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Tommy Wyatt tugged his cowboy hat a little lower keeping the light drizzle off his face. Rain was good for Central California as Monterey County grew important crops—strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and more—but he wasn’t sure if this was fog or rain. Either way, tonight’s rodeo was held at an indoor arena, which would keep fans and competitors dry.
Tommy was returning to his rig from the arena when everything suddenly felt different. The energy around him was different. He wasn’t superstitious—he had too much faith for that—but he did have a sixth sense his family called uncanny.
His brother Billy used to tease him he was like Spider Man, with the spidey tingle. Well, whatever it was, the sixth sense was tingling now, telling him something was up, and so when he turned the corner and spotted Dr. Blake Eden on her phone two hours from her home, he wasn’t shocked.
But surprised enough, as he hadn’t seen his wife in three years.
He was also intrigued. The fact Blake was here in Salinas meant she wasn’t hiding from him anymore. She wasn’t avoiding him. She’d come to deal with what they’d done. Good girl. He’d been ready for a long time.
Tommy walked toward Blake, footsteps muffled by the dirt. He was glad he wasn’t competing until much later. No one wanted to climb on a pissed off bull right after a huge shock.
Fortunately, she hadn’t seen him yet, too absorbed in her call, giving him time to study her, appreciate her.
His wife was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and that was saying something as every week he was at a rodeo or fairground where they were crowning a young, stunning beauty queen. Beautiful women trailed after him, slipping him their number, finding him at his hotel, or having a drink with his brother at a bar. But he wasn’t interested in any of them. He only had eyes for Blake, and now, at long last, she was here.
His wife, the doctor.
From their first conversation, he’d been blown away by her mind and that face.
Clear light, green-gold eyes. High, prominent cheekbones balanced by full, lush lips.
Gold brown curls. Skin lightly bronzed, as if dusted with gold.
Her beauty had knocked him sideways, and then she’d thanked him for his help, and he was done. Her voice, low, husky, her diction… smart, educated, precise. Most cowboys would recognize they were outsmarted, outclassed, but he wasn’t your average cowboy, either.
No, he hadn’t gone to college, but he wasn’t slow. His high school guidance counselor had called him in one day at the end of his junior year to say Tommy had scored perfectly on the SAT test, and what colleges was he applying to?
Tommy liked Mrs. Smith, she was a nice lady, always trying to help her students dream bigger, work harder, and so Tommy was polite as he told her he wasn’t going to college. He was continuing as he had been, competing on the rodeo circuit. He was a cowboy. He liked being a cowboy. College wasn’t for him.
She’d been so disappointed. Tommy was the brightest student Marietta had seen in years. How could he not avail himself of the scholarships and opportunities out there?
Sweet Mrs. Smith. He owed her a visit the next time he was home in Montana.
But now he had a visitor. A visitor he was very much looking forward to talking to.
So what if they’d only ever had three days together? So what if those days had been an intense, roller coaster?
For him, it had pretty much been love at first sight. He still loved her. He wouldn’t have married her, and waited for her, if this wasn’t the real thing. No one knew, either. His family didn’t know. Her family didn’t know. They’d had a secret marriage for years, and during this time, Tommy Wyatt, rodeo champion, had been biding his time, waiting for her to make the next move. And now, finally, she had.
The baby hair on Blake’s nape lifted.
She felt a shiver raced through her. She shifted the phone, looked around. He was here, wasn’t he?
She glanced around again, and yes, there he was, standing in front of a beer truck, watching her. A veil of mist separated them, part fog, part drizzle, and she could feel the moisture in her curls, feel the wetness on her face. Suddenly her heart ached. She hadn’t expected that.
“I have to go,” she whispered to Kendrick, mouth drying, legs going weak. “He’s here.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Kendrick asked.
Kendrick was so good to her. “Yes,” she said lowly, her chest growing tight. “I’ll call soon.” She ended the call and slipped the phone into her coat pocket and stared at the man who had turned her world inside out one December, making her want things she couldn’t want.
Making her feel things she’d never felt before.
Making her take risks that she would have never taken otherwise.
The three years and three months since Las Vegas disappeared, fading into nothing, and she saw him just as she’d seen him that first night when he’d stepped between her and danger, protecting her from the bad guys. Protecting her from harm.
He’d saved her and smiled as if it had been nothing.
He’d kissed her gently on the cheek, despite the blood on his own.
“Hello, Tommy.” She forced a smile, cold and hot shivers racing through her, her heart pounding so fast, too fast.
“You look beautiful.”
A lump filled her throat. Just like the night she’d met him in the casino, he was wearing his black cowboy hat, and a thumb was hooked next to his big silver belt buckle. His jeans hugged his legs. He was even leaner than the last time she saw him, wide shoulders, deep chest, narrow hips, long strong legs. Thighs and glutes with impressive power.
Making love to him was earth shattering. Tommy loved her as if there was no tomorrow. He’d held her as if he would always be there to keep her safe. Whole.
No one would ever make her feel that way.
And just seeing him again made her miss what could have been. How she’d loved him those few days. How she’d wanted what she’d seen in his eyes.
His beautiful blue eyes met hers now and held.
“It’s been a long time,” he said.
She nodded, unable to speak. When she’d left him in Las Vegas three years ago, she’d promised him they’d soon be together. She’d promised him that she just needed a few days to break the news to her family, and then he’d join her, and she’d introduce him to them, and then they’d go to his family in Montana, and they’d do the same thing.
So Blake went home for her Christmas and he went home to his and they spoke almost every day. Every day he asked her, Have you told your family yet? And every day she had a reason why she hadn’t. Her grandmother wasn’t well, and her mom was taking care of her. Her dad was stressed with changes at work. Her dad’s brother had just had a heart attack and was at the hospital. There were problems and worries and she didn’t want to be a problem or a worry for her family. He said he understood. He told her, wait, we can wait.
Take care of yourself, he said.
Take care of your family.
So, she did, until the day came where her own blood test results revealed her greatest fear. Things were bad again.
She knew two things the day the doctor called to say she had to come in immediately, that it would be a hard fight. And that Tommy couldn’t ever know.
Tommy Wyatt was handsome and wonderful—heroic in every sense of the word—but Blake’s world was complicated and she didn’t need a hero. She had to be her own hero. There was no room for marriage, or a man.
It was on January seventeenth she sent him a text, saying they made a mistake. They needed to acknowledge that they’d been impulsive, and foolish, and they needed to dissolve the marriage. Would he do it, since he lived in a state where divorce was fast and relatively easy if there was no contention, and there shouldn’t be?
Tommy had answered her text with a text. “I don’t make a commitment and run from it.”
Frustrated she answered him. “We don’t even know each other!”
“It didn’t seem to matter when we were together in December,” he replied.
“I want out,” she texted back. She knew it sounded cold, but she was scared and panicked. She’d forgotten herself. She’d lost sight of her studies and her goals. Marriage wasn’t part of her plan. It had to end, now. Maybe Tommy’s parents wouldn’t care that he’d done this, but her parents would be devastated. They’d feel betrayed. She married on a whim? She’d thrown caution to the wind? After all they’d done for her? After all they’d scrimped and sacrificed, leveraging everything—their home, their security—to send her to medical school.
She couldn’t fail them. She couldn’t disappoint them, not after everything they’d been through together these past ten years.
“We can’t do this by text,” he answered hours later, hours where she’d been in agony because Tommy was a good person, Tommy was wonderful, and if circumstances had been different, he would be the one. He’d be everything.
She answered, blinking back tears. “You want a phone call?”
His text was immediate. “No, we need to see each other. This has to be done face-to-face.”
Only she couldn’t do that. If she’d seen him at that point, she wouldn’t have been strong enough to leave him, and so she’d just let it go.
She pretended he didn’t exist. She pretended they’d never promised each other forever.
“How long are you in town for?” he asked her.
“Just today. Will head back to the city tomorrow,” she answered, referencing San Francisco where she was finishing her residency at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. She’d soon be done and was already interviewing for jobs. She hoped to stay in the Bay Area to be close to her parents, as well as the outstanding medical facilities there. The ideal job would be somewhere like San Mateo or East Palo Alto, but Blake was realistic and knew she’d probably have to commute.
“I take it you didn’t come for the rodeo,” he said, looking at her in a way no one but him ever looked at her. Protective. Hungry. Proud. Fierce.
Her insides did another quiver and she remembered how he’d held her. As if she were priceless. Irreplaceable.
She’d loved it, and him. Had desperately loved him.
The lump in her throat grew. It hurt to swallow. “You told me we had to do this in person. Face-to-face. So here I am.”
“Smart of you to wait until I was in your neck of the woods, although I have been at the Cow Palace a couple of times since Vegas.”
“It’s been hectic with work. They’d said the days would be long. They weren’t kidding.”
“Do you really sleep at the hospital some nights?”
“When you’re lucky enough to have an hour to rest, yes.”
“How long until you’re able to practice on your own?”
“I have to pass my boards, and earn my license, but I’m in a good place for both. I’ve been studying a lot, getting ready for the exam. Hoping by May or June I’ll be done.”
“General practice is a much shorter residency than being a surgeon.”
“You should be proud of yourself. I’m very proud of you. But I never doubted you. You’re going to be an exceptional doctor.”
“No hoping. I have complete confidence in you. You are the smartest person I know. You are destined to do great things.”
Her eyes burned. Heat washed through her, heat and that prickly awareness that made her feel raw, exposed. The fact that this big, tough guy—capable of fighting four guys at once—was always so good to her, so gentle with her, made her chest seize, her heart ache.
He deserved so much better. She knew it. He had to know it, too. She’d treated him poorly, pushing him away, thinking he’d finally let her go, walk away. He did the opposite. He dug in his heels and hung on. Like the rodeo star he was.
“We were impulsive, Tommy,” she said huskily, burning with all the emotions she’d kept suppressed. “Who does what we did? Crazy people!”
“Or people crazy in love.”
They had been. She had been. But she couldn’t let him know it. “It was impractical. And we both regretted it—”
Blake couldn’t look at him. She didn’t want to be swayed by his beautiful blue eyes, or his gorgeous face. She didn’t want to let the pull of attraction weaken her resolve. “I did,” she said, hoping God would forgive her for the lie. But if Tommy knew the truth, and had all the facts, he wouldn’t divorce her, and she couldn’t keep him tied to her any longer.
Tommy stayed silent.
She hated that he was going to make this hard, make her be the difficult one. She wasn’t difficult. She wasn’t demanding. She just wanted to fix a mistake that shouldn’t have been made. “Tommy, I had so much fun being with you. It was all new and it was all exciting. You were a hero, rescuing me at the casino. You were fun, and smart, and I’d never met anyone like you. I still haven’t. I loved spending those days with you, loved going to the arena and watching you take the All-Around title.”
She looked at him, heart racing, feeling almost dizzy. “Those three days were like a fairy tale. They were an amazing fantasy. I was the princess, and you were the prince. But then I got home and I realize there are no fairy tales. There are no storybook endings.” She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I am not a princess, and you are not a prince. We’re just two people that got caught up in something and you couldn’t—wouldn’t—let me go.”
“I don’t want to let you go.”
“You’re my girl.”
This would kill her. But she had to resist him and his love and his endless charm. “We’ve spent no time together. We barely know each other.”
“You’re right. But at the same time, we promised to make it work, and we can’t just give up because it’s the easiest thing to do. I don’t believe in divorce. Not for me. Not for us.”
“I never thought I’d get divorced, but then, I never planned on getting married. I wish we’d been drinking and I could blame the wedding on alcohol, but I can’t. So, I just have to assume I wasn’t in my right mind. That we weren’t—”
“I knew what I was doing. I wanted you. And I knew you were meant for me, even if we’d only just met.”
“That’s lust… infatuation.”
“It can’t be love! Real love doesn’t happen in a flash. Real love is mature love. Real love takes time to grow.”
“I come from a long line of romantics then. My grandparents met at church and were married by the end of the month. My mom and dad fell in love over a weekend, while he was in Sacramento, competing in a rodeo. They were married a few months later and were together until he died. One of my brothers fell in love with someone practically at first glance. Love can happen quickly. But what makes a relationship work is the time you invest. That’s what we have never done.”
“Because I don’t have time for a relationship. That’s another issue, and a very real issue. How would we make this work? Who would give up their career? We live in different places, and we want different things. Tommy, come on. Don’t make this more difficult than it already is. Just sign the papers!”
“Then we’re giving up without trying. I’m not a quitter. I want us to give our marriage a chance before we give up. I’m not ready to give up.”
She turned away, arms folded tightly over her chest. “I don’t have to have your signature then,” she said in a low voice. “I can file without you.”
“But I can contest it.”
“I know.” She wouldn’t look at him. “That’s what I don’t want. I want this clean… easy.”
“Sweetheart, life isn’t clean or easy.”
“Don’t I know that,” Blake said under her breath, fury and frustration filling her.
He had no idea what she lived with. He had no idea who she was, or what she dealt with. Her life wasn’t easy. Nothing had ever been handed to her. Only he didn’t know that, because he didn’t know the first thing about her. He’d been drawn to her face, and her legs, and maybe her smile. He liked her humor and her intelligence, but those were all surface things. He only knew the most superficial things about her, and it wasn’t enough to make a relationship work. It certainly wasn’t enough to make a marriage work.
She faced him. “How can you want to stay married to me, when you know I don’t want to be with you?”
For a long moment there was just silence, and then he shrugged his broad shoulders, expression almost mocking. “Because I know how you felt when we were together in Las Vegas. You wanted. You needed me. You couldn’t get enough of me. And even if it was crazy and impulsive, we thought life would be better together.”
He was right. Every word he said was true. She’d wanted him, and needed him, and she’d never wanted to let him go. But that was her running away from life, running away from reality. Their weekend was just an escape from the real world, not the real world.
“Maybe we did exchange vows in a tacky little chapel off the Strip,” he added flatly, “but they were vows made to each other before God, and despite everything that has happened since, I take those vows seriously.”
They weren’t getting anywhere and she could tell she was just getting Tommy’s back up. He was tough, tenacious, and the last thing she wanted was a fight. If this turned into a fight, it’d be awful, and she didn’t want him as her adversary.
Not when she still had so many feelings for him.
“Can we talk tonight, when you’re done?” she asked, digging her hands into her coat pockets, fighting to stay calm. Collected. Which wasn’t easy when just standing close to Tommy made her heart race and her legs unsteady. The man was still so hot and potent. She didn’t think she’d ever be close to him and immune, which was why she’d kept her distance all these years. Tommy Wyatt was dangerous. He was her own personal kryptonite.
“Alright,” he said, his voice deep, husky.
He had a beautiful voice. She’d missed his voice. Missed those intense blue eyes. Missed his big shoulders and broad chest and how, when he held her, she’d felt so safe, untouchable. The world couldn’t reach her. Problems couldn’t hurt her. In his arms, she knew no one and nothing would get her.
“Be careful,” she said. “Out there.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Don’t take unnecessary risks—”
“I never do.”
She laughed in disbelief. “You always do. Every night you compete.”
“I’m good at what I do. Don’t worry about me.”
But I do, she thought, her gaze intently studying his face, memorizing the lean planes of his cheeks, the firm mouth, the square chin.
Her colleagues called her the doctor of titanium and ice, claimed she had nerves of steel, an unshakeable focus and resolve. It wasn’t true. It was all a front. Beneath her tough exterior, was doubt and loneliness. But only Tommy knew that side of her. He was the only person who’d gotten behind her walls, storming them with his passion and humor, completely stealing her heart.
He’d loved her, and he’d made her laugh, and then he’d loved her some more. With him in Las Vegas she’d laughed until she cried. And every night in Las Vegas, she’d held him, held tightly onto him, as if the world was ending, and in hindsight, it was.
“Should I put you on the pass list?” he asked. “Or are you going to be studying somewhere?”
She had planned on returning to her hotel room and studying. She’d planned on keeping her distance, making sure he didn’t get close and chip away at her armor, but seeing him now, she desperately wanted to see him in ride, rope, be the champion cowboy he was. “I can buy my own ticket,” she said.
He smiled slowly, his gaze heating. “I’ll put you on the list, and I’ll find you after.”
End of Excerpt