Read an Excerpt
Girls! girls! girls!
The electronic message on the billboard over the Pussycat Lounge expanded against a background of cascading fireworks, then disintegrated as a new message took shape.
ON STAGE NOW!
Noah Garfield walked past the entrance to the bar, located two streets over from the Las Vegas Strip. Although he had no intention of entering the place, he wouldn't be a normal guy if he didn't spend a moment picturing topless women dancing inside the darkened interior. Sexual adventure seemed more wicked when it was offered at two in the afternoon.
And sexual adventure still made him think of Keely, even after ten years. He could hardly believe so much time had gone by since she'd shocked the good folks of Saguaro Junction, Arizona, by posing for the centerfold of Macho magazine. With no trouble at all he could still see her stretched out in all her nineteen-year-old glory, smiling at him and about half a million other guys. Born to be wild, that was Keely Branscom.
He'd love to know where she was now. Maybe married with three kids, although he had a hard time picturing that. More likely she was performing in a club exactly like the one he'd just passed. That wasn't so hard to imagine.
The bachelor party tonight would be at a similar kind of place, and Noah wasn't really looking forward to it. He didn't have a steady relationship with a woman like the other guys in the wedding party, which meant he was sexually on edge. It wasn't a good idea to watch a lot of seminaked women bobbing around when you were in that state.
The heels of his boots tapped out a steady rhythm as he continued on his way. The last time he was in this town for a pro rodeo about five years ago, he distinctly remembered a little neighborhood-type bar in this area. No dancers, no loud music, just cold beer and a couple of outdated slot machines.
Now he couldn't find it.
He'd counted on that little bar to be his hidey-hole over the weekend, whenever the festivities for his good buddy Brandon threatened to overwhelm him. He was glad, honored even, to be a groomsman—he really was. But Brandon and Jenny's engagement last fall had meant that Noah was the only one of his rodeo buddies who hadn't found himself a wife.
To top it off, his little brother, Jonas, had become engaged, and of all people, he'd picked Keely's sister, B.J. Noah wouldn't mind getting married. In fact, he would love getting married. But he'd been kept busy with the ranch, and Saguaro Junction wasn't exactly overrun with eligible females. Until recently, any that happened along had been instantly appropriated by Jonas.
Well, maybe now that Jonas was settling down, Noah would have the time and opportunity to find a wife of his own. But, in the meantime, here he was, smack-dab in the middle of Sin City at a time when he was feeling especially vulnerable to suggestions.
You could do just about anything you wanted to in this town, and that was way too much freedom for his taste. After only a few hours here he could already feel the sexual pull of the city, the urge to do things you'd never think of doing in your own hometown. It made him nervous.
Keely had affected him that way, all those years ago, and he'd wisely decided to steer clear of her. If he could just get that centerfold picture out of his mind, he'd be all set. But this was the sort of place to freshen that memory, not erase it.
At the next intersection he paused and glanced around at a passel of gift shops, liquor stores and pawnshops. No neighborhood bar. It had probably gone out of business. With a sigh he turned around to retrace his path to the hotel.
The hotel had several bars, but they were all too trendy, too noisy. He hungered for worn vinyl stools and a little country music. Someplace like the Roundup Saloon in Saguaro Junction.
It was a pitiful thing for a man of thirty-two to be homesick, but that's what he was. He wouldn't even mind mucking out stalls right now if he could be back on the ranch looking forward to a barbecue this evening and a sunset that would make your eyes water with its beauty. He loved that ranch the same way his daddy had, and his daddy before him. It was Garfield land, and Noah always felt better when his feet were planted on it.
He was so caught up in his daydreaming that he wasn't paying any attention to the other people on the sidewalk. It took him a while to realize that the redhead walking toward him looked a lot like Keely. But his mind was probably playing tricks on him, considering he'd just been thinking of her.
With his hat pulled low to shade his eyes, he could study her more closely without being caught at it. Yep, sure reminded him of Keely. The blue flowers decorating her dress looked sweet and innocent, but the dress itself, filmy and cut to midthigh, was anything but. The skirt flounced around her smooth legs with every step she took.
It was a mouthwatering dress, clingy enough to allow every curve to make itself known when she moved. It laced up over her breasts, and although the neckline didn't show much cleavage, the dress revealed a hell of a lot of leg. Bare, brightly painted toes peeked out of a pair of high-heeled sandals. Keely could wear high-heeled sandals like nobody else.
Of course, this wasn't Keely. But this woman could be her twin. Same full, pouty mouth; same determined chin; same "I Gotta Be Me" stride.
She wore sunglasses, so he couldn't see her eyes. The eyes would be the clincher. No other woman in the world had Keely's eyes. Some people said green was a soothing, cool color. Not on Keely. She could scorch a man's heart with one glance. A few thought the devil himself stoked that blaze, and it could well be. Looking into her eyes, a man might consider selling his soul.
The Keely look-alike paused outside the dance club and Noah paused, too. Of course she wasn't Keely, but now he had to be absolutely positive before he could walk on past.
She dug in her shoulder purse for something and came out with a small leather notebook. Flipping it open, she shoved her sunglasses to the top of her head while she studied whatever was written there. Snapping the notebook shut, she thrust it back into her purse and stepped toward the entrance.
"Excuse me." He moved toward her and came up with the first line he could think of. "Could you tell me what time it is?" Damn, she even smelled like Keely. She'd been partial to raspberry-scented body lotion.
Without looking at him, she glanced at her watch. Then she raised her head and gazed in his direction. "It's two-fif—" She stopped abruptly and stared at him.
He gasped and his heart began to hammer the way it always did in reaction to her. Those eyes. God, they were more potent than ever.
"Noah?" Her mouth gaped open. "Noah Garfield, is that you?"
"It's me." The shock of seeing her made his head buzz.
"Wow." She let out a breathless little laugh. "I can't believe this."
"You can't believe it? I can't believe it. I was just thinking about you and then bam, you showed up." Whoops. He shouldn't have said that.
"Really?" Her kiss-me-now mouth curved in a smile. Her lipstick was the color of a ripe peach, and she must have recently put it on, because it still had a gloss that made her mouth look wet. "After all these years? How flattering."
"Well, I—uh…" Damn it all, now he was blushing.
Her smile widened. "Couldn't be the sign flashing over our heads that reminded you of me, now, could it?"
As usual, she knew right where to press to make him squirm. "Now, Keely, that's the sort of thing best forgotten, don't you think?"
"It's obvious you haven't forgotten it." She reached out and patted his arm. "That's okay. It's not every day that the girl you used to chase around the stock tank decides to bare her all in a centerfold. Folks in Saguaro Junction aren't used to that kind of thing. I guess it would tend to stick in your mind."
"I think most people have forgotten about it." Not true. Mention Keely Branscom anywhere in town and eyebrows still rose. He struggled to get some purchase on the conversation. "So how've you been?" Now there was an original question.
"That's good." Another brilliant comment. He had to admit she looked fine. Saucy as all get-out, the way she'd always been. Judging from the way the dress fit, she hadn't put on an extra ounce in ten years.
"How about you?" she asked.
"I'm good." He wondered how she made her lipstick look like that, as if she'd just licked her lips. He shouldn't be looking at her mouth, but her eyes weren't any safer a place to rest his glance. Well, he could look lower, at her breasts rising and falling under the thin, flowery material. That wasn't such a good idea. Better concentrate on her mouth, even if it did remind him of the one time she'd kissed him.
"What brings you to Vegas?" she asked.
He had to stop and think. Oh, yeah, Brandon. "A friend of mine's getting married."
"Really? Anybody I know?"
"I don't think so. He's from Wyoming. We met up on the rodeo circuit a few years back. I don't think he ever made it to the ranch, but we've kept in touch."
"That's nice." For a split second she sounded a little wistful. Then that cocky tone of hers took over again. "So what's up with you, Noah? Found yourself a salt-of-the-earth ranching woman yet?"
"Nope." Once again she'd managed to hit a subject he was touchy about. "Been a little busy." He hesitated, not sure how much he wanted to reveal. After all, she'd been the one who'd decided to break off contact with everyone in Saguaro Junction, including her father and sister. But finally he decided to tell her some of the news. Couldn't hurt. "My dad died a couple of years ago."
"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry." She gazed up at him, her green eyes filled with sadness. "He was a nice man."
"Thanks. He was." He couldn't ever remember seeing sympathy in her eyes before. Defiance plenty of times, devilment nearly as often and, once, on a very memorable night, desire. Never this soft, endearing sympathy.
He'd always thought of her as being so tough, but maybe she wasn't. Ten years ago he hadn't allowed himself to see past her cheeky bravado. Life had been safer that way. But he was older now, and he wondered if he'd missed a few things about Keely. He should have tracked her down, just to make sure she was okay.
"So you and Jonas are running things?" she asked.
"Yeah." He could say that now. Six months ago he couldn't have, back when Jonas spent more time chasing women than chasing cows. But BJ. had settled Jonas down considerably. "That's another thing that's happened," he said. "Jonas will be getting married soon."
"Get outta here!" She grinned. "Shotgun?"
"Nope. He's marrying your sister."
Disbelief flashed in her eyes, but it was quickly replaced with a touching vulnerability. She glanced away. "Well." Her throat moved in a hard swallow before she looked up, her gaze guarded. "She always was sweet on him, but she's making a huge mistake."
"A few months ago I would have agreed with you, but you'd be surprised at how Jonas has changed. He's getting more responsible by the day."
"What a shame."
The old irritation that had always been a part of his conversations with Keely pricked him now. If everybody had Keely's carefree attitude toward life, the work would never get done. " Ihappen to be glad for him."
She gave him that saucy smile, the one that always warned him that a smart-ass remark was coming. "You would be," she said. "You were born old."
His jaw clenched. Keely had a real talent for getting under his skin. She always had—in every department. "Everybody has to grow up sometime. Even you."
"Not if I can help it. And as for B J. and Jonas, they should have years ahead of them before they have to settle into some boring routine. But no, they're shackling themselves to each other and that blessed ranch. I hate to see it."
"Nobody asked you to." Now, that was a low blow and he hadn't meant to deliver it. But he couldn't take it back, and he didn't know how to smooth over what he'd just said.
Her eyes registered the hurt. "No, I guess nobody did." She slid her sunglasses back on, and when she spoke again her voice sounded more brittle than bright. "And I suppose my father's as crotchety as ever?"
He was touched that she was brave enough to ask about Arch. She and her father had fought bitterly all through her teenage years, and he'd practically thrown her out after the centerfold incident. He hadn't been serious about sending her away, but with her nineteen-year-old view of the world, she'd taken it seriously. Neither of them had been able to swallow their pride long enough to make the connection again.
"Arch is fine," he said gently, wanting to reassure her of that much, at least. "In perfect health."
"I'm not surprised," she said with a grimace, although she sounded relieved. "He wouldn't tolerate the presence of an infirmity." She straightened her shoulders. "Well, now that we're all caught up, I'd better be going. I have an appointment."
He'd nearly forgotten where they were standing. Before he'd stopped her she'd been about to go inside this dance club. He had a sinking sensation that he knew why. "An appointment?" he asked, trying to keep the question casual.
"Yes. An interview."
"Oh." His gut churned. A job interview. The centerfold picture flashed through his mind again and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was trying to get a job dancing on the stage in there. She planned to take off most of her clothes and twirl those little tassel gizmos for the men who patronized this club.
He eyed the entrance once more and noticed chipped paint around the door frame. The rock music coming from inside sounded more sinister than it had a moment ago, and he heard loud male laughter. He hoped this place was a step down from what she'd been doing before and not a step up. But whichever direction she was headed, it looked like the wrong road to him.
"Listen, I'm already late, but it's been fun seeing you," she said. "What a coincidence, huh? Take care of yourself, Noah." She turned toward the shadowy entrance.
Without taking time to think about it, he grabbed her arm. "Don't go in there."
She glanced up at him in surprise. "Why not?"