ROCKY MOUNTAIN HOME, the final book in the Six Pack Ranch series, releases in four short days! I’m so excited to share the first THREE chapters with you today! ENJOY!!
February, somewhere in rural Alberta
Jesse Coleman was lost.
He cursed as he spread the old-fashioned road map in front of him on the dash, the dim light from the overhead lamp not helping as he peered at the thin lines representing secondary roads. He’d grown up driving the back roads of rural Alberta, but mostly in the central parts. He was far enough out of familiar territory that with the snow falling like a thick curtain, he could barely find his own ass.
GPS was no help, and he gave up. No way he was making it any farther tonight. He needed a place to get off the road and out of the snow.
He was shoving the map back in the glove box when, miracle of miracles, headlights appeared behind him, coming over the rise. At least it meant he wasn’t completely screwed. The truck slowed as it passed him, people with unfamiliar faces offering a friendly wave as they sent a swirl of fresh fallen snow flying skyward.
Jesse threw his truck into gear and hauled ass, horse trailer and all, following the red taillights like a beacon.
Fifteen minutes later the snow slowed enough to let the lights of a motel sign shine the first hope on his miserable evening. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was better than sleeping in his truck.
A small shelter with a fenced paddock stood behind the main office, so he got his horse settled, then slipped into the room he’d been given at the end of the motel row.
A single glance was enough to confirm what he’d already suspected. “Jeez. End of the fucking world, and I’ve found it.”
Puke-green bedspread. A black velvet painting screwed to the wall over the bed—classy. The wood paneling on the lower half of the walls was so bashed up it looked as if someone had taken a hammer to it. One shelf hung on the wall with a two-foot-long bar under it, a few metal coat hangers tangled in a mess. The carpet—threadbare and stained.
He didn’t dare look in the bathroom.
Still, one night was all he needed.
“I’ve slept in worse,” he told Morgan.
His dog didn’t seem to believe him as the animal worked his way around the entire room before picking a spot by the door to curl up. As if to say he was ready to leave anytime Jesse came to his senses and said the word.
Jesse patted Morgan on the head, rubbing the golden retriever behind the ears affectionately. “I hear you, but I need a drink. No, I need a couple of drinks,” he told the dog. “Stay, and be good. Tomorrow we’ll figure out how to get to our new home.”
Morgan thumped his tail once then put his head down and closed his eyes.
End of the world, all right, but even in the boonies there was bound to be liquor.
The rooms stretched in a long arm west of the motel office. On the other side was a small café and bar. Jesse paced past the closed sign in the café door, headed for where music was spilling from behind the neon-lit saloon sign.
The words he’d said to his dog haunted him as he pushed through the door. Home. They didn’t have one right now, and this bar just made it all the clearer they weren’t in familiar territory.
The place was not much more than three stools at a high counter, a couple of tables with hard wooden chairs and a dartboard on the wall. A large-screen TV hung over the bar, a hockey game in progress, but Jesse’s attention shot straight to the redhead at the counter, glasses lined up in front of her as if she was settling in for a long, intense bout of drinking.
Sounded like a fucking great idea.
The wind caught the bar door, slamming it shut behind him, and all eyes turned in Jesse’s direction. Two old-timers nursing drinks in the corner. The bartender behind the counter.
The woman’s gaze brushed him, lingering on the bruise beside his eye before slipping down his body then back up, her lips twisting into a smile. He offered one in return.
Buxom redheads were his favourite.
Her hair was braided back, the long length of it pulled forward to rest over her plaid-covered breast. Tight faded jeans, working leather belt. Light brown leather half-boots that looked worn and comfy.
She must have felt his gaze lingering because she glanced up to offer him a glimpse into grey-green eyes, a smattering of freckles over her nose and cheeks. Then she ignored him, motioning at the bartender as he brought forward yet another glass.
Jesse was intrigued. He made his way next to her. “Looks like a party in the making. Want a little company?”
“Knock yourself out,” she offered.
He settled onto the barstool and waved at the bartender. “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The grey-haired man stepped forward and held out a hand. “Then you’ll be giving me your car keys.”
Sounded as if some serious drinking was about to happen. Fine by him.
“I’m staying.” Jesse showed his room key.
Bartender didn’t move. “That decreases your chances of freezing in a snow bank, but I still want your keys. You can pick them up at the front desk in the morning.”
Whatever. He tossed them over before leaning closer to the redhead to offer his hand. “Jesse.”
“Dare.” She shook his hand, her grip strong, and her palms rough enough to prove she wasn’t wearing the cowboy gear as a costume.
“A working woman. I like that.”
Dare took a sip from the lone glass of water in front of her, amusement rising. “You look the type who likes a lot of things about women.”
Jesse shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a happy guy.”
This time she looked him over for longer, her gaze lingering on what was soon to be a spectacular blue-purple bruise by his eye. “You like getting in fights?”
“Sometimes, but this?” He stroked a finger down the side of his face. “Farewell present from my cousin. Disagreement.”
She met his gaze. Judging. Weighing him. “Oh. That thing guys do.”
“Express our opinions with our fists? Yeah. It’s a pretty natural form of communication for most men.”
Her gaze dropped and she stared at his lips. “You fighting over a woman?”
He honestly didn’t know how to answer that. “Not a fight, but there was definitely a woman involved.”
She snorted. “I bet. There’s always a woman involved.”
Jesse took the opportunity to admire her in more detail. Her hair shone in the lights above the bar, the deep auburn highlights flashing as she moved. A slight indent showed on the crown where she’d been wearing a cowboy hat, and his interest grew even stronger. “So, Dare, why’re we having a party?”
“It’s a wake,” she corrected him. “Ten years they’ve been gone, and five since I started the tradition. But you don’t need the details.”
“Whatever you say.” He eyed the drinks lining up in front of them. “I’m not going anywhere tonight.”
He might have been curious, but he didn’t need to know what she was commemorating. He knew what he was saying goodbye to, and he could finish most of the alcohol on the shelf without putting a dent in his pain.
Jesse lifted the first glass of amber liquid, three full fingers in the tumbler. Raised it in a salute to Dare. “Here’s to forgetting everything except the pretty lady by my side.”
Her lips curled at the corners, but she touched glasses with him before tipping the drink back and finishing it in a few swallows. Her throat moved smoothly, and he stared, mesmerized, until she lowered the glass to the counter with a solid crash.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand before pointing at his glass. “You drinking or watching?”
The whiskey was smooth—far too smooth to be tossed back like a dirty shot. He took a little more time and let the liquid linger on his tongue, looking her over with appreciation. “We’re not going anywhere tonight,” he pointed out. “There’s no need to rush.”
Dare nodded once. “I usually do this by myself. I forgot there’s conventions involved with social drinking.” She picked up the second glass. “To the guy who reminded me it’s okay to slow down and taste the whiskey.”
Another toast. Another touch of their glasses together. This time she rolled the liquid over her tongue before she swallowed, eyes closing as she lifted the glass in an additional silent, internal toast.
As for Jesse, this one was for his twin brother, Joel. His other half—although that hadn’t been true for a good long while. Their separation, his own damn fault.
He finished the drink and lowered the glass to the counter a little harder than he should have, the bartender keeping a careful eye on them.
Two more whiskeys sat on the counter. Dare motioned toward them. “I’ll pay. I like the company so far, and it’ll be no fun if you have to stop before we’re finished.”
“I have no problems lasting. I’ll take you to the finish line.”
When she smiled, her eyes lit up, a dimple denting her right cheek. By the time they’d finished their third glass of whiskey, Jesse was tempted to lean over to take a taste of her.
“Your local bar?” he asked.
“Hell, no.” She stared into her glass. “I tried drinking too close to home the first year, and my brothers showed up. Where’s the fun in that?”
Jesse took note of the information. She had family somewhere. “Good to know you’ve got someone looking after you.”
She raised a brow. “Do I look as if I need a babysitter, sweetheart? Last time I checked I was a big girl. I can make my own damn mistakes.”
He rested his arm along the back of her chair as they tipped the next drink, the liquid tingling against his throat and gums as he took the hit. Dare turned toward him, half laughing, her eyes bright as she met his gaze, and for a second Jesse couldn’t breathe.
Right then he could have sworn he was twelve feet tall and invincible.
They put their glasses on the counter at the exact same moment, and a sudden crack echoed. Dare cursed, lifting her fingers to her mouth, her glass lying broken in pieces on the counter.
“You okay?” Jesse asked as the bartender slipped over to clean up the shards.
Dare pulled back her hand and examined it as she wrinkled her nose. “I’ll live.”
“Not your fault,” the bartender consoled her. “Looks as if we got a bad batch of glassware—next drink is on the house, okay?”
Jesse slipped his hand off the backrest and onto her shoulder. “You need a Band-Aid?”
She held up her hand, the minute cut barely visible. “It’s fine. Unless you wanna kiss it better?”
Oh, that he could do. He slid his fingers into the heavy weight of her auburn hair. Her mouth opened slightly, her tongue slipping over her lips as she stared. There wasn’t a single sign of retreat anywhere about her.
Jesse leaned in to brush their lips together for a split second. Teasing, taunting. Just to prime her senses.
She caught him in a full-on hug, wrapping her arms around his neck and keeping him close as her lips parted and let him in.
Instead of a brief taste he got the equivalent of chugging a full twenty-sixer of the essence of Dare. Instantly higher than a kite, his mind reeled as he slid his tongue against hers, upper bodies close enough the soft curve of her breasts pressed against his chest.
When they pulled back, they were both breathing hard. Staring at each other, hunger and desire rising. He was rarely tongue-tied, but right then for the life of him he couldn’t think of a thing to say.
The bartender saved him, the clink of glasses against the tile countertop jerking their gazes apart as they turned toward the noise.
“This round your liver gets a reprieve,” the man joked. “Either of you want anything from the kitchen? They’re closing down soon.”
The only thing Jesse wanted was to take Dare back to his room and strip her. He’d be happy feasting on her all night long, but it was too soon—far too soon—to make that kind of comment without sending her running.
“Just the drinks.” Dare waited until the man walked away before grabbing the skewer from her drink, the one that held three maraschino cherries.
Jesse glanced at his own drink, horror sliding up his spine. Some god-awful fruity concoction sat there instead of the whiskey they’d been consuming like water.
Time to make the best of a bad situation. He ignored the drink, wrapping his fingers around hers and lifting the cherry-laden stick to his lips. He made eye contact as he tugged the first red-bomb off with his teeth then bit into it.
Her smile widened, heat flaring between them.
“You stole my cherry. Now you gotta marry me,” she warned.
Jesse damn near choked in mid-swallow, checking quickly to see if she was serious.
She offered a cheeky grin then pulled the second cherry off the stick, rolling it against her teeth with her tongue in the lewdest way as she looked him over. His body went tight, and he decided right then and there the party was not ending in the bar.
“If I took your cherry, of course I’ll marry you,” he promised.
Everything about Dare was lush and sensual, and she proceeded to drive him wild. They clinked glasses then shot back the drinks, sticky sweetness filling his mouth. Pressure rose as the sugar hit his bloodstream.
She moved quickly to the next drink, which didn’t look quite as mind-numbingly sweet.
He’d had just enough alcohol for his mind to start rambling. No way was she a virgin. Not with how she’d laid her hand on his thigh, rubbing in taunting circles. Never quite all the way to where he needed her, but bold enough to state she had more than drinking on her mind.
The sugar rush from the last drink sent his system skipping into overdrive, and he caught her by the hand and pulled her with him toward the tiny open space by the jukebox masquerading as a dance floor.
Bartender shouted after them. “Machine’s broken. Just hit the numbers you want.”
They leaned against the glass front to pick their favourites. Jesse slipped his arms on either side of her as she pointed to the playlist. Dare responded by pressing her hips back into his, and happily, his cock got harder.
She turned on the spot and slid into his arms, her body warm against his. Garth Brooks crooned in the background, but Jesse was fixated on the woman in front of him.
“There’s another glass on the counter,” he warned.
“Three more to go, but I don’t mind a moment to stretch my legs.” She slipped her hands around his neck and pressed their bodies together. “So, Jesse. Can you handle your liquor? Or should we cut you off now so you’ve got enough get up and go for later?”
Nice. Blunt and to the point. “You coming back to my room?”
She shrugged, easing closer, one leg on either side of his so she was damn near riding him. “Your place or mine. We’re probably next door to each other.”
“Good. Then we won’t have to worry about our neighbour complaining about how much noise we’re making.”
“You think we’re going to make a lot of noise, do you?”
“Oh, darlin’, I’m quiet as a mouse, but I have a feeling it’s the kind of night you need to do a little screaming.”
Jesse twirled her, raising her off the floor before resettling her on his thigh. A throaty purr escaped her, and he damn near stumbled.
“Screaming orgasms are fun.” She stroked a finger down his cheek, eyeing the bruises. “Maybe you’ll be the one screaming, though, and not me.”
His cock took the challenge personally, hard pressed to the front of his jeans. Jesse rubbed her against him again, loving how her lashes fluttered as pleasure washed over her features. “Let’s go find out, right now.”
Dare lifted her chin. “We can’t leave until we’re done our drinks. That’s the rule. But in case you get some idea of being noble, or some such bullshit, and don’t think you should take me to bed later because I’m drunk, let’s make it clear. I’m damn happy to have you join me tonight. Ten years means it’s time to move on, and you’re part of it.”
One night to put aside everything that had come before. He could understand the sentiment. He might be running, but he was also headed to a new start. That’s what this was all about. Transition.
“Trust me. You want me to take you to bed, I guarantee you’ll get what you want.”
That finger of hers kept moving southward, now tracing his shirt placard as she slow danced with him. “I’ve got condoms, or we can use yours, but you get suited up, got it?”
“Hmm. You’re nice and warm.” She rested her head on his chest and rubbed them together teasingly. “I sure hope you don’t suck in bed.”
Jesse laughed. “I don’t. Except the good kind of sucking. You?”
She tilted her head back and licked her lips. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
He woke face down on the lumpy mattress, Morgan whining softly to get his attention.
Jesse jerked up a few inches before the anvil hit his head.
Hangover. Big, nasty, wild hangover.
He moved slower the second time, opening his eyes carefully as he looked around at the trashed motel room. The bed sheets and quilt were on the floor, towels draped over the tattered furniture, and for some reason his boots were on the shelf. One toe pointed east, the other was upside down entirely with the sole to the ceiling and the boot tip pointing west.
Whatever the hell happened last night, it appeared his boots had a good time.
He didn’t really expect one, but there was that small part of him that wished their one-night stand was more. She’d been so sad, yet so full of life. Lush and sweet under his hands—
God, he was getting hard again.
He made it to a sitting position, gazing around at the chaos in amusement until it registered that his jeans and wallet were nowhere to be found.
“Jeez—where the hell…?”
Dare’s room. They’d gone there first after they’d finished their drinks. Naked had happened fast, and sex even faster, and he smiled as he teetered to vertical and headed to the shower to soak his head.
The sex had not sucked. Not one bit. Not in her room, or in his, although he couldn’t remember why they’d switched rooms. He did remember walking buck-ass naked through the billowing snow, with nothing but their room card keys in hand and boots on their feet.
Dare looked good naked. So fucking good he’d had her tossed on the mattress within seconds of entering the room.
Condoms. That’s right. They’d come to his room and proceeded to dip into his stash because she’d only had one, to her shock. Her digging frantically through her purse looking for more had sent them both off into laughter before doing the naked shuffle through the snowy outdoors.
Jesse stuck his face under the water in the hopes it would sober him up as he drifted back over the awesome memories of the night before. She’d been wild in bed, and his body tightened all over just thinking of it. The alcohol he was feeling hard this morning hadn’t put a damper on either of them.
He closed his eyes, pressing a hand to the wall to hold himself steady so he wouldn’t fall over.
Something clicked against the shower tile, and he paused in confusion, pulling his hand back and wondering what the hell was on his pinkie finger.
He turned off the water and still dripping walked into the room to find the driest towel.
Jesse peered at his hand closer. Not a class ring, but something Dare had worn. He’d…
Okay, he remembered the sex, most of it. He remembered laughing a lot, but there seemed to be gaps in the rest of his night, including what the hell he was wearing her ring for.
A keycard lay on the floor just inside his door, and he picked it up, standing slowly to stop his head from spinning as he opened the note he found next to it.
You might need this to grab your stuff. Thanks for the night—be happy and safe travels.
He wrapped the towel around his waist and slipped his own key into his fist before poking his head outside. An icy blast of wind set Morgan whimpering, and Jesse hushed him before hurrying into the storm and swiping the card to get into Dare’s room.
She was long gone, but his jeans and T-shirt lay on the bed, and he grabbed them up in one hand and…
There was blood on the sheets.
Not a lot, as in something-had-been-killed-in-a-midnight-ritual kind of blood, but enough to make him stare and wonder…
You take my cherry, you gotta marry me.
He shook his head to get rid of the cobwebs. But she hadn’t been a virgin. He could’ve sworn to that.
Jesse stared at the ring on his finger in horror.
What had they done?
Heart Falls, Alberta, four months later
“You’re daydreaming again.”
A teasing voice brought Dare’s focus back to earth, and she twisted toward her best friend to offer a smile. “It’s a dreamy kind of morning.”
Ginny Stone took the stairs onto the porch with her usual enthusiasm. Dressed for working the ranch in jeans, boots and a couple layers of shirts, her dark brown hair settled over her shoulders as she held a ceramic mug toward Dare. “I made a new batch of that fruity herbal mix you like, and I’ve time to sit if you want company.”
The railing she’d been leaning on creaked as Dare straightened, turning from where she’d been staring over Big Sky Lake and the rest of the Silver Stone ranch. “I would kill for a coffee right now, but thank you for bringing the next best thing.”
“My company makes it all the sweeter, right?”
Dare settled into the rocking chair while her friend curled up in the pillow-filled wicker chair beside her. “Please. It’s not that long since I’ve stopped being nauseous every morning. Do you really want to send me back there?”
Her friend tried to cover it up, but it was clear her gaze lingered a little longer than usual on Dare’s stomach. She laid a hand over the growing bump, and Ginny’s gaze darted upward guiltily.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to stare.” She gestured toward Dare’s belly. “It’s just…you’re starting to show.”
“Yeah. Not too much longer before everybody in town and their dog knows I’m pregnant out of wedlock. Oh, woe is me.”
Her friend peered over the edge of her mug, her startling green eyes dancing with mischief. “As if you give two hoots what the town gossips think.”
Dare shrugged. “You’re right, but while I don’t think I’m a fallen harlot, I wish things had gone differently. It’s got to be hard on your brothers, especially Caleb. I never meant—”
“Stop right now.” Ginny’s amusement vanished and her eyes snapped with anger. “My brothers are your brothers, or as good as. They love you, and they would never let anyone say or do anything to hurt you.”
“It’s not as if people have to go out of their way to make up shit. I am pregnant.” Dare wiggled her hand in the air. “Oh, and look! No ring. Ergo, I am an unwed mom.”
“In this day and age, who cares?”
Dare sighed. “We’ve had this conversation before. I’m fully on board with taking care of Buckaroo Banzai on my own. Still wish I could find his daddy—that’s the only part that makes me uncomfortable.”
Ginny leaned forward. “Any luck tracking down the sperm donor?”
Dare shook her head. “Short of hiring a private investigator—as if—the only way is if we run into each other at some point. What are the chances?”
“Who knows? Maybe it will happen.”
Dare wasn’t quite sure what to wish for. The night she and Jesse had spent burning up the sheets had been spectacular. But when she’d missed her period a month later and gone back to try and track him down—because she figured letting a guy know he was going to be a daddy was the decent thing to do—she’d come up with a total blank. He’d paid cash for his room same as she had, and the night clerk hadn’t got a license plate or anything she could use.
And this was old news, and it was time to change the topic. “What’re you working on this week?” she asked her closest friend.
Ginny gestured toward the oversized garden and greenhouse outside the main ranch house where she lived with her oldest brother and his kids. “Garden boxes and farmers’ market, same as usual. What about you? You need help with any of your upcoming posts?”
She could always use more material. “I should come out and take extra shots this week at the Farmers’ Market. You’ve got some new items in the Community Supported Agriculture boxes, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve already printed the descriptions and recipes you gave me to slip into the deliveries.”
“I bet you’re not the only CSA passing out things customers don’t know how to cook. I thought I’d post pictures and recipes. Hopefully others out there will be grateful. Plus, I should start stockpiling a bunch of posts for when Buckaroo puts in an appearance.”
“Smart.” Ginny looked her over, smiling harder. “You need to start a new section to your blog. Ranching with Buckaroo.”
It was like lightning stuck. Dare hauled her jaw back into position and offered up thanks for her best friend. “You’re brilliant. You’re right—I do need to add a section.”
“Anytime you need fabulous ideas, you know who to call.” Ginny winked. “You coming up to the house for dinner tonight?”
“If I can bring dessert.”
“The girls’ favourite—of course.”
“We’ll eat at five, but if you can come over for three, I’d appreciate it. Caleb said Uncle Frank’s sending a group of new hands from the south, and he’s not sure when he’ll be done the ranch tour. I promised to be around when the girls get off the bus in case he’s not done.”
She was Auntie Dare in name only, but she didn’t mind one bit. Those two little girls of Caleb’s were the cutest things. “Sure, I can come help with the rug rats. It’s good practice.”
Ginny got to her feet, giving her a hug before stealing the mug back and heading to the main house. “You don’t need practice. You’re going to be a great mom.”
Dare didn’t say anything—it was one thing to have a baby on the way, but it was another to imagine successfully raising the kid all the way to adulthood when she had no mom to turn to for help.
Panic is not an option, she told herself for the millionth time.
She waved goodbye then headed inside the small two-bedroom cottage that had been her home forever. Growing up, she’d shared a room with her sister, then after the accident she’d eventually returned to make the place her own, the ghosts of her past slowly fading into memories.
Her childhood room was now her office, twinned computer screens set up over the desk, a small single bed pushed against the opposite wall.
Not that she had many visitors. Everyone she liked enough to have over lived right there on the Silver Stone ranch. Family by choice if not family by blood.
Dare forced herself to move. She’d been staring out the window again, which wasn’t a terrible thing, except daydreaming was for daydreaming hours, not for when she had work to get done.
While she’d made light of it to Ginny, the morning sickness had been spectacularly rough. She was just starting to feel human on a regular basis, so keeping ahead of the game with prescheduled blog posts was important.
She closed the blinds to block out the distraction of the sun sparkling on the lake, and turned back to the computer and her list of upcoming features.
Little Ranch on the Prairie. Her recovery journal turned online diary turned blog.
Drove the Stone boys up the wall that she made money from sitting behind a computer, but at least they didn’t deny the amount of work she put in. Even when morning sickness had hit, she’d managed to post once a day, although she’d scrambled at times to make it more than “Ugh, I feel shitty. Here, have an LOLcat.”
She laid a hand over the slowly growing bump in her belly. “One good thing, Buckaroo. Mommy’s going to be able to stay at home with you. I need to get my butt in gear, though. Think I should start that kid’s section. What should we call it?”
No response yet. She didn’t expect there to be—although according to the baby books she and Ginny had peeked at, it could be anytime now she’d feel the baby move. “Buckaroo Roundup. My Little Buckaroo? Ranching With Buckaroo? They’re all so cheesy, but then again, I don’t mind cheesy—it makes good copy.”
She punched the ideas into a search engine to see how many other blogs out there dealt with the topic.
She’d put her own slant on it, of course, but raising kids on a ranch was common enough for a portion of the population to get a kick out of her everyday comments, and just fantasy enough for others that she could possibly make this work.
Dare rested her hand on her belly, then laughed. “I know my first post, because I never used to touch my stomach, and now I can’t seem to let go.”
Her rising baby bump would be noticed in town, and she was pretty much ready for it. With her foster brothers looking after her, she wouldn’t have to put up with too many in-her-face comments, but they’d still be there.
Single moms might be a lot more common these days, but being daddy-less in a small town was enough to make tongues wag.
She jotted down a couple of ideas for an extended section for raising kids on the ranch then opened her email.
The daily analytics from her blog opened, and Dare’s heart rate jumped a notch. “Holy moly. That’s not normal.”
She hurried to her blog to double-check. Views had skyrocketed, and she traced it back to a post she’d popped up in a daze while sick as a dog, when Buckaroo was just making his presence known in her life.
Cowboy Back-bacon Biscuits. An innocent enough recipe.
She clicked through to the blog post and grinned. “Well, hello, Mr. Sexy Cowboy.”
Okay, she didn’t remember specifically picking that picture. It wasn’t one of her paid stock photos, but an off-the-cuff shot she’d taken with her phone of the one responsible for putting Buckaroo in her belly. Normally she would never have used the picture, but obviously nausea-brain made for less-than-stellar choices.
“I hope you’re doing great wherever you are, Jesse. If I could track you down, I would.”
Posts going viral were good for her hit and advertising count, though, and hey—if it brought her cowboy out of the woodwork, so much the better. He’d been a decent guy, even though he’d obviously had something to drink about that night as well.
The anniversary of her family’s death was a drinking event. The sex and the baby were bonuses.
Dare eyed Jesse’s picture again. She’d taken it between bouts of really hot sex—and after a shower break.
That’s why he had a towel barely clinging to his fine, firm ass, his backside slightly twisted toward her as he hammed it up. His cowboy hat was pulled down over most of his face, so the main event of the show were abdominal muscles that wouldn’t quit, and those long muscular V lines angling toward his groin.
She sighed happily. He hadn’t sucked in the sack, not one bit. She tingled when she thought back to that night. Which was good, because the memories of how much fun they’d had might have to last her a long time.
Which was very sad because she liked sex. And she’d really liked sex with Jesse, but going forward, the well was probably going to get a little dry.
She figured single moms-to-be weren’t setting the sexual world on fire on a regular basis.
Her second sigh wasn’t as happy.
Dare returned to her email and worked through them, a timer set to go off at thirty-minute intervals so she’d get up and move around.
She was just about done when a new email came through from her website.
Question re: model for post
Oops. Made sense if the post got a lot of attention, she’d get some feedback—of what variety, though? Readers and their comments on her blog were her bread and butter, but direct messages through her contact button were a potshot.
For a pretty PG site, she still got complaints about her content. The morality cops swinging through and deciding her blog had too much sex and skin—and it really didn’t, although she posted bluntly about a lot of ideas.
Okay, the shot of Jesse was borderline. She glanced at it again and couldn’t stop from grinning. Forget borderline, it was straight-up “print this off and use as fantasy material”, and she wasn’t even one bit embarrassed.
Where people got off telling her what she could and couldn’t discuss burned her britches. She’d started opening the emails with a kind of BINGO card in mind.
Reference to burning in hell, one point.
Reference to having no shame, one point.
Offers of prayers for her soul, two points.
Her amusement faded as she read the actual comment, and her heart rate picked up.
I’m curious if you know where I could find the model from your March twenty-fourth picture. No worries—only he’s family, and I’m trying to track him down. I thought I’d try you in case you had any current information.
If not—sorry to bother you.
If you do know where Jesse is, and you don’t mind passing on a message, tell the ass to get in touch with us. When I find him, I’m going to tan his hide. (Okay, maybe don’t mention that last bit. The boy gets on my last nerve far too easily.)
Your blog looks great, by the way. I look forward to going through your stuff. Ranch life is definitely up my alley.
Jaxi Coleman (Six Pack ranch, Rocky Mountain House)
Huh. Dare read the message over again, confusion stirring. It was a connection to her missing man, but if his…sister?…didn’t know where Jesse was—
Did she contact them to say, Hey, if he does show up, tell him I need to talk? Potentially awkward, and she wasn’t letting anyone else know about the baby before he found out.
If he found out.
Drat, this was impossible.
She pushed the email aside to think about it a little longer before responding. Worrying about her missing baby daddy wasn’t going to keep her blog running, and in the end, that was the most important thing.
She’d do whatever it took to remain standing on her own two feet. If there was one thing she’d learned over the years, no matter that others had good intentions, if it needed to be done, in the end she really needed to rely on herself.
She finished by lunch, then spent needed time on cleanup tasks she’d been putting off. About two o’clock she wandered over to the main house to find her friend arguing on the phone.
“It’s not rocket science. Are you sure you can’t—?”
Dare hid her grin best she could.
Ginny huffed into the phone a few more times, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated manner before muttering fine and hanging up.
“Trouble in paradise?” Dare teased.
Ginny flipped her the finger. “I have to go. They’re having trouble sorting this week’s orders and can’t figure it out without my help.”
Dare slipped past her into the living room. “No worries. I’ll look after the girls when they get home if you’re not back yet.”
“Thanks.” Ginny eyed her. “Ummm…is there something you’re not telling me? Like, you’re auditioning for the part of a homeless person?”
Oops. Dare glanced down at her outfit. “It’s comfy, okay?”
“If you’re comfy being half-naked, whatever. I should be back in thirty minutes, and I’ve already got the crockpots going.”
“I’ll get the cake in the oven before I start my yoga.”
She was talking to empty air—her friend was already gone.
Dare didn’t mind the time to herself. She headed into the big old-fashioned kitchen, and ten minutes later she had her cake in the oven. Time enough left to pull her yoga mat from where she’d stashed it behind the couch in the sunroom.
The big ranch house was as familiar as her own. She’d spent hours and hours here growing up, her parents and Ginny’s sharing meals on a regular basis.
They’d shared everything, including—morbidly—their untimely deaths.
She moved into position on the yoga mat and began her practice. As huge and life-changing as her family’s deaths had been, after ten years it was more of an echo than a constant buzz.
There were times that brought to mind what they’d all lost—her and the Stone family—but usually life went on.
Including the unexpected bits of life…
Dare glanced down at her ratty outfit, the leggings so full of holes and the fabric worn so thin it was barely there. Definitely time to buy a new set, but she’d been trying to hold off until her expanding waistline made it impossible to wear her old things.
She had her butt in the air and feet tangled over her head when the door opened and Caleb’s oldest daughter let out a shout. “Auntie G, Auntie D.”
Dare slowly worked to untangle herself. “I’m here, honey. Auntie Ginny had to go into town. She’ll be home soon.”
“Emma’s hurt.” Sasha seemed more excited than worried.
A loud, exaggerated sniffle accompanied the announcement, and Dare shot to her feet, teetering for a moment as she turned to face the door to discover the little girl cradled in the arms of her missing cowboy.
He’d come looking for Dare, but after months apart, Jesse hadn’t expected the first thing he spotted to be her spectacular ass.
Her all-too-memorable ass, wiggling in his direction as his wild child untwisted herself to stand before him. Her red hair was barely tamed back into a ponytail. Threadbare leggings caressed her legs, and her faded sports bra hugged every curve while leaving a lot of skin uncovered.
He pulled his jaw back into place, suddenly thankful the little girl in his arms and her talkative sister stole the spotlight.
“Auntie Dare, Emma fell down and she was crying, but Jesse said you’d make it all better.”
Jesse met Dare in the middle of the room. She checked the faint scrape on the little girl’s knee, clicking her tongue soothingly. “Wow. Were you riding the bucking broncos again?”
Emma shook her head, teeth digging into her bottom lip.
“She was chasing Demon, and she tripped,” Sasha announced. “There was a big rock.”
“She was pretty brave,” Jesse offered. “But Sasha said it hurt too much for Emma to walk on, and I didn’t think she should hop all the way to the house, so I offered to help.”
“Because you just happened to be hanging out on my front lawn?”
“Little Ranch on the Prairie? Yeah, I was hanging out pretty hard.”
Dare pressed her lips together, but she smiled. “So… Hey. You found me.”
“Hey. I did.” Emma squirmed in his arms, and he lowered her to the floor. “You okay, cowgirl?”
She nodded, one hand drifting to her mouth. She chewed on the side of her fingers as Dare dropped to her knees so they could talk face-to-face.
“Does your knee hurt lots?”
The little girl shook her head.
“She needs a Band-Aid, though.” Sasha’s suggestion. “Maybe two.”
“Hmmm.” Dare looked over the teeny cut again. “Let’s see after we get it cleaned up. No use putting anything on that’s going to fall off right away.”
Emma dipped her chin.
“Okay, I’ve got an idea. How about a bath before supper instead of after? That way your scrape will get clean, and we’ll knock all the road dust off at the same time.”
“I want a bath too. Emma wants me to help her. And she wants to wear her new pyjamas, right, Emma?” Sasha had her sister by the hand as they walked backward toward the hallway. “And I want to wear my pyjamas too. Only we don’t want to go to bed early. Emma wants to watch movies.”
“Bath, yes. Pyjamas, yes. Movies—not until after your homework is done. I’ll come help get the water started.” Dare pointed down the hallway. “Hurry up. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Is Jesse staying for supper? Emma wants to sit beside him,” Sasha tossed over her shoulder.
The one word quickened the girls’ steps, and Jesse chuckled as they vanished around a corner. “Well done, Auntie Dare.”
“They’ll take every advantage they can get.” She glanced at him. “Give me a minute to get them in the water?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he promised.
Jesse strolled around the room after she left, a million questions darting through his brain. Emma hadn’t made a sound since he’d seen her fall, not even to cry. She’d defaulted to her big sister speaking for her—there had to be a reason for that.
In the meantime, though, he looked for clues to his mysterious woman, glancing at the pictures scattered everywhere. There were a few with a redheaded little girl, maybe Dare, but far more of Emma and Sasha. It was a comfortable room, like in any ranch house. Could have been the one he grew up in, although his mom kept things a little more spit and polished.
Then again, he had no idea what it had been like when he and Joel were little and his mom had been wrangling a houseful of boys.
He glanced out the window toward the lake and the outbuildings neatly arranged east to west. Arenas, paddocks—the Silver Stone ranch was impressive. Something extra was going on today. A whole lot of trucks were parked over toward the barns, and a group of men had gathered beside one of the split-rail fences.
Jesse double-checked to the west, but his truck was far enough to the side of the main drive to be out of the way. He’d seen the little girl fall, and he’d been out from behind the wheel before he’d thought it through. He figured carrying her to the house would cause less trouble than loading her into his truck.
He turned to face Dare as she reentered the room. “All settled?”
She wiggled her fingers. “For now.” She broke her gaze from his to stare past him. “We need to talk.”
“We do. Plus, I have something of yours.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Yeah, I have something you left behind too.” She pointed him toward the side of the house. “We can sit on the porch.”
“Hello? Dare?” A new voice.
“There. There, see?” The helpful and talkative Sasha burst into the hallway leading another woman into the room.
Dark-haired, her brilliant green eyes were filled with a great deal of curiosity. “I see him.”
“I told you he was a cowboy.” Sasha pointed straight at Jesse’s waist. “He even has a buckle. Not as big as Uncle Walker’s, though.”
The woman pushed the child’s fingers down. “Be polite, please.”
“He’s strong, Aunt Ginny. Maybe as strong as Daddy,” Sasha piped up, waving at Jesse as she offered a gap-toothed grin.
Ginny made some noncommittal noise as she all but stripped him with her gaze before turning to Dare. “This him?”
Jesse grinned. They’d obviously talked about him at some point. “Thanks.”
Dare gave Sasha a pointed look. “I thought you were having a bath and doing your homework.”
Sasha’s eyes widened, then she twirled and ran from the room.
Dare caught his hand in hers and tugged, speaking to Ginny as they moved. “Since you’re home, we’re going to my place to talk.”
“I’ve got dinner. And the kids. Oh, and I’ll set an extra place at the table.”
His wild child took a deep breath. “Ginny, I don’t think—”
“I’m taking Dare out,” Jesse cut in. Family dinners with little tykes were okay, but his main agenda for the evening involved adult-only entertainment.
Ginny shrugged. “Text me if you change your mind.”
Dare guided him outside. He figured she would drop his hand the instant they left the porch, but she kept a firm grip, leading him away from the main house and the barns.
He whistled for his dog who came running from where Jesse had told him to stay in the shade on the other side of the house. “Remember him?” Jesse asked Dare.
She glanced at the golden retriever, a smile sneaking out. “Morgan, right? Hey, boy. Good to see you again.”
She held her free hand to Morgan without slowing her pace. The dog sniffed her fingers then put on a burst of speed to race ahead of them to the next field to sniff and explore.
“He’ll behave,” Jesse assured her.
“Our dogs are good too. There’s about a half dozen all told. If they spot Morgan, they might do a little jostling to figure out who’s most dominant, but if you’re comfortable with bringing him, I’m good with it.”
The gathering by the barn was still there, a few horses being put through their paces in the arena. “Nice-size spread.”
“Silver Stone? It’s… Yeah, it’s okay.” She gestured to the group. “Family from Lethbridge area sent up a group of new hands, and they’re getting the welcome spiel.”
A big enough operation to need extra hands—Jesse slowed to try and get a better look while Dare all but hauled him across the lawn toward a small cottage with a porch.
Their rapid-fire trip across the yard didn’t go unnoticed. A sturdy young man separated himself from the group and headed their direction, jogging at first, then picking up speed as he set what was obviously a line to intercept.
“Expecting company?” Jesse asked.
Dare swore and jerked on his hand, damn near making them run. “I’ll explain in a second, but we need to get inside, stat.”
It went against Jesse’s instincts to hide, but they were already up the steps and into the house. She pulled the door shut on his heels.
The banging started a moment later.
“Dare?” A youthful, masculine voice.
“Who’s that with you? Open the door, Dare, or I’ll break it down.”
Jesse bristled on her behalf. “You need me to take care of him?”
Dare blinked, then rolled her eyes. “Oh, jeez. I forgot the whole express opinions with our fists bullshit is genetically built into all males. I can deal with him.”
She stood to one side of the door, blocking the bottom with her foot before undoing the lock so the wooden frame could only open an inch. “Dustin. Is there a reason you want me to rearrange your face?”
“There’s a man in there with you.”
“Really? Gee, I never would have known without you telling me.”
“Who is he?”
“None of your business.”
“Dare, I’m going to count to ten, and—”
She cracked the door open farther but spoke softer, her voice dripping icicles. “Seriously? You want to try that bullshit? Forget it. I was going to be polite, but you blew it. Go away, or I will tell Dani at Buns and Roses you have a crush on her again.”
The blustering outside the door came to an immediate stop. “You’re nasty, Dare. I’m just trying to—”
“—be bossy and overbearing? You nearly succeeded, only I care enough to nip bad behaviour in the bud. I will rip you a new one if you so much as touch my door again.”
Barely visible through the narrow sliver Dare held open, the young man glared daggers in Jesse’s direction, dark brown eyes flashing in frustration. “Bring him to the house when you’re done. If he leaves without seeing us, I’ll track him down and peel the skin from his body to make a rope.”
Jesse held his tongue until the door was closed, taking a deep breath as she turned toward him. “That was interesting.”
“He’s a jackass, but he means well.”
Jesse paused. “Old boyfriend?”
She gagged. “Hell, no.”
“You have no idea.”
He ignored the comment because waiting wasn’t making this any easier. It’d been ages since they’d been together. There really wasn’t a proper way to restart something after a memorable one-night stand, let alone ask some awkward questions.
Tracking her down—that was a good place to begin. “Thanks for putting up my picture. I had no idea how to find you until the guys at the bunkhouse spotted that damn meme.”
Dare frowned. “Sorry for the whole posting without your permission, but…meme? I just noticed today my blog post had a lot of hits.”
“Yeah, because someone found the picture about a week ago and slapped Prime Alberta Beef across my backside. It’s been making the rounds on social media. It took me until yesterday to track it back to your blog.”
She shook her head. “Sorry about the invasion-of-privacy issue. I’m usually a lot more careful about that.”
“Like I said, no problem. It was the breadcrumb trail I’d been looking for.”
Dare shifted farther into the little house, pointing toward the living room couch. “You were trying to find me?”
He offered a grin. “Is that so surprising?”
“We both said it was only one night.”
She looked uncomfortable, and he kicked his own ass for assuming just because he wanted another ride that she’d be available. “You seeing someone? Because I don’t want to get in your way, or anything.”
“No—I’m not seeing anyone.” Her eyes widened. “You?”
“Hell no.” Although he wasn’t sure why. Lack of time? Lack of privacy in his new digs in the bunkhouse?
He’d hooked up plenty before, even with those kind of deterrents, but for the last couple of months every woman he’d looked at paled when he thought back to Dare. Fucking around to fuck around had begun to leave him cold—and that’s when he’d begun searching for her in earnest.
He wasn’t such a shit as to keep seeing random women when he was picturing them with Dare’s face. Now that he’d found her, he was ready for a second serving.
Which would never happen if he didn’t get them past the tough issues.
“I’m glad I tracked you down, and first up, I’m sorry if I was too…enthusiastic…last time.”
She looked lost. “What?”
Damn, there was no way to say this delicately. “Back in February. There was blood on the sheets.”
She thought for a moment before holding up her hand, a smile teasing her lips. “The glass broke, remember? We were kind of distracted and didn’t notice that the cut reopened.” Her amusement slipped to distress. “Oh my God, no. I wasn’t a virgin. You didn’t…” She kept rambling while he enjoyed the relief rushing his system. “I mean, your enthusiasm was very much appreciated.”
“I was thinking of the whole cherry thing, and it got me confused. Oh, and there’s something else. I have this. I don’t remember why.” He pulled the chain around his neck from under his shirt to show her the ring.
“You’re kidding. I thought I’d lost that. I’m so glad…” She reached toward him, then stopped. “Wait, this isn’t what we need to talk about. I mean, I’m glad you have my ring, but I need to tell you something important.”
Jesse stepped closer, the scent of her teasing his senses. He tugged a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail. “Want to tell me over dinner? I hear there’s a great steakhouse in the area.”
“There is, but we’re not going anywhere right now. You need to sit down. And…maybe you should put your head between your knees.”
He laughed. “Isn’t that what they tell you when a crash is imminent?”
Guilt flashed over her face. “Can’t you hear the sirens in the distance?”
She hadn’t struck him as the melodramatic type, but hey—they’d only had the one night, well-lubricated at that. “Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
“I’m four months pregnant.”
As if a shock wave had struck out of nowhere, a sudden ringing made Jesse’s ears seem stuffed with cotton. “What?”
She’d said the words again, but they still made no sense, mostly because stars were forming in front of his eyes, and there was no oxygen in the room.
Months and numbers danced in his brain. “Four months, eh?”
He wasn’t going to insult her by asking if it was his. She didn’t know a thing about him except he liked dirty sex and strong whiskey. No reason on earth for her to tell some potentially dirt-poor cowboy he was going to be a father in the hopes of getting anything from him.
It might have made him the biggest loser around, but it was this or fall over. “I need a second.”
Jesse took the chair she’d offered a moment earlier, cradling his head in his hands as he concentrated on breathing and on not passing out—not passing out would be good too.
Dare snickered before clearing her throat. “Sorry, but I did warn you. Don’t feel in any rush to move. When the test came back positive, I stayed curled up in a fetal position for nearly a week before my brain came back online.”
He wasn’t sure if he was freaking out because she was pregnant or because she wasn’t freaking out.
His brain wasn’t functioning at full capacity.
“I’m not sure I can…talk right now.”
She offered a sympathetic pat on the back. “Not judging you one bit. No way can you say the perfect thing unless you were in a sitcom and somebody was feeding you lines.”
“Is there a perfect thing?”
“Actually, that’s the problem. Other than there’s a whole bunch of things you shouldn’t say, the right one, right now?” She squeezed his shoulder then stepped away, her feet moving out of his line of vision. “No, sweetheart, I can’t think of a single phrase I absolutely want to hear out of your mouth.”
It took a while until the room stopped spinning enough Jesse figured it was safe to look up. He found Dare leaning against the wall next to him, sympathy written all over her expression.
He rose to his feet. “At the risk of being one of the dozen things I shouldn’t say, I’m damn sorry you’ve had to deal with this by yourself.”
She paused. Made a face. “Huh. I need to add that to the list of stuff I didn’t expect.”
“I mean it, Dare. That must’ve thrown you for a loop when you found out. I hope you’ve had support from your friends, and your brothers…” Oh shit, he was in a hell of a lot of trouble. “Let me guess. That was one of your brothers pounding on the door a few minutes ago.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Okay, we need to sit down and have a good long talk, because that’s another one of those yes/no answers that would be a lot simpler once you hear some history. Only I’m not blaming you for not knowing. I’m the one who said you didn’t need details of why I was drinking my ass off.”
Now that he was stable again, Jesse moved in closer. “Then let’s talk.”
Dare glanced at her watch. “I guess. What’s your time like? Where’re you working?”
“Down near Pincher Creek. I’ve got tomorrow morning off.”
She examined him for a second before that oh-so-expressive face of hers changed. “You were hoping to hook up tonight, weren’t you?”
“When there’s a sell-out performance, an encore is always appreciated.” Shit, maybe he shouldn’t act so cocky, all things considered. “I guess I shouldn’t joke about that night.”
“Oh, don’t go getting serious on me. Memories of how much fun I had was the only thing that got me through multiple bouts of puking.”
He caught her hand in his, guilt overtaking his panic. “Again, sorry you were all alone.”
“It’s fine. I didn’t need anybody to hold my hair back.”
But she shouldn’t have had to deal with it on her own. That was the point. She shouldn’t have to deal with any of this on her own.
For the first time something stronger than panic hit.
He’d been around his brothers when they’d announced they had a kid on the way. They’d damn near glowed. Something inside him twisted, and a strange, uneasy sensation settled in his gut.
Jesse sure the hell didn’t feel proud. The panic might be natural, but he wasn’t going to let that show again. Other than that first moment of weakness, which Dare had taken amazingly in stride, he was done messing around. There was no use waiting even another minute.
He knew what his parents would say. What his brothers would say, and he knew without a single doubt if any of the Coleman clan were in that room, they’d be waiting for him to man up and deal.
So he did.
Jesse squeezed her fingers tighter and offered as reassuring a smile as he could manage.
“Okay, then. We’ll get married.”