Book #1 in Smokin' Hot Cowboys
Warm up this Christmas with a sexy cowboy firefighter who knows how to ignite flames as well as put them out...
He's hotter than a wildfire
Trey Duval is a rancher, proud as can be of his Wildcat Ranch. He's also the top volunteer firefighter of Wildcat Bluff, Texas, the town that pulls out all the stops for its Christmas festivities.
City girl Misty Reynolds comes to Wildcat Bluff just in time to help Trey put out a suspicious fire, leading him to dub her his "Christmas angel." Unfortunately, Misty's past has left her with terrible memories of fire, and of Christmastime.
As the two are thrown together again and again, Trey finds himself wanting Misty more and more, and Misty feels stronger and braver when Trey is around. Though their trust grows slowly, their passion for each other is burning hot...
Praise for Belle Gone Bad:
"Head-butting, heart-stopping, smoking hot romance!"-Carolyn Brown, New York Times bestselling author
About the Author
Kim Redford is the bestselling author of Western romance novels. She grew up in Texas with cowboys, cowgirls, horses, cattle, and rodeos. She divides her time between homes in Texas and Oklahoma, where she's a rescue cat wrangler and horseback rider-when she takes a break from her keyboard. Visit her at kimredford.com.
Read an Excerpt
On Wildcat Road, a half-naked man burst out of a pasture and ran onto the two-lane highway. He stopped on the white centerline and waved a bright red shirt back and forth high over his head.
Misty Reynolds slammed on the brakes of her SUV, caught searching for a radio station that wasn't playing Christmas music.
She gripped the steering wheel with both hands as she screeched to a stop, managing to narrowly avoid hitting the guy. She felt her heart thump hard with the burst of adrenaline and slumped against her seat in relief, grateful she'd been able to stop in time. She forced her breath to a slower, calmer pace.
As the adrenaline rush drained away, and she was able to focus, she got a better look at the stranger and licked her lower lip. This guy was all ripped jeans, cowboy boots, and big belt buckle over buff, bronze, sweaty body. His broad, muscular shoulders tapered to a narrow waist, and his long legs looked as if they belonged straddling a horse. He reminded her of her all-time favorite candy, Texas Millionaires.
It'd been a long time since a man had set her senses on spin cycle. And she'd nearly run him over. She wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or frightened. She felt a little shaky. Here and now was not a good time or place. Life was shaking her up enough already. She didn't need this problem.
She was headed toward a wide place in the road called Wildcat Bluff. The Dallas and Fort Worth Metroplex-as in big-city civilization-sprawled a couple of hours south. She had gladly left it and all the Christmas hubbub behind her. She was far away from everything now, except cattle, grass, trees. And the tantalizing stranger. But what was going on here?
Everything about the guy looked like trouble. In the 1880s, Wildcat Bluff had been notorious as a Wild West town that catered to cowboys and outlaws. Cowboys drove cattle herds north with dust in their eyes and returned with gold in their pockets. Desperadoes crossed the Red River from Indian Territory to get liquor by the drink and love by the night. Could this be the modern equivalent of a Texas horse thief? A carjacker? She glanced around as the hair on the backs of her arms prickled in alarm. Fortunately, the stranger appeared to be alone.
Still, she wouldn't take a chance. She hit the buttons on her door and heard the satisfying click of engaged locks and closed windows. She picked up her phone from the center console and checked for coverage. No bars. She couldn't call for help. She flipped open her glove box and looked for something big enough to use as a weapon. Nothing but a small flashlight. She wasn't completely without defense. She unclipped the small pepper spray canister off the metal link on her oversized aqua purse. She'd never used the spray before, but how hard could it be? She hoped that, if necessary, all she'd have to do was point and shoot. Still, it looked small and inadequate.
She mostly worked in the city and hadn't thought she needed to carry anything more than pepper spray. Now she wasn't so sure. Her BFF Cindi Lou had completed the training and paperwork for a carry permit and toted around at least a small .22 handgun, if not something with more stopping power. Cindi Lou, with her big hair and perfect makeup, was fond of reminding Misty that folks in Texas had a proud heritage of relying on personal self-defense in case of trouble since the days of the Republic of Texas when there was no other option. She'd been alarmed to hear that Misty was going into the countryside without a sidearm. Misty shook her head and felt herself tensing up. If worse came to worst, she would simply put her SUV in reverse or outmaneuver the stranger.
He ran the last few steps to her car, pulled on the door handle, and then hit the window with the flat of his hand.
She jerked back, gripping the pepper spray, as she kept him in sight. His belt was embossed with prancing reindeer, and the big buckle sported a Santa Claus face. If she included the holiday-happy red shirt in his hand, she'd assume Christmas, not carjacking, was on his mind. But he could also mean to disarm her with his fashion statement.
This close, he appeared wild. Hazel eyes flicked back and forth, resting on nothing or on everything. Dust peppered his tousled dark brown hair. His broad bare chest was coated with dirt and sweat. He looked good in the rough and rugged kind of way that set a gal's thermostat on "too hot to handle." She quickly flicked her AC to a higher setting and relished the burst of cold air.
"Help me!" he said in a deep voice muted by the closed windows.
"Do you have a medical emergency?" She held up her phone. "No coverage."
"Look over there!" He pointed toward the pasture.
All she saw was a little dust in the air. No telling what was going on. She'd play it safe. Once she put distance between them and could use her cell, she'd call to get him help.
"Do you have a blanket? Water?"
She felt his voice weave a spell around her like the finest of Texas male singers, an unmistakable quality of deep and sultry with a hot chili back-burn that left you wanting more. Classic singers like Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and George Strait came to mind.
She shook her head, breaking his spell. "Are you hungry?" Maybe he was homeless. "I have energy bars."
He frowned, drawing his dark, straight eyebrows together, as he shook his shirt at her. "There's a grass fire!"
Too late, she realized his red shirt was blackened and burned in spots. If she hadn't been so busy ogling his glistening sooty body and comparing him to outlaws, she might have noticed sooner. He'd obviously been using his shirt to beat out a fire.
"Only minutes to stop it." He glanced at her backseat, and his face lit up with happiness. "You've got towels!" He dropped his tattered shirt.
"Always. Just in case." Even as the words left her mouth, panic started to seize control. Breath caught in her throat. Chills turned her cold. And she felt pressure on her chest as if from a great weight.
She was terrified of fires.
They ranked as even more nightmarish than Christmas, ever since that early morning when she was twelve. She stopped that thought in its tracks. No good ever came from reliving the past. Right now, she had to get out of there before a panic attack overwhelmed her.
She threw her car in reverse.
"Stop! I'm Fire-Rescue." He hit her window with the flat of his hand again.
She was startled out of backing up and transfixed by his intense gaze, pinning her in place.
"I'm deputizing you as a Wildcat Bluff volunteer firefighter. Open your doors and help me."
Although his voice was muffled coming through the glass, she heard every word he said in that crystal clarity that precedes a full-on, foot-stomping, heart-stopping crisis.
She tried to focus on the fact that he was one of the good guys. Unfortunately, the knowledge didn't help her. She didn't have panic attacks often, but when she did, they were as scary as whatever had set them off. She took a deep breath and worked to stay focused. Breathe and focus, breathe and focus. It wasn't going to do anybody-least of all herself, and certainly not the stranger banging on her car window-any good for her to lose it now. She could get a grip. She had to get a grip.
She carefully set the pepper spray down beside her phone and wrapped her fingers around the solid surface of the steering wheel to ground her body while she fought her fear with a reassuring repetition of words in her mind. "Be here now. Safe and sound. Be here now."
"If that fire gets loose, it'll burn across these pastures and kill cattle, horses, and wild animals. Timber will go up fast and furious. Wildcat Bluff won't stand a chance," the stranger shouted, pounding his fist on the roof of her car. Obviously he was close to losing it, too.
She felt his words start to override her panic. She gripped the steering wheel harder. She needed to help him. She wanted to help him. She couldn't let her weakness stop her from saving others. She was safe in the here and now. She swallowed down her response, took a deep breath, then released the locks and opened her door. The scent of burning grass hit her and she reeled back against the seat. She put one hand across her nose to reduce the smell of smoke and another across her chest as if in protection.
"Thank you!" He jerked open the back door. He grabbed three towels and slammed the door shut. "Name's Trey."
"Misty," she mumbled, prepared to do-well, whatever this hot, strong guy thought she could do. He tossed a blue towel onto her lap, and flashed a quick but genuine smile that filled her with tingly energy from the tips of her hair right down to her toes. It was a good kind of warmth, like sunbathing in the summer without a care in the world.
"Well, come on then, Misty!" he called over his shoulder. He took off toward the smoke and a break in the fence line.
She immediately felt the loss of his radiant energy. The sight of him in all his muscular glory running like all get-out didn't hurt her illogical desire to follow him, either. That thought made her smile and set back her panic a bit. If she wasn't careful, she was going to start writing poetry to honor him. She felt her breath come a little easier. Something about this guy made her feel braver.
Yet, did he actually expect her to fight the fire with him? Did he think she would run toward that horrible smell of burning grass instead of fleeing it? Did he imagine she would fight the flames with nothing more than a single, solitary towel in her very vulnerable hands? He must see something in her that she was pretty sure simply wasn't there.
Fear and safety aside, she wasn't dressed to fight a fire. North Texas was experiencing a December heat wave, and she was wearing capris and flip-flops. She could get hurt. She lowered her hands to her lap and gripped the towel. But if she didn't help, how many more might be hurt? People. Animals. Property. Timber.
She had to help. She glanced down and noticed stains on the towel from some long-ago picnic. She couldn't ever have imagined using her towels to put out a fire. But if ratty towels and her shaky courage were all that stood between death and destruction, they would have to do.
Mindful of possible traffic, she put her SUV in drive, pulled to the side of the road, and turned off the engine. She stepped outside. Ninety degrees wasn't a miserable one hundred, but still plenty hot, particularly for the holiday season. Christmas was bad enough. Christmas and a heat wave together was-well, it was like hell on Earth. Complete with fire. How about some brimstone next?
She slammed the door shut, blocking retreat, and forced one foot in front of the other as she edged around the front fender. The scent of burning grass grew stronger. And just like that, she felt the sharp edge of a flashback threaten to overwhelm her. She clenched her empty fist, driving fingernails into her palm. She used the pain to ground her in the here and now. And in her mind, she employed her safe words. "Be here now. Safe and sound. Be here now."
She looked across the fence and took a deep breath, despite the stench. Not a wall of fire. Instead, a line of red-orange flames ate up the dry grass, leaving black stubble behind as the blaze sent up plumes of smoke. She watched Trey beat at the conflagration with a towel in each hand. He was making progress. She felt hope that her towels could actually make a difference. But he couldn't completely stop the flames. The fire line was too wide. Without her help, he was going to lose the battle.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. She felt his gaze as an almost physical sensation, willing her to help, giving her strength, sharing his courage. She felt a surge of determination. She wouldn't let him fight alone.
When she reached the sagging barbwire fence, she carefully stepped over it and quickly walked to Trey. "What do you want me to do?"
"Can't let the fire cross the road or it'll be hell and gone." He pointed toward the other side of the fire line. "You take that end. Beat out the flames as fast as you can. We're ahead of the blaze, and we've got to stay that way."
"Okay." With one simple word, she knew she'd turned her world upside down, but she wouldn't back down.
As she moved into position, she saw that fire consumed the dry grass at an unbelievably fast rate. They were in the middle of a bad drought. Add unseasonably warm temperatures to the mix and everything was vulnerable. Up close, intensity ruled. Heat. Smoke. Smell. Fortunately, the fire hadn't spread too far. She raised her towel over her head and whipped down hard, smothering the flames. Brief elation filled her. Maybe she-they-could fight this fire. And win.
Trey was slapping at the flames with everything he had, and she followed suit. Quickly they had a rhythm going-slap, lift, slap, lift, slap, lift-and with each slap a little bit of the fire gave way.
"Good thing I brush-hogged around here, so the grass is short," Trey called out, without losing a beat.
"It could be worse?"
"I can't imagine."
"Watch your feet!"
She felt heat sear her toes and jerked back. Black soot streaked her tangerine toenail polish and the crystal stones on her sandals. She suddenly felt dizzy and off balance.
"Are you okay?" Trey quickly stomped out the flames near her feet with his scuffed cowboy boots.
"Yes." And strangely enough, she did feel better with him so close by her side.
"I'm buying you a real pair of shoes."
"You don't have to do that. These are fine," Misty said, although she didn't know why she suddenly felt defensive about her footwear. Maybe it was because she prided herself on being practical-usually-not one of those women who dressed in a way that made them appear absolutely helpless.
"Not out here," Trey said as he looked at her in a way that made her suddenly self-conscious.
"I wouldn't be here if not for your fire."
"It's our fire." He moved back to his end of the line and beat fast and hard at the flames.
She simply shook her head as she struck the ground again with her towel while she carefully kept her feet back from the flames.
"You'll need boots next time."
"Next time!" She looked over at him in horror. Mistake. She felt hermouth go dry. The sun spotlighted him as he raised blackened towels and struck downward. Powerful muscles in his back, shoulders, and arms gleamed with sweat and rippled with exertion. As if he'd been swimming, his faded jeans were plastered to his taut butt and long legs. She shook her head to dispel his image, but nothing helped put out the fire that now burned inside her.
"There's always a next time." He tossed a slightly crooked smile her way as he lifted towels to extinguish more flames.
"Oh no." She hadn't come all this way to get distracted by the first hot guy who literally crossed her path-even if he did flag her down with his shirt. She particularly didn't need to get involved with one who was into Christmas and dragged her into fighting a grass fire in the middle of nowhere. She didn't want to ever put out another fire. This was a onetime deal to help out a man in an emergency and stop a prairie fire from eating up acres instead of one grassy swath. In the future, she would leave firefighting to the experts.
Besides, she was here on business. Texas Timber had hired her as an independent troubleshooter to find out who had burned down one of the company's Christmas tree farms, and possibly caused other problems. She'd been warned not to trust anybody in Wildcat Bluff County. Now, first thing, she was involved with a local. A really hot local. She couldn't hold back a soulful sigh. At least she might excuse her interest in Trey as simply business since he might be helpful in her investigation.
"You're a deputized firefighter now," he said.
"That can't be legal." She attacked the grass with renewed energy. They were actually making good headway now.
"If there's trouble, everybody pitches in."
"We're the first responders." He struck hard at the ground with his towels.
"There must be a county sheriff. Highway patrol."
"And the Wildcat Bluff Police Department." He stomped at the blackened grass. "How long do you think it'd take help to get here?"
"We all depend on the Wildcat Bluff County Volunteer Fire-Rescue."
"That's why you deputized me? I'm a total stranger! I could have been-well, big trouble. I actually thought you were, at first."
"But you aren't," he said with another charming grin.
She couldn't resist cracking a smile back, even despite the circumstances. She shrugged, beginning to understand that life out here was different than in the city.
Sweat trickled down her body. Soot tasted bitter in her mouth. Sunlight beat down on her head. If she came out of this with nothing more than sunburn, she'd be lucky. Yet, that didn't matter. She was helping stop a fire. She was saving lives and property. She was taking a step toward recovery.
As the flames dwindled in size and scope, she edged toward him. Soon they worked side by side, putting out the remaining hot spots. He loomed well over six feet and made her feel diminutive, even at her perfectly respectable five seven.
Finally, he stopped and stretched his back.
"Fire's out?" She wanted him to confirm what she saw with her own eyes.
"Yep. Looks good." He scuffed his boots across the crusty grass. "Can't thank you enough. If you hadn't come along when you did-"
"You'd have thought of something." She interrupted to keep him from saying another word. His melodic voice with the deep Texas drawl couldn't help but put her in mind of hot, sweaty bodies sliding across cool, satin sheets.
"I needed a miracle and prayed for one the minute I saw the fire." He walked over to her. "I heard my answer in your car coming down the highway. I headed back to the road, running flat out. And there you were in your pure white SUV, looking so cool and unafraid of the wild man pounding on your window. You had a miracle in your car. Towels. Not many people would have had them just waiting on a backseat."
She didn't feel so cool and unafraid. Who had this guy been looking at? Still, his words made her swell with an unusual type of pride. "Like I said, I always do. Just in case."
He clasped both towels in one hand, and held out the other. "Thank you. You're my Christmas angel."
"Just plain Misty Reynolds." She shook his hand, feeling his strength, his heat, his calluses.
"Pleased to meet you." He rubbed the back of her hand with his rough thumb, and then slowly released her. "Like I said, I'm Trey...Trey Duval."
For a moment, she couldn't remember the polite response required of her. She was caught in the magic of his touch, the mesmerizing sound of his voice, and the unusual color of his eyes, circles of gold, green, and brown. She glanced away to release his spell. "Good to meet you, too."
"Are you going to be around long?"
"A bit. I'm on vacation." She hoped her cover story would ring true to everyone she met in Wildcat Bluff.
"Where are you staying?"
Misty hesitated, but Trey really did seem like a good guy. Besides, he'd learn it soon enough from the locals. She decided to trust the instinct that was telling her to trust him.
"Twin Oaks B&B. No website, but I caught a couple of good reviews online."
"Ruby's got more customers than she can shake a stick at. No need to promote. That natural spring draws folks."
"Guess a lot of business is the best promotion."
He nodded. "It's usually pretty quiet in Wildcat Bluff. But we'll get plenty of folks out here for our Christmas in the Country festivities."
"I'm not here for anything Christmas. I've been working hard and need a quiet place to get away." She didn't like the sound of festivities. They could complicate her investigation. Still, she doubted a few candles in windows and plastic lighted displays in front yards would draw much of a crowd.
"I'd imagine fighting a wild fire isn't the best way to start your vacation."
"True. But how do you think it got started?" Now that the blaze was out, her mind kicked into gear. Did this fire connect with her investigation? It'd be quite a coincidence if it did, but she couldn't rule out natural causes from the heat and drought. Still, she'd checked topographical maps before she'd arrived in the county. If she remembered correctly, the flames were burning a path straight toward a Texas Timber Christmas tree farm. On the other hand, the blaze had started on a ranch, so maybe it had nothing to do with Texas Timber. Plenty to ponder here.
"Good question." He squeezed the burned towels between his fists. "I'll be following up on it."
"If I can be of help, let me know."
"Think on it. Maybe you saw something."
"Or somebody?" she prodded, sensing his implication.
He nodded as he glanced with narrowed eyes around the area.
"I didn't notice anything unusual, but maybe something will come to me." She pushed sweat-dampened hair back from her forehead, shelving her questions for the moment. "You must be thirsty. I've got bottles of water in the car." She wished she'd had enough water to help fight the fire, but at least she had enough to ease their dry throats.
"Thanks. I owe you a big, thick, sizzling steak."
"I thought it was a pair of boots," she teased before she realized she was flirting with him. She pressed her lips together to stop any other wayward words from escaping her mouth.
He smiled as his eyes crinkled invitingly at the corners. "That too."
"I'm glad I was able to help." She spoke as primly as possible.
He held up the towels. "If you don't mind, I'd like to keep these."
She handed over her scorched towel. "Keep mine, too."
"Guess I owe you three towels."
"Not at all. Like I said-"
"You don't need anything from me." He cocked his head. "But if you'd like dinner, I can grill a mean steak." Another killer grin.
"I bet you can." Misty wondered if he meant a date. She felt excited at the idea. She stepped back. If she didn't get farther away from him, she felt as if she might spontaneously combust.
He took her cue and changed the subject. "Would you mind giving me a ride?"
"A ride?" No excuse for it, but her mind skittered sideways to an image of his big empty bed. So much for changing the subject.
He took a step toward her. "To Wildcat Bluff."
She couldn't help but notice his voice held a huskiness that hadn't been there before. "I see. You need a ride to town."
"I sent off my horse."
"You ride horses?"
"That's what cowboys do."
"You're a cowboy firefighter?"
He tipped an imaginary hat.