Tanner McTavish shoveled more sawdust into the trailer and spread it around. Through the bandana covering her mouth she sang an upbeat, slightly jazzy style of the Dixie Chick’s “Traveling Soldier” and swung her hips in time as she spread the sawdust and then, pretending the rake were a dance partner, she danced a two-step with it down the trailer gate, slamming the handle down in time with her feet, loving the rhythmic clack, clack, clack.
She dropped the rake with a clatter.
A cowboy leaned against a black truck. Black T-shirt that fit like a dream over a cut torso, worn jeans that ended in dusty, black cowboy boots. Black Stetson tipped low, but she could see the square-cut jaw, high cheekbones, and a mouth that twisted in amusement. Fine. He caught her dancing by herself, like he could have caught her dancing any other way. So what? La-di-da. This was her ranch and she hadn’t invited him unless… her heart flipped.
She recognized the stance, cocky and deceptively relaxed, and “I got the whole world in my hand and you are…?” Luke Wilder. All-around cowboy. He was wasting his time on the rodeo circuit. He should be the international model for Wranglers. And Stetsons. And T-shirts. And probably underwear. Boxers? Briefs? Commando?
How many times had she played the game with him in her head while she stood against a cold, concrete wall while her insides heated just watching him climb over the metal bars of the chute and mount one of her bulls? Lucky bull. The desire to still know, boxers or briefs, pinched hard and low in her stomach, and she gave herself permission to stare. She worked with cowboys daily at her ranch and when she traveled with her bulls to rodeos. But he was spectacular. Luke Wilder. Even his name was doable. She’d seen him before at several of the Mountain circuit rodeos. The most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. He hadn’t noticed her. Ever. Not once. Even when he walked past. And the time they’d been introduced his eyes had passed over her so casually and his “hello” had been so low she would have rather been ignored. At least then she could have held on to her untainted fantasies.
But he was looking today and this close he dried her mouth and fried her brain.
She picked up the rake, pretending that six-foot of muscled masculine beauty dropped in unannounced all the time.
“You startled me,” she stated.
She walked a little closer, forced her body to stay relaxed, and kept her breathing even, exactly like she’d enter a pen to look at a new bronco or bull. He tipped his hat back a bit. Wow, he looked a lot like her friend Talon’s boyfriend, Colt. No wonder Talon had been so blissed out the three weeks they’d been together. Talon had texted her yesterday to say Colt had come back. That he was done with the army and moving back to Marietta and in with her and her son Parker and that Colt wanted to get married. Tanner wasn’t surprised Colt was going all in with Talon. He was the most intense guy she’d ever laid eyes on, but Luke Wilder, this close up, had his own intense thing going on, and it was totally raising hell with her body and forget about her brain helping her out. It had shorted out at the first sight of the deceptively relaxed pose he struck.
How did Talon manage to do normal everyday things like fry an egg for Parker’s breakfast, study for an exam, or go to work? If Tanner could have Luke Wilder under her and above her and wrap her legs around all of his masculine heat and power and feel him pumping hard into her, she wouldn’t be able to remember her name, much less be sentient enough to text a friend to let her know that God’s perfect example of a dream man had arrived on her doorstep.
Ugh. Had she just thought that? That Luke Wilder was the man of her dreams? Even as a dream man he was out of her fantasy league. Her dreams needed to chill and scale back on the ambition. Keep those lofty goals for her professional world.
God, she loved how his body looked so relaxed and yet radiated such coiled, ready-for-anything masculine energy. He looked primed for action.
Unfortunately not the type she wished she could have with him. Cowboys like Luke, who exhaled sexuality and testosterone, had so many hookup offers from buckle bunnies during their weekend rodeos that he hadn’t noticed a mere mortal like herself for a lot of reasons. Luke Wilder had a lot of buckles. And a lot of fans.
And now that Luke was a part-time rep for the IBR, the International Bull Riding circuit, he’d be traveling to different ranches throughout the state during the week. Staying in different towns with different motels and different bars and a whole lot of the same sexual opportunities the rodeos offered. Tanner was not standing in any man’s line. Nor would she be a forgettable roll in the hay.
But Luke Wilder did make it a challenge to remember her rules.
Her ranch was her life. Her bulls were her life. Luke Wilder was one rung on her ladder of getting her bulls into the IBR. Then there’d be another rung. And another. Triple T bulls competing at the highest level, at the finals in Las Vegas. Fifty-point scoring bulls. One hundred percent bulls. That was the dream. Not Luke Wilder.
He just looked like a dream man.
But not hers. A dream man would be a forever man. A man she could talk to about her day, about her bulls, about her concerns. A man she could joke with, who would work with her on the ranch, who’d massage her lower back and legs when they ached in winter. A man who would think she walked on water. Not a man gone all the time and fielding offers from buckle bunnies on a daily basis.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Just thinkin’,” she drawled to stall, since once again her imagination had jumped three fence posts ahead of her consciousness.
Then she smiled even wider thinking how shocked he’d be if she shared her thoughts. Would he blush?
It was then that she noticed the swelling along one perfect cheekbone. She frowned. Punching that perfection was an art crime.
“The other guy probably cut his knuckles on that pretty cheekbone of yours.”
“Unfortunately not, lucky bastard.”
Tanner laughed. “Win some, lose some.”
“Definitely lost that one,” he said ruefully, a small smile playing around his perfectly kissable, bitable mouth.
“There’s always next time.”
She loved his honesty and would not have thought a man so innately masculine would have it in him. The day seemed shinier and she laughed again. Life was unfair. Luke Wilder was beautiful, sexy, skilled with a bull, and a quick wit. Luke Wilder slayed the chances of mortal men.
“Luke Wilder,” she said.
“Guilty.” He closed the distance in a few strides, but it was enough for Tanner to notice how fluidly he moved.
One more nail in her coffin of determination to think of him in a purely professional frame of mind.
“Tanner McTavish.” She stuck out her hand, and he took it, handshake firm, total business.
So there was no reason for her tummy to flip and to hold on longer than was socially acceptable. She resisted the urge to tuck her hand into her pocket as if that would somehow make the warmth and sensation of his touch last a little bit longer.
“I’d hate to see the other guy,” she said.
He shrugged, self-deprecation in every line of his spectacular body. “Not my favorite introduction to a new town.”
Tanner looked at him more speculatively.
“You’ve never been to Marietta?”
Huh. That sounded pretty final. She’d figured he was related to Sam Wilder. Not that common of a name, and Luke hadn’t grown up here, but everyone in town knew Sam Wilder. He had one of the biggest spreads in the area. And he’d had a daughter who’d left town in a blazing scandal years before Tanner was born. Luke could be Sam’s grandson. But maybe not.
“Let me get you some ice for that. You’re competing this weekend?” She raised one eyebrow.
He nodded and she tried not to notice the strong, tanned line of his throat, and the outline of his Adam’s apple. The fact it was turning her on was all kinds of wrong. Her sister Tucker would be more his type than she was. Still, no woman should be this sexually deprived at twenty-seven. And since her sexual dry spell had long ago desiccated into a drought of dust and neglect, her hormones should have shriveled to compliant silence as well.
Damned hormones. They were only useful in bulls and horses. She stalked off towards the largest barn where she kept a refrigerator stocked with antibiotics and drinks.
He kept pace beside her silently. He moved so fluidly, all long, wiry, coordinated limbs. Her heart pinched a little, so she stomped on it to shut it up.
“You’re a few hours early.” She told him, feeling like she was losing her authority by being so gaga around him.
But, damn, this close up he was potent, and he wasn’t even trying. She’d bet he couldn’t even tell what color her eyes were. His were a beautiful, caramel brown. Almost golden like an eagle’s if she let her imagination party. Again, like Colt’s. Tanner frowned.
“That a problem?”
“Only if you aren’t willing to run over with me to the Whispering Winds Ranch. I need to pick up some of my stock as well as Sam Wilder’s to take to the rodeo grounds.”
“Why’s some of your stock over at Wilder’s?”
His question and tone were casual, but Tanner wasn’t fooled. Luke Wilder was smart. Her inclination was to deflect the question, but she wanted to do business with the IBR so she and Luke needed to play ball. Naked. Okay, she did not just think that.
“Bit of a favor,” she said. Short. Honest.
She couldn’t tell what he made of that. She was used to silent, shrewd men but, still, Luke Wilder was a challenge to read. He slowed his ground-eating stride.
Tanner bit back the urge to swear. Her limp, a constant reminder of a devastating fall during a barrel racing final when she’d been fifteen that had ended her dominance in the junior circuit of the sport. She’d moved on emotionally and had discovered a love of biology, genetics, and animal science. She was bringing her family ranch into an age of technology and financial success that it had never experienced with her father’s management. So why did her limp still have to be a thing? And why, after more than ten years, wasn’t she totally immune to the graceless, screaming “look at me and my flaw” of it? Her sensitivity irritated her, which made her careless.
“You and Sam Wilder related?”
His remote face shut down even tighter.
Way to go, Tanner. She definitely needed to leave the charm offensive to her sister, although the kind of charm Tucker would use would have nothing to do with negotiating supplying bulls to the IBR and instead supplying her sister with a certain silent, sexy cowboy in her bed until Tucker got bored and moved on, although Tanner couldn’t imagine Luke boring anyone. He seemed calm and thoughtful. Kind. Interesting with hidden depths that Tucker would never appreciate, besides his obvious assets.
And Tanner needed to start ignoring his obvious assets like ten minutes ago. Tanner deliberately hastened her steps and pulled open the massive sliding door leading to one of her barns with far more force than necessary.
“Sam Wilder can be a bit touchy,” she said. “So if you’ve got a beef with him, I suggest you come back around three so you can see my operation.”
“I got no beef.”
“Good. And you’re fired,” she told her Australian cattle dog, Ryder, that had continually followed at Luke’s heels, one blue eye and one brown eye gazing up at the cowboy adoringly.
She hadn’t even barked when he’d driven up.
“Traitor,” Tanner mumbled under her breath.
He hadn’t wanted to come to Marietta. He’d avoided the Copper Mountain Rodeo for years, apparently for good reason. He hadn’t been in town more than a couple of hours and he’d freaked-out one woman, been in a bar fight, tossed on his ass and banned from the best bar in town, pissed off his mother, learned he had an older brother. His mother had never once, not one, single, solitary time intimated that she’d had another child she’d given up for adoption. What the hell? She’d been eighteen when Luke had been born. Hadn’t she heard of birth control or saying no occasionally? And what kind of a jerk had his biological father been to impregnate a minor, dump her, and return a year later just to do the whole thing all over again? Damn. No way was he passing on his genes. He’d been handy with a condom since he was sixteen. With his mother and father’s pattern of behavior, he could have dozens of half brothers all over the world, although his mom had told him his dad had been in prison so maybe not.
Just Kane. And now another. A full brother this time. Whoopdidoo! Worst decision ever to come to Marietta. He needed one hundred percent focus on the rodeo. The slightest distraction could get him seriously injured. And he couldn’t make any errors on inking his first IBR deal on his own.
Get your head in the game.
Not easy when the image of his face on another man, glaring and bewildered, was branded on his memory and playing on an endless loop. His brother had left the bar without speaking, without looking back, blonde in tow, and his mother had lit into Luke, blaming him for attacking his brother. She’d been unwilling to listen to his more reasonable explanation of events, nor had she been willing to budge or quiet her voice until the bartender had picked her up and carried her out to the sidewalk. She’d cursed him out, remembering him from high school or something. God, small towns.
He was sure people had already heard about that scene all over town by now. Samara Wilder had finally returned to Marietta with her fist-fighting, rodeo cowboy son. And now another one. He hadn’t even caught the bastard’s name. All he knew about his brother was that he was built like a bull, was definitely a better fighter, and protective as hell over the blonde, whose hands had walked all over Luke, not the other way around.
“Here, stop acting like such a tough guy,” Tanner said, handing him an ice pack. “I’ve seen you ride broncos and bulls so you don’t have to be all brooding, testosterone-poisoned definition of masculinity. Use this.”
Judging from the way her mouth had gone all narrow, her unusual, pale green eyes sparked and had gone squinty, and her arms crossed across her chest like he was going to reach out and try to pluck one of her nipples for a snack, he’d done something to piss her off. What the hell? He’d never claimed to have his brother Kane’s charm with women, but he was clueless as to what he could have done to Tanner when all he wanted to do was study her stock and breeding program. But no, she wanted to bring him to the one ranch he’d wanted to avoid despite his mother’s machinations. And then they could talk business.
End of Excerpt