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Three Weeks with a Bull Rider
An Oklahoma Nights Romance
By CAT JOHNSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Cat Johnson
All rights reserved.
"You're really not gonna come with me?" Eyes wide, Jace Mills stared across the driveway at the man who was supposed to be his best friend.
"It's not that I don't want to." Leaning back against his truck, Tucker Jenkins drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. "Don't you understand? I can't."
Jace ran his hand across his forehead beneath the band of his cowboy hat. "Because why again?"
"I told you already."
"Tell me one more time, just so I can be sure I heard you right the first time." Jace waited for the response. He already knew the answer but he needed to hear Tuck admit the foolishness out loud again. Maybe this time he'd realize how stupid he sounded.
Tuck sighed. "I have plans to go out with Becca and Logan and Emma."
"And this double date of yours is to where, exactly?" Jace made sure he stressed the most ridiculous part—the cozy couples outing that somehow took precedence over Tuck riding in a competition.
Another sigh proceeded Tuck's answer. "A winery in Drumright."
"Yes, indeed. A winery." Jace nodded, lips pursed. "You hate wine. Always have. You do remember that small detail, don't you? Or did marriage give you brain damage or amnesia or something?"
He'd seen it before when a man got pussy on the brain, but Tuck was married to Becca now. That stage should be over.
"Listen, Jace. When you get married, you'll see. A man has to choose his battles."
And there it was—that annoying defense that all married men loved to throw in the face of smart, unmarried men like Jace. When you get married, you'll see ...
"Fine, Tuck. Pick your battles, but I'm telling you right about now would be a damn good time to stand your ground and fight. There's fifteen-hundred added money. How can you pass that up? We don't even have to travel far for it. It's an hour away. Right off the damn highway in Shawnee."
"I know, but apparently it's this vineyard's big annual festival and harvest event or some shit like that. They only have it once a year. Look, I'm not happy about it either, but I gotta do it."
It was small consolation to Jace, but Tuck's expression did say he'd rather be riding in Shawnee than sipping wine, any day. Jace figured it all came down to the path of least misery. Becca could make Tuck's life harder than Jace could, so she won this battle.
"Look, Jace. Just go to Shawnee on your own, win the purse, and be happy I'm not there as competition so I can't take it away from you."
"Oh, you're not my competition." Jace shook his head, not willing to concede to Tuck's boasting, just because Tuck had won a couple championship buckles way back when. "Maybe you used to be, before you got soft, but not anymore. Besides, you know how I feel. When I'm on the back of a bull, it's me against him. I could care less who rode before or who's fixin' to ride."
"Fine. I've gone soft. Whatever." Tuck dismissed the insult with a wave of his hand, which didn't give Jace as much satisfaction as it would have if he'd gotten a rise out of his friend. "I still can't ride tonight and there's nothing I—or you—can do about it."
"I don't see why Becca and Emma can't go alone. They can drive themselves to Drumright. Hell, it's like twenty minutes away and she knows the way. You guys are always going there for that smoked bologna you love so much. What the hell's the name of that restaurant again?"
"Yeah, Joseph's. The point is, Becca can drive to Drumright without you. This wine tasting crap is a chick thing anyway. Or, hell, you know what? Logan can take the girls. He probably likes wine." Jace felt far less camaraderie toward Logan since he'd stolen Becca's sister Emma away.
"I already suggested that."
"Really?" That was interesting. Maybe Tuck hadn't handed his balls over to Becca at the wedding after all. Jace settled back against his own truck, parked next to Tuck's in the driveway. "And?"
"It went over like a fart in church." Tuck blew out a breath filled with frustration. "It's crazy to go to a wine tasting this year anyway. Emma can't even drink—"
The moment Tuck uttered that statement, he got an oh shit look on his face. His expression, as much as his words, brought Jace's attention around.
"Why can't Emma drink?" Jace leaned forward, anticipating the answer.
Tuck swallowed hard. "No reason. She just doesn't want to right now."
It was becoming very apparent why the woman Jace had asked to be his date to Tuck and Becca's wedding in June had up and gotten hitched to Logan in August, just two months after the first time they'd met. Jace hadn't even known they'd been seeing each other, but they'd obviously been doing something together. "Tuck, is Emma knocked up?"
"Crap." Tuck ran a hand over his face, giving Jace his answer.
Emma and Logan had tied the knot not two weeks ago. If this were a honeymoon baby, which Jace doubted, would Emma know for sure this soon? Now that he thought about it, Emma's clothes had looked a whole lot more filled out in the bust area recently. Why hadn't he noticed that before? He was usually a boob man.
He supposed a person didn't tend to see the things he didn't want to and shook his head. "Damn, I can't believe I didn't figure this out sooner."
"Jace, please. For everyone's sake, don't say anything to anyone." Tuck pinned him with a glare. "Let Emma and Logan announce things in their own time and their own way."
"Of course, I won't say anything. Shit, Tuck." Jace scowled that his friend would think he wouldn't keep his confidence. "Who do you think you're talking to? I can keep my doggone mouth shut."
"Yeah, I know you can." Tuck let out a snort of a laugh. "It's your ability to keep your pants zipped that's the problem."
"Oh, real nice. Thanks a lot." Jace drew his brows low in a frown. "And what the hell's that supposed to mean, anyway?"
Tuck was the one who'd gone on a streak of whoring after his divorce from his first wife, before he'd met Becca and settled down. Logan was the one who'd gotten Emma pregnant and had the shotgun wedding, yet Tuck was giving Jace shit. Hell, Jace's sex life had been in such a slump, he wouldn't be able to identify a pussy in a lineup.
"Exactly what it sounds like, Jace. You ditched your date at my reception to go screw around with your ex-girlfriend. How do you think Emma ended up with Logan to begin with?"
"Uh, yeah, you did. There's video of the first dance to prove it. The whole wedding party was there except you. I saw my sister Tara, and my brother Tyler on that DVD, and I saw Logan and Emma, but you know what? You were nowhere around." Tuck's brows rose, disappearing from view beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. "Didn't ditch Emma, my sweet ass—"
"I meant Jacqueline and I didn't screw around that night." Jace cut short Tuck's rant. Sure, Jacqueline and he'd had sex since they'd broken up—wild, crazy, frantic sex—quite a few times, but not on the night of the wedding. "All we did was talk. She was upset."
"Upset about what?" Tuck's frustration was evident in the raised volume of his voice.
"That I was going to your reception as Emma's date." Jace lifted one shoulder in a half shrug.
"Jace." Tuck's eyes opened wide. "You and Jacqueline are broken up. You have been for a long time."
"We were together for a long time, too." Jace met Tuck's icy stare. "Just shy of seven years."
"I know how long it was. I was there when you met her. I was also there for the drinking after she threw you and all your stuff out and you were homeless. Let's remember that, shall we? She broke up with you. And now she expects to control who you date?"
"Nah, I don't think she wants to do that. She just said it was hard to see me with another woman even though we're broken up."
The conversation had taken a severe left turn and Jace didn't like it. It was supposed to be about Tuck bailing on tonight's event, not about Jace's relationship with his ex-girlfriend.
Tuck couldn't understand how complicated things were between Jace and Jacqueline. How could he? The breakup of his first marriage had been a no-brainer. After Tuck had found out his ex-wife was screwing another guy while he was deployed, he'd filed for divorce and never looked back. And now, Tuck was walking around in the haze of marital bliss, happy as a clam with his new wife Becca.
What right did he have to criticize Jace's decision to show some compassion toward Jacqueline when she was upset? But that was what Tuck was doing—judging him.
"I can't believe it." Tuck's eyes widened. "You're still in love with her. I can see it in your face. She dumped you over a year ago and you're still hoping to get back together."
"No, I'm not." Jace dismissed that idea with the flick of a hand.
"Then why haven't you dated anyone else in all that time? Hell, why aren't you even getting laid? I mean, yeah, you talk a good game, and carry around a box of condoms in your gear bag, but I never see you go home with anybody."
"I tried to date Emma and your friend Logan stole her away from me. Besides, you don't know that I'm not getting laid." Okay, maybe Jace hadn't gotten sweaty with anyone besides his ex lately, but he could if he wanted to.
"Don't I? Who have you been with? Since Jacqueline, name one woman." Tuck pushed himself off the tailgate and rose to his full height. He stared down at Jace, making him feel shorter than his five-foot-nine inches.
"You want a name? Fine. Emma. I hooked up with her after the rodeo the night you first met Becca."
"First of all, that was a year ago. And hooked up? That's a pretty broad term you're using there, Jace. Did you two have sex or not?"
"I'm not telling you what happened between me and your new sister-in-law." Jace crossed his arms over his chest.
Leaning back against the tailgate again, Tuck mirrored Jace and crossed his own arms, but he accompanied it with a smug smile. "That's because nothing happened."
As much as it pissed Jace off to admit it, Tuck was right. Jace remembered why nothing had happened. Jacqueline had texted him that she had a flat tire and he'd left Emma's hotel room when they'd been about to tumble into bed, to go and help Jacqueline.
Jace had just opened his mouth to form some sort of protest that didn't involve that truth when Tuck barreled right over him. "Don't bother trying to lie, Jace. If you had done anything more than kiss Emma good night, you would have been in her hotel room when I called you the next morning. Instead, you were at home, bright eyed and bushy tailed as if you'd had a full night's sleep in your own bed."
"Fine." There was no lying to Tuck. They'd known each other too long. "No, I didn't have sex with Emma. I'd think you'd be happy about that, since she's married to your friend and having his baby."
"Oh, I am. Believe me. If I'm going to be an uncle, it's a relief that it's Logan who's the father."
"Real nice. Way to cut a man down. Thanks a lot, Tuck." The conversation was going downhill fast. If that was how his best friend talked to him, Jace should start hanging out with strangers.
"Sorry." Tuck sighed. "It's nothing against you, Jace. It's just Logan's ready to be a father. He's older. He has a steady job, health benefits, and a good retirement plan through the army."
Jace frowned. "Hey. I make a damn good living. I can hardly keep up with all the work."
Things had never been busier for Jace's landscaping company. Between cutting lawns all summer, and then snow and tree removal in the winter months, he was sitting pretty. As for his rodeo career, Jace had been riding great, placing in the money damn near every competition this season. And he had health coverage—he paid for catastrophe insurance. That would cover hospital stays and surgery. The other kind of insurance that paid every damn time a person got a snotty nose and ran to the doctor was just a money making racket, anyway. He didn't need that.
So what if he didn't have a guaranteed paycheck and an army pension like Logan and Tuck? Jace could still support a baby should it happen, not that he was looking for that anytime soon. Hell, no.
Still, Tuck should know he'd take care of what he was responsible for, just as well as Logan could. The fact Tuck didn't think so, hurt, and had Jace pretty pissed off.
"Jace, look. All the other shit aside, you seriously need to get over Jacqueline and get on with your life. Do I have to quote your own saying back to you?" One of Tuck's dark brows cocked up.
"Then say it."
"Don't want to." Jace had a bad feeling he might have actually pouted. He didn't much like having his own philosophy thrown in his face.
"Come on." Tuck grinned, obviously enjoying this torture.
Jace sighed. "The best way to get over one woman is to get under another one."
"There you go." Tuck smiled. "Now go to Shawnee, find yourself a buckle bunny, and start getting over Jacqueline."
The one kink in that plan was that Jace wasn't in the mood for a quick, mindless tumble with a stranger. After being in a committed relationship for seven years, he was afraid he might never have a taste for buckle bunny again—though he'd rather take a hoof to the gut than admit that to Tuck.
"A'ight. I'll go to Shawnee by myself." Going alone would be better than getting a lecture the whole way there and back from Tuck, anyway.
"And ... while you're there?" Tuck waited.
"I'll see if there's anybody interesting hanging around." Jace tried to sound enthusiastic. He was pretty sure he failed.
It wasn't lost on him that back in the day when he and Tuck were just out of high school and trying to make a living on the rodeo circuit, interesting wasn't a qualifying factor for which women they bedded. Willing. Drunk. Easy. One or all three were the usual traits they sought out. On occasion, if there happened to be one particular girl they both had their eye on, they'd take turns with her if she was into it. That's what traveling partners did. They shared things. Traveling expenses. Hotel rooms. Women. Whatever.
Then Tuck got serious and got married to Brenda. He'd joined the army, and left the circuit, and then Jace had met Jacqueline. The rest was history. Seven years together and a year broken up, and Jace was still texting, if not talking to Jacqueline daily. He was more than aware that history tended to repeat itself. What if they did get back together? Then what? Another seven years of screaming fights followed by a night of makeup sex until one of them broke it off again?
"I think you're right, Tuck." The admission tasted bitter on Jace's tongue, but he was man enough to speak the truth. "It's time I made a clean break from the past. Moved on." Moved on to where? To whom? He didn't have those answers.
Tuck tipped his head in a single nod. "It's good to hear you say that."
Too bad saying it and doing it were two very different things.CHAPTER 2
"There's no way it could be broken. I just bought it."
Tara Jenkins threw her hands in the air.
From beneath the hood, the old cowboy she'd roped into looking at her new car—make that newly purchased, but very old, used car—glanced at her.
"Not a surprise that whoever owned it before you wanted to get rid of it." He straightened up, wiping his hands on a rag. "It's a piece of shit, pardon my language. Looks like it needs a new radiator. Good chance the block is cracked."
"Is all that expensive to fix?" Tara was afraid she wasn't going to like his answer.
He let out a snort. "There ain't no fixing a cracked engine block. You'd have to replace it and in my opinion, this car ain't worth that. Did you take anybody there with you when you bought it?"
"You shoulda. Folks are gonna take advantage of a pretty young thing like yourself. Next time, take a man with you." He cocked his graying head to one side and delivered that annoying, chauvinistic but true advice a week too late.
Tara tangled her hands in her hair and swallowed a scream. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. It was too late now.
Maybe she had gone a little crazy after she'd found out Logan was getting married to that interloper Emma from New York. The pain of that news had made her desperate to get out of town. She had to get away from him and the hurt, and get on with her life.
Excerpted from Three Weeks with a Bull Rider by CAT JOHNSON. Copyright © 2014 Cat Johnson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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