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As soon as Dakota spotted Colby Ryan waiting for her at the airport terminal, her heartbeats thumped harder than a sledgehammer to concrete. A dark Stetson and snakeskin boots along with a ruggedly chiseled face and a skyscraper frame shouted cowboy from every single solid inch of him. “Cole, you really didn’t have to pick me up today. I could’ve gotten a ride home.”
Geesh, she sure had gotten darn good at lying to Cole ever since she’d started working at the Circle R Ranch. Fact was, she was glad to see him and she wished to high heaven she wasn’t. She’d been gone two weeks, not enough time to fall out of love with him, but surely enough to put some distance to her one-sided infatuation with her boss.
“Just say thank you, Day, and let it go at that.”
He grinned and that sexy dimple came out of hiding near the right corner of his mouth. The dimple she’d fantasized kissing a thousand times.
He’d never say he’d missed her. That would be too much to ask and she really wasn’t expecting it anyway. But the fact that he’d picked her up from the airport meant something, even though her time away from the Circle R, her time away from Cole, had given her a new perspective on the way she would run her life from now on. She wasn’t going to hope any longer or hang on his every word. Years of pining, ever since she was a ten-year-old smitten kid, was more than enough.
The fat lady had sung loud and clear.
Dakota Jennings wasn’t a quitter. That’s what Cole told her he liked best about her a dozen times, but this time she was done. Over. Finished. She’d quit him as a way of self-preservation although she wasn’t quite ready to quit her job on the ranch.
“How’s your mom doing?” Cole asked, taking her luggage out of her hand and leading her to his shiny super-charged special edition Lincoln Navigator.
“She’s doing pretty well considering how active she likes to be. Her ankle is healing up nicely and your mom is there hovering over her BFF, like always.”
“Mom likes to hover. It’s what she does best.”
“You hated it, when she hovered over you.”
“Not denying that.” He stashed her luggage in the back end of his SUV and then opened the passenger door for her. “Now she’s got June to focus on.”
“And Mom’s got Alice to complain to about…” She climbed in and buckled up.
He did the same and started the engine. “About?”
“Nothing, never mind.”
“Tell me, Day.” His hot smoky eyes pinned her down.
“Men, okay? My mom’s been thinking about dating.”
“Good for her,” Cole said, pulling out of the airport parking lot. “It’s about time June Jennings got back out there.”
“Really? You think it’s a good idea?”
“I do. There’s bound to be some nice gentlemen in their retirement community. It’s been what, fifteen years since your father passed?”
“Yeah, fifteen years. Sometimes it feels like yesterday and other times it seems like a lifetime ago. It’s weird though, thinking of my mom having a boyfriend.”
“Doesn’t have to be weird,” Cole said, suddenly an expert on dating. “She should try it and see how it goes. She doesn’t need to be getting serious or anything, but she’s deserving of some fun. With a man,” he added, his eyebrows doing a wicked dance on his forehead.
“Ew, Cole!” She crushed her arms around her middle and fell back against the seat. “I hate the image popping into my head right now.”
“Yeah, mine too. Strike that.”
“It’s stricken. At least our moms have bingo and movie night together.”
“Real Arizona excitement.” Cole laughed.
She smiled, despite the fact that Cole was as unattainable now as he’d always been. But, she couldn’t help smiling with him once in a while. Especially when they were talking about their moms. The two women had been best friends since forever, growing up in Hope Wells and marrying good men who both died before their time. Their mothers’ move to Arizona a few years back was a way for them to start fresh in a new environment. It had been an experiment at first, but both of the ladies decided they liked the change of pace. And it wasn’t as if they were too far away for a quick visit home or anything.
“Maybe now Mom’s ready for something more.”
“Like I said, good for her.”
As Cole drove on, the highway became residential streets and their conversation came to an end. Once her street came into view, she voiced her innermost thoughts. “Maybe, I’ll give it a try too.”
“Give what a try?” Cole asked, matter-of-factly, without giving her so much as a glance.
“Dating?” His voice hitched an octave higher.
Wasn’t that what they were just talking about? Sometimes, Colby Ryan was as thick as a sycamore tree. “Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“What the heck does that mean?” Her mind went to a thousand different places. Didn’t he think she could date? She wasn’t feminine enough? Her tomboy ways turned men off? It was clear he wasn’t attracted to her, but that wasn’t true of all men. Why, just a month ago she’d been propositioned by the owner of Hope Wells’ premiere ice cream shop, Giggles and Cream. Of course, Ed Nelson had been married and divorced twice by the age of thirty, not exactly prime boyfriend material, and the thought of going out with him gave her hives. But he wasn’t the only one to ask her out. There’d been a few others that she’d tactfully declined.
“You have no time as it is, Day. With you working that second job and all. I told you, if you need more than I’m paying you, I’ll give you a raise.”
Small relief brought her raised shoulders down. At least he hadn’t voiced what she’d feared most—that he thought her undesirable as a woman. “I’ll take that raise, Cole. Because I’ve earned it. But I’m not quitting my job at Barely There. It’s a fun place and the women I work with are nice.” And mostly, it gave her a little time away from him. She was determined to get a grip on her life. The change was good for her. “And some of that frilly lingerie Jillian designs, well it’s enough to crank any man’s—”
“We’re here,” Cole interrupted, jerking the car to a stop in front of her small house. He swiveled his head around to pummel her with his gaze. What was wrong with him? She hadn’t asked for a raise in the three years since she’d worked for him. He’d always been fair and generous with her. Was that it? Maybe all this talk about money didn’t set right with him?
“Thanks for the ride, boss.”
Cole’s mouth twisted. He hated when she called him that. To his credit, he wasn’t one to pull rank on his employees. He was simply Cole to everyone. Not Mr. Ryan. Not boss. But yanking his chain every so often gave her a bit of pleasure, because, well, it was all the pleasure she’d ever gotten out of her relationship with him.
She stared at the paneled front door of her two-bedroom house. It was good to be home. Even though the place had shortcomings, she still liked living here for the time being. Her real dream was to raise horses on her own land. That was her goal in life: to be her own boss. But she’d been hindered by her love for Cole. Being his horse wrangler and fill-in foreman when he needed her to be ensured she’d see him almost every day. How pathetic was that? Well, that wasn’t happening anymore. No, sir.
They’d been forced friends growing up, having no choice but to spend a lot of time together as children, due to their mothers’ close bond. But Cole was older by five years, making him seem like her babysitter at times. That five-year difference had given him the upper hand in all things.
He gave a nod. “Welcome, Dakota.”
So formal and his way of getting back at her.
“I’ll get your bags.” He hit the button to release the trunk.
“I can get them,” she said, climbing out of the SUV and winding around to the back end. She pulled the big suitcase out with ease and slung the big tote bag over her shoulder. She worked hard on the ranch and lifted weights by way of hay bales and lumber, to keep her muscles toned. It paid off with firm limbs and a sturdy constitution, but a big ole frown on Cole’s face told her he didn’t approve. He was born a gentleman, and sometimes she wished he’d just enter into the twenty-first century and loosen up a bit.
“Well, look who decided to come home.” Brett Collier’s voice boomed from across the yard. Her neighbor lived next door in a big four-bedroom he was remodeling in between carpentry jobs.
“Hey, yourself. Howdy, Cole,” he said as he approached.
“Brett.” The two men shook hands.
“How was your trip?” he asked her pleasantly. Brett had charm to spare, was twenty-six—her own age—and had all the single girls in town drooling at his good looks and muscular physique. Brett wearing his tool belt was a sight to behold.
“Good. My mom’s healing, but she hates the crutches.”
“I can relate,” Brett said. “I broke my leg once as a kid and it wasn’t fun. Well, don’t want to interrupt, but I saw you out here and wanted to give you back your key.”
“You have her key?” Cole asked, a hint of sharpness to his tone.
“Yeah, you know, to water plants and delete her programs on the DVR,” Brett said. “She’s quite the fan of romantic movies.”
“You are?” Cole pinned her with a look.
She cringed. There were some things Colby Ryan didn’t know about her.
She shrugged. “I forgot to stop them from recording, is all. And they’re comedies—you know something to make me smile after a long day.”
“Nearly blew up all your recording space,” Brett added.
“Thanks, Brett, you saved me,” she said and pursed her lips tight. He’d just given up something to Cole she’d rather him not know about her—under her tomboy demeanor lived a hopeless romantic. “I appreciate you helping out.”
“No problem. Here, let me take those,” he said, and before she could protest, Brett had her bags in his hands. She didn’t dare glance at Cole. She could only imagine his head exploding. “I’ll bring them inside for you. Oh and if you’re not too tired, I have an idea to expand your small pantry space with very little work involved.”
“Really? Sure, that’d be great. I’ll be in, in a second.”
“See you tomorrow night, Cole,” Brett said.
She turned to face Cole and just as she suspected, he was a sour-puss. “Tomorrow?”
“Poker game,” he grumbled.
She nodded. “I guess, I’ll see you tomorrow too, bright and shiny. Thanks again for the ride.”
Cole ran a hand down his face and didn’t say a single word. He climbed into his SUV, revved the engine and pulled away, leaving her standing on the porch next to Brett Collier.
“I owe you, for all your help while I was gone,” Dakota said to Brett as he set her luggage down in her bedroom.
“Just being neighborly, May Day.” The nickname he’d christened her with wasn’t bugging her quite so much anymore. They’d only been neighbors a year, but he’d managed to find out her middle name in true Brett Collier form, by winning a bet. She strode into the kitchen, Brett following behind.
“Well, considering my plants haven’t died and my TV is still in working order, I’d say it calls for dinner, at the very least.” Something inside her sort of broke after she saw Cole today. It was tough being strong, and right now she didn’t want to be alone. She kept asking herself how love could be so one-sided.
“You want to feed me? I’d never refuse a home-cooked meal.” Brett grinned, like the charmer that he was, and she smiled back.
“Who said anything about home-cooked? I doubt there’s anything in my fridge.” She reached into her shoulder bag for her cell phone. “Chinese, Italian or burgers?”
“No offense, but the Chinese in this part of Texas isn’t great, and no one makes a better burger than me, so I guess, Italian.”
She nodded. And had to agree about the Chinese food around here. She’d never been privy to one of Brett’s burgers—she really didn’t know him all that well, but she believed him. “Okay, Italian. Pasta or pizza?”
“Pasta from Mario’s?”
“Great. I’ll phone it in.” And then she remembered the reason she’d needed a ride from the airport. “Oh shoot. My car’s still in the shop getting a complete overhaul.”
“And they’re not done yet?”
“Well, I sorta told Mark to take his time, since I was going to be gone for two weeks.” A dumb move, but the mechanic was a friend of hers and he’d been swamped with work. “It’ll be ready tomorrow. I hope Mario’s delivers.”
“No problem if they don’t. I’ll go pick it up.”
Her hands fisted on her hips and she sighed. “That sort of defeats the purpose of me thanking you, doesn’t it?”
Half an hour later, the delivery was made while Brett went home to clean up and her café-sized two-seater kitchen table was set with plates—not paper this time, but her grandmother’s bone china—and two glasses of red Cabernet wine. She set a pot of geraniums Brett had been watering in her absence on the table as a centerpiece. The scene looked cozy and romantic. Was it too much? She hoped Brett wouldn’t get the wrong idea. As drop-dead gorgeous as he was, Dakota didn’t feel a lick of attraction for him. Simply because he wasn’t Cole.
How often she’d daydreamed about setting a table like this for Cole. To have a quiet, intimate dinner with him over sips of wine and whispered words.
Not going to happen, Dakota.
Brett knocked and she went to the door. “Wow,” he said. “You look great.”
He wasn’t the only one who’d needed to clean up. After a long day, dealing with airports and the flight home, she’d felt grubby in her worn jeans and hooded sweatshirt jacket. She’d slipped into a quick shower and dressed in a pair of crisp new jeans and a red silky blouse with ruffled cuffs. It was just the boost she needed. Working at Barely There these past few months and gathering fashion advice from Jillian Lane, her new friend and part-time boss, had given her a new appreciation for fashion. “Thanks. Come in. Dinner has been delivered.”
He stepped inside, sniffing the air. “Smells great.”
Garlic and spicy scents swept across the entire house and suddenly noises grumbled from her stomach in an unfeminine way, another trademark of her tomboy demeanor. She cringed inside and lucky for her, Brett didn’t comment about the sound, if he heard it all. “Well, here we are,” she said, leading him to the table. “Mario’s Favorite, plus salad and garlic bread.”
Eyeing the dishes on the table, Brett waited for her to take a seat. “I do love me some penne,” he said.
She took a seat and he sat across from her. “I poured wine. I hope you like it.”
“I’ve been known to imbibe,” he said with a grin. “Really, May Day, this is way too much.”
“I appreciate your help while I was gone. I hear you at night working on your place. I know your time is precious to you. So how’s the remodel coming?”
“Slow, but good. It’s getting to be more than a remodel though. Maybe I should’ve gutted the whole place.”
“That house has charm, Brett. You wouldn’t want to do that.”
“Yeah, a downright charming money pit. What about you? How’s your work going?”
“Me?” She sipped her wine. “It’s good. I love working with horses. Been around them all my life in one way or another on the Circle R.”
“You and Colby go way back.”
She halted, the tip of her wineglass teasing her lips. “We do.”
He lifted a brow.
“What?” She set her glass down.
“You’ve got it bad for him.”
Her shoulders sagged. Did everyone in Hope Wells see it but Cole? “Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t think of me that way.”
Brett toyed with the stem of his wineglass and shot her a solid look. “You sure about that?”
“I’m sure.” Sadly. Hopelessly. Abundantly sure.
Brett clamped his mouth shut, but there was this look in his eyes that said he knew better. He had more to say and if she were smart, she’d let it go. So, maybe she wasn’t so smart. “What’s with the look, Collier?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I shouldn’t say anything. Especially since I’m lined up to do some work for the Circle R.”
“I didn’t know that. Cole hired you?”
“Yeah, he did. I’ll be doing some structural changes to the interior of the stable along with a few other things. Starting at the beginning of next week.” He forked penne and shoveled it into his mouth.
“I’m glad to hear that, but you don’t strike me as the kind to back down about anything, Brett. If you have something to say, say it.”
“Fine, I will,” he said, swallowing down his pasta. “You’re not a quitter. That much I know about you already.”
“When the cause is hopeless, I kinda have to be. Don’t I?” Dakota asked biting her lip.
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I didn’t see hopeless when Cole looked at you today. I didn’t see hopeless when he eyed me standing next to you, holding your bags. He was cutting me daggers.”
She chuckled. “That’s only because he’s prideful. He offered to take my bags in and I wouldn’t let him.”
“Because I knew it’d get his goat. And because, it…hurts. When he’s nice like that…I don’t know, he’s always been kind of protective of me.”
“You mean like a brother?”
She shrugged, yet the pain of the notion seared like a branding iron. She’d learned to hide it all too well. Yeah, in her heart she feared Cole looked upon her as a little sis. “I guess.”
“No.” Brett forked another big mouthful.
“That’s not what I was seeing today, May Day. I was seeing a man eager to look at you. Eager to keep you close, and not in a brotherly way. No, ma’am, not at all.”
November sunshine hit Cole’s cheeks as he stepped onto his front porch, but the slight warmth didn’t fool him. The morning air had a bite to it that woke him up fully. He strode across his yard, his boots hitting solid earth as he made his way to the stables some fifty yards away. With lightness in his step that hadn’t been there for the past two weeks, he hated to admit he was damn glad things around here would get back to normal again. Dakota was due back to work. She’d be here soon, if she wasn’t already. Scanning the parking area behind the barn, he didn’t see her car.
He reined in his disappointment. Disappointment he shouldn’t be feeling. Dakota was his employee and a damn good one. She was his friend too, but lately she hadn’t been acting like he was, not one bit, and she’d been giving him shit.
Tires spit gravel on the road and he swiveled his head around to see a truck pull up behind him. He recognized Brett Collier and squinted further to see Dakota in the passenger seat.
What the hell? It was eight o’clock in the morning and he wasn’t forgetting how he’d left Day yesterday, with Brett on the steps of her house. His chest tightened up. He didn’t like where his mind was going so he shoved it out and put on a taut smile. “Mornin’,” he said as Day exited the car, slinging a backpack bag over her shoulder. She kept small work items in that bag: gloves, extra clothes, snacks and vitamin water along with some other things.
Brett stuck his head out of the car to greet him too. “Mornin’. Sure is a nice one.”
Cole gave him a nod. “Yeah, it is.”
Dakota walked around the car and stopped in front of Brett’s window, giving Cole her back. All that shiny black hair was pulled into a braid, trailing down her back. She had a slim figure, but it wasn’t lost on him that everything she did have was pretty damn near perfect. “Thanks for the ride,” she said to Brett.
“No problem—anytime, May Day.”
May Day? Cole’s teeth ground together watching Dakota smile at the guy, as if she didn’t mind him calling her by her middle name. The last time Cole tried calling her Dakota May, she’d gotten so mad her tirade nearly busted his eardrum.
After a few seconds of small talk, Brett finally drove away, leaving Day alone with him. “Well, I should get busy,” she said, gripping her bag, making ready to leave. “See how well you held down the fort while I was gone.” Her mouth lifted in that teasing way she had.
“We managed not to let things go to ruin without you.”
“We’ll see. I missed my ladies.” She started off, walking toward the stables, toward the horses she nurtured with an abundance of love.
“Hey, Day?” Cole caught up to her in two long strides.
“What’s with you and Brett?” he blurted.
Day stopped up abruptly. “What do you mean?”
God, if only he could take those words back. It was none of his business what was going on between her and Brett. He didn’t have a claim on Dakota. He couldn’t. There were too many reasons lodged in his head to ever make that happen; yet there were slivers of time when crazy thoughts rushed in about him and her going the distance. But those were dangerous notions that he chalked up to loneliness. She was the only female around and she was pretty when she wasn’t covered in mud or cussing like a sailor.
Then there was his mother’s warning, drilled in his head since he was a kid.
You don’t hurt Dakota. You don’t touch Dakota. You only protect Dakota.
Cole had abided by those rules all of his life, not because he was so damn obedient.
But because of what had happened between him and Sarah Mulrooney.
He studied her confused expression and shrugged. “Just curious. Where’s your car?”
“My car?” She studied his face right back. “In the shop.”
God, she was making him pull the words out of her mouth. He should end the conversation and go about his work.
“Did you forget?” she asked. “That’s why I needed a ride home from the airport yesterday. My car’s still in the shop getting new brakes, tires rotated, a full tune-up and heaven knows what else.”
“Oh yeah, right, right.” Shoot, he had forgotten. Spotting her ride up in Brett’s truck had rattled his nerves and given him momentary amnesia. “Well, you need a ride to pick it up today, you just let me know.” He stared into her striking green eyes and found nothing there that hinted she’d spent the night with Brett Collier. Or not. His heart squeezed tight thinking it, but he couldn’t come right out and ask her now, could he?
“Mark said he’ll have my car delivered before the end of the workday.”
He nodded and took a swallow.
“Are there any more questions? Because I’m dying to see the mares.”
“Nope, not a one. Nice to have you back at the Circle R, Day.”
“It’s good to be back.”
She marched toward the stables and Cole stood there watching her until Jerome came up to him. “Boss?”
He swiveled his head around to his newest hire. “It’s Cole, remember? What is it?”
“The boys want to know if we’re still on for the poker game tonight.”
He gave a final glance at Day’s backside as she entered the stable, took off his hat and ran a hand down his face. A sigh blew from his mouth. “Yep we sure are.”
Poker was a good way to get Dakota off his mind tonight.
The oval poker table set up in the bunkhouse sat seven but tonight only five were playing, one of the empty seats belonging to Jack Walker, the newlywed. Jack was his best friend and so freaking in love with his wife and adopted son, he didn’t come out to play much anymore. That, and being Hope Wells’ sheriff kept him busier than ever. Jack’s cousin Trey wasn’t here either. He had a baby on the way and didn’t like leaving Maddie for too long on the ranch. All this marital bliss was messing with his poker game.
He shuffled the cards with a flourish and sent them flying across the table to Sam, Rusty and Jerome, his hardworking ranch hands. A set of five cards landed in front of Brett Collier as well, the all-too-polished guy keeping his eyes unreadable as he picked up his cards and assessed his hand. “Oh shit,” he said, “I almost forgot.”
His chair scraped against hard wood in a noisy screech as he rose to grab a bag he’d laid on the counter. “Day would have my hide, if I didn’t put these out,” he said.
He pulled out a platter of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. “She said you all expect something sweet from her on poker night.”
Brett put the dish in the middle of the table, and the guys groaned as whiffs of chocolate reached their noses. “Oh man, Dakota didn’t forget us,” Sam said.
“That gal’s a peach,” Rusty said, reaching for a cookie.
“Nothin’ better than cookies and beer,” Jerome said, digging in too.
“You her courier now?” Cole asked Brett.
“No, sir. Just being neighborly. She didn’t want to disappoint you all.” Brett picked up his cards again. “Even though she’s a busy bee these days.”
Cole pursed his lips. He sure knew a lot about her. “That so?”
Brett shrugged. “So I’m told.”
“That’s right,” Sam said. “You did some work for that fancy lingerie shop Jack’s new wife opened up. Day is moonlighting there. Barely Here or something.”
Brett chuckled. “Close, Sam. It’s called Barely There. And yeah, I worked for Jillian and helped her get the place in shape.”
“Man, all that frilly stuff, makes a man’s head spin,” Rusty said, putting up his ante. “I walked into the shop one time, took a gander at all those cock-teaser outfits, turned red as a beet and walked out. Wasn’t the place for me to buy my sis a birthday present.”
Sam shook his head. “No, I don’t suppose. And it’s not that Day isn’t pretty and all, but she doesn’t strike me as the type of woman to go for that fancy stuff.”
Lazy-like, Brett tipped the beer bottle to his lips, took a sip and said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” The guy looked him straight in the eye. “Women surprise you sometimes.”
Cole’s mouth nearly dropped to the floor. What the? If Brett was talking about Day from experience, Cole’s fist would be landing on his mouth any second now. “How would you know?”
“I don’t,” he added, eager to clear that up, and Cole could breathe again. “Not with Day anyway. But if I know women, even the shy ones want to look sexy for their man.”
Cole’s mind raced, imagining Day in that sinful red nightie he’d glimpsed at Jillian’s shop one day. The idea of sheer lace with tiny crimson bows caressing her body, and her lustrous hair falling like a sheet of black ice over the tightest rosy tips of her breasts, was pounding in his skull. Making him ache, making him hot.
“Stop!” Surprised, the guys snapped their heads up. Oh man. He didn’t mean to bark at his crew. This night was supposed to be fun, a way for them all to hang out. A way to forget about his past mistakes, forget about his sudden and budding fascination with Dakota. He forced calm into his voice. “Dakota’s a co-worker and friend. We’re not gonna disrespect her by talking behind her back. Got that?”
“Aw, Cole, we didn’t mean anything by it,” Sam said.
“I know,” he was quick to answer. A sigh heaved out of his chest. “Let’s just play.”
His ranch hands nodded and put their heads down, staring at their cards.
But when he spared a glance at Brett, the guy was doing his best to hold back a smirk. As if he knew what Cole had been thinking. As if he knew what he was fucking feeling.
Which was insane.
Because Cole was an expert at reining in his emotions.
He was an expert at hiding them too.
End of Excerpt