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Authors: Victoria James

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BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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How much trouble could she get into?

Chapter Two

Trouble. This was most certainly trouble.

Meredith forced herself to look calm and not like she wanted to throw up. She glanced down at her screen one more time, and sure enough the identity of the missed caller was still staring back at her.
Ron
. Her rotten, disgusting, misogynistic ex-fiancé. Maybe he’d misdialed. Yes, that had to be it. Ron, her parents, everyone from her other life had left her alone for almost a year. What could they possibly want with her now? She’d made her break; she’d insulted them, disgraced them.

She waited another minute, holding her breath as she waited to make sure she didn’t get a voicemail notification, but after enough time passed, she knew she was in the clear. She exhaled a long, shaky breath and tucked her phone in the back pocket of her jeans.

Meredith glanced over her shoulder, making sure Gage wasn’t watching her. Of course she’d love it if he were watching her, because that would make tonight’s plan a little easier. But she didn’t want him to know about Ron’s call. She didn’t want anyone to know, especially since it was probably a mistake and then everyone would be worried for no reason.

Gage. How many times during the last year had she sought him out? Gage had a way of making her feel safe and alive, in a way that no man had ever done. But she didn’t want to analyze what that meant, because she couldn’t trust herself again. She had demonstrated over and over that her judgment, especially with men, wasn’t stellar. Even though Gage had proven himself to everyone at Tall Pines, not getting involved emotionally with him was the safest thing to do. She had done the whole fiancée thing, and it was highly overrated. Same with being in a relationship. It was too consuming. She would never let anyone have that kind of power over her again.

What she was looking for was something that would last approximately one night.

And she could trust Gage for one night.

He was the first glimpse of hero material she’d seen. The night of Cori Forrester’s wedding, the night she’d taken the biggest gamble of her life, was when she first met Gage, or fell into his arms. He’d picked her up, and even though he’d been a stranger, the aura of strength and safety that he’d exuded enveloped her. Neither of them spoke about that night, but sometimes she felt as though it hung between them. She’d catch him looking at her in a way that stirred and awakened parts of her body that she thought were dead.

In the last year, living at the Tall Pines ranch and working with her sister, she’d come to know what true family was, and somewhere in that complicated mix was Gage. No blood relations to speak of, but part of the Forrester family nonetheless.

Meredith quelled her disappointment as Gage hopped off the barstool, all hard lines and lean muscle as he walked in the opposite direction. She watched his back, his broad shoulders, move through the crowd and then walk right out without a glance in her direction. Maybe he had decided to take Brandi up on her offer. She squared her shoulders and ignored the slash of jealousy that grew at the mental image of Brandi in Gage’s arms.

She was here with a goal, and Ron’s call only made it more imperative for her to accomplish her mission tonight. She straightened herself, rolled her shoulders, and proceeded to walk around the packed tables toward the dance floor like she was a woman on a mission. She was going to worry about Ron tomorrow. Luckily, the amount of wine she’d consumed allowed her to shrug Ron off and focus on what had just happened at the bar.

She had spoken to Gage like an honest-to-goodness normal woman capable of flirting with a man so hot and sexy that she had to mentally coach herself not to blush in his presence. The only problem was she wasn’t sure she’d made her point clear. She hadn’t made any point at all other than blabbering on about wanting a shirt like Brandi’s. Next time she was going to pace her wine intake more carefully. She was also pretty sure she’d invited Gage to the dance floor, but that didn’t translate to
take me home, cowboy
.

Sometimes, she felt like she hadn’t changed at all. She took out her phone and deleted Ron’s call from her history so she wouldn’t have to look at it again. She was going to wait for Gage to come back and then she’d make her move, because he was coming back. He had to.

She walked with a confidence and spring in her step that she had never possessed in her entire life. She walked to that group of young, eager cowboys as though she was confident and sexy, and the whole world was hers to devour. She could believe this, for one night. And if Gage joined her on the dance floor, she would end the night with him. And
then
truly she would be on her way to becoming a new woman.

What would she do with a man like Gage? What kind of woman would she need to be? Certainly not the spineless, mute wimp that even after a year of being away from her parents, she knew still existed not so deep down. She was nothing like her sister. Melanie was fearless, outgoing, and funny. Meredith had been meek. She touched her stomach briefly and paused for a second, the familiar sting of searing disappointment and loss reminding her of the ultimate price she’d paid for being weak. It was nothing she would ever be able to admit aloud. No one would look at her the same way, because none of these “new” people in her life would understand how she could have been so weak.

Meredith turned around and plowed straight into a solid wall of man and looked up into a face that wasn’t nearly as compelling as Gage’s. This one had a slight sneer to it and the owner’s eyes were beady. They weren’t dark blue, rimmed with thick lashes that added a touch of softness to an otherwise hard, chiseled face. No. This man didn’t compare to Gage Mackenzie at all, and this man was wearing a wedding band on one of the sausage-like fingers wrapped around a beer bottle.

Meredith frowned and tried to step aside and past him. He moved with her, effectively blocking her path. She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. His gaze followed her arm movement, and her stomach turned. She never should have unbuttoned the shirt. Well, she wasn’t afraid of him. This man was a bully, like Ron. Bad news for him. He obviously hadn’t received the memo that Meredith was done with losers, done being bullied.

Or maybe she was being extra confident because she knew Gage would never let anything happen to her, nor would the half dozen Tall Pines cowboys. Not that she wouldn’t be able to handle things herself. She was a new woman and she could totally handle this giant brute of a man in front of her, but it was still nice knowing she had backup, just in case. Kind of like AAA.

“Can I buy you a drink, sweet thing?”

Meredith lifted her chin and looked the other way. “No, thank you.”

Even though she thought she was doing a good job at conveying her displeasure at his approach, he stepped into her personal space. That was never a good idea. She had come to value her personal space very much this last year. She backed up a step and he followed. She had to look way up at him. He was taller than Gage, larger than Gage. Burlier.

“I said, can I buy you a drink?”

Meredith frowned at him and tried to copy Gage’s no-nonsense glare he gave to his employees on the ranch. “I said, no.”

“I’m not the kind of man who takes no for an answer.”

“Clyde, leave her alone.”

Meredith turned in the direction of the voice. A thin, nervous-looking woman approached them. Clyde scowled at the woman. “Shut up, Nadine.”

Meredith gasped as rage filled her from toe to tip. “That’s rude. You should apologize to your…”

“Wife.”

On some level she already knew. It did occur to her that by asking, she was further involving herself in something that really was none of her concern. She could just wave over one of the cowboys or dart around the brute’s large frame and she’d be fine. But now, thanks to this poor woman who had approached them, she felt the need to find out exactly what was going on here.

“Your wife,” Meredith said.

Clyde gave Nadine a cursory glance. “Ball and chain is more like it.”

Meredith tapped her toe and crossed her arms. “I’m speechless. Speechless. Disgusted. Flabbergasted.”

Clyde leaned down into her face again, blowing the stench of beer as he spoke. “Flabberwho? You don’t sound speechless. Do you talk this much in bed?”

Meredith gasped and poked Clyde in a pudgy part of his chest. It sank right in, unlike when she poked her finger into Gage and it just bounced right off. “You are a nasty man. You pick up women in front of your wife?”

Clyde grabbed her wrist and leaned down so that his beady eyes were level with hers. “Nadine likes it.”

Meredith frowned as she assessed the wife. No, judging by the way Nadine was wringing her thin hands and her pale skin, she didn’t like it one bit. “Let go of my wrist, you ape.”

Clyde’s wide mouth turned into a sneer and Meredith looked around for the cowboys, but they were all busy dancing with a couple of young blondes. Gage was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he had gone off with Brandi. Fine. She was on her own for now. She could handle this situation. Maybe Ron’s call had been the perfect reminder of the strong kind of woman she needed to be. She could defend herself,
and
Nadine.

The Meredith from one year ago never would have even allowed herself to be in such a quagmire, but this was the new Meredith, defender of women, champion of the defenseless. She took a deep breath and then attempted to reason, while trying to extricate herself from Clyde’s beefy grasp.

“Nadine, I really think you need to reconsider what you’re doing here. You’re not fooling me, you are unhappy. You don’t have to subject yourself to this. You don’t want your husband picking up women.”

Clyde yanked her forward until she was forced to place her hands in front of her and on his chest in order to prevent full body contact. Her courage took a slight nosedive. Slight, because all she had to do was raise her knee and it would deliver a swift kick to his groin. “Shut up.”

“Get your hands off her.”

Gage had returned, and he’d brought with him a temper she’d never witnessed from him before.

Clyde didn’t loosen his grip or lessen his sneer. Gage’s body was rigid. He approached Clyde, ripped his hand off her wrist, and proceeded to punch Clyde with such impact that Meredith cringed. She covered her mouth as he followed Clyde down, crashing into a table before hitting the ground. Meredith splayed her hands across her face and peeked out between her fingers. A crowd appeared around them, as did the cowboys from Tall Pines, who peeled Gage off Clyde after letting him get a few more rounds in. Though Clyde outweighed Gage, he was no match. Meredith held her breath, everything inside her body still except for the wild beating of her heart. She was finally able to breathe again when Gage stood, looming over Clyde.

“Get the hell out of here, and if you ever see her again, walk the other way.”

Clyde looked slightly less confident, not quite as big, as he stood. He rolled his shoulders and sought out his wife, who was standing beside Meredith.

Meredith quickly turned to her. “Nadine, you don’t have to go,” she whispered, holding her shoulder. How had this become such a mess? Everyone was watching them, her face felt like it was about to catch fire, and she was almost positive Gage was going to be furious with her.

Nadine glared at her. “Yes, I do. You’ve just made things so much worse for me,” she whispered before scurrying after Clyde. Meredith swallowed the lump in her throat and then looked way up as a shadow crossed her path. Gage, looking disgruntled and fiercely protective. His mouth was pulled into a straight line and a deep frown had ingrained itself between his eyes.

“Did he hurt you?”

Meredith shook her head, increasingly uncomfortable as all the cowboys now surrounded them. She hated being the center of attention. She should thank him. She should…she needed to get out of here. “I’m fine. Thank you so much for your help.” She patted his hand, ignoring the shocked look on his face, and then bolted out the front door.

Chapter Three

Gage muttered a curse under his breath and then followed Meredith out of the bar. He was going to have a talk with her about charging after colossal men. When he’d seen that bastard grab Meredith, rage, the kind he’d experienced only two other times in his life, engulfed him. He hadn’t been able to stop himself from connecting his fist with Clyde’s jaw.

He plowed through the crowd and palmed the door, swinging it wide. A blast of bitter nighttime air greeted him. He scanned the parking lot; a faint noise to his left caught his attention. She was standing at the far end of the covered wooden porch, her slim shoulders hunched forward.

The screech of tires as a pickup peeled out of the parking lot, kicking up dust and gravel, made him relax. Clyde was gone.

“Meredith,” he called out as he approached. She didn’t turn around, but she straightened her shoulders and crossed her arms.

“Oh, hello, Gage.” She was looking at him as though she hadn’t seen him in weeks, and he hadn’t just rescued her from that degenerate.

“We need to talk.”

She nodded, polite face still on.

“You can’t approach men five times your size at bars. Seriously, when you told me you were looking to have fun, I didn’t think you’d try to pick up someone.”

She uncrossed her arms and plunked them on her hips. “I didn’t. That oaf approached me.”

“Well, then try not to convince their wives to leave them. That guy was the size of freaking Chewbacca.”

That earned him a laugh that made him smile.

She waved a hand in some circular motion in his direction. “You…seemed to know what you were doing.”

“And you should probably know that covering your face and then peeking out through your fingers doesn’t exactly shelter you from whatever the hell is going on.”

“True, but with my fingers in position I can easily snap them shut if needed.”

“Ah,” he said, moving closer to her. He liked the way her eyes sparkled and she stood still. Like she trusted him. Or wanted him close. Or felt the insane chemistry they had. “And why would you need to snap them shut?”

“Well, if you got hurt, if he punched you—”

“That would never happen.”

“Mel and I have been taking tae kwon do so I was fully prepared to step in if you required my assistance. If that failed, I was planning on picking up a chair and smashing it over his head if I had to.”

Gage tried to hold back his smile. She said it with such endearing earnestness that he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but it also reminded her of why she had taken up tae kwon do this last year. He wanted to hurt her ex-fiancé and her father. He shoved his hands in his pockets and tried not to frown at the thought of those bastards.

“It’s good to know you’d back me up.”

Meredith nodded furiously. “I mean, I knew you were capable. I’ve seen you around the ranch without…” Her voice trailed off and even though it was dark outside, he could see that her face turned as red as a tomato. She was looking increasingly flustered. He took a step closer. Further flustered. Interesting.

“Are you going to finish your sentence?”

She tilted her head to the side and then quickly darted her gaze to the parking lot. “No. Nope. Not really necessary. Just me rambling. So, thank you for including me tonight on your little outing, and coming to my rescue. I should really get back inside now or I’ll have ruined all my chances. I can’t have this night end in complete failure.”

“I wasn’t aware you had an agenda for the evening.”

Meredith let out a forlorn, if not slightly theatrical sigh. “I was planning on picking up a cowboy.”

Gage didn’t blink for a moment, and then he ran his hands through his hair fighting the urge to yank a chunk out. He counted to ten, forcing his face to look neutral. “Excuse me?”

She nodded rapidly. “Just like one of your Tuesday night pickups. You inspired me.”

This time he did frown. “How did you know about that?”

“You have a little bit of a reputation.”

He could tell her the truth, but that would be heading down a dangerous road, and he didn’t see a point in either. He’d be leaving Tall Pines soon and Meredith, and whatever insane attraction he had to her, would be forgotten. Hopefully. “Well, it’s blown out of proportion. Besides, there’s no one in there suitable for you.”

“I’m sure there’s someone. There are so many nice young men.”

“No, there’s not. It’s dangerous to go home with some random guy from a bar, you know.”

“I wasn’t planning on going home with someone.”

“So what were you planning on?”

“Sharing some drinks and dancing.”

He was way too happy to hear her idea of a bar pickup, and he was going to let her believe that’s what a bar pickup was. He couldn’t even contain his grin. “Of course. Drinks and dancing.”

She rolled her eyes. “Gage, I’m not an idiot. Of course I know that a real pickup involves hot sex. I’m just not the type.”

Gage flung aside the mental image of him and Meredith having hot sex. “So you’re not the one-night stand type or the hot sex type?” A delicious pink glow started in the opening of her shirt and swept all the way up to her hairline.

“Both.”

His mouth went dry. “I don’t think so.”
Dangerous ground, Mackenzie. Back it up a step.
His legs didn’t listen to his brain and he took a step forward, close enough that he could see the rapid pulse hammering in the base of her throat. Close enough that the trademark Meredith scent of flowers and spring teased him. Close enough that he could bend down and finally kiss the full lips that he’d been thinking about for the last year. He focused his attention on her eyes, to get his mind back on track. Problem with Meredith’s green eyes is that they were expressive, and right now they were expressing desire. For him.

Her breaths were coming out in rapid succession and she was looking at him in a way that made his blood burn. This wasn’t happening. His own attraction to Meredith was one thing, but having her visibly attracted to him was an entirely different thing. Maybe a better guy would be able to walk away. But he’d never claimed to be one of the good guys.

She took a step closer to him and he was a goner. “Well, there is another way I could safely do a bar pickup.”

He didn’t move an inch. “Is that right?”

“With you. I go home with you.”


Meredith held her breath until she thought she was going to fall over, from either lack of air or embarrassment. Gage was going to turn her down. It was written in every line on his face. Her attempt to seduce him failed miserably. Of course, she hadn’t really tried to seduce him, because that would mean even more humiliation. Instead, she’d tried to use some reverse psychology on the man.

There wasn’t an ounce of desire in his gorgeous blue eyes. He was actually looking royally perturbed. Maybe he was irritated with her…Brandi and then Clyde. Oh, maybe that was it. Perhaps he’d intended on going home with Brandi. Meredith chewed her lip. That would make sense. If she were a guy, she’d have gone home with Brandi.

“Meredith, we’re not having a one-night stand.”

Utter mortification, the kind of embarrassment she would remember on her deathbed for sure. She lifted her chin a little higher and forced a serene smile on her face. She wasn’t going down without a fight. She’d already disgraced herself; she might as well try to convince him. “Gage, I have thought this through carefully and made a few lists. The pros definitely outweigh”—she frowned, pausing as he let out a choked sound—“the cons. It would be perfect. I don’t have to worry about you being some ax-murderer and you don’t have to worry about me…well, you wouldn’t have to worry about me at all. I’m no trouble,” she said, making a little cross over her heart.

Gage hung his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “Meredith, you are the very definition of trouble.”

She poked his shoulder until he raised his head. “I’m not. I promise.”

It looked as though he wanted to say something, but merely let out a rough, tortured sound and looked beyond her shoulder. Maybe he was thinking of Brandi. “I know you were probably hoping to go home with Brandi and I want you to know I completely understand. If I were a guy, I’m sure I’d want to go home with her as well.”

“Stop. Talking. Please.”

She frowned at the sound of his voice. He looked like he was somewhere between laughing and crying. “What? You don’t need to be shy about it. I’m not the least insulted.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I do know, Gage. Men are programmed to react to women like Brandi. It’s biological. It’s all about reproduction and evolution. The breasts, the hips, all symbols of reproduction, and those lips. Well, come to think of it I guess it’s kind of odd that a man would react to the breasts since I suspect they’re fake.”

Gage shook his head and shut his eyes.

“You little tramp. That innocent act was all so you could go home with Gage!”

Meredith inhaled sharply when Brandi appeared in front of her. She opened her mouth, praying for some words, but Gage stepped in front of her, completely blocking Brandi.

“Brandi, you can’t speak to her like that.”

Meredith attempted to shove Gage aside, but the man didn’t budge, so she poked around him and confronted the other woman. “Brandi, I’m very sorry that I hurt your feelings.”

“You’re a jealous little—”

Meredith sighed and shook her head sympathetically. “No, sweetheart, I’m not jealous at all. I actually feel sorry for you—”

“Okay, Brandi, it’s time you leave,” Gage said, cutting her off and standing in front of Meredith as Brandi lunged for her. Gage spoke softly to Brandi and Meredith frowned, on the sidelines. Seconds later, when Brandi’s escort arrived and she stormed off into a pickup truck, Gage turned to look at her.

His blue eyes sparkled and he gave her a grin that was half disgruntled, half amused. “What was it you were saying about not being any trouble?”

“You could have told me she was standing right there.”

“It happened too fast. Besides, I was enjoying listening to you tell me who I’m attracted to.”

Right. Their previous topic. “Let’s not focus on that. Look, she’s gone home with someone. I think we should do the same.”

“Yes. I drive you to the main house. I go back to my house. Alone.”

She shook her head.

He nodded.

“Please,” she whispered.

He shut his eyes for a moment and his jaw started ticking. “No way. You don’t even know the rules.”

She folded her hands in front of her. Maybe she was getting somewhere. At least he was engaging her on the subject. “Then tell me. I
love
rules. I play by the rules all the time, so this should be easy.”

Gage rubbed a hand over his stubbly, sexy jaw, and then looked at her dead-on. A shiver stole through her as he took a step forward, a gleam in his eyes. “You need to tell me one more time why you’re doing this.”

She drew a long breath and shifted her eyes from his intense stare. It was next to impossible to think when Gage was looking at her…like he was actually thinking about taking her up on her offer. Why was she doing this? Because she had been a sham her entire life. She had lived by everyone else’s rules, and she had finally figured out that the people doling out all the rules were the most messed-up people she’d ever met.

She glanced up at Gage. He hadn’t so much as moved one muscle. The other reason was because she wanted to know if Ron was right about her. Was she really just the woman that she was with him…or was she more? Yes, she was more. She
had
to be. She wanted to go to bed with a real man, and she wanted a real man to make love to her. There was no other man more purely male than Gage Mackenzie.

“Well?”

She cleared her throat and tapped her index finger on her mouth. She couldn’t very well tell him any of her thoughts. No. She’d just play this cool and calm. “This is part of the new Meredith. The one I was telling you about in the bar earlier.”

“The one who wants the
Bite Me
shirt?”

Meredith snapped her fingers. “Exactly.”

“See, here’s the thing, darling. You’re not that girl, and I’m not really looking forward to teaching you the rules and seeing you upset when it’s over.”

“Whoa, back it up there, cowboy. I watch TV. I know how this works. No feelings, no commitments, just one night. Don’t worry, Gage, there won’t be any tears. I won’t be begging you to marry me tomorrow. Seriously, it’s a little egotistical of you to assume I won’t be able to get enough of you.” She had to clear her throat after that statement, because his eyes went all dark and the gleam in them was heated. She crumpled her brow, trying to stay on track, praying he wasn’t going to turn her down and then she’d have to pretend to try to pick up someone else, which she couldn’t do. There was one man for this, and sadly for her, he was trying to get out of it.

“This isn’t a TV show. It would complicate everything.”

“So here it is in a nutshell. I’ve never been with anyone other than my loser ex, Ron. And let’s just say it was less than…satisfying. It bordered on horrid. I’m not looking for commitment or love. I know these things don’t really exist for everyone. I’m fine with that. But if I die tomorrow, I would at least like to know that I’ve had an—”

Omigod. Shut. Up. Meredith.

Gage went completely still except for the rhythmic clenching and unclenching of his jaw. Her breath caught as he took a step closer. She could see every line on his perfect face. Her heart thumped painfully inside her chest as she tilted her head back to meet his gaze. Then she attempted swallowing while taking in all of Gage’s appeal. His blue eyes were framed with short, thick inky black lashes, the kind any woman would kill to have. And the strong lines of his face, the square jaw…the lips. Gage’s lips were somewhere between hard and deliciously sensual.

BOOK: Rescued by the Rancher
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