Read an Excerpt
One Night with a Cowboy
A Paint River Ranch Novel
By Elizabeth Otto, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Elizabeth Otto
All rights reserved.
She was five-minus-two seconds away from throwing up. Grabbing the sides of the whirling carnival ride seat, Sophie Miller squeezed her eyes tight and dipped her head. She had no idea how her eight-year-old nephew Ethan talked her into getting on this contraption. A pile of puke in his lap was about to be the reward for his insistence.
Surrounded by tinny music, colorful flashing lights, and the smell of heavenly fried food, Sophie had been glad they'd come to the street carnival. She loved the noise and the smells and the crowd. It was the perfect way to spend her first night back in Montana in six months, giving her the opportunity to catch up with her sister, Carla, and Ethan, while relieving a little of the stress that had plagued her for the past several months.
And then Ethan had talked her into getting on the Scrambler, and suddenly the carnival wasn't so fun.
A hard lump burned in her throat, and Sophie pressed a hand to her mouth to hold back nausea. Just when she thought she might lose it, the ride began to slow down. The milling crowd swirled and faded below her only to reappear again as their cart went round and round a little more slowly each time.
She tried to focus on the crowd below, hoping it would keep her lunch firmly in her stomach. A tall, broad-shouldered cowboy in a white hat and light blue shirt stood out from the mass of people surrounding him. The snippet of his face she could see as the cart whirled around became clearer on the next rotation when he looked up. He had a strong, square face and eyes that seemed to grab a hold of her, even from the distance. A long body with narrow hips made a drool-worthy contrast to the broadness of his shoulders.
Mmm, nice. Not bad for a focal point.
Since people-watching seemed to be helping her nausea, she was more than willing to keep eyeballing the cowboy. There he was once, twice, three times as she went around and around. Living in the city as long as she had, Sophie had no real experience with country boys and the cowboy's rugged hotness reminded her she really needed to make up for that. A one-nighter with a hot cowboy to remind her of the pleasures of life? Yes, please. Sophie admonished the thought with a grin and eye roll. That was the last thing she had time for right now, but as the thought skipped away, she realized her fear had, momentarily, lessened.
She found him in the crowd again and then, mercifully, as his image faded away once more, the ride stopped. Sophie's brain jostled inside her skull as she closed her eyes to try and find equilibrium.
"Coming, Aunt Sophie?" Ethan grabbed her fingers as he opened the cart door and jumped down.
She paused as the metal ride jiggled under the weight of its disembarking riders. The entire world seemed unbalanced as the dizziness took hold, sort of like her life had been in general lately. The phone call she'd gotten from Carla three days ago, saying that their mother's health was declining, had rocked Sophie more than losing her job as a paramedic a few months ago. The ride had given her a few terror-induced moments to forget why she'd really come to Montana, but that reprieve was short-lived.
Especially since standing right now seemed detrimental to her health and possibly everyone around her if her stomach let loose. She glanced around, looking for her hot-cowboy focal point, but he was gone. With a frown, she stepped down and sighed when she felt solid ground beneath her feet. A group of kids raced past her to climb onto the ride, and Sophie let out an amused breath. Twenty-nine and she still hadn't conquered motion sickness. The fact that she hadn't actually thrown up on Ethan, though, made her feel like maybe she finally had.
Take that, stomach! She mentally high-fived herself and unsteadily followed Ethan through the crowd. Ethan pulled her hand and urged her to walk faster. Sophie pulled back to rein him in a little — faster wasn't going to happen.
"There's mom." He called out for her and waved to catch her attention. Sophie squinted, Ethan's slight form suddenly fuzzy like a blotchy oil painting. Sounds rushed her ears, lights from the overhead poles were suddenly blinding. A cramp stabbed through her gut, making her dizzy. Six years of riding in the back of a speeding, bumping ambulance as a metro paramedic and she couldn't handle one silly carnival ride? There was something seriously wrong with that little twist of irony.
Sophie made out her sister's form and groaned, recognizing Carla's trademark impatience despite the distance between them. Carla was waiting near the mini-doughnuts truck, one hand on her hip.
Sophie gave Ethan a half-hearted wave. "Go ahead. Tell your mom I'll catch up. I just need to ..." Ethan took off for his mom before she could finish. He knew better than to keep Carla waiting. Smart boy. Judging by Carla's stance, Sophie considered motion sickness a good trade for a few minutes away from her controlling sister. There was a reason she and Carla lived thirteen hundred miles apart and in the few hours since they'd been reunited Sophie had been reminded why. Cats and dogs had nothing on their relationship.
A twisting knot of pain made her middle clench. Sophie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, mindful of the people walking around her. She moved to the side where the crowd was thin and her foot caught on something hard and unyielding. Her body tilted backward, once again thrust into quick motion that sent her brain into a tailspin. Firm hands caught under her arms just before her butt hit the ground.
Instead of the dirt-meet-posterior slam she was expecting, she was lowered down gently. Her left hand instinctively reached out, grabbing onto the nearest object for support. Denim. Warm, soft, well-worn denim. Before she could register any more, a haze of stars exploded behind her eyes.
A deep chuckle and silky voice floated down as she lay on the ground.
"I'm used to women throwing themselves at me, but this was a little fast, don't you think?"
* * *
This was turning into a helluva good day. Tucker Haywood flipped a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. When his client had wanted to meet here to let his kids run around while he and Tucker talked business, Tucker had initially resisted. It was a carnival — loud, flashy, and crowded. Everything he hated. He'd rather stay home at Paint River Ranch and hold the meeting in his office. But if going to the carnival meant selling a horse, he'd relent and collect a big, fat check for his trouble.
Now he had a beer in one hand and a pretty woman at his feet.
He'd noticed her on the ride, even chuckled at the comical grimace on her face while the boy sitting next to her had clapped and whooped as the contraption flew by. Tucker had almost walked away, but then he noticed her eyes latching onto him. Not just once, but each time the ride went 'round. Something about the stubborn, albeit nauseated, expression on her face made him hang around until she got off the ride. He wasn't looking for a woman tonight, but it had been a while since he'd had a little female company, even if it was just for a drink and a laugh.
Noticing how green she looked just now, Tucker figured he'd be lucky to get that far. A white tube-top dress clung to full breasts and narrow waist, the hem stopping just above her toned legs that shone golden in the overhead light. A yellow string that peeked out from beneath the dress and tied around her neck promised a rocking bikini underneath. Light freckles dotted a straight nose and heart-shaped face. She was pretty, even with her eyes clenched tight and her full lips pinched white. It might even be worth getting puked on to find out a little more — especially if there was a bikini involved.
Tucker hunkered down next to her on one knee. "Hey, I was just kidding. You all right?"
She grimaced. "I'm dying."
Tucker grinned. "You're not dying." He nudged her arm with his hand, her skin warm and silky to the touch. The ride next to them dotted her hair and dress with bright polka dots of multi-colored lights. "Can I help you up?"
Her eyes widened. "Are you crazy? I'm dying here!" The left side of her mouth tugged up in what might have been a smile trying to bloom. A zing of warmth shot straight through him. Pretty and feisty — a dangerous combination because he liked both.
He tipped his hat back and shrugged, giving in to the urge to tease her a little. "It was just a ride."
She pulled her arm away from her face and pushed up on her elbows. Color seeped back into her skin. Thank goodness. But just when he thought she was on her way to recovery, a sudden frown clenched her face and she lay back down.
"That ride is the devil. I need some Zofran." She flipped off the six-armed, silver Scrambler that swirled in a tangled mess of chairs and bodies. Tucker chuckled at the unexpected gesture. Dimples curved beautifully in her cheeks when she managed a small smile.
"Hear that?" He tilted his head toward the ride where shrieks and giggles rang out. "I think those four-year-olds are laughing at you."
She groaned with a furious twist to her pretty lips. Well, look at that little hellcat, Tucker thought with an appreciative flutter in his stomach Yep, there it was. She riled up real nice, and dang if he didn't like the fire in her eyes.
"See how well you do in the hot seat, cowboy." She nodded toward the ride. "Go on."
Tucker reached a hand out and to his surprise, she took it. Her fingers were soft and warm. She trembled just a little as he carefully guided her up and his thumb swept the back of her knuckles, her skin smooth, her nails daintily curved with white tips. Not the hands of a ranching woman, that's for sure.
"I'm smart enough not to get on a ride like that," he teased with a wink, watching her closely.
She pulled her hand away, cocked her head, and smoothed the front of her dress. "Meaning?" she asked, swallowing hard and picking grass from her shoulder-length hair. Her hair was two-toned, the ends a few shades lighter than the rest, like they'd been dipped in light blond paint. He swept his gaze over the length of her, drinking in the bracelets dangling on her right wrist, the bright red polish on her toes, and the shiny little blue purse slung over her shoulder. Everything about her screamed city girl. Tourist, most likely. She was the complete opposite of the women he was usually attracted to, but it was there. Attraction — pure and insistent.
He flicked his toothpick. City girl or not, she had his attention. All of it.
He smiled wide. "Meaning, I'm smarter than you, apparently."
Her arms crossed. "Are you smart enough to get lost before I punch your wise-ass mouth?" There was humor behind the challenge and, with just a little more ribbing; he might coax a full smile out of her. He liked spirited things for the most part: hard-to-handle horses, ornery cows, and the unpredictable Montana weather. It made life interesting and kept his restlessness in check.
He never was one to back down from a challenge.
"Honey, anything you want to do with my mouth is fine by me," he drawled, giving her a once over that he wouldn't have been able to avoid if he'd tried. Which he didn't. She gave him a long, hard look before a slow smile tipped up her lips. His hand itched to touch her, run a thumb over that full lower lip. There'd be a million and one ways to set off fireworks with a woman like her. Tucker bit down on the toothpick and reined in the thoughts making his blood hot. Something in the crowd caught her attention — a woman standing with a young boy across the crowd gave a wave. She gave an encouraging wave back, in the kind of way that said she'd catch up later.
Turning back to him, her gaze roved over his chest and down his middle, pausing at his thighs before flicking back up to his face. Tucker heated under the intensity of her appraisal — not realizing he'd been holding his breath until his chest started to ache.
The woman couldn't handle a carnival ride, but had no qualms giving him a blatant once-over. He was used to women looking his way — never had trouble finding a little company when the inclination arose. In the past few months, the female attention he usually craved left him unsatisfied and uninterested. Until right now. He'd been holed up at the ranch too long, and this silky, curvy, hot-tempered beauty had his interest by the balls, and then some.
"How about I buy you another drink?" she offered, tilting her head toward his beer. "That should keep your mouth busy for a while." She smoothed one hand over the back of her hair.
Oh, yeah. Coming to the carnival had definitely been a good call.
Tucker put a hand on the small of her back. Sweet warmth met his fingers, driving him to draw his hand up the fabric of her dress to the bare skin of her shoulder blade. He paused for a fraction of a second to see if she'd shy away from his touch. She didn't.
Tucker leaned close to her ear. The curve of her neck was delicate and beautiful, her skin radiated heat. Notes of coconut wafted from her hair.
His voice dipped low. "And when that's gone? Then what?" He steered her away from the ride.
She leaned toward him, as if pulled by his touch or his voice — maybe, hopefully, both. A soft rise of goose bumps lit along her back, followed by a gentle shudder. The smile on her lips promised everything he told himself he wanted to avoid. No more complicated one-night stands. No more messy, near-miss relationships. He was alone for a reason, though the sultry sapphire color her eyes had become made him forget exactly why.
She bumped against his shoulder. The heat of her body seeped through the fabric of his shirt, giving him a hard internal tremble and driving home what he wanted.
Her. Under him.
She smiled sweetly, gripping his shirt hard. "Don't worry, cowboy. I'm sure we'll think of something."CHAPTER 2
When she'd left St. Paul, Minnesota two days ago, Sophie figured her fate in Missoula, Montana was pretty well pre-determined: be weighed down by guilt over her mother's medical condition, and fight over a constant stream of stupid nothingness with her sister, Carla, as usual. Both proved true in the first hour she'd parked on Montana soil. She and Carla had never been particularly close; they were on opposite ends of the personality spectrum. When they combined, it usually resulted in a nuclear explosion.
Carla was never shy about reminding her how disappointed she was that Sophie didn't come to Montana more to help with their mother. Sophie didn't bother to remind her sister that she'd been working overtime in Minnesota in order to help pay for their mother's medical bills, leftover credit card balances, and other expenses. Simply packing up and leaving her jobs hadn't been feasible, but now that downsizing in the hospital system had robbed Sophie of her highest-paying gig, she wasn't sure what to do. Her jobs had been her security, something she needed to function.
She'd had an interview at the Minneapolis Children's Hospital for a unit coordinator position. If she landed that job, which would begin in a month, she was definitely going back. Something had to crop up soon. She'd used almost all of her savings to stay afloat after being let go.
Oh, life and its troubles. Thank goodness the hot cowboy next to her offered a very delectable distraction. She snuck him a look as they meandered up to the beer tent. The top of her head barely came to his chin and, if the impressive breadth of his shoulders and bulge of bicep under the pale blue shirt were any indication, the man was built hard. When he turned a little and gave her a perfect view of the strength of his back and tight ass, she had no doubt.
Excerpted from One Night with a Cowboy by Elizabeth Otto, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Otto. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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