fucking stare, maybe because all the blood in my head has rushed straight to my dick. She’s the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen. She’s more pocket-sized than tall, all soft curves and sweet tits. Her belly is the prettiest curve of them all, a delicate invitation for my tongue. My teeth. I want to sink to my knees and go down on her. Eat her out, eat her up, make her mine.

And it’s not just her body, although I could happily spend the next hundred years worshipping it. Her outer package is damned fine, but there’s a feminine strength to the way she stills on the bed and then meets my gaze. She won’t be shamed by Big Dog, and I’m fiercely glad. Breaking her, making her feel bad about what she does or doesn’t enjoy when it comes to sex—those would be the real fucking crimes.

I drag my eyes away from her body (for which I deserve a fucking medal because she’s spread-eagled and I have the best damned view of her pretty little pussy) and meet her gaze. She’s not a wolf, but I am, so I’m curious to see what she does next. Will she match me glare for glare, or will she drop her gaze and acknowledge me as her Alpha?

Brown hair tumbles around her shoulders with a hint of a rebellious wave where the ends fall in loose curls that just beg you to wrap the stuff around your fingers. Pull her close. Get her all tangled up in you and you in her. For a moment—a long, fucking, hot moment—she does meet my gaze. She stares at me with those big, brown eyes, and I forget why I’m here. Who’s in charge.

For just that one moment, she owns me.

I don’t like it. I don’t like her. The only soul who controls me is my Alpha—and she’s not him. She’s something… more. Someone more, and that makes her dangerous. Remember what I said about relationship territory? That’s terra incognita and I’m not going there. Her face is all angles and lines, more interesting than beautiful except she’s fucking beautiful to me. I draw my finger down the straight bridge of her nose, drinking her in. Thick lashes brush the tender shadows beneath her eyes. She’s not sleeping enough, and that makes me madder. Big Dog should have taken care of her. Should have appreciated her and fucking worshipped her.

“Hey,” I growl, because I’m no white knight riding to her rescue. She mesmerizes me, and I need to nip that right in the bud.

And she drops her gaze.

Her eyes fall in sweet submission and my dick roars to life, my wolf howling for us to claim her now. She doesn’t quite squeeze her eyes shut. Instead, she flicks these little glances up at me, then looks down, her breath catching.

Mine, my wolf insists.

Good thing the man is in charge.

I nudge her chin up with my hand, forcing her eyes to meet mine as I inhale her scent. The fear’s still there, along with a healthy dose of anger, but there’s another scent now. Arousal. My sweet little human is thinking about sex. With me.

Fuck me, but I’m lost.

“You need help?” Jace bellows his question from the other room, the sound of meaty thuds punctuating each word. Big Dog’s getting a much-deserved ass-kicking. I take another look at the female. Okay. So fuck me, but I haven’t taken my eyes off her. She’s impossibly sexy all spread-eagled and tied to the bed. It’s clear she’s not so happy with the position, because she kinda whimper-glares at me before her lashes descend and she retreats from me as far as I’ll let her go. Yeah. I agree with her one hundred percent. I’m a cock-sucking bastard.

“I got this,” I yell back to Jace. I’m torn between wanting to untie her and haul her into my arms—and racing out into the other room so I can take over Big Dog’s ass-kicking. Mother fucker. Who does this to his female?

I plant a knee on the bed and lean in, trying to figure out how the ball-gag works. She jerks backward as far as she can, leaving a few strands of brown hair in my hand. I release her, but I don’t get off the bed. I know I’m crowding her, that she can feel me pressed up against her side, but I’m keeping my hands off her tits and her pussy, so she’s got to work with me.

“I’m gonna untie you.” I’m not here to hurt her, but she’s not in charge, either. The sooner she understands that, the better for both of us.

Finally, she nods, although it wasn’t a question. Guess she’s tired of lying around naked, or maybe she figures I can’t possibly be worse than Big Dog. I’m kinda grateful she has no clue just how bad things can get. My body half cradles her, half pins her in place as I ease behind her so I can work.

“Hold still,” I remind her, and she does. She doesn’t so much as flinch as I move my hands over the ball-gag, unbuckling and undoing Big Dog’s handiwork. Maybe I should feed him his balls before he dies, see how he likes choking on a mouthful like that. I concentrate on that visual, because God help me if I think about where my arm brushes her body or what’s resting on my dick right now.

I didn’t know you could buy this kind of shit in Baton Rouge. Didn’t want to know. I take a more organic approach to dominating my women. I damned sure don’t have to tie them up and gag them. As soon as I’ve got the ball-gag worked free, I hurl it across the room. She flinches at the sharp crack the leather makes when it hits the wall, but I feel better.

I should probably find a bottle of water. Clothes. Something.

“I said no,” she says roughly. “I didn’t want him to do this.”

She doesn’t want me to do it, either. That’s clear.

“Uh-huh.” I don’t disagree with her. Instead I pull my hunting knife out of my boot and go to work on the ropes holding her to the bed. “I woulda be on the no train, too.”

“Any chance you’ll forget you saw me like this?” A bitter smile quirks her lips. A mouth that pretty should be doing a whole lot of smiling—or, if we’re playing in my fantasy universe, sucking my dick or hollering my name as I eat her out. I’m not gonna lie to her, though, so I keep silent. She looks damned gorgeous, so there’s no way I’ll forget her sweet little body spread out. If I hurry up, I’ll have time to go help Jace kick Big Dog’s sorry ass.

And then I’m gonna kill him.

As soon as the ropes holding her arms to the bed snap, she shoots upright and wraps her arms around her middle. The bed doesn’t even really merit the name—it’s a frame and a mattress, with not a sheet in sight.

I need to get her covered up. “You got clothes in here?”

She bites her lip and pronounces the other wolf’s death sentence. “Big Dog said I hadn’t earned them yet.”

Yep. Fucker has to die now.

I shove off the mattress and do a quick inspection. The mattress is the only furniture, and the closet’s empty except for a few spiders. I’m gonna have to be a gentleman after all. I haul my jacket off and drop it in her lap, and then I add my T-shirt for good measure. Keep my cut, though, because no one wears my club colors but me.

I cut her legs free, keeping a hand wrapped around her ankle. This is partly so she doesn’t try to kick the crap out of me, but partly because I like the way her skin feels. She tugs. Hard.

Yeah. That’s not working so well for her. When the second rope snaps, I carefully unwrap both ankles and inspect the visible bruises. I’m giving Big Dog a matching set—with interest. While I look her over, she yanks on my shirt. Don’t blame her for not wanting to sit there naked.

My dick’s an iron bar shoving at the front of my jeans. It knows what it wants.

“Come out when you’re ready,” I say gruffly, and she kinda freezes. Does she think we’d leave her here?

“Okay,” she whispers back, face flushing with embarrassment. She tugs the hem of my shirt lower, like somehow the cotton is a suit of armor. Good luck with that. On my way out of the room, I kick the remnants of the door hard. In preparation for beating on Big Dog’s head, you know?

“I’m gonna kill him,” I announce to my Alpha as I stride toward Big Dog. I prefer actions to words, and Big Dog’s mean, abusive ass needs more kicking. Now that I’ve seen firsthand what he did to my girl, I have no qualms about extracting a little eye-for-an-eye vengeance before planting him deep in the bayou.

Jace looks me over. “It’s bad?”

I must have my answer written on my face, though, because he doesn’t wait for anything English to come out of my mouth. Instead, he grabs one of Big Dog’s arms, and I grab the other. Together we drag the sorry son-of-a-bitch outside and toward the water. If I’d had any remaining reservations about pledging my undying loyalty to this male, they’ve been answered. He’s got my back on this one.

“Bad enough,” I grunt when he raises an eyebrow. Guess he wants an out loud, English answer after all.

Jace frowns. “Does she need a doctor?”

I specialize in hurting people—not putting them back together. “Not sure,” I admit. “I’ll get her back to Baton Rouge and see what she needs.”

Jace drops his half of Big Dog by the water’s edge. “Not your place. Whatever she needs, I’ll make sure she gets. We clear on that?”

Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. I vent my frustration on Big Dog’s ribs, hitting him hard with my boot. I don’t mess around—I’ve got steel-toes and a whole lot of anger. After I crack the first rib, I work my way down like keys on a piano. He howls as bones snap, so it’s just like playing chopsticks.

“Enough,” Jace announces finally. Maybe he’s bored or got other places to be, but I could beat on Big Dog all day. It’s easier than heading back into that cabin and facing its occupant. Now that she’s seen the wolf pack up close and personal, I’m betting all she wants is to get away—which is the one thing we can’t let her do. She knows too much, and there’s no guarantee she’ll keep her yap shut.

I think about defying Jace, but this isn’t the battle to pick so I draw back with a muttered curse.

“You broke pack law.” Jace nudges Big Dog’s chin up with the tip of his boot until he’s staring the bastard in the eye. “Now I’m gonna have to kill you.”

Jace doesn’t shift all the way—just his head and his jaw re-form, his canines growing until he’s able to tear out Big Dog’s throat. It’s way too quick for that bastard. I want to make him hurt for hours, for days. Fuck, a year might not be too short. Instead, one savage tear and he’s bleeding out. Seconds later, he’s dead.

It’s downright anticlimactic when we roll the body into the bayou and watch it sink beneath the surface. That’s one problem fixed—but there’s still the female to deal with. She’s an eyewitness, one hundred percent human, and a complication none of us need. If she talks, she outs the pack, so keeping her silent is priority number one—and unfortunately the easiest, most sure fire way of doing that involves hurting her. There’s only one other option.

“I’m claiming her,” I announce. Words hang in the air between us where I can’t take them back. I never expected to take a mate, but for this female I’ll make a temporary exception.

 

 

 

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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

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

 

EXCERPT SIX

 

ANGEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not on purpose.

That kind of makes it more fun.

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching for the suitcase.

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

She’ll make me fight for control.

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

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

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

“You’re late,” I tell her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I own half. You own half.”

“Half makes us even,” she snaps.

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

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

Yeah, my Rose is gonna be trouble.

Just like always.

 

~*~

 

ROSE

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

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

So no way I sell out to Angel.

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

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

Would he be that intense in bed?

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

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

My place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I miss her,” I say out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to see my house, Angel.”

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

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

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

It doesn’t matter.

He isn’t getting his way this time.

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

Damn him.

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

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

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

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

 Second chance, I remind myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

“What if I don’t want to sell it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I need to come back home.

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

The house redefines fixer-upper.

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

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

He’s seen me naked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit. Now I need a new contractor.

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

Things will go back to the way they were before.

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

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

Wanting him is crazy.

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

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

At least the heart attack was quick.

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

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

“Tell you what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He can take his supposition and shove it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Consolation prize?”

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

“I’m not family.” It needs saying.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not doing so well with promises.

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

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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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