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Authors: Victoria James

Rescued by the Rancher

BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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Starting over and starting a whole lotta trouble…

Meredith Anderson left her difficult past behind to create a new life for herself in Tall Pines—where she can be the independent, confident woman she always dreamed of being. Now she’s a partner in her sister’s wedding planning business, helping brides realize their happily-ever-afters…even as she promises herself to
never
fall in love.

Meredith’s sweetness and vulnerability brings out the protective side of rancher Gage Mackenzie—even though their worlds are miles apart. All it takes is one night for desire to take hold of them both, a sizzling encounter that can only lead to the promise of
more
. But Meredith isn’t looking for more, and even if she was, Gage is set to leave Tall Pines behind him…

a Tall Pines Ranch novel

Table of Contents

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Victoria James. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Entangled Publishing, LLC

2614 South Timberline Road

Suite 109

Fort Collins, CO 80525

Visit our website at
www.entangledpublishing.com
.

Bliss is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC. For more information on our titles, visit
http://www.entangledpublishing.com/category/bliss

Edited by Alethea Spiridon Hopson

Cover design by Jessica Cantor

Cover art by iStock

ISBN 978-1-63375-254-2

Manufactured in the United States of America

First Edition April 2015

To Jaclyn-there is a little of you in every BFF and sister character I write. You are truly a kindred spirit, partner in crime, and ‘sister’. Long live the JLI.

Love you,

V.

Chapter One

Gage Mackenzie was a dead man.

Or he would be by the time this night was over. The person who was slowly, painfully, killing him was perched on the barstool next to him—Meredith Anderson. His best friend’s sister-in-law was the one woman in the entire bar he couldn’t have, and she happened to be the only woman he’d wanted this last year. She had no idea the effect she had on him.

Instead, she was sporting a giddy smile that held not an ounce of desire in it as she twirled in her seat to face him. Her manicured hands were splayed wide on the wooden counter and she spun like a kid who’d never been allowed to sit on a swivel chair in her entire life. “I can’t believe I’m finally at the Horseshoe tonight with all of you. It was so nice of the boys to invite me along.”

Gage bit down hard with his back teeth, stifling his comments, and then took a long swallow of the icy beer he was holding. By “boys” Meredith meant the ranch hands at the Tall Pines ranch, and their invitation was clearly given because one of those idiots thought he stood a chance with Meredith. Gage was here to ensure that wouldn’t happen. He’d been called many things in his life, but chaperone was a first.

If he couldn’t have her, no way in hell was he letting one of them have her. And it was that very line of thinking that was killing him. He and Meredith could never be together. She needed someone nice and stable. She didn’t need a one-night stand with some young, overconfident cowboy. Again, this shouldn’t be bothering him.

Since when did he care who a woman went home with?

Since Meredith had fallen into his arms at the Tall Pines last winter.

“Don’t you think, Gage?”

Gage focused on her green eyes. Rich, deep emerald-colored, with a soul to them that pulled at him, rattled him. Every time he was with Meredith he wanted to know the real her, the woman she was before she came to Tall Pines. He wanted to know the woman under the perfect facade, beneath the impeccable manners and the gorgeous smile. He wanted to know her in a way that he’d never wanted to know anyone before. And that very desire should have sent him running. Instead it made him protective. A part of him worried that she was still fragile, that there was still that vulnerable woman that he met last year. So it was his duty to make sure no one ever hurt Meredith again, including him, which meant he needed to keep his mind off his irrational need to find out more about her, and his sexual need to—

“I never would have thought in a million years I’d be here tonight, but then again, I never would have thought I’d be anywhere but the country club on a Friday night. This is infinitesimally more pleasurable.”

At the sound of the word “pleasurable,” his gaze dropped to her mouth—delicious, full, and tempting with some shiny pink gloss. He forced his gaze back up before it wandered lower.
Focus on the conversation.
This was going to be a grueling evening. Meredith didn’t seem to notice his discomfort, because she kept right on talking.

“I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess, because everyone at the ranch is so sweet. Especially the cowboys. Such charming, polite young men.”

Gage squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and turned to look at the “charming, polite, young men” who were watching Meredith from across the bar like she was dinner. How Meredith could be so clueless was beyond him. She made it sound like they were six years old and had made plans to go to the park. Normally, Meredith’s chatter amused him, which was another mystery, because he wasn’t the type to enjoy chatter. Not only did he enjoy hearing Meredith speak, it filled him with pride. Meredith had been so damn quiet when she’d first arrived. Broken and despondent and scared. Very different from the gorgeous woman sitting beside him now.

“And the inside of this bar, or tavern? Is it a tavern? It’s so rustic. Charming.”

“Rustic” and “charming” were Meredith’s attempt at being polite. The bar was a dive. Sure, at one time it must’ve been a little nicer, but the place was worn, old, slightly dirty. Dark round tables and chairs filled most of the wood-paneled one-room bar. A small dance floor with enough room for a band was at the far end of the place, and the long bar took up the rest of the space. It wasn’t a place Meredith would be used to. It suited him perfectly.

Gage caught some sort of arm flail from the corner of his eye followed by, “Oh, I’m so eating those nuts.”

He turned on his barstool and watched as Meredith deftly grabbed the bowl of nuts sitting on the counter. She examined it for a moment, sniffed, and then nodded. Then she grabbed a handful and dropped them in that gorgeous mouth of hers. He was getting turned on by watching her eat stale nuts. He cleared his throat, trying to reroute the direction of his thoughts. “Hungry?”

She stopped chewing for a moment, looked at him, and then shook her head. She licked the salt from her lips, and he downed the rest of his beer.

“Not really, but I’ve always wanted to eat bar nuts from a little wooden bowl like you see on TV, you know?”

Hell, no. He had no idea what she was talking about. The only thing he saw was her. Dark hair, wavy and shiny, hanging halfway down her back that made him want to run his hands through it while kissing her. Her flawless ivory skin was flushed tonight, a result of the white wine she was drinking for sure, but it looked damn beautiful on her. She always looked beautiful. Elegant, refined, and so not the type of woman he deserved. “Not sure I’m following, Mer.”

She popped a few more nuts into her mouth and then made the sexiest little moan and shut her eyes before looking over at him. He motioned the bartender for another beer.

“I mean the old Meredith never would have even been in a place like this, let alone eating from some sort of communal bowl.”

He forced himself not to laugh at her. She wasn’t snotty or stuck-up. She was genuine. That made his little infatuation with her all the more complicated. But they were from different worlds. The image of a two-room childhood home popped into his head. Not exactly the type of thing Meredith would understand. If eating peanuts out of a bowl at a bar was “communal” to her, he didn’t want to know how she’d classify eating out of a Dumpster.

“I think I’d like to dance.”

Meredith waved at the ranch hands from the Tall Pines who were trying to pretend not to be loitering like idiots, just waiting around for Meredith to join them. One of them actually stood up from his nearby table ready to walk over to them. He was eyeing Meredith like a juicy piece of beef tenderloin until Gage made eye contact with him. Gage narrowed his eyes and gave him his nastiest son-of-a-bitch stare until the young man turned around and sat back down.

Meredith swiveled in her chair, eyebrow raised, and looked at him. “Why did that boy look like he was fearing for his life?”

Gage shrugged. “You know how young men are. Fickle.”

She gave a little nod and looked in the direction of the blonde sauntering towards them. Damn. It was Brandi. Brandi had been circling around him like a fly for the last year. Right around the time he’d stopped with his bar pickups.

“I’m going to get a shirt like hers,” Meredith said.

Gage choked on his beer. The bleached blonde was wearing a T-shirt that was at least two sizes too small for the surgically enhanced pair she was sporting. The words “Bite me” were stretched across in pink glitter.


You
like that shirt?”

Meredith bopped her head up and down rapidly. “I need one, part of my new image. It says don’t mess with me.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s the message she’s trying to send out.” New image? This was the first he’d heard about a new image for Meredith. “And it doesn’t exactly strike me as the type of thing you’d wear.”

“I know. The old Meredith never would have worn that. The new Meredith might. Maybe.”

Brandi approached, so Meredith leaned toward him and lowered her voice. He was treated to a close-up of her flawless face, sparkling green eyes, and sexy-as-hell mouth. “I’m not the judgmental type. I’ve spent my entire life, except this last year, doing what I was told. I will not judge a woman for wearing a second-skin shirt that has the words ‘bite me’ written across it. In fact, I should shake her hand and befriend her.”

Gage shut his eyes. He didn’t need Meredith whispering “bite me” in his ear when she had no intention of letting him do just that. Before his brain could even go to picturing Meredith wearing the shirt, Brandi had sandwiched herself between him and Meredith.

“Gage, why don’t I ever see you anymore?” Her artificially pouty lips looked as though she’d dipped them in shellac.

“Hey, Brandi. Been busy.” Busy not thinking about the woman he had no business thinking about. The woman who was far too good for him.

“Excuse me.” Meredith tapped her finger on Brandi’s shoulder. This should be interesting. Brandi stepped back and eyed Meredith.

“I was wondering where you bought your shirt. I like it.”

This time Gage did spit out his beer. Brandi obviously didn’t know what to think of this. She gave Meredith a huffy once-over and was obviously threatened. Meredith seemed oblivious to the entire thing as she sat anxiously perched on the edge of her seat, her gorgeous mouth turned up in a friendly smile. He groaned inwardly.

“Brandi, this is Meredith. She’s, uh, Cole’s sister-in-law.”

“Nice to meet you, Brandi,” Meredith said, extending her hand.

Brandi gave her a reluctant, dead-fish handshake. “Oh, yes. So, Gage, how about you and I—”

His eyes were on Meredith, who he could have sworn looked tense. She was shuffling peanuts around the bowl with her finger while peeking out at them from the corner of her eyes.

“No, thanks, Brandi. Not tonight.”

Brandi’s eyes narrowed to little slits of pure venom onto Meredith, who was sifting through the bowl as though she were searching for a diamond. He raised his beer to his lips and Brandi leaned forward, whispering in his ear. “She seems a little tame for your taste. When you get bored you know where to find me.”

Gage didn’t look over at Meredith, but the unmistakable sound of a woman scorned got his attention. He glanced over. The bowl of nuts abandoned, she was drumming her fingers on the countertop muttering something. He caught the word “impolite.” She stopped drumming in order to look down at her blouse, and of course, he let his own gaze wander down. Nice. Not that it was his first time noticing.

Her eyes snapped up to his and he followed suit. “That is so rude. I get I’m not the type of woman that will get picked up right when she walks into a bar. But
tame
?
Boring
? That’s a little presumptuous of her. I know how to have…fun. I am fun. Would a tame, boring woman undo the first three buttons of her blouse?”

She didn’t wait for him to answer. And, God, if he didn’t just sit there like a damn prepubescent and watch the show.
Pluck, pluck, pluck
, one by one the buttons were opened. And hell how he wished he’d been the one to open them and see the pink push-up bra that she was wearing in closer detail.

“There.” She slid off the barstool and stood. “I’m going to dance, because tame and boring people don’t dance. But since I’m not one of them, I’ll dance.”

Gage glanced over at the table of Tall Pines ranch hands and then back at Meredith. He sighed, standing up. Then he buttoned up her shirt and ignored the feel of the nicely rounded breasts that his knuckles nudged.

“Gage?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve spent my entire life being controlled by either my father or Ron. I’m not about to enter this next phase of my life making the same mistake. And this is Melanie’s shirt, so nothing can happen to it.” She swatted his hands away and then undid the first two buttons. “I’m going to dance. I’m also contemplating drinking beer from a bottle. I’m going to continue to eat nuts from communal bowls. I’m going to be a normal girl tonight. If you want me, cowboy, you know where to find me.”

Gage didn’t say a word, not even when she poked his shoulder before walking away. He lifted his bottle of beer in salute as Meredith crossed the bar, and then he traded in his beer for a whiskey.

If you want me, cowboy, you know where to find me.
Did he want Meredith? Hell, yes. He wanted her here, there, everywhere. He wanted her from the moment she fell into his arms last winter. And he’d wanted her every day since.

Of course he was more than happy that Meredith was finally coming into her own, that she’d woken up and ditched that prick of a fiancé, but he couldn’t lie to himself—he wanted her. Not that anything could come of it. Meredith needed commitment, marriage, kids, the whole deal. Gage didn’t do the whole deal. He would only end up hurting her because he wasn’t the forever-after kind of guy. She needed someone who would settle down in Passion Creek and provide her with a comfortable life and kids. She also needed someone who came from the same social status, someone she could identify with. There was no way in hell Meredith would ever understand where he came from, and he didn’t have the means to give her what she was used to.

In a few months that was all going to change, though. He was leaving Tall Pines to strike out on his own. That was just another damn reason he couldn’t get involved with Meredith. Like he needed another one. The first fifty reasons should suffice. But she didn’t need some guy who would hurt her. So, tonight she was going to let loose. Fine. He was totally fine with that. He was just going to stick around and make sure she didn’t get hurt. Or into trouble.

He was going to sit here on the sidelines, watch Meredith, and be fine with that. And he was going to make sure none of those infatuated, dim-witted cowboys laid a hand on her.

His phone vibrated and slowly turned on the counter. He glanced down at the display. It was his lawyer. He had to take this call. Maybe it was good news. Maybe this property had checked out and Gage would be on his way to owning his own ranch. Three hundred miles from here.

He glanced over at Meredith, who had paused on her way to the dance floor. It looked as though she’d received a call as well. Perfect. If she was talking on the phone, she couldn’t get herself into any trouble. With a final glance at Meredith, he picked up the call. He would need to take it outside to hear. Well, she’d be fine for five minutes.

BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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