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"You hit that yet?"
Trace McAllister didn't wait to watch the six ball sink into the corner pocket. He stepped back from the pool table, and with a bad feeling he knew who Sam meant, turned to follow his gaze.
Of course it was Nikki.
After delivering a pitcher of beer to the men waiting their turn to play, she was walking toward the bar. The close-fitting pink T-shirt tucked into her tight worn jeans showed off her small waist and curvy hips. She'd left her shiny dark hair loose tonight, falling halfway down her back. Hard for a man not to take a second, even a third look. Trace understood, but making a remark like that..
Nope. No way he'd let it slide.
The Watering Hole was crowded for a Thursday, though it was warm even for June, and every cowboy in the place had either a frosty mug of beer or a bottle in his hand. Two of the handful of Sundance guests, a pair of blondes whose names Trace couldn't recall, hovered near the end of the bar talking to a wrangler from the Double R. A tall brunette in a short skirt leaned over the jukebox, studying the selections.
So just to make sure he wasn't getting worked up for nothing, Trace asked, "You don't mean Nikki "
"Hell, yeah. Look at her." Sam tipped back his beer bottle, draining it while his eyes stayed on Nikki's rear end. He wiped the back of his arm across his mouth. "That's what you call U.S.A. prime. Give it to me straight, McAllister. You do her yet, or what?"
"Are you serious?" Another remark and Trace wouldn't be able to hang on to his temper. He didn't know Sam all that well. He worked as a hired hand at the Circle K and had a reputation for being popular with the ladies, not so much their fathers. Trace had done his share of getting around, but he knew how to be respectful and discreet. "You know she's Matt Gunderson's sister."
"So lay off." Instead of lining up his next shot, Trace looked Sam dead in the eye. "That's not a suggestion."
Sam leaned against the wall, chalking the tip of his pool cue, and giving Trace an amused look that aggravated him further. "Must be nice to have a rich family and the second biggest ranch around. Guess you figure that entitles you to speak down to the rest of us."
If he wasn't so pissed, Trace would've laughed. Man, Sam had it wrong. The Sundance had once been a nice spread, still was, with over three-thousand acres of choice land and a nice healthy herd. But they hadn't escaped fallout from the economic downturn. Most folks around Blackfoot Falls knew the McAllisters had converted part of the Sundance to a dude ranch in order to weather the storm. But then Sam wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed.
"Look, Sam, I've enjoyed shooting pool with you this week. And I don't wanna have to butt heads with you, but if you make another remark about Nikki, you and I are gonna have a big problem."
A short stocky kid who worked at the Lone Wolf moved closer to the far wall. Another guy left the back room. Trace had to motion for Lucas and Josh, two Sundance hands who looked as if they were itching to jump in, to stay out of it. Sadie owned the bar, and she had zero tolerance for fighting and foolish men in general.
"I knew you had it bad for her." Sam abruptly moved his hand. Trace tensed, ready to block a punch, but Sam only shoved his fingers through his long blond hair and grinned. "I wondered why you been coming to town to play when I heard you got a real nice table out at the Sundance."
Trace kept his face blank. Nikki had returned to Montana three weeks ago and had started at the bar a week later. He knew people were bound to put two and two together but most of the guys wouldn't say anything. Except for Sam, the pain in the ass.
"Admit it, McAllister, and I'll back off. Let you have her all to yourself."
That made Trace smile. The guy was dreaming if he thought he could get anywhere near her. Maybe he should let Sam find out what Nikki would do to a hound dog like him. The woman was small and beautiful, but she was tough. Get her mad enough and she had a mouth that could make a sailor blush. She also knew how to swing a two-by-four. Trace had seen it for himself.
"What the hell you grinning at?" Frowning, Sam glanced around, saw that the boys from the Sundance hadn't made a move. He seemed to relax and said, "You don't stake your claim, then I'm gonna have me a taste of that honey."
Trace really wanted to plant a fist in his face but he saw Nikki coming toward the back. No time to smooth things over, and he sure didn't want to start a fight, not in here. Sadie would probably ban him from the place. Knowing he was taking a risk, he waited until Nikki reached them, then he leaned his cue against the wall. What the hell he could keep a straight face and the odds were in his favor.
"Go ahead, tell her what you just said." Trace folded his arms across his chest and smiled a little, just enough to make Sam second-guess himself.
He squinted at Trace, trying to gauge whether he was bluffing or really did know something Sam didn't. The fact was, since his sister and Nikki's brother had gotten cozy, Trace knew Nikki better than anyone in the bar, which wasn't saying much, but made for a hell of a bluff.
"What?" Nikki held her empty tray against her hip and looked expectantly at Sam. "You wanted something?"
He shot her a glance but didn't answer. The other hands were still hanging around, waiting to see Sam turn tail. They all knew him, and had probably arrived at the same conclusion as Trace. Sam couldn't afford to bring on Sadie's wrath. The Watering Hole was his hunting ground. He'd already gone through the eligible local women, been threatened with an angry father's shotguntwiceso that left him with the Sundance guests. And this was the best place to meet the new batch of single women who checked in each week.
"I don't have all night, Sam," Nikki said, impatience flashing in her brown eyes.
They looked darker in the dim bar lighting. Normally, if he looked closely, Trace could see gold flecks. That is, when he wasn't fascinated by the shape of her wide generous mouth. He liked the way her lips turned up slightly at the corners.
"Another beer," Sam said, moving closer to her, and when her eyes narrowed in warning, he stopped and set his empty bottle on her tray. "Please, darlin'."
"I hope you're not driving." Her gaze slid over the front of his Western-cut shirt to the sloppy untucked hem. "Are you?"
"Ah, you worried about me?"
"No," she said with a short laugh. "I don't want you running into anyone."
Trace smiled. The other guys chuckled.
Sam had to be about six-one because Trace was only taller by an inch or so. And Nikki was on the petite side, maybe five-four. So when Sam leaned toward her, it was hard to guess his intention, but he was asking for trouble no matter what he had in mind.
She tensed, and so did Trace.
Sam whispered something in her ear, then slowly drew back, a stupid grin on his face.
Nikki shook her head. "You keep on dreaming," she said in a dry tone. "See how that works out for you." She turned to Josh and Lucas. "Y'all want another beer?"
Her slight Southern drawl came out when she was irritated or excited or caught off guard. Trace didn't have to guess at how she was feeling right now. She didn't care for Sam, which seemed hard for the idiot to believe so he'd continued to make a jackass out of himself.
Trace watched her finish taking drink orders, collect empties and then start to leave. "What about me?"
She arched her brows at him. "What about you?"
"I need another beer."
"You still have half a bottle left."
Eyeing him with suspicion, she made room on her tray as he walked over to give her the bottle. "You do this all the time."
"Do what?" He reached for his Stetson before he remembered it wasn't sitting on his head but on a wall peg in the corner. To cover the gaffe, he plowed his fingers through his hair. It was too long, hugging the back of his neck and curling at his collar.
"Tell you what," Nikki said, her gaze fixed on his hand before slowly moving to his face. "Switch to tap. I'll give you half a mug at a time and ask Sadie to charge you for a kiddie portion."
Sam laughed, and so did the rest of the guys. But Trace didn't care. Nikki hadn't looked at any of them the way she'd just looked at him. The heat had lasted only a moment. If he'd blinked he would've missed the flicker of awareness in her eyes, the brief parting of her lips as she tipped her head back to meet his gaze.
"I'll stick to bottles, and don't worry about me leaving some behind." He leaned in just like Sam had and whispered so only she could hear, "I do have to drive."
She reared back and looked at him as if he'd lost his mind, then let out a startled laugh. "Maybe I should cut you off now."
Better she thought he was being weird or tipsy than figure out he was trying to outdo Sam. Everyone was quiet, stepping aside to clear a path for her, though any minute Josh and the other hands were gonna bust from curiosity. Same with Sam, even if he was trying to appear cool.
Fighting a smile and shaking her head, Nikki left to fill their orders. He wished she'd laid one of her rare but dazzling smiles on him. He could've gotten a lot of mileage out of that, but Trace figured her answer was vague enough that he'd be able to mess with Sam a while longer.
Already Trace was paying for his mischief. She was halfway across the bar yet he could still smell her. Just like her sexy almond-shaped eyes and lightly golden skin, her scent was exotic, kind of mysterious. It seemed to cling to his shirt, the walls, the air around him. No wonder his pool game had been crap lately. His concentration was shot. Sure didn't help that he couldn't seem to drag his gaze away from the sway of her hips.
He'd finally convinced himself to return to the game when he saw a Sundance guest call Nikki over to her table. The woman's name was Karina, which he hadn't known until tonight, and only because she'd been hanging around the pool room earlier. She'd arrived yesterday and was blonde like so many of the guests, but easy to distinguish since she towered over all of them.
She wasn't just tall, but close to six feet kind of tall. Behind her back Sam called her The Amazon, but mainly, Trace suspected, because he'd made a play for her and she hadn't been interested. Trace liked her fine. It was refreshing to have a guest who actually wanted to watch a game of pool and not breathe down a guy's neck.
Nobody in the family had wanted to go the dude ranch route. Both his brothers had hated the idea. They were all cattlemen, just like every McAllister man before them. Swallowing their pride left a bitter taste, though Cole and Jesse got off easier than him.
Cole ran the cattle operation. He'd barely turned twenty-one when the reins were passed to him the day after their father's funeral. Jesse had been in college at the time, and Trace and Rachel still in high school. The sorry state of the Sundance had nothing to do with Cole's management and everything to do with the economy. In the end, Rachel had been right to push the dude ranch idea to bring in cash. But that didn't mean Trace liked being her flunky when it came to entertaining the guests. All of them female, because that's who Rachel targeted.
When they'd first opened and the women had come pouring in, Trace had a blast. Women of every shape and size literally landing on his doorstep? It was heaven on earth. Now, ten months later, he was jumping at his own shadow and hiding in the stables like a skittish colt.
Karina said something to Nikki, who nodded and glanced over her shoulder. At him.
He could've kicked himself into next week for getting caught staring. Leo, who owned the filling station at the south end of town, was sitting at a table behind the women, and Trace lifted a hand to him. The older guy frowned, then grudgingly lifted a hand in return, probably wondering if Trace was drunk.
"You gonna play or what?" Sam sounded irritable. "Plenty other guys are waiting to take your place."
"Yeah, I mean, no, go ahead." He nodded at the cue he'd left leaning against the wall. His mind wouldn't be on the game. No sense going through the motions and holding up the others.
"We're not finished," Sam said. "Afraid I'm gonna whip your ass?"
"That's right." Trace snorted. "I bet you still believe in Santa Claus, too."
Sam cursed under his breath. His mood had gone south fast and no one would want to play him. "Who's up?" he asked, looking around the room.
"I'm just watching," Josh said, and Lucas shook his head.
The guy from the Lone Wolf didn't say a word, just sipped his beer. Trace didn't know his name but nodded to him, and he gave him a friendly nod back. Matt Gunderson had returned to run the ranch since his father had been confined to bed, and Trace wondered if Matt had sent the man to keep an eye on his sister. Probably not. Nikki would catch on and be mad. Then again, it wasn't likely she'd recognize one of the hands.
Although she'd been living at the Lone Wolf since her return, according to Matt she wanted nothing to do with the place. Or their father, for which no one in town would fault her. Wallace Gunderson was a despicable human being. But as his illegitimate daughter she was a Gunderson by blood, if not in name, and entitled to half the large ranching operation upon Wallace's death. Which apparently was fast approaching.
Trace chanced a look and saw that she'd slipped behind the bar to fill mugs of beer while Sadie was busy pouring shots. Almost as if she sensed he was watching, Nikki swung a look at him. Neither of them broke eye contact right away, but then she had to stop the mugs from overflowing.
She did a good job of acting indifferent toward him, but it was mostly pretense. He might've thought it was his ego overriding his brain but his sister had confirmed Nikki had a soft spot for him. Though Rachel hadn't meant to give him hope. In truth, she'd been warning him that if he played fast and loose with her boyfriend's sister, she'd wring his neck.
He supposed she had some cause for concern. He'd always been lucky with women, and a number of them considered him a big flirt, but usually because they flirted back or initiated the dance. And Rachel sure hadn't been shy about exploiting his so-called easy charm to help her keep the guests happy.
But with Nikki he'd been careful from the moment he'd met her in February. At first because she was Matt's sister, and then because Trace had seen the cracks in her cool facade. They'd sat right here in the Watering Hole after a drunken idiot had accosted her outside. Matt had arrived in time to stop the guy, but the idiot's friend had joined the party and Matt ended up with bruised ribs, a swollen face and lucky to still have teeth.