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“Marietta Montana was founded in…”
Boone gripped the steering wheel of his Chevy Colorado truck. He knew when the town was founded. He knew the names of the original founding families and had attended school with their descendants. Hell, he even knew where the skeletons in many of those families were buried or stuffed in the closet. He was Marietta to his marrow.
And that was the problem.
He was being a jerk. Tuning Piper out. Something he’d never done. She read the Copper Mountain Rodeo website. He hadn’t told her Marietta was his hometown. That he’d attended the Copper Mountain Rodeo since he was in diapers. That he’d won his first event—mutton busting—at age four there.
He hadn’t once mentioned that they were heading down the mountain to his hometown.
But not to his home.
Not to his family.
Dick move and he knew it.
But he and Piper were never meant to go this far. Tour with him through the summer. Or less. That had always been the plan when he’d met her. Dillon two weeks ago had been the end of this road for them. Staring down the barrel of September. He thought at the end of August he’d put her on a plane to wherever she wanted to go. Only he hadn’t. Hadn’t said a word about goodbye. Instead he’d driven the horse trailer with the small living quarters from Dillon to compete in White Sulphur Springs.
He’d won a first in steer wrestling and bareback and third on the bull. And instead of celebrating at the bar and dancing, he’d taken Piper out to dinner and bought an obscenely expensive bottle of wine. Wine! A Bordeaux—whatever that was. And then he’d taken her to a spa so they could sit in the hot springs.
And he’d had a damn good time.
Not a cowboy in sight.
He hadn’t mentioned the airport.
Or how he should be ending it that night.
Or definitely this morning.
Or that the next stop on the Montana pro rodeo circuit was his hometown. And that his father was one of the rodeo planners. And his family would all be there expecting him to come home—stay at the ranch. Sit with them during all the social events like the picnic, steak dinner, pancake breakfast. Work the ranch the week after before heading to Great Falls.
And all that was now shot to hell. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
His family didn’t know about Piper. She didn’t know about them.
And he had no idea how he could keep it that way.
He glanced over. She was wearing a cute racer-back sporty sundress and one of his shirts tied around her slim waist for warmth. Her hair was in a messy knot on top of her head that he could barely resist pulling out. She sat cross-legged and was scrolling through the website like she did for every rodeo—fully immersed in the experience.
In two miles, she’d lose cell service.
He should tell her now about Marietta. His family.
But his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. His throat dried. He felt like someone he didn’t know.
And he definitely didn’t like.
Boone scowled at the twisting steep grade ahead.
He’d met Piper in May. In California at the beach. A cliché and he damn well knew it.
Cowboy sees the ocean for the first time and a girl with long, red-blonde hair and longer legs, wearing one of those lacy bikinis. Cowboy loses his mind. Boone mocked himself. He was not admitting to losing his heart but he sure as hell felt hollow when he thought of cutting her loose.
Piper had tossed him on his dumb ass harder than any prime, pissed-off thrashing bull or bronc.
Head over heels as the country singers crooned.
Piper was way out of his league. Boone had known it then, and he knew it now. Didn’t make a lick of difference. He rode bareback broncs and bulls and wrestled steers to the ground for fun, prize money and to prove a point. He’d never backed down from a challenge. And Piper had seemed like the biggest one of his life. So he’d tried his chances.
“Travel with me for a bit on the rodeo tour this summer,” he’d impulsively asked after they’d spent an afternoon and evening together. “You can see Montana.”
Piper had two college degrees and had lived all over the world. She’d danced professionally. He’d expected her to laugh at him. Instead he’d watched her get her certificate in massage therapy in a small Saturday afternoon ceremony in a teacher’s home garden, and then she’d packed up a small leather backpack and a duffel bag of her clothes and climbed in his truck.
And here they were. September.
And neither he nor Piper had said anything about ending it.
But he had to. There was no place for them to go.
He’d just turned twenty-five.
At his age his dad had been a rodeo god. Two-time bull-riding champ and four-time bareback. He’d had a case of buckles, a shelf full of trophies and enough prize money to rescue his family’s ranch from bankruptcy. Hell, at twenty-five his father had met one of Montana’s most beautiful and accomplished rodeo queens and married her three months later. Within a year they had their first baby.
“I saw her ride, and when she got off the horse and smiled at me, I was done. End of the line. Thought she wouldn’t give me a chance but I was gonna do my best to ride to the end of the bell.” Boone had heard his dad tell that story enough and the parallels were not lost on him although Piper had been on a paddleboard, something he hadn’t even known existed until he saw her on one.
But that was the end of the similarities with his dad. Boone had buckles. He had wins. But nothing like his dad. He had money saved, but wasn’t sure it was enough for the down payment to buy the small spread that was coming up for auction later this year. He’d coveted that small piece of land partially bordering his family’s ranch since his teens.
Yeah, Boone could make his life on his family’s ranch. It was what his mom and dad wanted. But Boone wanted to be his own man. Make his own way.
And getting turned inside out by a woman and spending time with her, instead of honing his skills, wasn’t going to help him make his mark.
He slowed the truck’s speed further as he headed down the mountain pass into Paradise Valley. For once he wasn’t eager to see Marietta nestled in the shadow of Copper Mountain, wasn’t anticipating one of his mom’s home-cooked meals or riding the land with his dad and checking out the new stud bull he’d purchased—the one that had almost killed his dad last February.
“The town has a saloon. A real saloon.” Piper’s melodic tone rose in awe and her gray-green eyes glowed. “Can you imagine? It’s called Grey’s Saloon. It’s still open and it’s run by the descendants of Ephraim Grey.”
Damn, the girl loved history. And she loved reading. She often read while he drove the truck—fiction, politics, biographies, articles. The world came alive in Piper’s dulcet tones, and her voice had a husk to it that always turned him on, but also made him feel protective.
“Grey’s Saloon was the first building in Marietta, and there was a balcony where the ladies of the brothel used to stand and catcall down to potential customers. I wonder if it’s still there.”
Dammit. Guilt made him want to crawl out of his skin.
“I hope we have time to go there, Boone.”
“We’ll make time,” he said, loving the way the mid-morning light played on her hair—turned that thick red-gold mass into liquid fire.
“Grey’s has dancing. And with the rodeo in town, you know a lot of cowboys will be hitting the dance floor.”
“I’ve been known to two-step a time or two.”
Her smile held the promise of a sunrise. Her finger trailed along his thigh, and her hand rested there. A brand. Hers. He couldn’t lie to himself about that. His response was fierce. Painful. Not just his cock—he could deal with that—but everything inside him hurt as well. Felt broke, but when she touched him, he felt whole again.
He’d never been known to analyze anything except an engine or an animal. Why was he getting so…he didn’t even know what the word was, and he didn’t want to find out.
“Piper.” He couldn’t wrestle the urgency out of his voice.
She turned fully toward him. And he had trouble swallowing. Heck, he could hardly remember his own damn name. Her creamy skin always begged for his hands, or his mouth, and he had a hard time resisting her now even as they barreled down the mountain. She leaned toward him, his shirt slipping off her shoulders, leaving them bare and kissable. Available. She was like that. Warm. Sensual, curling up into him like a cat. She was so tactile. Loving. And he’d come to crave the contact. She brought him a peace he’d never known could exist.
And feeling calm and content at twenty-five when he hadn’t made his mark would spell disaster.
“You’re tense, Boone.” Her keen eyes assessed him, and he struggled to not squirm because Piper read him as well as she did all the books she downloaded on her Kindle. “Are you in pain? We have time. I could work on your shoulder and arm tendons and ligaments—loosen them up.” Her words were innocent. Her tone was tender with a hint of professionalism that should not have turned him on. He wasn’t an invalid. He was often in pain and ignored it, but Piper made him long to be soothed.
Piper’s full lips pouted a little as she visually assessed him. Boone shifted. Damn, if she didn’t stop looking at him like that, he was going to have to pull over to adjust himself. Or let her do it for him. That would solve the problem that had started eating away at him since Dillon if he drove off the road killing them both.
“You were reading to me about Marietta,” he said a little desperately.
Piper leaned closer. He felt the brush of her lips along his exposed collarbone and then her tongue swirled at the base of his Adam’s apple. Her hair was like silk against his neck and caught a little in the stubble along his jaw, even though he’d shaved this morning. Her small breasts, sweetly contained in a stretchy peach bandeau bra that he’d already pulled off with his teeth this morning when she’d been trying to get dressed, brushed his arm.
He needed to pull over. He’d driven Highway 89 hundreds of times, but his mind came up blank about turnouts.
“The name Copper Mountain Rodeo comes from Marietta’s brief copper mining boom in the late eighteen eighties.”
Her voice was magic—drawing him in and jacking him up even as dread curled in the pit of his stomach. His phone tucked uncomfortably in his back pocket so Piper wouldn’t see it as it continued to blow up for the last fifty miles—voice messages and texts from his friends and family. Hell, even his half-brother, Witt, the orthopedic surgeon, had texted—joking that he hoped he saw him vertical, not horizontal in his OR. Not funny. But Witt wasn’t funny.
Boone had made the mistake of listening to a few voice messages when they’d stopped at a café and Piper had stood in line for a chai. He had over a dozen messages from family and friends—invitations for beer, dinner, game of pool, and his family was expecting him at the ranch. His room was ready. It was always ready.
He’d nearly lost the tofu and veggie breakfast burrito—wrapped in a damn almond flour tortilla—Piper had cooked for him earlier that morning because she was worried about his cholesterol. He rolled his eyes at himself for being so caught up in her that he’d actually eaten it. Not to mention enjoyed it. But WTF! He was just twenty-five. In his prime. He was a cowboy. Ranch all the way. He couldn’t eat vegan. He’d get mocked off the circuit. Kicked out of town. His dad raised cattle for fuck’s sake.
This was goddamn Montana.
And if he brought Piper home…his family would have a barn wedding planned and start construction converting one of the riverside cabins by the end of the weekend. He’d be off the circuit and working the ranch like he’d done his entire life.
He’d forever be Boone Telford, Taryn Telford’s youngest son. That clever surgeon Witt’s cowboy youngest brother. The war hero special ops soldier Rohan’s little brother. The rising country and pop singer Riley’s big brother.
He’d be tied to them. No accomplishments of his own.
He had to cut bait. It wasn’t fair to Piper. She screamed perfect and permanent down to the marrow of his bones.
But he couldn’t be the man to give her the permanent home and family she craved.
But Piper was now.
Way too fucking soon.
And he had to man up or else he’d make them both miserable.
End of Excerpt