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After working all day on the ranch he'd bought a few months back, Jaron Lambert sauntered into the Broken Spoke looking for three thingsa steak dinner; a cold beer; and a warm, willing woman for a night of no-strings-attached fun. But as he sat down at one of the tables and surveyed the dimly lit roadhouse, he knew he would be settling on the steak and beer, then heading back to his placealone.
It wasn't that there weren't any women in the bar or that they hadn't paid attention to him when he entered. There were a couple playing pool and a few more sitting at two tables shoved together, looking as if they might be having a girls' night out. One of them had even smiled at him with a come-hither expression on her pretty face. But none of them piqued his interest enough for more than a passing glance. Maybe all the hard work to get his ranch in shape was catching up with him. More than likely it was because none of the women were a certain leggy brunette with the greenest eyes he'd ever seen.
Disgusted with himself for wanting a woman he knew damned good and well he could never have, he decided that he'd have been better off calling a couple of his five brothers to see if they wanted to join him for supper. If he had, at least he would have had someone to talk to while he ate. But they all had wives and kids now, and he could appreciate them wanting to spend the time with their families.
"What can I get for you, handsome?" a young, gum-snapping waitress asked, walking up to his table.
"I'll just have a bottle of Lone Star," he answered, deciding to forego the steak and just have a beer. As soon as he finished draining the bottle, he'd head back home to heat up a pizza and spend the rest of the evening in front of the television.
"One beer coming right up," she said, giving him a bright smile. After a minute, she returned, plunked down a napkin on the worn Formica tabletop and set the bottle on top of it. "You're Jaron Lambert, aren't you?" Her smile widened into a flirty grin when he nodded. "You won the World All-Around Championship at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas just before Christmas, didn't you?"
"Yup." When she continued to stand there expectantly, he gave in and asked what he figured she was waiting on. "So you were there?"
"Oh, no," she said, shaking her head. "I couldn't afford a trip to Vegas on what I make here. I watched it on satellite TV." She gave him an enticing smile. "You sure looked sexy when they awarded you that buckle."
He could tell by the look on her face that she was interested in more than just talking about his big win in Las Vegas. Unfortunately for her, he wasn't. He had dodged more than his fair share of buckle bunniesyoung women who flirted and hoped to sleep with a cowboy in possession of a championship belt buckleover the years, and he was glad that part of his life was behind him. Hopefully with his retirement from rodeo after the finals a couple of months ago, that type of woman would lose interest in him and move on to another cowboy who didn't care if he became nothing more than a notch on a groupie's bedpost.
When he didn't respond to her comment and expectant expression, she shrugged one shoulder. "Well, if you need anything elseanything at alljust let me know."
"Thanks," Jaron said, taking a swig of his beer as he watched the waitress move over to another table where three men sat. It was clear one of them was going to get lucky and be invited to join her for a night of fun after she got off work.
After downing his beer, he got several dollars out of his wallet and tossed them on top of the table. There was no sense sitting there paying for more beer when he had a cold twelve-pack in his refrigerator at home.
But just as he started to get up, he noticed a woman walk through the door and up to the bar. He uttered a word under his breath that he reserved for smashed thumbs and card games with his brothers as he settled back down in his chair. What the hell was she doing here?
She was wearing a red dress that fit her body like a glove, and there was very little left to the imagination about the size of her breasts or the curve of her slender hips. He swallowed back another curse as his gaze drifted lower. That little red number she wore ended about midthigh and gave him more than a fair idea of how long and shapely her legs were. But it was the shiny black high heels she had on that caused him to grind his teeth. Those four-inch spikes were the kind a man looked at and knew the woman wearing them was just asking for him to take her home and pleasure her throughout the night.
Apparently, he wasn't the only guy in the room to notice. As Jaron watched, a seedy-looking cowboy with a Skoal ring on the hip pocket of his jeans and a leering grin walked up beside her. She glanced at the man, shook her head and turned back to speak to the bartender. It was crystal clear she wasn't buying what the good old boy was selling.
Jaron decided he wasn't going anywhere. At least not while Mariah Stanton was standing there looking for all the world like every man's midnight fantasy.
But as he watched the cowboy try to get her to pay attention to him, Jaron could tell from the look on the man's face that there was going to be trouble. The guy wanted her, and she didn't want any part of him. Unfortunately, the son of a bitch was either too drunk, too stupid or too determined to take no for an answer.
When the jerk reached out and took hold of her upper arm, Mariah recoiled, and that was when Jaron came up out of his chair to cross the room like a bull out of the bucking chute. Without a moment's hesitation, he planted his right fist along the man's jaw and watched the bastard hit the floor in an undignified heap.
"Jaron?" Mariah sounded startled when she looked over her shoulder at him. "What are you doing?"
"Saving your pretty little ass from getting into more trouble than you can handle," he retorted angrily.
"You knocked out Roy Lee!" one of the man's friends shouted, taking a step toward Jaron.
"Do we have a problem?" Jaron growled through clenched teeth as he quickly moved Mariah behind him out of harm's way.
A good six inches shorter than Jaron's six-foot-two-inch height, the man stared at him a moment then hastily shook his head. "I ain't got no quarrel with you, dude," he said, hastily taking a couple of steps in the opposite direction.
"Then, I strongly suggest you pick Roy Lee up off the floor and leave me and the lady alone," Jaron ordered.
As Roy Lee's friends hauled him to his feet, Jaron turned and, putting his arm around Mariah's waist, ushered her out of the place. She tried to pull away from him, but he tightened his arm around her and didn't stop as he guided her out the exit and toward her car in the parking lot.
"Jaron, have you lost your mind?" she asked as he hurried her along.
"What the hell do you think you were doing walking into a cowboy bar looking for all the world as if you're advertising for a roll in the hay, Mariah?" he demanded when they reached her compact sedan.
"I don't look like I'm advertising for any such thing," she said, jerking away from him. "And what's wrong with the way I'm dressed? I think I look just fine."
Jaron folded his arms across his chest and let his gaze slide from the top of her dark brown hair to the soles of her impossibly high heels. That was the problem. She did look fine. Too fine.
He ignored her question and asked one of his own. "What in the name of Sam Hill did you think you were doing stopping by the Broken Spoke alone?"
"Not that it's any of your concern, but I had a dinner meeting in Fort Worth and on my way back home my car started making an odd noise. I managed to get it into this parking lot just before it died completely, and after I discovered that my cell phone needed recharging, I went inside to call a tow truck."
He watched her emerald eyes narrow as she glared at him. "And even if I had been there for other reasons, it's none of your business. I can handle situations like what happened in there all by myself."
"Oh, yeah? Is that why old Roy Lee put his filthy hands on you?" Jaron asked, doing his best to hold on to his temper. "The minute that bastard grabbed hold of your arm he made it my business."
When he'd seen the man touch her, Jaron had damned near come unglued. Aside from the fact that he took exception to any man forcing his attention on a woman when it was clear she didn't want it, the woman in question had been Mariah. As long as he had a single breath left in his body, nobody was going to treat her with anything but complete respect.
"Really? It's your business? You've made it perfectly clear all these years that you have absolutely no interest in anything I do." She shook her head. "You can't have it both ways, Jaron. Either you are interested or you aren't."
"You're my sister-in-law's kid sister," he said stubbornly. "I'm just watching out for you."
"Oh, good grief! Get over it, Jaron." She rested her hands on her sexy hips. "In case you haven't noticed lately, I'm no longer a naive eighteen-year-old girl. I've grown up. I'm twenty-five and perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
Jaron took a deep breath. Oh, he'd noticed several years ago that Mariah wasn't the teenager he had met when his foster brother Sam Rafferty had married Bria Stanton. Back then Mariah had had a crush on him, and although he had found her attractive, he knew that a nine-year age difference made him too old for her. But over the years, he would have had to be as blind as a bat not to notice that she had grown into a beautiful, sexy woman. And that was the problem.
Interested didn't even begin to cover what he felt for Mariah. He wouldn't call it love. Hell, he'd have to believe in the emotion before he could say that was what it was. But he did find himself thinking about her a lot, and whenever the family got together for birthdays dinners or holidays, he couldn't seem to take his eyes off her.
"I don't care how old you are. There's no sense in putting yourself into a dangerous situation," he insisted.
"Dangerous?" She laughed and the sound sent a shock wave of heat straight through him. She pointed toward the entrance to the bar. "Sam brings Bria here for dinner all the time. For that matter, the rest of your brothers bring their wives here, as well. We both know they wouldn't dream of doing that if they thought they were placing the women in jeopardy."
It was Jaron's turn to laugh. "Do you honestly think that some dust-covered cowboy would have the guts to try putting the moves on one of my sisters-in-law with my brothers right there to knock them flat?"
Continuing to glare at him, she shook her head. "I'm not going to get into a debate with you about your antiquated idea that women need a man's protection whenever they go out." She started to brush past him to go back into the bar. "I've had a trying day, I'm tired and I need to make that phone call."
"Not in there you're not," Jaron said, placing his hands on her slender shoulders to stop her.
"Jaron Lambert, I swear if you don't"
Before he could stop himself, he pulled her close and brought his mouth down on hers to silence her. But the moment he tasted her perfect coral lips, he lost every ounce of sense he'd ever possessed and gave in to years of temptation and denial.
Wrapping his arms around her, Jaron settled Mariah against him, and the feel of her breasts crushed to his chest, her body touching his from their shoulders to their knees, set a fire in his belly that he thought just might burn him to a crisp. Without a thought to the consequences, he traced the seam of her mouth with his tongue to coax her to open for him. When she did, he slipped inside to explore her inner recesses.
As he stroked and teased her, she grabbed the front of his jeans jacket with both hands for support as she sagged against him. That fueled the fire in his belly to a fever pitch, and his erection was not only inevitableit caused him to feel light-headed from its intensity. Tightening his arms around her, he held her to him and he knew the second she felt the evidence of his need when she shivered and pressed herself even closer.
His heart stalled as another wave of heat flowed through his veins. He had wanted her for so damned long, if he didn't put some distance between them, and real quick, he wasn't sure he would be able to. But when he tried to ease away from the kiss, Mariah's lips clung to his and he knew it was going to take every ounce of strength he could muster to move away from her.
Forcing himself to take a step back before she made him forget he was a gentleman, he took a deep breath. "What seems to be wrong with your car?"
uh, I'm not sure," she said, sounding as winded as he felt. "I heard a noise and a few minutes later I noticed the lights were dimming. By the time I parked it here, they went out completely and the engine died. When I turned the key to restart it, all it did was make a clicking sound."
"It sounds as if you might have a bad battery or the alternator went out," he said, thankful to focus on something besides the enticing woman standing next to him.
It appeared that neither wanted to mention the kiss, and that was just fine with him. The less said about his lapse of judgment, the better.