Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Riding Hard: Ross

Book 5: Riding Hard Series

I’ve got a stranded motorist on Fairpoint Road,” Ross said into his radio as he pulled to the grassy side of the deserted highway. Rain pounded on his SUV’s roof, and he raised his voice to hear himself. “Stopping to assist.”

“Roger that,” the tones of Mildred, River County’s dispatcher, crackled through. “Need backup?”

“Nah, I got this.”

Fairpoint was Farm Road 231 B, a lonely stretch between Riverbend and White Fork. The car, silver, had plowed through the mud on the shoulder and now was stuck half into and half out of the water-filled ditch, courtesy of the late May rainstorm. The car was sleek and looked expensive, probably a Mercedes, obscured by sheets of rain.

“Noted,” Mildred said. “Oh, Ross, your mom called. She wants to know if you’re home for supper tonight.”

“Ha.” Ross shifted on the seat. “Means she wants me to cook. If she calls back, tell her sure, I’ll be there.”

“You’re a good boy, Ross.”

“That’s what they all say.”

Mildred, a large woman comfortable with her weight, whose hair color changed bi-weekly, laughed, signed off, and the radio went silent.

The license plate was from Texas, and the car was in fact a Mercedes, Ross saw as he halted behind it, low-slung and sporty. He didn’t recognize the vehicle as belonging to a local, which meant the motorist could be from anywhere in the vast state. The rain was too bad for him to make out the tags or a city named on the plate holder. One back tire was flat.

As Ross set his brake, the driver’s side door of the silver car opened, kicked by a foot in a white slipper. A leg in a pale stocking followed, accompanied by yards and yards of white tulle.

Ross knew it was called tulle from the four weddings he’d been to in the last year or so—one for each of his older Campbell brothers. The wives and wives-to-be had camped out in the living room at Circle C for months and talked about dresses and place settings and floral arrangements until Ross’s eyes had glazed over. His brothers had watched their ladies with goofy looks on their faces.

The rest of the skirt came out of the car, followed by a satin bodice hugging a nicely shaped body. The woman’s arms were bare, as was her head, her hair in a perfectly formed bun studded with tiny white flowers.

The young woman wrestled with the dress until she popped free of the car, then she brought up a cell phone and raised it high, her mouth moving in words Ross couldn’t hear.

Pouring rain misted around her, deflating the skirts and darkening the bodice. Ross jumped out of his SUV at the same moment the woman spun and kicked the flat tire with one delicate slipper.

She let out a yell as her foot connected with the hard tire, then she hopped, slipped, and started to fall.

Ross caught her.

Warm, soft woman moved under his fingertips, lighting fire in his blood. The silk let him feel her supple waist, a curve beneath his hand.

She had glitter in her hair, sparkling in what little light leaked through the clouds. Glitter also filmed her cheeks, which was cut by rivulets of mascara.

Blue eyes peered at Ross from behind the smeared mascara, giving her the look of a startled raccoon. Her nose was slightly crooked, lips brushed with pink. Below the turned-down mouth was a rounded chin, a suntanned neck, and more shoulders and bust than should be exposed in a hell of a rainstorm on a Texas back road.

Her hair was a light shade of brown or a dark shade of blond, dark and light strands blending into one another. The glitter was dissolving, and the white flowers drooped, rain plastering them to her head.

Ross recognized her with a jolt.

Callie Jones.

The beautiful, highborn, debutante Callie, who’d been the object of high-school Ross’s fantasies. He’d crushed on her since the day he’d seen her next to his locker, talking to her friends, her curvy body outlined by a tight-sleeved top with glitter on it. She liked glitter.

When he’d swaggered up, a full-of-himself Campbell, and said, “Pardon me, ladies,” she’d flashed him a smile that had kept him awake for a week.

Callie wasn’t smiling now, and it was doubtful she remembered him from their few and brief encounters. She’d been a grade higher than he was, and their paths hadn’t crossed much—not at all once she’d graduated and left Riverbend.

Now she was back in River County, stuck in a storm … in a wedding dress.

“Easy,” was Ross’s great opening line. “Bad day to break your toes.”

“You think?” The outraged voice that came over the driving rain managed to maintain some sultry tones.

Callie’s exposed skin had risen in goose bumps, and the silk of the dress was already sodden. Much longer and a thousand dollars’ worth of wedding gown would be a melted rag.

Ross took a firm grip on her elbow and guided her up the slippery grass and mud bank to his SUV, where he opened the passenger door. She struggled with the high step and all the tulle, and Ross assisted with a professional hand to her side.

The warmth of her pulled at him, and his hand splayed across her waist before he could stop it. All he had to do was slide his other hand to her back, pull her a little closer, and brush those pink, parted lips …

Callie met his gaze, and her eyes widened the slightest bit.

This woman was churning with rage, burning bright with it. She clenched her jaw and balled her hands, jerking herself from his touch and sliding onto the seat.

Ross stuffed tulle around her feet … and stuffed and stuffed. The dress was massive.

Callie gathered it up, piling it on her lap until she was one big puffball, her wet bodice and glittery head poking from the cloud. Her breasts rose over the neckline with her sharp breath. If she breathed any harder, she’d pop right out of the gown.

Hell of a picture. Ross shut the door and stepped back into the rain to let its harsh chill cut the sudden heat inside him. He couldn’t believe he was lusting after a rain-drenched Callie, who was obviously about to marry someone else.

No, he could believe it. Callie was hotter than ever, and her groom was one lucky guy.

Ross wasn’t ashamed of his attraction to women—what he did because of that attraction would make him either a good guy or an asshole. Ross could admire a beautiful woman but walk away, no harm, no foul. He’d had plenty of girlfriends since he’d started going out at age sixteen, and he wasn’t desperate for affection. He was the youngest Campbell, the cute one, the one with the four famous stunt-riding older brothers. Teenaged Ross had milked that for all he was worth.

He wiped rain out of his face as he rounded the SUV and climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Hang tight,” he told the ball of wet fabric beside him. “I’ll call a tow.”

“I can’t wait for a tow.” Callie banged frustrated fists into the netting. “If you hadn’t noticed, I have someplace to be. Can’t we just change the tire?”

We, as though she’d be out there shoving a jack under the car.

Impolite to laugh at her, but Ross did it anyway. “That pretty car of yours is stuck, ma’am. I can’t haul it out of the ditch with my bare hands.”

“Don’t you have a rope or anything? And I’m not a ma’am. Shit, I’m not even married yet.”

“Well, if I called you honey, or sweetheart, I’m guessing you’d smack me upside the head. Or report me. Sheriff Hennessy already doesn’t like me, so there would go my job. Let’s stick with ma’am.”

“Or you could call me Callie,” she said. “Callie Jones.” Before Ross could respond she said, “Yes, I’m one of those ‘Jones girls’.” She did finger quotes, sounding weary.

“Ross Campbell. We went to the same high school.”

“I know we did. I recognize you.” The corners of her lips twitched, a tiny smile breaking through her anger. “You’re one of those ‘Campbell boys.’” She repeated the finger quotes.

“Yep.” Ross flashed her a grin. “But not the famous ones. I got a real job.”

“Instead of falling off horses for a living?” Callie’s tone turned wistful. “I’d love to be able to ride like your brothers do.”

“You ride?”

“I grew up on a ranch in the middle of Texas with a father who rides every day—I didn’t have a choice. But yeah, I love it. Haven’t had much of a chance these days.” She shook a fold of her skirt. “Been a little busy. What am I going to do, Mr. Campbell?”

“Ross. If you don’t call me mister, I won’t call you ma’am. Deal?”

“Deal.” She held out her hand, and Ross enveloped it with his.

Again with the fire. Ross didn’t jerk away, because that would signal his reaction, the one that made him want to hold on and not let go.

The Jones girls—the three daughters of Caleb Jones, the richest man in River County, who owned a couple hundred sections of land and ran vast herds of cattle—were untouchable. Way out of your league, dude, was the remark to any male in Riverbend High School who even looked at a Jones.

Callie had been worth losing sleep over. Even now, wet as a half-drowned rat, her eyes ringed with black, her wet netting musty, she was amazing. The warmth of her was electric, even through a friendly handshake.

Ross made himself release her and reach for his radio.

“I’ll drive you where you need to go. Let me get Sanchez over here to babysit your car, so some opportunistic car thief doesn’t swim out and take it.”

“I can’t even wait for that. I’m already late, and I bet Devon’s shitting a brick. He has a thing about punctuality.”

Ross looked at her in surprise. “Well, if he doesn’t think you’re worth waiting for, he’s an idiot.”

“Aw.” The twitch of lips turned into a wide smile, which flushed her cheeks. “That’s sweet.”

“Sweet. Yeah, that’s me. Don’t worry, ma’am—I mean, Callie. I’ll get you to the church … maybe not on time. But a bride’s supposed to make an entrance, right? I have four sisters-in-law. I’ve walked so many bridesmaids up the aisle, it’s not funny.”

Another fleeting smile. “Always a groomsman, never a groom?”

“Not if I can help it.” Ross clicked on the radio as the rain chose that moment to pick up again. “Mildred, where’s Sanchez?”

Static. “East 2432 last time he checked in.”

“Good. He’s only a couple miles away. Tell him to haul ass to the fourth mile marker on Fairpoint to watch over a silver Mercedes, Texas license plate …” He glanced at Callie who told him the numbers and letters in her low-pitched voice. A plate number had never sounded so sexy.

Ross repeated it to Mildred. “Wake up K.D. and tell him to bring his tow to the same spot. Take it to his garage, fix the flat, and the owner will pick it up later.”

“Roger all that. Where are you going to be, Ross?”

“Church. Got a wedding to get to. Over and out.”

“What?” Mildred spluttered as Ross hung up the radio. “Ross Campbell …”

Ross clicked it off, put the SUV in gear, and sped onto the road, tires spinning in the mud.

* * *

Callie fought fury, nausea, hysterical laughter, and nausea again. Of all the stupid days for a tire to go flat, for it to rain, for her car to slide off the road with a blowout, it had to be this one. All because her sisters couldn’t be trusted to remember one stupid thing—pick up the bride.

“I’m late for everything in my life.” Rain pounded on the windshield, too fast for the SUV’s wipers to clear it. “It’s kind of a joke. I told myself that this time—this one time, I wasn’t going to screw up.” She poked the air. “Trina—my best friend—offered to drive me, but oh, no, I said. My sisters and me, we should do this together. So what do they do? Leave me in the dust. I’m gonna kill them.” Callie shot Ross a glance. “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t say that to a cop.”

He grinned at her, the wide smile that lit up his sun-bronzed face and made his eyes sparkle. Ross Campbell had been good-looking enough when they’d been kids. That boy from years ago had filled out into a man, and holy crap, what a man.

Devon was handsome too, in an always-wears-a-suit, stockbroker kind of way. Ross, in contrast, was salt-of-the-earth Texas—not afraid of its sun and wind, if the tanned arm between his khaki short sleeves and strong hands was anything to go by. The sun had left creases around his eyes, which were framed by black lashes as dark as the hair on his head. He’d buzzed his hair short, giving him a military look that matched the sharply creased uniform, now dark with rain.

His eyes were his best feature. Deep blue, like bluebonnets. Callie doubted any man wanted to be compared to a flower, but that’s what he made her think of—the bluebonnets that carpeted the Hill Country fields in spring.

He was talking in a rumbling voice touched with a Central Texas accent. “I get what you mean. I have four brothers. And I’m deputy, not a cop.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Don’t get me started. And why are you all decked out already? I thought brides got dressed at the church.”

Callie let her hands drop into the cushion of tulle. “My sisters again. One of them was supposed to help me dress and drive me in. The hairdresser got me into the gown, then she had to go to her next appointment, and I’m waiting, waiting. Finally, I said, screw it, I can drive myself. My car was right outside the front door. All I had to do was get in, head to the church, and run inside. I don’t know what the hell blew my tire, and my cell phone couldn’t find a signal. But it doesn’t matter—I can’t wait for roadside service. Vows to say, honeymoons to go on.” She caught sight of the time on Ross’s dashboard and groaned. The ceremony should have started half an hour ago.

She knew Ross couldn’t drive any faster. The rain was coming down so hard that visibility was nil. Ross had to inch his way through the downpour.

“Who you marrying?” he asked conversationally, as though they weren’t creeping through the biggest storm she’d seen in years.

“Devon Naylor,” Callie answered. “You wouldn’t know him. I met him in Dallas. He runs a business there.”

“You off to live in Dallas then?”

“Yes.” Callie was surprised at how forlorn she sounded.

Ross glanced her way with a flash of blue. Ross and his brothers had been the hottest guys in school, but they’d never looked at Callie or her sisters. Too bad, she thought wistfully.

“Second thoughts about the big-city life?” Ross asked.

Second, third, and fourth thoughts. “Not used to being closed in,” Callie admitted. “Dallas can be fun, but have you seen their traffic? And everyplace you want to go is like a million miles from where you are.”

“I hear that. I used to—”

He broke off, his expression changing from lighthearted to grim in a split second. Ross turned his head to stare hard at something on the side of the road, then he abruptly braked.

Callie braced herself as the SUV fishtailed. She held her breath, waiting for another plunge into a ditch, but Ross easily stopped the vehicle, all four tires remaining on the pavement.

He flung open his door, leapt out, and raced away into the silver rain.

Callie craned to keep sight of him as he ran down the road the direction they’d come, the pounding rain misting the pavement. Ross sprinted flat-out, arms and legs pumping, and then he disappeared into the murk.

Shit. Callie tried her phone again, but no, nothing. Stupid service providers. She should have taken her dad’s advice and invested in a sat phone.

A thin young man sprang out of the tall grass behind the SUV and bolted across the road. Callie caught a flash of jeans and a hoodie, and then he was gone.

Ross hurtled out of the grass after him. The chase lasted only a few seconds before Ross, body lithe in his uniform, reached the young man and tackled him.

They went down, but Ross was up in a moment, one hand on the young man’s neck. Ross hauled him upright, twisting the kid’s arm around his back. The young man fought, but he couldn’t break Ross’s hold as Ross dragged him to the SUV.

Ross wedged the youth against the side of the vehicle and twisted his other arm behind him, cuffing his wrists in one smooth movement. He opened the back door and shoved the young man inside.

“I wasn’t stealing that pickup, Ross,” the kid was protesting. “Honest.”

“Sure, Manny. That tire iron just happened to leap into your hand.”

“It’s my truck,” Manny said quickly. “I locked my keys inside.”

“What’s the license plate number?”

“Uh …”

Ross slammed the door and moved to the front seat.

Manny’s hood fell back. Callie saw through the grill that separated back seat from front a freckled face, rain-slicked red hair, gray eyes that probably had the River County girls falling at his feet, and a frank, assessing stare.

“Whoa,” Manny said, peering at Callie and her mountain of tulle. “You can get arrested for that now?”

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