Elam Taggart knows about the nickname town gossips have given him: Desperado. He doesn’t care. He’s lost just about everything: his wife, his parents, his little sister, and his career as a Navy EOD specialist. After returning home, he hightails it to the rugged Wasatch Mountains outside town.
But when his brother comes asking for help, Elam can’t say no. That is, until Elam realizes that in order to help, he’ll be forced to spend time with town newcomer P.D. Raines. P.D. knows that asking Elam Taggart to be her partner in the town’s upcoming Wild West Games is a mistake. But she needs the prize money, and Elam is lean, hard, and tortured—a dangerous combination she can’t seem to resist.
As the competition heats up—to the point of peril—Elam and P.D. have to turn away from the past and embrace the passion that sparks between them in order to escape the threat to their lives.
About the Author
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Soft and sweet like a lullaby,
She came to me ’neath a summer sky,
Filled my life with immeasurable grace,
With a gentle smile and a hint of lace.
Annabel, oh, Annabel. What I’d give for one more smile,
Or to sit and talk to you for a while.
Annabel, Annabel, where did you go?
Won’t you come back home for the winter snow?
She taught me how to live and love,
Like an angel sent here from above,
For a time this girl was mine to hold,
’Til she went in search of a future bold.
Annabel, oh, Annabel. What I’d give for one more day,
With you by my side for a day of play.
Annabel, Annabel the joy you bring.
Won’t you come back home for the flowers of spring?
I know she’s in a happier place,
With constant sunlight on her face,
Someday she’ll visit us, this I know,
Once she’s spread her wings and learned to grow.
Annabel, oh, Annabel. Think of me where’er you are,
Whether close to home or miles afar.
Annabel, Annabel, you’re etched on my heart,
You’ll be there with me through this brand-new start.
P.D. Raines had learned early in life that she couldn’t give up, couldn’t give in—even though it sometimes felt as if the world was out to get her. Take her name, for instance. The moment P.D. announced she was Prairie Dawn Raines, it was a foregone conclusion that strangers would assume she was a stripper or a fanatical, tree-hugging activist. Even worse, with such a fanciful name, they assumed she didn’t have a brain in her head—and she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Time and time again, she’d been told she would never amount to anything.
But P.D. refused to believe that she was predestined for failure because she’d been raised by a pair of drug-addicted, free-loving parents who drove from place to place, searching for Nirvana in a home-on-wheels fashioned from a refurbished school bus. Defying the odds—and the lack of a public school education—she’d sworn to herself that she would go to college, get a degree, and have a career. One that would pay for a house with a foundation dug solidly into the earth, honest-to-goodness electricity, and indoor plumbing.
Her determination hadn’t always been so iron-clad. Even her parents had scoffed at her plans, telling P.D. that her dreams were the “milksop of a blind Western capitalist society” and, even worse, a denial of the freedom her parents had taught her to value. Nevertheless, as the years had piled one on top of the other, P.D. had grown increasingly dissatisfied with her parents’ itinerant lifestyle. She wanted to live like the other families. Those with warm golden windows that flashed past her as they traveled down back road highways to the next “perfect spot.” She wanted to know what it was like to sit at a table and eat casserole from a steamy dish or cuddle on overstuffed couches in front of a glowing television set. More than anything, she wanted to belong somewhere. To be . . .
In the end, P.D. had refused to let her parents dent her enthusiasm—especially when it became more and more apparent that Summer and River Raines thought she was an inconvenience, a burden that detracted from their own need for oblivion, and worse yet, a voice of conscience when they really didn’t want one. She’d ignored their lack of physical and emotional support as well as their callous regard of her dreams, and she’d begun to plot out her own future.
Unbeknownst to her parents, P.D. had taken what little homeschooling her mother had provided to keep Social Services at bay, and she’d read anything she could get her hands on: art, literature, philosophy, science. As soon as she’d turned eighteen, she’d struck out on her own, finding a community center that would help her to complete her GED, take the ACT, and win a plum, full-ride scholarship. Within another four years, she’d earned double degrees at Nebraska State University. And the minute she’d had that diploma in hand, she’d vowed to put the pain of her adolescence in her rearview mirror and forge a future for herself as a world-class physicist.
But life had a way of biting a person in the butt by giving them what they wanted most. After a failed relationship with a coworker, and a stint in a research lab that had been nothing short of torture, P.D. decided to follow her passion rather than a paycheck. She’d returned to the one spot on earth where she’d felt most at home during her childhood wanderings.
The name itself was inspiring.
But even with the courage born of such experiences, as P.D. pulled to a stop in front of Elam Taggart’s half-built cabin and the dust settled around her rattle-trap truck, she knew she couldn’t go through with this. She could not ask a man like Elam Taggart for help.
“I’ll talk to him first,” Bodey Taggart said, gathering his crutches and opening the door. “Don’t come out unless I give you the signal.”
But just as she’d been about to beg Bodey to drop the whole thing, a figure rounded the corner of a half-finished upper deck at the rear of the house. In that instant, P.D.’s protests died before they could ever be formed.
Oh. My. God.
A man stood illuminated in the late-afternoon light. As if the moment had been staged for a special-effects shot for the Hallmark Channel, rays of gold slipped across the contours of his bare chest, the faint patch of dark hair at his breastbone, and down, down, to the low-slung jeans and dusty boots.
“That’s your brother?” P.D. whispered. Although she was a regular at the Taggart home, she’d never had the chance to meet the illusive Elam Taggart. He seemed to spend most of his time at his cabin.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Elam Taggart stood still for several long moments, one hand raised as he tried to discern who had interrupted his solitude. At the sight of wide shoulders, well-developed arms, and a set of abs that looked like they’d been carved with a chisel, warmth flooded P.D.’s body, settling low in her belly and causing her breath to hitch in reaction.
God bless America, she thought, echoing the code phrase that her best friend, Helen, used whenever a fine specimen of manhood crossed her path.
Bodey struggled to slide from the truck with his crutches, orthopedic boot, and cowboy hat intact, but P.D. hardly noticed. Elam Taggart bent and grasped the edge of the deck with his hands, then swung down to the ground, the muscles of his arms, shoulders, and back rippling. He landed softly—making the “dismount” look as effortless as jumping from the curb.
He walked toward the pump a few feet away, his jeans slipping even farther to reveal the weight he’d lost and a set of killer obliques. As he moved, P.D.’s gaze followed the hard ridge of muscle separating his abdomen from his hips until her eyes came to a stop at the faint line of dark hair that disappeared beneath his fly. She’d always been a sucker for low-slung jeans on a well-built man—not that she’d seen anyone in Bliss who could qualify for being truly “gawk-worthy.”
Unaware of her prurient interest, Elam unlatched the pump handle and waited for the water to run cool. Now that he was closer, P.D. could see that his bare arms and chest gleamed with sweat and a fine layer of sawdust. Over six feet tall, Elam was built like a runner, all lean, sinewy strength. The work he’d done on his cabin had given him a tan that blended well with the coffee-colored hair that brushed his shoulders and a beard that darkened his jaw.
When he leaned over to duck his head beneath the running water, P.D. could not have yanked her gaze away if her shoes were on fire. Instead, she watched like an adolescent Peeping Tom as he thoroughly doused his head, then snapped back to attention, droplets of water flinging into the air around him. The movement could not have been choreographed better had he tried. Bits of liquid scattered jewel-like into the air while rivulets cascaded down his face and chest. Then he stood there, dripping, waiting for Bodey to approach.
Thunder Down Under, eat your heart out, P.D. thought. Because this wasn’t a man who manipulated his sexuality. He was completely unaware of the powerful picture he presented—or the fact that he could probably bring any woman to her knees with a single glance.
Shifting in her seat, P.D. knew she should look away.
Dear sweet heaven, she should definitely look away.
But she didn’t.
Not when she knew that, at any moment, Elam would realize he was being watched by someone other than his brother and reach for the shirt that lay a few feet away.
And wouldn’t that be a shame.
Bodey had finally managed to traverse the uneven ground to his brother’s side, but P.D. had grown so distracted, she didn’t bother to listen to their conversation as they exchanged the internationally recognized male-to-male greeting ritual—an awkward hug with lots of back slapping, an exchange of insults, then a punch to the arm. But P.D. was probably the only one who realized that even though Elam went through the motions, the happiness that radiated from Bodey never even touched Elam’s eyes.
In an instant, the whispers of gossip that P.D. had heard in town raced through her head.
. . . too young to be a widower . . .
. . . Navy EOD . . . injured in Afghanistan . . .
. . . tortured soul . . .
. . . PTSD . . .
P.D. had always dismissed the stories as being exaggerated and fanciful—and the nickname they’d given him, Desperado, had seemed ludicrous. But watching Elam now, in this unguarded moment with his brother, she began to believe that everything she’d heard was true—true and probably only the tip of the iceberg. It was obvious from the sharp, too-lean contours of his face and the raised scars that wrapped around one side of his waist, that Elam had been through hell and back—and he was pissed at the world. Even his posture—head slightly forward, shoulders tensed, hands held away from his body—relayed his wariness at what other obstacles Fate might throw his way.
He was the kind of man who could help P.D. with her current dilemma. Strong, determined, and stubborn—which was a moot point now. Because there was no way in hell that Elam Taggart would ever agree to her proposal. Even though, as was her prerogative as a woman, she had suddenly changed her mind again. She really, really wanted his help.
Geez. She was freakin’ out of her mind for even considering it.
P.D. killed the engine and strained to hear over the ticking metal. Bodey was talking now, and despite the growth of beard on Elam’s face, she could lip-read most of his end of the conversation.
What the hell happened to you?
He winced at Bodey’s response.
Don’t you know any better than to get out from under a horse before he rolls on you?
Then, he grew still, listening intently to what Bodey was saying.
P.D. froze, her fingers gripping the steering wheel, knowing that Bodey would now be presenting her case. Her gut tightened in apprehension and she was at once embarrassed and nervous.
Elam would probably say “no.”
There was no way he’d say “yes.”
But what if, miracle of miracles, he did agree? Did she really want to ally herself with someone so . . . intense? Could she withstand four days and nights of constant contact with a man like Elam without completely cracking from the strain? Or worse yet, begging him to—
P.D. brought her thoughts to a screeching halt, banishing the images of Elam Taggart wearing nothing but a smile. But the tingling that pooled low in her belly couldn’t be so easily dismissed.
She was nuts. Absolutely nuts.
Or maybe, much like Helen had repeatedly warned her, it was time P.D. brought a halt to her self-imposed “dry spell” where men were concerned and let it rain. Granted, a man like this would never look to someone like her for a meaningful, long-lasting relationship. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have some fun if it were offered.
“I am so going to hell for even thinking about Elam Taggart that way,” P.D. whispered to herself. He was Bodey’s brother, for heaven’s sake. You didn’t mess around with a friend’s brother. It was an unspoken rule. Worse yet, it was asking for trouble.
But for the first time in her life, P.D. wasn’t sure if the “friend code” really made a heck of a lot of sense.
* * *
“YOU want me to do what?” Elam grumbled, sure he hadn’t heard his younger brother correctly.
Truth be told, Elam was used to his younger brother’s harebrained schemes. There were four Taggart siblings, with Barry being the youngest. But since Barry hadn’t come along until Elam was about to join the Navy, it was Elam, Jace, and Bodey who’d grown up together.
As kids, Elam had always been the cautious one, the planner, the plotter. Even as a boy, he didn’t commit to anything until he’d studied it from every angle and formulated a plan of attack. Three years younger, Jace was the peacekeeper. Quiet, laid-back, he had a meticulous eye for detail and a talent for collecting strays. But Bodey . . .
Well, Bodey was a different animal. From birth, he’d been mercurial, impetuous, and mischievous, forever getting the three of them into trouble. He tended to jump first and think about the consequences later. And nothing had changed since then, Still in his twenties, Bodey was a master at raising hell. He lived for little more than the National Cattle Cutting Competition circuit, women, Single Action Shooting Society matches, women, the next adrenaline rush . . . and women. Hell, if anyone could draw the ladies like flies, it was Bodey. And somehow, his brother always managed to wriggle out of his broken relationships having gained a friend rather than a crazy ex. Even so, Bodey had always displayed a good grasp of reality.
Bodey eased closer on his crutches, obviously worried that their conversation would carry as far as the truck. It wasn’t until that moment that Elam realized his brother hadn’t driven himself up the canyon. With the sun in his eyes, Elam could only guess who was inside.
“Please, Elam. I’m desperate. If you can’t bail me out . . . well, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Sighing, Elam raked his fingers through his hair, then wiped the water from his face. “Start again. I still can’t figure out what the hell you think I can do.”
Bodey backtracked and began with, “It’s about time for Wild West Days in town.”
Elam nodded. As kids, they’d lived for the annual Wild West Days’ celebration with its week-long festivities honoring the first settlers to enter the valley. There were water games with the volunteer fire department, a carnival in the park, and a parade down Factory Street. The Rotary Club served breakfast at the bowery near the town hall, and the police grilled hamburgers at night. In the evenings, there was a rodeo at the fairgrounds, where professional riders were integrated with mutton-busting kids and the high school roping team. And each night, fireworks would bloom in the sky over the mountains like Indian paintbrush, providing the perfect ambience for wooing the latest girl.
Dear heaven above, Elam thought with a pang of nostalgia that faded into a knot of pain in his chest. It seemed like only yesterday when he’d loaded his high school sweetheart, Annabel, into his truck and taken her up the old service road to the same spot where his cabin now stood. He’d been what . . . sixteen . . . seventeen? He’d spread out a blanket on the sweet, sweet grass, and they’d lain watching the streaks of color appearing above them. Then Annabel had taken his hand and placed it at the buttons of her shirt . . .
For a moment, Elam could hardly breathe. His hand rose to unconsciously rub at the pain that lodged in his chest like molten lead.
From somewhere far away, Bodey continued his narrative, “. . .town’s hundred and fiftieth anniversary . . . something new . . . Wild West Games.” Elam barely heard him. His mind was flooded with images of Annabel, of the way she sighed with desire as he unfastened her blouse and cupped the delicate swell of her breast for the first time.
He’d been young and inexperienced, but then, so was Annabel. When she’d pulled him on top of her, he’d thought his heart and his body would explode. And, sweet heaven above, she’d felt the same. But as the image of her head flung back, eyes closed in passion, faded into the pale form of his wife’s body lying posed in her casket, Elam jerked his attention back to Bodey, knowing that he couldn’t allow his thoughts to plunge down that trail.
Because he didn’t think he could handle one more drop of pain.
Bodey was looking at him expectantly—and for the life of him, Elam had no idea what response was required of him. So he finally scrambled to say, “What does any of that have to do with me?”
“I signed up for the Games in January. Me and P.D. Raines. First prize is ten thousand dollars! And we were a shoe-in for the winner’s circle. The competition is nothing more than displaying the skills used by the original settlers—riding, shooting, driving a team.” He bent to whack the black plastic and Velcro contraption that covered his foot and leg to the knee. “Then this happened . . . and I can’t let P.D. down. I’ve already talked to the contest committee and substitutions can be made up to this Friday.”
Finally, Elam understood the purpose for Bodey’s trip up the mountain. Evidently, he was hoping that Elam would take his place.
“No.” Elam turned away, intending to get back to work. Another few days and he should be able to finish up outside and start painting inside. And then . . .
Well, he didn’t know what he’d do to fill his time and occupy his thoughts. He’d made a promise to Annabel on their wedding night that he’d build her a house on the hill in the same spot where they’d first made love. He’d begun the project hoping to feel closer to Annabel. Instead . . . he felt gutted. Lonely. Especially with the project so close to completion.
“Why can’t you help me out?”
Why? Because the last thing Elam wanted was to throw himself back into Bliss’s mainstream, back among people he’d known his whole life, where he would have to field sympathetic looks and well-meaning comments like: “How are you faring?” and “Time heals.” Because he wasn’t “faring” well at all and “time” hadn’t done a damned thing. He was still angry at God and the world for taking away the only woman he’d ever loved.
“Get Jace to do it,” Elam said, referring to the brother sandwiched between them in age. Striding away, Elam signaled to Bodey that he was done with the conversation.
But Bodey didn’t take the hint. He merely dug the tips of his crutches into the dirt and swung along behind him. “I already asked. He’s got mandatory pesticide certification that week.”
Elam sighed, lifting his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Then you’ll have to find someone else to do it.”
He tried to move toward the cabin, but Bodey planted himself in Elam’s way just like he used to do when Elam and his friends were going fishing and Bodey wanted to come along. “I can’t,” he said urgently. “I’ve already tried. Do you think I’d be here if I hadn’t asked everyone I know?”
Briefly, Elam wondered if he should be insulted by that remark. Was he last on the list because Bodey thought he wasn’t capable of doing the job? Or was it because his little brother knew, deep down, that Elam wouldn’t help him even if he begged?
He felt a nudge of conscience. There’d been a time when the Taggart brothers had been thick as thieves. There was no exploit too risky, no demand too wild, that would keep them from banding together to help one another.
But then, everything Elam had thought he’d stood for—family, country, and honor—had begun to implode. First, he’d been sent overseas—the deployments coming one after another with only a few months in between to spend time with Annabel. Then, he’d received word that an automobile accident had claimed the lives of his mother, father, and baby sister, Emily, while Emily’s twin, Barry, had suffered irrevocable brain damage. And then, worst of all, he’d received the call that Annabel had suffered a brain aneurism. Before he could even make his way home, Annabel was gone.
After that, life seemed to crumble around him. He was suddenly alone. Numb. As soon as he’d been able to rejoin his unit, he’d headed back overseas, not really caring what happened to him. It had only been a matter of months before he’d been injured. Then, he’d been sent back to the States for good.
Elam knew that since returning from Walter Reed, he’d been keeping his brothers at arm’s length. At first, he hadn’t wanted their pity—no, not pity. They’d never pitied him. But their concern had been just as stifling, reminding him of everything he’d lost. And knowing that he’d crack if he allowed himself to give in to anything other than anger, he’d purposely erected a wall between them—first literally, then figuratively. His gaze lifted to the sturdy logs and river rock of his new place. A home away from the “Big House” as it was known. It was the first time in generations that any of the Taggarts had chosen to live somewhere other than the ancestral property.
“Shit,” he whispered under his breath. He’d been back in the States for more than a year now, but in all that time, his brothers hadn’t asked him for a thing. Even though Elam was the eldest, Jace had calmly taken over the management of Taggart Enterprises, overseeing the business aspects of the prize-winning quarter horses they bred, trained, and sold; the herds of beef cattle kept on local and mountain pastures; and the three thousand acres of land they farmed to support the livestock. Even more, he’d stepped up to take care of Barry, ensuring their little brother got to his doctors and therapists, classes and social activities so that Barry could become the sweet kid that he was.
Bodey had worked just as hard. He not only oversaw the purchasing and breeding of the livestock, but he was their major source of advertising. As one of the top cow cutting competitors, he juggled a grueling rodeo schedule with the responsibilities of the family ranch.
Elam was fully aware that his brothers had deftly left Elam with little more to do than break the new colts upon his return to the States—a physically demanding job that helped him to forget how hellish his existence had become amid the exhaustion.
But they’d never asked more of him.
With a rush of shame, Elam realized he was a bastard through and through. What kind of man said “no” to his family? Especially with the way they’d been carrying most of the responsibility for Taggart Enterprises for so many years?
“Look, if you know someone else I can ask, give me a name,” Bodey was saying. “P.D.’s taken over that old restaurant in town—Vern’s?—and needs half of the prize money to make some improvements in the kitchen. I can’t let down a friend, Elam. And it’s my own damned fault I got trapped under that horse. I felt him falling and should have kicked free sooner, but—”
“I’ll do it,” Elam said from between clenched jaws—regretting the words the moment they’d been uttered—even though he knew he had no other option.
Bodey couldn’t disappoint a friend.
And Elam sure as hell couldn’t add refusing to help a brother to his already long list of sins.
He looked up in time to see Bodey’s face split with a grin that spread like sunshine over his features. “Really?”
Bodey crowed in delight, pumping one fist into the air. Twisting, he threw a thumbs-up sign toward the truck. As if an all-clear signal had been given, the driver’s door opened and P.D. Raines stepped out.
It wasn’t until the shape stepped free of the truck and the orange of the setting sun streaked over each line and hollow that Elam realized that P.D. Raines was a woman.
* * *
P.D. knew the precise moment when Elam Taggart grasped the fact that she wasn’t a man.
It wasn’t the first time someone had assumed she was male. “P.D.” was androgynous enough that such mistakes had happened before. But she would have given money to have a camera aimed in Elam’s direction when the fierce wildness in his expression eased to one of pure and utter shock.
Just as quickly, the emotion disappeared, and his features became carefully blank. But the transformation wasn’t entirely successful, because as she walked toward him, the muscles of his jaw flicked in a betraying manner.
“P.D., this is my older brother Elam.”
She held out a hand for him to shake. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
His grip was firm and sure. “Probably all bad.” The words were meant to be light, she was sure, but Elam’s tone held a thread of something darker, as if he were aware of the rumors circulating around town.
P.D. promised herself that she’d keep things cool, professional. Friendly. But when his palm swallowed hers, she was toast. Some women were butt-aficionados; others were turned on by a man’s chest. But P.D. had always been first attracted to a man by his hands.
Elam Taggart had sexy hands, with long slender fingers and bony knuckles. Faint scars and calluses attested to the fact that he was accustomed to hard work. They were broad hands, the perfect size to handle tools or a woman’s breast—probably with equal finesse. A dusting of dark hair led up to sinewy forearms and shoulders with taut musculature.
P.D. could feel the heat rise in her cheeks and avoided staring at his bare chest, training her eyes instead on the darkness of his beard, the full lips, angular nose, and deep-set eyes. Hazel eyes laced with flecks of blue, green, and gold that reminded her of the Wasatch Mountains that surrounded them.
“What does P.D. stand for?” Elam asked. He spoke softly, but the rumble of his voice could have carried yards.
She cleared her throat before admitting, “Prairie Dawn.”
She thought she saw the slightest lift to his eyebrows—as if she’d surprised him yet again.
P.D. grimaced. “Says the man who wasn’t named after a Muppet.”
That comment took him aback because his lips tugged at the corners. Not really a smile, but close. “And were you? Named after a Muppet?”
She shrugged. “Who knows? My parents were rather . . . unconventional.”
And wasn’t that the understatement of the year.
Elam was still holding her hand. The warmth seeped up her arm to spread through her body in a frisson of awareness. P.D. would have to be an idiot not to admit he turned her on—she’d have to be dead not to be turned on. But along with that awareness came the knowledge that the gaze he leveled her way could have been a huge, flashing sign reading: NO TRESPASSING!
And P.D. would never be the kind of woman who could convince a man like this to lower his defenses. That would take someone with infinite gentleness and patience. P.D. had never had time for either of those qualities. After clawing her way into mainstream America, she didn’t have it in her to be docile and sweet.
Elam finally released her, then reached behind him to snag the T-shirt off his workbench. He dragged it over his head, but he really needn’t have bothered. His chest was damp and the fabric was so well worn that it clung to every dip and valley of his body.
“Wild West Days start when?” he asked, but he’d directed the question to Bodey.
Less than a week away. Which was why Bodey had been scrambling for a replacement.
Elam turned to her. “Do you have an outline of the competition or a description of the events?”
“I’ve got a handbook with all of the rules and contest guidelines at Vern’s. If you’ll drop by tonight, around eight, I’ll feed you and we can go through everything.”
Hopefully, by having him meet her at her restaurant, she could cement their association in a casual enough setting so that she could banish her own lustful thoughts and concentrate on the business at hand.
“Fine.” He was backing away, clearly finished with the conversation. “I’ll see you there.”
P.D. was more than willing to give the man his space for a few hours. He probably wanted to get as much work done as possible before the light failed him. Even better, he’d have a chance to dry off and put on a real shirt.
Maybe that way, when they spoke again, P.D. wouldn’t come completely apart at the seams.
ON his way to Vern’s that night, Elam couldn’t help making a slow “drive-through” of the ranch. Easing his pickup past the “Big House,” where the Taggart family had lived for over a hundred years, and into the ranch compound farther on, he found himself automatically scanning the corrals with the mares and new foals, and the big barn, which Jace had recently had repainted a russet red. Slowing, he passed the pens of Angus cattle already sorted and waiting for a visit from the brand inspector so that they could be shipped to a ranch in Texas the following day. A little farther out was the pasture, where the colts waited for Elam’s attention. Since he would be the one to break them, he spent most of his time there, familiarizing himself with each horse, learning their temperaments, and letting them grow accustomed to him as well.
A hint of dust warned him that someone was approaching from the canal road. When he saw Bodey’s familiar flat-bed truck, he pulled to a stop and rolled down his window. Here on the ranch, there were few sit-down meetings. Instead, information was discussed and relayed from truck to truck or over meals—although Elam hadn’t been around the Big House enough lately to catch many of those impromptu gatherings.
Bodey rolled to a stop. He grinned at Elam, one tanned arm draped across his window.
“You’re on your way to Vern’s?”
Elam nodded, slightly uncomfortable that Bodey knew so much about his movements.
“Please tell me you showered and shaved and—”
“Shit, Bodey. Mind your own business.”
Far from looking cowed, Bodey’s grin grew even wider.
“I just want to make sure you don’t sully the Taggart name. You’ll be taking my place, remember? And I have a certain reputation to maintain.”
“Yeah, for being a pain in the ass,” Elam muttered. But there was no sting to his voice. A person couldn’t remain serious around Bodey for too long. He seemed to make it his mission to make the people around him laugh. “When’s the semi coming in for the cattle?”
“Jace got a text saying they’d be here around noon. The brand inspector has already been notified. Then Maynard will be sending in a couple of semis for hay about two.”
“And you’ve got everything set up for Sell Day?”
Each June, Taggart Enterprises hosted a Sell Day, when they auctioned off a portion of their quarter-horse stock and stud services.
“The auctioneer will be here around eight. Jace picked up the banners in town and he’s going to get Barry to help attach them to the fence line along the highway tonight.”
Elam nodded, checking the clock. “Let me know if you need my help with anything.”
Shifting into gear, Elam pulled away, following the back access road to where it joined the highway. It took only a few minutes to make the short drive to P.D.’s restaurant, but with each mile, his tension ratcheted up a notch. As Elam eased his Dodge Ram into a parking space, every nerve in his body was telling him he’d made a mistake by coming to Vern’s tonight. Already, he had an itchy, anxious feeling, as if he were being watched. Judged.
Bliss was his home, and in many ways, the people were his family. He’d graduated in a class of little more than a hundred, and between that, the close-knit network of farmers and ranchers, and a community that took care of its own, there weren’t many strangers. Which was comforting . . . as well as a damned nuisance. Everyone knew everyone’s business most of the time, and he wished to hell that they didn’t know so much of his.
He appreciated how everyone had rallied around him after Annabel’s death. And the way they’d given him a hero’s welcome when he’d returned two years later, after his stint in the hospital, had been gratifying. But Bliss was a small town, and nothing fueled a small town more than gossip. It had taken only one trip to the grocery store for him to hear the whispers.
. . . medical discharge . . .
. . . wife . . . aneurism . . .
. . . out of the country at the time . . .
To think that his life had become fodder for tongue-wagging had been more than he could take. So, soon after his homecoming, he’d kept to the ranch or his cabin site. If he needed supplies, he got them from the Big House or drove to Logan.
What would the busybodies say once they heard that he was reentering Bliss society by entering the very public Wild West Games? As soon as folks realized he would be competing as the partner to a woman as flamboyant as P.D. Raines . . .
Elam sat in the truck for several minutes, a muted country music station urging him to “Do the Dew” and his heart pounding in his chest much harder than the situation warranted.
He’d diffused bombs in Afghanistan, IEDs in Iraq, and harbor mines in Yemen. He’d been in armed combat more times than he could count, and suffered through the devastating effects of a missile attack, which had finally sent him home for good. So why was he so nervous about walking into a restaurant and talking to P.D. Raines?
But even as he acknowledged his misgivings, Elam sat with his fingers drumming on the steering wheel and his “going to town” hat sitting on the console beside him.
He couldn’t help wondering who P.D. Raines really was and what she meant to his brother. Bodey had introduced her as “his friend,” but most of Bodey’s ex-girlfriends were “friends,” damn him. With that body of hers, she was Bodey’s type. His younger brother liked his women on the voluptuous side, and P.D. definitely qualified. But Elam had no clue if Bodey had already pursued the woman or if he was patiently circling her, waiting to cut her from the herd of females that invariably flocked around him.
Damnit, not that it mattered. Elam wasn’t about to put the moves on P.D. Raines—or on any woman for that matter. He merely wished he knew the score. The Taggart males didn’t infringe on another brother’s woman. Ever. Even if she was an ex.
Realizing that he was only avoiding the inevitable, Elam killed the engine. The resulting quiet after the rumble of the diesel motor was nearly overpowering. And silence of any kind hadn’t been his friend for a very long time.
Sliding from the truck, he jammed his hat on his head, hit the lock button on his key fob, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket.
The last time he’d been to Vern’s, it had been a sleepy mom-and-pop diner—the perfect spot to grab a hamburger and a made-from-scratch milkshake. But judging by the vehicles crowded into the parking lot and the faint pound of music, P.D. Raines had made some real changes.
His boots crunched against the gravel as he crossed to the front door. Years of training had him automatically sweeping the shadows. But in the assortment of flashy pickups, dented farm trucks, minivans, and sedans, he saw nothing more threatening than a stray tabby cat packing a squirming kitten toward the privet hedge that separated the parking lot from the new dollar store next door.
Elam was nearly to the front entrance when the noise from inside filtered into his brain and he realized what he was hearing. Bluegrass. P.D. Raines had brought bluegrass music to Bliss, Utah. Granted, the folks around here were usually into country music—and pure Bluegrass was its mother genre—but Elam was still astonished. Especially since the lack of free parking spaces made it clear that the place was popular.
For several minutes, he gripped the door handle, an exuberant melody seeping into the cool night air. There was something about the melding of its boisterous accompaniment and soulful harmonies that pulled at his emotions, enveloping Elam in a wave of something that felt very much like . . .
With only the door separating him from conversation and laughter and human companionship, Elam suddenly realized how long it had been since he’d spent time with anyone other than himself. Occasionally, he’d run into his brothers, or waved to someone as he barreled down the road on his way to the hardware store, but usually, he kept to his own self-imposed exile. It had been so much easier that way.
But tonight, it felt lonely.
Maybe his brothers had been right when they’d hinted that it was time for Elam to rejoin the real world.
Yanking at the door, he stepped inside and was immediately enveloped in warm air, a riff of fiddle and mandolin, and the incredible aroma of food. More than the addition of entertainment had changed at Vern’s. He was sure he could detect the rich spices of BBQ sauce, the lower notes of roasted meats, and the sweet inexplicable tang of apples.
A divider made of reclaimed barn wood separated him from the rest of the restaurant. Benches lined either wall, and it was clear that there was a waiting list. Elam stepped toward a hostess stand cleverly fashioned from a sideboard like the one his grandmother had used to store her “best” silver and linens. A young woman dressed in a Western shirt with pearl snap buttons and tight denim jeans offered him a wide smile.
“How many?” she asked, picking up a clipboard. As Elam had suspected, there were at least a dozen entries waiting for tables.
“I’m actually supposed to meet P.D.,” Elam began. “I’m Elam Taggart.”
The woman’s grin became even more pronounced. “She had us hold a table for you.” She grabbed a long menu and said, “This way.”
He was led around the divider to the main room. Here in the dining area, the space had been completely transformed since he’d been here last. Gone were the vinyl booths and checkerboard floor, and in their places were rich wood and split logs. The furnishings felt familiar to Elam. As if he’d stepped into his own home. The floor had been built on several levels so that the tables circled a small dance floor, and at the far end, a makeshift stage had been erected to hold the live band.
The hostess took Elam to a corner table where a RESERVED sign rested against a mason jar full of black-eyed Susans. He shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the back of a chair that could have been a part of an original farmhouse kitchen.
“What would you like to drink?”
It wasn’t until that moment that Elam realized that he was hungry. Not just hungry, ravenous. Maybe it was the rollicking music, or the warmth of Vern’s after too many nights camping out at the cabin in a sleeping bag. Or maybe it was the heavenly smells that kept wafting his way.
“Coming right up.”
A glance at the menu soon had Elam’s mouth watering. No lukewarm soup heated over a camp stove tonight. His only problem was choosing what looked best from a list of gourmet-sounding delights such as bison burgers with prickly pear cactus compote, grilled river-fresh trout with a lemon and dill sauce, and lamb fries with Dutch oven potatoes.
Good hell almighty, P.D. Raines was serving “lamb fries.” In Bliss, Utah. And after a glance at the plates of some of his fellow diners, Elam could see that the crispy battered sheep testicles appeared to be a hit.
Elam looked up as his waitress appeared, setting a cold beer and a pair of glasses in front of him, one chilled, but empty, the other filled with ice water. She followed it with a wooden cutting board that held three small loaves and a ramekin of whipped butter.
“Tonight, we’ve got our famous house beer bread, a chipotle cheese corn loaf, and a seven-grain sweet bread,” she said, pointing to each of the varieties. “Have you had a chance to decide what you’d like?”
“What’s good?” Elam asked, his hunger seeming to gnaw in the pit of his belly.
She winked. “The lamb fries are a favorite for those hoping to get lucky,” she said with a laugh, reminding Elam that many people considered the fare to be an aphrodisiac. “The steaks are always a hit. But I’d have to say my favorite is the bison burger.”
“I’ll take that.”
She nodded, taking his menu and hurrying away.
The instant the woman left the table, Elam was reaching for the bread. Cutting a huge hunk of the first loaf, he slathered it in butter and took a bite.
He’d never had beer bread before, but it could have been manna from heaven for all he knew. Dense and slightly sweet, it had a homey flavor that could never have been found wrapped in plastic and sitting on a grocery store shelf. And if this first taste was anything to go by, no wonder there was a waiting list at the door.
Cutting himself another piece, Elam leaned back in his chair and allowed himself to look around, nodding to a few of the townspeople he recognized. Vaguely, he wondered where P.D. might be, but supposed that with business booming the way it was, she must be holed up in the kitchens or an office or—
His gaze fell on the band and he nearly choked on the piece of bread he was chewing. There, on the corner of the stage, a fiddler was jamming out a frenetically paced solo. Curly hair flying, body twisting and turning with the melody, P.D. Raines coaxed a ribbon of pure joy from the violin. Her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly parted—and there was such a look of rapture on her face that Elam would have thought the emotion was more in keeping with the throes of lovemaking than a public performance.
The thought hit him like a jolt to his gut, and he reached for his beer, averting his eyes as if he’d been caught glancing through a neighbor’s window. But even after washing down his surprise, he found himself looking at her again. Closely.
When Bodey had introduced P.D. Raines to him this morning, Elam had been distracted—no, he’d been pissed. Like a bear hauled kicking and screaming out of his cave before his hibernation was finished, Elam hadn’t been too intent on paying attention to the participants. He’d been more focused on making his displeasure known. If someone had asked him to describe P.D., he probably couldn’t have said much beyond: “She’s a woman. With brown hair. Or blond.”
But now . . .
Hell. P.D. was tall and curvy in all the right places—a fact that was all too clear by the tight jeans and snap-front shirt that seemed to be a uniform here at Vern’s. But while the waitresses managed to look cute in their getup, P.D. was all woman, with long legs, hips enhanced by a sparkling belt, and a full bosom beneath a shirt that must have been tailored to fit her shape. And her hair . . . her hair was nearly to her waist, falling into natural ringlets and waves in the shades of a new fawn—russet and gold with hints of auburn.
She was a country boy’s wet dream to be sure—a city boy’s, too. And for the first time in months, Elam found himself stirring at the mere sight of a woman. Holy, holy hell. He was supposed to partner up with . . . that? He was supposed to remain cool and businesslike with a woman who . . . who . . . probably played the fiddle the same way she would make love? With utter abandon?
“Here you are.”
Elam started like a guilty teenager when his waitress set a plate of food in front of him. Taking his napkin, he subtly arranged it in his lap as the waitress explained, “The little pots next to the burger are the house’s own stone-ground mustard, garlic and onion aioli, and the prickly pear compote. But I can bring you the regular store-bought condiments if you’d like.”
Was she kidding?
“No, this looks great.”
“Wave if you need anything else. In the meantime, enjoy.”
How could he not enjoy his meal with the scents rising from his plate, a cold beer in a frosty glass, and his own personal peep show mere yards away?
Trying to avoid staring at P.D. like the letch he evidently was, Elam loaded his burger with lettuce, tomato—and yes, onion. He sure as hell wasn’t kissing anyone tonight.
But for some reason, the realization didn’t bring him the reassurance that he’d thought it might.
After dipping his spoon in the compote and finding it to be tart and savory with quick bite of jalapeños and the slow heat of cayenne, he liberally dosed the top of his bun and jammed it over his burger. As he took his first bite, the juice and toppings began to run down the side of his hand—which in Elam’s opinion was the hallmark of an excellent burger.
“The first taste is always the best,” a voice said next to his table. “And judging by your expression, I’ve got you hooked.”
* * *
WHEN Elam looked up, P.D. caught a glimpse of something raw and sexual in his eyes, and the effect was so startling, so powerful, that she nearly took a step back. But just as quickly, the searing heat was gone and his expression was carefully neutral again.
Unconsciously, he licked the side of his hand, then set the burger back on his plate. The sensuality of his movements, as well as the thought of that tongue licking other things—her things—had her sinking into the chair before she stumbled like a starstruck groupie.
“It’s good,” he said after swallowing. “Really, really good.” Then he gestured toward the stage. “You’re good. You run a restaurant and provide the entertainment?”
P.D. shook her head. “Occasionally, the band persuades me to join them, but otherwise, I listen like everyone else.”
“It’s a rare talent to play the fiddle like you do.”
She shrugged. “My parents might have opted for homeschooling—when they bothered with any education at all—but they insisted I learn to play music. I was able to put myself through college by playing in honkey-tonk joints around the Midwest.”
She was sure that Elam almost asked about her parents. Almost. But just in time, he seemed to realize she wouldn’t give him any answers so he asked instead, “What were you studying? Music? Culinary arts?”
“Nah. I graduated with double degrees in physics and business.”
“And you ended up in Bliss, Utah?”
His tone was so incredulous, she laughed. “It turned out that being stuck in a lab bored me. Since I’d traveled a lot as a kid, I knew I wanted to live in the mountains, so I came back to the place I felt most comfortable.”
And with that, she condensed her crappy childhood into a few sentences, hoping he wouldn’t ask any further questions about her “adventures” with Summer and River.
A familiar figure moved toward their table. “What can I get you, P.D.?”
P.D. smiled at Becky, one of her best waitresses, and said, “A cold diet soda, thanks.”
“You’re not going to eat?” Elam asked.
“No. I eat before the dinner shift, otherwise I’d be nibbling all night long. But you go ahead. You’re probably starving after spending your day sweating on the job. Construction work must be really demanding.”
Geez, P.D. Smooth, really smooth. You may as well have added, “With your muscles bulging and your chest gleaming.”
Not for the first time, she rued the fact that her parents had fallen into a form of “free-range childrearing.” P.D. might have roamed the country and wallowed in nature, but she still wasn’t too adept at social skills. Especially small talk. Which was why most men didn’t view her as “relationship material.” Her background and awkwardness made her difficult to explain should dating ever reach the “meet the parents” stage.
Thankfully, Elam began to eat again, which helped to break his powerful gaze.
“So tell me about this competition of ours,” he said between bites.
“I’ve got all the information in my office,” she said with a jerk of her thumb in that direction. “Once you’ve eaten, we can go get the handbook so you can familiarize yourself with the rules. It’s a bit like television’s Amazing Race.”
When Elam stared at her blankly, she could have kicked herself for being an idiot. He probably wasn’t watching much television in a cabin with no electricity.
“It’s a relay race, four days long. It involves negotiating our way from the Ridley Historical Farm near Logan to an, as yet, undisclosed spot in Bliss. According to the rules, we’ll randomly be assigned roles—such as prospectors looking for a claim, or mountain men in search of rich furs.”
“Schoolmarm and outlaw,” Elam filled in smoothly.
And damnit, his idea sounded like a whole lot of fun.
P.D. cleared her throat of its sudden dryness as a host of images flooded her brain—Elam kicking down the door to a one-room schoolhouse while she trembled in the corner with something far more intense than fear.
“Uh . . . yeah.” She verbally stumbled, then quickly dragged her mind back to the topic.
“Anyway, at the starting line, we’ll be given a sealed envelope that will outline the first location we need to find. Our journey will be timed from the moment we receive the envelope to the point when we check in with a contest official at our destination.”
His brows rose. “We’re supposed to walk?”
She leaned forward, propping her forearms on the table. For a split second, Elam’s eyes betrayed him, skipping down to her cleavage before steadfastly returning to her face. A warmth flooded through her chest as she realized Elam Taggart was probably a breast man, and he liked what he saw, even if he wasn’t comfortable admitting that fact to himself.
“Modes of transportation could include buggies, wagons, horseback, railroad cars, or like you said, good ol’ boots to the road. Then, once we get to our assigned spots, we’ll be asked to perform a series of pioneer-related tasks appropriate to the locale. Most of the stops will include a gun range where we’ll be tested on marksmanship, but we could also be challenged with roping and tying cattle, bronco busting, cooking—even panning for gold.”
“So we’re graded on our times?”
“Times, accuracy, and quality of performance. The rubrics they use to put everything into a numerical point system are located in the back of the handbook. From what I understand, they’ve had a huge response to the Games. The contestant roster was filled within the first week of accepting applications and there’s already a waiting list for next year. They’ve got volunteers all over the county lined up to help take scores and times. Vendors have rented space at the historical farm. Several large businesses have become sponsors. And there’s even a rumor that an indie documentary producer will be coming to watch some of the stages to see if it might be something they’d like to film next year.”
Elam had all but wolfed down his burger and Dutch oven potatoes, and sensing he might still have a little room left, P.D. gestured to Becky. When the waitress arrived, P.D. asked, “Could you bring Elam a blossom? And if you wouldn’t mind, could you go to my office? I left a pamphlet about the Wild West Games on my desk and I need to give it to Elam.”
Becky smiled. “Sure. No problem.”
Within seconds, Becky arrived with the rule book for the Games, a glass of soda for P.D., and a small cast iron skillet that she set in the middle of the table. In the center, nestled in a pool of lemon sauce, was a perfectly formed shell of piecrust shaped like a flower bud. A scoop of homemade vanilla-bean ice cream was beginning to melt beneath the heat of the pastry.
“You can take the rules with you and look them over in more detail when you’ve got a minute. But it boils down to following some commonsense safety precautions, especially on the gun ranges, remaining on our outlined routes and designated checkpoints, and using only the methods of transportation we’ve been assigned or earned through special bonus challenges. And there’s to be no cell phones or modern technology. The competition will be stopped each night, which means we have to remain at the last checkpoint we’ve reached for the day. I guess they didn’t want a bunch of teams stumbling around in the dark.” She pointed to the dessert. “You’ll want to dig in while it’s hot,” P.D. urged. “It’s one of my latest concoctions.”
Elam hesitated only a second before slipping the information about the Games into the pocket of his jacket. Then he cracked the blossom open with the tip of his spoon. He immediately released a fragrant puff of steam and a lava-like flow of cherries, blueberries, and apples. After combining the contents with a bit of ice cream and a dab of the lemon sauce, he took a bite.
“Oh, wow.” He closed his eyes, and the look of utter pleasure had her body responding in ways that it shouldn’t. For a moment, Elam’s barely submerged anger at the world was displaced by a primal delight that had her thoughts roaming once again to sex.
Yeah, right. As if she had a snowball’s chance in hell of inspiring Elam Taggart to taste anything but her food. She’d learned long ago that men who were as primitively masculine and dangerous as Elam were attracted to dainty women with blond hair and big blue Alice in Wonderland eyes. They gravitated toward delicate creatures who wore sizes that had no numbers to speak of, just lots of zeros. Females who needed to be protected from the harsh realities of life by a big, strong he-man who would wrap them in cotton wool during the day and silk and lace at night.
P.D., on the other hand, had already seen her fair share of the worst the world had to offer. With parents who were more concerned with free love and recreational medication, P.D. had discovered early on how to protect herself from her parents’ so-called “friends” when they groped her in the dark. She’d learned where to scavenge food if she got too hungry, and the best places to curl up outside to sleep if the haze of marijuana got too thick in the bus. Most of all, she’d found out that there wasn’t a damn thing a man could do for her that she wasn’t perfectly capable of doing herself. Even if sometimes, deep down, she longed for someone else to help shoulder her burdens.
Just as she inwardly insisted that she would never actually surrender control to a man who would curb her independence, Elam extended one of his extra spoons.
“You’re going to have to help me with this.”
Her first instinct was to refuse. There was something intimate about sharing food with another person. It was one of the unspoken rituals of courtship. And there was nothing like that between P.D. and Elam. They had a . . . business arrangement of sorts.
But she couldn’t deny that she wanted to share that intimacy with him. Even if it was only an illusion.
When she didn’t immediately react, he loaded the spoon and held it toward her. And for an instant she could see all the wariness and pain that he carried with him like an unshakable burden. But there was something else there as well. The wish—the need—for human contact, however small that contact might be.
She leaned forward, accepting the bite, then drew back slightly, but only slightly, so that he wouldn’t think that she was rejecting his gesture of . . .
Because there could never be anything else between them. Not with the weight of their respective baggage preventing even the thought of anything more.
He held the spoon toward her, handle first, and wordlessly, she accepted his challenge. Then, they were finishing the dessert together, their spoons coyly darting and chasing across the plate until the last morsel was gone.
Finally, Elam sat back in his chair, lacing his hands over his taut belly. His posture was more relaxed than she’d ever seen—and she sensed that this was the first meal in months that hadn’t come from a fast-food joint or a can. When he spoke, it was with the low, rumbling purr of a satisfied man. And what she wouldn’t give to find out what other activities might satisfy him.
“So what do you need me to do?”
P.D. blinked at him, suddenly overtaken with images of Elam Taggart stripping the shirt from his body, then reaching out to do the same to hers. But with some difficulty, she remembered the gist of their conversation.
“We should probably practice some of the skills,” she offered tentatively.
His eyes narrowed, more green than blue in the dim light of Vern’s. “And?”
“And I’ve never fired a gun. Bodey was going to teach me, but . . .”
“What kinds of weapons?”
“Single-action revolvers, double-barrel shotguns, and rifles.”
“Do they supply the weapons and ammo, or do we?”
“We have to supply our own. If you can give me a list, I’ll make a trip to Cabela’s to get what we need.”
He shook his head. “I can handle that. Meet me at my place tomorrow morning, and I’ll give you a crash course.”
She felt a quick thrill at the thought of seeing Elam again so soon, even though she’d known spending time with him was inevitable.
“This may be a bit of an endurance test . . .” P.D. began. “I’ve been trying to walk and hike as much as my own schedule would allow.”
“You think I’m out of shape?” Elam drawled, one brow lifting.
If there was one thing that could be said about Elam, it was that he was fit.
“No!” When the word emerged too forcefully—too “I am already hung up on the sight of your rock-hard abs”—P.D. tried to corral her thoughts. “No, I thought I’d better lay it all on the table so there are no surprises.” She toyed with her spoon in a show of studied casualness.
“Well, there is one more thing that hasn’t been mentioned.” He wasn’t going to like it. Even Bodey had groused about the final requirement. “You’ll be expected to . . .”
She paused, trying how to phrase the words, and Elam scowled, growling, “Expected to what?”
From his tone, he assumed he’d be required to do something horrible like arena sex or nude cactus jumping. But then, what she had to say might be even worse in his opinion.
“We have to dress up, right down to the underwear.”
A look of utter horror crossed his features, and she nearly laughed, realizing that he’d leapt to conclusions. Clearly, he expected her to outline something outrageously out of his element like space aliens or Comic-Con characters.