Book 1: Six Pack Ranch Series
Calgary Stampede, Alberta, July
“Are you sure you can’t last a bit longer?” Travis looked away, but not before she’d spotted the disappointment in his eyes. The annoyance.
Jaxi leaned her temple against the wooden boards of the pen, fighting to keep herself vertical. The familiar scent of farm animals did nothing to ease the swirling pain. She felt like the bottom of a horse stall and faking her way through any more of the day was impossible. “I’m sorry. I have to go home now,” she pleaded.
“We bought tickets for the grandstand show tonight and—”
“Why are you two still here? I thought you’d headed back to the fairgrounds. All our livestock showings are done.” Blake Coleman’s deep voice cut through the pounding to soothe her aching head. She opened her eyes a crack to peer up at him.
People wandered past, admiring the animals on display in the livestock pavilion of the Stampede grounds. Watching the rodeo and chuck-wagon races kept many of the visitors entertained, but a good crowd remained here in the quiet of the barns, far away from the roar of the midway rides. A low murmur of voices and the contented sounds of animals filled the oversized building. All of that faded into the background as she focused on Blake’s strong jaw and concerned gaze.
“Ahhh, Jaxi’s being a wuss and wants to cut out early,” Travis bitched.
“Jaxi? A wuss? Get real.” Blake tugged her arm to bring her to his side. His hand rose to her forehead and she caught her breath.
In spite of the lingering sensation of being kicked by a mule, his touch had its usual effect. The tingling in her limbs had nothing to do with the fever consuming her. She dropped her gaze and bit her lip. He wasn’t supposed to affect her this way. Going out with Travis put big brother Blake firmly off limits.
“Damn, you’re burning hot. Jaxi, why didn’t you mention you weren’t feeling well? You guys could have done the Stampede another time. Last day isn’t until Sunday.” A crease folded between his eyes.
“Travis wanted to come today and so did his buddies. I was fine until after lunch. I guess I should have stayed home.” Jaxi wrapped her arms tighter to contain the shivers that threatened to surface. She drew farther from Blake’s body and the temptation to lean into him, let him hold her close.
“Travis will take you home in my truck and I’ll drive the others later,” Blake offered.
“I want to stay for the show. All my friends are here and I don’t want to leave…” Travis’s voice trailed off. Blake had slipped him a head nod, indicating he wanted a private conversation.
Jaxi sat on a nearby bale of hay, holding as motionless as possible in the hopes the world would stop spinning. Their voices went quiet but remained clear even as Blake dragged Travis away from her down the length of the main barn of the exhibition grounds.
“She’s your girlfriend and she’s sick. I’d think you’d want to get her home safely instead of taking off to hang with your friends. Come on, Travis, do the right thing for a frickin’ change.”
“Hell, Blake, it’s just…this is the first time in a long while some of my buds have made the Stampede.”
“Not good enough. Any better reason to leave her high and dry?”
“Fuck you.” There was a pause, then she barely heard the rest. Travis dropped his volume to a whisper. “Things ain’t been so hot with Jaxi lately and, well, I planned on breaking up with her sometime soon. So it would be a damn pain in the ass to leave when everyone else is sticking around having a good time. I’ll just go home alone and end up with blue balls again anyway.”
Jaxi bit her lip. So, the other shoe dropped. Travis had reached his limit of her not putting out for him, even though she’d willingly played his games.
The room whirled.
Oh hell, she needed to lie down. She stumbled to the nearest empty stall, forced the door open and collapsed onto the clean straw. She closed her eyes but everything kept turning in circles, their voices echoing strangely in her ears.
“Shit, she’s messed up my whole evening.” Travis’s whine broke off suddenly, followed by a solid thump, as if something hit the ground. “What the fuck was that for, you asshole?”
Blake’s contempt was thick enough to cut. “I shoved you because if I slugged you Ma would give me hell. At least until I explained why, and I don’t want to have that conversation with her. Damn it, Jaxi’s sick and you’re bitching about not getting any? You’re an ass. I’ll bring her with me. I have to get some of the stock out of here anyway. You drive the old pickup back after the show. There’s room for everyone who came with us to town. But, Travis, I’m warning you. You’re the designated driver. You drink more than one beer between now and getting home, and I’ll take you apart for being an overall idiot as well as a shit to Jaxi.”
Their voices died away. She lay still, waiting for something to happen. Soft footsteps approached. The door of the stall swung open and Jaxi swayed as she sat up. Blake stared from his six-foot-plus height. The anger tingeing his face faded as he shook his head sorrowfully and held a hand to her.
“Ah hell, Slick. You’re a strong one, aren’t you? In spite of Travis giving you grief. Come on, let’s get you home.”
As he lifted her to her feet and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, gratitude and a whole lot of other emotions rippled through her. She was glad she wasn’t the one who’d pissed him off. Glad that he’d care for her, just like always.
She stumbled and he caught her, guiding her shaky steps out of the barn. Even with her mind cluttered with fever, she recognized the irony—here she was in his arms the way she’d always dreamed of, and the situation was the furthest thing from what she truly wanted.
Sometimes life sucked.
It took far too long to hitch the trailer and load the animals headed back to the ranch. Blake checked Jaxi a couple of times. She did nothing more than lift a finger to indicate she was still alive—although looking thoroughly miserable—as she waited in the cab of the truck. Thank God, she didn’t seem nauseous, only dizzy. Blake shoveled down a quick sandwich as he forced the rear doors shut. He wasn’t about to eat in front of her, just in case, but it had been a long time since he’d eaten and they had a good two and a half hour drive to get home.
He opened the door to find her asleep on the bench seat. She’d hauled an old blanket from behind the backrest and wrapped the threadbare material around herself, but even the extra layer hadn’t stopped the shaking.
“Slick, what have you done to yourself this time?”
Blake lifted her slightly and managed to get behind the wheel, arranging her to rest in his lap. She muttered something before shivering from head to toe. He got them on the highway headed north out of town before turning his attention downward.
She’d braided her blonde hair into two pigtails. The style made her look closer to twelve than eighteen. At twelve she’d still been Jax, her best friends his youngest brothers, the twins Joel and Jesse. He could see the three of them in his head, running wild through the horse stable, and building castles in the bales crowding the hayloft of the Colemans’ ranch. An only child, Jaxi came calling on a regular basis, longing for company. Whenever her ma and daddy got busy, she would cross the field between their properties and jump wholeheartedly into whatever mischief the Colemans were cooking up.
At fourteen she’d declared they all had to call her Jaxi, and that’s when the trouble started. All of a sudden she wasn’t only a great fishing and riding buddy to the boys, there were hips and breasts and all the interesting parts that went along with being a girl.
Blake pushed a loose strand of hair from her face. Her forehead was burning hot under his fingers, and shivers continued to rack her body. Her slim form fit on the seat with difficulty because of her long legs, even with them curled up tight as she lay in his lap.
And wasn’t that the most damning part of it all. Here she was in his lap, exactly where he’d longed to have her, and exactly where he had no right to want her. Twenty-eight years was old enough to know better.
But young enough, it appeared, to still be a stupid ass.
Even burning with fever she was incredibly beautiful. He fought the attraction he felt, feeling dirty for thinking about her that way. Ten years between them. For heaven’s sake, he’d been the one to hold the reins the first time she rode a horse. He’d carried her home another day when she’d fallen off and gotten the wind knocked out of her. He’d become family to the lonely little girl, and he had no right to admire her changing body, her bright eyes or her quick wit.
And his fool of a brother planned on breaking up with her? At nineteen Travis thought he was God’s gift to women, but at times like this Blake wondered if Travis was one shovel short of a full load.
Why was Jaxi going out with the ass in the first place? Why not one of the twins, even if they were a year younger than her? Hell, why not Daniel? Of the six brothers on the ranch, did she have to pick the one with the biggest ego and the least brains?
Blake took the off-ramp and got onto the secondary highway leading to the town of Rocky Mountain House. The small town near their homes lay nestled in the rolling foothills up against the towering Alberta Rockies. At this time of day the roads were empty—everyone headed to the city already long gone. His was the only vehicle around, and behind him dust rose to the bright blue sky like a trail of gunpowder toward the barrel.
He was in so much trouble when it came to this sweet girl, and from what he knew she still was sweet, in spite of his asshole of a brother’s attempts to change the situation.
He’d overheard them a few weeks ago…
He paused two steps inside the barn doors to give his eyes a chance to adjust from the blinding June sunshine. Moans and other suspicious noises led him back to the tack room. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who it was and what was happening on the other side of the closed door. From the sound of it, things were getting hot and heavy. Blake didn’t deliberately step closer to eavesdrop.
Hell, yes, he did. He didn’t trust Travis as far as he could throw him.
The kissing and the rustling built his curiosity to a peak before Jaxi muttered, “Uh-uh, cool it,” and someone knocked something over.
“Oh, damn, Jaxi, you’re killing me here. I need you. I really need you, baby.”
Blake’s lips twisted into a grin at her unladylike response—a loud snort.
“I’m not stupid, Travis. You won’t die if we don’t have sex. Get over it already. I’m not willing—”
“You don’t love me.”
“Damn right, I don’t. You don’t love me either. We’re friends, that’s all.”
You tell him, girl. Blake snuck to the far end of the hall where he would remain safely hidden even if one of them decided to bust out of the room without warning. He didn’t feel a lick of guilt for listening in. The only self-reproach was over the way his gut tensed, imagining having Jaxi in his own arms to kiss and caress.
He beat down the impulse and listened harder.
“Jaxi, you know you like it when I touch you. I get your motor running. It’s just another thing I can do to make you feel good. Make us both feel real good. Come on, sweetheart, it’ll be special.”
“In a barn? Travis Coleman, you may be considered the hottest thing around by the rest of the girls in town, but you need a little work on your romancing.”
The sound of creaking floorboards warned Blake to fade into the corner more.
“Don’t leave me hurting here, sweetheart. Come on back and help me out. You know I like it when you touch me.”
The door squeaked as she shoved it open. “Travis, I was enjoying myself, but when you push the boundaries every time we fool around, it kills the mood. I’ve told you I’m not having sex. Not with you or anyone until I’m older, no matter what kinky games you like to play. It’s something special and I want to save it.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Then why do you keep trying to convince me to go further than I want?”
“Because I… Oh hell, are you going to help me here or what?”
The door slammed and Jaxi’s strong voice rang out. “Talk to the hand, Travis, talk to the hand.”
Blake had waited in the shadows until Travis, cussing a fair bit, hauled his ass back to the house. While he’d been proud of Jaxi for sticking to her guns, that episode had probably been another step in the beginning of the end for the two of them.
He looked at her again, lying in his lap so innocently. He was such a bastard. Even while he wanted to break his brother’s head for trying to seduce her, he had to stop himself from stroking her cheek to see if her skin was as soft as it looked.
She moaned, and her limbs jerked, arms flailing. She struck the dash with one hand, the wheel with the other.
“Whoa, take it easy.” He laid a restraining touch on her shoulder.
“No, Slick, it’s Blake. Remember?”
Jaxi rolled over to stare at him. Her eyes were glazed, and she seemed to focus on something beyond him. Only a second later her face flushed and flared to anger.
“Damn it, Travis, I told you I wouldn’t give you head while you drive. Pull over right now.”
Holy shit! What the hell had his brother been doing with this girl? “I’m not Travis… You’ve got to listen, hon—”
“Pull the truck over now, you son of a bitch.” She forced herself to a sitting position, body weaving from side to side. “I swear you’re going to be the death of me. Stop this truck now or I’ll tell him.”
Tell who? Tell what?
She yelled louder, smacking her fists against his arm. The blows weren’t hard enough to cause much pain but with her off-kilter balance and the rough road, she kept knocking herself around. Blake grabbed her with one hand, pinning her arms in place as he steered the truck and trailer off to the side as quickly as possible.
“You’ve got to relax. I’m not Travis, I’m Blake. Ah, damn it, Slick, you are one sick little girl.”
“Yeah, well, you’re pretty sick yourself. You want to break up with me but you want one final farewell, is that it? Fine by me.”
A jolt of panic struck. She must have heard Travis back at the fairgrounds. Now what should he do? Try to calm her or let Travis drown in the hole he’d dug for himself?
She threw her leg across him as if she were jumping a calf in the roping contest.
“This is it. You hear me? As of tomorrow we’re not a couple anymore and you can go fuck whoever you want without me around as a decoy. I’ve had enough of the pretending.” While she spoke, she slipped loose the buckle on his belt in one smooth motion.
Blake jerked. He scrambled for her hands, trying to catch her, trying to stop her as she dragged at his zipper.
It only took a moment before he held her wrists immobile, her strong body protesting his control as she cussed and writhed in his lap. Her hot breath fell across his cheek as she leaned against him. Suddenly, all her tension slipped away and she melted in his arms. One breast nudged his chest as she tilted her body to the side. Their hands remained trapped between their torsos, and yet she attempted to snuggle closer. Her violent shouts gave way to little moans. Her tongue slipped along his sweating neck, a satisfied noise escaping.
She may have lost her stiffness, but he’d found every single bit of it. His shoulders tensed, his abdomen muscles went taut, but it was his damn cock that betrayed him the most. Against his will, his erection rose to meet her. Harder than granite in less than five seconds—from the moment her hands brushed the front of his groin.
He wasn’t getting excited because it was Jaxi. Simply because there was a female touching him. That’s what he tried to tell himself. No, it was strictly an automatic male reaction. It wasn’t because this was Jaxi and Blake had dreamed of this for longer than he wanted to admit.
He wasn’t the kind of asshole to sit and let his brother’s feverish, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend fondle him at the side of the road. He wasn’t such a jerk he’d actually try to justify keeping her nestled tight to him for a couple more seconds because it was the best thing he’d ever felt in his life, her hands pressed innocently against the ridge of his now fully engorged cock.
About then he realized he didn’t quite know how to deal with the situation once he did stop her. What if he spoke? Having her suddenly clue in he wasn’t Travis like she imagined—what kind of shock would that be? She’d be so damn embarrassed.
“So cold.” Another shiver rocked her and he instinctively cradled her. “Warm me up.”
He didn’t need to be any warmer. He was going to burn in hell forever for this. Her lips touched his neck again, and he attempted to twist out of reach. Impossible. They were trapped between the back of the bench and the steering wheel. With a little more room to manoeuvre, he could open the door and get them both out. Hopefully the cooler air outside the cab would bring her back to her senses. He reached around her to disengage the wheel lock. Jaxi wiggled, moving over him with a killing touch, slipping her palms against his chest as her hips settled tight over his groin and the erection he shouldn’t have.
He was a bastard. The split second he paused, savouring the sensations rippling through his body, turned his self-loathing to high. He forced himself to continue to swing the wheel away. Finally with enough room, Blake leaned forward and reached for the door release.
He was yanked to a stop as Jaxi buried her hands in his hair and bit his neck, slowly undulating her heated crotch over his aching cock. Blake wrapped his right arm around her and pinned her in place, ignoring the way his balls throbbed with need.
How this innocent trip home had digressed from uncomfortable to totally fucked up he had no idea. Forget going to hell, he was already there, being tormented by Satan himself as the old boy directed the little fever-induced drama happening on the side of the 761 Secondary Highway.
A quick glance to be sure no cars were in the immediate area was all he spared before shoving his foot hard at the door as he yanked the release handle. The frame swung open in a rush, recoiling to hang in the line of traffic.
A cooling breeze struck his sweated brow the same moment Jaxi sucked his skin. Blake bit back a groan and twisted them both, his legs absorbing the impact as he cradled her close and escaped the confining quarters of the cab.
She tucked her heated forehead into the crook of his neck, right where she’d been sucking on him only a second before. Another shiver took her, and he turned his back to the wind to provide protection.
“So thirsty.” Jaxi lifted her face, and he examined her flushed cheeks. She licked her lips, her eyes half-closed with heavy lids. Her head lolled back slightly, and he raced to deposit her on the bench seat and find her a drink. Her hands shook as she tilted the water bottle, and he reached to help her before she sloshed the contents all over.
When she crawled away from him to the passenger side of the truck, wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and settled her cheek on the seat, he was tempted to dump the remaining liquid in the plastic bottle over his head to cool his own raging fever.
Blake leaned on the side door and adjusted his dick, willing the damn thing to admit defeat and retreat. That hadn’t been too bad. Behind him, Jaxi moaned and his cock jerked. No, not too bad at all if he was a masochist. His only hope lay in her feverish confusion to last long enough she thought he was Travis. As long as she didn’t talk to Travis in the next while about trying to ride him like a pony on the trip home.
Oh hell, he might as well face it. He was dead.
Blake crawled into the cab, wincing a little at the tight confinement of his jeans. Jaxi wiggled closer, resting her head back on his thigh, the tangled strands of her loose blonde hair covering his crotch. He brushed the wisps away carefully in the hopes she wouldn’t wake from her stupor.
“Oh, Slick, what a mess.”
He glanced up and adjusted the rearview mirror that had gotten bumped during their tangled encounter. A bright red mark on his neck caught his eye, and he groaned in frustration. Like he was going to be able to explain that one easily. He shook his head and aimed the truck for home. In his lap, Jaxi’s feverish cheek burned a hole into his thigh while his unanswerable lust burned a hole in his conscience.