Read an Excerpt
It was officially the worst moment of her romantic life.
Shelly Lancaster read the singles ad printed in yesterday's edition of the Skull Creek Gazette and the Red Bull she'd guzzled at lunch churned in her stomach.
SWF seeks single, adventurous, incredibly sexy male for hot, mind-blowing sex (no serious relationship wanted). One night only. Instant chemistry a must..
Her chest tightened and the air rushed from her lungs. No. No, no, no, no, no! why had she gone to all the trouble of setting up an anonymous email accounthookmeupwhen no one had even bothered to use it?
Panic bolted through her and she fought for a breath. At least now she understood why her Monday had been straight out of an episode of the Twilight Zone.
She should have known something was up. She'd felt the familiar twinge in her gut yesterday. That instinct telling her that something was about to happen.
Something bad. Really bad.
She'd assumed it had something to do with the new prisoner that had been delivered on Saturday. The entire office was on pins and needles because of Jimmy Holbrook. At only twenty-three, he'd built quite a reputation for prison escapes. He'd waltzed out of all four of the facilities where he'd been housed and the Texas Rangers were determined he wouldn't walk out of number five. Hence the transfer to a maximum security prison in El Paso. But in the rush to get him under lock and key at an adequate facility, there had been a few mistakes with his transfer paperwork. Which meant that Jimmy was currently locked up in a back cell awaiting an armed escort to take him the last leg of his trip. Until the paperwork got sorted out, he and the Texas Ranger parked outside his cell were stuck right here in Skull Creek. Hence the churning in her stomach. Or so she'd thought.
She eyeballed the extra-large container of chocolate body paint sitting on the corner of her desk, a big red bow sitting on top. Justin Wellborn, one of the hottest cowboys to ever two-step across the floor down at the local dance hall, had dropped off the stuff just ten minutes ago and asked her to go back to his place tonight. Before that had been Will Freeman who'd brought a basket of scented massage oils. Kip Walker had come bearing edible underwear and some guy she hardly knew, who worked down at the Dairy Freeze, had shown up with fuzzy zebra-print handcuffs.
They'd all wanted one thing.
Because they thought she wanted one thing.
Because the ad that was supposed to protect her identity and list only an anonymous email address had printed the real deal, complete with her name.
This was not happening.
"Big plans tonight?" Sheriff Matt Keller's voice slid into her head and scrambled her thoughts.
She slapped the newspaper closed and whirled. "Just the usual," she blurted, scrambling for a semi-plausible explanation. Anything better than the truth. All she had planned was a glass of wine, a hot bubble bath and a few hours curled up on the couch, watching Bud & Sissy fall madly in love in Urban Cowboy. "I'll probably clean my gun or watch whatever game's on ESPN."
"Must be some game." His gaze slid past her to the risque gifts sitting atop her desk.
"This?" She waved a hand and played on the off chance that Matt had yet to see the personals. "This stuff is for a friend of mine." Her brain raced. "It's for her, um, party. A bachelorette party." Hey, it sounded better than what was really happening. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your number-one deputy is sexually frustrated and trying to break a three-year fast.
Ugh. Matt had enough to worry about. On top of Holbrook, the town's annual chili cook-off and roping festival started in less than three days. That meant parking issues, drunken festival-goers and lots of litter. She didn't want to add hormonal female to the list.
He eyed the items one more time and smiled. "Good for you. It's nice to see you're having a little fun."
His choice of words punched a nerve and she stiffened. Shelly recalled going to bed hungry one too many nights because her mother had been too busy having fun to bother making dinner or earning a steady paycheck. Fun had its price and it wasn't one she was willing to pay. She liked having food in her refrigerator and money in the bank and, even more, peace of mind.
"I'm just collecting the stuff," she blurted, sweeping an arm across the desk and stuffing it all into her top drawer. "I'm not actually going to the party. I'm on duty." She slammed the drawer shut. "So, um, what time does your flight leave in the morning?" she asked, effectively changing the subject.
"Seven a.m." He glanced at his watch as if he'd just remembered something. "Hells bells, I need to get out of here. I promised Shay we'd have a candlelit dinner to kick off tomorrow's trip."
Which was why Shelly was in this mess in the first place.
Instead of worrying about Holbrook or the chili cook-off, Matt was leaving everything to Shelly and running off on a romantic getaway with his new wife.
The man had fallen head over boot heels and was now living the proverbial happily-ever-after. That coupled with the fact that Shelly's younger sister had just spent the past six months planning the biggest wedding the town had ever seen, had forced Shelly to re-evaluate her own love life.
Or lack of one.
She was twenty-nine years old. She'd never been married. No kids. No pets. She spent most Saturday evenings either on duty or catching up on paperwork, determined to make something of herself. To be the best. To be someone.
Anyone other than the timid little girl who'd hidden under the bed while her mother had spent her nights down at the local honky-tonk. Shelly had been so scared back then. So helpless.
She could outrun, out-throw, outshoot and out arm-wrestle any deputy in the department. With the exception of Buck Kearney, of course, but he had a good two hundred pounds on her. She'd even won Best Throwing Arm during the department's annual softball tournament last year thanks to a little bit of skill, a lot of luck and the fact that the current champion had come down with a stomach bug from eating too many ribs. She was strong-willed. Competitive. Tough. Fearless. At least that's what everyone thought and Shelly had always been more than happy to perpetuate the myth. Until now.
She wasn't ready to put on her Grandma Jean's lace wedding dress and waltz down the aisle just yet, however. One day maybe. Hopefully.
But right now, she had too many responsibilities. She was on the fast track to becoming the first female sheriff of Skull creek. Matt was retiring in six months to run a bed and breakfast with his new wife, and Shelly wasn't letting anything derail her between now and then.
She didn't want to shed her image and fall in love. She wanted to make love. While she'd had a few sexual encounters over the yearsin the backseat of Mikey Hamilton's Chevy back in high school and under the bleachers with Casey Lewis during rookie trainingthey'd been few and far between. She'd had a very limited supply when it came to sex, and she'd never had really good sex.
She wanted one night with a man who stirred the pulse-pounding, do-me-right-nowor-I'll-die chemistry she'd only read about in her favorite romance novels. A few blissful hours to satisfy her starved hormones so that she could stop fantasizing and get back to work.
Not that she was broadcasting that info to the world. She had an image to maintain, which was why she'd placed an anonymous ad in the local singles section. Or so she'd thought. Her plan had been to find a man privatelypreferably one from any of the surrounding small towns that subscribed to the Gazetteand live out the very explicit fantasies heating up her lonely nights. She would have been able to get it out of her system without any of the locals being any the wiser.
Another glance at the paper and her stomach twisted.
"Don't forget the security specialist coming tomorrow for the upgrade." Matt's voice pushed past her pounding heart.
"Tell me again why we need a security upgrade?"
"Because if we had an upgrade, we wouldn't have a Texas Ranger babysitting our prisoner." He motioned to the door leading to the holding area. "The clearance paperwork should be sitting in my email first thing in the morning. Just give him a tour and he'll take care of the rest," Matt tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
The minute the knob clicked, she snatched up the newsprint and signaled to the assistant deputy sitting at a nearby desk.
"Keep an eye on things," she told the man.
"Me?" Bobby Sparks glanced behind him. He was fresh from the academy and the newest addition to the sheriff's department. Like any good rookie, Bobby didn't so much as wipe his butt without asking permission first. "You're giving me my first assignment?"
Shelly put on her most intimidating face. "Keep your eyes open and don't let anyone past the front desk while I'm gone or else Ranger Truitt will tear me a new one. The holding area is on complete lock-down until Holbrook moves on."
"I'm on it." Bobby's grin spread from ear to ear as he bounced to his feet. "I've been doing simulated fire fights on my Xbox at home. I'm ready for anything."
"I'll be back in ten minutes." Shelly stuffed down the worry that roiled inside of her when Bobby paused to check his gun belt. "I'll be on my radio if you need me. And remember, no visitors in the holding area. No one," she reminded him. He could handle this. And even if he couldn't, Beauford Truitt was parked outside Holbrook's cell keeping watch on things.
Everything would be okay.
She tamped down her worry and focused on the task at handkilling the ad before it became the talk of the entire town.
And then she pushed through the door and headed for the Skull Creek Gazette.
"It's Jackson's fault," declared Minerva Peters, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. "He's our typesetter. Been with the paper going on forty years now. He doesn't see as well as he used to since the cataracts set in. But don't you worry" Minerva gave her an apologetic smile "we'll refund your money right away."
"I don't want a refund. I mean.. " Shelly's mind raced. "/ don't want a refund because it's not my money. I placed the ad for a friend. You were supposed to use her email, not mine."
Realization seemed to dawn and Minerva smiled. "But of course you did. I knew something was funny about this whole thing. Now if the ad had asked for a female, that I could understand."
Minerva waved a hand. "Don't be shy, honey. I'm the eyes and ears of this town. I know everything. Besides, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. You never date. You go around dressed like this all the time." She waved a hand at Shelly's uniform. "And you beat up Henry Rogers at the town picnic last year. You obviously butter your bread on the other side just like my niece over in Houston. Why, she came out of the closet just last year and settled down with a cute little hairdresser. Gets free highlights now and everything."
She was not hearing this.
Shelly drew a deep breath and tamped down the anxiety ebbing through her. "First off, this is my uniform. I have to wear it. And I didn't beat up Henry. I beat him at arm wrestling, and it was only because he had a pinched nerve." She wasn't sure why she blurted out the truth, but there was just something about the way the woman looked at heras if she had her completely figured outthat made Shelly want to prove her wrong. "I like men," she heard herself say. "A lot. Just so you know."
"Sure you do." The woman winked as if to say "It's our little secret."
All the better, a voice in her head whispered.
That same voice had kept her from telling the entire world that she didn't need the basket of massage oils that had been left on her desk. Not because she wasn't interested in those things, but because she already had her own. She also had chocolate body paint and a pair of fuzzy handcuffs. Pink ones, as a matter of fact. Sure, she'd yet to use them. But still. There was more to Shelly Lancaster than just the rough and tough exterior that everyone saw. She was soft on the inside. Feminine. Just like any other woman.
Just like her mother.
She drop-kicked the thought and eyed Minerva. "I don't want a refund. I want a retraction explaining the mistake."
"No problem. I'll get right on it."
"Great." Relief ballooned in Shelly's chest. "That's the best news I've heard all day."
"Next week," Minerva added, her voice like a pinprick which quickly deflated any relief Shelly had been feeling, "in our very next issue."
"But we need to fix this today." Panic bolted through her. "Now."
Minerva shrugged. "We're an itty bitty publication, honey, with a piss poor circulation. Sure, we deliver to the surrounding towns, but their populations are small. We can't afford to put out more than one issue every Sunday."
Which meant the paper would be out there for the world to see for five more days. Her stomach dropped and her eyes burned.
She blinked frantically because no way was she going to start bawling in front of Skull Creek's biggest gossip. Talk about the kiss of death.