Well, hello tall, dark, and sexy.
The cowboy was way out of place in this backstreet Dallas bar full of bikers. Jessica pretended to be busy wiping trays while she checked him out—dark hair, tall body honed to satisfaction, blue eyes that could drop a woman at ten paces.
He looked around warily, assessing the slightly smelly, tattooed men around him before he took a seat at the relatively empty end of the bar’s counter. His black cowboy shirt stretched across hard shoulders, and jeans cupped the finest ass Jessica had seen in a long, long time.
Jess set down her tray and made her careful way to him, ignoring the glare from Elijah, the thickly muscled leader of the bikers, that said she should ignore him. She didn’t work for Elijah—she worked for the bar, no matter what he thought.
“What can I get you?” Jess asked, putting a little more warmth into the question than usual.
The cowboy looked up as she spoke, caught her gaze and held it. Then he smiled.
He had a smile full of fire and sin, his blue eyes heating as he ran his gaze down Jessica’s tight black T-shirt that said Bike Me. From there he moved to her arm of lacy ink, and up to her face and curls of dark hair she tried to tame into a ponytail.
“Hey there, sweetheart,” he said, his voice deep and rumbling. “Damn, I’m glad there’s something pretty to look at in here.”
Jess tried to avoid his intense stare by moving her gaze to his throat, but that didn’t help. He had a tanned, strong neck that led down to the open top button of his shirt, which in turn led to a glimpse of his chest.
Jess zipped her eyes to his face again. He was watching her with a piercing focus, and when Jess looked at him fully, his smile widened.
Her heart thumped, but she tamped down her reaction. The cowboy was a charmer—she recognized that right away. Probably he smiled like this at every woman from here to San Antonio, or wherever he was from. He had a Central Texas accent—less broad than a West Texas, less Southern than an East.
Trouble was, this bar was for locals who didn’t like strangers, and bikers who didn’t like cowboys. The local boys figured Jessica belonged to them. Jessica had once been married to one of their own, and they were proprietary.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Jessica said. The quicker the cowboy drank his drink and took off, the better. “What do you want?”
His sinful look deepened, and Jess’s face scorched. “From the bar,” she added hastily and then heated again as he kept on grinning. Realizing he’d turn everything she said into innuendo, Jess asked, “Beer?”
“Sure,” the cowboy answered, not looking away from her. “A beer would be great.”
Jess grabbed a glass and poured a draft from the tap. She didn’t ask what kind of beer he wanted because it was rare she served anything but the straight commercial brand in the kegs.
As Jessica set down the mug, the cowboy gave her a nod of thanks, his eyes crinkling in the corners. They were kind eyes, full of warmth that said he could be friendly, a guy Jessica wanted to get to know.
Of course she wanted to get to know him—she’d love to—but there was no room in her life for wishful thinking. The cowboy would leave and head back to wherever, and Jess would go on working and home to her kid. That was how it was.
“Where you from?” she heard herself asking as the cowboy sipped his beer.
What was she doing, talking to a heartbreaker? But Jessica was naturally interested in people, wanting to know all about them, even though that knowledge sometimes burned. Friendly, people called her. A real sweetheart. Dominic always said, Too trusting, Mom, and Dominic was usually right.
“Riverbend,” the cowboy answered. He pitched his voice low, leaning forward as though he and Jess could have a private conversation in the crowded bar.
“Where’s that?” Not a strange question. There were so many little towns in Texas that even Texans hadn’t heard of them all.
“Hill Country,” the man said, pride in his voice. “West of Austin.”
That explained his accent. Hill Country people were smug about where they lived, and no wonder. It was one of the most beautiful pockets of Texas, and they knew it.
“I hear it’s pretty out there,” Jess said wistfully. “I’ve never been.”
“Well, when you get the chance, come on down. Riverbend’s the friendliest town in Texas—that’s what the sign in front of it says anyway.” He laughed, a rumbling sound that tingled in her spine. “Well, it has a few assholes, but I’ll tell you who they are.”
Jess found herself smiling back. She opened her mouth to ask why a cowboy from a great little town was slumming in a biker bar in Dallas when Elijah stood up.
The cowboy’s smile faded, and he changed from teasing flirt to watchful outsider in a heartbeat. He gave Jessica a warning look, as though encouraging her to take cover and be safe while whatever was about to happen went down.
Five bikers rose to join Elijah, who was large, thick-bearded and thick-haired. His eyes held an evil glint, which went with the rest of his evil personality.
The bikers and Elijah moved to surround the cowboy, two of Elijah’s guys standing directly behind his stool. “Time to go,” Elijah said.
A sensible man would have shrugged, set down his beer, and walked quietly to the door, maybe even apologize for disturbing everyone and saying he didn’t want trouble.
The cowboy met Elijah’s stare with a level one of his own. “I just started my beer,” he said without worry. “Had a long day, boys. Maybe you caught our show?”
The bikers’ expressions turned to ones of puzzlement. “What show?” Elijah’s second-in-command asked. “Costume party?” His friends laughed at his feeble humor.
The cowboy was unfazed. “Mesquite Arena. We’re stunt riders. We got another show tomorrow. I can get you tickets if you want.”
This stymied them. “What kind of stunts?” Elijah asked.
The cowboy rested an elbow on the bar, the arm stretching the black shirt full of powerful muscle. He gave Elijah and company an unconcerned look, as though ready to make friends with them all. “Trick riding, fights, shoot-em-ups. Kids love it.”
Sounded like something Dominic would enjoy—he loved anything to do with horses, even if he’d never ridden one. But only if Jessica could afford to go, which was unlikely.
“Show us,” Elijah said, folding his arms. “Do some stunts, cowboy.”
The cowboy chuckled and shook his head. “I’d need a horse.”
“How about the fighting?” another asked. “Come on. Let’s see some good shit.”
“How about I buy you a round of brews instead?” the cowboy offered.
That should have softened up the crowd, and in fact, one or two of them started to nod, as though maybe this guy wasn’t so bad.
But Elijah, who was a brutal bully of a man, bent a vicious glare on the cowboy. “Do it or get out, mother-fu—”
The word ended in a grunt as the cowboy, faster than fast, was off the stool, swinging his beer mug straight into Elijah’s gut. The cowboy followed that by ducking down, rolling more swiftly than a man should be able to move, and coming up on the other side of Elijah’s men.
Half the bar stared in amazement, a few guys laughing as Elijah straightened up, his shirt and jeans soaked with beer, but a buzz of anger drowned out the mirth. As a pack, Elijah’s bikers went for the cowboy.
The cowboy moved on quick feet, his motion a blur. He’d left his hat on the bar, and one of the bikers grabbed it, whooping like he’d won a prize. He turned with it in his hands, to find himself face to face with the cowboy, who wasn’t smiling anymore.
The blue eyes held controlled anger, as though he could stand there and pick them off one by one. Too bad he wouldn’t get a chance, because a dozen men were between him and the door.
The cowboy and the biker with his hat stared at each other a second, then the cowboy’s fist flashed out and caught the other man upside the head.
As the biker dropped to the floor, the cowboy caught his hat and ran toward the barstool where he’d been sitting. Elijah’s guys surged on him, but the cowboy vaulted himself upward, landing with his butt on the countertop, and used the momentum to slide down it, right toward Jessica. He grinned at her as he went by, touching his lips, making her realize her own were parted in shock.
Elijah and his thugs hurried to the end of the bar, ready to catch the cowboy when he came off. The cowboy didn’t let them. He swung his legs behind the counter and hopped down, landing right against Jessica.
Jess had the sensation of a hard body flush with hers, strength in every inch. He was tall, but not so tall it was a chore to look up at him.
He gazed at Jessica with dark blue eyes full of a strange emptiness, before he caught her around the waist, yanked her to him, and brought his mouth down on hers in a fierce kiss.
Jessica’s never-strong leg gave way, but the cowboy held her in place, his arm as solid as a steel bar, his strength renewing her balance. He kissed her like he had all the time in the world, his lips skilled, promising plenty of wickedness if they ever got out of this bar.
Heat swam through her, Jess’s mouth responding to his before she could stop herself. She drank him into her—his nearness bringing scents of leather and outdoors. He tasted of beer and spice, sparking feelings she’d thought dead forever, reminding her she was still alive.
The cowboy gave a start as her lips returned his pressure, as though he hadn’t expected her to kiss him back. The two of them hovered in a silent moment, the noise, stale air, and stench of too many sweaty men fading, a bubble of warmth and rightness enclosing them.
The cowboy drew back, looking down at her as seconds ticked by. His eyes fixed on her, something in the blue depths dancing out of Jess’s reach.
Then he released her, smiled his melting smile, and spun away. He deftly rolled over the side of the bar opposite where Elijah and his guys had halted in confusion and made for the space that had cleared to the door. The cowboy ran into the night, hot Texas wind pouring into the room in his wake.
Elijah and his crew went after him.
Jessica leaned on the counter, fighting to stay upright, touching her fingers to her tingling lips as her heart banged so fast she could barely breathe.
She should be outraged that a perfect stranger had kissed her. But it had been glorious. For the first time in years, Jess had felt connected to another person, wanted.
She’d been groped plenty in this bar, a hazard of the job, and she’d learned to shrug it off. She knew these drunken guys didn’t really want her, and while she’d been married, they’d been too afraid to even touch her. They only wanted to show her that they could have power over her if they chose—or so they thought.
This had been different. The cowboy had looked at Jess, not as a body to be touched as she brought him a drink, but as a woman, a person he maybe wanted to know better.
A shout went up outside, one of triumph. Cold swamped her. Holy shit, they’d caught him.
Jessica gulped air as she came out from behind the bar, impatiently skirting the tables on the way to the door. The cowboy had moved through the room as though the furniture didn’t exist, but Jess bumped her hips and knees on what seemed like every chair.
By the time she reached the parking lot, Elijah’s boys had the cowboy cornered against the garbage bins and were closing around him.
“Call the cops!” Jess yelled behind her at Buddy, the bar’s manager, who’d finally come out of his office, and then she hurried across the parking lot.
Much of the homicide in this town came from bar fights that raged out of control. Alcohol, anger, the wrong person in the wrong bar saying the wrong thing—tempers flared, fists flew, and weapons came out. Jess knew for a fact that most of the guys who came to this bar carried knives, some pistols. It might be the twenty-first century, but the Wild West wasn’t dead, and Dallas was one of its gateways.
Elijah’s guys now had the cowboy pinned against the side of the giant metal trash container. The stink was brutal.
Jessica ran at them, her sneakers squishing in puddles of muck she didn’t want to look at. “Leave him alone. Elijah!”
The big man swung around, his tight biker’s vest a black smudge in the shadows. His fist was balled up, ready to fly into the cowboy’s face. The cowboy had his chin up, as though stoically prepared to take it.
“Why?” Elijah demanded of Jess. “You his whore? I saw him kissing you. I’ll take care of him, then I’ll see to you next.”
Elijah threatened Jessica often, almost habitually, though he’d never actually done anything to her. He was her ex’s best friend and considered it his job to keep an eye on her. He’d taken the breakup personally. According to Elijah, Jessica should have stayed and put up with her husband’s abuse, no matter what. It was what wives were supposed to do.
The fact that Jessica had total custody of Dominic outraged Elijah as well. But Jessica’s ex was in prison for assault, and he wasn’t getting custody, ever.
As soon as the threat left Elijah’s mouth, the cowboy came alive.
He dropped in a flash from Elijah’s thugs who held him, spun, and elbowed the chest of his nearest captor, his other fist catching Elijah square on the jaw.
Elijah roared, blood spraying from this mouth. His knife flashed in the parking lot’s lights as he sliced toward the cowboy’s throat.
But the cowboy wasn’t where he’d been a second ago. He ended up behind Elijah, foot lashing out in a roundhouse kick. At the same time, he punched another biker, and twisted around to elbow yet another in his gut. He went back to Elijah, coming under the man’s reach to bash fists into his face and then backing off for a kick that took out Elijah’s knife.
The cowboy might have made it if there hadn’t been so many of them. If he and Elijah had fought one on one, he’d have walked away victorious.
But the bikers were loyal to Elijah, they were drunk, and now they were mad. They were used to fights between rival gangs, which could be free-for-all wars, with men dead at the end of it. Jessica’s ex wasn’t in prison for hitting her—he’d been convicted for putting another biker into a coma.
The cowboy fought valiantly. He pummeled and kicked, and guys went down, but the odds were vastly against him.
Jessica ran forward. She grabbed arms and hauled fists back, losing her footing plenty, nearly falling. She earned glares and snarls of “What the hell, Jess?” but she was glad to divert their attention. One man swung at her, but Jessica had become expert at dodging blows, and she only felt the wind of his fist.
Sirens sounded—Buddy must have made the call. Three squad cars sped along the road on the other side of the chain-link fence, heading for the parking lot.
Jess feared it was too late. The cowboy was on the ground, men in motorcycle boots kicking him, fists connecting with his face, gut, ribs. He’d folded himself up, head tucked under muscled arms, trying to protect himself from the worst of the beating.
As the cop cars came racing around the last corner, Elijah shouted an order. The guys put in their final kicks or punches, and then faded away. Motorcycles started up and slid off into darkness, escaping before the squad cars burst into the parking lot. The spotlights from the cops’ cars swept through the lot, landing only on the fallen cowboy and Jessica crouching next to him, trying to make sure he was still alive.
* * *
Tyler looked up into the face of an angel.
An angel with unruly dark hair falling from a ponytail, a deep frown, and fantastic ink. A half sleeve of tatts ran from elbow to shoulder on her right arm; her left arm bore curlicues that laced around her shoulder and trailed down under the collar of her tight T-shirt.
Tyler wanted more than anything to find out where those curlicues went, maybe while kissing them.
Right this minute, he was flat on his ass, his body throbbing. He took a deep breath, which was tough, but he exhaled in relief when he didn’t feel stabbing pain in his sides. They might not have broken his ribs after all. Carter would have killed him for that.
The bartender wore shorts, which meant that the legs folded near Tyler were bare. Slim but muscled, the legs of a woman who was on her feet a lot, carrying the weight of the world. Strong arms too, strength in the fingers that touched him, though those fingers shook a little. Her eyes, dark like her hair, held worry, and behind that, resilience—a woman who’d seen much and was intent on surviving.
“You all right?” she asked through the rushing in his head.
“No,” Tyler slurred. “But thanks for asking, sweetheart.”
Cop cars, three of them, filled the parking lot. The bikers were long gone, smart enough to flee. Tyler was the only one left to answer for the trouble.
The woman helped him sit up. A cop crouched next to them, but Tyler remained half leaning against the woman, liking the soft cushion of her. He might feel like shit, but he could make the most of the situation.
The cop asked them both what happened.
“What happened is I said the wrong thing in the wrong bar and got my ass handed to me,” Tyler said, trying to grin, wincing when his mouth pulled on a cut.
The pretty bartender scowled. “He was minding his own business, and Elijah lit into him.”
The cop nodded knowingly. Apparently, he was familiar with Elijah and his ways.
“You want to go to the hospital?” the cop asked. He’d shone a light into Tyler’s eyes, got him to follow his fingers, asked his full name, routine emergency tech stuff. Tyler knew the drill.
“Nah,” Tyler said, trying to move without wincing. “I’ve been hurt worse falling off my horses. It’s my job.” He started to get his feet under him, groaned, and leaned back on the bartender. She was gorgeous—why was he in such a hurry to get up?
The cop and his partner got their hands under Tyler’s arms and gently but firmly helped him stand. Tyler tested his legs and arms, patted his sides, wiggled his swollen fingers. Nothing broken, fortunately.
But he was banged up. Tyler put his hand to his face and found his cheek swelling, blood from the cut on his lip. His hands were a mess, and his clothes were stained with both his blood and that of his enemies.
“Why don’t you get back home?” the cop said. He spoke in a heavy Dallas accent, one that said this was his town, in all its chaotic glory. His suggestion wasn’t really a suggestion, and Tyler knew it. “Sleep it off, go to the ER if you’re still hurting in the morning.”
“Yeah, will do,” Tyler answered.
They asked if he wanted to file a complaint against Elijah or have the man picked up for assault, but Tyler shook his head. Rounding up Elijah probably wouldn’t do any good, and Tyler just wanted to get back to his hotel room and rest. He had a show tomorrow.
The cops didn’t seem surprised Tyler let the incident go, which told him that Elijah was a serious pain in the ass to many. They talked to him a little longer, making sure he really was all right, then they got into their cars and left.
The bartender remained by his side. She came up to his shoulder—just tall enough to rest her head there if she wanted. Her hair smelled sweet, and her hand on Tyler’s chest would be warm and light. He remembered the taste of her lips, the tightening in his heart when she kissed him back, and the heat that started in other places besides his heart. He wouldn’t mind kissing her again.
She gazed up at him, not in longing, but in worry mixed with anger.
“You should have asked them to take you home,” she said. “Or to a hospital. Elijah’s boys beat you up good.”
Translation—Tyler looked like hell. Great. He felt for his keys, glad to find them still in his pocket, and glanced around for his truck. It sat under the one light in the parking lot, alone and shining, untouched.
He shook his head, wishing the movement didn’t make him dizzy. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ve had worse than this in a tussle with my brothers. And we mostly like each other. Besides, I didn’t want to leave my truck.” He looked down at her, knowing that if he didn’t go, he wouldn’t resist the urge to slide his arm around her and pull her up for another kiss. He wanted to see if the second one would blow him away as much as the first. “What about you? You all right? I saw you in that fight, throwing guys around like a superhero.”
She flushed, her eyes starry. “Sure, I was. Elijah’s a bully, and it wasn’t a fair fight.”
“I appreciate that. I really do. Hey.” Tyler stuck his fingers into his back pocket and brought out three battered pieces of cardboard. “These will get you into our show tomorrow. We’re on at eleven-thirty. You have someone you want to bring?”
She looked suddenly grateful, a real smile breaking through. Damn, she was hot when she did that. “Yes, my son, Dominic. He’s nine, and he’d love it.”
A son. Good—Tyler liked kids. No mention of a husband or boyfriend. More good, though that didn’t mean one wasn’t lurking in the background.
“All right, then. Guess I’ll be saying so long.” Tyler should walk away now, head for the truck, and heave himself into it. His feet wouldn’t move. “What’s your name, darlin’?” he asked. “I want to know who I’m saying good night to.”
“Jessica,” she answered, her voice like music. “Or Jess.”
“Jessica. That’s pretty.” Tyler tried to give her his flirting smile, but it pulled at the side of his lip, which smarted. “I’m Tyler. Tyler Campbell. If you come to the show, ask for me. Your son can meet my horses, and my brothers. One of them’s famous—Adam. He’s a movie stuntman.”
And safely married and happily in love with his wife so he wouldn’t be stealing Tyler’s ladies anymore. Grant and Carter were also married, so Tyler didn’t have to worry about them either. It was great being the only single Campbell on the stunt team.
“Thanks,” Jessica said, clutching the tickets.
Tyler hoped, truly hoped, she’d use them. He’d introduce her son to his family and show the kid the horses. Then Tyler would suggest he take them out for a nice lunch. Maybe Jessica would smile at him for real again. After that he’d suggest he and Jessica go out to a fancier dinner, just the two of them …
Right. She looked like a woman who wanted to hook up with a beat-up cowboy.
“Good night,” Tyler made himself repeat. “See you there.”
He leaned down with difficulty and retrieved his hat. One of the bikers had stomped on it after it had fallen in the struggle, right into an oil puddle. He gazed at the hat in resignation, gave Jessica a rueful smile, and headed for his truck.
Limped for the truck was more like it. Tyler might not have broken anything, but he was battered and bruised and had pulled more muscles than he knew he had.
He clicked the remote to unlock the driver’s side door and levered himself inside. There he sat, leaning back against the seat, eyes closed, while he willed pain to die down.
When he opened his eyes again, he found Jessica standing next to his door. She was way better looking than his dingy hotel room, so he decided to sit still and enjoy her.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he croaked.
“Move over,” Jessica said in a firm voice. “You’re not driving anywhere. I’ll take you home.”Return to Tyler