Chapter 1 Excerpt
“You’re really not gonna come with me?” Eyes wide, Jace Mills stared across the driveway at the man who was supposed to be his best friend.
“It’s not that I don’t want to.” Leaning back against his truck, Tucker Jenkins drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Don’t you understand? I can’t.”
Jace ran his hand across his forehead beneath the band of his cowboy hat. “Because why again?”
“I told you already.”
“Tell me one more time, just so I can be sure I heard you right the first time.” Jace waited for the response. He already knew the answer but he needed to hear Tuck admit the foolishness out loud again. Maybe this time he’d realize how stupid he sounded.
Tuck sighed. “I have plans to go out with Becca and Logan and Emma.”
“And this double date of yours is to where, exactly?” Jace made sure he stressed the most ridiculous part—the cozy couples outing that somehow took precedence over Tuck riding in a competition.
Another sigh proceeded Tuck’s answer. “A winery in Drumright.”
“Yes, indeed. A winery.” Jace nodded, lips pursed. “You hate wine. Always have. You do remember that small detail, don’t you? Or did marriage give you brain damage or amnesia or something?”
He’d seen it before when a man got pussy on the brain, but Tuck was married to Becca now. That stage should be over.
“Listen, Jace. When you get married, you’ll see. A man has to choose his battles.”
And there it was—that annoying defense that all married men loved to throw in the face of smart, unmarried men like Jace. When you get married, you’ll see . . .
“Fine, Tuck. Pick your battles, but I’m telling you right about now would be a damn good time to stand your ground and fight. There’s fifteen-hundred added money. How can you pass that up? We don’t even have to travel far for it. It’s an hour away. Right off the damn highway in Shawnee.”
“I know, but apparently it’s this vineyard’s big annual festival and harvest event or some shit like that. They only have it once a year. Look, I’m not happy about it either, but I gotta do it.”
It was small consolation to Jace, but Tuck’s expression did say he’d rather be riding in Shawnee than sipping wine, any day. Jace figured it all came down to the path of least misery. Becca could make Tuck’s life harder than Jace could, so she won this battle.
“Look, Jace. Just go to Shawnee on your own, win the purse, and be happy I’m not there as competition so I can’t take it away from you.”
“Oh, you’re not my competition.” Jace shook his head, not willing to concede to Tuck’s boasting, just because Tuck had won a couple championship buckles way back when. “Maybe you used to be, before you got soft, but not anymore. Besides, you know how I feel. When I’m on the back of a bull, it’s me against him. I could care less who rode before or who’s fixin’ to ride.”
“Fine. I’ve gone soft. Whatever.” Tuck dismissed the insult with a wave of his hand, which didn’t give Jace as much satisfaction as it would have if he’d gotten a rise out of his friend “I still can’t ride tonight and there’s nothing I—or you—can do about it.”
“I don’t see why Becca and Emma can’t go alone. They can drive themselves to Drumright. Hell, it’s like twenty minutes away and she knows the way. You guys are always going there for that smoked bologna you love so much. What the hell’s the name of that restaurant again?”
“Yeah, Joseph’s. The point is, Becca can drive to Drumright without you. This wine tasting crap is a chick thing anyway. Or, hell, you know what? Logan can take the girls. He probably likes wine.” Jace felt far less camaraderie toward Logan since he’d stolen Becca’s sister Emma away.
“I already suggested that.”
“Really?” That was interesting. Maybe Tuck hadn’t handed his balls over to Becca at the wedding after all. Jace settled back against his own truck, parked next to Tuck’s in the driveway. “And?”
“It went over like a fart in church.”
With a huff, Tara spun on the heel of her cowboy boot, bound for the building. She stepped from behind her car and into the path of a truck going way too fast for a parking lot. It skidded in the gravel and rocked to a stop as she leapt back. After a second, the maniac behind the wheel swung the vehicle into the empty spot next to her car.
The driver’s side door opened and that’s when Tara recognized both the truck and the man who’d almost flattened her.
Jace Mills. That figured. Chief idiot and number one annoyance from among her brother’s roster of friends, and now he’d nearly run her over. “Jesus, Jace. You coulda killed me. Slow the fuck down.”
“You kiss your momma with that dirty mouth, Tara?” Jace raised one sandy brow high above his hazel eyes. “And you stepped right out in front of me. Look where you’re going from now on.”
Tara clenched her jaw and tried to control the string of obscenities she’d love to let loose on him.
“I was distracted, but you should still be more careful. There are families walking around here with kids and stuff.” She frowned at the empty cab of Jace’s truck. “Tuck’s not with you.”
“That is an excellent observation, Tara. I always knew you were smarter than you look.”
Couldn’t this man cut her even one little break? Every tiny piece of information she got out of him was a struggle. “Why isn’t Tuck with you?”
“That is a very good question.”
She rolled her eyes in frustration. “Do you have an answer?”
“I do, and it’s a doozy.” Jace waggled his brows. “Wanna hear?”
“Dammit—yes, Jace. I wanna hear.” Tara would need dental work from gritting her teeth if she continued this painful conversation with this obnoxious, frustrating, annoying man who made her want to scream.
A wide grin stretched across Jace’s lips. “He’s at a wine tasting with Becca, and Emma, and his BFF Logan.”
Tara’s gut twisted at hearing Logan’s name. Having Jace mention it in the same breath as Logan’s new wife made it even worse. She’d loved Logan for as long as she could remember, and Becca’s sister Emma had swooped in and stolen him from her. She swallowed away the bitter taste in the back of her throat, nauseated all over again by the memories of her last conversation with Logan. It had been on the day of his wedding. He’d told Tara he’d never loved her and never would. That he loved Emma.
She needed to focus on the situation at hand, and not her broken heart. Tuck’s sudden interest in wine over rodeo left Tara stuck without a ride. “Crap. I needed Tuck to be here tonight.”
“We’re going to have to talk about that potty mouth of yours, young lady.” Jace folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the truck. “But before we do, why did you need Tuck here? And come to think of it, why are you here?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m working with the sports medicine team to fulfill my internship requirement for graduation.”
“Sports medicine? That’s what you’re going to school for?” Jace frowned. “Hmm. I thought it was veterinary studies.”
“You’re so observant.” Tara rolled her eyes.
Jace’s only response was to lift one shoulder in a shrug. Unfortunately, as much of an idiot as Jace was, it looked like he was also her only hope of a ride. Both her parents’ house and school were too far away to go there, but if Jace would drive her to Stillwater she could crash for the night at Tuck and Becca’s place.
“Can you tow a car with that thing?” Tara eyed the monster behind him. A man with a truck that large must be severely lacking in other areas.
He hooked a thumb at his vehicle. “This thing? Tow a car? Uh, yeah. I could tow a tractor trailer if I had to. Why?”
“My car is dead.” She tilted her head in the direction of the piece of crap behind her. “One of the stock contractors took a look at it for me and suggested I tow it to the local scrap yard and junk it.”
Jace eyed the vehicle and let out a long slow whistle. “That bad, huh?”
“Apparently. And then, I also kind of need a ride to Tuck’s place.” She’d play on her brother’s sympathies when she got to Stillwater. Maybe she could convince Tuck to loan her his truck for the next few weeks.
It’s not like he needed it. He and Becca both worked at the same damn place. They should carpool. Save the environment. Reduce their carbon footprint, and all that good stuff.
A smug smirk appeared on Jace’s face. “So what you’re saying is, you need my help.”
“Forget about it. I’ll find another ride.” Tara let out a huff. She’d just keep calling Tuck until he answered.
“I didn’t say no. Stop pouting. God almighty, you’re such a child.”
Gasping at the worse insult he could have thrown at her, Tara had no words except to deny it. “I am not a child. You’re a—”
“Tara, stop. If you’d shut up one doggone minute and listen you’d hear I’m saying okay. I’ll help you. I’ll take a look at your car and if it doesn’t look fixable, I’ll tow it to the scrap yard and drive you back to Stillwater.”
This man was so infuriating, she’d love to plant the toe of her cowboy boot right where the sun didn’t shine, but he was willing to help so she’d have to play nice. “And what would I have to give you in exchange? I’m warning you. I’ve got hardly any cash on me. Not even enough to help pay to fill that monster of yours with gas. Seriously, like next to none. I emptied my account for that piece of shit car.”
“What’s with the Jenkins family that y’all always assume I’m destitute?” Jace scowled. “I don’t need your money. I have plenty of my own to pay for gas, thanks.”
That comment confused her. She honestly didn’t think or care about Jace’s finances, but whatever, she still didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. He wouldn’t do her a favor for nothing. He must have some ulterior motive. “Then what do you want?”
“Hmm, let’s see. What do I want?” Jace stared up at the sky and tapped one forefinger to his chin. “I know. You have to be nice to me. No name calling. No smartass comments. None of your usual bullshit. Think you can do that?”
Not likely. “I don’t know. For how long?”
“Until we get to Stillwater. Starting now.”
“How about starting the moment we get inside the arena, for until we get in your truck to start the drive to Stillwater?”
“You’re unbelievable.” Laughing, Jace shook his head. “All right. It’s a deal.”
Jace extended one big, rough hand and though she’d never willingly touched him before, Tara shook it to seal the deal on this unholy alliance.
Jace drove to the next block, and then pulled to the side. Letting the truck idle, he picked up his cell phone and dialed Jacqueline. He was tired. Bone deep exhaustion began in his heart and had nothing to do with the competition tonight.
Jacqueline answered on the second ring. “It’s after eleven o’clock.”
“I told you I’d call when I got to Stillwater so I’m calling.”
“It doesn’t take that long to drive from Shawnee. What did you do? Pull over and fuck her?”
“Yeah, Jacqueline. I fucked her nine ways ’til Sunday, right here in the truck. Then I dumped her off with her brother—my best friend—and told him what a great lay she was.” Jace’s heart pounded as hard when he fought with Jacqueline as it did when his hand was strapped to the back of a ton of bucking bull. That kind of stress couldn’t be healthy.
“Then why did fifty miles take you over an hour? I know how fast you like to drive.”
“It’s closer to sixty miles and I was towing her car behind the truck. I had to drive slow. Then I had to take the time to unhitch it when I got to Tuck’s place.” Jace gripped the phone tight and tried to maintain calm.
Maybe she’d believe he was telling the truth. Maybe not. That was always up in the air when it came to Jacqueline. He heard the sniffle and the shaky intake of breath.
“There’s nothing to cry over.” He was safe, back in Stillwater and alone. What the hell more could he offer her? Still, the tears always did him in. It seemed more so now that they were broken up. “Hey, you know what else? I came in second. And even better, I didn’t get hurt.”
Jacqueline let out a snort. “Too bad.”
Jace smiled at that. She’d stopped with the accusations about other women and resorted to insulting him. He knew they were on the upward slope of the fight. “This should make you happy. A young kid riding injured beat me out of first.”
“That’s because you’re old.”
“Pfft. Those young guys don’t know shit. You know that. Now me, I’m old enough to know where everything is and how to use it.” Jace’s voice dipped down, low and suggestive.
“Do you have to work early in the morning?” Jacqueline’s tone had softened.
“No.” He never scheduled jobs for the morning after he rode. There were times he needed the recovery time, or a visit to the hospital. Either way, he didn’t want to leave a customer expecting him and then not show up.
“Can you come over?”
His cock heard the invitation in her voice and immediately rose to the occasion. The damn thing was like his parents’ dog when he was growing up. Buster could be at the other end of the house, hear the can opener and come running, thinking it was time to eat. Like a reflex reaction, Jace’s dick heard Jacqueline’s voice and figured it was time for some lovin’. Truth be told, he hadn’t taken it out for a spin since the last time he’d been with her.
He drew in a shaky breath. “All right. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Jace had taken his time on the drive from Shawnee to Stillwater, but he didn’t on the way over to Jacqueline’s apartment. He risked a ticket and sped down the dark, deserted streets as the clock on the dash told him it was getting closer to midnight. He wouldn’t stay the night. It would be too painful. How could he hold Jacqueline all night, wake up next to her in the morning in the home they used to share, and then get up and leave to go back to his empty apartment?
This was self-destructive behavior, and yet he was pulling his truck into her driveway, throwing it in park, and heading for the door . . . and her bed. They needed to talk. He needed to stop this. She needed to stop inviting him over. They both had to get on with their lives.
But not tonight. He’d come over tomorrow in the light of day when he wasn’t so tired and needy. They’d talk like adults and agree to be friends.
Jace felt satisfied with his plan as she opened the front door. He was good with it right up until she grabbed his shirt and pulled him inside and her mouth crashed into his. Then all rational thought was lost. He thrust his hands beneath the silky fall of platinum blond waves that hung nearly to her ass. She’d been the local rodeo queen the year he’d met her, and he had no doubt she’d still be able to take the title all these years later.
Yanking her head back, Jace took possession of her mouth. Without breaking the kiss, he backed her inside, kicking the door closed behind him.
Jacqueline wiggled both hands between their bodies. Blindly, she unhooked the buckle on his belt. After seven years of being together and a year of having sex while broken up, it was no surprise she could maneuver his belt as well as he could. She went to work on the fly of his jeans as he anticipated what would be next—her hands on him. Them on the bed. Him inside her.
He tugged the bottom of the tank top out of her pajama bottoms. Sliding his hands beneath the elastic waistband, he felt the bare skin of her ass. He loved how she slept commando. No underwear. Nothing beneath those PJs but his warm, smooth woman . . . except that she wasn’t his. Not anymore.
But for tonight—for the next hour or two—she’d be his.
Jace hoisted her up and she wrapped her legs around his back as he carried her to the bedroom. As he cleared the doorway of the room so familiar to him, he noticed she’d gotten a new lamp and painted the walls. The changes were physical reminders, like a fist to the gut, that they weren’t together. He tossed her onto the bed where she landed with a bounce on the mattress. He followed her down and knew with certainty they shouldn’t be doing this.
Yanking his T-shirt off over his head, Jace tossed it to the floor, realizing it wouldn’t remain there long. He’d put it on after they were done and drive home. In the morning, he’d wake up alone in his own bed. Tomorrow, he’d go back to wondering when the next phone call or text would come from her. When she’d ask him to come over again. And he’d do it, knowing it would hurt like hell afterward.
He didn’t want to live like that anymore.
The knowledge tickled the back of his mind, but the words never made it out of his mouth. Maybe because his mouth was too busy biting her neck, marking her. She raked her nails down his back, likely leaving marks of her own.
Their sex always had been intense. Rough. Passionate. Almost violent, just like their relationship. The worse the fight, the harder the makeup sex. Today’s argument had been nothing compared to their usual, but Jace was too needy, too deprived for too frigging long to not take her hard and fast.
Two fingers thrust inside her told him she was wet and ready. The damn woman always had gotten off from arguing with him. Jacqueline threw her head back, eyes slammed shut from the feel of his invasion. He could bring her to orgasm fast enough. Just a thumb or his mouth on her would do it. He knew her so well, it would take no effort at all, but he was mad and he needed to be inside her. Needed to pound away the emotions.
Jace reached for the drawer next to the bed.
“There aren’t any more in there. You used the only one left last time you were here.”
There’d been plenty of times he had gone without protection with Jacqueline throughout the years, but not now that they were broken up. Especially not after Tuck’s revelation about Emma and Logan’s unplanned surprise. He sat up. “I have some in my gear bag. Be right back.”
“You what? You carry condoms in your gear bag?” Her eyes opened wide.
Crap. He realized his mistake too late. Jace knew that tone, knew that look. He sighed. “Yes, I have a box of condoms in the truck.”
“Why? Who are you fucking at the arena, Jace? Her? The one I heard on the phone tonight?”
“I’m not having sex with anyone besides you, Jacqueline.”
He should lie and tell her he’d picked up a new box because he’d remembered they’d used the stash he always kept in her drawer, but she’d see the box wasn’t new. Some were missing.
He could tell the truth, that he’d started carrying that box around with him shortly after they’d broken up. Since he hadn’t been with anyone else, he’d never used even one. The strip missing were the ones he’d given to Tuck the night he met Becca. But there was no winning a fight with Jacqueline when she got jealous and irrational.
“You’re a pig! You fuck your little tramp and then come here to my bed?” Jacqueline reinforced her accusation by grabbing the phone next to the bed and throwing it at him.
Only his quick reflexes blocked it from hitting him in the face. It bounced off his forearms as he held them in front of him. She threw a pillow next, which was fine. That couldn’t hurt, but when she reached for the lamp—the new wrought iron lamp he’d noticed when he’d walked in—he took a step back.
Jace couldn’t count how many times he’d walked away from a fight with Jacqueline, scratched and bruised. Being a bull rider, he was always hurt, so no one questioned or even noticed a few more injuries. The physical stuff healed. The hurt inside . . . not so much.
Yanking the plug from the wall, she hoisted the lamp over her head and his anger broke through. Jace had never once laid a hand on her. Even when she’d broken his nose, he’d done nothing but try to protect himself from the blows.
No more. He grabbed her forearm and held tight, hard enough to leave bruises from his fingers. The way he teetered on the edge of losing his temper and his control, if she hit him with that lamp, one or both of them would end up in the hospital.
“No, Jacqueline. No more.”
“Don’t you dare tell me what to—”
“No. No more berating me, or jealousy, or hitting me. No more sex. No more phone calls. Nothing. I have never once cheated on you. Never given you cause to feel or act the way you do. I can’t do this anymore. Don’t call me. Don’t text. Don’t come by my house or my work. I’m sorry, but we can’t even be friends. We sure as hell are no good at it.” He managed to keep his voice calm even as his heart thundered.
The hand that held her shook, but still he held tight. He stayed strong. He couldn’t do this anymore. Live in limbo. Hang on to a small thread of a relationship that he knew deep down was toxic to them both. She’d begun to act crazy months after they’d started dating, but he’d lived in hope she’d get over it, that she’d realize he wanted to be with her and only her. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.
Jace released his hold on her and remained braced to block a blow, but it didn’t come. She stood before him, wide-eyed and shaking, looking small and vulnerable and making him want to do the one thing he couldn’t let himself—wrap his arms around her and comfort her.
This woman drove him nuts. He’d survived two of the rankest bulls on the circuit tonight, but he’d be lucky to get out of her apartment without a concussion or a few broken bones from a hundred and twenty pound woman wielding a bedside lamp.
In the midst of it all, he felt sorry for her. How crazy was that?
Jacqueline was his drug, his addiction, his kryptonite, and because of that, the only thing to do was go cold turkey. Walk out that front door, drive away, and never look back. No matter how much it hurt both of them.
“Good-bye, Jacqueline.” He turned and headed for the bedroom door. Flinching at the sound of the lamp hitting the floor, he kept walking.
“Jace.” The sound of her footsteps followed him down the hallway. “Please, wait.”
He put one hand on the doorknob and turned it, ignoring her plea and the sob that followed it.
Outside, the cool night air hit his face as he strode for the truck.
“Fine. Never come back!” Her front door slammed behind him, hard and loud, the sound cutting through the quiet of the night. With the truck doors locked and the key in the ignition, he let himself glance at the house, half expecting to see her running at him with the lamp, or the baseball bat he knew all too well was in the hall closet. But the front door didn’t open again. He pulled away from the curb. Only then, did Jace let himself breathe freely again.
The first text came before he’d left her block.
I’m sorry. Please come back.
In the past, this would have been where he’d make a U-turn. Spin the truck around, go back, and bury the anger with makeup sex. Things would be fine until the next fight began. He couldn’t do it anymore. Drawing in a bracing breath, he stayed on course for his own apartment.
The second text followed before he’d driven five more miles.
Where are you? Going over to fuck her? Have fun!
Jace shook his head and swiped a palm over the moisture in his eyes.
This Jacqueline—the angry, irrational one—was a hell of a lot easier to resist than the soft, tear-filled one. He hit the button to power down his phone. He knew her. The texts and phone calls wouldn’t stop all night. In fact, there was a good chance she’d drive over, if not tonight, then by tomorrow at sunrise, and bang on his door until he let her in to prove he didn’t have a girl inside. In fact, given the mood she was in, it was almost a certainty.
Crap. He couldn’t go home. The battle would just continue there. Knowing that, he swung a sharp left and headed away from his apartment, toward the practice arena used by the Oklahoma State rodeo team he sometimes helped Tuck coach.
He’d slept in his truck before, and chances were he’d do it again. It was part of life on the rodeo circuit. Sometimes it was easier to pull over and sleep for a few hours rather than get a hotel room for the night. It was sure as hell cheaper. There’d been other times he’d spent the night in the truck in a parking lot, sleeping off a drunk. He didn’t drink and drive, but that didn’t mean he always took a taxi home. The truck was good enough for him for one night at times such as those, and it was good enough now.
Eventually, he’d have to turn on his phone again and go home. He’d figure out what to do about that later, after some sleep and distance.
Jace cut the engine and stared out into the night. Peace and quiet. Nothing but the stars and the empty practice arena. Easing the seat back as far as it would go, he tilted his hat lower, slumped down and closed his eyes. Tomorrow would be a better day. True or not, he had to believe it.
“You really think letting some kid kiss you is the way to prove to everyone you’re grown up? Is that what all this shit in the closet with Klint was about?”
“Yes!” She stamped her foot and proved his point that she was behaving like an adolescent.
“Then that just proves what a foolish child you are, Tara. You don’t go to a boy to do a man’s job.”
“I had no one else to go to. You’re like a watchdog, chasing everyone away.”
The stupidity of Tara putting herself in a compromising position on a whim pissed him off. Deep down, Jace knew she’d do it again—probably every chance she got—just to teach him a lesson for trying to stop her.
“You really wanna be kissed that badly?” Jace’s anger made his voice sound husky. Deep and intense.
“Yes, I do.” Her eyes flashed with defiance.
“Fine.” Jace leaned closer until a crease furrowed Tara’s brow.
If she insisted on putting herself into a closet with a kid she knew nothing about because she wanted a damn kiss, Jace would give her a kiss. One she’d never forget. One that would make those rookies seem like kindergarteners. And he wouldn’t scrape her face raw the way Klint had doing it. Jace shaved every night before the competition because real men didn’t have anything to prove by showing the world they could grow some hair on their chin.
He grabbed the back of her neck with one hand, much as he had when he’d hauled her out of the bar, but his intentions were very different. He pulled her closer until their faces were inches apart.
Her lower lip trembled as her big blue eyes widened. For once, she focused on his face. Jace didn’t ask her again. He brought his other hand up, cupped her cheek and took possession of her lips, determined to kiss the childish pout right off them.
It started out hard. He wanted to punish her. Teach her a lesson. Scare the stupid out of her so she didn’t try anything so risky again. But she didn’t back off like he thought she would. Instead, she kissed him back.
He’d expected her lips to be hard and unyielding, just like her attitude toward him most days. They weren’t. They were soft and giving, receptive to his taking. He took a step closer. With one booted foot between her feet, his thigh fit perfectly between her legs.
Angling his head, he changed the kiss, worked her lips as he marveled at how different it felt to kiss a mouth he didn’t know intimately. It had been quite a while since he’d kissed anyone other than his ex.
Exploring the new sensations, Jace moved his right hand down Tara’s back, landing on the slender curve of her hip. At the same time, Tara had gone from bracing against his chest, to wrapping her arms around his waist. When she slipped her hands into the back pockets of his jeans, he had a feeling she was planning on being there for a while. Fine. A girl as stubborn as Tara needed a long, thorough lesson.
She opened her lips beneath his. Jace didn’t ignore the silent invitation, but he also wasn’t going to rush to give her what she wanted. She needed a lesson in patience as much as—more, actually—than a lesson that she shouldn’t go into closets to kiss men.
He drew her lower lip between his and scraped it with a good bit of teeth. She drew in a shuddering breath that had him smiling against her mouth, thinking that Klint probably hadn’t gotten that reaction from her. Stroking her face beneath his thumb, Jace decided to give her a bit of what he knew she wanted. He ran just the tip of his tongue along the inside of her lower lip, and then repeated it with the upper one.
Tara opened farther for him and he didn’t deny either of them. He plunged into the wet heat of her mouth. She met his tongue with her own, stroking against him in an erotic dance that had him pressing his lower body against hers before he realized what he was doing.
Somewhere, somehow it had gone from Jace proving a point, to him being rock hard in his jeans and ready to take whatever Tara wanted to give.
That realization had him breaking the kiss. But damn the devil inside him, he didn’t pull back. He stayed pressed up against her, his mouth a breath away from her face. “That kiss good enough for you?”
Tara’s gaze moved from Jace’s lips to his eyes. “Yes.”