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Last week of August…
Racy Dillon swore on her daddy's grave the four-foot-tall trophy, its imitation walnut base and three tiers separated by shiny purple-and-gold columns, was the ugliest thing she'd ever seen. Thanks to her still-fuzzy brain it took a few blinks and squints before the award came fully into focus.
Yep, still ugly.
Even the winged female figure atop the highest tier looked tacky, especially with Racy's pink lace panties hanging from the five-pointed star the figure held aloft over her head.
The black brass plate read First Place, Midwest Regionals, U.S. Bartenders Challenge, Las Vegas, Nevada, thank you very much. She'd come here all the way from Destiny, Wyoming, to kick butt and take names.
Mission accomplished. Hangover accomplished, too.
It felt like a chorus line of jackhammers doing high kicks inside her skull. Even so, they couldn't erase last night's memory of hearing her name called out with a near perfect score. She'd made a show of tucking the prize money into the cleavage of her push-up corset and then the celebrating had started. Hey, if anyone knew how to party it was bartenders. It had begun with a round of tequila shooters and had just got better. Of course, the memories grew fainter from that point, too. It'd been years since she'd tied one on like she'd done last night.
Racy closed her eyes. Not only to erase the slight tilt of the room, but to block the sunlight sneaking past the floor-to-ceiling curtains that barred the best view of the Vegas Strip. Another perk of winning. An upgrade from a standard room to this luxurious suite for the rest of the weekend.
She stretched beneath the sheets, enjoying the coolness of the five-hundred-count cotton material on her naked skin. Grateful for the plush pillows that cradled her throbbing head, she rolled to the edge of the bed.
Damn, she needed a tall glass of ice-cold apple juice. She didn't know why, but it always cleared her brain after a night of wild—
A deep groan and movement from behind her caused Racy to freeze. Before she could move, a wall of heat and muscles spooned up against her. A jawline, complete with bristly stubble, rested against her shoulder as a heavy arm draped over her hip.
Another groan—no, it was more like a moan, then a nuzzle at her hair and the press of a mouth to her skin— before he stilled. Deep breathing relayed his trip back to a peaceful slumber. Not entirely peaceful, if the hardness pressing against her backside, and the sheets caught between their bodies, meant anything.
Oh, no. She didn't. She didn't do stuff like this anymore. In her reckless past, sure, but not now.
Racy pressed her fingers to her pounding forehead. Think, girlfriend. What the hell happened last night?
She remembered celebrating in one of the hotel bars. There was a slick guy, like someone out of The Godfather, who wouldn't take no for an answer. He'd pinched her ass. She'd slapped him. He'd raised his hand, but someone— tall, broad shoulders, killer smile—had stepped in and defused the situation.
She'd told the stranger who'd rescued her to shoot someone? Her mind whirled. The rest of the night was a blur of bright lights, loud music, the jangling of slot machines, and more alcohol. And him.
His face was blurry, but she recalled dark brown hair and strong hands. Hands that had caressed her body while they'd danced. Powerful arms that had carried her out of the fountain she'd insisted on dancing through. And a mouth that had delivered hot, wet, soul-stirring kisses. On the dance floor, up against a palm tree, in a taxi on the way to… where?
No, it must be a dream. A bad dream. A nightmare.
Only it wasn't. And she'd brought her rescuer back to her room.
Memories flashed in her mind. The desperate need to undress. Hands tugging, clothes flying and with only her corset, denim miniskirt and stilettos, she'd gotten naked first. He'd lunged for her, but she'd slipped free. Then she was in a whirlpool tub big enough for six, pouring bubble bath into the rising water.
It had taken him longer…why? Cowboy boots. He couldn't get his boots off and she'd laughed. Laughed until he'd finally joined her in the hot, bubbly water and made her moan. In the tub, on the stairs that led to the king-size bed, beneath the snow-white sheets that had stood out against his tanned skin—
"No." The word came out a desperate whisper. She dropped her hand to her breasts and clutched at the sheet. "No, no, no."
She had to get out of this bed and away from—oh, God—she couldn't even remember his name. How was it she could recall the feeling of his mouth on her body, but not the man's name?
Reaching to remove the weight of his hand from her hip, her fingers brushed over something smooth and cool.
A wedding ring.
Racy's stomach turned, an even more vile taste filling her mouth. She'd never picked up a married man. In her line of work, she could spot them a mile away, ring or not. Married men gave off a scent of possession, of belonging to someone else and, despite the craziness of her life, she wouldn't—
Afraid she was going to be sick, she clamped a hand over her mouth. Something hard hit her lip. She pulled away and focused on the shiny gold band on her left hand. Jerking up on one elbow, she shoved her hair out of her eyes and there it was, in the same place she'd worn wedding rings twice before.
First when she'd been nineteen and stupid, then six years later she'd taken another chance on happily ever after. When that had ended after eighteen short months, she'd vowed never to grace the aisle again.
But this ring didn't look like those cheap things from the past. This one sparkled with a row of diamonds. It couldn't be real. She couldn't be married.
No, this had to be a joke.
Her gaze flew around the luxurious suite, finally landing on the items littering the glass-top table near the double entrance doors. Bolting from the bed, she raced across the room. Whoa, not a good idea. Both her head and stomach took their sweet time in catching up with her.
She struggled to focus on her purse and the small bouquet of white silk flowers lying next to it. There was also a rolled paper tied with a pale blue ribbon, but her eyes caught and stared at a man's wallet, open to reveal a shiny law enforcement badge.
Racy stilled and blinked hard.
Ohmigod, she had not married him.
Then it all came back to her.
A law enforcement conference and the bartenders challenge in the same hotel. The participants of both events running into each other in the casinos, bars and restaurants, the cops often in the crowds during the challenge's preliminary events, open to the public.
One cop in particular.
She'd noticed him two nights ago standing in the back, arms crossed over his chest as he'd watched the first round of the flaring competition. It was Racy's favorite part, where each bartender's personality and style came out while showing off their moves. Spinning, flipping, catching and balancing bottles, glasses and bar tools while making a variety of cocktails. At the end of her routine, he'd offered her a wink and smile. She'd impulsively blown him a kiss, which every man in the cheering crowd who'd stood between them thought was for him.
That was the last time she'd seen him until…
She grabbed the rolled paper and yanked off the blue ribbon. It unfurled and the words Marriage Certificate stood out in a large, elaborate font. Her vision blurred as she focused farther down the paper.
Bride: Racina Josephine Dillon. Groom—
His deep, coarse growl caused Racy to spin around. The room kept spinning, and she grabbed hold of the table for balance. He sat at the edge of the bed, the sheet pulled across his lap, leaving his chest and legs bare. Elbows braced on his knees, he cradled his head in his hand.
Oh. Sweet. Lord.
Gage? She'd married Gage Steele?
"This can't be happening." Her words came out so soft he couldn't have heard them.
But he did. His head shot up and he winced. "As soon as I figure out what this is, I'll come back with—"
His eyes widened and locked onto her. The heat in his gaze torched her skin from her face to her toes. She realized she was standing there in nothing but her birthday suit.
Racy reached for the closest item of clothing. Yanking on a man's white dress shirt, she managed to get three buttons closed before a clean, outdoorsy scent filled her head. Gage's shirt. Even after a night in the city, it smelled like him. Like sparkling lake water, tall trees and the earth. The kind of earth you want to dig your fingers into and inhale.
"Not bad, but I like the other look better."
Gage's voice rolled across the room and caused her stomach to roll, as well. Only this time it brought with it a rush of heat. She concentrated on finishing the buttons, ignoring the paper clenched in her trembling fingers.
"What are we going to do about this?"
"There you go with this again." Gage brushed his hand over his face, then through his hair, causing the short brown locks to stick straight up. "Damn, I feel like crap. I'm getting too old for tequila and late nights."
Old? At thirty-two, Gage was in his prime, with the football player's body of his youth honed to lean, tight muscles. As the sheriff of Destiny, Wyoming, he carried the town's troubles on his wide shoulders without breaking a sweat.
And he'd been nothing but trouble for her since high school.
"This is the problem." Racy marched to the bed. "According to a piece of paper and the rings we're wearing, it seems we tied the knot last night."
Confusion filled his dark blue eyes. "We what?"
"Don't you remember?" Please, let at least one of us have the memory.
He snatched the paper from her hand, his brow drawing into a deep furrow. "Hot damn, we really did it."
Her stomach plummeted to her feet. "We did?"
"Hell, I thought you were kidding when you proposed—"
"What?" Racy's shriek caused both her and Gage to grimace.
"You disappeared into a jewelry store and walked out ten minutes later with a matching set of rings." He rubbed at his eyes, stopping to stare at the gold band on his hand. "Then you insisted on going to the marriage bureau for a license."
"After that we hit the casinos for a while. I figured that was the end of it." Gage dropped his hand and shrugged. "When you won big at poker—pretty impressive, by the way—I had to convince you I wasn't with you for the money."
She'd hit it big? The memory wouldn't come back. How much? Would it be enough? Could she really be this close to getting—
Wait. What did he do? "How did you convince me?"
"Are you kidding? You made me—" His voice caught and those blue eyes turned a stormy hue. "You don't remember?"
Racy curled her toes into the plush carpet, feeling like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "Bits and pieces."
"Look, I'm not one of your suspects." She crossed her arms over her chest and tossed a long curl off her face with a flick of her head. "It's obvious both of us had a few too many drinks last night. What exactly do you remember?"
"I asked you first."
"I remember winning the challenge."
Gage's gaze shot to the trophy. Hers followed. A silent groan filled her chest as his eyes lingered on her panties still hanging there.
"What else?" he finally said, looking back at her.
She fought not to squeeze her thighs together beneath his dress shirt. "I remember celebrating, when a Mafia thug started hitting on me. I thought I could handle it, but then it got out of control and some guy stepped in—"
Gage's left eyebrow rose into a perfect arch.
"You stepped in, played the hero, and I bought you a drink as a thank-you."
"That's it?" The familiar tic along his jawline told her he wasn't happy. "That's all you remember?"
Most of last night was still coming back to her in brief flashes, but the memories she'd awoken to earlier were quickly becoming clearer and brighter.
The two of them, laughing and talking, dancing and kissing. Years of feuding and smart remarks forgotten as together they explored the city. Then later, back here in this room… the almost desperate need to be together.
She couldn't tell him.
Racy swallowed hard and forced herself to speak. "Yes, that's all."
Gage tossed the certificate to the bed and started to rise.
"What are you doing?"
He flexed tanned and toned muscles. "Trying to stand."
"But you can't! You're—aren't you naked?"
He pushed at the sheet. "What's a little nudity between husband and wife?"
Racy spun away, her ears filled with the rustle of bed-sheets and heavy footsteps as he walked to the far side of the bed. The large, gilded mirror over the table gave her a clear view of a strong back, tapered waist and a backside so perfect it had to be a sin. Unable to look away, she watched him pull on a pair of boxer briefs that hugged his muscular thighs and glutes, before a pair of blue jeans covered her view. Not that they made him any less tempting.
Knock it off! This isn't real. None of it.
She leaned over, grabbed the piece of paper that told her their farce of a marriage was very real, and saw him reach for the phone. "What are you doing?"
"Calling room service." He punched a button and waited, keeping busy with something in the top drawer of the bedside table. "Yeah, this is suite 3011. Please send up an order of three eggs, sunny-side up, a double side of toast, and coffee. A lot of coffee."
He bumped the drawer closed with his knee, then looked at her over his shoulder, again with the arched eyebrow. She shook her head. Food was the last thing she needed right now.
"Add a plain bagel, lightly toasted with butter on the side, and two large apple juices. Oh, can you throw in a bottle of aspirin? Thanks." He hung up and turned around. "What?"
"How… how did you know what I like for breakfast?"
He shrugged one wide shoulder and brushed past her. "We both stop in most mornings at Sherry's Diner. I notice these things."
"Where are you going?"
"To the bathroom. Do you mind?"
He didn't wait for her to reply, but disappeared through the double arched doors at the other end of the room. Racy eyed the rumpled sheets on the king-size bed. Flashes of wild, uninhibited lovemak—
No, she wouldn't call it that. Last night was sex. Pure and simple and lusty and wonderful.
"He can't know I remember. He can't."