A Way to Redemption Prequel
This is a fictional work. The names, characters, incidents, places, and locations are solely the concepts and products of the author’s imagination or are used to create a fictitious story and should not be construed as real.
5 PRINCE PUBLISHING AND BOOKS, LLC
PO Box 16507
Denver, CO 80216
ISBN 13: 978-1-63112-165-4
ISBN 10: 1-63112-165-0
Copyright Wilhelmina Stolen 2016
Published by 5 Prince Publishing
Photo Credit: Front Cover Wilhelmina Stolen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations, reviews, and articles. For any other permission please contact 5 Prince Publishing and Books, LLC.
First Edition July 2016
5 PRINCE PUBLISHING AND BOOKS, LLC.
Thank you, to the members of my street team, Before the Release, for your support and belief in me. Many thanks, also, to Carter Link for his friendship and expert advice on the cowboy way of life.
Other Titles by
Love Finds Its Way
A Way to Redemption Prequel
“McCrea is a brawler, a loose cannon,” Rose pushed the limp brim of her straw hat up and held her arm out for assistance. “And he has quite a reputation with the women.”
Eleanor took her grandma’s thin arm and gently lifted. A brawler? Yes. A loose cannon? He could be, and as for his reputation with women, she had her suspicions, but still she refused to believe he was in any way a threat to her heart. Rose knew only the playboy side of the eldest Coldiron brother. The drinker, the fighter, the troubled rich kid everyone gossiped about, but Eleanor had, on many occasions seen a deeper, kinder side of McCrea. The side that dried tears, soothed fears, and stole hearts. That was the McCrea she fell in love with. The boy who had come to her rescue one rainy day when she was eight. So she held tight to her belief, defending McCrea as he had her. “Did Mildred tell you that?” she asked.
With her help, the old woman rose from her kneeling position alongside the zinnia bed. “I know how you feel about him and rightly so. He’s a handsome boy, but Mildred said she heard he started a fight over some floozy.”
It was on the tip of Eleanor’s tongue to tell her grandma she was the floozy, and McCrea had chivalrously defended her just like her granddad would have. Instead, she pointed to the small white house across the road where the root of all gossip in Santa Camino lived. “Mouthy Mildred Satterfield is a busybody.”
She picked up the bucket of gardening tools and headed for the rusty green shed at the end of the driveway. “I don’t believe anything she has to say about McCrea or anybody else for that matter. Was she there? No, she wasn’t,” she pointed to her chest. “But I was. I was working that night.” If her grandma only knew Willard Moore had instigated the brawl which was now the talk of the town, “And it was just a fight. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Rose studied the cracked sidewalk as she took slow, careful steps over to the porch. “Okay, don’t listen to me, God knows your mother never did.”
Here we go again! Eleanor tried her best to tune out her grandma’s voice. Agatha Rose Mackenna was the sweetest, most loving woman in the state of Texas. She loved her dearly, but if she heard her explain, in detail, one more time how she had begged her mother not to get mixed up with the boy she met at the bar, she might explode. Did her grandma realize she was the product of that mix-up?
For the past eleven years, Eleanor had called Santa Camino home, and the three Coldiron siblings and their cousin Dean, her neighbors. They were as close to her as her grandma, and felt more like her family than her biological mother and half-sister in New Mexico. Louisa was her best friend, and Jess and Dean were like the brothers she was never fortunate enough to have. Her relationship with McCrea, Louisa’s older brother, was a tad more complicated.
McCrea was an untouchable dream she had loved, and fantasized about since she was old enough to notice boys. It had taken years for her to give into her feelings for him, but her mother’s mistakes taught her never to let her heart go unguarded. So she fought the battle within. Loving him, but fearing what might happen if she ever gave in.
By the time she was back to the porch, Rose had made her way back to McCrea. “Don’t get me wrong. I like McCrea. He’s always a nice, well-mannered young man when he drops by or I see him in town. Wade wouldn’t have it any other way, but mark my words. That boy is a heartbreaker, and,” Rose sighed when her rear made contact with the porch, “Not the marrying kind.”
“God, Grandma. Marriage, again?” her groan was closer to a growl. “You know I don’t want to get hitched.”
“I know,” Rose’s mouth pressed down at the corners. “But I’m hoping that changes.”
“Don’t you dream of finding your one true love?” Her aged eyes sparkled with romance and hope. “Don’t you want someone to share your life with? Give you children?”
“No.” Her abrupt cutoff was more like a chomp. “You know what I dream about.”
Rose nodded with a lethargic nod that mimicked a wino. “I do.”
“My dream is to restore Redemption.” The ranch had been in her family for five generations and had once been a top notch breeding facility for horses. But without her granddad to oversee the day to day workings, it became too much for Rose to handle. The last of the breeding horses had been sold three years ago, leaving only a few work horses the hands used and Romeo Baby, a silver roan Quarter horse. Redemption’s profitable days were over, and nowadays, they skimped by with selling what cattle they had left.
The meadows were overgrown, the stables and barns were empty and the fences were rotting away with each passing year. “I want new stables filled with broodmares and studs, and the only offspring I’m interested in are the four-legged kind.”
That wasn’t completely true. She wanted a man to share her life with, someone who loved her with the same fierceness of Charlie’s love for Rose, and she wanted babies─ lots of babies. But she couldn’t quite fit either into her dream. Babies were made with love and so far, McCrea was the only man to evoke that emotion from her guarded heart. And as sure as she was about being in love with McCrea, she was just as sure he wasn’t interested in bottles, babies and settling down.
“Yes, well, I am hoping that changes.” Rose shook her head. “I want to see you walk down the aisle before I meet my Maker.”
She made a snorting sound. “I doubt any of the men in Santa Camino would conform to my idea of raising a family without marriage, at least not the ones who are worth a damn.”
“And any man who is brave enough to bid for my heart will have to do so without sliding a ring on my finger!”
“But─ but marriage is a sacred partnership ─.”
“It’s a trap! And hell will freeze solid before I vow myself into matrimonial bondage.”
“You make marriage seem so wretched.” Rose grimaced and raked silver wisps of hair from her damp face. “And it’s not. Not at all.”
“Our family is cursed when it comes to marriage,” she said, watching Rose’s mouth drop open.
“How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true.” Maybe she was stretching the truth for the sake of her argument, but she had had the misfortune of witnessing her mother’s failed one.
“Your granddad and I were married for fifty-five years!” Rose slapped the porch with her palm. “And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
Oh, to love like Charlie and Aggie Rose! Her inner romance delighted, while her practical heart chided, “Some people aren’t made for marriage.”
“True enough I suppose, but some are.”
“Mom wasn’t.” She sat down next to Rose and let the bitterness of her childhood claw its way to the surface. “What if I’m the same way? What if I marry the wrong guy? What if I marry someone like Rex?” The only father Eleanor had ever known was Rex Montgomery, the man her mother married before she was born. He resented Eleanor because she wasn’t his, and refused to give her anything that wasn’t a necessity, including his name.
“Oh, Eleanor, you won’t.” Rose patted her leg. “Just let your heart guide you. Don’t live in the past or the future, but rather in the moment. That’s what love is all about.”
The uncertainty of Rose’s logic ate at her, and she wanted to argue that wasn’t what love was about. It was about counting on someone to be there when you needed them. Giving and showing affection without coercion or manipulation. Love was about sacrifice and commitment, but arguing would upset her grandma. So she chose another route to prove her point. “I asked mom about my biological dad.”
The light in Rose’s eyes dimmed. She suspected the old woman knew more about the man than she would ever admit. “And what did she say?”
“That she loved him.” A bitter smile edged her lips. “The heart is known for its faulty guidance, Grandma. Mom is proof of that, and as for living in the moment.” She pushed back her windblown hair. “We both can see where that got her. Pregnant and alone.”
Rose closed her eyes briefly, bearing the pain of her daughter’s miserable life. “You are not Frances.”
“No, I’m not.” Pride made her agree even as her doubt took root and grew.
Rose gathered Eleanor’s hands in hers and held them tight. “If my Charlie were here, he would tell you marriage is a wonderful thing.”
According to Rose, the sun rose and set in her granddad and Eleanor knew her argument would never be won. “Can’t we just agree marriage is one subject we will never agree on?”
“McCrea is the spitting image of his granddad,” Rose said, ignoring the truce. “Wade was wild like that you know, hot-headed, unruly and a real ladies’ man.”
No, she didn’t know, and she was completely happy thinking of old man Wade as just that, an old man. She didn’t want to hear about how wild he and her granddad used to be. Or how handsome they looked or a hundred other things that just creeped her out. Some things were better left untold.
“But then he met Sophia.” Rose peered over her glasses, and her face softened with the glow of years passed. “Doe-eyed, soft-spoken Sophia had her work cut out for her, but she stuck with him. And she loved the wildness right out of Wade Coldiron.”
That wasn’t hard to imagine. The tiny, silver-haired woman they lost three years ago was capable of loving the wildness out of the devil himself, and Eleanor missed her with a magnitude she couldn’t express.
“Thank God your granddad wasn’t like that. Charlie was a heartbreaker in his own way, but he wasn’t a whore.”
The word brought Eleanor back to focus. Grandma Rose just said whore. She didn’t know whether to laugh or gag, and Rose continued as if the word meant nothing at all. “God, I was so in love with that man. I’ll never forget the day he brought me to Redemption and carried me over the threshold.”
Not knowing her own father made her hunger for a father figure, and she knew Charlie Mackenna would have made a difference in her life. A larger than life character from a Louis L’Amour novel, that’s the way she thought of him. Courageous, and brave. True to his word with a heart of gold. “I wish I had known granddad.”
“Me too,” Rose sighed with the thought. “He was handsome and strong like your McCrea. Okay,” she yielded. “I can handle having McCrea for a grandson-in-law.”
“Grandma,” Eleanor warned.
Rose’s playfulness dwindled away. “Just be careful, Eleanor. Marriage or not, all long lasting relationships are built on trust, faithfulness and commitment. Don’t settle for a physical relationship or anything less than love.”
A sharp penetrating pain shot the length of her body. What if she was in love with a man who would never love her or be faithful to her? What if Mildred and the rest of Santa Camino’s gossip mill were right about McCrea? What then?
“Now,” Rose clapped her hands as her eyes beamed with friskiness. “Let me give you some advice on how to catch him.”
Eleanor knew the story about the day her grandparents met. Their courtship and wedding. Rose told it often, and Eleanor was always eager to listen. It made her hopeful there were still men in the world like her granddad, and that maybe one day she would be loved with the same intensity. “The way you caught Granddad?”
“Don’t look so skeptical. Remember, I was your age once.” But Rose didn’t launch into her usual story. “First things first, does McCrea know how you feel about him?”
Of course not. She was no more than an orphan kitten he gently pushed out of his path on the way to the barn. How could she tell Rose that hurtful truth when the old woman had such expectation in her eyes? She couldn’t so she answered as best she could without specifics. “I thought he might have figured it out by now.”
Rose let out a laugh and winked. “Not likely. Men aren’t that intuitive. If you’re serious about that boy, you need to help him along.” Her grin turned wicked. “You know, show a little leg and cleavage.”
“Grandma!” Eleanor gasped.
Rose let out an infectious giggle which tapered off to a deep cleansing sigh. “Oh, it feels good to laugh.”
She jumped to her feet before Rose could divulge more of her tips on how to catch a man, and held out her hand. “Do you want me to help you inside before I go?”
“No. I don’t.” Rose pushed her hand away. “I’m going to rest for a spell and then get back at it.”
She worked nonstop in the yard from early spring to late fall. The woman was obsessed with flowers, but her perennials and bulbs were the envy of the garden club. “Maybe you shouldn’t do so much in this heat.”
“It’s therapy for the soul, honey.” That’s how Rose always explained gardening to her. “You should try pulling weeds and planting seeds.”
Shoveling out stables and tending to what livestock they had left didn’t give Eleanor much time for pulling weeds. “Maybe next summer.”
“Maybe,” Rose agreed.
“Do you need anything before I go?”
“If I do, I’ll get it. I’m old, not helpless. Go! Get out of here!” Rose ordered. Eleanor ran to the truck for her sunglasses and paused to look over her shoulder. Rose’s blue gloved hand waved back. The old woman looked so thin and frail. Forgoing college was a temptation, but it was an essential part of her plan to rebuild Redemption.
Dreaming wasn’t enough. She needed an education, to learn the ins and outs of running her own business. When she returned in four years, she would need money to rebuild, and a degree along with a strong business plan would help. One more look to satisfy her uneasiness and found Rose knee deep in a bed of blackfoot daisies. She could always come back to Redemption. After all, this was her home. “I’ll be back in time for supper,” she yelled and saw Rose nod.
She made a quick exit across the side yard and over to the fence that separated her family’s land from the Coldiron’s. At the top, she slipped on the shades to shield her eyes from the evening sun, and marveled at the view. This was her last week at home, and she intended to enjoy every last minute of it, even the long walk across the pasture. Unlike Redemption, the Coldiron ranch was a well-oiled, money-making machine. A cattle empire started by their great-great-great-granddad, Jedidiah Coldiron. One of Santa Camino’s founding fathers.
Built in the mid 1800’s, the main house occupied a portion of the valley between Promise Point and a smaller range of hills running through the property. The Spanish-style house was a historical landmark, with its plaster brick walls, walnut floors, delicately flowing staircases and wrought iron balconies.
It was nothing like her family’s modest white two-story farmhouse. Built generations ago by her granddad, Sutton Mackenna, the house was a sturdy T-shaped design with a solid foundation, white planked siding, a long spindled porch across the front and a fireplace at each end. Withstanding all sorts of calamities and hardships, it was a reflection of the Mackenna family’s tenacity. The old house filled her with pride and when she came home, restoring it would be her first priority. She’d add the kitchen space Rose wanted in the back. Install new windows, hire a roofer, give it a fresh coat of white paint, and maybe she would give gardening a try, if she had the time.
She threw a leg over the fence, twisted around, and jumped down to the other side. Then sprinted across the pasture towards the barn, maneuvering past steaming piles of manure with precision. A skill she found useful the summer she came to live with Rose.
The last leap landed her near the fence which separated the main house from the barn. She hooked a boot into the bottom of the four rails, that was the perfect height for viewing, climbed to the top and sat down. A cool breeze filtered through the hills, and blew against her face. She closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and savored the sweet, dusty smell of hay and earth.
A truck rolled past her and down the gravel road, covering her in a cloud of dust. She coughed and waved a hand until the air was clear. Cowhands, mechanics, cooks, and handymen always made it a lively and loud place. The sound of man, machine and animal were in perfect syncing harmony. But there were quiet times which connected with her soul. Like when the evening sun was but a sliver of orange against the dark green tree line or the time right before a storm.
In a dreamy state, she let out a long sigh and tilted her head up. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and happiness enveloped her like a warm blanket. The feeling overtook her every time she set foot on the ranch. Redemption was home and had its own feel, but at times it was a lonely place with only she and Rose to fill the empty spaces. She was a little jealous of her neighbors. Not for how wealthy they were or how much land they owned, but for the love they had for one another. The family bond they shared.
Family gave you a place in the world and made all the hardships of life easier. There was security in knowing someone loved you, cared for you and wanted the best for you. Rose was the only family she had, and nearing eighty. A tiny ache nibbled at her heart when she thought about losing her. When Rose was gone, she would have no more family. Rex had made sure of that.
After she came to live with Rose, her stepfather forbade Frances and Mallory from visiting. He also made it clear Eleanor wasn’t welcome in their home. She missed her mother and sister, but knew any attempts at a reunion would bring Rex’s wrath down on them. He wasn’t a kind man even to his own flesh and blood daughter, but he never accused Mallory of being a burden or a bastard child.
Frances tried to shelter Eleanor from his outbursts of hateful words and angry slaps across the face, but the antidepressants prescribed by her doctor eventually numbed her beyond caring. On a visit to Redemption, Rex dealt the final blow when Eleanor refused to get in the car. A hit from the back of his hand split her lip and sent her running like a caged animal afraid of capture. She ran through rain and tears, crossing fences, meadows and pastures until she came to the old Coldiron home place. A refurbished two story cabin the family rented to out of town hunters. She climbed the steps, found a dry corner and curled up in a ball as exhaustion overtook her. The sound of footsteps opened her eyes, and brought her focus to a young man with rich brown eyes and a tender smile, McCrea. That summer was the start of everything good in her life.
A whinny brought her head down and her eyes to the wood line behind the barn. She recognized the distinct sound of his horse. The sleek black coat of the gelding and the well-defined build of the rider kept her attention. Playing college football had changed McCrea’s physical appearance. He was broader through the shoulders, and his biceps and thighs were more muscular than they had been when he was in high school.
The man was a spectacular sight. His wide brow and set jaw reminded her of an outlaw. That made her grin, but his hips moving in rhythm with the horse’s, made her groan. “He is so fine,” she said after he’d disappeared inside the barn. With her head towards heaven again, Eleanor basked in the last rays of the setting sun, and her love for the outlaw.
She jumped and let out a scream as hands clamped around her waist, pulling her backwards and into a set of strong arms.
“God, Jess!” she yelled, recognizing the cowboy under the tattered pinch front hat.
“You scared the crap out of me!”
Louisa climbed the fence and sat in the spot she had occupied. Slim build with lovely features, she was the youngest of the three children. She was doted upon by her parents and grandparents and protected by her older brothers, but their attention didn’t make her spoiled or bratty. It did make her fiercely independent and headstrong, even if she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. Louisa was complex, but steadfast in her views on her place in the Coldiron family. She was confident, loyal and the best friend anyone could have. Austin would be a lonely place without her.
“I told him not to do it.”
“Sorry, El. I couldn’t resist.” Jess’ blue eyes dazzled in a way which caused women to stumble and swoon. His teasing boyish charm and playfulness made him even more appealing. He was easy going, and loved to flirt in a harmless way.
He raised her back to the top of the fence without effort, stealing her shades as he did, and took a step up. He winced and brushed it off with a grinning wink when he knew she noticed. Two years ago, a hard fall at the National Rodeo Finals ended his bronc riding career and dreams of taking home the championship. A compound fracture of the femur left him with a slight limp, and a thigh full of pins. With one long leg, he straddled the fence so he was facing her. “What are you doing out here all by your lonesome?”
Her eyes followed McCrea from the barn to one of the ranch work trucks. “Admiring the scenery.”
He slid the shades on and followed her eyes. “God, you’re lusting over him again?”
“Yes, I am,” she said without an ounce of shame and snatched the hat from his head. Somewhere along the way, her childish infatuation for McCrea had grown into love, and her toe-tingling desire and falling down attraction made it hard to be around him. So, admiring him from afar seemed to be the best way to get her daily fix.
The hat swallowed her head. “And a lot of good it does me. He doesn’t know I’m alive.” The obstacle threatened her bliss. She was a fool for the man and he hadn’t a clue.
“Sure he does.” Jess jumped down, laid his arms over the rail, and rested his chin on both hands. “He’s just playing hard to get.”
“Nope.” The dingy brown hat he’d had since high school, wobbled back and forth in a bobble head motion, and fell over her eyes. He thinks I’m a kid.” Would McCrea ever see her as something other than the girl next door? Or would she always be his little sister’s annoying friend? She tilted her head back so she could see him. “You’ve got a fat head; you know that?”
He frowned, taking offense in her claim. “My head is just the right size, thank you, and any man with eyes could see you’re not a kid anymore.”
“Maybe I should wear a dress to the bachelor party.” She lifted a jean-clad leg and twisted her foot from side to side. “I have decent legs.”
With a finger, he eased the shades to the end of his nose and eyed her legs. “I didn’t think you were working the party tonight.”
“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show up looking fabulous.” Tonight McCrea would see her as a woman. She would be sexy and flirty and everything would be different between them.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea!” Louisa belted out with enthusiasm. “The little yellow dress you wore to the barbecue would be perfect.”
“Did I leave it in your room?”
“It’s hanging in the closet.”
Jess gave his collar a tug. “That dress is indecent.”
Louisa slapped his chest with the back of her hand. “It is not.”
Eleanor measured a high spot on her thigh. “I could shorten the length to get his attention.”
“McCrea won’t be the only guy at the bar tonight and if you walk in there with a skirt that high, they’ll be another damn fight.” The play left his eyes. “You’re not a slut, so don’t try to act like one.”
He was right. She wasn’t a slut, but she was so country plain McCrea would never notice her. “There’s no way I can compete with Vanessa Worley.”
“Set your sights for competition a little higher, will you?” He pushed the shades back in place, and craned his neck up to get a better view of the pasture in front of them. “Where is the old tramp at today? She’s usually hot on his heels.”
“Don’t be surprised if we find her hiding in the bed of his truck,” Louisa laughed.
“Tell me about it. With her around, I don’t have a chance.” Eleanor kicked the rail with the back of her boot, feeling frustrated at her inadequacy. “What I’d give for just a kiss.”
“You should do something to make him jealous.” Jess made his eyebrows bounce up and down and flashed her a devilish grin. “Make him think he’s got competition.”
“He’s right,” Louisa agreed. “Tell McCrea you have a date.”
“But I don’t.”
Jess sighed dramatically, and bent his head to study the ground before throwing up both hands. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Do what?” the women asked in unison.
“Be your date for tonight.” He dusted off the shoulders of his dirty work shirt, and rested his hands on his hips to mimic a James Dean stance. “I had plans, but…”
She closed her eyes with a grimace. “I’m pathetic.”
“Be serious, Jess.” Louisa leaned to one side, and bumped Eleanor with her shoulder. “I have no idea what you see in McCrea.”
Jess poked his head into the narrow space between them. “Me neither. You could do so much better.”
Louisa put a finger to her brother’s forehead, and pushed him backward. “You’re annoying. You know that?”
“Maybe.” Without warning, he plucked Eleanor from the railing, tossed her over his shoulder, and spun her around, smacking her bottom. “But I am fun.”
She shielded her backside with both hands and his hat tumbled to the ground. “Stop that! Put me down!”
He hauled her around to the front of him, and grinned. “Come on, El. Let me be your date.”
Struggling against his strong hold was futile. She was his prisoner until the game was over. “No, I’m not going to be a pity date. I’ll ask Conner.”
Like a ragdoll, he lifted her off the ground, took her hand, and spun her around in a grand waltz. “Oh, that kid’s not a threat to McCrea.”
She laughed at the dance. “And you are?”
He let her slide to the ground and whirled her out. “Hell, yeah. You know that I’m a ladies’ man.”
“Oh, good grief,” she said laughing as he yanked her back into his arms. “Will you stop it?”
“Not until,” his fingers darted along her ribs making her double over. “You agree.”
“Stop!” She tucked her elbows in to shield herself. “Please!”
“I told you I was fun.”
She jerked free while swatting at his hands. “Stop it!”
He made a leap forward, triggering her jump backward. “Nope! You’re mine, lady!”
She dodged his hand, snatched his hat from the ground, and sat it on her head. “Don’t make me hold it hostage.”
His blue eyes squinted with her threat. “You wouldn’t.”
“Oh, but I would. So if you want to see it again, you’d better call a truce.”
The thought of losing his hat made his hands fall. “That’s dirty. Using a man’s hat against him.”
She grinned, and prepared to run. Having been a victim to his bluffs more than once made her leery of him. “A girl has to do something.”
In a flash, he bolted towards her.
She spun around, ready to run for home, and plowed face first into McCrea’s chest. The collision plastered the hat against her face, and left her clutching his shirt for balance.
His leather-clad fingers grasped her forearm and gently hauled her closer. “You running to or from, darlin’?”
Darlin’? The way he drawled out the word made her lower belly tighten. “From.”
As he raised the hat, a smile which could only be construed as teasing broke his lips. “That’s too bad.”
“Can I have my hat back now?” Jess cut in with a begrudging frown.
McCrea slung the hat to him while keeping a hand at her waist. It was an odd gesture, seeing how he always went out of his way not to touch her.
Jess tried reshaping the bent brim. “Where have you been?”
“Granddad’s been looking for you,” Louisa said from her perch on the top rail.
McCrea’s face hardened with furrowed lines across his forehead. “At the Point.” Promise Point was his sanctuary from the world and a place he visited often.
Jess crossed his arms and leaned against the rail. “That bad, huh?”
“Could be. I’ll know more after I talk to him.”
“Are you still going to Tubs tonight?” Jess questioned.
At times McCrea’s eyes could be soft, and beautiful with gold specks when he laughed or teased. Other times, they were black, void of color and drilled into the depths of her soul. They were like that now. Drilling into her as if looking for answers. “Hell, yes,” he said, wiping dirt from her chin with his forefinger. “I need a distraction.”
The tender action was innocent. Something he would do to a small child, but when the worn leather glove skimmed her skin, heat gathered between her thighs.
“A word of warning,” Jess said. “He’s still pissed about last week.”
“Yeah, I know, but,” McCrea dropped his hand to peel away the gloves. “I didn’t start the fight, and he can’t expect me not to defend myself.”
“We all know that, but Willard’s granddaddy and ours go way back.” Jess slapped his shoulder. “And that means you’d better walk the line if you want to get back into Wade’s good graces.”
McCrea shoved his gloves into his back pocket and headed towards the house.
Eleanor watched him disappear through the double doors of the house. “He looks worried.”
“He is.” Jess took his hat off and scratched his head.
“He finally told Granddad he didn’t want to be a rancher,” Louisa said.
“What?” Everyone always assumed McCrea would follow in his dad and granddad’s footsteps. After all, ranching was in their blood. But he was a different man now. Time away from home had changed him. He was more withdrawn and more complex, and the carefree boy she’d fallen in love with seemed lost. Replaced by a man with drive and determination. A man who rarely smiled and laughed even less.
“That’s the same as blasphemy to Wade,” Jess threw in.
“Yep.” Louisa jumped down from the fence “They’ve been knocking heads since he came home from college.”
“I feel like this whole mess is my fault. Maybe I should explain what happened to Wade.”
“It’s not your fault,” Louisa reassured her.
“Wade’s always been hard on McCrea,” Jess said.
“Mom says it’s because he and Granddad are so much alike.” Louisa hung an arm around her shoulder. “You staying for supper?”
“No. I promised Grandma I’d be back before then.” She hugged Louisa. “I’ll see you tonight?’
Louisa cringed. “Sorry, El I can’t come. I have a ton of things to do before I leave on Friday. Mom’s helping me pack.” She hugged her again. “Promise you’ll be careful.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m used to being around drunks. Besides, McCrea and Jess will be there if I need looking after.”
“You know I won’t let anything happen to our little El,” Jess taunted and handed her shades back.
Louisa grabbed his ear and gave it a hard tug. “You’d better not.”
He yanked away, nursing his lobe. “Damn, Lou! That hurt.”
She climbed over the fence and jumped down to the other side. “See you later.”
“We’ll have a girls’ night out before we leave,” Louisa yelled. “Just the two of us.”
Eleanor waved as she headed towards home. “You bet!”
“You can’t do this.” Even as McCrea said it, he knew damn good and well his granddad could do anything he wanted, including take away his inheritance. “That land is mine! You promised it to me!”
“Get a grip on that temper,” Hardin directed his son from the worn leather sofa across the room.
McCrea did as he was told by grinding his teeth and rethinking his strategy. “We’ve talked about this for years. Can you at least tell me why you’ve suddenly changed your mind?” This time his voice wasn’t as loud or as demanding. Respect would get him farther than anger. “Why now? Why after all I’ve done to prove myself worthy?”
His Granddad Wade was in his usual spot. Hands behind his back, facing the large picture window near his desk as he looked out over the ranch handed down to him from his father. The old man spent years working the land, but in recent years had been forced to slow down. His heart wasn’t as strong as it once was, and McCrea suspected the death of his grandmother three years ago had something to do with it. “You’re not ready for it.”
McCrea began pacing the room. He’d earned a degree in ranch management just to appease his granddad, and he’d been ranching since he was old enough to mount a horse. “I couldn’t be more ready than I am now.”
What would he do if Wade refused to give him the land? Be a rancher like the two of them? Hell, no. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life running cattle from one pasture to another with an ass end view of an animal he had grown to despise.
He could always leave, and go up north to Wyoming. He had cousins there who would help him find a place and get started.
A bitter taste worked its way up his throat. No, that wasn’t the life he wanted, and by God, it wasn’t the life he would settle for. He was a Texan and wanted his own spread in Hill Country to do with as he pleased. “Will you talk some sense into him?” he asked his father.
Hardin tossed his hat onto the couch, and crossed an ankle over his knee. “It’s his land to do with as he pleases.”
Wade’s wrinkled fingers gathered the curtain and swung it open. “This view is something I never get tired of. Rolling hills, fertile pastures. It used to regenerate me. Fourteen hour days were nothing. Now, I’m lucky if I get in four without having to rest.”
“You’re still recovering, Dad,” Hardin reminded him. “You’ll be back to your old self in no time.”
They all knew that was a lie. The heart attack he had suffered in the spring had been a bad one. McCrea would never forget the night it happened. Calving season produced nearly twice as many calves as expected, and Wade insisted on being present for as many births as possible. They were his herd, and in his eyes, his responsibility.
It was just McCrea and his granddad bringing the calf into the world. Witnessing the birth of any animal was a unique experience. Being the first to see it, hold it and sometimes the one who watched it take its last breath put everything into prospective. That was the case with this particular birth. At first, he thought it was the sight of that dead calf being pulled from its mother that brought Wade to his knees. Hand clutched tight to his chest, pale complexion, sweaty face…. That night made McCrea realized his granddad wasn’t indestructible, and that it was just a matter of time before he left them. “What did Doc Bowman say?”
Wade sat down in the chair behind his desk, and his laugh lines deepened as a weary smile drew his lips upward. “That I could use a shot of youth.”
“Couldn’t we all,” Hardin laughed. It was his dad’s way of keeping face, but McCrea could see the fear behind the smile. He, too, was afraid of losing Wade. They all were.
The old man let out a weighted sigh. “I don’t fear dying. Death is as inevitable as the sunrise. It comes to us all. I made my peace a long time ago, but handing over a part of the family land to someone as reckless as you scares the hell out of me.”
“Reckless?” he questioned.
Wade leaded forward in a commanding manner only he could accomplish to rest his arms on the desk. “Tell me again why do you want the land?”
“We’ve talked about this. It’s the perfect spot─”
“For that damn game ranch,” Wade finished.
His granddad had never been sold on the idea of cultivating wildlife for hunting, but McCrea knew it could be a profitable business. “We’ve had this discussion before.”
“There’s a nice piece of land on the north side─.”
“No,” he was quick to disagree. “Give it to Jess or Lou or Dean. It’s twice the size, and it’s perfect for raising cattle.”
Wade’s eyes fell to the desk. “I always thought you would be the one to take over after your dad and me were gone, but,” he swiveled his chair around so he faced the window.
“Damn it, Granddad,” McCrea choked back a groan with the slumping of Wade’s shoulders. “I have my own dreams and ranching isn’t one of them. Why can’t you accept that?”
Wade’s return was interrupted by the familiar rattle of Rose Mackenna’s old Chevy barreling up the drive. Their neighbor from down the road.
Hardin raised his head to watch the truck roll to a stop. “We’ve got company.”
“It’s just Eleanor,” McCrea dismissed his sister’s friend, but couldn’t help watch the blonde’s breasts bounce from side to side as she sprinted up the sidewalk. After she disappeared up the front steps, he heard the front door open, and the trail of boots across the tile in the foyer and up the stairs. “Jesus, what’s she doing here?”
“I hear the back taxes are due again,” Hardin said under his breath. “And we both know Rose is too proud for a handout.”
“I’ll go see her today, and try to convince her to let us help,” Wade seemed a little brighter at the thought of his old friend.
“Good luck. My guess is she’ll be selling off more livestock and letting some of the hired help go.” Hardin knew how Rose managed to get by. “Jimmy Ross told me he’s thinking about leaving. Says he can’t make it on what Rose pays him.” With his hat, he pointed towards the stairs. “If he does, there’ll be more work than that girl can handle.”
“There’s already more work than she can handle,” McCrea said, knowing when Eleanor left for college in a few days, Redemption would lose its best workhand. “Why won’t she sell?”
“Rose will never sell,” Wade answered. “Redemption is her home. Charlie is buried there.” He pushed himself back and panned his head towards the Mackenna home. “I need to hear Rose’s laughter, see her smile and made to feel I’m not alone in the world.
The soft pat of Eleanor’s footsteps down the stairs made McCrea grimace. “Alone? There’s never a moment’s peace in this place, especially with Lou and Eleanor always running in and out.”
“Lighten up, son,” Hardin said. “They’re leaving for college in a few days, and this place will be as quiet as a tomb.”
He would miss Lou, but not the noise. Jesus, if he heard one more giggle …!
“It’s not the same,” Wade answered, his mind barely in the conversation. It was getting harder and harder to keep his granddad on target. “Rose and I go way back and have a lot in common. We’ve borne the same grief, and loved the same people. Charlie was one of my closest friends.”
McCrea knew the friendship between the Coldiron’s and Mackenna’s went back for generations.
“Charlie shared your dream of finding the Wayfires Gold. We spent a lot of days in the hot sun, digging through the rubble of Vera la Luz, but always came up empty-handed.” Wade let out a hearty laugh which brought a healthy glow to his face. “Mom blistered our backsides when she caught us in the old home place searching for clues. Everything was an adventure then.”
“There’s nothing but junk up there now,” McCrea said.
Wade made a measurement with his hands. “There was a trunk with old letters in it. As I recall, they were correspondence between your great-grandmother, Callie and her sister in Virginia.
While McCrea pursued the mystery behind the legend, he held no dreams of gold being uncovered anytime soon. His interest was in learning the story of his ancestors and the history of Santa Camino.
He knew the family lineage and his grandmother’s name. He also knew she came to Texas in search of his Granddad Lucas around the end of the Civil War. Some years before that, the Legend of the Wayfires Gold started. “Where are the letters now?”
Wade’s eyes narrowed with thought. “Not sure. I haven’t seen them since.”
“Maybe Charlie took them. They’re not in the cabin. That much I know. I’ve been through it with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Aren’t you a little old to be chasing those legends of gold?” Hardin teased.
“Chasing whores is more like it.” Without notice, Wade was his old self. Direct and to the point.
“Whores?” McCrea’s eyes darted to his dad. “How did the conversation go from gold to whores?”
Hardin raised an eyebrow. “Mildred Satterfield cornered him on the street yesterday.”
His granddad’s gray eyes pinned him down. “She said you started a fight over some floozy.”
Mildred Satterfield was leader of the Garden Club, the Women’s Book Club, and a board member of the town’s historical society. She was also leader of the town’s gossip committee. “Why do you listen to her? She doesn’t know her ass from a−”
“It’s not just Mildred,” Hardin returned. “The whole town’s talking about how you beat the hell out of the Moore boy over some woman.”
McCrea felt his temper rising. It wasn’t the first time Mildred had caused him trouble by spread rumors about him, but this time it was different. This time she had thrown Eleanor into her gossip.
“The woman wasn’t a whore,” he said through gritted teeth.
“So you say.”
Wade’s reproach needled him. “Forgive me if my moral compass isn’t what you want it to be. I’m sure you two were saints at my age.”
“The hell we were,” Hardin laughed.
“I remember what it was like to be a young man and what I’d give to be that age again. Riding through backcountry, drinking and brawling with my buddies.” Wade threw in his memories. “It was a hell of a life.”
McCrea had heard those stories before. “And you turned out just fine.”
“Thanks to your grandmother, and that is my point.”
Wade always traveled around the mountain when telling a story, but eventually he got to the point. Lately, that wasn’t the case. “I’m not following you, Granddad.”
“Life is a never ending circle of birth and death, and in between are the memories you hold on to, the things that make it worth living.”
McCrea stared at him with a blank expression. “I don’t understand what any of this has to do with me getting the land.”
“Your grandmother settled me down and taught me how to love. She was my anchor. You need an anchor, McCrea.”
He didn’t like where the conversation was going. “By anchor, you mean a woman?”
“I mourn for your grandmother every day. The softness of her hands against my face, the gentleness in her voice as she sang our children to sleep and the way she laughed. God, I miss her laughter.” Wade paused to swallow back his loss. “The love of a good woman is priceless son, and I’d give everything I own to have one more day with her.”
Sensing his father’s grief, Hardin cut in. “The point is, we grew up, son. Took wives and started families.”
“Oh, hell no!” McCrea argued. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon. I don’t want either.”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Hardin said. “You have no direction. No drive. No plan for the future.”
“I have a plan! Haven’t you two been listening?” Lou didn’t have a plan. She couldn’t decide on a major much less choose a career path, and Jess’ nearly cost him his life. And while Lou was too young to be showing any real interest in finding the right guy to settle down with, Jess had been a diehard connoisseur of rodeo buckle bunnies before his accident. But did they care? Hell no! He was always the one under scrutiny! “I have a plan! Haven’t you two been listening?”
“Finding a wife should be part of your plan,” Wade informed him.
“The hell it should,” he mumbled.
“I thought going off to college would straighten you out. Give you time to sow your oats, but it hasn’t,” Wade explained.
“The way I live my life shouldn’t be an issue. We made a deal. The land was mine when I finished college. I finished, and you’re trying to back out because you think I need a wife. I’m not you, Granddad. I don’t need or want a wife.”
“That shows me how little you know about this place!” Wade shouted, unable to control his temper. “We are tied to the land. We’ve worked hard to be strong leaders and good standing members of this community!”
“And I need a wife for that?” McCrea questioned.
Three taps on the study door interrupted, causing heads to turn and paused the heated conversation.
“It’s open,” Hardin answered.
When the driver of the Chevy eased her head in, McCrea stopped her at the door. “What do you want, Eleanor?”
The sharpness of his tone caused her to snap back. “Excuse me, grouch. I’m looking for Louisa. Have you seen her?”
“I’m not my sister’s keeper,” he grumbled, not knowing why he was directing his anger at her. “I have no idea where Lou is.”
“Belle took her into town,” Hardin answered with the same patient tone he used for his daughter.
She huffed out, “Darn” before shoving her hands into her back pockets.
“Something we can help you with?” Hardin asked, and checked his watch.
“No, I’ll come back.”
“Hang around. They should be back soon.”
McCrea held the door open for her. “Could you hang around in the hall? We’re in the middle of something.” Even as he tried to usher her out of the room, he couldn’t help but notice how well her newly acquired curves filled every inch of her faded hip huggers.
Eleanor Mackenna wasn’t strikingly beautiful. Her creamy skin wasn’t covered by layers of makeup, and her hair wasn’t curled into the latest fashion. In fact, she was pretty plain and seldom made an effort to make herself anything other than that. But damn, if it didn’t work for her.
“Oh, sorry.” A dusting of red colored her cheeks as she backed out the door. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Mr. C, do you care if I get something from Louisa’s room? I left one of my dresses up there, and I have a date tonight.”
McCrea had known Eleanor most of her life, and at first, she had been the shy little neighbor who blushed when he spoke to her. But she was too energetic for shyness, and it hadn’t taken her long to become a member of his family. There wasn’t a single activity, celebration or holiday she wasn’t involved in. She was a sweet girl with a magnetic appeal which made her approachable and attractive in an indescribable way. She was kind, funny, and quirky, and McCrea felt his agitation start to soften. “Is it with the tuba player who took you to the prom?”
The blush on her cheeks darkened. “Conner didn’t play the tuba. He played the saxophone and no. He’s not my date.” She stuck her tongue out and crossed her arms over her chest like a pouting child.
He wasn’t a dumbass. He knew Eleanor had been hot on his heels for years, but he always ignored her, something easy to do until a few months ago. Up until then, she was just a chatty, somewhat annoying little girl with the coordination of a newborn colt and the elegance of an ostrich.
That wasn’t the case anymore. Now she was a full-fledged, curvy, blonde who turned heads and extracted whistles and cat-calls. In the past, he had been guilty of tempting her, but now the knobby-kneed little girl he’d left in the fall was the one tempting him.
“Get what you need,” Hardin said, ignoring their bickering.
She began backing out of the door. “Thanks.”
“How’s Rose doing?” Wade asked, purposefully keeping her in the room.
Holy hell, McCrea swore silently. Would they ever get back to the land? With a heavy breath, he sat down in the chair across from the desk. His impatience earned him a searing glance from Eleanor. She was adorable when she was angry. In an angry pup kind of way.
“A little sad I’m leaving, but other than that, she’s fine.”
“Her sadness is understandable. You’re a real comfort to her. Lou mentioned you earned a scholarship.”
Her head bobbed up and down. “That’s right. I worked my butt off for it.”
“What are you studying?”
“Can’t go wrong there.”
“Maybe you should help Lou decide on a major,” Hardin suggested.
She lifted a shoulder. “Louisa is smart, Mr. C. She’ll figure it out.”
“Are you coming back here after college?” Wade continued his questions.
“Definitely.” She took a few steps forwards, allowing McCrea another lengthy glance at her backside. “I’m going to rebuild Redemption.”
McCrea didn’t have to see her eyes to know they shone with pride. Rebuilding her granddad’s ranch was her dream. She worked tirelessly around the place, and had since she came to live with Rose years ago. When she was old enough, she got a job at Lomer’s Hardware stocking shelves after school, and Old Ed Tubs let her wait tables at his bar and clean up on weekends. The money she earned wasn’t spent on frivolous things like makeup and new clothes. Her worn, faded denims were proof of that. She had spent her last year of high school saving for a second-hand car he nicknamed Old Blue. The Toyota Corolla came with a busted radiator and over a hundred thousand miles. It stayed in the shop more than it stayed on the road and was an eyesore with a duct tape bumper and missing hubcaps.
“I’m glad to hear that.” Wade was pleased by her plan.
“Those are awfully big dreams for a little girl like yourself,” McCrea jeered.
“No bigger than finding gold in the ruins of an old church or landing that twelve-point buck you’re always talking about.”
He grinned at her comeback. “Hey, the buck is real.”
“So are my plans for rebuilding Redemption, and I’ll start with Romeo Baby.”
Placing all her hopes for Redemption on a horse like Romeo Baby was smart. Charging a premium price for his stud service would generate money for the breeding program she wanted to start, and building a reputable name would ensure Redemption a future. The horse was an untapped goldmine waiting for her return.
Because he was only a couple of days old when his mother died, she bottle-fed the colt, nurtured him, babied him and loved him as though he were a child, orphaned and alone. The colt was a pitiful thing, and McCrea hadn’t given him good odds at survival much less growth. She refused to give up on him, and in her care, the horse thrived. Eleanor never gave up on the things she loved.
Romeo Baby was one of the best cutting horses he had ever worked with. The Quarter horse had a gentle disposition and a unique aura. An intangible, low current surge of strength and fluidity which allowed for a distinctive harmony between horse and rider. But more than that, he was smart. He had a special kind of cow sense all real cutting horses have. When the reins were loosened, he could isolate a calf and pull it from the herd like a gentle guiding mother.
After Charlie’s death, Rose held on to his dream, but Redemption had been running in the red for years with little hope of ever making a profit. Eleanor knew that, but still she, like Rose, held on to the dream. With the weight of last year’s taxes bearing down on her, she was pinching the life out of every penny she had and was working her ass off.
“You should have named the beast Eleanor’s Baby.”
“He’s not a beast and you’re just mad because you can’t have him.”
“What’s going to happen to your baby when you leave?” he asked, knowing she had petitioned Jess to care for the horse. “I’ll give you a hundred dollars for him right now.” His insulting offer was for the sole sake of instigation, and she knew it. That’s what made their flirting quarrels so interesting. He teased her with a few lighthearted insults, and she retaliated with witty comebacks and pretended to be angry. It seemed to be the natural migration of their relationship since he came home from college. He didn’t have a clue as to where that migration might lead, and for the moment, he didn’t care. He was content living in whatever moment they had.
A convincing stare of anger narrowed her eyes. “Your brother has graciously agreed to take care of him, and it will be a cold day in hell before I sell Romeo Baby to you.”
He smiled and fought the urge to kiss her, just as he had earlier in the barnyard. “Colder weather is comin’.” He tried hard to keep his mind centered on the land, but he found himself wandering back to a conversation he had with her a couple of weeks ago.
She had been standing on the sidewalk outside of a little boutique on Main Street when he drove by. He slowed the truck, mesmerized by her simple beauty. Without knowing why, he parked and made his way over to where she stood admiring a peach dress. He looped both thumbs in the front pockets of his Wranglers as he gave the dress a keen look of interest. “Do you think they have it in a thirty-six?”
She fought a grin. “Maybe, but I think the color is wrong for your eyes.”
She bit her bottom lip. “Yeah, red is your color.”
With a finger and thumb to his chin, he considered her suggestion then heaved his size thirteen boot outward and twisted his leg in a feminine fashion. “I don’t know. With that split, I’d have to get my legs waxed, and it hardly seems worth the effort.”
A spew of giggles erupted from her. “Thank you, for that mental picture of you in drag.”
“You’re welcome.” Her laughter was like sunshine. He could never get enough of it, and right now, the only thing better than making her laugh at his own expense was seeing her in that sexy peach dress he knew she wanted. “Are you going to try it on?”
“This is a dream dress, McCrea. Something I would have to save months for.” One arm shrugged. “Besides, spending that much money for something I’ll only wear once seems like a waste.”
“But it’s the prom.” He snatched her hand and with a light tug, jerked her towards the shop’s double doors. “It’s like your wedding dress. It’s special.”
Instead of following along, she pulled her hand from his. “I’m late for work.”
Her sudden withdrawal changed the air around them and the light in her eyes. “But what about the prom? The dress?”
“I have one. It’s light blue with sequins down the front. I bought it last month at the second-hand store down the block.”
He knew the shop and anything she bought there could never compare to the gown in the window. “If it’s the money, I’ll pay─.”
“No, thanks,” she said, cutting him off.
Her downcast eyes made him regret his offer. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“You didn’t.” She twisted her lips and kicked her boot against the concrete. “The truth is, I have enough money in my savings account to buy the dress, but Romeo Baby needs─”
“That horse is a burden you should rid yourself of. I’ll give you twenty-five thousand for him.”
Her retort was slow, deferred by temptation, he was sure. “Twenty-five, huh?”
“Yep. Say the word and I’ll pull out my checkbook.”
Her answer was plain and simple. “But he’s more than a horse to me. He’s the future of Redemption.”
Damn, Redemption. Couldn’t she see what she was giving up? “We could make it a partnership.”
She raised an eyebrow in question. “A partnership? With you?”
“I buy him, keep him while you’re gone and when you get back from college, we’ll start breeding.”
“And what do you want in return for your investment?”
A smart man would have spewed out a bullshit figure, and let it go at that. Something to cure her curiosity, but he couldn’t do that with Eleanor. She was too smart for bullshit. “Nothing.”
She crammed a hand into the back pocket of her jeans and tilted her head to one side. “Then why would you do it?”
“For the same reason I offered to buy you the dress.” He felt something inside him give way. Something his pride couldn’t hold back. “Because it would make you happy.”
His words touched her. He could see it in the changing color of her eyes, the nervous flex of her creamy throat, and the inward twist of her knees. She was the perfect mix of vulnerability and innocence, and an enticement that ignited a fire deep inside him. “Peach is your color,” he lured.
Her playfulness returned. “So is blue. No deal.” She pointed to the boutique door. “But I think you should definitely try the red one on.”
He watched her firm ass bounce from side to side as she retreated down the street. “I will. If you help me wax my legs!” His shout caused a passing group of teenage girls to giggle. Pride intact, he adjusted the waist of his Wranglers and pushed his chest out before entering the shop.
Eleanor got her expensive peach dress, delivered anonymously to her mailbox the next day with a red bow he tied himself. From a bush behind the fence, he watched for the Conner kid’s arrival and reminded himself that acne and braces were safe, even if raging hormones were on the loose. Sure enough, at seven o’clock on the dot, the little yellow Volkswagen jolted to a stop outside Rose’s house, backfired once, and produced a very nervous saxophone player. McCrea relaxed knowing her virginity was safe.
“McCrea, did you hear what I said?” His granddad’s voice jolted him out of the memory.
“Ah─ no. Sorry.” He shifted in his seat. “I was thinking.”
Hardin cleared his throat. “Redemption’s heyday was before my time, but I’ve heard the stories about how it was one hell of a horse ranch.”
“Oh, it was,” Wade said. “Your granddad was about the best bronc rider in the state and one hell of a horseman. You may have trouble finding someone as good as he was. ”
It was true, Charlie Mackenna had been the best in the state, and he dominated the sport in the 1960’s until a broken back retired him. The old man was just as tough as Wade and one hundred percent cowboy. “Jess offered to pitch in help me with the horses when I get back.”
It was only natural she would enlist Jess’ help. He had been one hell of a bronc buster, making it all the way to the National Rodeo Finals two years ago, but like Charlie, he had his career ended by a hard fall. Months of rehab and three surgeries later, his brother was still a lady’s man, and McCrea couldn’t help the jealousy that tightened inside his stomach when he thought about Jess helping her with anything.
“We’ll help too, in any way we can, money, people, connections. Anything at all,” Wade assured her. “And if your plans for rebuilding Redemption don’t work out, you come and see me. I have just the job for you.”
“You would give me a job?”
“Sure we would,” Hardin answered for him. “We would be crazy not to.”
“Oh, well, thank you.”
“And don’t worry about Rose. We’ll take good care of her while you’re gone.”
“I would appreciate that. I worry about leaving her.” With no more said about dreams or degrees, she nervously glanced at McCrea. “Well, I better get going.”
“Make sure you shut the door behind you,” he ordered.
She saluted him with a “Yes, sir,” before shutting the door behind her.
Wade waited until he heard the front door shut, “Eleanor’s a sweet girl.”
“And pretty too,” Hardin threw in. “You should be nicer to her.”
“She gives me a headache.” McCrea scooted to the edge of his seat. “Back to the land.”
“Hell boy, you better not drag your feet with that one,” Wade laughed. “If I were younger, I’d steal her right out from under you.”
McCrea’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“There’s no use in trying to hide it,” Hardin said. “We both saw the way you were gawkin’ at her.”
Damn. He pushed his Stetson up high on his forehead, a little embarrassed he’d been caught. “So I was admiring her ass.”
Wade leaned back in his chair. “You do know she’s head over heels in love with you, don’t you?”
Christ, was he serious? “She’s a kid with a crush. She’ll get over it.”
“But will you?” Hardin threw in.
“There’s nothing to get over!”
“You sure about that?” Wade pushed. “Why did you punch Willard?”
“Because he slapped Eleanor on the ass and offered up a raw suggestion as to how she could deliver the next round of beers.” He dragged his hat off and slung it to the desk, irritated they were talking him into a corner. “But you two already knew that, didn’t you? What the hell is going on here?”
“You tell us,” Wade said.
How could he justify kickin’ Willard’s ass without coming across as being jealous or protective of Eleanor? The two of them would love that.
“Willard has a big mouth, and he needed to know he was out of line.”
“So you broke his nose?” Hardin questioned with a smirk.
“He threw the first punch.” He did feel a little guilty for breaking Willard’s nose. He was a decent guy, just rowdy when he was drunk.
“Love provokes all sorts of emotions and jealousy is one of the strongest.”
What the hell? Love? “Whoa! I was just looking out for her!” He raked a hand through his hair, then pointed to Wade. “You would have done the same thing.”
Wade’s smile was wide. “Damn right, I would have. I once knocked out a guy’s front teeth for asking your grandma to dance.”
“This is crazy!” he laughed. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. I thought we were talking about my inheritance.”
“We are,” Hardin assured him.
Wade came to his feet. “I’ll make you a deal.”
“Oh, God.” He actually felt nauseous, and suddenly things were crystal clear. He needed an anchor. A wife. This entire conversation had been a set up, and he had walked right into it. “What kind of deal?”
“I’ll give you the land if,” Wade paused, and McCrea dropped his head with the weight of a man headed to an execution. “I stop fighting and whoring around?”
“You get married.”
Son of a bitch! Being right, he brought a hand to his face for a hard scrub. “Christ, Granddad. Have you lost your mind?” “Maybe you should make it two years,” Hardin’s wit was dry. “We might get a grandson out of it.”
“Find a wife and keep her for at least a year. And I’ll hand over the deed.” Wade held out his hand to seal the agreement. “What do you say? Do we have a deal?”
It was the heart attack. It had to be. His granddad wasn’t thinking clearly. “I don’t want to get married,” he said, and watched Wade’s hand fall.
“Okay, have it your way. You can wait until I die to get the land. Maybe by then you’ll be responsible enough to inherit it.”
Damn you, Wade.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and felt guilty for cursing a man he admired and loved. His granddad was such a positive influence in his life. He always wanted to be like him, but always fell short.
That meant waiting wasn’t an option. He had to have the land while Wade was alive. He needed to show his granddad he was responsible and that he could be a success at something other than ranching. He needed to see the approval in the old man’s eyes. He needed Wade to see how hard he tried to be the man he wanted him to be. And if he had to get hitched to do it, then by-god he would. “Okay,” he sighed. “You got yourself a deal.”
“I guess I’d better find a wife,” he baited, knowing they had Eleanor in mind.
Hardin leaned forward, and pointed outside. “Jesus, boy. The best candidate just walked right by you.”
Wade turned to the window. “Something about her reminds me of Sophia.”
“Yeah, she is a lot like mom,” Hardin agreed with a nostalgic smile.
“Sophia always said Eleanor had a fire about her.” Wade smacked his palms together. “She’s just what you need right now!”
“She’d be perfect for you,” Hardin said.
If he wasn’t so pissed at being forced into marriage, he might have laughed at their pushy salesmanship. Look at the two of them, smiling their asses off. Jesus H. Christ, this was a mess! At least he would get the satisfaction of picking his own wife.
“No. Not in a million years.”
Hardin’s smile fell. “Why not? Eleanor is a good girl. She’s hardworking and smart, and my grandkids would be beautiful.”
“Stop talking about grandkids,” he growled.
Wade dug a finger into the desktop. “It’s time you settled down and made something of yourself. The time for talk is over. Rose’s days are numbered, just like mine are, and I intend on doing everything in my power to see that Eleanor has a place at the ranch for as long as she wants. I owe it to Rose and Charlie.”
“So give her a goddamn job!” he burst out. “But don’t make me marry her!”
“Lower your voice,” Wade commanded. “You know that’s not the only reason I want you to marry her.”
The groggy hum of the old Chevy roared to life as Eleanor drove down the driveway.
“If marriage is the only way I can have the land, then I get to choose the woman.” McCrea held out his hand, and Wade hesitated. “If I marry Eleanor Mackenna, it’ll be because I want to.”
Both men stood strong in their terms.
“Come on, Dad,” Hardin played mediator. “You can’t choose for him.”
“Fine.” Wade accepted the handshake. “But choose wisely. I’ll not have the family named smeared by an ugly divorce. Nor will I have the land taken by some whore with dollar signs in her eyes. Make her sign a pre-nup.”
“Yeah, yeah… I know what I’m doing.” He snatched his hat from the desk, slammed the door behind him, and sprang into a dead run towards the ranch truck parked in the driveway. He felt as though a heavy weight had been taken off his shoulders. All he had to do was find a wife, and the land would be his. “Piece of cake.”
Eleanor was sure the play in McCrea’s eyes and the sharpness of his tongue was because he thought she had a date tonight. Jess was right. He needed competition, and she was going to give him some.
The flirty banter between them back at the Coldiron house left her flushed and excited. With her window down, she cranked up the radio, and bellowed out the upbeat tune with untalented enthusiasm.
At the end of the gravel drive, she felt the truck lurch and sputter. “Damn, what now?” Two days ago, Old Blue belched up a gallon of water and gave up the ghost, leaving her stuck driving her grandma’s old rusted out Chevy. She guided the dead truck off the road, pushed the brake until it stopped, and shoved it into park.
She pecked at the gas gauge and watched the orange hand fall to E. “Great. Now what am I going to do?” She stuffed her dress into her purse and opened the door. “What else can go wrong?” she asked as she slammed it. It looked like she was walking the mile to her house.
She kicked a rock and sent it flying across the road. “Ouch!” Worn in all the right places, her favorite pair of Ariat boots did little to protect her feet, but she didn’t care. At the risk of a broken toe, she aimed her frustration at a smaller rock and heard the unmistakable sound of the ranch diesel hauling ass down the road.
The work truck slowed to almost a stop, and the passenger side window came down.
“Need a ride?” he asked.
Her quick stride never faltered. “After you practically bit my head off back there in front of Mr. C and Wade, and then tried to embarrass me with that snarky remark about Conner?” She shook her head. “No thank you. I’d rather walk.”
“Don’t be stubborn.”
He had no idea how stubborn she could be. The temperature today was close to a hundred. She hadn’t walked more than twenty feet, and she was already drenched in sweat. But she didn’t want to seem zealous. “Go away, McCrea.”
“I wasn’t trying to be hateful.” He stopped the truck, and Eleanor knew that was as close as he was coming to an apology. “Now, will you please get in? It’s hotter than hell out here. Let me give you a ride home.”
She held back a grin and gave in. “Can you take me to a gas station instead? Grandma forgot to put gas in it yesterday.” She climbed in and shut the door. “I need the truck tonight.”
“Old Blue out of commission again?”
“Yeah,” with a wave of her hand, she dismissed the problem. “Something about a hose.”
“Sure.” He let off the brake and pushed the gas. “We wouldn’t want to disappoint Conner.”
In seconds, they were speeding along the one lane road between his house and hers.
“I told you, my date isn’t with Conner.” She turned the vent towards her face and leaned forward. The cool air hit her sweat-soaked skin, causing her to shiver. “God, that feels good.” Aware of his eyes on her, she was nervous, but determined not to let it show. The flick of her wrists sent the bottom of her thin t-shirt waving and him muttering a soft curse. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” His hand tightened on the wheel while the other scratched his jaw. “I was just thinking how much things have changed since I’ve been gone.”
She bit her bottom lip to keep from grinning and twisted around to search the truck bed, giving him a better view of her breasts. “Do you have a gas can in the back?”
A quick glance at her cleavage told her he’d noticed. “Yeah, I have one. I try to be prepared for anything.”
“That’s good to know.” She slipped back into the seat and watched the fence posts pass as songs on the radio changed. “Oh, is that Eric Church?” She listened for the beat and watched them pass her house. “It is, and I love this song. The chorus reminds me of you.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“You drink too many beers on Friday nights. Don’t deny it. And,” she turned the volume up, pointed a finger at him and bobbed her head side to side with the beat, “how many times have I heard you tell the boys at the bar you won’t ever settle down?”
He let off the gas and merged onto the blacktop road leading into town. Murphy’s Mini Mart was just a few minutes away, meaning she had to make the most of their time together. This was the first time she’d been alone with him since he came home from college. She had to make it count by showing him she was all grown up.
Think Eleanor, think. McCrea was cocky and very confident in his ability to seduce a woman. Jesus, he was that. If he wanted a woman, he got her, and he didn’t play or chase. How flippin’ exciting was that? It made him dangerously irresistible. She purposefully lowered her voice to the sexy pitch she had practiced and called his name. “McCrea?”
“Yeah,” he answered with a strained voice as he slowed for the sharp curve ahead.
She arched her back and closed her eyes. “Is it hard to seduce someone?”
The truck swerved off the road and down into the ditch.
“Watch it!” She gripped the dash, hoping he could gain control before they plummeted to their deaths. The cliffs jutted downward in layers of three to the Sandusky Creek below. Locals were cautious of the curve and the potential hazard, but over the years, a few unfortunate souls had lost their lives. He corrected the truck back onto the pavement and slammed on the brakes. “What kind of question is that?”
She stared at him, not realizing the question would have such an impact. “I was just curious. Sheez. Kill us, why don’t ya.” Composure regained, she fanned her face fighting the adrenaline rush from her near death experience. “I thought we were going over.”
He cocked an eyebrow up and lowered the volume on the radio. “You thinking about seducing someone?” He seemed more disturbed by her question than the threat of death.
Content with having his attention again, her fingers drummed against her thigh in beat with the tune. “Maybe.” She felt daring and flirting with him was addictive. But after several intense seconds of him staring at her, she threw up her hands. “What? Why are you staring at me?”
Silently, he pulled back onto the road. “For someone like me, no. Seduction isn’t hard at all.” He turned into the parking lot of the mini mart and met her with a look that could melt steel. “But you’ve got a lot to learn, little Eleanor.”
The “little” in that sentence pissed her off. When he opened the door and got out, she scooted to the driver’s seat and glared at him as he dug in the back for the gas can. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve grown up.”
“I’ve noticed.” There was a meaning in his voice that sent a shiver up her spine. Had he really noticed?
After paying for the gas, he secured the can in the truck bed and came back to the door. “Are you trying to rope this guy into a ring?” His question seemed oddly out of place.
“God, no!” she protested. “Why would you ask such a question?”
“Scoot,” he ordered her to the passenger side and climbed in. “I’m just asking. Some women are like that.” He slammed the door and started the truck. “I thought you might be looking for a way to rebuild Redemption.”
“I plan on rebuilding Redemption by myself,” she clarified, feeling offended he thought she was that kind of woman. “And I know a lot about sex. I’ve read all about it. I don’t think seduction would be hard for me to master.”
His laughter filled the cab as they pulled out onto the road. “You and Lou still reading those smutty books?”
“They are not smut!” she snapped. This was not going as planned. Maybe she should have gotten a real date for tonight. “They’re romance.”
“They’re smut,” he repeated. “Besides, you’ve read every cookbook my mother has,” the daring look in his eyes excited her, “and you can’t boil water.”
“I can so!” She scowled at him and felt a part of her courage slip away. “You’re an ass, McCrea.”
There were those glittering gold specks dancing away in his eyes when he winked at her. “Oh, don’t get mad at me. I’m just making a point.”
She crossed her arms over her breasts. “And that is?”
“Sex isn’t like cooking. There’s no recipe to follow. No directions. You could read a hundred books and still not know what the hell you’re doing.”
Score one for McCrea. “Forget I asked.”
He shifted lower in the seat and lifted his hips as if he were uncomfortable. “How well do you know this guy you want to seduce?”
“Seduction can be a dangerous game for someone like you, Eleanor.”
Her back stiffened. “Why?”
“There’s no delicate way to put it.”
She twisted in her seat to face him. “So don’t be delicate. Spill it.”
When his eyes met hers, there wasn’t one ounce of flirtatious fun in them. “You’re a virgin, and if you try to seduce some of the young studs around here, there’s a good chance you could get hurt.”
“A virgin,” she repeated and felt the sting of truth penetrate her core. “That was blunt.”
“You asked.” He looked forward as he explained. “Taking a woman’s virginity is very arousing for a man, and dangerous for the woman if the man doesn’t know how to control himself.”
“I don’t understand that at all. What’s so special about taking a woman’s virginity?”
He switched the AC on high and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. Was he sweating? “In the old days it was a way for a man to claim his woman. It’s all through history.”
She could see her truck as they rounded the curve. Damn. The quick trip was wasted.
“Well, chalk one up for the modern age. People have casual sex all the time and men don’t,” she made quotation marks with her fingers, claim their women.”
“Sure we do.” He guided the truck off the road and braked a few feet away from hers. “And not all men believe sex should be casual. I don’t.”
A hard breath could have blown her over. “What?”
Her shocked reaction drew a smirk to his lips. “You don’t believe me?”
Did she? “I─ I…It’s just,” her words fell short of a sentence. “What about all the women you’ve dated?”
“All the women I’ve dated?” His question was made with a slight shake of his head. “There aren’t that many, regardless of the rumors.” The vein at his temple doubled in size when he paused to drape an arm over the steering wheel. His jaw tightened, then relaxed. “I don’t screw everything with a vagina, and I am faithful when I’m in a relationship.”
Faithful? Did he really just use that word? “But, from what I hear, you’re with a different woman every night.”
“Hell, Eleanor this town doesn’t have that many women in it. I’d have to drive all the way to Austin or Dallas, to meet that quota.” He did have a point. Santa Camino had a slim supply of women in it ─ eligible or not. “That’s just small town gossip. I used to think it was funny.” He shoved the truck into park and got out, pausing at the door. “Now, it just pisses me off.”
The hard slam made her bolt from her seat and sent her racing to the back of the truck in pursuit of answers. “How many relationships have you had?”
After he loosened the bungee strap around the gas can, he lifted it and walked around her without answering the question. He unscrewed the gas cap, inserted the nozzle into the tank, and lifted the can until it made a guzzling sound. When the can was empty, he twisted the cap in place and closed the lid, then walked to the hood to find the release. The latch gave way with a pop and a chirr, allowing him to lean in.
She raised on tiptoes and joined him inside the foreign land of grease and oil. “Ouch!” The rusty, sunbaked body was hot against her fingers. “Why are we under the hood? I thought it was out of gas.”
He stepped back to the work truck for an empty water bottle, took out his pocket knife, and unfolded the blade. A thumb to the side of the bottle kept the blade steady as he pulled it around the top. “Older trucks have to be primed.”
It didn’t matter to her. She was just grateful the hunk of junk was giving her more time with McCrea. “Oh.”
All the men on the ranch carried a pocket knife, but none of them used it the way he did. She loved watching his hands. There was just something about them that intrigued her. Long, lean and tanned is the way she would describe them. Calloused, but soft. Strong, but gentle. Sweet lord she wanted them to touch her. She wanted to experience all the pleasures they could give, and know firsthand the love they were capable of. She was more than ready for that to happen. Years of wishing and dreaming of him was getting her nowhere, and being this close to him was torture. A delectable, tangible ache that was getting worse.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Her hand fetish had her on the verge of squirming. Boots. Boots are safe. She forced her eyes to focus on his dirty brown footwear. But boots are attached to calves, and calves to thighs. Firm thighs. With muscles and a dusting of dark hair. She cleared her throat and let her curiosity lead the way. Up. Up. Up to the rise beneath his zipper. Oh, yeah. This was a mistake.
“Get in and wait for me to tell you when to start it.” The sound of his soft order snapped her attention back to the truck.
“Yeah, sure.” She yanked the door open, climbed in, and through the slit in the hood, watched him work.
“Okay, try it now.” She pumped the gas and twisted the ignition. After a few tries, the engine started.
He dropped the hood closed, and rubbed his hands together, wiping away gas and oil. “They say a woman always remembers her first lover.”
She squinted one eye closed against the sunlight. “Are you making another point?”
“This guy’s always going to be in your head.” He cut a coy grin as he scrubbed his left thumb. “You might want to give that some thought before you go jumping into his bed.”
Why did he make her intentions sound so vulgar? “Thanks for the advice.”
“This guy.” He rested an elbow on the side mirror. “He knows you’re a virgin, right?”
“He knows, McCrea, and I don’t need you to protect me. He’s not like Willard or any of the other guys at Tubs.” She stretched across the seat to roll the passenger window down, and a cool breeze rushed in, scattering her hair. She gathered it into a ponytail and twisted it into a crude knot at the base of her head. “I’m leaving for college in a week, and I’m afraid if I wait for him to make the first move, I might not get the chance at all. The truth is; I think I’m falling for him.”
His face drew into a deep scowl. “Does he know that?”
A sigh left her. Not one ounce of intuitiveness. “No. He’s clueless.”
His quiet study made her uncomfortable. She had seen the same consideration a few times and knew his questions were brought on by a need to protect. McCrea was looking out for her. He wasn’t worried about competition from her mystery date, or losing her to another man. So much for giving him competition. In need of a quick getaway, she pushed the brake down and pulled the truck into drive. “Look, I trust him. Plus, he’s older than me and more experienced.”
His head lifted from its downward tilt with a deep breath. “That’s what scares me.”
“Don’t look so worried. He’s like you. He’s always in control.”
“Every man has his limits, darlin’.” His eyes darkened with heavy lashes that lowered to her breast. “Even me.”
McCrea dodged the fist aimed at his nose and counter-punched the man delivering the blow. The hard knock to the man’s jaw sent him spinning around and into the bar. “Come on, Benny boy,” he grinned. “Is that all you got?”
Ben blinked to focus, but before he could charge forward, an arm clamped around McCrea’s neck and hauled him backwards. “Shit!” he said, briefly seeing the faded Semper Fi tattoo of Old Ed Tubs as he watched his favorite Stetson fly into the air.
“I’ve had enough of you two!” The bartender was still strong for his age and mean when you pissed him off. And they had. He and Jess were always up for a healthy brawl, and when beers were involved, things could get ugly.
“Ed!” McCrea croaked out as he dragged him towards the door. “Ed!”
“Y’all are tearing my bar all to hell!” Ed threw him to the floor.
“We were just having fun.” He rubbed his throat and scooted against the wall to avoid being trampled by Jess and Scotty, who were brawling a few feet away.
Ed pointed a stubby finger at him. “This is the last time─ Ooph!” his threat was interrupted when a hard right from Scotty sent Jess into him. The short and stocky frame of the ex-Marine absorbed the blow and barely moved him.
When the creases in Ed’s brow deepened, Jess said, “Oh shit.”
Ed gritted his teeth, grabbed Jess by the collar and delivered a hard, swift punch to his mouth.
Jess’s head bobbed. He blinked, dazed by the punch and fell to the floor beside McCrea.
“Damn kids,” Ed mumbled and stepped over them to break up another fight. Tubs Roadhouse was the only bar big enough or brave enough to handle tonight’s much-anticipated bachelor party for the last unmarried Langford brother, Scotty.
Jess worked his jaw from left to right and scooted back to join him along the wall. “Old Ed’s gonna kick us out for good this time.”
Ed had been Old Ed for as long as McCrea could remember, but was, in fact, a year younger than his dad. The two had gone to high school together until Ed dropped out his senior year to join the Marines. He came back years later and opened the bar. He had no family or close friends. He was a loner and seemed to like it that way. “How many times has he threatened to do that?”
“More than I can count,” Jess laughed. “But two weekends in a row ain’t good.”
“He enjoys tearing up shit as much as we do.” He closed his eyes and tried to savor the excitement he felt at this exact minute. Four years of college with only intermittent times between semesters left him missing high school and the time when life wasn’t so complicated. The days when football and women were the only things that mattered. The days when he was free to do what he wanted.
Damn it, Granddad! How could you do this to me? I don’t want a wife!
He couldn’t blame everything on his granddad. Even without Wade’s terms, he felt the weight of his family’s expectations bearing down on him. Marriage eventually happened to every man in Santa Camino. The town was steeped in tradition, and family and ranching were two of its finest. Twenty-four was too young to be tied down, but that’s what was expected, wasn’t it? He was home and expected to make something of himself. And he wanted to. He had plans. Damn it, he had plans that didn’t involve a wife!
He felt caged. He needed to punch something. He needed a release.
“Shit. I need a wife,” he mumbled to himself, and with closed eyes, let his head fall back against the wall.
The silky, honey dipped voice opened his eyes to a pair of slim, tanned legs, and enticed them up to one of the sweetest asses he’d ever had the pleasure to be tempted by. He hissed in a deep breath between his teeth while trying hard to clear his mind of the unchaste thoughts racing through his mind about his kid sister’s best friend. None of which had ever been as strong as they were since his granddad suggested he make her his wife.
He’d never tasted Eleanor Mackenna, but damn if he didn’t want to. Their ride into town this afternoon left him thinking about Wade’s suggestion, and suddenly it wasn’t so absurd. Maybe she was just what he needed. She was a woman with her own dreams and ambitions. She wasn’t clingy. She was smart and beautiful. Funny and everybody liked her.
Wade liked her.
A wide grin covered Jess’ face. “Hot damn! This night just keeps getting better!”
She ruffled the top of Jess’ shaggy mop. “I see Old Ed put you in your place again.” She tucked a long strand of her blonde hair behind her ear and tilted her head to the side. “You boys ‘bout done for the night?”
Her playfulness made him hard and her tongue ─ Damn. He watched it dart along the edge of her full bottom lip and felt a cord of sexual tension tighten in his body. A man could stand only so much temptation before he dove in face first, and that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Dive in.
“Hell, no,” was his answer.
“Hell, yes,” was Jess’ before he jumped to his feet. “I’d like to spend tonight doing something other than getting my ass kicked. Where’s my hat?”
McCrea pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and hit the top against his palm, producing a slightly bent cigarette.
He twisted the end of his new habit between his finger and thumb, hoping the nicotine would settle his nerves. He stuck it between his lips and stretched his legs out, preparing to enjoy. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?” He teased and dug into the front pocket of his jeans for his lighter.
She took a step closer, twisted around on one hip and folded her arms under her breasts. The action emphasizing their already ample state. “Like you said, McCrea. Things have changed since you left.”
Damn right, they had.
“I’m meeting my date here.”
He lit the cigarette and took a long draw. “Oh, yeah,” he mocked. “The guy you’ve fallen in love with.”
Sneaking up behind her, Scotty looped an arm around her waist and twisted her around. “Hellooo, baby.”
“Now, Scotty.” She wedged her hands against his chest and pushed. “Don’t make me tell Amy you’ve been misbehaving.”
The threat didn’t stop his drunken advances. “It could be our little secret.” He smoothed a hand over her ass only to have her smack it away.
“Damn it, Scotty, stop!”
“Oh, come on,” he jeered.
“Get your goddamn hands off of her before you get your ass kicked,” McCrea warned, knowing Scotty’s rowdiness wasn’t caused by alcohol. He was an asshole twenty-four seven, and his reputation went beyond that of a ladies’ man.
Scotty flipped him the middle finger. “Screw you, Coldiron.”
McCrea took another draw and exhaled before drawing a knee up to stand. “Fine by me.”
“Don’t, McCrea,” Eleanor cut in. “I can handle this.” But before she could react, Ben snagged Scotty by the shoulder and spun him around.
“You son of a bitch!” Ben rammed his head into his stomach. “My sister trusted you!” The knock drove Scotty backward.
The scuffle knocked Eleanor backward with a “Whoa!” and into McCrea’s lap, landing her ass hard against his crotch. He winced from the pain of having his hard dick hit but recovered quickly. A soft ass could work wonders.
The fight escalated, out to the entryway and through the doors to the parking lot.
“Hoo! Wee!” Jess yelled and followed the fight outside.
McCrea grinned and took another draw from his cigarette. “Damn.” He slid a hand up her calf and across her knee. “Things have changed.”
He expected her to make a shy getaway, with blushing cheeks and downcast eyes, but she didn’t. Instead, she placed both palms on the floor behind her and leaned backward across his lap as if she were lying on the beach.
That made him take another long draw.
“You say you’re not the man everyone thinks you are, but yet….” The arch of a single brow spoke of her doubt.
Shit. How could this sweet, young thing unravel him so easily? Behind the expulsion of smoke, he gave her curvy body a once over and noticed the outline of her breasts under the thin yellow dress. He’d gotten a glimpse of the tantalizing pair when she’d twisted around to look in the back for a gas can. Not too big and not too small. They were just the right size to fill his palm, round, firm and…. He swallowed. Is she wearing a bra? “Here we are with you in my lap and my hand on your leg.”
“Yes,” she agreed and removed his hand from her knee. “Here we are.” The ease of her voice and the friskiness in her eyes was almost sinful. She sat up, her lips passing close to his as she slid off his lap and onto the balls of her feet. She tucked the edges of her short dress into the bend of her knees, and drew a finger across his bottom lip before she slowly rose to her feet.
His throat constricted. “Aren’t you the little flirt?”
She pressed a hand to her chest and offered an innocent look. “Me? Flirt?”
Sweet, Jesus, there was an innocence about her despite her best efforts to look sophisticated and mature. She was ripe for the picking, and he’d be damned if he let another man get the first taste.
To hell with her date. Eleanor would be his tonight and if he played his cards right, his wife in a couple of weeks. His palms itched. He wanted the deed in his hand and Eleanor in his bed.
With his mind set on seduction, he crawled to his feet and walked back to the bar just in time to hear Jess yell, “Damn, what a fight!” as he came back in.
By now, the ruckus had settled, and the men were nursing their black eyes, busted lips, and wounded pride. To avoid Ed’s blistering stare, McCrea turned his back to the bar and braced his elbows against the edge.
One of the men handed Jess his hat. “Grab mine.” McCrea pointed towards the floor next to his brother, and again, his eyes found Eleanor. She ran her hands through her hair and crammed them into the pockets of her short denim jacket.
Jess tossed him his hat. “What’s she doing here?”
He dusted a peanut hull from the brim. “Maybe she’s working.”
“She told me Old Ed wouldn’t let her work the party. Said things might get out of hand.” Jess adjusted the position of his hat. “And those don’t look like her usual work clothes.”
“Nope.” McCrea followed the length of her pale yellow dress up to the elastic bodice. She had worn that same dress last week to his parents’ anniversary barbecue, minus the short denim jacket. The dress was strapless, and he knew it would be so easy to slide off her breasts. “Damn.”
“Don’t do it.”
McCrea stopped mentally undressing her long enough to ask, “Do what?”
“I know that look. Take my advice,” Jess nodded towards a table in the back. “Let Vanessa scratch your itch and leave El alone.”
“Maybe I want more than a scratch.”
“I doubt that, but if that’s the case take it slow. El is a tenderfoot and the kind of woman a man wants to settle down with.”
He grinned. “I am looking for a wife.”
Jess propped an elbow on the bar. “No. You’re looking for a way to get Granddad’s land.”
“How did you know about that?”
“I knew something was up when he wanted to see you. So I hung around after dinner.”
“You were listening?” McCrea asked.
“Then you know he wants me to marry her?”
“Wade said she had a fire about her,” he said without taking his eyes off of Eleanor. “Said she was just what I needed.”
Jess picked up an over turned stool and sat down. “El’s not the girl for you.”
The barnyard chase came to McCrea’s mind, causing jealousy to speak. “But she is for you? Jesus, that’s rich. I saw the way you two were carrying on this afternoon.”
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t indulged in a fantasy or two, or that I hadn’t noticed how pretty she is, or that that dress offers just enough cleavage to keep a man looking.” Jess cleared his throat. “What man wouldn’t?”
He glared at his brother. “Don’t get any ideas about living those fantasies. Eleanor is mine.”
There was a touch of disbelief and humor in his brother’s eyes. “Since when?”
He and his brother were close, and if he laid a claim to Eleanor, Jess would never cross the line.
He watched her dig into her pocket for her cell phone. “Since I decided Wade was right.”
“That’s your pecker talking,” Jess laughed. “You’re being ruled by a stronger power than common sense, and lust can make a man do some crazy things.”
He drew in a deep breath and rubbed his palms together. “Crazy or not, I have to find a wife. Blame it on Wade.”
“Is that who you’re going to blame when you break her heart?” Jess asked, flatly.
“That won’t happen. I’ll explain everything and she’ll understand that it’s just business.”
“Christ, listen to yourself.” Jess shook his head. “Marry Vanessa, write her a check and divorce her. That will be business.”
“I don’t want Vanessa.” He watched the redheaded whore from his high school days flirt with a group of men in the back. “And a year is a long time to live with a slut like her.”
“Yeah,” Jess agreed and scratched the back of his head. “But she’d be in it for the money. El won’t. She believes in love and romance. Marrying you for the sake of a piece of land won’t be either.”
“I can persuade her,” he said with coolness.
“Trust me on this one. You’re setting yourself up for a fall, and you’re going to take her with you.”
“You heard Wade. He likes Eleanor.”
“So do I and I don’t want to see her hurt.” Jess moved closer. “The goddamn land will always be there. El won’t. If you care for her, let the land go. You’re going to get it sooner or later.”
McCrea took a deep breath and went back to watching Eleanor.
“Don’t you see? El is like a new colt, all jittery and nervous, and if you try corralling her,” Jess smacked his hands together, “She’ll run.”
“No, she won’t,” he sounded confident, but he wasn’t. “She’s done a lot of growing up. She’s a woman now.”
“A woman you don’t know a damn thing about. Court her a while, take things slow and when you get her, don’t let go,” Jess concluded with a big smile.
His remark warranted a hard look from McCrea. “The marriage is for a year.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re going into this with divorce in mind?”
“It’s a business deal.”
A rare irritation came over Jess. “Don’t you dare sleep with her or ─ or let her think you care for her ─ when you don’t.”
The radiance she gave off was as rare as pearls. The glow on her face, the sweetness of her smile and the innocence of her body were his for the taking. He had her within his grasp, a precious opportunity, and suddenly seducing sweet Eleanor seemed wrong. He wanted her body, but did he want her heart? Could there ever be anything more than physical attraction between them?
He let out a shaky breath and ignored the truth. “I can’t wait to inherit the land. It means too much to me.”
“If you do this, she will never trust another man enough to give him her heart or love. You’ll ruin her.”
McCrea shifted his shoulders. “Why do you always bring love into this?”
“Because I have a heart.” His brother had a rare disposition when it came to women. One which allowed him to relate to them in a way that confounded other men.
“And I don’t?” McCrea scoffed.
“Obviously not,” Jess answered. “Eleanor deserves a man who loves her.”
“Did you know she’s meeting a guy tonight?”
Jess looked away. “She mentioned it.”
“Did she mention she was in love with him and had plans on seducing him before she leaves for college?”
Jess rubbed his face with a groan, “Jesus, McCrea. Sometimes I think you were adopted.”
“You know who he is, don’t you?”
“Forget the guy. Fix your screwed up priorities before you entice El into scratching your itch.” Jess smacked him on the shoulder before he walked away.
A high-pitched laugh burst through the noise of the barroom crowd and pierced McCrea’s patience. Out of aggravation, he threw a quick glance over his shoulder and made eye contact with the source. “Shit.”
Vanessa scrunched her freckled covered nose and gave him a wink to let him know she was on her way up to the bar. The last thing he wanted to do tonight was draw her attention, but he knew he had.
The quick tip-tap of her high heels crawled up his spine, and he felt her ease closer as if she knew he was thinking about her. He doubted that. Vanessa wasn’t adept at seeing anything past the end of a man’s checkbook. She had ─ in the words of his sister ─ the face of a movie star and the personality of a blank sheet of paper. She was self-absorbed, money hungry and very protective of the men she considered hers. McCrea was unfortunate enough to be one of those men.
Jesus. How could Jess suggest he make a deal with her?
Within seconds, she was sitting on the stool Jess had vacated and leaning over to wipe blood from the corner of his mouth. “You’re bleeding.”
He recoiled at her touch. “Don’t.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m not in the mood.” For anything.
Her red lips spread into a smile as she curled up against him, and slid a hand down to the inside of his thigh. “But, Babe, I thought we could go back to my place tonight.”
“Not a chance in hell, Vanessa,” he said coolly and sipped his beer.
She snuggled closer and palmed his dick without discretion. “I bet I can change your mind.”
He shoved her hand away. “Damn, Vanessa.”
She swiveled around with a giggle and headed towards the bathroom. “I’ll be right back.”
Hopefully one of the other men would proposition her, and spare him the job of pissing her off later. After all, she was there to work the crowd of drunken men. Every one of them knew what kind of woman she was. Cheap and easy to come by. She was a convenience McCrea hadn’t indulged in a very long time, and he planned on keeping it that way.
These days, his sights were set a damned sight higher.
Someone dropped a few quarters into the old jukebox in the back and a slow country tune started. Jess took Eleanor’s hand and eased her into his arms. With one hand on her lower back, and the other around her waist, they moved around the dance floor, with perfectly synced steps.
Again, jealousy tightened in his stomach.
What the hell is he doing?
Jess spun her around and ended the dance with a quick kiss on her cheek. Eleanor laughed and stepped away to answer her cell phone again. She bent her head and pressed a finger against her ear to drown out the noise. The one troublesome strand of hair that always seemed to be in her way, fell again. She tucked it behind her ear, skimmed the crowd and smiled when their eyes met.
He wanted a woman who reeked of innocence and virginity. A woman who was sweet and untouched. The girl next door everyone loved and every man dreamed of marrying. He wanted Eleanor, and for more than a night.
Jess, who was sitting three seats down from him tipped his beer as a reminder. If you care for her, let the land go.
Could he do that? Would he do that?
“Here,” Vanessa tossed his wallet onto the bar in front of him. “I found this on the floor. You must have lost it in the fight.”
Vanessa with his wallet? Not good. He opened it, counted his money and credit cards and was surprised it was all there. She clearly expected his gratitude, but he knew better than to offer it. So he shoved it into his pocket and went back to watching Eleanor.
After the call ended, she headed in his direction.
Christ. Here she comes.
She maneuvered her way through the drunken men and over to the bar where he sat. The slinky motion of her hips as she crossed the room made the men teeter backward in their seats to get a glance at her ass.
“Our waitress is here.” Vanessa said loud enough for Eleanor to hear and went back to hugging his arm. “Bring us a beer, Mackenna.”
Eleanor tilted her head to the side and produced an unexpected sexy-as-hell smile. “McCrea, sugar,” she practically purred out his name, “if I’d known you were this hard up for a date, I would have said “yes” when you asked me.”
“You little bitch!” Vanessa’s voice trembled under the strain of competition. Her fiery red hair didn’t match her temper, but she was always willing to put on a good show. Vanessa loved attention, even the kind that landed others in trouble.
“Shut up,” he ordered.
“She started it─.”
“I came here to get drunk─.”
“And fight,” Vanessa finished.
“Not listen to you whine,” he passed a warning glance in her direction that made her glossy lips flatten. “Go home.”
“But I thought ─”
“You thought wrong.”
“Fine,” Vanessa grabbed her purse, flung it over her shoulder and stomped off towards the back.
“Now you’ve done it.” Eleanor’s grin widened, and a low, husky, laugh worked its way up her slim throat. The sound seemed to vibrate down his body.
Does she know what that laugh does to me?
“Sugar?” he questioned.
She bit her bottom lip as she smiled. The sight of her white teeth raking across the soft flesh gave him another lustful jolt of pleasure while the sexy grin that curved her lips made his dick twitch with the thought of pursuit. She hiked a hip onto the bar stool and twisted around in her seat to watch the door. “I thought it was a nice touch.” Whether it was intentional or not, the movement thrust her breast upward and her erect nipples outward.
Nope. No bra.
Whatever reservations he had about Eleanor went up in smoke. Jess was right, his pecker was in control and walking away wasn’t an option.
“Did you come all the way out here just to piss off Vanessa?”
“No, but it was worth the drive.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Like I said before, I’m meeting my date here.”
“Do I know him?” he asked, trying not to let his jealousy show.
The faint smell of flowers hit his nose when she turned her head. “You do.” Her blue eyes danced in a way that made him uneasy.
“But you’re not going to tell me who he is, are you?”
“Why not? Afraid I won’t approve?”
“I don’t need or want your approval, McCrea.” She propped an elbow on the bar and rested her chin in her palm. “But I will tell you he’s about your height and weight. He has gorgeous brown eyes and lips,” she took a deep breath and let it out, “that beg to be kissed.”
“Jesus, I need another beer,” Jess mumbled and moved to a table.
McCrea did a glance over his shoulder to the men at the tables. It was hard to believe she was here for any of them. They were all way out of her league, and too drunk to care that she was a virgin. “That’s too bad.”
She raised her eyebrows in question. “You sound disappointed.”
“Maybe I am.”
“I doubt that.” She nodded towards the back booth where Vanessa sat watching them. “Your date seems eager to please.”
He felt the need to clarify. “She’s not my date. She just showed up, as usual.”
“That one’s got her claws in deep.”
“Not as deep as she thinks.” He leaned closer so that only she could hear him. “About your date.”
There was a pause to the words that were about to break her parted lips. “What about him?”
“You could ditch him and come with me.”
Her eyes darkened. “You’re serious.”
“Hell, yes,” he said softly and with one finger, ordered her closer. She hesitated then slipped from the stool. “Closer,” he whispered and slid an arm around her waist, pulling her between his legs. For a few seconds, he stared into her eyes, purposefully arousing her curiosity. Then touched a finger to her bottom lip. “But just so you know,” he returned her wink from earlier, “my dates don’t end with goodnight kisses.”
Without skipping a beat, she raised a slim eyebrow and gently grasped his hand, removing it from her lip. “McCrea, if that finger or those lips have been anywhere near Vanessa Worley tonight,” her smile was superficial. “You can keep your goodnight kisses.”
Her cleverness and spot on response was arousing. “Trust me darlin’,” the hand she was holding eased to the base of her head and urged her closer, “when I get done with you, you won’t care where they’ve been.” He brushed his lips across hers and heard her draw in a sharp breath.
Piece of cake.
The sound of her pounding heart overwhelmed the noise of the drunken crowd, blocking out whistles and lewd cheers when their lips touched. According to all her research on sex, a kiss could manifest an orgasm, and McCrea’s had her seconds away from crying out in ecstasy. It was everything she dreamed it would be soft, sweet, and sexy, and nothing like the boy kisses she’d had before. His skillful lips were magical and cast a spell that left her lightheaded and weak. Sweet lord, this was heaven.
Heaven that ended too soon when he pulled back. “We’re drawing a crowd.” The alcohol on his breath mingled with his rich cologne that left her holding onto his shirt for support.
“I don’t care,” she managed.
His low, coarse laughter penetrated every nerve in her body. “Normally, I wouldn’t either, but─” The unfinished sentence lifted her eyes to his.
“I don’t want people talking trash about my Eleanor.”
“You had to know they’d talk about anything we do.”
“After tonight, what they say about us won’t matter anyway.” She wasn’t sure what he meant by that. The hungry hounds of gossip weren’t easily appeased, and the thought of tomorrow’s gossip headlines almost had her cringing. Mouthy Mildred’s Hot Topic List would read: Local Playboy Seduces Innocent Neighbor Girl. She could see poor Rose as her complexion paled, and she tried to explain how it was all just gossip. Good luck, Grandma.
McCrea looped a loose strand of her hair around his finger and gently tugged. “What happened to the little girl in pigtails, and braces that used to chase me around the barnyard?”
Oh, she’s still chasing you. “She grew up,” she whispered, because it was too early to admit the truth.
His finger traced her jawline, and ventured down her neck to her collar bone which gave her body an involuntary shiver. “She sure did.” The depths of his eyes reflected a new fascination for the woman he saw in her.
The break of his lips and the slant of his head let her know another kiss was coming, and she didn’t care who saw it. The touch of his lips fueled her hunger for something more, and the teasing war with his tongue drove her closer to the sweet release she craved. She was in the hands of a capable lover, one who could tease her all night. He was five years her senior and experienced in a way that made him threatening to any woman who wanted to risk her heart for more than one night in his bed.
What would that be like? Her imagination dove deeper into a torrid scene of his body entwined with hers. She knew McCrea wasn’t the teasing and leaving kind, and the scene in her head would happen if she didn’t stop it. He wanted satisfaction just as much as she did, and his dates didn’t end with goodnight kisses. Sweet Lord! What am I doing?
She broke the kiss. “McCrea.” His name was all she could manage.
The teasing specks of gold in his eyes were replaced by black pools of desire. His fingers gripped her hips and gently pushed her back so he could slide from the stool. “Give me my keys, Ed. We’re leaving.”
Ed eyed the two of them. “Like hell, I will,” he said and turned back to the men on the opposite side of the bar.
“Where are we going?”
“Someplace private,” he tipped her lips with a soft kiss. “I want you all to myself.”
Panic pushed a hand into his chest. “Wait.”
“Why? Are you having second thoughts?”
“No. Yes,” she stuttered.
“Which is it?”
“I just thought,” she closed her eyes, confused by what she should say.
“What did you think?” Something edgy was in his eyes. An emotion she hadn’t seen before. Anger? Frustration? She couldn’t tell.
“That things would move slower.” She couldn’t hold her weak smile. “I wanted to get your attention.”
“You got it.” She loved the husky sound of his voice.
“I can’t do this…” her voice broke into a deep breath, and she hated herself for what she was about to say.
“What can’t you do?”
“I can’t do more than goodnight kisses.” With a flushed face and a racing heart, she stepped back. “I’m not Vanessa.”
He caught her arm and gently eased her closer. “I don’t want you to be. Trust me, Eleanor.” His tender kiss soothed her second thoughts. “Tonight will be more than anything you could hope for.”
More than anything she could hope for? “What does that mean?”
“Trust me.” He repeated and thumped the bar with his fist. “Ed! Give me my keys, now!”
This time, Old Ed wasn’t so easy about the order. He pointed a finger at McCrea. “Listen here, Son. I’m not about to let you drive out of here drunk,” he tossed the finger in Eleanor’s direction, and she knew her boss’ protective side was about to rear its ugly head. “And I’m sure as hell not letting you drive out of here with this little gal in the truck with you.” Something about the way Old Ed said it made her think he wasn’t happy about her leaving with McCrea, drunk or not.
McCrea’s face changed into the hardness she’d seen the night he punched Willard, but Old Ed didn’t care and showed his lack of concern by flipping the television to a different station.
“How the fuck am I supposed to get home?” McCrea yelled back, and rather than see him make a fool of himself, she quickly jumped in with her offer.
“I’ll take you home in my truck.”
McCrea hammered another hard fist to the counter to get Old Ed’s attention. “I’m not leaving here without mine.”
A sharp glance from her boss made her cut in before he could answer. “I’ll drive him home, Ed.”
The veteran bartender who always took it upon himself to keep watch over her, eyed her carefully. “Are you sure you can handle this ugly cow chaser, honey?”
His gentle question caused her to smile. “I’m sure.”
With a deep frown, he slid the keys across the bar to her, and explained the policy she knew by heart. “I made all of ‘em give me their keys before the first drink.” He pointed to Jess, who sat a few seats away. “I cut these two off a half an hour ago. Then,” he pointed to McCrea with a scathing look, “this one started a fight!”
She grabbed the keys before McCrea could take them. “Thanks, Ed. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back later for my truck.”
“It’ll be here, honey. Just be careful.” His finger took another aim at McCrea. “And son, you’d better mind your manners.”
McCrea latched onto her elbow, and practically pushed her toward
s the small entryway at the front of the bar. “Let’s go.” His tone and grip made her wonder if the moment of desire between them could be rekindled. It could on her part. Her body still hummed in all the naughty places it had before the exchange of words between him and Old Ed.
“Why are you in such a hurry?”
As they made the dark space of the entryway, McCrea hauled her into a corner, and the hard edges of his body pinned her against the wall, causing an involuntary arch of her body. His palm to the wall, throaty groan stirred her crux, and she knew his desire hadn’t diminished either. “I’m in a hurry to have you all to myself.”
God, she was hungry too! Her hormones had been pin balling from high to low since her close encounter with him in the barnyard, and his teasing foreplay was killing her.
The soft orange glow of the flashing “Open” sign in the window gave her a glimpse of his smile as he made a grab for the keys. She twisted her hand free and dangled them in front of his face. “Don’t think you’re going to sweet talk me out of these.”
His arm fell, and he followed her to the door. “Keys are the last thing I want to talk you out of, darlin’.”
Outside, she trotted backward with a grin. “Oh, really?”
She knew she was playing with fire, but she didn’t care. She wanted more than goodnight kisses from McCrea. “Get your ass in that driver’s seat before I take another kiss and the keys.”
A light rain began to fall, cooling the hot August air. Her sweaty skin, hot from McCrea’s touch almost sizzled when the rain hit it. Once on the driver’s side, she took a moment to fan her face and draw in a deep breath. As she exhaled, she hit the unlock button on the remote and climbed inside his truck. Unlike the ranch truck, the new leather in his smelled rich and felt wonderful beneath her legs. Her hands caressed the steering wheel. “Boy, this is something,” she said when he climbed in and slammed the door.
She watched him take off his hat, toss it onto the dash, and rest an arm on the back of the seat. “Just be careful. It’s got a lot of power.”
“Oh, please. Why do men think women can’t handle a truck?” She heard him laugh as she turned the ignition. She scooted the seat forward so she could reach the pedals, and took off her jacket. “Buckle up,” she said while fastening her own.
He leaned back in the seat, his fingers tapping impatiently against his leg. “Seat belts are too constricting. I don’t like being tied down.”
She cracked her window, and drew in a deep breath and savored the sweet night air. The rain seemed to intensify all the sounds and smells that made Santa Camino home. Fireflies twinkled under the trees, and the soft sound of crickets filled the air. “Suit yourself.”
She switched on the lights and searched for the wipers. “Where are the wipers?”
He reached across the seat to turn on the switch, and brush her breasts with his arm. “Right here.”
Her nipples pearled. “Thanks,” she breathed out.
He straightened and gently tapped her forehead with his finger. “What’s going on in there?”
A knockdown, drag-out fight between this excruciating ache in my body and common sense. She managed a smile. “Nothing.”
The corners of his mouth tilted up at one side. “You’re not a very good liar are you, Eleanor?”
“I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
To deepen her torment, he placed a hand on the seat between her thighs and kept his eyes locked with hers as he lowered himself.
Her mind malfunctioned, fizzling out all rational thought, and her lungs ceased to work. She couldn’t have taken a breath if her life had depended on it. It was like drowning in fire.
“Eleanor is a beautiful name,” he said softly and laid his head against her thigh. “For a beautiful lady.”
God! What is he doing? She was sure she might die from the heat of his hand which was only inches from her crotch. The stubble on his jaw bit into her bare skin, roughly stimulating her already heightened arousal. With his free hand, he felt under the seat and pulled out a brown bag. He raised to pause briefly at her lips.
The humor on his sexy face told her he was loving every minute of her sexual torture.
Adjusting her seat belt gave her something to do and allowed her a second or two to find her voice. “I think it sounds old and boring. El sounds sexy and sophisticated.”
“Jess tell you that?” His jaw ground together after the question.
“No, why would you say that?”
“He’s the one who gave you the nickname, and it sounds like something he’d say.” He ripped the bag open, smiled as if he were greeting an old friend he hadn’t seen in years, and twisted the cap off a new bottle of Jim Beam. “Come to Papa.”
She watched him take a long drink of the hard stuff. “Thirsty?”
“Maybe.” He downed two more swallows that ended with a grimace. “Does it bother you?”
“A little,” she answered honestly. “The last time I saw you chug JB was when you and Wade argued about college.”
He let his head fall against the rest. “Same argument. Different demands.”
He raised for another chug. “Nothing. Drive and let me take care of my problems my way.”
This wasn’t part of his usual repartee. His tone warned her to stay clear of something he considered none of her business. Something, she guessed stemmed from his conversation with Wade earlier today. Still his harshness hurt her. “So much for trying to help.”
A deep sigh turned his head towards her. “I was rude, wasn’t I?”
“A little.” Whiskey consoled silently without questions or judgment. “Look, I get it. I really do. You don’t want to be a rancher or follow in Wade’s footsteps.”
He rested the bottle on his thigh. “My problem goes beyond that argument.”
“You have a great life and more money─.”
“Don’t be naive.” He took another drink and settled lower in the seat. “Just because I have money doesn’t mean I don’t have problems.”
“I realize that, but you have a family who loves you. Wade loves you, and though you might not see it now, he has your best interests in mind.”
He watched her for more seconds than she was comfortable with. “How long were you outside the study door?”
“Not long, why?”
“We were shouting after you left. Did you hear any of it?”
“No.” Her lips twisted into a sheepish grin. “My mind was on my date.”
A shake of his head made her feel childish. “Of course, it was.”
“I’m listening now. Talk to me. Tell me about your problem,” she urged him. “You have my full attention.”
He wrestled a deep sigh. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“And the whiskey does?”
Contrite eyes drifted down to the bottle in his hand. “Something like that.”
“This must be a doozy of a problem. Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” The edge of his top lip turned up. “After all, I’m rich.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant, and I appreciate your willingness to listen.” He recapped the bottle, sat it on the floorboard and gave her a wink. “But I don’t want to spend the night talking about my problems.” He yanked the visor down and let a small box drop into his other hand. “I have something for you.”
She was surprised. “For me?”
His mood lightened as he presented her gift. “For you.”
“You bought me a present? Why?”
“I didn’t buy it.” He opened the green felt box. “It’s not a big deal. I just saw it and thought of you.”
He lifted it from the box and looped the chain around his finger. The dingy coin swung back and forth. “I found it at the Mission a few weeks ago.”
“It’s from Vera la Luz?”
“I dug it out of the ground myself.”
She caught the coin to get a better look. To construct the necklace without damaging the coin, he had crudely wound a piece of thin wire around the circumference and twisted a loop at the top to hold the chain. “Is it gold?”
“Yeah, it’s gold. I didn’t have time to get it polished, but we can do that later.”
She clasped it tight. “No way. I like it just the way it is.”
His hand brushed against her hip as he released the buckle of her seatbelt, and unclasped the chain. “Turn around.”
She gathered her damp hair to one side and slid around in the seat with her back to him. “I thought the gold was just a story.”
He moved closer to drape the chain over her head, and fastened it in place. “There is always some truth to a legend. Remember the story Dad told us?” he whispered into her ear, and ran his hands down her bare arms.
“I couldn’t wait to see the Vera la Luz Mission. All the kids at school talked about how haunted it was. I was terrified, but so excited,” much like she was right now. “That was my first camping trip, and Mr. C tried so hard to make me feel like I was part of the family.”
“You are a part of my family,” his voice was tender. “Haven’t you realized that yet?”
“I always feel like I’m in the way. Like today in the study.”
“You’re never in the way,” he said. “I was just upset.”
“About what?” she tried again to make him open up, but he was evasive.
“Nothing I can’t fix.”
She caressed the coin. “Do you think there’s more gold up there?”
“Maybe,” with a raspy voice against her ear, he spoke of the ghost story from their childhood. “the Wayfires are real. Maybe the gold is protected by the spirits of my Comanche ancestors.”
She felt herself melting into his arms. His hands branded her with a fire only he could extinguish.
Loud laughter erupted from a group of men exiting the bar. “Shit.”
She scooted back into the driver’s seat. “It’s beautiful, McCrea.”
That pleased him. “You like it?”
It wasn’t beautiful nor fancy, but to Eleanor, it was priceless. “I love it. Thank you.”
“We can go back to dig for more, and spend all weekend there if you like.”
Just you and me under the stars. Her eyes fell to his lips. How many times had she dreamed about those sexy lips kissing every inch of her body? How many times had she dreamed of giving herself to a man she had loved and wanted for years? Would that night be tonight or the night after? Would it be in a bed with sheets or in a sleeping bag under the stars?
The particulars of when and where didn’t matter. All that did matter was that they wanted each other. Tonight was the start of something wonderful between them. “You really think there’s more?”
“I suppose anything is possible, but if there is, I want to know how it got there.” He reclaimed the bottle from the floorboard. “There are always more questions than answers whenever it comes to the Legend of the Wayfires Gold.”
That much she knew. McCrea and others had spent years digging, and researching the legend without any answers to show for their work. “But now we have proof.” She loved talking about the romantic legends of Santa Camino.
“I’ve found pottery shards and arrowheads. I’ve thought about calling one of the universities to see if they’d be interested in doing a dig. There is so much we could learn about it.” With a deep sigh, he laid his head against the rest and looked westwards towards Promise Point to where the mission lay in ruins. His passion for history was one of the things she loved about him. McCrea was an educated man, knowledgeable and worldly about so many things. He was also a conundrum. A puzzle as complex as the mystery he sought to solve, but he was real. A flesh and blood man, not a ghostly apparition.
“I wonder what it was like back then.” She followed his eyes to the Point, and allowed herself to get lost in the romance of the past. “When the West was wild.”
“Texas was a wild and dangerous place,” he agreed.
“And romantic.” She knew there was a dreamy look in her eyes, but she couldn’t help it. Though her view on marriage was tainted by her mother’s failed one, she was a hopeless romantic. Rose’s influence, no doubt.
His head rolled across the rest to look at her. “Romantic?”
“Yeah, the old west was romantic.” She slapped his thigh and smiled before she put the truck into reverse to back out. “Don’t you think so?”
He shot her a doubtful look. “No, I don’t.”
Out on the main highway, she held tight to the steering wheel and focused on the passing cars. The size of the truck was more than she was used to. Her grandma’s old truck was half the size of this one. “Why not?”
“Indian attacks, harsh winters, blistering summers and,” he paused, “men usually took what they wanted.”
Her smile fell. “Thanks for bursting my bubble.”
He laughed. “Sorry, I spoiled the fantasy for you, darlin’.”
“I’m sure not all men were like that. I can’t imagine any of the Coldiron men taking what they wanted.”
“What makes you say that?” he challenged. “Don’t think we could ravish a few virgins?”
She rolled her eyes and took her turn at disagreeing. “No, I don’t.”
The bottle was at his lips when he hesitated. “You clearly underestimate us.”
“You would never mistreat a woman.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” The deep pitch in his voice dropped another notch. “Because I know how to persuade a woman into giving me what I want.”
I bet you do. The drive to the ranch had her frustrated. In the bar, he was aroused and fervent for her. Now he looked as mellow as a housecat, relaxed against the seat with his legs apart, enjoying the ride. How did she get him back to being interested? “By the way,” she gave him a flirty glance. “I loved the way you were explaining virginity to me this afternoon. As if I know nothing at all about sex.”
“You know your books, Eleanor. Trashy fairy tales,” he teased.
“They are not! You should read one and see for yourself. You might learn something.”
“I doubt it.”
“And I’m nineteen.” She gave him a “get real” glance. “I’ve had some experience.”
“From the Conner kid or the guy you’re so in love with?”
“My experience didn’t come from Conner.”
He pointed toward
s the ranch road. “You’re about to miss the road.”
“Oh.” She flipped on the signal and waited for a car to pass before turning. “Conner threw up in the parking lot, and I went in by myself. I told you spending all that money on a dress was a waste.”
She knew he had bought the dress, and that he was watching from the fence when Conner picked her up.
“It made you happy, and that made it worth every penny.” He indulged in another guzzle and recapped the bottle. “So you’re an experienced virgin?” Something about that seemed satisfying to him.
She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so, why?” The truth was, most of her knowledge on the art of making love did indeed come from the books he labeled as trashy.
“Drive out to the cabin.”
She slowed the truck and let it roll to a stop. The cabin was just off the ranch road, and vacant except for hunting season when the family rented it to out of town hunters. “Why do you want me to drive out there?”
He shoved the whiskey bottle under the seat. “It’s the perfect place for our date.”
Perfect because it was secluded or because it was the place they had first met? She wondered if he remembered that day. “I don’t recall saying “yes” to that date,” she resisted with a hint of friskiness “I volunteered to take you home.”
“I don’t recall you saying “no” either.”
She eased off the brake and let the truck roll closer to the cabin road. “True enough.”
“Half the women in town would trade places with you in a heartbeat.” He grinned at her open mouthed expression. “After all, I’m rich, handsome and irresistible.”
“And arrogant.” Damn, she loved flirting with him. “Okay, if I accept this date,” she paused wondering if she should ask. “What can I expect?”
Against the dashboard lights, his expression changed from playful to serious. “I’ve already told you. My dates don’t end with goodnight kisses. I’ll teach you about seduction, but,” the muscles in his jaw flexed before he continued. “Not so you can seduce some other guy.”
As if, she almost laughed aloud.
“Sure, you may care for him, but it’s just infatuation. Puppy love. Nothing more.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because you’re considering taking me as a lover. Your first lover. If you really loved the guy, you would have told me to go to hell when I kissed you back at Tubs.”
All that truth and he still hadn’t a clue. Now would be the logical time to tell him he was the guy she wanted to seduce. The one she trusted. The one she was in love with. But if she did, would he dismiss her feelings as puppy love or infatuation? Would it change his mind about giving her a lesson in seduction? Her confession would have to wait.
She made the turn, drove to the cabin and parked.
“Leave it running,” he said, taking her hand as he twisted around to stretch one leg out in the seat. A quick but gentle yank positioned her between his thighs. “It will be pitch black in here without the dashboard lights.
“I’m okay with that.”
He tilted her chin up and the coolness of his dark eyes made her tremble with expectancy. “No hiding,” he ordered with a tame kiss that soothed her. “Don’t be nervous. Think of this as a dance with me leading the way.”
“I have two left feet.”
“No, you don’t. I saw you dancing with Jess. You never missed a step.”
“Jess isn’t you.”
His thumb slid across her bottom lip. “Meaning?”
“I don’t get stupid when I’m around him, and,” she hesitated before finishing. “He doesn’t make me ache the way you do.”
He sucked in a ragged breath. “Are you aching now, darlin’?”
“Yes,” she confessed with a whisper.
After a long look into her eyes which seemed to penetrate her soul, he lifted her hand to his lips and grazed a kiss across her knuckles. “Seduction,” he inserted his thumb into her closed hand, and pushed up, exposing her palm. “Requires intimacy and trust,” he finished the sentence with a wet, tantalizing kiss to her palm.
“It’s about,” with his other hand, he unbuttoned the bottom button of his shirt. “Skin,” he freed two more buttons. “Against skin,” three more buttons, and slid her hand inside the shirt. “Touch me.”
The need to do just that had her hands moving over the dark dusting of hair that tickled her palms. God, he felt good! His skin was warm and smooth and she craved a taste. She lowered her lips to the rift between his pecs, and kissed downward to the ridged muscles just above his navel.
“Seduction requires,” his voice trembled with restraint. “Control.” He gently fisted her hair, and lifted her lips to his for a deep kiss that screamed of wanton intrusion. As his tongue penetrated her mouth, she understood his kiss in the bar had been a teaser.
His hands slid up her thighs, to her hips and waist, lifting the hem of her dress as she straddled him. The barrier of his jeans did little to hide his size and the painful twinge building inside her made her arch into the hardness of his erection. The rain, which had been a mist, now dashed against the truck, setting the tempo for the rhythm of a dance he knew well. His fingers squeezed the soft flesh of her butt while his hips thrust upwards, coaxing her with his hardness. “Sweet Eleanor.”
“McCrea,” his name came out as a mew of sensual frustration.
“I know, darlin’.” One hand moved up her hip to her waist, then on to cup her breast. “You need more, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
His fingers hooked in the elastic and uncovered her breasts. She didn’t pull away or hide. She wanted him to see her as no other man had.
“So perfect and beautiful.” Desire constricted his throat, making his voice rough. His thumb grazed the nipple, rousing a pleasure induced moan from her lips. He raised and kissed it just shy of the nipple.
Her eyes, closed in passion and opened to meet his. “Oh.”
His hand moved to the inside of her panties, and though he said not a word, the hypnotic gaze of his eyes convinced her it was okay to let go. It was okay to let him have what she so desperately wanted to give. “I won’t do anything you don’t want,” he reminded her and claimed her breast with his mouth. The feel of his lips sucking her nipple brought the air from her lungs.
“More?” His question was hot against her skin.
A nod signaled her permission, and his fingers slipped into her yielding wetness. The shock of him loving her so intimately caused her to stiffen. “Relax and enjoy your first orgasm,” he murmured.
She did. Over and over, his fingers teased her body, sensually, skillfully and patiently building her pleasure until her need was met with a hoarse cry of satisfaction. Her body clenched around his fingers. “That’s it. Come for me.”
After the peak of pleasure departed, Eleanor floated back to earth to rest as a crumpled mess against his damp chest. Her strength was gone, used up by the sweet ecstasy.
“I thought you were an experienced virgin.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like you, McCrea.”
He caressed her arms and kissed the top of her head. “Wasn’t that better than goodnight kisses?” he asked.
She wiggled the dress over her breasts and raised to his naughty smile which made her flushed cheeks hotter. Still straddling him, she was acutely aware of his own unmet need. A slow gyration of her hips against his erection closed his eyes and gave her a chance to mimic his naughty smile. “Shouldn’t we do something about this?”
Tender fingers drew back her hair. “I intend to, but I’m not taking your virginity in a truck.”
Her naughty smile broke into a frown. “Does that mean our date is over?”
“It’s far from over darlin’.” He swung the truck door open and jumped to the ground, lifting her into his arms. “We’re just moving it inside.”
She wrapped her legs around his waist and held onto his shoulders.
The short run to the porch had them soaked, but neither cared. The need to finish what had been started drove them. He took the steps two at a time, stumbled through the front door, and headed for the bedroom. Tossing her on the bed, he peeled away his wet shirt and kicked off his boots.
The bare window didn’t allow much light from the black night, but faint pulses of lightning delivered flashes of his face and chest.
She welcomed his deep kiss while working to unbuckle his belt. Once it was free, she unbuttoned his jeans and pushed them down. But the wet denim didn’t make the simple task easy. “Darlin’, you’re killin’ me.”
At mid-thigh, he took over, stripping them off quickly. “Stay put,” he said and disappeared into the other room.
She yanked off her boots as he returned with a Coleman lantern. He sat it on the floor and tossed a condom on the bed next to her.
Birth control. She hadn’t thought of that.
She rose to her knees, and let her eyes map out the places her hands wanted to go. She was fascinated by the hardness and beauty of his body, and the lantern gave off just enough light to make the exploration of her hands sinful. She yearned to look at him, naked in the light, touch him, hold him in her hand and feel him intimately.
He held her gaze, watching her discover his body as her palms glided over his rain soaked chest, and lower to the black briefs which hugged his privates. Past the hard V-shaped muscles of his lower stomach, and downwards.
His face contorted with pleasure when her fingers curled around him, and closed his eyes with a moan. A clenched jaw and an inward breath enticed her to caress the length of him.
All the stories she consumed hadn’t prepared her for the physical experience of lovemaking. Sex isn’t like cooking. There’s no recipe to follow. No directions. You could read a hundred books and still not know what the hell you’re doing. His lecture on sex pierced her mind, conjuring an impish grin, and a husky laugh.
McCrea’s lids peeked opened. “What?”
She teased wet kisses along his jawline, to his chin and down to his chest, hesitating long enough to add a flick of her tongue to the nipple. “Still think I can’t cook?”
A lip-biting smile decked his face. “You’re just beatin’ the batter, darlin’.”
Surprised, but not derailed, she quickened the movement of her hand into a long sensual stroke and met his lewd answer with a slow, lascivious lick from navel to sternum. “Do I get to lick the spoon?”
The fingers tangled in her hair at the nape of her neck clenched to tilt her head up. “Remember what I said about a man having limits?”
Smiling, she repeated the stroke which thrust his hips forward. “Uh-huh.”
“You’re about to push me to mine,” he said, catching her hand to stop the next stroke.
She grinned. “Spoilsport.”
“Spoilsport?” He playfully, shoved her backwards onto the bed and climbed over her. “We’ll see who’s the spoilsport.”
Giggling, she attempted an escape. “I was joking!” The delicious promise coiled desire in the pit of her belly and slowed her retreat. She loved the game, and the consequences of losing were going to be excruciatingly sweet! His hand, twice the size of hers snagged one wrist. She squirmed against him, fighting the capture of her other hand, but lost. “No!”
Above her, he waited with a corrupt smile.
She squirmed again. “I guess I’m at your mercy.”
The smile dissolved and for the longest time, he simply stared at her.
Her arms, taut from the game, relaxed. “What?”
A slight lift to the corner of his mouth which could have been mistaken for remorse triggered panic to rise in her. The night was too perfect, and she had been to brazen. Now, what? “Did I do something wrong?”
A brief frown grazed his forehead. “No. Why would you think that?”
“I thought maybe all that talk about licking spoons might have turned you off.”
A tender smile darted across his lips. “No, darlin’. I love it when you talk about licking my spoon.”
She blushed. “Then why did you stop?”
He imprisoned both wrists with a single hand and lifted her arms above her head. With his free hand, he traced her cheek. “You’re so beautiful. I had to stop and stare.” His lips followed close behind, burning a sensual path of fire down her jawline.
Relieved he wasn’t having second thoughts about making love to her, she basked in the way his lips made her feel. Attractive. Desired. Loved.
He tasted the shallow dip of her lower neck, and the sensitive valley between her breasts. He shifted lower without releasing her hands to the dress she thought was a hindrance, but the thin wet material clinging to the rise of her nipples like a second skin, posed no problem for McCrea. The pointed sensation of his teeth raking over her peak through the garment arched her back, and he made sure he gave each breast the same expert attention. His was nothing like her amateur foreplay. “McCrea.” The guttural cry gained her an intermission by way of a long, hard kiss that left her panting for more.
Catching the thin material of the dress between his teeth, he unveiled her from breast to belly inch by inch. Eleanor knew she was completely at his mercy, and playing the captive amplified the intensity of his every move. She was his to do with as he pleased, and the thought made her body writhe beneath him.
His knees at her waist shifted wider and allowed his hand to glide downwards towards the apex of her thighs. The earlier demonstration of his dexterous fingers vaulted her pelvis upward in expectancy and urged a moan from her throat. Under her panties, his fingers advanced into her folds to graze her already sensitive nub. Persistently, but softly he manipulated and filled her until the threat of a climactic spiral edged closer. “Please, don’t make me─” her voice broke with the plea.
“Come,” he finished with another plunge which curved her body again.
In the truck, he played her body with the skill of a master violinist, hitting all the right notes at just the right time. Even now, he had her body humming with a sensual song. But it wanted more. Craved more. “Please.” Her head twisted from side to side. “I want you.”
He released her hands and slipped the dress past her hips, thighs and ankles. Her wispy panties came next, followed by his briefs. On his knees, he tore open the foil packet, removed the condom and rolled it up his shaft. Its size had grown and caused her eyes to widen with a silent question.
He bent to kiss her lower belly, and his tongue traced a ring around her navel before moving over her. With his knee, he divided her legs and pressed his erection against her. “Your body was made for mine.”
The erotic encounter of hard and soft brought a moan to her lips. Her nails raked down his chest, to his waist and around to latch onto the hard muscles of his buttocks as her hips reached to his with an instinctual urge to become one.
He shifted his weight to a hand beside her head, and the other found the scant space between the small of her back and the mattress. The texture of his slightly calloused palm lifting her upward opened her legs in an unspoken invitation.
“That’s it,” he exhaled against her ear. “Open up for me.” With that sensual command, he entered her. Tore past the threshold of her virginity and claimed her.
A searing pain, far worse than she expected, briefly overpowered her desire, but she endured knowing it was part of her body merging with his. She buried her face in his chest and held her breath, fighting past the discomfort and openness that came from giving herself to McCrea. Her lover. The man who would always be in her mind. “It won’t last long, baby.”
The penetrating sting lessened, and the sweet desire she had felt before slowly crept back in. Its fire torqued in the pit of her stomach and burned down to where their bodies joined. The delectable ache controlled her once again. She twisted her hips with a petition of his name. “McCrea.”
“Are you ready?”
She knew now the control he spoke of and that he was exercising it at great cost. His whole body vibrated with a restraint she couldn’t comprehend. When she answered him with a nod, he dropped to an elbow to kiss her forehead and drew back. The friction lifted her head up with a gratifying moan.
He shuddered and pushed into her again. “So tight,” he whispered against another thrust. “And so damn sweet.”
Hoarse cries of an unfamiliar voice escaped her lips, and she transformed in his arms. He took down the fortress around her heart and freed her. The cold, lonely world she knew before disappeared. With McCrea’s love, everything was possible. All things were new, and she was his, and though he hadn’t said it, she knew he loved her. How could he not? Everything he was doing reflected it. His touch. His words. His kiss. His eyes, all spoke of it.
The poignant moment brought her to tears, and she was moved to honesty. “You’re the one, McCrea.”
“The one?” his voice was rough with the question.
Her lips trembled under the weight of her words, and she gazed up at him through misty eyes. “The one I love.”
She held his face with both hands because she wanted to savor the memory of this moment. He kissed her palm. First one and then the other. She waited for him to say something ─anything. But his words never came. As he made love to her, a twinge of hurt mingled with their unbridled passion. She reminded herself McCrea wasn’t a man who expressed love easily and his intimate, and ardent lovemaking was enough. He would voice his love in his own time.
When he couldn’t hold back, he unleashed what restraint he had left. He drew her higher, and closer to the sun than she’d ever been before. The thrust of his hips was tempestuous and his body tight like a whip-cord. Her legs clenching tight around his hips. “Please.”
A final heave finished him with a groan and washed her in ecstasy. He fell, spent, to her breasts and with hearts pounding, neither said a word.
McCrea shifted his weight to the bed and rested his head on her shoulder. She kissed his forehead and caressed his shoulder with a brush of her fingertips. Never had she felt more attractive, desired and loved than she did right now. He couldn’t deny the love between them or the magic of what they had just shared.
“McCrea?” He was so still, she thought he’d fallen asleep
“Yeah,” he answered with a hollow voice.
“I love you.”
He rolled to his back and closed his eyes. “Darlin’,” he said with a sigh as he sat up on the edge of the bed to grab his jeans from the floor. “Never let sex make you say things you don’t mean.”
Wounded by his coldness she sat up to explain. “Sex didn’t make me say it. I wanted to tell you earlier but…”
He heaved one leg into his jeans and then the other, jumped to his feet and headed into the living room.
“Where are you going?”
“To the truck. I need a cigarette.”
She heard the front door open, the truck door slam and his footsteps on the porch. He didn’t return to the bedroom, and the longer she waited the more nervous she became. Why was he distant all of a sudden? Had she done something wrong? She slipped his shirt on, and took the lantern into the living room. He was at the door, staring out across the porch and into the rain with his back to her.
Smoke from his cigarette billowed around him as he exhaled.
“McCrea?” She sat the lantern on an old table near the fireplace, and circled his waist to lay her cheek against his rain-soaked back. “What’s wrong? Was it me? Was it because it was my first time?”
His hand covered hers and lifted it to his lips for a kiss. “No, Eleanor. Your gift to me was priceless.”
Her gift? He considered her virginity a gift. A priceless gift. God, she loved this man. Her arms tightened around him. “Then what is it?”
A long draw filled the air with more smoke, and his silence persisted.
“Please talk to me. Let me help you.”
A quick flick, sent the cigarette out into the rain and his hands gripping the frame around the door. With his head down, he stared out into the dark night as if he were on the edge of a great abyss. “You really want to help me?”
“Then marry me.”
A blast of hot needles pricked her body. Numbly, her hands fell, and she took a step back. “What?”
Her retreat brought him around to explain. “I told you tonight would be more.”
She swallowed back nausea. “I didn’t think you had marriage in mind.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets, and the weight shifted his jeans lower to the tan line around his hips, exposing more of the V-shaped muscles she’d felt against her thighs minutes ago. “I thought you’d be happier.”
Happy about being trapped? “You thought wrong.”
“But you just said you loved me.”
“All the more reason not to marry you.”
He frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Marriage? The very notion terrified her. “Love and marriage are two different things, and I want no part of the latter.”
She glared at him, hoping he would accept her refusal without an explanation.
He didn’t. “I’m waiting.” His face was hard and drawn, nothing like a man seeking a loving marriage. If he was this dismal before, how would he be in six months, or a year? In a lifetime?
He’ll be just like Rex.
Bitter. Heartless. Cruel. Malicious.
And I’ll be as miserable as my mother.
When she couldn’t summon a truthful answer without diving into her fear of marriage, she went to the obvious faults of his proposal. One she knew he couldn’t deny. “You’re a roamer. You like your freedom and having your choice of women.
He took her hands in his. “I told you the truth this afternoon. I don’t sleep around. I’d take my vows seriously, and I’d expect you to do the same.”
“Don’t lie.” She jerked away. “I know your type.”
“My type?” he asked tautly. “You know what everyone says about me.”
“I know what I see, McCrea. Vanessa Worley is one of your whores!”
His face twisted. “Vanessa is a whore, but she’s not mine!”
“You’ve never slept with her?”
He looked away. “That was a long time ago.”
“But you did sleep with her!”
“It was high school!” he yelled. “Everyone had a turn at Vanessa! It’s a mistake I’ve had to pay for over and over!”
Mistakes. She was guilty of a few herself. The biggest being opening her heart up to the man standing in front of her. “This is crazy.”
“Why is it crazy?”
“I’m not the marrying kind either.”
“Why? Do you have trouble with fidelity?” he snarled. “Can’t give up the other guy? The one you’re also in love with.”
“God!” She threw up her hands. “Are you really that blind?”
“I guess I am,” he seethed.
“I wasn’t meeting anyone at Tubs!”
“I was there because I knew you’d be there.”
“But this afternoon you said you wanted to seduce─.”
“You, McCrea! You’re the one,” she repeated.
Another blink. Then another.
“I wanted to seduce you. Don’t you see? It’s always been you, but you’ve never noticed me. Until I practically threw myself at you!”
His face softened with a smile that made her heart flutter. “I’ve always noticed you, darlin’. I’ve just been waiting for you to grow up.”
Tiny moments of his affection over the last couple of years flashed through her mind. The moments when no one was watching. The moments they connected without a word. Quick kisses. Tender hugs. Loving glances. Teasing smiles. All things they’d shared that could be interpreted as notice, but nothing which would have brought about a marriage proposal. “You were?”
“Yes. I was.” The chalice of his hands on her face and his gentle kiss made his answer nearly convincing, but his words lacked sincerity and sentiment.
She drank in the taste of his lips, the feel of his tender hands, and the magic of her love for him. She wanted time to stop. She wanted to keep McCrea this close, this real and this devoted. But something inside her told her there was more to his proposal. She drew back and lifted her eyes to meet his. “I know you, McCrea. You don’t want to get married.”
His hands fell from her face.
“So just cut through the bullshit and tell me what’s going on.”
A shift of his lower jaw signaled annoyance. Her directness caught him off guard. “I have to find a wife.”
“As part of our inheritance, Wade promised each of us a piece of land when we finished college.”
“Land?” Why was he talking about land?
He propped a shoulder against the door, and a bare foot tapped the floor. “My inheritance is over three-thousand acres. It includes Promise Point, the old homestead and most of the original land that started the ranch. It’s been in our family for generations, but now,” he exhaled. “The fight with Willard has made Wade reconsider mine.”
The well-worn wood of the floorboards creaked beneath her feet as she began backtracking across the room. Marriage? Land? Help him? Her mind rattled with questions. The whiskey. Solving his problems his way. Piece by piece the night came together.
“He doesn’t think I’m responsible enough to inherit it. He thinks I need a wife.”
That was it. His motive behind all the kissing and cuddling. He needed her. His tender lovemaking was nothing more than a scam to lure her into accepting his proposal. Her legs buckled when her heel made contact with the stone hearth. “That’s what the three of you were talking about this afternoon in the study?”
Both hands raked up the back of his head. “Yeah and dad kept talking about how much he wanted a grandkid. Hell, I don’t want kids! Ever!”
I was right. He doesn’t want children. Her fingers rubbed the edge of an overhanging hearth rock. No babies. No kids. Ever.
“Diapers and droolin’, that’s not me.”
The level of disdain in his voice triggered something inside her. An anguish which caused her to rip the loose rock from its mortar. The razor sharp edge sliced into her finger. She let out a yelp and clutched her hand.
“Careful.” Two quick strides, brought him kneeling in front of her. “Some of those are sharp.”
She winced and bent forward, holding her bloody finger. “God, it hurts.” Everything hurt. Her finger. Her heart….
“Hold it up,” he instructed and leaned over to draw the lamp closer. Tenderness and concern etched across his face as he examined the cut. “It’s deep.” He wrapped the hem of his shirt around it and pressed hard to stop the bleeding. “It might need a stitch or two, and a bandage,” he continued with a kiss to the tip of her finger. “I may have to buy you two rings. One for the wedding and one for after it heals.”
Not only was he asking her to marry him, but he wanted her to do so for the sake of his inheritance. Not because he loved her or wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. A sharp pain penetrated her body, and she withdrew her hand from his. “Don’t bother.” Her eyes closed, bearing the awful truth of his intentions. Grandma Rose was right. McCrea was a heart breaker. No truer words had ever been spoken. How could she have been so blind? “I’m not marrying you.”
“I have plans for the land. A game ranch with trophy bucks and elk…” The scald of his eyes pinned her down. “This is a chance for me to have something of my own.”
What about love and commitment? Children? Home? Family? They meant nothing to him. She meant nothing to him. “I’m leaving for college on Sunday,” she whispered her last argument and pushed him away, hoping he would land on his ass.
He staggered backward without falling and oddly enough, his face brightened. “We’ll find a place in Austin and come home on the weekends.”
She stood up. “No.”
“I’ll pay your tuition.”
Wasn’t he listening earlier? “You’re a real sweet talker, McCrea, but I have a scholarship. Remember?”
“Then use the money for the ranch.”
She didn’t want him to have any part in rebuilding Redemption. “No, I’m not the type of woman who can be bought.”
“I’m not trying to buy you, only compensate you for your time.” His knuckles grazed the side of her breast. “Look at it like a business agreement with benefits.”
“God. Stop.” She shrank back, revolted by his suggestion. “How could you suggest such a thing?”
“What can I offer you?” Desperation replaced enticement. “What do you want?”
Did she dare answer that? Did she tell him her heart’s desire? Or did she walk away? “If I marry you, what happens after you get the land?” She went back to the bedroom and snatched her panties from the floor. “What then?”
He had followed her and was now watching her dress. “I pay you and,” he shrugged, “we go our separate ways.”
She shivered out of his shirt and found her dress to whisk over her head. “The marriage is over,” she snapped her fingers, “just like that? I say “I do” and a year later you hand me a check along with divorce papers?”
“Yeah. It doesn’t have to be complicated.” To him, it was simple. To her, it was a stab in the heart.
“What if I don’t want a divorce? What if I want a white picket fence and ─ and growing old together?” The kind of love Charlie and Rose had. “What if I want kids?”
A quake of dark emotion ripped through his eyes. “I’m not the type of man who takes to the bridle or kids.”
Her heart made one last bid. “What if what I’m feeling isn’t puppy love? What if it’s the real thing? What then, McCrea.”
His smirk not only insulted her, it crushed her. “Fairy tales or happily ever after only exist in your books.”
“They do exist,” her defense was weak. “In people like Wade and Sophia. Charlie and Rose.”
His face hardened. “The marriage is a twelve-month business agreement.”
A year. That’s all he was willing to give her. God, this was a nightmare! There was a part of her that wanted to agree to this stupid business agreement just to keep him, but she wasn’t desperate enough to be trapped in a loveless marriage. And though his tenderness during the night suggested he cared about her, his cold business agreement shined light into the dark recesses of the truth.
She sat down on the bed and shoved her bare feet into her wet boots. “I see, and if I don’t marry you?”
“I’ll find someone else.” She knew McCrea Coldiron was a man of business, but she never suspected he would ever be this heartless.
“So this,” she waved a frantic hand between them. “All your gentle persuasion, and – and lovemaking was for…”
“No,” he cut her off.
She felt like melting through the floorboards. “I trusted you. I thought you cared for me.”
“I do!” he belted. “I want to take things one day at a time, but if I don’t get married I don’t get the land! I have to find a wife. Now!” He gave the air in a frustrated punch. “Damn, it! I asked you first! Doesn’t that count for something?”
“I suppose I should feel flattered since half the women in Santa Camino would trade places with me in a heartbeat.” Sarcasm wasn’t her style, but it helped to hide her pain.
“They would want more than the cost of tuition,” he returned with the same amount of cynicism.
“That’s why you asked me, wasn’t it?” Pain tore through her heart. “You thought I would jump at the money. You─” her voice broke. “You thought you could buy me like that damn dress or Romeo Baby.”
“No. I don’t even want that goddamn horse!” His voice cut through the oak rafters, scattering her nerves so much that she flinched in defense. Her reaction softened his demeanor. “I didn’t mean to shout. Let’s just calm down and talk about this.”
“There is nothing to talk about. You planned this.”
“You’re the one who came looking for me, remember?” he said between his teeth.
She recoiled at the sobering truth. “You’re right. I did. I was stupid enough to think you might love me.” A mocking laugh emerged from her tight throat. “I guess all the boys down at Tubs had a good laugh watching me bounce out of there on your arm.”
He stood firmly planted in his cause without any emotion. “Fuck the boys.”
“I made myself a prime target, didn’t I?” She wiped away her tears and attempted a smile. There was no way in hell she would let him see her pain. “Lesson learned.” When the emotion covering her face threatened to crumble into uncontrollable tears, she ran out the door. “Don’t worry about giving me a ride home. I’ll walk.”
He was too fast for her quick getaway. She hadn’t gotten one foot out the door before he caught her by the arm and whipped her around. “You don’t understand! Wade likes you.”
“Wade?” she repeated softly, and understood why he had chosen her. “Wade likes me?”
“He thinks you’d be good for me, and that you’ll settle me down. You remind him of Grandma.”
Any other time the comparison to Sophia Coldiron would have been a welcome compliment. She was the backbone of the family. A true lady who would have been appalled by her grandson’s proposal and behavior.
A frosty bite of animosity ran over her. “You asked me to marry you to pacify Wade?”
“It all makes sense now. The three of you were in a deep discussion about Wade’s new terms when I walked in, weren’t you?” She seen the imprint of something serious on their faces even though they tried to hide it. Wade’s interest in her plans for the future. His offer to help in any way he could… She felt sick. Both Mr. C and Wade seemed so sincere, so kind.
Nausea kicked in a dry heave, causing her to cover her mouth. “Would tonight have happened if Wade hadn’t given you those terms? Would you have kissed me?” she hesitated with another wave of nausea. “Made love to me?”
He stepped closer to caress her upper arms. “Let me take you home, and we’ll talk about it after you’ve had time to ─”
The smack across his right cheek was hardly enough to cause damage, especially to a man as tough as McCrea, but it did rouse his temper. She could see it in his eyes. He blinked and gritted his teeth. “Calm down.”
She drew back for another blow, but his fingers closed around her wrist. “Stop smacking the piss out of me!”
“Tell me tonight wasn’t about the land.” Please tell me you love me, her mind cried.
His hands on her forearms gave her a gentle shake “Don’t you see? This way we can both have what we want.”
A quick jerk freed her. “I’ll never have what I want.”
An indescribable sadness entered her as she walked the long distance back to her house. The path was one she had taken years ago, the day McCrea found her. The day she fell in love with the boy next door.
All her hopes and dreams for what they might one day have together, died within her, and she couldn’t help the tears which overpowered her as the flame of her love was extinguished.
I’m a country girl, born in Tennessee and raised in Kentucky. I’m a roamer, but always come home because I love the small town atmosphere. It’s who I am.
Life in my little corner of the world consists of long winter nights curled up by the fire, cheering on my favorite football teams in the fall, enduring March Madness in the spring and walking barefoot through my garden with a cold jar of sweet tea in the summer ─ fireflies at sunset accompanied by a serenade of crickets and frogs, and lazy summer nights in the porch swing with my beau.
When I’m not writing, I’m traveling, reading or finding a million other ways to express my creativity. My tastes in music range from classical to rock. I’m passionate about history, art and helping others find the courage to express themselves.
Old flames burn hotter the second time around.
Eleanor Mackenna knows firsthand just how hot McCrea Coldiron can burn a woman. Their night together shattered her romantic notions of love and killed her dreams of rebuilding Redemption, her family horse ranch in Santa Camino, Texas. Four years ago, she shared his bed, naively believing he loved her when he hadn’t.
So what the hell was he doing in her bar? Why now? When she was on the verge of opening her heart up to a man without hidden agendas? A man completely different than McCrea.
Finding a wife to satisfy his granddads demands for his inheritance wasn’t the only thing on McCrea’s mind the night he butchered his proposed to his baby sister’s best friend. He loved Eleanor Mackenna, and hated himself for letting her run away.
Four long years later, he has a divorce from an adulteress wife, and a hard lesson in sacrifice. So when an unexpected meeting lands him at the Rebel Road, face to face with a sexy as hell Eleanor sporting five-inch stiletto biker boots, and dressed in head to toe black leather, he’s willing to risk getting his ass kicked to find out if she still loves him.
With more than two hearts at stake now, Eleanor knows Redemption is a price only one of them is willing to pay.
We hope that you enjoyed reading
GOODNIGHT KISSES, by Wilhelmina Stolen.
Please enjoy this excerpt from Wilhelmina’s recent release, SULLIVAN’S WAY, available at 5PrinceBooks.com
February 2, 1868
Sullivan Settlement, Virginia
Them Damned Confederates
Marnie Joe Sullivan, a well-bred woman of Virginian wealth, sat at the head of her father’s table. Despite her cool exterior, she felt civility’s firm grip slip and a white-hot anger coil its way up her spine. The beast threatened to burst forth in a rage of unladylike vulgarities of which the gentlemen across from her would undoubtedly recoil and offer a hideous clicking sound of disapproval from their forked tongues! No, that wouldn’t do.
“Damn it, Marnie! You can’t go!” The abrasive voice manifested itself from the older man sitting across from her. He heaved one foot upward and slammed it against the smooth cherry floor of the great room. The dull clap of the heavy boot vibrated against the stone walls of the Sullivan house. “We have to wait for Lucas. He’ll be back any time now.” The stub from his missing first finger wiggled uncontrollably as he ran his gnarled fingers over his thinning, silver hair, creating a wild mess. The missing digit was Ike Ritchie’s trophy for his victorious fight in the Battle of Buena Vista in ’47. “Your Pa was crazy for going to Silver Creek!”
With an unwavering face of authority, Marnie lifted her chin and leveled her gaze. A delicate blush of pink rushed over both cheeks. “My Pa is not crazy! He’s grieving.” Her small fingers anxiously examined the delicate embroidery of her handkerchief as her eyes burned into Ike with disapproval. The midnight black of her silk dress couldn’t quench the green fire that raged in her eyes. Since her mother’s death, Marnie had adorned black in every sense of the word; her soul, her spirit, and her will were all shaded black by that day, but not today. Today was a day of action!
An indignant “humph” escaped the edge of her full lips. As if being prompted by the sound, a petite black woman stepped from the hall and stood with folded hands as they waited for their guests to arrive, her slate stare burning relentlessly into Marnie. Yes, yes, I know, Tillie! Ladies always remain calm! As leaders from the settlement below entered the room one by one, Marnie took a deep breath that generated a small look of understanding and approval from the housekeeper.
Marnie’s skin itched and burned from the laces of her corset, causing her to shift in her seat. Thanks to Tillie’s diligent efforts, she was presentable. It infuriated Marnie to know that over half the morning had been devoted to tying, lacing and buttoning her unmentionables just so she might look presentable to the men in front of her. In the time it had taken Tillie to carefully style her unruly blonde hair into the neatly formed chignon, she could have been half-way to Silver Creek. This is ridiculous! I don’t need their help! Will Roark, Louis Porter, and Charlie Wilcox, represented only a handful of families that homesteaded on her father’s land. The men had taken council at this house since Marnie had donned pigtails and played with dolls. They weren’t use to answering to anyone but her father. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice.”
Will looked confused. “Marnie, I don’t know what we could possibly do to help your Pa.”
Ike eased forward and rested his elbows on the table. “Marnie thought you gentlemen might accompany us into Silver Creek.”
Charlie frowned. “Why would we do that?”
“To help me break Papa from jail,” Marnie said hopefully.
Her statement provoked a laugh from Louis. “You want us to help you stage a jailbreak?” He glanced at the other men. “Is she serious?”
“I don’t find anything funny about it. It is possible.” Their snide smiles added to her frustration. “If we go in after dark, there’ll be only one or two guards.”
“That’s insane!” Louis interjected.
“No, it’s not!” With her fists clenched tightly at her side, she demanded an answer. “How can you sit there and do nothing to save him?” Their silence infuriated her. They weren’t taking her father’s capture seriously. “Papa’s been rotting in that jail for three days and God only knows how long Lucas will be gone!” It had been two days since her adopted brother, Lucas, set out for Richmond to find her Uncle, and Marnie’s confidence in the law and Maxwell Richardson was diminishing. “I haven’t seen my Uncle Max in years. How can we be sure he’ll even help Papa?”
“Maxwell won’t think twice about it.” With a dismissive hand, Ike waved her fears aside. “Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if old Maxwell dynamited the jail himself to free your Pa!”
It was because of her father’s selfish act that she sat like a plucked turkey, stitched and tied for the presentation at hand. Her father, Daniel Sullivan never left anything to coincidence. Why had he allowed himself to get caught by the law in Silver Creek? Haven’t I dealt with enough tragedy? Less than a year ago her mother lay lifeless on the floor as Marnie and her sister were ripped from their home and taken for ransom.
Tight lips controlled Marnie’s words. She lifted her chin and fought to steady her breathing. Back straight, shoulders square, you’re a Sullivan, baby girl! Her father’s voice echoed in her mind and unconsciously her posture straightened. Defiance rushed through her as the authority in her eyes demanded attention from each man.
“We can’t wait! Are you going to help me or not?” Marnie gave the table a single strike with her fist. “Someone answer me! My father gave you a roof over your head, and never asked for anything in return. Without his help, none of you would have anything. If Talon Dougal hangs Papa, nothing will prevent him from taking the mountain and everything around it!”
Louis adjusted his collar. “Marnie, we’re all concerned about your father, but he knew not to go. He was safe here. He knew if he went to town he would risk getting caught.”
“We could protect him here, but not in Silver Creek. Hell! We could be hanged right along with him!” Will shouted and Charlie nodded.
Ike agreed. “They’re right, Marnie.”
Twenty-five years ago, through dense forests and jagged rocks, her father carved out a life for not only his family, but for the families in the valley below. Now when he needed them, they cowered in fear like children. “So it will be the same as before? He needed you last year and you didn’t lift a hand to help him. You all wanted to run and hide.” She tapped the table with a finger, discarding the truth for her cause. The people around her father’s table were loyal, but fear made her desperate.
“Now wait just a damn minute, little girl!” Her accusations brought Ike up out of his seat. In his younger day, he’d been a boxer, broad in the shoulder and narrow at the hip. Legend of the “Fists of Fury” spread through Texas like wildfire. Even now, his withered frame towered above Marnie. When his expression changed, she braced herself. “You seem to forget I was riding right alongside your Pa when them damned Confederates took you girls, and I helped him bury your Ma!” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other in agitation. “So don’t you go lecturing me about helping spring your Pa from jail!”
The outburst sent a silence over the men. Ike shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marnie. I know you miss your ma, but−” Marnie watched him rub his furrowed face and produce a tender smile. “You girls feel like you was my own and I don’t want to see ya get hurt.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll wait for Lucas,” he instructed softly.
Marnie’s head shook feverishly. “We can’t wait. They could hang him at any time. Lucas might persuade the Governor to intervene in the charges against Papa, but Talon is a coward. He won’t wait for a judge or jury.” Marnie forced a wave of moving tears as she let out an, “Oh!” and pushed the handkerchief against her nose. She sniffed and dropped her head. Papa’s running out of time!
Ike eased down in a chair beside her. “Look, Marnie, we can’t just go into the jail and ask for the key. He’s a wanted criminal; they’ll be guarding him close.”
“I won’t be moved by tears, young lady,” Will interrupted Ike’s careful words. “I’d give my life for Daniel, but our actions have to be thought through. We wait.”
The firmness of Will’s words stilled her tears. I knew it! They’re not going to help me. Marnie refused to lose the fight. She calmed herself and raised her head. “I’m sorry, you’re right.” Her head nodded slightly in agreement and then bent forward with humility. “I know without your loyalty Papa would have been caught a long time ago, and Callie and I would probably be dead.” When she met Ike’s concerned face, the storm in her green eyes cleared, and a crafty smile eased its way onto her pouty lips. “Forgive me,” her voice was soft. “I’m just scared. I had to try.”
Ike cocked one bushy eyebrow upward and sighed. “Well girl, Lucas will be back from Richmond tomorrow.”
A half an hour later Marnie walked the last remaining man to the door. Ike shifted awkwardly and moved towards her. When the others had gone, he called Marnie by her childhood name. “Joe, in nineteen years I ain’t never seen you give into a fight. I saw them green eyes clear, and that means one thing. You’re up to something!”
Other Titles from 5 Prince Publishing
Wanderlust Bernadette Marie
Holiday Past Jessica Dall
Christmas Blitz Amy Gale
A Christmas for Chloe Susan Lohrer
Restored Hearts Railyn Stone
Last Christmas Lisa J. Hobman
A Romance for Christmas Bernadette Marie
The Fall of Undal Katrina Sisowath
Saving Sarah May S.J. Reisner
Walker Pride Bernadette Marie
Abandoned Soul Doug Simpson
Copper Lake Ann Swann
Grace After the Storm Sandy Sinnett
Throne of Jelzicar/Warriors of Gravenlea S.D. Galloway
Fatal Desire Christina OW
Unwrap the Romance Anthology
The Grand Dissolute Joel Van Valin
An Ill Wind James Hanley
Stargazing Bernadette Marie
Old Amarillo Sara Barnard
Nobody’s Business M.J. Kane
Walker Pride Bernadette Marie
A Secret to Keep Railyn Stone
The Doom of Undal Katrina Sisowath
Fatal Obsession Christina OW
The Escape Clause Bernadette Marie
Reasons to Stay Lisa J. Hobman
Permanent Spring Showers Scott D. Southard
Wings Pete Abela
Fearing she carries her mother’s curse of marriage, nineteen year-old Eleanor Mackenna swore never to vow herself into matrimonial bondage. Nuptials aren’t needed where true love is concerned. A concept she is sure a man like McCrea Coldiron would agree with. The town gossip has him pegged as a heartbreaker, but Eleanor knows a different side to McCrea. Years of loving him without seeing his affection returned has made her desperate enough to ask him for advice on seducing a man. McCrea isn’t proud of his reputation as a brawler and a womanizer. As a teenager the rumors were funny, now they may cost him the land he has worked so hard for. Unconvinced his grandson is responsible enough to inherit his portion of the family land, his granddad lays down a new ultimatum. McCrea had noticed Eleanor Mackenna was all grown up. A beautiful face and curves in all the right places made that fact hard to miss. The chatty little girl from next door has been chasing his spurs for years and ignoring her was easy to do until his granddad’s ridiculous notion of taking her for a wife makes him consider giving her a fist class lesson in seduction. McCrea’s promise of more than goodnight kisses leaves Eleanor blindsided by his cold proposal and heartbroken by the truth that his tender lovemaking was a plan to lure her into marriage.