Authors: Tina Leonard
Last of the Red-Hot Cowboys: Hell's Outlaws
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Loveswept eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2014 by Tina Leonard
Last of the Red-Hot Riders
by Tina Leonard copyright Â© 2014 by Tina Leonard
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Loveswept is a registered trademark and the Loveswept colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-345-54930-3
Cover design: Carrie Devine/Seductive Designs
Cover photograph: Jenn LeBlanc/Illustrated Romance
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Last of the Red-Hot Riders
by Tina Leonard. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Much gratitude to the wonderful Sue Grimshaw, the amazing Nancy Berland, and my endlessly supportive agent, Roberta Brownâand my very loyal and enthusiastic readers.
“They say to the victor go the spoils. I play to win.”
âMayor Judy Jasper to her Hell Belles
Trouble walked into the Hell's Outlaws Training Center wearing a smile, hot pink boots, and a white fringed suede dress. And if six-foot-tall, perpetually sunny Mayor Judy Jasper wasn't enough to alarm Trace Carter, the three females she'd brought with her sure punched his caution button.
Trace patted the horse he was currying, watching the ladies make their determined path toward him. If Mayor Judy had rounded up three brand-new stunners, then she was working on a plan of some kind. She always had plans, usually big ones, the kind guaranteed to give her Saturday Night Special, Sheriff Steel Durant, heartburn of the worst kind. Judy's plans occasionally gave other people heartburn, too.
Like me, damn it
Trace tried to stay out of Judy's sometimes harebrained plans. Some worked out brilliantly, some fizzledâbut either way, anyone with the misfortune to get involved with a plan of Judy's was bound to lose serious sleep at some point.
“Hello, Trace,” Judy said, and he stopped currying the almost-black stallion, putting the brush down on an old wooden table. His dog, Prince, perked up, hoping the pretty mayor had brought him a treat, as was her custom.
“Mayor,” he said respectfully.
“I've brought some friends I'd like you to meet,” Judy said.
She certainly had. He'd barely been able to take his eyes off the three dolls, particularly the tiny brunette with green eyes staring at him like she expected him to be rude or sprout horns. Mayor Judy had probably prepped these ladies, telling them horrible stories about how difficult he could be. Stubborn. Even chauvinistic.
Trace resolved to turn on the charm. “Hello, ladies,” he said to the pixie brunette and the spicy redhead and the sandy blonde. He gave them his most effective smile, charming to the max.
The dolls didn't seem impressed. Neither did the mayor.
“Trace, I'd like to introduce you to Ava Buchanan, Harper Castleberry, and
Cameron Dix. Ladies, Trace is just about the last of the red-hot cowboys. The real thing.” Mayor Judy smiled, her big blue eyes twinkling at him. He knew that twinkle. It was the pleased expression she wore when she was working on something. Reading Judy was no problem because she had the town's most expressive face. Steel said Judy was a brilliant poker player, and Trace believed him. Judy had so many facial expressions that it kept everyone off guard thinking they had her figured out.
They never did. He figured that was why she deserved to be mayor of this one-horse, dysfunctional town. No one else could keep folks in line like Judy.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Trace said, shaking hands with the mayor's three shapely “friends.”
The little brunette with the short hair gave him some frost like he'd never experienced from a lady. Women generally liked him, but being a loner and sometimes a bit of a grouch, he didn't let too many women into his staid world. She didn't smile at him and he kind of wished she would.
“What can I do for you, Miss Judy?” Trace politely asked.
“It's what we can do for you,” Judy said. “I wanted you to be the first to meet my new team. These are my Hell Belles.”
Ah, here came the gambit. With some trepidation, Trace said, “Hell Belles?”
Judy nodded. “My team of riders. I've hired them to travel and be the bright face of Hell, Texas.”
He had to give Judy credit for always being willing to push Hell, not an easy thing to do, as they were located in a backwater so small that the nearest big city was a couple hundred miles away. Her “girls” would certainly be bright lightsâand he had to think Ava was especially shining, as lights went. Amused, he smiled. “Travel doing what, exactly?”
Judy gave him her most beneficent smile. “That's where you come in, Trace.”
The trap sprung shut on him, just as he'd known it would. “Me?”
“I want you to train these three girls to bullfight.”
He stared at Judy, then the Belles. “Bullfight.”
“Yes.” Judy's smile was radiant. “Be rodeo clowns, in the public vernacular.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No way.”
The four women favored him with frowns. He hated to see such an expression on Ava's pretty face. All those tiny brown freckles across her nose and her big eyes made him feel like such a heel.
It couldn't be helped.
“We don't train female riders,” he said, patiently explaining to Judy what she already knew damn well. “Declan, Saint, and I decided that when we first opened the Hell's Outlaws Training Center. Besides which, you know quite well that ladies don't bullfight, Judy. It's too damn dangerous. There's not a decent facility in the country that I know of that trains females. And absolutely no cowboy would trust a woman to save him from a rank bull.” He made his tone as flat and practical as he could. No harm done here. The ladies were asking for something that couldn't possibly be done.
The group favored him with reproving expressions, but their disapproval wouldn't work on him. He wasn't going to do it, and he knew Declan and Saint, his buddies and part owners of the training facility, sure as hell wouldn't.
He hated the idea of a woman as darling as Ava getting squashed under two, three tons of pissed-off bull. There were reasons the training center was off-limits to femalesâand Mayor Judy knew that as well as anyone.
For one thing, this was a man's world. His world, his and Declan's and Saint's, their saving grace from what they'd seen and done in Afghanistan and Iraq. They'd built this from nothing, bred horses and trained riders, all in the relative calm of Hell. This was where they found peace and quiet, and maybe, at times, redemption.
Women were not peaceful, nor quiet, and certainly not redemptive.
“I think you should at least give me a chance,” Ava said, broadsiding him a sweet voice and dynamite appeal that ran all over him like crazy. “I'm an excellent rider. I've grown up around horses. There's very little I don't know about the world of rodeo.”
He didn't doubt her. “Now, MissÂ â¦,” he began, and she held up a hand.
“The fact is, you don't want women here.”
“That's right,” Trace said, happy to agree with a statement that was absolutely true. “There are places in town that give riding lessons, and also lease horses for just about anything you care to try your hand at, be it Western or English. Mayor Jasper knows the best places.” He nodded at Judy. “Trust me, we're not skilled in the type of
team you ladies are contemplating.”
“Trace, you're not listening,” Judy said. “This is not a beginners' team. I chose these riders from literally hundreds of applicants. They are the best.”
He certainly thought the trio of cuties was the best at looking hot. Sweet. In shape. Under different circumstances, he'd be dying to know what was underneath that tight black top and those skin-clinging jeans Ava flaunted. Cowgirl gear suited some girls, some not so much. Ava fit hers well. “I'm just not the man for what you're proposing, Mayor.” He hated to tell the tall blonde no about anything. She was just about the nicest woman he'd met in his life, and no doubt Steel would give him hell later for upsetting his girl. He was stuck in a no-win situation.
She shook her head. “Trace, of the three of you, I expected you to be less of a hardheaded rascal.”
“No, ma'am,” he said, his tone honestly regretful as Ava flashed him a look full of disgust. “I'm every bit of a hardheaded rascal, and I'm not ever looking to change.”
Judy nodded. “Then we'll be off.”
“Nice to meet you, ladies,” he called after them as they turned to follow Judy out, Judy indeed slipping Prince a small bone as she departed. They didn't respond to Trace's goodbye, and he was left to suffer the sight of lush female fannies swinging out of the training center, leaving him in the doghouse.
What the hell. He stayed in the doghouse around here, didn't he?
“It's all right,” he told his horse, brushing Heracles to a soft black shine. “It's a man's world. And that's the way it's gonna stay, no matter how beautiful the babes Miss Judy brings our way.”
Heracles tried to give him a swift hoof to the ankle and Trace shook his head. Life was not always soft and gentle, and as much as he could use some soft and gentle in his life, Ava Buchanan was going to have to find someplace else to train for Mayor Judy's team.
Thing was, the mayor was working on something, and she'd gone to a lot of trouble to get it goingâand when the mayor decided to rock the foundations of Hell, Texas, there weren't many men who cared to stand in her way.
He felt the foundations quivering.
*Â *Â *
“No,” Saint Markham said when Trace filled him in on the Hell Belles situation.
“Hell, no,” Declan O'Rourke said. “We don't train women. Judy knows that.”
Trace nodded. “And who's going to train women to bullfight? No one.”
The men sat in the wide, circular boothâtheir standard hauntâin the back of Redfeathers Bar and Pool Hall, trying to digest Mayor Jasper's plan. It wasn't easy, because the statuesque blonde kept her cards pretty well concealed. The bar carried the comforting smell of beer and burgers, and even a little smoke from time to time. Stephen Redfeathers liked to light up a pipe on occasion, though he was the only one who ever smoked in his bar. It was just one of those Hell quirks that everybody accepted.
This is home
, Trace thought.
When we were in Afghanistan, we dreamed of coming back here to shoot the shit. We remembered this cracked old black leather booth, and we said if we ever got out of that shithole alive, this was the first place we were coming, the first meal we were going to eat, even though Stephen can't cook worth a damn. And that's what we did, thank God