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Colt Ewing peered over the banister of the stairs leading down to the bar of the Grey’s Saloon that was bursting full of women. Under different circumstances, the sight would have been welcome, but not tonight.
Shit, this sucked.
He tugged on the neck of his grey-blue Henley even though the three buttons were already open. A bachelor auction. Stupidest idea ever. No. The fact he’d agreed to be bachelor number three was stupider. Yeah, he was doing it for Coach D, the one positive male role model Colt had had in his life until the army, but he still wished he’d had the stones to say no. Didn’t help that three of his high school football teammates had ’nadded up to be auctioned off like a summer-fattened steer. In fact, his welcome back to Marietta had been a march across the Grizzlies’ football field, reminiscing about the senior homecoming game, which they’d lost for a variety of lame moves, to see Coach Downey and his wife Helen. Next thing he’d known, Coach and his wife, Helen, were thanking him for agreeing to participate in a bachelor auction.
Agreeing, my ass.
“Stop staring.” Nick Palotay clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll scare the hell out of the ladies. And what’s up with your clothes? This is how you dress up?” Nick, one of the few friends Colt still kept in touch with from high school, shoved a beer into his hand. “Rowan’s gonna be pissed at you. When a woman tells you to dress up, that means a suit.”
He didn’t own one. Never would. Except his military dress uniform. He could have worn that had they told him the plan ahead of time, but then he wouldn’t have come. He tipped the bottle back and let the chilled liquid gold slide down his throat, which still did nothing to sooth his mood.
He’d hated every moment of his nine years in Marietta. Every damn second had been a gauntlet of tiptoeing around his alcoholic uncle with his quick, hard fists, and loneliness, boredom and a helpless, bottled resentment that had built and built until Colt had been convinced his head would pop off from the pressure. He’d counted the days until he could get off the ranch and after his last exam senior year, he’d met the army recruiter at the Main Street Diner for a cheeseburger and a coke, signed the final paper work, climbed in the recruiter’s car with a backpack full of clothes vowing never to return. But twelve years later, here he was.
Never say never.
“Thanks.” He remembered to acknowledge the beer with a quick clink with Nick’s.
“Still killing it with the verbal skills.” Nick commented. “At this rate, you’ll need a six pack of these before you hit the stage.”
Colt never drank more than two beers in a day. Never. And that was a never he would keep because blood was blood. And he’d never be like his uncle. Sorry excuse for a man. Code Matthews, another bachelor, had also grown up with an uncle after his parents had died, but he and his uncle, Brand, had always been pretty tight and Colt had envied their relationship.
He turned back to his brooding assessment of the all-female crowd.
“Man up.” Nick advised. “We’re doing it for Troy.”
“Yeah.” Colt nodded.
No kid should die playing the sport he loved. Troy had been Coach Downey’s grandson, a star running back, sixteen-years-old, who’d been tackled yards from a touchdown and had never gotten up. A freak snow storm that night had made the roads impassable and, because the Marietta Hospital hadn’t yet had a helipad, the extra time for LifeFlight to arrive might have made the difference for Troy. So, wasn’t standing up on a stage for the first time in his life, feeling like an idiot, worth it to help Coach and his wife and another kid like Troy who had an unlucky tackle?
“Okay, boys.” Rowan rushed up the stairs, holding something tightly in her palm. “The moment of truth.” She held out her hand in a tight fist and Colt could see four straws sticking out of the top.
“So, do you feel lucky, punk?” He quoted one of his favorite old-time movie lines under his breath.
“Figures you’d quote Dirty Harry,” Code Matthews, a former army soldier who’d served two tours in Afghanistan, taunted. Then he added. “Well, do you?”
Colt nodded. “Pick.”
Code picked then swore. The straw was really, really short.
“I think the straws reflect dick size, right boys?” Gavin Clark, who’d always been quick with a joke and had often teased his close friend Code didn’t miss a beat.
“No idea.” Colt denied.
“Don’t want to know.” Nick added.
“Really all those steamy showers after practice and games?” Rowan laughed. “Bragging about this or that play? I figured you’d be slapping each other with towels, comparing conquests, and creating all other sorts of manly moments.”
“Too busy trying to peer into the girl’s locker room to compare our junk, perve,” Nick said to his little sister “And the showers were lukewarm at best, and why are we even talking about this, sis?”
“Definitely dick size.” Colt looked at it.
Colt drew his straw and Gavin drew his. Colt was third. Good to not be first and maybe good not to be last. As much as it would suck to be up there, to be up there and not be bid on would really bite. He looked at the others and wondered if they were just as nervous only hiding it better. He’d been in battles, life and death shit, and he’d been solid. Maybe he definitely should re-up if this were an indication of how he handled life on the outside. He’d only been on leave two days, and he was seriously considering whining about having a bunch of women ogle him. Not like he hadn’t done his share. He’d just been subtle. From the growing din below, subtle wasn’t in the cards tonight.
Rowan left the storage room briefly and then returned. “Okay, boys, Coach is getting ready to start. Colt, where’s your blazer?”
He held out his arms in a ‘this is it’ gesture. Rowan looked horrified. He mentally kicked himself. Not that he’d known he was about to be auctioned off when Nick had contacted him and said that Coach needed to talk to them, but still, he’d had a day’s notice. He should have pulled something together.
“Wear your leather biker jacket. Be a tough guy. Chicks dig it.” Gavin suggested.
They generally did, but not the kind of women in Grey’s Saloon out to do a good deed; at least he didn’t think so. Colt shrugged into the worn leather.
“Let me see.” Rowan looked at him skeptically.
Now he really felt like an auction steer.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Now take it off and dangle it from your finger.”
“Great, stripper tips from my little sis. Mom will be proud.”
Colt flipped Nick off for her.
“Boys, behave.” Rowan ordered. “You are gentlemen for tonight.”
That was all he’d be able to manage. He just hoped his winning bidder wasn’t expecting upscale or he’d really be in for it.
Colt dangled his coat like the biggest idiot. Rowan walked a circle around him.
“You look ripped. That’s one advantage of the Henley shirt. Would you be comfortable taking it off?”
Colt dropped the jacket, shocked. No one had said this was a Magic Mike thing. He couldn’t dance.
“Do it and I’ll punch you,” Nick said.
“Welcome to try.”
Rowan rolled her eyes. “Probably too much. Widow Benedict is in the house.”
“I know, she’s my date,” Code said.
“That sounds like a blast.” Nick shot back.
“And Helen will probably think I’ve lost my mind, and since you’re all Army Ranger dude, you probably have tats crawling all over your skin like a high school bathroom wall.”
“You could be an inspirational speaker,” Colt said.
“Do you think so?”
And there the exchange ended because Colt was too socially inept to read sarcasm because most women didn’t want to talk to him much. They wanted something else. And he obliged. His tats turned on a certain type of woman but others would probably run. Rowan tilted her head, looked him up and down, and Colt felt undressed and not in the good way. No woman had ever looked at him so clinically before, except one army doc who’d had to stitch him up after a hand-to-hand combat training session when he hadn’t ducked fast enough.
Rowan bent at his feet and cuffed his Carhartt work pants a couple of times. She stood up and eyed the result. “That shows off the combat boots more so you got a bit more stylish, deliberate edge, and it makes your pants look even leaner on your thighs.”
“Jesus,” Nick muttered. “Looking at Colt’s thighs. I feel sick.”
“If your stint as an image consultant is finished,” Gavin said, “Coach is calling for you, Rowan.” He turned to Colt. “Make sure you shimmy your ass when you turn around up there with your biker leather all tossed over your shoulder like Justin Bieber.”
“Who’s that?” Colt deadpanned.
Gavin said something Rowan would not approve of.
“And lift up your shirt to wipe your mouth like you’re in a beer commercial or is it some girlie drink like ginger ale?” Code suggested.
“I never noticed you are kinda pretty, Colt,” Nick said. “Maybe you should go first.”
What the fuck? No good deed went unpunished, which was why he didn’t do them anymore. Should have taken a flight in the opposite direction, but he hadn’t known what the hell he was going to do with thirty days of freedom. The idea had freaked him out so Nick’s call couldn’t have come at a better time.
Colt leaned against the wall, picked up his beer, and gave Nick the stare, and even though Colt was thousands of miles away from his unit and his team and his weapon, Nick shut up. Finally.
Until he didn’t. As Code walked down the wide staircase to the bar below, Nick and Gavin gathered closer so they could hear the proceedings and do a bit of spying and even though Colt wished himself a thousand miles away, he too gravitated towards his high school buddies.
“Code’s offering up a weekend date,” Gavin said. “That sounds promising.”
“But that string tie looks dumb.” Nick commented. “Ties are like nooses, and I don’t think any man needs to taunt someone with a way to strangle them.”
“Make them work for it,” Gavin said. He turned to Colt. “What’s your date?”
Colt made a whatever gesture. His creative dearth dogged him his whole life. Rowan had asked him what he enjoyed doing and he’d drawn a blank. Then she’d smiled, thumbs busy typing out a description on her phone, and asked him what he was good at. He didn’t think “killing” was what she was looking for.
Nick looked down at a program his sister had brought up. “Lady’s Choice,” he said. “Good. Puts the ball in her court like you’re a metrosexual male as if she couldn’t tell from your cuffed pants, but it’s a bit open-ended.”
“Yeah.” Gavin chimed in. “What if she wants to get married or make a baby?”
Colt started. Gavin was joking, but Colt hadn’t even thought about what the woman might choose. He hadn’t really thought about the woman at all. “I was thinking more along the lines of work around her house like weeding.”
“Weeding?” Gavin laughed. “That’s gotta be code for something good.”
But before any of them could think of a reply someone from the back of the bar shouted out “ten thousand dollars.”
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Gavin breathed. “I think that sounded like Hayley Dawn O’Malley’s back in town.”
Ten thousand dollars was some serious dough. Colt looked over the railing to see if he could see Hayley, whom he’d seen in a couple of movies over the years, but instead, his attention was caught by a tall, loose-limbed, leggy blond, with a ponytail of tight curls spiraling down her back as she moved across the floor like molasses. She was slim and graceful and moved like how he thought a dancer would. Watching her deliver a tray full of drinks was like watching a ribbon caught in a breeze.
He wiped his hand over his mouth. Where the hell had that poetic thought come from?
He found it difficult to look away. She seemed to command the room, swishing easily through the tables of laughing, teasing women, tray held high over her head, and even though many of the women were in short skirts and dresses, the server looked elegant in a way he liked. Tight, slim-fitting, western style jeans hugged the curve of her ass and then skimmed down her legs that went forever, ending in a slight flare at her feet where he could see a peek of her cowboy boots. He’d always been a leg man and so he lingered there for a while before his gaze roved up all that sexy leg to her small waist, emphasized by the tailored tuck of her blue western style shirt.
He had missed that about Montana. The boots he had always fantasized about pulling off and tossing over his shoulder and the western style shirts with the snap buttons that begged to be pulled apart in one aggressive tug that revealed the soft, toned skin and sensitive peaks hiding beneath.
Not that he’d been able to act on his fantasies in high school. His uncle’s leash had been too tight, but he’d definitely spent a lot of time watching the cowgirls and imagining how they would feel beneath him. His cock stirred. He wasn’t in high school anymore and since he was going to be stuck in Marietta for a few days he could finally fulfill one fantasy.
And that was when Colt finally looked at her face. She was pretty enough, but it was her mouth that punched like a fist. Her lips were bow shaped, a soft, natural pink, like pillows, plump, kissable, and fell in a sexy pout when she wasn’t laughing or talking, which it seemed like she did a lot, but when her mouth settled into its natural lines, it seared his brain with sexual imagery he couldn’t ignore and, when he saw no ring, he didn’t have to.
The night just got a hell of a lot better.
Colt didn’t even notice Nick was on the block and that he’d be up next. He watched her float to the bar and speak quickly to the bartender, her gaze sweeping across the crowded room. She loaded up her tray with brightly colored cocktails and swept back into the rowdy crowd. He noticed her smile, the way her face lit up. She seemed at ease in the setting where as he was anything but.
He wondered the best way to approach her. He didn’t want to ask Nick or Gavin. Code could keep his mouth shut. Maybe. But he didn’t share his business with anyone, so he watched her. Noted if she talked to anyone longer, dipped closer to them to indicate more than a casual acquaintance or friendship. She did stand near one table of five women more often than the others. And talked more. His eyes took in each face at the table gauging their involvement with the conversation, with the waitress. One girl with bright red hair and freckles seemed to talk the most, but he didn’t recognize her. Another was familiar. Meghan somebody. Target acquired.
“Okay,” Rowan completely interrupted his focus. Nobody on his team would ever dream of interrupting him with a hand on his shoulder. But Rowan was Nick’s little sister, and he wasn’t in a war zone or on an undercover op. She nudged him toward the stairs.
“Stop looking so intense. Try to seem more playful.”
“I don’t play.”
She huffed out an irritated breath. “Pretend. Oh, forget it. Alright, here’s the plan.”
Coach would introduce him. Making a big story about how fast he’d been in high school. So easy to dodge through defenders. Then his service to his country. Blah. Blah. Blah. Where was the waitress? Was she interested in the bachelors? That would be a serious buzz kill if she had some idiot at home waiting for her.
“Remember it’s for Coach and Troy,” she said.
He nodded. It wasn’t as if he’d suffered any head injuries in high school or after.
“Go slow. Be cool, confident. Own the room. You have a rocking bod and that shirt really defines your abs and shoulders and arms. I think I might need to fan myself.”
“It’s a cheap, practical shirt, Rowan.”
“On you, it’s not. Okay. Maybe the intense thing is good, but think about sex while you’re up there. Can you at least do that for me?”
Hell, no, he wouldn’t do it for Rowan in a billion years, but for the curly haired waitress whose mouth looked like it could bring a man to paradise, hell, yes, he could stand up there and think about sex all night long.
End of Excerpt