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"You can drive yourself crazy trying to outfox a Callahan. That goes double for the Callahan women."
Bode Jenkins, neighboring ranch owner bragging a bit about his three Callahan granddaughters to a reporter
Tighe Callahan sized up the enormous spotted bull that eyed him warily. "Hello, Firefreak," he said. "You may have bested my twin, Dante, but I aim to ride you until you're soft as glove leather. Gonna retire you to the kiddie rides."
The legendary badass rank bull snorted a heavy breath his way, daring him. Dark eyes glared attitude and a no-you-won't warning.
"You're crazy, Tighe," his brother Jace said. "I'm telling you, that one wants to kill you."
"Feeling's mutual." Tighe grinned and knocked on the wall of the pen. "If Dante stayed on him for five seconds, I ought to at least go ten."
Jace looked at Tighe doubtfully. "Sure. You can do it. Whatever." He glanced around. "I think I'll go get some popcorn and find a pretty girl to share it with.
You and Firefreak just go ahead and chat about life. May be a one-sided conversation, but those are your favorite, anyway."
Jace wandered off. Tighe studied the bull, which never broke eye contact with him, his gaze wise from the scores of cowboys he'd mercilessly tossed, earning himself a legendary status.
"I'm a real believer in the power of positive thinking, old son," Tighe told his horned adversary. "And I'm positive that tomorrow my name will live on as the first cowboy to ever pin a bull's-eye on you and hit it dead center. See, I figure it was destiny that I finally drew you. And what you don't know is that I've got a secret training regimen. You think you're tough, but you don't know tough until you've spent a couple years being ridden by Callahan tots. You only have to do your job for eight seconds, throw off a cowboy or two. Me? My job can go on for hours. I'm tough as nails, my spotted nemesis."
Firefreak's response was to throw a hoof his way, crashing into the wall of the pen, which thundered under the blow. Tighe tipped his hat and turned to go.
"Hi, Tighe," a feisty little darling he knew too well said, and Tighe stopped dead in his tracks.
"Sawyer Cash, what are you doing here?" He glanced around. If Jace had seen Sawyerthe new nanny bodyguard at Rancho Diablo and daughter of Storm Cash, their neighbor and a man they weren't too sure they trustedhe would have run up the red flag of danger. Jace had never mentioned it, but Tighe was pretty sure his brother had a thing for the petite redhead.
"Hi, Tighe," River Martin said, coming to join Sawyer, and Tighe felt his heart start to palpitate. Now here was his dream, his unattainable brunette princesseven though he liked to tell his family he secretly had River in the bagsmiling at him, as sweet as cherry wine. "We heard you're going to ride a bull tomorrow, so the girls and I decided to come out and watch. Your sister, Ash, is here, too, but she's chatting up some cowboys. Said she wasn't interested in watching you meet your doom."
This wasn't a good sign. A man didn't need his concentration wrecked by a gorgeous femaleand right now, Tighe had a twist in his gut even a few beers wouldn't chase off. Nor did he want said gorgeous, unattainable female to see him get squashed by a few tons of angry luggage with horns. A man needed to seek his holy grail and stare death in the eyes in order to realize that he was but a speck on this earth, and if the woman he adored didn't reciprocate his feelings, well, there were worse things. Like getting stomped into dust by a rank bull.
Dante'd had his five seconds on Firefreak without the woman he loved witnessing his ultimate crash into reality.
But River was smiling at him with her teasing eyes that sent him over the moon, so all Tighe could say was, "Nice of you ladies to come out." To witness my humiliation. I was riding on guts and bravado, and somehow that particular cocktail of courage has suddenly left me stone-cold.
River said, "Good luck," and Tighe shivered, because he did believe in magic and luck and everything spiritual. And any superstitious man knew it was taunting the devil himself to wish a cowboy good luck when the challenge he faced in the ring was nothing compared to the real challenge: forcing himself to look into a woman's sexy eyes and not drown.
He was drowning, and he had been for oh, so long.
Ten minutes later, Tighe was sitting in his truck and considering spending the night there. He'd had an offer to bunk in with some rodeo buddies, but he was in the mood to be alone.
Actually, he was in the mood to hunt up River, but pride wouldn't allow him to chase that little goddess down. He was woefully aware he'd gotten something of a reputation among his six siblings for being a love-starved schmuck, which was odd because he'd previously held a pretty impressive record for being catnip to the ladies. Galen, the eldest, was a medical doctor, but really enjoyed touting his skills as a diviner of the heart, never more than when he was ribbing Tighe about the state of his brunette heartburn. His twin, Dante, left him pretty much alone because he knew he'd been darn lucky to catch River's best friend and fellow nanny bodyguard, Ana St. John. Jace thought he knew things but didn'tthough that didn't stop him from snickering at Tighe's unrequited longing. Sloan, married to Kendall and the proud father of adorable twin sons, cut him some slack because he knew how much it stank when a man couldn't seem to reel in the woman of his every waking thought. Falcon was happily married now and enjoying life with his baby girl, so he considered himself fortunate and offered no decent advice. Their sister, Ashlyn, was full of witty ripostes about Tighe's lackluster attempts to woo River, but she'd been chasing the prince of her pining, Xav Phillips, for a couple of years now, with all the luck of a sleep-struck princess.
"I'm on my own," Tighe muttered, and then a voice said, "Hi, Tighe," and he about jumped out of his boots.
"Hi, River," he said, his throat suddenly thick like a tree trunk and about as useful for talking. "Where's Sawyer?"
She glanced over her shoulder. "Torturing Jace."
"It's good for him. Pretty sure she's up to the job." He wished he could kiss her, but how would she react? "I need to head off and find a motel. Did you need something?"
She shrugged, and the gesture made her breasts move under her blue, short-sleeved dress. "You can stay with me," River said, and he had to tighten his jaw so it didn't crash to the parking lot.
"Stay with you?" he repeated.
"Mmm-hmm." She smiled at him, and it was all he could do not to shout, hell yes! and jump into the canyon of lost sense. "I've got my own room at Sherby's," River said.
Sherby's was a quaint B and B outside Santa Fe. He knew Sherby and his wife, Annethey were great rodeo fans and had done a fair bit of horse trading in their day. Good, honest folk. "I'm not sure Anne would care for me lodging with you, River."
"We won't tell her I've got double occupancy." She winked at him, cute as a doe, and Tighe's blood began a pounding unlike anything he could ever remember feelingnot even when he was in Afghanistan with Dante and they were trying to keep from picking grit out of their teeth and bullets out of their appendages. He had the scar from one he hadn't managed to avoid, which had lodged itself in his biceps, right under the lightning strike tattoo all the Chacon Callahan siblings wore: the sign of their bond.
"I'm not sure where there may be a vacancy," Tighe murmured doubtfully, trying to hang on to whatever fragments of good sense he possessed.
"And you probably won't find one now. Everything is full."
Dante and he had never worried much about where they were going to stay. One or the other of them always made a reservation, or they slept in their trucks. Might have been an awkward lifestyle with anyone else, but he and Dante had been each other's shadow all their lives, and especially on the rodeo circuit. No one knew Tighe like Dante did.
In fact, it had been a little lonely since Dante had gotten married. Not that he wasn't extremely happy for his knuckleheaded twinbut Tighe did miss his shadow on occasion.
"Come on," River said, "get your stuff. I promise not to lay a hand on you, big guy." She turned and walked off, leading the way, hips swaying, the lure of the wild loudly calling to Tighe, and all he could think was Rats. Kinda wish she wasn't so good at keeping promises.
Riding Firefreak for the full eight seconds was more likely than him catching that hot angel.
He grabbed his duffel and followed.
River sneaked Tighe in under cover of night, through a back door so none of the other guestsnor Anne Sherbywould notice she was keeping company. For one thing, everyone staying at Sherby's was female, and River wasn't sharing. For another, what good was it to have a secret crush if the whole world figured it out?
Catching a Callahan wasn't easy, and tonight, she intended to catch this one in a snare that might interest him. She had a deck of cards and a bottle of something Ashlyn said the Callahan guys liked to sip on in their upstairs library meetings at Rancho Diabloand a comfy bed. Oh, she had absolutely no plans to seduce this cowboythat would be dirty poolbut it wouldn't hurt a bit if they spent a little time together away from the Callahan clan of prying eyeballs and matchmaking roulette. Just to see what would happen
"Put your duffel there," she said, pointing to a spot under the window in the tiny room.
"Whoa," Tighe said, observing the twin bed in Miss Sherby's B and B. "Do you think maybe Ms. Anne's got a futon or a sleeping bag we could discreetly inquire about?"
River smiled. "We'll manage."
"I've seen baby cribs bigger than that bed."
"Dante says you guys have shared a truck many times. This bed is about the size of a cab, isn't it?"
"Yeah, but he's my twin."
She smiled and pulled out the deck of cards and the whiskey bottle. "I don't drink, but Ash says this is your favorite."
"Wait a minute, little lady," Tighe said. "What's going on here? I've known you for about two years, and we've rarely been in the same room, much less a bed. And you brought my drink of choice. Are you setting me up?"
Of course she was setting him up. She wasn't certain it was the best idea, but she'd been asked to play this role by the Callahans. So here I am.
"You mean am I seducing you?" River considered him. "Do you want me to?"
His handsome face was puzzled, maybe even perplexed. He was such a gentlemanall the Callahans wereand all that chivalry kept him from wanting to make a mistake of the sexual variety.
"Don't worry," River said. "If you're that concerned about it, I'll flip you for the bed. Or beat you at twenty-one for it."
He grinned. "You can't beat me, lady. I was born playing cards, pool and hooky."
She poured him a drink. "You're going to need a shot of this for courage."
"For Firefreak? I don't need anything to give me courage for that oversize piece of shoe leather." Still, he gulped down the whiskey.
"It's getting late," River said.
"True. I'll let you have the bed, gorgeous, and I'll take the floor. Use my duffel as my pillow."
"All right. I'm going to change." She slipped into the bathroom, took off her dress, put on a pair of sleep shorts and a T-shirt. Very modest, but still feminine. Why had she allowed the Callahans to talk her into this caper? Sawyer claimed that the only way to a man's heart was making him see you, really notice you. So that you were unforgettable to him.
River was pretty certain she'd been forgettable to Tighe for the two years she'd been guarding Sloan and Kendall's twins. Taking a deep breath, she thought about those dark navy eyes, the longish, almost black hair that begged her to run her fingers through it, the hard, strong muscles and then she opened the door to do her job.
"Hey," Jace said, and River nearly shrieked.
"He found me," Tighe said. "He's like a homing pigeon. An ugly one, but just the same, a pigeon."
"Hi, Jace," she said, not surprised at all to see him.
The plan was proceeding as outlined, even if she didn't feel all that good about the plot on Tighe.
"He's got no place to stay, either. Mind if he bunks with us?" Tighe asked.
"I promise not to snore." Jace poured himself a drink. "Ms. Sherby sure knows how to stock the stuff a guy likes."
"Fine by me." River wished Jace hadn't shown up so soon. Secretly she'd been hoping for just a couple moments alone with her dream cowboy. She sat on the bed, waited for Jace's signal.
"You're the luckiest woman in town, spending the night with two Callahans," he said as he dumped his duffel on the floor, not sounding anything like a man who was out to derail his brother.
"Good times, good times," River said, but her insincerity was lost on the two men as they shuffled the deck, splayed the cards on the small table and began a spirited game.
"You're just determined to ride that piece of ugly spotted steak tomorrow, aren't you?" Jace asked.
"You better believe it. I'm going to ride him like a little girl's pony."
River rolled her eyes. "Sexist, much?"
"Not at all. But we give gentle rides to the ladies," Jace said. "You wouldn't want to give a woman a mount that might harm her in any way."
River rolled her eyes at the typical Callahan nonsense she'd heard many times. "Jace, why aren't you riding tomorrow?"
"Thought about it. Decided I'm too good-looking to risk injuring myself on a bull." He laughed. "My brother here is on his own personal mission to separate his brain from his skull."
"Why?" River looked at Tighe, and he glanced at her, his gaze catching on her lips, it seemed, and then lower. It was the first time she could ever remember him looking at her for more than a second. She decided to see if she could get his attention off his cards, let him slowly figure out what he was missing out on. "What do you have to prove?"
"Nothing." Tighe tossed his cards onto the table, grinned at Jace. "You lose. Deal."
Clearly, he wasn't going to take the bait. Jace poured his brother another shot. Tighe slurped it down, sighing with happiness. "This is fun. I'm finally starting to relax." He glanced at her, his gaze hitting about chest level. "Anybody else think it's hot in here?"
Jace glanced at River, surreptitiously winked. She shrugged, then got up and raised the window, which would only serve to heat the room a little more. "Maybe the breeze will help."