Authors: Molly O'Keefe
“Right behind you.”
The porch was a wide patio filled with more sporting equipment. Jeremiah sat down at the table and she sat next to him. The air was cool and found her skin under the thin jersey, but sitting close to Jeremiah was like sitting next to sun-warmed rock.
“So, Lucy Alatore, what brings you back to the Rocky M?”
“A girl can’t long for the scent of cattle poop in the morning?”
“Not girls like you.”
She felt him eyeing her feathered earrings, the bangles on her arms, her leggings and high-heeled boots. Around here she was exotic. Freaky almost. Not that it bothered her.
“That is true, Jeremiah. That is true.”
“How long are you staying?”
She shrugged. “We’re not in any rush.” No rush at all to get back to the mess she’d made.
“Mom and me. She moved to Los Angeles with me when I went.”
“Your sister says your jewelry business is doing great. You’re the toast of SoCal.” Jeremiah smiled at her.
My sister has no idea what she’s talking about,
she thought, but what Lucy said to Jeremiah was, “She’s proud,” and left it at that.
“I bought a girlfriend one of your necklaces,” he said, and she nearly spat out her beer.
“Those pretty little horseshoe ones? I liked ’em.”
Those pretty little horseshoe necklaces had been her Waterloo. Her Achilles’ heel. The snake hidden in tall grass. “Well, I should have gotten you to endorse me.”
“You didn’t need me. Those necklaces were all over Hollywood.”
There was no way she was going to ruin this moonlight by talking about those necklaces. She looked at him sideways and changed the subject. “I have a hard time imagining you in Hollywood.”
“That’s where the pretty girls are.” He waggled his eyebrows but then stared at his boots. “I was only there for a while. The relationship didn’t last much past that necklace I gave her.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“No, I really liked your necklace—”
She laughed. “Los Angeles.”
“Good God, no.” He shuddered. “Not my scene at all.”
“That city must have loved you, though.” With that hair and those eyes, the way he moved, part cowboy, part cat, but all man. Casting agents must have fallen over themselves to get to him. To say nothing of the women.
“What about you?” he asked.
“That city does not love me.” If there was one thing she could be sure of it was that Los Angeles barely knew she’d been there, which was such a bitter disappointment when she’d gone intending to light the streets on fire. And she’d been close. So damn close.
She spun the bottle between her hands. Her chest ached as if there was someone standing on her rib cage.
I guess that’s what failure feels like.
“Hey.” His shoulder nudged hers, his heat a wave through her body that shook her out of her musings. “This is the closest I’ve been to a date in months so please don’t cry. If you do, I’ll probably start, and I’ve sworn off crying on dates.”
Charmed, despite her crap mood, she smiled at him. “Does that get you laid?” she asked. “Crying on dates?”
“No, actually. It’s a very effective birth control.”
He was watching her, a strange smile on his face. It was as if he’d turned around and found a treasure sitting on this porch next to him and for a long moment she got lost in the blue of his eyes.
I’m going to kiss him,
she thought, delighted by the idea. Drunk on the notion. Before leaving his house tonight, she was going to taste this man.
She was a serial monogamist—hadn’t had a one-night stand in fifteen years. For her, it was one long-term relationship after the other. She didn’t just date, she contemplated marriage over dessert. But she did like to kiss.
Her life hadn’t been very easy the past few months. Stress and worry and regret and fear had worn her down to the bone and she’d grown so used to the sensation that sitting here, contemplating kissing a gorgeous cowboy in the moonlight, seemed like the sweetest relief.
He lifted a finger and brushed back a long strand of dark hair that had fallen over her eye.
Her skin sizzled at his touch and the rest of her body cried out in jealousy.
“You remind me of Hollywood,” he murmured.
“What do you mean?” she whispered, so lost in his eyes that if she was being insulted, she didn’t care.
“Beautiful and sad, all at the same time.”
She cleared her throat and looked away. It was one thing to kiss a handsome cowboy in the moonlight. It was another thing to have him see her so clearly.
“So how did you end up with a drunk cowboy on your couch?” She rolled the bottle between her hands, liking the click of the glass against her rings. The sound was loud and chased away her thoughts of kissing handsome cowboys.
“Reese? He showed up yesterday. He won big down at the rodeo in Fort Worth and was looking for some help spending the purse.”
“And the guy in charge of three young boys was the logical choice.”
His smile was thin and drawn. “He didn’t know. Nobody really knows. I just faded away after my accident.”
“I saw that footage!”
“It was awful. You were like a rag doll.”
“I know.” He laughed. “I was there.” His lightheartedness amazed her; she could only gape at him.
“How can you laugh? Didn’t you think you were going to die?”
“I did. But somehow I didn’t.” He finished his beer and set it down beside him. “But that’s part of the job. A rare part of the job, but there isn’t a rider out there who doesn’t watch that gate get thrown open and know that he might be living his last seconds on earth.”
“That…” His eyes sparkled, his grin widened. Her breath caught at the danger that glittered around this man, the thrill. It was like breathing in sparks. “…is the beauty of rodeo.”
“You miss it.” It wasn’t a question because it was all too obvious the man lived and breathed that kind of excitement.
“You have no idea,” he whispered, staring up at the large moon that hung over the junipers at the edge of the lawn.
Oh, no. She set down her beer bottle and put her hands between her knees. If there was one thing she loved more than a handsome man in the moonlight, it was a sad, handsome man in the moonlight. It was a sickness, she knew that—one more weakness in her already weak character.
She liked to think she could save men. A doomed proposition every single time, but it didn’t stop her from trying.
She stood and turned to face him. He looked up at her, his eyes alight with interest, with a sexual speculation that made her entire body hum and purr. It had been so long since she’d been touched and stroked and she planned on being noble right now, and walking out of this house without having removed her clothes. But not without taking a little something for herself.
“Stand up, cowboy,” she murmured, feeling that same reckless thrill that spelled disaster.
The moonlight danced in his hair and the corner of his smile where it tipped up toward heartbreaking. Toward devilish and risky.
When he stood, his chest brushed her breasts and she gasped slightly at the pleasing pain of her nipples getting so hard so fast. They had barely touched and she was panting.
But so was he and that was about the sexiest thing she’d ever seen.
“What are you going to do with me, Lucy?”
“I’m still deciding.”
“Take your time.”
Her hand found the hard curve of his biceps, the soft cotton of his T-shirt brushing the back of her hand as she reached under it. Her palm embraced the soft skin of his arm.
“I’m going to kiss you.”
Jeremiah had been a gentleman. It was a point of pride in his life. He could afford to go slow, or take his time. Or even refuse if the moment didn’t quite feel right.
And not just women and sex. He could turn down advertising contracts, another cup of coffee, a role in a movie. It didn’t matter. He could be a gentleman because he was never desperate.
But then his brother-in-law died and then his sister died and now he craved, every day, every minute, for just a taste of all the things he turned away in his old life.
There was no abundance in his days right now. Every bone was rubbing up against another bone, his stomach growled, his body hurt, and he went to bed every damn night hungering for what he used to take for granted. And now he had the current superstar, Reese, on his couch reminding him of everything he no longer had.
If this beautiful, sexy woman wanted to kiss him, he wasn’t going to say no. When maybe he should.
There was no maybe about it.
He was too old for one-night stands. And these days with his three nephews inside and the work involved in running this ranch, he had nothing left over. There was no time, no energy, no feeling, to give Lucy except whatever she was going to take.
But there was no way in hell he was going to open his mouth and tell her all of that. Not when she was about to kiss him and he hadn’t been kissed in months.
When he last saw her, Lucy Alatore had been a skinny girl on the edge of womanhood. But the sparkle, the dare, in her eyes was still there—that was what he could not resist.
Her long, elegant arms twined around his neck and the sensation of her soft wrists made him ravenous for more. Ravenous for something sweet and soft and tender, just for him. Something he didn’t have to share or reject or postpone because three boys needed him.
That beer on her breath went right to his head and he waited, patient but burning for the silken graze of her lips over his. When it came, it was like the chute had been thrown open and he was holding on for dear life.
The kiss rocketed up out of control and ran whole hog into the wild in two seconds. She gasped against his mouth as if she was just as surprised.
Trying for gentle, but falling miles short, he pulled her closer, the rough calluses of his fingers catching on the soft material of her fancy shirt.
She opened her mouth under his and pulled him as tight as she could into her body until he was curved over her, holding her against the curl of his body so that not even a breeze could pass between them.
It was wild. Hot. The lush curve of her hips under the tight black leggings she wore was too much a temptation to resist and he slid both palms over her, squeezing as he went, listening to her groan.
Her fingers tugged on his hair, the pain an electric bliss down his back, across his skin, through his blood, waking him up. Bringing him back to life.
The growl, like the lust, the fire, rolled up through his gut, obliterating his brain, and he spun slightly, ready to drag her into the house, ready to do whatever it took to take off her clothes, to find the secrets of her skin.
“Yes,” she groaned, lifting herself into him, the sweetest arch, the sweetest capitulation. He grasped his hands over her hips, taking all her weight and, like every teenage fantasy of what a woman should do, she slipped those long legs around his waist.
Ready to take her into the house, he turned toward the screen door, but immediately tripped over Casey’s scooter and then backed into Ben’s baseball bat—both of which clattered to the ground. The sound was like gunshot in the quiet night.
He tore his lips from Lucy’s and focused his gaze on Casey’s window just above them. He held his breath, waiting for the light to come on, for the five-year-old to come looking for him like he did every night.
But the window stayed dark.
He sighed, resting his head against Lucy’s.
Under the relief that Casey hadn’t woken up, he felt something awful, a black tidal wave of anger. A tsunami of resentment.
A kiss. One goddamned kiss in the moonlight! Couldn’t he just have that? Couldn’t he just have this one thing for himself?
He didn’t ask for any of this—the ranch, the work and the boys who stared at him with their hearts in their eyes.
I don’t want it! I don’t want any of it!
The scream gagged him. His miserliness shamed him. Those boys didn’t ask for him, either. In a heartbeat they’d take their mom and he’d give Annie back to them if only he could.
Lucy pressed her lips to his and he wanted—more than anything in the world right now—to get right where he’d been in that kiss. But the moment was gone.
There were three kids in that house. A drunk cowboy. And three days’ worth of work to get done all before he could go to bed.
That was his life and the truth was he was terrified of what would happen if he forgot that, even for an hour. How much of his resentment and anger would slip through the cracks of the control he’d had to build up over the past year. How many days would it take for him to look those kids in the eyes again? How many nights of staring up at the ceiling and forcing himself not to run away?
The answer was
He kissed her, a tender, reluctant goodbye kiss. And she must have read it in his lips because she unwrapped her legs from around his waist and slipped her arms from his neck.
“Well.” She patted his chest, her fingers so hot through his T-shirt he had to step back to get some distance. Some clarity. She blinked at him, her fingers suspended in the distance between them, and he had to look away. He hoped she wasn’t hurt, but he didn’t look at her to find out and he sure as hell didn’t ask, because he was such a mess. Everything was a mess.
Looking at her was like looking at everything he once had and could no longer have again.
“Thanks, cowboy,” she said.
“No sorry about it.” The teasing, the sauciness, in her voice made him smile, allowed him to look up at her. Allowed him to breathe.
“Thanks,” he said. “For Reese and for…”
“Rocking your world?”
He laughed. “It needed rocking.” Which was a lie. His life had been taken by its heels and shaken until everything he knew and recognized had vanished. He’d been rocked enough and what he needed was to be left alone so he could figure out how to handle it.
“Good night,” she said, and then she walked across his porch.
It was rude. Bad-mannered in the extreme but he did not follow. He did not yank open the sliding glass door for her, even though he knew it stuck. He just stood on that porch and stared up at the moon until he was numb enough to go back inside.
* * *
back to the Rocky M. Opening up Reese’s car over the pass, the engine roared and the world slipped by like a ribbon. The wind blasting through her open window wasn’t enough to cool her fevered skin and her damaged pride, so she hit the controls to roll down every window until it was a cyclone inside the car. Her hair whipped around her head and still her skin burned, her heart ached.
Stupidly, she felt like crying.
she told herself, slowing down to take the first curve down the mountain toward the ranch.
You’ve got enough shit to worry about, without worrying about Jeremiah Stone.
The smart move would be to leave. To pack up her mother and face the mess in Los Angeles.
But the thought made her panic and a cold sweat formed around her hairline. She wasn’t ready. It had only been three weeks since she’d let go of her employees and closed up the shop.
Couldn’t she have some time to grieve? To lick her wounds? To hide?
Such a coward.
The Rocky M ranch slipped in and out of view through the pine trees until she turned left up the long driveway. The brown ranch house sat under a granite overhang. As a kid she’d prayed more than once that the mountain would fall down on that house. It baffled her that Mia could call this place home.
Mia and Lucy had grown up on here as the children of ranch employees. The McKibbons, Walter and his wife, owned the land while her father, A.J.
, had been the foreman and Lucy’s mom, Sandra, the housekeeper and cook. Mia and Lucy’s childhood hadn’t been unhappy, but it had never been secure. Not a moment had passed that they’d been unaware of their status. Every tie they had to this home and this land could be severed. And almost had been.
That this was where Lucy chose to lick her wounds was even more strange. But beggars couldn’t be choosy. Broke didn’t even begin to describe her financial state.
She parked beside her sister’s old pickup truck, rolled up the windows and turned off the engine. The quiet echoed and boomed like a heartbeat. Like the house was alive and waiting for her.
Exhausted by the roller coaster of the night, she finally pulled herself out of the car and into the house through the side door. It was midnight and the house was silent.
Mia and Jack were living a mile up the road, using the house Mia and Lucy grew up in—the little two-story that their mother, Sandra, had cared for so passionately—until their new house up in the high pastures was finished. Walter, Jack’s father, still occupied the ranch house. And for the past three weeks, Lucy and Sandra had been staying in the rear guest rooms of the house; they smelled like mothballs and had beds like hammocks.
She unzipped her boots in the mudroom, stepped back and looked at her gray high-heeled Prada knockoffs next to the filthy work boots. She saw it as the perfect example of how she didn’t belong here. Had never belonged here.
Just a little bit longer,
Just until I formulate a plan. Get my feet under me.
Through the dark she walked right to her mother’s bedroom and knocked softly on the door.
“Mom?” she called, and she heard the bed creak.
“Come in, Lucy,” her mother said, and Lucy walked into the small bedroom. Mom pushed herself up in bed, her black hair a cloud around her shoulders. The white of her nightgown glowed in the dark. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
Knowing she needed no special permission, she crawled into her mother’s bed, the warmth under the covers immediately banishing the chill of the evening.
She curled up on her side and stared at her mother’s still-young face. They needed to find her a life. A man to take her dancing. A church group that would keep her young.
“Fine,” Lucy whispered, and Sandra turned on her side, her hands under her chin, mirroring Lucy’s position.
“It’s time for us to go home,” Sandra said.
“I thought it would be easier coming here,” she said. “But it’s difficult—”
“Because of Walter?” Lucy practically spat the man’s name.
“Not just Walter, he doesn’t help. This place used to be happy and now…now it is haunted.”
“But Mia’s here—”
“And married. Settled.” She blew out a long breath, looking at her hands. “There’s nothing for me to do here. No way for me to be useful.” Lucy could not understand her mother’s driving need to be needed.
“But, Mom…” She grasped at straws, finally settling on the truth she hadn’t wanted to face in the five years they’d lived in Los Angeles. “You don’t like the city.”
“That’s not true.”
She gave her mother a wry look.
“Well, I don’t like it here so much, either.” Sandra sat up. “There’s nothing for me to do here. I’m useless.”
“Cooking!” she cried, and then shook her head, as if biting her tongue.
Lucy wrapped her fingers over her mother’s fist. Her father had died five years ago and, in the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t all that long. Sandra was still grieving.
and you’re the ungrateful daughter keeping her someplace she doesn’t want to be.
“What about your jewelry?” Sandra asked. “You’ve been gone three weeks—aren’t you needed back at your studio?”
Her heart was a rock in her chest. Lying to her mother made her sick, but Lucy couldn’t give her mother more grief. Couldn’t give her a failure as a daughter. “I’m the boss, Mom. And I haven’t had a vacation in years. I’m…I’m burned out. I haven’t had a new design in months.”
Sandra stroked back Lucy’s hair. “This is true. You work so hard. A few more days, then? And then we go back.”
Lucy wished she was rich, and not for the first time. Wished that she could take her mom on vacation, whisk her away to Rome. But she was more than broke. And they couldn’t go back to Los Angeles, nor could they stay here much longer.
Talk about limbo.
Lucy forced herself to smile. “Sounds good.”
“Sleep, sweetheart,” Sandra murmured, and Lucy let her eyelids shut, pretending to sleep so her mother wouldn’t worry.
* * *
at the sound of her mother’s snores. Hard to believe, but Saint Sandra snored like a merchant marine. Her father had always joked about it, saying sleeping next to his wife was like being back in the navy—no one thought twice about it when they found him asleep on the couch. Chased out of his bed by his wife’s deviated septum.
“Oh, man, Mom,” Lucy muttered, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “We gotta get that fixed.”
The moon in the window was so bright she could read her watch—3:00 a.m. It would be a battle getting to sleep again. She’d never needed a lot of sleep, but in the past year she’d flirted with insomnia. It was as if her brain was a giant hamster wheel, and every hamster in the world wanted a turn. She just couldn’t turn off her thoughts.
She followed the moonlight that lay across the floor in big sheets, heading out the door of the room. But instead of going to her own room, she went to the kitchen. And to whatever dinner leftovers might be in the fridge.