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Sunday, mid-September in Bozeman…
Reuben Price’s weekend had been a blur of big hats, big bulls and even bigger egos. He hated it when the rodeo came to town. Even though the Copper Mountain Rodeo was twenty-four miles away in Marietta, Bozeman still got a bunch of cashed-up cowboy wannabes and their groupies mixing beer and bullshit together in a haze of testosterone and dick-measuring that never ended well.
He wasn’t sure how many bar fights he and his partner had broken up but he did know he was getting too old for this shit—and he was only thirty. Maybe he should see if a sheriff’s department somewhere down in the Keys had an opening. Somewhere with palm trees. Where drinks came with tiny umbrellas. And women came with tiny bikinis.
No snow, no blizzards, no mountains.
No damn rodeos!
He sighed. The truth was, Reuben liked rodeos and mountains. He loved the big sky country of Montana. And he hated sand. That shit got everywhere. He was just…well, it had been one of those weekends and the big-ass cherry on top had been Clementine, his long-term girlfriend, dumping him over brunch on Friday just before he’d started his weekend from hell.
He really hated brunch.
Okay, yes, sure…they weren’t exactly a hot couple. He doubted they’d ever been. But after a lifetime of growing up in small-town Marietta together they’d fallen into a friends-with-benefits relationship three years ago that had just kinda…continued. It had been monogamous and mutually satisfying.
Reuben liked easy. Too much stuff in life was hard—which was fine; he didn’t mind working hard—but it was nice when it wasn’t. It certainly made him appreciate the things that were easy a whole helluva lot more.
But he and Clem were over and now he was going to have to face the wrath of his mother. And Clem’s. Despite neither him nor Clem giving their moms any hint or encouragement, the two Marietta stalwarts had been picking out china patterns for a while and discussing names for grandchildren.
“We’re not getting any younger, Reuben,” his mother had said the day before that fateful brunch, which felt like a year ago now.
Yeah…they were going to be pissed.
Several people greeted Reuben as he strode into his favorite bar in Bozeman. A couple were locals who preferred a quiet place to drink but also some folks he recognized from Marietta. Probably trying to escape the testosterone fog that tended to hang around for a few days after the rodeo left town. He nodded to them politely but in a way that told even the most oblivious person he wasn’t up for a chat.
He just hadn’t wanted to sit at home staring at the four walls, either.
What Reuben needed—craved—tonight was the distraction of people but not the company. Which was why this was his favorite bar. It was in the lobby of a local hotel that was off the beaten track and frequented mainly by businesspeople passing through town on their way to somewhere else.
Essentially it was nothing like the louder more crowded bars on the main street. They had their place for sure but he’d spent all weekend in loud, crowded bars trying to stop drunk idiots from hurting themselves and each other and that didn’t appeal tonight.
“The usual?” the bartender asked as Reuben approached and sat on a stool, his elbows sliding onto the polished top.
Reuben drummed his fingers as Mike, who had been two years ahead of him at school, poured the cold ale and set it down in front of Reuben before departing. For a bartender, Mike never said much.
People really should be more like Mike.
The cold beer tasted like liquid gold and he actually sighed as he swallowed, closing his eyes as he savored the moment for long seconds. There were few things better than that first sip of cold beer at the end of the day.
This was the life. No bar brawls. No idiot amateurs trying to prove they can last eight seconds on the mechanical bull with a skinful of booze on board. No Dear John chats. Just him and his beer. The simple life.
“I’ll have what he’s having.”
Reuben’s eyelids sprang open at the low, husky voice. A woman had sat down on the stool next door. She was smiling a big smile with red lips that glistened under the overhead lights. The tips of her straight blond hair sat forward over the thrust of her breasts encased enticingly in a satiny blouse, the two buttons at her cleavage appearing to be under a little extra strain. The dark skirt she was wearing also pulled taut across a nicely rounded ass and generous thighs that filled it out just right.
Reuben had always thought he’d been a women-in-blue-jeans-and-boots kinda guy. Apparently women-in-tight-skirts also did it for him.
Her face was quite square with a broad forehead and big, buggy eyes of a nondescript brown. There was a slight ski slope lift to the end of her snubby little nose. None of her features individually added up to a hill of beans but together they made one hell of an interesting face.
The type of face that made him want to keep looking.
One thing was for sure—she didn’t look easy. She looked complicated as all fuck.
He smiled. “Beer?”
“Is that all?” She grinned now and her teeth were nice and white but there was a slightly crooked one in the front that was fascinating. “You made it sound like it was the elixir of life.”
“It could be argued that beer is the elixir of life.”
She nodded slowly regarding him with those steady brown eyes and, in his peripheral vision, Reuben could see the enticing brush of her hair across her breasts.
“I would have to respectfully disagree with you there.”
The light tease in her voice made its way to Reuben’s groin. If only some more dudes this weekend had respectfully disagreed instead of being loud and obnoxious. “Okay, let me guess.” He regarded her as thoughtfully as she’d regarded him although maybe part of his brain—the one in his pants—was trying to decide whether the tips of her hair covered her nipples or sat just above.
Which would probably get whatever beverage she preferred dumped over his head.
She cocked an eyebrow as she tsked but she was obviously not too insulted by his gender-based assumptions of her drinking habits. “You don’t think I can shoot whiskey?”
Reuben wasn’t sure why that sounded so dirty. It just did. “Can you shoot whiskey?”
“I have been known.”
The second beer was placed on the mat and Reuben absently said, “Thanks, Mike.”
Picking it up she also said, “Thanks, Mike,” and smiled at the bartender as she tilted it toward him in salute. Then she took two long swallows, those red lips pressed to the rim of the glass before placing it back down on the mat, her tongue swiping froth off her top lip as she turned slightly toward Reuben.
Hot. As. Fuck.
Her brown eyes were full of mischief—like she knew exactly what that sexy little lip lick had done to him. “So, if it’s not beer or wine or whiskey,” he asked, “what is the elixir of life?”
“Chocolate, of course.”
Reuben laughed. Why did that answer not surprise him? Like chocolate, there was something lush and decadent about this woman. Like she appreciated indulgence in all its many-splendored ways. The satin blouse, the tight skirt. The full jut of her breasts, the generous curve of her hip.
That red, red mouth.
“I hate to come across as a dreadful bore…” Reuben said because he liked talking to this woman and there hadn’t been a lot to like about this weekend, but a point of order was required. “Would it not have to be liquid to be an elixir?”
“Ah.” She gave him a beatific smile. “That’s the beauty of chocolate. It can be solid or liquid.”
Reuben’s brain shorted out as he thought of all the advantages of liquid chocolate and where it could be applied as the woman beside him calmly drank more beer.
Reuben dragged his attention from her lush red mouth to the person standing on the other side of him. “Hey,” he said to the guy who’d come to the bar to fix up the bill. He couldn’t recall the guy’s name but Reuben’s father knew him and they made polite conversation mostly about the rodeo until the bill was sorted and the other guy departed.
When Reuben turned back to his companion she stuck out her hand and said, “Hi, Reuben. I’m Vivian.”
He slid his hand into hers. It was warm and soft. “Hi. It’s really nice to meet you.”
She smiled making no attempt to retrieve her hand, her brown eyes trained firmly on his face. “I’d have to say the feeling is entirely mutual.”
Reuben met a lot of women through his job, many of whom openly flirted. It was the uniform thing—he got that. But he’d never been tempted to follow through. Mostly it was just plain inappropriate but even when it hadn’t been, he had a girlfriend and Reuben didn’t cheat.
But he did not have a girlfriend now. Clem had been very specific about that. Where was the harm in a little flirting with a woman who was clearly keen to go there, too?
“So,” she said, her hand eventually sliding from his, “what’s a hottie like you doing drinking in a hotel bar all alone on a Sunday night?”
Reuben barked out a laugh. “I could ask the same of you.”
She shrugged. “I travel a lot. This is a pretty standard Sunday night for me. The hotel thing,” she clarified, “not the flirting thing.”
He appreciated the clarification but didn’t need it. What Vivian got up to, and when and where and with whom, was entirely her own business. He was just exceedingly fucking glad she’d picked him to flirt with on this night.
“So…why all alone?” she asked. “Tough day? You look like you’ve had a tough day.”
“I do?” Reuben finger-combed his hair, absently rubbing his short locks.
Her gaze drifted over his hair. “Yeah.”
Dropping his hand, Reuben said, “Just a busy weekend at work.” He didn’t want to elaborate on his job. Some women got kinda freaky about it. “And…my girlfriend dumped me a couple of days ago as well.”
Reuben blinked. Being a cop was off the table but splitting with Clementine was up for discussion? What the fuck, dude?
Maybe there was something in that whole, easier to talk to strangers thing.
Vivian, who’d lifted the glass to take another drink paused with her lips a whisker from the rim. “Is she blind?” she asked, smiling a little as she touched her mouth to the rim and drank.
He laughed. “You’re good for my ego.”
Someone patted him on the back as they walked by and said, “Howdy, Reuben,” mid stride to the booths on the opposite wall.
“Hey, Wallace,” Reuben returned recognizing the guy from the Bozeman auto shop before turning back to Vivian who was still sipping on her beer.
“Was it unexpected?” She placed the glass down. “The split?”
“Yeah. Well…no. I mean…” It hadn’t been expected but Reuben hadn’t been surprised either, which spoke volumes. He certainly wasn’t angry or upset. Just a little…miffed. But he couldn’t work out if that was because he was going to miss Clem whom he loved and respected and gave him something to do on his nights off or the inevitable motherly flak he was about to face. “We weren’t really heavily serious I guess.”
“And she wanted more?”
No, it hadn’t been that. “She said we both deserved more.” Reuben sat a little straighter as something suddenly occurred to him. “Do you think…she found someone else?”
She shrugged. “You know her. You tell me.”
Reuben thought for about two seconds then dismissed the thought. “Nah. She wouldn’t do that. And if there’d been somebody else, she’d have just come out and said it.” He took a couple of swallows of his beer. “Sorry.” He put his almost-empty glass down. “I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. You probably don’t get random guys in bars unloading their latest breakup woes on you.”
“True.” She grinned. “Mostly they try and hit on me.”
Reuben grimaced. “Sorry.”
“About men hitting on me, or about you not hitting on me?”
“Um.” Reuben felt a little like Arnie Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator movie scrolling through choices inside his cyborg brain for the most appropriate response. He’d been out of the game too long, obviously. “Both?”
She laughed then and the husky vibrato was as lush and decadent as the woman. “Your pickup skills could really do with some work.”
Reuben’s breath stuttered to a halt. “Is…that what I’m doing here?” Is that what she wanted him to do?
A small smile played on those red lips. How was it possible that she’d consumed three-quarters of her beer and the red sheen on her mouth seemed untouched? He wondered just what amount of wear that lipstick could take.
“I sincerely hope so.”
Reuben watched as she drained the remainder of her drink, his gaze zeroing in on the long milky stretch of her throat as it undulated. He wasn’t going to lie, it turned him on a little. Until a woman from his mom’s quilting group approached from his left. That was like two bricks to his nuts.
“Hey, Reuben. If you see your mom before I do, could you tell her I picked up that fabric already?”
Taking a deep breath, he dragged his eyes off Vivian’s throat. “Hey, Mrs. Phillips. Sure, I’ll pass that on.”
“Thank you,” the older woman said giving Vivian a curious up-and-down look before departing again.
“Do you know everybody in here?” Viv asked with obvious amusement.
Reuben glanced around. “About half. Either directly or indirectly.”
She laughed. “A true local, huh?”
Bozeman wasn’t a small town; it had a population just shy of fifty thousand, but Reuben had been born and bred in Marietta and he’d been with the Bozeman Sheriff’s Department for the last five years. People knew him.
“You—” he tipped his chin at her empty glass “—want another?”
She nodded slowly, her gaze not leaving his. “I have beer in my room.”
The invitation in her eyes was clear but the cop inside made Reuben hesitate. He didn’t want to be the hey, little lady guy but it seemed inherently unsafe for her to be picking up complete strangers in bars and taking them back to hotel rooms.
Christ, he could be anybody. For that matter—so could she.
“Aren’t you worried I might be some kind of…serial killer on the prowl?”
She laughed. “I don’t think too many serial killers talk to their mother’s friends about fabric at a bar on a Sunday night. And besides I hit on you, remember?”
The thought was utterly arresting and he grinned. “You did, huh?”
“If it wasn’t obvious then my pickup skills need some work, too.”
Reuben’s gaze roved over her face and, now it was clear where this night was heading, he let it wander a little lower, to the way her blouse cupped her breasts. “There’s nothing about you that needs work.”
She smiled. “Good answer.”
“I was just trying to say you can never be too careful about these things.”
“Reuben, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed or not, but I’m a woman.”
“Oh yeah.” He grinned. “I noticed.”
She returned the grin. “So if you think I haven’t been raised from birth to be constantly vigilant about my safety, constantly on alert for danger then you don’t understand what it is to be a woman at all.”
As a cop Reuben was relieved that Vivian was smart about her safety. As a man it sickened him that women had to always be on guard.
“I’m thirty years old and I’ve developed quite a good sixth sense for members of the opposite sex and you don’t tweak my radar at all. At least not in a bad way.” She grinned at him with what was almost a leer before her smile turned indulgent. “But…” She glanced at the bartender. “Mike?”
Mike, who’d been slicing lemons looked over his shoulder then ambled toward them. “What can I get you?”
She ignored his question. “Do you know this guy?” She tipped her head at Reuben.
Mike eyed Reuben up and down clearly bemused by the question. “Yes, ma’am. Known him most of my life.”
“So, would you say it’s okay for me to take him back to my hotel room and do dirty, unspeakable things to his body without fear of him chopping me into little pieces and poking them down the drain hole in the bathtub?”
Reuben wasn’t sure if Mike was more shocked by the detail of the question or the fact she’d been so frank. But he got over his shock quickly with a bark of laughter. “I think you’ve got to worry more about his—” Mike wiggled his little finger at her with a grin. “And his rumored lack of err…” He dropped his voice. “Staying power than any homicidal tendencies.”
“Thanks, dude,” Reuben said as he left and Vivian laughed. Clearly Mike needed to be more like Mike right now.
“You need any more convincing?” she asked, but before he could answer she leaned in and pressed her lips against his in a brief, yet somehow cataclysmic, kiss. Pulling away, she offered him her hand. “Shall we?”
And it was that easy. Just the way Reuben liked it.
Draining the rest of his beer, he threw some bills on the bar for Mike who grinned and saluted and then he slipped his hands into hers and stood.
End of Excerpt