Jamie MacCreadie didn’t know how to talk to women.
He was twenty-six years old. He had a mother, three sisters, and an aunt he was close to, as well as a father and a brother, but apparently he still didn’t have a clue. When he was riding the adrenalin rush of a rodeo win, he thought he managed it pretty well. Or when he’d had a drink or two. Rest of the time, no, and to be honest it wasn’t a fault, as far as he was concerned. He just didn’t see the point of a whole lot of talking.
Fortunately, a lot of women seemed not to mind. They carried the dialogue forward on their own, and accepted a lazy smile or a sideways glance as his part of the conversational bargain.
Not Tegan Ash, though.
She left him in no doubt about his shortcomings in this area. In fact, she was the one who’d first pointed it out, several months ago, in her cute, blunt Australian accent. “You know what your problem is, Jamie?”
“Well…Do I have one?” He’d stayed calm and mild, knowing it would annoy her. He liked getting a rise out of her, truth to tell. She was the same age he was, and they were like grade school kids with each other, sometimes – immature in a way he didn’t think he was with other people. He was only like this with her.
“You don’t know how to talk to women,” she’d said.
She couldn’t stand him, and she was marrying his best friend.
They were both watching Chet right now, Tegan’s long, lean, barrel-racer body as lazy as Jamie’s, leaning on the rodeo arena rail. Somehow she still managed to smell like a shower stall, even though she’d been around horses all day. There was a sweet, nutty scent in the air, sourced in her thick tumble of blond hair. It disturbed his peace of mind in a way he didn’t like to think about, and he shifted six inches along the rail so he wouldn’t be close enough to notice it any more.
Chet was collecting his winner’s buckle for best all-around cowboy at the Nevada Spring Creek Stampede with the announcer’s voice booming, “Che-e-et Wyndham!” from the amplifiers, while the smell of dust and dung and horse feed and hot dogs wafted all around them.
Jamie hadn’t been so lucky today, in the saddle bronc. No buckles for him. He made an effort with Tegan. “So, wedding tomorrow.”
“You’d better show up.” Tegan flicked him a quick look. More like a glare, with those deep dragon-green eyes.
She’d placed seventeenth in the barrel-racing, and she wasn’t happy. Her strong chin was stuck out stubbornly, above a smooth neck that disappeared down into a bling-covered western shirt. She had a mile-wide competitive streak that matched Jamie’s own, and it amused him sometimes because you wouldn’t have guessed it to look at her. He got a kick out of the contrast.
But she’d kicked him in a different way, this time, implying he might be unreliable on Chet’s wedding day, of all days. She carried her poor opinion of him too far, and there was no call for it.
“Like I wouldn’t show,” he said on a growl. “I’m the best man.”
“Well, you don’t seem that thrilled about it.” The green eyes challenged him, and he looked quickly away.
Yeah, he wasn’t thrilled. But not for the reason she probably thought – their dislike of each other.
In fact, he didn’t know what was bothering him about Chet and Tegan getting married. This was a super-practical green card wedding so that Tegan could stay in the country and keep on with her barrel-racing career. It wasn’t some big, hot romance between the two of them that was going to disappear in a cloud of rodeo dust after the excitement wore off.
That thing flashed into Jamie’s mind. The thing Chet had hit him with a couple of months ago when he was drunk – well, when they were both drunk, in fact. The thing Jamie didn’t like to think about, and that Chet didn’t even seem to remember, the next morning. Jamie always made his thoughts veer away from it, as he was doing now, not naming it in his head, not assigning it a value.
It probably had nothing to do with his doubts about the wedding, anyhow.
“You got a dress and everything?” he asked Tegan, to distract himself.
“We’re going with rodeo-themed outfits. You have a western shirt you can wear, right? Black, if you can. I hate dresses.”
Chet finished collecting his buckle and began ambling toward them, wearing the grin that came from relief because he wasn’t in plaster or a neck collar or a brace, as well as from knowing he’d banked a four-figure sum today. Jamie had earned a small part of that, because they team-roped together and had just squeaked into the money.
“Still, you could wear a dress to your own wedding,” he said mildly.
“Oh, because you like to see women in skirts they can’t walk in, and stress-fracture shoes?”
“No, because it’s a wedding.”
She glared at him again, but this time he met the look steady and full-on, and she was the one to chicken out first. Gotcha, Tegan, he thought, and watched as her fingers brushed in an uncertain way against her neck and some late afternoon sun etched the side of her jaw. Her cheeks had gone pink, and he couldn’t see her eyes anymore, just her lashes, which were so long and dark.
Then Chet arrived and the whole atmosphere changed. He was still buzzy from the win, and Tegan met him more than halfway. “I can’t believe you got a buckle for today. When I saw you the first three seconds out of the chute on that bronc, I thought you’d never stick him for the full eight. As for the team-roping, that was pure dumb luck, baby! Neither of you earned it.”
She punched Chet’s arm and he gave her a jittery hug and said, “What about you, tonight? What happened?”
“I should have shaved more off that last turn. I’m so mad at myself.”
As soon as horse-talk turned technical, Chet was in his element, and he always looked happier. He said, “Yeah, you should, but you had your foot stuck out so far, if you had shaved it, you would have kicked the barrel down.”
“Okay, you’re probably right.” Tegan gave one of her grins – the goofy one that said she knew she’d stuffed up. She had several quite different ways of smiling, Jamie had noticed, depending on her state of mind. “I need to work on my stupid feet, don’t I?”
“Let’s go spend some of this.” Chet flapped his wad of cash in the air.
“Bachelor party,” Jamie said, then wished he hadn’t.
Tegan loved the idea. “Yeah, Chet, you should.” She clapped her hands.
“We don’t need that,” he protested, but it was half-hearted. Jamie could already see the intention growing in him.
Chet would get pass-out drunk, the night before his wedding. There would be yelling and destruction, and Chet would get himself arrested if he could possibly manage it. Who planned that?
“Get some of the guys,” Tegan was saying. She had the same spark of life in her face as she did after she’d had a good run with the barrels. “I’ll grab some girls and have a hen night.”
“A what?” Jamie said.
“Hen night. Stag night for girls. Bachelorette party. I don’t know what language I’m speaking any more, what’s Australian and what’s not.”
“We don’t need a lot of guys,” Chet said. “Maybe just the two of us. Wanna hit some bars, Jamie?”
Not at all.
But he sensed his friend’s need. And, after all, the guy was getting married tomorrow. Maybe that would solve a few things.
Maybe it wouldn’t.
Chet was a phenomenal horseman. This was the bedrock of Jamie and Chet’s friendship and their professional partnership. Seemed like it had to be the bedrock of Chet’s friendship with Tegan as well. The two of them had met at the Fiesta de los Vaqueros in Tucson in February last year. Chet had been battling to free his best horse, Diego, who’d somehow gotten himself caught in the rails of his yard and panicked as a result. Tegan had seen the problem and helped out.
She’d earned a massive hoof-shaped bruise on her shoulder and a fat cut lip, but her help meant that Diego had been freed and had calmed down without getting himself hurt. Anyone who shrugged off their own injuries as long as the horse was fine would earn Chet’s undying friendship. So by the time Jamie had come along an hour later, after the whole thing was over, Tegan and Chet had formed a bond that soon seemed as strong as the one between Chet and Jamie, who’d known each other five years.
A few months ago, Jamie had asked Chet in frustration, “What is it you like so much about her?” Because it definitely wasn’t based on sex. Jamie thought he would have noticed in a flash if Chet was hitting on her.
Chet had thought for a moment, then told him, “I like that her clothes don’t match her personality.”
Yeah, buddy, that makes sense.
What was it, really? Jamie was never sure.
All three of them could talk horses and live horses, and they all knew…lived…the adrenalin rush and bone-deep rightness of working in tandem with another creature ten times your own size. They knew the beauty of communication with no language, of doing something you were born to do and doing it better than most other people on the planet.
They’d become a triangle, Jamie and Chet, Chet and Tegan, but the third side of the triangle – Jamie and Tegan – didn’t connect.
“Yeah, we can hit some bars,” Jamie said. He hated to think what might happen if he wasn’t there to keep Chet under control. “But I’m your best man, remember?” He made it as light as he could. “I have a responsibility to get you sober and only slightly hung-over to your wedding ceremony, or Tegan’ll fire me from the job and make you get a new one.”
Chet looked as if sober and hangover-free wasn’t on his agenda, while Tegan just frowned. She was intense, sometimes. Built lean and tall with her tumble of streaky blond hair, she was too big to be a jockey on the race-track, but she would have had the courage for it.
She worked part-time for a bucking stock contractor, Bob Crannock, and loved her barrel-racing mare Shildara like a sister. She very openly thought Jamie was a dick, and blamed him for everything that was wrong with Chet – in other words, the drinking – and Jamie didn’t know how to handle that – how to correct her…or how to admit to it.
Maybe she was right, and he was a bad influence. Maybe he really didn’t know how to talk to women.
The redhead who offered to share her bed with him later that night didn’t seem to mind.
Much later that night.
Three in the morning before they sealed the deal. She had a hotel room and he knew she wanted him in it as soon as she discovered he was a pro rodeo rider, and what his year-to-date earnings were. He didn’t tell her he sent most of it back to his dad to pay for improvements on the ranch.
He and the redhead flirted for a couple of hours and he drank more than he wanted, and Chet drank about twice as much, and Jamie didn’t especially want to go to bed with the redhead, Kristi, but it seemed like the best way to deliver Chet back to their trailer and away from the drinking. “I’m getting some action, buddy, mind if we call it a night?”
When he said to Kristi that he had to get Chet to bed first, she slipped him a key, told him the hotel and room number, and invited him to meet her there.
Chet didn’t want to let go of the evening. He swayed at the bottom of the horse-trailer steps and Jamie had to open the door and help him inside. “I love you, man,” Chet said, in a broken voice. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, buddy. But I gotta go meet Kristi. Have a drink of water.”
There, Tegan. He didn’t get arrested, and he’ll pass out in his own bed. What more could you want from a best man?
With the job done, he went off to Kristi’s hotel, but when he reached the lobby, he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He just didn’t want to. Where was the satisfaction in something so shallow and easy? Where was the bite, when you didn’t actually know each other? He turned around and left, taking a long, ambling walk back to the rodeo ground so that Chet would be deep asleep by the time he arrived back.
There, Tegan, he thought again, although this time he wasn’t sure what point he was trying to prove.
Everything fell apart the next day.
End of Excerpt