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Authors: Vicki Lewis Thompson

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Riding Hard

BOOK: Riding Hard
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Sometimes a cowboy needs a second chance…

Some mistakes can’t be undone. After making the absolute worst decision of his life, horse veterinarian Drake Brewster will do whatever it takes to make amends with his best friend. And it starts with a summer at the Last Chance Ranch. But not everyone is thrilled about it…especially bartender and psych student Tracy Gibbons.

Tracy sees the world in shades of right and wrong—and what Drake did was Very Definitely Wrong. Worse yet, her promise to babysit a horse sanctuary means relying on Drake. And that’s where Tracy finds herself in a serious dilemma. He’s the one person she can’t trust, but she wants Drake something fierce…and the feeling is fiercely mutual! But if she climbs into the saddle, will she be ready for the ride?

What could be hotter than a cowboy in
June?
How about a cowboy in July, August
and under the
mistletoe, too!

New York Times
bestselling author
Vicki Lewis Thompson is back in the
Harlequin Blaze lineup for 2014,

and this year she’s offering her readers
even more
….

Sons of Chance

Chance isn’t just the last name of these
rugged Wyoming cowboys
—it’s their motto,
too!

Saddle up with

#799 RIDING HIGH

(June)

#803 RIDING HARD

(July)

#807 RIDING HOME

(August)

And the sexy conclusion to the
Sons of Chance Christmas
series

#823 A LAST CHANCE CHRISTMAS

(December)

Take a chance…on a Chance!

Dear Reader,

When the editors and I first settled on this title, I wasn’t sure that it fit the story. I’ve changed my mind. Drake Brewster might be my most troubled hero so far. He’s loaded down with guilt, and he’s very hard on himself.

Ah, but he’s a charmer, with his Rhett Butler accent and his bad-boy appeal. Those very charms are what got him into hot water, and now he’s working to regain the trust of his best friend, Regan. While doing that, he meets Tracy Gibbons, bartender and temporary house sitter for Regan and Regan’s fiancée. Tracy is not a Drake Brewster fan.

I’ll admit right up front that the folks at the Last Chance Ranch are not enamored of the guy, either. He wronged one of their own, and they’re not inclined to be friendly under those circumstances. But you have to hand it to Drake. He sticks it out because that’s the only way he’ll be able to respect himself as a man.

Welcome to midsummer in Wyoming! The weather is gorgeous, and so is Drake Brewster. Tracy thinks she can resist him, but let me tell you, I couldn’t. Come along on another Sons of Chance adventure and see if
you
can resist this Southern scoundrel! Betcha can’t!

Scandalously yours,

Vicki

RIDING HARD

Vicki Lewis Thompson

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

New York Times
bestselling
author Vicki Lewis Thompson’s love affair with cowboys started with the Lone
Ranger, continued through Maverick and took a turn south of the border with
Zorro. She views cowboys as the Western version of knights in shining
armor—rugged men who value honor, honesty and hard work. Fortunately for her,
she lives in the Arizona desert, where broad-shouldered, lean-hipped cowboys
abound. Blessed with such an abundance of inspiration, she only hopes that she
can do them justice. Visit her website,
www.vickilewisthompson.com
.

Books by Vicki Lewis Thompson

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

544—WANTED!+
550—AMBUSHED!+
556—CLAIMED!+
618—SHOULD’VE BEEN A
COWBOY+
624—COWBOY UP+
630—COWBOYS LIKE US+
651—MERRY CHRISTMAS,
BABY+
         “It’s Christmas, Cowboy!”
687—LONG ROAD HOME+
693—LEAD ME
HOME+
699—FEELS LIKE HOME+
751—I CROSS MY HEART+
755—WILD AT
HEART+
759—THE HEART WON’T LIE+
775—COWBOYS &
ANGELS+
799—RIDING HIGH+

+Sons of Chance

To everyone who has ever made a mistake and wronged a friend. It’s tough to go through life and not do that at least once, so I figure this dedication applies to all of us. Let’s forgive ourselves and each other for being human. Oh, and to my dad, from whom I took Psych 101. It was an eye-opener.

Prologue

July 20, 1990

A
RCHIE
C
HANCE
WISHED
he could be anywhere but here, sitting on a barstool at the Spirits and Spurs. Or, if he had to be here, he wished he hadn’t invited his son Jonathan to have a beer with him while the women went shopping at the Shoshone General Store.

The bar was mostly empty, which allowed Archie to hear two strangers at a table about ten feet behind them. Jonathan’s tight expression indicated that he could hear it, too. One of the men was reminiscing about a one-night stand he’d enjoyed in Shoshone many years ago with a woman named Diana, a woman who sounded a hell of a lot like Jonathan’s ex-wife.

Archie pushed away his half-empty beer glass. “Let’s shove off.”

Jonathan shook his head. “Not yet.”

“Look, does it really matter what—”

“Yes.”

Archie understood. In Jonathan’s shoes, he would have wanted to know, too. Diana had abandoned Jonathan and their young son, Jack, ten years ago and had severed all ties with the family. Archie wouldn’t be surprised if she’d also had affairs during their unhappy marriage.

Archie had heard enough. Way too much, in fact. The woman named Diana had mentioned being married to a surly cowboy whose family owned a big spread outside of town.

Archie sipped his beer and stared straight ahead, because he didn’t know what else to do. After what seemed like years, the two men left.

When Jonathan finally spoke, his voice was husky. “I was, you know.”

Archie turned, not sure what his son was admitting to. “You were what?”

“Surly.”

“Well, you had good reason to be, damn it. She was a difficult woman. Probably still is.” Archie wasn’t supposed to overreact to things and get his blood pressure up, but he couldn’t help it.

“She was unhappy. I had no patience with her.”

“Because you didn’t love her.”
None of us did.

“I...” Jonathan picked up his glass, then put it back down. “No, I didn’t love her. I realize that now, because of Sarah. I’m still not very patient, but when she reminds me of that, I don’t get mad. I try harder. I’m lucky to have her, and I don’t want to mess up a good thing.”

Archie’s eyes grew moist. He’d developed an embarrassing tendency to get choked up over his family lately. Nelsie assured him that grandpas were allowed, but he thought it was unmanly. He cleared his throat. “You’re lucky to have each other.”

Jonathan glanced at him. “Just like you and Mom. I always wanted what you two have, and now, I have it.”

“Yep.” Aw, hell, now he was tearing up again thinking about Nelsie, the love of his life. He took a long swallow of his beer and hoped his son didn’t think he was turning into a sentimental old fool. Once he had himself under control, he looked over at Jonathan. “Hey, how about another beer? We can toast the ladies.”

That boy’s smile always could light up a room. “Great idea, Dad.”

In nothing flat, Archie went from wanting to get the hell out of the bar to wanting to stay forever. Funny how a situation that started out as a disaster could end up turning into something pretty damned wonderful, after all.

1

Present Day

D
RAKE
B
REWSTER
WAS
used to women liking him, but Tracy Gibbons, the beautiful bartender at Spirits and Spurs, clearly didn’t. Oh, she was polite enough when she served him a beer, but her smile was mostly fake, as if she was forcing herself because he was a customer. He even knew why she didn’t like him, but that didn’t help much. When he thought about her reasons, he had to agree they were legitimate.

In point of fact, he wasn’t particularly popular with anyone in Shoshone, Wyoming. He was the guy who’d had sex with his best friend’s fiancée six months ago. On Christmas Eve. Apparently word had gotten out, and now everyone avoided him like a skunk at a Fourth of July picnic.

That very same best friend, Regan O’Connelli, happened to be quite
popular in this neighborhood. Well connected, too. After severing his business relationship with Drake back in Virginia, as well he should have, he’d gone into partnership with Shoshone veterinarian Nick Chance. It had been a logical move since one of Regan’s sisters had married Nick’s brother Gabe, and another had married Nick’s brother-in-law Alex. Getting hooked into the Chance family opened all kinds of doors around here, apparently.

Getting crossways with the Chances, though, slammed those doors shut in a man’s face. Regan, who swore he’d forgiven Drake for the fiasco with Jeannette on that fateful Christmas Eve, said Drake should give people time. They’d come around.

Three weeks into his stay, Drake wasn’t so sure. The deep freeze was still on, except for Regan and his new fiancée, Lily King. Drake gave Lily much of the credit for Regan’s willingness to forgive and forget. She was a softhearted woman.

In fact, her soft heart had nearly been her downfall when she’d bought Peaceful Kingdom, a horse-rescue operation outside of town, and had accepted every unwanted animal dumped at her feet. Besides the horses, she’d taken in two potbellied pigs and several chickens. Regan had saved her from herself, and in the process, they’d fallen in love. She encouraged Drake to visit as often as he could, but he didn’t want to wear out his welcome. Couples in love needed alone time.

That should have fit right in with his plans. Before leaving Virginia, he’d put his vet practice in the hands of a colleague and hadn’t specified when he’d be back. Then he’d rented an isolated cabin just outside the boundary of the Last Chance Ranch so that he could make amends with Regan and take a few weeks to reevaluate his life.

He’d imagined long solo hikes and intense periods of soul-searching would help him figure out how he’d veered so off track that he’d gone to bed with his best friend’s girl. His life couldn’t be working if he could do something that disloyal, and he’d hoped for some insights.

Surprisingly, his jealousy of Regan’s self-confidence had been one of his issues. Realizing he’d set out to sabotage his friend’s sense of self-worth was an ugly truth he’d had trouble facing. But he had faced it, and consequently he and Regan were okay.

His period of self-examination had yielded another nugget of wisdom. He wasn’t into long solo hikes and intense periods of soul-searching. He was a sociable type, a Southerner who loved to talk, and he craved the company of others. But except for Regan and Lily, nobody within a thirty-mile radius craved
his
company, and that sucked.

Yet here he was, anyway, sitting on a barstool at the Spirits and Spurs during happy hour trying not to look as lonely as he felt. A few people had said hello, but then they’d gone back to talking to whomever they’d come with. Nobody seemed interested in a prolonged encounter with the guy who’d wronged Regan O’Connelli.

Tracy made a circuit of the bar area, her dark hair shining, her red lipstick glossy and inviting. She glanced at his nearly empty glass. “Another round?”

Drake considered giving up and going back to the cabin but couldn’t make himself do it. “Sure. Thanks.”

“Coming up.” That fake smile flashed again.

He watched her walk away. She had the perfect figure for jeans, and he’d noticed other guys checking out her ass. But someone with his hound-dog reputation couldn’t be caught doing it, so instead he studied her hair. It was up in some arrangement that kept it out of the way, but he pictured how it would look loose. It might reach halfway down her back, at least, and sway as she moved. Nice.

He didn’t want her to see him staring like some wet-behind-the-ears doofus, so he grabbed the menu out of its holder. Then he proceeded to scan the offerings as if fascinated by what he’d found, although he knew them by heart.

“Here you go.”

He glanced up, as if he hadn’t noticed her coming toward him. “Thank you, ma’am.” The beer foam was perfectly symmetrical. He raised the glass and admired it. “Very pretty.” He meant the compliment for her, but he could always claim he’d been talking about the head on his beer.

“Thanks.” She didn’t quite roll her eyes, but she looked as if she wanted to. She gestured toward the menu. “Would you like something to eat?”

He wasn’t hungry, but picking up a menu was a classic signal and there wasn’t much in the refrigerator at the cabin. “I would, indeed. What do you recommend?”

She paused, confusion shadowing her brown eyes. “Don’t you want your usual burger and fries?”

“I find myself wantin’ something different.” That she’d noticed his ordering pattern meant nothing, of course. Any good server would do that. But it pleased him, anyway.

“Well, then...you might try the barbecued-pork sandwich. Lots of people like that.”

“Do you like it?”

She hesitated, as if not wanting to give him personal information. “I’m partial to the burgers here,” she said at last.

“So am I. I’ll stick with my usual, after all.”

“Okay. I’ll put in the order.” She started to turn away.

“Tracy?”

When she looked back at him, her expression was guarded. “What?”

He tried to remember if he’d ever used her name, although he’d known it for days. Maybe not. Southerners tended to use
ma’am
most of the time. He took a deep breath, finally ready to tackle this situation head-on. “I’ve been coming in here quite a bit lately.”

“Yes, you have.” She didn’t seem particularly happy about it, either.

“And you’re always polite to me.”

“I certainly hope so. If I’m not nice to the customers, I would probably get fired.”

“I appreciate that, but I’ll bet there are some customers you look forward to serving and some you don’t.”

Her gaze became shuttered. “I’m grateful for any and all customers who come through the door. Without customers, Spirits and Spurs wouldn’t be in business.”

“Nice speech. I admire your dedication. But the fact remains that you don’t like me.”

She opened her mouth as if to reply. Then she closed it again.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to complain to anyone about it.” He sighed. “Hell, you’re in the majority around here when it comes to holdin’ a bad opinion of me. But nobody will say it to my face. They’re unfailingly polite and then they act like I have a contagious disease.”

“I’m Regan’s friend.” Her gaze turned very cold. “I’m also friends with his sisters. If you think my attitude is chilly, you should try having a conversation with Morgan, Tyler or Cassidy.”

“Yeah, I figured that wouldn’t work out, so I haven’t tried.”

“I know everything’s supposed to be hunky-dory between you and Regan. Lily told me all is well, but she’s the kind of person who would make excuses for a serial killer.”

“A serial killer? Isn’t that a bit harsh?”

“I know you haven’t actually killed anyone, but you betrayed your
best friend.
” Anger kindled in her brown eyes. “If you ask me, Regan’s letting you off
way
too easy.” Then she blushed and glanced away. “Sorry. I get a little worked up when I talk about this. It’s really none of my business.”

He thought she was mighty pretty when she was worked up, but he wisely didn’t say so. “I get the impression that it’s everybody’s business around here.”

She didn’t deny it, probably because she couldn’t. When she looked at him again, her gaze was disconcertingly direct. “Why stay, then? You patched things up with Regan, so why not go back to Virginia where...where you’re from.”

Where you belong.
Although she didn’t say the words, they hung in the air. Except he didn’t belong in Virginia anymore. He couldn’t explain why, but the thought of returning to his old life made him shudder. Whoever he’d been back there wasn’t the man he wanted to be here and now. The location might have nothing to do with it, but he wasn’t going to take the chance that he’d fall into his old patterns.

He shrugged. “I must be a glutton for punishment.”

Something shifted in her expression. It became more open, and unless he was mistaken, she seemed genuinely interested in him for the first time ever. “I see.”

“What do you see?”

“That you’re doing some kind of penance.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way.” The assessment made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t a masochist or a martyr.

“You just called yourself a glutton for punishment.”

“That’s an expression, something folks say. It doesn’t mean that I—”

“Hey, Drake!”

Intensely grateful for the interruption, he swiveled to face Regan, who came toward him looking like the seasoned cowboy he’d become, complete with boots, worn jeans and a ten-gallon hat. Drake had bought some boots and a couple of pairs of jeans that still looked new. He was holding off buying a hat. He couldn’t say why.

He held out a hand to Regan. “Hey, buddy! What’s up?”

“Not much.” Regan shook hands, but the dark eyes he’d inherited from his Italian mother moved quickly from Drake to Tracy. “Am I interrupting?”

“Nope!” Tracy waved her order pad. “I have to put in Drake’s food order and check on my other customers. Can I bring you something?”

“I’ll take a draft when you have a minute. I actually came in to see you, but I wanted to ask Drake a favor, too, so this is perfect.”

“All righty, then. I’ll be back.” She hurried toward the kitchen.

Regan slid onto a barstool on Drake’s right. “
Did
I interrupt something? You both looked mighty serious.”

“Not really. I made a dumb remark and she picked up on it.”

“What’d you say?”

“She wondered why I’m stayin’ here when nobody likes me, and I—”

“Hang on.” Regan shoved back the brim of his Stetson. “She actually said that nobody likes you? That doesn’t sound like Tracy.”

“Actually I’m the one who said that, but she didn’t disagree with me. You have to admit I’m not the toast of Shoshone, Wyoming.”

“Maybe not yet.”

“Maybe not ever. You have loyal friends who don’t forgive easily. I understand that. Tracy asked a logical question, and I gave her a flip answer.”

“Like what?”

“I said maybe I was a glutton for punishment.”

“Oh, boy.” Regan chuckled. “I’ll bet that got her attention.”

“It did, but why are you so sure it would?”

“She’s studying to be a psychologist, but don’t mention that I told you.”

“Why? What’s the big secret?”

“It’s not actually a secret. As you’ve discovered, gossip is a favorite pastime in this little town.”

Drake pretended to be shocked. “Really?”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, people kind of know because she keeps her books behind the bar and studies when it’s not busy in here. But she’s not ready to announce it to the world. I think she’s worried that she doesn’t have the intellectual chops to pull it off.”

“You’re kidding.” Drake thought of her efficiency and the intelligence shining in those brown eyes. “She’s smart as a whip. Anyone can see that.”

“Yeah, but nobody in her family has ever set foot on a college campus. She’s only taken online classes so far, and she probably doesn’t want to make a big deal out of this and then fail.”

“She won’t fail.”

Regan smiled. “Spoken like a man who always knew he’d end up with a degree and a profession. She doesn’t have that kind of background, and she has doubts.”

“Well, she shouldn’t, but I see your point.” He paused. “Wait, are you saying she was trying to psychoanalyze me? That’s all I need.”

“At least it would be free.”

Drake skewered his friend with a look and discovered Regan was working hard not to laugh. “It’s not funny, damn it. I might need a shrink, but I sure as hell don’t need a shrink in training. I’m messed up enough without accidentally gettin’ the wrong advice.”

“I wouldn’t discount Tracy’s insights. She’s spent a lot of hours behind this bar, and she has a knack for reading people. She can’t officially hang out a shingle until she graduates and gets licensed, but she has excellent instincts.”

“Mmm.” Drake didn’t like this discussion any more than the one he’d been having with Tracy. He took another swig of beer.

“Look, you told me you wanted to get your head on straight while you’re here. You could do worse than talk things over with Tracy.”

“I beg to differ.” Drake sighed. “Besides, aren’t psychologists supposed to be nonjudgmental?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Then Tracy didn’t get the memo. She believes what I did was heinous and she’s not cuttin’ me any slack. I hardly think she’s the person to help me.”

“Okay, maybe not. I’m not sure why, but I know infidelity is a hot button for her.”

Drake winced as he always did when that word came up. He’d willingly participated in an act of infidelity. Even though liquor had been involved, which created some sort of lame excuse, the sharpness of what he’d done couldn’t be filed down, and it still cut deep.

“So I guess it’s not such a good idea,” Regan said. “Forget I mentioned it.”

“I surely will. Besides, there’s another factor that makes the idea a nonstarter.”

“What?”

“I think she’s hot.”

“Oh.” Regan’s glance slid past Drake and focused on a spot over his shoulder. “Here she comes. I’d advise you to keep that information to yourself.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not about to make myself vulnerable to a woman who thinks I’m pond scum.”

BOOK: Riding Hard
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