Kissing the sexy soldier was a dare she couldn't resist...
By-the-book event planner Beth Brannigan's best friend dared her to kiss a cowboy. She should have said no. Instead, she said please...again and again. If her brother finds out she's dating-okay, kissing-okay, sleeping with-one of his military buddies, he'll kill her. Assuming he doesn't kill his friend first.
Former Army Ranger Brick Mitchum isn't a relationship kind of guy. But then he meets Beth and starts to wonder if maybe it's time he settled down. She's mysterious. Unpredictable. Curvy in every way he needs... And hiding something. He's just got to figure out what.
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Her Secret Ranger
The Men of at Ease Ranch
By Donna Michaels, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Donna Michaels
All rights reserved.
It wasn't every day Elizabeth Brannigan ate lunch amidst a backdrop of handsome cowboys. Unless you counted her "Hot Cowboy of the Month" office calendar.
This was so much better.
She followed her friend through the sexy scenery ambling about the Braxton fairgrounds in a flurry of Stetsons and tight-fitting Wranglers to a shaded area just left of the entrance where a picnic table nestled under a big oak tree. Most afternoons she polished off a salad as she multitasked behind her desk at Chadwick Events in Austin. For nearly two years the same scenario had played out — Beth did the legwork and her boss, Georgina, jumped in at the last minute to smile, schmooze with the clients, and take the credit.
Nope. Today Beth was in charge — of the Stafford wedding, at least — and was having lunch with the bride-to-be. Georgina's emergency appendectomy ten days ago required weeks of recovery, which left Beth heading to central Texas to oversee the wedding of her childhood friend, Rachel, to one of the mayor's sons.
A wedding that had just been bumped up nearly four months.
It's not like her friend had had much choice. Her fiancé's dad had decided to run for mayor again in the fall, and the summer was shot with Jake lecturing at several medical conferences.
A last-second spring wedding, it is.
"How long will your boss be out?" Rachel asked. Her friend was the reason Chadwick Events had landed the mayor's account in the first place. The account was not only personal — Beth was in the wedding, too — it was a chance to prove she could handle an event on her own.
"The doctor said four to six weeks," she replied. "Georgina is already climbing the walls, and it's only been ten days." If the two phone calls she received a day were any indication.
"Are you staying longer this time?"
Two weeks ago, before her boss's surgery, Beth had stopped in to touch base, then headed back home to tie up a few things at work. "Yep. I'm here until after your wedding."
"The whole twelve days? That's great!" Rachel beamed. "Why don't you stay with me? My relatives aren't going to start arriving until next week. And when they do, we can double up."
As much as Beth liked spending time with her friend, she didn't want to play third wheel. Just because Rachel's fiancé had temporarily moved out until after the wedding didn't mean the guy stayed away. Hearing the couple getting busy wasn't her idea of a great time. "That's sweet of you to offer, but I'm fine at the hotel."
"I just hate to see you pay for it when I have two spare bedrooms."
"It's okay. The company will cover the bill," she reassured, then deliberately took a bite of her quesadilla in hopes of putting that subject to rest.
Frugal was practically Beth's middle name. She'd missed many middle school and high school events in order to help her mother save money after her father had died. Her friend knew about all of it and, thankfully, let the subject drop.
Rachel waved a plastic fork at her. "If you change your mind, you know where I live. It'll be like old times."
Old times weren't exactly something Beth wanted to relive. Left with a young daughter and son, and a horse ranch already in arears, her mother had packed them up and moved them in with their grandmother in Austin. Next door to Rachel. While her mother had worked long hours, and her brother worked part time after school to help pay off the mound of debt that followed them, Beth had spent her free time at Rachel's. A bright spot in a sad chapter of her life.
"... should check out the Roadhouse, since it's down the block from your hotel."
At the sound of her friend's voice, Beth blinked and brought her mind back to the present where it belonged.
"They have line dancing tonight," Rachel added.
She nodded. "I know."
Rachel frowned. "You do?"
Whoops. She hadn't planned on talking about that. "Yeah. Um, I saw it on the sign." And experienced it firsthand ... along with the hunk of a cowboy she'd met there two weekends ago. She'd even invited the guy to her hotel room. Two nights in a row.
It was crazy. She didn't have sex with strangers. She didn't do those things. She was responsible and boring and never rocked the boat. Heck, before that cowboy, Beth could count on three fingers how many times she'd had sex. But there was just something about the tall, broad, devilishly handsome man with chiseled features, sexy dimples, and teasing brown gaze. She'd been drawn to him like kittens to cream. He made her laugh and feel good, and for once in her life, she allowed herself to let go and enjoy the moment.
"Are you going to go?" Rachel asked between bites. "Jake and I would come with you, but we have his family dinner thing tonight."
Going would be a mistake. What if he was there? The hot cowboy was supposed to just be a weekend thing, not a two-weekend thing. Then there was the other side of the coin. What if he was there and wasn't interested?
Her fragile fledgling wings couldn't take the rejection.
No. It was best she stay in her hotel room. Going would be stupid. She wasn't stupid. She would definitely avoid the Roadhouse.
Beth shrugged. "I don't know. I'll probably watch some Netflix on my laptop."
"I think you should go. In fact, I think you need to go." Determination firmed her friend's lips as she set down her fork and cocked her head. "When's the last time you had any fun?"
Two Sundays ago. To the wee hours of the morning. She'd had so much fun she'd been sore in places she didn't know existed. A smile tugged her lips. Boy, that man had stamina.
But that was in the past. He was in her past, and she needed to concentrate on her job.
She smiled at her friend. "I'm having fun now. It's great to spend time with you."
"I agree. It's nice to see you again." Rachel nodded. "But that's not the kind of fun I'm talking about, and you know it. I'm talking about man fun."
Not the best time to finish off her bottle of water. Beth choked on the last mouthful, miraculously managing to swallow it down instead of treating Rachel to a shower.
"See? Just mentioning it has you flustered." Her friend chuckled. "What you need is a good cowboy and a bit of fun. No worrying about money, or work, or your brother beating the crap out of him."
Rachel cocked her head. "I remember that day, too. Not easy to forget Cord and my brother barging in, or how they expedited the departure of our dates."
Tucker Hanson had been teaching Beth how to French kiss. That was it. The poor kid. He wasn't pawing at her or anything like that. They were sitting on the couch with their clothes on.
Didn't matter to Cord.
Beth shuddered as phantom mortification washed over her. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life. I was eighteen, but Cord acted like I was twelve."
He still did, at least when it came to men. No one was good enough. And heaven forbid she should look twice at a military guy. Which made no sense to her. He'd been in the military and had a solid bond with his Ranger buddies. Heck, he'd gone into business with them, so not all military guys could be bad. Still, she often wondered why he'd never brought any of them home, or invited her and her mom to the ranch where he lived, or talked about them by name. He only ever referred to them by nickname — Straight-Shooter, Capicola, Romeo, Nikon, and Falcon, the one who had died.
Was he worried she'd hook up with one of them? She'd never do that to him.
"I had to treat you that way, Lizzie," Cord said, appearing out of nowhere, using his finely honed ninja skills to scare the beejezus out of her. "Lizzie" was all that kept her from falling out of her seat. Her brother was the only person who called her that.
"Cord!" She sprang to her feet. "You scared me, as usual."
He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a big hug. "Yeah, and as usual, you never realized the spell you put on the opposite sex, both back then and now."
She snickered. He was the one who put a spell on the opposite sex. Right now, she caught several women staring at her with envy. Taking advantage of the rare opportunity, Beth gave him another squeeze. "I didn't know you were going to be in Braxton today." The ranch he lived on and part owned, At-Ease, was in Joyful, about forty minutes away.
He patted her back. "Neither did I, but we came into some unexpected money, so I'm here with Romeo to check out the livestock auction. He's parking while I go register."
There he went with the nicknames again. But if one of them was with him, would she actually get to meet the guy? She barely resisted trying to peek over his shoulder to see if the other man was standing there.
Rachel rose to her feet. "Hi, Cord. It's great to see you again."
He released Beth and turned to nod at her friend. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"Yes." Her friend smiled. "The wedding's in twelve days. You should come. I know my brother would love to catch up with you."
"Thanks. I'll try, but that last storm has kept us pretty busy. Foxtrot has jobs lined up for the next few weeks."
Rachel frowned. "I heard the tornado touched down in Joyful. I hope everyone's okay."
Beth had heard that, too, but Cord never let on it was bad. But now she had the impression there was quite a bit more he hadn't told her. Typical. Her brother always did shield her from trouble. He put the O in overprotective. It was damned annoying.
"Did it hit your ranch?" Beth asked when he didn't answer.
He shrugged. "The men's quarters and the barn were damaged. Two other buildings were destroyed."
Her heart stopped then rocked in her chest. "Jesus, Cord. You said you were okay. Was anyone hurt?"
The ranch her brother and three of his buddies owned was a place for veterans to stay if they needed time to adjust back into society. The former Rangers also operated a construction company that employed veterans. She knew they'd been working hard to get both off the ground for more than half a year now.
"The men are fine. It's the buildings that need fixing."
So did his head.
Her chest squeezed tight. God, they could've all been hurt. Or worse. "That's not all that needs fixing. Quit shutting your family out. This misguided notion of yours that you need to keep us 'safe' is ridiculous. And old. Very old."
He shrugged again. "There wasn't really anything you could do."
Didn't excuse his silence on the matter. "Newsflash — we can take it." She folded her arms across her chest to keep from throttling him.
"Listen, you can rip me a new one when we meet for lunch on Tuesday." He leaned in to kiss her cheek. "But right now, I've got to go register before the auction starts." He turned and tipped his hat to Rachel before disappearing into a sea of cowboys.
No sign of his buddy, Romeo. Rats.
"I see he hasn't changed much since retiring from the Army."
She shook her head. "No. He's just as bullheaded. If his buddies are anything like him, that ranch must ooze testosterone."
She was glad he'd moved out with his friends, though. He had something to do. A purpose. Losing one of his buddies in combat had changed her brother. His once brilliant green eyes were dark and haunted, and his mouth always seemed set in either a straight line or a scowl.
She missed his smile.
She missed him.
"So, about oozing testosterone and you having fun ..." Rachel knocked shoulders with her.
She laughed at her friend's change of subject as they retook their seats. "Hell would freeze over before Cord ever allowed me to have fun with any of his military buddies. Probably why I've never met them or been to his ranch. But I'm not here to have fun. I'm in Braxton to help you finalize everything for your wedding. Like, yesterday."
Rachel laughed, settling in across from her. "You make it sound like a chore. Okay, yeah, it is. But at least my gown and the bridesmaids' gowns are picked out, and invitations are sent. We only have the final fitting, and food, and cake, and flowers, and linens, and ..." She went a little pale. "Oh my God, there's still so much to do!"
Beth reached across the table to set a hand on Rachel's arm. "It's all right. I'm here to help you take care of all that." It was going to take a miracle to pull all of it off, but that's what Beth specialized in — miracles. They'd already had preliminary meetings, and she'd managed to get follow-ups scheduled nearly every day that week. "We're on schedule. Take a deep breath. We'll make this fun."
Her friend took a few deep, cleansing breaths. "Great idea. That's exactly what we need." A wicked gleam sparked in Rachel's blue gaze, sending up a red flag in Beth's brain. "I know what we should do. Let's play truth or dare."
Beth drew back and adamantly shook her head. "Let's not."
"Come on. We could both use something to lighten things up. So, let's see ..." Her friend's gaze narrowed as she tapped a finger on her chin. "I can't help but feel there's something you're not telling me about the Roadhouse. The fact you knew about the line dancing has my Spidey sense tingling. So ... truth: Did you meet someone there the last time you were in town?"
Damn. She'd forgotten about her friend's astute superpower. "What are you talking about?"
Rachel's amused, albeit determined, blue gaze bore deep. "Either tell me the truth about that weekend or take a dare."
Beth didn't do dares. Ever. She'd always taken the "truth" option of the game during their adolescence. She couldn't risk reprimands or hospital bills back then. Not much had changed. But she wasn't about to reveal her sexy cowboy weekend, either. With a lift of her chin, she held Rachel's gaze. "Dare."
The bugger's grin grew wicked as satisfaction gleamed in her eyes. "I dare you to kiss the next cowboy who walks through the gate."
Beth gasped. "I can't do that! What if he's married?" She jumped to her feet and headed to a nearby trash can to toss her garbage. "Not happening."
Rachel followed and shrugged. "You have to. You chose dare. But, I'll amend it to: you have to kiss the next single cowboy who walks through the gate. We'll watch for wedding rings. And just because you're not looking doesn't mean you can ignore the da ... amn." Her friend blinked. "Wow, Beth. I almost wish you'd given me the dare. Turn around and check out your 'single' cowboy."
Without giving her the chance to protest, Rachel grasped Beth's shoulders and physically turned her to face the gate and one hell of a sexy cowboy. Well over six foot of solid muscle that rippled under a black T-shirt and a pair of jeans hugging lean hips and thighs, the guy oozed hotness she felt with an invisible wave of heat.
Her throat went dry. It was ... him. The cowboy from two weeks ago. Seriously? What were the chances he'd walk back into her life at that exact moment? "Uh ..."
"I know, right? And there's not a wedding ring in sight. Now go over there and kiss him." Her snickering friend pushed her after the hunk striding toward the livestock section of the fair. "Go on before he gets away. Or is that what you wanted?"
She gulped. Pulled herself together. The knowing tone in her friend's voice revealed she expected Beth to chicken out.
Any other time, yes, she'd lose the dare. It was childish and irresponsible, and she didn't have time for foolish games. But she did have time to help her friend de-stress. Her friend who was also her client. It was Beth's duty to put her client at ease. So, technically, it was her duty to kiss the sexy cowboy whose body she knew as well as her own.
That was her story and she was sticking to it.
"Fine. I'll do it."
Rachel squealed and clapped her hands.
Grasping bravado with two fists, Beth set her shoulders, lifted her chin, and marched after the hot guy striding away from her down the fairway. So what if she'd decided he was part of her past? The opportunity was too good to pass up. Things like this never happened to her.
Zigzagging around fairgoers, she avoided running into two children wearing a blue coating of cotton candy, and closed in on her prey. Her confidence rose with each step. Not only had she received her first ever dare, she was actually in the position to have the upper hand on the challenge.
A flicker of guilt and a touch of anxiety mixed with excitement. She pushed them both aside and smiled when the cowboy suddenly stiffened and came to a halt. It was as if he could feel her presence as sure as she could feel his. Not wanting Rachel to see the guy's expression, Beth didn't give him a chance to turn around. She slid in front of him, her anxiety fading at the pleasure curving his mouth into a sexy grin, dimpling his cheeks.
Excerpted from Her Secret Ranger by Donna Michaels, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2017 Donna Michaels. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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