Authors: Delilah Devlin
Tags: #General Fiction
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
For Sasha, who is her own “White” knight
Special thanks to the ladies who attended the charity bachelor’s auction with me in Hot Springs, Arkansas! You know who you are, but I won’t “out” you here…Cyndi, Shayla, EC!
Thanks to my critique partners and dear friends for putting the polish on this “plum”: Shada Royce, Shayla Kersten, and Kaye Chambers
hen the deejay’s speaker set crashed to the floor as the first women to arrive rushed the tables nearest the stage, Tara Toomey scrambled for a replacement and chalked the mishap up to high spirits.
When one of the volunteers carrying a tray of Jell-O shots tripped, and cherry and lime gelatin slid in glistening trails down his face and naked chest, she laughed as eager women offered to lick him clean.
However, it wasn’t until one of her staff whispered in her ear that she knew she was in for a long night. The main attraction had yet to arrive.
She crushed her dog-eared copy of the “Hook-Up” program in her fist and headed toward the old-fashioned, double swinging doors, ready to stomp all the way to Redbone Ranch to drag his butt to town.
As she passed excited, tittering women, her smile felt strained, and her nerves stretched taut. The “Annual Honkytonk Hook-Up” had always been a good time, but this year she wished she hadn’t been so quick to volunteer her bar again. Sure, it was good for business, and many of the “blow-ins” from Houston, San Antonio, and San Angelo returned throughout the year because they enjoyed the event and Honkytonk’s authentic Western ambience.
But Tara wished she could return home, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over her head. The last thing she felt ready to do was watch one particular cowboy strut his stuff across the stage and land in some other woman’s clutches—even if it was just one night, completely innocent—
—and for a really good cause. The fact he might blow off the auction pissed her off almost as much as the thought of the spectacle he’d cause if he did finally make an entrance.
If anyone thought splintered speaker casings or a little spilled Jell-O were trouble, they hadn’t seen a roomful of women erupt in the wake of one seriously sexy cowboy.
The thought soured her stomach. Still, she had a part to play in tonight’s festivities. Everyone seemed to think it was her job to make sure that cowboy showed up because she was one of the few true friends he had. And after all, his picture in the auction advertisement had been the big pull.
Too many gussied-up women crowded the entrance to the bar, and the line wrapped twice around the narrow foyer. Not that anyone complained about the wait as bare-chested men wearing tight jeans, cowboy hats, and wicked smiles carried more trays laden with drinks down the long line.
Rather than wade through the cloud of perfume when all her “polite” was gone, Tara swept past the sign-in tables where volunteers busily took the women’s cash and handed out programs, shiny Mardi Gras beads, and wooden bidding paddles.
The combined scent of expensive perfumes made Tara’s nose twitch, so she pivoted on her heel and stomped toward the side entrance, reminded again about the cause of her agitation.
Perfume was like doe piss to this horned buck—
So where the hell was he?
“He’s late!” a high-pitched voice squeaked behind her.
Tara didn’t even bother trying to pretend she didn’t know who “he” was, or that she didn’t know he hadn’t shown. Any woman with an ounce of estrogen in her veins would feel the tingle the moment the cowboy sauntered into the room.
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” Tara muttered, pausing at the door to shoot a glance over her shoulder.
Meaghan Garrity, the event’s “man wrangler,” trotted toward her, her anxious gaze rising over the top of the clipboard she clutched to her chest. Spots of hectic color glazed each pale cheek. Her long red hair escaped the untidy knot at the top of her head in long, curling tendrils. “Didn’t you tell him he was second on the program? We can’t start until he gets here.”
“He’ll be here,” Tara bit out and then forced a smile. No use getting Meaghan more nervous than she already was. He wouldn’t stand them all up, would he?
Even as she said it, her stomach churned. There was only one thing that would keep the cowboy from his adoring fans—an easier fish to land—one he didn’t even have to bother moving his adorable tail to find.
Tara wondered what her name was, and the image of a beauty with her head snatched bald flashed through her mind. But she pasted on a smile to reassure her friend, while inside her anger began a slow, hot boil.
Leave it to Cody Westhofen to keep three hundred intoxicated women waitin’ on his sweet ass. Does the man think his sex appeal will forgive all sins?
Tara carefully ignored the little voice inside her that screamed an emphatic “Yes!” Instead she murmured, “Think that man would miss a chance at addin’ a hundred more numbers to his little black book?” Although she began the statement as a joke, anger scraped a sharper edge toward the end.
Tara caught herself before she began a rant, afraid Meaghan, whom she’d known since kindergarten, would wonder why one slow-as-molasses cowboy could get under her skin. After all, Tara was known for her ready smile and even temper, but especially her cowboy-proof armor.
She shoved her crumpled program into Meaghan’s hand. “Um…I’ll check outside and see what’s keepin’ him.”
“Or who! Better check backseats!” Meaghan whispered loudly. “That man can’t take a step without trippin’ over a droolin’ woman.”
With a wry twist of her lips, Tara pushed open the glass door to step out into the parking lot.
Outside, stars twinkled above the spotlight that illuminated the gravel lot overflowing with cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks. More vehicles lined the road leading to the bar for as far as she could see. Luckily the southerly wind that had whipped up the stink from the stockyards earlier had changed course. Although a little humid, the air was sweet and cool.
Muffled music and laughter sounded from the building behind her, but for a moment, a peaceful calm surrounded her. Tara closed her eyes and dragged in a deep breath, sure this would be the last time she’d get a chance to relax tonight.
Gravel crunched behind her, and her eyes shot open. Thick, corded arms encircled her waist, a cowboy hat held in one hand. The crisp scent of spicy cologne tickled her nose. “Hey, darlin’, afraid I wouldn’t show?”
Even if he hadn’t spoken first, she’d have known it was him. That telltale tingle raised goose bumps all over her body. Tara stiffened, and her eyes slid open, but she didn’t push the arms away. The snug pressure provided a moment’s reassurance, however empty the promise.
She slid her hands over the tops of his and squeezed. “Cuttin’ it a little close, aren’t ya, cowboy?” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. “The natives are gettin’ restless.”
“Been waitin’ on you, sweetheart. Thought I’d let you get mad enough to wrestle me inside. You know how much I love to get you riled.” Cody’s arms withdrew, but before she had a chance to light into him good for being late, his hands gripped her hips and twirled her around.
And although she knew peeking up into his face would spell the end of her self-possession, her gaze rose to lock with his for a long, charged moment.
Even in the shadows, shards of pale electric blue pierced the night. Whoever didn’t think there was a God had never looked into Cody’s bluer-than-blue eyes. Their gazes had never lingered over the width of his shoulders, the masculine curve of his jaw, the strong jut of his square chin and straight nose.
With a body made for loving and hair so pale and silky it captured light like a halo around his head, a woman could be fooled into thinking he just might be an angel incarnate.
Until they saw the wicked curl of his lips—a smile so seductive, so sensually ripe, it triggered a primal response an octogenarian nun couldn’t deny.
Trapped against his naked chest, Tara dug deep for any frayed fragments of pride she still possessed and scowled. “What do you think you’re doin’? Anyone could look outside and see us.”
“What do you care?”
“I’m not your girlfriend,” Tara growled. “And I don’t want to be mistaken for one of your good-time squeezes. I’d just as soon keep it on the down low that I’ve succumbed a time or two to your charms.”
Cody’s brows drew together, deepening the shadows engulfing his eyes, making his appearance seem a tad sinister. “Ashamed of me?” he asked softly. “Or are you ashamed you want me?”
Tara shivered—whether from the cooling tension in his voice or her own tightly wound anger, she couldn’t have said.
Her last speck of self-respect kept her frowning, denying his overpowering attraction. “No, I’m not ashamed of you, and I’m woman enough not to be ashamed all my parts seem to function just fine when you’re around, but I do have a reputation to uphold. If anyone found out I’ve been sleeping with the biggest womanizer in Texas, it would be ripped to shreds.”
“Sure sounds like shame to me.”
The easy, sexy slide of his voice told her she’d amused him. Cody always said he knew when she was lying because she talked too much without saying anything at all.
She took another deep breath to calm her racing heart. “I just don’t want everyone knowin’ my business. And because there isn’t really anything for them to know—I mean, it’s not like we’re a couple, right?—I’d just as soon not ask for trouble.”
“What kinda trouble you expectin’?”
Tara rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding, right? Trouble follows you everywhere you go! That wasn’t you Brandon Tynan took a couple of swings at for gettin’ fresh with Lyss? Sarah Michelson didn’t almost get arrested for indecent exposure when she cornered you in the bathroom?”
“No man’s gonna punch me out for messin’ with you. They’d probably pin a medal on my chest for havin’ the guts. And I didn’t ask Sarah to follow me inside the bathroom.”
“No, you didn’t, but she did. And she wasn’t the first to throw herself at you. Do you think I’d have a business left if half my customers,
the female half
, decided to boycott me?”
Cody snorted. Then his lips stretched again into a smile. “You’re not makin’ any sense at all. Tonight got you rattled, sugar?” His hands slid up and down her back in an attempt to soothe her.
Her irritation spiked like oil breaching a wellhead. “Cody, we don’t have time for you to play with me. Besides, would you want any of those women you’re trolling for tonight to think you’re already taken? They don’t know you like the rest of Honkytonk does. They might think you actually do have a loyal bone in your body.”
Cody’s lips tightened for a second and then relaxed, slowly sliding into his trademark smirk. “Gimme a kiss for good luck?”
“Do you promise you’ll get your butt inside if I do?”
“Lady, don’t you know all you have to do is ask? Your pleasure’s all mine.”
She stifled the sigh sifting between her lips. If only that were true. “Well, I’m askin’.”
“For a kiss?”
She wrinkled her nose at him and forced a lighthearted laugh. “You’re impossible.”
His grin stretched. “And you’re beautiful.”
His head bent toward hers, and Tara forced herself to turn her head to the side. “This isn’t part of our agreement,” she whispered.
“It’s just a goddamn kiss,” he growled.
“Any time you want to change the rules…”
His hands tightened on her waist. “Maybe those rules should be up for renegotiation. All I want’s a kiss. Not anything I’m not gonna give a dozen women tonight.”
“You’re wasting time.”
“You wanna explain what kept me in the parking lot?”
Tara tightened her lips and turned her head toward him. “Be quick.”
“Stubborn woman,” he said softly as he bent toward her.
A smile tugged at her lips as he bent over her again. No way was he gonna let a woman have the last word.
All her arguments bled away as he closed in. She pushed aside her concern that anyone might see. She’d waited all night for this kiss. Not that she’d let him know it. And, lordy, he didn’t disappoint. Never did.
Never mind his mouth would be kissing dozens of lips before the night ended. For this moment, he was all hers.
His firm mouth captured hers and began a sexy, circling glide that sent an electric jolt of awareness straight through her. Her pulse began a delicious throb, her nipples beaded, and moist little tugs of arousal stirred between her legs.
She gasped against his mouth, and his tongue swept inside to ravish. A low, throaty growl rumbled from his chest into her mouth, and he jerked back his head. “Damn. Do we really have to go inside now?”
“It’s that or risk having three hundred women descending upon us midstroke in the parking lot.”
He settled his forehead against hers. “I love when you talk dirty. You should do it more often.”
“It’s a sad fact it doesn’t take more than ‘hello’ for you to get horny. Better get inside. Meaghan’s gonna have a coronary. And you forgot your shirt.”
“No, I didn’t. Just didn’t want it disappearing like the rest of my clothes did last year.”
“Women takin’ souvenirs?”
His grin stretched wide. “Will you fight them off if they manage to get my pants this year?”
Her glance fell to the blue jeans lovingly curved over the bulge at the front of his pants and the leather chaps that encased both his thick, muscled thighs. “Why on Earth would you think I’d care?”
His eyes narrowed, falling to her mouth.
She fought to keep her lips from thinning, or Cody would know she was lying. Another little “tell” she’d never known she gave away—until he’d mentioned it.
His chest expanded around a deep sigh. “You sure know how to sink a dent in a man’s ego.”
“Someone has to give it a prick every now and then, or you’d be a complete jerk.”
“Why do you put up with me if I’m such a pain?”
Tara felt her face and chest warm. “I live in hope of seeing you hog-tied to one woman some day and lovin’ it.”
His snort jerked back his head. “Better plan on livin’ a long, long time, sweetheart.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “You had your kiss….”
His hands dropped from her hips. “Guess Meaghan’s havin’ kittens right about now.”
I’m havin’ goddamn orange tabbies and alley cats!” Meaghan shouted from the side door. “Get your butt inside before they start a riot!”
Cody set his cowboy hat on his head, strolled to the door, and gave Meaghan a once-over that had the happily married lady fanning her face with her clipboard.