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Rylan Fredrickson looked at the mass of beer-chasing cowboys crammed inside the small, dark bar, reaching instinctively for the reassurance of the gun she no longer kept at her waist. This hole-in-the-wall couldn't possibly be what her therapist, Dawn, had in mind when she'd told Rylan to stop rocking her ass in the corner, step out her front door, and start experiencing new things.
Just breathe, Rylan, and let life happen.
She'd stepped out her front door, all right, and straight down a testosterone-and beer-fueled rabbit hole. She was supposed to take the bus from Madison, Wisconsin, to Greenbrook, Montana, where a ride to Paint River Ranch would be waiting for her. Not fearing for her life on the threshold of a horror-movie-worthy bar called The Reaper. "Experience new things" was starting to look like a fail. If Dawn weren't also her best friend, Rylan would have strangled her hard and slow for the shitty life advice.
Dawn's "let life happen" mantra was supposed to help heal Rylan's emotional wounds. But so far she'd spent twenty-four hours on a packed Greyhound with broken air-conditioning and then gotten dumped at a run-down gas station slash bus stop. The bucktoothed station attendant broke the great news to her that she'd gotten off in the wrong town. Paint River Ranch was twenty minutes away, and to add fuel to her fire, no one answered when she'd repeatedly hit the ranch's number on her cell phone's speed dial. Life was happening, all right, and it wasn't doing much to make her feel better.
From the moment she'd answered Paint River's online help-wanted ad to when she'd sold everything but the clothes and few mementos in her travel bag and hopped on the bus, she'd been second-guessing the sanity of taking this leap. She was interviewed over the phone and hired via e-mail for crying out loud. What had she been thinking?
Escape. A clean, far, far away escape from the ache in her heart and the emptiness that never went away, that's what. Rylan hugged herself and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She'd been a cop in one of the busiest college towns in the country. Making this journey shouldn't have her so undone. But the sun was setting behind the mountains and soon she'd be stranded in a town the size of a postage stamp. Undone was too light an expression.
"Suck it up, Buttercup," Rylan muttered as she drew a big breath through her nose, hitched her duffel bag over her shoulder, and crossed the threshold. The beat of a Little Big Town song blasted in her ears. Surveying the interior, Rylan spotted the bar across the room behind several scattered tables. Her nerves jacked; she'd have to cut through a mass of drunken men to reach it. The memory flashed in her mind — the sound of gunfire, searing pain, blood on her hands.
Rolling her shoulders back and standing tall, Rylan smoothed the front of her jeans with sweaty palms before weaving through the room. Chatter paused. Cowboys turned to look her way with halfhearted interest. She stomped down her unease at having so many eyes on her, and let out a relieved huff when conversation and the sounds of drinking and cards being shuffled started up again as quickly as they'd paused. Shake it off, she chastised herself. This is a different place, a different bar. After six years in law enforcement, it was hard to forget that not every man in every bar was packing a weapon, just waiting to put a bullet in her.
Once bitten and all that.
A baritone voice wafted by as she approached the bar. "Help you, young lady?"
Rylan glanced around but couldn't see the source.
She followed the tones and blushed to see a very short person whose forehead cleared the bar by only the fraction of an inch. How that huge voice came from such a small man, she had no idea.
"I'm sorry." Rylan gaped. "I didn't see you there."
"Statement of my life." The man stepped up onto a stool and grabbed a tumbler from the rack. "What'll ya have?" He was balding, with a ring of chestnut-and-gray-peppered hair, the top of his head dotted with age spots.
"A ride?" Rylan asked. The bartender stopped halfway to getting a napkin with the rise of one bushy eyebrow.
"With these stumpy legs of mine, that's not a request I personally get very often." He winked and set a napkin in front of her. Rylan laughed.
"The gas station guy said I might find someone heading to Greenbrook in ..." A loud boom upstairs cut her off, and the floor above shook with violent boot stomps. The bartender sighed, shaking his head. No one else seemed to mind or notice. Rylan glanced over to see a door at the top of the stairs open. Voices and laughter rang out from behind it, and a man clomped unsteadily down the staircase.
"Dammit, Cole! You lost. Get your drunk ass home!" a voice from upstairs shouted a second before a hat flew down the staircase after the man.
The bartender sighed again as the upstairs door slammed. "Poker game going on." He pointed with one finger to upper level. "So, where exactly are you headed?"
"Paint River Ranch," Rylan said, eyeing the cowboy as he slapped his hat against his thigh before attempting to settle it on his head. The hat fell off. He snatched it and tried again, completely missing this time. Glossy black hair curled around his ears and the nape of his neck. A dark T-shirt hugged his broad torso, the one arm Rylan could see defined with smooth, bulging biceps as he put the hat back on. A warm flush settled in her chest. Drunk or not, if he was this sexy from across the room, how hot was he up close? Rylan's brow furrowed at the thought. Yeah, that's what she needed to be thinking about right now.
The bartender gave an enthusiastic guffaw. "No kidding." He pulled a tap of beer and held it to her. "Drink up. You're going to need it."
Rylan accepted the glass with a questioning look. "Why's that?" The bartender nodded to the cowboy who swayed his way around a row of tables. "'Cause that's your ride."
She'd survived being shot, a couple car chases, and the swine flu. There was no way in hell Rylan was getting tangled up with a six-foot-plus, drunk-ass cowboy. Sexy or not.
"Why exactly is he my ride?" Rylan crumpled a bar napkin in her palm while watching the cowboy stagger through the crowd. Somehow, he maneuvered his tall, lean body against the far end of the bar, hip jutting out with one leg cocked as though he had all the time in the world. She half expected him to fall over ... and was slightly disappointed when he didn't.
"He's Cole Haywood."
The name had a ring of familiarity to it. "So?"
"Haywood, as in the Haywoods of Paint River Ranch."
Rylan clenched her eyes shut. Oh, shit. Maeve Haywood had been her contact at the ranch, the one to conduct her phone interview. If her brain weren't so tired from this disaster of a day, Rylan would have made the connection right away.
Time to get her intel straight. "So, he's the ...?"
"Oldest son. Co-owner."
She rolled her eyes. "Right." And technically my freaking boss! Great. Add drunk, hot boss to the list of surprises today.
She'd been hired as the executive housekeeper — a fancy title for cleaning lady — but it didn't matter. She'd wanted a simple job, an escape from the rigors of being a police officer and the constant cycle of misery she couldn't seem to pull herself out of. When Maeve had offered her the job, Rylan had eagerly accepted. She'd do laundry and clean toilets until her fingers bled if it would help ease the empty feeling in her chest. Fourteen months hiding away in her house, trying to deal with debilitating grief and crushing lawsuits, had led to this. A huge change. A fresh start.
The bartender slid a new napkin next to her glass. "There are three Haywood boys — Cole, Tucker, and Levi. They run the ranch, along with their mama, Maeve. Mr. Haywood died last year, and since then, you could say ... well, things ain't been the same. Cole isn't a drinker, for instance. And he's a wasted sombitch right now." He smiled wide when Rylan raised her brows. "Come on now," he chided. "You don't seem like the type of woman I need to mince words around. Am I right?"
"No mincing," Rylan confirmed, wiping condensation from her glass with a flick of her thumb. She might be a woman, but she was harder than most, and it showed. Her demeanor and the way she carried herself equaled all cop and no nonsense. Feelings and emotions? Nicely tucked away, thank you very much. She both loved and hated that part of herself, knowing that the rough parts of her former career, and especially her life, had taken some of her softness away.
"So you're telling me that intoxicated cowboy is my best hope of getting to Paint River Ranch tonight?"
The bartender gave a sympathetic shrug. "Yep. And you'd better catch him before he starts drinking again."
He indicated that he'd watch her bag as she slipped off the stool with a hissed expletive. This ought to be fun.
"What's his normal? You know — happy drunk, mean drunk, gotta-tase-him type?"
The short man hunched his shoulders and winked. "I've never seen him drunk before, so you tell me when you find out."
"Great." Rylan frowned. The place seemed louder all of a sudden. Or maybe that was the blood rushing in her ears. Sounds banged in her head, her heart thumping painfully as she started toward Cole. The closer she got, the more the nerves tore up her insides. The crowded bar was making her cop Spidey-senses go off — that was all.
When she slipped into an opening between Cole and the man next to him, all her senses went haywire, calling bullshit to her theory.
Cole leaned his elbows on the bar, his profile to her. Tan skin, slight stubble on his square jaw, one perfect curl of black hair peeking from beneath his hat. Close-up Cole was so much better than faraway Cole.
Rylan cleared her throat, more to get a grip on herself than to get his attention. "Mr. Haywood?"
Cole glanced at her, tipping his beat-up hat back a little to rest his eyes on hers. Rylan's mouth went dry, from nerves, fatigue, or whatever was making her brain swirl. Cole Haywood had a delectable lower lip and a top one that curled up just a bit, making him look inviting and sexy as sin. His eyes just had to be the brightest turquoise she'd ever seen, too. They were brilliant, even in the dim light.
"Yes, ma'am?" The muscles in his arms flexed as he braced one hand on the bar. Her skin heated, and a teasing ache stabbed her right between the legs, making her jolt a little, her right hand shooting out to grab the bar in response.
Mortified but holding it in like a pro — at least, she hoped she was — Rylan let go of the bar and offered him her hand. "I'm Rylan Fredrickson."
Cole's eyes lowered to her hand, but he didn't take it. His gaze made a slow ascent, up over her chest — paused there — then moved to her face and settled on her lips as a half-grin decorated his own. She smirked at his appraisal. At least she'd been covert in checking him out. He wasn't even trying to hide it.
"Ah ... Is this a conversation we should have, you know, in private?" The wicked glint in his very blue-green eyes made her insides squirm. Her mind went wayward for a second to all the sweet possibilities "private" might entertain with a man this gorgeous before her rational self bitch-slapped that thought into next week.
"No!" Her lip curled. "Definitely not."
"So you're not coming on to me?" He hitched a finger at the female bartender, and she promptly placed a beer in his hand.
Rylan rubbed her forehead and took a steadying breath. "I have no clue why you'd think that, but considering you're my boss, Mr. Haywood, that would be highly inappropriate."
The guy behind her choked on his drink with a snicker. Cole's eyes went wide. "What?"
Rylan spread her hands. "The new executive housekeeper? That's me, and apparently, you're my ride to the ranch, so —" She should probably ditch the sarcasm, but he was drunk, so they were even.
"What the hell?" He turned to fully face her, grumbling something about a man not even being able to get drunk without work interrupting. His tight shirt dipped into the lines of his chest, creating a tempting outline of firm pecs, narrow waist, and tight abdomen. A thick leather belt with a square silver buckle set the tone for the snug, well-worn jeans clinging to his long legs. Rylan hitched an eyebrow. At least there was one good thing about this trip — the hype about cowboys being sexy as hell was true.
More than a little irritated with how her lust was playing tennis with itself, Rylan crossed her arms. "Hell is appropriate, actually. Now down the drink, and give me your keys." She had one hand on her hip — habit, she supposed, from reaching for cop toys to make jerks like Haywood behave. His eyes fell to her lips again and stayed there.
"You were supposed to take the bus to Greenbrook. Tomorrow." His tone implied she was an idiot.
"Right, well, sometimes things just don't work out the way they're supposed to."
His hand cupped the beer glass while he studied her. Rylan stared right back, wishing the butterflies would take a hike. What was this reaction about? Cooped up too long with too little interaction with the outside world, she guessed. Her body was reacting to the first enticing man she'd seen in too damn long. Good thing Cole was her boss so she wouldn't be tempted to act on her brain's internal "look at the pretty cowboy" jumping and pointing.
Cole pulled his lower lip between his teeth and narrowed his eyes. "You're a little ornery." He reached one hand to her shoulder and flipped a chunk of her hair.
Rylan's breath ran away as the back of his hand brushed over her collarbone. A shiver raced over her body, warm and sweet. She leaned away from him. "Excuse me?"
He shrugged, a slow smile crossing his face at her reaction. "That's okay. Ornery is good."
Her lips parted to sling an insult, but she refrained. No sense in wasting perfectly good angst on a drunk who wouldn't remember it in five seconds. "I'll play along. Why is that good?"
Cole took a slow breath, his eyes darkening. "Because you're pretty. I like pretty. But I don't like ornery. So we should be just fine." He nodded as though he'd just made a deal with himself and was quite pleased about it. Before she could even think of a response, he shoved his beer away, untouched, and moved from the bar.
"Let's go." He dug in his pocket, produced a key and some cash. He threw the cash on the bar and turned to walk away. Still mulling over his words, Rylan grabbed his wrist on instinct.
"You're not driving." She put her hand out for his keys.
He scoffed and shook his head, words a bit slurred. "Boss, remember?"
Rylan pursed her lips. "I can see the headlines now: Paint River Owner Cole Haywood Kills Employee in Alcohol-Related Crash. Goes to, oh, I don't know, prison for vehicular manslaughter." Rylan swallowed hard. Drunk driving was something she'd had enough of over the years — more than. The offense hadn't just been a daily part of her life as a police officer; it had ripped through her personal life like a meat grinder on steroids.
His nostrils flared like he was trying to hold back a laugh. "You're not driving my truck."
Since first impressions had already gone right out the window, she was okay with expressing herself. If it got her fired, so what? She'd figure something out. Let life happen, right?
She gave a resolute nod. "That's fine. I don't need this job that bad. Thanks anyway, Mr. Haywood." Rylan turned back where the short bartender was watching her things. There was no backup plan, but sleeping in the alley was preferable to getting into a truck with him driving. She'd made it four steps when Cole's strong hand gripped her shoulder. Shocks raced down her spine as his warm fingers pressed into her flesh.
"Dammit, woman. Fine." He spun her around fast. She tipped forward right into him. Her heart short-circuited, her breath stalled in the single moment her chest made contact with his. With a gasp, she put her palms on his hard body and shoved herself back. He grabbed her left wrist with one hand and flipped it over. His thumb made a soft back-and-forth sweep over the pulse point before he dropped a set of keys into her palm with the other.
Excerpted from "Tempting the Cowboy"
Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Otto.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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