Calgary, Alberta, July
She nursed her drink, waving back at her little sister who was jammed on the dance floor with a hundred other people. Beth tried not to peek at her watch again, instead checking out the myriad faces under the cowboy hats around her. She’d never seen so many boots and buckles in her life. Another round of Yahoos rose into the air from a few well-lubricated throats.
While she appreciated Darleen’s attempt at cheering her up and—how had she put it?—“pulling her back to the land of the living”, the bar scene had never been her thing.
It definitely wasn’t tonight.
One song ended, melding into another ear-shattering rendition of someone done somebody wrong, and Beth held the cool glass of her drink against her temple in the hopes it would slow the throbbing.
“There she is. Hey, Beth, look what I found on the dance floor!” Dar approached the table like a runaway train, dragging not one but two cowboys by the hand. “They’re identical twins,” she shouted with glee.
Beth raised a brow. They certainly were, from the tops of their Stetsons, past the mischievous grins and the tight faded jeans to the worn shitkickers.
“Well done. Now you need a wandering gypsy and the arctic explorer, and you’ll win the scavenger hunt.” She offered a hand to the first of the gorgeous specimens. “Beth.”
A warm hand clasped her fingers and gave a firm shake while a pair of piercing blue eyes gazed into hers. “Jesse Coleman, that’s my brother Joel. I can’t help you with an arctic explorer but I might know where there’s a gypsy or two.”
Beth laughed. “Sorry, but Darleen is a little enthusiastic at times. I’m attempting to keep her centered in reality.”
He rearranged a chair and sat in it backward, his mouth-watering smile growing warmer. She sipped her drink. He was hot and kind of cute, but too young for her. Way too young.
“You dancing tonight, Beth, or just exercising your imagination?” Jesse asked. His admiring gaze caused physical reactions she’d missed for far too long. Maybe it was time to spread her wings again. She forced herself to take a slow perusal of his body before smiling her approval. His eyes darkened with interest.
That was the kind of response she needed to see.
“Beth doesn’t dance since the accident,” Darleen piped up before she could answer for herself. “Oops. Sorry, sis. Shut mouth, throw away key.”
Beth found both the boys staring and resisted to urge to sigh in exasperation. It’s not as if she had planned on keeping it a secret.
She leaned back in her chair and hauled out her leg with its thick supporting brace. “I dance just fine, Darleen, only I take up more room than is available on the floor. You go ahead, I’ll watch.”
The other twin spoke, adjusting the chairs until there was enough space for them all. “I’m happy to sit for a while. It’s been a long day, and the dancing’s pretty much worn me out.”
Darleen rested on the arm of Joel’s chair, her body leaning toward him. Beth coughed then glanced away. Her sister was grown up and could make her own decisions, but she didn’t want to be in the know about any specific sexual escapades. From the looks Joel was bestowing on Dar, the potential for something to happen was high.
Besides, Beth had her own agenda tonight, and perhaps the young hotshot seated next to her would be a willing volunteer in her research project. She sipped her drink and checked inwardly to see if she’d had enough to alcohol yet to loosen her inhibitions.
“Why’s it called the Six Pack Ranch?” Darleen picked up a conversation they’d obviously started on the dance floor. She now sat firmly in Joel’s lap, and Beth blinked at having missed the movement that put her there. “You said the ranch has been around for generations, but six-packs are fairly new.”
Jesse laughed easily. “There are so many Colemans in the area, with all the uncles and cousins, folks decided it was easier to stick each of the clans with an additional title. Like our cousins, the Whiskey Creek Colemans—their south boundary runs parallel to the creek. Our spread is officially the SP Ranch after the first initials of the original Coleman brothers who established her, but the smartasses in town decided it stood for Six Pack a few years ago and the new handle stuck.”
Beth raised a brow. “The smartasses? Why would they do that? Usually nicknames have some basis in reality.”
“You’re pretty fixated on reality, aren’t you, sweetheart?” Jesse leaned over and took her hand in his, stroking her fingers. If she weren’t so sure she might have taught him only a few years earlier in one of her high school math classes, her enjoyment would have been greater. Now she wondered if he was even of legal age to be in the bar. “You’re right, there’s more. Picture six boys growing up on the ranch. That started the idea. Plus, there’s this…”
He rotated smoothly to finish by her side, tugging her close. Yanking up the bottom of his shirt, he slapped her hand onto his abdomen.
Rigid muscles flexed under her palm, and she froze for a second, his hand trapping hers. Oh God, she’d never felt anything like it before. Beth involuntarily drew a finger along the well-defined ridges, engrossed by the sensation of individual muscle bundles under the skin. His soft laugh jerked her back to reality—she was fondling a stranger’s stomach in public. She snatched her hand away.
She wiggled a finger in his face. “Bad boy.”
He laughed and leaned in closer. “I think you like bad boys.”
Beth shook her head. He had no idea how much she wanted the exact opposite.
Darleen giggled as Joel nuzzled behind her ear, and Beth knew it was time to make a decision. She snuck a glance from under her lashes to spot Jesse watching the other two at the table jealously, his attention back on her younger sister, and that was all the wake-up call she needed. He might have thought she was amusing to tease, but she was way too old for him. She glanced around the dance floor, a sense of frustration rising. Weren’t there any guys over the age of twelve in the room?
“I need to powder my nose.” She grabbed her purse and hid her smile as Jesse leapt to his feet to help her. He was a polite thing, wasn’t he? If she weren’t old enough to have babysat him, it might have been perfect.
With her bulky leg brace, it took some manoeuvring to make it through the crowd to the back of the room. The pulsing beat of the music stirred something inside her, the liquor setting her blood pounding for the first time in forever. The bodies tangling together on the dance floor made her jealous. How long since she’d had someone want her that much? Hands and mouths unable to resist touching, no matter how visible they were to the people around them.
Actually, she’d never had that kind of relationship. She cursed at herself for being a fool and pushed open the door to the washroom harder than she intended, the edge slamming into the wall with a crash. The girls at the sink touching up their lipstick eyed her, and she shook her head in derision, stumbling her way to a stall.
Great, she was freaking out the party animals. The whole bar trip had been a bad idea from the start. As for her secret goal? Obviously getting hot and sweaty was not on the agenda for tonight.
She washed her hands and stared at herself in the mirror. Inside, she felt a million years old, especially after seeing Joel fawn over Dar. On the outside, the news was mixed. Her new short hairstyle suited her dark colouring, the highlights brightening her face, but the tension from the past years had drawn lines at the corners of her eyes and she clearly wasn’t twenty anymore. She’d managed to keep her weight stable, even with the bummed-up leg. Her daily runs and the physical high she used to get from them—she missed that. Those times alone had been her only moments of escape from the hell her life had become. In the six months since the accident, there had been no more of that freedom.
Although the worst part of her prison was gone. Hopefully the bastard enjoyed burning in hell like the devil he was.
She made her way back through the crowd. People brushed past, knocking into her, pressing her to and fro until it was difficult to keep her balance. She clung to the railing dividing the dance floor from the rest of the chaos. If she could just catch Dar’s eye. Asking for help stuck in her throat, but she’d prefer to beg than end up on her butt on the floor.
An additional body sat at the table in the seat she’d abandoned, and Beth prayed that with three guys vying for her attention, her sister would remember not to leave her behind.
She waved and caught one of the twin’s eyes, which one she wasn’t sure. He rose to his feet, and she sighed in relief. The idea of fighting her way across the room left her aching. Then the newcomer stood as well and pivoted, his dark eyes examining the room before focusing in her direction.
Her mouth went dry.
Oh my. If she’d thought the twins were good looking, this specimen was dazzling. He was still probably younger than her, but on him the tantalizing features of the other boys had matured, soft edges harder, more pronounced. There was no doubt he was a member of the six-pack they’d spoken about. Whatever else the family raised out on that ranch of theirs, the men were certainly impressive.
She lifted her chin, her pulse quickening as the older cowboy waved his brother down and made his way to her side. People seemed to part before him, and Beth got an eyeful of long, muscular limbs and smooth controlled motion as he approached. Suddenly her little side reason for the trip to the bar slid off the backburner and back into play.
She’d spent the past six months rebuilding her life. While huge holes remained in her world, learning to retake control of her sexuality had finally made it toward the top of the to-do list. After years of dreading her husband’s touch, she needed to know if she could stand physical contact with a man. The cowboy she was drooling over looked like a fine volunteer to experiment with—if she could get past her fears and seduce him, or at least attempt to. If she had to call it off in mid-play, this was a safe site. He’d never be able to track her down or figure out her real identity. She’d never have to see him again.
He landed at her side and dipped his head in greeting.
“Daniel Coleman. Can I give you a hand?” He offered his arm and she took it gratefully. The fragrance of his aftershave drifted over and stirred something inside. Her husband had never used any cologne. Claimed a real man didn’t need anything but soap and water, and the gift she’d given him had been thrown in the garbage along with a bit of her heart. Now this stranger wore the very scent she’d chosen for Samuel when she was still young and thought she knew what love was. It had to be a good omen.
She was going to take it as a good omen because she needed one.
Back at the table, it was a tight fit. Darleen sat on both twins’ laps, their three bodies crowded close together. Beth found herself seated next to Daniel.
The noise level in the bar increased, and Beth gave up trying to listen to the conversation going on three feet in front of her. She’d have to shout to be heard. She turned to see Daniel frown as he watched his brothers.
His face twisted into a wry smile. “Just getting tired of babysitting. Your little sister?”
“Dar doesn’t bite. Your boys are safe.”
His laugh was real and light. “Then I’ll relax. You live in Calgary?”
Did she want to tell him anything about herself? No.
God, this was so hard. Here she’d thought that she could at least handle small talk. She threw back the last mouthful of her drink and changed the topic. The conversation needed to stick to what she wanted to discuss. Somehow she had to lead him into accepting her proposition.
“What’s your favourite part of the Stampede?”
He paused and took a long drink of his beer before turning to face her. “I take it you don’t want to answer my question.”
Damn right she didn’t want to tell him any of her personal details. There was no way she would tell him the truth. But the best lies were made of a pinch of reality.
“Daniel, I just want to enjoy myself and take a night to be whoever. Do whatever. I’m not into exchanging life stories. Sorry.”
She looked him over closer. A small scar marred the skin beside his right eye, and she touched it without thinking. “You were lucky.”
“I deserved it.”
Her involuntary reaction to his words was to stiffen in defence. Some triggers remained that were beyond her control. She forced herself to relax, because he didn’t mean anything by it. He wasn’t talking about her and scars, he was talking about himself.
They were crowded on either side as people forced their way past to reach their seats. His arm draped along the back of her chair brushed her shoulders every now and then. It felt way better than she’d hoped—the riotous fear she had expected remained wonderfully absent. She forced herself to rest her hand on his thigh, trying to make it appear casual, trying not to show how much effort it took to not flinch away. He rocked, making his leg shift. Firm muscles pressed against the jean material, and she sucked in a quick breath, wondering what he was about to do. Heat radiated upward, and her core tightened. The twins took off, dragging her sister back to the dance floor.
She leaned closer under the pretence of wanting to be heard without shouting. Her nose itched as it struck the short hairs behind his ear. The scent of his skin, so different from her husband’s, gave her courage. That wonderful mixture of man and aftershave, slightly rough, slightly wild. Her nipples tightened, and between her legs her body ached.
Okay, those were good signs. The whole libido thing wasn’t broken beyond repair.
“Dar’s going to have a hard time picking which one she likes better, you know.”
His shoulder pressed against her body as he leaned back, twisting his head to the side to reach her ear. He sighed, the warm air tickling her skin. “Will you go ballistic if I tell you they’re going to try their best to get her to pick them both?”
She choked before pulling back to look him in the eye. “Hello?”
Daniel grimaced. “They won’t force anything, but they enjoy having one girl between the two of them. I know it’s not your usual situation, and I’m not saying it’s the norm in my family or anything. But they’ve always been like that and so far I haven’t heard any complaints.”
She sat shocked for a moment, turning to watch the slow dance taking place on the floor. There were more than enough bodies to explain why the three of them had to be dancing so close, but sure enough, the younger Colemans had trapped Darleen on two sides. Beth debated for a moment, her heart pounding. What if…
No, she couldn’t start imaging what if her sister suddenly had to deal with two overly aggressive men. Not all males were like Samuel. If Dar wanted to cut loose tonight, hell if her big sister was going to stop her. Life was short, and she should take what fun she could.
“More power to them.” She said it quietly, but she knew he’d heard. He relaxed, his arm brushing her again. On to other important issues. It was now or never because she was one second away from fleeing. “What about you, Daniel?”
She pressed her hand against his thigh, letting the weight of it linger. If she had the courage, she would have been even more forward, but that was impossible. This was as deliberate as she could get.
She held her breath, waiting for his reaction. Would he ridicule her? Brush her aside?
He stared for a full minute and heat crept up her neck. It was one thing to act the hussy and another to pull it off. Fine. The whole plan had been rotten from the word go. She dropped her eyes and retreated. She was withdrawing her hand when he grasped her wrist, locking it in place with a steely grip. She bit her lip to hide the whimper of fear that wanted to escape, but his grasp, while it held her immobile, remained gentle.
He leaned in. “I’m not usually the type for this kind of thing, but if you’re asking for something on the wild side, hell yeah, I can oblige you. I don’t know why someone like you isn’t getting well taken care of already. For tonight, if you want me to make you happy, I’ll do my damnedest.”
She swallowed hard. It was a trap. No escape. Controlling. Her heart fluttered with fear, and she closed her eyes to concentrate. Okay, this was why she was making the attempt in public. It was safe. All she had to do was say stop and everything would be over.
His grip loosened, and he stroked his fingers over hers, a fleeting touch with the back of his hand caressing her skin. The coarse hair on his arm tickled her as he moved past her wrist, his body tight to hers, his lips hovering over her ear. The loud beat of music pounded the room. The table. Her body. It had to be the music—it wasn’t her pulse making her shake so hard.
The warmth of his breath brushed her neck, sending a shiver trickling over her skin. “You sure—completely sure—about this?” He drew back and cupped her chin in his hand, supporting her without locking her in place. “I’ve been around a lot of animals in my lifetime, and I know when one’s skittish. You may have the most come-hither attitude and sexy stare I’ve ever seen, but your body is telling a different story.”
Beth wiggled but refused to drop her gaze. She had to bluff her way through this. She was a grown woman taking back control of her life. It was the first step and she could handle it. Couldn’t she?
His gaze descended her body, an intimate caress without physical contact. “What’s it going to be? Do I grab my brothers and we pop you and your sister in a cab so you get safely home? Or do you really want a little company tonight? Shoot straight, I won’t accept a lie.”
Beth licked her lips, and his eyes darkened, his stare fixed on her mouth. She stuttered for a second, then swallowed and took a deep breath. Part of the truth burst out.
“I need this. I need to know…” She couldn’t maintain eye contact anymore and buried her face against his shoulder. Shoot. It had been a stupid idea to begin with, and there was no getting around it. Now she sounded desperate, which she was, but acknowledging it was brutally difficult.
He’d turned out to be exactly the kind of person she needed for a one-night stand, compassionate and caring. Something inside her cringed with disgust at herself. Using him as an experiment felt dirtier than when she’d first come up with the idea.
He stood and helped her to her feet.
“What are you doing?”
“I thought we could dance.” He wove through the masses, leading away from the crowded floor toward the bathrooms. There was a small landing kitty-corner to the ladies’ room door, and he guided her there before pulling her into his arms and wrapping her close. She hid her face again, fear and rising desire fighting in her body. They were only steps away from the crowd. A constant stream of women passed by. If he frightened her, she’d have help in an instant.
She relaxed a tiny bit and let her arms snake around his torso.
“Hmm, that’s better. You’re not going to bolt on me, are you?”
Beth shook her head. “Feels nice.”
He swayed with her, every inch in contact. Her cheek rested on his collar, and his fragrance filled her head. Why was it that the smell of this man turned her on so much?
His heartbeat—it vibrated against her chest. He adjusted them, somehow bringing her closer until they were lined up, his erection nudging her belly. “I need to hear what you want, Beth. If it’s a dance, I’m happy. If more, you need to say the word.”
Oh God, he shifted his hands on her back, caressing, teasing. She sucked in air as if it were courage. “I want something. I don’t know what to tell you.”
He lifted her face to his, their bodies still swaying, hips touching intimately. Slowly, with lots of time for her to retreat, he lowered his head and brushed their lips together. A single touch. Chaste. When he retreated, she followed him without intending to.
A bright light shone in his dark eyes as he examined her face. “That was something. Was it enough?”
She took it as a positive sign that she definitely wanted more. “No.”
“So tell me.”
It was the hardest thing, to say the word. “Please.”
He had a wicked smile. She’d noticed his good looks, but the smile turned his whole face into sin incarnate.
“You’re having trouble articulating, darling. How about I offer you multiple choices. You look like the type who enjoys options.”
He kissed her again. Light. Fleeting. Behind them, the bathroom door opened and closed but Beth barely noticed. There could have been an audience circling them, and she wouldn’t have cared.
“You want a kiss?” He brushed a thumb over her lips and brought it back to his mouth, licking the moisture from the pad. “Hmm, you taste good. You want me to kiss you for real? Like a man kisses his woman? Or are you happy with more of the kind of pecks you give a neighbour at a church picnic?”
She swore she spoke aloud. She was sure her lips moved, but the deafening buzz in her ears outweighed the sound of her own voice. Daniel gave her another sexier-than-sin grin and came back for a third pass. She closed her eyes and hoped like hell she’d said door number one.
He gripped her tighter and lifted her, heavy brace and all, and she gasped in surprise. Then he tore the rest of the air from her lungs as he consumed her. Crushing their lips together, he thrust his tongue into her mouth and took control. She waited for panic to descend, but all that hit was a heavy pulse between her legs and the urgent desire to drop to the floor and rip off his clothes. She opened to him, accepted his demands. Clung to his neck and writhed shamelessly against him. He held her, cupping her by the ass and pushing forward until the cold wall met her shoulders. He leaned into her, supporting her with his torso and hands, pulsing his hips with small movements so the ridge of his erection ground against the apex of her mound where blood beat with an insane tempo.
He tasted fantastic. Clean and fresh, the hint of hops on his tongue from the beer, but beyond that, nothing but heat and passion. Tingles spread across her belly from the constant pressure on her clit. When he lowered her to the floor, she whimpered, suddenly fearful he’d leave her at this point, frustrated and all alone again with nothing but her own hand to bring her over the edge.
He caged her against the wall, his lips brushing her ear. He snuck his hand between their bodies until he cupped her breast. “Time for two more options. You want me to touch you over your clothes or put my fingers on your bare flesh?”
He licked her earlobe and tugged her blouse, pulling it loose from the waist of her skirt.
This was insane. She’d gone insane. This was no longer an exercise to discover if she could again bear physical contact with a man. It was a torture method to see how much her body could take before she exploded from the mere thought of a caress.
“Skin.” It was the only possible choice.
Whisper light, seductively slow. Inch by inch his hand crept up her waist, strumming the curve of her ribs gently like piano keys, lifting the bottom edge of her bra and forcing it out of his way. He cupped her, his palm calloused and rough but so tender and careful she shivered. He distracted her with strokes of his tongue against hers as his fingers plucked her nipple to a hard peak.
“God, you’re driving me mad.” He rolled the sensitive tip between thumb and forefinger and a piercing flash shot straight between her legs.
“More.” Beth ached. It wasn’t enough to have confirmation she could be touched. She wanted to come, and she wanted Daniel to be the one who brought her over the peak. It had been too long, and something in this man made her think he’d understand if she told him what she truly needed. Why.
“Get a room!”
Laughter burst behind them. Daniel twisted, covering her with his body, protecting her from the giggling girls exiting the bathroom and traipsing back onto the dance floor.
A cold flush descended. What was she thinking? Groping in a hallway with a stranger. All the passion she’d felt, the sense of being truly alive, drained away like air from a balloon. She struggled upright and fumbled to put herself back in order—her bra, her blouse. He helped, his hands remaining careful and slow, redoing the buttons that had slipped open, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“Beth. Don’t. Don’t start thinking this was a mistake.”
She glanced up in astonishment. “How did you…?”
He brushed a hand over her cheek and she stilled again, her skin burning hot. “Your only mistake was thinking a short encounter in a back hall would be enough. I’m not that type.” He shook his head, his eyes fixed on hers. “I don’t think you’re that type either. Not really.”
She hesitated, then nodded with reluctance. He deserved that much honesty. It was all she was willing to give.
“Let me get to know you better. We’ve got the chemistry. I’d like to find out who you are when you’re not trying to be someone else.”
Every word drove another nail into her guilty conscious. “Sure. Let’s go back to the table. Darleen must be wondering where I am.”
He kissed her once more and she took it eagerly. Trying to store up the memory of his taste, the way he tugged his fingers through her hair just right. None of the fear she’d expected was there. When he drew back, she had to fight to keep tears from falling. He had no idea, but he’d helped remind her she was free. Samuel had tied her in knots, and Daniel had cut some of the remaining cords that held her bound.
They headed to the table, but their previous space was filled with strangers. Beth spotted Darleen waiting beside the bar door, wearing a frown so deep it was almost comical.
“Shoot. Looks like there was trouble in paradise.”
Daniel pointed to the far side of the room where Jesse and Joel tossed back beers at the long bar counter. “Double shoot. Jackasses. I’ll whoop their butts if they—”
She shook her head. “Knowing Dar, it’s just as easily her fault. It’s only a night out on the town.”
He turned her in his arms. “It’s more than a night on the town for me. I like you, Beth. There’s something about you…”
His gaze traced her hair and she flushed. She hadn’t intended the evening to finish this way.
Daniel pulled out his wallet and handed her a card. “It’s for the family business, but my contact numbers are on there. You can email me, or phone.” He handed her an extra card. “Write your number on the back for me.”
He pulled her close, and she used his chest as a solid base to scribble her name. Beth Jackson. Jotted down a number. He took the card and tucked it away, his dark gaze burning a hole in her conscience. “I’ll call you a cab.”
She held up a hand, refusing his offer. “We have a car. We’re fine.”
Dar flounced out the door and Beth rolled her eyes. With the rest of her dilemmas, she had no energy to deal with her temperamental little sister. She took one last look at her cowboy, wishing things could be different.
“Thanks, Daniel. It was great meeting you.”
He brushed her cheek with a kiss. “I’ll call you in the morning. I’d love to take you for coffee.”
She smiled and stepped away, the relentless noise and the situation making her head and heart hurt. “That would be great,” she lied.
The cool night air brushed her face, refreshing after the heat of the bar, and she sucked in a calming breath. Dar brought the car around, and Beth manoeuvred herself into the passenger seat, the leg brace frustrating and cumbersome.
“Where the hell were you?” Darleen griped. “I’ve been wanting to leave forever.”
Beth dropped her head against the rest and groaned. She was sexually frustrated, her leg ached, and she really didn’t want to listen to whining right now. “I thought you were busy. With two guys.”
Darleen had the grace to look embarrassed. “Yeah, well, they were nice enough. Then one of the Stampeders asked me to dance. I mean, one of the linebackers from the professional football team? I had to say yes, and when I got back, the guys had left.”
“You went and danced with someone else and expected them to wait for you?” Darleen didn’t say anything. Beth rolled down her window and let the sounds of the city streets soothe her soul. “Can’t have it all, girl.”
Darleen flicked a hand in her direction. “Whatever. It was still fun, I guess. How about you? Their older brother was hot. Did you hit it off with him?”
A lingering pulse beat between her legs. Did they hit it off? Oh sweet Jesus. “Yes.”
“You going to see him again?”
Beth stared at the card he’d given her. She’d been clutching it like a lifeline. The dark expression in Daniel’s eyes scared her yet gave her hope, and for one moment she hesitated.
No. It was time for a total break. She tore the card into tiny little pieces so she wasn’t tempted to try and recover the numbers. “Nope. I’m leaving town with the boys in two weeks. Making a new start, and I don’t need any baggage in the shape of male stalkers, thanks very much. Been there, burnt the T-shirt.”
“Guys aren’t all like Samuel, you know. There are good ones out there.”
Was Daniel one of the good ones? Beth dropped the scraps into the trash bag and adjusted her leg. “Enough. I want to go home. Mom’s bringing the boys back in the morning, so it’s not as if we can sleep in.”
She stared out the window and wished more than anything Daniel were the one taking her home and tucking her into bed.Return to Rocky Mountain Haven