RIDE EM' COWBOY
“Hmm, would you look at that?” Cougar Douglas’ black eyes glittered as they locked on someone across the rustic great room.
Wyatt Branson glanced Cougar’s way, before following his friend’s line of sight into the partying crowd. With half the town of Cima, New Mexico in attendance, it took Wyatt a moment to figure out who’d caught his best friend’s attention.
The honey-blonde wore a slinky blue designer dress that bared much of her lightly tanned back. Delicate muscles flittered beneath her golden skin as she teetered on impossibly high heels.
“I think she’s at the wrong party,” Wyatt said.
Cougar snickered. “She is a little overdressed, but I’m not complaining. I like my presents wrapped in pretty packages.”
Wyatt squinted. “You recognize her?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Never seen her before. She’s not exactly the kind of woman that you’d forget.”
“I hear you,” Wyatt said. “She must be visiting relatives. We’d know if she lived here.”
He couldn’t imagine a woman like that moving to Cima. This was a no frills town, built by no frills people. Everything about her screamed high maintenance.
“Remind me to pay her family a visit,” Cougar quipped.
An itch started between Wyatt’s shoulder blades and worked its way up his neck. There was something familiar about the woman, even though he couldn’t see her face. “Know anyone expecting company?”
Cougar reluctantly drew his gaze away. “No, but like you, I’ve been busy rounding up cattle this week. Can’t believe she managed to slip into town without me noticing.”
Wyatt’s lips twitched. “That is rare. You must be losing your touch.”
Cougar’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.” He craned his neck. “Can you see her face?”
“Not yet, but if it’s anything like the rest of her, then I think I’m in love,” Wyatt said.
"You and me both." Cougar chuckled.
Someone took that moment to interrupt the woman’s conversation so they could squeeze by. As she stepped out of the way, Wyatt caught a glimpse of her face...and felt like he’d been kicked in the gut by a Brahma bull.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he said.
“Do you know her?” Cougar asked.
“I did a lifetime ago,” he muttered, trying to catch his breath.
Wyatt’s heart throttled his chest, as the past collided with the present. When had she gotten back? Why hadn’t anyone warned him? If they had, he’d have stayed the hell away from town.
Ralston’s party swelled. More people stepped through the door, jostling past Wyatt and Cougar. Laughter rang out as recycled stories were shared amongst old friends. Everyone was here to celebrate another successful cattle market run.
“You going to go over there and say hello?” Cougar asked.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Wyatt said.
“Suit yourself.” Cougar smiled at a blonde who walked by making eyes at him, then looked across the room. He took a step forward.
Wyatt grabbed his arm, stopping Cougar in his tracks.
Cougar glanced at Wyatt’s hand and arched a brow. “I take it that means hands off.”
Wyatt slid him a glacial look, before releasing his friend. “Good guess.”
“Pity.” Cougar grinned. “I was looking forward to cutting her from the herd and taking her for a ride around the corral a couple times.”
“Find your own horse.”
Cougar laughed. “I thought I had.”
A buxom brunette strolled by. The woman smiled coyly, while her gaze drank in Cougar’s body with undisguised lust. Wyatt shook his head. His best friend re-defined the term ‘babe magnet’. He’d never seen anything like it. One look at Cougar and most women immediately tossed their underwear aside.
Cougar swept his hat off his head and ran a hand through his long black hair—a gift from his Native American mother that he used to his advantage. The brunette nearly swooned at his feet.
“Good luck with your filly,” Cougar said. “Think you’re going to need it.” He slipped into the crowd to stalk his new prey.
Wyatt pushed the brim of his hat up with one finger and took a long, hard look at the woman across the room. He could hardly believe his eyes. She had some nerve showing up here tonight.
How long had it been? Eight years? Ten? Who was he kidding? Wyatt knew exactly how long it had been since Sally Ann Johnson left him standing at the altar, looking like a lovesick fool.
Ten excruciating years.
Wyatt recalled the last time he’d seen Sally. She’d been a scared eighteen-year-old, fresh out of high school. They’d taken each other’s virginity that hot July night. Two dumb kids with more hormones than brains. The act had been an earth-shattering moment for them both.
Afterwards, he’d laid his heart in her hands, with the kind of exuberance that only came with youth, and proposed marriage.
In his mind’s eye, Wyatt could still see the tears of joy dancing in her hazel eyes and the watery smile she’d bestowed upon him as she accepted his proposal. His heart had damn near burst with happiness.
Wyatt snorted and swept the hat from his head. They’d been crocodile tears.
Now she was back. The question was why?
He expelled a ragged breath, dispersing the memory, but he couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from her. One glance at her angelic face brought the anger and humiliation back.
The pain sliced through the armor he now wore around his battered heart. The urge to return the hurt lingered in the back of Wyatt’s mind, even as his gaze roamed over her long legs.
The years had been good to Sally Ann. Real good. No longer the little girl from the wrong side of the tracks, she looked as if she were used to the finer things in life, silk sheets, fast cars, and expensive chocolates. Not cowboys with callused hands.
Gone was the scrawny kid who’d been all knees and elbows. A goddess had replaced her. Her breasts were full——ripe like her ass. Her sun-kissed skin glistened in the candlelight and she’d changed her hair. The once shoulder length tresses, hung in soft waves down her back. The color was honeyed, like the taste of her.
Wyatt’s blood boiled unexpectedly at the thought of another man sampling her sweetness.
She’s not yours. Never was. Never will be.
He shouldn’t give a flip who Sally spread her legs for, but Wyatt never could think straight when she was around. His jaw tightened and he forced his hands to unclench.
A vision in navy blue silk, Sally Ann stood next to a dessert table laden with food, a glass of champagne dangling from her manicured fingertips. With her other hand, she traced lazy circles in the whipped cream topping on a plate of strawberry shortcake.
Wyatt hardened all over. If she brought that cream to those rosy lips of hers, he’d embarrass himself in front of the town. He turned away and adjusted the front of his jeans, so his aroused state wouldn’t be so obvious.
She shouldn’t be able to affect him this way after all these years. Damn her.
He was over her. Had been for a long, long time. Sally no longer held power over him. Wyatt would tell her as much, just as soon as he could get his legs to move.
He was so preoccupied with Sally that he hadn’t noticed Cougar approach.
“I didn’t expect to see you still standing in the same spot. Since when do you hesitate when it comes to women?” The well-endowed brunette clung to his friend’s arm as he ground to a halt.
“When the woman is named Sally Ann Johnson.”
“Johnson? Why does that name sound so familiar?” His dark eyes widened suddenly. “Isn’t that the name of your ex-fiancé?”
“One and the same,” Wyatt said.
Cougar’s brows shot to his hairline. He took another look at Sally. “You must be a masochist, my friend.” He slapped Wyatt on the back. “Even I wouldn’t touch that woman with a seven-foot fence post.”
He didn’t have to worry. Wyatt wasn’t about to touch Sally Ann. He wasn’t dumb enough to get involved with her twice in a lifetime. “You leaving already?” Wyatt asked.
Cougar’s gaze flicked to the woman beside him and his smile turned feral. “I got what I came for. You might want to cut your losses and get out of here while the getting is good.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Wyatt muttered under his breath.
“You’re not going to take though. Are you?”
Wyatt glared at him. His friend knew him well.
Cougar chuckled, then shook his head. “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.” He nuzzled the woman’s neck and she giggled. “But not too early.” He winked. “Your brother’s in the kitchen, if you change your mind and need a wingman.”
“Wade, a wingman?” Wyatt snorted.
“He’s better than nothing.”
Wyatt scoffed. “You only say that because you haven’t seen him in action.”
Cougar grinned. “True.”
Staid Wade wasn’t exactly a player, but it was nice to know his older brother was nearby if things with Sally went south.
The second Cougar left, Wyatt glanced once more at the woman who’d changed his life. Instead of getting married and having kids, he’d focused entirely on his work.
In the time that she’d been gone, Wyatt had expanded his family’s construction business to include Taos and Santa Fe. He had also nearly doubled their ranch with the addition of five thousand acres and several hundred head of cattle.
Thanks to Sally’s abrupt departure, his family now owned over nine thousand acres and ran a small empire. Wyatt doubted that he would’ve achieved as much had she stayed.
His cousin, Jill walked up and whispered something in Sally’s ear. She smiled, tossed her head back, and gave a throaty laugh.
The sound sent delicious tremors racing along his spine.
Wyatt considered Sally’s return and what her unexpected arrival meant to him. Nothing. He wasn’t a love-struck kid any longer. Wyatt knew his way around a woman’s body better than most men.
He’d had a lot of time on his hands to practice after Sally left. It had only taken five years to get her scent off his skin and another two, to stop hearing her soft cries in his head.
Seven long years of picking up buckle bunnies, whose only thoughts were about when the next rodeo would hit town had taught Wyatt all he needed to know about women. They used him and he used them back.
Or at least he had until last year.
Wyatt had grown tired of one-night stands. He was ready for something more permanent, but the lessons he’d learned stayed with him. Sally’s return wouldn’t change a thing.
A smile curved Wyatt’s mouth. For the first time in years, he felt a modicum of relief.
Sally looked at him. Her gaze slid leisurely down his body, caressing every inch of him. The temperature in the room spiked, when her mouth lifted in appreciation.
Wyatt fought the urge to high-tail it out of there.
Her eyes reversed course and settled on his face. There was no doubt she liked what she saw. Her smile widened in open invitation. Wyatt felt the impact of that smile like someone had taken a baseball bat to his knees.
Sally took a step forward and froze. Her expression wavered between shock and disbelief as recognition hit. Her posture went from seductive to rigid in two seconds flat. It was a sight to see.
Wyatt grinned, grateful he wasn’t the only one caught off guard tonight. As homecomings went, this was about the best that he could hope for.
Welcome home, Sally Ann.
* * * * *
Sally felt his eyes upon her before she actually saw him. One glance and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath.
Her gaze traveled over the length of his body, taking in his hard chest and rodeo-honed thighs. Black Levis lovingly cupped the impressive bulge behind his zipper and accentuated his cocky stance.
The cowboy was hot. Her skin flushed. She smiled and took a step in his direction. It had been a long time since she’d had this kind of reaction to a man.
An inkling of familiarity skittered in her mind and her muscles locked. It couldn’t be.
Deeply tanned skin, weathered from the long hours spent working in the sun, intensified his bright smile. His shoulders were broader than she recalled. Everything about him was bigger, better, more intense.
Her mouth dropped open and every muscle in her body froze. What was Wyatt Branson doing here?
She’d needed to talk to him. Had planned to once she got settled. Not that she had much of a choice given the circumstances. But not here. Not tonight. She wasn’t ready to face him yet.
He continued to stare, amused by her discomfort. How could such a cool gaze leave her skin so achingly hot?
Only Wyatt had been able to do that to her. Somehow, Sally recovered, remembered how to breathe, but it took effort.
He looked good. Far better than she remembered. Sally gazed at Wyatt’s handsome face, taking in his square jaw and savage mouth. She’d forgotten how nice his lips were. Not too full and not too thin. Firm to the touch.
Even now, part of her longed to taste those lips again. See if they held the same drugging appeal they had when she was eighteen.
Sally wrenched her mind off that dangerous path. She couldn’t afford to let lust rule her actions. Not that it had ever been just lust with Wyatt. Her palms began to sweat and Sally’s heart danced a two-step behind her ribcage.
A black Stetson dangled from his long fingertips, swaying back and forth as if it had been caught in a gentle breeze. Wyatt’s ebony hair was now cropped short and pushed up on the ends, giving him a just-had-sex-and-rolled-out-of-bed look. For all Sally knew, he had.
A wave of unexpected jealousy struck. It had been so long since she felt the uncomfortable emotion it took her a moment to figure out what it was. When she did, Sally nearly dropped her drink.
Wyatt watched her like a fox eyeing a plump hen.
Heat blossomed and spread throughout her body, prickling her skin, hardening her nipples. If that’s what he could do with a look, Sally didn’t want to consider what his touch was capable of.
Too late. Her body remembered with a vengeance.
The amusement she’d witnessed seconds ago slowly faded. His expression became impassive, but not before she glimpsed the anger simmering in his gray eyes.
As much as she’d love to, Sally couldn’t blame him. It was all her fault. She’d been an idiot. But in her heart, Sally knew she’d done the right thing by not marrying him. Wyatt deserved more than what she could’ve offered him.
‘Stick to your own kind’. Her father’s words echoed in her head. He’d been right. Wyatt was a Branson and she was a Johnson. Bransons and Johnsons didn’t belong together—at least not back then.
Even if bad blood between their families hadn’t stood in their way, they had been too young to get married. Sally hadn’t realized it until she’d heard the piped in music of the Wedding March begin. By then, it was too late. She panicked.
Running away from the little church seemed like the only logical solution. She’d sped home, packed her things, and raced out of town like a coward, leaving the pieces of her shattered heart behind. By the time she’d cooled off and thought the whole thing through, Sally had been too embarrassed to return.
Ten years later, here she stood, successful, accomplished, and feeling like that same scared little girl.
One look from Wyatt made it perfectly clear what he thought of her. Sally stared at him, knowing she should say something, anything, but words failed her.
Too much time had passed, too much pain endured. The bridges she’d burned had disintegrated, blowing away like a leaf in a New Mexico windstorm.
They weren’t the same lovesick teens they’d been ten years ago. Then why is your body thrumming like a Tewa drum? Sally pushed the thought aside, preferring to ignore the implications.
She wasn’t poor little Sally Ann Johnson anymore. She’d gone to school, received her realtor license and made a killing in the housing market in the Bay area before the market collapse.
Sally had done so well that the high-end firm she worked for was looking into making her a full-fledged partner this week. It was a position all but unheard of in the real-estate biz.
If the offer came through, it would mean that all her sacrifices and hard work had finally paid off. She would’ve achieved her dream.
All Sally had to do to guarantee her spot was to fix up the ranch and sell it.
Easier said than done with the bank breathing down her neck. She only had two weeks to repair the place or the property would be condemned.
Sally may not want the ranch anymore, but she couldn’t afford to let the bank get it. Not when the realty firm was analyzing her sales history and her finances.
One misstep now and she’d lose her once in a lifetime opportunity. Which was why she desperately needed Wyatt’s help to restore her family home.
The Bransons owned the only construction company in town. They also were the best. If Wyatt turned her down, it would take at least a week to get another company to come to town to survey the property and put in a work bid. It was a week Sally couldn’t afford to lose.
Wyatt was her last—and only chance.
If in the process she could settle things between them and earn his forgiveness, then all the better. She’d be able to leave Cima with a clear conscience once and for all.
Sally glanced at Wyatt and her hope dwindled.
He despised her. The emotion was there in his storm swept eyes. Sally’s heart ached at the thought. She’d hoped that time had eased some of Wyatt’s pain, but after seeing him again, Sally knew that was naïve.
What did you expect? You left him standing at the altar.
Sally ignored the caldron of emotions that should’ve dried up ten years ago. They’d only complicate what needed to be done.
She squared her shoulders. It was now or never. With the past tucked firmly behind her, Sally shored up her courage and took a timid step in Wyatt’s direction.
* * * * *
She was coming over. Wyatt stiffened as he realized Sally’s intention and his mind blanked. He wasn’t ready to talk to her. She continued to make her way across the rustic great room, her hips gently swaying with each step.
He swallowed hard and forced a smile. Sally stopped a few feet away. Her subtle fragrance drifted over, snaring his senses. Wyatt had forgotten how much she smelled like wildflowers.
“Hello, Wyatt. It’s been a long time,” she murmured, her husky voice resonating with...desire? “You look good.”
Wyatt hadn’t anticipated the effect the sound of her voice would have on him. His heart tripped and his traitorous shaft leapt to attention. Wyatt knew he read more into her tone than was actually there. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t stop his body’s reaction.
Need surged through him, laying siege to his defenses. His gaze locked onto her ripe mouth. Her lips were moving, but Wyatt couldn’t seem to hear a word as blood roared in his ears.
“Are you going to just stand there staring, or are you going to talk to me?” Hurt replaced desire.
Wyatt blinked, the spell broken by her tone. “What do you want me to say, that I’m glad you’re back? That I missed you?” His jaw clenched. “Well I’m not. And I didn’t. I’d have been happy to never lay eyes on you again.” He pushed the lie out.
She flinched, but didn’t back down.
“Goodbye, Sally Ann.” Wyatt turned away. Her light touch halted his progress. He tensed and glanced at the slender fingers, curving around his arm. “What do you want from me?”
“I thought we could talk about what happened,” she said softly.
Wyatt snorted. That wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t about to rip his wounds open to soothe her conscience.
“There’s nothing left to say.” His gruff voice grated his ears. “If you’re waiting for forgiveness, then you’ll have a long wait ahead of you. We’re way past that now. Ten years past to be exact.” The heat from her hand burned through his shirt, branding his soul.
Let me go. A desperate plea from a desperate man.
Color rose in her cheeks. Sally released him. “I’d never expect forgiveness. Not from you. Not after everything that happened.” Her voice faded.
Wyatt felt like kicking himself for causing her pain. But damn it, she’d hurt him. Bad. It had taken years to recover. He stared at her.
She couldn’t meet his gaze. “I’d like nothing more than to leave you in peace, but I need your help.”
Of all the things she could have said to him, ‘I need your help’ was the last thing Wyatt had expected.
Sally Ann always had a way of surprising him. Just when he thought he knew exactly what she would say or how she would act, she threw him a curve. Now she needed his help. It was one more thing he couldn’t give her.
It didn’t matter what she wanted his help for, Wyatt planned to tell her no. Tell her to go to hell. Tell her to leave him alone and never come back.
“With what?” he choked out, stunned by the question.
Where had that come from? He didn’t want to know why she needed his help. Didn’t care. Turn her down and be done with it. Wyatt closed his eyes and cursed silently.
“Have you been out to my folk’s place lately?”
“No need.” He’d avoided it because the Johnson ranch brought back too many memories. Memories Wyatt would just as soon forget.
“It’s bad. I didn’t realize Dad had stopped with the upkeep. Had I known about the neglect, things would’ve been different.” She paused as a few people walked by, then lowered her voice. “The bank has started foreclosure proceedings. I have the money to get it out, but if I can’t get the main buildings up to code, it’ll be condemned.” Sally sighed. “If that happens, the sale price will be pennies on the dollar. I’ll lose the ranch and it’ll cost me a major promotion.”
Had he really thought she was here to stay? “You never did like this place.”
“As I recall, I had good reason,” she snapped, then glanced around at the townspeople. “There’s no point in keeping the ranch. My folks are gone. I have nothing tying me to this town.” She looked at him. “Anymore.”
The last word was a direct hit.
Wyatt ignored the unexpected anger her statement caused and hardened his heart against the sad vulnerability she tried unsuccessfully to hide.
That lost look almost made him want to reconsider. Almost, but not quite. He’d fallen for Sally’s tearful act once. Wyatt wasn’t about to fall for it again.
“Do you have a buyer in mind?” He pushed aside his violent reaction to her nearness, so he could focus on their conversation.
“No, but even if I did, it won’t matter if I can’t get the property fixed. The bank has made that clear.” Sally cocked her head. “Why? You interested?”
A loaded question.
“Maybe,” he said noncommittally. Wyatt didn’t want any part of her folk’s old ranch. It held too many bitter memories.
Sally shrugged. “Well you can get in line behind Jacob Tanner.”
Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “Didn’t know that you and Jacob were still in touch.” Back in the day, he and ‘Jake’ had been rivals for Sally’s affections. Wyatt had thought he’d won that particular battle, but in the end, Jake had been the lucky one. He’d escaped unscathed.
“We’ve talked a few times over the years,” she said. “You guys aren’t still feuding.” She tilted her head. “Are you?”
His body tensed at the overly familiar tone she used. “No reason to be anymore,” he said coldly.
How long had she been in town? It had obviously been a while if she’d already started entertaining offers on her place.
Wyatt debated whether to toss his family’s name into the pot of possible buyers, but decided the smartest thing he could do was stay as far away from Sally as possible.
“Sorry,” he said. “Don’t think I can help you.”
“I can pay you double for your time,” she said hurriedly. “I’m not hand-me-down Sally anymore. I’ve made enough money to live comfortably. If I get this promotion, I’ll have more than I will ever need.”
Wyatt rubbed his forehead. “It’s not about the money,” he said. “Never has been.”
Sally crossed her arms over her chest, inadvertently shoving her breasts higher. “Then what’s holding you back?”
Wyatt tore his gaze away from the luscious temptation and frowned. “Do you really have to ask?”
“There you are.” Jacob pushed through the crowd. He wrapped his hand around Sally’s trim waist and pulled her close, before she could reply. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Thought maybe you’d changed your mind about coming tonight.” He smirked at Wyatt and squeezed Sally tighter. “Hey Branson. Didn’t see you there.”
Right, Wyatt thought.
Sally’s smile faltered.
“Should’ve known I’d find you here. Some bad habits die hard.” Jacob didn’t bother to hide his distaste. “What are you two up to?”
“Talking business,” Wyatt said.
Jacob frowned at Sally. “I thought I told you that I’d take care of everything,” he said.
She patted his hand. “I appreciate the offer. You know I do, but I wanted to check with Wyatt first since his company does this type of work all the time.”
Sally didn’t seem to notice Jake’s predatory gaze, but Wyatt sure did.
“What time do you want me at the ranch?” Wyatt forced his voice to remain casual, when he was feeling anything but.
Sally startled in surprise. “I thought you said—”
“Do you want me to assess the property or not?” Wyatt cut in.
“Sure, that would be great.” Sally looked confused, but was smart enough to agree. “Seven okay?”
“See you then.” Tomorrow Wyatt planned to turn the job down, but at least for tonight he had the satisfaction of knowing that he’d tossed a wrench into Jacob’s plans. Wyatt shoved his hat on his head. “Tanner.” He nodded.
“Branson,” Jacob parroted back and tightened his grip on Sally.
Wyatt left, wondering what in the hell he’d just got himself into. He’d gone from pissed off to jealous in about eight seconds flat. Had to be some kind of record. Wyatt hated how knotted up he felt around Sally. Even at eighteen she’d had the ability to leave him dazed.
With a few choice words and sly looks, Sally had the good-old-boy in him responding like a lap dog. It didn’t help that Jacob Tanner was once again making a play for his girl. Wyatt stumbled.
Sally may be many things, but she was no longer his anything. Nor would she ever be again. Wyatt had learned his lesson. He glanced back.
Jacob smiled, looking altogether too pleased with himself. Wyatt cursed and lengthened his stride. The sooner he turned this job down, the better. Only a fool gave someone the chance to burn them twice and he was no fool.
Sally watched Wyatt leave. She wasn’t sure what had just happened, but she’d take help where she could find it. She planted a smile on her face and turned back to Jacob Tanner, who now wore a scowl.
“I’m a little surprised that you had the nerve to approach Wyatt after everything that happened,” Jacob said. “I would think he’d be the last person you’d want hanging around the ranch...unless there’s still something between you two.”
“No!” Sally said a tad too forcefully. “The past is the past. We’ve both moved on with our lives.”
Jacob nodded. “Good to know. So why did you ask him for help?”
“For the same reasons anyone else would. His company has a lot of experience doing this type of work,” Sally said.
Jacob laughed. “You’ve got guts. I’ll give you that.”
Her brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
He gave her a sly grin. “I wouldn’t want my angry ex working on my house. Not unless I wanted to see it fall down on my head.”
Sally frowned. She hadn’t thought about it that way. Had she made a mistake? “Wyatt wouldn’t do anything like that.” Would he?
Jacob shrugged. “If you say so.”
“He wouldn’t,” she insisted, but her voice faltered as serious doubts crept in.
Jacob met her gaze. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Wyatt is the same boy you use to know. Since you’ve been gone, he’s earned himself quite a reputation and not all of it’s good.”
Sally knew Wyatt had changed. One glance had told her that. But she couldn’t imagine Wyatt doing something so underhanded, when it came to safety. He’d always been so responsible.
“He’s only coming out to take a look. He hasn’t agreed to do the job,” she said. He may change his mind when he gets there. For that matter, she may change hers.
“For your sake, I hope he turns the job down,” Jacob said. “I’d hate to see you get hurt again.”