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No one was going to stop the train wreck at the end of the bar. Lucy Alatore stopped listening to her sister describe the house she and her husband were going to build and looked around for Joey, the bartender, who was supposed to stop train wrecks like the one the drunk cowboy at the bar was courting as he searched for his car keys.
"You're not listening to me, are you?" Mia asked.
"Sorry." Lucy stood, only to find Joey flirting with the margarita girls at the end of the bar. "I'm trying to"
"Find someone to take that cowboy's keys, I know." Mia stood and shrugged into her denim jacket. "It's just as well, Jack's going to be waiting up."
As she spoke, Miausually as reserved and quiet as a nun when it came to sexcouldn't keep the womanly smile from curling the corners of her lips.
Lucy refrained from doing anything as childish as pretending to gag. But if her sister didn't stop flaunting her sex life all over the place, Lucy was going to have to resort to name-calling just to vent her envy.
Lucy hugged her sister, holding her closer for a moment, longer than what might seem necessary even between two sisters who dearly loved each other.
"I've been sitting here for two hours waiting for you to tell me what's bothering you," Mia whispered.
"Bothering me?" Lucy leaned back, making sure her smile was bright. "Nothing bothers me. It's a rule of the universe."
But Mia's amber eyes drilled right into Lucy's head and it took every weapon in her arsenal to keep her smile in place. Beyonce's "Single Ladies" ringtone blasted from deep in the purse on the chair beside her for the tenth time that night.
"You going to answer that?" Mia asked.
Mia sighed, defeated. "You're okay to drive?"
"Good as you." They both glanced down at the plate of nachos and light beers on the table. Both beers were halffull. Growing up around an alcoholic had ingrained a certain caution around booze.
Mia squeezed Lucy's shoulder and left, winding through the tables and out the door of the Sunset Bar and Grill. Lucy took a deep breath and turned toward the bar, pulling down the jersey Armani shirt she had bought at a resale shop. She wanted to give the girls a chance to do the convincing for her as she stopped a drunk train from leaving this particular station.
"Hey there, cowboy," she said, stepping up to the man digging through his pockets for his keys while fighting to stay upright.
He yanked his keys free of the beat-up denim coat. "Found 'em." He sighed, as if he'd been satisfied on some deep soul level by the appearance of those keys. He turned and she shifted into his way.
"where you headed?"
"Home." He glanced up and did a drunken man's double take. Slow and sloppy. "Unless you want to have a drink with me?" His smile was charming despite the booze behind it and she smiled back.
"I think you've had enough. Why don't you let me call someone to come pick you up?"
"No one to call." He narrowed his eyes. "Don't I know you?"
She looked back at the man. At first glance he looked like every man under thirty who walked through this bar, with cowboy boots, a tan, weathered face and strong chin. But those brown eyes
"Holy crap," he muttered, listing toward her slightly. "Lucy Alatore. You showed me your boobs at the state football game."
Oh, Lord. Reese McKenna. "One of my proudest moments."
"I won that game."
"Yes, you did."
"Your boobs were pretty." He stared down her shirt and she reached to hike her pewter jersey shirt up higher on her chest.
"Can I see?"
"Nope. But how about I drive you home?"
"well, now, I like an aggressive"
"You're drunk, Reese. And you can't drive. Not like you are right now."
He stared down at his keys as if he were waiting for their input. As if the two of them were old friends who had been in this situation before.
"Come on," she said quietly. "I'll take you home."
"I don't I don't want to bother you, Lucy." His smile was embarrassed, and she saw a sweet glimpse of that luck-kissed boy she went to high school with.
"You and I know there aren't any cabs around here, Reese." She patted his arm, strong and thick under his shirt, while lifting her palm up for the keys. After a moment he dropped them in.
Lucy led him out into the cool, clean air of was-sau, California, population: Podunk. In city limits, there were about twice as many cows as people. Main Street stretched down toward the Sierras, lit up for a few blocks by four streetlights.
Her beat-up Civic sat in all its rusted glory to her left. But Reese's keys had a fancy foreign emblem on the key chain and out of curiosity she hit the lock release button.
The lights that flashed belonged to a slick sports car crouched in the far corner of the parking lot, sticking out like a sore thumb surrounded by dirty pickup trucks.
Let's see, she thought, beat-up Civic or fancy sports car?
It wasn't even a question.
"We'll take your car," she said, the heels of her Prada-knockoff boots grinding into the gravel.
Please, God, don't let that car be stick shift.
Reese climbed into the passenger seat and tucked his hat down over his eyes, looking like a man about to sleep it off.
"Hold up, Reese, where do you live?"
"Staying out at Jeremiah's place."
"Jeremiah Stone?" Well, well, well, this night just keeps getting better. Playing chauffeur to a drunken Reese got a whole lot more appealing with Jeremiah Stone at the other end. "I didn't know he was back in town."
"Yes, ma'am," he muttered, and then, shifting deeper into his bucket seat, he seemed to pass out.
Stone Hollow was the ranch next to the Rocky M, the ranch where she grew up and was currently calling home. It was currently her home while her life in Los Angeles fell to pieces.
Jeremiah, five years older than her and Reese, had been a local legend in Northern California. A rodeo stud, he left town to make it big in the arena when Lucy was a freshman. Last she saw Jeremiah, he was on the front page of a grocery store tabloid and on his arm was a gorgeous country music star.
The car's engine roared to life when she turned the key, the reverberations rumbling up through her body, and she felt as if she were sitting on top of a wild creature. She put the car into Drivenot a stick shift, God had been listening for onceand a familiar reckless thrill flickered through her chest as the powerful vehicle rolled onto Main Street.
She opened the window, letting the mountain air comb fingers through her hair and blow kisses across her cheeks. The neck of her shirt gaped and the air slid down into more intimate places.
Glancing sideways at the sleeping man, she grinned and gunned the engine, racing through the night up into the mountains.
Twenty minutes later she pulled to a stop in the paved parking area in front of the sprawling, two-story ranch house that sat in a pretty pocket of land just west of Rocky M. Fields were made silver by the bright moonlight, horses took on a mystical look as they shook their manes, their breath fogging slightly in the cool night.
Funny how things worked out. When she was growing up here, all she wanted was out. Away. She wanted adventure and culture. Excitement. Not dust.
But in Los Angeles for the past five years she found herself missing the smell of sun-baked junipers. In a city where wearing a cowboy hat was an ironic statement, she'd longed for the real thing. And after dating a bunch of cynical men in skinny jeans, she'd nurtured a yen for the kind of cowboy who would squash a guy in skinny jeans like a bug.
The front door opened, a rectangle of golden lamplight spilling out into the darkness. It had to be Jeremiah who stood there, judging by the long lean size of him, blackened against all that light. She was glad to see those wide shoulders of his because she had a feeling Reese was going to have to be carried out of this car.
She got up out of the car and waved.
"I have Reese," she said. "He was too drunk to drive home."
Jeremiah didn't say anything, just plugged his feet into his boots and stepped out onto the porch and down the steps to the car. Once he cleared the shadows, the silvery moonlight highlighted his black curls, the icy blue of his eyes.
Jeremiah Stone hasn't changed a bit, she thought, her body still humming from controlling that car. Or maybe it was Jeremiah. He was the sort of man to make a girl's body hum.
The devil was in that man's smile and she found herself smiling back. Honestly, Jeremiah could seduce a saint with that mouth of his. And remembering his reputation, he'd probably already given it a shot.
"Thanks for bringing him back," Jeremiah said, opening the passenger door. Reese spilled out like all that whiskey he'd been drinking at the bar and Jeremiah grabbed him easily. He half marched, half dragged him toward the house. Reese's hat tipped over into the dust and Jeremiah paused for a second, as if trying to figure out how he could pick it up.
"I got it," she said, and grabbed the hat, following the men into the house.
She'd been in the house a couple of times growing up. The last time was when the husband of Jeremiah's sister, Annie, died about five years ago. But the big open living room didn't look anything like she remembered. It looked more like a Laundromat and sporting equipment store had a baby right there on the couch.
Jeremiah kicked a stack of laundry down to the floor and dropped Reese onto the long denim couch.
"That's Lucy." Reese pointed at her. "She showed me her boobs."
Jeremiah's dark eyebrows hit his hairline.
"Fifteen years ago. And it was for luck."
As if that made it reasonable, she thought.
For lack of a better place, she hung the cowboy hat over a hockey stick that was jammed into the cushion of a chair.
"It was the state football game," she added. "It must have worked. He won that game, didn't he?"
"Apparently my breasts have powers even I don't understand."
Huge points to Jeremiah, who didn't glance down at her breasts, didn't in any way ogle her or joke. In fact, he didn't even look at her. He jerked a faded red, white and blue quilt off the back of the couch and draped it over his drunken houseguest, whose face was resting on a clean pair of little-boy superhero underwear.
"Thanks for bringing him back," Jeremiah said.
"I couldn't let him drive."
"I shouldn't have let him go."
Lucy glanced around the house, waiting for his sister to come out, wrapped in a robe, to give them all hell for being too loud. "Where's Annie?"
Jeremiah cleared his throat, bending down to pick up the laundry he shoved off the couch. His T-shirt slid up his back, revealing pale skin dotted with freckles over hard muscle. Just at the edge of his shirt she saw the snaky tail end of red scar tissuea healed wound she didn't want to think about. The faded denim of his jeans clung to that man like a faithful lover, and she had to wonder if the hallelujah chorus didn't ring out every time he bent over.
"She died. Last spring."
"What?" She tore her eyes away from his body, feeling like a degenerate. "Oh, my God, Jeremiah what happened?"
He stood up with a stack of small blue jeans in his hands.
"Cancer." He threw the jeans in the overflowing laundry basket. "It was fast."
"I'm so sorry, Jeremiah. I didn't know"
"It's all right, Lucy. I don't expect the world to keep up with all the Stones' tragedies."
"Where are your nephews?" she asked.
"Sleeping," he said with a wry smile. "It's ten o'clock at night."
"Are you " It was just so weird to think of Jeremiah Stone as the guardian of three small boys. Jeremiah Stone was a cowboy sex symbol. He got interviewed on ESPN, and that footage of him getting trampled by a bull had been a YouTube sensation. He dated beautiful country music stars, and did not, definitely did not, fold superhero underwear.
He sighed and smiled as if he couldn't believe it, either. " in charge of the boys? Yep."
Jeremiah ran a hand through those ebony curls and then set it on his hip, looking around the room as if it were the sight of a national disaster and he just didn't know what to do next.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Lucy murmured, not sure what else to say.
"Yeah. Me, too."
The silence pulsed for a moment and she opened her mouth to make her exit just as Beyonce started singing in her bag.
"Is that your phone?" Jeremiah asked.
"It's really more of an anthem," she said, avoiding the question and the phone call.
He laughed and the somber mood was broken.
"You want a drink?" he asked, cutting through the melancholy like a knife. He was smiling again and a smiling Jeremiah Stone was a difficult temptation to resist. Like saying no to chocolate-covered potato chips, or a clearance sale at Macy's. And it's not like she had better things to do.
"I'd love a beer."
"Great." He took a big step over the laundry. "Let's hope Reese didn't drink them all."
She followed him into the kitchen, which was in about the same shape as the living room. Not dirty, really, just very cluttered. Plates filled a drying rack and cups littered the sink. A round table on the far end of the room was covered in backpacks and schoolbooks. A plate with half a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich sat on a chair.
Jeremiah was a daddy. The sexiest daddy on the planet, which she still couldn't get her head around.
"Here you go," Jeremiah said, handing her a beer. "Let's have" He turned to look at the table and winced. "It's nice out, let's sit on the porch."
"Sounds good," she said.
He slid open the sliding glass door and she tried not to notice the casual nature of his strength, the way the worn T-shirt flowed like water over muscles that bunched and released every time he moved.
"Lucy?" Her eyes jerked to his and she caught him laughing. At her. What the hell, she thought, grinning back at him, the man had to be used to being stared at. Men who looked like him got stared at. It was a rule. "You coming?"
"Right behind you."
The porch was a wide patio filled with more sporting equipment. Jeremiah sat down at the table and she sat next to him. The air was cool and found her skin under the thin jersey, but sitting close to Jeremiah was like sitting next to sun-warmed rock.
"So, Lucy Alatore, what brings you back to the Rocky M?"