For one crazy night, Annabeth Upton lets loose to forget her worries: Grandma Flo's medical bills, little Cody's stutter, the challenges of being a school principal and a single mom. Then Ryder Boone steps in to protect her from a rowdy bar patron and in a hot half hour they create the biggest worry of all. Two of them, actually!
Ryder was always the rebel of the Boone family, but he does the right thing and proposes. Annabeth says yesbut thinks the marriage is temporary, meant to save her from scandal. The last thing she wants is to force Ryder into a loveless marriage forever, so she gives him an opt-out clause. The only problem is that as they grow even closer, she doesn't want him to leave!
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If she'd been told she'd be spending the evening stranded in a honky-tonk bar, karaokeing her heart out to a roomful of truckers, Annabeth Upton would have laughed. She didn't go to bars and she'd never been a fan of karaoke. But today had been tough. Tough as in her job was on the line, the phone creditors were getting nasty and her car slid across an icy road into a ditch. Tough might be an understatement.
In the past three hours, she'd played a few rounds of dominoes and won a game of pool while waiting for news on her car. And since she had no way home and the storm outside was still pelting the tin roof with hail and sleet, the only options left were karaoke or getting drunk. She wasn't a big fan of hard liquor, so she'd start with karaoke. After that, and her day from hell, she might need a drink.
Thankfully, her audience wasn't too picky. People started calling out requests when she finished the first song. Four songs later, she was ready to pass the microphone. But since Etta James's "At Last" was one of her all-time favorite songs, she wasn't about to say no to the old guy who requested it. "Last one, for you," she said.
She cleared her throat, spun the microphone in her hand and waited for the music to play.
She could worry about the car and the repair bill later.
And the courtesy call from the school board informing her that the job she was temporarily filling was opening for interviews. Hopefully she'd proved herself during her emergency appointment. Hopefully the whole interview and vetting process was a formality, not something to give her ulcers. She'd wanted to be principal of Stonewall Crossing Elementary since she was a little girl and she couldn't imagine giving it up. Or how they'd make it if she had to go back to a teacher's salary. Not that there was a thing she could do about that right this second.
Grandma Flo would tell her worrying would get her wrinkles, a bad taste in her mouth and not much else. She took a deep breath.
"At last" her voice rasped out, steady and on-key. So far so good. She closed her eyes and let the music carry her.
She kept singing, her nerves easing. She should be grateful. Her accident hadn't been too bad, and Cody was safe with her in-laws instead of with her. If he'd been in the car when she'd slid into the ditch Nope, not going there. He was safe and sound and, other than the car, she'd walked away with only a bump on the head.
Her voice grew raw and thick as she continued.
Someone whistled, making her smile.
She fumbled the words as the door opened, blowing in cold air and sheets of ice before it slammed shut. A few people yelled, irritated by her singing or the interruption, she didn't know which.
She sucked in a deep breath, hoping for a big finish. She held the last note, soaking up the applause from the inhabitants of Ol' Ned's BBQ & Bar. She held her long crushed-velvet skirt in her hands, crossed her boot-clad ankles and curtseyed. Then she headed straight for the bar.
Ol' Ned was a mountain of a man, covered in a mask of long, thick facial hair. Other than his full lipswhich were curved into a smilehe was fairly indistinguishable. He slid a shot glass across the bar to her. "That one's from Mikey here." Ned nodded at the older man sitting to her left.
She stared at the amber-colored liquid. Why not? She winced, swallowing the liquid before she could second-guess herself. It burned all the way down her throat. "Thank you," she croaked to Mikey.
"And the other's on the house," Ned rumbled, sliding another shot her way. "Voice like an angel."
"Ain't that the truth?" Mikey agreed.
She smiled, flattered in spite of herself. Her all-state choir days were long behind her, but she still loved to sing.
"Looks like one, too," Mikey added.
Ned spoke up. "She's too young and too pretty for you, Mikey."
"Ah, Ned, come on now." Mikey laughed. "A man's never too old to appreciate a fine-looking woman. Besides, the missus would skin me alive if I tried to trade her in for a younger model."
Annabeth's smile grew. "I'll try to remember you're spoken for." She saluted them both with her second shot and emptied the little glass, welcoming its warmth.
Mikey winked at her.
"Well, hell, darlin', I'm not spoken for." Another new voice had her spinning her stool around. This guy hadn't been here earlier, because she would have noticed him. For one thing, he was under fifty. For another, he was easy on the eyes. But he was staring at her as if she was a prize elk and he was a big-game hunter. "Play?" He held a pool cue out to her.
Yes, she could play. But this cocky guy hadn't been here earlier to know that. Greg had taught her to play. She was goodgood enough to win a little money when she was in college. And right now, with two shots warming her belly, she was beginning to feel a little cocky herself. "Sure." She took the cue, ready to wipe the confidence off Mr. Ego's face.
"How about a bet?" he asked, stepping closer. "I'm feeling lucky."
You need a breath mint. She glanced at the floor, trying not to giggle. She was going to teach this joker a lesson, and enjoy it. "That's nice." She arched an eyebrow. "You'll need it."
Mr. Ego laughed, invading her personal space. "And the bet?"
She put her hand on her hip, thinking. "I win, you sing a song." She winked at Ned, her tequila-infused courage goading her on.
"What do I get if I win?" he asked, looking at her boobs.
She poked his chest with her pool cue. "Eyes up here, buddy."
"Troy," he said. "I'm guessing your name is Angel?"
Oh, please. "No. Well, Troy, what were you hoping to get? And we'll go from there."
Troy winked. "Your number."
She bit her lip to keep from laughing. Apparently tequila made her giggly. He was not getting her number. She glanced at Ned and Mikey. Ned's arms were crossed, his eyebrows dipped so low she couldn't make out any evidence of his eyes. Mikey was leaning back against the bar, sizing Troy up. So they weren't Troy fans, either.
"Try again." She smiled sweetly at Troy.
Troy shook his head. "A drink?"
That seemed harmless enough. After all, Ned and Mikey were keeping an eye on things. She was going to beat him, anyway. "Sure."
He held out his hand, his smile a little unnerving. "Shake on it."
She put her hand in his, a flick of unease racing down her spine.
"Annabeth?" That was a voice she recognized.
Ryder Boone, all intense and broody, was making his way to her side. She sighed, relieved to have someone familiar show up. But Ryder was staring at Troy, eyes narrowed and assessing. Ryder stepped between her and Troy, putting her eye level with his wall of a chest, and cupped her face in his rough hands. She frowned at Ryder, startled by his touch. Was something wrong? "Ryder, what are you?"
And then he kissed her. Ryder was kissing her. Ryder Boone was kissing her?
Not just any nice-to-see-you peck, either. His lips always looked full, soft and inviting. Now she knew they felt that way, too. They were like heaven, nipping at her lower lip until she was gasping. She swayed into him, the steel of his arms catching her and pulling her closer. Her head was spinning, too mixed-up to process what she was feeling. Only one thing was absolutely certainRyder Boone could kiss. It might have been almost six years since a man's kiss had every inch of her aching with want, but Ryder had her aching and wanting, desperately. Now.
His lips parted hers, the tip of his tongue touching hers. Her fingers dug into his leather jacket, clinging. His mouth lifted from hers, the rough pad of his thumb brushing across her lower lip.
Ryder. She was all hot and bothered. Over Ryder.
"Ready to go, Princess?" Ryder's voice was gruff.
She shook her head, trying to shake the fog of desire from her brain. Why wasn't he kissing her anymore? Wait. What the hell was happening?
"Princess?" he repeated.
Right, he was asking her something. "'Go'?" she managed, staring up at Ryder. Was he serious? And if he was, did he mean what she thought he meant? They may have flirted for years, years and years, but he'd never touched her. Besides, it would have been weird, since he was Greg's best friend.
"She's not going anywhere." Troy spoke up. "We just made a bet, didn't we, Annabeth?" Troy might be grinning, but he wasn't happy. The change in his stance was subtle but clear. Troy was bracing for a fight.
And Ryder was ready. His sky-blue gaze fixed on Troy, the slightest tick in his jaw muscle revealing his agitation. She shivered, stepping closer to Ryder warily.
Ryder's hands rubbed her arms, his attention returning to her. He arched an eyebrow, smiling his I'm-going-to-rock-your-world-tonight smile at her. She'd seen it in action, many times. Not that she'd ever been on the receiving end of it before. Was he serious? Or was she having a reaction to the tequila?
"What's it gonna be, Princess?" His lips brushed her brow while his fingers threaded through hers. "You want to finish your game? Or you ready to go?"
His scent filled her nostrils, further clouding her mind. She blinked, the slightest tremble running down her spine.
He bounced his eyebrows playfully, his gaze focused on her mouth. "Now."
And then he kissed her again. It wasn't a soft, slow sort of kiss, either. He twisted her hair through his fingers, tugging her head back as his mouth devoured hers. She went from light-headed to holding on for dear life. His breath, his tongue, his soft little growl as he deepened the kiss. She was drowning and she loved it.
He broke off slowly, breathing hard. He seemed just as stunned as she was. Could he want her the way she was wanting him? "Ready?" His voice was gruff.
She managed a nod. She was ready. Until this second, she hadn't realized just how ready she was. And never in a million years had she expected to do this with Ryder. But now, yes please, she was ready.
"Night, boys." Ryder touched the brim of his cowboy hat in mock salute, threw some cash on the bar, slid his arm around her waist and led her to the door.
It was frigid outside, but all she felt was the slow burn in her belly and the startling heat of Ryder's palm against her side. By the time he'd loaded her into his truck and climbed up beside her, Annabeth was buzzing with anticipation. She didn't think about why he'd decided tonight was the night or what might happen tomorrow. Nope, she climbed into his lap, knocked his black felt hat into the backseat, cradled his face between her hands and kissed him. It had been so long so damn long. And she was lonely.
Ryder was Ryder. She'd never thought about having a hot one-night stand but, if she was going to, Ryder was probably the best candidate. He knew what he was doing, according to his conquests, and he didn't want complications.
"Princess," he growled.
"Shh," she answered, sliding her hands under his shirt to feel the rock-hard abs beneath. She shivered, frantically sliding his belt free and unbuttoning his pants. "I need this, Ryder. I need you."
Ryder had to stop this.
Seeing Annabeth with Troy Clark, knowing the way Clark operated, had goaded him into action. He was running on a couple hours of sleep, so he wasn't in the best condition for a fight. Kissing Annabeth seemed easier. Clark was an ass, but he'd back off if he thought Annabeth was with Ryder. Ryder never guessed she'd react this waythat he'd react this way.
This was Annabeth. The Annabeth who'd defended him from bullies in first grade. The Annabeth who'd helped him with hours of English homework. The Annabeth he'd taught to drive stick. The Annabeth who'd married his best friend. She was Greg's widowoff-limits, the "princess." She was a good girl, too good for himand always would be. He had no right to touch her.
But she said she needed this, needed him.
And, damn him, he'd always wanted her.
Her hands slipped into his hair, tugging frantically. He groaned, pressing her to him, savoring the feel of her. One hand slipped beneath her sweater, greedily cupping her full breast. The weight of it in his palm made him moan. She shook, a broken little sob spilling into the cold air. It was his kiss she craved, grasping the back of his neck and pulling him closer. And his touch that made her breathing hitch and her entire body tremble. He watched, letting her move against him. She was lost, pulling his hair, eyes closed, her long neck arched back as she came apart on his lap.
His heart was pounding. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Hair a mess, lips swollen. His fingers traced the seam of her mouth as she sighed, her arms wrapping around his neck. He couldn't wait. His hands were relentlessstroking, touching, pushing her long skirt past her thighs to her waist. With one tug, her underwear ripped free. Nothing separated them. And he couldn't wait. She was warm, encasing him deep inside her. Her ragged whisper of "Oh Ryder" drove him on.
His hands slid up her back, the silk of her skin and the brush of her soft curves inflaming him. He smoothed her hair back, his hands exploring her body, her curves, her softness. His nose brushed along the length of her neck, inhaling her scent. His lips latched on to her earlobe, making her gasp. Her hands moved up his chest, sliding along his shoulders to cradle his head. She arched against him, groaning hoarsely as they fit more deeply together. It was her groan that struck some sort of primal chord inside him. All at once, she was everywhere, holding him, overwhelming his senses. He gritted his teeth, fighting for control as she lost herself in the passion. Her body bowed, every inch of her tightening around him.
Her release sent him over the edge. His climax hit hard, rocking him from his boots to every hair on his head. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think All he could do was hold on. He gripped her hips, desperate to keep her tight against him. Even when it was over, he couldn't ease his hold on her, couldn't let her gohe didn't want to. He wanted to etch the feel of her, the smell of her, into his mind before she slipped away. His hands tangled in her hair as he kissed her. He'd do whatever he could to hold on to this intimacy before the reality of what had happened sank in.